Fiction: Tilsm – A postcolonial dystopia

The artists for the cover art is Omar Gilani. you can visit the artists webpage by clicking here.

The crowd had gathered around some poor soul again, their only daily entertainment that still kept them sane, human, and manageable; interesting thought, Sahir wondered. Insanity and monstrosity is what is keeping these people tethered to their own humanity. Every time a crowd would gather for a lynching like this Sahir would feel a tinge of guilt somewhere in his stomach but it always passed as quickly as it rose. “Ghaddar!” the shouts echoed off of the high rise buildings and their stained purple shade, for a moment the archaic neon signs burned brighter as if joining in with the rage of the public. Purple… the color of shame and guilt, aptly colored city; there are only two kinds of people in this city, the guilty and the ashamed. Sahir was one of the latter or so he liked to imagine himself. “Stupid purple! Leave me alone” he muttered under his breath, “I can’t go around playing the superhero that saves people around here. I am well occupied with saving myself for now. Thank you very much.” He moved towards the crowd against his wishes. The air became thick with sweat and heat as he pushed the sea of on lookers aside to make way to a better vantage point. Between the people kicking and hitting he could hardly make out the person lying on the road his mouth bleeding and face bruised. He must have been in his mid-twenties. Ah to die so young, he sighed, well not too young I guess. “Sicko Sahir is now going to watch this shitshow? For what? So we can remember his face?” his reptilian brain said to him. “Damn bhai! For someone who claims to condemn these lynching you sure are very interested in this one right now. What up boy? You wanna go over to the dark side?” added his gut. Suddenly he muttered something under his breath and stepped forth panting with worry.

“There you are, thank god he is alive” the people beating the person on the ground stopped for a moment and looked at Sahir with a gaze that would have burnt someone alive. “Bhaiyon, he is only deaf and mute, not a ghaddar.”

“He will die today.” said a man in a white shalwar Kazmeez who clearly looked like the ringleader for the lynching crowd, his beady black eyes shinned with a calm tranquility against the brown of his well-kept beard as he stood a few paces away from the victim. “What kind of Pakistani is he if he can’t join the glorious fervor of the nation? Chalo!” he shouted his order and the crowd dispersed as quickly as it had gathered but not before a last kick to the face and a few spits on the man.

The bustling place went quite in an instant and Sahir was one the few left behind in the bazaar, the neon lights still emitting a faint purple glow as the day gently turned into night, lighting the entire place with a dead glow. Vendors’ shouting filled the air in the distance as the Sahir walked up to the man and took a long look at him. He was still breathing and conscious, even if barely.

“Get up big man! You live another day, can’t say if that’s a good or a bad one, but anyhow you are stuck with it now.”

“Argghh….” he groaned trying to say something.

“So you are neither deaf nor mute, just stupid I guess. Why did you not join in with the slogans that too while you stood right in the middle of the crowd?” He looked at the poor creature for a moment and his now-less-guilty-gut gave way to a pang of sympathy. “Ah! Hurt pretty bad are we? Let’s see.” He said, taking a closer look at his face and body. “Not hurt too bad I would say, now get up if you lie here all this will be in vain and you will be dead pretty soon.”

After a few minutes of helping him Sahir slowly got the man on his feet, and starred leading him towards the old residential area as he leaned on his shoulder. The last light of the day was well dead now, and the city groaned with the sound of machinery, the low humming lullaby of mechanical songs. They had walked towards the Old Assembly building on the mall road for a while; the building had half of its roof blown apart and was an abandoned drug den now. Sahir had been there a few times but now he was smarter than putting his neck on the line for the adrenaline of being free outside, he was content being free inside his apartment where he could not be caught. He was also smarter than to listen to the voice in his head that urged him to shout “Bharat Mata ki Jaye!” every time he saw anything related to the Last War. He didn’t care for Bharat or any Mata but nonetheless the thought was a refusal to senselessly base his sense of self in opposition to someone else. Thank you very much, he would think to himself, I am just Sahir and I don’t think I need an antithesis. They walked on the boulevard for a while when Sahir slowed down and sat the man down.

“Sit here. I will be back in a jiffy.” He said and disappeared in a shanty old clinic bearing a screen playing the same advertisement over and over again of a bearded Hakeem selling herbal concoction with a logo in the corner reading “Aslam Dawakhana”. The advertisement had a mind-numbing monotony to it like a cycle of event resistant to any deviation or change. Sahir came out of the clinic with a brown packet in his hand and took out two pills; he put one in his mouth and offered the other to his companion.

“Wh… what is this?” he coughed the words out of his mouth.

Mardana kamzori ka ilaj,” Sahir howled with laughter at his own genius. “Ha! Just kidding man, it’s a heroin pill, Hakeem sahab’s own creation. He calls it heroine; low dose, heavy euphoria. Want it or are you a mullah?” he winked slyly at the confused simpleton. He waited for an answer in vain and realizing that his genius was wasted on this man, he put the second pill in his mouth too and shrugged, “Whaaat? I can’t disrespect the drug, once is it out of the bag someone needs to pop it.”

