The Six-Fingered Man by A.A. Sheikh

Our schoolmaster, Mr. Akram, has a thick moustache and a chronic ailment up his nose that makes him sniff every time he says something. He sits in his chair in front of the class, sips his tea, flips through the morning paper, calls up boys from time to time and issues gruff orders. “Learn these adverbs! Tell me—sniff, sniff—what’s nine times seven?” He spends an hour or two every day drilling kids. Faisal and I are in Class Four; we have to thoroughly memorise a lot of stuff. Multiplication tables, dates and names in history, rhymes. Mr. Akram canes us if we don’t, or makes us pinch our ears and hop on our haunches. And when he’s really pissed at someone he pulls them by the ears and drags them all around the schoolyard. That really hurts.

Today, after he’s finished the morning paper and three cups of tea, Mr Akram rouses himself from his chair and, with a stub of chalk, scribbles the date on our splintery, leprous blackboard: May 25, 2000. A hurried flourish, the trilogy of zeroes scrunched together. Satisfied, he sniffs and instructs us to open our Social Studies books at page 80 and begins his lesson. It’s about Kashmir. Our beautiful home, he enthuses, our paradise, ruined by centuries of oppression and plunder and unrest. And even now, in this brand new millennium, the world just watches as we, the sons and daughters of Kashmir, continue to suffer. “Kashmir is burning!” he clamours. “Kashmir is burning!”, we repeat aloud. I mouth the words but Kashmir is the last thing on my mind right now: I’m thinking of the six-fingered mystic. I see him sitting among spectres, communing with shadows, working his wizardry. He waves his hands and conjures a world of impossible colours, of varied wonders.

Mr. Akram points his cane my way and sniffs. “Usman! You’re not listening. Stand up!”

I comply, heart pounding, legs going weak.

“Tell me, sniff, sniff, what was I saying.”

Faisal nudges me, speaks in hurried whispers; atrocities, terror, freedom. I wrap a story around the words and tell it to Mr. Akram. “Kashmir is burning”, I say with vehemence.

“Sit down!”, sniff, “Be more attentive.”

———-

Settling Affairs by Rayika Choudri

Once, a long time ago, Zaheer had dared ask her why she didn’t live with one of her children, and she had looked at him so coldly, he wished he could pull his words back into him like a rope. She’d never been a burden to anyone, she said, and she wasn’t going to start now. As long as she could help it, as long as her means would allow, she would live on her own terms.

So he didn’t say anything, even though all the changes alarmed him. And he could see they alarmed her too. There was a look that had crept into her face that said she was trying to swim against the current, against where it was taking her.

Zaheer pushed open her bathroom door and switched on the light. A dank smell rose from the pipes and a bucket lay under the lower shower taps. Small, flower-shaped mats had been plugged into the floor to make it less slippery and a sponge and two smaller mugs hung from the side of the bucket.

Three times a week, a cleaning lady came to do the heavy sweeping and mopping and, for the last few months, Khalida Begum Sahib had paid her extra to help her bathe because she could no longer do it on her own. But the weather was hot and sticky and three baths a week would not do, so Ali’s wife helped with the fourth. But it was still not enough. She called Zaheer to her bedside and gripped his shoulder: you are like my son.

He stood outside the bathroom, while she sat on her stool and soaped the front of her body and then called for him. She would be bent over with her back towards him, her arms crossed in front, and he would come in and drip soap water from a mug all over her back- the part she couldn’t reach herself, since she could barely raise her arms. With another mug of plain water, he washed it all off, not touching her, but thinking that if he did, if he could wrap his hands around her emaciated body, she would gather up into feathery skin and cartilage.

Then he would drape the towel over her back, turn away while she wrapped herself in it, and help her back to the dry ground of her bedroom.

I don’t need a nurse, she shouted on the phone to her children. So Yasmin had said she was going to come earlier than usual – both her and Hameed used to visit once or twice a year, with or without their spouses. And when she arrived, she took over the bathing from Zaheer, although perhaps she didn’t realise it.

