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Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan 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 in the Story South Million Writers Award. 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. His debut story collection, The Last Storyteller’ can be found here:
Contact: 00966-506769790 email@example.com , firstname.lastname@example.org
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I first learned that Ditha was a human when my father one day tested my learning about numbers and counting. "Son, how many animals are in our courtyard?" he asked me one afternoon in early fall before the winter rain began. Ten," I replied with a triumphant smile. “No. Try again,” he encouraged. Eager to prove my prowess, I counted on my fingers to ensure none were missed."Three goats, two cows, one buffalo, one horse, one donkey, one dog, and one Ditha.” “Oh, no, son. Ditha is not an animal. He is human, just like us.” I balked. “How could that be? He lives above the barn—he is as filthy as a goat and he barely speaks.” “Perhaps,” my father replied softly, “that is because people don’t bother to speak with him. What if we treated Ditha not as livestock, but as a person the same as you and me? Does he not feel pain and love, just as other people do?”
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Ditha moved as the animals did — slow and lumbering around the yard, and only with purpose to get to food. He smelled as they did, and his hair was unkempt like theirs. He did not look anything like we do, yet my father told me he was a human. I couldn’t sleep that night. My brain raced with questions. If he is a man, why does he live like animals? Why does he sleep in barnyard? In my dreams I saw Ditha run like a horse and eat grass like a goat. I couldn’t help but feel pity for him. Often, I wandered into the stables to listen while he murmured to the goats and sheep. Little did I know that they were his only friends. Although, he was always there I knew little about him –— only that his mother died when he was ten, and being a hooker’s son, he was driven out of town. My grandfather, then the village chief, brought him home and put him to work to earn his keep. Two meals a day and a room in the spacious shed was more security than anyone might have dreamed possible for someone in his station. It was said that his mother gave him the name “Allah Ditha”, which means “Given by God”, but people soon left off the “Allah” and called him “Ditha”. He was forgotten by God as well. We lived in a small village at the foothills of the hot, dry Black Mountains. Only one ancient well provided water for the town; all of the houses crowded around it. Everybody knew how precious it was. Ditha worked hard for us. Each morning he drew water from the village well. His strong arms brought up bucketful after bucketful without ever seeming to tire. He would take the animals out to graze, patiently leading the slow, scattered herd to the pastureland beyond the houses. Ditha remained with them all day long, ever-watchful for predators and danger, caring for them as his own children. After returning them to their pens at the end of the day, he would reappear in the village, riding on the slow, old donkey, his weathered face and wind-whipped clothes hanging on his thin frame. As he rode through the streets, the young boys taunted him for their own wicked pleasure. “Hey, Ditha," someone would shout. “Your girlfriend, the ass, moves like you put her to better use today.” “No, don't say that!” someone else would shout. “The donkey is really Ditha’s sister! Can't you see the resemblance?” Page | 4
Their laughter echoed down the street. Once, some young guy, not yet fifteen, took a small stone and threw it at Ditha. Whether Ditha’s feelings were hurt by the ridicule of the villagers, he never said, and it took many years to cross my mind that it might have. As I grew into a young boy, I began to watch Ditha a little more closely. Every evening, he made his way down the Black Mountains with his sluggish animals following him like a tattered line of withdrawing troops. I began to wait for him, standing at the big front door of our courtyard. He would appear with his animals accompanied by the sounds of chimes reminiscent of tragic music in an old film. Then came the stories — oh, what wonderful stories they were, featuring wolves, lions, and other fantastic creatures! He began to bring me gifts —wild fruits, beautiful flowers, and tasty mushrooms. The gifts were nice, but it was the stories for which I waited. He had a quiet, gentle way of making ideas come alive, and story-time quickly became a favorite part of my day. He possessed a wit and sense of humor that could make anyone laugh. Thursdays and Fridays were Ditha’s favorite days. The more superstitious in our village made deliciously sweet dishes and left them among the grove of olive trees to appease the “ghosts.” Ditha would sneak into the grove and eat the food, causing the villagers to marvel that their offering had been accepted. Each week they’d attack the practice with renewed faith and vigor. Ditha’s eyes would twinkle, and I could hardly contain gales of laughter. I soon came to know our Ditha as a man with a big, loyal heart and a smile, always at the ready. He never repaid malice or coarse joking with anything but kindness. Though, he had no home of his own and his clothes were ragged and worn, he was full of gratitude for the little he had. My grandfather would have allowed Ditha to ride the sweet-tempered horse, and though he cherished him, he would only ride his little grey donkey. He told me once that he was born to ride his donkey, which seemed explanation enough. Ditha left lasting impression on my childhood memories. ******** My cousins and I grew to be young men. Our grandparents died, and my eldest uncle became the head of the village, but Ditha remained the same. His responsibilities increased, for he carried
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even more jars of water on his frail shoulders. Uncle was very strict with Ditha and would often beat him with an aspen broom. Despite his hardship, Ditha was quick to turn around his life. The most prominent change was in his clothes. Previously, his one set of garb went for months unwashed, then he started washing his clothes every week. This new fastidiousness did not go unobserved long, nor did the motivation around it. Soon, it emerged that Ditha had gotten into a relationship with the beggar-woman! Hers was a tenuous social position, a step below that of Ditha. The villagers fussed over the affair between Ditha and his outcast object of desire. "The donkey-boy is in love?" They wondered and curled their mouths. News of the sordid love affair soon reached my uncle. He shook his head and scoffed. “Who can love such a donkey, someone who lives like an animal?" Uncle could have beaten Ditha for his affair. Instead, he decided to humor the outraged sensibilities of the village aristocrats. The issue was to be decided in a mock village assembly. One evening, all the so-called nobles flocked in my uncle’s big yard, drinking fresh camel-milk and telling raunchy jokes. Ditha sat on the ground in front of them, his head bowed . He appeared to ignore the snickers of the men. I crouched in the darkness and peeked around a corner, watching every moment. Ditha didn't move or speak. A grumpy voice barked, "His mother was also a great lover! She taught our youth.” Then another voice was heard, nasal and unmanly: “She shared the fierce load of our teens. Maybe she taught Ditha some tricks to woo the beggar-woman! The villagers roared with laughter and chatted as Ditha’s heart sank under the barbed laughter. When he got up and left, it seemed as if he felt free from the burden of love. He resumed his duties carrying his water pitchers, wearing a big smile as though nothing unusual occurred. He reverted to his former self as he wore unwashed clothes and let his hair grow wildly. No one saw him near the beggars’ huts after that night. At night, I often observed, he’d get in his cold bed Page | 6
and sob himself to sleep. I left him sobbing, in villager's charge, in pursuit of my education and career. ******** I found a job and settled in a city, leaving the past behind. Then, it arrived: an invitation to my cousin’s wedding back in the village. All I could think of was Ditha. I never forgot him.I returned, but I could not find him. I demanded to know where he was. The words hit me, hard and cold, like a bullet through my heart. Tuberculosis was about to finish him. But the worst was that he had been left to suffer in some hut outside the village. I was fuming. How dare they leave him to die! I demanded a doctor accompany me to see him, but the doctor refused, and when I approached other doctors, withering glances and flat denials met me. It seemed no servant’s life was worth the inconvenience, no visit to a donkey-man worth the social demotion . I found him lying alone in the far corner of the dark, cold hut—dark and cold, just like the villagers. I struggled to breathe through the stench of mold and earth, but I pushed forward for him, for my friend. At first, he did not recognize me. Once he did, he began to weep. He attempted to speak, but the congestion in his lungs was too much and he remained silent. It was difficult for him to breathe, let alone speak. "Ditha, don’t worry.” I choked back my tears. “I’ll take you to see a doctor tomorrow. You’ll be all right. Let me get some blankets." I gave his hand a tight squeeze then hurried to the door, but a gurgled plea stopped me. Turning, I saw the shadow of death on his face. He motioned me to his side; I hurried to kneel down beside him. In a weak, rasping voice, he whispered words that haunt me still: “life will go on whether I’m a part of it or not.” “Don’t forget me.” His eyes begged as I left. “I won’t Ditha, I won’t,” I whispered, so lightly that the wind carried my words and scattered them—never to be heard by anyone else. As I walked, I wanted so badly to turn around and look at him. I wanted to see him again. But, I resisted the urge in my heart, forcing myself to look Page | 7
straight. I wouldnâ€™t look back. Ditha expressed a sweet smile to all, but there was no one to return that, at least when he was dying. He passed away that night and was consigned to the grave the next morning. There was no ceremony, no final rites or words of remembrance. He was forgotten; it was as if he never existed. There was nobody to hear his stories, no one to know him for his true self. Before his burial, I saw him one last time. He still smiled, as if to tell me, "Death isnâ€™t as horrible as you might think."
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A GLIMPSE OF HELL The sun bathed him in rays of blood while he stood mute, a victim of her radiant fury. It sank below the horizon as darkness seeped in through the window to take over. â€œI will kill him tonight, I am sure I will,â€? he swore. There was always an appearance, once darkness deepened- a sleek advent, creeping in with the night air. Rustam trotted out of his bedroom. He was focused, his eyes open, searching. He spied a shadow scuttling between the wash room and dining room. Ready to destroy this intruder, he lunged. His foot stopped midair, in the midst of almost crushing his target. Another missed opportunity.
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Rustam couldn’t bring himself to kill the cockroach; his deepest instincts were to shy away from killing. Defeated, he put on his jacket and left home. He entered the street where many people wandered, homeless or lost--with fearful, haunted eyes. Walking down the cobbled road, Rustam couldn’t lift his head. He averted gazes of the haggard eyes which seemed to surround him from all sides. “Father once said we had a street of homes, wars dragged on, and homes became houses, ruined structures on shaky bases, in tatters. The darkness of death prevails; life is a temporal phase.” He spoke only to himself as he walked. It comforted him. Jerked into the present by the roaring engine of aircraft, Rustam ran, like so many of the others, for cover. The planes sprayed death like insecticide to annihilate creatures. All around were the wounded, hanging on to life’s last moments. He found an underground trench and leapt into it, trying to avoid the scattered body parts in the dirt. Rustam couldn’t look away from all of the death. A bomb exploded. Shrapnel slit the throat of a man running, screaming, and he dropped like a slaughtered cow. The man had been right outside the trench, close enough for the sounds of his last dying breaths to be heard among the chaos. Rustam flinched away, but he didn’t have to look far to find another victim of the explosion. A desperate mother ran toward her dead child. She was wounded. Blood bubbled through her blouse, and dripped from her lips as she fell on to her dead child. Her last breath was spent in a rasping scream of agony and terror. It didn’t last long. The raid was over within minutes of the first plane going by. The living emerged like scared rabbits. The taste of death stung like chilled wind in the back of his throat. He moved out the trench, walking away, like it was all nothing. The air smelled of smoke, and blood. There was new energy. The fear was strong and fresh. He shivered, gazing down the dark street lit only by fires from the bombs. He couldn’t feel his feet on the ground. He couldn’t feel, —just a surge of nausea. Picking his way through the still smoking debris, Rustam couldn’t help but noticed all of the unattended bodies. Wali and Azad, his two friends, were supposed to meet him at the tea stall. They used to meet there every night. It was a ritual meant to superimposed normality over the reality of their shattered lives. Azad, a poet, would point to the stars and share their stories. Wali, a philosopher, had no liking for imaginative tales. Rustam sat on the stool, his arms wrapped around his chest. He didn’t hear the stories of the stars. He was still remembering the night’s death.
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“Did your day suck as bad as mine?” said Wali Rustam glanced up to his friend. “I feel death in my throat.” “It means you killed the cockroach .” Rustam shook his head. “No. Not today. I couldn’t. But I watched a woman die, she’d been limping toward her dead baby and a man did not even look at her when he crushed her ribs trying to get away.” Wali nodded . “Each waking moment is a prelude to ultimate sleep. Each breath is one gasp closer to our last. Each beginning is merely a path to the end. When one dies is equal to the death of a thousand years. It is only when we’re near death that we are most alive, new, different and free.” The image of the woman sliced through his memory like a knife. He stared at the horizon, his hooded eyes pointing toward the looming moon. Azad, the poet, was there too. He sat in silence, a pen in his hand, near his already full notebook. His glassy eyes also stared skyward. Migrating birds passed over, without alighting to rest. Azad was searching for an empty page. He jotted something down and gave voice to his poem: “Don’t fly so near to the earth. Fly up because Humans possess the earth, Humans who have turned mad, Fly up and pass through quickly. Go to your seas and warm waters. Don’t look down for a place to rest here, For humans consume their own children.” The calls of the birds lingered. Rustam turned to face his friends. The poet and philosopher debated, and he listened with head bent. “I’ve been studying human behavior and have gone through centuries. History is full of violence, pain, and humiliation,” Wali said. Azad nodded and said, “But lots of people are living in peace on this planet.” Page | 11
“They are living in peace at our cost.” “But what is the crime of a million people who don’t even know the reason of our war?” “Not knowing the reason is the biggest reason. Man has the instinct of hunting. The hunters have finished the animals. Now what should they hunt?” Rustam, who’d been silent for a while, now lifted his head. “But I’m also a man, and I don’t want to kill a cockroach!” “You were taught to be timid,” Wali said. “The books of great people and our so called education taught to us to be timid and slaves forever. They taught you to be kind and tolerant, and you took that as gospel truth. Are those who believe in books safe?” “Many who don’t—”Azad blew out a sigh and interrupted. “I’m hungry, been for days, craving a dish to fill me? Any bites left for me?” Rustam gave bread pieces to the poet. Azad gobbled the dry bread and nodded in deep appreciation. Wali looked at Azad and said, “Hunger and death are the forefront in our system of feelings. The rest are all abstract things. I’ve seen people kill other people for just one small meal.” The waiter brought hot tea. They knew him, and Wali made friendly conversation with him. “What’s up, dear Kagan.” The waiter sighed: “Once people fought against the foreign invasions. Now people are praying for the foreign invasion again. Foreign attack was a quick death, but internal fight looms on and on, a constant torture.” “How does one keep up in the face of constant death all around? How long before reality takes its toll?” Rustam asked. Wali responded before Kagan could say anything. “The feeling of death is terrible, but death itself is a wonderful thing. We remain in this fear our whole life, but as we go through it we are in the beautiful world.” “How do you know?” Azad challenged. “I believe we are here, on earth, like a lost child who knows the direction of his home, but the way to home goes through a dark jungle where he thinks the wild animals will kill him. Death is like that dark jungle which scares you, but when you have the courage to cross that jungle you find your home.” Page | 12
There was silence while they pondered Wali’s words. Suddenly the ground shook and a roar came from the sky. Men rushed in, armed with weapons and people scattered. Airplanes zoomed overhead. For a brief time no one moved. The fighting got closer. Wali yelled, “We’re sitting ducks, just waiting for the devil to blow us all to hell! Bodies of dead and dying are all around.” Azad shouted back, “They serve as shields. Let’s go.” They all stood in unison, like puppets on strings. "Many good men have died, and I suppose it must be God's will," Rustam yelled as they moved. Wali's eyes narrowed. The comment annoyed him—he didn’t like simplifications. Azad lagged behind, but Wali pulled him along. “Are you fine?” They were farther from the fighting, and could hear each other speak. The poet answered in a wandering escapism, “I’m fine. I was simply admiring that fine view to the west when sun sets, and thinking about things." "What kind of things?" Wali said. The poet was still innocent, despite the carnage and gore he had lived through. Even the bright sparkle of his eyes had not been dulled. His face was still like a pale newborn out from the womb. “What lies beyond? Thinking further into outer realms, not the literal war of our everyday existence, or even our tomorrows, next months, or next years. Wider than that. The human existence. Julius Caesar. Alexandar the Great. Where are they now? Where is that next level?” "Heaven or hell, I suppose," Rustam muttered. "And where is that?" Wali asked. Rustam looked back toward the tea stall, where smoke slowly disappeared into dark skies. "I don't know ", Rustam said. Azad swept his hand across the horizon. “The colours of the sky make me wonder. Someday, will we all join them in a radiant escapade? They wait in anticipation for us to join them in the hue of heaven that we sometimes get a glimpse of.” “Enough! Enough!” The philosopher cried, “They are gone! Gone! Eternally so!” The light had disappeared from his eyes. Wali walked away, the poet followed, reciting poems after him.
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“My once fiancée, the laughter, joy and rhythm of each new day. I see her face, her beauty hovering on me. I know she still exists. I know she still smiles with luscious lips. Her warm breath still fills my air. Even the sounds of her voice fill my ears with melody!” Wali turned angry. “You poets are the most unrealistic people on earth.” There was a rumbling in the sky, they scattered to hide. Wali didn’t. He walked ahead. The bomb dropped, the noise was terrible, but not as bad as the flames that devoured Wali as he embraced death. They saw his fiery form crumble to the ground, not dead yet, twitching in flames. The planes moved on, but Rustam and Azad remained hidden for several more hours. The moon glimmered behind dark clouds. It began to rain. Rustam moved toward what remained of his friend. He gathered a handful of philosopher’s ashes in agony looking into the sky for a sign--that flash of colour which might be heaven. Through the clouds he saw the sunrise. The glowing amber gently spread across the ashes. Dawn rose to a fresh new awakening. “Life is still there,” he said while looking toward the poet. But he didn’t find him there. Azad had slipped away without saying bye. Rustam knew how much Wali loved the river, and he brought the ashes of his friend there. "I think I know. This is the place you've been looking for," Rustam said with a sad smile and scattered the ashes into the river. It had been a long night, and he went home. But there was no more home, only brick rubble. Anger filled his soul as he moved from brick to brick. What he was looking for he didn’t know, but then he saw it. The cockroach was there, taunting, on one of the heaps. It chirruped, only once. Rustam eyed it, and stealthily picked up a nearby brick. He raised it above his head. The cockroach didn’t move. This time he would kill it. He would not be timid. As he brought it down, his arm stopped midair. A tear streaked down his face. “Enjoy freedom,” he said to the cockroach and watched it scuttle back into the darkness. He turned to the horizon and heard echoes of the poet’s voice, “The dead live in eternal freedom.”
