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The Unreadable Lives of Everyday Objects

Saeed ur Rehman

An excerpt from a short story first published in The Aleph Review, Vol. 3 (2019). This was curated for the website by Dr Javaria Farooqui as part of her curatorial stint in July (2022), but was not published earlier due to technical difficulties.

Khala Sheedan was right. Almost everybody has failed the English paper in the Lahore Board Matriculation Exams. It is like seven English failures out of every ten students. I have passed despite not knowing what to do with my left hand or with English. It is time to celebrate. Uncle Zahoor, one of the many bearded uncles who are my dad’s friends, comes from Lahore and says I need to move to Lahore for further studies. Muridke does not offer anything beyond what I have already completed, though nobody can tell if I have almost passed or almost failed. He has brought a map of Lahore with him. He spreads the map in the veranda.

Lahore is a big white rectangle and the roads are thick pink lines. “From here,” he says, putting his thick index finger at the edge of the map, “you have to cross the bridge over the Ravi to enter Lahore and, if you keep going, you’ll reach Kasur.” Even his finger is too hairy. “This is the canal flowing from the border of India on one side to Thokar Niaz Baig and beyond,” and, with this, he moves his finger across the entire map from left to right. The canal flows like an English sentence if Kasur is up and like Urdu if Shahdara is up. Lahore has a lot of promise. No wonder a boy’s penis is called his Lahore by the barber who comes to cut the foreskins off the Lahores of the boys on our street.

Photograph by Mobeen Ansari

Uncle Zahoor and I are in the middle of Anarkali Bazaar on a bright summer afternoon when he says, pointing towards some shops, “Let’s have nihari at Jeddah Nihari over there.” I look in the direction to which his finger is pointing and see some shops and their signboards. Even in Lahore, the world does not make sense. I ask him where the restaurant is. He is irritated. “Don’t you know how to read Urdu?” he says. “I do.” “Haven’t you passed your matric exams?” “I have.” “Then why can’t you read that big signboard over there? Look, it reads Jeddah Nihari. That board. Red background. White Urdu. Jeddah Nihari.” “Where?” I ask him. “That board over there.” “I can’t see it.” “Forget about nihari. Let’s get your eyes tested.” I am sweating as he takes my hand and walks me to the shop of an optometrist. The optometrist shows me a glowing whiteboard and makes me stand at a distance, covers my left eye with a piece of paper, and asks me to read the Urdu letters. I can only read some of the letters. Then he covers my right eye. The same. He brings out a thick metal frame in which he inserts different lenses.

One side of the frame has a black disc and the other has a lens. He tests different lenses on me and asks me which one is better. After a while, I can read the entire chart. He writes down some numbers on the sheet of paper in his hand and says, “Come back after three hours and take your glasses.” There is something seriously wrong with me. I am fifteen and feeling guilty. We walk out to the nihari place. The dish is gooey and spicy. We roam around Anarkali for a couple of hours after that and then go to collect the glasses. The optometrist takes me by the arm and walks me out to the middle of the Anarkali Bazaar and puts the glasses on my face and says, “Tell me how the world looks.” All the objects in Anarkali, with their extremely sharp colours and outlines, assault my retinas for the first time in my life. “Oye, bhenchod, no wonder this world makes sense to some people.”


Saeed ur Rehman has a PhD in postcolonial literary studies from The Australian National University and has been a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Modern Oriental Studies, Berlin. He teaches critical theory and creative writing. His work has been published in the Mississippi Review, New Literatures Review, Kunapipi, Cultural Dynamics, and The Foreigner.

About the featured artist: Mobeen Ansari is a photojournalist, filmmaker, painter and sculptor based in Islamabad. With a Bachelor’s degree in fine arts from the National College of Arts, Rawalpindi, he has published two photography books: Dharkan: The Heartbeat of a Nation, featuring portraits of iconic Pakistanis such as Abdul Sattar Edhi, Ardeshir Cowasjee, Abida Parveen, etc., and White in the Flag, which portrays the lives and festivities of religious minorities of Pakistan. He has also made two silent movies. Mobeen has executed two campaigns for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as numerous other prestigious projects. He also presents his books, photos and artistic experiences in public talks and workshops around the world.

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