A writing aficionado with diverse interests and a lot to say, Hisham Sajid is currently a student at IBA Karachi. Coder by day and writer by night, he prefers to eat his Lasagne with Tarkai wala Naan. His interests include reading, writing, chai, music, food, and tech. Preferring pseudo-intellectual pursuits over Samosas for dinner he blogs at hishamsajid113.wordpress.com.
“Human kind with all its trivialities tires me. There was a time when I was eager to engage in conversations with no intention of ever ending them. I fed on human interaction; it was my own private brand of cocaine you could say.” As pretentious as it sounded, there was a distant neuron in Zahid’s brain that agreed with most of what his mouth had just blurted out. Whether he ranted out of anguish, or out of indifference, even he wasn’t sure. Still, he continued.
“This, however, was a long time ago. I’ve realized that after a finite number of conversations with a finite number of beings, you will notice a few recurring themes which even at their very best are trivial and mundane. Makes you wonder whether having a conversation these days is even worth the hassle.”
Zahid finished and directed his gaze towards the old man sitting right in front of him. A scooter whizzed by, the shrill jagged sound of its rusted engine piercing the serene atmosphere of the roadside establishment.
“So why bother talking to me?” said the old man, whom Zahid had come to know as Dilbagh Uncle. This latest conversation was the most recent of the many discussions between Zahid and Dilbagh Uncle since they met three years ago.
“Well, you’re different,” Zahid replied, a little less sure now.
“Now doesn’t that blemish this spectacular theory of recursion of yours?” said Dilbagh Uncle.
“I can probably put you in some category too, Uncle…” Zahid retorted.
“Categories, you say? God has made every single being unique in our own ways, we cannot be categorized”.
“Don’t drag God into this…” Zahid stopped, lowered his gaze, appalled that his mouth was now bordering on blasphemy. With his eyes still averted, Zahid tried to rephrase his argument. “Everyone can be put into one category or another, no matter how much of a unique snowflake they claim to me. Everyone can be classified.”
“Really? Enlighten me,” invited Dilbagh Uncle.
Dilbagh Uncle’s phone started vibrating just then and even though he tried to hide it under his hand, Zahid’s swift eyes read the name flashing on the screen. “Some other time. Aunty will kill me if I don’t get you home.”
With their conversation left hanging there inconclusively, the two got into Zahid’s car. Frustrated and a little edgy, Dilbagh Uncle banged the door shut, but Zahid did not react to his provocation, and started driving.
All of humankind has three facades, quite like how an onion has three layers. As the outermost peel of the onion conceals its inherent foul smell, Zahid’s outermost persona attempted to make an impression: gracefully bowing and shaking hands with a stranger and greeting him in the most pleasant way possible. This outer layer, a little rusty at times, helped him through most tight situations. Then came the inner layer, revealing what the person may be. For Zahid, this was his random, impulsive self, the layer visible most of the time. Digging a little deeper, one found something different altogether: the innermost core, his center of gravity, hidden from the world. To really understand Zahid – or anyone – one needed to claw away the outer layer to reveal the pulsing core.
Zahid’s relationship with God was a queer one: he sinned like every modern day sinner, but then he would make trips to the local masjid to replenish his vial of faith. And in such rare moments, he might even confess that he was drawn – addicted, he might say – to the feeling of serenity he found there. Often, during these occasional visits, Zahid would sit for hours, simply resting his head on the marble pillar and breathing in the incense-filled fragrance of the masjid.
On a lazy Sunday as he was resting at his usual spot against the pillar at the rear end of the Masjid, half asleep, when an old man poked his shoulder with a wooden cane, “You there, don’t you have anything better to do?” Bewildered by the apparition in white standing before him, Zahid found himself at a loss for words. “We…well, I was just going for tea,” was all he could mumble in his state of semi-slumber. But the old man, reading his thoughts, replied briskly “Well, let’s go, uppity-up, you!” prodding him insistently with his cane. And thus began the first of many conversations Zahid and Dilbagh Uncle would have.
Dilbagh Uncle looked like something taken straight out of a British war movie from the sixties. He had japed his way through his twenty-six years in service, his sarcasm earning him notoriety amongst his less daring comrades-in-arms. Yet in his twenty-six years as an infantryman, Dilbagh Uncle had never taken a life. The closest he ever got to firing at the enemy was unloading lead on concrete structures along the banks of the Neelum River, allegedly belonging to the enemy; that, and firing rounds into the whiteness on the high grounds of Siachen, where he could never differentiate between foe and snow.
After twenty-six years of service, of salutes and paper signing and not much action, Colonel Dilbagh retired and settled into civilian life in the suburbs of Karachi. Colonel (R) Dilbagh fathered two children, both boys, men of great talent. And like all men of ability worth their salt, soon after their graduation, they too left for greener pastures. Dilbagh Uncle continued his sedentary life in Pakistan with his wife while the boys made a killing in foreign fields.
When Zahid came to the masjid the next day, he found the Colonel waiting impatiently by his car. “So, where were we?” asked Dilbagh Uncle.
Zahid and Dilbagh Uncle’s conversations and arguments were wide-ranging and eclectic. In their three-year chai-chats, the pair had been careful to never broach controversial or more philosophically challenging topics. While the Colonel feared what radical or liberal views his younger counterpart might harbour, Zahid was too afraid to challenge the draconian beliefs he was sure Dilbagh Uncle possessed.
But on this day when the pair sat down at the same table, on the same chairs and ordered chai in the same dhaba as was customary, something was different. After so many border skirmishes, both Zahid and Dilbagh Uncle finally decided to leap into unknown territory and discuss something which was previously intentionally left untouched. They were like soldiers marching blind in an unknown land, from opposite directions in zero visibility conditions; a head-on collision was inevitable.
“I was about to give a lengthy, pseudo-intellectual speech on how all humans are the same and can be categorized,” Zahid said lightly, “Four categories to exact.”
“All hail the new Karl Marx,” Dilbagh Uncle replied with his customary sarcasm.
“Well, there’s the Freshman type, ever so gullible, ready to take on whatever hurdles the cruel, unjust world might hurl at them. They know no fear and thus shall venture into unknown territory, leave no stone unturned in trying to achieve what they set out to do, but… what they fail to comprehend is that … practically, they know nothing. What they fail to contemplate is the idea of failure itself and that nothing is as simple as it seems. The Freshman is as foolish as he is brave, wielding this double-edged sword that is an amalgamate of passion and exuberance. But they might as well trip and kill themselves and their dreams with the same vigor, putting an abrupt end to their childish desires in a rather glorious manner.”
“How enlightening, do go on, I’m all ears…” the Colonel interrupted.
“Don’t break my tempo,” snapped Zahid.
“Fine, fine, go on, you have my permission.”
“Next is the Sophomore: self-congratulatory and never shy in letting their peers know what they think of themselves, these are the people who will use the power they wield to make life a living nightmare for the poor souls who have the misfortune of working under them. But this show of strength is an illusion. It’s nothing more than a veil intended to shroud their inner most fears, their insecurities and their own shortcomings.
“The Sophomore is actually scared: scared that the meaningless iota of power he possesses today will be taken away tomorrow at the whim of someone above him. Arrogant as this breed of human is, they forget they come from dirt and shall one day become a part of it again.” Zahid was short of breath when he finished.
“Oh boy, oh boy, you love everybody don’t you?” said Dilbagh Uncle. “Are you done?”
“Wait… don’t you want to hear about the good people?” asked Zahid.
“Sure, go on.”
“These creatures I call Juniors, who, having spent a sufficient amount of time on this planet, have learned more than just a little. They have been battered by the storms of the world’s injustices and they have fallen countless times, only to rise up again. They have been tried and tested by the inhumane amongst humans. Broken but never bent, these individuals do whatever they can to help guide their fellow humans in need, offer them counsel in times of worry, and offer help in times of hardship. These lovers of humankind are veritable re-incarnations of saints. They know what it’s like to get hurt and they’ll do just about anything to make sure that others don’t go through the same ordeals they did.”
“Is that all?”
“Not quite, there is one type left,” answered Zahid.
“Okay, let’s hear it then, let’s get this over with.”
Zahid stared into his teacup – it was almost empty. He could see the granules of tea bathing in the shallow pond of doodh-patti. He swirled his cup and marveled at how similar life was to a cup of tea; once you drink all the sweet liquid, all that remains is the bitter, dark reality!
While staring at his cup, he failed to see Dilbagh Uncle growing fidgety, increasingly agitated, playing with his fingers, continuously adjusting his hair, crackling his neck every now and then, impatiently drumming on the table.
Instead, Zahid said, “My cup is almost empty now… and once you’ve gone through enough of life, you too realize that behind all those hopes and ideals, behind all those glittery tales of heroism and valor, behind all that talk of breaking barriers and defying stereotypes, there is nothing but bitter, dark reality.” He emptied the contents of his cup on to the table and gazed the mound of tea granule-detritus he’d just created.
“The people who have come to this realization are Seniors. Dervishes of our time, they have explored more than enough of life to know that everything is temporary, and nothing is ever really worth it. They loved humans and they stand for a little too much, now after being exposed to all the rot for too long they now confine themselves to their selfish selves. For a while they were rebels, defiers of status quos and the harbingers of change, but in time they have come to realize that the world and all the scum that live on it are not worth sweating for. They know that they too, like all men, must die, so they make the most of the time they have left.”
Zahid looked up and was surprised to see Dilbagh Uncle a bit startled and a bit red.
“How old are you?” asked the Colonel, looking calmly, directly, into Zahid’s hazel brown eyes.
Half expecting to be strangled, Zahid was not expecting such a query. “Twenty-one”.
“I am sixty-one, boy, and yet I could never claim such superior knowledge… and you know why? Because the world is infinite, the people in it are infinite. Although scientists would have you confine your interpretation of the world’s vastness by mere finite numbers, that’s all lies, boy!” Dilbagh Uncle curled his lips as he emphasized the word ‘boy’.
“Don’t let these men in lab coats dictate your imagination. I have travelled across three continents and seven countries and changed thirteen schools; I have lived a diverse life… Yet, I could not claim that the world ceases to amaze me. Every now and then, even at my old age, I come across such wonders that make me stop and stare. You say man can be categorized, sorted into boxes and labeled… You shall never learn the value of a human life until you take one.”
“I thought you hadn’t either?” Zahid inquired in a gentle tone, trying not to anger him further, only realizing now how he’d misstepped.
“That is what I tell people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is true,” Dilbagh Uncle said softly as he handed their empty cups to the waiter. “Your generation with all its Call of Duties and Advanced Warfares has lost the value of human life.”
When he spoke next, Dilbagh Uncle’s voice seemed to be coming from far, far away.
“It was a cold January night and the moon was veiled by thick clouds, making the night as dark as it could get. The tension at the border had ceased and the majority of men had withdrawn, leaving only a few to stand guard. They were quiet days so naturally everyone was asleep, except for me. Having spent the majority of my life in warmer parts of the country, I stayed up to enjoy the cold, my back propped against a Chinar tree, relishing the soothing Kashmiri air.
“It was almost dawn when I saw a man stealthily making his way into the radio room; from the way he crept about, it was clear that he was no friend. I yanked out my knife – my gun was in my room – and I crept up slowly behind him, intending to take him prisoner. But I wasn’t quiet enough for him… before I could place my knife against his throat, he turned back and forced the knife out of my hand and, in the ensuing scuffle, kicked it aside. Why he didn’t pick it up for himself, I will never know.
“Our struggle continued for a minute or so until he broke his hand free and punched me in the face as hard as a human humanly could. I fell back instantly and my vision started to blur, I could taste the iron from the blood in my mouth…” Dilbagh Uncle cracked his knuckles, as if the action granted him relief from the tension the memory brought on.
His voice was low and shaking as he continued. “The taste of blood in my mouth told me I was mortal, it revived me. I got up and threw myself at him. Before I knew it, I was on top of him, my hands on his neck, his eyes swollen, his mouth bleeding. I began pushing down on his neck with all my force, I could feel his Adam’s apple squirm under my weight, I could feel his warm blood oozing out of his mouth onto my hands, I could feel him dying… the human inside me wanted to stop, but the animal inside wanted me to be done with it. The latter won. It was almost daybreak, the clouds had thinned and the sky was turning a melancholy shade of grey with streaks of red, as if setting the scene for what was to come…
“I pushed down harder until I felt his windpipe collapse. He lay there, his mouth was wide open, but no air came out from it, his eyes stared directly at me, but no matter how hard I looked, I could not find a soul inside them. He was dead.”
The Colonel finished and, looking up, locked eyes with those of the young man who sat across from him. For the first time in his life, the boy was speechless. Was there fear in those hazel eyes? Colonel Dilbagh couldn’t be sure.
Not breaking eye contact with Zahid who sat very still, he asked, “So Zahid, which category did he fall in? Was he the overconfident freshman, thinking he’d outwit us and be done with his task? Was he the Sophomore, blinded by what little power he wielded? Perhaps he was the Junior, willing to sacrifice himself for Bharatmata? Or maybe he was the Senior who just didn’t give a damn about dying?
“We all want to keep everything in perfectly square boxes with neat labels on them to tell us what is what and who is whom, don’t we? However, as you will find out, reality is quite the opposite. You assign certain meanings to each label on each box, but isn’t the meaning itself based on your very limited experience? You know nothing of humanity, boy!”
Dilbagh Uncle waited patiently for Zahid’s response. But he didn’t get one. Zahid opened his mouth but found he could not – he didn’t know what to say. “Never mind,” said Dilbagh Uncle. “Death and killing must seem very trivial to you. Just get me home.”
Neither of them uttered a single word during the entire ride.