Watan By Matthew Richardson

 

Ah sir, you come upon me just as I am closing for the night. No no, it is not a problem to remain open whilst you make your purchase. Come in, I insist! I would not have you come out all this way on a night such as this and leave empty handed. Commutes are soulless enough endeavours, without being denied sustenance for the sake of an old man closing his establishment five minutes early.

There, that is better- out of the relentless wind! The dark nights are certainly upon us now, are they not? Twenty years I have been in your beautiful city and still I cannot insulate myself against the winters. No, I beg you do not worry about bringing the rain and dirt in with you. It is somewhat inevitable on nights such as these and I will be cleaning before business tomorrow regardless. I have found that the only real difference between managing an establishment in Glasgow and managing one in Lahore, my home town, lies in the dirt. Here it has the good grace to congregate in pools and streaks so as to be easily washed down. Where I was born it is never more than an infuriating dust; one that resettles directly behind the stroke of a brush.

I digress. I will lock the door behind you if you do not object. That way we will not be interrupted by anyone else. You are obviously a man who values his time- straight over to our tobacco counter! If you do not think it is too forward of me to say, sir, you seem excited. Your fingers dance on the glass covering our fine selection of cigars. Are you perhaps rushing home for a celebration?

Forgive my inquisitiveness, sir. I am simply a prying old man trying to enliven what is left of my evening with idle chatter. If you are considering cigars, might I recommend a Montecristo? I have a feeling that your palate may well be accustomed to such refinement. No? Perhaps an Oliva; perfect for relaxing after what I am sure will be a fine meal tonight? Ah, your eyes tell me what good manners inhibit your lips from saying. I think we both appreciate the ostentatiousness of such products- a bag of leaf it is then. The joy of tobacco lies not only in the smoking of it, but also in the company that gathers underneath its grey fug, no? Well do I remember my brethren and I smoking shisha pipes in Pakistani cafes until dawn. It seemed like the height of culture and sophistication, at least until my eyes were opened on coming west!

A bottle of something? Of course! This is looking more and more like a celebration, and why not? Perhaps a birth, an engagement? Alas, there I go again, placing my nose where it is not wanted! No, sir, do not tell me; let it suffice that you have an occasion to mark, even if it is only the end of a long and irksome week. I suspect that you are a man after my own heart in that you delight in the reds of Bordeaux and Tuscany. No? Alas then sir! This is where our alliance must end for it was these, along with twenty years of your culture, that first tempted me away from what hitherto had been a strict adherence to the abstinence dictated by my religion. I jest of course. If I were to be so bold I would suggest this offering from the northern Rhone. Although not my area of expertise, I am reliably informed by my patrons that the notes of peach and apricot will compliment most dishes.

I see by your half-smile that perhaps I am again heading down the wrong path. Is the bottle perhaps for someone less discerning than yourself? Ah, I see. There is no point, none whatsoever sir, in buying wine such as this for those who will not appreciate its subtleties. I am sure a gentleman of your class understands that gifting such a bottle would only advertise your own refinement and I imagine you might shy away from such hubris.  Might I recommend this? To the undiscerning palate it will not be unpleasant and indeed its prudence will more than likely pass unnoticed.

Can I interest you in anything else? Let us waste no more time then. You have places to be and the driving rain outside does not look like abating. Are you walking home? It is not a night for tarrying, and if I were more outspoken I might remark upon an unhealthy pallor in your face. You are unsteady on your feet, sir, and appear to be sweating despite the bitter cold. Your hands are shaking despite your attempts to hide them in your pockets. Can I get you a glass of water? Call you a taxi? Sir, I have to say, you have a wild look in your eyes. That is close enough, if you don’t mind. What have you got in your pocket? Sir! SIR!!

I…I’m sorry, sir? What with the pounding of my heart and, understandably distracted by the blade you have produced, I hardly heard your murderous venting. “Put the fucking money into the bag you terrorist twat or I’ll stab the fuck out of you and the rest of your illegal immigrant family?!” Forgive me for steadying myself against the till. I…I am not sure how to react to such a request! You should know that it will take me a moment to open the cash register after the end of trading for today. Barae Meherbani Kuch Deyr Intizar Kijiye! Please forgive my shaking hands-I hardly know what to do!

I beg of you sir, leave me unharmed. I have children! Do not think for a second that I am indifferent to your predicament. How could I be, given my background? We were both born poor and I recognise the desperation that drives you. We have both felt the gnawing of hunger- mine from a lack of nourishment in my early years and you through an unfortunate addiction, although no less tragic for that. And how little society understands! Well do I remember the clamour for business that assaulted every ear in the markets of Lahore. Tanners, potters, basket makers, carpenters, why, there are some in my city who would try to sell their own mothers in order to eat! The unfortunate of our great cities are often forced to suffer indignities that our supposed betters could not dream of, are they not? The repugnant discrepancies between those with, and those with nothing, are stark. The maimed and the diseased were forced to cower in the shadows when I was a boy, and so it is now. You are forced to rob an elderly shopkeeper at knifepoint; a hideous lowering of one’s self that no one should have to endure.

Forgive my nervous chatter. Your gritted teeth and white knuckles indicate that you wish me to stop talking and empty the contents of the register. Believe me sir, I wish it was that simple! I begged my sons to leave me with my faithful old cash register but they insisted on replacing it with this touch-screen monstrosity. It will insist on carrying out its own calculations after the close of business! Please do not worry. Another minute or two will see the days’ takings in your possession, and my heart stop hammering in my chest.

Will you allow me, sir, to reach into my pocket for a cloth with which to wipe my brow? You are most gracious. As we both wait and sweat, I find myself ruminating on your earlier words. Although no doubt prompted by the aforementioned quirks and inequalities of society, I cannot help but venture a critique on your opinion of me. The word “savage” suggests that my ethnicity confers on me a status below your own, and whilst I am aware that it is you holding the knife I must proffer some small defence. I would venture that you have not travelled to Lahore; heart of the Punjab and city of a thousand smells. If only you had taken time to explore the thirteen ancient gates, the gardens, the mosques and yes, even the edifices built by your own now sadly withering empire. To breathe in the Lahore air is to inhale a history that still lingers low in the alleyways and atop the baking rooftops.  The city has known thousands of years of dynasties, sieges, empire, and war and though scarred by these experiences it is in my humble opinion all the richer for it.

It is this richness that unites a city more than twice as populous as your country. This sense of place, and of her people’s place within it. Were I to look out upon your cityscape on a summer night I would see people staggering from one licensed premises to another, one vodka and coke away from throwing up in an alleyway, perhaps having their hair held back gallantly by a partner in a similarly inebriated state. We needed no such seductions when I was young. To climb up to the rooftops of Lahore once the muezzin’s call had finished reverberating above the domes was enough. During Basant the night would be aflutter with more kites than the eye could count, each doing furious battle in the Punjab sky, each attached to a child with the light of battle in their eyes! Triumphant calls of “Bo Kata” echoed over the streets at victory, with the loser’s kite floating moribund in the warm air for all to see. Trivial perhaps, but it seems a better use of one’s time than the pastimes which have brought you to this sad juncture.

I see you are resplendent in a football shirt. Allied with the sectarian slurs I heard you shouting with your friends in the street earlier this evening, I can only surmise that you fancy yourself committed to a cause; a maligned and misunderstood group. Perhaps you think that it marks you as a warrior? As principled? As brave? My father was alive during partition, when a curtain was draped between two nations, never to be removed. He lived through that turmoil-the dividing of communities that had hitherto lived in relative harmony into two nations spitting venom at each other. Relatives never spoke again, much less saw each other. I see your thin chest rising in indignation, kuti, but believe me when I say to you that the emblem stitched upon your shirt and a few oft-spouted but little understood religious slurs do not ally you with a sectarian conflict of which you have little knowledge and even less of a stake.

