Authors: Mohsin Hamid
‘I was just telling Daru that we have some ex,’ Raider says.
I wish he would learn to be more discreet.
‘Really?’ Mumtaz says, with unexpected enthusiasm.
‘Only one,’ Raider says.
Mumtaz looks at me. ‘Do you want to?’
‘Do you think it’s a good idea?’ I ask her.
She takes my answer as a yes. ‘How much does ex cost here?’
‘Nothing,’ says Raider, handing her a little white pill.
‘Two thousand,’ I tell Mumtaz, hoping the price will discourage her. What would Ozi say?
She takes out some cash, peels off two notes, and hands them to Raider. Then she places the pill in her palm and breaks it with her thumbnail.
‘Cheers,’ she says, downing her half.
I look at the broken pill in my hand: smooth curve, rough edge. Might as well. ‘Cheers,’ I say, placing it on my tongue and swallowing.
‘It won’t kick in for a while,’ she tells me. ‘I’ll see you guys in a bit.’
I nod and she heads back inside.
‘Wow, I think I’m in love, yaar,’ Raider says admiringly.
‘So am I,’ says Alia. ‘Who is she? I’ve never seen her before.’
It somehow sounds inappropriate to say, ‘Ozi’s wife,’ so I say, ‘Just a friend.’
They both laugh. Then Raider starts stroking Alia’s arm, and I can see that I should leave. ‘Check on us from time to time,’ Raider says. ‘We’ll be right here till dawn.’
I wander around, making small talk and avoiding Ozi, because I’m still upset at not being invited for dinner and also because I’m feeling guilty about having ex with his wife. But eventually he catches my eye and weaves his way over, half-dancing to the music, flashing his famously irresistible grin.
‘What’s the matter?’ he asks.
He puts me in a headlock and messes up my hair with his free hand, laughing. I push him away.
He looks surprised and hurt, and I feel bad, because I pushed him with more force than I’d intended. ‘Sorry, yaar,’ I say, trying to sound playful but failing miserably.
‘You’re mad at me, aren’t you?’
‘You think I’m doing a little social climbing,’ he goes on. He’s slurring slightly.
I don’t answer.
‘Lahore’s boring, yaar. Deadly dull. They provide some entertainment.’
‘They seem like good friends,’ I say, acid in my voice.
He embraces me, and I know the ex must be kicking in, because I’m very aware of the contact between us, his shirt, slightly sweaty, the muscles of his back, our breathing.
‘That’s why I love you, yaar,’ Ozi’s saying. ‘You always look out for me. But I don’t want to be friends with those
people. We’ll be friendlies at best. People who party together. But that’s good enough. That’s all I want from them. They’re the best party in town.’
I feel my attention drifting with the ex, flowing in and around his words, and my gaze slips around the room, looking for Mumtaz.
‘It’s not my crowd,’ I say, trying to hold up my end of the conversation.
‘That’s because you can’t afford it. But you’re lucky in a sense. Being broke keeps you honest.’
I stare at Ozi’s mouth. I’m not sure if I thought those words or if he said them. But I want to get away from him. I need to breathe.
‘Let me get us some more drinks,’ he says.
I nod, but I’m starting to ex with unexpected intensity, and once he’s gone I head outside to be alone as I adjust, as I shed my sobriety for a newer, livelier skin. The stars look big tonight, and I float over the lawn in the direction of the mango tree.
‘Partner,’ someone calls out.
I look. ‘Hi, guys,’ I say.
Raider and Alia are giggling. ‘She went that way,’ Alia says.
‘Who?’ I ask.
‘Mum-taaaz,’ she says, stretching the word lovingly.
I walk in the direction she tells me. I feel my pores
opening, sweat and heat radiating out of my body. A firefly dances in the distance, leaving tracers, and if I turn my head from side to side, I see long yellow-green streaks that cut through my vision and burn in front of my retinas even after the light that sparked them has gone.
I emerge from the mango grove into a field. In the distance unseen trucks pass with a sound like the ocean licking the sand. A tracery of darkness curls into the starry sky, a solitary pipal tree making itself known by an absence of light, like a flame caught in a photographer’s negative, frozen, calling me.
A breeze tastes my sweat and I shiver, shutting my eyes and raising my arms with it, wanting to fly. I walk in circles, tracing the ripples that would radiate if the stars fell from the sky through the lake of this lawn, one by one, like a rainstorm moving slowly into the breeze, toward the tree, each splash, each circle, closer.
And with a last stardrop, a last circle, I arrive, and she’s there, chemical wonder in her eyes.
‘Hi,’ she whispers.
‘Hi,’ I say. It’s as if she’s not Ozi’s wife but someone new, someone I haven’t met before. ‘What’s your name?’ I ask.
She smiles. ‘My name?’
‘Your full name,’ I say, the words coming slowly. ‘Before you were married.’
‘Mumtaz Kashmiri. It still is. I didn’t change it.’
‘Kashmiri.’ I let the word flow over my tongue, my lips kissing the air in the middle of it.
I shut my eyes and lean against the pipal tree, my world tactile, a dandelion of feeling. Cotton flows over my body, dancing with my breathing, and through it the slender tree trunk at my back, its grooves, its notches, its waves on my skin, tendrils of nerves smiling. It trembles. Kashmiri is leaning against the tree and I feel a hint of her weight pushing through the trunk. My shoulders sense the nearness of hers, but nothing more, no touch, the tree between my neck and hers, my spine and hers.
I want to touch her, to kiss her, to feel her skin. My hands explore my own arms, the arms they come from, my skin pure pleasure, exciting me.
And terrifying me. With a shock of knowledge, of waking while dreaming, I know what I’m thinking is wrong, that the woman behind me isn’t Kashmiri but Mumtaz, Ozi’s wife, and I can’t betray him, betray her, betray them by touching her.
I push against the tree and run away, stumbling, the unreal night playing with me, gravity pulling from below, behind, above, making me fall. And I run through a world that is rotating, conscious of the earth’s spin, of our planet twirling as it careens through nothingness, of the stars spiraling above, of the uncertainty of everything, even ground, even sky.
Mumtaz never calls out, although a thousand and one voices scream in my mind, sing, whisper, taunt me with madness.
Then I’m in my car, driving home. I lose my way, but this is Lahore, and by dawn I’m in my bed, the growing heat welcome as pure, reliable sensation.
My back begins to ache as I sleep, waking me, and by midday spasms of pain rip down my vertebrae, arching my body like a poisoned rat’s, forcing me to grit my teeth and hug my ribs against this, my ecstasy’s aftermath.
I’m lying in bed with the taste of Panadol in my mouth, trying desperately not to move, when Ozi comes in and, before I’ve recovered from the surprise of his unexpected appearance, tells me the neighbors have gone nuclear.
‘Shit,’ I say.
‘Why are you still in bed?’
‘I sprained my back.’
‘Sorry,’ he says, sitting down. The foam mattress stretches with his weight, tugging at my back like a torturer tightening the rack.
‘How do you know?’
‘Everyone knows. It’s mayhem outside. I had to drive through a demonstration just to get here.’
‘So what happened?’
‘They tested three. A hundred kilometers from the border.’
Ozi shakes his head. But he’s grinning. And in spite of the spasms ripping quietly through my back, I notice I am, too.
‘Why are we smiling?’ I ask him.
‘I don’t know. It’s terrifying.’
‘You know the first place they’d nuke is Lahore.’
‘No, Lahore. If they nuked Islamabad, no one would be able to stop it.’
‘Us. From nuking them.’
‘We’ll nuke them if they nuke Lahore.’
‘No, we’ll nuke them before they nuke Lahore.’
‘What do you mean?’
I try to stop grinning, but I can’t. ‘We’ll nuke them first. They’re bigger. They don’t need to nuke us. Some skirmish will get out of hand, they’ll come marching our way, and then we’ll nuke them. One bomb. For defensive purposes.’
‘And then they’ll nuke Lahore?’
‘What about Karachi?’
‘Too important. If they nuke Karachi, we’ll nuke a few of their cities.’
‘That’s true. They might nuke Faisalabad.’
He looks at me and starts to laugh. ‘Poor Faisalabad.’
I try to fight it, but I’m laughing, too, holding my ribs against the pain, strangling each chuckle into a cough that bounces down my back like a flat stone cutting the surface of a lake.
I laugh until tears run down my face. ‘They’re screwed.’
‘Faisalabad.’ Ozi can hardly breathe, he’s gasping so hard.
‘One more reason not to live there,’ I say when I can speak again.
Ozi sighs, shutting his eyes, his face exhausted, spent. ‘That hurt,’ he says.
‘Imagine how I feel.’
He leans forward. ‘Do you want a cigarette?’
I tilt my head. ‘What do you mean?’
He pulls a pack out of his shirt pocket. ‘Reds?’
He lights one for me, taking a long drag without coughing. ‘Here you go.’
I take it from him. ‘I thought you’d quit.’
‘I have. That was my first puff in years.’
Suddenly I’m aware of a connection I haven’t felt in a long time, a bond of boyhood trust and affection. I look at
Ozi and see my old friend’s image, a younger face projected onto this fatter, balder screen. A hundred of my teenage adventures must have begun with Ozi inhaling a cigarette and blowing the smoke out the side of his mouth, the same side that smiles when he flashes his usual half-grin. That grin used to make me wonder what it would take to pull a full smile out of him. And his crazy ideas were like answers to that question. I remember the time we jumped the wall of Ayesha’s house and her father set his Dobermans on us, whether because he thought we were robbers or because he was overprotective of his daughter, we never discovered. We had to climb a mango tree to get out: the top of the wall was too high to reach by jumping. And Ozi let me climb first.
I take a hit, jointlike, from the cigarette he’s given me, filling my lungs and holding it in. ‘Thanks, yaar.’
He looks away.
I shut my eyes and savor the smoke.
When I open them again, he’s watching me.
‘I’ve been having some problems with Mumtaz,’ he says unexpectedly.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I think she’s unhappy.’
I feel guilt pinch me on the ass and grab a quick feel. ‘Why?’
‘I don’t know, yaar.’
‘What makes you think she’s unhappy?’
‘Little things. She never wants to talk. She’s always tired. She’s snappish with Muazzam.’
‘Lahore isn’t New York. Maybe she doesn’t like the city.’
‘That isn’t it. She was like this in New York. Besides, she wanted to come back.’
‘Then what do you think it is?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Maybe you should ask her.’
‘I have. I do. I ask her all the time.’
‘What does she say?’
‘She says she’s unhappy.’
‘Then she probably is.’
He smiles. ‘I know.’
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘Months. Maybe a year.’
‘It could have nothing to do with you. People go through difficult times.’
‘But I don’t like to see her this way. I miss her.’
I nod, finishing off the cigarette and stubbing it out on the table. One more burn mark in a constellation of burn marks.
Ozi is pinching the point of his chin as though he’s discovered he missed a spot shaving this morning.
‘You know,’ I say, trying to cheer him up, ‘they really might nuke Lahore.’
He stops playing with his chin. ‘We’re going to test, too.’
‘Who knows. I hope we do it soon.’
‘Why? We know we have the bomb.’
‘We want them to know.’
‘They know.’ I say it casually. As casually as I can. Because unsaid between Ozi and me, unsayable, is a possibility, a doubt: What if our bomb doesn’t work?
Ozi’s sweating. His face shines and he wipes it with the tips of four curved fingers held together. ‘It’s damn hot. How long has the power been gone?’
‘Just a couple of hours,’ I lie.
‘Load-shedding or a breakdown?’
‘You need a generator,’ he tells me.
Ah, Ozi. You just can’t resist, can you? You know I can’t afford a generator. ‘Do I?’
‘Of course. How can you survive without one?’
‘Most people do manage to, you know.’
‘I wonder if we still have the small one from the old house. If we do, you might as well take it.’
‘I’m fine.’ I don’t need your secondhand generator, thanks very much. And I don’t have the money to buy fuel for it in any case.
‘I’m surprised I didn’t notice the heat until now.’
‘Nothing like nuclear escalation to make people forget their problems.’
He winks. ‘And on that note, I’d better push off. Some of us have to work, you know.’
He says it as though he’d like to be unemployed.
I feel myself getting angry, and the connection between us snaps in silence. ‘Not if they nuke Lahore,’ I say under my breath.
He leans over and puts the pack of reds on my bedside table. I don’t want it now. But, as with all his gifts, I take it anyway.
My back is better by the time Ozi kills the boy.
It’s a Sunday, the neighborhood nuclear test count is up to five, and I’m on my way to Jamal’s office. Strange that my sixteen-year-old cousin should have an office, but he’s been working for a week now, on weekends and in the evenings, after school.
The address he’s given me turns out to be a house in Shadman with two nameplates: a white one above with
in faded black lettering and a sleek silver rectangle below which reads chipkali internet services. I enter through a side door marked
and shut it silently behind me, feeling the chill of air-conditioning at full blast.