"Do you want chillies?", asked Meher.
"Definitely! Which one should I take? Perhaps the ones that are not quite as spicy", said Roland.
In front of them, on the floor, were several bags of chillies of different varieties in various shapes and sizes, along with all sorts of other spices, cloves, fennel, cumin - Roland had never even seen most of them before.
Meher spoke in Urdu with the shopkeeper, who simultaneously typed messages on his cell phone while his assistant, who was not more than fourteen years old, stared at Meher, as if he had an apparition.
"The round chillies are the mildest", said Meher. "How many do you want?"
"Perhaps a small handful."
The shopkeeper gave brief instructions to the assistant, who then came with a small shovel and plastic bag, filled the bag with chillies and placed it on the weighing scale.
"Saffron. But pure. If he has it."
“He surely has it.“
"There's Naseer Kasim in the back... With his wife", said Roland. "Shit", said Meher, with a hint of panic in her voice. "Let's get out before he sees us."
She somewhat called out to the shopkeeper, turned around, and ran around the corner into the next street, where shops of rice, lentils, beans, and noodles were lined up one after the other. To the right was the outer wall of an old building, reminiscent of a palace. Meher stood in front of the entrance: "We can go in here. This is an old hammam. He’ll surely not want to come here."
In the open courtyard, café tables with round marble slabs were set up. There was no one sitting on the tables. Straight ahead, a small museum shop offered handicrafts for sale, mostly ceramics. Emptiness seemed to have ruled the place.
"For you as a foreigner, the entry fee is two hundred rupees, for me twenty; that’s unfortunately how it is", said Meher.
Roland took out a bundle of notes from his pocket and pushed the money to the man at the counter.
There was darkness in the heart of the hammam, the eyes had to get used to it. High columns with monumental arches formed a kind of celestial cave system, on the walls were coffered ceilings with floral frescoes that were partially broken. Meher held Roland's hand, pulled him along behind her. The original floor was missing, instead modernist bridges made of tubular steel and polished wooden planks were installed.
"Do you know where you're going?", asked Roland.
"Somewhat. We had come here once during the first year of college. There must be a staircase leading to the roof somewhere back."
Meher stopped, placed her index finger on his lips. It was perfectly still, no noise from the bazaar came in, also the hall of steps was nowhere to be seen. She put her arms around his neck, kissed him on the mouth, greedily, with lust for the forbidden, suddenly broke loose, ran a few steps to a small staircase that was darker than the rest of the rooms, and disappeared into the darkness.
He followed her.
The roof was three or four hundred years old, still with its landscape of domes and small towers; it was more like a futuristic settlement on a distant planet. All around rose the houses of the bazaar district in the sky that were mostly of the gray plastered brickwork: massive cubes, interrupted by tree crowns, playful balustrades and balconies, and wobbly cages made of slats and wire mesh.
"Do you have a cigarette?", asked Meher.
"Do you think you’re allowed to smoke here?"
"No idea, but there are cigarette butts here."
He held out his pack, lit a cigarette for her. She inhaled deeply:
"That was close!"
"Would it have been bad if Naseer had seen us?"
"Probably not. But quite embarrassing. For you more than for me. I mean, he invited you to Lahore and then you hook up with a student." She laughed. "This will then have negative consequences for him too."
"What would happen if the college directors were to take notice? - I mean, you're twenty-five?"
"No idea. Perhaps they would throw out you, but I don’t think so. In the worst case, someone would tell my father. It can always happen that he meets one of the professors. That would mean a lot of trouble."
Roland Warnke met Naseer Kasim four months ago at the Art Basel. Nasser's paintings were exhibited at the Saatchi stand - hyperrealistic paintings that showed himself in various disguises: as Mullah, as Christ, as father, as a common man with geometrical dream landscapes in the background.
At first glance, Roland had found Naseer to be likeable: "I like your work. Although, or perhaps as I have no idea what the content is all about, probably also political things play a role. - Where are you from?"
"From Pakistan. Lahore.“
"Unfortunately, I know almost nothing about Pakistan ..."
They strolled around the fair together, visited art museums, were amazed at how often they agreed to their opinion of the work of others, and spent two nights together at fair parties. On the last evening, Naseer said, "Would you be interested to teach as a guest lecturer at the National College of Arts in Lahore for a semester? It would be very interesting for our students to hear how an artist from Germany perceives their work."
"I’d definitely like to", said Roland, "I have to see if something can be arranged for my family, I have two small children."
"Pakistan - do you know how dangerous that is?", asked his wife, after Naseer actually sent Roland the official invitation for a guest lecturer at the National College of Art, one and a half months later. "If you hear something about Pakistan in the news, either a bomb has exploded or they have kidnapped a journalist."
"The biggest attacks this year were in Paris and Brussels and it's just a matter of time before something similar happens here or in Munich. I imagine it’s madly exciting - I mean, art has a different meaning for the people there than us. Limits are still really being explored there about what is and isn’t socially acceptable. Unlike us, where everything is allowed and nothing relevant."
"You must know for yourself what you’re doing."
"Naseer says that no one in Lahore intends to harm a foreigner, on the contrary, everyone tries to help him/her."
"I can’t judge that. Maybe it's good to experience something new. Somehow everything here gets on your nerves.”
"That's not true either."
Karen smiled, sadly, but also affectionately: "Go. You should not let your fears dictate your decisions."
Meher Gul studied in the fourth year at the National College of Arts. Together with her youngest sister and her older brother, she lived with her parents in a spacious house in Gulberg, which was surrounded by high, barbed-wire-reinforced walls.
Her life consisted of runaways, smaller and bigger lies and miniature painting. After high school, she had studied economics at Kinnaird College for reasons she could no longer understand. In the end, however, she had hardly gone any further because of constant vomiting attacks and crying fits. After another year, which she had spent alone in her room and senseless therapy sessions, she had been accepted by the National College of Arts. Since then, she was better, though not good. She made up her own worlds in which it was somehow possible to endure life.
In the evening she met as often as she could with friends - at Aziza’s room, who came from Islamabad and lived in the hostel of the college, or at Nurjehan’s house, whose mother was dead and father was mostly on business trips - so that no one would asked her what she did and why. They regularly hung out at the pool in Nujehan's garden, smoked hashish, drank beer, fooled around, talked about art and life, about the men who were introduced to them by their parents or other relatives for marriage, and how to get rid of them as quickly as possible. With Nurjehan, Meher sometimes also went to the Lahore Rifle Club for pistol shooting. Most of the time they went there already stoned, which increased the fun even further. Meher told her parents that she painted up to ten or eleven o’clock as their final exam was due, and that some of her fellow students were now spending all the nights in college. They probably didn’t believe her, but she didn’t care.
Roland moved into a spacious apartment in a private guesthouse. During the first few days, Nazeer showed him the most important attractions of the city, the Fort, the Wazir Khan Mosque, the tomb of Jihangir. They visited old bazaar districts and new marketplaces, fine restaurants that were decorated in the same way as in Berlin or London, and all streetfood stands, where grilled meatballs, lentils, or fried dough pockets were served. Roland was amazed by the different facets of the city, which oscillated between dreamy Mogul palaces, colonial splendor, glittering business districts, and widespread decay.
He was most amazed by the college itself: The old brick buildings with their high arches, towers and bay windows, the landscaped courtyards and gardens, where old bronze sculptures and modern sculptures were erected, showed the same mixture of upper-class splendor and neglect, as the art academies in Dusseldorf and Munich. The atmosphere was also similar in studios and workshops: solid dried paint on the floor and walls, forgotten lumps of clay, broken canvases, remains of plastic experiments that were eventually abandoned but not cleared. In the meantime, young people, who painted with concentration or helplessly stood in front of their seats, stared out of the window because they didn’t know how to proceed, or suddenly doubted the meaning of all that they were doing here.
"That’s the class of miniature painting", Naseer said, opening the door to a room where a dozen students sat cross-legged on the floor, with blocks on their lap, with fine hair brushes in their hands.
"Ustad Bashir developed a contemporary curriculum for the traditional techniques in the 80s..."
The first thing Roland saw was Meher, crouching at the back in the corner, fragile and concentrated as if her life were at stake.
"... it’s also about developing these traditions for the present."
She was not beautiful in the true sense, her nose a bit pudgy, chin a little too wide, but she radiated a kind of presence, which Roland had never seen. He was surprised that the others didn’t stare at her all the time.
"Meher, can you show Roland what you’re currently working on?"; asked Naseer.
She rolled her eyes, shook her head before she got up, not because she thought it was bad, but because she simply didn’t want to talk about it.
"It's not finished", she said.
On the paper, a human heart could be seen, cut open like a sick patient during a transplant and soberly painted as in old anatomical atlases, except that someone had clamped the outlets of the veins with pearl-studded gold clasps. It lay on a simple wooden table, around a scissor, needles and different yarns that were not the tools of a surgeon, but belonged to a weaver or tailor. While Meher had painted the heart and the decorative clamps in the finest gradation of colour, the remaining objects and the surrounding space were merely sketched as black outlines, as elegant as in the old portraits where the emperor sat on a pillow or carpet, and smoked a water pipe.
Meher noticed that a kind of fright flashed in Roland's eyes, and then gave way to a bizarre forced facial expression. The fright pleased her, although she thought at first that he didn’t like her work or misunderstood her approach. He looked at her paper for a really long time, nodded thoughtfully, finally said: "That's good. Really good."
"Meher is very talented," said Naseer. This upset her as she seemed like a silly student at that moment.
"Here in Pakistan you can always see only these painted Mogul scenes from India."
He smiled at her sideways. Meher felt an uncertainty about him, which had hardly anything to do with her painting.
"I'd like to see more from you," he said. "Doesn’t have to be immediate, I'll be here for a while now."
"There’s not much..."
She held his gaze until he looked down like a shy girl.
"... but maybe I can bring a few papers from home." He went on, looked at the work of the others, asked questions, made well-meaning comments, exchanged a few sentences with Naseer here and there. In between, he turned around to look at her again and again, and Meher realized with relief that he didn’t pay similar attention to anyone but her.
In the evening, she turned on her computer and looked at his drawings on the Internet, strange papers reminiscent of scientific pictures of cell structures and micro-organisms, but at the same time nothing but the relation of lines and structures to reflect order and chaos in the surface. Again and again she kept coming back to two photos with his portrait and looked at his face.
It was nearly six o'clock and very muggy. The college was empty. Roland sat on the edge of the slender marble fountain in the courtyard, with a cup of overly sweet Nescafé in his hand and cigarettes to keep him company. He looked at the dusty blue sky, realizing that he was much farther away from home than the five and a half thousand kilometers that the plane had covered. After a few sips of coffee, his sweat ran in streams.
"Am I disturbing you?", asked Meher and sat down beside him without waiting for his answer.
The sweat stained his shirt even on his chest and back. It was embarrasing.
"How do you like Lahore?"
"Good. Very good. Although everything is completely different than I had expected."
"In what way?"
"I wouldn’t have thought, for example, that I can just sit here with you, without anyone looking at us funnily."
She laughed: "What had you imagined?"
"No idea. More control. Maybe even gender segregation - wouldn’t have surprised me at the least."
His cell phone buzzed. On the display appeared the picture of his wife with the children on the beach. He pushed it away, opened the pack of cigarettes, held it out to her before he took one himself, lit one for her.
"Are these your children?"
"Three and five."
She didn’t ask about his wife.
"Could I invite you for dinner, for example, or would it be funny?"
"A little bit. But that’s ok. Maybe not in the favorite restaurants of my family."
They had to wait for twenty minutes before a table in the garden of the restaurant became vacant. Several sets of cutlery lay on the freshly starched white blanket. The napkins were made of cloth and were folded in the shape of flying birds in the glasses of water.
Meher looked at the menu card: "What do you like? Lamb, chicken? Maybe goat? And grilled or as a curry? Biryani? "
"I don’t know, just order."
"Daal - do you want Daal?"
"I'll try everything."
"Mild, I'd say."
The waiter served them a bright red fruit cocktail with crushed ice as welcome drink.
"Ok, let’s order Chicken Tangdi Kabab and Khatti Daal. That is with tamarind, a bit sour. And Raita - yogurt. Maybe with eggplant. Do you want bread or rice?"
"What do you eat usually?"
"I’d take bread. Naan."
"Unfortunately, there’s no wine here. They serve fresh juices. Pomegranate is good. Or grapefruit."
"Do you drink alcohol?"
"A handsome man," she thought. In the light of the candle, the blue in his eyes looked as if it were cut from a rare stone with mysterious inclusions from prehistoric times.
She took a cigarette from a pack, lit it, blew the smoke from her lips straight onto the face. Laughed.
He shook his head, looked at her hands, as if to reach for them, thought of a topic that would encourage them to speak, as he wanted to hear her voice, the dark melodic tone with the slight accent.
He thought of his wife, who always had something to discuss - issues concerning money, organizing the household and especially the children. Everything was somehow important, but in reality meaningless and long without nuances.
"Isn’t it difficult that the miniatures... that painting itself as a process is so completely immaterial?"
"That’s exactly what I like, total concentration on this very small area. Through a microscope you look into a world that exists all by itself. I remain calm, while everything else makes me nervous."
Roland couldn’t remember when he was last attracted to a woman like this. It was nonsensical, perhaps even dangerous. From what he knew, brothers and fathers here had no fear of killing the lovers of their sisters or daughters.
They ate for a long time, the food tasted exceptionally good, they spoke about God and the world, art and love.
Meher thought: "He is the first man to understand why I paint", while Roland seemed to have been conjured into an Oriental dream.
After he had paid, they went out to wait for the Careem-driver. The moon stood like a blurred sickle behind warm moisture and dust. Numerous trees cast night shadows on a meter-high wall, behind which the houses and gardens of well-to-do people hid. Meher gesticulated endlessly. Unlike him, she wasn’t afraid to touch him. Again and again she put her hand on his arm, she also pressed his fingers once briefly.
Her phone rang with a bright "Pling".
"The car should be here," she said. "White Toyota, LEA-3504. - There in the front."
She opened the door, said, "Salam aleikum", began to give directions to the driver. It would take a while, because he had to drop her at home and then drive Roland to his guest house.
She leaned back. Her hand pushed gently against his.
"Basically, my life is incredibly boring when I don’t paint", she said. "We hang out together, drink, smoke some stuff, it's funny, but somehow always the same. Basically, I'm sick of it, and I really want something completely different."
"How do you imagine the future?"
"At least not what most want at my age: get married and have children. I don’t want to do that at all."
"What are the other possibilities for a different life?"
"None. At least not as long as I live with my parents, and I can't get out of there as long as I'm not married. You just can’t get out, at least I don’t know how to."
"When you’ve finished your final exams, you can try to get a scholarship abroad, for example in Germany. Maybe I can help you. "
This was a lie, perhaps not - he could at least find information for her.
"I've been thinking about it. If it were for official purposes, my parents might even allow it."
The little finger of her right hand slid over his left. Outside, there was still heavy traffic, cars, buses, countless Chinese motorcycles, and sometimes a horse cart. She said something to the driver, who soon made a turn to a barely lit neighborhood. Here again there were villas behind high walls. Armed men sat or stood in front of them.
"Here’s my home," she said. "The driver has assured me that he knows where he has to take you."
At the same moment, she leaned over to him and kissed him on the mouth, demanding, at the same time warm and soft, her tongue glided briefly and resolutely between his lips. When the car stopped, she had already moved herself and got out.
"I'll see you", she cried out, and slammed the door.
Meher took off the sound-proof headphones and just settled into one of the pale green cane chairs in the club room. Her father's Glock lay on the table in front of her. He had bought the pistol ten or fifteen years ago, and probably didn’t even know he owned it anyway, let alone that Meher kept it in her closet. She had found the box with the gun among papers, writing instruments, tools found in a chest of drawers when she was looking for photos of their grandparents, and had taken it with her.
Nurjehan came with two bottles of ice-cold cola and sat down beside her.
"You've already met better," she observed, but actually it was a question.
Meher grinned, "I was somewhere else."
"You've been somewhere else since days."
"Because of him?"
" Have you started anything with him"
"Looks like that."
Meher pulled out a hand towel from her pocket and wiped the sweat from her forehead.
"Oh, you disgrace."
"Five days ago."
"You didn’t want to do something like this anymore."
"This time it's different."
"I've heard this sentence at least five times before."
Meher looked out the window at the shooting range, where two women in their forties shot at the targets, small clouds of dust appeared from the high earthen wall, when they missed the target. They shot badly.
"He's not like the Pakistani guys who want to have a bit of fun, and when you get involved, that's it."
"Didn’t you say that he was married?"
"Yes. But he is unhappy with his marriage. Probably he might split up with his wife."
"Because of you."
"He had planned it anyway, otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted the lectureship here."
"A married Pakistani would say the same thing, if he wants to sleep with you."
"I've never met anyone who really understands what I mean to say through my paintings."
"Do you have sex?"
Meher rolled her eyes: "Let's go and smoke."
"It's pretty good with him. Everything."
The studio walls were painted in bright red, and Roland wondered what made Naseer choose that colour. He could have never worked like this.
"Watch out", said Naseer abruptly and stirred the tea before he passed him the cup.
Roland felt that he started to sweat, and then turned to a half-finished picture in which Naseer lay and dressed in the profile like the Christ of Holbein that they had seen together in Basel.
"Because of what now? - Have I made a mistake?"
"I saw both of you the other day. Meher and you. In the bazaar. You were in a hurry."
"Oh, that ... she helped me buy a few things."
"It's being spoken about."
Roland hesitated about what he should say to Naseer, especially since he couldn’t assess the consequences of his affair with Meher becoming public, and despite of his friendship, Naseer was part of the teaching staff of the college.
"We discuss intensively about our work. I really appreciate what she does, and what she says about my drawings. She has an extremely precise eye for things."
He considered asking Naseer what’s the worst that could happen, but that would have probably signalled a confession to the affair.
"You know, Meher has a lot of problems," continued Naseer, "mood swings and the like. Sometimes she talks to nobody for days, then again she is full of spirit, fools around, throws herself at someone."
"I had somewhat guessed that and thought that I could at least encourage her in her work. She is always inflicted by self-doubt."
"Don’t get me wrong: It also happens here that teachers(male) have relationships with female students. But I've seen how she looks at you and it would completely tear her apart, when you fly back."
In college, Meher and Roland mostly avoided each other. During the day, they communicated through text messages, and they telephoned at night. They spent three or four evenings in a week together. They usually met at his guest house, sometimes they went out to eat or visited exhibitions. Often they spent hours in bed, loved each other, talked, drank wine bought by him, loved each other again. It always ended in the same way: Meher would say frantically: "I must go!"
"It's just nine."
By the time I reach home, it’ll be ten. And this week I've already reached home twice after eleven. Somehow I always get yelled at, and I don’t like it."
She took her phone out of her pocket, opened the Careem-App and booked a car.
"You are an adult, and are studying for your exam."
"I can’t keep on lying. I lie so much anyway.“
"You must know that yourself."
"You haven’t even told your wife about me."
"All this isn’t easy. Not for me either."
"Of course it’s easy for you: you have a nice affair, but I am living a shitty life with some hopes that won’t be fulfilled."
"Even when I split up with my wife, it would bring along a lot of complications, also because of the children ... - Then your father won’t allow you to marry me. - Would you cut ties with your family because of me? No, you wouldn’t. You don’t even spend a night with me."
"I could manage it somehow."
"And if not?"
"I must go down, the driver is there."
She ran to the door, turned around again, kissed him on the cheek, and left.
The rickshaw drove them, for almost an hour. The neighborhoods had become increasingly poorer; on the roadside whole herds of goats were on sale, there were more donkey carts and horse carts than cars on the road. Finally they crossed the Ravi. On one side of the bridge, hundreds of buffalo could be seen on the shore, on the other, countless black kites.
In the mighty entrance gate of Jihangir's tomb, two men sat around a table selling entry tickets. Next to that, stood a policeman with a beret and a gun. Meher and Roland were the only visitors. It was her idea to come here, so that they could see something else other than Roland's guest house, and out here, they would surely not meet anyone. She got rid of a man who stubbornly attempted to be their guide.
They strolled through the extensive grounds. Here and there, gardeners worked in the flower beds, a person carrying a huge bale of cut-off branches on the head passed by.
