“Go on, get yourself something to eat,” drawled Chaudrey Abdul Gafoor, leaning forward between the seats and passing ten rupees to Mustafa, his chauffeur. His breath stank of whiskey – he had soaked away the afternoon, holed up with another country politician in a backstreet Islamabad house converted into a hotel. Their little group from south Punjab all convened at this louche retreat, known among them as Auntie Puppo’s place, their home away from home.
“He’s just about over the line, God help him,” thought Mustafa. Back in District Bahawalpur once, before Chaudrey Sahib won his seat in the Assembly and became immune to these afflictions, some policemen looking for a bribe stopped them at a roadblock, late at night on an empty road. The Chaudrey and his whole drunken entourage barreled off into the bushes, leaving Mustafa, the jeep, and half a case of whiskey. That had cost a fair amount – when they finally stumbled back to the jeep and tried to reclaim it. The police inspector drove a hard bargain, reminding Chaudrey Sahib of the ten strokes with oil-soaked bamboo awarded for possession of alcohol.
Chaudrey Sahib edged off past the doorman and into the five-star hotel, which had been strung with lights for the wedding reception being held there, the daughter of some minister belonging to Chaudrey Sahib’s Liberation Party of the People (LPP). Mustafa drove toward the parking area, making room for the next car in the line that stretched down the street.
Maneuvering far to one side of the dirt lot, a rough holding area for the drivers from which they were summoned by loudspeaker, Mustafa pulled a damp rag from under the seat and wiped down the vehicle using the imported American polish, one hundred seventy rupees for the canister. He worked his way methodically around the vehicle, then stepped up on the wheels to get above the windshield and even reached over as far as he could on the roof. The Land Cruiser had three hundred thousand kilometers on it, most of it on country roads, where the son of a bitch contractors stole half the funds and left them full of potholes. And then the election! That’s when every two penny party worker borrowed the car and rode around pretending to be a lord. Chaudrey Sahib couldn’t say no. So he won his election, and tonight he was in there rubbing shoulders with fancier people than he had ever found back home.
The April wind blew down from the foothills of the Karakorum, playing among the dark leaves of the trees planted around the perimeter of the rutted parking lot. On the other side of the street he could just barely see a tidy little park with swings. Among the trees, a single bulb hanging above a tea stall swung in the wind, a welcoming place in the dark, like a lighted cave. Already some of the other drivers had wandered over from the lines of cars and sat sipping cups of tea. Having finished his quite unnecessary polishing of the immaculate jeep, Mustafa watched the parade of vehicles drawing up to the hotel, big black sedans and official cars bearing flags, Mercedes and others that he couldn’t even identify, seen for the first time when he drove Chaudrey Sahib to the sittings of the Assembly. The whole panoply didn’t impress him so much as fill him with wonder, gave him an impression of larger horizons, worlds unknown; it seemed a hopeful sign, that cars like muscled beasts should be sent from far away countries, visitants, promising the existence of a sleek precise gleaming world. One after another vehicles that you couldn’t buy for two squares of land drew up and the sahibs rolled out of the back seats, the women brightly colored.
Mustafa missed his wife, missed the little clay house that he had built, set on a half acre that his father left to him. Each of the brothers got half an acre. The house looked different in different seasons. Now it would look striped, seen through the tall, ripening mustard greens, the yellow flowers showing up against the tan walls. Last year he had bought his wife a sisal, a rare kind of partridge from the Frontier, which she kept in a bamboo cage, hooding the cage at night with a cloth that she embroidered. When he gave it to her she had teased him, saying it was really a gift from him to himself. Mustafa had hoped that it would call back when the wild partridge called from among the mustard; but it had a different song.
He wanted a cup of tea but felt shy about his flip-flops and his embroidered Sindhi cap, which no one in the city seemed to wear. As soon as he had time off, he planned to buy himself a good-looking sweater in the second hand bazaar – he had been mustering the courage to change his country look. Treating himself to a second cigarette, he put his foot up on the bumper and looked into the darkness of the park on the far side of the tea stall. After a few minutes a driver from one of the cars further down the row walked past and then stopped. He had a neat white beard, a religious man with a kindly face, and wore the white chauffeur’s uniform, which Mustafa had rarely seen, like the station master at the Firoza train station wore, with epaulettes and brass buttons. He carried the distinctive Mercedes keys, ornamented with a three-pointed star, looped around one finger.
