Saturday 21 May 2016

The Edge Of The Blade

It’s just eight in the morning, but the sun has burned off the night chill and turned the air over the desert into an oven.

Since the car has no air conditioning, we drive with the windows rolled down. The breeze makes the heat more manageable, though it does mean that sand and grit blow in as well. The sand gets everywhere. It’s in the upholstery, in the grooves of the rubber mats on the floor; it gets into the folds of my clothes and makes my eyes water. It sticks to my palms and chafes them against the steering wheel, and it even gets in my mouth if I try to talk.

That’s as good a reason as any not to talk, anyway.

“You understand, don’t you?” the producer from al Hayat asks, for the third or fourth time. He sits hunched over in the seat next to me, his hand pressed against the dashboard, as though that would make the car move faster. He’s a thin man with a long nose and bulging eyes, his manner nervous and abrupt, like a grasshopper. “It may or may not be today, but you have to act as though it is.”

“I get you, Abu Sulaiman,” I say, just to stop him from repeating it over again, but he doesn’t even look at me. He doesn’t listen to anything anyone says, never has; his one love is for the sound of his own voice. I go back to watching the road, squinting to limit the glare of the sun from the white desert.

Behind me, the camera crew in their lorry hangs back, trying to avoid the worst of my dust. They don’t like coming out of their posh offices and mingling with us ordinary fighters. They’re better paid, better housed, and with privileges the like of which the rest of us can’t even dream; with their cameras and their computers, they’re far more valuable than an ordinary warrior who can merely press the trigger of a gun. I glance briefly in the rear view mirror, but the lorry is almost too far away to see.

As I drive, I remember once again what Abu Musab had said when I’d been ordered to go back from the front line to this assignment. We’d been sitting in a shallow trench on a hillside, watching the opposite slope for any sign of movement by the enemy. “Lucky,” he’d told me, tapping a piece of stone against another. “You’re lucky, Abu Walid.”

“Lucky?” I echoed. “What are you talking about? I’ll have to act like a performing monkey in front of the cameras – and you call me lucky?”

Abu Musab hadn’t looked at me. “I’d take your place in a heartbeat,” he’d said, “if only I were given the chance.”

That had disturbed me, because Abu Musab was a senior fighter, one who’d been in the war against the murtaddin since the last days of the Crusader occupation of Iraq. But of course I’d said nothing.

“Not that I doubt why they want you,” Abu Musab had said finally. “With your English, you’ll be just the kind of person who’d be ideal for the job.”

I do not want to be ideal for the job. I want to be sitting beside Abu Musab, fighting the enemy. That is what I’d thrown away my old life for, and made the hijrah to the Khilafat. If I’d wanted to perform for the cameras I’d have tried my luck with a casting agency.

The engine coughs slightly, and then recovers. I’ve no idea what’s wrong with it. This car is ancient – it doesn’t even have seat belts – and my knowledge of engines is almost nothing. I only learnt to drive before making my hijrah, so I might be of more use to the Khilafat. I hope the engine doesn’t quit, and mutter a quick prayer to Allah in that regard.

Will Allah listen to me? If Allah’s will is for the engine to fail, then am I going against His will by imploring Him to keep it going? This is the kind of theological discussion I always try to avoid, because all it does is provoke acrimony. Not that, going by what I’ve seen, acrimony can be avoided anyway.

Far away, a hump of pink and yellow rises above the desert. That’s the old fort of al Qila, where we’re headed. I’ve been there once before; a tumbled heap of giant blocks of sandstone, among which scorpions crawl slowly and malevolently, tails curved over their backs. It’s easy to lose one’s way among the maze of ruins.

“The video will be seen across the world,” Abu Sulaiman says. “Are you sure you know your lines?”

I nod. The steering wheel is sweat-slick beneath my hands, and I wipe them one by one on my thighs. Back home, right now, the green leaves will have broken through the skins of the trees, and fruit begin to swell, green ripening to pink. If I were at home now, I could have been sitting under a tree with a girl, playing with her hair, feeling her leaning against my chest, the smell of her heady in my nose. I’ve chosen to give all that up, to come half the world to do as my conscience commanded me, to fight the murtadd and the kufr for the glory of the Khilafat – only to drive a car across the desert at the command of a man whose plan for me is to perform before a camera.

It could be worse, I tell myself. I could be home still, doing things that might give momentary pleasure, but damn me in the long run, things I should be ashamed of. I’ve told myself this so many times I’ve lost count. I think it’s a fault in my spiritual make-up that I have to keep telling myself this.

Al Qila grows larger and larger in the windscreen. The remnants of the walls are still impressive, high enough that one has an idea of how gigantic they must have been once. From above those walls, generations of young warriors must have peered out over the desert, looking for the sunlight glittering on the spears of enemy armies. Now those walls are tumbled stone, and those warriors blown dust.

I glance at Abu Sulaiman out of the corner of my eye, wondering what he’d say if I talked about what I’ve just been thinking of. But his attention is on the old fort.

“It’s a great backdrop,” he says. “It lends the whole video a touch of drama.”

“It’s also easily identifiable,” I say sourly, pulling off the highway and onto the track leading to the fort. The cloud of dust we’re trailing doubles at once. If the enemy were overhead, we should have been bombed long ago, but Abu Sulaiman has assured me we’ll be safe. How he knows that, I can’t say, but it’s true enough that nobody has attacked us so far.

“We’ll be shooting inside,” he says, and I wince. Between those walls the trapped air will be like molten fire.

Another vehicle is already waiting in the shade of the nearest wall, a dark blue van with the muzzle of a machine gun poking out of the passenger’s side window. A mujahid in a brown uniform walks over when we park.

“It’s not the same one,” he says. “We couldn’t bring him.”

“What’s the problem with him?” Abu Sulaiman asks.

The mujahid shrugs. His face is speckled with blackheads, the corners of his eyes crusted with dried yellow tears. Once, back in that other life, I’d had a girlfriend who’d cleaned the corners of my eyes with her long slender fingers and put blackhead plaster over my nose. “He’s ill. He’s in no shape to face the cameras, Abu Sulaiman.”

“Pity,” the producer says. He glances at me. “Abu Walid, you know what to do, don’t you?”

“I know,” I say, though of course I’m far from sure I do know. I know my lines, I’ve watched the videos, but what would I do if I actually had to...I turn my mind away, and busy myself with getting out of the car and slamming the door with unnecessary vehemence. I’ll handle the other thing if it comes to it. Others have, so why can’t I?

“So who is he, Abu Bilal?” Abu Sulaiman asks. “And where is he?”

“Some guy who wandered into one of our patrols,” Abu Bilal replies. “He seems to have been kind of a tourist. You know, the sort who wanders around a battlefield looking for thrills. He’s in the van.”

While they talk, I walk away, looking down the road back towards the highway. The crew lorry is a puff of dust in the middle distance, the sky already a glare of whitish steel. With every passing moment, I’m feeling more uncomfortable, less sure of myself. At first, when I I’d first thought of coming to the Khilafat, I’d imagined that the journey would be the most difficult part, that everyone would look at me, just see my face, and known where I was going and for what. I’d imagined that I’d be stopped at the airport, and perhaps, if I’m honest, I’ll even admit that maybe I’d half-hoped to be turned back, so I could say I’d tried and failed. But nobody looked at me twice at all, not at the passport controls, or in the plane, or at the border town in Turkey where I’d finally got off the bus. I’d met the person I’d contacted online before beginning the hijrah, and two days later I was in the Khilafat.

Then I’d thought that Allah was smoothening my path. Now. I am no longer so sure.

I resist the urge to glance at the van. Its windows are tinted, and I don’t know if the unknown man inside can even see me, but I feel suddenly intensely unwilling to show him my face. I walk back to the car and get the hood that Abu Sulaiman had given me when I’d picked him up. It’s heavy, thick cloth, and it’ll be terribly hot underneath, but suddenly I want to wear it, as though I want to hide my face, not just from the man in the van, but from the whole world.

This is what I’ve come to, I think wryly. At one time, I had a girlfriend who would cleanse my face with her tender fingers and kiss my lips, murmuring how handsome I was. Now, I hide my face from the world, simply so I can feel secure.

“Abu Walid’s eager to do this,” Abu Sulaiman laughs. “He can’t wait to get dressed for the job. And here I thought he might be reluctant.”

“Here, Abu Walid.” Abu Bilal reaches over my shoulder into the back of the car and brings out the sword. “You’d better practice a bit. We don’t want fumbles, do we?”

It’s impossible to know whether he’s being facetious. Though Abu Sulaiman and he obviously know each other well, I’ve never met him before, and there’s something about him that I find almost physically repellent. I know it’s not right to feel that way about a fellow fighter for the Khilafat, a brother in arms, but I have to suppress a shudder as I take the sword and my fingers momentarily touch his.

The sword is heavier than I imagined, awkward to raise, and I walk away a few steps as I swing it clumsily. The edge catches the sun and glitters, a line of silver fire. Once I recall standing by the side of a lake, far away, and the sun had shone on waves with that same silver glitter, but then I hadn’t wanted to avert my eyes.

The ammunition harness across my back and shoulders is tight, and I debate taking it off. But it’s been with me for months now, ever since I’d arrived and been given it, and I don’t want to be without it now, at this moment, when I’m doing the first thing since I’ve arrived that has had any significance at all.

The film crew’s arrived, and is setting up their equipment. There’s a woman, I’m surprised to see. She’s swathed in a black niqab, but looks young, and is more than likely pretty under that veil. She moves like a dancer. She’s probably someone with experience of movie shoots, learnt back in the sinful West. The sinful West teaches a lot of skills the Khilafat needs, I think, not for the first time.

My girlfriend, who I find myself thinking about more and more these days, had skills we could have used; she was a graphics designer, who could make images and animations that I could barely believe. I’d asked her how she did it once, and she’d laughed and said she’d teach me anytime I had a few hours to spare. It was easy, she said; all I had to do was want to learn.

But I didn’t, did I? I just left her, without a word, and came to the Khilafat, to be a soldier for Allah.

I wonder what she thinks about that now, or about the things we did together, things unmarried people should not do. It is a sin.

Unless, of course, one does it with concubines or slaves, and then it is not a sin.

“Abu Walid?” Abu Sulaiman says. “Abu Walid!”

I find that I am swinging the sword with a power I do not remember summoning, the heavy blade cleaving the air. I’m embarrassed. “What?”

“We’re ready for you.” The producer points to the van. A small figure, clad in bright orange, is being led out by two mujahideen holding his arms. “You remember your lines, of course.”

“I told you I did.” The lines are no problem. I’ve rehearsed them over and over, and in any case they’re nothing hard. What concerns me is the other thing. Can I do it? And if I can’t, will it be held against me?

Of course it will be held against me. A soldier of the Khilafat is a slave of Allah and has no more right to refuse an order than he has to refuse a command from Allah Himself.

I will not hold back, I swear to myself, and swing the sword one final time, viciously. If I’m ordered to kill the damned man in orange, murtadd or kufr or whatever other perversion he’s guilty of, I will. I won’t let him get in my way.

“We’ll do the shoot in several takes,” Abu Sulaiman says. “We’ll use the best one. Of course, if I ask you to kill him, that’ll be only at the end and we’ll add it to the best take of the shoot.”

“Will you ask me to kill him?” I ask, as we walk across the desert towards the fort.

“It depends.” Abu Sulaiman says evasively. “It depends on how the takes come out.”

The set for the shoot is a square with walls on three sides. The sunlight bounces off the light coloured sandstone, so that it looks floodlit from all directions. The heat is incredible. I blink away sweat stinging my eyes.

The captive is hunched over, by the far wall, staring at the ground at his feet. I begin walking towards him, and then suddenly pause. Though the face is scrubby with beard and the hair cut so short the scalp shines through, there’s something familiar about his face, the set of his shoulders, the way his head’s tilted to one side...

A voice from my past, from so long ago, on the field of my old school, at lunch hour, when we were playing football. “Stop hogging the ball. Pass it here!” And I did.

After the game was over, he’d pushed me. “It’s a damn team game, not you using the ball as decoration for your feet.”

I’d pushed him back. “Touch me again, and the ball will be decoration for your face.”

He’d laughed and patted me on the arm. “You’re all right.”

And then again, a couple of days later, when I’d been about to be beaten by a couple of bullies in the alley behind the school, he was suddenly by my side. “Not your battle alone,” he’d told me later, when the bullies, finding things no longer so easy, had walked off. “If I get bullied, I’ll expect you to stand by me.” Only he never seemed to get bullied, somehow.

We’d gone to the movies together, drunk beer in the park behind the church – which I hadn’t cared then was haram – and talked about things like girls and music. I’d even tried to learn to play his guitar, hurting my fingers in the process; I hadn’t known then that stringed instruments were forbidden, and it I’d had, it wouldn’t have stopped me. We’d promised that we’d be friends forever, and that we’d always look out for each other, no matter what happened.

And what had happened? I don’t remember, can’t say. All I remember is him looking at the books on my shelves and shaking his head. “I don’t recall you with all this religious stuff.”

“Does it matter?” I’d asked. “I’m not trying to convert you.”

“I’m not worried about that,” he’d replied. “I’m afraid you’ll end up converting yourself.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I’d asked. But I can’t remember if he’d answered, or what the reply had been.

And now, suddenly, here he is, hunched over in the desert morning.

“Abu Walid?” Abu Sulaiman calls. “Take your place.”

I nod, automatically, like a robot, and my legs begin working again, taking me towards that silent figure in orange. My mouth is dry, the sword heavy in my right hand. I can see the fear in his eyes, looking at me as I come.

If this was a movie, this would be the moment when I would set him free, cut the rope from his bound wrists with one sweep of my blade. Then we’d rout the guards and drive away in the car, taking along the woman in the niqab, who would finally choose one of us over the other in the light of a new dawn. But this isn’t a movie, and as I step round him and take up my place, I can only hope he doesn’t recognise my voice. Perhaps he won’t, through the cloth.

Abu Sulaiman fusses around me, fitting a tiny black microphone to my collar. The wire vanishes under my ammunition harness and reappears to trail across the ground. The woman’s standing beside one of the three cameras, which are shooting us from various angles. As Abu Sulaiman walks back, she gives me the thumbs up.

How strange it is, to be given a thumbs up by a woman here, in a ruined fort in the heart of the Khilafat, while standing behind a bound captive with a heavy sword!

In the moments left to me, while Abu Sulaiman checks his cameras, I look down at the cringing figure at my feet. I’m so close to him I can see the drops of sweat crawling down the back of his neck. I wonder what he’d been doing here, in the Khilafat, and suddenly I know, beyond a shadow of doubt, I know.

He’d come here looking for me. He’d come to find me, if he could, and take me away. He’d looked out for me, as he’d promised.

But I can’t look out for him. The best I can do is try to make sure that he doesn’t know who I am, that I’m the one whom he’s been looking up at with such fear.

Abu Sulaiman raises and drops his finger. I mouth the words I’ve been rehearsing, and they’re meaningless on my tongue, I don’t know what they mean, but I’m saying them anyway, and I can see from the expression on the producer’s face that I’m doing well, that the things I say are exactly as he wants them. I can’t help myself, I know that what I’m saying, the way I’m saying them, are dooming him, my friend, but I can’t stop. And perhaps, perhaps it’s better that I’m the one who ends him here, not some stranger. We’ve been through so much, I can give him that much, at least.

It’s then that I know he knows who I am, and he holds his head up, neck stretched out, at the end, waiting; and when Abu Sulaiman signals and I raise my arm, the sword is so light, so light.

Afterwards, someone’s escaped, and someone’s a prisoner; and I can’t even tell which is which.

Not anymore.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

Tuesday 17 May 2016

The Path On Hulu

On the Path on Hulu, the little white flowers push through the earth in spring; little flowers with petals powdery as moth wings, which paint passers-by’s feet with silver and violet.

In spring, bees hum over the Path on Hulu, and butterflies flap by on huge gauzy multicoloured wings, creatures so vast and so insubstantial that one might imagine they were a dream.

In spring, the breezes blow gently over the Path on Hulu, and they bring the fragrances of the forests in the valleys below, and the slopes above – the perfumes of wildflowers, the aroma of resin, the clear fresh tang of mountain air. The breeze brings noises too, the cry of a wild bird, the rustling of leaves, and, sometimes, even the distant noises of Lunahar, though it is over the hills and far away.

On the Path on Hulu, spring does not last long. It gives way soon enough to summer, and the earth parches hard as brick. The flowers wilt and die, and the only insects on the wing are clouds of tiny buzzing, stinging flies. When the wind blows, it brings only dust, and the sky overhead is a bowl of silvery fire.

And then it is that the rains come to Hulu. Over the mountains the clouds gather in towers, pillars holding up the sky; white shading to grey and black at the base with the shadows of the tons and tons of vapour piled up above. Then it is that the lightning comes, in jagged fingers reaching down to lick the land. Once the lightning comes, the rain will not be far behind, and then nobody but the foolhardy and the desperate tread the Path on Hulu.

The rain was coming down in a solid mass when the donkey and I came up from the valley towards the Path on Hulu. It was only mid-afternoon, but so dark that but for the constant flashes of lightning it might have been night. All the way up the slope, the water washed away pebbles and earth underfoot, so that the donkey had to tack his way back and forth up the path to keep his footing.

I did not try to control the donkey. He and I had been together a very long time. I trusted him to know what he was doing as well as I did.

Neither the donkey nor I was foolhardy. But we were desperate, because we were in a race against time, and on the Path on Hulu in the rain this was not a good thing to be.

It could not be helped. My kind of work takes me to unexpected places, at unexpected times, and I’d had to go down in the valley to collect something that would not wait. It was in the leather bag on the side of the donkey’s saddle, the bag which was still far from filled.

I was on my way to fill it again.

I bent over the donkey’s neck, letting the raindrops shatter on my shoulders and the back of my head as we came on to the Path. It was, of course, not the first time I’d trod the Path on Hulu; each journey of mine, wherever I go, whenever I go, brings me here in the end.

Far behind me, across the hills, lay mighty Lunahar, where so much of my business lay, and to which I must return by tonight; but for now I would have to make my way across the Path on Hulu, in the lightning and the rain.

On the Path on Hulu, there are always side tracks leading away between the trees, which appear and vanish as the curtain of rain parts momentarily. We have come along many of these tracks, my donkey and I; someday we will tread them all. Perhaps new tracks will appear by then, and old ones fade away.

I saw the way I had to go, and my donkey – perhaps feeling the touch of my knee, hardly consciously applied, or knowing by his own long understanding of our work – turned to the side and began walking uphill. The track was narrow and overgrown, unlike some of the ones which were broad and well-travelled; it was not a track that had much known human feet, or ever would.

The rain ceased for a moment, completely, and I saw my destination ahead; a hut in a small clearing, a hut made of dried grass and branches tied together, something temporary, which was never going to last. And I could feel it waiting, dreading my arrival, but also eager.

I swung myself off the donkey’s back and walked to the hut. Set into the far wall was a small door, but it hung open. What lay inside was not at danger from thieves.  It was waiting for me.

I knocked anyway, for one must; it is not for me to enter unless I am certain that I have work to do. And from the darkness within I heard a single noise, which could be a sob or a word. I knocked again, and this time there was no doubt what it was.

“Come,” the voice said.

I entered. Though the inside of the hut was dark, I could see clearly enough. The girl was very young, but that I had known already from the hut; it was not a place that had time to form, a place that would ever grow old.  All she wore was nightshadow, which covered her from neck to knees. She lay on a pile of branches, her shoulders propped against the wall, her hands clasped together under her breasts. In her hands there was the thing I had come here to get, a thing of dim light that pulsed red and gold, orange and white, and then red again.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” she whispered. But her eyes were huge and terrified. “You have come to take it away, haven’t you?”

“If you want me to,” I said. I stood next to her bed of branches, looking down at her. The thing that glowed was flickering now, brighter and dimmer. I could reach out to take it, but I made no move. She had to give it to me herself.

She looked for a moment as though she would hand it up at once, and get it over with, but still clutched it to her bosom. “I didn’t want to, at first” she said. “I thought it was going to be different, this time. I thought it would turn out all right. But it never does, does it? Life, love, when you look at it, it never lasts. They say one can do what one wants, one can dance on air, but when one tries one falls, and the ground is cold and hard. And after a while it’s just not worth trying again. You understand why I did it, don’t you?”

“I can’t say anything about that,” I told her. “I just some at the end, to collect. But you have to give it to me, of your own will.”

“I will,” she whispered. “In a moment. Just give me a moment more.”

I saw myself through her eyes, then, the hulking figure in the battered leather outfit, the hooded head, the face which showed no emotion, which was capable of showing no emotion. I knew she was terrified, and that if I reassured her, she would give the thing up to me, and be happy to let it go.

Instead, I shook my head. “No,” I said, my voice as emotionless as my face. “I’ve got to go. If you want to give it to me, you must do it now, without a moment’s delay.”

For an instant, I thought I’d miscalculated, that she would give it to me after all, and that gave me a nudge of what might have been sorrow and regret. But then she sat up, clutching the light to her, tighter than before. It steadied, glowing brighter, burning the nightshadows away. She got up, off the bed, uncaring for her nudity, sudden defiance in her eyes. “And if I don’t?”

“If you don’t, I’ll go away.” I paused. “Well?”

“Then go,” she said, clutching the thing that now blazed as bright as the sun. “I won’t give it to you.”

“Oh, you will.” I tell her what we both know is true. “But it will be when I come again, when this half-made hut of yours is a house, with a proper track leading to it. I’ll come when you’re ready.”

“I’ll never be ready,” she said, following me to the door of the hut. “Never, do you hear me? Never.”

I didn’t bother to answer her. The donkey waited outside. He snuffled at my hand.

It had begin raining again.


On the Path on Hulu, the rain falls in torrents and washes away the pebbles and the earth, and tracks leading away appear and disappear like magic. The tracks I follow lead me to places I do not always think of, places whose names I do not want to remember, but where I do the same thing each time, take the little flickering lights, the lights which glow dim and wink out when their owners offer them to me.

Each time I do it, and each time something within me wants to wink out too, but of course I can’t. I have work to do, work that will not wait.

I am as old as the stars, as old as time, and I will endure till time and stars are no more, and then, perhaps, my own light will wink out, and then I can rest. Or maybe, even then, I will go on. Even when the night is eternal, I may still go on, a shape of darkness among the corpses of the stars.

And once, just once, in a long time, it gives me a little hint of pleasure to not take something that is mine by right, to hold off, to let it burn a while longer, a flame against the coming of the night.

On the Path on Hulu, the rain crashes down on my face, and mixes with my tears; and not even the donkey knows whether the tears are of sorrow or of joy.

Copyright B Purkayastha 2016

[Photo Credit James Lipton. Used with permission.]

Monday 16 May 2016

White Bird, Dark Sky


(In order of appearance)
Zakir, her husband
Mumtaz, their daughter
Imad, their son
Fatima, their neighbour
Yassir, Fatima’s son.

Stage: The action is set entirely inside a single room in a West Asian house in a small town. The furnishings and decor must be generalised – not particular to one or other ethnicity, Yemeni or Afghan or Pakistani, Arab or Pashtun. It might be a good idea if the various actors are clearly of different ethnicities, with different skin tones and accents, even though they belong to the same family.

The room has heavy ceiling beams, which give an appearance of making the space smaller than it is. There is a divan against the wall facing the audience, before which is a large table hung with a heavy green tablecloth, chairs around it. Beside the divan is a bookcase with a few books; as far as they are visible to the audience they should have covers in Arabic, Urdu or Persian script. On top of the table there should be a child’s school satchel, exercise books and a geometry box. There’s a fireplace to one side, with soot-stained wall above it. There are two doors, opening left stage and right stage. A single window is in the middle of the wall facing the audience, above the divan. It is covered by a curtain, which can be drawn aside. When it is drawn aside, the audience should be able to see, as required, either dark grey sky or blue.

The lighting, which should be predominantly from one side of the ceiling, should concentrate on the stage centre, on the divan and the table, leaving the corners of the room – the sides of the stage – in shadow. The whole atmosphere should seem enclosed and oppressive.

Scene One: Morning

As the CURTAIN rises, SORAYA is seen picking up the satchel, geometry box and books from the table and putting them on top of the bookcase. She is around forty, dressed in a robe with a scarf loosely wrapped round her head. Her features are clearly visible, as are those of all the characters. ZAKIR is sitting on a chair, reading a newspaper intently. He is the same age as SORAYA, well-built, with a short beard, dressed in a T shirt over pyjama bottoms.

SORAYA: Imad, come for breakfast. Imad? You should come for breakfast now
Morning, I told you, is the time for freshness and a new day.

ZAKIR (without looking up from his paper): He’s still in bed, I think.

SORAYA (shaking her head): Again. That’s the third time this week. At this rate he’ll miss school again. And you sit there and read your paper, all unconcerned.

ZAKIR: So what do you want me to do about it?

SORAYA: Did I say anything to you? I try and not distract you from things
That are important to you. You know that. You’re the man of the house
You need to keep in touch with what’s happening in the world.
That’s why you sit there reading the paper
While our son lies still abed
And our daughter, out, somewhere.

ZAKIR (folding the paper with irritated rattle): All right. I’ll go wake him. Where’s Mumtaz?

SORAYA: I don’t know. She didn’t help me make breakfast, and when I went to see,
Her bed was empty. I no longer know what she’s thinking
I no longer know what you’re thinking.
I live in a house of strangers
Strangers whom I used to know.

[Enter MUMTAZ from stage left. She’s quite pretty, in her late teens, in old jeans and a sweatshirt, her head uncovered and hair tied back.]

MUMTAZ (looking from SORAYA to ZAKIR): What’s going on? Are you two arguing again?

SORAYA: And where were you? What were you doing out at this time of morning?

MUMTAZ (shrugs): Out. I went for a walk. I couldn’t breathe any longer inside this house.
These rooms where I was born
This air, which I learnt to breathe
Are no longer mine, no longer do I recognise them.
A prison for my body, a prison for my soul
And inside my heart an empty hole.

ZAKIR: It’s not safe out. You know that. And you shouldn’t dress like that. People see and talk.

MUMTAZ (laughs): Is it safe inside the house, Father? Is it really? As for dressing like this, I slept like this. I sleep with everything but my shoes on these days. In case I have to run in a hurry, you know. (Looks around.) Where’s Imad?

SORAYA: He hasn’t got up yet. Your father was about to go and get him.

MUMTAZ: Can’t you let him sleep? He was screaming again last night.

ZAKIR: What about?

MUMTAZ: How can I say? Dreams, I suppose. I dream myself,
I dream about that day. Spring was in the air
Leaves and flowers bursting out through the skin of the trees.
I could still breathe then, without knowing dread. Do you remember that day
When my breath died in my throat?

SORAYA: Mumtaz – we all remember it.

MUMTAZ: We remember it, you say? Is that what you say, Mother?
You remember the day I was out with Arifa – who used to call you her aunt, Mother
And who told me she wished she could call you Mother too.
Do you remember her face?

SORAYA (setting breakfast dishes on the table): We all do.

MUMTAZ: Then you’re better than me, Mother, luckier as well.
You have memories, I have but a piece of hell.
All I remember of that day was being out with her, and it was her sister’s wedding too
We looked for flowers and I told her a joke about how she’d find her Prince Charming
And we went to her house – where her brothers and her father made me welcome
And then do you know what happened then? You weren’t there, Mother
But you remember what happened?
The day when they carried me home
No mark on my body, in my breast a stone?

ZAKIR: Mumtaz, please.

MUMTAZ (ignoring him, her words overlying his): I’ll tell you what I remember,
I’ll tell you what I do.
I remember laughing as Arifa’s brother put on music, and her sister blushed
I remember helping put henna on her feet, I remember kissing her cheek
And Arifa said something, and I turned, because I loved to see her smile.
And then the sky fell apart, Mother, around Arifa’s head
The world fell apart around Arifa’s head
Like lightning, but not lightning, flung metal and the breath of fire
And Arifa had no face anymore.
That is what I remember, when I think of her now.
My friend, my sister in all but name
With whom I’d grown up, left
A face without a face.
Her sister, whose marriage it was
Whose feet I put henna on
Now has no feet left. No feet, no legs
And now, Mother, Father, tell me, do
Now that I’ve said what I remember, Mother, Father, what of you?

SORAYA: Mumtaz, this isn’t helping.

MUMTAZ: Perhaps it isn’t, perhaps it is. I no longer know.
But I can’t breathe without air
And lately there is no air anymore.

[Enter IMAD, stage right. He’s about ten or eleven, tousle-haired and in shorts and a T shirt, obviously just having got out of bed.]

IMAD: I had the dreams again. I had the dreams again.

SORAYA: Come, sit down, you can tell us about it later.

IMAD: I have to see first
If the sky is foul or fair.
[Goes to window, pulls aside curtain, revealing dark grey sky to AUDIENCE. Lets curtain drop.]
A grey sky, a sky grey as slate
For the moment this is salvation
For the moment, Allah’s will is great.

ZAKIR: Imad, sit down. What did you dream about
That brought you screaming awake at night?

IMAD: It’s the same thing every time
The white bird in the blue sky
Hovering overhead;
High overhead, like a second sun
It hangs; and follows me when I run.

SORAYA: And last night?

IMAD: Last night I was playing football in the street
And it was overhead – white and pure
White as death, on wings like the death of hope.
And it came swooping down
On us as we were playing in the street.
And then everyone was gone
And I was playing alone
On an iron plain. No light, no sky
Nothing  to see and nowhere to go
Just I alone.

MUMTAZ (Reaching out to touch him): And the drone.

IMAD: And the drone.
(Sips water from a glass – nobody has eaten anything yet)
Once I loved it when the sky was blue
Now, unless it’s slate-grey, I’m afraid.
The blue sky is the death sky
When the white bird comes.

MUMTAZ (to SORAYA and ZAKIR): You see what he’s going through?
(Gets up, wanders around the room, picking things up and putting them down again.)
It wasn’t that long ago, was it
When we could walk free out in the street?
I think I can still recall
When a boy could kick around a ball
Without him waking from terror-dreams
It wasn’t long ago – but how far it seems.
(Goes to window, and pulls aside the curtain. The sky is still grey)
Last night I saw a meteor streaking down
And I thought it was a missile on the town.

ZAKIR: We are all suffering, you know
Even if we don’t always say so.
Each time I get in the car
I don’t know if I’ll be called a fighter in their other war
I don’t know if the time will come
Though I’ve never harmed anyone.
I think, too, I dream as well
I feel hollowed, a living shell.

SORAYA: It can’t last forever. Can it?
I keep telling myself it can’t.
Why is nobody eating? Will none of you eat?

MUMTAZ: I don’t think anyone wants breakfast.
Come on, Imad, get ready. I’ll walk you to school.
Both of us can use time out together.

[Exit MUMTAZ and IMAD stage right.]

SORAYA (gathers up dishes): This I know, this I can say
The fear will kill us all in time
As surely as the drones will.
There are different ways to pay the butcher’s bill.

ZAKIR (gets up and tries to help her, but she waves him away): I’ll be getting ready for work.
You should think of other things.
The world still goes on, turning
It was there before we were, it will be there after we’re gone.
What can we do to help our son sleep
To make our daughter forget her friend?
Should we leave this all and go away
For a life in a refugee camp?
You know what it’s like there. We will live through this.
People have suffered before, will suffer again. (Exits stage right)

SORAYA (distressed): How can I see, what can I do?
I should be the strength of the house
The wife, the mother, the everything
And I feel it all slipping away.
Should I tell of what I’ve seen
The dreams of blood seeping up from the soil?
Should I tell of the fear I feel
Each time my children and my husband leave the house
That I’ll never see them again? What would they make of it
If I told them I saw myself, up in the sky
Flying like the drones, on wings of light –
The houses, the people, laid out far below
Like insects – like a sprawl of crawling insects
An ant hill, no more?
(Comes stage front, addresses AUDIENCE. Lights dim except for spotlight on her, illuminating her only.)
They say those who fly the drones know stress and fear
But in my dream I felt the bloodlust near.
I wanted to swoop, to kill and burn
And I knew I could do it. I was a god
And these were as toys for me, to play with.
I saw my son walk to school
I saw my husband drive along the street
I saw myself, too –
A woman in a headscarf, an insignificant thing
Less than human, less than an insect
I saw myself, and I wanted to destroy
This creature that could feel neither hope nor pain.
What if I told my husband that I lay beside him
Dreaming of ending him, ending this life
Ending everything? What would he say?
What do I say to myself when I think
I dream about this every day?
Tell me, must it be this way
Because of which god to whom we pray?
What have I done, what can I do
To make my life seem real to you?

[CURTAIN. End of Scene One]

Scene Two: Afternoon

As the CURTAIN rises, we see that there are a few changes. The satchel and school things are gone from on top of the bookcase, but ZAKIR’s newspaper is there now, folded. The books should be moved around a little. The chairs are in slightly different positions. There is a fresh tablecloth – perhaps red instead of green. Most of all, the lighting should be changed around. If earlier it was coming mostly from stage left, now it should be coming from stage right. However, it still only illuminates the middle of the stage.

All characters who have appeared in the earlier scene will have made costume changes. SORAYA will be wearing a gown and a headscarf of different colour. IMAD will be in a salwar-kameez. MUMTAZ will wear a different shirt and jeans. ZAKIR will have on a light-coloured shirt and dark trousers.

[Enter SORAYA, carrying an empty vase which she puts down on the table.]

SORAYA (stepping back and looking at the vase): If only I could put flowers in this.
I don’t remember when last we had flowers.
Sometimes I think these things matter, and then again I think they don’t.
(Goes to divan, pulls aside the curtain long enough for the AUDIENCE to see that the sky is blue.)
The clouds are gone
Blue sky, bird sky
The birds will be on the wing again.

[Enter FATIMA, stage left. She’s about the same age as SORAYA, and also dressed in other “traditional” clothing. Perhaps a burqa, but with the face left bare.]

FATIMA: Soraya, my sister, I need to talk to you.

SORAYA (Surprised, but welcoming): Sit down, Fatima, dear.
It’s been too long since you came to call.
I hope all is well?

FATIMA (sits): Well? I cannot say
By Allah’s grace, my family is not ill.
Not in body – but as for the soul
You know, I know, how things are.
I grow worried about my son
More worried, each and every day.

SORAYA (nodding): I grow worried about mine.
How old is Yassir now?

FATIMA: Twenty, young and headstrong
And the men with guns came last night to talk to him
They told him he had a choice to make,
A choice of deaths, he had to see
Die on his feet a warrior
Die on his knees a slave.
A slave to cowardice, they said, he’d be
If he listened to such as me.
Fight and die, or be slaughtered still
At a button-press by a foreign will.

SORAYA: And what does he say?

FATIMA: I think he will go with them.
I know he will go with them.
I fear he will go with them
Tomorrow, if not today.

SORAYA: Can you stop him? I know you have thought about this. Can you? Will you?

FATIMA: He needs responsibilities, something to hold him down
Something to keep him throwing himself away.
I was thinking – your daughter and he
They’re of an age, they’ve known each other all their lives
If they married, it would be what he needs,
It could be what she needs.
Someone to love, an anchor to keep him tied to life.

SORAYA: I must think about this.
I live in fear of what might be
I live in fear of what is.

FATIMA: We all do.
I taste fear in every breath.

[Enter IMAD, carrying the satchel, which he dumps on the table.]

FATIMA: Well, here you are. How was school today?

SORAYA: Put your things away, like I told you
It seems you never listen, no matter what I do.

IMAD: It’s there, above the house. It was there above the school.
It followed me home, Mother
It followed me home today.

[FATIMA and SORAYA glance at each other. FATIMA rises to her feet.]

FATIMA: I must go.
I must go and see
What’s going on at home, what’s going on with Yassir, with my son.
What I dread to know – it calls, it calls to me. [Exits, stage left.]

SORAYA: Don’t think about it, don’t worry about it.
You’re back home, you’re safe.
I’ll keep you safe, with my blood and body if need be.
Don’t be afraid any longer now,
Come to my arms, come to me.

[Enter MUMTAZ, stage right]
MUMTAZ: I’m glad you’re back
I have been worried today.
If I close my eyes
I can see the sky
And dark shadows against the sun
I am glad you’re home today.
[She goes to IMAD’s satchel, begins to take out books and put them on the table, and suddenly pauses, looking at a sheet of paper.]
What’s this? Mother, look at this.

[SORAYA crosses to MUMTAZ, looks at the paper, and claps her hand over her own mouth in shock.]

SORAYA: Imad, what is this? I did not know you could draw like this.
Is this really what you see
This desert of blood and burning stone
While drones with cruel claws soar above?
And is this your face
Are these your eyes?

MUMTAZ (hugging IMAD, who buries his head in her bosom – he is crying): This is the fear he lives in
This is how a person dies
Not with fire and an instant of pain
But with dread that drives one mad
This is how we live. This is how they make us live.
I can’t forget this, and I will not forgive.

SORAYA: You too? You too feel this way?
I wish I never had to see this day.
MUMTAZ: Mother, tell me, what world is this
Where we have no right to anger
No right to sorrow? What world is this
Where we are as nothing?
I look in the mirror, Mother, and the face I see
Has no meaning to me.
These eyes of mine, this hair, this skin
A mask made of some evil sin
Beyond anything that I understand
A sin that lies upon this land.
Are we human, Mother? Are we people too?
What does it seem to you?

[Enter ZAKIR and YASSIR. YASSIR is dressed in a vaguely military-appearing outfit, perhaps a green T shirt and khaki cargo trousers. He is gesturing and talking angrily as they enter.]

YASSIR: But I tell you, once more
We did not invade their lands
Our flying death machines do not hover over their homes.
They do not feel the dread we do –
To them we’re exhibits in a human zoo
To do with as they will
To let live one more day, or murder for a thrill.

ZAKIR: And to you the solution is this?
To inflict fear on them, to make their children cry?
Do you think that will pluck the wind from the drones’ outstretched wings?
Will the tears of their women lead us to better things?

YASSIR: And what are we doing now? Where goes this way?
Ask yourself this, ask this now, today.
You’ve fought once – you know what war is
And you know as well what to call this.
If nothing else, our honour is at stake –
You can choose to answer the call
Or be pushed to your death against a bloodstained wall.

ZAKIR: Yes. I have held a gun once
I know what it is to kill.
And that is why I will not hold one again.
[Sees SORAYA with the paper in her hand and IMAD hugged by MUMTAZ.]
Our young friend came home with me
He had things to explain, you see
Things that he believes, true enough
Hard as crude diamonds in the rough
He wants to hold a sword up high
Hack the drones out of the darkling sky.

YASSIR: That, yes, is very true
But I had hoped for help from you.

SORAYA: Yassir, your mother was just here.
She left to look for you
Because she was terrified of what would happen.
Don’t you think she wants you to live?

YASSIR: Do you call this living? Is this life?
I would call it our throat to the knife
Not knowing when the blow will fall
Cowering under death’s ever present pall
Dying a thousand deaths each moment, now
I won’t go on like this, I swear a vow.
Our killers laugh and call us names
And treat us like pictures on their video games.
A button-press, a screen aglow –
Afterwards they take their children to the show.
You won’t help, that’s fine with me
I’ll go my way alone, you’ll see.

MUMTAZ [Comes to YASSIR, looks up into his face]: You’ll get help from me.
If from nobody else.
Horrors too many to keep in check
My mirror reflects a stranger, my brother a mental wreck.
The blood flows, the blood will flow
It will drown us all, no matter which way we go.

SORAYA: Mumtaz, I forbid this.

MUMTAZ: Listen, Mother. [Points to the ceiling]
Can you hear the noise? Can you hear the drone?
Do you think if I remain silent, it will leave us alone?
I made my choice. I’m going my way
Perhaps I will be back one day.

[Exit YASSIR and MUMTAZ, stage left.]

SORAYA: Mumtaz, wait! Yassir!

ZAKIR: I’ll go and talk to them
I’ll get her back. A minute, no more
I swear to you, I’ll bring her back.

IMAD: I’ll go too
I don’t want to leave her out alone
I see her face in my dreams, Mother
Shattered like a glass on stone.

[Exit ZAKIR and IMAD, stage left.]

SORAYA: Shut the door. Come in and bar the door!
Shut out the tides of fear, keep them outside
I can’t take this anymore.
[Comes stage front, slips to her knees, still holding the paper. Addresses AUDIENCE as the lights go down, illuminating her only.]               
I feel my heart being torn apart
At each beat, I feel the tearing of my heart
My world torn to pieces, thus.
[Tears paper to pieces]
All I knew, crushed to dust.
What I thought, was told, would be
Turned to a stick of wood, a withered tree.
Whatever I say, I do, is wrong
All I hear is the executioner’s song.
[There is a sound of an explosion close by. SORAYA starts to rise, and then slips back down.]
I don’t want to know what happened there. Or rather, I know
Today or tomorrow, it will be the same blow.
Somewhere the sun shines, here the darkness falls
And death stalks through our lives' stricken halls.

[Enter ZAKIR, IMAD, MUMTAZ, FATIMA and YASSIR, from stage left, but they are seen only in silhouette. It is impossible to say if they’re real, or ghosts. They silently line up behind SORAYA and look at the AUDIENCE.]

SORAYA (to AUDIENCE): Is this what I see? Is this false or is it true?
What do our lives and deaths mean to you?
Is this what hell is meant to be?
Tell me, world, explain this to me.


Copyright B Purkayastha 2016