Shoeless in a Shaft of Sunlight
I carried a sheaf of papers almost as thick as my hand to the third floor of my dorm on New Campus, just across the canal from the academic buildings. My room was small and sparse, just a metal desk with a matching chair and a small electric fan to blow away a little of the Pakistani heat. It suited me. My clothes were tucked neatly into a closet, and my bed was a cotton mattress on the floor. There had been an iron bed frame, but it was too short for me, so out it went. Sleeping on the floor was better for my back, anyway.
I slipped off my shoes and dropped the pile on the desk. It landed with a flat, dull thump. There was no textbook for my course in Comparative Constitutions of the World, just this pile of unbound papers, curated by the professor and kept behind the counter at a cramped bookshop in the old Anarkali bazaar. It was the oldest marketplace in Lahore, a kaleidoscope of fruit stands and food carts and stalls that sold cloth and spices and produce and a thousand other goods, almost anything anyone might want to buy. The air was perfumed with cardamom and the smoky-sweet tang of grilled meat that gradually curdled into a stink of horse dung and diesel and human sweat; and the alleys were crowded with rickshaws and taxis overflowing with passengers and packages. Horses pulled buggies and left droppings on the paths. Skinny men hauled large carts with unreasonably heavy loads. In the jittering splendor of Anarkali, I always noticed them, saw what poverty could force a meek man to do to earn a few rupees.
It’d taken me forty minutes by bus to get to the shop, then another forty back through the unrelenting traffic of Lahore. When I got to my room, a shaft of late afternoon sun slanted through the window.
Printed across the top page was constitution of the united states. Below that, deeper in the stack, were the constitutions of the Soviet Union, a fat ream of interminable articles and clauses, and of West Germany, slimmer, I would discover, but just as dull, as well as the Magna Carta. I hadn’t bothered skimming any of them as I rode the bus back through the potholed and rutted streets. It seemed too much trouble to be juggling pages of legalese while bouncing beside sweaty commuters. But now, standing alone at my desk with the kind of half-bored curiosity one tends to feel in a burgeoning dusk, I turned the page.
The Constitution was not on the next one. Instead, the title on the second page was declaration of independence.
Those were curious words, the way they were arranged into an aggressive noun. I rolled them around in my head. To declare your independence. I declare my independence.
My spine tingled, straightened, a quick, involuntary spasm. I’d grasped, in that moment, a remarkable insight, a great and improbable truth I’d never conceived to be possible.
In January 1972, I was a college graduate, fluent in three languages and studying law. But I knew almost nothing of America. Very few of us at the University of the Punjab did. The little I did know I’d learned from movies with forgettable titles, and those mostly involved cowboys. I’d studied none of the history or politics. I had no concept of independence as something that could be declared or demanded. If you have lived half of your life under martial law and the rest in a swirl of political chaos, Western ideals aren’t readily in your orbit. The idea that people could simply announce they were taking charge of their own affairs was so bold as to be unimaginable. It had never occurred to me.
There’s a long, elegant sentence at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence about how when people dissolve the political bands which have connected them to another, they owe mankind the courtesy of explaining why. Even ignorant of the specifics, I recognized that sentence for what it was: a polite introduction to treason, the codification of a rebellion.
We hold these truths to be self-evident . . .
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, too intrigued to stop reading long enough to find my chair.
. . . that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . .
The thing is, those truths were not remotely self-evident. Not to a young man in Pakistan and not to most people in the whole of human existence. It did not matter if men were created equal. From my own experiences, I knew that men were sorted into strongmen and dictators; rich men who didn’t need a ration card to buy a bag of sugar; desperate, determined men who were beaten by police in the street; and, mostly, masses of the poor and illiterate who struggled to survive from season to season. Rights were not unalienable. There were only tenuous privileges granted by capricious powers, which meant that they were not rights at all. There were no rights.
I don’t know how long I stood there, shoeless in that shaft of sunlight. The Declaration is not a long document, only thirteen hundred words, but I read conscientiously, deliberately, too enthralled to move. I’d never been so struck by a few sentences, ideas and ideals that, for a moment, removed me from where I was to where it was possible to be. Most Americans inherit the principles in those first paragraphs as a birthright. To many of them, the words are just dusty history, studied in a civics class, half-forgotten. But to me, a student in Pakistan, they were radically charged—as revolutionary as they’d been two centuries earlier when they were fixed to paper.
I kept reading, through a list of grievances. I had no idea who’d written the Declaration, nor against whom those grievances had been lodged. But thenI realized: That didn’t matter. This wasn’t only foreign history. This was our story, too. The story of Pakistan, the story of the subcontinent, the story, really, of all colonized peoples everywhere and in every era. This was my story and my parents’ story and my grandparents’ story before them.
Except the Americans apparently had figured out a different ending than we had.
I shook off a creeping numbness in my legs, pulled the Declaration from its place atop the pile, and sat down on my mattress on the floor, my back against the wall. I’d read it first with a student’s curiosity. Now I had to read it as a researcher on the cusp of a breakthrough, picking through the details, examining the clauses and phrases, fitting them into a precise and unified theory. To know the whole, I needed to understand each piece.
I was like a lonesome islander who’d found a bottle washed up on the beach, a secret script tucked inside that told of a wonderland, a fantastical place that existed, improbably and perhaps impossibly, far across the ocean. I needed to explore it, to set my mind deep into the words, let them absorb me, take me to a place so different from where I was.