“Hello, brother,” the man said. “How are things out in the desert?” He knew from the license plates.
“No rain, sir. The nomads are selling their stock.”
Mustafa almost offered him a cigarette, then stopped himself. A lot of these religious types didn’t smoke. The man seemed willing to talk, however.
“Are you going for a cup of tea?” asked the other driver. “There’s a fire. Come on, they’ll be hours in there, trust me.”
* * * * *
The kerosene stove set up on the counter hissed unevenly, and a filthy enamel kettle with a rag tied around the handle stood on the counter beside it. Small porcelain cups with a rose design were piled next to a bucket of water. The owner of the tea stall wore a brown shawl wrapped around his body, up to his long misshapen nose, and he warmed his hands over the heat of the stove, putting his weight now on one leg now on the other, like a horse. A small boy wearing frayed maroon shalvar squatted by a tiny fire heaped in a tin pan originally used for mixing cement. He snuffled and wiped snot on his sleeve, dreaming into the fire and sometimes breaking twigs and pushing them cunningly in.
“As-salaamu aleikum, Haji Sahib,” said one of the other drivers, making room for the bearded chauffeur on a wooden bench. They all seemed to know each other. Mustafa went up to the stall and asked for two cups of tea and a bit of rusk.
“No rusk, biscuits,” said the tea stall man, ladling mixed sweet tea from a big pan into the kettle and turning up the flame. In a few minutes the kettle began to rock and steam. Shy among the concourse of drivers, Mustafa put on a fixed expression, as if listening to a distant sound. When the man asked for eleven rupees, he blushed and then reached under his shirt to the money belt, pulling out wrinkled bills. He looked at the plate of biscuits. Only four!
“Now that’s what I call prudence, it’s like keeping your cash in a bank” called one of the drivers sitting nearby. “You folks out in the country must be loaded.”
A couple of the faces glowing by the fire looked up, eyes glinting with amusement.
“Around here everyone’s trying to pull your pants down,” Mustafa said, trying to be funny, and immediately regretting his words, for this only made him seem more like a bumpkin. He walked over to the impassive driver who had befriended him and gave him a cup of tea. “Here you are, Haji Sahib. Warm yourself.”
Mustafa squatted down on his haunches beside the bench and drank his hot tea, first pouring it into the saucer and then sipping it off. After a pause, one of the drivers continued telling a story, something about how he won a tidy sum from some ambassador’s driver, betting on which of them had more money in his pocket. Mustafa took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one, hunching his shoulders and concentrating as he struck the match and cupped the flame.
When the story ended the circle became quiet, uneasy as people are when one in a group has been boasting. Mustafa watched a slice of moon rise in the branches of the trees, white and hard in the cold air.
“Allahu akbar,” murmured the driver who had invited Mustafa to join them at the tea stall, brushing the palms of his hands down over his face and beard, as if wiping away water. He and two others went to say their prayers.
Mustafa rose up quietly and took one of the vacant places at the end of a bench, holding his hands out toward the small fire.
“Where are you from?” the man next to him asked in a kindly way. The man had skin so dark that it seemed to absorb the firelight. He must be from the sweeper class, thought Mustafa, somehow become a driver. Whatever his background, he wore pant-kot, western clothes; and Mustafa noticed a big square gold ring on one finger. Mustafa told him about the drought, which seemed to interest people in the city, probably because the newspapers wrote stories about it.
* * * * *
On the far side of the tea stall, moving in a series of interlocked motions, arms working in concert, like a spider, a hobbling figure emerged out of a wash that cut across the parking lot. It dragged around, staying out of the light.
“Hey boy, you better go try somewhere else,” said one of the drivers. “We’re all broke.”
