Thursday, May 28, 2009

Dog of Tithwal

Sadaat Hasan Monto

The soldiers had been entrenched in their positions for several weeks, but there was little, if any, fighting, except for the dozen rounds they ritually exchanged every day. The weather was extremely pleasant. The air was heavy with the scent of wild flowers and nature seemed to be following its course, quite unmindful of the soldiers hiding behind rocks and camouflaged by mountain shrubbery. The birds sang as they always had and the flowers were in bloom. Bees buzzed about lazily. Only when a shot rang out, the birds got startled and took Right, as if a musician had his instrument. It was almost the end of September, neither hot nor cold. It seemed as if summer and winter had made their peace. In the blue skies, cotton clouds floated all day like barges on a lake. The soldiers seemed to be getting of this indecisive war where nothing much ever happened. Their positions were quite impregnable. The two hills on which they were placed faced each other and were about the same height, so no one side had an advantage. Down below in the valley, a stream zigzagged furiously on its stony bed like a snake. The air force was not involved in the combat neither of the adversaries had heavy guns or mortars. At night, they would light huge fires and hear each others' voices echoing through the hills. The last round of tea had just been taken. The fire had gone cold. The sky was clear and there was a chill in the air and a sharp, though not unpleasant, smell of pine cones. Most of the soldiers were already asleep, except Jamadar Harnam Singh, who was on night watch. At two o'clock, he woke up Ganda Singh to take over. Then he lay down, but sleep was as far away from his eyes as the stars in the sky. He began to hum a Punjabi folk song: a pair of shoes, my lover A pair of shoes with stars on them Sell your buffalo, if you have to With stars on them It made him feel good and a bit sentimental. He woke up the others one by one. Banta youngest of the soldiers, who had a sweet voice, began to sing a lovelorn verse from Heer Ranjha, that timeless Punjabi epic of love and tragedy. A deep sadness fell over them. Even the grey hills seemed to have been affected by the melancholy of the song. This mood was shattered by the barking of a dog. Jamadar Harnam Singh said, 'Where has this son of a bitch materialized from?' The dog barked again. He sounded closer. There was a rustle in the bushes. Banta Singh got up to investigate and came back with an ordinary mongrel in tow. He was wagging his tail. 'I found him behind the bushes and he told me his name was Jhun Jhun,' Banta Singh announced. Everybody burst out laughing. The dog went to Harnam Singh who produced a cracker from his kitbag and threw it on the ground. The dog sniffed at it and was about to eat it, when Harnam Singh snatched it away. '. . . Wait, you could be a Pakistani dog.' They laughed. Banta Singh patted the animal and said to Harnam Singh, Harnam Singh ordered the dog, who began to wag his tail. 'This is no proof of identity. All dogs can wag their tails,' Harnam Singh said. 'He is only a poor refugee,' Banta Singh said, playing with his tail. Cracker which he caught in midair. 'Even dogs will now have to decide if they are Indian or Pakistani,' one of the soldiers observed. Harnam Singh produced another cracker from his kitbag. 'And all Pakistanis, including dogs, will be shot.' soldier shouted, 'India Zindabad ! ' The dog, who between his legs and looked scared. Harnam Singh laughed. 'Why are you afraid of your own country? Here, Jhun Jhun, have another cracker.' The morning broke very suddenly, as if someone had switched on across the hills and valleys of Titwal, which is what the area was called. The war had been nobody could be quite sure who was winning it. Jamadar Harnam Singh surveyed the area with his binoculars. He could see smoke raising from the opposite hill, which meant that, like them, the enemy was busy preparing breakfast. Himmat Khan of the Pakistan army gave his huge moustache a twirl and began to study the map of the Titwal sector. Next to him sat his wireless operator who was trying to establish contact with the platoon commander to obtain instructions. A few feet away, the soldier Bashir sat on the ground, his back against a rock and his rifle in front of him. He was humming: Where did you spend the night, my love, my moon? Began to sing more loudly, savouring the words. Suddenly, he heard Subedar Himmat Khan scream, 'Where did you spend the night?' But this was not addressed to Bashir. It was a dog he was shouting at. He had come to them from nowhere a few days ago, stayed in the camp quite happily and then suddenly disappeared last night. However, he had now returned like a bad coin. Bashir smiled and began to sing to the dog. 'Where did you spend the night, where did spend the night?' But he only wagged his tail. Subedar Himmat Khan threw a pebble at him. 'All he can do is wag his tail, the idiot.' 'What has he got around his neck?' Bashir asked. One of the soldiers grabbed the dog and undid his makeshift rope collar. There was a small piece of cardboard tied to it. 'What does it say?' the soldier, who could not read, asked. Bashir stepped forward and with some difficulty was able to decipher the writing. 'It says JhunJhun.' Subedar Himmat Khan gave his famous moustache another mighty twirl and said, 'Perhaps it is a code. Does it say anything else, Bashirey?' 'Yes sir, it says it is an Indian dog.' 'What does that mean?' Subedar Himmat Khan asked. Secret,' Bashir answered seriously. 'If there is a secret, it is in that word Jhun Jhun,' another soldier ventured in a guess. 'You may have something there,' Subedar Himmat Khan observed. Dutifully, Bashir read the whole thing 'JhunJhun. This is an Indian dog.' Subedar Himmat Khan picked up the wireless set and spoke to his platoon commander, providing him with a detailed account of the dog's sudden appearance in their position; his equally sudden disappearance the night before and his return that rnorning. 'What are you talking about?' the platoon commander asked. Subedar Himmat Khan studied the map again. Then he tore up a packet of cigarettes, cut a small piece from it to Bashir. 'Now write on it in Gurmukhi, the language of those Sikhs . . .' 'What should I write?' 'Well . . .' inspiration. 'Shun Shun, yes, that's right. We counter JhunJhun with Shun Shun.' 'Good,' Subedar Himmat Khan said approvingly. 'And add: This is a Pakistani dog.' Subedar Himmat Khan personally threaded the piece of paper through the dog's collar and said, 'Now go join your family.' He gave him something to eat and then said, 'Look here, my friend, no treachery. The punishment for treachery is death.' The dog kept eating his food and wagging his tail. Then Subedar Himmat Khan turned him round to face the Indian position and said, 'Go and take this message to the enemy, but come back. These are the orders of your commander.' The dog wagged his tail and moved down the winding hilly track that led into the valley dividing the two hills. Subedar Himmat Khan picked up his rifle and fired in the air. The Indians were a bit puzzled, as it was somewhat early in the day for that sort of thing. Jamadar Harnam Singh, who in any case was feeling bored, shouted, 'Let's give it to them.' The two sides exchanged fire for half an hour, which, of course, was a complete waste of time. Finally, Jamadar Harnam Singh ordered that enough was enough. He combed his long hair, looked at himself in the mirror and asked Banta Singh, 'Where has that dog Jhun Jhun gone?' 'Dogs can never digest butter, goes the famous saying,' Banta Singh observed philosophically. Suddenly, the soldier on lookout duty shouted, 'There he comes.' 'Who?' Jamadar Harnam Singh asked. 'What was his name?JhunJhun,' the soldier answered. doing?' Harnam Singh asked. 'Just coming our way,' the soldier replied, peering through his binoculars. Singh snatched them from him. 'That's him all right and there's something round his neck. But, wait, that's the Pakistani hill he's coming from, the motherfucker.' He picked up his rifle, aimed and fired. The bullet hit some rocks close to where the dog was. He stopped. Subedar Himmat Khan heard the report and looked through his binoculars. The dog had turned round and was running back. 'The brave never run away from battle. Go forward and complete your mission,' he shouted at the dog. To scare him, he fired in his general direction. Harnam Singh fired at the same time. The bullet passed within inches of the dog, who leapt in the air, flapping his ears. Subedar Himmat Khan fired again, hitting some stones. It soon became a game between the two soldiers, with the dog running round in circles in a state of great terror. Both Himmat Khan and Harnam Singh were laughing boisterously. The dog began to run towards Harnam Singh, who abused him loudly and fired. The bullet caught him in the leg. He yelped, turned around and began to run towards Himmat Khan, only to meet more fire, which was only meant to scare him. 'Be a brave boy. If you are injured, don't let that stand between you and your duty. Go, go, go,' the Pakistani shouted. The dog turned. One of his legs was now useless. He began to drag himself towards Harnam Singh, who picked up his rifle, aimed carefully and shot him dead. Subedar Himmat Khan sighed, 'The poor bugger has been martyred.' Jamadar Himmat Singh ran his hand over the stillhot barrel of his rifle and muttered, 'He died a dog's death.'

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Toba Tek Singh

Saadat Hasan Manto

Two or three years after Partition, it occurred to the governments of Pakistan and Hindustan that like criminal offenders, lunatics too ought to be exchanged: that is, those Muslim lunatics who were in Hindustan's insane asylums should be sent to Pakistan, and those Hindus and Sikhs who were in Pakistan's insane asylums should be confided to the care of Hindustan.

