Short Fiction by Farah Ahamed
To tell you the truth, I don’t like to remember that day, or the days that followed, but the memory of it is fresh. I can recall that hot afternoon vividly and in detail, when that man showed up at our doorstep. I suppose I could blame him or my parents for what happened later, even though you could say they had nothing to do with it.
However, to return to that day, I was sitting on the floor chopping potatoes for a soup. This was my daily chore with my mother scolding over my shoulder.
‘Chop the vegetables smaller and add more water to the pan,’ she said, ‘unless you want to give up your share.’ My sisters were playing outside, but because I had been born with a bad leg I was always kept indoors.
There was a shout from the passageway. My father went to the door which was always open; there was no need to keep it shut as there were never any strangers in our building.
Our home is one room. Against one wall, there is a pile of mattresses, in the middle is a faded red velvet settee and opposite that is a wardrobe bursting with all our clothes. In one corner is a small stove. Above it, affixed to the wall, is a large television screen, which doesn’t work, and underneath it on a small stool, is a computer which does. We share a toilet and a tap which is a few doors down in the corridor, with our neighbours.
‘Salaam,’ said the man at the threshold. ‘I’m Joseph.’
He was a tall man, with a stomach which hung over his trousers. His cheeks were puffy and he had a thin moustache. His eyes darted around our room. I knew right away he could not to be trusted; I’ve been bullied by enough boys and men in my eighteen years to recognise their type.
Joseph began explaining how we were related through a third cousin’s marriage. ‘They all remember you and send their best wishes,’ he said.
‘I’ve never heard of any of these people,’ my father said.
My mother is not one to mince her words, and often I’ve wished I’d inherited her sharp tongue.
‘Who are you and what do you want?’ she shouted, from where she was sitting near the stove. ‘Get to the point. Obviously you’re here for a reason.’ She caught me staring at Joseph and slapped me on the head. ‘Keep your eyes down and don’t be slicing the potatoes so thick.’
‘My dear sister,’ Joseph said. ‘Your cousin remembers you and sends you warm greetings. They recall in particular, your kind, generous heart.’
‘Cheap flattery won’t get you anywhere,’ my mother said. She threw down her knife, wiped her hands on her khameez, and went and stood in front of my father. ‘Why are you here?’
‘May I please come in?’ Joseph said. ‘I would like to explain properly.’
My parents exchanged looks and stepped aside to let him enter. I saw him taking in our simple room.
My mother picked up the plastic water bottles lying on the floor which my sisters had been kicking around earlier and stuffed them under the settee with the old newspapers. My father invited Joseph to sit down and he gave my father his card.
‘We can’t read,’ my mother said. ‘So get to the point.’
‘Have you heard of Reliance Security?’ Joseph said.
My parents shook their heads.
‘It’s a famous company in Lahore and I’m their Human Resource Manager,’ Joseph said. There was something about Joseph, which I did not like. I watched him more carefully. It was not his greasy hair, which he kept smoothing down, or his beady eyes set too close together in his bloated face, but what he was doing with his hands; he kept caressing them while he talked
‘Speak openly and plainly,’ my mother said. ‘We don’t understand your fancy words.’
My mother is not an easy woman. She lives with the burden of her broken dreams. She had imagined her life would be different from her mother’s, because when she married my father he was the head gardener at a university and not a sweeper like her father had been. However, my father lost his job very soon after and not being able to find a gardening job for several months, had no choice but to take whatever came his way.
‘He works at the Law Courts,’ my mother told the neighbours. ‘That’s where all the big decisions are made.’ Of course, she never mentioned that his work was to sweep the corridors, clean the washrooms and empty the dustbins.
She nags my father. ‘Apply for a job as a security guard; more money and more respect. You’ll even get a uniform with your name on it.’
Now she looked at Joseph with interest. ‘Go on.’
‘I’m responsible for managing the security at all the cultural sites around Lahore,’ Joseph said.
My father sat up. ‘Do you mean you have a job for me?’
‘No,’ Joseph said. ‘I’m interested in one of your daughters.’ He stared at me.
I looked down quickly and pretended to be stirring the pot.
