Lost in Lahore’s Labyrinth: An Extract from The Return of Faraz Ali

The Mall, Circular Road, still seemed deserted. It wasn’t until they got close to the inner city that the streets became crowded with traffic: bullock carts laden with bulging sacks, donkeys braying as their drivers whipped them, a stream of men on bicycles vanishing into the morning fog. ‘Business as usual,’ George said as the car crept along behind a crowd of carts and tongas. ‘You’re new to this part of the city, sir? The walled city?’ Faraz nodded. ‘It’s always slow heading toward Heera Mandi Chowk, even early,’ George said.

‘It’s all right. It’s not as if this woman’s going anywhere,’ Faraz said. 


‘In the Mohalla, sir, anything’s possible,’ George said.


At Tarannum Chowk, by the cinema, a poster of the latest Shabnam-Waheed movie loomed; Waheed’s eyes and Shabnam’s pink lips just visible in the mist, like a broken face in the sky. When they turned into Heera Mandi Bazaar, he scoured the doorways, the open apartment windows above the stores, searching for something—anything—he might recognise, his body stiffening in anticipation. But the bazaar looked familiar only in that it looked like most others in the city. He tried to temper his disappointment; he’d always known he’d need another way to find his people—his memories, which were vague, fragments at best, wouldn’t lead him to them. They passed a line of shops that sold handmade instruments, dholkis, tablas, sitars, and then a stretch of function rooms where audiences came for dance, song, and, Faraz knew, the other things you could buy here. ‘This is where everything happens,’ George said, ‘the heart of Shahi Mohalla.’ Faraz scoffed. ‘This is the “Royal Neighbourhood.”’


George glanced at him. ‘I know it doesn’t look like much, sir, but it has a long history. Some of the artists who work here, their families go back generations, back to the time of the emperors.’


‘Artists?’ Faraz said. ‘You mean kanjaris.’


‘They prefer to call themselves tawaifs, courtesans, sir.’


‘What do you think they are, George?’


George paused. ‘I think,’ he said, smiling cautiously, ‘they give a lot for whatever it is they get in return, sir.’ He gestured at the window. ‘Over in that direction is Tibbi Gali, where the station is. Tibbi is where, let’s just say, the working women don’t know as much about music and dance as some of the kanjaris here. They sell one thing only.’ The buildings on either side of the road, four stories high, cast shadows over the narrow street. An ancient, ornate wooden door gaped, forlorn. The balcony of one house, lined with elegant arches worked into the stone, was shattered in places, its walls thick with grime. A banner hung from one side of the street to the other. On it was a picture of a heavy man, his expression severe, and the words CONGRATULATIONS TO PRESIDENT AYUB AND PAKISTAN ON A DECADE OF DEVELOPMENT! PROUD OF PAKISTAN! 


“‘Artists?’ Faraz said. ‘You mean kanjaris.’

‘They prefer to call themselves tawaifs, courtesans, sir.’”


George gestured to a doorway where a constable stood smoking a cigarette. ‘There, that’s it.’ He parked by a butcher’s stall. The mist drifted past the constable and in through the open windows of the building, and Faraz imagined it streaming through the rooms, circling the dead woman. Then, from somewhere, he remembered: a street corner, a pile of bricks. Strings of sehras hanging from a stall, golden and glittering, then a sehra around his neck, tickling his chin. His sister, Rozina. She was dressing him up as a groom, marrying him to a goat.


‘Shall we go, sir?’ George asked, ‘The sub-inspector’s already here.’


Faraz didn’t move; the memory had come so suddenly, so distinctly—not a shadow of a memory like most of them, and he was desperate not to let it evaporate. He had to concentrate to hold it in his mind’s eye.

‘You’re probably tired, sir. We’ll be very quick,’ George said, coming around to open the door for him. ‘You know what the dead are like.’ He smiled a little more broadly. ‘They wait for no one.’ ‘George, did you even offer Inspector saab some breakfast?’ A uniformed man pulled himself away from a cluster of men in front of a shuttered stall nearby and sauntered over, adjusting his cap.


‘Sub-Inspector?’ Faraz said.


‘Shauka, sir,’ he said, as if Faraz ought to have heard of him.


‘I expect you didn’t get much warning about my arrival.’ The man shrugged. Official channels are not open on this, Wajid had said, but the local police will be amenable. ‘They’re up early,’ Faraz said, nodding at the pimps at the stall. Shauka grinned. ‘Hardworking men, sir,’ he said. ‘I don’t think they’ve been to bed yet.’ He jammed his hands into his pockets. ‘I’m sorry we had to get you here so early, sir. We were all hoping for a little break after last night.’ Somehow, the sub-inspector had found time to shave. Faintly, on the right side of his face, Faraz could make out a darker patch of skin. A bruise. The work of one of the rioters? ‘But the kanjaris around here’ll get themselves into trouble no matter who’s in charge of the government.’


‘Shall we?’ Faraz said.


‘Sir.’ Shauka nodded. He looked up at one of the windows. ‘Third floor.’


“‘Finally you chutiyas decided to show up.’”


The constable moved aside to let Faraz by, and there it was again: a familiarity, in the way he readied himself to duck inside the doorway, in his reach for the wall, already knowing there would be no handrail. He drew back, slowing himself down. He looked around for the others. George was trotting back toward the car, which could not be left unattended here, and the constable was whispering something into Shauka’s ear, Shauka’s face impassive until he realised Faraz was looking at him. Then he smiled. ‘Be right with you, sir.’


The steps on the dark spiral staircase were so narrow, there was barely enough room for his boot. He climbed slowly, uncertain of his footing in the dark, passing the closed doors of other apartments. From above, someone thrust open a door and it hit the wall with a bang. Light leapt into the stairway.


‘Finally you chutiyas decided to show up.’


Faraz looked up into the light. He could just make out the outline of a woman, her long hair hanging loose around her face. ‘Come on then, Shauka, you behenchod, let’s see you do it, come and get this cleaned up like you always do.’ Her voice was shrill, breaking.


A boy, a teenager, came to stand next to her. He leaned forward and looked down into the stairwell at Faraz; he opened his mouth to speak, then froze. ‘Inside, Amma, inside,’ he said, pulling the woman’s arm back toward the open door.


‘Get off me, you bastard.’


Faraz hurried up, breathless. She stared at him, her face blotchy, her lip trembling. She looked about to speak, but then she slammed the door shut, leaving him with the boy. He was tall, thin, maybe fifteen years old. His hair was long, a choppy fringe falling into his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept, as if he never slept. ‘Up there,’ the boy said, gesturing to another flight of stairs.

Excerpted with permission from The Return of Faraz Ali, Aamina Ahmad

Publishing/‎ Westland Tranquebar (2022)

You can buy your copy here.

Aamina Ahmad, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Southern Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere; she is also the author of a play, The Dishonored. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota.

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