Peering into the gloom, Mustafa saw a figure with a short torso and bent legs thin as a man’s wrist, topped by enormous knees. It hopped and twisted along on strong arms, bulbous knees upright and cradled on its chest, resting between steps on a leather pad tied beneath the buttocks.
“There’s someone from your part of the desert here,” said the dark-skinned man with the ring. The other drivers looked over at Mustafa.
The boy lifted his head, which had been settled into the mass of his body, slowly elongating his neck, and then dragged around to Mustafa’s end of the bench.
“I know you,” he said cheerfully. “You’re from Sandhey Khan’s Village, aren’t you? You drive the car of Chaudrey Abdul Ghafoor. Do you remember who I am? How can you forget, there aren’t many beauties like me.” He squatted down familiarly next to Mustafa and put his arms toward the fire. Of course Mustafa remembered him. The boy used to beg by the petrol station outside Pakka Larra city, at the train crossing, where the cars stopped and waited when the gates were closed for passing trains. Whenever Mustafa went to change the oil on the jeep, the boy would come over, taking a break, and usually Mustafa would bring something from Chaudrey Sahib’s kitchen, some fruit, or pilau in a plastic bag, which the boy would tuck away in the folds of his clothing, quite unconsciously and without any thanks, as if it were his right, smiling with remarkably white teeth. He too was a bird fancier, had a black partridge cock in a cage – his treasure – which he kept in the shade by the railway crossing, sitting by it and watching its movements when the traffic died; and this had been something they talked about, that and tumbler pigeons, which had been Mustafa’s passion as a boy.
“I remember you,” said Mustafa. “From the Dashti village.”
“That’s me. How are things back at home?” asked the boy, tilting his chin. His voice, which used to be shy, had become brassy and insistent here in the city. Still, he was a beggar, the poor boy. And then, after the child had disappeared from the village, everyone heard the details of how his parents had sold him to a speculator from the city, cash and carry, with a TV and a sewing machine thrown in, the works. The father boasted about it.
“Can I buy you something?” asked Mustafa. “Some tea or biscuits?”
The other drivers had been listening, amused, and now one of them roared with laughter. “Buy you something! That’s hilarious. My friend, this cripple makes as much as I do, and that’s after his owner takes a cut. I bet you get country wages. A car comes to pick him up every morning. He’s worth a fortune, literally. Go on, boy, tell this fellow what you make.”
Embarrassed, Mustafa picked up his empty cup and drained the last drops, narrowing his eyes as he tilted his head back.
“I do fairly well,” said the boy modestly. “My spot rents for eighteen thousand a month. I get those foreigners, they keep trying not to look at me, and I do my little thing, and then they start pulling out the blue ones, the big notes.”
He asked questions about the villages around Firoza and about the people there, and now his brazen tone became gentler, almost childlike. “Yeah, I miss it,” he said. “The smell of the mango buds right about now, in the spring. I can almost taste it, like sugar mixed with snuff. There’s none of that here. I even miss the whistle of the trains coming down the track, next to my little spot there.” He hugged his crippled knees, exhaling. “There’s nothing like hearing a voice from back home.”
“Don’t worry, nothing’s changed,” said Mustafa. “Master Hakim died, God be with him. But you didn’t go to school, I suppose, so that wouldn’t mean much to you.”
“No, I didn’t need any education. I’ve got my profession right here.” He indicated his withered body with his chin. “It’s a good racket. So how long are you going to be in town?” he asked amiably.
Mustafa paused before answering, almost as if he were ignoring the question. Finally he replied, “Not long,” and then felt ashamed, acting coldly toward someone brought up not two kilometers from his own doorstep, an unfortunate boy, who spent his days now dragging himself between the lines of cars waiting at stoplights.
The other drivers were listening to the dark-faced man describing with relish having a head-on crash with a taxi, and pulling from the smoking wreck a painted-up female impersonator and two roly-poly property dealers from Gujranwala, drunk on moonshine, heading up to Murree on a spree, the hijra dabbing hysterically at a gash on her forehead.
