Master’s wife prepared breakfast for him: milk tea and parathas, a crispy oily bread. The smell of burning wood was mixed with the scent of parathas and milk tea, pleasing but at the same time had an annoying choking effect.
She never said much but today she seemed to be struggling to hold herself back from speaking.
She burst out at last: “Why on earth would you go through all this trouble? It doesn’t matter anyway.”
Master looked at her with displeasure.
“Why it doesn’t matter? My name might not matter to you but it does matter to my friends, my students and for the respected town elders who consider me a respected member of the community and the only educator of their offspring. It might surprise you but, yes, it’s a matter of life and death for me … a respected person of the community has just lost his name,” he blurted out. “We die and kill for the name. My father and his father and his father’s father never had this name Ahmed. And do you see one person in our far-stretched family with Ahmed as his name?” He lowered his voice and tried to look more reasonable to his wife, who was awe-stricken by her husband’s sudden outburst.
“Look women, a wrong surname can make you an illegitimate son of some Ahmed. Do you want to live your whole life as the wife of an illegitimate man who kept silence at being wrongly called as an illegitimate?”
“I can’t forget that jinxed winter. I had just passed my ninth grade exams. Ah! That excitement and fear mixed with pride! It was the first time I had appeared in the board exams.”
In the board exams, the papers are taken by the local school officials with the help of an external supervisor, and then sent to an education department board in the provincial capital. Board officials check the papers and send back the results in the form of a one-page marks sheet to the respective school. That’s how the mistake happened. One of the board officials might have noticed that Master had no surname and added Ahmed in front of his name on the marks sheet.
It was no big issue. Most people in Master’s area had no surnames. Babies were given only one name by their parents. But the officials at the education department knew the importance of a surname. So those few people from Master’s area who could achieve an education level where their names reached the provincial capital, they were given random surnames by the board officials. They didn’t bother to be much creative about allocating surnames. The most common ones were Ahmed, Mohammed, Hussain and Ali.
But Master took the matter a tad too seriously. He was never happy with his allotted surname. Later in his life, when he graduated and became a teacher, he spent a handsome amount of his meager salary on visits to the provincial capital, which was around 900 kilometers from his town, to convince the board officials that he was not the son of Ahmed. But the people at the education department were of the stubborn kind. They were never easy to admit their mistakes.
Government officials were always reluctant to admit even their most blatant mistakes. One could give several reason behind their reluctance. To easily admit mistakes meant their system was not efficient and no one would take them seriously. Another reason was if they corrected such things without any problem, their offices would be thronged by thousands of people like Master and it would create anarchy at government offices. But the most important reason was that they knew the importance of a surname and they knew that people like Master didn’t knew it.
Initially, Master had raised the issue with his class teacher. He shrugged his shoulders and said: “What’s your problem? Ahmed is a good name.”
“It might be a good name, sir, but it’s not mine,” Master replied.
“So make it yours. After all, it was the name of our beloved Prophet.”
Master realized there was no good in arguing with the class teacher. He went to the head master of the school. His response was: “What’s done is done. Trust me son, you don’t want to live the rest of your life fighting a futile war against the officialdom. Ahmed is okay. They could allocate a surname like Joseph or Jesus.”
Master’s wife didn’t care about her husband’s name. She was only worried about his upcoming trip to the provincial capital.
“I know you think I think too much of my name and don’t let it go, but let me tell you something: if we keep on letting things slip away from our hands like this we will end up with nothing,” Master took the last sip of the tea.
“You mean to tell me if you don’t spend a month’s salary and who knows how many days in the provincial capital to change or remove that silly name the skies will fall on us and we’ll be buried under this already crumbling mud house?” There was agitation in her voice and mischievousness in her eyes.
“You woman! You’ll never get it. Your head is full of mud and no brains,” he stood up.
Master was sitting in a middle seat. The bus was carrying commuters of all kinds. Those two missionary mullahs — Bashir and Shabir — who he had been seeing in his town occasionally since he didn’t have a surname, but never knew where they come from.
There were a few students who were returning to the provincial capital to attend their respective college and university after spending the holidays at home. They were mostly well-dressed with fashionably combed hair, and demonstrated an air of learned men. Some had buried their faces in thick volumes of law or medical books.
One of them was from Master’s town. “Hello doctor,” Master raised his hand respectfully. The kid was just a second-year medical student, but anyone who succeeded in achieving a seat at a medical college was religiously addressed as a doctor, and he would take offence if you called him by his name.
By spotting Master, Doctor shouted back “hello”, inviting looks of weary passengers. Doctor was an easy-going young man and never much cared about others’ opinion.
“Master, the legend, what a surprise! Where are you headed?
