When Zamir Ahmed Khan, lost in memory, peered into Bhai and Bhabhi Jaan’s room that evening, he not only saw the things contained in it; his mind was now adept at questioning and searching for answers to what he saw. He’d arrived at this place after considerable clipping and pruning, making and breaking, coming together and falling apart – a semblance of structure had begun to manifest itself atop his own foundation. Attending school had naturally introduced some changes in his personality. He also realised that the world was bigger than home, the grand house, the neighbourhood, Lakherapura, Damkhera, and the small number of relatives and people in the extended family. How big, he still couldn’t guess, but no doubt huge!
There was a moment that monsoon evening that proved to be an important way-station and focal point in the middle of the relentless flow of time. He went down the path with the towering guava trees of the grand house and alongside the sprawling flower beds and plants of the courtyard. At that moment, he wanted to reach somewhere, reach a place where he could step outside himself and see the past and present and future all at once. Where he could see himself from the outside. A birth of virescence, wet earth, the moisture of the first rain slowly drying from the roof tiles. Childhood card games, a faded memory of a passing train glimpsed through a window, and faces that, along with the rest of the world, had changed so quickly.
Bhabhi Jaan: sitting on a little stool on the inner veranda with an open box of paan wearing her billowing chikan-embroidered kurta, green shawl loosely draped over her shoulders, green silk striped pajamas, countless green glass bangles on her ankles, sparkling diamond nose stud, a somber smile on her face.
A cloud of smoke emerges from the kitchen and spreads through the courtyard, signaling that the aunt who has come to do the cooking has arrived. Bhabhi Jaan asks her something, but before she can respond, there’s an ear-shattering peal of sound from an unknown, nonhuman voice, “SALAMLAYKUM!” Even before the sound reaches his ears it echoes and gently brushes against the trees and their leaves, flowerpots, pillars supporting the veranda, roof tiles, aimless clouds, smoke floating through the courtyard. He’s unsure whether the voice first vibrated within him, then emerged, or whether it entered outside in, through his ears. He suddenly realises to his creeping embarrassment that he’s wearing his kameez and pajamas, cap folded inside his shirt pocket. The voice is a girl’s – this he understands instinctively – and, Zamir being Zamir, he turns beet-red.
“Do you recognise him?” Bhabhi Jaan asks Miss Salamlaykum. He still can’t bring himself to look up and see who it is.
“Sure I do!” replies a giggling voice. “He must be some uncle or other.” A peal of laughter like pomegranate seeds bursting from the fruit disperses through the house. He has to look now, and the second he does, he’s bewitched.
Zamir Ahmed Khan believed to his core that a gust of wind rushed in precisely at the moment his gaze met this much older, bespectacled girl standing before him. Leaves rustled, plants fluttered. A guava-tree branch swung around and said to another, “Salamlaykum!” Leaves twitched on twigs and branches stretched out on their tippy-toes while regarding her, restlessly, humming, “Salamlaykum!” in perfect harmony. The smoke whirled around the courtyard as it vanished with its own “Salamlaykum!” The clouds in the sky paused for a moment and mumbled, “Salamlaykum” as they looked down at the blushing boy standing on the veranda between Bhabhi Jaan and the mystery girl. He felt right then as if this moment in his life had been created in paradise and wasn’t part of this world. It’d rained down from the sky, like the red-velvet bugs, and the funny thing was that as the years went by, this feeling solidified into belief.
It turned out that the mystery girl from Pakistan had guessed correctly that Zamir Ahmed Khan was her uncle by relation.
A twelve-year-old uncle and twenty-year-old niece! The niece said, “It doesn’t seem fitting to have such a young uncle.” Why shouldn’t she think of him as her little brother? She didn’t have one anyway. He readily agreed, and they became friends. They agreed he would call her Akka, which is what a Marathi-speaking classmate of his called his older sister.
There was no one like Akka in the whole world – he firmly believed this. None of the other girls knew how to talk like she did, and none had her sense of fashion. Akka was of the heavens, not the world, and the very incarnation of sanctity with a glow in her face a little like the rays of the morning sun or on a special moonlit night. Zamir Ahmed Khan knew that Akka’s engagement to Kamal Miyan was right around the corner. On the one hand, it made him happy. On the other, he couldn’t stand how differently Akka treated him when Kamal Miyan was around. His spirits sank, he sulked.
Akka and Kamal Miyan made plans, went on many a picnic together, or walked in the shadow of sulking Zamir. A masked bandit living in the darkness of his heart knocked on the door, came in, and cut him off from the world of the living. Death and destruction were rampant as long as this monster remained at large. The bandit from the dark heart began his rampage, leaving marks from his whip every step of the way. As long as it roamed free, Zamir Ahmed Khan found himself at its mercy.
Akka inquired what was the matter, as did Kamal Miyan. Others were sympathetic. But he was beyond their reach, vanished and lost in an imaginary world where a dim light shone, as if from a candle, but this light was merely incidental. The truth was that the candle burned only to kill the moth. The curfew outside was lifted the moment the masked bandit retreated into the darkness of his heart. Steel shutters on storefronts clanged open, hustle and bustle returned to the streets, and the bazaars were again a beehive of activity, while the amusement-starved crowds flocked to the cinemas, just as they often flock to the cities nowadays for political reasons.
Akka came back to India several times after her engagement ceremony, and before her marriage, and even after she was married. It wasn’t until after the ’65 war between India and Pakistan, when a degree of normalcy resumed between the two countries, that her marriage with Kamal Miyan actually took place, and this after a long delay. The memory of Akka most sturdily fixed in Zamir Ahmed Khan’s mind was from the period before ’65 and, in his mind’s eye, came naturally with the title, The Age of 78 RPMs.
Bhai Miyan had an old record player at home, and Zamir Ahmed Khan used to buy records all the time.
Back then, 33s and 45s hadn’t really caught on yet, and no one could even imagine a cassette tape. The standard 78 was ten inches in diameter and could hold three and a half minutes of music on each side. Akka was a big fan of Indian film music, and Zamir’s idea of a perfect day was listening to records with her or giving her the latest and greatest as a gift.
Some songs were so powerful back then that the first few notes were enough to set off a cyclone of sadness, leaving him feeling churned up inside. If he bought a record for Akka, he usually bought a copy for himself, too. Akka would later inform him by letter that on such-and-such date at such-and-such hour (Indian Standard Time) she was going to listen to a particular record. And he should do the same. The knowledge that some- where out there, very far away, in a distant land and different country, Akka was listening to the same song gave him an odd sense of comfort.
“You know what?” Zamir Ahmed Khan said to Akka the last time they met. “My idea of a pretty girl is totally skewed because of you. I began to think that a girl can’t be beautiful if she doesn’t wear glasses.”
“You still married Rahat. She doesn’t wear glasses!” Akka laughed. The two women had become quite close.
“Just informing you about my idiotic behavior,” he said, a little irritated. “What good-for-nothing decides on marriage based on looks? It just happens.”
“You never used to be such a bore, yaar!” Akka pronounced with a hint of sarcasm and disbelief. “You used to be a real romantic, and quite the intriguing one.”
“He became like that after we got married.” Rahat found her opening to inject a little sneer. “One is of course influenced by the views and standards of those who live under the same roof, and therefore must respect them.”
“My two girls are as sharp as they come,” Zamir Ahmed Khan said to Rahat in an attempt to save himself from the verbal web being spun. “Why are you worried? Thanks to the gas leak you’ll soon be wearing glasses, too, Allah willing!”
Who knows how much Akka did or didn’t know about him anymore. Zamir Ahmed Khan, for his part, had never even dreamed of going to Pakistan. Kamal Miyan had settled in Karachi after the marriage. As the first clouds of the monsoon gathered, like the dance of a peacock, he had the thought that Akka had become a part of the fabric of life somewhere along the line – her coming to Bhopal, the films and outings, the stories of relatives settled in the mysterious land of Pakistan, all the poetry, joys, and sorrows. These thoughts still existed somewhere but were now seen through a stranger’s eyes, in a stranger’s slumber, through dreams on a stranger’s pillow, with the certainty that never again in this life could he have the beatific glimpses of that lush green island of time.
It was baffling to think how centuries of Zamir Ahmed Khan’s life could fit into a 78 RPM record that lasted for only three and a half minutes. Or to concede that the true length of endless time that spreads out from earth to sky like a dust storm may not be longer than that.
A very short three minutes and thirty seconds, and then – finis!
Excerpted with permission from the chapter “A Very Short Three and a Half Minutes”, from The Tale of the Missing Man, Manzoor Ahtesham, translated by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark, Northwestern University Press.
Padma Shree awardee and Bhopal-based author Manzoor Ahtesham has written six novels and several short story collections.
Jason Grunebaum has translated the works of Uday Prakash and Manzoor Ahtesham, and teaches Hindi at the University of Chicago.
Ulrike Stark is Professor in the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago.