If I had not been in the company Kotha-e-Aval, the First Donkey, I swear by all the horrors hidden under the dark shroud that covers this land, I would be dead now.
We were thrown through the air by the force of the blasted trap. It went off just as we crossed the bridge. Our carriage was split into two. A thick plume of dusty smoke rose up below us. The screams of frightened birds punctuated the stench of burning flesh. I was meant to be travelling with the body guards, but at the last minute, Khotha-e-Aval made me swap carriages. They are all dead now.
I was trying to work out if I had broken anything when I saw him open his eyes. The square lenses of his glasses were cracked. He was on his back. His legs were pointing upwards and his neck was twisted towards me. A small twig was lodged in his straight black hair. For a Khotha, a donkey, he had an unusually round face, on which sat a slither of a greying moustache.
Spitting out some debris he purred his lips and thundered, ‘Secretary, do you still have your pen?’
A dismembered leg landed close to us.
‘This is no time to be lying around. Do your job, man.’
‘Yes, sir,’ I groaned pushing myself off the ground.
I rummaged through my pockets for a pen. In between the braying he snorted and I wrote, ‘I am no ordinary dictator. I am going to dictate my life story. It is dedicated to all the inhabitants of Plotistan, all those who sweat and toil, all those who bray, and especially for all those who pray patiently for a better future. They deserve selfless and modern leaders like me, who can force them to release their boundless bounty.’
The ground began to vibrate to the march of hundreds of Troopers. They were racing towards us. Khotha-e-Aval continued, ‘Plotistan today stands at the cross roads of world history. What happens here, will determine whether the most important battle of our times will be won or lost. But none of this will make sense, until I am understood. I cannot be understood without a deep appreciation of the long and arduous struggle, the result of which was been the fact that we, yesterdays humble Asses, who were ordered from pillar to post, how we became the mighty Khothas. If you want to understand this, you must study everything about me. For in me, is not only embedded the deepest love for Plotistan. And that is why I always say, “Plotistan first” and then life itself. And to the terrorists who keep trying to bump me off. I say, “you can take me out of Plotistan, but…”’ He stopped mid sentence, straightened his neck, purred a few times with his thick lips and then flipped the right way round. The first contingent of the troopers arrived and formed a protective ring around us. Two doctors from the Khotha Medical Corps rushed over and sniffed him, checking for injuries. The beating of drums and the music of bagpipes floated towards us. A section of the Troopers moved apart and the Moral Boasting Kothay stomped in shouting:
Tery dushman saray chaval
Long Live First Donkey
Your enemy is just monkey
After a few moments a new chant went up:
Nak tey makhi bahin ni daini
Poonshal teri tehn ni daini
On my nose will sit no be
Your tail will never droop, Sir jee.
A lone khotha raised the most sacred slogan of Khothas:
Plostistan ka matlab kia
What is the meaning of Plotistan
Everyone including the Khotha-e-Aval joined in
Haetoon aproon tun kay kha
The very hills echoed to the shouts of thousands of Khothas
Eat your fill, and eat some more.
‘پلاٹستان کا مطلب کیا؟
ہئٹھو اپروں تُن کے کھا’
All the donkeys started stomping their feet, raising a huge dust cloud.
Khotha-e-Aval lifted his ears and tail. All the shouting stopped to this command. The noise faded into the hills.
As the dust cloud subsided the assembled Khothas started shouting at something that was flying overhead. An enormous piece of white cloth with something written on it was floating above us. The cloth was held up by dozens of balloons. It was now clearly in view.
It said: How did guards become owners of the bank?
The assembled Asses scratched their heads, some laughed.
‘That is more dangerous than the attempt on my life., the life of Khotha-e-Aval,’ Khotha-e-Aval roared pointing to the banner. Looking around he thundered, ‘You fools, do you not see? It is questioning the moral integrity of us Khothas and our beloved Plotistan. Bring it down. Bring it down, now.’
Some of the Troopers began to jump up and down in the ridiculous hope of grabbing it. Others stood on each others shoulders making a pyramid, until they fell on top each other.
‘Where is the air force when I need it?’ Khotha-e-Aval cried watching the banner float over the hills and out of view.
Turning his bloodshot eyes to me, he lowered his ears and sighed, ‘the name of this land that invokes purity itself has been insulted.’ Taking a deep breath he asked, ‘Do you remember when someone had painted on the wall of my palace: Plotistan does not need Khothas – Khothas need Plotistan?’
‘Yes, sir, I do.’
‘Now they have taken to the airways?’
‘These are only words written by crazed poets, sir.’
‘But these words are more dangerous then the hooves and tails of my enemies.’ After a pause he added, ‘We must not let the coming generations forget about the sacrifices that were made in winning this bountiful land.’
With these words the Khotha-e-Aval sat down and closed his eyes. I too slumped next to him. As I was lifted off the ground by the Medical Corps stretcher carriers, my thoughts floated back to the day of the creation of the very name of Plotistan.
The place has now become the scared burial ground of all Khotha-e-Avals. It is on an Island in the middle of the sea. In the centre of the burial ground there is a large shrine built out of the purest white royal marble. This is in honour of the One who coined the name itself. Rising from the Holy One’s grave, all the way through brilliant white ceiling of the dome of the shrine, right up towards the clouds is a gigantic pillar, which is made from the shiniest black marble in the world. This is the Minar-e- Plotistan, the eternal symbol to the glory of the Khothas. It was carved out of huge pieces of marbles. It rises four hundred feet into the air. At the top it is tapered. A small barrier runs around it. It is used by Khotha-e-Avals and other notables for sightseeing. Teams of 30 masons worked around the clock for 50 years to erect this monument. Khothay being Khothay, to this day refuse to see what everyone else sees, that is the revenge of masons. From the sea, to all but the Khothas, it looks like an erect obscenity.
I have the misfortune of having lived longer than I should have. I have outlived many a Khotha-e-Aval and was present on the day the very name of Plotistan was coined. The name was born out of a party the departing dogs had thrown for those who had faithfully served them. The dogs had come from a far away land, and had over hundreds of years built a powerful army of donkeys. The power of the foreign dogs had rested on loyalty of the khothas. Many senior Khothas were among the revellers. It was past midnight. Every creature apart from myself was drunk.
A young Ass, who was dressed like the dogs, stepped out of the shadows.. He jumped onto a table and proclaimed,’ this great big real estate’s name has been carefully crafted:
P comes from Plenty
L from Land
O from Officers
T from Traders
I from Inshallah
S from services
TAN is taken from the last letters of the current name as that is all that left in the country.’
Some of the dogs started howling in sorrow, others cheered. All the donkeys brayed and rolled about in delight through the night.
I was lost on the crest of old memories and did not realise that I had been taken into my own room.
Though I was covered in bloodstains and my body ached all over, mercifully nothing was broken. I had just started cleaning my self when there was a loud knock on the door.
‘You have been summoned by the Khotha-e-Aval,’ a guard shouted.
‘Thank you old friend, I will be there as soon as I can.’
‘You must report immediately,’ the guard ordered. ‘I am to take you there myself.’
I picked up my pen and notebook and followed wondering, ‘how had us humans become servants of these khothay?’
A bedraggled peasant youth was kneeling down in between two Troopers, opposite the Khotha-e-Aval.
‘This ungrateful son of a swine must be a terrorist. My investigators have pulled out all his fingernails but still he refused to talk in Khothistani. He has been mumbling the same thing over and over again.’
Khotha-e-Aval lifted his tail and each of the soldiers kicked the peasant. The youth cried in his own language, ‘My mothers grave. Grand fathers land. Who is father of Khothas?’
‘Sir I think this poor wretch delirious, is so weak he is about to die…’ I said lowering my head to
‘You are not here to think scribe!,’ Khotha-e-Aval thundered.
‘Ask him why he was standing around by the side of the stream that flows under the bridge.’
I repeated the question in the peasant’s language. He looked up at me with raging eyes. Taking a deep breath he said, ‘My mothers grave. Grandfathers land. Who is father of Khothas?’
‘Ask him the same question again, and if he answers the same kill him,’ Khotha-e-Aval ordered.
I asked the same question but in as gentle a tone as I could. The youth stood up, glared at me and spat into my face.
‘Well at least he did not give the same answer,’ Khotha-e-Aval bent double laughing. ‘Now take him to the village and find out what else is going on out there.’
The young man spitting in my face, to my surprise had not filled me with either anger or revulsion. I deserved his hatred. After all, what had I not done but to safeguard my own interests? Today, as I took the youth to his village, for the first time in my 80 years of life, I began to realise the enormity of the crime I had witnessed.
Each side of the Highway that leads to the young man’s village was covered with enormous billboards advertising all manner of goods. But I had not bothered to read them before.
I ordered the driver to stop and stared at the billboards wondering, when did all these go up? I stepped off the carriage outside the Central Khotha Bank of Plotistan, where all the Khothas kept their private accounts. Behind the bank stood the enormous gates of the Khotha Foundation, a massive hospital complex built for Khothas and their offspring. I was standing in the shade of a billboard with the picture of a healthy young man drinking water from Khotha Springs. The billboard next to this one was selling Khotha Porridge. Two huge earth diggers belonging to the Khotha Construction Company lumbered along the road. These were followed by wagons loaded with Khotha cement.
The youth sat silently in front of me for the rest of the journey. A chain ran down from his neck to the shackles around his feet to ensure he could not stand upright. As we got out of the city, wherever I looked earth diggers were busy tearing into the hills knocking down ancient trees and what ever else came in their way. Huge swaths of land were being cleared for new development. Each new settlement was named after some famous Khotha or one of the Khotha regiments.
I ordered the young man to be untied once we got to the outskirts of his village. In stead of running out of the wagon, he sat where he was, staring at a woman standing in the middle of a path that snaked into the village. She was frail, much older than me and dressed in rags. She bent down, picked up a worn slipper and held it up towards me.
An earth digger with thick black smoke spurting out of its exhaust was noisily making its way towards her. Troopers, on either side of the machine marched slowly towards the woman. The earth digger’s blade bit into the ground. The dry earth beneath her feat began to crack.
I fell to the ground and cried, ‘Mother.’
Tariq Mehmood is an author. His latest novel is You’re Not Proper – story of two girls struggling in a town seething with Islamophobia. He is based in Beirut.