‘Why is it hard?’ Javeria asked her.
‘Because I desire so many things, and each one of them is so important for me,’ she replied, shaking her head.
They were both sitting at the farther end of the auditorium, their backs to the wall. It was their eighth day at the F.Sc. classes and they spent their free period there. Nibbling salted peanuts one by one, Javeria repeated her question. ‘What’s your life’s dearest wish, Imama?’
Imama looked at her with some surprise and pondered over the question. Then parrying the question with a demand, she said, ‘You tell me first what you desire most.’
‘I asked you first, so you should reply first,’ retorted Javeria.
‘Very well…let me think,’ Imama conceded defeat. ‘My life’s dearest desire…’ she mumbled to herself.
‘Well, one wish is to live long…very long,’ she said.
‘Why?’ laughed Javeria.
‘Fifty or sixty years are too short for me. One should live to be at least a hundred. And then there is so much I wish to do. Should I die early, all my wishes would remain unfulfilled.’ She popped a peanut into her mouth.
‘What else?’ said Javeria.
‘I want to be the most outstanding doctor in the country—the best eye specialist, so that when the history of eye surgery in Pakistan is compiled, my name will be at the very top of the list.’ She looked up with a smile.
‘And what if you cannot become a doctor? After all, that depends both on merit and luck,’ Javeria stated.
‘That is out of the question. I am working so hard to make it to the merit list. Besides my parents can afford to send me abroad if I don’t get into a medical college here.’
‘But still, what if you cannot be a doctor?’
‘That’s impossible. It’s my life’s dearest desire: I can sacrifice everything for it. This has been my lifelong dream, and how can one just ignore or forget one’s dreams? Impossible!’ Imama shook her head decisively as she picked another peanut off her palm and nibbled on it.
‘Nothing is impossible in life—anything can happen at any time. Suppose your wish does not come true, how would you react?’
Imama fell into thought again. ‘To begin with, I’ll weep a lot…a great deal…for many days—and then I’ll die.’
Javeria burst out laughing. ‘You just said you wanted a very long life, and now you want to die.’
‘Obviously. What’s the point of living then? All my plans are built around my career in medicine and if that is not to be a part of my life, then what remains?’
‘So you mean this one dream of your life will wipe out all other dreams?’
‘Yes, think of it that way.’
‘Your most important desire is to be a doctor, not to live long?’
‘You could say so.’
‘Very well—so, if you can’t become a doctor, then how would you choose to die? Would you choose: suicide or a natural death?’
‘A natural death of course. I can’t kill myself,’ Imama replied casually.
‘And if you do not die naturally, then what? I mean, if you do not die soon, despite not being a doctor, you would go on living.’
‘No. I know that I’ll die very soon if I can’t be a doctor. I will be so heart-broken that I will not survive,’ she replied decisively.
‘It is difficult to believe that a cheerful person like you can be so despairing as to cry yourself to death. And that too just because you were unable to pursue a medical career. Sounds funny,’ mocked Javeria.
‘Stop talking about me. Tell me about yourself. What is your heart’s greatest desire?’ Imama changed the subject.
‘Let it go…’
‘Why let it go? Come on tell me…’
‘You will be offended if I say it.’ Javeria spoke hesitatingly.
Imama turned around in surprise to look at her. ‘Why would I be offended?’
Javeria was quiet.
‘What is it that I will mind?’ Imama repeated her question.
‘You will…’ Javeria murmured.
‘Why should your life’s greatest wish so affect my life that I would get upset?’ Imama was quite irritated. ‘Is it your wish that I not become a doctor?’ Imama seemed to suddenly remember.
‘Oh, no!’ laughed Javeria. ‘There is more to life than being a doctor,’ she stated philosophically.
‘Stop talking in riddles and answer me,’ Imama said firmly. ‘I promise I will not mind anything you say.’ She held out her hand in a gesture of peace.
‘Regardless of your promise you are going to be very angry when you hear what I have to say. Let’s talk of something else,’ Javeria replied.
‘All right—let me guess. Your decision is linked to something of great value to me, right?’ queried Imama after a thoughtful pause.
Javeria nodded her head.
‘The question is: what is so important to me that I should…’ she stopped in mid-sentence. ‘But unless I know the nature of your wish, I cannot come to a conclusion. Javeria, tell me please. The suspense is too much for me,’ she pleaded.
Javeria was lost in thought. Imama studied her face. Javeria looked up at her after a while.
‘Other than my career, there is only one thing I value most in my life,’ Imama addressed her, ‘and if you want to say something in that context, then say so. I won’t mind.’ Imama was serious.
Javeria was taken aback. Imama was looking at the ring on her hand. A smile crossed Javeria’s face.
‘My life’s dearest wish is that you….’ Javeria revealed her thoughts.
Imama’s face went white with shock. Javeria could not guess the impact her words had on Imama, but the expression on her face showed that the reaction was much more intense than she had expected.
‘I did tell you that you would be offended,’ Javeria tried to redeem the situation, but Imama stared back without a word.—————————————————
Moiz was howling with pain, doubled up and holding on to his stomach. The twelve-year-old boy facing him wiped the blood off his nose on the sleeve of his torn shirt, and swung the tennis racquet in his hand to hit Moiz on the leg.
Moiz let out another scream and straightened up. With disbelief he looked at his brother—younger by two years—who was hitting him with the same racquet that Moiz had brought there.
This was the third time they had fought this week, and every time it was his younger brother who started the fight. He and Moiz had never had a good relationship and had fought since childhood. But their quarrels had been mostly verbal and included threats, but of late they had become physical.
This is what happened today. They had come back from school together. When they got down from the car, the younger brother roughly dragged his bag out of the boot as Moiz was picking up his school bag. In the process, he bruised Moiz’s hand, making him wince with pain.
‘Have you gone blind?’ Moiz cried out as his brother walked off nonchalantly. He heard Moiz, turned round, looked at him, then opened the front door, and walked into the lounge. Incensed, Moiz followed on his heels.
‘The next time you do anything like that I’ll break your hand!’ Moiz shouted.
The younger boy took his bag off his shoulder, put it down, and with hands on his hips, defiantly faced Moiz.
‘I will—so what will you do? Break my hand? Have you the guts?’
‘You’ll find out if you repeat what you did today.’ Moiz headed toward his room.
But his brother stopped him, grabbing his bag with all his strength.
‘No—tell me now.’ He flung Moiz’s bag down. Flushed with anger, Moiz picked up his brother’s bag and hurled it away. Without a pause, his brother landed a sharp blow on Moiz’s leg. Moiz lunged at him, punching his face, and his nose began to bleed. Despite that, there was no sound from the younger boy. He grabbed Moiz’s tie and tried to choke him. Moiz retaliated by grabbing his collar—there was a tearing sound as the shirt ripped. With all his force, Moiz hit his brother on his midriff so as to make him lose his grip on him.
‘Now I’ll show you! I’ll break your hand!’ Shouting and abusing, Moiz picked up the tennis racquet that was lying in corner of the lounge. The next thing he knew was that the racquet was in his brother’s hand and was swung with such force that Moiz could not save himself. Blows rained down on him, on his back and legs.
Their older brother came into the lounge in a fit of rage.
‘What is your problem? You create an upheaval as soon as you get home!’ At the sound of his voice, the younger brother first lowered and then raised the racquet again.
‘And you—aren’t you ashamed of yourself for raising your hand at your older brother?’ The eldest brother looked at the hand holding the racquet.
‘No,’ he retorted without any remorse. He threw the racquet down, picked up his bag and walked away.
‘You will have to pay for this,’ Moiz called out after him, rubbing his sore leg.
‘Sure, why not!’ He gave Moiz a weird smile. ‘Get a bat the next time. It was no fun hitting you with a tennis racquet—no bones are broken.’
‘Check out your nose—it’s broken for sure.’ Furious, Moiz looked towards the staircase where his brother had been standing just a while ago.
For the fourth time, Mrs. Samantha Richards stared at the boy sitting on the first chair in the second row by the window. With complete disregard for the class, he was busy staring out of the window. From time to time he would look at Mrs. Richards, and then turn back to the view from the window.
This was her first day as biology teacher at one of the international schools in Islamabad. She was a diplomat’s wife and a teacher by profession. They had recently arrived in Islamabad. At all her husband’s postings, she had taken up teaching assignments in the schools attached to the embassy.
Continuing the syllabus and teaching schedule of her predecessor Ms. Mariam, after a brief introduction to the class Mrs Richards began explaining the function of the heart and the circulation system and drew a diagram on the board.
She looked at the student who was looking distractedly out of the window and, using a time-worn technique, she fixed her gaze on him and stopped speaking. A hush fell over the class. The boy turned back to the class. Meeting his gaze, Mrs. Richards smiled and resumed her lecture. For a while she continued to keep her gaze on the boy who was now busy writing in his notebook. Then she turned her attention to the class.
She believed the boy was embarrassed enough not to let his attention wander, but just a couple of minutes later she found him looking out of the window again. Once more, she stopped her lecture, and he turned to look at her. This time she did not smile. She continued addressing the class. As she turned to the writing board, the student again turned to the window. A look of annoyance crossed her face and as she fell silent again, the boy looked at her with a frown, and looked away—beyond the window.
His attitude was so insulting that Mrs. Samantha Richards’s face flushed. ‘Salar, what are you looking at?’ she asked sternly.
‘Nothing,’ came the one word reply. He gave her a piercing look.
‘Do you know what I am teaching?’
‘Hope so.’ His tone was so rude that Samantha Richards capped the marker she had in her hand and slapped it down on the table.
‘If that is so, then come up here and draw and label this diagram.’
She erased the figure on the board. The boy’s face changed a myriad colors. She saw the students in the class exchange glances. The boy stared coldly at Samantha Richards. As she cleaned the last trace of her diagram from the board, he left his seat. Moving swiftly, he picked up the marker from the table and with lightning speed—in exactly two minutes and fifty-seven seconds—he had drawn and labeled the diagram. Replacing the cap on the marker, he slapped it down on the table just as Mrs. Richards had done, and, without looking at her, returned to his seat.
Mrs. Richards did not see him tossing down the marker or walking back to his seat. She was looking in disbelief at the diagram—which had taken her ten minutes to make—and which he had completed in less than three minutes. It was far better than her work: she could not find even a minor flaw in it. Somewhat embarrassed, she turned to look at the boy. Once again he was looking out of the window.
Waseem knocked on the door for the third time; this time he could hear Imama inside.
‘Who is it?’
‘Imama it’s me. Open the door,’ said Waseem standing back. There was silence on the other side.
A little later, the lock clicked and Waseem turned the door knob to enter. Imama moved towards her bed, with her back to Waseem.
‘What brings you here at this time?’
