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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

Foreign Desk
Lumut, Pakistan: Queen's Street
by Abbas Zaidi ||
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I had to pull up as I took the right turn to enter Queen's Street. In front of me was a corpulent boy about 12 years of age, panting, terrified and pedaling laboriously on his bicycle. A furious-looking bare-footed woman in a long, flowing black-and-red tunic was chasing him, carrying a long, greenish bamboo stick in her hand, shouting and panting. The sweat on the boy's brown torso was shining in the sun; he was wearing something like white bikini briefs from which his enormous bottoms were trying to squeeze out. On the roadside stood a man wearing nothing but a dark orange loincloth, white joggers with long green socks and a huge black moustache, watching the chase; his mouth was wide open. They all looked Tamil.
     I managed to drive past them and found the house that the government had allotted me. Close to my gate stood an extremely thin bare-footed Tamil-looking boy about five years of age; he was wearing the Batman costume, holding the Batman mask in one hand and a big toy machine gun in the other; an enormous fake moustache was his most pronounced facial feature. He was looking up at the mango-laden tree inside my house. He fired the gun at us and ran away.
     I got out of the car; it was a hot tropical afternoon. I looked around. The houses were huge with very big side lawns. But the front lawns were rather small; so the only neighbor one could really have was the one living in front. I unlocked the gate and we went in. Shazia liked it very much: There were a number of rooms upstairs and on the ground floor, and all household facilities were provided. Our housemaid was supposed to arrive in a week's time; so keeping up the house would not be a problem. I could not have asked for more; but I was a bit puzzled, if not upset. Haji Qadi, the government housing officer, had laconically told me that no one had stayed in that house more than a month. Upon my query, he said that people would just request a transfer without telling why.
     Was it a haunted house? Not at all, said Haji Qadi.
     I was too tired to think about the matter after having lived in a miserable tiny "standard" room of Hotel New Age for three months, awaiting my posting. Moreover, my wife was seven months pregnant and needed a better place. I never told her of Haji Qadi's statement. After travelling four hundred kilometers from Tilong City----the capital of Tilong----to Lumut I wanted to leave everything behind.
     As I relaxed in the living room, Shazia started placing a doll house, a baby walker and a number of Disney toys in a corner; she had bought all kinds of toys----in case it would be either a boy or a girl----that were meant to last for months, perhaps years. At that moment, a pungent rose scent hit my nostrils, and the doorbell rang. I opened the door. It took me a few seconds to recognize the visitors: They were the four characters that I had seen moments before. The woman was wearing a glowing star-studded orange sari and the pieces of jewelry were laden on her from head-pins to tinkling anklets like the mangoes on the tree that stood in my lawn; the man a blue polo shirt, denim jeans, a huge diamond ring and a number of thick gold chains around his neck; the fat boy was wearing a formal suit and two gold pins were fixed to the tie. The Batman was now in a policeman's uniform, minus the moustache; there was a cigarette stuck at the back of his left ear; a set of handcuffs was hanging down his neck.
     They just barged in and made themselves comfortable on the sofas. Before we could start a conversation, the Batman went up to Shazia, saluted her formally, took two steps back, dashed to the corner where she had placed the toys, and rushed out of the house with Tarzan and Pink Panther, leaving her breathless.
     The woman almost shouted at Shazia in Tamil followed by the man who spoke in soft English,
     'Don't suppress your brain. Raj is just a naughty boy. We will steal your toy from him when he is sleeping.'
     At that, his wife spoke to me in Tamil in a high tone, if not somewhat shrill. She shook her head as she spoke, a typical Tamil style. Now the man addressed me:
     'Actually, Raj was born premature in India. Our midwife said he will not be surviving, but we take him to our village priest who said he will be survive if we reciting some special mantras for two months without seeing the sun. Arti and I did that. It was extremely painful for us and my in-law family, but he survived. That is why we do not say anything to him. He no eating much!'
