fiction & poetry

The House Of Fear

By IBN-E-SAFI | 1 February 2010

The bestselling Imran series are Urdu cult classics, now translated into English for the first time. Featuring the eccentric detective title-character, Imran, The House of Fear is the first in this series and opens with the discovery of dead bodies in an abandoned house, each bearing three identical dagger marks, exactly five inches apart. Who could the murderer be? In these two chapters, we begin to find out.

Excerpted with permission from The House of Fear by Ibn-e Safi (Random House 2010)
Translated from the Urdu by BILAL TANWEER

CHAPTER 1

IMRAN WAS STANDING in front of the mirror trying to knot his tie.

‘Oho…’ he said in a frustrated voice. ‘The same problem again! Too small or too large. They are making ties all wrong these days! Damn this.’ As he fidgeted, the silk tie knot slid up and tightened around his neck. His face turned red as he choked, his eyes popping out.

‘Akkhh…Akhh…Khhhh,’ he shouted, using the full force of his lungs, ‘I am going to die! Help! Oye, Suleiman!’

A servant ran into the room. At first he did not understand what was going on because all he saw was Imran beating his thighs with his fists.

‘What’s happened, sahib?’ he asked, perplexed.

‘Oh, you son of sahib! I am dying here!’

‘Aray! But…but…’

‘Don’t aray but-if-then with me!’ Imran said, grinding his teeth. ‘Loosen this!’

‘But loosen what?’

‘Abay, the knot on your father’s shroud, you rascal! Come here! Now!’

‘Why don’t you tell me properly?’ the servant said, annoyed.

‘How am I telling you improperly, mister? You mean to say that I, meaning Ali Imran, MSc, PhD, am telling you improperly? You donkey, this is called a metaphor in English and isti’ara in Urdu, understand? Argue with me if you still think I am wrong. I must witness this as well now, right before my death…’

The servant looked carefully and noticed the tie and the swollen veins around the neck. This was not new for him. He had to deal with such clumsiness regularly. He disentangled the tie.

‘Now,’ Imran said loudly as soon as he was released. ‘If I was saying it improperly, how did you understand what I meant?’

‘My mistake, sahib!’

‘Whose mistake?’

‘Mine.’

‘Prove to me that it was your mistake.’ Imran fell on the sofa, staring at his servant.

Suleiman scratched his head.

‘Do you have lice in your hair?’ Imran asked him angrily.

‘No, sir.’

‘Then why are you scratching your head?’

‘No reason.’

‘Stupid. Imbecile. You waste your energy doing useless things!’

Suleiman remained quiet.

‘Have you read Jung’s works on psychology?’

Suleiman shook his head.

‘Do you even know the spelling of Jung?’

‘No, sahib,’ Suleiman said in an irritated voice.

‘Good. Learn it now. J-U-N-G. Many illiterates read him as Jang, and some as Joong. Those who suffer from a literary diarrhea use the French ‘J’. But Jung was not French. It’s “Yoong”.’

‘Will you eat chicken or batair1 for dinner?’ the servant asked.

‘Half titar, half batair!’2 Imran said, irritated. ‘Yes, so what was I saying?’

‘You were saying that we should cook the spices till they turn red,’ the servant said in a deadpan tone.

‘Yes! And always cook on a low flame,’ said Imran. ‘And don’t turn the ladle so wildly in the pot that its clanking will arouse the neighbours’ desires for our food. By the way, can you tell me: where was I dressing up to go?’

‘Sir,’ the servant said cautiously, ‘I think you were going out to buy me cloth for my shalwar kameez. Pure Bis Hazaar cotton and Boski for my kameez.’3

‘Good. You are a very loyal and smart servant. I’d forget everything if you didn’t remind me.’

‘Should I tie the knot of your tie, sir?’ Suleiman asked in a deferential tone.

‘Tie it.’

As he was tying the knot, Suleiman muttered in his ears again. ‘Pure Bis Hazaar cotton. I can write a note for you if you want?’

‘That would be very good,’ Imran said.

After tying the tie, the servant wrote something with pencil on a piece of paper and offered it to him.

‘Not like this.’ Imran pointed to his chest. ‘Pin it here.’

The servant pinned the note on Imran’s chest.

‘Now I will remember,’ said Imran as he left the room. He crossed the room into the drawing room where three girls were seated.

‘Excellent, Imran bhai is here!’ exclaimed one of them, Jamila. ‘You made us wait so long. Did you take so much time just to put on your clothes?’

‘Oh, so you were waiting for me?’

‘Why, didn’t you promise us an hour ago that we’d go to the movies?’

‘Movies? What movies? I was actually going out to get for Suleiman…’ Imran said, pointing to the note on his chest.

‘Pure Bis Hazaar cotton and Boski,’ Jamila read out the note. ‘What does this mean?’

The girls began to laugh. Imran’s sister Surayya also came closer to see the note, but the third one kept sitting. She was Surayya’s new friend.

‘What is this?’ Surayya asked Imran, pointing to the note.

‘I am going out to buy some cloth for Suleiman’s shalwar kameez.’

‘But then why did you promise us?’ Surayya asked, annoyed.

‘What a nuisance!’ Imran jerked his neck. ‘Now who is honest here: you or Suleiman? How am I to know?’

‘That servant! Consider him honest! Who am I anyway?’ Surayya turned to her friends. ‘Let’s go out by ourselves. And besides, if we go with him something embarrassing is sure to occur. He will certainly end up committing some folly or the other.’

‘My dear girls, look here now,’ Imran said in a pleading voice, making a doleful face. ‘This is my younger sister. She considers me an imbecile. Surayya, I will die soon, very soon, while knotting some tie. And don’t blame poor Suleiman for anything. He saved my life. I am indebted to him.’

Jamila was alarmed. ‘What happened?’

‘I didn’t tie my tie correctly and I could have died,’ Imran said in a serious tone.

Jamila started laughing, but Surayya was not amused. Her new friend was also utterly perplexed.

‘If you want, I can come to the movies with you,’ Imran finally conceded. ‘But remember, on our way back, you must remind me of the note pinned to my chest.’

‘I don’t wish to go anymore,’ Surayya declared.

‘But no! It will not be much fun without Imran bhai,’ Jamila protested.

‘Long live, my dear!’ Imran said to her triumphantly. ‘Right now, I would trade Surayya for you. I wish you were my sister. I don’t like this moody girl at all.’

‘You are moody! And I don’t like you either!’ Surayya said.

‘Look at her now. This is my younger sister.’

Jamila finally broke in. ‘Tell you what,’ she said. ‘Keep this note in your pocket. I will remind you on our way back.’

Imran put the piece of paper in his pocket. Surayya looked a little sulky. As soon as they reached the porch, a bike came through the gate and stopped in front of them. A heavy-set, handsome man was riding it.

‘Hello, Super Fayyaz!’ Imran shouted enthusiastically, raising both his hands.

‘Imran, my boy. Are you going somewhere?’ he asked and immediately turned to the girls. ‘Oh, please excuse us, ladies, but this is very important. Imran, get on the bike, hurry up.’

Imran immediately leapt onto the backseat and the bike sputtered out of the gate.

‘Did you see that?’ Surayya said, biting her lower lip.

‘Who was that?’ Jamila asked.

‘The Intelligence Bureau’s Superintendent, Fayyaz,’ she said. ‘I cannot understand why he is interested in a nutcase like Imran bhai. He often takes him along with him.’

‘Imran bhai is a very interesting person,’ Jamila said. ‘At least, I enjoy his company very much.’

‘Crazy people think alike,’ Surayya said, making a face.

‘He doesn’t appear crazy to me,’ Surayya’s new friend remarked.

And her assessment was correct. Imran’s appearance belied his actions. In fact, he looked quite an attractive and well-built young man. His age was around 28. After completing his MSc from a local university, he went to England where he did a PhD in sciences. Imran’s father, Rahman, was the Director General of the Intelligence Bureau. Upon Imran’s return from England, Rahman wanted to get his son a good post, but Imran was not interested. Sometimes he would talk of starting a business in scientific equipment, sometimes of starting a science institute, but he would not make up his mind. Everyone in the family was unhappy with his attitude. He had started acting like an absentminded fool, especially after his return from England, so much so that even the servants took advantage of him all the time. They even went to the extent of stealing ten rupee notes from his pockets without Imran ever discovering them.

His father could not bear to see his face. He had grown tired of him despite the fact that Imran was his only son. It was only because of his mother that he was allowed to stay in the house. Otherwise, he would have been kicked out a long time ago.

‘The only time he doesn’t appear crazy is when he is silent,’ Surayya said. ‘You’ll find out if you are with him for a couple of hours.’

‘Does he bite as well?’ Jamila smiled.

‘Keep up your interest in him. You will find out for yourself,’ Surayya said, curling her lips.

CHAPTER 2

Captain Fayyaz’s bike was moving quite fast. Imran was in the backseat muttering to himself, ‘Pure cotton for shalwar…Shalwar for boskon and cotty for shameez…What, what am I saying? Fayyaz…Fayyaz, please stop.’

Fayyaz pulled up the bike on the side.

‘I have forgotten,’ said Imran.

‘What have you forgotten?’

‘I made a mistake.’

‘What mistake?’ Fayyaz said in an irritated voice. ‘Don’t try to fool me, Imran.’

Imran paid no heed to his words and got off the bike. ‘I think I made a mistake.’

‘We are in a hurry, Imran,’ Fayyaz said impatiently, turning towards him.

Imran returned to the bike, but he sat in the opposite direction: with his back leaning against Fayyaz’s back.

Fayyaz said, annoyed, ‘You want me to look like an idiot? Sit straight.’

‘Straight? Am I sitting on my head now?’

‘Please, my friend,’ Fayyaz pleaded. ‘People will laugh at us.’

‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’

‘You will fall on your face on the road.’

‘If that’s what fate has ordained for me, then I, an ordinary man, am powerless,’ Imran replied, speaking like a dervish.

‘May God help you.’ Fayyaz ground his teeth and started the bike. It was a spectacle: both of them sitting on the bike facing opposite directions. Imran bent down towards his end as though he was driving a bike as well. Pedestrians laughed at them as they went by.

‘Aha!’ Imran chuckled, ‘See I remember now! Pure cotton for shalwar and Boski for kameez. I was telling you earlier that I had made some mistake.’

‘Imran, why do you consider me a fool? You shouldn’t act like a madman in front of me at least.’

‘Madman? You are the madman!’ Imran retorted.

‘What do you gain by masquerading as a fool?’

‘Masquerade!’ Imran exclaimed. ‘This word reminds of something I should have thought of a year ago…’

Fayyaz did not reply. The bike was running at full throttle.

‘Hain?’ Imran said suddenly. ‘Why is this bike going the other way? Oh, and where is the handle?’ He started shouting, ‘Help! Save me! I cannot look backwards.’

Fayyaz stopped the bike and glanced embarrassedly at the pedestrians.

‘Thank God, the bike has stopped by itself,’ Imran said as he got off. ‘Oh God! Now I see. The handle is on the rear end! They’re making bikes with fronts at the back these days…’

‘Why are you being such a pain, Imran?’ Fayyaz said, giving up.

‘You are being a pain making me ride a bike made the wrong way. What would happen if there was an accident?’

‘Get on the bike,’ Fayyaz pulled him back on and kick-started the bike.

‘Now it seems all right,’ Imran muttered.

The bike was now out of the city and had entered a deserted area, but Imran did not bother asking where they were heading.

‘I need your help,’ Fayyaz said to him.

‘But I am very poor these days,’ Imran replied.

‘Do you think I am asking you for money?’

‘I don’t know. I thought so. Aray baap! I forgot again. Cotton pyjamas and Boski shirt! Imran, you are a fool!’

‘Imran!’ Fayyaz turned to him.

‘Oh, yes?’

‘Why do you think everyone else is an idiot?’

‘Because, er…please drive on the smooth side of the road, my friend.’

‘You should put an end to all this nonsense and get down to some serious work.’

‘Serious, hmm. I think I remember something about seriousness…’

‘Go to hell!’

‘All right.’ Imran nodded his head obediently.

Their bike stopped in front of a large building. Three or four police constables could be seen guarding its gates.

‘Get off,’ Fayyaz said.

‘And I was thinking you were going to make me ride the handle now,’ Imran said.

They were in a rural area not too far from the city. The building in front of them was the only large house in that area, which mainly had mud houses. It was constructed in the old style. Its high walls were made of redbrick. They stood facing a large gate, which, it seemed, was the main entrance to the building.

Captain Fayyaz grabbed Imran’s hand and they entered the building. Imran still did not ask where he was being taken. They walked through a long hall and reached a room. Suddenly Imran covered his eyes and turned his face away. He had just seen a dead body lying on the ground with blood all around it.

Inna lillahi wa’ inna illai’hi raaji’un,’4 Imran said in a trembling voice. ‘May God bless his relatives and give him patience to deal with the tragedy of his own death…’

‘I have not brought you here to recite prayers,’ Fayyaz said.

‘You could have asked me for burial donations at my house. You did not have to drag me here.’

‘Yaar, Imran, please. Don’t annoy me. I consider you a good friend,’ Fayyaz said.

‘Likewise. But I will not be able to give you more than five rupees. I still have to buy botton cure for shalwar…boskon…no…what was that? See, I forgot again.’

Fayyaz ignored him. After a pause he said, ‘This building has been closed for the past five years. Don’t you find it a little strange that there is a dead body here?’

Imran shook his head, ‘No. Not at all. I would have found it strange if you had found it under a pear tree.’

‘Please be serious.’

‘I am already delirious.’

‘I said serious, not delirious.’

Imran was looking intently at the body. He murmured, ‘Three wounds.’

Fayyaz was happy to see him settle into the right mood. ‘Now here is the full story…’

‘Wait,’ Imran bent over the body. After inspecting the wounds carefully, he looked up. ‘Before telling me the full story, tell me what you know about this body.’

‘It was found at twelve o’ clock,’ Fayyaz reported.

‘Anything else?’ Imran looked at him inquisitively.

‘And what else?’

‘But, Sheikh Chilli the Second, meaning Ali Imran, MSc, PhD thinks a little differently about this.’5

‘And what is that?’

‘You will consider me a fool multiplied by two.’

‘Aray baba, tell me.’

‘Listen: the murderer struck once. Then measured a distance of five inches from the wound and struck again. And then he measured the same distance again and struck the third time. He was also careful about striking in one straight line—not an inch up or down.’

‘What nonsense!’ Fayyaz replied.

‘Measure it, my dear. If I am wrong, wring my neck. Or, put my neck on a ring.’

Imran picked up a straw lying on the ground and placed it in between the wounds. Fayyaz looked at him in amazement.

‘Here.’ Imran handed the stick to him. ‘If this straw doesn’t turn out to be five inches, then find one in someone’s beard.’6

‘But what does it all mean?’ Fayyaz asked thoughtfully.

‘It means the murderer and the murdered were lovers.’

‘Imran, my dear friend, please be serious.’

‘This stick tells you this story, which is exactly what old Urdu poets also thought. Pick up any collection, you will find at least a few poems confirming what I have just said. Here listen to this one:

Be careful while strangling me—you may sprain your wrist

for I too, am a little tough, my love…’

‘What rubbish! If you don’t want to help me, just say so,’ Fayyaz said angrily.

‘You have measured the distance, right? Now tell me, what can explain this?’ Imran said.

Fayyaz did not have an answer.

‘Think,’ said Imran. ‘In Urdu poetry, only a lover can allow his beloved to kill him in whatever manner she pleases. Mince his meat or strike skilfully, measuring the distance between each wound. These wounds are not a result of haste. The body does not show any signs of a struggle either. It seems as though the body quietly suffered the blows of the beloved.’

Fayyaz was quiet for a while. Then he said, ‘This building has been empty for five years. But it is opened for a few hours on Thursdays.’

‘Why?’

‘Actually, there is a grave here. It is known that it is the grave of a martyr. So every Thursday a guy comes here to sweep and clean the grave.’

‘There must be offerings on this grave as well?’ Imran inquired.

‘No. No such thing. The people who own this building live in the city. I have close relations with them. They have asked this man to look after this grave. There is no rush of followers on this gravesite either. When the cleaner came here this afternoon, he saw this body.’

‘The door was locked?’ Imran asked.

‘Yes. He said he did not lose the keys and there are no signs that someone came in by scaling the wall or anything like that.’

‘Then this body must have dropped from the sky,’ Imran asserted. ‘In fact, it would be better if you ask for help from this martyr whose grave…’

‘Are you losing your mind again?’ Fayyaz said.

‘Who are the owners of this building and what kind of people are they?’ Imran asked.

‘That Judge sahib who is my neighbour,’ Fayyaz replied.

‘Ah, that same Judge sahib,’ Imran slapped his chest.

‘Yes, the same. Oh please, yaar. Be serious. For God’s sake.’

‘I cannot help you,’ Imran said in a disappointed tone, ‘because you did not help me.’

‘I? I didn’t help you?’ said Fayyaz incredulously. ‘I don’t understand at all.’

