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The Shadows
by Abbas Zaidi


The first of every month was a time of great tension and excitement on Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street, situated in the heart of Usmanpur, a village in the suburbs of Multan. Those who had the money for their rents gloated over Khurram Pig's abusive treatment of the more impecunious tenants (everybody called him "Pig" and without this appellation no one knew who was being referred to). Some smart alecks, despite not being able to pay on time, got round Khurram Pig by relating to him some neighborhood sex story in which he could be a vicarious participant.
     But this time it was altogether a different story. It was the first of October, and every tenant was anticipating some fun. At the end of Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street--the entire street was owned by our landlord--a big stage had been carefully prepared and about a hundred seats neatly arranged. Khurram Pig had let it be known that there would be a lavish dinner preceded by devotional qavalis followed by a mujra of Multan's best dancing girls. He had also announced that the tenants could pay their rents on the 7th, a one-week reprieve. 'It is a great day in our lives,' he said, but did not say why.
When I came out onto the street that day expecting some free food and fun, I found instead a commotion in which Sham's voice was raised above all the others. 'I will burn the whole Multan University! I will burn the whole country if I have to! All these mother-fucking pseudo-intellectuals are just jealous of our beloved doctor! Bring me a man in the entire universe who is worth the dust off our doctor's feet!' he was yelling in his high-pitched voice.
     I pushed a few spectators aside for a better view. All the tenants were there, along with a number of other people from the neighborhood. A nervous Khurram Pig was also there, his Turkish fez tending toward the right side of his head. In the center of the crowd Imtiaz, our landlord, sat in a high-back upholstered chair. Sham was standing nearby as if guarding him. Imtiaz had a serene look on his face and kept telling Sham in a quiet voice to calm down: 'You can't change the world, my dear! Truth-seekers are always undermined. The Shias curse three out of the four pious Caliphs of Islam. The Jews disobeyed Allah again and again and pestered every single one of His apostles. Look what happened to Prophet Muhammad himself! People called him a false prophet! Allah's blessing be on him! Amen!'
     'Amen!' Sham shouted, the rest also shouted Amen in response.
     'You are a saint' Sham continued, 'but I myself cannot take it anymore! I have requested you many times to migrate to America where they will properly honor you. This unfortunate country does not deserve a genius like you!'
     'If every competent person leaves Pakistan, the place will collapse and the Shias will take over,' Imtiaz replied with a patient tone, his head cast down, his reading glasses resting in his cupped hands.
     'Then you should lead a jihad against the Shias. I tell you...'
     While Sham continued his invectives I pulled a fellow tenant away from the crowd. What he told me was this: Imtiaz had obtained a Ph.D. by correspondence in phonology from the University of Sub-Sahara based in Nigeria. It was in celebration of that Ph.D. that this grand function had been planned. Imtiaz had invited the Multan University professors and important city dignities to the function, but none had shown up.
     While the tenant was still talking to me, Sham shouted, 'Down with the conspirators! Let us celebrate Doctor Imtiaz's great academic victory!'
     Khurram Pig shouted at us tenants to hurry up, and we quickly sat down in the seats in front of the stage. All else there were locals: laborers, sweepers, stray-dog killers, grass-cutters and drug addicts. The prospect of free food and fun had excited them beyond their limits, making the event very lively.
     Sham once again started to speak, but this time he made a lofty speech about Imtiaz's genius and greatness. He would have gone on forever, but suddenly the in-charge of the Usmanpur police station appeared on his horse and Sham abruptly fell silent. Khurram Pig made a dash and got hold of the horse reins as the police officer got off. Imtiaz stood up, hugged him and took him to the stage where the two of them shared the red arabesque sofa. Khurram Pig brought him a soft drink, sat down on the floor, took off the officer's shoes and started massaging his feet. The presence of the police officer had made everyone alert. After that an old man, a janitor in a nearby factory, stood up, salaamed the police officer and began praising Imtiaz,
     'Now that we have our own doctor, we will not have to go to the city for treatment. I request our respected doctor not to charge us like other doctors, as we are poor. I wish he had become doctor before now and saved some of us who died before their time.'
     At that all the other locals applauded enthusiastically. From his position at the police officer's feet Khurram Pig looked at us threateningly and we also clapped.
     In response to the janitor's speech Imtiaz began by thanking the police officer ('My brother!') for coming over. After that he said that he was too busy with his scholarly research to start a clinic for the locals ('Maybe some other time.'). Then he talked for a long time about Pakistan's need for and his own fascination with phonology ('If you can't get your language right, you can't get anything right!'), his four-year stay in England, the ignorance of the Multan University professors, the Jewish-Shia conspiracy against Pakistan and Islam and, finally, his travels abroad where he had gotten opportunities to learn and teach. Whenever Imtiaz paused, Sham raised his hand and the local people clapped. Then Khurram Pig raised his own hand and we tenants did the same.
     The food was modest but we fell on it like hungry animals. After food Sham left the stage and slipped the linen cloth off a brand new 800cc Suzuki car parked nearby. Everyone ooed and aahed. Then a tractor appeared to which was attached a long, battered trolley. Sham placed one flower wreath and a five-rupee-bill wreath over Imtiaz's head and one over the police officer's, and opened the back door of the car. Imtiaz and the police officer squeezed in, and Sham assumed the driver's seat. Khurram Pig ordered the locals and the tenants onto the trolley, and our procession started towards the city center, Imtiaz's car in the lead. Throughout the journey Khurram Pig called out prompts to which we replied in unison:
     'Who will outlive allÍ?'
     'Doctor Imtiaz!'
     'Doctor Imtiaz is the Lion, the rest are...?'
     'Sheep! Sheep!'
     'Time and tide wait only for...?'
     'Doctor Imtiaz!'
     Throughout the ride the emergency lights of the car were blinking and Sham's hand remained stuck out of the car window, making a victory sign. The procession paused near the Multan University Staff Colony so that we could shout, 'Down with the pseudo-intellectuals! Down with the conspirators! Down with the Jewish agents!' A number of professors appeared along with their families and some curious passersby. At that I slumped down in the rear corner of the trolley in order not to be seen.
     At that moment Sham sprang out of the Suzuki and opened its back door. With considerable grace Imtiaz climbed out as well, raised his hand in appreciation towards us, made a victory sign with the other hand towards the University people, took off his wreaths, threw them in their direction, and got back in the car. The procession started back to Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street.
The next day was Friday. In the late morning Khurram Pig herded all the tenants over to the mosque where a number of locals were already sitting on the carpeted floor. As was his custom every Friday, Imtiaz was seated on a chair up on the mimbar from where he seemed about to start his Friday sermon. But he did not start until the police officer turned up, a presence that always created a sense of awe amongst the people, and in case of Khurram Pig, terror. Imtiaz introduced him a hundredth time after which he gave a long sermon which was actually a synopsis of what he said was his Ph.D. dissertation. I was not sure if anybody, including myself, understood anything. But whenever he paused the entire congregation applauded, prompted by the raised hands of Sham and Khurram Pig. Imtiaz announced that in a month's time he would be going to the UK to discuss with the relevant authorities the possibility of setting up a Multan campus of Cambridge University under his own rectorship. Finally, after the Friday prayer, Imtiaz climbed down from his throne and retired with the police officer to the East-West Restaurant at the end of the Blessed Companions of the Prophet Street.


     Usmanpur was an extremely backward village with very few civic amenities. There was no drainage system, and the Street was soft with filth. It was entirely owned by Imtiaz. In the past he had worked in Saudi Arabia where he made good money with which he bought a piece of the Multan suburbs where he had constructed this little real estate empire. Sham, his childhood friend, was from the same village as Imtiaz, a hamlet about four hundred miles from Multan.
