An Exhumation, fiction by Kamil Ahsan

Art: Commons


Life is a Mahler symphony, it never goes back, never retraces its steps. This feeling of the passing of time is the definition of melancholy, an awareness of finitude from which there is no refuge, aside from opium and oblivion.” Mathias Énard

For a few years after, he will think something is very wrong with him. After that, when he has made peace with himself, people will ask if something is wrong with him and he will wonder if his ability to make peace with himself is what is wrong with him. It will take years, perhaps decades, for him to see things as they are, as they were.

But right now he is just outside a dimly-light auditorium, standing in the parking lot waiting for his car to arrive. Rehearsals have just ended for a community play in which he plays a side-character; his fellow costars have all left together, because they are old enough to drive and old enough to be friends with each other, but not with him. It is about 8 PM and the people around the Alhambra auditorium are still humming and clanging and honking. He stands by the gate watching cars leave and waits until they are all gone.

His family’s driver is late. Very late, and crucially so because what happens next is that a small white car rolls up through the gates and the guards will open it no matter who it is: it is the Alhambra, it is 2004 and nobody, not yet, knows to vet the drivers of strange and unknown cars that pass through their gilded gates. It is important that it is deep in the summer of 2004 in Lahore, and not at all important that he is fourteen years old, because it is only the former fact that explains why he does not know yet that he should stand in the shadows to wait, or at least indoors. Mosquitoes buzz around him and around the lone tube light hanging above him, and even though the heat of the day has subsided somewhat, the air is still and thick with dust. The car comes in with some degree of confidence, he thinks. Whether he thinks this then or later does not matter. What matters is that the speed of the car does not presage what is to come next, for memories do not imbue all objects in their proximity with character, only some. And in this case, the objects are the tube light, the permissive gates and the lone security guard, but not the car. The car parks in the empty lot.

Out of the car emerges a man with long hair. He wears jeans and a thick moustache. The man is handsome, even slick, but to the boy it is obvious he speaks Urdu not English. The man approaches him jauntily, even comes really close. The heat is suffocating, the security guard has vanished into his little den from where the whirring sound of a fan emerges, muffling the sounds of the words that are exchanged. The man is an intoxication, a person so remote and yet so distinct that no number of years will change the knowingness of his face. The way his mouth moved when he spoke, the way his hair fell across his face and the way his broad hands swept them aside as he spoke. He wears tight jeans. Tight jeans are not yet upper-class. Still, the man has a particular presence, a strange, mysterious company that makes the air seem thicker by making the boy’s throat close up.

It is unclear at this point whether it is the atmosphere that feels charged, or the boy; and if it is the latter, if it is because of the glib, deep Urdu the man speaks, or if, despite it being 2004, the boy has begun to develop the stirrings of an instinctual response. Either way, things are unclear, and because of this lack of clarity, it soon comes to be that the boy tentatively walks with the man to his car and sits in the passenger seat. The man will climb in the driver’s seat and after he does so he will reach across the boy so his presence is so close that the boy will draw a sharp breath and turn away his head and the man will chuckle, turn on the ignition and drive back through the gate.

*

The sculpture of a human face is always sexless no matter what clay you use. It is the not-knowing that matters most. If one knows nothing about human anatomy, human skeletons are always sexless. Exhumed and sterile, the bodies of the long-dead do not appear to the uninitiated as different to the jangling skeletons of Halloween tales and funhouses. Which is to say, it is not the content of something that matters but context, not the innards but the outards: the mud and grime and stench that surround the remains of a corpse, for instance, or the bareness of an autopsy table. Sexlessness is the universal analogy for the unknown: the content of which we fill out in our lives with artifice, the context of which is oppressively beyond grasp. Without analogs of the unknown, we are left with nothing but platitudes about the human condition, but with it we become something mysterious. Something to be studied, something to be defined from first principles. Something that can be stopped, even if one does not know what it is.

In the car, nothing is known with any degree of certainty but both the boy and the man believe that they understand something: the nature of wrongness, perhaps, or the proper means by which to hide in the shadows. Across the window, past the wide, gaping lanes of the Mall Road, the boy sees lights and men, everywhere-men, that will fill the recesses of his memories as indicators of something significant. The baroque buildings of the night, partially hidden behind bushes, will stand in as harbingers of a form of daring he will not approach until years later. At those times, many years later, he will furrow his brow before again crossing into the titillating unknown. But today, it is his first pass through that narrow corridor.

I have known this boy for some time now. His name is Ihsan, which is an exaltation denoting excellence or perfection in Arabic, but somewhat paradoxically is also used in Urdu as a noun for an act of charity often used sarcastically to mean a large sacrifice—as in “no need for you to do any ihsan for me.” Many years elapsed between then and now, and now Ihsan and I only keep in touch on special occasions. The distances between us then and us now have been punctuated by many undulations; there have been occasions when Ihsan and I have been distant acquaintances, others when we felt we were central to each others’ lives, and then many years during which we gradually found that we weren’t.

He was at heart always a sweet, unambitious boy, only rarely capable of sudden outbursts of anger, a sign that enough was enough. But as I have witnessed his life, it has always seemed as if he has moved through it peacefully, serenely; a boy moving in slow-motion, floating gracefully in the air like fresh pollen as if each morning was new, something that made me think of him as a little boy, even still. Now I wonder if I should have instead interpreted these qualities for a person just waiting their whole life to die, confident that it would one day arrive. Perhaps I am taking to heart the contraindications of his name, but that’s only because I have come to view them as more appropriate with time.

But this isn’t my story nor is it a tale about the transience of friendships. It is instead a story of what we believe to be true: it is, from my perspective a purely factual story, and also one that inevitably coincides with that of another boy who we will now turn to.

For as the first boy passes through the narrow corridor, a second boy, 647 miles away in Karachi, swims a last few laps at the end of a practice session for a swim meet. As he reaches the edge of the pool, his eyes concentrate on the coping as he catches his breath, his mind clear.

*

This is a different boy, named Haris, whom I have never known well, and he would require a different narrator if it weren’t for the circumstances of this writing. I have, however, often felt as if I did understand him profoundly, perhaps much more so than my friend inside the car who introduced me to him five years later. What I thought I understood about Haris was that he was the inverse of his lover: a gregarious, friendly, popular boy who had never failed to impress anyone with his charm which many took instead as a deep, restless intellect. He was never in fact without intellect, but his earthy charm and his palpable ambition to succeed in all things accentuated even his most middling qualities. In his manner even the banal became earnest. Truly passionate about politics, for instance: in only my first conversation with him he talked about Marx, Engels, Trotsky not as if he were a 19-year old neophyte but as if they were his most intimate correspondents; his manner the manner of one who somehow seems to have read the notes and scraps that formed the basis of the Grundrisse thereby rendering the knowledge of those who had actually read the Grundrisse entirely irrelevant.

He was, in other words: deceitful, and skilled at being deceitful, but the sheer magnetism of his presence, his will, made him seem warm. If caught in a lie, he would make you feel like you were in on it and so his deceit became wily camaraderie, and even those characteristics that would seem beyond the pale in anyone else became, in his hands, mere quirks. For as long as I knew him, he continued to plow through his ambitions ruthlessly, with an extraordinary amount of hard work. First a champion swimmer in school, then a top student in college and soon, to the surprise of nobody, a young graduate student in philosophy at Oxford where he could then claim to hold forth not merely on the Grundrisse, but on all of ancient and modern philosophy where one day his insights could unlock something missing from the entire enterprise of human inquiry itself.

Over the years, there has always been some genuine curiosity as to how these two boys ever came to be lovers, how they their love sustained; one so passive and unburdened, the other so dazzling and tortured. After many years, I asked my friend how it had come to be. He thought about it with his characteristic pause while staring into his lap, looking puzzled before telling me with complete clarity, that the question in and of itself was flawed. “Raza, two people are never diametrically-opposed,” he said. “We’ve never been the inverses of each other; that’s just how you perceive us.” And then, as to put a stop to my questions, he reminded me that they met when they were only nineteen; that their personalities changed with the wind every few months, and that they only needed constancy to proceed, not compatibility, for they had never been anything but nascent.

In retrospect, there was altogether too much truth in those words for me to fully understand at the time. We think of our friends as parceled, assembled entities that come equipped with a list of attributes: Friend A comes with zealotry, fieriness, poverty, and a failure of imagination; Friend B comes with overblown machismo, but also loyalty and sincerity.