The over-familiar cripple, the obscene story, both combined to sour Mustafa’s mood. Why did drivers always boast about their accidents, which they should be ashamed of? When Chaudrey Sahib got elected to the Assembly, one of Mustafa’s elders, who drove for a veteran politician from the same district, gave him a piece of advice: Stay in your car and listen to music while waiting for your master at Islamabad parties – it’ll keep you from all sorts of unwanted intimacies.
He stood up and threw the dregs of the tea onto the ground. “I better get back to my car.”
“They never come out so soon,” said the boy. “Trust me, I hang out here every night. They keep at it in there.”
“Chaudrey Sahib always heads home early,” Mustafa said, lying.
“That’s a pity,” the boy responded studiedly.
Mustafa felt the others drivers watching as he left, and wondered what they would say when he got out of earshot, whether the boy would start yapping about him, about Chaudrey Sahib and Firoza. A lot of them would be politicians’ drivers, people he would be seeing again at other weddings and events.
* * * * *
He slid behind the wheel of the car and pushed a cassette into the tape deck. Reshma’s voice reminded him of home, of driving along the canal under the rosewood trees. In Sandhey Khan’s village, as the beggar boy said. The beggar must be the same age as Mustafa’s older son, think of that, his fine young son; and then this broken thing, rowing itself in jerks along the ground. The boy wouldn’t live long, the badly-crippled ones never did. He sat in the car and smoked, feeling homesick.
Soon he saw the beggar boy detach himself from the ring of light around the tea stall and swing into the parking lot. He approached Mustafa’s jeep, tapped boldly on the door, until Mustafa rolled down the window.
“Hey,” said the boy. “I was thinking, you could come to my house for a moment, it’s just down that little path. I’d like you to see my place. It’s not much, but I’ve got a TV. It’ll be cozy, I’ve got an electric heater, all the conveniences of home.”
Mustafa knew that Chaudrey Sahib wouldn’t emerge until he had eaten everything that he possibly could, and probably made a fool of himself for good measure; even the cripple knew that the dinner wouldn’t end till late, and no one would leave before the chief guest, who wouldn’t even have arrived yet.
“It’s not much, the place I’ve got. I pay two thousand a month, just for my little home,” the boy said, proud and pleading at the same time.
Mustafa opened the door and stepped down, so much taller than the boy, who squatted in a pile on the ground. “Go on,” he said in brusque Punjabi. “Let’s see it then.” To hell with the city drivers, their uniforms and keys to expensive cars dangling in their fingers and stories about whores.
“I bet you can’t even keep up,” said the boy, swinging off energetically, surprisingly fast, using his arms like crutches and tilting his body forward. The other drivers, sitting by the fire, watched impassively as Mustafa followed the boy down into the wash, which smelled of urine. Mustafa stumbled under the dark trees.
“It’s just a bit further,” said the boy, coaxing Mustafa along. “Just down ahead.” He kept up a patter and strained forward.
They came to a walled hut, built on the banks of an open sewer that must be draining this section of the city, and the boy opened the gate and led Mustafa into a little courtyard enclosed by rusty walls made of oil drums beaten flat, with a swept earthen floor. The sewage perfumed the willows that lined the banks of the black stream, permeating and flavoring the darkness. Unlocking the single room, which was built of whitewashed brick, the beggar took a plate of sweets from under an upturned pan, barfi and ladoo. The walls of the room had newspaper photos pasted all over them, and brightly colored paper, whole sheets of wrapping paper, orange and green, printed with birthday images of little children, cutout figures of a boy and a girl straining forward to kiss. Two pots of begonias bloomed by the door, one red and one white.
“I’ve got a terrible sweet tooth. One of my regulars brings me a box of them every few days, religious looking guy in a white Toyota.” He put the plate in front of Mustafa, who had sat down on a very low charpoy, its legs sawed off. “Do you want a chair? I’ve got one outside for when my friends come. Or do you want to watch the TV?”
Mustafa broke off a little piece of a ladoo. He didn’t want to eat it.