“Okay, we have to go, Muazzam.”
My father smiled at me. Like everyone else, he called me by my middle name. He looked at his watch, a Camy on a gold band that wrapped around his wrist, but we all knew it was getting late in the day. The sky above my grandparents’ courtyard blushed with the first pinks of sunset. “The bus will come soon,” he said. “Time to pack up.”
In the morning, my grandfather had walked to the butcher to buy meat in his neighborhood in Gujranwala, a small industrial city an hour north of Lahore. Sometimes he would get a cut of goat and sometimes beef and sometimes, but not often because it was special and expensive, chicken. Sometimes, the butcher would whisper, “I won’t sell you meat today,” which meant the cuts in his shop were fatty or rancid or nearly so, and he would send my grandfather away with nothing. Today, my grandfather had bought goat.
My mother and my grandmother cooked in the kitchen at the back of my grandparents’ courtyard. There was rice, of course, and also a sweet rice because it was sort of a celebration, all of us together for the first time in a month. Vegetables were washed under water drawn from the kitchen pump. There was no refrigerator, and no electricity anyway, so what vegetables ended up on the table was a crafty calculus of what was available from the market and what would keep the longest. Turnips, potatoes, onions, and garlic could wait in a cool and dark corner until they sprouted eyes and new green shoots. Spinach would wilt in the summer heat and so had to be eaten immediately, but lettuce and cucumbers could survive a day or two.
I played with my brother and my sister on the packed clay of the courtyard. I was six years old, the first of my parents’ ten children. A new sibling came on a regular two-year cycle. When I turned eight, there were four of us, three brothers and a sister; at ten, there was another brother, and so on until there were five brothers and five sisters. But then, when I was six, it was just the three of us.
We ate in the middle of the afternoon. My father waited to sit until his own father sat, and then waited some more until his mother told him to sit. He always deferred to his parents. If my grandmother had announced that the sky had turned green, he would have nodded and said, “Yes, Mother.” That was how a child treated his elders, with respect even if it meant that sort of silly deference.
Over dinner, the adults spoke mainly of the extended family, of who was marrying whom, where a cousin had moved and why, about a nephew who’d finished university and begun a professional career. The afternoon wore on until the bright azure above the courtyard dulled to dusty cobalt edged with pink and orange. My father looked at his watch and told us it was time to leave.
I had come to hate sunsets. Sunsets meant saying goodbye.
My mother fussed with my brother and sister, found their shoes, settled them. The rest of us sorted the leftover food, then stacked the plates in the center of a small tablecloth that we bound up by the corners and tied into a satchel I always insisted on carrying. Then the five of us went through the door from the courtyard to the street.
The bus stop was about a quarter of a mile away, and we walked along the side of the brick road. Dread settled into my stomach, and with every step it rose, burbling up through my chest, into my throat. I hated those walks.
The bus came. My father got on first, which he usually did, so he could survey the seats, who was sitting where, and, if he had to, ask someone to move so he could keep his family together. People were surprisingly accommodating to such a request. My brother and sister followed. My mother hugged me. “I love you, Muazzam,” she said. “We’ll see you soon.” She kissed me on the top of the head and climbed on the bus.
I ran to the other side, into the street. I always hoped they would sit on the street side, where passengers weren’t pressed against the windows to see what the sidewalk vendors were hawking, and I could watch them for a few moments while the bus idled and coughed exhaust into the evening air. I waved and smiled an oversized smile.
The bus pulled away and I ran to the other side of the street, where there was a small hill. I scrambled to the top. The road was long and flat, and from up there I could watch the bus shrink into the distance until it was only a tiny blur. My eyes teared. I started to cry, and then I sobbed, great, hyperventilating heaves, alone at the top of a hill in the dusk.
I lived with my grandparents, as I’d done for so long that I had no memory of having been sent there. There was no particular reason, other than my grandparents were retired and had no children at home and wanted my father’s firstborn to raise. I never asked why, never begged my mother to let me get on the bus, never pleaded to come home, because to do so would have been ungrateful and rude. Why shouldn’t I be content with this blessing? My grandparents didn’t have to divide their attention among three children. I was their only concern. Besides, one did not question his elders. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.
They schooled me at home. They believed there were many varieties of children in the local schools, and they preferred I not associate with several of them—the disobedient, the slothful, the unserious. When I got a little older and learned to play cricket, they would walk with me to the pitch and wait and watch, and when it was over, when the other boys went wherever it was boys went, they walked me home.
There were two neighbor boys who came to play, but not often. And I had pets for a while, two chickens that hatched from eggs my grandparents hid in the nests pigeons had burrowed into one of the mud walls of the house. When they were little and yellow and downy, I chased them around with a handful of feed and a bowl of water. When they were grown, with talons and beaks, they chased me around, hungry or maybe playing but scaring me onto my cot until my grandmother shooed them away. But other than that, and visits from my parents, it was mostly just my grandparents and me.
I did learn, though. My grandparents were friends with some local teachers who would give them the textbooks the other children were studying. History, civics, Islamic studies, mathematics. Books were my constant companions, my reliable friends. I read during the day and at night in the courtyard by the glow of the kerosene lamp, and when it was extinguished and I was supposed to be asleep, I would find a volume I’d hidden under my pillow and read in the moonlight.
Copyright © 2017 by Khizr Khan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.