This site requires JavaScript to be enabled to work properly. Please check your settings and try again.

He was a friend of mine

Midsummer. 1986. Lahoris are praying for the monsoon and the boys, not indifferent, but undeterred by the heat, are playing cricket daily. As if their lives depend on it. Every afternoon, Saad sets the steel wickets on the crooked road behind his apartment building. Then he leans against his C.A. cricket bat and glances at his G-shock watch. Uncalled, they arrive, like the faithful. Murad, the Afghan, tapes the tennis balls (he is good at keeping the seam upright). And the boys cross the road, enter the ground, take positions from the previous night. And the person standing umpire raises his hands and says—as if in Qaddafi Stadium—“Let’s play.”

Then cricket cricket cricket till nighttime, when the boys pretend there is no more cricket left in them, then, next afternoon, Saad waits with his steel wickets, Murad, the Afghan, tapes the balls—then cricket cricket cricket.

They live in a Housing Colony for Army Officers. Saad’s father is a retired colonel. Murad’s father, a driver, washes cars to supplement his income. Heaven trees are clustered together on trimmed green belts, their superannuated limbs poised dangerously.

One evening, Murad—thirteen years old—is umpiring the game. Saad—fifteen—recently run out, walks to the bowling end, stands behind Murad. He can feel the hot ground through the soles of his sneakers. The air, sulphurous, suffocating. A sun-scorched summer, so far. A summer of nosebleeds.

“I will co-umpire,” Saad says. He places his hands on Murad’s shoulders, like a benefactor. Murad’s sweat-soaked shirt. Blond hair. Bony frame. Light as a feather, Saad thinks. I could throw him into the air.

“Nahi, nahi yar,” Murad says.

“I will be good,” Saad says, smiling. He is a foot taller than Murad. He squeezes Murad’s shoulders. My little Afghan. He stands close, leans forward to avoid blocking the bowler’s line of sight.

They graze the wickets, graze each other. That’s all.

Perhaps Saad feels it first, or they both notice at the same time. It’s nothing, Saad pretends.

The bowler takes a long run up. Turns, squats, ties his shoelaces. Stands, adjusts his fielders. His voice carries across the row of white-painted apartment buildings. He is far from the pitch, past the boundary line—a row of gum trees, straight and unyielding, planted years before to prevent the ground from flooding. The bowler wipes sweat off his forehead with his green wristband.

“Come on, come on,” Saad says, waving his left arm.

Then the bowler runs, eyes closed. Long limbed, unequal strides. Saad turns to watch his progress. Surely, he will topple over, Saad thinks. The bowler’s knees strain against the seams of his trousers, amidst this extra effort. Then, as the bowler approaches the pitch, it’s just envy, thickly settled in the air, reflected in the dozen pairs of watching eyes, redolent in the static bodies of the fielders. To watch him take the last strides is to watch the Rawalpindi Express arrive at the old train station in Lahore. The boy jumps at the crease, lands hard on the ground. The delivery skids past the wavering bat, hits the batsman on the foot. A chorus appeals for lbw The batsman shakes his head in disbelief.

Saad says, “Out.”

Murad says, “Not-Out.”

“I am the umpire,” Murad says.

“I am,” Saad says. He smiles.

“Just because you got out early today, you won’t let us play?” Murad says, so everyone can hear.

“Yes,” Saad says, feeling guilty suddenly. Murad’s Urdu accent has become heavier.

“You can teach the Pathan only so many things,” the boys say behind Murad’s back.

It was a No-ball, Murad declares, indicating where the bowler overstepped the crease.

It’s a fine ball, Saad says. I am okay with that ball. No way he can relent. Not with everyone watching.

Then I quit, Murad says. He leaves the crease.

When Murad leaves, Saad feels a tightness in his chest, a strange new sensation, discomfiting at first, but later even its memory is a pleasure. He turns to look at Murad, who stops in his tracks and crouches under a tree, a sullen look on his face. Blue eyes, an oddity in this Punjabi city, flashing.

The boys are okay with Saad mocking Murad. No harm in it, he knows this. They like him better. He is the fastest among them. They all want to bowl fast like Imran Khan, except for Murad who has been practicing his googlies with little success.

With fervor, they resume. There is no cricket they know without breaks. In a few minutes, the light begins to dim. A giant fist closing on the sky. Rain comes. Pours. Vengefully. Steady ceaseless downpour. A veritable thumping to make up for the missed regular appointment. And the boys escape to their apartments, not bothering with excuses. Saad stays because he owns the equipment—wickets, tape, bats. He has always loved the rain, bathed bare-chested on the roof of his apartment building year after year. He lifts his face and smiles. Let it come down all night if it must, he thinks. He sees Murad still crouching under the tree. Help, Saad says. Murad laughs. They are old friends after all. They untether the wickets from the wet grass. They walk back together. Memory of that gentle grazing is already disappearing. Right then Saad does not remember the way his blood jumped at the touch, or what that meant.

“That was a No-ball,” Murad says, “and you know it.”

“Na, na, na, yar. His foot skidded forward later. At impact, the heel was behind the line. It was easy to miss.”

“You’re such a cheater.”

“Chal yar, let it go. That boy is getting fast though.”

“Not as fast as you, don’t worry.”

“I couldn’t even see that ball.”

“Sisterfucker hangs on the monkey bars every night. I have seen him.”

“It’s paying off then.”

They laugh. The ground is oval-shaped and Saad’s apartment on the other side. Taking small strides, they are in no hurry. Cars parked on all edges hum with the tapping rainwater. Frogs croak.

“Maybe, the monsoon has finally come,” Murad says, wiping his forehead with his fingers.

“Yes, exactly,” Saad says. By the time they reach Saad’s apartment, their shoes are heavy with water.

“Let’s not go inside,” Saad says. “We’ll ruin the carpet,”

“Fine with me,” Murad says.

Saad gestures towards the side entrance, pushes open the door to the servant quarter. A creaking sound as it opens. He enters first, turns on the light. “Here,” he says. There is a charpoy in one corner, a door leading to the balcony on the other end. “No one uses this room,” he says. “It’s too small for Jee Jan, our maid.” Then he thinks about where Murad lives. His cheeks color. “Take off your shoes if you like,” he says. “I’ll bring towels.”

Murad says, “Bring some water too, please.”

“And some soda?”

“Very good.”

Barefoot now, Saad enters the apartment. A current of cold air greets him. In near darkness, Jee Jan sits on the floor, watching the TV. She nods at him when he approaches. He tells her what he needs. He crosses the hallway to his bedroom, changes into a dry shirt. Mama and Baba’s bedroom door is closed. No light under the door. He pauses, wonders if he should go inside, decides against it. In the kitchen, Jee Jan is pouring cold water from a tumbler into glasses.

“Did she check on Baba?” he asks her.

“Colonel sahib is sleeping as usual,” she says.

“And Mama?”

“She is still at Mrs. Bangoo’s. Won’t be back before Maghrib.”

When Jee Jan is ready with the tray, he says, “Leave it on the table.” He opens the fridge door, looks inside. He waits, listening. Closes the fridge door, casts a look in her direction. Her bony figure stirs on the floor, the back resting against a sofa, the gaze glued to the grainy TV screen, the dupatta spread around the feet. He places the towels around his arms, grabs the tray.

When he returns, Murad’s chest is bare. Murad holds his shirt with both hands in front of a pedestal fan, waving it. Saad gazes at scars on Murad’s back as if they are pathways on a map.

Murad turns, smiles, walks towards Saad, takes a towel, dries his hair. Murad. His hands are callused, his fingers sinewy; his naked heels cracked like an old woman’s; his face—against the stark, lonely bulb light—looks imbued with layers of gestures waiting to surface. When Murad opens his mouth, the roots of his teeth are green.

It was Murad who started it, Saad would think later, Murad, the troubled boy, bringing into his life with a gesture of his hands a thousand burdens for him to bear. It’s Murad who strokes him, his chest, through the buttons of his dry shirt, his wet hair. Then he strokes him fast down there. Oh, so that is what it feels like, Saad thinks. That’s what it can do to you. He feels himself rising, rising. If it goes any longer, I’ll disappear.

When they are finished, they gulp the water first, then sip the soda. They sit side by side, both shirtless. They can hear the rain gutters gushing out water from the roof, but the rain has stopped. Cars pass, from time to time, on the street outside, a splashing sound accompanying them as they make their way through the flooded road. “I have to tell you something,” Murad says. “My cousin returned from Afghanistan last night. He has packets and packets of hashish in his bag.”

“Lies. What would you know of hashish?” Saad says. An instinctual response.

Murad’s cheeks color as if Saad has criticised his performance. “I never tell lies. Don’t you know that?”

“Boy, I wouldn’t believe a thing you said,” Saad says. “I wouldn’t trust you with a shoelace.” He cringes. An old story, he has an inkling of this even then, though he will have more than an inkling when he is older. That ancient barrier between men even when they are not men.

He looks outside through the narrow window, licking his lips, tasting the bitterness of his words. Murad cleans himself in silence. Falling distemper, cement jutting out of walls, air thick with dust and Saad can taste it when he breathes too fast. Scent of their bodies, scent of what they have done, scent of the monsoon air. It is everywhere this summer.

Murad fumbles with his shalwar’s drawstring, which has come out. “I need—” he says.

“Here,” Saad says smiling, pointing to a toothbrush on the floor. He picks the toothbrush and ties it to the drawstring. “Hold it,” he says, gesturing to the sides of the shalwar. They stand facing each other. Born two years apart, in different countries. Not even speakers of the same language, Saad thinks. He pushes the toothbrush into the opening of the shalwar, draws it around Murad’s waist. How little about Murad’s life he actually knows. In the early mornings, he has seen him, through his car window, in a field outside the government school, throwing pebbles at girls in uniform. He has seen him sometimes at night, sitting on the backseat of his father’s bicycle. He pulls out the toothbrush from the other opening of the trouser. He hands Murad both pieces of the drawstring.

“Thank you,” Murad says. “I should be heading home.” Murad ties the drawstring, puts on his sandals.

When Murad is about to leave, Saad says, “Wait,” and goes out to check if anyone is outside. “Okay, now. I will see you tomorrow.”

They shake hands, then Murad leaves.

At dinner that night, Baba says, “This is the coldest night of the year.” He sits at the head of the table, Mama and Saad on either side, facing each other.

Mama says, “It’s summertime, jan. And the A.C. is already off.”

Baba says, “Three months in Siachen and I didn’t even feel this cold on the glacier.”

Saad says, “Tell us about Siachen.”

Baba stares at the picture frames hanging from the wall, family photos mostly. Then he begins to sing. An old song, a war song. This has happened before. Ever since Baba had the stroke. This has happened. “More water, Saadi,” Mama says. “More water.” She takes the jug and fills his glass. Baba’s voice is rough, not magnetic or pleasing. A retired colonel’s voice, a voice used to barking orders. When the singing ceases it leaves a grim silence in its wake.

“You were telling about Siachen, Baba,” Saad says. The doctor has said, Let him tell his stories. It will help with the memory.

Baba looks at the tablecloth intently and says, “When you are young, you recover from anything. I spent ninety days in Siachen, and everything was fine. Cold and lonely, but fine. When my posting finished, I returned home to Lahore and knocked on the door one summer morning. I waited. Then I knocked on it again and someone opened the door and I could not be sure who I was or what purpose had brought me there. A few minutes later, after sitting down and drinking a glass of water, it came to me. My mother’s face. Home. It was enough, being home and being young. A whole life ahead of me.” He has used these exact words before. As if he read them somewhere and wrote them in a diary and memorized them later. He does not know his age some days, but he knows the exact inflections of this often-repeated story.

“So, you remembered?” Saad says.

“Yes,” Baba says. “Still, it’s never the same. To remember is not enough. That’s what the glacier can do to you. It can do that to anybody. Reach out to the center of your heart and make it a little colder. It can do that in a moment.”

Jee Jan brings fresh roti from the kitchen. “Shukrya, Jee Jan,” Mama says. “That’s enough roti for tonight. Just make more for yourself now.” Mama sips her water. “How was your day, Saadi? How many runs did you score?”

“I was not lucky today, Mama.”

“Remember when I came to watch you bat in the tournament. No one could get you out till you made a century.”

“Yes, Mama. You brought me luck that day. It’s very difficult to make a century.”

“Maybe I’ll come watch you again. Soon.”

“I would like that, but it makes the other boys uncomfortable.”

He gets up from the dining table with his plate and crosses the room, turns up the TV volume. The news broadcaster wears a hijab. “General Zia addressed the UN assembly today,” she says. Then the screen shifts, another grainy image: a man wearing spectacles.

“Dearly beloved,” he says and begins reciting Surah Fatihah. General Zia’s eyes are sunken eyes. He turns down the volume, switches the channel. American wrestling. He sits down on the carpet, watches. After a few minutes he says, “Mama, do you know Murad’s father, the man who cleans our car? Do you know how much we pay him?” Mama says she has it written down somewhere.

“Why do you ask?” Mama says after a moment.

“No reason,” he says.

The American wrestlers are loud. Their body measurements are captioned on the screen. Black wrestlers and brown wrestlers and white wrestlers. Their bodies are well oiled. When their bodies slam against the floor, or other bodies, or a metal chair, he can hear everything, the sound of muscle and bone. Blood, tissue, sweat—why does it feel like those odors have wafted through the television screen? Porous. A word he learned in school. It’s like a game, he thinks, a dance, a music to it, as he falls asleep that night. This thing of ours. He can still smell the monsoon rain on him. He can smell everything.

That week they meet like this. After cricket, they walk together. Drag their feet. Turn right at the entrance of Saad’s apartment. Lock the servant quarter door. Breathe the stale air. Together no more than half an hour. This, the maghrib time, when Mama visits her friend in 42-A for tea, and Baba sleeps.

Day after day after day, Saad asks Murad, his voice brimming with irony, “Where is this hashish your cousin brought from Afghanistan?” No longer malicious this inquiry, more like a lover’s teasing. Murad colors, but remains silent, ties his shalwar, wipes sawdust from it, as if sawdust could alter for worse those imprints of time already on that fabric. Then Saad leaves the room first, turning on the red light outside to signal that the coast is clear. Murad counts to five, his gaze glued to the keyhole, before exiting. And this drama, this turning of the switch, the waiting afterwards, this routine: as beautiful and damning to them as the business with their bodies.

On the seventh evening, they are carrying on like this in the locked servant quarter. They are along far enough not to hear the footsteps, though they are careful boys. Murad stops and Saad opens his eyes. Then they both hear it. The door being knocked on—it’s not supposed to be locked. At the other end, the colonel’s voice is like a hammer. “Kon ai? Kon ai?”

They are two silent bodies locked in this room, and someone outside is asking questions, trying to pry the door open. Perhaps the loud echoes ringing in the hallway outside will attract attention and a friendly neighbor, generous, chivalrous, ever ready, will turn up with tools that can open locked doors. They do not know what that could do to them. They cannot answer what awaits them on the other side. A week earlier, they were living through that careless summer of youth—envy of old age. Now, they are huddled together, saying a silent prayer, their hearts beating so fast.

They put their clothes on. Saad puts his arm around Murad and whispers, “Just wait,” but there is no assurance in his voice. Then the knocking stops.

Then Jee Jan’s voice: “All good, colonel sahib?”

“Why is this door locked?”

“I must have done it. Shall I look for the key?”

Then silence.

“No, it’s fine.”

And they wait, counting the receding footsteps.

“I’ll go out first. Then you better run,” Saad says. He leaves the quarter and enters the apartment. He is not wearing shoes. He stands at the entrance hall, allowing the cold air to do its work. There is no air conditioning in the servant quarter, the air there dusty and foul. His body is soaked in sweat. To enter the apartment is to feel free again. To breathe. It is dark, and the only light is the television. Standing at the entrance, he peers at Jee Jan leaning against the sofa. She does not look at him as he crosses the hallway. He says nothing. Baba’s bedroom door is closed, no light visible from the cracks.

When he is about to enter his room, Jee Jan’s voice comes. “Can I bring you anything to drink, Saadi?”

“No, thank you,” he says. His heart might break out of the seams of his skin at this rate. How fast it pumps. How the blood rushes at a touch, a voice heard across a room, a sight beheld. He locks his bedroom door, takes off his clothes. He lies down on the bed. He is still hard, he realizes. He thinks about the American wrestlers, brings both his hands down, begins the work.

