Sunday, July 31, 2005

10. The Good Major

He made his way down towards the Army Base on foot. He wanted to mull over the questions in his mind. Had a feeling he would finally meet the man who had charmed his wife into abandoning him. It was hard for Aamir to blame him yet, hard to hate him. A part of him was thankful even, for the support he seemed to have been for her, a part of him owed him a debt of gratitude. But jealousy was running rampant through his head. He hated Rida more, was angrier at her. Couldn’t have accepted some man to respect the sanctity of his marriage. But his wife… She loved him. She had loved him.

The more he thought about how much she loved him, how much he knew she did, the whole scenario, the explanation seemed less and less probable. Acceptance still came grudgingly that Rida, his Rida could’ve been seduced into cheating on him. After all they themselves had gone through to earn their union, it seemed almost impossible that she would even ever look at another man with any kind of romantic inclination.

But he could not ignore the signs. It was all written in black and white, somewhat hidden between the lines. But he knew his wife. He knew her enough to guess at her heart. And so, reluctantly he had to accept what made sense. Event though he wrapped it up in doubt and hoped against hope that maybe just maybe there was something very different afoot. A global conspiracy perhaps, that she had uncovered some dark evil plot and had been shoved off the cliff, but such reprieve is offered to the hopeless only in day dreams and fantasies. His life was cut and dry. Brutally so. Even when the pain of losing his wife to death was still searing his soul, he had to confront the pain of her betrayal. It sometimes got hard to tell which cut deeper.

It had gotten colder over-night. Cold enough to numb the world. Cold enough to numb the senses. The nip of ethereal sadness which palpitates inside the soul of a winter breeze cut through him and settled upon his heart, as if divine accompaniment for his own sorrow. As if God himself had sent the winter rushing in on him to help numb the angst.

But as he placed one step after another on his way down to see his nemesis; no divine accompaniment could help ease his torment. The winter blues would rage on, sewing depression into happy hearts and calm into anxious ones. While his heart and his soul would continue to be haunted by the lingering demons of loss and betrayal, unimpeded by the weather. His sorrow, nested deeper than the winter could seep. His agony rang truer than god’s decree.

He turned a bend in the precarious mountain road and almost got run over by an army jeep.

A slew of curses arose from the driver’s mouth as he sped away up the incline leaving him flustered by the side of the road.

On a different day he may have felt his heart beat a little faster after the close encounter with death, but today he felt almost disappointed at having survived the collision that for the world would have spelt his death, but for him would have meant respite.

He stumbled onwards into the market that lay ahead. And once again, felt his soul calm a little at the sight of a lithe young figure walking with a stern determination towards him. She came, head held high, draped in a shawl over corduroy trousers, almost too lost in her own turmoil to notice him.

But there eyes met and they both broke out in simultaneous smiles. Steps quickened as they bisected the road towards each other.

“Hey you” Aamir said in greeting, glowing.

“We must stop meeting like this” Nida replied with a smile on her face just as big as the one on his.

“Heading back?” He asked placing a hand at her back to lead her off the road

“Unfortunately… and you without a car to give me a lift.” She said leaning against him.

“Were you at the base?” He continued, trying hard to focus on the pain instead of the pleasure stemming from somewhere deep inside at the mere sight of this younger but almost identical apparition of his wife.

“No. Just came to get away.” She responded a little disappointed at having to remember all that she was finally relieved to have been able to set aside at the sight of the man she had always looked at with stifled adulation. “You haven’t slept much have you?” She asked looking at the hollowness of his eyes and the deep black circles beneath.

“I…no… I haven’t.” He wanted in that instant to tell her everything he thought he knew. Share his fear. But he decided that she was better off not knowing. Ever.

“Yeah well it’s only been three days. I feel like a bitch for having dozed off last night. Ami still hasn’t slept a wink. Abu wouldn’t have either if it wasn’t for the Valiums. How long do you suppose we keep mourning Aamir, I mean she was a ‘sinner’ after all. How long will you mourn for her?” She said pushing herself away from him and turning away.

“As long as I have to. You’re right. It’s just been three days. It’s not wrong to miss her, Nida. Don’t hold it against yourself. Or your parents.”

“That’s not what I hold against them. She’s not the one I’m missing.” She mumbled almost absent mindedly looking in to the ravine below.

He almost asked her what she meant, before he understood. He longed to hug her, but didn’t. The chasm of the relationship between them had suddenly closed. But another one had propped up in its place. One haunted by ghosts and memories and lingering feelings. One that no amount of sorrow could be allowed to conquer.

“Don’t bother, going to the base.” She continued with a sigh. She had this way of sorting through her emotions quickly to make up for them with stark logic that would render the way she felt inconsequential. “They still don’t want to talk. Pretend as if nothing happened. As if she didn’t matter anyway.”

“I have to try.” He picked up her cue to return to the melancholy of the tragedy afflicting them instead of the one that was hers alone to bear.

“You’ll have better luck at the party tonight.”

“What party?”

“The new major… or the man newly made Major… he’s throwing a party in honor of his promotion. Army folk will be there, civilians are invited.”

So he’s back? And throwing a party? Doesn’t he know? How could he not know? He has to know… and he’s throwing a party three days after she kills herself? Sahil dies, he asks her out? She dies he throws a party? What the hell kind of a man is he? He didn’t love her… he couldn’t have loved her. There would be no glory for him today if he had. But she did. And since he didn’t she killed herself? This is not making any sense anymore again. I have got to meet this man… he must have cared a little for her… he…

“Hello?” Nida shook him to break his train of thought.

“Sorry… I … where, when did you say the party was?”

“Oh for god’s sake Aamir, wake up. This forlorn loser persona doesn’t suit you.” She couldn’t conceal the exasperation in her soul from being reflected in her voice.

He didn’t respond, just kept looking straight at her. A little hurt, but mostly, waiting for the answer to his question.

“I’m sorry. It isn’t easy, you know, to see you like this. I just… oh fuck it. Its tonight, at his house. Supposedly everyone can point you to it once the sun sets. Will you come? I don’t want to go alone.”

“You’re not going.”

“Is that a question, Aamir, or are you trying to assert some kind of command over what I choose to do?” She had never liked being told what to do. Except from her sister.

“I’m just telling you that you’re not going. There’s not attempt in trying to stifle you in this, it’s just the smart thing to do.”

“Fine. Are you going?”


“Well, wear a suit then. It’s a black tie affair. Tell me what you find out. Bye”

He watches her walk away. He wants to focus on what this conversation implies about the feelings he has felt her harbor towards him for a very long time. He wants to think back to the beginning of their relationship. Where they instantly formed a bond because they were both in love with the same woman. She was the thread that brought them together and now in her absence a teenage heart was trying desperately to find something else to bind them with. She cared for him, he knew that. But love? Maybe she was just trying to mean more to him than his wife’s sister, a friend. Maybe she was trying to fill the void left in her soul. Maybe she did love him. Maybe she always had.

But all of this took second place to what the conversation had explicitly disclosed. That the Major was back in town. And he was throwing a party.

The soil still sat wet on his wife’s grave, and the man who she may as well have died for is celebrating.

He feels fury rip through every other emotion bubbling inside him. Turns around, and runs back up to his cabin.

Night falls, and brings the snow along with the darkness.

Aamir fixes the knot of his tie before the very mirror Rida had stood in front of, fantasizing about him, not more than a little over a week ago. He looks at himself and finds himself missing her standing before him, putting the finishing touches on her make up before they head out to whatever social event the happiest couple in Lahore had been invited to. He wonders if something like this is as hard on an unhappy couple. Maybe he would be relieved now instead of torn apart. Maybe it would have been better that way.

But no time to wonder about what could’ve happened and what never did. He has to face someone he never though he’d have to see. And for that he needed to be more in command of his faculties than he’s ever had to be.

He had hoped to find comfort with him. Some kind of release from his own consternation. He had hoped that they would sit down and he would tell her what a wonderful human being his wife had been and how sad he was that she was no more but he was happy to have known someone as magnificent as her. How his life and the lives of so many children here had been changed for the better just by her presence and although she had suffered so much sorrow that she had taken her own life, her aura, her love, her presence would linger on in their hearts to their own graves. He had hoped he would tell him that Sahil was what did her in, that failing to save him is what she couldn’t stand.

But it had become more than obvious that Ayaz himself had a greater hand in her demise that Sahil’s death. Even more obvious that what Ayaz would have to say couldn’t possibly hold any comfort for him. Salvation maybe, release from the wondering and the needless hoping and the suspecting and the irrepressible need for understanding. But not comfort. Nothing close to it.

He was throwing a party.

He didn’t care.

He got to the house in the shadow of the snow covered peaks at 8.

The party was already in full swing.

There was a strange splendor in the way the beaded lights strewn along the parapets lit up the snow flakes dancing down incessantly. The ground was already sunk beneath a sheet of white but the armed guards lining the drive way leading up to the steps at the entrance were doing a good job of keeping the pathway free of snow. They found him dressed appropriately enough for the festivities, smiled and urged him on.

He could hear the music blaring from inside behind the closed door. Mingled with booming laughter and the buzzing of too many conversations. He stood at the door motionless. Afraid to enter, to confront Ayaz and find out what he needed to know. Wonders if he should turn back and leave the grave in his heart uncovered for as long as he chooses to live, never knowing, always wondering. Assuming the worst and feeding his emptiness.

The vision of Rida standing at the edge of the cliff in the twilight, deciding to end her life, wouldn’t let him surrender. Not now.

He takes one final glance at the serenity of the winter night behind him. The snow softly falling like the silent tears of grieving angels and opens the door.

And runs into a uniformed figure walking out.

“Sorry” they both utter simultaneously.

“Go right ahead, the festivities are in full swing.” The man in uniform says with blatant sarcasm in his tone.

“You’re not… Captain… Major Ayaz are you?”

“That would be a compliment, If I didn’t know better.” He said smiling. “No I’m not, he’s inside regaling the crowd with obnoxious stories everyone seems to lap up just because he’s the one telling them.”

“You don’t seem to like him much. “ Aamir said walking down the steps beside him

“Yes and I maybe the only one. So be careful, it doesn’t pay to not like the Good Major”

“I’m…I’ve never met him…but I was told that he is a good man. A helpful man.”

“Oh sure… very helpful. You were sent I suppose by some uncle general of yours in Lahore or Islamabad or wherever. You’re not a paraya then. Feed your vices, Sir by all means.” He continued hurrying away.

“What do you mean?”

“Look I’ve been kind even when the last thing I feel like being is kind. Just go in and get what you came for and suffer the burden of your own sins.” The man said hurrying away, leaving Aaamir more confused than ever. The last thing he had expected was to find someone so full of venom towards the man he had come to hate himself. He ran after him.

“Excuse me. Please, I – I don’t know what you think I’m here for but it’s not for any vices… who are you? I..I…I need help:”

“Leave me alone” He mumbled almost running down the path leading out to the road beyond the premises.

Aamir felt the eyes of the guards standing around on him, running after one of their kin who’s seemingly trying to avoid him and realized that any minute now someone would come up to him and offer to usher him out. So he turned around and headed back.

“Who was that man?” He stopped to ask one of the guards

“Captain Shahnawaz. He’s new here; they all take time to get used to the way things are here. You go on, I’m sure Major Saab awaits your arrival.”

“Do you know me?” Aamir asked suddenly afraid of being known as Rida’s husband. He didn’t know why.

“What’s the difference, Sir, every one who comes here alone comes for the same reason.” He replied smiling. “Go on in”

Inside, he sees more people than he had expected to see. Row upon row of men in uniform and in immaculate suits. Women clad in dresses straight out of fashion shows. Always trying to outdo each other with flashier jewelry and more skin on display. Some stood around a blazing fire place, same sat on the few couches lying before the hearth. A grand father clock standing proudly in a corner by the bar. Everyone with a drink in their hands and smiles on their lips, chattering away like long lost friends.

Whoever he saw nodded at him with a welcoming smile. Trying to make him feel at home, feeding his paranoia instead. A waiter in a white tuxedo brings him a tray full of drinks which he declines, but seeing the almost awestruck shock in his eyes quickly fixes his mistake and grabs for a flute of imported champagne. He scans the crowd trying to see who the Major could be. He looks at the men in uniform but they all look too pedestrian to be someone his wife could have fallen for. Takes a sip of his drink, and realizes that no expense has been spared for this little gala. It’s Crystal. He licks his lips to savor the taste of the infamous nectar he had only tasted once before… at his graduation… and hears a voice rise above all the others.

He turns around and sees a tall handsome man, flanked by women, laughing uproariously. Clad in a grey suit. With a pink shirt and a black tie.

