I woke up with the taste of blood in my mouth. My head was spinning and my whole body ached. There was a blinding light in the middle of my room, enough to trigger a migraine. I tried to move my hand to shelter my eyes from the light but realized that my hand was too stiff to move. I noticed blood stains on the sleeve of my checkered shirt. Where the hell am I? There was no one there to answer the question rising in my mind. I noticed there were only two chairs and one table in the room. The room was hardly 8×10 feet. A 200 watt bulb was hanging from the roof in the middle of the room. There was no other source of light. There were no windows and only one door which was shut. How did I end up here? There was no one there to answer the question rising in my mind. I tried to recall where I was before ending up in this hole. I had to see a friend who had a collection of books he was too afraid to keep and intended to throw them in the garbage. When I got to know about it, I immediately drove to get them from him before the damage was done. Texting or sending an email was too dangerous as both were monitored by the Ministry of Free Speech. I took the books and was driving back when I was stopped at a mobile police check post. I tried to drive past but one of them straightened his AK47 showing his intent. The books were found and when one of them tried to tear a copy of Kashful Mahjoob, I lost control and in process gave them the free hand to get physical. I lost consciousness when a policeman hit my head with the butt of the AK47.
Okay. So I did not need anyone to answer the second question rising in my head. In fact, I did not need anyone to answer the first question either. I must be at one of the infamous interrogation rooms set up across the country by the Ministry of Free Speech. The year was 2024 and the Righteous State of South Asia was in control of the country. They came in power after the civil war which started in 2018 and had lasted till 2021. It comprised of different groups which were later taken over by dissidents from the armed personnel. General Bahadur Gul, a cunning militiaman led the rebellion, consolidated what he called progressive assets from ball around and eliminated the rest by power or deceit in a four year long civil war. He suspended the already suspended constitution and imposed his code of conduct in the country. He was assisted by an ideological council which gave an impression of power sharing to all the groups supporting General Gul. He put up a country wide ban on alcohol, drugs and qawwali. He however, ensured his fellow countrymen that he wanted an educated country and increased the budget allocation for education by five basis which was unheard of in our country’s history. The Ministry of Education was renamed to the Ministry of Righteousness and all the schools and universities were nationalized. The Ministry of Righteousness setup training institutes for all the teachers. Women were encouraged to participate and were allowed to take primary school classes. He allocated another two basis to setup the Ministry of Free Speech to ensure that his countrymen were well informed and not manipulated by irresponsible and agenda driven foreign media. All the bookstores, newspapers, TV channels, art galleries and publishing houses reported to the Ministry of Free Speech. The ones that didn’t comply were either shut down or their collection confiscated. Registered bookstores were scanned regularly and could only keep the books which were allowed. The Ministry of Free Speech issued a revised list of books every month which could only be sourced from the Ministry itself.
“We will make our country a beacon of hope for the rest of the world”. He proudly told his countrymen on state television which was the only surviving television channel in the country after the civil war. He followed his speech with signing a decree which declared banking haram.
Suddenly the door cracked open which culminated my thought process. A young man entered the room. He was dressed up in a spotless white shalwar qameez. He had a small beard and had eyes bright with intent. He had a bag in his hand. He greeted me and adjusted on the chair on the opposite side of the table. He put the bag on the table and looked at me curiously. There was something in his gaze that made me uncomfortable in my chair.
“I apologize for keeping you waiting. We have a lot to catch up on these days. My name is Asfandyar and I am an Inspector at the Ministry of Free Speech. How are you doing, Mr.?”, he started the conversation.
“Saahil. Saahil Umar Hayyat Khan. You can call me Saahil. And I am feeling not too great”, I replied. My mouth hurt.
“I am sorry the policemen were a little rough with you. They told us that you resisted otherwise it would not have been that bad.” He chuckled. I did not see any humor in it. He waited for my response but I had nothing to add to the conversation.
“So where did you get these books from? Let me see.” He took the books out of the bag and assorted them on the table just the way they used to on the tables outside Frere Hall on Sundays.
“Oh you have Kashful Mahjoob, oh three of it’s copies. I thought we got rid of all of them”, he was talking to himself but loud enough for me to hear.
“This could be a problem and I am sure that you know it well, unless you were going to deposit it to the Ministry of Free Speech booth” He said while tapping on the table. He was one of those who had brought too much energy from inside to even mundane of tasks.
There was a lizard on the roof which was having a great time crunching on patangaas flying around the 200 watt bulb. He followed my gaze.
“You are a peculiar character. I have not caught anyone with such taste in books for a very long time. Where did you get these from?” his voice was stern this time around.
Imran’s father had worked for the Ministry of Culture before the civil war. He was an anomaly in an increasingly corrupt bureaucratic setup. When they attacked the central library in the city, he could not resist taking his favorite books home. He was killed in an ambush on the convoy of the Minister of Culture a year later. The Minister was heading to the Supreme Court to defend himself on the accusation of owning property on Edgwer Road in London. Imran was left with his widowed mother and a room full of books and vinyl records. The collection had survived the Civil War. Most of these books were banned by the Ministry of Free Speech by now. Even getting rid of them was a problem now as he did not inform the Ministry in due time. He had some resistance in his genes. But in a couple of years he was done trying to handle the pressure of not obeying the law of the land. It was through a friend that I got to know about it and drove one night to pick them up. He opened the door hesitantly and let me in immediately.
“How are you going to transport all of them”, his voice was shaking.
It was a valid question. There were umpteen check posts throughout the city scanning cars randomly for banned printed material, drugs and alcohol. I started with the banned books only. Ghalib, Orwell, Bertrand Russel, Ghazali, Faiz, Jalib, Tagore, Arundhati Roy, Rushdie, Hazleton, Huxley and a bunch of Russian novelists. I hated to leave Yousfi and Ibn-Insha but they were not banned yet. That’s the thing with humor. They could still get away with it.
He turned the car porch light off and we silently transferred the books in the boot. His mother was watching us from the window. The night smelled of Jasmine and melancholy. Soon the boot was full to the top and I had to put the rest on the back seat.
“What are you going to do with them”, Imran asked, his voice still shaking.
“I don’t know. Will keep them safe somewhere”, I replied.
“There are not many safe places in this country anymore”, Imran’s voice was bitter
He was right. The Ministry of Speech scanned all the conversations on the internet and the mobile networks. They searched places at the smallest of hints. However it was not a spur of the moment that I had decided to pick these books up on that particular day. I picked them up on that particular day because General Gul was addressing the nation in Karachi that day. Most of the police was stationed around the Governor’s house and the route from Imran’s home to mine was supposed to be clear. However it turned out for worse. Apparently the police had received a tip off that a supply of liquor was being smuggled from the Makran Coastal Highway to the house of a bootlegger in Clifton in few cars. They did not expect books but they hit a treasure trove when they found them in my car.
“Where did you find these books?”, Asfandyar’s said in grim voice.
“I found them in a garbage can. You find them there a lot these days”, I replied.
There was a moment of silence. Asfandyar was judging my response. He did not seem satisfied.
“Listen, I want to make it easy for you. Name the person and tell me if there are more. And I will make sure that you get out of this, which by the way is not that easy. We have raided your home and discovered your secret closet”, Asfandyar concluded.
Damn. All these years, I had successfully transported personal collections without ever giving it a thought that it could all fall like a house of cards in an instant.
“I found them in a garbage can”, I thought sticking to one story was the best I could have achieved.
“Okay. This conversation is over. We will revert to our methods. We believe in Free Speech but very well know that many don’t get it always from thankless people”, Asfandyar put his hands on the table and looked me in the eye.
The lizard was tired of chewing on the patangaas and was standing still. Asfandyar followed my gaze and sighed. He left the room after a moment.
I was calculating all my moves. There was no escape. Obviously I had heard about methods employed by the Ministry of Free Speech. It involved everything from physical beating to more sophisticated torture instruments. They had even brought psychiatrists to emotionally break down people who stood firm in the face of physical torture. I was not too worried about my welfare but people like Imran would be in trouble if they break me down and I had to think of a solution for that quick. I thought I could withstand conventional methods.
I was wrong.
It broke me down sooner than I had thought. I have been wrong in my assessments all along. We the middle class lived in a bubble when everything in our surroundings went wrong. We thought that the silent majority was with us and most of the people only worried about their livelihood. We the middle class were the worst of all. While elitists were leaving the country and poor joining the mad party, middle class parents took comfort in sending one of their children to a public university abroad. They proudly talked about their child and put his university sticker on the back of their leased car. They did not know the problems their younger generation was facing at the time and how possibly could they? They had arranged marriages and had stable income from the public sector. They never had their hearts broken and did not feel the existential angst which the younger generation felt in the face of uncertainty. They were too occupied with their routine when the devil hit them hard. They had no clue how to cope up with it. Neither did us. They trained our generation to hear, see and speak no evil but the evil was more powerful than they could comprehend it. It did not need our support or approval. It was in our backyards before we could even conclude our small talks at the French beach and private lounges where we partied.
The next few days were the worst days of my life. I was in solitary confinement in a solemn cell which was hardly larger than the storeroom in my apartment. I was given meals twice a day which composed of soggy daal and stale bread. The water was filthy and tasted bitter. I did not eat first day but was on my knees on the second, gulping down all of it and aching for more. I was beaten for hours the next day which continued during my stay in that cell. My body went numb after a couple of days but the hunger, sweat and stench of my own faeces made me realize that all my senses were still intact. Time slowed down. There was no escape. I thought about committing suicide but I was not sure how. Even If there were means to it, I would have failed to build up courage for it. Solitude brought answers to the questions I had not even thought about. With the clarity I never had.
I broke down on the sixth day. I begged the sentry who beat me to call Asfandyar. The tears rolled down my cheeks and I begged him to stop for the sake of God and the Prophet. I could not even see properly by then and all I remember was that the sentry had a mischievous smile. He said something about wasting six days of his for no good reason. I was taken to a different room in the evening.
The door opened and Asfandyar walked in. He had disdain in his smile and his eyes were burning with intent.
“Saahil, you did not have to go through this but you would not listen. I am sending a male nurse to treat you well and soon you will be on your feet”, he said and left.
A fragile man walked in after few minutes. He had a first aid box with him. It took him an hour to nurse and stitch wounds all over my body. I dozed off after he left. When I woke up it was all dark. The electricity was gone. Years of civil war left the main power plant in Karachi in ruins. General Gul’s priorities left a little room for infrastructure development and three-fourths of Karachi suffered from 12 hours of load shedding. The heat was unbearable and I felt each drop of my sweat on my wounds. I was still better off. I dozed off again despite all my suffering.
I don’t know how many hours passed in that hole. I dreamt of Seher. Or was I awake. I could see her in front of me caressing my hair, with watery eyes and trembling lips. She wanted to tell me what has happened since we parted. Everyone was full of such stories, of courage and failure, hope and despair, morals and lack of it. I did not want to hear them at all. It would have been murder. I just wanted to put my head in her lap and cry and end my life there.
Mujhe kya bura tha marna agar ek baar hota.
Seher loved Ghalib. We had met at a friend’s party a year before the civil war. She was full of life and was telling everyone of an exhibition she was curating at a famous art gallery in Karachi. She was not my type, I had thought. She was the life of the party and I was the recluse. Going to parties made me sad and even lonelier. I was there at the host’s insistence who was an old friend of mine. I was fed up after a while and went out in the balcony to smoke where she was standing still looking at the night sky.
“Do you mind if I smoke here?”, I asked. She turned around and shook her head. I thought she was not in the mood to talk but she sat on the chair next to me.
“I want to smoke too”, she said.
I offered her my cigarette pack. She took one and lit it up.
“I don’t smoke usually”, she said.
“I don’t either”, I replied.
“Why are you here?”, she looked at me curiously.
“Why would you ask that?”
“You are not having fun obviously. I saw you lost in your thoughts earlier”
“I am not at peace with my solitude. I need distractions and that’s why I am here”
“What happened, a breakup?”
“You will move on. You need to keep yourself occupied; with some cause or reason. Faith comes handy at such occasions”.
“My senses are numb. I don’t feel anything. I don’t believe in anything.”
“Do you know what I believe in?”
“I am listening.”
“I believe in facts and I believe in conspiracies, which can be true or false. I believe in things which no one will ever find an answer to. I believe that our country was founded in the name of our religion, that it confused most of its inhabitants. I believe that it is run by 22 families and will eventually be governed by a dictator whom everyone will dislike. I believe Yousfi is the finest writer produced by this country but we will never realize it until he is translated into English. There was another fine writer too but we killed him sooner. I believe Pakola is the finest carbonated drink and great cocktails can be made out of it and I believe Mr. Burger is the best fast food franchise. I believe music plays better on vinyl records and ice-cream tasted better when we were kids. I believe democracy is the best method to govern and I believe that our politicians are corrupt but I also know that the alternatives are even worse. I believe that our government officials are corrupt but I also know that there are far too many skeletons in the closets of for-profit businesses. I believe in the sermons of my parents but I also think that they are responsible for the hell we live in today”.
“I believe that a single person can make a difference but I also believe that the finest of us can lose their battles against their demons. I believe that everyone is replaceable but it takes longer with some people. I believe that light is a wave and a particle and that the tooth fairy visited us when we were children and probably lives in a different dimension, fed up with all the doubt which we harbor now. I believe in freedom of speech but also want some people to shut up forever. I believe Vital Signs was the best local band and we sorely need a local Bruce Springsteen now.”
“I love my city but I sometimes yearn that I was sitting somewhere else reconstructing it in my imagination. I believe in the power of words but also think that there are far too many guns in this city to kill a certain argument about pen being mightier than the sword.”
“I believe that life is bestowed upon us without any of our consent, but while we are at it, we might as well live it with a smile.”
“Woah, that is the first thing that has cheered me up in days!”, I said
“Aadab! I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman. I can understand your situation and I know how it crumbles one’s self”, she said.
I looked at her blankly. She was not particularly beautiful but she had an aura around her. She had long eyelashes and almond eyes which became watery when she spoke. She was wearing a purple top. Her hair were curly at the end.
“I need to leave now. Oh, and I have not even asked you your name. I am Seher by the way” She brought her hand forward..
“Saahil. Saahil Umar.” I replied shaking her hand.
“Good night Saahil. Saahil Umar. It was good meeting you” She chuckled.
I did not say anything and waved.
“Survive!” She turned back and said with a smile.
“I will” I assured her.
We ran into each other at the food court in a mall few days later. She was waiting for her friend who did not show up and I conveniently dumped my friends. I went back to work late and so did she. We exchanged numbers and promised to meet again. And we did. She lived in PECHS. I complained that it took me ages to pick her up and drop the second time we met. All the nice restaurants were on the other side of the Clifton Bridge and we had to come all the way back. She used to say that this bridge was one of its kind, dividing people more than connecting it.
“How come you are still single”, I asked her one day.
“I have terrible mood swings”, she said
“No one can live with that for long. I mean, I don’t blame anyone as I would not have either.”
I thought how I could have lived with her forever. I could have proposed to her and she would have said yes. We would have gotten married, moved into my apartment and spent evenings watching the sun set down across the sea. She knew how to cook and I would have made fun of it. On the weekends we would have gone on long drives and talked about our future. I would have seen our unborn children in her eyes which became watery time and again on small issues. She was too sensitive for her own sake and I hoped she would have gotten better on this account after getting married. We would have slept in each other’s arms and dreamt dreams which we shared.
I did not say anything. We rotated the bill amongst ourselves and it was her turn to pay. We stepped out into humid night. I plugged my iPod in the car and drove her home.
Eric Clapton was playing. She closed her eyes and sang along. I looked at her when we stopped at the signal. She was a queen in her own right; royal and elegant. She had too much intellectual baggage with her but she did not forget to live. She would help a little help boy with his studies or fight a masi’s cause against her husband. She was eclectic and all over the place. One lifetime was not enough for her. I feared she would die young for she exerted so much energy in whatever she believed in. We hit the signal free corridor on Sharah-e-Faisal next and I could look at her only when we reached her home. She said good night but I did not reply. She hesitated and looked at me curiously with questions rising in her head and a twinkle shinning in her eyes. I leaned forward and kissed her. Her eyes became watery and she leaned back. She wanted to say something but hesitated. Her lips trembled. She said good night again and left.
That was the last time I saw her. I did not approach her for a couple of days. Then the civil war hit our city. The fighting broke down among different factions of the armed groups. Mobile networks went down immediately and the news channels went off. Her area was hit the worst. General Gul’s faction took control of the city center after five days of fighting. The fight was still going strong in the outskirts. People were fighting for rations and shopping malls were looted.
I still drove to her home. The city was in a desolate state. General Gul’s militia was all over the city and I was stopped at four different check posts. I reached her area in an hour. I turned into her street. It was in a better state. Her house was empty. There was a big lock on her gate. I looked inside the gate. There was no car. Her family had probably left for interior of the province where her uncle lived. I dropped her several emails when the internet connection was back after four months. Mobile networks were back only after a couple of months. Her phone was dead.
I don’t know how many hours had passed when Asfandyar walked in. He gave me an affidavit on which I declared my crime and listed my accomplices. I was brought before a judge a few days later who gave his verdict in a few minutes. I was declared a convict and put into city Prison for two years. I don’t know what happened to my accomplices.
The life in the prison was uneventful. General Gul’s regime was still struggling to accommodate huge number of political prisoners so they did not care much about keeping them occupied. There was not much to do apart from strolling around the areas allowed to the prisoners. The visitors were allowed to see the prisoners every 15th of the month but one had to pay a fortune as a bribe to get a chance. There was a long waiting line and there were simply too many prisoners. Eight months passed by and I was yet to see any of my family members therefore I was surprised when sentry one day announced that I had a visitor. I was asked to go to partition number fourteenth. I was ushered to the visitor’s room with other prisoners by few guards. We were led into a huge hall which had umpteen number of five feet high cubicles. There were numbers hanging on the side of each partition. But before we were could walk to the cubicles, sudden commotion broke up. We could see people fighting on the other side of the hall. Apparently some visitors were protesting who were not allowed to enter despite paying bribes. The guards who brought us there made a human chain and pushed us back. The partitions started getting emptied by the guards. Amidst the struggle, I kept my eye on the fourteenth partition. A girl in burqa was taken out of it by one of the guards. She was pushed in the other direction but her eyes were fixed in our direction. Our eyes met for an instant and everything froze. How could I ever forget those watery eyes? I was too shocked to react. I was pushed back towards the prison cells and she in the other direction. She raised her hand and waved. She disappeared in the sea of visitors a moment later. We the prisoners were led to our prison cells directly. The unrest was controlled few hours later.
That night I dreamt after a long time.