'Uncle Mian is coming next week', Niki said. 'He comes home every year, richer than ever. He must be the richest man in Manchester. I heard this time he is coming with his wife and will build a mosque here.'
'Go ask your mother to make me tea,' Uncle Khizar shouted back in his usual way. Niki stole a look at me and smiled in the usual way and I gave her the usual, stealthy smile back. Uncle had been a hot-tempered man ever since he returned from England fifteen years ago, but his recent kidney problems and confinement to a wheelchair had made him even more irritable. Diabetes, his latest problem, had affected his eyesight as well.
No one resented his outbursts.
'The last time someone wanted to build a mosque, you told the head of the rival group that it would create sectarian tension, and the plan was abandoned. But this time you don't seem bothered,' I said to him.
'Ah, but this time my great friend Mian is providing the moolah.'
'But, Uncle, if you are against something, you don't let it happen,' I persisted.
'What is in the news today?' he replied, ignoring me.
I started my daily ritual of reading from the Lahore Times.
'"General Zia says democracy is a sham; Pakistan's salvation lies in Islam alone. He also said that the reason he hanged former Prime Minister Bhutto was because Bhutto headed a corrupt, unIslamic government...."'
'Next story,' Uncle commanded.
'"The Lahore High Court has ordered release of Haji Usman who chopped off his sister's and her lover's heads when he found them in a compromising situation. The learned judge said that Usman did the right thing because no honorable brother could tolerate..."'
'"A man cheated his widowed mother-in-law out of all her wealth and then kicked her out of her own house. She is begging on the streets now. She has requested that the authorities..."'
'"An old lady claims her brother got her house transferred to his name through fraud...."'
'Why do you read me such stories every day? You have no shame. I will tell my sister that her son reads me offensive news every morning only to spite me.'
'But, Uncle, I don't make the news.'
'Stop barking, and start reading the international news.'
I never complained about Uncle Khizar's outbursts. Apart from being an invalid, he had been like a father to me. He brought me up when my real father passed away before my birth, kept me and my mother in his house, took charge of the vast properties my father owned, and engaged me to his only child, Niki.
I read him the international news, ignoring any item about Britain. He hated news about Britain, where he studied in his youth.
'"Nigerian Crooks Having Field Day in Southeast Asia,"' I read from the headline of a news feature, then went on to another. Uncle Khizar cut me short, 'Go back to the other one.'
'"Rich Southeast Asians have become the target of Nigerian crooks. These crooks write them letters on behalf of 'officials in very high government positions', offering commissions as high as 'a few million US dollars' if the latter allow them to transfer huge amounts of money to the Nigerians' accounts...."'
'That's enough for now,' Uncle interrupted. 'What animals human beings are! Well, nothing new about that.'
He lit a cigarette, took a few pulls, exhaled and began staring into space. I stood up to leave, but he stopped me.
'Listen up,' he said and resumed his seemingly trance-like state. After a while he said, 'You know who is the perfect nemesis of a greedy man, even if he is an evil genius?' Without waiting for my answer, he said, 'It's a crook. A crook promises everything, even the moon, to the greedy man. You can go now.'
I left him, assuming I would not see him again until the next morning. But that evening my mother said, 'Go downstairs. Your Uncle wants to see you.'
When I entered the living room I saw Uncle sitting on the sofa with a newspaper in his hand.
'Read the rest of the news about the Southeast Asian gulls,' he said, handing me the same newspaper I had been reading to him that morning.
'"The impression left--and left deliberately--by the Nigerian crook is that the money he has in his possession has been illegally obtained from the Nigerian exchequer. The greedy gull goes along with the scheme. Within a few days he receives an envelope from the crook that contains some documents, 'originals' and photocopies. He is then asked to deposit a substantial amount of his own money into a given account number which will 'cover the initial transfer/taxation fee.' Which he does happily and hopefully...."
'We will read the rest later,' Uncle said. 'I have to go for dialysis.'
Next morning Uncle Khizar was in a rage and did not want to see me. He was sitting by himself out on the lawn.
'What is the matter?' I asked Niki. As betrotheds, this was one of the few opportunities when Niki and I could sit alone together and chat. Auntie did not mind such meetings, but Uncle would never have allowed them.
'Mother just told him about Mian's arrival next week. You know, Mian has married and is bringing his wife along. Since she is coming to Pakistan for the first time, Mother thought we should invite them for dinner. But Uncle became furious.'
'But Auntie has never shown any liking for Uncle Mian before. He comes home to Pakistan every year, but she has never invited him to the house,' I said.
'Yes, but she says that this time he is coming to build a mosque in the village. She still thinks he is a rotten egg, but this time he is going to do a good deed. We don't have a mosque in our village.'
In the afternoon my mother sent me down to see Uncle Khizar.
'Read the rest of the story about the Asian gulls.'
I began: '"The money transfer is followed by a correspondence between the victim and the crook. In every letter, the victim is asked to put more money into the designated account. Sometimes he is asked to visit Nigeria for 'final discussions'. He is provided with a complete itinerary for his visit, which includes meetings with 'important Nigerian officials' and prospects of future 'co-operation'. Upon reaching Nigeria the victim is received by uniformed 'government security persons' at the airport and taken to a high-class hotel for 'negotiations' with 'interested parties.' The result: the victim loses whatever money he has left, and even his passport. All the 'officials' disappear after the victim is literally penniless.
'"One victim reported that he sold everything in his house in order to receive huge 'commissions' from a Nigerian crook; another borrowed a fortune from a bank, etc., etc. The governments of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have used mass media to inform their people about the Nigerian crooks. Yet people continue to do business with these unsavory characters."'
When I finished Uncle said, 'You remember I was telling you about a crook's promising the moon to a greedy man?'
'You know what happens next to the greedy man ? I will tell you what happens. A disaster happens.'
I decided to broach the topic that had created such a fuss that morning. 'Your friend Uncle Mian is coming as usual. But this time I think it is different. You know about the mosque....'
Uncle Khizar glanced toward me, then quickly looked away. His eyes were moist with feeling. He said, "You know my friend Mian is doing well in Manchester. He started as an assistant manager of a nightclub. Now he has his own."
It was not the first time that Uncle Khizar had become reverential at the mention of Uncle Mian.
I said, 'But as far as I know he could not pass even 'O' Levels, and his English is terrible. I don't know in what capacity he was even allowed to enter Britain. He had no future, even in Pakistan. How come he did so well in Manchester?'
It was the first time I ever took the liberty to speak my mind about this subject to Uncle Khizar.
He gave me the look of a full-grown adult who is talking to a toddler. 'Why don't you ask the Asian gulls?'
I did not understand, but I continued, 'You did a BBA in Manchester. It should have been you who stayed, not Uncle Mian. Mother tells me that you wanted to return to Manchester, do an MBA and get a good job. I'm sure you could have done that. Britain at that time was a good place for us. It was still well before Thatcher's time.'
'Yes, I wanted to,' he almost whispered.
'What happened, then?'
'I wanted to leap ten years ahead. I wanted a job that I would have only got after ten years' hard work,' he said with a sad smile.
'But why?' I persisted.
He suddenly sat up straight and snapped, 'Why don't you ask the Nigerian crooks?'
Uncle Mian arrived. The news spread immediately, and the villagers came out to see the 'Mem Sahib' who had married a Pakistani. Ours was a village of no more than six hundred people. All of them were proud that a white woman had married one of us. Except for Uncle Khizar and myself, no one in the entire village could speak English, but they nevertheless wanted to tell the Mem Sahib how happy and honored they were to have her visit their 'old and small' village so unworthy of her presence. I also went to pay a visit to Uncle Mian and his wife, but they were too tired to receive anyone. Before I could turn away, the prayer leader of the neighboring village appeared; his son would be heading Uncle Mian's new mosque.
'Allah be praised,' the prayer leader said. 'Last night I saw Prophet Muhammad in dream. He said that Mian's wife had converted to Islam and both of them would go to paradise after death.'
'Allah be praised! Mian be blessed!' some villagers shouted. Before letting us leave, the prayer leader made all of us offer special thanksgiving prayers.
Next morning I found out that Uncle Khizar had left the house early to preside over a village meeting at which a compromise candidate was to be chosen for the city council election.
In the afternoon our house-cleaner arrived in a clearly agitated state. She asked Auntie, 'Are there any blacks in England?'
'No. At least, I have not seen any in my husband's photos from Manchester,' Auntie replied.
'But Mian's wife is black! And we thought she would be a fairy-like white woman like the ones on the TV.'
'Then, she is not from England. Mian is a liar. She must be from a jail.'
'The milkman says she will become white because she has converted to Islam,' the housekeeper added wistfully.
A week passed, but Uncle Mian had still not visited us. Neither had Uncle Khizar been to Uncle Mian's house. It was the latter who would have to pay him a visit. Apparently, Mian was busy with plans for the new mosque. Uncle Khizar did not even mention his name, though he did have a private conversation with the would-be prayer leader of the mosque.
One morning when I was reading him the Lahore Times, Uncle Khizar said, 'Find me more news about the Southeast Asian gulls.'
There was a small item about a Singaporean who had committed suicide after losing all his money to Nigerian crooks.
'A brave man', Uncle said. 'He has rid himself of shame, embarrassment and worry.'
'But it's wrong to kill oneself. Anybody can be duped. Why don't Asians get together and work out a strategy to beat the crooks at their own game?'
'You,' Uncle replied, 'believe in nothing-succeeds-like- success. But I believe in nothing-fails-like-failure. If you fail, even though you are a genius and your failure is just a pure coincidence, you are finished and everything you have achieved through hard work is finished.'
Next day Uncle asked, 'Is there any more news about the Asian gulls?'
To which I replied, 'There is no news today. But why is it you never ask about the crooks? You seem interested only in the gulls. If your greedy-man-and-crook theory were spread throughout Southeast Asia, many poor souls could be saved and you would be canonized,' I said only half-seriously.
Uncle Khizar gave a hearty laugh, the first I could ever remember. 'Don't you know God's mill grinds slow, but sure?'
Next morning mother told me that Uncle Khizar had gone out early to attend a meeting about which he had not said anything to anyone in the house. I rushed down to have tea with my fiancée. Afterward Niki went to have a look at the bed of roses she had planted in our garden, and I went to visit Auntie who was busy in the kitchen. I started talking about Uncle Khizar's friendship with Uncle Mian. Suddenly she said, 'I have never told you this before because I did not want to hurt your Uncle or Niki. But if he had listened to me he would be a successful man today.'
'What mistake did he make?'
'After passing BBA from Manchester, your uncle wanted a job that was possible only if he had also done MBA. He decided to return to Pakistan because his childhood friend, this cunning Mian, had written to him that he would find him a very high position in Pakistan's Ministry of Finance through his own uncle who was a very highly placed officer there. Obviously no such uncle existed. Mian took your Uncle's passport, which still had a valid visa in it, replaced it with his own photo and went to Manchester. The result is before you,' she said.
In the evening Uncle Mian dropped by to invite us to participate in the foundation-stone laying ceremony for the new mosque. I was not home at the time.
Next day I pushed Uncle Khizar's wheel chair to the ceremony. Uncle Mian looked very solemn and saw to it that Uncle Khizar sat beside him during the proceedings. After a recitation from the Koran, Uncle Mian made a long speech about his struggle in the faraway land where Islam faced a number of threats. Then he praised General Zia and his Islamization policy. Looking at Uncle Khizar, he concluded, 'I am building this mosque from money that I have saved after working day and night for the sake of this village. Allah is kind to me and I am a lucky man. Throw me into a river and I will come out with a fish in my hand and a pearl in my mouth.'
After the ceremony Uncle Mian invited his childhood friend to visit his house and meet his wife. He embraced me affectionately and offered to help me find a job in Manchester when I had finished my degree, and then added, 'Even if you don't finish your degree, I can get you into England. There are many Pakistani girls there who need a suitable match like you.'
I thanked him and glanced toward Uncle Khizar, whose expression betrayed nothing but indifference.
There were seven or eight other guests sitting in Uncle Mian's living room, including Uncle Mian's wife Julie, who seemed a very lively and sociable woman. We all sat and talked for a while. Then Julie and Uncle Khizar got together and conversed in low voices. Uncle Mian was sitting at a distance from them but was constantly looking their way. Both she and Uncle seemed very pleased, especially Uncle. Soon the other guests left and the two uncles went to one side of the room by themselves.
'Uncle has done a very noble deed,' I said to Mian's wife, without believing a word of it.
'Yes,' she said, 'but, you know, the credit really goes to me. His nightclub has been doing great business. He wanted to do something for his village that could win him respect. We calculated that the mosque would cost Khizar more money than he was willing to spend. And then I told him what to do and the result is before you.'
'What was it you told him to do?'
'That,' she laughed, 'is a trade secret.'
On our way home I told Uncle how Julie had referred to her husband as "Khizar" instead of "Mian."'
He chuckled and said, 'Mian has left Manchester for good. You know why?'
'He has been evading his taxes for quite some time. Unlike in Pakistan, tax evasion is a big crime in Britain, and one is punished severely. So, he has said goodbye to Britain. He wanted to set up a business here, but since the Pakistani government has started deducting Islamic zakaat, he has put his money into his wife's account over there. She is going there tomorrow, and Mian is expected to follow her some time next month. You know, she is an income tax lawyer. He is extremely nervous about all this, but he has been assured that his money, when pooled with some other peoples' over there, will benefit him to the extent that he will be a very, very rich man.'
'Where is "over there"?' I inquired.
Uncle turned toward me, trying to hide his glee behind a look of false circumspection. 'Don't you know Julie is a Nigerian?'
'You mean she...'
'Why was the cunning fox killed?'
Before I could reply, he supplied the answer: 'Because he bought a ticket to Nigeria!'
He looked up from his wheelchair, chuckled, winked, then gave out a roaring laugh, his shining eyes full of triumph.
(Abbas Zaidi (email@example.com) was editor of The Ravi (1985), Pakistan's premier and oldest academic magazine, published by Government College, Lahore. He also edited Interface (1990-91) for the Program in Literary Linguistics, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Zaidi has taught English Literature in Multan University and worked as assistant magazine editor for The Nation, Lahore.)