So, there we were, all disembodied songs as the fear and the stench of death dissolved away, an intermingling symphony of regrets lost and souls resigned. Many of us were surprised at the songs that were us; perhaps those of us had been expecting more triumphal chorals…. At least, I had been but my song had turned out to be ‘Go West’ by the Pet Shop Boys. This was just as well, seeing that I had been en route to Uzbekistan from Singapore. Alright, so not so much go west but westerly. All the same, I couldn’t complain, I did love the song and I did remember why. I had been fifteen when I had first heard the song and it had made me happy. Not so much that I thought it was the best song that I had ever heard, or that I was the happiest that I could remember at the moment I had heard the song. I had been on a bus, listening to the first portable radio I had bought when the song came on. The wind blew in my face and Neil Tennant was singing about life being ‘peaceful there’, wherever there was. I had thought, “Why there?” Life was good where I was. There and then, that was when I had a moment of harmony and balance in my life. For me, that was nirvana. Nothing in life made sense then but the good thing was, I did not need life to make sense at all because I did not care; yes sir, at that precise moment, listening to that song, going home, sitting on the bus, wind in my face, asphalt underneath, sky above, Earth around the Sun, Milky Way swirling about, embraced by God. Me. At the centre of it and nowhere in the grand scheme of things. Existence without effort.
We floated, en masse, united in our new consciousness. At least, that was the closest physical equivalent of what we did. We were not so much gossamer or ethereal…. Simply, not physical. The five senses were not so much meshed together but in unity, as they had always been in our minds. We looked at ourselves and at each other, we appeared in forms that we knew not but yet recognized. I imagine that some of us wanted to feel surprise or shock if not for the fact that we couldn’t feel anything. No glands, no hormones, no adrenaline, no dopamine. We were thoughts that were the consummation of memory and imagination. Some of us were larger that planets, unbridled as we were by our lack of flesh, some of us shimmered like the stars and others pulsed like the fury of oceans. I was like a sighing breeze, melancholy and comforting. I suppose, that was how I was when I was alive during the times of peace and contentment. At my most pessimistic, I had rather viewed myself as a fart from the bowels of the city, a harmless blight that came and went but unfortunately… always came back. So there I was, the happy fart, with the giants and the constellations of thought and will, all of us coursing forward in the tacit pull of a singular purpose. No valkyries to usher us and no cherubim to guide our way but we knew where we were going. We went to our final destiny, to the ends of eternity, without a penny in our names for Charon.
Somewhere between heaven and hell, I fell back to Earth. Like I said, the blight always returns.
Haunting a plane wreck in a gorge smack in the middle of nowhere in the border between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was not what I had in mind for an afterlife. Although there was breathtaking scenery… it was not that I had any breath to be taken away, for sure. It was a far flung and lonely place and it got all the more so after the news crews and salvage crews had left. Much of the wreckage was left undisturbed, I expect it was because the crash site was really too inaccessible for any meaningful and extensive salvage operation. All said, I have no idea why I came back to the world of the living. Perhaps I did have unfinished business, or rather, I wanted to have unfinished business. When one is dead, all the business of life is concluded though. After all, life is for the living. I think I might have wanted to know if my family was alright. However, what did it matter if they were subsequently wiped out by a stray meteor or giant kraken that learnt to walk the Earth? I was dead. What could I do? For them to be alright became a very relative concept. So why did I come back? Honestly… I had never been to Uzbekistan in my whole life and I really, really wanted to know… what was Tashkent like anyhow?
When the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991, the Eastern Bloc was deluged with a new sense of freedom and opportunity. No more state control, everyone could own property, businesses… even people! To say the least, there was a buck to be made, or in Uzbekistan, a Som. Somewhere in Tashkent, a bunch of fellows got together and buzzed about the wonderful life ahead of them. Buoyant and optimistic, they jabbered over the new ways they could make money, there were state enterprises to be seized… how about a pyramid scheme? Capitalism had arrived. Opportunities abounded, they jabbered with uncontained excitement as they ate peanuts and swilled cheap vodka. When we have made our fortune, they exclaimed, no more cheap vodka! Whiskey, wine, champagne! They crammed together in a small stuffy room and celebrated a future success. As they got more and more inebriated, the men began to feel warmer and warmer. We should get a couple of air conditioners, quipped one of the fellows. Just a couple? Roared another, we’ll get a million of them!
