Authors: Mohsin Hamid
Sit down on that couch and have some rest. You’ve earned it. What time is it? Four in the morning. That’s a surprise. You should give Mumtaz a call. Can’t: Ozi. But Ozi’s out of town. Should you, then? Pick up the phone.
Hang up. Don’t want to wake her.
Well, you can chill out by yourself. This is nice. Must thank Murad Badshah. Look, the sky is getting lighter. Just slightly, from black to blue. Shocking. Time for bed. This couch is so comfortable. Pull your feet up and stretch out and exhale.
I’m woken in the evening by Manucci shaking my arm. ‘Go away,’ I tell him, desperate to return to sleep.
‘Your guest is here, Daru saab.’
I feel a moment of panic. I don’t want to face anyone at home, with no electricity and nothing to offer, unshaven because I don’t have a job. ‘What guest?’ I ask, opening an eye.
‘Mumtaz baji,’ he says, looking down like a blushing bride.
Relief comes twice, a double release, because the guest
is the one person I want to see, and because it’s been a week with no contact since we made love and I was beginning to get anxious.
‘Tell her I’m coming down.’
I head into the bathroom and grip the sink. The sun is setting and it’s getting dark, but I can make out the circles around my eyes and I can see the uneven stubble of my beard, the growth thickest above and below my mouth. I feel my gorge rising and spit once, but there’s no real nausea, so I brush my teeth with a mangled toothbrush, white bristles spread and soft from too much use. I scrub my tongue and palate, unable to banish the bad taste I woke up with.
I need a shower, but haven’t the time. I wash my face without soap, feeling as I rub them that my nose and eyelids are greasy. Then I throw on a pair of jeans and a white shirt, the only semi-ironed one I have, and head downstairs.
At least I had a haircut.
Mumtaz is sitting on the sofa, legs crossed, with Manucci squatting on the floor beside her. He’s chatting away, which annoys me, because I don’t like it when the boy forgets his place. It makes me look bad, as though I’ve fallen so far my servant thinks there’s no longer any need for him to behave formally.
‘It was hard to catch me, Mumtaz baji,’ he’s saying. ‘I ran very fast. I knew all the hiding places.’
‘But when they did catch you?’ she asks.
‘Then sometimes they beat me.’
‘Is he telling you about his adventures?’ I ask loudly, in the ringing tones of a master of the house making his presence known. Manucci falls silent. ‘He has the soul of a poet. It’s hard to stop him once he gets started.’
Mumtaz looks me in the eyes and smiles. ‘Hello, Daru saab,’ she says.
I feel awkward with Manucci in the room, uncertain whether I should give her a kiss on the cheek. I do my best to seem calm and in control, but I find myself confused, very conscious of her physical presence.
Mumtaz is perfectly at ease. ‘Quite the early riser, I see.’
‘Bring tea,’ I tell Manucci.
‘Saab, there’s no milk.’
I open my wallet like a card player, as casually as I can but very careful to tilt it toward me so Mumtaz can’t see how little it contains. ‘Run to the market and get some,’ I say, handing Manucci a fifty.
‘Hi,’ Mumtaz says once he’s gone.
‘Hi.’ I feel silly sitting across from her. ‘How have you been?’
‘Good. I’m working on a new article.’
She lights a cigarette. ‘All the money that left the country before the government announced the freeze on foreign currency accounts.’
‘What’s the story?’
‘It depends on who you ask,’ she says, inhaling. ‘The version I like is that they knew they would have to freeze the accounts when they tested, because it was obvious every-one would be nervous about sanctions and start converting rupees into dollars, and our foreign exchange reserves would have been too low to keep up. But of course some of them had their own money in those accounts. So they tipped off a few insiders, and just hours before the accounts were frozen, millions of dollars left the country.’
‘And Zulfikar Manto is trying to discover whether this happened and who was involved?’
‘Precisely, my dear Daru,’ she says.
‘I should give you the names of some banker friends of mine who might tell you who pulled their money out.’ I think of my numerous c.v.’s dangling in the water with not even a nibble. ‘Hopefully they’ll be more helpful to you than they have been to me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Nothing. My job hunt isn’t going particularly well. It isn’t going at all, actually. The economy is completely dead right now, with the rupee skyrocketing on the black market and bank accounts frozen.’
‘Have you ever thought of finishing your Ph.D.?’
‘I can’t afford to.’
‘I thought tuition was basically free.’
‘It is. But I can’t afford not to work. I need an income.’
‘Did you finish your course work?’
I nod. ‘I was working on my dissertation. And I suppose I could do that part-time. Or full-time at the moment, since I have nothing better to do. But the whole thing is ridiculous.’
‘It was on development. What a joke.’
‘So you think nothing can be done?’
‘I spoke to a lot of people. I think nothing will be done.’
‘I think you’re wrong. A lot can be done. There’s just a shortage of good people willing to do it.’
‘It’s easy to be an idealist when you drive a Pajero.’
‘Sorry. Let’s change the subject.’ I glance at her, hoping she won’t stay offended, and I see what I think is a willingness to let our disagreement go.
‘You look exhausted,’ she says.
I consider telling her about the heroin and decide not to. ‘I couldn’t sleep. It’s so bloody hot.’
Manucci returns with the milk and quickly serves up some tea. I sip slowly, feeling the heat rise from the cup and open pores on my face. I’m used to sweating all the time now, so it doesn’t bother me. And Mumtaz doesn’t seem to mind, either.
As it gets darker, Manucci starts lighting candles, and I
pray that tonight we will have fewer visiting moths than normal, but here my luck leaves me. Mumtaz raises an eyebrow more than once at the whirring guests who join us for tea, bumping noisily into walls and windows.
Once Manucci’s gone, Mumtaz puts her arms around me and pulls me close. We kiss, and she gives me a long lick, like a cat tending to its paw. I hug her, squeezing, and her ribs flex with the pressure. I feel my face flush with excitement, and at the same time I’m surprised by how comfortable this is, how new but also familiar.
‘Sorry about the Pajero comment,’ I say.
We kiss again, harder this time.
‘Why did you write that article about prostitutes?’ I ask her.
‘Manto often wrote about prostitutes.’
‘But why the fascination with Manto’s subject matter?’
She pulls back slightly and looks at me. ‘A few years of marriage and motherhood, I suppose. Finding I don’t quite fit into what’s expected. I’m interested in things women do that aren’t spoken about. Manto’s stories let me breathe. They make me feel like less of a monster.’
‘You’re not a monster.’
‘Don’t be sure.’
I massage the back of her neck, kneading with my thumb, pulling with my fingers, following the line of her
spine. She has soft hair there, thin and smooth, and I feel the long cords of her muscles flaring gently as she moves her face forward to stroke my cheek with hers.
Unexpectedly, I find myself thinking of Ozi smiling at me on a rooftop many Basants ago, as I hold a red ball of string for his kite. The sun is behind him, hurting my eyes. I remember not paying attention for a moment, turning to watch some girls in the courtyard beneath us. My surprise as the ball jumps from my hand and falls, knocking over a tray being carried by a bearer far below. Ozi’s yelp as his kite is pulled from his hands. Shouts from the girls. And the two of us staring at each other, wide-eyed, laughing, with our hands on our knees. We really were brothers, once. And now I’m kissing his wife, my arms encircling her possessively, our bodies pressing together.
But I also remember being angry with my mother for no reason, being upset after Khurram uncle’s visits to our house, maybe because they reminded me of the permanent absence of a father I never knew but imagined vividly. I remember Khurram uncle’s rough hands as he taught Ozi and me how to hold a bat, the slaps when we made mistakes, not hard but not gentle, either. I remember his hands touching my mother’s elbow after giving me presents I needed but almost didn’t want.
I stroke the side of Mumtaz’s neck with my teeth, tracing two lines in her skin. Then I think of Manucci and take
her upstairs. She turns to me in the darkness of my room and we make love like we’re furious with each other, silently, brutally. And when we’re spent I lie with my head on her chest and she strokes my hair and I fall slowly, slowly asleep. My dreams are so deep I wake with no idea of where I’ve been, and I don’t know when she left me during the night.
Fatty Chacha has never given me a lecture before in his life, not really, so he keeps looking down as he speaks, as though he wants to apologize for what he’s saying. And his embarrassment more than anything else makes it impossible for me to be annoyed with him.
‘You know how proud we are of you, champ,’ he’s saying, rubbing his hands together. They’re big for his size, broad but not long, with strong fingers. Good boxer hands. Hard to break. ‘You’ve always done so well. You worked at a top bank. You went to a prestigious school. You have friends from the best families.’ His gaze drifts up from my feet to my chest, then sinks back down. He tries to laugh. ‘You probably made more money last year than I did.’
I don’t say anything. I’ve never made much, just a low-level banker’s salary, and Fatty Chacha’s remark, if he’s right, is more of an insult to him than it is a compliment to me.
He goes on. ‘But now I’m a little worried by what I see.
You’ve stopped looking for a job. You sit at home doing nothing.’
‘There aren’t any jobs,’ I interrupt. ‘The rupee’s at fifty-five. People are pulling their money out of banks to buy dollars, now that their foreign currency accounts are frozen. All the imported stuff is disappearing from the markets. There’s no business to be done, and no one is hiring at banks or anywhere else, not unless they owe your father a favor.’
‘You need to keep trying. Maybe you’ll have to accept a more junior position. Nothing will happen if you give up.’
‘I haven’t given up. But I’m not going to work at a mindless job for ten a month.’
‘Ten a month is enough to feed yourself and have lights instead of candles.’
‘Ten a month is four bottles of Scotch. It isn’t enough to turn on an air conditioner.’
Fatty Chacha smiles and finally manages to look me in the eye. ‘You sound like your father. He would say something like that: four bottles of Scotch.’
‘I don’t know how to live on ten a month.’
‘It’s better than living on nothing a month, champ. You have rich habits, but we aren’t rich. You can’t afford to turn down work because it’s beneath you.’
‘I haven’t turned down anything. I don’t think I could find a job that paid me ten a month even if I wanted one.
There are a hundred guys for every opening, and the one who gets hired is the one with connections. I’ve given my c.v. to twenty companies. I’ve had twenty rejections. Only one even pretended to consider me seriously, and that was because he didn’t want to offend you.’
Fatty Chacha cracks his knuckles, one by one. ‘I know it’s difficult. Especially for you. You’ve always succeeded so easily. But you must keep trying.’
I don’t say anything. It’s strange to hear myself described as someone who’s succeeded easily. But compared to Fatty Chacha I suppose it’s true enough. He never really succeeded at all. He didn’t marry until he was forty. And even now he barely manages to support his family.
I tell him I’ll do my best, and he seems relieved, tapping a beat on his belly with his hands. This conversation was clearly difficult for him. And I think it gave him an appetite, because he looks at his watch and wonders aloud what might be waiting at home for dinner. When he asks me to join the family at his place, I lie and say I’m going out with friends.
A freshly bathed Manucci, his hair still wet, comes in just as Fatty Chacha is leaving. My servant is wearing an old kurta shalwar I gave him after one of my little cousins spilled a bottle of ink on it. But Manucci must have bleached it or something, because the stain is hardly visible, and although it isn’t starched, it has been freshly ironed. I look from myself,
in my dirty jeans and T-shirt, to Manucci, in his crisp white cotton, and feel a strange sense of unease.
‘Well, well, Mr Manucci,’ Fatty Chacha says. ‘Looking very smart this evening.’
Manucci’s face breaks into an enormous smile.
‘Go clean my bathroom,’ I tell him. ‘And scrub behind the toilet. It’s getting filthy.’
I show Fatty Chacha out myself.
I think it’s safe to say Mumtaz is already at least a tenth mine. At least. I saw her sixteen hours this week. I know, because I timed it. And even though a tenth of someone is a lot to have, she has more than a tenth of me. I’m always dreaming of her, or thinking of her, or fantasizing about her, or waiting for her to come or to call. Even when I’m with her I miss her.
And she cares about me.
‘I tried heroin,’ I say, my lips touching the soft skin where her jaw meets her neck.
‘Was it good?’
‘That’s bad. Don’t do it again.’
I’ve already decided not to, but I say, ‘Why not?’
‘Some things are too good. They make everything else worthless.’
‘Say you won’t do it again.’
‘You won’t what?’
‘I won’t do it again.’
Mumtaz has six moles. Two are black: behind her ear and on her hip, in the trough of the wave that crests at her pelvis. Three are the color of rust: knuckle, corner of jaw, behind knee. And one is red, fiery, at the base of her spine, where a tail might grow. I touch them and know them because I watch her like a man in a field stares up at the stars, and I love her constellation because it contains her story and our story, and I wonder which mole is the beginning and which is the end.