At the still point of the turning world…
… at the still point, there the dance is
Montgomery College of Lahore with its Gothic buildings, huge watchtower and crumbling statues of eminent British professors of the past, was a fading reminder of the days of the Raj. The English Literary Circle (ELC)—run by the postgraduate students of the English Department—had traditionally served as a platform not just for literary discussions, but also for radical views on politics and society. Every Wednesday afternoon the ELC hosted a speaker: a student, teacher, scholar, social worker, or human rights activist. Come General Zia’s martial law and Islamization, and the only speakers available were a handful of Montgomery students and teachers. It was rumored that martial law authorities were keeping an eye on the Circle. But that did not deter Ali Raza, a student and President of the Circle, or Professor Mehmud, Chairman of the English Department, from keeping it going.
One Wednesday, Dr. Akbar Hussain, a young lecturer of English literature, delivered a lecture on “Edmund’s ingratitude in King Lear” in which he criticized “a power hungry adventurer who was as ruthless as he was ungrateful to his benefactor.” No one missed Dr. Hussain’s jibes at General Zia, who had overthrown and hanged an elected prime minister who had also been his benefactor.
There was an exception, however. Rajmi, sitting at the back of the audience and forgetful of Dr. Hussain, had been trying to hear Nina’s heartbeats. She was sitting in the front row enchanted by Dr. Hussain. Nina was Rajmi’s classmate and his latest heartthrob. It had scarcely been a week since he fell in love with her.
As usual, Rajmi and Ali Raza made for the canteen after the lecture was over. Both were neighbors, childhood friends and classmates.
‘What will happen when Nina gets married?’ Ali Raza asked. ‘You know she’s engaged to an army captain… . There is a rumor that she has been dating Dr. Akbar Hussain.’
‘I will write her a letter in my own blood the day she gets married!’ Rajmi said, wiping his eyes and nose with the bottom edge of his long-sleeve shirt.
‘If I were you I would use a rooster’s blood rather than my own. My dear, you are already underweight and anemic. And your liver… . You know it is not very good!’ Ali Raza said in horror as he lit a cigarette and gave it to Rajmi. He lit another one for himself.
‘No, my own blood will speak volumes of my honesty and sincerity to Nina!’ Rajmi said amidst sniffing. Ali Raza poured him a glass of water that Rajmi drank in one go.
‘Why don’t you tell her how you feel?’ Ali Raza asked absent-mindedly.
‘I am nervous. Remember last semester when I proposed to Kulsoom? The way she reacted …’
‘You should have proposed to her sooner,’ Ali Raza said.
‘She told me… well, you know, she told me that a squadron leader had proposed to her… . But it’s my own fault. I should have been more persuasive in… .’
‘Don’t you think your argument was a bit… .’ Ali Raza squeezed his eyes as he smiled and stared at Rajmi.
‘I mean you told Kulsoom that being a descendent of the Prophet Muhammad you were the best match for her,’ Ali Raza’s utterance came through a little cloud of smoke that had formed over his smoke-blackened lips.
‘What else could have I said? I am a poor part-time sub-editor who has to beg his uncle to chip in something to be able to pay up his fee. My pedigree is my only asset… . But I mean, you know, I was never in love with Kulsoom. Not really, you know. I mean she and I were good friends; so when she told me about that proposal I felt I was losing a friend, and so I made, you know, a counterproposal. My reaction I know was impulsive. You know we have been studying Wordsworth’s “sudden impulse,”’ Rajmi responded, trying tentatively to form a cloud over his light brown lips.
‘What about Beena, the love of your life who sprinkled roses when she spoke? You pined for her. Weren’t you determined to marry her?’
‘Weren’t her eyes like, you know… I mean, two hopelessly little loopholes? Scary and threatening! God!’ suddenly Rajmi’s tears were gone; his face lit up in relief.
Ali Raza stared into space, closed his eyes, opened them and fixed them on Rajmi again, ‘What about your fellow journalist Wajida who used to give you such seductive looks? Any chance the two of you making up?’
‘She has no shame! Look at the wrinkles on her face. She’s my mother’s age!’
‘And yet you were drawn to her because of … her spectacles?’
‘Yes,’ Rajmi admitted, ‘I had never seen a woman wear such bright red frames. After she found out that Miss Akhtar was buying me lunch, she began looking at me as if her eyes were two barrels of a gun searching for a weak spot to strike!’
Rajmi and Ali Raza were not just classmates; they were neighbors and childhood friends.
Ali Raza befriended Rajmi when years ago the latter moved in to live with uncle after his parents died in an accident. Every evening the two friends joined a group of intellectuals, journalists, and students in a restaurant and debated national and international affairs over loads of cigarettes and tea. One Monday—one that followed Dr. Hussain’s King Lear lecture—the local martial law administrator performed surgery on the English Department. Professor Mehmud, Dr. Hussain and Ali Raza were arrested and tried by a summary military court, and sentenced to four years of hard labor each on the charges of subversion and anti-state activities. They were immediately dispatched to the outback near Afghanistan. A few lecturers and students were sacked and expelled, respectively.
Rajmi was expelled too, and was required by the martial law not to enter his college for two years. Luckily his part-time sub-editing job with The Lahore Bulletin was intact. He began working as a full-timer. Low salary, hurt pride and uncertain future; but these were nothing compared to what Rajmi had lost in the loss of Ali Raza. At The Lahore Bulletin he worked very hard and in three months’ time was given charge of the city page.
Every day he traveled to the office in an ancient, over-crowded Bulletin bus along with other lowly Grade-7 employees like himself who could not afford a vehicle of their own. Every afternoon the same bus carried them back home. He worked evenings as an assistant to his uncle, who supplied gas canisters and catering services to various government institutions. At night Rajmi did star gazing, read poetry, felt sorry for himself, and wondered if his lot would ever improve.
One afternoon Rajmi found that the Grade-7 bus had broken down and the Grade-7 employees would have the honor of traveling with Grade-1 journalists and officers from the Editorial, Magazine and Administration sections. It was well known at the Bulletin that the Grade-1 officers belonged to the upper class of society, and some of them took the company bus only for the snob value. The mere sight of that huge, air-conditioned Mercedes Benz was awe-inspiring. The Grade-1s occupied less than one fifth of the available seats.
This particular afternoon Rajmi was the last to board and contentedly stood in the crowd occupying the aisle. The front half of the bus was occupied by male and female Grade-1s, the middle and the rear were jammed with male and female Grade-7s, respectively. The sun was almost directly overhead, so he could see the reflection of those sitting in the front seats in the windscreen. He saw a face there whose gaze seemed fixed on an object outside the bus. She almost seemed to be in some kind of trance. She was very beautiful and her sharp features were very pronounced even on the windscreen. At the same time she was so ethereal that for a moment Rajmi thought what he was seeing must be the work of an artist. There was an extraordinary radiance about her face.
‘How come I did not see her before?’
He forgot to get off at his stop. He squeezed his eyes to take a better view of her.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever!
Hers was the perfection of the woman etched on the urn that his beloved poet John Keats had immortalized.
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness!
Rajmi was frozen in his place.
The bus changed its course and the reflection on the windscreen was not there anymore. The bus pulled up and some passengers got down. Because of the crush Rajmi could not see who they were. But when the bus started up again, he was able to see every woman in the front of the bus. The one whose reflection he had glimpsed was not among them.
Next day was his day off. All morning he sat in his room, lost and dazed. He took out a thick folder that he had hidden in his little bookshelf, and settled himself on the floor. The folder contained photographs of his female classmates and a few women that he had known. There were love letters written to him by a few sweethearts of yore, now married and their whereabouts unknown. He had kissed these photos and billets-doux before, but now they held no attraction for him. He dumped the folder in rubbish bin. At midday he went to the Bulletin. The Mercedes Benz was parked in a corner. He got into it. There was no one inside. He sat close to the windscreen and stared into it. She was not there. He wondered if that woman—the work of an artist—was actually a work his own imagination. But he kept gazing at the windscreen till it was lunch time and people started coming out of the office. Later he sat down on a nearby bench, hoping that the woman would appear somehow, but she did not.
One night he realized that this woman, whoever she was, was the one he had been waiting for. For the first time in his life he felt that he was living every moment of his existence to the fullest, and yet he also felt disassociated from the world around him. He felt strangely refreshed, light and happy, and yet extremely lonely. At the same time he could feel the presence of that mysterious woman all over.
He tried every method to find out who she was, but none of his acquaintances at the Bulletin knew anyone who fit her description. He did not know at what point she had alighted on that day. She seemed to have appeared in his life out of nowhere and disappeared just as mysteriously.
One morning, working in the newsroom, he received via telex a short report that General Zia’s wife and daughter had gone on a shopping spree in Manhattan; all expenses were paid by a Pakistani known as an absconder-smuggler. Rajmi inserted it in the bottom of the city page. A few hours later, just before the city page was about to be sent to the press, it caught the editor’s eye. Rajmi was immediately summoned by the editor and asked to leave the Bulletin premises for good.
He was now full-time assistant to his uncle.
One morning he read on the wall near his uncle’s workshop a “money-back-guarantee” advert that claimed: IF I CANNOT GET YOUR WISHES FULFILLED, YOU WILL BE REIMBURSED IN TOTO. The author was Professor Bismillah Khan who had recently retired from the History Department of Montgomery College. Rajmi and Professor Khan knew each other very well. The Professor had spent a good deal of time in Indonesia where, he claimed, he had learned black magic and necromancy. Following his retirement he had set up a “consultancy,” called Borneo Spiritual Clinic, to help make people’s dreams come true. Ordinarily, Rajmi would have ridiculed such a person, but his obsession had made him helpless. One evening he found himself knocking at the Professor’s door.After listening to his story, Professor Khan covered himself in black cloth and went into meditation for a while. He then chanted something abstruse, and said after uncovering himself, ‘You did not see an actual woman. Actually—if you don’t mind my saying so—you were hallucinating. The woman was just a figment of your imagination. That’s not so unusual for a very fanciful person like yourself, especially given your recent history. I would advise you to forget her once and for all. However, I can provide you with a method used by the aboriginal tribes of Indonesia which will be of great help the next time you find a woman you would like to be yours. But I warn you. It is not for the faint-hearted!’
‘I will do anything!’ Rajmi said; he was surprised how hollow his own voice sounded to him. He really did not want to hear about any other woman.
Professor Khan continued, ‘The most powerful love magic used by the aborigines of Borneo is to find the corpse of a virgin who has just died. You take a candle, a lighter and a bowl with you. Go at nighttime. Once you have found the dead virgin, put the flame of the candle under her chin and keep the bowl below the flame. Do not let the flame touch the chin, and do not take your eyes off her face. Chant gently wanita saya till drops start trickling from her chin and fall into the bowl. There will not be more than five or six drops, and don’t worry if some wax also drips into the bowl because wax will not affect the strength of the potion. Keep that liquid in a vial with you at all times and sprinkle the liquid on the woman you want to be yours. She will love you more than you can imagine!’ The Professor did not charge Rajmi for the consultation. He said he would be compensated enough by seeing the happy results of the magic.
Outside the city was Miani Sahib, Lahore’s largest graveyard. It was spread over miles and freely spawned stories about evil spirits and ghosts. There was no human habitation near it. Rajmi did not want to follow Professor Khan’s formula, but he began reading newspapers very carefully and frequenting the graveyard to find out if the just buried included a young woman. Apart from his job as his uncle’s assistant, this was his major activity.
One evening his uncle left Lahore for a few days. He asked Rajmi to take a load of gas cylinders to Lahore Women’s Club the next day. Since the Club was a hangout for wives, daughters and concubines of army officers, his uncle gave him strictest instructions to deliver only the freshest cylinders.
