Stormy Afternoon

The colonel and the doctor gossip on the veranda at the sea-view restaurant as the city dissolves in

"Look at the rain," Dr Kazi says. "No electricity for hours on end. The traffic's crazy. Getting here in this torrent was an ordeal. More of this and we won't be able to meet for lunch tomorrow."

He taps the ash off his cigarette on to the tiled floor, though there's an ashtray beside him.

“No girls in bikinis today," Colonel Jami says, peering out at the empty pool. "No sun for them to bathe in. Can you believe it? My niece was here in a bikini last week. She said she was too pale and was suntanning! In my youth, we'd have called her dark and told her to stay out of the sun."

“I know. I was there. They say the storm's coming here."

Through a curtain of rain, the garden is still visible; beyond it, white-capped waves. A young woman, blonde and tall, sweeps by, twinkling her fingers at them. Her shoulders are bare, her legs revealed almost to the knee in short, white trousers.

“That's old Burhan's wife," Jami says. "Looks younger every day and she's been married at least ten years. I saw her in a swimming costume last week. Look at her clothes. And yesterday, she wrote a letter to the London Times defending Islamic headgear . . ."

“Did you hear what I said? They think the storm's going to reach us soon."

“God's punishment, they say."

“Where do you think I live? I've been watching TV all morning and hearing what the bigots are saying. Received ideas. That's what you're repeating. Punishment for what? I'd have thought someone like you . . ."

“Let me tell you about Burhan and his wife. You know he has a son who's almost her age? Well, one day, he came home from a trip abroad and found his son's clothes in her bedroom. He got a gun and shot the boy in the leg -"

“That's not what I heard," Kazi says. "The boy's a good ten years younger. She brought him up like a son. Spoiled him. The boy had a fight with his best friend over a girl. The father rushed him off to the Gulf before he got into any trouble. You've been watching too many soap operas. Anyway, let's go back to the table. I want some of those lamb chops. Last time we were here, there weren't any chops when we went back to the table."

“Biryani for me," the colonel says. "You should learn to appreciate local cuisine instead of hankering after foreign . . ."

“And what about you?" The doctor nudges his companion. "Let's admit it, the very world you and I live in is foreign. Cars. Fans. Mobile phones. Cash machines. Girls in bikinis - though I don't know how long that will last, given our current rate of progress towards perdition. Or paradise, should I say? And when did you stop drinking your double whiskies? After your pilgrimage to that shrine near Multan? Karim," - he beckons to a white-clad waiter - "keep an eye on our table."

They go to the serving tables to fill their plates, then return to sit at their table on the covered veranda overlooking the garden. Beyond the low wall, the sea is grey and turbulent. A single boat bobs on the water's surface; it seems suspended mid-move, its red sail dimmed by the rain.

On an overhead screen, three men with embroidered caps are asking for donations for victims of the storm near the coast. Starve, starve, feed the wretched, redeem your sins. A food pack will take you halfway to heaven. A tent will take you all the way.

“I can tell you where that money's going," Kazi says. "Into someone's pocket, and it won't be the victims who . . ."

“Don't be cynical. We live in such a beautiful country."

“With the most awful people."

“You know what your problem is? You see the dark side of the moon. Our young only talk about feudals and fundos and terrorists. Look at the progress our people have made. Doctors. Scientists. Sportsmen. Women moving ahead in every field . . ."

“Well, let me tell you, I know people who've built houses on the Mediterranean with money they stole from donations and aid. Next you'll be saying that democracy brings chaos and we should never have voted the general out," the doctor says. "And just four years ago, you were berating him for allowing corruption and creating misrule."

“You know, I left the army in 1975, when I came back from that Indian camp in Bareilly; I'd lost nearly four years of my life. I wasn't even 50. But you have to admit there's something to be said about our army. Ayub's hey-day, once he'd settled into power; now, that's what I call a good time. We had values! A golden age, I call it."

They've finished their food and, as usual, they beckon to the waiter to ask him about the day's dessert.

A burly man in cream-coloured shalwar and kameez comes up to greet them, raising the tips of his fingers to his forehead.

“Did you hear about Asad's son?" the colonel asks.


“Well, you know Asad had been having an affair with Pasha, that singer in the shampoo advert," the colonel says. "His wife was going crazy. She told him that she'd leave him if he didn't stop seeing her. Then, their son came back from Harvard. Somehow, the next thing you know is that Pasha's out of the father's life and seeing the son. And you know what? Pasha isn't even a girl."

“You mean she hides her age?"

“Not her age," says the colonel. "Pasha's not a woman, she's a man in disguise. Can't you tell? No breasts, no hips . . ."

“But that's an old story. Someone borrowed it from a novel. A French novel. It's been told before. The truth is that Pasha made a blue movie and . . ." the doctor says.

“A blue movie? You watched a blue movie?"

“Come on, old man, I'm joking. You're right, Pasha does look like a boy. And you, my friend - you should write soap operas. You seem to know all the plots. Just think, with the stories I could tell you . . ."

“I did publish a book of poems once."

“A pamphlet privately printed for your 50th anniversary."

“No! Not that, that was only an invitation card. A book of poems. In Urdu. I was 20 and in my final year of pre-med. Full of hope and courage! But that's all so long ago."

“You joined the army. I was still at boarding school in Dehradun," Kazi says.

Karim the waiter comes to clear away their plates.

“Tea or coffee, sir?"

He knows but he always asks. Coffee for the colonel, tea for the doctor. Once, long ago - how long ago? - he'd worked in the surgery that Kazi still owns, though he hasn't practised for some years now.

“But you didn't really know me then," Jami says. "You were - what, 16? Speaking of stories, you keep saying you're going to tell me about your last summer in Wimbledon."

“Surely I've told you about London already? And that was - what, five years ago?"

They light up: Jami his cigar, Kazi a filter-tip. The sound of the wind seems, for a moment, to have relented slightly.

“Five years ago? So tell me again. I've forgotten."

‘'Not much to tell. Ali and Mandana were busy all day as usual and I spent a lot of time going for walks. Then I twisted my ankle and had to stay at home a lot. A neighbour would drop in when Ali and Mandana were at work and she'd tell me how she'd once been a famous singer. Her name was Valentine Voss. She was probably 90. She lived all alone in an attic flat that she'd furnished like a little jewel box.

“I'd visit her for cups of tea sometimes. And she'd say: 'Look at this country, there are thieves and fare-dodgers and scroungers on the dole. It's a wonder you all still keep coming here for slim pickings! It must be so nice where you live, sun and sea and sand . . . So when are you going home? And your son? We've got too many foreign doctors here! Don't they need young doctors in your country? Don't you want them to come home and take care of you?'

“Then those boys from a northern town bombed half of the London Underground and the city was in chaos. That night, I had a dream. I dreamed I'd been in jail for a long, long time for a crime I hadn't committed. When I came out and went home, my wife was covered in a white veil from head to foot. And so was everyone else. Men and women."

“Veiled men?"

“No. Men and women all in white. I thought someone had died. All hail to the revolution, they chanted, and I didn't know what revolution they were talking about. Thank God you're free, they said. Thank God we're all free. Then, in my dream, I woke up wanting it all to be a dream, wishing that I wouldn't see the people in white again . . ."

“More tea, coffee, sir?" The waiter hovers.

“You're off the point now," says the colonel. "Get on with your story!"

“Well, a day or two after the bombings, I went down to the pharmacy for some Calpol and who do I see but Mrs Voss, struggling with two heavy shopping bags.

“'Hello,' she said, 'I left my shopping trolley at home.' I took the bags from her hand. 'Visitors to our country!' she said. 'Foreigners abusing our hospitality! We should have sent them back 30 years ago when that nice man called Powell said they'd take us all over if we let any more of them in. And look at us now! Men in black. Women in veils. Keeping their shops open all night and selling stale food. Living off our charity. Telling us what to do.' I think she'd forgotten where I was from.

“And then I said: 'You have people like my Iranian daughter-in-law and my son, both working as doctors for your National Health Service when they could make so much more at home with a private practice like mine. Both over 50 and working something like 24 hours a day! I keep telling them to come back.' She must have known then that she'd upset me.

“'But doctor, you're one of us!' she said. 'They need someone like you to teach them all to be like you.' I kept silent. But then I started thinking. I thought about the boys who'd so wantonly killed others and then killed themselves. What were they doing? Were they really jihadis? Who believed in heavenly beauties and rivers of milk? I don't think so, not for a moment. Weren't they reacting in frustration to want and need?

“Mandana worked in the north and she said the young men there lived on the margins. I'd always thought suicide bombing was a cowardly act. Then I thought how brave they must be to blow themselves up - but such misplaced bravery, such a waste. And yet they paralysed the world. To what avail? What did they do for you or me? I have to wait months for a visa to see my son and I couldn't, at my age, be bothered to go back. As for my son, he said that if he wanted to go to almost anywhere in the world, he had to wait for weeks."

“Doesn't he have nationality yet?"

“He'd only applied that year. He's British now, says it's a relief as far as airports are concerned, but they still pick him out of the crowd to search him if there's no one else. Luckily for him, they prefer them younger these days."

“Sir, they say the roads are closing because of the flood." Karim is hovering again. "You'd better wait for the storm to be over."

“How dark it is, already. What if it doesn't stop raining tonight? It stayed light almost all night one June when I visited Denmark. Is England like that, too? But sometimes everything seems dark to me. Do you remember the woman they shot last week? Dr Masooma Usmani? And what had she done wrong? She was in a van carrying boxes of clothes to an orphanage, her office said. Was it because she belonged to the wrong party? Someone said she was carrying explosives. Or guns. Or because they thought they could rob her van? Search me. She's in a coma and may never recover."

“So you admit there's dark here."

“It's dark everywhere. Sometimes, I think of a story I heard long ago. A king was so sickened by defeat that, one day, he said he heard the owls call his name and say he was an unjust ruler. He took to his bed; he turned his face to the wall and his back to his subjects and wouldn't rise. His son, a minister, took over the affairs of state but there was anarchy on the street and rebellion on all the frontiers of the country.

“Suddenly, darkness took over the land and night and day looked the same. The holy men said that unless the king took his place on the throne, the sun would never rise again. His son went to rouse the king but when the ruler opened his eyes, he cried out: 'I can't see. I'm blind.' They summoned doctors and holy men of all faiths and charlatans to his bedside and all of them said the king's eyes were healthy. There was no reason he shouldn't be able to see with them; it was his senses that had gone blind and, while he refused to see, the land and the people would remain in darkness. Are you asleep?"

Jami checks his watch.

“Oh, time for prayers! I missed the last two today."

Outside, the waves are lashing out; the wind and the rain wail like the soundtrack of a Gothic movie. Jami rises to go to the prayer room.

In his chair, eyes closed, Kazi wishes the rain would stop. He wishes Ali and Mandana were here, or at least Ali.

Jami, the man who'd had no time for matters of the spirit, says his prayers every day now. He used to drink and blaspheme and, though he said he'd discovered faith in the prison camp, Kazi remembers, he continued for years to scoff at rituals. He became steadily more pious after his wife lost her sight when she was 70. Maybe his faith has seen him through years of solitude, rheumatism, gout and emptiness.

Kazi himself has always taken a gambler's chance on eternity. If he were capable of praying, he would, but all he's ever been good at is his work and he wants to go back to work now. During his years at the operating table, removing tumours and growths and counting the days people might keep on living, or telling them their cancer was terminal, he often wondered whether, somewhere, something might exist. Now, in his retirement, he still wonders. And if there is a power, has He forgotten about His creation?

Perhaps, in his dotage, Jami is right to leave it to heaven, he thinks, with a twinge of what might be envy. The last notes of the muezzin's call fade and fall away. I'm going to call Ali when I get home, he thinks. I'm going to tell him to fly over. If the storm gets worse. He'll take me to the coastal villages to help. Anyway, it's definitely time for him to come back for a while.

Aamer Hussein's latest novel, "Another Gulmohar Tree", is published by Telegram Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan