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Fehmida Riaz


Virtual Reality

I had been watching television continuously for the past ten days.
As soon as I entered my house, I switched it on and sank into a chair, changing from BBC to CNN time and again. Everybody seems to be doing just that---Tariq, Salman, even Mr. Aleem from the office, cannot tear himself away from the television. He gets up from his room repeatedly and comes into the lounge. Even his clients who are there to discuss their tax cases are drawn towards it. America has attacked Iraq. The whole country has become a battlefield. There seems to be no doubt about it. Everybody is of the view that  America has declared open war against the Muslims. Tariq says that for the past ten days they had been living their lives inside the television, like that film called “Virtual Reality”.
‘But “Virtual Reality” is three-dimensional,’ objected Salman, ‘produced with computer technology.’
‘This TV is also digital,’ I responded, at which Salman smiled and said, ‘The third dimension must be around somewhere.’
‘It is so,’ I added, ‘all this is happening; the computer is not  just creating it.’
We are watching such massive destruction with our own eyes. Bombing around the clock, blood soaked bodies, children’s amputated limbs, hospital scenes; at times it seems we’ve become heartless. We are overcome with pain and anger, we must do something….
The day the American forces invaded Baghdad, my cousin, Mudassir was kidnapped from the Super Highway.
I found this out through Sultan, who is visiting us from Hyderabad and is also my cousin. He used to share a flat with me, when he was posted in Karachi. At that time our flat was a bachelors den. At the back of Café Bundu Khan, after demolishing an old house in a narrow alley, a five storey building was constructed. My father purchased the flat thirteen years ago for four hundred and twenty five thousand rupees. It consists of an eleven-by-twelve bedroom, a lounge, a kitchen and a bathroom. Outside the bedroom there is a balcony, which is no bigger than a postage stamp, where Farhat has put four flowerpots.
I got married last year. Consequently, the bachelor establishment disappeared and Farhat came to live here, bringing spring into my   life…flowers…fragrance…bangles…anklets…life changed when she came. I removed all the saucy posters from the walls and passed them on to Tariq and Salman.
Posters of babies now cover the walls. We are expecting our baby in two months. The ultrasound has confirmed that it is a baby boy. He is well and is breathing and moving normally. We are all busy preparing for his arrival, but the war has changed everything. Prior to the war, I used to head straight for the bedroom having made tea for Farhat. Tariq and Salman had given up visiting us as they felt I had changed, but now they have started coming again every evening. We watch television and comment on the news. At times we even go down for a stroll.
Today we have received the bad news that Mudassir has been kidnapped. On hearing this, I was so shocked that I just stared at Sultan.
‘What!’ I exclaimed.
I could not understand what had happened. My brain was so occupied with news about America and Iraq. Last night it had been reported that the Americans claimed that their forces had entered a part of Baghdad. However, Abu Sahaf, an Iraqi minister, had refuted it. CNN and BBC are fabricating so many lies that it is difficult to believe them. Thus consoling ourselves, we dropped off to sleep. Nonetheless, when I returned from the office and switched on the television I was greeted with the sight of American Marines demolishing Saddam Hussein’s statue.
What is happening! I watched the scene in astonishment and disbelief. A crowd watching the scene was applauding. Although it was a small crowd, they were mainly Iraqis. The scene did not appear to be fake. CNN and BBC had lately shown many fake films of surrender and body searches.
Mudassir’s news had deeply saddened me.
Sultan has returned to Hyderabad. Like Mudassir, he too was posted there, where his parents also lived, and this was very convenient for him.
Mudassir is Sultan’s friend; both had done their MSc from Karachi University. Mudassir had studied at St. Patrick’s, hence he had a good command of English, which enabled him to get a job in a multinational company. Sultan got his first job through his Aunt Suraya, who is a local leader in a political party. She was in the government off and on. Aunt Suraya’s persistent efforts got Sultan a Grade-17 job.
When she had returned from Islamabad after acquiring the appointment letter, Sultan and his father had scoffed at the job.
‘Why Grade-17? Our son deserves Grade-18!’
Aunt Suraya was embarrassed at that. ‘What does he know,’ she had said at my father’s house, ‘even a Grade-17 job is so difficult to secure.’ Sultan had accepted the job, which was in the Customs Department. Once he started work, he realized how lucrative it was. His entire household was overjoyed. At the same time a marriage was being arranged for him. Unfortunately, Aunt Suraya’s party was toppled from power and Sultan lost his job. He then remained unemployed for many months. It was sheer good luck that his father’s friend was a retired colonel who put in a word for him which got him re-employed. However, he was transferred to another department and posted to Hyderabad. Before leaving, he requested that I keep in touch with Mudassir.
In the morning I called Mudassir’s brother Kausar, who did not reveal much on the telephone. During the lunch hour, when I visited him, I discovered that Mudassir had finished work at eleven o’ clock and had set off for Karachi as usual. The contractor for the oil company, who had accompanied him, was also from Karachi and lived in the Federal B area. They should have reached Karachi between two and two thirty at night. When they did not return by then, their family members got worried and tried to contact Mudassir on his cellular phone but the phone was also switched off. This got his family really perturbed. However, by the next day, at around eleven, the oil company for which Mudassir and the other person, Anwar worked, contacted them. They informed their families that both of them were missing and the company’s car was found near Sohrab Goth. The car contained all the essential documents and the car keys.
In the evening Salman and Tariq arrived with a chocolate cake. It was a bribe for Farhat…as she loved chocolate cake. ‘Sis-in law, where are you?’ Tariq called out.
She was standing in the doorway of the kitchen. She is so pretty that in the beginning I tried to hide her from Salman and Tariq. Pregnancy suits her, and she has blossomed; when she is wearing loose garments no one can make out that she is expecting. She has also not put on much weight.
Farhat made the tea and brought it in.
We were again watching television, BBC, CNN, BBC…Saddam had disappeared. Abu Sahaf was nowhere to be seen. The destruction of Saddam’s statue and the on-looking crowd applauding it had been televised forty-five times. It would probably be televised till Judgment Day. As it seemed, they had acquired it with great difficulty.
‘Saddam himself was an agent of the Americans,’ said Tariq.
‘Probably Abu Sahaf is also their man,’ Salman added, ‘he tried to mislead everyone. I am certain he is their man.’
Salman had come from Mudassir’s house and was watching television with us, ‘America will not rest until they have annihilated all the Muslims,’ he remarked.
‘There is no doubt about it,’ Tariq added. ‘The Muslims in America are in a bad state. The Americans are threatening everybody.’
‘And are stuck like a leech to the Muslim countries…’ I added.
‘It’s because they have oil…’ Sultan said, ‘oil and gas.’
All three of us were silent. We had all understood this, without having read any books, by studying and analyzing America’s actions and manoeuvres. When it had attacked Afghanistan, there had been many alarming demonstrations in Karachi…men with frightening beards raising dangerous emotive slogans. Then they had all disappeared….Until then it had not occurred to us that America was an enemy of the Muslims.
While channel surfing we came across a new Pakistani channel. Presently it is also very active. It televises interviews with politicians.
That day it was showing an interview with the leader of a party. He appeared to be a dignified, bearded man and was gesturing with both hands as he talked. He was saying, ‘What about Saddam’s army of one million soldiers? Where did they go?’
The anchorman of the program replied respectfully, ‘Yes, where has it gone?’ The party leader replied, using his hands to express himself, ‘This is what I want to know too.’
Unable to control ourselves we burst out laughing. Salman, mimicking a woman’s voice said, ‘They went home and so should you.’
This made us laugh even more but seeing Sultan’s face we all became quiet.
‘You should be ashamed of yourselves,’ he said. ‘This is not a cricket match. It is an attack on the entire Islamic world.’
Then he added, ‘Why are we surprised if Iraq has lost? America is a superpower. No one can defeat them. What is surprising is that Iraq held out
for such a long time.’
This was true. Initially, people had thought that God was helping, as so many sand storms had held back the advance for some time. During those days everyone said that it was Hazrat Ali who was helping them. However, the sandstorms abated. It was then that the people started saying that it was the result of the Muslims’ own doing. Though Sultan never said this, he does keep repeating one thing, ‘Muslims should have weapons. Everything else is futile.’
We all listened intently as there was truth in what he said.
‘See,’ he said, ‘if we had not gone nuclear, India would have attacked us in the last few years.’
This sounded true. Why did we not use the bomb? When would it be put to use?
Even the children and our grocer seemed to be aware of this.
On my way back from the office, I stopped by on Burns Road at the grocer’s to buy fruit. The grocer being the one we had frequented for the past few years, sells fruit at a reasonable price. Even he started discussing the Iraq war.
‘Sir, we shouldn’t be afraid of anyone but God!’ he said. ‘This President is a coward; why doesn’t he drop a few bombs? Why has he allowed infidel ships to anchor in the sea… ? He should destroy a few ships, and then we’ll see how these people will run away.’
Then I remembered that in either Sudan or Somalia, a suicide bomber had single-handedly killed sixteen or seventeen Americans. He had rammed his small boat into their ship.
Meanwhile, the grocer had slipped three rotten apples into my bag.  Immediately I took out the three apples and asked for fresh ones. ‘The minute I looked away you deceived me,’ I said accusingly.
The grocer scowled and replaced the apples. With a wistful expression he added, ‘Sir, I don’t produce these apples myself. We get them from the wholesale market. What can we do? We are just poor people.’
‘Give them to someone else,’ I pleaded.
Upon returning home I discovered, through Sultan, that Kausar had lodged an FIR (First Information Report) with the police, though he was not uttering a word about it. He had started looking very pale over these past few days. With great difficulty, after asking repeatedly, he had just come out with, ‘Don’t talk about it; we are making an effort.’
What sort of effort, I wondered.
Eventually, the police had to be informed, though he suspected  that  getting them involved would complicate matters. Hence, the matter had to be handled at the top level only.
‘But whom should we approach?’ Kausar became irritated. He is the rustic sort and did not know very many people. What effort would he make?
The company that Mudassir worked for has created an uproar and gone to the minister. They are insisting that their employee be released. Upon hearing this, Kausar got more disturbed and questioned, ‘What will the oil minister do?’
Suicide bombing! Was it the only solution to our problem…? When Iraq was initially attacked, a suicide bomber had killed four Americans in Iraq.
What could be the strength of the Americans? Four to five hundred thousand?  One hundred thousand suicide bombers could just be taken from here. Even if one bomber got four Americans, according to calculations it could destroy a whole army.
However, I do not know why things do not work according to plan. Today, someone has informed me that, according to the police, a call was made at one thirty from a house in Clifton on Mudassir’s cell phone on the night he went missing. Presently, that house is unoccupied. The police insist that this should be kept a secret. Kausar and his uncle would have liked to visit the house but the police are restraining them. They feel that nothing will be achieved like this. In fact, it will complicate things further.
The American forces are moving forward with great ease. The occupation of Kirkuk, Mosul and Basra has almost been completed.
Haji Hanif was sitting with my boss, Mr. Aleem, in the office. At twelve o‘clock they both moved to the lounge to hear the news. Both of them looked deeply distressed.
‘Nobody is able to stop these bastards,’ sighed Mr. Aleem. Haji Hanif shook his head in regret. Then he took out a cell phone from his pocket and called his broker in the stock exchange. He instructed him to quickly buy as many shares as possible. Before leaving he remarked, ‘Although God’s justice is sometimes delayed, His retribution is certain.’
Nevertheless, when we were watching television that evening, we discovered that there had been a bullish trend in the stock exchange that day.
It is amazing that the victorious American forces had produced a bullish trend in Pakistan’s stock exchange. Even the American announcer, who made the announcement, appeared sheepish. This is a strange phenomenon.
I went to Mudassir’s place in the evening. The atmosphere was so depressing that it weighed me down. The Quran was being recited.
My aunt, Mudassir’s mother, appeared particularly distressed. At first she used to cry all the time; now she periodically passes out. She has reason to feel distressed as so many days have passed. I wonder if the poor fellow is still alive. I was thankful I had not brought Farhat along with me.
On my way back I bought some flowers for her.
I was not able to sleep till late at night. I kept thinking about the tragedy, which had struck Mudassir’s family. One of his neighbours had suggested reading of Surah-e-Muzzamil,* twenty one times, from the Holy Quran. He added that it was read on such occasions, when in a trial, or some kind of ordeal, to stand surety for someone or to have someone set free.
After a long time I went to offer the Friday prayers in a congregation. I had arrived home early. After bathing I wore a white shalwar kameez and headed for the mosque. The mosque was jam-packed. Everybody appeared restless. The Imam, in his Friday sermon, said that Jihad against the Americans was now an obligation on all Muslims. All the worshippers upon hearing this started raising slogans. I remained silent as I am not in the habit of raising slogans, though I might have done that in my college days; nonetheless, I was beginning to feel inspired by the display of emotion around me.
Upon returning home I switched on the television. An Iraqi boy had lost his arms during the bombing. BBC and CNN were televising the pictures. They were saying that he would receive the best medical aid. But who had maimed him? They had bombarded the cities and were now telling blatant
* Surah-e-Muzzamil:seventy-third  surah/chapter of the Quran
Baghdad is burning and being looted.  The American Marines are deliberately watching  this chaos.  The excuse they are using is that these people have been deprived for the past twenty to thirty years.
The Baghdad library has been burnt down.  Ancient manuscripts of the Holy Quran have been burnt.  This is all being done deliberately.  The Americans are trying to provoke the Muslims' honour.
On my way home, I got stuck in a crowd of beggars.  I had stopped to get ice-cream for Farhat when I got caught among them.  I detest giving alms.  Why don't these people work?
However, where do you find honour?  There are beggars at every crossing.  It seems that half the population of the city is begging.  Some of them are also little girls.  What will happen to them when they grow up? They will only become promiscuous.
Before going to bed I read a chapter on Muzzamil, twenty-one times and prayed for Mudassir's safe return.  Others were also doing the same.
Today Kausar and Sultan have spoken to the Superintendent at Sohrab Goth in detail.  They used some influence to get to him.  They took an oath of confidentiality from them and told them that it seemed to be a job done by the Pandhachu.  He says it could not have been anybody else.  From the Super Highway till Thana Bola Khan Police Station the Pandhachu seem to have a hold.  They have also been involved in other kidnappings for ransom cases.  It is advisable to negotiate with some influential men of this group.
Today it is Mudassir's father’s death anniversary but I have not been able to go to their place. What use would it be?  It will be so depressing.  He too had such a tragic life.  I am distantly related to him.  He had worked in Saudi Arabia and brought all his life savings to Karachi. He had bought a flat here and started running a general store.  At that time the Urdu group had its hold here.  These men used to receive protection money from everyone.  One day they broke into his shop and dragged him out by the collar and threatened him.  My uncle had his first heart attack that day.
The men were given the amount of money they had demanded.  Mudassir and Kausar at that time were both in college.  It was with great difficulty that uncle resumed work but neither the shop was run efficiently nor did he regain his health.  After a year he had his second heart attack and died.  An FIR could not be registered against the Urdu group because people were so terrorized by them.  However, the party went out of power but by then it was too late.  Kausar tried to run the general store and things seemed to be improving when this unfortunate incident took place.
I spoke to Kausar on the phone. The question is, what should we do?  Where can we find an influential man belonging to the Pandhachus? We only know that they also kidnapped the Makdoom’s son.  They had demanded a ransom of one million rupees from them.  After discovering the amount, one felt somewhat relieved.  This kind of amount could be arranged with the help of all the family members.  Kausar says he would also request the oil company for assistance. Other people think that the oil company will not plead with the chairman for a loan. So they are just praying that Mudassir is found..... but this is only possible if contact is made with a member of the Pandhachus.
On Sunday I woke up to the chirping of the birds.  Removing the bedsheet off my face I saw Farhat feeding the birds. The birds have a daily feast in the balcony.
I went off to sleep again. The second time when I awoke to the ringing of the doorbell, it was Salman and Tariq.  Today I have to take Farhat to her parents’ house.  Tariq has a car and he takes us to Nazimabad every week.  Farhat's family drops her back by the evening.
We'll go to Mudassir's house today.’  I told them there had been no news so far. We stopped at Mudassir's place for a short time and also met Suraya along with Kausar.  He said that in helplessness and despair they had turned to her for help.  They told her about their predicament, so she arrived.  Mudassir’s mother was crying helplessly and telling her, ‘You are in  the political circle, I beg you for God’s sake do something.’
Suraya said, ‘Pandhachu’s leader is a party member; he has been elected as a member of the Provincial  Assembly.’
‘Ask him to help then,’ my aunt pleaded.
‘I don’t know him personally, however, I will.’
Coming out of Mudassir’s house, we all headed for Seaview. We had planned to have fresh shrimp at night.  On the way we saw many banners, which said: How many Muslim deaths will induce you to boycott American goods?
We both started discussing this issue, ‘What enmity did America have against the Muslims?’
Tariq said, ‘Have you forgotten 9/11? Muslims destroyed two of their towers.  Since then America has taken a strong dislike to them.’
Salman was getting excited.  Bin Laden had said that America along with Israel had been shedding Muslims’ blood for the past fifty years.
‘This is all because of the Jewish Lobby.’
‘Not at all.  Israel is an agent of America and playing the role of its pimp.  It is doing all this for Arab oil.  There is so much cruelty being done in the Middle East.’
I remembered when I was in college, there was a Palestinian boy studying with us.  He had an artificial leg.  He used to say that it was blown away by an explosion.  I don’t know where he went after that.
‘The Americans want oil,’ said Tariq.
We passed by KFC where picketers were carrying placards, and four smart boys wearing “no war” shirts holding sticks in their hands were not allowing people to enter it.  Tariq stopped the car to watch what was happening.  The boys were saying, ‘If you eat their burgers, it will amount to drinking the blood of Iraqi children. Don’t forget this.’
Meanwhile the KFC waiter came out.  One of them wearing a yellow cap started pleading with us.
‘Sir, why are you ruining our chances of earning a living?  We have found this job with  such great difficulty …’
‘Be quiet,’ I said, ‘can’t you see what America is doing in Iraq?’
‘It is doing a terrible thing, Sir!’  The man in the yellow cap said while sticking out his eyes.  ‘We are willing to offer our eyes for the cause but what can we do?  Jobs are not so easily available.’
‘Just see, Europeans are also boycotting American goods!’
‘Europeans too?’  the boy asked in surprise.
Tariq and I also started looking at Salman.  Salman tried to sound very dignified and said, ‘Information is available on the net.  I keep down-loading it on the PC.’
The waiter again started pleading.
‘There may not be so much unemployment in Europe.’  There are many jobs available there! Then frustratingly he said, ‘So will you pay us? Okay just pay us half the salary that we get here. We ourselves will destroy KFC.’
‘Let’s run,’ Salman whispered to Tariq.  The boy was getting nervous. Tariq drove the car ahead. This was all very depressing.
Then softly Salman said, ‘Guys, our general has to get F-16’s from America.  Will we boycott that too? Then who will save us from India?’
Tariq added, ‘Just think, Microsoft is also an American product, so will we also boycott it? Net Explorer also belongs to Microsoft.  All the users will be ruined.’ We had arrived at Seaview. Tariq parked the car along the kerb.
‘Everybody should start using Netscape,’ said Salman.
We stepped out of the car and started walking.  Then we sat on the embankment.  Tariq said, ‘There is not a big enough market here to affect America. We will be the losers if we do any such thing.’
The boy in the yellow cap was right; there are no jobs and they have the nerve to protest!
He threw a small pebble at the sea.  The sea was in low tide; the pebble did not reach the low tide, and fell short of it.
We all sat there until a sandy wind started blowing. Tariq dropped off Salman at Saddar and accompanied me to pick up Farhat from Nazimabad.
‘America is threatening to attack Syria also; it’s claiming that weapons of mass destruction  are hidden there.’
‘They are making it up and are not even ashamed of it.  Why should they be ashamed? They are a niggardly superpower.’ 
‘See how many people have been killed?  Abu Sahaf did not say, probably not to demoralize his own people,’ Tariq added.
‘According to their estimate, during the entire war about five thousand Iraqis have died.  The Americans do not disclose the actual number but admit that ten thousand cruise missiles have been dropped.  In this way if you calculate, have they killed one Iraqi with two cruise missiles?  No, no - If anything, fifty to sixty thousand Iraqi’s are certainly dead by now.’
Mudassir’s wife had gone to Kotri along with Kausar.  They spoke to the army officer who is posted there.  He met them cordially but said, ‘The police are right in telling you to contact the Pandhachus, but you must be ready to spend money.  You people are wealthy. Only last month, what is the name of the boy, Mudasssir…... he got married with great pomp and show.  The new wedding hall near Clifton had been booked.  When you people flaunt your wealth, you don’t think, others are watching too.’
Kausar and Mudassir’s wife were aghast at hearing this.  Kausar said that on the way back his sister-in-law kept asking him how that man knew all this.
Feeling irritated Kausar had replied, ‘I can’t say how but he must have found out through his own sources.  After all they are the army!’
Nowadays, my aunt is making daily trips to Suraya's house.  Suraya herself goes to her house and weeps and makes a fuss and feels sorry about the whole issue. She says that she had been hurt deep down by the tragedy and that Mudassir was like a son to her.
The recitation of the Quran is still being carried out which makes it even gloomier.   Sometimes in the evening, I also go there.  Honestly, the atmosphere is extremely morose; there is a funeral feeling to it.  It just feels as if Mudassir (God forbid) has died.   I do not know how the poor fellow is and what he is going through. Truly one does not know if he is alive or dead.
Luckily for Suraya the party leaders have arrived from Islamabad. 
She sat and waited for them in their lounge for three hours.  She met them and cried her heart out while narrating her predicament to them.  The party elder heard her tale of woe with great concern.  He said that he himself would talk to Sardar Tajammal Pandhachu. ‘We are about to have high level talks so he will be here for them.’  Thus after comforting her he sent Suraya home.
Suraya told all this to Kausar on the phone.
Yesterday Tariq and Salman came to my place.  We watched television for a while.  America is now threatening Iran.  Salman had gone to Islamabad for a day, owing to some company related work.  He started telling us about that.
‘Guys, a different wind is blowing there.  The bureaucrats are saying that they will have to change their policy.  America is going to make us dance to their tune.  The Ummah is going to take us down with it; they never supported us on the Kashmir issue so why do we need to act supportive towards them?  Pakistan’s interest should come first.’
Tariq burst into anger.
‘This is another turnabout.  Ever since we can remember, we have just heard of the Ummah!  How have people changed overnight?’
But the Ummah is there - absolutely!
‘Yes,’ I said.
Pakistani women were crying as they had not even done when the war between Pakistan and India broke out. We talk about the Ummah.  Tariq feels that America will not even spare Pakistan.  It will destroy all the Muslims.
When they both left, I took Farhat to the clinic for a check-up, avoiding the piles of filth and trash on the way. Everything was fine, the child’s heartbeat, everything was okay! On the way back we headed in the direction of Tariq Road, where we started window-shopping for baby clothes.
Suraya spoke directly to Sardar Tajammul Pandhachu. She kept dialling his number after every hour. At last Sardar Sahib answered the phone himself. She inadvertently told him everything. She pleaded with him not to ignore her request and to produce Mudassir. Sardar Sahib heard her out patiently and then said, ‘Madam, I have no knowledge of this matter, but I will try to do whatever lies within my power. After all you are held in great esteem within the party. Fifteen years ago, you made a lot of sacrifices for it.’
Suraya told all of this to Aunty herself. After hearing this, everyone felt hopeful that Mudassir would definitely come home soon. A goat was given in sacrifice…..food…… I don’t know what all was given.  Aunt says she will take Mudassir and Kausar along with her and move far away from Karachi, once Mudassir returns!  She keeps repeating this all the time.
Sadly, everything went wrong regarding Mudassir.  The whole thing was ruined.  The party leader himself phoned and called Suraya over to his place and told her that by being hasty she had caused a lot of damage to the party.  He said that Sardar Tajammul Pandhachu had come to him in the evening and sounded desperate. ‘Has Suraya gone crazy?’ he had said.  ‘She is asking me on the phone to cooperate in a case of kidnapping for ransom.  Doesn’t she know that our phones are bugged?  You know I have already spent two and a half years in jail on a similar allegation and this will also get the party a bad name.’
Suraya returned extremely agitated and shaky from the party elder's house.
Baghdad is being looted; it is disgusting to watch it.  I have switched off the television.  The whole world is viewing it.  Everyone is saying that the world has changed.  The whole muslim community is at risk.
Everywhere there is a trap!
I am thinking of these things for the first time.
Repeatedly it seems that a trap has been set all around us.  The real question is what are we to do?
Many people are naming their children after Saddam Hussein.
I do not know why …… he has disappeared.
Yesterday evening, Aunt went to Suraya’s with Kausar.  Aunt does not cry any more, nor does she faint.  Now she cannot speak. She speaks with great difficulty and has a blank look in her eyes.  She asked Suraya, ‘Have you got any news?’
Suraya looked ashen when she said, ‘I will not receive the news; it will be you who will receive the news.’
‘Even so …’ Aunt said.
‘No,’ Suraya added, ‘you need to understand, in fact accept it that I have nothing to do with this whole affair, nor am I associated with it.  If those people have to contact anyone it will be you they will contact.  They will not contact me. You need to understand and accept this fact. Asking me anything regarding this whole affair is perfectly useless.  Please do not talk to me regarding this matter anymore.’
She offered tea to Aunt but she did not eat or drink.  Leaning on Kausar, she limped back home.
The recitation of Quran continues at Mudassir’s house. However, Aunt does not participate in it.  She is lying in a severely dejected state.  In just a few days she has reached this condition.  She looks like a dead animal lying on the roadside.
News about the Iraq war is not appearing so frequently now.  It has been replaced by news of a virus in China.
Tired, I returned to my room.  It was eleven o’clock.  Farhat was lying in bed with a sheet over her.  The room was dark.  The balcony was partially lit, which made the gold bangle on Farhat’s wrist gleam.
There was a faint fragrance of Farhat’s perfume in the room I took a shower, wore my boxer shorts and went to bed. Suddenly Farhat woke up. ‘You have come back so late,’she complained.
‘Darling! I had gone to Mudassir’s house!’  I replied.  I cannot hug her from the front now, due to her enlarged tummy.  I feel I might hurt her.  I hugged her from the back.
‘Is there any news?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I replied.
The foetus was moving energetically in Farhat’s tummy.  I did not want to tell Farhat about it, but she wanted to know. I felt sorry about the whole situation.  I started stroking the baby, ‘Calm down…’ I said.  ‘Are you scared? Don’t be afraid … calm down.  Nothing will harm you … I am there and will take care of you ….’
We both lay quiet for a while. Then I don’t know why I asked Farhat, ‘Should we name the baby Saddam Hussein?’
‘No,’ Farhat replied.  ‘I don’t like his face.  He looks so distraught when he laughs.’Then she said, ‘I will name the baby Nasir or Yasir.’
Farhat wants to name the baby after her father. I had just thought that, when Farhat said, ‘They too were Muslim leaders.  Weren’t they?’
I was surprised. ‘Yes,’ I said smiling. Then she put her arms around me.
Translated from Urdu by Tehmina A. Khan

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