In the darkest hours of a summer’s afternoon, the clouds had gathered in an elegant mass of deep grey. Mugginess hung thick in the atmosphere. Pushpa Pervez, sat curled up on a reclining chair, in the far end corner of her balcony, inhaling an air of a cocktail mix of pungent rain and perfumed gardenias. Looking at a retinue of ants climbing up the balcony wall, and snapping at a minuscule black fly hovering over her upturned nose, she reflected, ‘Well now, finally some rain, long overdue.’
Swamped by these horrid black flies, she realized that she had been stung in a number of awkward places; under her upper arms, and her lower legs. She was beside herself with itchiness. No sooner had she started to scratch them, the itchy spots burst into ugly little blisters. Soon followed by a range of red mounds, they erupted immediately on the smooth surface of her elbow and the calf, like tiny molehills of all sizes and shapes. Visibly vexed, Pushpa looked at the red swellings and began to count them nervously with an index finger. ‘Gosh 13!’ She swore inwardly under bated breath and rubbed gently over in rapid successions, trying to avoid an onslaught of after itch black blotches.
Storm-clouds as menacing as they might have seemed, looked spectacular; they loomed at large in the distant horizon. She tried to decide whether or not, it would be prudent for her to go to the spice bazar after all. She was almost out of spice. For dinner tonight, it was going to be fried, hot curried fish. Nothing else would spice up this stormy evening.
The spice bazar was just around the corner of the next street in the West End. She lived on a busy street. Most of the time, it was impossible to get across on Montague Road near her apartment building. Some days were a bit better than the others, but people stood on the foot-path for hours before they could go to the other side. Pushpa joined the crowd and crossed the road uneasily with caution through rush hour traffic.
When she finally made it to the spice bazar, she walked its dirt-road casually. The shop fronts were decked with many spices of extraordinary colours. A great variety of saffron, turmeric, coriander, cumin and red chilly power were placed in seperate hessian sacks. Each packed with the potent goodness of Ayurvedic medicines, the yellow turmeric prevented cancer of the bowel. Brown coriander and cumin served as antioxidants. The orange saffron was an aphrodisiac; and the red hot chilly, the detoxifier. She stopped in front of a store and took a deep breath of the varied flavour exuded from them. She asked the salesman sitting behind the products to pack a few grams of each. He scooped out a measured amount from different sacks and wrapped them up neatly in seperate brown paper bags. The rumblings of the clouds indicated that the storm that had been underway would sweep through anytime now. Before the pelting began, she tried to hurriedly get back home. Just then she saw a mother struggling to get through with her twins in a double perambulator. Pushpa wondered what could have driven her to come out on an evening like this. She stopped short to help her. The mother looked at Pushpa and lashed out,
“Thank you, but no thanks. Don’t bother.”
“Excuse me?” Pushpa asked taken completely aback.
“I said, I don’t need your help. Mind your own business.”
For the first time now, Pushpa actually stood back and looked at her. She could have been in her late forties, who had a distinctive beard and a moustache. Over-weight as she was, she was wearing a frumpy old frock. She also saw several beer bottles necking out from the pocket at the bottom of the perambulator.
“You clearly need help!” Pushpa tried.
“You think you can help me.”
“Yes, I would like to think so.”
“No. I’m beyond it. No one can. No one can help me.”
Pushpa looked up and down at the children seated in the pram and their mother looking around puzzled. They seemed well fed.
“What do you mean?” she asked aghast.”Are you their mother or not?”
“And you ‘re a complete stranger. Who’re you and why should I tell you?”
The storm had started to roll in by now with drizzles lashing haphazardly in the strong winds. Pushpa insisted that this person needed help.
“Look, I can help you, I think. It is raining. Shouldn’t we run for shelter?”
“I don’t need shelter. I’m already sheltered. You go on now.”
The woman paused and then pushed on straggling down the wet path. She slowly disappeared among the motley crowd. It was strange that Pushpa should’ve met this person. She had half a mind to follow her. But she didn’t. Then she also didn’t know what to do. Stranded there looking a bit dazed, she thought what her next course of action must be. The storm had gained momentum in the meantime. The visibility was really quite poor. But she had made up her mind to look for her. Pushpa set out and kept up her vigilance, as her search efforts ensued; her spices began run down in coloured rivulet through the soaked paper bag. ‘I don’t have to do this,’ she cried out in the heavy winds. ‘No you don’t,’ said someone behind her.’ She looked back and saw a young man talking to her.
“Who’re you?” Pushpa yelled.
“Time,” the young man replied.
“Yes. That’s my name.”
“What do you want?” Pushpa asked.
They were still running in the same direction abreast to each other. Pushpa looked at him.
“The same that you want from her?”
“I don’t understand.”
“What do I want from her?”
“I don’t know. You’re the one who crossed her path.”
“Are you saying, I need to do something for her?”
“Shouldn’t you? You did promise to help her.”
“Now, wait a minute. I didn’t promise her anything.”
“Did you not say, you wanted to help her?”
“Yes, and she knew very well that you couldn’t. That’s why she was so rude to you.”
“And how would you know? Have you been following me? Are you a stalker?”
“No. Like I said, I’m Time.”
“Should I have not offered her help, then?”
“Yes. But that was all in the plan.”
“Plan? What plan? She needed a lot of help. Surely, you saw that too.”
“I saw everything coming. Down to its minute detail.”
“Why did you not stop her then?”
“Because I can’t!” said Time.
“Her perambulator was stuck and I was just trying to get it out of the rut.”
“That’s the whole point of it. The perambulator was but a part of a chain of events.”
“How was I to know that?”
“You don’t! No one does. These are life’s irreversible events that no one has any control over. Do you not see where I’m going with all this?”
Pushpa kept running; and running blindingly in the rain. She couldn’t see the woman anywhere now. Neither could she see the young man. She stopped a bit, clearly chagrined. She looked beside her and took a deep breath. The man was gone. Where did he go now? She looked around but couldn’t find him anywhere. There was a tree nearby. She thought she would sit down under it for a while. It was a shady tree with huge leaves through which rain water dripped every second.
It burst into a beautiful sunny day. The larks and the dove chirped in the depths of an ancient olive grove. She sat by a pool and there he was again, the young man who had called himself Time. He hadn’t aged a bit. They both sat chatting with one another.
“Well, I see you again. You have’t aged a day.”
“No. I’m ageless, but you’re not. You’re a time-rider,” Time said.
“Where are we?”
“Where do you think?” asked Time.
“Olive groves, doves. Are we in some kind of an oriental paradise?”
“Maybe we are. God’s in heaven waiting for humans to seek Him and to meet Him here.”
“Really? Have you seen him?”
“Well, where is he?”
“Everywhere and nowhere. Down under, up above. Don’t really know.”
“Why should we worship him then?”
“Don’t, if you don’t want to. He wouldn’t care.”
“But we’re stuck in His plans, aren’t we? The cosmic chain of events that he has devised for us.”
“Yes, that we are and they’re irreversible,” said Time.
“Yes. I’m the past, present and the future. I can go backwards and forwards, but events go only backwards. One day, I’ll disappear too like all things on earth and the universe.”
Saying so, Time vanished as magically as it had appeared. She tried to figure out what Time was saying. To test its theory, she sat down and reversed every single moment from this point backwards in her mind. She started from talking with Time; searching for the lady in the rain; stopping by to help her and getting insulted in the process; crossing Montague Road; feeling itchy; getting bitten by black flies; watching ants and the storm here in the balcony; sitting curled up in her chair. She kept taking the clock backwards, as far back as she could. She was a baby again. Growing up traveling through time, as each precious moment lost in the past. Here and now, her mind was like waves. It was free to roam through any space in time. The clock ticked tirelessly onwards. With each ticking, world’s events reversed. All great wars, ancient history, the Pharaohs, once in the future, but slipped quietly back into the past. Trees, the birds, forests; milky-ways, constellation, the galaxies, all rushing back together through celestial space-time. Back to the beginning when time was born; the process of evolution had started with a bang some billions of years ago. She saw it all. She saw how the universe reverted to singularity, the blissful 7th sky, of complete void. She saw now, how, time itself came to a halt. How the clocks stopped and death of time had eventually occurred.
A deep paradox was also unveiled within. In the beginning, there was darkness. Inception of time set the universe in motion; life was born on earth. There was movement. Yet, it was in this very passage of time that life also ended; deaths took place. Time traveled through past, present and the future, as it carried all events of life in its stream. The future would become the present, and the present, the past one day. Each event was lost backwards in snitches of time. That no human predictions, nor interventions could change the rigid paradigm of this flow, nor its happenings; marked irreversibility of a reversed cosmic order. People had no hand in altering the course of events, but only a belief that they thought they did.
‘What the heck?’ Feeling itchy, she woke up startled, locked her arms together and felt a chill go right through the spine. The storm-clouds darkened the world like never before. She found a towel lying on the floor where she had fallen asleep in her chair. Like the rain, her sleep was also long overdue. She hadn’t slept in ages now. The gusty winds had blown it away straight out of its peg on the clothes line. She stood up groggily and went inside to put the kettle to the boil.
While the water boiled, she picked up a cup and a saucer to make a cup o’ tea. She put two sugars, and a dash of milk over a tea bag in the cup and poured hot water straight in. Then, she carried the hot cup out on the balcony. The storm was nasty. Branches of the trees had come undone as they flew in a havoc. Peoples’ clothes were snatched away, flying in the winds. She pondered, ‘Afternoon dreams are always a bit strange.’ She walked back to the kitchen and picked up her six months old knitting. Looking out, she continued to knit. She couldn’t procrastinate much longer. Just a few days now, before the season’s change began; autumn’s ‘mellow fruitfulness and mists,’ would soon enable summer’s peaceful retirement for this year, into the past.
Critically acclaimed novelist, Mehreen Ahmed has been publishing since 1987. Her writing career began with journalism and academic reviews and articles. Her journalistic articles appeared in The Sheaf, a campus newspaper for the university of Saskatchewan Canada between 1987-1999.
Her latest book, The Pacifist, is available at all major online book stores.