Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
Of the four men standing around Maulana Abu al-Sa’id’s body, one resembled a statue. He heard not a word of what the other three were talking among themselves. All he was doing was seeing; all he was seeing was the image before his eyes.
Maulana Abu al-Sa’id’s face was contorted in horror. His eyes were popping out, his tongue was caught between his teeth. Both his hands were on his chest, the fists clenched, as if he had been shivering, as if he had shivered to death.
The body lay on the bed on which he slept. Everything in the room was as usual except the petrified corpse, its toes stretched away from each other leaving big gaps in between.
Two of the four men left the room. The third began inspecting the windows and the furniture. The man who had been silent all this while walked to a door at the back of the room, opened it, and entered. It was Maulana Abu al-Sa’id’s study. He shut the door behind him.
Half an hour later, he came out when he heard voices of policemen in the room where the corpse lay. The inspector immediately barked at him.
“Who are you? What were you doing in that room?”
Before he could answer, one of the men in the room said, “He is Razzaq bhai, the Maulana’s student. He was like the Maulana’s son.”
The doctor examining the body closed the bulged eyes and said, “He has been dead for six-seven hours. Cause of death- a sudden seizure of the heart because of some great shock or terror. .”
“Has anything been touched?” the inspector asked.
“No,” one of the three men who were with Razzaq earlier, said. “We did not touch the body. It looked so… so strange.”
“Where are the family members of the deceased?”
The same man replied, “His wife went to her village two days ago. We have been trying to call her but her phone is switched off. His son, we don’t know where he is. He does not have a phone. He must have gone somewhere in the morning. We are waiting for the Maulana’s daughter to return from college. We don’t have the heart to go tell her.”
“All of you are the Maulana’s students?” the inspector asked the dozen men who were now gathered in the room. Besides the men, a servant boy and a housemaid with her small daughter were also present.
“Yes,” the man replied, “we are resident scholars. This house, as we told you, once used to be the greatest seat of Islamic learning in Asia. Maulana Abu al-Sa’id was the descendant of some of the greatest philosophers, teachers and jurists of Islam. The family traces its origin to the Prophet. Mubarak Mahal, this house is called. Those learned in the history of Islam speak the name with reverence.”
“This house?” the inspector arched an eyebrow. “It looks a ruin.”
“Yes, it has been crumbling for a long time now,” the man said. “Most members of the family left the country even before the partition. Only the Maulana stayed and a few of his students. Twenty of us live in the old madarsa building down the lane.”
“The four of you who discovered the body,” the inspector said, looking pointedly at Razzaq, “are required to give statements. Are you sure that the door was not bolted from the inside and there was no sign of entry?”
“No sign at all,” the man said. “The four of us came together in the morning. There was no one in the house except the housemaid and the servant boy, and they were in their quarters. Razzaq and I went up and knocked on the Maulana’s door. There was no answer. Then we gestured at our other two friends and they also came up. We entered the room together. What we saw is what you are seeing. “
The inspector walked up to Razzaq and tapped him on the shoulder. “What room is that at the back? What were you doing there?”
Razzaq looked at the inspector with vacant eyes, then said in the softest voice: “It is the Maulana’s study. I went to check if anything had been disturbed there.”
“This is a crime scene,” the inspector said sternly. “The death appears unnatural. It is for the police to investigate. Have you touched anything in the study?”
“Yes,” Razzaq said with downcast eyes. “I looked at the papers and books on the table. I thought the Maulana might have written something. I also surveyed the bookshelves to see if anything was amiss. But there wasn’t, nothing was tampered with. You won’t find any clue in there.”
“Oh, is it?” the inspector was offended. “Search him,” he ordered a constable, “and look up the study thoroughly. See if anything’s been hidden or destroyed or thrown out of the window. You, mister, come with me. Everybody out of the room, now!”
They came down the staircase and assembled in the open courtyard around which the house was built. The inspector’s attention was drawn to the portraits of the Maulana’s forefathers and the framed letters and testimonials from famous names – Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, Anwar Saadat, Lord Curzon, Liaqat Ali Khan, Lala Lajpat Rai. These hung on a wall on one side of the courtyard, which was a covered corridor where some cane chairs were kept. This corridor ran on all four sides of the courtyard. Rooms on the ground floor were entered through it. Similarly, on the first floor, rooms were built on all four sides of a verandah that was directly above the covered corridor below.
A tall, young American woman dressed in a salwar-kurta with a muslin stole draped loosely around her neck, entered the house. The first person she looked at was Razzaq. The inspector noticed this. “Who are you?” he asked her.
One of the men in the courtyard answered. “This is Jane Dunn. She is researching the history of Mubarak Mahal. She comes here regularly.”
“Hello,” she said drily to the inspector. “Can I see the body?”
The inspector’s scowling face softened. “Yes, of course. Please come with me.” He led her upstairs. Everyone else stayed in the courtyard below.
Razzaq walked to the main door and stood there with one foot inside the house and one outside. He was apparently looking out for something but his eyes were without expression. Suddenly he stirred and ran out of the house. A constable ran after him.
Maulana Abu al-Sa’id’s daughter Tahira, a girl nineteen years of age, was running towards the house and Razzaq was running towards her. Midway they collided; Razzaq caught her in his arms. He pressed her tightly to his chest and said in her ear, “Don’t see him now, do not see him now.” But soon the constable and a couple of other men came and he had to let her go. She looked at Razzaq with tearful eyes, then rushed towards the house. Razzaq followed her with dejected steps.
By the time he reached Mubarak Mahal, Tahira’s shrieks from upstairs were tearing through the air. He slumped on a chair and sat with his head in his hands. A minute later, Tahira and Jane appeared on the verandah above the courtyard. Tahira was sobbing with her face on Jane’s shoulder and Jane was caressing her head. They came down, the inspector following on their heels. Nobody said a word for several minutes.
Neighbours, acquaintances, passers-by had been gathering in and outside the house. An ambulance had arrived to take the body for a post-mortem, but the lane was too narrow for the van to get in, so it was kept parked on the main road. The police had a hard time convincing people that it was necessary to take away the body for a post-mortem. Everyone was waiting for the Maulana’s son, Saeed al-Sa’id. Without his consent, the body was going nowhere. But nobody knew where Saeed was. The ambulance driver was getting restless, the policemen were getting restless, the body was stiffening on the ice that was melting fast in the afternoon heat.
Jane came up to Razzaq and said, “I have to leave. I will be back in the evening.”
Razzaq said to her in a whisper, “I will come to your place in the evening, wait for me. There’s something I have to tell you. I think I know what happened here. The truth is too incredible to share with anyone else.”
With that he turned away and walked into the room where Tahira was sitting with a group of wailing women. Jane watched for a few minutes, then went out of the house. A man standing in the lane began following her discreetly.
Razzaq bent down to say in Tahira’s ear, “Come outside,” and then took her to another room. Before he could speak, Tahira said, “What happened to baba? Where is ammi, where is Saeed?”
“God knows,” Razzaq threw up his hands. “You didn’t tell him, did you?”
“Why? Do you think that killed him?” Tahira snapped, and immediately began lamenting. “I was going to tell him! I had decided to tell him! Oh why did I not tell him! Who will help me now? Baba would have known the right thing to do. He was our only guide.”
“He would have been ashamed,” Razzaq said angrily. “At least he was spared the disgrace. Now do as I say. Get rid of it tomorrow, no later. The time has come.”
Blood rose to Tahira’s eyes. “You dog,” she almost spat at Razzaq. “You think I am orphaned? My father taught me to stand on my own feet. I will teach the same thing to my child. Baba is going to be born again. There will not be two deaths in this house, you hear?”
Irritation came to Razzaq’s face. He was about to say something nasty when Tahira spoke again, “I have lost my father, I will not lose my child. You can go to hell.” She reached for the door, but Razzaq came in the way.
“Don’t be stupid, please think rationally. We have lost everything with baba. The students will go now, the house will go now. We will be on the street. Do you want your child to beg on the roads? And what if it is a girl?”
“You beg on the roads,” Tahira said with disgust. “Get out of my way.”
“You are nineteen, goddamn it! Don’t ruin your life.” But these words of Razzaq reached not Tahira’s ears. She had already stormed out of the room.
In the lane outside, IB officer Khan was talking to the police inspector. “Strange business this, Gupta. We keep an eye on these mullahs. Some of the students of this school have been involved in extremist groups. SIMI, Jamaat, Kashmiri organizations. But the Maulana, he is clean. What do you make of it?”
“No clue,” the inspector said. “It seems that he had a nightmare. I am more worried about his missing son. I hear he is quite a radical.”
“Yeah, keeps a beard, wears a skull-cap. Very suspicious fellow. Keeps to himself, has barely a friend. Where can he be?”
“People are looking. No one saw him leave the house in the morning.”
“And what of that American woman? Why is she so interested in these mullahs? I have done a check on her. She studied on a NATO scholarship. You know NATO? American military. Eyes and fingers everywhere. She might be a CIA agent. You never know with these spies, wolves in pretty clothes.”
And then he laughed uproariously, making a snarling face at the inspector.
By evening the police had carried away the body. Saeed had not shown up. The body had begun to smell. A throng accompanied the police, the narrow lanes jammed with people, all the way to the ambulance. The vehicle sped away, people returned to their homes, the crowd in Mubarak Mahal thinned.
Razzaq was in Jane’s house, sitting on the carpeted floor, drinking a cup of tea. She sat on the floor, too, opposite him, waiting for him to speak.
Razzaq looked at the ceiling and said, “Tahira is pregnant with my child.”
“What!” Jane’s voice rang with alarm. “Since when?”
“Three months. It was a mistake. I am telling her to abort it, but she thinks abortion is a sin.”
“That’s outrageous, Razzaq. Poor girl, what a pity. Did Maulana saab know?”
“No one knows. It is our terrible secret.” Razzaq looked at Jane with searching eyes. He put down his cup and said, “The idea of sin is in Tahira’s blood. She got it from her father. Now it will pass to her child. I am afraid, Jane, afraid that we are all condemned. You saw the Maulana, you saw his expression. As if he had seen the devil”
Razzaq lit a cigarette. Jane asked, “What are you trying to say?”
“I am saying exactly what I am trying to say. The Maulana’s family, his ancestors, they have known nothing but God. Virtue, sin, right, wrong – they are born among these words, they die among these words. I’ll tell you something that very few people know. Saeed knows, but Tahira and her mother can only sense it. Maulana Abu al-Sa’id, for all his piety and knowledge, thought himself a sinner. He was afraid that he was moving away from Allah, that Satan was digging its claws into his soul. Nobody contemplates the devil more than a man of god. The Maulana was a noble fellow, but the cleaner you are, the dirtier you can get. He was tormented by the slightest sign of evil. The merest beginning of a sinful thought made him panic. He put more and more faith in Allah, he prayed day and night to be saved, but the thought of the devil just wouldn’t leave him. Imagine his fear, his shame. All that legacy of his ancestors, all that affirmation of Allah’s power, worthless! Had he failed Allah, or had Allah failed him? Who could answer such a question.
“All around him was the decay of God. Men worshipping money, men abandoning imaan. Isn’t it well known that the hearts of men have turned to stone in this age? That lovers are humiliated and profiteers worshipped? For men like the Maulana, it was a matter of great distress that frauds and barbarians had become custodians of religion, that nations created in the name of Islam had turned out to be slaughterhouses of the faithful. How could the Maulana, in his crumbling house, the lost glories of his family now only a mocking memory, remain hopeful of better days? Decline, decay, alienation, this was all he had known. The Hindus have the idea of Kalyug, the Mahdis have seen their saviour, the Christians await the second coming. Where does a Muslim look to? There is not going to be another prophet, Muhammad was the last. The only thing to look forward to is the apocalypse.
“Disappointed in Allah, the Maulana turned to Satan. For the past few years he had been studying the devil. Books on witchcraft, stories of ghosts, cults of occult… the Maulana became obsessed with mastering evil. The more he communed with the devil, the more he sensed it in himself. Some months ago he told me that he often felt a shadow near him, a shadow that appeared human but which disappeared the moment he saw it. He thought that the incantations that he sometimes spoke aloud in his study had brought the devil to his house. He complained of seeing hallucinations, he was unable to sleep in the dark. He had started taking all sorts of medications.”
Razzaq lit another cigarette. “It was a fascination with evil that drew me to the Maulana. I once went to him and confessed that I was tormented by lust. He told me that lust was the greatest sin. Immediately we struck a rapport. Both of us felt that our bodies were our curse. ‘What we truly seek,’ he would say to me, ‘is to transcend our self.’ I would question, ‘But that is impossible. We are one body, we cannot be anyone else. Why not come to terms with our selves? Why not, in fact, cultivate our distinctiveness? If this body is to decay, why not make good use of it?’ I won most of the arguments. The sensual always overpowered the spiritual. Soon, the Maulana began confessing to me! It brought a great honesty to our conversations. It made me rethink my ideas and contemplate Satan quite seriously. ‘No ritual is more intricate than the occult,’ he told me. ‘Have you seen anything more picturesque than depictions of the devil? Where the grandeur of Lucifer in the bleak Christ? Which saintly imagination, what holy art, can conjure Satan’s terrific visage?’
“I was intrigued by the books in his library, I was moved by his passion. I had found a teacher. But there was a crucial difference between us. He was trying to conquer the devil, I was craving to surrender to it. There was a time when I had placed great hope in god. I would go to Sufi shrines, undertake torturous fasts go on pilgrimages. But every hope of mine was crushed. Nothing came out of my faith but misery. I wanted to blow up shrines and mosques. Vengeance, it was mine to take.
“Evil – I was fascinated by the word. Lust — it kept ringing in my head. And here, in this house, was Tahira, a girl growing into a woman, blossoming right under my nose. Her smell, her sight, drove me mad. Each curve of her body, each enlargement of her flesh, I observed like I was observing a celestial spectacle. By a web of beautiful words, I trapped that butterfly. And once she yielded to me, I pressed deeper into her, until… until my sin was sowed, its seed sprouted.”
Razzaq covered his face with his hands. “It is a child of sin, it must be killed.”
Jane stood up. “Why are you telling me all this? And what does it have to do with Maulana saab’s death?”
“Because a man has died from his own thoughts,” Razzaq shouted. “Don’t you understand? The devil in the Maulana’s head turned real. It became the apparition that scared him to death. If I see that child growing in Tahira’s stomach, it will be the death of me.”
He caught his hair and pulled at it hard. Then he looked at Jane and said, “And still the lust won’t leave me! Even now, as I stand before you, I want to ravish you.”
He stretched out his arms towards her as if he was struggling against some force that kept him from reaching her. Jane took a step back.
“Please go away. You are too disturbed. We’ll talk later. I will try to persuade Tahira to abort the child,” She said.
With a lowered head and dragging his feet, Razzaq went out. Across the room, on the curtain over the window, a shadow moved.
Tahira had fallen asleep late in the night, and then slept fitfully. For some time she thought that the knocking on the door was a dream. It took her some time before she was fully awake. She realized that there was someone shouting from behind the door. It was the housemaid. “Open the door, Tahira bitiya, the police is here.”
Without putting on a dupatta, Tahira rushed out to the courtyard. Razzaq was standing just outside the house entrance, in handcuffs. The police inspector, two constables, and IB officer Khan were surrounding him. “What has happened?” Tahira asked in a fearful voice.
IB officer Khan said, gruffly, “That American woman is dead, murdered. This man was at her house last night. No one saw her alive after that.”
Tahira’s jaw dropped. Razzaq shouted to her, “I am innocent. Don”t worry, Tahira, I will be free very soon.”
The inspector grabbed Razzaq’s hair and gave it a rough shake. “Saala! I suspected him from the beginning. Fiddling in the Maulana’s study, sneaking into that American’s house. The bastard did not know that we were keeping an eye on the woman.”
Khan asked Tahira, “Any news of your brother? And when is your mother coming back?”
Tahira shook her head as if she was unable to comprehend anything. She kept looking at Razzaq through eyes clouded with tears.
The constables began dragging Razzaq away. He shouted to Tahira again, “Jane died just like the Maulana. Don’t sleep alone at night, go away, go to your mother’s village.”
Tahira did not go to the morgue to see Jane’s body. The inspector had told her that a post-mortem was being conducted. A bit of relief came when Maulana Abu al-Sa’id’s corpse was returned to Mubarak Mahal. People came to see the body. Some relatives had also arrived. A man sent to Tahira’s mother’s village was expected to return with her the next morning. The funeral was held up because of her absence. There was little hope of Saeed being found; he had this habit of disappearing for days together.
In the afternoon the phone rang. It was the man who had gone to fetch Tahira’s mother from her village. In an uneasy voice he told Tahira, “Bibi ji to yahan aayi hi nahin. People here say they haven’t seen her since the past six months.”
Some of the Maulana’s students went to the police station to file a missing person report. Relatives and neighbours began murmuring among themselves. Tahira’s shock had quickly turned to apprehension. She locked herself in her room and tried to make sense of it all, but she could not think one clear thought.
When dusk set in, she came out and ordered the body to be taken away for burial. By night she had asked all visitors to leave. Around midnight, she went to the Maulana’s study and began looking at his notebooks. An hour of sifting later, this caught her attention:
“Women loom in a man’s mind at every stage of his life. The mother is the first. Then appears the seductress, the lover, who ignites in him uncontrollable passions and unlocks pleasures he had no conception of. These passions bring with them rage and heartache, and the feeling of sin. But in the figure of the wife, the woman is transformed from a site of sin to a store of virtue, especially when she has your child in her womb, just as your mother once carried you. In all these stages, the first impulse of man is to take care of women, look after them and protect them. The source of this impulse is man’s bond with his mother.”
“But this concern, this preoccupation with women, prevents man from communing with his own nature, man’s nature, which is different from a woman’s. Men grapple with the presence of women in many ways. Some become monks, some whoremongers. But when women begin to say they have no need of men, when they refuse to play the old roles of mother and wife, men lose the plot of their lives. If they do not have to care for women, why, they are free to care for themselves! They steadily move away from women, from family and children, and ultimately from the restraints that keep them from abandoning the domestic life.”
“The idea of God is a pacifying one. It encourages men to settle down in homes and be content with small mercies. The constant temptation of evil has to be overcome by constant contemplation of virtue. Love, faith, honesty, all these are religious words. They suit women more than men. Everywhere, women are more religious and fond of prayer.
“But religion is in decline. The only hope of God’s revival is in the unchecked tyranny of Satan. People migrate when land becomes infertile, when rivers dry. People will seek God again when love and faith disappear. Once the devil becomes manifest, they will see the horror for what it is. A sign, a sign that the devil has begun ruling us, is what we need.”
Tahira was bewildered by this. Was her father a man hiding a terrible secret?
A soft knock on the door startled her. She held her breath and waited for it to sound again. “Tahira,” a hushed voice came. Saeed! She sprang from her chair and opened the door.
“Brother, where on earth were you? How did you come into the house?”
The light was dim where Saeed was standing. His face appeared darkened against the yellow glow of the bulb that was lit at the other end of the room. A cloth bag was slung on his shoulder. His hair was dishevelled and his eyes gleamed like a wolf’s. He stepped in and closed the door.
“Hush, dear sister, no one should know I was here.”
He advanced a couple of steps. Tahira was still gaping at him when he began speaking in a mysterious way.
“I had to tell you something, show you something. You know how sad and helpless father had become over the years. The school was dying, mother’s jewellery had been sold off. But he persisted with the old ways, teaching the knowledge that nobody was interested in. He persisted even when I rebelled, when I declared our legacy to be a farce. “Enough of your theology, father, Allah has given us nothing but failure. I refuse to inherit this curse. I disown, forswear Allah.”
Saeed sensed Tahira’s uneasiness. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Listen to me, Tahira. You must understand that there was a bitter ideological divide between me and father. We drifted apart. Father grew closer to Razzaq, a boy, a simple boy, who thought himself a man. He was full of big words but he had no spirit. Razzaq, get some guts, I would tease him. I thought Razzaq harmless, I regarded him as a guinea pig on which father conducted his intellectual experiments. But then, but then…”
A rage came over Saeed’s face. He said through gritted teeth, “I went to Jane’s house last night. From the window I saw Razaaq sitting there. I heard him say that he had impregnated you out of lust. He said that the child growing in you was a child of sin. I wanted to twist his neck, but I controlled myself. I killed Jane instead.”
Quickly Saeed put his hand over Tahira’s mouth. “Listen to me first, listen to me first,” he muttered, keeping his voice hushed. “I wanted Razzaq to suffer. I was certain that the police would arrest him for Jane’s death. I killed Jane for only this purpose. I killed her easily because I had committed far worse sins before.”
Saeed moved his fingers over the strap of the bag on his shoulder. “Do you know what happened to father? I showed him something and he died. Believe me, I did not mean to kill him. I just wanted to end this argument for all time, the argument that God will always subdue the devil when it rears its head. I wanted to show father that the devil was well and truly among us, and that I, of the ancient saintly family of Mubarak Mahalis, had turned my back on god, on his messenger, on all those who believed in him.”
Something in Saeed’s eyes made Tahira shudder. She saw Saeed sliding his hand into his bag, and she began to shiver uncontrollably.
“Behold dear sister, the fruit of centuries of godly labour, the triumph of evil, the horror of horrors.”
With the swiftness of a snake, Saeed brought out of the bag a blur. It took Tahira a while to realize that what he was holding in his hand was a human head. It was the head of their mother, severed from the body at two inches below the chin.
In front of a choking Tahira, Saeed put the head on the table, smiled at her, and jumped out of the window into the darkness outside.
Ammi – mother
Baba – term for father
Bibi ji to yahan aayi hi nahin – The mistress never came here
Bhai – brother
Bitiya- term for daughter
Dupatta – a stole worn over the neck and shoulder by women
Imaan — honesty
Kalyug – The current decadent epoch, according to Hindu mythology
Madarsa – Islamic school
Saab – honorific, similar to ‘mister’
Saala – a swear word
Salwar-kurta – a women’s garment
About the Author:
Gaurav Dixit is a 32-year-old Indian national who has worked as a journalist in Delhi. He was Erasmus Mundus scholar for a masters programme in ‘journalism within globalisation’ in Europe between 2009 and 2011. He blogs at occupation.wordpress.com.
Gaurav Dikshit certifies that this is his original work. The story is a product of his imagination and he indemnifies NAW and its editors in the event that the story is found offensive or unedited. Gaurav Dikshit asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
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