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Vol. 5, No. 6, 2006
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veritas odit moras



Abbas Zaidi teaches English in Brunei Drussalam. His fiction has appeared in, inter alia, Exquisite Corpse, Killing the Buddha, and New Partisan.

The 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.”

 It 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 published?  

I 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. 

The 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.

In 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

As 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.  

Two 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.  

My 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?  

In 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.

When 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.”  

Just 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. 

One 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.  

Subsequent 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. 

In 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.  

In 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 TLB.  

Further attempts to get TLB published were with The London Magazine, Logos, Killing the Buddha, Octavo/The Alsop Review, and Prospect.

The 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.

Jeff 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 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.”  

Andrew 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 bio.”  

I 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 work elsewhere.”  

Some time in November 2003—soon after the Prospect response—I destroyed TLB.  

In 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.”

I immediately  gave him the go-ahead for The Epiphany.  

December 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.”  

The 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 available.” 

I 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.”  

Harry’s 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.

I 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’ character!”  

What followed may be better left for another story at some other time.




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.


The 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 could.

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 meeting.

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,

‘You 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,

‘I 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,

‘People 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!’

 ‘Don’t mention his name, he was a Jew!’ whispered Haleem Ambalawala.

 ‘Who 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!’

 ‘But 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!’

Everyone laughed.

 ‘The Lioness’s womb is waterlogged!’ chuckled Haleem Ambalawala. Again the three of them laughed aloud.

 ‘Well, in that case a jungle is the best refuge of a lion,’ I said without being sure what I meant.

 ‘But 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.

‘What were you talking about with that pimp?’ Haji Parvez demanded.

‘Did you pay for his tea?’ Yusuf Salafi asked suspiciously.

‘His wife and I went to the same college.’

‘She did? What do you know about her?’ asked Haleem Ambalawala in great excitement.


‘You 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 is!’

‘The 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.’

‘The 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.

‘The 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!’

All laughed.

‘Why do you hate Rao Shakoor so much?’ I asked.

‘Why 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?’

‘When 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!’

‘The 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.’

‘And 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 around.

‘I 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?’

‘Yes. 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.

‘Tell 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.

‘Where will the Lion go from here?’ asked Yusuf Salafi.

‘Jungle 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 off.

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.

‘It’s 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.

‘That’s the one I want!’

The pondan looked our way. My eyes met the pondan’s, and he quickly hid behind the tree.

‘That’s not a woman,’ I said.

‘Curse 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.

‘Haji, 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, “Wait!”

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. = shared webhosting, dedicated servers, development/consulting
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