The 2002 Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize winner.
There were more than 100 entries from a total of eight countries. The runners-up were Clementine Cecil, Gregory Lascelles, Jonathan Ledgard, Rory Stewart and Ben Yarde-Buller.
Just below us we could hear the chowkidar tut-tut-tutting his disapproval on the ground with his stick, pacing up and down, tut, tut, tut, while we two sat together on the flat-topped roof above, our backs to the Lahore skyline. Behind us the plains of the Punjab had been swallowed whole by a syrupy blackness, the villages, the wheat fields and beyond that the border with India. We were sitting in darkness.
Tut. Tut. Tut. The chowkidar continued his agitated walk. He was distressed at the scandal unfolding on the roof of ‘Aunty’s’ house. We were in Pakistan, and here unmarried men and women do not mix alone.
‘What’s this bloody bastard doing?’ snapped my lover, irritated that we were being spied on. So he moved across the roof, leant against a wall of unfinished brickwork and spread his coat on the ground so I wouldn’t get dust on my purple silk skirt. He told me of the river on his land. His father used to take him there at night when he was a boy and tell him and his older brother Rashid to swim across it. ‘Toughening us up,’ he said, clenching his shoulder muscles, then laughing.
He told me of his earliest ancestors from Kashmir, two brothers, thieves and horse-rustlers, who fled the Kashmiri valley to the Punjab plains below. And he told me of a great Muslim grandfather of his in pre-partition India who fell in love with a Hindu girl. She ran away from her family to marry him. He took her to his village and the next day he sent her into the fields where everyone could see her. ‘I want everyone here to know you are my wife,’ he said, defying anyone to challenge the marriage (he nodded with satisfaction at this). But later the Hindu bride was filled with remorse at the shame she had brought on her own family. She killed every baby girl she gave birth to so they could never dishonour her husband’s family as she had hers.
He talked and then he held me in his arms.
The chowkidar told Aunty about us and Iqbal was forbidden from entering the house.
We had met not long after I arrived in Pakistan while I was staying at the home of some friends. I was in the country working as a journalist. That first night he sat, pole-backed, on a chair in the corner of the kitchen with the ceiling fan roaring like a demented helicopter. He was dressed in a freshly pressed white shalwar-kameez and had a big-eyed, boyish look on his face.
He had been an officer in the army and had just retired at a particularly young age. He was a feudal: one of the landowners who wield real power in Pakistan. The family seat was in the southernmost part of the Punjab where the plains meet the desert. His family had arrived in Pakistan during partition, all 500 members of his tribe, leaving behind them the 44 villages they owned in India, crossing into Pakistan with nothing but what they were wearing.
‘And that, by the way,’ he would say, ‘was when the women in our family stopped wearing the burka.’ And he would nod his head for emphasis, and stop to check I was paying proper attention. ‘The women went to get their burkas but the men said leave them. So they left with nothing. Nuuthing but the shoes on their feet and these clothes on their backs.’
He would end his tale sucking on his teeth so his lips crinkled. Then he would grin and, if we were sitting on the sofa, he would tuck me under his arm and plant an affectionate kiss on my forehead. We fell in love.
Oh, but the women warned, they change, they change, they change.
The land was in the interior of the Punjab but his home was in Lahore, in a suburb close to the airport. Here the Pakistani elite lived in modern homes sealed from the outside world by high walls and locked gates. Windows were shielded from the sun and prying eyes by wooden slatted blinds. In the day the intense light of the subcontinent bleached the streets bare.
Not long after we met, Iqbal took me to the home he shared with Didi (his elder sister). Pakistan may be male-dominated but in the Punjab you are likely to find an older female figure pulling the strings from behind the scenes.
Didi was a typical Punjabi woman, robust, round-faced, with thick, black hair in a plait that fell down the back of her cotton shalwar-kameez. She had the gravitas of a headmistress and only needed to look at Iqbal to make her point. But she was quick to laugh. She had no time for the ‘mullah-minded’, or the ‘fundos’ as the Pakistani elite labelled the right-wing Islamists. What liberties Pakistani women in a city like Lahore had, they wanted to protect. After all, there was always Taleban-ruled Afghanistan next door.
Their Abu, or father, had died only recently. His photograph hung on the dining-room wall, a handsome, clean-shaven man in military uniform. ‘He had Hollywood looks, didn’t he?’ said Iqbal, pointing at the picture.
Didi had no problem with us dating, especially since, and unusually for Pakistan, there had been love marriages in the family. And I never tired of listening to Iqbal’s tales: his roguish cousin who insisted on being addressed as Sardar (chief) and who was being blackmailed by his village girlfriend; the booze-smuggling across the border; the dare-devil games that boys used to play to taunt the Indian border guards. Then there was the time his commanding officer in the army decided they should write a book review every week: ‘While everyone else was running around getting War and Peace to impress him, I went into these back streets and bought some really dirty books called Venus in India and Mrs Lawrence’s Lusty Adventure. So I reviewed these. And he called me in.