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Adam’s Progeny

Khalida Hussain
Document type:

    Adam’s Progeny


    Khalida Hussain (b. 1938) solidified her place among the leaders of Urdu modernist literature in the 1960s, when she wrote under her maiden name, Khalida Asghar. Among her more popular stories is “The Wagon” (“Savārī,” 1963), a psychological allegory depicting the effects of a human-caused catastrophe on a community. Although Hussain put her writing career on hold for a while, during which time she moved from India to Pakistan to raise a family, she has since returned to the literary scene with a number of stories addressing modern life—in particular, gender issues in South Asia. In what may be her most searing work, reproduced below, Hussain explores the horrors of the so-called war on terror. Based on news reports of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison, the author uses terrifying imagery to explore cruelty and hypocrisy.

    The helicopter’s huge rotor had not yet stopped whirling—sand was blowing all around. Perhaps it was not intended to be shut down. But no, maybe it has stopped and I am imagining it still running. Because events keep following one another continuously, sometimes an image of something meant to be forgotten is engraved in one’s eyes for a long time. Then, he rubbed his eyes and found them full of burning sparks. In his palms, between his fingers, and beneath his nails, nostrils, and ears, everywhere, the sand burned like sparks. There was a menacing dryness all over the place. Everything was at the point of cracking. He curled his toes inside his heavy boots; a sticky dampness there. The stench rose from his feet and stuck in his throat.

    He saw all of them…one, two, three…all five standing in front of the helicopter in a semicircle. He narrowed his eyes in the intense black heat of the sunshine and tried to catch a glimpse of the new arrival. To his surprise that lithe-bodied, uniform-clad man kept his flaming red face straight up. After exchanging salutes, they began to move in the direction of a convoy of vehicles. Now they were so close that he could see the glassy-blue marble-like eyes of the new arrival. They were not eyes but marbles, as is the case with their eyes generally. Actually he couldn’t see any special quality that would have recommended this man being sent from overseas. When the group got closer, the expert cast a cursory glance at him. Then the inspector said, “He’s our man.” After that, as was his habit, he twisted his mouth and laughed. “I would say he has become our man. Such people are very useful. We can’t do without them. If we hadn’t found such people our work would have become very difficult, almost impossible.”

    So far the inspector was under the impression that he did not understand their language very well. They had learnt a few words of his language. Those words were enough for everyday needs and also for some specific requirements. But he could understand their language really well, though he did not want them to know this. What a language it was—its words slithered hissing and spitting on one’s lips like the sting of a snake, always filling his mouth with a poisonous taste.

    Now they were all seated in the vehicle. He sat with the driver.

    “So what is the particular challenge that is bothering you all?” the expert inquired, cigarette in mouth.

    “We are not killing ourselves in this accursed desert to be driven mad by these reptiles. There is definitely something, some great mysterious, satanic power in them which refuses to be extinguished. Something like the dreams one has of men who live on even after they are dead. These men spring back to life moments after they are killed, following us, threatening to choke the life out of us. Such are the nightmares of this desert.”

    From his front seat he could recognize that this was the voice of the captain who had gotten the habit of kicking with his thick military boots the groaning, emaciated men who lay prostrated in the barracks. Once, when he thrust his hand in his pocket searching for a cigarette, a maroon wallet fell out with a thump and lay open. In it was the picture of a girl with corn-coloured hair and blood-red lips which were parted in a lustful way.

    “Oh.” The captain had immediately picked up the wallet and, leaning back against the burning wall of the barrack, delivered a solid kick on Hamza’s chest, as he lay gasping for breath. Then he broke into peals of uncontrolled laughter. Hamza, who used to be so healthy that we called him “Hercules.” But, after he was injured, the poison spread throughout his body, and in a few days he was reduced to a heap of bones. Now as the jeep drew close to the jail, he thought of all this, all the while sitting straight and unmoving in the seat.

    “Crushing a man’s masculinity is an art. And until you extinguish it, the weakest of the weak will keep troubling you, making life difficult, in other words driving you mad.” The expert still clutched a cigarette between his lips.

    Two soldiers who stood on guard opened the huge iron gate of the jail and saluted, smartly clicking their heels together. The jeep came to a halt near the barracks. The inspector gestured, indicating that he wanted him to come up nearer to him. Now he was standing amongst the five.

    The inspector was explaining (even though he thought this man didn’t understand much of the language) that he was a key man among the insurgents, and that he had fallen into their custody by a stroke of luck. He knows that one cannot live without food. And that nothing is more priceless than life itself. Death, in fact unalleviated death is an unbearable state of affairs. Everything else is empty imaginings that go up in smoke. He’s cooperating with us—that is why we have given him our uniform to wear. He has provided us intelligence about the biggest insurgent group. Then the inspector uttered a dirty expletive.

