Karachi’s colloquy is at once unaesthetic to the outsider. It is a cataclysm of uncivilized wordiness – a nomenclature accessible only to an insider. The word khabees was coined probably as a phylo-genetic intensification of ulloo ka patha by angry, chappal-hurtling mothers. (People say it is also an Arabic confectionary – but that is no matter in this lingual taxonomy.) This is of course of more consequence. There is khabees and then there is Khabees.
Akhtar Khan is a Khabees.
Reports indicate, from a time before this author’s conscious involvement in the Karachi socialite sphere, that he was a socialite. He still is fair and tall, but once legend dictates he was handsome, with black hair that fell into mahogany eyes and deft hands with long tapered fingers. Unsurprisingly, he was considered premier marital goods and this author can only assume that he knew it too. The black hair is now intermittently gray; his hairline has receded and a permanent frown has anchored itself in the creases of his face.
The khabees reputation is a vestige of the dust of this glowing caravan gone by. He was also accused of self-indulgence of the clandestine, adult variety. Parents were wary of him, knowing that he was not going to change, and their daughters ambitious, knowing that reformed rakes made the best husbands. He is said to have married a woman of remarkable beauty, thrown away his market value in doing so, in a turbulent union that produced a daughter and a divorce.
Opinions regarding the causes that necessitated this are heterogeneous. His mother often insists without inquisition that the marriage dissolved because Mrs. Akhtar Khan had her heart in another place. (An opulent place she is now in anyway, as Mrs. Zayd Durrani).
Others think the callow conduct was his, his heart was in too many places removed from his wife. That is the consensus Karachi society strives to uphold. Mr. and former Mrs. Akhtar Khan have been frugal whenever the conversation has turned to their past at any occasion; indeed, Akhtar Khan has descended into the mire of his DHA home, frequented only by his dog Spencer. His daughter, now five, has rarely made a community appearance, and the only people that see Akhtar Khan outside his home are those in his office. This author wonders if they ever see him really- or do they see just their boss, just the busy businessmen, a silhouette of a man knit by society’s story-tellers, this author inclusive?
Nevertheless, a khabees congealed into a recluse is not this column’s usual subject matter. We owe this uncommon mention to his lately uncommon behavior. At his sister’s wedding, he was seen arguing with a young woman of not so much import as this incident. This author, like much of DHA and Clifton, was witness to it.
‘I swear by whatever it is that you believe in that I am not drunk and that I am not addicted to alcohol. I could give it up in a second.’
It is not known to what prompt this impudent outburst was directed.
‘You cannot give up drinking and you are drunk.’ The young woman, not too pretty nor too fashionably scrawny, seemed to have exhausted her courage with the statement, after which she bowed out.
This author ponders what a young woman offended by alcohol was doing in a wedding coterie very well-accustomed to it.
This author has a feeling that this is a developing story.
Amal observed him calmly, from behind Dr. Safeena’s files, which she clutched in her folded arms. Amal always chose not to listen when she had the choice. She reviled the elite, ensconced in the security of their integral transcendence over those that scuffled behind them. But she liked Dr. Safeena, liked her indiscriminate appreciation of difficult work well done, liked that she did not grind her ambitions to ash and hand them back to her when she shared them.
In turn, Dr. Safeena sometimes deliberated small, inconsequential things from her own life with Amal. She knew now, for example, that Dr. Safeena wanted to buy a new house, away from her parents, where she and her husband could start a family. Her brother, the subject of Amal’s inconspicuous scrutiny, was saying something about utility access if she relocated too far away from the center of the city. But when she insisted on some old house she’d visited last month, he offered little resistance. In that moment, Amal wished she had an older brother too, one that did not squander her money on contaminated crystal meth and did not choke life away under the miasma of its phantasmagorical effects. She wanted a brother like this one – tall, stiff, on her side. Dr. Safeena’s brother, despite what Dr. Safeena had said about his mutated ability to love anyone, seemed to love her very much.
She knew immediately that he harbored no particular love towards his brother-in-law.
