‘The Long Night’ by Sushant Dhar (New Asian Writing Short Story Competition 2020 Prize Winning Entry)

The partition that runs between me and my home is this labyrinth of dreams.

“You are going to be here until this moment lasts. How long is this moment? Everything is contiguous; the past, present and the future. Take a break, relax and don’t go around staring at the sun all day. It doesn’t hurt, I can’t see, it never hurts, it’s all milky white. What about Time? What about it? How do you deal with it? Time has already passed. It’s one large time. It doesn’t move. We move through it in the circle. It’s constant. Static. Don’t you remember! I told you when you visited me the last time. Bioy too talked about it. Who’s he? The one who took us to Uqbar. What’s that? A place of its own, a dream, a mystery, a story nobody can ever remember. Doesn’t matter how many times you read it, you won’t remember, I bet. I read it when I was young, I don’t remember a word. He wakes up early in the morning, waits for the sun to climb over the mountains and fixes his gaze at it. A ray emerges from the clouded sun and a faint childlike smile appears on his face. He’s a happy man. The funeral van is here, the employee at the crematorium is driving it, they’re not here for me; somebody is dead in the other block. He’s fixed on his seat, nobody knows if he sleeps or not. I’m looking at this giant tree with wonder and awe, rediscovering the joys of silence. Every morning and evening, I look out of the window waiting for the birds to go eastward and westward. Where do they travel to, where do they come from? Somebody has painted my window, I don’t miss the spectacle; it has become a ritual for me, waiting everyday for them to pass. She murmurs, ‘They’re going home.’ I continue looking at the tree; home to pigeons, sparrows and a number of birds whose names I do not know, I wish to know their names, I wish not, they’re nameless, I can hear the fluttering of their wings while flying; the tree isn’t there, it has disappeared, it’s all dark. You don’t trust me for it was moonless night. Let me tell you the story of a night before, the moon was lifting its veil and I looked out of the window for the branches and leaves. The tree wasn’t there. And the very morning, I woke up, rushed towards the window and found it there, sun-kissed. It appears like a cooked-up story, gibberish, but this is the story of that tree. Tell me where these birds go in the evening and where do they come from in the morning! I don’t know. You know everything, you visit me every day. What about the birds? Its home to them, I can hear their distinct sounds, they’re there all day, meticulously building their nest. And before this spectacle happens, they vanish. They know it; they’re privy to its trickery, you know nobody believes me, I speak the truth; don’t tell anybody, they think I’m mad, but I’m not, you work on assumptions, leave them, I forgot to tell you another important feature of this tree, don’t try to find its roots, I tried once in vain, it’s rootless, sprouts forth from the roof of the adjacent house, looks beautiful in spring, even more in autumn and more so in snow. She murmurs, ‘A tree is like a yogi, it’s thoughtless, symbolizes universal consciousness, it creates and transfers energy, it embodies the power of silence. We’re blind.’ A week back I was bewitched by the sight of the swans fluttering their wings at the top of it, they were three in number, I’ve never seen swans in this part of the world, you’re dreaming, it appeared like a dream, but it wasn’t, three swans, carefully perched, with their long necks, looking at each other. They were white, not the kind of white I’ve ever seen in my life. A moment later, they flew past my window and disappeared, I wait for them to come every day, they dissolve in the white sky, the blind sky, they arise from blindness. I’m fearful of stairs, doors, caves, elevators and humans. Prithvi knocks at the gates of the Tapovan Ashram in Rishikesh, they have been journeying for several days now, the saint recognizes him, his son looks with wonder at the papaya tree in the garden, he hasn’t seen one in his native village, he cuts the freshly plucked fruit and offers it to the child. We are exiles now. We have no home, Swamiji. You don’t need to worry. This is our refuge. The sacred bath will take place on the full-moon night; several thousand pilgrims are waiting for the arrival of the holy idol, the mendicant is on the other side of the river, he swims across and sits around the puddle of water between the stones; starts digging at the riverside. People are offering prayers; invoking God to free them from the bondage of life and death. The sun is shining bright piercing the glass and the window; I’m lying at the same place for the past four days, lakhs of devotees have assembled in the ashram; Prithvi is in the last row, near the sacred pond, devotees are chanting in unison, his name is announced in between; Prithvi rises from the crowd, takes hold of the harmonium and starts singing hymns in his native language, devotees give a thunderous applause, women start crying, Prithvi continues singing all night,  I haven’t moved a centimeter, my feet are cold and hands are warm, the street is empty, I can only hear whispers; the man standing at the summit is devouring all our endeavors, they want to erase everything from my memory, everything I have read, learned and lived in my previous life; they paraded me through all the places I had worked in, nobody identified me; I stood there as a stranger, nobody talked to me, I became invisible to them, it was the darkest night of that year, we were in deep sleep, the temple gates were shut, the moon was shining bright on the pristine waters of the sacred pond, we woke up for food in the middle of the night; the food we had cooked last night. I came on the stairs and looked at the empty hall. There was no end to it; it was of enormous size; a several thousand-pillared hall. I saw Swami Asangdressed white, standing in one of the corners of the hall. He approaches me and searches for something in the bag hanging from his shoulders. He gives me a book titled ‘Turiya’ and asks me to accompany him for the journey ahead, towards the holy town, 5000 miles from here.  The annual fair of the temple has been organized, there are people all around, a ceremony is going on; people are offering Shraadh to their dead ones, they have drawn figures on the earth with rice flour; names of the dead, one of the priests standing at the entrance of the hall holds my right hand tightly and frantically murmurs in my ear in the native language, ‘ che booztha, che booztha, wal haav shraadh panas marne brontheye, bachaav panun paan, aahee kar myae’ (Did you listen? Did you listen? Come here and perform your death rituals, save yourself, bless me). It is the fortnight of the ancestors. Pitru Paksha. He gives me a paper enlisting all the samagri items: black sesame seedsagarbatticamphorbeetle leaves, beetle nuts, rice, rice flour, panchpatra, cotton wicks, ghee, honey, milk. I performed the ritual for the salvation of the dead and the living and hurriedly walked towards my room. I could only see the door knob. I turned it and saw a place of infinite doors, one after the other, countless. I’m in the womb, it’s dark there, And the night before, I followed Time diligently, all night; it was tiring, harrowing; four hours have passed and I’m here; empty, wanting to open.  I’m devoid of empathy and love, just filled with pity for my hapless being; I want to be hated, to be discarded, I don’t want sleep to ever come to me; the last door isn’t opening, I don’t want to close my eyes, I want my tired body to break down, to be crushed by a huge boulder; the blindness is tormenting, you’ll be cured, you need to go to the eye clinic across the road, you need to cross the gate, it’s curable, you’ll see again, I don’t want to, it’s meaningless, one more dream and I’m gone, I promise. How is this going to happen? The saint never remembers anything, he’s asking about the story, it disturbs him, I narrate the story repeatedly, word by word, again and again, all through the night. He repeats it word by word, loudly, all through the night; wakes up, tries to remember a word of it and finds that everything has passed his memory. He pleads with me again and the narration begins anew.

2:08am

We were thousands in number taken to that place through the canal under the bridge. The water was thick, murky and deep. Some of us couldn’t swim and drowned. The remaining of us were shifted to a big hall. We were drenched to bone with water. They promised that they will free us after doing some necessary documentation. We provided all the details waiting in anticipation for our release. We were shifted to another hall. I didn’t sleep for the entire length of the day. I enquired about our release. Nobody listened. I asked for my mobile phone to make a call. They didn’t allow. We were shifted to another hall. The day passed. We were shifted to small rooms. Nobody came to us. We waited for the entire day. Many days passed. Some weeks later, we were allowed to saunter in the city. I held my bag tightly, clenched my fist and walked through the lane with a waiving gait, carefree; with my long lost freedom breathing into my bosom, I longed to go home. The ticket counter at the bus depot had a strange appearance. The counter was some four feet in height, made up of long iron rods, all spaced closely to each other with a chink in each for one eye to look across. I made an effort to see. Nothing was visible. It was dark. I couldn’t see the man inside, just heard him, asking for the destination at a high pitched voice. The voice hoarse, piercing my ear, echoed, came from down under. I couldn’t get it. I asked thrice. Fare is 580 rupees; bus will come at 8:30 pm. Do check once. You miss it, you don’t get it. I took the ticket and placed it safely, deep into my pocket. The home was afar, the ticket to my home was here, with me. It had started raining and I was still at the bus depot. I walked over and entered the city lanes. Not a soul on the road. I was a stranger to this place. It was half past seven. Only a few of us roamed in the city, wanting to go to their homes. The road leading to the mini market is filled with thick oil and the drains are filled with animal fat. People with large faces, protruded bellies, with boils all over their body are walking nude on the streets. They look grotesque, repulsive. I am shivering and trying to swiftly pass all of them. Nobody notices me. I wanted to escape. I’m a stranger in this city afflicted with some unknown disease, never heard of. There’s a truckload of animal flesh on every end of the market. People are taking a whole lot of it in the baskets and running helter-skelter. They aren’t privy to the disease that has spread in the town. As I walk through the oil laden road, hundreds of houseflies accompany me, resting on my clothes, hands, head and face. I close all of my fingers in fear and hold them tightly in the palm. A minute later, some sensation causes me to open my hands and I see thousand of flies coming out of them. I feel a shiver running down my spine. I want to take a bath. I run towards the other street and the flies keep chasing me, the sound is in my ear, the buzz. I put a finger in my ear and pull out one from it. It’s big in size, with large eyes staring at me. I crush it in my fingers and run. The buzz of the flies is after me. I run the entire night looking for shelter, for some space devoid of them. They are everywhere. Its morning and I find myself in one of those halls again. Hall after hall, all through the day, we are being shifted to one and then the other, a long line of inmates, all of us. A desert surrounds us. The ticket counter is a façade, a memorial build for the yesteryear days. Nobody moves in and out of the city. Everything stands sealed. The city has been shut down. The screening is going on for the past several years. All of the compounds discovered have been run through Alamar assay. A major breakthrough is expected.

2:11 

He gave me a false address. This isn’t the place. This is the place you wanted to come to. I’ll meet you on the other side. What about the bus depot? What are you talking about? This is the address you provided me on a paper slip. Look at it. Enough of your hallucinations! He drops me at the bustling Godaulia market; I hurriedly walk towards the Dashashwamedh ghat. I’m awake, awake in sleep, sleeping while awake. Everybody in the world outside and inside is sleeping. They’re having a good night’s rest, I’m awake, listening to the silence, to the vain murmur of human heart; my heart is beating faster, a little slow, now heavily. The man riding the cycle rickshaw is pedaling hard over the steep. The river is swelling, my heart is racing; the bridge breaks into two, I take the plunge into the deep gorge. I disappear in the swirling waters of the mighty Ganga. Everything dissolved; bones, skin, virtue, sins and the self.

2:14

The clock is ticking, I just looked at it. It’s busy marching towards Time, moving ahead. The clock is my companion, it doesn’t sleep, it goes on and on. The night is cold. What’s inside me? I don’t know. What will become of me, how am I going to survive this long night? I’ll stay with the clock; it’ll help me sail through, the door will open. 

2:19 

2:24 

The saint whispers in his right ear, ‘I don’t remember a word of the story. It crushes me. Help me, help me remember it.’

2:27

She drops me at the hotel named after the warrior king. I step out of the vintage car. It’s raining. I bid her goodbye and swiftly move towards my room. The air is damp. The dance of drudgery now ensues. Somebody is watching me from the large window. I can hear their whispers. I draw the curtains. I could make it from their attire. It’s a newly married couple. They’re laughing and making love to each other; planting kisses, caressing deep, cuddling; looking at me through the window, eye to eye. I draw the curtain again and they pull it back from outside. The smirking eyes follow me. I walk towards the telephone placed on the table. It’s there. It’s not. I dial the numbers to call somebody at the reception to help me with this. I can’t see the numbers. I dial them all. 91,62,23,45,78. 123,456,789. 9162, 2345, 7891. There are no numbers. The call doesn’t go through. They call me by my name repeatedly. The laughter grows louder. The act continues. They’re looking into my eyes, making love to each other. There’s a sudden knock on the door. The window disappears. She’s here. ‘Come, let’s go, it has stopped raining, the bus has arrived, the only one to your town, come along with the ticket. Leave your belongings here.’ We are here in this vast dry land with large houses having walls of enormous height. Nobody leaves their dwelling. Nobody is to be seen. Not even the shadows. It seems to me the hottest summer I’ve ever felt in my life. All I can see is this wild grass, baked, turned yellow, flying wayward in the hot dusty wind. This is not home. It’s the land of exiles. I knocked at one of the doors for the entire time I was there. I couldn’t enter. Nobody opened. I did this with the remaining of the houses. All I wanted was a glass of cold water. I could hardly move my tongue and my throat had completely dried. The houses were impenetrable. The airport stands deserted. There is no one at the security checks. I rush towards the boarding pass counter. A screen delivers my pass with my name and seat number on it. I’m at Terminal T. I see a man riding a tall black horse through the terminal. I approach him and enquire with him about the plane that will arrive. He asks for my boarding pass and identity card. The plane will station at the far end of the runway. Let me help you. The horse is galloping at a lightning speed. I lose count of the time. There’s no end to the runway. He drops me at the far end; brings me a firepot and a box with new leather shoes in it. The boarding time isn’t mentioned in the pass. You’ll have to wait here. 

2:32 

I’m still here, I too want to sleep, but I can’t, I need to be awake. 

2:38

I’ve slept my sleep. I want to go home. I’ve the ticket with me.

2:39

Talk to me. Why are you silent? There’s nothing to talk about. You mentioned that you’re leaving; I won’t go anywhere. Now, listen to me carefully. Did you read the story I mentioned at the start of the conversation? Do you remember it? About the tree! No. About the city in the Anglo American cyclopedia, the city with no dimensions, beyond time and space. I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s protected from mankind; a partition runs between us and them. They profess their own religion. They have invented new languages. Forget it. Look at the tree. Moon-kissed.

2:40

2:44

2:45

Home is afar. The leaves of the walnut trees have turned ochre and have begun to fall. It’s autumn. The exiles are bathing in the icy waters of the Lidder. Father is holding me on his shoulders as he crosses the river and drops me at my school in Srigufwara. A large havan kund has been carved in the middle of the village. The fumes arising from the sacred fire take the entire village in its folds. Thousands of women from the rooftops of their new houses are singing native songs welcoming exiles home. Damodar Bhan, Arzan Nath and Prithvi Nath Dhar recite lines from the nachipatra (almanac) as people unlock their long lost homes. They have named their houses after the rivers, mountains and the sacred places of their ancestral land.  I’ve named it ‘Vyeth’; the ever flowing river, the river to my home, flowing ceaselessly beyond time.

2:48

The clock is ticking. It isn’t. It’s there. Five hours have passed. I haven’t moved an inch. I’m at the same place where I was at the beginning of the Time. What should I do? It’s not blindness that you’re suffering from. A shadow rests on my eyes; blocking all light, causing double vision. It’s the cataract, you need to be operated upon; stand up, cross the gate and go to the clinic across the road.

2:51

It’s arduous to walk through the night. The night is long.

2:51 

2:52

I’m observing the watch sift through hours, minutes and seconds. It’s tiring. I haven’t slept for a second. I’m burning. The mercury has risen to 102ºF. 

2:56

I’m following Time. Nobody takes a closer look at it. Nobody dares, but I’m keeping a close watch. 

2:58

More than five hours have passed. I want to sleep. 

3:01

I just want to laugh out loud. 

3:02 

3:14

All of this looks undefined. Time appears vague. Everything has passed. 

3:16

3:38

3:41

3:42 

The nest has been built and the eggs have been laid, young squabs will fly into the bright sky once this dark night ends.

3:43

4:00

4:20

The Time passes second by second, minute by minute, hour by hour, through the clock, through the space.

4:29

4:34

I’m at a distance from the house. I’m at home. It has started snowing. I can see Asha standing at the doorsteps with head wrapped in the targa and naerwan hanging from her ears. She’s draped in a white shawl with exiquiste tilla embroidery on it. She’s calling me by my name. Prithvi, Prithvi, Prithvi. The long night breaks into dawn.

4:50

4:57

I remember everything from it, I do remember Borges. He introduced me to Romain Rolland and Bishambar Nath. A is B and is C. Tlon is fictitious. No, it’s not. Tlon is the world.”

Glossary:

*Dashashwamedh ghat: One of the oldest and the most sacred ghats on the Ganga river in the holy city of Varanasi, India.

*Ganga: A sacred river, originating from the Gangotri glacier in the western Himalayas of India.

*Havan Kund: The sanctum sanctorum in a Yajna in which the fire is put and all the offerings are made.

*Lidder: A river in the Kashmir Valley, India.

*naerwan: sacred red thread.

*targa: headgear worn by the Kashmiri Pandit women.

*Vyeth: A river in the Kashmir Valley, India.

Author’s Bio: Sushant Dhar is a short story writer from Jammu and Kashmir, India. A microbiologist by qualification, he delves into the existential questions in his writings which are driven by his exile and longing for home. Dhar’s works have been anthologized in “A Long Dream of Home: The Persecution, Exodus, and Exile of Kashmiri Pandits” (Bloomsbury India, 2015) and “Once We Had Everything: Literature in Exile” (Vitasta Publications, 2019). His short stories and essays have been published in various literary journals including The Punch Magazine, New Asian Writing, Kitaab, The Bombay Review, Coldnoon and Muse India.

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