    “Hey, Amin ibn Sayeed. Your mother-father’s lamenting your death will be your only self identification.” Voices were boiling inside his head, unsolicited.

    “So he’s a very useful man, is that it!” The expert dug an iron finger in his chest as he spoke. This sudden movement pushed him from his position. Those around him bared their teeth.

    “What’s his name?” The expert’s eyes were made of stone. In fact his mouth was like a slit in blue rock. His lips barely moved when he spoke. Perhaps he always kept his teeth tightly clenched.

    “His name is Amin. He was a university student and the organizer of an insurgent group. Others like him are in cell number ‘000’. You will be happy to see them and appreciate our work.” The captain gave him a solid push, throwing him viciously against the wall.

    “Okay. I don’t have much time. I want to start work immediately,” the expert said, stepping out briskly. Then, the five men began marching. The captain pushed him along as they moved forward. All this time, the wound on his toe had been oozing blood, soaking his sock completely. Sharp waves of pain were coursing through his leg upwards to his neck like an electric current. Despite this, there was a strange feeling in his innards. A black churning was spreading through his stomach. It had been two full days since he had had anything to eat or drink. And all this because of Hamza.

    Abu Hamza, who was preparing himself that day for a suicide attack. Laila and Quddus were there too. They were in a small, airless room, in a ruined building surrounded by rubble, well hidden from the street. That day, after a lot of difficulty, he was able to salvage a few pieces of mouldy bread from the garbage. There was a bunch of people scouring the garbage for pieces of bread.

    On Laila’s cheek was a long deep scar. A shard had embedded itself there in the course of an explosion. Abu Hamza had pulled it out with his dissection forceps. Laila’s hands were icy cold with the intense pain, and her body was trembling. That day her father and younger sister had been driven out of their house and arrested. The arrestors were actually looking for Abu Hamza and Laila.

    Entire neighbourhoods had been stuffed into prisons on charges of terrorism. Before this, they had no idea that prisons could outstrip neighbourhoods. No one was permitted to go near the prisons.

    Abu Hamza put a bit of mouldy bread in his mouth and nearly vomited.

    “It’s full of bacteria. It’s better to choose your own death than to die from a bacterial infection,” Laila said, tying that belt around her waist.

    “But what will you get out of this? You will die and some of them. You don’t even know who among them or how many? Probably some innocent or untargeted people would get killed in this blast. Above all, what will your father and sister gain from this?” he had said to Laila.

    “Nothing can bring them any relief now,” Laila had replied.

    “I know. If Sakina is still alive, what state would she be in and my father.…” She lapsed into silence.

    “Do you want me to suffer the same fate as Sakina?”

    “No. No.” He had immediately replied, and at once got up to help her adjust her belt and set the device. Laila was very calm. He took both her hands and held them between his. At that moment there was a soft warmth about them. Her brown eyes seemed darker than ever. Suddenly he felt embarrassed. He let go of Laila’s hands. She calmly lit a cigarette. She had become addicted to smoking in her university days. She leaned back against the wall, and closed her eyes composedly, taking deep drags from her cigarette. Smoke continuously drifted through her full lips. Abu Hamza flung the remaining part of the mouldy bread at the wall.

    “I find all this unbelievable. Sadaam Husain, the Protector of the World, emerges like a rat from a six-foot-deep hole in the ground. In spite of that, nothing has changed for you and me. Amin, you didn’t believe in the power of divine intervention. Do you believe in it now? For centuries, Nature has been intending this event. In fact, centuries are mere passing moments in this master plan. Since eternity this land has been saturated by the blood of innocents. The curse it bears is coming to pass word for word.” Abu Hamza got up and started pacing. There wasn’t much room to pace in that small area.

    “Abu Hamza, I’m surprised at you, such fatalism. You’re a medical doctor and yet you believe in all of this. But this is nothing. The world is overflowing with the blood of innocents. This is the history of humanity. There must have been countless curses; and blessings or curses, what are they after all?” He spoke agitatedly.

    “I didn’t believe in this. But the winds of this land are wailing and have been wailing interminably. This land produces gold, gushing forth like a torrent. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Starvation and repression have been stretched on generations like tight clothing. At this time my only concern is my need. I want to choose a better death.”

    “But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. One doesn’t have to die. Definitely not. Staying alive is a natural urge, more acceptable.” An inner voice had whispered this to him, and he had flushed with shame. When and how did this weakness arise in him, he wondered? Perhaps this is inherited.

    Abu Hamza’s father was a farmer and Laila’s worked at extracting oil from the earth. They were working-class people who knew how to live with physical discomfort. They found pleasure in hard work and pain. And he? He was the son of a professor who had spent his life amid books and words. His father taught others the philosophy of life and existentialism but never had the chance to test his own principles. All of this had blended in his son’s blood. “Books turn a man into a coward.” He felt more ashamed at this explanation. His father loved cleanliness and beauty. He could not tolerate even a speck of dust or dirt in the house. He walked barefoot on the marble floor of his room, the soles of his feet white like marble itself. Every object in his room was spotlessly clean and sparkled like glass. In this clean environment he lived in dread of physical pain. Suffering and the thought of death always made him fearful. Therefore in his old age he spent considerable time in prayer and meditation. But for him? His share was only the fear of physical pain and terror of death. He bore no allegiance to any ideology except what was obvious and true. And this indeed was the truth, he thought: that existence is just another name for keeping one’s body alive under all circumstances. All of humanity’s efforts were to get rid of sorrow, pain, and suffering. These sorrows and sufferings are physical, only physical.

    But at this time, Laila was in front of him. Her beautiful body wrapped in that full-length black dress. He had failed miserably to control the desire to touch her, to see her undressed. He knew that Laila was engaged to Abu Hamza. This was another reason for him to feel ashamed. It was as if shame and regret were coursing through his body instead of blood. Then Abu Hamza said: “Laila, you will be at the crossroads by the Bank at five past ten and Quddus and I will be at the market street at the same hour.” Abu Hamza produced a small camera from his shirt pocket.

    “Amin, Gibreel al Amin.” He spoke affectionately like old times. “Here, take a picture. Bring it to the media folks after we are gone so that they can see how happy we were at the time.”

    Abu Hamza put his arm around Laila. She rested her head against his shoulder in such a way that their cheeks touched. He saw this scene through the lens of the camera and clicked. The three of them silently left the room and went outside. It was bleak outside. At some distance, dogs were scouring through a rotting garbage heap. The sky was full of the thunder of airplanes flying.

    He sat in that empty cell of a room till five after ten. He sat leaning against the wall at the same spot Laila had rested her back. Cigarette butts lay scattered in front of him, some silver-grey ash on the floor. He stood up at six after ten. He saw parts of Laila’s beautiful body floating in the air and Abu Hamza’s strong arms and broad chest reduced to lumps of burnt flesh sticking to the walls. That is the acute suffering, the pain, and terror that every human has to bear when life ebbs out of the body. He was reminded of one particular lecture by Professor Abdul Hamid: How does one define death, that itself is debatable. What is death? The Professor was explaining that this is the truth, the absolute truth, and not make-believe that death comes like a piece of fabric getting caught in the sharp thorns of an acacia tree, and one tries to free it, but in the process it rips into shreds. The acacia tree remains, but the fabric doesn’t. The tree will always remain. Just then, while straining his ear in anticipation of an explosion, he lifted his nose to test the air for any possible odour of explosives. But instead of that sound and smell, there was the tramp of heavy boots, and a man fully armed was standing in front of him.

    Then the man kneed him in the groin. He doubled over in pain. The man twisted his arms behind his back and tied them up. Then, in his tongue, he uttered the foulest obscenities that were beyond anything imaginable; nothing worse could ever be conceived in any language.

    “Where are they? Where is the rest of the group?”

    That was a bizarre moment. Certainly skin being scraped, nails pulled out, private parts crushed is irrelevant. Certainly, fresh and wholesome food and bodily comforts are necessary. Absolutely necessary. As soon as he entered the cabin, he told them that at five past ten the group members were at the market street and near the bank by the crossroads. How easily the images had been printed from the camera. He could see Laila’s beautiful eyes and feel the soft warmth of the touch of her hands as if she was alive. Unaware, tears streamed down his cheeks and mingled with stinking spittle that had been spat on his face and clung to his lips.

    That day, a beautiful girl named Laila merged with the elements in such a way as if she never existed. But Abu Hamza, Abu Hamza was rounded up, while he was semi-conscious, still breathing. Such injured, semi-conscious victims are like gold to interrogators, easy to get confessions from. As are faithless, unprincipled people like him.

