by Mohammed Nazar Syed
He was fourteen and he walked alongside the beach, barefoot with his slippers dabbed under his armpits. The powdery sand tickled between his toes as he paced, until the dry soil met the wet mud and eventually the water.
He was one of the few people in the brightly lit city of Karachi that would wake up before dawn and come to the beach. And he had his reasons to do so. He would wake his old grandfather up for the morning prayers, prepare a bucket of warm water for his ablution, and make tea for him after he was done praying. He would then catch the local bus, if it was running at the time or walk to the beach.
His expeditions to the coast were wonderful. It was usually deserted which made him feel like he owned the waters and the sand. He would sit at the edge of the waterline, where the water came at him intimidatingly, wet his legs and left him unharmed. He loved every part of that. His grandfather would say that the morning prayers would cleanse his sins, had he committed any, but he always felt the sea before him was what would free him from the evils he had or hadn’t done.
But recently a new activity had caught his pleasure. He had met an interesting fellow with the same interests as him. The fellow was an old man and his hair was gray and he walked with a camel alongside him all the time. He used to come from a far distance and he used to go a far distance, but he managed to take out enough time from his endeavours as a camel rider to accompany the boy at dawn.
The first time they met, the boy was alarmed. He had heard of kidnappers along the coastline that liked to commit crimes for ransom. He was very presumptuous of the old Baba upon their first meeting. But the Baba was very kind and he gave the boy a ride along the beach on his camel and he hugged him and shared a piece of bread with the boy. The boy liked the fruity bun that the Baba had offered and that became their customary breakfast.
What the boy enjoyed most though were the talks he had with the Baba after the fun and games had been done. When the sun had come out a fair distance in the sky, and the clouds were no longer auburn and the sea was no longer dark, they would talk.
It was no ordinary talk though. The Baba allowed the boy to ask one question a day, and the Baba promised to tell the truth and share as much information he knew about topic. This intrigued the boy.
So upon their initial meeting, the boy asked the first thing that came to his mind.
“What happens when we’re dead?” he had asked. And the Baba had smiled a wide smile.
“When we’re dead,” he had begun, “two things happen simultaneously. Instantly, our souls are separated from our body. And gradually, our bodies are separated from this world. We bury them under the mud and the clay to remind the body where it came from, and the soul is taken far above in the skies where it replenishes it sins and the deeds done good pay off.” The Baba looked at the boy, who looked at the burning sun with awe, wondering how far the souls could really travel. “Farther than just that sun, boy. Farther than the farthest star you may lay your eyes upon.”
“But does it hurt Baba?” asked the boy. And the Baba smiled again.
“Only one per day, boy.” And the Baba had chuckled and the boy was left curious for the whole day.
Their encounters grew rapid as the boy had managed to make it a daily hobby to come to the beach to meet the Baba with the camel and learn something extraordinary. He had learned about the stars and the moon and the light and the sun and the sea and the earth and the dead and the living. He had learned about the great people of the past and the few greats in the present. He had learned more than his fair share of learning, all from the Baba.
But today was special. Today the boy had nagged enough courage to ask about the daunting question that respired in his heart. Today the boy was going to ask about love.
The boy had never felt nervous when asking the Baba of anything. But today, he felt a sensation in his stomach, like butterflies flying here and about. But he was confident the Baba would answer his question. The Baba never hesitated in answering anything that he asked. If the Baba can describe the stars that glide far in the Cosmos, the Baba could certainly answer a simple question about love.
So it happened. The atmosphere was perfect for the boy. The sun had started to peek, the clouds were orange, the sky was auburn and the sea was dark. Ripples of water would wet the boy under his legs and push him aback. He waited for the Baba that fine morning, with the butterflies still flying rampant in his stomach before he heard the soft trotting of the camel and the Baba beside it.
“Salam,” greeted the Baba with a wide smile. He pulled out some fruit bread from his knapsack and sat beside the boy. The boy also smiled generously at the Baba and accepted the offer of the bread. There was some silence as the Baba consumed the bread and the boy also nibbled on his part a little. Both of them would silently listen to the sea as it conveyed its messages through torrents and waves, far across the oceans and extravagantly beneath their feet.
“Baba, what is love?” the boy said almost abruptly. He had found that eating while butterflies roamed in his tummy was a difficult ordeal. The Baba wrinkled his already wrinkly forehead.
“What has a boy your age to do with something as intricate as love?” Now the boy had his forehead wrinkled.
“Baba, you have told me about the vast spaces in the universe, about the people who have come thousands of years before us, done wonderful things for the earth, and now you decide that what I have asked is complicated?” The Baba gave some thought on what the boy had demanded. He rested his bread on his lap and looked at the boy.
“What is it that you want to know?”
“I just want to know what love is?” the boy asked innocently.
“That is such a vague question though. That is like if you asked what the sky is. I can tell you what the sky consists of: stars, planets and infinites galaxies, but I cannot tell you what the sky is.” He looked at the boy. The boy was underwhelmed. He realized that he had only one question and it was wasted on this. But the Baba insisted he ask again.
“I want to know how one knows he is in love. I hear everyone talking about this. My Dada loves God, the politicians love Pakistan, and I love this fruit bun. But how does one know he is in… love?”
The Baba remained quiet for some time, formulating his thoughts to form an appropriate response. The boy looked out at the vast ocean in front of him as the sun began rising through the horizon.
“Love is delicate boy. There are various types of love in this world. Some stronger than others. Your Dada loves God because of the many bounties God has given your Dada. That love is discovered through years of worship. The politicians love Pakistan for their greed. They love it until the country feeds them and makes them rich, and nothing beyond that. You love the fruit bun for the taste it leaves on your tongue and because it fills your appetite.” The Baba looked at the boy. The boy’s eyes gleamed slightly as the sun made its way into the sky. “Ask more my boy. I feel generous today.”
The boy jumped from joy. He had rallied a bunch of questions in his head already.
“How do I acquire true love Baba?” The Baba smiled.
“Love is forever present in your heart, in everyone’s heart. It is like the air you breathe in. If you contain it within yourself, you will die. You must inhale and exhale; share your mortality with the world. That is love. It is ever present in you and it grows once it is given away.” The boy seemed to grasp the concept of this phenomenon, but ambiguously. The boy thought about another question to ask the Baba but he shook it off. The old Baba could see that the boy was troubled so he questioned him. “What is it young boy?” The boy shook his head.
“Nothing Baba. It is irrelevant.”
“Nothing is irrelevant today boy. Speak your heart, for I may not be this generous tomorrow.” The Baba gave a reassuring nod.
“Baba I want to fall in love. I want to see a beautiful girl and feel as bright as the sun before us. I want her voice to flow through my body like the sea flows on the sand and I want to look at her as fondly as the clouds stare at the sky and weep like they do when I miss her.”
The Baba frowned again.
“Boy you do not know what you are wishing for. Very few have found what you have described and I would also argue they have only found a part of it.” The Baba placed his hand on the boy’s back. “What you must truly find is the love you have stored within you, the illuminating light that brightens your eyes, which you consume day after day. If you do not spread that love, you will be left cold and crippled by my age, with only a camel as your company.”
The boy looked at the Baba who looked sad. His old sunken eyes told various tales of bereavement and selfishness that led him to where he is now. But the boy was more enthusiastic about the idea of love than the Baba gave him credit for.
“Baba I will not be in that position. I will find love, and I will share it. I will hold onto it like my Dada holds on to faith, like the politicians hold on to greed and like I hold on to this fruit bun. I will not let it slip away.” The boy stood from excitement and the Baba followed. The sun had found a high enough place in the sky to ponder upon the action on the beach.
“Boy,” said the Baba, “today I have taught you all that I know. You have extracted every ounce of information that my old mind has stored and I have nothing more to give to you.” The Baba placed a hand on the shoulder of the boy. “Your life should be full of excitement. You must follow your heart but consult your brain. You must find God and you must be a faithful man. But son, you must always share with the world, what is in here.” The Baba placed his hand on his heart.
The two hugged once again and the Baba cued the camel that it was time to leave.
With the sun slowly making its voyage across the sky, the Baba gathered his things and said farewell to the boy, never to be seen again. The boy stood there, eyeing the Baba as he left. The water trickled beneath his feet and he felt the power of the oceans, the light of the sun and the vastness of the sky all in the center of his palm. The warm gentle heat on his back melted his adolescence away. His life had begun, and he had never been more ready for it.