Modern Soap- an elegant novel of ideas.
A saga of wealth, love and greed in Pakistan.
Modern Soap is juxtaposition of two parallel stories. One, of a factory called 'Madern Soap,' and the other of a modern, romantic soap opera, South Asian style.
The first story deals with the advent of industrialization and crony capitalism in Lahore of the 1960's and the resulting disintegration of relationships between a powerful bureaucrat and his two brother. The other story narrates the coming of age of Shahid, son of one of the Lahore brothers, who falls victim to a mysterious romance with a courtesan.
Modern Soap is not, however, a melodrama. It is a story of the human condition. Beyond the family revenge, the novel looks both inward and outward. It tries to explore the nature of love and greed and meditates on the obsessive lust for wealth of the city brothers. It contrasts city life to rural Punjab and exposes the links of praetorian Pakistan to international corruption. The tale of high officials acting like whores in the USA will delight knowledgeable readers. in short, the conflict in Modern Soap is not modern all. It is as old as Cain and Abel.
When the news reached Shahid that he had to go to the city, he was scared. There had been several aerial bombings of passenger trains by Indian Air Force pilots. Lahore was only a hundred miles away, but the slow-moving black steam engine in the wide-open Punjabi plains was a defenseless target for Indian Migs.
Habil, a middle-aged, dhoti-clad villager accompanied Shahid on this perilous journey. He was Shahid’s distant uncle, who had spent all his life in and around his ancestral village of Harappa. Habil had a rugged, simple face that reflected the excitement and privilege he felt accompanying the teenage son of his rich and mighty relatives.
Neither Shahid nor Habil knew why they had been summoned to Lahore under such frightful circumstances. Ostensibly it was to bring some household provisions and other items to the village near Lahore where the rest of the small children and families were hiding. Those provisions could not be transported in the panic of the war that had struck the city of Lahore on the night of the dark moon. Yet Shahid sensed that there was something else behind the urgently called visit.
The tonga driver, with his single-horse buggy, picked them up from the haveli at dawn. As the sturdy horse galloped on the dirt road to the village railway station some four miles away, it spawned a cloud of red dust peculiarly redolent of the Punjabi earth. Years hence both men would recall the war-torn journey and come to realize that more powerful than memories, deeper than blood was the aroma of the land itself.
Harappa had a single-platform station surrounded by a few stalls of tea and grocery stores. Nearby, the Grand Trunk Road was a pit stop for trucks coming to Lahore from the arid south of the country. A small guardhouse of bricks painted bright red stood in the middle of the platform where Shahid purchased two return tickets to Lahore. Habil dutifully followed Shahid everywhere, always standing right behind him with due respect.
The train was two hours late. They could see it coming for miles with its black steam-driven locomotive pumping smoke into the clear blue sky. Kooooo . . . . kooooo . . . . . koooo. Schickh, schickh, schickh. It stopped only for a couple of minutes. They ran to it and climbed into a half empty compartment.
Shahid nervously looked out of the window. He wondered what would happen if Indian planes equipped with high-tech precision equipment came screeching by to bomb the train track and the train with it. With the corner of his eye, he could see other frightened passengers sitting in the compartment, clinging to their seats. An old man was hugging a little boy, possibly a grandson, afraid to look outside. Apparently to defend himself against the enemy, the little child was holding a toy shotgun. Next to the other row of the compartment, a young villager sporting an impressive moustache sat all by himself on a huge shiny silver trunk. His hands were firmly planted on the luggage as if he were guarding some valuable family treasure. Two huge made-in-China locks dangled on the side of the container.
The train quickened its pace. Within a few short days the summer heat of the Punjab had disappeared and the mid-September air was mercifully fresh as it blew into the cabin from the open lush fields. Shahid felt the cool air as something distant, a far away relief. It was eerie to think how war transformed priorities. The immediacy of death lurking around the bend or raining from the sky was present in everyone’s mind.
As the journey progressed, Shahid felt more and more at ease. With each floating whiff of smoke from the locomotive, and as the fields passed outside, the click-clack of the wheels and regular beat of the moving train lulled him to near-sleep. From his window, eyes half closed, he could see Punjabi villages fleeting by with their flat-roofed adobe houses, interspersed with keekar trees and nearby ponds where the buffalo swam in unison. The hazy afternoon gave an aura of slow motion leisure and a world at standstill. But the sun looked too bright and ominous.
Minutes before the train arrived at Lahore, Shahid was awakened by a loud shout from the child with the toy rifle. Two aerial bombs had struck near the Cantonment Railway Station the night before. They could still see the smoke in the distance. The frightened train conductor pulled up the deserted gray platform, slowly passing by the charred and still smoldering brick house of the station master.
Lahore had a ghostly look. Shahid’s father, Bhai, and his uncle, Maqsood were the only members of the entire Shah family left in the city. As soon as India had declared war, all the children and the wives had been dispatched to small villages mostly west of the city with their mud houses and large brick havelis without any electricity or indoor plumbing in the bathrooms.
To Shahid’s astonishment Bhai, the middle-aged lawyer, was briskly doing some paper work when they arrived at the cantonment house. Characteristically he wore his lawyer’s uniform, white trousers, black jacket and black tie. His rigorous attitude to life was etched on his face.
“Always working, Papa. Even in the middle of a war,” said Shahid as he embraced his father in the courtyard. They stood beneath his favorite jaman tree, which was now devoid of any color. The purple fruit which filled its branches only a few weeks ago had vanished.
“Just a few things my brother gave me to finish,” replied Bhai as he closed the files.
“I am really delighted to see you, Habil. It was good of you to come visit us. I have great news for you. Tomorrow you and I will meet at Maqsood’s house. Your life is never going to be the same again.”
They had been home a short while when the bomb alert sounded. It was a terrifying shrill noise, loud and apocalyptic. Shahid had never heard such a piercing noise. Immediately Ameer Khan, the house cook, came shouting into the room and gestured for them to follow him as he frantically ran into the front yard. Under the trees was a deep, L-shaped trench that they had dug to hide in during an air raid. They all slid into it and went into a crouched position. Soon several jets screeched past their rooftop, breaking the sound barrier.
“Look how low those Indian jets flew past our house,” said Shahid. He felt an uncanny twitch in his stomach. “Do they bomb residential areas?” he asked.
“Not so far, janab-e-ali,” replied Ameer Khan the cook, who after two weeks was an expert in aerial warfare. “And janab-e-ali, those were not Indian Migs but our Pakistani Sabre jets we got from Amrika. They were chasing Indian jets away that came to bomb the Ravi Bridge.”
“We are only twenty miles from the India-Pakistan border,” added Bhai, “and most of these dogfights take place on top of Lahore these days. God will help us to get through this war. Last fourteen days have been real hell. These mad generals and politicians on both sides are having fun with their toys at the expense of innocent human beings. To them it is just a game. Who cares about Kashmir?”
Once the all-clear siren sounded they went back into the house again.
© Javed Amir