Death Certificate – Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

As the rusty gate to the Municipal Office opened with a squeak, Agha hobbled in. His arthritic joints protested each step, but he trudged forward. 

“Take a ticket, old man.” With a robotic hand motion, a clerk pointed to a dispenser.

Agha’s crooked fingers pressed the button. The machine buzzed and spat out a pink token like a lizard flicking its tongue.

Eighty-eight, Ha! My age. He smiled.

The electronic sign on the wall flashed: ‘20.’ He eyed the crowd before finding a seat in the back corner. Life had taught him patience. Where others grew irritable, he often found a sense of peace. It gave him time to practice his own brand of meditationa simple one, unconcerned with the thoughts that keep philosophers’ lights burning. 

Two hours later, his number blinked.

He heaved himself up with his cane and limped to the front desk. Yanking out a crumpled application from his overcoat, he slid it across the counter. “I need a copy of my wife’s death certificate.”

The clerk smoothed the creased paper. “Why do you need it?”

Because she’s dead. This was the answer that rose to his lips, but he restrained his tongue.

“My son in America needs it for official documentation.”

“For an English certificate, you’ll need a different form.” The clerk opened a drawer and pulled out a sheaf of papers.

Agha found a quiet place by an open window to fill out the new form. When he was done, he went to the clerk again.

The clerk frowned. “I can’t read anything on the copy underneath. Did you adjust the carbon paper?”

“Sorry, but it’s the same data that’s on the front. Don’t you have a copier?”

“The carbon copy is for your records.”

“I don’t need a copy. But if you insist, give me a photocopy, and I’ll pretend it’s a carbon copy. Would that be all right?”

The clerk turned a slight shade of red. “Did you record the death at this office?”

“No, she passed away in a government hospital. I thought record keeping was their responsibility.”

The clerk scowled, shuffling Agha’s papers. “The government requires its citizens to file their own records upon the death of a family member.”

A nerve twitched on Agha’s face. “She wasn’t stolen, she died. I buried her. It’s all there in the application.”

The clerk’s eyes widened. “There’s nothing I can do. You need to go to the Department of Public Record.”

“But—”

The clerk looked straight through Agha as if he no longer existed. “Now serving number ninety-nine at window four.”

A man sitting in the hall said, “That’s rude.”

“He’s a government stooge who can’t see beyond rules,” said Agha. “It has become his nature, and now he growls like a bitch guarding her pups.”

“Are you admiring or accusing him?” the man in the queue asked.

Agha smiled grimly and made his way out.

***

The next morning, hobbling toward the Public Record Office, Agha stopped in a narrow street to search for a break in the morning traffic. Leaning against his gnarled cane, he pulled his heavy raincoat close against the chill. The cars blurred in front of him; the grinding gears and honking horns distracted him. He jumped when an old dog rubbed against his ankles. The dog howled in protest. Agha bent down and ruffled the dog’s ears.

“You and me both, my friend.” He nudged the dog back toward the safety of the curb and stepped onto the road.

Car brakes screeched, horns blared, and a traffic cop blew his whistle. “Watch it, old man! You’ll get hit.”

He shuffled towards the officer and touched his shoulder. “Old man? Is that any way to talk to your elder?”

“I was looking out for you; this is a busy intersection. Move along. You’re holding up traffic.”

“I wasn’t born old.” He adjusted his thick-framed glasses, thrust his cane high into the air, and tottered onwards.

The Public Record Office wasn’t crowded, and the clerk on duty was reading a newspaper.

Agha wheezed. “I want to record my wife’s death.”

“When did she die?” The official’s eyes were fixed on his paper.

“Twenty years ago.”

“Twenty years? I see . . .  and you’re coming now?” The official turned the page and traced his finger around a photo of an actress. “Did she die in a hospital?”

“Yes.”

“Then you need documentation from the hospital.” The clerk reached for a pen and underlined a soap advert. Not once did he look at Agha.

 “It will go down in history that Pakistanis were reading newspapers while the world explored space,” Agha mumbled and left.

The overcast sky squeezed out a faint drizzle, sending a shiver down Agha’s spine. As he passed the university, memories of the day he met his wife came alive in his mind, every vivid detail. Not a day went by when he didn’t think about her. His vision hazed as she stood before him; her lips were roses, her golden skin the sunset, and her perfume the morning dew. His lips trembled, and his tears joined the falling rain.

He wobbled home.

***

That evening, Agha called his son. “Raj, getting the certificate is more difficult to get than I thought.”

 “Please, Dad, try to get it as soon as you can. Once I’m an American citizen, I can get you out of that hell. You don’t want to be alone there, do you?”

Agha straightened. “I’m fine here. I’m used to it. Remember, you’ve earned your heaven after being in this place for so long.”

