BY BILAL IBNE RASHEED
[Original short fiction from the upcoming Chamber Four lit mag, C4. Our first issue is due out this winter; stay tuned for details.]
After having translated a short story of Manto’s into English, Azad relaxed for a while and then took out an English translation of Chekhov’s short stories. He adjusted his posture, made some room for his feet on the study table by pushing the heap of books aside and busied himself with reading Chekhov. Immersed in reading, he didn’t notice the sound of blowing horn outside his room.
By the door of Azad’s faculty-hostel room sat a brand-new Land Cruiser. Its CD-player played recitation from the Holy Quran and on the driving seat sat Haji Sharif-ud-Din Sahib blowing the horn. Haji sahib,a colleague of Azad’s, thought he was not in the room when he did not turn up after his blowing of horn for two complete minutes. Just about to leave, Haji sahib thought of leaving a note for Azad to register his visit. So he locked the vehicle, crossed the ten-meter footpath, and pushed the door open only to see Azad adsorbed in reading.
Haji sahib had never imagined anyone so lost in reading that they could ignore the sound of the horn of his SUV.
“Assalam o Alaikum,” a frustrated Haji sahib said in an Arabic accent.
Azad turned to the left where Haji sahib stood dressed in an exquisite white shalwar-suit, a dark black waist-coat and an equally black turban. His shalwar was well above his ankles. Smelling of an imported fragrance Haji sahib was holding a Tasbeeh in his right hand.
“Wa-alaikum assalam, Haji sahib…” replied Azad. He was about to continue but Haji sahib cut him off.
“I’ve blown the hell out of the horn of my car but you seem to take no damn notice.”
“Oh, I’m really sorry Haji sahib,” continued Azad after a slight pause. “Actually, I was reading Chekhov and was trying to analyze his influence on Manto as he had translated Chekhov into Urdu. And Haji sahib, you know, all those who come to see me are mostly students of English language and literature who come on foot. That’s why, probably, I’m not used to responding to horns. Anyways, I’m sorry once again.” Azad was all apologies.
“Astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah. So you’ve read this provocative pornographer and boozer, Manto?” Haji sahib asked, sitting on Azad’s bed.
“Of course Haji sahib, ignoring Manto would be a huge mistake for any student of literature. He was a great short story writer and I think no writer is provocative. They just try to portray the society and …”
“One doesn’t become a great writer boozing all life and talking about prostitutes.” Haji sahib continued, “Forget about this bullshit. Actually I have come to tell you that tomorrow is the first of Ramadan and, as always, we’ve arranged for the recitation of the Holy Quran in Taraweeh in the university mosque. I want you to come and join us in …”
Haji sahib would have continued but was interrupted by his mobile phone’s beep.
“Yes, what happened now?” Haji sahib answered in a sharp tone. ”Yar, I’ve told this asshole to hold the flour. It will go up, but this motherfucker doesn’t understand. The government is keeping flour at 30 and we are selling at 35. Do you think this is profit?” Haji sahib scolded but the caller persisted.
“Ghani, you bloody well tell Rahim to lock the forty thousand tons of flour in godowns and go to the village for a week. In some days it will, inshallah, go up.”
Once more the caller tried in vain to convince Haji sahib whose temper was about to cross the threshold.
“You tell Rahim that his American MBA won’t work in Pakistan. I’ve been in this business for the last ten years and there hadn’t been even a single Ramadan when rates have not gone up. Our abba jan marhoom did the same whole his life. One of the first lessons he taught me was to hold the flour at the start of Ramadan and then wait for Allah’s blessings.”
But this is damn profiteering and hoarding, and why would Allah bless such an evil deed? Azad thought. And then why would anyone like Haji sahib do this? After all, he is a wealthy businessman, a lecturer in Islamiat, and also the head of a religious organization comprising youth of the university which preaches Islamic teachings to the students. But Azad’s mind didn’t help him. Probably, he was too busy locating Chekhovian shades in Manto’s writings.
