Granta is delighted to announce the next installment in its New Voices series, which showcases short fiction from emerging writers exclusively on the website. The first New Voice of 2011 is Bilal Tanweer, with ‘After That, We Are Ignorant’. We chose the story for its captivating atmosphere and highly convincing voice, both of which are sustained with a rare confidence. You can read an interview with Bilal here.
Yesterday, an old man, bloody idiot, surely off his rockers, got on the bus from the Lucky Star stop … tall in his height, some six-three, wore a new, bright red Coca-Cola cap that you get for free these days, bloody joker. His shirt I think he had been re-ironing since the creation of Pakistan. His crumpled brown pants seemed never-washed … He caught my eye as soon as he got on the bus. I pulled out my sketchbook and started to make his cartoon. The rectangular golden frame of his spectacles covered his long, thin face. Acha, at first he did not say anything, just took a seat, sat there and looked around. Then turned to the guy next to him and without any, whatsitsname, any hesitation questioned him, ‘Who are you?’
At this, the guy was startled and he looked at him cluelessly. Obviously, bhenchod! Anyone would jump at such abruptness. If someone asked you who are you, randomly, just like that, on the bus, and that too, a weird-looking old creep wearing a red cap and shirt with broken buttons, what would you say?
But that guy was some bugger, he smiled and replied, ‘I am a human, thank you,’ and shook the old man’s hand. Hehe. Bastard. Guess what the old man did? He just said, ‘Okay,’ and turned away. I was laughing to myself from my seat and seeing me, others also got interested in what was going on. I thought the old man was no less than a cartoon himself. He was staring at the back of the seat in front of him – like this – his face completely blank – like this. And then after staring for a few seconds, he turned back to the guy he questioned earlier and said, ‘I am Comrade Sukhansaz! Happy to meet you!’ and pushed out his hand toward him.
Now whatever the hell is a Comrade! Most people don’t even know what these creatures are. There was a time when these Comrades and Reds and Lefties were a common breed, but that general, Zia, that dog of the CIA, he ate them all up. He liked blood, that dog. Where else do you think all this Islam and drugs and guns and bombs came into this city? They are a recent invention. Americans gave him the money and guns and a carte blanche for drugs to fight the Soviets, and he fucked the country and this city for his jihad next door, thank you. You do find some Comrade occasionally, still bitten, his ass still bleeding and bandaged. All of them hate Zia. Haha! I mean whatever but you’ve got to admire Zia for the kind of barbaric treatment he gave them – jail, torture, lashing them in public! I mean, no human can imagine things that he actually made his policy. The joker even put his name in the constitution! He used to see things in his dreams and made them his policies. Yup, Americans loved his dreams because he was screwing the Soviets and Comrades in them. So yeah, most Comrades are dead now.
So guess what that guy said when the Comrade said, ‘I am Comrade Sukhansaz?’ He was some smartass – he returned a dumb expression, and asked: ‘Sukhansaz, that’s the word for poet … But what’s your name? And what’s Comrade … Is that a Muslim name?’
Hahaha! Whatshisname, Comrade, he turned red, even though technically that wasn’t possible because he was so dark, but oh, you should have seen his face – imagine a dry, savage brown flashing with colour! At first Comrade Sukhansaz didn’t reply, just turned his face and stared at the back of the seat. After a few moments, he began bumbling in a low voice. ‘In this country, everything is either Muslim or non-Muslim, everything, everything. Is your shoe Muslim? This cap, does it go to the mosque with you? Does your spoon and knife say their prayers on time? Everything, bloody everything is Muslim or non-Muslim! Is this colour a Muslim colour? And then no one can talk about religion … Names, now names are Muslims and non-Muslims!’
That I-am-human fellow was acting like a smartass but really you should have seen his face, nervous like hell. I mean what do you expect when you are sitting next to this nutcase? The Comrade turned to him again and said, ‘I am a poet. I was in jail. Yes, jail. For eight years. People love me. You know, they love me. They know me. The whole world knows me.’ He fell silent and looked around in the bus. He saw us sniggering, all thoroughly entertained.
