Sunday Storytelling

From Pakistan: The famous satire we haven’t read all these years (it’s from 1964)

An excerpt from a new translation of Pakistani humourist Muhammad Khalid Akhtar’s most celebrated work.

(Excerpted from the Chakiwara Chronicles of Mr Iqbal Changezi, Proprietor, Allah Tawakkul Bakery)

These bizarre, tragic and somewhat preposterous series of events (yes, every tragedy has a smattering of comedy after all) that I witnessed in Chakiwara and in which I had a minor role, all began on the morning of 17 July, 1952.

The reason I remember the date is because I keep a diary, a chronicle of sorts, where I record important events or stories every day. On days when nothing interesting happens, I write, “Nothing interesting happened” under the date. This chronicle has now spread to over seven thousand pages and it could even be turned into a book of eight or nine volumes.

In these times of sluggish markets and a general indifference to literature, I don’t think any sane publisher would even touch this manuscript with a bargepole. I don’t care. I only write it to feed my habit – or addiction – and my friends, Muhammad Deen Asp, Qurban Ali Kattar and others have assured me that the manuscript will certainly be published under their supervision after my death with great ceremony and fanfare. Why they should wish to preserve my personal treasure for the coming generations is beyond me.

The chronicle, naturally, is full of bilge and drivel, much like myself.

As far as its writing is concerned, I hope that readers who understand me will forgive my nonsensical banter. I have not used any specific method or care in selecting or structuring the events of this chronicle. I have tried to shape them into a story, even though many would argue rather uselessly with me over calling this a ‘story’. They can go to the devil for all I care.

I will call this “The Story of the Smiling Buddha”. It could also be named “The Chinese Dentist” or “The Last Act” but I think “The Smiling Buddha” is most appropriate because whether one agrees or not, the Buddha played a crucial role in giving a twist to these thrilling events. I am convinced of this.

On the aforementioned morning, I was standing outside Allah Tawakkul Bakery on a ladder with a paintbrush in my hand, painting the bakery’s signboard. All businessmen know that the first principle of success is keeping up the appearance of the shop: it must be clean, shiny, and overall in a tip-top condition. It had occurred to me that morning that perhaps the declining sales of bread could be shored up by repainting the dirty and faded letters of the bakery signboard.

Painting signboards is not easy; it is far more demanding than writing a three-hundred page novel. I have seen painters who ended up painting themselves while trying to paint a signboard. The painter, who is not in the most comfortable position, grapples with the looming hazard of toppling from the ladder on the passers-by below. And yet, painting is not without its pleasures. My colours were coming out bright and fine, and I whistled away as a heady rush of happiness overcame me.

Then out of nowhere I heard something that sounded like an agonised whimper; a long, drawn-out “haaey”.

I looked below. Near the foot of the ladder stood my friend Qurban Ali Kattar dressed in the coat-pant that I had lent him last week. His mouth was covered with a handkerchief and there was an anguished expression on his face, which sported an imperial beard. He was staring at me.

The sudden, unexpected appearance of this ghost-like figure startled me and I staggered. The bucket slipped from my hand and a large dollop of thick green paint splashed straight on his face and soaked his clothes and a part of his beard. Without paying much attention to his grumbling laments (I couldn’t even hear them properly), I asked him what made him quit his soft, warm bed so early in the morning. I reminded him that the bakery didn’t open before 8 am.

“Changezi yaar! Come down,” he said impatiently. “You have toppled the paint bucket on me as revenge but I won’t say anything. You will regret this later. In any case, I am very ill and if you don’t wish your friend an early death then I need to be taken to a doctor urgently.”

“Why should I take you? Why don’t you walk there yourself?” I said.

“With illnesses such as mine, the moral support and care of friends is extremely important,” Kattar said. “I don’t want to go alone. What if I collapse on the way to the doctor?”

“What has happened to you?” I asked.

“Changezi yaar, really, I am extremely ill,” Kattar said. “If something happens to me, imagine the terrible vacuum that would be left in the world of literature. You think this whole thing is just a joke?”

“I am only asking you what the illness is, and why are you holding that handkerchief to your mouth?”

“My gums hurt so much. I couldn’t sleep all night. Aaeye! Haaey!” Kattar groaned. “I have a shooting pain in my head and body. Changezi! I think the recent nuclear tests have made the atmosphere toxic and given rise to radioactivity. I think I have become radioactive.”

I sent Qurban Ali Kattar towards a water tap and calmly finished the work at hand. When I came down he was sitting on the steps of the bakery with a long face. Even after rubbing and scrubbing his face with water, the paint was still stuck to his beard and nose.

I unlocked the door of the bakery and settled him in an armchair.

“Changezi yaar!” he said. “Get me a steaming hot cup of tea. It might reduce the pain.”

I made tea. Meanwhile, he put his hand in the jar and ate two or three small cakes because he claimed he was unable to chew buns or biscuits.

“When will you take me to the doctor?” he asked. He actually appeared to be in great pain.

“Not taking you to the doctor,” I said. “Wait for the shops to open up. I’ll take you to a dentist. You’ll be fine once your jaw tooth is pulled out. He’ll probably charge four or five rupees to remove it. If you don’t have the money with you, run home and get it first.”

He said he wasn’t in a condition to go to his flat so I lent him five rupees. It was about 9 am and Muhammad Deen Asp had also arrived. We helped the weeping, moaning Qurban Ali Kattar to a Chinese dentist’s shop on Marriot Road.

Let me tell you, it was a very interesting scene. A few people came to sympathise with the unfortunate patient, asking what had happened to him. Some even thought we had kidnapped the novelist but they did not intervene to help him, thinking it must be for a good cause. On our way, we encountered ex-comedian Chakori in his excessively tight hat, who decided to accompany us for moral support. By the time we reached the Chinese dentist Ah Fung’s shop, the patient was wailing and kicking like a suckling baby and we had to almost lift and carry him. Finally, we succeeded in offloading him on an empty chair inside. We tried to silence him with words of consolation and even appealed to his manhood but this only made him wail even louder.

When we reached his shop, Ah Fung was busy fixing an old woman’s mouth. He looked at the new patient a bit oddly and I think he even gave us a faint smile.

“What happened to the young gentleman?” he asked.

“His jaw hurts,” I explained.

“Okay, he wants it removed?”

We did not know the young gentleman’s intentions but we nodded in agreement.

“Bas, I will take one more minute,” said Ah Fung.

The dentist’s one minute was indeed one minute. The old woman vacated the revolving chair and we got hold of Qurban Ali Kattar and firmly lodged him in it, ignoring his protests.

Qurban Ali Kattar said he didn’t want to lose his jaw tooth but the old dentist asked him to open his mouth wide and with his deft fingers, located the aching tooth. He made a knocking sound and shook his head.

“The young gentleman has very, very severe pyorrhoea,” he addressed us as the guardians of the patient. “My advice would be to have all the teeth removed. For now I’ll remove the jaw tooth.”

The novelist tried to get up and run from the dentist’s chair but Chakori and I held him down by his shoulders.

Excerpted with permission from the story “The Smiling Buddha”, from Love in Chakiwara and Other Misadventures, Muhammad Khalid Akhtar, translated from the Urdu by Bilal Tanweer.

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