“Yes, Dad, that’s true, but one can appreciate heaven after living in hell. Come and see for yourself.”

Agha picked at his threadbare jacket. “I’ll keep trying.”

***

The following day, after being dismissed several times by various hospital employees, Agha found the Death Record Office.

 “How can I help you?” a nurse asked.

“I need my wife’s death record.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. They sent you to the wrong department. We issue birth certificates. The office you need is at the end of the corridor.”

Agha looked across the corridor. “How narrow is the space between birth and death!” 

“You’ll have to go through a maze of cubicles. Follow the signs, otherwise, you’ll get lost.”

Life’s mazes have never trapped me for long.

The nurse gave him a warm smile as he ventured off.

As he passed through the corridor, people hustled, papers flew, and phones rang.

The Death Record Office was empty. Agha put his cane down and settled himself on a metal bench. He rested his head on the concrete wall and faced the sunlight streaming in through the windows. A gust of wind crept through a gap between the rotten wood and the glass, making him shiver. Agha pulled his coat a little tighter around him.

After a few minutes, a tall, kind-faced woman arrived. Her white coat swished around her knees. 

“Mr. Agha? do you remember me?”

A pleasant smile masked his confusion.

“I’m Doctor Umbreen, Raj’s classmate. A doctor in charge of the Record Department.”

“Yes, of course. Now I remember. What a pleasant surprise!” Now his smile was genuine.

“I heard Raj went to America. Why haven’t you joined him?”

“Well, I love my son, but I love my country, too. My homeland is like a mother. It may seem ridiculous to you and Raj, but not to me. Love is always above logic.”

 “I see, and what do you need from the Death Record Office?”

“Raj needs his mother’s death certificate to complete his immigration documentation.”

“Okay. It won’t be easy; she died so long ago. But don’t worry. I can get it for you.”

She scribbled the details on a small notepad. “Come back tomorrow morning.”

Relieved, he thanked her and left.

***

The next day, Agha picked up the letter from the hospital, and with all his remaining energy hurried to the Public Record Office.

When it was his turn, he gave the letter to the official.

The man read it. “Oh, yes. It’s perfect, but it needs to be notarized by the court since she died so long ago.”

“What a curse,” Agha muttered and left.

The following day, he arrived at the court.

“Yes, how can I help you?” The notary barely looked up from his paperwork.

“I need to get this letter notarized.”

The official closed a folder and flung it on top of a teetering pile on the edge of his desk. He took the letter from Agha and examined it.

“Who is Alka?”

“My wife.”

“Alka is a Hindu name. She wasn’t Muslim?”

“She was my wife, and it doesn’t matter who she worshipped, her soul was beautiful.”

“Okay. Where are her signatures?”

“Signatures? How can I get a signature from a deceased wife?”

“When did she die?”

“The date is on the letter.” Agha pointed to the file.

“Do you have proof she was your wife? A marriage certificate?” The officer coughed, sniffling and wiping his runny nose.

Agha bent forward. “We got married and had a son. It’s written in this letter.”

The official shrugged, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Yes, it’s written Alka was your wife, but I need a supporting document to attest to it.”

“What if I can’t find the marriage certificate?”

“I can’t do anything without it. I have to follow the rules.”

“Satan also loves rules,” Agha retaliated.

He took the paper, slipped it into the envelope, and left the office. On the lawn outside, he sat next to a flowerbed. Memories of good times with his wife stirred. 

For years she couldn’t conceive. Praying to two different gods in one home—how wonderful it was! And then they were blessed with a son.

“To whom should we say thank you? To your God or mine?” he asked Alka.

“You to yours, and me to mine.”

***

Back at home, his throat ached. He grumbled to himself, I couldn’t get the certificate, but I did get an infection from the notary.

He searched for his marriage certificate. He feared opening the old box with the documents, wary of the sorrow and loneliness contained inside.

Memories ache when there is no one to share them with.

To his surprise, he felt happy as he went through the old photographs of their marriage, their honeymoon, and the birth of Raj. All he had left were his memories.

He set aside the treasured mementos and sifted through medical records: his son’s birth certificate, his national ID, utility bills. He couldn’t find the marriage certificate. He did, however, find his wife’s national ID card with his name listed as her husband.

Perhaps that would do.

***

The next day, Agha set out again with his wife’s ID. As usual, he arrived early.

They say early birds catch the worms, but when will I get mine? Maybe I’m the worm.

After an hour, a different man arrived at the rickety desk of the notary office.

“Where’s the notary today?”

“He’s on vacation.” The official shuffled papers around his desk. “How can I help you?”

Agha explained about the letter and marriage certificate.

The official didn’t bother to examine the ID card; he stamped the letter.

A good day, indeed.

Agha hastened to the Public Record Office. The officer examined the notarized letter twice before giving him another long form to fill out. It was full of tedious questions: What was the name of the hospital where she died? When was she admitted? What was the name of the doctor who recorded her death? It took a long time to remember all the answers. He felt as though he had been doing this all his life.

 The customer service officer reviewed the form. “Keep your copy and come back in two weeks. We’ll issue a temporary death certificate which you can submit to the Municipality to get the final certificate.”

If death is permanent why is the certificate temporary?

After all that hassle, Agha now had a two-week break from office visits.

That evening, he called his son. “Raj, the certificate will be ready in two weeks.”

“Dad, I need it in one week. I told you last month. You’re telling me there’s no way you can get the certificate in a whole week?” Raj hung up.

Agha sighed.

Two weeks later, Agha went to the office and got the temporary certificate which he promptly photocopied.

***

Agha trudged through swirling fog to catch a bus to the Municipal Office. Stuck in the aisle, he held onto a greasy rail, surrounded by other passengers. At the stop, the conductor urged the people, “Plenty of seats, get in folks. Next bus is hours away!”

“You said the same thing at the previous stop and now we are crammed like rats,” Agha shouted.

Half an hour later, the bus arrived, and everyone shuffled out.

The receptionist directed Agha to a window with a label which used to read ‘DEATH CERTIFICATES’ but was now faded. Only ‘DEATH’ remained visible. The clerk gathered Agha’s papers and put them in a ragged folder.

Agha tapped his fingers on the counter. “Can I get a receipt?”

“We don’t issue receipts. Tell me your name, and I’ll give you the certificate.”

“When?”

The clerk pushed his chair back. “Maybe in another two to three weeks, we’ll have to verify all your records.”

“Verify them, but why? I gathered these documents from the required departments. Who can better confirm my wife’s death than me? I’m the widower, after all. Look, my son needs the death certificate soon, and I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to obtain it. Please, say you’ll help me.”

The clerk shrugged. “I can’t. It’s the way the system works.”

Shoulders hunched, Agha left the office.

In the hallway, a man tapped his shoulder. “Sir, is there something you need? Can I get you anything?”

“Yes, I need a death certificate.”

“For whom?”

Agha cracked a smile. “For myself. I’m about to die, and I believe the angels won’t allow me to enter the next world without it.”

 “Sir, don’t give up hope. I’ll get what you need. Maybe you can grease the palm a bit?” The stranger rubbed his fingers together.

Agha passed his cane from his right hand to his left. His fingers clenched it tight, ready to strike. He had never been desperate enough to bribe, but his son needed the certificate.

Agha bit his lower lip. “At what cost, and how long will you need to get it?”

“Only a thousand rupees. I’ll have it in about half an hour.”

“Really? Then why did they tell me it’d take a month? If only I knew that three weeks ago!”

“Sir, trust me. Half an hour, I promise.”

Agha pulled out a worn wallet and forked over the money. The man took details from Agha and told him to wait.

Although the sun had burned away the fog, it was still cold. Agha put his hands in his pockets. Sunshine made him sleepy, so he lay across the bench. He was worried the man wouldn’t return, but that didn’t stop him from falling asleep.

“Awoooooh. Awoooooh.” He woke to a dog’s howl.

Hmm, not a good omen.

The man he’d bribed appeared with certificate in hand.

Agha examined it. Everything appeared in order. His heart raced; he could finally bring Raj good news.

Could a death certificate ever be good news? 

He skipped across the lawn in front of the office, not knowing whether his renewed vigor was spawned by the warm sunshine or the odd joy the certificate brought him.

“Excuse me, sir,” the man called after him.

He turned. “Yes, is there something else?”

“Sir, May I ask why you need this certificate?”

Agha clasped the paper against his chest. “My son, who lives in America, needs it.”

“Sir, if you don’t mind, I can prepare another certificate.”

“Another certificate? For whom?”

“For you, Sir. I’m sorry, but you know how unpredictable life is.”

“If life is so uncertain, why don’t you get one for yourself?” Agha snapped.

“Please don’t be angry. I’m only trying to help. I’m a poor man. My son doesn’t live in America. He’ll never need a death certificate to get a job or to immigrate. He’ll kill dogs like I do, and for that he won’t need my death certificate.”

“Killing dogs, what sort of job is this?”

“It’s my job here in this Municipal Office. I kill the city’s stray dogs.”

“I don’t care about your strife, stranger, now go and enjoy the earned money.” Agha turned away.

As he approached the gate, Agha had a second thought. Raj may need my death certificate soon. Who’ll do all this tedious work for him?

He called out to the man.

“Sir, did you change your mind?”

“Yes, my son may need another death certificate at some point. You’re a wise man. What’s your name?”

“You can call me Dog Killer. Everyone here knows me by this name. I don’t mind.”

“Interesting. Okay, go and bring my death certificate.”

“Right, Sir. Give me your complete name. The format of your wife’s certificate will work for you as well.”

“What will you put down as the cause of my death? I’ve a suggestion; write ‘bureaucracy’.”

“How about a heart attack? A lot of people die that way, not just the old.”

“Write what you like. The important thing is the death, not the cause. I think the true cause of everyone’s death remains a secret. Anyway, how will you enter the date of my death?”

“It’s near the official stamp which is often filled in manually. You can clip a note to the certificate indicating it needs to be added using the same color of pen.”

Agha sank onto the metal bench and scribbled down his name. He handed Dog Killer the money. “I’ll wait right here.”

The wind chilled him and his mind kept returning to the howling dog. He had thought about death many times, but he had never thought of dying.

It didn’t take long for Dog Killer to return with Agha’s death certificate.

“I’ve been trying to get a certificate for weeks, and it took you a matter of minutes. How does this work?”

“I’m a dog killer, Sir. I know their psychology. I trap them with fresh bones, and money is like bones for these men. There are a lot of ‘stray dogs’ here.” He pointed to the office.

“If you know the psychology of dogs, can you tell me why dogs howl?”

“It’s said they howl at the place where death is expected. It is their sixth sense.”

“Did you hear the dogs howling today?”

“Sir, dogs know me very well. They don’t dare come around this building. They know I live here.” Dog Killer smiled.

“But I heard a dog howling today.”

“You might have been dreaming. I saw you sleeping earlier.”

Agha rubbed his eyes and smiled. “Thanks for helping me.”

***

Agha returned home with the two certificates. The dog’s howl echoed in his mind. As he collapsed into his favorite chair, he was chilled to the bone.

His forehead beaded with sweat. After taking some painkillers, he called his son to give him the good news, but Raj didn’t answer. Agha left a message and went to bed.

During the night, he came down with a fever. He couldn’t get out of bed. Tossing throughout the night, he dreamt of howling dogs.

When he woke, he felt better but still feverish. I need to talk to someone. He grabbed a pen and paper.

“My Dear Son,

I feel a void in my heart.”

My brain is empty as well, he thought. Throwing the letter into the bin, he massaged his neck.

***

Still weak from the fever, Agha travelled by bus again. Panting and leaning on his cane, he entered the courier’s office.

He breathed in the scent of newly polished furniture. The smell took him back for a brief moment to his wedding night when the same aroma filled their home.

The common man’s memories are also common.

The reverie ended abruptly when the young courier asked, “Sir, could you write the address?”

Agha filled in the address form and reviewed it twice. After submitting his parcel, he went to the old city park and sat on an empty bench beside the flowerbeds. The many wonderful years with his wife warmed his heart. How she’d taken care of him throughout their marriage, and how he had tended her during her final years. He remembered her last words. They came echoing back to him across the span of years: “I’ll be waiting for you.”

Cold wind numbed his fingers, and he longed for a cup of tea. Feebly, he stood up, putting all his weight on the cane. He wobbled toward the cafe about a hundred meters away. His feet dragged against the ground, slowing his progress. When he put his hand in his back pocket, it was empty. He searched all his pockets, but couldn’t find his wallet. Damn pickpocket.

Now he was without money and ID. Instead of going home, he returned to his place near the roses. His head sank to his chest with his hands laid open on his lap. The sun changed from bright orange to red, and finally, darkness prevailed.

***

Hours later, a gardener passed by Agha, still sitting on the bench.

A chill lingered in the air when the gardener approached.

“Excuse me.”

Agha didn’t respond.

When the gardener shook him, the old man fell into the red roses.

The death of Agha caused a commotion. Police officers arrived, followed by the paramedics. Eventually, an ambulance took his body to the morgue. There he remained for three days, waiting to be claimed.

On the fourth day, a police officer arrived with his assistant. They made a file:

“Name: Unknown. Age: Around ninety. Cause of death: Heart failure.”

“Send his body for burial and his record to the Public Record Office for a death certificate,” the officer said.

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan, currently living in Saudi Arabia where he is lecturer in English at Taif University. He is known for weaving Asian culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nasrullah’s work titled “A Man Who Was Donkey,” The Gawanus Book called it “stunning.” This short story was selected among the Notable Online Short Stories of 2003. His short story ‘In Search of God’ was included in Silverfish Book’s Twenty-Two New Asian Short Stories, published in 2016. He has been published in Evergreen Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus Books, Offcourse literary Journal, The Raven Chronicles, and many others.