Authors: Mohsin Hamid
Once my aunts’ families have gone, Fatty Chacha and I go to the children’s bedroom with some tea. The room is small and plastered with fading stickers. The fan above gives a metallic groan on each slow revolution.
‘So, champ,’ Fatty Chacha says, ‘how are things?’
‘Fatty Chacha, I’m not having any luck.’
He shoves his hand inside a box of Marie biscuits. ‘How about my friend?’
‘Butt saab,’ I say, stressing the
, ‘told me other people were better connected.’
He bites into a biscuit and it breaks, parts of it falling into his lap. ‘That’s ridiculous.’
He brushes some crumbs onto the carpet. ‘I’ll have another talk with him.’
‘It won’t help. He said there was nothing he could do.’ I put down my cup. ‘Fatty Chacha, this tea is awful.’
‘I know. I don’t understand how you can make bad tea, but this new boy manages to do it every day. You don’t know how lucky you are to have Manucci. Here, have a biscuit.’ He offers the box to me.
‘Thanks,’ I say, taking one.
‘Your father was the well-connected one, champ. I don’t know anyone else who owes me a favor and might be of some use to you. But let me make some calls.’
‘Thanks, Fatty Chacha.’ The biscuit is stale, but I eat it anyway.
‘Do you need some money for the time being?’ He offers the box of biscuits again.
‘Could I borrow two thousand?’
Fatty Chacha looks uncomfortable. ‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Let me give you five hundred now, and I’ll take out some money from the bank tomorrow.’
Maybe I should have asked for less, but I don’t want to embarrass him by withdrawing my request and I really need the money. I sit with Dadi for a while, but she’s fast asleep, and as much as I’m enjoying the air-conditioning in the living room, eventually I have to go.
Fatty Chacha insists I take the leftovers with me: three glass bowls capped with tin foil. They make my car smell, and the smell makes me hungry even though I’ve just filled my stomach with as much as I thought it could hold. Lately I’ve been eating more than usual, and I wonder why my body has chosen this moment to give me such an appetite, when I can least afford it. Then again, animals tend to fatten up in anticipation of lean times ahead. I belch loudly as I drive, quite a roar, freeing up some space inside.
Murad Badshah, MA, rickshaw fleet captain and land pirate, at your service. Allow me to begin at the outside and move in.
Huge (and also massive, enormous, and gigantic) describes me well. I am very, very rarely called fat. Perhaps you smile thinking this is because I inspire a certain sense of caution in more modestly proportioned persons? I must most respectfully take issue with you on this matter, and I beg your indulgence as I present a simple proof.
What is fat?
‘Fat’ is a small word which belies its size in the girth of its connotations. Fat implies a certain ungainliness, an inefficiency, a sense of immobility, a lack of industry, an unpleasant, unaesthetic quality; unmotivated, unloved, unnatural, unusual, uninspired, unhappy, unlikely to go places or to fit, under the ground with a heart attack at fifty-five. In short, fat somewhat paradoxically involves the lack of many attributes which, you must concede, are generally held to be good.
When the word ‘fat’ is mentioned, people do not tend to think of the awesomely powerful rhinoceros, the supremely
efficient and magnificent sperm whale, the deadly grizzly of North America. They do not say, ‘fat as a well-fed tiger.’ No, they say, ‘fat as a pig,’ a creature which eats its own feces and has never in our literature been a symbol of dignity.
Very well, then. The collective consciousness has assigned to fat a meaning, and as I speak this language I must accept fat on these terms. Fat is bad.
And so I am certain you will not disagree when I say the word can hardly be considered to apply to me. I am weighty, yes, but I carry my mass wonderfully. I am quick, light on my feet, and graceful. I have poise; delicacy and elegance characterize my every movement. My fingers are nimble, my hands deft. It is no secret that I dance well and most willingly. Furthermore, I possess those very qualities the lack of which is assumed by the word ‘fat’: industry, drive, dexterity, cunning. I am the living embodiment of so many unfat qualities that their enumeration would be a project of enormous scope.
If A has fundamental characteristics the very absence of which characterize B, it cannot be said with any degree of accuracy (or, may I add, sophistication) that A is B.
Thus, I am not fat.