Akhtar Khan clicked his heels every time he interjected, wary it appeared even of his suggestions.
‘It’s also a tad too expensive, Safeena,’ the husband said, touching Dr. Safeena’s elbow lightly, but not without purpose. Amal knew the financial fracas of society like she knew how to walk, and she felt a twinge of sympathy towards him, his face revealing only a soupcon of worry.
The other two dismissed him entirely, as if his comment had been soaked up by the walls.
This angered Amal, even through her thick cloak of dispassion.
‘He’s right,’ she said suddenly, her voice so diffidently small it sounded like an outlandish screeching in their conversation, ‘There’s renovation costs too.’ She offered.
The husband – the awful defector – she thought, cocked his head as if he didn’t know what she was talking about. Dr. Safeena sniffed the air as if for some bad odor that had just wafted to her.
Akhtar Khan looked only amused. ‘None that you have to pay,’ he said pointedly, dispassionately. In the long, drawl seconds after he observed her like she observed a bad tooth with an abscess that was beyond helping and would need extraction. She didn’t just feel poor, she felt soiled.
He made her feel very small indeed.
He must have found nothing worth looking, because they quickly went back to their discussion, and she pled a headache and quit the day early.
She walked home briskly through the artless zing-zing of Karachi’s foreign streets, climbed the grimy flight up the stairs to khala’s apartment and blindly reached for her pillow once inside her room. Like her soul, it deflated under her.
‘Did you get fired?’ Her khala asked, settling near the edge of the bed they shared. It heaved in protest.
Amal shook her head.
‘Then why are you crying?’
‘This man,’ She began, but then cut herself off, turning away from the other woman. It was one of those times when talking only meant more crying. Silence was the only analeptic accessible to her.
‘Did he call you a bad name?’ Although this was all she said, Amal knew her mind had admitted every imaginable superlative. Amal kept quiet.
Amal hated her body. Her back was straight, but she wasn’t tall or willowy. All the fat in her body clustered in pathetic places, resolute to banish any contours that would suggest her femininity. Her eyes were blue, but blue like the greased tablemat, not the bright blue of the sky at dusk. Her collarbones showed only because the skin sagged under. Her shoulders were spotted with freckles khala kept pretending were birthmarks. She had been proud of her hair once – dense, and the colour of dark henna. Then the ends had shriveled and split like snakes and she had cut them in one slice of her kitchen scissors. They fell in a patchy mess slightly below her shoulders.
She hated the diluted, swishy suspension she used to wash her hair. She didn’t want to go on pretending that was shampoo. She didn’t want to go on pretending things would be okay for them, to keep riding an immaterial wave of fantasy higher and higher only to drown her dreams in its froth.
This has been a week of happenings. This author has had to handpick instances to account in this column to her readers. Taxi service Careem was banned in Karachi, much to the frustration of many commuting Karachiites. Wounding their sensibilities further was the Chief Minister’s suggestion to use lotion as an alternative if cream had been debarred.
Consequent of the Careem ban is the matter at hand.
This author has credibly identified the young woman (whose derision of alcohol made this column last week) as one of many interns hired by Safeena Khan – dentist by profession, sister to the shadowy President of Akhtar Khan enterprises by a stroke of bad luck.
Her name is Amal Amatullah.
Safeena and her husband have quickly headed off to Rome for the month, to maximize their (passing) sense of marital bliss, leaving her practice to her proletarian interns.
Safeena Khan has, obviously, the opportunity to occasionally enter the murky terra incognita of Akhtar Khan’s Phase 1 residence. Akhtar Khan has empirically been an economical man, and this concession was only granted so she may pick his daughter Maryam from school and drop her home. Maryam has absolutely never been spotted in public.
Safeena has unintelligently tasked her presumably bright (but unfortunate) intern Amal Amatullah to Careem her niece back home in her absence. A source intimate with the family has disclosed to this author that Akhtar Khan was not taken into confidence, Safeena’s prognosis being that he was too male to agree, and too busy to volunteer instead.
Like any reasonable father would, though, he turned up at the school gate at 1.30, and two dissonant candidates for Maryam Akhtar’s pick-up locked horns, and this author would have given anything to be privy to this confrontation. Fortunately, this author knows everybody, and while a disgruntled Amal had to concede the concerned rights to the father, she had no transport back. This author has striven to not wedge her own imagination in the ensuing conversation.
‘How did you come here then?’
‘On the bus,’ she bit her lip. (Maybe she didn’t – but wouldn’t it be pretty if she did?)
‘You intended to take my daughter home on the bus?’
‘No, I planned to take a Careem.’
‘Even when it has been banned?’
Amal clearly didn’t know this. ‘I could probably have still gotten one.’
‘And gotten both of you arrested?’
Amal, understandably, didn’t say anything.
‘God knows I wouldn’t have bailed you out.’
‘I’m taking the bus back home,’ she said finally, and attempted to stomp off, this author thinks. Whatever circumstances then evolved, Amal was dropped back home in a sleek
Audi as black as the existence of its owner, to her khala’s house, where she is in temporary residence.
Maybe it was Maryam’s insistence on courtesy that made Akhtar Khan do it. Or maybe it was Amal’s diligence in keeping her commitment to Safeena. This author knows she is exaggerating the importance of either of these females in Akhtar’s repressive mind, but then, men have made bigger decisions based on far, far less.
She was certain she was only here because she was hungry. Her stomach growled in testimony.
‘Dr. Safeena is coming?’ She confirmed, as if in re-assurance.
‘She’s been delayed,’ Akhtar Khan said curtly, his voice crisp against the slop-slop of the brandy in his glass. Even the proximity to the liquor made her prickly. ‘She might not be able to make it,’ he said after he had downed his glass.
Amal’s spine became taut as if in a paralysis.
He had invited her here, saying Dr. Safeena had insisted on it. As she saw his guarded face behind the rim of his tiny glass, she wondered if Dr. Safeena even knew he had summoned her here.
His house was dark, shuttered. It was late, she confessed, but she noticed an effort had been made to block out light from the outside. The chandelier that hung in the living room only glowed a dim amber.
Amal was grateful for the obscurity it afforded her. She owned one decent set of clothing and no makeup, and she hoped her pale face was well shrouded in her hair, which she had brushed to perfection. She hadn’t touched the food on the table in front of her, because she had been expecting more guests, and because he hadn’t eaten anything either.
‘Maryam is asleep?’ She tried to make conversation, intelligible beyond the bile in her throat.
‘Yes,’ he nodded. The gesture was aberrantly warm. ‘When I told her you were coming she wanted to stay up, though.’ She thought he even smiled a little, a there-and-gone thing she marveled at. Was his daughter his harbor? Maybe his dreams had been stacked not into a lucrative career, but in the four-feet tall, fiery mould of his daughter.
Amal smiled in turn, a broad shining crevice she usually didn’t put on her face because she knew her mouth was too big for its proportions. Even her eyes were too big. Nothing about her was neat or refined.
In this place dipped in finesse, she felt like a bug thrashing in a carpet.
‘You should have let her stay,’ she said, stirring her water with her finger without realizing it. ‘She makes great company.’
‘You mean to say better company.’
Amal was alerted to him, but on his face she found no offence. She felt bolder. Maybe the alcohol had fumes that were making her optimistic. Her brother’s defense of his addiction suddenly became more accessible to her. ‘I mean to say this is inappropriate,’ she said abjectly. ‘Why did you invite me?’
‘Safeena did promise to come to dinner,’ he explained. His voice was like it would have been in a business meeting. ‘In fact, she usually does today. Then yesterday morning she regretted. I wanted good company regardless, so I asked for your number.’
Amal thought about this for a moment.
‘I didn’t think you’d come.’ He added.
‘I’m not good company.’
He didn’t refute this and it hurt. Brusquely, Amal got up, and was shocked to see a fleeting flash of disappointment across his features, so well carved they could have been chiseled from stone. Anyone would have thought she was getting up to leave.
Instead she walked to a tiny picture of a woman on the wall. She lived in an apartment but not in a cave. She had heard everything about this man. ‘This is your wife?’ she asked, rhetorically.
If he nodded, she didn’t see. ‘My mom was divorced too,’ she started with the authority of a bed-time fabulist, ‘But in my family divorces are different from yours. I never saw my father. Not even a picture. I don’t remember anything about him. I assume my brother did, but he never talked about it when he was alive. If my mom were to meet him again, it would be like putting flint to stone,’ she explained, leaning against the wall for support, in the corner farthest away from him and with the best view of him.
He didn’t budge from his chair.
‘It must be so strange seeing your wife all the time with a friend of yours.’ Once she had said it, she held her breath, wondering if she had overstepped.
‘I don’t mind,’ he said in fact, ‘but I don’t want Maryam to see very much of her. Your mother was right in keeping you away from your father. If he wasn’t man enough to keep you with him, you didn’t need his influence.’
Amal had not thought this way before. ‘Sometimes I wished he was here, you know. Just for the income.’ She didn’t know why she was tearing up the ugliest chasms of her being for this cold, vain man to see. But she would never see him again if she could help it, and that made her go on.
‘You’ve done well for yourself without him too. You’re hard-working. You’re strong.’ The last clause he just huffed without really thinking, she knew. He was doing something on the table with his hands, some intensive process taking up his attention, but the chairs prohibited her from seeing it.
All the same, Amal felt complimented. She raked her hands through her hair in what was an astonishingly feminine gesture. She feared she might even purr like a feline if he called her beautiful.
‘I don’t usually have a choice.’ She expatiated, hoping she wasn’t being foolish in perceiving his odd courtesy as his interest. ‘I mean, I’ve learnt that sometimes pretending to be brave is all it takes. Everyone around you thinks there’s nothing to worry about. That in itself mitigates the problem.’ Amal had always thought this made perfect sense. His lack of response made her feel unintelligent.
When she turned around to face him, to see if he was still listening, he was right behind her. How had his shoes been so noiseless on the carpet? In his hands he was holding a box. The dallying part of her that had just stirred to life from extinction ruefully noticed it was a box far bigger than a box with a ring.
He said nothing, but his characteristically vacant face showed understanding. ‘Are your eyes really that blue or are those lenses?’
Amal laughed. ‘I can’t afford lenses.’
‘Will it be amiss to think you can’t afford to buy dinner on your way back either?’ He was smiling, but it was different from the last time he had derided her. He looked thoughtful. Amal had to crane her neck up, unabashedly, to see his face. She didn’t know now why she had come. Maybe she had thought having dinner with him would inoculate her against him, against the grey ennui that had settled over her life from the moment she had been born. She felt as if that was something this man understood in his own, superior sort of way.
‘No,’ she said without shame. ‘You’re right.’ This wasn’t strictly true. She probably could buy herself food, but she knew she wouldn’t, because she loved savings more than she loved dinner.
He thrust the box at her. ‘I figured you wouldn’t eat here unless I threatened having you dispensed from your job, which I feel excessively generous today to do,’ he said this with a tact that vindicated every roguish story Amal had heard about him. ‘So you can have it at home.’
Amal wasn’t without honour, but she wasn’t without brains either. She took it.
‘Thank you for coming,’ he said, finally. From the way his arms twitched she prepared for him to stall her, to grab her elbow and re-seat her. ‘The driver will take you home.’
She debated an answer. She didn’t want to thank him for inviting her. She wasn’t grateful. But she was intelligent. ‘Happy Birthday,’ she smiled her prettiest smile, which she reserved for patients under the age of ten.
There was a sparkling awe in his eyes in response that kept her warm all the way back.
Men are difficult creatures. Their heads and hearts are rarely in agreement, and their conduct usually driven by something else altogether. This author expected a man as serene as Akhtar Khan to differ, but her evaluation of things indicates only tragic ubiquity.
This author has, by a certain necessitation of circumstance, had to visit Aga Khan quiet frequently this past week. (Donot fear, dear readers, the health in question is a relative’s.) All the same, there is no better sleuthing than that done in situ.
On Tuesday, this author ran into a surly child outside the vaccination room – a saniplast sitting penitently on her arm, her black hair falling over her face and curling slightly at her shoulders. Her eyes were a dark, rich brown, the color of cocoa seeds.
They were also veined red. She was wearing a blue summer frock, the hem of which she had rubbed in tears and snot.
This, this author was to learn soon, is Maryam Akhtar.
In a starched white overall Amal Amatullah was handing out bunches of candy to her (in overt treason of her dentistry) her face only slightly exasperated. Maryam refused to be placated, bounding away only when her father stepped into the hall, having detected him from as far as away as a corgie can smell its owner.
This author deems this a stand-out episode for two reasons. Akhtar Khan, in rebellion to his leaden elan vital, was visibly elated greeting his daughter, fussing mess that she was. Later, even his attitude to Amal bordered on congenial.
While following them to the car-park would have been barefaced reconnoitering, this author is well aware that the trio headed home together. Did they head to the same home?
Inventive aunties have had a lot to say. In the week that has followed, testimonies have surfaced that Amal has been entering and exiting the Akhtar Khan house. The work of these determined aunties, however, is not certification enough, and this author refrains from making decisive commentary on whether such visits have taken place and what has taken place during these visits.
The aunties’ work regardless is (tele-)communicated across oceans. Safeena Khan, personally acquainted with one of this author’s sources, has cut her honeymoon short in view of what she called in clipped tones, her brother’s deteriorating health.
‘Your lashes are so long they’re wasted on a man.’
His laughter was a rich, throaty sound that made Amal swelled inside. Then his long finger touched her temple and she turned pliant in the chair next to him. ‘Is that a compliment?’ he probed gently.
‘More like an insult to other men,’ Amal maintained, genuinely indignant.
‘Good,’ he idly brushed her hair back from her shoulder, ‘I don’t think I could live in a world where you gave compliments.’
Amal pouted and stole another biscuit from the plate in front of him, acutely aware that she had turned down food and drink not too long ago, like every single other time they had been together, insisting she was already out of shape.
‘Eating from my plate cauterizes the calories I assume?’
Amal brushed his jibe away, even if her cheeks were betraying tints of crimson. It amazed her, her own iniquity, that she brazenly came whenever he bid her, and flushed only now, at being chided. He was going to call for another plate but she stayed him, reaching out for his hand, later frightened by her own boldness. ‘Don’t. I’m not hungry. Not really,’ she said.
He didn’t look convinced.
Amal made a sage, breathy sound, drawing up her legs under her, not removing her hand. ‘I just feel as if I take any of your presents – even the food – I feel as if you’re paying me.’ She knew her skin flushed as she said it; she knew he had made no secret of what he wanted, and that she shouldn’t be circumspect either. ‘I feel as if I can salvage some respect for myself if I can pretend I’m not offering a rich man a service.’
‘You’re not offering a service,’ he countered, and he looked almost angry. She realized he was holding her hand so tightly she couldn’t snatch it away. ‘I respect you. Why shouldn’t you respect yourself?’
Amal knew why. ‘You won’t marry me.’
She congratulated herself on having said it in one coherent sentence when her mind was a mushy muddle.
‘You know I can’t.’ His eyes, his only conduit of expression, looked apologetic. ‘But I’ve also learnt that marriage isn’t a pre-requisite to love.’
Under her fingers, he felt almost weak. Her heart soared a little, with something hot and cold at the same time.
No one knew Amal Amatullah. No one would be hurt by her decisions.
‘The time?’ She asked.
‘Not that late,’ he said only, knowing full well that both of them had different connotations of late.
In a few months she would leave him. She would go away forever, back home where Ma would be waiting for her.
He was still looking at her. In his eyes she saw an abyss with a storm. She walked into it, bare.
