The house where arrangements had been made for German Mian’s stay was ten minutes’ walk from the shrine, and from its front room, in the evening, the night sky was visible. German Mian became wistful whenever he looked at the sky. A strange fear seemed to suffocate him, and yet he could not stop himself from looking upwards.

Although the star-studded sky of Salar raised a storm of terror in his heart, he continued gazing at the beautiful form of this extraordinary world created by the Almighty.

Suddenly, a booming voice floated in from the unknown. ‘Are you afraid, Mian?’ German Mian could see no one in the sky, but when he lowered his eyes he discovered a figure in a white pirhan standing in front of him. ‘Don’t be afraid. My name is Zulfiqar Mian. I am your brother’s friend. We used to be business partners once upon a time, dealing in jaggery.’

The name was familiar. All he knew was that arrangements had been made for him to stay at the house of a friend of his brother’s. Although he was somewhat reassured on hearing Zulfiqar Mian’s name, his fear was not entirely dispelled. This was partly on account of viewing the night sky, and partly the effect of the baritone that had dropped from the above.

Still under the impact of this fear, German Mian was not able to speak, but Zulfiqar continued to converse with his guest. This man did not know how to stop talking. Khudataala had made some people in this fashion – their tongues, like galloping horses, were incapable of pausing.

‘My grandfather had told me a story, a chilling story. Not that you will be afraid – it will actually amuse you. My grandfather heard it from his grandfather. His forefathers came from Turkey. We had a traditional business of selling horses. From horses to jaggery – only the lord we worship knows what a man’s destiny holds for him. But forget about that, Janab-e- Mianbhai.’

German Mian had no idea when he had recalled all this, that he was now being told to forget it. But he said nothing. Zulfiqar Mian did not pause.

‘Do you know the name of the star you see there in the Qibla sky that points towards Mecca?’

Although German Mian could indeed see the evening star in the western sky, he did not respond. Zulfiqar Mian was not really asking him a question at all. This was how he spoke, like a schoolmaster.

‘Its name is Al Zohra.’

German Mian was reminded of his daughter. So his daughter was named after the evening star. Magnificent! He had no idea. He began to develop a fondness for Zulfiqar Mian.

‘You will see the same star in the east at dawn. In between, a variety of twinkling stars will move across the sky all night. That beautiful sight of the heavens will make your head reel. And this is just one sky there are six more. If just one of them is so beautiful, can you imagine what the other six must be like? If you cannot sleep, lie back quietly in your bullock-cart and look at the sky – you’ll realize how powerful Allahtaala is, how much effort he has put into creating this universe.’

German Mian finally spoke ‘you were talking of a frightening story, weren’t you? Tell me the story. I will listen while gazing at the sky.’

Zulfiqar Mian smiled, and then turned grave. No smile in the world lasts very long.

He began to weave his horror story in a sombre vein.

‘A long time ago, a widow lived with her son. One day she told him, shut the door son, I’m afraid. Her son was astonished, for he did not know what fear was. When he asked his mother, she said, fear is terror. So the boy left home to look for fear. He knew that fear did not wait outside the door to be let in like a guest; it would lurk in a forest or in ocean waves. He kept walking, asking everyone he met, but no one could inform him of the whereabouts of fear. Finally he arrived close to a mountain, where there were forty dacoits, desert bandits sporting long beards and dressed like Bedouins. The very sight of them was enough to make one faint. Exhausted, the young man sat down near them. This scared the dacoits. One of them summoned enough courage to ask, where have you come from, boy? Don’t you know birds are afraid to come here, and even insects scurry away when they see us? Here are our swords, we are ruthless, come near us and we’ll slice your head off. The young man was not frightened in the least. “I am looking for fear,” he said. “Do you know where I can find it?”

‘‘Fear is wherever we are,” answered the bandit.

“Where?” asked the young man.

‘‘There in that graveyard. Go and take a look. Light a fire there and make some halwa for us – take along all you need. When you bring the halwa, I’ll answer your question.”

“The young man went off to the graveyard to make the halwa. When the aroma began to waft across the graves, an arm emerged from one of them, and a nasal voice demanded, “Give me some halwa.” Rather amused, the young man said “Of course I’ll give you some. People don’t get halwa even when they’re alive, and this corpse has such high hopes. Stretch out your arm.” As soon as the arm was extended the young man scalded it with the spatula with which he had been cooking. At once the arm disappeared. The young man took the halwa to the bandits, who were astonished. How would they frighten someone who wasn’t even afraid of the graveyard? After much discussion, they sent him off to a haunted house, which was occupied by all sorts of vicious spirits, jinns and nymphs. But these beings could not frighten him either. The dacoits sent him to all the places that people were afraid to visit, but none could scare him. Yet, his mother wasn’t someone to lie. Fear was bound to be lurking somewhere, waiting in hiding, which was why he couldn’t find it. He would not return home till he had found fear. As the young man pondered over all this in a garden, he noticed three birds. They dipped their bodies into the pond in the garden and instantly turned into houris, those enchanting virgin companions of the faithful in Paradise.’

German Hosain interrupted Zulfiqar Ali’s story. He had dreamt of three birds turning into houris, he said, but in his dream the birds had bathed not in water but in blood.

Zulfiqar Mian returned to his story, ignoring the interlude.

‘After the bath the three houris sat down to eat. Before they began sipping from their bowls, one of them extended her arm towards the young man. What arm? It was the same scalded, colourless one that had emerged from the grave, asking for halwa. The arm said, “I’ll drink your blood from this bowl today.” The young man chuckled. It seemed to him that the arm was growing longer, and had acquired a pair of eyes, a nose, teeth, two ears, and nails. The houri’s arm was dead, and yet it kept growing.’

This frightened German Mian ‘For heavens sake, stop now, Zulfiqar Bhai. I don’t want to hear this story anymore. Aren’t you going to show me the night sky? I’m very hungry.’

Excerpted with permission from Seven Heavens, Samim Ahmed, translated from the Bengali, Hachette India.