Dr. Babar made me read passages from Shah Hussain’s biography on my phone one day. The text of the biography was old Urdu, the kind I used to read when I was a boy, lived in Lahore, and loved playing cricket; I had so much hope in me then. The language of the biography, translated from Persian, was elevated and antiquated, decadent yet somehow strangely appropriate. Who was I to complain? With Dr. Babar caressing his beard, waiting for me to finish the excerpts he pointed out, steam rising from my cappuccino, the sounds of students congregated in that terrace rising and rising, and the view of the congested and confused campus somehow framed in a dignified manner by a row of trees that stood upright and stared back at us. Rosewood trees, I thought. Of course, the biography worked on me. We spoke about it for an hour and then finally I understood the argument between Dr. Babar and the poet Hasham Ali. It’s one thing to know such a matter vaguely and then quite another to have the text in front of you. After I left campus and weeks passed and the university was in lock down, I still thought of Shah Hussain and his lover and apprentice, Madho Lal, the teenage boy; Shah Hussain standing in the Ravi night after night to prove his devotion to God; Shah Hussain adoring Madho Lal with that same devotion. That this love story was orally preserved for hundreds of years by the same city I walked now, that this story with all its queerness and surrealness was preserved in the form that I was inheriting. I began to walk in the Old City. I hadn’t done that since my school years.
One day Dr. Irfan, who also walked the Old City at night, saw me and invited me for chai. The shop he gestured towards was a few hundred yards away. We sat on plastic lawn chairs. Bright colored tables, movie posters from the 70s on walls. Dr. Irfan went to the front of the shop to make sure the milk was good. He always did that, smelled the milk, looked around to make sure it wasn’t from a box. He told everyone that he was an atheist on the first meeting, and in my mind it gave him some credibility, even though his doctorate was in Communication Studies, a field I didn’t understand then and don’t understand now. He wore his usual khaki pants and gray shirt with several buttons undone. His hair was white, his beard was unruly. He had lived for a long time in Canada, he’d traveled the world, he could recite Urdu poetry at will, and he often did. He sang without inhibition. And he was drunk every night. He was sixty years old, though I didn’t feel there were thirty years between us when we sat with our colleagues in the coffee shops at the university. Here, suddenly, alone with him for a change, I felt our age difference. I felt like I should be deferential to him.
We spoke about our colleagues from the university, the ones we had spoken to lately, the ones who were already in the mountains writing their books. We spoke about the university owners and the construction projects taking place at great speed during the lockdown. I told him about the biography of Shah Hussain and walking the streets.
He said, You’re writing something then.
Hmmm, I said.
Do you know much about him?
Not really, I told him. I couldn’t explain to him then that I knew hardly anything about Shah Hussain, that I was one of those writers who has no value to add to the larger body of knowledge in the world. I was like one of those pedestrians who stops at the sight of a roadkill out of sheer curiosity, then walks away. Who Shah Hussain was in real life didn’t matter to me. I cared only about being able to use a name antiquated and deeply embedded in the memory of the city for my novel. To shove it in there somehow. I felt it was only right for my kind of writer to do this.
Have you been to the dhamal? he asked me.
I thought they had stopped—
Why would they stop? He was incredulous.
Terrorism. I was abroad when they became big. Since returning I haven’t really ventured out much.
You should go, he said. It happens every night. How can you miss it?
He was right, I should have gone. But I had seen enough dhamal on the internet. I watched documentaries on it, the rush of humans with stained teeth standing in close proximity in prayer and reverence, smelled the scented air even through my computer screen. And the mu