In Osman Haneef’s The Verdict, a Pakistani lawyer, defends an innocent boy accused of a crime punishable by death. The lawyer confronts religious extremists, assassins, forbidden love, a corrupt judicial system and a powerful soothsayer’s prediction that he will die unless he abandons the case. Eos is proud to bring you two extracts from the recently published novel
Ahbey’s faded purple qameez clung to her stomach as she rambled around the room, her legs straining under her own weight. She slowly picked up Sikander’s scattered action figures and comic books — one of many duties she performed as his nanny. The ten-year-old boy had been home only a couple of hours, yet had managed to make the room appear as if it had been hit by a hurricane.
Ahbey sighed as she bent over, lifted a bright red book and inspected the glossy cover with a picture of shaytan, complete with horns and a mask, holding a helpless victim over the ledge of a building. She recognised this shaytan from other comic books as well — he was one of Sikander’s favourite characters. When she had asked him why he likes books with the devil, he had explained that the horned man was not the devil but rather the hero of the story. He was striking fear into the hearts of criminals in distant America by dressing like the devil. Ahbey did not understand why the boy preferred these western devils to her heroes. Heroes like Amitabh Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor, whose stories she watched on pirated films every week.
She placed Sikander’s book on the bottom of his bookshelf — far below the Quran Ahbey had placed on the top shelf. She preferred the books Sikander used to read as a little boy; the ones littered with pictures of djinns, magic carpets and sailors that made exciting journeys across the world. Although foreign, at least the characters sounded Muslim.
Ahbey heard raindrops tapping against the window. It had been overcast all morning, and now the weather had finally made up its mind and decided to rain. Sikander would probably have to abandon his cricket game because the heavy downpour would make it impossible to play. She glanced over at the window and smiled as she thought of other rainy days when the young boy had been stuck inside, utterly miserable because he could not play cricket. He would sit on her bed and practise catches by throwing a tennis ball against a wall. She would sit beside him, gently stroke his dark hair, pull his plump cheeks and tell him stories. As she stared at the raindrops falling against the window, an irresistible urge came over her. She marched to the window, slowly brought her face close to it, shaped her mouth into a small ‘O’ and breathed so that her breath condensed against the cool glass. Ahbey ran her stubby fingers across the condensed sheet of air, drawing random intersecting lines. After a few seconds, she stopped and stared at her creation. She tried to give it some sort of meaning, squinting as she tried to gather its various elements and give it some shape.
Gradually, she began to see the frame of a small house without any windows. It looked like her old home, the mud house where she was born, in a small, remote and mountainous region. She closed her eyes and tried to remember. The thick mud walls provided much needed shade from the scorching summer heat; its entrance without a door allowed for the occasional breeze. Her breathing slowed as she took deep breaths in through her nose and out through her mouth, causing the tiny grey hairs under her nose to move ever so slightly. Ismail, her son, a grown man of forty, sat inside. Scars covered his face, his eyes were permanently closed and his pale, white hands firmly gripped a cheap wooden cane with a gold painted handle of a bat. Her eyes fell to his white knuckles illuminated by a candle with the wax slowly dripping down its sides. She flinched at the memory of the hand that had so often struck her face when she was nagging, when she was not working hard enough, when she was unkind, or when she made a mistake. Her husband, a loving man, had died when Ismail was thirteen years old. Ismail had to leave the local school and his ambitions behind, and he began to work in the fields like his father. It frustrated him and he took it out on Ahbey. That was before small pox humbled her son. Despite everything that had happened, she still loved him. Besides, that was a long time ago and things were different today. She made a living as a nanny for the Ghaznavis now.
Ahbey removed her owl-eye glasses and wiped them. She placed them on her nose and pushed them back to keep them from sliding forward as they often did. The mixed colours of her shalwar now became distinct and separate. Nazneen bibi bought her new clothes every Eid. She remembered the time that Nazneen bibi had given her the purple shalwar; its light colours and gold embroidery reminded her of the magical robes worn by powerful pirs and wise men in the stories. That night, when she had seen the red, yellow and blue fireworks over Islamabad, she had raised her hands up and opened her palms in unison with the fireworks erupting as if she controlled each eruption with invisible djinns who danced along to the movement of her fingers.
The Ghaznavis also gave her a generous monthly salary and bonuses on Eid that Ahbey promptly sent home to her family through her youngest son, Zer Shah. He was largely responsible for Ahbey’s job with the Ghaznavis. Zer Shah was a young man who also owned a pair of owl-eye glasses and whose inability to keep a job was consistently explained by his ‘condition’. Ahbey snorted; his condition was that he was the laziest human being on the planet and was destined not to have enough money to maintain the lifestyle he desired. Zer Shah was a rich man’s soul born into a poor man’s body. She smiled affectionately; even though she constantly complained about him, she loved her youngest son. She almost laughed as she thought of his light-hearted attitude towards life and his comic escapades that always left him unemployed. There was the time when he went to the open-air bazaar to buy some nails for his employers at the furniture shop, but instead he bought flowers from a pretty girl who complimented him on his qameez. He tried to persuade the shop owner that the flowers would make a much better addition to the shop because more people would want to visit a shop decorated with flowers. The shop owner did not share his business sense. After similar ‘incidents’, he would visit Ahbey and ask for something to help him on his quest for the perfect job. Then after receiving his ‘gift’ he would leave and not be heard from again until he lost his next job — which was never a long time. But he always treated Ahbey with respect and, nine years, ago Zer Shah returned from one of his misadventures in Islamabad to visit Ahbey and Ismail, and transformed Ahbey’s life.
‘Some people are looking for a Pashto-speaking nanny to look after their child. I thought you might be interested,’ Zer Shah pointed to Ahbey as he devoured some roti that had been dipped in dal.
It had been two weeks since Ismail had recovered from the small pox. Almost two decades since his father, Ahbey’s husband, had died and Ismail had to earn money for the family.
‘Why a Pashto-speaking nanny?’ Ismail asked as he stroked his wild beard.
‘They’re Pashtuns and they want their child to be looked after by someone who can speak Pashto to him,’ Zer Shah replied as he chomped his food.
‘How old is the child?’ Ismail asked as Ahbey sat silently.
‘About a year, I think. Not sure. Anyway, do you want me to arrange an interview?’ Zer Shah asked.
‘I don’t know how comfortable I feel sending Ahbey away all by herself,’ Ismail said.
‘It will be good for us, brother. The money would certainly help,’ Zer Shah said.
Ismail agreed and Ahbey silently thanked Zer Shah.
A big smile formed on Ahbey’s face as she recalled meeting the Ghaznavis almost nine years ago. She thought of the first day she arrived at their house, when she watched TV for the first time. She thought the newscaster was staring at her and she kept shifting in her seat because he made her so uncomfortable. She soon realised that the TV was only a one-way viewer and that there were many more fascinating creatures and places in the world than she had ever imagined. It was there that she first saw Sikander as a little baby, wrapped up in so many blue, yellow and red sheets that only a little nose could be seen protruding from the mess of colours. He had smiled as soon as he saw her face.
Now she lifted the little Superman action figure, its right arm broken and lost long ago. She often wondered where lost toys ended up. She enjoyed playing with the notion that they all ran away and hid in some world for the unfortunate and unloved, because their value was determined by the value that others attached to them. Once they were broken, they were not loved or needed. There was something unique and endearing about a broken toy; she saved all of Sikander’s unwanted toys to send back home to her young grandchildren.
Her dark brown eyes searched the room for an appropriate resting place for the toy. A small space on Sikander’s white play table caught her eye. The little boy had placed many bottles and tubes with various dull and transparent liquids on the table. It was, by far, the neatest table but it lacked something — it lacked colour! She looked at the bright blue, yellow and red action figure in her hand, smiled and sat it in the centre of the table with its right arm reaching out to the ceiling. She then continued to pick up the rest of the items: books, colour pencils and sketches of shaytan. After she finished her work, Ahbey made her way towards her small green bed.
Suddenly Sikander burst into the room, a cricket bat dragging along in his right hand, his plump cheeks bright pink from playing outdoors, his faded blue jeans covered with grass stains, and his chest rising and falling rapidly as he tried to catch his breath. He ran up and hugged Ahbey.
‘How was your game?’ Ahbey asked in Pashto as she opened the cupboard and looked for a change of clothes for him.
‘Great. Khalid made thirty-five runs, I made nineteen and Ayaz made twenty-two runs, so together we beat Khalid by six runs!’
‘Oh, good job,’ Ahbey smiled. Khalid, the Ghaznavis’ housekeeper, had let the two boys win again. ‘Which shirt do you want to wear?’
‘Batman,’ Sikander replied.
‘What?’ Ahbey asked.
Sikander rolled his eyes in frustration. ‘Oof, Ahbey, shaytan,’ Sikander said, curling his fingers against the top of his head to look like horns.
Ahbey began to remove some clothes from the cupboard.
‘You should have seen it, Ahbey. Khalid bowled the ball as fast as he could and I hit it for four runs along the legside. Oh, and then, when I was bowling, I got him out. I hit the middle stump!’ the little boy related.
‘That’s good. Now come here so I can change your shirt.’
‘Come on, Ahbey. I’m a big boy. I can do it by myself.’
‘Yes, I know, but I still enjoy doing things for you, so let me do it.’
‘Okay,’ the boy reluctantly conceded. He stretched his arms up into the air and Ahbey replaced his Superman shirt with his shaytan shirt.
‘Thanks, Ahbey,’ Sikander said as he stuck his arms out through the armholes and began to inspect the room. He then caught sight of the chemistry table.
‘Ahbey? What is that figure doing on my table?’
‘It’s your Superman toy. What’s the problem?’
‘Yes, but why is it on my chemistry table?’
‘Why shouldn’t it be there?’
‘Oof, Allah. That’s my new chemistry set, Ahbey. Remember, I said Ayaz and I had formed a band of detectives? Well, this chemistry set is what we are going to use to chemically analyse any clues that we find. It’s just like Sherlock Holmes,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t realise it was so important.’
‘Fine, just don’t touch my chemistry set,’ Sikander said as he walked out of the room. Khalid had probably prepared some French fries and Pakola for him.
Ahbey sat on her bed, wondering whether or not to go and watch television. She heard some arguing outside the room — Yahya sahib, who had always been such a gentle soul, was yelling at Sikander. She decided against leaving the room. She looked over at the Superman potions’.
Of course, there was more to it than that. Before Sikander left, he felt he had a moral obligation to eventually return and ‘give back’ to Pakistan. Yet, once he left, there were so many reasons to stay abroad and not enough reasons to come back.
‘Ka miss tree,’ she repeated to herself as she walked over to the table and knelt down next to it. Suddenly a bottle with a dark green liquid caught her eye. She picked it up and began to shake it a bit to see how ripples would form along its surface. She thought of a little boat riding this green wave, captained by Sindbad and how an evil genie in the sea was disrupting their journey. She began to give advice to the imaginary tiny ship when Sikander walked in with a Pakola bottle clasped in both hands.
‘Ahbey? What are you doing with that!’
‘I’m sorry. I was just looking. I was going to put it back....’
‘I told you NOT TO TOUCH the chemistry set!’ Sikander said.
At that point Ahbey’s face formed a nervous smile as she tried to suppress her laugh.
‘Why are you smiling? Do you think this is funny?’ Sikander asked, raising his voice again.
‘No,’ she said but couldn’t help it any longer; she burst out into hysterical laughter.
‘It’s not funny, Ahbey,’ Sikander said. She continued laughing. ‘Please stop laughing at me,’ he pleaded.
Ahbey covered her mouth as she struggled to control her laughter.
Sikander lifted up his slouching shoulders and his cheeks turned a shade of crimson-red. He pouted his little lips and glared at Ahbey with a stern look on his face. ‘It’s not funny. Don’t laugh at me.’ His voice began to crack.
Ahbey couldn’t help it. She laughed hysterically, all her crooked, yellow teeth clearly visible. Sikander ran up to her, grabbed her qameez tightly, and shook her, causing her to bump against the chemistry set table and the Superman figure to fall off. Ahbey still couldn’t stop laughing.
Then it happened — his right hand came down and slapped Ahbey across the face.
The room was silent except for the raindrops pattering against the window. Ahbey stared in shock for a moment. The Superman figure lay on the floor bearing witness to the scene. The raindrops were like beating drums. The chemistry set bottles smiled maliciously as the light reflected off them. Ahbey could not hold back the tears. Sikander stared into her eyes and looked at his hands in disbelief. His lips quivered and tears gushed out from his eyes. He hugged and kissed Ahbey with tears continuing to run down his cheeks, repeating, ‘I love you, Ahbey. I am so sorry. I love you, Ahbey...’ She cried as she took his body into her arms and squeezed him tight, afraid to let go.
AN EMPTY HOUSE
In the main building of the Ghaznavi house, a familiar side-table in the entrance hallway displayed photos of Sikander’s parents from his father’s days as a leading lawyer in Pakistan. The two stood with the former Attorney General, politicians, foreign ambassadors and key military officials. Baba’s dark hair glistened in the camera light. He smiled a bright, irresistible smile that had buoyed countless friends and family before his illness. Sikander noted the different clothes: fitted grey and black suits, bright gold ties or dull green ties that matched his eyes, neatly pressed shirts with gold cufflinks, and traditional black sherwanis and Jinnah caps. Baba was not exceptionally handsome but Nazneen would always comment on his kind heart and how his beautiful mind captured the wonder of the world in irresistible verse. She never shared the poems he wrote or gave much detail of her courtship to her son. They wed soon after they met in Lahore, where she had been a literature student at Kinnaird College, he was fifteen years her senior. Together they grew and prospered. She had a gift for understanding people so that, with her husband, they were the ‘charming couple’ who became a regular feature at important soirees, and Baba’s career flourished. At least that is how Sikander’s mother told the story.
The framed pictures in the corridor were a testament to their past life and success. He thought about the happy couple in the photograph and how lucky they were to have found each other. For all his father’s flaws, his mother loved Baba. Sikander had never truly experienced anything like what his parents had shared, though he felt he had come close with Sanah. He still couldn’t quite wrap his mind around how she had ended up with Fazeel.
Sikander made his way into the living room, which felt oddly familiar; the collection of paintings and artefacts his parents had collected over the years reminded him of his youth. Abstract calligraphy purchased in Egypt and Qatar, the paintings of Russian villagers that Sikander’s father had bought on a visit to the former Soviet Union, Afghan carpets, Dutch ceramics, Czech crystal, and many other pieces littered the room. The items formed a smorgasbord of cultural badges that, taken as a whole, satisfied neither Eastern nor Western sensibilities. A melancholic silence rested in the room.
According to Morey, during Sikander’s early childhood, before Baba’s illness had truly taken hold of him, the Ghaznavi home bustled with endless activity. Guests constantly stopped by their home for advice or encouragement and they never left without having been buoyed by their visit. Baba had the uncanny ability to put anyone at ease with his cheerful disposition and boundless generosity. Morey still talked about how he always donated a large share of his salary to charities and he couldn’t walk by a beggar without doing something. Once Baba heard a young boy relate such a terrible tale of woe and death in the family that Baba asked him for directions to his house so he could go and personally help the young boy’s family with the burial of their eldest son. The young beggar decided it wasn’t worth his while to continue the charade and relented; he explained that he had fabricated the tale in order to make more money. He then asked Baba to leave him alone so that he could get back to ‘work’ — begging. The ‘beggar boy’ became Morey’s favourite story, repeated at every opportunity.
‘Where are the books?’ Sikander asked.
‘They are in here,’ Nazneen said. She led him into a small adjacent room. The distinct aroma of aging books — a musty smell with a whiff of vanilla — swept over Sikander. Books covered the walls and much of the floor as the shelves failed to contain them. Novels and biographies formed literary cascades and towers that rose from the floor to the ceiling, obscuring shelves and the surface of his father’s writing desk. The smell reminded him of his father. He could almost see Baba, seated on his favourite armchair with Sikander in his lap, reading The Odyssey to him. Sikander’s head rested on Baba’s chest, listening to the regular solid thumping of his father’s heart and to his deep but gentle voice. Soothing sounds that put him to sleep on bright, halcyon days.
‘His law books are in the legal study. There are some more in storage. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of them,’ Nazneen said. Her lips quivered. ‘Excuse me,’ she said and left the room.
Sikander moved into the living room where Nazneen sat silently on the sofa with a crumpled tissue in her hand. He sat down next to his mother and put his arm around her. She placed her head on his shoulder and leaned into her son.
‘I used to beg him to clear out his books. They take up so much space.’
‘You would always say that there was no space yet we somehow made room every week as he bought more and more.’
‘I was thinking about how once I had sold some of his books to the old bookstore without him knowing. I had finally made some room. Of course, he came back the next day with the same books bought from the same old bookstore. He had been so very impressed by the meticulous notes made by the previous owner that he had to buy them. He had no idea that they were his books!’
Sikander forced a smile.
‘You teased him so much for it. His forgetfulness,’ Sikander said.
‘I had no idea what it meant,’ Nazneen said, sitting up and wiping her tears with her crumpled tissue. ‘But I’m glad I have his books now. It reminds me of happier times.’
‘What I remember was very different.’
‘He was very sick. It wasn’t him in the end.’
‘I know you say that but....’
‘Never mind.’ All he could remember was an angry old man.
Sikander’s mother paused and twisted her mouth as if she was considering what to say.
‘Bachey, why did you come back?’ she finally asked.
Sikander could tell she had wanted to ask the question for some time but had not been able to bring herself to confront him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Even when Baba died. You didn’t come back. Now that Ahbey is gone, you are here. I don’t understand it.’
‘I am not sure I can explain it,’ he said.
She looked at him with eyes that seemed to say ‘please try’.
‘She called me just before she died.’
‘Who? Ahbey? What did she say?’ Nazneen asked.
‘Yeah. A week before she passed away. I didn’t have time to talk to her. I was about to go into court and I told her I would call her back. Then, I got busy. I forgot. Then you called a week later and told me that she was gone. I never called her back, Morey.’ He and his mother sat in silence for a moment.
‘I’m so sorry, bachey. But you couldn’t have known. It is not your fault.’
‘It is not that. She seemed really worried. Like she needed to talk to me about something important.’ Sikander thought back to the phone call and Ahbey’s voice, worried and formal. Their conversation had been full of ‘yes, sahibs’ like she wasn’t someone who had changed his diaper when he was growing up. ‘I was too busy, Morey. And for what? A meaningless job in a city that didn’t know I existed?’ Sikander could feel his heart racing. He had agonised over the decision to come back.
‘Now that’s not fair, sweetheart. Your work wasn’t meaningless. You were making a difference,’ his mother said. ‘I remember there was that local paper that published an article about you, and don’t forget that Top 50 Young Lawyers In The City award.’
Sikander smiled at his mother. He realised that she probably still had all his old report cards and awards from as far back as middle school somewhere in the house.
‘Do you know what I did on my last case? I defended a Catholic priest who had, in all likelihood, molested young children. I was all alone, doing a job I didn’t believe in and letting people I love struggle without me back home. It didn’t make any sense.’
Of course, there was more to it than that. Before Sikander left, he felt he had a moral obligation to eventually return and ‘give back’ to Pakistan. Yet, once he left, there were so many reasons to stay abroad and not enough reasons to come back. He had stayed away because he was ashamed by how everything had changed between him and Ahbey. He had stayed away because of how he had felt about Baba and what he had done. And he had stayed away because life with Sanah in the US was pure bliss and he didn’t want anything more. When she left him, he started to question it all. Then Ahbey died and he realised that he couldn’t ever make peace between them. He could never make things right. And then he thought about all that he had put off doing and the promises he had made himself when he was younger. He had been running away from his responsibilities. In the end, he had to come back. But he didn’t tell his mother any of this.
‘I love you,’ Nazneen said, hugging him tightly.
Sikander leaned into her embrace. He was glad to be back.
Osman Haneef is the author of The Verdict.
He tweets @ohaneef
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 28th, 2021