Chapter 1: The Meeting
The official records stated his name as Sheikh Abdul Rashid but people knew him as Sheikh sahib. People often found it intriguing that he chose to spend a major portion of his life in a Pashtun concentration area despite the fact that he was from Punjab. To this, he often made reference to the old tradition of Pakhtunwali (The Pashtun code of life) and said vehemently, “I have more Pashto in me than there is in fifty of you combined”. Legend has it that his parents were killed while migrating from the Indian side of Punjab to Pakistani Punjab during partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. Sheikh sahib miraculously survived the massacre and made it to Lahore at the tender age of fifteen. Despite extremely meagre resources, he managed to do B.A. in Geography and started teaching the same subject at secondary school level. He was transferred to schools in Sukhar, Khanewal and Kohat before he came down to Landi Kotal where he taught at a local school while living in a small teachers’ colony close by. He felt more at home in Landi Kotal than he had ever felt anywhere else during his 40 years old existence. He liked the perfect equilibrium that his life had achieved here; no poignant agonies of his traumatic childhood bothered him, nor did he feel obliged to sketch elaborate future plans in this vacuum of a place unsoiled by the ways of the ‘advanced’ world.
Sheikh sahib’s routine was quite predictable. He taught in the school until 1 pm after which he came home for lunch and took a nap. In the evenings, he would take a stroll in the local bazaar and indulge in a casual chit chat with the merchants over several cups of hot, fragrant qahwa (green tea). Then he would carry his last qahwa cup of the day to a small mound right next to the bazaar and sip it away while gazing at the mysterious mountains. The soft evening breeze whispered tales of foreign warriors marching in the historic valley, tales of splendour and forfeit. As the evening grew darker, Sheikh sahib felt the monotony of his life extend to that of the mountain ranges that crawled yonder. He had no desire to disturb this perfect harmony.
One day, Sheikh sahib’s monotonous life was jolted by a little boy who served him tea one evening. This was one of the best teas he had consumed in a long time. When it was time to pay, he found to his embarassment that he had forgotten his wallet at home. He looked aplogetically at the boy and told him his dilemma. Unlike other waiters, the boy very politely asked him to talk to the owner of the small tea shop. The shop-owner knew Sheikh sahib and agreed to let him pay the next day. Sheikh sahib, still impressed by the boy’s manners, called him out and engaged him in small talk.
“What’s your name, boy?” asked Sheikh sahib.
“Nadir Gul”, he replied.
“Ah, rare flower! so what do you do, beside serving tea of course”, asked Sheikh sahib.
“When I am not picking my nose, I like to pick people’s brains”, he said plainly.
It was a startling response from a 10 years old. Sheikh sahib stared at him in silence not knowing what to say.
“And what is it that you have picked about my brain?”, he muttered slowly.
“That it makes you uncomfortable to think that someone picked your brain, but that’s understandable. You see, people’s reponse to such situations is a start, which is quickly replaced by anger–a camofaluge for their discomfort about suddenly becoming vulnerable, about layers and layers of hidden emotions becoming exposed to the scrutiny of an external eye. But that’s fine, you have no reason to feel threatened by me”, Nadir’s words poured out.
“Little boy, you are not *capable* of hurting me”, Sheikh sahib quickly retaliated.
“That’s subjective. There is something they say about judging things by their size”.
At this point, Nadir grew aware of other clients’ agitation and quickly left to take orders. Farooqi sahib could not get the boy out of his mind for the next week or so. He knew he had to meet Nadir again.
He was a 16 years old boy of small stature but big dreams. His real name was Rafiq but everybody called him Feeka. As mentioned earlier, Feeka was a man of dreams. Just like a wall is made of bricks, human tissue is made of cells, Feeka was made of dreams. He dreamt of becoming a world renowned author. Yet, whenever he held a pen with the intent of producing a master piece, his mind went blank and his fingers grew numb. He read several books about how to become a writer but to no avail. One day, he became really infuriated by endless, fruitless hours of staring at walls with a pen in his hand and blank papers staring back at him from his writing desk. He decided to seek advice on this matter from a writer whose column he regularly read in the local newspaper. After some effort, he managed to trace the author in question, Mr. Majzoob Ahmed Qureshi. Qureshi Saheb agreed to meet him the coming Wednesday.
On Wednesday, Feeka spent more time in shower than usual. He put on a crisp white Kurta Shalwar, applied oil infused with Jasmine to his head and sprinkled a generous quantity of Itar on his clothes. Before leaving, he cast a look at his image in the mirror. On a last note, he tucked an expensive pen (that he used exclusively for his writing sessions) in his pocket and headed towards Shahi mohalla where the literary rendezvous was supposed to take place. A brief excerpt from Feeka’s conversation with Majzoob Ahmed Quraishi is quoted here:
Feeka: Assalam o alaikum, Sir. I am your greatest fan ever.
Quraishi Sb (Twisting his moustache): So is everybody else. What brings you here, young boy?
Feeka: Sir, I want to be a great writer. No, the greatest writer, just like yourself, sir.
Quraishi Sb: Your last sentence smells of great ambition. But I don’t want to discourage you. So what is it that you want to write about? Politics, history, current affairs..?
Feeka: I want to write a story. An epic story, like Romeo Juliet, Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnoo, Jack Rose…
Quraishi Sb: Cut it, I know where this is going. By the way, I can already tell that of all the titles you just mentioned, your only inspiration is the last one. So how can I help you, young boy? Surely, you don’t expect me to write a story and put your name as the author?
Feeka: Oh no, Quraishi Sb. I am an original writer. I just want you to answer some of my queries.
Quraishi Sb: Let’s hear them.
Feeka takes out his pen and a paper and assumes an alert position, ready to take notes.
Feeka : What should be the theme of my story, I mean, action, thriller,..
Quraishi Sb: Make it romance. It has universal appeal. You see, people from all religions, countries and intellectual caliber can relate to it. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, let’s give them the whole pie in your story.
Feeka: How many characters should be there in my story?
Quraishi Sb: The less, the better. Kill the hero’s parents in an accident before he was born.
Feeka: Err, Sir that defies some basic rules of biology.
Quraishi Sb: Alright, kill them in an accident when they were coming back from hospital with the baby. Everybody dies, but the baby.
Feeka: What about hero’s siblings?
Quraishi Sb (smiling proudly): The hero was the first baby in the family.
Feeka: What about the heroine?
Quraishi Sb: That’s a tricky question, we can’t kill them all in car accident, can we?—-a long pause—-The heroine’s mother commits suicide after discovering her husband’s extra-marital affairs and the husband commits suicide after hearing about his wife’s death.
Feeka (reluctantly): But if the husband loved his wife so much as to commit suicide in the wake of her demise, what was all that about—the affairs, I mean ?
Quraishi Sb: You are too young to understand human psychology, my boy. In a nutshell, at any given time, there should be a bird in hand and two or more in the bush. The ones in the bush can be replaced, but if the one in hand is lost, you are broke—–well, sort of.
Feeka: Alright. What should be the heroine’s name?
Feeka (blushing): Yes.
Quraishi Sb: Shoot.
Feeka: Dilshaad Begum.
Quraishi Sb: Is this your romantic best?
Feeka (confused): Umm, no..
Quraishi Sb: Good. Because otherwise, I would have thrown you out of my house. Let’s call our heroine Gulbakaouli. There is something mysterious about that name, like a fairy who lost her way to Koh-e-Kaaf and ended up landing on your writing pad. (Laughs). Poor, little fairy. (Laughs again). And name your hero Batlamyus. That’s the only name I can think of that rivals the eccentricity of Gulbakaouli.
Feeka: What should be the timeline of our story? I mean, birth to death, only youth, two generations?
Quraishi Sb: Like I said earlier, the less, the better. Haven’t you heard that sometimes a few moments spent between two complete strangers outweighs decades of camaraderie. Let us reinforce the potency of the moment instead of drawing on years of nonsense.
Feeka: What should be the location for this story? How about our desi Lake district aka Kaghan?
Quraishi Sb: Make it Karachi. It would be easier to have them shot dead by terrorists than to devise a believable death plot in Kaghan.
Feeka: That’s heartless. Please suggest an alternate means of death.
Quraishi Sb: It’s time you get going. (Pointing to unfinished manuscripts on his desk) I have business to attend to.
Feeka: Thank you Quraishi Sahib from the bottom of my heart. I am your greatest fan ever.
Quraishi Sb (Twisting his moustache): So is everybody else. Khuda Hafiz.
The same night, Feeka wrote his first story that went on to become the most iconic fictional piece of writing of the century. The story was as follows:
“Gulbakaouli and Batlamyus: A love story made in heaven”
Once upon a time, there was a Gulbakaouli and a Batlamyus. Batlamyus was an only child and lost his parents soon after he was born. Gulbakouli = same as above. Now, this Gulbakaouli was a girl of exceptional beauty. She had the eyes of a deer, long hair like snakes and the gait of a peacock. In other words, there was hardly any human quality about her. As for Batlamyus, he was tall as a pine tree and had the gait of a lion. In other words, he was the product of a unique genetic mutation between the animal and the plant kingdom.
One day, Gulbakaouli went to the market to buy medicine for her sick aunt. Batlamyus was playing cricket in the street along with a bunch of equally vain friends. When Batlamyus saw Gulbakaouli, the moment that wraps up in it years of camaraderie took place. To impress Gulbakaouli, Batlamyus struck a powerful sixer. The ball hit Gulbakaouli straight in the head and she died of severe head injury there and then. When Batlamyus saw Gulbakaouli die in front of his eyes, he couldn’t bear the pain and had a massive heart attack. All the other characters at the spot grabbed a gun and took turns shooting themselves. If the hero and heroine are dead, there is no point in having extras roam about.
Moral: Brevity is the soul of wit.
One of the perks of being ‘human’ is that one can lead a life of pretense, while carefully suppressing facts. In some cases, one person alone can manage to contrive multiple pretenses according to different situations. Mostly, the ‘pretense’ is an improved version of oneself, or one that evokes feelings in others that the person in question desires to induce. People usually fall easily for the pretense. After all, we cannot remove lid from a person and play peek-a-boo with the soul. We see what we are shown.
About ten years ago, I came face to face with a similar situation. One fine morning at school, our teacher introduced us to a new student whose family had recently moved from Swat to Peshawar. For the sake of this story, we will call her Ayesha. The seating arrangement in our class was such that students sat in pairs. As I was sitting alone that day, the teacher told her to take the seat next to me. As days passed by, we became good friends. Ayesha seemed to really enjoy talking about her family. In the beginning, I thought her family must mean a lot to her. After some time, I found her family-talk to be rather repetitive. It was annoying too because all our conversation revolved around how special Ayesha was to her family. I felt eclipsed by accounts of her mother cajoling her to eat ‘parathas’ (a special kind of bread) at breakfast, and her father showering her with fancy clothes and jewelry.
One day, Ayesha proudly said, “Do you know when I go back home from school, my mother asks me about my day. I give her detailed account of my day and she listens with keen interest.” To this, I replied casually, “When I go back home, my mother barely notices. She is a working lady and therefore very busy balancing work and household chores.” Unexpectedly, my sentence had a profound effect on her. Her expression changed from indifference to sympathy. Suddenly, she wanted to know more about my relationship with my family. I told her fabricated stories of my parents’ troubled relationship and portrayed myself as an unwanted object in the house. Ayesha was very impressed by my ‘bravery’ and being able to maintain a brilliant academic record despite family issues. That day, I felt like Superman when he first discovered his superhuman qualities. Nothing I told Ayesha was even close to the truth. I lived a very normal and happy life. Yet the impact my little, casual lies had on Ayesha left me astounded. I could tell her my parents found me near garbage when I was a baby and decided to adopt me, and she would believe me. Amazing! In the following days, our relationship underwent a role-reversal of sorts. I went on and on about my (conjured up) miserable circumstances, while secretly admiring the look of sympathy on her face.
A few months later, Ayesha suddenly went on leave without notice. I tried to call her a number of times but it seemed that her phone had been disconnected by authorities for not paying telephone bill. On September 15th, when it was her birthday and it had been a week since she disappeared, I requested my mother to drive me to her house. We bought a cake and a birthday present, and drove to her address which my mother got from school record. As we got closer to her place, it grew apparent that they lived in an unprivileged neighborhood. This was astonishing for me as she had described her background as ‘affluent’ on more than one occasion. As our car could not make it further past the narrow street, we parked it and decided to cover the remaining distance on foot. Whatever doubt I had of being handed the wrong address evaporated as I caught glance of Ayesha through the thin piece of cloth that hung down a door to provide its inhabitants some form of privacy. I would have walked in had I not heard the loud exchange of expletives between a man and a woman inside the house, probably her parents. As my mother and I stood in stunned silence, a passerby commented, “The usual circus this man and woman put on display for their eight children to watch and the rest of the world to hear. What a shame!”
On our way back, I pondered over our pretenses. Mine was a luxury. I could have done equally well had I not put it up. Ayesha’s was a necessity. She needed to cling on to some sort of fantasy to keep her sanity amid all that chaos. I did not meet Ayesha that day. In fact, we did not meet ever again. I let her revel in the vision that she had once a friend who thought she had doting parents who fed her ‘parathas’ and bought her fancy clothes and jewelry.
Basking in the sun on a lazy winter afternoon can do strange things. For one, it can wake up timid dreams. Like birds, they flutter their wings, and soar up in the blue skies. It was on a winter afternoon of the kind I just described that my friend, Mustafa, decided to visit me for a cup of tea. Mustafa was my roommate during boarding school days, and therefore, a very dear friend. They say wine gets better with time. I suppose that holds for friendship too.
Mustafa arrived at 4 pm, as promised. We exhausted topics such as current affairs, politics, health, kids, not-to-mention, a dozen ‘shami kebabs’, chicken patties and a cake. An hour later, we had our second round of tea. There was nothing more to say. We just sat there in comfortable silence, sipping away from our tea cups. Suddenly, Mustafa brought up the subject of dreams.
Mustafa: Remember, how we used to chase after fireflies when we were kids. I feel that we are still doing the same.
Me: Wow, you seem to be in a really poignant mood.
Mustafa: Right, I am in my philosopher shoes now. But try to think about it. We have spent half our lives and intend to spend the remaining trying to achieve something that seems to be bright and luminous like those fireflies. We catch it and tuck it under our pillows, only to find out the next morning that it was nothing but an ugly insect. Each morning, we resolve to find the real glow, yet it’s the ugly insect that sleeps under our pillows every single night. This barren pursuit stretches over our entire lives till we die with the image of the luminous firefly engraved in our lifeless eyes. Tell me very honestly, why are you a banker?
Me: Because the financial incentives are excellent. I can afford to have a good house, a car and good education for my kids.
Mustafa: I know about all these things. What I want to ask is: What is it that being a banker does for YOU that any other job cannot.
Me: Well, I am good with numbers.
Mustafa: And I am very good at dishwashing. Does this mean I should be a dishwasher at a restaurant?
Me: It’s a balance between what you are good at and how much you get paid for offering your expertise.
Mustafa: Being good at something does not imply that you like it too. My wife thinks I am good at dishwashing and I agree. Yet, this isn’t something I dream of doing day in day out. I am also good at painting. If given a particularly lucrative opportunity, I will happily give up my career in engineering to become a full time painter. But the truth is that I am an engineer, and not a painter. So how much does it take to swindle someone from pursuing their dreams and make them do what they are good at ?
Me: But that’s the irony of creativity, isn’t it? Talk about painters, poets, writers, musicians; if lucky stars are shining upon them, they might be catapulted to heights of fame, but that’s a rare case. Majority of them reverberate in empty air, like an unsung melody.
Mustafa: I don’t think it has anything to do with creativity. Being creative in Science pays really well. The Microsofts and Googles of the world are hunting for people with innovative ideas. It’s about liquidity. Scientific creativity has high liquidity, artistic creativity—not so much. The loss ratio is much, much higher in the latter case.
Me: As per the books I have read, liquidity is ‘the ability of an asset to be converted into cash quickly and without any price discount’. How do you tie this into your argument?
Mustafa: It’s very straightforward. Creativity is gauged by its profitability—its potential to be commercialized. An employee at a software house gets more or at least competitive salary as a PhD in Philosophy.
Me: You cannot deny the importance of money. You don’t want to paint living in a ghetto with children crying for food.
Mustafa: That’s an excessively grim picture. Try to improve it a bit.
Me: Well, how about being a painter and residing in a not-so-posh area, driving a Suzuki instead of your Accord and your children studying in a Government/Public school.
Mustafa: Interesting, but my answer is no. I want to keep all the ‘good’ things I have as we speak, therefore I intend to keep my current job. My employers have made a good investment. They have quoted an excellent price for my services – and my dreams!