‘Aha, now I understand,’ my mother said. ‘You aren’t married?’
Joseph adjusted his shirt and patted down his hair. ‘No, not yet.’
‘That’s good news,’ my mother said. ‘So, if you’re interested in any of our daughters then speak up, because we have four. But don’t be put off after seeing her.’ She moved and tried to block his view of me.
‘I want her,’ Joseph said nodding towards me, and stroking the back of his hand.
My mother gave a short laugh. ‘She’ll bring you bad luck.’
‘She was born with a curse,’ my father said. ‘One leg is shorter than the other, her knees don’t work and she’s slow up here.’ He pointed to his head.
I mixed the vegetables in the pot and threw in some salt. For a change, I was glad for their harsh comments.
‘Give her to me,’ Joseph said, rubbing his hands together. ‘You’ll never have to worry about her again.’ One hand fondled the other. ‘I’ll take care of her.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Please, no.’
They all turned to me.
‘You keep quiet,’ my mother said. She turned to Joseph. ‘I know what you men in big cities do to young, vulnerable girls. Don’t think because we can’t read we don’t know.’
Joseph stared at his hands and pinched the skin on the back of them. ‘My dear sister, you misunderstand me. But if you do not trust me, I will leave.’ He began getting up.
‘Wait,’ my father said and put out his arm to stop him. ‘Do you want to marry her?’
‘Not at all. My interest is purely professional.’ Joseph looked over my mother’s shoulder at me ‘From what I can see, she’ll be ideal for the job.’
‘Job, what job?’ my father said. ‘She isn’t fit for anything.’
My mother shook her finger at Joseph. ‘I know what kind of work you’re thinking…’
Joseph leaned forward. ‘Allow me to explain dear sister. At Reliance Security, we have a “quota policy,” and we must recruit a certain number of people with disabilities. I want to employ your daughter, and if you agree, I will take her to Lahore with me today.’
‘Please mother, no,’ I said. ‘Sorry for everything. I’ll be good.’
‘Keep quiet, no one asked you,’ my mother said to me.
‘Her work will be to sit at the entrance to Jahangir’s tomb and check ladies’ handbags for lighters, bombs, guns and alcohol. She’ll be a security guard.’
‘Security guard? Who knew my prayers would be answered in this way?’ my mother said. ‘Praise the Lord, I knew he would not let me down.’ She kissed the crucifix around her neck.
‘Are you saying women in the city carry such things in their purses?’ my father said. ‘What’s the world coming to?’
‘Shut up,’ my mother said. ‘Who cares what they carry or they don’t.’ She looked Joseph straight in the eye. ‘How much will her salary be?’
‘Ten thousand rupees a month, minus my commission as her sponsor,’ Joseph said.
‘Ten thousand,’ my father said. ‘That’s too little.’
‘What do you want?’ Joseph said. ‘A little while ago you were complaining she was a burden.’
‘Why do you interfere?’ my mother said to my father. ‘Let me handle this. You’ll spoil everything.’
‘No,’ I cried. ‘No, please no…’
My mother came over to me. ‘You listen to me and listen carefully. Whatever we decide is what will happen, and your tears and whining won’t help.’ She turned to Joseph, ‘You can take her today. The money is fine, but you better not be lying to us. If you’re secretly planning to take her to one of those dirty places, then we should know. I don’t want people saying we sold her to you…’
Joseph scratched his palm. ‘Please, your daughter is like a sister to me. Trust me.’
My father shrugged his shoulders and threw up his hands. ‘Who am I to stand in the way of her destiny?’
From the corridor outside came shouting; the neighbours were arguing over who had left the tap running and wasted all the water.
‘Good,’ Joseph said. ‘Then it’s all decided.’ He stood up, shook my father’s hand and held out an envelope. ‘A signing up bonus.’
‘Thank you.’ My father reached out to take it but my mother snatched it away.
‘It’s mine,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget I’m the one that carried her for nine months.’
My father raised his arm to hit her, but when he saw Joseph watching, he dropped it. ‘A small domestic argument,’ my father said. ‘These things happen.’
‘Of course,’ Joseph said. He turned to me. ‘Please get your things and let’s go.’
