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Masud Mufti

FICTION

Identity

‘When Islam does not forbid marriage between the People of the Book, why are they making it an issue?’ he asked irritably, raising the glass of chilled beer to his lips.
  
‘Because they are your parents! Because they do not want to bring a Christian daughter-in-law into a Muslim home.’ Saleem spelled out each word slowly and distinctly before popping a couple of salted peanuts into his mouth and munching them with great deliberation.
  
‘Even if it means washing their hands off their only son?’
  
‘They believe that their son will reconsider his decision about this marriage and the question of washing their hands off him will not arise.’
  
They looked away from each other and an uneasy silence - tense, bitter as gall, fraught with the exigencies of the moment - descended between them. With a crash Khalid brought his fist down on the table. ‘But I cannot live without her - and she cannot live without me - for the past two years you have seen our relationship grow; you know how deeply we love each other - why can’t my family comprehend this simple fact?’
  
Saleem smiled. ‘How can they understand? Your formative years were spent in an American university - their childhood was spent in Lahore; in schools where they read about the Khilafat Movement and witnessed the mass rallies for freedom from colonial rule. Their adult lives have been lived in a Pakistan where the only time Islam and Christianity are mentioned in the same breath is with reference to the Crusades! How can they even begin to understand the logic of your international, cross-religious love?’
  
‘And how long ago was it that the Crusades took place?’ Khalid’s smile was caustic.
  
‘Somewhere around the eleventh, twelfth and thirteen centuries - they carried on for a few hundred years.’
  
‘And what century are we living in now?’ asked Khalid raising his glass to his lips.
  
‘By the Grace of God, we are in the twentieth century - and if you are not too far gone to remember, we are now in its eighty-eighth year!’
 
‘And do my parents think that nothing has changed in all these years?’
  
‘I don’t know about “nothing,” ’ said Saleem sipping his drink, ‘what I do know is that the musalman(1) has not changed - his ways haven’t changed - nor does he have any intention of changing them.’
  
‘But I’m determined to change them - and Josephine is just as clear about what she wants - after all, her parents are equally opposed to this match.’
  
‘Come, come! Who gives a damn about what parents want in America? The youth of this country have the bit well and fairly between their teeth and go wherever fancy takes them. They do what they please!  Josephine is raising the spectre of parental opposition on her part simply to give you courage in dealing with your own! Lovers like you only know how to fall in love - you people don’t know women!’
  
‘And you, who saw your wife’s face for the first time after you were married - what do you know of women?’
  
‘True, true - I saw my wife’s face for the first time after the wedding - but all the rest that there is to see of women I had seen long before that!’
  
They began to laugh and Khalid got up for more beer.
  
The buxom young woman behind the bar was serving mugs of frothing beer and Khalid turned a practiced and prurient eye on the contours of her firm and well-rounded body. Their eyes met and in an instinctive to feminine response to the challenge in the male look, she smiled and scooped up the money he had placed on the counter. Carefully balancing the brimming glasses, he threaded his way to their table through the crowded bar.
  
‘This place is getting to be quite impossible on weekends,’ he said placing the drinks on the table, and in no time at all the two were caught up again in the tangles of the old debate. It was the free and easy exchange of compatriots in a strange land. The conversation of friends who had grown up together and between whom there were no secrets.
 
Saleem’s arguments were based on calm reason and commonsense, but Khalid, carried on the floodtide of passion, heard none of them. This argument had been raging under American skies for the past so many
1. musalmaan: muslim
months, while in Pakistan his parents fretted and worried and sent a stream of letters, not only to their son but also to Saleem. In America, on the one hand, two individuals had defied all conventions and taboos to lose themselves in the joys of love; in Pakistan on the other, two other individuals weighed down by the burden of personal, familial, religious and cultural considerations were devastated with grief.
  
A few years ago when Saleem had returned to Lahore to marry the girl of his parents’ choosing, they had showered blessings on him and made a vow at the shrine of Daata Sahib(2) - a pledge of thanksgiving to be fulfilled when their son too returned for the same purpose. Carried away by his role of the ‘dutiful son’, Saleem had promised to extricate his friend from the toils of the woman who belonged to a different race and followed a different religion. And today, in an over-crowded bar, he was doing his best to honour a promise made thousands of miles away under another sky in another world.
  
The room hummed with the various, indiscriminate voices like the buzzing of innumerable bees. Faded, discoloured jeans mingled randomly with lose jackets and heavy joggers; there was an abundance of scantily clad femininity, of barely covered unselfconscious, tumescent flesh, innocent of the pressures of another culture that demanded the constant adjustment of the slipping dupatta (3). Here everything was explicit, out in the open. People were drinking but no loud voices marred the scene; no slurring tones disturbed the indistinguishable rise and fall of many conversations simultaneously held. For all the difference the alcohol seemed to make, they could have been drinking so much coloured water - nothing more. In this the American bar bore a surface family resemblance to a Pakistani teahouse - despite the crucial fact that the liquor they consumed had the power to shock the body and awaken the senses to the spirit of camaraderie and our tea merely assisted a ritual conviviality - to the one belonged life and abundance - to the other - frugality and tedium.
  
