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Horror Story

The terrible event happened to Hassan Raza Zaheer after a lifetime of “displaced sightseeing”.

Taking full blame for this cumbersome formula (“displaced sightseeing”), if we try to find out when, why, and where Hassan got the habit of displaced sightseeing, then we will have to walk for a little while alongside Hassan down the path of his life…in fact, more importantly, we will have to see with Hassan, because the whole problem is of seeing, and what needs to be seen is what kind of seeing this will be.

Hassan Raza Zaheer got the job of an accountant at a chemical factory after finishing his studies in finance at the age of twenty-four. The factory was located fifteen kilometers outside of the city. It was an accommodating and appropriate job: the pay was decent, there was the prospect of annual promotion (given compliant and industrious work), meals were free, and most importantly for Hassan, there was the benefit of a company car that picked up the employees every morning from different parts of the city and dropped them back at their houses in the evening. Hassan always sat next to the window towards the middle of the car, which, in reality, wasn’t a car, but a large van that could seat up to twenty employees. Within a few seconds of sitting down, his neck would turn to the right, and with the car beginning to move, the series of “displaced sightseeing” would begin too. The familiar houses of the neighborhood, shops, then other neighborhoods, bakeries, auto-workshops, barbershops, school, college, hotel, corner shops, alleys, markets, office buildings, petrol pumps, bridge, river, railway line, grubby dirty neighborhoods, farms, rural mud houses, public places for gathering, wrestling rings, streams, innumerable kinds of trees, factories…and other than these static targets: moving bodies, pedestrians, animals, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, bus, tractor, truck…factory’s parking lot, “Time to get off, sir.” Throughout the ride, Hassan’s gaze would keep moving ahead, displacing one unconnected target for the next. On the way back, the same series would repeat for the left-hand side of the predetermined route. There was nothing outwardly unusual about Hassan’s act of watching. Any person looks at the world in front of him and to the world on his right and left in much the same way when moved from one place to the other. We can say that the feeling of being unconnected to the sight is a prerequisite to “displaced sightseeing” and is an essential component of our training in “world-watching”. Then again, it is not at all a matter of training or learning, since we already know from the moment we begin to use our senses that if in the process of seeing we get stuck on something that troubles us and forces us to halt, the sensible thing to do is to forget the troublesome scene and to keep moving from one sight to the next. But what happened with Hassan is that this seemingly ordinary human act began to take on an extraordinary dimension: his displaced sightseeing began to halt, and when his gaze suddenly halted on some place, some event, some sight, those seemingly ordinary and absent moments became spectacles of astonishment and terror whose unknown details he became forced to assemble involuntarily. His displaced sightseeing became unable to move forward from those absent moments and absent spaces without filling them in.

If we see alongside Hassan, we will notice dozens of examples of these absent moments that caused him to halt. But for the sake of being succinct, we will only present a summary. While moving along on its predetermined route, the van slows down as it approaches a speed breaker in a residential area, and in those few moments of slowing down, Hassan sees on his right-hand side a window on the first house of the street, furthermore, he sees through the broken glass of that window and notices a large mirror attached to the wall of the room inside the house, in the middle of the mirror he sees a star-shaped crack, the result of a blow, and he notices three streams of blood originating from that star-shaped crack that run down the length of the mirror. In the course of the next ten years, those three streams of blood congealed, the mirror fogged, and the star-shaped crack became inconspicuous. But Hassan never completely dismissed the sight, or in other words, he became incapable of feeling unconnected, which, as we know, is a prerequisite for sensible and displaced sightseeing. In order to explain this troubling and astonishing sight, Hassan thought up many alternate stories. In fact, Hassan thought up many such stories for many such sights.

It is one thing to be succinct, but we are beginning to wonder whether our text is failing to answer questions that will help us understand the “displaced sightseeing” of Hassan Raza Zaheer and the “absent moments of halting terror” that he experiences. Moreover, the concept of “unconnected seeing” also requires proper explanation. Keeping these questions in mind, we are coming to the conclusion that if we are to understand Hassan’s “real inner life”, we will have to forego such a measured summary and instead adopt a loose, even “dispersed explication”. What we are trying to say is that we will now proceed in a different manner.

