STORY BEHIND A SHORT STORY
veritas odit moras
Zaidi teaches English in Brunei Drussalam. His fiction has appeared
in, inter alia, Exquisite Corpse, Killing the Buddha,
and New Partisan.
Lion of Borneo was
published in New York Press on 4 January 2006. Only one week
separated the submission and the publication of this short story
of mine. Harry Siegel, the chief editor, did not wait for my
brief bio to come through and simply went with the story. “The
Lion of Borneo” in his words “is an excellent story”
and “I hope you know how much I enjoyed the story, and hope
that it’s the first of many to run in the Press.”
was not the first time that an editor had praised The
Lion of Borneo (hence TLB) in such
glowing terms. And yet it took eight long years for it to get
wrote TLB in June 1998 in Brunei Darussalam
where I work in a college as an English language instructor.
It was a string of some events that happened in the Pakistani
expatriate community that led to its writing. Perhaps it is
not appropriate at this time to go into details, so I would
only say this: around eighty percent of the story is based upon
facts: things that were actually spoken, events that actually
took place, and the baseball bat that almost landed on my head.
No one, however, actually died. I wanted to publish TLB
soon enough to get a few things off my chest.
first reader of TLB was Tom Hubschman, a friend
and editor of New York-based e-zine GOWANUS, whose Asian editor
is myself. Tom liked it very much, and we even spoke about it
over the phone, but he did not explicitly say he was interested
in publishing it, perhaps because at that time I was already
working on two articles for GOWANUS.
August 1998 I e-mailed the story to Oyster Boy Review, a magazine
that I had found by chance while surfing. Two or three days
later I got an e-mail from from Craig Nelson, their fiction
editor, asking me to send in a brief bio. He said that given
the volume of accepted submissions, TLB would
be published some time in 1999: “I hope you don’t mind if we
can’t publish it in the forthcoming issue.” “Not at all,” I
replied immediately. I was more than happy to hit it at the
very first go
far as I was concerned, TLB had found a home
in Oyster Boy Review. My only thought was whether or not it
would lead off the issue in which it was to appear. Anyway,
I got through to every friend, acquaintance, relation, and colleague
of mine in Brunei Darussalam and beyond about TLB’s
forthcoming publication. My excitement infected my wife so much
that she spent hours reading Oyster Boy Review fiction online,
assuring me a few times that TLB had found its
rightful place. She had not read TLB. I do not
write in her preferred genre.
weeks later I received an e-mail from Craig Nelson informing
me that TLB would not be published after all.
“The Oyster Boy Review” he said “does not think our readers
will appreciate it.” Craig had a quite a few words of personal
apology and consolation.
first thoughts were not about this unexpected rejection, but
about what to tell people who would at some point ask me to
give them an Oyster Boy Review copy of TLB.
What will my wife say?
order to preempt the embarrassment in store, my goal now was
to find another magazine in which I could get TLB
published as soon as possible. After some extensive Internet
browsing, I discovered The Barcelona Review. A salient feature
of this publication is that it is a bilingual e-zine, and if
you get published in it your piece is published in English as
well as in Spanish. I e-mailed TLB to its editor.
the ensuing months brought no reply I wrote to The Barcelona
Review editor inquiring what had happened to
my short story. There was no response. One month later I re-sent
the message. Another month passed before a nameless editorial
message arrived saying The Barcelona Review would not publish
TLB because “not a single character in the story
is properly developed.”
prior to the first anniversary of the writing of TLB
I happened upon The Jerusalem Review and wrote to its editors
asking if they would consider fiction by a Pakistani writer.
A welcome answer came back immediately from Lea Hahn, the magazine’s
managing editor. Within a week’s time of my submission she sent
word that The Jerusalem Review would publish the “wonderful”
TLB in its forthcoming issue. Through Lea Hahn
I came in contact with Professor Moked, Jerusalem Review’s chief
editor, and a proud former student of Isaiah Berlin at Oxford.
Professor Moked and I had a rewarding (as far as I was concerned)
exchange on the Arab way of thinking in the backdrop of the
Middle East conflict. I began to anticipate a long intellectual
association with The Jerusalem Review.
day, realising that I had not heard from Lea or the Professor
for quite some time, I sent them an e-mail each. No answer came
back. Then suddenly the website disappeared. Through Tom Hubschman
I contacted the New Jersey-based U.S. distributor of The Jerusalem
Review only to learn that the magazine had ceased publication.
to The Jerusalem Review affair TLB met with
quite a few straight rejections. Litrag’s editor wrote, inter
alia, that TLB “does not work for us,” but
he had a word of sympathy for it: “I understand how much effort
and time must have gone into writing the story.” Philosophy
Now said: “This is a beautiful story and I am sure you can place
it in any magazine but Philosophy Now publishes fiction dealing
with philosophical topics only.” Nimrod’s feedback was more
or less the same as that of Oyster Boy Review: readership preference.