There's no telling whether this idea was wise or unwise; in any case, according to the decision of the learned, high-level conferences took place here and there, and finally a day was fixed for the exchange of lunatics. Thorough investigation was made. Those Muslim lunatics whose relatives were all in Hindustan were allowed to remain there. As for the rest, they were sent off to the border. Here in Pakistan, since almost all the Hindus and Sikhs had already left, the question of keeping anyone didn't even arise. As many Hindu and Sikh lunatics as there were, all of them were conveyed, under police protection, to the border.

No telling what was going on that side. But here in the Lahore insane asylum, when word of this exchange arrived, major discussions began to take place. One Muslim lunatic, who every day for twelve years had regularly read the "Zamindar," was asked by a friend, "Molbi Sa'b, what's this 'Pakistan'?"; after much thought and reflection he answered, "It's a kind of place in Hindustan where razors are made."

Having heard this answer, his friend was satisfied.

In the same way, a second Sikh lunatic asked another Sikh lunatic, "Sardarji, why are we being sent to Hindustan? --We don't know the language of that place."

The other smiled: "I know the language of those Hindustaggers-- those Hindustanis go strutting around like the devil!"

One day, while bathing, a Muslim lunatic raised the cry of "Long live Pakistan!" such force that he slipped on the floor and fell, and knocked himself out.

There were also a number of lunatics who were not lunatics. The majority of them were murderers whose relatives had bribed the officers to get them sent to the lunatic asylum, to save them from the coils of the hangman's noose. These understood something of why Hindustan had been partitioned and what Pakistan was. But they too were ignorant of the actual events. Nothing could be learned from the newspapers. The guards were illiterate and crude; nothing could be picked up from their conversation either. They knew only this much: that there's a man, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, whom people call the "Qa'id-e Azam." He has made a separate country for the Muslims, the name of which is Pakistan. Where it is, what its location is-- about this they new nothing. This is the reason that in the insane asylum, all the lunatics whose minds were not completely gone were trapped in the dilemma of whether they were in Pakistan or Hindustan. If they were in Hindustan, then where was Pakistan? If they were in Pakistan, then how could this be, since a while ago, while staying right here, they had been in Hindustan?

One lunatic became so caught up in the circle of Pakistan and Hindustan, and Hindustan and Pakistan, that he became even more lunatic. One day he had been sweeping-- and then climbed a tree, seated himself on a branch, and gave an unbroken two-hour speech about the subtle problem of Pakistan and Hindustan. When the guards told him to come down, he climbed even higher. When he was warned and threatened, he said, "I don't want to live in either Hindustan or Pakistan. I'll live right here in this tree."

When after great difficulty his ardor was cooled, he came down and began to embrace his Hindu and Sikh friends and weep. His heart overflowed at the thought that they would leave him and go off to Hindustan.

In an M.Sc.-qualified radio engineer, who was Muslim, who used to stroll all day in silence on a special path in the garden entirely apart from the other lunatics, the change that manifested itself was that he removed all his clothing, confided it to the care of a warden, and began to wander all around the garden entirely naked.

A stout Muslim lunatic from Chiniot who had been an enthusiastic worker for the Muslim League, and who bathed fifteen or sixteen times a day, suddenly abandoned this habit. His name was Muhammad Ali. Accordingly, one day in his madness he announced that he was the Qa'id-e Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. In imitation of him, a Sikh lunatic became Master Tara Singh. In this madness it almost came to bloodshed, but both were declared 'dangerous lunatics' and shut up in separate rooms.

There was a young Hindu lawyer from Lahore who had been rejected in love and had turned lunatic. When he heard that Amritsar had gone away into India, then he was very sad. He had fallen in love with a Hindu girl from that very city. Although she had rejected the lawyer, even in his madness he hadn't forgotten her. Thus he abused all those Hindu and Muslim leaders who had connived together and made Hindustan into two fragments-- his beloved had become Hindustani, and he Pakistani.

When talk of the exchange began, then some of the lunatics comforted the lawyer, saying that he shouldn't mind about it, that he would be sent to Hindustan-- the Hindustan where his beloved lived. But he didn't want to leave Lahore, because he thought that in Amritsar his practice wouldn't flourish.

In the European ward there were two Anglo-Indian lunatics. When they learned that the English had freed Hindustan and gone away, they were very much shocked. And for hours they privately conferred about the important question of what their status in the lunatic asylum would be now. Would the European Ward remain, or be abolished? Would breakfast be available, or not? Instead of proper bread, would they have to choke down those bloody Indian chapattis?

There was one Sikh who had been in the insane asylum for fifteen years. Strange and remarkable words were always be heard on his lips: "Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di daal of the lantern." He slept neither by day nor by night. The guards said that in the long duration of fifteen years he hadn't slept even for a moment. He didn't even lie down. Although indeed, he sometimes leaned against a wall.

Because he constantly remained standing, his feet swelled up. His ankles were swollen too. But despite this bodily discomfort, he didn't lie down and rest. When in the insane asylum there was talk about Hindustan-Pakistan and the exchange of lunatics, he listened attentively. If someone asked him what his opinion was, he answered with great seriousness, "Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di daal of the Pakistan Government."

But later, "of the Pakistan Government" was replaced by "of the Toba Tek Singh Government," and he began to ask the other lunatics where Toba Tek Singh was, where he had his home. But no one at all knew whether it was in Pakistan or Hindustan. If they tried to tell him, they themselves were caught up in the perplexity that Sialkot used to be in Hindustan, but now it was said to be in Pakistan. Who knew whether Lahore, which now is in Pakistan, tomorrow might go off to Hindustan? Or all of Hindustan itself might become Pakistan? And who could place his hand on his breast and say whether Hindustan and Pakistan might not both someday vanish entirely?

This Sikh lunatic's hair had grown very thin and sparse. Because he rarely bathed, the hair of his beard and head had clumped together, which gave him a very frightening appearance. But the man was harmless. In fifteen years he'd never quarreled with anybody. The longtime custodians in the insane asylum knew only this much about him: that he had some lands in Toba Tek Singh. He was a prosperous landlord, when suddenly his mind gave way. His relatives bound him in heavy iron chains, brought him to the insane asylum, got him admitted, and left.

These people came once a month to see him; after checking on his welfare, they left. For a long time these visits took place regularly. But when the confusion over Pakistan-Hindustan began, the visits stopped.

His name was Bishan Singh, but everyone called him "Toba Tek Singh." He had absolutely no idea what day it was, what month it was, or how many years had passed. But every month when his near and dear ones came to visit him, then he himself used to be aware of it. Thus he used to tell the custodian that his visitors were coming. That day he bathed very well, scrubbed his body thoroughly with soap, and put oil on his hair and combed it. He had them bring out clothes that he never wore, and put them on, and in such a state of adornment he went to meet his visitors. If they asked him anything, then he remained silent, or from time to time said, "Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of the lantern."

He had one daughter who, growing a finger-width taller every month, in fifteen years had become a young girl. Bishan Singh didn't even recognize her. When she was a child, she wept when she saw her father; when she'd grown up, tears still flowed from her eyes.

When the story of Pakistan and Hindustan began, he started asking the other lunatics where Toba Tek Singh was. When no reassuring answer was forthcoming, day by day his agitation increased. Now even his visitors didn't come. Formerly, he himself used to be aware that his visitors were coming. But now it was as if even the voice of his heart, which used to tell him of their arrival, had fallen silent.

His great desire was that those people would come who showed sympathy toward him, and brought him fruit, sweets, and clothing. If he asked them where Toba Tek Singh was, they would certainly tell him whether it was in Pakistan or Hindustan. Because his idea was that they came from Toba Tek Singh itself, where his lands were.

In the insane asylum there was also a lunatic who called himself God. When one day Bisham Singh asked him whether Toba Tek Singh was in Pakistan or Hindustan, he burst out laughing, as was his habit, and said, "It's neither in Pakistan nor in Hindustan-- because we haven't given the order yet."

A number of times Bishan Singh asked this God, with much pleading and cajoling, to give the order, so that the perplexity would be ended; but he was very busy, because he had countless orders to give. One day, growing irritated, Bishan Singh burst out at him, "Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of hail to the Guruji and the Khalsa, and victory to the Guruji! Who says this will thrive-- the true God is ever alive!"

Perhaps the meaning of this was, "You're the God of the Muslims! If you were the God of the Sikhs, you'd surely have listened to me!"

Some days before the exchange, a Muslim from Toba Tek Singh who was his friend came to visit him. He had never come before. When Bishan Singh saw him, he moved off to one side and turned to go back, but the guards stopped him.

"He's come to visit you. He's your friend Fazal Din."

Bishan Singh took one look at Fazal Din, and began to mutter something. Fazal Din came forward and put a hand on his shoulder. "I've been thinking for a long time that I'd come see you, but I just didn't get a chance.... All your family are well; they've gone off to Hindustan.... I helped as much as I could.... Your daughter Rup Kaur..."

He stopped in the midst of what he was saying. Bishan Singh began to remember something. "Daughter Rup Kaur."

Fazl Din said haltingly, "Yes... she... she too is fine.... She too went off with them." Bishan Singh remained silent. Fazal Din began saying, "They told me to check on your welfare from time to time.... Now I've heard that you're going to Hindustan.... Give my greetings to brother Balbesar Singh and brother Vadhava Singh.... And sister Amrit Kaur too.... Tell brother Balbesar that those brown water buffaloes that he left behind, one of them had a male calf.... The other had a female calf, but when it was six days old it died.... And... and if there's anything I can do for you, tell me; I'm at your service.... And I've brought you a little puffed-rice candy."

Bishan Singh confided the bundle of puffed-rice candy to the guard standing nearby, and asked Fazal Din, "Where is Toba Tek Singh?"

Fazal Din said with some astonishment, "Where is it? Right there where it was!"

Bishan Singh asked, "In Pakistan, or in Hindustan?"

"In Hindustan -- no, no, in Pakistan." Fazal Din was thrown into confusion.

Bishan Singh went off muttering, "Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of the Pakistan and Hindustan of the get out, loudmouth!"

Preparations for the exchange had been completed. Lists of the lunatics coming from here to there, and from there to here, had arrived, and the day of the exchange had also been fixed.

It was extremely cold when the lorries full of Hindu and Sikh lunatics from the Lahore insane asylum set out, with a police guard. The escorting wardens were with them as well. At the Wagah border the two parties' superintendents met each other; and after the initial procedures had been completed, the exchange began, and went on all night.

To extricate the lunatics from the lorries, and confide them to the care of the other wardens, was a very difficult task. Some refused to emerge at all. Those who were willing to come out became difficult to manage, because they suddenly ran here and there. If clothes were put on the naked ones, they tore them off their bodies and flung them away. Someone was babbling abuse, someone was singing. They were fighting among themselves, weeping, muttering. People couldn't make themselves heard at all-- and the female lunatics' noise and clamor was something else. And the cold was so fierce that everybody's teeth were chattering.

The majority of the lunatics were not in favor of this exchange. Because they couldn't understand why they were being uprooted from their place and thrown away like this. Those few who were capable of a glimmer of understanding were raising the cries, "Long live Pakistan!" and "Death to Pakistan!" Two or three times a fight was narrowly averted, because a number of Muslims and Sikhs, hearing these slogans, flew into a passion.

When Bishan Singh's turn came, and on that side of the Wagah border the accompanying officer began to enter his name in the register, he asked, "Where is Toba Tek Singh? In Pakistan, or in Hindustan?"

The accompanying officer laughed: "In Pakistan."

On hearing this Bishan Singh leaped up, dodged to one side, and ran to rejoin his remaining companions. The Pakistani guards seized him and began to pull him in the other direction, but he refused to move. "Toba Tek Singh is here!" -- and he began to shriek with great force, "Upar di gur gur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of Toba Tek Singh and Pakistan!"

They tried hard to persuade him: "Look, now Toba Tek Singh has gone off to Hindustan! And if it hasn't gone, then it will be sent there at once." But he didn't believe them. When they tried to drag him to the other side by force, he stopped in the middle and stood there on his swollen legs as if now no power could move him from that place.

Since the man was harmless, no further force was used on him. He was allowed to remain standing there, and the rest of the work of the exchange went on.

In the pre-dawn peace and quiet, from Bishan Singh's throat there came a shriek that pierced the sky.... From here and there a number of officers came running, and they saw that the man who for fifteen years, day and night, had constantly stayed on his feet, lay prostrate। There, behind barbed wire, was Hindustan. Here, behind the same kind of wire, was Pakistan. In between, on that piece of ground that had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh.

translated from the Urdu by Frances W. Pritchett

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

How Grief Perishes

M. Hameed Shahid

Nabeel felt nauseated as he entered the emergency ward. The pungent smell of tinctures filled his nostrils and disrupted his breathing. His destination was Ward 3, but he had to pass through the emergency ward which was located at the entrance. Every time there would be a new case in need of urgent attention. Whenever Nabeel happened to be there, he would see people in a serious condition. They would be bleeding, maimed, seriously injured, in agony or in the throes of death. Doctors and nurses would be frantically trying to save those wretches. Sometimes they would be stanching a hemorrhage, at times resuscitating the heart by pressing the patient’s chest. Another patient would be retching to cough out the blood flooding his lungs. Do they survive? He often wondered. He hoped they did. But in his sojourn through the emergency ward he would invariably see a couple of dead bodies laid out on stretchers. They would be surrounded by wailing women, hysterical with grief, falling all over them. The men would be trying to extricate them, consoling and gently advising them to accept the grim reality with fortitude.

Nabeel wouldn’t think these thoughts when he heard the heart-rending wails. He would allow himself to ponder on these, only when he reached the long corridor of the cardiology ward. The reason was that he had seen many corpses here too, but the people accompanying the stretchers wouldn’t be mourning.

No sobs. No tears. Nothing. Their faces would be drained of colour. White like a shroud, they would walk by the stretcher reverently, as though they had been rehearsing this walk for years. And now that the moment had arrived, they would not undermine their long patient preparation by acting in an un-becoming way.

On his walk from the emergency through the cardiology ward, he would rationalize everything and his breathing would become regular. He had visited the ward about three weeks back with Nudrat. Nudrat’s father was concerned about her mother. He suspected that she had a heart condition. One day when she lay down for her daily siesta, she felt heaviness in her chest. A lump of pain and discomfort would begin in her navel and rise up to her chest near her heart and then subside leaving a trail of dull throb. Nudrat’s dad had her checked up thoroughly and only when the doctors had given a clean bill of health, was he reassured.
Nabeel never even suspected that she had a heart condition. He firmly believed that a cautious, patient person would never be susceptible to such an illness. Despite this belief, when he came to visit Nudrat’s mother, he felt very uneasy. On his second visit too, the nagging feeling was there. Perhaps what he had learnt was self-control and not acceptance and the ability to bear. Patience he had mastered long since.

Medical wards were ahead, Ward I to the right, II and III along the corridor. In Ward III in a private room lay his own sick mother. She had been ill for so long that he had virtually forgotten the times when she used to be healthy. After his father’s death, the right side of her body had been paralyzed and since then she had been bed-ridden.

In the beginning, she would become thirsty very frequently. Her throat would be dry; her stomach would churn with hunger. And she had been incontinent too. The wetness of the bed would slice through her back. She made desperate efforts to call out to her son, but incoherent guttural sounds would be produced. The effort would almost kill her. Her chest would be strained and her lower jaw would drop. Her frail body would double up.

At first he would respond with alacrity, but when this became a routine, he was a bit weary. In the end he actually had to drag himself to attend to her needs.

One day, when his mother was going through the same agonizing routine, the door-bell rang. One short abrupt ring followed by a persistent one. Nudrat’s distinctive trade-mark style. The sound terminated and silence fell. A long silence in which his mother’s incoherent sounds drowned. His heart missed a beat.

He had reached the front door before the sound had subsided. He opened the door but her demeanour indicated that she had not come to sit. She motioned towards the car. He followed her like a serf. He had no will in her presence and neither did she care for it. She was that kind of a person; confident, sophisticated.

She was not only exceptionally beautiful, material well-being oozed from her as a bubbling stream cascading down an incline.

On that day he returned home after many hours. The offensive smell of stale urine hit his senses. He looked at his mother. There was a little puddle of urine under her bed, trickling down to the door.

A gasp of remorse and grief burst out of him unintentionally.

No one wants to be grieved and no one can will grief away.

Time spent with Nudrat was euphoria. He was brimming with a sense of well-being. The fragrance-filled charm of the pretty girl evaporated from his senses. His mother turned her face away. His hands went about their work mechanically. When he had dried and changed his mother, he lifted her and placed her on the adjoining bed. He was shocked at how much weight she had lost during her illness. She was feather-light.

The way he had gone about the chores with tender, meticulous care had wiped away all the frowns of displeasure from her face, her disappointed demeanour cleared and her open, ever-fluttering eye was filled with tears of gratitude.

In the hospital corridor, ahead of the cardiology ward, where another corridor intersected the fist one, four benches were placed along the wall. Before entering the ward, he used to sit there for a few moments. Not initially, but now, after two months of his mother’s hospitalization he would always sit if there was an empty bench. The first time he had sat there with Nudrat when she had come to enquire after his mother, Nudrat was very concerned about the fact that the patient had a slim chance of survival. She never visited again, but whenever she called she would always show concern about the prolonged illness. The illness definitely had gone on for long. The bed-sores were not healing due to diabetes and her breathing had become laboured, wheezing gasps. She had been oxygen-dependent for some time; still every breath was an agonizing ordeal for her. The doctors performed tracheotomy and inserted a tube through her throat to facilitate breathing. No doctor would give them a clear picture as to when her lungs would resume breathing on their own. Sometimes they would sound very hopeful, at others they would seem to be on the verge of giving up.

Nudrat had given up on him too. Her parents had goaded her on. They had selected a very suitable match in their own family but they were helpless before their daughter’s resolve. They loved her immensely and did not want to force her. But the uncertainty of his mother’s condition paved their way in convincing their daughter. They fueled her doubts. A pre-occupied son, devoted to a very sick mother presented a bleak scenario. No one knew how long the ordeal could drag.

The doctors’ prognosis was that if the patient survived, she would need constant care and support. Nudrat was disappointed, dejected but the disappointing old woman’s son would glean out many hopeful strands out of the doctor’s talk.

For the next fifteen days, Nabeel waited for Nudrat. She never visited, but called him every day. She would want to talk about things other than his mother’s condition, but he would be so drained emotionally by the time he had tackled that issue, that she did not have the nerve to put her query across. A lovely girl, with life’s charmed vistas open before her, she did love him, but she could not live on hospital talk alone. And she could not wait endlessly. So the fragrant love inside her gradually wafted away. No surprise. On the fifteenth day she shrugged her love away. She rationalized that their love had outlived its span. She did call him on the two following days in an effort to drag him out of the depressing situation. He did not respond to her satisfaction and with a sigh she gave up on him.

Nabeel was not the son who would give up on his mother. He felt as though he was still a part of her; attached by the umbilical cord, curled up in her womb. Like Abbas Shah’s sculpture of quasi-marble in which a fetus was placed in the mother’s womb. It was Nabeel himself. He touched the translucent statue with curiosity. It was surprisingly light and shaky. His mother’s frame had also become light but it wouldn’t shake. When he looked at it, all sorts of fears would drift through his mind. He couldn’t even conceive life without this frame. But unstoppable time flew on. Nudrat had stopped calling altogether. He called her a few times but he was told that she was not in. One fine day she called to inform him of her engagement, unceremoniously. She did not even enquire after his mother. His heart sank. The shock made him speechless. Disappointment rent his heart. The lovely time spent with Nudrat floated through his senses like an elusive dream. His true love had abandoned him.

He survived. He had to, because he had no recourse. He was fully cognizant of what the doctors were saying. ‘Cannot say with any certainty, how long it would take for the patient’s condition to stabilize.’ Whenever the doctors tried to remove the tracheal tube, the patient’s body would go into agonizing spasms.

He sat on the bench and dozed. God knows how long he had been sitting there. His mother’s condition had deteriorated in the night. The doctors had re-installed the tube. The feeding-tube inserted through her nose was bothering her. Perhaps it had lacerated the delicate tissue inside and she was feeling burning pain. She would raise her shivering hand towards it again and again.

He told the doctor about it, who informed him that it was possibly a minor rupture which would heal in time. He advised Nabeel to ensure that his mother did not pull it out.

He felt like pulling it out himself to end his mother’s ordeal, but he controlled himself. He stayed awake all through the night. When dawn peeped through the window, he followed it out. He wandered aimlessly for sometime. When he returned, an emptiness had seized his being. He cast an empty gaze at the activity within the emergency ward. He found the wailing women vulgar and distasteful. ‘Will this sordid display bring back their dead?’ He laughed a bitter laugh to quell the question rising within.

One of the mourning girls was very beautiful, and the old dead woman she was mourning, very graceful. He gave them a passing glance and moved on.

Each time the passage through the emergency to the cardiology ward would be a painful one, but today, he was drained of all emotions.

He collapsed onto one of the benches and remained there. He had lost all sense of time.

A stretcher emerged from Ward 3 and he was jolted out of his stupor. He was curious to look at the corpse’s face. It was not of his mother. He slumped back on the bench. That was the first time he prayed for his mother’s deliverance from this pain.

And he prayed on till he had exhausted the cache of all the pious terms. He was suddenly destitute as if all the currency he possessed had been blown away. His incantation was incoherent gibberish. Words were like insects, wriggling in his mouth, stuck to his palate. Lifeless. His eyes were glazed. He watched but nothing registered. The mourners and the mourned lost distinction. Dead bodies were being transported in front of him. Instead of grief he felt relief, something akin to release. Perhaps this was an indication that he was still living. He could clearly rationalize that the people who had been attending to the sick and dying were finally relieved of their burden. A stench arose in him. He delved deep into his consciousness. He could see two corpses engulfed in pitch darkness. One was his dead love. He did not look at the other. He made a very sincere effort to shed tears but he was adrift on that wave of stench, gradually being carried away.

Translated from Urdu by Atia Shirazi

Portrait of a Woman

Azra Abbas

The first time when I knocked on his door, he opened it himself. He was an artist, and a well-known one. I used to go to his painting exhibitions often, but had not had an opportunity to meet him earlier. One day I called him up and made an appointment to see him. He was at the door. ‘So how are you? I’ve seen you somewhere,’ he said, standing at the door, as he combed his fingers through his hair and signalled for me to enter.

‘That’s right! At your paintings exhibition … I go often, very good strokes… your colours are very lifelike … it seems as if the strokes are applied involuntarily. But the movement in them indicates your skill. Each stroke is full of life … then your landscapes … it’s as if one is standing inside what you have painted.’

As I said this, I found a place to sit in his drawing room. He smiled and lit a cigarette, and gave me a cushion to put behind my back. I looked around his room intently. How fine all his paintings looked hanging on the walls. But one painting among them was very unusual!

‘Whose portrait is that?’

‘This … it could be anyone’s. If the one who drew it is alive he can tell; once he dies it will simply become a masterpiece from the artist’s easel. The one which startled you so … yes, whoever’s it is, it is very beautiful.’

The face in the painting was a woman’s but the features were so tangible and distinct, and the effect that spread across them showed that the artist had used all his craftsmanship to create it. It was a living, breathing painting.

‘But you can tell about it now… that…’ I asked swallowing hard, moved by the beauty of his painting….

‘Yes …. my wife…. was…. was…. that’s right….’

My ears perked up ….

‘Where is she?’ I asked with great trepidation because I could see a dark shadow coming over his face. He had lowered his head and was staring at the space between his feet.
‘The fact is that she did not want to live with me. That’s why she has started living with other people now.’

‘So she wanted to live with other people then.’ The ridiculous question slipped off my tongue.

‘No, another person wanted to live with her.’

‘So you didn’t want to live with her.’ I opened my mouth, and asked the question without even meaning to.

‘That’s not how it was earlier. Initially, she was the only one I wanted to live with. But gradually she started losing significance for me. Actually I consider a wife to be an insignificant thing, whoever’s she might be. When I got to know this woman, I had thought I couldn’t live without her. But as soon as she became my wife, I started to see her as just one of the many things around the house that I had acquired to meet my needs. A wife’s place seemed the same as the rest of them. One who would be there to fulfill my needs whenever necessary. That was it. My emotional relationship with her had come to an end. But she had also become aware of the value that I attached to her. Very slowly her attitude also started to change, although I would see her completely involved around the house. She would look after my patrons and even took care of all my own needs promptly. In her own mind, perhaps she was ready to go on living in this way, hence she very calmly went about keeping herself busy in the house. At the same time, she quietly endured all the activities where I would get romantically involved with other women. She made this part of her regular routine. I had observed her resignation to my activities and felt that if she wanted to continue living with me she would have to endure all that. But she would scrutinize every step I took. She was certainly not oblivious to what I was up to. Although she would do certain things to make me aware of her presence, I looked upon her as being unimportant to me, so that her only association with me was that she was my wife and a wife whose place was among the other items I needed around the house. Meanwhile, I would take interest in any woman who could not become my wife; whoever she might be; even if she were someone else’s wife. I would quickly get rid of any woman who approached me with hopes of becoming my wife. On occasion, this flirtatious habit of mine placed me in a dilemma, and when some women sacrificed everything for me and tried everything in their power to take my wife’s place, I would push my wife forward and she would take them away from me with great equanimity and occasionally some cunning. But it wasn’t as if she wasn’t upset by these actions of mine. There were times when she tried to make me realize and punish me for this behaviour by not coming to me in bed. But this method often did not have any effect on me. Sometimes, apparently unaware of it, she would start cavorting with me in such a manner that would leave me completely bewildered. Thus, gradually our relationship was taking on a strange dimension. She would sometimes become my friend and sometimes be a stranger to me, and sometimes she would be there for me when I returned home without having satisfied my sexual needs. She could tell when things were thus, and would yield to me with all her energy. I also felt as if she was telling me again and again that she was not unimportant. That she was not just my wife whom I could simply place alongside the other articles around the house and forget.

And then one day, when an admirer of my work, like you, came to see me, my wife looked after him as was her norm, because it was part of her daily routine to be hospitable to all my patrons. ‘This is my wife.’ I had introduced her with my characteristically exaggerated aloofness. That was how I always introduced her to strangers. ‘Okay go and get some tea.’ And she would run to go and greet my patrons laden with goodies, like a dutiful and obedient wife. The same thing happened that day.