Praise be the worm up my ass, I shouted, ‘Haan, so mister Comrade Sukhansaz, let us hear something, some poetry, some of your amazing verses … ’ And oh brother, I tell you, the moment I finished my sentence, he sprang into action, as if he had been waiting. He stood up, and then holding his seat with one hand, like this, his fingers all twisted backward, started reciting poems, one after another … I cannot tell you. And he was so good! I remember a few lines:
The argument between this lover with the other
is who loves more. After this, both are ignorant.
The tussle of this believer with the other
is how to worship. After this, both are ignorant.
The brawl of this politician with the other
is how to gain power. After this, both are ignorant.
It turned into a circus soon when a group of college students sitting at the back of the bus started to make noises in between his recitation. Each time the Comrade Sukhansaz paused between the couplets, they made a sound: Dha Dha Dha Dhayyn … like those Hollywood action movie soundtracks. At first Comrade was confused, because some of us were actually enjoying the poems and praising them as well, but soon the boys began to rattle him. He ignored it a few times, but then suddenly, haha! I remember he was saying: We will win against darkness too! And then he broke off yelling, ‘Abay O rowdy idiots! listen to what I am saying!’
It was so funny – abay! listen to me! I am telling you about darkness and winning!
For the boys, well, this was what they were looking for to begin with. It added to their fun and then they started purring and barking in between his verses. You got to love their timing! Imagine a dog’s whimper – aaoo aaoo aaoo – as if someone has kicked it in its gut – after both are ignorant.
Comrade got really riled though. He stopped abruptly and took his seat, muttering under his breath. And then the whole bus broke into applause, clapping for him. I whistled. You know the one I whistle, the long loud one. I shouted, ‘One more Comrade, one more!’ But he didn’t pay attention and continued to blather to himself in a low voice and kept staring at the back of the seat. Haha! Old bugger. The man sitting next to me was looking over my drawing. He said to me, smiling, ‘Why tease the old fellow. Let him be … ’ Well, I really didn’t give a toss about him or his poetry. For me, I had to finish up my sketch. He was a God-sent cartoon on the bus. What more can a cartoonist ask for? I had to do him for my records.
I was trying to get his nose right but he turned his face the other way. I waited but then I got impatient. I shouted, ‘Comrade, you old man, have you forgotten your poetry?’ That really got him! He turned immediately and began shouting, ‘Who said that? Haan? Who said that?’ And waving his fists, stood up from his seat, ‘I will break your bones!’ The college boys were having a ball. They were laughing like mad. One of them barked again loudly, at which the old man let his lid fling off and he began shouting at the bus driver. ‘STOP THE BUS! STOP THE DAMN BUS! I AM COMRADE! COMRADE SUKHANSAZ! STOP THE BLOODY BUS!’
Oh the bus conductor really panicked. He was already glancing suspiciously at the racket throughout, now he thought some fight had broken out or something. He brought out his steel rod from under one of the front seats and came directly toward the old man and waving it toward the old man, he said, ‘Babaji why making noise haan? Where do you get off?’
‘Show me some civility! I am a poet! People know me! They love me!’
The bus conductor was scratching his crotch, and seeing everyone laugh, he relaxed a bit and said, ‘Babaji, just don’t make any noise. Take your seat.’ He pointed the rod to an empty seat. ‘Your stop is about to come.’
As soon as he finished saying this, someone shouted again from behind: Oye Chicken-saz! You crazy old man! Comrade turned to the students again, and having really lost it this time began shouting, ‘Fuckers! I have seen the likes of you many times! I have fought police with bare hands. I went to jail. Yes, jail! For eight years! People love me! Sisterfuckers! What do you know! I have given sacrifices for this country! I have fought against the exploiters, and you, you fuckers like you, don’t care about anything!’ Everyone in the bus was in fits. The conductor then came to him, ‘Get off, babaji, your stop has come. Get to the gate, come on, come on hurry-up!’
As the old man moved towards the door, the boys kept up their chants:
Fight me, Comrade!
Why are you scared, Comrade?
We also love you, Comrade!
Comrade, you crazy old buffoon!
Another poem Comrade, please?
Fight, Comrade! Fight!
He got off at Cantt Station, right at the end of it.
Yeah, just about ten minutes before the bomb blast. He was the closest person I knew who probably might have died there. Well, no, I don’t know what happened after that. I have his cartoon though. Here.
Photograph by Paolo Braiuca