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Atiya Syed

FICTION

The Statue of Balqian

There is a tiny country on the world map, holding its trembling self just like a dew drop. You might find it if you looked. Then again you might not. This country is surrounded by mountain ranges all around. The mountains are rocky, the plains arid and barren. Clouds unkind, rain alienated for ages. Here, time is frozen like a fossil in the rocks and life is murky and stagnant like the water in a pond. People of many dialects and races live in this land. Some Turkish, some warriors of Genghis Khan, some descendants of the army of Alexander the Great and possibly many belonging to the lost Jewish tribe.
In this land, Ahmed Shah was born in the remote area of Balqian, comprising a few houses and a few souls. Ahmed Shah’s house consisted of one room with walls made from stones. The stove was also made of stones and firewood was used as fuel. It was used for cooking as well as for warmth in winter. The smoke from the firewood had blackened the ceiling.
Ahmed Shah was the first born son. When he first opened his eyes, there was a kind of fog all around him. Slowly his sight cleared and the first thing he saw was, two eyes --- green, like emeralds but soft with some emotion. He could not understand this emotion, but he felt its joyous effect in every pore of his being. This was his mother --- Zarmeene who adorned his head with a gold embroidered cap, put antimony in his eyes, deposited kisses filled with love, on his forehead and cheeks, and sang lullabies in some strange language.
As time went by Ahmed Shah could see his mother’s whole face and he also felt another presence --- his father’s, which did not have the tenderness of his mother. Instead there was the inflexibility of rocks, harshness of tone. But sometimes a spark of love emanated from him as if a flower had bloomed in the desert.
Ahmed Shah started walking. He explored the room and even ventured outside. Now his hearing had developed too and he often heard explosions and gunfire. Far away, one could see vultures and kites circling in the sky. At times his father would disappear with the rifle and would return after many days. His face was covered with a web of wrinkles at a young age and his tone was becoming harsher every day.
One day Ahmed Shah heard dreadful sounds. His father, who was home at the time, swooped towards his rifle and ran outside. Ahmed Shah, whose legs had become strong and who could run now, followed him. There he saw a monster with iron wheels, rumbling towards their house. Its long metallic beak was aimed at them and a lot of bearded men were riding on it. They called his father when they came closer. Ahmed Shah was sent inside by his father.
Ahmed Shah went in, as ordered, but stayed glued to the door in order to watch the scene outside. The men jumped down from the metallic monster and whispered something to his father. Ahmed Shah could not tell what was being said but he could see that as a result his father’s face looked even grimmer. He came into the house and told Ahmed Shah’s mother that he was going away and did not know when he would be back. Then he saw Ahmed Shah hiding behind the door.
For an instant his rock-like demeanor melted. The father picked him up, hugged him and deposited an intense kiss on his forehead. It all happened in the blink of an eye. Then the rock returned and the father, brandishing his rifle, jumped on the metallic monster and left for some unknown destination.
Many days, weeks, months, and years passed but the father did not return. The mother would weep quietly in his memory but she would wipe off her tears and laugh if Ahmed Shah looked at her.
He would ask, ‘Where did Father go?’
‘He has gone to fight,’ she would reply.
‘With whom?’
She had no answer but said, ‘With the enemy.’
‘Who is the enemy?’ To this she had no reply and would get irritated and scold him. He felt frightened. But slowly his innocent mind deducted that just like he did not know why it never rained, why the surrounding mountains were not green, he could not know why this war had been going on for so long in which his father had gone to fight. Why it was going on and with whom, he didn’t know, but one thing was certain, that it was being fought and would continue.
Ahmed Shah kept growing. He would wander far from the house. One day, feeling adventurous he climbed the mountain behind his house and went down the other side. He saw a strange scene there; many caves in the mountainside. Perhaps people had lived in them in the past. There were still broken pieces of their earthen utensils in some caves. Ahead of the caves he saw a huge statue which seemed to be protected by the mountain like a baby in her mother’s arms.
The statue had been crafted by the tools of intense love and affection. Each fold of its dress had been skillfully contrived. The toes and toenails reflected height of artistry but it was the face which was unforgettable. The hair gathered in a knot on the crown of the head. The nose; Grecian perfection, big eyes like flowers in full bloom and filled with the kindness and peace of bottomless oceans. Chiselled lips with the hint of a smile. One hand holding a begging bowl and the other held up with the forefinger and thumb joined and the other three fingers raised.
Ahmed Shah was spellbound by the statue. Such profound beauty and serenity amazed him. It was as if the statue felt his wonder and curiosity. Ahmed Shah sensed that it was looking at him with deep affection. He smiled back. What a treasure!
After that day Ahmed Shah often climbed the mountain to visit the statue and to sit and stare at it for hours. Sometimes he gathered the courage to touch its feet and caress the delicate toes. Their coolness would give him a sense of well-being.
Slowly he became more daring and started touching the dress, but hesitantly. He would keep glancing at the face to see if the statue was annoyed. He felt it to be alive. But the statue kept on smiling in spite of his loving cheekiness. Ahmed Shah wanted to hug it, put his arms around the neck but it was so tall and Ahmed Shah so small. When he could not resist this urge he started hugging the legs. This gave him a strange sense of contentment and the statue would smile. The smile would spread, from its lips to cover its face.
One day Ahmed Shah went to play near the statue. He spied a huge cloud of dust coming towards him. Some strange fear made him hide in a nearby cave but he kept looking out. When the dust settled, two jeeps appeared. One with bearded men in turbans, the other with some white skinned foreigners. The jeeps stopped near the statue and all the people got down to stand in front of it. The foreigners were mesmerized by its beauty. They could also sense the statue smiling at them just like Ahmed Shah.
It took a long time for the foreigners to come out of their trance. They realized that the harsh winds and vagaries of weather had affected it. Cracks covered its whole body like cobwebs. The foreigners’ aesthetic sense was badly hurt. They looked at each other and spoke among themselves in their own language. Finally, the one who knew the local dialect addressed the bearded men, ‘This is priceless --- a masterpiece.  It is, however, in real danger of destruction if not repaired.’
‘Where will we find the money to repair it? You know the war has been going on for years. We are suffering from anarchy, poverty and famine. Life and death are the same to us. Our children start dying as soon as they are born, due to malnutrition and lack of health care. Our women grow old before they are young. Men become animals as soon as they reach adolescence. They carry Kalashnikovs and rockets. Their eyes burn with horror and their stomachs, with hunger. Everything seems red to them. They don’t know that roses are red too. They only know that blood is red. Their ears are not tuned to music, only to bomb blasts.’
‘Nevertheless this statue is your cultural heritage; it is imperative to save it. We will give you millions of dollars for its restoration,’ the spokesman declared.
The grim, bearded faces became bitter, ‘This statue is doubtlessly priceless, but it is the past. The present is in front of you. Our children are the future and they are dying. Isn’t it more important to save them? The past is gone, at best a memory. The present is bleak and the future dark. We certainly need millions, in fact billions of dollars for our children’s survival, for food and medicines. At least give us enough aid to clear the mines scattered all over our country.’
When the translator told the foreigners all this, they became angry and shook their heads as they got into their jeep. The bearded men were forced to do the same and both jeeps went back.
Ahmed Shah did not understand the dialogue properly but somehow he felt depressed and returned home without playing with the statue.
After a few days Ahmed Shah’s uncle arrived in Balqian from the capital and asked Ahmed’s mother to send him to the city where the uncle had a poultry business. He said the boy could help him and earn some money too, then the mother could join him in the city. Initially the mother did not like the plan. But the uncle’s insistence and her poverty forced her to accept his proposal and send her precious son to the city.
The next day Ahmed Shah left with his uncle to go to the capital. Around noon they stopped to rest under a shady tree. The uncle lay with his head on a stone. Ahmed Shah rested for a while, then sat up against a tree. He was not as exhausted as his uncle.
Ahmed Shah was idly watching the vast land spread before him when he spied a shiny object in the dust. He tried to look away but curiosity compelled him to look at it again and again. At last he gave in to his curiosity and quietly walked towards that object, away from his uncle. It only took him a few moments to get there. It was only a few steps away and attracted him like a mirage in a desert. It was some metallic object which was shining, due to the reflected sunlight. He went closer --- one more step --- a heart rending explosion --- Ahmed Shah’s little body flew into the air and disintegrated.
Just then, far away, the sky turned red in Balqian. The web of delicate cracks turned into wider ones in the Buddha’s statue which had leaned against the mountain and its rock-solid body disintegrated and fell to the ground in a thousand pieces.

                                                   
Translated from Urdu by Ayesha Zaigham

Website Editor
Mohammad Hameed Shahid

Mohammad Hameed Shahid