Located at a crossroads, the bar belonged to an older, more graceful architectural age with its tall glass windows open to the bright lights of the square outside. It was their favourite haunt, and occupying seats next to one of the windows, the two friends would discuss anything and everything under the sun, ranging from whichever woman happened to be occupying the next table to matters and memories of their
distant homeland. This day was no different from the others already spent within its walls. The drink had softened the edges of the world, but they were sober enough - and the topic for the day was Khalid’s transgressive relationship.
 
2. Daata Sahib: great mystic saint, Ali Hajvery  3. dupatta: long scarf
‘Once the passions have cooled down, you will have to deal with hard realities! To begin with, what religion will your children belong to? Will you bring them up as Muslims or will they subscribe to the Christian faith?’
  
‘Look! The religion that I grew up with - the form it acquired in my parents’ home - never appealed to me. I felt circumscribed by it and it compelled me seek one with a different face. I see myself as a humanist - the gift of the twentieth century and the two world wars. My religion is not to be found in either mosque or church. My children will be brought up in the same belief system; it will be up to them to decide what they want to be. In today’s world people have the freedom to search for meaning along so many different paths - they have walked the way of the hippies, opted for atheism or agnosticism, and have found comfort in orthodoxy and religion - why should I deny my children the right to choose what they want to be? Why should I insist that they follow the faith of their parents?’
   
‘Oh come! All this sounds very fine in theory and suits the mood of this bar, but it won’t work!’ Saleem replied dryly. ‘Your family will come to grief down the uneven byways and highways of life.’
  
‘Why will they come to grief? Josephine thinks the way I do, and that is how we will bring up our children!’
  
‘If she is as liberal as you make her out to be, will she give up her own faith and adopt Islam?’
  
‘You’re not getting me are you? Look, she’s as much of a Christian as I am a Muslim. Just as I don’t go to the mosque, she doesn’t go to church. Neither of us is bound by any established creed - we are like ships on life’s ocean - free to choose our direction,’ Khalid replied with a touch of pride.
  
‘Yet you yourself say that during the course of one life, people change - move from belief system to belief system - what if tomorrow she chooses to become a practicing Christian and feels herself bound by the demands of her creed - what will you do then?
  
‘Yar,(4) you sociologists drag your “whys” and “wherefores” into everything. Don’t you understand that marriage is at best a gamble, and gambling relies heavily on chance?’
  
‘Yet engineers like you do not fail to take into account that a building does not rely on its foundations alone but must be built to resist the shock of earthquakes and the encroachment of termites.’
4. yar: informal way of addressing a friend
Having reached an impasse, the two turned their undivided attention to their drinks.
  
‘Look, there he is - the same mysterious Bengali.’ Khalid pointed out of the window to where a man sporting an insignificant beard and clad in jeans and cardigan with a couple of books tucked under his arm, was hurrying down the sidewalk.
  
‘It seems he must be late for his prayers,’ Saleem commented facetiously.
  
‘But there is no mosque in the vicinity.’
  
‘Just joking,’ replied Saleem. ‘I sometimes go to the mosque for the Jummah (5) prayers and he is always there - and in the front row too. He is probably somebody important on the Masjid Committee. (6) We come here regularly - I’ve never known him to set foot in this bar.’
  
‘Even if he comes in here what difference will it make? He’ll cut us dead.’
  
‘Yes. I wonder why he’s so cagey. He must be allergic to us. Even when we meet face to face, he has always looked away.’
  
‘Perhaps he’s uncomfortable in the company of young men.’
 
‘O come, he is not that old and we are not that young. He couldn’t be much over forty.’
  
‘True - but then why does he avoid us? May be he disapproves of our visits to the bar - or perhaps it is something else - ’
  
Khalid’s cell phone gave an imperative beep. ‘I’ve received my summons,’ he said, downing his drink, ‘I’m needed urgently at the Project - see you later - khuda hafiz.’(7)
Seemingly uneventful, time went on as each day followed the sun’strajectory across the sky and merged with evening; but each revolution of the planet brings with it, its quota of hopes, doubts and fears and when a life-giving drop of hope or a flinty particle of doubt, gets caught in the interconnecting threads of life, it causes a short circuit. Then sparks fly. Often they only flare harmlessly into a brief life, but there are times when they ignite great fires with clouds of black smoke. But there are also times when no visible disaster occurs and still, impassive faces become masks that 
5. Jummah: Friday  6. masjid committee: mosque committee  7.  khuda hafiz: good bye
hide great upheavals.
  
Having raised a storm of prayer in Lahore, Abbu (8) and Ammi (9) were oscillating between hope and fear when one of these cosmic splinters collided with their lives. Nobody knew how the news reached them, no one could tell where it came from, but somehow they learnt that in far away America Khalid had married Josephine in a civil ceremony. Panic-stricken they called him only to be met with the impersonal voice of the answering machine informing them that he was out of town for a few days.
  
‘Must be away on his honeymoon,’ Abbu  said in a stricken voice.
  
They phoned Saleem only to have their worst fears confirmed. He told them that he too had been away and had heard of the marriage only on his return. Khalid had not taken him into confidence - but Ammi and Abbu did not believe him - they saw his answer as a poor excuse to absolve himself of responsibility. Overcome by grief and unable to face people they stopped going out of the house altogether.
  