‘Why did you turn in so early? It’s only ten now,’ replied Waseem as he walked in.
‘I was sleepy.’ She sat down on the bed. Waseem was alarmed to see her.
‘Have you been crying?’ It was a spontaneous remark. Imama’s eyes were red and swollen and she was trying to look away.
‘No—no, I wasn’t crying. Just a bad headache.’ She tried to smile.
Waseem, sitting down beside her, held her hand, trying to check her temperature. ‘Any fever?’ he asked with some concern. Then he let go of her hand. ‘You don’t have fever. Perhaps you should take a tablet for your headache.’
‘Good. Go to sleep then. I had come to talk to you but you’re in no state…’ Waseem turned to leave the room. Imama made no effort to stop him. She followed him to the door and shut it behind him.
Flinging herself on the bed, she buried her face in the pillow—she was sobbing again.
The thirteen-year-old boy was engrossed in a music show on TV when Tyyaba peeped in. She looked at her son somewhat uncertainly, and entered the room, irritated.
‘What’s going on?’
‘I’m watching TV,’ he replied without looking at her.
‘Watching TV. For God’s sake! Are you aware that your exams have started?’ Tyyaba asked, standing in front of him.
‘So what?’ he said, annoyed.
‘So what? You should be in your room with your books, not sitting here watching this vulgar show,’ Tyyaba scolded him.
‘I have studied as much as I need to. Now please move out of my way.’ His tone reflected his irritation.
‘All the same go in and study.’ Tyyaba stood her ground.
‘No. I will not get up, nor will I go in and study. My studies and my papers are my concern, not yours.’
‘If you were concerned about your studies, would you be sitting here?’
‘Step aside.’ He ignored Tyyaba’s comment and rudely shooed her away.
‘I’m going to talk to your father today.’ Tyyaba tried a threat.
‘You can talk to him for all I care. What will happen? What is he going to do? I’ve told you that I’ve already prepared for my exams, so then what’s your problem?’
‘This is your final examination. You should be concerned about it.’ Tyyaba softened her tone.
‘I am not a four-year-old who you need to nag. I have a better understanding of my responsibilities than you so don’t pester me with your silly advice.’
‘Your exams are on. Pay attention to your studies. You should be in your room. I will have a word with your father!’
‘What rubbish!’ Standing up, he flung the remote control at the wall and stomping his feet, left the room. Tyyaba, helpless and humiliated, watched him go.
It was New Year’s Eve: thirty minutes to go before the New Year began. A group of ten or so teenagers were roaring around the city streets on their motorbikes, doing all kinds of stunts. Some of them wore shiny headbands to celebrate the coming year. An hour ago they were in one of the uptown supermarkets, teasing girls with whistles. They had firecrackers too which they let off to celebrate. At a quarter to twelve they reached the parking lot of the Gymkhana Club where a New Year’s party was in full swing. The boys also had invitations to the party and their parents were already there.
When they got in, it was five to midnight. In a few moments, the lights in the hall and the dance floor would be switched off and then with a display of fireworks on the lawns, the New Year would be heralded in. The partying would be on all night—dancing, drinking—all the festivities especially organized for the occasion by the Gymkhana management. ‘Lights off’ meant a display of complete abandon—that was what the crowds came for.
One of the teenagers who had joined the party was on the dance floor, rocking to the beat and impressing all with his performance. At ten seconds to twelve the lights went off. Voices and laughter filled the hall as people counted the seconds to the New Year, and this rose to a pitch as the clock struck midnight and the hall lit up again. The teenagers were now out in the parking lot, their car horns blaring away. Beer can in hand, the youth who was on the dance floor got on the roof of a car. He pulled out another beer can from his jacket and pitched it at the windscreen of a parked car, which shattered with an explosion as the full can hit it. He stood on the car, calmly drinking from the can of beer in his hand.
For the last half hour Salar had been watching Kamran trying to master the video game: the score remained the same, probably because Kamran was trying to maneuver a difficult track. Salar was also in the lounge, busy writing notes. From time to time, he would look at the TV screen as Kamran struggled to win more points.
Half an hour later, Salar put his notebook away, stifled a yawn, stretched his legs out on the table and crossing his hands behind his head, looked at the TV screen as Kamran started a new game, having lost the previous round.
‘What’s the problem, Kamran?’
‘Nothing…I got this new game but it is really tough to score,’ Kamran said in a tired tone.
‘Let me see.’ Salar got up from the sofa and took the remote control. Kamran watched silently: in the opening seconds Salar was racing at a speed that Kamran had never reached. The track that had challenged Kamran was like child’s play for Salar—it was hard for Kamran to keep his eyes on the car that was racing at a fantastic speed in the first minute, and yet Salar had complete control over it.
Three minutes later, Kamran saw the car swerve, go off the track and explode into smithereens. Kamran turned to Salar with a smile—he realized why the car had been destroyed: Laying the remote control down on the table Salar picked up his notebook. ‘It’s a very boring game,’ he remarked as he jumped over Kamran’s legs and went out. Kamran clenched his teeth as he saw the seven digit score on the screen. He looked at the door as Salar left.
They were both quiet once again. Asjad was beginning to worry: Imama had not always been as withdrawn as she was now. One could have counted the words she had spoken in the last half hour. He had known her since childhood; she was a lively girl. In the first year after their engagement, Asjad had felt happy in her company—she was so quick-witted and vivacious. But in the last few years, she had changed, the transformation having become more pronounced since she started medical school. Asjad felt that she had something on her mind. At times, she would appear to be worried and sometimes she was distinctly cold and distant as though she wanted to end their meeting and leave as soon as possible. This time too he had the same feeling.
‘I often think that it is I who insists on our meeting—perhaps it makes little difference to you whether we meet or not,’ he said despondently.
She was sitting on a garden chair across from him, looking at the creepers on the boundary wall. At Asjad’s remark, she fixed her gaze on him. He cast an inquiring glance, but she was silent, so he rephrased his words.
‘My coming here makes no difference to you. Imama…am I right?’
‘What can I say?’
‘At least you can say “No, you’re mistaken”, that …’
‘No, you’re mistaken,’ Imama cut him short. Her tone was as cold and her expression as indifferent as before.
Asjad sighed in despair.
‘Yes, I wish and pray that it may be so, that I may indeed be mistaken. However, talking to you I feel you do not care.’
‘What makes you think so?’
Asjad detected a note of annoyance in her tone.
‘Many things—for one you never respond properly to anything I say.’
‘I do make every effort to reply properly to whatever you say. What can I do if you do not like what I have to say?’
Asjad felt that she was more annoyed.
‘I did not mean that I did not like what you say: it’s that you only say “yes” or “no” in response. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m talking to myself.’
‘When you ask me if I am well, I say “yes” or “no”—what else can I say? If you want to hear a spiel in response to a simple question then tell me what you would like to hear and I’ll say it.’ She was serious.
‘You could add something to that “yes” or “no”. If nothing else, ask me how I am.’
‘Ask you how are you are? You are sitting here across me, talking to me—obviously you are quite well. Otherwise, you’d be at home, in bed, sick.’
‘Imama, these are formalities…’
‘And you know very well that I do not believe in formalities. There’s no need for you to ask me how I am; I will not mind it at all.’
Asjad was speechless. ‘Fine. Formalities aside, one can talk of other things, discuss something. Talk to each other about what interests us, what keeps us busy.’
‘Asjad, what can I discuss with you? You’re a businessman, I am a medical student, What should I ask you? About the stock market position? Was the trend bullish or bearish? By how many points did the index rise? Or where you are sending the next consignment? How much rebate did the government give you this time?’ she went on coldly. ‘Or shall I discuss anatomy with you? What affects the function of the liver? What new techniques have been used for bypass surgery this year? What should be the voltage of electric shocks given to restore a failing heart? These are our spheres of work, so what points of discussion can we have about these that will help us to achieve love and familiarity? I fail to understand.’
The color of Asjad’s face deepened. He was cursing the moment that he had complained to Imama.
‘There are other interests too in a person’s life,’ he said weakly.
‘No, besides my studies there’s no other interest in my life,’ Imama said decisively, shaking her head for emphasis.
‘After all, we shared interests earlier on.’
‘Forget about what happened earlier,’ Imama interjected. ‘I cannot afford to waste time now. What surprises me is that despite being a businessman you are so immature and emotional; you should be more practical.’
Asjad was silent.
‘We know our relationship. If you think my practical approach to our relationship shows a lack of interest or indifference then I cannot do much about it. That I am here with you means that I value this relationship, otherwise I would not be sitting here having tea with a stranger.’ She paused a moment, then continued, ‘And whether you coming here or not makes any difference to me, the answer is that we are both very busy people. We are the products of a modern age. I am no Heer who waits upon you with delicacies while you play the flute, nor are you Ranjha who will indulge me for hours. The truth is that it really makes no difference whether or not we meet or talk. Our relationship, as it is today, will continue. Or do you feel it will change?’
If Asjad’s brow did not sweat, it was simply because it was the month of December. There was a difference of eight years in their ages, but for the first time Asjad felt it was not eight but eighteen—and she was the older one. Just two weeks ago, she had turned nineteen, but to him it seemed as if she had raced overnight from teenage to middle age and he had regressed to his pre-teens! She sat across him, legs crossed and eyes fixed on his face, impassively waiting for his response. Asjad looked at the engagement ring on her finger and cleared his throat.
‘You’re right…I just thought we should chat more because it would help develop some understanding between us.’
‘Asjad, I know and understand you very well. I am disappointed to learn that you think we still need to develop an understanding between us. I thought there already was a good deal of understanding.’
Asjad had to accept that it wasn’t his day.
‘And if you think that talking about business and anatomy will improve the situation, then very well—we’ll do that in the future.’ There was an element of disinterest in Imama’s tone.
‘You’re not happy with what I said?’
‘Why should I be unhappy?’ This embarrassed him further.
‘Perhaps I said the wrong thing…not perhaps, but certainly I said the wrong thing.’ He repeated the last phrase with emphasis. ‘You know how important this relationship is for me. I have many dreams for the future…’
He took a deep breath. She continued to stare, expressionless, at the creeper along the wall. ‘Perhaps that is why I am so sensitive about it. I have no fears about us. This engagement took place with our consent.’ His gaze was fixed on her and he spoke with emotion, but suddenly, he felt once more that she was not there, that he was talking to himself.
The music from the annex behind the huge bungalow could be heard on the lawn in front of the house. Anyone would have been amazed at the level of endurance of those inside. But one look inside, and one would know the reason behind this level of endurance.
The room was full of swirling smoke and a strange smell. Empty cartons of food from a popular restaurant, disposable plates and spoons, bottles of soft drinks, and scraps of leftovers were strewn all over the carpet which was stained by ketchup. The seven boys in the room were sprawled on the carpet; empty beer cans were scattered around. This was not all—they had been entertaining themselves with drugs too.
This was the third time in the last two months that the boys had gathered here for an adventure of this kind. So far they had experimented with four different drugs. The first time it was a drug that one of them had found in his father’s closet. The next time it was a drug which a schoolmate had bought from a club in Islamabad. Then it was something acquired from an Afghan in a Rawalpindi market. Every time they had combined drugs with alcohol, procuring which was no problem. Each time this happened six of the seven boys ended up completely stoned.
Even now it was only the seventh boy who was in his senses. His face was covered with acne, and he was dressed in a dark blue shirt with its collar turned up Elvis Presley style, and hideous grey jeans which had Madonna’s face adorning each knee. He opened his eyes to glance at the others around him. His eyes were red but not because he was in a stupor like them. A little later he straightened up and shaking the remaining drug from the little container out into a cone, he pulled out a straw and began sniffing it. Then he threw away the straw and taking some of the drug on a fingertip, tasted it very cautiously. Almost instantly, he spat it out. The stuff was of excellent quality, but his expression showed that he had not enjoyed the experience. He swallowed some beer as if to clear the taste of the drug from his mouth. The other boys lay around on the carpet, totally intoxicated and unaware of themselves: he looked at them thoughtfully as he drank from the beer can. His eyes, though swollen, were bright enough. The drug had not knocked him out fully.
This had happened the last three times too. Though his friends had been knocked senseless after taking drugs, the effect on him was not so pronounced. The first two times he had left them in their stupor and had driven home, late in the night. This time too he wanted to get away: the odor of the drugs in the room repulsed him. He stumbled as he tried to stand up. He straightened up and picking his key and wallet off the floor, he turned off the stereo. He looked around the room as if trying to remember something. Then he turned towards the door and sitting down again, put on his joggers, tying their laces around his ankles. Finally, unlocking the door, he went out into the dark corridor. Groping his way, he went past the main door out onto the lawn. As he was coming down the stairs, he felt his nose was running and when he touched his upper lip, he felt a sticky liquid on his hands. He switched on the light in the entrance and saw blood on his fingertips. Reaching into his pocket for his handkerchief, he wiped the blood off his fingers and nose. There was a strange sharp sensation in his throat which he tried to clear, but he felt he was suffocating. He took a few deep breaths to ease the constriction and spat two or three times. Suddenly he felt a tingling in his nose. He doubled over as blood began gushing out of his nose pouring down the marble stairs like a stream.
The prize distribution ceremony was underway at the Golf Club. Salar Sikandar was to receive the first prize in the Under-Sixteen competition for his seven under par score.
Applauding when Salar’s name was called out, Sikandar Usman thought he would have to do something about the cabinet where the trophies were displayed. The trophies and shields Salar would bring home this year would be as many as he had in the past year. All of Sikandar’s children excelled in their studies, but Salar was different from the rest. In winning awards, he was far ahead of them. It was not just difficult to beat this boy who had an IQ score of 150, it was impossible.
Clapping proudly, Sikandar turned to his wife and whispered, ‘This is Salar’s thirteenth trophy and the fourth one this year.’
‘You keep a record of everything, don’t you?’ she replied, smiling at her husband whose gaze was fixed on Salar as he received the trophy from the chief guest.
‘Only for golf and you know the reason very well. I bet that even if Salar had been playing this tournament with professional players, he would have still won the trophy,’ he claimed proudly.
Salar was shaking hands with the other winners seated around him. Sikandar’s wife was not surprised by his claim about Salar. She knew that it was not an expression of paternal sentiment: it was the truth—Salar was indeed extraordinary.
She recalled when he had played 18 holes at this golf course with her brother Zubair for the first time. The way he had brought a ball that had accidentally fallen into the rough, out onto the green, was a display of expertise. Zubair was amazed. ‘I can’t believe it!’ He had repeated this statement endlessly till the end of the game.
If the shot from the rough had amazed Zubair, then Salar’s putters had floored him. As the ball rolled towards the hole, he leaned against his club and turned around to gauge the distance between Salar and his target. Shaking his head in disbelief, he looked at Salar.
‘Salar Sahib is not playing well today,’ muttered the caddie standing by the golf cart behind Zubair, who turned around in surprise.
‘So he’s not playing well?’ He looked at the caddie. Was this a joke?
‘Yes, sir, otherwise the ball would not have gone into the rough,’ the caddie said. ‘You have played here today for the first time, but Salar Sahib has been playing here for the last three years. That’s why I say he’s not playing well,’ he added. Zubair looked at his sister who was smiling benignly.
‘Next time, I will be fully prepared when I come here, and I will also select the site for the game.’ Zubair was somewhat miffed as they walked across towards Salar.
‘Any time, any place,’ she confidently challenged her brother on her son’s behalf.
‘I want to invite you to Karachi this weekend, with all expenses paid,’ Zubair said casually as he approached Salar.
‘To play on my behalf against the president of the Karachi Chamber of Commerce. I lost the election to him, but if he loses a golf match, and that too to a child, he’ll have a heart attack. So let’s settle the score.’
Salar’s mother laughed at her brother’s words, but a frown creased Salar’s brow.
‘Child?’ He repeated with emphasis the only objectionable word in Zubair’s comment. ‘Uncle, I think I’ll have to play another 18 holes against you tomorrow.’
Asjad opened the door and entered his mother’s room.
‘Ami, I need to discuss something important with you.’
‘Yes…what is it?’
Asjad sat down on the sofa. ‘Have you been to Hashim Uncle’s lately?’
‘No…is there anything special?’
‘Imama is over for this weekend.’
‘Very well, we’ll go this evening. Have you been there?’ Shakeela smiled at him.
‘How is she? She’s come home after a long time,’ Shakeela remarked.
‘Yes, after two months.’
Shakeela sensed Asjad was upset. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Ami, I find Imama a little changed,’ Asjad said with a sigh.
‘Changed? What do you mean?’
‘I cannot explain what I mean. It’s just that her attitude towards me is rather strange.’ Asjad shrugged his shoulders. ‘Today she took offence to something quite minor. She’s not the way she was before. I am not able to figure out the reason for this change.’
‘It’s your imagination, Asjad. Why would her attitude change? You are thinking too emotionally.’
‘No, Ami. Initially, I thought I was being oversensitive, but after today I don’t think I am imagining things. She treats me in a very offhand manner.’
‘What do you think is the reason for this change in her attitude?’ she asked as she put the brush back on the table.
‘I have no idea…’
‘Did you ask her?’
‘Not just once, but several times.’
‘Like you, she always says that I am mistaken.’ He shrugged again. ‘Sometimes, she says it’s because of her studies, sometimes, she says it is because she has matured now…’
‘It’s not so far-fetched; perhaps, that is the reason,’ Shakeela replied pensively.
‘Ami, it’s not a question of her becoming serious! I think she’s moving away from me,’ said Asjad.
‘You’re being silly, Asjad. I don’t believe there’s any such issue. You have both known each other since childhood. You know your temperaments.’
Shakeela felt her son’s fears were meaningless. ‘Obviously, changes do take place as the years pass: you’re no longer children. Stop worrying over trivialities,’ she tried to reason with her son. ‘In any case, Hashim Bhai wants the two of you to get married next year. Imama can continue and complete her education afterwards. He wants to fulfill his responsibility,’ Shakeela revealed.
‘When did he say this?’ Shakeela was taken by surprise.
‘Many times. In fact, I think they may have started the preparations.’
Asjad breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Maybe that is why Imama is agitated.’
‘Yes, possibly. The wedding should take place next year,’ Asjad replied with some satisfaction.
He was a tall, thin lad of sixteen or seventeen. He had a fuzzy growth on his face and had an innocent look about him. He was dressed in sports shorts and a baggy shirt, and had on cotton socks and joggers. He was in the middle of a crowded road, on a heavy duty motorcycle which he was racing recklessly without any consideration for traffic lights or oncoming traffic. Zigzagging his bike through the traffic, he periodically lifted both his feet off the pedals performing wheelies. Then, without breaking speed, he turned and changed lanes going the wrong way through the oncoming traffic. Suddenly he braked with a sharp screech. He raised his hands from the handlebars and the motorcycle slammed full speed into an approaching car. He was flung into the air and thrown down. He had no idea of what had happened…his mind plunged into a dark abyss.
The boys stood behind the rostrums on the stage, facing each other. They were both canvassing for the post of head boy and this was part of the election programme. One rostrum had a poster saying ‘Vote for Salar’ pasted on it, while the other had a poster of the other contender, Faizan. At this point, Faizan was telling his audience what he would do for them if elected. Salar watched him intently. Faizan was the best orator in the school and was impressing the boys with his performance in a clipped British accent which was so popular. The excellent sound system carried his voice very clearly and there was pin-drop silence in the hall which was sporadically broken by the thunderous applause of his supporters. When Faizan finished half an hour later, the clapping and whistling carried on for several minutes. Salar Sikandar also joined the applause. Faizan looked around triumphantly, and seeing Salar clapping, he nodded in appreciation. As Faizan knew well, Salar was not an easy opponent,
The compere called Salar to begin his speech. To a roar of applause Salar began. ‘Good morning friends…’ He paused, and then continued. ‘Faizan Akbar is certainly an asset to our school as an orator. Neither I nor anyone else can compete with him …’ He stopped again and looked at Faizan, who looked around with a proud smile. But the rest of Salar’s sentence wiped the smile off his face. ‘…If it were only a matter of spinning yarns.’
Sounds of giggling filled the hall. Salar maintained a serious attitude.
‘But there’s a great difference between an orator and a head boy: an orator has to speak while a head boy has to work.’ The hall echoed with the applause of Salar’s supporters.
‘I do not have the eloquence of Faizan Akbar,’ he continued. ‘I have my name and my record to speak for me. I do not need a stream of words where just a few would do.’ He stopped again.
‘Trust me and vote for me.’ He thanked the audience and switched off the mike. Thunderous applause filled the air. Salar had spoken for one minute and forty seconds, in his typical measured style and calculated words, and in that brief time he had overturned Faizan’s ambitions.
After this preliminary introduction, there was a question and answer session. Salar responded in his customary brief manner; his longest response was not more than four sentences. On the other hand, Faizan’s shortest response was not less than four sentences. Faizan’s eloquence and way with words, which were his strength, now appeared bombastic compared to Salar’s short and sharp responses on stage, and Faizan was all too aware of this. If Salar gave a one-line reply to a question, Faizan, out of sheer habit, went on with a monologue. Whatever Salar had said about Faizan seemed to be proving true to the audience—that an orator can only speak, not act.
‘Why should Salar Sikandar be the head boy?’ came a question.
‘Because you should elect the best person for the job,’ he replied.
‘Wouldn’t you call this arrogance?’ came the objection.
‘No, it is confidence and awareness.’ The objection was refuted.
‘What is the difference between arrogance and confidence?’ another pointed query arose.
‘The same as the difference between Faizan Akbar and Salar Sikandar,’ he replied in a serious tone.
‘What difference will it make if you are not appointed head boy?’
‘It will make a difference to you, not to me.’
‘If the best person is not appointed as the leader, it affects the community, not the best person.’
‘Again, you are referring to yourself as the best person.’ Once again, there was an objection.
‘Is there anyone in this hall who’d equate himself with someone bad?’
‘Perhaps there is…’
‘Then I’d like to meet him.’ Sounds of amusement rose from the audience.
‘Tell us about the changes Salar Sikandar will bring about as head boy.’
‘Changes are not talked about, they are demonstrated and I cannot do this before I become head boy.’
A few more questions were asked and answered and then the compere called for the last question. A Sri Lankan boy stood up with a naughty smile.
‘If you answer this question of mine, then I and my entire group will vote for you.’
Salar smiled, ‘Before I reply, I’d like to know how many people there are in your group.’
‘Six,’ the boy replied.
Salar nodded in assent and asked, ‘Okay, what’s your question?’
‘You have to calculate and tell me that if 952852 is added to 267895 and then 399999 is subtracted from the total and 929292 is added to the sum,’ he read slowly from a paper, ‘then the figure is multiplied by six and divided by two and 492359 is added to the final figure, what would be one-fourth of it?’
The boy could barely complete his words when Salar’s response to this ‘silly’ question came with lightning speed. ‘2035618.2.’
The boy glanced at the paper in his hand and, shaking his head in disbelief, began clapping. Faizan Akbar at that point felt that he was merely an actor; the hall was filled with applause—Faizan saw this entire programme as nothing more that a joke. An hour later, coming down the stage ahead of Salar, Faizan knew that he had lost the competition to him even before it had begun. He had never felt as envious of this 150 IQ scorer as he did now.
‘Imama Apa, when are you going to Lahore?’
She looked up from her notes with a start. Saad was slowly cycling around her. ‘Tomorrow. Why do you ask?’ She shut her file.
‘When you go away, I miss you a lot,’ he said.
‘Why?’ she asked with a smile.
‘Because I like you very much and…you get toys for me and you take me out for drives and…you play with me,’ he answered in detail. ‘Can’t you take me to Lahore with you?’
Imama was not sure whether this was a suggestion or a question.
‘How can I take you with me? I live in a hostel myself, so where will you live?’ she asked.
He pondered this over as he cycled round. ‘Then you should come more often.’
‘Very well. I’ll come more often.’ She smiled at him. ‘You can talk to me on the phone. I’ll call you.’
‘Yes—that sounds good.’ Saad liked this idea. He began to race his bicycle round the lawn. Imama looked at him absent-mindedly.
Saad was not her brother: he had come to their house five years ago. She did not know where he had come from—and was not concerned—but she knew why he had been brought in. He was ten years old now and had settled in with the family. He was closest to Imama. She often felt very sorry for him, not because he was an orphan, but it was his future that she felt sad about. Her paternal uncles had also adopted orphans and their future too was a cause for concern for Imama.
Book in hand, she continued to look at Saad cycling the garden. Watching him, she was often troubled by such thoughts, but she had no answers—there was nothing that she could do for him.
All four of them were in Heera Mandi, the red-light district of Lahore. They were between eighteen and nineteen years of age and their appearance gave away their upper class background; but out here neither age nor social background meant anything, because young boys often frequented the area and the elite were among the most regular customers.
The boys made their way through the narrow lanes of the bazaar. Three of them were lost in conversation but the fourth looked around with interest and a sense of mystery. It seemed that this was his first venture into this domain, and a later exchange with his friends confirmed this.
On both sides of the lane, in open doorways, stood women of every age, shape, size and complexion—fair and dark, beautiful and plain—all heavily made up and dressed in a revealing way. And men of all ages also passed through the lane. The boy observed everything very carefully.
‘How often have you been here?’ He addressed the boy to his right who laughed and repeated the words.
‘How often? I don’t remember now—I haven’t kept count! I come here quite often,’ he said proudly.
‘I don’t find these women very attractive…nothing special about them,’ the boy shrugged his shoulders. ‘If one has to spend a night somewhere at least the environment should be pleasant—this is such a filthy place,’ he said looking distastefully at the potholes and the piles of garbage in the lane. ‘Besides, what’s the point of coming here when you have girlfriends?’
‘This place has its own charm and there’s no comparison between these women and our girlfriends. Girlfriends can’t dance like the women here,’ the other boy said with a laugh. ‘And today one of Pakistan’s top actresses is going to perform—just wait till you see her.’
‘But you had taken me to see her dance,’ the first boy interrupted.
‘Oh that was nothing—just a “mujra” at my brother’s wedding. But here it’s a different story.’
‘But that actress lives in a very posh locality; why would she want to come here?’ His tone was somewhat suspicious.
‘Ask her yourself today, if you want. I don’t ask such questions.’ The other boys laughed at this remark, but the first one looked at him askance.
They finally reached their destination at the end of the lane. From a shop near the entrance, they bought garlands of motia which they wound round their wrists, and also on the wrist of the boy who was objecting to being there. Then they bought paan laced with tobacco and also offered one to him—he had probably never had paan before. They went up the stairs.
He looked around critically and a look of satisfaction crossed his face when he saw that the place was not only clean but well decorated too. The floor was covered with white sheets and there were bolsters to recline on. Curtains fluttered softly on the doors and windows. Some people had already arrived but the performance had not yet started. A woman with a lovely but fake smile swiftly made her way to them. As she spoke to them, the first boy took in her appearance. She was middle-aged, plastered with make-up and sported masses of rose and motia garlands in her hair. She was dressed in a screaming red chiffon sari and her blouse seemed to have been made not to cover but to reveal her body. She led the boys to a corner of the room and seated them.
As soon as he sat down, the first boy immediately spat the paan out into a spittoon nearby. It was hard for him to talk with his mouth full of paan; besides he did not quite like its feel or flavor. The other three boys were speaking in low tones. He looked around at the other men in the room who reclined against the cushions with wads of notes and bottles of alcohol in front of them. Most of the older men were dressed in starched white clothes; it was the first time he had seen so many people dressed in white other than at Eid congregations. He himself was dressed casually in black jeans and a black T-shirt like his friends and the younger crowd.
A little later, another woman in garish clothes entered the hall and, seating herself in the centre, began to sing a ghazal. Musicians accompanied her. After a few songs, she collected the money that had been showered on her and left. Then the famous actress for whom they had all been waiting entered the hall and everyone’s eyes were riveted on her. She twirled around and welcomed her admirers with a gracious nod.
The musicians did not play this time and loud recordings of raucous songs filled the room. The performer began to dance. The silence that had preceded her performance was broken by applause as the men noisily appreciated her dancing and drinks went around. Some of the more intoxicated men got up and began to dance with her.
The only one who sat still watching the performance was the first boy. His face was impassive, but if one looked closely it was obvious that he was enjoying himself. When the actress came to the end of her dance about two hours later, most of the men in the hall had passed out. Going home was not a problem for them as they had not come with the intention of going back any time soon—they were there for the night. The four boys also spent the night there.
The next day, on their way back, one of the boys turned to the first one who was looking out of the car.
‘So, how was the experience?’
‘All right,’ he replied casually.
‘All right? That’s all? Honestly…’ Annoyed, he broke off in mid-sentence.
‘It’s a good place to visit occasionally. What more can I say? But it did not have that “something special” touch about it. My girlfriend is better than the woman I spent last night with,’ he retorted.
Hashim Mubeen’s entire family was present at the dining table. They were chatting amiably as they ate. Imama was the subject of their conversation.
‘Baba, have you noticed that Imama is becoming more serious with each passing day?’ observed Waseem as he looked at her provokingly.
‘Yes…I’ve noticed this over the past few months,’ Hashim Mubeen replied, his eyes searching Imama’s face.
Imama stared at Waseem as she took a spoonful of rice.
‘Imama, is there a problem?’
‘Baba, he talks nonsense and you fall into his trap. I’m serious and busy because of my studies—after all, not everyone is as useless as Waseem,’ she said with some annoyance. He was sitting next to her and she rapped his shoulder lightly.
‘Baba, what will become of her when she qualifies as a doctor if this is what she is like in the early years of her studies,’ joked Waseem. ‘It’ll be years before Miss Imama Hashim smiles…’
Everyone smiled around the table: this type of sparring always went on between these two. It was seldom that Imama and Waseem did not argue with each other. But Waseem was also Imama’s best friend—probably their being the siblings closest in age lay at the heart of their friendship.
‘And just imagine that Imama…’ but she did not let him finish this time. She turned around and landed a fist on his shoulder with all her might. It made no difference to him.
‘What else can we have at home but a doctor with a “healing touch”? You’ve just seen a demonstration and you can guess how doctors treat their patients these days. One of the reasons for the rising death rate in our country…’
‘Baba, please stop him!” Imama conceded defeat as she implored Hashim Mubeen.
‘Waseem!’ He suppressed a smile as he turned to his son who dutifully kept quiet.
He emptied the entire contents of the paper bag into the grinder and turned it on. The cook entered just then.
‘Chote Saab, let me help you,’ he offered but was waved away.
‘No, I can manage. But get me a glass of milk.’ He turned off the grinder. The cook got him the milk. To half a glass of milk he added the contents of the grinder, stirred briskly, and gulped it down.
‘What have you cooked today?’ he asked the cook, who started to tell him what he had cooked. A look of displeasure crossed his face. ‘I won’t have anything. I’m going up to sleep; don’t disturb me,’ he said harshly and left the kitchen.
He looked unkempt with a stubble, and except for one or two buttons in place, his shirt front was open. Dragging his slippers on the floor, he went into his room and locked the door behind him. Then he walked over to the huge music system and began to play Bolton’s ‘When a man loves a woman’ at full volume. He flung himself face down on the bed, remote in hand, and feet swinging to the music.
Except for him and his bed, everything in his room was in order. There was not a speck of dust anywhere. The audio-video cassettes were neatly arranged on a shelf by the music system and on a shelf on the wall. Another shelf was filled with books and the computer table in the corner reflected his organized nature. Posters of Hollywood actresses and various bands adorned the walls, while the bathroom door and a few windowpanes were decorated with cut-outs of nudes from Playboy. Anyone entering the room for the first time would be startled because the nude pinups in the windows were life-size and lifelike and placed in special order. Along with the audio system, there was a keyboard, and a guitar, a piccolo and an oboe hung on the walls. It was obvious that the occupant of the room had great interest in music. In front of the bed was a television cabinet on the shelves of which were several shields and trophies. In another corner of the room cricket bats and racquets were artfully slung across posters of sports stars. It looked as if a tennis racquet was in Gabriela Sabatini’s hand, while the other was held by Rodney Martin, and the squash racquet was in Jehangir Khan’s hand.