     There were fourteen double-storey houses on both sides of the Street. At one end was a small Aurengzeb mosque and at the other the small East-West Restaurant, both owned by Imtiaz. The general state of the dwellings was very bad: dilapidated rooms, ineffably dirty communal toilets, moss-blighted bathrooms. No one was allowed to use electricity after seven in the evening. Even so, it was convenient for some of us to live there, as it took only a few minutes to get to the city center or the university by bus, van or donkey-driven cart. Also, the rents were very cheap.
     Imtiaz lived on the ground floor of one of the houses, and Sham lived on the floor above with his wife. Sham's wife observed complete traditional purdah. No one saw her face or even her hands, because she always wore black gloves. She led such a cloistered life that no one, not even a woman friend, was ever seen visiting her. Khurram Pig lived somewhere outside the immediate neighborhood, but was present on the Street from morning till night. He was responsible for collecting rents and kicking out undesirable and deadbeat tenants, and he did so in the most disgraceful manner. He also kept all the rooms overcrowded by adding new tenants at will and by requiring existing tenants to move into other rooms, seemingly at a whim. The tenants comprised struggling students, underpaid clerks, unemployed youth from villages looking for jobs in Multan and scores of indigent nonentities. No unmarried woman or Shia was allowed even to be seen on the Street, and every new tenant was required to swear that he was not a Shia. But soon I discovered that most of the students there were in fact Shias, like myself.
     Every tenant, especially those who were kicked out of their dwellings, added to the stock of stories about Imtiaz and Sham. Those two, along with Khurram Pig, were always the hot topics of conversation. Like every other prospective tenant I had been interviewed by Imtiaz in his library in the back of the Aurengzeb Mosque (named after the eighteenth century Mogul King who persecuted Shias). There were two glass cabinets filled with 'O' level books, dictionaries and texts on topics ranging from chemistry to literature. During the interview Imtiaz freely dropped literary terms, watching me expectantly each time he did so. I told him that despite being an English literature student at the Multan University my grasp of the subject was not half as good as his own. He accepted me immediately as a tenant.
     Every evening some tenants and locals gathered in the East-West restaurant because the electricity restriction did not apply there. That was also where Imtiaz held court. He always had a book or magazine in his hand and talked incessantly about every topic under the sun. Sham would either arrive with him or show up shortly thereafter. He never sat on the same level as Imtiaz and usually preferred to stand behind him. But at the slightest indication from Imtiaz he would pull up a small chair and sit down, his hands locked together in his lap and his head cast down. Occasionally he looked up into Imtiaz's face but only to support a point that his mentor was making, nodding in approval or shaking it to deplore what Imtiaz was criticizing.
     'I see innumerable vices about,' Imtiaz would say, and Sham would look around suspiciously. 'That makes me angry.'
     Sham's face flushed and his lips began to tremble in anger. 'But then when I ponder on some finer aspects of life, like newborn babies or my own intellectual pursuits, I experience a great sense of happiness,' and Sham's face glowed with happiness, his eyes shining ecstatically. 'But the point is that the Shias, being in the minority, cannot take over the government. That's why they are conspiring with the Jews to capture Islamabad,' at which Sham's hands looked like someone restraining himself from doing some terrible violence.
     'Can you not form an army of Islam and destroy them?' Sham asked. And Imtiaz would say, 'We must wait for the right time. Let their friends, the Jews, destroy the West and weaken themselves beyond repair. Then we shall deal with them all....
     'In London I was solicited by many women. At times they entered my bathroom naked.' At which Sham blushed crimson and could not even bear to raise his eyes. 'But I preserved my virginity. My personal philosophy of life is very rigorous,' and a proud, victorious Sham shot us a victorious look and then stared adoringly at Imtiaz.
     But Sham was not merely a passive supporter. Sometimes Imtiaz broke off in the middle of his homily, gave Sham a meaningful look and his assistant would take over for him.
     'What,' Imtiaz said one day after the Ph.D. procession 'can I say about the Multan University?' and glanced at Sham.
     'That third-rate university? Where the only thing the professors do is collect their salaries and have a nice time with the female students? And look at the Shias! They are taking over. This will become a Shia University.'
'But less than one percent of the teachers are Shia," I once said. 'I know because I study there.'
     Sham stared at me furiously, but before he could say or do anything Imtiaz added quietly, 'No, they are actually in majority. They pretend not to be Shias but actually they are working against Pakistan.'
'Yes they are hiding their identity!' Sham shouted. 'Doctor Imtiaz is right. How dare you challenge him!'
'Calm down,' Imtiaz told him. 'He is new and does not know that the Shias are imitating the Jews' tactics.' Imtiaz gave me a kindly look, and then Sham smiled at me as well.
     'There might be some Shias amongst our tenants!' Sham said.
Imtiaz darted a suspicious look at Khurram Pig.
     'I shall kick them back into their mothers' wombs,' Khurram Pig shouted.
     Imtiaz laughed. 'Yes! The bastards! You are a nice pig, Khurram!'
     As the tenants before us did, we gave various names to the relationship between Imtiaz and Sham. The day I arrived on the Street I heard Sham being called 'Imtiaz's dog'. In a week's time the tenants read a small poster in one of the houses calling Sham 'Imtiaz's wife'. We were all afraid at that but nothing happened. Once Khurram Pig mentioned the poster in good humor and everyone became relaxed. Whenever Imtiaz and Sham were seen together, the tenants began whispering about 'the odd couple'. If one of them was absent it was whispered that the wife/husband was missing. But that did not last long because Sham was married, while Imtiaz was not. Besides, Imtiaz was thin, bald and clean-shaven; Sham was well-built, hairy and had a beard. Imtiaz was over fifty and Sham was in his mid-forties. Although Sham's wife observed purdah and no one had ever seen her, some tenants who were Khurram Pig's good friends said, though half-seriously, that, given Sham's obsequiousness, Imtiaz must be sleeping with Sham's wife. For a while that idea became very popular with the tenants. But Sham's demeanor in the presence of his wife was quite macho. When, on rare occasions, he went out with her he walked a few steps in front, the mark of male dominance, his head held high and his chest expanded, making him quite a different person. We all respected his wife for being a purdah-observing woman, a mark of honor and pride for a woman in an Islamic society.
     After the Ph.D. celebration we finally settled on a permanent name for Sham: 'Imtiaz's Shadow'.


     'Why hasn't Imtiaz married so far?'
     'Why is he so much against the Shias and the Jews?'
     These were the two questions that we Shias used to ask each other in private. Soon we were to get the answers as Imtiaz left for the UK.
     Twice a year Imtiaz went abroad for research. At that time Sham would also leave town and go to his village with his wife. As per his announcement in the mosque following his Ph.D., Imtiaz left for the UK and Sham for his village. He or Sham did not meet any one of us; the news was broken by Khurram Pig. After Imtiaz's departure Khurram Pig was the ruler of the Street. He would spend almost the entire day in my room, and soon a number of like-minded tenants turned it into a common room where Khurram Pig presided in style. One evening as we were eating roasted chicken that was bought after pooling money, Khurram Pig surprised us by saying that he had a bachelor's degree in economics. But the bolt from the blue fell on us when after supper he produced a bottle of whiskey from his bag. Perhaps he knew that most of us tenants drank; maybe he had smelt alcohol in a number of rooms. Anyhow, within two weeks after Imtiaz's departure, he had become our comrade. Then, one evening as we were drinking cheap whiskey and discussing the rise of religious fanaticism in Pakistan, we made another shocking discovery: Khurram Pig was an Ahmedi! The Ahmedis were even more persecuted and despised than the Shias. Under some circumstances Imtiaz might have tolerated a Shia; but having an Ahmedi on his Street was out of the question. And yet there Khurram Pig was, working for him!
