The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

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MAY 2018 Issue

from The Empty Room

Out now from Zubaan Books


Waseem marched between Safdar and Gul Khan, their trade unionist friend, in the second row of the demonstration. Behind them, heads stretched into the distance, a dark bobbing mass, scoured here and there into a colourless shimmer by the sun. The smell of asphalt, the occasional whirl of sand, the slightly rank musk of surging bodies rose in a heavy fug above the crowd.

The marchers in the row ahead came to a halt. Gul swore under his breath. Police and Rangers had formed a flat arc, which seemed to be inching slowly towards them. Waseem was accustomed to the belligerent contempt of the authorities but these men looked more sinister. He saw machine guns and, behind the arc, armoured cars.

Gul turned around. “Don’t do anything. Keep calm. We must keep calm,” he urged, as each successive row pushed to a halt against the next. Waseem and Safdar and a number of others repeated Gul’s words, but the marchers were angry. Even if peaceable so far, they all knew how quickly it could turn.

“Why are they here?” Gul muttered. “We were told the government was on our side.” Waseem felt the widening ripples of a different kind of anger. A cry was carried forward over the heads of the crowds, handed ahead by each successive row like a body at a packed funeral procession.

Nahin lenge hum yeh rusvai
Khun paseene ki kamaai
Khun paseene ki kamaai

“The earnings of our blood and sweat, blood and sweat.” The refrain took over. Marchers behind pushed forward until it was impossible for Waseem to stand still. He stumbled and murmured an apology to the man ahead.

They began to move; the illusory shield of the long white banner they carried fluttering ineffectually. The police and Rangers facing them raised their guns, rigid shafts pointed at the marchers. The man ahead of Safdar halted. “Stop,” he cried urgently. “Stop those behind. The police have guns trained on us.” From somewhere deep in the crowd a voice called out, “They’ve already sucked our blood dry. What else can they take from us?” “Yes,” another voice shouted. “What else can they do?” The rows at the back resumed their marching. The pressure was beginning to build again, when in the left hand corner in one of the front rows—later no one was quite sure which one—a few men broke formation and a scuffle broke out. Guns began to spew bullets. Waseem felt, before he heard, people fall, saw blood gush, firm full spurts and fine sprays like the spume at a beach spattering faces and clothes.

A sudden wave of blood blocked his vision. He wondered vaguely if he were going to die. He wiped his eyes, smudging some blood deeper into them. He looked to his left and realized Gul had fallen. Safdar was crouched next to him, calling out, “Make space! Make space! There’s a man down here.” Staccato bursts of gunfire continued to tear the air. He felt a man fall against his back, and reeled forward, hovering over Safdar and Gul for a moment. Then, he was never quite sure how, he steadied himself, reaching behind with a twisted arm. As suddenly as the weight had fallen on his back, it was removed. He turned his head quickly to see what had happened and saw a wounded man, blood spreading across the portion of his shalwar under the knee, being led away, his arm around another man’s shoulder. He knelt down. There was blood all over Gul’s face; his eyes stared straight into Waseem’s, a little surprised, faintly angry. A hole rimmed with darkening red pulp gaped at his right temple.

Waseem reached a hopeful hand to look for a pulse. Safdar spoke softly. “It’s no use.”

Waseem decided he couldn’t have heard him. The noise of men shouting, of frantic fleeing feet, of falling bodies was too loud. He must have imagined his quiet finality. He reached his hand, feeling for the vein in Gul’s neck. He noticed the black thread and small taawiz folded in beaten silver at the base of his neck. Gul had laughed about it once, said his wife had made him wear it. The thread was sticky; the talisman looked as if someone had spit paan juice all over it. Nothing throbbed. He pressed harder, pretending Gul’s eyes had just flickered with irritation. He saw a drop fall onto Gul’s face, surprised it wasn’t red, noticed the lines around his eyes, the week’s worth of exhausted stubble, the little puddle of blood, which had collected in the cleft of his chin, furious when Safdar stilled his hand.

He looked up. The police were making arrests. Some of the injured men lay on the ground, surrounded by small groupings of people. Every now and then, one of these clusters was broken up by an arrest. Two policemen came closer to them. Waseem hunched over the body. “I’m going to take him home to his family.”

Safdar moved closer towards Gul and looked down, trying to make himself invisible. “Of course. We both will.”

They heard the noise of wood and metal battering flesh, of resistant shoes and bodies being dragged on asphalt, of defiant yells and waited, trying to be unobtrusive in their huddle.

