Fiction / December 2015 (Issue 30)


Dost-e-Whisky and Me

by Bashir Sakhawarz

 

To love someone means to see him as God intended him.
                                                                 Dostoevsky

 

Despite our difference in age, Dost-e-Whisky was my best friend. I was fourteen years old; he was thirty-two. He was the Dostoevsky of Afghanistan because of his great knowledge of the Russian writer and his constant references to The Brothers Karamazov. I would imagine Dostoevsky as a friend of Dost-e-Whisky, and I saw them sitting on the veranda of our mosque, chatting. Sometimes the novelist would shout, "Hey Dost, tell me about Father Zosima, you say it so much better than I."

He gave life to the characters of the novel like no other. I would visualise Fyodor as our butcher, standing behind the counter with a big knife in his hand.

"Give me a piece of lamb, not goat. Last time you gave me goat and it was difficult to cook."

"Never. I never gave you goat, it's all lamb here."

Fyodor was unreliable, but in contrast to him, Dimitry, our baker, was a quiet man I trusted. He was more of a dreamer, but it was difficult to work out whether he was looking at me when I went in to buy bread from him.

Dost worked as a clerk for my father, and that was how I met him—reading the books he kept hidden under his desk. There was trust between us. I never mentioned to my father that his clerk was reading books during working hours. We became friends, and when there was a chance to talk, he told me about the stories he had read.

Dost had published some articles in the newspapers, with one short story in Honar, our only magazine, and he had been interviewed by journalists. Occasionally, he carried copies of these interviews with him and left them behind discreetly, so that people could acknowledge his fame. The interviews had been arranged by his contacts and had nothing to do with his talent. I called him Dost-e-Whisky, firstly because I could not pronounce Dostoevsky. Dost means "friend" in Persian. Secondly, I was the one who supplied him with the finest whisky. It came from my father's collection, hidden in a secret place. I loved the man. He was tall and handsome, with an ability to make ordinary words sound poetic. There were secret cadences in his language echoing the poetry of Khayyam. He had a goat-like beard and a ponytail of dark hair, and when he wore the traditional Russian shirt designed for the noblemen of the 19th century, everyone thought he lived in those classical Russian novels. Dost was more attractive than any Shakespeare or Dostoevsky to our women of Kabul, a true Greek god.

Those were the peaceful days of King Zahir Shah. Women wore mini-skirts in the streets, Brigitte Bardot and Alain Delon films were routinely screened in our cinemas, Ahmad Zahir, our great pop idol, sang to packed concert halls, Pakistanis and Indians holidayed in Kabul, while the Communists shouted down to the King at every demonstration. It was 1972.

Sometimes I felt envious of Dost, but most of the time, I was happy he was there to fill my emptiness. There were nights when I wished I would wake up the next morning looking exactly like him and blessed with his vast knowledge.

The truth was that I was not doing very well in school. The last time I showed my school results to my father it was so traumatic that I decided it was much safer to hide or to fabricate them. That day father shouted from the living room, as I hid out of his way in another room. "You're a disgrace. I wish you could at least kick a ball since you're no good in school. But you're good for nothing, for nothing."

I was the fat, spoiled child of a rich paper-importer, as empty as a blank sheet of paper. Happiness was having Dost-e-Whisky as my best friend; in fact, he was my only friend. Through him I learnt about the Brothers Karamazov. God knows how many times he related the story and how many times I asked him to repeat it. Despite Dost's tremendous talent and ability, he was a poor man who could not afford to buy the locally made sharab wine, let alone purchase a bottle of whisky. So I happily became his supplier. My father was far too busy with business to notice his whisky bottles disappearing.

"Whisky and my friend have come together, Rahima. Time to celebrate again," he said each time he saw me with a bottle.

Rahima was his girlfriend—well, one of them, the most attached one. I met Dost at least once a week in his house. Usually he sang songs, narrated stories and quoted writers I had never heard of. As soon as I heard their names, I forgot them. What I did remember was a pair of eyes belonging to Rahima, the woman in the mini-skirt, filled with love for every movement that Dost made.

He knew I liked him because he was a huge success and that I wished to be just like him. It was impossible. Even if I had the right looks, I did not have the right brain. I was not Dost-e-Whisky, but just an ordinary boy who drowned himself drinking Coca-Cola from morning to night, putting on weight. 

"The formula two and two make five is not without its attraction," he quoted while saying salamati ("cheers") to me and Rahima, who was also holding a glass. I watched them drinking and felt happy when they were merry.

Nothing could be hidden forever. Father found out about me fabricating my school results. "Idiot, idiot, idiot, liar, idiot," my father kept shouting until he had lost his voice and reached for the soothing balm of whisky. I took my revenge by stealing a bottle from his collection and headed for Dost's humble but loving home.

"My father hates me, my teachers hate me, everyone in school hates me," I whined. Fortunately, none of his girlfriends was there.

"Don't be silly, no one hates you."

"So why do I have no friends and no girlfriend?"

"Girlfriend, ha? Girrrrrrrlfriend?" he said, rumbling with laughter. "Do you like Rahima?"

"Stop it! I've been battered enough for one day."

"All you need is to change your attitude towards life, my young Romeo. After all, beauty is within."

"What beauty is within?"

I looked down at myself and could not find anything but a dome-shaped stomach, as perfectly rounded as the dome of a Friday mosque.

"Please don't make fun of me, Dost. All the kids at school do that and I'm sick of it."

Softly slapping the back of my head in a friendly gesture, he said, "Now, you're being an idiot. Listen, a committed socialist writer like me would never lie, even for the sake of good whisky. What I told you is the essence of deep philosophy. You're a beautiful boy, and you have to believe it. I'm here to help you believe in yourself. We're all beautiful."

"If that's true, then why does the only girl I love so much not even look at my face, no matter how hard I try to attract her?"

"Ha, ha, ha," he laughed. "Ha, ha, ha," again and again. I was just about to hate the only person close to me, fed up with everything.

"Nothing is impossible."

"What d'you mean?"

"This is exactly what I told you. Trust in Dost-e-Whisky's word, and it will be his word that will bring this Laila to you."

"But how?"

"Patience, my boy, patience!"

Dost then got up and fetched a sheet of beautiful blue paper and a pen and asked me the name of the girl. I told him that her name was Roshan ("the light"). He asked no more questions but started writing with an occasional pause while his eyes travelled into the distance in search of the right words. On finishing he exclaimed, "Here it is. Your first love letter to your first girlfriend."

"What?"

"That's exactly what I said."

He started reading, and oh God, it was a melody of love, a symphony of feelings and felicity—better than the songs of Ahmad Zahir, better than the taste of Coca-Cola. I was exhilarated. His words transformed my mood from sad to happy. Happiness kept flowing from the top of my head to my toes. He instructed me on how to deliver the letter to Roshan, suggesting that I follow her and grab my opportunity when the street was quiet, without any passers-by. I should then put the letter, literally, into her hand.

Every day, an hour before Roshan left her house for school, I would stand at the street corner waiting for the opportunity to see her alone. Unfortunately, she usually walked with a friend. So it was clear that I had to try, try and try again. Eventually, my patience paid off. She was alone, and luckily for me, there was nobody else in the street. Dimitry stood behind his counter, watching the empty sky. I was sure he would not see us even if his eyes were gazing in our direction. Now that the street was empty, my feet stuck to the pavement. All the courage had evaporated from my rapidly beating heart. She was about to disappear, and my countless days of waiting would come to nothing. Then suddenly, without thinking, I ran after her.

"Roshan, Roshan, please wait."

She turned to greet me in dumbfounded amazement.

"Salaam, what's the matter?"

"Please take this." I left the letter in her hand and ran away.

To my surprise, the plan worked. It was probably the beautiful blue colour of the letter that attracted her at first. I went to see Dost soon after to boast of my success, but he was out. I didn't move from his doorstep, determined to tell him that his words were magical. After many hours he appeared, quite drunk, but he recognised the happy expression on my face and hugged me.

My life changed. Roshan kept accepting my letters, written by the great writer of Afghanistan, not me. Slowly, I became bolder and more confident. In one of my letters, I suggested we meet in Park-e-Sharenaw because I wanted to talk to her in person. She agreed and we met under a tree. I felt she definitely saw the inner beauty beneath that dome-shaped stomach of mine. She did mention that in my letters, I sounded quite different. More like a poet.

And as happiness flowed in my veins instead of blood, one day my father stormed into my room with his eyes bulging from their sockets in fury. Another complaint from school, I thought.

"What are these?" I instantly recognised the dozens of sheets of blue paper he held in his hands. They were my love letters or rather, Dost's love letters.

"I don't know …" I was mute and trembling with fear.

"You don't know, you don't know? You think I'm as stupid as you?" Father shouted. "You're destroying a family's reputation."

Roshan's father, a strict Muslim, had found my letters. After giving a good beating to his daughter, he had gone to my father's office with the evidence of the letters. "Next time," he informed my father, "it will be a bullet aimed at your son's forehead."

I was full of abject apologies, promising I would never do it again. But my father refused to listen. If the other man had beaten his daughter, he was bound to follow the same tradition. So off he went and came back with a cane and started beating my backside hard. Ow, it was painful.

Light of my life, my father read part of the letter while the cane came down hard on my backside.

Pulses of my heart resulted in the sharp tongue of the cane on my backside.

Your voice lullaby of my nights, words, my backside, cane.

I feel quiescent with you, words, cane, scream.

I ran out of my room into the corridor; my father followed. I ran into the street; my father followed. Catching a fat boy was not difficult for him. All I could do was cover my face. "Sir, sir, he's only a boy." Fyodor came to my rescue. I ran towards him and grabbed his blood-stained butcher's clothes. They had the smell of safety.

It took me many days to recover and be able to sit again. The beating was painful enough to make me forget my duty of supplying whisky to Dost. Without whisky, he would not be inspired to write any more. So it was he who finally came to our house and asked for me. Fortunately, my father was not at home at the time. I told him what had happened, but he only laughed. "Look, dear chap, it's the effect of all great loves," he laughed out the words.

"What d'you mean?"

"Listen, you idiot, if love has had such an impact on your arse, imagine what impact it has had on Roshan's heart. You'd better read Laila and Majnoon or Romeo and Juliet—then you'll know what I'm talking about."

I was not sure about the deep effect of my letters on Roshan, but I was very sure of their impact on her father. Soon after this incident, Roshan was forced to marry her childhood fiancé. She had been engaged to a child when she herself was little—a shameful tradition of some people in my country.

I was devastated. As a result, I paid even less attention at school, if that was possible. Four years later, I finally graduated informally, meaning I was kicked out. Roshan was more productive than me. She produced three children.

 

 
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