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The Kalhoni Experiment

March 9, 2012, 12:00 AM

Another bead of sweat breaks through Zafar’s collar. He twists his neck, irritated. One morning cool enough for a suit is too much to ask from clay-oven Karachi, even for this day.

“Mr. Khan, welcome. Please follow me.” The white man’s collar is crisp, dry.

Zafar could be floating through the corridors, his gait is so light. He's struggled years for this moment; his friends, already alien to him, would do anything to exchange places. They all want to escape this country going nowhere at meteoric speed. As for Zafar, once he’s proven himself at this multinational, he’ll be transferred to a distant metropolis already familiar from his dreams: clean sidewalks, majestic women, chill breeze against wool.

“This is your office, Mr. Khan. Welcome again to the Agric-Chem Labs family.”

Zafar crosses the room, exhilaration pulsing through his veins, coming to stand at the window. Far below: the daily traffic snarl, children begging at car windows, a peanut seller winding his perilous way between garish trucks and buses. But up here, the peace of telephones and low voices. The hum of air conditioning.


“Excellent presentation, Khan.”
Zafar glows, shaking hands all around. He’s done very well; fewer than six months and

already his boss is hinting at a promotion, first step to that transfer abroad. “Go home, Khan. Celebrate!” The boss, on his way out, slaps his back.

It is late, but Zafar usually works later than anyone else. Tonight, he might try to leave soon, pick up some takeout for his sisters. Dutifully, he takes his notes to the shredder room first. But they won’t fit through the feeder; the blades emit a dull groan. Sighing, he switches off the power and pries off the top. He finds the problem: a paperclip left attached to a sheaf of pages. Zafar extricates the paper and starts the machine’s power-up sequence. One of the rescued pages is still whole, and he scans it while he waits. He’s not concentrating much on the chemical jargon, but recognizes the name of a town: “Post-trial, the residents of Kalhoni are optimistic about their futures.”

Zafar blinks and re-reads the line. Futures? Optimism? He remembers Kalhoni, a small town a couple hours away, which he passed through once on a college trip. A place as infected with malaise as the rest of the country: floods collapsing homes, disease rotting crops, young men dying across the border, old women raising their empty palms to the heavens. That was years ago; now, everything is only worse.

More carefully, he reads what he soon realizes is the last page of a longer report, concluded thus:

“We have shown that the Fu-Fd compound was successful when tested in Kalhoni and can be rolled out nationwide as part of 'Operation Hearts and Minds' in two years.”

The following morning, Zafar alights at Kalhoni’s deserted train station. He flags a tonga and instructs the driver to take him to the bazaar; every town this size has one. Bracing himself against the jolting clip of the horse, he wonders again why he’s here. A new formula, probably for fertilizer, hardly sinister. So what is he looking for?

He makes small talk with the tonga driver and learns that life is, indeed, improving in Kalhoni, but intangibly. Fewer people get sick. Children sleep better. Zafar reaches the bazaar with mounting embarrassment; he’s always derided his relatives for their baseless conspiracy theories and now, he’s pursuing one himself.

As he pays for the ride, one last question, remembered from the report, occurs to Zafar: “And how do you feel about the future?”

The driver relaxes visibly. “After a long time, I can finally see tomorrow. Tomorrow is possible.”

Startled, Zafar explores the alleys of the bazaar, identical to so many others. He does notice the fullness of the street children’s faces, but their clothes are shabby. They follow him, jeering and begging by turns, from store to store. And when asked about the future, they, like the adults, chant: “Tomorrow is possible.”

Finally, shaken and weary, Zafar stops at a chai shop for lunch. But the boy pauses before taking his order. “Why do you ask questions? Who are you?”

Zafar peers warily at the boy, then mutters, half to himself: “Something’s not right. What changed here?”

“I can tell you that.” The boy is flippant; the knowledge unimportant to him. “The food’s different, all over town, since a year, maybe more. I take orders. I know about food. No one gets sick from food any more. It even tastes better.” He shrugs. “Good food makes people happy. That’s all.”

But Zafar knows this isn’t the whole truth. The people eating around him are pleased, pensive, fierce, contemptuous--a cacophony of typical emotions. They aren't all happy. But he knows these people are the same, and not typical, in one emotion. Each will say, with conviction: tomorrow is possible.

The boy thrusts a plate at him, and only then, staring at the charred chapati, the letters from last night swim into focus for Zafar. Not a chemical formula, Fu-Fd. An abbreviaton, instead, that explains Kalhoni’s subtle transformation. No reporter, no outsider, would notice this shift in attitude. Who, in this bleakest of countries, thinks to ask anyone of the future?

Zafar dredges a piece of chapati through his dal. This chai shop boy will not pick up a gun and head north as soon as he can grow a patchy beard. The men eating here will not mortgage everything they own for a ticket to Dubai. No resident of Kalhoni will sacrifice friends, abandon sisters, for the chance to escape to a snowy white clime.

Zafar raises the morsel to his lips, hand steady. He chews slow and licks his fingers. The boy was right. It tastes better.




The Kalhoni Experiment

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