A Voice of Grief
“O Prophet! Salutations on him and his family. Mine is a lowly station, and yours exalted beyond imagination. You are the commander of the Holy Sanctuary in Arabia, and I, a destitute foreigner. I am but a humble seeker, my sinful lips unworthy to sing your lofty praises. You are nothing but mercy and benefaction, and I nothing but fault and error.”
“Gulshan!” Irfan yelled over the incessant chanting of the virtuous darbaris (religious courtiers). “Gulshan!” He nudged his arm lying static on the time-worn accordion. There was a flicker in the eyes, a calling of the Northern Star perhaps of just a chanting brought back to life. Irfan grabbed the emaciated wrists yet laden with the bracelets that Gulshan had accumulated having travelled over yonder distances until they sought refuge in the warmth of the hands of a nomadic chanter. Irfan had tried to force him to get rid of them for they weighed him down, he always retaliated saying it elevated him to Arcady but behind all of this Irfan knew it all too well. It wasn’t their first edifice of disagreement.
Gulshan tried to harness the edges of consciousness as a tug to the arms pulled him upwards from the rotten door frame that led to the courtyard of the archaic shrine in old Lahore. He didn’t like this extrinsic force to interfere in between his chanting, it felt like a contamination or a hallucination perhaps? He wasn’t quite sure for, after all, his incantations were the last piece of sanity keeping his charring ship ashore. “Gulshan! You need to chase away this needless desire of yours before the more-devoted kick you out of your wandering excursion. This is their turf now and they can kill in the name of fidelity and you are not among the devoted or the wealthy. You need to come with me before they start beating you up for the second time.”
Irfan was barely audible to Gulshan for the incessant chanting in his head would not let him weave his path to sanity, and as he struggled to catch a glimpse of the fading verses of a new incantation, Irfan jerked him forward and pulled him away into the glow of the street-side local shops and said, “Can you for once get out of this drunken brain of yours?! For once, listen to me and stop being stubborn as always, I am taking you to my restaurant around the corner, you need to feed the body before your next excursion.”
“I am not drunk! Do not try to contaminate me with your ways,” yelled Gulshan.
“I didn’t mean liquor, my friend, you’re drunk on words, on your own grief. You would know if you could see straight for once.” and Irfan pulled him through crowds of retiring devotees and young gentlemen waiting outside street vendors, for all sorts of odds indeed.
These were just words, sounds Gulshan could hear getting lost in the atoms of time. Words that weren’t meant to stay, that weren’t meant to cement in the heart, words that were of a precious similitude, a similitude that he had lost in his own chanting. Nonetheless, he let them guide him to his only safe haven, a voiceless refuge to be exact.
Irfan could see them, the policemen making their way to the mausoleum and before they could snatch away the remaining devotees from the pillars of stone and the same stone floors where they would weep in forgiveness, everyone with their own creed but then elsewhere constitute a destitute body of worldly confessions and impulses, call it hypocrisy or faith. Either way, Irfan had already shoved Gulshan inside his road-side local restaurant to safety from the perpetrators. He had known the devotees to be the faithful, for his own friend was among them but then he questioned the lack of acceptance and it was in his questioning that he knew he would get himself killed one day.
He shouted to his subordinate who was taking a fellow table’s order and ordered the night’s special stew and meanwhile glanced back at Gulshan, silently but not in pity, in empathy. He was at a loss of words for he had already said everything in the wake of change required for Gulshan, but nothing seemed to pierce through his walls of intonation, an imminent, indestructible rhythm, an endless rhapsody that he carried with him, step by step and street by street. “I have a spare mattress upstairs in the empty room. You’re going to spend the night there from now on for the streets aren’t safe anymore, it is everywhere on the news.” Irfan stated sternly. However, Gulshan retaliated, “You have become deaf and blind from that which matters, these rooms are dormant of any divine blessings unlike the shrines and the streets.” Irfan lowered his gaze and said, “Divinity lies in the heart before it enters the room. And I am not deaf or blind, for I hear and see you, you are the one who refuses to look back.”
It was all mostly a flurry as Gulshan tried to stuff the spicy stew upon the zeal and zest of Irfan and at his expense was almost shoved into a dusty room upstairs which had not been cleaned even after the walls had been painted years ago. The room had a broken mahogany table at one end with a cigarette tray placed on one corner and then a run-down mattress on the opposite side of the room.
Irfan said something earnestly and then left as he slammed the door but Gulshan couldn’t comprehend anything except the ‘contamination’ in the room. He ran to the table, picked up the crystalline cigarette tray and threw it out the window. He couldn’t hear the glass shattering over his own yelling, “Forgive me! Pardon me! I am a sinner, I am vice, eradicate me! God is …” and his voice trailed off to mumbling as he chanted silently, with his head bent, the praying beads shaking in his quivering hands. Irfan stood at the door with a bottle of liquor in his hands, staring in haunting silence. The hours soon sped by and as the sun dashed across the horizon Gulshan knew all too well. Yesterday night was just a hallucination, either that or at least its characters were, the acts were still not spared. Gulshan took his accordion and left for his daily rounds of chanting as he traversed down each street, to what avail? No one knew.