He doesn’t have to ask anyone, he knows it’s him. His charisma transcends the crowd and he can feel everyone basking in the aura of his presence. He can sense that those who know him know what a privilege it is to be standing in his house toasting to yet another success.

Rida’s words keep ringing in her head: here’s this guy, who no doubt for his self righteousness has been condemned to this shitty little corner of the country even though someone so brilliant should be running the freaking country.

The only thing he can think is that no self righteous man can ever be this popular.

He walks towards the small circle of the people surrounding him. Over hears him telling them about the majesty of the Taj Mahal under a full moon’s light. Hears them gasp in awe, more of him then the picture he’s painting with his words

He breaks through the crowd just as Ayaz pauses to take a sip from his tumbler full of something much stronger than champagne.

“Heartiest Congratulations, Major Sahib.” Aamir says extending his hand towards him.

“Oh Thankyou, Thankyou jee” Ayaz says smiling broad, shaking the offered hand vigorously. “Enjoying the party I hope?” He says, playing the good host.

“Oh Very much so, you’re definitely a savvy host.” Aamir says trying to conceal the excitement in his voice. He can just feel he’s on to something here. This cannot be what his wife fell for. She had made him quit drinking. And this guy’s breath reeked of too much alcohol, and he seemed barely drunk. He had the demeanor of a man who knew how to handle his liquor well enough to know how to hide it when need be.

“I don’t think I recognize you, have we met before?” Ayaz asks as politely as possible.

“I… yes.. once in Lahore… we met at my uncle’s house. General… Bhatti” He lies, using the name of the only general he had ever met when he had ran in to his car.

“Ah Bhatti Uncle?” Ayaz says nodding “Such a nice man, how is he? Haven’t seen him in a while.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know, you see I have been away… to the Philippines” He’s making it all up as he goes, gaining confidence now at having established credibility with this man “for a few years now, just got back a few days ago. Was speaking to him about… you know… how I missed the good life and he said to take a vacation here, and see you about…. You know” he gave a sheepish grin “Feeding my vices” He held his breath.

Ayaz stared at him for an extended moment. Lengthened more by the anticipation in Aamir’s own heart than by design and broke out into laughter

“Leave it to Uncle Bhatti to give me a bad impression” He replied with a wink

Aamir winked back, trying desperately to conceal his shaking legs.

“Well any friend of a friend is a friend. What’s your name friend?”

“Aamir… Aamir Khan.” He blurted out unable to think of a less conspicuous moniker to support his lies with

Another burst of laughter ensued, this time Aamir joined in. “You know you almost look like him too, much taller though”

“Yes, I… I get that often” Aamir replied giggling.

“You know, whenever he comes here, it is I he looks up to… as you said… feed his vices.” Ayaz said leaning closer, in a hushed tone, winking and nodding his head. “I like how you put it… feeding your vices. Yes. I like it very much” pause for another sip. “Tell you what, see me, after mid night… by the time all the parayas would have left and then we can delve into our respective vices with greater aplomb.” He patted him on the back and started off towards the bar, his drink having been drained.

Aamir watched him for a few seconds. Trying to figure out what exactly had he stumbled on to. The mention of the parayas, just like by the captain he had met out side. And this consistent talk of vices that had seemingly ushered him into the domain of the apnaas…How could Rida not have known this man for the kind of man he really was? She had known people like him all her life, through college and school… these party mongers… these social animals who saw everything through eyes blurred by too much intoxication and not enough moral strength. He knew him instantly… he knew him for the man he had always been. A raucous teenager, popular with the girls, charming, alluring. The one who could roll the best joint, and could take the longest swig. One who had joined the army on the basis of his father’s status more than for patriotic fervor. He wasn’t here as punishment for his high moral fiber, he wanted to be here. Being here was easy… safe… conducive to whatever vices he liked to explore. He wasn’t anything what Rida had depicted him as in her journal… charming, yes… considerate? No.

No Rida, either you were wrong, or you lied to yourself, no self-righteous man could ever be this popular

“By the way…” Aamir heard him yell from across a group of dazed guests indulging in small talk they themselves didn’t understand. He looked up and smiled at him “Loved you work in Earth. Inspiring” And broke out into another fit of gleeful laughter.

Laughs at his own jokes, pompous bastard… Aamir thought and feigned his own mirthless laughter

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