The news of Khalid’s marriage spread. Feigning ignorance, driven by curiosity, acquaintances came to call. They were received with determined smiles, but the fašade of normality was tremulous with the fear that someone might raise the one topic they could not bear to talk about. With every departing visitor they agonised over the thought of whether they had managed to fool the others or whether they themselves were the dupes. But the joint efforts of genuine well-wishers and malicious onlookers ensured that this duplicitous farce should end. The thing that they least wanted to talk about would find a voice - sympathisers, mockers, mischief-makers saw to that. But all questions were parried with a quiet dignity that discouraged further questions. No explanations were given, no blame attached to their son, no excuses were made. The topic was simply allowed to die down.  Only the wan faces belied the resigned acceptance of the recurrent ‘As God wills it!’ at the conclusion of each statement. But the floodgates of grief would burst with the departure of guests when Ammi would collapse on her bed, giving way to silent tears, and Abbu barricaded himself behind the newspaper as if, like the great wall of China, it would hold back the world.
 
Daily they lived the whole gamut of shock and horror at their son’s behaviour, shame for themselves, and grievance with God. Alternating waves of blame, self-pity, anger tossed and swirled them around like leaves in a storm - ‘how did this happen?’  - ‘how could it happen?’  -  ‘what will
8. Abbu: father/dad   9. Ammi: mother/mom
happen now?’ Bat-winged, these questions fluttered and crashed against the walls of their minds. A man of orthodox belief, Abbu was assailed by questions of apostasy and doubt that had breached the impregnable fastnesses of his house. At another time, thoughts of filial ingratitude would strike adder-tongued sending their poison coursing through their veins, only to be replaced by the fear of ridicule that pecked at the living flesh causing untold torment. No sooner had the mind reached some compromise with the one hydra-headed fear - another raised its head, bringing with it, its own message of pain. Each minute brought a hundred torments; each hour saw the death of countless dreams. The only time they addressed the other children was to say repeatedly: ‘Khalid is dead for us! Do not mention his name!’
   
The psychological, cultural and religious horizons of the middle-aged parents lay beyond the vision of the younger generation, poised on the first rungs of life. Their boundaries were shaped by the glitter and dazzle of modernity - by the internet, email and the new culture beamed in by satellite television; their eyes were blinded by the flashing lights and the jungle beat of disco music. Not surprisingly, the family’s response to Khalid’s marriage was not uniform. Some sided with Abbu, some took a voyeuristic interest in the proceedings and others wondered what all the fuss was about.
  
Then Saleem came to Lahore for the vacations and he and his wife called on the family. Khalid’s parents enacted the role of conscientious hosts, but Abbu was absent in the spirit and after a while even the forms of polite conversation faltered and gave way to silence. When the family album that their son had sent them was handed over to him, and he looked at the face of his American daughter-in-law, for him the pleasing visage and the gentle smile were misted over and distorted by the prism of Christianity.
  
As the cautious, halting conversation gathered pace, Saleem did his best to lead up to a point where he could be persuaded to forgive Khalid so that he could then convince him to visit his parents with his new bride. But Abbu’s face remained as unmoving as a waxen image that the longing in Ammi’s eyes had not the power to melt. In a losing game, Saleem played his trump card and announced that Khalid’s wife was expecting a child and if his father agreed to speak to him on the telephone, he would like to give him this good news himself.
  
All eyes were fixed on Abbu. The innocent excitement of the younger brothers and sisters, Ammi’s yearning love and Saleem’s hesitant daring - converged in the look that was cast upon him.
  
‘Allah hu Akbar, Allah hu Akbar’ (10) - the muezzin’s (11) call to prayer fell on their ears.
  
Head bowed, Abbu continued to sit there; a tremor passed across his face and the lips moved, ‘The azan, (12) it is not heard there - if he wishes - I will say the azan in the child’s ear over the telephone - but for him, there is no forgiveness!’ and he left the room as if escaping from the issue.
   
Silence - awkward phrases - attempts to pick up conversational threads - long pauses - then gradually the ice began to melt. The two younger girls slid over to Saleem’s wife and began to ask questions about their brother’s American wife. Ammi wanted to hear details about the wedding, which had not been graced by parental presence. Was Khalid really happy? Did he really have no regrets? Saleem’s answers were diplomatic in the extreme, but when he got up to take his leave it was with a sense of failure about his mission - perhaps that was why he failed to hear Khalid’s younger brother’s whispered confidence, that Abbu had forbidden him to even think of leaving Pakistan but could Bhaijan (13) somehow win Abbu’s forgiveness and arrange for him to join him in America!
  
Time passed and the centre of life shifted from the chilled beer and light-hearted camaraderie of the bar to the home and the two friends were no longer part of its convivial world. For where a thirsty bachelor is free to quench his thirst at any source, the wellspring of domesticity lies within the four walls of the home. The men enjoy their drinks in the living room and the women glare at them disapprovingly and the music and bonhomie of the bar is subsumed by the gurgling of babies and the comforts of home. Conversational trends change. Irreverent speech, following the irrepressible trajectories of its own bawdy logic gives way to innuendo and insinuation, while the wayward eye that had critically followed each passing breeze, is now subject to the behests of the one and only spouse. Children and their needs dominate the conversation and desire is reduced to the celebration of each coming birthday.
‘Read my child - Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim,’ (14) the bearded Egyptian maulvi’s (15) western mode of dress belied his foreign nationality but his ability to speak Urdu marked him as a student of a madrassa (16) in Islamabad.
  
