Monday, September 19, 2011


Zuljinnah bolted.  Moments before, Asghar, who had  felt he was about to faint with the monstrous heat and  suffocating press of the crowd  at the Ashura procession had let go of the horse’s reins to gulp a glass of sherbet proffered from one of the many sabeels that lined the procession route when the richly caparisoned steed took off at a blinding gallop.

 Until that instant the morning’s mourning had gone off without a hitch, beginning as it did each year in the congested and poor mohajir locality of Burns Road before culminating some five miles away at the Tariq Road qabaristan. Asghar had jockeyed hard all year to be given the honor of leading Zuljinnah. His generous and hard earned gifts to Imam Rizvi had helped. The family’s house shared a wall with Imam Rizvi’s and from the window of his second floor bedroom he sometimes spied on Zubeida, the Imam’s 15 year old daughter; on the tiny square green postage stamp of her front lawn as she fanned out her long wet hair to dry in the sun. He had thrilled at the thought that for once, the roles would be reversed, that Zubeida would be watching him from the sidelines along with her family as he led the Moharram procession.

That thrill evaporated as fast as drop of water on burning asphalt as he saw Zuljinnah’s  bright  trappings recede into a blur. All around him was a swirling chaos of shouts, screams and insults “abbe ullu ke patthey yeh tu ne ky kiya!” and  “ after him you chootiya!” A rickshaw was hastily flagged down and the next thing Asghar knew he was giving a dizzying, zigzagging chase to the runaway steed, as they darted  into sabzi galis and bartan galis and stolen auto parts alleys, leaving a colorful clattering wake in their path. Asghar was grateful for the small mercy of the velociferous wind that although scalding by itself, felt cool on his sweat drenched frame. All along the rickshawallah was blaring Runa Laila’s hit number  ‘mera babu chail chabila main to nachun gi’  Asghar thought for a bizarre, surreal moment that the rickshaw itself was like a motorized version of Zuljinnah. Gold gota was plastered around all its edges and red and gold tassels and garlands hung everywhere so much so that visibility of the road appeared to be an afterthought.

Oddly enough Zuljinnah appeared to be heading towards the Tariq Road qabaristan. Most strange, Asghar thought to himself, after all its not like he has been this way before. Every year a new horse was selected for the symbolic honor of being Imam Husain’s steed at the fateful battle of Karbala. Zuljinnah was the emblem of bravery and loyalty fighting at his master’s side until he drew his last, martyred breath.

Tariq Road qabaristan was one of the older Shia  graveyards of the city. On one side there was a low stone wall on which were plastered various advertisements mostly aimed at the ills and afflictions of the impotent male organ coupled with slogans of political parties in the shade of tall, stately babool and pipal trees. Here was where the patriarchs of the older and more prosperous Shia sayyad families came to their final resting place. Marble headstones and green flags abounded. Incense burned. Rose petals lay scattered about. On the other side of the cemetery, in the burning sun the landscape wilted into naked cement slabs and in many cases, simple mounds of earth. There were no well tended plants, only ubiquitous brambles of kikar, upon which the inevitably unanswered prayer flags of orphaned plastic fluttered morosely.

It was here that Zuljinnah finally arrived, neighing and stamping his feet upon a rare patch of bare ground as if he was hazrat Houwa searching frantically for water. Asghar jumped out of the rickshaw, ignoring the rickshawallah’s angry demands  for his fare and ran to the horse’s side. Zuljinnah had flung his heavy garland upon the ground and had sat down upon it unmoving. A crowd had gathered, as was to be expected in such an unusual circumstance. Someone offered to fetch Khajoor Baba, a fakir who lived at the far end of the qabaristan under a date palm tree. Before Asghar could accept or refuse, the Baba in question was to be seen ambling along toward the commotion. Every few moments he would utter ”Haq!” in a  very loud voice and thump his staff upon the ground sending clouds of dust into the air. Asghar thought he had seen him once or twice before, at the urs of Abdullah Shah ghazi perhaps.

Certainly Khajoor Baba was an unmistakable presence. His beard and hair were dyed a flaming red with henna and a colorful mala of beads hung about his neck along with a garland of dried dates or khajoor from he no doubt derived his name. In the breadth of an instant Asghar was given a barrage of contradictory information about Khajoor Baba. He was, variously, a charlatan, a great holy man, an outright thief, a diviner of water,  a diviner of the future,  an instrument of Satan, he could read your hand , do not let him touch your hand,  he could grant you a child, he was a swallower of children. The chatter grew silent, however, as the malang approached. He caressed the white star between Zuljinnah’s eyes and the horse bowed his head. A murmur rippled through the crowd as Khajoor baba’s staff pointed downwards in front of the horse as if pulled by an invisible gravity. “Kulhari lao!” he commanded, fetch the pickaxe. “There is a holy relic buried here!”

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