I’m coming to see you,” I said. I could tell from the sound of his voice that he was indeed very sick.
“Don’t come here--You may not be able to get out,” he said. “The doctors say I have a bout of pneumonia--they say I’ll get better in a few days.”
I’d to go see him. I don’t care what he thinks or feels about my visit.
Next morning, I purchased a round-trip ticket for the Business Class on PIA, the only one available. Luckily my face had a three day old stubble--I don’t shave on the weekends. By the time I’d land in Lahore, I hope my beard to be long enough to fulfill the criteria for entry: the hair length, of at least half the beard, has to be the size of a rice grain.
I packed a Jilaba in my carry-on bag, the mandatory dress code. Most passengers would start changing their attire a couple of hours before landing. ‘The pilot’s usually kind,’ I was told, ‘to go over the list of items, the requirements for your own safety, before you’d get clearance for entry’.
The flight was completely booked. As I entered the plane, a burqa clad air-hostesses gave me a stare with her big black eyes, a pair of sparkling diamonds. Her stare made me dizzy. I froze in my steps, until a nudge on my back made me move again.
Eyes could be so powerful, I’d no idea. I showed her my boarding pass. She looked at my boarding pass, and without moving a muscle, pointed towards the Business Class, again with her eyes. Reluctantly, I moved towards my seat looking back every couple of steps down the aisle, hoping to catch another glimpse of that deadly force. The unforgettable pair of eyes were, however, busy welcoming the next passenger in line. As I tucked my bag in the overhead compartment, a waft of fresh Jasmine hit my nose. I turned around. A white blond girl stood right behind me. She must be in her early twenties. She wore the airline cap, her long golden locks flowing over her sleeveless shoulders. She wore a glossy red lipstick and a real short skirt. By the time she spoke the eyes of the burqa clad hostess of the economy class were already a distant memory.
“I’m at you disposal, my lord,” she said, softly touching my back.
“What’s going on here...?”
“I know your confusion my lord. This isn’t the first time, I have to explain. You must be going to Pakistan after a very long time. Right?”
Yeah---Right! I said, feeling dazed.
“My lord, this is Business Class. Burqa wearing hostesses are for the economy class.”
“But aren’t we all flying to Islamic Ummah of Pakistan,” I said in a whisper, swinging myself into my seat.
“Slave girls don’t have to cover up, my lord,” she said. Her lips almost touching my ear lobes.
“But isn’t that all Muslim women have to cover up?” I said, feeling bewildered.
“My lord, I’m not a Muslim. I’m from Latvia. We are hired by PIA in a batch, as slave girls, we serve only Business Class,” she said. “What would you like to drink? No alcohol, though.”
“Anything--But what’s going on here is not right,” I said, looking around to see if our conversation is being overheard by others.
“Are you by chance a Shia, my lord?” she said.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, if you are, you can register for the marriage for the duration of flight, if you want to be 100% kosher--14 hours is a long time. I can bring you the register if you like; we keep it in the cockpit. Usually the Co-pilot carries it along with other navigational charts.”
“I’m neither,” I said.
“What do you mean my lord?”
“I’m not a Shia, neither I’m a Sunni.”
“Well, my lord, for the duration of flight you have to be either one or the other,” she said, giving me a wink.
“Choose for me, please,” I said, giving up. “Would you help me decide?”
“I personally don’t like paperwork,” she said.
“Then, let’s fly Sunni,” I said.
“That’s a good choice, my lord. Once we take off you are invited to cabin 424 for relaxation and massage.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The flight was wonderfully comfortable--no air pockets, no shaking. Just silky, smooth ride all the way to Lahore. I slept most of the way after using room 424, and awoken before landing, finding my head in the lovely Latvian’s lap. I was dressed in a towel Jilaba, with PIA embroidered on its front. I’d no memory of dress change.
“My lord, you may now change into your own dress,” she said, getting up. “We’ll be landing soon.”
At the immigration counter, I was made to enter a booth where a beam of blue laser measured the precise length of my beard.
“You can’t enter the Islamic Ummah of Pakistan. You’ve to be quarantined for three days at least, or till your growth is satisfactory,” the immigration officer said with a heavy voice. Except for his eyes and forehead, his face was completely covered with jet black hair. The tip of his beard covered my picture on the passport held on the counter in front of him. “Or unless you want to pay the fine.”
“I’ll pay the fine, sir, I said. “My father is very sick. I must see him as soon as possible. How much is the fine.”
“One hundred Dirhams for each day your hair will need to grow to the legal lenght--so for you it would be 300 in total.”
I had no choice but to pay him the cash.
As I came out to collect my luggage, I noticed it wasn’t the same airport it used to be 12 years ago. It was a different place, altogether. There were all kinds of signs in Arabic hanging from the ceilings and painted on the walls. In good old days, at least they had the courtesy to put translation underneath the verses, but since the official language was now Arabic--a switch that had occurred five years ago--they’d stopped doing that. A Quranic recitation filled the hall.
At the customs, a fiery looking officer looked at me from head to toe.
“Carrying any thing in your suitcase we need to know?”
“No sir,” I said. “Please feel free to check it out.”
He had me open my suitcase, and then he started fumbling around my clothes. He grabbed my shaving kit and opened it. Taking the razor out he held it in front of my face. “What exactly is this doing here?”
I’d packed my shaving kit without thinking. God, I should have paid attention to details.
“Did you keep this shamelessly petite beard just to show us?--To enter the Islamic Ummah of Pakistan?” He plunged his hand in my kit again and brought out Colgate Tooth Paste tube, half used. “Do you know this contains alcohol and some pig’s fat?”
“Sorry, sir. Please feel free to throw these things away. I apologize.”
“Recite the fifth Kalimah, then third, then first and then sixth--in this order.”
“I know only the first.”
“100 Dirhams for each kalimah you don’t know or remember--700 hundred Dirhams in total.”
“How many total Kalimahs we are talking about here, sir,” I asked, putting my hand in my pocket to get my valet out.
“1000 Dirhams in addition to the 700 hundred--for you don’t even know how many Kalimahs one’s supposed to know by heart.”
After losing 1700 Dirhams at the Customs, my valet had lost most of its bulk. I came out of the hall, rolling my suitcase, hoping next I’d be looking for a taxi. The place looked dramatically different. A large crowd had gathered to my right, under a flashing neon sign: ‘The Judgement Day Bar’.
Holy Cow! What the hell is this bar about?
Curiosity took the better of me and I slowly strolled towards the crowd; about a hundred men, everyone with a beard, thronging the entrance of the bar.
“What’s this about?” I asked a young man with a long flowing beard.
“Today, after a long time, we’re going to have both stoning and beheading at the same time, under the same roof--usually it’s one or the other, he said shoving himself in the crowd.
“Good Lord! Why at the airport?” I said.
“Can you think of a better public place than the airport. In Islam you must watch people getting punished, and this is the best way to set the example,” he said, looking at me suspiciously. “Did you just say, ‘Good Lord’?”
“No, I said, mashallah--Alhamdolillah, I’m a Muslim--Jazakallah,” I said in quick succession. “I think I’ll go now.”
“What kind of Muslim are you? You are not going to watch the beheading--the preferred way of killing of the infidels in Islam,” he said, giving me a piercing look. “Stay! It will make your faith strong.”
“I’m in a hurry. My father’s very sick,” I said. “Actually he has booked front seats for Friday hand-chopping ceremony at the Charing Cross.”
“On Friday, actually they do hangings after the Jumma prayers--Man where have you been?” He rubbed his chin, puckered out his lips and eyed me curiously.
“Yeah, you’re right, I’m here after a long time. It’ll take a few days to get fully tuned,” I said, turning around. Rolling my suitcase, I quickly got out of the hallway, towards the taxi stand.
The light was dimming out from the sky. I almost fell in a state of shock when I saw hundreds of camels standing where Taxi stand used to be. I stopped a passerby.
“Do you see what I see over there?” I said.
“That’s the Taxi Stand,” he said.
“That’s not what I meant. I mean, do you see what’s inside the Taxi Stand?” I said.
“Taxis,” he said, looking at me as if I’m out of this planet. “They are taxis.” Shaking his head he walked away.
It was only when I got closer I realized that they were indeed taxicabs. Each taxicab had a Camel’s head, neck and the hump festooned to the rooftop. An eager looking man in a deep orange Jilaba took my luggage from me. He pulled the latch on the camel’s hump on top of a taxicab; it swung open revealing the luggage compartment. He threw my luggage in there and clicked the hump shut.
“Sir ji, where to?” he said.
The first thing I noticed, as we were out of the airport area, that all the billboards with pictures of women were replaced by those with men.
“Sir ji, when was the last time you visited Pakistan?” the driver said, lighting up his beeri. He swung the taxi on the Airport Road, heading towards Fortress Stadium.
“More than ten years,” I said looking at the billboard where a man with a long salt and pepper beard was standing tall, his arms folded under his muscular chest. He was surrounded by four burqa clad women. He looked very familiar. “Who is this guy?” I pointed towards the billboard.
“Sir ji, don’t tell me you don’t know who Imran Khan is!” he said.
“Sorry! but who are those women around him?”
“His wives. Who else? He is a model Muslim. This poster is hung everywhere in the country. Now most people here marry three or four times.”
“Men are in short supply--you will know soon why.”
“How many kids he has?”
“I don’t think anyone knows the count, if you ask me.”
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------We stopped at the traffic light. The driver turned the stereo on; a Bollywood tune filled the air waves. He had a pair of powerful woofers in the back; the car shook with the bass waves.
“What’s your name?” I said, shouting.
“Wali, I thought the music is not allowed in Pakistan any more, specially the Indian music,” I said, bringing my lips closer to his ear.
“Sir ji, pay attention to the lyrics. It’s not what you think; it’s a naat.”
“What did you just say?” I said.
“It’s a naat,” he said, turning the volume down.
He was right. It was indeed a naat.
“Oh, so the music is allowed as long as it’s in the praise of Muhammad,” I said.
As soon as I uttered the name, Muhammad, Wali kissed the tips of his fingers, and started mumbling a prayer, his eyes shut, his face serene and then slowly assuming increasing tension. Soon foam appeared on his lips. The traffic light turned green, but, oblivious to his surrounding, he kept his eyes shut, his lips moving. Cars honked in the back. The next thing you know that he yanked the door open, jerked himself off the seat and stepped outside, leaving the door ajar. Ignoring the now incessant honking, he knelt on the ground and went into sajda. I looked back anxiously, my heart pounding. The cars immediately behind us started to go in reverse and then the traffic started to move again, passing by our parked vehicle. By the time Wali came back and sunk himself into his seat the light had turned red again.
“What was all that about?” I said, meekly.
Without saying a word, he opened his glove box and took out a knife--clasped. The blade snapped open as he pressed the end of it. He turned around and grabbed me by the collar, his eyes two balls of fire. He put the cold edge of steel on my throat. It felt sharp against my skin.
“Wali, are you OK. What happened to you? Take it easy buddy. I just got here,” I said. The whole thing was just too quick for me to even start experiencing the shock.
“You have uttered the name of You Know Who without the salutations; and, and--this is a crime punishable by death.” He pressed the blade further down my skin.
“Wali, come back to your senses. What’s wrong? Man, let’s move--The light is green. Let’s go. Please--Let’s have a talk on a cup of tea in the Fortress Stadium--I can explain.” Sweat appeared on my forehead.
“I’ve beheaded four nincompoops like you right here where you sit on your dumb ass, and you will be the fifth,” he said. The traffic light had turned red again.
“Aren’t you done then--I mean four is a pretty decent number--Come on now. Let’s cool it buddy,” I said.
“Mufti Sahib says, if I can get seven in total, my place is assured in the highest heaven,” he said, deliriously. “It’s been getting more and more difficult to encounter enemies of Islam like you.”
“Wali--Please, have mercy. I’ll do anything you say. Remember that old hag...”
“Shut up!” He grabbed the nape of my neck in his free hand, pressing the dagger into my skin. “What old hag?”
“That old hag which used to throw trash on You know Who,” I said. I felt the cold edge of steel cutting my skin.
The pressure suddenly got lifted. He looked into my eyes. The fury in his eyes melted like ice.
“So you know the story?”
“Yes I do--I know a lot of stories.”
“You damn well know that the story has cost me the seventh heaven?”
“Fifth,” I corrected him.
“You gotta get to fifth first before getting to the seventh?” he said, folding his knife and putting it back into the glove box.
“On what level you get the virgins?” I said.
“I’ve to ask Mufti Sahib about this,” he said. “But I suspect you start getting them right after you drink the sweet water directly from the hand of You Know Who. I heard Mufti Sahib says, they come flying around when you have drunk enough water and your thirst is gone.”
“Can we start driving please?” I said, fixing my collar. Faisal Town seemed worlds away.
“Do you remember where we are heading--I mean in this world?”
“Fortress Stadium?” He said. “Don’t forget the cup of tea you’ve promised.”
The signal turned green. It seemed we’d been standing still for eternity.
“Sure, I’ve time. Perhaps you can help me buy a present for my father,” I said. “I feel bad, since I left in such a hurry, I couldn't get him anything from the US.”
The night descended faster than I expected. I noticed almost all cars have replaced their roof with a camel minus its legs. I was not sure if it’d be the right thing to ask Wali about the camel-tops cars and taxis.
“Wali, please don’t mind asking me: what made you do sajda after I mention You Know Who?”
“Sir ji, your knowledge of Islam is so depressingly poor that a believer would have no remorse killing you right at the spot after listening to a stupid question like that--and you call yourself a Muslim?”
By the time Wali turned into the road leading to Fortress Stadium’s shopping area it was already dark. The shops, lining the boundary of the stadium, were lit up by gas lamps. Wali parked his cab by one of the gates of the stadium. I remembered the place well. This used to be a spot for college student to hang out after dark, for families to eat out and shop in some of the nicest boutiques of Lahore.
“Now remember this and it may save your life,” Wali said. “If anyone ever utter the name of You Know Who, you should immediately close your eyes and quickly send a blessing, and you should know what I’m talking about: I’m talking about drood.”
“Yeah--I know that part,” I said
“But what you don’t know is that right after doing that you do a sajda and recite thirty three times the first kalimah--it’s the law now, and if you get caught ignoring it, you will be killed at the spot--people have been mulling about third or fourth heaven for ages without breaking into the higher levels, and they will not hesitate a bit beheading you---that’s how it goes here.”
“Understood! You are a true friend.” I patted his back. “Is there anything else people do here?--I mean besides ascending into the higher level.”
“Your views kill me. I don’t know why the hell I liked you?” Wali said. “What could possibly be better than the next world” I mean do you really believe this world is worth living?—
Do you think any thing of this world should hold any attraction for a believer?”
“No! Certainly not!” I said.
We got out of the cab. An eerie silence permeated the air. I saw hordes of people entering through the gate into the stadium. The stadium, from inside, was lit by powerful flood lights mounted on the poles. A massive cat dashed by me chasing a decent sized dog. It caught the poor dog and started mauling it with its paws. The dog’s squeaked in pain as the cat sunk its teeth into its throat. It held on it till dog laid lifeless on the sidewalk. The cat dragged the limp body of the dog into a dark corner and began taking its skin off.
“Only in Pakistan!” Wali said, a note of pride in his voice. He seemed to be having fun watching me in amazement at this uncanny reversal of Nature. It was then I realized I’d landed in a very very strange place, and why my father had been reluctant for me to visit this place.
The crowd entering the stadium seemed to have swollen considerably.
“Night Cricket, I guess?”
“Much more thrilling than cricket,” Wali said, locking his car. “Let’s grab a cup of tea and go inside. I promise you’ll have fun.”
“I think we should move on to Faisal Town,” I said, sensing a knot in my stomach. My father didn’t even know that I’d landed.
“Not so soon, Sir ji--your father is not going any where,” Wali said, grabbing my shoulder.
We strolled towards the tea stall passing by a line of shops. I stopped by a sign: SALE. I wanted to buy something for my father. I remembered seeing, in old times, restaurants and carpet shops in this very area. The sign detailed the list of merchandise being sold in the store: Martyr Vests On Sale--Buy One Get One Free--we sell only Mujahid Brand; Remote Control Detonation Made Easy. Ultra Light Weight--Exterior made of genuine leather. A Compact and Beautifully crafted Vest filled with stainless steel nuts, knuckles, bolts. Buy One and get a Free Mobile with 1000 minutes. All Credit Cards Excepted. Dogs Vests available here. Martyr Vests for Children. Graduation Gifts--Self Exploding Toys--Come Try Our Painless Transition Devices. For Live Demonstration Call In Advance--Precision Controlled Explosions:Dial the number of people and the radius and get the results you wanted: Yours only reliable Outfit to the Other World--A World ahead of the competition.
The sign above the store read: Marble Pellets for Quick Stoning. Our light weight stones make it effortless to throw from a distance. Ask for our new item: Stones with a Handle for those with arthritis. Reusable stones--buy a dozen and get the other dozen for half the price. Colorful Stones for initiating children into divine laws implementation stepwise strategy: please ask for the booklet. Singing Stones: You throw the stone and it will hurl a curse in Arabic, activated by airspeed--impress your neighbors with audio-enhanced expereince--two AA batteries free; each stone comes is coded with a different curse. No Refunds after use. 25% restocking fee for all opened boxes. Exchange possible on case by case basis.
“Let’s find some good item for your father,” Wali said.
Before I could talk to Wali, he disappeared inside the shop.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I stood on the sidewalk, waiting for Wali to come back out of the shop. I was hesitant to go in--who wouldn't be after knowing the kind of merchandise being sold in there? The place had started to become crowded. Bearded men strolled down the sidewalk in their flowing Jilabaas and the Arab-style head-gears. This could easily be a market-place in Jeddah. Some men had one, or two, or even four women in black burqas, trailing a few steps behind them. Most had their eyes veiled as well. Wali appeared on the shop’s entrance, and gestured me to come over. I held out my hand, shaking my head from head side to side, but he insisted. He had to move out of the way as a family of five streamed in the shop, one by one. The couple, the parents, went in first, followed by their three teenage boys, beardless, each a year or two apart from one another.
If they could do it, I, too, can. It’s a family kind of place to shop, after all.
Following the last boy, I entered the shop.
Lit by a gas lamp, the shop was tiny and crammed with items, largely unfamiliar to me. Martyr Vests of all sizes and colors covered the walls, from one end to the other. The shelves were loaded with goods: stones, sickles, swords with Arabic inscriptions, daggers with handles studded with rubies and turquoise, rosaries, perfume bottles, ammunition belts, explosive tubes, books, incense, bolts, stainless steel nails and copper hooks. The owner sat on a ledge amidst a pile of vests, his face a model of concentration, his henna-dyed beard reaching to his lap; he was sewing what appeared to be an explosive-pipe into a vest. Next to the ledge stood a counter, topped with many different items including an oval mirror on a stand, and a few candles; and behind the counter stood a boy of ten or perhaps twelve, attentive to the newly arrived customers. Between myself and Wali, the family of five, the shop-owner and his helper-boy, the place felt suffocating, crammed with people. Wali had made room for himself at the far end of the counter, next to the wall, sliding a few vests, hanging from a pole, out of his way. I squeezed myself between him and one of the boys of the family, probably the eldest.
Wali pointed towards an item, behind the helper-boy’s head. It looked like a rock; sort of roundish but spiny, rustic in color, a cross between a soccer ball and a porcupine, placed on a shelf. The helper-boy removed it from the shelf, using both hands, his face strained. Keeping the rock over his head, he stretched over the counter, where Wali raised his hands and grabbed it from him. He then passed the rock on to me, into my hands. I almost dropped it on my foot. It was heavy as hell.
“Sir ji, your Abba ji will like this a lot,” Wali said.
“What’s this supposed to do?” I said, holding it in front of my navel. It must be at least twenty, or even thirty kilogram in weight.
“Sir ji, it’s from Maidan e Arafat, the place where every soul would rise one day--it’s an imported item.”
“So--!?” I said.
“Sir ji, I think it’s an excellent present for Abba ji--tell me if I’m wrong: what could possibly be a better present than this rock for doing your wudu everyday? It must be laying around there for thousands of years, constantly touched by the holy air, a place chosen by the Almighty, to raise the dead, when horn will be blown on the Day of Judgement.”
“Oh, I see!” I said. The last thing I wanted to do was to offend Wali, or, for that matter, anyone present in the shop. “But don’t you use rocks and stuff only when you have no water available to do the wudu--What’s that called?: Tyummum--Right?” It felt good displaying my knowledge to a crowd. I moved the rock around shifting its weight between my hands. The best way to handle its weight was to hold it pressing against my stomach. The spikes hurt like hell, but I maintained a cheerful curiosity on my face.
Everyone turned around and looked at me as if I’d said something peculiar. I felt their stares all over me.
“Sir ji had just landed from America,” Wali said, as if making an announcement. “Sir Ji is looking to buy a present for his Abba Ji, since he forgot to buy it from America.”
I was not sure if Wali was mocking at me or he was trying to be helpful.
One of the teenage boys, who stood next to me, had put on a Mujahid Vest, black colored, crisscrossed by blue stripes--the red tubes of explosives neatly tucked in the loops all round the chest except the spine. He adjusted the oval mirror that was placed on top of the counter and looked at himself in it. He wanted to turn and check it from all sides, but couldn’t, for he was pressed against me tightly, and I against Wali. His father nodded approvingly. “Very nice design,” he said. “Black and blue--it’s a great combination--my favorite!”
Wali brought his mouth next to my ear and whispered, “Sir ji, no one uses water here for wudu anymore--not in Lahore--not anywhere.”
“What?” I said. “Why?”
“Because there is no water--the water which comes out of tap is black as ink, and it smells of a rotten corpse--you drink it, you die.”
“So how do people live?” I said, whispering. “I mean how can one live without water?”
“Rationing--Different parts of the city have their own laws to ration water. Sir ji, people fight over clean water. They slay and get slain; they die like flies. Clean water is the most sought-after commodity around here.”
I was not sure if I’d followed Wali correctly. My head reeled with questions. I was brought back in the shop by a female voice.
“Give us size-10, please?” The mother addressed the owner. “Show us some nice ones--this is a bit tight around the chest--and look at the fabric, it looks cheap.”
“Sure Bibi Ji--I think size-10 will be perfect for this lucky handsome boy,” the owner said. He grabbed a cane from his side with a copper hook at the tip, and brought down a hanger with size-10 vest in the same design. “Bibi ji, we make videos, too, for a nominal fee in the next shop. You get a discount if you buy a vest from us. Just let us know a day in advance when is his time to move on to the real world. Your family is blessed Bibi ji. Just imagine your son opening his eyes right next to the Pond of Sweet Water--how blessed he is to be given the Sweet Water by Prophet Muhammad...”
All movements stopped at that point, except the hissing of the white hot flame of the gas-lamp. The rock held in my hand sunk a notch down along my belly. Everyone closed their eyes and started moving their lips--fast. I kept one eye open to follow them. The helper-boy, behind the counter, was the first to go into sajda. I was pushed by Wali as he tried to make himself a space to do his. The shop-owner bent all the way down while still sitting on the ledge, his forehead touching one of the tubes of explosive he was working into the vest. The couple was a little heavy-set, but they, too, managed to squeeze themselves down towards the floor. The two boys, the brothers, who stood on the other side of their parents, had already hit the floor, one piling on top of the other. The boy, standing next to me, still had the size-8 vest on--all zipped up--pushed me back hard towards Wali in his effort to find a hole to put his head through. Avoiding a crash on top of Wali, thanks to the rock next to my navel, my center of gravity, I looked around in desperation to find a place to put the rock down--that was the foremost thing to do before I could think of step 2. The counter-top had no space, plus it didn’t look that sturdy to hold the rock. The rock suddenly felt heavier, as if someone was tugging it down. I looked down and froze. To my horror, the triggering-loop of Mujahid Vest, the one you pull to beam yourself to the Next World, the boy had on, had caught one of spikes of the sacred rock. The boy, without looking back, in his desperation to find the place to rest his forehead on the ground, tugged the cord further, as if it was holding him back from doing his sajda. I said my kalimah and prepared myself for the lift-off. In my mind floated an image of the space-shuttle, at the Kennedy Space Center, and massive clouds of smoke just before the lift-off. My nose was hit by a strong odor of ammonium nitrate, the stuff they use in fertilizers.
The blast didn’t occur. I slowly opened my eyes. Everyone was still down on their knees. A thin ribbon of smoke was rising from the back of the vest--pungent as hell. The count of thirty-three seemed to have taken eternity. My hands and arms had gone into spasm by the weight of the rock. And then everyone stood up all at once, patting their clothes and coughing from smoke. Before I’d the chance to put the rock away, the father took a dagger out from under his Jilaaba and put it on my throat. Imitating him, all three boys of his took out their respective knives, smaller than their father’s, and placed them on either side of my neck. The shop-owner took out his own, the one with a real long blade, from under the pile of vests, and the helper-boy pulled out a drawer and pulled out his--it was a multi-task Swiss-army knife.
“This kind of opportunity doesn’t arise everyday,” the father said, locking his eyes with mine, his nose flaring. “The moment I knew he’d come from America, I knew he’d have no respect for our religion--I think I’ll let Saad, my youngest son, to do you the honor.” He lifted his dagger off my neck.
There was a sudden movement behind the father. The woman had unveiled her eyes, and holding a knife of her own in her hand she advanced towards me. It looked like a big kitchen knife, a toka. “Abba ji of Saad, you’d promised me that you’d let me do the next one.”
“Now everyone, hold your horses, take a deep breath and listen to me,” Wali shouted from my back. “You people are just too eager to get into the paradise. You’d all failed to notice that sir ji couldn’t find the place to do his sajda. Sir ji was looking for the ground but couldn’t find any space--too many people in this small place.”
“He is absolutely right. I was looking for the ground, but it was all taken,” I said. “By the way, does anyone smell something weird in here?”
“This smell is common in places where you store explosives,” the shop owner said, putting his extra-long bladed knife down on the counter.
“He is not telling you the truth,” I said, mustering courage. “Look what happened.” With considerable effort, I raised the sacred-rock to my chest, to the level just under the knives. The loop of size-8 Martyr Vest was still hooked on to the spike. They all looked at the rock wide-eyed, their faces blank.
“Corruption has gotten into the bones of this nation,” Wali said at my back, sounding disappointed. “They can’t even sell a genuine Martyr Vest. Mujahid Brand--What a lie!”
All knives retrieved from my neck and went back under Jilabaas, except the woman’s. She stepped towards the shop owner and pressed it on the shop-owner’s neck. “So you sell number-2 items in this store. Mujahid Brand---what a shame!” she roared like a lioness. ‘Mark my words: We’ll come back with our Nazim. All these vest are imitation of the original Mujahid Brand--I could tell from the quality of fabric. Thieves! May Allah roast you in Hell’s fire. What’s your name?” She pressed his neck back with her toka.
“Bibi ji, I’m terribly sorry. I think the vest had been left out in the rain and water got in it.”
“I’m asking your name.” She said, keeping the toka on his neck.
As soon as I heard the name Muhammad, I immediately put the rock on the ground, closed my eyes, and plunged towards the ground lest it’d get occupied again. I said my First-Kalimah 33 times, as required by the law of Islamic Ummah of Pakistan, counting carefully on my fingers. When I stood up I realized that they had all stood in their place--no one had attempted sajda. They were all looking at me as if I was beyond hope. I knew something had gone wrong again, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
“How much for the sacred rock?” I said, trying to dissipate the cloud of embarrassment that hung around me.
“500 Dirhams,” the helper-boy said. You want me to pack it, sir?”
“No I’ll just take it like this,” I said, paying him the full amount. I was quickly running out of cash.
The family left, first, and then we left the shop, too. Once out of the shop, we took turns to get the sacred rock to his cab. He unlatched the camel’s hump, placed it next to my suitcase and clicked it shut.
“Sir ji, you don’t go in sajda when you hear the name of a person whose name is Muhammad.”
“What about now?” I said. “Right now since you mentioned the same name. What should one do in this case?”
“That’s a difficult question, sir ji. I’ll have to ask Mufti Sahib,” Wali said. “Let’s grab a cup of tea and watch a little bit of the game.”
“Wali, I think we should push on,” I said.
“Sir ji, if we watch the game inside the stadium, you’ll catch up on Pakistan very very quickly--otherwise, like others you’ll leave confused.”
“Let’s get a cup of tea first,” I said.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------I gave Wali a twenty Dirham note. "Hope this is enough for two cups of tea."
I stood on the curb as Wali proceeded to the tea-stall. The area had no electricity--not even the generators. The glow of gas lamps imbued the air with a certain ancientness. The stadium, on the other hand, was aglow with the floodlights.
"Very nice tea!" I said, taking a sip. "Very different!" I wasn’t sure if it was indeed made of tea-leaves.
We joined the crowd entering through one of the gates of the stadium.
I’d realized that the odds of getting out of the country alive--my flight was next Sunday, six days later--no better than flip of a coin. I’d begin to understand why my father, for over a decade, had kept me from visiting the country.
"It’s kind of getting late," I said, trying to keep pace with him. "We should be out of here soon."
"We’ll stay only for one Over," he said. "It’s a semifinal, sir ji--a must watch."
"How long it’ll take you to get me to Faisal Town?" I said, thinking that staying for one Over may not be a bad deal, after all.
"Sir ji, there is no guarantee of anything in this world. It may take an hour; may take a day, even a week isn’t out of question," Wali said as a matter-of-fact way. "We may never make it to Faisal Town--Nothing happens without His Will."
"Don’t we’ve to buy tickets?" I said.
"We buy them on our way out," Wali said, shoving himself through the moving wall of people. I followed him, making sure not to lose sight of him.
Slowly we pushed our way to one of the Stands--closer to the top aisle to have better view of the field. There were plenty of empty seats everywhere. Loudspeakers blared from all over the place, reciting in Arabic. Almost everyone in our Stand wore a black headdresses, or a black turban, over a green Jilabaa. A few wore helmets.
The playing field, curiously, was rectangular, like a hockey field, except it was twice the size. I wasn’t sure if the stadium had ever been used for a game of hockey or cricket. The teams were out in the field. There were too many players in the field. Except for the batsmen, with bats in their hands, each fielder had a sword in one hand and a shield in the other, gleaming in the floodlights. The umpires sat behind their respective desks. Three books, thick and bound, laid on top of each desk. An X-shaped wooden-stand stood in the middle of the each desk housing a pair of binoculars.
"The semi-final is between the Badr Brigade and the Wahab Squad. The winner will play the Karbala Cats," Wali shouted in my ear.
"Which side we’re on?"
"Badr Brigade," Wali said. "We’re in a Brailvi-Stand."
I looked around and spotted at least six people, sitting in various places not too far from us, wearing martyr-belts.
"What’s this game called, Wali?" I said, my heart-beat accelerating.
"Cricket," Wali said. It’s Cricket modified on the orders of Khalifa ji according to the principles of our Khalifat."
"How come the playing-field is rectangular?" I said.
"Sir ji, our Khalifa ji is connected up there," he said, pointing to the sky. "One night Khalifa ji had a dream about the game. The next day he changed the rules of the game according to the Islamic principles."
A boy in his early teens approached us. He had a stall hung in front of him like a counter, tied to a strap around his neck. He wore a martyr-vest, ripped at places, threads coming out of its lower border, a few loops had explosives missing. The stall was stacked with pappurs; the night-light made them look sort of purple. He stood in front of me, one hand in the loop of his vest which he jerked from time to time. He stared at me with his big, bright eyes without saying anything.
"No thank you," I said to him, my eyes glued to his hand.
"Get lost from here," Wali shooed him away.
"How did Khalifa ji change the game?" I said, looking at the umpires. They both were lost in their books, turning pages. "What did he do to make it Islamic?"
"He changed many small things. Take for example, the field: he made it look like a prayer-mat--rectangular. He says, the game is a form of worship and the players need a field that follows a certain form." He stopped and looked around.
"Go on--tell me what other reforms he brought to the game of Cricket?" I was curious as hell.
"The fielding now, for example, is done by players of both teams at the same time. They engages in a battle, a real battle as they try to get the ball; and as they fight, the batsmen keep running between the wickets to earn Swaab."
"Swaab!--What the hell that has to do with Cricket?"
"Sir ji, the word Score is a non-Islamic term. Kahlifa ji changed it to Swaab--so now the teams don’t score; they earn Swaabs."
I looked up, and there it was, the Swaab-Board standing tall over a Stand to our right.
"Wow! Brilliant!--Do people get hurt when they battle for the control of the ball?"
"You talk about hurt! Sir ji, it’s an honor to die in the field."
"So they are the real swords?" I said, watching the fielders, in pairs, wielding swords, ready to attack, as the bowler stood on the start of his run-up.
"Sir ji, it’s practice for the Final Battle. We are building a team for the day when our armies will advance over the world riding on white horses--the Final Times, sir ji. After the victory we’ll rule for five hundred years, until the Day of Judgement."
"A Muslim killing a Muslim," I said. "That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I mean I can understand if Badr Brigade is fighting a team of the Infidels, say from---" I tried zooming through my memory for a place where the Infidels would still be living. "Say, somewhere in Tanganikaa."
"Sir ji, our Khalifa ji says: whosoever dies in Practice-Battle will be given the same place in Paradise as those who die in Jihad against the Infidels."
"How many players a side has?--I mean, at the start of the game," I said.
"Same: Eleven at one time--And about fifty more for the replacements, ready to jump in when one of their team member is martyred.."
"And how many die by the time the game ends?"
"Three, four, some times may be eight--I’ve even seen only one Ghazi at the end of a game--the rest gone to Paradise--that happens to a team from Sialkot in their match against the Hamza Eleven two years ago."
"How many Overs?" I said, feeling a churning in my stomach as two boys, who must be in their early twenties, took seats next to me, both wearing the martyr-vests. Suddenly I was hit by a strong desire to buy pappurs.
"Five each," Wali said. "There is pressure to decrease five-over match to a three-over match."
"Only five?--The game must be over in a short time, then?" I said.
"Sir ji, even in one Over sometimes a team can earn up to 100 Swaabs."
"Wali, can we go and sit somewhere else?" I said, eyeing the martyr-vests out of the corner of my eyes.
"What happens sir ji?"
"Nothing!" I said.
Sensing my anxiety, Wali smiled.
"Don’t pay too much attention to the martyr-vests the young boys are wearing around," he said. "It’s a fashion to wear them. It makes them feel important; it’s a way of telling the other side, that we are not pussy cats--we’re as tough."
"How do you know they are not real?" I said, uneasily.
"You don’t," he said.
I remained silent for a long time absorbing all this new information.
"Sir ji, just relax," Wali pressed my arm.
"Wali, What are the umpires up to?" I said, marvelling at the sophisticated transition of standing umpires into scholars sitting behind their desks, lost in their books.
"Sir ji, we don’t call them umpires anymore; we call them Qadirees."
"A Qadi and a Referee--A combination--two in one," Wali said, looking out into the field. "Let’s watch the game, sir ji."
Wind had started to blow--the night of Fall in Lahore felt pleasant as hell. A bright sickle floated above the stadium in the dark ocean of night--a star twinkled next to it.
"Wali, what about those books, the Qadirees are looking at."
"Sir ji, they have everything in them a man needs to know."
"Everything?" I said.
"Khalifa ji says they contain all possible knowledge---knowledge of the past, knowledge of the future, knowledge of every field--You name it, sir ji, and it’s there in those books. The same books are used throughout the Khalifat--in schools, in banks, in courts, in markets."
The Wahab’s Squad’s fast bowler had started his run up. Halfway, filled with air, his Jilaaba fluttered on his back like a flag in a windy conditions.
The batsman missed the ball and it went to the wicketkeeper hands like a bullet.
One of the Qadirees, the one sitting behind the wicket, picked up a book which looked like a register, and made an entry with his pen. He then picked up the binoculars and gave the field a 360 degree sweep.
Wali stood up, blew a whistle, and sat down again.
"Wali, why would you buy tickets on your way out, and not when you enter?" I said. The question had been bothering me since we’d entered.
"Why would you buy tickets when you know that you don’t know if you would ever get back out?"
I remained quiet, trying to digest this brand new piece of information.
"The vests you see around," Wali continued, "are good to cultivate courage, Kahlifa ji says. And, sir ji, courage is what we are going to need in the Final Times. "
I took out my wallet. I had 140 Dirhams left, all in twenties. I began rubbing my thighs which felt stiff under my Jilaaba. "How much is each ticket, Wali?"
"Fifty Dirhams each."
The papurr-boy had come back. This time he stood in front of the boys, sitting next to me, and started pleading them to buy some papurrs from him. I watched with unease as the lad, with hair like a bird’s nest, bought a whole bunch of purple crackers from him.
"Sir ji, you missed the action--Did you see the shot?" Wali shook my arm.
The ball had been driven deep on the offside. The fielding pair ran along the ball, the tips of their swords touching. And then diving into one another they locked their swords, pushing each other with their shields. The batsmen started running between the wickets. The Swaab Board started to roll. I stood up and did my clapping part, to make Wali happy.
A roar spread over the stadium. The ball had stopped rolling, and a few feet away from it the fielders now locked in a fierce battle, their swords flashing. The batsmen were running like crazy between the wickets, both Qadirees watching the fight with binoculars, their backs straight. Wali stood on the seat and started to jump up and down. The lad next to me unfolded a white cloth, kissed it, and started to wrap it around his Afro hairdo. When he was done, he put a papurr in his mouth. The crunching drove me crazy.
"Sir ji, we have earned 25 Swaabs--You are not paying attention, sir ji--Look our boy, our Badr Boy is fighting like a lion." Wali was standing on his chair, waving his arms. His orange Jilaaba filled with air like a balloon.
Afro stood up, straightened his vest, tightened its straps, and then sat down. His friend rose from his seat, took his mobile phone out, and started shooting a video of him.
I pulled Wali’s Jilaaba to get his attention.
"Sir ji, you are missing all the action. Come up. Let’s cheer our team," he said.
I stood up on my seat--the only way to escape being in the video and talk to Wali.
"Wali, look, what they’re doing!--Look, he is having his friend made his farewell video," I shouted in Wali’s ears.
"Sir ji, we’ve earned 30 Swaabs--on the second ball of the Over," Wali said. "Now watch closely, sir ji; the fighters are getting tired--the fun is about to begin."
The papurr-boy appeared again. He stood in the aisle, next to Wali’s chair with his now empty counter, his eyes glued to his two customers shooting the video. I wondered how quickly he had sold his goods.
"Sir ji--you’re not paying attention; you constantly look around as if you are in search of something---look over there, sir ji--towards the field. Our Badr Boy is fighting like Amir Hamza."
Afro now has started to recite something in Arabic, the red light of the camera blinking.
Something happened in the field. Everyone gasped. The whole stadium was hushed. The batsmen had stopped running. I’d no clue what had happened.
The Qadirees opened their books and started flipping pages.
"Sir ji, this had never happened before. Something big is going to happen," Wali said, his voice carrying an ominous tone. "Without His command not a leaf falls from a tree."
My heart pounded in my chest, as if wanted to come out through my throat.
Afro broke into laughter, which sounded strange in all that hushed silence. His partner threw himself next to his buddy, giggling. Soon they both were rolling on the ground, kicking their legs in the air. From the corner of the aisle, the papurr-boy eyed his victims, his face breaking into a smile. Then his body shook in spasms, his hand on his mouth.
Someone shouted a takbir in the back, followed by a shout of Allahu Akbar. I dived to the floor--the warning of the pilot flooding my memory: ‘Duck when, in a crowded place, you hear a takbir followed by the shouts of Allahu Akbar.’
I’d landed next to Afro. He stopped laughing. He got up and stood on his seat. I heard him saying. "I’ve seen many like you. I dare you. Let’s see who gets to go first."
"Sir, I know you are not from here, but don’t be afraid," a voice whispered in my ear. "Sir, why to worry when you know that death has a fixed time." It was the papurr-boy. He was kneeling next to me. I felt embarrassed to my core to hear that admonition from a twelve-year old. Slowly I sat back up. Afro was hurling curses on someone at the back.
The game resumed. Apparently, the Qadirees had found what they had been looking in the books. The stadium began to fill up with sounds.
The fast-bowler started the run up for the third ball of the over.
"Sir, there is going to be an explosion here--about twenty feet from here--Just to let you know," the papurrs-boy whispered in my ear. "The guy shouting takbir in the back is a big bluff, trying to scare people. He does that all the time, in every match."
"What can we do about this one," I said in a low voice, pointing towards Afro. "Is he bluffing, too?"
"I’m not sure," he said. "Too much bhang in his system."
"I can’t believe you sell bhang-papurrs in a mad-house like this." I said.
"My papurrs save lives, sir. They make people happy; they make them calm down."
"What’s your name boy?" I said.
"So Tarzan, how do you know a bomb is going to explode twenty feet from here, in ten minutes?" I said.
"Sir, because I placed it," Tarzan said.
It took me a few seconds to absorb the shock.
"I thought you’re here to save lives," I said, grabbing my head and looking at Wali. He was visibly upset by this shouting match between Afro and the bluffer in his vicinity.
"Why don’t you two go on the side and explode it over there somewhere. Let us watch the game," he shouted.
"Wali, let’s get out of here," I said, feeling desperately lost.
"Sir ji, I know you are afraid of the vests. In Pakistan, a martyr-vest is a strictly regulated item. You can’t wear an industrial-strength martyr-vest inside a stadium. It’s the Law," Wali said.
I looked at Tarzan searching for his deep wisdom about matters pertaining to explosives. "So Tarzan, my friend, where exactly is the bomb you are talking about, that is going off in ten minutes?" I said.
"Eight," Tarzan said.
"Wali, we’re getting out of here now!" I said. "Do you hear what I just said?"
"Sir, don’t be scared--It’s a shoe-bomb," Tarzan said.
"A shoe-bomb?--What the hell is that?" I said.
"A bomb made of old, used shoes, stuffed in a burlap sac. When it goes off, shoes come flying down the sky like rain."
"I mean, can it physically hurt you--break your bones or cut or something like that?"
"It all depends where the shoe hits you and with what speed."
The Swaab had crossed the 50 mark--at the third ball of the first over.
"So you are a Wahab Squad supporter?" I said. "Planting shoe-bombs for them in the Brailvi Stand."
"I plant on both sides, sir" Tarzan said, pointing towards the Stand opposite from us."
"After I blow this one, I’ll go to the other side to finish off the day’s work."
"You must be rich," I said. "Taking money from both sides--very smart!."
"Sir, you can’t eat two meals a day with one job---Everything is so expensive here."
----------------------------------------------------------------------“Sir, you can’t eat two meals a day with one job.”
I looked up towards Wali enviously. He stood on his seat lost in the game. The Afro, too, stood on his seat, shaking his head and rocking his body as if listening to music. The shouts of takbir had stopped, now replaced by whistles and cackles.
What if I just watch the game like Wali? Can I do that?
Slowly I got up and sat back up on my seat, my heartbeat easing. I gave Afro’s robe a couple of tugs.
“Come on down,” I said. “Let’s sit here.” I patted his seat. “Good boy!”
“Are you from America?” he said, with an ear to ear smile. He sounded a little feminine. I had no clue how he’d know where I was from.
“Come down,” I said. “I’ll tell you.”
Sitting next to me, he extended his hand. He was dark skinned, around twenty-year old, skinny as a twig. His hair coming out of the scarf like reeds.
“Pleasure to meet you!” I said, taking his hand.
“Yo my man!” he said, rocking from side to side, in a typical Harlem Street accent. There was something about him that reminded me of Micheal Jackson. He could be his dance partner on the stage.
I looked for Tarzan. He was gone.
A fireball rose from about twenty rows below where we sat, followed by a boom. A blast of hot air hit my face making me duck reflexively. I heard screams and shouts. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was Afro. He was on the ground, a pool of dark liquid around his head.
The game was ongoing. One of the Qadirees looked through his binoculars towards our Stand. Down there at the site of the explosion, people swarmed in like an army of rats, climbing on top of each other. The loudspeakers blared with full might. The air smelled of gun-powder.
Afro had pulse. Blood oozed out through an ugly looking gash on his forehead. His friend had disappeared. I snatched the scarf off his head and tied it tightly around his forehead. I took off his martyr-vest and shoved it under his seat.
“Wali, I’m off,” I shouted. “Enough of the game--I’ll see you by the cab.”
Putting Afro on my shoulder I hurried towards the gate. He was light as a feather. I broke into a run. An explosion ripped through the air, behind me. A shoe landed just ahead, a military boot, its sole eaten up by a hole. I understood why people wore helmets around.
I almost fell over a group of seated spectators, when three white-robes dashed past me followed by three black robes chasing them, each wielding a sword.
I heard drone of an engine overhead. A remote- controlled plane flew around the stadium. Actually they were two. Then I spotted two more with their smoke trails.
“Sir ji, the game was just beginning to heat up,” Wali said, trying to catch up with me.
“What are the planes doing here?” I said, quickening my pace.
“It’s for what Khalifa ji calls, Drone Practice.”
At the counter at the gate, as I was pulling my wallet out another explosion shook the air.
“Looks like the VIP stand, sir ji,” Wali said, looking at the black smoke rising from somewhere in the stadium.
“How many?” I heard ticket-man saying. Before I opened my mouth to speak, Wali slid in front of me and said, “Two.”
“And the one on the shoulder?” the man said.
“He’s crossed over.” Wali said, sliding his hand across his neck.
The man stood up abruptly from his seat. He unlatched the door of his booth and came out. Standing next to me, he put his hand on the boy’s neck. He then went back into his booth.
“One hundred and twenty five Dirhams,” he said, holding his palm out to me. As I was handing him over my last 140 Dirhams, Wali whispered in my ear.
“Sir ji, I tried to save you money--but the man is sharp. The injured pay half the price.”
“Wali, we’re going to the nearest hospital,” I said, putting 15 Dirhams in change in my pocket.
The life seemed to be flowing in its usual pace outside the stadium.
Standing by his cab Wali fumbled about his pocket looking for the keys, a look of worry on his face, deepening. Circling around he patted his dress.
“Sir ji, did you see my keys?”
“Why the hell I’d know where your keys are supposed to be, Wali.”
The boy on my shoulder suddenly felt heavier. Between my shoulders, a spot burned with pain.
“Wali, where did you last use them?” I said, trying to stay calm. “Didn’t we last put the sacred rock inside the hump?--You must have used keys then? Right?”
He reached for the latch on top of his cab.
“Sir ji, you don’t need keys to open it, but no harm in looking in there.”
He lifted the hump over. My suitcase was there.
“Wait a minute!” I said. “Wali. “Where is the damn rock?”
“Sir ji--I swear by Allah, I put it right here next to your suitcase.”
I paced back and forth by the cab. My shoulders felt tired as hell.
“Wali, why would you leave the hump unlocked?” I said. “I mean, my suitcase was there--What if someone had stolen it too?”
“Sir ji, I’ve been wanting to fix the lock, but the locksmith I knew died last week.”
“Now what?” I said. I felt like dropping my load and punching Wali to exercise my shoulders.
“Nothing happens without the will of Allah, sir ji,” Wali said.
“What do you want me to do with this,” I said, shaking the boy on my shoulder.
“Sir ji, who told you to drag him along?”
“Allah!” I said.
“That tells me that you really don’t trust Allah, sir ji.”
“Wali, how can you say that?”
“Because you really didn’t believe that He’d take care of him had you left him in there.”
“Let’s find the damn keys.” I said. I was upset at losing 500 Dirhams. On top I was left without a present for my father.
“Sir ji, I think I know where I might have dropped my keys,” he said. “Come with me.”
His lean frame, wrapped within the orange robe, glided over the sidewalk. I’d no choice but to follow him. I resented him for not offering me, even once, a helping hand.
Wali halted his march in front the shop we’d purchased the gift from. Sound of ishaa’s azaan filled the air.
I followed Wali into the shop. Muhammad Sadiq, the owner sat on his seat, surrounded by vests. Upon seeing us, he closed his eyes and started swaying his body as if reciting something holy. The boy, behind the counter, looked at us wide-eyed, his open jaw touching his chest. Behind his head, over the shelf, was placed the same spiny rock I’d bought. I elbowed Wali.
“Wali, look up there,” I whispered.
Wali cleared his throat upon seeing the sacred rock back in its original location. Suddenly he went in sajda looking under the counter. He then slid his fingers under the counter and brought out a set of keys along with what appeared to be a few ripped tags, his face beaming. He had found his keys.
We waited for the azaan to finish. The owner opened his eyes and found us staring at his, a smirk on our faces.
“Masha-allah, our clients always come back,” the owner said, with a smile showing his stained teeth. “How about some tea?”
“May I ask, how this rock got back here?” I said. The weight of Afro had begun to hurt. I switched him around my shoulders. Wali offered no help again, and that made me mad.
“What rock got back where?” Muhammad Sadiq, said, throwing his hands in the air.
“That one,” I said, pointing towards the rock; its porcupine look enhanced in the glow of the gas lamp; the shadows of its spikes looming large on the vests hanging by its side. “I paid 500 Dirhams for it.” I wished Wali’d take Afro over--even a minute’s rest would do.
“Jazakallah! We’ve a large supply of rocks from Maidan- e-Arafat stored in our basement,” he said, grabbing his beard and sliding his hand down its entire length.
“How come this one has the same exact shape as the one I bought?” I said.
The moment the owner opened his mouth to respond, Wali threw his arm in the air and opened his palm.
“Sir ji, look!--The vests you see around here are not Mujahid brand. They are really Shaheen brand--their tags ripped and replaced with Mujahid’s. The Shaheen brand is manufactured in Sialkot, sir ji. They use cheap material,” Wali said. “Shaheen brand is a number 2 brand, sir ji.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said, aloud.
Muhammad Sadiq shot a glance towards his assistant, the helper-boy, nodding once. The helper-boy closed his eyes and began reciting in Arabic.
“Let’s stop talking about worldly matters for now. It’s time for ishaa--After the namaaz, we’ll talk on a cup of tea. Inshallah, I’ll remove any confusion that you two might have--Jazakallah!” he said, stepping down on the floor, a prayer-mat in his hand, folded. He spread the mat on the floor and stood on it, facing his seat, the qibla.
“Put him down somewhere,” he said, affectionately, pointing towards Afro, his eyes glowing with warmth. The offer couldn’t have come at a better time. Without wasting a moment, I dislodged Afro onto his seat. My shoulders felt light as wings.
The helper-boy had taken a rug out as well. He placed it behind his master’s mat. I looked at Wali for guidance. I’d a feeling that saying no to namaaz under these circumstances could get me in trouble. Wali, giving me a couple of nods, performed his dry-wudu, touching the corner of the counter. I copied him.
Taking our shoes off, we stood behind our impromptu imam, the owner; he was staring at Afro lying crumpled on his seat among the vests. We waited for the namaaz to begin. To my astonishment, the owner took his mobile out and dialed a number. I looked at Wali for explanation. He merely shrugged his shoulders.
“Salaam Maulana ji,” the owner blurted in the phone. “A quick question: If a person lying in front of you--between you and the qibla--is unconscious, would it be okay to proceed with namaaz?
He paused to listen.
“No, Maulana ji, it’s not a woman.”
“No Maulana Sahib, he is not exactly on the ground.”
He paused again.
“Ji Maulana Sahib, I’d say he is about two feet up from the ground--may be two and half.”
“Yes, yes, sure, sure, sure he is a Muslim.”
A long Pause followed. He nodded several times.
“Understood Hazrat ji--’ll do, sir. Subhan-allah Maulana ji! there is no equal to you in knowledge--Jazakallah!”
Dropping his phone in his pocket, he approached Afro and started covering him up with vests. Soon Afro, now hidden from view, was buried under a mound of vests.
We were in our second rakaat, when I noticed movement in the mound. A vest moved revealing a pair of eyes, red as a beet, reflecting two tiny gas lamps.
I elbowed Wali. He responded by clearing his throat and jabbing his elbow in my ribs. I hurt like hell. And then suddenly Afro sat up, the vests flying off him. He looked at us with his blood shot eyes and screamed: Aaaaaarrrrrrrrrr!
“Which graveyard they brought my body to?” Afro said, a look of panic in his eyes. “Which graveyard?”
Muhammad Sadiq, our imam, hurriedly blew salaam over his shoulders, breaking his namaaz, and ours as well. “Nawoozu-billah! he said. “Nawoozu-billah!”
I lunged towards Afro and grabbed his shoulder. He uttered another scream.
“Where am I?” he said, grabbing my collar, and peering in my eyes. “Where am I?”
“This is aalim-e-barzugh--The Intermediate World,” Wali said.
“Calm down!” I said, massaging Afro’s back. “Wali, would you shut up?”
“Ustaagh-firullah! We’ve to do the whole namaaz again,” the owner said.
“Imam ji, we don’t have to do the whole namaaz again,” Wali said. “You just say two remaining farz, and we’re done.”
“You think you know better then I?” the owner said, his hand on his hips, his eyes showering sparks of fire.
“Where am I?” Afro said, trying to bring his eyes in focus. “And who are these people saying my funeral prayer?”
I patted his head. “You’re going to be fine,” I said, thinking how to get out of here asap.
“I’m not going to be fine,” Afro said, sobbing. “I died without being Saved, without the blessing of my Lord. I betrayed Him. Oh Jesus Christ!--Save me Jesus. Save me!”
Muhammad Sadiq frantically fumbled about in his pocket looking for his phone. He took it out and hammered away a number, his nose flaring. He kept looking at Afro with disdain. “Sorry, Maulana ji, please forgive me for calling,” he spoke on the phone.
He listened for a moment. “Very quick question Hazrat; an extremely serious matter Maulana ji! Ji ji, I called a few minutes ago.”
“Okay, okay, Maluana ji, I’m very very sorry sir, I didn’t know you’re leading a prayer too--I’m extremely sorry ji.”
He snapped the phone shut, and gritting his teeth he shot a fiery glance towards Wali and then at Afro. Afro fainted, his head falling over his shoulder. I held him to prevent him from collapsing.
“Take him down from there!” the owner growled. “Pick him up and get lost!--All three of you--Out of my shop!--Now!”
We dashed out of the shop, Afro hung from my shoulder, his arms and legs flying around.
“Sir ji, you should have left this Jesus Christ over there,” Wali said.
“You’re taking us to the nearest hospital. He needs stitches and a tetanus shot,” I said, taking long, rushed steps back to the cab. I felt thirsty as hell. “Wali, who the hell Muhammad Sadiq called?”
“1-800-000-ALIM,” Wali said. “It’s 24/7 hot-line to an alim.”
“Wali, can you get me some water?” I said, standing by his cab. I couldn’t wait to put Afro down, my throat in need of wetness.
“There is no water around, sir ji--I’d already told you that.”
“What about the drinks, sodas and stuff?”
“Sir ji, we’ve only one kind of drink. It’s called Hoor Afza--Nothing like the Rooh Afza once we used to have. This one tastes like a sweetened piss.”
I gave him my last 15 Dirham. “Would you please get me one?”
“Sir ji, it costs 39 Dirhams a bottle,” Wali said, opening the rear door of his cab. “I’d not waste my money on a Hoor Cola.”
I laid Afro on the rear seat and shut the door.
Wali opened the trunk revealing a pair of massive tanks. One had ‘Allahu’ painted on it, and on the other ‘Akbar.’ They almost filled the whole trunk except for a foot-wide space in the middle. He plunged his hand in that space and took a clear-plastic bottle out half, filled with water. He handed the bottle to me.
“Some big tanks, Wali!” I said, taking a swig from the bottle. The water had a peculiar metallic taste. It smelled of diesel.
“You’re looking at the custom-made martyr-tanks, sir ji,” Wali said, with a look of pride on his face. “The martyr-vests are for kids--For those who wear them to show-off, or impress their girl-friends.”
“Martyr-tanks!?” I said, feeling alarmed. “What the hell is that?”
“Sir ji, I spent a fortune fitting my cab with them--there’s a two-month waiting period to have your car fitted with these.”
“And how they’re supposed to work?” I said.
He opened the driver’s side door, and lighted his cigarette lighter.
“See these two buttons!” he said, touching two red buttons located next to the head-lights’ switch. One inscribed with ‘Allahu’ and the other with ‘Akbar’. “You press them together and you’re gone, sir ji.” He snapped his fingers. “Vaporized!”
“Two-month waiting period!” I said, my heartbeat began to accelerate.
“Sir ji, the boy is a super-genius. You can be one hundred percent sure that if you hit a pothole or bump into another car, they won’t go off. You have to press them together for five seconds. Can you beat this security feature?”
“You can explain the rest later,” I said. “We gotta go--The poor guy’s going to die if we don’t get him to the hospital soon.”
I took my seat in the rear next to Afro. He was snoring, his head pressed against the window. Wali started the engine. It was then I spotted Tarzan sprinting out of the stadium’s gate, a burlap sac on his shoulder bouncing up and down. He halted for a second and looked around as if to decide which direction to go. He took off towards us.
“Tarzan!” I shouted, getting out of the car and waving at him. I was not sure if he’d seen us.
He halted for a second, looking around, and he spotted me. At that instance two men in white robes rushed out of the gate. Upon spotting Tarzan they shouted, and dashed after him.
Tarzan sped like a crazy horse. I stepped aside the open door of the cab. Throwing his sac in the cab, which landed on Afro’s lap, he jumped in. Sitting next to him I shut the door.
“Wali, let’s go--Come on--Quick!”
Wali grabbed his head in his hands for an instant, and in the next he was speeding down the lane out of the stadium. The men raced towards a pickup truck.
“Sir ji, if you keep picking whoever crosses your path, we’ll never get to Faisal Town.”
“How far is the nearest hospital?” I said.
“The nearest one is Khidmat-e-Ummah Hospital,” Wali said, turning into the main road going towards the bridge.
“Khidamat-e-Ummah?” I said.”I never heard of this one.”
“Our Services Hospital, sir ji.”
“Why to drive that far? What about all the private hospitals around?” I said.
“Sir ji, they’ve been shut down,” Wali said.
“Because the doctors who used to run them have all left.”
“Abroad, or to the Next World.”
“Sir, you can drop me once we are out of here” Tarzan said. His breath had started to calm down. He looked back through the rear windshield to make sure we’re not being followed.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The traffic was light and the road, like a bad case of acne, poked with holes and cracks. Wali cut from one end to the other to avoid bumping into them. From over the bridge Lahore looked steeped in an eerie silence, drowned in the dark side of the moon. We overtook a rickshaw. A tank, the size of an oil barrel, hoisted on its rear--‘Ya Allah--Here I Come,’ painted on it with bold letters. We were coming down the bridge when a pair of headlights started tailgating us. Veering to the side, they sped, coming parallel to our cab. It was a white Mazda pickup truck, a camel on its top. An arm held out from its window waving up and down, telling us to stop.
“Who are they?” I said, my heartbeat speeding up.
“I told you sir ji, don’t pick up people you don’t know,” Wali said.
“Isn’t that everything happens because Allah wills it to happen?” I said. I was catching up fast on the local vernacular.
Tarzan’s eyes moved like a ping pong ball, his hand fumbling about in his sac.
“What’s going on Tarzan?” I said.
“Sir, if you stop you stop at your own risk,” Tarzan said, taking a canister out of his bag.
“Sir ji, you’d been absent from this place for too long. This place is a can of worms. You touch a thing and it explodes,” Wali said.
“Sir, tell him not to stop--The truck’s fitted with a portable hand-chopper.” Tarzan said. “They’ll not only chop my hand, but they may do yours and the driver’s too--at the spot.”
“Wali, is what Tarzan saying true?” I said, feeling a deepening pit in my stomach.
“Sir ji, the machine, he’s talking about, won the number one prize in the National Industrial Exhibition last year at Fortress Stadium. The Mughal Brothers and Co. used to own a small foundry making diesel-engines for the tube wells, until they hit upon the idea; and now they supply the whole Punjab,” Wali said, trying to keep the wheel steady, as the truck brushed the cab, trying to push us over.
“Sir, half of my friends have one of their hands or one foot missing,” Tarzan said. “They put your arm all the way in the machine. The cutter is so sharp and fast that you don’t feel a thing when your hand is cut; and then a hot-plate is pressed against the stump for a second or two; the smell of the burned meat hits your nose, that’s when you feel pain, but it’s very quick and clean otherwise, they say.”
“And what do they do with the chopped hands and feet?” I said, feeling a wave of nausea hitting my stomach. “What about the pain later, infection and stuff?” The truck gave us a nudge. The cab shook with the impact.
“Sir ji, they take everything with them as a proof--more chopping you do more commission you get,” Wali responded.
“Sir, before they drive off they throw you a roll of dressing, a strip of paracetamol, and bunch of capsules of penicillin,” Tarzan said.
“Khalifa ji says: Show kindness even to the criminals once the punishment, as ordered by Allah, has been given to them for their crimes,” Wali said. “Islam, sir ji, is all about kindness and care for one another.”
“Wali, what do you think?” I said. “Should we stop?--They’re going to run us over otherwise.” I wanted to throw up--my mouth kept filling with saliva.
“Let me think, sir ji,” Wali said. “Just give me one minute to think.”
Tarzan reached over Afro and, thankfully, lowered the window. The air hit my face making me feel better, even though it stank like hell. The truck’s body was now pressed against the cab’s; an elbow resting in its open window, a gun barrel sticking out. Before I could say or do anything, Tarzan twisted the canister’s top and lopped it inside the truck’s window. Smoke filled the truck’s cabin instantly engulfing its occupants. It jerked away from the cab and slowed down a bit, veering from side to side, its tires screeching. It hit the median once, recoiled, and then its front wheels slammed into a pothole. The force of the impact lifted it off the road. It rolled a couple of times in the air, like a dice, before crashing back on the road. Thick smoke came out its windows as it slid on the road, belly up. Wali pressed the gas-paddle all the way to the floor, our bodies thrown against the seats as we sped away.
“What the hell was that?” I screamed. “Tarzan, are you crazy?”
“Wali, you think we’d been seen?” I said, feeling overwhelmed by a sense of dread.
“I don’t know, sir ji--Your guess is as good as mine?”
“You know where we’re heading?--Right?” I said, wind brushing my hair. Afro’s hair stood vertical on his head unaffected.
“Faisal Town,” Wali said.
“Hospital!” I said.
“Why the hell you did that?” I said, looking into Tarzan’s eyes. “Who were these people?”
“Sir ji, the area on that side of the bridge is controlled by Wahabis,” Wali said. “It was probably the Sharia Patrol, but I can’t say for sure--Usually they have a flashing red light on top of the camel’s head. I’ve heard they have the ex-military people hired to run it.”
“And why the hell they’re following you?” I said, looking into Tarzan’s eyes. I didn’t detect a hint of nervousness in them.
“Because they think I’ve something they’re after,” Tarzan said.
“And what’s that thing?” I said.
“I don’t know.” Tarzan said.
“What the hell is in your sac--besides explosives?” I said.
“Items of the loot,” Wali said, swinging onto the Canal Road.
The moon shone above the Green Tomb Mosque. Lit, like a gas-station in a jungle, by floodlights its green dome glimmered and looked suspended in midair. Suddenly I was hit by a stench of rotten flesh.
“Would you please roll the window up,” I said. My stomach felt queasy as hell.
Tarzan rolled up the window and sat without answering my question.
“Sir ji, the smell is from the water in the canal,” Wali said, cutting to avoid a pothole. “Water everywhere smells the same no matter where you go--that’s what I was talking about.”
“What’s in your sac?” I said. “I’m talking to you, Tarzan.”
“The raw material,” Tarzan said, looking the other way.
“What raw material?”
“Shoes,” he said.
“And where you get all these shoes from?” I knew he wasn’t telling me the whole truth.
“Wherever I’d find them--You can collect a lot of them at the scene after a blast--and nice ones, too. My father sells them if I could find him a good looking pair or two.”
I’d begin to understand the intricate nature of Tarzan’s profession. He was a scavenger. In my mind’s eye I could see him sprinting through the area with a sac in his hand, amidst the bodies, some stilled, some crawling, his eyes searching for the valuables. It was hard to believe that a person of Tarzan’s caliber and experience would be going after the shoes only.
“So what did you pick tonight besides the shoes?”
“Nothing special. The usual items,” Tarzan said, looking at Afro. “How did he get in here?”
Before I opened my mouth to respond, Wali interrupted. “Sir ji is from America. He believes that it’s his duty to solve every-one's problems.”
“Wali, shut up,” I said. “Look ahead and drive.”
“Sir ji, if I remember correctly we never settled for the fare,” Wali said. “A trip to the hospital would cost you--I’m not saying I’m not taking you there, but I’m letting you know that it’s way out of our original route.”
I had only 15 Dirhams in my pocket. I’d hoped to get some cash from my father once I’d arrive at my destination. I wanted to give him a call.
“Anyone has a phone here?” I said.
While Wali tried to fish for his mobile, Tarzan had his, a sleek touch-screen, dangling in front of me.
Tarzan was collecting shoes alright, I thought.
My father didn’t pick up, as usual, neither I expected him to. I hung up without recording any message.
The image of a smoke-filled pickup truck doing a somersault in the air kept popping in my head. Obviously something grave had happened, but what made me mad was my inability to ascertain the dimension of the disaster I’d landed into. A thought crossed my mind to ask Wali to stop the cab, give me a helping hand to throw both Tarzan and Afro out, and then head straight to Faisal Town, forgetting that I’d ever met them.
Throwing Tarzan out of the cab may not be so simple, I thought, specially after witnessing firsthand what he’d done to that big truck with a mere flick of his wrist. I could only hope that at some point he’d ask Wali to stop the cab to let him out. I wanted to grab Tarzan’s sac and turn it upside down to see what the hell he was carrying in it. But I didn’t dare.
We turned on Jail Road towards the hospital. I’d seen more traffic on this road at 4.00 am. There was no power in the area, the buildings looked submerged under water, their outlines indistinct in the dark. Our heads banged against the roof as Wali hit a pothole. Afro stirred in his seat, moaning.
“Wali, what happened to all the traffic and people?--This place looks like a ghost town.” I said. It was rather a rhetorical question, for I’d known the answer over the years from my father. Lahore had experienced a wave of riots about a decade ago. The speed at which they’d engulf the city had taken all by surprise. From Lahore they’d spread to all parts of the country.
Before he became aloof my father used to describe the horrific scenes of carnage taking place in Lahore; how the whole neighborhoods had been massacred by the mob, the houses looted and then torched. ‘Islam teaches Justice,’ was the motto chanted by the mob. The poor, the destitute, with their new-found power, engendered by their faith, engineered by the Muftis and Mullaas, ransacked the affluent neighborhoods. Reportedly, a mass grave in Defense Housing Society had at one time five thousand men and women, those deemed rich and corrupt, buried in it--all beheaded in one go in a public square. There were similar mass graves in various affluent areas of Lahore. Those who escaped these massacres flew abroad, leaving their properties behind. The poor moved in these areas and occupied the abandoned houses of their former masters.
In the subsequent months and years that followed the riots, I’d noticed a change in my father’s behavior; he became quieter; he’d offer no information about his whereabouts, his health, or his business; and then he became inaccessible altogether. Months, even years, would pass without the two of us had have the chance to talk. I’d heard his voice on the phone last Sunday after almost three and half years.
“Where you’re going to get the traffic from, when there are no people left to drive around,” Wali said, taking a sigh.
That sounded surreal, but horrible things had happened here leaving a trail of destruction everywhere, like potholes on the roads once smooth and carpeted.
Wali continued to speak as if talking to himself. “People had gone mad; they’d kill each other as if living another Partition--They’d to let out the lava bubbling within their souls.”
“And since when the water had gone bad?” I said.
“It happened slowly and gradually over years. “Some say it was the water that made people behave like rabid dogs.”
“Hope things are under control now,” I said.
“If it’s not for Islam and our Khalifa ji, everyone would’ve died. Only Islam guarantees peace and security, sir ji.”
I remained quiet, watching Tarzan’s steady hand over his sac. We turned into the parking-lot of the emergency room of Khidmat-e-Ummah Hospital. Afro had woken up. I held him by his shoulder and escorted him up the stairs of the emergency room. Tarzan followed me, his sac on his shoulder. Wali stayed with his cab.
“I’ll be parked outside the main gate,” he said.
There was no electricity in the hospital. I stopped at the top step.
‘Death visits at its appointed time,’ was painted with red on the glass paneled door of the emergency room.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------“Tarzan, you should have stayed with Wali,” I said, holding the door for him, hoping he’d disappear forever. He entered the building behind me.
“I’ve to use toilet,” he said, walking to to the rear of the building, his haul over his shoulder.
Afro was now able to hold his head upright; he walked pretty okay, as long as someone steered him. I wanted to get him in, hand him over to the emergency room staff, and get the hell out of here.
I entered the waiting area, holding him by his shoulder. Lit by half a dozen candles, placed at various locations, the room smelled of sweat and wax. A group of women sat in a corner indistinguishable from their shadows on the walls, swaying. After seating Afro, I approached the reception desk; it was lighted by a couple of candles placed next to a computer-monitor and a hand-written sign that read: ‘Break for Namaaz’. I heard a rustle. A veiled, clad-in-black, figure broke from the dark and floated towards the desk.
“We’ve a head injury, possibly a brain concussion, a cut on the forehead needing stitches,” I blurted out. I realized how tired and sleepy I was. My eyes felt drained of energy. “It’s urgent.”
“Can’t be more urgent than to prepare for the Next World!” the figure said in a soft and sweet voice. Her kajil-lined, big, black eyes shone like lamps in the dark. Suddenly the room felt stuffy and hot.
“The patient needs to be seen right away,” I said. I longed for the comfort of a bed.
“Haste is from shiataan,” she said. I imagined her smile behind that veil, her teeth, her lips.
“Approximate time to get operational again?” I said.
“When the doctor’s done,” she said.
“He’s doing his ishaa prayer I suppose?”
She nodded in affirmative.
“Oh, good, it should be fairly quick then?” I said, thinking it was getting rather late for the prayer of ishaa, for most faithful would’ve wrapped it up by now--even if they were to say all the seventeen rakaats.
“After the prayer doctor sahib gives a lecture,” she said.
“Lecture on what?”
“He’s a scholar writing a book on the principles and practice of Islamic Medicine for the Ummah.”
“I’ve someone with me I don’t know, a boy. I found him lying unconscious--with a cut on his forehead,” I said. “He needs stitches. Can I just leave him here?--I mean after getting him registered and all? Would you be kind enough to get him see the doctor whenever he’s available for the affairs of this world?”
“Who’s the patient?” she asked, her eyes sweeping across the room.
“The one with the white scarf--”
“Do you live abroad?” she said.
“Landed this evening.”
“Same thing,” she said. Her eyes twinkled, my sleep receiving another jolt.
“It’s not,” I said.
“Why not?” she said.
“New York isn’t the America you may know,” I said.
“Bring him over. I’ll register him,” she said. “Meanwhile you go and buy these items from across the road--It’ll save you time if you buy them now.” She handed me a photocopy of an invoice of some Mercy Medical Store; the charges had been blacked out along with the total billed amount.
I looked at the paper, trying to read the items, feeling on the verge of a meltdown.
“Without these we can’t help him. Hospital doesn’t carry none of these things. All patients have to buy their own supplies,” she said.
I found Wali smoking a beeri in his cab parked outside, by the main-gate of the hospital. The smile on his face, upon seeing me without Afro, vanished when I showed him the invoice.
“Not again!” he said, shaking his head.
“Wali, I need to borrow some money,” I said. “I’ll give you back once we get to Faisal Town--Plus a very large tip.”
“Credit is the scissor which cuts the thread of friendship,” Wali said.
I remained quiet, my mind a ball of jumbled up threads.
“Sir, how much you need,” I heard Tarzan’s voice. Standing behind me, he’d been listening to our conversation. I had almost forgot about him.
It cost 1100 Dirhams to get the prescription filled at Mercy Medical Store. The items included a couple of packs of non-absorbable silk, needles, syringes, a vial of Xylocain, a 4-oz bottle of antiseptic solution, a cotton roll, a box of 2x2 gauze-pieces, one roll of 4-inch dressing gauze, a tube of an antibiotic cream, and a vial of a tetanus shot.
Tarzan paid it all. I got myself a couple of bottles of Hoor Afza in addition, even though Tarzan was not keen on buying them. “We don’t drink this stuff anymore,” he told me. When I asked him why, he remained quiet.
Once outside the store, he took out three 1000-Dirham notes from his pocket and held them out to me.
“Sir, keep this,” he said. “You will need it.”
“I’m not going to take that,” I said.
“Sir, but why?”
“Because, I’m not sure if I’ll be able to return it.”
“Take it, sir. Consider this a gift from a friend,” he said with a smile. “You may give it back whenever you have the money.”
“No Tarzan, this is not right,” I said.
“Sir, take it. Consider it a loan.” He shoved the notes in my hand.
“I’ll pay you--You can be sure of that,” I said, reluctantly taking the cash from him. I needed this safety cushion, for I had no idea how much Wali would charge me at the end. What if my father had no cash either, or if he wasn’t home. My stomach felt hollow on thinking about my new friendship with Tarzan.
As I entered the waiting area of the emergency room holding a brown paper bag containing supplies, the light came back. The white light of the fluorescent tubes washed away shadows, pasting everything with a sterile dullness. The glare stung my eyes. The diamond-eyed angel in black was on her seat, booting her computer and talking to a boy of about ten who sat on a stool next to her. She saw me coming and gestured me to take a seat and wait for my turn. Afro wasn’t there in the waiting area. She struggled with the computer for a good five minutes, and then another ten with the boy and his mother. I approached her as soon as she was done with them, putting the bag of supplies on her desk. The light, like everything else in the room, had bleached out the shadowy depths and mystery from her eyes, heightened earlier by the glow of candles. I dropped a 1000-Dirham note in the bag making sure she would see me doing that.
“Please make certain he’s taken care of,” I said, forcing a smile out of my jet-lagged body desperately seeking a pad to crash.
“He told me to give you this,” she said, a piece of scrap paper in her hand. The note said: Thank you for everything! Micheal Masih Jackson aka Syed Qureishi, the Moon Dancer. At the bottom he wrote what looked like his mobile number.
“What’s your name?” I said, putting the paper in my wallet.
“Laila,” she said.
“You know what that means?” I said.
“Darkness,” she said.
“Night,” I said.
“Same thing,” she said.
“No it’s not,” I said.
“Why not?” she said.
“Night is not the Darkness you may know,” I said, experiencing a wave of longing to see the rest of her face.
“You want to see my face?” she said softly, locking my eyes with hers for a long five seconds, and then she lowered them. Something hard hit the pit of my stomach.
I turned around abruptly and hurriedly left the waiting room without looking back.
I raced down the steps of the building, relishing the thought of having the whole back-seat of the cab to myself. The cab wasn’t there where it was supposed to be. No sign of Wali and Tarzan either. I paced around the main-gate looking for them, but no luck. Jail Road looked deserted, except for the flashing red lights in the distance, moving closer. It was then I heard Tarzan’s panicky voice.
“Sir, over here!” he shouted. For a moment he appeared at the main-gate. As soon as I saw him, he turned around and sprinted back inside the hospital’s premise. “Follow me--Let’s go,” he screamed.
“Tarzan, what the hell is going on?” I said, breaking into a run behind him, a sense of doom pushing my fatigue away. “Where is Wali?” We rushed back up over the steps which I had taken just a few minutes ago--jumping over three steps at a time.
Once we were inside the building, he stopped and looked through the glass paneled doors, towards the entrance of the hospital.
Two pickup trucks, with flashing lights mounted atop their camel’s heads, zoomed past the main-gate and entered the hospital parking-lot, their headlights hitting the steps we had just taken. Turning abruptly sideways, they sped towards the main hospital building.
“Let’s go,” Tarzan said, trying to catch his breath. “They’ll be here soon.” He started running again.
“Tarzan, wait!--I need to know what’s going on.” I jogged behind him, feeling attached to him by an unseen leash.
“You’ve to trust me,” he said, as he continued his sprint towards the rear end of the building.
“Do I’ve a choice?” I said, to myself.
We zoomed through dark and deserted hallways making several turns until we reached a dead end. Tarzan turned his lighter on. The dead-end was basically a pile of discarded hospital furniture. Tarzan climbed on top of a broken drawer, and disappeared inside what looked like a closet, leaving me standing in the dark.
“Would you talk to me for God’s sake?” I said, climbing the desk and trying to locate the entry into the closet. “Where are you taking me?”
“Faisal Town,” he said from the other side of the pile. “Don’t stop--Keep coming.”
As I emerged on the other side of the dusty tunnel, I found myself standing next to him. It was pitch dark. He turned the lighter on. We both were facing a door, the massive heap of furniture behind us like a raggedy wall. Tarzan had his sac back on his shoulder.
“Tarzan, how did you find this place?” I said, marvelling at this perfect hideout he’d stumbled upon.
“I smelled it,” he said, pushing the door open. We entered into what looked like a spacious toilet which probably had not been used for ages; it smelled heavily of pot, as if someone had smoked a joint here not too long ago. Tarzan threw his sac on the floor and brought out a briefcase.
“Tarzan, if you’re not going to tell me what the hell is happening, I’m leaving,” I said. “Where is Wali--He has my suitcase.”
He didn’t answer. Instead he handed me the cigarette lighter.
“I need light here,” he said. He had a tape and a cigar-sized tube in his hand. He taped the tube to the briefcase, positioning it over the lock and took the lighter away from me.
“We don’t have much time,” he said, igniting what looked like a shoelace coming out of the tube. “Let’s go!” He yanked the door open. We leapt outside, banging it shut behind us. A muffled blast shook the door. We re-entered the bathroom, now filled with smoke and smell of gun powder. I almost fell back when the lighter’s glow fell on wads of 1000-Dirham banknotes scattered around the toilet like bars of soap. The briefcase still contained the bulk of money stacked neatly in it in rows.
“Let’s put them back,” Tarzan said. He started collecting the bundles fallen on the floor, stacking them back in the briefcase.
As I stood there watching him, wishing the whole thing to be some kind of a jetlag induced hallucination or something like that, when my eyes caught sight of a book lying under the sink. I picked it up; it’s black leather binding seemed new--no faded spots or cracks. I brought the book closer to the flame, flipping it open. All of its dirty-white, thick and textured pages, like a watercolor paper, were blank, except for the number printed at the top middle of each page--250 in total.
“Keep this,” Tarzan said, tossing me a bundle of notes and tucking a couple under his dress.
“I’m not taking any of that,” I said, dropping the money back in the briefcase.
“What are you holding in your hands?” he said, clicking the briefcase shut, which looked still amazingly intact, except for its blown handle.
“Looks like a sketchbook of an artist.”
“Do you think it was in the briefcase?”
“I don’t know,” I said, sniffing the book’s binding for gunpowder smell. “I found it lying over there under the sink.”
“Let’s get out of here,” he said, putting the flame out. “Wali must be waiting for us.”
He stood on the commode on his toes. He reached up and pushed open a window up on the wall. Moonlight streamed in through the open window. Grabbing the windowsill he lifted himself up and sat across the opening, as if across the back of a horse.
“Sir, hand me the briefcase and my sac,” he said.
“How the hell I’m supposed to climb up?” I said, handing him his things.
“The road to Faisal Town goes through this window,” he said, and then he jumped on the other side. My heart sank on the thought of being found in an abandoned toilet of a hospital used solely for smoking pot by some of its employees.
I stood on the commode, and tried placing the book on top of the water tank. It fell inside the water tank, for there was no lid on the water tank’s top. I made it to the windowsill in my third try. I sat across it awkwardly and tried reaching the water tank to retrieve the book, but it was beyond my reach. I jumped on the other side and landed on a patch of grass, about five or six feet below.
“Good--It wasn’t that difficult.” I heard Tarzan who stood close by, waiting. “Let’s go--Wali must be waiting for us,” he said. We walked over to an opening in the hospital’s boundary-wall that had begun to crumble at places. After trespassing the lawn of a house on the other side of the wall we found ourselves on a road lined by houses on both sides.
“We’re at the backside of Shadman Market,” he said. “Wali is parked at the end of this road, where it meets the Shadman Road.”
“How did you make him move his cab there?” I said.
“Dirhams!” he said. “They’ll make people do anything you want.”
I felt kind of embarrassed, for I, too, was carrying his donated money in my pocket.
“You’re a rich man now,” I said, as we walked towards the Shadman Road. “You don’t have to sell the bhang-papurrs any more--Take a vacation or something to relax at some place nice.”
“It’s not my money--I’ve to deliver it to my boss.”
“Oh, so you work for a boss. I thought you were self-employed,” I said. “What about the couple of bundles you tucked in your pocket? Don’t you think he’s going to find out?”
“That’s my commission,” he said. “Pir Pull Saraat doesn’t care too much about money matters.”
“Pir Pull Saraat!”
“He’s the boss. He heads the Resistance Movement. He’s waiting.”
“Waiting where,” I said, feeling alarmed. “Waiting for whom?”
“We are heading first to the Headquarter. That’s where he lives and heads the Movement.”
“And where the hell this headquarter of yours is located at?” I said, feeling like a pawn in the hand of forces I had no control over. My fatigue had started to transform into numbness. Faisal Town slipped another notch away towards oblivion.
“Shah Jamal,” he said.
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------The electricity appeared to have gone out again. The road was deserted, and, wrapped in darkness, the houses on each side looked as if abandoned. A cat’s howl pierced the air from time to time, getting louder as we walked. The crescent moon casted an eerie glow that made everything looked submerged underwater. I looked at my watch. It was quarter to one. My flight had arrived at 6.00 pm. The last seven hours felt like a dream whizzing by, like a runaway train. I wished I could take notes, like once I had as a university student on my assignments and field-trips.
My throat stung as if filled with sand. Remembering the two bottles of Hoor Afza, purchased with Tarzan’s money, lying on the backseat of the cab, I increased my pace.
This could have been a field-trip for me, I thought: for my Doctorate in Anthropology at Columbia. This nonstop seven-hour long whipping had begun to stir a dormant anthropologist in me. Despite my fatigue and lack of sleep, I was curious about the Resistance Movement and its head, Pir Pull Saraat. There was something odd going on here, which seemed pervasive, like air breathed, that people had long stopped noticing. This was not how people had behaved when I was here last.
“Tarzan, I need your phone,” I said, thinking of giving my father a ring. I wasn’t sure, though, if it was a good idea to call him at this time.
“It’s dead,” Tarzan said. “I took its batteries out--That’s how they traced us to the hospital.”
Five years ago, as a student in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia, I had chosen to write my PhD dissertation on Kalash people of Kafiristan: an indigenous tribe of the Hindu Kush, a mountain range in the northeast Pakistan. The tribe claimed to be the descendants of Greeks, the soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army. Their folklore and mythologies were stunning similar to those of the ancient Greece--the basis of my thesis.
I had been to Kafiristan once with my father, on a summer vacation, at the tender age of fourteen. We stayed in a rest-house; it was nestled amidst a pine-forest on a hillside; it overlooked an emerald lake; the lake was fed by a stream that zigzagged along the slope swishing, making mist as it crashed against the boulders. On its bank, high up on the slope, from where the red-roofed rest-house looked like a matchbox, I held in my arms, a blue eyed, peach skinned Kalash girl with golden braids. Her name was Kata. She bestowed on my lips a kiss, my first, as I looked into her face starred with freckles, and, behind her, into a rainbow that had formed on the curtain of mist that flew as the water crashed on a boulder, roaring down in the valley. She tasted like an apricot.
I had wanted to see how she’d look like after twenty some years, provided she were alive. I had last seen her through my binoculars. She looked like a red dot amidst the tall grass, crossing the meadow far down below, along with her sheep. I spotted another dot closing in on her, and then she disappeared from view, for good.
I would be able to see my father as well on the same trip--shooting two birds in one stone--I had thought, at the time.
The University of Columbia in New York had agreed to sponsor this yearlong field-trip of mine. Sadly, the trip had to be cancelled at the last minute, for the newly formed Islamic Ummah of Pakistan deemed Kafiristan an infidel territory inhabited by kafirs, and their conversion to Islam a priority. As a result, hordes of bearded men converged on Kafiristan like flies on a jar of honey--- every last kafir in the valley was converted to Islam. The Kalash culture, preserved for over two thousand years, disappeared like a puff of smoke.
“Sir, I know you want to get to Faisal Town as soon as possible, but I think you should stay with us tonight in Shah Jamal,” Tarzan said, bringing me back from my reverie. “Travelling at this time is not safe,”
“As long as Wali is willing to take me, I’m going.”
“Boss wants to see you,” he said. “He asked me to bring you over.”
That was a news for me.
“I’m too tired to socialize,” I said. “You know what time is it?”
“Sir, you don’t get to see a person like him everyday,” he said. “Boss has powers.”
“What kind of powers?”
“We’re not allowed to talk about them.”
I didn’t say anything. We strolled quietly towards the cab.
After my Kalash project would go down the drain, I had to quickly come up with an alternative plan. A colleague, a friend of mine, rescued me by proposing a trip to Peruvian Amazon, a trip he’d undertaken a couple of years ago. Since he’d done the legwork, all I would have to do was to follow his footsteps, using his contacts in the area. The faculty agreed, and I found myself in the company of Tukano people, a group of shamans regarded highly for their powers. According to the arrangements, over a period of one year, they’d impart me the knowledge of certain plants they’d been using for centuries for healing and communicating with, what they’d call, the Spirit World--and in exchange, I would teach them simple arithmetic and accounting, the skills they badly needed to transact with the modern world, fast encroaching upon their lives and culture.
In the company of those remarkable jungle people, who called themselves, the people of Knowledge, under the influence of certain concoctions they’d perfected over centuries, I would glimpse into a world which according to science didn’t exist.
“So are you staying in Shah Jamal?” Tarzan asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I had begun to make a faint outline of the cab in the distance.
“You wouldn’t want to leave if you stay,” he said.
“That’s exactly the reason, I’m not so sure of staying,” I said, hearing a rustle to my right.
My next research proposal--to study the effect of sound on the brain of primates injected with a variety of psychoactive substances--received a generous grant from a wealthy donor: an elderly Jewish widow from New York City, who confided in me, at a dinner hosted in her honor by the faculty, that once she’d dated with a Pakistani man.
“We broke up because of his mother,” she had told me. “Pakistani men are like typical Jewish men, actually much worse. Nothing is better for them than to live with their moms for the rest of their lives. They don’t like to grow up.”
Thanks to her thoughtful contribution towards the advancement of human knowledge and understanding, I ended up with a dozen monkeys, my research subjects, captured from the jungle of Brazil, in a state-of--the-art lab in the Department of Neuroscience.
At the end of the road, we found Wali lounging on the bonnet of his cab smoking a beeri, and staring at the moon. He slid down the bonnet upon seeing us, and gave us a hug each as if we’re his long lost buddies.
“Sir ji, I’m really really glad to see you,” he said, opening the door for me. As I was about to slid in the cab, my eyes picked up movement onto my side. Perched on a branch of a nearby tree a cat moved its tail from side to side, flashing its big yellow eyes; and then it took a lunge in the air and landed right before me, on the roof of the cab, snarling, baring her long canines. It was big as a bobcat. I recoiled back in fear. Wali started banging the bonnet. Startled by the noise, it took a dive on the side and disappeared in the dark.
“That was scary--One big cat!” I said, remembering the same sized cat pummelling the dog around the stadium. I didn’t remember seeing big cats like these in Lahore before. A couple of them could easily rip a person apart.
“They’re everywhere, Sir ji,” Wali said. “Now they have started attacking people--it seems everyday they grow in size.”
“Where’ve they come from?” I said.
“Their population increased when dogs disappeared,” Wali said.
“What do you mean: Dog disappeared?” I asked.
“They’re all killed.” he said. “Slowly over time.”
“How could you possibly kill all the dogs in a country!?”
“It was the Khalifa ji’s order ,” Wali said. “As simple!”
“Sir ji, dogs block the Divine blessing to flow through the area; be it a house or a country, it doesn’t matter. The angles of mercy wouldn’t touch you with a ten-foot pole if you have a dog around you.”
“And people agreed to the Kahlifa ji’s order?”
“Well, if you’re getting one bottle of Hoor Afza for each dog killed, then it doesn’t take a whole lot to follow the order. Hoor Afza had just come in the market at the time--And dogs would disappear in a matter of days.”
The mention of the drink doubled my thirst. I got in the cab, grabbed a bottle of Hoor Afza, and drank the whole thing in one go. Wali was right, for it did taste like a sweetened piss. Both Wali and Tarzan exchanged looks upon seeing me open the second bottle.
You really have to be motivated to drink this awful stuff, I thought.
“Anyone interested in Hoor Afza?” I said, holding the bottle to them.
They both shook their heads. I gulped half of the second bottle too.
“Wali, we’re not far from Shah Jamal--Right?” I said.
“Sir ji, it all depends upon the road condition,” he said.
“Road conditions?” I said. “We’re not travelling on Karakorum Highway for God’s sake!--I can probably walk and get there in less than half hour.”
“Things have changed, sir ji,” Wali said. “Have you seen Lahore this quiet before?”
He was right. Shadman was quiet as a graveyard. It looked ghostly. Not a single living soul on the street.
“Let’s move Wali--It’s one in the morning,” I said, feeling a lull sweeping over my body. I felt happy to be just sitting down. I wouldn’t mind passing out here. A part of me was curious about the Resistance Movement, and the other part, my survival instinct, vehemently resisted that urge. I leaned back in the seat, letting my inner dogs fight it out between themselves.
We’ll see what happens, I thought, sensing a strange, but pleasant indifference taking over me.
I had begin to understand the basis of Wali’s logic about life. There was indeed no guarantee of anything in life, specially at one in the morning in Lahore, where Wali’s cab, equipped with a pair of martyr-tanks complete with safety switch, could easily be the safest bet in town.
We were on the road, bumpy as if carpet-bombed, gravel hitting the body of the cab like firecrackers going off. Tarzan sat with Wali on the front seat. My limbs felt as if made of lead, the sense of euphoria deepening.
I unscrewed the bottle and drank the rest of it.
The lull now took over my head making me feel happy. I closed my eyes. A flurry of images zoomed passed my mind, like on a movie screen. Their photo-like clarity made me open my eyes in alarm. On the front seat, two heads bobbed up and down, reflecting the condition of the road. I felt remarkably still, as if lying in a bed. Tarzan, sensing my gaze on his back, looked back.
“Is everything okay, Sir?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, closing my eyes again. The images again ran like a movie, clearer and sharper than before. Something was not right. I opened my eyes. “Guys, what kind of drink is this?” I said. “It’s making me see things.”
“Sir ji, with two whole bottles in you, we’re betting how soon you would spot a Hoor,” Wali said, shouting over the firecracker’s noise.
“Spot what!--A Hoor?” I said. “You must be kidding me!”
Waves of numbness had started travelling through my body. I felt elated--my aches going away.
“Sir, that’s why the Boss doesn’t let us drink that stuff,” Tarzan said. “He says: It’s a poor quality stuff--number 2 material.”
“What the hell you guys are talking about?--This is crazy!” I said, wondering what the good quality stuff would be like.
“Sir ji, don’t waste time talking. Just relax, close your eyes and let it go,” Wali said. “It doesn't last that long.”
My body, feeling wrapped in a soft embrace, started to itch a little. All my blood seemed to be rushing towards my loins.
Let’s go with the flow, I thought, closing my eyes. I made a firm decision not to open my eyes this time.
The moment I shut my eyes, I was in my research lab sitting next to Lucy, my pet monkey. She had a helmet on, and a whole bunch of wires coming out of it.
“God Almighty!” I said loudly, quickly opening my eyes, and grabbing my head. “Holy Shit!”
“Sir ji, is she sexy looking?” Wali said. “If you relax they look better and better.”
“I’m seeing Lucy,” I said, closing my eyes again. “Let me try again.”
“Lucy! I knew you were going to see a Christian Hoori,” Wali said. He sounded authoritative on the subject. “It’s the water of the Christians’ Land in your system Sir ji.”
I stayed quiet, keeping my eyes shut. Lucy stared at me with her small round eyes filled with passion. She smiled showing me all her teeth, nodding her head up and down, as if having a good time with the music. And then her face started to melt away, transforming into a woman’s face. Her body, too, began to transform. The helmet stayed. Now I had a young woman with long black hair, big brown eyes, and spotless white skin, in a see-through silk sitting next to me. The helmet looked odd on her head.
“Shit!” I said aloud, opening my eyes. “Don’t tell me this shit is available to the public?” My loins felt engorged, as if all my energy was being concentrated there--the man’s center of gravity.
“Sir ji, now you you know what I’m talking about?” Wali said shaking his head. He surely was having a good time. The car hit a deep pothole. Our heads banged against the roof. “Sorry, sir ji, I didn’t mean to spoil your fun.”
I closed my eyes again, bursting with curiosity and a throbbing erection. I found myself standing in front of a cage stuffed with monkeys. They had just arrived from Brazil, for the advancement of science. In the next instance, they all transformed into white-skinned fairies, all wearing transparent silk. I found myself within the cage. They all swooped on me like vultures with their long pointed nails. I screamed, and opened my eyes.
“Sir ji, this is what I was talking about. Two bottles will make you see things you don’t want to see.”
“How long this shit lasts?” I said, feeling a little panicked.
“Long enough for one time masturbation,” Tarzan said, chipping in for my edification. “Some times you can do it twice, if you’re lucky.”
Wali looked at Tarzan reproachfully. “Don’t talk like that in front of Sir ji--You’ve to show respect--Didn’t anyone teach you manners?”
“What if I keep my eyes open,” I said, ignoring Wali’s awkwardness.
“Then what’s the point of drinking Hoor Afza?” Wali said. “Sir ji, at least make your money worth, close your eyes and just do it--We won’t look back.”
“And what do women see when they drink this stuff,” I said, trying to press my hump down that looked awfully embarrassing through my boxer shorts. I wished I had a tight underwear on.
“Women are not allowed to buy the stuff, Sir ji. No one will sell it to them in one’s right state of mind. They will put you in jail if you do that,” Wali said.
I kept my eyes forcibly open all throughout the rest of the journey. It took us half an hour to get to Shah Jamal--a bone jarring ride over a crater filled road. My mind buzzed with all kinds of questions. But my priority remained how to deflate myself as soon as possible to get out of this painful misery.
Wali braked in front of the Shrine of Baba Shah Jamal. By the time Tarzan opened his door to get out, about a dozen men, dressed in black, indistinguishable from the dark, surrounded our cab.
“Everyone out?” one of them shouted.
“Tarzan, this wasn’t the part of the deal,” I said.
“You are with me,” Tarzan said. “Be calm and walk with me.”
“And when this is supposed to go down,” I said, pointing towards my bulge.
“Once it goes down, it doesn’t get up for a good two to three days,” Wali said, getting off the cab. “That’s why Khalifa ji is having a hard time making money off it.”
We all stood by the cab. I realized how tight my dress had been all along.
The air was filled with howling of cats--perhaps fifty of them. In a chorus, their wailing rose over the smoke filled air like a song of death. Even the mournful ululation of cats refused to ease up my hardness.
We entered the shrine’s premise where people sat in groups--circled around fires. A cloud of smoke hung over their heads, dense and glowing. The aroma of cannabis saturated the air. The cats begun to quieten down. We passed through the circles of men, escorted--my hands, held together in front of my body, covering my bulge. The people smoked from all kinds receptacles, passing them on---reminded me of jungle people of Amazon sharing their drink. None of the them bothered to look at us. They were in another world.
“Where’s Wali, Tarzan,” I said, looking around for Wali.
“He is staying with his cab--He is not going anywhere--He’s paid more than his week worth of income,” Tarzan said, his sac over his shoulder. “Sir, don’t be afraid, they’re now going to blindfold you.” Before he finished his sentence, someone tied a cloth around my head, covering my eyes.
Someone, holding me gently by my arm, made me walk in circles a few times before leading me in one direction. We walked for good five minutes. Then came the steps. We started going down the steps, my shoulders touching the sidewalls. I counted 19 steps. After the steps I was walking again on a flat hard surface, my bulge refusing to deflate. Several turns later, my blindfold was removed.
We stood on a ledge looking down into a courtyard, a little bigger than a basketball court. Lit by concealed lights, it seemed to be hanging in the air. There were no walls around. It looked far yet it felt near. I felt as if watching the whole thing through a 3D glasses. The court had about fifty people, mostly young boys in their teens. They stood, their heads held high, as they watched those walking on three tightropes, their faces strained with concentration; each tightrope stretched from one end of the court to the other.
A man wearing a dhoti walked swiftly among the boys, checking their moves, giving them instructions. His bare torso glistened as if covered in sweat. He wore a headband, his long curly hairs falling over his back, straight as a board. I was not sure if we stood indoor, for I didn’t see the ceilings. I was also not sure if it was outdoor, for there was no moon in the sky.
The man with the headband abruptly turned around and began walking towards us. Two large black cats flanked him, their tales raised. They were big enough to reach the height of his knee. They had appeared from nowhere. They looked like two little jaguars.
“Tarzan, where the hell are we?”
“We’re inside the world of Pir Pull Saraat.”
-------------------------------------------------------------There was something odd about the darkness that surrounded us--something ethereal. It was thin around our heads, becoming gradually denser towards our feet. For example, I could make out my hips better than my knees, and my knees better than my feet.
The place, where we both stood and what I had taken for a ledge, was an overhang, or probably a rooftop, a good twenty feet above the tightrope’s court. The man, with the dhoti, and his cats disappeared from view as they walked in our direction, underneath the overhang. The wire-act continued on all three wires--each fixed to an X-shaped pair of poles placed on either side of the court. The boys, clad in black track-suites, were good in it. One rode a bicycle across. He stood on the pedal with one leg; and halfway down the wire, he crossed his other leg over and pedalled with both feet.
“Where did Pir Pull Saraat go?” I said, looking down on my dress to see how noticeable my painful protuberance was. Shaped like a tilted tent, it wasn’t a pretty sight.
Something has to be done--I can’t walk around like that, I thought.
“Pir has gone to change.” Tarzan replied, placing his sac down on the ground. It disappeared in darkness, as if engulfed by black ink.
“It’s not going down,” Tarzan,” I said, pointing at myself.
“If it’s still up, it’s not going to go down so easily,” he said, scratching his head.
“What do you mean: so easily?” I said, feeling apprehensive.
“I think you got a reaction to Hoor Afza, sir.”
“Reaction!--I’ve been free of allergies all my life.”
“I’ve known people, who ended in hospitals to get their erections fixed,” Tarzan said, looking at me with pity, shaking his head from side to side. “I think you still have time, sir.”
“Time for what?”
“Use you hands--Trust me that’s the only way.”
“You mean right here?” I said, feeling impressed by his bold suggestion.
“I won’t look, I promise.”
“What about Pir Pull Saraat?” I said. “He would be here any minute.”
“He takes his time changing,” Tarzan said. “You’ve about five minutes, perhaps ten. I’ll clear my throat to let you know he’s nearby--Hurry up, sir!”
“Don’t push me now!” I said.
“I’m only trying to help,” he said.
I had no choice but to give his proposal a serious thought. There was no way I could sustain this engorgement any more. It throbbed with pain. After a moment of contemplation I gave in. “Okay fine!--Don’t turn around until I tell you so.”
Taking a couple of steps backward, I turned around, my back now facing Tarzan’s. I peered into the vacant space ahead, straining my eyes to spot a landmark, or something, to orient myself, but no luck.
I lifted up my dress and set to work, feeling dumb as a donkey. Never in my life I had desired an orgasm so bad. I definitely wouldn’t want to end up in a hospital--specially in the emergency room of Khidmat-e-Ummah Hospital. The thought of registering for this particular condition, at the reception desk, with the veiled beauty made my hand move even more frantically.
After a couple of minutes, I had realized that except for sweating and getting myself tired from this stupid manual labor, I wasn’t getting anywhere. Pain intensified.
I berated myself for choosing Wali at the airport as my cab driver. He must be sleeping soundly in his cab, and here I was, feeling like a jerk in the middle of nowhere.
“Tarzan, I don’t think it’s working,” I said, sounding resigned.
“Did you keep your eyes closed?” he said.
“Hell, no,” I said. “What difference does it make; I can’t see a damn thing in this dark anyway.”
“You’ve to close your eyes, sir,” he said.
“Why you didn’t tell me before?” I said, feeling annoyed as hell. “How could you omit a crucial goddamn detail like that?”
“Sir, close your eyes and just do it.”
I shut my eyes reluctantly, and soon I was watching with fascination the blobs of colors, like amoeba teeming in a drop of dirty water, swirling within my head. After a moment or so, they began to coalesce into a close-up of a face--nowhere near as sharp and clear as before, but definitely a living, breathing face, its features coming to focus slowly. The face donned a black headscarf; then it got zoomed out, and a complete figure of a woman started to come into view. Instead of the garment made of see-through silk, the lady wore a thick white robe and an ugly pair of shoes, the kind which old people would wear after a hip replacement surgery. She looked like a nun brooding over her menopause. My hardness began to soften up as soon as the whole figure became clearer.
“I think it’s gonna work,” I said, excitedly.
“Good!--See I told you so,” Tarzan said.
The sister’s headscarf looked too big for her tiny head. I touched her arm gently to get her attention. She slapped my wrist, disgust dripping from her face like sweat after a three-mile jog on a 10-point incline--making my inflation instantly decline a good 3 points. The pain begun to ease up. I felt happy, for at least something was working. I placed my hand softly on her behind--a bold move on my part, a desperate one, for I kind of knew what would come next. She swiveled around like a doll, raising her arm; and before I could duck, she landed her hand on my cheek with such speed and force that it shook me from head to toe. That didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel insulted, for I knew she had no reality of her own. She was a figment of my imagination that I had conjured up under the influence of Hoor Afza, now in its last throes in my body. She was my creation. I could do anything I wanted to with her without having to suffer the pangs of a troubled conscience. She had a pretty heavy pair of hands, though, for my cheek felt numb with pain. The slap had deflated me all the way down, back to normal. It was then, I heard Tarzan clearing his throat behind my back. I froze, opened my eyes, letting my dress fall back down.
“Well, well! If I may have the attention of the gentleman from New York?” A voice, deep and clear, resounded in the air.
I turned around slowly, cursing Tarzan for not alerting me in time.
Pir is going to take me as a typical American expat Pakistani jerk, I thought.
He stood facing Tarzan in a shimmering green robe, flanked by two boys, who looked twins--their eyes flashing in the flames of torches they held in their hands, each mounted on a cane; the tongues of the flames licking away the darkness, and casting a glow on a face that looked as if crafted out of a shiny, red clay. He had a bushy black beard with streaks of white in it. His eyes, like two heat probes, surveyed me from head to toe in one blazing glance. The headband across his forehead, with insignia of Nike, kept his long curly hair away from his face. A pair of white headphones wires came out of his ears and went into the side-pocket of his robe. His lean frame, straight as a board, his chiseled face, made him look like an athlete; he could be anywhere from forty to eighty years old. He reminded me of Marlboro Man without the cowboy hat.
I moved towards him feeling a bit awkward and perplexed.
He extended his hand towards me. “Welcome to our headquarter. I’m Pir Pull Saraat.”
“I’m honored to be here,” I said, hesitantly extending my hand, trying to remember for sure if I had used this hand on the nun or myself. I was struck by the smooth textured skin of his hand. Before I could press his hand, it eased out of my grip like a slippery eel. “Very impressive place!” I said. “Your boys are doing great on the ropes.”
“It’s not a difficult skill to learn,” he said.
“Nothing is difficult when you’re young,” I said.
“Age doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s all in here.” He put his index finger on his temple. “Everything!”
“I know what you mean,” I said. “I study brain.”
“I’m sure theirs work better than humans,” he said.
“Human brain is my next research project,” I said.
“You’ll be disappointed.”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “We are the best of all creations after all.”
“Nonsense!” he said. “Hope you don’t believe in a bullshit of this sort?”
“I would like to, like all humans: that we’re better than cats and dogs and monkeys,” I said.
“Man’s highest achievement is to lift himself up to the level of animals, become noble like the animals you just mentioned--And that too if he is lucky and blessed,” he said.
“I never heard such a thing as a noble monkey,” I said. “Or a noble dog.”
“Just because you didn’t hear it does not make it less true,” he said.
“Their brains are not half as sophisticated as ours,” I said.
“A pack of wolves won’t take it out on another pack of wolves if the other pack happens to have different preference for the type of meat they consume,” he said. “All of man’s sophistication goes towards devising more sophisticated way to harm others, to kill each others. No animal is capable of stooping so low. If they kill, they do that not out of hate, but because of hunger.” He turned abruptly to Tarzan. “Let’s see what you got,” he said, extending his arms towards Tarzan, his palms up. Without saying a word, Tarzan pulled the briefcase from his sac and placed on his hands.
Pir Pull Saraat turned the briefcase around, looking at it from all sides, and then he clicked it open. The boys moved their flames closer to give him more light. Keeping the briefcase open he turned it upside down. The bundles of banknotes fell on the ground next to his feet. The fire of the torches had dissolved the darkness that had settled on the ground. Underneath the robe he wore hiking boots. He tapped the briefcase all over, keeping it next to his ears.
“What happened to the lock?” Pir said, shooting a fiery glance at Tarzan--sniffing the briefcase at the same time.
“I found it like that,” Tarzan said, glancing at me for a brief moment. I kept a straight face. “Probably damaged in the explosion.”
“So there was nothing else in it beside the money” Pir said, ignoring Tarzan’s explanation, as if he knew for sure that Tarzan had tinkered with the lock.
From his sac Tarzan took out a faded brown leather pouch, the kind travellers wore around their necks to keep their documents tucked under their arms. He held the pouch to Pir. “This may be what you’re looking for.”
Pir’s eyes shone on seeing the pouch. He took it from Tarzan, opened it, and started examining its contents: cards, cash and a blue passport. Putting everything back in the pouch, he wore its strap around his neck. “Would you do me a favor?” he said, looking at me. He took the torch from one of the boys and held it out to me. “Take this flame.”
“It depends,” I said, taking the torch from him. “What kind of favor is it?”
“Burn this money,” he said.
“I won’t do it,” I said.
“Because it’s not my money.”
“Then you should be even less interested in safeguarding it,” he said.
“I’m not safeguarding it,” I said. “What if it’s someones life-time savings?” I looked at Tarzan. He gave me an approving nod. Pir stood quietly, his eyebrows raised. He looked to be in a deep thought.
“Why I’m here, if I may ask?” I asked, feeling the heat of the flame on my cheek.
“You’re here because of me?” Pir said.
“And why you are here, if I may ask?” I said.
“I’m her because of you,” he replied.
“And why both of us here?” I said.
“You mean three of us?”
“It’s a great question,” he said. “You’d been spotted roaming around where you didn’t belong.”
“Who spotted me where?” I said.
“We’ll talk about it later.”
“I don’t find a good reason to burn this money,” I said, holding the torch back to him.
“Very well!” he said. He took the torch from me and put the flame down to the pile of banknotes. They caught fire immediately, their flames tall and crimson. No one said a word until the stacks of paper turned into crumpled thin wafers of black ash.
“Only if you knew how much pain and misery had been sticking to this money!” he said, giving me a piercing look. He then turned towards Tarzan. “You’re sure there was nothing else in it?”
At that instance someone called Tarzan’s name from the court below.
“How would I know? I never opened it.” Tarzan said. His confidence was heartening to watch.
“You may go now. Your friends are waiting for you down in the court,” Pir said. “Just remember: I want you to have those two bundles last for one whole year.”
“Which bundles?” Tarzan said. There was not a hint of fearfulness in his voice.
“The ones you have tucked under your dress,” Pir said.
“They’ll last more than a year, if you don’t keep sending me to buy you your Gold Leafs.” Tarzan said, breaking into a run. “This time I’m going to buy you a whole pack.”
“Bastard!” Pir said.
Running away, Tarzan abruptly turned around and looked in my direction. “Sir, Pir will take care of you from here.” With that he dashed away, disappearing in darkness.
Pir looked in his direction and smiled. “My Lieutenant General!”
“Try not to promote him further,” I said.
“Thankfully, I don’t do promotions,” he said.
“He is very talented,” I said.
“Of course, he is. He found you out in all that noise and crowd.” Pir started to walk slowly. The torch- boys moved along with him. I had no choice but to walk with them.
“What do you mean: found me out?”
“He smells things. He knew you’re the kind of person we’ve been looking for.”
“What kind of person you’re looking for?”
“Someone with an American degree.”
“And he could tell just by looking at me that I had an American degree?”
“He senses patterns. For example, what kind of life person has lived over a period of time is embedded in brain in a certain way, in a certain pattern. The pattern is read by some like a bar code. He can’t tell specific detail such as, on what day you’re going to fly back, for example.”
“I wish I had more time,” I said. “This isn’t the place I left twelve years ago.” I realized we’d entered into a room with a domed roof. I didn’t remember entering through any doorway, or spotting a physical structure in the vicinity. Like the inside of a minaret somewhere high-up, the room had openings on all sides, tall and arched, separated by columns of marble. Outside it was dark; you couldn’t see a thing--just black space. The room was shaped like an octagon.
He asked me to sit down on a bench placed against the waist-high wall, the black space behind me. He sat across from me. The boys with the flame assumed their positions.
“He came in the same flight as yours,” Pir said, holding a plastic card to me. “Take a look at this.” One of the boy moved towards me, bringing me the card, and holding the flame over my head.
It was a New York state driving license. I read the name aloud: David Raytheon, looking at the photo of a smiling 28 year old African American man with a trimmed beard. He could easily pass as a Pakistani national.
“Do you know him?” He looked in my eyes, his brows up.
“I have no idea who David Raytheon is,” I said.
“Did you see this man on your flight?” he said.
“Were you with Tarzan when he exploded the briefcase, I mean, to open it.”
“You can say that.”
“Was there anything else in it?”
“Not sure--It was dark,” I said. I had begun to sense that he was after the book with empty pages. “What exactly are you looking for, if I may ask?”
“Something that makes Khalifa powerful.”
“You’re saying something has been smuggled in the country from America?”
“It’s been going one for a long time,” he said.
I heard a rustle over my shoulder. I looked up. My heart jumped when my eyes met a pair of gray eyes with vertical slits, staring at me next to the fire. The boy quickly averted his glance and walked over to Pir Pull Saraat.
“Long time!” I said.
-----------------------------------------------------------Obviously I haven’t paid attention to the boys’ eyes before, I thought.
Now after closely looking at them, I realized both the boys had identical pair of eyes--vertical black lines over gray cornea, like those of a cat’s. It wasn’t their eyes only, there was something odd and spooky about the whole place; not to mention Pir Pull Saraat, for he, for sure, looked out of this world. The place had a feel of a balcony, or a gondola, perched on top of a tower with 360 degree views--except there were no views, just dark space all round. Enclosed within a waist-high opaque railing that wrapped seven of its eight sides and lit by the blaze like a lighthouse, the octagonal gondola seemed floating over a lake in a moonless night. I peered outside to locate the tight-rope court--which shouldn’t be too far from here--but I didn’t see anything. From time to time my body felt a sense of motion, so imperceptible that it could be disregarded as my whim. At one time I felt as if I was aboard a spaceship.
The whole thing could be just my imagination, a thought crossed my mind. I closed my eyes and in a few seconds I was transported into a body that was getting off the cab, Wali walking by my side, cats wailing overhead. We were entering Shah Jamal and passing through the ground where people sat in circles. The closed-eyes reality felt more real than the one I was witnessing in the company of Pir Pull Saraat.
I opened my eyes and thought that something had transpired at around the time when they’d removed my blindfold after walking me for good five minutes and then taking me down a narrow staircase--nineteen steps. May be the cloth had been soaked in some kind of hallucinogenic drug, the way the assassins used to do in 12th century on the orders of Hasan Bin Sabah who ruled from his seat at the castle of Alamut, located within the Alburz mountains in the north of Tehran.
“My informants probably screwed it up--It’s hard to believe; for they’re usually pretty accurate,” Pir was saying. He had a cigarette tucked in his fingers. “Would you like to smoke?”
“No thank you,” I said, feeling a powerful urge to take a puff. I had quit smoking a month ago.
“Has any of your monkeys ever developed a long term habit that led to sickness and death?” Putting the cigarette between his lips, Pir leaned over towards the flame. The boy swung the torch closer to him. He puffed on his cigarette.
I stayed quiet, and looked at my watch. It was quarter to two in the morning. My body screamed for rest. My thoughts felt jammed due to fatigue.
“You seem in a hurry,” Pir said, exhaling smoke from his mouth, and looking at me attentively.
“I was supposed to be home meeting my father hours ago,” I said.
At this hour of the night, it would be foolish to disturb my ailing father, I thought.
“You come all the way to see your father--What a dutiful son!” he said, taking his headphones off.
“Haven’t seen him in ages,” I said.
“Tea should be here any minute now,” Pir said, turning the headphone wire into a loop and stuffing it in his pocket, his cigarette in his mouth, his eyes strained as smoke wafted up. “It’s a special tea. It’ll drive your sleep away and make you feel fresh.”
“It’s the jet-lag. A sleepless night or two, otherwise, has never been a big deal for me,” I said, straightening my tired back.
The last thing I wanted to do was to drive my sleep away. I knew I was prone to many forms of mind manipulation techniques thanks to my fatigue and lack of sleep. In Peru, the shamaans used to deprive themselves of sleep and food for days before ingesting their concoctions in their ceremonies, before encountering the World of Spirits. They’d take that deprivation as a way to purify the body and soul.
“You didn’t have to get me anything, I’ll be fine with a little rest--I think, shortly, I should be heading off to Faisal Town.” I mulled over the idea whether to let him know about the book that likely had been in the briefcase along with the money. I forced my imagination to connect the book comprising 250 blank pages, supposedly smuggled in the country from the US, to the power of the Khalifa, but couldn’t come up with any connection between these two entities--not even remotely. May be the book had been there in the toilet from before, and had nothing to do with what Pir was after.
“We don’t ever let the guest leave without having them properly served,” Pir said, puffing on the cigarette.
“Seriously, I’m fine. I’m not a great fan of tea, specially at two in the morning,” I said, getting up from my seat. “I definitely plan to visit Shah Jamal again. I’m here till Sunday.” I tried to remember what day it was: I took off from New York Monday evening--that much I knew, but after that it all looked muddled. “Is today Wednesday?”
“We use different ways to locate ourselves in time at Shah Jamal,” Pir said. He took a puff, a long one, and flicked the cigarette-butt out in the dark. A scream ensued from outside, as if the butt had landed on someone’s head. It was followed by a shout. “What happened to the ashtray I brought you just yesterday?” It was a raspy voice, as if coming out from a throat ravaged by smoking.
Shaking his head from side to side disbelievingly, Pir sprang up to his feet, and dashed towards the railing. Bending over the railing, he peered into the dark, moving from side to side as if trying locate the man outside. “Chacha we were just talking about you. I hope the tea is still hot,” he said it aloud. “It’s time you put a headlamp on your bicycle.”
“Headlamp! What for?--My eyes can still see perfectly well in the dark,” the raspy voice said. “For miles!”
“I know your eyes are good, Chacha, but get the damn headlamp not for yourself, but for the people, so they could see in advance.”
“I would have landed in hell,” the man said. “Your cigarette found my lap while I was still on the wire.”
A second later, a bicycle emerged from the dark and entered the room through its only opening. The rider, Chacha, wore a huge, white turban on his head and a shalwar-kameez--the extinct dress of Pakistan. He got off the bike and gave Pir a quick hand wave. He was barely five feet tall, thin as a leaf, hunched and looked almost a hundred year old--his face covered with a net of wrinkles. He took off a stainless steel thermos, hanging from a strap, from his shoulder and handed it Pir. He then took out a couple of cups of white china from the carrying-basket that hung from the handle of the bicycle. A burlap sac, just like the one Tarzan had carried, was loaded onto the rear carrier of the bike. He turned around, looked at me, and smiled. He had one long tooth remaining in his gumless mouth, and it stood out from his lower jaw like a shark’s fin. It was his eyes, bright as stars, that defied his, otherwise, decrepit look. He extended his hand to me, his fingers twisted and knotty from decades of wear and tear. I stepped forward and shook his hand. It felt as slippery and smooth as that of Pir. “Welcome! Welcome!” he said.
“Thank you!” I said, feeling utterly confused and disoriented. Again I was hit by the sense of motion accompanied by a feeling a de ja vu. The whole thing looked unreal--not of this world.
There was no way to escape now from this gondola. I knew I had to drink the damn tea which Chacha had brought at two in the morning. Doing otherwise would be rude, I thought. I struggled to keep my senses awake and engaged in mindfulness.
“We have guest from America.” Pir said, pouring tea in a cup. Steam rose from the cup telling me that it was still hot. “Chacha, no biscuits tonight?”
“How can I forget biscuits,” Chacha said, putting his hand in the basket again, and taking out a purple packet. “I knew you’re going to ask me about biscuits.” He looked towards Pir, peeling the wrapper off. “The boy at the stall told me to remind you that you owe him---”
“Okay, okay--Let’s not talk about my debt here,” Pir said cutting Chacha off.
I began to feel that these character were perhaps pulling a joke on me. Again a sense of motion under my feet made my body feel disoriented.
Chacha opened the pack from one end, and held it out to me. “Guest comes first.”
“Thank you Chacha. I really appreciate you bringing tea and biscuits at this time of the night,” I said, taking the packet from him. “It’s just great.” I felt I was listening to my own voice for the first time.
I glanced at the label; it read: Barkat Biscuits. Underneath the label it read: Made with 100% organic milk and honey, crafted by delicate hands of selected maidens in the everlasting gardens of Paradise. It had a picture of a beautiful maiden wearing a transparent dress--her hair purple and curly, her skin shiny as gold, her brows arched and her eyes innocent as of a new born child. The lovely figure lounged in the lap of a middle-aged man with a stylish white beard; he held a tasbih with purple beads in one hand, and his other hand rested on her waist, an ear to ear smile on his face betraying his inner joy. Under the picture it read: Premium Paradise Products for the Pious and Playful Souls.
Taking a biscuit out of the pack, I turned it around and sniffed it. It smelled of coconut and cardamoms. I took a bite; it sure tasted like made of milk and honey with a base of dates and almonds.
“Chacha it’s very good,” I said. One of the boys came over to me to give me my cup of tea and stood by my side. I didn’t dare look in his eyes. I had too much in my plate already to worry about his eyes.
Chacha abruptly turned around and started untying the sac from the rear end of his bicycle. Holding the sac upside down he let its contents fall on the floor.
The sip of tea that I’d taken went flying out of my mouth, along with pieces of biscuit, when I saw what came out of the sac. Over the floor, lit by the crimson yellow blaze of the torches, were scattered all sorts of dismembered body parts: a leg severed from mid thigh, a shoulder still attached to an arm by a bundle of white nerves, the arm itself cut below the elbow, a human face severed at the neck blackened by soot and a bushy beard, an eviscerated belly--its organs missing, a chest with mangled ribs, a hand with ring of ruby on the middle finger, the other hand’s fingers missing, and several pieces of flesh and bones that only a butcher could identify with certainty. The exhibition was devoid of fresh blood, for the blood had clotted, forming crusts over the exposed surfaces.
Feeling sick as a dog, I closed my eyes, and started breathing deep and slow--a practice I’d learned when I was a child, to prevent fainting due to hyperventilation. I was again transported out of here back to the cab, sitting next to Tarzan as he held the smoke bomb in his hand. I could stop his action now if I wanted to, but I didn’t. He lobbed the bomb into the cabin of truck. I opened my eyes.
Whoever is doing this to me is somebody very very sophisticated in the art of mind manipulation, I thought--way ahead of shamaans of Peru. I opened my eyes.
“Chacha, there’s no harm in being a little more sensitive in front of the visitors,” Pir voice rose in costernation.
“At my age, one doesn’t waste time on superficial formalities,” Chacha retorted. “Our guest is a grown man--he could take this--this is after all reality.”
“There’s a thing called being delicate and subtle,” Pir pressed on. “You drive people away with your uncouthness.”
“Delicate and subtle! They’re fed up over there being delicate and subtle. They want immediate action; they want military action,” Chacha roared.
Chacha suddenly squatted on the floor, stuffing the body-parts back in the sac, his facial wrinkles deeper than ever. My mind, frozen with shock, had lost its only ability, that is, to think. I looked around in daze. Everyone looked collected, a little pensive, but cool nonetheless. The boys remained stationed unmoved like British Royal Guards.
“How can people get psyched about things when they have an eternity to live,” Pir thundered. “What happened to the time-honored virtue: Patience!”
“You were sent to put to an end to this madness--They’re not going to wait anymore,” Chacha said, putting a piece of of what looked like a sliced hairy buttock of a man back in the sac. “There were many before you who tried but failed.”
“I’m close to getting at the bottom of this,” Pir said. “You should tell them!”
“Tell them what?--They don’t believe me anymore,” Chacha said. “They think I’m merely your mouthpiece.”
“Is my father part of the gang making this commotion over there?” Pir said. He sounded as if he was on the edge. His eyes gleamed with heat, his lips pressed tight, his face crimson reflecting the glow of fire.
A pause followed; the whisperings of the flames was the only sound in this intense and disturbing silence.
“I heard from a reliable source, they’re thinking of dispatching someone else,” Chacha broke the silence.
I tried making sense, as best as I could, of what these two men had been talking about. But the more they would talk the more confused I’d become.
Another long pause ensued. Pir’s face looked immersed in thought, as he rubbed his lower lip repeatedly with his thumb and index finger. “It’s going to be either me or no one--I’m the last one.”
“Your father was the one who was most vocal,” Chacha said, as if breaking a significant news. “He wanted you back so another one could be sent.”
Pir face grew dark, his eyes more fiery on listening to what Chahcha had just said.
“I thought I’d nailed it tonight,” Pir said, punching his fist in the palm of his other hand. He gritted his teeth. “Goddamn Tarzan!--He blew it?”
“Don’t blame Tarzan now,” Chacha said.
“Tarzan blew it to get his commission,” I said, in an attempt to keep myself oriented and stay relevant. I was also a little surprised that these words came out of my mouth without having any deliberate intention on my part.
“Ah! I got to get hold of Tarzan,” Chacha said, his eyes glimmering with hope, as he looked at Pir. “The boy at the Bihishti Tea Corner has to be paid tonight. First thing first, we should pay off our debts.”
“I thought they didn’t accept Dirhams over at the other end,” Pir said.
“They have started to do that,” Chacha said. “The exchange rate is not the greatest.” He stared at me, raising his hands, his brows up, as if asking me: What’s up with you man? I realized that my mouth had been open for a long time; the cup of tea held in my hand had stopped giving steam.
“Wait a minute,” I said, gathering myself. “Would someone explain what the hell is going on here.”
“You should ask what’s going on over there?” Chacha answered me.
“Over where?” I asked.
“On the other side of the abyss,” Pir replied
“At the bottom of which flows red lava--the liquid fire of hell,” Pir said.
“Did Chacha bring this tea from over there?” I asked, feeling a wave of excitement going through my spine. Perhaps it was the effect of the tea. It might be Barkat Biscuits, I wasn’t sure, but something had started to invigorate me.
“He crosses it over on his bike,” Pir said. “Almost everyday to bring supplies--He’s a old man; he can’t walk that far.”
“What do you have to do to learn to cross over?” I asked.
“By trading, by giving up.”
“Giving up what.” I asked.
“What if say: I want the proof to see what you are saying is indeed true?” I said.
“Proof that there is another side that exists over on the other side of the abyss?” he said, a faint smile breaking on his face. “Is that what you’re asking?”
“You may request Chacha to see if he is willing to give you a ride across, so you could see with your own eyes.”
“What’s the alternative?”
“There’s none.” Pir said. “You’re not ready to give up.”
I looked at Chacha. He had packed his sac back on the carrier of his bike. He was listening to our conversation. He turned around and looked at me. “I can sure take you if you are willing to carry this sac across in your lap. You are too big to sit on the bar in front of me. And I give no guarantees that you won’t fall. It’s a tough ride.”
“Who are these boys?” I asked. A question that had been bothering me for quite sometimes now.
“They are beings of fire,” Pir said.
“Oh, so they are jinns.” I said. “I should have known.”
“Are you a jinn?” I asked Pir pointedly.
“No, I am a mix,” he said.
“And Chacha?” I asked.
“You should ask him that question,” Pir said.
“And Tarzan?” I said.
“He is human. We found him as a baby lying on a footpath on mall road in front of the Governor’s House, crying. He’s a human raised by jinns.”
“I had no idea jinns would like Tarzan story that much,” I said.
---------------------------------------------------------------The tea was delicious. It was perhaps the milk that gave it such a smooth and creamy taste. Honey had been used to sweeten it up--enough but not too much.
“Wait a minute!--You said, you’re a mix,” I said, gulping the last bit of tea from the cup, my eyes focused on Pir. “What’s a mix?”
Pir looked away and watched Chacha instead, as he loaded the sac on the back of his bicycle. He cleared his throat to get Chacha’s attention. “Chacha, I thought you would take our guest across for a ride, to show him the Other Side.”
“I changed my mind. I don’t want to spend my remaining days feeling guilty,” Chacha said, as he looped the rope around the sac, fastening it to the carrier.
“Guilty for what, Chacha?” I said, feeling disappointed. I wanted to see the abyss with my own eyes to believe it.
Chacha turned around and looked at Pir. “Why don’t you tell your boys to throw Sam Babu down the ditch if getting rid of him is what you want?”
“Chacha, Babu has been there,” Pir said.
“He’s been there!” How?” Chacha said, squeezing his brows and staring at me. “Sam Babu, when did you visit the Other Side, and with whom?”
“Chacha, he wouldn’t know; you’ve to take my words for it,” Pir said.
I had no idea what the hell they were talking about. I decided not to interrupt.
“Has he ever walked on the rope?” Chacha said, looking at Pir and then at me, his hands on his hips.
“Would you guys explain what this Other Side is all about?” I said, raising my hand.
Pir scratched his temple for a moment, and then collecting himself he looked straight in my eyes. “Humans live simultaneously in two places, in two different times,” he said. “Their lives on earth are a reflection of their lives they live over at the Other Side,” Pir said.
“So far so good! So does this mean I, who, at this minute, is talking to you, will meet my other I, if I visit the Other Side?” I asked.
“Not necessarily,” Pir said.
“What if over there you’re getting dipped in a bowel of piss, or getting rinsed in the pit of pus, or getting whipped and skinned for the hundredth time, or chained and left to rot in a dark dungeon?” Pir said, sounding like an expert. “But in the Gardens it’s another matter; there you may meet people you’ve known in your life. You may not be able to recognize them, because everyone looks youthful and beautiful.”
The tea from the Bihishti Tea Corner had charged me with a new energy. I felt wide awake--refreshed as if I’d taken a restful nap. I wondered if the tea, too, had been laced with some potent stimulant. My curiosity had skyrocketed after listening to Pir’s introduction of the Other Side. My mind reeled with the implication of what Pir had said.
“Chacha, do you think you can take me along?” I said. “And bring me back safely?”
Chacha turned around to face me, his hands still on his hips. His starry eyes gazed me from head to toe. “What if you won’t want to come back?” he said. “What if it turns out to be a one way trip?”
“There’s no guarantee of anything in life, Chacha” I said, blurting out the timeless teaching that I’d absorbed from Wali.
“Very good! Sam Babu.” Chacha said, nodding his head in approval. “Very good! You have been taught well.”
Pir got up from his seat. Walking noiselessly in his heavy-duty hiking boots, he came over to where I stood, his robe a shimmering green. The boys followed flanking him. “I want you to listen to me very carefully, Brother,” he said, his piercing eyes, reflecting the dance of flames, locked mine. He put his hand in his pocket and took out a medicine bottle. He poured the contents onto his palm. Three capsules glistened in the glow of fire. One was red, one yellow, and one green.
“What’s this for?” I said, feeling alarmed at this new experiment Pir seemed to be planning to run on me. I wondered what my monkeys would have felt when I’d drug them and hook their helmets to a variety of sounds, recording their brain waves and behavior in minute details. I remembered how just this past week my experiment, the one I had been conducting in my neuroscience lab, had got out of hand. After having a dozen monkeys administered a drug called MDMA, also known as ecstasy on the street, I divided them in two groups--six in each groups. I subjected one group to the handpicked sounds culled from the three Abrahamic traditions, and to the other sounds from the oriental and Buddhist traditions. I left the premise of the lab to grab a cup of coffee. Halfway down the hallway towards the cafeteria, the alarms started going off in the lab. I rushed back to the lab, and found the monkeys, of the former group, screaming, shoving, biting and kicking each other as if they were mortal enemies. Blood was all over the cage. I had to call the security to calm things down. To my astonishment the monkeys in the second group had formed a circle, their hands on each other’s shoulders as they swayed their bodies, their eyes closed. They looked to be in heaven.
“You’re not listening,” Pir was saying, as he touched my shoulder, bringing me back from my recall. “I want you to pay attention. You have to choose one out of the three, according to how you feel towards them, and then put it in your mouth. The Other Side will treat you according to the choice you make now.”
“Is it possible to just go without taking any of this?” I said, looking at the capsules; they reminded me of a traffic light, disassembled.
“Of course it’s possible. In that case you’re looking at an eight hours a day training on the tightropes for one year, to get the lightness you need.”
“But I’m not tight-roping. I’m going with Chacha,” I said.
“You are way too heavy--I’m not talking about weight as you know it--to cross over even sitting behind Chacha. What if you have to come back alone?” Pir said. “These capsules are designed to make it possible for the novice to cross in case of emergency.”
“Who designs them?” I said, thinking who gave him the idea that I was a novice.
“The master chemist. She’ll make sure you bump into her. She is always looking for educated men like you to assist her in her work.”
“What’s her name?”
That’s a weird name, I thought, as I stared at those oblong capsules and tried to make up my mind. My energy and enthusiasms were touching new highs. The green capsule emanated tameness and docility. Too flat for my new-found exuberance. I felt irresistibly enticed by the bold red. What if I couldn’t handle the aftermath. My palms felt moist. I picked up the red and brought it next to my eyes. It felt warm and alive. I noticed a faint tremor in my fingers. Dropping it back on the Pir’s palm, I picked up the yellow and put it in my mouth without giving it a second thought. It dissolved on my tongue within a few seconds, leaving a peculiar aftertaste in my mouth. It reminded me of the taste of water from the Wali’s bottle. Pir poured tea in my cup and took a sigh, as if he had been holding his breath watching me select my fate. I washed down the aftertaste with the sip of warm tea.
Chacha started unfastening the sac to make room for me on the carrier. “Sam Babu, now there’s no turning back--You have to make the trip.”
“Don’t worry Chacha, I’m not backing out,” I said, taking a deep breath and feeling charged with a vibratory sensation that coursed through my body as if I was a tuning fork. I felt light as air. My chest felt like a goblet filled with champagne.
“May I have your watch?” Pir said, holding out his hand.
“It’s only going to complicate things for you,” he said.
“Fine! I don’t care.” I took off my five dollar digital Timex and handed it to Pir. “You may want to give it to one of your jinn buddies.” It took a peek at the time. It was 2:22 am.
Chacha had taken the sac off his bike’s carrier. I picked it up. It felt light as a feather. I tried to recall, without success, when was the last time I’d sat on the rear carrier of a bicycle.
Outside the darkness had began to thin out, as if in the early hour of dawn. It seemed morphing into a cloud lit by a crimson glow emanating from below. Chacha walked the bike to the edge of the platform, to the only opening in the railing. I followed him and peered down into the space before us, which had begun to show itself through the residual darkness.
Like a bird in a nosedive my eyes kept plunging down into a vast depth that had opened up in front of us. My heart felt as if wanting to come out of my chest, when upon reaching the bottom my sight skidded over a river of scintillating red and crimson, the lava, that crawled at the bottom like a snake breathing fire and smoke. It was a monster of a canyon--its other rim shrouded in a misty darkness.
My heart felt another jolt when my eyes fell on a cable that stretched from the edge of our platform, sagging into the space before us due to its weight, and disappearing into the darkness below. My cheeks felt flushed from the heat that rose from the bottom of the abyss.
“Wait a minute!” I said, taking a step back. “I’m not going.”
“What happened?” Pir’s voice carried a hint of mockery.
“I don’t think I’m interested anymore,” I said, dropping the sac on the floor. “It’s not real anyway.”
“It’s as real as it can get,” Pir said.
“I don’t care if it’s real or not,” I said, feeling the same sense of motion I’d been experiencing, from time to time, since I’d got here.
“What you’re witnessing is but a small portion of Hell. There exists Paradise on the other end; it’s as real as the river of fire flowing down there,” Pir said, his eyes peering into the abyss. “Paradise is the goal of every living soul, and here you are: getting a free ride but doesn’t have the heart to step up to the plate.”
“I’m afraid of heights,” I said, feeling vulnerable and embarrassed. “You could fly a jumbo jet in this abyss as far as I’m concerned.”
“A typical human!” Pir said.
I remained silent. My mind empty like space ahead. The boys stood motionless on each side of Pir Pull Saraat. The whoosh of the flames was the only sound that filled the awkward silence. Chacha, too, looked disappointed.
“Why should I be wanting to know more when I can’t make sense of any of what I’ve been put through so far?” I said.
“Life is about being comfortable with uncertainty. That’s what we’re talking about,” Pir said. His eyes looked fierce, and without any mercy. “Very few are capable of real existence.” He sounded so much like Wali, but on a different level.
Being comfortable with uncertainty! What’s the difference between the teachings of Pir and Khalifa? I thought.
“My existence is as real to me as the Paradise to you on the Other Side,” I said, watching the flames from the torches as they licked the space around them.
“People spend a lifetime getting to where you stand now,” Pir said.
“So whatever I’ve been doing in my life, apparently, worked well,” I said. I had begun to sense that opting out could put me into an even more difficult situation.
Chacha put the bike on the stand and stood next to me, holding my arm. “I’ve been doing this all my life--Nothing to worry about,” he whispered in my ear.
“Chacha when was the last time you took a passenger across?” I asked.
“Never,” Chacha said.
“You humans are sissies; that’s half the reason you suffer,” Pir said. He pressed his lips tight, shaking his head from side to side.
“Isn’t suffering good? It teaches you valuable lessons,” I said. I wanted to buy more time to calm myself down. My heartbeat had started to slow down.
“Yeah, yeah, valuable lessons! Only man is stupid enough to gloat about his suffering. Suffering is exactly what it is: suffering--that is, you must feel miserable when you suffer,’ Pir said, his eyes glaring. His face had got red as if being glazed in fire. He radiated dislike for humans. Once again, I felt curios to know his background. What kind of mix he could possibly be?
“Let’s go, Sam Babu,” Chacha said, tugging on my arm. I took a deep breath, locking my eyes with Pir’s. We both looked at each other without blinking. His rage filled gaze hit me like a blow between my eyes, but it didn’t seem directed at me personally. He just looked mad at the human lot.
“Don’t you want to meet your father?” Pir said, keeping his eyes locked into mine, his face breaking into a mischievous smile. There was something in that smile that made me feel disoriented. For a moment or two I felt hovering around the platform, out of my body. And as I sunk back in my body, it came to me like a flash.
Let’s talk!” I said. “I’m not one of your juvenile jinns that you can push around to your heart’s jolliness. I’m a human, the best, the worst, and the craziest of all beings. If you let me in on what’s really going on here we may be partners. I think it’s time you get straight with me. First thing first: Where am I?”
“You’re in Shah Jamal,” Pir said, taking a step back. He looked rattled with my blast.
“Am I Dreaming?” I stepped forward towards him.
“We don’t call it dreaming,” he said, holding his grounds.
“What do you call it?” I stared into his eyes without blinking.
“The Journey of Soul.”
“Where is my Body at this moment, if you don’t mind me asking about my personal belongings?” I said.
“Your cloak of dust is resting on a mattress in the underground bunker of Shah Jamal. It’s in safe hands--unless you screw up on the Other Side.”
“And why out of all the places I’m in Shah Jamal at this time of the night?”
“Destiny,” he said.
“Why are you’re so interested in sending me across?” I said, feeling like a reluctant avatar on a mission to an obscure world.
“Weren’t you yourself always curious to know?” he said.
He was partly right. He had played upon my curiosity. But he was also being evasive. I didn’t say anything. My mind buzzed with unformulated questions. Had this all been planned even before my plane touched down the runway of Lahore airport? Then there was that book with blank pages resting in the empty cistern of a broken toilet of a hospital. I felt under no obligation to offer that information to Pir, since he had not offered very little. Why should I be so generous to him, when he’d been anything but straightforward with me?; plus keeping it a secret, known only to myself, imparted me with a sense of control that I had desperately needed. I could only hope that my body, the cloak of dust as Pir had called it, was tucked in someplace safe, from where I could later collect it. For the moment I couldn’t imagine any possibly way to wiggle myself out of the chain of events that had brought me to this moment. I had no choice but to go with the flow.
“You wouldn’t be here if you’d not been ingesting all those concoctions in the company of jungle people years ago. They knew how to live with uncertainty. How come they didn’t teach you this?” Pir was saying. “Once you enter the Spirit World, you leave a permanent mark. Did they tell you that? The Spirit World remembers your tracks even if you have forgotten once you trekked here.”
His little explanation left me speechless. Reflexively, I picked up the sac and looked at Chacha. “Let’s go Chacha!” Chacha straightened the bike. I sat on the rear carrier, the sac in my lap. There was a smile on Pir’s face.
“I don’t want my body to become a bloody feast for mosquitoes and bedbugs in the underground bunker of Shah Jamal,” I said to him.
“There’s no guarantee of anything in life,” he replied.
As Chacha zoomed down the wire like a bullet, I heard Pir’s shout at my back.
I didn’t hear him clearly. I thought he said: “Say hello to my father!”
Squeezing my eyes shut tight I held my breath, as we rocketed down on the cable for hundreds of feet, almost in a free-fall, into the canyon. Once we leveled off, still going at a hundred miles an hour, I opened my eyes, and let my breath out. The river of fire still looked far down, way beyond my two feet, as if it, too, had been sinking further down, with us. Clouds of smoke whirled up from the bubbling red monster making the air hot and humid, and laden with the fumes of sulphur. Chacha began to pedal, humming a tune of a pre-Partition song--his cycle glued to the cable. A distinct buoyancy supported our weight in this airless ether-filled space. The sac in my lap felt weightless. My fear began to abate like the darkness around, which had begun to get sucked away by a milky mist rising from below, the breath of the red devil. The rustic walls of the canyon began to slowly come into view. Rising steeply from the bottom they towered far above us into oblivion. Essentially, we were suspended like dots deep in a vast Hell. Spires of rock rose from the middle of gushing lava here and there; a few reaching high enough to the level of the cable.
“Chacha, is this the route you took to bring us the tea?” I said, spotting a black bird as big as a four-seater Cessna, a hundred feet in front of me, diving towards the bottom.
“No Sam Babu, this is a long way. There are many short cuts. It all depends what choice you made and at what cable your platform got hooked into, in response to your decision you made for other things. The cable selected in your case was a short way across. I thought I’ll give Sam Babu a little tour. So I took a little detour. Are you in hurry? Chacha said, turning his head around, as a gust of wind, hot as hell, shook us. It was followed by another gust, stronger this time. Chacha cowered down on the handle. “I think we’ve to stop--the winds here can easily blow you off.”
“Stop! Where?” I said, my heart began to race again, as I watched in amazement the gigantic bird surging up from the bottom of the abyss, flapping its enormous red-tipped black wings, with an effortless ease.
“At the rest-stop,” Chacha said, pedalling fast.
“How far is the rest-stop of yours?” I said, feeling lost than ever looking at the bird rising into the space before me. “Do they serve tea there?” I said. The bird turned around and began homing on us. It came overhead, and steadying itself feet away, it turned its head. His owl like face had a horn like beak jutting out of its head. It’s pointed end dripped blood and pieces of flesh. The bird checked us out with its roving eyes, sharp as laser tips. “Chacha, are you seeing on your left what I’m seeing?” I said.
“Here we go! The rest-stop,” Chacha said, as if he didn’t hear me. The bike stopped moving. “We are at the rest-stop,” Chacha announced again, making sure I got it, so I may get off the bike. There was ground underneath my feet. We were parked on a flat top of a rock spire, a mesa, rough-edged, round and not more than ten or fifteen feet in diameter. The railing on its perimeter reminded me of the gondola of Pir Pull Saraat--looked like a distant memory from another time. I remembered its motions from time to time. Perhaps it was trying to get hooked into the right cable for me, the one I needed.
The bird circled around at the level of our shoulders, its wing stretched out and still, its head turned sideways watching two of us intently. I got off slowly holding the bike, making sure there was indeed ground under my feet. Cacha had already started walking on the slab of rock, towards the railing, keeping an eye on the bird.
My heart skipped when the bird emitted a shrill cry, folded its wings, and dived into the abyss. I quickly walked over to the railing to catch it in action. I saw it zooming down in an arc, across the river, towards a rocky ledge stuck out from the walls of the canyon. Smoke obscured the ledge from time to time, as it swirled in madness over a domed rock.
“Sam Babu, good View Point!”
I realized he was standing next to a rusted, long pipe, fixed to a pole of the railing. “What’s this Chacha?” I said, touching the pipe. It was hot to touch, but not too hot.
“Doorbeen.” he said.
The viewpoint, perched atop a tower of granite, rose straight up from the bottom of Grand Canyon of Hell, reaching a dizzying height. It looked no more than a needle in that vast space. Seemingly held in place by the cable, a thread in the eye of the needle, it boasted some real hellish 360 degree views.
The metal tube, which Chacha had called doorbeen, had the word, Galileo, engraved on it, next to the eyepiece.
Galileo had Heaven in mind when he invented this instrument, I thought.
“Who would put a doorbeen on a viewpoint in Hell? I asked.
“It’s been there since Hell came into being, they say,” Chacha said. He was peering into the canyon, his gaze following the flight of the bird.
“Chacha, doorbeen was invented just a few centuries ago,” I said. “And Hell--”
“Unlike the earth, where things have to happen one after the other because of Time, this place has no such limitation,” Chacha said, cutting me off.
Directing the optical tube towards the bottom of the canyon, I looked through the eyepiece. Bubbles formed on the surface of flowing lava. They’d float for a while before exploding, releasing a jet of steam and debris, like a geyser spouting from the snout of a whale. I slowly moved across the bottom, trying to find the rock outcropping, remembering that the bird had flown in that direction. Once I found the spot, I scanned the area around to look for the bird, but what I saw instead sent a chill up my spine. There was a man down there, standing on his two feet.
He was tall and muscular, like a Greek statue; his skin the color of aged copper. It glistened with sweat. His face red as the rocks around. He was tied, his hands over his head, his feet bound together. A dark liquid oozed from a hole over his right ribcage. And there it was, the bird, perched next to him. It was big, as if a dozen vultures put in one. The man’s head was slumped, as if he was looking down at the bird. And then the bird thrust its enormous beak into the hole on his right side, shaking and twisting its head as if trying to tear apart the man’s entrails. The man looked up, his face a mask of agony, and for a moment I thought his eyes, like dots of white marble, stared at me, as if he knew he was being watched. He opened his mouth and let out a scream--the bird busy boring deeper into his body with its beak. He was too far for me to hear his scream. I broke out in sweat, my body shaking. I kept my brow glued to the eyepiece to still my head. The bird took its beak out of his body. A piece of flesh hung from its beak. The man’s head fell back over his chest. Swallowing the piece of flesh the bird became airborne. Flapping its wings, it rose in the air, disappearing from my vision.
Wiping sweat from my forehead, I straightened myself, and looked for Chacha. He wasn’t on my side. My heart skipped at the thought of being lonely at this place. I turned around in panic and found him standing next to the bike. He held the sac in his hands. The bird soared upward across the canyon towards us with an incredible speed.
“Chacha, what’s going on down there?” I said, looking at Chacha, my hand pointing down towards the bottom.
“Time for bird-feeding,” Chacha said aloud. His smile as toothless as ever.
“What!?” I said. A rustle overhead made me look up. I held my breath as I watched the angel of Hell feet above over our heads.
Chacha rushed to the far end of the viewpoint, and hurriedly emptied the sac on the rocky slab. He then sprinted away, looking up, and joined me. We both stood in silence watching the big black bird land its bulk next to the body parts scattered over the rock. It walked a few steps like a penguin, getting closer to its feed, its wings spread apart. Its beak had teeth, hundreds of tiny pyramids stained in red. It’s eyes like bowls filled with crimson coal. It looked like a cross between a dinosaur and an owl, its ivory beak like the horn of a unicorn.
“Let’s go!” Chacha pulled my arm, his voice carried urgency.
A wind gust lifted a piece of paper from over the remains of the corpse and had it landed next to us. I picked it up. It was a Certificate of Shahadat; its bottom part burned. It read: Mujahid Fida Muhammad, resident of Farid Kot, embraced Shahada making Jihad for the glory of Islam, and entered Paradise on.... The part with the place and the date of his death had been burned. I threw the paper in the scalding wind; it carried it down towards the bottom of Hell.
Chacha had the bike ready. I sat, sideways, on the carrier, my eyes glued to the bird, its beak clasped around the beard of the severed head. The bird lifted the head off the ground, upside-down, and swung it like a pendulum, swaying its head from side to side, gaining momentum with each swing--beard clutched in the beak. And then with a sudden motion it thrashed the head against the rock, its beak holding onto the beard. It lifted the head again, and brought it hammering down on the rock again, and again, and again, and then the skull cracked, oozing a white goo. With ravenous eyes the bird pecked on the emulsified brain of the victim, its beak inside the skull like a straw in a coconut.
“It loves brain,” Chacha said, as he put his bike on the cable.
I closed my eyes and wished this trip to be over.
We rode and we rode. And the lava flowed. Chacha remained quiet--he didn’t even hum. Like an infant subjected to sensory overload, I struggled with sleep, my head kept hitting my chest. I grabbed onto Chacha’s waist, and put my head on his hunched back. I had no idea how long we rode--felt like an eternity.
“Time to wake up. We’ve crossed Hell. Time for tea,” I heard him say. I opened my eyes and found ourselves parked on a patch of grass, next to a tent, its faded green cloth patched at various places. Pitched on a flat ridge it overlooked a lush valley on one end, and at the other the canyon of Hell, which, apparently, we’d just crossed while I had been sleeping. A couple of wooden benches were placed at the entrance of the tent, a table in between. I got off the bike yawning. I stretched my back and shoulders.
The air was crisp, smelled of roses and filled with light, cool and palpable--you could breath its luminescence. Down there in the valley, a rolling green pasture stretched before us. Dyed in a hue of mauve, of wild flowers, and laced with ponds, lily pads, waterfalls, and birds in flight, it kept unrolling like a carpet before my eyes until it reached a wall, a massive wall that stretched across the as far as the eye could see.
“Is that Paradise?” I asked Chacha, pointing towards the rocky castle over at the other end of the pasture.
“Yes, behind that wall.” He looked too tired to talk.
A man appeared at the entrance of the tent--his face radiant, his eyes bright as lamps. Just to look at him made me feel relaxed and safe. “Welcome to Bihishti Tea Corner,” he said, extending his hand. “My name is Ibrahim.”
The tea was the same delicious tea which Chacha had brought for me an eternity ago--that was how it felt like. The tea, however, failed to rejuvenate me like it had before. I wanted to lie down on grass and take a nap. Ibrahim sat across from me, took out a flute, and started to play, a haunting melody that made my stomach feel hollow. It felt soothing like a warm stone pressing my navel. Putting the flute on the table he stood up.
“How far is the ride to Paradise from here,” I said.
“One to two years, or perhaps more--It depends how fast you ride your horse,” he said. “Some just prefer not to make it. They just roam in these gardens forever.”
“Roam?” I said. “Roam for what.”
“And where do you get your horses from,” I asked.
“Down there in the gardens, there are wild white stallions,” he said. “You must know how to tame them first.”
A cackle rose in the air, as if a million birds flew overhead. The light began to dim as if someone was turning down a dimmer in a theatre. My temples felt hot and pressured. It became impossible to keep my eyes open, and then the darkness overtook me.
I was standing in the dark. A point of light appeared in front of my navel; it gradually enlarged, and then it became a flame. Tarzan had a candle in his hand, his sac on the floor. I stood next to him.
“Pir Pull Saraat should be here soon,” Tarzan was saying. “I didn’t like when they put that blindfold on you--but that’s the rule.”
I felt dazed and disoriented, my temples throbbing with pressure. “Where am I?” I said, looking around in bewilderment. I found myself standing in an octagon room with solid, plain walls, high ceiling, no windows and no light--except for the candle in the Tarzan’s hand. The air was fresh and smelled earthy--the scent of soil after rain.
“We’re in the underground headquarter of Shah Jamal,” Tarzan said.
“Where was I?” I was still having difficulty orienting myself. My body felt like a layered dress I wore, heavy and gross.
“Sir, you’ve been here with me all the time,” Tarzan said, giving me a curious look. “Blindfolding can make people disoriented.”
A man, wearing a flowing black dress, holding a gas lamp, walked in through a door, probably the same door we’d entered through. He was, unmistakably, Pir Pull Saraat. He looked different. The flaming redness of his face was gone. He looked like a normal human being. He hadn’t had the Nike’s headband on either, his long curly hair tied in a ponytail. A pair of large black cats walked by his side, rubbing their bodies against his legs, their tails up and doing a wavy dance .
“Welcome to Shah Jamal,” he said. He put the gas lamp on a shelf on the wall and shook hand with me. His hands felt normal and warm--the smooth, sleek, slipperiness was gone.
Tarzan handed the briefcase to Pir. He opened it and emptied it out on the floor, watching both Tarzan and I, his eyebrows raised. Wads of cash fell on the floor. He shook the briefcase, and then bringing it closer to his ears, he tapped it all over. A de ja vu hit me like a gust of hot wind from Hell, getting stronger with each tap. I felt like a prisoner in my own body.
“Was there something besides the money in it?” Pir asked, looking at both of us.
Tarzan took off a leather pouch from his sac and gave it to him. Pir opened it, examining its contents.
“How can a book comprising blank pages make Khalifa powerful?” I said. My legs felt weak. I wished I could just sit down.
Pir’s eyes shone. “Where’s the book?” He held his beath. He was still as a statue.
“I asked the question first?”
“Alright! Let’s sit down,” he said, blowing his breath out. “Tarzan, go tell Chacha to bring tea for our guest.”
Tarzan scurried away as if wanting to get away at the earliest. I sat on a wooden bench placed against the wall. Submerged in the images of Hell, my mind tried its best to keep afloat.
“The blank pages are anything but blank--they are coated,” he said, sitting on a chair across from me--the bundles of money lay on the floor between us like dead weight. The cats put their bellies down on the floor, on either side of him. He petted them. They looked sedate, their eyes half closed as they purred.“The pages are coated, according to my information, with one of the most potent hallucinogen the world has ever seen. Let’s put it this way: A few square millimeter of a page from that book can contaminate the water supply of an entire neighborhood, and a whole page the water of an entire city for days, or weeks, perhaps months.”
“How that’s suppose to make Khalifa powerful?” I said, taking a deep breath and mustering the bits of my energy, as I leaned against the wall.
“Whoever controls water is powerful. Imagine, if the same water is laced with a drug that makes people behave in a certain way, how much more powerful that person would become, specially if he’s the one distributing water across an entire nation,” Pir said, taking a pack of Gold Leaf from his pocket. He opened the pack and offered me a cigarette. I took one, the only way to push my sleep away. He rose up from his chair, lighted mine with his lighter, then his own. “Except for the rain, Khalifa controls all of fresh water in this country.”
“It’s not possible. How could he have so much water?”
“Water comes from the reservoirs located on the outskirts of each major city. They are heavily guarded installations. Khalifa had started to construct these after the Revolution.”
“What has happened to the regular water, the tap water? How come it’s black and smells so bad?” I said, feeling a pleasant numbness spreading over my body, thanks to the nicotine now coursing through my veins, reaching my starved receptors.
There goes my month worth of being nicotine free, I thought.
“The regular water had been contaminated with a certain type of germs, smuggled in the country, after the Revolution. These germs once put in water start multiplying, be a lake or a canal or even a river. It’s like causing an infection to human body. You need a spoonful of germs to start the process. It took months, a few years rather, to get the kind of water people have now flowing through their taps. People started regarding Khalifa as their savior, the One who provided them with clean water--If they only knew what they had been drinking!”
“So the water that’s being rationed to the public is all contaminated?” I said. I looked around the room for an ashtray.
“Yes. People are drugged on a permanent basis. It takes some time to get fully drugged. You stay here for a week or two, and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll become like them.” He said. He got off his chair and handed me an ashtray.
“How does the drug work?”
“In addition to causing a low-level hallucinations continuously, the drug causes a peculiar disconnect in the mind, causing people to dissociate cause and effect. It’s so subtle and so prevalent, like the air you breath, that people don’t notice it’s present, let alone do something about it. In this way people live in a state of permanent delusion--a made up, a make-belief reality.”
I remembered the shop of Muhammad Sadiq--selling martyr vests at the stadium--that how the family had behaved when the martyr vest failed to explode when accidentally triggered. Instead of thanking their lucky stars, they were all over the owner blaming him for selling counterfeit stuff. Wali, too, wasn’t immune to this glaring disconnect.
“You have to be very bright to be able to engineer this kind of sophisticated stuff duping the masses on such a huge scale?” I said.
“Curiously, it started off as a botched CIA operation--I think somewhere in 2012. It involved spraying a potent hallucinogenic drug--a different one from the one which Khalifa uses now--over Sialkot by using drones.”
“Did it work?”
“It did but not according to the expectations; it flared violence instead--the incidence of public lynching increased, for example, manifold.”
“But why CIA would do such thing? What were their expectations?”
“Americans had had enough with Pakistan They had been fed up with the high command in GHQ, who couldn’t seem to make up their minds, as to which side they had been on. With one hand, they were taking money from Americans, and with the other they were actively promoting Anti American sentiment among the public. After the spraying experiment in Sailkot, the CIA came up with this novel idea of putting a new and untested mood altering drug in the water supplies of major cities, the water tanks and all. Their thinking was if they could alter the collective psyche of a critical mass of people, specially in the major cities where it really mattered, they could win back the public support, and this shift in public sentiment would help them eradicate the mulla militancy once for all, from the hearts and minds of the people of Islamic Ummah of Pakistan. The experiment backfired like most CIA’s ideas and plans do, in due course of time--the usual. The violence, that already had become the norm, skyrocketed, when masses were exposed to the drug over a prolonged period of time. Amid growing water crises, rioting would start all over the country resulting in massacres all across the major cities--hundreds of thousands would die. Everyone saw it as the revenge of the poor against the rich. True, but only party true.”
There was a knock at the door. Chacha entered the room holding a tray. He wore the same dress. He looked at me and said salaam, as if he saw me for the first time. He had the same face with wrinkles like spider’s web, except his eyes were not as bright. After pouring tea for us, he shuffled out of the room. The tea tasted nothing like the tea which Chacha had brought earlier from across the abyss.
“Khalifa’s came to power when people had done with their killings,” Pir said, taking a sip from his cup and lighting up another cigarette. “Khalifa knew the best way to stay in power was to keep people in a state of perpetual violence, and keep them occupied thinking about the delights of the Other Side. A new drug was designed, shipped, and put in the reservoirs he had constructed, while the regular water had kept worsening with the germs, eventually becoming undrinkable.”
“It’s unbelievable! You mean to tell me that essentially everyone around is drugged?” I shuddered at the scope of masses being drugged on such a scale. “May I have another cigarette if you don’t mind.”
“Yes, everyone, without exception,” he said. He got off his chair, clicked the lighter on, and held the flame to my cigarette. “Once the drug is in water, you are ingesting it everyday. The hallucination you experience becomes your reality,” he said, sitting back down.
“So the book you’re after is essentially a big stash of the drug being used to contaminate the water supply on an ongoing basis?” I said, sipping my tea.
“No. We ‘re dealing with something unprecedented. The book pages are coated with a brand new type of drug, a new generation of mind altering chemicals,” he said. “The drug can make people literally cross over to the Other Side--all and sundry, no preparation necessary. One moment you are in this world and in the next you are in the Next, the Other Side. Just imagine millions of souls falling into the abyss of Hell like goats, not knowing how to cross it over to the Other Side.”
“And what’s the purpose?” I said, feeling alarmed and thinking: Was it possible that I might have accidentally been exposed to the very same drug he’s talking about? I remembered handling the book inside the toilet for a few minutes. I knew that many hallucinogens could get absorbed through skin easily. I remembered sliding my hand on a page to feel its texture. It started to look more and more likely that my trip across was Hell had been induced by this very drug.
“The Purpose!” Pir said aloud, to get me out from my train of thought. “Khalifa, according to our reports, is planning a nuclear blitz, targeting both India and Israel simultaneously, an Armageddon, the Final Showdown, as he calls it---And getting annihilated in the process, of course. He had hinted at various public appearances something like: ‘Great nations get annihilated to earn the Everlasting glory of God.’ The drug is supposed to facilitate the transition of the masses from this world to the Next in and around the time of Armageddon--This supposed migration of the believers to Paradise is supposed to coincide with the collective suicide of two hundred plus million people of Islamic Ummah of Pakistan--taking a billion plus infidels with them, those unaided by the drug.”
One of the cats got up and came over to my side. It’s eyes looked the same as the eyes of the boys holding torches in the gondola of Pir. It let me pet her. It rubbed its body against my legs. Pir shot me a curious glance.
“You’re surprise they know me?” I said, petting cat’s mouth. It snarled and then licked my hand with its dry, furry tongue.
Pir remained quiet. I puffed on my cigarette. The room was filled with smoke and the vibration of the cat’s purring. He hadn’t given me any hint that he had met me before. My mind raced across the time and events since I had landed at the airport. I realized my recall of the events had dramatically improved.
“And how Khalifa got hold of a sophisticated drug like that?” I said.
“That’s exactly what I’m here for in Shah Jamal. We’re closing in on finding the source,” he said.
“And where you’re from, originally, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“It’s not necessary for you to know,” he said.
“And what kind of drug had been used on me?” I said. I picked up the cigarette pack and took another cigarette out. He held the lighter to it.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Who’s Seibel?” I said.
“Who is Seibel?” he said.
“The Master Chemist.”
He froze as if I had said something forbidden, his eyes swung in their sockets, like a ping-pong ball, for a moment or two, but he managed to get them stilled quickly. He remained quiet and puffed on his cigarette. “Where’s the Book?” he said, after a long silence.
“I thought it was a sketch book or something,” I said. “I had it in my hands. It fell. It was dark and we were running. I believe it fell once we were over in Shadman after crossing the boundary wall of the hospital. But I may be wrong; I’m not one hundred percent sure.” I told him that and some other details I made up at the moment. He listened to me quietly.
Why should I tell him the location of the book, when he had been less than straightforward with me. But more importantly, I wanted to rip a page off the book, a sample, and take it with me back to the US. I was dying to know the chemical structure of the drug, and what it would do to the monkeys, and most of all to humans. It could provide a scientific breakthrough in the realm of neuroscience and religious sciences.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “You’ve no idea what you have done.”
“What the hell they put in Hoor Afza?” I said.
“The same drug they put in water, but in a higher concentration, plus the generic Viagra now they make in Murde Momin Pharmacy they opened a few years ago between Muridke and Kala Shah Kaku. It’s near the Khalifa’s largest water reservoir for the area.”
“I hope you don’t mind if I ask you another question?” I said.
“What’s this Resistance Movement of yours all about?”
“I collect evidence.”
“And train people for the high-wire act?” I said.
“It’s complicated,” he said, stiffening his body.
“Did you drug me?” I looked him in the eyes. “I mean, in addition to what the water and tea and Hoor Afza I drank since I landed?”
“We don’t do things like that to our guests.”
“Is the Other Side real?”
“Real is what your mind is able to create,” he said.
“So whatever I witnessed was the creation of my mind?” I said.
“I don’t know what have you witnessed, but don’t underestimate the creation of human mind,” he said.
“I’m glad you think of human in these terms,” I said.
He took a quick deep breath, his right leg jerking, his eyes narrowed and far away. He remained quiet.
“How am I supposed to know for sure if this whole thing, too, is not a hallucination of mine?” I said, feeling it was time to leave.
“The man’s reality is made up of what they label as hallucination. That’s the way they create their world--inside their heads, and then that’s what they see outside. Brain can create all sorts of worlds by creating what is called mind. And the mind’s job is to create,” he said. “What it creates is real for it.”
“It’s been a pleasure to see you,” I said, getting up. “Hope I’ll see you again.”
“I’m afraid, we have to blindfold you on your way out.” He took his Nike headband out. “I would like you to blindfold yourself with this till you meet Tarzan outside. It’s better that way for you, and it’s better for us. We’re under constant threat from Khalifa--this place is being monitored by the enemy.”
I couldn’t wait to get back to the car. I put his headband on my eyes, as he ushered me to the door. I was taken back up, nineteen steps, and then a walk for another five minutes.
It was Tarzan who asked me to take the Pir’s headband off my eyes. We were in the courtyard then. People sat in circles around fires, the same way--no one seemed to have moved. Cloud of smoke hung over their heads, glowing. Cannabis smell hung in the air. Putting the headband in my pocket, I walked with Tarzan towards the cab. Two armed men dressed in black followed us like shadows. Once outside the premise, I spotted Wali’s cab. The cats as if woken from sleep began their concert overhead, a haunting symphony, as I walked towards the cab, trying not to look up. Still, out of the corner of my eye, I picked up dozens of glowing pair of eyes, moving about in darkness, like ghosts. I wondered if they all were jinns.
Wali, like a lone wolf, lounging on the bonnet, smoked his biree, his eyes glued to the crescent moon that shone through an old banyan tree, its roots touching the ground. The cats were all over the tree, prowling over its massive branches, their howls piercing the air like sirens.
Wali looked at me with a surprised look, sliding down the bonnet, and opened the door for me. I slid in. I waved at Tarzan, through the rolled up window. He waved back, his face breaking into a warm smile, his teeth white as ivory. The two armed men stood at his back, flanking him, his bodyguards, their faces shrouded in the dark. Wali turned the headlights on, and put the cab in gear. The men’s faces shone momentarily. One standing behind Tarzan’s right shoulder looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him in my memory.
We were perhaps five or ten feet away when Tarzan sprinted towards the moving vehicle, tapping on the window on my side, as he ran along the cab. I rolled it down. “What’s up Tarzan?”
“Don’t forget your watch. You dropped it inside on the stairs,” he said, holding my five dollar digital Timex.
“Thanks!” I said, putting the watch on my wrist. It showed 1:40 am. Wali picked up speed.
“Wali what’s the time on your watch?”
“Sir ji, my watch always runs behind,” he said, turning on the cabin light. “It’s showing 1:30 am.”
“How long I was gone for?” I said.
“That was my first beeri, since you left,” he said. “I didn’t expect you’ll come back so soon.”
Wali braked in front of the gate of my father’s house. The journey to Faisal Town ended at 2:22 am, Wednesday--according to my watch--the time I had handed my watch to Pir in the octagonal gondola, suspended somewhere on the Other Side, or in-between in the Intermediate World, at this end of the Abyss.
I had slept most of the way. Before I got off I had Wali scribbled his mobile number on a piece of paper. I asked him the Tarzan’s if he had one, and he gave me that too. My father’s white Corolla was parked in the porch. I let Wali drive off when Ghulam Rasool, my father’s servant and driver for the last 35 years appeared at the door. He had aged since I last saw him 12 years ago in 2010. His wrinkly face looked emaciated and pale. He broke into sobs upon seeing me at the gate.
My father had died on Monday morning--buried the same day. Ghulam Rasool had been by his bed at the hospital when he had talked to me over the phone. Following the wish of my father he’d refrained from calling me, despite being wanting to. “Your father wanted you to stay away from this place.” Ghulam Rasool told me, as he took my suitcase to my fathers bedroom. I sat on the bed and stared at the picture of my father and mother I had grown up seeing on the bedside table of his, under the lampshade. I had known my mother through her pictures only. I had no feelings for her. She had died while giving birth to me. My father had never married again.
I slept on my father’s bed that night, his smell still on the covers. My dreams were all clobbered but vivid. I saw Kata, my first love from Kalash, lush in my dream, a bunch of violets in her hands, wearing a black dress and a red shawl, she was strolling through the prairie’s tall grass, picking wild flowers, looking pretty as ever. Wind rustled through the grass making the stalks sway, the sticks of gold, the color of her braids, bathed in the rays of the sun touching the snowy peaks at the far end, in its way to the other side. A man, wearing a black shawl, stalked her. Cowered like a tiger in the grass, he kept getting closer to her. She leaned over to pick a purple flower, and he lunged for her. Grabbing her by the waist, he lifted her off the ground. She kicked her legs in the air. Carrying her over his shoulder he jumped in a rabbit hole that had opened up in the ground. I rushed towards the hole and jumped behind them, falling in a free fall into the underworld. I woke up, my mouth feeling parched. I drank water. And then I slept all day next day, until well into the evening.
Ghulam Rasool brought water and snacks for me, along with the paper, the morning edition of Waqt. I almost fell from the bed when I saw the front-page headlines. A martyr had detonated himself at the shrine of Shah Jamal, killing twenty one people. Feeling a mounting panic I scrolled through the the news as fast as I could. The explosion had happened at 2:22 am according to an eyewitness who had survived the attack. A picture of the severed head of the martyr was displayed on an X shaped stand--the kind I saw Qadrees using in the field to put their binoculars on--and around it a garland of roses. And then it came in a flash, like a torrent down a mountain after a heavy downpour, and swept me away. I knew where I had seen the man. It was the same face I had glimpsed momentarily behind Tarzan’s right shoulder when I was in the car, and Wali had turned the headlights on, while the siren of the cats filled the night. It was the same bearded head, covered with soot, that had been thrashed against the rock, cracked opened by the Big Black. It was the face of Fida Muhammad. “It likes Brain.” Chacha’s words resounded in my head.
I dialed Tarzan’s number. No one answered.
Deep into the night I sat on my father’s bed smoking one cigarette after the other. I opened the drawer of his bedside table, looking for a book or something that he’d always keep there--his bedtime reading--to keep my mind focused. There was a diary in it, bound in black leather, faded and cracked. I opened it at random. It was my father’s diary. Kata’s picture fell on the floor. I smelled her in the dairy. I closed it. I knew what I was going to read in it. I didn’t want to know that.
I awoke Ghulam Rasool, sleeping with his wife in the next room, and asked him the keys of my father’s car.
“Saab, where are you heading at two in morning?”
“I need to see my father,” I said. “We need to talk--like grown men, after all those years.”
Copyright 2011 by author A. Asif. All rights reserved