Soon Safdar said, “Come.” They dragged the body to the side of the road, laid it under a neem tree, and scanned the crowd. Safdar shaded his eyes with one hand, with the other he held Waseem’s arm as if to prevent them both from trembling. The police were driving away. The mayhem continued.

“You stay here,” Safdar said. “I’m going to go and see what they want done.”

“I’ll come with you.” Waseem heard the return of steadiness to his voice.

“No. We need someone to stay with Gul. Somebody might move the body.”

Safdar walked into the swirl of people and found a cluster of organizers discussing what to do next. People had gathered around, looking for direction, more for reassurance. It was decided the few vans and cars that had been used to transport the demonstrators early in the morning would take the injured to the hospital. There were not enough to take the dead to their homes; helping the survivors live was a priority.

“Gul Khan has died. So how many dead does that make?” Safdar asked.

One of the union leaders, an older man with thinning white hair, said, “Three, so far.”

“And injured?”

“We don’t know. Dozens.”

“I’ll try to find a taxi.”

He walked back to Waseem who stared at Safdar’s feet as they crossed streaks and patches of blood where bodies had fallen and been dragged. The brown Peshawari sandals advanced closer to Gul’s body. Waseem felt as if he were watching a grave about to be robbed. He stifled the urge to push Safdar away, reaching instead for the dried carcass of a leaf. He had been trying not to look at Gul. Now he forced himself, “We need to find a taxi to take him home. There are no vans free.”

“I can go to get one.” The blood was beginning to dry; a weave of thin cracking lines, like the leaf’s fibrous skeleton, crisscrossed Gul’s face.

“No. You stay there. You seem in no state to manage.”


“Okay. I’ll stay here.”

The sun beat down. The heat from the asphalt radiated into Waseem’s feet through and around the sandals. He could smell other people’s blood and sweat mingling with his own. After walking for half a mile he saw, a little further down where the road intersected with another major one, the black and egg yolk-yellow streaks of taxis among the buses and rickshaws. He quickened his pace. A taxi drove by, the driver shaking his head in disbelief when Waseem tried to flag it. After two more attempts, one finally stopped.

Waseem took in the driver’s finely embroidered white cap, his longish graying beard streaked with fading henna and said, “Haji Sahib, I have a friend. He’s dead, lying about three quarters of a mile down. My friend and I need to take his body home. Will you take us?”

“Yes, of course. Get in. Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital? You look like you need to.”

“I’m fine.” Waseem got into the front seat. They drove to where Safdar sat with Gul’s body. Waseeem got out of the car. “You get in front. I’ll sit in the back with him.”

They tried to make the body sit. It flopped to one side. The prospect of it sliding around the backseat, without the respectful stiffening of life, seemed obscene to Waseem. “Let’s try to lay him down,” he said.

“Beta, how will you sit?” the driver asked.

“Besides,” Safdar said, “he won’t fit.”

“I’ll take his head in my lap.”

The driver nodded his approval. Waseem got in. The driver and Safdar manoeuvred Gul into the back seat, pushing his head towards Waseem. After ten minutes of complicated effort, Gul’s head was manoeuvred almost as far up as Waseem’s shoulder, his upper torso leaning against Waseem’s trunk.

The ride was long. Safdar answered the driver’s kindly questions. Waseem lay his head back, a little soothed by the old man’s concern, trying not to think about his difficult cargo and what lay ahead. He remembered meeting Gul that morning. He had been furious at the lockouts, the intimidation by the thugs the factory bosses had hired, but he had also been excited that the government had said it would support the workers. Gul had thumped his chest with a great curled fist and said, “I felt my heart expand when I heard that.”

Waseem supposed he ought to try to be glad that Gul had felt such exhilaration on his last day alive. The taxi jerked and bounced as they came to Gul’s lane. The dirt road was gravelly and pitted with little craters. Gul’s head bounced against his chest. He held him closer.

Safdar turned around, concerned. “Are you alright?”

“Yes. It’s okay, we’re almost there.”

“He has a twelve-year-old son, Jahangir, and an eighteen-year-old daughter, Safiya, right? Do you remember who else lives with him?”

The present tense was comforting, “No one. I think his father died last year. There might be brothers somewhere in the Gulf. His wife already takes in some embroidery.”

They pulled up outside the lane, which was too narrow for the car. A few children were playing an improvised, constricted game of cricket by its entrance. They ran up to the taxi. One cried out, “Look! It’s Gul Chacha. He looks hurt.” Waseem saw a small boy at the edge of the cluster, trying to push his way through. “Safdar, that little boy trying to break through to the window is Gul’s son. You better get out and try to stop him from seeing Gul like this. We’ll have to carry the body from here.”

