Nadir Ali (1936-2020) was a well-respected Punjabi poet and fiction writer. Hero and Other Stories, a collection of his short stories translated from the Punjabi was published in 2022 by Weavers Press.
(Photo credit: Akram Varraich)
Introduction I wrote for the short story collection Hero and Other Stories
Nadir Ali and his Fiction
I came to know Nadir Ali’s writing through sheer stroke of luck. I had been asked to edit/ translate a book of short stories by Pakistani writers for Penguin, India. Without fully grasping the scope of the project, I laid down a condition: the book would represent most languages of Pakistan, not just Urdu and English. My contact at Penguin agreed. I reached out to a friend, who put me in touch with his youngest sister, Amna Ali, my future wife, whose father, Nadir Ali, was a well-respected Punjabi fiction writer. My own knowledge of Punjabi literature was almost nonexistent by then despite it being my mother tongue simply because Pakistan’s ruling elite has decided to not teach Punjabi in school at any level. By the time the Penguin book came out, Amna and I were already married. For me, knowing Nadir Ali is synonymous with embracing modern Punjabi fiction. I was also fortunate enough to have spent a lot of time with him, as he and his wife visited us in San Francisco regularly until his health wouldn’t allow it, and of course I visited Lahore as well. We had innumerable conversations about all things under the sun, women, sex, booze, notions of beauty and morality, friendship, culture, religion – but above all history and literature.
He was one of the most well-read persons I have ever met, and his reading shelves contained western to Indian history, philosophy, and literature, with tremendous in-depth knowledge and understanding of classical Punjabi literature, including the poetry by the Sikh gurus. His deep study of Punjabi was largely thanks to the weekly gatherings at poet, playwright and critic Najm Hosain Syed’s house. His association with Najm and the extended Punjabi sangat lasted over forty years and was held in deep reverence by him.
In the right setting, he could opine on the importance of Dostoevsky’s speech in honor of Pushkin and in the same breath wax eloquent on Nabakov’s gushing over Romain Rolland’s Jean- Christophe. A humanist at heart, his preferred lens was that of Marxism, although he had no problem criticizing the soul crushing Soviet-style communism just as he wouldn’t shy away from pointing out the dehumanizing side of American capitalism. He was a man of culture and admired the flexibility of traditions, with very little respect for religious dogma. His sense of humor delighted those around him. He once told his wife, who insisted that he tag along on a pilgrimage to Mecca, that instead of wasting money and time in Saudi Arabia she could cast her stones at him. Although he didn’t care much for western music (my one big criticism), Indian music – classical, semi-classical and early era film songs – was etched into his soul since he insisted that poetry was nothing but singing. And that’s where we differed. We also differed on how short stories should be created. He was fundamentally a poet and it is important to take note of that fact in order to understand his fiction output, which outgrew his poetry, even if we don’t include his non-fiction, which was serialized in his favorite Punjabi literary magazine Pancham.
It’s widely agreed that all creative work is a result of the creator’s unconscious mind – what and when the unconscious mind unlocks, no one fully under- stands – but poetry and revelation are like twins. His stories, short in length barring a few exceptions, came to him as a revelation as if he was receiving a poem via two fundamental sources: Dreams and actual people. One could call them prose poems, but that would be missing the point. He was not the kind of a writer, for example, that I am, though I did learn from him a lot. His stories, by and large, did not come to him because – generally speaking – an idea suddenly seized him, though ideas are part of his stories. The point I am trying to convey here, based on countless discussions with him on the art and craft of short story writing, is that he didn’t believe in creating or crafting a story. It often came to him in a dream; and other times, it came to him through a real person, who would embody an idea and become a central character in the story. Just as not every dream turned into a story, a person whose appearance triggered the story must’ve also struck an uncanny note. And the dreams which yielded to stories were always fundamentally about people, but as opposed to the stories directly inspired by the people on the street or family, the dreams evoked memories. For example:
I had a peculiar dream last night. I am the kind of man who always thinks deeply about dreams. When I lost and then initiated the arduous task of recovering my memory, I went in search of all those times I could not account for by raking through my dreams.
Despite being in love with life, Nadir Ali came to writing as a broken, haunted man. A man whose mind could not stop wondering why things went wrong. Partly because he lived in a society where at the time certain questions could not be raised loudly and partly because of his complete break- down after the 1971 war, he found an outlet in his stories, but before that could happen, he had to rediscover his deep love for the Punjabi language. His emotional trauma, it seems, could not be expressed in his poems and he found that the short story format was more suited to what his heart wanted unleashed. His stories attempt to fathom man’s moral breakdown while they also hope to make sense of the complexities of life from the point of view of a child and adolescent, then as a young and old man. First, there’s the bloody partition, then Bangladesh’s War of Independence, and finally the breakdown of traditions, values, society’s moral compass, loss of touch with nature. It is safe to say that though he left his village, his village never left him. The village of his childhood was a place where a human being learned to strike a respectful balance with other humans, animals and nature. And that desire to achieve inner harmony kept a leash on a person’s greed, selfishness and narcissism, one of the recurrent motifs in his stories. Circumstances beyond his control disrupted his inner harmony and things began to fall apart. In my opinion, his stories Saint of the Sparrows and Qissa Shah Husain are his attempts to go back in time to the roots of his literary culture and analyze the forces which disturb and disrupt a place’s political and emotional life, and also what tools a society employs to maintain its sanity and dignity.
If life had been kind to him, he would’ve become a professor of history or literature, but in order to get married to the girl he’d been in love with since the age of 11 and then support his family he considered that joining the army as a cadet was his best option, though it was a common option for many young men of his time. If he hadn’t joined the army, his wife once lamented to me, he wouldn’t have witnessed the butchery of Bengalis by West Pakistan’s army. And if he hadn’t witnessed the killing, he wouldn’t have lost his memory. If he hadn’t lost his memory – and gone through medical treatment, electric shocks, mental asylum – he wouldn’t have felt the rage and intense urge to go searching for things lost in space and time. And I believe it was because of this feeling of intense personal loss, that he began to sense a loss much bigger taking place right before everyone’s eyes. In the realm of culture, traditions, humanity, nature, friendship, all in the name of development, progress, and modernization with an inhuman capitalist push. He began to notice people utterly cut off from their own history partly due to education promoted by the colonial syllabus and later the collusion of Pakistan’s own ruling elite, rigidly maintaining an outdated infrastructure of a three-tiered educational system. His own children would speak Urdu with him and among themselves.
Although his stories have a very wide canvas, his recurrent concerns are few. There are no heroes in his stories, nor villains. He’s drawn to people, who despite disadvantages and hard times, maintain dignity or win another person’s respect as the characters in Feeqa’s Death and Bundu, Consoler of the Rich show. The women in the stories Twins, Nooran Niari and Balwant Kaur are not tragic figures to him but those who show resilience. The partition of India left a scar on Nadir Ali’s consciousness and though it may not appear directly on the page, its repercussions can be felt in many stories. In love with the common man and woman , he abhorred dividing people along religious lines as it did more harm than good. The elephant in the room, however, was the army action in what was then East Pakistan. Call it guilt or trauma, it affected him so much that you won’t find a single direct mention of it in any of his stories if memory serves me right, but after a careful reading, you’ll find the traces of tragedy and cruelty in almost all his stories. In Bundu, Consoler of the Rich, the narrator, a professor at a college, recalls a time when Bundu the washerman took extra care to make sure the narrator’s clothes were spick and span even when he could not pay Bundu for his services, a selfless act which eventually results in the narrator’s getting transferred first to Lahore and later to East Pakistan.
Bundu played an important role in my transfer to Lahore when our principal accepted a position at the university and took me along. “You are the best-dressed man in all of Gujrat!”, the principal had said. From Lahore, I went on to Dhaka University in 1965. My children and I took to Dhaka, but luck was not on our side. We were spared the perils of detention in 1971 as we were able to come to West Pakistan for the summer holidays. But I remained affected by 1971. I became very ill. I lost my memory during treatment. Once recovered, I made a trip to Gujrat after a gap of twenty five years. Bundu had passed away by then.
The story starts with a dream the narrator has in which a Bengali woman appears to take a walk with him to a grave. Then, one day, he realizes that the Bengali woman had Bundu’s eyes. Of course, we know that he went to East Pakistan not as a professor but Major Nadir Ali and was made under complex circumstances the commanding officer of a battalion, until he was sent back to Pakistan months before the Pakistani army surrendered. Concerns in Bundu’s story also bounce off the title story Hero whose protagonist attracts the attention of the narrator, again a professor but this time Professor Nadir Ali. The hero of the story is a man who despite his poverty has a style about him which foremost shows up in his nicely trimmed and ironed clothes, and of course how he returns the professor’s greetings. The fact that the hero lives inside an abandoned temple scores a political and emotional point about guilt and trauma. Bundu and the protagonist of Hero are but two sides of the same coin.
Also, in Feeqa’s Death, when the protagonist says, recalling an older incident and making sense of his deams, “Feeqa had committed a murder which only Hussaina Mehr and I had witnessed . . ,” Nadir Ali the writer allows his readers a rare window into his pain of having to watch Bengalis being murdered by the army.
Nadir Ali’s stories were not easy to translate despite the deceptive simplicity. He invented his own syntax and idiom and didn’t care about formalities and literary conventions. And like in Autumn of the Patriarch by Garcia Marquez, one of his favorite writers, the readers have to be very careful and do a writerly reading to discern the many voices as they pretend to come out of one mouth. Amna Ali went above and beyond in making sure there were no errors left especially with regards to logical progression of the narrator’s casual but circular storytelling technique. As all translators are wont to do under difficult situations, we took some liberties so the translated text reads smoothly in the target language. In some cases, we had not much choice but to do away with quotation marks, both double and single, as it became clear, time and again, that all the voices bounced off the walls of a single madhouse. Both Amna and I are deeply indebted to the help given again and again by the real heroes of modern Punjabi fiction such as Maqsood Saqib, Nain Sukh, Zubair Ahmed, Ijaz and Mudassar Bashir among others. We hope these complex and compassionate stories will delight and enrich the reader. All shortcomings the reader will encounter must be attributed to the translators.
Please note: Hero and Other Stories is published by Weavers Press and includes 14 stories translated into English from the original Punjabi by Amna Ali and myself. The book is available via Amazon and at the publisher’s website: https://weaverspress.com/bookshop/
A pandemic story
It’s that time of the day. The end time. I call our dog and grab the leash. I instruct the boys to wind it down, grabbing my mask and keys. Fucking pandemic! Unlike normal school days, they won’t be hitting the sack anytime soon. I understand. There isn’t much I can do, but I get a kick out of them hearing my baritone – they call it barking up the wrong tree – cajoling them to quit bouncing off the walls. We have neighbors, boys! There’s a bit of an edge to my voice tonight. A premonition of unpleasant news? An unhinged cop? A riot? A teenager lighting a match to boarded up windows? A discarded needle piercing the sole of my shoe? A deep breath, a deep-deep breath, tiptoeing around a mound of sleeping ambers spread on the back of my tongue.
I could see the future my wife and my sons could not when we as a family decided to get a dog, despite their protestations and promises. As time went on, the boys’ hormones changing and frontal lobes degenerating, I consoled myself, convinced of the health benefits that come from walking while being led by an untrained, zigzagging, a very American dog. In real world there are two kinds of dogs. American and un-American. It was a stretch but sometimes that’s what we need to maintain a semblance of dignity in trying times. For men of my temperament, most times are. There are basically two types of people. One, who remain calm and enjoy the present. Two, who are often anxious and worry about the future. Taking a stroll with our dog, as it turns, halts and moves, and halts again to sniff at mysteries left wafting courtesy of other dogs, is not exactly a cardiovascular activity, nor does it help me lose additional calories – yet, despite the irritation, it gives me a routine, which can’t be bad for my blood pressure. I enjoy being on the neighborhood sidewalks, running into neighbors and striking up familiarity with a few fixtures – call them the wretched of the earth. They are Black, they are White, and In Between, mostly men but women too, young and old. I also enjoy catching up with a cousin or a friend on my phone without familial disruption. Tonight I hope to continue my conversation with my friend Ijaz from a week ago about how Jinnah made Muslim League win Bengal and Punjab in the1946 election without any grassroot foundations, despite having lost heavily in 1937. I dial his number as soon as the elevator door opens. His recorded voice greets me. He’ll return the call soon, I know.
I’ve often wondered about the difference between a person who’s as loyal as a dog and a person who’s living a dog’s life. I spot him from a distance as he prepares his bed.
Having killed another man in self-defense, Wayne spent seventeen years in jail, and now in his old age he returns to the same spot – Firestone’s parking lot – his bedroom for several years now. After he wakes and rolls up his bed before the business opens, he too follows a day long routine, as I’d see his sagging but stubborn self with a shopping cart filled with junk, pushing or resting, waiting for the sunset. His bad eyesight allows me to walk my dog without feeling obligated to have a conversation with him when I am not in the mood for it. Sometimes I just have no energy. I used to give him my time frequently when we moved here a few years ago, but my enthusiasm waned, in part due to the fatigue I feel at the end of the day and in part due to his biased attitude towards Black homeless people. There are times when I feel I should overcome my hesitation and listen to his story beyond what he’s already told me. His tragedy, it appears, started when his mother died when he was barely ten and his father, the owner of a small workshop, took to drinking. He ran away leaving his siblings to fend for themselves. His siblings ran away, too, to all end up like Wayne.
It’s a combination of the times we’re living in and the nature of our neighborhood that I don’t want my wife or sons walking the dog once it’s dark. As if the danger posed by men needing mental health care or out to smash car windows isn’t enough, one has to worry about stepping on broken glass and needles. It’s also not a pretty sight to be startled by someone in a dark alley expressing anger at the top of his lungs or under the influence of John Rambo without being able to differentiate between me and the system. As the man of the house, not in the traditional sense though still, it is common sense that I walk the dog every night. What’s the difference between routine and habit? I strike up casual conversations with familiar faces of the citizens of lower depths. Not all but a few would hit me for a dollar or two, and if I happen to have it on me, I’d part with it. But most of them seem only hungry for human connection. It’s only obvious. While down on luck, one naturally craves the human touch, although sudden pangs of hunger would for sure force a change of focus. Towards money. With Ernie that’s how things evolved. A permanent hunger became his mask. Long before the Covid 19 pandemic.
As usual, I run into a few neighbors on my way out of the lobby. Hello, nod, smile. No more shaking hands. A motley crew of men, all from our building, stand smoking in two groups, one Chinese speaking, the other a mix. As most of them turn, we acknowledge each other. My dog rushes to a rectangular patch of mulch under a tree to take a leak. I say hello to a neighbor with slender legs returning from her dog walk. Under sane conditions we’d have a short talk, pet each other’s dogs, but today we observe social distancing. Once I turn onto a side street, it is hard to miss the crankiness of a silent night. I am still trying to wrap my head around the fact that people in East Pakistan were told that Bengali, their language, was not worthy of official recognition. I try Ijaz’s phone one more time. Wayne’s tucked himself in his blankets, either awake or asleep. I stay on the other side of the street. The phone rings and rings. The tug of war, or of will, continues between me and my dog. Even when I let him prevail, I know when to yank the leash. The same recording again. He’ll call, I still think. At the far end, by the lights, I hear a clattering sound.
That’s Jonah collecting cans and bottles late into the night. Opioid crisis. Homelessness. Tech invasion. Tax breaks. Skyrocketing rents. Evictions. Loopholes. Corruption. Explosion. Third world. First world. Words rush through my mind. Worlds collide. Block after block of San Francisco turned into battlefields. Needles lie strewn everywhere resembling spent bullets. Needles ready to pierce your soul. Junkies sit or stand frozen for hours of morbid solitude inside a wax museum of oblivion. The sight of them injecting their flesh or peeling scabs and scratching puss-filled sores has stopped shocking me. The writer in me engaged Jonah one night as my dog sniffed at the base of a barren tree near trashcans being rummaged by him to score tin and glass to sell at a recycling center. Born in Mauritius, educated in London, he met drugs in San Francisco. I’d found it disorienting to hear a British accent coming from Jonah’s mouth. I’d expected a hillbilly or whitetrash accent. Again and again, I remind myself that anyone can fall through the cracks. Sometimes even a helping hand or two aren’t enough. It’s impossible to tell whether the color of his eyes results from a lack of sleep or heroin use. Painkillers play a treacherous role somewhere in his miserable life. But he always makes a point of adding, as if reading my thoughts, that he’s been going clean for a while. I’m getting out the rabbit hole, don’t worry, my friend. I come close to telling him whenever I’d spot him at night that I’ve been meaning to write a story whose title is going to be Jonah’s Wail.
Jonah’s turned onto Natoma, where my car is parked. We park on the streets since we can’t afford a garage. Our windows have been smashed a few times. It’s a really crappy situation, a terrible feeling to walk to your car and find your side window smashed as you’re about to take your child to school. It’s also very easy to connect homelessness and window smashing. Lazy thinking, Jeff once broadened my understanding. Most of it is organized crime. I know people fallen to addiction complicate the situation. Many who are addicted to heroin started out with painkillers prescribed by doctors. Recently several articles have come out on that topic, implicating the Sackler family and others in exacerbating the crisis. This couldn’t happen without the complicity of the government, my neighbor Cody likes to elaborate. That’s the primary reason why big pharma is called big pharma and what their financial contribution to politicians does to safeguard their profit, I try to explain it to my high schooler. My dog stops by another tree, reads it left and right, then swirls around frantically indicating the bowel movement has started. Its hind legs and lower back contract peculiarly before the turds come out. Just then I spot the shadow of a man on the same side of the street two blocks down. Will I say hello to the stranger? I don’t want him to stop. I didn’t realize I had been humming the melody of a Hindi film song.
A Mukesh. The melody trails off. People can recognize if the notation is non-Western. It can make most Americans edgy just as hearing a language other than English can make them insecure. Insecurity makes people anxious, even angry. Speaking a language other than English is not the same as imposing your language on others. The level of violence is not comparable. Unfairness and violence are not the same.
Some time back I reflected on the reason I was drawn to speaking with those living their lives out on the street. It was not only because of my writerly habits or my own childhood shaped by poverty. It had to do with a sense of confidence and safety that entered my veins via the leash in my hand, my dog being the source, his small size notwithstanding. The dog allows me to pretend to slow down, change direction, and even refuse to hand out money. I did give Ernie money sometimes, but very rarely. His list of excuses began to dampen my trust in him, though I don’t blame him for that. I’d do the same if I were so down on my luck for so long with no hope of ever coming out, as Jonah once put it, the rabbit hole. It seems Ernie is always a victim of some form of violence, is always being released from hospital, be it his kidneys or knees. One time it was the death of his son and mother, both in the same week. How tragic! How incredible! How bizarre! I didn’t know how else to respond except to show how sorry I felt and offer a few dollars. Most human hearts tremble between saintly and satanic strings. Therein lies the heaviness. I try Ijaz one more time with no luck again. He must be walking his inner dog tonight.
I don’t want to view it as a mistake, but my wife can’t let it pass without reminding me that when I extend my hand to a stranger, the price I pay is being approached by that person who’s not a stranger anymore. I am expected to offer my attention and kindness every time we run into each other. That’s the price of kindness. It’s tough business. Kindness. Once you’ve made the acquaintance of a person, you can’t relegate that person back to being a stranger. But homeless strangers are a unique category. Once you have made their acquaintance, they never become your friends or, as I said, go back to being strangers. They get stuck in the forever interregnum, a purgatory. I cannot simply walk our dog and not make eye contact with the unfortunate ones, and if I make eye contact, it isn’t always possible to keep your ear or mouth shut. With Ernie, I refuse to part with money now because of the color of his eyes. I can’t allow myself to be complicit in his march towards Colma City. Instead, I bring him a sandwich sometimes if he can wait. He’s waited as long as twenty minutes once or twice, leaning against a wall with a cane to support his limp or sitting on a slim ledge outside a store window. Boxing connected us immediately. Both of us knew that Ali wasn’t the only boxer to have knocked Foreman down. Ernie did it twice, but he lost the fight because Foreman, too, did it twice, one of which was a knockout. The Greatest told a TV anchor that it was Ernie Shavers who threw the hardest punch at him. This Ernie, too, is a fighter, a tough one despite having lost most of his battles, it seems, yet never giving up. The shape of his battles keeps changing even when they remain the same. The person approaching is only a block away. I feel goosebumps.
For the last several years other factors, totally uncalled for, have added to the heaviness in my heart. Though widely acknowledged the rise in general bigotry, clips of racist rants and show of Islamophobia circulating freely all over the social media, no one knows how to counter it. My immediate worry concerns my children while they worry about me when I am out at night. I worry because they, like most children, could and did sometimes bring those pressures home unexamined, unprocessed to turn them into an angry dog unleashing its fury at the parents. Just because I walk a dog, even though it’s just a terrier mix, very low on the pecking order, I agonize, I’d be mistaken for a rich man responsible for unaffordable rents, evictions, and ersatz sleeping arrangements often comprising of cardboards or extra layers of clothes. So the poor animal, without this ever entering its knowledge, has metamorphosed into a double-edged sword. I wonder sometimes that perhaps my talking to those lonely souls works, subconsciously, as a feint, a pre-emptive strike of sort to disarm a faceless enemy. The irony of the idea isn’t lost on me though. Disarming a faceless enemy is more of a metaphor because none of those folks I have mentioned are faceless, nor do I consider them my enemy. To the best of my ability, I flatten my accent. Mick Jagger did it. Time to bag the dog shit, wondering why my physical fitness is no match for black hurt or white fury.
The approaching silhouette has given way to an actual person, a fair-complexioned Black man by appearance, working class or without work, a little younger than me but with a cheetah’s frame. I try to gauge him without letting him detect my masked fear. He has a mask on too. Masks trigger anxiety. I can’t tell if he’s an African American or an immigrant like me. We have a family from Ethiopia in our building whom I am on talking terms with. A single mother with two boys who I encourage to do well in school whenever I run into them. Should I make an eye contact or not? Should I play the nonchalant? Soon as I pull the leash my confidence rises to a respectable level. We make eye contact, withholding any expression. I blink first, he follows. He says how yea doin’ sir? I smile and say doin’ okay and as he passes by me I say stay safe brother. He says hell, I’m tryin’. He laughs a muffled laugh. The anxiety dissipates. I feel cold but not chilly as I walk away with a mixture of not having experienced any anxiety at all and feeling blissful at having won a small battle over fear. The problem with masks is that a person is always wearing a mask. Every person has a limited supply of masks which are put on and taken off according to the person’s best judgment. Everyone wears it. Nations too. Changing from mask to mask, a different one for different issue, for a different constituency. Confidence and anxiety are interrelated. If a person feels that a mask put on is the right mask through which the observer sees the person, the anxiety recedes and confidence rises. But the thought that the mask is the wrong one allows the anxiety to come back. The entire spectrum of life is a seesaw. A desired balance is ephemeral.
The person has disappeared. But I can’t deny the reality of fear I find my inner self grappling with. Most people don’t understand what it is like to live in America while not being Black or White. When politicians’ careless or calculated hate-filled rhetoric encourages a certain section of society to blame their misery on someone with my appearance, I can’t trust strangers blindly. I am ashamed to admit, to myself mostly, I have difficulty trusting sometimes those I know. You may not have heard of Tamla Hosford. I have. I have however learned the ropes of the American society, not perfectly but well enough. I have a strong sense, after having lived in the most liberal city of America, of what sort of comment could offend one and criticism turn another off. But in those circles a physical threat is minimal though not completely absent, while expecting there would always be someone to stand up for me even though he or she could not fully protect me from harm. That’s the kind of vulnerability I have always felt. True, that is also partly my personality. I often worry. I worry about something going wrong, triggering pent up anger or frustration to explode throughout the city while I’m out walking the dog to end up as collateral damage. I worry about my dog not knowing what to do. I worry about my wife and children hearing the bad news.
The threat of physical harm has always existed. The fear of ending up in a rough neighborhood at the wrong time lingers at the periphery for my thoughts. My wife though exerts a calming effect on me since we’ve been together. You panic, she’d scold me, unnecessarily. Since Trump got elected to the office, the possibility of facing abuse or being attacked ballooned in my mind. Though I haven’t been punched or kicked so far, I did have a few close calls, most of which I managed to laugh off. But a woman friend was recently assaulted when she went to a store in the Eastbay by a mentally ill homeless person who she’d said hello to or acknowledged from time to time. My older son often reminds me, while I tie the leash to the dog’s collar, Be careful, dad! I sometimes tell my wife and sons that they need to call me if I am taking too long to return, one of the reasons I make sure I carry my phone with me. I also use that time to call and catch up with relatives in other cities and close friends, both Indian and Pakistani and American. With some of my relatives and friends slipping into Urdu or Punjabi during conversations comes naturally though under the current circumstances it creates an emotional tug of war. Approaching men of certain built, attire, and facial expressions now makes me self-conscious of my voice while uttering non-English words. Xenophobia, I ponder over the word, not only makes people hate or distrust outsiders, it also scuttles their imagination, leaving them incapable of understanding. That’s why learning a new language, scientists tell us, makes our brain more developed, makes us smarter. It broadens a person’s communication net. Why someone, an immigrant in my case, would find it unnatural to speak to a relative or an old friend in a language other than English? It’s not as if I am conspiring to have the approaching person fired from his job or elope with his wife. Whenever I speak to Ijaz on the phone, I dip in and out of Urdu, Punjabi and English, but as our discussion moves deeper, Punjabi rules. Language politics is so fucked up, really, if you think about it. Why did the Punjabi-dominated Pakistani army insist on imposing Urdu on a people who are so proud of their Bengali language, which produced poets such as Tagore and Nazrul Islam? What if Jinnah had allowed the Bengalis in East Pakistan the ownership of their language? What if Pakistan’s generals had been fans of Ray’s cinema? Why cannot nationalism handle the heat from more than one language?
I am well aware of the rise in white nationalism. But seeing the number of white men and women explode among the homeless evokes a mixture of contradictory emotions in me. A voice in me hollers karma! but that’s stupid. There is an unmistakable spike in the number of people with white skin among the victims of the opioid crisis too. Many of them have moved to San Francisco from smaller towns with little education and inability to understand complex political issues directly affecting their poverty and prolonging their suffering. That line of thinking evokes some empathy in me and for that reason alone I feel drawn to wringing their stories out of them. I remember several years ago, when I had recently moved to this neighborhood, I had seen a pretty young woman, still a teenager, squatting on the sidewalk on Market Street near the Twitter building, holding a sign that read she needed a new shirt, with a tip jar in front of her. I gave her a dollar and asked why she needed a new shirt.
“I have an interview and I am pretty much guaranteed a job they say,” she said.
I felt sorry for her, but couldn’t tell her that. When I probed her more, she gave me a quick run down on her family history. Both parents were drug addicts, rotting back in some small town in Central California. She’d been out on the streets, in San Francisco and elsewhere, for the last couple of years. My heart broke hearing that and I tried to give her a hint that San Francisco was a heartless city and would chew her up and spit out her bones if she hung around longer.
“My advice would be to ditch San Francisco and go to some small town where it’s easier to make human connections and hopefully start a better life,” I said.
“It’s much harder to survive in small towns,” she replied, respectfully, with sadness in her eyes. “There are more resources here.”
I wished her good luck with the job interview and came back. Try as I may I just cannot bring myself to picture a happy ending for her after all this time. As I walk the streets with my dog, I often remember her and imagine her ending up a junkie, stealing and prostituting, living at the mercy of a cruel pimp who rapes her at will. Dark scenarios, I know, I know. But my extreme pessimism is born out of observation. I have recognized a couple of women all broken down, now wandering the streets or squatting on sidewalks whom I had seen earlier in much better shape. Now when I spot a woman on the late side looking neat and clean but with a carry-on and a bag or two waiting for god knows what or pacing the streets, I experience a premonition. Dark scenarios take hold of my mind. There is a part of me that wants to save those women. I don’t know if my mind is influenced by movies such as Pakeeza or Taxi Driver, but I am no Raj Kumar or De Niro. My inability to do so makes me melancholic and mad. I come home all angry at the system and the lingering effects of patriarchy. I raise my voice at my two angels to calm my nerves. I take solace in believing that patriarchy is on its way out, slowly but surely. Then, sometimes, I think it may not be on its way out. I re-enter the mode of anger. The seesaw can begin without my awareness.
My reaction to running into White men is more complex. There’s sympathy mixed with fear. The sympathy I feel for them, the ones I have spoken to, almost always morphs into frustration. Even as they bond with me, either they end up spouting racist views towards Blacks and Mexicans; or they reveal their deep faith and love for the American imperial behavior without knowing it since some of them either have served in the army or would have loved to or have a vet relative they look up to. It’s all complicated, fucked up, leaves me cold. When such rubbish comes out of their mouth, I can picture them directing their anger, frustration or hatred at me if they don’t know me. Like I said it’s all very twisted. When I speak with Ernie, for example, I see him victimized by every single White man in America. Whereas when I speak with Wayne I see him victimized by capitalism. They are both victims and they both see themselves as each other’s adversary. Thinking along those lines leaves me depressed as I think about heading home tonight. I try another friend, in Houston, who is up late, but he doesn’t answer either.
It’s not depression depression. It’s the kind that everyone is prone to feeling when finding something too distressing. It dissipates though as I walk away from the thought. I make a point of not raising my voice at home. Usually I keep myself busy on phone, as you know, by calling a friend or a cousin. But no one picked up my calls tonight. With the pandemic going on the possibility of chitchatting with the usual suspects or strangers is out of the question. I decide it’s time to go. Go home, clean the dog’s paws and nose, and read. But my dog thinks otherwise. It has smelled a dog’s version of Richard II on the tree bark. It sniffs with an unusual intensity. I observe, fascinated and irritated at the same time. Such a higher capability in the realm of smells but totally useless where I am concerned. I tug at it lightly. I do that for several reasons. Sometimes one is not aware of being watched and god forbid if someone sees me performing animal cruelty. I also want to see if the dog got the message. It’s akin to when I raise my voice for my kids to get the message. But whatever invisible masterpiece my dog has detected at the tree trunk, it is stronger than the effect of my tug. I take it as a direct affront to my authority, my power over minor things. I look around to make sure no one is watching me. I yank a little harder. It turns its neck to look me in the eye, confused, but it digs in. I try to read its face as it tries to read mine. Almost as if to spite it, I want to take my mask off. To see its reaction, read the change its facial expressions reveal about its comprehension of where I stand now. Or more accurately about its true nature. How its mind processes my face without a mask, how it connects the tug on its leash with the vibe my face exudes. Does it even remember the tug? I doubt it. But I do it often so it must recall some vague memory of the scars from my yanking. I hesitate. In that moment of indecision, I think I detect a mask my dog has put on too. We both can’t read each other. I remember that there’s always a mask, a new one replacing the old one. I feel anxiety returning, but just then my dog yields and wags its tail before deciding to lead me. A young man, in the meantime, approaches us, passes us by, and stops. I hear two gun shots. No, they’re from yesterday. Mind works strange tricks. I breathe. He’s mumbling. I can’t make out his words. Without turning towards him, I recall his appearance I saw fleetingly from the corners of my eyes. I am sure he’s White, but he’s much younger, and if I hadn’t married late, he could be my son. He’s Caucasian, but I notice he’s wearing a mask. To cover his entire face. A funny one. Similar to the one worn by Spiderman, stolen from a child. I look at his hands, but they offer no clue. It’s not uncommon anymore to see White people talking to themselves and having prophetic visions about apocalypse. It used to be a totally Black domain. But why has he stopped?
The dog tugs at me and I realize I haven’t moved. It’s the man’s presence and his voice that has beckoned my fear and harpooned it. Why didn’t I make an eye contact with him as he passed me by? I turn to acknowledge him in case he’s looking in my direction. I am not going to talk to him beyond hello young man or stay safe, son. He’s looking at me, thankfully not in a threatening way. Maybe a little high or just disoriented due to lack of rest or food. I am trying to strike a balance between appearing unperturbed and conceding his presence. He is White, now without a mask, no, it’s there but the one I can’t read, and to be on the safe side I assume he has anger issues without appearing intimidating. He’s clearly a homeless, restless, unhinged looking man. Should I lower my mask to give him a chance to see I am not a threat, not an enemy? He slurs in a bizarre mixture of staccato and sing-songy noise which puts me off. No white rap please. Or any kind of fucking rap at this time of day, when I am about to shit in my pants. I decide to break off my gaze which wasn’t a gaze anyway and bid farewell. But just then I detect his head gyrating and hear him sing out the word curr . . . rrr . . . rry, twice, and my blood boils. I turn to look at him as if I don’t recognize the word. I can’t recognize his mask. Then, I ignore him because he’s an invisible man. My goosebumps have returned. There’s sweat on my skin. A part of me still refuses to see him. I know I cannot pretend he doesn’t exist because the threat he poses does exist. He continues standing there, wobbles, then dances a brief move. I continue to stare in his direction, at the wall right behind him. I hope he’ll forget me and move on. My dog tugs at me. I look away as slowly as possible before taking a step. As the dog’s presence reassures me that I am not alone, I fear for my safety and think about taking my phone out. I hear his footsteps drifting into the rabbit hole. I suddenly feel an urge to turn around and grab him from his shoulders to stem his slide into the hole. I take a deep breath and continue walking. I don’t see men across the street hovering outside my building. They have returned to the safety of their locked doors. I wonder if I should’ve said something funny to the man. In the end, I feel I made the right decision by not exposing my accent. Who knows what beasts might have been unleashed in the man! I’ll save the humor for later. For now I have to leash the riot in my heart.