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Mahmood Gilani


In an Hour of Difficulty

It was summer and there came a time when the atmosphere became heavy because of high humidity and an intolerable mugginess pervaded everything indoors and outdoors. In the room, an electric fan, belonging to the Victorian age, striving to its utmost, was trying to bring about a change in the sultry surroundings but to no effect. The humidity didn’t go away. The heaviness of the air persisted.
Suddenly there was a power failure and the room plunged into total darkness. As he sat in a corner of his room he thought that he should venture out in search of light and air.
‘But would we find enough air and light outdoors to enable us to breathe and see as well?’ he asked himself.
‘Is it really possible?’ he questioned himself again. His eyes converged on the window of the room which opened towards the east.
His hands were awash with the sweat which poured out without any let up and his body was gradually yielding to a feebleness. He felt like a mountaineer who had just begun to move from his first camp towards the summit. Loneliness had taken complete control of his nerves and he was thinking of himself as a mere non-entity.
‘Where are you? But who are you? Scram! Catch hold of that man or woman.’ He tried to run but failed because he was able to run only in his dreams.
What is the force that keeps life in motion?
‘It doesn’t exist at all. You can only come across it at times, as a central idea, in writings infatuated with modernism.’
‘Should I wake up the muses so that they can help me escape from this room? But I don’t even know how to play the harp. Then how would the gods in the underworld learn of my plight? They would never wake up. All is falsehood.’
‘What must I do now?’
It is the sort of issue which is unlikely to be resolved during the ongoing century. Maybe someone else can fathom it out but a writer is not likely to succeed here. The reason is that nowadays the writers tend to sleep a lot and have, therefore, lost their capacity for personal observations, and because of their dormant state, literature finds itself buried in barren soil.
He peered out of the window and saw a white dog scampering down the road, its mouth open.
‘Should I ask it to come inside the room? But why is it running like that? Perhaps it has picked up the leftover scent of a fox and is running after it. Be kind to me, white dog; come in and chat with me.’
My neighbour is a fat man who sometimes looks like a doorkeeper to me. He can’t run, even if he were to find a fox hurrying his way. A neighbour is like a brother but no brother ever becomes a neighbour. My brother resembles my neighbour. I mean, he is equally fat. Do you know he once got lost in a woman’s bed and was never found again. He is an eternal doorkeeper. I can’t talk to him. Please call my neighbour.’
‘The neighbour who happens to be a doorkeeper?’
‘Yes, the neighbour who is fat. He won’t talk to me because he is watching a programme of long duration about human rights on TV.’
It’s eight o’clock in the evening.
‘Most worthy dog, kindly come back please and talk to me. I believe it has finally succeeded in nabbing the fox. I also want to go chasing after foxes. But I am not a dog. Is it a fact that…what must I do now?’
‘I should go and see my other neighbours but they must have gone further ahead to see their immediate neighbours. So what? I must go and see them all the same.’
‘Don’t they like you?’
‘Yes but when we do meet each other they keep on talking about some other man and woman. Don’t even take notice of me.’
‘Do they never talk to you?’
‘There is no dog and no neighbour either.’
‘Now I must take care of myself all on my own. Should I have myself examined by a doctor?’
‘What for?’
‘So that he can prescribe a medicine which may give me an illusion of sleep.’
‘Is this the ultimate solution?’
‘I should start offering prayers.’
‘What for?’
‘For sleep’s sake. Sleep, my darling, come back. Take me in your arms and bestow on me sacrosanct darknesses.’
‘It won’t come back. Take some sleeping pills.’
‘I am not going to take such rubbish.’
‘But why not?’
‘Because everyone is busy fighting someone else.’
‘Where? In the West?’
‘Yes, in the East the elite and the masses wish to play havoc with themselves for the sake of some alliance.’
‘But what are they up to in the West?’
‘They are preparing new battlefields so that in the end the control of the world can be handed over to the gorillas.’
‘That would be awfully nice. We will go back to our old homes, live together in harmony and no one would ever be alone again. Why do we fight and oppose each other like this?’
‘It is the outcome of the injury I sustained when I had my first fall.’
‘Why have we divided the whole world into north, west, south and east if these words are used only to denote directions? Who gave this authority to whom? Look here, if you go west you would come across not only west but east, north and south also. I can’t understand why we should allow ourselves to get lost in these directions?’
He remained in this state for a stretch of time which was incalculable. Although the state was very massive, it was weightless and stock-still. His eyes were wide open but he could see nothing at all. He was silent like iron. The barking of the dog caused his tired consciousness to make a comeback.
‘In fact, freedom is not my problem. I only want to get in touch with other persons on human level. I want to talk to everyone, no matter what sort of dress they cover themselves with.’
‘If the person in question is a woman how would you start the conversation?’
‘I say, my name is unmindful. What is yours?’
‘It is a very lousy way of attracting a lady’s attention.’
‘How should I address her then and ask her what as soon as I come across her? I think I have forgotten even this and would perhaps never learn the art of conversation.’
‘You mean one should be quite accomplished in order to begin a conversation with another sinner.’
‘No more of such talk, no more. You are making my attention wander.’
‘If you persevere and keep on practising you would surely succeed in accosting a woman some day.’