     The man was Kumar, his wife Arti, and his elder son Dilip. Without my asking he said that he was 45, his wife 28 and the kids the same age as I had thought. He lived opposite my house. To my happy surprise, I learned that Kumar was a physics teacher in the same college where I had been posted. He said that the college was five minutes' drive from Queen's Street.
     'All the shops here are Tamil. You can purchase even the urine of a lizard from them!' he proudly said, and asked me to accompany him to the shops just outside the Queen's Street to familiarize myself with the people and the place. I wanted to stay home. Arti said something emphatically to me as if making a point. At that, Kumar gently but firmly grabbed my wrist and almost dragged me out saying,
     'No need to ashame! I am introduce you with all the shopkeepers. They will be becoming your slaves. Your wife only phone them and they bring everything on special discount.'


There were many food stalls and general stores just up from Queen's Street. The stalls and stores were all owned by the Malays; however, the stalls were run by the Malays and the stores were run by the Tamils. On seeing Kumar, a number of Tamils, the workers in the area, came rushing and flocked around him. He seemed to be their undisputed leader. The workers there addressed him as "Sir" or "Professor". I thought I also heard "Your Honor"; I am not sure. Kumar talked to them for a while, totally ignoring me, as I stood silent and stupefied. As he talked, he constantly and loudly broke wind. After quite a while he realized my presence and pointed his finger at me, saying something aloud. At that the workers pounced upon me, shaking my hand and in some cases hugging me. Kumar said aloud,
     'Never mind if he Pakistani; he not like those arroganting Indians. That is why he choosing house in our area!'
     A man brought a drink in a disposable glass and gave it to Kumar; he took a sip, nodded in approval and returned the glass to him. The man gave me the glass. Said Kumar,
     'Good soft drink; no alcohol mix; I just verified it myself.'
     To my embarrassment everyone stared at me without saying a thing while I drank. Kumar also stared at me constantly while whispering to a worker who constantly nodded while staring at me.
     'All the workers in this area and many other areas in Lumut are coming from my and Arti's village in India. My village's population is fifty thousands. In our village no facility or education or electricity, but we hardworking people, so we like to survive. Like our fathers and mothers before, we walk two hours to get water from the river. But now, with my own money, I build a tube well that is operating by petrol. Now people coming to my tube well to get free water. But still water problem exist. We have no drain system; next year I building a drain as big as the Ganges and many public toilets. But we are good people. Our one villager when goes abroad, he pulls many fellow villagers and help and shelter them,' Kumar introduced the crowd to me. Then he translated his speech into Tamil, and all the people around nodded and sloganeered,
     "Professor Kumar good!"
     "Sir Kumar money!"
     "He water!"
     "Sir give toilet!"
     After I finished the drink and wanted to go home, Kumar asked me to make a donation for the Tamil workers of Lumut.
     'This thing is very important. We are sure this time Rajan Rajoo will fight elections and we want him to become our chief minister…'
     'Ooooo!!!!!' the workers exclaimed, 'Rajoooooooo!!!!' and 'My love Rajooooo!!!' and 'My life Rajooooo!!!!'
     'We are,' Kumar continued, 'asking donations so that at the time of election we all go to Tamil Nadu and vote him. These poor workers are not earn like us teachers and cannot hire aeroplanes, but for Rajan Rajoo's election we will all hire a ship to go. '
     'Who is Rajan Rajoo?' I asked.
     Kumar was shocked! His body language shocked all the workers around, too. It took him a full ten seconds to recover.
     'He is the greatest hero of the world! He is our movie hero! He in more than two hundred movies! He always kill the criminal people and corrupt people! All people of Tamil Nadu want him to become our chief minister. Why not? Many actors have become chief ministers of Tamil Nadu who were not great like my Rajoo. One day he will be our India prime minister. We want him win Nobel Prize for braveness! He is like us. He also come from backward village like us. We have same background. Our national and state elections will be holding anytime from now and Rajoo will announce his political party anytime now, But we also know from radio and newspapers and magazines that the present state government is afraiding of his popularity, so they will try to harm or kill him. I swear upon three thousand Hindu gods that if something like that happening, we all bringing a revolution in Tamil Nadu. We can all die and kill for Rajan Rajoo!'
