Evenings at Alamgir

The dust crept on the road like serpents. One of the headlights of my car went out when I passed the graveyards at Dalmia Road, the serpents cut into half. The moon came out of the clouds when I stopped at the signal near the stadium, its brightness could not conceal the grey spots on its face, ugly birthmarks on a beautiful face. The traffic was light  and the night not too dark. The usual beggars were absent, I didn’t know they had the Sundays off. I went past the hospital and took the second left from the main road, got stuck in the anarchic traffic at the roundabout at the Sialkot milk house,fought my way out on the left to the road to Alamgir.

They were sitting on the median between two bald shrubs in the centre of the two narrow roads. When I passed by them looking for a parking spot, I heard J. saying, ‘the white man’s burden was heavier than….’ I parked in front of the marriage lawn at the end of the road and walked back towards them. Alamgir was crowded as usual and so was the kebab house near it. The four chairs on the median were occupied by them; I sat at a stool on the road. They were busy in an intense conversation and their handshakes were limp. J. was talking; not like an orator but like an author reading from his book:

“…spread of their imperialism was a proof of God’s Divine justice who could not allow only a faction of humanity to enjoy the magnificent benefits of the scientific revolution. What do you think would have happenened if the Mughals’ throne had survived and flourished? There would be more tributes to even more dead wives of the drunk kings and their princes. Indian Railways would not have been the largest employer because it would not even have existed…”

“This is conjectural history,” said A. , laughing.

“ But based on the observed trends.  Every opinion is a conjecture in the strictest sense of the word, find me objective truth, I’ll help you find God. You might not agree with me but I say let’s build a monument to Mir Jafar, whose treachery turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He was a great visionary; may be in the heart of his hearts he knew that we need them!”

All of us laughed. J. too. “ I have never seen a man actually slip off a banana skin!”, S. said laughing. Nobody could understand the significance of his comment. He continued, “That monument you spoke of J., it should be banana shaped, a huge banana as a tribute to Mir Jafar or still better we can ask a sculptor to make a statue showing Mir Jafar slipping off a banana skin. We can put it beside Minar-e-Pakistan!”

We laughed. I said that we should order something and S. shouted hellooo and waved his arms like an octopus towards the little smoke filled hotel. A pathan boy came over. I asked him to bring us three cups of tea, two peshawari qahwas and five parathas to which he responded with a surprise, rolling his eyes and shaping his mouth in a capital O and went away. J. and S. lighted up their cigarettes. A. asked J. to change places because the wind blew in his direction and carried the smoke with it. I was observing Y.. He was silent and brooding over something,staring at the sky which stared back. I asked him what was up.

“Is not resisting your own murder suicide?”, he questioned in reply.

J. replied as if he had a presentiment of the question : “In principle yes but I find it unbelievable that a man might  not resist his own murder. Suicide is an act of great courage and demands unhindered willingness. If somebody kills you and you are not resisting, you cannot call it your suicide, its murder.”

“So if one wants to take his own life and not go to hell, which is mutually exclusive, one has to prove beyond doubt that he resisted his own murder and any shred of willingness on his part will destroy his case in the court of God. But that’s impossible, assisted suicide is  still suicide!”, said Y, reading the eyes of the sky, “look at that cloud it’s coming right towards us!” and we all looked at the sky.

“Junejo what did you speak about at the weekly session last week?  I missed it!”, A. asked J.

“Oh yes that was an interesting session. The guy before me spoke of Tipu Sultan and recited Iqbal’s poem. It was all good the glorification and everything but in the end he quoted a statement often  attributed to Tipu:

Sher kee aik din kee zindagi geedar kee so saalaa zindagi say behtar hai

I have often thought about this statement and I walked up to the stage and said what I wanted to say”

“What did you say?”

“I am sure you have often heard me saying that the life is a combination of millions of moments out of which only some are liveable and the rest are complimentary. The liveable are when we have to make a choice, when we are at cross-roads, ignore for the time the Tolstoy’s view that in retrospect everything seems pre-destined. These moments make a difference, to the rest of them the life pays no attention they are as random and meaningless as the dances of mindless moths seem to be. It is these moments of life and death that we glorify. Martyrdom is glorified and it should be but if you note, it ends the ceaseless struggle of life. Death in any form is an escape, martyrdom is the noble way, suicide ignoble but both are escapes. Martyrdom is an exam passing which you won’t have to appear in other lesser exams. But, alive you have to go through it again and again, you have to walk over the thin wire repeatedly. Martyrdom is courageous, but what is more courageous, one final blow to your head and you are through or thousand bullets through your soul and you still have to go through? Death is a shortcut. Life on the other hand is more challenging and demands more courage. Tipu was right about the lion and the jackal but only when the 100 years of jackals life lack courage but if not then certainly life of courage is more worthier than a moment of courage!”

