Life is a strange story. We are privy to it through our experiences and failures. I might have failed you. But loved you more than my life. And that may be the reason I will lose you.
The sand storm clouded Imam’s vision. He closed the window shutters tight. The swaying of the single bulb hanging from the shaky ceiling stopped. Thus, Pari’s eyeballs oscillating with the large and small shadows created by the bulb, too, stopped. She turned onto her side and waited for Imam to put her to sleep. His long silhouette with bony shoulders and lanky legs glided past on the wall towards the lone pot in the room. He dipped the tumbler in the pot but met only air. There would be no water until tomorrow daybreak when Imam would walk miles to fetch water for them. Imam picked up the bulging pot and emptied its last contents to partially fill the glass. The girl would need it at night, he knew.
“Imamkaka, story.” Pari with sleepy eyes and tired voice called out to him. Imam gulped down a dry ball of saliva and walked to the summons. This time Pari noticed the sharpness of his nose and the curves of this turban as his silhouette approached her.
“Parijaan, how many stories have I told you in so many years?Your kaka is getting old, my jaan, almost on the verge of becoming a story himself. Learn to fall asleep on your own.” Imam spoke with long pauses while unwinding his faded turban. Random bald patches with grey tufts on the fringes were exposed as the turban left its guarded place. Yet, the turban was not done with its duty for the day and could not retire unlike the old man, but work overtime as his pillow.
When will I narrate such stories to my Pari? he wondered.
Imam lay next to Pari with his joints cracking. Her large, brown eyes blinked unapologetically at him. The surma that adorned it in the day was still intact. In her black pupils, the reflected lone bulb shone in exuberance. Pari moved an inch closer to Imam and tucked her head under his scratchy chin.
“Ouch! Kaka your dadi hurts!” She adjusted herself and she could feel the old man’s throaty laughter quaking his prominent Adam’s apple.
“Tomorrow I will mow it down.” Her Kaka promised.
“Story, Kaka.” Impatience rose in her voice as the outside wind’s howling reached a crescendo. The storm shook the babul tree standing guard in the courtyard. Occasionally, the windows quivered when a gust of wind blew past it. Sand grains were busy creating dunes as the wind kept shifting their structure. It seemed the desert was relocating somewhere, where only the mountains knew. The Koh-e Paghman range stood tall and undisturbed by the storm. The crescent moon shone from one of its crypts. Apart from the yellow, lunar halo, the sky was a landscape of darkness. The stars had snuggled under the blanket of the clouds. Pari, too, pulled the ragged razai close to her face. She kissed the taveez resting on her bony sternum. It crinkled. Kaka had told her, her God was here, her truth was here.
Her ears propped out from the blanket to not miss a single word of Kaka’s story.
Long, long ago, in the rich land of Wazir Akbar Khan, lived an apricot merchant. He had a sprawling bungalow stretching as far as this mountain. Rooms that one could not count on fingers, long verandas meandering around the house, windows opening into the garden, each had a majestic view, a huge fountain in the centre of the garden sprinkling cool, blue water all day and night, oak and juniper trees standing tall behind the several varieties of roses, honeysuckle, currant, and gooseberry bushes. One could never tire of the beauty even if one strolled the garden for a whole day. Inside the bungalow, several servants scurried around dusting, cleaning, and serving the merchant’s family. Oh, what family!
Just the two of them.
The merchant occupied with his trade and the beautiful wife drowned in melancholy. Her misty, buttered chocolate eyes were a window to her lonely soul. Her long curly tresses cascaded to her slim waist. Her full, red mouth rarely parted into a smile yet the mole on her lower lip shone bright. The merchant and his wife though blessed with riches of all kinds, had no family to call their own. No children to run and play and shout and fill the house with their innocent laughter. The merchant donated enormous amounts of money to the needy ones with the sole objective of receiving their blessings. Every day the merchant’s wife prayed at the durgah for a progeny. At night, she fasted while chanting.
Pari’s soft snores broke the silence of the night. Imam pulled himself away from her tender clutches and slept on the cold ground a little distance away. The Persian rug that she slept on, though worn out in parts, was beyond his stature to sleep on. His throat was parched from the brief storytelling, but water, a luxury of the desert was reserved only for Pari. A knock disturbed Pari’s sleep, but being used to such knocks at odd hours she turned onto her side and fell asleep again.
The next morning saw a trail of hooves walking away from the babul tree. The faithful wind would soon destroy the marks before the agents could reach. The mule trudged on the slippery sand. Observing its discomfort, Imam alighted and walked besides the animal. The load was now only a few pounds–a pot, a rug, a bundle of clothes, a bulb, and Pari.
“Where do we go now, Kaka?”
“Anywhere Allah takes us, my child.”
“How long do we wander like this?”
“Till they stop hunting for us.”
“Why are they hunting for us? Has Allah not given them other roti and boti?”
“Hunting for us is their roti and boti, Paribeta. Now don’t talk much. We don’t have much water to help us traverse this desert.”
Thus, the duo marched on further. The mountains had caught the storm in their chest and the arid area was now relatively quieter. The tortuous sun was scaling new heights as petite arachnoids skittered under rocks and boulders for some relief. Pari’s fair, translucent skin flushed red despite the fact that Imam had covered her with an Afgan shawl that she kept dislodging from her head. The girl, though tired, didn’t complain of the heat and travel. This was her way of life from the time she recognised Imam as Kaka, and the desert, her home. She was a tough nut nourished by the camel’s milk. She loved Kaka too much to complain about anything. After all, he had risked his life to keep her safe all these years.
When the sojourn felt like a penalty, the happy couple clicked pictures on a rusty mobile phone that Imam carried with him. The device had scratches and faded numbers as its embellishments. Yet, it took fairly clear images. The girl made mischievous faces, occasionally stuck her tongue out, frowned in some while bulged her eyeballs out in others. The recreation would pump energy into the two, and they along with the mule would continue to saunter.
Imam and Pari didn’t have a permanent address. They wandered from village to village, not settling in one for more than few months. The villages the duo travelled to had, at least, one friend whom Imam trusted with his life.The friend would arrange for a hut, a temporary job for Imam to earn, and a friendly neighbourhood for Pari to play. All would be fine until that friend would knock at midnight, whisper into Imam’s ears, and then next morning, Pari would awaken from her leisurely slumber to find herself on the mule’s back. No time for goodbyes or assurances of return with the friends she had made. Without a sigh, the girl embarked on the journey.
The little caravan had cut the dunes, and in the distance, Pari spotted a hamlet approaching. Thatched huts, stuck to each other like a bunch of grapes, stood welcoming her. ANGOOOOOR, her lips smacked and eyes glowed in the anticipation of the good food they would be served as guests for the first few days. The friend, though a new one to Pari, would show great hospitality to them for the old bond he shared with Imam. As the mule took heavy steps, and Pari inched closer to the hamlet, she could see children flying kites and women huddling with pots and pans near a small well.
Aha, there would be water now, she smiled to herself. Not all hamlets they visited had a well in the vicinity.In some of them, women had to walk miles to another village to get their share of water. In such villages, bathing was a ritual followed only on jumma, on other days the sand did the needful.
“Parijaan, see our new home has arrived. Chalo, come down.”
As their travel ended, Imam would type on the phone, and after opening the rear-section, would remove the SIM card to crush it between his teeth. The remains he’d spit out on the sand.A new life, a new number awaited them.
The majestic sun was plunging into a distant, unknown sea. The birds of the same feathers flocked the horizon, adding a dash of white to the red muddled with the saffron sky. The desert had now metamorphosed to a beautiful butterfly. A cool breeze flirted with Pari’s curly, hazelnut tinged hair. The wind sang lullabies in her ears and the journey had tired her eyes. Alighting from the mule, the duo walked upto a small thatched hut. A man who spoke chaste Farsi showed them the way. Outside the hut, Imam spoke to the man, holding his hands and intermittently kissing its dorsum expressing gratitude. There was food and water inside that Pari sipped on before spreading the Persian rug to lie down and wait for her Kaka to continue the last night’s story.
“Kaka, story. How long it is?”
“Some stories, however long, must end with life.”
Imam knew Pari wouldn’t wait till he had had his roti. He, without a minute’s delay,began the job he was best at–storytelling!
Allah answers all those who pray with a pure heart. The merchant’s wife soon whispered the good news to her husband. The merchant distributed sweets and savouries to the entire town. Happiness was not to be horded. The big day arrived when the house was filled with loud cries of the baby doused by the happy greetings of people who dropped to wish. Every day was a celebration–kheer kurma, Afghani biryani, tandoori chaaps along with fruits, sherbets and exotic dryfruits were served to all who came by. None left with empty stomachs. The well-wishers were also gifted a gold coin as a token of appreciation. The previous gloom miraculously lifted, and now mirth danced gaily. The merchant had all that he wanted. The visits to the durgah reduced. The fasting stopped.
Pari’s fingers had stopped playing with Imam’s hair. Her long eyelashes had shut the visual camera. The staccato of her snores rose and while Imam described the feast at the merchant’s house, sleep had chased Pari. The drooping eyelids draped over their orbs but would flutter like a bird’s wings when words like kurma or tandoori were uttered. Gradually, Imam’s wrinkled face blurred, and she was transported to the dreamy world of kheer and biryani.
Imam wasn’t hungry. A worry was eating him up. He walked for a while in the dark outside, a cane tapping before him, the night breeze stroking his face. There was a flat rock nearby and he lowered himself upon it. Pulling out a bidi, he formed whorls of smoke that spiralled in the sky. He often liked to sit gazing at the stars and the clouds floating past the moon. He thought about his long life and wondered how long it would still be. When he could walk back to his village, his family, his Pari! Imam fished out his mobile and inserted the new SIM card his friend had given. He scrolled through Pari’s pictures in happier times.
“She, too, looked this happy when I was around.” His memories engulfed him, a tight vice around his heart.
“She, too, posed at the village fair, ‘Abu, kamerawala’, her eyes would light up a thousand splendid suns. Oh, how I miss my Parijaan!” He couldn’t control the deluge of tears that flowed to form rivulets in his deep wrinkles.
“How old must she be now?” Time and numbers had always betrayed him. When the time had come to ask for his dues, the tide had overturned him and spat him out on the shores.
“Kaka, where are you?” The voice that was his oasis and mirage, Pari, had woken up and was crying on not spotting her favourite face around. Crushing the bidi under his bare feet, Imam rushed to the distraught child.
The morning birds chirped creating a cacophony at the hut’s window. Pari looked through the narrow window in the eastern skies. The night’s darkness like a mother’s womb was lifted by a band of pale light striking the window. She felt fresh and hungry. A pail of water lay outside and Imam’s voice told her he was nearby. She drew her pyjamas up and realized she needed a new pair as these were already knee-length. Pari tried searching for Imam and found him in deep conversation with someone on his phone.
“Allah kikhizmathai, she will be soon alright. Don’t worry. They won’t harm you. Tell me, did you receive the money? Shukhran Allah!”
Imam’s knitted eyebrows and the frown on his face told Pari her Kaka was in some kind of trouble.
“Pyare Kaka jaan.” She hugged him from behind. It was her way of soothing his troubles.
“Kaka, do we have to leave again? I’m ready. See!”
Imam cut the call and picked her up in his arms. Her innocent smile, her eager hug, and her silly banter was all that had kept him going. He was her world and she was saving his. The day began on a great note and Imam went to the various houses in search of odd jobs. Fixing electric bulbs, moulding earthen wares, baking bricks, chopping firewood, driving camel carts- whatever came his way, he did it to provide Pari a comfortable life. Pari on the other hand became part of the women folk, learning to light tandoor, baking rotis, washing clothes, and by twilight waiting for her Kaka to return with a story.
As the night crawled by, the story sessions began and Pari bid goodbye to another happy day in her life. When she saw children tugging to their mothers, she wondered where her mother was. But when saw the same mothers whacking their notorious children with babul canes, she thanked her stars that she had none and Kaka, who, whatever she did, never reprimanded her. At one time, she struggled with high fever for three days and had to be admitted to a local hospital. Kaka had sold his silver anklets to get her jumping and running back again.
The bond was tight, impervious to any external threats.
“Kaka, story.” The silken night was celebrated by songs of cicadas. The lone bulb hung stationary in the silence.
“Sojao, Parijaan. I don’t remember any story.” Pari pulled his hand towards her. A deep gnash had blood clotted on its fringes.
“Allah! What is this,Kaka? Wait here while I get something.” With that she, tore a part of her knee-length pyjamas, crushed a few babul leaves and bandaged Imam’s wounds. Where had she learnt all this? When did she graduate from crying in pain to nursing a wound? Imam’s eyes moistened. Was she his Pari? She deserved to hear the rest of bedtime story for her kind gesture.
The merchant turned arrogant and hostile to needs of servants to whom previously he was amicable. He felt he needed nothing more to be humble and generous towards others. When someone came asking for help, he turned a deaf ear. Life moved on and the baby was now a few months old. A grand naming ceremony was arranged, and they named her Arezo –their wish come true. But the night of the naming ceremony was a treacherous one. The baby got lost. As the merchant and his wife were making merry, someone had run away with their bundle of joy. Allah Ta-lah always punished the guilty. The merchant had learned his lesson for being insensitive to the people once his desires were fulfilled. So, I tell you Pari.
But how could a girl who had worked hard for the entire day sustain for that long? Pari had fallen asleep on Imam’s extended arm.She must have had barely fallen asleep when a violent knock on the door woke her up. It was not just a knock but the person outside banged the door.
“Imam, bhaago. They have come searching for you. OPEN THE DOOR!”
Pari woke up Imam. She didn’t know how to react. She chose to sit quietly in a corner lest the hunters came.
The banging stopped and Pari heaved a sigh of relief. In the next instant, the door was broken and a squad of police officers marched in.
A few women officers carefully escorted the bewildered Pari out. A woman with dishevelled hair, moist eyes hugged her. “My Arezo, my little Arezo.” Pari pushed her aside. She felt suffocated. She ran towards Imam.
“Please don’t take me away from my Kaka.” Pari pleaded while tightly clutching to Imam.
A tall man who placed an arm around the sobbing woman spat out. “Kaka? He is your kidnapper, Arezo. You are our daughter!”
This letter is my truth, my God. Yes, I did kidnap you, Pari. You are Arezo Pathan, to be called as the daughter of a famous apricot merchant in Wazir Akbar Khan. And I, a faithful servant of your father. Faithfull till one fine day when I was not. I abducted you to keep my Pari, my Gulpari, alive. My daughter, Gulpari, was diagnosed with a deadly disease that I can’t name. I refuse to learn its name. When I asked from the merchant for a loan, he refused. Even after repeated pleadings, he was cold to my suffering. What could a father do? On the day of your naming ceremony, I fled the city with you as a baby, barely a year old. My wife keeps receiving the money till I send your photos to your parents.
Pari, while I am lightening the load of my confessions, might I add one more to the list? I have been faithless in many different ways. When lured by your mother to fill in the void in her life, I gave into the temptation of spending my nights in her arms. You, my child, were the outcome of those unions. Of this brisk affair, I don’t speak more. Another story for another lifetime.
You may wonder when I was your flesh and blood, why did I kidnap you. And that my heart must’ve been made of stones to inflict such daily tortures on you. You, my child, who was born to riches, who the merchant believed to be his own.
My reasoning was simple. You would always have the merchant’s hand and wealth over you. My Gulpari, my first born had only this fumbling, poor man for support. And when the dreaded disease struck her, the story wrote itself for me. What a monster I am, and yet I seek your forgiveness.
By calling you Pari, I ensured I would treat you with the love you deserve and never harm you. You are not responsible for your father’s (either one’s) actions. Even though you have sprung from my loins, Kabul would’ve always called you the merchant’s daughter. Never mine. That wound would never fill, Pari, as I wouldn’t let it ever heal. It would survive as the reminder of my deeds and would fester in me.
My redemption lies in hiding this letter in your taveez.
Pari, I narrated many stories to lull you to sleep but there are some stories we experience that are stranger than life itself. This is one–your story.
Arezo folded the tattered, mottled paper and replaced it in the taveez. Who was she, to forgive or punish a man she missed terribly?
‘Some stories, however strange, must end with life itself’ was the quote she inscribed on the marble tomb of Imam Khan. That she erected in her mind. An ode to a man, an ode to a journey. The sandstorms clouding her vision had settled. The window to reality opened. The long story had found a closure.
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