Translated from Urdu by Saeed Naqvi
You may call it shortsightedness, or maybe it is tunnel vision; when a story is screaming in the face of a writer, but he is too busy searching for inspiration in old buried fables to notice.
It was during such a feverish search through old stories, that I found a thin, new novel by Marquez.
This was not my first encounter with this book. But had I not come across this Marquez novel again, I might have ignored the story that then unfolded in front of me.
When the news broke about this novel’s publication, I made a few rounds at the local English book seller looking for a copy. When I finally lay my hands on it, I devoured it in one reading. However, I was left with a less than favorable opinion of both the novel and the writer himself. I felt that a great writer had used the crutches of sex, and ultimately wasted his talent in this small book.
That is probably why, when I received Memon’s translation of Marquez’s novel, “In memory of my melancholy whores,” I could not initially bring myself to read it. I put the paperback somewhere and forgot all about it until just a few days ago, when it jumped out at me during my search for another book.
I began skimming the book then and there, and took it with me to bed that night. What caught my attention was the translators’ innovative use of judicious verbage in place of the erotic phrases that Marquez used without inhibition. I started reading it more attentively. Its completion led me to two unexpected outcomes; first, what I initially deemed a waste of time by Marquez had opened new avenues of understanding for me. Second, I was reminded of Shakeel. A character who initially ignored, and later completely left us.
The main character of “In memory of my melancholy whores” arranged to celebrate his ninetieth birthday night with a virgin prostitute. It is hard to say what lessons about life could be learned from this. But on reading it the second time, I found this old randy character rather interesting at some level. He reminded me of the forgotten character, Shakeel, and helped me to understand him better.
This was no mean achievement in itself.
Shakeel and the novel’s ninety years old character are quite dissimilar. I have already said that he was ninety, while my character was very youthful. Marquez’s old celibate was a target of mockery for his ugliness. Shakeel was not only handsome, he was also married with children. But there was one trait common in them- they were both lewd. In fact, Shakeel had become a source of scorn among friends because of this. It was the sexual exploits of the novel’s main character that reminded me of Shakeel. These excesses had been described very fluently in the original novel. As they are forbidden prose in our culture, they were thus left lacking in its translation. I had to refer to Marquez frequently to characterize Shakeel. When I read about the old man’s lust and how he engaged in anal sex with his rustic maid, it reminded me of Shakeel, and how he suffered the same experience in the hands of the grocery store owner who gave him the first job in the city. When the novel’s main character boasted about his five hundred and fourteen conquests by the age fifty, it reminded of Shakeel, and his corny girlfriends who earned him the label of a “sex cat.” Those girlfriends pale in comparison, however, to the girl who was ultimately responsible for his downfall and eventual departure from the city.
But wait, Sir, let me not tell Shakeel’s story like this. His story cannot be told in bits and pieces from here and there. Before I begin his story, let me remind you how embarrassed I feel when meeting a lewd individual, and listening to his juicy, dirty secrets. It is this embarrassment that kept me from telling Shakeel’s story so far. A character like Shakeel was always in my diction, but this embarrassment created a rift among us. A rift so deep, that I forgot he was not like this always. It came later, making him a target of everyone’s scorn and causing him to lose any respect he had from me.
Well, now that the Marquez’s old character has lured me back to this sordid story, let me go back to when I first met Shakeel.
I first met him at some gathering. Like other poets, he had come to recite his poetry. His fair color, sculptured nose, curved ear lobes and rosy cheeks made him very attractive. I loved the way he stressed his words while narrating, and how he would repeat a line in a particular way. When I found out he originated from the mountains, I was even more impressed. His phraseology was very proper and his accent faultless. He recited a very well composed poem and convinced me of his technical competence. He used traditional meter, but composed well. He embedded an occasional rough, spiky word so well in his line that it did not offend the fluency of his prose. He arranged the first line of each couplet in such a way that felt fresh, painting a picture to keep his audience engaged. After rendering a couplet, he paused to catch his breath, letting his words hang in the air, complete in their meaning.
Just imagine you are listening to the strong diction of a very young poet. A diction which composed contemporary optics using his own aesthetics. It was so carefully crafted, that no word failed to rhyme with the central theme. No word needed altered phonation to match the metrical pattern. Every word was in its proper place, with phonetics that did not nudge the next word, but rather merged into it. One could only dream of such a perfectionist. But here he was in front of me, reciting a well rhymed poem. We became close, so close that there remained no secrets between us.
He began receiving accolades in the city, accompanied by jealousy, hatred and humiliation. First, other city poets spread rumors that he was plagiarizing another’s poetry. When questions were raised who that poet might be, an old author’s name was suggested. One who was well established in his poetic pursuits, but sought the company of good looking young men, even at his old age. Nobody really believed this. This old poet was very good in traditional use of language, and in his use of meter and rhythm, but he was not capable of composing modern thought in poetry. Why would someone compose traditional poetry for himself, but reward his young keep with fresh poetic attributes? As Shakeel’s poetry continued to improve, his opponent’s tongues became glued to their palates. This was the time that he left his contemporaries behind, in the process creating a malicious group against him. Those who could not defeat him in poetry joined the cult against him to seek satisfaction.
I could not understand why Shakeel was providing fuel to the fire. He would laugh away my warnings and ignore my protests. He originally came from a village named “Tung Gali,” some twelve hundred miles away. The village was reduced to Tungali after much abuse. There, he had nothing to do once he completed tenth grade. His father’s small inherited land had washed away in a landslide the previous year. He had two options after grade ten; either go to Murree like his father, and wait tables when the season opened, or become a salesman in the city, like some of his other colleagues from the village did.
A Tungali man, Dil Mohammed, worked at a grocery store in the city. When he came to the village during the annual Eid holidays, Shakeel’s father approached him. Initially, Dil Mohammed made the excuse that young people come to the city every day willing to work at very low wages. Sending Shakeel there would be like wasting him. His father did not buy this excuse. Then Dil Mohammed condemned his employer for being a miser, paying low wages and taking extra work. This all might have been true, but Dil Mohammed’s family was making ends meet. So Shakeel’s father pleaded with him to take Shakeel to the city and introduce him to his employer, then let fate decide.
Dil Mohammed was not lying. His employer Gulzada was a real bastard. He literally drooled when he met Shakeel. But Shakeel was blind to his lust, only looking at his needs.
Gulzada arranged Shakeel’s lodging in the upstairs apartment with himself, rather than with Dil Mohammed at the back of the store. Shakeel found his employer kind, and they quickly became close. This kindness lasted two pay periods. When the next pay check was money ordered to his parents, Gulzada joined Shakeel in bed. Since it was a very cold night, Shakeel did not think much about sharing the quilt initially. But soon, Gulzada’s intentions became clear, as he exposed himself and Shakeel completely. Shakeel would later narrate this incidence in hysteric laughs to torture himself.
But he was able to extricate himself from this nightmare.
When I heard this story from Shakeel the first time, it did not end with laughter. The laughter culminated in a series of sobs emanating from his throat. He almost chewed his lower lip to control himself. His employer had grown bolder as he became accustomed to amenities he had never even seen in the village. His father was also benefitting; in this short period, Shakeel had sent him an amount that he had never held at any one time ever before. He started enjoying being responsible for his father. This feeling prevented him from leaving his position immediately. Later, when the lust and disgust became a nightly routine, he began to abhor it. He developed a deep hatred for his employer, which boiled inside of him until he could no longer ignore it and finally walked out on him.. The day he left the apartment, he left Gulzada’s bulky body behind, where he lay prone on his belly with a pleasant tingling flowing from the spine to the vestige in front.
I think of that day when Shakeel told me his story between bouts of laughter that gradually gave way to sobs. After reading the Marquez novel a second time, Shakeel reminded me of the prostitute, whom the lecherous old man called “Delgadina.” She turned fifteen on December the fifth. She had to go stitch buttons outside the city twice every day to make ends meet. She would return almost dead, tired from stitching hundreds of buttons with her needle and a thimble. I put Delgadina and Shakeel together, because he felt the same way, serving a never ending line of customers at the grocery store. But sharing the same pains of labor at this point in the story does not mean they will have similar fates later on. Shakeel, who left his master with a tingling in his manhood, would suffer later.
There came a day when another person not only gave him work, but also his daughter. Shakeel had come looking for employment, and instead found a wife.
He was good looking, hardworking, ambitious and needy. In a peculiar way, Sharafullah was needy as well. His daughter could not be married. To fill this need, he would take care of anything Shakeel wanted. So he was welcomed in the house as a prospective son. To provide for their future together, it was suggested that Shakeel join college. With his horrible year of work and later troubles behind him, Shakeel was not inclined to study further. But when his own wife pleaded with him, and his father in law promised to cover all expenses, Shakeel took admission in a college.
It is here that he cultivated an interest for poetry.
When I met Shakeel, he had completed his Masters’ degree. He was attached to a private institution, earning good money by tutoring evening classes in an academy in the same college building. However, he was not satisfied with his status and kept exploring new options. In those days, real estate was booming. He made his money not through commissions, but by buying cheap property and selling it later for a profit. These deals gave him a margin, and he started working with devoted concentration. He made killing after killing and his finances improved.
As his finances changed, he changed as well.
Other poets in the city took a collective sigh of relief when he stopped going to poetry readings. He was not there anymore to receive all the praise. He did not stop suddenly, but there was a pattern of increasing gaps between his appearances. Even when he went, he would grab me to leave with him, as he had lost all interest. He was changing cars frequently as he had invested in that business as well.
This Shakeel reminded me of the Shakeel from the mountains, whose needs succumbed to Gulzada.
Initially, I thought he was settled after marrying Safia. New luxuries in his life kept him in this false pretense as well. He had a son and two daughters with her, who he loved dearly. It was later that changing cars and changing girls became a habit. When he stopped mentioning Safia or his children. I already said I was very close to Shakeel. Let me add here that I was close to Safia and their children as well. But as he became distant from them, I started avoiding them as well. I thought they probably knew all about Shakeel’s infidelities. If I visited them, Safia might bring up the subject and ask for my help. I knew he was beyond help in the quagmire of lechery he was sinking in. Not even I could pull him out. I did bring up Safia and kids to him, perhaps trying to wake him up. He went quiet when I mentioned the kids. However, when I brought up Safia, he laughed in the same way he would laugh about Gulzada.
If there could be any commonality between Safia and Gulzada, it would be their bulky, overweight, sack-like bodies. The thing that always bothered me was how he laughed about Safia. A laughter that could only be explained by their resemblance.
Safia was nine or ten years older than Shakeel. She started looking even older after the kids were born. But she was the mother of his children, and it bothered me when he ridiculed her. On one occasion, he grabbed me from an event and took me to a hotel in his expensive car. He tried to explain that a man of his age needed a younger female. He showed me photographs of his five girlfriends snapped by his high pixel, expensive camera. He was himself present in one of the photographs. The pictures appeared clear, bold and bright on the large screen. I guessed from his forward leaning shoulder that his own picture was a selfie. The girl with him appeared the same age as his daughter, Sonia. Both him and the girl were naked to the extent shown in the photograph. Although the photograph was screaming lasciviousness, I had spoiled the show by mentioning Sonia.
I should not have compared that girl to Sonia. According to Shakeel, he spent money on this girl, equal to her weight. We should agree that the old randy in Marquez’s novel was far ahead of Shakeel in his number of conquests. However, we also need to accept that Shakeel greatly surpassed him in the average amount of money he spent on each woman. It is true that the old journalist of Marquez’s novel, who was called “Don scholar” by Rosa Cabarcas, the madam of the brothel, always paid the women he slept with. But it is also true that he was very close fisted. If you read the novel, you must have come across the acknowledgement of the main character to be a miser. You must have laughed at the juncture where this ninety year old man counted fourteen pesos for spending his birthday night with a virgin. This was equal to one month of his income. The way this old man drew exact change from the drawers under his bed (two pesos to rent the room, four for the keeper, three for the girl, five for dinner and other overheads), gave me such laughter that my jaws fell apart, only to jell back after a while.
Shakeel of my story was not the kind of person who counted money in such transactions. When he spoke about weighing the girl in money, it did not mean he was complaining about the amount he spent. He just wanted to enhance the girl’s value by mentioning the cost. In the book “Memories of my melancholy whores,” the story diverts at this point from erotica to a love story. It is mentioned that an important customer of the brothel was stabbed in the first room of the Pavillion, and the killer got away. Don Scholar found the enormous body lying in bed, naked, the color of a boiled chicken drowning in a pool of his own blood. Reading this section initially gave me goose bumps, until it was mentioned that the naked corpse was wearing shoes, making me laugh again. In this part of the story, Marquez used the corpse to generate ironic erotica. The body was still warm. There were two wounds on the neck, shaped like lips. A condom could still be seen on his shrunken organ. The author found it necessary to elaborate that the condom appeared unused.
