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
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 is the Lion, the rest
'Time and tide wait only for...?'
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,
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
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
'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
'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 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
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
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
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
'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
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
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
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
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
'Sham's wife was more beautiful than
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.