A journal of narrative writing.
Murder of a Prince-Mystic
Page 2


Up narrow flights of stairs. Stale air like a tomb and the smell of rotted wood. Darkness; they felt with their hands round the rising curve of the walls.

Ahmed warned his guest not to be alarmed if he felt something soft and plump underfoot. "Occasionally the odd pigeon dies in the shaft."

Then, as if emerging from a cave to new life: music, laughter, a rooftop terrace. Lahore's night sky welcomed them, moonlight above shrines and towers, minarets and forts. Closest were the domes of an old mosque, bulbous and huge.

The Badshahi Masjid, explained Ahmed. Built by Aurangzeb, Dara Shikoh's younger brother and rival. "He hated Prince Dara. Wanted to steal the crown for himself."

"Did he succeed?" Daniel Erickson seemed to have a child's hunger for tales.

"Unfortunately. How he did that is worth knowing. But time enough for sad stories later. See over here."

Among ferns and potted red bamboo, lovingly mounted on display stands: a stone Shiva with his Nandi bull, both figures cracked and broken; a ruined Virgin Mary, nothing left of her face but a smile; smashed tilework from Sikh temples; an armless Bodhisattva from Gandhara; and a shattered Vishnu, hand raised in the mudra that reassured worshippers Fear not.

Salvage work, said Ahmed. "Since the country's founding we as a nation have been busy vandalizing our own heritage and destroying everything we deem insufficiently pure." He'd always loved the past, and from boyhood he'd made a hobby of rescuing bits of Lahore's history. "Whatever the looters failed to extirpate altogether." Here, he said, he'd given the past a home.

Erickson said he liked it all. His eyes shone. "This is nice."

The youngster made Ahmed feel like a grandfather. A good feeling, for a man with no children. "Now I will show you my prize."

Something bulked beneath a thick black veil. "Deity in purdah," joked Ahmed, and pulled the veil. A marble monkey on bended knee, hands folded in devotion, face radiant with prayer. Hanuman, he explained. Popular god. Faithful servant of Lord Rama.

"This is the image that got me into difficulties with my neighbors." He used to keep it outdoors by the entrance, a menu card propped beneath its chin, to welcome guests to the Mazaydar. "I liked to sit outside and smoke my Camels and have Hanuman keep me company." A good presence, he said, a reminder of the Punjab before Partition, when Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims shared one city in peace. "But now the bearded crowd makes me hide him up here."

"In perfect condition," marveled Erickson. "Not smashed up like the others." He said there must be quite a story as to how Ahmed acquired this treasure.

Quite a story. Yes, thought the old man. Also the story of the most shameful night of his life. He said nothing. Hastily he covered up the god.

Something pressed from below against his legs with the silent urgency of a ghost. He flinched, braced himself for he knew not what floor-level apparition, only to find a grinning Pagal Larka.

He bellowed for Jameel. How many times did he need to remind the help that this dog and all dogs were to be kept away from him and his establishment?

But the stray had moved to an easier conquest. The American's Here Buddy, here Buddy was enough to make the thing plant its paws on Billy's chest and slobber a kiss on his face.

Ahmed winced. Not pious himself, he nonetheless shared the traditional view of dogs as najis—capable with one lick of rendering a believer unclean.

The foreigner was saying he should get a collar and leash and take the thing for walks. "He'd be good company."

Maybe, Ahmed was on the point of saying, but only if for company you like rabies and filth. But then he saw the man and dog share selfsame foolish happy grins. And why complain about happiness, however it arrives?

The thing was off, threading its way among statues and tables. No customers complained. People always felt good at the Mazaydar. Mostly couples tonight. The old ones, silent, enjoyed the night sky. The young ones laughed and drank Pepsis and held hands in the dark. A radio blared Hindi love songs.

If the Taliban ever took Lahore, he often told Jameel, all this—the whole world they'd shaped up here—would be scattered like dust.

Speaking of Jameel: the man was holding hostage his cigarettes. He trumpeted a demand to know the time.

A weary patient reply: Ten minutes until your next smoke.

The American stood beside him, asked the dog's name, mumbled something enthusiastic. Ahmed emerged from his nicotine-longing sufficiently to inquire what he'd said.

"That's what I could do. Give him a bath, get him a leash. Take him for walks."


Not that it was his job, Ahmed Akhtar told himself, to find newsworthy sites for reporters. But in the following days he escorted the American around this Lahore that he loved.

Shah Jamal, where Sufis danced and banged drums and hashish clouds hung thick in the air.

The Ravi Bridge, where big-winged pariah kites rode the thermals above the river and dove for the raw meat passersby hurled skyward to the birds. "Popular ritual," explained Ahmed. "Breathe your troubles onto the meat, and let the kites fly away with your griefs."

Data Durbar, where palmists and astrologers shared the footpath with fortunetelling parrots and their decks of oracle-cards. Daniel Erickson paid his five rupees and watched with wonder as his parrot eyed him and selected a card. Ahmed translated the spidery Urdu script. "A long happy life, and success in your work." He could have added, For five rupees they never promise you less than the best, but his morose thought was dispelled as Erickson slapped him on the back. "Nice, huh? Long life and success."

"Speaking of Sufis." Seated once more on the Mazaydar's terrace. A good night. Every table full, each lit by candlelight. "Did you know my Prince Dara belonged to not one but two Sufi tariqahs here in Lahore?" A mystic and philosopher as well as a broadminded prince, his Dara.

They were seated by the veiled Hanuman. The American saluted it with his Pepsi. He reminded Ahmed there was a story to how he'd acquired his monkey god.

True. A story. Headlight beams switched high. Mobs waving crowbars and metal pipes. Flames igniting the night. But mostly the memory of shame. No, best to push that tale aside.

Aloud he said Prince Dara had finally been brought low in a plot hatched by his brother Aurangzeb. "Aurangzeb had his mullahs issue a fatwa denouncing Dara for being tainted by Hindu thought." Civil war, battle—archers and elephants—followed by capture and humiliation. Aurangzeb had his heretic-brother paraded in chains through the streets.

"But their dad Shah Jahan always loved Dara best. Right?" Erickson said he knew the rest of the tale: Aurangzeb sends axe-men to Dara Shikoh's cell. They kill the prince and deliver his head in a box to a shocked and grieving father.

Ahmed asked how he'd learned all this.

"Googled it." He grinned down at Pagal Larka. The creature grinned back. Pair of silly faces. Inseparable. The American said tomorrow first thing he'd buy a leash.

One tale the foreigner couldn't get from his Google: Ahmed's own story, his own shame. An urge to tell, to confess: the candlelight at their table seemed a summons to truth. Or maybe, he thought, he just needed his next smoke. Nicotine made things easier.

"About my Hanuman," he began, and already he felt better at the prospect of easing this burden.

Or he would have, if not for what happened next.

Warning from below in the alley. The pop-pop-pop of Suzuki engines, dozens, it seemed. With a jolt to his heart Ahmed remembered the bristly preacher's words: Death will come on a motorbike. Heavy feet on the stairs, and a horde bursting onto the terrace.

Armed with purity and sticks, this group. Teens, most of them. They wore the long-tailed black turbans the Taliban favored.

Their leader swept his arm in a gesture that took in the dog and the statues and the candlelit couples. He targeted Ahmed. "You pollute our faith." His eyes brimmed with the blank certainties of youth.

Pollution, he said, and his stick smashed a Bodhisattva. Pollution, he said again, and he swung fast at Crazy Boy.

Crazy Boy was faster. The dog yelped and bolted low beneath the tables.

"Hey." Erickson was on his feet.

Jameel and Ahmed held him back. Ahmed told him not to make things worse. The Taliban glowered. Customers shrank in their seats.

"Your time has run out." Parting words to Ahmed from the leader, and a flourish of the stick. "Our time has come."

Then a triumph of heavy feet down the stairs.


The next morning the old man dispatched Erickson to Rawalpindi. "Ganjmandi Bridge. A great gathering of parrot masters. Wonderful oracles. Even better than here in Lahore."

Erickson asked wasn't Ahmed coming with him?

Not today, came the reply. "I am loaning you my car and driver and Jameel to show you the way. You will find a great story. And I see you have brought extra company of your own." Crazy Boy pranced by the foreigner's side. Clearly proud, this creature, of its new collar and leash.

Dogs have no place in cars. Especially mine. But Ahmed bit back the words. American and canine shared twin idiot smiles: the prospect of an outing, an adventure. Why mar their moment?

Jameel tried to protest. "Why this five-hour drive?" Minar-e Pakistan, right there in Lahore, was a much better place to spot oracular parrots.

To have you all out of harm's way, Ahmed almost said. Instead he reminded Jameel he was the boss. "Not you. Now give me my pack of Camels."

Jameel reminded him he was on a strict regimen. "One every two hours."

Ahmed said to hell with his regimen. "Now go."