Sunday, July 3, 2011

56.


Comrade ML Khan was not the kind of man anybody noticed. He spent his days drinking chai under a whirring ceiling fan in a dark and almost defunct government office. His face was ordinary and he could have been of any ethnicity really, with his brown face, average nose and straggly moustache. He wasn’t a real communist, but he had read a bit of this and a bit of that and had briefly joined a Railway Workers’ Union because several of his friends had, before it was banned and communism died a quick death in the country. The “Comrade” bit stuck, at least in his mind, though nobody in the office actually referred to him as such-had he ever said it out loud, he would have been met with confused stares by the two other men who whiled away their time in there.

This particular government office was built on the same pattern as all official structures (Were there guidelines somewhere, in a dusty book of law?) It had a grand fa├žade, complete with minarets and useless, once-beautiful balconies littered with pigeon shit and separated from the rest of the building by heavy, rusted grills. The same grills-geometrically patterned and painted sky blue (the favorite color of governments everywhere, it appeared)- guarded the windows along long corridors. Post-colonial, post -Communist, post-Islamic, post-bomb blast, post-concern, the entire structure had a confused air about it. Or a story to tell. Comrade ML Khan, having done one thing or another in the office for upwards of two decades, was part of the furniture, old enough to tell the tale of the building’s glory days but young enough to remember his own, though he was never actually called upon to do so.

He had not always been an old, graying sort of man. There was a time in his life when he had done more than sip milky tea under a slow fan and napped in his plastic chair between officious bursts of ordering around the peon. There was a time in his life when he had cherished notions of being a true comrade, of making fiery speeches about the bourgeoisie and reviving the Progressive Writers’ Movement, of moving audiences to tears in street theatre performances and publishing radical literature.

At seventy two, Comrade ML Khan sat in the decaying remains of an establishment office, lighting candles during the frequent power outages, plaintively bleating at the peon about the dust in the office in front of guests and obsequiously deferring to the wishes of the equally archaic Head of Department for his office. His official title was Editor for a publication nobody read anymore, although he enjoyed the comfort of knowing that although he had been serving a government institution since late middle age, at least it was in a literary capacity. One of the few things he did every week was to write the magazine editorial. From time to time, his pet topics coincided with urban intellectual fads and received a bit of attention here or there-wisps which he cherished as deeply as his past which nobody cared about. His last article on Faiz Ahmed Faiz, in particular, garnered attention from one or two visiting professors and was subsequently quoted by young, English-medium reporters who had not bothered to read it themselves. The irony of Faiz being championed by the uppermost echelons of society in discussion forums and conferences which cost thousands of rupees to attend was not lost on him, but he chose to ignore it. Comrade ML Khan had become very talented at ignoring things that made him uncomfortable.

Twenty eight years before his induction into the ranks of civil servants, Comrade had worked at one NGO after another, championing various causes along the way. After his failed tenure as an almost-communist, he tried his hand at many different things which satisfied his youthful desires. His first job was as a guide with an organization that sought to promote cultural tourism. His zeal for the protection of architecture, local art and handicrafts did not die, but his energy for showcasing them soon did. Several unsatisfactory years were spent showing around field trips of pubescent students flirting during field trips, large families who all talked at once, parents of small children whose main interest was locating a restroom and people who would pose for photographs and leave without actually taking the tour. Occasionally, there would be a foreigner or two. He liked foreigners-they were nearly always chatty, tipped well and made him feel both well-informed and exotic. When war, sanctions and a bad reputation began to ruin his industry, friendly foreign faces thinned out and eventually disappeared, leaving Comrade ML Khan with little option but to find a new career to feed himself with.

The second in the long line of NGOs that littered Comrade’s resume was a street theatre troupe for which he wrote contrived, one-dimensional plays about a plethora of social ills. Inevitably, his male characters would die noble deaths after standing up for the cause they believed in.  Meanwhile, the women in his stories would steadfastly support their greater counterparts, rarely joining the action and almost never dying, unless they were somebody’s mother, in which case they would die of grief. The truth was that Comrade ML Khan knew very little of women beyond his purely carnal encounters here and there and he penned their roles doubtfully, sexism not being an ism he was at war with yet. This job was one that he loved, in spite of his lack of genius. The people his troupe performed for, starved for entertainment in a country where all outlets for it were rapidly closing down, appreciated their clumsy efforts at educating the public. The applause at the end of each act was not only heartening, it also remained a memory that he did not consciously try to forget as an old man and often returned to him in moments when he relived his imagined past glories.

Later, as Comrade ML Khan flitted from one cause to another, he learned a great deal about the world he worked in. By the time he was twenty seven, he was privately cynical about his own or anyone’s ability to effect change through art, so disinterested was the general population in his work. By the time he was in his thirties, he was all too familiar with the arrogance and insincerity of those who publicly championed the ideals he worked for. In his late forties, suffering from tuberculosis from years of smoking cheap cigarettes and determinedly trying to avoid a midlife crisis, he decided it would do him no harm to turn towards God, just in case there was one and he should die young. And that was how, at seventy two, Comrade ML Khan was not really a communist at all, or even a socialist, but simply an old man who had read a bit of this and a bit of that and possessed a good number of badly thought out ideas.

It was an oppressively humid day when the graying man in the dying government office decided to lose his mind. The presses in the back room were rolling out new copies of the magazine with no readership, with freshly written editorials about issues nobody cared much about anymore. When the pregnant sky finally broke, the force of the monsoon rain wrecked the fragile press room and water dripped into the rusty machinery, causing the painstakingly typed Urdu words to blur and the paper to become soggy. In a burst of literary inspiration, Comrade ML Khan saw the entire episode as a metaphor for his life, romantically giving it more meaning even as he forced himself to be honest. Everybody knew he lost his mind that day, but nobody noticed the spectacle of the old man floating up to the ceiling, being sucked through its cracks and coming back to down to earth as fat tears and acid rain.


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