Green Hills Literary Lantern

Flagellation

 

 

           “We must not let the children watch this show!” said my mother.  She had a master’s degree in education and a strict sense of what was appropriate to do at any age.

 

            “Why not, Asifa?” asked my father.  “The children can decide what to watch.  I don’t plan to be remembered as a tyrant.”  He made a big fuss about wanting to carry his laissez faire principles from the factory floor to the children’s den. 

 

            “Abrar, your expectations are unrealistic,” my mother protested.  “You’ll break their back with your demands.”

 

            “My point is precisely that I don’t make demands,” said my father.  “Do I, Jamshed?” my father asked me, and I moved my head halfway between a nod and a shake. 

 

            “Abrar, your parents sure didn’t raise you with so much freedom,” my mother needled my father. 

 

           This was a sore point between them.  My father had been sent to a strict boarding school in the hills of Murree when he was twelve.  He told us tales about teachers with pucca British accents breaking rulers on his wrists for so much as failing to park a bike in the right spot.

 

            “Keep my parents out of it,” my father said.  “They didn’t have television in their time.”  This was quite beside the point, as I understood even then.

 

           My sister Sara and I looked back and forth at our quarreling parents.  Whenever our parents fought, Sara and I memorized their lines and reenacted them in our own little scenes of “Family Drama,” performed before our friends.  Acting was just one of the things Sara was better at than me.  Sara was three years younger than me, but her confidence was so high that she would challenge me and my friends at cricket, daring us to bowl her out.  Among her secret circle of friends was a girl who told the future, whom I was afraid to get close to.  Sara was speeding through my Billy Bunter and Captain Bigglesworth books, without the confusions about the actions of these British characters that I’d found myself in. 

 

           It was Ashura, the tenth day of the Shi’ite holy month of Muharram.  On our beloved decade-old Philips twenty-six-inch color television, a marsiya-khwan recited a nasal lament for the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, his sister Zainab, and their kith and kin on the battlefield of Karbala almost fourteen centuries ago.  Yazid killed Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, to prevent him from succeeding to the caliphate. 

 

           The black-robed mullah sat in a dimly lit studio with the audience loudly weeping as it heard the gory tale recited yet again in all its details, including the description of Hussain’s severed head brought on a platter to the caliph.  As Hussain’s outnumbered warriors met their end one by one on the battlefield, Zainab calmly received the news in her tent, refusing to beg for leniency from the usurpers.  Sara and I had memorized most of the words of this yearly sermon and would take turns pretending to be the television mullah, on the days following Ashura. 

 

           “So, what do you think, Jamshed?” my father asked me again, expecting to be pleased by my answer. 

 

            “Papa, I think they shouldn’t show so much sadness on television,” I said.  “What if there are children without mothers and fathers, who might get scared?”

 

            “Pooh, Jamshed is a darpok baby,” Sara jumped in.  “Are you afraid of bats?  Are you afraid of cockroaches?  Bees?  You are, you are!”  She laughed, then ran to my father to climb onto his shoulders, but he stretched his arms forward to stop her.

 

            “That wasn’t really my question, Jamshed,” my father said.  “I was asking about you in particular.  Do you want to be able to make the choice to see such adult shows?  Or should we turn the television off whenever we feel like it?”


            I had no clue how to answer this question.  I was bound to disappoint one or the other of my parents.  Sara became oddly quiet so that I was on my own.

 

            Then my mother started a new argument about letting go of one of our two servant girls, and paying the remaining one higher wages.  My parents got so engrossed in this squabble that they went into the dining room to consume the previous night’s bhajias and samosas, while Sara and I slid closer together on the thick gray Bukhara rug toward the television.  My father, in his business travels to Germany and Japan, brought us Lego sets and train sets, which Sara wanted to share with all the kids in the neighborhood.  There was an antique grandfather clock in the den, which tended to get stuck at five minutes after twelve, as well as five minutes after six.  My mother said it meant that both of us children would live long because time would slow down for us to catch up. 

    

            Sara was sprawled next to me, pretending to read my Archie’s comics.  But I knew her mind was on the lament on television.  I saw her brushing away tears, and felt sorry for her.  Maybe my mother was right.  Maybe she was too young for this, and so was I.

 

            “Jamshed and Sara, would you like to go out for club sandwiches?”

 

            “Yes, yes!”  We both jumped up, delighted.  We would drive in our green Toyota Corona to Spinzer’s, along the road to Clifton.  There would be few people at Spinzer’s that evening because it was Sunday, and Ashura.

 

            “How can you not get badly affected by so much anguish for the past?” my mother continued her point in the front seat of the Toyota.  “The British were right.  We enjoy being fatalistic.”

 

            “Not me,” said my father, then started driving faster and talking about a new turnkey plant he would be importing from South Korea, a nation that he said would soon leave the Japanese and the Germans in the dust.  “And to think that fifteen years ago the Koreans used to visit Pakistan to learn how we managed our economic miracle.  Oh, how low we’ve fallen!”

 

            “Fatalism,” said my mother.

 

            “Not so,” said my father.  “It’s learning the lessons of history so we don’t repeat it.”

 

            But he was not so happy the next day when one of our factory foremen, Qasim, knocked on our door at six a.m.  During the mourning procession on Ashura, when Shi’ites flagellate their backs and chests with blades strung on chains, Qasim’s nephew, the sole support of his mother, had died.  The official cause of death was heat exhaustion, not bleeding from his wounds.  Some of the mourners would get carried away and start hitting their heads with the blades, which could be fatal.  Other young men slapped their chests with the full force of their hands, in a repeated thump-thump motion.  Women just gently, rhythmically smacked their chests. 

 

           I was behind my father when Qasim gave his news.  My father didn’t see me.  He offered to help arrange the burial and namaz-e-janaza right away.  We weren’t Shi’ites, but in those days such differences didn’t count for much.  Perhaps without realizing it, Qasim slipped into thumping his own chest while my father got ready.

 

           My parents fought viciously that evening.  Year after year, my father had wanted to take Sara and me to a friend’s apartment in a high-rise building near the terminating point of the leading mourning procession, so we could watch the mourners limp into the Hussainia Imambara.  My mother had never let us.  Now she had won a great moral victory. 

 

           After Qasim’s nephew’s death, I noticed that my mother was much more aggressive about protecting us from my father’s notions of necessary adventure for Sara and me.  Sara’s fortune-teller friend turned out to be Shi’ite.  My mother forbade Sara any interaction with her, and I was surprised that Sara listened.  As for me, I mostly kept quiet, but promised myself never to watch the Ashura show again.  I hadn’t really known Qasim’s nephew, but remembered him telling me once to obey my mother, because paradise lies at the feet of the mother.

 

*  *  * 

 

            Sara had turned fifteen, and got rid of most of her tomboyish ways.  She designed lehengas for boutiques—although none of her designs had sold yet, the boutiques were always encouraging—and knew far more about physics and chemistry than she needed to pass her O-levels.

 

            “Jamshed, since the males in this family can’t get into Oxford, I’ll have to show how it’s done.”

 

            “You brat,” I said, throwing a Sindhi mirror-and-bead square pillow at her.  She deftly avoided it and stuck out her tongue at me.  She wore a semitransparent white voile kurta over a tight cotton shalwar, and her hair was wet and pulled back into a tight bun.

 

            We were in the den, which had remained the same over the years, including the Philips television, which still worked.  My mother no longer cared to buy bric-a-brac to furnish the den, however, and my father was too busy to notice the lack of change.  The object he was proudest of in the room was a picture taken with the Chinese premier at the inauguration ceremony of one of their free trade zones, where my father had risked some joint-venture money in a textile plant.  One day, my father wanted me to take over the Chinese side of the business.

 

            “Sara, do you think I’m wasting my life?” I asked. 

 

           I was in my first year at Commerce College.  I hardly ever went to classes, dismissing the accounting and marketing lectures and textbooks as not worth my time.  I intended to pass, but that was about it.  I also didn’t care for the party atmosphere at Commerce College, the sons and daughters of the business elite using their time there to hook up with each other, have some fun before the inevitable grind of marriage and childraising wore them down.

 

            Sara looked at me worriedly.  “Jamshed, the choices you’ve made are the ones you have to stand by.  Make the best of what you’ve already decided.”

 

            I resented her patronizing attitude, but also couldn’t get enough of it.  “I’m still only eighteen.  My life hasn’t started yet.  Or has it?”  I said this, but sometimes I felt like an old man, whose best days were behind him. 

 

            “You can drive, and I can’t,” she said.

 

            “But you drive already.”  She did, behind our parents’ back.  Our part-time driver, Majeed, had taught her and now let her do it by herself.  “And you’ll be at Oxford, while I’m at stupid Commerce College.”

 

            “But is that what you really want?” she said.  “To go to England to study?  I thought you wanted to make Papa’s business the biggest of its kind in Pakistan.”

 

            “That used to be true.  I’m not sure what I want anymore.”

 

            “Haven’t you seen anyone attractive at Commerce College?  If you have, introduce me to her, and I’ll break the ice.”

 

            “They’re all flirts.  They don’t want to be serious with any guy, just play with us.”

 

            “That’s how they may look on the surface,” Sara said, “but underneath no girl is like that.  It’s how we protect ourselves.”

 

            “You seem to know a lot about boy-girl relationships.”  I said it resentfully, because Sara liked a boy next door, a giant of a twenty-five-year-old guy, the profligate son of a Sindhi wadera.  This boy Sadiq drove one of the few Porsches in Pakistan, played acid rock on his loud stereo until three in the morning, keeping the entire neighborhood awake, and talked back at his gentlemanly father in front of others.  I couldn’t understand why neither my parents, nor any of the other respectable neighbors, ever protested Sadiq’s loutish behavior to his folks.  He wasn’t shy of leering at my mother’s figure.

 

            “Are you upset about Sadiq?” said Sara.  “Well, don’t be.  Sadiq is only a lost boy.  He needs to be put straight.”

 

            “And you’ll be the one to do it?”

 

            “I’m not saying any such thing.  But he hasn’t had the attention his parents should have given him.  They’re so rich he’s been raised mostly by his servants and ayahs.”

 

            “I doubt that he finished high school.”

 

            “I’m not going to marry him.”

 

            Who was Sara going to marry anyway?  Someone she would find at Oxford?  And why should that be a concern of mine?  Why wasn’t I busy living my own life?  Sara would tell me that I preferred to remain aloof from interesting people because I was afraid of what I might find out about myself if I didn’t. 

 

            “I’m not going to marry one of those Commerce College flirts.”  I had wondered if in truth I wasn’t intimidated by these bold girls, but shouldn’t having Sara as my sister have cured me of this malady?

 

            “Well, I’m taking off to bed,” said Sara with a yawn.  She stretched herself at the foot of the couch that had been loaded on the train to Pakistan at the time of partition with the rest of my grandparents’ possessions. 

 

In the posture she was in, the thin kurta stretched over her chest.  I could make out the pointy red nipples topping her budding breasts.  I quickly looked away, but she didn’t seem to have noticed, so I returned my gaze at her, and this time stared steadily for a good fifteen minutes.  She had closed her eyes, and seemed to have dozed off, but I thought she was awake. 

 

            When she opened her eyes, they met mine and I didn’t look away.  A smile crept on her lips, and rising, she flattened down her rumpled kurta, while keeping her eyes solidly on mine as she slipped out the door, to her bedroom upstairs.

 

            When I went to bed that night, all my dreams were about her.  I hadn’t yet kissed a girl, but in my dreams I had, many times, mostly Sara but sometimes one of the girls at Commerce College.  That night, it was only Sara, over and over.  Sara’s lips would envelope mine in a warm crush, moist and rippling, until the heat in the rest of our bodies would become unbearable.  I wondered if kissing someone really did make one’s lips so hot.     

 

            The morning after one of these nights of feverish imaginings, I would be afraid to look at Sara, worrying that she might know what was going on inside my head about her.  I had spent the night before, after all, slowly taking off her kurta, exposing her chest, and rubbing her shoulders until she started moaning my name in my dreams.  But she would always act kinder than usual to me, on the days when my guilt about my secret feelings for her was at its peak.

 

            That particular morning, my mother announced that she was going to make a trip to India to see her parents in Delhi.  It had been almost twenty years since she had last seen them, just before the war with India over Kashmir in 1965 ended normal travel between the two countries.  My father only looked up briefly from the business pages of the morning paper, and then dug right back into his omelet.  We knew he wasn’t going to accompany her.  The rift between them had grown so wide over time that my mother wouldn’t even ask him if he wanted to go with her.

 

            “Jamshed,” my father said, “after your Commerce College graduation, you must go to the Wharton School of Business in Pennsylvania for your MBA.”

 

            “Papa?”  I wasn’t sure how serious he was.  He’d mentioned this before in passing, but this time there was a new note of determination in his voice.

 

            “The sons of all the business leaders have MBAs from American universities.  They must be learning something good.”

 

            My mother said, “And this is the man who used to want to let his kids have all the freedom in the world, so they could decide on their own.”

 

            “I do let them decide, Asifa,” my father said.  “Didn’t I say Jamshed could do his undergraduate work in Pakistan if he wanted to?  Did I force Sara to think about going to England?  Does Jamshed not have the choice to leave my business, and work for a multinational, if that’s what he wants?”  Without waiting for answers from my mother, my father looked down at the paper and dug into his breakfast again.  He was silent the rest of the meal.

 

            “I actually think it’d be good for you to get out of here,” Sara said, as she waited outside with me for the school bus.

 

            “Maybe,” I said.  “Do you want me to give you a ride to school?”  My shiny little Daihatsu had just been washed off by a servant.

 

            “No, thanks.  I’d rather talk with my friends on the bus.”

 

            The wadera’s son Sadiq drove up in his Porsche, making his car scream to a stop.  He looked drunk.  He stopped for a few seconds to stare without shame at Sara, before entering his house.

 

            “Drunk sons of waderas,” I said.  “These damn feudals.”

 

            “Don’t be so hard on him,” said Sara.  “He’s got his own problems.”

 

            “Dear Sara, always kind and compassionate to the downtrodden of the earth.  Our family’s Mother Teresa.”

 

            “Jamshed, don’t be so hostile always.” 

 

            I had made her mad, which would ruin the rest of my day. 

 

            At Commerce College that morning, one of the better-looking girls, Uzma, came up to me after the ten a.m. accounting class.  She wore a slinky red shalwar kameez, and had too much makeup on for this early in the day.

 

            “You run Abrar Textile Industries?” she said.

 

            “I don’t run it,” I said.  “My father does.”

 

            “The same thing,” she said.  “Do you want to get some tea in the cafeteria?”

 

            I hesitated.  “Why not?” 

 

            Uzma wanted to talk about how the Pakistani textile industry might meet the challenge of import quotas imposed by Europe and America.  Didn’t the future lie in more cooperation with East Asian countries?  I really didn’t know, I said.

 

            “I’d like to go to NYU for an MBA,” she said at the end.

 

            “You too?”

 

            “Everybody’s doing it.  You can make sixty thousand dollars the first year after graduation.”

 

            “So you wouldn’t want to come back to Pakistan?”

 

            “I would.  After I worked in America for a few years, and saved enough money, to start my own business in Pakistan if I wanted to.  To be my own boss.”  She looked appreciatively at me. 

 

Later, she gave me her phone number, to talk about class assignments if I wanted to.  I told her I might be too busy to call, because of all the stuff going on at the factory, what with new machines always coming in and having to be incorporated into the production process.

 

            Try as I would, I could not manage to undress Uzma in my waking dream that night.  Instead, I dared for the first time to walk over to Sara’s bedroom, peeping through the keyhole to find out if I could watch her in bed.

 

 

*  *  *

 

            “Jamshed sahib, there are irregularities in these ledgers, I must inform you.”  Our trusted old employee, Sabir, sat across from me in my air-conditioned office at the SITE factory.  Sabir used to be the chief accountant, but now that the independent accounting and auditing firm had assumed more of those responsibilities, Sabir’s job description had become more nebulous. 

 

            Sabir had a daughter who was paralyzed from the waist down, and another who was slow in reading.  Over the years, my mother had donated large amounts of money to Sabir for the care of his daughters.  My father had grown to be sharper with Sabir and the other employees, spending many hours going over accounts that looked to me in as good shape as possible.  But that had become my father’s way with all the employees.  Also, now that I was twenty-one, he was placing large amounts of responsibility on my shoulders alone.

 

            “Give me some time to go over these,” I said to Sabir.  “I’m busy with other things.”

 

            “No, Jamshed sahib, you must do it now,” he said.  “There’s something very wrong.”

 

            I sighed and pushed aside my essay, on the domestic bureaucratic hurdles facing Pakistani manufacturers, for the Far Eastern Economic Review.  I was going to submit it through a friend at Commerce College, who was related to the Pakistan bureau chief of the magazine.  It was a long shot but if it worked, it would be the ideal graduation present for my mother, and for Sara, who was headed for Oxford at the end of the summer.  There was never any doubt that she would get in.  I was proud of my little sister.

 

            For the next hour, I studied the account books, while Sabir waited patiently.

 

            “You’re right,” I concluded, “it’s all messed up.  Some of the expenses in the marketing budget seem unreasonably high.”

 

            “I told you, sir.”

 

            “What’s going on?”

 

            “We’d better talk to your father.”

 

            “I’ll do it tonight at home.”

 

            To distract myself from Sabir’s disturbing investigations, I went out on the factory floor.  The business press said that Abrar Textile Industries made some of the finest polyester fabric in Pakistan, with some of the best efficiency ratios and the least amount of wastage.

 

            As soon as I started making the rounds, the factory foremen began to tell me about little problems with the machines, because of delayed inspection and maintenance by the engineers.  This was holding up work.  I took notes, to pass on to the head of the engineering firm who took care of such matters for us. 

 

Some of my classmates at Commerce College resented my head start with all this practical experience.  The girls would make comments like, “Jamshed doesn’t have time to get engaged to someone, because he’s married to the factory.  Lucky for his father.” 

 

            Sara had invited a couple of her friends for dinner that night, both also going to good universities in England.  By now Sara took pains to hide her looks, wearing plain white outfits without a dash of color, and never taking off her glasses, even though she hardly needed them.

 

            Her friend Meera, the daughter of a publisher of children’s books, said to me at the dinner table, “Jamshed, you’ll be an old man and no one will want you, if you don’t start looking for a match now.”

 

            “Why does everyone have to keep talking about me getting settled down all the time?” I complained.  “I’m sick of it.”

 

            Sara came to my defense.  “He’s right.  He’s got his life ahead of him.  Don’t push him.”  I could never figure out if she thought my life was ahead of me or behind me.

 

            My father and mother were neutral on this issue.  As long as I delivered at work, my father didn’t pester me about my personal life.  And my mother had become so busy with women’s issues, what with the backwardness of the Islamic laws being imposed on the country, that she didn’t bother me either.  Ever since her trip to India, her interest in Sara and me seemed to have steadily dwindled.  It had become difficult to please my mother.

 

            “Eat your salad, Sara,” my mother said.

 

            “I am, Mummy.”  Sara never raised her voice against my mother.

 

            Sara’s other friend, Naila, kept making eyes at me throughout dinner.  Her father was a retired civil servant, and all his faith was placed in Naila. 

 

            “I hear you’re writing an article for the Far Eastern Review on bureaucracy in Pakistan,” Naila said.

 

            I squirmed in my seat.  My father dropped the evening paper, and my mother stopped eating.

 

            “Jamshed, what is this?” my father said. 

 

           I knew he’d be concerned about me writing anything that might invite retribution toward the business from the government.  “I don’t want to talk about it now.”

 

            “No, tell us,” my mother said.

 

            “Not now.”

 

            “We’ll talk about it tonight,” my father said, and then started talking angrily about the failures of Pakistani diplomacy to Naila and Meera for the rest of the dinner.    

 

            “It’s good to have grown up in the same home your whole life,” Meera said after dinner.  “My family has been all over the place.”

 

            “I guess it’s good,” I said to Meera.  “Where did you hear about the article?” I then whispered to Naila.

