FICTION: Mise-en-scène

This road, where the dark water in the little tributary of the Canal stills, has always been a peculiar corridor. The rush rush rush tears through the street on either side smoking driving talking hurrying worrying. Coiling and gurgling around a miserable, brown copse next to the water. Some stop outside the gates next to the Gymkhana. The Gymkhana’s walls are coated with barbed-wire. Others upset the traffic by waiting outside the school like doorstoppers. The flat land is in eternal summer. This road was once stippled by banyan and peepal trees. It joins the Canal to Jail Road. Now the banyans and peepals have left. The men on stained plastic chairs who hollered and peeked through the gates are gone. The rush grows stronger.

Palm trees send branches into the mouth of a terrible, beautiful banyan tree. The mouth is a hole through the trunk.

The Lahore Parks and Horticulture Authority used to tend to the wide spaces quite well. Everybody held their breath for a decade as a Rafi Landmark Plaza round the corner on Jail Road wriggled, tried to sprout. For years it was a deep hole. Then for a few more years it was a hole filled with wire and brick. Against all odds it finally succeeded. Soon the restaurants with café in their names opened next to it, but before long the restaurants had grown weary. The unrazed lots summoned appraisal by multinational franchises. Finally the technicolor façade of a Hardees appeared. It now takes not one but three lots.

Nowadays, for some reason, the patients outside the Surgimed Hospital on this road were exploding in number, but this too changed nothing about how this road felt. Most people were only allowed a few seconds on it. Most people had no invitation to be there. Few dholwalas came this way. There was no small roadside joint selling cigarettes or paratha rolls or flowers or sugar cane or nihari or kabab. Only uniformed children who got out of large vehicles. Or cars on driveways where they had to know someone who knew someone.

SARA sits on the single sandstone Parks and Horticulture bench.

For her, it feels like a long time ago. She couldn’t even remember what could possibly have filled her head then. What if nothing had filled her head? No, she thought. That could not have been true.

Sara the dramaturge has been thinking, for years, about the incongruity of capturing this singular road, much less understanding it. Much of the property was once bought by Rahim Bakhsh Khan Kakayzain. That was the story anyway. Nobody knew if the people who purchased the houses off of Rahim Bakhsh were actually Kakayzain. It was a very loose-limbed story, because it was of a place that hurried so fast no mind could reflect on it. Anyway, nobody bothered to. The Kakayzains, for some reason, arrived on horses, fearsome horses. Some settled in Shahdara. Others benefitted from Rahim Bakhsh’s fall from grace and subsequent return to Lahore. Some screamed and shouted about the shrine of the Sufi saint Miran Badshah in Masjid Wazir Khan. That wasn’t even close to where they supposedly lived, but anyway that’s what is said they did. The bazaar near the shrine was called Bazaar Kakayzain. No one was left to enforce the name. And no one knew what happened to all the horses, or the people. But the name stuck anyway.

There are more stories. There was one the men on this road told over and over. The one about that beautiful dancer, Moran-something. She was on the way to meet the Maharaja Ranjit Singh, but her shoes fell into the Canal. She was so distraught that, for some reason, she demanded a bridge be built as restitution. Then Ranjit Singh had sex with her inside Masjid Wazir Khan, and the Kakayzains were enraged that the Maharajah had and a courtesan had besmirched their beloved shrine, so they built the bridge to spite her. It did not make sense but anyway that is what is said. And ever since the bridge has been called Pul Kanjri. The slutty bridge. Many generations of people laughed and laughed, and many understood the story for what little it was: incoherent, but also… true. But was that bridge even here? On what side of the border did it end up? It didn’t quite matter. The stories were blind to the idea of being limited in space. The relative weight of imagined things here all culminating in this place.

There had to be a way, she thought, for all those horses, the property, a bridge, a shrine, a saint, and a tribe to somehow cohere into a story that explains why the Kakayzain who still identify as such only live in Shahalmi or in Shahdara. She could (maybe?) suss out whether what was seen as symbolism actually had a function. She could (maybe?) find a way to explain why the living Kakayzains were poor, but the ones who’d moved into the propertied class had either forgotten about their journeys and their horses, or just didn’t care.

Probably, most likely, they held it in their hearts and never spoke it aloud. It was all implicit. Like everything else that they inherited from their parents that was opaque and nonsensical.

“But you loved living here!” her mother had said.