That was how I ended up going to Uzbekistan, more or less. To elaborate, what had happened was that a wholesaler in Tashkent had ordered fifteen thousand units of air conditioners from the trading company which I had worked at. We had acquired said units and sent them to Uzbekistan. Somewhere between the arrival of the goods in Uzbekistan and the arrival of our payment, all fifteen thousand of the air conditioners had vanished. Was it stolen, we had asked. No, don’t be silly, was the reply, no one can walk away with fifteen thousand air conditioners; we never got them in the first place. Accusations and counter accusations of skullduggery were followed by cultural exchanges of foreign swearing. Lawyers joined in the fray before too long, phones were screamed into and phone numbers were changed. I could have stayed out of this mess but my reputation for persuasion had been my downfall. Being the only salesman in the company to have sold four hundred cows and fifteen bulls in a moribund dairy industry had inflated my reputation somewhat. So, before long, I was summoned to the office of my boss, who bore a grim expression of one who had every intention of enforcing the threat implied in ‘caveat emptor’. The conversation went something like this:
“Alright, I want you to go to Tashkent and get my money back from those Uzbek bastards. I’ve booked you a flight and a room for you at the Hotel Shodlik Palace. See if you can bring over a baseball bat.”
“Hm. I’ve heard they might have guns over there. Bring the baseball bat anyway.”
So you see, I had been lucky to have gone the way I did. I could have died a violent and slow bullet ridden death at the hands of some air conditioner stealing businessmen in some dark dingy street of Tashkent, instead of perishing in the fiery crash in some forsaken dry gorge where camels died of thirst.
Of course, I cannot say for sure that I would have been shot by some unreasonable Uzbek businessmen. I know little if anything about Uzbekistan or anything Uzbek. I only knew that the man who swindled my boss was called Hamza Alikov. That was just about my entire knowledge of anything Uzbek. I knew not if people in Uzbekistan resolved bizarre business disputes through lawyers or yak fights. I know not what languages they spoke, what kind of food they ate, what kind of yaks they had… I know not one jot.
Thus, thanks to the shenanigans of Hamza and the fifteen thousand phantom air conditioners, I ended up being a phantom of the crash site, horribly curious about Tashkent but unable to satiate this curiosity. I had been bound to haunt this place and occasionally scare the locals. Not that I could do much scaring really, what few people came to the site over the years stopped by only during the day. Contrary to common belief, ghosts can be seen at any time of the day, only at night, people do have an expectation of being able to spot ghosts. In the light of day, however, most people don’t expect to see ghosts. In the absence of fear, the human mind dismisses the visual evidence of spirits and the human eye, hence reproached for having presented the sight of the non-existent to the skeptical mind, would then look beyond the spirits and look at things which the mind would approve of.
At the start of my new career, I had been upset at my inability to frighten anyone who dropped by. I had tried to make noises, which did not work as sounds are the result of vibrations in the air and I had nothing to vibrate with. This was a shame because I was a horrible singer when I was alive and I doubt that dying would have improved that condition much. To cut a long story short, I could do nothing except to brood. There were many things that I could have brooded about but somehow I just could not avoid thinking about the mysteries of Tashkent. What was life there like? Was it a cross between the quaint charms of Eastern Europe and India? Did they have food like hummus, unleavened bread or just plain uneven bread? What kind of music did they listen to, Arabic hits or Soviet rock? Were there any fit birds in Uzbekistan? I just had to know. So, I ended up imagining Tashkent.
I started out with a guesswork of the empirical explanation of Uzbekistan. Whatever did I know what Uzbekistan was like? The landlocked country is big, possibly the size of West Malaysia and Thailand combined. Being a Central Asian country just north of Afghanistan, the people of the land should probably look Asian, with some Caucasian features. Predominantly Muslim population, I presume. Probably a lot of deserts and rocks. With camels. I had a vague recollection that the Soviet push towards a modern worker’s utopia stopped somewhere in the eighties, when the money ran out and the people with the leftover money chased after the money and some people without any money doing their best to keep up. So I imagine that the economy and infrastructure of the country would be stuck in the Eighties. Not too many cities, maybe with a large agrarian interior. The people would probably be dressed like the folks in Afghanistan; turbans, long robes, that kind of thing. Either that or their fashion sense is, like their economy, similarly entrenched in the Eighties and everyone is walking around in heavy makeup, big hair and trashy looking clothes. Hopefully not, for humanity should never be afflicted with the fashion sense of the Eighties ever again. It could be worse, though. The Uzbeks could be stuck in the Seventies and even the toddlers are sporting bell-bottoms, muttonchops and mullets.
To have a focus, I have decided to imagine being a man living in Tashkent. I would be a thirty seven year old man, that age being the simplest point of reference for me, seeing that I had expired at that age. I would be married, with a son, as I had been in my life. No, I think I should have a son and a daughter, everyone should have siblings. I would be living in a middle class setting. I would like to live on Taghmoud Street. Does it even exist? Who cares, I don’t exist either, in a way. I would be staying in a five storey apartment block named the People’s Glorious Tenement. Two paintjobs and a veneer short of glorious perhaps but it would do. My home on the fourth floor would be spacious, yet cozy. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms… Wall to wall marbled flooring… wait. This is the post-Soviet era. Tiles and Formica would probably be more likely. There would be carpets and tasteful tapestries decorating the place. Mostly Islamic designs, I suppose, I would quite likely be a Muslim. I would have a name that is at once, Muslim and Russian sounding, like… Akbar Yakov. Yes, that would do. Call me Akbar. My friends call me Rutu, due to my striking resemblance to the famous Uzbek singer in the Fifties by that name. As Akbar Yakov, I am also an excellent singer.
Like Rutu, I, Akbar, am an incredibly handsome man. I would probably look Chinese with a touch of the Occident in my appearance. Almond shaped eyes, high cheekbones, a sharp and prominent nose framed in a masculine strong-jawed face. My most outstanding feature would be my moustache, large like handlebars that one could hang pots and pans on. I would have a thick shock of hair, with a touch of grey which would give me a fierce and exotic appearance. I would be built like a bull and hung like a … alright, I should not go too far in my fantasy. Akbar Yakov would be a tall muscular man with a tattoo that says, ‘Tashkent Hellraisers Football Club’. That is too long a tattoo. ‘THFC’ should be enough. Same initials as the football club I had supported in my life, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club. Tashkent H FC would be seventh on the Uzbek professional league… no. That should not be the case. First in an imaginary league is not an unreasonable fantasy, after the long years I have suffered as a fan of Tottenham I think I am entitled to a better team now that I am dead. Tashkent H FC would be first in the league, ahead of the chasing pack by seventeen points. That is more like it. Now I can enjoy the tedium of watching my favourite football team romping to take the league title year after year after year. Yes, life as Akbar ‘Rutu’ Yakov is looking up already.
My Uzbek wife is Fatimah Zenoski. A beautiful woman, Fatimah has made me the envy of the men in my neighbourhood. Her deep-set, green eyes make her a vision of exquisite mystery, her lips, full and sensuous; to hear her speak with those lips is bliss and to kiss them is a happy death and rebirth. Her figure is a traffic hazard, I cannot say more, lest I sin in my afterlife and end up where there is moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth, or probably worse. Fatimah is a generous soul, a safe harbour in any storm, a patient listener, a masterful storyteller and of course, an excellent cook. Why should I settle for anything less, after all, my wife in my life was a study in perfection; I don’t think I should do any worse with Fatimah. Honestly, I would not know what I would have done to have deserved Fatimah but then again I probably did not deserve my real wife either. Lucky bastard, I hear you say. Yes, I know.
Life in my Tashkent is good. I wake each morning, roused by the bright sunshine peeping through the curtains and encouraged by the lovely smell of Fatimah’s cooking. I start with my morning cigarette by my bedroom window. The apartment block is at the apex of a slight incline which gives me a great view of South Tashkent. Taghmoud Street is an ill-planned and resigned arranged marriage by the Soviets and the irregular cobbled stonework bickers with the creeping concrete and asphalt. The street is populated by buildings of unsynchronized growth, some modern, some vintage and some a curious breed of old, new and bizarre and lined with trees, resulting in a not too unpleasant collage. The buildings are, for the most part, brightly coloured; I cannot say why that is so, it has been my observation hat such bright, cheery colours are the norm for quaint, slightly backward civilizations. At any rate, my view of the city from my bedroom is a pleasing mish mash of earthen orange, sunny yellow, rust red interspersed with the crisp green of leaves, blended with pearl whitewash; capped by the brilliant blue of the sky and the mottled ashen greys and browns of the cobbled roads. I let my eyelids droop and filter my vision to a blur and would think that God was an impressionist Creator.
By eight, I would have finished my morning ablutions, prayers and gotten dressed. Breakfast in the Yakov household is a simple affair. There is usually porridge or boiled curds, unleavened bread with fresh preserves and tea, either with sugar, sweetened milk, honey or jam. I have my tea with jam, a Russian taste which I had acquired as a result of a stint working in St. Petersburg. For this random day which I describe now, Fatimah has prepared porridge, with a side of chicken sausages and bread, unleavened bread. I hunker down this savour this hearty meal as I read through the news of the day. News of optimistic development in the city of … let us say … Birumas, an announcement about the opening of a new opera house, more news of general governmental incompetence, violent crimes in the ghettoes, salacious gossip of miscellaneous starlets and a report of a two headed calf being born in the countryside again. Fatimah joins me for breakfast, eschewing the porridge and settling for a sausage and bread with jam. As she eats, Fatimah tells me that our son, Ishak has been pestering her to buy him a mobile phone. Mobile phones, I mutter, they’re bloody expensive… why does a kid need a mobile phone anyway? Fatimah stays the course and answers, everyone is getting a mobile phone these days and they’ll be good to keep track of the kids, she assures. We continue eating in silence before she adds that she too, would like a mobile phone. It is a battle I cannot win. I grunt and mumble something to the effect of taking the family out phone shopping after work. Why not, I mumble, since everyone is getting one. Why not indeed, after all, it turns out that in Tashkent, I just happen to be a wealthy man.
My son, Ishak would be thirteen years old, like my real son would be. In all honesty, the physical appearance of my son and his age are the few meager points of reference that I can use in trying to understand him. Sure, he dressed funny and listened to bad music; that was probably the immutable programming of teenagers. It was disappointing that he did not like Tottenham or even football, for the matter, preferring basketball instead but it was more disappointing that he was embarrassed when I tried to take an interest in basketball to get to understand him. What had happened there? He had come into the world a wailing pink raisin and grew up to be less wrinkled but still wailing. The wailing then stopped but only because he had acquired a larger vocabulary to demand things. For sure, I know I did demand things of him but that was for his own good whereas he demanded things from me that were mostly for his own benefit. In this uneasy negotiation regarding this subtle difference arose a wall that kept us both apart but safe from each other. I admit I could have done better than to have used my work as my ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card and abandoned the responsibility of raising our pride and joy to the wife. Still, why was he so difficult? Did I spoil him so? What did I do to make him so angry at me all those times? Did I not provide him a stable and comfortable home? Was he too smart or was I too dumb? I may never know. Maybe I don’t deserve to know. Things would be different with Ishak though.
Back in the Yakov household, the kids have joined us at the dining table. Ishak wolfs down his porridge and four sausages, leaving consideration for a fifth. He is a large boy for a thirteen year old and has begun to cut an athletic figure. As I would expect, he plays football. Not only does he support Tashkent H, he is also being watched by scouts from the club as his skills are starting to get noticed. Ishak could well be the Maradona of the Caucasus, says one such scout. Such words would give a father immeasurable pride but of course, his mother and I would prefer Ishak to get an all round and extensive education, that he not limit his own future by concentrating only on football. Ishak is mature enough to agree with our wishes and is as diligent in his studies as he is fervent with football practice. He is a handsome, mischievous lad, quick with a joke and prone to get into trouble what with the devilry he is able to dream up but he makes up for that with his genuine warmth and friendliness which comes naturally to him. He probably gets away with more than he should but no more than he actually can. As I love Ishak, I love my daughter, Hana, who, at eleven, is blossoming to become like the beauty that her mother is. Of course, Hana, like her brother, is more than just a pretty face. She is adorable and cheerful; her presence is like a ray of sunshine, having been blessed with a kind heart and gift of story telling like her mother. She could spin a tale off gossamer threads in the ghosts of thoughts and gives a glimpse of a maturity beyond her years. While less of a trouble maker than Ishak, Hana is also well liked and knows it. Fatimah and I try not to spoil the two of them but it is an uphill challenge. It is a good thing that Akbar looks fierce, for the job of discipline is half done merely by my appearance. On these wonderful children, my wife and I balance our hopes of their achievements with our desire to see them live happy and long lives. After breakfast, I send our pride and joy to school.