The Literary Review, The Chicago Review, and
Raritan issued me standard rejection slips.
Identity Theory, Evergreen Review, Boston Review, and The Paris
Review never responded despite reminders. Even the international
reply coupons that I sent to Boston Review and The Paris Review
along with copies of TLB were a waste of money.
The Glimmer Train Press charged me US$10 for
reading TLB and put “Read” on my personal account
sheet with them on their website. According to the Train criteria,
“Read” means rejected.
the year 2000 I did not submit TLB anywhere
but re-read it a few times to determine if I could ever make
it marketable. From the time it was rejected by Oyster Boy Review
in 1998 to the end of 2003 I made a few changes, but these were
superficial changes only. I altered names of characters so that
they would be easier for American/Western readers; I replaced
a few words and expressions here and there to make them more
accurate and focused. Everything else remained the same. Meanwhile,
I published three short stories in Exquisite Corpse and a couple
more in other magazines. To my relief, my friends – and my wife
- had forgotten about TLB.
January 2001 I sent TLB to the now defunct e-zine
The Recursive Angel. Its fiction editor got back to me with
high praise for the story, confirming that it would be published
in their next issue in two months’ time. But the next issue
did not see the light for another six months and by that time
I had got so uptight that I e-mailed an angry letter of withdrawal,
remonstrating with him for keeping authors on tenter-hooks.
The Angel editor, writing on behalf of the fiction editor, sent
me a polite note in which he explained the problems faced by
a non-profit venture like the Angel. At the same time, he informed
me that as per my wish he would not publish
attempts to get TLB published were with The
London Magazine, Logos, Killing the Buddha,
Octavo/The Alsop Review, and Prospect.
London Magazine thanked me in a printed rejection letter “for
thinking of us” and mentioned the “interest” with which TLB
was read. On the margins a nameless hand wrote in pencil how
reading the TLB had made him/her understand
a world he/she knew little about. One year and a dozen reminders
later Gregory Zucker of Logos wrote back: “Thank you for your
submission. We are considering it for an upcoming issue of Logos.
I will get back to you as I know something more definite.” He
never got back.
Sharlet of Killing the Buddha, an anti-religion e-zine, responded:
“Thanks very much for the submission of this story—it’s one
of the best we’ve seen in a while. It’s really a great piece
of work—casual and carefully constructed at the same time, each
character a type and an individual at the same time. I wish
I could say we would publish it, but unfortunately, I don’t
think it’s right for KillingTheBuddha.com. We publish work that
deals with or takes as a main concern religion, very broadly
defined. Besides the background of the Lioness’s [TLB’s
protagonist] meetings at the mosque and gossip about who has
made the haj, this seems to me a secular piece.
Apologies—it feels awful to turn down such a good piece of work.
I do hope you’ll keep us in mind should any of your work have
a religious setting or theme. And best of luck finding a publisher
for this—I can’t imagine it’ll be difficult.”
Boobier of Octavo/The Alsop Review wrote: “Humble apologies
for not writing to you sooner, I’d expect you’d given up on
me. Thanks for the submission of your story. I enjoyed it very
much and would like to use it in the forthcoming edition of
Octavo, if it is still available. I know what it’s like submitting
work that doesn’t get a quick (or even medium-term) response
and I understand if you’ve submitted it elsewhere in the meantime.
If you are amenable, please let me know and also send me a short
wrote to Andrew letting him know that in the meantime I had
submitted it to another magazine (by that I meant Prospect),
and that I would get back to him with the story if that magazine
decided not to publish it. “Fair,” he said. But it took such
a long time for Prospect to respond (read: reject) that I felt
embarrassed to get back to Andrew. Here is what the Prospect
fiction editor wrote: “Thank you for sending your story to Prospect.
Our apologies for the delay in replying to you—there have been
changes of editors and your story was unfortunately lost in
a pile I have only just tackled. I very much enjoyed your story.