You are backing away from me as I walk out from behind the service desk. Have you forgotten what it was you came here to do, kuttay ka bacha? Did you come into my store expecting to gain via a half-hearted threat what I have toiled all day to amass? You walked in here, shaking from your lack of illegal substances. Weak, pale, and sweating, you still expected me to accede to your wishes. You thought to prey on me because I am the other, the outcast, the foreigner, but look around you. Where are your numbers now? Do you shiver when you see the last bar of violet sink behind the skyline? Are the dim streetlamps enough to illuminate the sodden streets outside, empty of compatriots, witnesses, and fellow thugs?

A closer examination of your predicament reveals that it is I who holds the blade to your throat, behanchood! Twenty thousand of my countrymen live in your city. We owe our settlement here to the great shipping companies of Glasgow. Our forefathers were sailors recruited from the Indian subcontinent, and after their journey some chose to settle here rather than returning home. A large proportion of my kindred became self-employed in your country; perhaps a result of racism such as that which you yourself have displayed here tonight. Nevertheless we have a sense of what we call watan– a sense of belonging, of rootedness- something which you long ago traded for your next fix. I offer something to this place. However trite it may seem, I cater to a predilection for confectionary, alcohol, and tobacco. I pay heed to the fact that the area in which we now argue is one crippled by grinding poverty, giving goods on credit despite such practices being prohibited in my religion. You, on the other hand, alight on the flank of this city like a tick on a cow; irritating yet inconsequential.

By all means, approach me, young man! I sense in you a desperation not to leave empty-handed. Perhaps you have told your acquaintances that you planned to come here tonight and rob the immigrant shopkeeper. Before we engage in what I can assure you will be a short-lived physical confrontation I strongly advise you to listen to me, feckless coward!

You think your city has treated you unfairly? Oho! You are not slow to answer there, and you are not wholly wrong. Your opportunities have perhaps been more limited than if you had been born a few miles in either direction. In that, at least, you have my sympathies. But your mistake tonight was coming here clinging to a belief that you could visit your grievances upon me.

Let us assume for a moment that you are successful, and I am left in a bloodied heap whilst my takings become yours. Ha! The pouring rain would not have had a chance to soak through your shirt before my relatives had cut you down, their blood boiling with vengeance. The police? Who do you think I was alerting whilst behind the till? A silent alarm call has been sent, and even now they speed toward you. My CCTV system, another modern convenience graciously installed by my sons, will tell my story to the officers attending.

Ah, your bloodshot eyes darting to the door suggest that we have at last arrived at an understanding. By all means, continue to wave your blade clumsily at me as you back towards the exit of my humble establishment. I will allow you that small notion of pride.

But no, listen! Even that must be forsaken as the sirens begin to wail across the sky. Run along now, run along! I will even go so far as to unlock the door to aid your flight. Take with you only the knowledge that should you attempt to rob me again, the jingle of my entry-bell will still be ringing in your ears as I bleed you like a stuck pig. The rollies and Lambrini will be added to your tab!

***…

Officers, let me offer my apologies. This is why I begged my sons not to install a raid alarm- another false call! Old hands and new technology do not mix I am afraid. Please, allow me to assuage my guilt by offering you a cup of coffee to take with you…

Matthew Richardson

Banner Image: Pixabay

 

 

6 thoughts on “Watan By Matthew Richardson

  1. I loved the tone of this and the twist at the end was excellent. I found it a little bit puzzling at first, wasn’t sure just what was going on but as the story unfolded it was engrossing.

    Like

  2. Hi Matthew, you really did give us all a lesson on keeping a voice constant all the way through.
    The arguments, thoughts and understanding was a master-class!!
    All the very best my friend.
    Hugh

    Like

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