Book excerpt: In the Time of the Others by Nadeem Zaman


in the time of others

From Chapter 17

The soldiers formed a firing squad on Shaukat’s order, waited for the officer to be clear of the scene as they had been ordered, and emptied their rifles into the prisoners.

 ‘Sir? Wasn’t this night a complete waste?’

 Shahbaz had been watching the soldiers dump the bodies into the river. The ones from inside were brought out and also thrown in.

‘Fifteen Muktis a waste?’ Shahbaz said. ‘Nights like this are what we need.’

‘I understand, sir, but – ’

‘You want to keep telling what’s better and what’s not?’ Shahbaz’s head turned slowly.

‘No sir, of course not.’

‘Did you know that in a nuclear holocaust the only living survivors would be cockroaches?’

‘I didn’t know this, sir.’

‘It’s true. The determined, nasty little bastards will survive it all. That’s what these Muktis are. That’s what their race is. They’re nasty little bastards, meant to be crushed, but you can’t get rid of them if you think they’ll just go away, disappear, die on their own. The only good thing is that these Bengalis are flesh and blood humans, and those we can get rid of.’

Shaukat allowed the convoluted analogy to sink in. Offered a cigarette, he accepted it with a quick glance at Shahbaz. Shahbaz’s attention was still pinned on the soldiers’ activities. Shaukat lit his cigarette and felt the wave of the momentary release wash over him.

‘Look at them,’ said Shahbaz, ‘they’re like children.’ It took Shaukat a second to understand that he was talking about the soldiers. ‘Children with too much pent-up energy. Give them a cause, and give them God, they’ll happily let it all out.’

Another tangled analogy that Shaukat mulled and allowed his brain to weave through.

Shahbaz stretched, let out an audible yawn. ‘I want to sleep, for a week straight. Saala …’ he tossed another cigarette into his mouth and lit it. ‘I know of your father, Shaukat. Hamid Shaukat, he’s a sort of legend, isn’t he?’

Shaukat stirred uneasily in his seat.

‘What a life you could’ve had,’ Shahbaz said, ‘and you picked this. I know it was you, you chose to be here. There’s a thing around your neck, Shaukat, and it’s heavy. Be mindful that it doesn’t make you bend so low that you lose sight of what’s at the top. Hold your head up high, Captain. Whatever it is you’re here to prove, forget it, let it go. No one is interested. I’m not interested, and I don’t need it. Petulant sons of powerful fathers never impressed me. My father was a truck driver. Owned his company that he built with his own sweat and tears. I’m not getting sentimental, I’m telling you facts. Sentiments have no place next to facts.’ He paused to pull on his cigarette. Up ahead, the soldiers, done with their corpse-disposal duties, were flocking around like restless pigeons. ‘The Sikhs that he did business with set fire to his garage the night before they left Lahore in ’47. Do you know what that did to my father?’

A soft rain had started. Like tapping fingers, it drummed the roof of the jeep. Shahbaz leaned out of the window, shouted orders for the soldiers to move. He started the jeep and told his driver to ride in one of the two transport trucks.

‘My father,’ Shahbaz continued, driving, ‘stood in the middle of the ash heap that was his life’s work, and closed his mouth around the barrel of the gun that he kept to protect his family with. They found him the next morning, smouldering with the ruins.’ The rain had intensified. It was thrashing on the windshield, obscuring visibility, but Shahbaz drove on without being affected. He pressed the gas. The windshield wipers battled against the downpour, and the jeep forded through flooded roads, spraying the water to the sides. Behind them, the headlights of a transport truck created a rain-scarred halo around them.

For the rest of the drive, Shahbaz was silent. He ran the jeep through the sheets of rain like a battering ram. Every so often the trucks fell back, but they were on the heels of the jeep when Shahbaz finally brought it to a stop.

Shaukat looked out at the unlit three-storey building. He did not recognize the part of town they were in. Shahbaz put the jeep in neutral and left it running. A sign, partially ruined, arched over the black hole of the gateless entrance. Rusty, gnarled hinges up and down the sides of the entrance told of a gate that was once attached to them. Shaukat could make out the faint remnants of Bengali writing on the sign. A gust of wind blew, rocking the jeep, shoving sheets of rain past it. Doors opened and banged shut, and the soldiers sprung out of the trucks behind them like water out of a bursting pipe.

‘If you told me, Captain Shaukat, that we’re ridding Pakistan of Hindus, I would dismiss you from my command on the spot. My father never accepted himself as a Pakistani. He was a Lahori first, a Muslim, and an Indian. But these blokes,’ he thumbed in the direction of the building where the soldiers had disappeared, ‘they’re illiterate goat-herders and sheep-fuckers. Baluchi degenerates. They know their stomachs, their cocks, and their God. General Tikka was right to butcher them. If I earned the name “Butcher of Baluchistan”, I’d wear it like a medal. You tell them Allah’s will has been wronged by infidels, they’ll eat the flesh of the man or woman that defiled Islam. As long as they keep believing that, Pakistan will be in safe keeping with us.’ He waited, and then said, ‘It’s rather uncomplicated when you bring it down to the basics. Human nature is such. Only people make it complex with their arrogance.’

Women, picked up from villages, were kept in barracks and in abandoned buildings around the city, former offices, schools, government agencies. Shaukat had heard stories of mass rapes, of suicides. Nausea coiled around him and swayed him, and Shaukat gripped the door handle.

‘Captain Shaukat?’

‘Sir … what are we doing here?’

Shahbaz flicked his cigarette into the rain. A spray of water snuck in when he rolled down the window. ‘From an existentialist perspective?’ he smirked.

‘Why are we here … right now?’

‘Captain Shaukat, it’s unhealthy for a young man to not have a sense of humour.’ Lighting another one, he said, ‘Would you like to see for yourself?’ He turned the key, and the jeep grumbled off. ‘Let’s go.’

Shahbaz pushed the door out against the beating rain and wind. Without being a direct order, it was implicit that Shaukat was to follow. An order would make it worse, Shaukat thought, as he shuddered and took on the battery of the rain. His boots squelched into the mud. Staggering in Shahbaz’s footsteps, Shaukat saw the miserable glow of a dim bulb pooling out of an open doorway, towards which Shahbaz was headed. He quick-footed behind him.

A horrible odour grabbed him like a hand in the filthy hallway. Shaukat gagged, covered his nose and mouth, with the sensation that he had swallowed some part of the source of the odour, and pushed down the hallway.

He heard muted sounds around him. Belt buckles clicked, leather slapped the ground. Boots, too, thumping recklessly, tossed around with the abandon of men in their bedrooms after spending a long day stuck in them. Ahead, he followed the martial taps of Shahbaz’s boots, which led him up a flight of stairs, past a gaping window through which rain and wind spat viciously, onto the second floor where suddenly the din of activity amplified.

Human voices, men and women, indecipherably not in agreement. Umbreen’s accusations joined the globs of chatter colliding in Shaukat’s hearing.

‘Sir …’ Shaukat croaked, the ability to speak clawing downward in his throat. He stopped, while in his vision Shahbaz reduced in size and blurred. Laughter pranced down the hallway at Shaukat. He turned.

The stairs on the way down seemed endless. Shaukat hobbled down, sometimes two at a time, stumbling a few times, but recovering fast. The stairs were infuriatingly, sadistically, multiplying. Shaukat cursed them out loud, and his desperation returned to his ears in echoes.

He knew he had reached the end and re-entered the first hallway when the stench invaded his nose again. What could possibly be so horrendous, short of decomposing bodies somewhere in the building, or soldiers lining the hallway with excrement, along with those of the women held captive. Umbreen … was his final half-committed thought as he found himself outside, expelled from the building’s bowels. Sloshing through the lake of water and mud that was the courtyard, Shaukat leaped for the jeep when it was within reach.

 

About the book

East Pakistan. March 1971. Imtiaz Khan arrives at his uncle’s house in Dhaka for what he thinks will be a quick visit, only to be held back when the Pakistan Army makes a surprise attack on the University, murdering students and professors in cold blood. As the smell of sulphur and gunpowder become a part of their lives, young pro-independence fighters – the Mukti Bahini – find a haven in the home of Imtiaz’s uncle and aunt, Kamruzzaman and Aisha Chowdhury, and they are swept up in the tide of freedom that drives them all. On the other side, Fazal Shaukat – a young captain in the Pakistan Army with a family name to live up to – finds that the war he has signed up for isn’t going away anytime soon. There are things bigger than him or his family at stake, even as Pakistan finds itself torn asunder, Jinnah’s dream turning into a nightmare. Set against the backdrop of a monumental historical event, In the Time of the Others is about what it means to live during violent times. Fierce, searingly honest and revealing, this powerful debut explores how lives intersect during a time of war and upheaval, and how violence changes all that is human.

About the author

Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh and grew up there and in Chicago. He studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Louisville. His fiction has appeared in journals in the United States, Bangladesh, India and Hong Kong. This is his first novel.

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