“I’m friends with this municipal guy,” said the boy, filling the silence. “We’re sitting on municipal land. Nice, huh? He’s the one that built this, and he rents it out, he says he prefers the street artists like me, we pay on time, and he always knows where to find us. There’s another guy just downstream, a guy who works a big four-way light out in F-10. He doesn’t have any legs. Come on, let’s watch TV. Back home you don’t get these channels.” He untied the leather pad that he wore around his buttocks and put it carefully under the bed, dragged himself up onto the low charpoy, took a remote control from a shelf, and began flipping through the channels.
“Satellite dish,” he said, looking up at the screen. Foreign shows and Indian channels came on, and then the screen filled with flesh, a thrusting couple, the grainy TV making their flesh orange. The cripple looked over at Mustafa. “What do you think?”
Mustafa didn’t respond, but looked down at the floor, repulsed by the thought of the boy sitting here alone on other nights, watching sex films. After a moment the boy clicked forward and stopped at racing cars painted in bright colors going around a track.
“Hey, let’s check this out,” said the boy, but without emphasis, uncertain; then insinuating, trying again, “Well anyway, let’s have a little something. I’ve got some booze, good clear stuff. I can keep pouring it down all night, my buddies say I must have a leak somewhere. We’ll have a couple of glasses before your sahib comes out again.” Without waiting for an answer he leaned over, reaching toward a wooden box lying next to the bed.
Mustafa prickled with discomfort, sitting with this creature, this inhuman thing with its knobs and dead feet, like a pile of rags – and in the center, propped up on a scrawny neck, a strangely handsome face, hair boyishly parted on one side, the teeth very white. “Are you kidding?” He spat it out, breaking his long silence, his kindness in coming here thrown back in his face, by this cripple, who used to sit on the railway tracks back home while truckers threw rupee notes down at him. “Was that your idea? To make me drink that poison and watch that filth – with … with you?”
“But it’s not like that,” cried the boy, seeming genuinely surprised, babbling. “My friends visit me here, they come and drink with me, it’s our social thing.”
He jumped from the bed, surprisingly lightly, and in his rhythmical circling way planted himself in front of the open door, sitting up in front of it.
“It’s alright,” he said, pulling the door shut. “I’ll close this so it’ll get really warm in here, the way we southerners like it.” He indicated the three-bar heater, which glowed orange, homelike.
The boy looked strong, his arms must be like steel; and Mustafa thought, In his world chloroformed boys are stolen from lonely villages at night, and mothers cut off their little daughters’ hands and feet with axes to make beggars of them.
God help them all. Quite evenly, passing it off, he said, “I’m just going outside for a moment, I’ll be right back.”
“I know you’re leaving.” The beggar spoke with the gravity of a disappointed child, the voice coming from that bodiless head. “Please, just listen for a minute. You know what my kind of people say about you people? We say that me and you and everyone else, we’re all the same – none of us here under heaven is more than half a man. That’s our joke. Please remember that.”
He moved back from the door, imperceptibly, as if the tension in a muscle had relaxed, then reached and pulled the door open; and Mustafa tumbled out, out under the many stars. He turned, not knowing how to take his leave, unsure whether he should shake hands, or just flee, unsure if he’d been spared from assault.
Swiveling his body around, still holding Mustafa with the corners of his eyes, the boy reached into the room with his long muscular arms, brought out the cardboard box of sweets, and held it respectfully up toward his guest, who stood in the courtyard three arm-lengths away.
“Here, take these, eat them in the car,” he offered, piled on the doorsill, holding the box with raised arms. “I wonder what they’ll say at home if you tell them about me – the TV and the dish antenna and everything, this place.” He put down the box and pushed it toward Mustafa with a club-like hand. “You know, I don’t care about the people in Dashtian, even my mother. And I’m sure they don’t talk much about me.”
Mustafa went over next to the boy, squatted down beside him in the square light thrown out from the lurid room, and took the box of sweets. “That’s not true,” he said. “They’ll want to know. I’ll tell them all about you.”
Daniyal Mueenuddin was brought up in Lahore, Pakistan and Elroy, Wisconsin. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope, and The Best American Short Stories 2008, selected by Salman Rushdie. For a number of years he practiced law in New York. He now lives on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab.