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Last Modified: April 22, 2024
Feature Image for March 2024 Sunday Shorts: Sunday Shorts is written in teal text on a eggshell white background. To the left of the text is the book cover for Grieving for Pigeons (AU Press).
Sunday Shorts – Grieving For Pigeons

This month, Read Alberta invites you to settle in and enjoy Zubair Ahmad’s story, “Dead Man’s Float,” excerpted from Grieving for Pigeons: Twelve Stories of Lahore, Revised Edition (Athabasca University Press). Originally written in Punjabi, the story was translated by Anne Murphy.

Dead Man’s Float

And so it happened that the house remained within his consciousness, haunting his dreams.

If he dreamt of the dead then there they were, in that house; if he dreamt of the living, they were in the same house again. It all happened in front of that house, in the streets of the neighbourhood or nearby. He had moved from here to there, lived in various places, and had even gone abroad—but even there he dreamt of that same house and those very streets. The twenty-one years he had spent in the house had devoured all the years of his life since. And that was the real tragedy that haunted him: it was not his own house and so he was forced to leave it.

He didn’t return for many years after he left. The new tenants continued to call him to visit, until they themselves didn’t live there anymore. Even the newcomers who followed them also left. Then one more tenant came, and he too didn’t stay. Finally, someone bought the old house, demolished it, and built it anew. The new owner built a grand house with a novel design, more than three times as large as the old one, with multiple stories and a towering gate in front. When he saw the new house, the pain that was ever slumbering in his deepest unconscious was awakened. He let out a long cold sigh.

The first house was utterly different. It had three rooms on the ground floor, with a kitchen on the side, and a tiny courtyard. Underneath the stairs going to the second floor, there was a room for bathing. The toilet was at the top of house; that’s how it was done in the 1960s, when it was built. There was a big room on right side on the second storey, and on the left, a kitchen and a small room.

He stood looking at the new house. He had the old one in his heart: he was watching the new one through the old one. When he could only see the old one and not the new, he became even more dejected. Living in the city so many years, he had finally come to revisit his old house in the old neighbourhood.

It is our tragedy that we are not allowed to live in the places where we are born and become ourselves, the dreams of which remain alive within us. The beginning of our sojourn on this earth is like a blue sky. Time turns it grey. But remembrance turns that ash colour into a deep smoky blue. This is the place between dreams and reality, where we keep living and dying.

Just a little time has passed, and the rain has stopped. But there is still a touch of water in the hard, piercing air that thrashes his face, making it cold and wet. The wind continues to blow.

All the world has changed and keeps on changing. The wide streets have become narrow and the narrow ones extremely thin: all the old houses are being demolished and new ones are being built. The streets have been raised higher and the older houses have become new, and the new ones even newer: modest houses have just disappeared. The houses one could go to and from without any hesitation now seem so strange, so distant, so far out of reach. The soggy air blows fast in the silent street, making an eerie noise. Then a bike or car manages to wade through, splashing water, or it turns back: where have all the old vendors of the mohallah gone now?

At the first turn of the lane, a slightly larger road beyond is transforming into a major bazaar. First came the burger kiosk, then a small motorcycle mechanic shop, and then the car repair garage. Next came the grocery store and then a stationery shop full of notebooks and pencils. After the kiosk for paan, chewing tobacco, and cigarettes was opened, you would always see the boys standing outside it. But that all happened many years after he and his family were forced to leave. For so many years even after that, there was just a shop or two nearby. From there one could get anything, from a small needle to cigarettes.

A very old car, the cheapest one could imagine, wanders haltingly, as if it is about to stop. But then it comes very slowly, passing near him. A young man and his wife sit in the front seat: in the back, two children and a woman. She catches his eye somehow. He looks closely at her: she is elderly, or no, perhaps middle-aged. Their eyes meet for a moment. At first both are surprised, then upset. Then both heave a deep sigh in which there is a kind of a moan. They both pretend not to have seen what they have seen. And perhaps they didn’t.

If she could stop for a while and could have an exchange of greetings, would somebody shoot her? She may still think herself too good for that, but even I have a better car than her now. In the old days she held her nose up high. She’s gotten old over the last few years, keeping an eye on her adolescent daughters. But now they too have gotten old, all without getting married. We were nothing in those days; leaving one or two families aside, all the boys were underprivileged.

He had internalized and lived her face so many nights and days, cherished dreams of each and every curve of her body. But she never once spoke with him.

Mornings became evenings in front of her home. How proud she was of her beauty and status; how rich she appeared at that time. After all her father was a minor servant in some government department and they did have a motorcycle; in the whole mohallah they had the only one. They were more prosperous than others, but what are they now? He has more than them, but he knows that no matter how prosperous he might become, he would never have her. Before, he couldn’t have her because he was beneath her. Now, what was it? Time. It is like a rebellious pigeon who flies away but never comes back to sit at your roof.

What did we get by thinking about “lower” and “higher”? Separation and loneliness, nothing more.

The evening descended, and for a long time he wanders in his old mohallah. He doesn’t come across a single person from his old days. The rain has worn off the old fading whitewash from the walls, and the ancient dirt-coloured bricks are emerging from underneath, as if time itself has unearthed them.

A little movement appears in the silent streets: suddenly it speeds up, and then it slows down again. It is as if the rain has slowed everyone down, empty and helpless: the sharp wind has driven everyone from the streets. A blanket of darkness secretly tries to steal everything close to him, and a dim light leaks out from the doors and windows of the nearby houses. Two young men are walking along briskly, talking in loud, boisterous voices. They slow down for a moment when they see him, but when they don’t recognize him, they move on, absorbed in their fun. Who knows how long he has been wandering there; now the darkness has fully descended, enveloping the world. “Go home now,” something within him says. “Home.” He looks at the old house, where now a new one is standing. “Nobody recognizes you. Look. It is late. If someone stopped and spoke with you, then maybe you would wake out of your reverie.”

The night has settled into the streets, and the wind of fear passes through his heart. He is soaking wet. What if somebody were to ask where he is going, which house he is looking for, whom he intends to see? Cold, wet fear sends waves through his inner core. He trembles. Fear: that fear of being unrecognized in the night, in the cold, wet wind. It brings to mind that night he passed sleeping in a park while he was abroad, on his own. That night, fully unpassed. The whole of it stands before him.

That night twenty-nine years ago when, after fleeing from the hunger of his home with some friends, lost in the greed of earning in Europe, he had gone to Rome and got stuck. After months of sleeping in the streets and the underground Metro stations, he was supposed to sleep that night in a real bed. Masood had given him the key. Masood too was from Lahore, and from the same mohallah, Krishan Nagar. He had been living in Rome for many years and had become like a local. But whenever Masood got drunk, he used to repeat two things again and again. First: “I didn’t mean to live in Rome; I always thought I would go to England or America. I am just stuck in Rome for nothing.” He had been living there for many years. It was said that his aunt lived in England, but who knows why she did not bring him there. Second, he used to recall his mother. She was probably living alone in Lahore in some rented room in a corner of Krishan Nagar and he sent her some US dollars every year or so. I never asked about his father, and he never spoke of him. After drinking, he would speak only of his mother: “My mother must be alone, all alone. She wanted me to get married. She must be waiting for me.” Masood was around thirty-three or thirty-five years old then, and I had not yet reached twenty.

Masood met me at Piazza Navona. We had arrived in Rome in summer, but now the cold was piercing. We were three friends without a clue, like fools, with just a few dollars in our pockets. We made our way on the road from Afghanistan to Iran, then to Turkey; then from Istanbul we took the Oriental Express through Yugoslavia and arrived in Rome on a five-day visa. Shooky went to work on a ship, but I was refused because I wore glasses. Manzali got a job in another city and was thrilled because a Filipina was working there with him.

Piazza Navona is a famous tourist place in Rome. It has a large open area with beautiful statues in a circle; beautiful old buildings surround them. There is a wide courtyard of old grey brick, and grey pigeons are always hovering, picking their food off the ground. All around there are cafés, restaurants, and bars, where tourists sit all day long soaking in the sun. I came upon the place by chance, wandering all day in the city, and then started coming every day.

The hippie movement was at its peak, and it was here that I bumped into Jhangi from Karachi. He opened a kiosk there every evening. But the kiosk was illegal and sometimes when it was raided by the authorities, I would recall the raids of the Lahore Municipal Corporation back home. Jhangi had been living in Rome with his family for many years. His wife would make handmade toys all day and he used to sell them at Piazza Navona in his kiosk. The toys were made of colourful pieces of cloth and were very attractive. There was a sign written on a hard sheet lying near by them: “Hand Made.”

When he would set up his kiosk, I would stand near him, with nothing to do. I wandered all day alone, without any place to sleep, with nothing to do. We got free food from church, and we could sleep in the empty, broken houses of the hippies. Most of the hippies used to live in condemned buildings. They would break into abandoned houses, seize them, and squat there.