“Mine is a lowly station, and yours exalted beyond imagination. You are reality, I merely perception. You are the Ocean, I a wandering thirst. My dwelling is on the humble soil, and you journey, beyond the seventh heaven to the Lote-tree of the Extremity.”
As Gulshan tapped away, street by street, playing his accordion all along but only hearing his chanting of infinite praise, he heard his one and only symphony that recollected him back to reality. “Gulshan chacha (Uncle), wait!” yelled Noor as she hurried out of the burgundy gate to hand him an envelope.
“Have the coins in Irfan’s pouch all been finished?” asked Gulshan in humour.
“No Gulshan chacha! Today’s a special day. You’re forgetting something, as always!” Noor giggled and then ran back inside after her mother’s call.
Gulshan clenched the envelope in his fist and exited his own mausoleum of grief, silently and seeking absolution. And indeed for the first time in a year, after the incident had occurred, had his footsteps found a destination waiting in patience, and his words a purpose for finding death. He knew he was headed for the graveyard.
The thought was exhilarating to him, how trees could grow in graveyards, how life could sprout from the dead. However, it also seemed plausible when the same life from the same soil now lay breathless among the pre-existing similitude that births the life initially for another patient breath. He didn’t dare to enter his destitute destination, well he has not had that courage for well over a year now, but today he decided to recline on its peripheral wall with his back to his friend’s grave, two worlds separated by the inanimate.
Gulshan was well-aware of last night’s excursions, he was also well-aware of Irfan’s corpse behind him and six-feet under him. On the expense of a recurring tear on the edge of his eye, he opened the envelope which had the poignant scent of cigarette smoke. “Stupid Irfan.” Gulshan thought. The envelope had some money in it and then something riveting. A poem. Words. Mere words or more? Well, whatever Gulshan chanted were also words, words in connection, with meaning. But could words of the departed have meaning too, any substance at all? Well, those same words had carried him back home to a dead friend’s grave and he couldn’t overlook the still silence that lay between them now, at opposing sides of still life, one dead and one alive, but what difference lay in the evidence?
Gulshan clasped the envelope and its contents and left the chilling shade to find refuge in the chaos. For the first time, he chanted without the accordion, a gift from Irfan for he knew the difference now. He returned to the same road-side hotel that was previously owned and run by Irfan but now only jostled under his name which was no more than a stranger’s name to the passerby’s but was the voice of a deceased friend on Gulshan’s lips as he chanted along the stone buildings.
He went and sat at the same table, used the money to order the same food that Irfan would force him to shove down his gullet and that is exactly what he did even though he didn’t really have an appetite or a heart to feed the food to. He then made his way to the nearby local shop to buy a pack of cigarettes, the ones Irfan liked to smoke for he reminisced that it was the same greasy counter over which they would argue as Gulshan would threaten him to leave his disastrous habits but the agitation between the two altered states of two varying statures did not obstruct their brotherhood. He carried the box back to the same run-down room on the first floor of Irfan’s restaurant and placed it on the dust-laden mahogany table lying on the same end in the altered atmosphere.
He placed his accordion on the same table and retired to the opposite corner of the room. He could still hear the gunshot that pierced through Irfan’s skull as he stood up for Gulshan against the religious aristocrats who wanted to get rid of Gulshan from their turf for he had no money to give them for his stay at the shrine or for sleeping in the street corners. It was his heaven and hell but mortality and immortality of whose? He wasn’t sure.
He had thought that the words of wisdom might make steel run through his veins but all it did was make him a nomad in search of life among the dead, a wanderer for love among the carcasses, a cure in the disease, for his friend’s corpse was all the life that he had known and ever will. He took out Irfan’s poetry from the envelope as the words lay erect on the lifeless page;
“Why does beauty lie behind the curse?
For we aren’t just colours,
We are the absence of colour.
The presence of the intensity of sentiment.
As I bow down to my eternal end,
To our predicted future,
I can hear the silence after the question.
A lack of words to say,
After the last goodbye.
I wonder what it feels like,
To be so close to what is in the heart,
But yet, be miles away,
In the resonating murmurs of comfort.
And the pain becomes unbearable.
But pain amazes me too,
It leaves a bitter aftertaste,
One which is addictive.
But I still hope.
For a resonating voice,
That shutters in the still silence,
Either my word of value,
Or yours of grief.”
Gulshan had known Irfan to be a thinker, in fact, it was often his philosophical statements that would echo in Gulshan’s head all day as he would go from place to place chanting his heart out. However, he asked himself whether this lingering thought of this still silence was worth his life, or was worth his time at all, but then it is the people that matter in kinship and the friendship always remains boundless, free like a bird either on a window sill or atop a tombstone. Still, he remained silent even with the birth of a new voice to chant with and with words to declare their new ode, but he knew better than that as he made this silence permanent by jumping out the same window to meet the same fate as Irfan’s deadly habit. It wasn’t grief or cowardice, it was simply a refuge in the absolution of the last vow of friendship and brotherhood.
(Disclaimer: The following work is inspired by Muzaffar Warsi’s literary work which is titled “Tu Kuja Man Kuja” and was later composed by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. In fact, the italicised dialogues are snippets from his work’s English translation. Additionally, the mentioned acts of drinking and smoking in the story are NOT supported or motivated. The following are also NOT my personal opinions and this is not based on true events but is a fictional story.)