- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
Muhammad Boota was pleasantly stunned with himself for yet another epiphany of sheer creative brilliance. On the x-axis if he plotted his life years and on the y-axis if he plotted an imaginary barometer of the vicissitudes that he had been through over the past 25 years, an extremely volatile and marginally ascending curve would emerge to define his life. The life curve would be all zigzag, he imagined. Explaining unto himself some extremely steep lows appearing on the mental radar, his face went gloomy; then he smiled. The very thought of the highs of the last one year was good enough to intoxicate and send him down memory lane.
Thinking that both the highs and lows of his life were due to an exogenous factor – the role of others – he shoved his over-stuffed bag in to the yellow cab, and left for Daewoo Bus Terminal.
On the way, he was confused as to whether his life was really an independent variable and was to be plotted on the x-axis. If actions of others could play such an important role in his life then shouldn’t the role of others be treated as an independent variable, and plotted accordingly – the idea boggled his mind while the cab scrambled through the overly busy roads of Islamabad on the last night of Ramadan.
Muhammad Boota’s father had left them for good when he had just completed his Bachelors of Commerce with first division from Government Commerce College, Faisalabad. The father and son had nurtured high hopes from the very beginning of his studying at the university about becoming a government officer. These hopes were equally boosted by Boota’s teachers who always liked him for his extraordinary acumen in all disciplines, but particularly in economics and accounts. He topped the entire district as an undergrad and was offered a scholarship at graduation. Everybody in the college predicted he would be somebody someday, but his father’s untimely death, under the wheels of a wagon by an under-trained driver, rocked the son’s boat.
After his father’s death, Boota had turned into a village tramp. His mother would sit in her husband’s general store – worth a mall in its own place and right, and he would roam around all day long purposelessly, with his hands carrying a book, a newspaper, or a tiny radio set for news or live cricket commentary. He was gifted with tremendous tenacity of purpose. His appetite for applying for various jobs did not diminish with time, despite consistent failure in getting a response. He rarely received an interview call letter, but would regularly dispatch one or two applications to various destinations every fortnight. He also helped his mother by meticulously keeping the business accounts, unlike his father, and by replacing her at the store when she was to do the housekeeping. He would also travel to Faisalabad to bring in store supplies on credit from Haji Fazal Din, with whom they had time-tested business relations.
He had lived the life of a village vagabond for four years before lady luck one day smiled on him. That day, he had gone to the city to refill the store supplies. As usual, when he had collected all orders in four separate bags, he sat to settle accounts with Haji Fazal Din. Muhammad Boota’s uncanny ability to detect double-dipping of principal sums, compound mark up, and arrears without the assistance of a calculator, impressed Haji Karam Din – Haji Fazal Din’s brother – who happened to be visiting him and sitting there. Haji Karam Din instantly offered him the job of an assistant accounts officer in his antique factory in Islamabad and for a good salary.
After taking the job in Islamabad, Boota still regularly visited his home. During his last visit, his mother arranged an engagement for him with her niece, and also fixed the third day of Eid for marriage. While he was leaving, she dug out a box from under the floor of the house and handed over her jewelry that she had been given by her parents and in-laws at the time of her marriage, to get it re-set for his own bride.
In about half an hour after boarding the taxi, he reached Daewoo Bus Terminal. Eid being the next day, there was an extraordinary rush of people striving to get to their ancestral towns in far off places. When he was still sitting at the Jeweler’s shop he had a seat booked in advance for the 10 pm bus. He thought had he not sat with the jeweler all evening he would not have been able to get the jewelry set ready to take along; and similarly, if he had not gotten the seat booked he would not have been able to reach home – maybe he would have, but not with the jewelry set. He was all prayer for his boss, who not only had given him the job out of nowhere, appreciated his work, and promoted him to be his accounts officer in a very short span of time, but also paid him a bonus just when he needed it most. Over the past eight months his view of fate had changed from it being a brutal chaser to a benign benefactor. While off-loading his luggage from the cab, he very carefully put the attaché case in the luggage cabin in the mid-bottom of the bus, and took the black plastic bag inside as a hand-carry. He did not want to take any kind of risk by detaching the bag from his body. The bag contained the jewelry set, his monetary savings, and gifts for the two women, his mother and bride, waiting back home.
He was lucky to get his seat close to the door just across the driver’s seat on the right. Soon the bus filled up, and looked to take off any moment. Suddenly a passenger started shouting “bomb…bomb…bomb…!” A passenger having put his bag beneath the seat had got off to buy cigarettes. The man sitting next took the unattended bag for a blast device and started the outcry. Before everybody could have jumped out of the bus, the ground staff got hold of the owner of the bag and put him back into his seat, and order was restored.
Boota, lost in his reflective mood, took out his newspaper. When the bus was just about to leave, a video moviemaker accompanied by a police constable entered the bus to record pictures of all the passengers. The motorway police had come out with this innovative idea to pre-empt looting of passenger buses by the very inmates. The cameraman had a long nose, untidy hair, and was wearing dirty clothes. The policeman had a rustic look but possessed an intelligent face. Since Boota happened to be sitting in the seat next to the door, he could simultaneously keep an eye on everything happening just outside and inside the bus. As the cameraman started shooting right from him, a tiny red light appeared on the camera; but then the constable pushed the cameraman with his elbow, and the light went off. Boota’s curious eyes traveled to the nameplate the policeman was wearing on his chest; it read “Saeed.”
From Saeed, Boota's imagination was transported to Saeeda, the name of his fiancée, and then he forgot everything else. With his right hand he felt the presence of the bag, which among other things, contained an expensive gift for Saeeda – a pre-stitched red dress; his small but intelligent eyes glittered. He felt a little guilty for having packed it separately and hidden it, but then he explained to himself that this was something which could not be shared with a mother. An irresistible smile spread on his lips. He was being his usual impatient self, and wanted to reach home and be with Saeeda. It was a good three and a half hours journey before he could reach Faisalabad and then another one hour by the local bus to his village. He plaintively wondered why his village was not nearer, but then he reminded himself that no matter how long Saeeda was away from him that after the third day of Eid she was going to be his forever.
Soon the moviemaker got off with the accompanying policeman, and the bus started moving. The hostess with her sharp and animated eyes served water to the passengers. The night was deepening, and the driver switched on soft music as he got on to the motorway.
The music gave fillip to Boota’s imagination. He relished the very moment when he would show his mother the jewelry set, and tell her about the bonus and how much Saeeda would be happy to receive her gift. Something tickled him in the armpits. It was soft light tunes of the sixties on the sound system. Boota had started to doze off. Suddenly a man reasonably dressed, having a short trimmed beard, who looked to be in his late fifties, hair oiled to the full but well-combed, stood from his seat in the right rear of the bus, confidently walked to the front, and turned back to face the passengers.
“Brothers and sisters! For God’s sake don’t take me for a beggar, since I am none. Adversity can befall anybody, and it has befallen me and not you. This is the reason that today I am standing in front of you, and not you standing in front of me. Some of you might think that I am after all a beggar, but I am not. I am a serviceman – a retired Subedar Major. This is an auspicious occasion. All of you are going to celebrate Eid with your families. So am I, but I am facing a difficulty.” He pointed out to a smart girl sitting on the seat beside him. The girl stood up in style. She wore a provocative white satin top with a big actress-like cleavage. She was tall with average facial looks but had all the right pounds at the right places. She had either forgotten to tie up her front top button or it had, on its own, opened up under pressure.
Boota’s eyes were popping out – with yawning turned into excitement and curiosity for the next moment. He found similarities between the girl standing in the bus and Saeeda, and thought what was good about a beautiful face if not backed up by an attractive figure. He tried to bail out Saeeda for her ordinary facial looks, on the yardstick of the girl who had now moved to the front, standing in quite an inviting manner. Every man in the bus thought she was exchanging that voluptuous smile with him. Boota was probably the luckiest one in this respect; he was sitting closest to her, and had his right shoulder rubbed against her right thigh a couple of times already on sharp turns.
“Look at this young girl. I can tell you for sure she is a perfect imitation of her mother. A lovely girl, isn’t she?” He paused, turned his face backwards, and softly requested the driver to lower the volume.
The driver obliged by turning off the music with a grin. The gentleman continued.
“I am not a beggar and for God’s sake don’t take me for one, but I have to marry this girl. Look for yourself! She is a marriageable age, isn’t she, and she is to be given to her man. If you could lend me a helping hand according to your capacity, and you would have done a great pious deed on this last day of the sacred month of Ramadan. If you can’t or don’t want to it’s ok, but you can see for yourself the girl is in marriageable age and deserves to be married. I don’t think I need to remind you that providing for the marriage of a marriageable woman is the collective responsibility of us all!”
The girl stood in an aggressive posture with her head veil hanging on her left shoulder vertically. A dimple in the right cheek made her smile more captivating. Every few minutes she would change her posture by shifting her weight from one leg to the other. This repeated change of posture would send throbbing tremors amongst the male folks. Her second front button was begging to break under pressure from opposite directions. Boota just eagerly thought, “Wow, what if it really broke!”
The entire bus was on the edges of their seats. The passengers were still trying to gather their responses to this unexpectedly bizarre situation, when another person, lame in his left leg, looking in his early fifties, got up from his seat in the rear of the van. Dragging his feet with considerable difficulty, he reached out to the front, and surprised the audience. “You see, me and my family are going home to celebrate the happy occasion of Eid with our old parents and the extended family, and are definitely thinking to now marry our handsome young son.” He nodded to a shy, innocent, and good-looking young man sitting next to the man’s veil-wearing wife, the boy’s mother. At an assertive finger-pointing, the boy shyly stood up in his seat.
Then turning to the girl’s father he continues. “Look! Matches are made in heavens. Of course, we were to be on the lookout for a bride for him as soon as we got back home. This is a difficult task you see, but then what do you look for – a good girl from a good family, and what else? Now if you permit, I propose my son’s marriage with your beautiful daughter!”
The boy stood shyly, but the girl was unusually confident. She continued to smile vibrantly and look at everyone as if she was returning their smiles.
By then all were fully involved in the grotesque unfolding. Boota was probably more thrilled than anybody else. A group of youngsters were passionately whistling, shouting, and lobbying for the proposal to be accepted by raising their vocal chords from the back of the bus. Two friends who were seated on Boota’s right were laughing, and gave big fives to each other. All eagerly awaited a response from the girls’ father. Boota, too, innocently prayed for the proposal to be accepted; maybe that was the only way the girl could keep standing beside him.
The girls’ father looked towards his daughter, and whispered in her ear. She blushed as innocently as she could; it was, of course, a difficult decision to make. For a while, the girls’ father shook his head in indecision, and then in an extremely emotional manner, took both hands of the boy’s father, and with an affirmative shake of his head announced that the proposal had been accepted. Their hug was received with a thunderous applause.
The boys’ father lovingly put his right hand on the girl’s head. She blushed, as she unsuccessfully tried to wrap herself in her see-through veil, tactfully leaving out the areas not to be covered.
The girl and the boy look lovingly into each other’s eyes. This triggered another wave of imagination in Boota. He was irritated as still it was a good three hours journey before he could reach home and meet Saeeda. He kept drawing comparisons between his bride-to-be and the attractive girl standing by him.
The hullabaloo hadn’t yet settled down, when a bearded man in his late forties, with a turban on his head, wearing the traditional white attire, rose up from the middle of the bus, and started moving towards the fore. People were holding their breaths as to what more was going to unravel. He turned and started addressing the audience. “In the name of Allah – the beneficent, the merciful! Pious deeds are being done on this journey, and I am lucky to be part of it. Marriage is a Tradition and a good act, and I want to contribute to it to whatever degree and whichever way I can. I am an official marriage registrar. Incidentally, I carry the marriage register with me today. What I am suggesting is that if it is a good act, and also according to the wishes of Allah, then why to delay it? Let’s be over with it – the sooner the better!”
This rendered all speechless, as probably none had expected the story to take this kind of raw turn even in their wildest imagination. Now everybody clamored to go ahead with the marriage registrar’s proposition, by shouting “congrats…congrats…congrats.” The girls’ father initially looked reluctant, but then the boy’s father implored him in a very convincing manner.
“Brother look maybe your daughter and my son were destined to wed in a van, but then what is wrong about it? All the conditions for a legal marriage are fulfilling – the girl is here, the boy is here, the proposal has been accepted, and even the marriage registrar is here – maybe we can also get a couple of witnesses from the people in here, and simply double the auspiciousness of the occasion!” The noise in the bus was deafening for the marriage ceremony to take place right there, and the girl’s side found no way out but to agree to the proposition.
The two friends sitting next to Boota offered themselves for witnesses by eagerly brandishing their identity cards; their offer was thankfully accepted. Immediately a few seats facing each other were vacated. The solemnization ceremony took place with due deference. The registrar recited Arabic versus in a typically difficult accent that the groom had to track and recite. The shy groom accomplished the task falteringly that was reminiscent to most passengers of their own marriages.
One old couple enjoying the occasion from nowhere took out an album of traditional marriage songs and gave it over to the bus-driver, which changed the entire ambiance. Suddenly everybody was in a marriage hall.
This once again transported Boota to Saeeda, and he could not breathe, imagining when she would put on the pre-stitched red dress. There was a naughty smile on his face thinking how he had intentionally selected a dress which would be a little tight on her, and with a low neckline. Saeeda’s catwalk in the red fully-fitted dress intoxicated him. He wanted to dwell with the thought a little more when the happenings inside the bus pulled him back.
They were hardly done with the well-deserved prayers for the happiness, and long life of the new couple, when a young man in mid-twenties, jeans and T-shirt, rose up from Boota’s backseat with a big basket of sweets. The traditional basket was fully packed in golden wrapping paper pronouncedly revealing “Fresco Sweets.” The sweets appeared to be quite fresh as their fragrance cast a spell on everybody. “I was carrying this basket of fresh sweets from “Fresco Sweets” to my hometown for my sister, but then maybe this is a more deserving and happy occasion. I want to offer these sweets as a token of my love for all of you and the new couple on this pious occurring!”
The young man then voluntarily took to distributing the sweets amongst the participants of the marriage ceremony. The old couple who had joined the party by contributing album of marriage songs, resisted taking sweets on account of being diabetic, but the young man lovingly insisted that they had to taste them. The sweets were also served to the crew, after which the young man stood by the driver’s seat and kept talking to him for a while. Everybody had enjoyed every bit of this dramatic marriage party on the move.
A few hours later when they woke up one by one, the motorway police had the bus cordoned off. All the passengers were asked to record their statement as everyone had lost almost everything. When Boota regained his senses, he found the black bag gone with jewelry, money, gift for mother, and to top all, the red dress for Saeeda.
The day was breaking out when they reached Faisalabad. Half-dead, he took a cup of tea at the hotel close by, and started to undertake the distance on foot to get to the nearby bus stop wherefrom he hoped to take the bus bound for his village. While walking many things passed through his head – third day of Eid, invitations, guests, marriage, Saeeda, but interestingly his mind was most stuck up on the status of the marriage that had taken place last night, and the button that had not opened till the end.
A little far, he had a flash of memory – thinking about Saeeda, he got back to Saeed in reverse order and to the switching off of the red light. Then and there he turned back to take the bus bound for Islamabad.
On the way back, he was trying to explain the latest low in his life again through an exogenous factor, and thinking that life was, after all, not an independent variable and could not be plotted on the x-axis.
Muhammad Ashfaq is a Pakistani short story writer. He professes that a story must primarily be a story and then anything else, if at all, it has to be i.e. it must be able to get itself read. He uses least words with maximum precision as to the content. Ashfaq prefers to write on issues, events and ideas of no particular import. He lives and works in Islamabad with his wife and two sons.