Gap Years: Poetry And Romantic Non-Starters

"I never once tried to talk to her though I inveigled my own group, without telling them why, to visit the tea stalls just when she moved there surrounded by her friends"

Gap Years: Poetry And Romantic Non-Starters

Note: This extract is from the author’s coming autobiography titled Not The Whole Truth: My Life and Times
Click here for the first part

Mornings were full of social activity. The Department of English at Karachi University had a number of bright students with whom I became friendly. One was Abbas Hussain, a tall, lanky young man whom I always found declaiming poetry or explaining something to his class fellows in the seminar library. He was the intellectual par excellence and really enjoyed talking. Then there was the sober, tall and graceful Ambreena, probably from a military family, who was very serious in her studies. She later became an academic at the university. Abbas too joined the university but left it for Agha Khan University and finally set up his own teachers training school which he runs to this day. Then there was Salma (not her real name), who became very friendly with me. She was a nice person and once presented Alex Hailey’s Roots to me. Then there was a blind girl, Farida, who became a college lecturer, and whom I admired very much for her courage, resilience and persistence in life. There were several Arab boys and one of them, Sameer, became friendly with me. There was also a married young lady, Tanwir Anjum, who had long conversations with me about her thesis and told me she wrote Urdu poetry. She later became famous as a poet of Urdu.

I should have guessed that Salma had amatory intentions towards me by the books she presented to me and the lunches she took me to but I was such a greenhorn that it was only when Abbas confided this to me that it dawned upon me that this was the case. Salma was a nice person but, unknown to everybody, I had got infatuated with a newly arrived junior girl for whom I shall use the pseudonym Priya (which means beloved in Hindi) though she was a Muslim girl from upcountry whose family had recently arrived in Karachi. Priya was an olive-complexioned beauty with dark eyes and tresses of black hair cascading down her shoulders. When she laughed, which was often, a dimple danced in her cheek. Her family had just arrived from the Punjab and settled down in Karachi. I saw her laughing with friends and she seemed both good humoured and mischievous and yet she was shy when it came to talking to boys. I never once tried to talk to her though I inveigled my own group, without telling them why, to visit the tea stalls just when she moved there surrounded by her friends among whom were also some boys satelliting around her. One of these boys was Iftikhar who turned out to be a budding poet of Urdu. We became friends though this did not mean that I joined Priya’s group of friends or that Iftikhar joined mine. What it meant was that I and Iftikhar made another group of our own, just the two of us, who discussed Urdu poetry. Slowly, it dawned upon me that Iftikhar’s eyes never left Priya and he said he discovered the same about myself. I confess I was not aware of any such thing as I took good care never to come near her. Anyway, now we began a code conversation about her through Urdu poetry. As such poetry is about the beloved’s beauty, indifference and cruelty to lovers, we dubbed her cruel (zalim), a murderer (qatil) and an infidel (kafir) without ever talking to her. These, of course, were the attribute of the beloved in the Urdu ghazal. Iftikhar would intone Ghalib protesting that he was a dead man only because she had lifted her eyes fleetingly towards him.

Sharaa aur aayin mar madaar sahi

aese qaatil ka kya kare koyi?

(While relying upon the Islamic law and the constitution/ what can anyone do about such a murderer?)

I would reply with another suitable couplet to the dead man and the corpse would order another cup of tea out of the grave. Our conversation, when not in Urdu poetry, was in laconic sentences about where we had last seen her which, though spoken in front of other bewildered students, did not make sense to anyone.

One day, however, I stole a march over poor Iftikhar. This was when I published my book Poems of Adolescence (1978) in something of a photocopied form. I sold them for the price I had paid for them in the seminar library and she was one of the buyers.

‘What name shall I write’, I asked her without raising my eyes out of shyness. She murmured her name and I asked her to write it down for me. Her eyes fluttered and I thought she smiled her dimpled smile as she wrote it on a separate piece of paper and silently showed it to me. I wrote it carefully and presented it to her and when I looked at her, she smiled, removed her defiant tresses from her face and slid away. Iftikhar loomed up not looking amused at all and accused me in a whisper that all this writing of names was only a ploy to keep her standing there so as to ogle at her. I assured him that I never actually looked at her at all and that, if truth be told, it was he who had been fixedly staring at her all the time. Then, as usual in the language of poetry, I narrated a couplet by Hasrat Mohani to him:

Dekna bhi to unhen dur se dekha karna

shewa-e-Ishq nahin husn ko ruswa karna

(Even if you look at her, do it from far away/ it is not becoming for Love to give a bad name to Beauty).

That, he said, was what I was doing anyway but I said I thought otherwise. Anyway, to make peace, I said I would present the book to him and he need not buy it. He was still not amused though he did accept it anyway.

One day I told Iftikhar seriously that he could propose to Priya but he sighed and said:

‘Captain Sahib, I am a poor man, why should she marry me. I think you should feel free to propose to her yourself’.

‘I am as jobless as you are. We have the same prospects except that you are younger and having been a captain in the army is in no way a qualification. So, nothing stops you from proposing to her. I will not send anyone to her house if you promise to do so’.

‘No’, he said with another sigh ‘Please send someone to her house and propose before some undeserving seth does so. She would be safer with you than these crude seths’.

In Iftikhar’s imagination, these rich tycoons, the seths, apparently had their pick of pretty girls leaving indigent suitors like Iftikhar sighing in frustration.

‘Are you sure that you don’t mind if I actually send a proposal to her house’, I asked him.

He declaimed an Urdu couplet and waved his hands generously entrusting her to me as if I was actually taking her away.

I then proceeded to take Tanwir Anjum, the married lady, into confidence and asked her to find her address without, however, telling her anything. This she did and I gave the address to my cousin, Khurshida Baji, who told my mother and went to Priya’s house with a marriage proposal. It would, however, be confirmed by my mother who would visit later. They entertained Khurshida Baji in a very friendly way but also said that they would not consider any proposal at that time since they had just moved from the Punjab and were settling down. Even the house was only a temporary, hired one. As soon as their business was established, they would start considering marriage proposals for their daughter. This was not really a ‘No’, but I left it at that and never pursued Priya after this. Iftikhar and I kept meeting, however, and still talked in poetry about the indifferent beloved though Iftikhar never sent her a marriage proposal nor, he assured me, did he ever have the joy and honour of a real conversation with her. This was rather odd as they were class fellows but Iftikhar lived more in the atmosphere of the ghazal rather than the real world. As such, it was entirely credible.

During the same days I met a Filipino girl, Vicky (not her real name), who was a secretary somewhere. I do not remember how I had come to meet her but I do remember that she asked me to teach her English. I agreed and she showed me where she lived. And lo! And behold! This was a flat directly under my old friend Javed Athar’s flat in Bath Island. Moreover, I found later that it was owned by my far-removed cousin Commander Sultan Khan of the Pakistan Navy. The flat which, she said, was rented by her aunt, also had other boarders, all Filipino girls. I remember only teaching her once in that flat which, on that occasion, was vacant. That day I taught her diligently, concentrating on the lesson, and admonishing myself whenever I felt tempted by the sensuality which simply oozed out of her. However, I never touched her as I had promised her before we had started. ‘No hanky-panky’, she had said with a mischievous smile and I had promised that there would be none while I taught her. For the lesson (there was just this one) she paid me in kind: food and drink which I consumed somewhere on the fringes of the mangrove forests of a lagoon with Vicky sitting on my 50cc but not partaking of any of the delicacies she had somehow smuggled out for me. I am narrating this as if it was a daily occurrence whereas this could not have happened more than twice in our whole encounter.

As I have mentioned above, I was infatuated with Priya so I had no romantic feelings for Vicky. All that was possible was a purely physical relationship with her. However, this did not happen despite the fact that Vicky was a very attractive girl and her beauty was of a sensual kind. In the beginning of our acquaintance, I was very careful that she should not get a bad impression of me since she complained of Pakistani men staring at her. Later it was for a reason I will describe below. So, I never attempted to make advances and was always careful of proprieties of good behaviour. I thought I was being ‘an officer and a gentleman’ but I now suspect that Vicky thought of me as a greenhorn and a nincompoop which, I further suspect, I probably was. Thus, Vicky became and remained my friend though not a girlfriend in the conventional meaning of that term. As it is, I hardly met her once a month and then always in a brief span of an hour or two which she would snatch out of her busy life.

However, whereas with Priya I had hardly exchanged a word, with Vicky I did become informal and even formed a joking relationship. It now dawned upon me what she really did for a living. This happened as follows. One day Vicky invited me to a grand hotel for what she called a party. I went but I was not comfortable with the kind of people who were there. They seemed super rich and talked of exotic places and expensive cars. I had no interest in cars of any kind and expensive ones I considered a waste of the earth’s resources and something of a transgression against the middle and the working classes. These ideas I expressed without reserve which must have made Vicky’s aunt uncomfortable though I noticed nothing of the kind. Then it came to dancing and I told Vicky that I would only tread on her toes so I would not dance with her. She insisted but I declined and a man who said he was from the merchant navy asked her for the dance. Completely unimpressed and even bored, I left the hotel as soon as the dinner was served. Later Vicky told me that they had all considered me an odd fellow but, when she told them that I was in the university, they had decided that I was an intellectual and such people are socialists.

‘But I am not a revolutionary, Vicky’, I told her ‘Revolutions leave a puddle of blood and are hijacked by cruel men so I want a welfare state but not a Marxist revolution’.

She told me that nobody understood such things and nobody cared and that, since she herself had decided to be with me that evening, her aunt had decided that Eden will accompany the man who owned the car with the exotic name which I have forgotten. It then dawned upon me that Eden and Vicky were both call girls of a very expensive kind and why Vicky wasted her time on me was that she was lonely and wanted a friend, an ordinary friend of the kind we human beings like. Apparently call girls only have one-night stands or buyers but not friends. I met Vicky after this, of course, as this did not change my friendly attitude towards her at all. However, I knew that it was not safe to be anything but a friend as far as she was concerned no matter how sensual she was. In fact, I worried for her catching some disease from one of her rich clients but this I could never bring up with her as it seemed intrusive and impolite. So, while I myself never got physically close to her, I also never warned her against her way of life. As for conversation which both of us hankered for, of this there was plenty whenever we met which was not often. Moreover, our talk was a no-holds-barred witty conversation which did not altogether censor out the risqué aspects of life. Thus, it was a treat for both of us. I also came to empathise with Vicky as a person, as a human being, and not just an attractive, sensually appealing, high-spirited and humorous girl whose company was a pleasure. This was because she told me about her poverty and how she had studied despite an uphill battle against circumstances. And then finding a secretarial appointment and a roof on her head because of the woman she called her aunt but who, in fact, ran a brothel for the super-rich from her flat in Bath Island, she grabbed the offer. Moreover, and this impressed me, she was sending money to support her mother and younger siblings to Manila. I, who had had a privileged life, could only hear this with much respect and a certain awe. I now realised how difficult life must be for her and, though she never talked about how she was treated by her millionaire clients and by her ‘aunt’, I knew that her profession was a risky one and she was a very brave girl to follow it both for herself and for the people at home who could hardly afford decent food without the handouts she sent them. By the time Vicky opened up, however, my time in Karachi came to an end. I will take up the story of how this happened when I was associated with the Pakistan Navy in Karsaz.

(to be continued)