Anam Sufi is a fiction writer who is currently based in Lahore. Her short stories have previously been published internationally, including issue 2 of Maker’s Movement (Canada), The Madelyn Lamont Print Anthology (Egypt), and the London-based, Late Night Tales label —contributing a short story for a collaboration with instrumentalist Olafur Arnalds and actor David Tennant. Anam acquired an undergraduate degree in English and Comparative Literature from the American University in Cairo, followed by a graduate diploma in Refugee Law from the same institution. She then acquired a Master's degree in Creative Writing & Publishing from City University, London. She is currently working on her first book, while also managing her @clickstories Instagram account; established as a platform to share her flash fiction.
As if it Were
The bordering mountains pierced the rising sun so that its rays fell across the valley at their feet in purposeful strokes. The fields swayed to the teasing breeze that offered song to an otherwise vapid summer’s day. In the distance, a tractor wheezed its way towards an old man. Sweat fell in rivulets down his face, meandered by the lacy crevices etched into it by time.
He had dark skin and a pallid manner. If his deep set eyes afforded him an air of wisdom, the thin grey film that forever coated them, left those whom he met feeling utterly unaffected. Such interactions however were few and far between, as here was a man who seldom sought company beyond the members of his nuclear family.
He’d been a quiet boy, who grew into a quieter man; a characteristic that would set the theme for the remainder of his life. He was wed at the apex of his youth; a matter decided upon in all of ten seconds. ‘You will marry Sikander’s third daughter,’ he was told, and so he did. It had been a boisterous ceremony, so loud it almost made up for the lack of words exchanged by both bride and groom.
Over the years they developed a silent repertoire, a wordless marriage that though without love, steered clear from acrimony. His wife proved as fruitful as his fields, giving birth to a total of seven children; although, crucially, none had been a boy. This fact fueled pity amongst others in the village. ‘All those girls. All those dowries,’ they lamented, clicking their tongues at the summation of his woes. And though such matters did little to burden his mind, he knew it was a responsibility that would take a lifetime to see through.
This lifetime unspooled so that every day passed much the same as the one that preceded it. He’d wake before dawn, carefully wrapping a white turban over the blotches of wiry hair that still clung to his scalp despite the seasons, throw the cotton satchel that contained a steal tiffin filled with either boiled potatoes or spiced lentils over his shoulder, and quietly leave his home to tend to the needs of his crops. There he worked alongside others like him, men whose dreams never crossed beyond the borders of the village, and who wilted over the years with the same dignity of trees that have passed their prime.
The tractor came to an abrupt halt. It had been a welcome lift from the fields to the village square, one that came on account of a message sent from his wife, asking for him to return as soon as possible, for a pressing matter awaited him at home. As he disembarked he took a deep breath, only slightly curious of the motorcycle that was parked outside.
His wife, a rotund woman with bright green eyes and a face that no doubt had once been beautiful, met him at the door. ‘Asalamu alaikum wa rehmat Allahi wa barakatihu.’
‘Wa alaikum al salaam.’ He walked inside, scouring the entrance of his home that was lit by a single candle planted firmly on the floor. ‘Is the power out already?’
‘Ji,’ she replied, suddenly embarrassed of her impatience to have him return.
‘So what is the matter?’
‘Voh…’ she opened and closed her mouth, struggling to find her voice. ‘It’s Sunday. Imran bhai’s son is going back to Lahore tomorrow.’ She looked at him expecting him to remember, but he didn’t. ‘We need to buy Sumeira’s jora.’
‘Oh,’ he sighed, before cutting across into the kitchen where Imran bhai’s son was squat before an expanse of brightly colored materials. ‘Asalamu Alaikum.’
‘Wa alaikum as—‘ he did not wait for the greeting, instead pulled down a chipped clay jug from the back of an ash colored cabinet by the window.
‘How much?’ he turned to his wife, who had faithfully shadowed him into the kitchen. Speaking of money out loud perturbed her, so she stepped closer and whispered the amount of six hundred rupees. His eyes widened momentarily, but if he’d had any thoughts of protest, they flooded out of him in one long submissive sigh. Emptying the contents of the jar over the counter, he peeled away the needed amount and handed it to the man he thought to have an over-obsequious smile.
‘Shukria, saahib. I’m sure Sumeira will look like the moon with this choice.’ The words, once spoken, left a viscous unease between both men; a feeling continued throughout the time it took to gather the loose garments at their feet, tie them securely in an ink-stained sheet, and fasten the pile to the back of the motorcycle parked outside.
Imran bhai’s son smiled curtly at the the old man and woman, impatient to get on before nightfall. He gave a stiff nod in their direction, and patted his stomach. ‘Thank you for the samosas khala.’ And with that he pulled the accelerator and didn’t turn back to see the pair get swallowed by the distance behind him as his motorcycle coughed towards another day.
The strident ring of a Nokia phone forced his eyes open. Morning had given birth to a stifling heat that further congested the clutter of the room. He squinted his eyes to read the time. 10:03. White rays of light poured through the diaphanous sheers turned grey from dust and indifference. He lay motionless for a while, languidly staring at a lizard that hung on the ceiling, its tail yet to emerge from the thick crack that granted him unimpeded access to the nightly arguments between the newly-wed couple who lived upstairs.
The cement floor was carpeted by unwashed clothes, fossilizing his attire from the month before. Cigarette butts littered an ashtray on his bedside, their ash snowing over a picture frame of a Bollywood dream girl he’d once taken the time to cut from a magazine that had mysteriously been slid beneath his door. Nothing hung on the white-washed walls, save for a calendar that was three months behind the actual date.
He thought of nothing in particular, blinking back dreams that grew increasingly evasive as his consciousness returned. The phone rang again.
‘Hello, Fahad? Haan, I’ve just left. No stay, I’m almost at yours so have the keys ready. Chalo, see you soon.’ He rolled over the side of the bed and grabbed the closest shirt he could from the floor. Giving it a ceremonial sniff, he shrugged his shoulders and pulled it over his head.
In the corner of the room was a basin that protruded from the wall as though the architect had changed his mind last minute and decided to not make a private bathroom after all. He splashed water over his face, pulled the comb that rested in a jar of almond oil from above the sink and ran it through his hair. He buried his hand under his pillow to retrieve a wad of cash that he then pocketed before giving his home a brief check, and swinging the door behind him.
It was a busy day in the square. Throngs of cars and people competed with one another for space on the streets as mosquitos hovered over and around his shop. Before leaving to visit his parents, he’d asked a friend to keep an eye on his merchandise, deep down knowing he’d never take the time for such favors. The monsoons had beat down relentlessly till then, and he feared a leakage might spoil the materials. Upon rolling up the shutters, no damage had taken place, save for the asphyxiating smell akin to that of damp carpets in a dormant apartment. ‘Son of a bitch,’ he thought.
It was nearly closing time when a woman with a small build and stiff demeanor made her way across his shop. ‘Salaam, where are your lawns?’ He looked at her attire trying to determine how probable it was that she would make a purchase. Her white shalwar had splatters of mud around her feet, and her turquoise qamis was sewn so that it left little to the imagination, and had small silvery sequins lining its hem. He was close to dismissing his own efforts to pull forth the rolls of lawn he’d bought back from his village, when the fluorescent light overhead flashed against a thin pair of gold bangles on her arm.
‘Yes, do sit. We have plenty of lawns. Come.’ He patted his hand over a cushion on a chair, causing plumes of dust to shoot from within it.
She moved like a cat, quietly, though with measured movement. Whenever she pointed to a new fabric that lined the shelves behind him, the bangles would jingle like solitary chimes. After repeating this routine a dozen times, she finally decided on a deep green print. They haggled over the price for as much time as it had taken for her to choose what she wanted. When she handed him a crisp note of five thousand rupees however, he hesitated to take it.
‘Do you not have change?’
‘No.’ Confident, despite the absurd discrepancy. He took the note and disappeared along the line of shops that neighbored his, finally returning with loose change.
‘Here madam, you take this, and I’ll take this.’ he fished inside his pocket looking for the hundred rupee bill he knew he’d received from the sale he’d made the day before, ‘And here,’ he peeled the red away from the folded money, ‘this should do it.’
She smiled briefly before turning on her heel and walking out of the shop. He watched her climb down the decrepit three stairs to get to the street, and stand somewhat aloof in her pursuit of hailing a rickshaw. It was from this distance that he was able to peg what made her unwomanly. She was only a girl, no doubt on the cusp of adulthood, but all in all, not quite there. He began to wonder about the odd combination of a girl so young and noticeably poor, yet in possession of gold bangles and big bills. And while he might have spent more time on such observances, he suddenly found himself interrupted by the appearance of a new client, one who was without a doubt, well worthy of his time.
When seated inside the rickshaw, she paid no heed to the blatant adjustments made by its driver to roast his eyes on her appearance through its reflection in the rear view mirror. ‘Badshahi Masjid,’ she said, noting the wonderment he felt at hearing her destination. As the transport pushed through the crowds of people she massaged her knees to ease the pain she’d been feeling since as far back as she could remember.
They travelled past the various shades of people the city had on display. Lahore was a cooking pot of colors, one where complete strangers blended intimately together over a dirt canvas. Old men sat on roundabouts playing marbles to pass the time while children flitted about like bees, going from one stalled car to the next, pollinating the rich with the reality of poverty. She inhaled deeply, taking in the city’s orchestra, the sweat of tired foreheads, the jingle of gold bangles, the closing door of a Pajero, and the light laughter of menial conversations.
When they came to a halt she paid her fare and turned, as she always did, to admire the mosque. It still maintained its rust brick exterior, a testament to its glory days, and a feature that made it stand in stark contrast against the squalid slum surrounding it. The sun prepared for its descent, no doubt the call to prayer would soon be booming through the maze of alleys she had yet to pass. So she turned, making her way defeatedly to the slouching apartment complex she’d called home since the day she’d been born into one of its many rooms.
Upon rattling the door open she was met with a sour smell. A lone lightbulb hung from a coiled wire in the center of the room, casting harsh shadows over the rusted wrought iron furnishing. The room was sparsely decorated but showed subtle signs of attempts made to make it one’s own. Photographs from a trip she’d taken to Murree the summer before had been carefully placed beneath the cracked glass surface of her bedside table. A necklace of rose petals, long since expired, hung from either side of the bed posts, and different colored nail polishes lined the surface of the dressing table, atop which hung a jaded mirror covered in the white residue of stickers she no longer cared for.
Sitting before the mirror she pulled at the corner of her eyes to apply a fresh coat of lining. She then pulled the caps off of three different lipsticks, blending them over her lips so that they resulted in a bright red shade, much too shocking against the dark of her skin. There was a knock at the door.
‘Salaam beta, did you get your work done?’ A shriveled woman with little grace towards the inevitability of old age stood before her.
‘Ji Maasi. I got this—‘
‘Maaf karna. No time,’ she tapped a shiny gold watch that hung loosely over her wrist. ‘The next one’s coming in twenty minutes. Look alive,’ and with that she disappeared into the hallway, already knocking on the the next door down.
Alone, she carefully removed the pictures from the bedside and tucked them away into its drawer. She then went over to the opposite end of the room to a half broken boom-box that stubbornly still played cassettes despite the absence of its closing flap, and hit play on a track from an old black and white feature.
When another knock came, she opened the door to a man whose burly build filled its frame. He had greasy hair, olive skin, and aquiline features that were accentuated by the hawkish expression he wore whilst falling clumsily into the room; bringing with him the unmistakable smell of whisky and cigarettes. He looked at her from behind his blood shot eyes and snarled, ‘turn that shit off.’
And while she did, she remained ever-weary of the distance between them both. When it was silent she cleared her throat, uncrossed her arms, and spoke the two words that had been drilled into her since childhood: ‘payment first.’
Exactly half an hour later he was back in the hallway. Closing the door behind him, he checked his zipper, and made his way down the steps out into the streets that were now bursting with life and people who, like him, were eager to get home. He lit a cigarette and dialed a number on his phone.
‘I’m done. Yeah come where you left me.’ By the time he took his last drags, a Corolla swerved into the alley. He sat in the back, exhaled deeply and motioned for the driver to head home. There was bumper to bumper traffic, forcing strangers to look upon the lives of neighboring cars and develop conjectures that lost importance as soon as a light turned green. He closed his eyes and thought about nothing, his mind static against the haze left in the wake of intoxication. When his phone buzzed he cleared his throat and rectified himself before answering on speaker.
‘Al salaamu alaikum, ji aap ghar kab ayengay?’
‘I just left the the office now. The traffic is crazy.’
‘Oh no, how long do you think you’ll be? We have the Khan wedding and its lights out at 10.’ He closed his eyes and rubbed his temples, exhausted at the prospect of having to attend yet another ceremony to celebrate the joyous union of people whom he only knew by name. ‘Hello? Are you still there?’
‘Do we have to go? I’m really very tired.’
‘Has something happened? Did the deal not go through? Are you not feeling well?’ his wife rained down a flurry of questions, queries he knew would take more effort in explaining than actually attending the event.
‘No, nothing like that. I just have a slight headache, that’s all. But that’s okay. You want to go so we will go.’
‘Well if it’s really that bad we don’t have to go. I can have Abed make soup and we can stay home, watch a film or something.’
‘No, I’m fine. We will go.’
‘But by the time you get home it will already be seven and—‘ while she continued to speak, his mind wondered onto a dust-caked hand that tapped at the window. A little boy with shadowy eyes and chapped lips stood outside, selling strings of jasmin that hung over a wooden stick. He waved his hand in the air, mouthing the words ‘no change’, averting his stare to punctuate his decision. But the little boy clung to the car parasitically as it continued to inch through traffic.
‘Samina wait. Just wait. These God damn bikhari bhenchodes never let up.’ He reached inside the pocket of his shirt, flicking through the bills he’d received as change just before entering his car. Under the street lights they appeared dirtier than they had before; sullied in a manner that made him wonder what people do with their money so that it gets to look so filthy.
He cracked the window open, slid one hundred rupees to the boy, and returned to the conversation with his wife; uncaring for the little string of fresh flowers that had been thrown in in return; most likely destined to go unnoticed until they’d decayed.
Like the surrounding cars caught in traffic, the little boy experienced a fleeting moment of inertia before darting away from the signal. He zoomed passed streetlights that blurred into streaks of neon, running as fast as his legs could carry him. Under fruit stalls and past pedestrians, he cut across into a small alley so narrow that from a distance it may have been mistaken for a crack in the wall. His sandals flopped into puddles of mud and waste-water, a combination that fertilized the ground so that it forever smelt of sewage. He carried on unimpeded however, desperate to get home so he could tally his earnings.
He’d been born the sixth son to a family of twelve children. His mother had died giving birth to the last, leaving behind a legacy of adolescents all destined to forge an identity defined first and foremost by their poverty. These children then had children of their own, multiplying like rabbits such that by the time the sixth-born turned nine, he was already in charge of watching his sisters’ bastard babies while they spent the day in pursuit of hungry old men with an appetite for underaged girls.
His siblings called him the fixie on account of his keen interest in other peoples’ business. But what they didn’t understand was that such curiosity extended far beyond the hum drum of their home by the city’s rails. It sailed across the seas through stolen books that told of pirate adventures and Christopher Columbus, it showed itself to him in the back of the cinema hall when glittering women, whiter, rounder, and prettier than the ones he’d seen before, would take over the screen, and when lying awake on a splintered charpai he’d contemplate the complex lives of the strangers that shuttled past the tracks every night and day, utterly unaware of his existence in the world.
At the age of seven, he came to the colossal decision that he would never be content living his entire life in a rickety shelter shared by a family who had little in common beyond their bloodline. It had rained heavily that day, affording the night a velvet cover that further incubated the sinful existence of those who lived like washed up camphor against the margins of their neighborhood. Their discarded needles sparkled like stars whenever they caught the headlights of lost cars, if only for a moment bringing the galaxy to their feet. Walking past one such man, he suddenly stopped, stalled by the persistent feeling that he’d met him before.
When he approached the old man however, the only thing he recognized was the undeniable grip of death. He knelt down next to him, offering him the last sips of water from the bottle he’d been carrying. Through a voice choked by desperation, the man rallied the last of his strength to rest his hand over the little boy’s head. He looked at him deeply, offering only one word of wisdom: ‘Go.’ It had been enough for him to know, his life was elsewhere. And since then he saved whatever he could to bribe the security guards of public schools to let him sneak into classes so that he could learn what it was about such institutions that enabled people to have better lives.
Out of breath, he finally arrived home to find that no one from his family had returned. ‘Maybe it is for the best,’ he thought, pulling a small metal box out from under his charpai. Inside was a broken watch, a remote control, a stick of gum, and a worn out copy of The Hungry Caterpillar. When he scooped these out and set them aside, he peeled at the various ten, twenty, and fifty rupee bills that clung to its base. He counted them for good measure; nine hundred and twenty rupees. But just as he dug into the pocket of his qamis, excited by the prospect of passing the threshold of four-digits for the very first time in his life, he stopped short. His hand moved in his pocket like a cat in a bag, searching for the money that was no longer there.
When reality dawned, his heart sank and he kicked the box in dismay. Head in hand, he curled on the ground, silencing his grief against the chaos that was life on the streets.
Elsewhere, lampposts glowed with rainbow rings around their centers, illuminating the lives that spilled at their feet. In the distance a band of drummers marched along a sidewalk, a wedding procession snaking through the electric atmosphere. Cigarette ends, like fireflies, blew through the streets, their spiraling smoke scribbling stories into the obsidian darkness of the sky above. The honks of cars, the brays of donkeys, the pitter patter of busied people contributed to the chorus of the city’s musical, one that seemed it might be blessed by Dali himself.
And amidst this circus, crushed into a concrete crevice was a folded note of one hundred rupees. There is no telling how many feet would trample over it, unknowing, and perhaps uncaring too. But they carried on, listless in their pursuit of their private passions, heading in haste, to and from places that you and I might never know. As if it were, business as usual.
Anam Sufi’s story As if it Were is a winner of the 2016 DWL Short Story Contest. To read more winning entries from the DWL short story contests, please click here to visit our past winners page.