Friday, September 21, 2012

Unheard Melody by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

A disillusioned writer learns a sad story about defeated ambition, by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

The hot tea sucked me back into reality, my mind rudely awakened from frequent naps. It had recently succumbed to the habit of chasing thoughts unrelated to the topic at hand. My mind returned: "The Waste Land". I was sitting at a large wooden desk, examining the assignments of my students, but my mind was wandering elsewhere.

"Sir, your class-time has started."

A voice brought me back.

All I wanted to do was to run... far away! I wished I could write another "The Waste Land".

I had lost my enthusiasm for teaching years ago. I was merely going through the motions. I had long given up love for Chaucer or Shakespeare or Hemingway and Faulkner. My students had become nameless faces in the classroom and faceless names during grading time.

The day ended with the usual monotony. In the afternoon I came out of college and started walking towards the sea - my only refuge. It was dark, so dark that I could barely see, and the thick fog obscured my vision further. It was December and the few trees lining the path towards the sea were chewed by the blood-dripping jaws of autumn. An atmosphere I did not belong to. Stagnation - apathy - entropy - life there was a sad mystery.

Were these only dark thoughts echoing in my already distressed mind, or was this seed of malcontent very real? I didn't know.

The road was overly familiar to me; twice a day, I walked on it and encountered Bengalis, Philippines, Sudanese, Egyptians, Indians, and Pakistanis; people representing almost every country of the entire poor world. They had come there to make money, fight against the eternal hunger of their lands and to fill the empty stomachs of their families. They all were coming back from their long shifts in the industries. They never had time to turn their faces. How full of life they had been in their youth when they were lost in fantasies and gentle dreams. How terrified they became as little by little truth made them cold and indifferent. They had left everything behind - children, wives, homes. But the future did not yet belong to them. Neither would it belong to their children nor to their children's children. They belonged to a world where the terror of royal flesh prevailed. I was one of those many faces, out of my poor country, Pakistan, in search of livelihood. Many years ago I wrote some stories. I believed I would find the same stories again. Neil Marr, an editor of a Western literary magazine, had many times reminded me that I was a writer and I must continue to write stories. How could I tell him that my mind had become an empty trash bin, filled with the needs of daily life? I had to work from dawn to dusk. The monotonous routine had swallowed many years of my life. I had a small, sweet daughter in Pakistan, whom I had not seen since her birth. But Neil Marr was still advising me to write a new story. Wow! I myself had become a story in search of stories.

Lost in my melancholic thoughts, I reached the seashore. Wild tides were smashing on the shore like a desperate animal. The cold wind would have frozen me if I had not entered the restaurant. Aslam, the waiter, recognized me and gave me a warm smile of welcome.

"Hello Professor, take a seat. Nobody comes into the restaurant with this killer weather."

I thanked him with a smile and sat over at a corner table. The Sitar Music of Pakistan, a great achievement of human civilization, spoke to me with impossible complexities.

The wild tides of the sea outside reminded me of "Time" by P.B. Shelley:

"Unfathomable sea! Whose waves are years.
Ocean of time, whose waters of deep woe
Are brackish with the salt of human tears!"

I got up to see the descending sun and stood there until it was completely lost in the horizon.

When I returned to my table, I found Professor Ramnath sitting at a table next to mine, staring out of the window.

"Cold, huh?" he murmured.

He was a professor of the English department at an Indian College overseas. He was an interesting fellow and a brilliant old man. He was as jaded about the world and the people around him as I was. He picked up a cigarette and lifted it to his lips. He could hold the smoke in longer than anyone I knew. He must have been a whale in a previous life, as Indians believe seven lives are lived in this world. The smoke coiled around us.

Ramnath was looking sad and dejected. It was something new because he was always a loving and jolly fellow.

"You seem to be engrossed in something," I said.

"Have you heard the B.B.C. News today?"

"There is nothing new for me to know - tell me if there is," I replied.

"American Space Shuttle Columbia burst in space, just before landing," he told me. "Yes, and there was some Indian lady, named Kalipna on it," he added.

"Yes, it is sad news," I replied.

"But Kalipna was not someone just in the news for me, since I knew her personally," said Ramnath.

"Personally, but how?"

"She was my student, and I had great love for her."

He uttered the word "love" in a sad tone. There was a world of revelation in that word. I found tears in that word. He was looking out of the window where a seagull was diving to catch mackerel. Professor Ramnath could not prevent the flood of memories from washing over him. This episode of the past haunted him. All was revealed in his eyes with great aching clarity. He could not conceal a single detail, nor could any pain conceal itself from him.

"Go on with your story," I said.

"I met her when I just started teaching at the Punjab Engineering College. Kalipna was in her second year as a graduate student. She had shoulder length black hair that she clearly never worried about. It was tousled and covered the sides of her plain and unadorned face. When she looked right at you, you could see that her eyes were slightly lazy and her features were not what you would describe as traditionally pretty. But there was something in her eyes, a certain sparkle, which held you spellbound. There was also a slight curl to her lips that made her seem intelligent and alert. Overall, she was a very attractive girl. To me she was beautiful. I know I loved her."

The Professor stopped talking and looked outside where the seagull was still diving for mackerel.

"What attracted you to her?" I asked.

The Professor sighed and said, "Her eyes... They are probably the one thing I will never forget. How much peace I attained just by looking at them. Her eyes made me feel how wonderful the earth was when I looked into them. How I wish I could close my eyes and see hers again - to see her eyes for one last time; to feel her smile once more.

"Whenever we were alone, she wanted to learn. I explained quantum mechanics, geophysical terminology, and English literature to her. I had much to teach and she was a fine student, with a flexible mind. She was never afraid to admit her ignorance. She asked many questions:

"'Is there necessarily a difference between energy and matter? May I join independent clauses by a comma?'

"I wondered at her lust for learning. Once when there was a get-together, she turned her attention away from the party and asked me away to ask me something about the transit effects of light and colour in Impressionist painting. One day she was holding a big bundle of books from the library. I asked her if she had time to read all those heavy books.

"'I always have time, professor. This is the best way to prevent fear and loneliness.'

"I kissed her hand and said, 'I love your knowledge, which sparkles in your eyes.'

"How can I forget that evening when I delivered a lecture on astronomical history? She held my hand and said, 'You are a wonderful man. It is no wonder you have such success in your work!'

"I blushed at this, red as a boiled lobster.

"She smiled and said, 'Your modesty makes you all the more adorable.'

"She was an intelligent girl. I loved her mind. You know what made her distinctive from other girls? Other girls were a collection of body parts controlled by a mind, but she was a mind supported by body parts.

Her only dream in life was to visit the moon. Since her childhood, she had been dreaming of it. Once she told me about her childhood, spent in a poor village of India. Her secondary school education passed her by in a lonely blur. In solitude she wandered the school grounds or sat under trees with a pad and pen. Her lunch breaks were spent in the library accompanied only by science fiction books. At home, after completing her homework she would spend her time dreaming of space and the moon. She passed her exams with distinction but it meant nothing to her. This was not her dream. Others may have escaped reality by dreaming unrealistically but she never forgot the hardships and lessons of reality. She never allowed reality to obstruct her dreams and plans with defeat. She knew that she had to harness talent more precisely to pursue her dreams.

"She wanted to join NASA. She won a scholarship and got admission in the aerospace program in Texas. She made her way to her goal smoothly. I knew she would reach her target one day. It was not amazing for me when she was selected as an aeronautical engineer in NASA."

The Professor looked again at the sea, where the seagull was still diving to catch the fish.

"Did you express your love for her, Ramnath?" I asked, presenting a cigarette to him.

"No, never. The beauty of love does not lie in expressing it directly. It lies in hidden words. As you know 'unheard melodies are sweeter'. But I got one thing very real from her. I was mystically transformed by her. She converted me from being nonexistent to being existent.

I still remember the sad evening of her departure from India. Something in me was telling me that she would never return. Such people never come back. They never look back. Their destination is always ahead of them. The sun's last rays were sinking behind the trees. Shadows rose from the dense woods on both sides of the track. I saw her, waving her hands; I could see her sparkling eyes even from a distance. The distance eventually made her vanish and I could not see her anymore. Oh life, cruel stepmother, why have you separated the two of us?"

The Sea was silent now. Smooth waves were singing a sweet song. Ramnath stood up, walked slowly over and leaned his head against the cold windowpanes, overlooking the unfathomable waters, where the seagull was scraping his beak after eating a mackerel.

I looked at the sea again as I thought about Ramnath and his sorrow. Life has no mercy. It scrapes us up like the seagulls do when they find their prey.

I reluctantly rose from the chair, sighed, took a look at my wristwatch as if the time mattered and walked out the door. I walked onto the sidewalk and up the street leaving Ramnath behind without saying goodbye. Most of the place was quiet. A few workers were returning from their night shifts. I was thinking about Kalipna who left her land to achieve glory, and how death finished her at the moment of her glory. I thought about Neil Marr advising me to write more stories.

I put a cigarette in my mouth, but instead of lighting it I just placed it in my mouth for effect and to give my fingers something to do. I did not want to think anymore. That was enough for one night.

3 comments:

  1. i think this is a wonderful story, it makes you think which is always a good sign, disillusionment, reality breaking in, acceptance, resignation.
    great

    michael mccarthy

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  2. In deed, this sounds like a true life story of every poor writer who lives in a poor/third world country. Those writers who left home are still haunted by home. They are faced with life's challenges which seem very hard to handle. It is a wonderful and sad story.
    Thanks Khan.

    Chiaka Obasi

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  3. This story is so moving, well written and held my attention throughout. I could believe in the characters as real people.

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