10. Allah hu Akbar: God is great (segment of the prayer -call)
 11. muezzin: one who calls to prayer  12. Azan: call to prayer  13. Bhaijan: brother 14. Bismillah-ar-Rahman-ir-Rahim: in the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful  15. maulvi: muslim priest  16. madrassa: muslim religious school
It was the Bismillah (17) cum birthday party for Saleem’s son - the rituals
of home take a long time to travel to distant lands, but the fact that they had
taken no more than twelve years to get there was cause for some celebration. Saleem’s wife was extremely happy, but one hijab-clad lady had faults to find with the occasion - ‘How could a Bismillah be valid if neither student nor teacher displayed the mandatory inch of naked ankle between the trousers and the shoe?’
  
‘I am not qualified to speak about this matter Apa,’(18) responded Saleem after a momentary silence. ‘Perhaps you are better informed and can tell me how the Almighty dresses or can comment on his sartorial preferences!’  
  
Not deigning to reply, the hijab-clad lady turned sourly away and the rest of the guests turned their attention to the Pakistani sweetmeats and gajar ka halwa. (19)  Muslims as a people are traditionally prone to pushing knotty problems under the tablecloth.
  
Photographs of this occasion made their way to Lahore. As it happened, Khalid’s parents got to see this album and the old wounds began to bleed again. But the years that had passed since Khalid’s exile, had taught them to strangle their emotions, and not a word passed their lips, though the thought that they had not seen their grandchildren, took birth and made them wonder if this was the punishment ordained for some sin unwittingly committed.  But God in his Heaven smiled in His infinite wisdom, for He was saving them from the greater hurt of the alien affinities of children brought up in an unfamiliar world. When Khalid had relinquished his particular identity to the romance of liberal humanism, there had been nothing to stop the American mother’s culture from swallowing them whole.
  
Weekends were integral to this way of life, and the children had learnt that after five days of hard work, these two days were reserved for the pursuit of pleasurable relaxation so that tired minds and bodies could renew their lost energy. With this in mind, Khalid and Saleem often organised family picnics over the weekend. This time Easter holidays coincided with the weekend and the two families had booked themselves in a small family hotel on the shore of Lake Tahoe.
   
On their first evening there, Khalid and Saleem were enjoying a drink in the veranda; the children, members of a new generation that throve on the noise and simulated speed of technological artefacts, were in their room, surrounded by toys and absorbed in the loud music of a violent movie, and the two wives were strolling in the lawn, when suddenly Saleem’s wife burst
17. Bismillah: ceremony to introduce the reading of the Quran  18. Apa: sister  19. gajar ka halwa: carrot sweet
upon them with the excited announcement that she had just met an old school friend who was also staying in the same hotel with her family.
  
‘What a pleasant surprise,’ said Saleem. ‘Why didn’t you bring her with you?’
  
‘They’ll be coming soon. They were on their way back from the lake and have gone in to freshen up. I just thought I’d come and tell you first.’
  
‘Who is your friend married to?’ asked Khalid.
  
‘You’ll find out when you meet him - I didn’t pay him much attention - I was too busy hugging Zainab. Do you know, we shared the same bench at school.’
  
When they met, the two friends exchanged a meaningful look. Zainab’s husband was the man whom they used to call the ‘mysterious Bengali.’
  
Chairs were dragged out and rearranged amid much laughter; the families regrouped and drinks were offered. The guests opted for orange juice and conversational threads were picked up, ranging from the weather to the beauty of the lake, cultural programmes and entertainment - very different from the concerns of Pakistani conviviality, where politics tend to dominate the talk. Somehow, the evening did not jell. Zainab’s husband did not stay long, making some important telephone calls as an excuse to leave, and the women went inside and stayed there talking for a long time. It was only over dinner, after Zainab had gone, that the conversation became interesting. According to Saleem’s wife, while Zainab herself belonged to Lahore, her husband Mofeez was from Bangladesh. They had met as students in an American university and after completing their studies had married and moved to Dhaka, where both had found employment, and that is where they lived until 1971. Then the worsening political situation in Pakistan led to the formation of Bangladesh. Those were days fraught with tensions and emotions ran high - Zainab was unwilling to remain in Bangladesh and Mofeez was equally clear that he could not live in Pakistan. A move to the US was the only viable solution open to them and this is where they had gone. After a brief period of economic instability both had found employment there and had later improved their prospects by reading for and getting doctoral degrees, and now they were firmly settled in America.  The strange thing was that despite being married to a Pakistani, Mofeez wanted nothing to do with Pakistanis in general and avoided them as far as possible.
 
‘Why is that?’ they asked sotto voce.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied. ‘Zainab didn’t give any details - but I did get the impression that during the 1971 civil war his family suffered badly at the hands of the Pakistan army. Perhaps that explains his behaviour,’ and the conversation shifted to the fall out of 1971.
  
The next day Zainab told them that they were moving to another nearby lakeside resort, as that was more beautiful than this one, but whispered in passing that her husband was uncomfortable in the proximity of so many Pakistanis and had lost all pleasure in this place.
  
For eons the sun, moon and stars have observed the antics of passing generations. Indissolubly tied to the threads of human destiny, they follow their appointed course across the heavens. But though astrological lore has much to say about this view, no one has unravelled the hidden logic of this plan - no one has understood on what basis sorrows and joys are distributed among human beings; no one has discovered why some lives are given more than their fair share of happiness and others are lost in the tangled maze of confusion and sorrow. These vagabond questions have exercised the human mind for centuries, and for centuries, countless individuals, like the moths of a monsoon night, have come to grief over them.
  
Like a bomb, one such question fell from the skies on one fine day when on September 11, the trumpet of doom sounded and left the entire globe in a state of shock. Just as the incubating scarcities bred of deep-rooted injustice find expression in tears, so too did the silence and anger of four centuries of repression find manifestation in the flames that erupted at the World Trade Centre in New York and mixed with dust the arrogance of its heaven-bound towers.
  
In one definitive moment the organized patterns of the known world went awry. The flame of Imperial anger leapt forth and engulfed the world. Like crazed elephants the forces of destruction laid waste whatever lay in their path. For months the universe trembled and helpless and afraid, humankind waited and watched. Then the high tide of the flood abated and slowly, hesitantly, life began again.
  
With time, the noise of this universal explosion began to die down, but the certitudes of Khalid’s life had been shaken and he continued to feel its reverberations. The suspicious gaze of the post 11 September world gave birth to a new sense of insecurity within him. An insecurity that had been completely alien to and outside of his experience of life in the free and liberal American world he had known so far.  Often he would wake up in the night to find that the darkened room was peopled by threatening shadows; ghosts that shifted and changed, taking on first one face and then another. One moment the faces of American leaders would lurk in the dark, at another the room would fill with the old crusaders - Constantinople, Jerusalem, armies on the march, Frederick the second, Richard, Salahuddin - would flicker and dissolve before his eyes - then day would break and the shadows would disperse and he would laugh at his fears and become the same old liberal-humanist Khalid, proud of his freethinking modernity. 
  
‘What’s the matter darling?’ asked Josephine on one such occasion when he had laughed out loud while thrusting his feet into his joggers.
  
‘I was thinking of going to the park when suddenly I remembered a snatch of an old forgotten rhyme.’
  
‘By Wordsworth I suppose - something to do with the beauty of nature  …’
  
‘No, something from my schooldays - in Urdu - a child’s poem - it goes something like this -
I want to go out of the house today -
Walk and skip to the garden to play!’
He translated the words for Josephine and she began to laugh: ‘It seems that your unconscious is at work today.’
  
‘The unconscious is always present and at work,’ he replied. ‘It’s more like the past making its presence felt.’
  
‘Why should it need to do that? But then, the Muslims are well-known for their inability to let go of the past.’
  
‘True - but that doesn’t apply to me.’
  
‘You’re different - but then culture exercises a strong pull - it is not easy to let go of it entirely.’
  
A shadow passed across his face. He looked fixedly at Josephine for a moment before saying in a somewhat depressed voice - ‘You at least shouldn’t say that - a person who forsakes his parents, his brothers and sisters, his country - what links can he have left with his past?’
  
‘I’m so sorry - I didn’t mean it like that!’ she was immediately contrite but he left the room without replying.
  
Having gathered up its rays from the receding day, the sun was getting ready for its plunge into the ocean. The park was saturated with the green of growing things and the pathways were heavy with the scent of flowers. Except for the occasional chirrup of a bird among the lengthening shadows, no sound disturbed the evening’s silence. A mood of contentment upon him, Khalid walked briskly. Thinking to end his walk with a few exercises, he left the path and stepped on to the green lawn only to be brought up short by what he saw. A short distance away, backed up against the trunk of a tall tree he saw Mofeez - crowding him in with threatening gestures were three white American boys. Drawing nearer he realised that one of the boys was Josephine’s nephew Bill, while the other two were friends of his own son.
  
‘Bill!’ he called out, ‘what are you doing?’
  
The boys stopped short - Bill turned and looked at him and then the three boys ran up to Khalid, and accosted him with an air of righteous ownership: ‘Uncle - he is a member of Al Quaeda!’ said one. ‘The Taliban!’ said the other.
  
‘And what were you guys doing?’
  
‘We were going to teach him a lesson!’
  
Suddenly he became alive to the perils of the situation. ‘You will do nothing!’ he said. ‘He is an old friend - I have known him for years. He has nothing to do with Al Quaida!’
Running up to Mofeez, he caught him by the hand and began to exhort the kids to behave themselves. They tried to argue with him but lost heart after a while and left as if baulked of their prey.
  
Khalid heaved a sigh of relief. There was a profusion of thanks matched by gratitude in Mofeez’s eyes.
  
‘What happened?’
  
‘Nothing - I did nothing - I was late for the asr (20) prayers and stopped under the tree to pray. These boys were whispering and scuffling among the bushes and just as I finished my prayers and was about to leave, they surrounded me and would not let me go - this had been going on for about thirty minutes!’
  
‘Did you drive here?’ asked Khalid after a thoughtful pause.
  
Mofeez nodded in reply.
  
‘Right, then I’ll come with you. Don’t leave here alone. Just drop me off near my house and then you can go on.’
  
20. asr: afternoon prayers
A few minutes later Mofeez dropped him off where requested and left, but instead of going home, Khalid went and sat on the bench at a nearby bus stop. It was Mofeez who had been threatened with violence, but it was Khalid’s body that had felt the blow. It seemed as if the nightmare monsters of the dark had stepped out into the clear light of day to stand before him - every aspect of their hideous visage etched out in detail. A bus arrived and left - another came - and then another, but Khalid continued to sit there, wondering how much of the incident to recount to his wife and children. Unsure of their response, he found himself a prey to such uncertainty for the first time in the twelve years of his married life.
  
In the days that followed September 2001, the issue of violence had been discussed in their home - but only as a human rights issue. The religious dimension had never been touched upon because both husband and wife, one of them a Muslim and the other a Christian, had exercised a degree of cautious restraint in discussing these matters. Even when the children, coming across different views on these issues, broached the topic at home, the parents would turn the thrust of the argument away from Islamic terrorists towards a general condemnation of extremist groups. But what had happened today would undoubtedly open wide the very doors that the husband and wife had kept so carefully shut  - now the storm against which they had been barred would pass through his house and wreak havoc in his carefully nurtured world. Silence seemed the best option under these circumstances - after all they did not discuss everything with the children. This incident too could join the list of proscribed topics like sex, pornography and the rest.  Even his parents - who had disinherited him long ago - were part of this taboo. His children knew nothing about them - in fact, by now even he did not know how they were living their lives.
  
This silence was to cost him dear, for his sleep was full of menace as the inchoate, faceless ghosts jostled and wrangled through the night.
  
The next day Khalid and Saleem went to see Mofeez and after much deliberation it was decided that none of them would go to the park alone. In any case these walks were not a daily occurrence - the pressure of work was such that they could seldom manage to go there more than once a week. Mofeez clearly stood in need of protection, but Khalid felt equally concerned - he believed that any such incident, involving one of his friends, would wreck the even tenor of his days and vitiate the placid calm of his home. September 11 had brought home to him the unpalatable knowledge that his house stood on uncertain ground. Built upon the fault line of two different faiths, it was constantly under threat of earthquakes and seismic upheavals.
  
Just as a strong gust drives the detritus of a storm, the scattered twigs and leaves, in some sheltered corner, so too had the incident drawn the three men together in a new intimacy. The Mofeez of earlier times, who had avoided all contact with Pakistanis, now sought protection in their company.
  
Strange are the vicissitudes of human relations. The imperatives of today sometimes compel a backwards glance into the enclosures and courtyards of past lives - not so much on the insistence of some external force, but for personal reasons. The desire to open up closed windows and skylights is rooted in the need for a breath of air to lighten the fug of long shut rooms. At odds with external circumstance, the human spirit is tenacious of life and constantly aspires to change them in accordance with its own needs - sometimes in a sudden burst of anger - at others, slowly like the constant dripping of water that wears away stone. Or then again, like a mischievous child at play, with a sudden splash of water flung from the inner reaches into the world outside.
  
Their walks around the park left Khalid and Mofeez open to these sudden forays of the inner spirit. The sporadic exchange of past memories bred a familiarity not unlike that of neighbours living on different sides of a wall; separated by brick and mortar yet connected by the glimpses into each other’s lives through the occasional cracks and apertures that pierce its length. With the passing days Khalid learnt that Mofeez’s family had actively supported the Pakistan Movement.
  
‘I don’t know why,’ he had said hesitantly on one such occasion, fumbling for the right words, ‘whether as a result of misinformation - or bad faith - incompetence or deliberate viciousness - that my family became the target of army action in 1971. Without known cause, some of us were arrested - others “disappeared”. Twenty-one years have passed and the whereabouts of my father are still unknown. And my mother. She was a young woman at that time.’ He did not complete his sentence and remained silent till the end of their walk when he left with a ‘khuda hafiz’ but refused to meet Khalid’s eyes.
  
His silence left Khalid prey to an indefinable sense of guilt that lasted for many days and made him long for ignorance. He wished that some unseen hand would fill up the apertures and gaps that persisted in showing him what lay on the other side of the wall and restore to him his earlier complacency. But even God does not block up these windows into the past. In order to do that He would have to change His ordained plan.
  
The daily routine of the working day world aside, it seemed that the Creator fulfills His purposes more actively during the dark reaches of the night, for it is the seeds sown in darkness that grow and blossom in the full light of day. Mofeez’s confidences sowed one such seed in his mind and drove sleep away from his nights.
  
Years of isolation had dried up the watercourses of his soul. A self-absorbed individualism, accommodated at the expense of relationships and blood ties, had parched the soil of his very being. Cracks had appeared on its arid, drought-stricken surface. Only Josephine and his children had houseroom there. But his conversation with Mofeez had tapped some forgotten source of life. The seed had been planted; there was an awakening within the depths of his being - a new scent pervaded the air - there was a susurration among dead leaves. It marked the beginnings of a new relationship, but one that was lacking in colour. Amorphous, nameless, it was built upon negations. Owning no ties of blood or kinship - unfamiliar with the close intimacies of friendship, this new bond grew out of the forced confluence of sympathy and shame. Shame especially, for the lost father and the mother desolated by her loss. It was a relationship that gave rise to hitherto unknown perceptions and opened up new vistas that had nothing in common with the abstract concerns of a detached universal humanism. Mofeez’s story had personalised it all and brought it close to home. With it came a sense of a shared humanity that placed the burden of guilt and responsibility on his shoulders and gave rise to questions, demanded explanations - ‘How did we let this happen?’ ‘How could we have done this to those who were from among us?’  For the first time too, memories of the family he had lost appeared on Khalid’s mental horizon. Cracks appeared on the fašade of his self-avowed religion of abstract humanism. But carried along on the whirlwind raised by his experience in the park he did not hear this facade splinter.
  
When night’s shadows thickened, Khalid would sit up in the storm-tossed ghost-driven dark. He could not understand what was happening to him.
  
Some days later, a conversation with Mofeez caused a new crack to appear in his perceptual horizons - 
  
‘I was a citizen of Pakistan: then my country rejected me. I became a citizen of Bangladesh, but circumstances defeated me once again and I was an exile once more. Now I am an American citizen only to be negated under this new dispensation.’
  
Silence descended on both, then another crack appeared. ‘Where are your brothers and sisters?’ he asked.
  
‘In Bangladesh.’
  
‘Then surely that is where you belong!’
‘True - but my circumstances don’t allow me to live there.’
  
‘Yes, but your circumstances don’t prevent you from meeting them do they?’
  
‘No they don’t - I visited them only two months ago.’
   
‘There are some whose circumstances don’t even allow them that much houseroom - you are much better off than those.’
   
‘Perhaps,’ he answered. ‘There are times when we have the power to change our lives - my circumstances are not in my control.’
   
The walk ended and the conversation ended - but the brain continued to think - and went on thinking long into the night. Sleep fled his eyes and the ghost-ridden shadows that crowded around him in the darkened room were thicker, more turbulent as they shifted and changed, taking on now one face and now another. Mofeez’s words had opened up new possibilities for him. Examining the balance sheet of his life, he read new meanings in the spectral faces that paraded before him and found himself more alone than Mofeez, for the column reserved for his parents and siblings was empty and there was a question mark in the one reserved for his family. He did not know which narrative thread he needed to unravel if he was to change the patterned warp and woof of his life.
   
Coming home from his office the next day, he took out an airways ticket from his brief case and announced that he was going on a visit to Pakistan.       
  
Josephine looked at him speechlessly for a moment, then asked, ‘Why? Is anything the matter?’
   
‘No. It’s just that I haven’t been back for fifteen years and thought it was time to pay a visit,’ he answered.
  
‘Perhaps one of the children would like to go with you.’
  
‘Not this time round. I’d like to check out the scene first.’
  
When he pressed the doorbell of his childhood home, the prodigal son who had returned without informing anyone of his arrival, had no idea about who would be there, or how he would be received. Then the door opened and he came face to face with the woman who stood there. Her tired eyes did not immediately recognize him, but the mother’s heart knew him for who he was, and between tears and laughter she clasped him to her breast and the mountains of self-centred arrogance within him disintegrated and scattered like sand. The response of his siblings was different. Visible expressions of joy were undercut by an indefinable lack of warmth. There was a degree of reserve - an element of uncertainty in their manner. The rituals of welcome were observed but carried with them a sense of unease. Something was missing - something rankled like a buried splinter that makes its presence felt when two hands meet and are clasped in a handshake.
  
‘Where’s Abbu?’ he asked, as his eyes flitted across the room.
  
Silence - evasive looks - then finally the youngest sister spoke up, ‘He’s in the hospital.’
  
Khalid wanted to go to him immediately, but it was not so easy. The wisdom of such an act had to be considered - given the state of his father’s health, was such a sudden and unexpected meeting a good idea? Much time was spent in this debate when it was finally decided that they would play it by the ear when they got to the hospital. In the event of their father’s displeasure, Khalid would immediately return home.
 
The face disfigured with white stubble of many days growth, pale, sunken cheeks, clammy forehead and sparse dishevelled grey hair, his father lay there with his eyes shut. Ammi tiptoed in. She was followed by her younger son, the two daughters and last of all Khalid. Ammi addressed him, her voice deep with emotion, ‘Look, Khalid has come from America.’
  
Slowly the tired eyelids lifted and the light-dimmed eyes fixed themselves on his face. Slowly the minutes ticked by, then - the hand lying by his side moved - slowly, very slowly, it lifted.
   
Khalid watched with bated breath. He knew his father’s nature. Tension mounted within him. Would the hand beckon and call him in?  Or would it repudiate him? The hospital, the room, the patient - everything receded, was inconsequential. Only the hand remained. His eyes fixed painfully on it, saw nothing else.
  
One inch - then another - painfully, slowly, another inch - and then it fell like over-ripe fruit from a tree. Ammi leapt forward to clasp it. The younger brother bent over his father. The daughters rushed out to call the nurse. Confused, Khalid left the room. The nurse and duty doctor went in - he began to pace the corridor. After a little while he looked into the room and saw the doctor cover his father’s face with a sheet and the room filled with the sound of suppressed weeping.
  
Abbu left for the next world, but in the process he demolished with utter finality his son’s plans to fill with plenty the empty spaces of his life. Not only had he frustrated his hopes, with his parting gesture he had placed on him the burden of confusion and uncertainty. What message had that lifted hand intended? Was it a gesture of acceptance? Or was it an act of final rejection?
  
The last rites were observed, and each day’s ritual proceeded to the next according to the set plan, but Khalid continued to live with the torment of those final questions. Was his father’s sudden death caused by an excess of joy at the prodigal’s return? Or was it the result of an upsurge of unforgiving anger? Whichever way he looked at it, he found himself guilty of his father’s death.
  
Some days later, still bearing the burden of guilt and grief, he returned to America, a different man from the one who had returned so full of hope for the future. Once home he was surrounded by the love and sympathy of his wife and children. Saleem offered cautious condolences, for he alone among all others, had been witness to the fraught relations between the father and son, but Mofeez embraced him and without saying a word, wept with him in his sorrow.
  
Khalid had brought back a framed photograph of his father and he gave it pride of place in his study, where it now kept company with his eclectic collection of books on all faiths and points of view.  The children saw their grandfather’s photograph for the first time and they spent a long time asking him about their ‘grandpa’, and his little daughter, trying to find points of resemblance between his and her father’s face, repeatedly asked, ‘Did you love your papa as much as I love you?’
  
‘Yes darling, just as much,’ he replied cradling the child tenderly.
  
It was Sunday and Josephine and gone to the market. Khalid slept late and woke up to find his daughter waiting impatiently for him.
  
‘Come Papa, I have a surprise for you!’ Dragging him by the hand she led him to the study, ‘Now shut your eyes and don’t open them till I tell you to!’
  
Obediently shutting his eyes he allowed her to direct his footsteps.
  
‘Papa, stop!’ He could hear the children laughing and whispering among themselves.   
  
‘You may look now.’
   
Khalid opened his eyes and his gaze fell on his father’s photograph. Then he heard his daughter say, ‘This is how we honour our American heroes at school. Today we are going to honour Grandpa.’
    
The framed photograph was draped with garlands. A copy of the bible lay before it and on it was a cross, made up of two sticks tied with twine.
  
‘Now you must sing with us Papa,’ cried the little girl.
  
‘But I don’t know the words of your song,’ he answered.
  
‘We’ll repeat each line twice; you just have to follow the words and sing with us - all right? Now - one - two - three -’ and the children began to sing -
We all swear by the Holy Cross
We will always remember you!
Khalid joined in the singing, and kissed them all before joining them in their games. He laughed and joked merrily with them but his heart was troubled. This incongruous proximity of the Bible and the Cross with his father, bothered him - surely it must disturb his father’s spirit. He did not want to change the children’s arrangement. They had acted in good faith and in all innocence. Any such gesture on his part would only hurt their feelings. He felt that after his marriage and his visit to Pakistan, this was the third time in his life that he was instrumental in hurting his father’s feelings. Yet the fašade of normality had to be maintained - there seemed to be nothing he could do. Then he had an idea. He took his copy of the Quran from the bookshelf and placed it on the Bible and stood the photograph on it. Suddenly his spirit felt lighter, but the little girl had noticed the change he had made. ‘Why have you done that?’
  
‘I’ve raised Grandpa’s picture so that you can see it from a distance.’
  
‘Good idea!’ exclaimed the older boy as he ran to the bookshelf and pulled out a thick tome, with the intention of placing it on top of the Quran. Casting a glance at its title he saw that it was the Detailed History of the Crusades.
  
His father’s photograph remained in its pride of place for the rest of the day while Khalid, in a futile attempt to distract his attention from its absurd arrangement, busied himself with minor household tasks. As much as he longed to change the way the picture was placed he also wanted to safeguard and respect the feelings that had prompted his children to honour their grandfather. He had arrived at a cross roads in his life and did not know which way to turn. He was helpless in his own house. He could discern no window or skylight that could be opened to let in the breeze that would lighten the closed air of the room.
  
He called Saleem, hoping to ask him to come over for the evening, but he was not at home. Now he had only the bottle to keep him company. He was not in the mood for heavy drinking, but he also did not want to think of the iconic arrangement of his father’s picture. He failed to achieve both ends. Prey to a deep restlessness, he drank more than he intended and the fumes of alcohol ascended slowly to his head. The room with its bookshelves, furniture and other knick-knacks misted over and dimmed. Now he could see the faint line of the distant horizon - like a bird in flight he saw the empty vastness of the ocean spread out beneath him. Above him the sky lowered, heavy with the dark turbulence of wind-tossed clouds. He was beginning to tire but no tree, promontory or back of a sea creature offered succour. Utterly alone he flew on with flagging wings. Beneath him lay the drowning waters, above him hung the unfriendly sky and everywhere there was the cold, freezing air.
   
When he opened his eyes he was in hospital and saw the relieved faces of his wife and children. He came home the next day and his little daughter hugged him and said, ‘Papa I prayed for you to get well - I read the Bible too.’ Josephine spoke lovingly to him and he learned from her how he had been found drunk and weeping over his father’s picture while the books and flowers that had been arranged around it were scattered all over the room.
  
A few days passed and Khalid was out driving with Mofeez when the latter slowed down and parked the car in a side lane.
  
‘I hope you won’t mind waiting for me in the car Khalid - I’ll be away for a few minutes - It is time for the asr prayers. I’ll be back in no time.’
  
Khalid nodded abstractedly and Mofeez got out and began to walk towards the mosque. Khalid watched him for a few minutes, then quickly got out of the car and called out after him - ‘Wait for me Mofeez. I’m coming too.’
 
Translated from Urdu by Neelam Hussain

Website Editor
Mohammad Hameed Shahid

Mohammad Hameed Shahid