December

The sputtering of the old motorcycle with the broken silencer became louder, stagnated and then died abruptly. Everyone waiting in the dimly lit, dusty room gathered themselves, their eyes darting to the door as the rusted latch squeaked open.

The door opened and cold December sunlight streamed into the room. Akbar entered with a bundle in his arms and an unreadable expression on his face. Jamila stood and walked up to her husband, taking the swaddled baby from him. She looked up at him but he did not meet her gaze. He simply gave his head a small shake and looked away. Jamila’s lip quivered but she moved closer to him.

Akbar reached into the front pocket of his kurta, took out a folded piece of paper and handed it to his wife. With her free hand, Jamila shook it open and held it to the light. Words had been scribbled on it in a hasty, haphazard scrawl she could not make out. She knew that even if she had been able to read the angular left-to-right script, the long words would not have made any sense to her. She wasn’t interested in the words. Her eyes scanned the paper, quickly locating the number printed near the bottom of the prescription. She stared at it for a while and then looked at her child and then at Akbar who shook his head again.

The room became dimmer still as a large cloud slid in front of the sun. Jamila and Akbar continued to gaze wordlessly at each other, communicating solely through their blank eyes, until finally Jamila nodded – once – and then hung her head. Akbar wrapped an arm around her, firmly gripping her shoulder, and steered her into the only other room in the house.

A hush fell on the other children in the room. Even those too young to understand had stopped fidgeting and rolling on the concrete floor.

Remembering Dadi

I remember watching her pray when I was a little girl. I can still picture the scene perfectly, my grandmother unfolding and spreading on the floor the ja’namaz my uncle had brought for her from Saudi Arabia, its blue velvety cloth worn to a thin grey in the places where she planted her feet when she stood and where she rested her knees and palms and forehead when she prostrated. She would surface from her last, long prostration and turn instinctively to look at me with brown peaceful eyes, her smile accentuating the spidery traces the decades had left on her face. Sometimes she would laugh her rich, songbird laugh and reach over to help disentangle me from a dupatta I had attempted to wrap around my head in impersonation of her.

I was ten when my grandfather died. It hadn’t been a surprise to anyone; he had been battling a growing number of illnesses during his last few years. My grandfather died with his family gathered around his bed and his right hand held in the hand of the woman he had spent nearly half a century with. When his fingers finally went limp, my grandmother gave them one last squeeze, straightened and, with a back as erect as it had ever been, went to make arrangements for the funeral. Nothing had betrayed her grief that day except that when I had crept into her bed that night, her pillow had been damp against my cheek and she had held me tighter than ever before.

When I was seventeen, it was my grandmother who encouraged me to apply to an American college. The other family elders had not been too keen about sending a teenaged Pakistani girl across distances only measurable in time zones and long-distance phone calls. My grandmother, however, had stuck by my side throughout. She would softly relate the story of her own youth, when her father had insisted that she go to university at a time when it was quite unheard of for a Muslim woman to be educated beyond tenth grade. “Progress is only made when risks are taken and new things are tried,” she would quote her father. But not everyone would be swayed by her logic. When that happened she would use religion to attack her opponents. She would stare them down and subject them to a lecture on the importance our Prophet had placed on seeking knowledge.

She would write me letters and I would read them at my desk in the dorm room that overlooked the New England countryside. In autumn, I would press crimson leaves and fold them into the letters I sent her. In the summer, her letters would give off the smell of mangoes that permeates into everything in Karachi. She would write to me in her beautifully penned Urdu and I would write back in mine, misshapen, hesitant and underused. She wrote to me her stories, her secrets, until I was sure she had shared more about herself with me than she had with anyone else in the family. The last letter I ever got from her arrived a week before the day of my graduation. Her last letter – and I will never forget this – ended with, “My dear child, if only you had any idea of how often I see glimpses of myself in everything you do.”

Bugsplat

The room was bathed in dirty, yellow light. The dim light bulb directly above him flickered and emitted a buzz that could be heard over the hums and beeps of the many grey, boxy machines that stood around him. The room had no windows and lacked a proper ventilation system. The only door stood a few feet behind him but, despite the stuffiness, he was not authorised to open it until his shift was over.

Brandon glanced at his watch. There was a little over an hour left. He also stole a glance at the bouquet of lilies that lay on his desk. He had made a reservation at Eastern Flame for later than night where he and his girlfriend would finally get to try the Peking duck everyone had been raving about lately.

No, he told himself, stopping his train of thought in its tracks. He readjusted his headphones. The senior sensor operator had warned his subordinates of the dangers of letting one’s work mix with their daily life. A barrier had to be maintained between the two at all times and any breaches could have dire consequences. Everyone had heard about Roger Gray and how distant and aloof he had become to his children, unable to make the daily transition between being a soccer dad and a drone pilot.

Brandon took a deep breath and returned his attention to the screen in front of him. He was hovering thousands of feet above a rocky valley nestled between the jagged, barren peaks of Western Waziristan. The colours on his screen were the feverish hues of infrared. An hour ago he had positioned the crosshairs on his screen towards the centre of a mud hut that throbbed a bright orange. Now all he had to do was watch. And wait.

The waiting was the worst part for him. With no other orders, he was always left to wonder what he was supposed to be watching out for. He focused on the mud hut, trying not to imagine the look on Julia’s face when he surprised her with the flowers and told her to dress fancy because they were going out, trying not to think about the sweet, crispy duck wraps that were waiting for him. No.

His headphones crackled to life. “Operator Bryant,” a gruff voice said to him. “This strike has been authorised. You have orders to fire at will.” And then there was silence again – and the humming.

Brandon flicked open the safety latch on the red button and pressed it in one fluid motion. The console screen started displaying a sixteen second countdown sequence.

Eleven. He wondered if those he was going to vaporise that evening would be leaving any family behind.

Seven. What would he do if a loved one was blown to bits?

Three. There was an orange-green blob moving towards the mud hut. It looked like –

The screen went yellow.

The other man in the room got off his console and thumped him on the shoulder.

Brandon drove to Julia’s apartment in a daze. He was glassy-eyed when he gave her the lilies and barely heard anything she said to him during the drive to the restaurant. He had been staring at the wontons floating like pickled foetuses in his soup when Julia asked him if something was wrong. He shook his head. No. He didn’t understand. He’d taken lives before, more lives than he could count, especially because he was doing so from so far away. Why, then, did he feel so sick?

“Brandon?” Julia asked, concern in her voice.

Brandon looked up but could only see the infrared screen that showed the hut reduced to rubble. A smudge, now green, was smeared on the ground nearby. The bugsplat, as it was called, was too small to belong to a grown man.

Domes

2014

His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. “Be back before nine,” she said to him as he walked past the three bloated suitcases and two trolley-bags lining the corridor to the door. “Your uncle will pick us up at ten.” He nodded without looking at her, unbolted the door and headed out into the evening.

The overcast sky glowed orange from the thousands of streetlights burning under it. The pre-monsoon air stirred with sluggish humidity, buzzed with honks and horns and sirens and the chitter-chatter of rickshaws, and broiled in the September smells of exhaust fumes and steaming rubbish and chicken tikkas and shit that made their way to him through the a/c vent of his Civic. He drove past brightly lit shops selling motorbike silencers and paan, chai and fruit, cigarettes, samosas and wicker furniture, past large billboards advertising Lux soap, GulAhmed linens, Italian kitchen interiors and McDonald’s, past crippled beggars leaning on canes, heroin addicts in piles of rags and sauntering hijras. The street suddenly plunged into darkness, all illumination punctuated by load-shedding.

The Badshahi masjid remained unaffected by the sudden change, its tombstone white domes lit by tastefully-placed spotlights. His father had gone to those domes one day and returned riddled with bullets.

1914

His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. She sat folding her elaborate embroidered saris, tucking jewellery away into the silken folds, and placing them into a large wooden box. When the box was full it would join the others waiting by the door. His wife sat close by, fingering the khaddar loom that would have to be left behind. “Don’t venture too far,” said his mother. “Your uncle should be here soon with the carriage.” He nodded and headed out.

The broad metalled street half a kilometre away from his house lacked its usual midday hustle-bustle; there were no fruitwallas pushing carts laden with apples and grapes, no hawkers shouting lists of items they bought or sold, no bright-eyed children weaving their way between the adults, laughing and occasionally picking pockets. The few stragglers went about their business, not inclined towards conversation. Sullen grey clouds pressed an unsettling silence onto the city. The crescented green flags of the Muslim League hung here and there, interspersed by a smattering of white-green-saffron Congress flags, both united in their limp listlessness. He made eye-contact with a man walking towards him. Vermillion marked the stranger’s forehead. They exchanged small, silent nods as they passed each other.

The marble domes of the Badshahi masjid to the North gleamed white against the pregnant sky. He stopped and stared at the domes under which men would be offering funeral prayers for those who the firangis had sent to other lands to fight, who had not returned and would not return, who had fathered and left behind sons like him.

1814

His red-eyed mother did not make to stop him. “Do not stay away too late,” she said as he headed to the door. “Your uncle said we should leave after sunset.” Their belongings stood by the door, bundled in blankets or stowed away in his mother’s large teak dowry chest. He nodded once and turned back just in time to see his wife pause her task of pressing his mother’s legs, look up and watch him leave.

The donkey fidgeted outside their house, keeping flies at bay with its ears and tail. It nosed the earth, struggling against its bolted creaking cart as it strained to reach a patch of brown grass. It paid him no heed as he walked past it, turning into a narrow dust-caked street.

The beard, bushy and reminiscent of his own, was the first thing he noticed about the stranger walking towards him on the opposite side of the street. He opened his mouth to wish the man peace before he noticed the stranger’s turban and averted his gaze. The men crossed without a word.

A breeze blew in from the North, where the Badshahi masjid stood. It was warm and heavy with the stench of horseshit and the Sikhs who had butchered his father.