He was one-and-twenty, but his circumstances failed him

It was a big day for Murad. He was finally going to sit in the classrooms meant for students doing Masters at the English Language and Literature Department of Forman Christian College, Lahore. This was something he had been looking forward to for the last four years. He had, in fact, not applied anywhere else and the admission committee was keen to know why.

“This is my home. I topped university examination from this college. Besides everything else, I have an inexpressible emotional bonding with this department, for the mentors who groomed me, the friends I have spent four years with, and the person I have become over these years,” he answered to the admission committee.

The committee comprised of two of his mentors – Professor Tanvir and Professor Fasih. Accompanying them was the kind looking Professor Agha Atta, whom everyone in the department considered as the ultimate authority on John Donne, and the stern looking head of department, Professor Zia Qureshi.

Murad thought there was no one who could understand and teach English literature better than Professor Zia Qureshi, even though he was an extremely difficult person, a strict disciplinarian and a hard task master whose very presence terrorised every soul in the class.

“Who is your favourite poet?” Professor Qureshi asked.

“John Donne,” Murad answered briefly.

“Hmmm,” Professor Atta said, turning his chair across the table, “Recite us your favourite poem,” he directed Murad.

Murad went on to recite:

“When I was one-and-20,

I heard a wise man say,

‘Give crowns and pounds and guineas,

But not your heart away.

Give pearls away and rubies,

But keep your fancy free.’

But I was one-and-20,

No use to talk to me.”

Professor Atta smiled compassionately,

“This is not John Donne’s poem.”

“Yes sir, it is not,” Murad replied, “This is by AE Housman; the only poem I like more than any of John Donne’s.”

Professor Atta nodded his head in an enigmatic silent understanding.

“AE Housman was not in your syllabus, right?” Professor Fasih spoke to his rescue.

“Yes sir, it was not,” Murad responded candidly.

Professor Tanvir joined Professor Fasih in praising Murad on being a brilliant student.

“When I was one-and-20

I heard him say again,

‘The heart out of the bosom

Was never given in vain.

It is paid with sighs a plenty

And sold for endless rue.’

And I am two-and-20,

And oh, it is true, it is true,” Murad recited in his heart and thought of Zoya.

He wondered where she would be!

“Zoya, Oh Zoya, my darling, my sweetheart!”

Her name sprang out of his heart like an emotion that was hidden there since ages and grew too profoundly to be repressed anymore.

Zoya was the most attractive of all the girls, at least Murad thought so. She flaunted, rather casually, a bob that left her exquisitely golden neck naked and exposed. For Murad, that was the most commanding weapon of her beauté du diable.

He was an undergrad student at the department. Zoya was in her final year, which made her two years senior to Murad, who thought she was like a fire burning in a body which was unable to hold it. She was quite tom-boyish and roamed around with Ayesha, her rather shy friend, like an undisputed lady of the land.

Block D of Forman Christian College which hosted English Language and Literature Department was a sombre place except for the recess time when boys flocked around from all over the college. They gathered there every day ceremoniously, as believers congregated at their worship place. Since the college offered co-education only for the Masters’ program, undergrad students were often seen hovering around the classrooms, especially around the English Language and Literature Department.

The undergrad students of the English Language and Literature Department, who fed their fantasies with stories of DH Lawrence and John Donne’s otherwise unfathomable ballads, looked covetously at their seniors seen with their charming class fellows.

Professors, on the other hand, were very pleased with undergrad students for reading all available works of Lawrence and John Donne but they felt humiliated when a macho from some other department dared and succeeded in talking to a girl from Block D.

Some said that girls who talked to boys from other departments were frivolous and shallow. Zoya, they thought, was the worst of them; she was no lady, she acted as if she were one of the boys.

Murad, on the other hand, thought the boys who alleged Zoya of depravity and frivolity, were crazy. He liked Zoya exuding fun and energy like a happy butterfly that never seemed to get tired.

Murad lived with his family in Ichhra. His father worked as accounts clerk at a government office. They lived in a two-bedroom house that his grandfather had left for them. The bigger room served, simultaneously, as a drawing room, dining, and bedroom for Murad’s siblings in the night. His parents resided in the other bedroom.

