Saturday, April 30, 2011

Shahzad Rizvi's short story "WE MEET AGAIN"

Parveen finally entered the classroom and Sultan’s wait came to an end. After taking attendance, the professor called out, “So, what is deductive logic?”
Silence gripped the classroom and every student sat still, hoping not to attract attention. Sultan looked around, then slowly raised his hand.
“Yes, Sultan!” The professor’s voice boomed and the class heaved a collective sigh of relief.
“Sir, all female students of Rashidia College are beautiful. Parveen is a female student of Rashidia College. Therefore, Parveen is beautiful.” A chorus of laughter arose, but the professor gave a sharp look and it quickly subsided.
“You’re right, Sultan,” said the professor. “What is the major premise in your example?”
“That all female students of Rashidia College are beautiful, sir.”
“Right again. What if you drew the conclusion without the minor premise?”
“Then sir, I would be calling Parveen beautiful without establishing that she’s a student of Rashidia College.”
The professor looked around the room and his eyes focused on Irfan. Irfan was engaged in exchanging notes about the girls with the boy sitting next to him. “Irfan, what is enthymeme?”
A devilish expression appeared on Irfan’s face. “Sir, all the girls of Rashidia College are ugly.” There were suppressed laughs from the boy’s section and the girls’ faces went grim.
“Very humorous, indeed,” said the professor, stonily. “Irfan, see me after class!”
As class ended and the students noisily poured out, Parveen broke away from the other girls and stationed herself in the hallway. When Sultan passed by, she asked, “Excuse me, may I have a word with you?”
“I would like nothing better.”
“Why did you do it?”
“Do what, Parveen?”
“Use my name to answer the professor.”
“I’m so sorry if it offended you.”
“Not that it offended me. It just drew unnecessary attention to me.”
“Will you find it in your heart to forgive me?”
“Of course…but there’s nothing to forgive.”
“I don’t know what got into me. I suppose I was just expressing my feelings. You are beautiful. Actually, you’re the most beautiful girl in the college.”
Parveen lowered her eyes and said shyly to the floor, “I’m having trouble in this class. I’m worried about failing in Logic. You seem to understand everything.”
“I’d be happy to help you with it.”
“That would be very kind of you. It would remove a great burden from my chest. But, I don’t want to impose on you.”
“It would be no imposition. The pleasure would be all mine. Just tell me when and where.”
Parveen thought for a moment and said, “Not here. I wouldn’t want to be seen by the other students. They would talk. Perhaps you could come to our house? I’ll ask my father and let you know tomorrow.” As Parveen and Sultan were concluding their conversation, Irfan passed by them with a swagger. He was wearing chic clothes and a cigarette dangled from his mouth. He cast a derisive look in their direction.
The next day when Sultan arrived at Parveen’s house, the sheer size of it overwhelmed him. Do people actually live like this? he asked himself. There were just the two of them, Parveen and her father, Mr. Rehman, and, of course, lots of servants. Parveen’s mother had died in childbirth. Sultan soon became a regular visitor and tutor. Parveen was not only doing well in Logic now, but in other subjects as well. Sultan’s help was making all the difference. Mr. Rehman was delighted to see the transformation of his only child from a failing student to an A student. He offered Sultan money for his efforts, but Sultan declined.
“I would like to marry you, Parveen, but I don’t know whether it could ever happen,” Sultan screwed up his courage to confess one day.
Parveen lowered her eyes and pondered. “You know the rules of our culture, Sultan. Here in India, it’s not the young people but the parents who make the decision about marriage. “
“I know that.”
“In the West, young people date and get to know each other. But there’s no such thing in our culture. What we’re doing is the next best thing to dating.”
“So, what would your father say?”
“To what? To our getting married? He would say that Sultan’s father should come and bring a formal proposal.” Sultan’s face became clouded. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing…nothing at all,” Sultan said, distractedly, and left abruptly.
That night, at dinner, Parveen said to her father, “Abba, what do you think of Sultan?”
“He strikes me as a very good boy. He is smart, good-looking and well-mannered. Why do you ask, my child?”
“He would like to marry me, Abba.”
“Do you like him?”
“Yes, Abba.”
“But I have no idea about his family. I don’t know who his father is.”
“Maybe Sultan could bring him over some time and you can meet him?”
“Yes, that would be fine.”
The next day at college, Parveen mentioned this to Sultan, but he didn’t seem enthusiastic. That confused her. Was he serious about what he’d said, or had he just been playing with my emotions, she wondered? She fell asleep crying, and had a terrible dream.
When she was awakened the next morning by the maid bearing the breakfast tray, she was still under the spell of her nightmare. The maid informed her that her father had already left for the office. Parveen had no energy, but she realized that there was no college for a week; the break had started. She sipped her tea, but sent away the rest of the tray. She had no appetite. Her head was throbbing.
The day seemed an eternity. The usual time of Sultan’s arrival came and went, but there were no signs of him. When her father returned home from the office, he was concerned about her. “Should I phone Dr. Firdausi?” he asked, feeling her forehead.
“There’s nothing he can do to make me feel better, Abba,” Parveen said. Mr. Rahman embraced his suffering daughter.
For Parveen, each day was harder than the one before, but there was no news of Sultan. “Do you know where he lives, what his father does?” Mr. Rahman asked.
“No, Abba. I think he is in the government.”
“What’s his name?”
“I have no idea.”
“That poses a real problem.”
“I’m really concerned. For all I know, Sultan might be really ill,” Parveen fretted.
Mr. Rahman picked up a book and began to leaf through it. A postcard fell out. He picked it up and glanced at it. “This seems to be addressed to Sultan,” he said.
“Well, yes, it’s Sultan’s book.”
“His address is right here. Now, we know where he lives. We can go and see him.” Before Parveen had a chance to respond, Mr. Rahman was calling the servant for the car to be brought around.
When they set off, it was raining hard. The side windows were fogged up and it was difficult to see outside. But the chauffeur knew exactly where the house was and brought them to it. The car came to a stop facing its front door—engulfing it in the beams of the headlights. It was a tiny, tin-roofed, adobe structure. “There must be some mistake, Ghafoor. This cannot be Sultan’s house,” Mr. Rahman shouted over the noise of the rain. Before the chauffeur had a chance to answer, the door opened and a figure holding a battered, half-broken umbrella came out. It was unmistakably Sultan. He squinted his eyes and looked in the direction of the car, perhaps wondering what a car was doing there and who it might belong to. Cars were rarely seen in that neighborhood. The chauffeur jumped out, walked over and talked to him. An expression of horror flashed across Sultan’s face. Parveen felt it like a knife slicing her heart. He came over to the car window, greeted them and reluctantly invited them inside the house.
It was a tiny little room, with a low ceiling, dimly lit by a kerosene lamp. There was no furniture. A man was lying on one side, his head propped up by a fraying cushion. A woman sat on the other, her head covered. Scattered books, notebooks and writing equipment were in the middle. Sultan said, “My father has been sick for several days.”
Mr. Rahman looked intently at the face of the man. “Abdullah?”
The man responded in a feeble but excited voice: “Sahib!”
Parveen asked, “Do you know each other?”
Mr. Rahman answered, “Of course we know each other. Abdullah is a peon in my office. I had no idea that he was Sultan’s father.”
With Sultan’s help, the man sat up. “He is my only son, sir…my only child, the light of my life.”
Mr. Rahman said, “Your son and my daughter are in the same class. He has been coming to our house and helping her, but we hadn’t seen him for several days.”
“Sir, he has been looking after me.”
“How’re you feeling now?”
“I’m much better, sir. I hope to go back to work in a couple of days. I’m sorry if my absence caused you inconvenience, sir.”
“I’m sorry that you fell ill. It’s true that when you’re not around, nobody else looks after me as well as you do.”
As the goodbyes were being said, Parveen whispered into Sultan’s ear: “This has been a most unusual revelation. Our fathers know each other.”
“Yes,” Sultan whispered back, sullenly. “Your father as a master and my father as a servant.”
“When will I see you?” Parveen asked.
“When our destinies bring us together.”
Parveen and her father were already leaving, as Sultan’s mother came out with two cups of tea in chipped earthenware mugs. “It’s rather late for us to have tea. It will keep us awake,” Mr. Rahman said brusquely, and they were gone.
When the results were announced by the university, Sultan stood first. With a first class degree, I should be able to get a job right away, he thought. He sent out dozens of applications but to no avail.
One day, as Sultan’s father was walking behind Mr. Rahman, holding an umbrella over his master’s head, he said, “Sir, this is big talk from my little mouth, and my tongue gets all curled up just talking about it. My son likes your daughter and…”
Mr. Rahman stopped walking, turned around and said, “Your son is a very good boy, but I can’t see him as my son-in-law.”
“I understand it fully, sir. First of all, our class difference, sir. And then he has no job and we live in a small one-room shack. Your daughter is accustomed to living in style. She would never be happy with us.”
“She thinks she would be, but she has a romantic view of poverty.”
“Sir, the children of rich homes want to experience poverty and the children of poor homes want to experience riches. It is always like that, sir.”
“I know. The grass is always greener on the other side. Abdullah, would you do something for me?”
“Anything, sir. I am the slave of your command.”
“Ask your son to write a letter to my daughter telling her that he doesn’t want to marry her anymore…that he’s changed his mind.”
“That will be very hard, sir. He is very serious about your daughter. But I promise, sir, I will get it done!”
Sultan’s letter did finally arrive. As Parveen licked her wounds, reading it over and over again in disbelief, Mr. Rahman began to receive marriage proposals for her. It had been hard to raise a daughter without a mother, and now he wanted her to get married into a good family where there would be lots of older women to guide her through married life. One proposal caught his eye. It was from a very prominent local family. When Mr. Rahman asked around, everyone said good things about them. But no one seemed to know much about the son, who was the main point of the whole enquiry.
When he mentioned this proposal to Parveen, she said, “I know Irfan. He was in my class.” On being questioned further, she said, “At this point, I don’t care who I marry, Abba. I just want to end your worry about me and get it over with.” Mr. Rahman decided to consider that a yes and informed Irfan’s parents about the acceptance. Soon, preparations for the wedding began and when it finally took place, it was one of the grandest weddings in the history of the city.
When Sultan emerged out of a deep depression, he knew he had to pick up the pieces of his shattered life. But where will I go? What will I do? I have no idea. The last thing he wanted was to go to Parveen’s father and beg for help. That chapter of his life was closed. He would of course carry Parveen’s love and memories of her in his heart forever and ever.
He came out of the alley where he lived and began to walk down the main road. He had no goal, no destination in mind. All of a sudden, he noticed droves of people on bicycles going in one direction. “Where are all those people going?” he asked someone.
“Heavy Electricals Limited. It’s a factory recently set up by the government. It manufactures heavy electrical equipment.”
There must be a job for me in that outfit, he thought. After all, so many people are employed there. I should just follow them in and apply. But the next moment, doubt began to set in. How can I be sure that I’ll get a job at HEL when I’ve been turned down at every other place? People with connections and the sons of influential people find jobs, but I’m neither. He kept walking, as the bicycles and pedestrians rushed past him on their way to work.
Suddenly, a thought struck him. Surely, the manufacturer must need some components, building all those big machines? Perhaps I can go into business for myself as a supplier of such components? A bicycle rental shop came into view. He walked over and rented a bike. He didn’t have enough money, but the man told him he could settle up later. He mounted the bike and joined the crowd. When he arrived at the complex, he couldn’t believe his eyes. For miles, the wilderness had been transformed; numerous buildings had risen, and a huge factory was under construction. Workers wearing hard hats were rushing around, heavy equipment was in operation, the noise was deafening. He didn’t know where to begin, or whom to talk to. Wheeling the bicycle, he walked around for quite a while. Over the noise of jumbled voices and clanking metal, he heard a middle-aged man barking orders in a booming voice. He walked up to him and asked, “May I speak to you, sir?”
“Not now!” the man said and walked away.
Sultan followed him. When the man stood still for a moment, Sultan shouted at him over the noise, “I’m not looking for a job, sir. I want to know if you need anything that I can supply?”
The man looked at him intently and then said, “Meet me in my office in an hour.” He resumed shouting orders at the workers. More than two hours later, the man entered his office, looking exhausted. With a sigh, he collapsed into the chair and said, “So what company are you with…what do you supply?”
“I don’t represent any company, sir. I’m an independent contractor.”
“You look awfully young to be a contractor. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. I am in dire need of nuts and bolts, nuts and bolts of different sizes. Thousands of them. We are in the business of manufacturing heavy equipment. We don’t want to be bothered making small parts like nuts and bolts. It wouldn’t be cost effective. Can you supply them?”
“Yes, sir,” Sultan answered, sounding confident, but shaking inside.
“Good! Get in touch with my secretary and get the details.” The man got up and was gone.
Several hours later, when Sultan came back to the bicycle shop to return the bike, the owner said, “Mian, you’ve been gone for hours. I was beginning to worry. Where did you go?”
Sultan told him the whole story, adding, “I have made myself a nuts and bolts contractor, but I don’t know the first thing about them.”
“Actually, it’s very easy to make nuts and bolts. All you need is a lathe, a few tools and a supply of iron rods of different sizes, and you can produce nuts and bolts. I have to do it all the time to repair the bikes in my shop.”
“But I have no money to buy a lathe or the supplies you were mentioning.”
A man sitting next to the shop’s owner, presumably his friend, spoke through the betel-leaf he was chewing. “Go to the Small Business Administration, take this order from HEL with you and apply for a loan to start a small factory.”
“I don’t know where they’re located.”
“Look, the SBA is just around the corner from my office. You come and see me tomorrow. I’ll take you down there and introduce you to the right people.”
The owner of the shop said, “Today seems to be your lucky day. First, you land a contract, and then you meet my friend and me. He can lead you to the right people to get a loan and I can show you how to manufacture nuts and bolts.”
The friend said, “If we can make it happen, what will our share of the profits be?”
“I don’t know, sir. I haven’t done this kind of thing before.”
The shop owner said, “How about five percent each for the two of us?”
“Of course, sir. But I don’t know if there will be any profit. It all seems so outlandish…this manufacturing of nuts and bolts.”
The owner produced a paper and a pen. “It seems to me that we have a deal. Why don’t we set it down?”
Sultan set up a little workshop in a ramshackle tool-shed behind his house and began to produce small, medium, and large nuts and bolts. At first, there were setbacks, but he didn’t lose heart. He learned from his mistakes and production soon picked up. His machine shop had to take on employees and soon, it was working day and night, producing thousands of pieces daily. No sooner were they delivered when there was demand for more, such was the insatiable appetite of the giant factory. Sultan had to expand his operation and ultimately built a factory employing hundreds of people.
Years passed and he was a wealthy industrialist now, but he couldn’t forget Parveen. He often wondered how her marriage had worked out, how many children she had. They must be quite grown up now, he thought. He lived in a huge mansion, with a large staff and a personal valet, but he couldn’t drive the loneliness from his heart. For years, his family and friends pressed him to get married, but they gave up in the end.
To run the household a little better, the valet brought in a new housekeeper. The woman spoke very little and always kept her face covered with a veil. Sultan thought she must be very devout. From the moment she arrived, Sultan noticed that his needs began to be looked after with the utmost care. Things were done for him exactly the way he wanted them, before he even said anything. After a while, he got accustomed to having her around.
One late night, Sultan returned home from a business trip several days earlier than he had told the domestic staff. Exhausted; he headed straight for the bedroom. As he entered the room and turned the lights on, someone, a woman apparently, was sleeping on his bed. His housekeeper bolted up, wild-eyed with fear at being discovered there. As their eyes met, Sultan saw that there was something familiar about her face. “Parveen?” he uttered in disbelief. Despite the ravages of time, the face was unmistakably hers.
“Yes, it is I, Sultan!”
“So, you are the mysterious woman behind the veil?”
“Yes, it’s true.”
“I thought I would never see you again…after you married Irfan. Where is he? What are you doing here, working in my household? Why this mystery? You are the last person in the world I would have expected to see here!”
“I always knew that this moment would come someday, that I wouldn’t be able to keep my identity a secret forever. Perhaps I should tell you my story?”
“Please do. I’m dying to know.” Sultan sat down on the edge of the bed and gazed at Parveen in utter amazement.
“When you wrote that letter saying that you didn’t want to marry me, my heart broke. I read it over and over again and suffered with every reading. After that, you disappeared and I couldn’t ask you why. There was tremendous pressure from my father for me to get married. He was not in good health and he wanted to be sure that I was married off before he died. There were many proposals, but he liked the one from Irfan’s family the best. You can well understand my reaction to that, but at that point I couldn’t have cared less who I married. I’d lost you, so I just wanted to please my father. I wanted to remove this big worry from his head, so I said yes.”
“I came to know about your marriage and it was the most painful moment of my life.”
“You could’ve stopped it with a single word. I would never have married Irfan in a million years if you hadn’t written that letter, but I thought you never wanted to see me again. But now, as they say in English, that’s water over the dam. From day one, Irfan was horrible to me. He was drunk on our wedding night. He was abusive and constantly taunted me about you. He squandered his own money and the dowry I’d brought on drinking, gambling and whoring. One day, he died in the arms of a prostitute, drunk with bootleg liquor. At last, I was free of him, but penniless. My father, who couldn’t bear all this, suffered a heart-attack and died. On his deathbed, he asked forgiveness for having deceived me about you. He told me that you were forced to write that letter because your father was his peon and he didn’t want his daughter to marry so much beneath her social station. That opened my eyes to what had happened and made me feel terrible on your behalf. I finally understood what heartache and humiliation you must have suffered.”
“You’re right about that. To this day, I still haven’t recovered from it.”
“I don’t doubt it. Anyway, more than anything I wanted to reach out to you and comfort you. It was not hard to find you. Newspapers had written so much about your success, about your rags to riches story. But I didn’t know how to go about it. I felt so ashamed about what had been done to you and I didn’t have the courage to face you. I decided to enter your life as your housekeeper. That way, I could atone for my father’s mistreatment of you, and be near you. Besides, I needed the job. I had nothing left to live on.” As Parveen finished her story, she began to sob. Sultan took her in his arms and showered her with kisses. They held each other for a long time—making up for all the lost years. They were transported in ecstasy.
The next morning, bright sunrays woke them up. “It’s a new day and a new beginning in our lives,” said Parveen.
“Shall we do what we should have done years ago?” asked Sultan, holding her tighter.
“Absolutely! But for now, as your housekeeper, I should get up and look after your breakfast.”
“Don’t you mean, as the mistress of this household, you should look after our breakfast?” They both burst out laughing.

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