Gulammohammed Sheikh essays

Long absences past, returning home...to have my feet sprout roots, implant them in old earth. And no respite without it; but where is home, where do I go? Returning to Kathiawar, with thoughts clinging to me like creepers.

Dawn: Viramgam, where the trains change. Memories of this air, this land of my childhood, entwining me like dry, crabbed shrubs. Mynas screeching on the platform in the early morning, different accents, the sun through the windows of the bogie tumbling, falling over lumped, uneven ground. Persistent through this somnolence, clear as a stream. And before I open my eyes, the train, and its rushing tongue carrying me like an insect towards my childhood.

Thin-branched rows of aval and baval...huts silent in the villages; torn, frayed, the pregnant earth ravished with wild currents, awakening an old feeling of desolation, pain in streaks in the mind, hurting. The train steaming, hands and feet ringing, a turbulence, not able to contain itself; seeping through the pores, a blood-kinship resuscitated with the red, blackish, grey earth - an irresistible desire to jump out off the train, fling myself upon the clods, burrow, nose into the bosom of the clay, the pain entering sharply through my hair and nerves into the belly of this pitch so that it furrows might burst with roots.

Trains and childhood - an unforgettable tie exists, having hated it more than anything else. The train, a demoness, boasting of transplanting minds from one place to another. (Strangely, yet admiring from afar her awesome image in the village-night, at dark and lonely stations). Burning in my mind, with thoughts rising like the hum of a witch-doctor’s chanting, memories raised and invoked like spirits; the wooden bench hard beneath me.

To think: the screeching whistle of the distant train through the window of my house, the bridge shuddering as it passed, its reverberations reaching me from afar. Late at night, under the excuse of relieving myself, I conjured up the furtive movements of moles and lizards through the grassy field behind the compound wall by the window. Under the fading light of early morning stars the fine hairs of the whinnying horses’ tails in the Gaekwadi stables ran in an arc to mingle with the shriek of the train whistle, and my fingers made, unconsciously, little circles on the window-still.

Dark shadows upon the bridge beyond the Gaekwadi wall, and a shiver running up my spine; and with darkness peeling off in layers, soon forgotten. During the day to climb the ber tree, holding the trunk in both arms, struggling through the thorns, we picked the fruit, ate and threw the seeds at the animals and Vaghri girls below.

At night all this seemed frozen in the dark like an apparition. I was frightened of everything, the ber tree, animals and Vaghri girls turned to stone and immobility. Yet this same terror, relived over and over again, the turning of daytime realities into nightly sculptures, with the sound of worms and insects rustling under the leaves, sticks to the roots on the soles of my feet in clusters like tiny peanut seeds, persistent, thick with knots through the dust of 20 years.

In this home, in the palms of my hand having turned light and darkness over and over, an entire childhood was spent. By the window at night, shadows beyond the wall ran patterns with those under the tree in our courtyard. In one corner, a neem tree which the butcher’s boys gashed with their knives, glue oozing in bubbles which we collected in small bottles. The boys passed with large knives which they sharpened on the steps of the houses, leaving smooth, slippery dents on each, from where the elderly folks always slipped downwards, unfailingly, upon which quarrels would grow loud.

The neem tree by the gate of the slaughter-house which I saw from my window, with slices upon its trunk, and a lump of glue, attracted bees buzzing about in swarms. Form the slaughter-house, the cacophonic sounds of animals, butchers, clients during the day and in the month of Ramzan, at night as well. Meat in chunks slapped upon the chopping-blocks: the smell of freshly slaughtered flesh about the slaughter-house, frightening, reminding us of the apparitions of dead animals.

Going home: searching for all this again, stalking the darkness, hunting for light. The early sun to my eyes filtering in dotted lines through the quilt; then rising blindingly from the glassy reflection in the puddle left by father after his prayer-ablution on the verandah stone.

And later as the sun rose, I wandered about the fields, saw it playing boldly upon the sands. Sinking my feet into the sand, the shallow water, digging them into the moss, wiping them upon the dry sand - then touching the gigantic metal pillars of the bridge: a cold shiver rippling through my body.

The sun high. The interior of the house painted with darkness, swathed with cowdung. Through slots in the roof-tiles, the sun in burning dots upon the floor. Arms about my knee, watching the sun-streaks, counting them, waiting for sunset. Outside, the sun in torrents. Boys up in the thorny ber tree, squirrels curling up on the grass, stray curs, Vaghri girls in tattered clothes, watching the falling fruit from below with palms and fingers wide - and all about, the sun falling, scorching.

By the threshold watching the birds collect in swarms, settling one by one upon the wires of street lights, evening fell. Like pencil-lines drawn upon bluest paper, the wires suddenly alive with mynas, crows, pigeons; in the late evening with bats drawing swooping patterns in the air. Kites in pairs or alone, birds in knots sweeping arcross in arcs. In the early dusk, a lull. And soon after, at mealtime, the rhythmic sound of rotla being slapped onto the girddle, the smell and smoke of vegetables being cooked.

