No 163 - 2001
On one of the nights of Power, as the faithful greedily ate up the waning moon towards the end of the fasting month of Ramadhan, a journalist was murdered in his office in Karachi. His head was never found.
Was it murder? Was it a ritual sacrifice? Was it vengeance, jihad, a supreme virtue in Islam? Or was it suicide, an act of blasphemy in Islam?
Why was it never reported? Why is it not talked about in a city where murder, death, indiscriminate bombing, sniping, sect wars, enliven the hopeless despair of living, punctuate the silence of decay?
Only fools, or angels, rush in where fundamentalists fear to tread.
Wasim Aman graduated from Karachi University with Honours in English. He was twenty seven, late by normal standards to join the ranks of job-seekers, yet, considering the University had been closed off and on, for riots, change of government, routine killings of professors and examination supervisors, for about four years during his college days, he was lucky. Nowadays, in Pakistan, if your parents can threaten the University authorities, or bribe them for admission, a student would be fortunate if he could get his degrees by the age of thirty, by which time he would already be married, and have at least two children.
When a rich cousin of mine brought him to see me one evening during the winter months which I spent in Karachi, Wasim Aman, grinned through his spectacles. He had found a temporary job in an uncle’s chemist shop. He wanted to be a journalist. He showed me some of his poems, which, he said, he wrote during the night, when he couldn’t sleep because of the neighbourhood noise of night shooting. They were mainly about bird life, parrots, mynahs, shrikes, crows, vultures, falcon, buzzards, seagulls, storks, sparrows, doves. The poems were immature and uneven, yet there was a vision: the vision of an owl. An owl which wished to be a bat, Batman.
He had brought with him a stick of Paki Gold and we rolled a couple of joints. I put on some jazz: Johnny Coltrane, mainly, and Chet Baker. He timidly asked if I would play a tape he had brought: Zia Moyideen reading the stories of Munto and the poems of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and a gipsy woman singing ‘Abhi tho mai javan hun’. ‘I am still young,’ he translated. He also showed me some cartoons he had drawn: his caricatures struck me as having the wit of his buck teeth and the movements of his thin, wiry body, they entered life through the peephole, while his poems came in stealthily by the back door at night.
I told him that I could help him in the more mundane aspects of journalism: how to read proofs, write headlines, select type, cut and paste and make up a page. He turned up again, on his own, a couple of days during the next two weeks. Our instructional time together would be broken when the azan sounded for evening prayers. Wasim prayed in my study. Afterwards he would roll a tidy joint with a firm roach and we would smoke and listen to music before he went off to the chemist’s shop for night work.
Among the many young men with poetic or painterly dreams who came to see me during my early winters in Karachi, Wasim alone never talked about “pussy”, or marriage. He was always unfashionably dressed, anonymous, an ordinary young man of the street. We never talked about Pakistan politics, and I had the impression that it was because, come democracy or dictatorship, Wasim had resigned himself to living in Karachi, under Zia, Nawaz Sharif, Benariz Bhutto, whoever.
Then, one evening, he came to tell me that he had got a job on a local English newspaper.
‘Wonderful. How exciting! What will you be doing?’
‘They had advertised for a graduate with English Honours. The Editor told me that the job was to be their Obituary writer.’
‘What? You are in the morgue?’
Every newspaper office has a morgue, where one journalist sits and updates or writes obituaries of those in the news.
‘The hours suit me. Six to twelve in the night. I am paid the salary of an assistant editor, plus free transport. I have a computer myself.’
‘Great. Now you can work on your poetry in the morning.’
‘No’, he said sadly. ‘I can’t sleep when I get home.’
He had not brought any hashish with him. We didn’t listen to music. He told me that he would try to become a ‘good Muslim’. He was reading the Koran. He would go for pilgrimage to Mecca as soon as he got a visa for Saudi Arabia. His parents were looking for a bride.
I missed Wasim’s visits. I read the paper for its obituaries. They were sharp, factual, always, whoever the person, minister, local businessman, judge. Tender. Even alive. The tenderness came through like a hot perfumed towel on an airline flight or a cool eau-du-cologne flimsy paper in one of the posher hairdressing saloons in the city.
The rumours about him reached me soon after his marriage to a woman with a law degree who was working with the local Human Rights group. He never sent me an invitation to their wedding.
One evening, I had to go to his newspaper to see the Editor and correct proofs of some meditation I had written on a local exhibition of masks: African mainly, a few from the Philippines. I thought I would drop into Wasim’s office and have a chat.
He had a room the size of a modest grave in a city graveyard. A small wooden table and an upright cane chair, which he offered me. I declined. I stood while we talked. There was a vase of tube roses, which, he told me, ‘my wife brings me to brighten up the room’. The computer was switched on. The walls were lined with shelves of printouts of the obituaries he wrote.
I came straight to the point.
‘Is is true what they say about you?’
‘What do they say?’ he asked, bewildered, like a man groping for breath after a quick plunge into the ocean.
‘I don’t know. I talk to no one. I come to office, write my obits for the night, go home, and write my poetry.’
‘They say you are a kind of witch-craft, death’s angel, messenger.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘That when you prepare someone’s obituary, as always, in advance, they die soon after.’
Just then the azan for night prayers was heard.
Wasim, pale-green in the blue screen of his computer, pulled out a prayer mat from one of the shelves.
‘You must go now.’
‘Whose obit are you writing tonight?’
‘A judge of the Supreme Court.’
‘Yes, Begum Kureishi. She’s in hospital with breast cancer.’
‘Drop in some time. I miss talking to you. Roll a joint. Listen to some jazz. Read some poetry.’
‘These days my poetry is like an obituary of myself. I don’t smoke dope anymore. I’ve got my visa for pilgrimage. I’m going soon after Ramadhan this year.’
‘Your marriage all right? I haven’t met your bride.’
‘Ah, Asma? We want to have a child soon. The doctors say it could be me. That’s one of the reasons I’m going for Haj. I want to be a father.’
‘I’ll pray for you, too.’
He smiled through his spectacles. And showed me to the door.
The next morning’s newspaper carried an obit of Begum Kureishi. I was tempted to phone Wasim and laugh with him over his ability to read death in advance. If I didn’t it was because I felt too confused to make a joke of it.
I heard about his death from the same rich cousin who first brought him to see me with his poems and a stick of Paki Gold to roll. The 27th night of last Ramadhan. My cousin said that six men in military uniform leaped out of an army jeep around midnight at the newspaper office. They were carrying kalashnikovs. They asked the night watchman and headed straight for Wasim’s office. They say he was updating an obituary of the still young and beautiful Prime Minister.
They say they didn’t wait to erase the obit from his computer. Four of them riddled him from four sides of his desk, while the other two grabbed all his printouts and shoved them into rubbish bags which they had brought.
Before they left, one of them severed his head from his body and put it into another rubbish bag.
His wife was informed by the newspaper’s night watchman.
Apparently, she telephoned the Editor and the Advertisement manager, first, to ask if his obituary could appear in the paper, and, secondly, if she could put in the usual advertisement announcing the funeral and burial.
‘The paper has already been put to bed,’ said the Editor.
‘I can put in a fifty percent staff discount ad.,’ said the advertisement manager. ‘However, the body has to be identified first, legally. You know it is headless.’
In Karachi, these days, the daily killings, more than three hundred during the month of Ramadhan alone, are not reported singly. They are grouped under the heading, ‘City Deaths’, next to the ‘City Dacoitry’ column, on the bottom half of the ‘City Page’, next to the TV and radio programmes.
The severed head of Wasim was never found. Apparently, his killers were masquerading in military uniform. His wife asked a local sculptor to make a papier-mâché head of her husband so that the body could be given a grave.
They say in Karachi that the local sect which goes out on sporadic killings and sniping carriers his skull on the bonnet of their jeep.
Sadly Victor Anant died a year ago. Latterly he spent time in Karachi, Galicia and London. Around the time he suddenly died, he had been discussing with me Paper Grave and other pieces of prose he had submitted on his last trip. He might have changed the text a bit before publication. No need to say more - Berger has said it - but a fond farewell from Ambit.
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