Sahib Qalam (pseudonym) is an award winning writer and filmmaker. He has written multiple screenplays, produced and directed award winning documentaries as well as a narrative feature. His publishing credits include a diverse collection of articles and short stories including the South Asian Review’s Fiction Anthology.
Chapter 3 from Sahib Qalam’s Upcoming Novel Godown.
Pakistan has an unofficial three-day weekend. It starts on Friday, a half-hearted workday pivoted around the afternoon prayers, and ends on Sunday. On this particular Friday, the KPT building was deserted, its sepia colored stones simmering under the blue sky like, an overexposed photograph. The air smelled of sea, prawns and camel dung. I took the elevator to the fourth floor, unlocked my office, turned on the A/C unit, ordered coffee and got to work.
On paper, the Jandola claim in question seemed legitimate. Malik Jan Awan had been insuring his bonded warehouses for twenty years. He hauled tobacco, a lucrative cash crop for Pakistan, to the various production facilities and also moved millions of cigarettes. I wrote down the facts of the case in a notebook, the name of the insured, the policy term, limits and deductibles and calculated the earned premium. It all added up nicely. I should know. Before Excel and computers, I used to manually calculate Loss Triangles, a much sought after actuarial technique, but that seemed a lifetime ago.
According to the claim inquiry, the warehouse burned down under fire on 29th of March 2011. The imported Marlboro cigarettes were destined for Afghanistan, as part of the NATO non-military supplies. The shipment was waylaid in Jandola because of the tit-for-tat games that are routine between the Americans and the Pakistani government. Militants provided ample excuses for rerouting the convoys on the N-55 highway, which trails the Indus River. Not only were the Taliban active in the badlands west of Indus, there were weekly drone attacks by the Americans, occasional sectarian strife and a swelling refugee crisis. An insurance claim like this warranted wariness on top of the usual suspicion that the policyholder started the fire to get the claim money. In Pakistan, while the Rule of Law is superficial, commerce still reigns supreme and a surveyor is seen by the “Insured” as a blank cashier check. This means he must withstand threats and physical intimidation. It takes guts, but it helps to be likeable.
“The key for a surveyor is how he presents himself to the client,” Mr. Irfan Moeen Khan used to say when I had joined Continental Surveyors as an intern. “Having an understanding of the actuarial sciences also helps.”
I had worked with Khan Sahab for eleven years. He was a principled man, immaculately dressed in light worsted woolen suits, striped necktie and silk pocket-handkerchief. Above his desk hung an official portrait of the first Governor-General of Pakistan, the founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah. A few years ago he had retired and now lived in Houston. I had inherited his office, but not his principles.
The landline rang loudly.
“Hello, this is Syed Qais,” I said trying to keep my voice low.
“Hello Cash, did I wake you?” said Sonia.
“No. But I have been up all night thinking about the Godown.”
“You are going right?”
“I have some questions.”
“Wait, not over the phone. Better to be discrete. I can come over and we can discuss in person,” she said.
“No, I’ll come over. Tell Anthony I want to see him as well.”
Anthony Lobo had an office on McLeod road, the financial hub of Pakistan. Banks, insurance companies, cotton export bureau, stock exchange and the media conglomerate have offices established here. Parking and traffic were a nightmare and that’s why I took a rickshaw. I had long figured out that the best means of transportation in the city were these motorized tricycles. All you needed was a strong back and earplugs. I had both.
It took twenty minutes to cover the next few miles; the heat, smog and the noise tired me out more then last night’s hangover. But I took a deep breath and climbed the two flights of stairs; past the bleary-eyed guard with the pistol safety set to ‘Fire’, and walked into the office. The peon eyed me with disdain, but the receptionist offered me a warm smile.
“Salam, Mrs. Shameem,” I said.
“Mr. Qais, how are you? It’s been a long time since you graced us with your presence.”
“You have not changed a bit,” I said with my best smile.
“Neither have you, just some white in your beard,” she said. “Meeting Miss. Sonia?”
“Yes, is she in?”
“Of course, she is waiting for you in Mr. Lobo’s office.”
I walked up a dim corridor lined with file cabinets and the woody smell of inkpads, file folders and crinkled dusty papers. Framed photographs showed slim clean-shaven men in twill suits posing in front of jazz bands and Boeing jet airliners. The corridor led to a large cool room with charts of loss triangles pasted on the walls. At the back-end was a rosewood desk. Anthony Lobo was sunk in a well-worn leather tufted chair, his tweed jacket hung in the corner, his necktie loosened.
“Qais,” he said. A smile appeared on his lips but failed to reach his eyes.
“Anthony, been some time. We should meet more often.”
“I would prefer not to,” he said.
“Where is Sonia?” I said in English.
The side door opened and Sonia entered. She wore a lime-green kurta over black Capri pants and carried a cup of tea balanced on her laptop.
“Hello Qais,” she kissed the air near my cheek. I wished I had shaved.
“You wanted to see us Qais?” Anthony said.
I pulled a chair and sat down.
“You want me to be upfront, or should I do the snake talk?” I said.
Anthony and I had never gotten along. I had slapped him once, a long time ago. It was at a reception at the Taj Mahal Hotel and he had mimicked my mispronunciation of the word ‘competitive.’ Since then I had learned the right pronunciation but he had never forgiven me for the slap.
“We are all busy here, I sent over the folders and…” Anthony said.
“The whole setup stinks,” I said interrupting Anthony, raising my voice but slowing the pace, “the policy is valid, but the incident happened three months ago, an inquiry was filed and then nothing. Now all of a sudden you want to send a surveyor to find out what happened? You must take me for an utter fool.”
“That is the truth, I am not hiding anything from you,” Anthony said.
“Then you need to explain more, because I am not buying this stale claim business.”
Sonia exchanged a look with Anthony. He remained silent, but picked up a fountain pen and scribbled on a notepad.
“The claim was filed but then one of the policy holder, Saif Awan, son of Malik Jan Awan, was killed in an American drone attack and the claim remained opened. At that time, we approached Malik Jan to follow up, but he refused. At the end of our fiscal year, the claim showed up in our books, and we closed it as a paid claim,” Sonia said.
“You mean you already claimed it from the re-insurers?”
“Yes,” said Sonia.
I let out a low whistle.
“Who from?” I said.
“Llyods of London,” Anthony said. “They have transferred the money to our accounts, and we as the executing agents have to pay it out.”
“Except, the policy holder, Malik Jan is now refusing all dealings with the insurance company,” Sonia added
“And you want me to convince him to accept the claim. How can I do that? I don’t even know him.” I said.
“You have to Cash, you are resourceful. And we have a back-up plan.”
“What is that?”
“Saif Awan’s wife, Mrs. Ruqiya.”
“What does she have to do with it?”
“She is Saif’s widow, he is named on the policy and technically she can accept it on his behalf.”
“How do you know all this?”
“Our agent in Mianwali, Riaz Khan has been working with her, but she expects more assurance. She needs an insurance man from the big city. This is where you come in.”
I looked around for an ashtray and found none, the room smelled clean. I stood up and lit a cigarette anyway.
“Alright, I will see what I can do. What if I fail, and do I get to keep the advance?” I said.
“Yes, but you will never work for any of the big three insurance companies again,” Anthony said.
“And you will probably be investigated for filing a fraudulent claim with Llyods. Either way, I win,” I walked out. Sonia followed me into the corridor and then held me back by grabbing my elbow.
“You will not fail. You are the perfect negotiator and the smartest guy I know.”
There was a large cake box from Shahnama Bakery sitting on the dining table in my apartment. Shereen was pacing around the table, a pair of white earphones peeped out from under her straight black hair. She was at the age when she still had a skip in her walk.
“Shereen, hello, anyone home?” I said.
“Abu, you are home early, ” she said in a loud voice.
I pointed to her earpiece and she broke out in a grin. She looked so sweet that I had to smile back, my first for the day. Someone said it right, you need children to make a workday bearable.
“Sorry Abu, got lost in music,” she said.
“Is that an iPod?” I said.
“Yes. Shahrukh bought an iPod touch, so he gave me his old one.”
“They were here?” I asked.
“Yes, he came with Uncle Jamshed. He waited for you to join him for Friday prayers. So, you want to try it?”
“No. I am leaving tonight for upcountry,” I waited for a reaction. She just stared back.
“You take care of Dadi while I am gone, ok?” I added.
“Of course, keep your phone on ok? In case we need to contact you in an emergency,” Shereen said.
“There might be some reception issues, but I will keep in touch,” I said but she had plugged the earphone back in her ears.
I went to my room and touched up the grey in my beard and smoked in the balcony waiting for the color to dye. I had moved to the Seventh Heaven apartment complex six years ago hoping for it to be a temporary move before I bought a proper house. That dream had remained impossible until yesterday when Sonia had offered me a chance to make real money. Fate had finally smiled and I had a chance to leave this house of pain.
After a cold shower, I laid out two shalwar kameez suits, cotton and a woolen one, a wind cheater jacket, a rust-brown woolen shawl, cotton undershirts, twill socks, plastic slippers and a prayer rug. I packed the shaving kit with laxatives for constipation, Panadol for cold, Amoxicillin for infections, Xanax for sleeping and Ritalin for staying awake. I opened the side cupboard to get the duffle bag. Even two years after her death, the cupboard smelled of Jameela. Her long cotton shirts were neatly piled on the shelves, dyed dupattas, hung on the sides, and in the drawers were felt lined boxes, containing the jewelry she wore on our wedding day. I had tried to sell off the jewelry several times to pay for her extended chemotherapy. But she always reprimanded me for suggesting that.
“It is my grandmother’s heirloom, you must save it for Shereen’s dowry. Promise never to sell it Qais. No matter how bad it gets.”
It got bad. I have forgotten the anguish, except for the sharpest ones; the first operation that removed her left breast, months of suffering, and the final days that have blended together as a singular painful chapter.
Begum Qureshi sat in the dining room with a yellow dupatta covering her hair. She was reading a pansura, an abridged version of the Quran, and watching her soap operas at the same time. She was my mother and I did not want to leave for a war zone without her blessing.
“Salam Ami,” I said.
“Beta, you came late yesterday. I was up all night, worrying,” Ami said.
“I am leaving tonight for upcountry. Will be back in a week,” I said.
“To go where?” Ami said as she sat up, her back rigid, her hands joined together across her lap.
“Mianwali,” I said.
“Why do you have to travel? I thought all business was done on the Internet these days.”
“You only waste time on Internet, real business still happens in real world,” I said with another genuine smile. I was on a roll.
“Isn’t that near Waziristan?” She said a frown forming on her face.
“It’s a well paid survey. I am lucky to have gotten it.”
“If it is for work you should go with faith. Inshallah it will be for the best. Before you leave, there is something I wanted to ask you. Your Uncle Jamshed was here.”
Captain Jamshed Ali Gilani was Ami’s cousin and a recent retiree from the Merchant Navy. He resided in a mansion in Defense society where he lived with his troupe of servants and sycophants.
“You know Rabia has moved back from Dubai after her divorce.”
“Good for her,” I said.
“He wanted to discuss specific business opportunities.”
“I am not a businessman.” I said.
“Neither is Jamshed Bhai, but he trusts you like a son, and Rabia has always liked you. It is after all the way of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to support widows and divorcees.”
“Ami, don’t bring religion into this. The Prophet did not marry for money,” I said.
“Beta, I was only thinking of Shereen. How can we marry her off while we live in this apartment? Our neighbors are all shop keepers and electricians. If I had my way, I would move back to Bhawalpur. But I sacrifice for you.”
“I have sacrificed enough for the family,” I said.
“Be ashamed! Meher-un-Nissa is happy and thankful to you, her brother. You have a beautiful daughter and Jameela was good to you. And you shouldn’t talk bad of the dead.”
“I am not talking bad about Jameela. You talked bad of her when she was alive.” I stood up and yelled, “Shereen, are you there?”
“Why are you always so angry? I just have to open my mouth and you start yelling. She went downstairs to Fiza’s flat.”
“You have the bank checkbook?” I glanced at the door expecting Shereen to appear.
Ami pointed to the drawer in the side table next to her bed. I still paid the bills.
“Let me call Shereen. Are you leaving now?” She said getting up. I helped her up and she put her hand on my shoulder.
“Yes, otherwise I will miss this train.”
I wanted to break away but Ami would not let me go until she had finished her ritual. She continued leaning on my shoulder, reciting verses under her breath. Once done, she exhaled, blowing on my face and onto my chest to ward off evil spirits. Her breath smelled of soap and spices.
“Don’t eat the food from the train station vendors. Say your prayers, and travel in the company of the prophet. And don’t let your anger get ahead of you.”
I went down the flights of stairs. At each floor, I expected my daughter to appear and say good-bye. Mother called out to Shereen from the top of the staircase until her voice receded, but Shereen was probably listening to music on her hand-me-down iPod. I kept walking and exited Seventh Heaven without looking back.
“Cantt station,” I told the wiry rickshaw driver. He threw his burned to the butt cigarette on the litter strewn side street and pulled down the lever for the analog meter. The rickshaw lurched through gaps in the congested service lane. Pedestrians swarmed between cars while passengers simmered in their static impotence. A lanky boy in pleated trousers giggled at a flirtatious hijra. “Come on smarty, give us some rupees, we will pray so that you to find a sexy bride,” the eunuch hailed. A traffic policeman in a spotless white uniform argued with pedestrians, a raggedy street kid hawking trinkets competed with a one-armed beggar for a Madam in a Honda. The traffic billowed on the three swords roundabout. These upright columns, made of white marble, represented the founding father’s principles of Unity, Faith and Discipline. Today the columns are plastered with posters promoting political hagiography and advertisements for soaps and tuition centers. Horns blared, tires screeched, curses were exchanged but the rickshaw driver cut across side streets, under flyovers and over train tracks.
“Are you taking the scenic route?” I said.
“It’s Friday evening. Everyone is going somewhere. Where are you going?” he said, guiding the tri-wheel contraption over a roundabout.
“Brave of you to go there. I give rides to refugees coming from Waziristan. It’s bad times, every day we hear of war. We are lucky in Karachi, even with all the bloodletting and targeted killings,” he said and continued on about his financial problems and difficult life. I drifted off. In Karachi nobody has time for other people’s misery.
At the station I found that my train had been delayed. It was a balmy night and squadrons of flustered robins flew from tree to tree. Seedy hotels lined the service lane, and the footpaths were scattered with vendors selling provocative magazines, masculinity enhancement drugs, and personal services – shaves, haircuts and massages. I smoked a cigarette under the pipal trees planted before partition. Back when Karachi was, as legend goes, crowned Asia’s cleanest city. Today they are marked with spits of green niswar, splats of red betel juice and splashes of urine from pie-dogs and coolies. The cantonment station built by the British Raj still glowered with disdain at the shifty eyed hustlers and touts. A bustling restaurant, with a large sign in Urdu warning customers not to linger, played the alluring nasal whispers of Musarat Nazeer, chalien tu kat hi jai ga safar ahista… ahista. If we start, the journey will end eventually, slowly… slowly.
I bought a copy of Baluchistan and the Great Game in Urdu and boarded bogey number 11 of the Khushal Khan Khattak Express. There was no light inside but I made out a few dark faces in my compartment. The train inched through the slums silhouetted by the halo of paraffin lamps. Half constructed multi story units were sheltered under the billboards that marketed a lifestyle that only a few could afford. The billboards, like the people defecating, faced away from the rail tracks. I poured some contraband gin that I had previously transferred into a Nestle water bottle into another plastic bottle half-filled with water. Using my duffle bad, I made a makeshift pillow, and stretched out on the wooden berth. A Pakistan Railway receipt was stuck in the slot reserving the berth in my name, Syed Qais Ali Qureshi. My father preferred M. A. Qureshi. That is how he was identified as a member of the Field Hockey team from the 1960 Olympic games. I had asked him once why he did not insist on the honorific “Syed” title to be included in the Olympic plaque.
“If I had added Syed it would have squeezed my name. This gold medal is my accomplishment not of my caste or family. You have to earn your own medal in this world Cash.”