     That was the first and last time that Kumar spoke with such a passion. Then he and the workers talked for a long time, in which Rajan Rajoo's name was mentioned many times, which brought proud smiles and a lot of excitement amongst them.
     I did not have my wallet, so I said I would make a donation later.
'Why was your wife running after Dilip?' I asked as we were returning to my house.
     'I am hoping that you are understanding that he is slightly overweight. My wife is wanting him to drive the cycle but he don't want, so she have to take action.'
     'Why does Raj wear a fake moustache? And why does he have a cigarette stuck in the back of his ear?'
     'He idealizing Rajan Rajoo! He has seen all his movies. He want to destroy crimes when he become young man, so from now he is copying him. I will be happy if Raj destroy criminals of our society. His cigarette style is like Rajan Rajoo. Rajan Rajoo is doing many tricks with a cigarette and destroying bad characters of society.' Kumar then bent his head over my shoulder and whispered, 'The cigarette on Raj's ear is not real; it is a pen and the butt end is its cap. Raj will never be cigaretting in his life!'
     It was night time when we returned. Before entering my gate, I saw a life-size poster of a mustachioed man stuck on the outer wall of Kumar's living-room wall, around which tiny fancy bulbs were twinkling in a circle. The man was posing with a gun, and bullet belts were striped all over his naked torso.
     'Rajan Rajoo!' Kumar snickered.


At home the scene was extraordinary. Raj was playing with the toys and had broken some of them. Dilip was sitting beside what used to be the dollhouse; he was blushing. Some mechanical tools and a scotch dispenser tape were lying around. Nearby on the carpet, the dinner was ready. Kumar's wife said something to me. Kumar addressed me:
     'We want Dilip to become a civil engineer. We always asking him to engineerize things at home and he make and fix many useful things. Arti ask him to strengthen your dollhouse. But sometime he make mistakes. But do not worry, Arti will beat him later for destroying it.'
     At that, Arti said something and 'Let us finish dinner!' Kumar announced. Dilip and Raj also joined us. As we were eating, there was a disturbance just outside my door. I opened the door and discovered an army of Tamil workers. 'They are wanting the donation!' Kumar shouted from the carpet; his voice had not lost its softness.
     'How much?' I asked, frightened. I had only five hundred dollars with me.
     'Five dollars OK.'
     The mob returned after showering innumerable thank-yous on me.
     We went to bed immediately after the Kumars had left. As expatriates, we knew that educated Tamils spoke perfect English. Kumar's English was very poor, and his wife did not know a word. Arti had told Shazia that she was a science graduate. Both Shazia and I agreed that they were a family without as much as a trace of pretentiousness. As we were talking, I heard Kumar call out my name. I went to the balcony. He and Arti were standing in their balcony. Underneath them, the house and the lawns were alive with people. Arti said something, and Kumar said that everyone was grateful to me for the donation, and that he would lead me to the college next morning. I said my thanks and returned to bed. Before we slept we heard Kumar, his wife and male voices. We also heard cars honk as they passed by, the honking followed by Arti's shouts. We were too tired, and slept within moments.
Next morning as I came out to leave for the college, I saw Kumar and his kids sitting in a car. A number of workers----I had seen them the previous day----were trying to push-start it. After a while, he and his kids got in my car and those guys pushed the car elsewhere. I talked to Dilip; his English was good. He was very polite, but Kumar would scold him off and on for some reason. Raj also managed to communicate in English. During their journey to school in my car, Raj struck Dilip time and again. Dilip seemed to accept it patiently; Kumar just smiled.


I spent a busy day: telephone office, electricity department, water management authority, and a new account with a bank, among others. I returned home late afternoon. Shazia had also been busy decorating the house. In the evening, she drove to a gynecologist and I came out to inspect Queen's Street. At one end there were shops and stalls that I had visited the previous day; at the other end was a big playground. There were forty houses, twenty on each side, each house facing another. The road was rather narrow. There were two narrow rainwater drains passing in front of the houses on both sides. Next to the gate of every house was a lamppost. As the sun went down, all the lights went on and made the street well-lit, but the lampposts of my and Kumar's houses did not light up. Yet our fronts were not totally dark; the light coming from other lampposts was good. Upon close examination, I discovered that the bulbs and the glass casings on the two lampposts had been broken. Kumar came out to ask why I was there. I asked him about our lampposts.
     'Some people in this street are no good and misbehave like James Bond.'
     As I was speaking to Kumar, the lawn of his house began to be alive with the workers. At that Kumar left, and soon it became a different place: A cassette player was playing Tamil songs. Arti was coming in and out, and the people there seemed to be at her beck and call. Raj was running around hiding behind trees and plants, firing at imaginary enemies and constantly falling down as if shot dead. Dilip was holding a rope and would start jumping when Arti came out and would stop when she went in. Some people began watering the plants, some cutting grass, some playing cards, some standing in a corner and talking; some were reading magazines. Many people started appearing from the house sporting only loincloths on their bodies and wiping themselves with towels, some brushing their teeth with small tree branches. In one corner someone was massaging Kumar; a few of them began cooking in the front of the lawn on the traditional Indian clay stoves. Everyone seemed busy doing something. Soon a number of them lined up, and one by one they started using a cordless phone. At that moment Shazia came, and I returned home. But in a minute or two, the doorbell rang. It was Kumar with a number of workers. Beyond Kumar's shoulder I saw one worker washing my car as at least ten workers watched him. Beyond all of them was standing Arti, close to her gate, wearing the same black-and-red tunic.
     'As you are fully knowing these people are not as rich as we; so they are requesting you to give your mangoes, which they will sell. They will give you some. I also give them my mangoes. If you give them mangoes, I tell you a good secret,' said Kumar, as the crowd around him nodded in appreciation and expectation.
     I was puzzled; I was too new there to refuse. I said yes and Kumar nodded at them, and they flew to the mango tree like lightning and within minutes no mango was left. They left my house and Kumar told me the secret:
     'You know our houses are too big and we need not many rooms; so I have given some rooms to ten people and they give me hundred dollars each. In this way I help them because they cannot find cheap accommodation; they pay me and I earn one thousand every month. You can also have many tenants. You know they are reliable; I know them; they are from my village.'
     I said I was too tired and would think about that later. I did not tell that to Shazia, but decided to refuse the offer politely one of these days. I went to bed. Shazia was sleeping. I did some reading; soon there was a repeat of the previous night's noise: Arti, Kumar, and some males speaking aloud in Tamil, cars passing by, honking, and Arti shouting.


'Why were people lining up last night?' I asked Kumar, as I took him to the college next morning. His car did not start on that day, either.
     'I allow them to phone their people in India. When my bill is coming, they pay.'
     There was nothing much to do that day, so I returned home and relaxed all afternoon. In the evening we went out for dinner. As we left the house, the crowd in Kumar's house was repeating the previous night's activities. They all waved and whistled at us in good spirit.
Next day was Sunday. In the evening, Shazia and I decided to pay a courtesy visit to the Kumars. We passed the gate and no one seemed to be around. But as we moved forward we heard some noise. The doors of the living room were open; it was packed with bare-chested workers; only Arti's body was hidden under the same tunic. All of them were crying, even Raj was sobbing in Arti's lap. As we proceeded we found that they were watching a Tamil movie in which Rajan Rajoo (I could recognize him!) had been shot and was uttering a high-pitch monologue in the lap of a hysterically crying beautiful woman. Dilip was sitting in a corner, dozing off. No one paid us attention. Rajan Rajoo died amidst a song and the movie ended. Kumar and Arti greeted us.
     'Every Sunday we see Tamil movie by our Rajan Rajoo. In this movie saving his people from bad characters dies Rajan Rajoo. He defused the bomb in the vegetable pick-up, but the enemy killed him; but he killed all before he dead,' said Kumar, sad but reassured.
     We returned home after a while. After supper I decided to stay downstairs in my study and have tea there. At that moment I heard Arti's voice followed by many other voices; there were a few honks too. Shazia went up to change clothes before making tea for us, and I plucked One Hundred Years of Solitude from a shelf.
     I realized that Shazia had been upstairs longer than she usually took. A car honked. I heard Arti shout. Shazia returned, rushing. Too upset to speak. Had she seen an evil spirit in the house? Or something else?
     'I cannot stay in this house a minute! The first thing you do in the morning is go back to Tilong City, get a new house or I am going back to the hotel!'
     'Go to the balcony!'
     I went to the balcony upstairs. Kumar, Arti, Raj, Dilip, and at least a dozen workers were lining up, sitting on their haunches over the rainwater drain. Their lower dresses were missing as they were all defecating. Raj was not wearing anything at all; he was holding his gun with one hand and nibbling at a long, thin carrot in the other. Dilip was carefully studying a harmonica. A worker was sitting on Arti's left and they were talking non-stop; he was holding up a paper cone from which both of them were eating popcorn. On Arti's right sat Kumar; he had a tiny branch with which he was brushing his teeth and also using it to draw something on the ground, discussing the drawing with a worker sitting on his left; he was the man Kumar was whispering to as I drank the soft drink two days before. At a little distance from Kumar and his interlocutor three workers were talking as if in secrecy; further left were sitting three more workers: One of them was trying to find a wavelength on his portable radio as two workers on his left and right attentively observed the radio. At the farthest end were a few more; some of them were quiet, some talking. In front of every one of them was placed an earthen water bucket. Arti looked up at me but did not pay attention. Raj loaded his gun and pulled the trigger at me. Kumar, his interlocutor and the rest of them also looked up and some of them waved at me good-naturedly. A car passed by and honked; Arti shouted something angrily at it. At that Kumar addressed me,
     'Now you know why I don't want bulbs on this street?'


I promised Shazia that I would convince Kumar to stop that or else we would change the house. I did not want to leave such a great house.
     I went to speak to Kumar in the science department; but he was glued to the phone; he seemed extremely distracted. He did not pay me attention, though I waited long. He spoke very loudly; obviously he was making overseas calls one after the other. I decided to see him in the evening; but in the evening Kumar's house was totally dark and empty of people. Even the Rajan Rajoo poster was not there. Next morning I learnt that Kumar was on leave for two weeks. From that point on, everything changed. Although Kumar, Arti, their kids and the entire army of the workers were all there, they seemed cut off from the world around them. They would not even acknowledge my presence or gestures; even so in the stores. I could only feel tension and anger building up in my neighborhood; no more. In the evening they would remain shut in; no lights; no honks, no Arti interjections. Shazia told me that during the day a number of trucks and vans had come and gone from Kumar's house; she also said that Dilip and Raj had stopped going to school. Suddenly all the stores put up signs of "Mega Sale!" and "Bumper Sale!" Things were sold cheaply and immediately. As I was trying to make some sense out of that, I did not realize that I was in for another shock: In a few days' time everyone--Kumar, his family and all the workers--disappeared. But their very disappearance catapulted them into a very palpable presence, and everyone seemed to be directly or indirectly affected by the traces of what used to be Kumar and his lost tribe: Soon the owners of the stores and Kumar's house broke the locks to discover nothing in them; the two Lumut-based banks, the American Express and electricity, water and telephone departments were looking for them. Their disappearance was the topic of every Lumut gathering. The rumor was that an official investigating team from Tilong City was on its way. The team never came. The local media did not pay attention to the matter because it was preoccupied with the fast approaching haze from Indonesian forest fires. Only a brief report appeared in a newspaper which said that a group of people riding donkeys was spotted crossing the Hanching river and moving into the neighboring littoral state of Sarawak; but no one knew their identity as their movement took place in the middle of the night.

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