“Oh yar, I would’ve come myself but this year I’ve to listen to the recitation of the Quran in Taraweeh as a Saame. And you better tell Rahim to keep his damn mouth shut and don’t try to impress me with his American accented English. You lock the godowns and go for Taraweeh. Tomorrow is the first of Ramadan. Moon has been sighted.”
Haji sahib terminated the call and addressed Azad who was standing in front of his bookshelf on which among other books Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto were sitting. While Haji sahib talked on the phone, Azad recalled a lengthy queue of working class people waiting for hours in front of a Utility Store to buy flour at Rs.30 per kg.
“I don’t know what the hell is wrong with our youth. They try to teach elders as if we are idiots and they have all the knowledge and wisdom in the world. Bloody morons!” Haji sahib was exasperated.
“I don’t think so Haji sahib,” said Azad. “Actually, the new generation has different perceptions of life. They try to understand and analyze life in a different manner and are not afraid of experimenting. At times, their experiments appear …”
“To hell with this youth and their experiments. I was going for Taraweeh and thought to take you along.”
Oblivious of Haji sahib’s reaction Azad said, “Actually I no longer offer Taraweeh for because I don’t …”
“La hola wala quwah! What the hell are you saying! Taraweeh is sunnat-e-muakkidah. How can you leave it?” Haji sahib got annoyed.
“Of late, I don’t feel like saying prayers so I don’t go to the mosque just to fill in the blank.” Azad tried to justify.
“Allah has asked us to pray, you feel like it or not.” Haji sahib said in a pure mullah tone.
“You are very right but …” Azad was about to say something in his defence but was interrupted by the ringing of Haji sahib’s mobile phone.
“Who the hell is it now!” Haji sahib took out his mobile from the pocket of his shalwar and switched on the loudspeaker of the phone.
“ What’s it now?” Haji sahib seemed to be in a hurry. While listening to the caller he took out his wallet from his shalwar-pocket and produced a worn out piece of paper. Then he began dictating some numbers to the caller.
“Don’t worry, I’ve transferred all the money from the local accounts to our Swiss account. These mother-fuckers deduct zakat on the first of Ramadan.” Haji sahib said after dictating the caller the number.
After saying Allah Hafiz to the caller Haji sahib switched off his mobile phone. He was about to deliver a full-length lecture to Azad regarding the blessings of saying prayers but a look on the wall-clock dissuaded him. Nine was about to be struck.
“I didn’t realize I am getting late. I should get going and you please do come for Taraweeh.”
Azad thought of asking Haji sahib to kindly explain the relationship between hoarding of thousands of tons of flour and non-payment of zakat with prayers. But before he was able to word his thoughts Haji sahib had left.
Azad heard the engine of the Land Cruiser roar. Das Kapital sat still and quiet on the bookshelf.
The next morning, the first of Ramadan, on his way to the classroom of MA English–2nd semester, Azad found three bearded young fellows engaged in a heated debate. They were trying to figure out whether one should consider eight rakaa’ts of Taraweeh authentic or twenty. Azad ignored them and went to his class.
Before commencing his lecture, Azad took a bird’s eye view of his class of sixty-odd students and as always began the lecture at 8:30.
“Well, friends, today we’ll talk about language and culture and their relationship.” Azad spoke in his Pakistani-English accent.
Azad had just started his lecture when he found a small group of students, of relatively unfamiliar faces, standing by the door of the classroom. Before Azad could ask them the reason for their presence one of the girls excused herself and said, “Sorry for the interruption Azad sahib. We are from the departments of sociology and philosophy. We’d learnt about your today’s lecture and wanted to attend it. Only if you don’t mind.”
“Be my guests.” Said Azad.
“And apologies for being late.” The girl said.
As the class was packed to its capacity, some of the boys vacated their seats for girls and stood at the back.
Halfway into his well-prepared lecture he found himself getting disturbed by the noise outside the classroom. He saw the same boys talking loudly still unable to decide the exact number of taraweeh. Azad sent one of his students to tell them that the lecture was in progress. When he came back, Azad’s curiosity got the better of him.
“Islamic Studies.” the boy replied.
“So do they attend any classes or discuss trivialities all day long?” Azad asked.
“Sir, this is the class of Haji Sharif-ud-Din sahib and as usual he is not there.”
For a moment Azad thought of sharing with the class Haji sahib’s preaching of last night but then decided otherwise. “Let’s not waste this time.” He thought and resumed his lecture.
“So, we see that language and culture are deeply and intricately related to each other. Our habits, ways of life, geography, and religion have a profound impact on our languages. For instance, we can see that the word ‘Ramadan’ has come from our religion. ‘Ramadan’ and ‘Eid’ are established institutions in our culture but we do not find these words in, say, Russian or Chinese or English as their cultures do not have these institutions. They instead have festivals like ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Easter’ and accordingly their languages have a repertoire regarding them.”
The mention of Ramadan triggered a young man to raise his hand.
“Yes, please,” said Azad.
“Do you fast, sir?”
“I don’t think my fasting has anything to do with the relationship of language and culture.”
The class laughed.
After the class, Azad went to the staff room where he was greeted with a booming voice of Haji sahib who was lecturing in an aggressive and emotional tone. Azad found an empty chair and filled it.
“Dear brothers, how shameful it is that many of the faculty members don’t fast, especially those of the philosophy department. And I’ve also heard that our VC doesn’t fast either. All of them have gone atheists.”
Backbiting! Which kind of fast Haji sahib fasts? Azad thought.
Haji sahib was about to continue but Azad interrupted him, ”Three of your boys, Haji sahib, are caught in a fix as to what is the exact number of Taraweeh. They need your help probably.”
“Dear Azad sahib, actually the boys are not attending my dars-e-Quran after the Zohr prayers. That’s why these differences are erupting among them.”
“You may think of going to their class.” Azad suggested humbly.
“Dear oh dear, the class timings are too early and my schedule doesn’t permit me to take the class. So I try to compensate for it in my dars,” Haji sahib explained.
What a peculiar way of discharging duties, Azad thought.
On the first Sunday of the Ramadan Azad got up late, took a frugal breakfast and was sipping tea while browsing through a book when he heard the sound of a car. Haji sahib knocked at his door, didn’t wait for the reply, and pushed it open. The very sight of Azad drinking tea on a Ramadan-day shocked Haji sahib.
“Astaghfirullah, astaghfirullah. So you don’t fast,” said an exasperated Haji Sahib.
Had Azad known about Haji sahib’s arrival he would have prepared some reasonable excuse or at least would have hidden his cup. But Haji sahib’s surprise arrival totally cornered him.
“No, Haji sahib, I don’t fast.” Azad said flatly.
“Azad sahib, it’s obligatory for every Muslim to fast, if he’s not sick or travelling. How the hell can you leave fasting?” Haji sahib was angry.
“A couple of years ago, Haji sahib, during the protests against Danish cartoons I received some serious injuries. One of my arms got fractured and my jaws were also broken. That year I was not able fast and since then I haven’t been able to muster enough strength to resume fasting.”
“But this is no damn justification.”
“You are very right Haji sahib. Actually, I’ve tried a couple of times but wasn’t able to get through. During fasts I couldn’t concentrate on my lectures for which I get paid. Hunger kills my concentration.”
“You can teach and the students can study the whole year. One month would hardly make any difference. You ought to honor your religious obligations as well.”
“Haji sahib, I’m a humble mortal. Not that I don’t fear Allah. I really do. I try to justify my pay; I don’t lie, cheat, backbite, hoard, or bother anyone. I try to teach with utmost honesty and passion. I don’t submit to any kind of pressure to promote students. I’ve made my work my worship.”
“La hola wala quwah, Azad sahib you may do all the good deeds in the world but if you don’t pray and fast you are hell-bound.”
“I try my best to fulfill Huqooq-ul-Ibad. As far as Huqooq-ullah are concerned, I think it’s between Allah and the man. He may forgive, He may not,” Azad said coolly.
Haji sahib felt a little cornered and said, “Anyways janab, I had come to take you to Zohr prayers but since you don’t fast what’s the use of offering namaz?”
Haji sahib turned to leave and Azad asked him, “Would you mind Haji sahib if I ask you a rather personal question?”
“No.” said Haji sahib reluctantly.
“Haji sahib, you mashallah belong to a wealthy family, you have your own business, then why this petty government job?”
“You’re damn right Azad sahib. Because Allah has been very kind to me so I want to serve the nation. I’ve vast reserves of knowledge which I want to share with the youth and being in a government job becomes very handy if you are doing business.”
After satisfying Azad’s curiosity, Haji sahib left.
After the Zohr prayer that day, Haji sahib went to his typical corner of the mosque. Shortly, his students joined him.
“Bismillah wal hamdulliah…” Haji sahib began his dars.
“Brothers, today I shall talk about the sanctity of Ramadan. You all are well aware of it but I want to draw your attention to the fact that many people around us are not fasting which is absolutely shameful and unacceptable. It’s our duty to stop these un-Islamic actions. This is for the good of us all,”–Azad was surely on Haji sahib’s mind–”and if it requires us being harsh, we shouldn’t mind it.” Haji sahib was emoting with a mixture of anger and religious pride.
The dars lasted for twenty minutes. After the dars was over Haji sahib held back few boys and started instructing them.
“Haji sahib if you order we can beat the hell out of him right now. Then instead of leaving fasts, he would preach to others to fast,” said one of the boys who had earlier been in a fix over the exact number of Taraweeh.
“Keep your damn voice low, bugger,” Haji sahib scolded him. “Just be on the lookout. First try to convince him verbally; if he argues, give him two, three.” Haji sahib sounded like a military commander.
On his way out of the mosque Haji sahib was called by Ghani on his mobile phone. Since he was driving he put the phone on hands-free and placed it on the dashboard.
“Bahi jan, besan’s demand has increased and our stock is running out. Two more days only.” Ghani’s voice jumped out of the phone’s speaker.
“You go to the godowns in the village, get the dals the last year, grind them and add to the besan.” Haji sahib offered him the solution.
“But those are rotten probably.”
“That’s why I’m telling you to do this, you damn moron! Who is going to ask? People will eat pakoras and our dals of the last year would be utilized too.”
“Okay, Bhai jan,” came a humbled reply.
In scorching heat, outside the Electronics Market, Azad was waiting with his repaired computer for a rickshaw. But there were no signs of one. After fifteen long minutes, a three-wheeler appeared. The driver drew a heavy bargain but Azad agreed. The sun was angry.
The rickshaw dropped Azad at the main entrance of the university. Azad paid the driver and started thinking how to transport the various components of his computer when he spotted five bearded young boys dressed in shalwar-kameez and turbans approaching him. Before Azad had figured out why, they were onto him. Two of the boys pushed him flat on the ground. One then pinned him down while the rest showered him with kicks. Azad’s frail body tried to withstand the attack on his chest and abdomen. But when two of the attackers started lashing his back with wire-locks, he couldn’t help crying.
He was about to lose consciousness when the bearded mujahedin stopped the attack, remarking, “This is far less than what you’d get in the afterlife for not fasting. Better start fasting now.”
Another said, “You might as well listen to us.”
The next morning, the always-punctual Azad’s absence was noticed. When the students of the English department learned that he had been hospitalized, they paid Azad a visit immediately.
When the students arrived, Azad was half-sitting half-lying on his bed, wrapped with a number of bandages. He had been severely beaten and struggled to sip soup from a bowl. Upon seeing Azad’s helplessness, a girl stepped forward and helped him. When the students asked him as to what had gone wrong, he narrated his encounter with the bearded boys.
Upon hearing this one of his student’s remarked, “So these are the puppies of Haji Sharif-ud-Din sahib.”
“Don’t accuse anyone without evidence.” Azad said in a stern tone.
“Evidence! You want evidence sir; my younger brother is a member of Haji sahib’s party. Some days back he told me they had thrashed a couple of teachers of philosophy as they don’t fast. I reported this to my father who expelled him from the home.”
“If you say sir, we can level the scores on the field,” another boy suggested.
