Losing the Plot: Habits of the Heart (Complete Novel)

by Maniza Naqvi Poppy

Chapter One: The Little Coffee Shop

Chapter Two: The Hotel

Chapter Three: Dreaming Dulles

Chapter Four: Civil War

Chapter Five: Stanley’s Girl

Chapter Six: Hope

“We are just props for validating and furthering their policy! We say no to them and they punch us hard and prove their point with another explosion! Can't you see that?”

“No, jan–I cannot–You have made this a habit–of blaming America for everything!”

“No I have not made it a habit! Isn’t it curious that every time they make a policy statement—quoting D’Touqueville to us—-every time they want to force Pakistan to take a position in their war and Pakistan resists—some sort of a violent event takes place in Pakistan to prove their point? Isn’t that just a little suspect? They are going to increase their troops here—they are going to expand the war into Pakistan—they are going to occupy us—just wait and see!” Zarmeenay had argued, in an urgent tone, her eyes wide and serious as she had packed to leave for Baluchistan. “ We have to stop them Mama.—we have to push back! Amir, Amreekah, Mama! Amir Amreekah!”

“I don’t know Zarmeenay.” Rukhsana had argued with her daughter, “Maybe it’s time we stopped blaming everybody else for all the criminals that have been created right here in Pakistan in the name of religion.’

“Mama! Please—there no such thing as Al Qaeda! There’s no such thing as the Taliban! This is all the same old, same old, overt-covert good old CIA—now breaking up Pakistan—we will have Pushunistan, Baluchistan—Serakiistan—Kashmir, Baluchistan, Karachistan, Sindhistan—just wait. They will do worse to us than what they did to Yugoslavia and the breaking apart of the Soviet Union—just wait—……They will murder all of us!”


“Don’t you agree with me Mama, that they killed Benazir Bhutto? They already knew who was her murderer the moment she died? They had decided who to accuse of her murder the day she was murdered? So Benazir is dead, and Baitullah Mesud is dead—But they can’t find Osama Bin Laden in all these ten years of looking for him with all the sophisticated technology that they have?”

“Really! I’m so worried about you darling! Zarmeenay, you are beginning to go too far! I’m scared for you! You talk like this everywhere in public and I’m afraid for you! ” Rukhsana had said to Zarmeenay just before she had left the house.

“Don’t be afraid, Mama. Don’t be afraid! That’s been our main problem we’ve been afraid for too long. It’s too late to be afraid now, we have to take action. We have to save ourselves, our country! You’ll see Mama! I’m right! It’s time to listen to your heart Mama, I’m listening to mine. We have to fight for Pakistan!”

And Zarmeenay had disappeared. Just like that vanished. Now she was dead.

And Stanley was dead. Both of them killed. Both of them burned in the same fire. Their bodies were never recovered from the fire. All the gossip and all of the news in Islamabad was about the retired American embassy man, Stanley McMullen, who had decided to live in Pakistan after his retirement. An eccentric who ran a coffee shop called the Little Margalla Café. Stanley McMullen had been killed by a mob at his own café when the mob had accused him of kidnapping and killing Zarmeenay Shah whose charred body had been found at the doorstep of the café.

And Rukshana hoped. She had always prayed five times a day—since she was a child. When she had been married to her first cousin–Jamshed-she had moved with him all over the country as an army wife—the only constant routine in her life had been her five times a day prayer. She had embraced the social life that came with her marriage. Jamshed Shah was a powerful man, a handsome man, a man of the world, with many relatives, many friends and many mistresses. She was his first wife. She was beautiful.

Jamshed Shah had, despite the opposition of his own mother and hers, taken his bride with him, instead of leaving her in the family house in the village. They had been a modern couple. General Jamshed Shah insisted upon it: when in the city do as the city does—in the village do as was expected. In the city she had worn saris, she had shed the chaddar choosing instead diaphanous duppattas and tightly fitted shalwar kameezes with plunging necklines. She presided over the arrangements for the cocktails and banquets they threw and they were invited to at least three almost every night at embassies, and the homes of colleagues and friends. He took her with him on all his travels abroad. They had an enormous mansion on their lands, they had a sprawling home in the mountains in Changa gali, they had lavish homes in Islamabad and Karachi and Lahore. And they had acquired an apartment in New York, to add to their collection of the ones in London and in Paris.

General Jamshed Shah’s acquisitions included mistresses, too. This was a fact of life, not to be broached or questioned. Ever. Jamshed Shah was a man of tradition. He could do all he wanted, she would have to do with what he did. She could do nothing that he did not wish her to do. He was not a jealous man. He was an honorable man. He would have killed her with his own hands had he suspected anything of her. She never gave him any reason to.

And still there had been Stanley. She had met him in Trieste. And from the moment she had turned to look at him, they had been involved—two strangers coming together in a foreign land sharing their observations of observing strangers.

She had accompanied her husband to a conference for NATO allies.

On the first day of their weeklong trip her husband had informed her in the morning that she would be on her own that evening, the conference would be running late and the participants were to have dinner together without their spouses. Left to herself, Rukhsana, had left the hotel in the early evening for a stroll along the marina, the fishing boats were returning after a day at sea. A world of red rooftops, cobbled streets, colorful fishing boats and turqoise water. She had sat down on a bench and watched the various fishing crews bring in their hauls. The evening breeze was a little chilly for her even though it was the month of June so she had drawn her Shartoos tighter around her, wrapping her arms in its soft, warm folds. She had spotted a man still in the distance running towards her around the curvature of the marina—He was lean and tall, he wore a grey t-shirt—and shorts, and had strong muscular legs. As he came closer she had looked away and out towards the water.

A yacht was pulling in to the docking space right in front of where she sat. She leaned further forward and with one elbow on her knee she rested her chin on her hand engrossed in the advance of the incoming boat. The swank high powered yacht had also caught the attention of the crowd strolling along the marina promenade and some had stopped in their tracks to watch as well. Men especially ooohed and aaahed as the women with them waited and watched them. She felt a bond with this community of wives and girlfriends these bystanders watching their men, indulgently, patiently, contemptuously, irritably, affectionately, pitifully, gamely—watching their men enjoying and wanting the toys of men. From the corner of her eye she had noticed someone had plunked himself down on the other side of the bench. It was him, the runner taking a break. He had flung one arm on the back of the bench his hand almost in touching distance of her shoulder when she leaned back.

In the yacht two people. A man–a beautifully tanned man–his skin the tones of olives and honey. His body slim, muscular, wiry, perfection. The woman–tall, leggy, not a beauty–gawky almost, with sleek long auburn hair. The man focused on parking the boat alongside the quay. The woman sat in the back—dabbing her face with make-up and peering into a pink compact mirror. He wore an olive colored T shirt—blue jeans. She wore something similar. Then the couple disappeared down the hatch to the cabin under. The crowd continued to watch. The man emerged first–white T shirt, blue jeans–carrying a plastic bag full of garbage which he disposed off in a trash bin on the promenade when he got off the boat. The young woman emerged wearing short, shorts, grey colored and a white t-shirt. Rukhsana stared at the six inch high heel sandals, of silver satin– diamante straps across the toes and at the ankles tied in bows at the back.

Rukhsana looked at her companion on the bench and shared an exchange of glances of delight with him. “Oh my God!” She said delighted, “How perfect! Like in a film!”

He laughed: “Yes. The lifestyles of the rich and famous!”

“Are they famous?” She turned to him in her excitement and asked wide eyed.

His eyes twinkled and said, “Well, the yacht says something and her knock out legs say something! How can she walk in those heels?”

“I can't believe the heels!”

“Yeah, probably a model.”

“Yes or maybe a French actress.”


“And he's so handsome.”

“Do you think so?”

“Well look at him!”

“He’s not my type,” Stanley said, “Now the young lady well I might…..”

Rukhsana laughed: “Yes—even though she has a plain face!”

Stanley laughed.

“Imagine they may be famous!” Rukhsana said with glee.

The girl in the six inch high heels came tottering, swaying down the steps of the yacht the man reached up to her and embraced her and lifted her off the steps into his arms and on to the ground. At that moment the girl looked over her shoulder at Rukhsana and the girl was obviously surprised and delighted by this gesture. Rukhsana was so happy for her she clapped with joy. The man sitting next to her laughed.

“Oh this is so perfect! So romantic!” Rukhsana had breathed in delight

“Yes” said the man: “It’s so tender.”

Rukhsana turned quickly to look at him.

“Yes!” She nodded her agreement breathlessly, “It is! It is so tender.”

He had stared at her as her eyes shone and then after a pause he said “I’m Stanley McMullen, Pleased to meet you.”

“Oh” said Rukhsana. She stood up perplexed suddenly and looked around as though to see who was watching her, “I’m sorry, I’m so late.” With that she hurried away. She had been warned by her husband of forward European men.

The next morning Rukhsana got up early to go watch the fishing boats leave for the day. She picked the same bench to sit on. It was six thirty a.m—

He must have come up behind her—because she jolted when she heard him say “Our yacht’s gone”.

“Yes.” She said. “I was hoping to see them again!”

“Yes. Me too.”

She looked around her “Did you run?”

“Yes, I’m done. Our rich guy and his rich and famous girl friend probably sailed out late last night.

“Yes, I thought I’d see them again”.

“Me too. I thought about it all last night.”

“Me too!”

He looked at her and smiled.

She looked away embarrassed.

After a pause, he began—”Well….”

She interrupted him and said hurriedly: “Also, I was thinking….”


“I think they were not the owners you know? I think they were just the servants.”

He looked at her taken aback—and tried to mask his amusement with a look of earnest interest. “You think they were the hired help?”

“Yes. The hired help, I mean. I think he is the yacht captain and she is the waitress on board.”

“Really! Well that’s rich!”

She giggled. “Very funny!”

He smiled. She was just a girl, this wife of someone else.

“You see,” she said, “I think the two of them had deposited the owners on a nearby island or maybe another part of the bay. And meanwhile they had the evening off? Don’t you think? So they came across to here you see to spend the evening in style.”

“Huh! How’d you figure that?”

“Well for one, her compact—it was rather cheap. The kind of compact that could be bought at a drug store or pharmacy. And then making up her face in full view of passersby, well it’s simply not done, that’s a clear clue that she wasn’t really well brought up.”

“Yes, well. Uh huh. Not well brought up huh?”

“Yes. And that surprised look on her face and her sharing it with us. As though, she didn’t expect that kind of attention.”

“Should a woman expect that kind of attention?”

“Well yes, if she is someone. And then of course he was a dead giveaway.”

“What about him. You said he was so handsome.'

“He was! At first that’s what I thought, that he was handsome. But the way he stood. You know? His whole posture?”

“His posture?” Stanley laughed. “You noticed his posture? What about it?”

“Didn’t you notice it?”


“How he threw out the garbage in the plastic bag?”

“Well most people throw out their own garbage whether they are wealthy or poor in Europe or in America.”

“Yes. Perhaps. But he didn’t hold his head up high–his shoulders didn’t announce primacy over the world. In fact the way he was slightly hunched at the shoulders y’know seemed to show that he was used to deference to some other more powerful person. Posture is important.”

“Uh huh. Well,” he said, “Good for them. Good for them. I’m glad they had their special moment.”

“Yes! I am too.” Again, she had looked away.

Stanley looked at her and nodded. “You’d make a great spy you know. You have such insight!”

She laughed. “I know servants.”

“Well what do you think people passing us by are making of the two of us?”

“Nothing. There is nothing to make of us.”

“Maybe they think we’re a….”

She interrupted him and said: “Spies exchanging information.”

He laughed! “Have you had breakfast yet? “

“No.” She replied, confused. “Why?”

“Would you like to go get some breakfast with me?”

She stared at him. “Get some breakfast with you? No! I can’t I must get back to my hotel I am to have breakfast with my husband.”

“Oh!” he said—”Of course! But if you could would you have had breakfast with me?”

She looked alarmed and stood up to go. Then stopped and asked him,” Do you run here every morning?” She asked.

“Yes—and in the evenings too.” He had hesitated and then added: “I run at 6.00 am and p.m.”

She made it a point not to be at the marina for the rest of the week.

On the last evening of the conference there was a cocktail party for all the participants and their spouses. She had been separated from her husband as she talked to the wives of several of the other participants. She had spotted Jamshed through the crowd his back was to her he was engrossed in conversation. He was talking to someone hidden from her view. It had been Stanley McMullen. Stanley had seen her approaching and had grinned at her and bowed.

“Rukshana there you are! Mr. McMullen may I introduce my wife.” Jamshed had said. She had noticed how her husband’s broad shoulders had slumped forward ever so slightly.

She had been ashamed. She had stood very straight and turned her gaze from her husband and bowed her head to Stanley as she felt a strange sensation of excitement, embarrassment and humiliation go through her all at once. Her husband had continued talking about Stinger missiles in a tone so gentle that she recognized it from her wedding night two years before.

As her husband chatted to him, Stanley had focused his attention entirely on her husband.

“Ah! I am looking forward to this evening's plan!” said the General—”We have all been invited to an outing tonight by our hosts. We are all going gambling tonight at the floating casino in the bay-we can continue our conversation there.”

“No, no!” protested Stanley, “I’m afraid, I’m not a gambling man.”

Jamshed had laughed and said, “Quite right too! It shows your wisdom sir!

“Good night Mrs. Shah, General. Enjoy the casino.” Stanley had excused himself saying it was past his bedtime he was an early riser.

“Oh no! said Rukhsana I am not going anywhere. I will go for a walk, she had said, You go Jamshed, and win us some money. I’ll go for a walk.”

Stanley had smiled at both of them and said good bye again and taken his leave.