‘She doesn’t have anything,’ my mother said. ‘Get up,’ she said to me. ‘Can’t you see he’s waiting?’
‘Please Mother,’ I said. ‘I promise I’ll be good.’
‘Enough,’ she said. ‘You’ve said too much already.’
Joseph came over to the corner. ‘Show me your leg.’
‘Listen to him,’ my mother said. ‘From now on, do as he says.’
I lifted my salwar and showed it to him.
‘Excellent,’ Joseph said. ‘It’s clear from how it bends-down at mid foot that she’sa genuine case. These days people break their legs and arms to get jobs. I’m very particular that everyone I recruit is honest.’
‘These days you can’t trust anybody,’ my mother said. ‘Get going,’ she said to me.
I stood up and picked up my stick.
‘Whatever you do, don’t spoil our name,’ my mother said.
‘Let’s go,’ Joseph said.
‘Please mother,’ I said. ‘I promise I’ll be good.’
‘Don’t forget to send us her salary every month,’ my father said, following Joseph to the door.
‘The Lord works in mysterious ways,’ my mother said. ‘I always knew sooner or later we’d have a security guard in our family.’
On the bus to Lahore, Joseph squeezed himself close to me. He sat with his legs apart and thick ankles exposed.
‘From now your name is Sugra,’ he said. He wiped his hands on a crumpled handkerchief. ‘A dozen Sugras have come and gone, and there could be others after you.’ He moved his leg to allow a passenger to pass and pressed against me. ‘But if you do exactly as I say, we won’t have any problems.’
I looked out of the window at the passing fields and traffic.
‘You don’t say much do you?’ Joseph said. ‘Maybe that’s a good thing.’ He pressed the palm of his left hand with his right thumb, then did the same on his right palm and then he caressed the back of his hands as they lay in his lap.
When we arrived in Lahore, it was dusk. I was hungry and tired. Joseph flagged down a rickshaw and we drove through dark and narrow streets to an old building. Joseph took me to a door on the ground floor and opened it.
‘Inside you’ll find a mattress and something to eat,’ he said. ‘No guests allowed. I had one Sugra who…’ He sighed. ‘I don’t like to talk about it.’
I limped into the room. It had one window and was lit by a single, dim bulb. On the floor was a dirty mattress with a blanket. In the corner, a small stove with a covered saucepan.
‘Tomorrow morning at six-thirty, I’ll be here to take you to work,’ Joseph said. ‘Be ready.’ Then he locked the door and was gone.
I went across to the window and looked out at the alley. All I could see were piles of rubble and rubbish with a stray dog sniffing at them. There was no one else around.
A few lights flickered in the building opposite and the shadows of people moving flitted across the windows. I heated the soup in the saucepan and ate it with some naan which I found in a paper bag.
In the bathroom, a dripping tap, a broken bucket and half a bar soap. I lay down on the thin mattress and covered myself with the rough blanket.
In the morning, Joseph came with a uniform: a cap, a navy trousers and a white shirt. The left sleeve and breast pocket had SUGRA embroidered in yellow thread. My mother would have been proud.
He told me to put them on while he waited outside.
‘Good,’ he said, when I opened the door. When I did not reply he said, ‘Don’t you have a tongue? You haven’t uttered a word since yesterday.’
I limped past him, with my stick. What was there to say?
We boarded a rickshaw, and after an hour of driving through the city, we pulled up at the end of a rough road in front of a gate.
LAHORE TOURISM AUTHORITY
TERRORISTS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN.
KINDLY LEAVE ALCOHOL, CIGARETTES, LIGHTERS, BOMBS AND GUNS WITH SECURITY.
On either side of the road were small kiosks with chickens and donkeys grazing in the front. There was no one in sight except for a man about my age, arranging his things on an overturned box covered with a plastic sheet: key rings, brass bowls, beads, and toys. He opened an umbrella, tied it to a stick, and stuck it in the ground.
‘Salaam Joseph bhai,’ he called. ‘How is your morning? Who have you brought today?’
‘Mind your own business, Hassan,’ Joseph said.
‘Nothing wrong in saying salaam, is there?’ Hassan said. ‘Hello Sugra,’ he called to me. ‘Everyone knows me. I’m Hassan. Welcome to Jahangir’s Tomb.’
Joseph ignored him and pointed to a plastic chair behind a wooden table with a small basket. ‘Go and sit there.’
I did as he said.
‘Your duty is to empty all the handbags into the basket and take away any bombs, lighters, alcohol and weapons. When they leave, you can return their things to them. Is it clear?’
He gave me a long look. ‘And don’t even think about stealing.’ He gave me a key and a thousand rupees. ‘This is for the flat and some food. I’ll come and check on you in a few days.’ He began walking back to the rickshaw, and then stopped and turned. ‘One last thing, remember, stay outside the gates. Stay outside the gates.’
I limped over to the tall gates and looked between the twisted wrought iron bars: in front of me was the most magnificent garden I had ever seen filled with lush flowers and plants and divided by neat pathways. In the middle was a fountain, with water shooting high. Beyond, stood a grand, ancient building with minarets in four corners, and arches along its length. I stood there for a few minutes absorbing the beautiful sight.
There were a few guards standing by the gates and they paid no attention to me, except for one old man with sharp eyes, who said, ‘Are you the new Sugra?’
When I did not respond, he said, ‘That Joseph. Never mind. Just make sure you do your job. Don’t allow any terrorists in.’
‘If you want to visit the gardens, I can take you.’ Hassan had come to stand next to me. Now I looked at him properly. He was of medium height and fair skin. His black hair was thick and curly and came down to his shoulders and he had a short beard.
The old man frowned at him. ‘Leave her alone, Hassan,’ he said. ‘Why do you want to disturb the peace?’
‘Nothing wrong in trying to make a friend, is there?’ Hassan said.
‘Make sure you stay outside the gates,’ the old man said to me. ‘Stay outside the gates.’
Hassan sniggered. ‘Stop bothering her with your advice Baba, she can take care of herself.’
I went back to my table and sat down.
Hassan followed me. ‘You’re a proud one.’ His clean, white kurta stood out against the dusty road. ‘Why won’t you talk to me? I don’t mean any harm. I just want to be your friend.’
I looked away, and he gave a short laugh. ‘Never mind,’ he said. ‘As the hours pass, we’ll see what the day will bring. You’re here and I’m there, and life is ours.’ He went back to his overturned boxes and began dusting his things, whistling.
This was the first time anyone had ever expressed a wish to be my friend.
Shortly after, a bus parked in front of the gates and a group of women alighted. The driver shouted for them to queue up in front of my table. ‘Do your security checking, first,’ he said. ‘No terrorists are allowed here.’
The first woman gave me her handbag and I began rummaging inside it.
‘Hey, what are you doing, Sugra?’ Hassan shouted. ‘Not like that, use the basket.’
‘Don’t you know your job?’ the woman said.
‘Sorry,’ I said, and tipped the contents of her purse into the basket. A wallet, some dirty tissues, a notebook, a mobile phone, some medicines and a lighter.
I took the lighter and kept it aside.
‘Do I look like a terrorist to you?’ the woman said. ‘Use your common sense.’
I returned her bag to her.
‘Make sure you give it back,’ she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder. ‘It’s got sentimental value.’
After that I became more confident. By noon, I must have overturned at least six dozen handbags in every design and colour. They all had similar items; mobile phones which I had never seen the like of before, nail varnish, lipsticks, sweets, medicines and fancy sunglasses. My fingers twitched to touch the soft leather of some of those fine wallets bulging with notes.
It must have been around two in the afternoon when my leg was stiff and painful from sitting for so long when Hassan came over. He was holding a plate with a large helping of pilau.
‘You must be hungry,’ he said. He placed the plate and a spoon on the table. I picked it up hesitantly.
‘Eat,’ he said. ‘There’s nothing to worry about.’
I took a few mouthfuls and then he said, ‘I saw what you did, Sugra.’ His expression was cunning. ‘I was watching you.’
The black wallet lined with neatly folded notes had accidentally fallen out of a woman’s purse when she’d been distracted by her children. I did not tell her, but picked it up after she had left and put it in my pocket.
I stopped eating and looked up at him.
Hassan laughed. ‘Next time be more subtle, that’s all.’
I took the wallet from my pocket, removed half the notes and held them out to him.
He shook his head. ‘I don’t need it. You keep it.’
I put away the purse.
‘We’re friends, I won’t tell Joseph about your theft. Don’t worry.’ He gestured to my stick. ‘What happened to your leg?’
I looked down at my plate and kept eating.
‘You’re a stubborn one,’ he said. ‘Why won’t you speak to me? I’m your friend, you know.’
I finished the pilau; it was spicier than what I was used to at home.
Hassan carried on talking. ‘I like you, Sugra,’ he said. ‘You don’t say much, but there’s something about you that I really like.’ He leaned across the table and brought his face close to mine. He smelt of strong washing detergent. ‘You and I are friends, aren’t we?’ he said, smiling.
I pulled my head back, but my heart was racing.
He took the plate away and returned with a glass of lassi. ‘Have a drink, Sugra,’ he said. ‘You’ll like it.’ I took a sip; it was cold and refreshing.
For the rest of the afternoon I kept glancing in his direction and I could tell he knew I was watching him.
Towards the early evening, Hassan came back with a cup of tea and a cup cake.
‘What else did you steal today, friend?’ he said, putting them on the table.
I put a pair of dark glasses on the table. He laughed and placed them on my nose. ‘My little Sugra, you’re a daring one, aren’t you?’ He looked towards the gates and his eyes glazed. ‘That’s why I like you.’
When the rickshaw that had brought me in the morning came to take me home, I picked up my stick and got up to go.
‘See you tomorrow, little Sugra,’ Hassan called. ‘Sleep well, my friend.’
Back in my room, I stood at the window. In the windows of the opposite building, a few women were looking out at the street, pointing. I strained my neck to see what it was. In the fading light, near a pile of garbage, a group of men were standing in a circle. In the middle of it, a midget was doing an act with his small, white dog which was dressed in a red skirt. The dog jumped through a hoop, strutted on its hind legs and danced. After each act, the men cheered, and the midget whipped his dog to do it again. The men clapped, and the midget belted his dog. It yelped and whined but repeated its stunt. The men threw a few rupee notes at the midget. After some time, the men got bored and the gathering broke up. The midget sat down on an old tyre and counted his money, the dog staggered over to the rubbish heap and collapsed.
The next morning the rickshaw dropped me off at the gates of the Tomb. Hassan was already there setting up his boxes. No one else was around. I stopped near his table and umbrella.
‘Salaam, my little Sugra,’ he said, with a grin. ‘How was your evening? I hope it was peaceful.’ He picked up a small brass bowl, spat on it and polished it with a rag. ‘I spent mine thinking about you. How about you? Did you spare a moment to think of your new friend?’ He was wearing a clean white salwar again, and his hair was in a ponytail.
Beyond the gates the minarets stood tall circled by dozens of black birds, against a pale pink sky.
He put down the bowl. ‘Sugra, how would you like to see a view of Lahore from the top of the minaret?’ He took a step closer. I caught a whiff of the scent of detergent.
I felt my cheeks redden, and shook my head.
‘My little, Sugra,’ he said, his eyes glittering. His voice grew softer and he brought his face closer. ‘Come, let me show you the sunrise which the Empress Nur Jehan used to see. Look, I can take you there.’
I turned to look at the minaret to which he was pointing. He pulled out a bunch of keys from his pocket. ‘These open the door to the tallest tower. The Baba who sweeps the towers is away, sick, and he left them with me.’
I wavered; in the morning mist, the fountains and gardens had a dreamlike quality.
‘Say yes, my friend.’
‘We are friends, aren’t we?’ His eyes shone and he held out his hand. ‘Then come with me,’ and smiling, he led me towards the gates.
Inside the tall iron gates, the splendour of the Dilkusha gardens and tomb were overwhelming. The mausoleum was set in a large quadrangle with gates facing each direction. The rising sun had cast a warm glow over the site and it felt as though I were stepping into a fantasy.
