Roll of the DiceBy Aniqa Naz, translated from Urdu by Daisy Rockwell
None of us wore masks. That meant people could see us right away. But we were protected by being indistinguishable. There are tons of people with faces like ours in this country. And even if some of us have distinguishing features that could be remembered, no one had the presence of mind, or the time, to remember well enough to identify us later. The way I see it, when people are experiencing extreme fear, that’s all they remember—the fear. And anyway, even if they do remember something for a little while, how long will that last? Not long at all. Progress is what you call it when you remember new things quickly and forget old things just as fast. People who don’t are like dinosaurs and will soon go extinct. At least that’s what I read in my Matriculation science book.
None of the three of us want to get killed. At least not until the right time. By the right time, I don’t mean fifty-five—middle aged—that’s the fate of most people born in this country. What I mean by the right time is as long as I can help myself to the things I want when I want and as much as I want. That’s why sometimes I’m forced to forget even myself. Life is beautiful. Even I know that.
Okay, moving along, most of the time our hunts aren’t all that planned out beforehand. According to the traditional laws of hunting, we target the weakest in the bunch, the people that can’t put up much of a fight. Except our approach to hunting people is different from with animals, because we keep the status of the prey in mind. We look for prey with enough stuff to be worth our while. You don’t just know this kind of stuff from facts. Experience is important too; it heightens the sixth sense. ‘A hunter has to be one hundred percent alert.’ That’s Kashif Virus’s motto. He’s the most educated of us. He did a B Comm, and he also shows us fun stuff on the computer.
Now, take that bus. So many busses drove by that bus stop. But we wanted the kind of bus that had fewer people with more stuff. These new busses, the AC ones that run in the city. The Green lines and the Blue lines. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry can afford those busses. Those are the busses for us. People that can afford a more expensive fare are definitely going to have more stuff. Eleven o’clock in the morning is the perfect time—there’s not a huge crowd, and the passengers can easily be shaken down.
Mukhtar Tarzan signaled for the bus to stop. One good thing about these busses is the bitches actually stop at their bus stops. You don’t have to go running after them. The bus’s automatic door opened and we got on one after another. There were about ten women sitting up front and around twenty men in the back. The conductor was sitting by his ticket machine. You go up to him to buy your ticket. Conductors have it really easy, man. There was a chilly feel to the bus; it didn’t smell of paan spit or anything. Those busses don’t jolt along at every step either. Money buys the good things in life. People are always saying you shouldn’t lust after money, but who lusts after money? All us suckers want the good things in our lives. Everyone lusts after the good life. If you could get whatever you wanted without money why would anyone go around robbing banks, stealing cars, or snatching purses? Yeah, even I would go watch that whaddyacallit, you know, the kind of fancy dancing Sheema Kirmani does. I’d spend my vacations in a rented hut on the beach, have a nice car, a new model of mobile phone, a nice brand of clothes, shoes and perfume, Reynolds brand sunglasses. But! You need dough—bits of paper printed with Quaid-i-Azam’s face on it—for all that stuff. Not even the pimps will let you sneak into the red light district without it.
I looked around one more time. How many of them would remember my face? Would the old guy in front? Hardly! He was probably trying to remember where to get off the bus. Or would that self-important guy, sitting there wearing the trousers and shirt? If I were sitting in his living room a month later wearing Benetton pants, a cotton shirt and film star sneakers, asking to marry his daughter, would that asshole recognize my face? Bet you he wouldn’t recognize me even if he wanted to.
The three of us went and sat in the empty seats. I went over to the ladies’ section. Women’s faces look so dumb when they go pale. I love it when they say, ‘Oh brother, oh son, have mercy on us,’ and when they get all scared and call me ‘rascal’ and ‘bastard’.
Kashif Virus went to the furthest back seats and Mukhtar Tarzan went to the middle section. By this point I was getting kind of excited—like I had fire running through my veins instead of blood. Three of the women were wearing gold bangles. There aren’t as many women in gold bangles as there used to be, but you still come across a few. Go ahead and buy gold if you’re into it, but what’s with these women who think they look so amazing wearing gold? One woman was sitting at an angle to me and I could only see her hands, which were heavily decorated with mehndi. She wore lots of red glass bangles on her wrists that were jangling around, but the sound just didn’t have that magic jingle gold bangles do, and she kept twisting the ring she wore on her right hand. Just one ring! This woman is no use, I thought. The ring was set with a gemstone. Probably won’t get much for it. But she was wearing a burqa, so it was possible she had gold jewelry on the inside. My heart pounded with excitement and I felt the fire in my blood.
Tarzan went over by the conductor with his head down. At first, the conductor looked pleased to see a customer. He probably thought mistakenly that Tarzan had come to buy a ticket. He wore a short-sleeved shirt and trousers, and was looking very respectable himself. The jerk probably didn’t make more than four thousand a month, but somehow he was able to look pretty dapper. His wife probably stitched clothing for the entire neighborhood and belonged to a community ladies’ committee. His children probably studied in a yellow government school or in one of those open-format private schools that crop up in a neighborhood homes, where the teachers earn like 100 rupees a month. The conductor looked at Tarzan and smiled, and then suddenly his expression changed to a grimace, and his eyes widened. He might not have been seeing a TT for the first time in his life, but seeing one on TV or in a movie and seeing one right in front of you are two different things. I totally get that—the first time I held one in my hand, it was like a volcano erupting inside me. That little piece of metal made me feel so powerful. And nothing gives you a bigger high than power. I knew then that I could have anything, anything important people have. It was all mine! All of it! I slowly imbibed its coolness through my palm.
The conductor looked at me and then he looked at Tarzan. Three TTs. He whimpered. The bastard probably wet himself. Tarzan quickly turned toward the men’s section and I rushed over to the women’s section. He yelled, ‘No one make any noise! Quick, quick! Put whatever you have in here.’ He went running around pushing a bag in front of everyone. The passengers must have been astonished as well. What just happened? That’s just how it goes, people. Fate, goddamn fate—it’s got you trapped. ‘Mobiles, mobiles. Take off the watches too.’ I could hear him wheezing as he spoke. That jerk wheezes more than he works.
As expected, the women got all tearful when they saw me. Okay, for one thing, I just don’t get women. They could be happy or sad, frightened or doing something brave, but bitches always weep and carry on no matter what’s happening. One time my dad threw me out of the house because he didn’t approve of some of my habits. What was I supposed to do? I had nowhere to stay, so I spent my nights on the roofs of tombs. Whenever I heard a sound and woke up suddenly at night and looked around, I’d see women up to their black magic: one would be wiping away her tears as she poked a small effigy with needles, another would be sobbing while she filled a little bag with earth from a grave. Women love drama, whether it’s on Star Plus or something they cooked up themselves. So in a way, we were actually helping these women out.
The driver, the moron, he turned toward me suddenly, like he was going to curse me out: ‘Hey there, son of a hijra, what are you doing in the ladies’ section?’ But then he saw the piece in my hand and shut up. Maybe he suddenly remembered that hijras can’t have kids. I didn’t even need to tell him, ‘Keep driving, don’t even think of stopping!’ because he was completely frozen. But I did it anyway, to impress the others: ‘Keep driving! Don’t stop the bus, moron!’ By now, the bus was already on Sakhi Hasan Road. The road was as clear as a bald man’s head—that’s how good our timing was. I quickly emptied the purses, or rather, grabbed them. Made the women take off their bangles and rings. Two wore burqas. There was not time to argue with them. I just took whatever was showing. When I got to that woman who was twisting her ring, she looked at me questioningly, as if to say, ‘Are you going to rob me—even me!’ I didn’t pay much attention to her meek face. It was showtime. ‘Give me your purse. The purse. Hurry.’ She handed over the purse with trembling hands—and the ring—I motioned toward her hand with my TT. ‘It’s my wedding ring.’ Dumb bitch, women go seriously nuts for jewelry. I was just thinking I oughtta smack that red lipsticked mouth, when there was a shot and someone screamed behind me, ‘Help! I’ve been shot!’ I was on high alert now. Our plan had been no shooting unless absolutely necessary. A woman screamed, ‘Oh, Allah, please help us!’ At times like these, people always think of Allah. Why should Allah care about all these opportunistic and thoughtless people? If God listened to all the opportunistic requests, opportunists would be the only believers. I get that. So anyway, that woman with the ring turned around immediately, and screamed as though she was the one who’d been shot. ‘Kamal!’ she screamed and jumped up immediately. Our work was pretty much done. The boy who’d been shot had fallen to the floor, clutching his stomach. ‘Help, I’m dead’ He was writhing. Everyone else was cowed. That must have been why Virus shot him. The sound of a shot really lets the air out of people. Try shooting a bullet sometime and see what happens. Pow! Hisssss!
I shoved the woman back into her seat with the butt of my pistol, but she just kept squirming. Then I screamed to the driver, ‘Hit the brakes!’ I knew it would take time for him to come to a stop, but I took a shot at the windshield, right near his head. The bus went completely silent. The windshield shattered into a web of cracks with a tiny hole in the center. The driver stared at it fixedly. ‘Help, help!’ But outside, the world went on its way, lost in its own concerns. There was a boy who kept staring at a girl. A man was looking at his watch. It was actually bad timing for us. A traffic cop was stopping a mini-bus. He had ten rupees coming to him. No way these jerks were about to help the driver. ‘Hey, hurry up!’ I shouted. Now we’d stop faster than fast, I thought, and that’s what happened. Near the KDA Quarters intersection, the bus stopped. The driver pressed the lever and the door opened. Just like Ali Baba’s cave. Open sesame. All three of us jumped out. Now the quicker and further we could get from that place, the better. The three of us were definitely thinking this and possibly the stupid passengers as well.
Someone was driving toward us on a motorcycle. ‘Stop him!’ yelled Tarzan, out of breath. One of us ran over and waved a TT at the driver. We were running with our TTs in our hands. The motorcycle driver had noticed. He thought he was being clever and speeded up. Can a motorcycle ride faster than a bullet? He chose the wrong moment to test that hypothesis. His experiment failed. But the asshole fell over in a weird way so it would have taken us too much time to separate him from his motorcycle. Someone was approaching from behind us in a car. The moment Tarzan motioned to him with his pistol, he stopped the car, got out and ran like he’d seen a ghost. Fear of death is stronger than fear of ghosts. A ghost might turn out to know you and then go easy on you, but fucking bullets don’t recognize anyone. They’re blind, like the law. Virus grabbed the steering wheel and we went careening through back alleys and streets. During this time we divided all the loot up into two bags. I took charge of one, Tarzan the other.
Near Faisal Bazar, we ditched the car and continued on foot. After a bit, we all three got on different busses. That night, we emptied out all the purses and took care of them first. As long as we held onto them, or had any identification on us, we were in danger. We could be identified at any time, so we had to unload them right away. All together, we had more than two and a half lakhs worth of stuff. Everything we did yesterday took no more than half an hour—the time it took to travel from one bus stop to the next. Now that’s what you call a cakewalk.
That night, when the red wine had gone to our heads, we started talking about everything that went down. I asked Virus, ‘Dude, I get why you killed the guy on the motorcycle. But why’d you blow away that other guy, the one on the bus, you asshole?’ ‘He was getting cocky. That’s why I smoked him.’ He carelessly took a gulp and waved his hand in the air. Tarzan laughed so hard he clutched his stomach. ‘Ha! You smoked him!’ The thing is, if you want to survive, then be flexible, be submissive, be a coward. If you get cocky, you’ll get blown away yourself. ‘Geez, Virus, you’re a bloody genius!’ I clinked my glass against his.
The next day, we learned from the newspaper that the guy on the motorcycle was a maulvi, on his way home from teaching kids the Quran. Trash out, problem solved. If the bobblehead had lived he’d probably have taken four wives and had six kids with each. Then they’d have grown up and become extremists and then the government would have had to put a huge price on their heads. And if he hadn’t married four wives, the bastard would have opened up a madrasa, basically a terrorist-manufacturing factory. So actually we did everyone a favor. And we went ahead and helped ourselves to the reward. All you idiots should thank us. Go ahead and say it, ‘Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!’ ‘No problem, just doing our duty.’
And the boy on the bus—he passed onto the next world as well. We all have to go there someday. Poor guy just had to go there first. Anyway, to hell with people like him. If a man can’t give his wife gold bangles, what’s the point of him living? Turns out, that woman, right, the one with the ring—she was his wife. The two of them had been married just a month before. I remember her big, round, kajal-lined, questioning eyes. Just like Aishwarya Rai. She was quite pretty. It won’t be hard to get her married again, and until then, she can distract herself with the ring. A gemstudded ring. It’s possible she’ll get a nicer ring the next time round, and gold bangles too.
In four or five days we got all the stuff taken care of. Wandering around from gali to gali, hunting down each target—that’s dangerous work and much less profitable. We got as much in one go as we’d have gotten after a full week of hard labor and much more danger. And we’re the heroes of our own full time drama. That would be pretty hard to pull off in this country otherwise.
Whenever I have money in my pocket, I have to go see Zuby. Zuby is my girlfriend. The word ‘girlfriend’ doesn’t sound so novel anymore, but I like it. Nowadays the words ‘girlfriend’ and ‘boyfriend’ are markers of social status and liberalism. Liberalism! Every government gives us a slogan, a token of itself, just like in the movies, when the hero gives the heroine some kind of token of his affection. We got liberalism this time. The word liberalism is so useful too. Words like sin and virtue seem old and cruel in comparison. But what does that have to do with me! I want none of it. They’re wrapped up in their own little worlds and so am I.
Anyway, if you’re a young guy, and you don’t have a girlfriend, you haven’t lived! I’m not in love with Zuby, and she’s not my wife. Those kinds of women stifle you. Nope, she’s just my girlfriend. She whispers sweet nothings to me. She’s with me today, could be she’ll be with someone else tomorrow, but we won’t even recognize each other then, because I’ll be with someone else too. The truth is, relationships ruin everything.
That day I took particular care with my look. A new imported t-shirt and wrinkle-free jeans from Thailand, a new hairstyle and a seriously close shave. I got a really styling car from Rent-a-Car. When I saw the sparkle in Zuby’s eyes, I could tell my effort had paid off. I took her to the gold-dealer’s shop and she was absolutely stunned. ‘What are you staring at?’ I asked her. ‘Let’s make it a golden day!’ I had wanted to surprise her. ‘You’re giving me a present!’ she beamed. ‘Yes!’ ‘Then get me that ring!’ She grabbed my arm and pointed toward a ring set with a gemstone. I was silent for a moment. ‘A ring!’ I looked at Zuby. There was a golden sparkle in her big round kajal-lined eyes. I don’t believe in fate, but all the same, I have to admit I felt a little anxious. What if fate couldn’t tell the difference between a girlfriend and a wife and smoked me too?
Aniqa Naz was born in Karachi in 1969. She received a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Karachi in 2002. Aniqa started her literary pursuits with Urdu Ghazal writing during her student years; she subsequently moved on to Urdu short stories. Her first story, Irtaqa, was published in a local Urdu literary magazine in 2003. A number of her stories got published subsequently. Aniqa died an untimely death in a car accident in 2012.Daisy Rockwell
Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer and translator, living in the United States. She has PhD in South Asian literature and has translated numerous works of fiction from Hindi and Urdu, including Upendranath Ashkâs Falling Walls and Bhisham Sahniâs Tamas (both published by Penguin India). Her political paintings have been exhibited internationally, and her literary criticism and reviews have appeared in Bookslut, Chapati Mystery, and The Caravan (India). www.daisyrockwell.com