Master gave a sheepish smile. “You know, business as usual. The name thing,” and he burst into sham laughter to hide his embarrassment at his presumably undefinable obsession with his name.
“Still not done?” Doctor asked surprisingly. “The legend Master stuck with a false name! If I had the power I would hang all the clerks of the education department on lamp posts. How can they do this to you? Trust me, my heart cries tears of blood to see a respected teacher like you being stripped of his true identity. In old times of our great Khans, such matters were settled with sword and who cares about a name these days?”
Master, though suspicious of Doctor’s seemingly pretentious interest in his forcibly allotted surname, felt encouraged. “I wish my wife realized like you that a name is everything a man got.”
“Assalam Aleikum wa rehmatullah u barkatu,” said a bearded man from the seat facing them, his head turned backwards. Not waiting for an answer, he stood up and came up to them. “The women won’t understand. They will not obey you unless we bring sharia in these lands,” he said in a throaty voice.
Four veiled women, sitting at the last seats of the bus, shrugged their shoulders almost in harmony.
“They are the rides of the devil and seed of our doom,” he continued. “By the way, what’s this name game thing?”
Before Master opened his mouth, Doctor told the whole background of Master’s surname problem.
The bearded man held his beard in his fist and nodded his head in slow movements, as if receiving guidance from God Himself.
“What’s wrong being called Ahmed?” he asked, being pretentiously polite.
“Nothing, Maulvi Sahib, if it’s your rightful name,” Master defensively replied.
Doctor laughed hysterically as if Master had just cracked the funniest joke in the world.
“Once lived a great man who said ‘what’s in name’. He was William Shakespeare, the great,” said Doctor pompously once he finished laughing, which ended in tiny bits.
“An infidel,” proclaimed the bearded man.
The only thing Master and the bearded man knew about Shakespeare was that he was not a Muslim. Master didn’t care what Shakespeare said, but he memorized the line to tell it to his students on his return. However, the bearded man took it as his religious duty to oppose what an infidel said.
“This Willyyam Shak Pears knew nothing about names. Names have their effect on a person. A certain name can make you rich and another can make you poor. One name will lead you to God and another to Satan,” his voice was now authoritative. But he slowed down and addressed the Master: “Ahmed is the best name you can get. Take it.”
Before Master could make up his mind to say something diplomatic to the bearded men, he heard a meek voice somewhere around him.
“No, please. No,” the voice said in almost a whisper.
His eyes bulging out of their sockets in anger, the bearded man searched for the man who said those blasphemous words. It didn’t take him long to find him thanks to the poor guy’s neighbours’ glances.
He was old but his worn-out clothes and sun-burnt face made him look older. This helped add to the bearded man’s anger.
“What did you just say?” he shouted, speaking out every sound from the back of his throat. “What’s wrong with this name? Isn’t it the name of our beloved Prophet?”
The old man, as if awakened from slumber, looked up, bewildered and frightened. “Which name?” he asked meekly.
“How dare you stop this good man from adopting the Prophet’s name? It’s blasphemy,” he shouted with the divine authority of all the gods who ever existed.
The old man was now confused to the point that he stopped trying to make sense of the situation. He was just a poor shepherd from a town not far away from that of Master’s. He was going to the provincial capital for the release of his goats.
Wandering animals found guilty of being grazing at other people’s farms are taken to the village’s Patak, a jail for animals, and the owner has to pay a fine for their release. If the fine is not paid till a certain period, the animals are shifted to the district Patak and then to the provincial one, which is home to thousands of such animals from across the province.
Even before boarding the bus, the shepherd was continuously thinking of different scenarios he would face with the provincial Patak officials to release his goats without paying the fine. When he said “no, please, no”, he was pleading in his mind to a well-dressed, stubborn, imaginary official who had refused to offer any concessions.
“What blasphemy,” interfered the carefree Doctor. “Ahmed is just another Arabic name. If this poor shepherd doesn’t like it, what’s your problem?
Every vein in the bearded man’s bulging eyes had become red.
“Blasphemy after blasphemy,” he shouted, turning around on his feet, looking at every passenger. “Isn’t there any true followers of the Prophet travelling on this bus who would punish these impudent men?”
Now everyone, including the driver and the conductor, had turned their heads towards the scene of blasphemy, wondering who had invited the bearded man’s wrath. Shabir and Bashir appeared from nowhere, and began strolling towards the scene.
Master understood the gravity of the situation. He stood up from his seat, and touched the beard of the bearded man, who was leaning on him, in respect.
“Forgive them Maulvi Sahib. He’s just a lad and that poor man is too old to realize what he is saying,” he said in a pleading tone. But blood was still running high in the bearded man’s eyes. “You have studied the religion. You know things we don’t know. Please be our teacher. Let us know what to say and what not. Guide this young man and that old man to the true path,” he paused. “God has chosen you to guide us. And we’re ready to be guided by a learned man like you.”
The blood started receding from his eyes. He cleared his throat just like he do before starting the Friday sermon. “Bismillah e rehman……………”.
The bus came to a sudden halt and the bearded man almost fell on Master, but he kept his balance.
“Everyone, sit down on your seats and keep your IDs out,” shouted the conductor.
Like well-rehearsed stage performers, all the passengers knew what they had to do. It was a military check-post.
Two soldiers entered the bus and began to check the passengers’ IDs and asked routine questions: where are you coming from? Where are you going to? What’s the purpose of the visit?
They skipped the bearded man, who lowered his head in respect for the soldier’s gesture of respect to him. They checked Master’s bag full of papers, which he said was supporting evidence for his name’s correction. They asked from Doctor the purpose of his travel. “I am a medical student,” he said, adjusting his glasses. “Are you member of any students’ group?” the taller soldier asked. “No, sir. Not at all,” he replied. “Don’t fucking sir me. I know your kind. Students and especially the medical students are the ones stirring trouble in the province. Let me see your ID,” he yelled. Doctor obediently handed him over his ID. The soldier looked a little longer than usual at Doctor’s identity card. After being satisfied he had not seen this medical student’s name in his files or any newspapers where political medical students publish their fiery statements, he moved on.
He came to the shepherd and asked for his ID. The shepherd only looked at him in bewilderment. He neither had an ID nor could he understand his foreign language. The soldier repeated his command in a more authoritative voice. Master came to the shepherd’s rescue. “Sir, he’s an illiterate shepherd and doesn’t understand your language. He then translated the soldier’s command to the shepherd, who replied he never had had an ID.
The shepherd didn’t have one. Those people in the province who didn’t have a government job or never went to the college – and such people were in significant majority – never felt the need to bother about making an ID.
“Hmmmm,” uttered the soldier, nodding his head in anger.
“How unpatriotic,” interfered the bearded man, giving a sheepish smile to the soldier, who ignored it.
“What do you do?” asked the soldier. Master told him he was a poor shepherd.
“Fuck me!! Look here,” he called out to the shorter soldier. “We’ve a motherfucking shepherd here who doesn’t have an ID.”
He was not overreacting. Medical students and shepherds were the two main sections of society who were creating trouble for soldiers posted in the province. Let me explain myself.
Grass was a scarce commodity in the arid mountainous region. To graze their herds, shepherds had to take them to far-off valleys, where they often stumbled upon tortured bodies and sometimes mass graves. And the medical students were quick to blame it on the soldiers by holding rallies outside press clubs and issuing statements to newspapers.
“These motherfuckers are better at finding bodies than grazing their animals. Why don’t you guys never hit upon a gold mine or an oil well? That’d be more patriotic,” the tall soldier asked from the top of his voice.
“These shepherds are not real shepherds. They are spies of the terrorists,” said the shorter soldier.
“Hello, you, yes you,” the taller soldier call out to Master. “Ask this son of a bitch what business brings him to the capital?”
After discussing with the shepherd about the purpose of his visit, Master gave himself a few moments to make up his mind to tell the story in the shortest possible way. He began: “It’s a long story, but making it short, he’s going to find his missing………”
He shouldn’t have said those two words: “find” and “missing”, especially “missing”. His goats were not missing, dammit; they were jailed in Patak for not paying the fine. Attaching those two words to a shepherd is the worst thing you can do to him in the province.
“What?” exclaimed the taller soldier, quickly turning his head to his shorter companion and then again to the shepherd. “To find which missing person? Have you seen some body? Are you going to the court? Or are you going to inform those motherfucking terrorist doctors?……….” he knew he had too many questions to ask, and the place was not appropriate for such interrogation, so he stopped.
He held the shepherd from his collar and dragged him up. The shorter soldier knew the drill, and came to help. He held one of the shepherd’s legs and they took him out of the bus. All the passengers knew what was happening. Another person was going to go missing.
Outside the bus, other soldiers had a blindfold ready. They put it on the shepherd’s head, who was calling for help. He was thrown into the back of a military truck and the bus was cleared to go.
Now the bus was crawling in the city’s busy traffic. Everyone was sad and silent except the bearded man. “God has Himself punished the blasphemer. He’s the one and only God, more powerful than all the forces of the universe….” He was reciting verse after verse to prove that God had avenged the blasphemer’s remarks against the Prophet. Doctor wanted to shut him up but he was more upset with himself about choosing biology over chemistry.
In his fourth year, Doctor was told by his mother on phone that Master had died in a traffic accident. And two years after completing his graduation, he read in a newspaper about the discovery of the body of a shepherd by a shepherd.