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Did I wipe a tear off my face?

December 08, 2012

290-Did-I-wipe-a-tearI suddenly stopped; there he was, outside a Thai restaurant in Springfield, Virginia, less than a week after his death. Mr Bright searched his pockets – first left, then right. Selected a cigarette and lit it. He extinguished the match stick, rubbing it on the box with his left hand, as he always did.

I was stunned. Only last week, I attended his funeral and there he was, smoking a cigarette outside a restaurant as he always did. I was so shocked that I could not move, but he did.

“One evening in that old potter’s shop I stood alone with the clay pots in rows. I heard one impatient pot cry: “Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot? That he who subtly wrought me into shape, should stamp me back to clay,” complained Omar Khayyam, the poet.

As the person I saw outside the restaurant turned, the street light exposed his face. It was somebody else. The discovery ended the sensation that had gripped me but it also saddened me.

“How many we buried this year? Lucky Bhatt, the real estate dealer, died of a heart attack, like Bright. The cab driver, shot dead. A pizza delivery boy, stabbed to death. Two old men died of natural causes. And the young man who jumped into the river,” I said to myself and then stopped counting.

Mr Bright loved poetry, particularly Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam. When I read him the original Farsi, he brought a sheet of paper and said: “Lets sign a contract, you do the Urdu translation. I will publish it.”

When I told him that it had already been translated into Urdu, he made another offer. “You convert these lines into a song and we will produce an album. I know you are short of money.”

This is how he was, always willing to help. Once I saw him crying at the funeral of an Indian teenager. “His father is still alive and he died,” said Bright. “This is not fair.”

I told him death is not fair. It knows no rules.

“It does,” he said and quoted Khayyam: “I have seen what those without insight have not, my father’s clay in the potter hands, shaping another pot.”

Shaping, reshaping. Building, destroying. Holding, dropping!

Four years ago, when we visited the Muslim graveyard in Northern Virginia, there were few graves. But this time, I counted hundreds.

The first generation that migrated to America was getting old and dying. Some were dying young too.

I planned with one of those now in the graveyard to visit Lahore together. “Have you visited Lahore?” he once asked me. “Many times,” I said. “I lived in Rawalpindi, half a day’s drive from Lahore.”

“But you have not seen the real Lahore. I will show you,” he said. He was from Lahore.

There was one from the tribal areas who offered to show me “the real face of Waziristan, minus Taliban, minus al Qaeda and of course minus the suicide bombers.”

There was another from Karachi who never tired of talking about “the Karachi of 1980s; so peaceful, we would walk in the streets at 3 in the morning.”

Where they all lived now was peaceful too. But they cannot share it with others.

Yet another came from New Delhi and wanted to visit Pakistan with his Pakistani friends. “I want to see that country but I am afraid of going alone,” he said. He is not in the graveyard. He was cremated. Now he does not have to fear anything.

Some of them were part of the Alif Laila Tavern crowd. We met at least once a week, to share our woes and triumphs. Lucky held a big party for his daughter’s graduation. We ate, sang and smoked together.

There was a man who always wore spotless, white shirts. When we threw lumps of clay into his grave, one of us cried out, “Be careful, do not stain his clothes.” Tears rolled down this man’s cheeks as he realised how meaningless his concern was.

“They say the doe and the fox occupy the palace where Emperor Jamshid held his court; And Bahram, that great hunter, who never spared his prey, lies slain in his grave too.”

“Is it true that nobody returns from the grave? Didn’t I see Bright?” I thought. Did I?

One shade of light showed it was him. Another showed a different face. Which face is real, which is unreal?

“Yet, Bright remains dead, as dead as we all will be,” I said to myself. “The man who was so precise with dates and time failed to know when he would die and how.” Bright was not his real name but this is how it translated into English, so his American friends called him Mr Bright. And he became Bright.

Once he told me, “We are going to witness mind blowing coincidence this year, at exactly 12 minutes, 12 seconds after 12 o' clock on Dec. 12, 2012, time will be 12:12:12, 12/12/12.” But he had reached the end of his calendar, before that “important milestone” came.

“Ah, my beloved, fill the cup that clears today of past regrets and future fears, tomorrow? Why, tomorrow I may be myself with yesterday's seven thousand years.”

Bright was not a regular at the tavern but once he arranged a “snake dance” for us. The woman danced like a cobra, getting so close to her admirers that they could feel her breath and then slipped out of their grips with the ease of a snake.

Bright was a concert organiser and spent his life promoting the South Asian culture in North America. He was having lunch with his fiancée, when death knocked at his door, forced it ajar and entered.

To be fair to this lethal visitor, it offered him a second chance, but the hospital where he was taken did not have the equipment for dealing with his rare heart complication. So he was put on a helicopter for another hospital but died on the way.

This is the end of his story or is it? You did not hear Alamgir, a Pakistani-Bangladeshi singer thanking him for arranging a concert for his treatment, did you? Did you hear Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Abrar ul Huq, even Asha Bhosle singing for him?

You did not but I did. I heard many of these singers at the concerts Bright arranged. And then he died.

Is death the ultimate end? Bulleh Shah, the great Sufi poet from Punjab, once said: “It is not me but somebody else lying in the grave.” So who is he who is lying in the grave?

Is dying like a river flowing into the sea? Merging with the source? Why regret death then?

“If with wine you are drunk, be happy. If seated with a moon-faced beauty, be happy. Since the end purpose of the universe is nothingness, picture your nothingness, and while you are, be happy!” I recited Khayyam as my heart trembled with the fear of nothingness.

Nothingness, yes but not for all, right? Others are busy with their daily chores.

It was snowing outside and Seema, the teenage daughter of our neighbours, put on a hooded overcoat and came out. Snow or no snow, she cannot waste the entire weekend. She has a date. She has a life. She has to go.

Did I wipe a tear off my face?


80x80-Anwar-IqbalThe author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC.