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Chapter 15

Lahore was not only the city of Salah’s birth; it was the city where they had all, except Jhanda, been born, including Salah’s mother and father. When Salah fled the city fifteen years ago he knew he would never return to it, and he had been consoled by the thought that his 80-year-old father, Muhammad, whose tilt into senility began to steepen by the time Salah left, would probably not remember his son vividly enough to feel sadness at the idea of his permanent absence. His mother had died many years before Salah’s reluctant migration to America.

But he could never forget his father, a man who had reminded the teenaged Salah of a featherweight boxer, his work-sculpted arms and legs mapped with lean muscle, long avenues of tendons, the sinuous streets of sinews. Returning home from Lahore’s teeming streets, skin singed brown by the sun, his white short-sleeved shirt stained by exhaust and sweat, his bare feet were caked with the dirt of the roads where he ran, pulling the rickshaw. Though he ran over stones, sharps objects and even shards 0f glass, he rarely came home with cuts or lacerations; the soles of his feet, the balls and heels, were padded with calluses thick as fortress walls. As a rickshaw wallah, he trudged through the searing summer months and the riotous rain of the monsoon season, year after year. If Salah’s father had been an educated man or had come from a family established in business, he might have been a teacher, doctor or lawyer. Even as a modest office worker he would have enjoyed the respect of the society at large. As a rickshaw runner he was seen, instead, as a figure skirting the crumbling edges of destitution, faceless and disreputable, a relic from the past and an affront to the future, tolerated as a necessary evil only to the extent that he and all those belonging to the caste he was tethered to by profession could be freely scorned and exploited with impunity.

Salah still vividly remembered the evening his father returned home with a rag held against his head to staunch the blood pouring from a gash above his left eye. He watched as the blood at first emerged from the wound like a helmeted soldier slowly, cautiously lifting into view over the ledge of the trench where he had been concealed, then began to run in earnest. After Salah’s mother had cleaned the gash and wrapped a piece of clean white cloth around his forehead, he asked his father what happened.

“Don’t worry, Salah. It’s only a small cut. Cuts on the head always make so much blood.”

“But how did it happen? Did you fall?”

“The road narrowed. I was forced to the middle for a short time, and when I could I moved back to the left. All the time the car behind me was blowing his horn, as though I had a choice. Then when I had moved to the left, he went zooming across the road in his luxury American car, cutting me off. He was in a fury.” He paused to drink down the glass of water his wife handed to him; he seemed to savor it. “He got out of his car, holding his briefcase. I tell you, the man was in a rage. Yelling, shouting, waving his arms like this.” He demonstrated with sweeping movements of his arms. “And the corner of his briefcase struck me.”

When his father told the story in his mild-mannered way, anger poured its salt on the invisible wound that gaped in Salah’s chest as he listened. Rickshaw wallahs were looked down on and even reviled. And as the son of a rickshaw runner Salah had absorbed his own share of the teasing and torment dealt by children who were lucky enough to belong to Lahore’s middle and upper classes. That his father was subjected to the harsh judgment of people who knew nothing of his kindness or generosity, nothing of his bountiful sense of gratitude for the smallest things in life, saddened Salah and at the same time aroused the desire to punish those who contributed to the misery of his father’s condition.

“You should have hit him back,” the thirteen-year-old Salah said passionately. “He had no right to hit you, and you had every right to defend yourself.”

“There was no need for that, Salah. Two rickshaw wallahs on the other side of the road saw what was happening and approached us. You should have heard them: ‘Hey, you think that we’re here for your abuse? Get out of here before we run you into the dust!’” Muhammad chuckled, shaking his head with amusement. “When he saw them crossing the road, he jumped in his car and fled.”

Knowing that the rickshaw wallahs had come to his father’s defense did not mute Salah’s sense of outrage. If the man with the briefcase could have observed the Bhatti family at that moment, Salah knew that his eyes with smug aloofness would have taken in the poverty of the decrepit one-story house with the door roughly hewn from planks, the bare dirt walls, the roof that was made from sheets of rusted corrugated tin, the straw mat covering the floor instead of rugs or carpeting. The man would have been indifferent to the family’s predicament. He might even have thought that the Bhatti family had invited the barrenness they lived in through lack of ambition, sloth and shiftlessness.

“I would have taken that briefcase and knocked him senseless with it,” Salah said. His father’s laughter splashed water on Salah’s smoldering fuse of anger and grief. “He was already a senseless man without your help. Maybe you would have knocked the sense into his head. What good is all your outrage, here, now? What happened to me happened hours ago.”

“It’s not funny, baba. It’s really not something to laugh at,” Salah chided, but as soon as the last word had fallen from his tongue he knew his father was right. Without his understanding how or why, a subtle shift had taken place, an elusive pivoting of darkness toward the light. Salah knew only that once he allowed himself even for a second to entertain the possibility, implied by something in his father’s tone, that laughter and anger were equally weighted and that both were choices, the anger had loosened its grip on his chest. But why, then, did anger feel as though its place of origin ran so much deeper than the shallow reservoir that held his laughter? Why did anger and the constellation of emotions orbiting it -– envy, bitterness, the desire to somehow penalize those unscathed by poverty –- radiate powerfully from some place that seemed to house the molten core of his identity?

“The whole world is filled with people who only want one thing: to be forgiven. If you learn how to forgive, Salah, no matter what people do to you, you stand a good chance of living a free life. And the whole world will befriend you, wanting the forgiveness you can bestow.”

Salah did not ask his father whether this particular brand of freedom would have any demonstrable value in the real world, a question that rose to his lips and prudently fell away, like a rumor deliberately swallowed the second before skulking into speech. Why upset his father further? Yet the question continued to haunt him: Would forgiving the man with the briefcase bring them freedom from poverty? Freedom from humiliation and shame?


If Salah had found the value in that freedom he might never have resolved to both redeem and surpass his father by becoming a richshaw wallah when he was old enough, but one who would not run through the streets on callused feet, pulling human cargo like a mule, the target of middle-class censure. Why do all the work yourself when you could hire others to do the work for you? By the time Salah was sixteen he had discovered that there was a word, a concept, a way of thinking that legitimized the idea of owning more than one rickshaw and hiring others to perform the labor: entrepreneur.

Years after the incident Salah still thought of the businessman who had driven the luxury car and struck his father with the briefcase – he had no doubt been an entrepreneur. The businessman with the briefcase held a place in his thoughts that resonated with the potency of an ancient symbol, but a symbol whose meaning was not at all clear to Salah. When Salah asked his father if he had ever thought of hiring someone to pull his rickshaw, his father laughed.

“And make even less money than I do now by splitting it with someone?”

“But you wouldn’t pay him half. Think of it, baba. You wouldn’t have to come home exhausted. You could work a second job –since you won’t allow me to work – save money, and in time buy another rickshaw,” Salah said excitedly. “Then once again you hire someone else to pull it. With two people pulling for you, maybe you could quit working altogether, save money, and keep buying rickshaws.”

“This is why I make you attend school and refuse to let you work, because thinking is your gift. Already you’re smarter than your father.” He was perpetually eager to either indirectly or openly acknowledge the fact that Salah had taught him to read. “But I can’t do what you say.”

“Why? Of course you could do it. I know you want me to finish high school, but I could still help.”

Salah attended a high school that had been established by Christian missionaries to offer poor children the opportunity to reap the benefits of a solid, well-rounded education and to escape the legacy of illiteracy and ignorance that would keep them locked in the downward spiral of scarcity and deprivation. It was an opportunity they might not have otherwise been presented with, since far too many would be forced to begin careers in the streets as beggars or foragers to fend off starvation for themselves or their families.

Salah was grateful that his father had made it possible for him to attend school at The Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation, but every day on the way home he walked past an expensive private school where the uniformed students gushed through the ornate wrought iron gates centered in the high stone wall surrounding the three buildings that made up the campus, and as they made their way to curbside cars driven by servants or chauffeurs, they stared at Salah with disdainful eyes, and he would drop his head or look quickly away. He may as well have been the dirt scattered beneath the heels of their expensive shoes. Salah and his classmates from The Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation could easily be identified: they did not wear uniforms, their books and often their clothes were tattered, their pinched wary faces seemed to reflect the troubling awareness that the charity extended by the school could be capriciously withdrawn at any moment. Each afternoon as Salah hurried past the private school with his downcast eyes he prayed the students there would take pity on him and shower him with verbal abuse: the colorful insults, the inventive taunts, the haughty ridicule. He could not bear it when they said nothing and instead swept him into invisibility with glances that wielded the power of unilateral negation. Even so, he never took an alternate route home, never avoided them, though he could have. It was very much as though he was convinced that he somehow deserved their condemnation.

“No,” his father told him. “I can’t hire others to pull for me. This is the life I’ve chosen, or the life that has chosen me. I don’t mind if people think I’m no better than a beast of burden. It’s enough that I know I’m a man, not a beast. And if some people say I demean myself and cast a dark shadow over Lahore’s reputation as a modern city, then let them say it. But just because it’s all fine with me doesn’t mean I want to lead another to my position. I have a thick skin, but others might not be as lucky.”

His father would not allow himself to be convinced, no matter how reasonably or earnestly Salah presented the proposition. Day after day he continued to leave the house early enough to ensure that he would be the first rickshaw wallah visible on certain of the more profitable thoroughfares in the eerily adulterated darkness before dawn, securing for himself the best spots, those that afforded potential customers the clear line of sight that intersected with his availability. He waited alone in the hours before the city stirred from its fitful sleep, before the maze of streets and narrow alleys and lanes swelled with bicyclists and thronging pedestrians, before the shouts of vendors from the crowded rows of their crammed stalls turned the air into a battleground and fought with the stench of diesel fuel, decaying garbage, the spicy exhale of countless tiny restaurants. Every year peeled only a translucent onion-skin-thin layer off his father’s physique; the aging process reduced his overall stature in barely visible millimeters. A boyishly wiry man, he shrank almost imperceptibly. A stranger would not notice the change over time, it was so subtle. But Salah noticed it.

One afternoon Salah passed the wrought iron gates and there was nothing, no flood of students with eyes grinding him down to a drift of dust, a weightless cloud of insignificance, and no tongues strumming insults, playing the refrain that was memorable as a mnemonic, I saw your father pulling my father in his rickshaw! I saw your father pulling my servant in his rickshaw! Now cry like a baby, rickshaw boy, wah wah wah! Salah walked slowly, gazing through the gate to the schoolyard he expected to see filled with students, but the yard was deserted, quiet. It was then that he heard the tap of a horn from one of the cars driven by a chauffeur idling at the curb. The white nozzle of a cigarette, like an air valve used for inflation, protruded from his mouth, and his head with its severely receding hairline had the stretched-tight roundness of a balloon. He tapped the horn again when Salah did not move, beckoning him to the car with an impatient gesture.

“Come on, boy, I’d like to talk to you.”

Salah approached the car cautiously, stopping a few feet away from the door.

The man plucked the cigarette from his lips. He held it between his index finger and thumb, the same gesture universally employed to denote tininess. A scroll of smoke, a kind of seahorse, floated in the current of a long exhalation. “I see you looking through the gates. What is it? You miss your rich friends? The ones who make fun of you every day?”

“They’re not my friends,” Salah said.

“Yes-yes. Friends wouldn’t treat you the way those worthless sons and daughters of the mighty rich treat you. Real friends lift you up, they don’t tear you down.” He inhaled hungrily, lungs feasting on the smoke, flicked the butt into the street, then fastidiously picked a flake of tobacco off the tongue’s tip. “What’s your name?”

“Salah.” “Salah. I’m Dara’s driver. Do you know Dara?”

“No. I don’t really know any of them.”

“You’re better off for it. Dara is a spoiled good-for-nothing brat. Everything he touches turns to failure. His rich banker father, one of my employers, thinks the sun rises and sets because of his son.” He cursed with an innovative mixture of furtiveness and abandon, leaning slightly out the window above arms that were crossed, nested on the ledge of the door frame. In this nest, transparent as the air but palpable, perched the vulture of his resentment, eager to see the wealthy fall and to spitefully pick away at their bones. “Do you think you’re less than they are because you don’t have money?”

Before he could restrain them, Salah’s eyes had disrobed and stepped out from behind the screen that hid them, naked before the driver’s gaze. Realizing this, Salah quickly forced his eyes to dodge back behind the screen again. But he knew that the driver had seen them in that unguarded moment.

“I don’t think that at all.”

“No?”

“Of course not.”

“Yes-yes, but it would be good to have money in your pocket, just like all of them do,” the driver said in a reasonable tone, jerking his head toward the schoolyard. “Those kids, they don’t know what to do with money, it eats a hole in their hands. But you would know what to do. I bet you would share it, wouldn’t you?”

“It doesn’t matter what I would do with it. What good is it, talking about money I don’t have? I have to go.” “You would help your father. I’ve seen your father hard at work.”

He had been backing away. Now he stopped.

“There’s an easy way for you to earn money. Are you interested?”

“What is it?”

“You see this?” The driver held up a parcel the size of a shoebox wrapped in plain brown paper. “All you have to do is drop it off somewhere nearby for me. The location is no more than ten minutes away. Four Seasons Restaurant. It’s likely on your way home.

“If it’s so close, why don’t you take it yourself?”

“Because I have better things to do, that’s why.”

“How much would you pay me?”

The driver told Salah how many rupees he was willing to pay him and then said, “That’s what I’m offering for a simple errand. The offer is fixed. There’s no haggling. Not that you would be able to get the best of me if we did.”

Salah was shocked at the amount he offered but kept his face quiet and blank. His expression of excitement lurked beneath the surface, a gigantic monument waiting to be carved out of featureless stone. “What’s in the box?”

“One without worries can doze off in a marketplace.” For a significant moment he watched Salah intently, his eyes shrewd as a politician’s. “Have you heard that saying?”

Salah was silent.

“Don’t ask me what’s in the box. That’s not your concern. Delivering the box is your concern. Easy. Nothing complicated.”

“When did you want me to deliver it?”

“Right now.” The driver lit another cigarette and a ribbon of rising smoke seamed his face. Spiraling upward, it blossomed into a gray cloud. Behind the cloud his face, twisted in a defensive grimace against the smoke, united the dramaturgical masks of comedy and tragedy in one fluid and surreal expression. “Here is the address.”

He handed Salah a piece of folded paper. Salah opened it and nodded.

“Here is the parcel.”

“Will I get in trouble for this?”

The person you are delivering this package to is very well respected by the local authorities. He gives money to several charities but he also lines the police’s pockets with rupees. If you are stopped, you just mention his name. Easy. The only trouble you’ll have is if you let anything happen to the box.”

Salah read the paper. “Imran Rajput.”

“Mr. Rajput. Well respected,” the driver said. “Yes-yes, if you do this right, maybe you can do it again and earn more money. How old are you, boy?”

“Fifteen.”

“You look younger. Then again, you all look younger than your age. But on the inside, your generation, you’re all old men and women.”

Suddenly the schoolyard was dotted with students, then diminished by their growing numbers, and finally overrun by them, like a virus appearing without the shepherd of a symptom. They poured through the gates with festive aggression.

The driver must have sensed it, the powerful herd impulse driving the students aimlessly forward, the danger they represented when they acted as one. “Go now, before they snatch the box from you.”

In the window of the Four Seasons Restaurant was a sign, closed between lunch and dinner hours, but when Salah raised his fist to knock on the door, it swung open by itself with a dramatic creak suggesting that the restaurant was a place sheltering chilled disjunctions between cause and effect, the dark swoop and startle of supernatural forces. It was the same feeling Salah had when, learning English, he and his classmates had read some of the poems and stories of Edgar Allen Poe. But, after all, it was nothing more than a door left ajar, hinges that decided to loosen the fingers of their tightened fists, a draft sneaking up from behind.

“Hello?” Salah called, stepping into the room.

Inside there were maroon vinyl booths threadbare as road-worn sandals and eight or nine small tables spread throughout the room with no regard for symmetry or convenience; they were like thumbtacks spilled from a box, impaled in the floorboards where they happened to fall. The place seemed a stage where minimal props had been gathered by a poorly skilled and apathetic set decorator attempting to conjure the likeness of a restaurant.

A voice reached out from behind him and tapped Salah on the shoulder, a sudden tap that made him jump and turn. “Come back in an hour and we’ll be happy to serve you.”

A boy younger than Salah with a slight build that belied the near-baritone voice stood in a doorway where a curtain of colored beads hung, a gently swaying abacus, a tangle the boy tried in vain to rake aside cleanly and hold open; his fingers strummed the slinky strands until they were gathered in his grip. He was backdropped by a dimness that shaded quickly into a denser black, obscuring wherever the boy came from.

“I’m not here to eat,” Salah explained, holding the package up. “I’m here with this. I need to give it to Mr. Rajput.”

“Give it to me, and I’ll give it to Mr. Rajput.” The boy stepped forward, looking back over his shoulder, and Salah saw that he badly needed a haircut. The impression he made was that of a familiar-seeming youth of a certain class and social standing, his eyes fatigued and hungry, someone Salah felt an easy kinship with.

“I’ll take care of it.” He had a graceful flower-stem neck, full lips, and his arms were crossed in a self-protective way, as though covering a wound in his chest. Holding out his hand, he took another step forward and stopped.

“I’ll give this to him myself,” Salah said.

The hint of aggressiveness the boy had shown in approaching Salah faded as abruptly as a shooting star streaking down the sky. The deep voice lightened with wide indifference. “Suit yourself. Don’t say I didn’t offer.”

“What’s your name?” Salah asked, following the boy.

“Dharr.”

“Do you work here?”

“You could say that.”

“Do you know the driver,” Salah inquired politely, “who wants Mr. Rajput to have the box?”

Dharr continued walking and did not respond to the question.

They entered another room after passing through the hallway. Dharr stood in the doorway and gestured Salah forward, shooing him with flapping wrists toward the massive mahogany desk littered with bills, invoices, old newspapers and dirty dishes. A bare bulb shedding a watery yolk of adulterated yellow hung directly above the desk on a cord attached to an unstable fixture in the ceiling; the bulb must have been tapped recently, because it swung to and fro, causing the shadows in the room to rhythmically wax and wane, like water sloshing heavily up and down the sides of an aquarium. The man sitting behind the desk was not dwarfed by its size, nor was he intimidated by the rich diversity of the chaos that spilled across its dull mahogany surface. Salah’s eye could find no focal point in the whirlwind of trash and could only locate stability in the immobile figure cut by Imran Rajput, who sat with his fingertips in steepled repose on the bridge of his nose. The desk seemed to emanate from him, as did the entire room, which had a single shuttered window and was unfurnished except for a tattered sofa saddled in the middle that ran along the left wall. Because his eyes naturally sought respite in the man sitting impassively behind the desk, Salah came to realize only through a gradual awareness that there were three boys in their early teens sitting on the sofa. They, too, like his escort Dharr, had an air that was languid and innocuously feral. Imran’s close-set eyes behind glasses thick as the heel of a military boot watched Salah noncommittally. The glasses did not magnify his eyes so much as vivify them, as though the eyes were etched on the surface of the lens. The forehead wide and square, the bridge of his nose sharp and aquiline, the lips astringent. Salah would be shocked, when the man behind the desk finally stood at the end of their conversation, to find that he was not tall.

Imran briskly clapped his hands twice, softly, and the three boys on the sofa rose as one and left the room. Dharr was no longer standing in the doorway. The bulb on its cord had stopped moving and the water in the aquarium of shadows had ceased rocking. After a long silence he finally asked Salah, “Who sent you?”

“I don’t know his name, Mr. Rajput. But it was Dara’s driver.”

“Yes, Mustafa, my brother. He thinks if he comes to work for me full time, he’ll lose his so-called independence. What did you think of him?”

No adult had ever bothered to solicit Salah’s opinion, not even his father, whose questions, when he was not too exhausted to engage his son in conversation, were always attached to some allegorical purpose, some lesson he hoped to transmit. No adult had ever spoken to him as though he were an equal harboring an opinion that might be worth listening to. For that reason Salah was taken aback, almost dumbfounded. He sifted quickly through the remnants in his mind left by the driver and was surprised to find the nugget of an opinion glittering in the dust of scattered impressions.

“He said some things I’ve thought about myself. I mean, I’ve thought the same things.”

“What would you like me to call you?”

“Salah.”

“Tell me then, Salah. What things?”

Salah tried to explain the suspicion that lurked in the background and sometimes loomed into the foreground, a whisper in his ear rising to a shout: that the wealthy and the rich had secured their positions of advantage at his expense and at the expense of all those for whom the business of living was often an exacting ordeal.

“Mustafa said these things?”

It occurred to Salah that he may have made a mistake in elaborating on the details of his conversation with Mustafa. “Not in those exact words.”

“Certainly, the scales are unevenly weighted,” Imran conceded. “The question is, what do you do about it?” He leaned forward, both palms flat on the beleaguered surface of the desk. “What do you do?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Neither did I know when I was your age. But if someone had explained it to me, I would have saved myself time and sorrow – that is, if I had bothered to listen. What about it, Salah. Are you one to listen?”

Sometimes it seemed to Salah that he did nothing but listen to others, that he had nothing at all worth saying. “Yes, sir.” He waited for the man to reveal his secret, but Imran only held out his hand.

“The box. Please.”

Salah put the box in the outstretched hand. Mr. Rajput stood then and gestured vaguely toward the doorway. Salah turned to leave.

“I have another box coming in a few days. Bring it to me and Mustafa will pay you again.”


How many packages Salah delivered to Imran he could not have said. He refused to count them or keep track. In this refusal he might have been giving in to an impulse that at its root was purely superstitious, as though by questioning his good luck he might somehow jinx the money he received for delivering the packages, stem the steady trickle. He even resisted shaking the box to hear the rattle that might lead him to guess the contents, though he could not help noticing that the contents were noiseless, lighter than air. When he thought, maybe whatever it is, it’s surrounded by tissue, he told himself to stop. It was as the driver Mustafa had told him: none of his concern.

The boys engaged freely in speculation revolving around the box, its contents, its purpose. Five of them – Dharr, Abdul, Nadeem, Tameem and Salah – formed the unchanging nucleus in a stream of boys who were sent to the Four Seasons by the driver Mustafa. The others, the boys who, for whatever reason, did not have the good fortune of being permanent fixtures in Imran’s life, stayed for a few days or a week or perhaps a month, performing various odd jobs and errands for him at the Four Seasons or his home, then drifting away, to be replaced instantly by new names, new faces. It was unlikely that they left of their own volition. What circumstances could exist in their lives to compete with the generosity they encountered once they found themselves working for Imran? All the boys, to one degree or another, lived on the crumbling edge of poverty and were struggling to climb out of its abyss. None of them would willingly choose invisibility, the ghost life that waited for them on Lahore’s streets. Out there, they would fade beside the splendor of Lahore’s breathtaking gardens, the austere beauty of regal mosques and temples; they would become transparent as wind in the city of resplendent Mughal architecture, exquisite monuments, elegant tombs and museums. Yet as difficult as it was to imagine any boy voluntarily leaving Imran’s world, it was almost impossible to imagine him issuing the decree that would result in exile from the kingdom he had created. He seemed to derive immense satisfaction from giving, whether it was food, clothing, advice, or the money he paid the boys to complete tasks that, with the exception of waiting tables or tending to the kitchen, were so easy they should not have been called work at all.

The boys who came and went were a mystery, like the mystery of the box’s contents.

After the last customer had left the Four Seasons and the boys were cleaning the kitchen, they frequently discussed the box. In one way or another all their conversations, with the motion of moths against glass, hurled themselves against the mysteries that surrounded their benefactor like heat haloing a flame.

“It’s obvious what’s in the box,” one of the boys said. “It’s drugs. Maybe hashish.”

“Then why would he have them delivered over and over again in small packages? It would make more sense to have a large quantity delivered.”

Another boy pushed a mop in lazy circles. Its languid ropy tangle seemed to be an extension of the indolence that lived in the lank unkempt strands of the youth’s shoulder-length hair. “I believe it’s stolen jewelry.”

The assertion was met by jeers, scornful laughter.

“The man doesn’t need to resort to thievery. He’s a businessman!”

As the night wore on the speculations gained a lurid elasticity, stretching farther and farther from what was plausible. “Body parts. The boxes contain ears. Fingers. Warnings from his enemies.”

But when they asked Salah his opinion he declined to comment.

“Come on. You’re the one who delivers the boxes. If anyone has an idea of what might be in them, it would be you.”

“I could say anything,” Salah pointed out, “and in the end you wouldn’t know whether or not I was telling the truth.”

“At least say if the box is heavy or light.”

Salah shrugged. “Don’t ask me, if you’re curious go ask Mr. Rajput.”

These speculations were concocted mainly by the boys whose tenure with Imran was short-lived. Unkempt and with a gauntness that was more apparent in their eyes than in the meager flesh of their bodies, they strayed into the restaurant, were perhaps lucky enough to meet Imran’s mysterious criteria for promotion to the household, were assigned a few undemanding chores, and then after a week or two drifted back to the streets of Lahore with clean clothes, an appearance no longer devoid of grooming, a stomach that did not echo the sonority of a day’s missed meals in . Sometimes a youth who had disappeared from the household would show up again weeks later, bedraggled, shamefaced, desperate. Having tasted the sweetness of the effortless life they were allowed to live behind Imran’s walls, the bitter wafer of the streets must have tainted the tongue with a bitterness that proved to be indigestible. In a sense the way of life they had glimpsed made the life they returned to more difficult than ever to endure. They had served Imran lemonade or tea in his five-bedroom house with the somber paintings and luxurious carpets, the banyan trees and well-tended garden, the stately library and its book-spined walls, the long driveway winding to the gated wall monitored by two armed security guards armed with Kalisnokovs. They left all this, perhaps intoxicated by the sound of the rupees jangling in their pockets. Too young to care about consequences, they left and then returned, defeated. The security guards did as they had been instructed to do and allowed them to enter. Escorted by teenaged servants, former coworkers, the petitioners disappeared into the library, hoping their appeals would not fall on Imran’s deaf ears. Lightly running feather dusters over the teak sideboard and coffee tables, the wrought-iron wine cabinets, Salah and Dharr would fall silent and attempt to listen to the voices behind the library door, voices that were like the mumble of surf heard from a foggy distance.

Five minutes later the boy with lowered head would emerge from the library with his former benefactor at his side, his hand resting avuncularly in the small of the boy’s back as Imran personally, kindly, escorted him to the front door. Kindly, almost sympathetically, but nevertheless firmly and with finality. Imran would then return to the library, silent as he passed through the room where the two boys busied themselves in a pretense of dusting the furniture. Dharr and Salah witnessed one youth who attempted to return to the fold, petitioning Imran in his library, only to be escorted to the door. The youth glared at Dharr as he left.

“That was Khalil.” Dharr said. “I never liked him when he was here. I caught him stealing from the kitchen.”

Their lips sprinkled a talcum of soft whisper.

“I don’t remember him.” Salah moved the feather duster idly over a vase of the terrible and great deity Shiva. “But I feel sorry for him now.”

“You feel sorry for a thief? I don’t. I’m the one who let Mr. Rajput know Khalil was stealing. Khalil hates me now,” Dharr said airily. “I consider him to be an enemy. He should have kept his hands off things that didn’t belong to him.”

“How does he know you told Mr. Rajput?”

Dharr shrugged, finding a definitive gesture for the indifference that always clung to him in a shroud made of some diaphanous fabric. “Who knows? Maybe one of the other boys told him.” Dharr displayed a monumental lack of concern, but Salah had noticed how Dharr’s eyes fled like an army in retreat from the malevolent gaze Khalil directed at him when he left the library and was escorted to the front door by Imran.

“Khalil kept to himself. He was quiet and serious. But he stole. Now he wants to come back and it’s too late. They all do stupid things and want to come back and by then it’s too late. Mr. Rajput values fidelity,” Dharr confided, whispering emphatically. “He wants to be surrounded by responsible boys he can trust. Boys who can be counted on for their discretion and loyalty. If you prove yourself, Mr. Rajput treats you like a son. He’ll help you discover your future. He promised to help set me up in business one day.”

“What business?” Salah asked. “When?”

“He didn’t say when, just one day. I haven’t decided on what business … maybe a tailor shop or shoe repair,” Dharr said vaguely. “It’s taken years for Mr. Rajput to trust me. If you’re lucky, the same will happen for you one day.”

Salah had been delivering the packages to Mr. Rajput for a year now; he would be graduating from high school soon enough. Over the course of that year he developed something like a friendship with Dharr, who typically held himself back from others and had a reputation for being difficult to get to know. He was accessible only to those who were able to discover a way across the moat of secrecy and cunning he lived behind. Furtive and feline, he lashed out with claws if you drew too near, asked too many questions. But from the beginning Salah had shown no interest in approaching him at all, and Dharr must have found this reassuring; or it might have been that he was one of those people who could not tolerate being ignored. Whatever the reason, gradually he began to initiate conversations with Salah. If Dharr was in a talkative mood he was capable of revealing information that shocked or surprised the listener with its levels of intimate detail. He was an architect skilled in building baroque complexity from hearsay and innuendo.

Dharr claimed all his information about their boss came from Mustafa, from the clients who had borrowed money from Imran, from rumors he heard in the streets, from conversations Dharr had personally had with Imran Rajput himself. To an extent, Salah was prepared to accept what Dharr told him, since some of the boy’s accounts dovetailed with what Salah had confirmed for himself in his own conversations with his employer.

Salah had already heard many of the same stories that Dharr related, stories that placed Imran at the center of an ongoing controversy that circulated among many of Lahore’s citizens. Depending on the speaker, Imran Rajput was despised or revered, praised or demonized, placed on the highest pedestal or roundly villified. By many he was credited with single-handedly resuscitating a sizable segment of the languishing local economy and breaking down the bureaucratic walls that prevented potential small business owners and merchants from launching modest enterprises. Salah had heard Imran pose an incisive question time and time again: did the people who were unable to qualify for conventional loans, those who had been cruelly turned down by the banks and the conservative money-lending institutions, deserve to have their unassuming aspirations shattered? Because they did not conform to the profile of the low-risk borrower, should they be prevented from taking a seat at the table of capitalism and partaking in their share of the feast? Imran was a hero to some, lending money to would-be borrowers who were humiliated and rejected by the banks, structuring loans for those who were not creditworthy, had no collateral and no established work history. He was no less than a facilitator of dreams, an advocate for the disenfranchised, a haven for the financially disadvantaged.

And then there were the others, the naysayers who were divided into two camps.

In the first camp were those who disagreed in principal with what Imran was doing and viewed the interest he assessed on his loans as usurious. They were the ones who claimed he was nothing but an extortionist, a thug hiding behind the bounty of his gaudy nouveau-riche refinements. And in the other camp were the borrowers who had not honored the terms of the agreement and had failed to make timely payments on their loans; this failure, of course, cast a shadow of doubt over the veracity of the stories they told involving Imran. These defaulters related tales of a man with a brutal side, a man less concerned with helping others achieve their dreams than with lining his pockets with cash, a remorseless man who refused to weigh extenuating circumstances if the borrower was unable to make his scheduled payments. This was the Imran Rajput who would think nothing of resorting to violence to drive home his point: no excuse was dire enough to justify a missed payment. The defaulters would speak of bones that had been broken, or allude to threats that had been made against their families. Sometimes they alleged that the very business that Imran’s loan had made possible, the neighborhood hardware store or laundry, had been seized as collateral, the borrower forfeiting a large portion of the income until the payments were current and the exorbitant interest charged as a penalty was discharged.

But the interest, extravagantly inflated by the penalties, could never be paid off. The vendor stall or pet shop belonged to Imran Rajput. And the borrower became little more than an employee.

Salah did not know whom to believe. He could not separate the rumors and anecdotes about Imran from what he might have thought had he never been exposed to those rumors and anecdotes. Not even when he was listening to him, looking into the eyes that seemed to prowl like a cheetah behind the cage of the glasses’ chunky lenses, could he make up his mind about the man. But Salah knew that Imran appreciated the steadfastness he displayed in delivering the parcel, the unquestioning way he turned the box over without betraying curiosity about the contents. Salah suspected that he equated this outward lack of curiosity with disciplined restraint, a sort of strength of character. If Imran had a brutal side, Salah saw no evidence of it. He saw firmness, yes, and sensed a shrewd awareness of the forces that must be marshaled to create success in the world of ambitious men and women, but not stark brutality.

There were also rumors that were little more than ugly larval assertions that emerged as though from a cocoon of jealousy, pettiness and spite. Damp filmy insinuations that transformed Imran’s generosity toward the boys who had been abandoned to poverty into something dark and unsavory. Salah refused to believe this class of rumors. Lahore, preoccupied with preserving the image of itself as Pakistan’s flawless jewel of history and culture, could not afford to allow itself to be sullied by these imperfect specimens, the boys whose unsupervised presence on the streets would be viewed as bothersome eyesores were it not for Imran’s beneficence. Salah knew this and saw Imran as a benefactor, a mentor.

Often Salah would deliver the package and Imran would keep him in the office after the other boys had left for the evening.

“Have a seat on the sofa, Salah. Mustafa tells me you’ve never once asked him what’s in the box you deliver.”

“No, sir, I haven’t and I won’t ever.”

Imran made a triangle with his hands, touching his lips gingerly with his fingertips. “There, you see. It’s one thing to say you haven’t. It’s a complete other thing to say you never will. That’s the difference between you and Dharr.”

“I’m only following instructions.”

“No. You’re doing more than that.” The chair, an angled throne, tipped back when he leaned into a more regal and relaxed pose. “What are your plans, Salah? Don’t you graduate soon? In another year or two? What do you intend to do?”

The stillness Salah placed himself at the center of was a mirage of thoughtful rumination. Imran would assume that Salah was thinking of what his future might be, how the pieces might come together. But actually, Salah was focused on a noise outside the closed door in the hallway, wondering if anyone was listening.

“I’ve always thought … I’ve watched my father, who’s a rickshaw wallah, pulling people through the streets. People are ashamed when they see it, they say it makes Lahore look backward, but they still use them because it’s cheap.”

Imran seemed to be on the verge of nodding, but only continued to extend a level stare toward Salah.

“I’ve always thought I would like to own a rickshaw.”

As though he knew there were more to Salah’s explanation, he waited with an expression of infinite patience.

“But I would like to own two, then three, then four … and I’d hire others to work them.”

“Ahhh. Yes.” Sitting straight up, Imran reached out and tapped the lightbulb hanging desperately on its frayed cord. The flux of shadows turned the room into a swing that moved ever more slowly back and forth. The man watched the bulb intently for a time. When he had reached some mysterious juncture of satisfaction he sat back in the chair again. “The whole thing is on the verge of tremendous change. Rickshaws aren’t going away, but over time fewer and fewer men will pull them. They’ll be almost exclusively propelled by motors.”

“But my father says people will always want to be pulled by other people.”

Imran nodded philosophically. “I think I see what he’s getting at. But nevertheless, rickshaws will mainly be driven.”

“Then I’d like to own them and have others drive them for me. I would pay them an honest wage. I could make it so that my father wouldn’t have to work anymore.”

“How would you do it? How would you get your first rickshaw?”

“I don’t know,” Salah admitted.

Imran sat up and tapped the lightbulb again. The shadows flung themselves along the walls in jagged cadences. “Those are three words you should never be ashamed to say in any other context – I don’t know. But not when it comes to business. When it comes to business, you never admit that you don’t know.”

“But I don’t,” Salah said. “What could I tell you without lying?”

“I like you, Salah. Never mind why. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. When you graduate, if you’re still here, I’ll lend you the money you’ll need to buy your first rickshaw. I’ve had this sort of conversation with a few of the other boys, but I don’t see that any of them are ready to get serious about the things they claim to be interested in. I sense that you are.”

Salah’s heart began to beat forcefully, scraping the wall of his chest, abrading bone.

“I told them to finish school first, and then I would talk to them. But they don’t have your discipline. None of them have bothered to keep up with school.” Imran pointed his finger at Salah. “Nothing in this world is free, though, and you’ll pay me back out of your profits, with handsome interest.” \ When Salah tried to thank him, Imran waved the words away and picked up a sheaf of papers on his desk, signaling Salah’s dismissal.


Sometime after the work in the kitchen was done, the pots and pans washed and the dishes stacked in their cabinets, the spices put away and the floors mopped, Salah would sit in a booth in the dining room and study for his history class, reciting names and dates while Dharr sat across from him, listening, sometimes even checking Salah’s facts against those in the history book. When the other boys had left for the night and Dharr and Salah were alone, Dharr allowed the frost of his indifference to thaw, and the shadowy pane of glass he stood behind lost its cold murky film, taking on a transparency that allowed Salah to see him more clearly: like the rest of the youths the boy clung to whatever he could cling to, hoping it would not turn to smoke in his grasp, trying to defend what he held by any means possible. In a fight Dharr was the kind who would scratch, bite, scream and kick hysterically to keep his opponent at bay, but since he was too frail and brittle to actually risk fighting, he had devised other means of defending himself. He moved in serpentine ways, gracefully deceptive, leaving behind a slither of words. By representing himself as his employer’s official envoy, the extension of his authority, Salah had observed him successfully manipulate and bully even physically imposing boys. He had no way of knowing whether Dharr’s self-avowed privileged relationship with the man had any basis in fact. While Dharr frequently boasted he knew Imran so well that he could easily predict his moods, Salah saw no evidence of the extraordinary treatment Dharr claimed to receive from his employer. Imran appeared to apportion his beneficence equally among the boys, and his behavior toward them deviated from the norm of kingly neutrality he maintained only when one of his coterie left the circle and sought out, as though fatally or helplessly impelled, Lahore’s unforgiving streets. Every city had its mean and faded counterpart, a sinistral city that could not be located on any map and was like an blurred image reflected in a mirror, a shadow city existing beyond the pale of the progress and industry, and it was that city toward which the more hopeless of Imran’s boys inexorably drifted. It was obvious to Salah that Imran took their defections to heart, each perceived as a belittling slap in the face, a reflection on the value of the safe haven he had attempted to offer. It was when the boys reappeared at Imran’s gate, days, weeks or months after leaving that Imran’s poised stance of apportioned beneficence and neutrality disappeared. The man who turned the boys away was petty and vengeful, with a cruel capacity to inflict suffering and an inability to embrace forgiveness. Typically when they were alone, Dharr softened. The need to assert himself, to unsheathe the sword of his status and wave it about threateningly, fell away. If Salah had not glimpsed this side of Dharr he might have avoided him altogether. But when Salah left Imran’s office that evening after discussing the rickshaws and took his place in the booth to study, Dharr did not reveal that softer side. Instead he sat across from Salah reluctantly, the pupils of his eyes like sticks sharpened to a point by a straight razor.

“What good is history going to do for you? So what if you know all the dates in the book?” Dharr asked. “Do you really think that will change anything?”

“Is something wrong?”

“Wrong? What would be wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Salah answered. “You don’t have to help me study tonight if you don’t want to, Dharr.”

The remark infuriated Dharr. “You might fool everybody else hiding behind your school books, but you can’t fool me.” He snatched the history book from Salah’s hands and snapped through a few of the pages viciously. Disgusted, he tossed the book on the tabletop and shoved it toward Salah, who failed to grab it before it sailed off the edge and fell into the bucket of swampy water next to the table that held a mop.

Surprise overturned the expression of disgust that rested haughtily on Dharr’s face like a vase on a pedestal, shattering it, scattering the shards of an unvoiced apology. Clearly he had not intended to ruin the textbook, only to make a theatrical display of his disdain. Salah fished the book out of the bucket and immediately tried to offer a minimized assessment of the damage.

“It’s just a little wet,” he said quickly. “I can wipe it off and put it out in the sun tomorrow and it will be good as new …”

The surprise, the hint of apology, was short-lived. As though in a film played backward the shards reconstituted themselves, the vase of disgust returned to its pedestal, Salah’s remark once again infuriating Dharr. “What are you talking about? Any fool can see it’s ruined. The ink has already run all over the damn pages.”

“It’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

“I’m responsible, so I’ll buy another one to replace it,” he muttered in smoldering tones.

“No, really, Dharr …”

Leaning forward, Dharr reprimandingly slapped his palm down on the table, flattening the insect of Dharr’s forgiveness with contempt. “What is it? You think I can’t be counted on to replace it?”

“No, that’s not it at all.”

“You think I can’t afford to replace it? You’re wrong. Mr. Rajput pays me more than he pays you for delivering that stupid box.” Dharr stood abruptly. “I have things to do. And don’t worry, you’ll get your money tomorrow.”

Salah watched Dharr storm out of the dining room. He wished he could say something that would dampen Dharr’s anger, even though he did not know what had provoked it. He decided that tomorrow he would refuse to accept the money, even as he worried that his refusal would further antagonize Dharr. As it turned out, though, he need not have worried at all. Dharr avoided him the next day, and in the days to follow never again mentioned paying for the book.

Dharr stopped speaking to Salah. At the same time, he found ways to prevent Salah from acting on his natural inclination to avoid unpleasant circumstances by withdrawing into invisibility. Dharr must have understood instinctively that self-effacement for Salah was preferable to confrontation, that he would much rather place himself ghost-like at the remote perimeter of troublesome events, drop his head, and carry on with his business while calling as little attention to himself as possible. Passing Dharr in a hallway, Salah would become a chameleon and merge with his surroundings, fade into the restaurant’s dinghy gray wallpaper, embody the quality of shapelessness atmosphered by the hallway’s shadows. But Dharr would not let him escape so easily; he would block the way as Salah attempted to pass, forcing him to look up. Outlining Salah’s presence with his eyes so that it was impossible for his former friend to phantom into silence and vagueness. Dharr’s eyes were cloudy with malice, and when Salah was finally allowed to move on he felt that he had been forced to pass through a poisonous climate.

Salah saw Dharr at the restaurant and at Imran’s home every day. To avoid seeing him he would have had to give up his employment and become one of the boys who one day simply disappeared, and he would be foolish to allow that to happen. In fact it occurred to Salah for the first time that perhaps Dharr, a puppeteer looming in the background and covertly pulling strings, may have had something to do with all the boys who suddenly disappeared from Imran’s restaurant or the household, not just Khalil. But Salah would not leave; he felt that something was at stake, even while knowing that Imran was under no obligation to follow through on his promise to provide financial assistance. Dharr continued to attack Salah with his eyes, and while Salah was not immune to the attacks, over time he discovered that to an extent he could numb himself to them. If both boys were working in the kitchen, Dharr would perform his chores while keeping his eyes riveted on Salah; if they were in Imran’s backyard helping the gardener trim the hedges, Salah could feel Dharr’s eyes burrowing into the pores of his skin. The younger and smaller Dharr did not pose a physical threat to Salah, who had no doubt that he could beat him in a fight. He feared him because he knew Dharr, relying not on strength but on a vast arctic capacity for cunning, would prove to be the superior opponent in any contest that did not rely on physical prowess. Once, he found the courage to approach Dharr and ask him what he had done to offend him, though he knew Dharr would not speak the truth by answering because I stood outside the door and listened to Mr. Rajput promise to help you, the same promise he made to me, and I’m afraid he’ll help you first.

“You know very well what you’ve done,” Dharr insisted, walking away to join the group of boys on the other side of the kitchen. The boys laughed when Dharr made a comment and cocked a contemptuous thumb toward Salah. Dharr stood with his hands on his hips and his legs in a wide stance, like a comic book hero.

Before long Dharr had formed an alliance with the other boys. Actually he had always been the central figure among them, his mood at any given moment dictating whether the group’s attitude was lighthearted or gloomy, buoyant or somber. He had always been the boys’ unofficial spokesperson, making certain –- or so he claimed – that Imran was aware of their needs and concerns (one of the waiters in the restaurant had outgrown his jacket, and Dharr had informed Imran that a replacement was needed). But now that Salah was excluded the alliance had become less casual, more coercive. Any boy who did not conspicuously align himself with Dharr must be prepared to be rejected by the group and to stand alone, or by default to stand beside Salah. Some of the mystique that surrounded the box Salah delivered bled over into the boys’ perception of Salah himself, and because he was entrusted with such an important mission by Imran, he was accorded a certain respect. Yet the aura cast by the mystique had its limits, and the boys, taking their cue from Dharr, no longer greeted Salah or engaged him in conversation, though they fell short of staring at him with hatred.

Salah was neither plainly defiant nor completely passive. This lack of a readily identifiable stance allowed the boys who watched his amebic maneuverings along the edges of events see what they wished to see: a coward or a silent hero, a martyr or a pariah who deserved his leper’s status. They may have even thought that Salah was psychologically unbalanced, protected from the barbs tossed his way by the fog of some mentally defective condition.

In the evening Dharr would stand in the hallway and listen to the group in the kitchen stir their remarks together in a low-simmering cauldron of whispers, and when he could stand it no longer and stomped into the room, the others would concoct sudden bustle and diversion and flamboyant activity, knowing Dharr would be enraged to discover that they squandered their time speculating about Salah. It was as though their speculations invested Salah with a solidity, a heightened reality, that Dharr himself could never hope to possess.

“What is this?” Dharr shouted, the quaver in his baritone voice fragile as a filament in a bulb.

“You have nothing better to do than to ban together like a bunch of broken down old hags and gossip?” His eyes banked in angles of fury about the room. “Oh, Mr. Rajput would love to know how you’re wasting his time and money talking about some idiot who doesn’t even know he’s got one foot out the door!”

They began to work in earnest, reaching, lifting, bending, elbows describing sharp circles as they scrubbed and puffed.

Moments after Dharr’s outburst the sound of the office door in the back room could be heard closing and Salah appeared with his head down, gliding noiselessly through the kitchen, the box safely in Imran’s possession. He looked up quickly, and in that gesture there seemed to flare, briefly, a timid desire to acknowledge the boys, to raise a hand in greeting to them, including Dharr. There was something in the way he looked up that made it easy to imagine that Salah would have liked nothing better than to acknowledge them all. But he did not acknowledge them and silently disappeared into the night.


Salah was led to understand that something was about to happen. Tomorrow or perhaps the next day. The event was taking shape, melting into visibility out of the almost-palpable realm of the near future. It was like mist that begins to resemble a monstrous dragon or gargoyle when stared into with a relaxed and receptive eye. He waited for it to happen with a sense of thickening certainty and entrapment, like a spoon forced to stand rigid in a bowl containing gruel that stiffened terribly as it cooled. He would not be surprised by the occurrence; he would only be briefly taken aback, he knew, by the exactitude of it, an inevitability made concrete. The lack of surprise was translated into the queer feeling that somehow he was an active participant in drawing the unknown event closer. The tilt of premonition into inevitability took place two days later. Mustafa, parked in his usual spot at the curb opposite the gated private school, had given Salah the box and pulled away from the curb. Since becoming Imran’scourier Salah avoided the flood of private school children who whirlpooled the sidewalk with their reckless arms and legs, pulling everything into the swirl of their taunts and torments. By taking a side street to the restaurant he escaped the cruel and boisterous drama of their dagger-eyed exodus at the end of the school day, though the alternate route was longer by half a mile. The shops and stalls disappeared as the street narrowed to a lane, then opened into a prairie-like lot behind a textile factory where the workers sewed and stitched underwear for a European garment manufacturer. The area, used by the locals as a dumping grounds, was beyond bleak, beyond gray; some vast invisible skeleton lay stretched out in the dirt, the dust, something once-living that had passed through dry depletion on the way to death.

When Salah heard a scraping sound he turned to the right just in time to see something falling from one of the factory’s second-story windows. He stood far enough away from the building that he had to squint to identify the object, twisting coquettishly as it fell. It was a piece of white fabric descending lightly, taken down in a corkscrew-shaped strand of wind. He persisted in the attempt to match what he was seeing with what he was hearing, and, unable to synchronize sight with sound, stood as though he had been abandoned at some baffling intersection. Finally it occurred to him that an airy piece of fabric would not make a scraping noise as it fell down the side of a building, and he looked over his shoulder.

Two boys, both tall and gangly, had just stepped out from behind a waist-high heap of demolished concrete as though they had been hiding there all along, stooped, waiting for Salah to pass. Actually, Salah had the impression that they had been following him, stalking him for some time, darting from one heap of junk and refuse to another; that they no longer had any reason to conceal themselves now that there were no people about. Salah had passed an old man perhaps ten minutes ago. The scraping sound was produced by a broom handle. The boy wearing an oversized red button-down shirt was dragging the handle back and forth in the dust. The other boy had a pronounced overbite and wore a watch with a silver band; he kept looking around the lot, his hands balled into fists. Salah could hear him breathing, the seesaw of an asthmatic rasp riding in his throat. Salah could not see their faces. He could only see their eyes. Something about their squinted eyes made him think that behind the masks they had fashioned from pieces of cloth and tied behind their heads, they were smiling.

“We were told to give you a choice,” the boy with the stick explained. Restlessness flowed through the other boy’s veins. He moved with aimless grace: an open window, a sheer curtain, the curtain surging on surges of cool wind.

Salah began taking steps backward.

“Don’t bother running,” the boy with the stick said. He glanced at the boy who moved like a curtain. “Ali is as fast as a racehorse. No one can outrun him.”

“I’m so fast I outrun myself,” Ali confirmed.

Salah kept moving backward, slowly. “What do you want? I have no money.” The stick scraped a channel in the dirt. “How about that box? What’s in there?” This time the parcel was small, the size of a cigar box. “I don’t know. It’s not mine.” From delivery to delivery the size of the box was never the same. Salah clenched it in one hand.

While Salah was walking backward Ali had drawn parallel to him and was keeping pace from a distance. “Rasheed, he thinks he’s clever, all the time moving, moving.” Ali crouched and pretended to level a rifle at Salah, as though he were prey. “But I have him in my sights.”

“Stop fooling around,” Rasheed said impatiently. “This isn’t a game.” He pointed the stick at Salah. “Here’s your choice. You give us the box or pay the price. You can keep the box, but you’ll pay for it, all right. It’s up to you.”

Most fathers want their sons to wrestle with other boys, to play competitive games testing strength and endurance, to run races and win them, and Salah’s father was no different in that respect. Year after year he gently encouraged Salah to become involved in sports, to kick and throw balls with other boys in the neighborhood, but Salah had no interest. When his father spoke of the virtues of learning to be part of a team, Salah felt vaguely repulsed and began molding the repulsion into an ornate shell that protected his sense of being apart from others; when he spoke of building character through physical discipline, Salah listened with condescension, as though he were enduring quaint advice dispensed by someone from an earlier, far more simple and naïve, era. Maybe if he had listened he might have had a chance of outrunning Ali? With resignation swift as sickness enfolding him, Salah realized that his father had only been attempting to prepare him for the larger contests and competitions that life would one day indiscriminately hurl at him. Now that that day had arrived, he had no one to blame but himself. Without conviction Salah said, “I can’t give you what’s not mine to give.”

“That’s too bad,” Rasheed said, also without conviction.

The box, wrapped in thin brown paper and tied in twine, was jerked from his hands. Hands evaporating, and then his legs loosened into yarn and the broomstick, hard and sharp as a knitting needle, spooled the yarn of his ankles and he was down in the dirt. As Salah was pinned on his back, the dust, stirred by struggle, hung above him and stared down at him with its blank gray face. In the dull ethereal air his attackers were ghostly, one-dimensional, peripheral. There were blows, punches, a kick to the ribcage that brought a pain sheer and incandescent as light striking a cathedral’s stained-glass window. The pain was pure and revelatory. He was rolled onto his stomach and his pants were yanked down, then his underwear. His legs were pulled apart, and then he felt the broomstick handle, the brutal invasion. The light struck the stained-glass window with such force that it shattered into a million lucid pieces. Salah screamed and the sound of his voice became, somehow, a source of transport that carried him farther and farther into the distance and away from the center of what was happening, a speck drifting to the outer edges of a radar screen, undetected.

His attackers had kept their word: the box lay unopened in the dirt next to the blood-sequined broomstick handle a few feet away from Salah, who was curled on his side, fetal in a womb of dust.


Imran’s private physician gently closed the door to the guest house where Salah lay resting on a bed and walked up the granite footpath bordered by a mellow froth of red roses to the main house. He passed through the kitchen where two servants were preparing dinner and found Imran sitting at his desk in his office, drinking jasmine tea.

“You were right to call me right away,” the doctor said.

“An hour ago he came in, limping and bleeding.”

“As you know, he’s been assaulted.” With professional efficiency he cleared the sandy dissolve of discomfort from his throat. “An object was used, a stick of some kind, and the anal passage is lacerated.”

Imran listened to the diagnosis and the prognosis and thanked the doctor for making the house call, then he accompanied him to the front door where they stood and chatted while a valet brought the doctor’s car around.

Imran had the box in his hand when he returned to the guest house and entered without knocking. He was brisk, his head lowered in the manner of a bull about to paw the earth. On the bed Salah lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.

“The doctor told me what happened. Who did this to you?”

“I don’t know,” Salah said. “They had masks on.”

“I take it you were defending this?” He held up the box. “It’s got blood on it. They were trying to rob you? How many, Salah?”

“Two.”

“On the surface, you did the right thing. You fought them because you didn’t want to report back to me empty handed. But before you defend something, you should know how valuable the thing you’re fighting for is. That way, you know how much energy to devote to your defense. Of course in this case, you couldn’t know, because I’ve never told you what’s in the box.”

Salah turned to look at him. He was puzzled by Imran’s remark, but that expression of puzzlement was neutralized by pain, a complex knot woven from so many strands that it was no longer simply physical, and he stared out from behind a flat gaze dull as tarnished tin. Imran tore the paper off the box and let it flutter to the floor along with the top. Bending from the waist slightly, almost fashionably, he tipped the box forward, allowing Salah to look inside. Gingerly Salah propped himself in a sitting position with both arms and lifted his head to look.

“I imagine these boxes have been the subject of much speculation among the boys, eh? Of course, that’s only natural. But in the end all the speculation was for nothing.” A dour smile zippered his lips. “The box is empty. As all the rest of them have been.”

He felt Imran studying him, watching to see what his reaction would be. As with his pain, his reaction was the product of so many elements it defied classification. But the complexity of Salah’s response to the news that the box was empty, as with the pain, took place where the observer’s eye could not penetrate, leaving nothing as evidence except an unreadable surface, a surface empty as space. He felt as though he was all surface now. The simple realization that unless you opened your mouth and made the effort to explain it to someone, pain was nothing more than a private perishable parade spread sickeningly through his stomach. He leaned his heavy gaze against Imran as though it were a crutch bearing his weight.

“I have a friend who believes I’m insane. She’s kind enough to send me my boxes week after week, but every so often she tries to talk me out of it. ‘Imran, you’re a sorry bastard, sending yourself empty boxes, sometimes having me put ribbons on them, like they were something special.’” He turned his back to Salah, turned his attention to the wall. “When I was your age, I was worse off than you. When I was a child I never received a gift from anybody. I was an orphan. Every now and then someone would show me kindness, but not often. I never received a gift or a present on the day I was told was my birthday. So. So I send myself these presents, to make up for it, but I leave them empty, so I won’t forget how it feels to be so poor that you feel that death would be a blessing. Childhood is where you find all the burdens that you’ll carry with you through the rest of your life. ”

“The boxes were all empty?”

“Each and every one.”

“They always felt empty. A few times, I thought to myself, there’s nothing in here. But that didn’t make any sense.”

Imran turned around to face Salah. “Maybe it still makes no sense.”

“It makes sense.”

“You should have listened to yourself when you thought it was empty. If you had, you wouldn’t have defended the box, thinking it contained something valuable.”

“I would still have defended it, because I work for you, and the box is your property.”

Imran was silent.

After a time Salah said, “I think their names were Ali and Rasheed.”

He stopped at the door on his way out and without turning to face Salah told him, “I’d still like you to deliver the box to me, as before. You don’t have to, of course, and I would understand if you didn’t. And as before, I’d expect you to say nothing about its contents.” Salah promised that he would continue to deliver the box.


When Salah returned to work at the restaurant he expected foremost to find Dharr, unyielding as a metronome, working to correct the fragmented sense of timing that always threatened to undermine the workers’ attempts to successfully coordinate their collective efforts in the kitchen. Without blatant manipulation, Dharr always managed to place himself squarely in the center of things, never leaving a clue as to how he was able to accomplish the artful duality of bold insinuation. He expected to hear the rumble of the boy’s baritone voice as he played the managerial role he had slyly established for himself, issuing orders, as though they had come from Imran himself, to the bus boys, the waiters, the kitchen workers. Salah was prepared for the butchering glances that Dharr would toss out to him like slabs of bloody meat, his eyes a swift cleaver. As he walked into the kitchen, the half dozen or so other boys, seeing him, momentarily fell silent. But Dharr was not there.

The restaurant had closed at lunch time after the last customer left and would soon open for dinner. Salah fell in with the tempo and pulse of the preparations in the kitchen, the soothing piston-like quality of the exertions, the seamless hypnosis of back and forth, back and forth. At one point he was leaning across a countertop, stretching toward the back of a cabinet shelf holding the stacked sugar cubes of white tablecloths, when Nadeem, washing dishes with ant-like intentness beside him, edged a conversation toward Salah as though nudging an envelope discreetly across a table.

“We didn’t think you would be back.” He did not expect an answer from Salah and did not wait for a reply. “We heard you had been robbed, but that you managed to protect Rajput’s delivery.” A few of the other boys were listening as they worked.

“Yes, I was attacked,” was all Salah offered.

Nadeem continued with his questions, oblivious to Salah’s reluctance. Salah was not offended. That was how Nadeem was – he was not attentive to signs that could easily be read in the actions of others. “Did you know them?”

“They wore masks.”

He kept on with his inquiry until Salah interrupted him with a question of his own. “Where is Dharr?”

Nadeem was washing an enamel white plate that was chipped along the edge and stopped, his arms lifted out of the water and thinly honeycombed with ramshackle suds winking into softly crackling extinction. He held his arms aloft for a moment, turning his head to look sidelong at Salah. “You didn’t know?” Leaning closer, he lowered his voice. “Rajput fired him. Just the other day. He put his brother, Mustafe, to work on discovering who your attackers were, and don’t ask me how, but Mustafe found out that Dharr was behind it. Dharr found the boys and paid them to attack you.”

“Where is he now?”

“Dharr? No one knows. Dharr? When Rajput told him to go and not ever come back, you should have seen him. I wasn’t here, but they tell me he fell to his knees with his arms wrapped around Rajput’s ankles, sobbing. It was pitiful.”

“When was all this?”

“Day before yesterday.” Nadeem gave Salah a sympathetic pat on the shoulder. “Don’t feel bad for him. He deserved to be fired. In fact, he deserved worse than that.”

Salah wondered if Dharr did actually deserve to be fired. He speculated that it was not a matter of right or wrong; what he had done was certainly wrong. But Dharr was Dharr – who else could he be, what other choice did he have? Salah was then forced to amend his thinking: There were other choices, a range of behaviors to choose from, but these choices came close to being nothing more than the arbitrary embodiments of principles, of idealized standards imposed to tame the deep wild beasts eager to roam landscapes without the constraint of borders or horizons. There were so many choices that did not necessarily reflect who and what you really were, but that were nevertheless deemed to be the right choices. Salah understood this instinctively.

Smoothing the tablecloths over the tables in the dining room, he decided there and then that he would forgive Dharr.

The next night Salah had just delivered a festively wrapped empty box to Mr. Rajput and was leaving the restaurant when he heard rustling in the uncultivated shrubbery that churned in green rampage along the side of the building. It grew there with the perverse sturdiness displayed by things left completely untended, forgotten, abandoned. Salah noticed that the more you expended care, attention and devotion on something, the more that something required care, attention and devotion to flourish, and then over time, required these things simply to survive.

Salah slowed his step. Something was behind the shrubs, moving through the foliage’s chaotic tenacity of twigs and brambles. It snapped the spines of branches, coaxed intricate hiss and moan from parched leaves. Finally a young man erupted from the shrubs that hissed in violent protest as they were torn open, leaping out onto the sidewalk. He stood for a moment dusting a confetti of twigs and dirt off his shoulders. Salah frowned, trying to recall where he had seen him before. Then he remembered. It was Khalil, the boy whom Dharr had called an enemy and had accused of stealing provisions, the kitchen worker Imran had consequently fired. Salah still remembered how Khalil had returned in a state of abject contrition to Imran’s home, hoping to convince his former employer to rehire him, only to be escorted to the front door after spending no more than five minutes alone with hi his former employer. Salah knew by the humiliation masking his face when he emerged from the office that Imran had turned him down, just as he could infer by the venomous look Khalil smeared over Dharr from head to toe as he was leaving that Khalil would likely never hate another person more than he hated Dharr in that moment.

“I know you, don’t I?” His posture, slightly hunched, and his way of rubbing his palms together, as though massaging arthritic knuckles, gave him an over-eager, elderly demeanor. “You work at the Four Seasons. For Mr. Rajput.” Hunched, the hands continuously in motion, a loop of arthritic massage, and an exaggerated eagerness.

“Yes, I work there,” Salah said, casting a vague gesture toward the building.

Khalil propped his chin on the knuckles of his fist and held his elbow in the palm of his hand, eyes shifted upward and to the left in thought.

In the streetlamp’s pale parchment Salah had trouble reading Khalil’s features, but he could see an ashen sheen on his dark complexion.

Suddenly the boy clapped his hands. “Salah … Bhatti! Isn’t that it?”

He hesitated for a moment and then suddenly saw the futility of trying to conceal his identity. With that realization a sharp and frantic burden was lifted and fled away gracefully into the night. “Yes, that’s right.”

“That’s it, isn’t it? Bhatti. Do you remember me?”

“I think so.”

“One afternoon I had come to his house – Mr. Rajput’s. I had lost my job the week before and I came back to see if he would give me another chance. You were dusting the furniture. You and Dharr.”

“I remember.”

“You remember. Good. Good. Maybe you can tell me something that would help me?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s nothing hard.”

Khalil started walking and, with a reluctance that was unrelated to fear, Salah walked with him. Khalil was saying something but Salah was for the moment oblivious. He was thinking that since he, Salah, was the one in a position to grant the favor to Khalil, he should have been the one to lead the way, with Khalil following, willing to go in whatever direction Salah would lead them. Why, then, was he following Khalil, as though Khalil was the one granting the favor?

There is some sort of weakness in me, Salah thought savagely.

The night and the things in it that surrounded them threadmilled as they moved on, all of it from Salah’s reassuringly detached point of view changing and yet remaining the same. It was as though he were peering into a kaleidoscope crowded with only shadowy muted forms, all bright colors absent, having fled.

“That’s how you struck me,” Khalil was saying. “You did what you were hired to do, and that was all. No hanging around getting involved in all the hanky panky, all the shit. You kept to yourself. Listen, Salah. I always wondered. What was in the boxes you delivered to Mr. Rajput?”

“I don’t know.”

Khalil skipped ahead of Salah two or three steps, then began nimbly walking backward as he faced Salah, narrowing his eyes dramatically. He made a show of scrutinizing Salah’s face and eyes; he pointed at him and laughed. “Ahhh, sure, sure. I knew you would say that. I think you know. Certainly, you know, all right. ”

“What makes you say that?”

“I can tell. Some people, like me, can lie at the drop of a hat and you never know it. Some, like you, couldn’t tell a believable lie if their life depended on it.”

“If you say so.”

He turned abruptly and waited impatiently for Salah to catch up, then continued leading the way.

“What’s wrong? You don’t like walking along this route?”

“Why makes you say that?”

“Because that’s the way you act. You don’t see yourself very clearly, do you?”

“I can see myself,” Salah said, and then realized that Khalil had sped up and begun to pull away.

“I’m not trying to make you angry. Especially because I have a favor to ask. I just want to know if can you tell me where Dharr lives.”

“Dharr? Where he lives? What makes you ask that?” Salah’s eyes sank to a sharp squint. Khalil was perhaps 25 or 30 feet ahead of him now and had slipped into a crevasse of shadows, a place where the night thickened, the darkness yielding its yeast. He raised his voice slightly. “Why do you want to know?”

Khalil was only a voice now. “I could tell you a lie, but I won’t. It’s no secret Dharr got me fired. He owes me, don’t you think? I’ve also been told he’s wronged you.”

Salah stepped off the sidewalk into the street, searching for an a perspective that would restore a clear line of sight to Khalil.

“I could just as easily ask someone else, you know,” Khalil said. “Anyone at the restaurant would probably know. I could even ask a stranger and he would probably have heard of Dharr and know where he lives. Everybody knows Dharr.”

“Then why are you asking me?” Salah called out.

“Because I’m giving the opportunity to you.”

Salah stopped walking. While he waited, his heart thumped three times, heavy in his chest and off-rhythm, like someone stomping up three stairs, one leg shorter than the other. He megaphoned his mouth with his hands and called out Dharr’s address. After a few moments he shouted Khalil’s name several times, but never received an answer.


Mustafe was parked in his usual spot at the curb opposite the gated private school. All these months the spot had not changed. The fact that Mustafe was always waiting there with his window rolled down and his lips nozzled to a cigarette imbued an otherwise ordinary business arrangement with that quality of timelessness exuded by a ritual. It was comforting, as little else was in Salah’s life, to know that every Tuesday and Friday afternoon at 3:30 Mustafa could be found sitting in the car, waiting to hand the box over.

Salah approached the parked car with his hand held out. Usually there were no words passed between them. Mustafe would exhale, scraping smoke from the bottom of the lungs, the grey char grazing toward Salah’s face and, when he stood close enough to Mustafe, finding its way, stale, inside him. Breathing in the man’s smoke was a peculiar form of intimacy and Salah did not mind it; if asked, though, he would have claimed to have found it distasteful. Sometimes Mustafe would wink or tap a two-fingered salute off his forehead when he gave Salah the box and drove away; sometimes he shook his head in a way that signified disgust and pulled off into traffic recklessly.

And so the long history of silent transactions that was shattered when Mustafe spoke nudged Salah toward surprise. “You never change, do you, boy? For you it’s all work and no play, and you wear it on your sleeve. I’ll drive you to the restaurant today. Get in.”

“No, that’s all right,” Salah said with uncertainly. “I’ll walk.”

Mustafe laughed with the expansive delight of one who has proven his point effortlessly. “Don’t you know that turning down a favor or a gift, especially one offered by your elders, is rude? And especially,” he went on with sarcastic emphasis, one eyebrow askew, “when that elder happens to be the boss’s brother.”

In the car Mustafe had almost nothing to say and this reticence seemed sourly tinged. The longest conversation Salah had ever had with him was when he had initially accosted the boy more than a year ago, offering him the job. Salah’s impression at that time was that Mustafe was free-speaking and gregarious, but that he had no real interest in listening to anything another person might have had to say. He talked because it was a way to make himself central. Using words allowed him to offer up an image of himself without having to define himself through actions. For that reason, Salah disliked words. Words demanded trust from the listener from the very start, trust that had not yet been proven or earned.

Salah would not have spoken at all himself, but he noticed that they were driving away from the commercial district where the Four Seasons was located. When he mentioned this, Mustafe shrugged and explained that he had an important errand to run first. As they drove on Salah had the impression that the space in the car was dissolving and he fought against claustrophobia. It was the cigarette smoke; it muted everything in the car, shaped the interior so that it was less spacious and more compact, less vivid. The smoke hung in the air as drearily as a wish that was voiced a thousand times with no chance of coming true. He was pressed toward claustrophobia but he did not mind breathing the man’s smoke in.

Salah put his head back and his eyes closed of their own accord; or at any rate, he felt that he had not willed them to close. He registered the car’s motion, the momentary limbo that yawned in potholes, a sensation that lived in the space between sinking and rising, his head jouncing gently on his neck. When Mustafe coughed, Salah had the odd thought that it was not a sincere cough, that he was doing it on purpose, and for that reason he kept his eyes closed. He did not see counterfeited vividly on the inner retina or attempt to imagine the landscape outside the car. Briefly, fluidly, an image of his father rose before him: he saw him pulling his rickshaw up a slope, and the passenger who was delivered to the crest of the slope was Salah himself. He was holding money out to his father, who shook his head sadly and would not take it, trotting back down the hill to find another passenger.

Three seconds before Mustafe uttered words Salah opened his eyes suddenly, as though he had been called, knowing with an unhappy certainly that Mustafa would say the exact words we’re here.

“We’re here,” Mutafa announced, pointing across the street. “Just in time.”

They were parked across the street from Dharr’s home, which was similar to Salah’s in its look of slanting impoverishment. The image it conjured was stark as a threadbare sock on an infant’s foot. It was a simple box of bare necessity that offered its inhabitants a splintery fleshless embrace, like the houses and skeletal structures that made up the entire neighborhood. Everything was shoved reliantly together, leaning, and seemed to exist in a state of symbiotic deterioration composed of planks, scarred and riddled concrete, dust that grayed the air with ghosts, air mottled with the scent of diesel fuel. Salah had spent time here with Dharr in the days before his friend had begun to perceive him as a threat. Through the front door as he waited for Dharr to come out with his soccer ball, Salah would glimpse the boy’s father sleeping on a straw mat rolled out on the floor so that he could nap during his lunchtime before returning to work.

A small crowd was gathered in the street in front of Dharr’s house. Yelling children in a heedless ricochet of play bounced off each other, circling without purpose around a group of four adults standing next to an ambulance with its rear doors stiffly flung open in gloomy salute. The adults shuffled away from the ambulance when two men bearing a stretcher with a body emerged from the house. The body was draped in a white sheet but one arm, like a strip of something, dangled loose, the hand with spread fingers dragging runnels in the dust.

“That’s Dharr,” Mustafe explained, lighting another cigarette. “The friend of yours that arranged for others to do those terrible things to you.”

Salah was already sitting up straight, he could not have sat any straighter, but with he inhabited the straight sitting more fully and with a rush of immediacy, like a cord flooded with electricity when plugged into an outlet.

Next to the stretcher Dharr’s mother, a squat woman who could barely pick up her feet, wailed and pulled at her hair with both hands. When she stumbled and went down on her knees, her husband, who had been standing in the open doorway of the house with his face buried in cupped hands, rushed forward and gingerly lifted her to her feet. She pushed him away with savage abandon and resumed staggering alongside the stretcher. One of the running children grabbed the sheet from the stretcher and held it around his neck like a cape as he capered about, and a dog appeared like beige mist from somewhere sourceless, pouncing and snapping at the sheet’s swirl. An adult managed to catch the child and retrieve the sheet, but not before Dharr’s body had been plainly exposed. Horror moved through the growing crowd like a beggar with an outstretched hand, gathering gasps and gazes from the onlookers as though they were rupees; they all tried looking away but could not. Salah could not help staring at Dharr. At the shattered jaw, the caved-in side of the skull, the one eye reduced to a pulpy mass. The same force that held spectators’ eyes captive at the scene of accidents where lifeless bodies were pulled from wreckage gripped the back of Salah’s neck in a sickening vise, preventing him from turning away. His face was pressed against the car window, nostrils butterflied against the glass.

“Yes-yes, take a good look. Imran has taken care of this whole thing. All except the part where you have to get your hands really dirty. You have him to thank. ”

“He’s dead,” Salah said.

