The batsman at the other end, your captain, says something to you but it doesn’t register. It doesn’t matter, it can only be some inane observation. The bowler returns to the top of his mark, licking his fingers and massaging the red ball. Here he comes again. Watch the ball. It’s tossed up. Move forward, bring the bat in a full arc and connect. There, it is now a red dot hurtling through the sky, over the bowler’s head, out of the ground for a six. The perfect shot. Suddenly, the heat doesn’t matter. Your captain’s prattling doesn’t matter. The bowler’s prior performance doesn’t matter. Your name is Asad Haider, you are nineteen years old and you are the best batsman in the world. That is all that matters.
‘That Asad Haider is the best batsman in Nishtar Park.’ ‘Arre choro yaar. That boy can only play on these dead pitches. Besides, he’s a bloody charsi. Always high as a kite. No proper coaching either. He wouldn’t survive five minutes on a real turf wicket.’
‘Still, I’ve never seen anyone with such a natural eye. And just look at the grace in his shots. And the pitch isn’t easy. The old concrete slab is falling apart. It’s not easy to maintain your technique on that surface.’
‘Arre, who ever heard of a six-foot-four-inch opening batsman. All the great batsmen were short men. Gavaskar, Bradman, Miandad. That’s what makes them compact players. This boy should have been a fast bowler with his height. But saala lazy hai. He doesn’t want to work hard. Just wants to bat and smoke charas.’
A third voice pipes up. ‘He’s nothing more than a khatmal goonda. Goes around the area with his little band of khatmals, shutting down shops and threatening the traders every time the Fiqah-e-Jaaferia decide to call a bandh.’
‘Saale badmaash khatmal thugs. Such are the times we live in, that every time something happens to one of them anywhere in the city, these pups who’ve barely started shaving start bossing around respectable people. At least, we didn’t have this kind of thing when Bhutto was still alive.’
‘Bhutto was a Shia too. He didn’t do anything to restrain them.’ ‘Yes, but all this started when Zia put his hand on the mullahs. Then this lot started acting up.’
‘It was the bloody revolution in Iran. That’s when things started going bad. Besides, these fellows have the biggest mullah. That fellow Khomeini.’
‘Don’t you dare blaspheme against the Imam! We will tolerate a lot of your rubbish but we will not accept any insult against the Imam. And you better be careful. Half of us living around Nishtar Park are Shia.’
Aleem Siddiqui walks into the small makeshift pavilion that has been set up under a bright red shamiana at the very moment that the cricketing debate turns into a sectarian confrontation. His trademark polyester shirt is plastered to his back and two huge sweat stains expand like ink blots under his armpits. It is not just the heat that makes Aleem sweat. It is fear as well.
Getting between the two offensive debaters, he ensures that neither will be able to deck the other. ‘Excuse me, sirji, I am very sorry but can someone please point me to where Asad Haider is? Has he left the ground already?’
The intervention defuses the tension. The Khomeini hater and his friends drift away, while the Shia whose sensibilities were offended points Aleem to the far corner of the shamiana, which the teams have converted into a temporary dressing room, by scattering various pieces of kit. Sitting just outside the open flap of the tent, with his back to everyone else, is a broad-shouldered young man. His muscular forearms strain against the delicate cotton material of his white cricket shirt. His hair is cut severely short and a carefully maintained stubble growth covers his dark face. His eyes are bloodshot, giving him a dangerous aura. The unmistakable whiff of cannabis emanates from the cigarette that hangs from the corner of his mouth.
‘Asad mian, adab arz hai. Thank God I found you, I have been looking for you frantically for the past couple of hours.’
‘Arre, Aleem bhai, you should be careful about who you’re looking for. Didn’t you just hear, I’m a dangerous khatmal thug.’ ‘Actually, Asad mian, that’s exactly the kind of person I need at this moment.’
The sarcastic smile on Asad’s face disappears and he views Aleem Khan with renewed interest. ‘Why, Aleem bhai, what’s wrong?’
‘My friend Mohammed Ali is in trouble. The mullahs at the university want to beat him up.’
‘Who is this fellow? Has he come for one of our nets in the past?’ Aleem is four years older than Asad but despite that, they do cricket nets together every Tuesday at the university’s practice ground.
‘No, no. He doesn’t play cricket. Mohammed Ali, Mohammed Ali Pichkari is his full name. He’s an MComm student at the university and my best friend. But he is very politically active, and the Jamiat’s unit on campus is incensed that he is going to give a speech criticizing them. So they’ve threatened to kill him if he shows his face on campus today.’
‘So tell him not to go for classes today.’
‘Asad, Mohammed Ali is a man of his word. If he has promised people that he will speak on campus today, then he will speak on campus today, and if the intent of his speech was to criticize the mullah parties, then that is exactly what he will do, to hell with the consequences. He doesn’t care about their threats.’ ‘Sounds like an impressive fellow. So what do you want me to do about it? You know I only come and practise with you guys to tune my batting. I’m not enrolled at the university.’
‘I need your help to protect him on campus. Look, the others from our little group have no experience of this sort of thing. They are all intellectuals who can quote Karl Marx verbatim, but they don’t know how to be tough. When they heard of the Jamiat’s threats, they all ran away. You know student politics. You’ve been with the ISO. You have a reputation for these things. If you come with me to stand by Mohammed Ali, then the Jamiatwallahs will think twice before doing anything, because they will assume that we are backed by the Shia student groups.’
‘This is your same friend whom everyone calls the Don, right? But, Aleem bhai, why should I do this for someone I don’t even know?’
‘Look Asad, you know me and trust me, right?’ ‘Sure.’
‘Then believe me when I tell you that Mohammed Ali is a special man. He is worth taking a stand for. He has the courage to say the things that have to be said. Trust me on this.’
Asad Haider looks at Aleem and holds his gaze, astonished by the sincerity and passion in his eyes. He takes one final drag of the charas-filled cigarette and throws it away. From his cricket kit bag he takes out a pair of black leather knuckledusters, the metallic studs shining in the sunlight.
‘You have your bike, right? You can drop me home afterwards.’
Excerpted from ‘The Party Worker’ written by Omar Shahid Hamid, published by Pan Macmillan India.
A burnt out New York cop; an eighty-year-old Parsi sitting in a decaying Karachi mansion; a hitman whose days are numbered; a journalist who dreams of the big time.
When a Jewish woman is killed on the steps of the Natural History Museum in New York, disparate lives are thrown together for one purpose: to bring about the downfall of the Don, the uncrowned king of Karachi.
The Party Worker explores the Machiavellian politics of Pakistan’s busiest city, where friends come bearing bullets, and enemies can wait patiently for decades before striking.
Gritty, disturbing, and compelling, this is Omar Shahid Hamid at his best.
About the Author:
Omar Shahid Hamid has been a police officer in Pakistan for sixteen years and is a senior member of the Karachi Police’s Counter Terrorism Department. In 2011, following an attack on his offices by the Pakistani Taliban, he took a five-year sabbatical to write books and worked as a political risk consultant. He has been widely quoted and regularly featured in major news outlets like The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Times, Le Monde, DW, Bloomberg, Reuters, CNN, BBC, France24, Radio France and NPR. His first novel, The Prisoner (2013), was longlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature 2015 and is now being adapted for a feature film. His second novel is The Spinner’s Tale(2015). In 2016, Omar returned to active duty as a Counter Terrorism Officer. The Party Worker (2017) published by Pan Macmillan is his latest novel.