When the protagonist of ambiguous gender falls for a glass prince
[From the chapter 'Zaid—The Glass Prince']
Candidly speaking, the desire to meet Zaid was still shrouded in ambiguity till then. Yet such was its hold that it had made me devour nineteen novels to prepare for shamelessly masquerading as an avid fan of a children’s writer, whose one character wept throughout, behind a smile of gratefulness. I was yet to interrogate myself enough about the logic behind the pull which was making me seek a meeting with Zaid. Running on pure instinct, I lacked any lucid reasoning to go with my chase.
This unrelenting curiosity was triggered a month ago at the British Council library by a mere glimpse of a man I had seen before but never met. The library was my sanctuary reserved for the blackest of moods. On the day I saw him, the clerk was issuing me The Return of She and I was trying to act casual to veil my typical edginess caused by standing at counters or any other place where I turned into a sitting duck for all kinds of stares. During those moments, one aimless glance deposited into my eyes a brief content that later turned into a memory terribly viscous. It showed me my ex-college-mate seated all alone at a reading table, looking evidently gloomy. I tried remembering his name but failed.
At college, he was always remote and cut off; connecting vaguely to my sub-consciousness like a stray dog I once identified myself with. Like a blind befriending sounds discarded by people with sight, I had noted him down in thoughts—an indistinct student with blinking eyes, a blurry presence lurking on the fringes who could be easily mistaken for a wandering spirit.
His hair had now thinned and a hesitant beard bordered the visage; as unremarkable a man as before; only older, gloomier. Once the library clerk was done with stamping and noting, I quickly collected the book and walked out of the entrance without chancing another glance at his table.
However, the pithy vision lit up in my mind at night when after my shower, the mirror showed me the sight of droplets slithering down my hair, reminding me of the lucent, thin line that I had seen glistening upon Zaid’s cheek in the library; the work of a tear no doubt.
What kind of formidable mourning did he possess that couldn’t be held back in public? Was it a burden he had come laden with into the library or was it spot-melancholy that struck him so vigorously that his emotion failed to hold up? There had seemingly been nothing there to trigger such sentiment except perhaps the English newspaper sprawled before him that he was looking intently at while jotting something down on paper. What sad stimulus a mundane newspaper could provide after all, I wondered.
Forever deprived of tears, courtesy baba’s ‘purposeful’ upbringing, I was in furtive awe of them. To me, they chastened women and humanised men, dissolving unkind, conceited strains in bloodstreams, renewing their spirits. However, a man’s tear falling in the midst of a crowd was exceptional, precious and worth exploring. Within hours, the passing curiosity turned into a craving for knowledge of the finer details of his grief.
Two days after my library visit, the reason behind his tear was literally dispatched to my apartment in writing, in the shape of a moving ‘letter to the editor’ carried by the English newspaper Dawn. It seemed that the British Council teardrop had continued rolling down for the past two days till it found my doorstep.
Incidentally, the letters to the editor were the only reading matter I cared to read in the paper for their authenticity as well as anonymity of voice. His letter almost began to glow amongst the rest once I casually read the name below—Zaid Ur-Rehman— followed by ‘Karachi’. Everything started adding up, the name, the newspaper, the stirring melancholy on display the other day.
The touching letter referred to a picture printed in Dawn a couple of days back—actually on the day I saw him at the library—representing police action considered essential for urban living. I immediately rushed and retrieved the two-day-old copy of Dawn from the heap and quickly located the picture on the metropolitan page which showed lathi-charging policemen freeing space in Saddar for vehicular trafic from the pushcart vendors whose overturned carts formed the picture’s backdrop. For the press, such drives were pre-decidedly essential as well as moral, and the bold caption ‘Bravo Karachi Police’ above the photo expressed that crass bias quite stridently. However, in his letter, the popular view was being rubbished in the following words:
I write with reference to the opinionatedly titled picture published on July 2nd in your paper, showing police clearing the encroachments in Saddar. By celebrating this uprooting of the workplace of the underclass, your paper is sweeping humanity under the carpet by making the right of earning an independent living by the poor conditional to the wishes of the vehicle-owning class. Have we reached that age when cars can crush lives as a privilege instead of serving a nobler purpose of facilitating livelihoods? Don’t plant a moral rift between your reader and a poor father who melts all day under the sun to bring a night’s meal to his family. I wonder if we got our statutes all wrong, omitting what should be foremost. Please print the specific municipality by-laws that bar honest labour or ban use of compassion on public roads or disallow sharing of public space, sanctioning instead shutting down of humans to accommodate machines?
The tear now stood fully translated for me. Feeling privileged to have witnessed the moment of its creation I kept reading the letter out of sheer reverence.
Zaid seemed right; more right than the policemen, the press and the drivers combined. Those pushcart vendors were not some shameless beggars but fellows afflicted by self-respect, chanting themselves hoarse all day long under the scorching sun to publicise their cheap products to passersby. Like many Karachiites, I too had struck incredibly cheap bargains with them, from clothes to household items, feeling victorious over haggling away a portion of their tiny income, stealing a morsel or two from their children’s mouth. Could that brief, sensitive letter bring Saddar’s encroachment back? Could it uphold sweaty labour? Would anybody bother reading it at all, let alone feel momentary guilt?
I thought of those uprooted, dignified men and their present shutdown state. Despairing and broken, they must be doing their math on dependents. How many could skip a meal in a day and how many should? Who could fall sick and who should? How to convince and prepare the old, sick mother to beg for the sake of her grandchildren?
That night, encroachment became an endearing word, representing a Lilliputian population of brittle dreams and day-to-day ambitions, wanting only some yards under the sun to feed their families through photosynthesis.
Waking up at midnight, I quietly walked up to the window and looked into the skies. Amongst the torn, fibrous clouds, a twinkle was revealing itself like a diamond secure in cotton wool. It was my childhood pal Venus. Tonight, it was gleaming like a tear locked in an eye, primed for release.
The college alumni directory, mailed to the graduates after the initial year of graduation, was probably out of date for some years now with respect to career updates of the graduates. Nevertheless it seemed the best chance to trace Zaid. After noting the office address—Muslim Commercial Bank, Elphy Street branch, Saddar—printed against his name, I belatedly left for work, all set to visit his branch after office.
The same evening, I was seated in my double-parked Volkswagen across the road from Zaid’s branch, waiting for him to emerge after finishing work. Meeting him inside the branch did not seem wise due to my vague purpose which needed a quieter, less crowded surrounding for discussion. Present-day Saddar was a far cry from the golden age Elphy Street had witnessed till a few decades ago, when elegant trams ran upon it as common sense and memsahibs in prim sun hats graced the pavements for high-street shopping in shops named after Englishmen. Even striptease shows coloured the nights in its odd corners. But after the outbreak of migration, freedom came flooding here and overran history’s aesthetic pleasures, wiping out its Europe.
After tolerating the expletive honks of the rush-hour motorists, I was relieved to see Zaid come out from the branch’s entrance, a satchel hanging by his shoulder. The alumni directory details were still valid after all. The working class was gushing out onto the pavements at this hour, adding themselves to the rivulets of bobbing heads and frantic limbs of shoppers. The frenzied living mass nearly guzzled him up, forcing me to step out of the car and dive into the human haystack myself since now a single blink could make him disappear. After following him for a while, I caught a definite glimpse of him again. He was now standing before a busy road amidst the jostling crowd that was making him appear singular, the only human in a thousand-mile radius.
The trafic on that road was moving smoothly making me suddenly realise that I was standing at the very site of the encroachment drive referred to in his letter; the road liberated from the clutches of the wily daily wage earners by the duty-bound police.
Why is he standing there? Is he paying homage to the uprooted? Or has he stepped into a yesterday fabricated by him, just to hear their silenced sales pitches.
What possible bond he harboured with the pushcart vendors I did not know, but the thought that raised my hackles was this:
What kind of bond would it be if he knew them only from the newspaper’s photo?
Just as I readied myself to accost him from behind by perhaps putting a hand on his shoulder, his hands went up to cover his face. It made me instinctively step back as I did not want to infringe upon that private moment of possible, vicarious pain. It almost seemed sacrilegious to do so.
As I turned back, an extraordinary, translucent figure appeared in front of me upon the huge window glass of a jewellery shop showcasing glittering ornaments. It was a reflection of an enlarged, bejewelled Zaid staring bewilderingly in my direction. He had turned back almost at the same time, making his image fuse with the gold on display, returning a glazed impression of some ancient prince. After five seconds of awe, I found myself staring foolishly at the jewellery. Within a blink or two, the encompassing welter had swallowed him.
Once home, I realised how stimulating my excursion had been. There were no regrets in the heart for not meeting him; on the contrary there was a sense that the meeting did occur, a momentous one in fact.
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