“Parasite” follows the arc of a man’s paranoia as it develops into a death trap. The story’s two main characters, Mahmud and Maqbul, are both confined in their respective prisons and are eager to suspend disbelief in their desperation for escape. The text ripples with dark humor as it braids notions of masculinity with the theme of class-based power struggles that often erupt in violence. Set in the suburbs of Lahore, Pakistan, and written by Bilal Hasan Minto, this short story first appeared on Scroll.in as a co-winner of the 2021 The Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English Translation.
Urdu literature has a rich tradition of reflecting on social complexities. As a reader who hails from Lahore and whose first language is Urdu, I met this text in translation with a heightened awareness of my proximity to its cultural and linguistic contexts. My mind translated the English words back into Urdu as I read on, pleasantly surprised by how close to home the story and its cadence fell.
— Raaza Jamshed for Guernica Global Spotlights
No one can say if Mahmud really had a worm in his gut but Mahmud was convinced he did. At first — before speaking to his office friend Umar — no such thought had ever crossed his mind. But now, after listening to Umar’s discussion on the subject, he was certain that a worm did indeed live inside him. A long, healthy, ravenous worm that devoured everything Mahmud ate. It also became clear to him that since he had always been gaunt and skinny, the worm had been in residence for a long, long time, growing up on Mahmud’s diet — especially spinach. Mahmud relished spinach and often had it cooked at home.
He had heard that children who ate mud got worms. After speaking to Umar that day, he called his mother, who confirmed that he did often eat mud as a child. Mahmud was dismayed to hear this, especially because she had no explanation for why she let it happen.
She merely said that since many children eat mud, she didn’t think it was something so terrible that she should have run after him to stop him or thrashed him out of the habit. “I wasn’t with you all the time,” she added irritably. “If you sneaked out to eat mud, what could I have done? Kept you tied up?”
Mahmud had always strived to gain weight; he longed to have a ruddy face, a blossoming body, and a shapely frame to adorn the clothes he so fondly bought. Sometimes, he took to eating like a glutton, ferreting out foods that would put folds of fat over his body. But nothing he did — no trick or technique — worked, and everything he ate simply disappeared somewhere.
After speaking with Umar now, he suddenly felt convinced that everything he’d ever eaten had become food for the worm that lived inside him. And maybe the only purpose of his own existence so far had been to provide prosperity and happiness to this creature living inside his innards.
He was born and raised in Sahiwal. His father ran a sanitary-fittings store and remained so engrossed in all matters faucets and commodes that he never expressed an opinion on why Mahmud’s face looked like sucked-up candy or his body resembled a bar of worn-down soap. His father had three other children of whom Mahmud was the eldest.
The children had to be provided an education, which wasn’t cheap; then they had to be married off, which too required money. His father sometimes expressed displeasure over Mahmud’s special requests for food. He was a man of calculations and didn’t like the idea of Mahmud growing larger because that would mean having to spend money on new clothes.
Perhaps he was just being stingy, but still, he should not have said all those things to Mahmud especially because he wasn’t poor and ran a pretty good business. The mother, on the other hand, sympathized with Mahmud and compensated for his father’s disapproval by cheering him on and helping him in his efforts to gain weight.
When everything failed, she consoled him in other ways. “There is nothing wrong in being skinny,” she said. “Obesity itself is a disease! Root of a hundred other diseases. If you start putting on weight, who knows, you may never be able to stop!”
But how long could such consolations work? Truth was, Mahmud looked anemic and washed out. On him, smart, brand new clothes looked like they had been hung on a hanger. Dejected, he tried to turn away from his situation to attend to matters that would help him forget his misery and while this effort did get him high positions in his FA and BA exams, the frustration about his physical appearance did not leave him.
It worsened when he came to Lahore for university. In Sahiwal, there was little opportunity for him to meet girls; but in Lahore, like in any large, bustling city, boys and girls mingling freely at the university was a completely normal matter. He felt astonished, and also more saddened.
One day, feeling a bit downcast, he shared the reason for his grief with one of his new friends at the university.
“But what’s in physical appearance and beauty, Mahmud?” said his friend. “It is your mind, your intelligence, that is important. Look how your ability and hard work have enabled you to reach this prestigious university in Lahore, and even here you are ahead of others in your class.”
The friend’s counsel came in a voice that sounded both friendly and wise. “Look Mahmud,” he said, “what difference does it make whether one is buff or skinny? Ultimately, we will all become food for worms in the grave. What lasts forever is humanity. You have to see what kind of person you are because that’s what matters. And I think you are a wonderful person.”
Even if Mahmud felt consoled by these words, the feeling was short-lived, because the very next day his friend shared their conversation with his other friends and the whole thing caught wings.
Thus, even his university life became unbearable.
The students soon forgot about the incident and moved on to other objects of ridicule but the feeling that he had become a permanent laughingstock gnawed at Mahmud. He stopped meeting his erstwhile friends altogether and devoted himself entirely to his studies. He turned forlorn and irascible.
When the insufferable time at the university finally came to an end, he had passed his exams with great distinction. On that day, looking at his grades, with clenched fists and pursed lips, he heard his heart whisper: Take it. Take away these grades. All I want is a bit of flesh on my bones and my face. Is that too much to ask?
When he shared the news of getting his first job with his mother, she was concerned. How will he live all by himself in Lahore? How will he eat? Who will manage the house? “Wait, let me find a suitable girl for my son,” she said. “As soon as I find one or two pretty girls, I will take you to see them.”
“Should I marry just to find a cleaner and a cook?” Mahmud replied wearily. “Hundreds of maids will cook and clean for a little money.”
His mother told him flat out that she would not allow him to hire a maid. She might have agreed if he was living closer to her — in or near Sahiwal — but a hundred miles away — in Lahore — it was simply impermissible. No boy living alone should have a woman coming into the house. The argument didn’t persist for long. Mahmud’s job came with a small office car and since Mahmud had never learnt to drive, it was decided that he should hire a driver who would double as cook and housekeeper.
He had already discussed renting the upper portion of a house from an old lady. It had a room, a bathroom, and a kitchen. There was also a servant room with a hole-in-the-wall bathroom. The small place wouldn’t have much need for cleaning. Besides, what havoc could a washed-out Mahmud wreak to need daily cleaning anyway? A manservant could cook every day and clean the house once or twice a week. It would be a perfect arrangement.
On Saturday, Mahmud and his mother arrived at the house. His mother set about furnishing the place with Mahmud’s very limited belongings immediately because she had to return to Sahiwal on Sunday. In the morning, the resourceful landlady downstairs sent a boy upstairs to interview for the job of driver and housekeeper.
“Wait,” his mother said. “I will speak to him.”
The boy was tall, broad and well built, of twenty-two or twenty-three, a bit timid and doltish, with his gaze fixed to the floor.
“So tell us,” she interrogated, “where did you work before this?”
“Ji,” he said. “I have worked here, nearby. In D-Block. At the Sheikhs’ house.”
“Why did you quit? And what’s your name?”
“Maqbul,” he said.
“Tell us — why did you quit your job at the Sheikhs’ house?”
“I…ummm…I went on leave. They hired another driver while I was away.”
“But why? They didn’t let you go just like that. You were late in coming back, weren’t you?”
“Yes…” he said in a low voice as if he was ashamed of not joining back on time at the Sheikhs’ house.
“You came late, no?” the mother probed. “Speak up!”
“Yes,” he said, a little louder.
“See!” she said, proudly glancing at Mahmud. “I know these people very well.” She turned again to address the boy. “Why were you late in returning to your job?”
He said he had tried to go to Dubai, but was unsuccessful. Then he contacted the Sheikhs for his job but they had already replaced him with another driver.
“Was this it? Or was there something else too?” she asked. “Did you steal something?”
Mahmud thought this a strange question. He looked at her disapprovingly.
“Tell me?” she asked again, disregarding Mahmud. “Do you steal?
“No, never,” the boy said, staring at the floor.
“He must surely be a thief. All these people are thieves,” his mother said. “If you are not a thief already, don’t start here. Okay?”
His mother asked other such questions and expressed satisfaction at the fact that he could make rotis and cook handi and was also ready to clean the house on alternate days.
“Looks like a complete moron,” she said. “Now if he’s an impostor and a complete bastard inside then I can’t say.”
“Go make some bhindi-gosht,” she said. “He is big and strong. I am sure he will steal food,” she murmured to herself and then said to Mahmud. “You must work him well if he is to eat all that food.”
His mother was satisfied with Maqbul’s bhindi-gosht and confirmed his job before departing for Sahiwal. “Fine,” she said to him. “We will keep you. But remember, if you dare do anything bastardly we will hand you straight to the police who will give you such a thrashing, such a thrashing, you won’t forget.”
The bitter experience of relating his secret to his university friend was etched in Mahmud’s memory, but he was dumbstruck when Umar recounted, laughing, that his doctor-wife had given his son medication for worms and that the very next morning they had witnessed the ejection of a long and healthy but a dead worm from his child’s body. At that exact moment, he became convinced that it was the same case with him.
He felt a sudden calm at the revelation that he had grasped the real cause of his problem, but the thought that a beast was growing larger and stronger inside him on his diet sent a shiver down his spine. If, as Umar said, such a large parasite was found in a small child, then he must be harboring a python!
“What if it grows so large it erupts out of my stomach one day?” Mahmud shivered at this thought too. It wasn’t even an implausible idea. Entirely plausible, in fact. Some years ago a Hollywood movie had shown an extraterrestrial creature that attaches itself to a man’s face and inserts an egg into his mouth. A few days later, the egg grows into a monstrous thing that tears out of the man’s abdomen by mercilessly ripping through his gut.
After his shiver had passed, Mahmud shared his self-diagnosis with Umar, who endorsed it and said that it was entirely possible that the reason for his thin body was a worm residing in his gut. He advised him to try the same medication that his son took and promised to get the name and the exact prescription for him from his doctor-wife.
This conversation between Mahmud and Umar took place on Friday. On Monday, as promised, Umar delivered the details of the worm-exterminating medication scribbled on a piece of paper. Mahmud had spent the previous two days in a state of unrest. He couldn’t wait to start the medication. He ordered the tablets from the market as soon as he reached home and gulped them down.
The next morning Mahmud woke up half an hour earlier than his usual time. He got out of bed cheery and light as if the worm had already departed his body. He strongly disliked the habit of spending hours on the commode. His father had that habit and Mahmud often expressed his displeasure to his mother. Out of respect for his father, he could not tell his mother that he thought it an utterly disgusting habit but he did once say: “Is it really necessary to read the entire paper in the bathroom?”
His mother had responded by saying, “I used to find the habit unpleasant as well, but then I reminded myself that since he runs a sanitary-fittings store, he probably feels happy in the company of commodes and sinks.”
And today Mahmud grabbed the paper and settled himself on the commode, feeling a bit embarrassed that he was doing exactly what he disapproved of in his father. Then he reassured himself that his was a special reason; a matter of an insect and insecticide.
Umar had told him it could take a few days for the worm to egress his body, but Mahmud wasn’t taking any chances. For a full half hour — the amount of time he had fixed in his mind the night before for the task — he sat there. A full half hour, even though he had never needed more than ten minutes for his business, and the business itself didn’t require any more time even today.
He tried to read the paper but when his attention wavered after a few minutes, he chided himself. If he had made a decision to sit for half an hour then he should pay attention to the task — with complete honesty. He pulled the flush after thirty minutes.
“There wasn’t much hope on the first day, anyway,” he thought as he stared into the commode.
He carried the cheery and light feeling to the office. He greeted Umar with a big smile and started his work “The days of being a ragged skeleton are about to end,” he thought. “I’ll fix this damn worm. Down with the worm!”
The next day Mahmud sat on the commode for thirty minutes again. “Really? Still no worm?” he said to himself, carefully examining the deposits before pulling the flush. “Son, you’ve been growing strong on my food for so many years. You won’t die on just the second day, will you? But you must be on your last throes now. I will see you tomorrow. Or the day after or the day after the day after. It’s okay.”
Tomorrow came, and then the day after. And then the day after the day after. But no worm was found.
“He’s dead, for sure,” Mahmud thought on the day after the day after. “But God knows why it isn’t coming out. What should one do?” He felt hesitant asking Umar, so he decided on a course of action himself. “It’s just stuck inside. In the intestines probably. I should apply some force and be patient. It’s just a worm after all — a dead and filthy parasite. I’ll make sure it gets out.”
He started waking up another half an hour earlier so that he could dedicate a full hour to this activity. “A little more force — a little more…” he told himself.
On the sixth or seventh day, he felt things had improved, or at least were improving. He felt as if the fiend’s corpse was stuck at the precipice. It had surely reached the edge but was resisting. As if it needed a final kick. Maybe it wasn’t completely lifeless yet. Maybe it was only half-dead because corpses don’t protest.
Anyway, whatever it was, it was stuck right at the edge, which was a little swollen and he could sense some pain there. He couldn’t tell if it was hurting or if it was just an itch but he certainly felt uncomfortable. “Push — push a little more —” he pepped himself up. “Don’t give up now.”
The discomfort grew worse the next day. The swelling was bad enough for him to start suspecting that the fiend, in a last gasp attempt to save itself, had dug in with its teeth and was refusing to exit. There were three explanations for the swelling. Either it was a result of his ongoing battle that had been raging for several days, or it had sunk its teeth in. If it was neither of these then this swelling wasn’t really a swelling. Rather, at that exact point was the fiend itself which, to Mahmud, felt like a swelling.
“Perhaps I did not put in the right kind of effort required to rid myself of this ancient enormous worm,” he thought with dismay. “It’s sitting right at the edge. If I had put in the effort earlier, when it was exhausted and had tumbled all the way down, it would have been expelled by now. It has probably regathered some of its strength and courage in the last few days and will surely put up a fight now.”
Then he motivated himself again. “I have brought him here. I will also kick it out.” He decided to dedicate thirty minutes in the evening to this struggle as well and resolved not to give up without attaining his objective.
“But what do I do about this pain? Ooof.”
He could neither sit nor walk straight. He felt some respite when lying flat on his back but not much.
It is remarkable what possibilities can emerge from the conjunction of a traffic signal, a phrase, and an imaginary worm.
Driving back from office in the evening, Maqbul ran a red light at Shadman Chowk and was stopped by the traffic warden.
“You idiot! Look what you have done!” Mahmud could hardly sit due to the swelling and pain. Already, he had spent the whole day at the office pretending like he suffered neither any pain nor swelling. And now, when he was desperate to reach home, Maqbul had done this.
“I will deduct the fine money from your salary,” he said angrily.
Maqbul did not reply. He got out of the car and went over to the warden. Mahmud watched the whole scene shifting on his sides in pain. The warden argued for a few minutes after which Maqbul handed him some money and returned to the car without a fine ticket.
“You got a ticket?” Mahmud asked knowing full well that no ticket had been given.
“Why not? What did he say?”
“He forgave me, sir,” Maqbul replied.
“Forgave? Why? Was he your uncle?”
“He said give me something and I will excuse you,” Maqbul explained.
“That means you bribed him!” Mahmud said in a stern voice.
“He warned me not to make this mistake again,” Maqbul got flustered and offered this nonsensical response. Perhaps he too had just realized that he had given a bribe.
“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” Mahmud asked angrily, even though he thought nothing of giving bribes but the pain and the constant shifting had got the devil in him.
Maqbul couldn’t think of a reply. He just shifted as he drove and continued to drive.
“You bribed him, yes?” Mahmud repeated. “Admit it.”
“Yes, sir,” Maqbul conceded.
“What ‘yes?’ Say out loud that you gave a bribe.”
“I gave a bribe,” Maqbul said, with some hesitation
“I know. I saw it with my own eyes.”
After a pause of a couple of moments, he said, “You know what happens to the person who bribes? Tell me? Do you know?”
Maqbul kept silent.
“Ar Rashi wa’al murtashi kala huma finnaar,” he recited aloud, a hadith he had memorized when he was a child. “You know the meaning of this?”
“Sorry, sir.” Flustered by this religious assault, he started to apologize.
“Say sorry to Allah now. You are going to hell.” He uttered these words as if they brought him great relief. As if with this utterance he was expelling the worm. No, not just expelling it, but dispatching it all the way to Hell.
“That’s the hadith. You and that warden are both going straight to hell.”
“Sorry, sir,” Maqbul repeated.
“Shut up! Why did you run the light? Why did you do it?”
The hapless boy had no reply to this. The light had just turned amber. Cars were crossing; he thought he too would make it across quickly. It was just his luck the move didn’t work. There was no other reason and no other answer. He stayed silent.
“Did you see the light change or no?” Mahmud said again. This conversation distracted him. He felt his pain ease and he shifted less in his seat now.
Maqbul admitted he had seen the light change.
“Then? Why didn’t you stop? Were you in a greater hurry than me? Tell me.”
“Sorry, sir,” he said, again.
“What nonsense! Sorry sir! Sorry sir! You knowingly ran the light. Are you a man or a donkey?”
There was silence in the car for a few minutes. Maqbul did not think it necessary to give an answer to this question. He thought it a rhetorical question that didn’t really need to be answered But he had no idea what an invisible worm could make a person do.
“Why don’t you speak?” Mahmud insisted on getting a reply. “Are you a human or a donkey?”
“Sir, human,” he said, nonplussed.
“Really? A human? How do you know?”
He kept silent. What could he have said?
“Just look at your actions. Tell me, how do you know you’re not a donkey?”
“Sir, umm…” he began to say something then paused.
“What umm? How do you know? You must tell me now. Tell me how do you know you’re not a donkey.”
“Umm… Donkeys have tails, sir.”
Mahmud was utterly unprepared for this reply. He took a minute to absorb this response and then asked, slowly, deliberately. “And you — you don’t have a tail?”
“Really? You don’t have a tail?”
“And why not?”
Maqbul stayed quiet. Mahmud softened his tone and asked again, “Really, tell me. Why don’t you have a tail?”
“Sir it wasn’t there when I was born,” he answered nervously.
For the first time in many, many years Maqbul felt like exploding with laughter. But instead of laughing his heart out, instead of breaking into guffaw and reeling over, he suppressed it. To do this, he had to apply painful pressure on his swelling.
“Did your family complain to the hospital when they saw your tail was missing?”
Maqbul had no answer to this question either, except that he was not born in a hospital.
The car entered Model Town. Mahmud calmed his nerves by taking in the greenery around him and waited for Maqbul to come up with an answer. Maqbul did not offer anything and quietly parked the car when they reached the house. Mahmud also did not wait for the answer and shot straight for the bathroom.
While wrangling with his worm, he started laughing at Maqbul’s replies. After thirty minutes, just before pulling the flush, he glanced into the commode. He was overcome with joy.
Fresh, crimson blood; that had turned the water pink.
“Yesssss!” Mahmud cried out in his heart. “Dead! Mortally wounded if not dead! But likely, hopefully, dead!”
He was convinced that if not tomorrow then the day after, the fiend’s corpse would emerge. Clearly, it was an extremely tough and stubborn worm but a man’s lofty ambition can crush mountains. There was no reason to doubt this fact. History itself was witness to it. Pages upon pages of history books brimmed with stories of such feats. But the job wasn’t done yet. Until the monster was confirmed dead, victory could not be considered decisive. It was important to keep one’s wits about in the next few days. The enemy was extremely lethal.
In the evening he called up his mother and told her he was feeling much better, and even believed he was already putting on weight. His mother was happy to hear this news. She told him the next time he visited she would take him to see the girl she had selected for him.
Mahmud consented and added that, in fact, if a suitable match could be found, he wouldn’t even mind considering getting married in six or seven months.
In the morning, he saw more blood. “It’s dying, it’s dying,” he thought as he got ready for work. Suddenly he recalled an old political slogan:
Down with the crumbling walls!
The walls were still standing though. The pain and swelling were still there. “Another push, another shove,” he hummed to himself as he took his seat behind Maqbul in the car.
“Shouldn’t we get you a tail?” he said after a few minutes, changing sides because of discomfort.
“Sir?” Maqbul looked at him in the rearview with surprise.
“You want to get a tail?” he pressed. Maqbul stayed silent.
Mahmud gave him a few moments and then asked again, “Tell me. Do you want one? It wasn’t there when you were born. Get one now?”
“Sir, humans can’t get it,” Maqbul said in a low voice.
“Can’t get it? Why? People get all kinds of things done these days, why not a tail? It can be done. For sure, it can be done.”
Maqbul kept driving and did not offer a response. Every few minutes he’d glance at Mahmud from the corner of his eyes in the rearview mirror but didn’t utter a word.
“Get it. It will be very beneficial for you,” Mahmud said after some time.
“Beneficial sir?” Maqbul asked, a bit confused.
“For sure. Very beneficial,” he said. Then, roguishly, instead of elaborating the benefit, he started looking out of the car window.
“Sir, what kind of benefit?” Maqbul asked after a few minutes.
Mahmud knew this question would come. “Have you ever seen a human being with a tail? Tell me.”
Maqbul looked into the mirror and shook his head.
“Do you think people in Dubai have seen such a person?”
“No sir. Such a person doesn’t exist,” Maqbul said.
“You’re right. Such a human doesn’t exist. Forget Dubai, even Americans haven’t seen such a human. People wear costumes with tails; but there isn’t a real human with a tail on his behind.”
Mahmud withdrew into his wicked silence and shifted on his sides.
“Sir…ummm…what’s the benefit?” Maqbul asked a little nervously.
“Oh, the benefit? The benefit’s so great that you can’t even imagine. You want to go to Dubai, right? Well forget Dubai. If you have a tail you can go to any country in the world. Dubai, France, America — anywhere.”
Maqbul gulped down the saliva gathering in his mouth and peeked into the mirror to see if Mahmud was joking. But there wasn’t anything on Mahmud’s face to suggest he was not serious. Maqbul had heard of Dubai and America but whatever was France he had no clue. Dubai was his dream — a dream he imagined to be attainable because he knew people who used to be drivers here and were now in Dubai. But America? That faraway dreamland? How can anyone get there?
“America?” he asked; his voice almost trembling.
“Absolutely. Someone with a tail can get to America immediately. Americans value things they have never experienced before. If you get a tail and go to the American Embassy for a visa they will give it to you in a minute. They would have never seen anyone like you. They’d be delighted that such a person wants to visit their country.”
He paused. He could sense that his words were making an impression on Maqbul.
“But,” Mahmud said, gently. “I foresee one problem.”
Maqbul looked at him, “Problem, sir?”
“A minor one. It is possible that once you get to America they won’t let you back. It’s quite possible they will say that such a distinguished person must stay here with us. That is a problem I can see arising.”
Mahmud felt a surge of pain when he reached his office. It was impossible to sit on the chair. When he grew tired of shifting on his sides, he left his room and started walking around aimlessly. He still felt pain while walking but it was less than he felt while sitting.
“Another push. Another shove,” he repeated to himself to keep his spirits on the up.
“Sir,” Maqbul said as soon as he sat in the car to return home.
“What?” he asked irritably. He was trying to find the right angle to sit for his pain.
“Sir… how does someone get a tail?”
As soon as he heard the question, his discomfort lessened and just at that moment he found the correct angle to rest his back.
“It can be done — for sure. What’s the big deal in getting a tail attached?”