The double bed where he was lying on the crumpled silken sheets was a mess. A few pornographic magazines, mostly Playboy, lay scattered about with a paper-cutter and snippets—evidence that he had been cutting out pictures. Chewing gum wrappers, an empty coffee mug, a packet of Dunhill’s and a lighter, an ashtray and scattered ash littered the white silk sheet that had holes burnt through. Somewhere there was a wristwatch and a tie, and a cell phone by the pillow where the young man lay face downward, perhaps half asleep as his hand mechanically but unsuccessfully searched the bed when the phone rang. The beeping went unheard and the remote in his hand fell to the floor as his grip relaxed. Michael Bolton’s voice continued to fill the room with the lyrics of ‘When a man loves a woman’—the knocking on the door became persistent and louder, but he lay motionless on the bed.
‘Don’t tell me! Imama, are you really engaged?’ Zainab appeared jolted by Javeria’s disclosure. Imama cast an accusing glance at Javeria who looked at her shamefacedly.
‘Don’t look at her—look at me and tell me if it’s true that you’re engaged,’ Zainab addressed Imama sharply.
‘Yes, but it is not something extraordinary or amazing that you should react like this,’ Imama replied with composure. They were all sitting in the library and trying their best to talk in low tones.
‘But at least you should have told us. What was the big secret?’ This was Rabia.
‘There’s no secret and neither is it so important. Besides, we have become friendly only recently and the engagement took place years ago,’ explained Imama.
‘What do you mean by “years ago”?’
‘I mean two or three years ago.’
‘But still you should have told us…’ Zainab persisted.
Imama smiled at her. ‘When I get engaged again, I’ll definitely tell you—whether or not I tell anyone else.’
‘Very funny.’ Zainab glared at her.
‘At least show us a photograph of him… Who is he? What’s his name? What does he do?’ As usual, Rabia’s questions came pouring out in one breath.
‘He’s my first cousin…his name’s Asjad,’ The words came slowly and Imama paused thoughtfully. ‘He has completed his MBA and runs his own business.’
‘What does he look like?’ asked Zainab. Imama looked at her closely.
‘He’s all right.’
‘All right? I’m asking you is he tall, dark, and handsome?’
Imama smiled at Zainab without a word. Javeria replied on her behalf. ‘This is Imama’s choice…he’s quite good-looking.’
‘Yes, we should have known—after all he’s Imama’s first cousin. Now Imama, your next task is to show us his photograph,’ ordered Zainab.
‘No, her first duty is to take us out for a treat,’ interjected Rabia.
‘But now let’s leave; I have to go to the hostel.’ Imama got up and they all left together.
‘By the way, Javeria, why didn’t you tell us about this earlier?’ Zainab asked her.
‘Listen, Imama did not want it—that’s why I never brought it up,’ said Javeria. Imama turned around and gave Javeria a warning look.
‘Why wouldn’t Imama want it? If I had been engaged and that too to a boy of my choice, then I would have screamed it out from the rooftops,’ Zainab declared loudly.
Imama chose to ignore her.
‘Your son is amongst those 2.5 percent of the world’s population who have an IQ of more than 150. With this level of intelligence, whatever he does may be extraordinary, but not unexpected. Salar had been at the International School for only a week when Sikandar Usman and his wife had been called over by the school administration. The school psychologist had informed them about Salar’s various IQ tests in which his performance and score had amazed his teachers and also the psychologist. He was the only child in the school with such a high IQ and very soon he became the focus of everyone’s attention.
During his meeting with Mr and Mrs Usman, the psychologist got another opportunity to dig out more information about Salar’s childhood. He had been studying Salar’s case with much interest which was personal rather than professional—it was the first time he had come across such an IQ level.
Sikandar Usman remembered well that when Salar was just two years old, he was remarkably fluent in his speech, unlike other boys of his age, and very often he came up with things that left him and his wife wondering.
One day he was speaking to his brother on the phone while watching TV, and Salar was playing nearby. After the call ended, Sikandar saw Salar pick up the phone and say, ‘Hello, Uncle, this is Salar.’
Sikandar watched him as he happily chatted away. ‘I am well. How are you?’ Sikandar thought he was play-acting. The next sentence made him sit up. ‘Baba is right here, watching TV. No, he did not call—I called you.’
‘Salar, who are you talking to?’ asked Sikandar.
‘Uncle Shahnawaz,’ he replied. Sikandar took the phone from him. He thought Salar may have dialed at random or else pressed the redial button.
‘Salar has dialed the number, I’m sorry,’ he apologized to his brother.
‘How could he do that? Isn’t he too young?’ His brother was surprised.
‘He probably pressed the redial button accidentally.’ Sikandar switched off the phone and put it back in place.
Salar, who was quietly listening to this conversation, went and picked up the phone again—Sikandar looked at him as he expertly dialed Shahnawaz’s number, just as an adult would. He was shocked—he did not expect a two-year-old to do this, He reached out to disconnect the call.
‘Salar, do you know Shahnawaz’s number?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ came the calm reply.
‘What is it?’
Salar rattled it off. Sikandar stared at him—he did not think Salar knew how to count, let alone remember a string of digits. ‘Who taught you this number?’
‘I learnt it myself.’
‘You just dialed it.’ Salar looked at him.
‘Do you know how to count?’
‘How far can you count?’
‘Till a hundred.’
‘Show me how.’
Like a machine, Salar counted from one to one hundred, in one breath. Sikandar could feel knots in his stomach. ‘I am going to dial a number now, and when I disconnect you call the same number,’ he said.
‘OK.’ Salar was enjoying this game. Sikandar dialed a number then switched off the phone. Salar immediately took the receiver and dialed the same number as confidently as his father had. Sikandar’s head was spinning. Salar could remember any numbers that he dialed, and could then dial them accurately. He had a photographic memory.
Sikandar called his wife. ‘I haven’t taught him numbers,’ she said. Yesterday I just said out the numbers one to hundred. But I did get him some books a few days ago.’
Sikandar asked Salar to count to a hundred—this he did while his mother watched in amazement. Convinced that the child was far ahead in intelligence for his age, they enrolled him in school much earlier than they had his siblings. He excelled in school.
‘This child needs your special attention, because compared to children of average intelligence, such children have a more sensitive and complicated nature. If he has a good upbringing, he will be an asset to your family—indeed to the country.’ Sikandar Usman and his wife listened with pride to the psychologist who was a foreigner. They began to give Salar preferential treatment at home: he became the most beloved and favorite child and they were very proud of his achievements.
At school, he was promoted to the next class after just one term, and then again at the end of the term he was promoted yet again. Sikandar was perturbed—he did not want Salar to be sitting for his O levels and A levels at the age of eight and ten. Considering the speed of his progress, this seemed quite likely.
‘I would like you to let my son spend a full year in class before he is promoted to the next level. I do not want him to race through his academic career in school at this abnormal speed. You can increase his subjects and activities, but let him progress normally towards promotion.’
So, Salar was not moved up mid-term; his talents and energy were channeled into sports and other extra-curricular activities. Chess, tennis, golf and music interested him the most, and he took an active part in whatever happened in school—if he did not participate in something it was only because he did not find it challenging enough.
‘Javeria, give me Professor Imtinan’s notes, will you?’ Imama asked Javeria who was studying. Javeria handed her a notebook which she began to leaf through it. Javeria continued with her reading, but suddenly turned to Imama, as if she had remembered something.
‘Why have you stopped taking notes during lectures?’
Imama looked up. ‘I would if I could understand them.’
‘What do you mean? You don’t understand Prof. Imtinan’s lectures?’ Javeria was surprised. ‘He’s such a good teacher.’
‘Did I say he wasn’t? It’s just that…’ Imama trailed off, distracted. She turned back to the notebook. Javeria looked at her closely.
‘Aren’t you getting absent-minded lately? Are you disturbed about something?’ She put away her book; her tone was caring.
‘Disturbed?’ Imama muttered. ‘No…’
‘You have dark circles under your eyes. Last night—I think it was three o’clock—when I woke up, you had not yet slept.’
‘I was studying,’ Imama replied defensively.
‘No, you weren’t. Your book was in front of you but your thoughts were somewhere else. Is there a problem?’
‘What problem could there be?’
‘Then why have you become so quiet?’ Javeria ignored Imama’s attempts to stall the conversation.
‘Now, why should I be at a loss for words?’ Imama tried to smile. ‘I’m as talkative as ever.’
‘It’s not just me, but others too have noticed that you have been disturbed,’ Javeria said seriously.
‘It’s nothing—just the usual tension because of studies.’
‘I don’t believe you. After all we’re all together—you cannot be any more tense than us.’ Javeria shook her head. Imama sighed—she was getting fed up with this.
‘Is everything all right at home?’
‘Yes, absolutely fine.’
‘Have you quarreled with Asjad?’
‘Why would I quarrel with him?’ Imama responded in the same tone.
‘But there can still be differences and…’ Imama cut her off in mid-sentence.
‘When I am telling you that there’s no problem, why can’t you believe me? In all these years, what have I not shared with you or what do you not know about me? Then why are you questioning me as if I were a criminal?’ Imama was losing her temper.
Javeria was confused. ‘Of course, I believe you. I thought you were holding back because I might worry. That’s all.’
Javeria, somewhat contrite, got up and went back to her table and resumed reading her book. After some time she yawned and turned towards Imama. She was sitting up, her back to the wall and notebook in hand, but her eyes were fixed on the wall in front.
He parked the car some distance away from the bridge across the canal. He opened the boot and took out a sack and a length of rope and moved towards the bridge, dragging the sack behind him. Some passersby saw him but they did not stop. Once on the bridge, he pulled off his shirt and flung it into the water—in a few moments the shirt was swept away by the flow. His tall, athletic frame, clad in dark blue jeans, was a handsome sight.
His eyes were inscrutable. He could have been anywhere between 19 to 29 years of age, but his height and appearance made him look much older. Holding on to one end of the rope, he threw it over the bridge till it hit the water. Then he started tightly winding and knotting the rope in his hand around the mouth of the sack till he had used it all up. Now, he pulled back the length of the rope, leaving aside about three feet; standing with his feet together, he firmly tied them with this length. Next, he made two loops with the remaining rope and hopped on to the railing of the bridge, and then passing his hands through the loops behind his back, he pulled the knots and tied up his hands too.
