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Volume 15

Fables and Folklore - Fall 2015


Eisar Haider

Written by
Eisar Haider

Eisar considers himself a lifelong student, currently finishing his Masters in Europe. He maintains only a part time presence in the real world and spends most of his time dreaming up ways in which he can meet his muse 'Naina', the lovely Deepika Padukone.


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I’ve been here for two weeks and this is all I’ve seen of him: his small, stubby hands, and the hint of white in his eyes, glinting from a dark corner of this shabby mud hut in which he chooses to hide from me. I say ‘him’, an opinion based not so much on evidence as on instinct  – a square face, coarsely coated with a forever-dense stubble, and he barely measures up to my knee. A dusty brown robe, unworthy of mention in any other context, veils the rest of him. My plans to escape so far have been unsuccessful. The mud walls continue to stand, unmoved by the full force of my body, the windows are too high up anyway. I’m injured and exhausted. The door that had creaked on its hinges when I had walked in two weeks ago stands ajar as if someone bolted it down the moment I entered. I don’t know how to explain my surroundings, even to myself. My fellow inmate has not left his corner since I’ve been here but I can feel his gaze on me from his refuge, cautious and hesitant.

I do not really know what he is, because there are only so many guesses one can make, and he has not spoken a word. He could even be an unknown creature, a species previously never encountered by mankind, except by me. He could be mistaken for a huge rodent if he walked on all fours, and my parents – in fact the entire village – would be terrified quite easily by the sight of him. But it is not so hard to instill fear into the residents of my village. They carry fear every day, without anyone forcing them to, and it manifests itself in everything they do. Even their dreams at night harbor dread over facing the morning, when they pray for nice weather so the crops will not perish; when they ask how others are doing, not to see if they are thriving but to see if they have survived to see another day; when they lock their doors at sunset after toiling in the fields all day to ward off the evils that they fear lurk in the narrow streets that slither like snakes through their tiny community; and when they turn in for the night again, praying for a better day, which they want to believe would be less terrifying than the one they just lived through. In trying to preserve all that they love, they let fear reign over them. But all of them always say that girls should not worry about such things. Girls can do anything else, but to think about the wonders and mysteries that life holds in the palm of the sky or in the chest of the earth is not for them, or anyone else even, really. I wish I could see how they would react to this; to him.

I wonder if he, this creature that had until now been hiding from me, is a victim of my village’s distaste for the different, the inexplicable.

Now, three weeks have passed in here and this is the first time I have seen a basket of fruit levitate in the air without strings or any support. I am more surprised at myself that I am not frightened. It feels as if I have been expecting it. It has hovered from one corner and landed softly at my feet; ripe mangoes and apricots. The smattering of yellow substitutes for much-needed sunshine, while the dash of red in the apricot looks like blood. I look up and see a pointed finger from the stubby hand as it slowly retracts back, the quivering basket calming down at last, and he emerges from his shadow for the first time. He waddles from his corner and sits down next to me on the floor. He picks up one of the mangoes and offers it to me, and at this moment, I look into his eyes, which are not wide and petrified as before. We eat mangoes and apricots all day without saying a word. The next day, we introduce ourselves to each other in our own languages. I tell him that my name is Sara, and he whispers to me his name (which is incomprehensible to me). I have already decided what I want to call him ‘Bhola’, the affectionate moniker given to newborn babies or naive men in my village. Somehow, he reminds me of both. He extends a hand and I grasp it. He smiles and I smile back. I may be the first person he has ever befriended, and perhaps he is the first one whom I have truly befriended as well.

I wonder if he, this creature that had until now been hiding from me, is a victim of my village’s distaste for the different, the inexplicable. The supposed peace that prevailed in my village was fragile, as if something that they could not know, but still existed, was biding its time, waiting for the precise moment to destroy whatever they possessed. Sometimes, the city ‘Seths’ would come by, distant relatives or wandering tourists, and praise the tranquility of the countryside. I wanted to tell them that when you sleep under a starry blanket with no one for miles around, you make friends with the voices inside your head; sometimes forgotten and suppressed fragments of yourself, and sometimes reconstructions of someone residing in there. And these voices tell you all kinds of strange things. They tell you the milkman’s daughter was possessed by a demon because he tried to capture djinns in the graveyard; they say the chief was cursed by an evil relative and that’s why his son was born blind; and they say the dogs howl at night because they can sense wandering souls searching for their decaying bodies. I wonder if Bhola was deserted at the behest of these voices, deserted in this wilderness by the banks of the river, where there is nothing to see for miles, except the thick copse of trees that surrounds this small mud hut that has been my temporary abode, and perhaps his too, for a much longer time.

It has been four weeks since I have been here and I realize that four weeks is only a guess. I have lost track of time, but that matters less to me, since time inside this hut moves at its own leisure. Day and night do circle around each other, but certain nights are longer than most, and certain days bring with them a constant stream of light that manages to slide through the straw thatched roof. I try opening the door now and then, and it refuses to yield every time. This makes Bhola anxious. He tries to explain something in his language, but I do not understand him. I show him with my open eyes and collapsed shoulders that I do not comprehend, and sadness descends in his eyes. His bushy eyebrows droop down and he starts to bite his tongue. I question him no further, and after a brief pause of disappointment, a basket of mangoes and apricots floats next to me. Sometimes, he draws figures which are merely stick men to me but the look in his eyes indicates that these figures were not always just rough sketches in the dust, but beings that once constituted his world. I draw my own stick figures – my parents, my siblings, even my neighbours – and it makes his eyes gleam. My stick figures outnumber his, by the dozens. Perhaps he imagines my misery to be of greater measure than his, proportionate to the amount of stick figures we doodle in the dust and it compels him to conjure up more fruit baskets, loaded with mangoes and apricots. But I only guess, because our fantasies about each other are our own construction in this prison we share.

I cannot understand what he says but whenever he mumbles, the flames flicker just a little brighter and never seem to go out.

Five weeks have passed, or so it seems, and I again try my luck with the door but it does not budge. I turn around to watch Bhola make our lunch appear for the day, but as I do this, I find him squatting on the floor. His head is bent down, so much so that it almost disappears into his robe. Before I have a chance to ask him anything, he raises his visibly shaking finger, and gives it a hesitant flick. Suddenly, the door, which had previously been immovable, swings open and I see eucalyptus leaves swaying in the summer breeze. I turn around to face Bhola, who does not look up, and I wish to question him but I hold myself back because I fear I may get angry. I restrain myself, and shuffle slowly towards the doorstep. My heart leaps at the sight of the molten gold horizon as I step out. As soon as my left foot goes beyond the doorframe, a rumble begins to take over the hut and as I look behind me, I see everything becoming concrete grey, the mud walls, the thatched roof … even Bhola. First his feet turn grey, and he looks up as the greyness begins to creep over his entire body. Waves of grey freeze the parts they touch and he stares at me, confused and scared. I run back to him, slamming the door behind me, and as soon as I do, the ‘grey’ starts to disappear. I bend down and hug him, my body engulfing his. I realize that his fate and mine are tied together. No, the ‘grey’ must never come back ever again.

It has been months since I have been here, or so it feels, and Bhola and I watch through the open door the bare trunks of the trees welcoming winter. I ask Bhola to make an oil lamp, but he has never seen one before. I request some clay to make small clay cups that could hold a small wick or a twig that burns easily, and when they are lit, the hut glows in their warmth. The spectacle of lights ignites something in Bhola’s mind, and he mumbles to himself. I cannot understand what he says but whenever he mumbles, the flames flicker just a little brighter and never seem to go out. Winter slowly tightens its grip on the trees and threatens to encroach on our kingdom, the miniscule flames marking our kingdom’s border, but it never gets cold inside, because Bhola doesn’t let it. We hunch down in the circle of lights and play the games that I learnt as a child, throwing marbles, which I have to teach him with the loose pebbles I find inside the hut. As we play, I remember all the people I have left behind me, and I tell Bhola of stories of a long time ago, which he does not understand but still feels, so he sits and listens intently. I draw one stick figure in the dust, and then another, painting the life I once had outside. Just before falling asleep that night, I see scores of stick men dance in the light, throwing tiny shadows all around, as if they are waiting for me to fall asleep so they could come to life.

It has been a year since I have been here, and I only know this because spring is upon us, and it was spring when I came here. The ‘grey’ has never returned, because I haven’t left and the stick figures now cover the whole floor, etched in the dust and a shared imagination. I sing songs of spring from memory and Bhola closes in to hear, swaying and trying to mimic, but ultimately just listening to the promises of colour, harvest, rain and prosperity. I point to the figure of my mother in the dust, the one who taught me all these songs, and Bhola’s lips soften into a smile, and I smile back. I try to tell him that he looks wonderful when he smiles. He understands most of what I say now, I believe. He understands where I could have heard all of these songs from, because one of his own stick figures had once taught him a great deal, or so I feel, and he carries these treasures in his heart with nobody to share it with. He tries sometimes, and I listen, but his stories are never too long and I wonder if time had faded out these memories or had they really been so brief for him. I look outside, where I see the birds descending in huge flocks in the river before flying onward. For a minute, I wish I could be on the riverbank. I want to run in the sand and I wish to see all my stick figures in the flesh again. I sigh, and as I do, I can feel Bhola’s gaze on me, and I can sense that he is smiling as well.

The children gather around the stone statue that stands in the doorframe that once was, and they poke it with their fingers, hoping it would spring to life.

I just don’t know how long I’ve been here now. I see Bhola practicing his smile by himself. Sometimes I turn around from the doorstep to see him smiling while striking a pose I can only describe as a half crouch, his head tilted down as if he is peering down at something only he could see. I imagine it to be the pose of a rescuer who has come to save a poor wretch who has fallen down a well, and I imagine this rescuer to be Bhola, leaning over the well and smiling. Sometimes it is not too hard to imagine so. The baskets keep getting bigger and every meal has become a feast. He smiles all the time and it warms my heart no end. The sun rises to a new day, we dance and laugh as well as we know how to, and usher in the night with our song of fire, though sometimes he turns away from my stick figures if he catches a glimpse of them during the ruckus we create. I want to tell him that though those ghosts do call out to me now and then, he is not keeping them from me, but I do not. The days are marching on and we march with them, like a band of hooligans having a frolicking time imitating an army band. I sit on the doorstep looking out to the heavens while he keeps busy with his own thoughts; despite all the time we spend together, he has a world within him that I cannot fathom and I have a world within me that he cannot peer into, no matter how hard he tries. Our worlds are tied; my presence is the only thing that repels the ‘grey’ from consuming him.

It has been a lifetime since I have been standing here. I watch from the other side of the doorstep, the one that lies in the outside world, as the ‘grey’ begins to creep over the hut slowly. I am devastated in that moment, the one in which he pushed me out. He tricked me! I am unable to protect him anymore. Every time I try, an invisible barrier repels me, and I understand. I know in my heart what he wants to do. And he looks at me, continuing to smile as the ‘grey’ wraps itself around his feet and works its way to his body. He smiles, and I see that he has worked so hard to maintain a wide smile but his eyes hold within them a sea of emotions; happiness and despair struggling not to overwhelm each other. The ‘grey’ turns everything to immutable stone. As it envelops him, he says his wordless farewell. I wait till it takes over the entire hut, sitting on the ground, looking forlornly at the demise of our shared world and my friend. The wave subsides, and the hut, and everything in it, becomes a marvel of stone. And within it now lies the statue of Bhola, the sea of emotion within his eyes has frozen over and has become a sculpture of wonderment, immaculate yet devoid of life. I hug him one last time, this fool of a being. I begin walking back to a home that I am not sure still exists, and as I walk away, I turn around to see him: still smiling at me. The grey tomb disappears from my sight.

                                                                                       Photo by Moz Rauf

It has been years since I have been here last, and the grey stone is now covered in green. The copse is as dense as ever and it takes us a while to find this lost island of dreams. The same learned elders of the village still think I am senile and innocuous, just as they did when I returned, but at least the children enjoy listening to my dreams, although I do not know if they really believe in any of it. They wanted to go to where my stories had unfolded; they had insisted over and over. They would make treats out of apricot and mangoes, they would draw stick figures outside my door and they would sing me old songs from the past. Their parents would come up and tell me that the stories I told them made their children uneasy and I should refrain from fuelling their imaginations, or would have to face consequences. The death of a child’s imagination is an abhorrent thought for me, so I continue to tell the stories, and even decide to retrace my steps back to that mythical refuge. The children run around in this fairy tale abode, delighted to see what others have failed to see, and stare in awe as they come upon the grey hut that once was. They rush to the hut to see what they knew would be waiting to greet them, and there it stands, the host bidding them welcome with his grey smile. The children gather around the stone statue that stands in the doorframe that once was, and they poke it with their fingers, hoping it would spring to life. It does, but only within the forgotten recesses of my mind, a young girl dancing in a circle of fire with a wide-eyed square faced man-boy smiling ear to ear. Evening begins to approach and I turn to call the children and tell them it is time to go back, but they do not listen. They are telling the statue the tales of their own lives: angry parents, tough schoolmasters, and burdensome chores. Bhola enjoys listening, I know he does, and I decide to wait till they are done.



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