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Detritus Mundi

Bina Shah

Sukanya Ghosh, from Vanishing Point, ‘Wood for the Trees’, digital photo collage, 20×30”, 2018.

Standing in the kitchen as I make a cup of tea, I hear it before I see it: a large black fly, plump as a raisin, banging against the windowpane. Its inkspot body stands out against the clean white walls of the kitchen, a grey shadow following it in the fluorescent wash of the energy-saving lights.

The fly is trying to burst through what it doesn’t understand is a solid piece of glass; it only perceives the blurred shapes of trees in a jumbled mosaic, the world as seen through a kaleidoscope. Still, instinctively, outside into that mess is where it wants to go. It must have come in through the kitchen door, attracted by the smell of cooking, seeking shelter from the clean cold air of an early autumn morning.

I always feel slightly astonished when I see a fly in England. It seems so out of place, so wrong to see this interloper, a harbinger of disease and decay buzzing around a spotless window, or crawling across a lemony-smelling countertop. A tiny alien has come here by mistake, to a country of legendary cleanliness, where the streets are regularly washed and people extol the virtues of running and hiking barefoot in the countryside.

The last time I walked barefoot in Pakistan, hookworms laid their eggs in the top of my foot, from where the larvae hatched and began to crawl their way up my leg in thin red ribbons. I went to the doctor and got a course of medication to get rid of the infection, but I was left with a score of unsightly bruises on the tender skin of my foot and ankle. I still shudder to look at them. I swore I would never walk barefoot again, but there aren’t enough shoes for all the children in all the villages of my country who tend the cattle and romp at the side of the canal without protection.

The experience, which shamed me to the core when it happened, now makes me feel oddly close to the fly, as if she and I have something in common. We occupy a lower status in the world, different from those who will never know what it feels like to host larvae in their bodies. This is natural for a fly but taints a human, sets her apart from those for whom cleanliness and good health are national aspirations. I can never join their ranks, tattooed as I am with third world afflictions.

As children, most of us harbor parasites in our intestines without even knowing it: roundworms and flatworms, amoebae, blastocysts. Sometimes we even bring these parasites with us to different countries. When we fall ill in foreign lands, the English doctors shake their heads and order exotic blood tests for something that our doctors at home could identify in probably twenty minutes.

Pakistani children are routinely dewormed, although I’ve read Western scientific studies that say having a tapeworm can help certain types of inflammatory bowel diseases; they boost the immune system by provoking inflammation in the body. A famed Italian opera singer apparently swallowed tapeworms to help her maintain her figure. Our children are so thin, so thin, Maria Callas would have been jealous of their emaciated frames, their collarbones jutting out atop their concave chests. Our afflictions are others’ aspirations: our tanned skin, our thin bodies, our submissiveness, our ever-present smiles in the face of calamity.

Watching the fly, I feel a few moments of solidarity with this ugly, unwanted thing, before my natural third world instincts take over and I search for a way to let her out, or kill her. Either would be equally merciful where I come from. Escape or death, they’re the same thing if you strip yourself of squeamishness and religious compunction.

When people in my country commit suicide, the holy men refuse to pray for them or bury them with the correct religious rites. I read recently of a man who spent his life in a graveyard, washing and burying the bodies of prostitutes who committed suicide in the brothels of Hyderabad. If humanity is the highest religion, he would have been its highest priest, but daring to suggest this is a form of blasphemy where I come from.

We humans are strange: grateful for escape and ungrateful for death. But when someone delivers either of them to you without you even asking for it, what’s the use in being dissatisfied? Flies cannot feel gratitude, but they find beauty in what we think of as ugliness. Maybe if we had five eyes instead of two, we’d see what they see: extra colors, more movement, a thrilling complexity that pulls us into an alternate, inside-out world, where shit is a feast and garbage smells divine.

I saw a pigeon carcass earlier in the day as I was walking around the town square. It looked as if someone had laid a down-filled cushion in the street and smashed it with a cricket bat. There was a suggestion of grey feathers around the circumference of the dead object — no longer a bird in its corporeal form, its outlines transformed from bird-shaped into an unidentifiable mass. In the middle of the flattened blob, a meaty, dull pink mince.

I don’t know how it died, but I suppose it had been run over by a bright green bus, with a proud proclamation on its side that the bus ran on green energy. I was the only person to stop and look at the dead bird, to hiss through my clenched teeth the way we do back home when we see something that reminds us of the intransigence of life. Nobody else seemed to have noticed the dead pigeon’s existence. They politely looked away, as if giving the bird some dignity in death.

Standing at the window of this beautiful, comfortable house, I think about how, if I set it free, the fly would wander around the rows of immaculate flowers in the English garden, then go straight and true until she found that pigeon carcass, squashed flat in the street, to bother over. I can’t reach the window, though; it’s too high. The fly continues to assault the windowpane fruitlessly and I continue to watch her, unable to deliver either death or escape to my little sister today.

But even if I could let her go, she would be disappointed, because by the afternoon, when I was on my way back home, the dead pigeon had vanished. A passerby must have noticed, and called the council, who sent a cleaner with special tools, clad in a yellow high-visibility jacket, to scrape it off. It’s possible the road had even been washed, to make it look as though the pigeon had never been there in the first place.

The fly should have been in orbit around that dead pigeon, not banging herself against a window that was made immaculate just this morning by a Romanian cleaner. That pigeon should never have been walking in the street where the bus came and crushed it. By our willpower, we humans can unmake actions, undo intent, unroll nature. When we close our eyes, the past unravels and ceases to exist. We defy death with our insistence on hygiene. If we keep the world around us clean enough, we will never, ever die.

I can’t blame the fly for losing her bearings, though, nor the pigeon, poor soul. My customs don’t match the place in which I find myself. I too had done the wrong thing by standing and staring at its carcass, wanting to point it out to everyone that passed by — look! Look! Isn’t it terrible? But they deliberately did not look in my direction. In this country, it’s more polite not to meet anyone with more than a nod, or a brief, tight-lipped smile. Decay does not exist if you do not look at it. I felt robbed of the solidarity of grief, even over something as mundane as a pigeon run over by a bus.

Later that day, I crowded onto a tube during rush hour and found myself saying sorry to everyone, which was correct. But as more and more people pushed into me, and the temperature in the carriage began to rise, it took me a moment to realise that my lips were moving, my mouth humming with Arabic prayers for the dead. It’s a habit ingrained in me whenever I feel an impending sense of doom. When I got off the train, I stood for a moment on the platform, watching everyone scurry away into tunnels, up escalators, shrugging into or out of black jackets, shiny exoskeletons guarding their fragile insides, keeping them in place. The heels of their boots clicked as they marched quickly in formation, going to places by instinct: school, work, home.

Pakistan was cleaner when I was a child. All we had in those days, a good forty years ago, was dust. Dust is clean. It comes from the desert; it’s blown in from the beach. Our holy book instructs us that if you can’t find clean water with which to purify yourself before the prayer, you can find good, clean sand or dust, tap your hands on it, and rub your face and arms three times. This you can also do if your skin is inflamed, and water is a curse rather than a blessing.

The lepers in my country would have benefited greatly from this knowledge, if they had been thinking about their prayers. But that’s probably why they were afflicted with their disease in the first place, if you listened to what the holy men say. Those men have all the answers for our problems, but none of the solutions. They spend many minutes in their day performing their ablutions, instructing us all how to clean our ears and wash between our toes, while the ground around the mosques are always the dirtiest, strewn with dirt, crawling with flies.

Here in England, I feel as if I have more in common with the fly, the maggot, the common cockroach, than I do with the people that live here, who smell fresh like fabric softener and speak in soft tones, every second word out of their mouth an apology for an uncommitted offense. They put their garbage in separate bins: black for refuse, green for recycling, blue for bottles and plastic. Uniformed men come to their quiet streets and pull the bins out, empty them into the backs of giant mechanical garbage trucks, take them away to treatment plants and recycling factories in a neat and industrial operation that takes place every Tuesdays and Saturdays at eight in the morning.

In Pakistan, I saw Afghan children put their hands in stinking sewers to pull out plastic bottles and empty them of black sewage water before recapping them and throwing them into the sacks they carry on their backs, hoping to sell them for a few dozen rupees so their families could eat in the evening. There was a drive to return these people to their home, across the porous border, to a country they had never seen. We like to imagine that ridding ourselves of vermin will make us clean again.

I carry the stench of detritus with me everywhere I go, layers of dirt and despair that no bath can take off me, no amount of fabric softener or gentility can erase. When I tell people where I come from and what I have witnessed, their eyes widen and they lay sympathetic hands on my arm to express their solidarity. But in their soft blue eyes, I see a dullness that signals the absence of understanding.

How can I explain to these clean people that only last month, we slaughtered animals to celebrate God, then skinned them and eviscerated the carcasses, throwing the offal into the street? The bodies bled into standing rainwater where the mosquitoes laid their larvae with almost bureaucratic efficiency. Entire neighborhoods erupted in dengue and dysentery in the aftermath.

Only the fly understands this stench, is excited by its promises, feeds on its largesse. The fly and her kind are intimately acquainted with death in all its forms. She does not judge anyone for the dirt and the filth, the bombings, the target killings, the lynchings, the honor killings. She sees only opportunity in all the ways people can tear each other apart. In countries like mine, we kill each other for sport, or money, or conviction, and we all die knowing we are careless and replaceable. The fly knows this and loves us for it. It’s a symbiotic relationship: we die so her kind can live.

I watch the fly buzz against the windowpane, turn and circle back, again, again, again. Her entrapment is the song of the world; I know that I am helpless to change it in any way. I turn away and walk into the next room, where the television is buzzing with news of a man found dead after hiding himself in the wheel well of an aircraft’s landing gear. He froze to death somewhere above the Mediterranean; as the plane descended toward Heathrow, the compartment opened and his body plummeted to earth, without any wings to help him fly away.

Two news anchors are discussing this as a segue into the latest rhetoric about immigrants, the language the right wing uses to describe them, the dehumanisation of people in order to serve political agendas. They’re too polite to discuss how the names of insects and animals are used to describe the people who wash up on these pure shores.

Do we get to be human only after we die? I ask the fly.

To my surprise, she replies, speaking slowly and clearly enough so I can understand: Sic transit detritus mundi.

Bina Shah is a Karachi-based author of five novels and two collections of short stories including the critically acclaimed novel A Season for Martyrs (2014) and the feminist dystopian novel Before She Sleeps (2018). She is currently the president of the Alliance Francaise de Karachi and works on issues of women’s rights and female empowerment in Pakistan and across Muslim countries.