There was another small room which originally seemed to have been built to be used as a store room. Murad had it renovated to use as a study room but later on he started using it as his bedroom too.

The room had book shelves fixed on two walls. There was a full-view mirror fixed on the wall that was right across the door. One could see his reflection in the mirror upon opening the door to his room. Beside the mirror was a wooden window that opened in the narrow rancid street.

Every morning, Murad rode his rather old bicycle to college. Lately, he had started leaving for college early. His mother was very happy that college life had made him punctual and disciplined. Murad would park his bicycle and rush to his classroom, D-57, on the first floor which had an extended terrace towards the lush green lawns of the block – the best spot in the college to keep a vigilant eye on the movements of the self-imagined rivals and also for feasting eyes on colourfully clad seniors among whom Zoya was the most gorgeous.

Every day, Murad stood at the terrace and waited for her to arrive. His eyes would follow her alighting from her chauffeur-driven car and proceeding towards the classroom. The 60 seconds his eyes would hold her view was all he looked forward to every night while he struggled sleeping in his small congested study-cum-bedroom. Sometimes, he would get up from his mattress, turn on the light and look at himself in the mirror from dozen different angles and make unusual hair styles and faces. This would go on for almost half an hour. He would then finally comb his hair back to his usual style, take a final look in the mirror and head back to the mattress.

Months passed by but he could not muster courage to approach and talk to her. His friends made fun of him for being shy and feeble. They told him a hundred different excuses to bump into her, but only if he could find courage. He followed her from a safe distance wherever she went, yet he secretly desired that she noticed him. Whenever he passed by her at an amusingly quick pace, he could hear her giggles following him until he had leapt past stairs to his classroom. His heart thumped hard and fast on such occasions and his body perspired. His being ached over his inertia and lack of courage to express to her the emotions bubbling and boiling in his wishful heart. She had that grace which engulfed him, and till he reclaimed consciousness, she would be already gone too far to hear his tumultuously thumping heart. He felt exasperated and humiliated for not being able to talk to her.

That afternoon, he had gone downstairs to drink water from the water-dispenser placed besides Zoya’s classroom. As he came downstairs, he saw her standing by the water-dispenser along with Ayesha, and his heart burst into passionate beatings. His eyes burned with anguish and he felt as if his hands were shaking because of some unknown craving. He was standing behind her, still, motionless and sweating. Suddenly, she looked back at him.

“If you like, you may drink water. We won’t mind,” Zoya pestered him.

“It’s okay. I am fine,” he overheard himself.

He did not move. He was silent again. His eyelashes dropped upon his eyes as if carrying some heavy burden. He looked at her feet. But he could not look up as if her feet had held his eyes there. Both girls looked at him and giggled.

“You are in the third year, right?” Zoya asked flaunting a naughty smile.

“No!” Murad expostulated. “I am in the fourth year. I topped in the third year.”

“Oh! Well, you have your classes in D-57?” she asked.

“Yes,” he spluttered.

“You must know who throws paper balls from the terrace, don’t you?” Zoya asked him and smiled at Ayesha as if she were having fun teasing him.

“No. I do not. I never did,” he explained looking at her for the first time.

“Wow! You have coloured eyes!” she flirted, “Well, you can play hooky along with us if you like. What do you say, Ayesha?” she winked at her.

“Thank you. But I have to go back to class,” Murad replied.

He cursed himself later for not agreeing to her offer.

“He is too shy, what would he do?” he overheard Zoya jesting with Ayesha going towards the lawn.

Murad didn’t have any water and rushed upstairs. He stopped only after he had reached the locked door leading to the roof. He was sweating and shivering. His heart was pounding breathlessly. He sat on the stairs until the bell rang. He heard the doors of the classrooms opening and shutting. He waited. A loud noise followed by the professor’s steps vanishing downstairs. He walked slowly to his classroom and sat there quietly, slowing his heart down.

For many days he burnt in anguish and humiliation when he recalled what she had said – that he could do nothing since he was so shy.

“What did she mean?” he thought over and over again.

He shut the door of his room and gazed at the roof while lying on mattress.

“Did she mean I was timid?” he thought again. “Did she wish to spend time with me?” he reconsidered some thousandth time. “She likes me, most probably, otherwise why would she be thrilled by the colour of my eyes? And she wanted me to play truant to stay with her. Yes. She certainly likes me.”

He got up from the mattress, turned on the light and stood in front of the mirror. He opened his eyes wide to see how visible his eye colour was. They looked brown. No. They were greenish brown. He was not sure. He opened the door and rushed to his mother.

Amma (Mother), what colour my eyes are?” he asked his mother.

His mother cast a surprised glance at him over the stove where she was cooking dinner, soaked in sweat.

“Why? What happened?” she asked.

“Nothing, I just want to know what colour my eyes are,” he inquired restlessly.

“Yours are hazel bhai, just like mine,” his sister told him from the bedroom.

“Don’t you think they are green?” he walked into the room.

“No. They are neither green nor brown. They are hazel eyes,” she replied.

“Okay!” he smiled and rushed back to his room.

He was excited and restless. He took off his shirt and stood before the mirror, watching his perfectly shaped body from various angles. He had a well-shaped, lean and muscular body. Then he took off his vest too and kept watching himself for quite a while from different angles.

He remained in the trance of their brief meeting near the water dispenser. He kept thinking and rehearsing different lines he would say to her if they were to meet again.

But they did not meet again.

He was just able to see her from the terrace in the morning. He decided that he would invite her out for lunch or ice cream. He soon realised that he did not have enough money to invite her for lunch at a decent place but he could afford to take her out for ice cream. Day after day, he kept improvising his plans in silent exhilaration and delight.

Then, one day, he read on the notice board that the fifth year students were organising a farewell dinner at the Block ‘P’ for the finalists. Apparently, he was not left with much time to talk to her. He was also afraid that she might feel offended considering him arrogant for not meeting her again after that day. He thought he should talk to her as soon as possible. He decided he would invite her out on the eve of their farewell dinner.

He wore his best suit and borrowed a matching tie from a neighbour, who studied at a fancy school. He planned everything in his head and went over it again and again. He was very particular about every, otherwise insignificant, detail. He told his father that they had a get-together at the college and asked for his permission to take his bike. His father told him that the bike was old and he should ride slowly so that it may not break down.

He had deliberately arrived early to find himself a place from where he might not be spotted. He parked the bike and adjusted his tie and hair while looking into the bike mirror. Then he walked past the ground, the cafeteria, and reached behind Block ‘A’ which was right opposite to Block ‘P’. He found himself a quiet corner from where he could keep an eye on the entrance. Soon, everyone started arriving. The dusk fell before everyone arrived. It made it easy for him to hide from everyone. The lights shone bright around the block.

Zoya had arrived with Ayesha and another friend. She stood there surrounded by her class fellows elegantly clad in a blue sari, gleaming like a pearl in dark blue waters. Her already exquisite neck looked more gorgeous than ever before. She smiled while she talked and her teeth shone bright under the silver light descending from the lamp post.

His heart thumped vehemently.

He got out of the dark, lonely corner, walked past the lawn and stood behind a tree beside the lamp post. Everyone had started going into the building but she still stood there with her friends.

Standing behind the tree, he cast a final glance at himself. Then he looked at her and all of a sudden, his being looked untidy to himself like a dog’s breakfast. His shoes, which he had bought just a few months ago on Eid, seemed old and worn out. His helplessness slowly consumed his excitement and restlessness. His whole body was perspiring. He walked out from under the shelter of the tree to the road leading to Block ‘P’. His thoughts were disarrayed; his mind chaotic but his heart drove him forward with an irresistible force.

He had taken just a few steps forward when Zoya, along with her friends, started walking towards the entrance of the building. They stopped at the door briefly. Someone, dressed smartly, was walking slowly towards them from Block ‘A’.  But then he stopped, and they went inside the building.

Murad called out her name but his throat ran dry and his voice got buried somewhere between his chest and throat. He stood there on the desolate road leading to nowhere, drowned in humiliation and an unfathomable longing. He was lost for quite a while. He turned back and slowly walked, numbed and disoriented, away from the dazzling lights of Block ‘P’ into depths of darkness briskly mounting all around him.

from The Express Tribune Blog http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/29901/he-was-one-and-twenty-but-his-circumstances-failed-him/

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