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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

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Mohammad Hameed Shahid

Mohammad Hameed Shahid