“Don’t even think of this,” said Azad. “There must be some difference between them and you. I’ll try to resolve the matter amicably by writing to the VC so that he may take the necessary legal action.”
The next day Azad dictated one of his students an application regarding the incident and requested for the remedial action and compensation.
During his stay at the hospital, Azad was visited by various faculty members who paid him several visits. Most notable among the faculty was the vice chancellor who visited Azad twice and assured him that the culprits would be dealt with an iron hand. For Azad and his students it was a matter of great relief that the vice chancellor had guaranteed pursuing a case for expulsion of all those involved in this shameful act.
The day after being discharged from the hospital, Azad was at the VC’s office at 9. The VC, as usual, arrived late.
“Good that you visited. I was thinking of calling you,” the VC said while offering him a chair. ”Actually, Mr. Azad, this is a complicated matter.”
“Sir, I’ve only come here to know about the actions you’ve taken against the culprits?” Azad said, wondering what was complicated.
“This is the very problem I wanted to discuss; it has become a kind of an imbroglio.”
“Sir, if you want I can give you some information about those boys.”
“Thank you very much Azad sahib, I’ve got the complete record of them.” The VC said, pointing towards a bundle of files on his table.
“So what is stopping you from taking the necessary action?”
“Now this is the actual problem. These boys, you know, are of Haji sahib’s party and he personally came to tell me not to take any action against them.”
“Sir, this is going to set a very bad precedent and then you are the vice chancellor. Please don’t tell me you’d be dictated by a lecturer and that too when you know he’s wrong.” Anger surged in Azad’s heart and he made no effort to conceal it.
“Dear Mr. Azad, Haji sahib is not an ordinary lecturer. Do you know our minister of education is his business partner and the present governor had been a close friend of his father’s?”
“So you want to say that you’ve been pressured by that hypocritical hoarder and that you’re going to succumb to it!” Azad was shouting now.
“Don’t be so emotional. Frankly telling you, Haji sahib is influential enough to get even me sacked.”
“But sir …” Azad tried to say something but was interrupted by the VC.
“Listen to me patiently, Azad. Let’s suppose I take action against them. Haji sahib would get me sacked to avenge it and the next VC would surely expel you and may even write about you being anti-religion in your expulsion order. This way we both lose.”
Azad had never felt so helpless his whole life.
“Haji sahib and his party ask for your expulsion which I know is absolutely wrong but tell me what should I do, I have a family.”
“Do whatever you feel like, sir,” said a defeated Azad.
“I suggest you resign.” The VC gave him a sheet of paper and a pen.
Azad kept quiet.
“Or should I get your resignation typed?” The VC offered.
Azad remained quiet for what seemed to be an eternity. Ten minutes later the assistant brought in a typed paper. It was written that the undersigned was not able to concentrate on the sacred job of teaching because of familial commitments and therefore wanted to resign. Azad took a long look at the paper and finally signed it.
Azad left the VC’s office with heavy steps, went straight to his room and started packing his bags. He had no idea where he would go. All he wanted was to get out of the university as soon as possible.
On his way to the main gate of the university, Azad had to stop for a couple of times as his broken body was not able to carry the heavy luggage. When he reached the main gate, he felt thirsty and went to the nearby hut of the watchman to have a glass of water. After drinking, he came out only to find the three bearded youths standing outside to welcome him.
This time the mujahedin were economical with their efforts. A couple of punches, some kicks, and then they dragged him by his hair and threw him out of the main gate of the university. Azad cried with pain. They raised the slogan of Allah-u-Akbar with pride. After the Zohr prayers that day, the mujahedin reported to Haji sahib that the university had been cleansed of the existence of a non-praying, non-fasting kafir. Thus, the jihad of Haji Sharif-ud-Din which had started on the 1st of Ramadan ended successfully on the 27th.
Copyright © 2010 by Bilal Ibne Rasheed
Bilal Ibne Rasheed holds an MA in English language and literature and is presently learning the French language. He is also trying to unlearn whatever was taught to him in his home and school. Bilal contributes literary articles and book reviews to Pakistani English dailies The News and Dawn and blogs at ImpressionsnThoughts.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.