Short Story: The White Rose

I am buried in an Ahmedi graveyard. My tombstone doesn’t have the first pillar of Islam engraved on it, because the Pakistani government doesn’t think I am Muslim. I know I am, but there is absolutely no point fighting the state for it now.
When I was breathing my last, I completely forgot to say the kalma, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger.” And that doesn’t help my case one bit.
I could hit myself on the head, like was customary when I was frustrated and alive, but now, I am only frustrated. There is a compulsive battle in my head over why I didn’t mouth the very thing I said when any impending doom knocked at my door, near car accidents, raging fevers and once, I almost flew the plane into India in a thunderstorm.
At the time I was in cardiac arrest even through the numbing pain, I knew that I was making a huge mistake by not saying it; I knew I could die, and no point contemplating about the prisoner’s dilemma, I should’ve just said it in my heart and earn the promised place in heaven. The stakes were so high, the task so simple. Why didn’t I? Was this God’s way of keeping me in eternal turmoil? There was always a rascal inside me that prevented me from cutting my losses. He didn’t even spare me in my moment of death. A moment that brought my second wife to her knees: “Bobby, don’t leave me like this!” She cried and they wheeled me in ICU.
I woke up with a terrible headache. Although, it would make sense if it was heartache, and the moment I did, the first thing I wanted to do is break the head of that motherfucker Doctor Rabbani who brought me to this state, and I was glad to know I was restored from the dead in my thirties, a time when my fists would do much of the talking. The old fart would understand everything while he healed from a rearranged anatomy and a bruised ego. Bastard! For giving me those morphine shots even when my kidneys were healed.
But then I realized the agility of the movements in my stride. I could walk horizontally and vertically and make whatever axis I want in space and earth. I looked back at my grave, freshly watered by the servants who do so when I have a visitor— like it’s supposed to somehow grow a soul.
I had a cache of memories I could tap into but had not gone through consciously. The intelligence of being brought back from the dead made me less angry at Rabbani, besides I could take care of him later, depending on how long I had. There were no dead people around me, I noticed as I brushed off a dusty corner of my Savile Row crème suite and walked out of the walled graveyard, carefully avoiding the servant kids and their hens. There was an overwhelming urge to find out what the hell I was supposed to do if I missed out on heaven. Was there a plan B? Where was my life now?
The graveyard was in Model Town Extension, on the edge of one of Lahore’s most elite residential areas. I was looking out, hands in my pocket, at the road leading to the Model Town Park, trying to access from the size of the pot holes how long I had been dead: Probably 2 years if not more.
Despite myself, I swore for being 6 feet under a crypt for so many seasons. I wrote that off as bad behavior, it wasn’t like my scroll’s being rewritten. I was beginning to feel I was part of one of those Lahori jokes friends would tell at a summer mango feast – nothing was more hilarious than an old fool stuck in a bad situation trying to keep a positive attitude.
I had to go home. But which one should I go to first? My moral obligation was to go to my first wife’s first. It was legally her house. When I remarried she lobbied my entire family to make a new deed in her name and get her a house of own. That was the only time I gave in to arm twisting. She was a master manipulator and a skillful con artist.
She knew she felt nothing for me and me for her. I even saw hate, fury and a strong death wish in her eyes for me, yet she wanted to keep the marriage, not because it was one of those Hilary Clinton type decisions, where you keep the marriage because it has more connections in it, despite the humiliation and scandal. Nafisa — that was her name, not that I ever used it on her, simply wanted to bleed me out slowly. Her meek ways masked an insatiable will to spend a lifetime destroying anything that gave me vigor. It started from the day I married her.
Now this was an even better start to a joke: We were sitting in our Samnabad house, I was half dangling my long legs lying on a charpoy in the verandah, and Amma asked my elder brother who was twenty and only two years older to me, to marry Nafisa, her sister’s daughter.
Bhai rejected Nafisa right away based on her appearance, which was short, fat and stubby and announced that if he ever marries, he would marry a blond in England. Which is exactly what he did 12 years later, but that ended in disaster. So he might as well have married this disaster.
But he didn’t because the God of Mischief made me volunteer, with an eagerness that took me by surprise too. Perhaps it was that casting in the Waheed Murad film that got to my head. It made me act out a scene so unlike me. Whatever it was, it made my mother very happy, she smiled with her scaly eyes for the first time. Bhai was stunned, and even the Massi, cleaning the floor stopped sweeping and looked at me and gasped. That was that. The wedding night came and went. My routine didn’t change.