Was that true? Maybe? Yes, perhaps it had been wonderful, in their house, on this road. The walls kept everything out: except for the noise which was ceaseless, yes, but that became a comfort to her in her childhood. The road was dusty and droopy and inert, but the thousands—millions?—who sped by saw something else. Big bulbous trees, life, leaky life, on this strip that held the most elite country club in the city. Rows upon rows of mansions, a hospital, a school; life, rear-ended, absent-minded; crammed life, men and women carrying the smells of exhaust smoke and figgy sap. The men on chairs. Sloppy-lipped, legs lifted, paunches bobbing, with twiggy smiles and ingenious jeers. They met the girls at their hems and cuffs, at the known unknowns up in tailored denim or down the end of kurtas. They gave second or third opinions on the girls careening around, pretending to see through them. Girls, and some boys, who were stolen away whole days and nights. Who went missing. Who thought about nothing but sex and assault. Who slept little and wept a lot. Prize horses on a tightrope between seduction and unimpeachability of moral character, slithering into air-blasted cars; holding in their mouths the throttled cries, low crunches on glass, pus-filled scabs, holding a million cruelties. In short, it was too much. And that made it enough, or almost enough, to delude her—Sara Khan of Zafar Ali Road—that this was the center of the world.

And perhaps it was, at least sometimes. But surely nobody deserved such brutal loveliness, she thought. The other residents of Zafar Ali Road probably thought that’s precisely what they deserved, but they also never gave space itself much thought. The Canal, the noise that later became “pollution,” the dust that later became “pollution,” the trees that later became “nature,” the cuts and sores that later became adults, it was all unimportant to these residents, because there were always bigger things to worry about.

Now they thought about it even less. Now with the expressways on either side feeding more traffic, and the noise and dust that had become pollution, suddenly this place was no longer charming. It had crossed the threshold into overly-spoken for, a brow-beaten state of being.

But sometimes, when the residents were far, far away, they would reminisce about the Zafar Ali Road of old, and wonder what the lives on that road had all been about, what their families were all about, what the dreadful, beautiful, tragic, funny, dainty lives of those clusters of children, girls like Sara who sprouted in teenage-hood like non-native trees; what this girl had really been about; what she was meant to illustrate; and what, growing in this fume-ringed place, all of them together had missed in their simplicity—happy, simply, to be trapped in flux.

She rises, walks slowly away from the bench, towards the nearest gate. She thinks very hard, but her mind remains empty. She looks very hard but cannot see any of it as a set of discrete objects, a unit of analysis. The road eludes any concept of a mise-en-scène. It eludes all things that attempt to capture motion, or reveal secrets in some psychic sort of way. Or some way of sorting a psyche with secrets. Or sorted secrets in the way of some psyche.

The stage was Zafar Ali Road. It was the only thing present. There was an idea of it as a causeway for people to rush in and out of, but the idea ran orthogonal to the lives of the people who were planted firmly onstage. Which was maddening to her, utterly infuriating. Interactive play producers would love nothing more. A drove of strangers marching across the stage in a steady stream from one end to the other. It would be horrible. The mimicry would be like an ultimate form of hypocrisy, for there was no subset of people here, except perhaps Sara, for whom the performance wouldn’t be ashamed of itself and missing the point, both at once. There would be no dignity in it. And it wasn’t that the performance had to be dignified; it just couldn’t be completely undignified.

At this she chuckled. Her deep frown melted, it just gave up; what was any of this for?— attempting to artificially render what was bizarrely un-real. It meant nothing, even articulated at length in post-colonial Punjabi patois. The whole archive lay empty; terrified of how capacious it may be forced to be, but: who would ever know how much? And the secrets. Oh boy, the secrets. Secrets, by definition, weren’t spoken out loud, so the truth ran orthogonal to dramatic principles.

Realizing all this, she flung her arms in exasperation. And eventually it just made her laugh. It was all sort of an emblem of her, and Zafar Ali Road’s influence on her; her, with her serious head with her serious thoughts that would make her family laugh at silly Sara who took everything too seriously. And here she was, reasoning that the act of representation anywhere anytime by anyone was itself immoral. Verisimilitude was too large an imposition on life. Or at least lives alive here. Lives she despised, of course, but was drawn to anyway. Lives in which she was complicit. 

She throws her head back, in a fit of laughter. Wild, bitter laugher.

Kamil Ahsan is a queer biologist and historian with a doctorate from the University of Chicago. Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, he is also a journalist, writer, and Reviews Editor at Barrelhouse. His work has appeared in or is forthcoming in Hobart, The Rumpus, LARB, The Masters Review, The Millions, Chicago Review, The A.V. Club, and others. You can find him on Twitter @kamuleosaurus

Image: "Taxali Gate", Muhammad Imran Saeed, from Flickr (cc)

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