By Nadeem Zaman
When he recovered from the shock he spat out teeth. He looked down. In the midst of the gunfire and clash of swords, he counted them. Seven. The blood splattered around them were like drops of paint, and he could taste more of it in his mouth. He swallowed the metallic tang mixed in with saliva, and immediately felt his gorge rise and kick against the decision. He was happy. Seven. Lucky seven. His knees were weak, and he knew the pain would be like the worst nightmare that had grown hands that rose out of his sleep and grabbed his face with bone crushing strength. He was, as it happened, seven years old the first time he felt pain like that, after his older brother walloped him with a fist as hard and cold as a block of marble for snatching his mango out of his hand. His jaw had to held together for a month with a sling that wrapped around his head, which his mother took off three times a day so she could smear his meals that she mashed down to a near-liquid state on the inside of his lower lip. For that month, his brother was forbidden to sit at the mealtimes with him, after their father had administered a more severe reprimand that left his brother unable make a fist of his right hand again. Brother’s hand will not rise against brother, said their father, as he brought down the sawed-off bamboo stalk on the hand of his older son. It was the nature of the British infidel Christians to act that like that, when they were not robbing blind the farmers and the peasants in collusion with the landlords. All their father’s cornucopia of resentments had that day shot like currents out his heart, through the veins and arteries of his arm, blazed through his hand down the stalk of bamboo, and damned with three consecutive blows the infidel’s Biblical blight his son’s hand had dared to replicate.
Sharif Qureshi heard the pinging ricochet of a musket ball. The spray of bricks flying off the side of a house rushed past his face. Stamping boots and shouts thundered around him. Somewhere in the fray was buried the distant stentorian outrage of his commanding officer. Horse hooves banged on the ground, the terrified frenzy of the animals reeking up the air already sullied by gunpowder and blood. A hand tugged at Qureshi’s uniform collar. He reached a hand to his head. His cap was not there. But in the next instant he was accepting it from the comrade he thought had pulled on his collar, because the man was yelling. Qureshi understood nothing. There was a speck of blood on the man’s chin, and Qureshi recalled his name. Ramchand. Qureshi tried to tune into what Ramchand was nearly losing his eyeballs screaming at him. Large and bulging, they were pumping in their sockets, vein-ridden and red. Qureshi could think only about the number seven. His luck, which was humming through him, from his heels up to his head. He was not going to die today. Luck number seven had, literally, sent him a missive of blood, and counted for the price of his good fortune seven of his teeth as recompense. It was a fair and just bargain. Had his brother been there he would understand, but Musa had left with his maimed hand and hatred for their father thudding in heartbeats never again to be heard from or seen, except the letter he tucked under Sharif’s pillow the night before his departure in which he left the secret destination of his flight.
It was the seventh month of the year 1857. Sharif Qureshi had lost seven teeth one month after his regiment, the 73rd Bengal, refused to touch their mouths to cartridges supposedly smeared with pig and cow fat, here in the most inconsequential of spaces in Bengal Qureshi could think of dying in combat. Dhaka. While hundreds of his fellow sepoys were sacking more significant parts of the country, Qureshi was here, reeling from a blow to the mouth likely with the butt of an Enfield rifle wildly swung by one of his company, happily counting his blessings in lost teeth, under command of a mad Englishman that had staged his own mutiny against his peers, and was out here, with a faction of the 73rdcarrying out on behalf of a megalomaniacal landlord a personal agenda to keep his lands secured under guise of subduing smaller uprisings that would join with the larger one that had erupted despite all British skepticism and was now renewing the one hundred year old tryst with the East India Company and its might.
Pig and cow fat – the most incendiary rumor to have ever been spread in British history, the product of which shook the Empire’s core. Sharif had lost count of the cartridges that had touched his mouth. His pious mother would shudder if she knew, because she would, despite factual claims to the contrary, believe the British could be relied on to defile Islam as callously as using swine to grease their endless hunger for grabbing at everything that was not theirs. And his father, for once, would agree with his wife, because it was the mission of the infidel invaders to violate in any and every way the followers of the one true faith. Leaking blood from his gums, Sharif Qureshi laughed, jammed his hat on his head, and scattered his teeth in the dust.
Nadeem Zaman was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and moved with his family to Chicago when he was fifteen. He studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is currently a PhD student at the University of Louisville.