A smile of satisfaction hovered on his lips. Taking a deep breath, he threw himself backwards over the bridge. His head hit the water sharply and he was submerged to the waist, head down and hands tied behind his back, dangling from the rope tied to the weighted sack above. He held his breath and tried to keep his eyes open underwater, but the canal was murky and the silt stung his eyes. He felt as if his lungs would burst and when he breathed in, the water entered his body through his nose and mouth. He began to flap about helplessly—he tried but could not use his arms to raise himself up from the water. Gradually, his movements slowed.
Some people who had seen him jump off the bridge, ran to the railing, shouting. The rope was still shaking. They did not know what to do—there was no visible movement under the water; his legs appeared to be still. A crowd gathered, looking with fear at the lifeless body: the water swung him like a pendulum, back and forth…back and forth…back and forth.
‘Imama, get ready quickly!’ called Rabia, taking her clothes from the closet and flinging them on the bed.
‘Get ready? What for?’ Imama looked at her, surprised.
‘We’re going shopping. Come with us.’ Rabia moved fast as she ironed her clothes.
‘No, thanks. I don’t want to go anywhere.’ Imama lay back on her pillow, her forearm shielding her eyes.
‘What do you mean by “I don’t want to go anywhere”? Who’s asking you, anyway? I’m telling you,’ Rabia continued in the same tone.
‘And I’m telling you that I am not going,’ replied Imama without moving.
‘Zainab’s coming too—the whole group is going—and we’ll go to the movies when we are done shopping.’
Imama looked up. ‘Zainab’s coming along?’
‘Yes, we’ll pick her up on the way.’ Imama became thoughtful.
‘You are getting duller by the day, Imama!’ Rabia’s tone was piqued. ‘You’ve stopped going out with us; what on earth is happening to you?’
‘Nothing. I am just too tired today and want to sleep,’ Imama said, looking at Rabia.
After a while Javeria came in and she too tried to persuade Imama, but there was just one refrain from her: ‘I am too tired, I want to sleep.’ Unable to coax Imama outdoors, the girls grumbled as they left her behind.
As they picked up Zainab on the way, Javeria realized that she had left her wallet behind in the hostel. ‘We’ll have to go back for my wallet,’ said Javeria. When they got to the hostel they were shocked to find the room locked.
‘Where’s Imama?’ Rabia was surprised.
‘Don’t know…where could she have gone, locking up the room like this? She’d said she wanted to sleep,’ said Javeria.
‘Could she be in someone else’s room?’ wondered Rabia. For the next few minutes, they looked for Imama in their friends’ rooms, but there was no sign of her.
‘Could she have gone out?’ A sudden thought struck Rabia.
‘Let’s check with the warden,’ said Javeria, and they went to see him.
‘Yes, Imama went out a while ago,’ the warden confirmed. Rabia and Javeria exchanged looks, speechless. ‘She said she’d return by the evening,’ the warden informed them.
They came out of the warden’s room. ‘Where could she have gone? She refused to accompany us saying she was tired…she wanted to sleep… was unwell…and then she goes off like this.’ Rabia was really annoyed.
It was quite late at night when they returned. Imama was in the room and welcomed them back, smiling.
‘Looks like you’ve done loads of shopping,’ she said, looking at their bags and parcels. They did not reply—putting down their shopping, they stared at her.
‘Where were you?’ asked Javeria. Imama got a jolt. ‘I came back to get my wallet and you weren’t here. The room was locked.’
‘I went after you both.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I changed my mind when you left, so I went to Zainab’s as you were going to pick her up. But her chowkidar said that she had left with you, so I came back. I just stopped on the way to get some books,’ explained Imama.
‘See—we’d told you to come along but you refused. Then, like a fool, you traipse behind us. We were getting suspicious about you,’ said Rabia as she took her purchases out of their bags. She seemed relieved. Imama did not reply: she just smiled at them when they showed her their shopping.
‘I don’t know.’
‘What did your parents name you?’
‘Go ask my parents.’ Silence.
‘What do people call you?’
‘Boys or girls?’
‘They call me by many names.’
‘Daredevil.’ More silence.
‘They too have many names for me.’
‘What name do they usually call you?’
‘I can’t tell you that…it’s too personal.’ Silence and then a deep breath and…silence again.
‘Can I give you a suggestion?’
‘Why don’t you try to find out something about me that neither you nor I knew before? That white file on the table to your right has all my particulars. Why are you wasting your time?’
By the light of his table lamp, the psychoanalyst observed the young man lying on the couch. He kept moving his feet from left to right. His face was calm and he wore an expression that seemed to say that the session with the psychoanalyst was a waste of time. The room was cool and dark, and as the boy spoke, he looked around the room. He was a dilemma for the psychoanalyst; he had a photographic memory, his IQ level was 150, he had an outstanding academic record throughout, he had won the President’s Gold Medal for golf for the third time running…and this was his third attempt at suicide. His desperately worried parents had brought him to the psychoanalyst.
The boy belonged to one of the few prestigious and extremely wealthy families of the country. He was the fourth of five siblings—four brothers and a sister; two brothers and his sister were older than him. His parents doted on him because of his intelligence and capabilities—yet in the last three years he had tried to kill himself three times.
The first time was when he was speeding on his bike in the wrong direction on a one-way road and had lifted his hands off the handlebar. The cop behind him had seen him doing this. He was lucky that when he crashed into a car, he was thrown over another and landed on the other side of the road. He suffered a few broken ribs, and a fractured arm and leg. Even though the police officer had seen this happening, his parents believed it was an accident. He had told them that he had mistakenly entered the one-way street.
The next time—a full year later—he had tied himself up and jumped into the canal. People on the bridge had saved him by pulling him up by the rope he had used. This time there were several witnesses but his parents still could not believe that he had attempted suicide. Salar claimed that some boys had stopped his car near the bridge, tied him up and thrown him over, and the way he was tied, it did seem as if someone else had done it. For the next few weeks, the police kept searching for boys whose appearance matched the description given by Salar. Usman Sikandar hired a guard to be with Salar, day and night.
But the third time he could not deceive his parents. He ground a large quantity of sedatives and swallowed them. The effect was such that even after a stomach wash, it took him a long time to recover. This time, there was no mistaking what Salar had done—the cook had witnessed him grinding the pills, adding them to a glass of milk, and gulping down the whole.
Tyyaba and Sikandar were in a state of shock—they thought of the previous two incidents and regretted that they had believed his stories. The entire household was upset and the news spread to the school, in their neighborhood and to the whole family. He could no longer deny that he had attempted suicide, but he was not willing to explain why—neither to his brothers and sister and nor to his parents.
Sikandar had intended to send Salar abroad after his A levels, as he had his other two sons. He knew that getting admission was not a problem for Salar: he would even be able to get a scholarship. But all his plans seemed to have gone up in smoke. And, on the advice of his friend, he sent Salar to a psychoanalyst.
‘Very well, Salar, we’ll keep our discussion to the point. Why do you want to die?’
Salar shrugged. ‘Who told you I want to die?’
‘You have made three attempts at suicide.’
‘There’s a great difference between trying and dying.’
‘It’s a coincidence that you have been saved all three times; otherwise, you had left nothing to chance.’
‘Look, what you call an attempted suicide is not what I intended—I just wanted to know the pain of dying…how it feels.’ The psychoanalyst watched his face as he very calmly clarified his purpose.
‘And why do you want to experience the pain of dying?’
‘Just like that…call it curiosity.’
He took a deep breath and looked at this brilliant young man who was now staring at the ceiling. ‘So your curiosity was not satisfied with one attempt?’
‘Oh, I passed out then—I was unconscious, so I could feel nothing. The next time too, and this time too—I could not feel it.’ He shook his head.
‘So you’ll try again for the fourth time?’
‘Certainly. I want to know how it feels to experience the furthest limits of pain.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Like ecstasy is the furthest limit of joy—but I don’t understand what comes after ecstasy. And so it is with pain…there must be some level of pain beyond which one cannot go.’
‘I don’t get it…’
‘Suppose you’re watching a striptease—there’s loud music, you’re drinking and you’ve also taken drugs, you’re dancing, and slowly you lose your senses—you’re in ecstasy…where are you then? What are you doing? You don’t know…all you know is that you like it very much, whatever it is. When I go abroad for my vacations, I go to such bars with my cousins: my problem is that unlike them, I never get wild with joy, I’m never ecstatic. I don’t get turned on like they do—and it makes me unhappy. I thought that if I cannot cross the limits of happiness then perhaps I could go to the limits of pain, but I couldn’t.’ He looked very disappointed.
‘Why do you waste your time on such things? You have such a fantastic academic record…’
‘Please, please, do not start harping about my intelligence. I know what I am.’ Salar’s tone was one of resignation. ‘I am sick of hearing my praises.’ The psychoanalyst watched him for a while.
‘Why don’t you set a goal for yourself?’
‘I have to try suicide once again.’ He was completely serene.
‘Are you depressed about something?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Then why do you want to die?’
‘Shall I start all over again—to tell you that I do not want to die? That I am trying to do something else?’ He was bored sick.
It was back to square one: the psychoanalyst fell quiet for a while. ‘Are you doing all this because of some girl?’
Salar turned in surprise to look at him. ‘Because of a girl?’
‘Yes…some girl you are very fond of and would like to marry.’
He burst out into loud, uncontrolled laughter. ‘My God! You mean I would kill myself for some girl?’ he laughed. ‘In love with a girl and kill myself—too funny!’
The psychoanalyst had several such sessions with Salar and the result was always the same—he had no clue.
‘My advice is that you not send him abroad; instead keep him here and keep a close eye on him. Perhaps he does this to attract attention.’ This was his suggestion to Salar’s parents after several months. As a result, instead of sending him abroad for higher studies, Usman enrolled Salar in one of Islamabad’s top institutions. He thought that if Salar was kept close to the family, he would not attempt suicide again.
Salar did not show any reaction to this decision just as he had not shown any reaction to his earlier decision of sending him abroad.
After the last session with the doctor, Usman Sikandar and Tyyaba sat Salar down in their bedroom and had a long talk with him. They listed all the luxuries they had provided for him over the past so many years; they told him about their expectations of him and their love and affection for him. He sat before them, expressionless, chewing gum mechanically and watching his father’s distress and his mother’s tears.
Frustrated, Usman finally asked him, ‘What is it that you lack? What more do you want? Tell me.’
Salar thought for a while and said, ‘A sports car.’
‘Very well, I’ll import a sports car for you, but don’t ever do such a thing again—okay?’ Usman Sikandar felt better.
Salar nodded in affirmation. Tyyaba wiped away her tears and drew a sigh of relief. When Salar left the room, Usman turned to his wife. Lighting a cigar, he said, ‘Tyyaba, you will have to cut down on your activities and keep an eye on him. Try to spend some time with him daily.’ She nodded in assent.
Waseem saw Imama sitting out in the lawn. She had the earphones on and was listening to something on her Walkman. He slipped up very quietly behind her and grabbed the earphones off her, but she swiftly turned off the Walkman.
‘What are you listening to, sitting here all by yourself?’ he said in a loud voice as he stuck the earphones into his ears.
Imama had already switched off the cassette. She got up and pulled at the earphones.
‘This is the height of bad manners—Waseem, behave yourself!’ She was furious. Waseem did not let go of the earphones: Imama’s anger had no effect on him.
‘I want to hear what you were listening to—what’s rude about that? Switch on the cassette.’
‘I wasn’t sitting here with this for your listening pleasure.’ Annoyed, she detached the headphones. ‘Here, take these and get lost.’
She sat down again, firmly gripping the Walkman. Waseem felt that she seemed somewhat disturbed…worried. But why should she be worried? He shrugged off the thought. Pulling another chair, he sat down and put the earphones on the table before her.
‘Here take these and don’t be so angry. Carry on with whatever you were listening to,’ he said, trying to placate her.
‘No—I don’t want to listen to anything now. You can keep them.’ Imama did not reach for the earphones.
‘By the way, what was it?’
‘What could it be?’ she replied in the same tone.
‘Ghazals, perhaps?’ wondered Waseem.
‘You know, Waseem, you share many traits with old women.’
‘For example, nit-picking.’
‘And spying on others without the least embarrassment.’
‘And do you know how selfish you are gradually becoming?’ Waseem replied likewise.
Imama did not mind it. ‘So now you know how selfish I am?’ she replied with a smile this time. ‘You are so silly that I couldn’t believe you’d come to this conclusion.’
‘If you’re trying to embarrass me, then don’t bother—I’m not going to be ashamed.’ He was being bull-headed.
‘But still, it is one’s duty to try.’
‘Aren’t you being too smart today?’ Waseem looked at her closely.
‘Not possibly—certainly. Anyway, it’s better than that monastic silence you adopt on your return to Islamabad.’
‘What monastic silence?’ Imama responded.
‘You’ve changed a fair bit since you went to Lahore.’
‘I’m under the pressure of studies.’
‘Everybody feels that pressure, Imama, but you seem obsessed.’ Waseem said, interrupting her.
‘Let’s not fall into this silly argument…tell me, what are you doing these days?’
‘Having a ball!’ He was rocking his chair.
‘That’s what you do all year long. I’m asking you about any special interest now.’
‘Just hanging out with friends. You should know what I do once the papers are over—you’re forgetting everything, Imama.’ Waseem looked at her somewhat sadly.
‘I asked you this in the hope that you may have improved—but obviously my question was redundant,’ replied Imama.
‘You should know that I am a year older than you, so please wind up your allegations.’ He was trying to rub in his being older.
‘How are things with this boy next door?’ Imama suddenly remembered something.
‘Chu-Chu? Somewhat strange, I’d say,’ shrugged Waseem. ‘He’s a weird chap. If he’s in a good mood, he’ll exalt you to the seventh heaven; if he’s in a bad mood, he’ll dump you into the gutter.’
‘Most of your friends are like that,’ she said with a smile. ‘Birds of a feather flock together.’
‘No—that’s not the case. At least, I do not behave the way Chu-Chu does.’
‘Wasn’t he going abroad?’ Imama asked Waseem.
‘Yes, he was supposed to, but I’m not sure. I think his parents don’t plan to send him.’
‘His appearance is very odd—looks like he’s from some hippy tribe or will be.’
‘Have you seen him lately?’
‘I saw him yesterday, when I was coming home. He was going out then—there was a girl with him.’
‘A girl? Was she wearing jeans?’ Waseem was suddenly interested.
‘And she had mushroom-cut hair? She was fair?’ Waseem snapped his fingers with a smile. ‘Ursa—his girlfriend.’
‘The last time you named someone else,’ said Imama, staring at him.
‘The last time? When was that?’ Waseem wondered.
Seven or eight months ago, when you spoke to his girlfriend.’
‘Oh, that was Sheba. Wonder where she’s now?’
‘Then he had a mobile number painted on the rear screen of his car,’ laughed Imama as she repeated the number.
‘You mean you remember the number?’ laughed Waseem.
‘How could I forget? I’ve never seen a mobile number written so boldly and that too on a car!’ she laughed again.
‘I think I’ll put my mobile number on my car too,’ he said, running his fingers through his hair.
‘Which mobile? The one you haven’t bought yet?’ she scoffed.
‘I’m buying one this month.’
‘Then be prepared for Baba’s wrath…if you have the number painted on the car, he’ll be the first one to call you.’
‘That is what holds me back,’ Waseem said with resignation.
‘It’s best for you that rather than have your bones broken you should keep your emotions under control. Besides, there are other issues… what if Samiya gets to know about your mobile connections?’
Waseem cut her short. ‘What will she do? I’m not scared of her.’
‘I know you’re not scared of her but she’s the only sister of six brothers, if you please. While you plan to get engaged to her, do consider the pros and cons of consequences that may arise from any untoward action on your part.’ Imama was bent on teasing him.
‘Alas, what can I do now? My fate is sealed,’ Waseem replied with a mock sigh. ‘I should never buy a cell-phone as it will be of no use to me—at least, not for finding a girlfriend.’ He began to rock on his chair again.
‘Better late than never, but you have seen sense,’ Imama said, as she reached for earphones on the table.
‘What was it that you were listening to?’ Waseem remembered s he saw her pick up the earphones.
‘Nothing special,’ she replied, putting off the question.
‘If you’re going to Lahore then stop by Imama’s hostel on your way back. I’ve got her clothes from the tailor—you could drop them off,’ said Salma to Hashim Mubeen.
‘I’m going to be very busy—I can’t possibly go around to Imama’s hostel.’ Hashim wasn’t too happy with the idea.
‘The driver’s going with you; if you can’t go then he can deliver the parcel. The season’s coming to an end—if she doesn’t get the clothes now, they’ll just lie unused, and I don’t know when she’ll come next.’ Salma launched into a long explanation.
‘Right—I’ll take them. If I don’t find time, then I’ll send them over with the driver,’ agreed Hashim.
He spent a fairly busy day in Lahore and it was past five by the time he was free. He decided to take the parcel himself to Imama and went to the hostel. It was the first time he had come here since her admission. He sent her a message through the gatekeeper and waited for her. Ten minutes passed…then fifteen, then twenty: he was getting impatient. Before he could send another message, he saw the gatekeeper coming back, accompanied by a girl. When they came closer, he saw it was Imama’s childhood friend from Islamabad.
‘Assalaam Alaikum, Uncle!’ said Javeria.
‘W’alaikum Assalaam, child—how are you?’
‘Very well, thank you.’
‘I’ve got some clothes for Imama—her mother sent these as I was coming to Lahore. I’ve been waiting here for nearly an hour, but she hasn’t come.’ Hashim sounded plaintive.
‘Uncle, Imama’s out shopping with her friends. You can give me the parcel, I’ll hand it over to her.’
He held out the parcel for Javeria and saying goodbye, he left. Javeria went back to the hostel. The smile had disappeared off her face and her anxiety was only too apparent. As she turned in towards her room, she came across the warden and her smile reappeared.
‘Did you talk to her father?’ the warden enquired.
‘Oh yes. There’s nothing to worry about—she’s at home in Islamabad. Actually, he brought me some clothes sent by my family; as he was coming to Lahore, Imama suggested he take them along. But he asked for Imama instead when he got here.’ In one breath, Javeria rattled off many lies.
The warden breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank God! I was worried sick…she’d told me about going home for the weekend…where could she be?’
As Javeria stepped into the room, Rabia jumped up. ‘What’s the news? She is in Islamabad, isn’t she?’
‘No,’ Javeria said despondently.
‘My God!’ Rabia put her hands on Javeria’s shoulders. ‘Where could she have gone?’
‘How should I know? All she told me was that she was going home—but she didn’t. then where is she? Imama is not that kind of a girl,’ said Javeria, as she tossed the parcel on her bed.
‘What did you tell the warden?’ asked Rabia, worried.
‘What did I tell the warden? I lied; what else could I do? If I’d told her that she wasn’t in Islamabad, all hell would’ve broken loose—she’d have called the police.’
‘And what did you tell Uncle?’ asked Rabia.
‘I lied to him too that she had gone shopping.’
‘But what happens now?’ Rabia was very worried.
‘I am concerned that if she doesn’t get back, I’ll be in real trouble. Everyone will think that I’m hand in glove with her—that I knew her programme and I lied to her father and to the warden.’ Javeria’s anxiety was mounting.
‘Could Imama have met with an accident? She’s not the sort who…’ A new fear struck Rabia.
‘What can we do now? We can’t even discuss this with anyone,’ said Javeria, biting her nails with worry.
‘Let’s talk to Zainab,’ suggested Rabia.
‘For God’s sake, Rabia, be sensible for once! What are we going to achieve by talking to her?’ Javeria was really annoyed.
‘Then let’s wait. Perhaps she’ll be back by tonight or tomorrow morning—then there’s no problem. And if she doesn’t, then we have to tell the warden the truth.’ Rabia spoke seriously as she considered the situation. Javeria said nothing but worry was written large across her face.
Javeria and Rabia could hardly sleep that night: they were gripped by fear. What if she did not return? The question loomed like a menace. They could see their careers smashed and they knew what the reaction of their families would be—they would be maligned and criticized for colluding with Imama, for not telling her father the truth about her and for hiding the facts from the warden.
They had not figured what the reaction of Hashim Mubeen and his family would be when they were faced with the truth—how would they judge the role of these two friends. The other girls in the hostel would talk about them and if this became a police case, they would be accused of conspiring in the crime. When they thought of these repercussions, their hair stood on end.
Once more the question arose: where on earth was Imama? Where had she gone and why? They were trying to analyze her past behavior. She had undergone such a change in the last one year: she’d stopped going out with them and used to be worried and irritable; she’d lost her enthusiasm for studies and had become withdrawn.
‘Remember when she refused to go shopping with us and then took off somewhere else? She’s gone to the same place, I’m sure—and like fools, we believed whatever she said,’ recalled Rabia.
‘But Imama was not like this—I’ve known her since childhood. She was never like this.’ Javeria still did not suspect her.
‘It doesn’t take long to change—a person just needs to have a weak character.’ Rabia’s suspicions were getting the better of her.
‘Rabia, she got engaged of her own choice—she and Asjad are very fond of each other—so why would she do such a thing.’ Javeria tried to defend her friend.
