BY FEROZ RATHER
For several days, he steers his battered lorry through the Ganga’s plains. Without delivering the load of 300 apple crates he ferried over the shoulders of the Himalayas to Hindustan, he decides to return home. The country is foreign and bewildering. Multitudes of men and women crawl like ants in the hypnotic heat; subdued cities and towns that look like heaps of charred bones; sandstorms stirred by the afternoon wind; and the mirages that could become lethal while, on a road straight like alif, Hussain navigates the length of a scrubland.
He lumbers through the night northward. The streetlights, mottled by fat midges, are vague in the dust-like darkness.
At dawn, the heat sinking in, Hussain’s fatigued eyes close shut. The lorry, rounding a sharp bend, treads out of control. The right front tire skids off the road, the bonnet moving at a terrifying speed towards a tree trunk.
Hussain, tearing himself from a nightmare, seizes hold of the wheel. The lorry wobbles back onto the road. Jolted, frightened, he pushes on the brakes, moments before the truck coming at a fatal speed from the other side would have collided with him.
His heart is thumping, and his body is on fire. He is oblivious to the startled driver who, while moving past him, slows down and lets out a stream of profanity. I am alive hits Hussain like a blow in the face.
After a nap and breakfast on the roof of a roadside restaurant, he arrives in Jammu at noon. He pulls up and parks in an open yard. The city greets him with the mixed stench of piss and petrol. He shudders, walking away and up a meandering slope. He sees a crippled, half-dead man squatting with an empty begging bowl. The beggar is surrounded by stray dogs, their open mouths dropping threads of snort.
He crosses the intersection where the city’s sinuous roads meet. Mohammad Wani, a short, solidly built man, clad in a white khan dress, is sitting on a soft saddle behind three huge copper cauldrons on a wooden counter. He wears gold rings on his stubby fingers, and reeks of attar, but he covers his square forehead with a light, round skullcap. On his lap, a rosary of white marble beads. On his lips, nothing but prayer for Allah.
Mohammad Wani greets Hussain, cutting his syllables short, emphasizing d sounds. Hussain recalls Mohammad Wani is from the southern district of Anantnag. But in the horrid heat, it matters the least. Besides, it is after days he has heard a fellow from home speaking Koshur. Hussain does not snicker like heady people from his city of Srinagar who secretly loathe people from Anantnag and elsewhere. He does not ridicule and denigrate them. He does not think of them as fucking rustics who call kangir kangid, and as fucking idiots who call zulr zarul.
“The entire world belongs to Allah,” Mohammad Wani says. “Are you going home to Kashmir or are you going further into Hindustan?”
“I’m on my way home,” Hussain says, shaking his hand firmly.
“Be seated and you will be served soon,” Mohammad Wani says.
A plate of tabak maaz arrives at Hussain’s table. The fragrance of cloves and cinnamon evokes the memory of a marriage ceremony where a young woman with big black eyes, and a white velvet pheran, had entered the baithak with a huge samovar. And leaning forward toward Hussain, she poured kehveh into the cup he held in his hands. He remembers the look of assurance when she raised the samovar up and let the kehveh flow from the nozzle in one single gleaming stream. She was one of the closer friends of the bride whom Hussain’s friend was marrying. And at night, inside the clean white marquee erected in the courtyard, she sat by her side with a tambakhned in her hand. Then hitting the musical instrument’s round face unabashedly, staring into the eyes of the onlookers and provoking the chorus of girls, she sang.
Hundreds of miles away, Hussain is stunned by her deep, guttural but strangely sweet voice, as the quickening beats of the tambakhned pulse through his heart. Finally, he will leave the plains behind and return.
He reluctantly tears at a rib. Suddenly standing up, he shuffles between the empty tables to address Mohammad Wani.
“I have to go.”
“Isn’t the food good?”
“The tabak maaz smells delicious but...” Hussain says, taking out a fifty-rupee bill. “Please take the money, because I must leave now.”
“No, I cannot accept what is not my haq,” Mohammad Wani says. “Next time when you eat, you pay me.”
Hussain nods and steps out of the shop. He darts across the road into the wide street across. The sidewalks are grimy and abandoned. Scooters scurry and honk. A passenger bus passes by, emitting thick, choking fumes.
At the end of the street, Hussain enters a narrow lane with blackened brick walls. He hurries to the end where he comes onto a middle-aged man standing at the edge of a drain.
In the twenty-four years of his life in Kashmir, Hussain has not seen such a spectacle. The man smells of rotten mangoes. His hair is knotty and unwashed, and his face is buried in his beard. Thick motes of dirt cling to his neck and his temples. The collar of his shirt is soiled, and its long tail is gnawed as though by termites.
The brutal sun beats down on the homeless man’s head. His eyes constrict and his dirty, long-nailed hands shiver. His knees are buckling. He is collapsing. He is falling headlong into the drain.
Hussain runs backwards, out of the lane, and into the street. He does not look to his right or to his left to check whether a bus is speeding up to ram into him. And while away from home no one notices him, no one howls in horror, caught beneath the axle, the bus drags him along, tearing his clothes, scraping his skin, breaking his bones, scattering his teeth, crushing his skull, trailing his blood, and spreading his innards on the black expanse of the tarmac, he finds his way to the little spiral-shaped temple, to its white marble steps bedecked with yellow flowers.
He does not have time to step in and pilfer prasad from the feet of mute Lord Rama. He grabs a Coca Cola bottle—its head benevolently hacked away—hanging from the neck of the brass tap. He fills the plastic tumbler with water.
As Hussain touches his arm, the man does not see him. Hussain clenches his shoulder, shaking him gently.
The man shoots him a dreadful look. But before he emerges from his realm of numbness and mental fog and begins to mutter abuses, Hussain advances towards him the tumbler.
The man looks at it warily. Then, opening his eyes wide, frowning and smiling and spitting, he lowers his mouth to drink.
Hussain puts the fifty-rupee bill in his breast pocket. “Buy yourself a meal,” he tells him, pointing in the direction of the restaurant.
Lorries are arriving at and departing from the parking lot. The tarmac is melting and grooved by the rolling tires. The sky is low and colorless. The city, covered in a ubiquitous grey fog, has come to a standstill.
Hussain gets into his lorry and drives down the street. Under the city’s only flyover, he makes a detour and comes around to stop in front of the restaurant.
“Mohammad, remember me in your prayers,” Hussain shouts. Soon. He’ll be there soon.
Mohammad smiles back, raising his hand wrapped in the rosaries he once mentioned he brought back from Medina.
Up a narrow road, around a hillock covered with bamboo bush, the lorry speeds through a busy bazaar clattering with temple bells. The city ends soon and gives way to capricious curves that Hussain travels through at a blinding speed. He conquers hill after hill. And in a matter of hours he has crossed the emerald river of Chenab, left the boring Ramband behind. But when in Banhal it begins to rain, the rocks begin to slide down the wet mountain slopes. Hussain throttles his fear, pressing his hard heel onto the clutch, thrusting the lorry up a steep mountain into a long dark tunnel.
When he emerges in the valley of Kashmir, the sky lifts and regains the natural blue color tinted with distant hues of violet and orange. The road is lacquered with rain. Hussain draws a deep sigh in relief, removing his hands off the wheel. Shutting his eyes, he pulls the gear back into the neutral mode.
As the lorry rolls down to the bottom of the valley, Hussain rises. A light, feathery bird with wide wings, he is flying above the fir forests and long paddy fields filled with shiny water.
He sees the dogs gently licking the dirt off the face of the beggar. The dead man smiles and stands up. He walks to the restaurant and, sitting at the counter, hogs rib after rib of tabak maaz. Mohammad Wani is standing next to Hussain in the white marquee. And to the music of the temple bells—amidst clouds of incense—Mohammad dances like a dervish, snatching the miniature samovar from the young woman, laughing like a madman as he drinks divine water from its nozzle. To Hussain and other young men, Mohammad asks to sing songs for the bride who’ll arrive on a magnificent white horse from the city of Shiraz.
Hussain is buoyant with feeling. He looks around, realizing he entered the valley in summer and now it must be November because in the moonlit fields surrounding him the saffron is in bloom.
He jumps out of the lorry, walking to the middle of the field. The flowers are covered in frost-ash. The field is vast. Walking in it feels like freedom. Hussain walks and walks, towards the kaaba, until he reaches the western end of the field.
The face of the young woman appears before him. “Aa Khudaya! Aa Khudaya!” he murmurs, the sound of his voice flooding his heart with joy.
He stops calling God’s name aloud and sits down.
He slaps his cheek, giving a silly laugh. He plucks a flower and pops it into his mouth.
Palvashay Sethi talks to Feroz Rather about “A Strange Call from the Mountain.”
Purchase Feroz Rather’s debut novel, “The Night of Broken Glass,” here.
Feroz Rather is a doctoral candidate in creative writing at Florida State University. His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in The Common, The Kenyon Review, The Ploughshares Blog, The Millions, The Rumpus, Berfrois, Caravan. His debut novel, The Night of Broken Glass, published by HarperCollins in South Asia, was nominated for the First Book Award by the Ninth Mumbai International Literary Festival.
Hafsa Ashfaq is 20 years old and from Karachi, Pakistan. She is a design student at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, and has been working as an illustrator on book illustrations and commissions since 2017. Her style varies from vector art to hand-drawn illustrations, but her signature style is anything hand-drawn with thick strokes and bright colors. You can find her on Instagram and Behance @hafsaashfaqq.