Short Story: Worth a Thousand Dreams by Khalid Salamat
Playing at an agonizing volume, our neighbour’s music-system jarred me from my sleep. I opened my eyes into the direct glare of an angry sun, punishing me for daring to paint all night. Keeping my curse under my breath, I could hear grandmother climbing up to my bedroom on the first floor. My almost bedridden Dada, and Dadi lived on the ground floor. I knew I was about to receive a lecture. She was currently gathering steam, so I muffled my cursing to save my skin from a lashing tongue.
“Arif, are you awake?”
“Yes Grandmother, good morning.”
“The morning is over, come down for lunch. Made your favourite Qeema (minced meat) and Aloo Stuffed Parathas.”
Her heavy-footed gait retreated down the stairs before I followed. She waited for the meal to be over to launch in. As I poured tea from the pot, she said, “Arif, you slept late again? What were you up to, all night?”
“Reading, my dear Dadi.” I leaned towards her and put my arms around her neck. “Liar! You think I don’t know what you were doing in the study?”
“It was just a little…”
“No, Arif, I have told you several times and will keep repeating it. Say goodbye to your fantasy, this…this useless pastime and embrace your studies. Your father did not trouble himself with such things. Pay attention to your education and find a job that rewards well, before you end up in an inconspicuous career with a meagre income. Is it wise to spend all your pocket money on the painting paraphernalia?”
“Dadi,” I interjected, “it’s a harmless hobby and my studies are going well. It would never take away my focus–”
“No! I don’t want you to paint… why can’t you be more like your father.” She looked dejected as she covered her head with her saree.
I was at a loss for words for a while. “Dadi, what do I have to lose? Nothing –” And that was the exact wrong thing to say. It immediately set her off.
“Anything that doesn’t bring a tangible benefit is of no use. See your grandfather lying there, and we are living hand-to-mouth. God forbid, if my brother Sabir did not take care of us, where would we be? If only my Abid was here! Oh the good ones die young and –”
“Zubeida!” My grandfather’s voice startled us both. “Let the boy live his passion. You can’t discourage him.” His voice held a note of authority that silenced her for the time being.
“No. It is only like filling a basket with water. Did you get anything out of it?” She grumbled. He didn’t react, probably deciding it was best not to confront his irate wife.
“Walaikum Assalam beta, are you not going out today?” He offered me a way out that I eagerly grasped. “Do not mind your grandmother, she speaks out of the heaviness in her heart. Pursue your dream. You have a while yet.” I thanked Grandmother for the meal and set off for my room. When I came down, she was bustling in the kitchen with Dilawar, the cook, so I made my escape.
Jabeen greeted me heartily as I got down from the rickshaw, her voice holding more than the excitement of seeing me. “Arif, isn’t it cool. Are you going to submit your paintings? It would be great if you won a prize!” She squealed, waving the flyer in her hands. “It’s a big event. The great artist Ismail is staging an exhibition at his gallery and is calling for young, unknown talent to submit various articles of art, and there is money to be won, sponsored by multinationals.’’
Her words took me over the moon. This was just the right platform to showcase my work, unlike the mediocre exhibitions I had participated in earlier. As it came right after Dadi’s tirade, I felt I could prove my mettle.
“Arif, I suggest that we go through Mahmood, my cousin who knows Mr. Ismail quite well,” she continued.
“Mahmood, the one who laughs more than he talks?” I remembered meeting her jovial cousin.
“Yes, you met him a couple of times. He’s in construction, and did some renovation work for Mr. Ismail’s residence. They’ve remained buddies ever since.”
“You don’t mean it.” I croaked, my voice heavy with returned hope.
“I’m his favourite cousin and besides, he likes you. It won’t be difficult to get your paintings in the contest.”
“Jabeen, I don’t even know which paintings to submit except for your portrait that I did recently.”
“I don’t want you to lose in the competition.’’ She chuckled. “Enter your other work, not my portrait, for God’s sake. Get them mounted quickly. In the meantime, I will sweet-talk Mahmood.”
When I met with Mahmood, he informed me that Mr. Ismail made a special case for my paintings, and asked me to submit three.
I was ecstatic and had rashly broken the news to Grandfather when Grandmother was within earshot. She exploded in a torrent of words. “Arif, I forbid you to have any more to do with painting foolishness. Asim has allowed you to dream too much, the way he dreamed all his life, closing his eyes to important issues. No more! I wish my son was here to bring you up right and show you the benefit of working in the direction you are supposed to. If you follow Asim’s footsteps, you will end up a pauper. Not in this life will I allow you, you hear? Never!’’ She stormed off, sobbing.
“Dada… but I have to try,” I told grandfather before I retreated to the study on the first floor.
I got the paintings mounted over the weekend. The same evening, returning from Tariq Road to Bahadurabad where we lived, a rowdy truck hit my rickshaw so badly that it overturned. My left leg was bruised but it hurt more than I could take. The truck driver escaped from the scene. Luckily, I found a taxi and rushed to Liaquat National Hospital. I was taken to the Emergency Room. The doctor took an x-ray and immediately put on a cast, advising that there was a minor fracture and I needed bedrest for two to three weeks.
I called Jabeen and told her what happened. She rushed from her home in KDA 1. “Oh Arif, does it hurt? I am so, so sorry. Do you have your drugs? Lemme take you home. Thank God it wasn’t so bad. Have you told your mum and grandmother?”
“Nope,’’ I replied. She didn’t tone down on the fussing, and went on and on, continuing her monologue that left no space for interruption. Her driver wheeled me to the parking lot and placed me in the back seat as gently as possible.
“Oh, God! What happened?” Dadi wailed in a loud voice.
Jabeen answered and they both in turn started cursing the truck driver, loud enough to herald the Emir. Grandmother told him about my accident. “Make him lie down,’’ he commanded.
I rang up Mum who lived in Lahore at her brother’s house with my sister Batool. She sounded very worried, but I allayed her concern.
With restricted mobility, I was anxious to submit the paintings that lay in the corner of the study on the same floor as my room. “Jabeen,” I called in a hoarse voice, fighting drowsiness from the prescribed drugs.
“I have the three paintings which are kept in the study, would you be kind enough to pick them up and drop them to Guljee’s gallery? I would have gone myself but…”
“Don’t be silly Arif, you’re going nowhere with your leg in a cast. Let me handle it, but I am tied up now. I’ll come over around nine tonight.” “Thank you, beautiful, I am much obliged.” “Not a problem.”
The sedatives put me to sleep before Jabeen came over. I had instructed Dilawar to open the study and let her take the paintings discreetly to prevent disturbing grandma.
The same pattern claimed three days from me. I ate, took medicines, and slept. During the intervals between dozing, I was treated to a cold indifference by my grandmother, who was still annoyed that I was participating in the exhibition. She had seen Jabeen’s driver carrying the paintings out of the house.
I knew what I had to do, torture myself about the result of the exhibition, conjuring an outcome that was either wild enough to make my heart race, or send me to the doldrums. My thoughts were broken by the pealing phone. It was Jabeen. She had kept me company in between running a few errands and helping me with assignments to return to the university.
As soon as I connected the call, her squealing voice filled my ears. Her excitement seemed uncontrollable. She chanted, “You won! You won!” at the top of her voice.
“Calm down sweetheart, tell me what I won?”
“Arif, you won the runner-up prize, plus a cash award of 50,000 rupees! I am so happy–you deserve it.”
“Which one of the paintings?”
“I don’t know the name, but lemme take a picture and bring it to you.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, and she disconnected.
I sat still for a while, trying to absorb the news, then I went downstairs and whooped out loud. It startled Grandmother, who rushed over to find me limping on the staircase. “What is wrong? Get back to bed you silly fool, before you break your neck.’’ “Dadi, I won!”
“The painting competition! I won!’’
She gasped, her throat trembling with unsaid words. I did not wait and hobbled past her to reach Grandfather. “I won! Dada, I won!”
The glee in his eyes was indescribable as he motioned for me to come closer. With my help, he sat up and hugged me, kissing me on the forehead. “Congratulations, my child,” he murmured. “What an accomplishment. Let your mother know.” More than winning, the gleam in his eyes and his happiness kindled my soul.
The very next morning, Jabeen walked in. Even her presence was loud enough to capture my attention before she called me from the front lounge. I walked out into her wild embrace. She was overjoyed. “Arif, I am so happy. I prayed countless times for you…you’ve made your mark!”
“Did you bring the photographs?”
“Yes…they are right here… this one, this one and” –she dug into her handbag extracting one picture at a time– “and this is the winning painting!”
I hurriedly snatched it from her. My eyes blinked several times to confirm what I saw. I stared at the photograph again. I was frightened out of my wits.
“This is the winning painting, Arif. What’s wrong with you?” “But this is not mine, Jabeen.”
“This is one of the three I picked from your study, from the corner you told me.’’
“Yes… but the painting belongs to Dada. He painted it when he was young. Read the caption – ‘On a Roadside Café’ and his initials below – A.M, meaning Asim Majeed. Coincidentally, I also use A.M as my initials, for Arif Majeed.”
An uneasy silence prevailed in the room. Without saying much, Jabeen left after some time. I had to break the news at home, even to Grandmother who had been tight-lipped and fidgety.
“Dada, I have something to tell you and Grandmother.” I swallowed air and continued, “It was not my painting that won…”
At this point Grandmother snorted, which provoked Grandfather. “Zubeida, let the boy speak.” “Like I said, it was not my painting. It was yours, Dada.” I handed the photograph to him.
A deafening silence prevailed in the room. “Mine?” Dada’s voice croaked.
“Yes yours, Dada. Jabeen took it by mistake, but I guess it wasn’t a mistake after all.”
Dada’s eyes filled with tears as he stared at me blankly. After a long pause, he spoke. “I remember… I painted this one at the teashop on the Abbottabad Highway. A lucky find.” His eyes fondly caressed the picture. “I would share the experience with you. Zubeida, can we have some tea?’’ He raised himself to a semi-sitting position.
“You want to talk to Arif without me being around,’’ Dadi said and got up.
Dada continued, “It was a very cold afternoon. Despite the sun shining on a clear blue sky, I was uncomfortable in my warm clothes and thermals. We, a group of four cousins, had travelled from Islamabad for an outing. We stopped at a roadside café to have tea. The boy who served us was amazing. You rarely come across such characters. He kept darting eagerly from one table to another serving customers. He had an engaging smile, one I can never forget. It was as if he knew a delicious secret. He was barely twelve. His eyes were a blend of hope and despair, but the former far outweighed the latter. He was full of energy and ebullience. His jacket, though tidy, had patches stitched to cover a few holes, under which he wore an old and ragged sweater which was ready to be thrown away. You can see this in the portrait.’’ His eyes glistened with nostalgia. “I asked the café owner’s permission, then took out the easel from the luggage boot and started to paint.”
Dadi returned with two cups of tea. She placed them on Dada’s side table and left the room. Dada resumed, “It still stuns me. The boy was so carefree, so eager to smile. Darting through the café, while the twinkle in his eyes did not fade… those were the days when your grandmother and her family pressured me to give up my job with the small beverage company where I worked in the design department. They wanted me to join their trading business. I refused. I would have been a misfit, I knew. What is trading after all? Only buying and selling. It was too mundane for my liking.
“Zubieda said I dishonoured our marriage by turning down the opportunity. From that time, she started continually picking fights with me. Neither she nor her family had any interest in the finer things of life. She had never read a book or visited a museum or a classical music concert. She detested poetry. For her folks, the idea of having fun was having lavish parties, and their purpose in life, multiplying their monetary assets in the shortest possible time. I told her, ‘Zubeida this is important too’ but no, she wanted me in the business, have a good steady income, a comfortable life like in her father’s house. However, there was one occasion when she showed interest in my work. She asked me to paint her father’s portrait. I declined saying that my subjects were common people like a street-vendor, a coolie, a woman toiling on the farm and so on. I told her that I wanted to use my talent to delineate the suffering of the common man. I wasn’t interested in wasting my craft on the privileged class.
“This infuriated Zubeida. Our relationship aggravated further and resulted in her putting me down more than ever before. Her brother labelled me insane. I know I was idiosyncratic but not insane or artificial. Your father was around six. I felt so bitter I could have left her, but then thought it would be very unfair to Abid. The constant disapproval and disparagement suffocated the artist inside me. You know Arif, my paintbrush was like a magic wand, an inseparable part of me. Touching the canvas with the brush brought me in contact with my real self. But with passing years, my desire to become a known painter waned… and finally died.”
He forced a smile and gave back the photograph.
“But Dada, you should have pursued your dream regardless. Nothing else was more important.’’
“Beta, in hindsight, I should have…except for the fact that I wasn’t as strong emotionally as Zubeida, and wanted to live harmoniously, particularly for the sake of our only son.’’
“Why did you marry when you were so different from each other?’’ I couldn’t contain my curiosity.
“Misfortune, not just for me, for her as well. A common family friend brought us together. Zubeida was much pampered, being the only sister of five brothers.’’
“Okay Dada, now I must do this. As soon as the doctor allows, I will meet with the exhibition people and explain that it’s not mine but my grandfather’s work.”
“Boy, don’t be stupid. You will do no such thing. You are my blood and you are deserving too. I am old now, the accolades no longer matter. My time is over.”
“No Dada, that would be dishonest, and I would feel uncomfortable… I can’t take it.”
“If that is the way you feel, then go ahead… but know this, you have vindicated me, and I am so happy for the man you have become.”
His words synchronized with the rhythm of my heartbeat.
After a few days of languishing around being happy and miserable in turn, when the doctor took the plaster off and allowed me to move, I went to the gallery with Jabeen. Artist Ismail was a great man. He profusely praised ‘On a Roadside Café’ comparing it with the works of Cezanne and Monet from the impressionist school. When I explained the mix up to him, he was accommodating and changed the winner and cheque beneficiary name to Asim Majeed. Grandfather refused to accept the cheque though and asked me to put the money in Dadi’s account.
Shortly thereafter, when I returned from the campus one day, Dilawar was waiting for me at the bus-stop. His eyes were wet. He told me that Dada had a stroke and passed away before he could be taken to the hospital. Accepting this reality wasn’t easy for me, but my inability to see him before his departure caused me infinite pain.
They had gathered to offer condolences. My sombre mood was broken by a loud voice. “We never knew that he painted so well. His name appeared in the Dawn newspaper as a prize winner at Ismail’s art competition.’’
Dadi responded with a gleam in her eyes, “Yes, he was. What a pity! I wish his talent was recognized in his lifetime.’’ I scowled. Dadi was the reason Dada’s talent did not get recognition.
With an effort of will, the next day I restrained myself from a nasty response when Dadi had the audacity to ask, “Do you know if any of your Dada’s paintings are in the attic? They may have a market.’’
After reviewing my work, Mr. Ismail told me that he was an engineer by education, but some dreams demanded everything, and the only thing that mattered was how much one was willing to give.
I was willing to give everything to chase mine.
(Amman, January 2011)
Khalid embarked on his writing journey in late teens. He dabbled with poetry, then soon switched over to writing short stories on a variety of themes. Khalid’s fiction is character-driven with plots woven around eventful occurrences in the lives of his characters. His writings are captivating and the story usually ends with a startling twist. His inspiration comes from Maupassant, Maugham, Mansfield, and Manto – one of the most read story-tellers in Urdu. For Khalid, most of his story ideas have stemmed from human interaction, the importance of which, he believes cannot be understated. Khalid’s poems have appeared in Karachi University journals and Pakistan’s leading newspaper, Dawn. He contributed articles in South Asia and Slogan, well-known publications from Karachi. Khalid also edited the monthly newsletter of Unilever Pakistan, where he began his career.
Khalid holds an MBA degree and has worked in senior positions with multinationals like Unilever, Kraft, Spinneys – Jordan, PZ Cussons, and the Colgate Palmolive JV in Saudi Arabia. Presently, he works for a regional conglomerate in Dubai, where he is settled with his family.
Blossom in the Dust being launched shortly is Khalid’s first collection of stories. With the Iraq war in the backdrop, the title story is a gripping tale of a conniving widow who tries to exploit the devastating war situation for material gain but faces an unexpected challenge to reach her goal.