Then, as we proceed through life and our friends begin to show new qualities, we attribute it to cause-and-effect, not our prior inability to see them. For in the earliest days of their relationship, my friend became warmer and more open, more thoughtful and incisive; his conversation laced less with ignorance as I had earlier assumed but a dispensation for nuance. Haris on the other hand grew colder, more distant with his other friends, and his intelligence began to grate with irritability against my friend’s newfound confidence. Where there was an easy charm there was now a gruff irascibility, a tendency to play unfairly: to roll his eyes at a measured retort to his arguments as if flipping a table during a game, nonetheless attempting in his over-reaction to feign the act of suffering fools. In any argument, Ihsan was often the “closet-capitalist”; everything he said in retort too “Polyani-esque,” as if he brought up ideas so utterly discredited that they required ungodly levels of patience.

I assumed then that they had had profound, but temporary, effects on each other, causing them to somehow switch personalities. But they have remained the same ever since. Or at least I have perceived consistency ever since. I no longer have any bearing on the relational cause and effects that caused them to be; one can only remind oneself that when we are young we are both more patient and plastic. In other words: We see both what we want to see and what others around us tell us to see and to eliminate contradiction we cohere the two forms of knowledge into one.

And so there is little I can contribute to the understanding of Haris except for the vague summation of how he was perceived both by myself and by our mutual friends at large. With time, there has been less and less to justify that perception which we must have held quite dearly to our chests for I cannot recall anyone ever questioning his abilities, talent, fervor or even his intentions.

Is it then any surprise that when we fill children’s heads with just-so stories, everything in their life becomes a just-so story itself until they are old enough to throw off its shackles; or until they are too old. Until things become sexless once again, unknowable, mystical.

*

As with sexlessness, so it is with sex. One cannot imagine enough youths in the world to grasp the unknowability, the disparity of the carnal act from all others that has gripped humanity for so long. Our first exposure to it was the world of pornography; as seventh-graders we would download videos on dial-up connections (if we were lucky enough to have Nokia cell-phones) and pass around between our class of all boys; each transfixed, each nestling the phone in his crotch beneath his flimsy desk, holding it at an angle so as to not tip the teacher off; each presumably caught in a dark mix of his own singular passions and the herd mentality he was meant to imitate.

For me of course it was easy enough to play along: I had already had a string of infatuations with older women by the time I was seventeen. And sex was all-important to me, as it seemed it was to all my friends. But with Ihsan it was equally pointless to talk to him about sex as it was about sexuality. Yes—he was interested in men, a fact that was a mystery to me until my college girlfriend pushed me to ask him—but I always felt it was just more familiar for him, more predictable behavior. He was not deviant by any means, he just maintained an aloof amorality that led me to assume either complete disinterest or an unequivocal distaste for default behavior.

Most assuredly, he was not unattractive to girls; he showed the same shy, dispassionate demeanor with girls as he did with boys and this led me to believe that with Ihsan his sexuality followed his past in a way we would not expect it to in others. Today we would like not to believe that human sexuality is in any way shaped by a childhood experience of sexual violence; it is a myth we carry as we meet queer friends, so as not to burden them with expectations of abuse which in any case are usually wildly off-target and carry the weight of historical violences perpetrated by the very same expectations.

But with Ihsan, hard as I tried, I couldn’t extricate the two after knowing while simultaneously having to be told that whether I knew or did not know did not matter: he was insistent about it, if not verbally than subtextually. Still, despite my best efforts, I never quite pictured Ihsan as someone with the innate capacity for eroticism, for desire.

Perhaps it is because—as we return to that fateful night beginning on the Mall Road and leading through a labyrinthine network of streets, each narrower than the last—that something had begun to crystallize in his mind.

There, finally, he was led out of the car by a man who had not accosted him but had also left little doubt as to whether he had a choice in the matter and thus he was led by the man into a small concrete building that could not have seemed more maze-like—or perhaps, he was careful to mention, his memory had filled in details that couldn’t possibly be true, through which the man navigated before they finally entering a small room with a metal cot and a single light bulb where my friend was stripped naked and violated.

The details are not important and I should not dwell on them for violence ceases to be meaningful beyond a certain point (it seems to me that instead it begins to become exploitative the more we dwell on the exacting particulars. Or maybe, like my eyes averting the sun I cannot dwell on them because it is too hard to; Ihsan would certainly like this reading).

As a matter of fact, I do not even entirely know them, for when he told me this story in a monotone so seemingly-rehearsed, in a manner punctuated with even longer pauses than I was accustomed to, I got the distinct sense that he had told this story before and agonized because, unbeknownst to him, he had gotten the smallest of details wrong: a slight exaggeration, perhaps, or a small lapse in memory, and that he had subsequently felt so guilty that he had vowed to strip his memories down to the barest sequence, but not bare enough to excise his emotional journey from outside the auditorium to the very end because Ihsan, thankfully, had at least at the time not deemed the memories unimportant. For him, those memories provided him his lines in the sand, his understanding of humanity, sex and love, truth and beauty, regardless of how wicked the memories often made him feel about himself and the world.

What does matter is that as my friend was attacked, he grabbed the luckiest of times as the man turned away for what he remembered as the most infinitesimal of moments to grab his clothes, fling open the door and run half-naked back through the maze of hallways, never turning back, merely sprinting with deathly fear while putting on his trousers, before making it out onto the street where he continued to run for a time he no longer remembered, before clambering into the first rickshaw he saw.

During his story, he gave himself one allowance of over-reach: “I don’t think I’ve ever had a longer, more thorough shower since.” Then he giggled nervously to throw off the mantle of fear and foreboding that his recounting of past trauma had put upon us.

And so I assume sex was always a difficult, and mysterious aspect of life my friend never fully wrapped his head around, but he has never admitted it. He says he has tried, haltingly, many times after his protracted relationship with the tortured intellectual, but as far as I can tell, he has remained celibate since, a condition which seems to placate him. The truth, he has always remained steadfast about, does not matter. So by that logic, my own indirect—to him, already second-hand knowledge, and so to me some hybrid form of third- and fourth-hand knowledge—reading of events came to a halting close some years after as I could no longer reconcile myself to going back to the pain I felt on his behalf every time I met him.

It was as I had taken on the burden of his history by listening to his story. As if it was a pain that only I, not he, seemed to feel. Soon the times when I had to return to his past just by meeting him became burdensome to me, and thus our meetings themselves became less rare.

So now—with the guilt that sequence of events swirls up in me, I find myself needing to reconstruct his broken sentences— somewhat shorn of the dimension of time in the common manner of memories, but entirely unsuitable for coherent narratives—except with the palpable fear that in doing so I am already failing him. That in filling out the narrative to fit his plot—a narrative I construct to fix a problem that lies partly with me—that I have likely embellished; my awareness of an unrecognizability to Ihsan of his own story which will strike an ultimate blow for which I will never be able to atone.

*

The most unfortunate aspect of story-telling is of course, the thing that gets simultaneously mentioned all too often and all too rarely. Most stories pass us by, like the herds of elderly and the calamitously-young corpses that clear the world of the living every day as we shield our eyes from them to avert the specter of death as if that were sufficient to avert death itself. The stories of those like Ihsan, who have lost so much that they have forgotten how to grieve.

The famed Urdu poet, Ahmad Faraz, must had something of this on his mind, something he could remember of grief, when he wrote the sublime Ranjish-e-Sazish, that ghazal with the longest of lives that translates roughly to: “Come my love, if only to make me weep again/Respect a little the depth of my love for you/Come someday to placate me as well/It has been a long time I haven’t had the luxury of grieving.”

As with most things, I cannot know. I return to Ihsan now with the begrudging ambivalence of a comrade caught between the vagaries of his stigmatized sexuality and liberatory politics without the fundamental requirement of his consent, with some hope that it has some import.

Ihsan’s story ends almost as soon as it begins.

If I were to synthesize Ihsan’s first conversation with me about the dissolution of his relationship with Haris, an ending that left him in shambles, in a condition all too visible to his friends—although admittedly by that point I could no longer claim a close friendship with him, and was likely just a sporadic beneficiary of Ihsan’s generosity and loyalty every time I returned to Lahore from graduate school—it would be that I saw him as more retributive and vengeful than I ever had before or since.

That is not how I wish Ihsan to be remembered but it is my memory, and for me the truth.

What he told me was:

It lasted. It lasted a long time. It lasted so long that I must have heard “I’m yours. I’m in this forever” a million times. I heard it every day. I saw it on post-its, in email conversations, heard it exclaimed over the phone, or whispered near my face in the mornings.

Nobody should ever have to hear that somebody is theirs. It is a false expression. It lulls them into the fantasy of a false permanence, a world where human beings are not fickle or impulsive, self-sabotaging or corrupt; exploitative and cowardly. Losing a person like that made me think of my mother passing away. I felt as if I knew now how I would feel if my mother passed away. I know it sounds like false equivalence but I suspect it’s true. My mother is alive and well and who knows if I’m right but nothing could be worse than this surely and surely nothing could be worse than my mother dying. You want the truth? This is what I feel is the truth, and god knows I know, maybe I am probably wrong but nobody seems to care anyway so it may as well be true or it may as well be false because nothing will change what will become of this. I just lost.

I crave hearing somebody tell me they love me again. That they love every corner of my face and body. That I am intoxicating to them. That they couldn’t go through life without me. That I was everything to them. But if I ever hear that again, I’ll remember him. I’ll remember myself pleading and begging not to be abandoned. So I never want to hear it again. And if I’m right, you shouldn’t want this either.

Truth? I don’t know. But we all know faith when we see it, right? I know when I truly believe what I say. And I won’t ever allow those words ever again because I have faith that they will try to construct another world of truth and possibility, a world perhaps as beautiful as the one Haris and I made, a world of futures and vacations and homes and aspirations. A world I no longer believe in and that will never come to be. Because he decided not to. As for sex, don’t ask me again, Raza. We never had any problems with that.

Of course, there was truth in his words. Ihsan was vengeful—primarily because just months earlier, he had proposed to Haris, and Haris had happily accepted; it was not a marriage they had anticipated or planned, but one they needed, for Ihsan was still in Lahore, and Haris in Oxford and there were few ways for them to be together other than the concrete method of marriage in England.

From what I can tell—from closer friends of Ihsan—there had been a wedding planned down to the date; a deposit on the venue from Ihsan’s savings, a rupee conversion to pounds, a lot of rupees. Then suddenly, Ihsan found himself at the end of radio silence, less a dissolution than a rupture; a rupture so violent that thousands of miles away, Ihsan found himself simultaneously pleading through a phone line and retreating into his past self that would never have imagined love, groping in the dark for answers that the faraway Haris whose potent powers of courtship and newfound celebrity were displayed on Facebook for all to see just a few weeks later.

I suspect that the details of Haris’ future no longer matter to Ihsan, nor had they possibly at the time if they didn’t involve him, but Haris is now a celebrated academic, and Ihsan an English teacher in Lahore (far from from the humblest of professions but to his ex-fiancé, perhaps a vindication of their incompatibility).

If Ihsan’s friends are to be believed, soon after he actively turned towards obscurity, away from life, without the slightest of indications. I have broached the subject of Haris with Ihsan myself only twice. It has been five years. Now, he maintains a curious sympathy for his ex-lover; an understanding of his ambition and his circumstance; he says that he accepts a deep love that may no longer be present for Haris but that he will always know was once there and may always be there for him. I change the subject, skeptical of his magnanimity. But I have always wondered: if only Ihsan had retained some of that transient fire in his belly, would we be here? With a story left untold, with an unyielding doubt deep within me that even if pain so profound could be dismissed, that it shouldn’t be; that some things should not be left well alone?

And so Ihsan descends into what some may deem lifelessess itself. So it seems most plausible to me, knowing full well that he is unlikely to agree, that Ihsan allowed himself belief in love and beauty that could not have seemed conceivable in the days, months and years after the assault in a vague building in an alley off Mall Road and I ache for him, for his inability to love again; for the once-open vault now closed, with who knows how many wonderful treasures inside.

As for me, I write this hoping to mend fences; to recognize, perhaps, that while violence and sex seem incoherent, they form the reconstructed narratives of human beings that seem too composite, too distant, doubtless too challenging.

But unlike Ahmad Fazal, I don’t wish to live in a world so dubious when I have a world of truth waiting outside these words. Meanwhile, Ihsan waits patiently for he no longer has faith.

*

It is tempting to want to live as if truth no longer matters: as Ihsan once put it, “Raza, the past is just details, accidents. It doesn’t inform me but I know you want it to.” But I have my life, and I can’t live it that way.

One can no more hope for Ihsan’s most meaningless of chaos theories than one can dismiss the past. But through this I do finally find myself understanding the intoxication of oblivion more than I would like to. Even as my heart breaks for him. Even though I have the luxury of hoping that happiness will someday find its way to me.

“Come, despite your displeasure” I wish to sing out to Ihsan, “at least for the sake of the world.” But I suspect he is beyond displeasure.


Kamil Ahsan is a doctoral student in Developmental Biology and a M.A. candidate in History of Science at the University of Chicago. He is also an independent journalist, essayist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Dissent, The American Prospect, Salon, The Millions, Aeon, Jacobin, The Rumpus, and Entropy Magazine among others.

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