"Yes, I knew Iqbal. I think about him often. I like to. I feel I owe it to him. You see, for Iqbal I was not invisible. I existed, and he made me free. So here is his story. As I remember it. As I knew him."
The house of our master, Hussain Khan, was in the outskirts of Lahore, not far from the dusty, dry countryside where flocks of sheep from the north grazed.
It was a big house, half stone, half sheet iron, facing a dirty courtyard containing a well, an old Toyota van, and a canopy of reeds that protected the bales of cotton and wool. Across the courtyard from the house was a long building, the carpet factory, where fourteen of us worked. We had all been bonded to Hussain Khan to pay off debts our families had contracted with local moneylenders. The building had a tin roof and a dirt floor, so it was hot in the summer and cold in the winter.
In the corner at the back of the courtyard, half-hidden by thorn bushes and weeds, you could just see a rusty iron door. Behind the door was a short, steep stairway that led down to the Tomb.
Work began half an hour before dawn, when the master's wife, dressed in her bathrobe and slippers, crossed the courtyard in the uncertain light of the fading night and brought us a round loaf of chapati bread and some dal, lentil soup. We all ate together, greedily dipping our bread into the large bowl on the ground, while we chatted incessantly of the dreams we had had during the night.
My grandmother and my mother used to say that dreams come from an unknown area of heaven, far far away, and they descend to earth when men call them. They can bring pain or comfort, joy or desperation, or sometimes they have no meaning and bring nothing. But it's not necessarily true that only bad men receive evil dreams and silly men empty ones. Who are we, after all, to understand the ways of heaven? What's really bad, my grandmother would say, is to receive no dreams. It's like not receiving the warmth of someone who is thinking of us even if they are far away.
I hadn't dreamed for months. I suspect many of us had stopped dreaming, but we were afraid to admit it: We felt so alone in the mornings. So we invented them, and they were always lovely dreams, full of light and color and memories of home. We competed to see who could invent the most fantastic ones, speaking very fast with full mouths, until the mistress said, "Enough already! Enough!"
Then we were allowed to pass -- one by one -- behind the filthy curtain that hid the Turkish toilet at the back of the big room where our looms and benches stood in rows. The first ones to go were those who had slept chained by their ankles to their looms. The master called them numskulls, because they worked slowly and poorly. They got the colored yarns mixed up or made mistakes in the pattern (the worst possible error), or they cried too loudly over the blisters on their fingers.
The numskulls weren't very bright. Everybody else knew that all you had to do is take the knife we used for working and cut open the blister. The liquid drips out and it hurts for a while, but in time the skin grows back tougher, so you don't feel anything anymore. You just have to know how to bear the wait. Those of us who weren't chained sometimes felt sorry for the numskulls, but sometimes we teased them. Usually they were the new workers, just arrived, who hadn't learned that the only way we could become free was to work very hard and very fast, to erase each and every line on our small slates, until there were none left and we could return home.
Like the others, I had my own little slate hanging above the loom I worked on.
The day I arrived, many years before, Hussain Khan had taken a clean slate and had made some signs on it. "This is your name."
"This is your slate. Nobody can touch it. Do you understand?"
Then he drew many other lines, one next to the other, as straight as the hair on the back of a frightened dog, and every group of four had a line through it.
"Can you count?" the master asked.
"Almost up to ten," I responded.
"Look," Hussain Khan said, "this is your debt. Every line is a rupee. I'll give you a rupee for every day you work. That's fair. Nobody would pay you more. Ask anyone you want: Everyone will say that Hussain Khan is a good and fair master who gives you what you deserve. And every day at sunset, I'll erase one of these lines, right in front of your eyes. You'll feel proud, and your parents will feel proud, because it will be the fruit of your work. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," I answered again, but it wasn't true. I hadn't understood. I studied those mysterious lines, thick as trees in a forest, but I couldn't distinguish my name from the debt. It was as though they were the same thing.
"When all the lines are erased," Hussain Khan added, "when you see this slate wiped completely clean, then you'll be free and you'll be able to return home."
I never saw a clean slate, neither mine nor one of my companions'.
