The champagne eyes of children,
That eager gleam therein;
Owl-like ears eager to hear
The tales that he would spin.
The bouquet of his stories
That only bloomed in spring.
His banquet of exaggeration
From giant whales, to boys with tails,
To singing harps and sirens.
From four horned goats, to phantom boats
And vegetarian lions.
The hot-dry desert air suddenly awoke to a chorus of young voices and claps, as if the ever-changing desert breeze had brought with it a measure of cheerfulness. But it did little to neutralise the smells of the market place, a pungent blend of animal dung, rotting vegetables, and offal discarded by butchers, in the bins weaved out of date palm fronds. A large group of excited children outdid the braying donkeys and grunting camels that normally competed with boisterous vendors for attention. The air was saturated with the music of little voices. An occasional gust would make the thick carpet of loose sand rise into a plume, and the Jacobs ladders that penetrated the plume would project monochromatic images upon the veil of dust. Children would chase the stray shadows of passing camels that seemed eager to oblige. Today being Jumma, it was the weekly market holiday and the hullabaloo in the dusty square heralded the arrival of the Peddler.
This Peddler was not like the many other peddlers you may have come across; he was not selling kohl to make women prettier; nor magic powders, talismans, and potions to make the old feel younger; neither trinkets nor coloured bangles, which the young ladies of the village swooned over. He was a peddler of stories.
His white beard was long and thick like that of a desert fox, and if he were any shorter, he would have tripped over it. His deep blue eyes were the colour of oceans… not that I had seen one, but I had heard of them in his stories. They lay to the far west, far beyond anyone other than the Peddler had ever travelled. He wore a huge red turban with many twists, and if anyone were to ask him why he wore such a large turban, he would promptly reply with a mischievous twinkle that his magic story chest was swathed beneath those folds. His long green kurta with big orange buttons made of cowry shells could not conceal his enormous tummy, which he carried about with great difficulty. Whenever he broke into a guffaw, a few buttons would pop open and the children would break into peals of laughter. His wrinkled forehead closely resembled the rippled desert landscape. He rode an old donkey whose legs would often buckle under its master’s weight, it voiced its displeasure by braying loudly, which was reciprocated by the old man’s curses. The old man could never get on and off the poor donkey by himself, but he claimed that if he wanted to, he could mount it in a single jump; the donkey brayed loudly in mortal fear, perhaps at the thought, and the children laughed. Many an eager little hand would help him mount the not so eager donkey. Everything about him was comical, but Abbu had warned me – “A man should not be judged by his appearance,” he had said; and this I certainly remembered. I was quite wary of the old man as I was sure he knew some magic. How else could he make the people of our village laugh or cry at will?
Whenever he recited a funny tale, the whole village would continue to laugh for many moons after, even his donkey would break into a grin and I think my dog Bolu also liked his tales; for he would wag his tail with so much vigour that I thought it might just fall off. His sad tales were not much loved; the whole village descended into a gloom. It seemed as if a giant swarm of locusts had covered the village in a grey veil; similar in colour to the robes that widows wore. Their husbands had been sent-for by Allah and like my late grandfather Ali Ulf Ahm Rafikullah IL Mohammed, they too were buried in the Ruhanni Kabaristan.
The good among them would ascend to Jannah – the gardens of perpetual bliss, but the bodies of the evil would be infused with a little life so that they could be devoured at leisure by creatures of the deep in Jahannam. At least that is what the old storyteller once said.
I am not too sure if my very-stern grandfather was sent to Jannah, which was supposed to be a nice place, at least that is what the young men who spent hours trimming their beards and moustaches at the Kismet Saloon said. They often spoke of the pleasant dwellings of Jannah with its lush valleys flanked by gilded peaks, iridescent scented fountains that were bordered with flower beds with exquisite blooming orchids, the kind no mortal has ever seen.
Palaces there were made from bricks of gold and silver, and embedded with precious stones of myriad colours that dazzled both during the day, and the strange ethereal aura of night. Unlike the frazzled dusty animals of the desert, there were strange but gentle creatures of dazzling whiteness. Amongst the gilded mountains, there were secret golden groves with magical lights where houris entertained true believers of the faith. When I asked them to describe these houris, they chased me out of the saloon. Alas! It is so difficult being a twelve-year-old in this cruel world.
I had feigned a tummy ache that morning to escape school. The old storyteller was certainly more desirable, and in any case, what could a boy learn at school? I could count a little, knew some multiplication and Arabic, isn’t that enough? Well luckily, no one saw through my lie, for other than “Abbu” the only other occupant of my house was my very old Dadijaan, who could barely see; she could hear even less. She often mistook Bolu for Abbu; well not that I could blame her; Abbu too had long hair that often fell over his eyes.
I do not remember my Ammi. They say my Ammi was carried away by a djinn when I was born. Except for an old painting of her and Abbu, which was sketched by the village artist, there are barely any memories of Ammi in the house. But I am sure she can see me! When I am sad and alone, I look at the night sky and search for a glimpse of her among the stars.