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Abbas Zaidi tells us of the human condition in Lahore.
In its last few days, April becomes a strange time of the year: the sweet but fading memory of the cool of the spring and the fear of the coming inferno of summer create a mix of nostalgia and premonition. In this ambivalence, married couples and lovers desperately seek solitude and oneness before the heat and the never-ending electricity outages separate them till the monsoon ends their drought three months later. It was on one of those pre-summer nights that Akbar found himself standing at the gate of a mango garden, some distance from home, wondering, ‘Why am I here, at this time of the night?’
Akbar studied the mango trees without thinking of an answer. The flowers on them had turned reddish brown. In a couple of weeks mangoes would start appearing in their place. The strong musk the reddish brown flowers gave off could last from sunset to dawn, and was believed to be more potent than any aphrodisiac in the world.
Even the thought of the musk reminded him of Izzat. He entered the garden and smelt for the musk, to see if it would force him to return home and make love to her, but he smelt nothing. ‘Perhaps by this late hour no musk is left. Or maybe my anger has cost me my sense of smell,’ he thought. He wondered again, ‘Why am I here, at this time of the night?’ but it was a rhetorical question indeed. He knew very well why he was where he was, at that time of the night.
Only a couple of hours before he had rushed out of his bedroom in blind fury and disbelief. The source of his rage was Izzat. Around midnight, Akbar had woken up shivering violently, his body aching as if it had been dragged onto a bed of thorns. Lying next to him, Izzat did not even stir. She was fast sleep; and, worse, seemed totally indifferent to him. It was not the first time he had felt hurt by Izzat, but he could not accept that while he was in extreme pain his wife was deep asleep. It proved to be the proverbial last straw. That very moment Akbar decided to go. He sneaked into the next room, where his daughter, Ayesha, their only child, was sleeping. As he walked towards the door to leave, he thought of taking a look in at his parents, his brothers, their wives and their children, but he decided not to. The next moment he was out of the house.
As Akbar left, the eight years of his marriage to Izzat flashed through his mind like snippets from a documentary. For the first five years they lived independently, away from Akbar’s extended family. Those years were a period of high romance. But soon after Ayesha’s birth, Akbar moved in with his parents and siblings, and soon everything declined into eternal domestic warfare between Izzat and her in-laws – a typical middle-class epiphenomenon of the joint-family system – a drama in which Akbar’s loyalties swung between the two sides.
Standing in the mango garden, he prodded the parts of his body which were aching when he woke up, but he did not feel any pain, not even an aftertaste of pain. ‘I must have had a nightmare,’ he thought.
Akbar left the garden, and started back home to be with Izzat. When he had left his house, he had vaguely thought he would disappear for a couple of days so that everyone would worry about him, and the constant bickering come to an end, at least for a while. But now he wanted to return to Izzat. Why? He had forgotten her for the past few months, even though they had been living together. This mad urge to be with her had crept into him out of nowhere, making him like the Akbar of the time he was courting her. He wanted to be with the woman he had loved at very first sight years ago – his wife. It was puzzling why he was having that feeling now; after all this time. His anger was suddenly gone. He nodded and shook his head repeatedly, as if having an interior monologue.
He picked up the pace, and soon he was in the busy market area near his home. Shops of all kinds remained open through the night. Life was in full swing there, and the place was alive with people. Countless tables were laid out on the footpaths and the roadsides, where families, couples, friends and lovers were having snacks or a late meal. Hordes of beggars, men, women, and children, were hanging around at close range, waiting to fall on the left-overs. Dozens of cats and dogs were also searching for food.
He stopped by his favourite cigarettes-and-soft-drinks stall. It was thronged with people, as usual. An old Hindi love song was playing at a high volume. After a day’s hard work, a very satisfied beggar was sitting nearby, listening, holding a soft drink, and lazily taking pulls at a cigar. Inattentive to his surroundings, the beggar’s stare was fixed at the speaker from where the song was coming. He seemed to be looking at the song instead of listening to it. It was a super-hit when Akbar was courting Izzat. Akbar gave a feeble smile. The owner of the stall knew him very well, but he was busy serving and did not greet him with the customary “Assalam-o-alaikum.” Usually Akbar would meet his friends at the stall and have a chat over a drink, but none were there at that late hour. He moved on, but instead of returning home, he wandered the roads, looking around curiously. The question why he walked on instead of going home would later become his bete noire; but at that very moment his attention was drawn to something else. There was hardly any wall space here not covered with a billboard, neon sign, banner, poster or graffiti proclaiming every aspect of the personal, political and social life of Lahore. Akbar had seen the signs countless times, but never paid them much attention. This time he took a closer look:
Money quadrupled in one week only!
Meet Sufi Sharifuddin to jumpstart your life!
Akbar made a face. This guy had been thriving for a long time, with the collaboration of the police.
World’s Greatest Black Magician
in Lahore at last!
Your Enemy or Beloved Will Instantly be at Your Feet!
“At last!” Akbar sighed mockingly. As a child Akbar had visited the excruciatingly ugly Khan Baba with his mother. The Baba was known to be a fake and a criminal, and yet had a thriving clientele. Once, before their marriage, Akbar and Izzat had planned to see him. They wanted the Baba to exorcise Akbar’s family, as his family were so opposed to their getting married. But the day they planned to meet him the police raided the Baba’s ‘Clinic’, after a naked woman had jumped from his office window to her death the previous night. The Baba was never prosecuted.
Our Islamic Nuclear Bomb is not a Decoration Piece!
That slogan was from a Wahabi outfit which wanted to start a war with India.
Muslims of the World, Unite!
‘What would Marx have made of that?’ Akbar wondered.
Prostitution to Divinity:
The Spiritual Journey of Sister Samina
One Ticket, Two Pleasures!
Moonlight Cinema was well known for illegally running ‘special shows’ for adults. It was also a favourite haunt for lovers to go dallying and groping. Akbar recalled taking Izzat there before their marriage. They continued to watch the special shows for some time even after their marriage. After each show Izzat would say that she would never watch another dirty movie. Akbar chuckled.
Be Resurrected Within Seven Days, Or Get Full Refund!
Professor Dr Haji R U T Chaudhry back from Borneo with
Hidden Secrets about Man
Akbar recalled the evening when Izzat brought his attention to the same advertisement in Murree, the hill resort where they had spent their honeymoon. He explained to her late into the night all he knew about the aphrodisiacs – that all those things and the sex doctors who sold them were fraudulent. She repeatedly burst into laughter as she asked one question after another about the magical powers of the aphrodisiacs.
The personal note in the advertisements saddened Akbar. He wandered off, and ended up at a playground near what used to be a housing scheme for low-income government employees until a midnight earthquake flattened the entire area. Two years on, the place was no more than a collection of debris under which were interred hundreds of men, women, children, and animals. The playground rides stood intact, but forlorn and neglected. A mud-drenched football was reclining against a goal post. The tip of a sports shoe was peeping out of a hole in the ground. A hockey stick was lying in the tall grass. A sudden, powerful gust of wind blew, and the rusted rides creaked.
Akbar sat on a swing. The gust returned and the swing shook. He gave himself a push with his feet, and the swing moved to and fro. His pleasure was unfathomable. He had missed even minor pleasures in the tortuousness of his recent life! He wished Izzat was there.
He thought about when and where things began to go wrong between him and Izzat. As long as they lived independently, life was fun. Every day was Valentine’s Day! But once he moved in with his family, he and Izzat began to drift apart. Their dreamlike life of incessant romance petered out within months. She could not be reconciled to living with his family, and blamed him for her miseries: “If only we hadn’t moved in here, we’d still be having our life, our own life!” she’d nagged.
Suddenly he felt as if someone had rushed past behind him. He looked around, more in curiosity than fear, but no one was there. At that moment thoughts of Izzat entered his mind, slowly overlaying the inside of his head from all sides, and converge towards the middle. He vaguely smelt musk, the fragrance getting entangled with his thoughts of Izzat. But before he could make sense of it, the pre-dawn azzan hit his eardrums and he was startled out of his reverie. Loudspeakers all around were telling the faithful that the namaz, the morning prayer, was better than sleep.
Akbar moved on. Although he wanted to go home, something held him back. Perhaps he still wanted to stay away from home for a while just in order to scare everyone there.
The dawn was approaching as Akbar reached the gate of the vast Rahmania graveyard just outside the city, where several friends and relatives were buried. Just outside the gate were nestled together, dead asleep, hundreds of homeless labourers, all men. Soon he saw women too, sleeping a few meters away on the sidewalk. He wondered where their children were.
He moved into the cemetery. He could just read the epitaphs in the light. The nearest one said:
Ali Sher. Born 1971, Died 1978, of Malaria
Akbar’s youngest cousin had died of malaria recently.
Nearby was a grave whose small walls and canopy were of black marble. Koranic verses were artistically carved in white everywhere. A chandelier bathed the grave in white light. This was the grave of a feared religious man. The epitaph said:
Haji Haq Nawaz
Went to Allah at 98
The Great Soldier of Islam. Resting in Paradise
Haji Haq Nawaz was well-known for his countless fatwas, which had destroyed many lives. His great acts had included the burning alive of ‘blasphemers’ and the lapidation of ‘adulterous couples’. “Son of a bitch, you’re not sleeping, but rotting in the pit!” Akbar almost shouted.
Naghma. Age 17.
You Left Us Too Early
“So she’s the one!”Akbar was taken aback. Naghma’s mysterious death had recently hit the media. Some said her father had killed her for having an affair, some said she committed suicide. She had had a remarkable resemblance to Izzat – a fact even noted by Izzat herself. Akbar was overwhelmed by sadness. He ignored the other epitaphs and went and sat under a large banyan tree.
It was now dawn, and the world of the graveyard began to wake up. A little thump attracted Akbar’s attention. It was a tiny puppy, which had popped out from behind a grave. The next moment half a dozen more came romping, and stood in a column looking at Akbar as if inspecting a passing curiosity. Their wagging tails, drooped ears and half-open, panting mouths showed that Akbar’s presence had not ruffled them. Then came their mother. Her bulging udders were shaking like a bunch of ripe mangoes. She stared at Akbar, then passed on, the litter following her. Akbar dozed off.
It was noon when he woke up. It was a cool day, and the sun was hidden behind the clouds. He looked around in semi-wakefulness. There was a rundown grave of a nameless Sufi saint nearby, where the poor came to pray for their wishes and eat the free food available to humans and animals alike. Beggars, orphans, young and old men and women, dogs, squirrels, cats, crows and sparrows were gathered together around the grave in fraternity. He slowly stood and went up to it. Lines from Omar Khayyam were written in Persian on the gravestone:
Myself when young did eagerly frequent
Doctor and Saint, and heard great Argument
About it and about; but evermore
Came out by the same Door as in I went.
Akbar squeezed his lips and nodded as if in agreement. He had studied Persian in college, and could quote a vast number of Persian aphorisms. A line from the great Persian love poet Urfi began to buzz in his mind: “Happy endings take place only when a story is stopped before it actually finishes.”
A dog barked at him half-heartedly and then became indifferent. No one else paid him any attention. Meanwhile, two elderly men were dragging a cauldron containing food. People, birds and animals rushed towards it, but without scrambling.
Akbar was not hungry. He looked around, saw a large mango tree with reddish brown flowers hanging all over, and went and sat under it. Akbar took a good look at himself: he was wearing his night shirt, had no shoes, and no money. He realized his decision to leave home was very impulsive, but in a way it was not a bad decision. He had been freed to look at his life from a new vantage-point.
So he started thinking about his life. There were both pleasant and unpleasant things there. He thought about his relationship with Izzat: ‘Those five years! What are those five years when Izzat’s very appearance would fill me with sensations?’ he thought: ‘Her touch would run electric currents through me! What happened to her salty olive body with the intoxicating fragrance of a ripe honeydew? That hypnotic sweet and salt mix used to overwhelm my body and soul!’
Izzat had told him time and again, “We’re drifting apart. The joint family system is poisoning our lives. It’s killing me! You don’t realize it, but I know I’m slowly dying.” ‘If only I could go back in time. If only! Even just for a moment!’ Akbar thought.
Akbar’s mother had asked him many times, “Why did you have to marry an ugly, low-caste, low-status woman? She may have converted to please you, but at heart she is still a Christian, and will always be a Christian. You know how much disgrace this woman has brought to our family? Don’t you know no one will accept your daughter’s hand, because she was conceived in a Christian’s womb? I can still find you a perfect match, and people will soon forget about Janice, your so-called Izzat… and Ayesha’s future will be secure too!”
