The Sharpness of Grass Blades
Forget about Pakistan for a while. You are on King Street, Newtown, Sydney and, here, you don’t see the moon-swallowing powdered horseshit and the smoke of two-stroke auto-rickshaws that choke the sky above Lahore. The winter sky is clear and vast, the stars glowing. The Friday night crowd of merry Sydneysiders is around you. Gay and straight couples slosh around bars and clubs as drumbeats thump the air. It is an important night of your life and you are here to mark the occasion. You take off your watch and hold it across your right palm. It is an ersatz digital, with its logo already peeled off. Mostly black plastic with a rectangular greyish display panel. You bought it from Zero Point, Islamabad, four years ago. The Pahari vendor had a taut, leathery face and a goitre that reminded you all you had heard about the Potohar plateau. That the region lacked iodine. That there was a mosque in the Khewra mines wholly carved out of salt. You wondered if prayers offered there were different somehow, or if the ablution water could wash away the foundations one day. Did the salt-miners ask for something specific from Allah? When the man announced the price, you haggled a little bit, just out of habit or, perhaps, necessity. From sixty rupees to forty. Theek hay, babu jee. Not bad. So far you have only had to change the battery once. Tells accurate time. 11:57:19 p.m. In two minutes and forty-one seconds, the date will change. And with it also your legal status in Australia. Today is the last day of your visa and, very soon, from an international student, you will become an illegal non-citizen. You have to be careful, Muhammad Aslam, son of Abdul Jamal, permanent resident of nowhere, because your passport from the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is a piece of evidence against you. You wait for the date to change.
Today, from an internet cafe, you checked the website of the department of immigration and multicultural affairs. It informed you of your options: if you are an illegal non-citizen, you should voluntarily present yourself to the department; otherwise, the Compliance Officers will come looking for you. They can also confiscate your property to recover the costs of mandatory detention and deportation. Your property, three pairs of pants, five shirts, some unwashed socks, an old electric heater for the winter, a portable fan, an ancient computer, and one Sialkoti leather jacket that you are wearing, cannot pay the cost of even one night’s detention. The site did not tell you anything new. Visas, like everything else in the world, are linked with money. A healthy balance in the bank can get you a tourist visa. About fifteen thousand dollars can get you a year in a university. Half a million can get you permanent residence as an investor. But your banking habits are totally different. When you see an automatic teller machine, your eyes instinctively drift towards its surveillance camera. They can trace your movements on all the main streets of Sydney with all the ATMs, zoom on your face, match it with your passport photo, and track you down. These thoughts turn your viscera into a small bundle, as if ready to run. The date has changed.
You have to find a new place, the immigration people know your present address. Try to find a job that pays cash. No card swiping at supermarkets anymore. Avoid well-lit public places like the Central Railway Station, George Street, and Oxford Street. The back-streets of Redfern are good for you and your skin. Tomorrow, try to catch your housemate when he is not baked and tell him you have to move. Tell him you are moving to Darwin. He will ask why. Say you are planning to live with an Aboriginal family. That will silence him. It won’t hurt him if you leave no forwarding address. Those compliance guys won’t be rude to him. He has the right kind of epidermis, the kind that demands politeness. His social security cheque will keep coming through with minor glitches every now and then.
Get up and walk home. On your way, you can learn some French kissing from this couple leaning against the poster-plastered wall. Don’t gawk. Walk as if you are expecting to run into your girlfriend soon. She is one of those girls who can never decide which bar of chocolate to buy from the corner shop. She will be coming towards you any minute, a bit tipsy, swinging her brocaded handbag on her wrist, a bar of chocolate in one hand, holding the lapels of her overcoat with the other, her hair pins slightly loose. You will hold her hands, kiss her lips, and hail a cab. You two will sit in the back seat, her head resting on your right shoulder, the perfume rising from her neck will warm your breath. She will offer you a bit of the chocolate on the way to a block of apartments on the North shore. She has rich parents or owns an advertising agency or a boutique in Darling Harbour. Inside her apartment, she will turn up the heating with a remote control and guide you to a large bed. The lights will be dim and the mattress will have warm undulating water in it. As you two slip between the woollen blankets and thick cotton sheets, you will tell her that you like the smell of the fabric softener, and ask her which brand she uses. With her nails on your belly, she will trace the maps of different countries and say she likes you because you notice these little things. Try not to think about the fulminating mullahs of Lahore when she wraps her mouth around your penis. Afterwards, with her smooth back against your chest, she will ask if you would like to migrate as her de facto partner. She will also say she needs you in Australia for her own happiness and even be a bit demanding so that you don’t feel obliged. Tell her you cannot decide right now because there are shards of broken beer bottles on the footpath. She will understand.
The light in the dirt-stained windows of the house tells you Mike is home. Put your hands in your pockets and walk in like nothing has happened. He is probably gazing at his lava lamps by now. Go through the weatherboard corridor, open the door of your room, grope for the light switch and turn it on. Some unwashed clothes are in a white plastic basket in a corner, the rest around it. The laundry can wait. The bed is in the centre of the room, with the wheels of a suitcase and some computer cables visible underneath it. When you slip under the blankets, the damp mattress sags like a hammock and you can feel the monitor pressing in your lower back. You lie gazing at the dirt-coated gossamers sticking to the ceiling, waiting for your body to warm the foam. The cobwebs came with the room so you won’t have to clean them when you leave. Mike won’t be fussed about these things. Not with his hobby of maggot farming in takeaway pizza boxes. The landlord has stopped knocking on the front door as if the door can infect his knuckles. Now, once a month, he parks his Holden Barina outside and honks for the rent, smoking a clove-scented cigarette. If you can find some place safe from the compliance squad, moving out is not a big problem,.
The mattress still feels like a water-hole. Do you want to wait till you get pneumonia? That can be a problem. You can already see the headlines flashing across the world. One Pakistani Muslim, unshaven, with an expired visa, and a bad case of pneumonia, taken in custody in Australia. No link with Osama established yet. No, you don’t want any headlines. Go and get the heater. Now, if Mike is using it, it will be impolite to unplug it. You should have put it in your room before going on that brooding session on King Street. You should get rid of your habit of prolonged brooding over every little event. Although becoming illegal is not trivial, it is not too big a deal. How many amigos in America are legal? No, but you risk being dubbed as a terrorist. But why you? Because of the place of your birth. It is not your fault if you look at it objectively. The most important things took place when you had no control, when you did not exist, when you did not have a self, when you were in the veins of your father and mother. You did not have a choice when he pushed some sperm cells out of his urethra and deposited them in her uterus. A random accident, the collision of one spermatozoon and an ovum, catapulted you into being. And things got worse when you could not choose your place of birth, your parents and their world-views, your language, your neighbours, your street, your town or your country. Yes, you never chose to be born in that Crapistan. According to one Pakistani newspaper available online, six hundred and seventy three people chose emergency exit only last year in Pakistan because they could not live with the results of such an undemocratic event. Yes, the birth of a human is a brutal event, totally devoid of the consent of the self that is going to have to live the consequences.
The problem is that you cannot walk up to the immigration guys and say, "Look, man, I did not choose the place of my birth. Someone just pushed me out into that part of the world totally without my approval or consultation." Those dudes, with their pink necks bulging over their collars, will probably just look at you like they were wiser than you even before they were born. "Bad luck, mate," they will say before putting cold metal on your wrists and packing you to a nearby detention facility. You will try to convince them of the totalitarian nature of chance, and they will say, if they are in a good mood, "Sorry, mate, we have to follow the orders. Can’t help you." Fair enough. So you have to avoid them and live your life. And if you want to remain alive, you’d better find the heater because you can’t dry this ocean bed with your body heat.
Get up, put on the slippers, go to the lounge, and get the heater. The bulb in the corridor spreads its uneven, tubercular light on old shoes, abandoned bike tyres, body boards, roller skates, broken joysticks of video games, a torn scrabble board, cardboard boxes with old audio tapes. You can hear Mike’s tripping music coming through the closed door. You open the door and peep in. Mike’s lean frame is spread on the sofa, his pallid face towards the ceiling, eyes closed, his long hair spread over a cushion, and two wooden speakers next to his head pouring forth trance rhythms in comfortable volume. The room has the sticky and dark green smell of weed. Scattered across the table in the centre and down on the floor are wooden smoking pipes, glass bongs, CD covers, porn and fashion magazines, video tapes, paperback crime and fantasy novels, video game cartridges, and several cables going in the shelf on which his stereo, VCR, game console and TV set are stacked. The heater is next to Mike’s feet.
"Mike? Are you awake?"
"Yeah. How’re you going, mate?" He opens his eyes, sits up, turns his long, bony face towards you. You walk into the room, on tiptoes, ready to withdraw any minute. You often feel you have done something wrong when you are dealing with him.
"Fine. How are you?"
"Not too bad. A bit baked though. Where have you been?"
"I walked up to King Street and came back. Nothing special."
"Do you want to smoke some hydro stuff? This shit will knock you out."
"No, thanks. That shit makes me paranoid."
"Fair enough." He picks up the remote control and starts flicking the channels of the mute TV. You have to share Mike’s mental states to talk to him.
"We could have some drinks together." You try to be social.
"Yeah, we could. Do you have anything? I’ve got four stubbies in the fridge."
"I have a cask of red."
"Beauty. Let’s drink then."
You get up and walk to the kitchen. The kitchen is a display of your recent efforts at dhal and Mike’s at mashed potatoes. First, the beer. Take the bottles to the lounge and place them on the table. Then, the cask. Take it out of your shelf, find two clean glasses. Back in the lounge. Sit on the sofa and pour beer in the glasses. Cheers. To life in general. Lean back and drink your beer while staring at the muted faces of TV evangelists. When drinking, you like to listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali but you can’t play anything that reminds Mike of how his nirvana train got derailed in India five years ago when a fellow passenger offered him a tumblerful of morphinated bhang lassi. He was waiting for the bhang to kick in when the afternoon sun suddenly fell from its hook. He woke up to find a moustached policeman astride his belly and giving him a mouth-to-mouth. To this day, he cannot tell whether he first responded to the resuscitation attempts or the tickling in his nose caused by the upwardly mobile moustache. Now he only uses familiar chemicals and is already eying the cask. Don’t try to compete with him because he drowns his munchies in alcohol which he then digests with marijuana. And you also have to drink slowly because you have to ward off the thoughts of uniformed guys with sniffers storming the house. You wonder if the dogs can be trained to detect the presence of melanin behind closed doors and walls. You want to blunt the serrated teeth of such thoughts with alcohol.
Mike is already at the cask when you finish your beer. Seeing your glass empty, he fills it with red wine. The vinegary taste of cheap wine spreads itself on your palate as the stereo pushes into the room some electric squeals punctuated with a programmed beat. You drink the wine in quick gulps, place the glass on the table, pick up the cask, rest the spout on the edge, fill it, and keep drinking. You listen to whatever music Mike plays and drink steadily till your stomach feels soused, your scalp goes numb, you can hear the blood behind your eardrums, and you have to look at one point to stop the walls from swinging.
"Mike? Are you drunk too?"
"Not really. Just a bit tipsy and stoned." The stub of his latest joint is still smouldering in the ashtray.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Do you know that Australia recognizes a homosexual relationship as a valid reason for immigration?
"The partners only need to live together for a year or so. Have a joint bank account and two witnesses saying the relationship is genuine. That is all. Do you think you can help someone migrate like this?"
"No, I am not a poof or something." His knuckles protrude as his hand tightens around his glass.
"Yeah, I know. But that is not the issue."
"I don’t want to do anything dodgy."
"But you do that every fortnight, in your social security forms, about the number of job interviews you have done. You copy the phone numbers from the yellow pages."
"Yeah. But that’s my life, none of your business." The muscles around his neck become tight ropes. "Is it you who wants to migrate like this?" Once the question is out, the ropes hang loose.
"No, not me." Having seen his tense neck, you have to lie.
"Who is it, then?"
"A friend. He thinks he can even become gay to be able to leave Pakistan."
"I can understand. Sorry, I can’t be of any help."
"It is ok. It was just a hypothetical question."
"No worries, mate." He is calm again, his hand relaxed around the glass.
Shit. Your soaked brain has just made one grand mistake. When the compliance squad comes knocking, he will know what you were talking about and tell them everything, including this conversation. You should get back to your room and don’t forget the bloody heater.
"Mike, I think I should go and lie down. I am not feeling very well. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have mixed the drinks." You have to give some queasy excuse while he is still drinking.
"Oh, ok. Take it easy, mate."
"You too. Thanks for the beer."
"Thanks for the wine."
"No problem. I’ll leave the cask here for you. Can I take the heater to my room?"
"Yeah, sure. Have a good night."
In your bed, with the light off and the heater lending a reddish glow to the room, you lie listening to the liquids rippling in your stomach. There is no sign of any compliance team so far. Maybe it will be a while before they get the data from all the air and sea ports. You should become invisible before then. If possible, by the end of the weekend. Try to sleep for tomorrow you need to pack your things and look for a place. You lie waiting for sleep but your mind does not shut down. The sniffers are there again barking themselves hoarse, pulling the officers behind them. It is difficult to sleep and you think maybe masturbation can help. Your left hand moves to your soft penis. You try to conjure up a fantasy to get some stiffness but your mind seems to be incapable of desire. Nothing erotic appears in front of your closed eyes. An Australian sheila appears for a while but you cannot even remove her clothes without thinking about how she will react when she finds out you are illegal. Probably she will inform the police so you have to apologize and let her enjoy the beach. If you conjure up a Pakistani girl, you cannot even think of sex without marriage because if her father or brothers catch you they will blow your head off and your fantasy will turn into a snuff movie.
Try to think of something erotic. What about the American anthropology student who was writing her dissertation on the correlation between displacement and ontological insecurity among the Afghanis settled in Lahore and you were her guide during the fieldwork trip. Her svelte body moved with a lyrical grace in the slums. You used to fancy her riding your naked body, shouting your name in her New England accent, Az-lam, oh Az-lam. No, this will not work either. Her country supported the Islamization drive of Zia-ul-Haq during the cold war and she never condemned her government, not even once. What about a prostitute in King Cross, a surgically enhanced figure, no hassles, no questions about your past, present or future? She can coo the menu items: 25 dollars for a hand job, 40 for a blow job with the clothes on, 60 with the clothes off, 100 for everything except lip to lip kissing, 200 for an hour of total abandon, still no lip to lip. No, you want to kiss her lips. But you don’t have that kind of money. Just fantasize that you are very rich and can pay for everything. Yes, this works and you have an erection. Play with yourself while a discreet girl from an elite establishment is being unhurriedly nice to you. Yes, yes, money has magical powers. Now, turn off the heater and sleep.
The morning is giving way to midday when you wake up with a heavy head and ears that amplify every sound from the street. Sounds of families coming back from their weekend shopping trips. The sounds of excited women and children drive by in revving cars. The sun streaming through the window lights the floating dust in the air. Out of the bed. Walk through the cluttered kitchen towards the toilet on the right. Lift the plastic ring, climb onto the porcelain rim, and squat. This sub-continental way of shitting is harder to get rid of than the guilt over drinking and eating whatever can be chewed. Don’t forget to throw some toilet paper in the bowl to avoid the splashes made by the navy commandos. Thanks to the dhal you can unload quite a lot, even after your visa has expired. The air is thick with the pungent smell of fermented turmeric, garlic and malts. Open the door a little to be able to breathe.
Outside and about a kilo lighter, you feel like having some coffee and toast. Rummage through the kitchen shelves. No bread. Ok, just coffee will do fine then. Boil the water, throw some ground coffee in the plunger, pour, wait, plunge and find a clean cup. Wash one. Mix half a tablespoon of sugar. Carry the warm cup to the backyard where empty beer bottles and silver wine bladders grow wild in the grass that waves like the ocean. The landlord used to mow the lawn. But when he noticed the clutter in the house, he told Mike that he would wait for the grass to die in the frost. Wipe the seat of a plastic chair with your shirtsleeve and slouch, resting your feet on an old oil can. Sip your coffee, squint towards the sun and brood over your bright present. It may be possible to find a place. Avoid the real estate agents because they want documents and references. You have to look at the notice boards near the Fischer Library or the online list maintained by the Sydney university where students and pensioners advertise spare rooms and granny flats. The coffee is finished and the sun has warmed your scalp and shoulders. Place the cup under the chair, let the grass take care of it, for it is time to go and look at the advertisements.
On your way out, you step into your room, pull a sweater from the laundry basket, stretch it over your torso, and lock the door of your room even though the only thing that you can lose is the dust in the air. Walk through the interminable lanes of huddled houses of Macdonald’s Town, onto the main road, past the cafes, money lenders and pawn brokers, jaywalk across to the Victoria Gardens and take the pedestrian shortcut through the lawn. The bright winter sun makes the shapes of garden plants and trees crisp against the gothic sandstone architecture. A newly wed couple, with their rented stretch limo parked in front of the main entrance hall, is being photographed by a man in a perfectly tailored black suit. Ignore them. Don’t look back. Keep walking.
This story originally appeared in The Mississippi Review, Volume 12: Number 1, 2006.
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