I spent a long time talking to my guest. My wife kept coming in with water, tea and snacks. But in the meantime I don’t know what happened and how his attention focused on my wife. I was watching too. She also started coming into the room more frequently. My guest would sneak a glance at my wife. Who knows what that look was. That made my wife aware of being watched. Then that patron started coming to my house very frequently, but now my wife was included in his admiration. He would pass some comment praising her cooking, her clothes or her gait every time. At such moments, I would see her blush in the same manner as she used to, at the beginning of our relationship, but I still did not attach enough importance to my wife, to put an end to this interaction. In my eyes she was a good hostess. But I was shocked out of this spell one day. That day I watched my wife greet and entertain my patron in a different manner. She wasn’t wearing her everyday clothes that day; instead I found her all dressed up and carefully groomed. I didn’t make much of this initially, but then I saw that when she bent down to hand my patron a cup of tea, she made a conspicuous but unsuccessful show of hiding her breasts. She was discovering a new manner of exposing herself, and I could see the same glimmer in my patron’s eyes that came into mine when I beheld other women. I was looking at all this apathetically. All this was also insignificant for me. I had been in similar situations so many times. Additionally, I no longer saw my wife like this myself. She was not a woman, she was a wife, and a wife who was an object for me. Even my sexual relations with her, as I have described before, had become as much a part of my daily rituals as brushing my teeth or changing my clothes. My paintings got more attention than this. She had also got used to this treatment from me. When physical necessity took me to her bed, she also took off her clothes in the same way as she would give money to a persistent professional beggar to be rid of him. I never remonstrated against this behaviour either. Because her body no longer gave me the scent of romance that I could smell on other women, regardless of how far away they were standing. Only to fulfill a need. Once in a while when a flirtation with another woman did not happen to culminate in a sexual encounter, I would satisfy my sexual desire with my wife’s body, and unawares or not, she always fulfilled this need. That day I could see her body desperate to expose itself. Every coquettish gesture she made showed that she was making a futile effort of covering herself, and even my presence did not bother her at that point. At first it felt as if I had already seen that scene repeatedly, but then suddenly I discovered that this was the first time I was witnessing it myself, as an outsider. This was not someone else’s wife and that was not me. That was my patron. And this was my wife here. But I was looking at this scene in the same way as I would look at the strokes of someone else’s painting, trying to find new strokes that might be different and apart from my own strokes.

Then this scene disappeared from my sight. My wife was back in her old everyday clothes and got busy around the house following the same routine as before, and I was again forced to see her as an insignificant object at the dining table, the bed and in the studio. I saw the same expressionless look in her eyes once my patron had departed. She didn’t even give any justification for the fervour that she demonstrated in his presence. As if nothing had happened at all. In order to blur this scene, I also started to look at the strokes of other paintings. But this started happening repeatedly; my patron’s visits became more frequent. And every time I saw a heightened intensity in this scene. They were no longer bothered about whether I was present or not. And a new change was coming over me as new strokes were introduced to this scene. It was a very strange feeling. When he came to my house, I would stay in the same room where my wife was bent upon entertaining him. Something new was revealed in every new gesture and manner of hers. I would see the admirer fawning over her. Suddenly I felt as if I were that admirer. And she wasn’t my wife, she was some other woman. This sensation started to grow within me. As soon as the admirer left, I would grab my wife. I wouldn’t interrogate or question her; instead I would throw her on the bed and take the romance that she had started with the admirer to its culmination in a strange manner. This was no longer insignificant to me. She was also not my wife to me at that moment, the wife whom I used whenever the need arose and who cooked my meals for me, washed my clothes and looked after the affairs of my household. Now she was some other woman. But all this would suddenly end as soon as we had had each other. I would be the same as before once again and she would go back to being the same wife. Now I started enjoying this game. I started being restless for that admirer’s visits. And on the occasions that he was due to arrive, I would simply stay out of my studio. When he arrived, I wouldn’t open the door. I’d ask my wife to open the door. He would come and sit in the drawing room, and I no longer went to meet him as soon as he came in; instead I would look for ways to quietly enter the room where I saw my wife flirting with her admirer in a completely new persona. I would be thrown into a fury of excitement at every gesture of hers. I would look at all this secretly, as if she were putting up this entire show for my benefit. I would feel a wave of love rising within my body for her, which was the same as when I was trying to attract the attention of another woman. My heart would be ready to burst with love, happiness, grief and much more. All this was the same as the tumult when, while working on a new painting I would play with the colours and brushes for a long while. But all this while, the entire game would start only with the arrival of the admirer, and come to an end when I brought my wife to bed and concluded the game there and my wife remained exactly as she had always been.

But one day when my patron was due to visit, I had to go out for some important work. I tried very hard to be back in time but was unable to do so. All the while, I kept visualizing the romance between my wife and the admirer in all its splendour, and kept feeling all kinds of unknown sensations spreading across my being, and then I knocked on the door with great desperation and restlessness. My patron opened the door. I saw my wife standing behind him, looking at me as if I were a stranger, an intruder. I virtually pushed past them to get in, and ran towards my studio. Putting down the things I was carrying, I went towards the bed and called my wife in the admirer’s presence. She looked very different to me that day. An object of great value and importance. She came and stood holding the door. I stepped towards her in a sea of emotion. Come. But she looked at the bed and at me in a manner that showed that both had lost their significance for her. I tried to call her again. My whole being was ready to explode. But she had left the door and gone and was busy looking after my patron.

As I lay there, a strange notion entered my mind, an idea, a flood of such great intensity that it crushed my spirit. I wanted to see my wife in my patron’s house, and myself in his place. I got up with a start and went to my studio. That day I painted this portrait of my wife. That day, that insignificant woman had seemed very important. And the next day I told my wife of my decision.

She is living with my patron as his wife now. The two of them are not in this city any more.’

I kept looking at the artist’s portrait for a long while; at the radiance the artist had captured from her face and hidden in this portrait; that couldn’t be forgotten once you set your eyes on it. It was the face of a woman who was smiling after having become aware of her glory for the first time.

Translated from Urdu by Samiya K. Mumtaz


Neelofar Iqbal


‘Sher Ali. Sir.’

General Bubbar Ali dismissed the soldier with a wave of his stick, glancing at the man as he turned away after saluting smartly. Fit and healthy…now the name…the name was very wrong…Sher…Bubbar…Sher…Bubbar…the bastard’s name was a problem. Oh well, bubbar sher was always a bigger lion than the common lions. With that thought he turned to the Captain who had brought the man and said, ‘All right.’

The Captain brought his heels together in a smart salute, turned sharply and walked out of the room with his body held taut like a bow.

When Sher Ali enlisted in the Army, the villagers sent him off like a bridegroom.

‘You are now the mother of a soldier.’ The women didn’t even try to hide their envy.

‘It’s the will of God,’ said Sher Ali’s mother happily, but she didn’t want them to think she was a proud woman, so she quickly spread a brightly striped khes (1) on the cot and brought out the sweetmeats on an aluminum tray.

‘You’ll write me letters, won’t you son?’ she asked, wiping her eyes and nose with her chaadar (2) as she spoke.

‘Sure I’ll write, why wouldn’t I?’ promised Sher Ali before leaving. He could write well. It was only Master Karam Ilahi’s canings that had made him run away from school in the fifth grade, otherwise he could write quite well. And now he had got this job in the Army after a great deal of effort. Shakoora, one of the men from the village, had joined the Army and been made the batman of some Major. He was the one who put in a good word for Sher Ali with his Sahib and got Sher Ali enlisted.

1. khes: thick, printed bedsheet 2. chaadar: wrap
Sher Ali had asked many questions about the Army; he wanted to know all the details and at first Shakoora tried to put him off. He had a lot of standing in the village; whenever he came to spend his leave in the village, wearing his khaki uniform and carrying a bag, he was treated like a hero. Girls would peep at him from behind doors, and if they passed him outside they would be overcome with a heady mixture of embarrassment and glee, turning red and hiding their faces in their veils. They didn’t care if he was a Major or a Colonel or just a soldier. It was the khaki uniform…it did something to them. And the simple villagers would surround him and listen raptly to stories about life in the Army, which he recounted like tales of Sinbad the Sailor. Young men looked at him expectantly, their bright eyes reflecting the gleam of the brass buttons on his uniform.

When Sher Ali persisted with his questions, Shakoora looked right and left, lowered his voice and said, ‘We…ell, the officers live like kings, but the batmen…why don’t you try for another job?’

A job in the army and…no it wasn’t possible. ‘Look if you can’t help me man, don’t.’ Sher Ali had said, feeling hurt. He still wanted to join the army. Shakoora was thin and dark and he looked good in his uniform while he, Sher Ali, was tall and fair, and healthy. Imagine how good he would look; the thought made his head swim. And think of Munawwari, smooth as a butterball, his fiancée Munawwari, what would she think? And then finally one day, Shakoora helped Sher Ali get a job in the army.

He understood what Shakoora had been trying to tell him on the very first day, when he was made batman to a Captain Sahib. Sher Ali had never cooked a meal in his life, or even rinsed a glass for himself; his mother did all that. The Major’s wife was a tall and fair woman. She had two children who were four and five and a small baby.

‘Can you cook?’

‘No ji,’ (3) Sher Ali replied, a little surprised. He thought a batman’s job was to look after his rifle and his Sahib’s uniform and shoes.

‘All you batmen try to be very clever…never mind, I’ll teach you. For the time being you cut the onions and peel the garlic. There it is, in the vegetable rack. You can do the dishes later; they are all lying in the sink. Then clean the kitchen thoroughly. I’ve been without a batman for four days and it is really filthy. There, there’s the
dishcloth, and wash it after you’re done with it; don’t make a mess like the others. The last one was kicked out for that. He used to throw the dirty

3. ji: polite address
dishcloths over the wall. And once you are through with cleaning the kitchen then make the beds and do the dusting. I am expecting some guests at four…oh no, I forgot! You have to go to the store also. You can write, can’t you? Make a list…no wait. First do the dishes and the other kitchen work, the guests will come for tea…you know how to make tea don’t you?’

Within two or three days Sher Ali had learnt that he was supposed to cook, wash dishes, wash and iron clothes, dust the entire house, and look after the garden as well as the children. Begum Sahib had taught him how to prepare the baby’s bottles and wash nappies on the very first day. Sahib and Begum Sahib (4) went out most evenings, and it was Sher Ali’s job to feed the children and put them to sleep. He had to sit up late, waiting for the couple to return so that he could open and shut the gate for them, not permitted to go to his quarters till they’d locked themselves in their own room. In any case, Sher Ali soon became quite adept at all the chores and learnt how to perform his duties obediently like a good, exemplary soldier.

Years went by and Sher Ali was promoted from a Captain’s orderly to a Major’s orderly and so on, till he became a Brigadier’s orderly. In his many years of service, this was the best. There were two other batmen in the house besides him and the work was divided among them. The best thing was that the lady of the house had nothing to do with the housework; she spent the mornings at coffee parties and the evenings at the club, and the house and kitchen were the domain of the batmen.

Then Sher Ali was told that he had been promoted again and today he had accompanied Captain Sahib to General Bubbar Ali’s magnificent bungalow. He was really thrilled. It was a great honour to be appointed to a General’s staff, the high point of a batman’s career. He wondered about his new duties as he left the General’s room.

‘Follow me,’ said the Captain.

‘Sir.’ Sher Ali brought his heels together smartly and followed the Captain out of the veranda towards the driveway. Captain Sahib was walking towards the rear of the bungalow. There was a large ground at the back; on one side were many servant quarters and two large garages. There was a car parked in one of the garages and just outside, almost blocking the first car, was an army jeep. The big car mostly in use by the General was parked in the porch at the front.

A soldier was sitting with one leg resting on top of the other in front of the second garage. He was looking intently at the pictures inside an old English

4. Begum Sahib: lady of the house
magazine in his hands. His nose was long and bent at the tip with large flaring nostrils, as if he were sniffing at something permanently. He had high cheekbones and sunken cheeks. He had the bright and inquisitive eyes of people who know how to get enjoyment out of everything and every word. The moment he saw the Captain he stood up with a jerk, putting the magazine down on the stool and saluting sharply, then looked at Sher Ali with interest.

‘Come inside,’ said the Captain from the door of the garage.

Sher Ali moved forward and was about to enter when he jumped back involuntarily. Just inside the garage, tied to thick iron hooks with chains, were three huge, ferocious-looking dogs. The moment they saw Sher Ali they strained against their chains, and one of them started jumping and barking angrily. Seeing Sher Ali move back, the Captain’s voice took on an ordering tone.

‘Don’t…move forward…you are here for them,’ he said and then turned towards the other soldier.

‘Mir Zaman, he will be under your training for ten days. Teach him everything about the dogs. And you! Make sure you learn everything properly, and let them get used to you. They are very expensive dogs; the General is very fond of them. Mir is going to leave in ten days and it is now your duty. Right?’ the Captain said as he walked out of the garage door.

‘Sir!’ Both of them saluted smartly.

Mir Zaman cast a long curious glance at the newcomer before entering the garage again. He rested his hand on the back of the large white dog with shiny black patches of fur. Seeing him so close, the dogs grew excited. Tails waving, they started rubbing their noses in his clothes and hands. Sher Ali felt a shiver of revulsion go through his body at the sight of their wet noses and drooling mouths. One wolf-like dog stood on his hind legs and tried to climb on the man’s shoulders. The garage was resounding with the heavy breathing of the dogs, their wet red tongues hanging out of their mouths. Perhaps this was the way they showed their affection. ‘Shush, shush,’ Mir Zaman made as if to shoo them away and turned towards Sher Ali.

‘This one is a Doberman. A pure German breed…this one here, the one with the short tail…and that one over there is a German shepherd. His father and mother came directly from Germany. It’s a very pure and special breed. He is the pure bred son of pure bred parents that belong to the other General Sahib who gave him to our General when he was a pup. There is talk of his daughter marrying our General’s son…it’s a very special and expensive breed. They are worth over a hundred thousand rupees each. They go to races and large bets are placed on them…one has to maintain strict control over them. They shouldn’t get anywhere near other dogs and bitches or they may catch a disease. A doctor comes regularly to check them over…they have to be taken for regular walks. If you don’t exercise them twice a day they become lethargic…any way, you’ll learn the ropes in the next ten days. I haven’t served them less myself. You’ll have to learn how to cook their meat. Their rotis (5) must be thick…’

‘Isn’t there a cook here?’ Sher Ali was a bit confused.

‘Cook? Of course there is a cook, in fact there are two, but whom should they cook for? Men or dogs…the kennel? When you’ve been placed on duty over here, it is your job to do all the work here, isn’t it? I’ll also teach you how to give them a bath.’

Sher Ali looked at the dogs with awe…and they were awe-inspiring.

The Doberman’s neck and head were brown, the area around the eyes and nose was black and his back and hind legs were totally black…the elongated slanting eyes looked proud. His shiny velvet-like fur bore testimony to his good health and his pointed ears were held straight as if listening for some unknown sound. As he breathed through an open mouth with the tip of his tongue hanging out, one could see rows of sharp white teeth on either side… ‘they could rip a man apart,’ Sher Ali thought with spine-tingling horror…the other dog, the one Mir Zaman called a German shepherd looked like a wolf. Sher Ali had seen wolves near his village, and there was no difference between them and this dog.

‘This breed is a cross between a wolf and a dog…this is what you call a real dog.’ Mir Zaman spoke with great pride, as if he were talking of his own breeding.

It was higher than the Doberman with the same broad chest, narrow waist and proud eyes, but it was the third dog that really fascinated Sher Ali. He had never seen such a beautiful dog in his life. This one looked a little lighter in weight as compared to the other two but was of the same height. White as silver, with leopard like shiny black spots, narrow waist and a deep broad chest, the dog had a long pointed white tail. His bright round eyes were focused on Sher Ali who was totally awed by his beauty. Seeing Sher Ali look at the dog so raptly, Mir Zaman caressed the animal’s silky ears and said, ‘This is a Pointer from a family of very high pedigree…the breed is over three hundred years old. When he came here, his pedigree came

5. roti: bread
certified with him. The certificates are lying with A.D.C. Sahib; I’ll show them to you one day. It’s a cross between a Spanish Pointer and Bloodhound…General Sahib takes him along when he goes hunting…there is no other animal with a nose like his. He can search out game wherever it may fall. An Arab wanted to buy him for two hundred thousand but we didn’t sell him. He wins trophies in exhibitions…he’s a pedigree dog, pedigree…’ Mir Zaman said ‘Pedigree’ in a special way and then focused his eyes on Sher Ali’s face to see the effect of the words on him. He wanted Sher Ali to ask him what it meant. Sher Ali wanted to know desperately, but he didn’t ask, deliberately. In any case he looked suitably impressed and Mir Zaman continued.

‘They are not as ferocious as they look. They are very loving animals and would give their lives for their master. This German shepherd here…if its master dies he would stop eating and die…still, it’s best not to keep them where there are small children. They are unpredictable, and can turn wild anytime. They were left unchained every night in the beginning; then one day the Doberman got hold of the newspaper boy’s leg. If it hadn’t been for the four other men who were around at that time he wouldn’t have survived. He had to have fourteen injections. They are kept tied since then and only go for walks morning and evening. Thy have to be exercised, but they are good boys…don’t be scared…come here, closer…come on man…you have to get used to this now…good, good; that’s better. Come here to the Doberman first; pat him…oh come on…you are so afraid for your life…they won’t do anything, I’m telling you. They recognize friend or foe…see, they are wagging their tails. If an outsider touches them they will tear him apart and you wouldn’t see much more than a heap of blood and bones…come on…good…that’s it…come here.’

‘I say namaz (6) five times a day man, my clothes will get dirty…’

‘Well, you can pray or you can do a job. You are not the only one who prays. I used to say my prayers too. Now I do it only in the evening and night, after I am through with them. There, that’s a clean pair of clothes hanging over there…on the front wall of the garage.’

He gestured towards the far wall of the garage where some clothes were hanging from a peg on the wall.

‘Where are your quarters?’ Sher Ali asked and then his eyes fell on a cot placed against the wall at the far end and some rolled-up bedding perched on top.

