“Naima’s brother sat silently on one side. Outside the window daylight had waned. The middle-aged woman handed me a record and said, ‘Here, this is their father.’ I looked at the record. It had a light blue label with the picture of a pair of spotted deer and the legend: Calcutta Recording Company; Music by: R.C.B.; Orchestra conducted by: P.K. The remainder was in Hindi. The record had a hairline crack running all the way from the center to the outer rim where it had been deftly mended by a piece of copper sheet and minuscule nails.
“I asked them to play the record for me and they were quick to oblige. The voice sounded vaguely familiar. I knew I had heard that song in England at the house of one buff or another of old Indian music, but try hard as I might I failed to recollect exactly where. Just then I heard the lady say, ‘Watch, here he comes!’ What came was a piece of flute music. Naima and her sister pointed simultaneously at the rotating disc and screamed, ‘There he is!’
“The record kept playing, making a click each time the needle hit the crack. Once it even got stuck in a groove so that Naima had to quickly lift the heavy playing head and advance it a couple of grooves. I was trying hard to avoid looking directly into their faces. The flute intermezzo was incorporated several times in the composition and each time it was played they listened to it in hushed reverence, while I wondered, what if the record broke one day … what would they hang on to, just what?
“Well, let me tell you what to do,” Cathy said. “Just let this two hundred feet of magnetic tape sit right where it is. I think I know what it is that you want to send to that family. But are you sure they can afford a tape player to listen to it?”
“I can easily send them one,” I said in a choking voice.
“And make them realize that all you noticed about them was their poverty? That besides that snatch of flute music, to which they clung so miserably, they owned absolutely nothing? Surely you don’t want to insult them, do you?”
Cathy picked up the packet, played with it for a few seconds and put it back down. Then she said, “Just let it lie here. With it before your eyes as you write, the individuals you wish to talk about will not turn into mere characters.”
After a brief silence I asked, “Care for a walk?”
“Sure, why not. To my place?”
Hasan Manzar is a major fiction writer from Pakistan, with several novels and collections of short stories to his credit. Oxford University Press, in its Pakistan Writers’ Series, published “A Requiem for the Earth”, a selection of his stories in English translation. He practices Psychiatry and now lives in Karachi, visiting Hyderabad for a couple of days weekly to take care of his old patients.