Ahmad rushed toward the newspaper office, trying to avoid the stinging, dust-filled wind that seemed getting stronger with every step. It was a brief walk from the parking lot. By the time he reached the office, the other staff journalists, two women and five men, were already tucked into their cubicles like caged rats. Their eyes glued to computer screens.
The editor’s office was situated in the center of the large room, the employee desks circling it like the planets of the solar system.
Ahmad slid behind his desk. His status as a trainee journalist placed him in view of Devan’s office—the editor, and a man Ahmad considered a snake.
Devan was the one person Ahmad didn’t want to see. He buried himself in his work, hoping he could avoid more of Devan’s “special assignments,” which always fell to him. But no such luck.
“Ahmad!” Devan stood over him, a steaming tea cup in his hands.
“Let’s have a cup of tea, shall we?”
Ahmad cringed and sagged against the back of his chair. Devan expected him to ghostwrite another article. That’s what having tea really meant.
Devan took an unwary sip and jerked the cup away from his mouth. “Ow. Maybe not this tea,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
The glow of Ahmad’s computer screen beckoned, helping him masks his rolling eyes and kept him from voicing his thoughts.” Yeah, why don’t you take your tea and get the hell out of my face?
Ahmad’s talent made him confident and he knew Dewan would never fire him.
“The Minister of Information liked my article,” Devan said. “Oh, pardon me, I meant your article.” Devan said. The compliment died with the condescending tone and sly smirk. “Excellent work, Ahmad. Successful journalism pleases those in power and provides the public with what it wants.”
“And what does the public want?” Ahmad asked.
“Scandals, Ahmad, gossip!” Devan’s lips twisted into a crooked grin. “Provocation, titillation, stimulation! Pretty starlets caught doing the things we all imagine them doing. We are sexually deprived people, eh?”
Speak for yourself. Ahmad wished he could wipe the smirk off Devan’s face.
To avoid Devan’s irritating presence, he looked out of the wall of glass to see the hooker who had recently begun to doing business in the public garden outside his office. A couple of days earlier, he had caught Devan slacking off, watching her. Ahmad wondered if Devan was one of her clients. Some of his colleagues thought so. But those who snickered about it were ‘Johns’ themselves.
“Now you will write another article.” Devan’s next words shook Ahmad from his reverie.
Ahmad instinctively shook his head. He already felt guilty for writing that fabricated story about government success and wished Devan would assign the next one to someone else.
Some of the others looked up, drawn to Devan’s posturing, so he quickly changed the topic.
“Gabriel Garcia Marquise died today,” he said. “What a wonderful writer he was.” Devan had boasted many times he and Gabriel Garcia Marquise” had a cup of tea together at a writers’ conference, something no one believed.
“You know I read One Hundred Years of Loneliness five times!” Devan boasted again.
Ahmad pasted on a smile, sensing the mocking sneers from the adjacent desks. Devan read the title of the novel in Urdu, his poor translation changed “solitude” to “loneliness.”
“You should read Garcia Marquise if you want to understand the complexity of human relationships.” Devan added.
More showing off. Devan is the last person who’d understand Gabriel Garcia. Ahmad turned to face his computer. “Sir, I’d…”
“Of course”, Ahmad. “I’m keeping you from your work. We’ll discuss the assignment later.” Devan strode back to his office. Ahmad eyed the abandoned cup as if it were the source of all his troubles.
Ahmad turned to the stack of copy editing clamoring for his attention. The mountain of paper screamed of treachery, deceit and political corruption. It seemed at odds with the fake stories he had to write as propaganda, but “The Public” didn’t seem to care about consistency. People knew little of the secrets held by the military agencies. Truly critical matters were never revealed, and “The Public” continued to mire itself in mindless minutiae.
Ahmad’s thoughts drifted to something Albert Camus had written. A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers.
Everything that Ahmad had observed reflected that idea. People were like the ancient Romans watching bloodthirsty spectacles at the Coliseum, except nowadays the blood was in the papers. The masses were hooked on sensational reports, like drug addicts, ravenous for greater and greater fixes to keep them sated.
Ahmad snapped back to the present, for the chaos of the copy editing tasks awaiting him. Obviously, no one in this hellish job cared about Camus’s assertion. Ahmad’s gaze drifted to his computer screen. There was a message waiting in his in-box. It was from his fiancée, Neelum. His fingers hovered above the keyboard, the insults from their fight last night echoing in his ears.
“I can’t read this now,” he whispered. What if she wants to end things? All those complaints about my floundering career. Two years and I still haven’t been promoted. Journalism in Pakistan is hellish, such a long time as a trainee. Even I’m losing patience with my pointless life! Pain pierced his heart. Why does everything have to be measured in money? Isn’t love enough?
Ahmad decided to take Devan’s abandoned tea cup to the break-room, but found himself glued to the wall of glass overlooking the tranquil public garden and its meandering pathways instead.
The hooker sat on a bench, smoothing the papers she had collected against her skirt. The sun cast a golden veil on the trees and sparkled on the water dancing from the nearby fountain. The wind tossed around whirls of dust. The girl appeared too absorbed in the written words to notice. He couldn’t believe she was really a hooker. She seemed more interested in collecting discarded papers from the public garden. She would carefully pick them up and stuff them in her worn, black, leather bag. She clutched the strap as if she were hoarding unknown treasures.
A middle-aged office worker approached and sat down beside the hooker. They spoke, but Ahmad could only guess what they were discussing. It appeared they could not agree on a price because the man moved on, and the girl returned to her papers. Did she think there would be no shortage of clients? Or did she just want to read? Ahmad hoped it was the latter.
What was so interesting about those papers she treated like gold? She didn’t seem to care if she drummed up any business. Ahmad wondered what it was like to be a client.
“Ahmad,” Devan said in a familiar, much-hated voice, on his way to the employee lounge. “Don’t you have something to do?” He was passing by on his way to the break-room. He glanced out the glassed wall, spying the girl on the bench. A lewd smile spread across his face, and Ahmad wondered if Devan had ever been her client.
“Oh, of course, sorry. I just…”Ahmad mumbled.
Devan glanced at the tea cup in Ahmad’s hand. “We can talk about your new assignment now, if you like.”
“No, no,” Ahmad blurted and set the tea cup on the window ledge. “I’ve got a pile of copy editing, and I need to take care of it, but I needed to stretch my legs. . . .” His voice trailed off.
Devan smirked but didn’t press the matter, letting Ahmad hurry back to his desk.
Ahmad sat back down and tried to forget about the hooker. He kept glancing at his watch until his shift finally ended in the late evening and he could go to the garden.
The hooker was still there, or maybe she was back from being somewhere else. Ahmad stood a few steps away and studied her a moment, then sat down on the bench next to her, the way he had seen other men do. She gave him a fleeting glance and went back to reading. She looked young, perhaps in her mid-twenties.
“Hello,” he said. “I hear you’re available for an hour or two…”
She looked up from her papers. “You hear correctly,” she said in a melodious voice, her eyes boring into him. Her silver earrings shimmered and jingled like sweet bells, when she turned her head. A swathe of mahogany hair fell down to her waist and framed a wistful face dominated by soulful, liquid brown eyes. Unlike most hookers, she wore no heavy makeup, only deep red lipstick. Somehow it seemed unnecessary.
“Tell me what you have in mind,” she asked.
Ahmad shifted under her gaze. He had no idea how to answer that question. “What’s your name?”
“For you, it’s Reshma.”
“Oh, okay… I’m Ahmad.”
“Nice to meet you, Ahmad.” There was a touch of whimsy to her voice.
“Uh, um…Reshma… I’m curious what you find in these papers.”
Reshma glanced at him with inscrutable eyes and handed them over. “I’m only giving them to you because you look like a poet.”
What does a poet look like? Maybe she is referring to my worn jacket, and my unkempt beard. He couldn’t tell if she was serious or just toying with him. He scanned the papers absently. It was an odd collection of loose pages from books and parts of discarded newspaper articles that workers used to pack their lunch.
“These are all incomplete bits and pieces of stories,” he said. “What’s the point?”
“I like to imagine the endings myself—the way I imagine my life could be.”
Ahmad nodded at the papers. He was holding two pages from a short story by Maxim Gorky, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, translated to Urdu. He had read the story years ago, and it all came back flooding to him. Twenty-six men, “living machines,” who worked from early morning till late at night making buns in a damp cellar with little light filtering in from the small, dusty windows. Menial, repetitive work that dragged them down, their only source of consolation was a sixteen-year-old seamstress named Tanya who would stop by their “prison” every morning to ask for buns. Only for those few minutes did they feel alive.
“You like it?” Reshma asked.
“Good writing never dies,” Ahmad said and handed her the papers back. “Do you know that Gorky was a great Russian writer?”
“I don’t care about the writer,” Reshma said. “I love to read. It frees my soul.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
“Go ahead. I have nothing to hide.” Reshma’s full lips turned up in a slight smile.
“How can you bear… sleeping with… you know…”
She threw her head back, her long locks of hair caressing her back. “Right, you want to know how I can stand doing what I do.”
Ahmad bit his lips and looked away. He was sorry he had brought it up.
“Don’t you think you’re doing the same thing?” Reshma asked. “Why don’t you tell me how you can bear it?”
“I…” Ahmad stammered, shocked by her bluntness. “But I’m not… It’s not the same thing.”
“Why? One way or another everyone’s a hooker. Look at your job and your coworkers. You’re all selling yourselves, working like slaves for a few rupees. Like the twenty six guys in the cellar. You all hate it, but you have no choice but to endure it.”
Ahmad fell into an awkward silence.
“Perhaps this will help you see what I see,” Reshma said, retrieving a crumpled printout of a painting from her purse.
Ahmad stared at the image depicting several half-naked African slaves sitting on chairs with chained hands. A scowling man behind them held a sword displaying the words, ‘Slaves Sold Here.’
“The difference is we don’t need anyone to place chains on us; we place them on ourselves,” Reshma said.
“You found this in the garden?” Ahmad asked, hoping to change the subject. He didn’t expect someone like her to be that opinionated.
Reshma shrugged. “Perhaps we should conclude our bargain now.”
“Oh, okay,” Ahmad said, glancing at the sunset bleeding gold and orange tears on the horizon. He retrieved his wallet and pulled out some notes.
“It’s five-hundred rupees,” Reshma said. “I’m giving you a discount since you won’t get paid for ten days and even then it’s not much.”
Ahmad stared at her in surprise. “How can you possibly know that?”
“I can also tell you how often your boss takes a shower,” she said with a laugh. “You journalists live to chase the secrets of politicians yet I know everything about all of you without reading the papers.”
So Devan was a client. Ahmad thought in dismay as he handed her the money. “I don’t want to talk about the office. Take the money and let’s go to your place.”
They got up and started down the path.
“It’s better if you follow me,” she said.
“Everyone knows me. I’ll be fined if a policeman sees me with you.”
“What’s the fine for this crime?”
“These guys expect to get it for free. I despise them all.” Reshma said with disgust.
Ahmad fell behind her as they made their way through the bustling city. Reshma stopped to buy some snacks on the way, appearing oddly confident when approaching the male shopkeepers. She wasn’t like any of the women Ahmad knew. Maybe she could see men for what they were, and it gave her confidence. Or maybe it was how she perceived everyone as hookers and slaves.
Ahmad was lost in thought when Reshma stopped and called him over. “This is my neighborhood,” she said. “I’ll not be fined here. No one will say anything. We pay money for silence. Give me your hand and let me show you my world.”
Clasping Reshma’s soft hand, Ahmad slipped into the crowded streets of the darkly exotic Heera Mandi, the city’s oldest red light district. The night pulsed with color, odors and sounds– the secrets of the flesh offered like low-hanging fruit among endless bartering. The drone of conversation and shrill laughter pierced his ears.
Reshma navigated the crowded streets, throwing mocking smiles at girls who still waited to find customers. At last, she turned into a narrow side street and stopped at a modest house near the end. “This is my home,” she said, leading Ahmad inside, into a tiny, sparsely furnished sitting room. “Please wait here.”
Ahmad settled onto a tattered sofa covered with an embroidered cloth. A few moments later, an elderly woman silently brought him a steaming cup of mint tea. Ahmad accepted the tea with some embarrassment. He had managed to get through his day without having the dreaded tea with Devan.
No one in that place expected him to fake a story, but he still didn’t feel like himself. It had never occurred to him to come to such a place. Yet the depression and loneliness suffocating him began to lift, and despite himself, he felt aroused at the thought of sleeping with Reshma.
He took off his jacket, suddenly remembering he hadn’t opened Neelum’s email. What would she think if she knew…? Was she really going to break it off with him? Maybe he was going about things in the wrong way. Maybe he should stand up to Devan for a change, borrow some of Reshma’s confidence. Neelum would approve. But why did I need her approval? And why did money matter to her so much? Why couldn’t she see him through a different lens? He was so embroiled in disturbing thoughts; he almost didn’t notice Reshma reappear. He glanced up, and was stunned. She was now wearing a snug, silky red one-strap top and tight black leggings.
“You are beautiful, Reshma,” he said, unable to take his eyes off her.
“Thank you,” she said, reaching out to caress his hair. “I’m yours for two hours.”
Ahmad glanced at her ruby red lips and dropped his gaze, mumbling, “I haven’t done anything like this before.”
Reshma sat down and embarrassed him. Ahmad inhaled her spicy fragrance, savoring the sensation of her body next to his, when a sharp knock on the door leading to the other room interrupted. Without saying a word, Reshma sprang up and darted from the room, closing the door behind her.
Stories of blackmail and violence involving hookers flashed in Ahmad’s mind. With a flush of indignation, he jumped to his feet, wondering whom Reshma was whispering to in the next room. He threw the door open, about to accuse her of tricking him, but instead of a conspiracy, he found her gently rocking an infant in her arms. She was whispering sweet nothings to the whimpering child, trying to lull the baby to sleep, but he reached for her breast, suckling with wide open eyes. Reshma stroked the baby’s head and looked up.
Ahmad forced himself to smile, although he knew the smile wobbled, bobbed his head, then swung around, grabbed his coat from the adjacent room and left the house.
Unable to shake off the image of Reshma cradling the infant, and wracked with guilt over his suspicions, he was at the end of the narrow dark street already when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
It was Reshma, short of breath, the infant cradled in her arms. “Ahmad, I called out to you, but you didn’t hear me. I’m so sorry, I had been away for too long and the baby was hungry and wouldn’t go to sleep.”
Ahmad looked at the infant, who was sleeping at last. “Reshma,” he said, “your son needs you. You don’t need to worry about me.”
Reshma’s eyes glistened as she reached into the infant’s blanket and handed Ahmad his five hundred rupees. “Take this. It belongs to you.”
“No,” Ahmad said, gently pushing her hand away. “Consider it a gift for your son. I’m not taking it back.”
“No, it’s forbidden,” Reshma said, pressing the money into his hand. “I can’t give unearned money to my son.” She started to turn away, and then paused. “My God is already unhappy with me.”
Ahmad didn’t reply. A single sentence will suffice… he mused, tears welling from his gloomy eyes, even though the wind had died down and the dust swirls no longer tormented him. Whoever might be unhappy with you, I am sure it is not your God.
Ahmad watched mother and child walk away, then hurried home through the bustling streets of the red light district.