This story is by Saira Leghari and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Stars that anonymously prick the sky above me are a gift for villages and forgotten towns, and this holds true for my cosseted home, Alamabad. She endures till oil lamps last and then turns to the stars, borrowing their light to fill the void left by the extinguished wicks. Stars and I co-exist, each dependent on another source. Unlike the moon, stars and I lack a dark side. We are adornments for this world, unlike my village, whose landscape mirrors a terrain ravaged by the aftermath of war, left unattended, untouched.
I look at the glistening sky, rich in hope. The cosmos—a divine gift indeed.
Yet, a twinge of sorrow surfaces for those who surrender to sleep, while others find delight in the night’s secrecy, entwined with beloveds, their pursuits far from stargazing. With a smile, I wipe sweat, aspiring to flow down my pockmarked cheek, catching it at my eyebrow’s tail. I, too, am not alone; I’m with purpose and Molana Jaffar–both my muses.
As I gather the strength to thrust the shovel into the Earth’s benevolent embrace, my gaze sidelong at Molana reveals a pallid silhouette aged by the relentless sun, defying the strength he displayed over the past three nights. From the days I was first entrusted to him, his once-jet-black beard has turned snowy white like the shalwar kameez he wears- a suitable outfit for the principal of the “Haq Madrassa,” a religious institute held together by prayers and cobwebs.
This unassuming, bricked structure exudes a majestic presence, a guardian overlooking the village. It welcomes those who seek refuge as they enter through the intricately carved wooden door that sings time-worn hums. The glass windows, subtly cracked and clouded by the dust of countless days, mirror the Madrasah’s central courtyard floor, where I stand tonight.
I inhale the dry scent of old parchment, echoing the countless verses of the Quran studied within these hallowed halls. The chalkboards, though peeling, bear the traces of wisdom shared among generations. Creaking wooden desks, polished by passaging young minds hungry for knowledge, silently witness the ebb and flow of life.This decaying edifice, the Madrassa, is the only hearth of progress, offering free shelter, sustenance, and a path away from the perils of the streets for the children of Alamabad.
I appreciate Molana’s handsomeness and wonder if his young wife does, too. Perhaps she’s too engrossed in making Molana forget. After each visit to his first wife’s grave, Molana returns fatigued, mouth parched, and eyes heavy, causing his new wife to spring into an embrace. My adopted mother passed away under enigmatic circumstances, and while I made peace, Molana Jaffer did not.
Beyond his radiance and fair skin, the brilliance of his blue-green eyes strikes me as a rarity among the typical browns of Pakistanis. I know this because I have explored the Occident world through books encountering figures like Newton, Galileo, Columbus, David Beckham, Shakespeare.
“Molana Sahab, did you know Shakespeare wasn’t real? Some say he was an English king with a profound love for literature. He wrote under a pen name, perhaps to protect his kingly image or life.”
Molana abruptly ceases excavation. His gaze falls upon me, a commingle of irritation and uncertainty evident in his western eyes. Despite the annoyance, a deep affection for me shines through the fatherly care that stems from his deep desire for a child.
“Asad! Now is not the time for your balderdash! Shake-a-spear is as unknown to me as my future. Why do you read about useless people that have nothing to do with our lives?” Molana continued,
“Aisha needs to stop sending books from Karachi. They corrupt you. When you have the word of Allah in your heart and mind, there’s no need for anything else to fill it with.”
This amuses me! I know his niece will continue to send literature; inwardly, Molana is grateful.
“Didn’t Allah say to seek knowledge, even if one must travel to the farthest end of the Earth? Seek knowledge, for it is the true light,” I add.
Molana relaxes his mouth. “Ah! In that case, I really need your light! It’s hard to dig, but I’m certain we’re close to discovering the gold. I pray the Mystic wasn’t bluffing.”
I don’t know what to say or believe, but my allegiance overpowers my rationality. Last month, a saintly visitor to the Madrasah- witnessing Molana’s grief over dwindling funds, deteriorating conditions, scarce meals, and textbooks—delivered unexpected news. What he revealed, I share with you.
During the partition, when the clash between Hindus and Muslims peaked, influential Hindus inhabited the land upon which this mosque and Madrasah now stand. Forced to abandon their homes and belongings and migrate to India, many buried their gold and valuables, hoping to return and reclaim them. The dust never settled, and what they left behind remained. His vision pinpointed brass cauldrons buried near the orange tree that clutched the Madrasah’s inner courtyard like a timeless peg. In them, wealth that could sustain generations.
Dumbfounded but desperate, Molana sought guidance.
“Speak to no one about this. Your life’s at risk. Greed breeds untimely death; jealousy can poison. When the moon is whole, dig for three nights. Send all your teachers and students on leave and ensure no one is on this ground when you dig,” the Mystic instructed.
“But I am weak, and I can’t do this alone. My wife can’t help either. I need to tell Asad. I trust him with my life, and besides, he is the one who will inherit all this,” Molana pleaded.
“At your own risk, then. The malevolent presence of Djinns guarding the treasure can be insidious. Asad’s life…..”
“Asad’s life is protected by his faith,” Molana interjected.
“Your wife, too, was a woman of faith. Their presence burned her from within; only fire can vanquish these blazing creations, not faith. Asad is weak, much like your first wife.”
With a weathered hand, the Mystic gently touched Molana’s arm as he revealed the vulnerability of his first wife to the Djins -a silent endeavor to shoulder Molana’s past and impending future loss.
He allowed Molana to conscript me. As the full moon blanketed the Madrasah grounds in a silence deeper than death, the excavation commenced.
“What hurts you, blesses you; darkness is your candle.” As Exhaustion crushes my body and darkness stalks my sanity, I hope Poet Rumi is right.
An eerie stillness encompasses my senses as the air suddenly charges. Stars shimmer brighter, casting long shadows that dance mysteriously on the barren land. I look towards Molana’s lean form, bearing the proud stature of a Pashtun warrior, hoping his calloused hands drop the shovel and sense the disquieting presence. I have always relied on his finely tuned intuition. Yet tonight, nothing.
As I continue digging, a strange resonance hums through the shovel’s vibrations, awakening a realization dormant for three nights. This excavation isn’t merely about uncovering buried treasure; there’s a force, a presence, waiting to be unearthed along with the secrets below.
Clink! Clink, and then another, and another. Molana’s focused gaze now holds a glint of recognition.
“Asad! I think I found it!”
Unable to contain his excitement, he rushes to embrace me with a leap of a victor. My heart throbs like an erupting abscess, and my body surrenders into the lax of a drunken vagabond circumambulating shuttered shops at night.
He’s found “them”, I think.
Extending my hand to grip Molana Jaffer, I discover his unsteady limbs slipping on the earth. A blow beats my backside, and the ground races, freeing my feet. Gravity carries me deep into the futile hole of rot and dispersed soil. A haunting symphony of sinister echoes and laughter claws through the air, muffling Molana’s screams at Earth’s feet. I cast my gaze towards the alive stars, ruminating Rumi.
‘Once you conquer your selfish self, your darkness will change to light.’
And then it transpires. Tonight, within the depths of Alamabad’s soil, my obedience and gratitude conquered my fears, greed, impatience, and ignorance. The truth resides within me, not in the confines of my books, beliefs, this land, or Molana’s shadow.
If everything seems dark, look again; you may be the light.
With a determined thought, I visualize the light letting it course through my veins. As it intensifies, it surges like a breached dam flooding the Earth. The blaze engulfs the invisible beings that pushed me, birthing a deafening hair-raising chorus, resonating within the depths of the chasm that confines me. Fire dances, scattering into the darkness.
On cue, the musky, moist soil that guards me and the unconscious Molana Jaffar spits me towards the expanse that roofs us. I gaze down upon Molana’s limp figure, slouched against the sandy wall, his western eyes veiled in peaceful oblivion.
“If the light is in your heart, you’ll find your way home.”
As I ascend among the stars, I understand I don’t need them. I am them.