BH and I had to go to a government office today to procure certificates of good conduct for ourselves. Uncle sent one of his trusted men from the hospital to accompany us and make sure we get what people like to refer to as ‘protocol’ here. We entered the enclosure with our chaperone and were escorted by a police officer who was apparently our contact person within the office. We walked across a path and towards a covered verandah running along the length of the offices in the compound. I righted my dupatta so that it sat demurely across my chest. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead, neither looking left nor right, concentrating on an undefined space somewhere before me. The compound and the verandah had throngs of men standing in groups chatting to one another. Not a single woman could be seen. I became more and more aware of this as we followed our chaperone and his chaperone. I became aware of every muscle in my body as the eyes of all the men we passed bore into me, past my dupatta, past my frozen face and stony eyes. I felt grateful for BH, strong, tall, silent walking beside me, protected in his presence.
We approached an office where an underling had been conscribed to getting people’s papers in order before being presented to the DSP for approval. The door opened and we stepped into a room heavy with the smell of sweat and testosterone. More men, standing and sitting in every available space in the office. For a split second I felt like breaking loose and bolting, standing outside and swallowing great gulps of air. Then a woman who sat in a little corner, by a wastebasket, clutching her dupatta across her face, asked me to sit down beside her. I declined politely. This should have been the end. But she insisted again for me to sit down. I looked at the wastebasket, at her and then politely declined again. I began looking around the room. All the men stared straight back at me. BH’s back was turned, he was trying to understand the process by which we were to be organised. Our chaperones were busy chaperoning him. More people began wriggling in through the door. I had nowhere left to look but at the floor. I began feeling a little silly, wondering whether I appeared arrogant to the woman who had asked me to sit down beside her. She was busy looking over the back of my shirt, my bag, me. She noticed me looking at her and said, ‘You might as well sit down. This takes long.’ I sat down.
BH called me a little later to sit with him. I sat with him, grateful, relieved to finally have context again in a room that felt like another planet. Then his name was called and the man at the desk asked him where he had gone to college. He replied, ‘Karachi.’ I could see nothing. A group of men obscured my view of the desk and of BH. But I heard the officer say something about our case not being applicable here. BH emerged looking perplexed. He was taken aside by the chaperone of the chaperone immediately. BH should have said he had gone to college in Gujranwala, it appeared. In saying that he had gone to Karachi, he was damaging all the ground-work our chaperone had done for us to be able to get the certificates. BH listened, a little bewildered. The chaperone nonchalantly fingered and pulled at the Lacoste alligator on BH’s shirt. Then he leaned into my face as I stood beside BH, too close. He told me the same thing. I must say I had been educated in Gujranwala to be able to get my certificate. It always feels unreal, these little falsehoods we seem perpetually to be resorting to to get small things accomplished in Gujranwala. Unreal, unnecessary and ironic. It is Ramadan. The chaperone on the inside has a Sharai beard, his upper lip shaved clean. He is asking us to lie.
We were led to the DSP’s office soon. Outside, the air is clean, the trees are washed, clean from the rain at day-break. Inside, the office is crammed full of files and steel almirahs. The underling strides in, then out again, irritatedly hollering at us assembled outside with everyone else from his sweaty office, asking the women to follow him inside. He looks straight at BH, asking him to come in too. The walls in the office are peeling with damp. They are broken in places and gas or water pipes can be seen going through. On one side is a window with a water air cooler fitted in it. And the DSP sits among all this, serene, every hair in place, spectacles perched on the tip of his nose. The underling’s erstwhile annoyance is replaced by a fawning ingratiation. He presents each applicant’s form and calls out their names simultaneously so that they may present themselves. The DSP takes the merest notice of each case, scrawling his signature at the bottom of the certificates before him. Our names are called, we present ourselves. I prepare to lie. But thankfully no questions are asked. As the DSP signs our certificates, our chaperones whisk us away, insisting that we are no longer required and that they will manage whatever is left of the process themselves. We march back towards the gate of the compound, hop back across the bricks that have been laid in the puddle at the entrance to facilitate pedestrians walking in. We slip back into the air-conditioned recesses of our car, waiting without scruples for us in front of the gate, and drive back home. A half-hour after we have reached, as we sit relaxing at home, Uncle strolls in, beaming, with a plastic folder in hand. Our certificates have arrived.