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To Love So Freely

To Love So Freely

To Love So Freely

To Love So Freely

To Love So Freely

Aqdas Aftab

I rolled down the half-jammed window of the taxi with difficulty, allowing the seductively crisp wind to mess my hair up. I still couldn’t believe my supervisor had assigned me this terrible interview. I still couldn’t believe my first trip to this city included living in a shady guesthouse and visiting the capital jail to get a confession story. No time to visit Margalla hills, my supervisor’s voice still bore into my brain. No time to go to those fancy malls, okay? This is a short assignment, and all your energy must go into getting that disgusting criminal to talk. We want to be the first platform to get a confession out of him. I sighed as I recalled her voice, laced with petty condescension. I knew the only reason she had assigned me this story was because I had risked publishing a public Facebook status on how the country’s intelligence agencies were torturing activists; because that Facebook status had led to the paper getting audited by the military. Some risks, no matter how small, are just not worth taking. 

 

The only upside to this assignment was the Islamabad air. The green smell of pine, the clean smell of wood. The silence at night that allowed me to think. I closed my eyes and took a long breath, revising my interview questions in my head. 

 

“Baji, which way do I go now?” the taxi driver interrupted my thoughts.

 

“Sri Nagar highway. Stay on it for a while,” I unzipped my backpack, and readied the taxi driver’s money. He looked at me suspiciously through the cracked mirror in the car, probably wondering why I was visiting the capitol jail. Ignoring his gaze, I handed him the 3000 rupees, took out my identification documents, and made my way into the building. 

 

The prison guard gestured with his hand, asking me to go inside. I guess I didn’t need clearance. “That junglee boy gets too many journalists,” he said to another guard, and pointed me in the direction of the waiting room. I felt exhausted already. 

 

“It’s the smell of bureaucracy,” I heard my little brother’s voice remind me, “that’s the source of your migraines.” He would always tell me this, subtly asking me to quit working for a woman who probably still fantasized about Musharraf rising from his grave whenever she went down in sajda. As I thought about Wasay’s cynical philosophies, a smile broke across my stoic face, and I suddenly found myself missing my brother sorely, who needed help these days, who refused to go into rehab. And then, like always, Baba’s angry voice forced its way into my memories. Wasay brought this upon himself, Baba bellowed. What kind of a man drops out of university to become a poet? What kind of a man cries while listening to songs? No need to help him. I will call him my son again when he grows into a man. 

 

I focused on the rust orange dupatta of the woman sitting across from me to bring myself into the present. I smiled at the toddler sitting next to her and opened my folder, partly readying myself to go over my notes again, partly finding some way to distract myself from the thoughts of Baba shouting at Wasay. I looked at the news clipping of the day the incident was reported: 

 

Amir Ali, aged 28, was arrested after the police found human limbs in his freezer, and cooked human meat in his fridge. He was found guilty of desecrating a grave, which is a criminal offence under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law. He pleaded guilty to eating human flesh but is resisting the criminal charges of desecrating property. Amir Ali is currently in police custody at the Islamabad Central Jail. Since Pakistan has no law against cannibalism, Amir Ali was sentenced under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism laws. He can appeal to the state’s high court. The police have issued a warning to the people of Islamabad and Rawalpindi to be aware of other similar criminals. 

 

I opened my tablet and scrolled through all the sensationalist journalist interviews about cannibalism in Islamabad. I clicked on one recent interview about Amir that had particularly horrified me. A woman looked into the camera and asked vehemently, Why doesn’t the Adamkhor eat himself? When he briefly spoke about how the prison guards assaulted him everyday, the journalist turned to the camera and said, “Well, he deserves worse.” The journalist’s voice was emotionless, harrowing, knife-like. He deserves worse, her voice had replaced Baba’s in my anxious brain. I kept replaying it until a guard called out my name and ushered me towards a private room.

 

When I entered the interview room, I asked the guards for privacy, insisting that I didn’t feel unsafe around Amir. 

 

“Madam wo ap ko na kha jaye,” the prison guard laughed mockingly, but he did leave me alone with Amir. 

 

I greeted Amir and sat across from him. He nodded at my salaam, but stared at his hands, refusing to talk. I asked him how he was doing. I told him I didn’t believe the accusations against him. I told him he wasn’t a cannibal. I told him I believed in justice for him. No response. I sighed deeply. No wonder he doesn’t talk. I thought to myself, the other journalists were so terrible to him. Making sure no one was looking at me, I touched Amir’s bruised hand and told him he didn’t have to talk; that I understood why he was refusing to say anything now; that I disagreed with what the state and media were doing to him. He looked up then, nodded again, and went back to staring at his hands. 

 

After an hour of silence had passed, I said, “I’ll come back tomorrow, and we can continue this.”

 

He spoke then, “why?”

 

“Because I want to know your story.” 

 

He shook his head and left the room. 

 

 

***

 

I came back for three days. With each passing day, his flesh seemed more denigrated, his body more emaciated, his bruises uglier. I stopped asking him how he was. I never asked about his scars. I knew what happened in prisons. It was a story we were all familiar with; such narratives had no impact anymore. So, I adhered to my assignment. I turned on the audio recording on my phone, got my clipboard ready, asked him some questions about his crime, and waited through the silence. 

 

On the fourth day, he spoke once again. “Why do you want my story?” 

 

I sighed. “You know what, I don’t want your story. You deserve privacy. I should leave. I’ll tell my supervisor this interview failed. They sent me to get your confession, to get to hear you describe how you found some perverse pleasure in eating another human. But I know the police just made up this ridiculous crime to distract us from all the forced disappearances, from all the violence against political prisoners.” I got up to collect my things and thanked him for his time. So what if I get fired? I’ll probably find a new job at a different paper, I consoled myself. I do have enough experience now. I should just leave this poor guy alone. 

 

I headed for the door when I heard his voice. It was low, almost inaudible. “I did do it.” 

 

I turned around and looked at his forlorn face. His lips trembled. I could see him take sharp shallow breaths. It looked like he was going to burst into tears, the way Wasay looked every time Baba roared on about his son’s failed masculinity. He reminded me of Wasay. Wasay who was too emotional for his own good, Wasay who listened to too many ghazals while drinking too much liquor, who wept every time Baba shouted at him. And I felt that pull on my heart whenever I visited my brother’s dilapidated apartment, whenever I saw him sleeping until noon, whenever he missed his therapy appointments that I paid for with such difficulty. I looked outside the door and saw the security guard smoking a cigarette, curling his moustache between his finger and thumb, and listening to something on his phone. 

 

“So, it’s true that you had limbs in your freezer?”

 

He nodded. Slowly, I walked back to the chair across from him and sat down. 

 

“Why did you do it?”

 

He said nothing. I repeated myself. “Was it because you were so hungry you had no other choice? Because that is justifiable. Or did someone force you?” 

 

“No” he whispered. “I wasn’t hungry. I’ve always had food in my house. And I wasn’t forced.” A long pause, and then, “I was simply in love.” 

 

I sat with Amir in silence, waiting for him to continue, listening to  him breathe, hearing myself breathe, hearing Wasay breathe in the distance, until the guard told me my time was up.

 

As I got up, Amir spoke again. “Come again tomorrow. But don’t record anything. I will tell you then. Someone should know our story.” 

 

***

 

 

The next day, Amir entered the interview room with a slight glimmer in his eyes. He still didn’t make eye contact, still stared at his hands, still took rapid shallow breaths, but something about his energy was different. I sat across from him patiently, without my phone recording his words, without my notebook or clipboard. 

 

“You remind me of my little brother.” My candor surprised me. He smiled for the first time, ever so slightly, and closed his eyes, as if trying to remember something. 

 

“I did eat a man. And I did commit a crime.” Amir paused, his eye still shut. I remained still. “But my crime was not eating him. My crime was loving him. My crime was giving my heart to him and accepting his, and promising to keep it safe inside my body.

 

“You know, I don’t regret being here. If I could go back in time I would do it again. I guess that makes me a junglee. Savage. An Adamkhor. But at least I have him in me now. Even in this prison, I have him inside me, weaving verses for me, creating melodies for me, writing new recipes from inside me.” 

 

He covered his face with his hands. The maroon scars on his knuckles glistened under the florescent lights of the interview room. 

 

Hiding my revulsion, I asked, “Can you please tell me the story from the beginning. Who is this man you . . . ate?” 

