Jawad marvelled at the intricate patterns hennaed on his wife’s – his bride’s, more precisely: they had just been married two days – hands. Elaborate curlicues, ornate lines twining around her slender fingers, frenetic petal bursts on her palms. Just looking at her hands stirred desire in him. Her delicate wrists, the stretch of dainty, satiny skin left bare by dangling sleeves (the latest fashion, she had told him); he wanted to grab her in his embrace. But this wasn’t the time or place for that. They had just boarded a crowded van that would cart them uphill to the alpine retreat of Murree, to coniferous trees and rolling hills and mists: perfect for their honeymoon.
|Art: Varun Cherukuri|
They were coming all the way from Multan: hot, dusty, parched Multan, its temperatures soaring even in this first week of May. The bus from Multan dropped them at Rawalpindi, the town that led you to Kashmir, to the foothills of the mighty Himalaya. They waited half an hour at the clogged, smelly, cacophonous bus-and-van station, trying to catch a ride to Murree. No buses were forthcoming anytime soon, so they decided on a van instead. It was derelict – seats ripped, inner rubber linings peeling and dangling serpentine over passengers’ heads – and cramped, but also much cheaper. He took it nevertheless: he was eager to reach Murree as soon as possible. He had only been there once, as a child; he remembered that jaunt dimly: how he frolicked with cousins up and down pine-clad slopes, chomping spice-laced chips and roasted chickpeas, and shuddering in the unexpectedly nippy whiffs of alpine air. The trip had been all fun and excitement.
When the date of his wedding was decided, some cousins suggested Murree as a possible honeymoon destination. In early May the place would be cold enough to warrant pullovers and blankets; it was the perfect antidote to sweltering Multan. From his recollections, Jawad conjured up the alpine town in his mind: cool, eddying mists that kissed your skin, embraced you like a lover; sprawling, exuberant green vistas; narrow streets snaking around hills sporting strips of shops and cheap hotels that catered specifically to honeymooners. He had enthusiastically agreed to the suggestion. He couldn’t wait, now, to slip into a room in one such hotel, its windows overlooking the fogged-over ripples of hills, and devour his young bride, his lovely Nazlee, in the cosy comfort of the quilted double bed. The thought prompted a wide grin and a pleasurable stirring in his loins. He now gleefully slipped his hand in Nazlee’s as they settled in their rexine seats. A passenger or two frowned at this public display of intimacy. Hell with them, he thought. She’s my wife after all. The van juddered into motion.
Nazlee, too, was excited. She had never been to Murree in all her twenty years, had only seen it on TV. The idea of being there with Jawad, the two of them all by themselves, felt like an impossibly beautiful dream. She felt a giddy rush of excitement as he took her hand. It made her giggle. The last couple of days had been one thrill after another. Jawad – brash, cheery, frivolous, the quintessential romantic hero – was all she had secretly hoped and craved for; she had been reared on a staple diet of Indian movie romances and Mills & Boon paperbacks, and Jawad seemed straight out of one: a dashing, doting youth with thick curly hair and indulgent eyes and a stocky, sinewy figure that he brandished with a nonchalant conceit. She was glad their parents had decided to marry them off despite their youth (he was twenty) and the fact that he was still looking for a decent livelihood. Youth was the only time to enjoy yourself, Nazlee believed, before life encumbered you with responsibilities and wore you out. She intended to enjoy hers fully, or at least as much as she could. She had happily acquiesced when her parents suggested Jawad and marriage. And before long she had fallen in love with him; she was sure of that. He seemed irresistible. So what if he was jobless? Few people were employed at his age. There were some reservations in her family regarding his future prospects – he had been a wayward student, had scrabbled to obtain a dubious bachelor’s degree in commerce, an outmoded discipline – but his parents had insisted that the responsibility of married life would straighten him out. Nazlee, Jawad’s mother had quipped, would fix him. Nazlee had blushed at that. She went for him, headlong. And so far the marriage had been a pure joyride.
Jawad’s feelings, in the lead-up to the wedding, had been no different. He first saw her during his requisite visit with his parents to the potential bride’s house, and was immediately taken by her delicate features and frame, her large, dark, thick-lashed eyes that sparkled with mirth and mischief. Her easygoing, bubbly, slightly coquettish manner impressed him, as did her dimples when she giggled, which she did a lot. He couldn’t stop grinning himself, throughout that visit, barely noticing anyone or anything else. He deflected his potential in-laws’ queries about his prospects. He was young and energetic, he told them. That was merit enough. And he was fishing for opportunities. His friend’s uncle’s brother-in-law had been in England for almost a decade, and he – Jawad – had made all necessary inquiries: landing a job there should be no problem. It was a different world out there. They valued enthusiasm and energy, not just qualifications and connections. A man of his abilities, he told everyone that day (and convinced himself, too), would certainly be able to make it big there. Enjoy life in pound sterling. Yes, he was absolutely certain of it. And with such a pretty little thing by his side, he told himself, he could do anything. Anything in the world.
Jawad and Nazlee now thought of their marriage as only partly ‘arranged’: there was mutual love, even passion involved, and they were proud of it. It had bloomed between them, sudden, unexpected. They had, with their parents’ tacit approval, been exchanging phone calls in the weeks preceding their wedding. They had cooed to each other on their phones when alone, sometimes late into the night. They grew enamoured of each other’s voices, the textures, the lilts, the seduction of their words. Their exchanges were hesitant, quotidian at first (‘um … so your favourite colour is blue?’; ‘I was never really good in math’) but soon turned into the lush, dreamy colloquies of hormone-addled young lovebirds. One night, emotion gushing, Nazlee kissed her cell phone several times and pressed it to her breasts. 'Can you hear my heart beating your name?’ she sighed.
‘Yes, yes,’ Jawad enthused, then professed his unconditional, unremitting, passionate love for her, ‘… till I die, and long afterward!’
His words coursed through her in delicious spurts, seeping moist and warm into her depths. ‘So will I, my love,’ she trilled, ‘so will I.’
‘Murree, Murree, Murree!’ the driver’s assistant hollered as the van chugged through traffic. The vehicle was packed, everyone sardined against everyone else, yet the assistant was keen on squeezing more people in, much to the passengers’ dismay. Soon, Jawad hoped, they would leave Rawalpindi’s stifling heat and traffic behind, scud along winding roads, through unravelling hilly vistas, breathing whiffs of cool air instead of the sweat- and smoke-tinged fumes they were recycling among themselves right now.
The driver blared his horn; his assistant hawked for some more passengers. The van stopped to accommodate a bespectacled gentleman who managed to wriggle aboard, claiming half a seat next to Jawad. Jawad inched away to make more room, moving closer to Nazlee, their thighs pressing. He could feel her soft warmth, her firm, glazed skin. Her proximity dispelled the discomfort of the situation that he may have had. Soon they would reach their paradise. His Nazlee was there, right beside him. What more could he ask for?
The man who had just climbed aboard extracted – with some difficulty, owing to the press of bodies – a book from a small knapsack he had on him. Nazlee looked across Jawad at him. He was fair-complexioned, dressed in a navy-blue T-shirt and beige slacks, his gold-rimmed glasses tinted over from the sun. He had a cream-coloured cap on with a red maple leaf emblazoned on it, the tilt of the cap’s peak obscuring part of his face. He was courteous; he smiled as he made room for himself, his smooth, clean-shaven cheeks ruddy in the heat, even radiant. He looked like a sophisticate, aristocratic, very different from the rest of the passengers who sported grubby shalwar-kameezes and stern expressions and billowed acrid, stale smells. What was he doing here? Nazlee craned her neck to catch the title of the volume he’d opened before him. The … Blind … something or the other. A tome of a book. And in English, too. Nazlee was impressed. Who was this man?
It took a while for the van to negotiate the thickets of traffic – buses, rickshaws, taxi cabs, pick-up trucks, donkey-carts: all competing for space – and weave out of Rawalpindi. The view was suddenly scenic, Jawad noticed with satisfaction. They whizzed past Islamabad: stately, organised, clean, green, unlike any other place in all of Pakistan. The road began to ascend as they skirted the city and swerved northward.
The man next to Jawad was engrossed in his book. Occasionally, as the road climbed and the passengers shifted and squirmed in their seats, he looked up and around. His gaze brushed Nazlee’s and she looked away, her cheeks warming, then glanced back, furtively. Those glasses, that face. A professor of English? No, a bit young for that: he was early-thirtyish, Nazlee figured. A writer of some sort? Or else … a doctor? Someone well-to-do, both financially and intellectually, she decided. And someone settled abroad, certainly – no one read hefty English novels aboard cramped, smelly vans in Pakistan – drawn back to his country of origin by nostalgia or adventure. Maybe he had mixed ancestry. She searched his face for possible clues. Their eyes briefly met again; he proffered a smile and returned to his book and she to Jawad, blushing.
Welcome to Murree Hills, a large signboard announced. The town itself was still some distance away. But the hills, forerunners of the majestic Himalaya several hundred kilometres beyond Murree, had begun in earnest. The road wound and dipped and rose again as they sped over the smooth asphalt. Jawad felt a dull, deep ache in his head, slowly spreading; a tightening around his temples. He peered out of the window past Nazlee, watching the verdant scenery unfold.
They zipped past an amusement park. Set off the sinuous road, it sported a jittery Ferris wheel and some rundown carousels, a few kids rushing among the rides. Some young couples strolled about; they fleetingly caught Nazlee’s attention – were they spouses? clandestine lovers? – before it returned to the mysterious stranger beside her husband. She caught the title of his book: The Blind Assassin. Interesting. She rolled it over in her mind; there was something about that phrase, it promised romance, chivalry, mystery, adventure. Like the reader himself.
Jawad’s headache bloated and coiled tight around his temples; it spread down his neck and torso, transmuted into a churning sensation deep in his gut, a feeling of welling nausea. He felt very sick. The road twisted and turned, its winding course taking them up and around hills; the van lurching, roaring as it ascended. Jawad lowered his head in his hands. Nazlee gripped his arm. ‘You okay?’ she whispered.
‘Yes, yes’, he nodded, ‘just a bit sick.’
She held his arm tighter, oblivious of the stares she was attracting from the more inquisitive among the passengers. Jawad bent forward, feeling his insides rush to his mouth, trying to quell the intense nausea.
‘It’s the winding road. And the heat.’ The stranger said, glancing at Nazlee. ‘Motion sickness.’
She smiled, then reddened again. He was addressing her! It pleased and disconcerted her at once, the sudden thrill of it dampened by the circumstances. Jawad was jack-knifed in his seat, his face against his knees. Embarrassing.
‘Try looking outside, get some fresh air,’ the stranger touched Jawad’s back. ‘Think of something pleasant.’
Something pleasant? He had been thinking of something pleasant, Jawad thought indignantly, his face pale, swathed in sweat. He’d been engrossed in the feel of Nazlee’s luscious thighs and the thought of a warm downy double bed in Murree. What could be more pleasant? He shrugged away from the stranger’s touch and retched hard.
‘Oy, oh, oh watch out man!’ the driver’s assistant cried out. ‘Take a shopping bag, don’t mess up the van.’
Fuck your fucking van, Jawad thought.
‘Here’, the assistant handed him a flimsy, striped polythene bag. ‘Use it.’
Nazlee wished she was somewhere else. This was humiliating! Gripping Jawad’s hand, she put up a feeble, self-conscious simper for the stranger’s benefit, who’d set his book aside. ‘There, there’, he patted Jawad’s back, smiling back at Nazlee. A captivating, almost conspiratorial, solicitous smile, Nazlee thought. The smile of the Blind Assassin.
The van laboured over a steep turn and Jawad barfed, noisily, in the wispy bag he’d been offered, spilling vomit on the van’s floor and eliciting scowls and groans and sundry expressions of censure and disgust from the passengers. Some pinched their noses or stuck their contorted faces out of the windows.
Nazlee’s hand lingered lightly on Jawad’s arm, then moved to his back, then withdrew. She looked away, outside. She drew away from him, as if the act would render her inconspicuous, even invisible, which is what she wanted most at the moment. She was annoyed. Couldn’t he control it? Must he make such a scene? And the stink … phew! What must … he … think? She couldn’t imagine a name for the stranger who still maintained a consoling hand over Jawad’s huddled form. Such uncouth people, he must think, no manners.
Jawad puked two more times during the course of the journey. In between the stranger tried to divert his attention, chatted him up; Nazlee found out that he was a doctor (See? she congratulated herself) and was working as a public-health consultant for a foreign NGO (Aha!). He was currently dispensing rehabilitative services in an area near Murree ravaged by the previous year’s earthquake; he was supervising the medical care of the victims living in makeshift shelters. He occasionally commuted to the place in little vans and buses, he said, getting a feel for the real life in his country of birth; he’d all but abandoned it in the past decade or so, drawn back now in the wake of the earthquake. He spoke in a soft, slightly gravelly voice, his account studded with vivid descriptions of his experiences. Nazlee listened to him enthralled. Their eyes met occasionally, briefly; they swapped little smiles. He never offered his name. The Blind Assassin. Someone who would smite you without you even noticing it.
Jawad had trouble concentrating on what the man was saying. Tents, refugees, outbreaks, disaster management. The words swirled around, adding to his wooziness. He mustered occasional nods, some reluctant, monosyllabic contributions to the conversation. But mostly he just wished the man would shut up. Just shut up, man! And why did Nazlee seem so interested in what he was jabbering about? It looked as if she couldn’t, he noticed between bouts of sickness, take her eyes off him! Jawad glared at her a few times but she just looked away. This irked him even more.
Murree, finally. The feel of solid ground under his feet was a welcome sensation. Jawad slung his and Nazlee’s bags around his shoulder and marched up the road that wound out of Murree’s bus-and-van station, Nazlee in tow.
‘Nice meeting you!’ the stranger called out after them. Nazlee flashed an avid parting smile, a toothy, ear-to-ear affair; Jawad just grunted. A clutch of young men and boys accosted them – ‘Room, room, cheap room!’ – competing with one another for their attention. Jawad sulked. Nazlee hurled a few last glances at the station. The Blind Assassin was gone.
The air was cool, refreshing, laced with the scent of pines. Hills rose and dipped all around them, arboreal, swaddled in fluffs of mist. The road climbed. The hotel agents grew more assertive. Jawad accepted one offer: a gangly youth grabbed their bags and scampered ahead of them. ‘Best place for couples’, he enthused, ‘and prime location too, just a short distance
Nazlee’s thoughts drifted. She wondered what it would be like being with someone like that doctor, someone imbued with culture and sophistication and refined intellect. What romances would ensue, what intimacies and adventures shared, what far-off beautiful places they would explore and enjoy. She glanced at the sturdy figure of Jawad striding ahead of her. He didn’t even pause for her to catch up, or bother to enquire how she was or if she liked the place. Nazlee scowled. What an oaf!
The pain and giddiness in his head was finally abating, the nausea beginning to ebb. Jawad was glad of it. Not that it seemed to matter to his loving, caring wife. Not once had she asked how he was, how he felt, whether they should sit somewhere so his head could stop spinning. No, she was still fantasising about that cheeky doctor, he was sure of it. Jawad frowned. Slut!
The youth skipped ahead of them, swerving into a grassy, narrow path that branched off the main road and rose up. They lumbered up the track, both breathless by now. ‘Not far from here’, the boy beamed at them, gesturing, vaguely, skyward. The path soared uphill. It was a long, steep climb, they both noted with dismay.
~ Aziz Sheikh is a doctor in Islamabad who moonlights as a writer and occasional columnist.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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