Seeing me jobless, Jhangi suggested that I work with him. I accepted at once. He gave his own kiosk to me and started to set up another one. But I still couldn’t find any place to live. To live anywhere you needed a passport or some other papers that the police called “documenti.” My passport was already with the police, and they were keeping an eye on me until the day they could find enough money on me for an air ticket so they could deport me. At that point, I did have some money because of the work, but there was still no place to live. Jhangi would say to me every day, “I would take you home, but my wife wouldn’t like it.”

Then one day Jhangi introduced me to Masood, who was also from Lahore. Then we discovered that we were from the same mohallah. Masood lived at a very cheap place, but he still was not able to afford it. So now he was hopeful that we could share the rent. Next day we met in the sunshine, and he showed me the place. It was something like an old store, covered in disintegrating plaster and whitewash. There was an old bed on one side and on the other an iron bed frame. That was supposed to be my bed: he laid some worn out foam on it, spread out some kind of old sheet, and then gave me an old blanket. You could call it my first home abroad. I lived there many months. But I lost my way getting there on the first night.

Counting out the money with Jhangi at Piazza Navona, it was normal to stay until midnight or beyond. I had to return the kiosk to him. It was made of steel and had to be separated, each and every part, so that it was easy to put in the trunk of his car. After counting out the money and finishing the work and having one or two shots of whisky from the bar near the station—which remained open all night—it never occurred to me that I might not actually know the way to the place where I was supposed to sleep. I went to the place I thought I was going, but I couldn’t find the place that Masood had shown me in the morning. There was supposed to be a big, open gate-like door somewhere, and then after passing through it a tiny, narrow verandah. Turning left and walking down some stairs, there was supposed to be the store-like room. If I could just find that door-like gate, I could find my way.

My breath caught in my throat. It was the middle of the night. Police cars passed by me slowly. After wandering and wandering, I reached a place where I was sure that I would find Masood: a corner on the main road that would lead to the street with the big gate. He would pass by, late, and we’d walk together to the house. I tucked into a shadow.

Time passed and Masood didn’t appear, and I realized I had not only lost the street but the neighbourhood. Cars stopped making their usual noises and drunken couples came out, standing together, hugging and kissing each other. I was becoming more and more afraid. What if one of them phoned the police to say that some South Asian man was standing in the street at midnight, appearing suspicious . . . ? So I kept walking on in silence. It was only through walking and walking that I could save myself from the police.

Walking like that, on and on, I don’t know where I finally ended up. At last I came to a big road with traffic passing in both directions. There was light all around—or perhaps night was just coming to an end—and there appeared to be a park in the distance. It was a time in Europe, or at least in Rome, when you could spend a night in a park and police wouldn’t bother you. Though I was dead tired because of walking so long, the hope of a park sharpened the pace of my feet. But it was not a park: it was just an empty area, a kind of square. But at that point I couldn’t even stand anymore, so I sat down there on the grass: when a man is hungry there is even pleasure in drinking water. At last I leaned against a lamp and slept right there. That was, in truth, my first home abroad.


Walking in the old mohallah, it is as if he is standing in front of her house. At that time it appeared to be such a big house. But it was just a small house on a tiny lot. It was old, from the time before Partition, and no one had spent anything on it for many years. Mud oozed from the fissures in the walls.

The dark night thickened.

The wet air created an unseen, untouched wire in the extreme darkness of the night. The blue flame of remembrance has scorched everything inside. In old times, when out late, he would stop beneath her window and his friends would go on ahead; it seemed to him that someone was awakening behind the window.

Our beginning is like a blue sky; time makes it dull and grey. Remembrance turns it into the deep blue of evening, before it becomes a thick night.

There is some other place between dream and reality where we live and die.

It appears that her window has opened for the first and last time. A long straight line of light stretches down the road, making the drenched road shine like glass. From behind the window where the light leaks out, a voice seems to emerge.

“Go home, Bairy, and sleep.”


About the Author

Headshot: Zubair AhmadZubair Ahmad is the author of two poetry collections, three short story collections, a translation, and a collection of essays, all written in Punjabi. Two of his short story collections were finalists for the Dhahan Prize for Punjabi Literature in 2014 and 2020. He lives in Lahore, Pakistan. Anne Murphy is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. Her research focuses on the vernacular literary and religious traditions of the Punjab. Grieving for Pigeons is her first book-length translation.