Continued from “Love at First Sight”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 8
Mohsin, TV Hill
I’m wide wake, sitting by the window. There are stars sparkling straight ahead and down below I see the twinkling lights of the city. It’s Kabul I see, but it’s my days at Kandahar that I’m remembering.
On the work front everything went well for six months, when one day Michel announced that he would be leaving the country.
‘So what’s going to happen to us?’ asked Mumtaz, who was even more anxious than me.
‘Nothing,’ he said with a laugh. ‘You and Mohsin will continue as before.’
‘But we need a qualified doctor such as yourself,’ I protested. ‘And you’ve been here just six months, haven’t you?’
‘That’s how it is with people like me, I’m afraid,’ he replied in a serious voice. ‘We keep moving from country to country. I’m now being assigned to Sudan, in North Africa. And don’t worry about a doctor. My replacement, another doctor from France, will be here next week. You’ll be working with him.’
Mumtaz and I heaved a sigh of relief, although we were sorry to hear of Michel’s imminent departure; he was a really good man.
As a parting gift Mumtaz and I presented Michel with a copy of the Shahnama in French, which had been difficult to procure.
We had carefully wrapped it in coloured paper, and he was keen to open it at once.
‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘I will miss Afghanistan and especially working with the two of you.’ He removed the paper. ‘Ah, it’s in French,’ he exclaimed.
Mumtaz said: ‘This is a timeless classic enjoyed by young and old alike.’
‘I understand that,’ Michel said, ‘although I see’ – he flipped through the illustrated pages – ‘that this version of the tale is intended for a younger audience.’
I said proudly, ‘Afghans are not only concerned with fighting. We also love poetry.’
‘Though of course, by a coincidence, your favourite poem is one about warlike exploits,’ Michel quipped.
The following week Michel’s replacement, Pierre, arrived.
I was expecting someone older, someone like Michel himself, who must have been in his late forties, but Pierre was much younger, just five or six years older than Mumtaz and me. He was friendly enough, but I sensed that he too felt a bit in awe of Mumtaz’s presence and beauty.
I didn’t think of Pierre as a serious rival for Mumtaz’s affection, on account of his looks. He was rather short with a great big belly that would have been more acceptable in someone twice his age, someone for instance like my uncle Jamshed, who ran the local sweetshop in our village.
After Michel left, things were no longer the same. Pierre went to the villages with Mumtaz who now did the translation as well as speaking to the villagers; and they took another nurse with them. I was given some administrative duties in the office. In other words, I was shown my place. I was no longer talking with village elders, translating from Pashto or Dari to English and vice versa. I suppose I can’t fault Pierre for confining me to the office, since these were my duties; but I wonder if this was because he wanted to be the only man with Mumtaz.
I thought they would run into trouble sooner or later in one of the villages on account of Pierre’s relative youth. In Afghanistan we respect age, and Michel was accorded respect not only because he was a doctor but also because he was middle-aged. However, there were no reports of any disturbances. No doubt this was largely due to the way in which Mumtaz carried herself and spoke to the authorities.
But I missed our trips, and my interaction with Michel and Mumtaz. To make matters worse, even when Mumtaz was back at base, Pierre often called her into his office for lengthy consultations. It’s true they were only working together, but the work seemed to drag on and on. Some days Mumtaz and I barely spoke a few words to each other. She was always with Pierre in his room.
Pierre was for the most part polite, but on occasions he spoke to me in a commanding tone, as if to show me my place. He had to look up at me while he did so, even if we were both standing, for at 6 feet 4 inches I completely dwarfed him; my height, large build and fighter-hard muscles almost makes me a Pashtun warrior stereotype. I had to restrain myself from poking him in his fat, pulpy stomach.
Even though Mumtaz and I had little time to spend with each other in the office, on some days we were able to have a chat when the staff car dropped us home in the evenings.