The wooden bed creaks gently, the ceiling fan produces a whirring sound. He is really working both his hands, faster when he can, long strokes, tightening and relaxing the grip. There seems to be no end in sight. His arms are tired, and the Azaans are ringing in the mosques outside, the sun has set, he knows, the Lahori sky its usual red-rimmed azure when he comes, and that takes a long time too. His whole body is coming down, shaking. He feels relaxed afterwards. Then he gets up and leaves the bed to find a towel. As he cleans himself, he is thinking, If she really wanted to say something, she would have done it already. And if she says something now, I can deny it, and then who will believe her?

After cricket the next day, Murad says, “Come to the mosque with me.” He says it in front of the other boys, so Saad cannot rush home like he wants to, without talking to Murad, without looking at him, without.

It is a short walk. The mosque, cream white and square, is inside a small park. They find a bench under a poplar tree. It is sunset. They sit down, not looking at each other, looking at the mosque in front. Saad detects a faint whiff of perfume. A sweet invitation to his flesh. When, he wonders, did Murad have time to rush home and put it on? A dull throbbing hunger calls him, signaling the breakdown of his will. He remembers being stroked, gripped and handled by Murad’s wiry fingers. Murad taking him in the mouth, Murad cleaning himself afterwards. He shudders as he thinks of this, and it’s not just revulsion that he feels, but a longing, so mournfully, painfully acute, its explication for him so arduous, that he thinks, Any more of it and it’ll break me.

Murad pulls out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, places it in the empty space between them on the bench. Saad decides not to smoke so close to the mosque. Murad fumbles with the matchstick. Saad takes it from him, lights the matchstick. Pick, pick, the sound of the matchstick being struck. Saad watches Murad lean in with the cigarette. Tilawat spreads from the loudspeaker. Crickets chirp. Mellifluous: a word he misspelled in a spelling test in school.

The park is neatly manicured. Saad casts an anxious glance around the park. Can he be spotted here? It is late for children and women to loiter, but some stubborn children still slip up and down slides, waver after footballs, or grope the oily surface of monkey-bars, hapless caretakers chasing after them. In a shadowy passageway abutting the flat marble wall of the mosque, he can see water taps running excessively fast and crouching men stiffly washing themselves. Fools, he thinks. Water pressure has no link to piety, he knows this. Water cannot clean the diseased soul. Inside, prayer has begun, he can tell by the sounds from the loudspeaker. He can imagine the men lined up, standing straight, as if ready for battle.

“Saadi,” Murad says. He hides his lit cigarette under the arch of his right palm. He blows smoke in Saad’s direction.

“What?” Saad says. It bothers him, this direction of the smoke, that Murad is smoking and he’s not.

“Should we go inside?”

“You go if you like. I am leaving in a second.” What good, he thinks, can prayer do me now?

“I asked for your sake,” Murad says. “I am not here to pray.” Murad stands up and extinguishes his cigarette against the tree trunk. Then he sits down at the bench again.

“What do you want? Be quick.” Saad says, as the second Allahu Akbar sounds and the congregation prostrates inside.

“I brought you something,” Murad says, smiling. “A present.”

Saad says, “I don’t want anything from you. You hear me, you sisterfucker?” Why is he smiling at me? he thinks.

“Wait till you see it. You just wait, Saadi. Oh, you’ll like it.”

Moment by moment, Murad’s accent has become heavier, he notices. He thinks about when he first met Murad. How Murad stuttered when he spoke Urdu, freshly arrived from somewhere awful: Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, or a refugee camp in Bannu. What was it—five years before? He looks at Murad again. A thousand such looks he has given him since the week before, when they touched each other that way for the first time. This look is a curious look, a look that says, I forgot about you. Let me see you in the light one more time. Murad is five feet tall, with a nose already crumbling—or is it still forming? Saad cannot be certain. He is a man-faced boy and he is not beautiful. There is no hint of hair on Murad's pale Pashtun face. He wears an off white shalwar kamiz, the same clothes he has frequently worn in the last year. Pressing against his brown sandals are feet uncannily large, smeared with something dark; his toenails extend far out into the world, an excessiveness both hideous and gripping. His eyes are young eyes, sea blue, soft.

“I don’t care. I don’t want it, whatever it is,” Saad says finally. “I am going home in a minute.”

“Shhh.” Murad puts his hand on Saad’s thigh. “You’ll get me caught if you’re not careful.” An edge to his voice now.

The men inside are sitting—waiting for the imam to signal the end. Ensuing silence is thick, though momentary, not even to be interrupted by the stertorous breathing of an aging supplicant.

“What?” Saad says loudly, breathlessly, his gaze fixed on Murad’s hand.

“I have it. Like I said I would. I stole some from my uncle. Now you listen. Now you’ll see. Just wait. Let me show you.”

“I never asked you for anything. I don’t want to see.” The hand has stayed in place. If it moves, Saad thinks, what would I do then?

Murad takes something out from his pocket, thrusts it at Saad’s chest. A packet covered in golden foil. "Here is the stuff." he says. Then he says, “hasheeesh,” repeating the word as he watches Saad, letting the last syllable hang in the humid air.

“How much is this?” Saad says. He takes the packet, puts it in his pocket.

“I wouldn’t take money from you. Do you believe me now? You want more?” Murad shows Saad his pocket. And then he says, “See here. There is enough to last us a while.”

As if triggered by a watchful deviant, rickshaws (silencers taken out to attract weary travellers), begin abruptly moving up and down the main road, their ceaseless coughing cutting through the stillness. Murad removes his hand and fumbles with the cigarette packet.

Saad stands up, looks at the rickshaws, fingering the golden foil in his pocket. A nervous excitement slowly descends on him. “Okay, okay,” Saad says. “I will pray before I go home.” Just in case, he thinks.

“See you tomorrow,” Murad says, touching Saad’s elbow. They don’t shake hands. Saad walks away. Murad lights another cigarette.

The constable is not an accident. He has appeared from behind the marble archway of the mosque, where he lounges, nodding at the men as they walk past him. The constable has observed the boys smoking in the proximity of children and women. The constable is not an old man, but he has seen something of the world. He fought in a war once and later, when the war was lost, spent six months in a prison camp. He has a thick black beard, a solid bulge along his belly and an unbreakable belief in the correlation between duty and dignity. The constable watches Murad and curls his thick moustache and grips the baton hanging by his right leg. Then he begins walking towards Murad. He passes Saad on the way.

“You there, boy,” the constable says loudly, gesturing to Murad with a wave of his hands. “Come here a minute.”

Saad is thinking of Murad’s thin fingers, of the firmness of their grip. He crosses the park, heads to the mosque, smiling. He wants to say something nice to Murad. He hears the constable’s voice behind him. At the steps of the mosque, he stops in his tracks and turns. A mosque lamp casts its light on him at an oblique angle, brings his features into relief. Saad’s complexion is wheat-colored and his face square. He is tall for his age and despite his disheveled appearance—his hair is unkempt and sweat clings to his neck and sideburns—his bearing has poise. He wears a tracksuit and white sneakers.

His gaze finds Murad by the park bench where he left him. Murad and the constable standing close together. A heat to their gestures. Too late, too late, too late, he thinks as he watches Murad, lower lip tilted, deflecting in his broken Urdu this question or the other. He watches the constable’s hand enter Murad’s pocket. Murad lunges, the constable’s arm flashes. The constable strikes Murad twice more. He hits Murad in the back of the head with an open palm. Then he hits him on the cheek. He holds Murad by the tips of his hair.

And held like this, Murad’s gaze meets Saad’s. Two dozen feet between them. There is no hatred in Murad’s eyes, only pity and kindness, if boys can possess pity and kindness, certainly not desire, and it is not an unforgiving gaze, but that is how Saad will remember it later. He will remember it often, at will, give himself shivers, like reciting a beloved poem. It was love, he will say. And you can be anything you want in this world, he will say, but don’t be an unlucky boy. Saad turns and enters the mosque. Already, men inside are coming out, heading to the scene—shoes being hastily taken from the racks and thrown on the floor—there are raised voices in the distance.

Saad does not look back and he gingerly grips the golden biscuit.