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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Fiction

Miss Tinman

I was polishing my white shoes when my wife spoke up, “Zaidi’s here.”

I gave my shoes to my wife, washed my hands and went into the next room where Zaidi was seated. I was shocked by his appearance.

“What happened to you?”

Zaidi tried to look cheerful. “I’m sick,” he said.

I sat in the chair next to him. “You’ve got real skinny. I hardly recognize you. What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

Zaidi wet his dry lips with his tongue. “I can’t figure out why I’m sick.”

“Sometimes it’s like that.”

“I should have gone to a doctor.”

Zaidi didn’t say anything more, so I asked him, “Did you?”

“No.”

“Why?”

Zaidi took out his cigarette case from his pocket. His hands were shaking.

“It looks like your nervous system is out of whack. Get some Vitamin B shots. You’ll feel better. Last year the same thing happened to me when I was drinking too much whiskey. But after twelve injections, I felt better. Why didn’t you go see a good doctor?”

Zaidi took off his glasses and began to clean them with his handkerchief. He had black bags beneath his eyes.

“Are you having trouble sleeping?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. Then his mood darkened even more. “Look, Saadat. I came here to tell you something very strange. I’m not sick at all. I’m not sleeping because I’m scared.”

“Scared? Why?”

“I’ll tell you,” Zaidi said, as he lit a cigarette with his shaking hands, then tore the matchstick. “I don’t know what you’ll say when you hear this. But the truth is, it’s a cat.”

I might have smiled because Zaidi immediately went on, and quite gravely, “Don’t laugh. It’s the truth. I’ve come here because I know you’re interested in psychology. Maybe you can explain why I’m scared.”

“But you’re talking about an animal.”

Zaidi got upset. “If you make fun of me, I won’t say anything.”

“No, no, Zaidi. Please forgive me,” I said. “I’ll give my full attention. Tell me the story.”

He lit another cigarette and then started, “You know where I live. There’re two rooms. The one room has a little balcony with an iron railing. Because it’s so hot in April and May, I lay my bedding outside and sleep on the balcony. Now it’s June. One day back in April, I’d just finished eating breakfast and was leaving for work. I opened the door and found a big fat cat asleep on the threshold. I took off a shoe and beat it. It opened its eyes for a second. It looked at me indifferently, like I was absolutely nothing, then went back to sleep. I was shocked. Then I really let the cat have it. It opened its eyes. It looked at me just as before then went to the stairs and lay down. The way it walked made it seem it wasn’t scared of me in the least. I got very mad. I went up to it and let the cat have it again. It sauntered down a dozen or so stairs and stopped. It looked back at me with its yellow eyes and then silently wandered off … Does this interest you at all?”

“Yes, of course, why not?”

Zaidi flicked off the cigarette’s ash then went on, “After I got to the office, I forgot all about it. But when I reached my door, I remembered what had happened that morning. While I bathed, had a cup of tea and then dinner, I continued to think about it. I beat the cat three times—why wasn’t it scared? It didn’t even meow. Why was it so indifferent? I couldn’t get it out of my mind. Why was I making a simple animal so important? But I couldn’t answer that question, not then, not now. Now three months have gone by.”

Zaidi fell silent.

“That’s it?” I asked.

“No,” Zaidi said as he put his cigarette in the ashtray. “It’s not really just the cat. It’s why I was so scared that puzzles me. Maybe you can tell me.”

“I have to know the whole story.”

Zaidi picked up his cigarette, took a drag, and then continued, “I’ll tell you. It was a while after that first day. I hadn’t seen the cat again. It might have been Saturday night. I was sleeping outside. At two in the morning, I heard something inside. I woke up. I got up, turned on the light and saw that cat on the dinner table. It had knocked the cover off a dish and was eating the pudding inside. I tried to shoo it away, but to no avail. It didn’t look at me at all. I took off one of my sandals, and taking aim at it, I whacked it. My sandal hit its belly. It didn’t care and continued to eat. I got mad. I took one of the mosquito net’s poles, went up to the cat and hit it on its back.

“It looked at me without registering anything. It lazily jumped onto the chair. Then it silently jumped to the floor, walked slowly onto the balcony, slipped through the iron railing and leaped onto the building’s eaves. I stood right where I was and wondered what sort of animal isn’t afraid of being beaten. Saadat, I’m telling you the truth—it’s a really scary cat! A big fat head and a white body covered in grime. I’ve never seen such a dirty cat.”

Zaidi put out his cigarette in the ashtray.

“But cats clean themselves maniacally.”

“They do,” Zaidi said, getting up. “But this cat might intentionally keep itself dirty. It sleeps next to trash heaps. Bleeding from the ear? No problem, give it a lick. Head caved in? Not an issue. All day it wanders around aimlessly.”

“But why are you so scared of it?”

Zaidi sat down. “That’s exactly what I wanted to know. One reason might be this. It’s woken me every night for about two weeks. Each time I beat it. I just nail the thing. I don’t want it coming around anymore. Animals have brains too. I started to think that it might jump on me and scratch out my eye. I heard that cats attack when they’re cornered.”

“That’s a good reason to be scared.”

Zaidi got up again. “But that’s not it.”

I thought of something. “What about petting it?”