After the numskulls returned from the toilet behind the curtain and were chained to their looms, the rest of us were free to use the toilet and to splash some water on our faces. There was a small window high up in the wall, and through it you could see the open sky and just barely glimpse the branches of a flowering almond tree. Every morning I stayed an extra minute and tried desperately to grasp the old wooden frame and to pull myself up so that I could look outside. I was ten years old then, small and delicate as I still am, and I never even managed to touch the edge of the window. And yet, every day I felt that I had reached a little bit higher -- perhaps a "nothing," only a fraction of an inch -- but I was sure that soon I would be able to hoist myself up and lean out just far enough to touch the bark of the almond tree through the open air.
Of course, if I ever did manage to reach through the window or even to wriggle out, I would just find myself in the garden next door and Hussain Khan's wife would come to get me, brandishing her stick and crying, "You, little ragbag! You ungrateful little viper!" I would end up in the Tomb for at least three days, perhaps for more. That's what would probably happen.
But still, every morning I tried.
I had been working for Hussain Khan for three years, and I had never been put in the Tomb. Some of the other children were envious, and said I was Hussain Khan's pet and that's why he didn't punish me. It wasn't true. I was never punished because I worked quickly and well. I ate what they gave me without complaint, and when the master was around I kept silent, not like some, who answered back. I'll admit that sometimes the master did pat my head and say, "Little Fatima, my little Fatima," but all the while I trembled. I was frightened and wanted to disappear, to hide. Hussain Khan was fat, with a black beard and small eyes. His hands were oily from palm oil and left a greasy mark on whatever he touched.
Some nights, when I was still able to dream, I imagined Hussain Khan sneaking up in the dark to where I slept next to the loom. I could hear his heavy breathing and the smell of smoke on his jacket; I could hear the sound of his feet on the dusty earth. He would caress me, saying, "Little Fatima." The next morning, hidden behind the dirty curtain at the back of the room, I would examine my body to see if there were signs of oil. There were none. It was only a nightmare.
Work began at sunrise. The mistress clapped her hands three times and we all sat down at our looms. After a moment we began to work rhythmically, tying the knots, beating them down. While we were working we were forbidden to stop, to talk, or to let our minds wander. We could only stare at the countless colored threads, from which we had to choose the right one to insert into the carpet pattern. The master had assigned each of us a pattern.
As the morning passed, the air filled with heat, dust, and flying lint, and the sound of the looms slipped into the voice of the awakening city. The motors of old cars and loaded trucks, the braying of the donkeys, the shouts of men, and the cries of the vendors in the nearby market -- all these grew louder as the day came to life, as Lahore came out into the streets. When my arms and shoulders started aching, I would briefly turn my head toward the door to the courtyard and sunlight, and I would guess how much time remained before my only pause of the day. My hands worked on their own, out of habit. They chose the threads, pulled the knots. Again and again. They passed the weft, beat it down with the comb, then started knotting. Again and again. That evening Hussain Khan would measure my work. He'd judge whether it was up to standards, if it was made carefully, and then he'd erase one of the lines on my slate -- a rupee for a day's work.
He had been erasing those lines for three years, and they were still all there, or at least that's how it seemed to me. Sometimes I even thought there were more of them, but that wasn't possible -- the lines on the slate couldn't be like the weeds in my father's garden that grew overnight and crowded the crops.
When we finally stopped for lunch we were dulled by fatigue. We dragged ourselves out into the courtyard and sat in the sun around the well to eat our chapati and vegetables and drink water, because our throats were dry and full of lint. Very few of us had enough energy to talk or laugh. Our break lasted an hour, but our hunger a good deal longer. Then we went back into the workroom, while Hussain Khan and his wife retired into their house to escape the heat of the afternoon. For a few hours there was no need to supervise us. Nobody had the courage to run away and anyway we couldn't not work. In the evening the master's measuring tape would reveal to the last centimeter how we had spent our time.
Not enough work done, no rupee, no line erased from our slates; we knew it well.
This was my life for three years. The first months I thought a lot about my family -- my mother, my brothers and sisters -- our home, the countryside, the buffalo that pulled the plow, the sweet laddu my mother made with chickpea flour, the desserts and almonds that we ate on feast days. But as time went on these memories faded like old, worn carpets.
That is, until the day Iqbal arrived.
Copyright © 2001 by Edizioni EL