I drive a Trebenk, proudly designed and made in Uzbekistan. The car is named after a valiant folk hero in Uzbekistan, one of the eight feet tall varieties who fought seven headed wolves and the like; there are invariably heroes of such description in every other culture. In another life, a vehicle manufactured in the Eastern Bloc would quite likely have been designed and made no later than the Sixties and would probably be on its last wheels, as it were; a road going litany of frustration and curses wrapped in the steel death trap of its chassis. In this life, however, the Trebenk is as hardy as the mythological giant it was named after. My ’57 Trebenk, with its chrome hubcaps, stylized fins at the rear and souped up engine is a dream to drive. It glides over the cobbled roads like a manta ray and purrs like a content tiger after a heavy meal.
I drop off Ishak first at his secondary school and then Hana at her elementary school before making my way to work. As I drive, I listen to my favourite radio station, which plays all the classic hits. Songs of an Arabic persuasion, songs by Rutu, of course, the devilishly handsome idol whom I look like, right down to the handlebar moustache. What can I say? Driving along in a picturesque town in a vintage car that handles like a brand new BMW, singing along to ‘Go East’ by Rutu, perfect wife, perfect kids, no worries, no cares and no regrets. My afterlife is turning out very well indeed.
Nonetheless, I am still a working man in Tashkent. I may be a rich man in this life but I have always believed in the rewards of toil for the soul. Hard work builds character, no truer cliché do I believe in. In this life, I stick with being a salaried worker. It is what I do best. A small but important cog in the machinery of relaying the wants of people to people who can provide for those wants. Once again, I am one of the teeming millions who make up the backbone of the world economy, the man with no hope but the noble one of making money to feed his family. The man who is amongst the masses that live in quiet desperation; Thoreau can keep his pity, for it is men like us who provide him with his ink and sell his books.
I get through the working day with the ease of a man important enough to have minions to do the more tedious tasks but not too important to have a position with too many responsibilities that demands one to put in hours that will take one away from his family. I am done with work not too long after the midday prayers and I proceed to join my family for the promised mobile phone shopping spree.
After freshening up and the evening prayers, we get dressed for a night out on the town. We go to the Shah Abdulov Shopping Centre, a squat three storey emporium which provides all the fun and frills of the new capitalist Uzbekistan. Having grown up in the times of State-run Utopia and Poverty, the experience of going someplace where there are actually things to buy and that the things turn out to be bloody expensive is still a bewildering experience for me but the wife and kids seem to take to the cornucopia and spending quite well, especially the spending bit. What had started out as a mobile phone shopping spree quickly evolves into a football gear, cosmetics, storybook and random impulse buying spree. I succumb as well, eventually and I end up getting tie clips and cuff links. I do not have a suit or tie. My traditional Uzbek garments have served me well through work and play. However, those tie clips and cuff links will soon be crying out for a suit in their loneliness and I will succumb again, I fear. Before the end of the wild expedition, I decide to assume control before it is too late and draw the line at getting a mobile phone for Hana as well. At least, not for this week.
On the drive home, Ishak has already made his fifth or fifteenth phone call to his legion of friends, while Fatimah crows about her new purchases to her sister over the phone. I drive and eavesdrop in contentment while listening to Hana grumbling and moaning. She gets over her lack of a mobile phone soon enough and proceeds to make up a story of a two headed cow. The cow and a bull have fallen in love but the cow is uncertain which of the two heads the bull is truly in love with. I listen, I drive and I hear her finish the story as we lug our loot into our home.
As the moon waxes low over Taghmoud Street, I tuck in Hana and Ishak, kiss them both goodnight and prepare to sleep. I sit on the edge of my bed as I gaze out once more into the nightscape of Tashkent, the flickering city lights winking mischievously in mimicry at the night sky. I say another prayer of thanks and turn in, falling into the sweet fragrant embrace of my wife.
I fall asleep and I am haunted by a nightmare in which I had died a searing painful death in a plane crash in a forsaken gorge where camels died of thirst; where the tears of my wife could not put out the flames and where my son stares, away from me.
©Copyright Mercy 2005 (I learnt this in art school, always put the copyright, just in case. Yeah, might as well.)
I had written this for the Goldenpoint writing competition organised by MICA, or whatever the Ministry of Arts for Singapore is. It was a hack and slash job that I did on a novel I had been working on but seriously shortened for the competition. Well, that was last year; I didn't expect to win and I didn't. I'd have liked to think that I don't mind not winning.... but it sort of bugs me that I've never got a chance to find out how good or bad this short story is. So here it is, if anyone is interested, give it a read and please let me know what you think.
Depending on how lucky you're feeling, this might end up being a novel again.