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Heartless

Annie Zaidi


Excerpted from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 4 (2020).


Once upon a time, there was a city where the hearts of its citizens were taken away before they turned thirty.


That was the law, and it was not an unpopular one. By the time a thirtieth birthday rolled around, people had grown sick of their hearts. It would heat up and grow noisy, like a second-hand lathe. Skeins of muscle would start writhing under the skin like fish caught on a hook. People would lose appetite and fail to show up at bakeries and meat shops. In the cold months, it was worse. Even the bakers and butchers would throw off their aprons and declare that they were done with this blight called life.


Before the Heart Law was enacted, several citizens would leave home without the courtesy of a goodbye note. Their families would be distraught. Other citizens would go drinking every night and would drink until they ran out of credit, and then they’d fight like wolves.


There were also those who tried to cut down trees in public parks becausethey had once carved into the bark a misshapen heart with the name of their beloved. Worse, some citizens strung themselves up on trees. Others went out walking, then vanished near the lake.


The rulers had been watching these events with concern. Public misery was sure to trigger revolt. Or elections. Some such manner of unpleasantness. So, they funded research at the University. They asked scholars to develop a happiness meter to get a measure of citizen grief. Next, the rulers ordered that annual happiness reports be published in the newspapers. The reports concluded that though we were among the top happy states in the world, we must strive to be happier yet.


They gave out medals for positivity. Suicide had already been punishable bylaw. Survivors were awarded three years of solitary confinement. Now weeping in public places like parks, cafeterias and school grounds was an offence that attracted stiff fines. Repeat offenders could be sent to jail for anywhere between three nights and three months.


Artwork by Shahana Munawar

Citizens grew cautious but their hearts did not. They wept and scuffled and made scenes in public bars. They scribbled messages on the walls of the High Court. They attacked trees with flame torches. In prison, they curled up on the bare floor, turned their faces to walls stained with the piss and spit of robbers and murderers of yore, and they did not complain. Nor did they appear to be in any hurry to leave. There were cases where citizens who were awarded a fine simply threw their wallets at the magistrate as if to say: Take it! Take it all, damn you! Some of the magistrates had even written to the newspapers, questioning the purpose of such laws. Then came the night when everything changed.


It started with a student called Ray. He was fined for weeping in public when in fact, he had not been weeping. He had only laid his head down on the table in an empty bar. The ache in his chest was replaced with rage and after he had finished paying the fine and signing a no-repeat pledge, he went home and cut out his heart with a kitchen knife.


As he lay back in bed, he remembered thinking: Well, that’s that! Well, it wasn’t. Ray woke up the next morning. He opened his eyes and found that he could sit up. He was surprised, but not displeased. He wrapped up his excised heart in a blue bath towel and hid it under his pillow. After a few days of rest, he decided to go back to work.


Life went on much as before. When he was taking a swim, people noticed a scar but of heartlessness there was no evidence. Ray smiled if someone cracked a joke. He no longer snapped at his mother. In fact, he was unfailingly courteous. His friends found him quieter. He no longer burst into song, but since he was quite tuneless, they were relieved rather than concerned.


Ray would have died with his secret under his pillow. But one day, he was invited to a friend’s birthday party. Here he met a woman named Nayan. There was something familiar about her. And yet, she was a stranger. All evening, he looked at her. She too kept glancing at him. He moved closer to the spot where she was dancing until he brushed against her.


Perhaps he did so from old habit rather than with any sense of purpose, but before he could move away, Nayan turned and looked him full in the face. The hollow where his heart used to be started to throb. For the first time since the excision, Ray felt as if he could not breathe. He fled.



 



Annie Zaidi is the author of Prelude to a Riot, Gulab, Love Stories #1 to 14 and Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales, and the editor of Unbound: 2000 Years of Indian Women’s Writing. She was awarded the Nine Dots Prize in 2019 for innovative thinking and The Hindu Playwright Award in 2018 for her play Untitled 1.











Shahana Munawar obtained her BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2001. She now lives and works in Karachi. Currently, she is teaching as visiting faculty at the Department of Visual Studies at Karachi University. She has participated in many group shows in Pakistan and abroad, and completed a 140 ft wall painting for I am Karachi as public art. “The references to the heart and its metaphors are used in abundance throughout Urdu poetry, or any poetry for that matter,” she says.


Author and artist bios of archival pieces are reprinted as originally published and may be out of date in some aspects.

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