 

            “Sara told me, who else?” Naila said.

 

            I had forbidden Sara to tell anyone.  I looked at her, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes.

 

           We had stayed in the same house all these years, despite our being able to afford a much bigger house, in a more posh section of Defense Housing Society.  My father preferred to plough all the money back into the factory.

 

           My father’s study upstairs had become chockful of antiques from Central Asia, Persia, and Anatolia.  From buying souvenirs of the early Ataturk years in Turkey he had moved to more religious tastes, acquiring the robes and caps of dervishes and fakirs from the Middle Ages.  A row of ancient hookahs from Central Asian caravanserais stood against one wall.

 

           “Papa, we must talk about some accounting irregularities Sabir brought to my notice today,” I said, when we were alone together.  I wanted to forestall his questioning of my freelance writing.

 

           “Sabir did?”  My father started pacing the room in anger.  “Sabir is getting too big for his shoes.  Just because I didn’t let him go when his job became redundant doesn’t mean he’s some kind of supervisor still.”

 

           “Don’t you want to know what’s wrong with the accounts?”

 

           “What’s wrong with the accounts?  You’re going to tell me about the accounts at Abrar Textile Industries?  As if I don’t already know how every penny gets spent.”

 

           I was infuriated by then, and ready to stalk off to my room. 

 

           But my father had a change in mood and patted my shoulder.  “Sit down, Jamshed, I need to tell you what’s going on.”

 

           I sat down again in the plush leather chair from Istanbul.  While my father collected himself, I noticed as in the past that the study smelled of weatherbeaten manuscripts and rare tobacco, although neither was present.  I became dreamy, thinking that I didn’t after all need the girls at Commerce College, who had decided over time that I was a cold fish and not worth pursuing.

 

           “Jamshed, it’s like this.  The new minister of commerce has it in for Abrar Textile Industries.  He wants to give special breaks to his relations, who make the same fabrics we do.  I can’t win him over at any cost, but I can try to minimize the damage by paying off some other ministers in the cabinet.  Enough to let us keep going.  You see how it is?  That’s what the inflated expenditures in the account books represent.”

 

           “We’re buying off ministers in the government?”

 

           “Call it a direct tax on us.  It’s not as if any business in Pakistan pays taxes to the tune we’re supposed to be shelling out.”

 

           “But this isn’t taxation.  The money will line bureaucrats’ pockets.  They’ll siphon it off to Swiss bank accounts and send their kids abroad to study.”

 

           “You’re going abroad to study.”  He was still keen on my Wharton MBA.  The TOEFL and GMAT had been passed with flying colors, and the I-20 from Wharton was due to arrive soon.  “Look, I’m not trying to justify this hanky-panky, but would you rather that we lose this home, our status in society?  All for no reason?”

 

           “Papa, you’re not the man I thought you were.”  I rose and left. 

 

           For many days we hardly exchanged a word, unless we had to at the factory.  At the end of the month, Sabir was fired.  He came tearfully to my office, telling me that he needed to quit work to take care of his daughters full-time, but I knew the real reason.  He gave salaams to Begum Sahiba, my mother, and hoped that she would still drop by on occasion at his flat near Sabzi Mandi.

 

           My essay for the Far Eastern Economic Review was rejected.  The bureau chief told my friend who’d submitted it on my behalf that it was weak on analysis.  The extent of corruption had to be quantified somehow.  I decided not to tell Sara about this outcome, nor did she seem too curious to know.  In the past, I used to write some poetry, inspired by Keats and Shelley and Byron, and shared it with Sara, but now I stopped writing altogether.

 

           Sadiq, the neighbor’s son with an eye for Sara, was found dead of a drug overdose on his estate in the interior of Sind.  Heroin addiction had become rampant in Pakistan.  Usually, the victim of such a tragedy was vaguely described in his obituary as “suffering from a bad Western habit.”  My mother said that the epidemic of drug abuse among men in Pakistan was one more sign of their unsuitability for leadership roles.  Sara didn’t show any emotion in front of us about Sadiq’s death.

 

 

*  *  *

 

            The new house in Phase VIII of Defense had sixteen rooms, three floors, and a garden alone five times bigger than our old house.  The minister of commerce who had given trouble to my father had had to quit the administration because of the whiff of a corruption scandal, and my father had decided to open a second factory near Lahore, and to finally go ahead with full-scale investment in the Chinese joint venture.  My father saw the Chinese government as being indistinguishable now from its Western counterparts in terms of how it viewed foreign investment.  My father wanted me to read as much as I could about Mao’s failed Cultural Revolution, so that such a mistake would never be repeated in history.  With the kind of high-powered visitors we would be getting now, the old house would have been a curiosity.  My mother had insisted that the children’s den be duplicated as closely as possible in the new setting, and my father agreed. 

 

           The house would have been empty even with Sara.  Without her, it was obscene in its largeness and vacuity.  My mother thought that we should convert part of the house into a transit station of sorts for orphans and homeless girls, on their way to more permanent care under Abdul Sattar Edhi’s welfare organization, but I knew my father would have none of that.  He always made a distinction between being generous privately, while meeting the requirements of public propriety.

 

           Sara’s first letter to me from Oxford had been short:  “Dear Jamshed, To be a woman at Oxford, even this late in the century, is still an anomaly of sorts.  They’re all nice to me as a minority woman from a third world country, one that was part of the jewel in the British crown, at that.  But you can sense the tension beneath the surface.  It seems that the white masters are uncertain how to act toward the cream of the crop from the Indian subcontinent, with our confidence about our place in the world.  On the one hand, they want to accept us as equals, but on the other hand, they’re afraid that doing so might come back to haunt them.  You have a tremendous opportunity to make a difference in Pakistan without these kinds of unnecessary psychological obstacles, so live up to your potential.  I’d love to have you visit me at Oxford, before long.  I’ll explain more later.”  I hadn’t heard from her in the two months since.

 

           I was struck by her maturity and distance.  Now she seemed to have moved all the way over to the patronizing tendency.  I understood that when she returned from England, she would be a stranger to me.

 

           I wondered how my father felt about his only daughter being so far away from him, but he spoke less and less of Sara, and more and more about the value of mysticism in Islam.  Our house began to be frequented as much by pirs and fakirs, as industrialists and bureaucrats. 

 

           One such man was a pir named Sahiwal ka Raja, the King of Sahiwal.  He wore a long red robe and a giant rosary that hung around his neck and reached as low as his navel.  He had a habit of clearing his throat extensively before every sentence.  I found him staring at my mother without shame on occasion.

 

           “Pir sahib, I’m thinking of having Jamshed move to China to take care of business there,” my father said one Friday afternoon, after he had left work early and was entertaining the pir’s retinue of ten young men in the living room of the new house.  The last my father and I had talked about it, he was still keen on me getting my Wharton MBA first.

 

           “He’s a bright young man,” the pir said, nodding at me.

 

           “May we have your blessings?” my father said.

 

           “You have my blessings no matter what you do,” the pir said.  “What would you like to do, Jamshed?”

 

           “I’d rather finish my studies first,” I said without doubt.

 

           The pir smiled.  “There you have it,” he said to my father, who looked uncomfortable.  “Youth will have its way, and no power on earth can interfere with it.  Nor should it try.”

 

           “I’d like you to talk to my wife about her activities on behalf of women’s rights,” my father began on another track.  “Neglect of home cannot be justified by whatever one does for the public good.  The latter is a secondary thing.”

 

           The pir again said something noncommittal.

 

           How my father had changed over the years!  When we were children, he used to recite tales from Rumi and ’Attar, always talking about how all people were equal, and that human beings had no precedence over the creations in nature either.  Now he talked about distinctions all the time. 

 

           My mother surprised me by walking in, without her head covered fully as etiquette would have suggested for an appearance before the pir and his men.  She asked him to pray for a “good girl” for me.  The young men in the pir’s entourage, dressed in identical white kurta pajamas, smiled and looked downward, as I struggled with my embarrassment.

 

           “I’m not ready to be married yet,” I said.

 

           “He’s not,” said the pir.

 

           “It’ll settle him down,” my mother said, and my father looked gratefully at her.  Something of the spark they used to share in the early days returned for a moment.

 

           “He’s a bright young man,” the pir said.  “He’ll know when the time is right.”

 

           My mother said, “We were never so disobedient to our parents,” and stormed out of the living room.  Later, a servant, not she herself, came with trays of samosas and mithai.

 

           My father’s major topic of interest in those days had become how to deal with the Sunni-Shi’ite problem.  Part of him, he said, wanted to be tolerant of other beliefs, the Shi’ites and even more deviationist sects included.  But as a member of the majority Sunni sect, he didn’t see why the Shi’ites had to make so much in public of their curious rituals.  Sometimes, he wanted to be left alone.

 

           “There actually is no such thing as the Sunni-Shi’ite problem,” the pir said, again deflating my father.

 

           That night, I dared to call one of the Commerce College girls who still had a modicum of interest in me, and went over to her house, also in Defense Phase VIII, and got drunk for the first time in my life.  All I remember of the girl is that she kept repeating the tale of her father’s abuse of her mother the whole time I was there.  She had a small mouth and thin red lips that I wanted to kiss, but was afraid to.

 

*  *  *

 

           “Let’s go over to your house to finish reading The Faerie Queene,” I said to Wendy Levin, my classmate in Professor Shrewsbury’s introductory British literature class. 

 

            “My apartment is really filthy,” Wendy said, “but you’re welcome to come, if you don’t mind.”

 

            “I don’t mind.”

 

            We walked over to Wendy’s rusty Honda Civic at UCLA’s most distant parking lot, then drove along Westwood Boulevard to her apartment in Palms.  Wendy stopped along the way at a hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern restaurant to pick up hummus and tabouli.

 

            After spending one unhappy year at Wharton, where I consistently got C’s and failed to get excited by the case study method, I’d transferred against my father’s will to UCLA, to get a bachelor’s degree.  I hadn’t decided on my major yet, but enjoyed taking classes in literature and history.  I got straight A’s now, and was in the running for several Honors College awards and scholarships.  Sara wrote me regularly from Pakistan, where she was back after finishing at Oxford, telling me that my father was going to cut off my funds at any time.  I was prepared to take an illegal job to pay for my education at UCLA, if it came to that.  Sara wrote sadly that she would have preferred if I’d kept to a more practical course of study, and mentioned the aggressive search for a suitable girl underway on my behalf by my mother, now that I seemed a lost cause.

 

            Wendy had dirty blonde hair, an absurdly long nose that made me yearn to scratch it, and ears that were too big and pink.  Still, she carried herself in a manner that suggested worlds of sexual experience, and she was older than me by several years, which I found attractive.

 

            My mission was to ask Wendy to have sex with me once a week, Friday nights if possible, without any emotional commitment.  I had no idea how to bring up the notion of such a contractual relationship with Wendy – purely to meet our physical needs – without making myself look like a fool.  My two previous sexual experiences, one with a depressed Lebanese girl at Wharton, and another with a freshman Valley girl at UCLA, had been profoundly unsatisfactory.  I couldn’t enjoy it at all, so concentrated was I on pleasing the girl and making her climax.  With Wendy, I hoped to find a teacher, not an equally lost student.

 

            “I have such a crush on Professor Shrewsbury!” Wendy said when we entered her place, which seemed neat enough to me.  “But I think he’s married or has someone.  He never looks at me in class, no matter what outfit I wear.”

 

            I was disappointed to hear Wendy say this about our professor.  This could mean that she was warding off a potential advance from me before it occurred.

 

            “Professor Shrewsbury isn’t that attractive anyway,” I said.  “Besides, I think he’s married to Professor Block in the history department.”

 

            “So!” Wendy said.  “That doesn’t mean anything.  You know how it is with professors.  Their own married lives are miserable.  How can they resist all the young flesh spread out before them in class?”

 

            “Wendy!”  I turned red, shocked to hear Wendy describe herself in such vulgar terms.

 

            “What?  What did I say?”

 

            “Nothing,” I mumbled. 

 

           I knew that it was impossible to get much studying done in groups, but I struggled through the rest of the evening anyway.  I didn’t remember a word of The Faerie Queene from that day and had to read it all over again.  Several times, as Wendy and I sat next to each other on her brand new couch, our legs and arms touched, and I thought of putting my arms around her, but couldn’t.

 

            “Good-bye, Wendy,” I said tamely, leaving at a reasonable hour.

 

            I went back to my dorm room at Dykstra Hall.  I appreciated the openness and generosity of the students I knew at Dykstra, a diverse assemblage from all over the country.  They were always respectful of my ethnic origins, avoiding silly statements like, “Ah, Pakistan is next to India, now I see,” or “I don’t know how women can see through those burqas with just the slits for the eyes.”  Actually, the overt ethnic respect was from the more intelligent students, the others acting as though I were American, never bringing up any kind of racial difference.

 

            A Jewish girl on my floor, Shira, wanted to take me to synagogue events.  I resisted.  Shira’s boyfriend David treated me like an honorary Jew, assuming that because our religions shared the same prophetic lineage, I would understand why he felt a certain way about Israel — I  didn’t, I thought it was a political problem — or why he felt so alienated from Christian culture.

 

            One afternoon, there was a rally outside Ackerman Union on Bruin Walk.  I heard the familiar voice of one of the men who was running for president that year, and still had a shot.  “America, you brought us over without our will.  We didn’t ask to come over.  We didn’t ask to be slaves on no plantations to make America the strongest power on earth.  We didn’t ask to have our culture and heritage destroyed.  America, you committed genocide.  Now, pay back what belongs to us.  America, you must repair your soul.  America, you must be kind and generous.”

 

            Then when the crowd chanted, along with Jesse Jackson, “Keep hope alive,” I found myself being carried away until I had tears in my eyes.

 

            Shira had found her way next to me, and David was with her. 

 

“Isn’t he great?” Shira said.

 

            “Yeah, he is.”  I loved Jackson’s rhythms, how he deployed language so effectively that you didn’t have to understand its meaning to be swayed.

 

            “America will never elect a black man for president in my lifetime,” David said.

 

            “We never know,” said Shira, “we never know.”

 

            Professor Shrewsbury gave me an A plus on my paper on The Faerie Queene, commenting that he found it remarkable that a student like me, who’d had little direct exposure to the Western cultural experience, could write so astutely on Renaissance poetry.  “Your understanding of Christian theology is remarkable,” he wrote. 

 

           I showed the comments with pride to Wendy, who only said, “Professor Shrewsbury’s wife is probably such a bitch he’s lost all interest in the female sex.”

 

           Shira wanted to start a multicultural literary journal, with the first issue devoted to the Armenian holocaust.  The Armenian students on campus were asking for the resignation of a history professor who questioned the scale of that genocide in the early part of the twentieth century.  Shira wanted me to work as an editor, and although I didn’t know the first thing about editing a journal, I said yes. 

 

           I won a big scholarship from the Honors College, based on my essay on Faulkner’s Light in August.  Now I was under less pressure to pay for my schooling, even if my father cut me off.  I no longer kept up with the news from Pakistan, and whenever memories of Abrar Textile Industries came to me, they felt revolting and surreal.

 

           I’d written a paper on the Roman historian Polybius’s ideas of the mixed constitution that Professor Shipley really liked.  He was the revered teacher of my introductory Western Civ class.  We were in his office at Bunche Hall, having tea.

 

           “You seem to have read an enormous amount of obscure classical literature on the subject,” he said. 

 

           “I did,” I said, “and it was exciting.  How the founding fathers, in particular, were influenced by Polybius’s ideas.”

 

           “All very true indeed,” said Professor Shipley.  “Not many undergraduates would go to this trouble.  I have a hard time getting my graduate students to read some of this stuff.  Tell me, young man—and you’re evidently a scholar yourself, so I’m addressing you as such—did you think Louis Farrakhan should have been allowed to speak on campus?”

 

           That had been the sensational event of recent days.  I hadn’t gone, nor did I know much about the Nation of Islam.  I didn’t know how Professor Shipley would take it, but I had to say what I felt.  “Yes,” I said without hesitation, “even the most offensive speakers have the right to appear on campus.”  Then I thought of Shira’s discomfort with Farrakhan.  “Of course, if the opposite side is also given equal time, then that should silence the critics.”

 

           “Good, good,” Professor Shipley said.  I didn’t know if he approved of my answer or not.  “Young man, why don’t you pursue something related to your culture—Indian or Sanskritic languages or history—something you’d know about as an insider?”  I’d stated on my biography for the Honors College award ceremony, to which Professor Shipley had also been invited, that I wished to study existentialist philosophy in graduate school.

 

           “But I’m really interested in European philosophy,” I said.

 

           Professor Shipley looked at me strangely.  “Of course, of course,” he said.

 

           In the coming weeks, there was a wave of protests by the La Raza and MEChA students on campus, in support of the Aztlan movement.  Jesse Jackson came again.

 

           A girl named Shirin, who was of Pakistani origin but had grown up in Orange County, used to spend time in the Honors College lounge at Powell library.  I saw her again on a lazy Friday afternoon, as I was putting off writing a collective letter to my family in Karachi.

 

           “I never see you at Friday prayers,” Shirin said, catching me off guard.  I hadn’t gone to prayers in years.  “You’re Muslim, aren’t you?”

 

           “I suppose,” I said.  “I just never thought of going.”

 

           “Come next week,” Shirin said.  “I’ll take you there.  You’ll meet some wonderful people.  The Razais, Iranian twin brothers at the medical school, they’re so kind.  And these people understand our culture already, you know?  We don’t have to explain things to them at a basic level of comprehension.”

 

           “Like we don’t all have arranged marriages,” I agreed.

 

           “Yeah, like that.  Or what’s the difference between us and Hindus.”

 

           Next Friday, I was at the prayer room, in the basement of Kerckhoff Hall, with thirty other worshipers.  Shirin and the other girls, about five of them, sat in the back, apart from the men.  The khateeb had a nearly indecipherable Algerian accent to his English.  He seemed to be complaining about the special treatment given to homosexuals in American culture.  “If we interact too closely with the kafirs, we become like them.  You tell a man by his friends.  Reserve your closest friendship for other Muslims.  Stick together, and don’t ever lose sight of your heritage.  And don’t buy into fancy slogans, like homosexual rights.  If it were up to them, we’d all become homosexuals, an abomination in God’s sight.”

 

           I became uncomfortable with this line of thought, but also couldn’t quite dismiss the khateeb’s sincerity.  I went up to him at the end of the prayer.

 

           “Don’t you think you were too harsh on homosexuals?” I said.  “They have equal rights, the same as everyone else.”

 

           “Brother, what’s your name?”

 

           “Jamshed.”

 

           “You’re new here?”

 

           “Yes.”

 

           “From Pakistan?”

 

           “Yes.”

 

           “The difference between right and wrong is clear in the holy book.  I suggest you read the Qur’an without the interference of distorting Western commentaries.”

 

           I never went back to the Friday prayers after that.  I spurned Shirin, and others at the Honors College who seemed to want to push me in one extracurricular direction or another, and stopped seeing less of Shira too.  The multicultural journal came to nothing. 

 

           I started dating a girl named Jenna, with whom I spent one of the happiest days of my life at Magic Mountain, as we made fun of the serious-looking tourists and all our own strange obsessions in college.  Jenna said I should come to a reading by Robert Bly at the Ackerman Union, and I told her I’d had enough of readings and sermons for a while.  She didn’t mind.

 

 

 

Anis Shivani’s story collection, Alienation, Jihad, Burqa, Apostasy, is available to interested publishers.  A novel, Intrusion, about Americans caught up in contemporary South Asian turmoil, and a new collection, Anatolia and Other Stories, are in progress, as is a book called American Fiction in Decline:  Publishing in an Age of Plenty.  Fiction, poetry, and criticism appear recently in The Antioch Review, The Iowa Review, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Confrontation, The Times Literary Supplement, Pleiades, Meanjin, Crazyhorse, Chelsea, Notre Dame Review, The Hollins Critic, London Magazine, and elsewhere.