THE ONE AND ONLY
By Abbas Zaidi
Montgomery College with its gothic buildings, huge watchtower and statues of eminent British professors of yore, was a fading reminder of the days of the Raj. The most prestigious section of the College was the English Department. Its post-graduate English Literary Circle was a forum for feverish activity every Wednesday afternoon when General Zia's martial law policies were criticized under the guise of a literary symposium. People from other departments as well as litterateurs from outside the College came to participate. It was put about that martial law intelligence personnel also attended the weekly sessions in order to keep an eye on possible subversives. But that did not deter the Circle's president or Professor Muhammad, the department chairman, from keeping it going.
One Wednesday, Professor Emeritus Dr Ali Hussain delivered a lecture on "King Lear's Edmund and the Lust for Power". It was a scathing criticism of a "power hungry adventurer" as "ruthless as he was ungrateful to his benefactor". Dr Hussain was given a thunderous ovation. His audience hated General Zia because he had overthrown and hanged an elected prime minister who had also been his benefactor.
The lecture was followed by the reading of a poem composed by one of the students.
But for Rajmi the only person in attendance who mattered was Nina, his latest heart throb. It was scarcely a week since he had fallen in love with her.
When the lecture was over he went to the canteen with his friend Ikmal.
'What will happen when Nina gets married?' Ikmal asked. 'You know she's engaged to an army captain'.
'I will write her a letter in my blood,' Rajmi said, wiping his eyes with the bottom edge of his T-shirt.
'Why don't you tell her how you feel?'
'Do you remember last semester when I proposed to Nurul? The way she reacted . . .?'
'You should have proposed to her sooner,' Ikmal said.
'She told me that a flying officer wanted to marry her.... But it's my own fault. I should have been more forceful.'
'What about Beena, the love of your life who sprinkled roses when she spoke? You pined for her. You were determined to marry her.'
'Weren't her eyes like two little buttons?'
Ikmal stared into space, closed his eyes, opened them and fixed them on Rajmi again. 'What about your fellow journalist Wajida who gives you such seductive looks?'
'She has no shame! Look at the wrinkles on her face. She's my mother's age!'
'And yet you were drawn to her because of ... her spectacles.'
'Yes,' Rajmi admitted. 'I've never seen a woman wear such bright red frames. Her eyes make me feel like they're going to shoot me like a pair of bullets!'
Over the next few days surgery was performed on the English Department. Professors Muhammad and Hussain, along with President Ikmal, were arrested by the authorities on "irrefutable proofs" of their "conspiracy and treason." Three days later the Lahore Summary Military Court sentenced them to six-year sentences at hard labor. Seven lecturers known to be Professor Muhammad's close friends were transferred to the hinterland.
Rajmi was lucky. He was only expelled, and his part-time proof-reading job with The Lahore Bulletin was not affected. He simply began working as a full-timer. The salary was small, and his pride was hurt. But he had no choice. His dream of passing his MA and getting a job as an English Literature lecturer was smashed.
He was assigned to the morning shift. Every day he traveled to the office in an over-crowded Bulletin bus along with other Grade-3 employees like himself who could not afford a vehicle of their own. Every afternoon the same bus carried them back home. He worked evenings as an assistant to his uncle, who supplied gas canisters and catering services to various government institutions.
One afternoon he found that the Grade-3 bus had broken down and that Grade-3 employees would have the honor of travelling with Grade-1 journalists and officers from the Editorial, Magazine and Administration sections. It was well known at the Bulletin that some of the Grade-1 officers only took the company bus for the snob value. The mere sight of that huge, air-conditioned Mercedes Benz was awe-inspiring. The Grade-1's occupied less than one fifth of the available seats.
This particular morning Rajmi was the last to board and contentedly stood in the crowd occupying the aisle. The front half of the bus was occupied by male and female Grade-1's, the middle by male Grade-3's and the rear by female Grade-3's. The sun was almost directly overhead, so he could see the reflection of those sitting in the front seats in the windscreen. He saw a face there whose gaze seemed fixed on an object outside the bus. She almost seemed to be in some kind of trance. She seemed very beautiful and at the same time so ethereal that for a moment Rajmi thought what he was seeing must be the work of an artist.
'How come I have not see her before?'
He forgot to get off at his stop. Then the sun and the bus changed their orientations and there was no more reflection on the windscreen. The bus pulled up and some passengers got down. Because of the crush Rajmi could not see who they were. But when the bus started up again he was able to see every woman in the front of the bus. The one whose reflection he had glimpsed was not among them.
The next day was his day off. All morning he walked around in a daze. His mother asked him to go with her to his uncle's house, but he made an excuse. At midday he went into the office. The Mercedes Benz was parked nearby. He got into it. There was no one inside. He sat close to the windscreen and stared into it. She was not there. But he kept gazing at the screen, and suddenly there she was! Some people started coming out of the office, and had to get off the bus. He sat down on a nearby bench, hoping to see the woman herself, but she did not appear.
After that he began seeing her image in every reflective surface: windscreens, shop windows, even the Grade-3 bus windows. His tea and lunch breaks were spent in the Mercedes-Benz. His obsession was starting to affect his work, but he was lucky: His colleagues covered for him because they believed he was a martial law victim.
One night he realized that this woman, whoever she was, was the one he had been waiting for: his perfect mate. For the first time in his life he felt that he was living every moment of his existence to the fullest, and yet he also felt strangely disassociated from the world around him.
He tried every method to find out who she was, but no one at the Bulletin knew anyone who fit her description. She seemed to have appeared in his life out of nowhere and then to have disappeared just as mysteriously. He had always thought that he was strong enough to exorcise the damnedest of ghosts, 'But this heart of mine! What am I to do with it?' He decided that to love was to wander in a desert of hopeless, helpless futility.
One day he read a "money-back-guarantee" advert in the Bulletin that claimed, 'If I cannot get your wishes fulfilled, you will be reimbursed in toto'. The author was a Professor Beg who had recently retired from the English Department of Montgomery College. Rajmi knew him. The Professor had spent a good deal of time in Indonesia where, he claimed, he had learned black magic and necromancy. Following his retirement he had set up a "consultancy" to help make people's dreams come true. Ordinarily, Rajmi would have ridiculed such a person, but his obsession had rendered him helpless. He found himself knocking at the Professor's door.
After listening to his story, Beg went into a meditation for a while, then chanted something black-magical, and after talking to some invisible creatures said, 'You did not see an actual woman. Actually--if you don't mind my saying so--you were hallucinating. The woman was just a figment of your imagination. That's not so unusual for a very fanciful person like yourself, especially given your recent history. I would advise you to forget her once and for all. However, I can provide you with a method used by the aboriginal tribes of Indonesia which will be of great help the next time you find a woman you would like to be yours. But I warn you! It is not for the faint-hearted'.
'I will do anything!'
The Professor continued, 'The most powerful love magic used by the aborigines of Borneo is to find the corpse of a virgin who has just died. You take a candle, a matchbox and a bowl with you. Go at nighttime. Once you have found the dead girl, put the flame of the candle under her chin and keep the bowl below the flame. Do not let the flame touch the chin, and do not take your eyes off her face. Soon a few drops will trickle from her chin and fall into the bowl. Don't worry if some wax also drips into the bowl because wax will not affect the strength of the potion. Keep that liquid with you at all times and sprinkle it on the woman you want to be yours. She will love you more than you can imagine.'
The Professor did not charge Rajmi for the consultation. He said he would be compensated enough by seeing the happy results of the magic.
Outside the city was one of the largest graveyards in the country. It was spread over miles and freely spawned stories about evil spirits and ghosts. There was no human habitation near it. Rajmi began reading the newspapers very carefully and frequenting the graveyard.
One evening his uncle asked him to take a load of gas cylinders to the Lahore Women's Club. Since the Club was a hangout for wives, daughters and female "friends" of civil and army bureaucrats, his uncle gave him strictest instructions to deliver only the freshest cylinders whose reliability was beyond suspicion.
But Rajmi believed that someone connected with a Club woman was behind his ruin. So the cylinders he delivered included two of the oldest and rustiest, which in a few days' time resulted in a gas leak that killed a young woman--a colonel's unmarried daughter--and brain-damaged several who survived. Fortunately, the tragedy was considered an accident.
Hundreds attended the funeral, Rajmi among them. The young woman was buried in a remote corner of the graveyard. According to the newspapers, she was just twenty years of age.
It was a moonlit night and midwinter cold. The graveyard was surrounded by a variety of trees that had silently guarded the graves for ages. In the moonlight they looked like prehistoric creatures. Porcupines, cats, dogs, foxes, mongooses, snakes, insects and all sorts of other animals were roaming about looking for a corpse to feed on. Some animals were planning their ritual battles with rivals over territory or females. A mongoose and a cobra were sizing each other up before formally starting mortal combat.
As soon as Rajmi entered the graveyard, the animals all fell silent. They had no experience of any human intruding at such an hour. Rajmi kept to a cautious yet rapid pace, feeling the animals' eyes on him as he passed. When he reached the grave site he looked around and thought, 'How many told and untold stories are buried in this necropolis! How many beauties and virgins are now just dust and ashes!'
He was properly clothed for the cold and had all the implements he needed: candles, matchbox, lighter, a bowl and a spade. He was also carrying a thick stick in case he had to confront a dog or other animal, human or inhuman.
He started digging. The earth was still soft and easy to penetrate. The moment he struck the coffin the trees around him shook violently in protest, waking the sleeping birds in them. They called out in confusion, but none dared to venture forth in protest or curiosity. The sound of spade hitting coffin also sent four-legged animals scurrying back to their burrows. Only an old mongoose boldly snuck up to the top of a nearby grave and stood on his tiptoes to watch what was happening.
It took less than an hour for him to dig deep enough to reach the lid of the coffin. He found a stone slab nearby and placed it next to the coffin. He put the bowl and a big candle on it, then lit the candle. The coffin was not locked and opened easily with a creaking sound. Suddenly all the animals plunged deep into their holes, appalled by what they were seeing. The trees stopped shaking and the birds fell silent.
Rajmi was oblivious to all of this. In the candlelight he saw a corpse wrapped in white cloth from head to feet like an Egyptian mummy. He hesitated to touch it. He had heard since childhood about the retribution dead people sometimes took immediately after their burial. He had also heard of horrifying shapes the dead could take on when their graves were disturbed. 'What if she was a sinner during her life? What if she wasn't really a virgin?' With a trembling hand he uncovered the face and with the other raised the candle.
The candle immediately fell from his hand and went out. His heart was pounding like a hammer against his chest and he was shaking all over as if her were having a fit. He fumbled for his lighter, relit the candle and raised it to her face again. She was the woman in the windscreen! He closed his eyes tight, then opened them again. But there was no doubt about it. 'Who created you?'
She did not answer, but her face shining in the moonlight was answer enough.
'It cannot be the same God who created everything else! It must be a special God, a God of Gods!'
He threw the bowl aside, gently moved her body to one side of the wide coffin and carefully inserted himself beside her. He touched the soft cheeks that even in the moonlight still shown as pink as if she were still alive. He drew his fingers along the curve of her eyebrows, gently touched her chin, her ears, her aquiline nose and long smooth neck. He reached down to feel her hands and feet, took her thick dark hair in his hands and let it slide through his fingers like silken sand. He gently opened her eyes. They seemed lost in some deep thoughts, staring up into the midnight sky unblinking as if lost in an ecstasy of some dream being enacted there.
There appeared to him a procession of all the women he had been in love with, passing as if in review before him and then melting into the dark recesses of the graveyard like falling leaves. He kissed the dead woman's eyes, eyelashes and lips. He put his hand inside her shroud and caressed her shoulders and breasts. He had been told that a dead body was cold, but hers was not. He kissed her lips again, then kissed her shroud. 'Why have I been chasing shadows all my life? There is no woman for me but you. Only you. My one and only!'
He put his thumb over the candle's flame and pulled the lid of the coffin closed.
(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 Bahauddin Zakariya University, Multan, and worked as assistant editor for The Nation, Lahore.)