By Shehryar Fazli
THE AIR of the Agra Hotel’s cabaret was chalky with cigar and cigarette smoke. The tables were small and round and covered in carmine cloth; the crowd was middle aged, brown and white. Their dress was modest but elegant, mostly fitted shirts and bellbottoms on the men. Dancers loitered around, waiting to be courted. Others stood on the wooden spot-lit stage, behind them the band members sitting or standing with silent instruments. I sat down and signalled to the waiter, asked for a vodka-lime. In the microphone the master of ceremonies cleared his throat, announced: “This next one, friends, is from Bobby Short.” The band’s jazzy rendition and a male baritone filled the saloon, two dancers awakened into a jerky routine. A Pakistani-looking woman staggered across the saloon from her table to another, occupied by three men, all foreigners. She shook hands with two of them, then dropped into the lap of the third, laughing and wiping his sleeve and thigh where his drink had spilled. When the Bobby Short piece finished, the master of ceremonies bantered in his laboured British accent, then announced, “This next one, my friends, is in German. By Marlene Dee-trish. Dee-trick, excuse me. The lovely, famous Marlene.”
“You are okay?” said a woman at my side.
I looked up.
“No more drink?” she gestured to my empty glass. Her light-green eyes were remote and calculating; below them a round, almost masculine nose. She was shorter and thinner than the other dancers, small breasts behind the Mediterranean clatter of her cabaret outfit.
“Can I sit?” The last word was stretched impatiently, as if I’d already violated some custom.
“Actually, could you tell me where the brigadier is, the man… the gentleman who runs this place?”
She stayed where she was. Then, she narrowed her eyes and in theatrical, slow motion extended her arm toward me and raised her middle finger. She prolonged the gesture — I absorbed it properly — and walked away smiling like a child proud of some delicious, wicked deed.
Before the next song, this woman, who the master of ceremonies introduced as Malika, Malika from Cairo, replaced her colleagues on stage. While there was something loquacious or excessive in the other two, there was a cool detachment in her. She didn’t look at the audience at all, seemed contained within her performance, and wore an impudent smile as if she was enjoying a private joke at everyone’s expense. Her front teeth sloped inward, giving her that look of a child. I was moved by the possibility that, at a price, I could have this woman. When the song finished she went straight to a grey-haired man in a dark corduroy blazer, who whispered something to her; she responded with a frown and quick shake of the head. She went back to the stage, and the band began again. I asked my waiter whether that was the brigadier, in the dark blazer. It wasn’t. And where was the brigadier? He usually came in around this time, the waiter said. So he was still here, still in charge? Point him out to me when he gets here, I told the boy.
When the brigadier finally did show up, he was with three foreigners in shiny suits. He had thin grey hair, combed back, a large rosy forehead. There was a neat economy to his actions — closed smiles, restrained laughs — while his white companions communicated in more eager gestures, competing for his attention. He watched the performance with his elbows on the table, his arms crossed, a fixed, superior expression on a red handsome face. I told the waiter who’d pointed him out to bring me a bottle of Chivas Regal. When he came back with it, I asked him to take it to the brigadier’s table. He looked confused, and only after I insisted, “Chalo, bhai!” did he deliver it to them, pointing in my direction. The four men inspected me. I raised my glass. They looked at each other, and then back at me. The white men nodded. The retired brigadier remained still, arms crossed, inquiring eyes fixed on me. A man in the front row, full of booze and hope, had stood up, wobbling like a toddler to his own awkward clap. The brigadier and his three guests rose and were soon out of the cabaret. I checked my watch. It was late. The waiter brought the unopened bottle of Chivas back to me and asked what I wanted to do with it. The song had finished, and the dancer, too, was gone.
“Is that dancer, the one who was just on stage, done for the night?” I asked the waiter.
“I don’t know sir, maybe.” He held the bottle to me expectantly. I told him to keep it at the bar, that I would take it from him the next time. I left the bar and walked into the hotel’s lobby. I wasn’t sure what to do. Leaving now meant going back to the Khyber Hotel, which I wasn’t ready for. At this late hour, the Agra Hotel seemed full of possibility, a theatre of intrigue for the privileged, and I wanted to commune with it somehow, join whatever indiscretions were afoot.
I approached the exit, opened for me by a midget in a uniform and turban. I bent down and asked him, “Did Brigadier Alamgir leave?”
“I did not see him,” the midget replied, in a woman’s voice.