“I’ll go to the house and ask for a sheet.”

Safdar opened the door and went up to the small, serious boy. “Jahangir Beta, will you take me to your mother?”

The boy looked down, kicking some gravel. “What’s wrong with my father?”

“He’s hurt. Come help me get your mother, so we can get him home.”

They walked away.

Little runnels of sweat slid down Waseem’s face and landed on Gul. “Haji Sahib, can you open the doors?”

The driver got out, opened the doors and asked the children to stand at some distance. They moved back, but pelted questions.

“What’s happened?”

“Why is that man holding Gul Chacha like that?”

“Why isn’t he moving?”

“He’s dead. I know he is”

The driver said, “Hush. Let his family come.”

Safdar returned with Gul’s wife and children. His wife suddenly broke into a run. His son and daughter tried to follow. Safdar grabbed the son and reached for the daughter, and then stopped. He looked helplessly at an older woman who had followed them. “She shouldn’t see him like that.”

The woman reached for Safiya, who swung away, sliding out of her plump, mothering grasp and walked up behind her mother, who had begun to scream—a scratchy, high, unbearable sound without end. She went to the other side, away from Waseem, and pulled at her father’s feet. “We need to take him home. Ammi, stop screaming. Give me the sheet.”

The neighbour, who had been unable to stop Gul’s daughter, brushed the children pressing behind his wife aside and reached for her shoulder.

“Come Shaheen. We have to take him inside.” She called to the daughter. “Safiya. Come inside. Help your mother.”

“No. I’m going to help bring him in. Look at how they’ve treated him. Look at how uncomfortable he is.” She turned to Waseem and Safdar. “Couldn’t you treat him with respect? Twisting his body like this? I’m going to carry him.”

Jehangir had wrapped his arms around Safdar’s waist and buried his head in his chest. He tightened his arms when Safdar tried to move. The neighbour reached for him, “Come, beta. Help your mother.”

Safdar came to Waseem’s door. “Here I’ll hold his head. You can slide out from behind, so you can help us carry him in.” He beckoned to Safiya, “I’m very sorry, the car was too small; we didn’t want to be disrespectful. We loved him. Let’s carry him together.”



The soil was comforting in Safdar’s hands. He kneaded the clump he had worked loose into a tight ball and then crumbled it into smaller pieces, working his fingers in and around the roots of the large oleander, which had outgrown its pot. A flower fell to his side, shaken loose by the movement.

In the months since Gul’s death he had taken to spending several hours a day tending to the plants in the courtyard and in the tiny garden at the entrance to the house. Many had been repotted, new cuttings had been made, the leaves glowed waxen with the care he had lavished sometimes on each individual one, wiping the plants clean after spraying them with water. Glistening in Karachi’s rainless air, they seemed incongruously tropical. “The cleanest leaves in the city,” his father joked, when he did, which was not often these days.

He had made so many little pots that he had taken to giving them away to neighbours and friends and when they said they had no space to take anymore, he took them to an impromptu nursery set up on an empty plot nearby, which looked like a refugee shelter with its makeshift canvas tent pegged precariously to the ground. The owner was a friend, known to everyone as Joseph Bhaiyya. Although one night, over some Murree beer and nihari, Safdar had learned how he had come by that name. Drunk on beer and the heat of the nihari, he had started to cry.

“He loved it you know.”

“Who did?”


“You are Joseph.”

“No, he was.”

“Then who are you?”

“Sher Shah.”

“Why do I call you Joseph Bhaiyya?” Safdar was sure he wasn’t that drunk.

“I took his name.”


“Because they killed him thinking he was a Hindu. He wasn’t circumcised. He wasn’t Hindu. He just wanted to be on this side of the border. They didn’t ask and they wouldn’t believe him or me. They stripped me and then let me go. So I thought: you maderchods, here’s one less Muslim cock for you, and changed my name.”

“And faith?”

“What faith?”

They had never spoken of the story again. The next time Safdar went by the nursery, Joseph Bhaiyya had looked at him steadily until Safdar had said a hearty and meaningless greeting threading “Joseph Bhaiyya” through it several times and been met with an emphatic, approving grunt.

When he went over, sometimes they chatted, more often Joseph Bhaiyya tended to the plants singing bits from the latest Alamgir song while Safdar sat and read poetry on the fraying charpai by the plants. He sometimes felt he was searching the poems for a resolution to the struggle between dream and necessity. How was it that caution and skepticism had proved no inoculation against hope?

Sometimes he took along a book about gardens. In the past he had pored over these books with Joseph Bhaiyya, who was always delighted having formed an attachment to such books many years ago when his neighbour—a radi-wallah—had been showing him his day’s takings and there had been what Safdar gathered was a journal of architecture and landscape in the hoard. Now the rag-and-bone man made sure to show Joseph Bhaiyya any books and magazines he had collected if they had pictures of plants in them. Once Safdar had heard this story, he had made sure to bring along a book from his mother’s stack whenever he came to the nursery. She had collected many over the years; a cousin—the only relative who regularly spoke to her—brought her these from her travels with her husband, who worked for PIA. His grandmother had also managed to send some Mughal and European naturalist paintings of plants and flowers from his grandfather’s collection to Mumtaz before she died. He knew that his grandfather, who had died before his parents met, had been an avid gardener and collector and inventor of stories about gardens and their gardeners in India. Safdar loved these books and pictures, and the stories his mother had repeated to him since he was a child. He had been twelve when he told his parents he wanted a piece of land so he could make a perfect garden.

These days, his visits to the nursery were different. He came for silent friendship and for breaks from reading in which he could work with the plants.

Sleep and rest seemed forever separated. Every night he dreamt of the blood on Gul’s head rubbing off onto his own face. In the dream, he became the one holding his head in the back of the taxi. Gul’s blood-stiffened hair grazed his chin as the taxi jerked and bounced over potholes and the unpaved lanes around Gul’s home, which seemed to wind on forever. Suddenly the car radio began to play a song. Alamgir belted out, “Dekha na tha kabhi ham ne ye samaa/Aisa nasha tere pyaar ne diya.” His dream-self was furious: what did the intoxication of love have to do with the body in his arms? Why would anyone want to see a spectacle they hadn’t witnessed before? “Turn it off,” he screamed. “Turn it off.” And Gul’s head bounced harder against his chin as he screamed. He tried to push it away but, obeying the laws of dreams, it jerked closer to him instead.

When they finally got to Gul’s neighbourhood and Safdar tried to leave the car, he couldn’t. Gul’s head was stuck to his chin with blood, which had puzzlingly acquired the consistency of tar. At one door, Waseem pulled on Safdar’s head. At the other door, Safiya pulled at Gul’s feet, screaming, “Give me my father. Give him back.” She screamed it four times, each repetition more piercing and unbearable then the last, the inescapable, punishing wailing of a cat at night. He wanted to be released from the dream but it was only at the end of the fourth scream that he was able to wake up.

Each night he sat in the courtyard reading by a lantern, battling sleep, inhaling the unbearable fumes of the lantern. But sleep came and soon after that the dream. And then, the day, which, though longer than usual, filled up quickly. The care of the plants, the reading and, of course, the meetings, the political organizing continued. The political situation was absurd. Promises were being broken. The ever-mutable constitution had been amended to make the most hated minority more hated. As if the memory of Rabwah and similar events were not shameful enough. Members of the cabinet were being bullied and intimidated; students were under attack, kidnappings, murder, madness… It went on, but they hadn’t given in. “And we won’t!” he muttered fiercely to himself, pulling savagely at a strand of the root of the oleander plant. He angled it into the new pot and covered it with soil, smoothing it with a lingering pat and moved the plant back into the corner next to the desk. The work continued… and the battle with disillusion.

He sat down at the desk, hands still muddy. He wiped his hands on a newspaper and reached to pull out a book of seventeenth-century English poems from a pile stacked at the edge of the desk. A piece of notepaper fell out. It was one of the poems from the collection he had been working on, his History Cycle:


The priests dispute
And tenderly tender attribute
And awe and glorious prickling fear:
Wine of love,
Rivers of wine,
Time dissolved,
Dancing blue mischief.
Beggar bowl
Or world embrace?

The king reclines,
Lazy and beautiful in silk
And brocade and emeralds and silk
Upon silk and brocade
On gold thread and silver and throne:
“Make me a religion of God.
One out of all of yours.
Multiply and divide,
Refract and shatter
Like light through a waterfall in a glade
Under a slitted sky.”

Elsewhere in the palace, a prince is in love
And a dancing girl is bricked into a wall.