6. namaz: prayers
‘My trunk is lying in the cook’s quarters. There are more quarters too, but other servants already occupy those. There is space enough, but the dogs’ servant must live with the dogs, mustn’t he? He has to look after them, make sure no one tries to steal them or hurt them…there are lots of envious people around…they are worth over a hundred thousand each. You can also keep your trunk in the cook’s quarters. Mehr Gul is a good man; make friends with him and you will get tea and stuff. Just keep two changes of clothes here in the garage.’

‘What about food?’

‘Vegetables are cooked separately for the servants, you’ll also get some otherwise go eat from the Mess and have your food allowance cut…you’re not new; you know all this.’

‘May be not, but I’m new here aren’t I? We had a very good time at the Brigadier Sahib’s…they never stayed at home; we batmen used to eat all the food. We used to cook lots of things…the begum never entered the kitchen or asked any questions…’

‘Don’t talk about these grand folk…they eat less and drink more!’ Mir Zaman winked and laughed.

‘There must’ve been two or three people over there, and here there are seven. Who’s going to feed seven men with chicken and game? Here they cook vegetable stew. You get rotis from the tandoor. (7) Eat your fill and be grateful to God.’

‘And they?’ Sher Ali pointed to the dogs, ‘What do they get?’

‘They…’ Mir Zaman stretched the ‘they’ expressively. ‘Don’t ever talk about their food… they are royalty…the princes of Caucasus… they get five kilos of meat every day and one and half litres of milk each. How much does that make it…? Ah yes, four and a half litres…then rotis are cooked for them and they even get special imported biscuits and that thing in tins, what’s its name…dog food. You ask about them? You’re crazy man…I say one should not be a batman, one should be a Doberman, then you get the best of every thing.’ Mir Zaman laughed out aloud.

‘It’s ok man…it’s just that I have never done dog duty before…the others also had dogs, but I never had to look after them, just go to my own quarters
and go to sleep. I swear I’ve never seen dogs like these before…I’m getting the shivers…they must bark at night, don’t they? Do you close the garage

7. tandoor: clay oven
door or leave it open? It must be freezing cold in here…’

‘It has to be left half open…if you close it completely they get frantic and make a lot of fuss. Bark? Of course they bark…Dobermans or desi…(8) a dog is a dog…he’s not going to speak English! In any case man, the problem is only in winters; they stay inside only in winters. Here they get the sun all day and are more comfortable. In summers they stay on the other side of the bungalow. They have an air-conditioned room there, you’ll be in heaven my boy…for free.’

‘Air conditioned? Oh boy…well done my dears.’

‘Well of course, they come from a cold climate after all.’

‘I come from a cold climate too, and you look as if you also come from a cold area…is that right? Never mind, at least there will be some luxury for us because of them.’

And thus Sher Ali became the batman of dogs.


Maulvi Sahib (9) started his sermon before the Friday prayers. Sher Ali was seated amongst the rows of namazis. (10) He really liked Fridays. On Fridays he scrubbed the dog dirt out of his skin, purified himself and wore clean clothes. He felt really light-hearted on the way to the mosque. Today too he was here, head bowed, sitting with the other namazis. He had been away from the bungalow for quite a while now and a bit worried about getting back in time, but stayed on to hear Maulvi Sahib speak. Just a little while longer…Maulvi Sahib usually talked of many learned things, answering many queries in his mind. After spending all his time with dogs, Sher Ali really enjoyed this change on a Friday.

Maulvi Sahib had passed through Raja Bazaar on his way to the mosque today…this was the same day when a bomb had exploded in
a Suzuki parked in front of some shops there…bits and pieces of human bodies had got stuck to the shutters of the shops and the wires on top of them, and the road was stained red with blood in patches. The sole of Maulvi Sahib’s Peshaweri (11) sandal had inadvertently touched a tiny heap of clotted blood and was still sticky with it…he had tried to scrape it clean

8. desi: local 9. maulvi sahib: muslim priest 10. namazis: ones who are praying 11. Peshaweri: a special kind of sandal, originally from Peshawer
but the dirt and blood had stuck even faster. Human blood…Maulvi Sahib was still shaken and was getting very emotional as he spoke, his voice breaking. The word Asraf-ul-Makhluqat (12) kept cropping up in his sermon. ‘Think Muslims, think! Whom has God designated as Ashraf-ul-Makhluqat, just think about it.’

‘What is he saying? I am not very educated and can’t understand him.’ Sher Ali asked the man sitting next to him in a whisper.’

‘Ashraf-ul Makhluqat.’

‘Ashraf Mafluk?’

‘Makhluq, man makhluq.’


‘Meaning better than all beings, the best.’

‘Ok, ok…who’s the best of all beings?’

The man next to Sher Ali seemed irritated with the whispering. He wanted to hear Maulvi Sahib speak and this goof wasn’t letting him. He gestured to the man to keep quiet. Sher Ali fell silent and started wondering who the best of all beings was.


Sher Ali had now been looking after the dogs for four months. When he had come, it was November and the beginning of winters and now it was really cold. February was the coldest month in the Northern areas of Pakistan. The hills of Murree were laden with snow and winter rains had begun. Biting cold winds blew at night, entering the garage from the half-open door and penetrating through all corners. Sher Ali’s duvet and the extra blanket proved totally inadequate and he would shiver all night…and the dogs stayed awake. They dozed in the mild sunlight all day and after a short nap at night they would be wide awake. When a fellow dog barked in the far recesses of the night they would immediately stand upright. Their pointed ears erect, they would join in the chorus with great enthusiasm.

‘You’ll get used to it in a few days,’ Mir Zaman had said and it was true; he

12. Ashraf-ul-Makhluqat: the best and noblest of creations
was almost used to it. Still, he would keep waking with a start, then fall asleep again. Sometimes the noise was so loud he could not go back to sleep…perhaps it was a bitch calling out to them. He would fume, his thoughts going to his own woman whom he hadn’t met in months. Sometimes in this half-awake state, his mind would go back to the days before he enlisted. One day he had encountered the seductive Munawwari. Seeing him she had tried to hide behind a tree; there wasn’t anyone around and he had feigned a grab towards her…she had given a small scream and hidden herself further; he had gone along his way laughing. Then his leave-breaks became few and far in between, and these few visits had made him the father of many children. Sometimes he got the news that one was ill, or the other had left school, but he could do nothing for them. Once he joined the army, his family life came to an end. The officers grew angry at the very mention of leave. He could only send a money- order, and that he did. Now there was a letter from the village saying that his mother was ill. There was no hospital or doctor in the village; patients were put on cots and taken to the nearest town. Who would take his mother? He was her only son. He had planned to ask for leave when he was put on duty at the bungalow. Upon mention of leave Mir Zaman had said, ‘Leave? Here? My father died and I nearly got a lynching when I spent an extra day away. I don’t say that orderlies don’t get leave. Why should I lie? They do get leaves, but not the dog-wallahs …you tell me, if the dogs’ batman goes away, who’s going to look after them…the General? Forget it my man.’

He wrote home saying he couldn’t get leave, but hadn’t heard from them since then. He wondered if his mother was still alive.

One day, when Sher Ali got up at the crack of dawn, he started sneezing and his nose and eyes started watering. Every bone in his body ached and a lump of pain seemed to be stuck in his throat. He drank two steaming cups of tea and took two aspirins with them. When he felt a little better he took the dogs out for a walk. He thought it was just common cold and would get better the next day, but it became much worse at night with a high fever.

All night he trembled with cold, in the cold, piercing wind blowing in from the garage door till finally it was morning and the sun came out.

That day he felt especially weak but he kept doing his chore albeit slowly. He cleaned the garage, washed the dogs’ dishes and took the dogs out. Seeing the state he was in, Mehr Gul took pity on him and cooked the dogs’ food. He came back and fell in a stupor.

Mehr Gul gave him his own tried and tested tablets along with tea, but taking the medicine on an empty stomach made him vomit immediately.

‘Sher Ali, brother, sleep in my quarters tonight. It is very cold here in the garage; your fever will get worse. Tomorrow I’ll take you to the dispensary.’

‘No it’s ok lala, (13) the fever will go away by the morning…somebody has to stay here…tomorrow I’ll ask for leave. I’ll go back home and rest.’

Next morning the sun was out. He brought the dogs out and set his own cot out in the sun. He was in no condition to take the dogs out for a run; he’d been vomiting all night and was feeling really weak. After tying up the dogs in the sun he fell on his cot. The combination of high fever, the warm sun and the dispensary medication had a soporific effect and he fell into a deep sleep.

‘General Sahib is coming.’ An orderly shook him awake. He got up with a start and almost fell over with dizziness at the sudden movement, but took control of himself and quickly rolled up his bedding.

General Sahib was coming over to see the dogs. The other General was with him too, the one who’d given him the German shepherd. Sher Ali hurried as much as he could in his condition and pulled the cot away to hide it behind the trees and stood at attention next to the dogs.