    “Gibreel al-Amin!” A name he was not worthy of. He thought about this. But trusting and cheating on trust, these are only concepts, when the body and its senses and their satiation are primary. Now he was following them into that cell where Quddus lay on the floor with his hands chained behind his back, and a black attack dog, his long red tongue hanging out, with pointed teeth bared, repeatedly growled and pounced at Quddus, then was pulled back by the collar. In the cell next door, Abu Hamza, who had been picked up in a semi-conscious state, and despite being subjected to his skin being scraped, limbs stretched, eyes blinded with the brightness of a thousand suns, and relentless, unremitting high-pitched noise, had not uttered a single word.

    It was beyond belief! The ones with the heavy boots and weaponry, blue glassy eyes, and merciless lips uttered all possible obscenities. Abu Hamza’s ribs stood out. His chest was a mass of blue bruises and raw, red wounds. Yellow pus oozed from the gashes on his legs. White, threadlike larvae slithered in the wounds. His handsome jaw was marred with blue, lumpy nodes, and his hair jumbled like knotted string hung over his eyes. His thick beard and nails had not stopped growing. His fingers were swollen like yams, and a watery substance oozed from them.

    “So this is the leader!” The expert looked at Abu Hamza closely and then turned towards him.

    “You know him?”

    “He was the one who told us where to find him.”

    Abu Hamza moved the thick fringe of hair from his eyes with his yam-like fingers and looked at him. There was no complaint, no surprise in his eyes, or on his face. No hate either. After the expert had been briefed, he sat down in a chair and the other four sat around him. He stood alone in a corner. Abu Hamza kept watching him all the while.

    He was getting bits and pieces of the expert’s conversation. The expert was telling the rest of the group the importance of conditioning prisoners before interrogation and extortion of sensitive information. ‘And their masculinity is the biggest hurdle to overcome. In fact, the quality of maleness itself is problematic among men in general, and especially among these Arabs. Until you convince them they are not even men, they are of no use. Tomorrow morning at nine-thirty, put up a pavilion in the enclosure outside the barracks. You have a lot to learn yet.’

    The expert left, whistling a tune.

    So the pavilion was erected and was ready exactly at nine-thirty. All residents from the barracks were collected together. So many people, he was amazed at the numbers. People who had been missing for months; those who had been counted amongst the dead. He wanted to look at each one carefully. Was this a gathering of dead people? Maybe that is why there was an eerie silence amidst the crowd. Nothing but stillness. Then a drum was beaten. Boom. Boom. It was followed by a bugle, and the huge iron gate was flung open. The entire corpus moved as one whole body, and came into the pavilion. That woman soldier, dressed in a soldier’s uniform, her breasts pushed upwards by the belt strained against her shirt; her brown hair was creeping out from the confines of the army beret. She held a thick leash in her hand and the leash was attached to the neck of a moving creature—what kind of a creature, one couldn’t tell. Was it man or dog, it wasn’t obvious. But it was moving on four legs, larger than a dog, stark naked. Like an animal, its nakedness exposed its sex. It crawled on all fours, carrying its skeletal frame. Its face was held in front like a snout, and a tangled beard hung down. Do dogs have beards? He tried to remember. The female soldier forcefully jerked at the leash, making the four-legged creature’s neck twist and turn. Then she would deliver a powerful kick on its posterior with the heel of her thick military boot. Then she would give a triumphant glance, waving at the onlookers.

    Now the expert was standing in front of the row of officers. He lifted his hands, forming his fingers in a “V” and shouted, “Bravo. Keep it up.”

    The female soldier became more energized, hearing this praise. The expert cast a triumphant glance at everyone and shouted, pointing at the creature with the collar, kicking its snout with his heavy boots.

    “Dog. Dog. Brr-Brr. Woof, woof.” Half the crowd laughed, the others remained silent. Then the expert gestured and a bunch of photographers came running, carrying with them all sorts of cameras. Then two soldiers walked up, unzipped their pants and began to urinate on that four-legged creature. The four-legged creature stood squirming beneath the stinking cascade, trying to protect its face and eyes.

    “Hey, hey!” The female soldier pulled at its collar, demonstrating her extraordinary strength and endurance. Abu Hamza collapsed on his hands and feet, an animalistic scream emerged from his throat. The cameras began moving fast, click, click.

    Suddenly, the drum was beaten, and the crowd dispersed. They disappeared inside the barracks within moments. In the black pavilion, the four-legged creature lay on the ground, and the female soldier tugged at its collar.

    Khalida Hussain. “Adam’s Progeny.” The Oxford India Anthology of Modern Urdu Literature. Mehr Afshan Farooqi, tr. New Delhi: Oxford University Press 2008. Originally published in 2005.

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