A journal of narrative writing.
Murder of a Prince-Mystic

Ahmed Akhtar Zaydi didn't want to be interviewed by yet another American reporter. He lacked patience for Americans and found news profiles a bore. Yet considering the fact that just down the alley were two other gentlemen awaiting him—bulky frowning Punjabi brothers, in prayer caps and beards, gentlemen Ahmed knew, gentlemen fidgeting with a yen to see him dead—he decided to go with the interview.

At first he judged this foreign newsman to be like all the rest. Too loud, too crude. Plus too many questions, strung together fast with no chance for a man to ponder at leisure a thoughtful reply. And Ahmed Akhtar valued his leisure. He wanted to stay undisturbed here in his folding-chair perch, outside the restaurant he owned deep within the walled Old City quarter of Lahore.

Six pm—which meant Ahmed was entitled to another cigarette. Lately he'd been rationing himself (under the eye of his assistant, Jameel) to one every two hours. But how could he enjoy his much-cherished smoke while burdened by these questions and the frowns from those bearded brothers across the way?

Ahmed interrupted the reporter's jabber. "Which paper did you say you represent? The New York Times? The Washington Post?"

"Don't I wish." Eagerness and longing—strangely unguarded expressions—brightened the American's face. A young man, clearly. Very young. Tall, bulky, unpleasingly pale.

The youngster admitted he was no more than a freelance. "Course I've got my own blog. Doesn't everyone. Not that anybody's reading mine yet. Still." He said he figured if a guy wanted to sell news stories why not head for the world's hottest news site? "Pakistan. You know? Terrorism. Suicide bombs. Loose nukes. Country imploding. Fear gripping the nation."

Ahmed yawned and managed a polite yes and decided he simply couldn't wait any longer. He had to have that smoke now. He extended a hand to his assistant. Jameel tried to curb him, saying his watch said it was only five minutes to six.

"To bloody hell with your watch. Mine is the boss, and it says it is six. So give your aged employer his cigarette."

Dramatic sigh from Jameel and a reluctantly surrendered cigarette.

There. Deep inhalation. Bliss.

More talk from the foreigner. "Daniel Erickson, by the way." Must have just occurred to the American to introduce himself. "Call me Danny."

Hard to give this pest much thought. The bearded ones over there just wouldn't leave. Plus, too much noise here in the alley. Evening twilight and an easing of the day's heat were coaxing people back onto the streets. Rickshaws, freight trucks, passersby shouting as they slipped in monsoon mud from last night's rain, clients hailing him—they all knew his name—as they entered his restaurant, beggars crowding him like suppliants round a throne.

Ahmed often complained but knew he couldn't do without this. How he loved the attention, the life, the energy that flowed by his place of work. Suppliants round a throne, his throne. Here he was king.

Or should have been. Still there, the bearded ones, and getting angrier, from the look of them. He knew they would deliver another sermon, and he knew what the topic would be, and the nature of their threats. Postponement always made it worse. Best to placate them.

"I cannot think. Make the American go away." This in murmured Urdu to Jameel.

The assistant stood. "Please. We are trying to resolve a problem."

"Oh." Disappointment plain to hear. Like stripping a child of his toy. The foreigner stopped his chatter, thick fingers clutching a pen and notebook.

The bearded ones were coming his way now, crossing the alley and stepping with fastidious care around the monsoon puddles. Postponement would only make it worse. But Ahmed was nothing if not distractible.

"How quaint." He turned back to the American. "Pen and paper. No laptop? Nothing computerized about you?"

"My granddad gave me this pen. I like old things, I guess." Eager smile, pale eager face, hair cut long that fell over his eyes. Like a boy, with a boy's eagerness.

Ahmed awarded him a smile. He said he liked old things too.

Now at his elbow were the bearded ones, ready to deliver their warnings. Let them wait. Not that he was the defiant type—far from it—but for just one moment he'd indulge himself and use the American to tweak this preachy pair.

Old things, the foreigner was saying. Precisely what'd brought Danny Erickson here. Someone'd said this celebrated restaurant in the Old City—frantically he flipped the note-pages—"the Mazaydar, that's the name, right?"—would make for a great human-interest feature. "Proprietor decorates his establishment with ancient treasures salvaged from Lahore's rich legacy. Restaurant owner as history buff. Historic building, dating back centuries. Great potential." Ahmed glimpsed a scrawled note: Mazaydar—Urdu for 'tasty.'

Quivering with energy, this youngster, jabbing his pen at the page, all but dancing in place, darting looks over his shoulder at the four-story building, clearly ready to race up all four flights to begin his reportage.

Enough to make a man feel old. Of course I am old, came the thought to Ahmed Akhtar. He consoled himself with another lungful of smoke.

The larger of the bearded pair thrust his bristling way forward. Ahmed, stoop-shouldered, felt like a midget beside him. He did not like the feeling.

"Mister, ah, Danny, may I introduce my neighbors." The bearded ones flanked him now, crowding him. "Ubayd Allah Qurayshi. His colleague Hamid Shahzad."

"Hey. Hi." Big smile from Daniel Erickson and a very American try at a handshake.

Neither preacher took his hand. Neither spared him a glance.

"Ham sab is shahr meyn musulman hayn, hay na?" The bigger of the pair, Ubayd Allah, was starting in on his sermon in a low angry growl.

Not understanding a word, but eager to be a part of things, the foreigner had his notebook open, eager for headlines, eager smile on his face. Reminded Ahmed Akhtar vaguely of someone he knew.

"My colleagues here"—he translated the Urdu—"are reminding me this is a Muslim city. They want no displays from me of anything unislamic. They say they want to ensure my continued cooperation."

"Cooperation?" The American was still smiling but began to look puzzled.

Pagal Larka. That was who this American reminded him of. Pagal Larka was what the restaurant help called the stray dog that came to the Mazaydar's kitchen every night. Same eager smile. Foolish tongue hanging out, hoping for scraps. The name meant Crazy Boy.

Ubayd Allah the preacher apparently disliked the old man's inattentiveness. He stepped closer and reminded him everyone in Lahore knew Ahmed's evening habit of sitting in the alley to greet guests by the Mazaydar's doorway. He also reminded Ahmed that the Taliban had now extended their reach far into the Punjab. "And if they became displeased with you, it would be easy to send two men on a Suzuki motorbike, one to steer, one to shoot."

The preacher made a pistol of his finger, pointed it at Ahmed. "Very fast, these Suzukis, good at slipping in and out of traffic. No escaping them. Effortless to shoot a man as he sits outdoors enjoying the air. We tell you this as brother Muslims for your own good."

He concluded with another warning. "Your Hanuman. Keep it indoors, as we told you, and as you agreed."

"Hanuman?" Evidently the American had been trying to follow the exchange but caught only this name.

The preacher switched to labored English. "Idol. Monkey god. Unclean." He thrust his arm at the Mazaydar.

"The brethren are referring to my fondness for things Hindu." Ahmed Akhtar tried for a dry humor—he liked to think of himself as imperturbable, philosophic, detached—but then he grew angry.

"Mister Danny," he shrilled—he hated himself when he got loud, but it was all the fault of these Taliban types—"did you know that Dara Shikoh studied with Hindu pundits, right here in this city? Muslim, our noble Dara, just as I am, but he was fascinated by Hindu wisdom and studied Sanskrit and honored Hindus at his court and helped translate the Upanishads into Persian."

Jameel was signaling him to shut up and Ahmed knew he was being imprudent but once he got going he couldn't stop. "This is Lahore's legacy. Muslim and Hindu both."

Daniel Erickson said he'd never heard of Dara Shikoh.

"Seventeenth century. A great mystic. Crown prince. Heir to the Moghul throne."


Ahmed sighed and said that was the Muslim dynasty that once ruled India. "Prince Dara was the eldest son of Shah Jahan."

Erickson said the name Shah Jahan was new to him. "I guess I can google it."

"Yes, I guess you can." As the American scribbled notes, Ahmed said Danny's readers might like to know that Shah Jahan was the fellow who built the Taj Mahal.

"Oh. Okay. Yeah. Right." More scribbled notes.

The thought came to Ahmed that Crazy Boy the dog might make a smarter newsman.

The bearded pair seemed ready to leave. "You have been warned," said Ubayd Allah once more. "Tell the foreigner your Prince Dara was a heretic. And tell him how death came to your precious Dara." By way of farewell: "Keep the Hanuman indoors."

Ahmed Akhtar, Jameel and the American were left standing among the monsoon puddles. One hour and forty-five minutes till his next cigarette, but Ahmed's discipline had gone to bloody hell. All the Taliban's fault. He motioned to Jameel, who frowned but surrendered another smoke.

"Come, Mister Danny. Let us go inside and have a look round my Mazaydar." He drew deeply on his cigarette, coughed, inhaled again, coughed some more. He caught the expression in the foreigner's eyes.

"Yes. I know. Very bad." He flung the stub into a muddy pool. "Unfiltered Camels. Filthy habit. But they do taste good." He added a pronouncement he'd lately become fond of. "They are a comfort, and I am old. Come."