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The Last Storyteller In my home I have three windows, each named according to the time of day when they illuminate my life: Sunrise, Sunset and Twilight. Sunset spreads transparency over most of the wall, filling the room with an endless palette of colors, until the sun dips below the edge of my world, gone for another day. When the light of Sunset fades to dusk, I close the shades and turn away, unable to face it for another moment. When I turn to the smaller Twilight, I see a more subtle opening above; stars and the moon fill my world. I peer into Twilight until sleep overtakes me. On the morrow, my eyes turn to my favorite, Sunrise. Sunrise opens into my walled garden, where I keep company with the many birds seeking sanctuary. They split their days between luxuriating in the fountain and indulging in the buffet of seeds suspended in feeders or formed into cakes of suet. The timbre of their tunes echo gratitude from willowy trees and bounce against the high stonewalls that surround us as the affection of the Sunrise rests upon our faces. I cannot imagine a day without the company of birds, especially the blue sparrow whose presence I have come to relish in my garden. Each day, I find her poised on a nearby branch, eyeing the lofty top of a tree near the feeder favored by the sparrows or spying a resting place where she may to join in with the other birds. Deliberately, she makes her way towards them hopping to one branch, alighting briefly on another. Once the other sparrows note her approach, she is driven back by forceful beaks, buffeting wings and sharp talons. She ends up sitting alone. The day I first saw her, perched atop the garden wall, she recused herself from the host of drab gray sparrows. Her rare beauty threatened them and they punished her for it. The writer in me struggles to find the story, the origin of the Blue Sparrow. How had she come to me? What drew her to this walled-in paradise? Perhaps, her host left her and she rests here, Page | 15
stranded. I wonder at her lack of confidence -- she should rule the garden as a monarch resplendent in her elegant plumage. But she lingers, unsure of her true place among the sparrows, as if she tests the waters of her new liberation, having escaped the confines of an iron cage. This morning as I gaze through Sunrise, she ruffles her feathers and stretches out her wings to bask beneath stray rays through the leafy canopy. She unfolds like the petals of a morning glory outstretches under golden rays; her wings are reminiscent of the clear sky curtained by royal blue wingtips. The blue sparrow inspires an obsession within me. Somewhere between the pale blue of her face to the vibrant cobalt stripes of her wings and tail, I forget my need to write her story. I long to catch her, to possess her beauty. Stronger than my desire to cage her is my fear of seizing her. As each day draws to a close, the fear of her permanent departure returns. In doubt I flee from her, from her story yet to be written, I retreat from her bright presence. Every day, lost in my own fear, I depart Sunrise and its promise of stories yet to be written. My day comes to an end and the sun reposes on the horizon. I want to frolic with the stripes of oranges and purple swinging through the air. My Singing blue sparrow fades out her songs. Sunset, the most flamboyant of the three, beckons to me. I lose myself in the majestic colors which pour through Sunset. Each color, magnified by the rays of the setting sun, sprawls onto the canvas of my walls trailing brilliant reds, giving way to wisps of pinks, and undulating purples. The majesty of life, of all conflict and of the entire world, pours through the flimsy lens of a window pane and draws me away from tales unwritten. I lose myself in memories and ideas as I stare through this bombastic fenestella. Sunset casts me out on a playground where I watch young boys, full of boundless energy and strength, shriek and scream in the midst of their wild games. They continue blissfully unaware of the gaze from one who fondly remembers his carefree membership of their number. I remember long summer days I spent as a boy, running without pause; where I had no time for exhaustion or concern for injury. The boys on the playground frolic and laugh while bowling and batting with their homespun swords. Their stories are written by their action, their parts play out on this vast stage of life. Among them I find company in the freedom of their hearts. Their play extends into eternity, propelled by youthful stamina. There they are caught up in this frozen moment, where time has no charge. The game of life, plays out with a cricket bat or a wooden sword, envelopes and caresses them and they embellish their roles with zeal. In a single moment, a brilliant flash breaks the spell as the last golden beam of the setting sun dwindles and turns the world into a gentle mixture of burnished gold and opulent pinks. Sunset kisses the boysâ€™ faces as the last piece of the scintillating yellow disc slips below the horizon. Soft hues wash over the playground, the shadows lengthen and the air chills. The departing light leaves the boys shadowed in the caress of the evening, adorned with the intensifying glow of celestial bodies caught deep within its arms. In the corner of my window I see the crescent of a new moon barely visible above the horizon and recite aloud an old poem
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from school -- a poem that I never fully understood as a child, but finally find its meaning within the departing boys:
â€œTill the little ones weary No more can be merry; The sun does descend, And our sports have an end.â€? I force myself to look to the stars or the moon, but instead my eyes wander inexplicably to the old graveyard astride the playground. My gaze trails among the misshapen marble, forlorn in stark contrast to the playground at its heart. Once again, I am reminded that stories must end and stories unwritten lay forever beneath the virginal clay of an idea. The gravestones are oversized and haphazardly scattered: some large, a few are small, while others stick out at crooked angles. With the boys gone and all possible stories shredded by their absence, I am reminded of the inevitable. This graveyard will spill onto the playground with the constant creeping of the fingers of death, a monster that comes for everyone. Even now it searches for the absent boys. One day, I will face the devoured playground, the loss of the stalwart youth, and Sunset will become the final resting spot of those who lose their struggle. With an exhale that mingles resignation and composure, I close the curtains over Sunset, shut away the lost light and the lost stories in equal measure. I turn to my final hideaway, my Twilight window. Here I repose, my gaze fixed on the aperture of forever. The iridescent shine of the moon unravels into Twilight. In subtle beauty, the cool shades of indigo usher stars into their full elegance, where they illuminate my world in ways the sun never could. In this place my hope and ideas combine unbidden into incredible tales I never quite hold on to in any other window, in any other corner of my mind, or sparkling slice of my soul. The glimmering romance of newborn moonbeams spread their smooth shades over everything. Within the depths of shadows the presence of a muse is summoned, she mingles delicately within the reciprocation of glow and gloom. Here, in their company, I spend as much time as they will allow. Sitting beneath this lunette, I have waited for many years to write one story. The muse seduces me with her splendor, her soft kiss fills me with hope and desire. Her caress saturates my senses and gives me an urgency I lack even when faced with all of the possibilities of the corybantic youths. Her tender ministrations elate me with an invigorating passion which even surpasses the desire I feel when I gaze upon the perfection of the blue sparrow. Before I greet Twilight, each day is filled with hopeful, fresh empty pages, offering sanctuary to the Story that lingers at the tip of my pen. A story so fresh, so alive, it refuses to resign itself to capture on the page. But at the end of the day in the company of the silvery muse, I am reminded of my failure as iridescent shades of Twilight illuminates blank pages as my beacon of defeat.
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Like my blue sparrow, I long to encase the characters of this story, with whom I share my life. Roaming without boundaries they dwell in my head, all threads of the singular, elusive Story. Exposed by the muse, caught in the silvery-gray and indigo infinity of this final translucent pane, the shadow of each character taunts me, flitters just out of my reach and mocks my attempts to contain it with pen and ink. The Story takes pleasure in outwitting me. Day after day, it eludes my grasp. No chains contain the ethereal story, not even my muse can seduce a single sentence or take hold of a cardboard character which might allow me to entice a protagonist or ensnare a villain. “You can’t catch me,” The Story reminds me in my futile pursuit, and in the stark echoes of gleaming blank pages, I hear a taunting laugh. As I rest in the glow of Twilight, aware of the familiar oblivion that peers over my shoulder, derided and mocked by failure, success lingers just beyond my reach. Sleepless, my mind fumbles for the Story in darkness; urged by the characters that would have once graced these empty pages but fall, defeated. The self-satisfied growl of the predator -- who consumes each scene, devours conflict and resolution, destroys antagonist and hero -- vibrates in my head and resonates in my bones until I cannot think. Yet my mind will not allow them to lose the war. Within the deepening dark, Story turns to me: “How many times must I tell you, you cannot constrain me?” And then once more Story leaves me in utter darkness, and my thoughts trail behind it. As a broken-down hunter, I follow each trace and track it into the unknown. Twilight lets in an errant breeze which flutters over me, blows the blank papers from my desk, and demands my attention. I move to the window, caress the frame as if it is a lover. So much lost, I ache in my heart, but with that touch I feel its quiet wisdom. I look at the panes fondly, remembering what this window has revealed to me over the years. Twilight never provides warmth like Sunrise nor does it gloss over the imperfections of the day with the radiant glow of Sunset. It never distracts me from all that perplexes me. Twilight reveals to me, in cold steady truth, the things I need to see. And tonight Twilight shows me a familiar sight, The Last Storyteller. The ache in my heart and the thrumming in my bones fade away as I am provided the perfect view of the QISA KHWANI BAZAAR. "The Bazaar of Storytellers” was once famous for recitals. Crowds gathered, thrived on daily folktales, as one thrives on oxygen. Huddled in close by the chilling wind, they gathered around the fire and listened to storytellers as they shared their tales of long-forgotten bravery and courage. But as time passed, and crowds thinned, those once hungry for the journeys of the imagination now indulged in the luxuries of the ever-evolving world. Even with the disappearance of crowds, The Last Storyteller still makes his home here in the dull light of a small, yellow lamp hanging from a blackened ceiling above him. As he has done every night, The Last Storyteller unfolds his straw mat upon the pavement and sits once more, awaiting his audience. His legs crossed, hands clasped in his lap, he prepares to share the words that have captivated audiences in years past. Wavering above his head is a sign simply stating: Page | 18
“I Tell Stories”. But tonight there is no one to listen. Sitting there, alone, he is the embodiment of a wavering candle, using his remaining light to call to those who still seek him. The exhaustion etched into his face now tells his stories better than he ever could. No audience materializes, not even a passing mouse or a struggling old lady laden with jugs of water. So he begins to read to pass the time, his lamp illuminates the old book in his hands. The orange and yellow lights of the bazaar hang in the still air, as they call moths to sacrifice themselves in a deadly dance with flame. Eventually, however, a small crowd gathers before The Last Storyteller. The tiny congregation does not compare with the throngs he used to command, but it is enough to call him to his craft. There in front of the audience, The Last Storyteller draws himself from the shadows and a gleam returns to his eyes. By virtue of his story, he cuts through the night's darkness with threads of imagination and pathways of escape. Here, at Twilight, I sit transfixed upon The Storyteller, forgetting that I have my own tales to tell. I continue to watch as he casts his tales out into the crowd, giving each story glimmers of life. This night, in a rude awakening, outsiders approach the edges of The Last Story Teller’s audience; they stick out in appalling fashion. High tech reporters are easily identified by microphones, notebooks and shiny vehicles; they seek to report about him as if he was the only ridiculous creature left on this planet. Their report about the near extinction of storytellers is headline news. These reporters care nothing for the tales he shares but instead for the tale he could provide them. Their hungry pens hope to use him as their centerpiece human interest story. To them The Last Story Teller is an exotic spectacle of the past to add spice to the mundane world. Intruding on his story they prod at him with questions, "Storyteller, how do you create your stories?" He continues with his story, but their voices break once more over his tale, “Tell us, how do you imagine your characters?” Pressing onwards he tries to regain the fading spell of his narration, but with his cadence broken, he falters as the reporters’ pestering persists. They will not allow him to go on until they are satisfied. And in the reporters’ cacophony, the listeners began to drift away. With a shrug, the last listener reluctantly departs. The Storyteller arises to walk away. Still the reporters chase him, “How do you feel when you find a new story?” “Like a hen after laying eggs,” The man whose face was etched by time let his response, like his irritation, hang in the air among them. At last he renders them speechless, and to this, he cackles. The reporters retreat once more into the darkness, and The Story Teller stands there looking into the distance with cloudy eyes. Page | 19
There he stands, lost in his thoughts, I clearly see a shadow lurking in his path, eluding his gaze and perplexing his mind. His once beaming eyes darken; the glow of his stories leaves him and his shoulders stoop from an unknown weight. Within The Storyteller I find familiarity in the shadows of sadness etched onto his face. In his faraway gaze I know the sight he seeks. From my distance I wonder what has brought him to this point. He eventually gives into sleep, his head buried in his hands. In his repose, his grip loosens around a paper he has clutched in his hand, and it is torn away by an errant draft where it travels to me at the edge of Twilight. In my hands I find a letter from his son. “Dear Father, Much time has passed since I left home. You never quit storytelling, regardless of the poverty we were in. Our conditions never improved. To this day I keep thinking if I were in your place, I would have done anything except for storytelling, which failed to bring us from our impoverished state. Now I am here, far away, where I work hard every day to survive. I can remember what you said to me when I was leaving—you said to me that you weren't rich, but you could give me advice. In the end, Father, you gave me neither money nor advice. Even now I work from dawn until dusk, every day, but still cannot earn enough money to help myself, let alone you. You taught me many things, but never how to make money. Father, I am sure story telling still gives you much satisfaction, but it also brings with it much uncertainty.” A name is scrawled at the bottom, but I cannot make it out. It could be any name, but it matters little. That tale has been told. Drawing myself from the contents of the letter, I look once more and see The Last Storyteller standing before me. The man I gaze upon seems entirely different than The Storyteller I feel a kinship to, through many watches from my Window. His wizened eyes delve deep into my soul and I feel the full weight of his resignation. Now in standing this close to him I no longer see the light in his eyes. I now know it is only reserved for the stories he tells. Embarrassed, I cough, “Is this your letter?” and thrust the paper towards him. Before turning to go, we look at each other and understanding fills the space between us. He touches my shoulder and speaks simply. “I know you write stories, but our lives are afflicted by the stories that write us.” With that, he continues on his way, ambling towards his pitch, taking his letter with him. I continue to watch as the bazaar becomes more barren. Every time I open Twilight, I see even less than the night before. The bazaar is dying, slain by a changing economy, by a world which Page | 20
has moved on. Eventually, I close the curtains to the Twilight Window- I cannot watch this any longer. Months pass by until a cold wind pushes its way past my curtains under the drumming of icy rain. I cannot help but shiver as I stare at the closed and curtained windows as an arctic draft wafts through cracks, producing an echoing creak. Night after night, I keep company with The Story I fruitlessly pursue, and hour-by-hour it evades me with layers of sleet and delicate hoarfrost on the windowpane. I can no longer bear to open the curtains on the Twilight, for I cannot bear its truth. Days pass me until I seize my courage and whip open the curtains on Sunrise. Before me, I find the crisp chill of a bright winter morning, and relief floods my heart. My fear was for naught. I cast my eyes over the frozen ground once covered with birds. The sparrows have flown south to warmer climes, their stories unfolding before them. And then my eyes catch on dull blue on the hard frozen ground, cold and outstretched on the frosted grass. Grief seizes me, where moments before I felt free. She is dead. I feel the familiar twinges of desire, to catch her, posses her beauty. Where once I thought to protect her, I find my failure on all accounts. The essence of the blue sparrow has taken wing and I own her corpse only in death. My heart aches as I put her into the ground for her final rest. As I hold her frozen body in the palm of my hands, her soft feathers sway mournfully in the cold breeze like a colorful anemone in an icy ocean current. As I place dirt over her, I know the colors I once admired at the height of the sun will now only survive in my most exquisite dreams. The day drags on as I resign myself to a reality without Blue Sparrow. In desperation, I turn to my gaudy Sunset Window for comfort. I draw back the curtains once more and find the playground empty. The creep of the graveyard caught up with the wild youths while I was not looking. Graves spill out into the foreground, forbidding boys from coming to play. And finally I turn to Twilight. A single tear wells in my eye as grief and hope battle. I muster the courage to look deep into the indigo night, searching for the bazaar. The Storyteller’s dim lamp is no longer there. “Well, that’s it,” I resign myself. “The Story Teller has no listeners and no money. He has gone!” The next morning when I wake up, I know I need more than the light of Sunrise shining into my home, so I open the curtains to all three Windows. My eye is caught by Twilight; the marketplace is bustling in full daylight, alive with noise and sound. There are colors, laughter, spices, and smiles. The loud hum of haggling is tossed over the matters of goods and wares. Then, just there, out of the corner of my eye, I see a familiar sight, The Storyteller’s shadow. He is in his usual place, but above him his sign reads, “Vegetables for Sale.” Page | 21
The stall in front of him is lively and packed with many customers demanding to buy from him. His face is full of life and vigor as he counts out potatoes and wraps a squash. From my portal, I strain to summon his gaze and watch as he refuses to see me. In fact, his eyes refuse to see anyone at all. Somehow he is no longer there, his mouth is speaking, but his eyes betray the truth -- The Last Storyteller is gone. He has gone with the blue sparrow. The Last Storyteller is dead, and The Vegetable Seller now lives in his body. I now know I reside in a world without stories, full of bodies that will never truly live. I return to my table and take the scattered papers I have dotted with bits and pieces of the Story. I shred them into small pieces, and scatter their remains through my three Windows. Some pieces land on the ‘corpse’ of The Last Storyteller. He smirks at me, and in his smile I hear The Vegetable Seller tells me that our world does not need stories, it wants commodities. In the last dirge of The Storyteller, he extols, “I told the stories of beauty and magic, as well as of love and loneliness and none of it matters. The world only desires tangible things - items that can be bought and owned. Life necessitates biting in order to continue fleshly existence, and to feed the soul is an abstract task.” I peer one last time through the Twilight Window and shut it forever.
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Mother Beyond the Border
At the top of Siachin glacier, sitting outside their igloos, Indian army officers and soldiers measured the depths of their patriotism with sacks of frozen enemy corpses. The sun didn't foster life there, gasoline did. They lived in a world where the only recourse was vengeance, fueled by an insatiable lust for blood. Maj.Jaswant despised these games and had his sights set on retirement. He had dozens of subordinates, but he preferred the company of Lt.Sharma and Lt.Arun. They made him feel young. From their position atop the glacier, Jaswant and his two comrades watched a contingent of Pakistani soldiers. The sun brightened the ice while the Indian soldiers relaxed as minutes of ceasfire stretched into hours. The stench of death clung to the freezing winds and they reveled in it. An avalanche had buried over a thousand Pakistani soldiers. This was a rare reprieveâ€” no bugle calls and no march. The three could see their enemies, digging corpse after corpse out of the packed snow. â€œIt is a pity the ice killed them before my rifle punched a hole in their lungs. How wonderful it is to see the gutted enemy, without spotting scope.â€? Arun said. Page | 23
Jaswant’s subordinates believed the avalanche was divine intervention, proving that God did wear an Indian uniform. Filled with mirth, Arun was the youngest of the three—just 19 years old and fascinated by the sights of war. Sharma tapped him on the shoulder and began a quiet, yet enthusiastic dance. His rifle high above his head in celebration. Jaswant remained silent, focused on his own thoughts. “Come celebrate with us, Sir?” Arun beckoned Jaswant, in an attempt to lift Jaswant’s spirits. Working not to sigh, Jaswant turned with his somber expression. “I don't celebrate death, even when it is my enemies.” Sharma and Arun looked at each other. The battlefield wasn’t a place for warm hearts; it was a place for warm bullets. Pity for the enemy from a senior officer was beyond their understanding. “Sir, they don't want us alive.” Arun frowned. “Our green jackets have turned black from the smoke of kerosene oil; we don’t live here because we love Pakistan.” “God, being God, saved his people, the Indians, and killed the enemy,” Sharma added with another wave of his rifle. “God is no country's soldier,” Jaswant reprimanded them. “Don't enlist Him in this war! You think they are so godless?” He leaned against a tent pylon. “You pray to Him to sentence Pakistani soldiers to the fiercest furnaces in hell. They pray to Him to reward their dead with the most royal palaces in heaven.” He sat down and rubbed his hands over his face. “So, who will God listen to? If this fight is decisive and the earth becomes worth living in it — well and good. If not, God save mankind!” Arun flushed red, his lips flattening with anger. He scoffed and kicked an ice chip. Jaswant wasn’t moved by his temper. He waved off the insubordination with a sad shake of his head, and wished he could just walk away and leave it there. Jaswant touched the scar on his hand from an old wound and looked out into the distance. “I once heard a foreign correspondent's comment about our war. He said it was like ‘two deaf men fighting over a radio.’ He could not have spoken more wisely. Nature takes centuries in making what we take minutes in destroying. There is no justification for this hate. You, or a Pakistani soldier, feel you are being loyal to your fatherland. We all are fools, making son-less mothers with every man we kill. War feeds the cycle of war. We link hands and dance around piles of slaughtered Pakistanis, and Pakistanis do the same. Page | 24
“I have seen and delivered death many times in my twenty years as a soldier.” Jaswant continued. “The screams of dying friends challenge my sanity. War, for me, is a long and dark night.” He gazed across at the shabby figures of Pakistani soldiers sorting their dead. Sharma’s face glowed with admiration, imagining the many lives the veteran had stolen. “All the same, our nation is proud of your success,” said Sharma. “ Your bravery saved our country.” Jaswant rubbed his forehead. “I am ashamed of what you admire in me. My country will tell of the things I’ve done, but I can't tell my children of them. How can I tell them I killed a man just because I met him at the border?” Jaswant smiled sadly. "Let me tell you a story. We have a reprieve, at least for the night, and I think it is important for you to understand.” "Yes, sir,” Sharma said. He and Arun shared a smile as both looked at the Pakistani soldiers still laboring through the corpses. “Many years ago, I was stationed at Wahga Border—a hostile border you know. The fighting was brutal, and the desert’s harsh conditions were as much a struggle as the incursions. The desert is a cunning fox. We lost as many soldiers to the immortal sands as we did to enemy fire.” “One night, on a routine patrol, I stopped to pee and missed my comrades in the dark. All I could see was the bleak night as the darkness sneered at me. I walked for hours with no sign of my men or our outpost. I was the desert’s prey, off-track, exposed, and hungry.” Jaswant reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He lit it, allowing his situation to fully sink into his comrades' heads. Then he continued, his voice gaining richness. "I stumbled on through the harsh wasteland for half a night, a day, and then into the night. The desert seemed to burrow in between my bones, turning everything to stone and calcium. Finally, I wandered into a small village and there I lost consciousness.” Caught up in the story, Arun and Sharma's eyes widened. “I opened my eyes to a sight both comforting and worrisome. It was not the desert, but the inside of a cool dark small mud house. An old woman with white hair, bleached from the sun, stood in front of me with a crook in her spine. My tongue was swollen and as rough as sandpaper. With an effort, I asked. ‘Where am I... Where is this?’ ‘Peace... you are in my house, my son.’ She caressed my forehead. Her words were a balm to my fears. ‘You are my guest,’ she added. Her voice was soothing in the cool dark of her simple home.” Page | 25
Jaswant took a drag from his cigarette. “ I did my best to stand, but my legs wobbled and I dropped down back on the bed. I struggled to understand her motives. Two kind eyes stared at me. The woman squirmed, her chair squeaking in rhythm with her old bones. The orange light of the oil lamp reflected off her face, highlighting the shadows and the deepening wrinkles that etched into her features. She leaned forward. Her hands on my forehead were cool considering the hot war that was raging close to her village. ‘The fever still ails you. You frightened me. I thought you were dead when I found you on my doorstep,’ she chucked sadly." Jaswant fiddled with his pistol, then continued. “I'd heard stories of our captured soldiers being tied behind trucks and dragged until there was nothing left. I had to get out of there. I said to the old woman, ‘I have to go back to my post... My fellow soldiers probably think I’ve deserted.’ ‘The desert will kill you,’ the woman admonished. ‘Your uniform is drying. I washed it. You were exposed to a sandstorm, and you veered from the safe embrace of your lands. Perhaps even as we speak, death spreads its arm in a waiting embrace for you outside.’ I understood the threat she was trying to paint in my mind. If I left without my uniform, I might be shot by my own people. If I left with it, I might be shot by Pakistani soldiers. She rose from the chair saying, ‘I'll bring you some food and water. Enjoy your respite here. You are no soldier while you are my guest.’ Jaswant glanced across the valley where the body retrieval was ongoing. He nodded to his young friends and continued his story. “ But no soldier can have peace-of-mind without his fingers wrapped around his trigger, so I looked for my rifle, my ever faithful. The old lady noticed my searching eyes. ‘What you need is rest, not your weapon. I will give it back when you regain your health. You need food.’ She exited the room and I heard the rattle of pots and dishes in the kitchen.” Jaswant lit another cigarette. The smoke curled up around his two fellows. “I was in Pakistan. Our world is filled with corruption, fear, selfishness and betrayal, and I thought she was biding her time, waiting for the Pakistani soldiers to come and claim me as their reward.
