The whistle of the train lingered long enough to disturb the calm in the city. After being away for so many years, I felt like a stranger returning to my hometown. It was an early morning in January. I wrapped a scarf around my neck, headed out of the station and walked towards my home. In my childhood the city awoke by the dawn chorus of the singing sparrows and squawking of crows but now buses and rickshaws hushed the sounds of nature. The early morning light drowned out the dim lights from the street lamps. I missed those street lamps that the neighborhood children and I used to play under at dusk.
I reminisced on the way home. Instead of walking into the house, I knocked on the door. This was the proper way to enter our house. After a night out with friends, I remembered my mother was always there to open the door. Oh my dear mother. She never complained about being disturbed. This time was no different. She was there with her familiar warmth as if she had been there all along, waiting for this day to welcome me home. My mother was old and weak now, but her love for her son was as fresh as the day I came into this world, never diminishing over time. She took me to my room where my old things and bed remained the same. She wouldn’t let anyone in my room.
She brought me a hot cup of tea she knew I wanted first thing in the morning.
“Look your picture is still there,” she said with a smile. “There you were so young, eyes full of dreams and now you’ve returned after chasing them.”
I only nodded. I didn’t have the strength to look into my mother’s misty eyes. In a hushed voice, I said, “Yes, Mom these dreams brought the man from Heaven to Earth.”
“Do you remember the dancing man in the background of the picture?” Mother asked.
I looked at the picture again and said. “Yes, Mom he is Dewaia Malang, the mendicant of our village, dancing with his drum. That time we lived in our village and he was Malang there. We shifted from our village to this city a long time ago when I was very small. Baba brought us here for good education. Since then I haven’t seen Dewaia. Where is he now?” I was curious.
“I do not know about his exact place but someone told me he left the village and now he lives here in our town near the saint’s shrine. I think he has become a religious mendicant.” Mother replied.
I felt a desire of meeting Dewaia.
Mother sat in my room until I fell asleep, a habit since my childhood.
In the afternoon, I woke and decided to venture out to revive the memories of youth and to find Dewaia near the shrine. My mother advised me to return early because it was the first foggy day of the year. I came out into the street where the thick grey fog was enveloping every rooftop and sidewalk in the city. When I was young, my brother and I used to play hide and seek on foggy days. Although everything seemed the same, the streets were filled with another breed of people. There were no teenagers laughing with hysteria at the tea stalls while the old people walked by with their canes, frowning at the carefree laughter of youth. And there were no children. I learned to play many games out there like Cokla Chapaki, Guli Danda and Kbadi. I stood there for a while trying to listen for the playful sound of children, but there wasn’t any. All that was left were my delightful memories of childhood. Nowadays, children were busy with computer games and it seemed humanity had lost its innocence of early years.
I reached a point near the Saint’s tomb. A place where desperate people weighed down by the threat of poverty and disease prayed for good fortune and offered their hard-earned money to the caretaker of the saint’s tomb. Parents brought their children, to ask the saint for high marks in their next examination. With no change in the lives of poor people, the caretakers had become very rich. During my childhood, I remembered whenever an annual festival took place at the saint’s tomb and pilgrims came in droves. Temporary vendors opened shops. It was much more appealing to me than visiting the tomb. Moving around these shops was an experience because the place was so lively. People sat on tea stalls narrating how their wishes were granted. The colorful local sweets on wood burning stoves were my favorites.
After I stopped to have my favorite sweets, I entered the courtyard and stood at its perimeter. A man danced, lost in his Dhmal, a traditional dance. The drummers hit the dhol with rhythm and farther away camel moved slowly from the mountain into our small town. The ringing bells around the camels’ neck were adding to the rhythm of drums. I focused on the man as he danced. I could feel the ecstasy of Malang. It was Malang Alladewaia.
I called to him aloud, “Dewaia!” He looked at me, smiled, blinked his one eye, and then was lost again in his ecstasy. There was a familiarity to his dance…familiarity one feels listening to a folk song after years.
