Punjab: The Land of Five Rivers
There’s no point in churning water. It will never become butter.
“Do you see what they’re doing, Sir-ji? Do you see?” Mohammed Sharif’s voice rose at the end. Atif nodded: anyone could see what they were doing. They had made no attempt to hide it. There were five of them, all women, and they squatted around a battery powered motor as it pumped out hundreds of cusecs of water from the canal into a pipe, which, he guessed , would deliver it to their farmland.
“In broad daylight,” Mohammed Sharif exclaimed. “I see you! I see all of you,” he shouted, straining above the noise of the pump. One of the women turned and waved cheerfully. Mohammed Sharif’s jaw was tight with rage, “We can’t turn a blind eye to this, Sir-ji, even if they are women.”
Atif chewed a matchstick he was holding between his teeth. He had visited the canal just yesterday with Mohammed Sharif, to witness almost the same scene, different only in that the thieves watching the water tumble through the pipes were men. He did what he always did when he discovered an illegal action on the canal – he called the police and asked if they would file a First Information Report for him, which yesterday had led to the arrest of the culprits. There were some in the irrigation department who would have turned a blind eye, and then others who would, for a reasonable price, even assist in locating vulnerable, discreetly located spots where the canal bank might be pulled down so that the water could flow out unnoticed for some time. He had never done that and he prided himself on the fact, even if his scrupulousness meant that he was constantly posted to problem areas that no one else in the department wanted to deal with, positions which pitted him against local farmers or in the worst, most dangerous scenarios, against influential landlords.
Mohammed Sharif folded his arms across his chest and Atif was reminded of his wife; Saira could, on occasion, look just as indignant as the thin, bearded man before him.
“Well?” Mohammed Sharif said, his cheeks pink.
Atif had felt, on his arrival in the district, that he had finally found someone he could really trust in Mohammed Sharif. He was the most engaged and competent president of any of the local Farmers’ Organizations he’d worked with in his four years as an irrigation officer; he was an efficient and honest record keeper, and Atif sensed that, like him, Mohammed Sharif didn’t care much about being disliked.
“They’re the wives of the men from yesterday?”
“Two of them are wives. The other two are sisters of one of them. That one there, she’s the problem. She’s nothing to do with the men, she has her own plot. The one in the yellow. The widow. Big mouth.”
The woman in yellow was thin, her kameez and dupatta were soaked through and stuck to her narrow back. She pulled up the end of her kameez and wiped her face with it. He spat out the matchstick. It was one thing having a few men taken to the station, roughed up by the handful of policemen who bothered to come in and man the shack – that could be considered fair warning – but it was another matter sending in a group of women. He wouldn’t be responsible for what might happen then. And anyway a woman’s absence from her home meant children and elderly parents were left unsupervised, unfed, as were goats and buffaloes, all of which was far more trouble to the village than it was worth.
“We’ll have to talk to them.”
Mohammed Sharif pursed his lips. “Shall we stop them now?”
Atif shook his head. “Let them have it. It’s the last they’ll get,” he said as he walked back to the car. He checked his cellphone. Still no signal. They were cut off here. The road was deserted, silent except for the hum of insects in the cotton fields and the whirring of the pump blades, the sloshing of the water. Although the colors of the women’s dupattas– yellow, blue, red, orange looked drab, faded from being washed too often, they still stood out here against the mud of the canal bank. It surprised him, the beauty of the quiet, of the muted tones of the earth and the fields. And the brightly clad women soaked in the sunlight, even as he thought of the way thin, hungry birds were drawn to water.
The widow, Zaida, did not look up at him even once as she kneaded and worked the dough; her long quick fingers stretched and contracted like a length of elastic. She paused just once to wipe the sweat from the sides of her face with her yellow duppata, flecked with grime. She had made it clear from the moment of their arrival that she was neither fearful of them nor impressed by them – the gleaming white Toyota Corolla in which they arrived, Mohammed Sharif’s clipboard and documents, and Atif’s own starched white kameez shalwar had not generated the deference he had come to expect of even the most hardened rural people. She had nodded when they greeted her then walked back across the small, clean courtyard to sit down by the portable gas cooker. She didn’t invite them to sit on the rope bed or even offer them a drink of water.
Although Mohammed Sharif had moved to squat down next to her, Atif wasn’t sure he should or even that he could, and certainly not for any length of time. As a boy he had sat on his haunches next to his mother as she washed clothes, or cooked, or when they ate dinner, but that was long ago, before his years of government schooling and college and induction into professional life as a government officer. So he stood a few paces away from them both, awkward, aware of his size, of looming over them, and the strangeness of his appearance, his pristine white suit in the dismal smoky air and falling light of the early evening.
“It’s stealing, Zaida Baji,” Mohammed Sharif said. “There’s no other word for it. That canal belongs to everybody. You can’t carry on like this.”
“If it belongs to everyone, then it belongs to us too. And we’re not getting our share. We’re just taking what’s ours.” Her voice was even, her manner unruffled by Mohammed Sharif’s tone.
“That’s not how it works and you know it. Everyone in the farmers’ organization agreed to this. If there is an issue with your share of the water, then there is an official process. We don’t want to have to call the police on you as well, Baji.”
She laid down her rolling pin; her eyes narrowed, but her voice was still mild, gentle even. “Process. What’s that then, brother? You fill out a form and put it in a file? Will that water my wheat? And you,” she said, looking up at Atif finally, “I know all about you.”
“What do you mean?” he sounded more strained than he intended. Zaida scrunched up her face, puzzled. He felt Mohammed Sharif’s eyes on him too.
“I mean – for all your talk, you people never usually come down here, never give us anything. When we finally decide to take what’s ours, then you show up to threaten us with the police, to take it away from us.”
“Right,” he said. Mohammed Sharif raised his eyebrows, urging him to speak, but his mind went blank for a moment.
“It’s Atif Bhai’s duty as an irrigation officer to ensure the fair distribution of water and to uphold the law, Baji.”
“Yes, the law,” he repeated, feeling foolish.
“The law.” She stood up and walked toward him, wiping her hands on her kameez. “Tell me something, sain. Do your laws only apply to us? People with nothing? Or do these laws also apply to the Army’s pipes by Miran Wali?”
“I don’t know what you’re referring to, Baji.” he said.
“Why don’t you ask him?” she gestured to Mohammed Sharif.
Mohammed Sharif stood up then, blushing, wiping his face as if it were sweaty. A child cried from the room at the end of the courtyard. She looked around briefly. “The men should get out tomorrow, but call the police again if you want. Do whatever you have to.”
“No one wants to do that, Baji,” Atif said.
Zaida shrugged. She really looked as if she didn’t care. She cleared her throat and wrapped her dupatta around her. The conversation was over.
When Atif turned back at the doorway, she was no longer in the courtyard, and the door to the small room at the far end was closed. As they walked out, he stared at Mohammed Sharif, who kept trudging ahead of him, avoiding his gaze.
“Well?” Atif said. He didn’t want to sound disappointed, but he knew he did.
“Well, what Sir-ji?” and Mohammed Sharif stopped and faced him, “I can’t call the police on an army unit, can I?”
Mohammed Sharif walked on, his head down now. Atif’s face felt hot. Mosquitoes buzzed around him. It wasn’t fair to ask a poor man to take on the army. He wanted to call out to him, to say: forget about it, you did nothing wrong, but Mohammed Sharif had alreadt stopped b the car. His arms were folded. He chewed his lip. “I know a short cut there,” he said and Atif was heartened because, for once, he didn’t have to stand alone.
It was dark by the time they travelled five kilometers up the canal to Miran Wali, not far from where the Army Engineering Corps had set up their unit. They walked along the bank with flashlights, slipping in the mud, but it was only when they waded into the waist-high water that they found them: nine unauthorized outlets, and several others that had been tampered with to set up the pipes siphoning off the dark water into surrounding channels. When they clambered out of the water and had dried themselves off as best they could, Mohammed Sharif marked the position of the pipes in a notebook, but he didn’t say anything. Neither did Atif.
He dropped Mohammed Sharif off in the village with instructions to be ready to meet him and his team of irrigation officials and engineers tomorrow at the canal. They would dismantle and remove the pipes, and Mohammed Sharif could report the news to the Farmers Organization in the village after Asar prayers. Mohammed Sharif nodded, looking gloomy. It was a dismal business. Atif knew it too; he had, when necessary, taken on feudal landlords, criminal gangs, but the Pakistan Army was another matter. And whose land were they irrigating? Was it theirs? Or had they just laid claim to it? Were they leasing it out to contractors or tenants? Had they stolen the land as well as the water? These were questions he didn’t even broach with Mohammed Sharif, who looked panicked enough already. They could very well be facing a column of soldiers in the morning-. But what else could he do? He couldn’t allow them to undermine hiswork. He just couldn’t; what they did here in the department, the principle of fairness, of equity, protecting the waterways was everything, and it was his job to uphold those principles.
He drove along the uneven road, careful to avoid the potholes and ditches. Other than the occasional truck, it was quiet. He wanted a shower, a hot meal. Saira would have eaten already; she’d be watching one of the many drama serials she followed. He could see her, squinting as she held out the remote, pushing her glasses up towards the bridge of her nose. She would barely registere his arrival when he came in, engrossed in the tragedy on screen: unrequited love, forced marriage, lovers torn apart by circumstances – the volume set painfully high. When they were first married, he’d thought it was a leftover habit from her old life. Her father had been hard of hearing and she was used to listening to everything with the sound set high. But more recently he had come to see it as her way of drowning out the quiet of their life. When he stood on the verandah, in the dark, pausing before he pushed open the front door, the sound of the television – the sharp squeal of violins, the dialogue superimposed over it, vibrating through the walls – seemed to do the opposite of what she hoped, underlining the silence of the house. He would never blame her for his silence, his distance from her. It wasn’t her fault.
She was asleep on the sofa when he entered the living room although the TV was still blaring. He sent off a string of emails to his bosses in the department about the Army operation, detailing his plans to remove the pipes. Then he sat down next to her, rubbing her feet. She stirred.
“Shall we go upstairs?”
“Too tired,” she said.
“Okay.” She moved over to let him lie down next to her. There wasn’t enough room, she had to hold him to stop him from sliding off.
“The TV,” she said.
“It’s all right,” he said, “Leave it.” H curled his arms around her. He felt her breath on his neck, and as he closed his eyes, an orchestral score filling the room, he tried to let the noise comfort him as it did her, willing his self, always so knotted, to unfold.
Although he hadn’t yet received word from his superiors, Atif decided the pipes had to be dismantled as soon as possible if the farmers’ organization were to be persuaded of the department’s seriousness. No one else in the office was convinced this was a good idea, nor were did any of them want to go with him to perform the task. But eventually five of them, engineers and junior irrigation officers, traveled with him to the canal in a minivan. They drove in silence. Mohammed Sharif was already there with some of the village men. The team worked quickly with Mohammed Sharif and the locals assisting. It took the whole morning but the illegal pipes were removed and they completed as much repair work as they could. When Atif told them, soaked and muddy as they were, that they could pack up, the relief on their faces was visible. He was pleased too. They were going to get away clean, without any fuss. But as they loaded their equipment into the van, Mohammed Sharif pulled at his sleeve. Atif turned.
“Sister fucker,” Mohammed Sharif said quietly.
An army jeep rocked along the road towards them.
“They’ll arrest you, ” Mohammed Sharif said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. They’re breaking the law. We have nothing to fear.”
“The law, the law…a rope might be a hundred hands long, Atif bhai, but the knot always goes at the end.”
“What? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“When there’s martial law, they’re the law,” Mohammed Sharif said, walking quickly away towards the men he’d brought with him to the canal. Atif could hear him as they walked off his voice carrying over the sound of the jeep’s thick tires. ‘These government boys. They read, they write and still they have no idea about anything.” He gave Atif one last wave, for luck perhaps, and then all the villagers cut across the road toward the wheat fields and date palm orchards.
The jeep pulled up alongside the department minivan. Several soldiers and an officer jumped out. The officer approached him with his hand held out. He smiled; his cheeks were round, plump, softening his expression despite a severe moustache and sharp nose. Captain Izzat Baig. From the Engineering Corps, he said. Some kind of misunderstanding going on here perhaps? he asked. He took his cap off and wiped his brow, nodding warmly at Atif’s people. His manner, his tone was upbeat, pleasant. Atif smiled but he felt the pressure of his team’s unsteady breathing behind him, their sweaty, panicked faces.
“Our contractors laid these pipes and we can’t really allow you to remove them without their permission,” the Captain said. His voice was smooth and he kept smiling as he spoke, compelling Atif to smile in return, despite feeling entirely at odds with what he intended to say.
“These are illegal outlets, Captain.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps we can fill in some paperwork that would get things in order.”
“There’s no paperwork that can – ”
“A fine then. The corps are willing to pay whatever fine we might have incurred.”
Atif stiffened. Was the officer trying to bribe him? The Captain grinned, stuck his hands in his pockets; he looked a little sheepish as if he thought he might have gone too far.
“I don’t really want to call the police,” the Captain said, “to get our equipment back.”
“Go ahead, Captain. Do whatever you have to. The law is on our side.”
The Captain looked at him. “Maybe I should talk to my superiors about this. The Brigadier. This might be a matter for him.”
“As you see fit, Sir.” Atif turned. “Get in, get in,” he said to the rest of the team. They scrambled into the van, slamming the doors shut.
“Bhai Sahib,” the Captain looked anxious now, stopping him as he walked to the front of the van. “Could we just talk about this? This is a big project I’m responsible for…and well, these plots we’re irrigating are critical in generating income for the unit.” The Captain looked across the fields and then back at him. “Perhaps you and your family would join me and my family for dinner tonight. We could talk through this more informally in a calmer atmosphere.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’m not sure about the protocol regarding a dinner invitation, Captain.”
The Captain cocked his head and raised his eyebrows; a crooked smile. “Go ahead and look into it. But I think the bigwigs would prefer to be left out of this, if possible; that we find some kind of solution to this. Yes?”
Atif’s face felt hot. He was stuck in the performance of the straitlaced jobsworth.
“We eat early, because of the children,” the Captain added.
Despite himself, Atif nodded.
“One of my junior officers will call your office with the address.” The Captain turned and headed toward the jeep with his men as Atif climbed into the van, stumbling a little in his haste.
“Go, go,” he said to the driver. His colleagues and juniors looked back but he didn’t. He fixed his eyes in front of him; don’t look back, don’t look back, that would be weak. As the van took off, the pipes, which in their panic to leave, no one had secured, rolled around the van. And Atif felt as if the clatter and noise were rattling in his skull.
“Ready?” Atif asked her. Saira nodded but she didn’t move. He put his head back against the car seat. It was customary for them to spend a few minutes sitting in their car until Saira felt able to go in to a dinner or a department function. Her diffidence made even the most casual social outing painful; she had, as usual, worried at length about what to wear before they left the house, and he knew once inside she would fret that there might be something caught in her teeth, that she was sweating, that she had nothing to say, all of. which distracted her from making conversation and relating to what was going on around her. She would spend the evening looking only vaguely present, her eyes drifting across the faces of everyone as if she couldn’t see them. He wasn’t much better at these things himself: self-conscious about his English, about his own. small town background, the weight of his reputation as departmental hardliner. And an evening with complete strangers, with a man who had made it clear he intended to press him, to undermine his professional position, left him feeling foolish and vulnerable.
“I’m just not in the mood,” she said, fiddling with her rings.
