Have you ever lost an evening?

Updated Jul 16, 2012 09:39am

“Have you ever lost an evening?” he asked.

“Just an evening? I have lost months and years,” I replied. “Where I come from, people lose an entire life, without feeling the loss.”

“No politics,” he said. “I am talking about an entire evening burned out on the horizon and you cannot do a thing to retrieve it.”

Ben was his name and he was my first American friend. I met him in a park near the Farragut West metro station in Washington, DC.  He was among a dozen homeless who lived in the park. I mean they ate, slept and drank there. Drinking, perhaps, was more important than eating and sleeping.

Some of them were homeless because they preferred drinking to any other activity. But none of them ever admitted they were alcoholics, at least not to me. Not even Ben, although there was a time when I met him almost daily.

It was when I worked in a building near the White House and often went to the park with my lunch. He would come and sit on a nearby bench. Never asked for anything but would eat if I offered food.

Ben told me he was a Vietnam veteran. I never doubted his claim. For us South Asians, any six-foot tall man has to be a fauji and Ben was six and a half. He was strong and had an authoritative gait that people in our part of the world associate with the military.

Ben never asked me to buy him a drink, although others often did. Not even when I did buy him a drink. This was when he asked me if I had ever lost an evening.

“We see the evening being gobbled up by darkness, bit by bit. And soon it is night and the evening is gone,” he said. “We do not realise how big a loss it is. But it pains me to see it being lost like this.”

I told Ben he was not the only one who felt that way. There are people in our part of the world too who need to have a bottle and glass near them when the evening comes. I told him a lot of poetry has been written in our languages on this relationship between alcohol and the evening.

“I thought you guys were Muslims,” Ben said. “You do not drink.”

“Muslims were are,” I said. “And the majority does not drink but poets are poets first and Muslim later.”

He laughed and still did not tell me that he needed a drink. There was a liquor store near the park. I bought a small bottle of Black Label whisky to save his evening.

I thought he would jump with joy when he sees this little luxury. He did not. He took it in stride. “Oh, Black Label. Nice. Thanks,” he said and stretched his hand.

The next time I tried to buy him a drink, Ben stopped. He said he preferred to collect quarters from the people who visited the park and buy his own bottle. “That way I feel as if I have earned it,” he said.

So I went back to my old routine. Whenever I went to the park, I brought with me some food for him as well. He accepted them with a regal gesture, like a king accepting an offering from a subject. He never asked for more. He would finish eating and wipe his hands with the paper napkins that came with the food. He would then take his box, and mine, to the nearest bin and come back and light his cigarette.

And then we would discuss politics until it was time for me to return to work. His knowledge of international politics surprised me.

He knew much more than most people do. Although he loved America, his world view was not coloured by 9/11 either.

Ben had this uncommon ability to go beyond his, or his nation’s, immediate concerns and could analyse the long-term effects of a developing situation. “War against terror, so far, so good. But what after America leaves Afghanistan?” he would often ask and then tell me what he thought could happen.

We became friends, at least I thought so. He disagreed. “No, we cannot be friends. Our social disparity does not allow us to be friends. We can say we like each other’s company.”

Last winter, I saw him sleeping under the shade of an office building, wrapped in a comforter and a plastic sheet. I wanted to buy him another comforter but I knew he would say no. So I had to fake a story.

I told him some South Asians wanted to give comforters to the homeless and asked him if he could help distribute those. He said he would and added: “Bring more than one.” I smiled and went away.

The next weekend I got two from home and collected a few from friends. I had eight or nine, when I arrived at the park. He was very happy to see me and the comforters.  Other homeless came and took the comforters but left one for him.

I went to a McDonald’s and bought some coffee. We had coffee together and discussed politics too. When I was ready to leave, Ben said to me, with a big grin on his face: “You had to make a lot of effort to collect these blankets, didn’t you?” I laughed and left.

This was our last meeting. I moved out of Washington to a Virginia neighbourhood. I often felt like going back to the park to look for Ben but did not. I always went to the city on a car and it’s difficult to find parking near there. Now, I think it was just an excuse. I could have visited him, if I wanted. But as Ben said, we were not friends, so I did not.

Last Saturday, I made an extra effort; found a parking spot and enough coins to feed the meter. So I went inside the park and asked one of the homeless – there are always some in there – where could I find Ben.

“Ben who?” he asked. I explained. “Oh him, he died last year,” he said and dozed off. Although, it was early afternoon, he was already drunk. “Died?” I asked. “Yes, he died,” he said and dozed off again.

I walked to the bench where I often shared my lunch with Ben and sat. I looked back at the man who told me Ben had died and thought, “Ben was never so drunk and he never started drinking so early.”

If I wanted I could have asked that man how Ben died but I did not. Perhaps because, as Ben said, we were not friends. We just knew each other.

And yet I stayed there till it was dark.

I saw the evening being lost to the night. And I felt the pain too. But as Ben once explained to me, “We often do not know our pains, until it is too late.”

“O, the reluctant night, help us overcome our fears,” I said loudly and then looked over my shoulders. No one was listening.

Ben often complained that “we, the humans have common dreams and nightmares. We have common pains and pleasures. We have all we need to know each other. Still, we never overcome our reluctance.”

I felt the numbness that Ben said we all suffered from. I wanted to overcome it but the person who could have helped me do that was no more.

“What are we scared of? And, why? Why can we not even ask for what we want? We do not know what we want,” Ben once said to me and as always I thought he was just drunk.

“And what do we offer to each other, not even a little comfort,” I said to myself, thinking of what Ben told me. “We have lost all we had, even the wine we borrowed,” he said half-jokingly, showing me an empty bottle of wine.

“All means of fulfilling our desires are exhausted. We are not among those who burn with passion. We are not among those who go to the gallows, their heads held high,” he said.

“You know, Ben I am surprised you are still free. Such talks could take you to a prison,” I said to him.

“No, America is still a free country, although we are in chains,” he said.

“We have no friend, no enemy. No hand is pointing a dagger at our hearts,” he rumbled. “No hand is stretched to pray for us. No friendly embrace. No ambush. Only a begging bowl stretched across the horizon.”

I paid no attention. I wish I had.


The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Anwar Iqbal is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (22) (Closed)


Jafri
Jul 15, 2012 08:48pm
I start shivering whenever I read your article.....I don't know why but I guess you broughtup very intricate topics which we don't have time to ponder in such a busy life....Thumps up for such a nice article
N A Khan
Jul 14, 2012 10:47am
Excellent Script, Really Inspiring, Brilliant plot for a movie... Two thumbs up Mr. Anwar...
amar sindhu
Jul 15, 2012 08:50am
A wonderful piece i ever read . Not journalistic one but a poetic, not analytical but touches your very subjectivity, your inner core of heart. “Just an evening? I have lost months and years,” I replied. “Where I come from, people lose an entire life, without feeling the loss.” Yes, the peoples who can feel the pain of lost evening only they would lost the life just to save an evening. Wonderful.
mirza naqi
Jul 15, 2012 11:46pm
simply astounding and captivating read ....... " night that gobbles the evening .." simply wonderful......
srashid
Jul 15, 2012 09:59am
beautiful narrative, yes we often fall reluctant, we can t overcome our fear, and we try to be unknown, yet desire somebody look inside us, but if one does so, we cant let it open.....
Hasanalirana
Jul 14, 2012 12:25pm
excellent mix up of Nostalgia and International politics. Reminds me of a time when i went to Washington- DC and a homeless asked for money next to McDonald's. I gave him more than he needed to buy a lunch, as he was the the first American begging money from me (Pakistani). He was surprised at my generosity and im sure he could not understood why i gave him more than his expectations.
Zeeshan
Jul 15, 2012 04:04pm
great read...
raika45
Jul 15, 2012 12:51pm
Forget of have you lost an evening.Have you ever had the experience when walking along somewhere,some one call you uncle.It then strikes you that you are no longer the young man you believed you were.Look into a full length mirror [which most of do not do in daily life] and you see an oldish looking man looking at you.You then wonder where have the years gone to.Your mind is still [you assume]the same as when you were young.And you reflect and wonder as to where the years went to.
aaa
Jul 14, 2012 04:46pm
1)We are not among those who burn with passion. We are not among those who go to the gallows, their heads held high. I often wonder is there anyone nowadays in any country who is allowed to hold his head high. The moment we see someone having the ability to hold his head high it is labelled as ''arrogance'' or ''person of another century who believes in honour.'' 2)Having no friend and no enemies is the dilemma of anyone who is neutral.
M F Hanif
Jul 14, 2012 05:20pm
hah,,, m speechless after studying this,, now just want to feel this situation.
Naseema Perveen
Jul 14, 2012 07:22pm
beautifully written, the follow of the thoughts is perfect, I felt as if I visited a park in Washington DC and met poor but innocent Ben.. the other and the most important thing is, it depicts a real picture of the what happens there in developed countries as well about which we are blind, at least I was unaware of the fact depicted in this article...thanks for high lighting such a core reality.
gp65
Jul 15, 2012 12:06am
Overall nice blog and enjoyed it. Did notice the recent Pakistani trend of describing themselves as South Asians. "For us South Asians, any six-foot tall man has to be a fauji " What you state is true for Pakistan. Not for India, Sri Lanka , Nepal or Bangladsh.
Syed Qaseem Ali
Jul 15, 2012 01:07am
Your pieces are beautifully crafted. They don't really seem to be about the message they often deliver without you really knowing it until you've read the whole piece and start pondering. Really enjoy reading your work sir.
Jaweed Niaz
Jul 15, 2012 03:07pm
Beautiful piece. " ... go to the gallows, their heads held high" and the lost evening reminded me of what Faiz said. " Jo kooey yaar se nikley to sooey daar chale." And Ashkabad ki Shaam.
Shahid Akhtar
Jul 15, 2012 06:11am
An interesting narrative which gives an insight of the common Americans. It just reminds me of Krishan Chander's "Footh Path ke Farishte."
Sue Thompson
Jul 16, 2012 06:08am
You have captured the heart of the reader with this poignant tale of two friends. Overcoming our "idea" of love & passion is most difficult. Some of us have a raw perspective that allows no distractions from the truth, even about ourselves. The common threads that unite us all are fragile & multi colored but easily broken without a suggestion of control. Ca WE Bas have none, we are all just humble human beings searching for that connection. Something to ties us to this earth & to each other. The lines drawn of race, geography & economics are not real but we as cosmopolitan human beings seem to look for these fake boundaries in our relationships to each other instead of feeling as we did as children with open minds & hearts. Where is the pleasure in enjoying all that the world has to offer if we can not truly know & love its people. Anwar, my dear poet, as a poet, artist, child who has always been in love with the world I feel your pain at the loss of a friend & understand how you mourn that you could not reach him or yourself in his lifetime. We can not recapture the evening but we can make the most of it. We are challenged to do this each day. As an old woman of 60 & an existentialist, I know I will not live another 60 years furthermore, I am acutely aware that I do not want to lose any more friends or evenings. With my remaining days I intend to go beyond my imagination & beyond the boundaries or imaginary lines that seperates us & I will continue to love the world as I did when I was a child. I will continue to feed the homeless whenever I can & give comfort to whomever I can & validate the lives of all I can with this half second of a life I will not lose. We will all fade into the sunsets of this boundaryless world. Do you think the world will feel the loss? Excellent job at engaging the reader. I felt the loss & the tears.
Andy McC
Jul 16, 2012 06:16am
Hamare yahaan fikir jo hote hain aise hi hote hain. And this broken part of America is the better part of America.
Orna Wiseman
Jul 16, 2012 06:17am
Thank you for an incredible piece of writing!
zulfiqar halepoto
Jul 16, 2012 03:46pm
what a great expression. a great cocktail of politics and art- an omelette of sentiments and rationale- hangover is a must for a reader like me who is a citizen of third world and facing crisis of cultural and ethnic identity crisis-where my progressive ans secular state is high-jacked by extremists and religious fundoos supported by security establishment
Nadeem Hotiana
Jul 16, 2012 07:39pm
Really touching and impressive
Saadia
Jul 17, 2012 07:28am
Very beautiful and heart-capturing story.
Mohammad Ali
Aug 05, 2012 11:49am
Impressive, Still thinking.why he claimed to have disparity in friendship.