The Comfort Weaver
I would like to begin with the facts: my good name is Sohail Rana, and I belong to an endangered species, the artist. We fare poorly in these parts. My circumstances—the debt, the cramped and crumbling flat, the debacle with Sir Umair Abdullah Shah—all stem from this basic disadvantage.
I am one of millions leading an ugly life in an ugly city. I try to create some beauty amid the muck: by trade I am called a “Furniture Upholsterer.” A criminal oversimplification! Is the blue peacock merely a bird? I prefer the term “Weaver of Comfort” and introduce myself to clients as such. While the rest of Karachi spills onto the streets, my patrons seal themselves inside drawing rooms. Seated on my upholstered sofas, they share their triumphs and heartaches and humdrum complaints: Nadia finally had a baby girl, Jamshed Uncle has cancer, when will my servant learn to set the table properly? In these rooms, judgments are pronounced and verdicts delivered. Politicos are lampooned over tea. Marriage proposals are accepted or denied. You see, I give shape to their lives.
I’ve revived many derelicts over the years: plush sofas, velvet divans, soft footstools, dining chairs, antique beds. L-shaped sectionals are increasingly popular among young couples. I often end up choosing the fabrics and have a deal with a few of the cloth merchants who grant small concessions if I bring in customers. It hurts me deeply when I am asked to work with uninspired prints.
I could create quite a business for myself if I only had the temperament. But somehow I just can’t seem to get a grip on life or on money. If I promise a customer that I’ll arrive on Monday, I’m unable to appear before Thursday. Every job requires time and care, and it isn’t easy dashing from house to house like a mad dog, through the thick crowds, my rusted toolkit slapping against my thigh. Sometimes they say I’m late because I’m lazy. They say, on occasion, I can be sharp tongued.
Naturally, I pay for these mistakes. I have received threats, insults, and once a slap that stung sharper than a wasp. I take it like the professional I am. I fix my gaze down towards my cracking rubber chappals and count the hairs on my toes as curses froth over me. I know I’ll still keep getting their business. I’m the best in town.
On a sticky August afternoon, I sat on the floor of Kamal Sahib’s spacious drawing room, measuring a piece of golden damask. Sir Umair Abdullah Shah arrived some ten minutes later, stuffed his head through the half-open door and asked, “Where is the Sahib? Tell him Umair Abdullah Sahib is here.”
“I don’t work here, sir. The cook let me in,” I replied, without peering up from my measuring tape.
“Get someone to announce me.”
I rose, but Kamal Sahib had already appeared from upstairs, looking affable and pink-faced, choking the room with his syrupy perfume. “Umair! I hope you have not been waiting too long?” His black sandals squeaked a little as he shifted gently from heel to heel.
“Are you getting something made?” Sir Umair’s hand waved towards me.
“Remember those dining chairs we brought back from Austria? He’s fixing them up.”
“I’m actually in the process of redoing our sitting room, the one downstairs.” Then turning to me: “Son, what is your good name?”
This time I stood up to attention, stiff as one of our boys in khaki.
“Sohail Rana, sir. Weaver of Comfort.”
“He’s just my furniture man.”
“Sir, I am an expert with upholstery, embroidery, even polishing and wood sanding if necessary. I can restore your chairs, sofas, divans, ottomans. I will make your sitting room look like a sultan’s palace.” I bowed gently.
“How nice,” the guest conceded.
Kamal Sahib rubbed his hands vigorously together. The pair retreated down the hallway, the host’s shoes cheeping like a songbird. They turned a corner towards the dining room. I had inhaled that heady biryani scent when I’d walked in through the kitchen that morning. For a moment, I forgot all about the golden fabric. I was bloody sick of eating daal.
After lunch, Sir Umair extended an offer: would I like to work exclusively in his house for the next several months, upholstering antique frames at least a century old? “Older than this fucked country!” he bellowed, hanging an arm loosely around my shoulder. He informed me that I would have to take more care with this job than God did with creation. I pictured the littered city streets, open gutters, fish-rank air, discarded plastic bags choking seagulls and puppies across town. Taking more care could have meant doing it blindfolded.
“I humbly accept your request, sir.”
With the exception of Ram the bootlegger, I gave up on people a long time ago. My occupation, being largely solitary, suits this inclination well. Ram’s marriage to Anjuli wasn’t easy on me at first, and I duly stepped back to give the new couple some room. But soon enough Ram resumed his daily visits.
I share a room in Gulshan with two buffoons. They scratch their stringy beards as they watch one filmi flick after another. Both work as nighttime security guards, so I enjoy the late evenings to myself. The pair pass the dark hours slouching on plastic chairs in front of tinted windows, Kalashnikovs held limply in paan-stained fingers, eyes closed, stinking of tobacco.
I related Sir Umair’s proposal to Ram, who sat on my charpoy pouring moonshine into two handle-less teacups. I sat on the Throne, a wondrously ugly little chair I had patched together using bits of leftover velvet and padding from various jobs. My right hand ached after a day’s work at Kamal Sahib’s. “He’s offered almost thrice the going rate, and a nice lump sum up front,” I explained, kneading my left thumb into my throbbing palm.
“What amazing luck, brother!” Ram bellowed. “What a deal! What a bargain! What an occasion!”
“Careful, you’ll spill!”
Ram, who sold illegal liquor next to a butcher shop in Tauheed Commercial, was an excitable sort. He delighted most in the prospect of flight. He flew out of his ammi’s uterus drenched in firewater. Where he plotted to venture changed with the seasons: to New York or Toronto in the summertime, shuttling taxis for seventeen hours a day; when the weather began to turn, to London to sell fresh coriander and other greens in immigrant neighborhoods; Dubai during the August monsoons where the lure of constructions sites beckoned; and when winter appeared, well, then the temperate Karachi air would do just fine.
Ram handed me a cup. The liquid was warm and ashy. A gunshot rang out in the distance. The air was a mixture of last night’s refuse and jasmine from a nearby Champa tree.
“Sohail,” he said, after we recovered from the first sip. “I might be leaving Karachi.”
“New York?” I smiled.
“No. The family is thinking of running to Hindustan.”
“Hindustan? That’s new.”
“Anjuli won’t stop talking about going to Rajasthan on a forty-day pilgrimage visa and then just overstaying. A cousin of hers did it.” He seized a clump of his hair and yanked it. “We haven’t heard from the cousin.”
“Damned if I know.” Ram now looked haggard, the heft of his words pulling him down towards the reality of flight. “She’s been very emotional you know, since you Muslas burned down the temple.”
“Don’t go to India,” I pleaded. “You’ll live like a cockroach.”
“Be brave, Sohail.”
“You can’t leave me behind. You can be a cockroach here too. Just one that prays at home instead of at temple.”
“You’re a real dog,” he laughed.
“I pray at home too. It’s not safe out there anymore.”
His leaned forward and flicked my forehead. It was true: I was missing the spot. The maroon-black smudge that indicated repeated meetings of brow and prayer mat year after year. My father had had that mark though he hadn’t had the faith.
Ram transferred more whiskey into the teacups. I didn’t touch the stuff before I met him. He said that if I was a weaver of comfort, then he was a decanter of hope.
We fell into the dark. The electricity had failed again.
“Drink up, brother,” came his voice from the gloom. I obeyed.
“Damn it, Ram. What is this shit you’re selling?”
For this one, I was on time. Sir Umair’s house made Kamal Sahib’s residence look like a hovel. Lining the serpentine driveway on either side were bonsai trees, miniature replicas of what should have been towering beasts. It hurt me to see them forced down to shin level, drooping beneath the weights tied to their shrunken branches. The house was an oversized beige structure, layers piled atop each other like the big Western wedding cakes from the movies. Emblazoned on a first-floor balcony were the Arabic words “Mash’Allah,” a new Karachi trend favored among the sinfully rich.
A mali watered the grass, looking dreamily into the sky. Vines clung loyally to the high walls. A triptych of palm trees stood to one side. Beneath them, two peacocks pecked the dry earth.
“Is Umair Sahib in?” I asked the gardener. He nodded unhurriedly, the green hose pipe coiling around his bare feet. I went straight to the front door and knocked, rather than searching for a side entrance more befitting my station. Astonishingly, the man of the mansion answered himself.
“Sohail, I’ve been waiting for you.”
As we walked down a wide hall our feet echoed on the black and white marble floor. No inch of wall had been spared. Paintings of all sizes hung in no particular order. In some, pheasants ambled in grassy marshes. In others, plump naked ladies the color of cottage cheese looked coyly past their gilded frames at the busy subcontinental bazaars hanging above or below them.
We entered a furniture graveyard. Stacks of moth-eaten dining chairs piled up in corners, severed wooden limbs lay strewn across the floor, sofas squatted indecently before me, their insides gaping or pouring out, pleading for new stuffing and covering. Most of the corpses were shrouded in cloth, and over everything, thick dust. Light streamed in from a pair of French windows, and here too particles capered in the sunbeams.
“There,” he pointed to a small carpeted patch, an oasis amid the chaos. “That’s where you sit. My wife will be with you in a few minutes to go over cloth and other matters.”
From the start I said I would provide the facts: they fed me. They were generous. I hadn’t seen that much meat since Eid. Not a minute after two o’clock, Tahir the cook would whisk me to the kitchen to consume the leftovers of whatever the Shahs had ordered for lunch that day. Together we ate more than the family. Ram the vegetarian would complain that my breath smelled like kebabs, forcing me to wash out my mouth with his brews.
I looked up from a half-formed ottoman on a humid afternoon to see a disfigured imp peering through the glass of my workroom. Standing in the garden, she pressed her face against the window, cracked lips spreading ridiculously against it. A scar, crimson and gnarled as tree bark, traveled her face from above the right eye, which was not fully open, to the edge of her small nose, before winding back in an S shape to the lower part of her cheek and chin. The sort of thing you tried not to stare at too openly on the street. She was thin, the color of mangrove branches, and gripped in one hand a handkerchief. Even from inside the furniture graveyard I noticed it was badly stained, as if she’d dipped it in tea. She seemed like a spindly broken chair in need of fixing.
I ignored the wilted thing and continued stitching buttons onto the tufted indents of the ottoman. Only her eyes moved ceaselessly, one wide open and the other heavily hooded, following the movement of the long curved needle, first away from my body, through the heavy brown material, then back towards me. All afternoon she remained that way, a statue but for moving pupils.
“Don’t mind her,” Tahir later advised between slurps of tea under the shade by his quarter. “She’s harmless. Used to watch me making chapatis, but I ignored her and she got tired of it. She fixates on things.”
“What happened to her face?” I bit into a digestive biscuit. My belly had flourished since my arrival. It took all I had to convince Ram I wasn’t drinking beer on the sly from some enterprise other than his own.
“A fire broke out when the family was living in Lahore. Kitchen accident I think, three, maybe four years ago. The old bearer insists it was no accident, otherwise why would nobody else have been hurt? The whole family had been home. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that the begum sahib did it, sick as she was of having to raise a deficient girl.” He flicked a fat black ant off his elbow, watched it soar into the air, then hit the ground near his outstretched feet. “But that’s nonsense. Only poor people kill their children.”
No one, including eagled-eyed Tahir, knew whether the child was actually defective. She had been kept back a year or two in school, but so had I and everyone I knew. What was known for certain was that she couldn’t speak. When, at six months she hadn’t uttered a squeak, the Shahs carted her off to every child specialist in Lahore, Karachi, Dubai, even London, who all gave ambiguous opinions and interpretations. All Tahir knew was that there was some sort of disconnect between her brain and her vocal chords. It made her prone to drooling. The sullied hanky.
I was reminded of my father, my connection to Kamal Sahib, who throughout his life had undertaken odd jobs for that amiable shoe-squeaker. In the final year of Abba’s illness, words escaped him too. His silence was a matter of choice, a turning away from a world which he felt had done him no good, then tried to kill him too soon, without his permission. Before shutting up forever, he confided, “Damn it Sohail, that the world will go on and people will keep living their lives without me—it’s just so rude.”
Afterwards, nobody could interpret his movements and gestures. Ammi grew irate and exhausted. But with time, I learned to decode his slightest agitations. A subtle upward jerk of the chin meant he was thirsty. A slow, sorry blink of the eyes said, “Come, son. Come sit by my bedside.” Nightly I translated to my mother what he wanted for dinner, though only rarely did we deviate from the standard daal and roti. As the youngest child, I became his sole companion and keeper. If only you could see me now Abbu, working in this big, big house.
“Do the Shahs have other children?” I asked Tahir, breaking my fifth and last biscuit in half, handing him a piece which he waved away.
“One enormous son, at boarding school abroad.” Tahir opened his arms wide to indicate the vastness of the boy. “On each visit back from school he gets fatter and fatter and fatter. One day he’s going to pop.” He slapped his thigh. “I can’t wait.”
I resumed my station in the crypt, wrapping myself in that familiarity of cloth and wood and the smell of glue. The mute little girl was still outside. I threaded a fresh needle.
It continued for days. Like a cat watching a piece of string, she gaped through the window, observing the crafting of comfort. I faced the wall. Days sprouted and died, but we remained unchanged in our positions. My intrigue gave way to annoyance, which became flattery, then wonderment at her persistence. She never took her eye and a half off me, and for the first time I felt not only like an artist but like a performer too. Once or twice I waved but received no response. I made silly faces, but she didn’t smile. “Don’t encourage her,” warned Ram. “The boss won’t like his daughter taking a shine to the furniture repairman.”
I sat amidst lakes of green silk when she appeared in the doorway. I don’t know how long she had been standing there, or what made me glance up, but when I saw her I sliced into the flesh of my thumb with a scissor. “Shit!” I stuffed the appendage into my mouth and sucked hard, but the cut was deep. I felt a throbbing up to my wrist. I didn’t notice her fleeing. After half a minute of sucking and cursing and griping, I sprinted to the kitchen to have Tahir rub aftershave on the wound. “What a pain in the ass she is,” he muttered, dabbing the disinfectant tenderly onto the cut. My eyes pooled with water.
The limp thing returned soon enough. This time, she entered. As she stepped through the doorway, I dipped my head politely in greeting, then pretended to ignore her. She held a book (it was in English, I couldn’t tell you the title). On the cover, a woman in an enormous white hat lay lazily on a riverbank. The girl sat down on the cold floor beside a bruised wingback armchair, leaned her head against it and opened the book. I cut. I measured. I glued. I stuffed. The room was still and chalky and heavy with her presence. With the creature inside, I could finally open a creaky window and breathe clean air.
She stood up and placed herself beside me. I peeped at the door. Not once had Sir Umair or anyone else, except Tahir, walked this way, but if someone appeared I’d have no way to explain this. Who would believe the feudal lord’s misshapen daughter could look my way without coaxing?
A bashful half-smile wandered across her lips. Somehow the fire had forgotten them. She pointed to my injured thumb. Seeing me stare stupidly back, she dragged the nail of one index finger across her own thumb in a repeated gesture until I understood: Is the cut okay? she seemed to say. I shrugged. Yes it’s okay. She then pointed towards my heart. I squinted in confusion. She put a finger on her own heart. Still nothing. When she started pointing to both our hearts simultaneously, I salvaged the communication by proceeding as I always do, with the facts.
“My good name is Sohail.” The first real words I had uttered in this cavernous room, and they sounded outlandish.
“Your name?” I mimed her gesture and motioned to her heart. But her eyes returned to my thumb. I shook my head, pointed again. “No, no. Name?” She remained captivated by my wound.
“You’re telling me your name is Thumb?” I whispered this time. It seemed more appropriate. She laughed soundlessly.
“Finger? Is that your good name?” I smiled as she forcefully shook her head. No, no! “Bandage? Needle?” No!
“Cut? Wound? Blood?” Close, close. The sharp nods encouraged me. “Blood . . . Red . . .” Close, very close. A toothy smile.
“Ruby!” She snapped her fingers. “I like that name.” I upturned my hands in question, touched both my eyes, signaled back to myself. Why have you been watching me?
She lowered her eyes.
“Tell me why?”
Ruby joined her palms in prayer, placed them on her cheek, the one spared by fire, and tilted it sideways.
“I make you sleepy?” No, no, no! She repeated the motion, this time rocking back and forth. Well Sohail, what does a comfort weaver do? “I make you comfortable? Happy?” A few blinks. “Can you sew?” No. “Do you want to learn?” Her shoulders shrugged.
I heard footsteps. Ruby scuttled behind a cloth-covered three-seater. I bit my lip.
“Sohail,” Tahir poked his head inside. “Is your head in the clouds? Your tea went cold.”
“It’s after six. Come to the kitchen in five minutes, I’ll make a fresh cup. The sahib wants more anyway.” He turned to go, stopped, frowned.
“You read English?”
“What?” I followed his gaze and saw Ruby’s book lying open on the floor. I lurched to my feet. A fire raged beneath my cheeks.
“The book. You can read that?”
“I’m a very educated man!”
“No need for offense, Janaab Weaver. But English, that’s really something. Maybe you can teach me sometime.”
“I’ll think about it. Now let me finish what I’m doing.” Tahir liked to linger, so I closed the door.
Ruby was so very thin and small. I noticed her fragility only after the novelty of her face had worn off. Her black hair surged down to her dark wrinkled elbows. The rich locks seemed the only vital part of her. If not for the fire, she might have been attractive to the kind of man who liked women to look delicate, on the verge of fainting, thoroughly unfit for this life. And how had I failed to notice the sooty black deeps of her eyes?
Because she only had one and a half of them, nestled beneath burnt brows.
Ram was closing up Decent Dry Cleaners, the front for his business. He pulled down the graffiti-coated shutters. They shrieked their steely protests, encasing us both inside the tube-lit room within. Tube lights could make even the Taj Mahal look like a motel in the armpit of Saddar Town. We may have grown up with them, but nearly a decade of comfort weaving within delicately lit homes has taught me better. Ram doesn’t understand this.
The shop was lined with cartons of liquor neatly categorized and labelled. We sat on two boxes facing each other, sharing a single cigarette. The ritual, copied from television, dated back a decade. Neither of us had yellow teeth because we shared. “Can’t you tell the lord of the manor the girl is bugging you?”
“You could marry her.”
“Don’t talk rubbish.”
“I am serious, yaar. Nobody from her level will touch her. This guy who buys from me, his kid was too slow to finish middle school and his abbu married him off to an ex-hooker. Now both their lives are saved. She takes care of him. They even have a child.”
“There’s nothing wrong with her.” The light flickered above us. “Are you going to Hindustan?”
Ram reached out an eloquently veined arm, sleeves rolled up to expose green lines snaking beneath his skin like calligraphy, and retrieved the smoke from me. “We’re working on it.”
“You’ve made up your mind?”
“The temple attack really did it.”
Ram: overlord of imaginary flight, balanced on the edge of promise with wings outstretched.
I didn’t believe him. I continued not to believe him until I read the words he left me, three months later: Bhai, sorry. Already gone. Couldn’t face you. Anjuli sends regards.—Ram
Ruby was learning to thread a needle. She was having trouble. “Is it your eye?” I asked, alluding for the first time to that obvious thing. She shook her head. We were seated across from each other on the floor.
She jerked her hand away when I tried to take the needle and demonstrate.
“Try this one,” I said, handing her a black thread. “It’ll be easier to see.” She moistened the end of it with her tongue to bind the fibers together. She smiled as it glided through.
“Now watch what I do next.” I retrieved a small tea cloth and tiny needle from inside my toolbox, then leaning towards her so she could see better, embroidered a small paisley with pale blue thread. She didn’t take that eye and a half off me.
Ruby was not an astute learner. Later, she made a series of unfortunate images on the spare cloth pieces I gave her for practice—cats that looked like refrigerators with tails, flowers that were little more than globs of thread without stems. If I was too busy to instruct her, she would read by the open window. Few words or gestures were exchanged during those comfortable hours. I used to thrive in the solitude of my craft. But now I understood it had never been complete isolation. Subtle activity had surrounded me: voices and bodies would pass back and forth across the open doorway, or, if working out on the verandah, I’d exchange pleasantries with the mali and driver, amid the peals of kids playing cricket in the street, shrieking “Bhago! Bhago! Run! Ruuun!” I hadn’t realized how cloistered I’d been inside Sir Umair’s palace until Ruby made her entrance.
“I made you something.” I hid the surprise behind my back.
Ruby’s nose twitched. The sewing was progressing poorly. Her goals were too lofty. She’d point towards the peacocks sashaying across her lawn and look accusingly at me if I told her it was better to start with simple shapes over elaborate animals.
“Don’t you want to know what it is?”
She said nothing, so I produced the handkerchief from behind me. I’d embroidered it with four-petal flowers in violet and in the bottom left corner stitched her name in green cursive letters, adding a leaf after the Y (I can spell out the simpler English words). I’d stolen the hanky from one of the paan-drenched louts who shared my home, soaked it in a soapy tub for hours the day before.
Ruby placed a flat palm over her heart. She took the old rag from the pocket of her jeans and enacted an elaborate drama of tearing it in two. She was unsuccessful. Ultimately, she scrunched it into a ball and tossed it away like a bad dream.
The Shahs had gone to their lands for the afternoon. Ruby was supposed to be at the neighbors’ house, but tiptoed her way home to sew beside me. In their absence, I decided to go to the market for tea. I needed an interlude from the silence of the furniture graveyard, and the sun, usually blistering, today was mild and inviting.
“I’m going out for a while,” I announced, standing up. She clapped her hands together and narrowed her dusky eyes. She looked like a weasel. “I’ll be back soon. Keep at your work.”
Ruby had already unfolded her legs and gone to the corner of the room to put on her white sandals.
“No,” I said. “No, it’s better if you stay here.” She threw me a peculiar and distressed look, as if I’d given her a kick. I ignored it and stepped out into the morning.
She followed me.
“Ruby, go inside.” Her palms met each other in supplication. “No. Inside.” She continued walking beside me as I proceeded down the drive, passing by the humiliated bonsai trees. I stopped, turned to reason with my devotee, then noticed the edge of the new handkerchief I’d given her gazing out from a small clenched fist. I sighed. I relented. We would be back soon.
The armed guard protecting the premises always slept at his post, so crossing the gate with Ruby wasn’t a problem. “You’re an idiot,” mumbled Tahir, who appeared from nowhere, attuned to all things, and locked it behind us. The finality of the iron bolt sliding across the entrance suddenly made me want to retreat, but I couldn’t falter in front of Ruby.
The bazaar was only a few minutes’ walk, but with each step Ruby’s eyes swiveled to their corners, measuring each inch forged between ourselves and her house. I had her walk on the inside of the road, gripped her shoulder as cars shrieked by. She mimed the turning of a steering wheel.
“It’s nicer on foot,” I said.
It was early for Karachi. Blinking men smoked cigarettes beside half-shuttered storefronts, while thelawallahs napped atop their carts laden with apples, pomegranates, bananas, grapefruits, coconuts. Skeletal cats stretched idly in the sun, knowing it was too soon to beg the butchers for scraps. This was the quiet before the noonday storm of bodies and cars and hollers. It didn’t yet smell like sweat.
We sat down inside the empty café. Rafeh, the tea boy, who had been polishing a glass with his eyes closed, scurried off to retrieve our order—tea for me, Coke for Ruby. He imagined himself something of an artist too, inventing drinks and concoctions which he claimed could cure any ailment from indigestion to boredom. A few torn film posters carelessly decorated the wall. Misplaced in their midst hung a small framed portrait of Jinnah.
Rafeh handed me the paper, and I scanned the day’s headlines for the usual; whether someone had been hacked to death, flung into a river, poisoned, throttled or eaten by acid. The articles all concluded with the stunning revelation: “Police suspect foul play.” A kick on the shin ordered me to put it down. “You want to read?”
“How’s the Coke?”
She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. Her eyes darted around the room like minnows among the reeds, taking it all in. She dragged her finger across the arm of her chair to show me the dust. A yellow lizard darted across the cement floor, disappeared behind a plastic table leg.
“Next time I’ll take you to the Taj Mahal, okay Princess Ruby?”
My brother. Her arms made the same expansive gesture that Tahir’s had when he first described the Shah boy to me. “Is your brother coming home soon?” Yes.
She wrinkled her nose, gathering her burnt features in thin creases. I thought her face might crack.
“You don’t like him?”
Ruby opened her mouth, stuck her finger inside and pretended to wretch.“Ruby!” I saw Rafeh tittering behind a counter, and I did too, till our laughter engulfed the little room. She beamed.
“What’s wrong with your brother?” Ruby rapped her head with her knuckles.
“I know what you mean,” I lied. “But he’s family. That’s important.”
She sighed and shook her hair, then pounded a tender fist over and over again into a flat palm.
“He’s angry? Mean?” I could easily envision the puffed up little pasha, returned from school abroad and gently cooking above the slow flame of his parents’ worship. “Does he get angry with you?” His sister avoided my look, rocked back and forth in her chair.
I felt the urge to say something wise, to impart some fatherly advice. “You must do well in school, Ruby. School is important. It is the answer.” I used the words I’d heard many times before failing my examinations. She only made a face, then touched her index finger and thumb together and mimed sewing.
“You can’t sew pictures for the rest of your life. School is good. Do you want to end up like me?”
She bounced up and down in her seat, grinning like a fool.
“Silly girl. Look.” I reached into my pocket and took out a pocket-sized sewing kit and a little patch of linen. “Let me show you a new trick.”
Two-thirds of Sir Umair’s sitting room stood complete on four legs. My days in this house were numbered.
Help? she asked, as I admired my progress with mixed feelings late one evening. She shook her head, held out her workmanship for me to see.
I examined her effort. I could discern a face, twisted and slightly grotesque, with round pink eyes and a green gash for a mouth. “Is it a clown?”
She shook her head ferociously. Hair whipped her cheeks. She pointed at me, her most common gesture these days. “This is . . . me?” Yes, yes!
“It’s good.” But she scowled, perhaps unbelieving. “What do you want me to say? If it’s no good, start again. Like I showed you. Go slowly. I keep telling you to go more slowly.”
A small tear formed in the corner of her half-burnt eye but wouldn’t drop. My effigy lay discarded on the floor. She blotted the liquid with the hanky I’d given her, now already as smeared with drool as the old one. She tore my heart a little, the way hearts tear when they see a child begging or an animal in a trap.
Ruby tugged at my elbow. This was the first time she touched me, and her fingertips were springy and cold. “I shouldn’t leave the room.”
She clasped her hands in entreaty, pressed them to her bony chest.
“Bring it down and show me.” She insisted, raising both arms above her head, and reached for the unseen rooms above.
“I can’t be seen with you.” Ruby was stuck in this gesture now, like a wind-up toy. Upstairs!
“Ruby!” I hissed, suddenly annoyed. “I’ll get into trouble. What don’t you understand?” Please?
Her arms returned to their sides.
“Go practice somewhere else. I’m very busy today. Go.”
After she left, I pickled in guilt for half an hour before following her like an idiot. By then she was lost behind one of the heavy doors of the house. She must have fled to her room. From experience working in large residences, I knew that only guest bedrooms were to be found on the ground floor and perhaps the suites of elderly family members. I walked out into the marble hallway, past the profusion of paintings, and reached, just before the kitchen, where I had fattened myself on lamb and chicken kormas, the winding staircase that led into that very private domain: the upstairs.
How can I explain my ascending the stairs? It was as if I knew I was heading straight to my doom and loved the freedom. Not far, just twenty-one steps. There, across the landing, four letters, separately cut out and colored in marker, were taped to a door: R U B Y.
I stood in a simple TV room. No antique furniture. Sleek magazines were scattered across the wall-to-wall carpeting, most of them lying near the legs of a glass coffee table. Cheery mugs sat on its surface. Why did the Shahs install graceful French windows only to cloister themselves behind them like a tribe of nuns? The television was turned on with no sound, and two lovers noiselessly ran towards each other across a resplendent mountainous vista, now terrorist territory. I’d never been up north but had always wanted to go. It was the farthest I was willing to wander outside Sindh. I shook off one sandal and sunk my foot into the soft carpeting, felt the threads nuzzling my heel and poking out between my toes. I lingered a moment, then put the shoe back on and crossed the messy threshold to Ruby’s door.
She opened it before I could knock, features as blank as the early days of pushing her face against the glass to observe the artist. It didn’t feel right, stepping into this secret, female place. I wanted to run. Ruby closed and locked the door behind me.
“I’m sorry.” I needed to get this over with fast. “It’s lonely down there. Come back. I’ll show you more tricks.” My neck prickled with heat.
Ruby’s room was as quiet as she was: spare walls, easy peach and salmon tones, everything smacking of obedience. Not one pencil lying idly on her desk, but all standing to attention inside a jam jar.
And then it spat its aching insides out at me. Ruby was wrenching open every drawer, there went the pencils, rushing to the cupboards, hurling their guts in my direction, now on the floor extracting cloth and string and pin cushions from beneath the bed, stuffed creations of indiscernible shapes coming at my head like grenades, made by a mind nobody understood. “Stop! Stop it!” All her efforts, the soft toys and cross-stitched pictures of clownish faces, lay exposed, accused me of not appreciating the depths of her commitment to this art, to me. The sheer volume of it was magnificent. Tahir was right: the girl was fixated.
When there was nothing left to expel, we looked at each other across these wasted confessions, across that great divide which separated people like her from people like me. I threw my arms around Ruby and pulled her fiercely to my chest. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry. Your art is beautiful.”
Then they came for me. How they sensed my presence, I’ll never know. Perhaps they could smell the unease. We couldn’t ignore the pounding fists on the door. We stepped apart, faced the inevitable. Umair Shah grabbed my collar with both fists and flung me to the floor. Mrs. Shah sat on the glass tabletop, face buried in her dupatta, rocking soundlessly back and forth as if possessed. Tahir must have been lurking on the stairs, hungry to spread the news to the rest of the servants. I don’t know where Ruby was. I couldn’t bear to look for her.
There was blood. There was screaming and cursing. Something was said about feeding me like a son. I scrambled to my feet, a stream of pleas slipping from my mouth. Umair plunged a claw inside my tangle of hair and pulled me down the stairs and out the door. He brayed for the guard, who came running with sleepy, squinting eyes. “Deal with him,” Umair barked, getting in a swift slap before tossing me over for the final mauling. “Don’t just stand there!” He shouted at someone behind me. Through a mist of tears and blood I turned to see Tahir leaning against a wall. Umair slowly lowered himself into a garden chair, ready for the sport to start. When it was over, leaving my tools behind, I hobbled out, never to see the house or Ruby again.
“Anjuli?” The grating Nokia ringtone woke me from a hazy half-nap. “Anjuli, is that you?” I asked groggily, wiping fever-sleep from my eyes. I had fallen ill, sick with worry over Ruby’s fate. (Would they marry her off to some ex-pimp as Ram had suggested? Would they blame her?) I hadn’t left my bed in days. I was starting to lose my belly, also my bruises. After the thrashing, I’d patched myself up like a hideous little cushion unfit for a beggar’s backside, tying old rags and spare curtain material around my neck and forearm and ribcage where my skin had broken and bled.
Was Ram’s wife calling from across the border? Could she? I’d never considered the logistics of flight, what is and isn’t permissible after severing ties. And severing ties across enemy lines.
“He’s gone mad!” She screeched into the receiver. “I can’t control him!”
“Where are you?”
“He’s screaming for you.”
“You haven’t left?”“Stop talking and come.” She hung up. This fever was eating my brain.
I stuffed a couple of hundred rupee notes into my pocket. Bounding down three stairs at a time, I flung myself onto the road and with some difficultly hailed a rickshaw. As we weaved in and out of traffic, I kept calling Anjuli but she wouldn’t answer. Eight months ago I had penned a letter to the town nazim about the state of the city’s traffic. As the hard metal seat dug into my spine, it struck me that I would have to sign my requests with something more respected than “S. Rana, Comfort Weaver” if I wished for a response. The rickshaw jerked over a row of potholes. I don’t think signing my letter God would have made a difference.
In the congestion, Karachi inched forward like a grandmother with a bad knee. The smells of roadside food tickled my empty insides; men in grease-stained shalwars on street corners fried samosas and puris in huge steel vats of boiling oil. I waved to one of the men, a local celebrity in this peeling part of town. His singular talent: to stick his immense paws into the burning oil to retrieve the fried food, rather than using a steel ladle like the other samosawallahs. His hands didn’t sport so much as a blemish, and he laughed rapturously while street children surrounded him chanting, “Go Uncle, go!” as he plunged in barehanded and tossed the oily treasures onto yesterday’s newspapers. It was obscene, marvelous. But I couldn’t stop to eat. Just think: Sohail Rana—artist, hero—stops for a kebab on the way to salvage his friend.
I paid the rickshawwallah and, buying time, watched him recede. What would I say? I was ready to throttle Ram for lying to me, to cast him into the ocean forever, and hug him, and hug Anjuli too for not taking him away.
Ram’s father, Dr. Gupta, who owned the ground-floor flat, had recently erased his name from the door. A Shia acquaintance of mine had done the same. Ram’s nameless father now opened up. “Uncle, salaam,” I said. “How is he?”
“He’s at the back.” The retired Hindu doctor shepherded me in, hugged me hard. “Why don’t we see more of you?” I crossed the cluttered living room which had also doubled as Ram’s brothers’ bedroom before they went away. Anjuli’s kajal-rimmed eyes followed me from her perch on a wooden chair near the kitchen. Before opening the back door, I heard the sound of someone—Ram—smashing things and hollering as if in a slaughterhouse.
He froze when he heard my voice. Then resumed howling. “Brother! How nice of you to come!” The muddy path behind their house was littered with shards of glass. He held an empty Pepsi bottle.
Evening advanced. Street lamps should have lit up but none did. A black cloud of crows moved through the air, cawing their ugly noise.
“Can I have a bottle too?”
I covered my eyes with one hand, looked away, and with the other hurled the unhappy object at the ground where it splintered into pieces, glittering in the dying daylight. As frustrated teenagers, surly from being pulled out of the safe environment of bunking school in order to seek employment, we would hightail it with the Cokewallah’s empty bottles and smash them to pieces for laughs. Some years later, I went back to the old soft drink seller and apologized for stealing his livelihood. He told me to fuck right off.
Soon we ran out of supplies. We blinked at the destruction. Ram collapsed on the ground and closed his eyes. “Arey, be careful, there’s glass everywhere!” I shouted. “Come on yaar, get up.”
“It’s so nice down here.” He tried to grab hold of a clump of dirt, but it was dry and he only managed to imprison flecks of sand under his nails. “Look at this earth! Mmm! Smells so good!” He hiccuped.
“You’ll cut yourself down there. Let’s go inside. We’ll have some tea and relax with Uncle.”
“No!” He thrashed wildly like a dying fish. “Ow!Shit!” It was only a matter of time before he cut himself on the broken bottles. He was bleeding from the flappy bit of skin where thumb joins index finger, a hateful place for a gash. Ram lifted his hand and stared at the cut. A thin crimson stream trickled down his arm. “Oh . . .”
I approached him. He backed away. “Let me help?” My forehead was on fire.
“I’m fine. I’m fine.” He sucked the cut.
A hazy night descended. The moon was an Islamic crescent identical to the one on the flag. A lone streetlight flickered to life, then died.
“The letter you left—”
“The visas came today,” he announced flatly.
“So you’re throwing bottles.”
“I’m kissing the earth that raised me!” He bent down for another fistful of dirt and fell over. I didn’t move. He would only push me away. “I’m just saying goodbye to it.” He began crying, now quiet as a kitten. I wanted to join him. I looked away instead. The curtains in the house were drawn, but yellow light seeped out from the sides and fell on Ram’s sandy, sacred ground.
“Get up, brother.”
“I belong here!” Bleeding and on all fours, he pushed his butt in the air and slammed his forehead to the ground. “Allah ho Akbar! See?”
“Shut up! Shut up! Do you want a mob on our hands?”
“ALLAH HO AKBAR! RAM HO AKBAR!”
I tried to pull him up, but he was bigger than I was and shook me off like an insect. “Shut up Ram, please!”
“ALLAH HO AKBAR!” He kissed the earth and bled into it. “RAM HO AKBAR!”
Home: a place you refuse to leave. It was so simple. Dr. Gupta and I carried Ram inside and put him to bed. Anjuli tended his injury while he snored. It wasn’t serious. I asked her why he had lied, kept away from me all this time. She said they would never have left if Ram had continued to see my face every day. My friend, she claimed, my decanter of hope, wouldn’t have made it to the visa office.
I stayed and ate dinner with the little family stuck between Karachi and somewhere else. Were they really stuck? If home is a place . . . ? And though it goes without saying, let me say it because it feels so good to say it: Ram and Anjuli remained in Karachi and raised beautiful babies here.
Kamal Sahib was normally not one to raise his voice. “What makes you think I’ll ever let you into this house again? Around my children?” Since the Shahs had flung me to the curb some months ago, I hadn’t the heart to look for work. I worried at first that nobody would hire me again. I should have realized that these things are not talked about.
I needed to borrow a few thousand rupees, which I had no ability to repay. I didn’t think Kamal Sahib would have believed his friend’s story. He had known my father, known the blood I came from. I left Kamal Sahib’s empty handed. He must have wondered what my dead father did wrong. For the first time in my life, I contemplated flight. Islamabad, Dubai, England?
I walked down Kamal Sahib’s tree-lined street towards the chai dhaba where I took Ruby. The skies had threatened rain all morning, and in the dampness my clothes stuck to my body like lizards to a wall. I waded through the humidity until I reached the lane with the chai shop, but it was too late. The heavens cracked open and released their fluid over Karachi, flooding potholes, quenching the parched vegetation, making people curse and children shriek with delight. Wet clothes became transparent, and women pulled their dupattas tightly across their chests. I sat down in the shop, drenched but warm. “Where’s your little girlfriend?” Rafeh asked, setting down the teacup and newspaper. I looked up at the stringy tea boy.
“Rafeh, how do you mend a broken heart?”
“That’s an easy one, janaab. I’ll make a tonic for you.”