Mumtaz lived in a village on Kandahar’s fringes, a half-hour’s drive away. My own village was much further, too far for me to live there. This was why I had taken up residence in town. Logistically it made sense for me to be dropped off home first, since it was nearer to our office. To follow any other route would have raised eyebrows. Some days, though, when it got late at the office, I would insist that we drop her off first, before it grew dark.
‘We don’t see that much of each other,’ she said to me during one such journey, ‘but you are always in my mind, Mohsin.’
We were sitting in the back of the car, and the driver was listening to the news. The traffic was held up by a procession of army jeeps. After they had driven past, a convoy of brown tanks emerged. Manned by helmeted soldiers stretching out their hands in a gesture for us to keep at a distance, the machines rolled down the road, a potent reminder that life was not normal.
‘When I see these tanks,’ I said, ‘I remember when the Russians were here. In those days the tanks used to roll down this very road.’
‘What do you remember about that time?’
‘Only bad things,’ I said simply. ‘I hate the Russians. My father was killed when I was only four-and-a-half years old. And my mother died soon after. She couldn’t bear the loss. Then the family fled to Pakistan, and I was brought up by my elder sister Meena. She’s been like a mother to me.’
Mumtaz said, ‘How do you feel about the Taliban?’
‘I hate them, just as I hated the Russians. And you?’
‘You know my views.’ She seemed to hesitate for a few moments, but then blurted out: ‘I hate my father too.’
I was shocked to hear that statement, but remained silent.
Seeing my expression, she added: ‘He’s not really my father, you know.’
‘Who is he then?’
‘My father’s eldest brother. Fifteen years older than him.’ She paused, as if recollecting some painful memory. ‘A year after my father died, he proposed to my mother. Just a year later.’
‘She didn’t want to marry him – he already had a wife and four children sired from her – but she didn’t have any option. So she agreed.’ She pushed back a stray lock that was always falling over her forehead, little realising the effect it had on me. ‘To be fair, till not so long ago, he treated Mother very well. I called him abba and respected him, but . . .’
‘But?’ I prodded her.
‘But now he’s changed. Everything has changed.’
My love for Mumtaz grew even more intense after she confided her troubles to me that day. I began to think of myself as a prince who would rescue the damsel in distress. How, I did not know yet.
Although I was living in a large apartment in Kandahar city, I went home every weekend to see my sister, her husband and their family.
Now that I had a well-paid job it was time for me to return the favour. Meena had raised me since I was a child, and my brother-in-law had never begrudged whatever she did for me. I began to give a sizeable amount to my brother-in-law’s family every month, and my stature grew within the family and even within the village.
I wanted to tell Mumtaz that I loved her, but now we were spending less time with each other it became more difficult for me to do so. The less time we spent together, the more tortured and love-struck I felt but paradoxically the more difficult it became for me to reveal my true feelings to her. For her part, she confessed to missing my company.
‘I’m so busy these days, Mohsin,’ she said, one day. ‘I wish we could spend more time together. Just like in the old days.’
Such words comforted me. It wasn’t her fault. What could she do? She needed this job desperately, and couldn’t do anything to jeopardise it. As she confided to me one day, her stepfather’s behaviour towards her mother had become even worse. He had started to beat her regularly. He never touched Mumtaz – I swear to Allah that I would have taken a gun to his head had he ever dared – but that may have been because Mumtaz had begun to contribute a large portion of her salary every month towards her uncle’s household expenses.
Mumtaz wanted to take up separate residence in town together with her mother, but her stepfather wouldn’t allow it.
‘I just keep three thousand Afghanis for myself, Mohsin,’ she explained. ‘The rest I give to him. And still he doesn’t spare my mother.’
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything right then, but I determined that when I did declare my love for her I would suggest that her mother could live with us after our marriage, if her stepfather would permit her to do so.
While I struggled to summon up the courage to confess my love to Mumtaz, another approach was proposed by my landlord, Jamil Hassan.
Sixty-four-year-old Jamil Hassan is a relative of sorts. Tall, wizened, white-bearded and with laughter lines on his face, he is a kind and good man. We are distantly related, and that’s also how I came to occupy the house he owned.
‘Bachiya,’ he’d said, when I’d visited him with a view to renting part of his house. ‘You’re only a child. What are you going to do with a three-bedroom apartment?’
I’d explained that my employers paid me a housing rent allowance, and did not give me the option of taking the money and finding one- or two-room accommodation.
‘I understand,’ he’d said. ‘So, no problem. Move in whenever you like. Do you want me to give you a discount?’
No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to cheat my employers, but I didn’t see any point in his giving me a discount for their benefit.
He was very pleased with this. ‘The last tenants who lived here created a lot of noise. It was a large family with nine children.’ He laughed. ‘Imagine. I have seven children myself, as you know, but so all together there were sixteen. A bit too much energy and commotion for an old man like me.’
Some months after I’d moved into my apartment, Jamil came to the house one day with a proposition: was I interested in marrying his niece?
‘No,’ I said. ‘I think I want to wait a bit.’
‘Bachiya,’ he said, and, immediately contradicting himself, added: ‘You are no longer a bachiya. You are a man. You need a woman to keep the house and look after you.’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Or have you found someone else?’
‘What about that girl, what is her name . . . Mumtaz? Yes, Mumtaz. The one who works in your office.’
Jamil had seen Mumtaz in the car that generally dropped me off first, and then went on to drop her at her mother’s home.
I was quiet.
‘Don’t be shy,’ he said. ‘I know the girl’s mother very well. And you will be a good catch for her. Let me know. I can talk to her.’
‘I’ll think it over and let you know,’ I said.
He laughed, and said: ‘Don’t take too long, bachiya. If you are a catch, so is she. Such ripe pomegranates don’t sit on the vendor’s stall for very long.’
After he’d gone I thought about it. Perhaps this was the way to let her know my feelings towards her were both solid and honourable. Our Afghan girls sometimes like their parents to take the lead in such affairs. It was my impression that Mumtaz would not go in for a love affair unless there was a guarantee of marriage around the corner. And such guarantees were only made by our elders. We both knew that. Her mother would surely put pressure on her to accept. I was Pashtun, from a known family – old man Jamil would praise my ancestry – and besides I was someone whom Mumtaz knew, someone whom she knew was a good person, a young person like her, not some doddering old sixty-year-old who wanted a sixth wife.
I thought about it the whole night, and then I decided I would spend one more day trying to pluck up my courage to tell her myself – and then give the go-ahead to my landlord.
And that was the very day she came up to me in the morning and said she had something important to share. She’d tell me in the evening, when she had more time.
I wondered what it could be.
Was it possible that she was about to declare her love for me? Or ask me about my true feelings for her?
The hours passed slowly.
In the afternoon Pierre had to go to meet some government officials, and that left her free to come over to my room.
‘Pierre has proposed marriage to me,’ she whispered, careful to ensure that none of the nurses in the next room could hear. ‘Well, actually he proposed a while ago. But now . . .’
Her words were like a sledgehammer to my face.
Surely she would not agree. Had I mistaken her interest in me? The coy smile, the sideways glances that she sometimes gave me, the longing expression that sometimes came into her eyes, the special way she uttered my name with a soft emphasis on the last syllable: Mohsin.
Her next words destroyed whatever hopes remained.
‘I’ve accepted his offer,’ she said, her eyes shining with joy.
Ya, Allah! What had I done to deserve this? Surely this could not be happening.
I struggled to keep my feelings in check.
‘So what’s going to happen?’ I asked foolishly. ‘Is he going to live here? Will your mother accept this marriage? Will your uncle accept Pierre, a non-Muslim?’ An idea flashed into my mind. ‘Will he convert?’
‘My uncle’s family will never agree,’ she said, ‘especially since they know my mother is able to give them money only because of my earnings. Once I get married, those payments will cease. So they want me to marry someone of their choice. One of my cousins.’
‘What if Pierre converts?’
‘Even then,’ she said. ‘You don’t know my stepfather. Right now, I think he’s worse than the shaitan.’
‘So what are you going to do?’
‘I’m not going to tell them anything,’ she whispered, looking around quickly to check that none of the nurses were listening. ‘Pierre can’t stay here once we’re married. They will kill him.’
‘Our plan is to go to France together and get married there. Once I’m married, Pierre will prepare the papers for my mother to join us.’
‘If you marry Pierre, your uncles may do something to your mother here. That’s a risk, isn’t it?’
She nodded. ‘That’s true, and that’s why I’ll tell everyone that I’m just going for six months’ training to Paris.’ She was silent for a few moments. ‘The thing is, Mohsin, I know that Pierre has not behaved well with you, but he explained to me that he was insecure. He is a good man.’
‘Do you love him, Mumtaz?’
‘If I marry a Pashtun man,’ she said, evading my question, ‘I will not be able to rescue my mother from the hell she is living in. The boy and his family will respect tradition, you see.’
‘Maybe you can find someone, some boy, who will try and help you and your mother.’
I will help you, Mumtaz. That’s what I wanted to say. I will help you and your mother. Whatever you want, we will do it like that. Don’t worry.
Mumtaz said: ‘Even if he wants to help, our traditions will be too strong for him.’
Was she talking about me? Was she trying to say that she knew I loved her and would do as she desired but that it wouldn’t be possible? It was the time to have asked her straight out, but I couldn’t. My throat was dry, my heart ached, but I held myself. I would not crumble, I told myself. She only had to ask and I would have done anything for her, although I knew that she was right and it wouldn’t have been easy.
‘You’re the only one I’ve told about this apart from my mother, Mohsin,’ Mumtaz continued. ‘I just felt I had to tell you. There’s something else I want to say to you, but I can’t tell you right now.’
No matter how much I pressed her, she wouldn’t say what it was. Could it be that she loved me? Of course not. It was all my imagining. My heart was tortured inside, but I couldn’t somehow bring myself to ask her this question, or to say anything at all. I had left everything too late.
‘Don’t tell anyone,’ she begged me.
‘You know me better than that!’ The words leapt out of my mouth before I could stop myself. I felt angry and insulted.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘You know how it’ll be for Mother if word of this gets out.’
The same evening, it was announced at an office meeting that Mumtaz would be shortly travelling to Paris for a few weeks to attend a training programme. Pierre himself would be ending his assignment here – he had finished his six-month stint, just like Michel before him: all these firangis seemed to come for only six months, as if they couldn’t stomach Afghanistan for longer – although it was not clear where he would be moving to next. There was gossip that he’d been tipped for a senior position in Egypt, and some of the nurses and other staff were hoping that he would take them there. I myself knew that Pierre would be in Paris – he had found a new, better-paid job with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – but my lips were sealed.
That night I didn’t sleep for a second. Had I misunderstood everything then? Had Mumtaz never thought of me in a romantic sense, the way I thought about her? Anger and hate battled inside with my love for her. I felt confused. Surely she had not led me on. No, I told myself, I was the one leading myself on. We all wish to believe things we desire. And I desired at the time, more than anything else, that Mumtaz love me the way I loved her. That’s what must have happened. I trusted her goodness too much to believe that she would ever be capable of deceiving me.
But why, oh why, could she not think of me as a potential husband? What did Pierre have that I lacked? This was the next question that tormented me. When I thought and thought about it, I saw only one problem: my age. I was less than a year older than her. In our community, there is a strong traditional belief that the husband should be at least several years older than the wife. I’m sure there are good reasons for this custom. For one, it engenders natural respect in a wife for her husband, by virtue of his being the elder. Was this the reason then? It must be. Mumtaz must have fallen prey to this traditional way of thinking, and therefore never allowed herself to think of me as husband material. How silly of her, I couldn’t help thinking. A girl like her, with all her knowledge of Islam. Hadn’t the Prophet himself taken a wife many years older?
After Mumtaz went away my life changed. Things would never be the same again. And it wasn’t only because the love of my life had gone.
I, Mohsin Khan, would never be the same again.
Continued to "The Way to Hell"