The tea, qahwas and parathas came. When I asked the pathan boy to bring me a bottle of water he was surprised yet again as if we were sitting in a Chinese restaurant and ordered Turkish food.

“Tipu said this keeping jackals’ nature in mind”, Y. said.

“But men are lions and jackals, doves and eagles, vultures and peacocks, sharks and dolphins all at the same time. There is no one who is absolutely fearless or absolutely lacking courage!”, said. J..

Sipping tea, Y. said with an ironical smile: “What do they think  when they see us celebrating our independence, all of us who were once their subjects?”

“They don’t give a shit!”, said S.

Just then a car passed by with the Pakistani flag on its bonnet. “You know the crescent on our flag is  crescent of a waning moon, we should change it to the crescent of a waxing moon.” A. said.

“Ah it is a symbol only and a symbol is by definition a representation of the real thing. Even a waning moon comes out after a while. Maybe after a century or so our generations will find the crescent of the growing moon on our flag.”

“Century Junejo?”

“Even in sixties our nation is a teenager inspired by superheroes, the supermen and batmen of the real world. In the book of nations we still have to make our mark.”

“Oh the skeptic!”, S. retorted. “We were raped by those imperialists but yet we have stood up so far and this land is bearing sons and daughters who are carrying this land’s burdens on their shoulders. You cannot just vanish the great sacrifices of our forefathers with a wave of your hand!”

J. laughed, the arrogant laugh of a philosopher: “You and I both know that nobody does anything for the greater good, they do it for themselves and if as a by-product, society and nation get improved, very well for them.”

I surprised the pathan boy by ordering one more paratha.

J. continued:

“The greatest mistake we make everyday is that we give away our individuality too easily. Some Mark Antony comes out and says ‘Friends, Pakistanis, countrymen, lend me your ears!’, we present our ears, then he says ‘lend me you culture’, we present our culture, then he says, ‘lend me your history’, we present our history, then he says, ‘lend me your conscience’ and we give that away too. The only thing that we can claim as ours is also tainted. Have you read Chekhov’s story about a woman who adopts the views and opinions of the man she is married to, the man dies, she marries another and adopts his view, he dies too, she marries yet again, and adopts the opinions of her third husband, there is nothing she could claim her own! I am missing the title right now”

“Darling”, I reminded him.

“Yes, yes, Darling”, he said smiling victoriously.

J. was not like this all the time. At other times he spoke of eye colours and curves. After this A. said something about his job. S. gave innovative names to his boss. Y. came up with a question  which only a scholar of jurisprudence could answer. I suggested that we should surprise the pathan boy even more by not paying the bill but J. didn’t agree. He rarely agrees to anything. S. and Y. asked me about how my work on the stories was going on. I told them about the story of a sindhi nationalist I was working on. They asked me to read an excerpt. I took out my phone and read to them a paragraph to which they made indifferent faces except J. who was smiling and asked about the title of the story, I said I had not decided yet. He asked me to read it again, I read aloud another paragraph:

…If spirit could break with bones, his would have huge cracks like cracks on the wall of his room. For the people of his town he was ‘missing’. For his mother and brother he was in hell. How did they know the most intimate secrets of his heart? Hanging upside down he was told the names of two women he had courted and photos of many he had forced himself on even the ones he had bought and the ones he had been presented. In days of his freedom before he went ‘missing’ which now seemed to his memory brushed with golden sunshine of childhood days, in moments of passionate drinking when alcohol was for them the milk of their Mother, they sang patriotic songs over dead bodies of ‘martyrs of the Mother’; in turn each of them would lie down and be a dead martyr while others danced unconscious dances of the ‘Sufis of the Mother’ while the Mother watched and watched in its confusion that orgy of her mindless sons. But now that he was free again, alcohol was alcohol. This new freedom had its roots in bondage. ‘Freedom and bondage are not equal’, that was his motto and every historical figure who took man out from bondage was his hero but he, like many others failed to accept that man’s life is a long corridor with many doors, on opening one he finds another and so on while he lives in an illusion that some door will lead him to open space beyond the walls of the corridor. Freedom from bondage does not make him free, it only revives him. Like time and space, bondage will be man’s fate. His failure made him a rebel. He led the split in the party and would have led another if he hadn’t gone ‘missing’. His first answer to any proposition was negative and he was hard to convince and that was one of the reasons he was called Azad. Hanging upside down he was Azad, kissing his mother’s lifeless feet he wasn’t…..

J. said that the story should be titled Azad. A. said that too. I agreed. Then I suggested we should at least do something in retaliation to the pathan boy. S. gave an idea.

When the boy came, we asked him about the bill. He made some mental calculations and said : teen so dus rupiya. And all of us  rolled our eyes and said in unison making an O face : “O”! to which he replied with a wonderful laugh!