Seher Fatema Vora
Seher Fatema Vora is a Pakistani American editor and writer. She has worked as an editor for academic and news publications, and recently shifted her focus to fiction. Seher holds an MA in international relations from the Fletcher School at Tufts University and is working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from San José State University, where she was a Graduate Steinbeck Fellow for the 2020-2021 academic year. She is currently the Lead Fiction Editor at Reed Magazine.
No God for Spilled Ink
Munir was a qatib. On average he wrote thousands of characters a day, even if one only counted the connected words written in nasta’līq-style script rather than the individual Urdu letters. He was part of a veritable army of calligraphers who spent nights laboring over the next day’s newspaper, ensuring that standard copies could be sent to the printing house and set to plate in time to meet the production needs of Karachi’s morning news cycle—hundreds upon thousands of papers to be prepared by the break of dawn.
Providing the people with knowledge about the workings of wider world around them was the obvious purpose of a newspaper, but Munir’s pride in his work came from the appreciation of wirsa, an appreciation as subtle as it was intrinsic. For wirsa was painted into every long stroke of the pen on the page: a subliminal reminder to all those who read the words on the paper with their morning cup of chai that theirs was a history older than nation, older than partition, older than empire. Their heritage was in that divine geometry, as old as the words of God.
He left the headline for last, as he always did. It was the jewel in the crown of transcription, shining new and wet just in time to light the way for morning prayers. The headline was the only part of the paper that he dared to take his time with. The bloated ligatures of the enlarged heading required broad, careful strokes, and they were what drew the eye, after all. His last flourish completed, he glanced over at his neighbor’s paper to make sure he’d correctly rendered the finishing touch. August 18, 1988. Relinquishing his pen at last, he settled into a moment of stillness, rare as rain outside of monsoon season.
Munir lived his whole life in the duality of Calligraphy Street’s two sounds: the scritching of pen on paper, and the muezzin’s amplified recitation of the azaan to all of Eid Gah neighborhood, five times a day. Most of Karachi’s smaller newspapers had their calligraphy stalls on this dusty and ditch-studded stretch of road. The publication that Munir had been scribing for over the last twenty years owned two small stalls, filled like all the others with calligraphers bent double over their work, pens flying across the folds of paper with the buzzing speed of a wasp on the warpath. Only the most finely-written samples were selected by Mian Sahib—the street overseer—to be sent to the newspaper’s main office in the Saddar district for lithographing and final publication. Munir’s work had the distinction of being selected for this singular honor (and the sizeable bonus that came with it) at least once a week.
He expected no different today. Hanif in the next stall was his only real rival, and his hands had been shaking slightly as he’d added his finishing touches on his own paper. The younger guys in the stall were, frankly, all novices when it came to the finer points of nasta’līq. Satisfied with the prospect of another quiet victory, Munir followed the sound of the Fajr azaan out into the street and to the mosque at the corner of the road. Dawn had not yet broken. He’d finished just on time.
After a much-needed round of sleep and a paltry breakfast consisting of a fried egg and a paratha that was more oil than bread, Munir headed back to work early that afternoon. The calligraphy stalls had not yet reopened for the evening’s work, but a crowd of his colleagues squatted outside, alternately smoking and chewing on paan leaves. Munir hastened to join them.
“—still can’t believe General Zia is dead. The mourning crowds blocked off the whole Kabutar Chowk thoroughfare, did you see? I shouldn’t have tried to take a ricksha home, what a stupid idea . . .”
“There’ll be firing all night. Good luck to all of us trying to keep our hands steady with that racket on in the background . . .”
Munir elbowed his way onto a stool next to Hanif. “The general is dead?”
“Yes, yes, didn’t you read the headline this morning?” Hanif said, giving him an exasperated look. “Plane crash, they said, an accident. Don’t believe that for a minute. Apparently Bhutto’s daughter is already on her way to Lahore.”
“My god.” This from another one of the newer calligraphers—easily riled-up young guys who loved to run their mouths, in Munir’s opinion. “What if she wins the election? Can you imagine? Is it any wonder the country is going to pot?”