‘She must have insulted Izzat to her face too,’ Akbar thought. He recalled that in the beginning Izzat had told him of the misbehaviour of his mother and other members of his family, but she stopped complaining when Akbar took it so lightly. Soon she held him responsible for her miseries.
Akbar had always professed to Izzat his superior moral standing for marrying her against his family’s wishes. In the entire history of his entire extended family, no-one had ever married a non-Muslim. He had always felt wounded because Izzat did not appreciate this bold decision, which to him spoke volumes of his love for her. In his heart of hearts, he was convinced that he had done her a favour by marrying her. But now, sitting in the graveyard, he realised the facts were the other way round: Izzat had given up her religion and her entire family for his sake. His sight became blurred as he thought about her sacrifice, and he regretted having moved them in with his parents and siblings. “The joint family system is the wickedest thing in the world!” he sighed. He wished his family had not accepted them in after Ayesha’s birth. He wished his family had boycotted them for ever, just like Izzat’s family had. He wished he and Izzat had remained childless!
He remembered how he used to stay glued to Izzat’s body for hours on end, to experience that uncanny riot of senses. His hand lifted automatically to touch his nose. During his dalliances with her, it was his nose that used to be most the active part of his body, as it was the smell of Izzat’s skin which unleashed his libido. “What will happen to your manliness if you lose your sense of smell?” Izzat would ask, as he ran his nose over her body in ecstasy. He would blurt back, “I’ll be finished off without my nose. I cannot make love if I cannot smell the musk of your body!”
He recalled that Izzat used to pull his nose, even scratch it. He touched his nose again, with some pressure, and looked up at the flowers on the mango tree. He knew that soon they would start giving off the musk that would force him to rush home and rediscover Izzat. Right there, he promised himself that he would bring those good times back: ‘Once again I will breathe in Izzat’s musk! I’ll take her away somewhere… Somewhere… where only the three of us will live. Away from everyone. Away from my damned family! I, we, will never live a life of regret! Never! To hell with religion!’
As he was trying to mix the musk with his memories of Izzat, he felt someone rush past him. It was the same experience he had had on the swing near the earthquake houses. Before he could make sense of it, he heard noises, followed by Koranic recitations, coming from behind a bush nearby. Someone was being blessed after having been buried. He patiently heard the recitations, and said ‘Amin!’ a couple of times in his mind. After the recitation was over, he heard further subdued noises. ‘People are consoling those who have lost their loved one,’ he thought. At that moment, he felt that someone was standing behind him, very close. A chill ran down his spine. The presence behind him was palpable. For the first time in his life, he was terrified. Slowly, shivering, he managed to move his neck, and then his body. There was no one there, but Akbar was not relieved. He was sure someone had been standing behind him. He almost dragged himself to the Sufi’s grave, where a few men and women were still chatting. He wanted to go home, but was too exhausted to leave.
By the time he had gathered enough strength to leave the cemetery, the sun had gone down again. The street lamps began to sparkle back to life one by one, and crickets, cicadas, grasshoppers and gnats restarted their ritual nocturnal songs.
Akbar picked up the pace, not caring about at his shabby appearance. The thought of reuniting with Izzat in love made him feel like he was flying. His nose was like a heat-seeking missile, sniffing for the target with full focus and propelling him with force. The closer he approached home, the heavier his heart thumped, and the harder he sniffed for the fragrance. He could not wait to gatecrash into their bedroom and surprise Izzat with his renewed passion. ‘The moment I see her I’ll kiss her, even if my mother’s there!’ he resolved.
He sensed unusual activity when he entered the lane where his family’s house stood, but had no time to pay attention to it. He realised a large number of people were present in his home, but he ignored them as he rushed to their room.
Izzat wasn’t there.
Akbar rushed about in primordial frenzy, barging into room after room, oblivious of the people everywhere; but still there was no trace of Izzat. He pulled and scratched his nose so hard that it began to bleed, but it still did not guide him towards her. She was nowhere. Not even a trace of her musk.
© Dr Abbas Zaidi 2010
Abbas Zaidi is a Pakistani writer based in Brunei Darussalam, where he teaches English. His fiction has appeared in New York Press, Exquisite Corpse, New Partisan, Killing the Buddha, and The Best of Gowanus. He recently completed a PhD in sociolinguistics.