It opens a world I and we all here know very little about, and
does so in a sincere and selective way. I think it still lacks
something in the way of assurance, purpose and clarity, so we
won’t take it this time, but I hope you’ll consider writing
for us again. (Next time we will try to respond within a reasonable
time lapse.) I do wish you the best of luck in placing your
time in November 2003—soon after the Prospect response—I destroyed
December 2004 while visiting my wife and kids in Sydney I wrote
The Epiphany, a short story about a young man
who falls in love every woman he meets. At various times in
the first quarter of 2005 I sent it to New Partisan, Salt River
Review, and New York Press (all based in New York). No response
came through and I thought that The Epiphany
had gone the TLB way. On 1 December, 2005 I
landed in Sydney once again in order to be with my family. On
2 December an e-mail popped in from Jake Siegel of New Partisan:
“First off, sincere apologies for the inexcusable delay in getting
back to you. I do hope that you’ll allow us to run your excellent
story The Epiphany. Based on its strength I
would imagine that you have already placed it elsewhere but
if it is still available please consider letting New Partisan
run it and let me encourage you to make future contributions,
which will be treated more courteously and professionally than
was the case this time around.”
immediately gave him the go-ahead
for The Epiphany.
being summer time in Australia, it was very hot in Sydney. Around
Christmas we decided to escape to Port Stephens for a few days.
After returning to Sydney on 27 December I checked my e-mail
and found Harry Siegel’s message: “Some time ago, you sent a
copy of your story The Epiphany, to New York
Press. My apologies for the late response, but having just arrived
here, this ended up lost, as they say, in the shuffle. We would
like to run the story, though, and wanted to make sure that
you had not placed it elsewhere. Please let me know in either
event. Additionally, if we may run the story, what credit-line
would you like to run with it? Thank you again for an excellent
submission, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
very next day there was Lynda Schor’s message: “We liked your
story, The Epiphany, very much, and would love
to publish it in an upcoming issue of Salt River Review.
I’m sorry for hanging on to it for so long, and hope it’s still
wrote to both that I had placed The Epiphany
elsewhere. “That’s too bad,” wrote Lynda Schor, “I look forward
to seeing your new story.” Harry Siegel’s reply was a bit different:
“As it turns out, The Epiphany was taken by
New Partisan, a web magazine I founded but no
longer edit. A very small world, indeed.”
reply made me uncomfortable. I felt like I had hurt him (a typical
Asian way of reacting, if I may say). My wife suggested, “Why
don’t you send him your lion story?” I told her that I had destroyed
it. She thought it might still be lying somewhere amongst the
legions of SENT e-mails in my Eudora’s OUT. I found it there
and e-mailed it to Harry on 29 December 2005. He got back to
me on 3 January 2006 with the comments given in the beginning
of this article. As I was contemplating a short bio to go with
TLB, I got Harry’s e-mail reporting that the
story was already on the New York Press web site as the main
feature of the week. The display given to TLB
was very impressive, spread over four pages with lots of colourful
drawings based on the storyline. Even its front page advertised
“Fiction: Abbas Zaidi”. Five days later I received a copy of
The Press by post.
would not say that the publication of TLB at
very, very long last made me happy. It felt like a pyrrhic victory.
But some load had certainly been lifted off my chest. On the
late evening of 12 January rains exorcised Sydney’s heat spell.
In the living room of my flat I began to relax and enjoy the
sudden cool. In the bed room the kids were sleeping and my wife
was reading TLB. As I was about to doze off
on the chesterfield, I heard my wife stomping her way towards
me. All the lovely features on her face had turned into sharp
objects that you find in the kitchen. Her big eyes were loaded
with menace. “Doggerel paraded as fiction!” is how she more
or less characterised TLB in her crisp Urdu.
“The reason it’s been published is because it is anti-Pakistan,
ridicules Islam, and demonises Pakistani women through the Lioness’
followed may be better left for another story at some other
THE LION OF BORNEO
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
entire unfortunate episode had its roots in the past, and it
was chiefly my own indiscretion that led to the very serious
turn it ultimately took. The incessant rumours about the Lion’s—Rao
Shakoor’s—impotence, the shameful state in which he lived, his
swollen face, and his wife’s wild promiscuity were enough to
set the Pakistani community of Kota Batu afire. Even many non-Pakistanis
had had a field day with the gossip. Every time a new rumour
about Rao Shakoor or his wife was set afloat, I was named as
its source, and I could do nothing to stop any of it. . . .
I graduated from the elite Leitner College of Lahore. Soon after
graduation, my politician father kicked me out of his house
for not choosing a career in his own field. I wound up an impecunious
lecturer at Nishtar University in Rohi, two hundred miles away
from Lahore, until I was offered a lectureship in the oil-rich
Borneo, thousands of miles from home. There the ministry of
education posted me to a secondary school in Kota Batu, the
capital of the far-flung province of Port Menteri. As I was
still in Tilong, the capital of Borneo, fulfilling some legal
formalities, I learned things about Port Menteri that shook
me all over. Port Menteri was an autonomous province with its
own internal constitution. Recently, the Islamic Solidarity
Party, an extremist Wahabi outfit, had taken over and outlawed
the presence of the Shias in the province. I was not sure what
to do being a Shia myself. By chance I met a group of Pakistani
engineers in a restaurant who worked for Shell Petroleum. Later
that evening one of them got back to me in my hotel. He turned
out to be a fellow Shia. He warned me of the Pakistanis in Kota
Batu who would do anything to win the favours of their superiors.
He advised me not to use my surname which gave away my Shia
identity. He also warned me of one Haleem Ambalawala, a teacher,
who lived with a common law wife, a Pakistani nurse. According
to my interlocutor, Haleem Ambalawala was instrumental in a
few of his fellow expatriate teachers’ sacking from job: ‘Everyone
says that if you find a snake coming towards you on one side
and Haleem Ambalawala coming towards you on the other, ignore
the snake and kill Haleem Ambalawala!’
It was Ambalawala, yes, Haleem Ambalawala, who discovered me
in the school canteen on the very first day of my arrival there.
He was a chemistry teacher. After all these years I still remember
when he moved from his table towards me: a tall, healthy and
slightly bald fellow. His skin was light brown. His limbs seemed
to be drifting on different sides as he walked, and it appeared
that all the joints in his body were loose. Even on that dark,
rainy morning he was wearing dark glasses. From then onwards,
I never saw him without those glasses, day or night. I was a
bit startled by the shrillness of his voice. Within a few minutes
he had told me many things: He was fifty. He kept his wife and
five daughters in Pakistan on a permanent basis. He was very
unhappy with his wife for not bearing him a son. She is an accursed
woman! He frankly said that he faced social boycott by the Pakistani
community for living with an unmarried woman: ‘I do not care
what the bloody Pakis say! I am an honest man. I have chosen
to live with Miss Khushi because Allah has created her for me’.
As Haleem Ambalawala was talking to me, two gentlemen joined
us. They were Haji Parvez and Yusuf Salafi. They were also chemistry
teachers. Haji Parvez was wearing a colourful, well-ironed three-piece
suit made of polyester. His hair was trimmed in the “baby cut”
style. He was light-skinned. I was struck by the over-pronounced
blackness of his hair. His face was rather small in proportion
to his bulky body. His two outstanding ears served as a vague
background to a very long aquiline nose. Yusuf Salafi was short,
corpulent and brown-skinned, and had a hanging belly. In minutes
I was able to judge that he was a sort of Mr Nobody and played
a second fiddle to Haleem Ambalawala and Haji Parvez. Haleem
Ambalawala introduced Haji Parvez as “our stallion” and Yusuf
as “a fifty-six year old boy whose family is permanently based
in Pakistan” and “after teaching his main occupation is eating
free dinners by visiting people’s houses”. Yusuf closed his
eyes as he grinned, revealing as many yellowish teeth as he
Haleem Ambalawala and I could not talk any longer because Haji
Parvez wanted to speak to Haleem Ambalawala about something
important. He gave Haleem Ambalawala a piece of paper. It was
a memo from the school principal. From their exchange over the
memo I gathered that Haleem Ambalawala had been put on notice
for something against which he had been warned before. ‘Who
cares!’ Haleem Ambalawala said. That was the end of our first
The same evening Haleem Ambalawala picked me up. We went to
Café Razaq. There were Pakistani men spread all over; all talking
as if arguing or quarrelling. Haji Parvez and Yusuf Salafi were
not there, which upset Haleem Ambalawala a great deal. He fumed,
know Yusuf is known as “Yusuf Pig” all over Port Menteri? He
will gladly sell his own mother to pimps only if they give him
good food! Haji Parvez will not mind sleeping with his own grandmother
if no other woman is available! Just dump him once you get married,
or he will come for your wife with colourful condoms in his
pocket! He has performed the haj seven times, but no one respects
him for that. Even at his ripe age of fifty-five he is a sex
maniac. He has been married for ten years and has—can you believe?—as
many children! What a dog he is! You will soon know what I mean.
I never badmouth people for nothing!’
At that moment Haji Parvez and Yusuf Salafi appeared. Haleem
Ambalawala winked at me and said to Haji Parvez,
was telling our new friend about your sexual prowess and the
number of times you have performed the haj.’
That was good enough to set Haji Parvez talking,
are jealous that I do not have a single white hair. I am proud
to say that I love sex. I have a very simple philosophy of life:
If you cannot live a life of pleasure, you better go to hell!
Frankly speaking I have a taste for all types of sex, conventional
or otherwise. Male or female, anyone is a fair game as long
as they can give me what I want. Sigmund Freud was right when
he said that sex is the only real thing in life!’
mention his name, he was a Jew!’ whispered Haleem Ambalawala.
knows him in this dump of a country! Ha, ha, ha, ha!’
Yusuf Salafi replicated Haji Parvez.
That was my first meeting with my new friends in Café Razaq.
In Kota Batu there was a sizeable community of Pakistani expatriates,
all of them school teachers. Their daily workload was just over
four hours. After that they had nothing to do. And that was
what they did. They gave me a cold shoulder, socially speaking.
The only place where I could see Pakistanis was my school, shopping
centres, or Café Razaq. I soon discovered that there was hardly
one of them who bought a newspaper, and few even bothered to
watch TV, since almost all programmes were in local languages.
Their main occupation was hanging out in Café Razaq, where they
talked about politics in Pakistan and did character assassination
on mutual acquaintances. I was posted to a school where there
were twenty-two Pakistani teachers. But it was only Haleem Ambalawala,
Haji Parvez and Yusuf Salafi who befriended me. In Kota Batu
I was a lonely man. I was too quick to respond to these gentlemen.
All kinds of things happened in Café Razaq. But for me the most
interesting subject in the Café was the man everyone referred
to as “the Lion” in the most derisive and ridiculous terms.
Haleem Ambalawala and Haji Parvez seemed obsessed with him.
‘But there aren’t any lions in Borneo,’ I once said. My companions
laughed. Yusuf said that it was Rao Shakoor who was called “the
Lion,” though never in his presence. Haleem Ambalawala elaborated:
‘Have you ever watched a documentary about lions? The popular
belief is that the lion is the king of the jungle. But in fact
he does not hunt at all; it is the lioness that provides the
food. The only thing a lion does is have sex with the lioness.
When he is not eating or having sex, a lion is just idling away
his time. Rao Shakoor is no different. His wife earns, and he
does nothing but sleep with her and enjoy what she provides
for him. He is a shameless parasite! He drives her car, and
whatever he eats or drinks comes out of her pocket. My Khushi
will never allow such a do-nothing in our house!’
this Lion of ours is not even reproductive,’ Haji Parvez added
with an air of disbelief. ‘He has not produced even a kitten!
He should let me do the job for him!’
Lioness’s womb is waterlogged!’ chuckled Haleem Ambalawala.
Again the three of them laughed aloud.
in that case a jungle is the best refuge of a lion,’ I said
without being sure what I meant.
be careful,’ Yusuf Salafi told me as if confiding, ‘he knows
that everyone calls him a lion, and he is furious with us because
it is we who gave him the name. He has told people that he has
a baseball bat and the day he hears any one of us call him a
lion, he will bash our brains out. He is just crazy enough to
do it. You know he is suffering from high-blood pressure. So
you better be watchful!’
As we were talking, someone sat down at a table not far from
our own. Haleem Ambalawala nodded and whispered, “The Lion!”.
He was a short, bald man with a flat nose and an angry expression.
As I stealthily observed him, I discovered that his left eyebrow
remained raised as he talked to his friends, sipped his tea,
or smoked. Once he looked around, and our eyes met. He scowled,
and I quickly looked away.
That was my first introduction to Rao Shakoor, the Lion. Soon
I discovered that he was not a frequent visitor to the Café.
But whenever he came by, people greeted him in a loud, friendly
manner. Some even offered flattering banter, such as, “You look
like a handsome, young man ready to wed a princess!” or “Look
at your snappy outfit! Are you going for a date?” Rao Shakoor
smiled contentedly in response. Only our group ignored him entirely.
We would not even look his way. But the moment he left, everyone,
including my friends, began ridiculing him for his life of ease
or for being a “pimp”. For my own part, I said nothing for fear
he might come back with the baseball bat.
One evening I got to the Café before my friends and found Rao
Shakoor already there. As soon as I sat down he walked over
and asked me if I could lend him a cigarette. Without saying
anything or looking directly at him, I pushed my cigarettes
and lighter his way. He thanked me, took a few cigarettes, lit
one and put the rest in his shirt’s pocket. ‘Are you new?’ he
asked. I said yes and then, so as not to seem rude and perhaps
make him angry, I invited him to have tea with me. Next moment
we were talking.
He told me that he used to live in Saudi Arabia. ‘What were
you doing there, sir?’ I asked. He seemed pleased with my deferential
tone and said that he had been accompanying his wife as her
“guardian”. ‘Are you a teacher in Kota Batu?’ I asked without
thinking. He replied with a look that was not so much angry
as surprised, ‘My missus is a teacher. You didn’t know?’
We started talking about Pakistan, and it turned out that his
wife and I came from the same city. I told him that I was a
Leitner graduate. ‘So is my wife!’ he said in subdued excitement,
‘We can be friends!’ I asked him to tell me about his wife,
thinking I might know her. But he pretended as if he hadn’t
heard and started asking questions about my family. After a
while my friends arrived and Rao Shakoor left without greeting
them or even saying goodbye to me.
were you talking about with that pimp?’ Haji Parvez demanded.
you pay for his tea?’ Yusuf Salafi asked suspiciously.
wife and I went to the same college.’
did? What do you know about her?’ asked Haleem Ambalawala in
should see where he lives,’ said Haji Parvez. ‘The Lucky Gardens
Apartments are surrounded by the pondans, and I hear that there
is plenty of other action there too. If my wife would just take
a trip somewhere, I shall find out just how much action there
Lion’s wife is the organiser of Kota Batu Muslim Women’s Association,’
said Yusuf Salafi, ‘Every Friday evening she supervises some
function, and every last Friday of the month she organises Koranic
recitation in the mosque.’
Koranic recitation is just a smokescreen so that these women
can get together and gossip! That’s why my own Khushi does not
go,’ Haleem Ambalawala said. ‘Anyway, the Lion cannot be permitted
to join our company. He freeloads off his wife. He cannot buy
a cigarette out of his own pocket. . . . Actually he does not
have a pocket!’ Haleem Ambalawala concluded amidst his own and
Haji Parvez’s laughter. Yusuf Salafi giggled sheepishly.
Lioness is the ugliest woman I have ever seen!’ shouted Haji
Parvez, ‘You need a magnifying glass to see her breasts. Once,
there was a bet upon her breasts. One man challenged another
that if he could find her breasts he could claim them!’
do you hate Rao Shakoor so much?’ I asked.
should we like him? Haleem Ambalawala shouted, ‘We have nothing
in common with him. He’s boring. He can’t even ask poor Yusuf
for dinner because his wife will only invite people who can
be of use to her. So how can he be one of us?’
the Lioness came here, I lent her seventeen thousand dollars
to get settled,’ Haji Parvez said. ‘She returned the money after
one year without even saying thanks. If I had deposited the
money in a bank, I should have got six percent interest. Instead,
she starts a rumour that my wife is a psycho!’
Lioness,’ Yusuf Salafi said, ‘is the most well-connected Pakistani
in Kota Batu. Every official knows her personally. She is the
only Pakistani who was given a promotion. Every now and then
she dines with a highly-placed official or a businessman.’
meanwhile the Lion mops the floor, cleans the toilet and washes
the clothes!’ Haleem Ambalawala shouted. Everyone laughed again,
even those sitting on other tables.
Despite all the malicious gossip, I enjoyed talking to Rao Shakoor.
He also seemed to like my company and started coming to the
Café more regularly. I started coming early in order to talk
to him for a while before my friends arrived. Although he was
in his early forties and I in my early thirties, we were at
ease talking to each other. I paid his bills and saw to it that
he was never short of cigarettes. Slowly he started opening
up to me. First he criticized Haleem Ambalawala and Haji Parvez.
He said Haleem Ambalawala was a CIA agent, and Haji Parvez had
never actually performed the haj, ‘He goes to Manila and Bangkok
for sex and claims that he has been to Mukkha. Nobody respects
him. Nobody invites him to his house because he says dirty things
about everyone’s wife afterwards. His own wife is demented!’
I did not put much store in what Rao Shakoor said, but neither
did I contradict him. This encouraged him. He had never had
a real job, he said, and since marriage he had been his wife’s
hanger-on. His wife taunted him for being a nobody and jobless.
He loved to smoke but recently she had stopped giving him money
for tobacco. He was not allowed to see anyone without her permission.
He was not allowed to visit the Café because she did not like
Haleem Ambalawala and Haji Parvez. The only reason he was able
to sneak to the Café when he did was because his wife taught
afternoon classes. But he was always afraid someone would report
him. That’s why he came in early when fewer Pakistanis were
am a Rajput!’ he said frequently, ‘I belong to a martial race.
A Rajput is never dictated to by a woman. During the seven years
we were in Saudi Arabia my wife performed the haj as many times,
but did not allow me to do so even once. My life is miserable!
I have developed diabetes and my blood-pressure is very high.
I have needs! Look at my clothes. I don’t have even briefs to
wear!’ I asked if he couldn’t find a job. ‘I do not have the
experience or qualifications. I can find a job of only the lowest
grade. Besides, if I get a job my wife will lose hers. You know
Port Menteri’s new Islamic regulations. We shall lose all our
benefits, the air-conditioned flat and much more.’
The Lucky Gardens Apartments building where Rao Shakoor lived
was located in an isolated suburb, a collection of small plots
surrounded by trees. There were very few electric poles. The
entire area remained minimally lit after sundown. Apart from
the Apartments themselves, there were two multi-storeyed residential
buildings. Behind the residential complex was a river known
for its crocodiles. After nightfall the area became alive with
transvestites and their customers. The place’s reputation as
a haunt for homosexuals was widespread. The laws of Port Menteri
were very strict about prostitution after the recent implosion
of AIDS cases. But the police never raided the area. People
believed that at night the transvestites possessed extraordinary
powers and could curse anyone who dared to interfere with their
business. It was believed that many female prostitutes from
the Philippines were also doing business there posing as drag
queens. That’s why Haji Parvez had been so excited about paying
a visit there.
In the local language the transvestites were called pondans.
Sometimes on Fridays I picked up Rao Shakoor at his home in
order to take him to a movie or dinner. Several times I was
accosted by the pondans. Friday was the one day Rao Shakoor’s
wife could not check up on him, because she was always busy
that night. Rao Shakoor was always in high spirits on Fridays,
at least to the extent that he would crack jokes about the pondans
and sometimes toyed with the idea of paying money to a pondan
to harass his wife.
One Friday morning all the teachers in our school received a
scandalous e-mail about the principal’s wife. The principal
was furious and said that he would find out who the culprit
was. Haleem Ambalawala asked me to stop by in the evening to
talk about the e-mail. I knew he had been angry with the principal
who had recently observed his class and had written some adverse
comments on his application for an extension to his job.
That same Friday I wanted to propose to Rao Shakoor to pick
up a pondan and have some fun. I found him extremely upset when
I met him at the Lucky Gardens. He told me that his wife had
insulted him in front of their guests because he refused to
mop the floor for her. One of the guests, a Chinese man, had
even slapped him. ‘That was the last straw. I have decided to
leave her for good!’ Then he poured out one contemptuous anecdote
after another about his wife, and then even cursed her father,
. . the son of a bitch who could not even feed his two wives
and eleven children!’
Rao Shakoor’s denunciation of his own father-in-law made me
almost jump out of my skin. I heard myself ask involuntarily,
‘Is your wife’s name Iqbal Begum, and did she graduate in 1985?’
Was she your classmate?’
No sooner had Rao Shakoor said that than I leapt to the bumpy
past with the speed of light only to realize that the past was
still around. I could see Iqbal Begum standing behind our classroom
door after the classes were over for the day, waiting for a
lover to take her in his arms, lights switched off. . . . The
Class of 1985 was filled with the scions of the elite of Pakistan:
industrialists, politicians, bureaucrats, and generals. The
females were wild and showy, the males were irresponsible and
rapacious. Iqbal Begum was an exception. Her father was a junior
clerk in our college who had to struggle just to feed two wives
and eleven children. Iqbal Begum had an unremarkable face but
had a powerful ambition to be popular with her male classmates
and offered her body as a means of attaining this goal. Her
success satisfied her vanity, but to achieve it she ended up
having to sleep with almost all of us.
I focused my attention on Rao Shakoor’s face and said, ‘Yes
she was my mate!’
At that I left Rao Shakoor without saying a word and went straight
to Haleem Ambalawala’s house. He wanted to talk about the scurrilous
e-mail. But when I told him about my exchange with Rao Shakoor,
he began asking me all kinds of questions about Iqbal Begum.
I foolishly told him everything I knew about her.
Next day after school I started receiving calls from Pakistanis
who had never even said hello to me before. They all invited
me to dinner at my earliest convenience. I was puzzled and phoned
Haleem Ambalawala. It was Khushi who answered the phone. In
the background I could hear other women’s voices. She said she
was surprised that I was not at the Café. ‘You were not in the
Lucky Gardens instead, were you, my dear?’ she giggled. A frankness
in her voice that I had never known before. ‘Everyone is in
the Café today!’
When I reached the Café I found my three friends surrounded
by other Pakistanis. On seeing me, Haji Parvez shouted. ‘You
rogered the Lioness?’ He spread his legs on the table, moving
his pelvis up and down and uttering seductive moans, to much
clapping and hooting from other Pakistanis. Then he went down
on the floor and pretended to be on top of a woman. ‘This is
how you rogered the bitch!’ Once again there was applause.
the Lioness not to worry. I shall give her as many children
as she desires!’ he shouted once again.
Meanwhile Haleem Ambalawala was churning out detail after detail
about Rao Shakoor and Iqbal Begum, most of it not anything that
I had actually told him. Everyone wanted me to authenticate
whatever Haleem Ambalawala was saying.
will the Lion go from here?’ asked Yusuf Salafi.
is the only refuge of a lion!’ shouted Haleem Ambalawala. All
burst into a fit of laughter.
I left the Café in disgust, but nobody noticed.
After that evening I decided not to go to the Café anymore.
I was totally ashamed of myself and was also afraid that Rao
Shakoor would appear with his baseball bat to break my bones.
I felt he would not be unjustified if he did that. I also decided
never to speak with Haleem Ambalawala again, to leave Borneo
and make peace with my father. I was sure Iqbal Begum would
take her revenge by exposing my Shia identity. Meanwhile, the
situation in school was getting more and more tense as the staff
continued to receive scandalous e-mails about the principal’s
wife. At the same time new revelations were being tossed around
about Rao Shakoor, Iqbal Begum and me, thanks to Haleem Ambalawala
and his lover.
Two weeks after my fateful meeting with Rao Shakoor, the principal
was finally able to trace the source of the e-mails, and it
turned out to be none other than Haleem Ambalawala. The principal
filed a legal case against him. Haleem Ambalawala was interrogated
by the police and confessed his mischief. He was immediately
deported. No one, even Khushi, went to the airport to see him
One evening Haji Parvez came over. He looked extremely agitated.
To my inquiry he said that he had been experimenting with some
traditional Bornean sex medicines. His wife had gone to Pakistan
for a month, and he was in a bad way.
true that Haleem Ambalawala was behind every mischief in Kota
Batu,’ he told me as he sat fidgeting in my living room. ‘Anyway,
the bastard is gone! Let’s make a new beginning. I am willing
to forgive and forget. I want to befriend Rao Shakoor. Let’s
drive over to the Lucky Gardens. You can talk to him on my behalf
while I pick up a Filipino whore.’
I refused. But he insisted. He said that if after reaching the
Lucky Gardens I still did not feel like seeing Rao Shakoor,
he would understand. I got into his car. But I had already decided
not to see Rao Shakoor.
It was after sunset and, as usual, the streets were only semi-lit.
A number of cars were parked all over. Under the trees customers
were talking to the pondans. Haji Parvez parked his car and
started looking around for a hooker. Not far away was an electric
pole next to a column of trees. The scene reminded me of the
evenings when I used to take Rao Shakoor out. I thought that
if I saw him now I would apologise and he would forgive me.
The lights in his apartment were on. I imagined him waiting
for me in the parking lot of the Lucky Gardens compound. Haji
Parvez nudged me and pointed to a tree where a pondan with long
hair was casing the prospective clientele.
the one I want!’
The pondan looked our way. My eyes met the pondan’s, and he
quickly hid behind the tree.
not a woman,’ I said.
my mother if I’m wrong! I have more experience than you. That
is a woman! Haji Parvez’s voice was shaking with passion.
The pondan stuck his head out from behind the tree, and now
I could see the grotesquely made-up face and the bizarre wig.
that is for sure a pondan.’
The face again hid itself, but this time not before I had got
a better look at it. ‘My God! Is that. . . ?’ But before I could
complete my sentence Haji Parvez had dashed out of the car towards
the pondan. At the same moment the pondan started running towards
the river. Haji Parvez was shouting, “Stop!” I was shouting,
A confused din followed. I ran after Haji Parvez who was running
after the pondan. There was a jump and a splash, and then the
screams of the entire pondan community, who feared they had
lost a colleague to the crocodiles. Haji Parvez became hysterical.
Drenched in sweat, he was shouting gibberish and shaking violently.
Finally he fainted.
Within minutes there were policemen on the scene. The pondans
assured them that none of their number was missing. The police
searched the area and found two male shoes, a wig, and a woman’s
handbag. One of them emptied the handbag on a car boot under
one of the electric lights. It contained two cigarettes and
a lighter, a few coins, a small make-up kit, three lipsticks,
tiny bottles of oil and perfume, a couple of condoms, and a
few little packets of tissues. No one, not even the police,
ventured towards the riverbank for fear of the crocodiles. The
policemen questioned almost everyone including me. I said that
I had come to visit a friend in the Lucky Gardens Apartments
and had come over to see what the commotion was about. Meanwhile,
Haji Parvez was taken to hospital.
The incident was not reported at all in the print or electronic
media which was entirely owned by the government. The shoes
and the handbag found at the site were never advertised for
identification. Haji Parvez remained in hospital for two months.
When he was finally discharged he had developed some speech
disorder and his right arm was semi-paralysed. The school terminated
his contract. The body of whoever it was who jumped into the
river was never recovered. Rao Shakoor was not seen again in
Borneo. It was widely believed that, without telling his wife,
he had fled the county.