‘Why would you understand or help me? You are selfish.’

‘I didn’t help? I don’t understand.’

‘I have been asking you for the longest time to get me married to that judge’s daughter!’

‘Stop this garbage, please.’

‘I am serious.’

‘If you are serious, then you must have lost your eyesight.’

‘Why?’

‘That girl is blind in one eye.’

‘That is precisely why I wish to marry her! Ah, she will look at me and my dogs with the same eye.’

‘For the love of God, Imran. Please be serious.’

‘First you will have to promise me,’ Imran said.

‘Alright, baba, alright. I will talk to him.’

‘Thank you so much. Really, that girl has done something to me. What’s that phrase in Urdu, oh I forgot.’

‘Alright now, forget about it. Let’s talk business.’

‘No. Please let me think of her. Otherwise I will have hysterics.’

‘Now this is real love.’ Fayyaz made a face.

Jiyo!’1 Imran said, thumping his back. ‘May your female partner live long! Now tell me, have you identified the body or not?’

‘No. He is not a resident of this area and Judge sahib’s family doesn’t know him either.’

‘Meaning no one recognises him?’

‘No.’

‘Did you find anything which could shed some light on his identity?’

‘Nothing. But wait,’ Fayyaz said, moving towards a corner of the room. He came back with a leather bag in his hand. ‘We found this near his body.’

Imran took the bag from him and inspected the items in it. ‘Hmm. A carpenter’s tools. But I wonder if these belonged to him. He doesn’t appear to be a well-to-do person, but he doesn’t seem to be a carpenter either.’

‘Why?’

‘The skin of his hands is soft. Look at his palms. There is no roughness on his palms. These hands can only belong to a painter or a retoucher,’ Imran said.

‘You still haven’t told me anything useful,’ Fayyaz said.

‘What do you expect from a fool?’ Imran laughed.

‘His wounds are troubling me,’ Fayyaz said.

‘If you put a balm on my wounds, I will take care of these wounds for you.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Judge sahib’s daughter.’ And then, as if he had just remembered something: ‘Judge sahib must have at least one key to this house?’

‘Yes, he has a key with him.’

‘Has or had?’

‘I didn’t ask him.’

‘So ask him. Now have this body removed. Ask them to pay special attention to the depths of the wounds during the postmortem.’ He added, ‘And if the depths of the wounds turn out to be equal, then this was done by none other than this mister martyr, who’s buried here.’

‘What nonsense!’

‘Ask for help from Ali Imran, MSc, PhD, only when you intend to do what he tells you to do.’

‘Your instructions will be followed. Anything else?’

‘Yes. I want to inspect this building,’ Imran said.

They returned to the same room after inspecting the whole building.

‘Yes, also ask the judge why he tried to change the look of just this room, when he has left the rest of the building in the old style. See, none of the walls in this building are plastered except the ones in this room.’

‘I will ask him.’

‘Remember to ask about the keys and oh, if you meet my one-eyed beloved recite that Ghalib line: “Let someone ask my heart about your half-drawn arrow.” I think Ghalib’s beloved was also blind in one eye; a half-drawn arrow could only be from a single eye…’

‘You are not going to tell me anything else?’ Fayyaz asked.

‘Yaar, you are a real favour-orbiter…orbiter…I forget the word…What was that?’

‘Forgetter?’

Jiyo! Yes you are a real favour forgetter. I have been spewing nonsense for so long and you tell me I haven’t told you anything?’  

 

1 Batair: partridge.

2 Titar: quail. The Urdu expression ‘Aadha titar aadha batair’ means being committed to two opposite things, or being ambivalent about something. It also means half-breed, not as a racial slur but in a pejorative sense anyway.

3 Bis Hazaar refers to a type of cotton available at that time. Boski is a variety of silk.

4 This Arabic phrase literally means: ‘Truly we belong to Allah and truly to Him shall we return.’ Its usage varies but is recited most often by Muslims on hearing of a calamity, for example, someone’s death.

5 Sheikh Chilli is a common fool in Indian folktales.

6 A play on the Urdu phrase ‘Chor ki daarhi mein tinka.’

The bestselling Imran series are Urdu cult classics, now translated into English for the first time. Featuring the eccentric detective title-character, Imran, The House of Fear is the first in this series and opens with the discovery of dead bodies in an abandoned house, each bearing three identical dagger marks, exactly five inches apart. Who could the murderer be? In these two chapters, we begin to find out.

Excerpted with permission from The House of Fear by Ibn-e Safi (Random House 2010)
Translated from the Urdu by BILAL TANWEER

CHAPTER 1

IMRAN WAS STANDING in front of the mirror trying to knot his tie.

‘Oho…’ he said in a frustrated voice. ‘The same problem again! Too small or too large. They are making ties all wrong these days! Damn this.’ As he fidgeted, the silk tie knot slid up and tightened around his neck. His face turned red as he choked, his eyes popping out.

‘Akkhh…Akhh…Khhhh,’ he shouted, using the full force of his lungs, ‘I am going to die! Help! Oye, Suleiman!’

A servant ran into the room. At first he did not understand what was going on because all he saw was Imran beating his thighs with his fists.

‘What’s happened, sahib?’ he asked, perplexed.

‘Oh, you son of sahib! I am dying here!’

‘Aray! But…but…’

‘Don’t aray but-if-then with me!’ Imran said, grinding his teeth. ‘Loosen this!’

‘But loosen what?’

‘Abay, the knot on your father’s shroud, you rascal! Come here! Now!’

‘Why don’t you tell me properly?’ the servant said, annoyed.

‘How am I telling you improperly, mister? You mean to say that I, meaning Ali Imran, MSc, PhD, am telling you improperly? You donkey, this is called a metaphor in English and isti’ara in Urdu, understand? Argue with me if you still think I am wrong. I must witness this as well now, right before my death…’

The servant looked carefully and noticed the tie and the swollen veins around the neck. This was not new for him. He had to deal with such clumsiness regularly. He disentangled the tie.

‘Now,’ Imran said loudly as soon as he was released. ‘If I was saying it improperly, how did you understand what I meant?’

‘My mistake, sahib!’

‘Whose mistake?’

‘Mine.’

‘Prove to me that it was your mistake.’ Imran fell on the sofa, staring at his servant.

Suleiman scratched his head.

‘Do you have lice in your hair?’ Imran asked him angrily.

‘No, sir.’

‘Then why are you scratching your head?’

‘No reason.’

‘Stupid. Imbecile. You waste your energy doing useless things!’

Suleiman remained quiet.

‘Have you read Jung’s works on psychology?’

Suleiman shook his head.

‘Do you even know the spelling of Jung?’

‘No, sahib,’ Suleiman said in an irritated voice.

‘Good. Learn it now. J-U-N-G. Many illiterates read him as Jang, and some as Joong. Those who suffer from a literary diarrhea use the French ‘J’. But Jung was not French. It’s “Yoong”.’

‘Will you eat chicken or batair1 for dinner?’ the servant asked.

‘Half titar, half batair!’2 Imran said, irritated. ‘Yes, so what was I saying?’

‘You were saying that we should cook the spices till they turn red,’ the servant said in a deadpan tone.

‘Yes! And always cook on a low flame,’ said Imran. ‘And don’t turn the ladle so wildly in the pot that its clanking will arouse the neighbours’ desires for our food. By the way, can you tell me: where was I dressing up to go?’

‘Sir,’ the servant said cautiously, ‘I think you were going out to buy me cloth for my shalwar kameez. Pure Bis Hazaar cotton and Boski for my kameez.’3

‘Good. You are a very loyal and smart servant. I’d forget everything if you didn’t remind me.’

‘Should I tie the knot of your tie, sir?’ Suleiman asked in a deferential tone.

‘Tie it.’

As he was tying the knot, Suleiman muttered in his ears again. ‘Pure Bis Hazaar cotton. I can write a note for you if you want?’

‘That would be very good,’ Imran said.

After tying the tie, the servant wrote something with pencil on a piece of paper and offered it to him.

‘Not like this.’ Imran pointed to his chest. ‘Pin it here.’

The servant pinned the note on Imran’s chest.

‘Now I will remember,’ said Imran as he left the room. He crossed the room into the drawing room where three girls were seated.

‘Excellent, Imran bhai is here!’ exclaimed one of them, Jamila. ‘You made us wait so long. Did you take so much time just to put on your clothes?’

‘Oh, so you were waiting for me?’

‘Why, didn’t you promise us an hour ago that we’d go to the movies?’

‘Movies? What movies? I was actually going out to get for Suleiman…’ Imran said, pointing to the note on his chest.

‘Pure Bis Hazaar cotton and Boski,’ Jamila read out the note. ‘What does this mean?’

The girls began to laugh. Imran’s sister Surayya also came closer to see the note, but the third one kept sitting. She was Surayya’s new friend.

‘What is this?’ Surayya asked Imran, pointing to the note.

‘I am going out to buy some cloth for Suleiman’s shalwar kameez.’

‘But then why did you promise us?’ Surayya asked, annoyed.

‘What a nuisance!’ Imran jerked his neck. ‘Now who is honest here: you or Suleiman? How am I to know?’

‘That servant! Consider him honest! Who am I anyway?’ Surayya turned to her friends. ‘Let’s go out by ourselves. And besides, if we go with him something embarrassing is sure to occur. He will certainly end up committing some folly or the other.’

‘My dear girls, look here now,’ Imran said in a pleading voice, making a doleful face. ‘This is my younger sister. She considers me an imbecile. Surayya, I will die soon, very soon, while knotting some tie. And don’t blame poor Suleiman for anything. He saved my life. I am indebted to him.’

Jamila was alarmed. ‘What happened?’

‘I didn’t tie my tie correctly and I could have died,’ Imran said in a serious tone.

Jamila started laughing, but Surayya was not amused. Her new friend was also utterly perplexed.

‘If you want, I can come to the movies with you,’ Imran finally conceded. ‘But remember, on our way back, you must remind me of the note pinned to my chest.’

‘I don’t wish to go anymore,’ Surayya declared.

‘But no! It will not be much fun without Imran bhai,’ Jamila protested.

‘Long live, my dear!’ Imran said to her triumphantly. ‘Right now, I would trade Surayya for you. I wish you were my sister. I don’t like this moody girl at all.’

‘You are moody! And I don’t like you either!’ Surayya said.

‘Look at her now. This is my younger sister.’

Jamila finally broke in. ‘Tell you what,’ she said. ‘Keep this note in your pocket. I will remind you on our way back.’

Imran put the piece of paper in his pocket. Surayya looked a little sulky. As soon as they reached the porch, a bike came through the gate and stopped in front of them. A heavy-set, handsome man was riding it.

‘Hello, Super Fayyaz!’ Imran shouted enthusiastically, raising both his hands.

‘Imran, my boy. Are you going somewhere?’ he asked and immediately turned to the girls. ‘Oh, please excuse us, ladies, but this is very important. Imran, get on the bike, hurry up.’

Imran immediately leapt onto the backseat and the bike sputtered out of the gate.

‘Did you see that?’ Surayya said, biting her lower lip.

‘Who was that?’ Jamila asked.

‘The Intelligence Bureau’s Superintendent, Fayyaz,’ she said. ‘I cannot understand why he is interested in a nutcase like Imran bhai. He often takes him along with him.’

‘Imran bhai is a very interesting person,’ Jamila said. ‘At least, I enjoy his company very much.’

‘Crazy people think alike,’ Surayya said, making a face.

‘He doesn’t appear crazy to me,’ Surayya’s new friend remarked.

And her assessment was correct. Imran’s appearance belied his actions. In fact, he looked quite an attractive and well-built young man. His age was around 28. After completing his MSc from a local university, he went to England where he did a PhD in sciences. Imran’s father, Rahman, was the Director General of the Intelligence Bureau. Upon Imran’s return from England, Rahman wanted to get his son a good post, but Imran was not interested. Sometimes he would talk of starting a business in scientific equipment, sometimes of starting a science institute, but he would not make up his mind. Everyone in the family was unhappy with his attitude. He had started acting like an absentminded fool, especially after his return from England, so much so that even the servants took advantage of him all the time. They even went to the extent of stealing ten rupee notes from his pockets without Imran ever discovering them.

His father could not bear to see his face. He had grown tired of him despite the fact that Imran was his only son. It was only because of his mother that he was allowed to stay in the house. Otherwise, he would have been kicked out a long time ago.

‘The only time he doesn’t appear crazy is when he is silent,’ Surayya said. ‘You’ll find out if you are with him for a couple of hours.’

‘Does he bite as well?’ Jamila smiled.

‘Keep up your interest in him. You will find out for yourself,’ Surayya said, curling her lips.

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Ibn-e-Safi was the pen name of Asrar Ahmad, a bestselling and prolific fiction writer, novelist and poet in Urdu. He wrote from the 1940s in India, and later Pakistan after the partition of British India in 1947.

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