I sat there waiting for Dewaia to finish his ecstatic dance. I had known him most of my life, and through my travels, I thought of him often. Seeing Dewaia’s dance took me back to those beautiful days of our village life. I remembered him wearing a black or green cloth with chains and beads, and his long dark hair was combed straight back, to the collar of his long shirt and tucked behind his ears. In the hot summer afternoons when Baba and Grandpa slept, my cousin and I often visited Dewaia in his hut outside the village. It was made of a thick layer of straw, covered with date matting. He was a free-living, free-loving, and caring man. He would wake up with the songs of pigeons. To him, the entire world seemed in tune with their tranquil notes. He would open the door of the birds’ mud cage saying, “Fly away and find your grains in the fields. I am not left with much.” He earned his livelihood by dancing at the village Saint’s tomb, on weddings, and with Shias during the ten days of their mourning month. At Christmas, he would sing with Christians and celebrate Diwali with Hindus. During my stay in the village, I never saw him going out of the village but now he was there at the Saint’s tomb in the city. I was surprised to see him in the city. I kept watching him, twisting, twirling and turning to the beat of a dhol.
After finishing his Dhamal, he stopped and collected the money people threw toward him while dancing and then came over to me.
“How are you, Watni? It has been so long that I have seen you around?” He called me Watni, as if I was his real native.
He gave me a warm hug and playfully punched me in the shoulder. But I found something alarming while hugging him. He was shivering and burning up with fever.
“Dewaia, are you sick?”
“Yes, I’ve been for the last several weeks.”
“Why haven’t you gone to the hospital?”
“Hospital? Oh, Dear Watni, you know we don’t have the money. We get a fever and pray we get well on our own.”
“But you are suffering terribly, Dewaia.”
“Watni, for us everything is terrible, I have spent my whole life in shame, suffering and illness. My wife had difficulty in delivery so we put her in a big blanket tied between two sticks and we carried her for eight kilometers to the hospital. She died on the way along with the baby. I tried my best to cure her with taweez, for that was the only thing I could afford. But even that sacred thread, taweez, could not save her life”
“Okay, fine. Come with me. Let’s go to my home, rest, and then I’ll take you to the hospital.”He agreed. My mother gave him a home medication of hot milk and then he went to sleep.
Once, when younger, I got very sick and remained in bed for a month. When I recuperated, in celebration Dewaia played his drum slung around his neck. His drumbeat had a great healing power. He immersed my heart into a thankful vibe. Now Dewaia was sick but I had nothing to soothe him.
At night when I sat with him for a chat he said:“Watni, I want to adopt religion now.”
“Religion now? So you have been living without religion until now?”
“I’ve been performing a role until now. Now I’m confused about different sects in the religion.”
“Dewaia, don’t think much about the sects .Listen to your heart and get close to God.” I pointed to my heart by placing my hand on my chest.
“I’ve been seeking and searching God for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I find him near and sometimes far away, leaving me lost. But now I want to find Him and rejoice with Him.” Dewaia’s fever was increasing and he was in search of lasting experiences and an end to sadness and pain.
“Why did you leave the village?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to leave but they kicked me out. So I came here and started living in the courtyard of the saint.”
“Who kicked you out?”
“The people of the village,” he replied.
“You know there are different sects of religion and they all claim to be the true followers of God.You also know that they all have different rituals and festivals. Dancing or mourning is my art and my livelihood. I even cherished the Christmas and Diwali of Hindus. People of different sects and religion have been living in our village for centuries, accepting each other, but now they’ve become intolerant. They tried to force me to accept one sect but I could not. I kept changing these sects because I wanted to be with them all my life and I was happy with my Dhamal.”
Next morning I took him to the hospital. Doctors told me he was suffering from pneumonia and they admitted him. The few days he was to remain in the hospital turned into weeks, and Dewaia was not getting better. I visited him every day.
One cold evening when I went to visit him, he was silent but not speechless; he was speaking with the sad expression of curiosity in his eyes. One could only find this curiosity in a man’s eyes when he is born. He was looking outside and I noticed white fog coming into the window. In the street, the thick fog rolled between big and small brick houses, and the street lamps loomed like dark and shapeless blurs.
“Are you alright, Dewaia?” But he remained silent and shook his head. I knew something was wrong. Dewia was unable to speak. I went close to him and asked again.
He replied in a weak voice, “Watni , please take me to my village.”
“Yes, Dewaia, we will go to the village. We will go tomorrow morning if you promise to get well tonight.”
“Watni , why is God silent? Does he not understand my language? Our village people say that to get close to God we should learn Arabic. Is that right? I don’t know Arabic.”
“Oh no, Dewaia, languages are for men. God does not rely on languages.”
His eyes sparkled with hope for a moment. He pressed my hand softly and said, “I am begging God. My mother named me Allah Dewaia, meaning God given. So why doesn’t God answer? People say that after death man meets God. Why not in life?”
“Dewaia, don’t worry. You’ll meet God in your life.”
But he was confused. The brightness of his eyes disappeared. Nothing seemed to calm his anxiety and his mute lips seemed to be longing to say something. That evening, I returned home with a heavy heart.
Early in the morning, I received a call from the hospital. They told me Dewaia was dying and he had called for me. By the time I reached the hospital Dewaia had already taken his last breath. His salvation had arrived finally. He was dead but his eyes were still open looking at the door and talking to me. Watni, if you knew how peaceful this is, you wouldn’t be worried about dying.
I did not reply and silently closed his eyelids.
I took him to his village. After a two-hour journey, we reached the black rocks at whose foot our village lay. He always loved those mountains and now the silent and somber hills were ready to pull him into their warm embrace.
Before going home, I stopped at the mosque of the village and requested the cleric to announce the death of Dewaia on the loudspeaker. After all, he spent his whole life serving and entertaining the people. I thought the villagers would gather and mourn the death of Dewaia, but no one came. I returned home with his dead body. After an hour, there was a knock on the door. I went out and saw a group of people. They all were gazing at me with their eyes full of hatred and I burned with anguish and anger.
One angry man spoke. “Where will you bury this Kafir. This infidel?”
I replied with a compassionate request. “Kafir? He was not a Kafir. He served all the religions and by all those sacred religions, I ask you to be merciful,”
“He was a man without religion, and we are telling you we cannot allow you to bury him in our graveyard.”
They left me startled and alone. I went to the people of the all sects but they had the same reply. Finally, I went to the chief of the village to seek his help. The old chief told me he wouldn’t interfere in religious matters. However, he allowed me to bury Dewaia on the top of a haunted mountain near the village. That black mountain was famous for its witches. In the evening, alone and full of sorrow, I buried my old friend under a weathered aged tree. I looked up at the sky and asked God, “Why do innocent people suffer too much in Your world?” There was no answer but silence, the question was to be answered later in a strange but just way. I sank into a deep sorrow and felt a desire, a powerful desire to flee and disappear from that village. I felt so forlorn, completely overwhelmed by the loss of my friend. No shoulders to cry on, so sad, so solitary, so distressed! The irritating silence haunted me. It listened and watched but never spoke. That night, I left the village and came back to my home in the town.
Many years later, I read the news of heavy rains caused a terrible flood in our village. I decided to visit. The road to the village was blocked by several feet of water, but after days of struggle, I reached it. The entire village had disappeared underwater. The water roared like the river wild. I had never witnessed a worse flood. People had fled in search of shelter. There was nothing left of the village. No fields bordered the flood water. A beautiful song from a lark resonated overhead. The bird flew and sang over the haunted rock where I buried Dewaia. To my surprise, that rock was still there, and from a distance, I could see the grave of Dewaia. It was undisturbed. The town had vanished from the floods, yet my dear friend’s grave remained untouched. The birds twittered under the branches on the tree next to that solitary grave. A cook March breeze moved through the wet leaves. The evening moon radiated its silver glow over the earth. Sounds of village life hushed forever. Around Dewaia’s grave were wildflowers. I stayed there for a while by Dewaia’s place and then made my way back home. Out in the distance I could see Dewaia dancing and singing the song of ecstasy. He had searched for God all his life, but all along God was with him.
Written by Muhammad Nasrullah KhanMuhammad Nasrullah Khan is from Pakistan currently living in Saudi Arabia, where he is Lecturer in English at Taif University. His short stories are well recognized internationally for his unique prose style, and really naive innocence of rural life of Pakistan. His short story Donkey-Man was selected among the Notable Online Short Stories of 2003 in the StorySouth Million Writers Award. His work has appeared in Gowanus Books, Offcourse literary Journal University at Albany, The Raven Chronicles, and many others. He exists on twitter as @nasar_peace and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or on Facebook.