The first selection by digital guest editor for November, Taiba Abbas is a short fiction piece that muses on the concepts of heroism and masculinity, along with a photograph by Dan Calvani. Her curation centres around the theme of Personal Myths.
The piece was updated to include Dan Calvani's photography that was inadvertently left out in the original post.
“I had a fear of heights but after going through a life coaching program, I did a parachute jump from an airplane,” the scrawny man shared his heroism to the packed room.
“Hah, that’s easy. All you’ve done is bypass your fear with eyes shut, it’s still there,” I wanted to tell him, “And bro, why pay so much for life coaching when you can do the same jump after three drinks?” For haven’t we all plunged into deeper abysses after doing the Naagan dance to a Madam Noor Jehan song?
What I really wanted to ask Mr. Parachute was this: Can you sit in an airplane for three hours having a panic attack? To feel that sickening ball in the pit of your stomach, to have your heart pounding so hard you want to call for help? Real heroism, my friend, is a diﬀerent animal altogether. It’s sustained, it’s every day and has no parachutes attached.
In that case how was I heroic today? I got a frog out of the house. On demand. Such a demand is not your ordinary spoken variety, it is worded in a silent look, the meaning of which most men are conditioned to decipher. This evening, Kamila gave me the look. I promptly got hold of a bamboo stick and commenced prodding the trespassing frog to its freedom (and mine).
A couple of hops and the frog squeezed itself behind the door that it was supposed to exit from, whereupon it decided to spread all four limbs and climb up the nook like Spiderman. “Operation has entered stage 2,” my Mission Control voice said to me. Now I had to touch it with the tip of the stick. No matter. I brushed away the shiver and gently plucked it oﬀits ascent. It plopped to the ground. Success. But short-lived. Now it dodged the tip of my stick and snuck behind the disused light shade serving as a receptacle for badminton racquets. Kamila’s pleas to use a racquet to chuck it out bounced oﬀ my armour called ‘I can handle it on my own’.
With a surge of impatience disguised as aﬃrmative action, I dragged the light shade away, blowing the frog’s cover. There he sat in a corner, exposed for all to see. “You think you can evade me son?”
The son thought he could. It hopped towards the bedroom door—“This red line must not be crossed,” droned Mission Control. Not only would that mean a protracted chase, it would spell a weakness in my prowess over wildlife. At moments such as these, like most men, I trace my ancestry to the Maasai hunter ambushing a lion with a spear.
My lion was hopping out of reach. So now I had to take the unprecedented step of flicking it with the tip of the stick. Yes, making unpleasant contact of the squishy kind with unforeseen consequences. Shudder. What I had not anticipated was the level of skill to flip a frog with the blunt end of a stick. I took a deep breath and flicked. It flipped. I flicked again, half missed. It rolled over and squirted a clear liquid. Mildly revolted and feeling sorry, I prepared the next flip. From far, far away I heard the word ‘racquet’ being said again.
Thereafter for the rest of my life, me and a few billion other men shall gird themselves up as they appear to saunter through acts of violence, a performance ostensibly scripted by heroism but in truth born of numbness
At this point, Kamila, who had requested my masculine intervention in the first place, had to intervene herself to save the frog (and me). Picking up a racquet she deftly flicked the frog out the front door with her first attempt. As I stood there watching, she calmly explained that the racquet with its wider frame had a better chance of doing the job than a pointy stick. She was right. Though I had battled valiantly to fulfil the silent demands of heroic behaviour, the moment of glory belonged to her. “Sometimes heroism is to not meet expectations,” the frog seemed to say from its new home in the grass, “Sometimes it’s stopping to listen.”
Expectations, the father of all masculine masks.
I am still a child when my hand is placed on the sacrificial knife. This real life tableau I’m starring in, is called a rite of passage. The blood-letting that shall follow soonish is supposed to raise my courage and usher in a new era of manhood. My father, meanwhile, is hiding somewhere. I can feel the expectant eyes of men, waiting. But I disappoint and withdraw my hand. The real men take over. I watch as the viscous shades of red, ruby and maroon ooze across the floor. I can feel the invisible weight of having disappointed the world with my weakness. But I must not show it—ever. The shame of being vulnerable is worse than death for men. Thereafter for the rest of my life, me and a few billion other men shall gird themselves up as they appear to saunter through acts of violence, a performance ostensibly scripted by heroism but in truth born of numbness.
Numbness is a very useful emotion because it is the absence of all emotion. Its unique selling point being that it can easily pass oﬀ as heroism. I am reminded of the war-torn country where a boy was handed a gun to avenge his father’s death, a blindfolded man on his knees before him, a throng of spectators watching expectantly. The boy performed perfectly. Killing an elephant? Child’s play.
But there IS such a thing as a rite of passage. Knowledge passed down from fathers to sons. As in the case of my friend Shah.
When Shah used to tell stories of rivalries and revenge in his village or his brief stint in prison, I felt as if I was watching a movie. He had actually been part of a proper fight! Whatta hero!
One night we heard footsteps on the roof of the house we used to live in. I’m sure thieves know by now that when they hear a man’s bravado bark “Who’s there!?” it’s fake. But again, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, so I did my best bark. Getting carried away with the self image of being my territory’s defender, I raced upstairs and sashayed onto the open terrace looking for the thief, like someone who has forgotten where they’d parked their car.
Where was Shah? Puzzling. My alpha friend of village rivalries was acting in the most peculiar manner. He tiptoed up the stairs, stuck his head out, took a quick peek and ducked back. Why was he lurking behind me, behind ME?
The interloper had fled, there was nothing to see except some hastily discarded plastic bullets that perhaps belonged inside a toy gun. We were rightly chuﬀed at ourselves. But it was only later that Shah came out with an explanation, something his father had taught him: “Annhi daleri kujj naeen hondi”—Blind courage doesn’t count. The moment he said it, I knew in my bones the truth of it. These simple words carried all the weight of ancestral wisdom passed down from sage old men to hot-headed boys trying to be heroes. Reckless, braggadocio heroes. Soon to be dead heroes. How many tears and burials must it have taken for this wisdom to be distilled? And how many sons sleepwalking into imagined scenarios of bravery get to hear this from their fathers?
Then there are those who plunge to their willing deaths and cannot be censured. Moths. My moth story is very ordinary. But it’s about a time when I came closest to real heroism.
Out there somewhere is a frog that knows I’m not comfortable with fluttery, jumpy, hoppy, squirming life forms, let alone hold them in my hand (mammals excluded). Moths are included. I’ve never touched one. I don’t hate them, I just don’t want to touch them.
Until one day, when a fluttery moth came flying by, I found myself gently scooping it up and letting it out. It felt like it was the most natural thing to do. Wait, what happened here? There had been no silent demand, neither a danger or disgust alarm, I had simply plucked a moth from the air and set it free, with a feeling that bordered on camaraderie.
The human race continued to wreak its havoc on the planet and big events to small tragedies kept unfolding. My being able to pick up a moth did not cause a blip in the space-time continuum. The question was, what had brought about this shift? Why, or rather, how come I had felt such absence of fear, such casual courage.
The answer is so obvious. It happened because I was in love. I was consumed by its totality, high on it, flying beyond the clouds of trepidation into the naked sky. The kind of love you’ve waited all your life for, and when it docks, the heart forgives all and the mind accepts all. Everybody and everything became my friend and I to them, including moths.
I don’t know how it works but it does.
Farjad Nabi is a playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker. His plays include Annhi Chunnhi di Tikki and Jeebho Jani di Kahani. His credits as co-writer include the feature Zinda Bhaag and the web series Qatil Haseenaon ke Naam. He is based in Lahore, Pakistan.
Dan Calvani is a freelance writer and photographer based in Granada, Spain. Visit www.dcalvani.com to view more of his work.