This author must apologize for her two-week truancy on this column. Thankfully, the time off has afforded her a more holistic view of the story she has been covering. Human connection, she has concluded, is an arm of a gestalt philosophy. A collection of individual parts which are stronger as a whole, but a whole that does not permit compartmentalization. Would you surrender an identity for one that is shared, its stability capricious? Love is like that – it is collectivism without the apportioning, existences abstractly suffused, not neatly divided.
This author must first extend her deepest condolences to the family of Akhtar Khan, who was found dead at his desk at home, possibly because of an overdose of barbiturates in his coffee.
It pains us all to picture a man so young smoldering his life away at the tip of his cigarette, sipping coffee at his work desk, his daughter sleeping in another room. He is said to have died some-time after midnight. The Akhtar Khan house is meagerly staffed, and there were no servants there then to be interrogated or suspected.
While his death may have been neat, the subsequent litigation is not. The family business will be divvied, and this is never a tidy process. The house and a sum have been left to a legal caretaker until Maryam Akhtar comes of age, and this caretaker, a member of the family, reports say, may choose to sell and relocate. Akhtar Khan must have not expected an early death – or a condition that would eventuate an early death – because his daughter’s bequest is all he chose to declare in life.
It seems in bad taste to allude to Akhtar Khan’s personal life at this time. This author was almost hoping the young dentist from another city would be an unguent to the lacerations of his past, but that is a budding story I will now choose to abandon. The match was unseemly in most ways – Amal Amatullah was in Karachi for only a year or so, she was from a small town in Punjab steeped in a mediocrity that would have been incompatible with the exclusiveness of the Karachi elite. Nonetheless, her increasing entanglement in his life was not without notice, and she may see herself returning home sooner than she expected, given that Safeena Khan has disposed of her in the aftermath of her brother’s passing.
We can only wish the best to Maryam Akhtar in her life ahead. The labels she must live with, those her father earned both in life and in death, are things she is powerless to stop. The Khabees legacy, though, I beseech my readers, should be dismembered and stuffed away. His employees remember him as having helmed all his affairs with an efficient, even if despotic, hand. His acquaintances may remember him differently; a man of misplaced sentience. Some may regret not knowing him well enough. His daughter will remember him best, with a faith that I hope will not decay into ambiguity ever.
This author is sorry that only his death could make her re-assess the man he was in life, finding her former opinions conjectural and distasteful.
She put her pen down, angrily dashing it over her shoulder, hearing its hollow clap against the floor.
Khala had packed her bags before her. She thought she was going back, her residency over.
‘Beta, the lawyer is calling again.’
She waved it away. Her head was going to explode, a thud-thud-thud that rendered her in no state to make any conscious decisions.
Her headaches had always been terrible. They made her lose balance and her eyes water.
Her mother used to say when she cried her blue eyes became a pretty shade of turquoise.
She let her chestnut hair free of their knot, and slowly ran her fingers through them, trying to press the back of her head at spots he had found so effortlessly. She found she couldn’t locate them on her own.
That only exacerbated the throbbing. She wanted to incise the memories from her head, fill the gaps with hay if she could, but her mind had absorbed everything like a sponge and locked it away without recourse like a safe.
‘Would you rather go back to your sanctuary of dull-witted spinsters and pitiable three room apartments? Why should our love be a thing of shame?’
She had felt insulted – but only slightly. Instead, she felt incensed in an entirely different way, excited by the feral vitality of red-brown eyes soliciting her approval. She felt if she had stared into them long enough he would have convinced her.
It gave her some appeasement that once closed, those eyes had seemed not troubled at all.
The creases had left his face in a way her living, pulsing presence had never dispelled them.
The phone was thrust at her again, shattering her repertoire. The wizened hand holding it shook for emphasis. The elderly woman, confined largely to her creaking chair, had made no secret of her disdain of her niece’s actions. She thought her solution had been unjust, blinkered to her reality.
‘Mama, I’m still hungry.’ The voice at the door made both their heads turn.
She was fazed for a moment by the plush brown of those round, impatient eyes. Then she smiled, took the phone and walked out, murmuring something about going out for lunch.