moment the Islamabad-to-Lahore bus broke down half way to Lahore,
under the midsummer sun, there was a wild ruckus as the passengers
dashed out of the narrow door to take refuge under the sparse
roadside trees. The temperature was typically in the upper 40s
Celsius. Men were cursing the bus and its driver, children were
crying with thirst, and women were shouting complaints that
it was not heat but fire, which God was pouring from the sky.
Within seconds bare-foot poor village boys and girls appeared
selling water. Everyone scrambled for a drink. In this rush
only one depressed-looking gentleman was indifferent to the
heat and chaos. Standing on the road-side across from the broken-down
bus, he was lost in thoughts. His name was Wahid Murad. He was
on his way back to Lahore after being kicked out most unceremoniously
by Aaliya, his cousin. A strong but unsteady heat wave carried
a portion of a sad Punjabi song from a far off village,
forget me my love
the hope of my darkest night
you I’m nothing
a pair of eyes without light
his deep meditation, the song hit him hard. He became even more
depressed. His eyes were filled with tears. As everything around
him was getting blurred, a scene began to materialize on the
empty, sun-scorched highway:
“Hold on, hold on!” A woman came screaming. “This.
. . this is Wahid Murad, myyyy Wahid Murad! Look at the blood!
God, my. . . my. . . husband-to-be! How did he die?” the
wailing woman tried to force her way through the crowd while
simultaneously tearing her clothes and pulling her long, disheveled
hair. But the cameramen, the reporters, the policemen, and a
mob of people were too much for her desperate struggle. All
the vehicles on the highway had stopped. In the middle of the
road was lying Wahid Murad’s corpse. People were expressing
their shock and sorrow,
a terrible accident!
alive, save for this luckless lad!
a tragic death at such a tender age!
his mother to bear the news!
will ever forget this death?
the woman had fainted. It was no other than Aaliya who had only
hours before rejected Wahid Murad’s marriage proposal
calling him a good-for-nothing freeloader, a lazy idler and
much more. . . .
on shortie!” startled Wahid Murad. “Are you sleeping
or what?” “You taking a sunbath?” The passengers
were shouting furiously at him.
took Wahid Murad a while to get back to reality. The bus had
been fixed, and he was the only one remaining outside of it.
When finally he entered the bus and took his seat, the sun-struck
passengers pelted him with taunts for not boarding the bus sooner.
But he seemed not to be hearing anything. As the bus moved on,
he looked back at the scene of the accident that he had just
imagined. The tarred road was shining with mirages that looked
like distant mirrors. He pressed his palm to his lips to stop
them from quivering, but he could not stop his tears.
was not the first time that Wahid Murad had visualized himself
dying so dramatically. His fantastic brushes with death had
had a long history. He was born into an affluent family. Being
the youngest child in the family—he was born seven hours
after his sister—he was an apple of everyone’s eye:
parents, siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, relations, neighbors.
He was named after the most famous and dashing romantic movie
hero of the time. His birthday was celebrated with more fanfare
than that of any other of his siblings. From his earliest childhood
he hated books and school. His grandfather was an influential
elder of the area, and had explicitly told his grandson’s
teachers not to beat him whether or not he did his homework
or came late. No one ever dared reproach or ridicule Wahid Murad
for his failures as a student, sportsman, or anything else.
By the time he was sixteen he had stopped going to school and
joined his father once a month to visit their vast fertile lands.
Around that time he had kissed most of the housemaids without
getting caught or being complained about, given a lot of jewelry
to Aaliya, bought with his own pocket money and the money he
stole from his parents, and been to the holy Mukkah with his
grandparents. All along this dolce vita he kept deliberating
death, which culminated, on his eighteenth birthday, in his
resolve to commit suicide. But he quickly dismissed the idea.
Suicide was forbidden in Islam, he knew. Besides, it could raise
all kinds of suspicions about his character. But having day-dreamed
his death so many times and in so many situations, he at times
had to feel different parts of his body to make sure that he
was still flesh and blood, and not a ghost. Once assured he
was alive, he wanted to die a newsworthy death so that everyone
would mourn him forever, and the memory of his untimely death
would outlast his mourners right into posterity: There used
to be a man amongst our forefathers, so full of youth and promise!
had even consulted astrologers and palmists who gave him a confusing
picture of how long he would last. That confusion only strengthened
Wahid Murad’s presentiment that his death, how soon or
late, would be very dramatic and memorable. Sometimes while
in the bathroom or the attic he would not respond to a call
till the caller got concerned and thought, God forbid, something
terrible might have happened to him. There were moments that
he nostalgically relived for countless times: One such glorious
moment was an early morning when he suddenly found his house
flooded with people carrying all kinds of gifts for his twin
sister who had topped the nation-wide competitive senior school
examination; her photos were given great coverage on the front
page of every newspaper. That morning Wahid Murad—he never
sat for the examination in the first place—lay in the
balcony, a white sheet pulled over him. He did not catch anyone’s
attention until a prying elderly relation drifted in, pulled
the sheet and discovered Wahid Murad lying straight and stationary,
his eyes wide open. She gave a loud death cry. All rushed to
the scene and were relieved to find him sitting up and yawning,
his eyes wet. The elderly woman prayed for his long life. Wahid
Murad, short and underweight, had not felt lighter in his life.
went on and many things happened: His parents and grandparents
died, he survived his suicidal teens and adolescence, Aaliya
jilted him for a rich businessman, and his own siblings—three
brothers and three sisters—became examples of success
and prosperity. But they never forgot Wahid Murad. They tried
to help him settle down in every way that seemed possible, but
nothing happened. Their last attempt was to set up a grocery
store for him close to home. But the business could never take
off, his sudden “deaths” and prolonged disappearances
from the store lasted more than the freshness of the vegetables
and the patience of the customers. . . . Marriage, however,
was a blessing, especially because his wife was totally illiterate.
Being a village woman—a distant relation who was discovered
by Wahid Murad’s twin sister—she did not know the
world beyond the household chores. To her, a husband was God
by proxy, and she never stepped outside the house if she thought
he would not like it. He faked death many times, but would revive
before she could go out beating her chest and calling out to
the neighbors. Having children was an even greater blessing:
They were five girls in all; robust, healthy and pretty, they
cared for him a great deal. He also loved them intensely. He
“died” many times in the act of saving them from
a fierce tiger let loose in the Lahore Zoo, crocodiles in the
Changa Manga marshes, a stray killer shark while rowing on the
Ravi River, mobsters, robbers, psychos, pythons.
took an even better turn for Wahid Murad. The daughters turned
out academically brilliant like their uncles and aunts. But
Wahid Murad had to stop faking or even imagining death because
his sharp-minded daughters were growing up now. Although his
wife remained in constant fear of one morning waking up widowed,
he began to feel more and more irrelevant, which made him pay
minimal attention to his appearance. Soon he had grown a long
beard that sported silver streaks.
an early dawn in the midst of the spring season he was woken
up by what he thought were shrieks of his daughters. He looked
at his wife who was dead asleep. Before he could make sense
of those shrieks, his daughters barged in his room with newspapers.
Three of them had clinched the highest grades in their ‘O’
and ‘A’ levels. His wife sprang from the bed and
prostrated to God in all humility. As his daughters were still
hugging and kissing him, Wahid Murad’s siblings came over
to celebrate the results. Within hours his house was filled
with friends, neighbors, and relations. All day people came
and went leaving Wahid Murad in a mix of pride and some strange
uncertainty. In the evening, he decided to take some time off,
and so told his wife who, apart from being obedient, was too
joy-filled to ask why. After wandering aimlessly for a couple
of hours Wahid Murad thought about seeing a hakim, a traditional
physician, about whom he had heard some time back and wanted
to consult him over his suspicion that he had developed a lump
in one of his lungs.
hakim, a wise old man, was as good a palmist as a man
of traditional medicine. He charged Wahid Murad the fee before
taking his pulse. After feeling the pulse he read his palm for
some time and told him that cancer could come anytime, but there
was no possibility of a sudden death.
and confused, Wahid Murad left the hakim. Nearby was
the Wahga checkpoint that formally demarcated the Pakistan-India
border. A huge crowd of Pakistanis was protesting there against
some anti-Islamic remarks allegedly made by the Indian prime
minister. Wahid Murad joined them for fun. On a sudden impulse,
he picked up a rock and threw it to the Indian side of the border.
The crowd followed him instantly. An Indian soldier fired in
the air. There was a stampede. Wahid Murad was caught in the
rush. His dress was torn, wallet lost, and he got cuts on his
face. After a while, the stampede was over. Ambulances carried
the seriously hurt away to hospital. The less seriously hurt,
a score of them, Wahid Murad included, walked to a nearby dispensary.
The medic had to shave Wahid Murad’s beard and moustache
before applying a dressing. He then asked him to wait for antibiotics.
Meanwhile, the entire national media was condemning the firing
incident from the Indian side. It was reported that dozens were
seriously hurt and one man dead, a bullet in his chest. Smashed
in the stampede, he could not be identified. Wahid Murad along
with other patients and the dispensary staff was glued to the
TV. After the latest commentary on the incident, the TV showed
interviews with Wahid Murad’s wife, daughters, brothers,
sisters and neighbors who had been devastated over his sudden
death, and yet they were all proud that he had taken the bullet
in the chest, and not in the back. “Not just you, but
the entire nation is so proud today!” the interviewer
added tearfully showing Wahid Murad’s blood-stained identity
card to the nation.
Murad’s death wish and the cancer premonition were gone
all of a sudden. He felt unprecedented excitement that shook
him all over; he felt that the ground underneath him was shaking
too. Why die when life can give all you have dreamed of? Accounts
of Wahid Murad’s death dominated the media. Clippings
of his “funeral” were shown in every news bulletin.
His impulsive throwing of a rock had made him a national symbol
of bravery. From the state governor to everyone of substance
either visited his family or sent their condolences. His kids
were nominated for special government scholarships and his wife
was given a beautiful new house in a respectable area (later
aptly named “Murad Mansion”). He joined the Pantheon
of India-fighting national martyrs when the Kashmir Liberation
Fighters and the Soldiers of Islam—two jihadi
outfits—established a special Wahid Murad the Martyr Trust.
His martyrdom was to be celebrated in the time to come.
Murad stayed on in the village. For some time he worked as a
waiter in a small village restaurant, enjoying every moment
of his new-found status and prestige. But soon he wanted to
go home and live. But wouldn’t that be an anti-climax?
A shame and embarrassment to me, my family and my memory! Why
live when death can give all you have dreamed of? He decided
to stay on. He set up a bicycle service facility under the shade
of a large tali tree, and rented a tiny room in a mud house.
He barely managed to make ends meet. After finishing his work
he would stay in a small, dingy restaurant where he watched
hugely popular violent Punjabi movies, old Indian romantic tragedies,
and all kinds of sports till late into the night. There was
nothing else in his uneventful life. And yet he was not an unhappy
man. Even when a rustic customer or a rude policeman misbehaved
with him he would just smile forgivingly at their ignorance:
They don’t know I am the man whose memory they cherish!
Once in a while he was afraid to die: What if a chunk of bread
is stuck in my throat? What if the mud ceiling caves in? Or
a stray bullet kills me? But life went on.
the passage of time, Pakistan and India began talking peace,
and soon the national martyrs, Wahid Murad included, entered
their twilight. But he was still a satisfied man. He cleverly
kept track of his family; they were doing fine. Countless times
he saw his daughters in their colleges, universities, at work
and near Murad Mansion. One of them became a doctor, another
a psychiatrist while the three others were still studying. To
him his wife looked prematurely old. Definitely because of my
sudden and untimely death! He was sure everyone, family or friend
remembered, missed and cried for him.
day Wahid Murad realized that for a very long time he had not
gone to see Murad Mansion or any of his family members. He also
realized that slowly—imperceptibly—he had been reduced
to a nullity: that his was a forgotten story. He had practically
died! He became sad: After a long time he was sad. He decided
once again to pass by Murad Mansion in order to espy his family.
was just before dusk when he reached Murad Mansion. Every inch
of it was colorfully lit. The nearby road was also well-lit.
Just across the Mansion was a football ground three sides of
which were enclosed by tents; almost the entire ground itself
was decorated with exquisite wedding furniture very proportionally
laid out. An elevated nuptial stage with golden sofas and high
arm-chairs on had been erected on the edge of the playfield.
About ten feet above the ground was stretched a cord mesh in
which countless little bulbs and bells of different shapes and
sizes were tingling and twinkling creating audio-visual patterns.
There was no one there, but the faint, merry tingling in the
air was not only defying the silence of the place, but also
announcing that a very big, happy event was about to take place.
Wahid Murad sensed that the tinkling was softly pushing a subdued
simmering and a set of familiar fragrance into his ears and
nostrils. He instinctively turned around and discovered the
sources of those sensations: Not far from Murad Mansion were
dozens of big cauldrons placed on make-shift brick stoves. The
fires were cracking underneath those cauldrons and rice biriyani,
goat shorba and sweet zarda in them were sending
out the synthetic fragrance. A tall, bulky cook and a train
of his helpers were sitting in a row of chairs gazing reverently
at those cauldrons as if waiting for something to come out of
Murad approached the cook and asked what was going on.
Murad’s daughter is getting married tonight,” the
cook said indifferently.
should start arriving in an hour’s time,” said the
cook looking at his watch and then looking straight at the empty
furniture in the football ground. “They will eat the best
food of their lives tonight!” he said looking admiringly
at the cauldrons.
getting ready,” he said pointing towards the Mansion with
his index finger.
daughter is getting married and with who?”
cook critically looked down at the shabbily dressed Wahid Murad.
He thought about chasing him off the property, but held himself
back. He said with some irritation, “Dr Fizza is getting
married with her cousin.”
who?” Wahid Murad beseeched.
cook replied indifferently without looking at him, “Dr
Karim Behram, according to the wedding card.”
and Haji Behram’s son?”
cook gave a start as he replied. Before he could say anything,
Wahid Murad had moved away from him and towards the Mansion.
marrying Aaliya’s boy? Without her father’s permission?
The world might have forgotten who Aaliya is but I have not!
Can this wedding take place without my approval or presence?
that moment Wahid Murad experienced the same earth-shaking excitement
as he had experienced when he first learned about his death
at the Pakistan-India border long time ago.
was raging in his head.
my wife! Look at her! She never did a thing without my permission
and now she is giving Fizza’s hand to Aaliya’s idiotic
boy on her own! Am I dead? Not yet!
where have you been all these years?” shouted a woman.
Murad looked back. He recognized her. She was the American journalist
he had often seen on a satellite channel. But she was not the
only one. He was actually surrounded by a legion of journalists,
cameramen, and TV crews. They were not the only ones. Countless
people had filled the playground, the rooftops of the houses,
the streets and the road. Wahid Murad recognized some VIPs that
included the people who had mourned his death on the border
years ago. Everyone wanted to know where he had been and what
made him return so suddenly. There was a rumor that he had been
abducted by aliens; another rumor was that he had died but returned
to life after all those years, and still another had it that
all those years he had been fighting jihad in foreign
lands. A Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman that he had often
seen on TV had taken over the nuptial stage and was claiming
that that all those years Wahid Murad, the patriot, had been
languishing in Indian jails, and was able to escape after a
brave encounter with the jailers. The constant flashing of the
cameras was hurting his eyes. The journalists were vying with
one another to get close to him and shouting question after
question about his prolonged disappearance, his courage, and
his ultimate survival. The noise and the squeeze were becoming
unbearable. He felt he was being bullied with where-have-you-been
yet! Fizza’s marriage is a matter of principle that rises
above aliens, jails, jihad and dying and living!”
he shouted as he dashed into Murad Mansion. #