“Does one need an operation, Sir?”
“Nope. Not an operation. A car mechanic should be able to do it.” He pondered for a moment, then said, “Feel the place where your spine ends. Feel it with your hand. No, not right now. Do it when we’re home. You will see there are small jutting bones there. All you have to do is get a tail punched into a steel plate, have someone drill two holes into the bottom of your spine and then get the tail screwed in there. That’s it.”
“Holes?” Maqbul looked at him in the mirror, baffled.
Mahmud told him it wouldn’t be possible without holes. He could get a fake tail and tie it around himself using a rope but that would be useless because the Americans won’t give the visa for a fake tail tied with a rope. A tail should be a part of the body, like the hair on one’s head. Or ears, for example. Shifting on his backside, he explained that yes, he would have to endure some pain. But did anyone ever achieve anything without enduring pain?
When they reached home, Mahmud told Maqbul to make tea and went to the bathroom for thirty minutes of his agonizing exercise. “Another push. Another shove,” he kept chanting.
On the other side of the house Maqbul put his hands inside his pants to feel the bones where some motor mechanic of Lahore would screw a steel plate and a tail. He was thinking that if he was able to bear the pain then it didn’t matter if the Americans don’t let him come back; he would still be able to live there and work and send money home. He would be able to have his village house reconstructed in cement and concrete. His father would be able to get injections for his black jaundice. His two elder sisters might get proposals from wealthier people. And his useless brother might be able to start a cornershop or something.
He brought tea to Mahmud’s room and returned to the kitchen to feel the bones jutting from his back.
In the bathroom, however, the results had been the same as before. Again, fresh blood without the corpse. How many shoves will I give? He thought. He decided that if things don’t improve in the next couple of days, he would have to bite the bullet and discuss the matter again with Umar.
That night Mahmud saw large worms in his dreams. Some had long limbs, others were crawling. Some were soaked in blood. Some were snapping at him again and again.
Downstairs, in his tiny room, Maqbul too had dreams. In one of them a tall man, strong and big like him, with huge mustaches, chased him with a screw and a screwdriver. In another, he was trying to conceal his tail that stretched for hundreds of feet behind him.
On the way to the office the next morning Maqbul sought permission to go to his village on Saturday and Sunday. “Sure,” Mahmud said. “I will also make a trip to Sahiwal. What have you decided about the tail? When do you want to go to the mechanic?”
“Sir, won’t it look ugly?” Maqbul said. “Everyone will see it.”
“Ugly? Why? What’s ugly about it? Look, do you know anyone smarter than the Americans? If a tail was such an undesirable thing why would they grant you a lifetime visa for it? Why would they collect ugly things in their country? And it is quite possible to get a tail that could easily be shoved in your pants. You can get buttons at the back of your pants. That will let you pull out your tail when you like and allow you to stuff it back whenever you want.” After a moment’s pause, he added, “But you must decide first what kind of tail you want. One that’s like a horse’s — lots of hair — or one like a donkey’s?”
“Right, sir,” Maqbul said. But Mahmud could sense that beneath his reply still lurked some doubt.
“Why don’t you practice a little first? I think a dog’s or a donkey’s tail would look better than a horse’s hairy tail. It would also be difficult to maintain and clean a hairy tail. Why don’t you get a stuffed toy from the market? A monkey or a dog or something? Just snip the tail and use it for practice first. Tie it with a rope and learn how to handle it. When you are ready to leave and apply for the visa we can get the real one fixed on you.” This last phrase made Mahmud guffaw but he acted as if he was coughing. He had started enjoying this game and it distracted him from his crumbling walls.
He pulled out two hundred rupees from his wallet and told Maqbul to go out in the evening and get a toy with a tail of his own choice. “It might be better if you get a monkey with a long tail,” he added as a piece of advice.
“Thank you, sir,” Maqbul said. “You are very kind.”
While he was in Sahiwal his mother asked him several times to accompany her to see the girl she had selected for him and get married in six or seven months, but he refused. Blood flowed continually but the walls were standing firm. In this condition, he had no inclination to choose a girl and plan a wedding. Moreover, his physique showed no change. In fact, whereas previously despite his skeletal frame he never felt any weakness, he now felt fatigued. He resolved to speak to Umar on Monday.
When he returned on Sunday evening, Maqbul was already there listening to songs playing over the radio while cooking and preparing dinner. He didn’t hear Mahmud enter the house. When Mahmud reached the kitchen, he froze at the scene: there was a rope tied around Maqbul’s waist from which hung a tail.
After he overcame the initial shock, Mahmud ran to his room and broke into a wild fit of laughter. After some minutes, he gathered himself and went back to the kitchen. He stood at the door and watched Maqbul who had his back to him as he lay rotis on the stove. “Very good. Very good,” Mahmud said, suppressing his laughter with some difficulty.
Maqbul was lifting the roti from the hot skillet when he heard Mahmood’s words. He was startled. In his nervousness his hand touched the surface of the skillet, and he instantly brought it to his mouth. Watching him get startled and lick his hand with the tail hanging behind him, Mahmud suppressed another fit of laughter.
“This looks great — wonderful! And imagine this isn’t even a real tail. It will be something else when you get the real one screwed on! A real tail will look even better — like you were born with it.”
As soon as Maqbul heard this he remembered the rope and the tail. He fumbled with the knot with his big hands and when it didn’t come off, he tried stuffing the tail into his pants.
“No, no, let it be. Carry on with your practice. You should work in the house with the tail on. By the way, which animal’s tail is it?”
“Sir, I bought a monkey,” he said. “You said buy a monkey.”
“Yes, you did the right thing. Did you practice in your village too?”
“No, sir,” he said in an embarrassed tone, as if confessing that he had wasted time by not practicing with the tail in his village. “Sir, my sisters are at home. I did not tie it there.”
“Bhaee you could have kept it inside your pants. Doesn’t matter now. Just practice here without any hesitation. When you are a little adept at it we can get a real donkey’s tail for you, and then off to the mechanic.”
“Sir,” he said. “My mother was sending lots of prayers and blessings for you.”
“For me? Why?”
“Umm… I told her about America. Sir I didn’t tell her that when I go they might keep me there forever but I told her I will have a better job than even Dubai.”
“Good good. Did you tell her how you are going to get there? Did you tell her about the tail?” “No, sir. I won’t tell her that,” he said nervously.
“Why? You think having a tail is something bad? Just look how good you look with it.” He could hardly keep himself from laughing as he said it. “Now I feel like getting one myself.” He shot straight back to his room, and laughing, resumed his evening business in the toilet, but again, to no avail. He had to discuss the matter with Umar. It was unavoidable now.
The next morning when he was about to take his seat in the car, Mahmud guessed from Maqbul’s gait that he had the rope around his waist and the tail stuffed on the left side of his trousers.
“Very good,” he said, roguishly. “One can’t tell at all.”
On the way Maqbul inquired how long one should practice before getting the real tail. Mahmud said one or two weeks ought to be enough. Then he would be ready for the mechanic.
“And sir, how long would it take to get the visa?”
“You will get it immediately,” Mahmud said. “Once your tail is in place we will go and get your passport. Then the visa.” After a few minutes, he asked. “You are in a hurry to get to America?”
“Sir, not that much. I can go in a month.”
“Yes,” Mahmud smiled. “It will take at least a month.”
Maqbul felt satisfied to hear this. He had promised his mother he would leave soon, and told her she could set a date for his sisters’ weddings in six or seven months. In a couple of months, they would also be able to purchase injections for his father’s jaundice. He planned to deal with his idiot brother once these other things were taken care of.
At the office, Mahmud narrated his story to Umar, starting with the worm medicine and up until today. Umar looked very surprised. He said he had assumed the worm had died and was expelled in a couple of days and everything had returned to normal. He had completely forgotten that Mahmud had even taken those tablets.
Umar advised him to see a doctor immediately and told him that this whole blood business did not look good. It was likely that he had developed hemorrhoids because of his daily exertions on the commode. He said that God had naturally made some people such that they were not affected by what they ate.
If nothing was coming out after taking the worm medicine, it meant there were no worms, and God had just made him that way — lean and skinny. He instructed him again to see the doctor without any delay, and then, with some dismay added that if he had actually developed hemorrhoids then he might have to undergo a painful surgery.
Mahmud didn’t know much about hemorrhoids other than he had seen advertisements about hemorrhoids and their cure graffitied on the walls while traveling from Lahore to Sahiwal. “Bleeding hemorrhoids?” he thought. “Do I have bleeding hemorrhoids? Will I have to see a doctor? How will I tell the doctor how I feel? What if he wants to examine me?”
All of a sudden, he felt his life to be unbearable. As if he had been ensnared in a viciously tangled web. All he had wanted was some flesh over his thin body and here he was dealing with a horrific disease. He felt an intense hatred for Umar. Not just him but for his entire family. Had his dastardly wife not been a doctor, the worm in his son wouldn’t have been discovered, nor would Mahmud have gotten that advice.
“Bastard!” he hissed. “Got me hemorrhoids and now tells me God made you skinny.” But he was convinced that Umar was right — he had developed hemorrhoids. Maybe Umar knew because he also got them and his wife had cured them. “But who do I go to for a check-up? Maybe I should show my hemorrhoids to that son of a bitch’s wife!” he thought angrily.
Mahmud couldn’t sit in the office any longer. After lunch, he took the rest of the day off. Maqbul wasn’t outside with the car. Mahmud looked for him but he was nowhere to be seen. After only a minute or so, he saw him walking toward him with a strange slant to his gait.
“Where had you gone to die, you pathetic creature!” he screamed in anger.
Maqbul got frightened and mumbled something about having gone to the roti shop for lunch.
“Bring the car you son of a bitch! Go die! Quick!”
Maqbul scrambled to fetch the car.
If Mahmud had seen him run haphazardly just a few hours earlier, he would have laughed, but right now he was beside himself with fury.
No one spoke the entire way home. Maqbul had never seen Mahmud like that — he was not a pleasant person but also never like the way he was now. Maqbul wanted to tell him that he had spoken to his mother in the village. She had already started discussing his sisters’ proposals with potential suitors and had asked him how long it would take him to send money from America.
But he did not have the courage to speak to Mahmud in that state. In fact, he was so terrified he avoided even glancing at him in the rearview mirror out of fear that it might enrage him further.
Maqbul thought that perhaps Mahmud sahib was unwell. When they reached home he called his mother and told her he would give her a reply later in the evening or possibly the next day. His mother asked nonetheless if he would be able to send money for the purchase of a motorcycle at least for one of the sister’s dowry? This made him laugh at his mother’s simplicity — he was sure that once in America he would easily be able to purchase not just a motorcycle but several cars. He knew somebody who was able to buy a motorcycle for his brother after going only to Dubai.
He returned to his room and lay down on his charpoy. He was hoping for his sahib’s recovery so that he could have a credible answer for his mother’s questions.
When Maqbul took tea to Mahmud’s room that evening, he found him lying still on the bed. Maqbul placed the teacup next to him on the side table and remained standing there, quietly.
“Sir,” he said after a few seconds.
Mahmud remained quiet. Maqbul assumed this meant that sahib’s mood had improved.
“Sir, umm… my mother was asking how much money I will make in America each month?”
There was silence in the room. Mahmud rose from the bed and sat on the edge. “America?” he said in a low voice.
“America?” Mahmud hissed.
Maqbul got flustered and didn’t say anything.
“You idiot! You’re really not a human! You’re worse than a donkey! You think you’re going to America? You ass! You think I am going to get a tail fixed on you and send you to America? You think that?”
Maqbul stood frozen in his place, utterly shocked.
“You crackpot! Did you bump your head at birth? Is that why you’re thinking such rubbish you idiot? It’s a big deal for an idiot like you to have made it to Lahore! Get the hell out of here! Get out!”
Maqbul stood there, stunned. He didn’t move.
“Didn’t you hear me?” he screamed again. “Get the hell out of here. I am going to hang you with that monkey tail of yours if you ever bring this up again. Get lost you moron!”
Maqbul slowly turned around and returned to the kitchen. His mind flooded with thoughts one moment and went blank and numb the next. He stood in the kitchen for a long time. Gradually, very gradually, he started to realize that he had been used as the butt of a joke for so many days. He, and his mother, his father’s illness, his sisters.
His hands trembled when he reached for a glass of water. Walking toward his room he felt his legs giving out under him. He sat on the floor for a few minutes. Then he got up slowly and lay on his charpoy. Without any stirring, tears began to stream down his face and in that state, he felt life draining out of him. Thinking, crying, he dozed off.
In his dream he saw that he and his family were gathered around a bed in a hospital. His father lay dead on the bed and the doctor was holding up a dark object for everyone to see. “This is your father’s liver,” he was saying. “Look how pitch dark it is.” As he said this, the liver fell out of his hand, and started growing in size. On the floor, the liver sprouted a head and a face. Then a torso, followed by arms and feet.
In a few moments, the liver transformed into a human that sprung onto the bed. The black liver’s face was identical to Mahmud’s. He was laughing hysterically and wagging his fingers at Maqbul. Another doctor appeared, holding a tail in his hand. He seized the black liver and began hammering the tail into it. Maqbul woke up with a start.
Mahmud usually had his dinner at nine. When Maqbul didn’t call him for dinner, he rose from his bed and angrily made for the door. That very moment, the door swung open and Maqbul entered the room. Mahmud cursed his mother. “I am going to fire you tomorrow first thing,” he threatened.
Maqbul slammed the door shut and stood there, staring at Mahmud.
Mahmud hurled another abuse at Maqbul and ordered him to bring his dinner immediately. Maqbul stepped forward, stared at him for a few moments, and then pushed him with all his strength. Mahmud collapsed on the bed. He couldn’t understand what was happening, but in his last waking moments, he knew that the object tightening around his neck was the tail of the fake monkey.
Written by Bilal Hasan Minto and translated by Bilal Tanweer. Originally published in 2021 by Scroll.in, an independent publisher that describes itself as focusing on “the most important political and cultural stories that are shaping contemporary India.”