“And what of it? You’ll be dead one day, boy. We all will. So what?”

“But not like that.”

Mustafe burst out laughing as he pulled away from the curb and knifed the car into the road. Through her own wailing and perhaps through the brief yelp made by the rear tires as they spun, sucking at traction with the avidity of a child sucking his thumb, Dharr’s mother might have heard the mocking laughter. She looked up as they drove past and through the grief that had constructed its fortress behind her eyes, through a hairline fissure in its walls, stared directly at Salah.


Over the course of the years to come, for reasons that Salah thought might have had something to do with intense feelings that rose up suddenly from the depths and capsized the level vessel of the emotions on which he typically floated, the face of Dharr’s mother crystallized before him during moments of stress and surprise, of painful monotony and tedium, of happiness and defeat. In that way she accompanied him from year to year, close as an ally or enemy, close as breath when it enters and exits at the nostril’s tip: her eyes grasping for a moment at his as he and Mustafe drove away, eyes turning dark as the darkness visible, startlingly, in the back of an open mouth where strangled screams lay coiled like snakes. She was there when he graduated from high school and his mother and father both wept to see their son come so far, walking across the small plain stage to receive his diploma. And when Imran called him into the office and gave him his first motorized rickshaw and Salah could not believe his great good fortune, she was there, staring at him and then fading as a phantom fades. She came and went so quickly that he could not read the message in her eyes and was forced to wonder if her look was one of approval or condemnation. He understood that no one would be able to tell him what her look meant or how to interpret it, that in the end, he would be solely responsible for defining its meaning.

But he refused to define its meaning.

The day finally arrived when he believed he had more than a slim chance of becoming a person with a worthwhile life, a person with a life that was worth sharing, a life that had begun to move beyond merely clutching at the future with a fearful, impotent hand, and on that day he married Yasmine with an unburdened conscience, knowing that he was offering her his best self up to that point. It was a day glossed with gladness and sunshine, one that rang with the well wishes of family and of people whom he had begun to consider friends, and on that day, too, after the ceremony was over, when he took Yasmine’s hand and looked into her eyes, he saw other eyes peering out at him. He was tempted to tell Yasmine the story of Dharr and his mother, but in the end resisted the temptation, certain that she could only blame him, that she would be right in blaming him, and that this unvarnished perception of him might, in the early days before the dew could dry on the new green of their untested marriage, set a dangerous precedent that would extend indefinitely into the future. The role of husband was one he would have to discover, just as he had discovered, unsure and with timid determination, a way through the claustrophobic territory of adolescence into the yawning expanse of manhood. Telling Yasmine would only jeopardize everything.

But he did tell her years later, when they knew each other so well that a rending jeopardy that would never heal was no longer truly possible. On the day that Taj was born Dharr’s mother’s eyes failed to appear as he cupped the wailing bundle of innocence that was his daughter to his chest, but when Jhanda was born years later in America, the grieving mother’s eyes looked out at him from behind his son’s serene gaze. Jhanda stared up at Salah, as silent as Taj had been obstreperous, and Salah passed him guiltily back to his wife as she lay exhausted, frail in the hospital bed. Superstitiously he hoped then that a stain had not been spilled on the relationship he would come to have with Jhanda.

By the time Salah realized his dream of running a several rickshaws with Imran’s help, his benefactor had lost his regal bearing due to a protracted illness, and he died of cirrhosis of the liver though he had never touched a drop of alcohol in his life. His brother Mustafe, younger by fifteen years, took over the restaurant and the numerous business involvements by which Imran Rajput had consolidated his share of wealth and reputation in the city. He had always treated Salah like a son, counseling and advising him with paternal equanimity even though his approach and attitude toward collecting his share of the profits Salah owed him as an investor was businesslike, matter-of-fact, and brooked no exceptions to the rule regarding timely repayment.

But when Mustafe stepped in and Salah realized that everything would change, the eyes appeared then, too, apparitional, sad and knowing, drifting across Mustafe’s brow like a black scarf blowing in a cold twist of wind.

Everything did change. Mustafe displayed none of his brother’s wisdom, a wisdom spawned from quietly observing the things around him and holding his opinion of the objects of his observation in suspension. Brusque and brutal, Mustafe had grating opinions about everyone and everything, and he expected those he shared his opinions with to eagerly echo agreement. Salah learned to nod and to produce the appropriate intonations; he nodded so frequently that he began unconsciously to nod with exaggerated emphasis at home when Yasmine or Taj spoke to him. “You can ask Baba anything and he nods yes,” Taj remarked to Yasmine one day, and to Salah’s dismay, they both tittered as though some slightly shameful secret of his had been exposed. Then he became aware of what he was doing and, at least at home, tried to stop himself before his head could begin to bob.

Mustafe enjoyed playing the role of the heedless thug and threw himself into the part with all the pent-up fury of the younger brother who has been forced to skulk far too long in his older brother’s shadow. He had resisted working exclusively for Imran, intent upon launching some enterprise that would bring him success on his own terms, and that success had eluded him for years. Petty thievery and extortion, hapless business schemes and fraudulent investment projects were the best Mustafe and the entourage of wiry hoodlums he had gathered about him as his “operational hub” could manage. But now that Imran was gone, Mustafe inherited great wealth, and the wealth made him less circumspect and cautious, more recklessly ambitious. Now that he had access to his brother’s money and property and businesses, he seemed to forget how important it had once been to find a way succeed on his own terms. This was his time now, his day, the long humiliating apprenticeship in failure was over. Mustafe began to collect interest on the loans that his brother had extended to people like Salah, the loans that had enabled them to establish their unassuming businesses. But where Imran had charged them an interest rate that fell short of usury and was tempered by what seemed to be a genuine interest in the progress and evolution of their lives, Mustafa gouged them mercilessly, making it virtually impossible for them to turn a profit. When they could no longer make payments, he initiated what he called “foreclosure proceedings”– he simply took over the business and paid the previous owners, now reduced to the status of an employee, a minimum wage.

At night when sleep failed him and he worried about the inevitable day when Mustafe would demand so much money that he would be unable to pay it, Salah saw her eyes peering down on him, a wild darkness socketed in the weaker domestic darkness of the bedroom. He tried to imagine forgiveness in them, exculpation, permission to move forward into his life without the anchor of his personal history dragging him down. By morning he sensed that no forgiveness had been granted, but an idea had taken root in his mind, and he believed that the eyes were somehow responsible for it: save every penny and add it to the savings account.

Salah was lucky. For a time Mustafe seemed focused on the others for whom Imran had acted as benefactor. One by one he stripped them of everything and they tumbled gracelessly, like swans in flight suddenly deprived of their wings, back into the poverty that Imran had helped them to leave behind. A week before Mustafe came to Salah with a demand for exorbitant payment, Salah heard that he had killed the father of five children who had fallen hopelessly behind in his payments. When Mustafe approached him in the rickshaw depot, Salah began to tremble, a tuning fork of dread vibrating in his chest.

“You don’t pay enough,” Mustafe said, flanked by his minions. He was smoking a cigarette, the smoke undulating about his face with the grace of a ballerina’s arms. “Starting next month, you’ll pay me double.”

“Yes,” Salah agreed, nodding. “I’ll pay you double.”

“Did you hear about the death of Malik?”

“Yes.”

“They’re saying I did it,” Mustafa said defiantly. “Do you think I did it?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t? Well, listen my little friend. If I killed him, it’s because he made me kill him. Anyone who thinks they don’t owe me what I ask for will make me kill them. Do you grasp this? You’ve always been smarter than the others, Salah, so I know you won’t make the same mistake poor Malik did.” After a moment he added, “Did you know that my brother was very fond of you?” and stared at Salah with unrestrained curiosity.

“He was always very good to me. I had great respect for him, for helping me change my life, and I think of him every day. I wish I could thank him.”

“Is that the role you see him playing for you?” he asked, and for a moment he seemed genuinely – though in an abstracted way – puzzled. In the next moment, though, it was clear that the heartfelt confession did not please Mustafe. He fell into an uncharacteristic silence, holding Salah’s remark in brooding contemplation. His eyes were the width of coin slots in a battered vending machine when he said with mock petulance, “You never thanked me for what I did for you. You never thanked me for avenging you. Yes-yes – you were raped, abused like a woman. I made sure the rapists got what they deserved.”

Salah dropped his head and nodded. “It’s always been hard for me to think about it. No disrespect was meant to you.”

“By the way, the rapist themselves … the two boys? I never even bothered to tell you that they’re not around anymore either. Imran told me, but don’t mention it to Salah. I wanted to know why. I asked him, why not tell Salah? Because Salah is the sensitive type, he told me. He’s prone to forgive too easily. Is this true?”

“I can’t really say, Mustafe. My father was the kind of man who could forgive anyone for anything. I think I fall short of that.”

Mustafe expelled smoke that mushroomed with his propulsive laughter. “Then be glad you fall short. This world crushes people who walk around forgiving everyone for everything, haven’t you learned that yet? If you don’t know that after what’s happened to you, then you’ll never know.” Abbruptly he turned and walked away. The two cohorts did not follow him immediately, but stood with their hands in their pockets, watching Salah with a kind of hostile fascination. Finally they both left the depot, hurrying after Mustafe.

Salah put off telling Yasmine about the impending disaster for as long as he could. She was such a nervous young woman. Perhaps not nervous so much as skittish, as though the air that touched her skin whispered with electricity, and from it she drew a small but stinging shock. Motherhood coaxed her out of herself, out of that skittish sensitivity, her focus no longer feeding on itself but finding a benign outlet in her daughter. He feared that telling her would drive her inward, where her energy spiraled randomly and she chased it in jittery circles. At those times, everything she did, all her thoughts and gestures, was propelled by anxiety, hurry and distraction, causing him to feel a helpless sense of unease. Salah knew that everyone had to contend with the past, he had his and Yasmine had hers – she had never found a way to accept the slow death of her father – but he would rather have given his life than to see her suffer because of something he should have been able to divert or prevent.

When the time came and he told her everything, Yasmine did not want to leave Lahore. “If we don’t leave, this man will take everything from us, bit by bit, until we’re left with nothing. I can’t stop him from doing this.”

The discussion took place, as all their serious discussions did, in the darkness of the bedroom, while they waited for sleep to lower its palm and push them, with gentle but insistent pressure, down through the mattress and into the spacious subterranean valley of dreams. Salah remembered hearing his own mother and father having long conversations at night. Their house had only two rooms: the tiny bedroom they had given to Salah and the central room on the other side of the front door. Through the wall Salah would hear first his high-pitched mother’s voice, a hummingbird darting from word to word, then a brief silence, and then his father’s voice, his sentences a vibrating drum. He would strain to make out the conversation, but he could hear only the vibrations that carried the words. In time the vibrations turned into a soothing drone, a protective presence, and Salah would drift securely into sleep. Now when he had something important to say to Yasmine about his work or Taj, offering up his anxieties or his hopes for the future, he waited until they were in bed, in darkness, only dimly aware that he was emulating his parents. They both lay on their sides. Yasmine’s face was inches from his. “Go to the authorities.” She began to whisper. “Have him arrested. I never liked him. And I can’t say I much liked his brother either, though I don’t want to speak ill of the dead.”

“I can’t tell the police. How would I know I’m not talking to someone Mustafe pays off?”

              
“We could move to another city.”

“I’m afraid he’d find us, Yasmine. Not that he would necessarily look for us, but that he might find us completely by accident or by chance.”

“India is a huge. He would never find us there. The United States is a world away. India has violence and thievery and desperation and crime, but at least it’s a crime we’re familiar with.”

“I know I don’t have to remind you, we’re Pakistani, not Indian. India is a world away.”

“I didn’t think you were one of those Pakistanis who hated India.”

“I’m not. I’m only saying we have a different culture. If we go to India it’s as far away from us as Pakistanis, culturally, as America is. And that being the case, we may as well travel to America as to India.”

Yasmine made a soft cluck of exasperation. “You seem dead set in wanting us to go to America, Salah.” She turned away from him, her back a barrier, a wall. “I don’t understand it.” “Because we can’t begin again here. It will be too hard to start over from nothing here. But America is the land of new beginnings. You can start over and over again, you can begin there a thousand times if you have to.” He heard her voice drifting back to him over her shoulder like an already threadbare banner further tattered by the wind. “But you really don’t know that, do you?” she asked.

On the plane Yasmine wept unobtrusively, each of her dignified tears a rebuke to Salah, who sat silent in the aisle seat. Little serious Taj, in the window seat staring out and down, affected the indifference of one for whom flight was a routine mode of transportation. Yasmine, sandwiched between them both, bent forward to look out the window as well. Just as it had been the night before, she turned her back to him, but this time, after a minute had passed, she reached behind, groping until she found his hand. Salah felt her vulnerability concentrated in the small bones of her fingers, in the shallow rise of her knuckles, tracing his forefinger over their fragile undulations.

Leaving Lahore was difficult for reasons that were easy enough for Salah to grasp. After all, he was tied to the city and to the country that was its cradle by an umbilical cord that was anchored in his blood and stretched beyond the skin’s surface to root itself in the eternal currents of the Ravi River and in the monsoonal seasons that rode through time on the wind’s carousel; in the ornate austerity of Mughal-era monuments that had survived the sandpapering centuries and in the stunning formal symmetries of gardens that seemed etched in pastels of frost; in the elegantly chiseled mosques and in the riot of streets winding through so much darkness and light; in the rubbish heaps and the bottomless slums where ancient-eyed children who were little more than babies learned that the precocious machinations they enacted on the streets could ensure survival. Salah had known that leaving would be jarring, that memories firmly secured and bolted would be torn from their fixtures, and that such sunderings would be jarring and severe. Only the assuaging conviction that demolition was always succeeded by reconstruction kept the clouds of uncertainty and fear that always roiled in the wake of wreckage from engulfing him. No matter that the length of time between those inevitable polar cycles might seem to stretch on forever, he knew an era of reconstruction and rebirth would arrive. Leaving his 81-year-old father Muhammad behind, though, had brought him to the edge of an emotional gulf, and he could only gaze down into it, wondering what bridge would mercifully appear under the soles of his feet, what solid span materialize to support him as he made his way to the other side. As quickly as possible he wanted to emerge on the other side. The other side was establishing his life in America: learning English, becoming a citizen in a new country, driving a car on American roads, buying food from the supermarkets, cultivating the sense of humor that would allow him to laugh at the jokes Americans laughed at, placing his children in the right schools, earning the right to vote, looking at life through American eyes and seeing it from the American perspective. He prayed not for a wide passageway to appear beneath his feet, but for a simple one, the width of a narrow unadorned plank would more than suffice – something befitting a man who had aspired to be a good son to his parents but had failed. He had not failed completely, but by the time Salah had begun to see the auto-rickshaw business that had only existed because of Imran’s sponsorship bear fruit, allowing a first foretaste of ease into the lives of the poverty-battered Bhatti family, it was too late. He understood he could not shepherd time but, in retrospect, he had failed to maintain a serious awareness of the danger domiciled within the mystery of time, a danger patiently waiting to emerge during some moment completely disconnected from rhyme or reason. He had underestimated time and so was unprepared for the destruction it could unleash. His mother would die suddenly four months later, shortly after he moved them all into the bright clean cottage he could finally afford to lease. In the little front yard, bustling amid pomegranate shrubs vivid and fragrant with the ripe rouged fruit she loved to tend in the mornings, his mother died from sudden heart failure, the same condition that killed her own mother decades ago. Muhammad, whom Salah a few years before with great difficulty had finally convinced to cease pulling the rickshaw, continued to occupy his small bedroom in the rear of the house when Salah and Yasmine were married a year later. After Yasmine moved into the cottage, her summary insistence that Muhammad continue living with them had been emphatic and matter-of-fact when Salah raised the subject, as though any other living arrangement would have been absurd. That unstudied graciousness and generosity reflected an abiding instinct that enabled her to disentangle small but complicated knots of right and wrong and was perceived by Salah to be a set of lessons to be learned, her effortless gift to him.

At 81, his father had lived a long life that the son viewed as being, in many ways, exemplary, despite the embrace of poverty that proved to be an encirclement of omnipotent arms no frenzy of grappling could free him from. It was apparent to Salah that for all the hardship and penury his father confronted at every juncture, he managed to pass through each day without suffering irreparable erosion and diminution. That daily reprieve was indeed a narrow victory of sorts, even if little else in his world was. But who was Salah to say what was narrow or wide for his father or for anyone, who was he to harbor observations that were little more than occasions for passing judgment? Perhaps his father’s victory was not so narrow after all and had to some degree spread like a blessing over all aspects of his life. There were times when he had witnessed his father fully occupying his life in single moments that appeared to be – Salah could only infer this, since he had never asked his father – as compressed and rich, as sovereign, as the teeming universe of an atom, and it seemed logical to him that such moments must have been freighted with victory, that they were in fact the genesis of that victory, whether or not the rickshaw-wallah recognized them as such. He had observed this subtle and silent drama unfold when Muhammad gave himself completely to ordinary things. Repairing a broken axel on his rickshaw, or even brushing his teeth, washing a cup, lighting a candle, breathing a breath. At those times his father became a presence rather than a personality and radiated a kind of stillness that rippled outward to touch the people and things comprised by the tangible world around him. When he made himself available to his experiences in that vigilant way, the ashen destitution that was the perpetual backdrop against which those ordinary acts took place did not so much disappear as retreat into transparency; the ordinary acts became extraordinary by virtue of the vigilance and whole-heartedness his father brought to the tasks. The misery of poverty hovered somewhere outside the task at hand, not as though invisible, but rather apparitionally outlined in transparency.

Salah wondered, watching clouds through the plane’s window as they thickened and thinned, how much of a life could truly be lived one moment at a time? He recalled the day when the businessman had struck Muhammad with the briefcase, the blood toppling from a gash jeopardous as a trapeze, tilting above the eyebrow. Salah had been self-righteously infuriated on his father’s behalf and Muhammad had commented – he would never forget the words – what good is all your outrage, here, now? What happened to me happened hours ago. The comment sounded like a simple fact, but evolved into a profound paradox as Salah had continued to dwell on it through the years. Everything that happened, happened hours ago, or minutes ago, or seconds ago, and inexorably nested itself in the past, even as the present moment – which had no starting or stopping point that could be defined or located or measured – seemed to stand completely outside of time, as though eternal. At some point it occurred to Salah that the past existed, but only as a concept in the mind. It struck him with the force of an unanticipated collision, one he had no time to brace himself for: both the future and the past were accessible and existed only as a conceptual reality; after all was said and done, in the end they were only thoughts.

For a time, after Yasmine and Salah were married, his father was able to hide the encroachment of senility behind his good-natured, self-deprecating sense of humor. When he sat at the table to eat breakfast and Yasmine pointed out to him that he had already eaten it a few hours ago, he would joke and laugh and explain how his own mother, when he was a child of 9 or 10, had chided him for his forgetfulness, how she would tap his head with her finger and claim to hear an echo. Because his father laughed at himself and casually insisted the forgetfulness was evident even in childhood, Salah did not see or suspect that it was a new symptom. While his own powers of observation were often less than keen, Yasmine made any environment her own by absorbing everything about it and then drawing conclusions, when they were necessary, that were rarely inaccurate or unwarranted. She had to point out to Salah that his father was beginning to suffer from senility, that his absent-mindedness was more than just the harmless indisciipline of a memory that more often than not had lain sunning itself in a tabby coil since childhood. The day Salah told his father he was leaving Lahore and moving to the United States, the senility declared itself boldly, like a presence translated from shadow into merciless light.

“We’d like you to come with us to America, baba. We have to leave Lahore. Nothing will change – we’ll find a small house and you’ll have your own room, just as you do now.”

The light in Muhammad’s eyes was eclipsed by puzzlement. “Come with you to America? And what about your mother? She would never leave Lahore. She’s lived nowhere but here all her life. I’ve lived nowhere but here.”

“She’s no longer with us, baba,” Yasmine gently reminded her father-in-law. They all sat at the kitchen table and she leaned forward to pat Muhammad’s hand. “Your dear wife Najmah fell sick and left this world years ago. Her heart …”

Muhammad saw his mistake and quickly attempted to rectify it. “I meant her spirit is here, her spirit would never leave Lahore.”

Salah’s determination to steer the conversation toward a favorable conclusion enabled him to ignore the melancholy gathering weight in his chest as he observed his father struggling to hide his condition with dignity. “She would want us all to stay together, baba. She would want you to come with us. She wouldn’t want us to stay here, because there’s danger for us if we stay here.” For two weeks Salah and Yasmine attempted to convince Muhammad, but the careful arguments they presented were all invalidated by his uncompromising refusal to leave Pakistan. When he saw that Muhammad could not be persuaded to leave the country, Salah knew that he would have to find a place where his father could live safely, unmolested. Someplace as far away from Lahore as possible, outside Mustafa’s sphere of influence and activity. He was afraid that if presented with the opportunity, Mustafa would harm his father. Infuriated by the bold gesture of audacity and defiance that Salah’s disappearance would spotlight and throw into heroic relief, Mustafa would seek retribution for the debt Salah would leave behind when he fled to the United States. The man would fear that his reputation would be compromised once other extortion victims learned he had allowed Salah to escape, cleanly, with no consequences. And what did his reputation consist of? It consisted of exercising authority with the well-aimed precision of the flayer who consummates his cruelty by unleashing the sharp crack concealed in the bullwhip’s tail as it falls, a detonation, on the back.

Salah felt a sense of sweeping relief when a distant cousin who lived in the border town of Narang Mandi agreed to provide room and board for Muhammad at his own home, after Salah explained the perilous predicament with Mustafa. Salah and Farhan had played together for many years as children, until Farhan’s family left Lahore to settle in Narang Mandi. Farhan later built a small mosque for the Sunni community he lived in, whose residents had great respect for his integrity and learning and turned to him as a spiritual leader when the old man who had been their imam died peacefully in his sleep. Farhan agreed with Salah that it would be impossible to sequester his father inside Farhan’s home to preserve complete secrecy, but understood the importance of maintaining a low profile for Muhammad and minimizing his public presence. With mischief glittering in his eyes, Farhan explained that he would create and promote a fictional identity to conceal Muhammad’s true one for those times when exposure to collective scrutiny could not be avoided. Salah forced Farhan to take a portion of the savings he had set aside as his U.S. relocation fund, promising to send him more money once he was on his feet in his adopted country. In Narang Mandi, at the threshold to his front door, Farhan stood next to Muhammad with his arm around his shoulder as Salah, Yasmine and Taj walked away down the footpath, turning several times to wave goodbye. Solemnly Salah had explained to his father that he would probably never be able to return to Pakistan, that although they would talk by telephone they would never see each other in the flesh again, yet Muhammad seemed not to fully grasp the significance of the words. His smile was artificial, a depthless stretch over teeth long decades had dimmed and slanted like boards loosely nailed over broken out windows. It had been unclear whether he actually remembered the boy Farhan who had played street cricket with Salah and a dreary group of children in their feral Lahore neighborhood years ago; Muhammad insisted, though, that he did remember. By the time Salah left Narang Mandi, he was not even certain that his father’s memory was sufficiently intact to remember him, his only son, in a way that had not already yielded to grave fragmentation.

On the plane Salah vowed to make a life for his wife and daughter in America, to find a way to make a foreign land their authentic home, no matter how difficult that task might prove to be. He held her hand, warm as clay from a kiln, focusing on it, praying that Yasmine would never see the eyes in the face that stared at him from the other side of the wind, Dharr’s mother’s eyes. They gleamed at him from beyond the plane’s window, hovering in the mists of high altitude, the thin streaming clouds. Then, with a feeling of gratefulness and dread, he remembered that those eyes would always be invisible to others, that they could only possess his image, and that he would be reflected in them for the rest of his life.

Next Chapter

Chapter 16


Article By: dglenn


Arts | Fiction | Novels


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