I think you were expecting someone else – a monster perhaps. Sorry to disappoint you, sir. I’m not who they say I am. Please, have a seat. I will tell you more.
In a few days, as you know, I’ll be executed for the murder of Salim Agha. The charges levelled against me are of terror and barbarism. They say I am the Scimitar, the Sword of the Caliphate, sent forth by a brutal empire to unleash horror upon the West. Perhaps there’s some truth to that claim, perhaps not. I’ll let you be the judge. It’s true that I murdered Salim Agha and I alone will take the fall.
But I believe we were all responsible for his death.
Because we, the people of his nation, stood silently when the storm arrived, watching our culture and our way of life vanish before our eyes. The black flag of the Caliphate approached us like a giant broom and, just like that, swept everything away. They seized town after town, levelled our buildings, and snatched children from their mothers’ bosoms. That’s when entire nations faded. Darkness fell.
Since then, every anecdote has been rewritten, our histories altered, and whatever lay there before is lost forever.
We know that out of all the forgotten homelands this storm devoured, there was one that was revered by all. Yet the world didn’t even notice when, with an almost suddenness, Pureland disappeared.
Salim’s legacy, and that of his beloved nation, Pureland, will perish with me when I die, and soon it will be as if he never existed at all. I have been unable to live with this reality. Had I gone to a hypnotist, instead of sitting here in your pleasant company, he might have extricated from my mind these taunting thoughts and absolved me of this remorse.
But you’re not here to listen to a remorseful plea. You’re here to learn about the Caliphate, the assassin they call the Scimitar, and what compelled me to carry out this archaic execution. After all, it’s not every day that a person of your distinction enters these daunting walls.
I see you are a bit overdressed for this place. Please, take off your jacket, loosen that tie, it gets quite warm in here. I would put away that pen and notebook too; you won’t need them. Just listen.
You see, sir, at this very moment, Salim Agha lies in an abandoned cemetery in a forgotten town of this dominion we now call the Caliphate. On any given day you will find his grave pitilessly surrounded by trash and shit. The epitaph is obscured. Ruthless chiselling has left the inscription unrecognisable. For the townsmen, it’s just another heretic’s grave; no one knows who lies below the headstone, only that its violation is a celebrated custom.
I can tell from your face that you find all this deeply unsettling.
What was his crime, you ask. The answer: he fell in love. Sometimes, in a world like this, that’s all it takes.
His Birth – Summer, 1950
All that matters in life is our desire for one another. That was how Salim Agha saw this world. Before havoc was wreaked upon us, before the evil of the Caliphate descended, this was how our world was – a world of lovers. Strangely, all that mattered to Salim was a nation that never loved him back.
In order to understand this paradox, you need to abandon your view of reality. Forget what you know about time, space, what’s true, what’s fantasy. More importantly, forget all you know about love. Because more than anything else, this is a story about love. And to truly understand love, you must first set it free.
It is a strange tale I’m about to reveal – one rooted in mystery. Such mystery that you might start to question my state of mind. But I assure you, sir, my sanity is intact. Prior to your arrival, I thought about where to begin this story; whether or not to reveal its obscure mysticism. I don’t want to hide anything from you though.
It’s clear to me that to understand this tale in all of its cosmic relevance, we must begin with the prophecy which was delivered through god of Abraham’s most trusted emissary. Our journey begins here.
It was in the minutes before Salim’s birth that it all started. In the summer of 1950, deep in the drapery of starlight, further than any man can see, celestial beasts gathered. One of them wore the look of hurried excitement as he prepared to welcome the final saviour.
“I can’t believe the time has come for us to welcome the trusted one! I can’t believe the time has come!” the archangel Gabriel sang, dusting his wings while the others huddled around him tapping their foreheads in nervous panic.
“Hurry! You have no time. Look below, he’s about to arrive!”
“Yes, I know. I’m not blind. Believe you me, I’ve done this many times.” A portal swirled around his fingers. The dial was stuck. Gabriel fidgeted with intensity, wrinkling his forehead. ‘Seven to...one...no, where is it, ah! Ground floor!”
“He’s going, he’s going! We can’t believe the time has come for us to welcome the trusted one!” the others sang, dancing in a circle with their elbows interlocked.
Their feet began to tap to the marching tune they had rehearsed earlier, as white dust flew in plumes around their toes. One beast screamed into the shrinking portal, “Wait! Do you remember His instructions?”
“What bloody instructions?” Gabriel looked at his palm where his short-hand notes had been smeared by sweat. “Oh yes. Of course I remember: to blow into his ear. Or was it his nose?” The portal shut as he chimed in with his comrades, “Oh when the saints ... oh when the saints go marching in.”
It suddenly dawned upon the archangel that he would have to employ his powers of improvisation – a talent only a real actor could boast of, and in his mind he was the finest thespian in the entire cosmos. Down below his feet he could see the world of Abraham, wrapped in its blue blanket, welcoming him as he closed his eyes and drew a breath. At the height of the Himalayas, he twisted into a ball, diving further south into the creamy hue of the night sky.
“Oh when the saints go marching in, ta ta ta ta tu ru tu tu...”
Piercing cloud after cloud, he sang as he entered the place where no man or archangel ever cared to venture. It was a place where moonlight was the only guide. Gabriel was terrified, but he clasped his hands together in a namaste, muttered a prayer, put his chin to his chest and plunged into the darkness. The kino trees broke his fall as he bounced into the air and smashed against a corrugated iron roof. He came to a stop as another prayer fell from his lips. Turning sideways, he slipped through rusty holes into Jaaji the Painter’s home.
Jaaji was asleep on the floor. Gabriel saw where it was he had to go. A woman, Jaaji’s wife, was crying out in pain. The archangel took his mark and ran towards her.
“Marching in,” he shouted, blinking in urgency as he squeezed himself through wide open legs towards the womb. Cradling the unborn babe in his arms, the archangel blew into his nose the final revelation, the prophecy revealed to him by God of Abraham himself, and moments before the birth took place, he wriggled back out, gathered his wings and rocketed up into the night sky.
It was there, in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp, in a small earth-packed corner of a village named Khanpur, that Salim was born.
His mother wailed, “He is coming...I’m going die! Do something, Jaaji! Wake up, you drunk fool. Your child is coming!”
That clamour echoed in welcome as Salim tumbled forth into this world. His mother yanked him by the shoulders, delivering him on to the packed dirt. The motherly smell of his nation’s soil made the new-born smile. He tapped the floor with his palms, took his fingers to his lips and kissed them gently. At that precise moment, during his first kiss, Salim fell in love.
Excerpted with permission from Pureland: A Novel, Zarar Said, HarperCollins India.