I couldn’t let the boys down, they were worried about me. Would I stop loving cars, stop drinking; stop making clever business with the wealthy selling their farms and living in huge bungalows on Zafar Ali Road? No. I will never change. Never give up my freedom, blended over millions of years in the city’s mantle, poking its mocking head out of every road and tree.
And the girls of course. I loved the new kind of girls; the air hostess, the dentists, the kind that had a monologue on independence. I noticed that they were no longer the kind with Daddy’s money, they experimented with the idea of equality. It was the 1970’s Bhutto’s era and it was entertaining for us guys, we played along. My bachelor party, because of the Ahmedi riots got moved to my wedding night.
Acchi, the self proclaimed tiger, with absolutely no class and a lot of connections got me into the PAF mess party attended by the who-is-who of the country. I loved sitting on the bar stools with them, made me reminisce my commercial pilot adventures after being declared unfit because of my kidneys. The dancing and the drinking made anyone forget who they were. I was, that night, someone with the greatest cars in the city.
“Whose Impala is that outside?” Some fool with money sitting in the bank would ask, and the next minute I would reluctantly sell it off at a fortune and have to hitch a ride with Acchi.
“I don’t want to go home,” I told Acchi on the way back. He understood, after all it was just 3 am. When I got back home in the morning, obviously in need of rest, Madame Nafisa had been inconsolable, khol still in her eyes. The ladies of the house consisting of my various brothers’ wives, neighbors who were almost residents and my mother, were furious that I couldn’t halt my nocturnal wanderings for one night. I was a man with one major flaw. I put a value on everything, and made my moves based on that value. That’s how I bought my oranges and what not, and that is how I measured my wedding night. Shoot me for being a businessman.
But when I caught a glimpse of Nafisa right before I plopped on my pillow, which seemed to have been made of pebbles, not feathers, she looked very sad. Before that blissful sleep pricked me, I remembered thinking to myself I may possess another kind of power too. The brand that can get away with oppression because those you’re oppressing are people who will never get their act together in one hundred years.
The summer heat was beating down, but it couldn’t tire the ghost of me. It was possible to sigh though, and I did that while I walked toward my second wife’s house. I thought of my life, misread and missed altogether. I had done to Nafisa what Sirajuddin had done to me.
***
Sirajuddin was a friend of my fathers. He worked at Habib Bank, the largest employer at the time in Pakistan, and it was the only place people trusted more than the underbelly of their urine-soaked mattress. I was sent to him to ask for a job, or a reference for a job, which worked just as well. My father, a mechanic with a sooty store at Lakshmi Chowk, served the General Manager. Rather, he served Sirajudin’s Lamborghini Espada so well, and so honestly, that he earned himself a favor. At least he thought so. It was a case of the forgotten identity, really.
Acchi got me the best suit Lahore could fetch, and I didn’t ask where from, all I knew was that I could alter it and keep it. He was not too excited about my attempt to join the workforce and 0give up my entrepreneurial spirit, but he was aware of the regular domestic disturbance at home caused by my erratic work schedule.
Waited for the GM Saab for at least three days, which was not very uncommon when everyday hundreds of people visited unannounced from distant lands with some desperate request or another. The PAs of these Saabs had to do some visual sorting based on affluence. I kept my cool and read some poetry in the air conditioned waiting room. Poetry always came in handy with the girls anyway, although by page ten I really started to get into Faiz Ahmed Faiz and his socialist stuff, until the PA found me too mysterious and sent me in.
He summoned me inside the GMs room with his eyebrows. I took my time closing the book and walked inside, armed only with my Habib Bank account statement boasting a Rs. 70,000 balance, which was all money I made trading luxury cars. I was confident. I was high, the actor streak returning, I became Amitab Bachan in his corporate look.
There was a long walkway with a red carpet stretched out at least 15 meters right to his mahogany desk which was overbearingly large. I wanted him to watch me while I walked down that wooly carpet, but he was busy talking to someone on the phone. I stood respectfully at the edge of his desk and waited for permission to sit. My father taught me the drill. He also told me that Sirajjudin was from “our community”, but I was not to mention that unless he brought it up.
After a few minutes, he called his PA (Pronounced it Pee-Aah) inside and yelled some instructions and asked him who I was, rather dismissively. Peeaah checked his records from a dog-eared register and said I was Abdul Rahman’s son here for a job at the Bank.
Sirrajudin asked me to sit, and before I could work on being reduced to my father’s son he asked Peeaah to leave. “What do you want from me?” He asked me, even before Peeaah left.
Its funny how there are more than one ways that question can be asked. All I could focus on was his mustache which was at least fifty percent of his face. He repeated himself and went on to answer his own question. “Look young lad. No one will hand you your life on a plate.”
That was every uncle’s favorite English line, and I found it most pathetic – A failure of the imagination.
He went on: “If you want to change your destiny you must break away from your past…That is what I did…Look at your father, a mechanic, begging people to give his lost son a job as a clerk…have some dignity I say, how do you think the rich people got rich, by begging around…Haan?”
I shook my head, although I wanted to slap him. It took me too long to make a comeback, the God of Mischief again. I could reach out a brown envelope to show him I was not begging, but I was struck by his disgust for me. It was personal. “You are crying that the world has wronged you. Well, you deserve to be wronged. You create disorder in society. Why do you people insist that others are not Muslims? Why do you not denounce that prophet of yours who got God’s wrath and died in a toilet? Haan? Answer me?”
I looked around. My heart was half pounding with adrenalin, half aching for Abdul Rahman and his dinner stories about the integrity of Sirrajuddin Saab. “You are Kafirs. God is not on your side, go and tell that father of yours that he can go to hell!” He was yelling by then. “Peeaah?!! Get him out of my sight. And next time don’t send every fool to my office.” Peeahh muttered something about the suit, grabbed me by the arm despite being half my size and led me out, all the way though the waiting room’s overbearing smell of poor people.
***
Acchi was the only person I related this to. He is safe, he would never know what humiliation is because he accepted his limitations early, and I saw him react with simple complacency to the Ahmedi riots. I thought by sharing this with him I would grow his think skin.
Throwing chewed paper in a bin, he clamped this episode on high blood pressure, a given, for a fifty-something Lahori on a high cholesterol diet of lassi and goat brain, and also to being a self-hating-Ahmedi. “What else can he do? When people ask me who I am, I say I am a Christian…then they ask me if I’d like to sweep their house and I say no I’m a rich Christian.”
That was bullshit. Acchi was born with debilitating ambition and zero intelligence. He couldn’t even calculate profit on a paper if you gave him all the figures. But he never disagreed with me and there was worth there, so I gave him a regular cut from all the cars I sold. I did this until the day I married Shah Jee, my second wife.
I was not Acchi, and I had principles. All of them were made and kept that day. One was to always wear a suit of the best kind, preferably German, the second was to wear a trademark symbol of being Ahmedi, a black stone ring with engraved “For me my God is enough.” And lastly to always be prepared for betrayal from everyone.
I picked myself up from there: I shaved after a month, and went home after two; I had women from Heera Mandi courtesy of Acchi, after three whole months! I remember looking in the mirror and not recognizing myself, and picking up the pieces of doubt, reconstructing, each time reminding myself that, that will never happen to me again. It almost didn’t. I had left out a rule on love. Or I would be fully armored.
I had reached Shah Jee’s house, though technically this was not in her name, because I didn’t remarry a third time. This woman really sustained herself and our daughter, on my love, which was never enough, thanks to its elusive nature and my principle number three. I walked in through the black gate. Literally. My cars weren’t there of course. Other kids played in the yard. They were ugly kids, couldn’t be mine or my daughter’s in case she married, unless Shah Jee’s relatives from the village were here.
It was a rented house, and these were new tenants, God knows how many times this house changed hands. I had memories here with Shehnaz, my daughter. She was my joy, 22 and unmarried when I died. Her unruly curls falling over me as I lay shrouded and dead in this house.
“Baba! No Baba!” Her accent was always crisp from her American school influence. Her tears were falling over.
Shehnaz was never much for hysterics after turning ten, and I remember wanting to reach out and console her. Tell her I care. And despite what happened between me and her mother it was her who tugged at my heart the most out of all my kids. But time had outdone me. My relationship with Shehnaz was always nervy.
She had her mother’s stubbornness, my independent spirit and her self-brewed biting sarcasm. She was thirteen when she decided to change her last name. It was the most absurd thing I had ever heard. I protested, but she said, “After much contemplation I have come to the conclusion that this will be better for my happiness to drop your name out.”
I couldn’t argue with that, it was too well framed a plea. And there was little happiness that I had given her till then. There were days where she would need me and I was not there, incidentally she would fall sick or need to pay her SAT registration dollars on deadline, or need a ride to a very close friend’s birthday. The chances of me being there were slim since I was with Shah Jee only half the time – my days were spit right in the center between my life in Model Town and Samnabad, it was religiously decreed and I wanted my heaven. Sometimes driving back from a booming showroom on Queens Road I would forget which house I was supposed to go to and I would end up at the wrong house.
I once remember making this mistake and not turning back in time. Shehnaz spotted me and came running to me with a red and yellow popsicle in her hand, her eyes gleaming, she was little, and the fights between Shah Jee and I were not deathly yet. Shehnaz still admired me, innocence was not lost.
“Baba!” She said in her high pitched delight. “It is not our day and you still came, I always prayed that you’d use an extra day on me, instead of them.” This is how my life was dear; I applied the concept of scarcity on it by dividing it up into more pieces among diametrically opposed parties. Shehnaz turned this strategy on its head.
I reversed the car without much to say, and drove off. She was standing in the middle of the road, her popsicle melting. She faded in my rear view mirror, but long after I had turned the streets, I could hear her screams. “No Baba, Don’t go!” I had cried all the way back to Samnabad, passing by where the old Mughals ruled, built their forts, and where the traffic is so loud and unruly that even my Mercedes can’t block out the freak show of rickshaws and mules on wheels.
That was the second time I saw her cry. The third was when her dog, Bushy, had died. Someone brought me a Russian Pup at the showroom as a gift, some rich woman who got me to lie to her husband that there was no Camry available in Black. And the pup’s eyes reminded me of Shehnaz’s because she also kept her bangs on her forehead overgrown – we both named him Bushy. I dug his grave. Shehnaz lowered him in, kissing the ten year old dog that once saved Shah Jee from me during an argument. Bushy bit my leg and made me bleed.
I walked to where Bushy’s grave was now, and these rascals who live here had mounted a steel swing on it. I wanted to go in and see what he’s like in his grave, but I was cold and tired, and part of me did not know how to handle a ghost Bushy who may not be very friendly in the second life. I sat down on the wooden board of the swing.
I stopped to think. What’s the date today? What was the date when I died? It was December, Lahore was cold. I was brought here in an ambulance, with my side of the family on guard, my brothers and others had always been very hostile towards Shah Jee because she was not Ahmedi, and they were at her place just to allow me a last goodbye to a mistake. Someone even said, “let her live on as his lover now.”
Everyone was waiting for Shehnaz to show up from the airport, I think she had her last semester exams in the US when she got that call from her mother. “Naaz. Baba is no more…He had a heart attack. Come home.” She got the next flight out, and got here a day later.
Her rent-a-car drove into the driveway, now right in front of me. I could see it as if it were a hologram reenactment: Her getting out of the car with absolutely no luggage. She didn’t pay the driver, instead she ran in and let someone else gather the black bag I bought her from HKB in Liberty and paid the tab in dollars from the purse.
Shehnaz walked into a house full of people, and no one she could recognize, not even me. Shah Jee called her from a corner on the floor wearing not the customary widow white, and no customary dupatta on her head, but eyes that were no longer hers. She had been crying till they had swollen and disfigured her beauty. Shehnaz let her head fall in her mother’s lap and cried a long list of questions all starting with why. Everyone, my relatives and Shah Jee’s found themselves reaching for tissues. It occurred to these fools who call themselves my family that the mother and daughter have also suffered.
I had to die to show them how egalitarian my division of misery is. The wall had fallen and I would smile if I could.
Her mother dragged Shehnaz to me. For some reason, Shehnaz did not want to see my face. I can understand why. As she got older, my towering personality, the style and class, the cars and the phones, faded. She saw through them and saw a flawed man. I was disgusting to her. She framed me with values which she got from, I don’t know, American TV, books or Opera, or maybe from her Political Science degree, fact was that I had fallen from grace. So had her mother, but that was because of me.
“Have some self-respect Ma! He is a brute. Your indecision is killing me. If you made the choice to marry a married man you can most certainly divorce him.” I have also had her say to me, “I hate you!” This one time I spent Eid at Samnabad as usual. And when I came home after the sacrificial ceremony tired and looking forward to taking Shah Jee and Shehnaz out for Eid bangles and white roses, all I got was two weepy women, Shehnaz was in her pajamas, her mother in bed at only 8pm and the servants informed me that no one had eaten that day.
I was furious. “Shehnaz!” I called for her and she came downstairs tight lipped. I was never going to give explanations to anyone, let alone a young girl who thought she had something on me but I did anyway. I must be getting old. “Don’t you know I have obligations, I am the only person there and I am needed?” That’s when she said it. “I hate you Baba!”
Her mother and aunt had to pin her down next to me, to show her my face. Make her believe that I am positively dead. She finally looked, trembling hands that were even colder than mine were placed on my head, then my cheeks. She had a frown on her forehead behind those bangs of hair. She was very confused. And I was still the wrong person to help her solve life’s mysteries.
She had a thousand questions for me as a kid, some I would encourage her to probe. Like why did Sher Shah Suri build such a long road? How come Julius Cesar was not revered among the politicians of his time? Why can’t Ahmedis like me become the president of Pakistan? I used to answer each one of them, I remember, with a lot of detail. Only once have I yelled at her to never ask stupid questions “ever again.” I mocked her for trying to be a Smart Alec and that she should stop pretending to demand my attention as if she is really interested in stuff like that. “But you were talking to me so nicely last night” She said with tears in her eyes at breakfast. I had got up and left.
I never thought of those days until today. Why today?
***
I went back to my grave. Tired.
When I got back, a thousand thoughts on my mind, I found myself staring at a Shehnaz-like silhouette. I walked closer, almost knocked over a boulder, and there she was, staring at my empty grave. She was dressed in red, bangles and all, with a long stemmed white rose in her hand. Ah, white roses. Could I still smell it, and keep the smell in me forever. Suddenly, she turned around and saw though me, yelling for the manager of the graves. The old man was overcome by the fierceness in her voice. Shehnaz must have not gone back to the US, judging from her harshness.
I smiled. It was amusing to see her this way; she hated women who took that tone.
“What do I give you so much money for? What are these stupid bougainvillea pots doing here? Who put them here without my permission?” She demanded. The poor servant mumbled something about “Barey Saab,” referring to Ahmed, my eldest son. “Barey Saab, my foot, he’s a son of a bitch. Get these out of my sight!” Her fury was very out of character, it was always her who accused her mother of being biased against her step siblings.
By now Shehnaz was at my empty grave, saying something to it. I couldn’t hear, so I leaned in. She was telling me its Eid day, and she wore new clothes after years, because she realized now, I couldn’t leave her and go. Still hyperventilating from the earlier fit, she took a few deep breaths and closed her eyes. A tiny tear from the corner of her left eye flowed down the bridge of her nose, and faded. She got up, almost her old self again; dug into a new purse, not the one I got her from Liberty, and gave the manager of the graves a five hundred rupee note. Looking at him a bit more softly this time as she walked out of the red bricked wall and toward the Baleno I got her.
I sat next to her, where her brochures, CDs and coins were. She was still a messy little girl, and I didn’t like messy cars. It was strange to see her like this, from far away. She stared at her cell phone biting her lip, trying not to cry I guess, for me. She was pulling out a number from her cell, “Calling Ifran Khan,” her Blackberry read. Who the hell is that? She hung up, before he picked up. Waited. She finally started the car, I was glad, for the first time in the day, I felt like I was finally going somewhere. But she just kept the car running, and turned the air-conditioning on. She was running on empty again. I had told her a million times to keep the fuel gauge above the half mark.
“Please call back.” She muttered over and over again to the phone. This was unsettling to me. This Ifran fellow was rubbing me off the wrong way. I think I know people like him, and I have a good idea what he is up to. I am thirty-something, I reminded myself. I will blow his brains out, among other things. I didn’t like the fact that she was ignoring her empty fuel tank over some loser.
She called him again, and hung up before he picked up. Shehnaz kept staring at the phone. Like a ghost. He called back.
“Where are you?” She asked him.
I froze. I know that question! From years ago.
That was Shah Jee’s hello. If I was with family I’d pretend it’s someone else, and say I’ll call back. If I was alone, I would smile and say something mushy.
“Hey! Can we like, meet up? Just for a few minutes.”
Pause.
“Why not? Can’t you get away from her for a bit? I want to see you today, Its Eid Irfan.”
The fool said something.
“Is that really more important than me?”
Pause.
Choking tears: “Please Ifran, don’t say no.”
The air in the car is hellishly cold.

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