“I don’t feel like going, either. You know I hate these things.” He sounded sharper than he meant to; he sighed. He wanted to be reassuring. “We’ll be in and out, like that.” He snapped his fingers. Smiled. She removed her glasses to clean them with the end of her dupatta, checked her lipstick in the mirror, and then she nodded stoically: ready.
Once they were seated in the living room, he pulled at his collar, fiddled with his watch, wondering how soon they could leave after eating without seeming rude. Captain Izzat and his wife, Meesha, were, it seemed, practiced at dealing with awkward guests— Meesha quickly switched to Urdu, he guessed, after sensing their discomfort with English and was gracious enough to imply she was relieved to do so, after which both she and the Captain proceeded to entertain them with a never-ending stream of stories about their postings: the weather in Gilgit, the Afghani kebabs in Pindi, political gossip. She started off the stories, artfully handing over to him for the punch line, or she prodded him: tell them about the General’s batman and the one about the President’ wife’s trip to London. They were entirely untroubled too by the constant interruptions of their young children, whose entrances and exits prompted Atif to stiffen into polite silence, waiting for the children to be dealt with before he felt able to speak again. At least the presence of the children and the women reassured him Captain Izzat wouldn’t bring up the issue of the canal, although they continued to skirt the subject.
“Go ahead, Atif Sahib, go on, what were you saying?” Captain Izzat said, ignoring the little boy climbing on his back.
“Just that the damming along the Chenab eventually means we’ll likely lose another river. Punjab is no longer the land of five rivers and it’s a tragedy.”
“But we need power, water. The people need to be fed. The damming done across the country, some of it by my own unit, has literally kept our people alive.”
“I know we need to irrigate, but there are already tens and tens of these waterways in the province that are dry. And rivers, great rivers, have vanished. What will it mean for us if we strangle the life out of our rivers? Think of the impact downriver: no water for land in Sindh, the disappearance of the mangroves. A river has a natural course, and if we try to control it, it may surprise us, injure us in other ways.”
The Captain stared at him. Atif wasn’t sure why he’d said so much. It wasn’t particularly astute to criticize his own work in the department, or the work of the Army Engineering Corps, and that was what he was doing, wasn’t it?
“Sorry,” Atif said, “I don’t mean to say the work we do in the department isn’t critical. It is. But sometimes I think we are shortsighted.”
“To the west of Muzaffargarh, close to Mandi, I think I saw one of your ghost waterways. It was a very sad site. The thought of a network of them is something to be mourned. With that, I would agree.” Captain Izzat smiled. And Atif felt the man was reassuring him that what he’d said was a matter of conscience, not a moment of professional indiscretion.
“Will you join me for a smoke?” the Captain said. He stood up and Atif looked across at Saira, hoping she would pick up that this was the moment for her to say she was tired, that it was late – the things she could, as a woman, get away with saying. But Meesha had Saira looking through an album of family and holiday pictures, pointing out everything of note. Saira slowly turned the pages as one of the Captain’s youngest daughter, a skinny four-year old, leaned against Saira’s knee. Saira’s attention on the album was complete, except for the moments she paused, briefly, to pat the child gently on the back with her free hand.
He looked up at the Captain and nodded.
They stood on the veranda as Captain Izzat lit a cigarette and puffed. Atif waited. But the Captain didn’t say anything; he just stepped from the veranda into the small front garden.
“This place is so small,” said the Captain. “I mean. Of all the stations where we’ve been posted, I’ve found this one of the hardest places to live. We’re all more…visible here. Everyone reports everything back to the senior officers: how the project’s going, what’s stalling things. You know what that’s like, Atif Sahib? To have everyone watching you all the time?”
The Captain closed his eyes as he inhaled. deeply on the cigarette, “Sorry. I just get tired. I am tired of this place. Except for your ghostly waterways, which are mysterious and beautiful and sad,” he said, “there’s not much to see here, not for me.” Atif didn’t know what to say. He wondered if he should suggest going back inside, but there was something about the Captain’s mood, his melancholy, the surprise of it, that made him want to linger, to make. himself invisible, so that he would keep talking.
“I talk too much. Meesha says it all the time. And before you came, well, it was one of those days—I needed a drink.”
Atif stood still, feeling out of his depth, trying not to look shocked at the mention of a drink, and that, too, by an officer. The Captain turned around, held out the packet of cigarettes. But he didn’t move; he stood where he was, waiting for Atif to come to him. Atif’s throat felt dry as he took a step down into the grass. He reached for the cigarette, and the Captain moved closer to light it for him. Captain Izzat leaned in toward him, his hands cupping a match, and he felt the Captain’s breath on his cheek, and then—something else against the side of his face, the point of the man’s nose, his lips, wet, warm. The Captain pulled back, quickly. “Forgive me. Long day,” he said, swaying a little.
Atif froze. Captain Izzat stepped back up onto the veranda and stood in the yellow glow of the light. Atif looked into the Captain’s eyes. He looked pale, defeated. Atif felt the swell of blood in his ears, a flush rising up his neck, his cheeks. It was real; Atif knew he had felt something that was real.
“Coffee?” the Captain said. “And then I’ll tell you the one about the mechanical engineer and the civil engineer at the gates of Heaven,” but he didn’t smile; he stood quite still, and there was something Atif couldn’t quite read imprinted in the fine lines around the Captain’s eyes. “Shall we?” the Captain said after a moment. And he opened the door.
Atif was supposed to be out taking measurements and readings with the department’s senior engineer by Chak 152 P, 35 km south of Muzzafagarh, but he had abandoned the day’s schedule on receiving an email from the department head who was on a project in Bahawalpur. One line, in caps: RETURN ENGINEERING CORPS EQUIPMENT ASAP. He guessed the Brigadier had called his boss. Perhaps he had threatened to send an army monitoring group in to the department. They were all the rage with a military government focused on demanding civilian accountability. Had Captain Izzat told the Brigadier about the removal of the pipes, even after last night’s dinner? That a troublesome irrigation officer was responsible for stalling the project? Or was it someone else in the corps? You know what it’s like, the Captain had said, to have everyone watching you all the time.
He might have argued with his boss—he would have, usually. He wasn’t someone who swallowed a humiliation like this without a word. And put like this, it was a humiliation. But today he didn’t say anything. He felt blank—as if words were little more than shapes, as if there was no way a group of letters, so paltry, so small, could convey any real meaning.
He drove to Mandi and parked at the site of the dry canal the Captain had mentioned. Mysterious and beautiful and sad, he’d said. The empty waterway was thick with brambles and thorns, its bed and banks covered in tall grass. He stalked along it. Had Captain Izzat walked here?
After the previous night’s dinner, he’d finally fallen asleep at dawn, aware that the light outside was miserable and gray. He overslept and woke alone in bed. Saira was already downstairs. He could hear her instructing the servants, the television coming to life. He had gotten out of bed, his heart racing, and stood in the shower, watching the water swirl about his feet, listening to the gurgle of the drain. He was relieved that he felt too tired, too dazed, to recall much of anything about last night. But here in the quiet of this empty place, fragments surfaced; the smell of cigarette smoke, the night air, the warmth of the Captain’s skin. He felt a thrumming in his body, an old, familiar longing that made him breathe faster. He looked out across the canal, at its body, empty but somehow still pulsing with the memory of water. Yes, it was beautiful.
He had told Saira about the web of dry canals in the province, forgotten by the farmers, by everyone but the hares and rats and snakes. He had never thought to bring her here. Saira. What would she see if she were here? He couldn’t be sure, but he guessed she would be asbewildered by the desolation of this place as she was by the distance between them. He gulped it down; the terrible truth of what he knew about himself, what he had always known, and of what she didn’t.