———-

Challawa by Sabiha Bano

I set off in my own car, parked it on Elphy and strolled over to the Regal bus stop. As I walked, I could feel hundreds of warm, penetrating eyes on my body. Propositions were whispered, someone whistled, but I ignored it with the contempt it deserved. I boarded a bus which I knew would be making stops at various girls’ colleges. It was packed, like all the city’s buses, but the ladies’ section in the front had only two occupants. One was a middle-aged Memon woman possessively holding on to her bags. The second was wearing the kind of burqa which had once prompted a Makrani donkey cart driver to say, “Oye, parachute! Move out of my way!” At the next stop the ladies’ section welcomed two fresh arrivals – a mother and daughter.  The mother was in a veil but the daughter – about twelve or thirteen – was still too young for purdah. I looked at her small breasts and could feel the tang of guavas on my tongue, a taste I hate. I prefer oranges, fresh, round oranges.  The bus stopped at a girls’ college and a rabble of butterflies poured in, clutching their books to their chests. There were fair ones and dark ones, short ones and tall ones, veiled and open faced, experienced and green. You should have seen my wandering gaze! It was a sumptuous spread, but I found it difficult to settle upon one. After all, no one has ever faulted my taste.

My next hope was a girls’ school five stops away. The bus conductor approached me and as I bought another ticket I started to worry about how I would arrange for a girl I liked to take the seat next to mine. Lady luck was on my side.

Translated by Mohammed Hanif

———-

Baby by Mehreen Ajaz

In the bathroom, finally, she opens the box slowly, pulls out the slim plastic tube and stares at it, her bladder only half-full. She wills herself to urinate. Ten minutes, now. She lays the test on the sink. Ten minutes.

She thinks of everything romantic he’s ever done for her, like when he holds the door or when he bought her gerbera daisies because she had no money and she had her heart set on having them. Seven minutes. She thinks of how lonely she was before she found him, of how he made her life into the kind of romance she’s always dreamed of. Six minutes. She thinks of the first time they tried on the word ‘baby’ for size. Hey baby. In her mouth it sounded like cardboard. Baby. C’mere baby.

Baby, could you hand me another beer? It sounded foreign in her mouth, much too advanced a term of endearment for her. She went from nothing to baby, to serious-couple, I love you baby, I love you too baby. No sweetheart or honey to ease the transition. She wanted to be like them, those people on TV, they say it so easily. It comes smoothly, like they’ve been saying it since they could talk. Baby.

But the saliva in her mouth softened it. To damp cardboard. Baby baby baby baby baby. To sopping wet cardboard. Baby. To mushy cardboard paste that moulds around her tongue.

———-

Mir Sahib’s Hairdo by Danish Islam

Early one morning, Mir Sahib looked at his image in the bathroom mirror. He observed every feature with curiosity and admiration in turn. He saw the trademark mole on his cheek and his freckle-free face: a cherished family trait. Best of all, he still had a bushy moustache and a full head of hair, having lost not a single strand, he suspected, in his sixty years. But age hadn’t spared him entirely. Each hair on his head was white. What had once been a forest of jet was now snowed under. And it wouldn’t bother him either, without the constant nagging of Begum Mir.

“Baba ji, put on some Kala Kola” was Begum Mir’s pet phrase these days. Today, Mir Sahib decided he could no longer take it. He snuck his wife’s bottle of Kala Kola into the bathroom with him. He opened the bottle and looked at it, thinking in the Shakespearean style, “to be or not to be”. He realised it had to be. He started to neatly cover his hair with the paste, ‘till there was a knock at the door. It was none other than Begum Mir.

“Mir Sahib”, she called, “are you planning to stay in there all day? Hurry, you have to go to the NADRA office to get your ID card made. Don’t you remember?” she asked through the door. With her voice grating on his nerves, Mir Sahib sped up the process, quickly spreading the Kala Kola over his hair and moustache. Rushing through it, he was unable to keep a steady hand, which proved to be a disaster. His hair ranged from the darkest black to a duller black with intervals of white. He was a conundrum of colour.

———-

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4 Responses to “Extracts from Life’s Too Short”

  1. Usmann Says:

    I wanted to inquire if the themes should be dealing with the concept of life being too short,or is it just that the competition is named that way?


  2. No theme whatsoever. Write what you wish, we only ask that it be good!

  3. Q Says:

    Does it necessarily have to be a story or can it be an essay on a specific theme with a first person overview?


    1. It has to be a story. Hence the use of the phrase ”short story prize”.

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