Without establishing a preconceived truth, we think that in order to grasp “Hassan’s state of affairs”, we will have to revisit Hassan’s childhood. When Hassan reached a school-going age, his parents presented him to the administration of a school that only liked to enroll confident children in order to make sure that when the children grew up and did whatever it is that they did, they did it with full confidence. Hassan failed the entrance examination. The principal of the school told Hassan’s parents: “A child should be able to look into the eyes of the person who is looking at him and speak to that person with confidence. This child severely lacks such confidence.”

When they came out of the interview room, Hassan’s mother asked him: “Son, are you unable to return people’s gazes?”

“Yes,” Hassan said, and right then he felt the deep sadness and loneliness that accompanies the first defeat of a child in this world. He looked at the open sunflowers in the flowerbeds. The big yellow flowers looked at the sun, and Hassan looked at the flowers, and then he heard the school bell ring.

We think that it was after this event that Hassan acquired the habit of “displaced sightseeing”. Soon after this event he began to feel that not only did he find it difficult to return the gazes of people, he also could not return the gazes of objects. Because objects have eyes too, events stare back at you, street corners frown at you, roads laugh, and windows wink. Really, there are only two categories of people in this world: those who can return gazes, and those who cannot. Obviously, Hassan belonged to the latter category.

But we will not insist on the soundness of our opinion. We have shown it. As a probability, as a possibility. Maybe because such categories as probability/certainty and possibility/impossibility hold, as we will try to make clear, an essential value in “Hassan’s state of affairs”. And we know that such semi-diagnostic and essential opinions are, more often than not, utterly useless when it comes to understanding anyone’s “real inner life”. Maybe it is impossible to understand anyone’s real inner life; all that is possible is that we walk alongside that person for a while. We will walk with Hassan.

Assume that you get on the company’s van along with Hassan one ordinary morning. Soon, you turn to your right and your displaced sight begins to proceed, or say, your sight acquires a displaced continuity. The rooftops of houses, the ears of people, eyes, rotten fruits in the depot, Neem trees, a woman riding on the back of a motorcycle whose shawl is hanging dangerously next to the spinning wheel, and might, at any second, get caught in the wheel and cause a fatal accident, the skeleton of a car inside an auto-workshop, the book on the car’s dashboard which has been lying in that same position for ten years and which might, for Hassan, become an “absent moment of halting terror”. But Hassan now knows what is “actually” behind all these things that cause his sight to halt. And that “actuality” is not external but Hassan’s own “real inner life”. Hassan has solved the problem of the cracked mirror and the streams of blood by filling in that absent space in his mind. We move forward. Truck, bus, carts, bridge, the roof of a rural mud house, a three piece men’s suit hanging in a thatched corner on the roof of that rural mud house, and at this, Hassan’s displacing sight halts. It is strange: what is a three piece men’s suit doing in a thatched corner on the rooftop of this tattered dirty rural mud house? The company’s van moves ahead. A tractor-trolley laden with cauliflowers crosses the company van and in the middle of the cauliflowers a lone, severed human head can be seen. The company’s running van doesn’t allow a second glance. It is impossible to stop the van and follow the tractor-trolley in order to solve the problem of the human head. As it is, Hassan could never accept the prospect of direct intervention in the world as a solution to the astonishing and terrifying obstructions to “displaced sightseeing”. Just like none of us think of it. We all simply forget the absent spaces the very next moment.

We will keep going with Hassan, but we think that the prospect of “direct intervention in the world” requires an explanation. Assume that you are going somewhere. A car is not necessary. You could be walking, riding a bicycle. Any one street, any one avenue, any one alley, any one market, anywhere, just that you are moving ahead. You are looking to your right. Your sight gets displaced from the face of a beautiful woman or the rise of her chest to a police car where two policemen are handcuffing a criminal and taking him to custody. Suddenly, you feel that the criminal’s face looks surprisingly similar to the face of a high school friend of yours who was in your graduating class, who was an extremely intelligent student, and who was a well-mannered boy. “My God! What happened to him?” This “what” is “absent”. But do you follow the police car in order to fill in this absence? No. Absolutely not. Maybe the criminal is not the same person as your friend. After all, faces match other faces. Faces also change with age and instead of looking like themselves they start to look like other faces. Maybe that is the case. It is even possible that the criminal is your friend’s twin brother. Basically, in a few minutes, you forget everything because you know that it is utterly useless to directly intervene in the absent moments of terror.