Evening slipped imperceptibly down over the wooden door-frame, and mother gave me an incense-burner to carry through the rooms of the house; going into every dark corner of each room, in the belief that mosquitoes inhabited the dark, to dispel them. A lantern then lit, and posted upon the lintel. The door of the house suddenly different, with white streaks of light sharp-etched on one side of each bar, and the red-blue dark outside, thick like stones.

The lantern; door; bars in the doorway like intimate friends in the night, as we fell into our beds. The wick lowered in the lamp, dismissing shadows. Having raised it, shadows suddenly alive upon the wall, wide and lengthening, growing large and small, frisking over the rough wall like lizards. Late in the night, with the staccato sound of crickets, the small flame in the lantern gradually extinguished itself.

Dead streets and silence, the footfall of somestrangeperson echoing down a lane, and asilencethick as the darkness itself. Occasionally the clop and tap of horse shoes, a lone passenger fromthe night-train, the sounds of an approaching tonga still embedded deeply in some secret part of my ear. I, too, reach there at night, and carry with me the sounds of the carriage and its emaciated animal.

All this - home after a long absence. Too far now, torn from me, another world. Today, watching my body float in darkness, unidentifiable. Twenty years ago, having seen myself float in the same darkness, I did not see the chasm, the dark and myself being one. Suddenly now, a chance awakening in the night, the dark-backed leaves of the champa tree, the sky bright with stars above them, over my white washed wall, stunning me stiff. There is no longer the glow of a faint lantern. I fear having to press a switch. Outside the closed doors of this house, darkness cemented on the verandah. Torpidly, like a heavy serpent, the night-air shifting through. A screeching owl starts up from the neem.

---

I close my eyes and see before me a desolate patch of scrub spreading away from the edge of our town. There is the sandy tract near the river; towards the fringes on the red earth the washerman’s clothes flutter from the branches of the aval and babul trees. Going off each morning to relieve myself I would often wander quite far and returning watch in a trance the red clay, rocks, the stony river bed with its wild aval and yellow flowers stealing brightly through the foliage. In this small town the earth is barren. Not many trees grown here. The crops are sparse; after the monsoon, cucumbers and slim gourds ripen in the slight, warm depressions in the river bed; except for this, as far as the eye can see, spreads the prickly growth of thorn trees and many kinds od cacti. On the far road to the village Muli are neem, peepal and ber trees.

It remained a childhood habit with me to conjure strange living things in the secret leafiness of this vegetation, and watching the insects on the aakda plant, caterpillars on the aval, black ants creeping over the babul, I would fall into a reverie. Suddenly a bunch of yellow aval flowers would prance before my eyes, and in the shade of the babul tree I would see yellow and red phantom colours dart about. What rite lies behind peeling a leaf’s veins clean, watching the milky sap ooze out? As determinedly, I would pull off the petals of the yellow aval flowers and scatter them free. The odour clung in my nostrils like cotton fluff; dreaming at night, I saw myself roll through the jungle wild with trees. Breaking the slim pods of the babul I savoured their tartness on my tongue; snapping a branch of aakda I collected the milky stuff in a leaf in daily ritual. Seeing the green world in its wild state I would suddenly become thoughtful; hearing the breeze rustle the peepal on the road to Muli, my skin would thrill gently. Seeing the aval swing with abandon, watching a mirage behind the aakda and thorny thor, the dancing of the babul branches as they threw weird patterns of figures on the hard earth, I would see curious designs of a power not human. This redolent vegetation made me imagine things. Behind the aakda the cacti I would hear footsteps, imagine something hidden behind the peepal, watch the long wands of the babul branches turn into the peacock-feather switch of the faqir, whirling and swaying.

Woven close, this smell, colour, and these figures were a habit and a gift of childhood. Perhaps this is why even today as the twilight lengthens, hosts of these creatures too advance and deepen, etching their faces in my deepest flesh. As a little boy I would sit in a half-darkened room to draw pictures; on the scaly mortar under the shadow-crossed wall I would watch the darkness stealthily bring all the tiny creatures swiftly to life. Seated by the lantern at night, watching our shadows grow and dip with the wavering flame, I would think I felt a jinnaat sitting next to me. It is said that the jinnaat are visible by day and by night; that they are pure, and their visage does not terrify. That if we hurt them, they harm us; and that to make a jinnaat happy is to have our heart’s desire. Some claim that beyond the wall of the mill, by the edge of the river, on a mound of coal you may see a jinnaat in broad daylight - one man, passing that way the night before, even heard him recite the kalma.

With the night once again I see the window of my home, the wall, the Gaekwadi maidan of my childhood. They say that each night through the maidan the procession of Pir Gebanshah passes by. Holding a green flag in his hand, astride a white horse, when the resplendent Pir proceeds under the bright starlit sky it is as though the yellow grass were bathed in the brilliant glow of thousands of petromax lanterns. There are those who say that in the grass of the maidan, by the wall, stones the size of human heads begin rolling and tumbling about by themselves. The horses, the Pir’s standard, and strange animated rocks all lived in the mind, and as we went to bed a close fear would wrap itself about us.

To conjure that same shadowy restlessness is an act I still indulge in - it was because of this that I saw in every dark corner of the house unseen creatures abide; each obscure cranny exuded the breath of secret habitation. In the store-loft, under the charpai, invisible creatures roamed about. Outside on the verandah, on the stones of the baithak, in the corner of the lane, on the street, on the poles, under the bridge, by the edge of the villages, lay the hideouts of these spirits. Once a traveller passed under the thorny khijra tree, one of them pounced upon him and the two fell fighting; the moment the man’s foot went beyond the shadow of the foliage these phantoms of turmoil vanished. Some say an old woman sits begging beneath that far-off ber tree; others speak of an old low-caste man who squats below the bridge. He will ask you for a bidi; quietly refuse, without speech, without turning your head.

After the evening meal we would sit on the steps of the silent mohalla and speak of these things. As the lamp-wicks in the windows of the mohalla grew slowly dimmer so would our tale-telling. A sudden gust of wind rustling through the nearby neem, the dry crackle of leaves, the momentary cawing of crows starting up and the sight above the slaughterhouse roof of the moon like a silver dish, disturbed the fallow mind in a queer sort of way. A short distance away the beggar woman, the Pir, jinnaat, and all kinds of creatures would appear, playing out their charade before my eyes. Sliding under my quilt I pulled it tight about myself, so tight that not even the tiniest mite could possibly peep in.

Indeedthesecreatures lived around us but we were carefulthat theyshould not enter our bodies or ourselves. Once two men took an old woman with unkempt hairto the old maulvi who lived in the upper storey of our house, saying she was possessed. Across the river on the sandy bank the poor unfortunate woman had put her foot in an accursed place and been trapped. I was reminded of the small insects that lived in the aval. In my private myth these creatures dwelt in the very aura spread about the tree. There were some who had seen strange and awesome sights in the river. My father spoke to a white jinnaat who sprang across the great width of the river in a single leap; he even saw his footprint in the damp sand. Some believed that beings of this kind merely spun round and round like windmills; we thought of the whirring blades of a fan. There were others who offered those who could cross the river and return unharmed such treasure or reward as they could wish for.

Going to school, the next morning, passing the faqirkhana, seeing faqirs of all kinds, their black and white beards, bright shirts, green pennants, necklaces of multitudes of coloured stones about their throats, I would think suddenly of the bright green flag I had seen the night before. The most attractive of all the faqirs, Sidi Badshah, even danced like a being from another world. Taking his staff decorated with peacock’s feathers and cowrie shells, he began to stamp his feet, the fragrant smoke from the incense-burner he carried enveloping his body in wispy threads, and for a second his sheesham like skin would disappear in a cloud of smoke.

Today looking at the Persian painting of the Journey of the Prophet, his green robe, the shafts of the golden aureole about his head draws me back to the thread-like wisps of smoke of my childhood vision. Watching the hundred-armed gods of the Nepalese Vajrayana painting I am reminded of the spirit-inhabited windmills of our tales. In Rousseau’s painting to see a snake coiled about the throat of a black woman, an eerie green moonlight behind her; in that of Piero Della Francesca to encounter angels with their mouths half-open in wonder; or in another painting to discover the muteness on the faces of the maidservants surrounding the Queen of Sheba has, suddenly, a remembered affinity with the creatures, trees, darkness and essence of boyhood evocations.

Since my stripling days these chimera have lived in my very being, in my blood, veins, skin, bones. Asleep in the darkness and with the creatures of this darkness I first awoke to my dormant masculinity. Desires, lust which had grown with these creatures sought each part of my flesh and ran through my blood; there in the dark I had my first forbidden dream. Fruit green and shot with gunpowder burst, as did my childhood into adolescence.

The stories of spirits turned about! I began to understand the folk stories of the animals who lived with these ghostly beings. It is said that on the outskirts of the village in the dried jungle strange animals live. They look like human beings but have hairy bodies like gorillas, walking on all fours and springing as lightly as deer. When the night has grown long they creep into the village to kidnap people. If it is a male it will carry off a female; if it is a woman, a man. They would make their way into some lonely village home shifting the curved tiles on the roof through which they entered. Soundlessly they would lift the body onto their shoulders and take it away to their cave, where they indulged the flesh all day. As night fell and before, these creatures ventured out in the darkness again, they would grind the heels of their captives flat with their rough metal-like tongues to stop their escape. It is said that in some deserted caves in the jungle lie the skeletons of men and women so used and abandoned.

As the night wore on and the moonlight fell on my quilt through a chink in the roof it seemed for a moment as though someone was shifting the tiles; the sound of the cat walking over the roof, moving the pieces of clay, made me shiver. Listening to the high scream of an owl from the distant neem, the choked groan of the wind between the doors of the nearby slaughterhouse, I would begin to shiver; my feet would arch and stiffen. Waiting for the lustful female, night would rise slowly in me to descend like a hot flush of perspiration.

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