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The Man Who Was Yesterday
28 March, 2005
As night faded, dawn covered the city of Karachi with a canopy of pink and gold light. Qamar awoke from a nightmare and rubbed his eyes. Where am I? he wondered. He found that he was lying prone on a bench in Frere Gardens. By sleeping on a bench in the Gardens, he had probably broken the law. His next thought was to get up and nonchalantly walk into Frere Road, and disappear, before the Chowkidar could catch sight of him. But the Chowkidar was busy with his usual set of problems. His wife was sick again, his son would refuse to go to school because he had a toothache, and his stomach was rumbling and grumbling.The End
But the Chowkidar had already observed Qamar, curled up on a bench under the unseeing eyes of Queen Victoria. It would have been easy to rouse him and send him away, but in a mood of tolerance he had refrained from disturbing the sinister figure, clad in a blue suit. After all, he was probably dead drunk, and had a sick wife at home. Let the poor chap be! The groans of his wife made him withdraw his head from the small window and shout to his son to fill a kettle with water for his early morning tea. Another dismal day had begun.
Qamar walked along Victoria Road, not knowing where to go. His clothes were damp with dew. His feet were cold in shoes without socks. He crossed the road, and was narrowly missed by a diplomatic car, which sped part him on some early morning mission.
He walked along Victoria Road, despondently, playing with the few silver rupees in his pocket, thinking of a cup of hot tea and something to eat. But where? Suddenly, the sharp memory of the previous night struck his brain like angry hammer. Then his mind went blank, except for the thought of some breakfast. What he had done the previous night was there, in his memory, stowed carefully away. It could not be erased, it would be ever intrusive, unsparing and cruel. It would wait, and emerge when time called it forth, like a prompter, to confront the culprit with his deed. Not now, not yet, after breakfast perhaps, or even later, for what lay in the future except the companionship of this memory?
He stopped at an Irani cafe, and walked in. He sat at a marble-topped table. A young waiter took his order: tea, biscuits, a piece of cake, and a packet of Capstan cigarettes. Also a box of dry matches!
After breakfast he walked aimlessly, until he reached the Paradise Cinema. On the pavement, a boy was selling newspaper. He bought one, tucked it under an armpit, and walked away. He knew he would search for a small news item. And then the dark demons would start hammering away at his brain. Shall I jump on a train and go somewhere, anywhere? I could never go far enough. I could only elude them for a while, and even if forever, could I escape from myself? I would always be alone with that oily face, under the glare of tube lights. A man in a small tent, at the Exhibition.
He walked along Elphinstone Street, until he came to a building with an outside staircase that was never used. He sat down and lit a cigarette. He inhaled deeply and began to recall some of the events of the previous evening. First of all, the Victpria Bar. That’s where I saw him. The young waiter, who was my friend, warned me to be careful of the middle-aged man, as he was carrying a belly-load of drink! I had seen him before, in other bars. That oily face, and those sneering lips, those cold eyes, small, and sewn like buttons into their small sockets. The memory of those small eyes, opened wide in terror made Qamar cough and splutter. He walked out of the bar.
Slowly he dragged himself up the steps of his cheap hotel in Sudder. He opened the door of his room. There was a little rum left in the bottle in the cupboard. He poured it down his throat, and looked under his remaining clean shirt. Three orange notes. Thirty rupees! Enough, he thought, for today, More than enough! Latif, a hotel servant, thrust his pimply face through the doorway.
“Salaam. Would you like some breakfast?”
“No, Latif. Take this ten rupee note. When the liquor shop below opens buy a small bottle of rum, three packets of Capstan cigarettes. Do not disturb me till then.”
He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. I’m tired, he thought, so tired. Is he tired, anymore? Where is he? NO, he gasped as the hammers began to strike. No, I will not stand for it in here! Please leave me alone, he sobbed, take away that face! The room darkened, his head swam, lights began to dance before his eyes. He was at the Exhibition. The gate opened, and he was being pushed in by the crowed at his back. He was pushed all the way to a large tent. On a platform stood a muscular man. “Try your strength,” the big man invited. “Only 8 annas. Come on, come on, try your strength inside! Free advice on how to develop your body power.” Qamar walked, away from the crowd towards another smaller tent, outside was a placard on which was printed in large letters: YOUR FORTUNE TOLD HERE. Standing on a stood was the man with that ingratiating voice, so cajoling, so promising, so mellifluous. “Come on, consult the man Who Is Today. Ask him about Tomorrow.” Qamar shouted at him with excitement: “What about the Man Who Was Yesterday? Will you tell me about him?” The man looked at him, with that sneering smile. The face seemed to loom at Qamar. The mouth grew wider and wider. The small button-like eyes opened wider too. The man’s arm stretched out towards Qamar, as if to clutch his arm. “Come on, come on, I am also the Man Who Will Be Tomorrow. Ask me any question, and you shall get an answer. Come on inside young man, don’t be shy, we shall be alone.”
He shouted back at him: “You lying swine. There will be no Tomorrow for you!” He stared at the oily face. It seemed to grow larger, and glistened in the harsh fluorescent light. He stared at the face with horror. It was like an enormous blister in that vivid light. He opened the flap, and walked into the tent.
Suddenly, fireworks burst in the ink-black sky. A blinding flash woke Qamar, who sat up in bed soaked in perspiration. Where am I, he thought, rubbing a trembling hand across his brow. Slowly he recognised the room. He turned round and looked out of the window. It was almost dark. Latif knocked and looked in through the doorway.
“Each time I tried to wake you,” he said, “you told me to get out. It’s past seven now. I thought you would sleep forever!”
