Pages 315, PaperBack
ISBN 969-516-146-4

Price: Rs. 395
Price: $12







The 786 Cybercafé


Bina Shah


Nadia turned around, her eyes blazing. “Quiet! My brother-in-law doesn’t know anything about it!” She hissed, “Tell Abdul I’ll come on Tuesday.” She ran after her sister and Jamal watched disconsolately as they piled into the small car and drove away.

The sun seemed less bright, the sky less blue. Jamal felt a twinge in his chest and regretted immensely having eaten those peanuts in the cinema. They always gave him heartburn. Somewhere in his mind he realized that pretty girls in burqas who played with men’s emotions and ran them up against their brothers were as difficult to digest. He couldn’t help the gnawing thought that maybe Nadia was more trouble than she was worth, but an equally urgent feeling inside him told him that he could not give up the pursuit just yet. The look in her eyes when he’d asked her to come to the movies again, the bright smiles that she’d bestowed on him, the eager way she laughed at his jokes all convinced him that she was as good as his. And she wouldn’t have come out with him if she hadn’t intended to show him how she felt about him.

After the date, Jamal made his way back to Tariq Road. He was drained by the outing and all its unexpected twists and turns. He let the men in the bus shove him around; usually he would have fought them back and abused their sisters and mothers, but now he felt none of that fight in him. Alighting from the bus, he walked along the sidewalk in the evening twilight, which never lasted very long; a few calls to prayer, the sun quickly slipped beneath the horizon, and within fifteen minutes everything had become dark. But the lights on Tariq Road glimmered and shone, enticing everyone to feel happy at least for a little while, making them believe that life on the street could be a fairyland if you had enough cash in your pocket and some good friends to spend it with.

Jamal saw the 786 Cybercafé across the street, but he decided not to go in just yet. Instead, he made his way over to Mr. Burger. Nadia and her brood had not left him completely broke; he still had enough money for a quick beef burger, a packet of greasy fries, and a Coke. He sat at a table by himself and wolfed down his food, listening to the conversations around him. Most were in Urdu, a few in Pashto. A young married couple were talking about having their baby inoculated against polio. Some boys were discussing the latest cricket scores. The anonymity, the wealth of activity, soothed Jamal, taking his mind off the difficulties he had endured all afternoon. This was Karachi, hypnotic and alluring, never allowing you to stay absorbed in yourself for long. He was glad that this was his home, instead of some no-hope dead-end village in the interior, where everyone knew everything and one’s thoughts and actions were fodder for conversation and comment, where the only entertainment was to drink lassis made of bhang – hashish – and trying to catch jackals and wild boar with your bare hands. Jamal sank into the booth, relishing the electricity in the air, allowing it to recharge him and ready him for another night of work and profit.

In the 786 Cybercafé, Abdul and Yasir were half-heartedly minding the store. Abdul was working on a program at the reception desk PC, but in the background he kept his mailbox open, just in case he received any new messages. He switched screens every few moments, hoping to see the words “From: Nadia Aurengzeb” appear in the inbox, even though he knew she was at the cinema with his brother. Perhaps she had sent him an e-mail before leaving, though. Maybe something had happened to the mail system and delayed a message she might have sent him yesterday. He tried to ignore the glum feeling of melancholy as the minutes crawled by with no message from Nadia.

After an hour of torture, he felt an overwhelming need to share his sadness with someone, but as he glanced over at Yasir, he realized he would have to keep his feelings to himself. It was plain to him that Yasir disapproved of the girl that came to the café; there would be no sympathy for Abdul from him. Abdul could just imagine the lecture Yasir would give him, straightening the cap on his head and dropping his tone a few octaves to convey the seriousness of his message: “This is the problem with letting unmarried girls roam around without any supervision, they cause trouble for everyone. Why, look at the two of you, brothers, fighting over her. You should pray for guidance from Allah, Abdul-bhai, that the harmony between you is restored, and this silly chit stays out of both your lives forever.”

But Abdul wanted nothing of the sort to happen. He wanted Nadia in his life, if not forever, then at least for a very long time – at least until he finished his masters and was well on the way to becoming the successful head of a computer company. He wouldn’t bother with the Internet, but with a solid offshore group that might have its front office in America or Canada. The Internet was the flashy new face of IT, but Abdul knew that there was big money to be made in coding, programming, systems development. He couldn’t quite envision what role Nadia would play in all of this, but he wanted her by his side.

BINA SHAH was born in Karachi but spent her early years in Virginia and completed her later education in Massachusetts. She studied at Wellesley College and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has worked as a journalist and is well known for her writing on the South Asian Web site Chowk. Her first book, a volume of short stories called Animal Medicine, was published in 2000. Her novel, Where They Dream in Blue was published by alhamra in 2001. This is her second novel.


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