The day the last qawwal was killed, my childhood city, already known for its lethal silence, for its censorship of words, for its refusal to listen, went into a deep deep quiet. It was the kind of quiet that forced you to wonder, that grabbed you by the throat and lifted you high to give you a painful bird’s view.
When the quiet first fell upon us, the people gathered near the fence surrounding the city—the fence that had suddenly begun to glow blue—wondering why they couldn’t talk, why children couldn’t express hunger, why artists looked so glum. The people gathered with their faces coiled up, with their eyebrows close together, with their frowns shaped like the vacant hills surrounding their valley. Confused about why I couldn’t speak, and frightened by the fence’s glow, I went with them. I, too, believed that the military’s new fence around the city had woven the blanket of quiet that the city lay under. Like others, I kept my distance from other people. Like others, I always maintained distance from people I loved. I didn’t want to stand out. Growing up in a place like this teaches you that, even in moments of crisis, it’s dangerous to be different.
I sighed and decided to go back to my sister’s house, but then I saw Rooh making her way through the crowd. When our eyes met, she hurriedly began walking towards me but I warned her with my eyebrows to slow down. Can’t show too much excitement, remember? I tried to convey. We are still in this city, this city where no one touches others, emotionally or physically. She raised her hand, making a claw in the air, perhaps asking me what had happened. I shrugged. She could see the desperation mixing with the confusion in my eyes. She, too, looked deeply confused.
Everyone was confused by this new state of being we were stuck in while being stuck inside the glowing fence, but Rooh was even more confused. She didn’t know the social rules. She hadn’t grown up here. She knew she couldn’t hold my hand, couldn’t touch my shoulder, couldn’t hug anyone; that much I had prepared her for before I brought her here. But this new mode of existence was far more alien to her than it was to me. She came close to me and opened her arms for an embrace but I uttered a strong no through my gaze. My eyebrows mounted, I rehearsed the phrase “no touch” in my head. No matter what, we keep distance from other humans in this city. That’s how my family got to be the privileged inhabitants of the cleanest city in the dirtiest country on earth, remember? By keeping distance from others. By refusing touch. That’s how my sister Haajra lived this glorious life amidst mango and guava trees now, married to a military man, keeping distance from everyone and everything, including her childhood memories of having been touched forcefully behind closed doors, memories swept under the rug because no one could believe that anyone would touch her like that in this city of no touch. You can’t come too close, Rooh, I kept reminding Rooh with my facial expressions. Don’t forget all that I told you, don’t forget why I left this city!
Nine years ago, I had left this wretched city. An escape, I called it every time I recalled my childhood. Escape from the state’s beautification project to a neglected town that Haajra liked to call “the savage land.” Escape from a repressed city to a place that allowed, even encouraged, emotion. “Where time moves backwards,” Haajra said, when I announced my decision to relocate. I’d rather have time go back than stay still the way it does here. I fought with Haajra, trying to convince my sister of my reasons for leaving, trying to get some support. In some ways, I understood why Haajra never understood. In some ways, I did feel like a child who, in a fit of childish anger, slams doors shut without realizing that other children don’t even have doors to slam. Unlike other people who were leaving at that time out of desperate anguish, I left nine years ago with a full stomach and a fuller suitcase. Nine years ago, when qawwals and dancers started disappearing, when the rhythms of dhol and tabla were replaced by tedious national anthems, when we heard the beat of consecutive bullets more than we heard any drum, I swore never to return.
But when I received that phone call from Haajra, begging to see me, telling me how much she missed me, guilting me over abandoning my own sister, repeating again and again that she couldn’t believe I was living with and loving someone she didn’t even know, I decided to come back. It had been a whim, really. Just for a week, I told Rooh. I can’t handle that place for more than a week. Rooh was excited to see where I had grown up, to finally witness the city I hated and missed so much. Don’t have high expectations of anything there, even Haajra. She turned into everyone else when she married that man. She isn’t the best friend I grew up with anymore, I told Rooh, but a part of me was excited to see Haajra again. To laugh with her. To throw a water balloon at her. To stir too much sugar in her tea when she felt bitter.
Excitement and fear moved me until I crossed the city’s border, watched Rooh get patted down for being a foreigner, looked away when the guards watched her suspiciously, and greeted Haajra at the train station with a wave and a smile. “Missed you badtameez,” I said to her in person, nine years after leaving her.
“Such bakwas! You’d have come before if you missed me,” she responded. Haajra’s eyes were full of love when she looked at Rooh. They did not shake hands, but they talked. They giggled. They made a lot of eye contact, making childish jokes about my quirks. There was laughter in the car as we headed to Haajra’s new house in Cantt. I was relieved to have Haajra and Rooh with me as the sight of neatly trimmed bushes crept through my tear glands into my throat, gagging me until I had to roll down the window and vomit my half-digested morning paratha all over the cleanest sidewalk I had seen in nine years.
Rooh came close to me, moving her arms and hands frantically, confusing me more with her actions. I didn’t understand her. I didn’t understand anything. I needed to scream, but I couldn’t. I turned my back to Rooh, pointing to her and then to the ground, asking her to stay put. It was too dangerous for her to get closer to the guards. Then, I turned my back to her and walked towards the fence. A horde of soldiers stood in front of it, keeping anyone from going too close, their guns flung over their shoulders. I needed to know though. I needed to know what had happened, if Rooh and I could ever leave. I inhaled deeply, puffed my chest out, and walked towards the fence as if the soldiers were invisible. I flinched when I felt hard cold metal on my stomach. A moustached guard had placed his rifle between my body and the fence. Well, at least he didn’t shoot me. His rifle rubbed hard against my stomach, forcing me to step away from the fence.
Somehow, the sight of my stomach rubbing against the rifle ignited the spirit of the crowd. Hordes of people moved closer to the fence, arms raised, faces scrunched up, ignoring the guns pointed at them. Even in the deadly silence, I could feel the crowd get rowdier. Suddenly, a young man sprinted towards the fence and the quiet was interrupted by a loud shot. I froze. Everyone froze. Someone had shot at the man. I looked around cautiously to find Rooh at the back of the crowd. With her eyes wide open, she pointed to the fence when she saw me searching for her. I realized then that the man was not shot by a soldier. He had turned into ash when his body touched the fence. Remnants of sparks still flew lazily in the air above the charred mark where he had made contact. Even the guards looked fearful. This was new. An inanimate wall suddenly with power stronger than their rifles. A fence built, perhaps for some imagined idea of protection, now acting on its own, burning anyone who came into contact with its skin. The crowd moved away from the fence. So did the soldiers. For a minute, before the soldiers raised their guns again, just for a minute, all humans seemed to be united in their fear of the fence, unable to fathom what alien power had been infused into its metal, unable to discern who the enemy really was.
Rooh and I walked back to Haajra’s house in silence, refusing to look behind us toward the sound of more shots, refusing to ascertain if these shots were the bullets or the fence. Rooh’s hand came towards mine naturally. We were so used to holding hands that it was hard to unlearn the movement. I moved mine away and put it in my pocket. I was more used to this life than Rooh was. But she continued to move her fingers towards me. Steadily, but defiantly.
“It’ll be okay, we have each other,” Rooh cried.
I jerked around. Had she spoken? Could we talk now? I tried to speak but could not utter a single sound. I took my phone out of my pocket and tried to type, desperate for words, but none appeared on the screen. I looked at Rooh, wondering how she had spoken. She brought her fingers close to my face, placing them on my cheek. “I’m right here, aren’t I? It’ll be okay, my jaan. We’ll go home soon. They have to figure this out. They will figure this out.” Her lips didn’t move but I could hear her. My cheek burned with sensation. Was her speech in her fingers? Hastily, I balled up her fingertips in my palms, squeezing more tightly than I had ever squeezed skin in this city, and I heard Rooh’s voice, interrupting herself over and over again. “It’ll be okay—I’m scared though. What the fuck just happened?—They’ll figure it out though, they have all the technology of the world. We’ll be okay.—Is Haajra home? What the hell is wrong with that fence?” Rooh’s voices were alarming.
Relax, deep breaths. In for five seconds, out for seven seconds. Breathe. I tried to say with my eyes. She inhaled deeply. Exhaled through her mouth for seven seconds. Wait, did she hear me?
“Yeah, I can hear you.” She stared back, her eyes red, little pink veins popping around her pupils.
How the hell?
“I think through our fingers? I’m scared, jaan.”
Me too, love. Me too. I let go of her hand and moved away, just to see if I could still hear her. Silence. Birds cawing. The wind rustling. Yellow petals of amaltaas falling on Rooh’s hair when the wind shook the trees. Dry leaves could still talk but we couldn’t.
She brushed her fingers against my palm again. “I think we hear each other when we hold hands. Right?”
Even though I felt every imaginable soldier’s gaze penetrating me, I let Rooh hold my hands, her thumbs rubbing my palms. Yeah. I think so. My heart pounded, afraid of the police. My breath galloped, afraid of people watching us touch. Afraid that Abba would rise from his grave, leave Ammi’s side in the soil, only to scold me for this unnecessary touch.
“It’s okay, we have to hold hands to talk now,” Rooh repeated, calming me down, before her own voice interrupted her again. Now and then, I heard her words that seemed to be directed not at me but others or herself. But I was just glad to be able to say something to her again. “I’m going to touch that old man, we have to test this!” Her eyes implored. I shook my head. I wanted to take the risk, but I had experienced too much punishment in this place to risk touching someone. Ignoring me, Rooh ran to an older man waddling to the park, his hands trembling upon his cane. She placed her hand over his shoulder. He flinched and lost his grip on the cane. Rooh caught his arm, giving him support. Holding his hand, she looked into his eyes. He gazed back, his expression changing now and then. My chest thumping loudly amidst the quiet.
When Rooh came back and the man ambled away, she took my hand again. “Yeah, I was able to talk to him. He was so sweet. He lives alone and he just has one cane. We should check on him later.”
Are you serious? That’s what you’re concerned about right now? Random old men?
“He’s human! We are all still human!”
Come on, we have to find Haajra and talk to her somehow.
Haajra flinched as well. Years of conditioning in this stoic place. She flinched again and again. This is what marriage does to you. This is what life here does to you. Unable to break social etiquette without flinching again and again and again. Everytime I took her hand, her elbow, or her shoulder, she flinched. “No, stop it!” I heard her say whenever I touched her.
I knew I shouldn’t. I knew I should really stop. But I needed to make her understand. Listen to me! I shouted in my head. I gave her my most exasperated look, the one that reminded her of Abba. I grabbed both her shoulders, digging my fingers into her skin, perhaps reminding her of her worst school memories. I felt my touch, my eyes, my insistence triggering those memories. No, I heard those memories in Haajra’s pre-pubescent voice. But I continued to shake her shoulders, continued to touch her despite her vehement nos.
Unlike her and Abba, unlike her and that school teacher, she and I had once been friends. Unlike Abba’s enraged stare, mine was full of concern. Unlike her old teacher’s violent touch, mine was loving, innocent, necessary in such times. Or at least that’s what I told myself. That my touch reminded her of how we had shared secrets, shared love, shared stories of rebellion, until the day she had listened to the city and married a nice officer who could eat politely with a fork and knife, and fling the same silverware at you if you disagreed with the military’s development projects.
Haajra stopped flinching after she finally heard me.
“How can you …?”
Yes, apparently we can hear each other when we touch.
“I don’t like touching, you know that, you know that. Stop it!”
This is the only way to talk now. I held her hands firmly in mine.
“I don’t care. I can’t touch anyone! I can’t let anyone touch me!”
Relax, Haaj, you know all touch isn’t bad, right? I loosened my grip but maintained contact.
“No, it was good for us. It kept us safe. Abba advocated for it. You know that. To keep us safe. To keep me safe. Have you forgotten our father’s legacy?”
Abba made many mistakes, Haaj! You know that!
Haaj, you know Abba was wrong about this. You know that. This no-touch rule never kept anyone safe.
More silence. And then, Haajra’s voice, barely audible. “What that teacher did to me … that … it did decrease though. It did. My story was all over the news, remember? Abba was so depressed. But after the rule was enforced, I never read any such news.”
That doesn’t mean shit didn’t happen. You know that, Haaj. The authorities just didn’t want to publicize anything that made this fucked-up law look useless. And Abba had been depressed since the day Ammi died. I don’t think it was all about you.
There was silence again. And then a sigh. “I just really needed to believe, you know?”
I know. But it seems like everyone has to touch to be able to talk now. Everyone.
She started crying then, curling up like a child in my embrace. I kissed her head the way Abba used to kiss ours when he was still kind, when he still had love in his heart, when Ammi was still alive, when he still believed he could protect me and Haajra from the violent hands of strange men. Haajra’s sobs transitioned into bawls as she wiped her yellow snot with the cotton of my kurta.
This is so gross. I need to shower.
“Huh?” Haajra looked confused.
Oh, I didn’t mean to say that to you. I held her hand but took a step back, suddenly afraid of her hearing my thoughts.
“Oh,” She laughed through her tears. “I heard that!” She continued to laugh, gently shaking her head.
Before I left nine years ago, I was sure nothing could change anything about this place. Nothing could, nothing would change about the security fence surrounding the neatly gridded neighborhoods, about the streets full of guards making sure no human touched another, about the excessive felling of the forlorn trees that flanked this once verdant valley. But the day the fence stole our words, the city did transform, even if the change was slight. The people, for once, did wonder. For some, the wonder led to mad late-night strolls along the segregated streets until they reached the electrocuting city fence; for others, it meant staring at the soldiers while holding up fists that were perpetually tight and often trembling.
After Rooh and I learned how to communicate, we spread the truth about touch to the people of the city by spreading into the streets, inviting touch, touching others, becoming the enemy of the common people as well. Despite actively thinking I am your friend or I care about you when I touched strangers, most people reacted by shoving me. Some pushed me away aggressively. Rooh was pushed away many times, partly because of her bolder touch, partly because of how she looked. Some people tried to warn the security guards about us, not knowing how to file a complaint, not understanding why the soldiers’ rifles were pointed at them even after they had adhered so loyally to the city’s laws.
But there were also times when the worried people of the city were grateful. Some were exultant. Excitedly, they touched and thought along with us. Excitedly, they made eye contact, slowly and finally unlearning years of socialization, desperate to make human contact. Elders put their hands on my head to tell me what they needed: a painkiller, a walking stick, a hot water bottle. Some strangers told me they would help spread the message; they would find the courage to touch, they would take the risk of being imprisoned. The fence was still blue and the guns still pointed at us, but enough of us were touching now that prisons could not accommodate us all.
Rooh and I lay next to each other the way we always had, our toes playing together. I shifted in the bed and moved closer to her, my forehead touching hers. Suddenly, I heard many of Rooh’s voices, some loud, some fast-paced, some exasperated, some tender. “What are we going to do? What if we can’t ever leave? What if the fence is never fixed? What if it kills us all? What if they find out I don’t have my papers? What if they ask me for my ID card? I shouldn’t have visited this place. What if Haajra doesn’t like me? What if I touched her too much today when I talked to her, what if I made her uncomfortable? Whatifwhatifwhatif—”
—I jerked my head away. I didn’t realize how anxious she was from her expression. Bringing my forehead back to hers, I told her it would be okay.
“What will be okay?” She looked into my eyes.
Everything. I know you’re worried. Don’t worry, no one will ask you for your papers. And Haaj loves you.
“You knew I was thinking about that?”
Yeah, you told me didn’t you?
“Not really. I was just thinking.”
I wanted to comfort her. To let her know it was okay for her to think. For her to feel. For me to hear it all. I wanted to make sure she didn’t force herself to unthink painful thoughts. To make sure she knew that I loved all of her infinite voices, even the ones that gave her pain, even the ones that gave me pain. I kissed her cheek. Turn around, little spoon. Let me hold you. Smiling softly, she turned her back to me as I enveloped her body with my arms. She buried my hand in her chest, as her thoughts battled each other, called each other crazy, cursed each other, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I found myself trying hard not to listen to Rooh.
My body is buoyant but hers is heavy. It’s pulling me down. She refuses to let go of my hand. She clasps it tight against her chest; we both start to drown, steadily moving away from the sunlight, the water seeping threateningly into our nostrils, taking up so much space that there is none left for our own organs. The water floods our insides as Rooh’s lungs pop out of her mouth and float away, her alveoli disintegrating and dispersing in the dark. Mine follow suit. Then my kidneys, my pancreas, my intestines squiggle away, making more and more room for the water. Why aren’t we just dying? Why isn’t this ending? My bones get stuck in my throat as they too, try to escape my body. I close my mouth, holding onto them with my uvula, afraid of losing my spine. I hear giggles. A child’s voice. Suddenly, the face of a young child dressed in camouflage ogles me as I struggle with my own bones, trying hard to keep them inside my body. The child points and laughs. The more I struggle, the more he laughs. I move closer to the child, ready to punch his face, but there is glass between us. Rooh and I are stuck inside glass. We are in a zoo. We are the zoo. The child puts his camera in a Scooby-Doo backpack and pulls out an AK-47, pointing it at Rooh. “Let go of her hand,” he shouts at me in a pre-pubescent voice, aiming to kill Rooh. No, no, no. I hold on to Rooh tighter. I try to shout but the water eats up my words, and burps them out through my own mouth, making way for some fugitive bones as my mouth blows bubbles against my will. Suddenly, the child fires. The water makes a tunnel as if making way for the bullet, and then I am awake, trembling with fear, covered in cold sweat, pulling my hand away from Rooh’s warm clasp as she snores herself into tranquility. I let go of Rooh’s hand, trying to escape her dreamscape.
I tried to explain over and over again, but Rooh didn’t seem to fully understand. Rooh, my love, I cannot touch you fully any more. We lay in bed facing each other, my palm on her cheek, her lips needy. I couldn’t kiss her the way she liked, rough and insistent, exploring the crevices of her mouth, feeling the space between her gums, sucking on her warm wet flesh. I can’t kiss or touch you, Rooh. It hurts. It hurts when I hold you tight, it hurts when I sleep holding you. It hurts to hear everything you feel.
“So all of a sudden, after all those declarations you made to me, you want a celibate life?” She exclaimed, her condescending gaze boring into my face. This conversation felt alien, difficult, like no other we had had before. The touch I wanted the most, the touch that touched my spirit the most, now felt the most painful. So I decided to tell Rooh the full truth once again, hoping she would truly hear me this time. I described what I heard when my body felt hers. That her thoughts, her flashbacks, her trauma, her feelings, her nightmares were too much for me. That the space in my heart was too narrow to carry all the weight of her past, all the terror of her present, all the worry of her future. That I could not hold her in bed for more than an hour without entering her dreamscape and being jolted awake. That I was not used to nightmares. That I preferred that blank screen of unimaginative sleep. That now, every night when I slept touching her, it meant bullets and walls crashing and drone attacks and mangoes transforming into moustached men. That now, I couldn’t enjoy sucking on the pulp of mangoes without thinking of security guards.
To live in your body, Rooh, feels so hard. My fingertips touch hers. I always empathized with what you go through but I never truly felt it, you know? Now I feel it so acutely. And I can’t handle it anymore.
“But I have been living like this for so long. You just have to forget the dreams when you wake up. You just have to ignore some of the thoughts. Jaan, I can teach you. ” She held my hand tightly. I asked her to loosen her grip.
Maybe I am not strong like you? I mean, I can still touch your fingers and talk to you. I just can’t fuck you anymore. Or hold you too tightly.
“You don’t even want to kiss me?”
You’re not listening to me, love. I want to. I want to so badly. I just can’t. Not fully. Not the way I want to.
She sighed and looked out the window for a long time, inhaling and exhaling deeply. For the first time, her response was not to argue, was not to offer to take more of her anti-anxiety pills, was not to walk away. For the first time, she let go of my hand. Then she shifted to one side of the bed and placed one of Haajra’s long, embroidered pillows between us. She touched my forehead with her fingertips from above the pillow, very gently. “Hold the pillow when you feel like holding me. I know you like holding me to sleep. The pillow can be the new me.” She pulled her hand back and turned her back to me. No one can be the new you, Rooh, I wanted to tell her; but suddenly, I also feared her touch, her thoughts, her emotions racing on a pace I couldn’t keep up with. A glum ghost slept in the space on the bed between our bodies, atop the long pillow, and even though the ghost got heavier and heavier with every quick breath of Rooh’s, that night I slept well.
In the morning, the crows and bulbuls woke me with their coos and caws. Even with the windows locked, I could hear the birds. It was as if they were trying to make up for the lost sounds of humans. A rooster jerked me out of bed with his shrill, loud morning call. Feeling well rested for the first time in many days, I restrained myself from planting a kiss on Rooh’s forehead, and went outside to Haajra’s garden to listen to the only sounds we seemed to be left with. Ignoring my aversion to mud and mosquitoes, I sat on the grass and allowed the residual morning dew to wet my shalwar. Chirps of varying notes surrounded me. I turned around when a sparrow shrieked, as a crow snatched a piece of bread from its mouth. The crow flew off with the bread as more sparrows cried out. A robin perched its feet on a bougainvillea vine near me, perhaps waiting for me to feed it. The pinkish purple vines were becoming crowded by more robins, tweeting to each other. I had never before noticed the true magic of bougainvillea, or the sheer magnitude of birdsong. The fence still burned anyone who touched it, soldiers still threatened everyone, the inhabitants of this city still couldn’t talk, but that morning, the valley where people had started to touch was boisterously loud.