“I know,” Qamar murmured, hand on brow. “It was very strange. I must not think about it.”
“What was strange?” Latif inquired, puzzled.
“Never mind. Bring me some drinking water.”
Latif remarked to the servants who were drinking tea and smoking in the kitchen : “He’s awake now. I heard him shout in his sleep: Are you really the Man Who Will Be Tomorrow? If so, tell me why the star fell so close. This is the moment of truth.” The servants were amused by this, and laughed.
Latif entered the room with a bottle of water, placed it on a table, beside a pint of rum and three packets of Capstan cigarettes.
Qamar groaned and lurched across to the table. He poured out a stiff peg, added water, drained the glass. Lighting a cigarette, he stood on the small balcony and watched the traffic below.
I am alone, he thought, but there is a frightened face watching me. An oily face, with a pair of small button-like eyes, which opened wide with terror when, when… He walked inside the room and poured out another drink. I must not think of that now. He sat on the bed and picked up a novel which he had started reading. recently. The title on the cover was indistinct in the darkening room: Crime And Punishment by Dostoevsky. He flung it across the room and poured out another drink. The pint bottle was getting empty. Outside, it was dark now. I must go out, he thought, putting on the light. He changed his shirt, put on a pair of grey trousers, and tied a green scarf around his neck. He sat down on the bed, poured a last drink, and gulped it down, and threw the glass out of the window. He left the room keys with Latif, walked down the steps, and out into Preedy Street.
Qamar walked along Bunder Road, cursing. Suspicious, they’re all so suspicious. He stopped, and waited. A bus slowed down, and he jumped in. It rattled, the light winked, the conductor kept shouting, and a fat man, who smelt of sweat, squeezed in beside him and began smoking a cheap cigarette. Qamar’s head felt as though it would burst. He got out after two stops, and began walking along Bunder Road again. The pavements were crowded with milling people. What do they all want? They go on living for no reason at all. How merciful it would be if they were all exterminated! These refugees from nowhere, these castaways from a society as rotten as they are! This scum of the city streets. All this human filth.
He walked to a familiar bar. It was full and the atmosphere was cheerful. He sat long over two small rums. A boy came up to his table, selling evening newspapers. A horde of demons swam through the alcohol, and began hammering at his brain. Read, read, read, they insisted. He swallowed his drink, paid the bill, and left. He could only see dimly as he emerged from the entrance into the glare of street-lights. He collided with a policeman.
“What’s the matter with you?” the policeman asked. “Had too much to drink?”
“No,” Qamar replied, nervously. “Tell me,” he asked, seriously, “do you think that I am mad?”
“Get along with you,” the policeman said, giving him a friendly tap on the back.
Qamar stood on Bunder Road. A tram came round the corner with a shriek, like a stricken animal. The street-lights seemed to flicker like candles which would presently gutter, and leave him in the dark. A rickshaw came to a halt in front of him. He got in and said: “Victoria Road.”
The driver peddled along Bunder Road, before turning right. Qamar’s mind drifted back into childhood memories, which came flapping out of the past, like birds which a gunshot had disturbed. He saw his mother weeping after his sister had died. He saw himself returning home from school with a sprained ankle. His father said: “Qamar, the servant reports that he caught you smoking in the bathroom!” More memories followed, until the birds flew away. He was back in the rickshaw. There was a boy outside the Rex Cinema. selling newspapers. He paid the rickshaw driver and bought one. Then he walked into the Victoria Bar.
As he sat down and ordered a rum and soda, the events of the previous evening began to run like an 8 mm home movie. There was the counter, with two barmen serving drinks. There sat the old Parsee Manager, wearing his black skull-cap. Ah yes, he thought, of course. How could I forget? In fact it was sobriety which usually robbed him of his faculties. Now that he was getting pleasantly drunk again, he was familiar with the past. At the table behind him two men were discussing what they had read in an evening paper. “The body was found in a ditch, in the grounds of the Exhibition. The killer dropped several important clues. The police have a description… They don’t mention the name of the bar, but the police should be able to nab the man...”
The lights began to dance. Not the Exhibition again, Qamar sighed. Fireworks burst in the sky. “You have started smoking,” his father said. “Your sister is dead,” his mother reported simply. He was asking a policeman in Bunder Road - Tell me, do you think I’m mad? “I will not let you touch my bat!” And he struck Riaz across the face. “I hate you. I hate everybody!”
He ordered another rum. “Bearer,” he added, “bring me a packet of Capstan.” It was Craven A he used to steal from his father’s tin. If only I could go back, he thought, back to those happy days. This was a familiar yearning for his lost childhood. But it was too late. Throughout his life he had drifted, from situation to situation, from hope to frustration, from frustration to despair, from despair back to hope. How aimless his life had, been, what had really mattered? Happiness? He had not known it. Ambition, he had felt none. A family life? He had abandoned all thoughts of that. Attachment to any one person? That had never happened. Love? He had atrophied his emotions early in life. Sex? Yes, that was the one thing he had abundantly enjoyed, without any concealment! What about God? It was better not to think about that. And where would God be now anyway? As distant as ever. He looked into his almost empty glass and softly said: Oh, God, closing his eyes.
He opened them and saw the old Manager coming towards his table with two police officers. All the waiters were staring at him. Silence gripped the Victoria Bar.
Qamar shrank back in his chair. He picked up his glass and drank what was left of rum and soda.
He looked wildly at one of the policemen. “What have I done? Why are you standing here? I am not mad. I have a driving license, and a passport. I promise I shall go away and take that oily face with me. Leave me alone. Go away!
One of the police officers put a hand on Qamar’s shoulder. “You are under arrest,” he said bluntly.