     For as long as Imtiaz and Sham were away--about two months--Khurram Pig joined us every evening, drinking alcohol and revealing secret after secret. One evening he said that he had to pretend to be anti-Shia and anti-Jewish because he did not want to lose his job, even though for years Imtiaz had paid him only a fraction of his rightful salary. But he was clever enough to get even by putting up tenants without keeping any records. He told us that Imtiaz was once given a government-sponsored 'backward area uplift scholarship' to study in London for a BA. Some of his teachers and classmates there had been Jews and Shias. He spent four years trying unsuccessfully to get a degree while everyone else passed their own. He was sure he had failed only because the Jewish teachers were anti-Islamic and anti-Pakistani. When he returned he did a master in phonetics by correspondence from some African university and applied for a teaching position in the Multan University. The validity of his degree was challenged by a competing candidate who happened to be a Shia. Imtiaz's application was rejected and the other man got the job. Khurram Pig also told us that Imtiaz was married a long time ago, but soon after the marriage his wife eloped with a Shia.


     It had been six weeks since Imtiaz and Sham were gone. As the winter was approaching its coldest part and examination time was drawing near, we, the student tenants, decided to go see a movie before buckling down to our studies. Khurram Pig decided to accompany us to the late show. It was about one in the morning when we returned from the cinema. As our auto-rickshaws pulled into the Street, a taxi entered from the opposite direction. Imtiaz and Sham got out and, while the taxi driver was offloading their luggage, the two of them approached us. Imtiaz demanded an explanation for our presence on the street at such a late hour. We explained to him the circumstances for our unusual presence.
     'If I ever see you out again at this time of night you are out of here.' he said.
     All of a sudden a very nervous Khurram Pig turned to Sham and said, 'Where is your wife, Mr. Sham?'
     'You worry about your own!' Sham shouted at him.
Next day the entire Street life returned to its usual self. Khurram Pig once again became the same malicious law-enforcer. On the third day after his arrival back from Cambridge, Imtiaz called all the tenants together in the mosque and announced that his visit was a 'total success,' as Cambridge University had agreed to set up a campus in Multan. We students congratulated him and requested that he allow us to use electricity after seven because of our examinations, and he graciously consented. Meanwhile it started to rain. It rained for two weeks without a pause--such an unusual event in Multan! The cold became unbearable. Even in the afternoons we all remained tucked away into our quilts.
     One of those evenings Khurram Pig came to visit me. At that time many people were sitting there, as it was post-supper tea time.
     'Do you know Imtiaz and Sham have quarreled!'
     We were shocked. 'You are lying!' a tenant said.
     'I swear upon Allah they have! I overheard them exchanging hot and indecent words. I bet it is due to Sham's wife. You know, this time Sham has not brought her back with him from the village. Imtiaz must have tried to molest her! Didn't I tell you Sham is a wife beater? Many times in the evening I have heard her moan. I am sure that Sham got suspicious of her and Imtiaz having an affair,' Khurram Pig said.
     We did not believe him. But for days we did not see Imtiaz and Sham together. I was sent to the East-West Restaurant to spy on them, but neither turned up. By now all the tenants knew what was going on, and the two men's failure to appear in their usual haunt confirmed our suspicions. One day one of the tenants did spot Imtiaz and rushed to tell us. We saw a very depressed-looking man sitting in an armchair in front of the mosque. Next afternoon we saw Sham sitting alone on the pavement outside the restaurant.
     That same evening Khurram Pig told us he had overheard Sham soliloquizing, 'All the great books Imtiaz reads, nothing is left for us! What kind of justice is it?' which puzzled us greatly; we had never so much as seen Sham even carrying a book.
     Next day it was a chilly dusk when we heard someone screaming in the street. As we rushed out we saw Sham running about in the fog, beating his chest and head.
     'Doctor Imtiaz is dead!'
     It was an unusually cold morning, but I felt my entire body begin to sweat. I realized that this was the first time a resident of Street had died. Soon everyone was out on the street, even the locals. We tried to console Sham,
     'It is Allah's will! Who can defy Him?'
     'But why our own Doctor? He was the gentlest man alive! Why him?' It was quite some time before Sham calmed down. By now many awe-struck locals had gathered there. Some people went into Imtiaz's house and brought his body to the prayer hall of the mosque where we all saw his calm face for the last time. Later we offered the prayer for him. Then a tenant who worked in the transport office arranged for an ambulance to take Imtiaz's body back to his village.
     By now Khurram Pig had arrived. He offered to accompany Sham to Imtiaz's village, but Sham refused, saying there were hundreds of people in the village who would look after the remains.
     Two months later Imtiaz's brother came to dispose of his brother's property. They told us that Sham had joined some religious group and gone to Kashmir to participate in a jihad against the Indian army. We never heard from him again.


     After Sham left, a kind of depression settled over the Street. For hours on end we talked about the futility of life and the certainty of death. We praised Imtiaz for his generosity, and Sham as well, especially for his loyalty. The police officer came around many times to see how the things were.
     Soon things returned to normal on the Street. Our drinking binge also started amidst our examination preparation.
     Late in the evening about two weeks after Sham had gone, Khurram Pig barged into our room looking very upset. He said that he had smelt something burning in Imtiaz's house. 'Maybe Sham did not switch off all the lights, or a heater even!'
     We panicked and decided to check the house. We took as many tenants as possible in order to save us from a possible problem for breaking the lock without Sham's permission. When we reached Imtiaz's house we did not smell anything, but we were so worried that we broke the lock anyway and went in.
     It was dark inside, and for some reason we were all very frightened. We switched on all the lights and began searching for smoke from one room to another. We found nothing amiss downstairs, so then we went up into what we believed to be Sham's apartment. The doors were all unlocked except for one, which we had to break open. We were immediately struck by some alien fragrance.
     'A woman's room!' Khurram Pig shouted gleefully.
     We switched on the lights and saw that the walls were covered with maps and souvenirs from London, Amsterdam, Bangkok, Manila, Kuala Lumpur. There was a large poster over the double bed that seemed to be an advertisement for condoms available in many different colors. To one side of the bed, on the floor, were scattered female wigs in different colors and styles. In a corner there were several pairs of pantyhose. There was neither smoke nor any burning smell.
     We were about to leave when Khurram Pig suddenly jerked open a cupboard, and panties, bras and miniskirts came flying down onto the floor. He pulled open another cupboard, and this time a bundle of some kind fell out. He ripped it open, and a cascade of photographs fell out: naked Chinese, African, Indian and Caucasian women. The last cupboard was stuffed with women's clothes. He rummaged through it and came up with a big album full of snapshots. He sat down on the double bed with it, opened it and declared aloud,
     'Sham's wife was more beautiful than a fairy!'
     We all flocked around to see the pictures. They seemed to have been taken in front of famous tourist attractions all around the world. In each of them Sham's wife was wearing a provocative dress: leaning against the railing of London Bridge; posing in front of Singapore's Changi Airport, a Manila casino, a Bangkok night club, an Amsterdam gay club. In many of them she was sitting on Sham's lap and she seemed to wear almost as many different wigs as there were photographs. Her face was unusually heavily made up with rouge and lipstick.
     Then, as if he knew exactly where to find it, Khurram Pig suddenly pulled a picture out from a hidden pocket in the back of the album. It had been taken in Trafalgar Square. In it Imtiaz was sitting in Sham's lap. Sham's hand was over Imtiaz's head, holding a red wig.

Abbas Zaidi is a writer and journalist from Lahore, Pakistan's cultural, literary and political center. He has an MA in English Literature from Punjab University, Lahore, and an MLitt. in Linguistics from Strathclyde University, Glasgow. The Shadows will be a part of Zaidi's collection of short stories to be published soon (when a suitable agent is found!)


issue 7 home | broken news | criticual urgencies | cyber bag | ec chair | ficciones | gallery
letters | reviews | secret agents | serials | stage and screen

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