- A Novel in Serialisation
The Shah of Chicago
A novel by
would get him the first shipment which would pay for the second. Three
or four shipments of the best smack in the world and Jack would really
King, better known in some circles as Jacob Lord, or just plain
Jake, stepped outdoors for the first time in more than four years.
He felt he might float away, he was so happy. His worldly possessions
(a tiny green Bic lighter, a Swiss army knife with five blades,
seven dollars and eighty -five cents) jumbled up in the bottom of
his front pants pocket, were his only ballast. He glanced
at the recently renovated front entrance of the Pontiac Correctional
Center, which looked like your typical suburban ranch house: low-hung
roof of artificial tile, petunias in neatly tended beds tucked up
against a lush rectangle of brilliant lawn. The prison guard glowering
at Jack from behind the plate-glass window looked like your typical
ornery suburban neighbor. For a moment Jack returned the guards
gaze, savouring his freedom. The realisation that he was no longer
on the other side of the wall soaked slowly into him, like a warm
bath into chilly bones. Counting this latest stretch, he had spent
a total of ten years three months and sixteen days behind various
bars of the United States Prison Service. Enough was enough. Taking
a deep breath of the thick May air Jack promised himself: never
The prison parking lot was packed with vehicles, mostly rust buckets and
old model pickups. Always was on release day. Kids played tag among the
cars, shrieking with delight at not being in school, while their mothers,
dolled up in freshly permed hair and tight jeans, smoked cigarettes and
waited anxiously for their men. Jack took a second to survey the parking
lot until he spotted a newish Seville with a faded bronze finish. Inside,
gripping the wheel like a rodeo roughrider, sat a short man with hunched
shoulders and an anxious brow. Thanks for coming, Jack muttered
as he slid into the front seat.
The man, his uncle, started the car and headed towards the freeway but
didnt say a word. When Jack had called from prison the week before,
Uncle Jalal had said he could stay for a few days, but no more than a
week. Nasreen, Jacks ex-wife and Uncle Jalals only child,
was in California visiting her cousin until Saturday. And when she got
back, she would definitely not want to see Jack around the house.
Cool, Jack had said. No problemo.
Jack, or Jacob Lord as most people used to call him, had dealt a bit of
coke in the pool halls and bars on Chicagos West side but after
a second short stint in Cook County jail in the late eighties he moved
up to St Paul and tried to renounce the old ways. It took him a couple
of rehab sessions--Uncle Jalal gladly coughed up the dough for those--but
by the early nineties Jack had a nice little thing going up in the Twin
Cities. A taxi license and a small shop near the university selling magazines
and cigarettes. Jack began warming to the straight life. For a while,
anyway. The magazine shop did a steady business when the university was
in session and the taxi, on the street twenty-four hours a day, brought
in five hundred bucks a week easy.
He gave up the nosecandy completely and got his drinking pretty much under
control too. Within a couple of years Jack was looking at selling his
taxi license to an Egyptian named Mo, and using the proceeds as a down
payment on a small superette. Hed been watching the papers; there
was one out in Coon Rapids going for a song. But then life hit the skids
again. Winters always got Jack down, and right around the butt end of
January, in the middle of one of those polar mid-western winters, he got
a call from Chicago. Some guy talking about a ripe piece of fruit just
waiting to be plucked. A real easy deal. They both stood to make at least
fifteen gees a piece Me, and you, Jake.
Apparently a couple of punk Nicaraguans, still wet behind the ears, were
looking to offload six kilos of Cali cocaine of the finest grade. Jack,
pretending to be an interested buyer, would set up an appointment at a
motel on the Midway strip: the Forty Winks Lodge. Just when negotiations
were going real good, Jacks partner was to walk in, flash a badge
and act like he was leading a genuine, honest-to-God, Yankee drug bust.
Fifteen thousand dollars for an hours work. Not bad at all. There
was almost no way the deal could go wrong, and in fact, they almost pulled
it off, but just as Jacks buddy was transferring the coke from the
Nicaraguans gym bag to his briefcase the real cops busted through
the door. The Nicaraguans were deported. During the pre-trial paper work
his partner mysteriously disappeared. By St. Paddys Day Jack was
a guest of the Pontiac Correctional Center.
What will you do now? Uncle Jalal broke his silence at last.
