Spring by Abdullah Hussein, Translated by Raza Naeem
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Spring was just about to arrive in this coastal city. The colour of the sunshine had changed. The water birds had had advance warning of the warm winds and they were diving into the sea. Three days earlier, the water had come pouncing up to the protective wall of the coast, beset by the horror of the full moon. Now both the moon and water were in decline and had left behind wet sand. Whole families had come out on the coast. Yellow and green sleeves flying over biscuit-coloured arms, saris lifted, shalwars and pyjamas, shoes in hand, bare ankles sinking in the cool sand, laughter ringing out, birds tumbling about in the wind, the shouting and screaming of running children, white teeth visible, there was a crowd. Brigadier Azmat Rashid was also in this crowd, but was not a part of it.

 

Brigadier Rashid never ventured out, dressed casually. He had a lifelong routine: he would take a long stretch after his nap (his servant Muhammad Bakhsh swore that he had never seen him follow one stretch with another), check the weather by lifting a corner of the window curtain, and then begin to change. Coat, trousers, shoes shined so you could see your reflection in them, beret, he would choose a walking stick from among several and then head out for a walk. He would tread as cautiously and carefully as he had done everything else in his life, in a methodical way, wary of the traffic, now stopping, then proceeding, climbing onto the ten-foot-wide strip of the footpath on the roadside, standing next to the protective wall.

 

Like every other day, his heart was engulfed in a wave of satisfaction, when he looked down from the height and saw people playing and jumping down below. Their movements seemed chaotic but seen from above the people displayed a natural discipline. A child slipped from the hand while climbing on to a camel and began crying. His mother calmed him by taking him into her lap and the camel tender picked him up and handed him to the father sitting on the camel’s back. The child laughed. Brigadier Rashid’s belief in the balance of nature was evermore clear and strong. Today was just such a day. As soon as he had taken the long stretch, he had felt an additional energy within him. He was an uncompromising disciplinarian and was now basking in the shadow of serenity, witnessing his own discipline unruffled after all these years. At the age of eighty-nine, he could not only go to the toilet with ease but was able to do all his own work – although, since obtaining a commission in the military, he had hardly even made a cup of tea by himself. He had delegated these duties, some time before retirement, to the soldier-cook Muhammad Bakhsh, who had earlier been a batman, and taken him on as a servant when he retired. During the Brigadier’s service, the arrangement for the house had been in Fauzia’s hands, may God grant her Paradise. Now, Muhammad Bakhsh ably fulfilled all his requirements. The brigadier did not have a limitless pile of needs, like people whose thoughts were scattered and devoid of discipline: we want this, we want that, this is fine, take back the rest, throw it away. Brigadier Azmat took a look around. His mind was sharp and clear like the shining sunshine. This weather was his favourite, it had a ray of hope. He had the whole day ahead scheduled, he went by the watch. He touched his small white moustache, which had been curled upwards, and smiled within. How hard it had been to train Muhammad Bakhsh! Of course, he was retired from the army, but these illiterate people have their old thoughts cooked solid, never wanting to abandon them and if pressurised, they give way to chaos. The actual work was to impose a system over their chaos, which wasn’t easy. It had taken him one year to do this. Not only did the call of ‘Bakhsh’ now seldom boom within the three-room flat, but Muhammad Bakhsh, like him, worked by the clock, in addition to being so aware of administrative matters that he could handle every emergency big or small. Brigadier Rashid touched the tip of his moustache again and smiled at his achievement. His attention began to spread out far over the sunlit creases of the surface of the sea.

 

Even before he attained adulthood, he was an expert swimmer, diving into canals and rivers. During the two years of college and military service afterwards, he was a prominent member of the respective swimming teams, as proven by the numerous medals which adorned the walls of the three rooms of his house. He would venture far, sparring with the insurgent waves of this very sea. But this was during the days of his youth. Unintentionally, Brigadier Rashid exhaled briefly through his nose, which compressed his chest inwards for a moment. But a long time had also passed since these things had happened and he had made their loss a part of himself. The morning’s energy was still pulsating in his body. As per the doctor’s advice, he still did about two rounds at the pool in his club three times a week, ate measuredly, and thank God that he had added not a single ounce to his weight in the last twenty years. A smile spread across Brigadier Rashid’s face.

 

He had now reached his usual daily spot. He would normally pause for a little while before resuming. He would count thirty steps walking along the wall, and would return to the same spot treading the same footsteps. This was his daily routine, which he never missed. Most people who came there regularly knew him, but he greeted only a few, retired army officers, up to the rank of General but who would address him as ‘Sir’ because they had been his subordinates while in service. Brigadier Rashid’s sense of survival was growing. He had walked thirty steps when suddenly ‘against schedule’ instead of returning, he continued and stopped at the steps leading down. He stood there for a few minutes. How much time had passed since he set foot on these sands? He couldn’t remember exactly when the last time was that he had descended, but it was definitely a few years ago. He continued to gaze at the coast. Then, as if with intent, he slowly began to climb down with the help of the stick. Both his stick and legs were trembling. He had gone down a mere two steps when a young man came from behind and took his arm. ‘Brigadier sahib, here, I will help you with the steps.’

 

This was a dual strike on Brigadier Rashid. He got really angry with people who made him aware of his inabilities, and he had come to detest the rank of brigadier. He forcefully pulled away his arm, but immediately placed his hand on the young man’s shoulder with some contrition and looked at him closely. The young man was good-looking and strong and it was evident from his geniality that he was one of the regulars at the sea wall. Had his son not been martyred soon after he finished his training – because of his insistence based on his love of military life and the uniform – he would have been the same age today. A long time had passed since this had happened and he had dissolved this sorrow. His heart warmed towards the young man.

 

‘Sorry,’ he said.

 

‘It’s okay,’ the young man said, ‘the steps are narrow.’    

‘Not narrow,’ replied the brigadier. ‘The fall is high. Such stairs are built to save space in the houses and flats of the city. Is space really needed here?’

 

‘I think,’ the young man said, ‘they have been built this way to protect us from the rise of the sea.’

 

Brigadier Rashid accompanied the young man down the steps on his own legs, using the stick for help. The young man excused himself and went walking along the seafront. Watching him walk barefoot, shoes in hand, for a moment Brigadier Azmat also felt a desire to take off his shoes, but he controlled his urge. Very carefully he proceeded for some twenty-two steps and returned in the same manner. His shining shoes were covered with sand from the soles up, and the four-inch long heel had disappeared in the earth. Stopping near the stairs, he looked at the steps ascending upward. There was a slight movement in this body, as if he was intent on climbing up. But suddenly he changed position, turned and sat down cross-legged where he had stood. For a person who could not tolerate a spot on his clothes, his trousers and the lap of his coat were filled with black sand. He never once looked at them. Sitting contently at the foot of the stairs, he continued watching mothers and fathers running after children and screaming and shouting like the latter.

 

Brigadier Rashid had been allotted three plots, two from the army and one in lieu of a national award, and some agricultural land in Bahawalpur. The land was unpopulated. He spent a whole year to get it prepared, and was able to plant the first crop in the next six months. Jhelum was his ancestral home, but Fauzia and Naheed insisted on living in this city where they had spent so many years, and where he himself had retired. He had a residential plot in the military colony. First, he sold the second plot and built a house for Naheed. Then, with Fauzia’s agreement, he sold the ancestral land and the agricultural land to buy a three-room flat in this expensive area. He bought Defence Certificates with the money that was left. Their profit and pension put together generated an income that was sufficient for both husband and wife. Medical expenses were free due to his military service. They had found a flat close to the CMH1 after quite a search. Despite this, Fauzia who had been perpetually ill after her son’s martyrdom, could not survive for long. Thank God there was no disruption in his own health. He was certain that he had achieved this gift due to the regularity of his routine. Naheed had a falling out with her husband. She started an affair with another man who neither had a good reputation nor did Brigadier sahib like his face. He had tried to say something but rather than listening, she had cut herself off from him. Their son was competent, as it turned out. After completing his studies, he had gone to England and then Germany and it had been heard that he was employed in a good position in some industry there. He came with his mother to visit his maternal grandmother and had even gone with him for a walk once. After turning twelve, when Fauzia passed way, he had not been seen. But the fact that he had made his place in the world was no mean achievement. Naheed was living happily with that man. Someone had recently confided that she had gained a bit of weight; but this was her own life. Everyone had a right to be happy. Muhammad Bakhsh used to live in the servant’s quarter. Brigadier Rashid had signed and given away some Defence Certificates to him and had already borne the expenses of his daughter’s wedding in his village in Azad Kashmir. He used to say that in the army they don’t teach you to go ‘Left, Right’, but teach you loyalty. He trusted that Muhammad Bakhsh would never leave him. He wasn’t burdened by any concern now. His life was complete and secure. His attention was now focused away from the crowd to the sea.

 

The young man returned to sit with him. He was wearing shorts. Brigadier Rashid looked at him lovingly. His calf muscles were as prominent and strong as those of his own son.

 

‘The weather is great,’ the young man said. Brigadier Rashid nodded in agreement. ‘Yes. What’s your name, son?’

 

‘Salman.’

 

‘What do you do?’

 

‘I am employed in IBM, Brigadier sahib.’

 

‘I am not a brigadier.’

 

‘What?’ Salman asked in amazement.

 

‘Sorry, I exaggerated a bit. What I wanted to say was that I am a one-star general. My car was studded with one star. If you talk about ranking, then a brigadier-commander comes to be known as a brigadier.’

 

‘It means that your next promotion would have been to the rank of major-general?’

 

‘It was confirmed. Nobody could have obstructed me. I am from the gunnery. Maybe you don’t know that however brilliant an officer is, he scores one cannon shot on target for every three attempted. My field service record is of one target scored in two attempts. Had I been appointed Brigadier-Commander in the artillery or armoured divisions, I would have been working at the level of a division commander. I worked as a two-star in the division I was attached to.’

 

Brigadier Rashid fell silent. Salman said, ‘Then you should have definitely been promoted.’

 

‘I will tell you an interesting story,’ said Brigadier sahib. ‘A case was drafted against two second-lieutenant lads. They took two bicycles from the unit and rode them to the nearest city. They sold both bicycles to a pawnbroker there, paid their Mess bill and spent the rest. I don’t need to mention the unit and city names. What happened was that the broker got suspicious and reported it in the cantonment. He identified both officers in the initial investigation and also presented the bicycles. So it was decided to court-martial them. A board was constituted; I was lieutenant colonel at the time. A major was member and I was the Board Chairman. The father of one of the convicted lads was a two-star command of the infantry and the other was the son of a Signals Brigadier. A strange spectacle began. The general and brigadier were pressurising me to pardon the lads since they were very young and had committed a mistake. Two other senior brigadiers who were their rivals were pressurising me to punish the two in order to set up an example in the institution; to pardon them would be to damage the military’s prestige. I was aware of these two factions, but between them, I could damage my own reputation by making a bad judgement. I resolved not to become a part of the game and decided, honestly, six months in prison for both, and dishonourable discharge from service. I did gain a good reputation but many influential officers became my enemies.’

 

‘Was this the reason for disruption of your promotion?’ Salman inquired.

 

‘Maybe, maybe not. You can never prove anything in these matters.’

 

‘I will treat you just like a general,’ Salman said. ‘Can I address you as “General”?’

 

Brigadier Rashid laughed. ‘All I can say is that you won’t be tried for this one.’

 

Salman also laughed. Brigadier Rashid stood up. Salman began to climb the steps behind him. In a few minutes both had reached up to the edge of the road.

 

‘I am extremely happy to meet you today General sahib,’ Salman said seriously.

 

Brigadier Rashid laughed slightly and lovingly patted Salman’s shoulder.

 

‘We will see each other frequently,’ Salman said.

 

‘Sure, sure.’

 

Salman went his way after waving. Brigadier Rashid kept standing there for a while. His attention reached over the sea to the horizon where the water met the sky. During service he had had only one desire. He was aware that the least competent people dreamed about obtaining three and four stars and becoming Army Chief, and some of them even got what they wanted. Brigadier Rashid had focused on just a single wish, in order to keep his life clean and pure from the weight of dashed dreams which grew like un-necessary hair: two stars! From the very beginning, he had wanted command of the division, even if it was to be for a short time. Although he was standing resolutely near the wall, his eighty-nine years had not let his waist bend even a bit. He touched the tip of his moustache smiling, and glancing at the families jumping on the coastal sand one last time, returned.

 

As soon as he entered his flat, he opened the door of his cupboard and took out a bag hanging inside; he opened it and took out a pile of Defence certificates and a plain envelope, put the certificates inside and sealed it with moisture from his lips. Sitting on his table and chair, he wrote ‘Naheed’ on the envelope with his pen, and deposited it in the inner pocket of his coat.

 

Pushing the chair back a bit, he opened the table drawer and took out his revolver, inspected the chamber after opening the safety catch, and without pausing for a moment put the stem to his temple and pulled the trigger.

 

There was a deep silence in the air for many moments. Then, following Muhammad Bakhsh’s scream, people began to stream out from the other flats.

 

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1 Combined Military Hospital

 

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Published in Urdu as ‘Bahar’ in Faraib, Sang-e-Meel, 2012.

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This translation shares the runner up prize for the first Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation, 2017.

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Translator’s note: The story translated here forms part of Faraib (Deceit), a short-story collection published in 2012, which became, sadly, Hussein’s final book published in his lifetime. This story, like the others in the collection, and much of Hussein’s oeuvre, is a social history of Pakistan. It details the monotonous but predictable life of a retired army ‘general’, interrupted by one last conversation he has with a random young man during a walk on the beach and serves as an ego-massaging catharsis of what the former had hoped to achieve in service: a two-star ‘generalship.’ The catharsis ends in a chilling resolution, a twist in the ending. It is hard not to come away from reading this particular story thinking how most of our ablest people who go on to serve in the army are similarly deceived; and how much better it would be for Pakistan’s democracy if, as is the case with the ‘general’ of this story, our would-be coup-makers would also limit their day-and-wet dreams to becoming ‘three- and four-star and Chief’! I translated this story in the hope of stimulating a new readership for Hussein’s final work, which remains poorly read and under-reviewed to date. Though not his best work, this story serves as a good introduction to Hussein’s varied and magnificent oeuvre for the uninitiated reader.

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Abdullah Hussein was the pen name of the novelist and short story writer, Mohammed Khan who was born in Rawalpindi in 1931. He won the Adamjee Literary Award for his first novel, Udaas Naslain, Naya Idaara, 1963, that was set during partition and independence. His own translation, or rewriting of the novel was published as The Weary Generations, Peter Owen Publishers, 1999. Other works include the Urdu novels Baagh (1982), Quaid (1989) Nadar Log (1997), the English novel, Emigré Journeys, Serpent’s Tail, 2000, and the collections of short stories Nashaib (1981) and Faraib (2012). His Urdu publisher, following his first novel was Qausain from Lahore. Abdullah Hussein died in 2015.

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Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel The Weary Generations, HarperCollins India, 2016. He is also translating Hussein's novel Qaid into English. His article on Abdullah Hussein, and his tribute to the author in the context of the short story shed further light on the work. He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com.