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SEVENTY + SEVENTY: SHORT STORY: A PAKISTANI HOMECOMING

Updated August 13, 2017
Artworks by Omar Gilani
Artworks by Omar Gilani

EDITOR’S NOTE

In the history of nations, 70 years may hold a numerically momentous significance but is actually a short span of time. Pakistan also arrives at such a juncture tomorrow, celebrating 70 years of its existence and independence from British colonial rule.

Understandably, like many other people before them, Pakistanis will use such commemorations to reflect on the past, on the journey they have travelled since August 14, 1947, on the paths taken and not taken. In the midst of numerous pieces looking back that will no doubt flood the media, we at Eos wanted to do something different: we wanted to look ahead.

Pakistanis love to divine the future through various means. But futuristic fiction has never been a mainstay of Pakistani narratives for some reason. Keeping this in mind, we asked some celebrated fiction writers to imagine what things might be like 70 years into the future. Seventy plus seventy years.

Today’s cover comprises a short story, an essay, a book excerpt and a poem, all set in the imaginary world of the future but which speak, like the best futuristic fiction, to the concerns of today.


A PAKISTANI HOMECOMING

Ammi was at the top making sure the vents were sealed when the panel between our chambers slid open and Nani beckoned me towards her. We padded through the cube. When she was taking our shoes from the cooler by the entrance I thought to ask where we were going, but one word and her finger was on my lips, her eyes darting upwards. That’s when I knew we were going to see the Homecoming and I was happy. I wanted to see this other girl my mother and grandmother were squabbling about. And I would have done anything for that husk dry, gentle finger on my lips. Ammi had long claimed I would happily follow it to hell and back. The day Malala Yousafzai came home, I think I did.

Allahabad was baking. It would be another month before the water carriers of the Federation roared overhead to make the monsoon drops. The city waited it out. Whiteskins stretched from building to building, rooftop to rooftop. Everybody else seemed to have chosen to stay home and watch. The few voices and hissing of doorlocks died away as we moved; silence spread as eyelids shuttered to catch the landing. We moved through a ghost world. Nani’s lips were haunted too. Dair ayed durust ayed dair ayed durust ayed. I thought of my mother clambering down the lattice frame of our dwelling past the tomatoes and peppers to find us gone and smiled. The memory of the blow stung and desertion would sting her back. I remembered why she was up there and almost stopped. We were outside in a heat wave! But we were not outside proper. The whiteskins were breaking the rays into manageable pieces. The thermalocks were sealing the streets; I remembered then that the girl’s route to Shehr-i-Khamoshan would not take her through them; the Federation Guard would be bringing her along the Road. I almost stopped, but the sharpness of Nani’s elbows jabbing the air as she walked before me told me she would leave me behind if I did.

Why did Nani seek proximity to the girl? Why was I calling a 90-year-old a 'girl'? That was what Nani had been calling her, since the predawn Federation Broadcast. Humwatno, there will be a State Homecoming for Malala Yousafzai today, had come to us all in our sleep. Her return after 75 years will be awarded appropriate national honour. A full unit of Federation Guard will greet her at the airport.Allahbad's Road, motorways, tunnels and funicular's will be turned green, white and black to mark the occasion. Edible tricolours will be distributed to necessary foot traffic.First Citizens are directed to stay inside to avoid heat expose. Pakistan Zindabad.

I was exempted from Fajr that week so the neurofeed subsided without the Azaan and I could turn on my side and fall back asleep, hearing as I did so the susurrations of the other two rising. By the time I woke up, they were locked into a full-blown quarrel. It seemed to be about Malala Yousafzai but it also seemed to be about them. In the 10 hours it took for her transport to touch down, they had covered everything from whose fault it was that Ammi was unattractive (Nani’s genes) to whose fault it was that we couldn’t afford to fix that (Nani’s chronic conditions using up our medunits) to whose fault it was that I was an underachiever offering no hope of salvation (Nani’s coddling) to whose fault it was that Abba had died (Ammi’s). It was that which had earned me the blow. She had left me no choice but to speak the truth.

She should not have sent him to seek work that day. There was no direct crossing from our patch of the family core to the labour ring on the peripheries of Allahabad. By the time a foot trafficker triggered a medalert, he had been too long in the sun. Sometimes I would dream of him lying in the bare outside, watching the whiteskins waving like shrouds in the distance before his eyes closed. I would dream a dream of him cooking in his own juices and beginning to jerk and convulse like he must have. The husk dry, gentle fingers would pull me safely from it.

Before Nani had pried me out of my chamber, I had been on the neurofeed trying to glean scraps that might help me catch the precise flavour of bitterness my mother and grandmother were eating. But I had not made it through the tests that would have enabled archive access so I had to settle for being told It is a historic day without knowing why. I learned that Malala had a younger brother. He spoke to the copybots at the airport before the procession set off. He said he was delighted at the chance to be able to witness his sister’s return to her motherland’s welcoming embrace after so many long years. He grew emotional when a bolbot wearing the markings of a First Family asked him why his nephew and niece were absent. The same bolbot continued, asking whether Malala ever mentioned if she begrudged what had happened when she tried to return in 2050. The floatstation started abruptly, before he could answer. The bolbot disappeared beneath it.

Nani led us one level down — I wondered where she was taking us — as the Federation Broadcaster came back on. First Citizens and foot traffic alike are welcoming the nation’s daughter’s return with exceptional zeal. Malala is making her way through her beloved Shere Zinda Dillan to Shere Khamoshan with the dignity and grace that has long been her hallmark. We welcome the great Khatoon home. Our eyes brim with affection. All shower her with praise and flowers. Malala Zindabad. Pakistan Zindabad.

When Nani stopped at the top of a spiral chute to catch her breath, I took a moment to close my eyes and see. The procession was just a few minutes away from us now. People living on the outside upper tiers were sliding vents open to throw simurose petals down as she passed then slamming them shut again. It seemed the towers were blinking, all of Allahabad caught in REM sleep. Drones were rising from the enclaves of the First Citizens to do the same. A cut to the subterranean levels showed grinning Zaats doing the bhangra for the hovereyes. A drone dropped a luddoo and the formation broke as they all dived for it. The hovereyes did not linger underground but lifted us high again. The whole world is watching as Pakistan’s pride Malala Yousafzai returns to a rapturous welcome in her birthplace. The Federation is distributing sweets to the youth on duty in the warren today, even the mercury cannot dampen the zeal of the festival atmosphere as everyone seeks to shower her with endless adulation.

We went to the hospice level, closest to the sky, zipping past a row of gaping vents where elderly men and women waved their arms frantically to catch our attention. I thought I heard a couple of screams of “Maafi maafi Malala maafi” before our gaze shifted back downward but “Malala Zindabad”, said the Federation as we left them in our wake. All the people are animated by resolution, joy and unity as Pakistan’s illustrious daughter reconnects with her own soil of home. Pakistan Zindabad.

My foot hit something and the pain brought me back to where my body was. We were standing at a thermalock on Road level. My Nani was fumbling at the control panel, trying to open it. I thought of my father baking in the Allahabad heat and grabbed her arm, trying to pull her away. She shrugged me off. I grabbed again. She peeled me off her arm. Suddenly her fingers were not husk dry and gentle but damp and sharp. The heat punched me in the face and drove me back as the lock screeched open. Immediately, I felt moisture beading all over me. I stumbled backwards and prepared to run. If I sprinted I could make it up the spiral at the end of the street and onto the next level. But I could not take her with me, so I didn’t. I would make it to the nearest ghar and bang the bellbox till an adult came to help me with her. A siren began to blare. I thought it was on the neurofeed and wondered at this odd choice of honour guard music when running feet vibrated close to me and a woman wearing a reclamation suit hit the thermalock control panel with the palm of her hand while another dragged me into the nearest shade.

I stumbled backwards and prepared to run. If I sprinted I could make it up the spiral at the end of the street and onto the next level. But I could not take her with me, so I didn’t. I would make it to the nearest ghar and bang the bellbox till an adult came to help me with her. A siren began to blare.

She was already outside enough to make her intention clear. The lock was closing on her exile even as she turned towards us and beckoned me to join her. I knew the language of her finger. It could say Aik minute or Be quiet or Ignore her she’s not worth it or I love you. Come, her finger said. Come with me. This is important. This is important and I want to share it with you, I want to show it to you. But I was afraid and could not move my feet.

The people of Pakistan are triumphantly happy as the model of national womanhood returns to her place with them, the Federal Broadcaster said in my ear, having spread our great nation’s message of optimum hope to the world. Malala Yousafzai, Mother Malala, is the ultimate Pakistani woman. She embodies the most precious female virtues. Acceptance. Tolerance. Understanding. Patience over anger. Virtue over virtuosity. She turned a grimace into a smile and hawks into doves. They kept her from us but she returns. Blood will tell. Mother Malala returns to our bosom today. Blood always calls to blood and today blood is answering.

I stood in a stranger’s protective embrace and watched my grandmother stride away. I noticed how her back seemed straighter. Dust flew at each impact of her knotted feet on the parched ground. The temperature outside was 49 degrees. The humidity was 90 percent. Even if the medalert already triggered reached her in minutes, she would not survive the day. She walked easily around the mechanised Federation Guard units plodding before the float with Malala on it. The ancient, rusted warbots moved at a glacial pace; one dropped a piston as she strode past its censors. She didn’t glance once at the hovereyes now clotting furiously above her either but took one hop, two, and jumped up to grasp the lowest railing. She clambered easily up the rest, as if she were a girl still, like that other girl, who she was climbing to greet.

Before she collapsed my grandmother stood over the coffin, the sun beating down on her bare head, and spat on it.

The writer is the author of several books and the co-founder of Mongrel Books

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 13th, 2017