On the seat tightened in plastic at the back of a blue Vespa scooter…a girl sitting on the back seat, whose hips were still imperfect but delicate and, despite being so, covered the seat and, under their weight, transferred their moderate warmth into the plastic sheet.
In the calamitous traffic of Mall Road, halting at every step, proceeding for a moment, then again halting, dense traffic…the rear lights of cars...motorcycles...wagons, scooters, buses would, in the same manner, lit up, going out, relit, in the proximity of Regal Chowk….and that Regal cinema which once used to complete that cinematic triangle along with the Plaza and Odeon where only English films were shown…at the entry of which on one side of Haji Karim Bukhsh store the billboard of a more frequently shown Hollywood film would be fixed, Samson and Delilah, Salome, Quo Vadis, Picnic, Wild North, Scaramouche, Barefoot Contessa…and then after a long time The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven and Come September, etc., every evening on the roof of the Standard on one side of the billboard, for whom Lahoris could sacrifice even their lives, Angela used to dance. Why go so far to sacrifice one’s life, my own schoolfellow, a resident of Mardan, in his love for her, wasted not only himself, but also the greater part of his fortune.
Near this same Regal Chowk, parallel to the bus stop, on one side of that same footpath, the scooter was proceeding along the road on which the Hollywood queen of spellbinding beauty, Ava Gardner…who once used to wow the screen in the form of the “Barefoot Contessa” in the same Regal Chowk, and sometimes on the screen of Odeon cinema by edging close to Gregory Peck in a Paris nightclub in Hemingway’s Snows of Kilimanjaro, requesting him to light the cigarette pressed between her lips, all tulip and flowers with red lipstick, the same Ava Gardner used to accompany a fellow British actor in the evening on the footpath with her longish legs and perfumed body during the filming of Bhowani Junction.
Beside that same footpath on Mall Road, that blue Vespa scooter used to pass by, the one on whose back seat sat a girl whose hips were still imperfect but delicate and, despite being so, covered the seat completely. The yellow basanti dupatta of the girl on the back seat fluttered in the polluted air of Mall Road.
Any mark of the traffic now flowing, then crawling, sometimes halting, then flowing again would not stay in the eyes long enough to inscribe itself, though a few bruises from its flow and hindrance would remain. On the canvas of one of these bruises were some traces of a picture passing by in a moment, not a clear mark, and in the picture painted with those bruises was a girl seated on the back seat of a scooter. And she had laughed once.
A girl on the back seat of a scooter was not such a miracle. That back seat had not been made merely for decoration, but to seat someone, to take some amma jan to the hospital, for the sake of dropping one’s son at the school, for making daily provisions available at home. In fact, those constructing their first – though small – house having a space of two to three marlas also used to highlight the significance of the back seat by attaching a flush toilet or an Araucaria flower pot on it, and besides that, a girl, imperfect but delicate, so this was no miracle.
But this scene aroused the tiny hoods of the baby snakes of envy in my mind. Their tiny hissing tongues bit me, and only because when that blue Vespa scooter with the plastic back seat on which that girl was seated came within my view, at that moment the girl shifted forward a little, her mouth approaching the left ear of her fellow young man driving the scooter, whispered or said something loudly in his ear, and then, shifting back again, laughed. Just that laugh of hers burnt me to cinders. That laugh was the expression of happiness and heavenly joy, from a woman falling in love with the first man she encounters after the birth of the universe, in which the lust of the first tryst and his protection were evident.
Who knows what she had said in her partner’s ear.
Whatever she had said, there was an uncontrolled mingling of love, she had certainly drowned in her love for him, her laugh suggested it.
I could not bear such intoxicated drowning in love and that careless laughter of hers of which I was deprived, leaving me unhappy and unsatisfied.
In the time it takes to breathe three or four times, to blink your eyes once, in just such a brief moment did the girl on the back seat of that scooter moving in the multitude of traffic pass by, disappearing after placing a bruise in my eyes, buried in an unknown future after a few moments of her presence.
But that instant when that girl with delicate hips had whispered in her partner’s ear, shifting slightly forward, and then laughed after moving back, that instant of whispering and laughing was as permanently carved on my body as the smouldering mark of ownership branded on the skin of an animal.
If I had had my way, I would only have killed that scooter-rider, in fact the girl on the back seat too, just for the crime of having laughed readily, so full of love.
Although both the hip-expanding girl and the scooter-riding boy swam past my eyes in a moment, placing a bruise in them in which that girl laughed and drew back and disappeared, I became an enemy in both their lives. Extreme hate and resentment roiled me, I began to turn to ashes with envy. This laugh so full of love, and this explosion of joy emerging from it, why were they so happy, this alone was their unbearable, irreparable offence in my eyes.
It was not that I was personally devoid of joy or tangled in the warp and woof of a sad life, that is why…never one to envy or encourage resentment, today I was consumed by the display of their undeniable affection. I lived a prosperous life but was unaware of the perfection of the happiness which had ignited on their faces for a moment. I am a contented and satisfied person who loves his wife and pampers his two children all the time, but…but when that girl laughed after attaching herself to her partner, a spear entered my chest in the form of my sudden realisation that I had never encountered such joy. Her laugh was the unhesitant happiness of affection, intimacy and complete surrender of love. I lost my way in the fog of the whims of love and joy. Ensconced in deception and trickery, I kept thinking that this was the final destination of love, and was contented with this situation.
In a state of defeated silence, I kept standing there, close to the footpath on which Ava Gardner’s divine calves used to flutter like fish caught in a trap, and that scooter and the girl and boy riding it passed by in a moment preserved in my eyes.
The traffic signals of Regal Chowk which had changed to yellow earlier turned blood red but that scooter didn’t stop, it crossed the chowk ignoring the lights. I couldn’t see, but perhaps that girl was still laughing, putting her arms around her partner’s waist, hugging his back and shifting back a little as she did this.
After crossing Regal Chowk the speed of the scooter might have increased, perhaps because a slight arousal from being held from the back by the girl had entered the boy’s body, reaching the tops of his fingers and distracting them so that he twisted the accelerator harder than it should have been and the speed of the scooter increased. The traffic signal at Charing Cross was red too, the slight arousal from the proximity of the girl’s body also affected that boy’s eyes…this is my hunch. He must have thought that the red entering his eyes was the arousal from the girl’s body…that the traffic signal was green. He did not halt with the halting traffic, he went through Charing Cross even as the crowd of traffic coming from the direction of Queens Road was set into motion. Both of them became a tale from the past.
In the ambulance racing towards Ganga Ram Hospital, its siren ringing, issuing complaints and bewailing the proximity of death, they became a tale from the past.
I am sure that the same laugh had stayed on the bloodied lips of that crushed girl and I would never have been able to bear even that dead laughter, I would have turned to ashes. Even today I hate that girl who had laughed, whispering in her partner’s ear before shifting back, sitting on the back seat with her delicate hips spread out, in the dense traffic of Mall Road.
Translated from the Urdu by Raza Naeem.
Mustansar Hussain Tarar is one of Pakistan’s most illustrious and important writers, and one of the greatest living Urdu writers. He made his name as a pathbreaking travelogue-writer in the 1950s, and then began writing novels in the early 1990s on themes as varied as the importance of rivers in the sustenance of ancient civilisations, the changing social and cultural fabric of Punjab over the years, forbidden romance, the downfall of the Soviet Union and how it affected a whole generation of idealists in South Asia, the Taliban phenomenon, and even a Punjabi novel, acclaimed as the first modern one in the language.
In terms of sheer variety of topics, his closest associate is perhaps the equally iconic Urdu writer Quratulain Hyder. What has perhaps prevented the work of Tarar from receiving its due globally is a lack of translations into English. However, one of his novels – Lenin for Sale: Ay Ghazaal-i-Shab – has just been published in translation, and three others are in the process of being translated.
March 1 marks Tarar’s 79th birthday, and to mark the occasion, here is a translation of one of his recent stories, published as part of a short-story collection in 2015. Tarar told me in a recent conversation that this intriguing “love” story was based on a flashback he had when he saw a young woman pass by on a scooter on Lahore’s iconic Mall Road, and he was overcome by jealousy. He thought that he would write a novel investigating who she was. Maybe she was the rider’s sister, or perhaps he would drop her at the station. Thinking about the possibilities, Tarar had planned to make the rider enter the lives of eight different women, before settling on the present plot and its chilling denouement.
Mustansar Hussain Tarar is Pakistan’s best-selling Urdu language. His novels, short stories and travelogues have inspired generations of Pakistani readers and a devout following. His novels Bahao and Raakh have been rated as two of the most influential Urdu novels written in the last century. His work is part of the Urdu curriculum in universities at home and abroad, and the topic of several academic works.
Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic, and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader currently engaged as Instructor in History and Global Perspectives at the Senior School in the Beaconhouse School Systems in Lahore. His most recent work is an introduction to a reissued edition of Abdullah Hussein’s classic partition novel The Weary Generations (Udas Naslein).
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