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Authors: Mohsin Hamid

Tags: #Crime

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BOOK: Moth Smoke
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Murad Badshah’s my dealer: occasionally amusing, desperately insecure, and annoyingly fond of claiming that he’s a dangerous outlaw. He speaks what he thinks is well-bred
English in an effort to deny the lower-class origins that color the accent of his Urdu and Punjabi. But like an overambitious toupee, his artificial diction draws attention to what it’s meant to hide.

His hand engulfs mine, and I find myself pulled into a damp and smelly embrace, the side of my face pressed against his shoulder. ‘A very good evening to you, old boy,’ he says.

‘Do you have any cigarettes?’

‘But of course.’

‘My savior.’

‘More than you know.’ He flashes a grin down at me. ‘I also have some first-class, A-one quality charas.’

We climb a rickety ladder to the roof of my house and sit down on the bench I keep up there for pot smoking and kite fighting. I roll a joint, and as we smoke it, Murad Badshah asks me how my job search is going.

‘Badly. They want foreign qualifications or an MBA.’

‘It’s all about connections, old boy.’ He takes a hit. ‘How did you get your previous job?’

‘Through a family friend,’ I admit. Ozi’s father, as a matter of fact.

Murad Badshah grins. ‘Perhaps you should see the gentleman again. What he did once he can do twice.’

‘Maybe he can.’ But I don’t want to ask for Khurram uncle’s help.

I look up, squinting into the sun. A hawk circles in the
sky over my neighbor’s house, where a baby lies naked on a sheet on the lawn. His ayah keeps a careful eye on him: he’s too big for a hawk to carry away, but not too big for one to try.

‘Quite frankly, Darashikoh Shezad, you’re better off this way. Pinstriped suits are cages for the soul.’

‘At least a caged soul is well fed by its handlers.’

‘Well fed, my left buttock, if you’ll pardon the expression. A man who works for another man is a slave.’

I take the joint back from him. ‘Yes, but you need capital to start a business. I’m broke. The other day I received a notice that my electricity is about to be disconnected.’

‘All you need is human capital: a strong mind and an obedient body.’

I look at Murad Badshah’s obedient body. Even in the loose folds of his shalwar kurta, I can see the love handles sagging away from his waist.

‘I have a proposition for you,’ he says suddenly.

‘What?’

‘I don’t want to shock you, old boy.’

‘Just don’t ask me to drive one of your rickshaws.’

He reaches under his kurta and pulls a silver revolver out of the waistband of his shalwar. It gleams like well-polished cutlery, big and shiny and more than a little ridiculous.

‘Is it real?’ I ask him.

He looks offended. ‘Of course,’ he says.

‘Why are you carrying it around?’

‘Darashikoh Shezad, do you listen to nothing that I say?’

‘You don’t need to impress me.’

He snorts. ‘Here, take it.’

I drop my joint and put it out with my shoe. The gun is heavier than it looks.

‘You are holding a Python. Three-fifty-seven magnum.’

I nod and hand it back to him. ‘I don’t like guns.’

‘Why don’t you fire off a few rounds?’ he asks. ‘Just point it up in the air. But be careful: it jumps.’

I think of my mother and look away. ‘No thanks,’ I say. Sometimes indulging Murad Badshah can take more effort than it’s worth. ‘Can you get me some ex?’ I ask, reminding him that he’s my dealer first and my friend only a very distant second.

Murad Badshah looks at me as if he wants to say more about his proposal. Then he seems to decide against it and says, ‘What is ex?’

‘Never mind. It’s a drug.’

‘The best I can do is charas, old boy. And heroin. I can always get you heroin. But I wouldn’t recommend it.’ He puts his arm around me. ‘Come. Let’s roll another joint.’

I’m thirsty, and the smell from Murad Badshah’s armpit is overpowering. I want to get rid of him. ‘Can I offer you a beer?’ I ask, standing up.

He shakes his head, still seated. ‘You know me better
than that, old boy. I want the pleasures of the afterlife. Charas is a gray area, but alcohol is explicitly forbidden.’

‘Some men drink the blood of other men, all I drink is wine,’ I quote.

‘Saqia aur pila. Wonderful qawali. But I think the verse refers to the wine of faith, my friend.’

Once I’ve paid Murad Badshah for the pot and I’m alone again, I open a bottle of Murree beer. I don’t like it when low-class types forget their place and try to become too frank with you. But it’s my fault, I suppose: the price of being a nice guy.

Settling in front of the television, I watch videos on Channel V, and remind myself that when I have some cash coming in I need to call a technician to adjust my satellite dish. The sound quality just isn’t what it should be. I eat my dinner on a TV tray and open a beer. Manucci has fallen asleep at my feet. He loves to sleep in the living room when the air conditioner is on, and I don’t blame him, because the servant quarters are too hot in the summertime.

The phone rings and wakes me up. I’ve dozed off in front of the television. Manucci’s still asleep.

It’s a woman’s voice, husky, like she’s just gotten out of bed. ‘Daru?’ she says.

‘Nadira?’

There’s laughter on the other end. ‘It’s Mumtaz. Who’s Nadira?’

My mouth tastes awful. ‘No one,’ I say. ‘Just a friend.’

‘Listen, Daru, can you do me a favor?’

‘Is everything all right? Where’s Ozi?’

‘Everything’s fine. Ozi’s in Switzerland on business. I need to go to the old city, but I don’t know the roads in that part of Lahore and I don’t want to take a driver. Do you think you could come with me?’

This is very strange. Why is Ozi’s wife calling me up in the middle of the night to go for a drive? ‘Are you serious?’

‘Yes. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but it’s important to me and I’d appreciate your help.’

‘Where are you?’ I ask her.

‘Outside your gate.’

‘What?’

‘I’m calling you on my mobile.’

Her mobile. How classy. I think quickly: What can be wrong in going with her? Ozi would want me to help her out. On the other hand, the last thing Ozi probably wants is for his wife to be cruising around Lahore with single men while he’s out of town. But my curiosity gets the better of me. ‘I’m coming,’ I say.

It’s dark outside. None of the streetlamps work and the sharp crescent moon does little to light the night. Mumtaz’s car is parked with the engine running.

I get in, and she turns the music down. It’s Nusrat, remixed and clubby, but damn good as always.

‘Hi,’ she says with a grin.

‘What’s up?’

‘I’ll tell you as we go. Cigarette?’

I take one and she reverses onto the street, slips the car into first while it’s still moving backwards, and accelerates away from my house.

‘What have you been up to lately?’ she asks.

‘Looking for a job.’

‘Any luck?’ She takes a turn fast and I tense my legs.

‘No.’

‘What sort of job are you looking for?’

‘The standard: banks, multinationals.’ We’re on the canal now, zipping past weeping willows.

‘Do you really want to work for a bank or a multinational?’

She seems distracted, intent on her driving, and I’m irritated that she’s being flippant about what for me is a serious problem. ‘What do you mean?’

She flashes her beams at a truck and it pulls to the left to let us pass. ‘You don’t seem like the sort of person who’d enjoy being a slave to a faceless business.’

This is the very sort of attitude that pisses me off with most of the party crowd. They’re rich enough not to work unless they feel like it, so they think the rest of us are idiots for settling for jobs we don’t love. ‘I need the money,’ I explain to her, as I would to a child. ‘I don’t have a choice.’

‘I know the feeling,’ she says as we descend into the Ferozepur Road underpass.

‘Do you?’

She turns and gives me a surprised look. ‘No need to sound so condescending.’

I realize that I’ve offended her, and suddenly I’m upset with myself. ‘I’m sorry.’

She looks ahead again. ‘I wasn’t talking about needing money. I was saying that I know what it is not to have a choice about working. I have to work, too.’

I thought Mumtaz was happily unemployed. ‘What sort of work do you do?’

‘It’s a secret.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m going to tell you. I have to, I suppose, since I’ve dragged you out here with no explanation. It’s very sweet of you to do this, by the way.’ Her hand touches my knee, briefly, before returning to the gearshift. ‘I have this thing about friends and secrets. Sometimes when I meet a person I like, I tell them a secret they don’t know me well enough to be told. It lets me judge their potential as a friend.’

‘But what happens when they don’t keep your secret?’ I ask.

She opens a power window and flicks her cigarette out. ‘I don’t know. They always have so far. But I don’t meet many people I like.’

I light another cigarette and pass it to her. ‘I’m flattered.’

She accepts the cigarette with a nod. ‘You should be.’ We speed through the Jail Road underpass. ‘But let me tell you what I think about secrets before you decide if you want me to tell you one. Secrets make life more interesting. You can be in a crowded room with someone and touch them without touching, just with a look, because they know a part of you no one else knows. And whenever you’re with them, the two of you are alone, because the you they see no one else can see.’

I think of the look Nadira gave me at the party.

Mumtaz turns to me and smiles. ‘Do you still want me to tell you?’ she asks.

‘How could I not?’

‘But if I don’t feel good about it once I’ve told you, we’ll probably never be friends. Doesn’t that possibility frighten you?’

‘It is pretty drastic,’ I admit. ‘But tell me and let’s see what happens.’

She looks at me and I see that she’s smiling at herself. ‘Here it is. I know the identity of Zulfikar Manto.’ She takes a left on Mall Road.

‘The journalist?’

‘Precisely.’

‘The one who wrote that article about the missing girl in Defense?’

‘Among other things, yes.’

‘But I didn’t know his identity was a secret.’

‘It is. He submits his work by mail and collects his checks from a post office box. No one knows who he is except the editor of the paper that publishes his pieces.’

She downshifts to second in front of Bagh-i-Jinnah and overtakes a group of teenagers in a car with big alloy wheels and a spoiler.

‘So who is Zulfikar Manto?’ I ask.

She laughs. ‘Me.’

‘You?’

‘Me. I am Zulfikar Manto.’

I start to laugh, too. ‘But why? Why don’t you just write the articles under your own name?’

‘That’s a little complicated. Anyway, life is much easier if I’m not working as a journalist and Zulfikar Manto is.’

Mumtaz assumes a mock-serious expression as we pass a mobile police unit near Charing Cross, and I feel like a character in an espionage film.

‘That’s incredible,’ I say.

She nods.

‘Are you glad you’ve told me this?’ I ask.

She’s silent for a moment. ‘I don’t know,’ she says finally. ‘It felt good to tell you, but I’m a little uncertain about how I feel just now.’

I’m concerned. ‘What does that mean?’

‘It means we’ll have to see what happens.’ She shrugs. ‘But no more questions. This is where I need your help. We’re getting close to the old city, and I don’t know my way from here.’

We pass the High Court. ‘Where are we going?’

‘Heera Mandi.’

I start to laugh. ‘You’ve got to be kidding.’

‘I’m dead serious. I have to interview the madam of a brothel, and I can’t be late.’

This is turning into a very strange night, but I’m enjoying myself. I like the way Mumtaz drives, with a sort of controlled aggression. Actually, she drives the way I like to think I drive. I direct her, glad she never asks how I know where Heera Mandi is, and point out the sights along our way like a tour guide: ‘That’s Town Hall. Take a right here, on Lower Mall Road. That’s Government College to your right. Take a left. That’s Data Darbar. You should check it out sometime. This is Circular Road. See Badshahi Mosque? Minar-i-Pakistan’s behind it. Okay, slow down. Take a right. This used to be a gate. Now we’re in the old city.’

‘Who are all those people on the left?’

‘Heroin junkies. We’re almost there. You do realize that there won’t be many young women dressed the way you are?’

‘I hope not. It’s been a long time since anyone accused me of dressing like a prostitute.’

‘What I mean is, we might attract the attention of the cops.’

‘I can handle cops. Besides, I’ve brought a lot of cash.’

Soon enough we’re there, and even though it’s a little late for Heera Mandi, the place is still crowded. Mumtaz says we’ll wait in the car, for what I’m not sure. People stare at us, making me nervous. Then a man almost as big as Murad Badshah knocks on our window, his eyes bloodshot and the ends of his mustache curled into points.

‘Let’s go,’ I say.

‘Wait,’ she says. ‘Open it.’

He leans in, ignoring me. ‘Are you here to see Dilaram?’ he asks Mumtaz.

‘Yes,’ she answers.

‘Come quickly.’

We open our doors and get out, but he stops me with one hand. ‘Not you,’ he says.

I lock eyes with him and remove his hand from my chest.

‘It’s okay, Daru,’ Mumtaz says. ‘Wait here. I’ll be back soon.’

I continue to glare at the pimp, my heart pounding. I wonder if Mumtaz would be impressed if I beat the hell out of him.

‘Please, Daru,’ she says. ‘You don’t know how hard it was to arrange this interview.’

‘It isn’t safe for you to be here alone,’ I tell her.

‘I’ll be fine,’ she says, tossing me the car keys.

‘Why can’t I come?’

She tilts her head to one side, smiling like she wants to rumple my hair. ‘You look so disappointed. Let me ask her. If she agrees, I’ll come back for you.’

Before I know it, Mumtaz is running off with a giant pimp into some back alley in Heera Mandi and I’m sitting alone in her car. I am such an idiot for doing this. What will I tell Ozi if anything happens to her?

BOOK: Moth Smoke
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