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Zalzala

By
February 1, 2010

Everything broke. Air-conditioning busted overnight. Load-shedding across the city started after dawn as per usual. Within the first hour of Lahore, Pakistan’s daily and scheduled electrical failure, the Haroon family generator was dead: lights useless, refrigerator silent, water heater emptied by the household’s fourth shower. The back-up portable, kept for emergencies, was out of gas. The Haroons’ drivers, all three of them, blamed the cook, who should have shown up with the reserve generator’s petrol, but instead called to say he’d had it, he was quitting. He was kaawarh. He was treated like a machchhar. On the phone Arash listened, clucked, sighed, and agreed the man’s complaints were serious enough to increase his daily wage.

It was an exhaust-hazed avenue, streaming motor bikes, jingle trucks, buses, vans, sedans, ox carts, rickshaws, donkeys, and I Trust Shell banners in a put-putting, beeping, honking mulligatawny of odoriferous smog.

Arash’s oldest brother and his new wife were glad Arash had placated the cook. His middle brother, whose new wife had argued with him before breakfast, was relieved he’d not had to reason with the man. Leave it to the youngest brother, he thought. When Arash got his wife, he would see the extra work it brought. The three brothers’ mother, beset by Parkinson’s, proceeded with her shampoo, administered by a servant whose health was marred by epilepsy. The woman’s fits were intolerable to other families, but she had settled in with the Haroons, an infirm bird they were not sure they could save.

His two older brothers were waiting in the car for him in the driveway when Arash said, “One minute.”

He double-stepped up the stairs to his bathroom in the wing of the house overlooking Lawrence Road. It was an exhaust-hazed avenue, streaming motor bikes, jingle trucks, buses, vans, sedans, ox carts, rickshaws, donkeys, and I Trust Shell banners in a put-putting, beeping, honking mulligatawny of odoriferous smog. He closed the door, took a leak, and realized his teeth needed brushing; he’d been too preoccupied to think of it earlier.

The bristles of his toothbrush were cricked outward and frayed, stained too, now that he looked at them as he squeezed out the paste. He glanced out the window and was mildly surprised when he couldn’t see his brothers in the car. He strained forward and saw a bumper. He studied it a moment. But no, it was the Honda, which they always left for his mother. He pulled back from the window to get a different angle and there was the Kia, back near the kitchen garden, for his new sisters-in-law. Oh, he saw now, his brothers would be out of sight, under the carport. Their car’s boot was filled with the new packaging, floor displays and blow-up posters for the cookies they planned to market. They had a meeting that morning with a distributor.

He patted his back pocket, nervous he might forget his wallet, but it was there. He felt the outline of his mobile phone. He was about to pull it out of his jacket when knocking on the bathroom door startled him. Then he realized it was probably one of his brothers and he said, “Coming. I’m coming.”

He pulled on the doorknob, tried to turn it, but the door wouldn’t give. It also seemed, suddenly, as if more than one person was now banging impatiently on the door.

What now? Arash wondered. As soon as he had the thought, the door pummeling stopped. It was then that screaming began. First his mother’s flute yelp from her bedroom directly below him. Then his middle brother’s wife, Sana, her voice a tinny tapping of help me, help me. The women servants’ cries came strongest, a long and persistent set of shrieking.

His hand was still on the knob. He pushed harder, holding down, pulling into himself, and turning again. The knob broke, and the door swung back into the bathroom, hitting him.

He rocked forward into his bedroom and out into the family room. At his feet was crunching glass. A hot wind was pushing him backwards, and he felt instinctively that he was outside, that he had been transported efficiently to the roof. He saw he was still inside; the photographs of his brothers at their weddings were face down as he picked his way past the toppled laundry that had been drying on a wooden stand—many brown and blue socks, all his and his brothers’. They seemed to have fallen carefully, almost in rows.

On the staircase, he slipped three steps downward on the glass, broke his fall with his palms, getting up only to inadvertently stomp on his mobile. He looked at it with exasperation and tried to stuff its mangled shape back into his breast pocket.

He crossed the living room and saw none of the windows were missing on this floor. Photographs hung undisturbed on the walls. The television, however, had fallen forward from its pedestal onto the shag rug he’d been undecided about buying—was it tacky or was it ironic?—a dilemma now astonishing in its resilience to pop into his head.

Vaguely ashamed, he rushed into his mother’s suite of rooms, following the sound of her cries. She was nude and seated on a white bench in the shower, her berry-dyed hair foamed with bubbles. A step away, her servant Noorain was on the floor convulsing. He took two towels from a bar and draped them around his mother. She was crying mildly, motioning towards the servant. He looked for something to put into Noorain’s mouth to stop her teeth clamping onto her tongue. He found a stack of Emory boards and pried open her mouth. He succeeded only in getting the blood from his hands on her lips and nose. Her flailing hands were now red too. They smeared his white work shirt.

The cook entered the bathroom to help, but fainted instead. Arash’s mother’s crying intensified; she looked as if she might slump off the shower bench, so he put his arms around her and said, “I’m here ammi, I’m here.” She kept saying, “What happened? What happened?”

He had no idea what had happened, and she kept asking; then he thought maybe she was worried about his injured hands.

“I fell on the steps.”

She looked at him, her face at a question tilt. For a moment he doubted whether he had said the sentence. He must have. Her louder sobbing had stopped. He looked up a moment and took account of the scene as it must have appeared to his middle brother who was now coming through the door. Noorain—arms and legs like flippers on the tile. The cook, Ismail—in a fetal shape on a bathmat. He, Arash—bleeding and hugging their soapy mother.

Ye kiya hay?” his middle brother Hassan asked. What is this? His wife Sana in a nightgown was behind him. She often looked as if she was pouting, but her face had changed. She went to her mother-in-law and began wrapping still another towel around her wet head. Arash backed away. To his consternation, Noorain was still in spasms.

“Wipe her mouth,” he finally heard his mother say. She sounded calm. “Keep the saliva from choking her.” Once again he was embarrassed. In his panic he had reverted to auntie tales about epileptics swallowing their tongues and tried to force nail files into Noorain’s mouth.

Sana brought a pillow out of a tall cupboard and placed it under Noorain’s head. She positioned her onto her side.

“She’s injured,” Hassan said. He pulled out his mobile to call for an ambulance.

“Your brother!” their mother said loudly. Fatima Haroon could raise her voice. Even to her sons, it was tempting to think her Parkinson’s trembling had replaced her personality. Yet in chaos, she was often the thinker among them. Arash had pointed this out to his older brothers more than once. Now, they all stopped in mid-gesture.

Na uzobillah,” his oldest brother whispered. Allah protect us. He stood on the bathroom’s threshold. Arash wondered how long he had been there. Everyone’s eyes were now on Arash’s hands and shirt, a mix of reds. The cook had awakened. He pulled himself up to sitting as the three drivers crowded into the room. The last to arrive was Wafa.

She was the wife of the oldest son. Since the Haroons’ father had died years ago, the eldest son was the de facto head of the family. But mysterious situations rejigger habits and fast events upend deference. So it was with Wafa that morning. Perhaps it was because she was the daughter of a Pathan chief. In some minds, this meant her father was a man in a village in a cave on the frontier with Afghanistan. In some hearts, this might mean he could not be trusted. Other ideas might arrange around the fact that he was also an officer in Pakistan’s Frontier Corps. The corps, in many eyes, was somehow responsible for the recent rise of the militants in NWFP, the Northwest Frontier Provinces.

Wafa’s parents did not live in a cave or a mud hut. They had two households. One was a white-pillared house with Mughal accents in a village called Saadi in the Kohat region south of the frontier city Peshawar. Her father did not wear tribal robes or a military uniform there, but a knee-length shirt over matching pants. On most days he was in the family condominium in the Lahore neighborhood called Cantonment, a half hour drive from the Haroon home. There he usually dressed in gold-rim aviator glasses, and a lemon button down shirt with a navy vest bearing a red Ralph Lauren polo emblem on it. A village, he said, is run like a corporation. Someone has to be the boss. That’s me.

But for all his stature in Saadi, and despite his career in the Frontier Corps, he could not predict or stop the murder of his wife’s brother, a police chief, in Peshawar’s main market. The militants paid the bomber about three hundred and sixty dollars to commit the act.

Wafa was tall. Like her mother, she was soft-spoken. Unlike her mother, she had wanted to be a soldier. At five years of age, her dadu made a uniform for her with a nametag, badge, and cap. She rode in the jeep with him as his assistant to the field exercises. She slept in tents. She rode in the tanks.

As Arash looked at her, he remembered her talking about these things. He had been taken with them, the night they came up at dinner, but now he felt a change, as if he saw his immediate visual vicinity wavering or the light sharpening in the bathroom. Maybe it was his bleeding hands that had unfixed his gaze, or his family’s protracted stuttering, and for the longest moment he couldn’t continue thinking evenly and in the next stray second he was numb. He heard, just about, on the outer periphery of himself, quarreling. At first he thought it was his own mind arguing he should do something, get up, move it.

“…we need to crouch under the tables,” someone was saying.

And another, maybe Sana, “This room is the safest.”

“It’s the first tremors,” his middle brother said. “The next ones will be stronger and then—”

His mother was about to say something, but all she could murmur was zalzala. Earthquake.

The rest of them became emphatic. There was talk of seismic shocks and tectonics. His oldest brother was insisting they should leave the house entirely, get out of the city while there was still a chance. Arash watched Wafa’s face.

“It’s not an earthquake,” she said. His mother lifted her eyes in that way he recognized as only hers, as if she were seeing an unexplained creature hovering above them. It was an expression of wonder and bemusement; it took him from his baffled repose. Everyone in the room had quieted.

“Leaving won’t help,” Wafa said. “We’re the lucky ones—we’re far way. But this, I’m almost certain, was a bomb.”

His brothers repeated the word, bom. It was one that sounded the same in English as in Urdu. Arash imagined the Arabic letters floating above all of them—the smile with the dot beneath it for a “b,” the curled finger with a tail for an “m.”

It was in Palestine, a place he cared about but had never been. It was in Afghanistan, a neighbor everyone he knew looked down on. How could they allow stoning? How could they keep their daughters from school? It happened further away too—in New York and London and Madrid, and wasn’t there one in Bali? Hadn’t there been a nightclub? Now, he saw it: Wafa’s uncle, long ago exploded in a market in Peshawar, coming to Punjab, a sentry from the dangerously dead. Arash pictured him, a blackened figure, in the rotating turret of a tank on Mall Road, and watched its armored tracks wheeling clumsily toward his home. As Arash was calming the cook, or perhaps while he was still brushing his teeth, this uncle, a police chief at one time unafraid, had made his mechanical, heavy way into Lahore, a throttled but still trilling metropole of universities, parties, and evening flocks of girls in jewel embroidered kurtas. Arash wanted to run to them, to warn them. He finally moved, walking to the sink to wash the broken skin on the palms of his hands.

G

lorraineadams_mary noble ours.jpgLorraine Adams is a novelist, critic, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Her second novel, The Room and the Chair (Knopf) is available February 9th. Her first novel Harbor won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, was a finalist for the Orange and Guardian First Book prizes, and was selected as a New York Times Best Book, as a Washington Post Notable Book, and as Entertainment Weekly’s Best Novel of the Year. She is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Bookforum and was a staff writer at the Washington Post for eleven years. She lives in New York City.

Writer’s Recommendations:
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewski. The post-war Polish poets sustain and guide me constantly. Last fall I was in Krakow, reading these smart, unafraid essays. Poet Zagajewski explains in the best way the dangers of rampant irony and the important fun of bravery in literature.

The Women by Hilton Als. This book is a remarkable record of my friend Hilton’s unabashed meditation on his own being. Black, gay, and an unrelenting brainiac, he searches until he gets to the lowest, sweetest spot of self-understanding.

Miles from Nowhere by Nami Mun. In this novel about a teenage runaway, my friend Nami’s prose is hammer strong yet gossamer delicate. Don’t ever miss a chance to see her read. She’s a force.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

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One comment for Zalzala

  1. Comment by Zach on February 5, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Loved her first novel. Love that the second is out soon. A male reader of fiction whose favorite contemporary authors include Ms. Adams and Lydia Millet.

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