Two Old Friends on a Stormy Afternoon

Aamer Hussein 0

Look at the rain,” Dr Kazi says. “No electricity for hours on end. The traffic’s crazy. Getting here in this torrent was an ordeal. More of this and we won’t be able to meet for lunch tomorrow.”

He taps the ash off his cigarette onto the tiled floor, though there’s an ashtray beside him.

“No girls in bikinis today,” Colonel Jami says, peering out at the empty pool. “No sun for them to bathe in. Can you believe it? My niece was here in a bikini last week. She said she was too pale and was sun-tanning! In my youth we’d have called her dark and told her to stay out of the sun.”

“I know. I was there. They say the storm’s coming here.”

Through a curtain of rain, the garden’s still visible; beyond it, white-capped waves. A young woman, blonde and tall, sweeps by, twinkling her fingers at them. Her shoulders are bare, her legs revealed almost to the knee in short white trousers.

“That’s old Burhan’s wife,” Jami says. “Looks younger every day and she’s been married at least ten years. I saw her in a swimming costume last week. Look at her clothes. And yesterday she wrote a letter to The Times in London, defending Islamic headgear…”

“Did you hear what I said? They think the storm’s going to reach us soon.”

“God’s punishment, they say.”

“Where do you think I live? I’ve been watching TV all morning, and hearing what the bigots said. Received ideas. That’s what you’re repeating. Punishment for what? I’d have thought someone like you…”

“Let me tell you about Burhan and his wife. You know he has a son who’s almost her age? Well, one day he came home from a trip abroad and found his son’s clothes in her bedroom. He got a gun and shot the boy in the leg…”

“That’s not what I heard,” Kazi says. “The boy’s a good ten years younger. She brought him up like a son. Spoilt him. The boy had a fight with his best friend over a girl. The father rushed him off to the Gulf before he got into any trouble. You’ve been watching too many soap operas. Anyway, let’s go back to the table. I want some of those lamb chops. Last time we were here there weren’t any chops when we went back to the table.”

“Biryani for me,” the colonel says. “You should learn to appreciate local cuisine instead of hankering after foreign.”

“And what about you?” The doctor nudges his companion. “Let’s admit it, the very world you and I live in is foreign. Cars. Fans. Mobile phones. Cash machines. Girls in bikinis, though I don’t know how long that will last, given our current rate of progress towards perdition. Or paradise, should I say. And when did you stop drinking your double whiskies? After your pilgrimage to that shrine near Multan?

“Karim,” he beckons to a white-clad waiter, “keep an eye on our table?”

They go to the buffet to fill their plates, then return to sit at their table, in the covered veranda overlooking the garden. Beyond the low wall, the sea is grey and turbulent. A single boat bobs on the water’s surface; it seems suspended in mid-move, its red sail dimmed by the rain. On an overhead screen, three men with embroidered caps are asking for donations for victims of the storm near the coast. Starve, starve, feed the wretched, redeem your sins. A food pack will take you halfway to heaven. A tent will take you all the way.

Illustration: Prabha Mallya

Illustration: Prabha Mallya

“I can tell you where that money’s going,” Kazi says. “Into someone’s pocket, and it won’t be the victims who…”

“Don’t be cynical. We live in such a beautiful country.”

“With the most awful people.”

“You know what your problem is? You see the dark side of the moon. Our young only talk about feudals and fundos and terrorists. Look at the progress our people have made. Doctors. Scientists. Sportsmen. Women moving ahead in every field…”

“Well, let me tell you I know people who’ve built houses on the Mediterranean with money they stole from donations and aid. Next you’ll be saying that democracy brings chaos and we should never have voted the General out. And just four years ago you were berating him for allowing corruption and creating misrule.”

“You know I left the army in ’75, when I came back from that Indian camp in Bareilly and I’d lost nearly four years of my life. I wasn’t even fifty. But you have to admit there’s something to be said about our army. Ayub’s heyday, once he’d settled into power; now that’s what I call a good time. We had values! A Golden Age I call it…”

They’ve finished their food, and, as usual, beckon to the waiter to ask him about the day’s dessert.

A burly man in cream-coloured shalwar kameez comes up to greet them, raising the tips of his fingers to his forehead.

“Did you hear about Asad’s son?” the colonel asks.

“No.”

“You know Asad had been having an affair with Pasha, that singer in the shampoo ad. His wife was going crazy. She said she’d leave him if he didn’t stop seeing her. Then their son came back from Harvard. Somehow, the next thing you know is that Pasha’s out of the father’s life and seeing the son. And you know what? Pasha isn’t even a girl.”

“You mean she hides her age?”

“Not her age,” says the colonel. “Pasha’s not a wom- an, she’s a man in disguise. Can’t you tell? No breasts, no hips…”

“But that’s an old story. Someone borrowed it from a novel. A French novel. It’s been told before. The truth is that Pasha made a blue movie and…”

“A blue movie? You watched a blue movie?”

“Come on, old man, I’m joking. You’re right, Pasha does look like a boy. And you, my friend: you should write soap operas. You seem to know all the plots. Just think, with the stories I could tell you…”

“I did publish a book of poems once.”
“A pamphlet privately printed for your fiftieth anniversary.”

“No! Not that—that was only an invitation card. A book of poems. In Urdu. I was twenty and in my final year of pre-med. Full of hope and courage! But that’s all so long ago.”

“You joined the army. I was still at boarding school in Dehradun,” Kazi says.

Karim, the waiter, comes to clear away their plates.

“Tea or coffee, sir?”

He knows, but he always asks. Coffee for the colonel, tea for the doctor. Once, long ago— how long?—Karim worked in the surgery Kazi still owns, though he hasn’t practiced for some years now.

“But you didn’t really know me then,” Jami says. “You were. . . sixteen? Speaking of stories, you keep saying you’re going to tell me about last sum- mer in Wimbledon.”

“Surely I’ve told you about London already. And that was, what, five years ago?”

They light up, Jami his ci- gar, Kazi a filter-tip. The sound of the wind seems, for a mo- ment, to have relented slightly.

“Five years ago? Tell me again. I’ve forgotten.”

“Not much to tell. Ali and Mandana were busy all day as usual and I spent a lot of time going for walks. Then I twisted my ankle and had to stay home a lot. The neighbour would drop in when Ali and Mandana were at work and she’d tell me how she’d once been a famous singer. Her name was Valentine Voss. She was probably ninety. She lived all alone in an attic flat that she’d furnished like a little jewel box. I’d visit her for cups of tea sometimes. And she’d say, ‘Look at this country, there are thieves and fare dodgers and scroungers on the dole. It’s a wonder you all keep coming here for slim pickings! It must be so nice where you live, sun and sea and sand… So when are you going home? And your son? We’ve got too many foreign doctors here! Don’t they need young doctors in your country? Don’t you want them to come home and take care of you?’

“Then those boys from a northern town bombed half of the London Underground and the city was in chaos. And that night I had a dream. I dreamed I’d been in jail for a long, long time for a crime I hadn’t committed. When I came out and went home my wife was covered in a white veil from head to foot. And so was everyone else. Men and women.”

“Veiled men?”

“No. Men and women, all in white. I thought someone had died. ‘All hail to the Revolution’, they chanted, and I didn’t know what revolution they were talking about. Thank God you’re free, they said. Thank God we’re all free. Then I woke up, and in my dream I wished I was dreaming, that I wouldn’t see the people in white again…”

Aamer Hussein was born in Karachi and spent 18 months at school in Ooty before moving to London in 1970. After graduating from the School of Oriental and African Studies, he studied philosophy and languages. Since the mid-1980s he has published 50-odd short fictions, a novella and a novel. He is also an essayist and a professor at the University of Southampton.

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