—by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan
The sky was wide and deep and very blue above us when we reached the village. We stood alone on the roadside facing the sun and from far away in the middle of the field a mare made a call so loud and vibrant that the earth seemed to tremble underfoot. I looked at the face of my father and I saw a peace… a peace which one can feel on the face of a patient when the long hours of pain are over. He was feeling the fragrance of earth.
“You have not forgotten your village even after decades, Father? Are you still in love of old home, where you had to face terrible poverty?
“Oh, yes, I have not. You don’t know the pleasure of coming back to home because you were born and brought up in America; you know of no pain of leaving home.”
How could I argue? I knew of no pain first-hand. I never saw anyone starving. There was always food on our table and ample clothes to wear and a snug apartment to sleep in. But what I had made of life? I had changed of nationality, had the solid and safe life but lost concreteness, and diffused into formless melancholy. We had good nationalities without having our own country. Although my father had lost his vigorous youth in search of better food and clothes and he had lost his capacity to dream for the rest of his life, but he still had his belief in Pakistan, his motherland. He had the tranquil murmur. I did not have anything.
I looked around to search a village but there was no house in sight. My father was in ecstasy still. His lips reverently moved in silence and he wasn’t looking at any of the images in particular but he was trying to absorb everything in himself. A spring breeze of the inner world, from some distant heaven, came to soothe his soul. But I could see there had been beauty years ago. The fine line of his brow softly curved to gray almond eyes. His nose suggested graceful descent. There was something disquieting and haunting in the symmetry of his features, in the queer reflection of his curly grey hair, in his eyes, in that mole just above his nether lips, that tinged his whole face with a strange loveliness. He was indeed handsome and attractive.
I looked at the empty road led to my father’s village. That road ran up to the mountain where Grandmother was waiting for us. Now in the late evening, with the mist slowly lifting as the sun rose; the blue head of the mountain lay buried in the clouds. The destroyed mud houses, a few months ago occupied by the Taliban, gave gloomy looks. An all-out attack of the Pakistan army on the Taliban militants devastated almost everything. Even bushes around it were stained with dust and black smoke. The beauty of nature was also stained with the brutality of the Taliban. Taliban fighters had cordoned off the area, refusing to let people enter; the withered trees were standing like tired spirits. Such was the force of the war that it appeared as if all human life had been wiped off the face of the earth – as if there were no more human beings left. But now the war was over and the life was coming back to the area.
The past few months were the worst for my father. Both his motherland and mother were living under shadow of death. I saw my father all the time sitting in front of T.V. The uncertainties included whether the army, even if it wanted to, was competent enough to deliver a deathblow to the militants or whether defeating them would come at such a high cost to civilians that it would further erode public support. There were news of burnt and bombed schools, harsh religious edicts, strict rules of dress, and the total subjugation of women. The world knew what massive turmoil was being wreaked upon there but my father was going through it fearlessly. In those stressed hours one night I heard my father talking to himself. He was trying to contact grandmother for many days but there was no contact, then he started talking to himself:
“Oh my dear mother: you are calling me back to Pakistan. I believe my mother, like all mothers, is the only precious thing in my country, but I do not know how to convince you that all great emotions decay in poverty. My dear mother and my dear country, I have left you both and I know mother’s pain and country’s pain is the deepest emotion in this world. But do you remember my distant childhood when I was so scared of howling dogs that I was trembling and hiding myself in your arms? You told me that ‘dogs howl when they see ghost’. Dear mother you see even dogs believe in ghosts. Have the dogs stopped howling in my country? I can feel your loneliness, my dear mother, but I have not yet been strong enough for the Taliban’s arrogance. I shall come but I think the hour of my last struggle has not arrived. My dear mother and my dear country, I believe your happiness is still traveling between heaven and earth, and it will find shelter in your luminous souls soon …believe me.”
The depression of my father moved me deeply and I decided to join father in traveling to Pakistan. Now we were in Pakistan, walking towards the village of grandma.
“Why does not grandmother live with us in America?” I broke the killing silence.
“She can not, because she is deeply rooted in this land and she thinks she will be disloyal to your grandfather if she leaves the place.”
“But grandfather died years ago”
“Yes, but she thinks his grave is still here. Even then I once convinced her, but the B.B.C changed her decision.”
“B.B.C changed her decision, how?”
“You know B.B.C radio is very popular in our villages, people are addicted to the news of B.B.C in Urdu and they trust everything that B.B.C says.”
“What was that on B.B.C which stopped grandma to travel to America?”
“B.B.C broadcasted the statement of an American senator in which he said Pakistanis can even sell their mothers for money.”
“But that was a statement by an individual not from the Government of America,” I retorted.
“You are right but it was enough for your grandmother. You know Pakistani people believe everything that is published or broadcasted, this is also the cause of many problems here?
“So she refused.”
“Yes, she burnt her passport and sent the ashes of her passport with a very short letter. She wrote only one line: “Tell your senator that Pakistani mothers are not so cheap.”
There was silence again. And we kept on walking to the village which was half kilometer away now. As soon as we were approaching the village the sound of a grain mill was becoming louder. That sound had a majestic effect on my father. His face was now glowing bright like an evening star. This sound revealed nostalgic memory of his beautiful childhood.
The village boys were playing marbles and ‘gilli danda’ in the streets, fighting and rolling in mud and sand. They were not influenced by T.V., films, video games, computers and other hi-fi gadgets. How blessed they were. But unfortunately they had to grow up neglected and uncared for. It seemed as diseases came easily there, so the easy roads to death were always open. I thought of the developed world and the health care there.
“Are you thinking about the unhygienic condition here?” my father asked.
“Yes, Baba, this is the first thing which comes in mind here.”
“But remember my dear son, who needs greatest shelter also faces the greatest obstacles to gaining it.”
“But the natural beauty around is beautiful.”
“Yes, A wondrous green, strangely beautiful. The bounteous nature resplendent in the abundant sunshine —the hill seems to be painted in dark blue. It looks like if you leap from the top, the silent and somber forest will lovingly pull you into its warm embrace—on its bed made of thousands of leaves. I lived in this inaccessible village where jackals would call even during the day and wolves at night. But now the Talibans call during day and night.”
“So you remember everything, Baba.”
“Yes, I do remember. Although the heart may care no more, the mind can always recall, for there are always things to remember: languid days of depressed boyhood; shared happy days under the glare of the sun; concealed love and mocking fate, etc.”
I was happy to listen about the concealed love from my Baba. Those who have been young once say that only youth can make youth forget itself; that life is a river bed; the water passes over it, sometimes it encounters obstacles and cannot go on, sometimes it flows unencumbered with a song in every bubble and ripple, but always it goes forward. When its way is obstructed it burrows deeply or swerves aside and leaves its impression, and whether the impress will be shallow and transient, or deep and searing, only God determines.
After a while we were at the threshold of my grandmother’s home. I was amazed at how calm she sounded but when she spoke her voice, broken and gasping, was whistling in her throat. She stood on tip-toe to kiss Baba’s mouth. She received him eagerly. She kissed his hands, mouth and kept his hand firmly as if she left his hand he would be lost again. She turned towards me and did the same to me. I had never met her before but I felt her love spreading all over the universe… love of mother which has no alternative.
The home of my grandmother was at the top of the hills. The house loomed over the street. Massive. Windows gaped open like mouths. There were other houses nearby, but not as big and old as this one. The house seemed to hang in the air, in that monstrous emptiness. One could see at the bottom the dense forest, with the thin dark blue line of the mountain stream running through it. As far as the eyes could see, the vast forest stretched endlessly; on its edge was the blue mountain keeping watch. But it was alone, so sad, so solitary, so hopeless! Like great writers and philosophers who are broken inside in spite of their great thoughts, but we love them still. What sufferings greatness has sometimes to endure!
I blurted out—‘Beautiful’.
After taking dinner Baba and grandma had a long session of sharing. They had lot to share. I could not understand because they were talking in their native language which I could never learn. But I could understand the language of feelings, the universal language of love.
When I woke up early in the morning I came out of the home and sat at the foot of the rock listened to the little forest noises: the water trickling among the stones, and above, the trees with their birds singing. No other noises. The quiet would made me feel I was in ancient mosque, all the people gone away and I alone, praying: not really praying, but just listening for the sounds of God—not minding the ache of the knees from the kneeling —listening to the birds in the leaves and the children playing in the yard.
During breakfast I heard many sounds and whispering around. There were many girls and women walking around doing household chores. Grandmother had adopted them all because they were too poor to live. I explored a lot in that home. It was a fascinating castle for me. Besides huge sheds for cattle and hen-coops, grandma’s house had separate rooms for farm tools, a granary within the house, a store room for pots and pans exclusively. There was a well ventilated kitchen buzzed with activities from early mornings to evenings.
The most attractive thing for me was grandmother’s very old leather handbag. It seemed as if everything was present in that bag. There were needles, coins, medicines, her glasses, old family pictures, and many other things. Even she always kept small clean pieces of cloth for crying time. Other contents were mysterious. There was always change in there that would be taken out for beggars or for donations for mosques. This was her bank which I always found hanging in the bottom of her bedstead.
“Why don’t you give new bag to grandma, Baba? I asked my father.
“She will never accept an American’s bag.”
“But she takes money from you, doesn’t she?”
“Who told you that? She never got a penny from me. She manages on her own; she has inherited a piece of land from your grandfather where there are gardens of fruits. Your grandmother knows well how to manage things for herself.”
“But you are the only son and you live in U.S.A, how can she be safe in this part of Pakistan, and above all she is a woman?”
“You have a wrong image of Pakistan, especially of tribal areas. My son, the woman is the most respected and honored creature of the tribes.”
“But what about the media stories, Baba?”
After all you have a Pakistani origin and you also believe everything published and presented on T.V.” My father replied laughingly.
“Baba, it is another strange revelation for me that an old woman can live alone without threats of robbery and cruelty by the Talibans.”
“Talibans are cruel but in other sense, they are ignorant and they believe education of women is not allowed and many other wrong concepts, their ignorance is their cruelty.”
I was in a strange world and everyday there were strange revelations.
One night we had to travel to other nearby village where there was a marriage ceremony of my father’s cousin. Grandmother could not travel at night so we went there without her. The tribal marriage and the customs of marriage was another mesmerizing show for me. There was a musical programme and the traditional dance. Since the Talibans had vacated the area such activities of music and tribal dance were reviving again.
During the tribal dance, suddenly there were terrible voices. I could hear “machay”, “machay”…, red bees. The low hum of the drones was a familiar and threatening sound there, where tribesmen called them machay, or red bees. Their lethal sting has been felt in villages. This most sophisticated killing machine was killing innocent people most of the time on the basis of poor spying. I felt terror of death and it lasted for fifteen minutes. The target of drone was mostly the crowded place. Especially the crowd of marriages and funerals, where the presences of Taliban was reported. We were saved but suddenly the drone had targeted some area. Soon the news arrived that the village of my grandmother was targeted. We all ran to the village. The scene was terrible, a part of the village, including grandma’s home, was turned into ashes. We could not found the remaining of anything except the part of grandma’s bag. Its bottom was still safe. I opened it and found needles and buttons in it. I looked at father. He was frightened, helpless and he was in tears crying
I was crushed, unable to utter a word. I sank into deep sorrow, and I felt a desire, a vague, powerful desire, to flee, to go out into the night, and to disappear forever. Then convulsive sobs rose in my throat, and I wept, shaken with spasms, my heart breaking, all my nerves writhing with the horrible sensation of an irreparable, misfortune, and with that dreadful sense of shame. I saw my father talking to my grandma:
“Where are you?”
I saw my grandma among the heavens. She smiled and then closed her eyes and for a moment stood under the ancient grapes, breathing deeply the fragrance of peace of death. Silence, she walked away.