“Thank you,” I said, and placed a two-rupee note in his miniature palm. As I walked back into the heart of the lobby he said, “Check the conference room. Maybe he’s there.”
IN THE lobby, men in black and beige suits sat on sofas. Beyond them were steps leading up to a mezzanine. I walked up the carpeted steps, to a large double door. The gold plaques on the door, one word on each wing, read ‘Conference Room.’ I could hear talk and laughter behind it. But as I put my ear to the doors, a male bass sounded in Urdu behind me, “Yes, sir? Is there something you want?” I turned around. A heavy man with a menacing face, like the actor Anthony Quinn’s, stood over me. He had the Karachi moustache, a law enforcer’s gravitas, and a lazy eye frozen in one direction — a mild deformity that carried its own threat.
“No,” I replied. “On my way out.” I moved past him, back down the carpeted staircase. Unsatisfied, I again approached the midget in the turban. “Excuse me. One more question for you. There’s a… a dancer (I used the English word) here, her name is Malika. She danced this evening.” His expression was blank. “Not very tall, a nose like this — her name is Malika. She stays here, I think.”
“I need to know her room number.”
At first the midget gave me an uncomfortable grin. Then his small face and figure relaxed, more poised now that the truth of my character had been revealed. “Sir,” he sniggered. “That I wouldn’t know.”
I moved a step closer to him, using my height for leverage. With a smile and a lowered voice, I said, “But you can find out.” He tilted his whole frame back to look up at me; I thought the turban would fall from his mini head. I took a ten-rupee note from my pocket. “I come here a lot,” I continued. “You’ve seen me, right? I’m a very good customer.” He seemed unstable again. This devious negotiation would have its own inevitable course. I slipped the ten into his palm. “Malika,” I repeated. “Please, for me.”
His uncertain fingers closed around the money. “Come back in five minutes,” he said.
She didn’t look at the audience at all and wore an impudent smile as if she was enjoying a private joke at everyone’s expense
I sat in the lobby, near the men in the beige and black. Above, on the mezzanine, Quinn walked to and fro, with an occasional glance in my direction. What went on behind those doors that a man like Quinn was charged to protect?
I went back to the midget. As stealthily as I’d put the money in his hand, he now placed a piece of paper in mine. I thanked him, looked at the number he gave me as I walked away. I took the stairs past the mezzanine to the second floor. The wall-to-wall carpet there was olive green, and gave off the clammy smell of rain. The walls were painted white, the outlines of every brick showing, as a matter of style. The hallway was lit with yellow orbs in a straight line descending from the ceiling by thin golden chains. Going over the numbers on the doors, I finally stood at the last door. I put my ear to it, hearing enough to know that the occupant was in. What would I say? Why would I be at her door? I didn’t want to go back to the Khyber. What gesture was there to signal my intentions? I knocked on the door. “Kaun hai?” I froze. She opened the door, appearing in a sleeveless, dark blue caftan. “Yes?” Her mouth remained open in the shape of the last word.
My clothes filled with sweat. “I’m sorry,” I coughed. “Wrong room. Excuse me.”
She frowned, shut the door. I turned to walk away, but approaching me with quick, furious steps from the far end was Quinn. I slid back from Malika’s door. With my aggressor a few feet away I tried to go past him, hugging the wall, but he took hold of my elbow in an uncompromising grip. “Sir, sir, sir, where are you going?” he said. I became more aware of my own body, its limitations — organs, bone, blood. Was it biological? Was my body hardwired to cowardice? His grip relaxed, but still held me, a small grin on his face that revealed he was more familiar with conflict and bodily threat, came from a more ruthless world.
“Abhey, let go of my arm, bhai.” The words sounded even to me like forgeries from the argot of Ghulam Hussain’s world, betrayed by a tentative Urdu accent. But if my opponent noticed, he didn’t make an issue of it. He let go. With a wider vocabulary I would’ve been more capable of bargaining my way out, but my years abroad had stripped my Urdu down to a formal tongue. Now this deficiency was under special stress.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. Goddamn you, I thought, what a waste of both of our bloody time.
“So?” he persisted.
I switched to English. “Why couldn’t you be a midget?” I asked. Then it dawned on me that if he was from some underworld, he might also be for sale. I pulled out loose notes from my pocket, twenty in total. I stuck to English. “Why don’t you take these, and we’ll call it even.” I dropped the bills to the ground. And to this he finally took offence. I heard him mutter haramee, before his first punch struck my face, followed quickly by a second. I fell against the wall and then to the floor with a series of thuds that were louder than the pain. I heard a door open behind me and a female voice lifted in alarm. It was Malika’s. My ears still readjusting, I couldn’t make out much of their exchange. But it was clear they’d come to some understanding. Quinn looked down at me, unsatisfied, and walked away. Malika helped me up, examined my face.
In the middle of the bed was the gold and blue cabaret apparel Malika’d worn tonight. I ran my hand over it
“Come inside, I get you ice.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and tried to walk away but she gripped me in the same place the man had, and said, “Just… ” She asked my name. “Shah-baz,” she tried it. “Shah-baz. Shahbaz. Okay.”
HER ROOM had a frayed green carpet, a darker shade than the one in the hallway, yellow walls and ceiling, with damp patches on both. A mosquito coil burned on a plate in one corner, coating the air with harsh smoke. I passed my tongue over my teeth – rigidly fixed. “I would have hated to have lost a tooth in that,” I said.
“Sit,” she said, pointing to the bed. At the foot of the bed was an issue of Illustrated Weekly, with a cover picture of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the leader of the People’s Party of Pakistan, and the Bengali leader Mujib, both vying for civilian control of the country. I picked it up. I massaged my cheekbone, disappointed that there was no cut, no blood. Malika picked up the telephone receiver.
“Yes, it’s me – yes, one-o-two – one bucket of ice, please.”
I was still shaky. I’d offered Quinn a bribe. What a craven act! When the ice arrived, Malika wrapped a few cubes in cloth and put it to my cheek.
“Hold it there,” she said.
On her bedside table was a tall glass of lassi, moist on the outside. I lifted it and gulped down the contents, which were strangely bitter. Malika lit a small gas burner that lay on the floor by the bathroom. “I make green tea. You want?” Her voice was stretched by exhaustion and irritation, the dancer in post-production. She looked up and saw the empty glass in my hand. “Oh, I…”
“I prefer this,” I said. “I hope you don’t…”
“Thank you,” I said.
‘Exposed?’ she raised her pitch in surprise. ‘What you mean, exposed? I’m per-for-mer. It’s you men, sitting there drunk, you are exposed’
She approached me, lowered my hand and looked at my cheek, scrunched up her face in pity. “You’re swo-llen,” she separated her syllables, unsure of her English.
“I’m okay,” I said.
She returned to her little burner. “So why you were following Brigadier Alamgir?”
She came back to the bed with a cup in her hand, stirring its contents with a spoon. She sat beside me, raised her delicate feet onto the bed, and held the cup on her knees. “Men like him don’t like it when men they not know buy them drinks and follow them.” There were small stains on the side of her forehead, reverberations of a childhood of skin trouble that promised they’d eventually disappear but hadn’t. I imagined her hiding them, like misdeeds, behind her bulky brown hair. She blew into her cup and cautiously took a sip. High on her right arm was the circular mark of a smallpox vaccination.
I emptied the ice into my glass. “So that charmer downstairs is a brigadier, huh?”
“Why you were following him?”
I looked around her room. “Malika from Cairo,” I said. “Do you bring other customers in here, too?”
“You are only man here who say no when I offer company. This is strange.” She smirked. “And that man would have beat you into — how do you say, keema?”
In the middle of the bed was the gold and blue cabaret apparel she’d worn tonight. I ran my hand over it. “Don’t you ever feel exposed dancing the way you do, in front of all these, all these… men?”
“Exposed?” she raised her pitch in surprise. “What you mean, exposed? I’m per-for-mer. Like these ones here (she picked up the Illustrated Weekly). It’s men, you men, sitting there drunk and your tongues out like, like this, you are exposed.” She watched me rub my forehead. “Okay?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Little dizzy, maybe.” “Ahh. That’s nor-mal.”
“Because, my darleeng,” she pointed to the empty glass on her bedside table, “there was opium in that.” She turned off the overhead light, and we were now in the more intimate enclosure of a red lamp she had on the floor in a corner.
Excerpted from the novel Invitation by Shehryar Fazli, forthcoming from Tranquebar Press/Westland Ltd on 20 January 2011
Fazli is the South Asia Regional Editor and Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research and advocacy organisation focused on resolving deadly conflict. He lives in Islamabad. His first novel Invitation will release in 2011.