Armaan is a student of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. His short story, In The Clouds, received a special mention of the Lewis Memorial Prize in 2021. He also received a special mention of the Lewis Memorial Prize in 2020.
He published his first book, ‘Glorious Greeks: Meet the Gods’, when he was eleven. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines like The Quint, HIMAL Southasian, and The Skinny, and he intends to write frantically for the rest of his life.
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About In The Clouds
Confined to his home, Hamza gets through his days through his own imaginative capacity. He and his family have not left their flat for weeks, and as they sink into a state of gloomy tedium, and Hamza loses himself further in his own head, the politics of the outside world bubble dangerously. Hamza’s world risks being shattered, but he (pointlessly) clings even harder to the unreal, and all the metaphors that keep young boys sane in times of isolation.
In The Clouds
Face-to-face. With the prime minister, as oil began to pour through the windows like waterfalls. The prime minister! The old gaffer devoured his fingers, or at least tried to—he kept biting them and staring at them curiously, like somebody eating crabs for the very first time. The prime minister screamed at him—‘Didn’t you hear? Dardistan is mine! The two countries are united at last.’ But how? ‘Don’t ask such unpatriotic questions! It was always mine and I am taking it!’ The prime minister snapped two of his appetisers and five scantily clad women floated in. The old politician told him he could do as he pleased. He was stunned. Really? He made his way towards them. All of them looked vaguely like the Hindu woman who had winked at him in the bazaar the other day. The oil was pouring in stronger than ever, yet everyone was dry. As he was about to take the hand of one of the beauties before him, the muezzin burst in. One more old man with a Biblical beard. Singing exquisitely. His arms were withered, but his agile hands grabbed and groped at him like tentacles. The azan echoed around the room and blew the prime minister’s head open.
The muezzin’s call to prayer tears through the silence, sending Hamza lurching up from his bed and into a wooden beam. Dark spots on his vision. He blinks them away to check the time on his watch—4 a.m.
The dust shines in the blackness. There must be a moon somewhere, for that alone explains how Hamza can see. The sister sleeps like a baby underneath him.
There were few things that he had relished more than going to the mosque with the father, the one time of day that he knew he had to himself. Despite sitting alongside a colourful medley of kurtas and monitored by a higher power, he would sink into his own thoughts, floating peacefully on a sea of skullcaps. The noise disappeared. Of the trucks, the bazaar, the bickering parents. In truth, he would mutter gibberish instead of the Salah, and would pray only for his father’s inattention. The call to prayer would seep into his bones like the first rain of the monsoon or like the smell of frying jalebis. The daily respite granted to him. By divine right.
Now it wakes him from his troubled sleep and sends him drifting into the kitchen in a futile search for food and purpose. For the fourth time this week, Hamza glares pointlessly into the fridge—and it glares back.
The flat—a rustic but well-furnished home, surprisingly clean for once. Hamza can see all of it from every corner. Only an arch-shaped breach in the kitchen wall to gaze at the smoke and steam, like a window into hell. For the fourth time this week, Hamza sits in the darkly illuminated kitchen and stares at the rolling pin carefully placed in the corner of a countertop, contemplating whether or not the mother will wield it today. He turns and looks east for light.
In time, the household awakens, and Hamza has to scramble back into his bunkbed to pretend he has had a full night’s rest. In the past, he soundly slept through the ringing of bicycle bells, the midnight disputes, the far-off muezzin coughing into his microphone. Now he taps his fingers and shakes his legs and looks about the flat all of a sudden, imagining djinns slithering everywhere. Once a drifter on soundwaves commanded out of the deep. Now he works hard to drown out his own thoughts in the deadness of day.
Breakfast commences like a military parade. A spectacle for an absent audience. The father somehow makes it to the table, trying incessantly to fold up his baggy sleeves. The mother mutters orders in the kitchen, the sister fulfils them almost intuitively. He tells them both about his dream, and they remark on his profane imagination.
The landlord agreed to reduce the rent, the mother says to nobody in particular. I told you, this whole building’s value is turning to trash. Attracting all kinds of lowlifes.
The father mumbles a response and giggles. He is worse than usual today. His engineering work had once taken him to the Empty Quarter, into the heart of the earth. You’ll find a heart of black gold, he used to say. The only places he frequents these days are the table, the cabinet, and the unmade bed.
Between the crunches of his morning biscuits, Hamza hears the faint beating of drums and sloganeering, like a politically charged fly irritating his ear. But he is not about to rush to the window to catch a glimpse. No, he takes his time finishing his biscuits. He knows the procession will plod back the same way within the hour, when the father has already unseated the king of his whiskey cabinet, the Johnnie Walker.
And he is right. By the time it has wound its way back onto his street, he has his daily watermelon ready.
Every day or two, he sees a procession pass beneath his window. Different slogans, different banners. The television says they should be at home. The balding heads look like bullseyes to aim his watermelon seeds at. Secretly, he wishes he could join them. Minority rights seem like a worthwhile cause. The protesters aren’t Muslim. They appear not too far from his window, but he knows they are a good distance below. In fact, they are protesting for him, in a manner of speaking. For the good of the nation, the father would say. For the good of Muslims everywhere.
The father himself is planted on the couch, his dead stare piercing through the television anchors, whose heartrate seems to be exploding by the second. Hamza always cranes his neck out of the window to distract from the blaring screen. He has become too used to the silence to bear their howling and squawking. A glimpse of the prime minister on screen, still adamant on reassuring the people that they need him. As if they require reassurance. Hamza remembers how the whole country had once been reduced to speechlessness as the prime minister woke up one day and announced on live television that all of Dardistan belonged to him. Personally. Perhaps dementia. He had signed the papers, moved troops, and hired urban planners. Televised news, and Hamza’s own home, had never been the same since.
Hamza hears the shrieking anchors through the song he is humming. The father screams at him to get his head down to earth. He is a soft-spoken man, usually, but in these imprisoned weeks, he has lost his laughter and found his voice. But Hamza does not know, and has not known for months, why they have been confined within these severe walls. The parents do not tell him. He suspects they themselves do not know. Past breakfast, the day passes as it always does. Uneventfully.
Late afternoon, the city is garbed in a thin shawl of smog. The extraordinary scent of rosemary precedes the sound of light, confident footsteps. Perhaps his mother, though she has not smelled of rosemary in many years. It strikes Hamza, and, picking at his overgrown nails, he opens the door. Peers around, looking out at the cityscape (for there are gaps where the building should have walls), and follows the scent down one flight of stairs, and then another. The flat on the left, which has been vacant for the longest time, is decorated on the outside with the thoughtfulness of a monk.
A woman. Ascending the stairwell, her right hand clutching a fashionable purse. Ox-eyed, with an imperfect nose and hair that tumbles down in anguish. She smiles at him. Stops before the door. What’s your name?
Hamza actually notices very little about her. He thinks of those portraits outside the old men’s club that look plain if you look at them too closely, but beautiful when vague. For the first time, he sees the carved wooden sign nailed to the wall beside her door, embellished with Urdu calligraphy:
دل دے تو اس مزاج کا پروردگار دے
جو رنج کی گھڑی بھی خوشی سے گزار دے
A heart, O Lord, if you bestow, one such let it be,
That bears with joy the ticking timepiece of agony.
What’s the matter with you? Deaf?
Ya Allah, she squeals. He speaks!
What do you do?
She laughs. People call me a hooker, but you may call me a courtesan.
You should come more often. You have very pretty eyes. For a boy.
He feels red. Basheera hardly notices, swinging her door open and closing it with equal force, with one sideways glance at him that knocks the wind out of his lungs.
The last of her flying hemline disappears into the dark flat. She reminds him of something his father had once said to a guest—
What should we drink to?
There’s nothing anybody should ever drink to, except getting drunk.
Days trail by. The sister is practically occupied all day. College or work or household chores. Days, nights, dawns, dusks. Pigeons on wires, occasionally electrocuted. Then crows. His father slurs that there were once vultures. But everybody knows that a vulture’s tree is poisoned.
The mother mostly ignores Hamza. The juices of freshly diced meat stain her hands. She spends more time on the phone these days, Hamza notices. The television anchors change more frequently. They say that the shops won’t open for a long time.
But none of this is to say that Hamza spends his days in gloom. He has acquired the exceptional ability to be content in his own company. It seems that with people around, he expects something to happen. But nothing ever does. By himself, he now smirks at his own wit, plays cricket against a wall, slingshots stones at birds, and laughs with the unemployed tea drinkers cradling newspapers outside his building, even though he shouldn’t. Or they laugh at him, perhaps. On some days, Hamza wonders about the whereabouts of his friends. He has practically forgotten them, though it is more likely that they have forgotten him. No matter.
The building is trapped in time, but his flat moves at light speed. Always something to do, but he is not the one to do it. Every three days, he goes to look at the protests. He hears the mother telling the father, who is asleep, All sorts of malcontents come to the neighbourhood these days.
One day, the protest procession is longer than usual. Traction. Support. Hamza considers joining, but his joints feel stiff. He yawns like a buffalo. The one-horned one that blocked his building’s entrance the other day.
The great nothingness in his head and heart allows him to forget quite a lot. He yearns for a phone. He sees all the children in advertisements boasting one in their tight trouser pockets. On an obscure Monday, his father tells him to fetch a bottle from a neighbour, three storeys below. Hamza glides down the stairwell, pretending to be an Olympian.
Two storeys down stands the woman from days, maybe weeks, ago. She is standing at her door, unaware that he has seen her from the upward stairs. She is watching the back of a descending man. It is not longing. Something else that Hamza is too afraid to name, perhaps.
He is spotted. Basheera smiles, weary. Asks him to come in, but he doesn’t.
She gives him some free advice. There are only two kinds of men that women want—men that dance, and men that throw Molotov cocktails.
Have you seen the demonstrations?
She approaches him, but he is made of marble. Then, the rosemary hits him again like a truck tyrannizing the road. From when the world still populated the streets.
What do you think it’s all for?
My father says it’s for Muslims everywhere.
And what about the rest?
The ones who aren’t Muslim?
I don’t know. Hamza paused. I don’t know anything.
Of course you do, child.
The word stings him like sea salt. She goes on, When you grow up, you will join a college, and you will march just like them. I’m there, too, almost every day. You should look out for me from your window.
Hamza hasn’t exhaled. He is waiting for her to continue, and she does. If you’re ever in doubt, join a union. It will save your life.
Was that man from a union?
She chuckles. Her hair suddenly looks more frayed than it did before. No, he wasn’t. Freedom isn’t really free. In fact, it’s quite expensive these days. Now scram!
Hamza hears a resounding rebuke, for he forgot about the neighbour’s bottle. Soon, the intervals between their meetings seem less eventful than before, and that is not saying much. The father sinks lower in his seat, the mother and sister retreat into their rooms more frequently. But Hamza hardly notices; he smells of lemongrass now. These days, he whistles tunes he hasn’t heard before. Hours spent outside his house, but not far from it. No, just two storeys down.
Hamza is riveted. Monologues about strikes, protests, and civil rights float through his ears like morning mist. Basheera tells him that there is no escape from politics, whatever that means. That love and hate and ideology are all the same. And she smiles as if she knows that he knows this already.
Find your balls, she says. And then she pulls his cheeks. And every three days, he sees her from his window, contorting her lips in a hoarse flurry of passionate anger. A far cry from the mouth that curves this way and that at Hamza’s each remark.
On a Tuesday morning, he tosses a crumbling tennis ball at the front wall of his building, and catches it on the rebound. Today, he is unusually bored. The outside has disappointed him. The tea drinkers are gone. Perhaps they are finally at home, like they should be. He returns to the flat, sits through breakfast and the father’s news, and waits for the procession.
It doesn’t come today. He lolls about the flat a little longer and collapses on his bed into a sleep fuelled by ennui more than exhaustion.
He stood in the company of djinns. He could not see them, but he knew there was no other explanation. They had driven out the world. He was alone, no prime minister, no women from the bazaars. He tried moving his arms, but they floated by themselves. The mother was behind him, at his shoulder, giving, giving, giving him scorn in his father’s voice. Where is your head again? Always somewhere else. In the clouds somewhere. Thinking, that’s your problem. Don’t think so much. Do you not see what’s going on around you? No son of mine. The father—or mother, he couldn’t tell—melted into a pool of foulness. Hamza cried out against his own will, and he felt the djinns abandon him. Thrown up, he is flying. Falling. The water hit him like the smell of rosemary.
Hamza wakes up to the mother’s cries. Is she screaming or being screamed at? He cries out in fright. The sister is watching him. Intently. Her face is gaunt and her hands pale. She is oddly beautiful like this, perhaps because she usually feigns her laughter, but Hamza hardly notices all this. It is strange, he thinks, that it is so dark. Has he slept into the evening? As he enters the living room, the family stares at him. He wonders for a moment if they will sink their teeth into his flesh. But their attention turns wearily to the window. When he glances out of it, he steps forward so quickly that his head hits the windowpane. The sky is bright blue, or it should be if not blemished by wide columns of smoke—so wide that they are hardly columns. The only clouds in the sky are black, as an entire neighbourhood dances in fire.
Hamza flies down the stairs. Two storeys down and he is there. He pounds down on the door furiously, but there is no answer. The flat is empty. The dusty coat on the doorknob is thick. Panting, he rushes up and down the stairwell twice, thinking he has the wrong flat.
The building is the same as it always was.
Nothing is spared his contempt. Not the plain wooden sign beside the door, not the smell of dog shit and dirty dishes wafting through the building, not the pounding in his head, not the fact that it is Friday and he cannot hear the azan.
Instead, he heard the chant, the far-off rasping like the buzz of a hundred thousand locusts, foreign to his ears but for a long time in concert with his pulsing veins—Hindu, Hindu, Hindustan! Muslims, go to Pakistan!
This was a different kind of demonstration. He rushed up. His flat, the battleground on which his tattered flag has been fluttering for so long, was a wasteland. A theatre where the audience shut up and watched, and did not sway the actors. The mother had retreated to her room. The sister watched the smoke from the window, and the father from the television. The news anchors pointed to the thick blackness and gesticulated wildly. When the father noticed Hamza, he screamed for the boy to come down from the clouds. To see the world for what it was.
Hamza wondered what kind of men were chanting—those who dance or those who throw Molotov cocktails. There is something unsettling in his guts—or his balls, perhaps. His eardrums beat in a final plea for order. The crash of a bottle and a woman’s shrieks. The television lurched forward to wring his neck—Riots! Riots!