They walked on towards Queen’s road for a mile and boarded a rusty old tram. The tram system connected the city in absence of any proper roads or access to vehicles, the only people who had private vehicles were the government and the Jamiat both of which used their jeeps to patrol the city. The Jamiat used to be the student body of a political party before the Last War, but now it was the unofficial government in much of the country; this happened after the merger of Jamiat and the dictatorship when “Mohsin e Milat” assumed office 25 years after the war. The country was in shambles, much like today, and the new dictator was part of Jamiat in his younger days and saw the organization fit to lead the public in these times of moral and social decay. So the Jamiat was made an arm of the army; a volunteer group trained in mêlée combat to maintain public order.

The tram creaked as it passed over a bridge between tall buildings with screens playing videos of patriotic fervor listing all that the army had done for the county. The movement of the tram made a soft constant hum that washed over the sounds of the city.

“What is your name by the way?” Sahir inquired.

“I am not sure, I do not remember much.” the put his fingers to his temple in agony.

“My name is Sahir. I am going to call you Bhutto! Kiun ke jaani tu zinda hai,” he cracked a smile pregnant with hope and excitement, but having met with a confused gaze sighed, “oh wow second joke in a row, that’s rough!”

“I don’t get it. But sure I’ll keep the name, I don’t remember mine anyway.”

The tram was entirely empty apart from a woman sitting on the other end, her fingernails caught Sahir’s eye; a dark shade of blue. It was chipped at places and the pigmentation was not even throughout, he noticed and thought to himself, she must have made it at home; no way she got nail paint off of the black market, that shit is crazy expensive. But it lifted his spirits nonetheless, it was rare to see any semblance of color or joy in the city, apart from the neon signs and ugly high rise buildings colored in horrid shades of purple. The tram slowed down and then came to a halt, Sahir gazed out to see where they were; they were around the old city stadium that served as Jamiat’s court now. Public hearings and a mockery of justice, glad to know the stadium still provides entertainment (and not justice) as it was originally intended to, he giggled to himself at the thought.  Having bombed his last two jokes he was unsure how receptive his companion was to humor, maybe he had damaged the part of the brain that understands humor, his mind rambled, it wouldn’t be a surprise, he was beaten up pretty bad. In either case, he decided his own self was the best audience for his witticism. His pleasant musing was interrupted when two young men in white shalwar kameez entered; both of them had a black band on their arms, which meant they were part of the Jamiat. The tram creaked and started again, continuing its song of monotony.

“Keep your head down and mouth closed. Jamiat goons.” Sahir whispered to Bhutto.

“Who?” he returned.

Sahir gave him a look filled with danger and urgency putting an end to all further questions.

The two men walked the entire length of the tram surveying the empty seats. Sahir noticed that the woman has tightly clenched her shawl over her hands, hiding her nails that could get her into bad trouble. They reached the end of the tram, looked at the woman and started walking back, the entire place felt silent as if the scene held its breath for their verdict; was the place patriotic enough, islami enough? They took a seat in the middle of the place and the scene caught its breath again, a sigh of relief. The rest of the journey was quite and uneventful, the tram slowed down again at the model town junction where Sahir got off and Bhutto followed.

“By the way, I didn’t think of it but why are u following me? I mean I don’t even know you and never really thought this through. Where do you live? Or you can’t even remember that.” Sahir began as he led the way into a quiet part of the city. The entire place was filled with bridges and flyovers for the military’s use, but underneath the ugly concrete the place lay silent.

“I can’t remember,” Bhutto replied, “I don’t know anything, not who I am, where I am or why is this place so weird. What’s the jamiat or why were those people beating me.”

“Hmmm. No issue, you can come with me.” Sahir looked at him for a moment as if scanning him for something and then walked on.

They reached a giant concrete pillar supporting a concrete bridge. At the front of the pillar was a metal door and a window, Sahir put a key to the door and turned it. The door unlocked with a pleasant metal click and they walked in. Inside the pillar was a building, a normal building that you could not have guessed was inside a pillar.

“Lack of housing, the government turned all pillars that were huge enough into apartment complexes.” Sahir explained as he walked through the dull and ugly hallway. The walls had white tiles from ground till halfway to the ceiling, and then a grey paint. The entire scene was lit by obscenely white lights that made a point to show you how ugly the entire thing was, the entire place was identical, apart from different numbers on each door.

They walked to the end of the hallway and through another door that opened to a flight of stairs. Slowly they ascended a few floors and exited into an identical hallway. Sahir led the way and stopped in front of a dark wooden door that had the number 4-7 on it; he put a key to the door and opened it. Both men disappeared into the room.

                        *                       *                    *                      *                    *          

The sudden change from an offensively lit hallway to a dim room hit Bhutto’s head with a pang, it took a second for his vision to reorient itself to the dark room; a lamp was lit in the corner of the room throwing an orange hue in the cramped place. It was a small room that clearly served as a bedroom, living room and kitchen, a door at the back led to another place and a glass door looked out into a tiny balcony.

“Sit here,” Sahir gestured towards the couch, “I will be back in a moment.” He went through the door into some other room.

Bhutto looked at the room and wondered how different it looked from the hallways, it had posters and pictures on each inch of the wall and different colored lights. The three things in the room that took most of the space were the bed, a desk with a large computer system and the kitchen area made of a row of cupboards, a counter and a stove. Behind the desk on the wall the same poster had at least a dozen print outs; most of them painted over. The poster supported the picture of a man in military uniform and a well kept large beard, underneath his picture the text ran in Urdu “Mohsin e Milat”. After a moment Bhutto thought to himself, oh wow I can read, didn’t know that. At least I know something about myself now, we will figure it out piece by piece I guess.

“How is your face feeling?” Sahir entered the room with a bowl in his hand, “Let’s see how badly you are hurt.” He was mixing a colorless fluid with a wooden spoon.

“It still hurts.” Bhutto responded.

“This ought to help,” he muttered something under his breath and blew on the cup and slowly the mixture turned light green.

“How did u do that?”

“Huhhh,” he chuckled, “drink up big man, you’ll feel better.”

Bhutto put the bowl to his lips and the fluid slipped down his throat, tasting like spoiled meat at first but then slowly its texture and taste changed and it smelled sweet as honey and hot spices. He gulped it all down and was left with a sweet tangy aftertaste in his mouth. He sat there silently watching Sahir; he was unwrapping something that looked like a large old cassette and his eye lit up at the sight of it. He set the cassette on the desk and sat down on a chair, just intently looking at it, a few moments passed and he blinked and looked as if coming back to the room from the wilderness of his thought. Putting his hands behind his neck he unclasped a deep red locket he was wearing on a golden chai; the moment it came off his neck a think veil came off from his appearance and he changed into an entirely different person. Bhutto got up startled with worry of a fancied impending danger.

“What?” Sahir looked at him. “Oh! Don’t worry this is nothing, just a tilism to stay safe on the streets in case they ever track me or find me suspicious.”

Bhutto looked at Sahir and studied this new person in front of him; he looked no older than in his early twenties, slender with a hooked nose and slick black hair that fell to his shoulders.  His face was not particularly good looking and his figure looked oddly disproportional. One of his arms was completely mechanical from the elbow down, made of metal and wires mimicking human bones and nerves.

“So… magic?” Bhutto inquired.

“Yes, magic; to convince the crowd to leave you, to heal your wounds and to change my appearance.”

Bhutto suddenly realized that his head or face or body did not hurt anymore, rather it felt soothed. He was puzzled and fascinated with Sahir but also apprehensive of what he was getting himself into. The world was an odd unfamiliar place to him but even he knew Sahir was in trouble or will be in trouble for all he does, and he was unsure how willing he was to join this man.

Sahir took out an odd looking machine from underneath the desk and started setting it up with his computer, pulling wires and linking the two things. He put the cassette in the machine and turned on the computer. The screen displayed an odd assortment of colors and numbers, Sahir started typing and the things on the screen began falling together like a puzzle pieces. A few moments later a text formed reading “Tilism e Hoshruba: The land beyond”. And the screen showed a loading bar showing something being uploaded.

“What is all this?” Bhutto inquired.

“This is hoshruba, our freedom.” Sahir said, beaming with satisfaction. “But of course you don’t know what that means, lemme explain. Before the war the government had a hibernation project to see if they can keep people hibernating to wake them up in a better future. To keep the brain safe they would take all the memories and store them outside the brain, it made any chances of brain damage due to hibernation very unlikely. Many people signed up due to bad economic situation and widespread poverty, but also the filthy rich who wanted to live in a better future. Obviously private businesses popped up offering even better offers and lucrative deals that could be your ticket to a future Pakistan. Soon the war broke out and the project failed, thrown into the pile of things forgotten about and were just simply left in the old world. By the way you were probably one of those people, hibernating, I think, that’s one sane explanation of why you don’t know anything. Check if there are incision marks tracing your spine.”

Bhutto put his hand under his shirt running it along his spine and felt holes on both sides of his spine, his stomach dropped and a feeling of dread crept on him. What did this mean? Was he from another time?

“This cassette is a memory file. There are so many of these all over the region, but they are hard to find. The project has been lost for more than a century, we collect them and upload them on Hoshruba. This way anyone can access these files and live the past.”

“Who is ‘we’?”

“I don’t know; I just know myself. Hoshruba surfaced a decade ago from what I gather, I discovered it from word on the street and tried it once. Ever since I have been collecting these cassettes and uploading them. There are at least a few dozen other people doing that regularly, and many more who use the cloud.”

“So what do u do with these memories, do you have any idea where my memory file might be?”

“I don’t know man, unlikely that we will come across it. But what we do with these memories is make a world out of it. Hoshruba is a world of the past, each memory adds to the simulation and creates a world more real than before, this way we can escape this one and live our lives in the past.”

“Which past exactly, how many years ago do you go?”

“Hunh,” Sahir chuckled, “Which past? The past is one; all of it. You can go anywhere you want and whenever.”

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This short story was written by Balach Khan

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