Ziaul Moid Khan grew-up in North India countryside named, Johri. He is the youngest among his six siblings. He is a speculative fiction writer and a romantic poet. His work has featured in Literary Orphans (Fall 2019), Pennsylvania Literary Journal (Spring, Summer, & Fall 2019), Smoky Blue Literary & Arts Magazine (Fall/Winter, 2019), Foliate Oak Literary Magazine (Feb 2019), Kairos Literary Magazine (Dec. 2018), The Blue Lake Review (Nov. 2018), and elsewhere. He teaches English at Gudha International School, Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan. Zia edits his school magazine Sunshine and resides under the foothills of Aravali Mountain Range in Rajasthan with his beautiful wife, Khushboo Khan and a cute three-year-old son, Brahamand. Presently, he’s been working on his first novel. You can email him: email@example.com.
A Country Singer
A dilapidated mini-bridge somehow connected the two ends of the village-pond. The morning sun-rays witnessed as usual the potholes on the road. The whole stretch on the road, of around two kilometers, had dents and damages making the journey along it a terrible business for the commuters. It was a one-way, therefore, more risky both for the pedestrians and the drivers.
The fifteen feet road had its length around fifty kilometer that linked a small town Baraut with the Indian historical city, Meerut. The first uprising against colonialism in India had started from the city of Meerut way back in 1857, when one fine morning, an Indian soldier Mangal Pandey’s mind spun, and he shot dead his British Army officer.
People still spoke highly of this revolt and the contribution of Meerut city (and of course that of Mangal Pandey). Now even after one hundred and fifty years, a good-road was a far-fetched dream here. Political parties came into and went out of power, but the condition of this road largely remained the same.
Musing over his fate, a boy in his early twenties was trudging along this path. Life was not moving the way he wanted (it). Things had recently turned horribly against him: precisely he was a looser in love, education and career. Preoccupied in his own thoughts, he was headed to get to the barber’s shop for a hair-cut on this sunny Sunday morning. The sky was clear and the day was warm.
The boy came out of his reverie and contemplation about his present state of affairs, for he seemed to have heard a shrill sound, a scream from some distance behind. Somebody, most probably, had called him, “WASIF BACH!” He quickly turned back to see what was wrong, and immediately realized the reason of the caution-call.
Within fraction of a second, he saw two things. One: he was going to be hit by a speeding TATA Pick-up van, and two: the man who had cautioned him was Sushil, an acquaintance from his neighborhood. But by then, it was too late to do anything substantial.
The boy had no time to avoid the collision. The moment he realized he was in danger, his body had already contacted with the front metal part of the speeding van that pushed him to the footpath just like a bull does to a matador. With a screeching sound of tires, he fell and rolled down a few feet onto the dust-laden soiled footpath.
Either the chauffeur blew no horn or the boy did not hear it. The man at the steering wheel seemed to have decided to run his heavy-vehicle over his chosen victim. Cheap wine perhaps had a better control over his senses; for almost half of the van had come on the dust laden footpath.
Once down on the ground, the boy quickly lay prostrate covering his head with his hands lest his head should be crushed under the CEAT tyres well known for their longevity (as shown in the advertisements).
He didn’t know how, but he’d narrowly missed the front wheels, still the rear left-wheel moved right over his back. The boy felt a sensation of excruciating pain. A tennis-ball -size stone with sharp razor-points pierced him badly right at his abdomen, for it suddenly had come pressed underneath.
The driver was back on the road. He changed his gear and pressed the accelerator, for he knew full well: stopping here might put his own life under threat, for there was a sudden rush of villagers towards the accident site.
The boy lay behind bruised, injured and moaning painfully. Next thing he remembered: Sushil was lifting him up in his arms and asking for help from the people gathered around. The boy was disappointed; as now he’d have to postpone his plan of the hair-cut scheduled today.
The hospital staff-nurse was beautiful and immaculate in her fine make-up; but not much bothered about the injury and pain of the patient. With pink lipstick on her thin lips, and remarkable eyeliner, she was more concerned about her shift ending in a few minutes, for as soon as she received the patient, she quickly took a hypodermic syringe, fixed a needle on its nose, withdrew the liquid-medicine from a small vial and pumped it into Wasif’s left-arm.
“Sister, will the pain lessen with this medicine,” Wasif asked her innocently taking a deep sigh.
“That is our first purpose,” she answered bluntly, indicating the ward-boy in green uniform, to push the stretcher, with the patient lying on it, into the operation theatre.
Wasif noticed that his clothes were terribly torn exposing his skin from several places. His mother and cousins had arrived at the hospital by now. Sushil had told them about the entire episode.
After around fifteen minutes, a doctor attended him, made the surgical process, stitched his wound that was neither deep nor dangerous and bandaged it properly. Once the work was done, the doctor smiled and said, “Next time, be careful on the road.” Wasif nodded and thanked him for his services.
“When will I be discharged from here, doctor?” He asked hesitatingly.
“As soon as we feel, you’d be allowed to go back home; most probably, tomorrow morning. Anyway, Mr. Wasif, the nurses will take care of you, here too,” he replied winking at the patient with a crooked smile on his face. Yes, how caring they are, I’ve already witnessed, he wanted to say but kept a mum. The medicines had made their impact by now and in a few minutes he fell asleep.
The time must be around post-midnight. Full bright moon was peeping through the window blinds into the recovery room, when Wasif woke-up by the chime of a pair of anklets. The closed door slowly opened with a creepy sound. Someone had entered his chamber. The faint neon light of a point five voltage bulb amalgamated with that of the moon. Still the light was not sufficient to show the figure in totality, but he recognized these footfalls, for he opened his eyes and tried to behold and could not hold back his words as he blurted out, “SHABANA!”
The girl in her early twenties moved in, sad and pensive. Wasif was more under a spell of horror than surprise. The beautiful damsel in a white robe looked more divine and less someone earthly. She reached Wasif’s bedside and sat on a steel-stool. The boy tried to rise but with her right hand she made him lie again. Wasif shivered, for her hand’s touch was as cold as that of ice.
“Could you not see the speedy-van?” She said looking around apprehensively. “Allaha saved you, or the accident might have been fatal too.” Wasif was too fearful to speak anything. His eyes forgot to blink, for he was still trying to swallow if it was true what he was beholding.
“See, I refused you this pleasure the other day. I regret it. Really. But today I’d like to compensate,” she said removing away her robe. He saw her for the first time like this: naked, unclothed, exposing herself in all her miraculous beauty. The robe was still lying beside her bare, milk-toned, soil-smeared feet.
Any other day, it might have kindled a forest-fire inside his heart; but tonight, Wasif was dumb-founded, like a speechless statue, totally clueless. The operation stitches on her stomach seemed still fresh and blood smeared. Though a naïve in medicine, Wasif realized the operation was horribly done. A surgeon’s mistake is a cardinal sin.
“I can’t imagine you can be this much careless on the road,” she added, fingering away a lock of hair from her face. And with her big, black, beautiful eyes, she strangely looked at him. Then, caressing his forehead with her long, thin, cold-fingers, she bent over him covering his face with hers and put her icy lips onto his; while her soft, nimble, milk-white breasts hanging loose in the air over his chest. He shivered with this horrible lip-lock, but could not muster up his courage to say no to her advances.
A few seconds passed like this. The kiss created a strange sensation in Wasif’s whole body. A queer, rotten smell entered his nostrils. It was as though he was embraced by someone who was not living. There was no heave in her bosom. She seemed not to be breathing. Her fingers were pale, her face strangely white, bloodless.
The girl suddenly realized Wasif’s discomfort and retreated from him. “If I’m gone, does it mean, you won’t take care of yourself,” she spoke again. “Do you know, how much I wept when I came to know about your injury?”
Wasif kept quiet partially due to weakness and mainly because he still could not believe his eyes. She could not be Shabana. He precisely recalled he was present in the country graveyard when her body was being lowered into the grave-pit and eventually buried under the presence of a mass of spectators.
It was he himself, who along with some other relatives: Faruq, Mehboob Pathan, Kalva, Babva and many others, had given her body a burial. How could it be possible? Now she was there with him in his recovery room. Was it some dream, overdose of drugs or something supernatural that was incomprehensible and beyond human rationality?
“Are you not happy with my presence?” She asked, still holding his hand.
“It’s…it’s… not like that,” Wasif said trying his level best to look normal.
“But…but… how can you be true? We buried you. You died,” he said with eyes still staring at the hair between her legs.
“We’ve a world that you do not and cannot comprehend,” she said, sniffing back her tears. “God forbid. I don’t want you to be there.”
Wasif kept staring at her. She was bare feet. And her feet as if made of ice, had a weird glow in them. He dared and spoke again: “How did you come to know of this accident? Who told you?”
“Your uncle and my father-in-law, Mukeed. He keeps roaming around, you know. He witnessed your fall. He wanted to help; but he too is like me, dead-type, airy-thin, you know”
“I feel like listening to your song. Won’t you sing something melodious for me tonight, Jaan, some haunting melody? That song from Mahal: Aayega, aayega, aayega, aayega aane wala, aayega?”
“How can I…here in the hospital-bed……sing …a….song for you, Shabana?”
“I knew, you’d not sing. You always do so,” she said and stood up to leave, “Get well soon! And don’t forget me!”
“Where are you going?” He dared to ask.
“To the cold region,” she replied halting for a moment, “Since, it’s so hot here, I find it hard to breathe. This place is suffocating. I need some space.” Then she picked up her robe from the floor, wrapped it around her breasts and hips and walked towards the door. She stopped for a while, turned her face without turning her neck to Wasif, and said in a cold voice: “Take care of my baby and yourself too, love.”
Before Wasif could say anything else, she walked out through the door of the recovery room with her anklets chiming in the cold air. Wasif was still sitting in his bed motionless, trying to figure out what had just appeared and disappeared before his eyes. He recollected Haroon, Shabana’s little son. Is he my responsibility now? He thought. No, never. His father, Shakir ought to look after him.
Muhammad Wasif was an amazing singer. He could with his finger-tips, create music even on a match-box, tapping it in such a way that you’re spell-bound. He did not need a piano or a harmonium but just a study-table or an aluminum plate to play music with his skilled fingers, and then he’d sing a song: beautifully-tuned-round-words that seemed to be coming out in river-flow from some unknown-source and going down very deep inside you, your heart, and your soul.
Since his distant-childhood, he’d practice singing under the close guidance of his mother, Chhoti Phupoo. Sitting on a cot and singing Mahendra Kapoor’s famous Hindi number “Kisi pathar ki murat se muhabbat ka irada hai…” along with his mother. Though she’d no formal education in music, she’d practical knowledge in singing and would suggest her son about various aspects of music.
Her own voice reminded of Hemant Kumar, who had a certain vibration in his way of singing. Chhoti Phuppo too had a shivering style of singing. This apparent flaw in her voice made her less appreciable in common opinion. But her son, Wasif was flawless. None stood in competition with him. His voice was like a clear stream of rills. And it seemed to be a spontaneous flow of the river Ganges.
The countrymen felt amazed, mesmerized, whenever they heard his songs; for his voice was enough to let them forget their purpose to visit his house. So lost in his singing, he used to simply transport to some other world, and would be totally forgetful of his own surroundings.
A few years ago his professor asked him the other day, “Wasif Bhai, how do you sing so melodiously?”
He smiled and said, “I just try and the rest falls in place, I don’t know how?”
Who was his favorite in the field of singing, was professor’s next question.
He paused for a moment and replied, “Lata Mangeshkar.”
The professor was again astounded, as he was anticipating the name of some male-singer.
“In my opinion, you’re matchless in the entire country,” the professor said sipping his tea.
He smiled again and added, “It’s not like that. There cannot be any comparison of any singer, whosoever, with Lata. She is fabulous, just the pinnacle, the sublime.”
The professor was not agreed; still he nodded in appeasing-approval.
Muhammad Wasif’s short stature made him look like just the other guy, living next door. His was an oval face and his complexion, slightly dark. He looked very base and ordinary. Reeked and gave a horrible smell, for he did not bathe, sometimes for weeks (and who knows: for months during winters). Ask him the reason of it and he’d tell: “It’s wastage of water and time, both.” But his sweet voice compensated for his lack of hygiene.
One day, he bought a new pair of branded-shoes. Surprisingly, he did not take them off even when he went to bed that night. Out of curiosity, just ask him the reason of it. And with a familiar smile on his face, he clarified, “If I take them off now; in the morning tomorrow, I’ll have to wear them again. So, I’d better keep them on.”
His professor always felt that Wasif had made a horrible mistake by opting commerce stream after high school; for he could not make any headway into it. Business was not his cup of tea. Eventually, he ended up passing the senior secondary examination with a poor rank. This he knew the market had no value and would not fetch him a good, profitable job. But he was glad: at least he’d passed the exams. Unaware, life had set more complicated acid-tests for him to pass through.
The other day, he was in a good mood to sing and for the first time he insisted his cousins to sit and should listen to him sing. Then he sang songs; one after the other, each one more melodious and sweeter than the previous one. They were taken aback, for his songs carried them far away into some different, strange lands of sorrow, pain, hardship, and bereavement.
They asked him, why he does not try his luck in Mumbai; for there he could become a heart-throb.
“I went there once but did not feel like to stay,” he said.
“Why?” Athar, his young cousin asked.
“In Mumbai, suppose a man smokes Wills Cigarette, he brandishes its packet in his other hand to make people realize, the kind of brand he uses,” Wasif replied, looking away in a vacuum with a cigarette sandwiched between his two fingers.
“Too much show-off people there,” Shehnaz, another cousin, said, surprised at this revelation.
He laughed heartily: “Yes. Sons of bitches! So I stayed there just for a couple of weeks and came back with a decision never to be there again.”
“If someone needs my voice and wants to launch me as a playback-singer, they’d themselves approach, and take me from here only,” he said philosophically, throwing away the cigarette butt.
Shabana, the girl Wasif loved very passionately, got married elsewhere. Still, he did not lose the smile-on-his-face. Yes, the melody in his voice, in his tune, became deeper and more profound. Now his songs seemed more painful, heart-touching and thought-provoking. The girl too loved him. However she, like her lover, was too shy to tell her parents about him. Result: she got married with a man of her father’s age. And now Wasif was forlorn, heart-broken, finished.
Shakir, Shabana’s husband, was a well built man of middle age. A farmer by profession, he was a crass country man and did not seem to deserve Shabana in any way. But then, sometimes luck smiles on undeserving candidates too. In Shabana, Shakir had the best catch of his life. His pleasure knew no bounds, when he got married with her. His nights were full of stars and days full of beautiful deep-sighs. Though, she had little love for him; and only an indifferent bed-pleasure.
Shabana died during the delivery of her first issue. Not even a year had passed of her nuptial knot, when she passed away. She was twenty. All family members precisely remembered the ill-fated daybreak, when they ran out just as they heard the siren of the ambulance. They thought all was well, but it was not so. Last night, Shabana had excruciating labor pains and had to be rushed to Baraut’s Town Hospital.
Shehnaz was the first person alighting from the ambulance. She held a baby-boy wrapped in a towel in her arms. All eyes lifted in curiosity as if to ask whether everything was fine. In response: she shook her head, weeping and giving away the crying child to a woman from the neighborhood.
Followed by her was Shakir Mama, Shabana’s husband. He was inconsolable, crying horribly. No one had ever seen him cry like this. The ambulance driver stayed till Shabana’s body, covered in a white sheet, was taken out from the back seat. The shroud from the lower side had fresh blood stain in a radius of six or seven inch.
Wasif stood beside Shabana’s body, aghast, his eyes bloodshot, wide-open in utter-disbelief. He was trying hard to hold back his tears. All women of the house now joined the chorus of weeping. The house had never experienced such a mass of crowd assembled there in recent years.
Mitthu, the parrot in his little iron-cage, found it difficult to comprehend what exactly was going on in the house. He was trying to imitate the various weeping methods of the variety of people. Eventually, he failed to copy so many people together and started shouting in his original voice, but none was paying any heed to him.
Shabana’s body was put onto a jute charpoy, loban burning beside it. Wasif came out from the drawing room with a shaving-mirror in his right-hand. He wiped it with his handkerchief and then held it close to Shaban’s face to check precisely if any last breath was left in the body.
All the mourners stood around him expectantly for some miracle to happen. The mirror was as clean as (it was) beforehand. It was all pointless now, for the doctors had already declared her, dead hours back. His optimism could be understood fairly well. Miracles are not an everyday affair.
Wasif still remembered his first comfortable hug with Shabana. Her soft touch had a remarkable soothing effect over him. She wore a simple royal-blue suit–shalwar with a dupatta around her neck.
“You sing so sweet, Allah! Anybody can die for you,” she said, peeping into his eyes.
“I just sing for you,” he replied tightening the grip of his arms around her.
“You liar, all listen to you.”
“Yes they do, but by God, I just do it for you,” he clarified, kissing her right onto her lips, like two rose petals.
“Should I believe it?” Shabana asked, raising her eyebrows.
Wasif nodded caressing her beautifully sculpted back and hips.
“One question,” he asked. “You love me or my voice?”
“Both,” she said.
“If I ask you to choose one out of these two,” he said, cupping her left breast with his right palm.
“I shall, of course, choose you, with or without voice. It makes no difference.”
He pressed his lips together and smiled, his left hand still stationed on her hips, squeezing them with gentle efforts.
She retreated. He advanced. She withdrew more. He advanced more.
“I want to listen to you sing tonight,” she begged.
“Some other day, not tonight,” he said lifting her in his arms and laying her on the sofa.
“PLEASE!” She requested again.
“OK,” he said releasing her from his tight grip.
“Should I leave now?” She asked managing her hair and dress.
“How can I ask you to leave in such a beautiful night?”
“But I’ll have to go now,” she said pinching his cheeks with her delicate, well-built fingers and moved out of the door.
Wasif could feel her each footfall. Deep down somewhere, he was burning, for his feelings were still a live wire. He sat down on the cot holding himself, trying to swallow something bitter in his throat. What she did was right or wrong: he did not know. But the only thing he knew: he was hurt and that too very badly, for he wanted something from her tonight. The moon shone brightly out there in the blue and Wasif sought some suitable sad song to sing at this moment.
The flashback was over. All were sitting silent, heads down beside a hearth, coals burning inside it. Wasif broke the ice, “Would that some miracle happened and she came back to life, alive; we’d all celebrate like anything.” All including the professor were agreed with him. There were no tears in his eyes, just silence, very deep and weird. Imagine them both together, they made a perfect couple. Now she was no more, and he was dead, alive.
After her demise, Wasif turned to marijuana. His voice still had the spark of a legendary singer. If he sang, passersby would stop to listen to him sing. Though his fan following was very limited, yet maniac for his songs. His voice now had reached the third level. He’d now sing more devotional songs and was taking a keener interest in praying five-times a day.
Then his father died. The old man, a religious fellow, was a heart patient. Wasif began to live in his fields. His friends’ circle became more restricted. Mostly he sang alone, smoked more joints, drank more red-wine and smiled only at a few occasions. Now, he claimed: “I hear voices from the other world and receive messages from angels of Lord.” People laughed away his musings. But there was-you could feel-deep melody still left in his voice.
After a couple of years, his mother died, too. Some said: it was a heart-attack; others opined: she committed suicide. Those who attended her funeral told later that Wasif was under influence as he sat beside his mother’s cadaver. Lost in his thoughts, his warm-tears rolling down his cheeks and falling into his lap, he seemed to be calculating the pains and loss of his dear ones that he’d borne, one after the other.
Chhoti Phuppo was a religious woman. If she were informed about a certain loss of item in the house, she would just say: Allaha aur dega, God will shower with more gifts. She would treat all children equally. She prepared delicious potato-stuffed paranthas and served it with spicy tea. During her pre-natal period, she had chicken pox, and the marks were still visible on her face.
They say: Chotti Phuppo was not happy with Wasif’s waywardness and careless attitude to life. She’d warned him time and again for dire consequences; if he did not change his drug-addiction and habit of drinking. She also wanted him to concentrate on his career to be a professional singer. The day she died, she had an argument with her son. And that led to a catastrophe.
Now Muhammad Wasif loved more silence and solitude than he loved it before. His drugs’ intoxication too had reached the third level. More limited circle of friends and relatives now. He was away from any substantial social bonds and lived life like a recluse.
Wasif had now reached far away from his former-self. His mesmerizing voice — that would resonate in a heart hours after one heard him sing — was lost somewhere. It’d just glimpses of the days gone by. An unheard Mozart and Tansen could only be heard now singing to nature amidst the green fields of Western United Province of India. Commercial success eluded him, but then he did not chase it either.
Losing of his love, father and mother had created a vast vacuum in his life that resulted in sharpening his vocal cords more melodious, and far more painful. If you asked him, “Wasif, would you like to get married?” He’d just smile away your question and that was his befitting reply.
Almost three years had passed since Wasif met the fatal van-accident. The memories were still fresh in his mind, yet these were not as painful as the loss of his beloved and parents. His other two brothers had turned their eyes cold towards him. Anyway, he had no more interest left in this mundane world.
One day with his grown-up beard and old, sad Hindi-songs, Wasif left for Himalayan-forests never to come back; but his haunting melody, can still be felt in the air. Anyway, now the polar bears must have a pleasant time to enjoy musical concerts under the foothills of towering Himalayan mountain range. For Muhammad Wasif is with them with his solo-songs and of course his instrumental melody created by tapping his fingertips on an improvised match-box.
Sometimes the villagers guess: if Wasif’s decision to venture to the Himalayas was because Shabana’s apparition too, desired to get to some cold region. He, in all probability, must be feeling some suffocation among the living, so-called civilized human beings. So he took this drastic, bizarre step, but this is only what they assume, surmise. Truth may be beyond it, who knows? But the villagers still feel sad for Wasif, as irrespective of his exceptional singing talent, he could not make it big among the human souls. Now, it’s hard to find again a country singer like Muhammad Wasif.