Both the Generals were of more or less the same stature and walked in the same manner. Both had the same heads and necks, but where there was a glimpse of the bull dog and bubbar sher in the countenance of General Bubbar Ali, in his feverish state Sher Ali couldn’t determine who the other General resembled. That there was a resemblance with something he was sure, but he couldn’t see what it was. They were both laughing aloud at something and the other General slapped General Bubbar Ali as they laughed. ‘It seems both of them are… God have mercy,’ thought Sher Ali.

Both of them were talking in English and didn’t take any notice of him even though he saluted as smartly as he could, given his physical condition. Their attention was focused on the dogs, their faces red and eyes somewhat unfocused with the effects of alcohol. They looked at the dogs lovingly, gesturing towards them as they spoke in English. The beautiful Pointer was licking the extended hand of General Bubbar Ali with affection and the other General was totally engrossed in the German shepherd, which was ignoring him and gazing towards the little sparrow hopping on a nearby tree with interest. Sher Ali couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying except the words ‘one lac’, from which he gathered that either one of the dogs was worth one hundred thousand, or that, that amount had been offered

13. lala: respectful way of addressing
for one of them or perhaps there was a bet of that amount placed on one of them.

Then suddenly, with his eyes still focused on the Doberman, General Bubbar Ali spoke. ‘Do they go for walks every day?’

‘Sir.’ Sher Ali came to attention.



‘Is the meat cooked properly?’

‘Yes Sir.’ As Sher Ali spoke he sneezed, then tried to hide his running nose in his shoulder. His eyes were also watering.

‘What is the matter?’ The General asked the orderly standing next to him.

‘Sir he is very sick, he’s got the flu.’

‘Where does he sleep?’

‘In the garage Sir…with the dogs.’

‘Hunh,’ grunted General Bubbar Ali.

‘But that is infectious!’ The German shepherd General struck his stick on the ground with irritation. ‘It is bad for the dogs.’

‘You should not sleep with the dogs,’ said General Bubbar Ali dryly.

‘These people…’ The German shepherd General shook his head and turned his red eyes angrily towards Sher Ali for the first time. The cold eyes sliced through his body, freezing the marrow in his bones…he felt his knees weaken…clearly both the Generals were angry with him and he was sinking into the ground with shame. He wanted to ask for forgiveness but didn’t know what to say, so he stood quietly at attention and kept his eyes focused on the piece of straw stuck to the toe of the German Shepherd General’s brown shoes.
‘You sleep here in the veranda…watch the kennel…and you…you arrange for his medicine, he’ll make the dogs sick.’ General Bubbar Ali looked with annoyance at Sher Ali and turned to leave with the other General.

Sher Ali watched the Generals go, then looked at the dogs, then back towards the two Generals…they were turning into the driveway; the dogs, looking equally proud, were looking around them in an unconcerned manner. Then he walked slowly to his cot. Something circled in his vacant brain like a lost thought. Where did that come from? This was hardly the time, but thoughts do enter the mind like that. For no reason he thought of the word ‘Ashraf…makhluq…’ He hadn’t had a chance to find out what it really meant. How strange to think of it now…how silly.

Sher Ali slept in the veranda that night. The veranda was at the back of the house and faced the garages, and it was easy to keep watch over the dogs from there. It was open on three sides and the guest room windows opened onto it with a big door alongside.

His fever soared that night even though he had taken the two tablets that he’d got from the dispensary with a cup of tea. Mehr Gul brought him a cup of milk, but the sight of it made him feel ill and he returned it without drinking.

‘You are being really stubborn, brother Sher Ali; now listen to me and put your cot in my quarters tonight. You haven’t eaten anything for two days. In the morning I’ll take you to the big hospital, the C.M.H.’ Mehr said, feeling sorry for him.

‘The sky is black tonight, there are thick clouds and I saw some lightning just now, it’s definitely going to rain…see, the wind is blowing already. Come on let’s go to my room, we’ll make some space for you there,’ Nazir the gateman offered.

‘As if dogs catch people’s sickness…but there can be logic only where there is some sense …these people don’t talk sense even when they are sober…in their condition only God can drum some sense into them…’ added batman Alam Khan.

‘Oh man of God…Oh God man shut up. You’re going to get us all court-marshalled one day.’ Mehr Gul pretended to be angry with Alam Khan.

‘Lala Sher Ali why are you being so stubborn? Come on now to our quarters. It’s a cruel night tonight, you have a high fever. It’s not right to sleep in the open.’ Alam Khan cajoled.

‘No…I have orders from above, it’s not a joke; someone has to watch the dogs after all…what if something happens. It’s okay, not that serious; I’ve taken the medicine from the dispensary and I have a duvet and a blanket. A little help from God and the night will pass. Go on all of you, go to sleep and don’t worry about me…I’ll go to the hospital in the morning, take a week’s medical leave.”
Sher Ali wrapped the duvet around him, covering his head with the blanket, and tried to sleep. His temples were throbbing and head bursting with pain; perhaps the fever had increased. In a little while he started shivering and his body started aching terribly. His head was hot but his feet were freezing. He lay like that for a while, then moved the blanket slightly to peer outside. The lights were out in the quarters, it was totally quiet; they were all asleep. It was just the sound of the wind that kept increasing. Once in a while the crackle of dry leaves rolling in the courtyard added to that sound. The sky was pitch black with clouds and the huge dark silhouettes of the trees swayed in the wind. A flash of lightning illuminated the sky for a second, followed by a distant rumble. Then a rain-sodden gust of wind touched his forehead as it entered his duvet. He quickly covered his face again and wrapped the blanket and duvet more tightly around himself. Suddenly it grew louder and like a drill the cold wet wind bored its way into his covers. He curled up even more tightly and lay shivering. He shivered and shivered; then his body started growing stiff…the dogs were totally silent that night.

After a while the fever, or perhaps the medicine, made him drowsy and he lost track of time. Suddenly he became aware of great thirst. ‘Water,’ he croaked and tried to get up, but couldn’t move. Slowly he fell into a deep sleep again, and then he was not sure, but it was the sound of the dry leaves or his mother calling out that he heard. ‘Sher Ali, I’ve come to fetch you, come with me.’ It had been a long time since he had been to the village; he’d heard that his mother was in a bad way, but he still couldn’t go. Now he had to go…and he started following his mother quietly.

The weather worsened as he drew near his village and there was snow everywhere, lots and lots of snow…but his mother was walking surprisingly fast, as if she were flying in the mist. The more he tried to walk faster the more the snow slowed Sher Ali down. His big army boots were frozen. Snow was entering them from the top and soon they were full of it, his thick khaki socks completely soaked. With a great effort he pulled out one foot from the snow and took one step forward at a time… he could see the village at a distance; see the small houses with their brown mud walls and snow-laden tin roofs. Trees that appeared from the gloom were also covered with white snow, snow that covered his head and shoulders like a white powder when he brushed against their branches…harder, harder, harder. He tried to walk faster, but felt himself getting stuck in the snow. It was so difficult to pull out his feet; he had to use both his hands to pull one leg out when the other would sink in. And his mother, how fast she was going in front of him…a grey mist seemed to be covering the sky and the land…the sky was the gloomy dark colour of grey clouds from horizon to horizon. Then the dark mist rolled in and his mother disappeared from view; he was surrounded by the mist and couldn’t see anything, only a few glimpses of his village in the distance. There was no light in the village; it was enveloped in death-like darkness. Then he became numb with fear…it was not his village; it was some other village, unknown, abandoned, haunted…he wanted to scream, call out to somebody, but there was no one anywhere near him. He was completely alone and surrounded by snow. More snow started falling. His hair, his khaki coat, everything was covered with the stuff. The sound of blowing wind surrounded him and dainty snowflakes danced a macabre dance of death around him, like restive spirits. He was stuck to his knees in the snow and couldn’t move his legs at all. He was trapped and looked helplessly like a petrified animal at the falling snow around him.

Then he saw three shadows rising from the village in the distance. He opened his eyes to see better through the mist. Slowly they came near…they were three men wearing brown coats.

‘Here…I’m here,’ his lips moved but there was no sound.

One of the men saw him and started moving towards him. He was covered from head to toe in a blanket. As he drew near he seemed to become shorter and fatter. He came to a standstill in front of him and looked at him with fierce red eyes…then he started barking. He barked as he scolded him, or perhaps scolded him as he barked; Sher Ali couldn’t really tell. He tried to open his eyes wider…he couldn’t make out whether it was the brown fur of the German shepherd or the General’s khaki uniform…and those bright shiny things; were they the brass tacks on the Doberman’s collar or the medals on the General’s chest. He tried to salute, but was stuck in the snow up to his shoulders and his arms were stuck to his sides. He couldn’t salute. He looked with faltering eyes. It was the Doberman in front of him, or maybe it was the General…

‘Please save me…for God’s sake…it is you isn’t it…the same…Ashraf…Ashraf …’

‘Yes the same.’ The Doberman turned his proud eyes towards him pityingly.

‘I understand, yes I understand now…I understand.’ He spoke through frozen lips and through dimming eyes looked around him. There was nothing but snow, lots of snow all around.

Translated from Urdu by Saba Ansari