The Missing Children of Chiltan
“There are those who are alive and there are those who are dead; and then there are us who have gone missing,” said one of the forty children sitting on the summit of haunted Chiltan. “Somewhere beyond the ideas of life and death, existence and nonexistence; we persist. It does not matter if we are alive or dead as long as we are missing.”
One of the highest peaks of Balochistan is the steep and rocky Chiltan. It is hauntingly beautiful and famously haunted. In winter, when moonlight shines on the snow lying deep in the ravines and valleys of the mountain, one can see on it, shapes sneaking around. No one can tell with certainty if they are bodies or shadows. They look too murky to be bodies and too real to be shadows.
A few hundred years ago or only a few years ago, a childless couple living somewhere around Chiltan, besought a holy-man to grant them offspring. Upon the holy-man’s refusal, his son, also a man dear to God, cast forty pebbles into the wife’s lap. Over the course of time, she bore forty children; more than the couple had ever wished for. Clueless about how to provide for the infants, the parents went up to the summit of Chiltan with thirty nine, and left them there.
One day, overwhelmed by guilt and remorse, the mother visited the summit again in order to collect the bones of her dead children. To her surprise, she found the children alive and playing together on the summit. She ran back home, brought out the fortieth child, and left him on the summit for a night so that he might tempt back his brothers. However, when she returned in the morning, all forty children had gone missing. Since that day, Chiltan, originally ‘Chehel-Tan’ (Forty Bodies), is said to be haunted by the spirits of forty children.
We humans are condemned to see only one side of the picture. Satan has always been demonized and we never even heard his slice of the story. We have widely speculated about Atlantis and its inhabitants without giving a thought to how they might be looking at us. We sent Alice to wonderland and down the rabbit hole, fantasized about the creatures dwelling down there, and never really cared about their opinion of Alice, or of us. We are the ones who created Mephisto, sold our soul to him, and still blamed him for tempting us. We are the ones who left our children in the lurch, abandoned them at the mercy of a desolate mountain, and called the mountain haunted.
“Do we exist?” asked one of the children. “If yes, will we ever be found? Will we ever be seen? When will this everlasting estrangement come to an end? Is there really a world out there beyond Chiltan? If yes, why don’t they care about us? What is death? Will it ever come to us to rid us of our alienation?”
The wisest one smiled and looked up at the dusky sky. Unlike occasional visitors who could observe days and nights at Chiltan, it had always been dusk for the children. They had never seen a day or a night at the mountain. “The world out there is haunted,” said the wisest one. “They cannot see us as we are. They cannot find us. They call us spirits and don’t have a word in the lexicon that really defines us as who we are – the missing. They are bewitched by the evil goddess of betrayal and abandonment. The king who rules the world out there belongs to the lineage that has always been subservient to the evil goddess. She keeps them from seeing us or even thinking about us. Such is the omnipotence of the goddess. She can make people out there think and behave in any way she likes, and they don’t even notice it. All they can think about is life and death, and nothing else. They are unable to even comprehend the idea of a condition such as ours that lies beyond both life and death. They can’t think of a place that has never seen the day or the night. They are unable to see what lies between the extremes – the extremes of life and death, of day and night, of white and black, of existence and nonexistence. They, and not us, are haunted.”
The children knew these things already. But such was the precarious nature of the circumstances surrounding them that they would often sit down and weave things with words in order to make sense of them. It was only through words that they had this consciousness – of once being a part of another world. Amidst everything vague and uncertain, words were the only thing lucid and certain at Chiltan. It is unclear though if that particular certainty about words had helped the children in any way. As a matter of fact, it was in total contrast to the state of affairs in the world out there, where words had lost their vitality. They did not mean anything and did not convey anything. They had lost their significance on account of the spell cast by the evil goddess. People living in the world out there still used words like black, white, war, peace, freedom, tyranny, status quo, revolution, etc., but they did not mean them anymore. They used white when they meant black; they used freedom when they meant tyranny, and so forth There was, however, a word that had proven too resilient to be affected by the spell and had remained the same from time immemorial – love.
It was still dusk when the children remembered how the firebirds had invaded Chiltan a few dusk years ago. It was another peculiar trait of the children: they remembered the same thing at the same time in the same way, owing to their shared past. It was unlike the world out there where people remembered things in different ways even though they had the same experiences. The more painful the memories, the more would they appear similar to people who shared those moments together in the past. As for happy times, people would recall them in their own different ways even though they had shared the same moments. Such was the magnitude of pain associated with their shared memories that the children remembered them in exactly the same way.
During those days, when firebirds invaded Chiltan, the children had been desperately trying to make themselves known to the world out there. Suffocated by the kind of alienation they had been enduring, they decided to break their silence through stones and pebbles, and rocks spread across the mountain. These were the only weapons at their disposal on an otherwise barren mountain. Another thing that could help make themselves known to the world out there was their words. So they embarked on the gigantic task of inscribing words on stones with the help of pointed rocks and throwing them down to the valley; people from the world out there would often come there. In the beginning no one from the outer world noticed the inscribed stones, until one day an official from the king’s palace who had come to Chiltan to escape the scorching heat of the capital, found a stone inscribed with incomprehensible words – long since rendered archaic in the outer world.
It all began that day. They call it the war of stones, words, and firebirds. The message on the stone sent shock waves across the kingdom. The king had to take notice of this mysterious little rebellion of some hitherto unknown miscreants. An urgent meeting was held, headed by the king and the occult evil goddess herself, and it was decided that the spirits of Chiltan will be dealt with an iron hand. Yes, they called them the spirits of Chiltan. Soon it became the talk of the town – that evil spirits of Chiltan had waged war against the kingdom and the king had decided to take all necessary measures to protect the sovereignty and stability of the kingdom. That was all the people were allowed to know and nothing more. Firebirds, equipped with fireballs, were sent to Chiltan in order to teach a lesson to the spirits that had rebelled against the kingdom.
For the people of the world out there, it was nothing they would think of in later times. For the children of Chiltan, it was everything they would never forget. It was precisely the memory of that moment or its forgetfulness thereof, which defined people in times to come. Those who remember and those who don’t can never be the same people. The firebirds wreaked havoc across Chiltan. Stones burnt, pebbles scorched, rocks ruined; it was a devastating dusk at Chiltan. The only thing remaining unhurt was words. They were immortal.
“Those were terrible times,” one of the children shuddered. Words again!
A long silence followed that self-evident remark. A butterfly flapped its wings and broke the silence of gloom with the silence of flying. They all smiled at the same time.
The children had been friends with butterflies for many dusk years now. It was some time after the war of stones, words, and firebirds that the butterflies inhabiting Chiltan decided to give solace to the heartsick children. They danced and flapped their wings in the air. And thus started a very unusual friendship. Apart from words, the butterflies were the new allies of the children.
Many years had passed since the start of the unusual friendship, when the butterflies began feeling the same kind of estrangement the children had been subjected to. The friends that could fly began feeling the same as the friends who could not fly. Sick to their stomach, the butterflies offered their assistance to the children in order to rid them of the estrangement that had come to be an epidemic. After long discussions, a plan was made to make people in the world out there aware of the children’s malady. The idea was to write words on the wings of the butterflies and they would fly over neighbouring villages to make people see the words on their wings.
The plan was executed. People of neighbouring villages witnessed the colourful butterflies trying to reveal something to them, but they could not make anything of it. Until one day, a farmer came across some unintelligible words written on a small butterfly. The news spread across the kingdom and people started speculating about the possible meaning of the words. The only two souls in the kingdom who knew what those words meant were the king and the evil goddess. The possibility of people deciphering the words gave them shudders; they could not have annihilated the butterflies as they had the stones because the people of the kingdom had great reverence for butterflies. Instead, the king and the evil goddess deployed a more vicious plan.
Every spring there would bloom crimson-coloured tulips in Mastung valley, near Chiltan. Everyone knew that the butterflies had a liking for those tulips. The redness of tulips allured butterflies. The evil goddess had made it explicitly clear to the king what he needed to do in order to deal with the situation, potentially threatening for their regime. There had always lived two types of people in the kingdom that adhered to two different oracles. The idea was to spill blood of the people of one oracle, blame it on people of the other oracle and to irrigate the tulips of Mastung valley with that blood. It worked.
Never in the past had the tulips of Mastung valley blossomed as blood-red, as exquisite, and as enchanting as they did during that spring. It was a kind of beauty that can only come with human blood. It made spectators cry when they could not bear the inherent charm of the spectacle. No one could really understand why the panorama of flower fields gave this eerie aura – of those old temples where they used to sacrifice animals to appease gods in times gone by. The butterflies came in flocks, danced around the tulips, and died. Blood makes butterflies die. It was the first massacre of butterflies since the start of the universe. The bereaved butterflies did not know how to react in that strikingly novel situation, so they smiled from pain instead of crying. The children, also in pain, smiled too.
There was an unmistakable sadness in the smile of the children when they saw a butterfly flapping its wings while recalling the dark day of attack on Chiltan. They did not know how to cry. They had never cried. All they did was smile when they felt heartache. But that day, something unprecedented happened. As they smiled, looking at the butterfly flapping its wings, droplets of water began springing from their eyes and rolled down their cheeks.
It was precisely at that moment, when the first droplet hit the rocky surface of Chiltan, that the goddess of mercy and goodness woke up from her slumber in the heavens. To her surprise the world had changed to a great extent during her sleep. The world of the words had turned upside down. The words she would invoke before the slumber in order to help people had already lost their meaning. Such was the scale of absurdity of present times that even the goddess found it extremely difficult to help anyone anymore. But then there was one word that had stood the test of time and had remained the same during all those years – love. The goddess of mercy and goodness decided to invoke love in order to inform people living in the world out there about the children. The only people who could help her in this regard were whirling dervishes living in the world; she chose one.
The journey of love and redemption started right from the foot of Chiltan. Barefooted, dancing, and whirling, the dervish travelled from town to town and sang anthems of the love and of the missing. They called it the march of the missing. Soon the march had metamorphosed into a carnival, where people sang the songs of love and danced to the tune of compassion. It was not by any means an ordinary carnival. The spell of the evil goddess had become vulnerable and she knew it. What was brewing under the surface was completely unknown to ordinary people, who thought it merely a strange carnival of joy where they sang the songs of love and separation.
Then, it happened one day. It was the first blow to the spell that had kept people blindfolded for centuries. Far away from Chiltan, in a town by the sea, on a sunny spring afternoon, a loving girl opened the window of her room situated on the second storey of a building. And on a distant mountain, she caught a glimpse of the missing children. She died at once. Love had taken its toll as it always does, but not without giving birth to a tragedy. Tragedies of love are always emancipating. More than God, it is love that works in mysterious ways.
The spell had broken. Love endured.
“There are those who are alive and there are those who are dead; and then there are those who have gone missing,” shouted a young man in distant lands and his voice echoed in eternity.