Horrors Under the Eclipse

 

I don’t remember most of what happened during my sleepwalking visits to different places in the city, sometimes outside the city, but always within the province, barring one fateful night, the night of the eclipse and all the strange terrors that rise out of the earth with it. I sometimes think that maybe I didn’t sleepwalk at all, that it was a series of nightmares that impact you on a visceral level with hardly any reality to them; that waking up inside the Lahore canal and in front of or inside dingy theaters was also a part of my dreams, the sort of dreams that are hard to separate from our hours of consciousness. Just a couple of weeks ago, I woke up outside a police station and saw multiple cops sitting around me, waiting for me to come to my senses. As soon as I opened my eyes and moved, they started beating me without any reason or plausible justification. They thought I was a junkie or an ex junkie or a thief who had passed out while on the run. After a few kicks and slaps, my nose started bleeding profusely and one of the cops asked others to stop it. Then they started searching my pockets and found my money, which they kept, it wasn’t a lot, maybe a couple of five hundred rupee notes. After that, they told me to fuck off and never be seen in that area again. I took a couple of lifts to reach my apartment, which is on Temple Road in an old colonial building, right behind Heera Chargha. My name is Lala Dildaar, which was also my grandfather’s name, whose life or death we are not allowed to speak of in our house, as if he was a madman or a sleepwalker like me, or as if he had done something irredeemable when he was alive. I was only five when he passed away and I have only hazy memories of his last days on earth and the subsequent departure to whatever awaits us after death. I only remember that one of his legs was gone before death, and that used to scare me as a kid. I often sat up in the late hours of the night, afraid that his leg would walk into my room to beat me into oblivion, or to sleep beside me on my bed. Sometimes I dreamed that the leg would somehow attach itself to my body and I’d have to walk with three legs, and at other times the leg would cry or laugh hysterically. But with my grandfather’s death, my fear of his leg subsided too. He is survived by two of his photos that hang on the wall of my parents’ room. My actual name, or my official name to be precise, is Dildaar Hasan Asif, but everyone started calling me Lala Dildaar quite early on, and I didn’t mind that because it was way better than some of the nicknames people associate with other people. Lala Dildaar is still better than being called Bijli or Jump or Kheera. I am studying environmental science at Punjab University. I wanted to pursue psychiatry but it always seemed like a distant goal, a goal that constantly drifted away while simultaneously laughing at me. My mother works as an editor of a quarterly Urdu digest called Afsanvi Ayinay, while my father works as a 16th grade officer in the Punjab assembly. We only see each other over breakfast and dinner, making little conversation to tell ourselves and each other that we exist and are related by blood, but more often than not it feels like we are caught in a net of life and time together, through sheer accident and randomness of nature, like ghosts in an abandoned mansion. Before I talk about the events that occurred on the night of the eclipse, I should talk about how, for some time now, I was sleepwalking and waking up outside my house almost every morning. It started two months before that night. I was coming back from Abbasi Tea Stall in Anarkali when I came across a bookseller on one of the pavements on Mall Road, right next to Pak Tea House. I didn’t have a reason to stop because I was not a big reader. The only literature I consumed in my school days was a bunch of erotic Urdu magazines that one of my friends used to give me. Apart from getting off on them, the thrill lay in the fact that I was reading something that was banned, that was not easily available in the market, something that probably existed in our imaginations but was thwarted by our faux morality, and the government of course. I started sifting through the pile of books on the pavement. The bookseller had a worn out copy of Bessie Head’s When Rain Clouds Gather, a relatively decent copy of Nitasha Tamar Sharma’s Hip Hop Desis, four half-burnt copies of four fairly well-known Charles Dickens novels. I almost bought Sara Schulman’s Rat Bohemia but right then I caught a glimpse of M.A Rahat’s Urdu novel Kalka Devi. We used to have that book in our house when I was very little but then it disappeared, or maybe someone took our copy and never bothered to return it. I felt no interest in reading M.A Rahat, only the vague nostalgia of childhood. I paid thirty-three rupees. The bookseller, about to hand over Kalka Devi, swapped it with a different copy. I told him that I wanted the copy I had picked myself from the pile but he shook his head, which made me a little mad but also curious. Upon my relentless insistence, he agreed to sell that very copy to me but asked me to pay sixty-six rupees more. “These are not original books. You are not at a bookstore. These books once belonged to the libraries that no longer exist. They belonged to people who no longer live. Some of these have been illegally shipped from places that can no longer be found on any map. The price of each book depends upon its particular history. This copy of Kalka Devi was owned by a black magician who did his day-job like the rest of us but practiced evil in the night.” He paused, shook his head, looked at the sky and said something in a very low-pitched voice, and then continued, “I wouldn’t say whatever I say is the whole truth, but stranger things have happened in this country and they continue to happen every day without us having the slightest of clues. The magician did nothing suspicious, according to the locals. He often brought four books to the cemetery and read them together. At certain moments he stood up to stretch his legs, and at other times he stared at the moon or a distant planet for an abnormally long amount of time, as if he was waiting for a sign or an instruction from forces only he had access to. Sometimes he wailed like a child in pain. At other times, he plunged into the depths of silence. Anyway, let me not bother you with more details about his craft and habits. One day, the magician amputated his own leg as a sacrifice to appease the dark forces, but he couldn’t recover from those wounds as he was also a type 2 diabetes patient. All kinds of arts demand a sacrifice but was an amputation worth it? That’s not for us to decide. Within a couple of weeks after the sacrifice he passed away. His books were sold at a slightly higher price by his son and a few copies were secured by Haji Haqeeqat Hussain, who deals in old books and trash. History determines the price we pay, as you must have figured out by now.” A part of me knew that the bookseller was just making shit up to rip me off but I didn’t mind. Back at my apartment I slid the book under my bed, prepared for an exam, and went to sleep. The next day I sat in the university cafe and started reading it. It was a horror mystery that kept me engaged for a while before a friend came along. Later at home, when my parents were finally asleep, I started reading it again till I passed out. The next morning I woke up on the Mall Road pavement, right next to Pak Tea House, at the very spot where the bookseller had sold Kalka Devi to me. I told myself over and over that this was a dream and would soon be over, but it did not feel like a dream. I couldn’t make sense of what was happening and what had happened and how I had ended up there. My memory failed me. My legs began to shake. I was on the verge of tears, not the tears of sadness and shock but of helplessness and fear of what was to follow. It was quite early in the morning and the sun was still struggling to come into its full shape at the eastern end of the skies. I sat and started waiting for the bookseller to show up but he never came. I walked back home without any strength in my legs. I tried to dismiss the event as a one-off freakish moment that could have happened to anyone, but I knew that wasn’t true. I found the copy of Kalka Devi in my room. I sifted through its pages frenetically as if a note or a sentence would explain my disappearance from my own home, but nothing I read explained what had happened. I examined my face and body in the mirror, and though I still looked the same, I felt like I was looking at someone I didn’t know at all, someone who stood at the other end of time, someone who was teetering at the edge of a cliff, and that it would take several years for me to know that person. I googled sleepwalking but quickly abandoned the search because I knew it would leave me more clueless and depressed. I thought about telling my parents but it wasn’t the sort of thing I could talk about with them, and perhaps it wasn’t the sort of thing they needed to hear from me. I thought about sharing it with a friend but no one would have taken me seriously, they would have thought it was just another one of my morbid jokes, something meaningless and unfunny. After my classes, I went back to the pavement on Mall Road but the bookseller still wasn’t there. Perhaps he had moved to another spot, somewhere near a proper market or a cemetery, a different city even, perhaps a more hospitable planet than ours. Was he even real? Did that book really exist? Did I sleepwalk all the way to Mall Road or was there another person inside my body? My sense of reality had become untethered. The real and unreal coalesced in front of my eyes and I couldn’t tell them apart. I closed my eyes and saw myself, or someone who looked like me, lost in a eucalyptus forest, followed by a shadow of horror. At dinner, my mother asked what was wrong with me. I shook my head, smiled, and made a vague gesture with my hand. She didn’t respond. In the morning, I woke up at Mela Karsal in Chakwal, more than 200 kilometers away from Lahore. I looked at my feet and there were no signs on them that I had walked that distance; no dust, no cracks. I was neither exhausted nor worn-out. In fact, I felt well-rested and at peace. A short while later, a woman of about 45 or 50 years walked over to me and gave me a bowl of sweet rice and a cup of tea. I thanked her and started eating. Before she left, she said that if I wanted to attend Ustad Kalo Khan’s Tabla and Madam Arzoo’s dance performance, I should move towards the courtyard of the darbaar. I asked her to take me there even though I knew that my parents would be worried back home. I followed the woman. I had never even heard of Mela Karsal in my life before, but perhaps stranger things have happened in this country and continue to happen every day without us knowing anything about them. Around the courtyard, a couple of hundred people sat in complete silence while the performers arranged their set-up. The dance performer, Madam Arzoo, was fixing her anklets and Ustad Kalo Khan was applying talcum powder on his hands and his tabla. The performance began with a song. “Sajnaa Oye Beliyaa, Bhaag Mere Jaagay Ne K Main Jaag Payi Aan.” At those words the devotees went into a state of ecstasy and some made strange gestures towards the sky. Ustad Kalo Khan and Madam Arzoo moved in a trance. I had never seen or experienced anything like this in all my days on earth before. I was transfixed by the colors of life unfolding before me at the darbaar. In one corner, two boys were kissing a stone. In another corner, a woman kept saying that she was unable to distinguish between the left and the right. I didn’t know if she was referring to directions or brain partition or political orientation, but she said it with such conviction that it sounded like it was a perfectly normal human condition, something that has accompanied us throughout the time, a universal ailment, or a universal gift. The performance lasted for an hour and, by the end of it, both performers were covered in sweat. It was around noon now and I asked a boy about a nearby bus station and he was kind enough to take me there himself. I bought a ticket to a van to Lahore, sat on my seat with silent tears rolling down my face. I didn’t know if I what I was feeling was fear or sadness or both. I fell asleep and was woken up by the van conductor when we finally reached Lahore. At home, I spent the rest of the day in my room, pacing around like a cat waiting for death, looking at myself in the mirror again and again, sure that now I must have altered somehow, trying to look for answers and explanations, but they weren’t there, or at least I couldn’t see or find them. I thought about visiting a doctor, but I didn’t want a diagnosis. The next few days I woke up at different places, around small gift shops, medical stores, sports equipment shops, breakfast places, parks and theater halls filled with junkies. And one morning I woke up inside the Lahore Canal. Of that particular morning, my memory begins from the precise moment when my face rose above the surface of the water in a state of utter delirium. It was still early and no one was around. I sat on the grass bank and cried inconsolably for an hour. I had given up. I could not recover from my madness. There was no answer to my disease. I was condemned to sleepwalking for the rest of my life, and I was sure that one day I’d be found dead by a passerby, perhaps a milkman or a newspaper carrier, the crowd of onlookers growing around them. The thought of dying in my sleep or while sleepwalking almost paralyzed me After a while, I picked myself up and ran towards my house, found the copy of Kalka Devi, and took it to the local cemetery. I buried it there constantly surveilling the place, making sure that no one was looking at me and my lunatic deed, naively thinking that this would solve everything, but then came the night of the eclipse and all the strange terrors that rise out of the earth with it. I vividly remember each and every detail. I remember coming out of my house around midnight. I started walking towards Ferozepur Road. It wasn’t that bright outside because of the eclipse but I don’t think I saw too many people or too many cars on the road, and as I reached the main road, a dog appeared from one of the side streets, a Siberian husky, who barked at me and then started running in front of me. I started chasing it. I ran as fast as I could. I ran after the husky as if I was going to catch it, kill it, and eat it raw. I don’t remember feeling out of breath at any point. It was as if a force were pulling me towards something unknown, perhaps a congregation of sleepwalkers, or as if the eclipse had summoned me. When we reached Shahdara, I stumbled on the railway line and fell down; the husky stopped and started barking. I soon stood up and both of us started running again, the dog like a bullet train.. We soon reached the Ravi Bridge, and at that point the moon started to get frighteningly red as if it had been set on fire by someone from above. What followed made no sense to me at all. Well, maybe, some of it did, but I am not entirely sure. On the other end of the bridge, a police van was parked and the main officer, probably an inspector, was speaking to someone on the phone. On one side of the bridge, inside the water, I saw my grandfather’s ghost standing on one leg, and it seemed like the other leg had been recently amputated, as a thick, viscous stream of blood kept flowing from the wound, but he was not concerned about the blood, or the pain. What seemed to irritate him was his constant effort and subsequent failure to drown himself in the Ravi, but he kept trying, and the more desperately he tried, the lower the water seemed to get. It had been near his chest earlier and now it was well below his waist. The ghost of Lala Dildaar kept rolling his eyes in all directions, as if the eclipse had rendered him partially blind or half mad. No matter how hard he tried, the man just couldn’t drown himself. The water kept disappearing as if a giant dragon somewhere at the deep end were gulping it down. On the other side of the bridge I saw Ustad Kalo Khan and Madam Arzoo sitting in front of some two hundred people. And all of them were sitting on the water as if it had frozen and became a flat rock and there was no chance of drowning. Ustad Kalo Khan kept throwing talcum powder on his tabla and Madam Arzoo kept fixing her anklet and the crowd kept sitting silently in wait, all of them completely unaware of anything else. I looked at my grandfather’s ghost again and now the water was almost touching his only foot. I started walking towards the police van. Everyone around me was covered in a reddish haze. The sheer helplessness of my grandfather’s ghost, his constant rolling of the eyes, his desperate cries for help were driving me crazy, but I also felt sorry for him and at one point I might have shed a tear or two. I reached the police van and asked what the hell was going on. “What the fuck are you talking about?” said the officer. “We are here to arrest water and we will! It legally belongs to Riaz sahib. We have all the paperwork. Now fuck off!” I turned back. My grandfather’s ghost was still going through his robotic routine of trying to drown, failing, looking around in sheer helplessness. Soon there was no water left on his side of the bridge. There was only sand. The ghost of Lala Dildaar thrusted his face into the sand and began to scream as if mourning the dead. Perhaps he wanted to go into the bowels of the earth, far away from the reaches of the eclipse and all that happened beneath it. Ustad Kalo Khan and Madam Arzoo were now performing their show on the other side of the bridge, and it once again began with Sajnaa Oye Beliyaa, Bhaag Mere Jaagay Ne K Main Jaag Payi Aan. I stood in the middle of the bridge and kept looking towards my grandfather’s ghost. The policemen were now laughing in unison like people in an asylum do. I soon heard a bike approaching, and when I looked around, the Urdu novelist Mirza Athar Baig, covered in a plaster shell and accompanied by another man I didn’t know, rode past me. Then they turned back as if they had forgotten something. Mirza pulled the bike closer to me and his face was frozen into a smile in the plaster. Slowly and somberly he muttered, “If you really think about it, if you look at it closely enough, water is, ultimately, a fucking mystery.” Then he started his bike. For about 150 meters Mirza flew it across the bridge and landed into the water. The policeman got a call and hustled all his lackeys away. I had an epiphany. Something disastrous was about to happen. I ran towards the other side, away from the policemen. Moments after I crossed the bridge, an earthquake struck and the bridge collapsed, tilting westward, towards the side of the performers. A reddish haze covered the scene. I woke up at the back of a moving truck, around a pile of old books. It was windy. A small novella fell on my face and when I picked it up, the first sentence I read was its last: “And then the storm of shit begins.”

2 Harris Gondal-Fiction

Harris Gondal is a writer and translator based in Mandibahaudin. His work has appeared in Pancham Magazine, Jaeza, Khajistan. He also recently co-edited an anthology of essays for Kitab Ghar, published by Vanguard Books with the title Parha Likha Pakistan.

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