Baba the 86-year-old cobbler has three sons. One is a heroin addict who lives with a circle of junkies on a sidewalk in the heart of old Karachi and never visits. “He is dead to me,” Baba says. One works as an accountant at a factory that makes soft towels for Americans and lives with a wife and two children in a room with concrete walls in a residential neighborhood forty-five minutes away from Baba’s slum. The room has space for two more people to stretch out on the floor, but Baba knows there is no space for him. “He is also dead to me,” Baba says.
Baba’s third and youngest son was, as we say in Pakistan, disappeared, picked up by one of the intelligence agencies seven years ago for allegedly being involved in a suicide bombing at a military base. They came to Baba’s hut afterward, claiming Saeed had joined the Pakistani Taliban. He has not been seen since. His mother wasted away from grief, Baba claims. “He is not dead,” Baba says.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Once they kill them their bodies show up,” he says, inhaling deeply, his joint flaring up between his dirt-packed nails.
But that is not what Baba says today.
“Saeed might be dead,” is what he says through his remaining teeth, his unwashed smell and his beard, snow white and uncut, that sends tendrils down into his bony chest and up into the walnut skin of his face.
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Some people found bodies. Dumped bodies.”
In this country, certain words have developed more precise meanings. Dead bodies that have been “dumped” belong to living bodies that were once picked up.
“They took them to the police, then the police came here. They want me to go see,” he says. “See if one of the bodies is Saeed’s.”
I say nothing.
“Today,” Baba adds.
He is waiting for me to say I will go with him, that I will try to help him get his questions answered, that I will stand with him as he studies the dead and tortured faces, one by one.
Baba has never asked me for anything before. But today things have changed; the questions about Saeed are different now, and death has become a more possible answer.
“Baba” is the name we use for men with white hair and old tales, a generic label that conveys respect and fondness but doesn’t presume intimacy. I do not know his real name; it would be impertinent to ask. And at first “Baba” didn’t fit well, cutting off life stories in awkward places, even as I got to know him and he learned about my own disappeared, about how Asim quietly left me one year, five months and three weeks ago a day after repeating that he still loved me, about how the why of Asim’s disappearance still burns a hole in my core.
Baba pretends to mend shoes from a bedsheet laid out on a sidewalk under a banyan tree near my bungalow. Several weeks ago, when my houseboy was on holiday, I had gone over myself to drop off a pair of broken sandals. To the tree was taped a picture of a young boy, fifteen, perhaps, with a mop of greasy bangs styled to fall in a sharp diagonal across his forehead and across cheeks mottled with acne. His tight white T-shirt shouted “Armeni Xchange” in gold block letters across the front. Gangling arms poked out of short sleeves designed to show off muscles.
The word under the photo was “disappeared,” not “missing.” Thick in red marker, it unraveled itself from the piece of paper it was scrawled on and wrapped itself like a leash around my ankles; I didn’t realize, then, how often it would keep bringing me back to this place. I asked Baba who the picture was of and where the boy had gone, and listened to his story, and told him my husband had disappeared, in a different way, though I could not explain what way that was. He did not ask much in that first meeting, knowing what it is like to have no answers. Now I balance myself each week on the unsteady stool he has kept for me to sit on while we talk of our disappeared, and while he squints up at me with eyes bulbous like fish in a bowl through glasses that are half an inch think and held together at the nose with neon pink wire.
He explains, when I tease him about its pinkness, that it had called out to him from the hill of black plastic bags, rotting vegetables, and abandoned household goods that has established itself outside the hut he lives in. He describes these things in detail and deliberately, and I know, in those moments, that I could offer him one of the rooms in the servants’ quarters in the house I have inherited, a house empty but for the cook and the housekeeper and me, now that my parents have died and Asim is gone and I can no longer bear the company of friends I grew up with who want me to stop asking questions about Asim they do not have answers to. I could ask Baba to come and live in one of those rooms, one whole room with actual concrete walls, just for him. But I do not think I will; there is too much sadness in him, too much sadness that refuses to eclipse my own.
Most days he is too high to repair shoes. “It’s the good stuff,” he tells me, “from the tribal areas near the border with Afghanistan.”
“The tribal areas are a war zone,” I remind him. “The army is up there, Baba.”
“It’s the army that is letting it through,” he grins. Then he chuckles, as he always does at all the things in this country that raise questions and yield few answers, as he picks at the cracked black soles of his feet. A few passersby stare, wondering what a woman like me and a man like him could be in such deep conversation about, but most in this city are too hurried to care.
When he is drunk enough on the bootleg Smirnoff I bring concealed in my handbag and pour for us into teacups, he shows me another picture of Saeed. Saeed in a classroom, smiling into the camera, one hand resting on the peeling beige paint of his desk, another on an open mathematics text book, limbs lost inside a government-school uniform too large for him.
“Saeed is my best boy,” Baba says when he shows me this photo. “He was learning computers. He never smoked, he never drank. He would give me the hotter naan. He would give me the fattiest parts of any meat we got to eat.”
When high enough, Baba will also tell me how one day, when Saeed was fixing a computer at a shop where he used to work after school in exchange for dinner, they came to take the hard drive, claiming it held blueprints for terrorist plots, and took him along with it.
“Why did they take him?” I ask Baba in those moments, drinking fast to forget Asim had moved on, he had said, in an e-mail that left me weeping from the not-knowing even more than from the loss of him. Why does one person move on, and what does moving on mean, and how does moving on happen, when two people first kissed at fifteen, when they married at twenty-two, when over eight years a marriage has been built, when for fifteen years another body’s smells and sounds and touch have been shared and words of love have been said out loud, and often? And how do I find answers, when his e-mail after he left was one line long and I do not know where he has gone, and cannot reach him?
“Why did they take Saeed, Baba?” I persist, hoping, as I always do when I ask him this question, for an answer that will cut my own bewildered pain down to the size I know it should have in a time and place breeding injustices more significant than my own. Instead I keep believing my aloneness matches Baba’s in all the same places, even as he looks away and the tears well up and snake down the ravines of his face.
“Who knows?” he says. “Who knows why the disappeared are taken. Or where they go.”
He always grins as he says this, and as his beard and tunic grow heavy with tears. Each time he does, I wonder if he is going mad, losing his mind as he tries to understand a country in which his son can vanish for crimes unknown and unproven, vanish without having died.
Behind Baba stands a wall of shoes for sale. Fifty, sixty shoes, nailed into a large piece of plywood he props up every day against his old tree. Kohlapuris from Lahore, embroidered in pink, green, and gold, for headscarved housewives hurrying home with vegetables and their children after school. Tough leather Peshawari sandals in brown or black for Pashtun men attempting to flee Taliban violence in the northwest to Karachi, everyone’s city. White rubber flip-flops of the kind worn to Mecca for Hajj. Fake Adidas sneakers from China. And his pride and joy, a pair of scratched red Payless high heels, picked up from among the Russian furs, mothballed Hervé Léger minidresses and strapless wedding gowns donated by charitable Westerners that end up in secondhand bazaars for Muslim women living in this hot, sticky city in Pakistan, the Land of the Pure.
In the months I have known him, I have seen less than ten customers for purchases or repairs; Baba’s unwashed stench is too strong, and he has developed a reputation for shoddy work and being high. My own shoes, before they started disappearing, he would only make worse; when he gave them back the heels would wobble, or the buckles would pinch my flesh, or the straps would come loose from the soles they were attached to. He must be doing this because he is lonely and wants me to keep coming back, I used to think. He hates his neighbors, he had explained to me once; their children make too much noise and throw their broken dolls and trains at him through the curtain that forms the door to his hut, so he grabs and slaps them as they run past, and then their mothers beat him or push him into the gutter that runs through the slum. So when he comes home from the banyan tree he has to stay inside, alone.
One day, though, my shoes started to vanish.
“They have been disappeared,” Baba had said, fishbowl eyes lighting up, when I asked about them. “Just like the missing people! Tell the chief justice to add their names to the list he is keeping.”
“But the last two pairs have disappeared too. How can they get stolen when you are sitting here?”
“All I have to do is walk behind the tree to relieve myself. And before I know it, they are gone. They have been picked up too!”
He must be selling them, I thought. So I started buying cheap pairs, damaging them slightly and bringing them to him. He takes them without comment, never asking why I suddenly have so many shoes that need repairing. We talk about everything but the shoes. We talk about the Karachi we once knew where robbery-murders didn’t happen every few days and violent strikes called by ethnic parties happened only once each week, about where to get the spiciest bun kababs and the cleanest hashish, about the women Baba would sleep with when his wife didn’t want to sleep with him because she was sleeping with the neighbor in the neighbor’s hut that shares a window with his own. We talk about Asim, about his savings he had spent on my mother’s heart surgery before she died, about the mistress whose role in his life he had told me would never change but who is now, I have come to hear, his second wife. Over my vodka we talk about Baba’s diabetes and swap notes on home remedies for cracked heels. I buy us naan and dal from the café around the corner; as we eat we talk about my manager at the advertising firm who texts me dirty jokes and stares at my breasts. Baba tells me about his job as a peon at a bank, how he was forced to resign when he turned sixty-five and had to accept a profession beneath him. We talk about my father and his second family, about how he would disappear for days at a time and my mother and I did not know why or where until one day he brought two children home for lunch. But we do not talk about the vanishing shoes.
Today, though, there is no talk of the past, only talk of new, less certain things—of whether one of the bodies is Saeed’s, of what to do if it is, of what to do if it isn’t. If Saeed is dead, there will now be new questions that have no answers. If Saeed is alive, things can continue as is—but Baba is not well, he may not be sane, he is growing tiresome, and he reeks, and no matter how hard I try to make it so, each time he asks his questions, I cannot stop hearing mine.
He places the tools he hasn’t used all day into a box with a strap he has glued back on to it countless times and now slips over one arm. He rolls up the bedsheet he sits on every day and tucks it under the other, picks up his wall of shoes and, hunched over and carrying it on his back, begins to shuffle away.
While Saeed was missing, talking to Baba felt enough, though I knew there was more I could have done. Today it feels inadequate. I should go with him to the police station; there are papers they might make him sign, answers they might force him to accept. There are things he will have to do, and come to know, for which I should be with him. Death is also a disappearance, just of a different kind.
Baba grins at me as I catch up with him to walk across main roads with murderous traffic and through alleyways slick with vomiting sewers. Cars, humans, and buffalo curve themselves around us and Baba’s shoe wall, neither they nor he blinking an eye. Children run into us and keep running; these are Karachi children, and we are not odd enough to faze them. Baba is as unmoved himself, shuffling through as if his worn-out sandals haven’t left his feet exposed to the grime of this town.
Fifteen minutes later we are inside a warren of huts that look too fragile to withstand the stories they do. It is a place both noisy and silent; irritable mothers and wailing children share doorsteps, though there are no doors, with quiet fathers who look high or depressed, or both. Their faces no longer register the stench here, a mix of sewage and urine. I think of the empty room in my house, a home for Baba. But there is danger in letting someone in who might age into death soon, or leave to go back to his returned son. There is danger in yet another person who shares my home and leaves it for reasons I do not know, and cannot understand.
Baba turns into an open doorway and reemerges after shedding his wall, his tools, and his sheet. In their place in his arms are shoes—brown leather sandals, canvas running shoes, heels covered in green satin with a rhinestone buckle, these and other pairs, all the shoes I have been bringing him for weeks. Then he squats amid the garbage and begins to line them up neatly in the dirt. But the sandals’ straps have snapped off from the sole, the running shoes have been slashed with something sharp, the green satin is frayed and soiled, nuggets missing from their settings in the buckle.
He looks up at me, grinning the same grin that lights his face when he cries about Saeed. “These are the missing,” Baba declares.
“I thought you were selling these,” I ask.
“The disappeared are picked up so they can be tortured, that is the whole point!” he says, fishbowl eyes wet, grin wide. He picks up a small rock from the unpaved ground and begins smashing a pair until their heels are hanging precariously from their soles.
When he is done torturing the shoes, Baba starts digging with his hands. He places each pair, one by one, gently, with love, into its prison, or perhaps its grave.
“Are they imprisoned or dead, Baba?” I ask.
“Who knows. Maybe imprisoned. Maybe dead. All vanish. When they are imprisoned they end up in a hole. If they are dead, they stay in forever,” he says, covering up his hole tenderly, tenderly patting it down.
I sit down next to him in the dirt and work with him. This time I laugh with him as he grins, laugh at us both, madman and lovelorn, one nearing death and one wanting to die, abandoned by our disappeared.
When we are done, we head to the police station, across railway tracks and through a bazaar offering shrieking hens dragged out of cages and slaughtered for customers in front of their eyes so that they are still pulsing and warm when taken home to cook for dinner. Baba shuffles through the station courtyard unquestioned, past low-level constables swatting flies, scratching their paunches and undressing me with their eyes in the courtyard. We make our way through a hallway past a series of offices occupied by bored policemen, their armpits staining in the heat as they doze off or extract bribes from uncomplaining citizens. No one asks Baba who he is or what he wants; it is clear he has been here several times before, though he has never asked me to come with him before today.
“How are you, Baba?” a junior officer shouts through the barred window of a dark room off the hallway that is large enough only to hold him and his desk.
“I am the same as I was yesterday. Saeed is a disappeared.”
“I know, Baba,” he yells.
“He is a missing person.”
“Is he being tortured?”
“Perhaps. Only Allah knows.”
We keep going through hallways that smell of sweat and rusty iron until we walk into a room occupied by a lopsided steel desk, a slow-moving pedestal fan, and flies. At the desk sits a mid-level officer drinking hot, milky tea, sweating into it and slowly flipping through a ledger filled with records in dense handwritten Urdu. He acknowledges Baba with a nod and a grin, and me with a questioning stare. I explain that we are here to verify if one of the recovered bodies is Saeed’s.
“The bodies are at the morgue,” the officer states.
“Should we go there instead?” I ask.
“I will inform the concerned departments,” he responds. “When they have arrived at the morgue, we can go. Please wait. Only a few moments.”
For two hours and forty minutes after he has a monosyllabic phone conversation with the concerned departments, we sit at a bench in his office, waiting silently, perspiring, waving away flies. I crave a warm slug of the vodka in my bag and do not bother bribing the officer or asking further questions, knowing that the police have no answers in a country where law-and-order cannot tell intelligence what to do or what not to do or ask them what they have done or are planning to do, and I crave anything that will erase the questions about Asim that still overwhelm me every day, and are doing so now, and I desperately want to leave this place, but Baba’s grinning face chains me to the cane chair that is poking my back in several places. The officer stares at the wall clock, eats his chicken patties with ketchup, answers phone calls with his greasy hands, and listens to a stream of junior policemen coming in to ask his permission for menial tasks or responding to his yells into the hallway. A particularly sweaty errand boy brings tea for me and Baba. It is too hot and too sweet, but it would be impolite not to drink it. I sip it slowly.
At a minute to 9 p.m. the officer gets up from his chair. “It’s time for me to go home, Baba,” he says. “My colleague will be here soon. He will take you to the morgue.”
“Has Saeed been found?” asks Baba.
“He may have passed on, Baba. That is what you are here to see.”
“And if he is not dead? When will he be found?”
“One day. If he is alive. Inshallah.”
“Is he being tortured?”
“Only Allah knows, Baba.”
“Maybe I will see you tomorrow then.”
“Inshallah yes, you will still have reason to come tomorrow, Baba. Now I must go home.”
Today, though, the officer will not leave so easily. His phone rings. He frowns at it, takes the call, hangs up, throws his cap on his desk, and sighs. I stare at him, willing him to say something, or anything. With another sigh of complaint, he asks the tea boy to take Baba outside and asks me to stay.
“Madam,” he says.
“Some bodies have been found.”
“Yes. That is why we are here.”
“They are in…unpleasant condition,” he says, lowering his voice, raising one eyebrow as high as it is willing to go.
“I understand. Is one of them Saeed’s?”
“I have received word from the concerned departments that according to their preliminary assessment, one of the dead bodies is indeed that of Saeed Khan, son of Aalam Khan.”
Aalam Khan. I have not heard Baba’s name before. I find I would rather not know it.
“We will need Mr. Khan to verify and claim the body,” he adds.
“That is why we are here, officer. How many bodies are there?”
“Have they been tortured?”
He clears his throat.
“Madam. It would be good if you could speak to Mr. Khan. He is an elder. He may not be of sound mind. He does not understand, he is not prepared to see the bodies. It will be better if you have a conversation with him before you both come with us to the morgue.”
“But what if none of the bodies is Saeed’s? What happens then?” I ask.
A number chooses that moment to flash across the screen of my cell phone. It is a number with no name. It is a number I had deleted for fear of ever dialing it when drunk, or just despairing.
But from deep in my stomach, like vomit that also brings relief, rises a suspicion of what it is, and whom it belongs to. This ring, after one year and five months and three weeks, is a sound that holds the promise of answers. A sound that, after it digs a pit in my center and leaves me unable to respond and then dies, is followed by a message: a note from my disappeared saying he has come home, where he is waiting for me, where he is asking me to meet him. My sweat gone cold in the heat, I pull myself out of the cane bits poking into my back, walk out the office, walk past Baba and his questions in the hallway, and keep walking.
Asim comes back quietly, inserting himself into my life as if he had never disappeared. He starts slowly, coming by on occasion, then staying for sex, then taking me out to dinner, then spending nights, then moving back in. No questions are asked and none answered, but I can tell she left him, and he was lonely, and I was there, and that was that.
I live in fear of the day he will leave me again. But for now I am high on the intensity with which he says he loves me, on this sole answer that emerges to questions I dare not ask out loud. Occasionally I see Baba on TV, sitting in protest with other families of the disappeared outside the Sindh High Court, holding up that picture of Saeed, chuckling as he cries. One day I read a newspaper story about him; he has been sitting there every evening for the last year and a half, since the day he was made to see the bodies, which did not include Saeed’s, and held no answers to Baba’s questions. Since the day I left him behind in the police station, which he has now swapped for a court of justice, where he will go every day until he dies, or until his disappeared returns, dead or alive, or until he finds a new friend left behind by her own disappeared, a friend too lost in her own questions to feel the weight of his own.