He got up from his chair. The chair was the only intact thing in the room. He found the chair particularly fascinating. Its long arms and high back were like those of a chair in his office. He could recall very well how he sat on that chair in the office and ordered others around and they obeyed him unquestioningly. But today, sitting in the same kind of straight-backed chair he was unable to keep himself in order.
‘Why on earth should I write? Would writing put an end to the disease which has taken hold of my body or soul? I don’t want to write anymore and all the same I go on writing. I should stop writing now. How can I do that? Why don’t you tell me? I must give up writing this very instant.’
‘Why this very instant?’
‘So when should I stop writing?’
‘Only then. Why do you write?’
‘To understand you.’
‘Life is like an iceberg. Ideas float underneath.’
‘So you stop thinking.’
‘I had a brainwave just now. But my brain is underneath my cap.’
‘Where is your cap?’
‘My cap is on his head.’
‘Are you acquainted with him?’
‘No. But my cap knows him. He is running away. Please stop him.’
‘You stop writing.’
‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘Begin killing people.’
‘I can’t even begin anything. Stop him.’
‘He will be back on some holiday.’
‘You mean he will come back on a day of religious festivity?’
‘Are you a religious person?’
‘No. My heart is soft like a deer’s. But they kill deer also and make a meal of them. Does this island belong to cannibals?’
‘Yes, it is a planet of cannibals.’
‘Is this the only way to begin one’s life?’
‘But who took the first step? The mother or the father? Where is the mother while they fight over the fatherland?’
‘The mother died in the course of the civilization which existed before the era of mental anguish.’
‘You mean they acted in the same manner in past ages also?’
‘Acted in what manner?’
‘If killing and pillage took place even in the ancient times in the name of the mother, then what’s the difference between now and then?’
‘The only difference is that the mother is active.’
‘And the father?’
‘Yes, and he lets her die.’
‘I should lead an active life now. Action constitutes the refinement of life and safeguards us against other mishaps. Come on, make a move. I should visit my neighbour’s house. Yes, the light is on in their room. Perhaps there is a large bed in the room on which they behave like insects which come out after dark.’
‘Is it a room for keeping books in?’
‘They find books costly and boring. I should at once switch off the lights and go outdoors.’
The weather outside the room was very pleasant.
‘How should I knock on their door? The door will remain closed on them during their lifetime. If I were the occupant of their house I would always leave the door open. Who knows some creature from the fourth or fifth world may come to see me at night.’
‘Do the people outside our world lead a happy life and converse with each other?’
‘Yes, they live together and don’t make a farce of their lives by getting lost in the unreal daily activities which are our characteristics.’
‘Now I should go inside their house. I can climb in through the window. Oh my God! They should have kept the window closed; or they could have made love in the dark. In any case you can see nothing of one another while making love. They are locked in embrace and clinging to each other like monkeys. They are talking loudly.’
‘About what?’
‘I love you.’
‘If their love is inexhaustible and can never be consumed up why are they expanding their nostrils and neighing like horses?’
‘They are again making a rush for each other. It seems as if someone has planted two huge magnets in their bodies with their opposite poles pointing outwards. They have suddenly collapsed on the bed. Have they used up all their love? They ought to comfort each other.
‘They are not dead but there is no warmth left in their bodies either.’
‘What happened to the magnetic force coming out of the opposite poles?’
‘The magnetic poles have evened up.’
The light is still on and they lie, naked, with their backs to each other.
‘My God! What sort of an ending is this? Is the matter over completely and for all times to come?’
‘What should I do now? Should I expose my backside also and roll over?’
‘No, you should enter the room and talk to them.’
The slight click as the window opens makes them nervy and they turn and face each other. There is an unrecognizable fear in their eyes. The man does not stir and lies motionless. The woman does all the talking.
‘Why! It’s you! What brings you here?’
‘I am your nearest neighbour.’
The man lying on the bed felt ashamed at being seen naked by another man and quickly covered himself with a bed sheet.
‘Who told you to come in?’ the woman asks.
He fixed his gaze on the uneven body of the woman and said:  ‘No one did and I…’
‘Not a word more.’
The woman began to speak hurriedly into the telephone: ‘Yes, please. We have been robbed. The thief is still in our room. Yes, he might even murder us. You mean my husband? He is lying beside me. Thanks. Please hurry up.’
‘Listen to me please. I had no wish to see you like this. I was feeling lonely and wanted to talk to someone. Among my neighbours only your room had its lights on. But I swear by God I didn’t know it was your bedroom. Please forgive me. I say again I had absolutely no desire to see you in this state.’
Without looking at him the woman put on her bridal dress and the man got up hastily and went to the bathroom.
The doorbell rang and a police inspector came in accompanied by some constables.
‘Madam, I beg your pardon for what happened.’
‘Thank you, inspector. Would you like some coffee?’
‘No, madam. We must immediately take this thief into custody. Where is your husband?’
‘He is still in the bathroom.’
‘Take this man away.’
‘Please listen to me, good inspector. I was very lonely. I want to explain everything to you.’
‘Take him outside.’
As they walked down the road the white dog was seen going back slowly and its mouth was no longer open.

Translated from Urdu by M. Salim-ur-rahman

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Mohammad Hameed Shahid

Mohammad Hameed Shahid