Hassan Kamal Wattoo
Excerpted from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 5 (2021).
When he first stumbled into this new land that would become his home, Falkoo was told that it was so rich that when it rained, you would find silver coins swept out in the mud. Remnants of old civilisations that had come before him and buried their treasures deep into the soil, only for it to spit them back out for the enjoyment of the new. The old man sitting beside him on the roof of the train that brought him there went so far as to say that these coins could be thousands of years old. Left behind by the conquering armies of the Greek Sikandar e Azam or the Sikh Ranjit Singh. Every now and then, the old man continued, a clever boy would find some of them, and he wouldn’t tell a soul. He’d stay quiet, dig down deep, and melt down the silver to sell piece by piece over the course of a long and comfortable life.
“You’d be a clever boy, wouldn’t you, Falkoo?”
The nine-year-old nodded approvingly. But when he reached his destination—the tiny village of Tandlowala in what was now Pakistani Punjab—there were no treasures from the Sikhs or the Greeks, even after many monsoons of inspecting the mud. Just a two-room mud house left over by some long-gone Hindus. The old man had strangely disappeared since the shift from train roof to donkey cart in the last leg of the journey, so Falkoo concluded that the real clever ones were his parents for having found a place to stay. The mud house itself was a remnant of an older civilisation, and the new conqueror following in the steps of Alexander and Ranjit Singh was apparently a man by the name of Jinnah. To Falkoo, he was a voice in the radio at the centre of the village. But to the elders that sat surrounding it, he was Quaid e Azam. The father of this new nation that lay beneath their feet. He spoke in a language few understood, but the villagers agreed that whatever he was saying must be right anyway. After all, he had given them a home.
Life was remarkably simple in Tandlowala. Just as the British had drawn lines on the globe and decreed a new nation, their subordinates had ventured into the sweltering heat of the village to draw lines on a smaller map and declare Falkoo’s father a landlord. Two acres of fertile land were his to farm okra and brinjal, and the father-son duo tended to them well. After months of slaving away in the fields, they’d throw the vegetables into a sack and hitch a bicycle ride to the nearby town of Haveli. When the rates were good, they’d sell their produce and feast that night on parathas and lassi. When they were terrible, they’d empty the sacks on the side of the road and go home hungry. A war had broken out over some far-off land, and sometimes fighter jets would fly so low over Falkoo’s head that he’d be certain they would crush him. Just as news broke though, it faded away, and more pressing issues came to occupy the limelight. Like the dark figure that towered over Falkoo as he wiped away a tear, setting aside the cane that had just left his palm bloodied.
“There will be no misbehaviour in this class, Falak Sher.”
But Falak Sher was not really his name. Just as much as the teacher who’d just made this assumption was not really a teacher. He’d been less fortunate upon arrival to Tandlowala, resorting to nicking the okra and brinjal from someone else’s land until a government officer deduced that his greying beard and basic grasp of language were sufficient qualifications for a disciplinarian primary school teacher. And Falkoo, though he was an only child, just one of the many aimless kids running around one village (now hauled off via train and donkey cart to another), had never been bestowed the respect of any title beyond a quick nickname. Nobody bothered to keep track of things like birthdays or hobbies. The elders had better things to do. But now, things were starting to change. ‘Falak Sher’. Falak the Lion. It rolled off his tongue with the R lingering like a low growl. The absent-minded teacher may not have intended it, but once the beating was over with, a newly christened Falak Sher walked out of the crumbling Tandlowala primary school with his head held a little higher.
As the years went by and he grew older in this village where time seemed to stand still, Falak Sher became known for his nawabi moustache and charismatic demeanour. Every time someone got married, he would say congratulations, and every time someone died, he would say I’m sorry.
Repeating this equation a few thousand times over the course of a few dozen years is the most basic route for someone to earn widespread respect in rural Punjab, but Falak Sher did not know this yet. What he did know was that it involved much running about in the heat, because somebody seemed to be dying or marrying every other day. He went on with it because it earned him friends, and he wasn’t too afraid to make enemies. So as to make a spectacle of Falak Sher’s newfound popularity, some of these friends decided to declare him the chief guest at a high school cricket match. A beat-up megaphone was produced for added formality, and just before he was to address the bored and sweaty crowd assembled at half-time, Falak Sher’s older friend who had organised it all leaned in to ask him a question.
“How should I introduce you?”
“That’s just a first name. You need a last name too. Quick.”
“I-I don’t… have…”
Hassan Kamal Wattoo is a writer and a lawyer. He writes columns for Dawn and can be reached on Twitter @hkwattoo1.
About the featured artist: Ali Raza received his BFA from the National College of Arts, Lahore, and his MFA from the University of Minnesota. Ali has exhibited his work nationally as well as in several international shows including at Bradford, Delhi, Dubai, London, Milan, Minneapolis, New York and Swansea (UK). He is currently an associate professor and program head of the master of art and design studies at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. He has taught at several colleges and universities in Pakistan and the US, including the National College of Arts, Lahore, College of Visual Arts, St. Paul, University of Minnesota, Appalachian State University, North Carolina, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia State University and John Tyler Community College, Richmond.