It was getting late and cold. Mustafa took a last sip of his now cold tea and drove away. After closing the gate after him, I stood in the lawn for a few moments. Dusk was setting in and the horizon was painted in several hues; pink, orange, yellow, red and purple. The sky was blotted with flocks of birds returning to their nests after a day of toil and sweat. Out of the blue, my eyes caught sight of a lonely firefly in the hedge. In a single swift movement, I got hold of the insect. The little thing squirmed in my fingers as I inspected its shiny tail. After a few fleeting moments, I let go of it. My mind had caught glimpse of true light, and there was no way I could be fooled by a deceptive insect—at least that particular night.
When the alarm beeped for the third time, to my absolute dismay, I realized that I was running terribly late for the meeting ahead. I sprang up, transformed into a more presentable shape and left home, sipping away from the cup of coffee on my way. It wasn’t long before I became conscious of the fact that it was Wednesday and the CNG stations would be closing for the next three days, the close-down starting in an hour. I went through the day’s schedule once again in my mind to see if I could squeeze in the gas-filling ritual. The prospect of having to use the more expensive fuel source (petrol) outweighed all other mental argument and I took the turn towards the fuel station.
I could figure out long queues of cars even from distance. While waiting for my turn, I could hear people discussing the tidal wave of inflation that had rocked the nation. I learnt that petrol price was speculated to be raised by 10% the next week while gas would cost 8% more than its present rate. Things proceeded at a gingerly pace and by the time I reached my office, I was positively 20 minutes late. Climbing up the stairs, my mind leaved through a compilation of exquisite, hand-picked excuses that I have maintained for such occasions. The moment I swung open the door, I could feel all eyes in the conference room rivet on me a while longer, silently demanding an explanation. ‘I am so sorry, my car broke down on the way here ’, I said sheepishly. ‘In that case, you should have probably left home a bit earlier to accommodate your car’s rather predictable mood swings ’, lashed out my boss. The rest of his talk emphasized on the importance of the project, the monetary stakes that were in it, that we were paid to dedicated ourselves to the project and so forth.
Meeting was followed by work and in no time, it was lunch break. When I handed 85 Rs to the cafeteria boy for my favorite burger, he gave me a wide grin and announced that the burger was worth 100 Rs now. I gave him a look of surprise, ‘…but its price went from 70 Rs to 85 Rs only two weeks ago ’. ‘Inflation, ma’am’, came the prompt response, ‘Fuel price shoots up, transport charges shoot up, Bread price soars, Meat becomes more and more expensive, so the poor burger has to act accordingly too Baji, we can’t help it’. His words sank down and I decided that I had to let go of my favorite burger, saving it for the days when I really wanted to give myself a treat. I ordered a plate of sabzi with naan and contented myself with the fact that I had saved 50 Rs. Over lunch, my colleagues chattered about the increase in the price of electricity and household gas bills that was to be in effect from the next month. Honestly, I was no longer stirred by these disclosures as they had become more of a routine. Commodity bills swelled on monthly basis, followed by media frenzy, followed by the indifferent inaction that is so typical of our national disposition.
Lunch was followed by more work. By the time it was time to go home, I was completely drained of all my energy. Exhausted, I drove out of the parking lot eager to reach home, force some food down my throat in the name of dinner and catch some much deserved sleep. ‘Salam ma’am’, I heard the watch guard of the office parking lot through my car window. ‘Walaikumassalam, chacha, how are you’, I stopped my car near him and said good-naturedly. ‘I am fine, beta. Just wanted to let you know that the monthly charges for car parking will increase by Rs. 100 from next month’. I wanted to engage in a furious argument about how unreasonable and unfair it was to do this when the charges had already been raised by 50 Rs only a month ago. However, I could barely summon enough energy to whisper a half-hearted OK.
On my way back home, I could see invisible dollar signs falling from the sky, followed by a downpour of question mark signs. The moment I took the turn to my street, I saw a sight so beautiful I had to pull up the car by the roadside to fully appreciate it. The pale, crescent moon was perched quietly atop tall pine trees. Being a late winter evening, there was no sign of life whatsoever on the quiet street. And yet, the surroundings seemed to have come alive to celebrate the splendor of the magnificent moon. I feasted my eyes on this perfect picture of serenity for a while and moved ahead. When I lay myself to sleep at night, the last thought on my mind was: What would be the cost of moon if it were in the discretionary power of us, humans, to put a price-tag on it ?