C H A P T E R   F I V E

        The city was now under the spell of a new slogan. The grip of the old slogans had loosened, although the posters promoting them were still up; in the same way all insults, all accusations, were written on the walls. No amount of sun or rain had done them any harm. Still, their mood, their language had gone stale. Looking at the walls, he was surprised at how quickly slogans went stale. A new slogan came like a whirlwind, and spread rapidly over walls, cars, blackboards. 'Crush India,' 'Crush India,' in every house one subject, in every gathering one topic -- war, war, war. One single question followed him around, in and out of the house, everywhere: will there be war?
        "Maulana Sahib! A letter has come from my Karamat. Nowadays he's posted in Dhaka."
        "What does he write? He's well, isn't he?"
        "He's all right, but it seems from his letter that he's somewhat worried."
        "Nowadays, who isn't?"
        "Yes, that's true, conditions are getting worse and worse with every passing day." Khvajah Sahib then addressed him: "Isn't it so, Zakir my son?"
        "Yes sir, conditions are not at all good."
        "What's the news?"
        "News? There's no special news."
        "Maulana Sahib!" Khvajah Sahib addressed Abba Jan. "What's come over our sons? They wander around so much, but if you ask them for the news, they say there's no news! When I ask Salamat, he always tells me the same news: that the revolution is coming. I said to him, 'Son, revolution isn't coming, war is coming.' He answered, 'Yes, and revolution is coming with it.' I said, 'Wretch, don't you see what's happening in East Pakistan?' And what answer does he give me? 'East Pakistan is being liberated.' I said, 'Get out of my house, bastard son!'"
        "May God have mercy upon us," Abba Jan said briefly, and put the mouthpiece of the huqqah in his mouth.
        "Yes, may God have mercy, conditions are very bad. Why, just this morning, when I had offered my prayers and was coming back, I saw army cars heading toward the border-crossing point at Wagah. There were a lot of them." He paused, then addressed Zakir: "Son, what do you think, will there be war?"
        "What do you think?" He sent the question back to him.
        When the question came his way, Khvajah Sahib sent it over toward Abba Jan. "Maulana Sahib, please answer your son's question."
        Abba Jan continued to smoke his huqqah in silence. But Khvajah Sahib kept looking at him. Finally he took the mouthpiece out of his mouth, slid the huqqah toward Khvajah Sahib, and addressed Zakir: "Son, you're the one who understands political affairs. I only know one thing: I tell you that when the masters are cruel and the sons are rebellious, any disaster at all can befall the Lord's creatures."
        "When the masters are cruel" -- he hesitated; "When the masters are cruel, and the people lick the dust." Abba Jan's long-forgotten words echoed in his mind.
        "You're entirely right." Khvajah Sahib's head was bowed.
        Seeing that both his elders were silent, he gratefully seized the opportunity and slipped away.
        At Nazira's shop too, this was the topic of conversation. Handing him a pack of cigarettes, Nazira asked, "Zakir Sahib, sir! What do you think, will there be war?"
        "What do you think?"
        "I don't know, sir, but people are saying."
        Karim Bakhsh, who had planted himself on a stool nearby, announced confidently, "War, sir, is bound to take place."
        "Karim Bakhsh! How do you know?"
        "I offer the dawn prayer, do you?"
        "Offer it, then you'll know. In the evening, you can't tell anything from the sky, there's too much noise. At that time it's mute. Get up at dawn and see, at that hour the sky speaks. Lately a comet has appeared."
        "Yar, I've heard that, but I didn't believe it."
        "Get up at dawn and look at the sky, you'll believe it. The tail is just like a broom."
        "Yar, may the broom not make a clean sweep of us!"
        He had scarcely set foot in the Shiraz and exchanged greetings with Irfan, who was already sitting there, when Salamat entered with his platoon. Now Salamat had with him not only Ajmal, but a whole group. And now, in view of his position of leadership, he spoke more haughtily.
        "Reactionaries!" Salamat stared intently first at him, then at Irfan. "What do you think? Will there be war, or not?"
        "Oh, if only war depended on my opinion!" Irfan's voice was sarcastic.
        Salamat's face at once tensed. "Irfan! The time for your refined humor and delicate sarcasm is already over. Today you'll have to give a straight answer: either you want war, or you don't want it. You'll be forced to make a commitment."
        "Commitment!" Irfan gave a poisonous smile. "Salamat, you've come to the wrong place. My commitment can neither stop the war, nor start it."
        "Still the same worn-out, rusty, boring, conventional technique for avoiding the question of the times." Salamat looked contemptuously at Irfan, and turned his attention to him. "And you, Zakir? What do you say?"
        "Me? What can I say?"
        "Are you for the war, or against the war?"
        He fell into thought. "I don't know, yar." He paused, then said, "I don't really know what I'm for and what I'm against today."
        Ajmal stared at him. "This person wants to confuse us."
        Someone else in the platoon said, "When the situation confronting them becomes concrete and demands commitment, the reactionaries get rattled."
        Salamat rolled up his sleeves, and looked wrathfully all around. He was preparing for a regular speech. "Creating confusion is an old imperialist trick. Today all the imperialist agents are doing it." Then he ground his teeth and pounded his fist on the table. "Imperialist devil, your tricks won't work any longer! You want to save yourselves by creating a confederation with India, you want to suppress the voice of the poor. These tricks won't work. There will be no confederation with India. There will be war!" This Salamat said so loudly that everyone sitting in the Shiraz could hear it. They heard, and looked at him and Irfan as though they had been caught planning some giant conspiracy against Pakistan. Salamat cast a glance of satisfaction around the room, and began again. "There will be war, and this worn-out system which sustains you will be torn to pieces. Not one of those stale, rotten moral values you carry around with you, that spread a stink in the society, will survive. My babbling fool of a father asked me what then would survive. I said, 'Old fool! I will survive -- I, the revolution!'"
        Afzal had come in at some point, and was sitting in silence, staring at Salamat. When the speech was over, he opened his mouth: "Mouse, your opinions raise such a poisonous stink that from now on I'll have to wear a gas mask to come to the Shiraz."
        Salamat gave Afzal a furious look. Once more he pounded his fist on the table, and yelled, "Reactionaries! Imperialist stooges! Boot-lickers of the capitalists! Your day of reckoning has come."
        "Fellow, lower your voice. The man is the size of a sparrow, and such a loud voice comes out of him!"
        Afzal's way of addressing him rattled Salamat, for it was a powerful blow to his position of leadership. Staring at Afzal, eyes burning with rage, Salamat suddenly rose. "You devil, your conspiracy against the people won't succeed!"
        "It won't succeed, it won't succeed!" The whole platoon began to shout the slogan; still shouting it, they left the Shiraz.
        As soon as the platoon left, there was silence all around; the three sat for some time in silence. Then Afzal grumbled, "Yar, these revolutionaries will ruin us. And how much that mouse talks!"
        "This is the time for people like him to speak," Irfan said.
        "When shoelaces speak, and those who can speak fall silent." He was startled. What long-ago words had come to his mind! Nowadays this kind of thing was happening to him. Some forgotten saying of Abba Jan's, some remark of Bi Amma's, would suddenly come into his mind and at once slide away again -- the way a snake would raise its head from the grass, then vanish again in an instant.
        "Fellow! In times like this such things happen," Afzal said. "Throats become strong, and minds grow weak. When I hear that disgusting man's voice, it's as though a huge truck horn had been attached to a scooter. When I look at his head, he seems like one of 'Shah Dulah's mice.'/1/ I've often thought that I should touch his head and see, but it would nauseate me, it would be like touching something slimy and revolting. I draw back my hand." He paused, then murmured, "Mouse, you're not saying anything." Then he said thoughtfully, almost with fear, "Yar, sometimes when I walk along it seems to me that I'm the only man who's walking, all the rest are crawling on all fours. And a sound comes, as though someone is gnawing something." He fell silent. He sat silently, deeply immersed in thought. Then he said, "Yar! Do something about it."
        "Afzal, you've had too much to drink."
        "Fellow! Listen carefully to what I say," Afzal said, holding Irfan's eyes with his own. Then he slid closer, and said in a low confiding voice, "Pakistan is a trust. You must both become my arms. I'll safeguard the trust. Otherwise, those mice will gnaw this Pakistan into dust."
        The white-haired man rose from his table, approached, and said, "Afzal Sahib, you're quite right. Pakistan is a trust."
        Afzal looked steadily at the white-haired man. "White-haired man! Go away at once. I am now imparting instruction to these two virtuous people."
        "All right, all right." The white-haired man went back to his own table, and busied himself in reading the newspaper.
        Afzal stood up.
        "What? Are you leaving?"
        "Yes, yar! My drunkenness has been spoiled. Now I'll have to have some more to drink." He paused, then muttered, "Mice, it seems they've all dived into the wine-pitcher, and now they're standing up on their tails." He fell silent, thought of something, and went out.
        The white-haired man lifted his head from the newspaper, saw that Afzal had gone, and came over. "Well what do you think, will there be war?"
        "What do you think?" Irfan said with irritation.
        "What do I think?" He fell into thought. "Sir, conditions are very bad."
        "When were they ever good?"
        "This too is correct. When were conditions here ever good?"
        He fell silent, then muttered, "We're unlucky people." He went back to his own table and sat down. Then he called Abdul, paid his bill, and went out.
        "He says his hair turned white during Emigration," Irfan laughed.
        He looked soberly at Irfan. "One thing's for sure. Ever since we've seen him, he's looked exactly like that."
        "And how regularly he comes here." Irfan laughed a little; he wasn't ready to be serious about the man.
        "He's been coming here from the earliest days, in just the same style. And in those days his hair was entirely white. We always said that snow had fallen on his head." Zakir paused, and fell silent as though lost in thought. Then he said, "Yar, some people from those days have absolutely disappeared." As he spoke, he himself disappeared. What lost, forgotten faces suddenly welled up in his memory! Some so misty that they came before his eyes and then slipped away. Some so clear and bright that they etched themselves on his eyes as though now they'd never leave him. Mulla Binotiya, a small man no bigger than a fist, with a short beard and a compact body. "Well, sir, a small cube of copper saved me."
        "Mulla, how did that happen?"
        "When I came away, I left all my property behind me. I only thrust a small cube of copper into my waistband. When the Sikhs attacked, I said to myself, 'Well, man, today is the test of your skill, and the honor of binot is in your hands.' I took the copper cube out of my waistband, tied it into the corner of a kerchief -- and when I whirled it around a single time, I broke their wrists. So, sir, I gave them what was coming to them."
        And Karnaliya, dried up and scrawny, dreadfully talkative, with a tray of pan supported against his chest. "Well man, I come from the same place as your Liaqat Ali Khan does. I only lack his degree of ripeness. It's the special nature of Karnal people. If they get completely fired up, they're Prime Ministers; if they're a degree short of that heat, they make shoes or sell pan."
        And Nuru the bread-seller, who boasted of being a pure-bred Ambala man. "Sayyid Sahib, there's not an Ambali among them! All the bastards are from Sadhora, and they're only Shaikhs by birth. They've added 'Ambali' to their names just for prestige. I'm the only one from Ambala! That's why they can't meet my eyes. Well, sir, that's how it is in Pakistan. That tall skinny beanpole from Karsi claims to be the Navab of Nucklow!" They had left their cities, but they carried their cities with them, as a trust, on their shoulders. That's how it usually is. Even when cities are left behind, they don't stay behind. They seize on you even more. When the earth slips out from under your feet, that's when it really surrounds you. The grasp of the earth is no doubt strong, but Maulvi Matchbox? Where did he come from? He never spoke to anyone, or even said a word at all; he was lost in himself and in the empty, half-open matchboxes that were spread around him on a cloth. 'Maulvi Matchbox, what are these boxes?' 'Sir, these are towns.' 'Maulvi Matchbox, they don't even have matches in them, they're all empty.' 'Sir, the towns are empty now.'
        He murmured, "People have come from all kinds of places. Like kites with their strings cut, that go flying and come down on a roof somewhere." He fell silent, and stared at Irfan. "Irfan!"
        "We've been here a long time."
        Irfan looked at him intently. "So?"
        "So nothing." After a moment he said, "You laughed off what the white-haired man said. But I was shaken inside. I remembered all the past times. Yar!" He paused, then said, "Now your hair and mine have turned white too." His gaze was fixed on the white hair at Irfan's temples.
        "But our hair grew white not during Emigration, but in the sun of Pakistan."
        "The sun of Pakistan!" He again felt that he was drowning in memories. "Yar, how much we've walked in the sun in this city! In the summer afternoons, there was nothing but the hot pavement of Mall Road, and our footsteps. Our final stop was always the pipal tree on the far side of the bridge; how dense it was, that tree, and what a cool breeze its shade created. Now that tree isn't even there any more. The bastards have cut it down."
        Irfan made no reply to his words. But they began to affect him, as though he too was inclined to travel through past days.
        "Irfan, those days were certainly harsh for us, but I think they were good."
        "Yes, those were good days."
        "The days, and the people too."
        "And now?" Irfan stared at him.
        "Yes, and now." His voice sounded dead, as if he had just collapsed into ruins.
        For a long time they sat in silence, lost in their own thoughts. Then he looked at Irfan. He kept looking, as though he wanted to say something, but hesitated.
        Irfan looked at him, but he was silent.
        "What is it?"
        "Yar!" He paused, then said somewhat hesitantly, "Yar, was it good that Pakistan was created?"
        Irfan looked at him sharply. "Have you, too, been influenced by Salamat?"
        "Not by Salamat, by you."
        "Once doubt begins, there's no end to it."
        Irfan made no reply. He looked at Zakir somewhat angrily, and tightened his lips. Zakir sat in silence.
        "I know one thing," Irfan said at last, "In the hands of the wrong people, even right becomes wrong." And at once he rose.
        "Are you going?"
        "I'm on duty, after all." He left immediately.
        The Shiraz was very peaceful then. Most of the tables were empty. There was not much noise even from the occupied tables. So he thought he could sit in peace for a little while. He didn't see any danger in the future; the crisis of Salamat had come and gone.
        The manager, sitting at the counter, saw that he was alone. He rose and approached him.
        "Zakir Sahib! What do you think, will there be war?" He asked as though it was a secret which he alone would know.
        He was at a loss for an answer. "I don't know what will happen."
        "You're right! No one knows at all what's going to happen. Everyone I ask gives the same answer, that no one knows what's going to happen. But a lot of troop movements are taking place."
        He replied uninterestedly, in monosyllables; then, feeling fed up, he rose and left. As he walked out, he heaved a small sigh of relief.

        Still the same walls, the same big posters on the walls. His gaze again wandered involuntarily among the posters. Now the evening shadows were lengthening, and the words on the posters were no longer so vivid. But still, as his eyes passed over the posters on the walls, he made some effort to read them. These are posters; what's the handwriting on the wall? It's often happened that one thing was written on the walls, while something else turned out to be the handwriting on the wall. But the walls are plastered with posters. People walk along in the spell of posters and slogans, ignorant of the handwriting on the wall. As though they're oblivious. Do they walk? Who? Seeing a man pass by him, he hesitated. Several people passed nearby, before him and behind him. He couldn't see their faces clearly, for it was dusk and the streetlight was some distance away. Is it because of the lack of light, or because in the dusk faces usually look strange, or are their faces really like that? Again someone passed by him. But this time either his eyes failed him, or the man walked very fast, for he couldn't see the man's face at all. Then he waited for a man to pass by him, so he could examine his face closely, but no one passed by. Today there are so few people! He was surprised. In the evening Mall Road is normally crowded. What's happened today? And as he was thinking this, two glittering eyes suddenly held his gaze -- a cat. Sitting among the trees near the sidewalk, the cat seemed to be staring at him. He passed by her, but she sat still, as though frozen in place. A silent and motionless cat. Her eyes, like sparks, stared at him. A man passed by. He couldn't see the man's face. He watched the man walk. How is this man walking? He had no sooner framed the thought than the man turned off onto another street, and vanished from sight. But after all, how was the man walking? As he passed by me, I couldn't hear the sound of his footsteps. How are people walking today? With wonder he watched the rising and falling feet of a man walking towards him. Now he was watching not people's faces, but their feet. He began trying seriously to watch the legs, the moving feet, of the various people walking near him. We don't pay attention, but how strange people look, moving along on their two legs! Or perhaps they only look that way today. A man is recognized by his walk. Every man, every creature. But they're walking as though they've lost their identities. And I? What if I should be walking the same way? No, he said to himself decisively, and at once began to examine his own walk. I never used to walk like this, he muttered, and tried to correct his walk. He lifted his feet with care, and put them down again with care, but his walk seemed to be getting worse and worse. What's happened to my walk today? He hesitated, then reflected that before today he'd never even paid attention to his walk. We keep on walking, and never pay attention to how we walk. Here I am, walking along. Immediately he was brought up short. When he observed his own non-human walk, the strange thought came to him that it was not he who was walking, but someone else in his place. But who? He fell into perplexity. Gradually he controlled his doubt. He walked in measured paces, and listened to the sound of his footsteps. No, I'm myself all right. I'm walking here on a paved sidewalk in my city, and this is the sound of my footsteps. But while he was reassuring himself like this, a sudden impression came to him that the sound of his footsteps was gradually drawing away from his footsteps. It's a strange thing. I'm walking along here, and the sound of my footsteps is coming from over there -- from where -- ? Or perhaps I'm here, and I'm walking somewhere else -- ? Where -- ? Where am I walking? On what earth are my footsteps falling? He looked around him in surprise. Everything was silent and desolate. As though the town had emptied, the way a matchbox empties. 'Houses and inns and places, all empty.'/2/ No noise, no voice, no sound of footsteps, no nothing, only the sound of gnawing coming from all sides, as though many mice were gnawing something. Terrified, stupefied, from one lane to a second, from the second lane to a third. Walking along one lane, he found the road ahead closed. Now what was to be done? The gate of the mansion was closed. He knocked at the closed gate. "Is anyone there?" His cry echoed through the whole town -- is anyone there, is anyone there. As though he had been standing at this closed gate from eternity, calling out "Is anyone there?" A cat standing up on her hind legs opened the door, looked at him intently, and closed the door. The light changed from green to red. He began to cross at the crosswalk, then hesitated. The waiting cars, scooter-cabs, and motorbikes suddenly rushed past him as though a dam in a river had burst.


/1/ These were retarded children born with heads too small for their bodies, who were often dedicated to the popular saint Shah Dulah to protect them from an early death.

/2/ Part of a line from a poem by Munir Niyazi.



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