The world outside the Seville looked like heaven. Clusters of yellow dandelions
danced in the over-grown strips of emerald grass by the side of the highway.
The sky was wider, bluer, bigger than Jack had ever dreamed. The spring
sun hurt Jacks squinting eyes. Steer clear of prison, one
things for sure, he said.
I will believe that when I see it. Uncle Jalal may have been
talking but he was in no mood to look at this nephew. Jack had betrayed
the family honour too many times for Uncle Jalal to offer sympathy. A
ride back to the city and five nights in the spare bed was the limit of
Unlike his previous stints in prison Jack had kept pretty much to himself
in Pontiac. Of course, the brothers protected him, but for
the most part Jack had been a loner. The Lone Ranger. Another name to
add to all the others hed used since coming to America. So many
names, sometimes it was hard to remember exactly who he was. Jacob, when
he first arrived. Then Jake, when he began dealing nosecandy. After he
got busted in Gary trying to off load a garbage bag of Hawaiian weed,
the brothers in Cook County took to calling him Five-Oh: as
in Hawaii 5-0.
At a time when the brothers were taking names like Mohammad
and Shakeel, Jack toyed with the idea of using his real name too. He could
see the advantage it would bring him while he was Inside, but Jack wasnt
planning on staying in prison any longer than he had to. The Black Muslim
brothers, theyd probably never see life on the streets again; they
needed some sort of identity to cling to. But not Jack. Man, hed
tell himself, thats the whole point you came to this country. To
put that stuff behind you. Not be proud of it. So Jack never told anyone
his real name. People knew him as that fast-talking, baldy guy from Chicago.
Jake, Jacob, or Five-Oh. But as his release date from Pontiac came closer
he decided he needed a new name for his new life of freedom and after
some thought settled on Jack King. He liked the tone of that: simple yet
I been thinking Uncle Jalal, Jack said.
His uncle made an indistinct sound but demonstrated no curiosity. Jack
looked at the old man then shrugged and started to read the billboards
out loud as they flew past the car window. Take a Finger Lickin
Break. Left four miles. Troubled? Try prayer. Livingstone
Church of Christ. The friendly congregation on I-55. Uncle Jalal
tapped the radio and covered Jacks voice with an all-news station.
Neither man acknowledged the other, lost in his own thoughts.
Thinking was about all Jack had done in Pontiac. There was no doubt that
he had been set up in the Nicaraguan coke deal. How else could you explain
his partners miraculous disappearance? It took months for the rage
to stop swirling around inside Jacks gut, but eventually he was
able to think straight and come to a few conclusions. For one thing, he
realised that even if he got lucky and copped an early release date hed
be almost forty by the time he got out. Middle age was coming on strong.
Secondly, he admitted that hed been hanging out with losers for
altogether too long. For too many years he had been running other peoples
scams and what did he have to show for it? Diddly. From now on he was
going to be the boss. The time had come to wield the stick, not take another
beating. So finally, he promised himself, once he got out of Pontiac he
was going to establish himself as a real player, someone everyone would
respect. Like a king.
He wasnt going to go straight exactly; there was no way to sustain
the sort of lifestyle Jack enjoyed as a straight arrow. But he certainly
was going to find a new set of business associates. And he was never going
to spend another night Inside. Not one. So during those long boring days
in Pontiac Jack conducted a survey of all the possible business opportunities
he might invest in once he got out. One eye was cocked at the long-term
future, the other scanned the horizon for mountains of cash. It didnt
take very long to see that more than any other, one business stood out
above the rest: heroin. Like sweet wine and wingtip shoes, heroin was
always stylish. Always sexy. Forever in demand.
One day in the prison library he was flipping through a National Geographic
article on Afghanistan when the penny dropped. Like a bolt of lightening
right down his spine, the idea left him tingling for weeks. Most of the
worlds heroin, the article said, was being processed in factories
along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The illicit trade in drugs
accounted for more money than the real economy of both countries put together.
There was even a beautiful pullout photo of red poppy fields stretching
to kingdom come. For the first time in his life Jack felt like he might
have the inside track. The empire I could build. Every night for two years
his sleep was disturbed as he tossed and turned and flipped around like
a fish on the shore, just thinking about it. Jack ripped the photo out
of the magazine and taped it to his cell wall, right above his pillow.
Every morning and night it reminded him of the beautiful future just waiting
for him on the other side of the wall.
Like I said, Jack turned down the volume on the radio. Uncle
Jalal shot a quick glance at his nephew as if this was another insult.
I been thinking.
At least thinking is not illegal. Uncle Jalal clipped each
word; the Ts as sharp as knives. Thirty years of life in America
had done nothing to soften his accent.
Ill need some money, Jack said.
Badtameez! snapped the older man. Have you no manners?
Asking for money after all the offers we have made to help you, and the
thousands of dollars you have wasted in your...your...your filthy life.
Jack had expected something like this but persevered nonetheless. Things
are different now. I was young then.
Still you are immature. Nearly forty but what can you show for your
life? Bolo! At your age I had the restaurant and grocery plus three apartment
Jack liked his uncle, always had, but he wasnt in the mood to listen
to the usual youve-shamed-the-family-because-youre-not-a-millionaire
speech. Not a lot. Just fifteen hundred, maybe two grand if you
can afford it.
Who can afford to burn his money year after year taking care of
a lafanga like you? Tell me? Even fifteen dollars is too much to expect
from my side. Those days are over. Completely. For the first time
he faced his nephew to emphasise that he meant what he said. There would
be no more forgiveness. Over the years, as Jack, or whatever he called
himself, stumbled from one disaster to another, the older man had always
felt it his responsibility to make sure his nephew survived. He had offered
his daughter to the boy to marry, found him job after job. He had stopped
calculating how many thousands hed loaned him since he had brought
the boy over. It was a question of duty and responsibility to his older
brother, Jacks father. But this latest humiliation was too much
even for Jalal to bear. You must no longer consider yourself a member
of this family.
Will you listen to me? Jack whined as he swung his head around
to get a better glimpse of the billboard advertising Eldorado Table Top
Dancers. Have fun this weekend. Up Close and Personal, Jack
read aloud then whistled long and lustily. Four years been too long.
To what should I listen? More lies? More broken promises?
The Seville was doing nearly ninety. Jack told his uncle to cool it and
get in the right lane before the cops forced him to. Dont
want to see another cop in my life. You dig, right?
Uncle Jalal had a habit of sweating when stressed and even though the
air conditioner had been on high since leaving the house, he could feel
the small wet beads tickling his tummy. He slowed down, but his knuckles
remained white as he strangled the wheel.
Will you purchase more narcotics? Or waste each cent on wine and
I want to go back to Pakistan. Jack could see the skyline
getting bigger now. Man, no place like Chicago in the world. The Sears
Tower, all those swanky high rises and yachts along the lakefront. Wrigley
Field, the Bulls, Soldier Field. Thats what Ive been
Kya bola? What did you say? Uncle Jalals foot fell off
the accelerator altogether; cars tooted and swung around him, flashing
Thats why I need money. To buy me a ticket.
Three weeks later Jack stepped off an rattley jumbo jet at Islamabad International
and into the heart-stopping heat of a mid-summer morning. Inside the terminal
passengers jostled, heaved and elbowed each other as they fought their
way towards passport control with the determination and pace of spermatozoa
swimming toward the womb. Tempers were short and the ceiling fans were
Next, yawned an Immigration Officer with a handlebar moustache
and watery canine eyes.
Jack shuffled forward with a mix of fatigue and finely-tuned cool and
tossed his passport onto the desk, like a pack of cigarettes onto a bar.
The Immigration man detected a hint of stale alcohol as Jack took a deep
breath of the sticky pre-monsoon air. He stared as Jack rubbed his orange,
bloodshot eyes with an open palm. He opened the passport but watched Jack
pick at a food stain on his white cotton shirt that hung out of a pair
of stiff new jeans. On top he wore a double-breasted blazer: dark blue
with faux brass buttons. His shoes were shiny black wingtips just out
of the box. No socks, the officer noted.
The Immigration man held Jacks passport open with one hand. The
photo on the front page showed the same face as stood before him now:
balding head, medium build, delicate ears with detached lobes. A smile
floating somewhere between murderous and mischievous. Jacks eyes
werent orange in the photo though. They were soft, pale brown and
almost see- through. Two muddy whirlpools that sucked you in.
Your birth place? the tired official asked.
What? Jack seemed surprised to be addressed.
In which city you were born, sir?
This shit hole. Jack reached up to retrieve his passport but
the Immigration man pulled it away.
Whats with this dickhead? Just stamp the damn thing and give it
back. Jack looked around for a toilet. Got to piss something awful.
You are American?
Jacks whirlpool eyes narrowed. Damn tootin.
The Immigration man didnt respond; just kept studying the passport,
then the man standing in front of him, flipping slowly through the pages
of the document, staring vacantly at each pink and blue page.
Its the genuine article. Issued in Chicago last week.
The officer was beginning to piss Jack off. Stress always came to his
feet first, making his toes stand up stiff and rigid, like the ears on
a gazelle suddenly alert to danger. The more angry or anxious or irritated
Jack got the stiffer his toes became. He registered his dislike of people
in his toes , and always trusted the vibes they sent him. A lot of times
hed be just hanging out with someone when hed realise that
his toes were as hard as rock. Without thinking, Jack would walk away,
trusting the signals emanating from inside his shoes.
This is your passport? the officer asked still thumbing through
the passports pages.
Whats that supposed to mean? Jacks big toe was
erect, rubbing against the inside of his new shoes. The signals coming
up his leg were strong and clear. He flared his nostrils at the Immigration
Before leaving Chicago Jack had considered using his old passport but
thought better of it. Every federal and state computer, probably every
county computer, between Chicago and LA, and the other way, too, as far
east as Boston, had the name Jacob Lord hidden in one of its databases.
In all sorts of columns: possession with intent, grand larceny, attempting
to impersonate a police officer, jumping parole. He would have been less
visible with an electronic tag around his neck and a Santa Claus hat on
his head than with the old passport. With some of the money Uncle Jalal
had given him he was able to score a fake Social Security Card through
an old contact in Calumet. The new passport, made out in his new name,
arrived a week before he was scheduled to depart.
On the plane Jack had put the finishing touches to his plan. He would
need only two months, three at the outside, to tie everything together.
Peshawar, up on the Afghan border: the place was thick with smugglers
and heroin factories. Head up there first thing, impress everyone with
his American ways and sophistication. A deposit would get him the first
shipment which would pay for the second. Three or four shipments of the
best smack in the world and Jack would really be King. The King of Chicago.
Thirty nine thousand feet over the Persian Gulf, sipping a vodka and orange
juice, Jack smiled at the thought. Sweetness!
There was a problem though; he only had slightly under fifteen hundred
bucks. Uncle Jalal had insisted on buying the ticket-- no loan Jack,
it is a gift. Im so happy you are going home--and gave him
two thousand dollars. More cash than hed seen in four years but
hardly enough for a down payment on a consignment of H. As
hard as he tried to think of another way, Jack knew that the only place
he could locate the kind of money to make his plan a success was with
his family. But getting his hands on even a tiny bit of their millions
would be neither easy nor straightforward. Uncle Jalal was one thing,
Jack knew every one of his buttons; hed been pushing them for years.
But the rest of his family barely knew him.
Jacks half brother, Shafi, lived in Singapore where he ran the familys
Southeast Asian interests. They had never been close and in fact, hadnt
seen or talked to each other in more than twenty years. Lina and Mina,
the twin sisters, had both married doctors and settled in suburban Toronto.
Connection with them had been severed when Jack was locked away for the
first time, back in the early eighties. Jacks mother had died before
hed moved to America and his father, Ali Hassan Shah, advisor to
the President, multi-millionaire hotelkeeper and all round industrialist
of Pakistan, hated his youngest child with a passion unbound. Jack would
have slit his own throat before asking the old man for a penny.
Uncle Jalal may have had a soft spot for Jack but even he wouldnt
have agreed to buy Jacks ticket had he known about his nephews
plan. Only Nanima, his mothers mother, might be sympathetic. She
had been the only one to cry when Uncle Jalal had taken him to Chicago
and every year, without fail, she sent him a garish card to commemorate
Eid. The day he was released from Pontiac, Uncle Jalal handed him four
of them, wrapped together with a rubber band. His only mail in four years.
Before leaving, Jack had tucked one of the envelopes with his grandmothers
address on it into his pocket. She was his only hope.
It is stated here that your birthplace...aap ki paidaish idharhi
hai, the Immigration officer still wanted to know where Mr Jack
King had been born.
My father is Pakistani, leastwise was, last time I saw him. But
me? No way, Jose. Red white and blue all the way. Jack reached over
to collect his passport. This time the Immigration man picked up a heavy
stamp with a well-worn wooden handle and banged it down on the first page
of the new passport as if he was killing a snake or something equally
dangerous. He took one last look at the photo then slowly handed the passport
Take it! he snapped. But as Jack reached out the Immigration
man grabbed his wrist and said, You have no socks.
Jack glowered at the man and tried to fight the rage that cut his gut
as the memory of that day when the old man had humiliated him way back
when. The last day hed ever put on socks. Jack yanked his wrist
free and pulled away from the desk. Jerk.
Next, barked the Immigration man.
Jack dropped his two bags onto an airport trolley and shuffled toward
the rank of yellow and black taxis. Before he got halfway across the road
cabbies were over him like white on rice, pulling his arms, grabbing his
luggage, yelling unintelligible things in his face. Despite his protestations,
and without any real say in the process, Jack was deposited into the back
seat of a new Daewoo. Memories of the Casa del Amour massage parlour back
home flooded over him as the driver slammed the door. Cheesy pink plastic
roses protruded from the dashboard. Brown velvety curtains on the back
and side windows. About as much light as youd find in a darkroom.
But what really did it was the aroma (like rotting mangoes) of overly
sweet perfume. As he fell into the taxi Jack closed his eyes and for a
second caught a glimpse of Mitsy, the cute one from Manila, her stockinged-legs
crossed, pouting teasingly. Beckoning him with a thin index finger crowned
with a long pink nail. Hoo wee! More than four years without a woman.
There in the backseat of the taxi, for just a moment, Mitsy seemed real
real. But when he opened his eyes the only person in the taxi was a huge
man with pockmarks on his potato nose. He turned the ignition key.
Hold it, Jack pulled off his blazer. How yall
breathe in this heat?
The atmospheric pressure was high. Slate-colored clouds were moving in
at a steady pace, darkening the early morning sky. The monsoon would break
any day now. A fat crow shrieked as it swooped down right by the taxis
window. Jack jumped. Other taxis were honking, the drivers were yelling
for the Daewoo to get a move on.
The driver wiped his wet forehead with his sleeve and squinted, searching
his mind for an English word. Islamabad? was all he could
come up with.
Jack reached into his blazer pocket and pulled out a packet of Kents,
which he handed over to the driver with a nod that he should help himself.
Hold on. I got it here. Jack pulled out a crumpled envelope
from his pants, unfolded it and held it up so the driver could read the
address. Grannys place. Nanima. Jack stabbed a finger
at the address. Take me there.
Twenty years. Twenty four and a half to be exact. Nearly twenty five.
A quarter of a century! However he counted it, he had been away a long
time. Jack pulled back the curtains to check out the countryside. Beyond
the black tarmac strip lay dry fields, low boxy buildings covered with
Urdu advertisements and a few scraggly trees, their leaves brown and heavy
with dust. Ugly. No other word for it. Just plain, butt ugly. Jack had
tried to erase Pakistan from his mind ever since leaving all those years
ago, so he couldnt say what he expected to find, but the colorless,
simmering landscape before him seemed to fit. One big faded black and
That was the way he always remembered Pakistan: in black and white. White,
the colour of his mothers favorite daisies in the garden. And of
her burial shroud. Before she died she used to sit in the garden with
Jack giving orders to the gardeners, telling them how far back to trim
the rose bushes and how much water to give the elephant-eared plants.
How many times in prison, alone with only his thoughts, had Jack felt
like his head was in her soft, comforting lap? He had been her last and
slightly unexpected child and she loved him with a special tenderness.
The scent of her body, warm and clean, came back to him a lot the older
he became. If there was one thing he wished for more than any other, it
was that he could see her just one more time. Or maybe just hear her say
that she loved him before she turned out the light. She died slowly over
many months but on the day she expired her fair skin turned the consistency
and color of paper.
After she died Jacks father became twisted and life turned black.
The garden, his mothers passion, became shadowy and a frightening
place, as did the hallways of the old house. How many times when the old
man was in a bitched up mood did his belt--thick and glistening black--slither
down like a snake and strike? How many times in the blackness of night
had Jack been coaxed into sleep by hate for his father?
Twenty-five years. May as well be twenty five hundred, man.
The desiccated fields had turned into a tiny bazaar. The taxi veered and
bumped off the highway and took a detour. Traffic moved at a snails
pace. They inched their way through lanes barely wide enough for the taxi
to get through. Local residents went about their morning business oblivious
to the steady stream of cars, mini buses and trucks that choked their
neighborhood streets. Jack positioned himself exactly in the middle of
the back seat to get the best view out of both windows, but also not to
be too close to either door. Who knows what these people are capable of?
Stick their hands in and make a grab for my watch or I might catch something.
I mean lookit there. Guys hacking up right by that kid whos
taking a leak and oh my God...Jack turned away and looked out the other
window when he saw a scrawny dog humping another one which had only three
legs. Ugliness and ignorance. Very reason I left this shithole country
to begin with.
They had moved out of the narrow alleys and onto a wider street riddled
with potholes, some so big the whole taxi lowered itself into them. Where
we at? Kaunsi jagah? Jack could hear how bad his accent was, but
who cared? He had already decided that he was going to use only as much
Urdu as he needed to get by...like with this cabbie. Otherwise it was
English all the way. Not even English. Not the language he learned in
Burnhall Academy all wherefore art thou and what a smashing
idea. No, he was going to speak his own language: American. Damn
right buddy. Good old Americanese. Shit yeah!
Movement became impossible. Vehicles, traders carts, animals and
masses of the public gummed up the street. The driver turned off the engine
and waited. Dripping with sweat, Jack contemplated getting out of the
taxi for a breather but was stopped by a weird sensation. His body became
suddenly as light as a feather and his heart took off at a sprint. All
the heat, ugliness, chaos and full throttle noise of the street began
closing in on him, pressing him down, invading his space. Somewhere outside
he could hear a policeman yelling at a bus driver: Your head lamps
are not working. One hundred rupees fine. Pay over there. Hawkers
seemed to be screaming the price of their wares from inside his head.
The sounds of the noisy world outside were muffled but in a way that made
him feel cold and scared; like something was separating him from it. Everyone
was on that side. Over here he was all alone. The black and white movie
had turned into an acid trip with a soundtrack cranked up way too loud.
A shiver started in his toes and worked its way up his legs then quickly
through his body and to his head. His skin turned clammy and the hairs
on his arms stood up. He lay down on the seat and rubbed his eyes. Icicles
poked up through his skin. The drivers bloodshot eyes glared at
him from the rear-view mirror like a hungry octopus. Jack clenched his
eyes and breathed hard. He started to pray, but then just as quickly as
it had come, it passed. His head thumped and his ears rang. What was that?
He rubbed his temples and sat up. Man, this is too weird. Ive come
back to hell. If he could have, he would have told the driver to turn
around and take him back to the airport but they were moving forward again,
like they were being carried forward against their will. His head, the
traffic, the world, everything was out of control.
The taxi was whizzing down a wide highway once again. With the wind battering
his face Jack was starting to recover. Woods on both sides and hills in
the background. Once they were into Islamabad proper, the streets became
wide, clean and perfectly straight. Just like back home. Some of the cars
even had white people in them. That made him feel even better.
They drove straight up the main road, all the way almost to the foot of
the mountains, where a huge mosque with sleek pointy minarets stood like
a spaceship ready for blastoff. They turned right and then left into a
leafy, shady neighborhood right at the foot of the hills.
The taxi stopped outside a huge, multi-storied house with marble exterior
and a humungus black wrought iron gate standing at least nine feet in
the air. The cabbie jumped out and opened the trunk to recover Jacks
bags but Jack couldnt believe his eyes. Holy shit, Batman,
In front of the gate stood a small sentry box and just as Jack got out
of the car, a guard with a red turban and starched white uniform strode
forward and asked firmly, Kya kaam?
Im looking for Nanima. He stared at the house. Theres
got to be at least seven or eight bedrooms in that place. And lookit that
marble! He walked toward the gate but the guard immediately jumped between
him and the house. Arey, pagal. Kis se milna?
Looking for grannie. Mrs. Wahida Akhtar. Jack was banging
the pockets of his blazer. Whered I put those shades? Thats
some marble. Make the blind see.
The guard snapped to attention. One minute, sir. He jumped
back into the sentry box and picked up a phone, dialed, said something
to someone and after a few seconds stuck his head out. What is name,
Mr Jack King, said Jack but added quickly, Tell her
her grandson is here. All the way from America!
Jack still couldnt believe his eyes. A mansion, right here at the
foot of the Margalla hills. And just four weeks ago home had been a nine
by six cell in Pontiac Correctional Center. Good thing I kept that envelope.
An old tree, like a giant umbrella hung over the gate. The front lawn
was being trimmed by two boys who jumped around on their hunches tending
to rose beds and pots of leafy green plants with an ancient pair of shears.
An equally pre-modern push mower with its twisted blades gummed up with
grass stood ready for more action.
Another man emerged from inside the mansion and greeted Jack. You
are Begum Wahidas grandson? From America? Jack nodded, still
taking in the size of the building and expanding the scope of his plan
by the second. Most welcome, sir. Begum sahiba, your nani, is very
pleased you have come.
How she be? Jack asked as he stepped forward leaving the turbaned
guard to deal with the bags.
She is old and sometimes is becoming ill, especially in rainy season.
Jack to you, dude. Jack King.
Excuse me sir?
Name is Jack. Mr Jack King. Dont call me sahib. Understand?
As you like, sir. Jacking. Very good name.
Jack stopped suddenly and shot his arm across the mans chest. Lets
get this correct, from the git go. Im not jacking, he made
a masturbatory motion with his hand. Its Jack King. Two words.
Jack. Followed by King. He lowered his head and glared at the man
over the top of his Raybans.
The man nodded gravely, unsure what sort of creature he was ushering into
the house, one who made such nasty gestures in public. Jack. King.
Of course, sir. He opened the giant, polished wood doors and stood
aside for Jack to step into a darkened room. Air conditioners hummed in
the dimness. The servant closed the door, kicked off his sandals, motioned
Jack to sit down, then hurried upstairs to inform the lady of the house
that her grandson, Mr Jack King. was waiting.
Chintzy pieces of baroque furniture, overly crafted and painted white,
gold and a shocking shade of pink, surrounded Jack like heavily made-up
teeny boppers at their first dance. Overstuffed seats and stiff backs.
Hed never seen so many lace doilies in his life; on every piece
of furniture, under every lamp. The sofa had gilt legs and green and white
satin upholstery. A mirror with an elaborate white and pink frame hung
the entire length and breadth of one wall. Lampshades like those in a
maharajahs palace, all oversized and stitched up tight. In the middle
of the menagerie, like a bulldog guarding the room, stood a squat coffee
table with an onyx top and stout shiny brass legs.
Beta, is that you? A thin, frail voice came from the shadows
to his right. Jack turned quickly and nearly gave his grandmother a heart
attack. Her face was as wrinkled as discarded wrapping paper and her teeth
were nearly all gone. Behind the glasses--lenses as thick as bottle bottoms,
heavy black plastic frames--a pair of soft lively eyes blinked up at Jack.
Man, shes got to do something about that beard. But as soon as his
grandmother reached out a creased and shaky hand, and touched his face,
Jack broke down in tears.
To be Continued: Look for Chapters Three and Four in May 2003
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About the Author
Rabe, writing under the pseudonym, Ajnabi, was born in southern
India in 1957. He completed his schooling at the old British East
India Company school, Woodstock, in Mussoorie in 1975 and in fine
colonial tradition was sent back to America to university.
For the next decade, as is the wont of American university students,
he dropped in and out of the University of Minnesota (returning
to India several times in between) and finally finished his academic
life in 1986 with a BA in South Asian Languages and Literature and
a MA in Modern Asian History.
In 1986-87, Rabe scored a scholarship to study advanced Urdu in
Lahore. Lived with a Punjabi family and rode a bicycle to school
each day, discovered Ghalib, Iqbal and Faiz and met the mighty Karkorum
mountains. In early 88, he landed a job with the UN in Islamabad
and Rabe has never returned to the US to live.
For the past 14 years he has worked his way around the world managing
aid and development programs in places like Angola, southern Nepal, Iraq
and North Korea. Along the way he married a lovely Australian nurse and
is now settled (or trying to) in Melbourne, Australia, the most livable
metropolis on earth. He manages the International Operations Department
for the Australian Red Cross.
In 2000 his first novel, The Book of Accounts, set in Iraq and Pakistan
was published in London and quickly nominated for the Guardian First Novel
Award and the E-book Prize of the Frankfurt Book Fair, neither of which
the book won! The Shah of Chicago is his second novel.
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