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Death Certificate

Mohammad Nasrullah Khan

The following is an excerpt from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019).

As the rusty gate to the Municipal Office squeaked open, Agha hobbled in. His arthritic joints protested at each step, but he trudged forward.

“Take a ticket, old man.” With a robotic hand motion, a clerk pointed to a dispenser.

Agha’s crooked fingers pressed the button. The machine buzzed and spat out a pink token like a lizard flicking its tongue.

Eighty-eight, Ha! My age. He smiled.

The electronic sign on the wall flashed ‘20’. He eyed the crowd before finding a seat in the back corner. Life had taught him patience. Where others grew irritable, he often found a sense of peace. It gave him time to practice his own brand of meditation—a simple one, unconcerned with the thoughts that keep philosophers’ lights burning.

Two hours later, his number blinked.

He heaved himself up with his cane and limped to the front desk. Yanking out a crumpled application from his overcoat, he slid it across the counter. “I need a copy of my wife’s death certificate.”

The clerk smoothed the creased paper. “Why do you need it?”

Because she’s dead. This was the answer that rose to his lips, but he restrained his tongue.

“My son in America needs it for official documentation.”

“For an English certificate, you’ll need a different form.” The clerk opened a drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers.

Agha found a quiet place by an open window to fill out the new form. When he was done, he went to the clerk again.

The clerk frowned. “I can’t read anything on the copy underneath. Did you adjust the carbon paper?”

“Sorry, but it’s the same data that’s on the front. Don’t you have a copier?”

“The carbon copy is for your records.”

“I don’t need a copy. But if you insist, give me a photocopy, and I’ll pretend it’s a carbon copy. Would that be all right?”

The clerk turned a slight shade of red. “Did you record the death at this office?”

“No, she passed away in a government hospital. I thought record-keeping was their responsibility.”

The clerk scowled, shuffling Agha’s papers. “The government requires its citizens to file their own records upon the death of a family member.”

A nerve twitched on Agha’s face. “She wasn’t stolen, she died. I buried her. It’s all there in the application.”

The clerk’s eyes widened. “There’s nothing I can do. You need to go to the Department of Public Record.”


The clerk looked straight through Agha as if he no longer existed. “Now serving number ninety-nine at window four.”

The man behind him said, “That’s rude.”

“He’s a government stooge who can’t see beyond rules,” said Agha. “It has become his nature, and now he growls like a bitch guarding her pups.”

“Are you admiring or accusing him?” the man in the queue asked.

Agha smiled grimly and made his way out.


The Old Year Passing by Naheed Rafi

The next morning, hobbling toward the Public Record Office, Agha stopped in a narrow street to search for a break in the morning traffic. Leaning against his gnarled cane, he pulled his heavy raincoat close against the chill. The cars blurred in front of him; the grinding gears and honking horns distracted him. He jumped when an old dog rubbed against his ankles. The dog howled in protest. Agha bent down and ruffled the dog’s ears.

“You and me both, my friend.” He nudged the dog back toward the safety of the curb and stepped onto the road.

Car brakes screeched, horns blared, and a traffic cop blew his whistle. “Watch it, old man! You’ll get hit.”

He shuffled towards the officer and touched his shoulder. “Old man? Is that any way to talk to your elder?”

“I was looking out for you; this is a busy intersection. Move along. You’re holding up traffic.”

“I wasn’t born old.” He adjusted his thick-framed glasses, thrust his cane high into the air, and tottered onwards.

The Public Record Office wasn’t crowded, and the clerk on duty was reading a newspaper.

Agha wheezed. “I want to record my wife’s death.”

“When did she die?” The official’s eyes were fixed on his paper.

“Twenty years ago.”

“Twenty years? I see… and you’re coming now?” The official turned the page and traced his finger around a photo of an actress. “Did she die in a hospital?”


“Then you need documentation from the hospital.” The clerk reached for a pen and underlined a soap advert. Not once did he look at Agha.

“It will go down in history that Pakistanis were reading newspapers while the world explored space,” Agha mumbled and left.

The overcast sky squeezed out a faint drizzle, sending a shiver down Agha’s spine. As he passed the university, memories of the day he met his wife came alive in his mind, every vivid detail. Not a day went by that he didn’t think of her. His vision hazed as she stood before him; her lips were roses, her golden skin the sunset, and her perfume the morning dew. His lips trembled, and his tears joined the falling rain.

He wobbled home.


That evening, Agha called his son. “Raj, getting the certificate is more difficult than I thought.”

“Please, Dad, try to get it as soon as you can. Once I’m an American citizen, I can get you out of that hell. You don’t want to be alone there, do you?”

Agha straightened. “I’m fine here. I’m used to it. Remember, you’ve earned your heaven after being in this place for so long.”

“Yes, Dad, that’s true, but one can appreciate heaven after living in hell. Come and see for yourself.”

Agha picked at his threadbare jacket. “I’ll keep trying.”


Bios from archival pieces are reprinted as originally published and may not be up to date.

Mohammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan, currently living in Saudi Arabia where he is lecturer in English at Taif University. He is known for weaving Asian culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nasrullah’s work titled ‘A Man Who Was Donkey’, the Gowanus called it “stunning.” This short story was selected amongst the Notable Online Short Stories of 2003. His short story ‘In Search of God’ was included in Silverfish Book’s Twenty-Two New Asian Short Stories, published in 2016. He has been published in Evergreen Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus, Offcourse Literary Journal, The Raven Chronicles, and many others.

About the artwork, from the artist: I have seen this man many times at the end of our street. He collects things that other people consider useless and throw away: old papers, bottles, plastic bags and even broken glass. He used to come on a donkey cart, but lately has progressed to a motorbike. I find his demeanour quiet arresting, but a bit fierce, so never dared take his picture. However, this year I gathered my courage and approached him with a request to be allowed to photograph him… and lo and behold, under that austere exterior lurked a gentle soul. Lal Mohammed’s reply: “Lay lo puttar, main tay puranay saal day waghar shayed faer no aawan” (take it, child, like the old year I might not be back…).”

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