The poem made him more restless; he realized suddenly that he wanted to write to Andaleep. He wasn’t sure why but perhaps it was her anarchic laughter he needed. Yes. That’s what he’d do. He washed his hands and ripped a clean page out of his notebook and then realized he didn’t know how to begin. He tried writing “Dear Andaleep;” it sounded peculiar and wrong. It wasn’t that sort of letter he wanted to write. He began again:

The perfect garden? The perfect garden is…. and wrote steadily for an hour.

Dear Tahira,
I received a beautiful and strange piece of writing from Safdar a week ago. No letter. Not even a dear Andaleep. I’m not sure how to respond. I’m not sure what’s going on with all of you. I have not received much news from you but you should read it.
I am hoping he will learn from Waseem what I am about to tell you. This is hard because I have been silent about it so long. I have been in love with a Palestinian man for a while. His name is Khaled. He is a doctor and a member of the PLO.
My parents are not happy about this. They do not think it will work. We share no culture, no way of life, my mother says. No one has married outside UP in our family for generations; it matters how you sit and how you eat, she insists. I’m not surprised. Of course, she doesn’t mention Bhai, who was not allowed to marry a Punjabi girl. He did it anyway and decided to stay in London and doesn’t talk to them any more. They are not happy with the estrangement, so I think if I fight, they’ll accept Khaled.
He is strong and carries so many places with him. His family was driven from their village in 1956 and they settled east of the Jordan River. Sometimes the way he talks about the olive grove behind his house reminds me of the way Baba talks about his grandfather’s mango orchard in India. No olive is ever as good as the ones from those trees and every tree is a reminder of another one. Then he was driven out of Jordan because of the Palestinian uprising. Did you know that a Pakistani officer helped the Jordanian government crush it? Khaled talks about his deep-set eyes and sinister eyebrows as if he were describing the devil. I am so ashamed.
I admire his commitment. I’ve been to meetings with him and he is always so organized and determined, despite the rage that simmers so close to the skin.
So, of course, I love him, Tahira, but he wants to stay here to continue the struggle and I want to come back home. Maybe Amma is right after all. Maybe it comes down to how we sit—it always struck me as mad that expression, uthna bethna, like a punishment at school, stand up, sit down, stand up again—or maybe its even more elemental than that and comes down to the familiarity of the smell of rotting fish and the improbable waft of night-blooming jasmine carried upon the Karachi breeze. But then who are we—the children of displaced people trying to recreate a lost land in a new country we say is ours? And yet, I have never even been to India and know no other.
And I do not want to spend my life sitting in a beautiful place, unable to see it, yearning for the different and always more perfect fig, longing for another almond and the noise of crows mingling with the azaan and the changing smell of the sea as the sun sets and we sit in the garden, missing that and some ineffable more with every bite of a fruit that will never be good enough then one waiting, or—as in Baba’s case—felt to be abandoned elsewhere.
You know Baba still talks about shaving in the morning and how strange it is to do so without the monkey that used to come to his window in Bareilly. He makes me think of Kamal in Aag Ka Darya, never sure whether he was betrayed by his friends or whether he abandoned them. Now of course, he can’t go back. I think that’s why he becomes completely silent and distant when anyone mentions that book, pretending not to know it although I have seen him reading it. I think he is reminded of how he ceased to feel at home in his own country. Of course his own situation was different, but sometimes I think the reason he doesn’t want me to marry Khaled is only that he can’t bear to be in the presence of Khaled’s loss or… of his anger.
I ramble. But my head is its own maze these days. How can I tell Khaled, of all people, that I love him but I miss the smell of home?
I have a decision to make.
Meanwhile, I remain yours forever,

Tahira leaned back in her chair and sighed. She had always imagined that when Andaleep’s turn came to get married, she would be unfettered and reckless and rush headlong into whatever presented itself. She had never thought she would hesitate and worry. She was sorry that she was suffering, but liked this more cautious friend.

She had not wanted to tell Andaleep about what happened with Gul. Why write letters with so much bad news? It had seemed better not to write rather than chatter trivially about children and in-laws and cruel (she winced at the clarity of the word) husbands and disturbing political news. She couldn’t bring herself to talk about Waseem’s reaction to the death. She hardly saw him now. And when she did, he was restless and tense, as if he couldn’t bear to be in the room for too long. There was anger in his gestures and weariness in his eyes. Tahira didn’t think he would want to talk to her about Gul. She had failed him badly. He liked taking Armaan to the park. So she tried to ask him to do that whenever she could. In the absence of their older ease, there was not much else to do.