‘Built in the sixteenth century by the Empress Nur Jehan,’ he said, ‘in the chahar bagh design. She was given the title Light of the World, by her husband, the Emperor Jahangir’
The garden was quiet; yellow and orange flowers filled the sidewalks, the water in the fountain sparkled, and above us, black birds circled the pale pink sky.
‘The tomb measures about five hundred metres on each side.’ Hassan took me to a minaret in the farthest corner. ‘This one has the best view.’ I looked up: it looked at least a hundred metres high.
‘What is it?’ he said.
I pointed to my leg.
Hassan put his arm around me. ‘Don’t worry my darling, I’m with you.’ He gestured to the exterior façade of the walls covered with intricate designs and chips of marble. ‘How ancient and beautiful it is.’ His eyes watered. ‘And more so when you are with me, my sweet Empress.’
My heart felt as if it would explode.
We went over to the entrance. He tried several of the keys, finally one turned, and he pushed the heavy, carved door. He climbed the few steps that led into the narrow passageway, and turned to give me his hand. ‘Welcome,’ he said.
I paused but then took his hand, and using my stick climbed the steep steps and followed him inside. The interior of the tower was cool and silent, and we walked around the narrow, winding staircase. The rounded walls were rough and cold and I pressed against them for support.
‘Imagine how the Empress climbed these very stairs like we are, my little friend,’ he said, squeezing my fingers.
We were standing very close to each other. My heart was pounding, and then he gently drew me in.
‘My beautiful Empress Sugra.’ He whipped off my cap with one hand and holding the back of my neck with the other, he drew me in gently, and kissed me. I tried to resist, but he kept his lips firmly pressed on my mouth. I gave in. After a few moments, he pulled away.
‘Was that your first kiss, my darling?’ he said stroking my hair, and kissing me on each eyelid. ‘My Empress,’ he whispered. He put his arms around me again and held me. Then he gave a sudden shout of laughter and put my cap on his head. ‘Come on, let’s go to the top.’ He grabbed my arm. ‘The first floor is only twelve steps. Once we go around this pillar, you’ll find it easier.’ I tried to pull away but he tightened his grip. I was panting but he kept talking, as he helped me. ‘One day I’ll take you to Nur Jehan’s tomb. It used to have gardens filled with tulips, roses and jasmine, but now it’s in ruins and you’ll only find a plaque with an epitaph which she’d prepared herself before she died.’
I made it around the first column and it opened up onto a landing with a wide window. ‘It reads like this,’ he said. ‘On the grave of this poor stranger, let there be neither lamp nor rose. Let neither butterfly’s wing burn nor nightingale sing.’ He paused. ‘Who would’ve expected such a sad little poem from the heart of an Empress?’ He released his hold on my arm. ‘Look,’ he said, jumping up onto the window ledge and waving his arms. ‘Isn’t it beautiful?’ Behind him, the sky was a deep shade of pink with streaks of orange.
I stepped closer to the window and he slid off, caught me in his arms, pressed his body against me and began kissing my forehead, my hair, my neck. Running his fingers through my hair, he caressed my forehead.
‘You look beautiful when you smile , Sugra. Are you happy?’ When I did not answer, he flicked my chin. ‘Your eyes say it all.’ He tugged at my hand. ‘Come on, one more flight.’
My leg was aching but I let him guide me around one thick pillar and then another. The stairwell was constricted and dark and there was very little air. I undid the top button of my uniform, and leaned against the wall and then bent to sit on the step, but he reached out and caught me by the shoulders.
‘Not here,’ he said, ‘look there are insects everywhere.’
The floor was covered with ants, sweet and chocolate wrappers, and cigarette stubs. A discarded bottle of orange juice lay leaking in the corner.
He grabbed my wrist and began pulling me up the stairs. His grip was tighter and it hurt.
‘No.’ I tried to break his hold.
‘Almost there.’ He kissed my forehead. ‘Come darling, you can’t give up now.’ I took a step up, and suddenly he let go of my hand.
I lost my balance and rolled down a few steps. I fumbled for my stick in the shadows, crying.
He pushed me down and gripped my shoulders with both his hands. ‘Do you love me, Sugra?’ His voice was firm and his face close. ‘Tell me, my dear Empress, do you? I’ll give you roses and lamps…’