My dear teacher!
When your first letter arrived at the hostel after a prolonged gap of three years, a strange fear possessed me as I opened the envelope. It was as if a wicked djinn were trapped inside, waiting to ruin my life. The envelope opened, and your elegant prose appeared in front of me:
“My dear friend, salam!
I hope you will be well. Have you finished writing your thesis? My research work has come to an end, on the basis of which I have written a book. But I fear this book might not be published in my lifetime. For many months, I have been ill and confined in my house. I humbly request you to get in touch with me. I have an important favor to ask of you. My number is 02652312.
I was intrigued. I had to know what this important favour might be. I immediately called you from the campus PCO. You picked up the phone. . . you were the same, but what was wrong with your voice? It was so different. So feeble, and so frail! It had lost its thunderous bellow. Anyhow, I inquired about your wellbeing, and you answered in the same tired, slight voice: “What can I tell you? Come over, and you will understand everything. You must have already guessed. You have heard my voice, right?”
I hung up and cursed myself. I had called with the intention of finding out about the favor, but in the flow of conversation, I had forgotten to ask.
The next day I came by to see you. You were residing in the same flat where I used to visit you every week three years ago. At the time I was working on my MPhil dissertation, and had been seeking your advice. As usual, your taciturn wife greeted me at the door and, without a word, led me to your study.
But here was something out of the routine – you were sitting on the floor instead of your usual desk chair. Papers were scattered everywhere. You were wearing a white kurta pajama; even at home, you were dressed like a patient at a hospital. Your face was sunken. Where were your dentures? Your lips had shrunk, and your mouth had shriveled under your nose. Your cheeks were hollow, your face exposed and vulnerable.
My dear teacher!
Your eyes were without their glasses, and your hair extremely short. Where were your thick, snow white locks? Perhaps they had fallen out during a treatment. In their place was some white fuzz. Waseeq saheb, you had lost your imposing countenance. You looked like a common waseeqa nawees who sits outside the city court, rather than a revolutionary professor from a big city university.
You began telling me what had happened over the past three years. You had fallen ill during your research but had managed to complete it, and in order to present your findings you had penned a book. An acclaimed and trustworthy publisher had agreed to publish it. The book cover had been designed, the write-up was ready, and your manuscript had been typed. You were reviewing the proofs when your disease struck again.
For a few months, you stayed at a reputable hospital for treatment. After being discharged, you spent some time at a seaside resort. In just a couple of weeks you had regained your strength, and the doctors were amazed by your sudden recovery. For them, it was nothing short of a miracle. They had given up all hope. . . Meanwhile, you believed that your book was a major force behind your rapid improvement. You had vowed to stay alive until its completion and publication, and time seemed to be on your side. But weakness had snatched away your ability to read and write. For that reason, you were hoping that I would complete all the pending work for the book so that it could be published.
You finally came around to your point. I am a lazy man by nature, so my face twisted into a sulking expression as soon as you mentioned work. You saw my face and burst out laughing, your eyes crinkling and the lines on your face deepening. Your face was disintegrating, and your laughing countenance resembled the face of a cursed, doomed man. You hurriedly gathered the papers scattered around you and stuffed them into a file. You put the file into my hands, saying that these were the proofs of your book that had been waiting for many days, but alas! You did not have the strength to go over them anymore. They were the reason the publication of your book was delayed.
You requested me to review the proofs and return them quickly, so you could hand them over to the publisher and the book could quickly be finalised. Needless to say, the venerable teacher–student relationship that had been established between us years ago did not allow me to refuse you.
My dear teacher! How can I conceal my secret from you? From the very beginning, you have perceived me to be a simple boy, but I’m just an alcoholic. The pretentious atmosphere of the university and the masculine, reeking ambience of my student hostel are unbearable to me. So I drink to cope with this torment every day. That day when I saw you after three years, I was so distressed by your miserable condition that before returning to the hostel I stopped at the liquour shop for a large bottle of rum. Then I rushed back to my room, shoved your file into my desk drawer, and went knocking on the doors of my three drinking buddies. We headed for the abandoned water tank on campus to drink. We lit a campfire by the tank, sat around it, and opened our bottle of rum. We got really drunk. All of a sudden, a bat came out of nowhere, flapping its wings over our heads. Fear clutched my heart. In my drunkenness, I imagined that your file had become a living creature. It had slipped out of the drawer, snaked under my door, and now, it circled over my head disguised as a bat to remind me of my forgotten duty to you.
My dear teacher!
Ten days went by and a new letter from you arrived. You were asking about the proofs. The truth was that I had not once opened my drawer containing your file, but I called you right away and reassured you that the proofreading was finished. I promised you that I would stop by the next day with the proofs.
Why did I lie about the proofreading? Perhaps because over and over again I had heard the Persian saying from my elders: “Duroogh-e masalahat-amez bih az raasti ki fitnaa-angez” (an expedient lie is better than a destructive truth). Also, for me your displeasure was tantamount to destruction. In any case, my well-intentioned lie compelled me to go over your proofs. The proofs comprised of over 300 pages, and were incomplete. The final chapter, conclusion, and bibliography were missing from the manuscript. But what could I do now? There was no time to think. This had to be done straightaway. I read the proofs all night, and as dawn struck and the air was filled with the sounds of water running through the pipes and taps of the hostel bathrooms, I was checking the final page. I finished my work and went to sleep. I woke up in the evening, and as promised, arrived at your abode. In my hands I carried your beloved file.
Today, you were not sitting on the floor but lying in bed. Your clothes were the same white, your face sunken as ever. Yellowed stains covered your shalwar. I quickly connected these stains to the red plastic bedpan visible under your bed. You could no longer walk, and faltered while you urinated.
I had a few questions about the proofs, but you were in a hurry. You had no time to answer any questions. You opened your bedside drawer and pulled out a file. You handed the file to me and confessed that last time you had forgotten to give me the final one hundred and fifty pages of the proofs. Subhan Allah! Your book was going to be quite lengthy. You had surely preserved all your findings in it! You instructed me to keep the first file, review the second file, merge the two, and then submit the complete manuscript to the publisher in person. With a trembling hand, you scribbled the publisher’s phone number on a scrap of paper and put it in my hand. Then you apologised. . . you were tired, and didn’t have the strength to speak any longer. You needed rest. Without having any water or chai, I left.
My dear teacher!
I was now aboard a bus on my way back to the hostel. Night had fallen, and your files accompanied me, sitting on my lap. At that point, my heart was enraged. I was extremely upset with you. Basically, I was your student. Why were you insisting on making me your secretary? Who the hell did you think you were? You had really mistreated me today. Neither had you asked how I was, nor had you bothered to offer me water or chai, and to top it all, you had dumped the burden of 150 pages on me without even checking with me first if I was busy. You were taking undue advantage of your seniority and my youth, of your past favours to me and my gratitude to you. I felt like throwing your files out the window. I was the embodiment of fury.
The bus rushed down the city roads, but the passengers were unaware of the high speed, as all were asleep. Besides me, there were perhaps a dozen labourers on the bus dozing off. They were returning to their slums after a day’s worth of wages. I studied their sleepy faces. Each seemed old, toothless, sick. And suddenly, your face surfaced in my mind’s eye. These poor souls were your tribe of cursed, doomed brothers. Despite your fame and wealth, you too were poor and doomed like them. Time, the greatest wealth of life, was running out for you. Death awaited you on the other side. Suddenly, I felt pity for you. I was ashamed at my anger, and my broken heart immediately forgave you. But soon I was jolted by another painful thought.
Since it was your book that stood between you and death, it was more than likely that as soon as it would be published, you would die. In truth, the more I helped you with the preparation of the book, the closer I brought you to death. I was an unwitting accomplice to euthanasia. This thought sent shivers up my spine. My whole body broke out in tremors. It was as if a gaping hole had opened up in the walls of my body through which an ice-cold wind was blowing in. I needed a powerful, all-consuming liquid fire to fight it.
My dear teacher!
That night when I came back to my hostel, I put away both your files in my drawer and headed out to drink. Today, our rendezvous of choice was the big hill on campus, and we went on drinking till two o’clock in the morning. My friends wanted to continue drinking, but I was so drunk that I just wanted to sleep. I bid my companions farewell and headed back toward the hostel. On the way there was a wood, and the sight of the trees frightened me. They resembled all kinds of creatures. Some were crooked and twisted, like witches, others had sharp, long thorns, like porcupines, and some towered over me like giant ogres. All of a sudden, as if by magic, I heard your voice call out to me. A terrible panic took me in its grip. I stopped and looked around, but of course you weren’t there. I moved forward, and once more, your voice called out to me. I inspected my surroundings again but, as before, you were nowhere to be seen.
I realised that the sound of your voice was not coming from outside, but from inside me. Your spirit, appalled by my laziness and insubordination, had entered me and was calling me from inside. I instantly sobered up, my sloth and insolence receding into the wind. My footsteps quickened. Inside my desk drawer was your second file which had spent hours waiting for my time and attention.
My dear teacher!
I started proofreading the second file as soon as I walked into the room, and I devoted the rest of the night to this task. The next morning, I promptly called your publisher and arranged a meeting with him for the evening. Then I went to sleep, and that evening I arrived at his office bearing your files. He was in a meeting. His assistant – a surly, middle-aged woman – sat me next to her in her office. I presented your proofs to her. An expression of grave disappointment came over her face. She took the file from me with a loud sigh, complaining that the proofs were six months late and had come in at the wrong time. Three books were being prepared for publication at the press, and the entire staff of the publishing house was occupied with them. You would have to wait. Your book would be published after these three.
And why had you taken six months to review the proofs? It was at most a one-week job. You were certainly no professional. Explaining the circumstances to that heartless witch was beyond a coward like me. I didn’t have the courage to tell her of your deteriorating health, your disability, your impending death. My head bowed, I listened to all her complaints and fled at the first opportunity.
My dear teacher!
When I called you from the campus PCO after my meeting with that hag, I told you a truth and a lie one after another. First, I informed you that your book would not be published immediately, as some delays were expected in its publication. Guided by some unknown wisdom, I went on to say that in my estimation, these delays would not exceed a few weeks. Dear teacher, look at my deceit! At the time, my dear teacher, I knew with certainty that your book did not stand a chance of being published in your lifetime. I was merely casting dust in your eyes with my lies.
I felt so remorseful about lying to you that I broke off all ties. For weeks I couldn’t even bring myself to dial your phone number, let alone visit you. Every night, in the company of my friends, I would get drunk in deserted spots on campus – by the forgotten water tank, underneath the trees in the woods, upon the little mountaintops, or in the darkness of caves.
In the daytime, I would sleep in my room. I was either drunk or overpoweringly sleepy at all times, and on those days, I did not think about you even once. Weeks passed by in oblivion of myself. One night, when we were on the hostel rooftop drinking, I heard your voice call out to me again. At first I was shocked, then I felt embarrassed. To unburden my conscience, I told my friends about you. I lauded your perseverance and high-spiritedness, and blamed myself harshly for being a liar and a coward. My companions were sitting in a drunken trance. Silently and patiently, they downed their drinks as they listened to my confession from beginning to end. When I had finished, one of my friends asked with a strange indifference: “Yaar, will you go to Professor Waseeq’s funeral?” The question shook me to my core. The ground fell away from beneath my feet. I could not bring myself to speak.
My dear teacher!
Believe it or not, even though it was a certainty that you would soon leave us, I couldn’t bring myself to picture you in a coffin. Your death was now inevitable, but for some reason neither my heart nor my mind was ready to accept this reality.
My dear teacher!
After many days, I received a letter from you. You longed to see me, and were inviting me to your house. I called you, and in a strangled voice, you said, “I have been thinking of you for a long time. You are very important to me. You know, from the very beginning, I don’t get along with many people. These days, you are the only person I enjoy talking to.”
My dear teacher!
While you were showering me with love and affection, you had no knowledge of the countless untruths I had told and the many false assurances I had given you. You went on. “Most people dislike me. They think that I’m an atheist because they’ve never seen me pray or fast. And because they are under the impression that I have chosen to ignore God, they won’t pray for me when I die.”
My dear teacher!
Since when had people’s prayers become important to you? Three years ago, there wasn’t even a trace of religiosity to be found in you. At that time, it was public knowledge that you were an atheist. When had this dramatic transformation occurred? Your sudden metamorphosis was beyond my comprehension; but what was the significance of my understanding? Perhaps this is a natural process. In the vicinity of death, even the most hardened atheists mellow down. You too, in your final days, had started fearing the wrath of God. Since you were certain that you would soon be in his presence, you were desperate for prayers from your family and loved ones, so that God Almighty might forgive your trespasses and sins.
My dear teacher! I arrived at your house the following day. The moment I set foot in your room, my gaze lingered on the red bedpan underneath your bed, filled to the brim with urine. You were lying in bed, and as soon as I came in, you lifted your head to complain about the publisher. “The book is still unpublished – that bastard has delayed it longer than necessary – proofreading is done – cover has also been designed – write-up is finalised – what is that wanker waiting for? My death?”
I listened to you quietly, cursing myself. My convenient lie had revived your expectations, and since they couldn’t be met, you were furious. My embarrassment and dismay knew no bounds. Your publisher was not at fault. I was the one you should have been mad at.
Suddenly, you became calm, and after a pause said, “Brother, this is what humans are like. They don’t know how to keep promises. They are idle and careless. Do you know, I often get a call from old friends in the afternoon, who say that they will come by in an hour or two to look in on me. But sala, they don’t turn up, and nor do they call back. I spend all day in bed waiting for such people, and I feel so humiliated. . . I cannot even describe it.” You sighed.
“Waseeq saheb, why do your friends do that?” I asked with a child’s naivety. In reply, your revered tongue pronounced the following fatwa: “Bhai, wasps crowd the honey pot, and is there any honey left in me?”
My dear teacher!
No sooner had you spoken these words than your daughter, her husband, and their little boy entered the room. Your daughter instantly hugged you, and your son-in-law brought his hand to his forehead in greeting, smiling shyly and saying: “Adaab arz, Uncle.” Your grandson wanted to wrap his arms around you, but his mother restrained him with a, “Baba is ill. Don’t disturb him!” Perhaps she was having misgivings that your contagious germs would make their way toward her son’s vulnerable, guileless body. He was taken to the living room and seated in front of the television, while in your room, your son-in-law stared from a distance as your daughter took your hand, murmuring soothing words of reassurance, “It will take time for your system to regenerate. Minor infections and maladies will have a greater impact on you than before. But eventually, you will recover.”
So deeply was I absorbed in this spectacle that I lost track of time. Moments passed, and I suddenly realised that it was inappropriate of me to be staying on. I was not entitled to be seated among your family and relatives. After all, I was your student and not your son, grandson, or son-in-law. I took leave and your son-in-law escorted me out. “Bye bye, dear, have a good one,” he said in a melodious voice. I walked toward the bus stop and cursed myself all the way back to campus. Why had I stayed on after your family arrived, when I was a mere stranger?
My dear teacher!
That night, our group of drunkards reconvened beneath the water tank, and booze flowed in abundance. When the bottles had emptied, we felt very thirsty. Since we had run out of booze, we could only find water at this hour. But where would we get water? The water that we had brought with us from the hostel in plastic bottles had been mixed into the booze and consumed. We peered around us, looking for signs of water. My gaze fell on an iron bucket at some distance, which was busy collecting rust for ages. It was filled with water from many rains. I advanced toward the bucket, which was full of muddy, putrid water. I bent my head to the surface of this rancid liquid and started drinking. I was immediately nauseous, and started to vomit. I felt as if I had taken a drink from your bedpan rather than the iron bucket. Perhaps this was the peculiar ruse your angry spirit had devised to make me pay for my cowardice and lies.
I received another letter from you. You were requesting me to visit you one last time. I came by that very evening. As usual, your wife opened the door and led me to your room. You no longer had the strength to lift your head off the pillow, and your voice was so feeble that I had to bring my ear near your lips. It seemed as though you had given up all hope, and were merely waiting now. Death had sent a special boat to shore to collect you. The angel of death was rowing, and the soft thunk of oars against the water soothed you like a lullaby, putting you to sleep. This is why you kept closing your eyes. But I was astounded that even in this condition, you had not forgotten your book.
You whispered, “Look here, mian, I have prolonged my life selling all my lands and property. I made every effort to stay alive till the publication of my book, but in vain. I’ve run out of time.” Then, you became silent. You were very melancholic. To break the mournful spell of silence in the room, I started talking about the Twin Towers. Terrorists had attacked the Twin Towers about a week before. I asked for your take on this horrific event. You replied coolly: “They should have done it at night.” I was disconcerted, but stayed quiet. I looked at your face in surprise. After delivering this new fatwa, you closed your eyes. I left your bedside and tiptoed out.
My dear teacher!
After that meeting, a few days passed by, and without waiting for a letter, I dialled your number. I had a profound wish to see you, because our final conversation had left me anxious. Actually, the fatwa you had issued regarding the attacks on the Twin Towers had been nagging me. I was constantly wondering what you had meant by, “they should have done it at night.” Were you an intellectual or political supporter of the terrorists? Or were you just trying to be funny? (You were famous for your dark humour.) I wanted you to clarify it.
Also, the thorns of conscience were pricking me over and over again. It had become essential for me to meet you so I could beg your forgiveness for all the white lies that had stoked your expectations, eventually causing you pain. But this time, your wife picked up the phone and informed me in a flat voice that you were unwell and would not be able to see me. She hung up. I realised that I was never
going to receive your clarification or your forgiveness, and that I must prepare myself for bad news. After eight days the news finally arrived.
What happened was that your daughter called me on the hostel line. She had probably found my number in your diary. She informed me that you had passed away five days ago on September 30 at eight o’clock in the morning. Your body had been buried the same day. Your family had been in shock, and had forgotten to contact your students and friends. Now, your daughter had somewhat recovered from her distress, and had dialed my number. I paid my condolences and thanked her for informing me. We hung up at the same time.
My dear teacher!
When I learned of your demise, a strange sense of calm came over me. . . Knowing that your diseased body was now at ease and your restless soul at peace greatly comforted my heart . . .Then, little by little, the spear of your death started piercing my chest, and as its head penetrated my heart, a mournful abyss opened up inside me, its mouth wide open like a dragon.
Now look here, my dear teacher! Today I have received the first copy of your book, and to celebrate this happy occasion I am drinking with friends in my hostel room. Snoop Dogg is playing on my sound system. His bold lyrics are booming in the room, putting us into a trance. Each of us is enjoying his intoxication in his own way. Someone is humming, another waving his arms in the air, one tapping his feet, another swaying his head. At this point, words like “disease,” “death,” “trauma,” and “mourning” don’t mean anything to us. . . All of a sudden, we pause, our ears perking up. Our breathing is slowing down. . . as if we have sensed a great danger that will soon befall us.
A scary rumbling can be heard around us, becoming louder and closer with every minute. It is surely the sign of some new calamity. God’s wrath is coming for us drunks. . . But no! It is not so! This disaster will come when it will. For now, an aircraft is flying in the sky. It is about to land at the nearby airport. It is flying really low, and in our intoxicated state we are afraid it might crash into our building. With bated breath, we sit and wait as time passes by, and keeps on passing. Once we are sure that the aircraft has landed, we breathe a collective sigh of relief. At that moment, I suddenly recall the Twin Towers, and your cryptic fatwa, and your book, your flat, your bed, your bedpan, your voice: all these thoughts come to me in a flash. But all these memories are fleeting. They vanish in an instant, just like the aircraft whose noise had terrified us a while ago. . . now I am refilling my glass, standing up, and raising a toast to you. All my fellows are draining their glasses, and we are laughing heartily. While celebrating your memory, we will fill the goblet of night with our hideous laughs.
The 2022 Prize
The jury was unanimous in its decision to award the prize to My Dear Teacher, Sana R Chaudhry’s translation of Pyaare Ustaad, written by Julien Columeau.
The runner-up prize is shared by Shama Askari for her translation of Begum by Ibn e Sai’d; and Sabyn Javeri for The Busy Woman, a translation of Masroof Aurat by Khalida Hussain.
The Shortlist for 2022:
- My Dear Teacher – Sana R. Chaudhry (Urdu: Pyaare Ustaad by Julien Columeau)
- Save Me From My Friends – Nandini Krishnan (Urdu: Mujhe Mere Doston Se Bachao by Sajjad Haider Yaldram)
- Joota - Hamza Naseer (Urdu: Joota by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi)
- Begum – Shama Askari (Urdu: Begum by Ibn-e-Sai’d)
- The Busy Woman – Sabyn Javeri (Urdu: Masroof Aurat by Khalida Hussain)
- Darkness – Saba Bashir (Urdu: Andhera by Razia Sajjad Zaheer)
- The Souls Who Mourn - Daniele Speziale (Urdu: Sog Manaane Wali Roohein by Rahman Abbas)