It was the same dream. The same vague faces, the same cries and howls running amok, the same events unfolding like some natural routine and the same steel and iron gleaming with the arrogance of the same color, an insatiable red. It seems that some experiences of past never leave you, especially the ones you want to forget. These wicked memories pound your brain and whisper diabolic suggestions in your ears every night. So much that you are afraid to close your eyes; for when you do, you see formless shadows ringing the bells of chaos in your petty brain. And then you wake up to find yourself covered in sweat and the rest of the world around you sleeping peacefully in the shade of the night.
Now that I am up, I don’t have enough courage to go back to sleep again. Fortunately it is the last part of the night. So as I lay in my bed, I wonder when these nightmares will leave me alone. You see, it isn’t a very pleasant experience.
Anyways, there is one thing that actually helps me in such situations- running. I know that you want to discuss the metaphor of running, but first let’s get out of these four walls.
This is a small town at the foothills. In the day you will see that the hills around this place are fairly low and abound with numerous cliffs and brooks flowing down the valley; the high cedar trees crowning the entire town with a green cover. Yes, the first light of morning is about an hour away from here. Look at the hills all around. Those isolated lights, which you see at different heights in the infinite darkness around, are the electric bulbs shining in the houses on those hills. It appears as if the stars have descended from the sky onto the hills. They seem to even twinkle when the wind blows.
Anyways, I run. I run because I want to run away from everything that makes me who I am. Because everything that makes me who I am, hasn’t been, frankly speaking, pleasant or even remotely pleasant. In fact I have been running all my life, so much for the metaphor. And so this exercise in the morning is hardly a big deal.
I would have told you what all I have been running from, but I don’t feel very comfortable yet. Anyways, see the sky is getting darker. It means that the dawn is on its way here. That is my cue to turn around and run back to my one-room-home. On the way back, I pick up the newspaper and a pack of juice from an early-rising vendor.
Give me a moment now. I need to dress up – after I bathe of course. My shirt and my trousers, I decide these on the basis of my mood – how bad it is. I would have liked to wear a tie, but ties aren’t popular where I work. Anyways, I get out of my room by eight after filling myself with some corn-flakes and milk.
I have to wait for the bus at the bus stand sometimes for even more than half an hour. Usually, I read the newspaper to while away that waiting time. But today, the bus is on time. Of course, I will have the window seat. Anyways, now that I am on the bus the newspaper is out of the scene. Cause once on the bus I am not able to read anything; I get this sort of dizziness if I try. I would rather listen to some music. I prefer rock, country, those retro bands and of course ghazal. A ghazal is a thing in itself. It doesn’t need music to propagate. It can give you a standalone performance anytime – anytime you are in a mood to heed the soaring voice off the poet’s chest.
Sometimes I think that like these poets I should write down my nightmares and my past and get this burning load off my chest. But I am not sure if it will help. I would rather talk to someone about it. Yes, I know I can talk to you. But I am still thinking about that option.
Anyways, my office is here and so let me get the hell out of this bus. Yes, I work in a bank. My cabin is on the second floor. I don’t take the lift. I think that using stairs is swifter than the lift in my case. It’s just twenty odd steps.
Welcome to my cabin. This table, these file-cabinets, and this computer are with me. My work basically is that of an accountant. Sometimes it resembles the work of a clerk. You must have come across those people in banks who discuss loans, deal in your mortgages, check your documents and then sanction your request or piss you off. Well, I am one of them. It’s not the most pleasant of jobs and neither is the pay encouraging. But it pays my bills and I can’t argue against that. Let me first settle my cabin. Here you go. Customers haven’t yet started coming in. So now I will have a bit of time to while away.
Anyways, after thinking all this while I have decided to tell you about my nightmares. I think it’s high time that I vent out this poison that I have been carrying all along. But before I do that promise me one thing- that you will not ask me about my religion!
Well then, my nightmares have their origin in an incident that happened during my childhood. I must have been eight years old. And I was on my way to the village school, with four of my friends who lived in the same village. A cool gale was blowing as we walked through the paddy fields jostling and bumping into each other. And suddenly we hear a howl. We all turn back. But we only see a dust-storm far away near the forest that stood at the edge of the village. The howl kept increasing in loudness with every step that we moved. It was horrible, to say the least. It was so pathetic that we tried to shield our ears with our palms.
Strangely, we could make out human voices in that howl. But we couldn’t fathom how those human voices could be so inhuman. It was as if the human voices were all bundled and then put in a furnace. And then they were hammered and forged in shapes of snakes, vultures, wolves, and bats and then spitted out in the open. Human ears weren’t equipped enough to bear the acidic barbarity in that choir of horror.
Of course we were terrified; to say the least and we had no idea what it was. So as children we followed our instincts- we hid behind the walls of the mud house that stood on our way. The mud house it seemed had been burned out. The walls were still covered in black soot and the entire compound smelt of burnt wood, glass and bricks.
Anyways, as we sat hiding behind the black walls, the cacophony came closer and closer. I realized that my entire frame was shivering. We didn’t know what that dust storm or that cacophony was. And maybe, that strangeness was the exact reason why we, children, were all so terrified.
And then our worst fears came true. The cacophony and dust-storm was now standing just a few steps away from us. From the crevices in the burnt wall we saw what it was. It was a crowd. But somehow it seemed it wasn’t just a crowd of people. It was like something had got into each of them. Their faces were distorted, their hairs were disheveled, their eyes were blood shot and their entire body was vibrating with some form of energy that seemed to be creepy, in fact almost diabolic. They carried a weapon each- swords, spears, scythes, sticks; the most popular were swords. And all of their weapons were black with some red viscous liquid dripping from them. It was not a crowd. It was a pack.
“We found these!” One of the men in the crowd shouted in a vile harsh voice louder than the noise made by the entire pack. His sword was pointed at five of us hiding behind the wall.
Like a breed of synchronized robots, they together turned their hellish faces towards us. And then they came swirling over us as if we were goats and lambs. We started crying. But of course our tender cries couldn’t compete with the loudness of whatever gibberish they were shouting.
I saw through my teary eyes and moist face my other four friends moaning with utter terror in the face of the pack. We were children. And we were terrified. We didn’t want to run. We didn’t want to know who these men were or what they wanted from us. We weren’t even looking for a way to get the hell out from there. We just wanted one thing- to go home and see our mothers. That was what we could wish in those moments when life seemed to be tearing our little hearts apart with horror. Of course, I knew my mother was dead. And so I cried for my dead mother to come back and save me from this hell. And the fact that she was dead, made me cry more than my friends. In fact I haven’t questioned God many times in my life for my parents. But at that time, when that pack was stealing life out of us inch by inch, I cried and asked God for the reason. Of course, He didn’t respond.
“I know this one.” One of them from the crowd shouted pointing his scythe at me. I couldn’t have been more surprised then. I started wailing more loudly and throwing my limbs around in sheer fear of being harmed. “He is one of us.” The man proclaimed in his ghastly tongue. “He is of our religion.”
“And what about these four?” The one with the biggest sword, which was curved and pointy at the end, cried. He seemed to be the leader of this pack by the authoritative tone in his voice. His face was almost square, his eyes were black like night and his right cheek was burnt. Patches of coagulated blood on his face, particularly near his mouth, made him look like some carnivore. His face was terrifying, even more than whatever the hell was happening. We were now sobbing with a wailing now and then.
“I know them!” Someone else from the crowd shouted. “All four of them!” I wasn’t able to see that guy for he was standing somewhere in the middle of the pack. “These four mother-fuckers! They are all impure!” The same man shouted again. “These sons of bitches are infidels. They are the enemies of our religion.” The man shouted. His tempo increased with each sentence and by the time he finished, his speech had become a battle cry.
What followed was something I so much want to forget, something that made me want to just get dissolved into dust and out of existence. The man with the burnt face jumped at us like lightning and picked up one of my four friends. Oh, how that child was crying! His school dress was drenched in tears. He kept calling for his mother in a voice that could sink you in its utter bleakness. At that time I prayed in my heart, to the God I knew, in the language which my religion had taught me. I prayed that we somehow, anyhow reached our homes.
But my prayers weren’t of use. For the very next moment the man with the burnt face raised his sword and swiped it slashing open my friend’s stomach. Two of my friends fainted and one of them went numb at the sight. I myself pissed my pants.
The man with the burnt face then picked up my friend who had gone numb. And as his sword rose in the air rapidly, with the same swiftness it started coming down on my friend. And it was then that something inside me asked to give up, to stop crying. And I did just that. I gave up. I didn’t struggle, I didn’t cry, and I didn’t shout. I just gave up. I let myself fall into some kind of invisible void. I lost all consciousness. That was the last recorded peaceful sleep I have had since then.
Hey sorry to interrupt, but a customer is walking this way. Excuse me for a few minutes. See, he greets me with a religious greeting. He knows I belong to his religion. I don’t know what the reason for this greeting is. It may be that he knows and observes his religion, which is appreciative. But in this case notice the stretch of his eyebrow, the gleam in his eyes, the little curvature at his lower lip and the thick file he is carrying. It’s not mere catechism which makes him greet me this way. Actually, he is trying to manipulate me by using religion so that I would go to some additional lengths to get his work done. Now, I hate this. Notice the strict professional tone I assume while talking to him. The man is prompt at picking up this signal. Yes sir! Here are your papers. The man is going away with his tummy hanging over his belt and vibrating at every step.
Well, let’s get back. As I was saying it was very difficult. It was a sort of difficulty which you will say you understand, but actually you have no clue what it is like to be in that difficulty. Anyways, when I woke up I found myself in a different place. I saw my grandfather staring at me.
“Boy, I am happy to see you alive. Those other four kids were butchered. Just you were found alive in the pile of bodies. Your religion saved you!” He said and wiped my tears which had started falling inconsolably.
After that incident there were days when I wanted to kill myself. And then there were days when I wanted to turn into a recluse. And then were other days when I wanted to find out those beasts and wipe them out. But all these times I wondered if it was really religion that saved me and at the same time got my four friends slaughtered like cattle. I started hating my religion and every religion in general. I spent my nights staring into empty air, trying to make sense out of this all. The scriptures were there on my shelf but I wouldn’t touch them. Time passed and I heard many similar incidents, some were even gorier than what I had been through. Then one fine morning I came across this word, ‘hijack’. And almost like magic, the entire perspective on religion that I had been building since that day started shaking. I started reading books and talked to people. Theoretically, it was all so peaceful in the books. And I wondered how this theory could be used to bring about such a massive destruction in real world. Words like compassion, forgiveness, mercy, charity, and brotherhood which are widespread in all religions- where do they all disappear? Somehow, I blamed my religion for what had happened, even though I knew that was hardly the true story.
Someone’s coming this way. Yes, ma’am. No you cannot be sanctioned such an amount in such a short time. I know that. Yes, even then! I am so sorry. She frowns and walks away. Well, you see the problem with ladies is that they are always in some sort of hurry; except of course when they are getting ready for some party or such stuff.
Anyways, here comes my next customer. I don’t look up at him, cause I am busy filling these loan forms on the computer. See this one doesn’t even greet me but goes directly to his point. Urgency, shall we say? The fund needs to be transferred now, so I have to multi task. He says he needs some kind of loan. I type in the password for the transfer. Yes sir, that loan is possible, I say without looking away from the computer. The dialogue box asks for a confirmation. Ok! Finally the transfer is done. Yes sir, now you have my attention. I now turn towards the customer. And now I go numb with shock.
Difficult memories start flooding in front of me. Scenes from that inhuman day come rushing into my brain. The pack, the swords, the blood, and the unbearable faces of my friends- they all come in an instantaneous swish. For in front of me sits a man whose face is almost square, eyes are black like night and right cheek burnt. He doesn’t have blood on his mouth, and his hair has grayed but I can still recognize the face. He was the leader of that pack.
The man is saying something about loans and money but I am not listening. I am lost and terrified once again. And now I am angry. I want to kill him, hit him, burn the other side of his face too, spit on him and tell everyone who he really was. I am shaking with anger. My ears and cheeks have turned red. I stare at him with my teeth clenched and fists tight. I am in a fit of rage.
“Are you alright?” I hear that man ask me a few times.
“Yes?” I speak up a minute later. I have to. This is my job. “How can I help?” It is difficult to tame myself but I have to.
“My son has had an accident.” His voice is broken. “He is in a coma. I need urgent money, sir.” He pleads, though it hardly affects me in any way. “I got the papers of my shop; I want to mortgage my shop, sir.” He is almost on the verge of crying. But I hardly notice any pity in my system.
“I need this money urgently sir. Please! This is my last resort. Please forward my request.” He now pushes his papers towards me while at the same time hides his eyes which are now wet.
At this moment, I realize the power of my post. I am not just a clerk. I am not just a checker of documents. I am not just an accountant now. I am the accountant- one who will now make this beast account for his deeds. I want to scream at this man and tell him that he won’t get a single penny even though all his documents are in order and he would have got it easily in some other life. That he is done. That God has finally brought justice. That no one goes unaccounted in this world. I am euphoric with rage. This is how I will get redemption from my nightmares. This man deserves to see his son die. He deserves to suffer.
And so I stand up. I stand up to throw his papers at his burnt face and tell him to get lost. But hey, something weird has started popping in my mind! I have started breathing heavily. What is up with me? The realization is a bit slow but not hard. It is the word- ‘hijack’.
It isn’t catechism. It isn’t some words from some scripture. It is pure feeling- a feeling that asks me to show this man how mistaken he was when he raised that sword in the name of religion. I don’t have any clue how I will do that. You see, I am not one of those intellectuals; I am a layman and an accountant. But the feeling grows stronger and stronger and a minute later it makes me squeak in a whisper, “It’s ok! You’ll get it.” And now I curse myself as the man walks out of my sight.
Even now when a year has gone by I still wonder why I didn’t do the proper accounting that day. Not even that I had been able to give the man some lessons in being human. Nah! Nothing at all! And hence the question keeps reiterating.
The only consolation that I somehow seem to have gained is the fact that nowadays I feel a tiny quiet inside me. Very strangely, even my repulsion towards my religion has started dissolving. Maybe because in that instant I realized that it is not my religion which makes decisions. I do. Actually, my religion wasn’t even involved that day except for namesake. I have started talking to people of different religions now and have enrolled myself into an NGO, which is dedicated to establish harmony amongst different faiths and cultures. Of course, the nightmares still haunt me. But now in the dead of the night when I wake up, I tell myself that I respected my own religion more than I hated that man.