“I say good riddance, Zia was a tyrant. I miss Ayub Khan,” sniffed the old beanpole from the stall two doors down, who had come running at the scent of gossip. “Those were the good days…”
“Ayub Khan would have had us switch to angrezi letters to make typing easy,” Hanif scoffed. “We’d all be using typewriters if he had his way, like heathens. Ha! Who did he think we are? Would you take away a bird’s right to sing because its song cannot be preserved? He would have seen us robbed of all our pride.” He spat, a red glob of chewed up paan that stained the dirt like a splash of blood.
The spittle darkened to the inscrutable black of an ink blot as Munir watched, tuning out the talk about politics (most of which went straight over his head anyway). It grew and grew and grew, and at once became the contents of his carefully stored cache of inkwells, swept off the shelves and unceremoniously shattered by the usurpation of those unwieldy type machines. The spilled ink dripped and dribbled down to join the splatter of paan and phlegm before him and became a black river, running wasted and wayward down the road before rising into an opaque tidal wave, washing away Calligraphy Street and all of them hunched over the next day’s paper.
Hanif spat again, and the slap of it onto the road jolted Munir away from this apocalyptic scene. He joined in the vigorous nodding that was now accompanying Hanif’s every word, though he wasn’t sure which politician they had moved on to slandering.
“Ey, what are you nodding along for? Did you even hear anything I just said?”
“Munir Bhai is just a pen and ink,” chortled the youngster who’d spoken earlier. “Don’t bother getting any opinion from him that he doesn’t need to write down later!”
Munir tried to laugh along good-naturedly with the rest, but the disquiet hung over his head long after they all dispersed off down the mercifully dry dirt road to the mosque for the late afternoon prayer.
As predicted, the scratching of pens and occasional sighs and yawns of the calligraphers were completely drowned out in the sharp peppering of distant aerial gunfire that perforated the air for hours that night. Even the sound of the azaan was nearly buried under it, and Munir shuffled quickly down the street to the mosque and back, uneager to be out in the open for longer than necessary. A stray bullet had already struck the window of the stall three doorways down, injuring two of the people inside with a spray of broken glass; the result was a general chaos of people yelling, benches being upended, and several more paranoid workers cursing and running for cover. Several of his colleagues leapt up to goggle at the commotion from the relative safety of their stall, and Munir reluctantly got up to join them. He could not get himself to concentrate, even though his work on tomorrow’s paper was hardly half done.
“All right, that’s enough, you duffers,” said Mian Sahib from somewhere behind him. Surprised, Munir nearly bashed into the wall as he turned. “Either go home or get to work. You’re probably safer in here, but I won’t have you sitting idly and wasting supplies. Go on!”
Bullets or no bullets, the paper still needed to go out the next morning, without any mention of the blood of the people who toiled over it. With a great deal of mutinous muttering, most returned to their stools, Munir among them. Sitting down, he adjusted his grip on his pen and prepared to soldier on. As he positioned his hand above the paper, Munir noticed belatedly that he had cut himself—likely a splinter from when he had grabbed the wall to steady himself at Mian Sahib’s appearance. Even as he watched, a drop of blood fell from his finger and landed directly in the middle of the sweeping belly of the character he had just inked onto the page. It shone darkly there for a moment before sinking into the paper, the dot now as firmly a part of the script as though it had been placed on purpose. Munir stared at it for a long moment. It was hardly discernible from the ink itself.
In the end, he left it there, ignoring its sinister gleam. His pen flew on as he worked into the night and the continuing gunfire took on a staccato harmony with the sharp creaking of his pen. When morning came, he was the only scribe with a finished paper to present.
A disturbing rumor had been sweeping Calligraphy Street, which Munir became aware of over the next few days and confirmed during one of his gossip breaks with the alley chaiwallah. The firing had stopped, and peace on the street restored; but Munir could not revel in the blessed silence. Abandoning his tea, he went hop-jogging back to his stall and hovered outside in a state of high dudgeon until Hanif arrived.
“What’s the matter, Munir Bhai?”
“Is it true, Hanif? About this printing block that they’ve come up with?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Apparently they’ve found a way to print nasta’līq. With a printer,” Munir said frantically. “Have you heard anything? It can’t be true, can it?”
“Ey, what kind of sansani khez talk is that?” said Hanif, elbowing him. “Who told you this?”
“Everyone’s saying it,” muttered Munir. He sent a side-eyed glare back at the chaiwallah, who was conveniently nowhere to be seen. Sansani khez talk! Hardly. He was no slave to sensationalism the way the rest of the youngsters on the street were, always perking up at every little opportunity to cause a riot! Providing the headlines wasn’t his job, after all. He just copied them down, to the last downward slant.
But Munir could not get the disturbing concept out of his mind for the rest of the night. It brought him back to a dream he’d had just yesterday, and his mood darkened. As it had in the dream, a blot dripped off his pen—drip, drip, drip, oversaturated, overflowing—the swell of opacity rearing up to swallow and drown him in an oily black void. So much ink. So much. Where could it all have come from? One pen could not have been the source.
His hands were drenched, the pen clutched tightly between them. His fingers had grown roots around its body, shriveling and ensanguined. But a look down showed that the liquid was still black.
Munir came back to himself, shuddering. He was shocked to find that his hands were shaking. Chewing down harder on the paan in his mouth, he steeled himself and spent a tense few minutes straightening his workspace and his thoughts. But when morning came, and Mian Sahib looked down at his paper, his eyebrows went up. Munir looked down and saw, to his horror, that the headline was—incredibly—off-center.
There was a commotion when Munir arrived back at the shop the next afternoon, his tongue still smarting from the too-hot tea that he’d gulped down at the insistence of the chaiwallah.
“You’re looking peaky, sar,” the gangly boy had said. Munir almost smacked him for cheekiness, but the youth offered up a glass of freshly brewed doodh patti as a remedy for both insult and condition, which of course Munir wasn’t going to refuse. He sidled up to where Hanif was awkwardly crouching by the stall awning. A sleek, black car was idling by in front of it; Munir gave it a suspicious stare, then turned to Hanif.
“What’s going on?”
“Mr. Basharat’s here.”
Now this was news! The owner of the newspaper, known colloquially to all as Mr. Basharat after the title of the newspaper itself, had come out to the calligraphy shop only once that Munir could remember: opening day, over twenty years ago. Just a young man with his businessman father then, barely on the verge of growing a mustache. Munir idly wondered if he looked like his father now.
“What does he want?”
“He’s talking to Mian Sahib.”
“What does he want with Mian Sahib?”
Hanif bit his lip in an uncharacteristic inflection of worry.
“You may have been right about the printer, Munir Bhai. Mian Sahib wasn’t looking so happy.”
Munir barely had time to process this earth-shattering information before the door of the back office swung open. Out walked a tall, sharp-looking man, looking almost ridiculously out of place in the dingy surroundings in a shining black suit and red tie. He had a proper mustache, trimmed neatly to his face, and carried himself like a man who didn’t know what it was like to constantly be checking for the weight of coins in his pocket.
Indeed a spitting image of his father, Munir noted idly, before his thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of Mian Sahib, stumbling ungracefully out after his employer. Mr. Basharat turned to him.
“I trust you’ll take care of the matter?”
“We will do our best, Basharat Sahib,” said Mian Sahib, sounding meeker than Munir had ever heard him. “But you must understand, it’s such short notice . . . the workers will complain . . .”
“Complain about what?” shouted Hanif. Munir elbowed him, face flaming in embarrassment, but Hanif held his ground as Mr. Basharat’s head swiveled around to face them and the crowd of workers that had now gathered.
“You might as well tell them now, sahib,” muttered Mian Sahib. Mr. Basharat glared back at him out of the corner of his eye, then cleared his throat.
“I am sorry to announce,” he said in a clipped accent that screamed of an exclusive grammar school education, “that the newspaper’s operation in Eid Gah will soon be coming to a close. We have made the decision to consolidate.”