There was complete silence.
"Jihangir was a major patron of the art of painting", said Meher.
"And he is said to have consumed huge amounts of opium and brandy. Otherwise, I don’t know much about him... "
"It's wonderful here. - Why doesn’t anybody come here? I mean, the city is crowded and noisy, here you can almost be alone. "
"Maybe because people don’t understand that being alone is beautiful."
"Or couples who don’t know where to go."
They crossed another door way, behind that, a paved path between spherical bushes led to the actual mausoleum with its four slender minarets.
Roland endlessly photographed Meher. He had never done this before, and Meher initially made a fuss about it, then became annoyed, made him show her every photo, snatched the camera from his hand and deleted most of the photos.
When they had climbed up the stairs to the tomb, she said, "Stop this now, I don’t like it."
"You look like the princess who owns everything here."
"Like the widow."
She turned away.
"What do you have against me taking photos?"
He realized that she wasn’t in a good mood, he kept the camera in his bag, tried to be funny, but she didn’t react.
"Are you already working on the album of your memories? Of course I can’t be missing from that. "
They entered the room, where the sarcophagus structure with its marble and precious stones, glimmered like a precious sacrificial site.
"It's better not to have dozens of photos of me in your camera when you go back home."
Nurjehan drove the car, while Meher smoked joint sitting next to her.
"There's beer in the bottom flap."
It was half past nine and dark outside. Mehdi Hassan’s "Mohabbat Karnay Walay Kam Na Hongay" was playing on the radio. Meher turned the volume up. They had no goal other than driving themselves through the tunnel of lights and movements behind the windowpanes.
Meher ran her tongue over the glue fold, smoked the joint, passed it to Nurjehan, grabbed a beer can from the glove compartment, opened the can and drank.
"How come you have time tonight?"
"Why should I not have time?"
"You almost never had time in the last few weeks."
She gave Meher the joint.
Mehdi Hassan's voice became more and more fragile, hovering, as if from a far distance.
The music ended, the presenter said, "Hello and welcome, you’re listening to the Ghazal Night by Sur aur Rag on Radio FM 99. It’s no longer so hot in Lahore, but love is in the air, and so that it remains this way, I now have the wonderful Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan for you with "Tumhein Dillagi Bhool Jani Pare Gi".
"Even if that sounds smart, I could have told you that before."
"Not as you think."
"... that he wanted to try something else, had his fun and is now looking forward to his quiet home in Germany."
"I'm your friend, so I'll tell you honestly about what I think."
"You don’t know him, and don’t know what it’s like when we're together. He understands what I think before I say it and vice versa."
"He looks at everyone's ass. I’ve seen that."
“I do that too. We are painters, visual people, we live just by looking."
"And he's the first person I’m not ashamed of all that's going on in my head – of absolutely nothing."
She emptied the beer can, opened the window slightly ajar, and threw the rest of the joint on the street.
"Your father will never let you marry him. A divorced German, fifteen years older than you... "
"Thirteen and a half."
"He’s not even Muslim."
"If he really wants us to be together, there is a solution for everything ... Watch out!"
A bus next to them took a sharp turn to the right, Nurjehan hit the brakes, controlled the steering wheel, honked: "Idiot! Jerk! "Then she began to giggle foolishly.
"I should have shut up", said Meher.
The radio was silent for a moment, before the presenter began talking again: "This was still the unmatched Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan with "Tumhein Dillagi Bhool Jani Pare Gi". - You're listening to Radio FM 99, I'm Ammar Xulfi, and the next song is one of my all-time favorites, by Farida Khanum, the queen of Ghazal: "Wo Ishq Jo Hum Se Rooth Gaya."
"Sorry. I can’t listen to this now“, said Meher and turned off the music.
Nurjehan saw that a tear ran down her cheek.
"Has he spoken to his wife?"
Meher opened the next can of beer.
"He says it wouldn’t be fair to tell her on the phone."
"Because he's not fake."
"Do you really believe that?"
"Yes. - No."
"Then end it before he flies back - before you completely go crazy."
In the hallway next to the door stood one of the two large aluminum suitcases, packed and ready, the other flipped open on the floor, full of women's and children's clothes, on top a folded scarf from Sindh with woolen embroidery and sewn-on mirror sequences.
Meher lay on the bed, fully dressed, turned her back to him, her upper body twitched now and then, but she didn’t utter a word.
Roland lay down beside her, placed her arm around her, she pushed him back. He tried again, then she violently shook her head, so he gave up and turned on the back.
His flight was at five in the morning, now it was seven, they had two, maybe three hours; he didn’t know what would happen afterwards.
He stared at the ceiling, where the fan hurriedly chopped the air into pieces.
"Meher I love you, believe me, there will be a way out, even if you and I don’t see it now."
She wiped her face on the pillow and sat up. "I don’t know what you're thinking. I don’t care. I don’t expect anything from you. You'll go and that's it, at least for me."
He neither wanted her to cry, nor to act as if they had a banal affair.
"I've talked to the people at the Ejaz-Art Gallery, maybe we're going to have an exhibition next spring. You're the only reason why I’m giving it a try."
"Maybe you'll come back, maybe not. Until then you’ll get back to being the dear Papa, sleep with your wife and for me everything will be just as crappy as before. Great plan."
He got up, went to the closet, took out a shirt, folded it, put it in the suitcase, pulled the next one from the hanger, and paused.
"No idea what I'm doing here."
"You're sensible, and you do what you must do. Just like me."
"I don’t know if that’s sensible, in any case it’s wrong."
“Do you yourself believe your so-called clever words?“
Her cell phone rang. She spoke in Urdu, her sentences sounded choppy, then she looked at the watch, nodded and said, "See you soon."
"Who was that?
"Nurjehan. She'll pick me up in twenty minutes."
"Why now? It's just eight. We still have time."
"In order to continue to torment ourselves? Better let’s stop. It's over. You can pack in peace and I’ll think about what to do with my life."
"I wanted to gift you a drawing."
"Because it no longer fits in your suitcase?"
"Don’t be like that. It’s the most personal thing I can give you."
"Thank you, very nice of you, but I have enough painted paper at home."
She went to the table, where the pile of his drawings lay, took a cigarette, held out the pack, "farewell cigarettes. Doesn’t help, but doesn’t matter. "
"Please, search for a paper."
For a while they stood in silence.
"It's not over", he said.
She shook her head. Her cell phone buzzed briefly, "That’s Nurjehan."
He stepped up to her to hug her, but she turned away and went to the door, without looking at him again: "Take care."
Only at his third attempt did she answer his call.
"Were you asleep?", he asked.
"What are you doing?"
Her voice was clear - not, as if she had been crying.
"I wanted to tell you again that I..."
"Save it for your wife."
"... and that, the way you went away... - That it wasn’t the final goodbye."
She was silent.
"I’ve promised to you that I’ll do everything to come back as soon as possible, that I’ll think about how we can be together..."
He heard some noises of movement, and that she had busied herself with something that he couldn’t identify.
"Did you know that I have a gun?"
It took him a moment to understand the sentence.
"Why do you have a pistol? - Please, Meher, don’t play such games with me."
"I go to shoot with Nurjehan. It’s fun."
He felt hot and cold at the same time. He just didn’t know how to react.
"I don’t believe you."
"It belongs to my father. He bought it years ago as he feels safer with it. And now I have it. "
"Does he know that?"
"Of course not."
He wondered whom he could call to get the number of her parents, looked at his watch, it was half past one. And anyway, it would take too long.
"I shoot well."
"I believe you."
"Want to hear it?"
"No, for God's sake, what are you doing - you don’t mean that."
"I'll put the pistol to good use.“
"But there’s no good use for pistols."
She laughed out loud.
"Of course there is."
"Then come and shoot me. I deserve it."
"Don’t feel like it."
"Don’t do anything stupid, Meher, I’m getting into a car and driving to you, we’re talking to your parents."
"They're already asleep, and you have to go to the airport in an hour."
"There’s always a way..."
"Tell me what to do, please!"
"Have a safe trip home", she said, and hung up.
(c) Christoph Peters & Luchterhand Literaturverlag 2017, Translation: Puriya Jamkhandikar Onkar