By Uzma Aslam Khan
WHAT THEY never tell you about a land under siege is that it becomes like a person with bipolar disorder. It suffers short bursts of hyperactivity between long periods of lethargy. That is what they never show on television. All they show are riots and protests and bomb blasts. They never show monotony. Monotony is for those who live in it. Not for those who watch. Or so Mr Shahid thought one morning, while driving to work in his once-white Toyota. He was certain he was reaching the point where he would do anything to break the monotony.
The roundabout from where he turned towards Saddar was, as usual, blocked. There were tyres smouldering and a few men hovering as if on watch duty, as if the toxic fumes were somehow precious. Mr Shahid reversed. His car choked. He pressed the accelerator and sped down a side lane, knowing what awaited him. This road was also blocked. There was a procession of about 20 men banging drums and blowing pipes, shouting, ‘Go! Go! Go!’. Hyperactivity, thought Mr Shahid, reversing again.
At the next light, a policeman sauntered into a busy intersection, picking his nose. He was waving traffic along from all directions, looking fatigued, looking suicidal. Unresponsiveness is another symptom, thought Mr Shahid, certain that when the policeman returned home to his wife each evening, it was without sexual appetite. He glanced to his right. Just in time to notice the driver in the next car shut his eyes and charge straight into the mayhem with a machismo that could only be classified as Delusions of Grandeur. Mr Shahid decided to do the same. Within five minutes, he was parking his car between a dyer shop strung with dripping yellow cloth and a checkpoint with nobody checking. He had to shut his car door very slowly or it would unhinge. Another five minutes, he was sitting at his desk.
He worked in a bookshop next to a row of music shops in a part of Saddar that had been ultra-modern in the sixties but in the 21st century had become, to the ignorant elite of Karachi, premodern. What the elite did not realise was that the neighbourhood in general and the bookshop in particular were in fact postmodern. In any other country, this tiny hole-inthe- wall with the faded rows of Agatha Christie novels, torn stacks of National Geographic magazines, and boxes of remaindered film noir handbooks mixed in with medical journals would be avant garde. A camera crew would have discovered it. A classic-in-waiting would be shot. And he would be in it, at his desk, doing what he did every day, poring through psychology books and reading all about the real reasons for overexcitement and loud singing. Because that is what was really happening in this country. Every hour of every day, there was noise and panic and melancholy. The only respite was his shop, a few square feet of sanity.
If you came here, nobody would arrest you. Nobody would even find you (except the postmodern camera). You could have a plate of steaming chicken biryani made by the depressive chef who also owned the music shop that blasted Noor Jehan from its broken windows and you could have a cold coffee with vanilla ice cream from the shop next to the co-op that sold handicrafts made by village women. You could be safe, while everyone else succumbed to the sickness. There they were now, crying for justice and for all the missing people to come back. All this hyperactivity; it wasn’t good for the country.
How could they be missing anyway? Mr Shahid wondered, flipping through his favourite case book of mental disorders. People do not simply disappear. They are not made of ink. You cannot dip them in a bucket and scrub them off with your knuckles. Not even the very best maid could accomplish that. But still the rumours accrued, people coming into his shop in hysterics to say they were sorry about what happened to his son.
NOW, HALLUCINATIONS. These were the most interesting disorders. The people who came in here to pat his hand and blow their noses were clearly suffering from visual disturbances and one day he would send their extraordinary fantasies to the American Psychiatric Press for the updated edition of its manual of mental illness, Uproar, with all the cameras rolling!
Take Baba Idrees. He came into the bookshop this morning weeping so hard into the same hanky he used on every visit that Mr Shahid felt compelled to offer him his chair and even his cold coffee. It must have been the caffeine acting as an upper, because when the drink was finished, Baba Idrees — who with his hunched back and long nails bore a remarkable resemblance to the vampire Nosferatu who cropped up in books about German film — finally sat with his claws folded in his lap. On the point of his chin flowered a lavish white beard and his eyes were two grey knobs of horror.
It was not his fault. Baba Idrees could not control the uninterrupted stream of images that played out behind those sickened eyes with such intensity he was pulled along with them, into some deep and rapid current. Soon he started to speak in a rasping, haunted voice, claiming to see Mr Shahid’s son being picked up by spy agencies from Mr Shahid’s own house. (As if Mr Shahid would not have seen it too!) He recollected everything from the moment the boy was torn from home and pushed into a van while his family screamed to when he was thrown into a cell and beaten with chains as thick as knees and forced to watch images of others being tortortured. (This last detail, though imagined, did give Mr Shahid the chills. Visual disturbances of visual disturbances. Where did it end?) If the boy shut his eyes, a knife would slice off a layer of his flesh from the most tender places, which was of course what he was being forced to watch done to others. Was it better to watch or have it done to you? That is the question Baba Idrees wanted to know. And he answered himself, Of course we all pick the same.
Soon Baba Idrees started to speak in a rasping, haunted voice, claiming to see Mr Shahid’s son being picked up by spy agencies from his house
At last Baba Idrees-Nosferatu stood up to leave, but not without a final indication of just how far his paranoia had progressed. “Neither dead nor alive,” he patted Mr Shahid’s cheek, “just missing. An unholy place. I pray to Allah we find him, even dead. Your poor child must receive a proper burial.”
Now that he was alone, Mr Shahid felt safe again. He hoped that no other visitor would come into his store to disturb his tranquil method of breaking the monotony that consumed everyone else. When the power went and the generators around him began to groan, he lit candles and resumed reading the casebook of mental disorders, ignoring the shopkeepers who complained that power outages meant dwindling business. He did not want business. He wanted a camera crew. He wanted the ignorant elite to get off their arses and recognise that he was ahead of his time. He, the humble owner of a bookshop that contained within its narrow walls all the great minds of the universe. What did it matter if there was no fan or if the walls leaked or if a patina of white mould crawled up his shelves? The low-lit corners of one’s soul — that is what mattered.
So what was this? Most interesting. A case study of a man who suffered repeated flashbacks. He had once been witness to an air strike and now, whenever a plane flew across the sky, any sky, he fell on his stomach and screamed. He believed the plane was charging towards him, always at the same angle, always to flatten everyone but him. Always the same dead bodies, always the same question: why leave me? Except that the bodies were not visible, because somewhere between the plane’s diving earthwards and nosing up again into the sky, they would vanish, leaving only outlines in the grass. And voices. He could hear the missing. They cried, “Don’t let them take me away!”
The candlelight flickered, shaping shadows on the bookshop’s back wall. Mr Shahid had seen these shadows before. They recurred. Daily. Hourly. Always, there was a van. It crept down the uneven surface of the wall, tyres soundless, silencing even the crows on the wire. Just when the van reached the house, his house, the candle glow cast a ghostly bronze sheen across its path, forcing the picture to return to the beginning. Shadows reshaped. Again there was the van, inching quietly towards his home.
Mr Shahid was not entirely feeling well. He stood up, wiped his face with his hands. Despite the heat, his palms were not clammy but rough, as though coated with little slivers of rust. He examined his hands. Perhaps fresh air would help.
OUTSIDE, A dark sky hung low with old rain. There were winds trapped within those clouds; he could feel them trying to escape. But the heavens were closed for now, offering no relief from the musty interior of his store. And besides, he had trouble crossing the street on foot. He liked to be in his car when there were cars. Otherwise, he was too exposed. Anyone could get him in these troubled times.
He stepped back into his shop. Then, feeling cowardly he stepped out again. He repeated this manoeuvre three times. Finally, trotting rapidly but with dignity, and without appearing to run in fear, he came out into the traffic.
The other side was a long way away.
There was another policeman picking his nose and children bent like the sky and his big toe was too big to save from the wheels of a cart laden with ghee tins heaved by a donkey that suddenly refused to move. He hid behind the donkey to avoid the black car with the fancy licence plate and tinted glass and lady driver. When the donkey began to pull forward, he stepped alongside it. In this way, he almost made it to the other side. Except for the transvestites.
He could never tell which ones were castrated and which were only pretending. Both now circling him had high-pitched voices and curvaceous bodies and claimed to be praying for his son. “Anyone is whisked away these days,” said the one in the green sari, licking her pink lipstick and blowing him a kiss.
“On any pretext,” said the other, “for the General Sahib and his Gora Boss.” She had obviously taken all day to arrange her hair into that thick swoop at the back of her head. A long ringlet hung from either side of her face, which was actually rather pretty. Until she started crying. Then the mascara ran down her cheeks and she began pulling the pallu of her orange chiffon sari and her actions increased in ferocity till her breasts were almost exposed. Exhibitionism, thought Mr Shahid. Another symptom. Also Gender Identity Disorder. Despite himself, he could not help glancing there, down between the folds of her sari, and to his horror, he saw a large lump. Certainly, it was pushing its way out through the cloth with more success than the rain from the sky!
He hurried into a spice and perfume shop. Ah yes, one of the newer ones. He had come twice before for his wife, who adored the henna sold here. The storekeeper, Jamshed, was a young man whom Mr Shahid rather liked since he was the only one on this street to never burst into his bookshop in tears. Jamshed kept to himself, keeping his stock of henna, dates and spices fresher than anyone else. And diligently dusting those gorgeous ittar bottles lining his walls. The bottles thrilled Mr Shahid. Their insides were even better. Motia, zulekha, and best of all, night queen. How each sublime scent unlocked in one dab to the left wrist and one under the right ear! A fourth dab to the left ear — there! Now the flowers fought swashbuckling feuds with each other, all on the battlegarden of his flesh!
More, he must have more. Jamshed dutifully presented a host of small cut glass decanters, some with crystal tops with crystal stems that were a delight to run down your skin. Which is what Mr Shahid did, leaving slippery rows of rose, champa and chameli along the hairless undersides of his arms. He grew slightly piqued when Jamshed nearly destroyed his pleasure by declaring, “We will help you find him. We will collect money and get a human-rightslawyer- type onto our side.” But Mr Shahid erased these irksome words by switching his attention away from floral oils, and turning instead to sandalwood, grass and earth.
He bought 22 ittars in glittering ittardans. Not a rupee remained in his pocket. As he carried the perfumes back to his shop, he felt it did not matter that he was not in his car. The street was a friend. And, as if to ease his crossing, a sudden breeze began to waft around him, so cool and so pure, filling his head with an intoxicating brew of all the aromas lathered into his pores. He did not walk to the other side of the road so much as skip; he did not skip so much as swoon.
Something exploded. Mr Shahid briefly heard it while re-entering his store.
The lights had still not returned but what did it matter? The camera crew was here at last. He relit the candles, then gingerly arranged all 22 bottles on carefully selected areas of his shelves, depending on where the candlelight fell. The bottles, being manysided, captured the light and reflected it onto the back wall in prisms that were no less pleasing to the eye than their captured bouquets were to the nose. The ittar of rose came in a cube that especially impressed the camera crew. They asked him to keep twirling while they caught it on film. He could watch the film on the wall.
There he was, just as he knew he always would be, sitting at his desk in his shop, doing what he did best every day, poring through psychology books and reading all about the real reasons for the stasis and fear that consumed everyone else.
Except — that was not really him. It could not be! The figure in the film had long fingers and curved claws and he was stepping out of a van. The van that made no sound. There it was again, creeping slowly towards his house. Only this time, there was no bronze sheen from the candle glow to freeze the picture and make it start again, from the beginning. No, this time the van did stop. And the film kept rolling forward. And the hunched figure that stepped out of the van kept walking, all the way to his door. Though he tried, Mr Shahid was unable to push him back into the van and cut the reel because Mr Shahid was the one walking. Worst of all, he held in his awful grasp a most menacing-looking cube. Which he compulsively twirled. On all six of its faces the same image appeared: the image of a young boy. He looked a lot like Mr Shahid except that Mr Shahid was now standing at the door to his house, screaming, “I did it! Whatever it was! I did it! Take me instead! Not him!” So, obviously, if he stood at the door to the house, he could not also be the figure inside the cube and he could not also be the figure twirling the cube and he could not also be the figure watching the film without being able to stop it.
The hunched man tossed the cube into the air and just when Mr Shahid felt certain that his blood would stop pumping, that he would die of grief, because the young boy trapped in the cube would break into a thousand little pieces along with the glass, well, just when he thought he would surely die, the hunched figure walked to the edge of Mr Shahid’s bookshop and decided to watch the traffic instead.
Children were still bent under the weight of rice sacks. Transvestites were still pulling their sari pallus. Lady drivers were still racing for the dyer’s dripping yellow cloth. Baba Idrees was still waving a wet hanky. Mr Shahid mopped his face with rough hands before turning back to all the work he had left to do in the few square feet of sanity left in the city.
The figure in the film had long fingers and curved claws and he was stepping out of a van. The van that made no sound, creeping slowly
WHEN, TOWARDS the end of the day, a group of men took shelter inside Mr Shahid’s bookshop, they did not at first notice the sweet musky scent. Nor the fragments of broken glass. Nor the click click of the camera reel. They were consumed by the day’s greater events. A bomb had exploded two blocks from their street, and news had already spread to the other side of the world.
“Who will they blame now?” asked one man.
“At which of our homes will the van pull up next?” asked another.
“I suppose Shahid is safe. It has already taken from him,” declared a third.
At which point, the first man looked around and wondered aloud, “Where is he?”
The others swivelled around too. “That’s strange,” said the second man. “He never goes home early. You know, his wife has been a little…” he spun his index finger, “since it happened.”
“He prefers his shop,” agreed the first man. “Says it’s the best. Ultra modryn.”
“Only us tailors are ultra modryn,” laughed the third. “Look at all these stupid books!” He picked one up, then threw it back down.
That is when all three men smelled the smell. And saw the glass scattered across the shop’s floor, and the candles melting onto a batch of magazines, staining the already-filthy bookshelves. They looked up. On the back wall crouched a shadow. Noticing them, the shadow straightened only a little at first. But as they continued watching, it spread its wings and began to grow immense. His back was hunched, his teeth were long, his nails even longer. Overall, he was most vampire-like in shape and most rodent-like in speed and even worse, he was heading straight towards them.
Uzma Aslam Khan
Khan grew up in Karachi and is the author of the novels The Story of Noble Rot, Trespassing and The Geometry of God. Trespassing was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize Eurasia 2003. Her short story Ice, Mating appeared in Granta 112. Visit her at uzmaaslamkhan.blogspot.com