She ordered room service after Jamshed had left and wrestled with her own will. And then she had gone for a walk along the marina. She had sat on the bench for an hour watching couples strolling by hand in hand.

She made her way back to her room as church bells rang midnight.

And after that evening in Trieste it was at her own home that Stanley had arrived two months later. The Shahs had had thrown a dinner party in honor of the reelection of President Reagan. They had invited the American Ambassador, and his staff. They had all come. The earthen oven roasted goat–saji at the General’s house was famous all over Islamabad particularly with the embassies. It went so well with beer and scotch. The General himself had of course introduced her again to Stanley. “You remember Mr. McMullen?”

“No I don’t think we’ve met.” She had stood so ram rod straight her chin almost absurdly held high that her spine hurt.

Stanley had smiled.

“Of course, you remember Rukhsana at the cocktail party in Trieste,” Jamshed had said. “She remembers you, Mr. McMullen,” Jamshed had said reassuringly.

She had winced.

He said,”Please call me Stanley”.

“Please forgive me, Sir, you will have to excuse me for a moment”. Jamshed had said and moved away to greet a guest coming in.

Stanley had leaned forward and said conspiratorially: “You know I had them checked out. They were actually rich. You were right and wrong. They were newly rich. But not famous. You were right you see. Upstarts! “He had laughed. “Not well brought up—probably they had served and waited on others at some point.”

She had looked around her to see who was watching. It seemed to her that the whole party was looking at her. But no one paid any attention.

“You didn’t show up at the marina again. I noticed when I went running.”Stanley said.


“Were you afraid, too?”

“No. Why would you say that?”

“I don’t know. If you weren’t afraid, you would have been there the next morning or evening or the next or the next. That’s quite a compliment you paid me Mrs. Shah with your absence.”

“You do presume too much.” She replied.

“In which case I apologize! I trust you enjoyed your walk that last night there.”

“You are wrong Mr. McMullen,” she had replied, “I gambled that night.”

“You did?” He said in confusion.

“Yes,” she replied, “And, I lost.”

She walked away towards her husband and the guests who had just arrived.

After that, she had carefully assessed each invitation card. If there was any possibility that Stanley would be there, she made an excuse for wanting to stay home and Jamshed went on his own. If she could not avoid the invitation she made sure that she found herself a spot amongst the most conservative of women present who were happier left alone and didn’t mingle with the men—And amongst them she engrossed herself in their conversations and kept her back to the men.

It was on the janamaz that Stanley had found her the night he had ventured into her house, walked past the guards at the front gate and through the front door and up the stairs to her room, ostensibly there to visit her husband who lay sick and recuperating from a mild heart attack and in a valium induced sleep in a room downstairs. But she had not shown any surprise or resisted. She had waited there for him and there he was. Zarmeenay had been created on a prayer rug.

General Jamshed Shah had been informed by his colleagues in the Intelligence services who wished him well, that his daughter Zarmeenay—had been kidnapped by the CIA, interrogated and killed. It appeared that the café had a secret underground bunker a basement which functioned as a holding center for secret interrogations Stanley McMullen had been the interrogator and murderer.

When Jamshed had told Rukhsana she had hardly reacted.

For twenty six years she had been connected to Stanley through her thoughts. She had only to think of him and know that the reason she had thought of him was because she was in his thoughts that very moment too. Childish. It was a game she played that had grown into a belief: a way of being. If she dreamt of him it was a signal to her that he was thinking of her too. That night as she knelt on her janamaz he had been in her thoughts—as he had been since the day she had met him. And by the last evening in Trieste, she was obsessed with him. That evening in Islamabad, as she had knelt in prayer he had come in through the door just walked right in.

Now with an intensity more than ever before he was in her thoughts. So clearly there that she had convinced herself that this meant that he was alive. She followed him in her imagination- Sleep meant losing sight of him—Nightmares beyond her control—so she minimized the need for it–Her waking hours all devoted to a cherished day dream. He would make his way back to them. He knew their weapons, he knew their codes, he knew their strategies, he knew their interrogations; he knew them and their stories; he knew their bureaucracies, he knew their security; he knew their structures, their motivations. He had their identities, he had multiple passports and he would go, he would go to them. Yes he would. He would take this back to them. He would make his way to the Center from where they remotely operated their death warrants—their killing machines. From where they sent men like him, men like Stanley to places like this. From where they made the world into a video game suited to their cowardice and greed. From where Zarmeenay had been murdered by the moving of a joystick and the push of a button. Yes, he would take it to them. Yes he would. Yes he would. Yes he would. There was hope. That’s all there was. Hope. It would all go on and on and on and on. There would be no end to it. She had to hope.

She was at peace.

Also by Maniza Naqvi (here)