Salamander 2024 Fiction Contest

SUBMIT: May 1 through June 2, 2024 | READING FEE: $15


The Other Osama

Hassaan Mirza
| Fiction


He was born with a silver knife in his mouth. And he was its first victim. —Osama Alomar


Inside, the shop was limewashed and long enough to fit two barber chairs. A frameless mirror hung in front of the chairs, faced by an identical mirror from the opposite wall. To distract myself from feeling ticklish, I’d try to see how far I could go counting my reflections in the back and forth between the mirrors. This had to be managed carefully, for if I squirmed or craned my neck while counting, the barber threatened to slit my ear. The danger was highest near the end of my “army cut,” the only men’s haircut my mother and I knew the name of. Finished with the top, the barber would unsheathe a razor to shave my sides. He’d grumble when I asked him to put in a new blade—Ammi’s orders—then nudge my head down to expose my neck. The blade tickled my neck. Hold still, the man would bark, or it will slice your ear off. If I wriggled, he gripped my skull and pushed it back in place. Hell, he yanked my head even when I was sure I’d kept dead still.
After my cut, I’d climb down the plank that lay across the chair’s arms and wait on a bench next to the window. The ceiling fan viciously chopped the air. Taped on the glass were headshots of actors wearing the big, feathered hair of the 90s. Dusty light poured through the translucent smiles of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan and fell on hair littered under the chairs.
Eventually my small uncle would come to fetch me and pay for the cut. The two of us walked home down the narrow neighborhood streets off Walton Road. Past the corner shop, past the tailor, past the one-eyed man selling bright darting fish in clear plastic bags. At the halfway point, we passed the milkman’s house with four buffaloes tied inside, who crapped God knows how many kilos of dung every day, and stank up that section of the street. This was ’99 for me, the year I worried for my ears and loved my small uncle, the year I smelled a lifetime’s load of bullshit. What about the nuclear sanctions that had been “imposed,” the coup that had been “staged,” the war that had “erupted” in Kargil? I don’t even remember hearing about the serial killer who was loose in the city, a man who kidnapped scores of boys in ’98 and ’99, raped them, then hacked and dissolved their bodies in acid. Later, I read that people were so fearful that they “locked their children indoors.” But in my Lahore of ’99, the afternoon streets are filled with kids playing for hours without a parent in sight. They’re talking to strangers and chasing down hawkers, chewing forbidden imli and spitting out the seeds. They—we—are roaming arm-in-arm, we are torturing animals. I remember the animals: buffalos, yes, and clans of dogs always at war, and cats slinking across walls spiked with broken glass. Our days open with the call of roosters piercing our sleep and close with the flutter of wings as pigeons home to rooftop lofts. Rooftop touches rooftop in Walton, wall touches wall. Houses tangled in wires and clotheslines close upon the street. The children look nestled there. There isn’t enough earth to grow a single tree.
Once, on our way back from the barber’s, we passed two humping street dogs stuck in a tie, the bitch snarling in agony and snapping to release herself, only to be pelted with pebbles by gleeful children. My uncle shooed away the dogs and was lecturing the kids when a van swerved around the corner and lurched toward us. We shrank to the side of the street, squeezed flat against the wall, sucked in our breath to narrowly avoid a collision. Not really, but that’s how it felt. That’s how it appears to me now: the creature of my childhood bursting out of jumbled boxes and rutted corners, forcing me to thrust my face breathless against the lattices that covered those doors and windows—“jaali,” my uncle said the lattices were called.
On our walks, my small uncle could go on and on about such things, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he spoke, his hand stroking the prickly back of my neck. In ’99, he was the only person I knew who owned a computer, the only one who attended a university. He was finishing a Master’s in Architecture on a scholarship and must’ve been twenty-two or twenty-three. Of course, I didn’t realize how young he was behind his thick glasses. I wanted to weaken my vision so I could get glasses like his.
Now I can picture the tiled house opposite the milkman’s and label it in my mind map as “Osama’s House.” Back then, it was just another house two streets over from my grandmother’s. After my parents’ divorce, Ammi had returned to live with her family and brought me with her. The two of us shared the room she’d grown up in while my grandmother and small uncle slept in the large bedroom next to the kitchen. The lounge had been my grandfather’s room and housed his old TV, a set of floral sofas, and four large bookshelves, each shelf double-layered with books. Upstairs, on the roof, my big uncle had built a room for his wife and his sons, a second kitchen, and a coop for our hens. There was no AC in the old house. On humid summer nights, when the air inside was stifling, we’d water the roof to cool the concrete and lay down charpais to sleep in the open. A dusty smell of rain rose from drying roof… mingled with the citronella scent of Mospel lotion… and entered my sleep.
Imagine a sky swarming with stars, I told Wali. Now slice it unevenly with clotheslines.


Hassaan Mirza is a writer from Lahore, Pakistan.

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