She unfolded the pages Safdar had sent, smoothing its creases. What could it be if he hadn’t even addressed Andaleep? If he had intended it as a love letter was it her place to read it? But Andaleep had asked her to.

She began to read.

The perfect garden?
Green, gold, lush, abundant—where green shade nurtures and colours thought, plays upon it like sunlight through a canopy of light and breezy leaves, as you lie looking up at layered sky. The garden multiplies and refracts emerald and peridot and chartreuse and dark, waxen banana-leaf green and dances upon the mind like graceful fronds of weed under the surface of the sea. The garden must be orderly yet tempt with the imminence of disorder, seem on the beautiful verge of chaotic explosion, its bounty asking to be contained by the loving nurture of its devotee. And I am devoted to its sheltering beauty and the annihilation its shade offers. Not a Japanese garden or an ostentatious French discipline. Perhaps English country with contained tumble of flowerbeds like the voluptuous, but somehow innocent, deshabille of a recently tumbled maiden. Perhaps the tropical garden with its very own precise blend of shade and shelter and light and air, elusive and humid, contemplative with quiet sculptures of meditative buddhas and lotus and ponds that reflect his contemplation, and bursting with sudden walkways heavy with the weight of ancient growth.
Or perhaps a Mughal garden: courtyards that integrate inside and out, and water music of fountains, mosaics of inlaid marble, and canopies of carved sandstone, so you can live outside in the luminous shimmer of the subcontinental night. Flowers trained and arranged to stop you as you walk beside the tranquility of water and halt at the fragrant catch of jasmine that blooms only at night, so you cannot see what incense embalms you in its soft embrace.
Some might say a Persian one: courtyard and mosaic inlay and water laid out symmetrically in the centre, geometrically arranged corners, harmony and symmetry, pomegranate flowers and fruit and an abundant adornment of mosaic in shades of blue that have become countries, Turkish, Morroccan, Persian and an intricacy of pattern, multiplied and divided and then multiplied again motif. Out of an ancient commandment comes the exquisite patterned geometry of disciplined, intricate motif of mosaic and wood—of forms abstracted from nature and turned into mathematical harmonies; much to be preferred to putti and people, I sometimes think.
It is a colourscape: greens tranquil and hopeful with the promise of regeneration and the fullness of harvest, and cerulean, aquamarine, azure, cyan, ultamarine, indigo and royal, tranquil and serene and intoxicated, dancing blue of sky and sea that drowns. Some would say, not me, that it must have terracotta and sandstone and vermilion and crimson, worked into tile, and kilims and carpets, spread in the garden that snakes back into the house. Perhaps this red spill is memory of the oasis and desert, of the chieftain’s tent and deserts kept at bay with warp and weft, of the nostalgia of nomadic kings for Central Asian plains and flowers or Arabian oases. This, too, is fitting. What’s a garden without yearning and nostalgia, without the memory of what might never have been?
It must blend nature and its other, the world we create, until our violations can no longer withstand her dissolutions. It must have courtyards that open into the home and a home that spills into leaf and flower. There must be trees with fruit and green rooms that open into other ones, so the sky and the sun and earth will hold you in their sheltering, dappled, and, if you’re lucky, amnesiac cradle.
Or perhaps at the heart of the garden a bower, separate from home and courtyard, like a glade in the forest, whose shade is silence—like the tropical glade: where there is no winter and more water than the earth can drink, and the green darkness of the very darkest green. Eternal and sheltering as the grave, whose day can be as still and mysterious as the night, and where plants and trees and moss grow in dense and multiple layers that evoke millennia and the prehistory of the earth rather than seasons and mortality and the delusive cruelty of April’s hope. Private, alone, a place to hide, some (others) might say: to love, yet others: to die.
The perfect garden is a dream of an earlier perfection; it subdues the echo of a malevolent interdiction and grows the desire to breach it and return to that earlier place. Perhaps Promethean, this urge to snatch perfection back from the edict of the gods. The garden is revenge and envy against them, to take back what they thought they had not given, what they keep to tantalize and taunt and tease with the gift of immortality, as if immortality were a gift. Such ambiguous, ungenerous gifts they give. The garden refuses the bargain of immortality—we will take our chances, please. It is not just a reach for Eden, it is—and few will tell you this—competition for Paradise. It aims to supplant and replace and extinguish on earth the interdict and the prohibiter.
O we reach. How we reach.
All courtesy of ancient prohibitions.
The perfect garden? The perfect garden is a memory of the future.


Sadia Abbas

Sadia Abbas is a writer, scholar and critic. The Empty Room is her first novel.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

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