“I thought,” said Mullah Hukmuddin, “that I was supposed to be Gulbuddin.”
“No,” Mullah Abdullah replied, “you’re Ayoob. Gulbuddin is to be you.”
“And who is Ayoob supposed to be?” Mullah Hukmuddin demanded. “I thought Ayoob was me.”
“Yes,” Ayoob put in. “Who am I supposed to be?”
Mullah Abdullah reached up to scratch his head, and only managed to scratch his turban. “You were to be Shaqur, right? Isn’t that what we decided?”
Ayoob pulled at his beard in frustration, but not too hard, in case it came off. “All this time you were telling me I was Hukmuddin. Now you tell me I’m Shaqur. Make your mind up.”
“Hold on,” Mullah Abdullah said, and reached for the script. “If you’re going to be Hukmuddin, we’re going to have to make some changes...”
“If I’m Shaqur,” Ayoob whined, “I’m going to have to study the part. Why can’t I just be Hukmuddin?”
“Because I’m Hukmuddin,” Gulbuddin said irritably. He frowned, and everyone fell silent for a moment. Gulbuddin had a famous frown. People said it could stop a drone in its tracks. “That’s why you can’t be Hukmuddin. You’re Shaqur.”
“And where is Shaqur?” Hukmuddin asked. “He isn’t even here.”
“He’s gone with Najib to plant a few IEDs,” Abdullah explained. “He’ll be back soon.”
“If we’re going to start shooting at all today,” the cameraman said, “you’d better get a move on.”
“Let’s get the rehearsal over with,” Mullah Abdullah told him. He looked around the room. “Where are the props? I thought you were to get us some poppies and a goat, Hukmuddin?”
“I’ve sent Bakhtawar to get them,” Hukmuddin said. He pointed to a chalk mark on the floor. “If I’m Ayoob, am I to stand here?”
“Yes, that’s Ayoob’s place. Can you manage to be Ayoob?”
“Of course,” Hukmuddin said. He adopted an exaggerated whine. “I’m so tired of all this. Can’t we just get it over with?”
Ayoob started forward angrily. “I do not talk like that!”
“Of course you do,” Hukmuddin snapped. “We’ve all been listening to you long enough.”
“Shut up, both of you,” Gulbuddin growled. He turned to Abdullah. “Tell me again why we can’t all just play ourselves.”
“Because that would be imitating life,” Abdullah said. “That’s haram. We can’t play ourselves, only each other.”
“Seems like this whole movie will be haram by the time we get it done,” Gulbuddin muttered. “I thought it was supposed to make us more appealing to everyone, and at this rate...”
“Don’t worry,” Abdullah said hastily, “Talibanistan will be a great movie. We can even enter it for the Oscars.”
“What are the Oscars?” Hukmuddin asked curiously.
“Some award given in Amrika to the movies. If we can win it we’re made. People all over the world will look at us with new eyes.” Abdullah looked around. “Where’s Ameera?”
“Here she is,” Gulbuddin said. “Come here, Ameera, and stand over here next to Ayoob.”
“I won’t let her stand next to me,” Ayoob said.
“Why ever not?”
“Because I won’t act with a hussy like that,” Ayoob said. “Naked and all.”
“Naked?” Gulbuddin roared. “She’s in a burqa, just like all the other women. What are you talking about?”
“You can still see her hands,” Ayoob yelled right back. “Trollop.”
“Besides,” Hukmuddin said, “I’ll bet she’s naked under all those clothes she’s got on.”
“What a slut,” Ayoob agreed. “I bet she bathes naked, too.”
Both he and Hukmuddin shuddered at the idea.
“All right,” Abdullah said. “Ameera, you can go. We’ll put Najib in a burqa. He can play Ameera.”
“And can he imitate Ameera’s voice?” Gulbuddin asked nastily. “You know as well as I do that Najib has a voice like a donkey in mating season.”
“How does it matter?” Abdullah asked. “Ameera doesn’t have any lines of dialogue anyway. I mean,” he said, “we have to put in a woman to show that we respect both sexes, of course. But just imagine giving her a speaking part in the film!”
Everyone took a moment to imagine it. Their beards shook with emotion.
“Wonder what Najib will think of dressing up in a burqa,” Ayoob said finally. “I’ll enjoy seeing his reaction.”
“Here are your poppies,” Bakhtawar said, entering with an armful. “Where do you want the goat?”
“Just tie it to the table beside me,” Abdullah told him. “Now, let’s get this rehearsal started. Ayoob, you’re on. You’re Shaqur, remember.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ayoob muttered. “How do I begin?”
“You could just walk along the village street,” Abdullah said. “This crack in the floor is the village street.”
“I once saw a Bollywood film which was full of singing,” Ayoob said. “It was a big hit because of the songs. If I sang a song it might be a good start.”
“All right,” Abdullah said. “Sing.”
“Stop singing,” everyone said an instant later, their hands covering their ears.
“What’s wrong with my song?” Ayoob demanded belligerently.
“Nothing, nothing,” Abdulah assured him hastily. “It just doesn’t...fit...the, um, ambience of the film. Just go back to walking along the path. You can whistle if you like.”
Ayoob whistled. Everyone else winced.
“Now you see the enemy,” Abdullah said over the awful shrilling. “They’re coming towards the poppy field. This bunch of poppies is the poppy field. You run back and tell Ayoob about it.”
“I’m Ayoob,” Ayoob said. “How do I tell myself?”
Abdullah pinched the bridge of his nose. “Right. You tell Hukmuddin about it. Hukmuddin is you, isn’t he?”
“And who’s supposed to be the enemy?” Gulbuddin asked.
“Bakhtawar can be the enemy,” Abdullah said. “Bakhtawar, you come this way from the other side of the poppy field.”
“Try to look fierce,” Hukmuddin said.
“And keep a straight face,” Gulbuddin warned.
The cameraman yawned loudly. Everyone ignored him. The goat bleated. Everyone ignored it too.
“Ameera will be standing at the well with the herd of goats,” Abdullah said. “This pot can be the well. You’ve got to imagine Ameera, since she isn’t here, and you’ll have to imagine the goat is beside her. Right, now you’ve got to abduct her.”
“How do I abduct her?” Bakhtawar asked.
“I don’t know. How do you abduct women? Point an AK at her or something.”
“Make sure the safety is on first,” Ayoob said. “I’ve not forgotten how you almost shot my turban off the other day.”
“It was only an accident,” Bakhtawar muttered. He brandished his AK in the air. “It’s safe, see –“
Everyone ducked as the burst he’d fired splintered the windows.
“I was sure that the safety was on this time,” Bakhtawar said, looking at the AK as though he’d never seen it before.
“Take his gun away from him before he murders someone,” Gulbuddin said.
“Yes, I think that’s better. Bakhtawar, you put down that gun. Wrestle Ameera down and abduct her.”
“He’ll have a hard time abducting Ameera that way,” Hukmuddin observed. “She’s twice his size. Even Najib is twice his size.”
“You keep out of this!” Abdullah strode angrily towards the bunch of poppies. “All right. I’ll play the enemy when we do the final shoot. Let’s start over. Ayoob – I mean, Shaqur, you run and warn Ayoob – that’s you, Hukmuddin – that the enemy is coming. Go!”
Ayoob strode across the floor to Hukmuddin. “Ayoob,” he said, “the enemy is coming across the poppy field, and he’s abducted one of our dear sisters.”
“What?” Hukmuddin screamed in a falsetto so exaggerated that he began coughing uncontrollably. “This is...sacrilege,” he sputtered at length. “The enemy will destroy our women and defile our farmer’s poppies!”
“I think you’ve got it the other way round.”
“What difference does it make?” Hukmuddin glared at Abdullah. “What do I say next, anyway?”
“You and your shifting around people’s roles,” Ayoob said. “We’ve all lost track of what we’re supposed to be saying.”
“Wait,” Mullah Abdullah said. “Let me check the script.” He turned to the table. “The...” His mouth fell open. “Where’s the script?”
They all looked. There was no script.
The goat had eaten it.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2014
[Note to readers: This state is currently suffering from nine to twelve hours of power cuts every day, which means I am finding it hard to work, let alone write. This means I may be a bit irregular for the time being.]