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I struggled to reach my weapon, which lay on a table in the far corner of the room. It seemed so far, but somehow, staggering on my weak legs, I reached it. The wood of its stock was smooth, comforting and familiar. It was as though I regained a lost limb. When she returned to the room, the weapon didn't change the kindness in her tone, or the pity shining from the depths of her dark eyes. Uncomfortable receiving her pity, I asked, ‘How many people live in this home? Without fear, she replied, ‘This small home is my mansion. I live alone.’ Looking down and running fingers over the shirt, I asked. 'So whose shirt is this?’ ‘It once belonged to my son,’ she replied with a touch of sadness. Don't worry, he won't be collecting it from you. He is dead,’ I bowed my head. ‘My house was once filled with sons, flooded with the joy of a bustling household. Seven during the good days! But, I have lost them all.’ The weight of the sympathy in my heart and the weight of the rifle were too much for me. I had to drop one, and I chose the rifle. Her grief drew me closer. I felt her warm breath close to my face, I struggled to breathe the number, Seven. ‘Seven? And… and all dead? That’s terrible… how... did it happen?’ ‘Let me keep that story to myself. Perhaps I will tell you some other time. Now, it’s time for you to eat something’. She raised the plate cover, and the delicious fragrance of fresh bread and cooked vegetables wafted into the air. Such a lovely meal from the hands of my enemy. After I finished, she recounted how she found me almost lifeless at her door and how, disregarding her unease, she had taken me in. Despite how touching her story was, I knew that not everyone could be as kind as she. ‘How many houses are in this village?’ I asked. ‘The houses are not close here,’ she said. ‘Many people have left, seeking greener and calmer pastures, the war has sucked the life out of our village. It was once a village robust with life before the fighting erupted. My relatives are still on your side despite the ocean of blood and hate that washes the frontier. Sometimes, we still swim through it to see each other when the guns stop firing long enough.’ I could feel the sorrow that darkened her eyes. ‘People... people still move across the boundary?’ I asked. ‘ Only ghosts can cross it. It is our job to maintain the sovereign purity of our nation by making sure nothing muddies it.’ Page | 27
'Don't worry.' She winked and her dark eyes twinkled. ‘I doubt I'll be a ghost anytime soon. Soldiers are foreigners, unfamiliar with the danger and weather of the desert. You can fight against humans, but not against the desert sands.' She glanced out a window and said, ‘ The hour grows late. I must tend to the animals, herd them into their pens for the night. You are your own nanny now, take care of yourself. God willing, I should return just after sunset.’ She walked out and several minutes later the front door lock snapped into place. Food restored my energy. I reached the window, and caught sight of her walking towards the sparse fields hugging the edge of the desert. In the distance, Pakistani posts rose from the ground like giant trees guarding the border. I could hardly imagine the border being so close. A line drawn with the blood of our sons, stood just a handful of kilometers from where I lay. A hurricane of doubt raged at the trust that grew for that woman. It was not easy to cross the border, especially on my own. I was too weak. I was at the mercy of her conscience; whether she saved me or sold me. I was her enemy by religion, nationality, and logic.” Jaswant flicked the burnt-out cigarette to the ground, and came out of his revere for a while. " She stayed true to her word, and returned by sunset. As I regained my strength, her generous and compassionate heart tore down my doubt. Her unconditional love formed threads, sewing us close. I stayed there for a week, and every day my doubts faded. Each time the air raid siren on the posts rang out, sweat burst out on my skin. Of course, I used to hear it when I was in my post in India, but hearing it from the other side of the divide was agony. The sound cursed me for reaping kindness where I had sown hate. Late one afternoon, there was a knock on her door. I ran to the back of the house and clutched my rifle. Sweat ran down my forehead as I waited. But she returned, alone. ‘Who were they?’ I couldn’t help but feel like I had betrayed the woman with my fear. ‘Don't worry, son,' she said, patting my arm, ' Pakistani soldiers routinely stop for information. It is standard practice here at the border.’ I swallowed hard to squeeze out the strength to ask her, ‘but... but it was... I mean it was safest for you to tell them about me.’ She smiled and tears welled in my eyes. Her voice soothed my troubles. 'No, son, you are not my enemy, you are my guest.’ She chuckled as she saw me battle with my words.
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Every two days, Pakistani soldiers would come knocking at her door, but her smiles, soft bows, and soothing voice soon sent them on their way again. My country had shoveled so much hate for these people down my throat, yet that good soul had risked her life and her home, and for no benefit. This was a woman who saw the human in me before the Indian. She was my mother, living in a land that I ravaged. She had a heart not bound by flags or patriotism, but with love and compassion for others. I wish we all could see through her eyes. A week later, she informed me it was time for me to cross the border and return to India. She prepared me to move that night. We tumbled out into the desert, mother and son, Pakistani and Indian. The dark laughed and hissed. We hiked into the murky stretch of desert. Her body was old, but the mother in her was young, and she trudged alongside me in the vague night. Pakistani military outposts came into view. For her years, Mother was agile but had a fortitude many men would envy. The years weighing on her back wouldn’t allow her to run. We crawled past on our bellies, alternating our journey between walking and creeping, so as not to be spotted by Pakistanis. Even in the danger that infused the border, she stayed by my side. She was, seeing me to safety, at the possible cost of her own. She signaled me to sit and wait. I caught my breath. The flat featureless desert stretched out before us, from where we hid. Pakistani soldiers dotted the land, patrolling this stretch of the border. Even so close to homeland, escaping felt like an unattainable goal. ‘You can't cross now,’ she said, looking up to read the skies. 'We will wait here for the most appropriate time. While you wait…,’ She brought out my army uniform from her bag, ‘… time for you to change into your uniform.’ She studied the skies, and as if she could read the weather, ‘There will be a sand storm. That is your best chance to make it through.’ I should have been overjoyed to return to my homeland, but I was reluctant to leave my new Mother. Our bonds had grown strong in my short stay with her. ‘Earlier on when I was sick, you told me your seven sons died. Please, tell me how?’ The glow on her face faded. ‘This monstrous border ate my sons. Before India was severed into India and Pakistan, life shone here. But the partition destroyed our little paradise as the locusts of guns devoured our village. Life became hard and uncaring. We struggled for survival. My husband and eldest son started a business transporting goods to the other side of the frontier. The business was risky. Both were executed.’ I could feel her silent tears. Page | 29
‘Did we kill all of your sons? Taking her hand between both of mine, whips of regret flogged my conscience ‘No. Some were killed by your army, others by my own.’ My mouth dried. I wanted so badly to comfort her, but I couldn’t find the words. Instead, I said, ‘But the partition was your peoples' dream. We didn't want to divide the great India.’ A sad smile sprang to life and faded. ‘Yes, it was our demand, but once the partitioning starts, it never ends. After religion, we are further divided into poor and rich, different castes, and languages. And then people have to pay the price for decisions not made by them, but made for them.’ I mustered the strength to speak. ‘Surely, life is hard for you now, and the war craves heroes. Why didn't you make yourself one by offering me to the Pakistani army?’ ‘No loss could be greater than losing my sons. Should I betray other mothers, my sisters-at-arms, for some uncivilized revenge?’ Here I was at the war front being lectured on civility by an old woman well behind modern civilization. The tears besieged my eyes as silence crept between us one more time. The sandstorm she had predicted soon came. ‘Go,’ she kissed my forehead and said, ‘Be safe. Your land awaits.’ I shook my head, wiped the tears from my eyes, and kissed her gnarled hands. As I ran for the border, I could hear her prayers, which were of another religion, asking her God to protect me. I sobbed as I ran. Her prayers were answered. As the years passed, I continued to fight, as most of us continue our jobs despite hating it. I sat like a stray dog at the butcher's shop, without chains keeping me there, waiting for the butcher's end of the day offer. Many of us have these invisible chains and like that dog, are just waiting for a small piece of rusted meat. But all the heat of this war has not evaporated those teardrops from my heart. The kiss she planted blossomed into a love for humanity that surpasses uniform and borders. We, both Indians and Pakistanis, teach history stuffed with loathing to our children. Hatred has plagued us and assassins become heroes. War is, in fact, a black eye in our history, but we present it as something marvelous. It's damn childish. We are isolating our generation. Our leaders are piling this hatred into a throne for governments. Who will tell this story of a mother who belongs to all, who lives beyond the border and, I believe, on both sides? The mother who gave birth to children to be slaughtered, but still believed in life and love. Only later did I realize I was the son of two mothers, the one who gave birth to the boy who grew into the soldier, and the one who gave birth to the man who grew from the soldier.” Page | 30
Jaswant looked at his two colleagues. “Now, can you see the folly of this war? Do you understand that any medal you get from war is not a reward? It’s a scar to remind you how many sons you have separated from their mothers." Heavy silence captured them. Their eyes strayed down to the Pakistani soldiers, still immersed in digging out their dead. “Nature has collapsed the glacier, but the walls around men’s hearts are harder to crumble,” Jaswant said, staring again at the Pakistani soldiers. A tear dropped from his eyes and became a part of the frozen ground.
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Only Nada lives on the Other Side of Mountains
The cool spring winds sang over the mountains and swept down through wild flowers. The beauty of the bright spring sun inspired a touch of bittersweet feelings for Mona. She moved to and fro and packed her few belongings into wooden boxes. Stretching on her toes to reach the top shelf of her simple yet delicate teak bookcase, Mona’s hand brushed light across the spine of a tattered, but cherished, book. Looking over her shoulders, Mona brushed the dust from her hand and reached for the faded and stained book. “I haven’t seen Grandpa’s book since I was a child,” She cradled the time-worn tome in both hands and sank down to sit on a brocaded footstool. Tears glazed her eyes as she opened the thin book, caressing a small scrap of parchment that rested just inside the front cover. She ran her fingers over the tender words written in shaky script so long ago. As his gift to her, he’d drawn a flower under his signature. “My dearest Mona, the love and wisdom in these pages will guide you to keep you on your path. Let these simple words soothe you in times of sadness and empower you to find the happiness that lies within your heart.” Where had the time gone? It seemed as though only yesterday her dear grandfather had spun the tales and shared the laughter bringing color and life to her world. Page | 32
Clutching the book to her bosom, she rose and walked to the door, drinking in the cool, fresh scent of the valley. Grandfather’s book felt warm with a life of its own beneath her palms. This sweet work of art, crafted with love, may not have brought him the much deserved fame that he enjoyed in later years, but to Mona, it was a priceless expression of who he was. She sighed, remembering. Her grandfather had left the village years ago, despite Mona’s pleadings. He came back frequently for joy-filled visits, but his restless spirit compelled him to return to his secret den in the city, where he crafted words into magical tapestries, which captivated readers from all over the world. A lone tear slid down her cheek. In the last letter that she received, he’d said he was desperately tired. Her heart was heavy as she wondered if she would ever again bask in the warm glow of his presence, and be soothed by the balm of his wise words. Mona had spent many happy days with her beloved grandfather, but one day in particular stood out from among the rest. He had arrived in the valley for a visit on a beautiful summer morning, and found Mona writing stories at her desk. She glanced up with delight as he peered over her shoulder to see her work. Jumping up to greet him, she exclaimed, "Grandpa, I missed you! Do you have any new stories for me?” His soft answer surprised her. “I’m weary of stories now, dear Mona.” He stood up. “Let’s take a walk.” “I’m puzzled, Grandpa,” Mona frowned. “You write such masterpieces, for which you receive praise from so many, and this is the special place where you come for inspiration. If you’re not here to write your beautiful stories, what compels your visit?” she asked, walking in step with him. Taking a deep breath he smiled and patted her shoulder. “Dear one, you cannot know the pleasure of coming back home until you’ve first felt the pain of leaving. I’ve felt this pain and pleasure many times. The writer is a most miserable creature. He creates stories with the ashes of his soul before he is finally condemned to eternal silence.” Grandfather paused, letting her absorb his words, and then asked, “Do you know where Shakespeare spent his last days?” Somewhat befuddled, Mona nodded, “I read that he spent his last days in the village where he was born and raised. Knowing the end was near; he signed his will, and died shortly thereafter.” “Yes, but do you know how he spent his last year?” he persisted. Thoroughly lost at this point, she shook her head. “He spent his time among common people, not as a celebrity, but simply as a man who came back home after many years. He enjoyed the humble pleasure of conversations with the village folk. Weary of creating characters and performing them on the stage, he longed to enjoy the Page | 33
precious time he had left experiencing the warm reality of real people who had real stories to tell.This creator of profound prose was free to be himself only during childhood and his last year in the village, the rest of his life was devoted to working for the entertainment of others. Must the ultimate achievement of a writer culminate in abject loneliness and isolation from the rest of the world? The writer is neither god, nor fully man, but a miserable creature caught somewhere between, shackled within his solitude.” They walked silently together for a time, enjoying each other’s company as Mona pondered the meaning of her grandfather’s words. It was nearly noon by the time they returned to the lush green yard surrounding the farmhouse. The sky was thick with billowing grey clouds which threatened rain. In the valley, near the babbling stream that ran through its floor, a mare whinnied, so loud and vibrant that the earth seemed to tremble underfoot. “Your cousin, smiling boy, should arrive today from his village,” said Grandpa. “I hope his journey is safe on this cruel rainy day.” He looked at Mona’s flushed cheeks and smiled. “But then, our smiling boy is a poet who loves romantic summer rains.” “He’s never written a poem, Grandpa,” she replied “Ahh…but there are two types of poets and writers. There are those like me and like you, who suffer for our writing and strongly desire to touch the hearts of our readers. But then there are also the poets and writers who write only for themselves. They are pure and strong, writing for the sheer joy of it, never allowing themselves to be poisoned by editors and readers. My smiling boy is the second type, a wonderful poet by nature. Since his childhood, he has written poems and songs for himself. He wanted to win your heart when you were younger, but respected your dreams. His heart broke for you when you married another and divorced within a year.” Mona’s failed marriage was a sore topic. “I know, Grandpa, it wasn’t a wise choice. I never thought that the brilliant writer whom I married would choose his art and his audience over me,” she shook her head sadly, remembering. “My dear Mona, you are still young and have much to learn. His writings heightened your joy for a while and he so fascinated you that you imagined there was a god behind those writings. But he was only a man, and a flawed soul at that.” “I didn’t understand the complexity of writers,” she admitted. “Some are such miserable creatures, writing and then waiting for the approval of editors and readers. They live in misery their whole lives, feeling like gods if they become famous, finding their worth in the adulation of others. What is the end result...? Loneliness and death.” Grandpa smiled. “But, my dear child, you have survived, and a life full of beauty, love and promise awaits you. The stories you write spread good cheer to those who are fortunate enough to read them. Move on from the past, there’s nothing to pity here! Do you remember those cloudy summers from childhood, when you used to sing in the rain?”
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Mona nodded. Summers lasted forever back then. “I used to chase lightening bugs through the woods. I’d catch them and put them inside a jar. I dreamed of the stars with the jar by my bed, but each morning my pretty lightening bugs were dead.” “Our desires are much like that, dear one,” Grandpa replied. Pausing on the pathway, he leaned against a rock, shook his head and sighed. “We chase our desires our entire lives. To achieve them, we put ourselves in difficult and often painful circumstances. If we achieve these desires too soon they die and lose their beauty. Often it is not until we become old and feeble, that we realize the happiness and beauty we so desperately sought was there all the while. Someone caring and loving was one call away, with open hands and pure heart. It seems that for a time, you forgot that it was your cousin, my smiling boy, who used to catch those lightening bugs for you.” Grandpa longed to remind Mona of the smiling boy’s love for her, a love that she took for granted, but her failed marriage left her heart scarred and afraid to love. “I must guard my heart against passion, I’ve already paid the price for following it the first time,” she thought. Uncomfortable with the truth in his words, Mona tried to change the subject. “Grandpa, see how pleasant the weather is today, let’s enjoy it.” Chuckling, her wise grandfather would not be dissuaded. “Let’s go together, Mona, hold my hand and take me down to welcome my smiling boy, my poet grandson. I’ve never read his poems but I always feel his poetry; his poetry touches my heart.” The clouds were beginning to clear and a lovely rainbow stretched across the brightening sky when Grandpa shouted with happiness. “Look there, Mona, right under the rainbow, my smiling boy, on his white mare!” She saw him waving his hand and started to wave back, but stopped. Grandpa caught her hand and waved it for her, laughing out loud. Rays of sunshine came through the clouds, beaming upon Grandfather’s smiling boy, the sweet poet. On his mare ascending the mountain, he reminded Mona of the Greek god Zephyr, god of the West Wind and messenger of spring, coming to carry her from the mountain top to a meadow of blue skies and white clouds. Dismounting, he hurried toward the grinning pair, and pulled Grandpa into his embrace. “Oh my boy,” Grandpa said. With tears in his eyes he hugged the smiling boy. “Good day, Ali,” Mona smiled shyly, calling him by his real name. It had been such a long time since she had gazed upon his strong, handsome face. “My dear cousin, how are you?” he inquired, eyes alight. “I’m fine, thank you,” was all Mona could think to say in the face of his tender regard. Time hadn’t changed Ali, his heart shone in his eyes.
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“It is always nice seeing you two together,” Grandpa said, grinning broadly. It seemed as though the brooding thoughts with which he had been wrestling were suddenly suffused with the light of an inner peace. “Come, both of you,” Grandpa decreed. “Let’s have lunch and some tea.” The stroll back to the farmhouse was joyful, Ali and Mona basking in the light of Grandfather’s happiness. After the three of them chattered through their meal and tea and rested a while, Grandpa suggested another walk to appreciate the setting sun in the backdrop of clouds nestling against the mountaintop.Mona took in the beauty of the valley as the grazing animals moved toward home. She felt a kinship with them, knowing the soothing peace that comes only from relaxing at home at the end of the day. As the happy notes of the shepherd’s flute faded into the distance, her soul was content. Grandpa stopped walking after a time, considering the beauty of the setting sun. “Let me tell you a story.” He motioned for them to sit on an outcropping of rocks. “The two of you will be the first to hear this and, most likely, the last.” He sat across from the curious pair, settling himself carefully. He released a long breath and said: “It is here I met my Nada,” he said. “She was picking flowers from this valley. Her face shone with greater beauty than the blossoms she held.” Grandpa paused to regard a graceful bird flying alone in the light of the dying sun. Mona noted the similarities between the two – the freespirited bird and her brilliant grandfather. “'Hello!' I said to that lovely girl. She looked at me with annoyance, as though I had disturbed her. 'Yes?' she inquired, undoubtedly wondering why I, a strange youth, was speaking to her. Words escaped me in the face of her radiant beauty, so I awkwardly blurted out the first words that came to me –'thank you for being so beautiful!' She smiled and the whole universe smiled with her.” Grandpa gazed at the sky, lost in memories. The sun sank into its rest, deep within the universe, drawing Grandfather further into his contemplative state. “True love is known throughout history to have a certain element of mystery, and the story of lost love touches the heart of every hearer.” Grandpa remarked, pondering. After a moment he shook himself, returning to his storytelling. “So I was telling you about my beautiful girl, my Nada.” He said with a faraway smile. “I believe I fell instantly in love with Nada, but I had other dreams as well and I left this beautiful village in pursuit of them.” “Grandpa, you believe you were in love? Were you not sure?” Mona asked.
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When we met, I thought I was in love, but I was not. I was transfixed by her beauty, I was captivated by her smile, and I couldn’t see her love because I was blinded by ambition. Now, with age and wisdom, after growing to know her, I can truthfully confess that I will always be in love with her.” Grandpa replied. Years had graced his lost love. “What happened Grandfather?” Ali asked, leaning forward, fascinated. “I left this village and went to the city. I still remember that cloudy evening when I said goodbye. I remember the unshed tears welling in her eyes. Memories of my sweet Nada faded as the dazzling lights of city consumed me. Fame came quite soon, which was a curse. I became popular as a writer and the stars in my eyes caused me to lose sight of her. I didn’t return for many years and when I did, I was weary of fame, and longed to see my Nada again.” ‘Did you find her?” Mona asked, breathlessly. “Yes, yes I found her.” Grandpa replied, casting his eyes downward. “Where is she now?” Ali asked. Gazing toward the horizon, Grandfather replied, “On the other side of mountain.” Mona and Ali followed his line of sight. “Grandpa we’d like to meet your Nada,” they exclaimed in unison. Grandfather considered them and nodded, “Yes, let’s walk together.” The brightness of a full moon lit their path, casting deep shadows behind them as they crested the summit and started down the other side. Grandfather held up his hand to indicate that they had arrived, the light of the moon softening the gentle planes of his face. Ali and Mona exchanged an uncertain look when they realized they were standing at the edge of a graveyard. Moving to a grave beneath the limbs of a beautiful willow, whose leaves were silvered with moonlight, Grandpa paused. “Nada is here. She loved me when I was unknown. She wept for me when the world laughed at me. In my haste for fame and glory, I left her alone and never looked back. My beautiful village girl was forgotten.” Tears welled in his eyes and slid down his wrinkled cheeks. Ali and Mona moved to either side of their wizened grandfather, warming him with their presence, standing by him as his grief ran its course. “Grandpa, let’s go to home,” Ali suggested, taking his arm. Silently they moved toward home. The shadows that seemed benevolent turned into sinister apparitions, clutching at them with cold, bony fingers. A wolf howled mournfully and, startled, Mona screamed. She had heard terrible stories of hungry wolves chasing and attacking humans. Page | 37
Ali held her hand, and as lightening tore the fabric of the night sky she saw the love reflected in his eyes. “Be thankful, Mona, your Ali is still alive.” Grandpa said. Blushing, Mona squeezed Ali’s hand and leaned her head against the muscled warmth of his protective arm. Breaking the silence, Mona asked, “Grandpa, do wolves also live on the other side of the mountain?” They all laughed. With merriment and love twinkling in his eyes, he replied, “No dear Mona, wolves live on our side, only Nada lives on the other side of mountain.” After so many years Mona found that book. She curled up into her most comfortable chair and settled in to read. Hours later tears streamed down her face as she read the last line in her cherished book… “The choices that we make will either fulfill us, or cause our hearts to wither with regret. When faced with the choice between fortune and feelings, the greatest treasure one will ever chase, is love.”
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In Search of God
The whistle of the train lingered long enough to disturb the calm in the city. After being away for so many years, I felt like a stranger returning to my hometown. It was an early morning in January. I wrapped a scarf around my neck, headed out of the station and walked towards my home. In my childhood the city awoke by the dawn chorus of the singing sparrows and squawking of crows, but now buses and rickshaws hushed the sounds of nature. The early morning light drowned out the dim lights from the street lamps. I missed those street lamps that the neighbourhood children and I used to play under at dusk. I reminisced on the way home. Instead of walking into the house, I knocked on the door. This was the proper way to enter our house. After a night out with friends, I remembered my mother was always there to open the door. Oh my dear mother! She never complained about being disturbed. This time was no different. She was there with her familiar warmth as if she had been there all along, waiting for this day to welcome me home. My mother was old and weak now, but her love for her son was as fresh as the day I came into this world, never diminishing over time. She took me to my room where my old things and bed remained the same. She wouldn’t let anyone into my room. She brought me a hot cup of tea she knew I wanted first thing in the morning. “Look your picture is still there,” she said with a smile. “There you were so young, eyes full of dreams and now you’ve returned after chasing them.” I only nodded. I didn’t have the strength to look into my mother’s misty eyes. In a hushed voice, I said, “Yes, Mom, these dreams brought the man from Heaven to Earth.” “Do you remember the dancing man in the background of the picture?” Mother asked. I looked at the picture again and said, “Yes, Mom, he is Dewaia Malang, the mendicant of our village, dancing with his drum. That time we lived in our village and he was Malang there. Page | 39
We moved from the village to this city a long time ago, when I was very small. Baba brought us here for good education. Since then, I haven’t seen Dewaia. Where is he now?” I was curious. “I do not know about his exact place but someone told me he left the village and now lives here in our town near the saint’s shrine. I think he has become a religious mendicant,” Mother replied. I felt a desire of meeting Dewaia. Mother sat in my room until I fell asleep, a habit since my childhood. In the afternoon, I woke up and decided to venture out to revive the memories of youth and to find Dewaia near the shrine. My mother advised me to return early because it was the first foggy day of the year. I came out into the street where the thick grey fog was enveloping every rooftop and sidewalk in the city. When I was young, my brother and I used to play hide and seek on foggy days. Although everything seemed the same, the streets were filled with another breed of people. There were no teenagers laughing with hysteria at the tea stalls while the old people walked by with their canes, frowning at the carefree laughter of youth. And there were no children. I learned to play many games out there like Cokla Chapaki, Guli Danda and Kbadi. I stood there for a while trying to listen for the playful sound of children, but there wasn’t any. All that was left were my delightful memories of childhood. Nowadays, children were busy with computer games and it seemed humanity had lost its innocence of early years. I reached a point near the Saint’s tomb. A place where desperate people weighed down by the threat of poverty and disease prayed for good fortune and offered their hard-earned money to the caretaker of the saint’s tomb. Parents brought their children, to ask the saint for high marks in their next examination. With no change in the lives of poor people, the caretakers had become very rich. During my childhood, I remembered whenever an annual festival took place at the saint's tomb and pilgrims came in droves. Temporary vendors opened shops. It was much more appealing to me than visiting the tomb. Moving around these shops was an experience because the place was so lively. People sat at tea stalls narrating how their wishes were granted. The colourful local sweets on wood burning stoves were my favourites. After I stopped to have my favourite sweets, I entered the courtyard and stood at its perimeter. A man danced, lost in his dhamal, a traditional dance. The drummers hit the dhol with rhythm and farther away camel moved slowly from the mountain into our small town. The ringing bells around the camels’ neck were adding to the rhythm of drums. I focused on the man as he danced. I could feel the ecstasy of Malang. It was Malang Alladewaia. I called to him aloud, “Dewaia!” He looked at me, smiled, blinked his one eye, and then was lost again in his ecstasy. There was a familiarity to his dance… familiarity one feels listening to a folk song after years. I sat there waiting for Dewaia to finish his ecstatic dance. I had known him most of my life, and through my travels, I thought of him often. Seeing Dewaia’s dance took me back to those beautiful days of our village life. I remembered him wearing a black or green cloth with chains and beads, and his long dark hair was combed straight back, to the collar of his long shirt and tucked behind his ears. In the hot summer afternoons when Baba and Grandpa slept, my cousin and I often visited Dewaia in his hut outside the village. It was made of a thick layer of straw, covered with date matting. He was a free-living, free-loving and caring man. He would wake up with the cooing of pigeons. To him, the entire world seemed in tune with their tranquil notes. He would open the door of the birds’ mud cage saying, “Fly away and find your grains in the fields. I am not left with much.” He earned his livelihood by dancing at the village saint’s tomb, on Page | 40
weddings, and with Shias during the ten days of their mourning month. At Christmas, he would sing with Christians and celebrate Diwali with Hindus. During my stay in the village, I never saw him going out of the village but now he was there at the saint’s tomb in the city. I was surprised to see him in the city. I kept watching him, twisting, twirling and turning to the beat of a dhol. After finishing his dhamal, he stopped and collected the money people threw toward him while dancing and then came over to me. “How are you, Watni? It has been so long that I have seen you around?” He called me Watni, as if I was his real native. He gave me a warm hug and playfully punched me in the shoulder. But I found something alarming while hugging him. He was shivering and burning with fever. “Dewaia, are you sick?” “Yes, I’ve been for the last several weeks.” “Why haven’t you gone to the hospital?” “Hospital? Oh, Dear Watni, you know we don’t have the money. We get a fever and pray we get well on our own.” “But you are suffering terribly, Dewaia.” “Watni, for us everything is terrible, I have spent my whole life in shame, suffering and illness. My wife had difficulty in delivery so we put her in a big blanket tied between two sticks and we carried her for eight kilometres to the hospital. She died on the way along with the baby. I tried my best to cure her with taweez, for that was the only thing I could afford. But even that sacred thread, taweez, could not save her life.” “Okay, fine. Come with me. Let’s go to my home, rest, and then I’ll take you to the hospital.” He agreed. My mother gave him a home medication of hot milk and then he went to sleep. Once, when younger, I got very sick and remained in bed for a month. When I recuperated, in celebration Dewaia played his drum slung around his neck. His drumbeat had a great healing power. He immersed my heart into a thankful vibe. Now Dewaia was sick but I had nothing to soothe him. At night when I sat with him for a chat he said, “Watni, I want to adopt religion now.” “Religion, now? So you have been living without religion until now?” “I’ve been performing a role until now. Now I’m confused about different sects in the religion.” “Dewaia, don’t think much about the sects. Listen to your heart and get close to God.” I pointed to my heart by placing my hand on my chest. “I’ve been seeking and searching God for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I find him near and sometimes far away, leaving me lost. But now I want to find Him and rejoice with Him.” Dewaia’s fever was increasing and he was in search of lasting experiences and an end to sadness and pain. “Why did you leave the village?” I asked. “I didn’t want to leave but they kicked me out. So I came here and started living in the courtyard of the saint.” “Who kicked you out?” “The people of the village,” he replied. “But why?”
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“You know there are different sects of religion and they all claim to be the true followers of God. You also know that they all have different rituals and festivals. Dancing or mourning is my art and my livelihood. I even cherished the Christmas and Diwali of Hindus. People of different sects and religions have been living in our village for centuries, accepting each other, but now they’ve become intolerant. They tried to force me to accept one sect but I could not. I kept changing these sects because I wanted to be with them all my life and I was happy with my dhamal.” Next morning I took him to the hospital. Doctors told me he was suffering from pneumonia and they admitted him. The few days he was to remain in the hospital turned into weeks, and Dewaia was not getting better. I visited him every day. One cold evening when I went to visit him, he was silent but not speechless; he was speaking with the sad expression of curiosity in his eyes. One could only find this curiosity in a man’s eyes when he is born. He was looking outside and I noticed white fog coming into the window. In the street, the thick fog rolled between big and small brick houses, and the street lamps loomed like dark and shapeless blurs. “Are you alright, Dewaia?” But he remained silent and shook his head. I knew something was wrong. Dewia was unable to speak. I went close to him and asked again. He replied in a weak voice, “Watni, please take me to my village.” “Yes, Dewaia, we will go to the village. We will go tomorrow morning if you promise to get well tonight.” “Watni, why is God silent? Does he not understand my language? Our village people say that to get close to God we should learn Arabic. Is that right? I don’t know Arabic.” “Oh no, Dewaia, languages are for men. God does not rely on languages.” His eyes sparkled with hope for a moment. He pressed my hand softly and said, “I am begging God. My mother named me Allah Dewaia, meaning God given. So why doesn’t God answer? People say that after death man meets God. Why not in life?” “Dewaia, don’t worry. You’ll meet God in your life.” But he was confused. The brightness of his eyes disappeared. Nothing seemed to calm his anxiety and his mute lips seemed to be longing to say something. That evening, I returned home with a heavy heart. Early in the morning, I received a call from the hospital. They told me Dewaia was dying and he had called for me. By the time I reached the hospital Dewaia had already taken his last breath. His salvation had arrived finally. He was dead but his eyes were still open looking at the door and talking to me. Watni, if you knew how peaceful this is, you wouldn't be worried about dying. I did not reply and silently closed his eyelids. I took him to his village. After a two-hour journey, we reached the black rocks at whose foot our village lay. He always loved those mountains and now the silent and sombre hills were ready to pull him into their warm embrace. Before going home, I stopped at the mosque of the village and requested the cleric to announce the death of Dewaia on the loudspeaker. After all, he spent his whole life serving and entertaining the people. I thought the villagers would gather and mourn the death of Dewaia, but no one came. I returned home with his dead body. After an hour, there was a knock on the door. I went out and saw a group of people. They all were gazing at me with their eyes full of hatred and I burned with anguish and anger. One angry man spoke. “Where will you bury this Kafir. This infidel?” Page | 42
I replied with a compassionate request. “Kafir? He was not a Kafir. He served all the religions and by all those sacred religions, I ask you to be merciful.” “He was a man without religion, and we are telling you we cannot allow you to bury him in our graveyard.” They left me startled and alone. I went to the people of all the sects but they had the same reply. Finally, I went to the chief of the village to seek his help. The old chief told me he wouldn't interfere in religious matters. However, he allowed me to bury Dewaia on the top of a haunted mountain near the village. That black mountain was famous for its witches. In the evening, alone and full of sorrow, I buried my old friend under a weathered aged tree. I looked up at the sky and asked God, “Why do innocent people suffer too much in Your world?” There was no answer but silence, the question was to be answered later in a strange but just way. I sank into a deep sorrow and felt a desire, a powerful desire to flee and disappear from that village. I felt so forlorn, completely overwhelmed by the loss of my friend. No shoulders to cry on, so sad, so solitary, so distressed! The irritating silence haunted me. It listened and watched but never spoke. That night, I left the village and came back to my home in the town. Many years later, I read the news of heavy rains causing a terrible flood in our village. I decided to visit. The road to the village was blocked by several feet of water, but after days of struggle, I reached it. The entire village had disappeared under water. The water roared like the river wild. I had never witnessed a worse flood. People had fled in search of shelter. There was nothing left of the village. No fields bordered the flood water. A beautiful song from a lark resonated overhead. The bird flew and sang over the haunted rock where I buried Dewaia. To my surprise, that rock was still there, and from a distance I could see the grave of Dewaia. It was undisturbed. The town had vanished from the floods, yet my dear friend’s grave remained untouched. The birds twittered under the branches on the tree next to that solitary grave. A cook March breeze moved through the wet leaves. The evening moon radiated its silver glow over the earth. Sounds of village life hushed forever. Around Dewaia’s grave were wildflowers. I stayed there for a while by Dewaia’s place and then made my way back home. Out in the distance I could see Dewaia dancing and singing the song of ecstasy. He had searched for God all his life, but all along God was with him.
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THE LADY OF RED LIGHT DISTRICT
Ahmad rushed toward the newspaper office, trying to avoid the stinging, dust-filled wind that seemed getting stronger with every step. It was a brief walk from the parking lot. By the time he reached the office, the other staff journalists, two women and five men, were already tucked into their cubicles like caged rats. Their eyes glued to computer screens. The editor's office was situated in the center of the large room, the employee desks circling it like the planets of the solar system. Ahmad slid behind his desk. His status as a trainee journalist placed him in view of Devan’s office—the editor, and a man Ahmad considered a snake. Devan was the one person Ahmad didn't want to see. He buried himself in his work, hoping he could avoid more of Devan’s “special assignments,” which always fell to him. But no such luck. “Ahmad!” Devan stood over him, a steaming tea cup in his hands. “Yes, sir?” “Let's have a cup of tea, shall we?” Ahmad cringed and sagged against the back of his chair. Devan expected him to ghostwrite another article. That's what having tea really meant. Devan took an unwary sip and jerked the cup away from his mouth. “Ow. Maybe not this tea,” he said, wrinkling his nose.
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The glow of Ahmad's computer screen beckoned, helping him masks his rolling eyes and kept him from voicing his thoughts." Yeah, why don’t you take your tea and get the hell out of my face? Ahmad’s talent made him confident and he knew Dewan would never fire him. “The Minister of Information liked my article,” Devan said. “Oh, pardon me, I meant your article.” Devan said. The compliment died with the condescending tone and sly smirk. “Excellent work, Ahmad. Successful journalism pleases those in power and provides the public with what it wants.” “And what does the public want?” Ahmad asked. “Scandals, Ahmad, gossip!” Devan's lips twisted into a crooked grin. “Provocation, titillation, stimulation! Pretty starlets caught doing the things we all imagine them doing. We are sexually deprived people, eh?” Speak for yourself. Ahmad wished he could wipe the smirk off Devan’s face. To avoid Devan’s irritating presence, he looked out of the wall of glass to see the hooker who had recently begun to doing business in the public garden outside his office. A couple of days earlier, he had caught Devan slacking off, watching her. Ahmad wondered if Devan was one of her clients. Some of his colleagues thought so. But those who snickered about it were ‘Johns’ themselves. “Now you will write another article.” Devan’s next words shook Ahmad from his reverie. Ahmad instinctively shook his head. He already felt guilty for writing that fabricated story about government success and wished Devan would assign the next one to someone else. Some of the others looked up, drawn to Devan’s posturing, so he quickly changed the topic. “Gabriel Garcia Marquise died today,” he said. "What a wonderful writer he was.” Devan had boasted many times he and Gaberiel Garcia Marquise” had a cup of tea together at a writers’ conference, something no one believed. “You know I read One Hundred Years of Loneliness five times!” Devan boasted again. Ahmad pasted on a smile, sensing the mocking sneers from the adjacent desks. Devan read the title of the novel in Urdu, his poor translation changed “solitude” to “loneliness.” “You should read Garcia Marquise if you want to understand the complexity of human relationships.” Devan added. More showing off. Devan is the last person who'd understand Gaberiel Garcia. Ahmad turned to face his computer. “Sir, I’d...” Page | 45
“Of course”, Ahmad. “I’m keeping you from your work. We’ll discuss the assignment later.” Devan strode back to his office. Ahmad eyed the abandoned cup as if it were the source of all his troubles. Ahmad turned to the stack of copy editing clamoring for his attention. The mountain of paper screamed of treachery, deceit and political corruption. It seemed at odds with the fake stories he had to write as propaganda, but “The Public” didn’t seem to care about consistency. People knew little of the secrets held by the military agencies. Truly critical matters were never revealed, and “The Public” continued to mire itself in mindless minutiae. Ahmad's thoughts drifted to something Albert Camus had written. A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. Everything that Ahmad had observed reflected that idea. People were like the ancient Romans watching bloodthirsty spectacles at the Coliseum, except nowadays the blood was in the papers. The masses were hooked on sensational reports, like drug addicts, ravenous for greater and greater fixes to keep them sated. Ahmad snapped back to the present, for the chaos of the copy editing tasks awaiting him. Obviously, no one in this hellish job cared about Camus’s assertion. Ahmad’s gaze drifted to his computer screen. There was a message waiting in his in-box. It was from his fiancée, Neelum. His fingers hovered above the keyboard, the insults from their fight last night echoing in his ears. “I can’t read this now,” he whispered. What if she wants to end things? All those complaints about my floundering career. Two years and I still haven't been promoted. Journalism in Pakistan is hellish, such a long time as a trainee. Even I’m losing patience with my pointless life! Pain pierced his heart. Why does everything have to be measured in money? Isn't love enough? Ahmad decided to take Devan’s abandoned tea cup to the break-room, but found himself glued to the wall of glass overlooking the tranquil public garden and its meandering pathways instead. The hooker sat on a bench, smoothing the papers she had collected against her skirt. The sun cast a golden veil on the trees and sparkled on the water dancing from the nearby fountain. The wind tossed around whirls of dust. The girl appeared too absorbed in the written words to notice. He couldn’t believe she was really a hooker. She seemed more interested in collecting discarded papers from the public garden. She would carefully pick them up and stuff them in her worn, black, leather bag. She clutched the strap as if she were hoarding unknown treasures. A middle-aged office worker approached and sat down beside the hooker. They spoke, but Ahmad could only guess what they were discussing. It appeared they could not agree on a price because the man moved on, and the girl returned to her papers. Did she think there would be no shortage of clients? Or did she just want to read? Ahmad hoped it was the latter. Page | 46
What was so interesting about those papers she treated like gold? She didn’t seem to care if she drummed up any business. Ahmad wondered what it was like to be a client. “Ahmad,” Devan said in a familiar, much-hated voice, on his way to the employee lounge. “Don’t you have something to do?” He was passing by on his way to the break-room. He glanced out the glassed wall, spying the girl on the bench. A lewd smile spread across his face, and Ahmad wondered if Devan had ever been her client. “Oh, of course, sorry. I just…”Ahmad mumbled. Devan glanced at the tea cup in Ahmad’s hand. “We can talk about your new assignment now, if you like.” “No, no,” Ahmad blurted and set the tea cup on the window ledge. “I’ve got a pile of copy editing, and I need to take care of it, but I needed to stretch my legs. . . .” His voice trailed off. Devan smirked but didn’t press the matter, letting Ahmad hurry back to his desk. Ahmad sat back down and tried to forget about the hooker. He kept glancing at his watch until his shift finally ended in the late evening and he could go to the garden. The hooker was still there, or maybe she was back from being somewhere else. Ahmad stood a few steps away and studied her a moment, then sat down on the bench next to her, the way he had seen other men do. She gave him a fleeting glance and went back to reading. She looked young , perhaps in her mid-twenties. “Hello,” he said. “I hear you’re available for an hour or two...” She looked up from her papers. “You hear correctly," she said in a melodious voice, her eyes boring into him. Her silver earrings shimmered and jingled like sweet bells, when she turned her head. A swathe of mahogany hair fell down to her waist and framed a wistful face dominated by soulful, liquid brown eyes. Unlike most hookers, she wore no heavy makeup, only deep red lipstick. Somehow it seemed unnecessary. “Tell me what you have in mind,” she asked. Ahmad shifted under her gaze. He had no idea how to answer that question. “What’s your name?” “For you, it's Reshma.” “Oh, okay... I’m Ahmad.” “Nice to meet you, Ahmad.” There was a touch of whimsy to her voice. “Uh, um...Reshma... I’m curious what you find in these papers.” Page | 47
Reshma glanced at him with inscrutable eyes and handed them over. “I’m only giving them to you because you look like a poet.” What does a poet look like? Maybe she is referring to my worn jacket, and my unkempt beard. He couldn’t tell if she was serious or just toying with him. He scanned the papers absently. It was an odd collection of loose pages from books and parts of discarded newspaper articles that workers used to pack their lunch. “These are all incomplete bits and pieces of stories,” he said. “What’s the point?” “I like to imagine the endings myself—the way I imagine my life could be.” Ahmad nodded at the papers. He was holding two pages from a short story by Maxim Gorky, Twenty-Six Men and a Girl, translated to Urdu. He had read the story years ago, and it all came back flooding to him. Twenty-six men, “living machines,” who worked from early morning till late at night making buns in a damp cellar with little light filtering in from the small, dusty windows. Menial, repetitive work that dragged them down, their only source of consolation was a sixteen-year-old seamstress named Tanya who would stop by their “prison” every morning to ask for buns. Only for those few minutes did they feel alive. “You like it?” Reshma asked. “Good writing never dies,” Ahmad said and handed her the papers back. “Do you know that Gorky was a great Russian writer?” “I don’t care about the writer,” Reshma said. “I love to read. It frees my soul.” “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” “Go ahead. I have nothing to hide.” Reshma’s full lips turned up in a slight smile. “How can you bear... sleeping with... you know...” She threw her head back, her long locks of hair caressing her back. "Right, you want to know how I can stand doing what I do.” Ahmad bit his lips and looked away. He was sorry he had brought it up. “Don't you think you're doing the same thing?” Reshma asked. “Why don’t you tell me how you can bear it?" “I...” Ahmad stammered, shocked by her bluntness. “But I’m not… It’s not the same thing.” “Why? One way or another everyone’s a hooker. Look at your job and your coworkers. You’re all selling yourselves, working like slaves for a few rupees. Like the twenty six guys in the cellar. You all hate it, but you have no choice but to endure it.” Page | 48
Ahmad fell into an awkward silence. “Perhaps this will help you see what I see,” Reshma said, retrieving a crumpled printout of a painting from her purse. Ahmad stared at the image depicting several half-naked African slaves sitting on chairs with chained hands. A scowling man behind them held a sword displaying the words, ‘Slaves Sold Here.’ “The difference is we don’t need anyone to place chains on us; we place them on ourselves,” Reshma said. “You found this in the garden?” Ahmad asked, hoping to change the subject. He didn’t expect someone like her to be that opinionated. Reshma shrugged. “Perhaps we should conclude our bargain now.” “Oh, okay,” Ahmad said, glancing at the sunset bleeding gold and orange tears on the horizon. He retrieved his wallet and pulled out some notes. “It’s five-hundred rupees,” Reshma said. “I’m giving you a discount since you won’t get paid for ten days and even then it's not much.” Ahmad stared at her in surprise. “How can you possibly know that?” “I can also tell you how often your boss takes a shower,” she said with a laugh. “You journalists live to chase the secrets of politicians yet I know everything about all of you without reading the papers.” So Devan was a client. Ahmad thought in dismay as he handed her the money. “I don’t want to talk about the office. Take the money and let’s go to your place.” They got up and started down the path. “It’s better if you follow me,” she said. “Why?” “Everyone knows me. I'll be fined if a policeman sees me with you.” “What’s the fine for this crime?” “These guys expect to get it for free. I despise them all.” Reshma said with disgust. Ahmad fell behind her as they made their way through the bustling city. Reshma stopped to buy some snacks on the way, appearing oddly confident when approaching the male shopkeepers. Page | 49
She wasn’t like any of the women Ahmad knew. Maybe she could see men for what they were, and it gave her confidence. Or maybe it was how she perceived everyone as hookers and slaves. Ahmad was lost in thought when Reshma stopped and called him over. “This is my neighborhood,” she said. “I’ll not be fined here. No one will say anything. We pay money for silence. Give me your hand and let me show you my world.” Clasping Reshma's soft hand, Ahmad slipped into the crowded streets of the darkly exotic Heera Mandi, the city’s oldest red light district. The night pulsed with color, odors and sounds-- the secrets of the flesh offered like low-hanging fruit among endless bartering. The drone of conversation and shrill laughter pierced his ears. Reshma navigated the crowded streets, throwing mocking smiles at girls who still waited to find customers. At last, she turned into a narrow side street and stopped at a modest house near the end. “This is my home,” she said, leading Ahmad inside, into a tiny, sparsely furnished sitting room. “Please wait here.” Ahmad settled onto a tattered sofa covered with an embroidered cloth. A few moments later, an elderly woman silently brought him a steaming cup of mint tea. Ahmad accepted the tea with some embarrassment. He had managed to get through his day without having the dreaded tea with Devan. No one in that place expected him to fake a story, but he still didn’t feel like himself. It had never occurred to him to come to such a place. Yet the depression and loneliness suffocating him began to lift, and despite himself, he felt aroused at the thought of sleeping with Reshma. He took off his jacket, suddenly remembering he hadn’t opened Neelum’s email. What would she think if she knew...? Was she really going to break it off with him? Maybe he was going about things in the wrong way. Maybe he should stand up to Devan for a change, borrow some of Reshma’s confidence. Neelum would approve. But why did I need her approval? And why did money matter to her so much? Why couldn’t she see him through a different lens? He was so embroiled in disturbing thoughts; he almost didn't notice Reshma reappear. He glanced up, and was stunned. She was now wearing a snug, silky red one-strap top and tight black leggings. “You are beautiful, Reshma,” he said, unable to take his eyes off her. “Thank you," she said, reaching out to caress his hair. “I’m yours for two hours.” Ahmad glanced at her ruby red lips and dropped his gaze, mumbling, “I haven’t done anything like this before.” Reshma sat down and embrassed him. Ahmad inhaled her spicy fragrance, savoring the sensation of her body next to his, when a sharp knock on the door leading to the other room
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interrupted. Without saying a word, Reshma sprang up and darted from the room, closing the door behind her. Stories of blackmail and violence involving hookers flashed in Ahmad's mind. With a flush of indignation, he jumped to his feet, wondering whom Reshma was whispering to in the next room. He threw the door open, about to accuse her of tricking him, but instead of a conspiracy, he found her gently rocking an infant in her arms. She was whispering sweet nothings to the whimpering child, trying to lull the baby to sleep, but he reached for her breast, suckling with wide open eyes. Reshma stroked the baby’s head and looked up. Ahmad forced himself to smile, although he knew the smile wobbled, bobbed his head, then swung around, grabbed his coat from the adjacent room and left the house. Unable to shake off the image of Reshma cradling the infant, and wracked with guilt over his suspicions, he was at the end of the narrow dark street already when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Reshma, short of breath, the infant cradled in her arms. “Ahmad, I called out to you, but you didn’t hear me. I’m so sorry, I had been away for too long and the baby was hungry and wouldn’t go to sleep.” Ahmad looked at the infant, who was sleeping at last. “Reshma,” he said, “your son needs you. You don't need to worry about me.” Reshma's eyes glistened as she reached into the infant’s blanket and handed Ahmad his five hundred rupees. “Take this. It belongs to you.” “No,” Ahmad said, gently pushing her hand away. “Consider it a gift for your son. I’m not taking it back.” “No, it’s forbidden,” Reshma said, pressing the money into his hand. “I can’t give unearned money to my son.” She started to turn away, and then paused. “My God is already unhappy with me.” Ahmad didn't reply. A single sentence will suffice... he mused, tears welling from his gloomy eyes, even though the wind had died down and the dust swirls no longer tormented him. Whoever might be unhappy with you, I am sure it is not your God.
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Ahmad watched mother and child walk away, then hurried home through the bustling streets of the red light district.
Raja and His Buffalo
He was born in December, the month when the frost spreads its icy fingers across the landscape, and turns everything it touches into a hardened, deadly shell gleaming with winter jewels. With the rush of life, his parents neglected to name the child for several months, but as winter changed to spring, his mother called the child Raja, which meant â€œher princeâ€?. The irony of his less than princely surroundings, somehow lost on her. Raja grew up in small village of his birth where snow threatened to fall and a deep chill burrowed its way through the tiny village. It clung to the steep mountainside as if seeking shelter,
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too small and insignificant to be marked anywhere except on a 1:50,000 military topographic maps. A village noted only when recruiters needed cannon fodder for the war effort. Every day, Raja's father took him with his brothers to the corn fields, to work for the local landlord, planting and harvesting corn. Raja's mother and sisters worked in the landlord's house, paid in grain. They owned a small hut with a big yard and a buffalo. Not counting the animal and the simple wooden furniture, all their earthly possessions would fit in a dowry chest. They dreamed of a better life, with hazy and unreal visions of what such a life could be. Their aspirations drew from the films they saw once a year in a slightly bigger village, but larger villages intimidated them and made them feel small. Even these simple people had dreams and longed for a better life, but those dreams and longings were hazy and unreal, based on the films they saw once a year in a slightly bigger village, which was big enough to intimidate them every time they went there.
Raja’s prized possession was a tiny bamboo flute, carved for him by his father. In the long, dreary evenings after their labors, Raja would entertain his family with improvised melodies that floated above their tiny hut past the corn fields into the village beyond. Their life would never change. A peaceful and monotonous eternity stretched before them.
And then the buffalo died. If they could have sacrificed a family member to save the buffalo, they would have done so. They faced starvation without the buffalo’s milk. The family met to consider their dilemma. “Someone needs to leave the village to work in the city and send money home. The money will be saved up for a new buffalo.” Father announced calmly. None of the family members had ever left the village before, let alone go anywhere as far away as the city. They glanced at one another before looking down, keeping quiet. “Hassan has poor eyes; I need Subhan to work the cornfields; Rahi needs to help mother in the master’s house; Suraj is too weak,”. Father said. Only Raja remained. “Raja”, their father announced, smiling down on his youngest son, just eighteen. “You will send us enough money to get a new buffalo.” His brothers and sisters sighed with relief as poor Raja stared at his father, wondering how he could manage. They tried their best to fill him with confidence and tell him all they knew about
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the city. But they knew nothing of the city, their advice gleaned from the movies shown in the nearby village. They told him city- people were very generous. They not only fed their servants, but also gave them plenty of money. He would wear fantastic clothes and ride in a car, not on a donkey. Then he would find a nice girl, one who didnâ€™t have to work in the fields and had hands without calluses. Nothing could go wrong or come between Raja and his buffalo. So Raja, the savior of the family, left for the big city. His family bade him farewell as he set off on the long journey, along narrow paths surrounded by trees and corn fields, clutching his few meager possessions, including his beloved flute, and some bread and scraps of meat his mother packed for him. It took a long time for the bus to make its way through the countryside and into the city. By then it was the dark, and, in the city light, the stars twinkled dimly. They were overshadowed by the lights pouring out from every lamp in the streets and shop signs. Raja had never seen artificial light. Even though it was night time he felt dazzled. Each neon light and shining bulb made him aware of his own poor appearance. His shirt had half its buttons. Dust clung to his skin, between his fingers, under his nails and on his clothes. His pants were full of holes and worn-out. His clothes gave little protection from the chilly December wind. Worst of all, he had no money, so he bedded down in the street, with the stray dogs for company, and took whatever shelter he could find in the doorways. He soothed himself during these dark, scary, lonely nights by taking out his flute and whistling away the hours; sometimes people would stop and listen. And on rare nights, someone may even toss him a coin in gratitude for the sad melodies. He would play old tunes his family used to enjoy, until ultimately someone would shout at him to knock off the noise. He still had the food, which his mother had packed for him before he left for the city. When the food ran out, he scavenged food from rubbish bins, amazed by the bounty thrown away by people without a thought.
Many things surprised him in the city. So many people could fit into it and pass each other by, without ever speaking to or communicating with each other. Soon, he became homesick for his small village and family. One fortunate morning, after sleeping in shop doorways for two months, he knocked on the door of a large residence. A gruff looking servant answered the door and scowled at the ragged boy standing in the doorway. â€œWhat do you want?â€? He frowned. Page | 54
“Please, mister, I’m not begging. I’m looking for work. I came from a village two months ago to earn money for my family—our only buffalo died and--” “Enough! I don’t need to hear your whole sob story,” said the servant, whose name was Ahmed. However, Raja realized that underneath the gruff demeanor, this servant hid a kind heart. “Listen here. You are in luck. Our master just bought three new dogs and I don’t want to have to deal with cleaning their dog mess. You look like you’ve been around animals—I can give you work cleaning the kennels and caring for the animals in exchange for lodging in the servants’ quarters and a few coins. In no position to haggle, Raja readily accepted the arrangement. They called it a “quarter”, but in reality, it was a tiny piece of hell buried beneath the rest of the building. Raja didn’t care - he had no time to do anything other than sleep there anyway. In his time off from his grueling life, he met with the other servants, at a corner of a major road crossing. A shifting mass of people gathered there, which seemed strange to Raja, as other people gathered in their homes, but the servants gathered in the open space of the streets. There, poor people could spend time with their companions beneath the trees, and the rules that guided normal city-dwellers seemed to fall away. Since they had none, no one talked about their love affairs, and felt free to love and lose as they saw fit. Sometimes, while his master’s family was taking their afternoon nap, he would go to the road crossing and play his flute. When he played, it seemed as if the entire world stopped to listen to his magical sound, and he forgot about the misery of his life and lived in the melody. Raja played the flute for his fellow servants, making their evenings brighter. His melodies spoke of deep, ancient forces in the human soul. After a little while Raja, with his flute, became the prince of the road crossing. Then, a little while after that, he met his princess. He saw her one day, sitting under the tree, a shy smile flitting across her lips. When she thought he wasn’t looking, she would turn her head towards him, and then dart back again.
He asked around the crossing, and discovered that the girl’s name was Rani, which means “queen” in her native language. Raja thought that her mother had given her a perfect name. Rani also lived in a servant’s quarter but hers was far better than Raja’s cell-like room. He learned that she did the laundry for the wealthy family that lived in the center of the city. My queen, he thought to himself. He did not believe that this queen would ever pay attention to a poor boy from the country, but one day, as he was whistling on his flute, his eye caught hers. He stopped and clumsily rose, nervous that the object of his fantasies would be watching him so closely. Page | 55
“Don’t stop!” she called to him. He turned and gawked at her as she timidly approached him. “You play so beautifully. The music is so peaceful—yet so haunting and melancholic.” Raja blushed and shrugged his shoulders. “I play what’s in my heart. It just seems to come out of my fingers and my lips,” he explained. He was embarrassed that he sounded silly to this city girl, but she smiled brightly. “That is wonderful,” she breathed. “I wish I had the talent to play music that easily.” Raja handed her his flute. “It’s easy!” he declared. “Try it. I can teach you!” She backed away, as though he were handing her a snake.” “Oh no!” she insisted. “I have no musical gift. I prefer to sit and listen to you play.” And she did, gazing at him in wonder, as he played a lively melody that inspired by her dark fluttering eyes. When he finished, he leaned over to speak, but she quickly leapt to her feet. “I must go back to my quarters,” she said. “My master is waiting.” She dashed off before Raja could say another word. He wasn’t sure whether he ruined his chances with his queen or whether this was a new opportunity for him to get close to her. His fears were abated when she approached him the following day and sat by him again as he played his flute. They met like this for several weeks, Raja making new and more intricate melodies, as Rani listened rapturously, gazing at the sky. They never spoke, and any time Raja tried to engage her in a conversation, Rani would grab her master’s laundry and dash back to her quarters. Raja was flustered, but as long as his queen sat near him and inspired his music, he was content. One golden afternoon, as they watched the sunset while Raja played a soulful tune, he turned and blurted to her: “Rani, you are so beautiful.” She blushed with a shy, yet winsome smile. Her eyes flashed a shade of brown he knew, opening a window into the secrets her smile attempted to hide. But Raja lost his ability to speak; he always communicated through his flute, not through words. He turned pink and carried on playing without talking to her any further. It was then that Raja started to spend time alone in his dark city quarter – a place where he could be with his thoughts. He never imagined that real love could be as beautiful as Rani. He was stunned when he realized how Rani had penetrated his soul. For someone who enjoyed living alone, this experience was new and different. Where he had once loathed the feeling of loneliness, he now craved it, longing for the chance to be alone with the thoughts of Rani, so he could whisper beautiful things in her ear. The sound of his flute floated above him, awakening his emotions with its tunes.
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Two years of this lovely self-torture passed. He worked hard, but still couldn’t achieve his one simple goal of replacing his family’s buffalo. He spent little on himself. And yet, every time he got close to having enough to buy the buffalo, something would happen. His mother fell ill, and he had to send money for her medicine. Then his sister got married and needed his help. Sometimes, Raja felt like he would never have the money to leave this horrible place. The only thing that made the city tolerable was Rani. Their silent evenings together gave him the strength to endure. One night, after one of his improvised songs drifted into the sky, Rani turned to him thoughtfully. “Your music makes me feel so happy and full,” she said, turning to him. She paused. “How do I make you feel?” Raja felt his heart leap into his throat. “Like a lost man in the desert who has reached an oasis,” It was a quote from a movie he once watched as a small child, hidden behind his landlord’s couch, catching glimpses of the television while his mother cleaned. He found it funny he now had an opportunity to use this line in his own life. Rani must have seen the same film, for she laughed at its corniness, but seemed touched by his romantic reply. He took advantage of her query to push his feelings even further. “Rani, you are my queen. Tell me that I mean something to you as well.” Rani looked at him, and shyly took his hand. “You do mean much to me,” she admitted. “A girl living alone in the city has to be careful about who she spends time with. If I seem aloof, it’s because I have to protect my own virtue.” “Rani, I can protect you! I would give my life to keep you safe!” Raja blurted out; his feelings had been bottled up inside him for so long that finally being able to express them, they just flew out of his mouth. “Oh, would you? Are you my knight? My prince?” Rani said, teasing him about the name his mother gave him. “I will be your prince, and you will be my queen,” Raja said triumphantly, taking Rani in his arms; she leaned against him as they looked ahead, each thinking about the future they might have together. “In just a year or two, I will earn enough to buy my family a new buffalo. Then we can go back and start our family there,” he said, breathlessly laying out his plans for their home life together —how his mother and sister would help her with the children she would bear him; how he would work alongside his father and brothers; how they would eventually earn enough to build a small hut of their own. She finally held up her hand and cut him off. Page | 57
“Hold on! Raja, what makes you think I would move out to that dull, stinking village?” Raja stopped, dumbfounded. “I just assumed—you know—that we would marry, and move back to my homeland…” he stammered. But he could tell by the disgusted expression on her face that Rani clearly had not the same nostalgic feelings for the country. “What’s so good about the village? There is so much more for us here. Isn’t your family struggling for food?” Rani said. “Stay with me here. With both our incomes, and the money you’re saving for that silly buffalo, we can start our new life. Your family can visit us,” she added, noticing Raja’s crestfallen expression. “It may seem silly, but I cannot bring myself to return to my village without the promised buffalo. My love for you is stronger than the currents in the sea, but the fear I have of disappointing my family is much stronger. I miss my peaceful village, and want nothing more than to have you there, by my side, living life with me.” There was a brief silence as Rani attempted to process what she had just heard. Raja was hanging every major part of his life – even her – on the purchase of this buffalo. Rani frowned and tried again. “Look at the freedom of the city. We can move and meet each other and no one else cares. We would never have that in the village.” Rani said, begging him with her eyes. “Believe me, Rani, life in the village is exquisite.” “But I can’t live somewhere where even a buffalo enjoys more than a woman does.” “Buffaloes enjoy more? But how?” Raja asked. “Yes, the buffalo has a better life there. She is given fodder and shelter and gives milk. But a woman has to earn her fodder and give milk too.” “You have to work in the city as well,” Raja argued. “True, but the money I earn is mine to do with what I will. I am free to go dancing or eat at my friends’ house, or,” she added, taking Raja’s hand, “to spend the evening sitting with you listening to your flute. In the village, I would be a servant to you, to your family, I would be expected to bear many children and work long hard hours every day.” It was a strong argument. Raja thought of his mother, working all day in the landlord’s house and feeding her babies at the same time. “Yes, that’s true, but the community we live in is so strong. We may not have much, but we have each other. The people are kind and generous, the landscape is beautiful, and there isn’t a Page | 58
constant reminder of how much others have. Here in the city, I am forced to look at the lives of others – lives which I will never understand. Back home, we can live in peace. Yes, we will still be poor, but I do not feel that bad about my place in that world.” It was like a dam bursting. Raja had never spoken so much in his entire life. “I am lost in the city. Even though I am surrounded by thousands of people every day, I am a stranger. There are no neighbors here. No family.” “That isn’t true!” Rani’s brown eyes flashed. “The servants who gather here every night are my friends—they would be your friends too, if you actually talked to them. They admire you, Raja. They are charmed by your music. You could earn money performing your music. You could be a prince among them, playing your flute, if you would only allow yourself to be present here, with them, and with me, instead of hiding in your corner and dreaming of your pitiful little village.” Rani got up and walked away. He thought about stopping her, but refrained. He became painfully aware that they couldn't live together in this city. He couldn’t stay in this wretched place any longer. It was crushing him to let her leave, but the city was no place for them to start a new life. The pain swelled deep in his chest; he had not felt such sorrow since his buffalo died. Raja loved his buffalo and tears flowed when he lost her, yet this time, the tears seemed to wash away his heart. Raja thought back to years gone by, longing for better days as he walked the dark, dirty streets. Raja stopped under a large tree that had seen generations of human heartbreaks come and go. Sitting on the cool grass and leaning back against the rigid bark, he closed eyes and pulled the flute from his satchel. His fingers danced across the voids and a soft melody of love and sorrow lifted into the sky. He could feel the notes floating across the sea and he continued to play. The song was so pure; it called to souls yearning for healing. It was full of pain, love and loss and had anyone heard, they would have heard the closest Raja could have come to explaining how he felt on the inside when words didn't seem to be powerful enough to express his sorrow. His world turned dark again. A few happy and lovely days came and then ended quickly, leaving a deep hollow wound on his heart. He decided he would stick to his plan, no matter how hard it got. Every night when he trudged home, exhausted and filthy from cleaning the kennels and grooming his master’s dogs, he tossed his meager coins into his savings jar and tumbled into his bed. He refused to spend money on himself, mending his thin pants and eating what scraps he could scrounge from his master’s cook, who would save bread for him in return for playing a few dance tunes on his flute for her. He got other odd jobs where he could, hauling coal or carrying groceries for his master’s neighbors. Days turned into months of heavy work and tossed coins. One night, while he was sitting in his room with a small stale piece of bread and dipping it in carrot water that pretended to be soup, he caught sight of his jar, glinting in the sunlight. It was full to the brim, and shone with money.
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“Could it be?” he said aloud. He counted out the coins again and again, unable to believe it was true. Whooping and laughing, he jumped up with his small satchel, knocking over the soup. “Who needs watery soup? I’ll buy a buffalo!” he shouted at nobody in particular. Then he set off, marching down the street, grinning like a maniac. People stared at him as if he was crazy, but he didn’t care. He would soon have another buffalo. This thought gave him joy for the first time in months. He knocked on the door of his Master’s house, and gave a slight bow. “Sir, I have saved enough money for a buffalo and I will return to my village.” he said. The Master didn’t seem happy, no doubt thinking he would never find such a naïve villager working all day and night for such a pittance. Raja barely noticed though, as he waved goodbye. On his way to catch the bus, he walked past Rani’s house. He hung around for a while, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. May be she would come out after him. Maybe she would change her mind and he would send for her when he got back to his village. He stood there waiting around for some time, but she never appeared, nor was there any sign that she would return anytime soon. He resolved to go as he had decided. If he did see her again, he rationalized, he was not sure he would be able to bear it. Sitting on the bus, he turned his head towards the city and whispered: “Goodbye, Rani. Enjoy your city life.” A tear rolled down his cheek and out of the open bus window. As the bus set off, despite his heartache, Raja decided to think about the buffalo he would soon have. He thought of his mother, bowing over the small smoky stove, pounding bread; his brothers teasing him about his flute; he pictured his sisters’ shy smiles, and wondered how big they must be by now. He thought of his old father, who surely must be gray. The more he could hear the laughter of his family and imagine the smell of his mother’s cooking, the more eager he was to abandon the city and return to his home. Many hours later and very weary; he got off at the stop near his village and went into the small shop to buy a new blue bow and shiny bell to tie on his new buffalo. Tired but happy, he walked the long and narrow dust path up the mountains to his home village. It was already dusk and becoming dark, but Raja hardly noticed. He knew this footpath blindfolded. This time he wanted to follow his heart, to get back to his family and delight them with his great fortune. As he walked, his trousers jangled loudly with every footstep he took into the darkness.
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If he kept thinking about his buffalo, with her great big shiny bell and handsome bow, he might forget about Rani and the city he had left behind. But try as he might, he could not shake the image of her smile from his head. “Give us the money now!” A voice shouted out of nowhere in the black night. Something shined near his face, in the light of the moon; he could see it was a large blade. “Hand it over. We know you’ve got money on you”, said another voice, to his left. He could hear the breathing on his neck but all he could see was the white of a pair of eyes and the glint of the knife. “Now!” spat the first man. Cold steel thrust itself into his face. Raja swerved. He was ready to fight. There was no way he was giving everything to the robbers. The only thing he had in hand was his wooden flute, which he shoved hard into the face in front of him. He couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but it was enough to get away. Raja began to run, but he tripped on a rock in the road and he fell. As he scrambled to get back to his feet, something struck him on the skull and he collapsed unconscious in the path. When he woke up by some miracle he was still alive. However, the blow to his head was a severe one. His money was gone, but Raja was no longer worried about his life-long ambition. He looked up and blinked in the early morning sun. He saw the outline of his village, which he could barely recognize. He picked himself up, still dizzy from the blow to his head, blood crusted on his hair, pebbles embedded in his face from where he fell. He did not know where he was supposed to go, or even remember what had happened to him. He saw the blue ribbon and bell lying on the dirt next to him. He picked it up and stared at it, confused. Something about a buffalo, he thought, struggling to shape a thought. As he stumbled down the dusty street, a villager leading his goats to the field came upon him. “Raja!” one boy cried, recognizing the long-missing son of his neighbor. But the surprise of seeing the boy returned was replaced with horror when he saw the terrible condition he was in. Raja looked at him blankly. Frightened, the neighbor led him home to his family. His family tended to the wounded boy as best they could, but Raja was never the same again. They said he would not be able to speak or work properly again. All that remained of his memories and his mind was an obsession with buffaloes. They never learned that he had returned with money to buy the buffalo—they never learned of Raja’s life in the city. They never learned about his love for a city girl named Rani. All they knew was that Raja had returned home and now was permanently helpless.
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His father begged the landlord for help, and they gave him a job as a shepherd in the fields. Raja spent his days looking after the landlord’s herd. There was one buffalo with big brown eyes he liked the most, and he tied the blue bow around her neck. He was devoted to her and she ran everywhere after him, tinkling her cow bell. Sometimes he would play a halting, simple melody for her. He couldn’t capture the lively, soulful melodies that his flute playing used to have, but there was still a haunting sadness in the whispering, raspy tunes he played, as if somewhere deep in his injured brain, there was a lingering of memories of a love and a dream he couldn’t quite hold onto anymore. When the children would come to see the buffalo, they would ask him, “Raja what is the name of your buffalo?” He would stop for a moment and had to force the words out of his mouth, like they were stuck there and didn’t want to come out. “Ra…, Ran… Rani.” No longer did he have to choose between Rani and his buffalo; now he had both.
Neeha Roomi was only twelve when she was raped for the first time. She was a famous model Page | 62
and dancer. Her delicate untroubled style was famous throughout the Arab world. It aroused the deepest emotions of her audiences. It was hard to tell, as you watched her perform, that she had been raped repeatedly in her childhood. I had known of Neeha for many years. I had seen her dance on Arab T.V. But I did not meet her until my friend, Abdullah, took me to one of the most highly reputed Arabian nightclubs, to a special show in which Neeha's dance was featured. As he and I found seats at a small table, Abdullah said, "I am going to tell you something about which you will want to write a story." He knew that I was a writer, and I knew that he was a good story teller. And so he spoke, and I listened. Abdullah poured wine and passed a cup to me. He began, speaking slowly: "Rape is very common thing in Pakistan." "So what is strange about that?" I said. "Evil itself is very common in our country. Some are dropping bombs on innocent people and others are raping girls. More important, our leaders are raping the whole land, while we are exchanging talks about our fatherland like a volcano vomiting. Let us drink and forget our aching prayers." I raved on, indifferent to the poor, ravished girls. I stood up and looked out at the sun, like a golden ball growing smaller, which was disappearing behind the fast shut eyelid of the ocean. "Did you not hear what I just said?" asked Abdullah with the sound of anger in his voice, thinking I wasn't listening or that I cared not for what was happening in our country. He set his glass down heavily, seeming very annoyed. "Yes, I heard you. Speak, I'm listening." Abdullah stared at me for a while. Finally he began: "Neeha is a Pakistani girl. She left home at a very tender age. She was sold to a brothel house and was exposed to endless rapes." Abdullah walked toward the window where I stood, both hands in the pockets of his pants, as though in thought. He then turned his back toward me. I could tell something was not right as he walked toward the table. I frowned. "Girls are taught about this danger from an early age. When a young pretty girl runs away from home, she takes her chances." Page | 63
I felt no remorse for my unconcern. However, I then spotted an opportunity. Perhaps the outrages about which Abdullah wished to speak would make a good story, a story which might be beneficial to my reputation as a writer. As the band played the unmistakable theme song from "Magnolia Girls", I clinked my glass with Abdullah's and urged him to go on. Abdullah continued, while the music's resounding beat snaked through the bar. "Neeha ran away from home because she had been raped by her father." I snorted with disbelief. "Believe it, my dear writer," Abdullah said. "Facts are always strange." He looked at me closely. "Shall I continue?" I was not sure. Abdullah and I had been friends since college, and I'd never known him to lie. But it was such a bitter truth, so hard to believe. Why her father? It was such a disgusting truth. As I sat with my face in my hands, pouring out my heart, Abdullah poured himself another drink of wine. "Care for another?" he asked offering me my cup. "No, I just want you to tell me more about Neeha." Abdullah proceeded "I was in my twenties when Neeha was born. She was the daughter of Fatima Dai." Dai is the title for women in the villages who earn their living by singing at weddings, and births of male children. These women live to entertain others. They make people laugh, children happy. Lovers use them to deliver secret messages while elders delight in them. They are like minstrels. They live on peoples' joys, though no one cares for theirs. "At seventeen, when I became a man and first felt the stormy urge for sexual satisfaction, my friend revealed another secret of Fatima. He told me about 'feeding time', when young men are trained for sex. "One day I stole five rupees, the fee for 'feeding', from grandmother's old box and walked to the dark hut of Fatima. As I knocked on the door of her muddy, dirty room, my hand trembled. "She came outside. There was a strange look on her face. "'Is your mother okay?' she asked. Page | 64
"'I'm not here for my mother. I have come...' I paused. "'Don't be afraid,' she said. 'Tell me frankly why would you come here in this darkness?' "'II' "Fatima broke into startling laughter. "'What is it you will do with me?' she laughed. "I started to laugh as well. My fears melted away. "'Yes Fati, I am here for feeding.' She grasped my hand and took me inside. "'Where is my fee?' she asked immediately. "I gave her my five rupees." Abdullah paused. He did not meet my eyes. "What did she do?" I asked with great intensity. "Knowing that I was immature, she did everything." "So you got what you paid for." I looked at Abdullah and waited to hear what else he had to say. "I am not sure. There was an intolerable smell on her body and mouth, like the stinking smell of a dead animal. Even at that young age, I sensed that sex should be sweet and gentle, not repulsive. But that is not the worst of it. Afterwards she told me, 'Run away now'." "No love or kindness? She just told you to run away?" "Correct," Abdullah said, lowering his voice to a whisper. "I looked at her dumbfounded. 'Why should I run?' I asked her." I moved closer to Abdullah. "What did she say?" "Her answer was quite upsetting for me." Abdullah moved back to the table, sat down, and Page | 65
examined the tablecloth closely. "She said, because now it is feeding time for your father. Your mother is pregnant, you know." "I felt as if someone had thrown a bomb on me. I ran and ran until I came to a graveyard. I fell to my knees near a saint's tombstone and wept bitterly. For many years afterward, I was sexually abnormal because I had been exposed to sex in such an insensitive manner." "A year later Fatima married Ghulami, the male Dai. His status was the same as Fatima's. A year after that, she bore Neeha. It was hard to believe such a pretty girl could come from such ugly parents." "Later, Neeha's father became another victim to the young men from the Pakistani Army. In those days there was tension on the borderline between India and Pakistan. The army would come and forcibly take poverty-stricken men away to fight against the enemy. As you know, dear writer, a poor man is unlucky by birth." "The Indian Army conscripted Ghulami for ten years. When he returned he was not the same person. He looked 100 years old, like a moving skeleton with a long white beard. We hardly recognized him." Abdullah went on, "That is when Neeha was raped by her father." I turned my eyes away from my friend. Was I, a born writer, actually beginning to regret asking him to tell me this story? Abdullah sighed, "In those days Neeha used to go to Mosque to learn the Holy Quran. She always kept her head properly covered. Her father encountered her at the mosque. When he was taken away by the army, she was two. Now she was twelve he did not recognize her. He also experienced severe memory loss he probably did not even realize that he had a daughter." "Still" Abdullah persisted with the story. "Neeha's crying brought tears to the eyes of the most stonehearted people of the village. I am sure that even God in Heaven was weeping. When Ghulami discovered his victim's identity, he was driven out of his mind with remorse. He disappeared into the barren mountains and was never seen again. "I went on with my life. I forgot about what happened until one night when I saw Neeha in a dance club. And now you will see Neeha for yourself." Soon after, the emcee announced Neeha's arrival. Tears sprang to Abdullah's eyes. "She is still so Page | 66
beautiful!" he said. I was amazed to see how well Neeha danced. Her every step seemed to hold the breath of life. With a delicate, untroubled style, she aroused the emotions of the people. Her style perfectly combined both both beauty and art, both the promise of heaven and assurance of pleasure. She was amazing. She was wonderful. Her eyes held a feeling of hope and charm. My mind went back to the time when she was raped. On the way to the bar to see Neeha, Abdullah wondered if Neeha would dance as she did the last night he saw her. To his surprise, she captivated his very soul. After the show Abdullah introduced her to me. "He is a writer. He has a rich heart and great love for life and arts." But does my base love for money and fame surpass the loves my friend has mentioned? I wondered. Aloud, I said, "Though we have lived through different circumstances, it seems as if I know you. How might we become acquainted?" A coy smile slowly crept across Neeha's face. It lingered as we walked out the door. "So you want to write a story about me?" she said still smiling. I did not answer. I was beginning to question my desire to use the outrages of her life to raise my own status, to wonder if debasing her in such a way might debase me still more. She bent down, picked up a stone and cast it out toward the dark waves. "What odd chaps you writers are," she said. "You sell the afflictions of people and gain reputations. Then you die and other writers sell stories about your miserable life. First you talk about others, and then others talk about you. What a foolish desire to be known. I learned a long time ago that we should walk away from this life silently. Remember, all roads lead to the dark grave." Her talk of death fascinated me, frightened me, and confused me. I lost all desire to exploit her for gain. My mind returned to the group of men who had exploited her so mercilessly, a group I no longer wanted to join. How could she have put up with so much? I wondered. She was smiling, but I was sure that deep in her heart she was aching with sorrow. She looked me in the eyes and in a most delicate tone she said, "Do you hear the sound of the sand constantly running? Do you hear the waves splashing against the cliff?" She hesitated, ever Page | 67
so slightly. "Do you hear steps creeping around the wet road on a stormy night? Do you hear the songs of a traveler singing in the vast desert? Do you hear the tragic music of falling leaves in autumn? Do you..." I stopped her and said: "Yes, yes, you are like me, a child at heart, even in this commercial society where feelings have become commodities. You love nurture and the arts." My heart was developing feelings that I had never thought it could contain. I felt free, totally lost in the moment. The waves had thrown a fish upon the sand. Neeha noticed this and ran to throw the helpless creature back in the water. "We are like that fish," she said. "We get out of the water and someone, much like death, throws us back in. In this world, we are actually out of water but death takes us back to life. Death, in fact, is the real name for life. The rest is all sand! The desires we have are just love for sand." My heart began to beat more rapidly. Neeha seemed to have a strange power over me. She had changed my mind, my feelings, and my outlook on life. We walked hand in hand along the seashore, looking out over the ocean waves. We no longer spoke. The sweet confusion grew. My manhood bloomed with the desire to be closer to her. I was overwhelmed with the frightening but wildly exciting desire I suddenly wanted nothing more than to love her forever. We stopped and looked at each other. In the twilight of early morning, I could see her eyes glitter as if accepting my silent commitment. I took her face into my hands. She closed her eyes in surrender, and I softly placed a kiss on each of them. My heart leapt with joy. "You are so beautiful!" I whispered. But then I sensed a change in Neeha's manner, a sudden distancing. She pulled away from me and looked at the rising sun. She said softly, "Yes, but this beauty is for the beasts." And she walked away. I stood alone on the sands of time waiting for someone to come to throw me into the water.
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The sun was about to hide itself behind the black peak, when grey-haired Rafeel reached the old Bus-Stand of his village. Shadow dark, his grandmother would have called it elvish dark. Head still dreamy with travel, he took a deep breath and turned to gaze around him. The air was slow moving and damp, sweet with the smell of wood fires at the village Bus-Stand. Though the particular smell of land made him very excited, he was feeling himself an outsider in the land where he had spent many years of his life. Twenty years ago, he'd left his own land in utmost dejection. He had been young, brave and non-conformist, and therefore was declared a rebel against the army government. There were two choices open to him: he could either surrender or leave the country. He chose the latter. Page | 69
Now, twenty years later, he was at the same place and nothing had changed; black rock was concealing the sun with the same greed and the Army had come into power again. He looked at the faces of the people; they had become paler. Their eyes were empty and deadpan; they were still in their soiled rags, scavenging through the trash for discarded crumbs. They were the citizens of a moth-eaten country where the land had become more chaotic and poverty-stricken. Their corrupt leaders had sucked the blood from their bodies and raped the country, over and over. Nature also turned against them and there were floods, earthquakes, and famines. Now they were spiritless bodies, living for the sake of life: these neglected souls were the scapegoats of every government. Poverty was their crime and they were paying the penalty, as had their ancestors. Yet, they were so simple-hearted that any leader deceived them, because their memories were lost. Rafeel remembered the final meeting with his family, when he came out of his sanctuary in the barren mountains. His father said: "My son, now I am too decayed to face the vulgar vultures.'' He looked at his father and there was more than pity in his feeble and frightened eyes. He was a strong man who had crossed swords with death.
In his disappointment Rafeel said, "Is it more horrible than death? Is there something more powerful than your Herculean ideas, Father?" His father did not reply, he just looked at him and turned his face with his head held low. The fall of that great man set off a wail inside of Rafeel and a horrible wave of guilt overwhelmed his broken heart. In the very next moment, he decided to leave that land. His Father spoke in a requesting manner. "You should leave, Rafeel. They are chasing you like a stray dog." Before leaving home, he turned to his mother, who was sleeping. He went close to her, sat near her bed for a while, kissed her hand silently and then, with a heavy heart, moved quickly towards his mare. He did not have the courage to look back. In those few steps, he travelled the distance of centuries; the deep sorrow had shocked his soul. Soon, his mare was running with utmost speed, leaving behind the barking dogs: masters of the land. On that same dark night, he crossed the border of his country as the thick clouds covered even the stars. Before disappearing, he viewed his homeland with dejected eyes. His soul shuddered at that helplessness and he grew weary of his useless existence. All the teachings of his father about bravery ended in smoke and he found everything shallow and empty. He was hostile towards the withdrawn souls and now he himself was one of them. The bitter taste of defeat moved him to tears; absorbed in the heart of earth. It was then that he saw the ashes of his dreams. With deep disgust he spat in the air, saying: "This is for you the exploiters. Bravo! You have defeated your own land, your own men. But don't forget that this was our fault that we tamed the monsters. You are the beasts who can never be trusted. I spit on you, you Page | 70
unfruitful and lustful men! I even hate to breathe in this land; woes for those who will live amongst you and your bad breath."
He was one of those thousands of unknown political workers who were forced into exile, and the majority of them were killed, unnoticed and without any rewards, medals or fame. These people were committed to a cause and were led by the dreams of emancipation. Their free spirits and hearts made their enemies violent. Rafeel was one of those free souls whose heart drove him to misery. Political leaders, on the other hand, were faint-hearted and self-serving. Later on, these selfless political workers came to know that the guardians of their commitment were the agents of agencies and the establishment, but it was too late then. What happened to Rafeel during twenty years of exile was another story, but the most pathetic aspect was that all these sacrifices did not bring change in his country.
The so-called leaders brought feudal democracy over and over again. Common people had accepted this situation. After a little poison, now and then, that put them in sweet dreams, they were ready to take a lot more for sweet death: there was no end to their misery. The sight of a very old tea-hut brought Rafeel back from his thoughts. He recognized the old man working there. It was Rasoola, who had run that hut since the childhood of Rafeel. He was closing his hut when Rafeel reached him. "Can you give me a cup of tea?" Rafeel asked in the native accent. Rasoola turned his sun-burnt wrinkled face, and squinted his eyes to recognize the stranger. "Chacha [uncle] Rasoola, why this unfriendly behaviour? No, you were not like that---" Page | 71
Rasoola was baffled. "I am Rafeel, son of Murad Khan," explained Rafeel. Rasoola rushed towards him saying: "Oh, you naughty boy of Khan's, my hero! Come close to me." He hugged him warmly and started kissing his head. "You have become so weak and old, how strong you were." After that passionate encounter, he sat down on the big bedstead and in the dim light of fire, Rafeel keenly observed the face of Rasoola. There, hidden in his wrinkles, he saw the centuries of deprivation and hunger that was the fate of third-world countries. They had to work in the scorching sunlight trying to satisfy the ever-empty bellies of their offspringâ€Ś Rasoola made a special bowl of tea for him and wiping the sweat off his forehead, he said: "Rafeel, we will talk a lot tonight." "No," replied Rafeel, "I want to see my home, I can't wait." "Rafeel, have you forgotten that this is the time of year when hungry wolves come out of the mountains?" "Even then Chacha, I will go." "I will tell you a lot of stories." "Stories of what? Of wolves?" "No, I will tell you the stories of men who are more vicious than wolves, and you will tell me the stories of the wolves of abroad, you must have come across many wolves during your long stay over there." "Yes, Chacha, but those wolves were of their own land, foreign wolves." Promising to meet again, he started walking quickly towards his Basti (village). There were many Jhokes (small villages), on the way. When he passed through the nearest Jhoke, he saw an old man fettered in chains. Rafeel knew him; he was Bukshoo who had lost his mind in youth. People of the village fastened him because he threw heavy stones at people. Rafeel stopped for a while, to look at that caveman whose white beard was touching the land, and mouth was frothing. Bukshoo looked at the stranger, made a bowl of his hand, threw dust on him and started rolling like a tired donkey. Rafeel could not digest that horrible scene and started walking again. His country had become an atomic power, but Bukshoo was still in chains. Page | 72
"Damn care! I won't think about people. Already I have suffered a lot, I won't say anything against anybody, I want to live with my mother. To hell with the people, my mother is now too old! Democracy, justice and emancipation are just romantic notions. Here everything is futile, shallow and absurd." He stroked the ground with his foot and kept on walking. He heard the voice of mountains: "Everything is shallow. Everything is absurd." To overcome those oppressive thoughts, Rafeel looked at the red light on the mountains and his thoughts ran back to his childhood. He remembered the day when all the people of the village were gathered to see this strange thing for the first time many simple farmers were so frightened that they hid themselves in their homes.
Everyone narrated it with their own innocent perception. His elder brother told him that it was the light of a uranium reactor. Khair Shah, shepherd of the village, never believed that it was a man made thing; he was sure that it was the light of a saint, sitting on the mountains. Most of the simple villagers were followers of Khair Shah. In that far-off village, where there was no electricity, no clean water, no medication for dying people, it was something supernatural. Soon Rafeell's father brought radio, for the first time in village, villagers ran out of the village, voices from that box made them frightened. It took them many months to become adjusted to that speaking box. When Rafeel reached near the cluster of big, thick trees; a melancholic memory struck his mind. It was the place where they had found the bones of Kaloo, a brave lad of the village, never afraid of the wild beasts, which would come late at night. He had remained absent for many days when his friends started searching for him, and they found the bones of Kaloo. Hungry wolves had left nothing behind, except a few bones and pieces of his clothes. Rafeel was surprised that not even a single tree had been cut in his long absence. He felt a wave of fear in his spine. The cluster of those trees was in close resemblance to his country! he Darkness had settled beautifully. The air spoke of distant rains. Rafeel entered a labyrinth of corn. Ahead of him, past the rows, he spotted the mimosa tree. It was a familiar tree, one that he had sat beneath before. One that had saved him from scorching June days, when he would come too far, gathering wild flowers or trying to halter the red mare that roamed free. Rafeel had prayed beneath that tree, and cried into its soil. It was the home to many meadowlarks and blackbirds which were now perched and sleeping upon the mellow limbs. Page | 73
Rafeel moved closer, smelling the change in soil as the land turned from fertile to fruitless. Nothing even grew beneath that tree. He drew closer, until he could smell the trunk and the dampness of leaves. That tree reminded him of a beautiful face, Rozeena. He thought how timeless life had once seemed. "Rozeena?" He called. "Rozeena?" The reply was dry winds shuffling the straw like cards, and the howling of a beagle dog on the hunt. Rozeena was gone. She was the wind. She was the moon, speaking to Rafeel through whispers and shadows. Rafeel remembered Rozeena, her dark curls, and her alabaster skin ... her face always poised in childlike curiosity. He recalled Rozeena's pursed scarlet lips. He felt a tear now. "Where are you now?" But the night swallowed his question. He had also once loved. Rozeena had been a roaming wave of beauty in a pale land. But she had died many years ago. "Will you come back for me?" He knew Rozeena was gone but still he wanted to hear her reply. Red memories faded to yellow. He turned and galloped away like the roan range horses, vanishing into rows of untended corn. He let the wind lick away a sudden tear... the wind came, and it blew hard, making a sound like music. When he reached the graveyard of his village, he felt a wave of death in his body. His greatgrandmother lay underneath a monumental slab, surrounded by a low iron fence. The graves of his grandfather, grandmother and father stood in a line, marked with simple square tablets set into the turf. The rain had darkened the stone on all three, but his father's was still noticeably lighter, its inscription sharp, the newness of its manufacture less dignified somehow, because his son was far away. It was lonely standing there. Rafeel wanted tears and he got them. This time he cried for himself. He moved on from the family graves. He reared the headstones as he walked around. Village names prevailed. He could not find Rozeena's name anywhere. He found the grave of Hussani Powely, the loyal servant of his grandfather. It had been so many years ago that he had almost forgotten Hussani's face, his calloused working hands, and his dark crackled lips. The length of his body as he raised the trowel into the air, bringing it into earth with force and hope. Hope that land would be fertile. He died but land never turned fertile. Closing his eyes, Rafeel pictured his grandfather climbing the cliff. It was a very cold day. He grunted with the effort of pulling himself from hand hold to hand hold, his breath steamy. As he climbed, Rafeel waited for him to lose his grip, for him to lose his footing, for him to fall. But nothing could stop his grandfather, neither gravity nor fear. Up and up he went, vigorous in his Page | 74
youth, irrepressible, fearing nothing, needing no-one but himself. Halting at the lip of the rock wall, fifty feet above the stream, he looked up at the sky and gave a victory yell that rang out along the valley and sent the rooks up cawing from the trees. But now he was lying in the grave and death was giving a victory yell at his grave. It was almost midnight when he reached the surroundings of his village. He remembered the loud barking of the dogs when he used to return home late, from the fight with wild beasts. Hung with ugly truths, he stood there, but this time he was returning after a long and tiring fight against human beasts, who have never been overcome! At that disappointing moment, he imagined the old face of his mother and ran like a child towards his home, the last refuge of every falling man.
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I cannot believe what I have been witnessing. Isn't it ironic that those persons that we try to put in the dark corner of our memory box, appear suddenly at that moment of life when we can't afford any burden of conscience? This unwanted appearance makes us more pathetic when we have convinced ourselves that whatever we did in our lives was not worthless; that the life we have spent was not so futile and absurd, as is the case with the majority.
However, there is another court, in our internal self, that gives its own verdict. Now we start suppressing that internal voice. We lull our conscience, but, in spite of all of our firm efforts, it becomes more violent. Even, sometimes, it breaks its boundary, destroys our wellmaintained external world, and leaves ridiculous imprints on our faces.
Why has he appeared, at this moment of life, when I was about to forget him? How pitiful it is that in this one moment, only one moment amongst millions of moments, is going to erase all my efforts of thirty years! This pitiless one moment does not care about the hard work of uncountable sleepless nights. Isn't it miserable that one should spend thirty years of one's life to forget only one person? Isn't it funny that I am being sentimental while sitting with my granddaughter? How would she feel if I told her that old man sitting under the dark shadow of night is causing a stirring in my heart? He is sitting with the same style of Socrates, lost somewhere, quite indifferent to his surroundings. I can recognize him among thousands, the Page | 76
same style of lighting his cigarette and inhaling it. The same style of folding one arm on his chest and the other moving slowly toward his mouth, his eyes fixed on the distant horizon.
The only difference is that shivering of his hands that now can be felt. Two strong images of his personality are still alive in my mind. First, a lively young man with intelligent and sparkling eyes and sensual mouth with glorious exalted words. Second, an image of meditation; a man with graying hair, lost in the secret world of self, like the old, tired and despairing Sidhartha*. How ambitious and full of life he was when, thirty years back, he started teaching. He had the natural talent for teaching. Moreover, his communicative style of teaching and exalted thoughts made him very successful while above all, he adopted this profession as a service, not as a job.
He had studied extensively and had wonderful vision but all this was very embarrassing for other tamed and empty teachers. For them, the highest things were their grades and gray hairs. They had very clever and cunning brains, because they had been working hard, on these lines, for years. They would show themselves as wise and their little sayings and truths made them funnier. Their superficial and shallow wisdom was endangered by the presence of this young man, for there was something, which made him different from the others. This made others love or hate him extremely; there was no halfway. The most irritating thing to others was that he never showed any reaction to the crazy attitude of people. It seemed as if he had overpowered those violent desires. The head of the department was a cruel, shrewd devil, who, with his favor and disfavor, could build or destroy the careers of newcomers. Though he had a doctorate in literature, he was good for nothing, merely a holy ghost. He compelled people to respect him, surviving by his mean authority. In short, there was everything except education and decency. Therefore, that intelligent young man became intolerable for them. His only flaw was that he had a good brain amongst brains that were mediocre. Why did I become jealous of him? I was ambitious for a secure and successful future and did not want to miss any chance of getting the favor of existing authorities. That was a very comfortable and easy way to reach the height, the only requirement was to please the monsters. Therefore, I did. All possible mean ways were adopted to force him to leave our wonderful heaven. Ultimately he left, silently, without even saying a word. His commitment to the profession and his intelligence could destroy us all. Therefore, before our destruction, we destroyed him.
His departure made life smooth again and soon everybody forgot him. Lecturers became professors and professors were awarded with medals. I also earned a scholarship for higher
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studies, which would otherwise have gone to him. The peacock of a PH.D. was put on my head. My books on education and literature became part of every syllabus. I have come here to deliver my scholarly lecture. I shall tell people how I worked hard to educate the generations of my dear fatherland. My words will make them spellbound and then there will be much applause. In the pleasing sound of that clapping, I will forget this tormenting image. My ego will become stiff and proud. But, he has again appeared here, in a very concrete form. Before today, he was washed from my memory, but today he has appeared after thirty years. He is sitting in the dark and aloof place of this very old, city railway station; it was his favorite place then, too. I can see him lost in deep thoughts. What is he thinking? Yet, his thinking has not reached to the logical end. Except for me, nobody knows that this silent man's voice can move the statues; his thoughts can melt the frozen brains and his words can purify hearts. Alas! Nobody knows but one who has locked his tongue. A desire to talk to him, at least once, overwhelms me. Something inside me is pushing me towards him; something is quenched in me that wants to burst out but something equally strong is stopping my movement. I am like a person whose feet are chained but stormy air is pushing him forward. What can I do except fall? Yes, I am a fallen woman. Does he still remember me? I do remember once he said: "In this tiresome journey of life, sometimes somebody stops us to make us relaxed. He makes us laugh. We laugh so much that our eyes become wet, then suddenly that person says goodbye because he has to go on his own journey, towards his own destined direction. In the beginning we remain lost, missing those heavenly moments, remembering everything about which Death cleans, while making its own memory. We fall down, but, life goes on to write more mortal tales with the same excitement. We see the disloyal life moving swiftly in the arms of somebody else, without even looking back to us. Before falling down, we try to make her remember her commitments, but our feeble voice can't even touch our own ears. We die to be forgotten forever. This is the total achievement of life. Our tiring long effort plus death equals absurdity. An awful nothingness! This is the result of life, for whose sake we go to the maximum extent of meanness; for whose sake we deceive our dear ones; for whose sake we suck the blood of our own species, and then suddenly we are deceived by this. At that moment we try to spit on it, spit which then returns to our own mouths." I want to meet that untamed solitary soul. I want to get rid of this tormenting burden of conscience but at the same time, something invulnerable and unburiable stops me. I know it is my false ego, which will never allow me do so. I know we so-called scholars are slaves of this ego for centuries. We will keep on killing such genius by the fatal poison of our suffocating mediocrity. Yes, I should move now. People are waiting for me. My lofty words are awaited there. Good luck to you, the burden of my soul.
Unheard Melody Page | 78
The hot tea sucked me back into reality, my mind rudely awakened from frequent naps. It had recently succumbed to the habit of chasing thoughts unrelated to the topic at hand. My mind returned: "Wasteland." I was sitting at a large wooden desk, apparently examining the assignments of students. "Sir, your class-time has started." A voice brought me back. All I wanted to do was to run, and run far away! I wished I could be able to write another "Wasteland."
I had lost my enthusiasm for teaching years ago. I was merely going through motions. I had long given up love for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Faulkner. My students had become nameless faces in the class room and faceless names during grading time.
The day ended with the usual monotony. In afternoon I came out of college and started walking towards the sea -- my only refuge. It was dark, so dark that I could barely see, and the thick fog didn't help matters. It was December and the few trees were chewed by the blood dripping jaws of autumn. An atmosphere I did not belong to. Stagnation -- apathy -- entropy -life there was a sad mystery.
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Were these only dark thoughts echoing in my already distressed mind, or was this seed of malcontent very real? I didn't know.
The road was familiar to me. Twice a day, I walked on it and encountered Bengalis, Philippines, Sudanese, Egyptians, Indians, and Pakistani, almost from the entire poor world. They had come there to make money and to fight against the eternal hunger of their lands, to fill empty stomachs of their families. They all were coming back from their long shifts in industries. They never had time to turn their faces. How full of life they had been in their youth, lost in fantasies and gentle dreams. How terrified they became as little by little truth made them cold and indifferent. They had left everything behind -- children, wives, homes. But the future did not yet belong to them, nor would it belong to their children, nor even to their children's children because they belonged to the world where a terror of royal flesh prevailed. I was one of those many faces, out of my poor country, Pakistan, in search of livelihood. Many years ago I wrote some stories. I believed I would find the same stories again. Neil Marr, an editor of western literary magazine, had many times reminded me that I was a writer and I must write stories. How could I tell him that my mind had become an empty trash. Filled with the needs of daily life. I had to work from dawn to dusk. The monotonous routine had swallowed many years of my life. I had a small sweet daughter behind, whom I had not seen since her birth. But Neil Marr was still asking me for new stories. Wow! I myself had become a story in search of stories. Lost in my melancholic thoughts I reached the seashore. Wild tides were smashing on the shore like a desperate animal. The cold wind would have frozen me if I had not entered the restaurant. Aslam, the waiter, recognized me and gave a warm smile of welcome. "Hello, Professor, take a seat. Nobody comes in this killing weather." I thanked him with a smile and sat at the corner- table. The sitar music of Pakistan, a great achievement of human civilization, spoke to me with impossible complexities. The wild tides of sea outside reminded me of "Time" by P.B. Shelley: "Unfathomable sea! Whose waves are years. Ocean of time, whose waters of deep woe Are brackish with the salt of human tears!" I got up to see the descending sun and stood there until it was completely lost. When I returned to my table, I found professor Ramnath sitting there, staring out of the window.
"Cold, huh", he murmured.
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He was professor of the English department at Indian Overseas College, an interesting fellow and brilliant old guy. He was as jaded about the world and people around him as I was. He picked up a cigarette and lifted it to his lips. He could hold the smoke in longer than anyone I knew. He must have been a whale in previous life, as Indians believe seven lives are lived in this world. We smoked wildly. The smoke coiled around us. Ramnath was looking sad and dejected. It was something new because he was a loving, jolly fellow. "You seem to be engrossed in something," I said. &quit;Have you heard the B.B.C. News today?" "There is nothing new for me -- tell me if there is ," I replied. "American Space Shuttle Columbia burst in the space, just before landing," he told me. "Yes, and there was some Indian lady, named Kalipna, yes it is a sad news," I replied. "But Kalipna was not someone in the news for me, since I knew her personally," Ramnath said. "Personally, but how?" "She was my student, and I had great love for her." He uttered the word love in a sad tone. There was a world of revelation in that word. I found tears in that word. He was looking out the window where one seagull was diving to catch mackerel. Professor Ramnath could not prevent the flood of memories from washing over him. It seemed as though the past grabbed him. All was going to reveal in his eyes with great aching clarity. He could not conceal a single detail, nor could any pain conceal itself from him. "Go on with your story." I said. "I met her when I just started teaching at the Punjab Engineering College. Kalipna was in her second year as graduate student. She had shoulder length black hair that she clearly did not feel like worrying about. It was tousled and covered the sides of her plain, unadorned face. When she looked right at you, you could see that her eyes were slightly lazy and her features were not what you would describe as traditionally pretty. But there was something in her eyes; I would say certain sparkle, which made you magic-bound. There was also a slight curl to her lips that made her seem intelligent and alert. Overall, she was a very attractive girl. To me she was beautiful,. I know I loved her."
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Professor stopped talking and looked into the sea where a seagull was still diving for a mackerel. "What attracted you to her?" I asked. Professor sighed and said: "Her eyes, how much peace I attained just by looking. Her eyes; how wonderful earth felt when I looked into her eyes. Whenever we were alone she wanted to learn. I explained quantum mechanics, geophysical terminology, and English literature. I had much to teach and she was a fine student, with a flexible mind. She was never afraid to admit her ignorance. She asked many questions: "`Is it necessary for there to be a difference between energy and matter? May I join independent clauses by a comma?' "I wondered at her lust for learning. Once we were having get-together party, she turned away to ask me something about the transit effects of light and colour in Impressionist painting. One day she was holding a big bundle of books from the library. I asked when she got time to read all those heavy books. "`I have always time, professor. This is the best way to prevent fear and loneliness.' "I kissed her hand and said; `I love it when you speak like this, I love your knowledge which sparkles in your eyes. How can I forget that evening when I delivered a lecture on astronomical history?'
"She held my hand and said, You are a wonderful man. It is no wonder you have such success in your work!' "I blushed at this, red as a boiled lobster. She smiled and said, Your modesty makes you all the more adorable.' "She was an intelligent girl. I loved her mind. You know what made her distinctive from other girls? Other girls were collections of body parts controlled by a mind, but she was a mind supported by body parts. "She had only one dream in her life: that was to travel across space and visit the moon. Since her childhood she had been dreaming it. Once she told me about her childhood, spent in the poor village of India. Her secondary school Education passed in a blur of solitary break times, wandering the school grounds or sitting under trees with a pad and pen; lunch breaks in the library, accompanied only by science fiction, right thumb sucked in deepest concentration, left gripping the pen. At home, after completing homework, she would spend her time in dreaming of space and moon. She passed exams with distinction but it was nothing for her. This was not her dream. Others may have escaped into the realms of dreams and imagination, but she
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never forgot the hardships of reality and reality never obstructed her dreams and plans. She knew that she had to harness talent more precisely to pursue her dreams. "She wanted to join NASA. She won a scholarship for an aerospace department in Texas, and made her way smoothly. I knew she would hit her target one day. It was not amazing for me when she was selected as aeronautical engineer in NASA" Professor looked again into the sea, where the seagull was still diving to catch the fish. "Did you express your love, Ramnath?" I said, presenting a cigarette to him. "No, never, beauty of love does not lie in expression; it lies in hidden words. As you know `Unheard Melodies are sweeter.' But I got one thing very real from her. That was mystic escape -- mystic escape which converted me from nonexistent to existent. "I still remember the sad evening of her departure from India. Something in me was telling me that she would never return, because such people never come back; they don't look back; their destination is always ahead. The sun's last rays were sinking behind the trees. Shadows rose ominously from the dense woods on both sides of track. I saw her, waving her hands; I could see her sparkling eyes even from a distance. The distance vanished her and I could not see her again. Oh life, you cruel stepmother how you have separated the two of us?" Sea was silent now. Smooth waves were singing sweet song. Ramnath stood up, walked slowly went over and leaned his head against the cold panes of window, overlooking the unfathomable sea, where the seagull was scraping his beak after eating mackerel. I looked into the sea again as I thought about Ramnath and his sorrow. Life has no mercy; it scraps us up like the seagulls do when they find their prey. I reluctantly rose from the chair, sighed, took a look at my wristwatch as if the time mattered, walked out the door, onto the sidewalk and up the street. Most of the place was quiet; a few workers were returning from their night shifts. I was thinking about Kalipna, who left her land to achieve glory, but death finished her at the moment of glory. I put cigarette in my mouth, but instead of lighting it I just placed it in my mouth for effect, to give my fingers something to do. I did not want to think anymore. That was enough for one night.
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In Hour of Death
In a palatial room of the most pleasant city of the world, an old and feeble writer was lying on his deathbed with open eyes. He was gazing at the ceiling without looking at any particular thing. Shadows of death were passing across his face. It seemed as if he was facing pangs of death in his soul.
He was not an ordinary man; he was a great writer who had won all the best awards of literature. He had millions of readers in the world, but at this moment he was quite alone, waiting for ghastly advancing death. Every passing moment was adding to his sense of loss. He was never in love with life, but approaching death aroused some hidden desire to live.
He recalled his remarks on life, when once he was addressing a huge crowd: "Life is not important for me, I am not afraid of death." Remembering that, a satirical smile appeared on his withered face and he spoke in a murmuring voice. "One of the hundred lies which every 'great man' utters to make himself worthy of his greatness." The fact was that he was dying like any other creeping creature, despite his marvellous achievements and sagacious books, galled him. Page | 84
Long ago he had longed for death when he had too many failures in life; when he was forced to obey the debased orders of his masters for only a few coins; when pale faces of children and the violence of the masters had even ceased his belief in God... yes, life was miserable then, in poverty. Poverty snatches away all the dignity and liberty of man and he becomes the most humiliated creature. But now when he had everything of his desire, death was approaching him with its ever-frothing face. What an irony of fate.
At that fatal moment, he did not feel himself different from the dying dog that he had seen in his childhood, on a hot summer noon. He did not know then that he would recall that death-sight after so many years at the hour of his own death.
He still remembered that the upper part of the neck of that dog was wounded by the gunfire of a rascal hunter and it was severely infected. Steadily, the infection spread into its body and worms started eating him. The writer never saw him sitting anywhere; he would always run here and there due to his intolerable pain. Nobody cared for the pain of a dog.
One day the dog lay down, accepting the victory of worms. Before dying, he stood up, uttered a feeble, painful cry and then fell to be finished forever.
The dying writer wanted to spend his last moments in pleasant memories but the image of the dying dog had captured his mind and soul. Then he turned his eyes towards the hanging medals and pictures in the room. He recalled the sights and visions of his youth and stopped his sight at one picture: "What a combination of youth and dreams! My God, if I had a piece of life, I would return to those days of youth when I had a lot of desires and big mountains to climb," he thought. Now, when he was the most popular writer in the world, he was longing to go back to the days of hunger and miseries. Once again, he wanted to face the pangs of failure and anguish of rejection; once again he wanted to enjoy the pleasures of the mettle of youth, as among giant evils he used to survive merely because of his colossal will...
How beautiful was the moment when his beloved gave him a warm kiss on publication of his first story. Remembrance of that sweet kiss - which at once healed all his wounds of deprivations - soothed him for a while in the agonizing feelings of death. Page | 85
How lovingly she separated her lips to say, "I am so proud of you." He heard the echo of that sweetest sentence in the whole universe. This one sentence was more precious than all the medals and praise that he received in later life.
A wave of death struck his mind but he resisted forcefully with his remaining energy and was again lost in thought. "I would surrender all my achievements for that kiss. My God, for an instant gift with a piece of life, I would return headlong to kiss the wet eyes of my beloved, then happily shall I die keeping my head in her lap. Then I will write a story in blood that will melt all the hatred of the world; I will utter all the unutterable words that will finish the agony of earth; and then I will offer, my God, that story to You which will perish Your indifference to man's sorrows. When Your face will turn pale and sad, I will be overjoyed at the success of my story. My words will drain Your eternal anger and the tears from Your eyes and will wipe off the filth of the world. They will move Your heart and I will see You breaking the high towers of hatred and revenge. I will tremble with joy to listen to the echo of Your words throughout the whole universe. 'Gone are the days of malice'." He saw the twilight of the dying sun coming through the half-opened window and came out of his bed, but his lifeless legs refused to share the burden of his body. He fell on the floor but that did not stop his desire to see an alive world. He started creeping towards that light. To link with it, he exerted all the energies of his body. At last, he reached the window and opened his eyes to view the end of the day. Dusk had covered the whole brilliant sky, spreading the gravy shadows of night. Birds were returning to their nests; the sun was lost in the deep universe. This take-over of night made him think about the odd process of this universe. Every creation had to face an end. Now when he was observing life at distance, an intense desire to be again in that sea of life made him dejected. The bird flying alone in the dim light of sunset added to his suffering. At that sad moment, he saw one gloomy face appearing swiftly towards him. Many years ago, when he left his country in pursuit of dreams, only two eyes wept for him, and now after so many years he was going to die looking at those eyes. He recalled that cloudy evening when he said goodbye to her forever. At that moment of death, he came to know that those weeping eyes had touched his soul, which was still roaming over there. The rest of his life was soulless. All his ties with other bright faces were for his worth... the worth of being a popular writer. But her sadness was from the core of her heart, she wept for him when rest of the world was laughing at him, when he was a penniless, unknown, striving writer, stumbling in the darkness of rejection. In the dazzling light of fame, he had forgotten her. But now, when he was again surrounded by the darkness of death, she was there, standing behind his pillow, softly moving her soft fingers through his rough, dry hair. Page | 86
Once, when he got a head injury by the brutish beat of the police during a protest against the government, it was she who made him alive by her tender care and prayers. She revived his will to live and unexpectedly he returned from the threshold of death. It was she who put in him an enormous energy, enabling him to reach the peak of mountains. Now, when he was standing at the peak, some invisible force was dragging him forward, and he could see what was next: the very dark and dreadful valley of death. He knew very well that to fall in that dark valley was fateful, but once again he wanted to go back to the foot of that mountain to have a look at those two wet eyes, which were still waiting for him. Alas! At the peak, he learned that everyone wanted to be there, without knowing that real happiness is in how it is scaled. A stroke of pain took him back to that formidable state of forgetfulness. He even forgot those kind eyes. He fell to the ground and felt the agony of death in his bones and soon that unavoidable state overpowered him. In his fainted condition, he had a dream. He saw himself flying back fast. He could feel the touch of soothing, cool air that was lightening his burden... the burden of popularity, of pride, of jealousy and of praise. As he was flying back, his innocence was returning. He happily said good-bye to all those hypocrites who seduced him towards the path of painful greatness, which gave him nothing except loneliness. Now, for him, the dearest thing was to kiss the beauty with the kind eyes. He was overjoyed at the revival of his innocent existence. He felt himself free of torturing egotism. Soon, he saw the lost face of his beloved. He ran towards her, stood at a distance, not knowing how to meet her. She opened her arms, saying, "Your return is timely, I am very alone." After this warm meeting she removed the dust from his face and combed his hair with her soft fingers. He fell into her lap, felt the divine pleasure of love and spoke in an exhausted voice: "I have discovered the truth of life, which is to love and perish... all the rest is deception." The fatigue of a long journey and the touch of his beloved made him sleepy. Sleep overpowered him and he went into the eternal peace.
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At last the big and barren graveyard was decided to be the best and safe place for the decisive session of noble dogs. It was a unique event of dog-history that they were united and strongly convinced that everything in the human world was rotten, false and disgusting. Experience brought them to the conclusion that it was better to live in hell than in the human world. Now they all wanted to leave this brutish human society, but where to go? It was to be settled and they needed suggestions of great brains of sensible dogs. But alas! Many noble dogs failed to give practical suggestions - their brains had been wasted in other great philosophical issues like the absurdity of life and the meaninglessness of existence. They had disappointed the highest hopes of common dogs. But the positive point was that it was revealed to Tom, Heck and Herry that most of the philosopher dogs had just put on the mask of wisdom, otherwise they were not different from them, having the same stupid complexes and fears.
That night special arrangements were made to have a full-fledged meeting. Many of them were still frightened because the night before they had come across police, and many dogs were killed by brutish crossfire when they had just started their meeting in the open barren plain out of the city. The plain was normally a safe place but unfortunately that night police had brought some criminals to kill in police encounter. Next day when the dead bodies of those criminals appeared on newspapers, nobody thought about the dead dogs lying in the background. Not even a single human brain thought about the extra-judicial murder of innocent dogs. It happened many times Page | 88
that when police did not find any human targets at night, they killed such innocent dogs. These harmless creatures were never able to understand the cause of this cruel act. They could not understand the fact that police were jealous of their indifferent and fearless attitude. Once when dogs used to keep the order there was peace and security in human society. But when man became civilized and dogs were replaced by police all criminal activities started in the darkness of night. There were huge files of wise suggestions to reform the police, but nobody thought that that duty could be performed more efficiently by dogs. Dogs' sorrow was augmented by the remarks of the public when they would call the names of dogs to abuse the police - e.g. dirty dogs, son of a bitch or bastard dogs.
The graveyard was a safe place for them, because human beings are always afraid of their dead relations, which reminds them of God - they accept the existence of God but they never consider it pleasing to meet God. Dogs knew that weakness of man; therefore, they were quite at home there. Although the meeting was not due to start until midnight, the graveyard was filled with dogs. Latch, the secretary of the dog's association, was having a round of the place with his anxious eyes and wrinkled forehead. He was thin and weak, always ready to frown at a small disturbance. He was an intelligent dog with weak nerves. Whenever he was worried he would crush the hard earth with his soft feet. He never quarrelled with other dogs, all his anger was shifted to his own heart; all his life was spent being beaten by the rascal dogs, but he never scolded them. He would lie on the earth silently to be beaten. It was due to this quality that he was selected for this honorable post. He was even nominated for the Hoble Prize, the most noble title of dogs.
He had to work hard because many dogs blamed him for the tragic happening of the previous session. Honorable Hemlock, the president of this association, had also shown his displeasure.
At midnight almost all dogs had arrived at the meeting place. Now honourable Hemlock was awaited. Hemlock was seventeen years old, the most senior of them all. His life was spent in that graveyard. Due to his ascetic nature, he never indulged himself in worldly affairs - not even for any bitch. He knew very well that bitches led noble dogs to the lust of the world. He knew many great brains who could change the world, but that bloody love with bitches made them the most foolish and pathetic creatures of the universe. He believed that the major cause of madness and violence among dogs was due to bitches. Those who could have been the heroes of the nation were now mean sensualists. They had even forgotten the nobility of doghood. Hemlock's happiness was hidden in this simple rule; he never ran after bitches - he did not even allow bitches to attend the sessions of dogs, because he never considered them worthy enough to make any wise decision. Page | 89
At last Rumpus made his particularly loud bark, which meant Hemlock had arrived to preside over the session. All dogs fixed their eyes on Hemlock. Hemlock arrived with his dignified personality - the dignity of not being touched by any bitch. Many years of aloofness had made his face very serene and solemn. His colour was black with white patches on his fatty neck. He had all the qualities of a pure dog, because he kept himself away from the human world. He was walking slowly with his graceful gait. When he arrived on the highest grave, all dogs stood up to say welcome. He slightly moved his tail and sat down silently. This time he seemed to be very dejected and gloomy, which might be due to his worries; he had no suitable alternative.
Feeble Gimlet started the programme by the permission of the leader of the house. Too much talk was not desirable, yet he kept on talking, saying again and again that he would not waste the precious time of noble dogs. As usual he uttered few words in praise of Hemlock. Hemlock looked at him with angry eyes. In the meanwhile Rumpus, who was very straightforward, asked him to come to the real issue. Gimlet realized his mistake, as it was his wont, and told them that they were not gathered for any ordinary matter, rather it was a matter of their honour and survival; they had lived with human beings for time immemorial and they had forgotten their own natural living. Once they were quite different when they used to live in jungles.
Jack was the special guest of that meeting. He was an intellectual dog with his empty belly, thin legs and dirty hair. Most of his life was spent thinking about the welfare of poor dogs. But he could not get any solution to the problems of dogs. In his disappointment, he came to the conclusion that dog's brain was limited and could not go beyond certain limits, therefore he left himself to the will of time and circumstances. He could not even spend a normal life. His intellectual thoughts stopped him from sexual pleasures, because he believed that to run after sensual pleasures was a human act, not a dog's. He had heard that man's sexual lust is never fulfilled, he even keeps on it with pregnant woman - it was very strange and disgusting for Jack. Jack used to spend his time out of the city near the hut of a poor peasant. He was in favour of the liberty of bitches and did not like the absence of bitches. This dual behaviour had made him very controversial. He was respected and loved by bitches but not more than this, because dogs were also like human beings and only the powerful could enjoy it. He was not in favour of such sessions but Gimlet convinced him to come and say something at that crucial time. Jack did not believe in such intellectual gatherings. He believed that great minds pass away silently, without stirring the surface of the sea of life. He believed that those who got fame and praise were not the genuine thinkers because they did not have the taste of depth.
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He came upon the high grave with his slow and solemn gait. There was some strange dignity in his personality, which had added his enemies; because this grace was appreciated by the bitches. There was a rumor about him that once he spent a complete noon with one elite bitch, who was impressed by his thoughts. Many rascals had different opinions about this event. They said that Jack did not attract her, rather she wanted to have a change of taste, and it was a chance that the first dog she met was Jack. They also said that she was so disappointed by him that she dropped her romantic notion of having a boyfriend from the lower class. Therefore, Jack was also considered as a scar on the doghood. Anyhow, what was the relationship between the two, nobody knew.
Jack looked at the audience and said, "I don't agree with the idea of leaving human society suddenly. I think it is an emotional and irrational decision. We have been living with human beings for so many years that the evil habits of humans have become part of our personality. For instance, we have been divided into many groups; secondly, we have lost tolerance and cannot survive hunger even for one day. Thirdly, we have, like humans, made half of our population ineffective; they are of no use except on particular days. Above all, we have been helping human beings in hunting wild animals. I do not think we will get any acceptance from them. I believe once dogs were as brave as wolves, rather they are the real dogs. Now we have become very lethargic and lazy. We are now merely pie-eaters while living with human beings. I think we should wean ourselves away from human society gradually. Man has made us dry and dull. Now we have nothing of which once we were proud. Now we have only one quality, that is to wave our tales. All the creatures of the universe laugh at us. We are now laughing stocks. We were fond of getting the title of loyalty, and for this we sacrificed everything - even our own identity. Now we are identityless creatures - good for nothing. We have all those qualities of a damned creature called man."
After Jack many dogs were invited to speak and they all recommended the idea of leaving at once.
At the end honourable Hemlock came to give the final decision. He thanked all the dogs and said, "I do not condemn our ancestors for joining man. At that time man was really a man, quite unlike the present dirty and lustful man. He had a sense of honor and dignity. Afterwards the process of devolution started, which is considered a process of revolution and evolution by foolish man. Alas, man has lost his nobility. Therefore, now it is better to live with our natural mates in jungle. I order all of you to get prepared and we will leave on this coming Sunday. I am sure this decision will enable us to reachieve our lost doghood." Page | 91
At that moment two old owls, who were listening to everything, came close to each other. "What do you think, will it be so?" asked one to other. The second owl laughed at it and said, "How childish you are; they will never act upon it; they have become half-human and will never do what they have said. While living with human beings, many characteristics of man have become part of their blood. I can bet they will be humiliated again and again, but will never take any bold step. Have you not seen how they were speaking, like great human leaders? I have listened to many human speeches in their assemblies and huge processions; such great rhetorical speeches are made by humans when they are unable to do anything; have you seen any change in the human world in spite of great associations and great talks? - dear, that was no different from those great human speeches. Dogs and humans have many resemblances, and one of those is that one talks too much and other speaks too much. They never learn from their past; believe me they are destined to be doomed." The End
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Published on May 26, 2016
Do you love literature? Here, then, are strange and wonderful literary short stories from Pakistan, by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan.This book wil...