But Rajmi believed that someone connected with a Club woman had destroyed him, Ali Raza, and his teachers. It was this belief that led him to deliver two of the oldest and rustiest cylinders. One early morning, within a week of the supply of the gas cylinders, Rajmi read on the front page of The Lahore Bulletin that there had been a gas leak in the sauna of Lahore Women’s Club. Not all details were available at the time of the filing of the report; however, the reporter did confirm one casualty: death of a nineteen-year old woman. A brigadier’s daughter, she had been a swimmer and had been preparing hard to compete in the forthcoming National Sports for Women. She was to be buried in Miani Sahib in the afternoon.
Hundreds attended the funeral, Rajmi among them, thinking of Professor Khan’s formula and also of his uncle’s and his own possible arrest for her death. The young woman was buried in a remote corner of the graveyard.
It was a moonlit night and midwinter cold. Miani Sahib was surrounded by a variety of trees that had silently guarded the graves for ages. In the moonlight they looked like prehistoric creatures. Rajmi made his cautious way to his target grave. He was properly clothed for the cold and had all the implements he needed: candles, a lighter, a bowl and a spade. He was carrying a cricket bat too in case he had to confront an animal or human.
He started digging. The earth was still soft and easy to penetrate. Soon he had dug deep enough to reach the lid of the coffin. He found a portion of broken gravestone and placed his things on it. He took out a candle and lit it with a lighter. The coffin was not locked and opened easily with a creaking sound. In the candlelight he saw a corpse wrapped in white cloth from head to feet like an Egyptian mummy. He hesitated to touch it. Since his childhood he had heard stories about dead people sometimes taking retribution on the living and of the horrifying shapes the dead could take on when their graves were disturbed. What if she wasn’t a virgin? With one trembling hand he uncovered the face, and with the other he raised the candle.
The candle immediately fell from his hand and went out. His heart began to pound like a hammer against his chest and he shook all over as if in the grip of a fit. He fumbled for his lighter, relit the candle and raised it to the corpse’s face again. In front of him was lying the woman in the windscreen. He closed his eyes tight, opened them again. But there was no doubt about it.
‘Who created you?’ he moaned.
She did not answer. Her resplendent face in the moonlight was at perfect peace.
‘It cannot be the God who creates ordinary things and people. It must be a special God!
Yours must be God of Gods!’
He slowly moved her body to one side of the wide coffin and carefully inserted himself beside her. He measured himself against her: they were almost of equal length. He touched the soft cheeks that even in the moonlight still boasted the earthly pallor of the living. He drew his fingers along the curves of her eyebrows, gently touched her chin, her ears, her aquiline nose and long smooth neck. He reached down to feel her hands and feet, took her thick dark hair in his hands and let it slide through his fingers like silken sand. He gently opened her eyes. Those were beautiful black eyes! Staring up into the midnight sky unblinking, her eyes seemed lost in an ecstasy of some dream being enacted there. Rajmi followed her gaze,
Are there other worlds out there? What kinds of entities live there? Being? Not-being? Non-being? Is my life being replicated there, or is it me who is replicating someone’s life here?
Rajmi’s attention was diverted. Appearing in front of him, he saw a procession of all the women he had been in love with, passing for him as if in review and then melting into the dark recesses of the graveyard like a receding mist. He turned his head to the woman beside him, kissed her eyes, and felt her eyelashes by gently rubbing his cheek over them. He closed his eyes, craned his neck and rubbed the tip of his nose to hers. He withdrew his torso away from her for a better view of her. Breathless, motionless, and wordless, he forgot to blink for a long while. Then slowly he put his hand inside her shroud. The plush of her skin was warm—contrary to the supposed coldness of a corpse that he had heard of and believed. He caressed her shoulders, moved his hand obliquely and settled it on her neck. He moved forward and whispered to her,
‘I lost my heart the moment I saw you; now it is your heart that beats in my bosom!’
Again he stretched back to admire her beautiful entity,
‘You, only you! Why have I been chasing shadows all my life?’
Rajmi put his thumb on the candle flame and pulled the lid of the coffin closed.