Hissing and muttering emanated from the crowd. To his credit, Mr. Basharat’s stern expression did not waver. “We are very grateful for the services that you all have provided.”
“So it’s true?” Hanif yelled. “It’s true that you have a printer?”
Mr. Basharat looked slightly surprised, a minute downward quirk of his thin lips. “If you must know,” he said, and Munir wondered if he was imagining the slight note of pride that colored his words, “we have obtained samples of the Noori Nastaliq typeset that has just been made available to the market. So you see, the standardization of type will be instrumental for streamlining—”
He was cut off by a propulsion of shouts from the crowd.
“But what about our jobs?”
“You can’t do this!”
“How can a printer be used to type Urdu? You call that straight script they use in Arabia nasta’līq?”
“It’s an outrage! Sacrilege!”
“What about our jobs!?”
Mr. Basharat ignored all of this, but when he heard the comment about nasta’līq, his face flushed.
“The art of nasta’līq will not be lost whether it is typeset or not,” he insisted, and for the first time, there was heat in his voice. “How are we to elevate the mastery of calligraphy as high art if any man on the street can hold a pen and call himself a qatib? Still, this is not to say that there is no talent amongst you. I have seen the quality of the work with my own eyes, and those who wish to are welcome to inquire at the central print office once it opens in Lyari.”
He dutifully ignored another outpouring of outrage—Hanif among the most vocal, shouting things like “Lyari! But that’s all the way across the river!”—and smartly turned his back on them all, sliding back into the black car waiting for him. It crackled to life, and then he was gone.
Munir had not quite understood all of what had just been said—Mr. Basharat’s Urdu was polished and sophisticated, above the colloquial register that Munir was used to hearing. But he thought he gleaned the gist of it from Hanif’s darkening expression. Lined with the sharp cut of education and wealth, Munir knew the words that had gone over his head could mean nothing good. Someone like him would not be able to efficiently produce the satisfactory output of words from the type box. How could his old and gnarled hands, so confident when they held the pen that was an extension of his own body, possibly adjust to such a foreign thing? How could he filter liquid life into the ligatures when pens were no longer needed? This was beyond losing a job. The true meaning of his dream shot through his consciousness like a needle: the ink and his blood were one and the same, and if he could not write, he could not live. Where would the ink all go?
Munir stumbled back inside to his desk, and for the rest of the night, even as he scrawled and scribbled as dutifully as ever, his mind was somewhere else entirely.
What resulted in the early hours of the morning was some of the best work he had ever produced. After the upset of the previous afternoon, Mian Sahib was in absolute raptures over the way that each letter’s corresponding nuqta had been perfectly aligned with the slant of the script. But Munir could not bring himself to even get up from his seat. He fell asleep right there at the table, unaware that his flexing fingers had knocked the inkwell to the floor. It lay oozing, as though from a jagged wound in the wad of crumpled scraps that lay beside him.
The dream this time was worse. Munir floundered and flailed trying to keep his head above the crushing swell of ink that threatened to engulf him. He might have drowned completely if the drone of the afternoon azaan had not woken him, and as he roused himself, it took a full minute to register the sun shining overhead. The stall was empty; Hanif and the others had not yet arrived.
Munir frowned. Given the amount of light outside, it was late in the afternoon—he’d missed both the Zuhr and Asr prayer calls. The others should have come by now. He was sure it wasn’t Friday. While most didn’t work on the week’s holy day, there would still be activity on the street, at the very least people going to and fro for lunch after listening to the Friday sermon.
Confused, he got up slowly and made his way to the back office. He’d never been in here before; Mian Sahib never had occasion to call him back for a telling off or a pay docking or anything of the sort. Cautiously, he approached and knocked softly on the door.
It opened at once, revealing a disheveled and haggard-looking Mian Sahib.
“Oh . . . Munir. You’re still here?”
“Assalam Alaikum, Mian Sahib. Where is everyone?”
“I told them not to come today,” said Mian Sahib, scrubbing a hand over his face as he retreated into the office. “We won’t be closing immediately of course, but I thought everyone could use a day to process . . . start looking elsewhere, you know . . .” he walked around to the spindly desk that was crammed against the far corner and sat down in the equally spindly chair in front of it. Munir hovered awkwardly in the doorway for a moment, unsure of what to do. Then what Mian Sahib said registered.
