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: "Wasteland." I was sitting at a large wooden desk, apparently examining the assignments of students.
"Sir, your class-time has started." A voice brought me back.
All I wanted to do was to run, and run far away! I wished I could be able to write another "Wasteland."
I had lost my enthusiasm for teaching years ago. I was merely going through motions. I had long given up love for Chaucer, Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Faulkner. My students had become nameless faces in the class room and faceless names during grading time.
The day ended with the usual monotony. In 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 didn't help matters. It was December and the few trees 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 familiar to me. Twice a day, I walked on it and encountered Bengalis, Philippines, Sudanese, Egyptians, Indians, and Pakistani, almost from the entire poor world. They had come there to make money and to fight against the eternal hunger of their lands, to fill empty stomachs of their families. They all were coming back from their long shifts in industries. They never had time to turn their faces. How full of life they had been in their youth, 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, nor would it belong to their children, nor even to their children's children because they belonged to the world where a 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 western literary magazine, had many times reminded me that I was a writer and I must write stories. How could I tell him that my mind had become an empty trash. 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 behind, whom I had not seen since her birth. But Neil Marr was still asking me for new stories. 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 a warm smile of welcome.
"Hello, Professor, take a seat. Nobody comes in this killing weather."
I thanked him with a smile and sat at the corner- table. The sitar music of Pakistan, a great achievement of human civilization, spoke to me with impossible complexities. The wild tides of sea outside reminded me of "Time" by P.B. Shelley:
I got up to see the descending sun and stood there until it was completely lost. When I returned to my table, I found professor Ramnath sitting there, staring out of the window.
"Cold, huh", he murmured.
He was professor of the English department at Indian Overseas College, an interesting fellow and brilliant old guy. He was as jaded about the world and 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 previous life, as Indians believe seven lives are lived in this world. We smoked wildly. The smoke coiled around us.
Ramnath was looking sad and dejected. It was something new because he was a loving, jolly fellow.
"You seem to be engrossed in something," I said.
&quit;Have you heard the B.B.C. News today?"
"There is nothing new for me -- tell me if there is ," I replied.
"American Space Shuttle Columbia burst in the space, just before landing," he told me.
"Yes, and there was some Indian lady, named Kalipna, yes it is a sad news," I replied.
"But Kalipna was not someone in the news for me, since I knew her personally," Ramnath said.
"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 the window where one seagull was diving to catch mackerel. Professor Ramnath could not prevent the flood of memories from washing over him. It seemed as though the past grabbed him. All was going to reveal 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 graduate student. She had shoulder length black hair that she clearly did not feel like worrying about. It was tousled and covered the sides of her plain, 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; I would say certain sparkle, which made you magic-bound. 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."
Professor stopped talking and looked into the sea where a seagull was still diving for a mackerel.
"What attracted you to her?" I asked.
Professor sighed and said: "Her eyes, how much peace I attained just by looking. Her eyes; how wonderful earth felt when I looked into her eyes. Whenever we were alone she wanted to learn. I explained quantum mechanics, geophysical terminology, and English literature. 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:
"I wondered at her lust for learning. Once we were having get-together party, she turned 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 when she got time to read all those heavy books.
"`I have always time, professor. This is the best way to prevent fear and loneliness.'
"I kissed her hand and said; `I love it when you speak like this, 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 collections of body parts controlled by a mind, but she was a mind supported by body parts.
"She had only one dream in her life: that was to travel across space and visit the moon. Since her childhood she had been dreaming it. Once she told me about her childhood, spent in the poor village of India. Her secondary school Education passed in a blur of solitary break times, wandering the school grounds or sitting under trees with a pad and pen; lunch breaks in the library, accompanied only by science fiction, right thumb sucked in deepest concentration, left gripping the pen. At home, after completing homework, she would spend her time in dreaming of space and moon. She passed exams with distinction but it was nothing for her. This was not her dream. Others may have escaped into the realms of dreams and imagination, but she never forgot the hardships of reality and reality never obstructed her dreams and plans. She knew that she had to harness talent more precisely to pursue her dreams.
"She wanted to join NASA. She won a scholarship for an aerospace department in Texas, and made her way smoothly. I knew she would hit her target one day. It was not amazing for me when she was selected as aeronautical engineer in NASA"
Professor looked again into the sea, where the seagull was still diving to catch the fish.
"Did you express your love, Ramnath?" I said, presenting a cigarette to him.
"No, never, beauty of love does not lie in expression; it lies in hidden words. As you know `Unheard Melodies are sweeter.' But I got one thing very real from her. That was mystic escape -- mystic escape which converted me from nonexistent to existent.
"I still remember the sad evening of her departure from India. Something in me was telling me that she would never return, because such people never come back; they don't look back; their destination is always ahead. The sun's last rays were sinking behind the trees. Shadows rose ominously from the dense woods on both sides of track. I saw her, waving her hands; I could see her sparkling eyes even from a distance. The distance vanished her and I could not see her again. Oh life, you cruel stepmother how you have separated the two of us?"
Sea was silent now. Smooth waves were singing sweet song. Ramnath stood up, walked slowly went over and leaned his head against the cold panes of window, overlooking the unfathomable sea, where the seagull was scraping his beak after eating mackerel.
I looked into the sea again as I thought about Ramnath and his sorrow. Life has no mercy; it scraps 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, walked out the door, onto the sidewalk and up the street. 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, but death finished her at the moment of glory.
I put cigarette in my mouth, but instead of lighting it
I just placed it in my mouth for effect, to give my fingers
something to do. I did not want to think anymore. That was
enough for one night.
© 2004 Muhammad Nasrullah Khan, all rights reserved
appears here by permission