Hassan was also well aware of this. In fact, he even knew that such intervention could be fatal. But Hassan did not forget the absent moments of halting terror. He was unable to tolerate the emptiness of these moments. Just like a student feels satisfied by filling in the blanks on his exams with something or other even when he doesn’t know the answers, Hassan would complete the picture by filling it in with something or other in order to satisfy himself. And this wasn’t at all difficult. Let us take the same few examples. By the time he reaches the factory, Hassan understands that the tattered rural mud house could be the meeting place for a gang who kidnapped an important person recently and who killed him despite receiving the ransom. It is possible that the important person was wearing the three piece suit, and that after kidnapping him the criminals took off the three piece suit and put on some ordinary clothes on the important person, and then hung the three piece suit in that particular corner without realizing that if anybody crossing the adjacent road looked to their right, they could see, for exactly five seconds, in the space between the small black bridge and the barbershop, the particular corner in which the suit was hanging. It is also possible that the house belonged to a tailor who worked in the city and that the tailor stole the suit from a client in order to give it to his son who worked in Dubai and who will be returning soon (but when the suit was left hanging there for many years, Hassan rejected this possibility). It is also possible that the house belonged to some poor entertainer who was working in a theatre in the city and who had to wear a suit for his part in a play and who hung the suit in that corner when he returned from the city after his performance. “It is also possible that all of it is an illusion of my sight.” “Illusion of my sight” was the final alternative to any absent moment of terror for Hassan.

Similarly, Hassan could also construct many alternative scenarios for the example of the human head lodged between the cauliflowers. It is possible that somebody was lying pell-mell in the heap of cauliflowers in such a way that only their head was visible. It is possible that a new variety of cauliflower was being harvested which looked like a human head. It is possible that a normal cauliflower had stopped growing and had become burnt in the sun, assuming a brownish hue, thus giving off the appearance of a human head. It is also possible that it was a life-size human doll, or a mannequin. It is even possible that the farmers really had found a severed human head lying in the fields, or that the head had been severed from the body in that very tractor-trolley while travelling. And finally, having scared himself with this last possibility, Hassan thought that it was possible that it was all only an illusion of his sight.

In this way, walking alongside Hassan Raza Zaheer, we can see how he filled in the absence of not only the blood streams on the mirror, of the book in the skeletal car, but of innumerable absent moments of halting terror over many years by constructing alternative scenarios that could explain them. The examples are so many that they cannot all be stated. A veiled woman who is standing on the corner of the street unveils her face only for a minute. The face is not a woman’s face, not even a man’s face, maybe not even a human face. It is some other creature. What creature? A girl and a boy make eye contact with each other every day while they wait for their bus outside their village. One day they are not there. In the evening, two funerals can be seen at two different places in the village. The boy and the girl are never seen again. Were the funerals theirs? Etc. etc. In the many years of his travel in the company van, Hassan Raza Zaheer constructed many possible scenarios for many such mysteries. These possible scenarios satisfied him. He never felt the need for following through on a moment of terror and indulging a “direct intervention in the world”.

We think that the very construction of alternate possible scenarios in order to fill in absent moments of halted terror and enabling the continuity of “displaced sightseeing” was the essence of Hassan’s “real inner life”, but we will absolutely avoid insisting on the soundness of our opinion, because, as we previously stated, it is impossible to know the “actuality” of anyone’s “real inner life”. It is impossible to know anything about people. Still, the point to remember is that Hassan never tried to ascertain any one of his alternate possible scenarios by corroborating them with actual facts. Maybe because doing such a thing is strictly the habit of people who are able to return gazes, not of meek and petrified people like Hassan Raza Zaheer, who are devoid of all confidence – “devoid of all confidence” – really, what is extremely interesting and astonishing, and something that is another aspect of “Hassan’s state of affairs”, is the fact that, despite the complete “absence” of confidence, Hassan was able to get married, have children – two boys, one girl – and achieve other such worldly successes. For example, all three of his children grew up full of confidence and were admitted into that same school whose building still terrified Hassan. He acquired a residential plot on lease. He acquired a decent car. His eldest son became an engineer. The daughter was about to get married to the son of a well-off and respectable family. Etc. etc. These successes in the life of a man devoid of confidence were astonishing, but they were understandable, because, according to one opinion, all of these successes were the result of his wife’s endeavors, who was so confident that proving day is night was nothing more than child’s play for her. Anyway, this alternate scenario does not concern us. The important thing to know is that years upon years of these parallel worldly proceedings had no effect on the composition of Hassan’s “displaced sightseeing”, and Hassan Raza Zaheer’s “real inner life” continued uninterrupted for a very long while, and then one day the astonishing event happened.

We think that there were two causes of this event: one was another event which was actually constituted by many smaller events, and the second was a place which was actually a collection of many smaller places. So, first the collection of events: for working twenty-five years as an accountant, without giving the managers any cause for complaint, the company promoted Hassan Raza Zaheer to the post of Senior Accountant. The promotion came with a transfer. Hassan’s new appointment was at the company’s headquarters in the city. His salary and benefits were increased considerably. But despite all this, Hassan was wholly unhappy. He gathered up the strength to tell his Managing Director that he did not want the promotion and the transfer and that, instead, he wanted to continue in his current post. But before he could take any such step, his family found out about his regressive decision, after which he was easily and confidently convinced to see the error of his ways and accept the promotion. The sudden deprival of fifteen kilometers of “displaced sightseeing” on the right hand side of the van in the morning and fifteen kilometers of “displaced sightseeing” on the left hand side of the van in the evening was extremely traumatic for Hassan. What trauma, exactly? We will intervene here in order to explain this aspect of “Hassan’s state of affairs”. What kind of trauma was this for Hassan Raza Zaheer? Physical, cerebral, emotional, or visual…? If Hassan was to explain this trauma to someone else, what would he have said? Obviously, saying anything would be impossible. And even if he did say something, people would not understand, or worse, they would laugh at him. That is why we think that Hassan’s trauma was an “exemplary real trauma” because an “exemplary real trauma” is a trauma which cannot be relayed from your own self to any other person.

Under extreme duress, Hassan consulted the company doctor for the first time in his life. But he was unable to relay anything about his trauma to the doctor. He mentioned his sleeplessness, a tension in his neck muscles, and a pain in his eyes. The doctor promptly provided him with medicines. The very next day, Hassan was supposed to leave for a far off place along with the rest of the company’s auditing team. During this trip, according to a report, Hassan disappeared for thirty-six hours, and then appeared again voluntarily to report for duty. He sat through many administrative and medical inquiries concerning his unusual disappearance, but other than applying for casual leave for the past three days, he did not answer any of the questions satisfactorily. He was granted leave from duty for the next three days as well so that he could sort his affairs out for his new posting.

Anyway, life had to move forward, and it did. After three days of leave, the company’s new car began to take Hassan to the head office every morning. The route had changed. It was shorter. It was still possible to do some “displaced sightseeing”. But everything was ruined. First, no one car was sent every day, sometimes it was one car, sometimes another. It was impossible to sit in a specific seat every time. Sometimes the seat was higher, sometimes lower. What could Hassan do? There was no other choice. Compared to a good forty-five minutes of displaced and distracted sightseeing, the new route was only a hassled and hurried sightseeing which would end before it could even properly begin. Before Hassan’s “displaced sightseeing” could begin to flow, he would already have reached the parking lot of that ten-story building where the head office was located.

Now. We will return to the second cause of that astonishing event – the place i.e. a collection of places. The place was a vast cemetery that was located right in the middle of the city. Due to its placement and size, it wasn’t an ordinary cemetery, in fact, a few wide and many narrow streets criss-crossed it, providing reliable alternate routes to people travelling from the north of the city to the south and vice versa. And the people travelling through these streets, despite being limited by the particular bodies and models of their modes of transport, couldn’t help but be touched by universal themes like apocalypse, the end of the world, mortality, etc. It is a part of human nature to be affected by the sight of a grave. Nobody can remain unconnected after confronting death, no matter what, even if death is a topic that gets obscured in the daily hustle bustle of life. If a man is used to “displaced sightseeing”, the sight of a collection of graves can provide him diverse visual opportunities, and sometimes, these opportunities are intensely disturbing, as was the case with Hassan Raza Zaheeer.