Here, I have to revisit an old complaint I have with this translator, and also to give him due praise. When he attempts literal translation, it often complicates the Urdu narrative. He has done the same even with the book title; with a slight repositioning of words, “In memory of my melancholy whore” would have been a more appropriate title. I have to praise his courage and craft openly though. He has translated erotic phrases forbidden in our culture with graceful diction. He did not find it necessary to translate the word “condom,” though. Maybe it was beyond him to translate this word.
Here, two incidents about Shakeel deserve a place in the story. Interestingly, the first incidence automatically merges with the second. The first dates back to his school days. His headmaster arranged extra classes in the Union Council office to prepare for Middle Standard exam. Along with his other colleagues, he was expected to live, study and sleep there until the day of the exam. Shakeel would recall this incident with much fanfare and detail, but in short, after the teacher left and the boys were numb from studying all day, they stole balloons wrapped in shiny packets from an adjoining room to inflate them. These condoms were not as colored as the balloons available with Tungali vendors, but they blew enormously as compared to the colored ones. They were happy to find these clear, transparent balloons. They would compete with each other until late into the night, seeing who could inflate the largest one. Shakeel said these balloons had a coating of powder in those days, that would smudge their lips and cheeks as by flour. It was this white powder that exposed their secret to the headmaster. He was initially upset, but after giving the matter some thought, he laughed. “Silly, these are dirty. The sick urinate in them.” Had the door not been locked the next day, they would have experimented with how the sick urinated in them. The headmaster left them even more confused.
Shakeel, who was left confused by his headmaster once, had now overcome his confusion. On his pixel camera he showed me a similar balloon mixed in with the photographs of his girlfriends. The incident did come to my mind even then, because the photographs had a similar balloon. In the picture it was not really white, but rather a glazed skin color. To hold back the disgust rising in my throat, I tried to give his cell phone back. Unintentionally, I glanced at the picture of the balloon. It was obvious that no sick had urinated in it, but there was something in it, giving it a bulge and a tilt to the side. It so happened that all the girls in the photographs were also the ones who bolted when photographed. They all left him one by one, replaced only by Atika.
Marquez’s novel mentioned Delgadina, who turned fifteen on December the fifth. The description of that night events suggested that the old lewd fell in love with her. But the reality is that by singing her songs and by kissing her all over, he wanted to reignite an old flame. He did rekindle the flame, but then fell asleep of fatigue. His love flourished as he was not able to meet her for a while after the night of murder. The subsequent pages detail his longing for the girl. In Shakeel’s story, Atika evokes a similar kind of passion to what Marquez’s character had for the fifteen-year old. But despite many similarities, Shakeel’s story follows a very different trail.
I grieved when Shakeel left the city with Atika. He was disloyal to the city that gave him shelter. Being close to them, I knew that Safia had taken care of him selflessly. The way a mother does not disown her children despite their shortcomings, Safia doted similar love and affection on him. A few days after the news of his departure broke, despite the fear of being embarrassed by my friend’s behavior, I visited Safia to share her grief. It was then that I realized that Safia was fully aware of his infidelities. Seeing me, both daughters cried hysterically, but Safia was courageous. I felt she had gotten over Shakeel’s departure. I wondered if there is a reason for it. Maybe it was the age difference that never allowed a passionate relationship between them. But she did seem upset, the way one would seem after losing a valuable possession. I recognized her maternal instinct for Shakeel when she looked at her son Shahbaz. Shahbaz was the same age as Shakeel when he first arrived in the city. Safia told me that he had quit college and is now working all day in a shop. Hearing this, I saw Shahbaz turn red, his teeth and fists tightly clenched.
In Marquez’s last paragraph, Dan Schuler sang for Delgadina at full volume, giving the story a romantic touch. But the curse of my story is that all romance and pleasures disappear at the end. Shakeel had lost interest in the girl he eloped with as well. At an age when he needed to learn how to pamper crazy and young emotions, he was dealing with trained passion.
When he returned, he did not go straight to his house. He came back to me. I encouraged him all night, telling him his family needed him, how they were waiting for him. But the next day, when I went with him to his house, his son pulled a gun on him. Safia forgave her Shakeel; that is why she was beating Shahbaz’s chest for pulling the gun. Shahbaz, drained of emotion, sat at the doorstep. Safia, without even looking at him, lunged to her husband. The young man moved his hand. The sound of fire and the ensuing scream tore my heart.