Amir took a deep breath and met my eyes momentarily before reverting his gaze to his hands. “I met him two years ago at a small restaurant that served chicken tikka roll parathas. He was the chef. He made the best barbeque chicken. Charred it real good. Marinated it just enough so every fiber of the flesh was the right amount of juicy. And he always served it with chutney he made with his fists. He refused a blender. He would punch and fist the coriander and cumin and mint and green chillis until his fingers absorbed the sting of the chilli seeds, and the mint leaves absorbed the energy of his fingers. Even when people asked to have their roll without the chutney, he did add some.” Amir laughed, pausing for a minute. I mimicked his stillness patiently. The only movement in the room was that of his shoulders, moving up and down, the movements getting slower and slower. “He would tickle my tongue like no other. He would heat my blood like no other. He would fill up my insides like nothing and no one else could. He would wait patiently as I salivated more for his food. He would hold me as the nutrients that seeped from his fingers into his marinade and masala traveled through my blood and nourished my organs.”

 

I had to interrupt him then. “You’re describing chicken and not human meat, right? There’s a difference, for god’s sake!” 

 

I heard some frustration trickle into my voice, but he responded calmly. “Yes, there is. Chickens have terrible lives. They live in cages. My love had a good life. A free life. He created food every day. He fed others every day. He found love.” I recognized a hint of blush under his beard. “And then he died by a disease he knew was in his blood. Sickle cell. No one killed him. And I did cook his meat the way he taught me to cook chicken.” A long pause.
 

“Please go on. You were saying he was a chef.” 

 

“Yes, cooking was his life’s work. He fed so many souls. He fed my soul in every possible way. He had filled up three notebooks with his original recipes, but he never got a chance to publish them. He once made me mutton biryani and the meat melted in my mouth and slid down my throat. His shami kababs were the same. The thin layer of crisp on the outside, and the melting minced beef mashed with daal and crunchy onions, and his own blend of roasted garlic and ginger and coriander and green chilli and garam masala and Kashmiri red chilli. He taught me how taste lies in texture. And how much our skin affects the taste of the food we make. He would leave his fingers in the cooled minced batter for a long time as I told him stories about my day. An hour or two of his fingers in the batter, and I knew the kababs would touch the deepest parts of me, that they would show me there were pleasure points in me I didn’t even know about. I guess he was always moving inside me, but very slowly then.” 

 

He paused and then looked at me briefly. “Have you heard of that posh restaurant called Marble Café in Kohsar market?” 

 

“Oh yeah, everyone told me to try their spicy fried chicken burger. Apparently, it’s the best chicken burger in the country and you only get it on Saturdays.” 

 

“Yes, it was his burger. He provided Marble Café his fried chicken for the burgers. He didn’t assemble the whole burger, but he marinated and fried the chicken at his roll paratha stand in Kohsar market. Saturday was the day for his food stand.”

 

“I’ll try it before I leave the city.” 

 

“It won’t be the same now. You should have tried it before he died. The magic was in the rhythm of his fingers. The way he caressed the fibers of the chicken, the way he so gently cut off the fat, the way he rubbed the spicy marinade on the flesh with patience and care. I want the world to get his recipe books, but he is telling me these days that he doesn’t care about publicity. And that without his skin, others won’t be able to recreate his recipes.” 

 

“What do you mean he’s telling you these days?” 

 

“He’s reminding me. How he would breathe into each kabab before laying it onto the hot oil to sizzle. He asked me to do the same when I helped him cook. I was scared of bringing raw meat so close to my mouth, but he wanted me to smell it raw, to truly appreciate how fire made flesh so tenderly juicy, to learn how too much heat would dry it up.

 

“The first time I tried his roll paratha, I knew I had to meet him. I’m a pretty reserved person, but I found him later that night and told him how his food was akin to poetry. How it made me feel the thing I didn’t know could be felt. He took me home on his motorbike then. I held onto his stomach as he stormed through the traffic. When I reached his apartment, he asked me to open my mouth. He slid his fingers in, feeling the insides of my mouth. He touched my teeth, my gums, tugged on my tongue. And then his tongue replaced his fingers.” Amir shifted in his chair, and suddenly opened his eyes, his skin turning reddish brown. 

 

“Sorry, I don’t have to go into details if that makes you uncomfortable.” 

 

I could feel my palms sweating but I dismissed my body’s response. “No, it’s fine. Please go on. I don’t mind details.” 

 

He shifted in his chair and smiled again. “Our love was passionate until the end. Even when I didn’t want him inside me, I still wanted to eat his food, and that would feel like . . . love-making.” He was struggling for euphemisms. “Actually, I never did let him love me in the way he wanted. You know what they say about men who let other men enter them. That they lose their manhood. That they are destined for a life of effeminacy. And I wanted him, but I guess I was too scared. And he understood. When he was dying, he made me promise to consume him. He said he always wanted to enter me in a way that would fill me up. That even though I never let his body penetrate mine, he wanted me to eat him, so his spirit could penetrate mine. This was his last wish, to finally find ultimate pleasure by living inside my body and spirit.” 

 

“I don’t understand. You’re saying having sex with someone is the same thing as eating them?” 

 

“No, eating someone is more intimate. Now he is literally inside me. This was his wish. I did find it disgusting at first. I, too, reacted the way you are reacting. But when he gave me his recipe books, when he gave me specific directions about how to cook different parts of him, how to marinate and spice his limbs with lime and chilli, how to make fried maghaz masala out of his brain, I felt aroused. And I knew then that I had to trust my instinct. That there was some hidden meaning in his last wish.

 

“You know, his family buried him. I couldn’t deny them that. I had to let them bury him, to find closure. That’s why I dug up his grave afterward. It was his own wish. I dug his grave that night and carried his body to his kitchen, where I followed his cooking instructions. The first part of him I cooked were his hands; his hands, always so seductive, always knowing how to touch me, always knowing how to infuse food with flavor.” 

 

A long pause, and then, “It wasn’t easy for me at first. I wept like a baby when I chopped his fingers off, when I took out the meat from his bones, when I threw it in the pot simmering with coconut milk. But once I tasted him, once his meat went inside me, I started to feel him with me again. Little by little. And that made it easier. Then I wanted to eat more and more. I ate his whole leg in one day, you know, just to listen to him better. I had to eat so much black salt that day to really digest him.” A nervous giggle escaped his mouth.  

 

“What do you mean listen?” 

 

“I can hear him from inside me. And if the police hadn’t caught me, if I had been able to eat all of his meat, I would have heard him even better, even more clearly.” 

 

Clearly this man needs psychiatric help, I thought to myself. He doesn’t belong in prison; he belongs in a hospital. 

 

When I didn’t say anything, Amir continued. “His death was the hardest thing I’ve been through but eating him made it easier. When I chopped up his brain and mixed it with the minced onions and garlic, I couldn’t wait to eat it. But I knew I had to wait until the food was ready. Those were his instructions. I followed them religiously. I even decorated the brain masala like he wanted, with pudina raita and lemon salad and roghni naan on a plate next to a candle. The instructions in his recipe book required me to read some phrases in Arabic I didn’t understand, maybe it was some Ayat or Hadith or something, and then blow on the candle. I did that and after the first mouthful of the brain masala, I started to hear him, not just feel him. I just wish I’d eaten all of him, so he was louder inside me. I really have to strain to hear him sometimes, especially when there’s so much noise in this wretched jail.”

 

“How can you be sure that he is speaking to you, and it’s not your grief inducing hallucinations? You know grief can do that. My daadi claims to see daadaji everyday but obviously she’s just hallucinating.” 

 

“But I am not in grief anymore. He still lives on inside me. His spirit never died. I know because he sings songs I didn’t even know; he tells me new recipes that I would never be able to come up with.” He looked at me and made prolonged eye contact for the first time. “You don’t believe me, do you? Look, I don’t care if you believe me. I just needed to tell my story to someone. And you seemed nice enough compared to other people who’ve demanded interviews from me.”

 

“Obviously I don’t believe you. But I do want to. I wish you had some kind of evidence.” I muttered. 

 

“When the guard looks away, when he is distracted, I will blow into your ear if you let me. And then you will believe.” 

 

This was too weird. And kind of creepy. But I was intrigued. I stood up to check what the guard was doing outside. He was on his phone, with his feet on the table in front of him. He didn’t seem too concerned about what was happening in the interview room. 

 

“Okay, do it.” I got up and went to his side of the table. He stood up, then blew hot moist air into my ear. I could smell the wheat in his breath. I was afraid of such intense proximity with a strange man, but my fear was interrupted by another voice. Deep and velvety. Humming a tune. Sounded like Ghulam Ali’s voice booming through Wasay’s stereo. I moved away from him to make sure he wasn’t the one singing; but the voice was distant, not loud. It sounded like it was coming from the other end of the room, even though Amir was breathing into my ear. Then I heard laughter. And the voice faintly seemed to say something that I had to strain to understand: 

 

Oi pehnji, you clearly have never fallen in love. 

 

Amir, too, chuckled then, moving away from my ear. 

 

I could feel my heart thumping. The room suddenly felt hotter than before. Needing to sit down, I went back to my chair. That voice was certainly not Amir’s. The voice inside him spoke with a strong Punjabi inflection. It was more confident, more relaxed, more masculine. 

 

I sat with Amir in silence until the guard told me my time was up. Before leaving, I quickly asked Amir if I could write his story. He shook his head vehemently. “No, no, no. They will increase my sentence if they find out the truth. Please don’t.” The apathetic guard ushered him out before I could respond. 

 

The minute I left the prison building, I found a secluded corner and retold the story to my phone, recording every word and gesture I remembered, recording all the details about how he looked when he recounted his story, recording my own biases and reactions. I knew I had a story that I could not let go. It could actually make an impact on his punishment, I told myself, over and over again, fighting my conscience. And if it’s a breakthrough for my career, I’ll expose more violence. So this has to be a good thing. I should write this story. 

 

***

A month later, I entered the office and found my supervisor was leaning against my desk, her arms folded, her bob cut and brown lipstick looking uglier than ever. “You take me for a fool?” She shouted. 

 

“Sorry ma’am, what is this about?”. 

 

“You think I have time for such jokes? I sent you to Islamabad to get me a story. I trusted you with this big assignment. And you brought back this joke?”

 

“But it’s the truth ma’am. Amir Ali said he ate his lover. And I did hear his boyfriend from inside him.” 

 

“Don’t bring your liberal agenda about such obscenities into my paper. It’s impossible that junglee man said any of this. You clearly made it up.” She announced that I was fired. 

 

“But I didn’t—”

 

“I’m sick of your incompetence.” She turned her back to me and gestured at me to leave.
 

“But ma’am, I can’t be fired right now, I really need the money. You know, my family issues, my brother—”

 

She interrupted me again. “You should have thought about that before you sent me this nonsense. We will have a blank spot in the paper tomorrow because of you. Get out now.” 

***

 

Since then, I have sent Amir Ali’s story to many newspapers and magazines. Each platform has rejected me. People either think that I am telling a fictional tale or that Amir is a mentally challenged man imagining things. One magazine editor did accept my story but wanted to publish it as fiction. How can I agree to that when I still remember the voice of the man inside Amir sounding so playful and perky?  

 

After weeks of contacting papers and media platforms, I decided to visit Wasay. He’s always a good listener when I need to vent. And he always makes me feel better about my writing. 

 

Maybe I too will become like Wasay, jobless and alone. Baba will be proud then. I laugh grimly to myself before I unlock Wasay’s apartment with my spare key. When I enter Wasay’s apartment, he welcomes me with a big hug. 


“What do I get this special treatment for?”

 

“Your story, Api! What else!” 

 

“Wait, really? It was good?” 

 

“What an enduring love story. Chai?” Wasay smiles widely. Without waiting for my response, he puts on the kettle and pours himself some cheap vodka that smells way too much like Dettol. 

 

“So you believe that this actually happened to him? That he wasn’t delusional? That I’m not delusional? You know, every single paper rejected it. And you think it is well-written right? That the writing is not the issue?”

 

“Abey yaar, don’t fish for compliments. You know I like your writing. But this man, this Amir, he doesn’t sound delusional. He sounds like a man very much in love.” Looking energized for the first time in months, Wasay ambles to his couch, looks for something in a big pile of mess, and then he hands me a leather-bound journal.  

 

“What’s this?”

 

“The therapy journal you got me. Remember, I was supposed to write my ‘healthy goals’ in it?” 

 

“Oh han. You want me to read it?” 

 

He nods, smiling slightly. I open the journal and flip through the pages. The journal is empty. 

 

“Go to the last page, Api!” 

 

I reach the last page which has “Goals” written at the top in block letters. 

 

Suddenly, the kettle is whistling loudly and Wasay’s wide smile is slithering into my peripheral vision as I read his handwriting at the bottom of the page: “To love so freely that I, too, become an Adamkhor.” 

Aqdas Aftab is a nonbinary South Asian Muslim writer, researcher and educator. Some of their creative work can be found in Strange Horizons, The Rumpus, Transcendent 4: The Year's Best Speculative Transgender Fiction, and The World that Belongs to Us: An Anthology of Queer Poetry from South Asia. Aqdas is currently working on an academic monograph on decolonial trans interiority. Their twitter handle is @AqdasAftab.

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