Book Excerpt: ‘The Return of Faraz Ali’ by Aamina Ahmad

Lahore, 8th November 1968

Faraz stared into the fog, sensing the movement of men, their animals. As the mist shifted and stretched, he glimpsed only fragments: the horns of a bull, the eyes of shawled men on a street corner, the blue flicker of gas cookers. But he heard everything. The whine of the wooden carts, the strike of a match, the snuffling of beasts.

He wasn’t sure where he and his men were. They had been led by the officers from Anarkali Police Station through winding streets and now they were somewhere near Mochi Gate, one of the twelve doorways to the walled city, but that was all he knew. The sound of the riot was distant, like the static of radio. The street vendors who’d lingered longer than they should have were nervous now; they dropped their wares as they packed up their things, clipped their animals and their apprentices about the ears, berating them for being too slow. He sensed the nerves of his officers, too, as they lined up next to him. He was jittery himself. This wasn’t their beat; he and his men were just reinforcements-driven in from Ichra, a place known only for its bazaar crammed with cheap goods, far from the elegance of Mall Road, fromLahore’s gardens and the walled city’s alleys.‘Closer,’ he said to the men on either side of him, and so they pressed in, their shoulders touching his. They could not afford to get separated or lost. He felt the men lined up behind him pushing. They were panting; the air, the city, was panting. Or perhaps it was him, perhaps he was panting. He couldn’t see much so he tried to still himself to hear better. The troublemakers couldn’t be far; they had gathered just outside Mochi Gate to wait for Bhutto, who was just as impatient for battle with President Ayub as they were, who was, they said, bringing a revolution with him. They didn’t know police orders were to stop Bhuttofrom getting to Lahore, but it didn’t matter. Bhutto or no Bhutto, everyone knew there would be trouble. The gardens could only be a few hundred yards away but just now he couldn’t hear them, couldn’t hear anything anymore. Closer, he thought, and his men pressed in again, though he had not spoken out loud. He was still listening when a minute later, or perhaps just seconds later, a dog trotted out of the fog. It looked around, tongue hanging out in the cool air. It took a few steps one way, then the other, skittish, sensing danger. Thick black letters had been painted on the dog’s brown fur: Ayub, they spelled. The officer next to Farazgasped, incredulous at this smear on the president’s good name. A rifle somewhere in the line was cocked, an officer poised to shoot, to obliterate this insult, but before that could happen, the air cleared and there they finally were: the rioters.

He squinted. They were boys—just boys. They waved their arms, they chanted; he saw their mouths, their white teeth in the dim light. They took a step toward the lines of armed police but then stopped, uncertain. Faraz waited, willed the boys to disappear back into the fog. But a moment later the ground shook. The boys barreled toward him, his men. And because he was surprised, he was late with the order to charge, and later he would wonder if he actually said it at all. Someone said it, or he did, or no one did, but their bodies knew what to do, or did what they had to, and they charged; a roar, and he was inside it.

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad Book Cover

When he brought down the lathi the first time, he hit the air, then the ground. The second time he heard a crack. Maybe a shoulder, a skull; bone. The clink of a tear gas can as it rolled on the ground. A hiss. The smoke caught in his throat, his nostrils, and his eyes stung with it. He brought down his lathi again and again. His eyes were closed but streaming, the only sound his breath. When he paused, he realized he was exhausted, as if he had been doing this forever. The line of officers was gone. His men were scattered, some tearing after the boys, others scrambling from them. Plumes of white smoke hung in the air. The street emptied, the noise of the riot became a hum somewhere else—everything slowed—and the thought flickered, like an unexpected memory: What is this for again?

That was when they slammed into him. He fell forward, bodies on top of his. But these boys were light. Their thin arms circled his waist, his chest; they clambered on him like children in play. He shook them off and they landed on their backs. There were two of them. One scrambled to his feet and ran. The other boy lay there, breath gone. His eyes were closed—he was playing dead—but Faraz pulled him up and the boy opened his eyes. Faraz didn’t think about how fragile the bones in a face are, how he might feel them with the pads of his fingertips if he pressed hard. He thought instead about how he didn’t want to be here, that he must get back to Ichra, to the safety of its empty streets. He yanked the boy closer and brought his fist down on the boys face, again and again. There was relief in the way the boy’s face opened up to him, its contours, its ridges caving in so easily, as if he wanted nothing more than this, as if he were being freed. The boy gasped, heaved, before slumping from Faraz’s arms to the ground.

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Then, the sound of a cry. Behind him, a girl in a doorway was squatting on the floor, a baby in her arms. She shushed the baby, squeezed him to her chest. Faraz took a step toward her, to tell her to get inside, get back where it was safe, but he couldn’t speak. He was all breath. She didn’t move. He lifted up the boy and dragged him to the doorway. He sat on the steps and held him. He gestured to the girl to go. She disappeared for a moment but then came back down the stairs with a cloth and handed it to him. He held the rag to the boy’s broken face and then leaned down over him, his ear to the boy’s mouth, listening for a sound.

Extracted with permission from Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad, in India by Tranquebar, an imprint of Westland Books, a division of Nasadiya Technologies Private Limited, in 2023.