“I’ve tried that. I thought it wouldn’t let me touch it after I’d beat it so much. But it was exactly the opposite. I shouldn’t say exactly because it didn’t react to affection either. One day I was sitting on the sofa when it came and sat on the floor nearby. Full of fear, I reached out my hand. It closed its eyes. I began to slowly stroke its back. Saadat, you won’t believe it, but it just sat there with its eyes closed. Usually cats wag their tail when you pet them, but not even one hair on the cat’s tail moved! I got frustrated, and so I whacked it on the head with a book. It stood up. With a chilling indifference, it looked at me with its beady yellow eyes then went out to the balcony, slipped between the railing and jumped onto the eaves. Since that day, it’s been on my mind 24/7.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. But I did understand that Zaidi’s fear was not baseless.

Zaidi began to chew on his fingernails. “I don’t get it either. That’s why I came here.” He got up and began pacing. Then he stopped, went to the ashtray, picked up the matches and started tearing them into pieces. “Now it’s reached the point where I stay up all night. At the slightest noise, I think it’s the cat. But I haven’t seen it for eight days. Maybe someone killed it. Or maybe it ran off.”

“Why worry about it? It’s good that it left.”

“I don’t know why I worry about it. I try to forget about it, but I can’t get it out of my head.” He went over to the sofa and lay down with a pillow beneath his head. “It’s very odd. If someone else told it to me, I’d laugh. How could a cat do this to me? Many times I’ve started laughing. But this laughing isn’t any fun.”

When Zaidi said this, I realized how truly difficult it must have been for him to laugh at his own helplessness. His story was ridiculous, but it was also plainly clear that this cat represented something that was tormenting him, something that he no longer remembered.

So I asked, “Zaidi, is there anything in your past that you can connect to this cat? I mean, something, some event, when you were really scared, something that resembles the cat in some way?”

Then I wondered how an event might resemble a cat.

“I thought of that too,” Zaidi said. “But I can’t recall anything like that.”

“Maybe you’ll think of something.”

“Maybe,” he said and got up. We talked for a while. Then he invited my wife and me to his place on Sunday, then left.

On Sunday my wife and I went to Santa Cruz. I didn’t tell you, but Zaidi’s my old friend. We studied together up till college. Then we were together for two years at college. I flunked out, but he got a BA then left Amritsar for Lahore. There he got an MA. After four or five years of doing nothing, he moved to Bombay. He’d been working in a shipping company for the past year.

After lunch, we talked for quite a while about films new and old. Our wives were up on all the gossip, so it was mostly them. They were about to leave for the other room when a big fat cat came through the balcony’s railing and entered the room. Zaidi and I looked at it at exactly the same moment. From Zaidi’s expression, I could tell it was that cat.

I stared at it. Next to its ears, it had a gash smeared with turmeric. Its fur was horribly dirty. Its gait was as Zaidi had described—full of a strange indifference. There were four people in the room, but the cat didn’t look at any of us. When it approached my wife, she screamed, “What kind of cat is this, Saadat?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It looks like a real troublemaker.”

Zaidi was taken aback. “What kind of trouble?”

“Oh, you know,” my wife blushed.

Zaidi started thinking. The women left, and he spoke, “Saadat, please come over here.”

He took me out to the balcony.

“I’ve figured it out,” he said.

“How?”

“Your wife did. Don’t you think the cat looks like Miss Tinman?”

“Miss Tinman?”

“Yes, yes. That troublemaker who used to hang out in front of our school. Mustafa—the guy we called Miss Tinman.”

I remembered. Miss Tinman had been obsessed with Zaidi, who had been a beautiful boy. Then I wondered what the resemblance was. But, no, there was something. He had had the same nonchalant walk. His head was usually bruised. On several occasions, our principal had had others beat him so that he wouldn’t stand outside the school. But it had absolutely no impact. One boy’s dad had beaten him with a hockey stick so badly that people thought he’d die in the hospital. But the very next day he was outside the school’s gate.

All of this came back to me in a split second.

“You’re right. Miss Tinman didn’t complain about being beaten either,” I said.

Zaidi didn’t respond. He was thinking. Then he spoke, “I was in eighth grade. One time I went to go read alone in Company Park. I sat under a tree and started reading. Suddenly Miss Tinman was there. He had a letter in his hand. ‘Babuji, please read this letter!’ he said. I was so scared. There was no one around.

“Miss Tinman spread the letter out on my thigh. I got up and ran away. He followed me, but I was running so fast I left him far behind. By the time I got home, I had a high fever. For two days I was raving. My mother thought there must have been evil spirits in the tree I sat beneath.”

Just as Zaidi was talking, the cat came between us, slipped through the railing, and jumped onto the eaves. After taking several steps, it turned its yellow eyes to look at us with its special indifference.

I smiled. “Miss Tinman!”

Zaidi blushed.

Contributors

Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck has published translations from the French, Hindi, Urdu, and Korean. The Chronicle, his translation from the Urdu of the Man Booker International finalist Intizar Husain, was published in Nov. 2019 by Penguin-India.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) is a giant of South Asian fiction. His Urdu stories, vignettes, anecdotal prose, and satire place him squarely at the center of the Urdu canon. His continued cultural relevance can be attested to new dramatic works centered on his life and writing: the 2018 film Manto by the famous Indian actress, activist, and director Nandita Das, and the 2019 staging of Manto’s work by Motley, the Mumbai theater troupe of the famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Aftab Ahmad

Aftab Ahmad earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Having served as the Director of the American Institute of Urdu Studies Program in Lucknow for five years, he began teaching as an Urdu lecturer at UC-Berkeley in 2006. “Reflections on Growing up Muslim in India,” his essay about being a religious minority in India, was recently published serially in Fire, an Urdu-language newspaper in Lucknow.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues