A short story
“No! No! … No!” he said in cold anger and crumpled one more sheet of paper before throwing it away. With an equal angst he hurled his pen onto the writing board; the commotion made the ink shiver within its pot but it didn’t spill over. He looked around for an excuse—for any excuse. The room was frozen in its indifference.
He cupped his hands and began to breathe heavily into them, “Damn this cold.”It was winter indeed. Outside the snow had piled up and spread like a cold curse. But the room was not cold; at least not in the thermal sense of the word. It was warm enough, nevertheless he needed to blame something—to damn something—for his failure to write that perfect Alif—the best one from his pen.
Within a few moments he gave up the pretense of warming up his hands and instead, with a new resoluteness, he spread a new sheet of paper across the frigid board and picked up his pen, dipped its nib into the pot and drew a wet upright stroke. Done, he leaned back and stared at the Alif he had drawn.
He shook his head. This too won’t do.
Clenching his teeth in a cold suppressed fury he drew a succession of alifs rapidly. No sooner had he drawn them than he began to cross them all—one by one— shaking his head. “Damn it… damn everything… damn this all to the lowest depths of hell.” Crying thus he grabbed his fuzzy hair into tight fists and closed his eyes.
It was winter—the one bygone—when he had first arrived here at the Maktab. Dripping with snow he had straight away gone to the master,the Ustad, and told him that he had come to learn calligraphy. Ustad had looked at him with strange eyes—sizing him up from head to toe and told him to draw a line, an arc, a circle, and a dot. And he had drawn them in that order, as best as he could with his frostbitten fingers. Ustad had looked over what he drew for an absurdly long time before he finally said, “But why?” more to himself than to him.
He was lost for an answer. What could he say? He himself was not exactly sure why—maybe because this was what he felt he could be good at; or maybe because Maktab was a good place to spend some time at, particularly in a harsh and cruel winter; or maybe this was just a whim of his (as was everything else), he could be leaving within a month or a week or even the day after; or maybe at that point of time, to be at a Maktab learning calligraphy was the only thing that made sense to him… “Because I have to learn,” he replied, without conviction.
Maybe he just did not know what he was doing.
Ustad looked at him with a foggy uncertainty in his eyes (with which he was to look at him many a time during the days that were to follow) and said with a voice that dripped like icicles, “Learning is easy. It is the burden of what you learn—what it makes of you—that you must consider… Nevertheless, God’s will shall be done. Go and warm yourself. We will start tomorrow.”
And that was how it had all started—the long relentless days of mashq—the practice. Sometimes it was the same alphabet written over and over again in the same script; sometimes the same alphabet in different scripts; sometimes all the alphabets in the same script and sometimes all the alphabets in different scripts. The repetition was boring and meaningless while you were at it but finally when Ustad smiled at your mashq, all of a sudden you could yourself see the difference. You could see how each alphabet in its infinite repetitions was not the same alphabet but a different one like the infinite repetitions of a man in this universe. Each one an improvement over the other or a degradation till finally you reached that level of perfection that made Ustad smile.
Occasionally, while he was at his mashq, he would find Ustad peering over his shoulder and gazing at his strokes with the same foggy uncertain eyes with which he had gazed at him on the first day.
Finally, when the current winter was about to start, Ustad called him aside and said, “You have learned all that could be taught here. All that is now left to do is the Rite of Passage—at leastthat is what we call it. You have to offer a piece of your art as consecration toward the Maktab, the best you can offer. For you I have selected the letter Alif. Draw your best Alif and offer it to the Maktab. Remember with Alif starts the name of Lord Almighty Allah, thanks to whom the word was created.” Then Ustad took him to a solitary room on the third story of the maktab and leaving him there, he said, “Everything you need you will find in this room. You may leave it as soon as you have done what you must do.”
The room was a stoic cold one, no better or worse than any other room of the Maktab. Only it was more confining and restrictive. The only thing noticeable was the single window that opened toward the outside of Maktab. It was unduly large, almost as big as the door and it looked like a door as well,a door to some other world. One could stand on its sill and still his head would not touch the top of the window.Outside stood a tree on whose bare branches flurries of freshly fallen snow had stuck like tiny almond blossoms.
He walked across the room and shut the window close. The cold drafts would have been a distraction, he thought as he sat down to write his best Alif.
Wafts of fresh verdant fragrance drifted into the room every now and then. Perhaps it was the tree outside the window, it must have blossomed by now. Was it a cherry tree? A plum tree? An almond tree? He did not know. He did not want to know. It was just a distraction—the sprouting and germinating world outside—he needed to focus on his Alif. Only Alif. The flowery Meems or the curvaceous Ains would come later.
He drew one more Alif.
Just as he was about to cross this new Alif as well, a drop of ink fell abruptly from his pen onto the fresh part of paper. Slowly it germinated into a misshapen mess resembling a half plucked flower. As he stood watching this blob the voice of Ustad chirped in his head, “When you draw a stroke, it is not just a blob of ink that you are spreading on the paper but it is rather a ripple that you draw across the blankness of the paper. And that ripple at the same time is drawn across time and space as well—in lands far away from you as well as in times far away from you, this ripple will resonate. As soon as you draw that stroke you alter the fabric of cosmos forever.”
Dare he disturb the cosmos with such an aberration of an Alif!
He crossed it vehemently.
What had Ustad said when he taught him about the Alif?Alif is the beginning. It is just a single stroke but it cannot be any stroke. It has to be a stroke of subservience, for it is nothing without the other letters but at the same time it has to be firm as it is the faith that others will follow. Imagine if you could capture restless but pure water in a stroke—that is Alif.
Easier said than done, he thought to himself and drew a fresh Alif, this time delicately and tenderly, feeling the subtle caress of the eager nib on the fecund softness of the paper.He sat back and examined this new Alif. It was a pretty stroke, impressive to the untrained eye—vibrant in its flourish and rejuvenating in its finish—but he saw where it faltered. There were too many flaws: The imperceptible but persistent wavering of the hand that drew the stroke; the touch of heaviness of ink where the nib first touched the paper and the touch of lightness where it left; the affectation in the flourish—it was all there. He could correct these flaws with a dab here and a touch there but it would not be done because the changes would show. It would become a pleasant looking Alif but it would just be that—an appearance of Alif, it would not be an Alif. Just like the paper flowers—no matter what skill you use to make them bloom, they still could never make a bee fall in love with them nor could they ever make a spring kiss them pink. Besides, there was something there that no deceit, no skill could hide—every Alif that he drew was hollow.
You have to pour something of yourself into every word that you write, Ustad had said,like the spring pours its essence in every bud that breathes its sweet air, but he could not. He was afraid of what he hid within him. He could not bear to pour himself out for others to see and judge. It would be akin to stand vulnerably naked at a public square. Thus each stroke he made was a pretense. And nobody better than him knew it.
So he was now judging his own work, he thought and chuckled: “Clever little fellow, this Ustad is! What did he call it … ‘Rite of Passage.’…ha-ha…”
He realized what Ustad was making him do. This was no rite; it was a test. A test not only of his skill as a calligrapher but a test of his judgment as well. A test of his aesthetic sense and his sincerity as an artist.
He drew an Alif and crossed it, smiling the whole time. He was doing two mashqs! Each Alif he drew was a mashq for his calligraphy, and each Alif he crossed was a mashq of his sensibility. He laughed aloud, “Ustad!”
As he was drawing a new Alif, his nose smelled a fresh waft that had just breezed in—it was a blossoming almond tree, he could say now surely. He peered over the Alif that he had just drawn. It looked like as if he was peering from his own shoulder just like the Ustad used to. He laughed aloud.
“So I am now my own Ustad.”
Beads of sweat slimed down his nape. It was uncomfortably hot and humid in the room. He would have opened the window to get some relief but for the mosquitoes that would come rushing in. It was one of the few things that he had carried from his childhood into his adolescence—this fear of mosquitoes.They had kept on biting his dying mother or maybe they had bitten her mother to death.Hence not only did the window remain shut tight, so did the door. And it kept getting hotter and worse.
The blistering heat was not his only torment in the room, even more tormenting was the pen, ink and paper lying idly. Each day it was no longer hundreds and thousands of Alif that he drew but at the most a dozen or a score of them and most of them were half-done as if having melted in the sweltering noons. He had, much to his horror, discovered that each day he was gradually unlearning what he had learned over the last year. Each new Alif he drew was a deterioration of the preceding one. To hold the pen and draw a degrading stroke after degrading stroke in this stifling room was becoming an unbearable oppression.
So he rarely picked his pen and rather he would sit for the most partin a corner watching the day bake itself into night and the night boil itself into day—over and over again.
Sitting there, for the past few sultry weeks, he occasionally heard a small creaking noise—the sort of noise that always makes you think about a mouse. And he, too, suspected it to be a mouse. He had sought more proof: Every now and then he would leave a piece of bread or some other eatables at one or the other place in the room—sometimes over the sill of the window, sometimes by the door, sometimes by the corner of the closet—and later, an hour after or a day after, it would be nibbled at and sometimes totally gone. And sometimes it would be left there, untouched and stale. But he believed it to be a mouse anyway. It made him feel better to think someone else was also suffering with him and sharing his misery.
But what if it was only his imagination! What if there was no mouse! No… No… there has to be a mouse. He could not bear to stand the idea of him alone in this burning room in a sun-burned summer. He must see the mouse in flesh and blood—suffering in this heat and torment…
He rummaged the room to find something that could help him. There was not much to be found in that steaming room. Only in the bottom drawer of the closet he found a rusted metallic hollow pipe. It was about an arm’s length and the hollowness inside was wide enough to admit two fists at a time. He held the clammy pipe in his hand and slowly as if roasting each one of his word, he said, “This will do.”
Between the closet and the wall of the room he wedged this metal pipe upright and dropped a piece of bread into its hollowness. Then he retired back to his damp corner and drew a sizzling Alif across the length of the whole paper. It was no longer an elegant stroke but it was a monstrosity—a searing dark chasm that opened up the bosom of the paper. He drew gash after burning gash, scalding paper after paper as he sat there; sweating and waiting—eagerly.
Two days later, without even looking into the hollow pipe, he knew he was not alone in that stifling, scorching room. He smiled and walked over to the closet and peered down the pipe. There at the bottom was the mouse, scampering within his tight confines and trying to set himself free. But it was useless—this struggle of his. The pipe was wedged tight.
He dropped a few bread crumbs into the pipe, grinned, and covered the open end of the pipe with his hand and slowly, with words that almost smelled of sulfur, he whispered, “I am not the only one burning.”
It was not only the autumn rot that was in the air—that and the putrid stench from the decaying mouse at the bottom of the metal pipe made the room reek of death and despair. The mouse had died after living his struggling days at the bottom of his trap while he watched over, occasionally dropping a few crumbs. He knew the mouse was withering away each day but he did not set him free—rather he could not set him free. Even after the mouse was dead he could not bear to bring him out. He needed to have someone at that bottom, to share his misery within that rotting room.
He no longer drew anything. He was not capable of drawing anything not even a dot or a circle or an arc or a line. The ink had dried within the pot, the nib broken and the papers strewn all around the floor of the room like wilted fallen leaves. There were scratches (not strokes) on these fallen papers. Scratches made by a dry pen with a broken nib or maybe with nails or maybe with both. And from the wilted papers these scratches had grown onto the walls of the room; like weeds they had spread to every empty space that they could find. And now in autumn they had dried and gnarled into agrotesque cage.
As if all this was not enough, autumn had invaded his head as well. His thoughts were disintegrating—putrefying like the mouse at the bottom of the metal pipe. And it was the stench from within that was becoming most unbearable, to such an extent that he, much against his will, walked up to the window and opened it.
Outside stood the tree, naked, and desolate. Autumn had robbed it of its vigor, that is, if it had any. A few leaves, here and there, clung desperately to its branches—memories of a distant past which sooner or later it would shed in silent random thoughts. If someone could distill this tree into a thought, it would form a single stroke—the perfect Alif. Ha! It was useless to think of an Alif now. He could not draw it now—he would not draw it now. He had learned and unlearned it all.
From some distant corner of his memory a voice came rushing like an autumn wind,“Learning is easy. It is the burden of what you learn—what it makes of you—that you must consider…”What had it made of him?A decaying, stinking mouse at the bottom of a cage! Or a withered dying leaf clinging absurdly to a tree!
A gust rushed by and shook the tree ferociously, pulling away a leaf and tossing it up cruelly. He climbed on to the sill of that window and stood there looking at the tossed up leaf. Slowly the leaf started to glide down in careless arcs like carefree brush strokes. Finally, the leaf had broken free of all attachments. For that brief time, till it lands on the cold earth below and is trampled to oblivion, it will have all the universe to itself. For that brief time, which would be no less than eternity, anyone could have the universe to himself …
And as the descent of that leaf was about to end, he stood inside that window that looked like a door—one foot on the sill and the other hanging in the air, ready to step out.
Shabir Ahmad Mir hails from South Kashmir’s Pulwama District. He is a poet and short story writer. His works (Fiction/Non-fiction) have appeared in Greater Kashmir, Rising Kashmir, Kashmir Lit, Kashmir Life Kashmir Pen, Wande Magazine as well as in the Tuck Magazine, The international Page of English Ghazals, Aquillrelle Anthology, Roses and Rhymes, Feathers by Hall of Poets, Shakespeare Sings, etc. He was awarded the 2nd prize by World Union of Poetry Prize for India as well as awarded 2nd place at the Shakespeare International Poetry contest organized by Farooq College, Kerala. His short story “The Djinn who Fell from the Walnut Tree” was shortlisted for FON South Asia Short story award-2016 and declared first runner up and will be published in their upcoming anthology (TERI press). One of his short stories is scheduled to be published in the upcoming 3rd annual print anthology of The Bombay Review. He was recently awarded he Reuel International award for Fiction 2017.