‘Then you tell me where she is? I’ve not turned her into a fly and stuck her on a wall. Her father comes here to meet her and he has come from his home, so obviously she’s not there—and she told us she’s going home.’ There was helplessness in Rabia’s voice.
‘It could be that she met with an accident…that she did not get home…’
‘Whenever she goes home, she always calls up to tell them that her brother should pick her up from the bus stop. Had she called up this time too, they would not be sitting complacently if she hadn’t reached home—they would have called the hostel. From her father’s attitude, it seemed that she had no plans for going home this weekend.’ Rabia stopped Javeria in her musings.
‘Yes, she never goes home twice in a month, but this time she decided to…the very next week. In fact, she took special permission from the warden. There’s definitely something wrong somewhere.’ Javeria’s fears were aroused again.
‘We’re going to be in deep trouble along with her. We really made a grave mistake in covering up—we should have been honest with her father that she’s not here; he could have done what he wanted to…it would be his problem. At least we would not have been in this mess.’ Rabia went on muttering.
‘Anyway, what can we do now? Let’s wait and see till morning—if she does not turn up then we have to tell the warden.’ Javeria was pacing around the room.
They spent the entire night talking, worrying—they had not slept a wink. The next day they did not attend classes—there was no point in going in their sorry state. Imama used to get back by nine on Saturdays when she went home for the weekend, but there was no sign of her. Rabia and Javeria were at the end of their wits—it was two thirty and she hadn’t returned. Ashen-faced and trembling, they left their room to see the warden, making up their statements.
They were a short distance from the warden’s room when they saw Imama entering, calm and collected. Bag slung over her shoulder and folder in hand, she was certainly returning from college. Javeria and Rabia felt as if the ground slipping away from beneath their feet had suddenly become firm. Their stilled breath was restored and the headlines that seemed to be screaming at them from the next day’s papers miraculously evaporated. All these fears were replaced by the anger that was aroused in them by the sight of Imama.
She had seen them and was moving towards them; there was a very pleasant smile on her face.
‘Why didn’t you come to college toady?’ she asked after greeting them.
‘We would think about going anywhere if we had respite from your woes.’ Rabia’s tone was bitter and sharp.
Imama’s smile disappeared. ‘What’s the problem, Rabia, why are you so angry?’ she said with some concern.
‘Just step into the room, and I’ll tell you why.’ Rabia grabbed her arm and pulled her in. Javeria followed them without a word. Imama was surprised, confounded by Rabia’s and Javeria’s attitude. Rabia shut the door and faced Imama.
‘Where are you coming from?’ she asked in a sharp, angry tone.
‘Islamabad, where else?’ Imama put down her bag. Her reply added to Rabia’s fury.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself, Imama…deceiving us like this, pulling the wool over our eyes…what do you want to prove? That we’re duffers? Idiots? Fools? Fine, we are, I admit, or else we’d not blindly believe you nor be so deceived,’ said Rabia.
‘I fail to understand you…what deception are you talking about? It would be better if you sat and spoke to me calmly.’ Imama appeared helpless.
‘Where did you spend the weekend?’ For the first time, Javeria interrupted the conversation.
‘I told you, I was in Islamabad and I came to college directly, and now from college…’ Rabia did not let her complete her words.
‘Stop this rubbish, Imama. The lie is not going to work—you did not go to Islamabad.’
‘How can you say that?’ Imama raised her voice.
‘Because your father was here yesterday.’ The color drained from Imama’s face. She was silent.
‘Why are quiet now? Why don’t you insist that you were in Islamabad?’ Rabia was sarcastic.
‘Baba was here?’ Imama asked slowly.
‘Yes. He brought some clothes for you,’ said Javeria.
‘He got to know that I was not in the hostel?’
‘I lied to him that you had stepped out on an errand. He gave the clothes and left,’ replied Javeria. Imama drew a spontaneous sigh of relief.
‘That means he did not get to know anything,’ said Imama as she sat on the bed and undid her sandal straps.
‘No… he did not find out. Next week you can take off somewhere else. Mind you, Imama, I am going to talk to the warden about this business. We’ve had enough worries on your behalf and we’re not going to take any more. It is better that your parents should know what you’re up to.’
Rabia was terse; Imama looked up at her.
‘What am I up to? What have I done?’
‘Done what? You say you’re going home and disappear from the hostel—that’s nothing unusual for you.’
Imama did not reply. She began to undo the straps on the other foot.
‘I should have gone to the warden,’ said Rabia as she moved towards the door.
Javeria got up and stopped her. ‘We’ll talk to the warden later. Let’s first talk to her—don’t be hasty.’
‘But just look at her cussedness…her attitude. Not a trace of embarrassment on her face,’ Rabia gestured towards Imama; she was furious.
‘I’ll tell you everything; there’s no need to get so agitated. I haven’t done anything wrong nor gone to any wrong place…and neither did I run away.’ Imama spoke softly as she released her feet from her shoes.
‘Then where had you been?’ Javeria enquired.
‘With a friend.’
‘There is one…’
‘Why did you have to lie?’
‘I wanted to escape your questions and if had told my family or asked their permission, they would never have allowed me.’
‘Where did you go and why?’ Javeria was mystified.
‘Didn’t I say I’ll tell you? Give me some time,’ replied Imama.
‘Give you time so that you disappear again and perhaps not return this time!’ Rabia was still angry, but spoke less severely now. ‘You didn’t even realize you were putting us in an awkward position. Do you know how humiliating it could be for us—have you any sense at all?’ she continued.
‘I never expected Baba to turn up here so suddenly, nor did I think it would create an embarrassing situation for you—I would not have done such a thing otherwise.’ Imama’s tone was repentant.
‘At least you could have trusted us and told us where you were going,’ added Javeria.
‘I’ll never do this again,’ promised Imama.
‘Well, I don’t have any confidence in you or your promises,’ said Rabia brusquely.
‘Rabia, let me clear my position—you are grossly mistaken,’ Imama replied weakly.
‘Do you realize that our careers and our lives are at stake? Is this what you call friendship?’
‘All right, I made a mistake—I am sorry, forgive me.’ Imama conceded defeat.
‘Until you tell us where you had disappeared to, we’re not going to accept any apologies or forgive you.’ Rabia was adamant.
Imama looked at them silently. After a while she said, ‘I had gone to Sabiha’s.’
Rabia and Javeria exchanged surprised glances. ‘Who?’ they asked in unison.
‘You know her,’ replied Imama.
‘That fourth year student, Sabiha?’ Javeria could not contain herself. Imama nodded. ‘But why did you go there?’
‘She’s my friend.’
‘Friend? What friend? You barely know her. You only meet her in college; you don’t even know what kind of person she is, and you go off to spend the weekend at her place,’ exclaimed Javeria.
‘And that too by deception—at least there was no need for you to lie to us or to your family about this,’ added Rabia. Her tone reflected her anger.
‘You can call her up and ask her if I had been there,’ offered Imama.
‘Fine, you were there, but may we ask why?’ persisted Javeria.
‘I needed her help,’ said Imama after a pause.
They looked at her, surprised. ‘Help with what?’
Imama looked up and stared at them without blinking. Javeria squirmed. ‘What sort of help?’ she repeated.
‘You know very well,’ replied Imama softly.
‘I?’ Javeria was somewhat taken aback; she looked at Rabia who was watching her intently.
‘Yes, you know very well.’
‘Don’t talk in riddles, Imama. Come out with it,’ Javeria spoke sharply. Imama looked at her quietly for a few moments and then lowered her head—she had lost her case.
‘Tell me, what is your life’s dearest desire?’ That day Imama had pursued Javeria.
Javeria looked at Imama’s face for a while and then said, ‘My dearest wish is that you become a Muslim.’
A current shot through Imama—shocked and uncertain, she looked at Javeria who spoke on softly, slowly.
‘You are such a dear friend, so close to me that it hurts to see you on a misguided path…not just you, but your entire family. If God should send me to heaven for any good deeds, then I would like you to be with me—but it is essential that you be a Muslim.’
A myriad expressions passed across Imama’s face. It was a while before she could say anything.
‘Javeria, I did not expect that you would speak to me like Tehreem; I thought you were my friend, but you too…’
Javeria interrupted her gently. ‘Whatever Tehreem told you then was right.’ Imama stared at her steadily: she was deeply hurt by Javeria’s words. ‘I wasn’t friendly enough with you then to tell you, though I wanted to, that I agreed with Tehreem. If she said that you aren’t a Muslim, she wasn’t wrong—you aren’t.’
Imama’s eyes filled with tears. She got up abruptly, without a word. Javeria stood up too. Imama tried to leave but Javeria grabbed her arm.
‘Let go of my arm… let me go. Don’t even try to talk to me again.’ Imama’s voice was choked and she tried to free herself from Javeria’s grip.
‘Imama, try to understand what I am saying…’
But Imama did not let her finish. ‘You have really hurt me, Javeria. I did not expect this of you.’
‘I do not want to hurt you: I am telling you the truth. Instead of getting emotional or crying, just think objectively and coolly about what I said. Why would I want to hurt you for no rhyme or reason?’ Javeria did not let go of her arm.
‘You may know why you’re doing this, but what I know is that there’s no difference between you and Tehreem. In fact, you have caused me more pain than her—she was not such a close and old friend as you.’ Tears streamed down Imama’s face and she tried to wrest her arm out of Javeria’s grip.
‘You insisted that I tell you what was closest to my heart. This is why I was not telling you—I even warned you that you would be upset, but you assured me that you would not,’ Javeria tried to remind her.
‘Had I known that this would be your reply, I would never have asked you what your life’s desire was,’ Imama said angrily.
‘Well then I shall never talk to you on this subject,’ replied Javeria defensively.
‘What does it matter? I know now what you think about me. Our friendship can never be the same again. I have never criticized your beliefs, but instead of considering my faith as being one of the sects of Islam, you have put me outside the pale of the religion,’ Imama said.
‘If that’s what I’m doing, then I’m not wrong—all the sects of Islam do share the belief that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is Allah’s last messenger and that prophethood ended with him.’ Javeria too was angry and upset now.
‘Mind your language!’ Imama burst out.
‘I’m telling you the truth, Imama…and it’s not only me…everyone knows that your family changed its faith to acquire wealth. There’s no need to get so worked up—try to think objectively—try to reason…’
‘I have no need to think coolly over your words,’ Imama interrupted. ‘I know what’s true and what isn’t…’
‘You don’t know anything, and that is the sad part,’ retorted Javeria.
Imama said nothing. She pulled her arm away with a jerk and walked away with quick steps. Javeria made no attempt to follow her. With concern she watched her walk away—Imama was not given to such a display of temper and this worried Javeria.
END OF CHAPTER 1