Mian Sahib looked up. “We’ll have to, Munir. Once the printer is up and running in the Lyari office, there won’t be any need for lithographing hand-written text. The stall will most likely be sold. Damn Mr. Basharat! How does he expect me to get a good price on such short notice?”
Munir gaped at him. “But . . . but . . . does this mean . . . we truly won’t have jobs anymore? What will we do?” He scratched absent-mindedly at the scab that had formed on his finger from a few days before. It cracked, and an opaque black bead of ink bubbled out. Munir hastily clasped his hands behind his back.
“I am sorry, Munir,” said Mian Sahib, and he looked it. “I wish I could do something to prevent it. But I am not my own master in this, don’t you see? We’re all just pens, really, in the hand of a greater scribe. But it seems that there’s no ink left. For the big boss, it’s time for a new set of supplies.”
Munir struggled not to cry. It wasn’t so much that he was embarrassed by his emotions as he was afraid that his tears would fall and leave streaking black trails in their wake—it would not do to let others see how much the ink had become a part of him.
“What will happen to Calligraphy Street, Mian Sahib? Where will I come if not here?”
Mian Sahib looked at him sadly, and he seemed older to Munir suddenly, even though his hair was still solidly gray.
“I have a gift for you.” He reached into the desk’s one drawer and pulled out a long, thin box with a small pot affixed to the end, about the length of Munir’s hand and wrist. Giving it a fond look, he held it out to Munir with both hands. Munir stared at it, half confused, half fascinated.
“It’s a qalamdan, Munir,” prompted Mian Sahib. “You see here? That’s Surat al-Qalam engraved on the case.” He paused, waiting for Munir to comment, perhaps, but Munir said nothing. Mian Sahib cleared his throat. “It is my favorite verse of the Qur’an, you know? The Prophet said of it that the first thing Allah created was the pen, so that the deeds of man might be recorded and accounted for on the Day of Judgement.” When Munir still offered no acknowledgement, Mian Sahib pressed the inkwell firmly into his hands. “Take it. I know you’ll use it to write great things.”
Munir held it loosely. It was easily the most beautiful object he’d ever held in his life, and certainly the most valuable: a delicate case, long like a rectangle but with smooth, rounded edges lacquered in black. The gilded edges of the ligatures that ran across the lid—the words of Surat-al-Qalam, he supposed—glinted warmly in the fading light of the sunset. The rays of his last hope, fading away to meet the evening. Somewhere above, the muezzin sounded the azaan for Maghrib prayer.
“Thank you, Mian Sahib,” Munir said at last. His mouth felt numb.
Mian Sahib sighed with heft.
“You are a good man, Munir,” he said. “Would I have hired you to work as a qatib otherwise? The pen is not for everyone, but most people don’t realize that. That’s why they can do so much damage.” He patted Munir absent-mindedly on his stooped shoulder, then ambled off to the mosque.
Munir stayed where he was, for the first time in his life feeling that the mosque was not the place he was meant to be. Though he knew he should be honored to be the recipient of such extravagant praise and gifts, he could feel nothing but the dissociative despair of a man who had resigned himself to drowning. He would never write great things, nor could he ever make his living as a man of words, no matter how intricately he might be able to render them, no matter how much of the divine favor of God flowed through the strokes of his pen. None of these things would ever be possible for him, no matter how black his blood might run. Munir did not know how to read.
“ The beginnings of Munir's story came to me after I read this article on the future of the Urdu language (https://restofworld.org/2021/bringing-urdu-into-the-digital-age/). The fact that the nasta'līq calligraphy style, which distinguishes Urdu from other languages written in Arabic script, almost didn't make it into the 21st century was both jarring and deeply saddening to me as a native Urdu speaker—a disturbing glimpse into technology’s potential to erase culture. However, the reverse can also be true, as long as we don't forget the history that has brought us to where we are as human beings. ”