On the cold night of November 24, 1997, before Shahid disappeared forever, I thought I was his closest friend, his only confidant. We had known each other since we were children, attended primary and high school together, even gone to the same college in Lahore, but he was bewildering from the start. 

He was fortunate enough to be the son of a wealthy feudal lord and not of an ordinary civil servant like me, but when I think back to his childhood, it seems unlikely that he should have gone on to take the remotest interest in philosophy. His three brothers all dropped out of school, and everyone knew that his father, Malik Aslam, was barely literate. Malik Sahib liked to brag that he’d read just one book in his life, the Holy Quran—the only book Shahid would never touch. His mother’s death when he was fifteen had altered his nature, striking the words for God from his lexicon. Having been a carefree, spirited boy, he became solitary and reclusive. He quit cricket and sought refuge in the municipal library, where he would read all day until it closed. 

In college, he studied English literature, and every day after class, he would stop by Pak Tea House to eavesdrop on the conversations of writers, one of whom introduced him to surrealism. Soon he was channeling his energies into a novel in the style of Breton’s Nadja—he titled his “Nazia”—set in our hometown of Sheikhupura, where the young hero roamed the deserted alleyways, increasingly estranged from his city, on the trail of a strange woman about whom he knew nothing. Shahid never did finish the book, though, because in his third year, he developed his next fixation.

He had enrolled in a course called Initiation into Philosophy, taught by an eager young instructor named Sheiz with a passion for postmodernism and deconstruction. Sheiz liked to lend his students books from his personal library, or to buy them cheap paperbacks off the towpath at the Anarkali bazaar on Sundays. But Plato’s Republic, Spinoza’s Ethics, Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness all proved disappointing to Shahid. Sheiz was determined, though, and one Sunday morning he presented Shahid with Derrida’s Glas: “You must read this, it has fire inside it. Fire!” The text was printed in two columns, each containing a discourse so distinct from, so incompatible with the other—on the left, reflections on Hegel; on the right, meditations on Jean Genet’s erotic metaphors—that it was hard to believe they had materialized from the same pen. It seemed that, in this book alone, philosophy and poetry, intellect and passion, conscious and subconscious had come face-to-face. 

Shahid read it on the rickshaw home from the bazaar and in his dormitory until dawn. In the morning, he came to my room with Glas under his arm and told me that it had reoriented his life’s compass. He transferred to the philosophy department, started studying French at L’Alliance Française, and became involved with the Thinkers’ Coven, a small society of Sheiz’s students that met each month to discuss some lofty concept. I attended a few of those meetings myself, and found them tedious and impenetrable—in truth, I grasped barely a word. But Shahid was a fearsome participant. His criticisms often deeply offended people, yet he argued on without a thought for their wounded feelings. He was not afraid to be unpopular, having assumed a surrealist koan as his mantra: “What other people reproach you for, cultivate. It is yourself.”

Eventually, in an especially heated debate, he took it too far. A student from a local religious organization was so affronted by Shahid’s atheistic remarks that he shared them with his group. They launched a protest movement against Shahid, and against Sheiz, too, whom they accused of coercing Shahid into voicing what Sheiz didn’t have the nerve to say himself. The campaign gathered momentum, and the Thinkers’ Coven was banned. Shahid and Sheiz decided to flee, Shahid to Sheikhupura and Sheiz to the United States. As for me, my life and reputation were too dear—I cut my ties with Shahid as soon as the protest movement started. Sometimes I’d wonder if I should visit his father to ask after him, but something or other always forced me to postpone, until one Sunday the landline rang. 

“Irfan, how are you?” Shahid’s voice boomed on the other end. 

“Sheeday! Where are you? Are you okay?” 

Yaara, don’t worry about me. I’m in Paris and I’m very happy. I’m attending Derrida’s seminar!” 

I congratulated him, but in truth I felt resentful. I was in my final semester then—soon I’d have to move back home and find a job. I knew that a belittling, boring small-town life awaited me, while there he was in France, basking in firsthand instruction from the world’s busiest and most renowned philosopher. He recounted how, when the campaign against him was gathering momentum, he had locked himself in his room, hardly ever venturing out. When his father saw how scared he was, he resolved to send Shahid abroad for a while. Malik Sahib could have sent him to practically any city in the world, but Shahid claimed he wanted to practice his French. Of course, his father played right into his hands.  



For ten months after that call, there was no word. Then, when I was at the market buying groceries one afternoon, I ran into Shahid. Was he here for the holidays? He explained bitterly that his father had summoned him back. His accusers seemed to have forgotten about him and moved on to a new offender. There had been an opening for a teacher of philosophy at Govt. College, and his father had recommended him to the dean.