He stood by a tree, willing the shade to cool him. He brought his hand up to his mouth. He covered his face for a moment, feeling his own flesh, as if to make sure he weren’t just a shadow, a ghost, because sometimes it seemed to him that that was all he was. He longed for the noise of the canal, the water swirling and rushing, the pounding of it against the walls of a tube well, the sound of e-mails pinging, of phone calls, because this quiet—the grass rustling, the bleating of a lost goat somewhere in the distance—made him feel deeply alone. He shouldn’t have come here. He would get in the car, drive back to the office; there would be documents to sign and messages to return. He would get the engineers out with the equipment, they would reinstall it in its wrongful place, and he would feel the weight of his own power; giving water was like giving life. Was that how Captain Izzat would see it? A gift? A sign of friendship, of something?
He walked toward the car. He’d left it in the sun, and when he sat down the hot leather burnt his back, his thighs; but he didn’t wince. He looked at his eyes in the rearview mirror— he had grown accustomed to not looking at himself, unsure of what was left of him to see. But he wondered, as he brought his hand up to his cheek, if, despite everything, someone had really, for once, seen him.
“A guest who comes again and again is going to be trouble,” Mohammed Sharif said when he arrived at the canal. “Don’t look so worried, Sir-ji. I don’t mean you. Them.” He gestured to an army jeep parked in the distance. “They’ve been here all morning, watching us.” Mohammed Sharif was working, monitoring the water level of the canal with another man from the farmers’ organization.
“God knows. If they can’t steal the water, maybe they don’t want our people to do it. Not that anyone’s doing anything. Everyone’s too busy talking about you, Sir-ji. Taking on the army, like that. Very impressive. Wah, wah.”
Atif looked over at the jeep. He stared hard, but he couldn’t make out who was inside it.
“Of course, the widow, Zaida, you remember her, the yellow one? She just rolled her eyes. But some people are like that. They could witness a miracle and still think it was trickery—phony. But I told her I saw you from the fields, with my own eyes, telling those army boys.” He patted Atif on the back, proud, fond. Atif nodded. His face felt hot. “Let me go talk to them, find out what’s going on,” he said.
He walked over to the jeep, his heart pounding. He peered inside. Two soldiers sat in the front. No one else. They greeted him. He swallowed his disappointment.
“Is there something I can help you with?”
“No, Sir. The Captain just asked us to keep an eye on things. We’ll be patrolling along the canal now. Regularly, Sir.” said the soldier in the passenger seat, a sergeant.
“Safeguarding our equipment, sir. Once we get it back. Also we understand that there were some incidents of theft along the canal. We’ve been told to keep an eye out.” He nodded politely at Atif.
“Incidents of theft,” Atif repeated. He straightened. It had always been easy to do what he was supposed to do. And now he might even get something more from it than the satisfaction of knowing he’d fulfilled his obligations to the department. He thought of the sergeant reporting back to Captain Izzat. He felt breathless. Captain Izzat. He had thought—what? What had he thought? What could he possibly think would happen? His face felt hot then, his mouth dry at the shame of it. The sergeant was looking at him.
“Yes, there have been some incidents. We put a stop to it, the stealing,” he said. The sound of the water was loud in his ears. “Just as we have to with the Corps.”
The sergeant blinked at him, uncertainly. “Sir?”
“Tell the Captain, we won’t be returning the equipment anytime soon, so patrolling here is going to be a waste of your time.” He turned and walked back toward Mohammed Sharif who was watching them. Mohammed Sharif waited for him to speak
“I’m supposed to return the pipes, I got the message from above, but I just told them I won’t.”
Mohammed Sharif squinted at him. “You said what?”
“I know what will happen. They’ll take the water now, and when the rains come, they’ll flood the land up here, protect their crops. There’ll be nothing left.”
Mohammed Sharif put his hands on his hips and looked across the canal, “Yes. And you’ll lose your job, Sir-ji.”
Atif looked out across the canal. One day it would likely disappear too, another ghost.
“Sir-ji? Atif bhai?” Mohammed Sharif said.
Atif walked back to the car and sat down, leaving the door open, one leg in, one leg out on the ground. Mohammed Sharif looked at him from where he stood, his brow furrowed. The jeep moved off past Atif’s car, and, as it shrank into the distance, he felt like he did when water disappeared through his fingers, leaving his skin cold, his hands empty.
It was eighteen months before he found another job, eighteen months of being dependent on his in-laws with Saira about to give birth any day. The baby, his daughter, arrived, and she was his greatest comfort, his relief, everything about her so real, everything he felt for her so real. He loved the sight of her dimpled legs curled around Saira’s hip, her small hands grabbing at everything around her, curtains, the clothes on the line, Saira’s glasses. Chi! Go to your Abba, Saira said, mock-angry, as she handed her to him. And he welcomed the warmth of her in his arms, wondering, as she sat in his lap, waving her chubby arms, what she would be like, what she would think about him, what she would ever even know of him. What did he know about his own parents, after all? There were things he wanted to tell her; there was the time he had saved a goat from drowning in the canal, how Mohammed Sharif used to say “to be a farmer is to be a king,” and yet he’d watched crops fail, short of water, or disappear with the monsoon, and the army rescue operations and camps set up for villagers who found themselve landless after flooding, like Mohammed Sharif, like the widow, Zaida. And then there were the things he couldn’t tell her, that she could never know about him, that he hardly knew about himself; the things he was trying to learn to live with, to live without. He thought he could do it, would do it, even if it meant he had to fade away. Not that he ever wanted that for her—no. Never. You must have the best life, the very best life, my jaan. She stuck her small toes into his stomach, and he covered his face with his hands. It was her favorite game, and he laughed because she started squealing before they had even begun playing. Then she looked at him with great concentration, her eyes wide and still, as he slowly lifted his hands from his face.
Acknowledgement: “Punjab: The Land of Five Rivers” by Aamina Ahmad was first published in The Normal School (Fall 2014)
Interview with Aamina Ahmed
Shuddhashar: When did you know you wanted to be a writer/translator? How did you come to this realization?
Aamina Ahmad: I am not sure if there was one defining moment, but I do feel as if I have been writing stories of one kind or another all my life. I was, like many writers, a reader first and also grew up with a writer in my household which meant there were a lot of books around and we did a lot of talking about stories which was a powerful influence. I was trying to work in other mediums so I came to prose a bit late, although I did start (and soon abandon) a novel at the age of eight; it was many, many decades later before I actually finished one!
Shuddhashar: What impact do you think contemporary political reality has or should have on short fiction?
Aamina Ahmad: The great short story writer and activist, Grace Paley, once said “when you write, you illuminate what’s hidden and that’s a political act.” I think that part of the writer’s job is to say the things others don’t want to say and to go to the places others would rather not visit, and that’s what I think Paley is referring to. Whether or not political reality has a bearing on short fiction or not, there is something subversive in that approach.
Shuddhashar: If you were to recommend one writer or collection of short stories to a reader, who/which one would it be? Why? OR Tell us about a single short story that moved you to tears!
Aamina Ahmad: I love the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto which I have only read in translation, but the economy and the daring of those stories has stayed with me many years after first encountering them.
Shuddhashar: What, to you, are the key elements of a great short story?
Aamina Ahmad: I am always drawn to memorable, compelling characters and the focus the short story demands, but I think one of the things I love most about stories is the way that they can surprise you. I’m not sure you get that feeling of the rug being pulled from underneath you, that moment of sudden, hard-hitting enlightenment in a novel that you can achieve in a story.
Shuddhashar: What is one thing that the art and practice of writing/translation has taught you?
Aamina Ahmad: I think that the practice of writing has taught me the importance of being patient with a project; giving yourself time to discover what you are writing about, putting it away until you feel ready to look at it again, and taking your time to explore what revision might do for the work have been really helpful strategies for me.
Shuddhashar: What are you working on right now? Tell us a little bit about your current project!
Aamina Ahmad: I am trying to finish my collection of short stories which are all set in Pakistan and which look at a mix of characters, all of whom in some way skirt the edges of conventional society.
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