Quod erat demonstrandum
But I do stutter, it is true.
You pretend not to understand the logic which links this last statement to that which preceded it? Come, come, now. There is no need for such modesty on your part. A
stutter, like fatness, is considered a bad thing, a flaw. I simply wish you to understand that I am not perfect and I am aware of my imperfection. I stutter. I stut-tut-tut-tut-tut-tutter. You perhaps have noticed that my mind works at quite an exceptional speed? (I hope you share my feelings about modesty.) As a child, my mouth struggled to keep pace with my thoughts, but the race was so unequal that my tongue would inevitably stumble like a blind camel with vertigo. It took me many years to realize that the secret to speech lay in speaking slowly, training my trotting tongue not to chase my galloping mind.
So I do not stutter obviously or often, but I do stutter. And strange though it may seem, I am proud of my stutter, much as a comely woman is proud of the black lump which on her face is called a beauty mark.
But enough small talk. Let me tell you how I met Darashikoh Shezad.
My father was a gold jeweler, the son of sons of gold jewelers from time immemorial. He died before I was born, in a freakish accident involving a cigarette and the open valve of a balloon vendor’s gas cylinder. My mother was of a more modest background and unloved by the members of her husband’s family, who at the time of my father’s immolation had no knowledge of my imminent arrival. We were soon living with her brother, my uncle, who worked for the British Council library.
So it was that I had access to all the books I could want and the opportunity to learn the nuances of English speech from a people who, if nothing else, do one thing excellently: speak English.
I received my MA in English twenty-some years later and was of course unable to find a job. To sum up what followed: I went to see my father’s eldest brother, whom I had never met, and in a five-minute interview was given a sum of money (in exchange for a promise never to show my face in his shop again) that I used to purchase a rickshaw. In the short years since then, I acquired four more, and am now captain of a squadron of five little beauties.
My rickshaw fleet specialized (as much as it is possible to do so in my line of business) in servicing the students and faculty of my alma mater. It so happened that on one rainy day an occasional client of mine, the inimitable Professor Julius Superb, brought one of his favorite students into my rickshaw with him. I had made Dr Superb’s acquaintance in my days as a master’s candidate at the university, and he always sought me out when he had rickshaw requirements to be met. He introduced me to his student, we shook hands, I felt a strong grip, and the seeds of a partnership in crime were sown. When next Darashikoh needed conveyance, he sought me out.
Darashikoh was an intriguing fellow. Excuse me for speaking of him in the past tense, but that is how I think of
him. He was ruggedly handsome (like knows like, as they say) but cold, with a steady gaze and a cruel mouth. A solid boxer with a quick mind. We talked, and I took a liking to him, and he to me, and we became friends.
Socially we moved in somewhat different circles, although I must say his friends were always very respectful. We met for tea and talk on Tuesdays, after which I gave him a ride (gratis) to wherever he was going. Our conversations ran from economics to automotive maintenance, broken noses, and Aretha Franklin. (A word about this last: a foreign tourist once left a cassette in the back of my rickshaw, and when I took it home and played it, I discovered the Queen of Soul. Life was never the same. In the past, when people said America has never given us anything, I used to agree. Now I say, ‘Yes, but America has given us Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul,’ and they look at me strangely. I never explain any further: one cannot explain Aretha Franklin; either you are enlightened or you are not. That is how I view the matter.)
With the arrival of yellow cabs in Lahore, the rickshaw business took a bad turn. Profits became increasingly slim, and to say competition was fierce is an understatement of unusual proportions. Business is a tough business, as they say, and I am fairly handy when it comes to mixing it up. In my post-MA years I have been shot at three times, hit twice (stomach and thigh), and was unfortunately once obliged
to kill a man with a wrench. I took to carrying a gun quite some time ago, and it was but a short step from protecting my own on the high seas of Lahore’s streets to realizing that piracy was the wave of the future. The marauding yellow cabs had devastated the rickshaw industry, so I conducted a little redistribution of wealth on my own. Robbing yellow-cab drivers as they slept put my finances back in the black.
But this didn’t last. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say, and I was flattered to the point where yellow-cab drivers were forced to take precautions, parking to sleep in places that were extremely inconvenient from my point of view, carrying less money, and so on. Pickings became slim and profits dropped off.
Around this time Darashikoh was in rather difficult straits himself: he was in debt, had no job, and was saddled with the heaviest weight of pride and self-delusion I have ever seen one person attempt to carry. I trusted him, knew he was bright, ruthless, capable, and that he could tolerate my sense of humor. And so it was that I enlisted him in my plan to rob boutiques, and together we formed a duo that would strike fear into the hearts of purveyors of fashionable clothing everywhere.
It was a summer of great rumblings in the belly of the earth, of atomic flatulence and geopolitical indigestion, consequences of the consumption of sectarian chickpeas by our famished and increasingly incontinent subcontinent.
Clenched beneath the tightened sphincters of test sites and silos, the pressure of superheated gases was registering in spasms on the Richter scale.
Lahore was uneasy, and Imodium in short supply.
The perfect time, I thought, for my plan.
Allow me at this point the luxury of a minor digression. Although I proudly admit to being a robber (attaching as I do a certain prestige to my calling), I must make it quite clear, so clear that there is no room for doubt, that I am not a murderer. And while it is true that outlaws of both departments are schooled by the faculty of lawlessness, it is equally true that they are separated by a moral chasm as vast as the difference in syllabi which divides BA candidates from those pursuing a BSc.
You see, it is my passionately held belief that the right to possess property is at best a contingent one. When disparities become too great, a superior right, that to life, outweighs the right to property. Ergo, the very poor have the right to steal from the very rich. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the poor have a duty to do so, for history has shown that the inaction of the working classes perpetuates their subjugation.
However, because I believe in the primacy of the right to life, I also believe that killing is wrong unless done in self-defense. Although many of my more frivolous friends and
acquaintances accuse me of dieting to reduce my weight, the truth of the matter is that I do not eat meat because I am so strongly opposed to killing, and because my sense of compassion is so fat (here defined as grand, expansive, and all-encompassing) that it extends to species beyond our own.
The professional murderers I have known tend to disagree. Their arguments run as follows.
‘Murad, old chum,’ they say. ‘Your moral structures are but feeble attempts to come to terms with the reality of killing, and excuse us for saying so, but you really do miss your mark. When a bird takes wing and you bring your gun to your shoulder and track it and pull and send bits of metal hurtling through the air, ripping through its little feathered body, thereby causing it sufficient physical trauma to begin a process of cessation of vital bodily functions, what do you have? A moral issue? Sport? An illustration of the essential brutality of the universe and the simultaneous meaning and meaninglessness of existence? Of course not. You have a tasty morsel waiting to be seasoned and served with carrots.
‘What once was a free creature which happily flitted about, cheating on his mate and slurping worms out of the soft ground with a flick of his head as if to say, “Ah, this is the life,” is now something stuck between your teeth in such a manner that the toothpick you use to pry it loose leaves your gums feeling just a little bit raw in that deliciously painful but pleasurable way which reminds you of
days long since gone when you spent hours twisting at your loosening milk teeth.
‘But you can always justify killing animals on the grounds that you want to eat them, or wear them, or that they smell bad, look funny, bother you, threaten you, and have the bad luck of being in your way. What about killing humans? Well, aside from a few die-hard individualists on the fringe, the general consensus among people these days seems to be that eating and wearing other people is just not on. Wearing a suit which costs as much as a farmer will make in his lifetime is acceptable, but actually putting his eyeballs on a string and letting them dangle above tastefully exposed cleavage is bad form.
‘That said, killing someone because of the other reasons we mentioned above (smell, looks, bother, threat, or bad luck) is quite acceptable. You want deodorants, you know that one in 6.87 million will die from a violent allergic reaction, you shrug and churn the stuff out, and some poor fellow suffers a pain in the armpit beyond imagining and dies, and that’s that: acceptable. You drive cars, knowing eventually you will probably kill somebody or be killed, but “Hurry up, I don’t want to be late for my threading,” and you’re off. No regrets. Or someone who has never been to your farm and seen the cute dimples your youngest daughter is already showing when she smiles decides a line on a piece of paper should be a little to the left, and in the
name of God and all that is right, to war boys: kill, kill, kill! Yours not to reason why, but damn it hurts when a land mine blows off your leg.