Once more, we walk alongside Hassan. Assume that you are sitting in a van, looking outside the window. As soon as your van traverses through a cemetery, you will be able to see, at a distance of a few feet, not only the outer wall of the cemetery, but also the tombstones lining the cemetery, and if there is nothing terribly wrong with your sight, you will be able to read the embossed names of those men and women who are no longer with us in this world. Haji Ilyas Butt, Murqad Walidah, Shaheed Captain Noor-e-Ilahi, Doctor Ilyas Ahmad, Rasheeda Bibi, Anwar-ul-Haq, Noor Fatima, Muhammad Tariq Sadiqi, Rehman Malik, Aliya Begum, Chaudhry Qudrutullah…also, the various details concerning the dead: parentage, date of birth, date of death, and then, on a few tombstones, poems, verses from the Quran, miniature drawings, etc. that reflect the thoughts and emotions of the dearly departed. However, in order to see these finer details, you will either have to slow down your car or abandon your “displaced sightseeing” for a few moments in order to concentrate on some specific tombstone. If a tombstone is obscured by other tombstones, and therefore not directly in view, that can be another form of limitation with regard to the reading of the finer details on the tombstone. In other words, it is only possible to glance at some unfinished word or detail on any given tombstone and if you wanted to read the details in their entirety you would have to stop the car, in fact, you might even have to get out of the car and look around various tombstones to read the one that you wanted to read in its entirety. Obviously, nobody in their right senses would do such a strange and nonsensical thing.

 Neither was Hassan Raza Zaheer about to do any such thing, because, as we have established, despite living the “real inner” life of absent terror, astonishment and “displaced sightseeing”, there was no doubt about the soundness and normalcy of Hassan’s external sensibilities. Thus, not only did he accept the hustle and bustle of the mornings and evenings he spent in the new company car, he also began to grasp the order in the disordered array of the new routes, even the routes that crossed the cemetery. The tattered connections between his eyes and mind were beginning to reestablish themselves. In the beginning, he kept his head bowed on the way over and the way back from the head office, but gradually, adapting to the situation, his sight began to displace itself from the car to the outside world.

The company car, finding shortcuts, had defined a new route among the ill-fitting corners, blind turns, one-way and two-way traffics…one weak, wretched, old laborer amongst the many laborers that gathered on the avenue every day in order to find work, stumbles and falls. The other laborers leap towards him and the company car moves ahead. Has the man lost consciousness? Is he dead? Who is he? What is his name? Tombstones, marble tombstones, Yaseen Dogar, Arifa Rani, Fauzia Umar, Muhammad Razzaq, Abdul Razzaq, Doctor Ibadat Ali, Niyamat Ali Minhas, the embossed symbol of an arrow, the mausoleum of a mystic, Baba Ghulam, Chah Paryan Wala, the car moves ahead. City buildings adjacent to the cemetery, coffins, suitable mechanisms for bathing the dead. What is the most suitable mechanism for bathing the dead? Various shops that sell materials for burials. Rose petals and garlands of marigolds lay on counters in front of shops and in between the rose petals and garlands of marigolds lies a tortoise! The presence of a tortoise between the flowers is an absent moment of astonishment and terror. “What is the tortoise doing here?” “How strange?” But maybe it’s not a real tortoise, only a model of one. Maybe it was born in a ditch made by the rains in the cemetery….in fact, yes, Chah Paryan, i.e., well of angels, the name is also strange…maybe the tortoise was born in such a well, or some other nearby ditch, and today, suddenly, appeared in the shop after walking all the way there from the cemetery, just like Hassan had noticed, once or twice in the past twenty-five years of daily travelling, tortoises that made their way to the road from the villages surrounding the road. Children would catch them, or they would get squished under buses. Maybe the florist’s son had advanced from his father’s profession and become a professor of zoology, and he had brought the tortoise over to the shop for some research purposes. Maybe the tortoise is a pet, and if that is the case, the tortoise will be there tomorrow as well. When the car will pass, I would be able to see it again. I will carefully look for it tomorrow.

But the company car didn’t pass that spot for many days. The different drivers for the company car believed in self-determination when it came to selecting one of the many criss-crossing routes that lead through the cemetery to the head office, which meant that it was rare to repeat the same path ever again. Weeks passed. Though the company car’s new route made Hassan Raza Zaheer’s “displaced sightseeing” weaker and more complicated, it still could not break the flow of absent moments of terror. If Hassan’s “real inner life” used to be a continuous straight line, it now became a dotted one. On the other hand, Hassan’s professional and personal life progressed towards yet another success despite his continued lack of confidence. The company began digitizing the accounts department at the head office and, as a result, started hiring a brand new MBA-educated staff. Hassan Raza Zaheer was made two offers: he could either accept a substantial lump sum and retire early, or transfer to an old factory where the company converted by-products into medicines, for a higher pay, but on the same schedule. This factory was located even further than the previous factory, about an hour away from the city, a distance that was covered, obviously, on the company van. Hassan happily accepted the latter offer, but changed his mind after a few days and accepted the former offer because his confident family unanimously decided that if a substantial lump sum was being offered then there was no harm in retiring early. They could sell the old house. They could start building a new house. They could fund the daughter’s marriage. It was the more reasonable choice, and Hassan Raza Zaheer had never tried to dismiss reason. The company didn’t mind one way or the other. They told Hassan that he would be able to retire by the end of the year.

We think that sighting a tortoise among the rose petals and the garlands of marigolds on the counter in front of the shop that was selling materials for burials was the most improbable event in the history of Hassan’s “displaced sightseeing” but, clearly, it wasn’t impossible, which is why it will be unreasonable to propose that Hassan had started seeing things that had no basis in reality. In fact, Hassan himself accepted “illusion of my sight” as the final irrefutable alternative to terror. But he was intuitively aware of the fact that his “real inner life” could only be experienced in the time and space that existed between “improbable” and “impossible”. And not just his “real inner life”, but even the external life of that successful man “devoid of all confidence” could only be experienced within the limits set out between improbable and impossible. But maybe this self-awareness itself fluctuated between improbable and impossible and that is why when the astonishing event happened, Hassan was unable, for the first time in his life, to follow the one strict rule of “displaced sightseeing”, that is, a refusal to “directly intervene in the world” in order to fill in the absent moments of terror. Instead, Hassan set out to see why it seemed the way it seemed. But we will absolutely avoid insisting on the soundness of our opinion. Maybe nobody can know the reality of Hassan’s thoughts. As we have said before, it is impossible to know anything about people, and these types of semi-philosophical analytics will always be found to be ridiculous. All we can do is walk alongside Hassan.

It was a bright shiny morning. Hassan did not know why it was bright and shiny, but what Hassan did find out, in one displaced sighting, as the car crossed the bridge over a dirty stream of water, is that there was a mirror stuck inside a puddle of mud right next to the bridge.The mirror was cracked and it sparkled like a shooting star at the place of the crack. Streams of blood running from the crack had turned black. In one moment of “displaced sightseeing”, Hassan recognized that it was the same mirror he had seen for many years hanging in a room in some other place. The only difference was that now he could see in the mirror the reflection of a woman. But there was no woman. The company car had moved ahead.

…a man is busy frying bread for breakfast on a huge iron pan. He burns his fingers on the pan. He quickly puts them in his mouth. He turns the bread with the same fingers before the bread burns. A young girl is getting the flat tire of her bicycle fixed even though it has been ages since women cycled in the city. A man juicing a sugarcane gets his hand peeled off in the juicing machine, or maybe it was someone else who screamed, who can know, the company car moves ahead, it moves ahead and crosses one of the criss-crossing streets in the cemetery, one that Hassan has never travelled before. New marble tombstones can be seen one after another. Rasheeda Zafar, Miyan Hayat Muhammad, Asif Iqbal, Professor Shehzad Ahmad, Muhammad Irfan, Beloved Kashif, Shahbaz Ahmad, Salma Begum, Abida Pervez, Mirza Athar Baig, Iftikhar Ahmad Chaudary, Hakim Waris Ali, Hassan Raza Zaheer, Qamar Ali Khan…Hassan’s displacing eyes bolt back to the tombstone with his own name – Hassan Raza Zaheer – but the car had moved ahead.

For a moment, Hassan wanted to scream and shout. He wanted to do something he had never done before even in the face of “absent moments of halting terror”. He wanted to say: “Stop! Stop the car! That tombstone has my name on it!” But he could not say it. The questions couldn’t come outside of him. How is this possible? Obviously, names match other names. If two people can have the same name in life, in the newspaper, in fiction, then why can’t they have the same name on tombstones too? Still, it is improbable that all three parts of the name – Hassan, Raza, and Zaheer – would match. But it is not impossible, and nobody can stop whatever is not impossible from happening from time to time. They arrived at the head office.

Coincidentally, the very next morning, the same driver came to pick up Hassan in the exact same car. As soon as they crossed the bridge, Hassan’s heart began to beat hysterically. The blood-stained mirror was absent. The man juicing the sugarcane was absent. The machinery for juicing the sugarcane was absent. Hassan was ready. He prepared himself to absorb all the details on the tombstone with his name while remaining within the limits of “displaced sightseeing”. They arrived on the same road, the tombstones began to flicker in front of him, Beloved Kashif, Shahbaz Ahmad, Salma Begum, Abida Pervez, Mirza Athar Baig, Iftikhar Ahmad Chaudary, Hakim Waris Ali, Hassan Raza Zaheer, son of Zaheer Ahmad…on the following three days, the same car came with the same driver, and it drove through the same street. Hassan Raza Zaheer son of Zaheer Ahmad, Hassan Raza Zaheer son of Zaheer Ahmad.

On the sixth day, the route changed, and the car didn’t come back to the street for many weeks. That unnamed street crossing the cemetery remained absent. But the tombstone with his name continued to impress upon Hassan’s mind. We think that it was around this time that Hassan made the fatal decision of making his “real inner life” more real. Instead of continuing to live his life within the risky yet safe confines of improbable and impossible, Hassan became involved with the categories of real and unreal. He got caught in the wheel of possible and impossible. He began to contemplate “direct intervention in the world”. Even now, he could’ve satisfied himself with one of the many alternate scenarios brewing inside of him. Even now, that was possible…maybe there was actually a minor difference between his name and the name on the tombstone, which he had failed to read because the tombstone was old and corroded, or maybe he had read the tombstone incorrectly because the street was at a far distance from the tombstone, or maybe he had made a mistake because the car was moving too fast. Maybe Hassan was actually Mohsin, or even Ahsan. Maybe one of the letters was rubbed out. Furthermore, even if the last name was actually Zaheer, it could be easily explained as last names are generally given after the father, and, after all, matching names could have matching father names too. It is highly unlikely but it is not impossible and nobody can stop whatever is not impossible from happening from time to time. Hassan could even relegate the event to the category of “illusion of my sight”. But we think that it was precisely at this time that his mind began to protest. A coincidence can happen once, it can happen twice, it can even happen three times, but it cannot happen time and again, how can it happen time and again? But all this analysis around “Hassan’s state of affairs” is nothing but daydreaming. It has no importance. What is important is to walk alongside Hassan. So we walk alongside Hassan. We walk for the last time.

It was a scary evening. It was not scary just because of Hassan’s state of affairs. It was felt to be scary by everyone. The October twilight was unusually dense. The western horizon was blood-red. A storm was coming. Darkness fell quickly, it fell so quickly that an old man said (or maybe he just thought) that the last time he saw such black darkness, such a blood-red storm, someone was murdered. But all this talk is fictional and meaningless. The real thing is the fact that Hassan’s family, his wife, his sons, his daughter, all of them were confidently sitting in a room and finalizing the sale of their old house with the property dealer and the two people the property dealer called “party” to the sale. When the sale was finalized, the real estate agents had left the house and remarked: “What strange weather.” Despite the strangeness of the weather, Hassan’s family enthusiastically celebrated the sale of the old house. Hassan participated. In a few months, he will retire and receive his lump sum. Everything was moving ahead successfully.

Hassan went to his room. Downstairs, his family was excitedly discussing the details of their future, debating one aspect of it after the other, turning views around, examining them from countless angles. The scary evening was turning into an even scarier night. At ten o’clock, Hassan decided that he must directly and properly examine the tombstone with his name on it. He must do it that very night. Obviously, he couldn’t tell his family where he was going. He didn’t even try to furnish an excuse. He simply left. He took a small pocket flashlight with him, and went in to the scary night, which was now scary because of Hassan’s state of affairs, the state of someone who had embarked on something forbidden and dangerous for the first time in his life.

Hassan arrived at the cemetery and found the tombstone. Hassan Raza Zaheer, son of Zaheer Ahmad, date of birth…the exact date of birth as Hassan’s own. The shock of something “impossible” for someone who had lived his whole life in the confines of improbable and impossible was intolerable. But he recovered. No, it was not impossible for someone’s name and date of birth to match his own. It is highly unlikely, it is extremely improbable, but it is not impossible, and nobody can stop whatever is not impossible from happening from time to time. It all rests on the date of death, Hassan thought, a thinking that wasn’t very sound, it was a no-thought. Hassan’s trembling torchlight moved across the tombstone towards the date of death…the date of death was the same as the date of birth. The second shock of the “impossible” was impossible for someone directly intervening in the absent moments of terror. The scary night left Hassan Raza Zaheer collapsed on the grave and moved ahead.

We think that Hassan Raza Zaheer’s story ends here. But some stories continue despite ending and some end despite continuing. We can try and continue this story, Hassan can return from the scary night, but it would still be impossible to answer why Hassan considered it impossible for a person’s date of birth to be the same as his date of death. It is entirely likely, even though such a person’s life would be confined between the smallest possible measure of time and one whole day. Maybe the details were the first case of a proofreading mistake on a tombstone. Maybe the acid rains falling on the cemetery had changed the dates on the tombstone such that they looked identical. Maybe a trickster of the cemetery had changed the dates. Maybe the dates had seemed identical to Hassan because of the poor lighting, which is to say that he could have relegated it to the final possible alternative, “illusion of my sight”. But all these alternatives are only possible for someone who displaces himself from one absent moment to the next, in the course of his “displaced sightseeing”, without attempting to fill in the absent moments through “direct intervention in the world”.

If Hassan’s story is continuing, then it can also be ending. We think that in the scary night Hassan saw open sunflowers, and in the dark silence, he heard the school bell echo. It is possible.

Hassan Ki Soorat-e-Haal (Hassan’s State of Affairs) by Mirza Athar Baig (Lahore, 2014).




Translator’s Note


Considering Pakistan’s socio-political atmosphere—torn between Western Enlightenment values and a vicious interpretation of Islam—considering also the annoying demand on creative artists from Pakistan to write narratives that “correctly” and “realistically” represent our society, Mirza Athar Baig’s novel Hassan Ki Soorat-e-Haal (Hassan’s State of Affiars) is nothing less than a revelation. A novel that blurs the line between global and local literature, here is a fiction that wears its hybridity—rather than its ethnicity—on its sleeve. It dares to ask the question: Is Pakistan surrealist? Or is surrealism Pakistani?

Since its beginnings in the nineteenth century, the modern Urdu novel confined itself to socio-political commentary in an overwhelmingly realist mode. Writers divided themselves on the spectrum of ‘social realism’, and few completely departed from the conventions of a broad modernist and realist aesthetic. With the publication of his third novel in the spring of last year, Mirza Athar Baig exploded the field of Urdu literature open with a surrealist bomb that no one was expecting. The novel has variously been described as “playful”, “unique”, and “postmodern” in the local and international press, and while it has impressed critics and performed successfully in the market, it has also baffled the literary culture industry. Unlike English-language writers from Pakistan, who have largely contended themselves with reworking ‘local’ forms and aesthetics for a predominantly Western audience, Mirza has chosen to rework a ‘Western’ aesthetic—Surrealism—into a novel that speaks to global concerns in markedly local slangs and idioms. As he said in an interview: “The ‘modernity’ we have in our parts of the world is a vastly different socio-historical process than western modernity, out of which the so called post-modernity evolved. What sort of ‘post-modernity’ would bloom out of our ‘modernity’? Something is laughable about it but a lot is poignantly serious. There should be a different name for it, and the name is Hassan Ki Soorat-e-Haal.”

“Horror Story” is the opening chapter of the novel. Despite being one of the shortest self-contained excerpts in the book (Mirza has a defiantly maximalist sensibility; sometimes, he will exhaust each and every possibility presented by the plot under its own sub-heading) it is of utmost significance to the rest of the novel’s philosophical development. It presents themes, ideas, and creative possibilities that are explored fully as the novel progresses and fragments.

Hassan’s State of Affairs by Mirza Athar Baig and translated from the Urdu by Haider Shahbaz is forthcoming from Red Dust Books in 2017.


Haider Shahbaz

Translator Haider Shahbaz has a B.A. from Yale University and he is currently enrolled in the MFA program at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. His translations and reviews are forthcoming in The Believer Logger, The Portland Review, and Himal SouthAsian.

Mirza Athar Baig

Mirza Athar Baig is a Pakistani novelist, playwright and short story writer. He has been associated with the Department of Philosophy, at the Government College University in Lahore. His fiction works include the novel Ghulam Bagh (The Garden of Slaves), considered one of the central works of literature in the Urdu language.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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