Short Story by Naguman
Translated from Balochi by Fazal Baloch
It was his first flight. The first flight in twenty crawling years. He sat at the Departure Lounge of the Quetta airport waiting for the final boarding announcement. He was delighted but at the same time a bit nervous too. He feared that the plane would crash. He sat impatiently on the sofa.
Afflicted by extreme poverty, where he could hardly bear the expenses of his studies, air travel had seemed a distant dream to him. He always traveled by bus. On the Quetta-Turbat dirt road, he covered a distance of eight hundred miles in forty hours. Amidst the dust from the road, smoke of cigarettes, earsplitting music, cacophonies rattling the old bus, coughing, sneezing and vomiting passengers, the tedious journey was no less than a nightmare. His head would almost explode from a headache, his feet would be swollen, and his bottom would ache from sitting too long in the bus but his destination would remain distant.
Whenever he was on the bus, he felt like a worm crawling ahead. At times when he happened to see plane tags on the bags of his friends, his heart quivered like a caged bird. He wanted to ask them how it felt to fly in the air. But he never mustered up the courage to ask. “Such senseless questions! Everybody would mock me. Poverty does not mean you get yourself ridiculed.”
At such times he would often curse his poverty. After all, for how long was he supposed to crawl like a worm? Was he not destined to soar in the air like an eagle? Voiceless poverty had no answer. Rather silence was its answer.
One day destiny favored him. The government announced scholarships for deserving students. He too was awarded a sum of five thousand rupees. He used half of the money to pay his college fee and, with the other half, he bought an air ticket.
He looked at the clock. There was still some time to left for the flight. He picked up the newspaper and began to read. The headlines read:
‘An American plane crashed killing all passengers on board.’
He froze with fear and couldn’t read a word more. If the planes of the world’s superpower could crash, then how would these old Pakistani planes survive?
He put the paper back on the table.
“Thank you, Holy Lord.” He turned around. A white bearded man clad in white, was telling his rosary on a nearby sofa.
“I reckon, like me, he also fears that the plane may crash.” He felt a little relieved and with sympathetic eyes looked at the old man. But there were no ripples of fear or anxiety on his face. He sat relaxed flicking his rosary. He was not afraid. He thanked the Holy Lord by way of habit. Just to while away the time.
The shades of sympathy he felt for the old man evaporated. For a moment, he wanted to tell him to thank God when He stopped taking lives. In a moment, He could take lives of millions in the world. And yet the old man extended his thanks to Him. And to the One who ceases life in the living. Mullah you are supposed to know that submission before a brute isn’t a sort of worship. Rather it is sycophancy; it is fear.
“Thank you, Holy Lord. You’ve blessed me with everything.” The old man reiterated.
“He is showing too much gratitude! As if God has promised him that He would never take his life. And he affirms you have blessed me with everything. The best of all blessings is life. If He snatches it from you then what would you do with the ‘everything’ you have been blessed with.”
Again, he was alone and anxious. In an attempt to divert his attention, he unintentionally picked up the newspaper but the moment his eyes fell on the headlines he dropped it. Then he took out the ticket from his pocket and began to scan it. When he was done with it, he turned around and glanced at his co-passengers. They were so calm and composed as if they were sure that the plane would never crash. For a moment he decided to read aloud the news about the crashed plane; so that everyone would tremble with fear and panic and resolve not to fly again.
A few minutes later the final announcement was made, and the passengers began to proceed towards the plane. He had his eyes fixed on the plane. What the eyes see, the heart at times refuses to believe! The thing that appears like a bird in the sky looked like a mountain on the ground. If this giant took off, wouldn’t it crash? Again, fear overwhelmed him but now he had set his foot on the stairs. As he stepped into the plane, he heard a woman voice:
“Assalam o Alaikum!”
The beautiful air hostess standing by the door was greeting all passengers smilingly. He was reminded of the untidy and messy conductors and crew members of the bus who never showed any sort of respect towards the passengers. On the other hand, the beautiful air hostess greeted the passengers warmly on board. Even though her smile didn’t spring from her heart and it was just lip-deep, but to steal a look at her lips was something enchanting unto itself. Her voice was a melody. The fake respect he got in the plane was much coveted than the genuine disrespect in the bus.
When the plane was picking up speed on the runway, he felt that he was running to prepare himself to soar in the sky. Suddenly, it dawned on him that once the God of heaven also lived on the Earth. And one day running on the Earth, he soared into the sky and never returned.
The plane was moving away from the Earth. Astounded, he looked at the sky as of it was the first time he was seeing it. It was the first time, it occurred to him that the sky was more beautiful than the Earth. He wondered whether it was due to the distance between the Earth and heaven or was it just an illusion of the eyes? He couldn’t make up his mind, but he assumed that it was beautiful because God lived there. It also had an ambience of eternity. The Earth, despite all its colours and shades, was unbearable because it housed graveyards. He realised why God wouldn’t return to the Earth.
When the plane soared above the clouds, he found them more enchanting from the sky than from the Earth. Patches of clouds lay scattered in the sky and appeared like cracked crusts of soil in a dried out plain. In essence, the heaven and the Earth were no different. It was all just an illusion of the eyes. He knew that his eyes were telling lies. But he was amazed to see how the heart often believed in the lies of the eyes.
Now the plane had soared to the required altitude. The thought that he was flying above the clouds sent ripples of fear in his heart. Caught between belief and incredulity, he fancied he was the prince of the old legends and the plane was the magical wooden horse. When you twisted its right ear, it took off and when you twisted its left ear it landed on the ground.
The voice of the airhostess juggled him out of his thoughts. The beautiful lady with the platter of the food stood smiling beside him. The fairy of the Mount Qaf was kind to the prince and the Wooden Horse was soaring high in the air. He looked at the fairy-like airhostess and smiled over his prince-like-thoughts.
When he put the first morsel in his mouth, it occurred to him that if Earthly foods were taken in the sky, they would taste like the forbidden fruit of the paradise for which Adam and Eve transgressed God’s command and became mortal.
After the meal, the air hostess served him cold drinks. He picked a glass of his favourite drink. It reminded him of the elixir of life. A silent prayer sprung out of his heart. He wished he could forever stay in heaven. The gorgeous lady would remain at his service with ambrosial food. But there shouldn’t be the Forbidden Fruit among them and nor the transgression of Adam and Eve.
After having finished the meal, he took out the booklet from the seat pocket and began to read it. It carried guidelines about emergency situations and about how to put on the life jacket. Again, he was reminded of the plane crash.
Before he took the flight, he had been overwhelmed with such fear and thoughts. But now in those moments of delight and fancy when he was flying in the sky, he thought about the plane crash — the heavenly end of the Earthly life. It was more beautiful than all forms of death. Much desired than illness, bullets, road accident, water, fire, poison and hanging. Better than all.
In the meantime, the plane shook. Something ran down his spine. It was a wave of fear. He looked at the other passengers. Everybody’s face was pale with anxiety. At the very moment, it was announced that the plane was flying over a mountain. There was nothing to worry. Everybody breathed a sigh of relief.
With this single turbulence that shook the plane, his desire for a heavenly death disappeared. He thought that death in any form was frightening — be it in heaven or on Earth. Death was just death. Heavenly end of the Earthly life, these are mere words. Words placed in a beautiful order. Glorification of death wouldn’t make the road easy.
“Thank you, Holy Lord, the Creator.” The voice of the old man jolted him out of his thoughts. He turned back. Seated nearby, the old man was looking for something in his hand bag. He pulled out two strips of pills and took one from each strip with a glass of water. He drew a large breath and wiped out the driblets of water from his beards. Again, he thanked God and began to tell his rosary.
“This old man is afraid of illness.” He felt sympathy towards the old man. Whether it was the fear of illness or plane crash both have the same upshot. Both roads led to the same destination — the destination of death and everybody ran away from it. Everybody sought life. A life that has no end. An eternal life — that is the hallmark of God — but everybody longed for it. They all want to remain eternal like God. They all want to become God.
A sudden thought flashed like lightning on the horizon of his mind. “God is a horse man has carved out of the wood. Yesterday’s wooden horse is today’s plane and today’s God is tomorrow’s man.”
He trembled and quivered. He was so excited as if he had run into a treasure. For a moment he felt like calling out at the top of his voice:
“O, people of the world! I’m very familiar with God. The kind and compassionate God. God is a dream man’s heart has dreamt with its wakeful eyes. One day this dream will come true. How beautiful is this moment of my life. This moment seems eternal. How enchanting it is to understand God! If I cease to exist now, I wouldn’t lament. I’ve discovered my God—my companion.”
He was all excited and delighted. He felt an ocean of delight in his heart where his fear of death had capsized like a shipwreck. Happiness. Absolute heavenly happiness. No fear at all. Only God could experience such happiness because he had no fear of death. He felt the storm of happiness would burst out of his chest and sweep through the entire world.
“Do you know what is God?”
All of a sudden, his voice resonated in the plane. He was standing on his feet. Everybody was looking at him with surprise.
“I’m going to tell you who actually God is,” he touched the zenith of excitement. “God is a horse man has carved out of the wood!”
People were all ears. Wrinkles of their hearts had appeared on their faces. But indifferent to all, he was speaking without a pause.
“Man has made this wooden horse just because he wants to reach out to the Mount Qaf. He desires for the most beautiful fairy of the Qaf. Do you know what does Qaf mean? Qaf means absolute power. Once you reach the Qaf, you would overcome on each and everything in the world. Qaf is the land of miracles. Nothing is impossible there. Whatever you wish for, you can do. Moses’ rod, Solomon’s flying throne, Aladdin’s djin, all are found there. You may not know but this plane is heading for the Mount Qaf.”
The travelling prince was narrating the legend of the Mount Qaf to the bewildered Earthly folks and the wooden horse was flying high in the air.
But it had a big flaw. Its left ear was missing. And neither the excited speaker knew about it nor the bewildered audience.
Naguman is an eminent name in the world of Balochi fiction. So far, he has published one collection of his short stories under the title Dar ay Aps (The Wooden Horse). Most of his short stories are based on human aspirations, their relationship with fellow human beings and various elements of the nature. His lucid and flowing prose stands him out in the realm of Balochi short story.
Fazal Baloch is a Balochi writer and translator. He has translated several Balochi poems and short stories into English. His translations have been featured in Pakistani Literature published by Pakistan Academy of Letters in 2017 and Silence Between the Notes — the first ever anthology of Partition Poetry published by Dhauli Books India in 2018. His upcoming works of translation include Why Does the Moon Look So Beautiful? (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Naguman) and God and the Blind Man (Selected Balochi Short Stories by Minir Ahmed Badini).