The birds have probably been awake for hours. Not the squirrels though. The knife-grinders and carpet-sellers call out so early from the crisscrossed streets, one can hear them in one’s dreams; and yet they’re out only much after the squirrels are already up, busily carrying invisible messages up and down the telephone wires and whipping up a storm in the mango trees. Everyone’s watch is set to a different time and the Earth revolves slowly or fast depending on the state of one’s heart.
Inayat is awake and Hina, asleep. The phone rings. Inayat gets out of bed.
‘It’s for you, Hina.’
The sound of the phone did wake Hina but she’s reluctant to move. She murmurs her indistinct, waking-up grumble with her eyes shut. Inayat smoothes away the hair with which sleep has curtained her face and lies down beside her again.
Once the day’s routine takes over, Inayat will be like any working man, sweating under his collar in a traffic jam and already looking forward to lunch-break. But for these few minutes every morning he wants nothing. His mind knows only one thing – Hina. And his heart feels only one paradox – his love for her doesn’t measure up to his love for her. Every morning he considers her sweet, grumpy face and knows that nothing he does or says can fully convey his passion. The thought makes him sad and he reflects, then, that he is sad from an excess of happiness, from a happiness that runs much further than words.
Inayat searches for Hina’s left ear in the mess of her hair and whispers into it:
‘Hina, there’s a phone call but you know what? You could ignore it.’
At this, Hina springs to life and runs out of the room. She returns dragging her feet, her eyes on the wall clock.
‘I have half an hour.’
Inayat sits up in shock.
‘The summons. I have to leave by ten.’
‘Ten? When will you be back?’
‘I don’t know. It’s not up to me.’
‘How can you not know! A week, a month, a year?’
‘I don’t know, Inayat. They’ll tell me once I get there.’
‘So I’ll be alone here, not knowing when you’re back?’
‘You think I want to go? You think I enjoy this?’
‘You can’t go…’
‘You know you’re not supposed to say that. When I come back we’ll go for a walk by the lake and watch for the herons.’
‘You just can’t go. This time I won’t let you.’
Hina embraces Inayat, then turns away and starts packing her suitcase. Inayat follows her around, insisting that she cannot leave. When she starts weeping with the same grief that he feels, Inayat turns comforter and tells her what she just told him – she’ll be back soon, the herons on the lake, the speed at which time passes. She dries her eyes and resumes her packing.
Inayat goes back to bed and watches her. Why must you go, why must you go, why must you go. The words resound in his head till they lose their original meaning – from a lament they become a prayer, then a curse he is putting on himself, then a cry of love.
He remembers a story. Its shadow was already lurking in his mind when he shook off his drowsiness: a torn page swept carelessly into his waking life by the mysterious currents of sleep. But it’s only now, feeling the cold hand of loneliness pressing down on his heart, that he recalls it clearly.
An old Sufi is at the centre of the tale, the kind of figure who always passed through his grandmother’s stories, exposing hypocrites and rescuing the poor. The voice of his grandmother and the voice of the Sufi have merged in his memory. And the story has all the familiar elements: a displeased king, a young man about to be hanged for some alleged transgression, the frightened townspeople, the sage determined to challenge authority. ‘If that is your decision, to hang this innocent man in the morning, then I will not let morning come.’ And then the Sufi beat his staff on the ground and morning did not come. They waited for dawn to break but the night never ended, the sun never rose and the young man’s fate was staved off till the king was forced to change his mind. As a child Inayat used to be fascinated by this – eternal night. The townspeople gathered, trembling, in the dark square. The bewildered cockerel, awake and yet unable to sound its alarm because the owls are still hooting and the moonlight is still thick upon the river’s face. The cows asleep in the cowsheds because no birds have appeared yet to peck at the fleas in their hides. What possibilities!
This is a story made for lovers, Inayat thinks – the ones hiding from their relatives and friends in the high green fields of maize at the edge of the town, the lovers who wish every dawn that the dark had clung to them just a little bit longer. What would they think of this eternal night? Wouldn’t they stand amazed, craning their necks at the violet sky in which there is not even the faintest streak of dawn, and then look at each other, the same realisation striking them both?
Without saying a word, wouldn’t they grab each other’s hands and run through the fields towards some safe destination, no matter that they don’t know yet where this is? The stopping of the clock has liberated them. They no longer have to face the sunlight pretending to be other people; they can retain their true natures in the dark.
For, as long as the Sufi has his staff locked to the ground and his head held upright before the king, morning will not come. And for as long as morning does not come, the world cannot make its cruel demands upon the two lovers. In the night, during which there are no rules, no governments, no police stations, no courts of justice, in the night during which people lose their names and even the stoniest of them acquires the vague shapes of his dreams, love can prosper.
Hina is in a hurry to leave. She asks Inayat the question she asks him every morning.
‘Have you seen my glasses?’
Inayat is going to answer when she asks him again:
‘Have you seen my glasses?’
Again Inayat is about to answer and again Hina repeats her question.
What’s wrong with her, he thinks, but the thought is submerged under a stronger urge – the urge to answer Hina, to tell her, like he does every morning, that he has no idea where her glasses are.
‘Have you seen my glasses?’
She is coming towards him, her arms outstretched, preparing to hug him goodbye but at the same time not completely ready to leave, for she must first find her glasses. She seems to be taking a step back each time and then a step forward, the same question on her lips, her arms folding down and then rising up in anticipation. She is imprisoned in a mechanical loop. And each time she completes one round of the loop, Inayat finds the answer rising in him only to be drowned out yet again by Hina’s restatement of the question.
Inayat is aware of the open window behind Hina. There is a tune coming in through that window, the one his neighbour makes reversing his car and heading out to work, a tune that signals to Inayat that it’s time for him to rush in and take a shower. Do-re-do-re-do-re-do and mi-fa-mi-fa-mi-fa-do. Now it’s a stuck record. Inayat imagines that Mr Patil is stuck too – heaving back and forth in his car. He wants to laugh but he cannot because something tells him that much more urgent is the other imperative – he must answer Hina. He must tell her that he doesn’t know where her glasses are.
Inayat can’t move from the bed. But he now understands what’s happening. A crow has swooped down onto the balustrade outside the window. It turns for a moment to look at Inayat and then makes as if to fly away. Again and again and again.
He doesn’t feel like laughing any more. He thinks of a young man raising a poisoned cup to his lips and regretting it at the first sip but fated now to experience the horror repeatedly. He thinks of babies slipping from their mother’s grasps and dying many times over, of buses cramped with passengers flying off bridges, of aircraft catching fire.
He’d closed his eyes and made a fervent wish, prayed to the Sufi of his grandmother’s story. And now the Sufi, from somewhere up in the clouds, or perhaps right there, mingling somehow with the atmosphere of the room, is sneering at him. Inayat’s wish has been granted: time has stopped, Hina will stay. But in this way Inayat has also, inadvertently, closed the one exit route from all of life’s tragedies – forgetting.
It’s entirely my fault and I don’t have the means to reverse the spell, he thinks desperately. Where is the staff I can raise into the air to break the grip of frozen time?
And why couldn’t I have foreseen that eternity wouldn’t be a lovers’ paradise but simply this – stasis.
With his eyes open, because he cannot close them, Inayat struggles to find a way out. I wish you gone, he commands with the one half of his mind that is still his own. Mighty Time through which everything must flow, forgive me for trying to humble you, he says. All he gets in reply is the cold look of the perpetual crow that nothing will remove from his line of vision. Inayat thinks of his grandmother’s story again and wonders if it hides a key. He goes over it in the minutest detail and finds nothing. Mentally, he reprimands his grandmother for telling him a dangerous story. He appeals to his parents, his teachers, his friends, all the books he has read, all the cities he has travelled, everything he can remember having shown him the world in an unusual light, all the little crumbs of wisdom he has collected, which add up to his being a supposedly mature and responsible man.
Then he pauses, waiting, expecting a roll of thunder and the voice of god. Instead he remembers another story. His mother’s slender fingers turning the pages of a book and he restless on her lap, eager for the action to move on. Here is the king and there the queen. And on the next page is the beautiful princess who pricks her thumb on a spindle just as the witch had predicted she would.
At the very instant that a drop of ruby blood appears on the princess’s thumb, everyone goes off to sleep right where they are. The princess falls asleep at the spindle, the king and queen loll on their thrones, the cook’s eyes close as he is plucking the feathers of a chicken, the hands of the clock on the wall cease to move and a great thorny hedge grows all around the palace, enclosing its sleeping inmates for a hundred years. What will wake them up?
Inayat remembers so well the horror of eternal sleep in the pictures of that childhood book. The silence on the still page. The hand of the cook in mid-air. The pale and pink-lipped face of the princess. Even when he knew the story intimately, knew exactly how it was going to end, he felt anxious at approaching these particular pages.
For something might hold back the brave prince. What if he failed to appear on the following page, tear through the giant hedge with his sword, and find the sleeping princess? Fortunately that never happened. The prince always turned up in his red cloak, determined and unafraid. He’d creep up to the princess and kiss her.
And suddenly, as if that kiss was a key turning in some door of heaven – locking it up once again, shutting out that hundred-year glimpse of eternity – everyone and everything stirred back to life.
Inayat looks at Hina, who is still going on in that utterly absurd way about her glasses. He says to her with all the force he can put into a silent appeal that, apart from the fact that he doesn’t know where her glasses are, he loves her and he is letting her go. Go Hina, he thinks. Go so that you can return to me and to the herons on the lake.
And then, slowly, as if it is putting itself together drop by drop, he becomes aware of a sudden silence. The car has ceased to sing. Patil is finally on his way to office. Delighted, Inayat looks for the crow but it has already flown away into freedom. He gets up and grabs Hina and, with all the tenderness of Sleeping Beauty’s prince, kisses her. Hina locates her glasses (she finds them in a new place each morning) and heaves her suitcase out of the door.
Inayat rushes to the window, and as his eyes linger on Hina, walking away from him down 12th Main, he suddenly realises that in breaking the stranglehold he has also forfeited what is most precious to him. One day Hina will go away and never return. One day, because that is the law that rules everything that passes through time, Hina will die. By starting up the clock again, it’s me who’s saved her from the emptiness of eternity and brought her back to life and love. But by starting up the clock again, it’s also me who’s condemned her to death.
Tears rise to Inayat’s eyes as his heart tries to make space for this new paradox.
~ Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels Neti, Neti and Lunatic in My Head and the book of poems Street on the Hill. She is books editor for The Caravan.