Home » Stories – Habib Mohanan

HORLA FICTION JUNE 2019

Habib Mohana was born in 1969 in Daraban Kalan, a town in the district of Dera Imsail Khan, Pakistan. He is an assistant professor of English at government degree college No 3, D. I. Khan. He writes fiction in English, Urdu and Saraiki, his mother tongue. He has four books under his belt, one in Urdu and three in Saraiki. His Saraiki novel forms part of the syllabus for the MA in Saraiki at Zikria University Multan. His short stories in English have appeared in literary journals of America, India, UK, Canada and China.

In 2010 and 2014 his Saraiki books won the Khawaja Ghulam Farid Award from the Pakistan Academy of Letters. His book of short stories in Urdu, titled ADHORI NEEND, won the Abaseen award from the Government of KPK. He is currently seeking a publisher for his novel The Village Café.

Here Horla publishes two new stories by him: ‘Scorpions’ and ‘The Dead Man’s Head’.

SCORPIONS

by HABIB MOHANA

 Photo: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Shantanu_Kuveskar

 

 

THE villagers tell a story about the old times of an old Ramzan who lived in a village over the mountains. He was an orchardist and had led a successful life. He was a jolly fellow who knew all sorts of jokes. Late one morning while sorting out mangoes he felt sick and before his folks could take him to the string bed he had expired.

His funeral was due to be held in the afternoon. His two sons were busy making funerary preparation. They had sent messengers to their uncle and two aunts who lived in the neighbouring villages. Some men had gone to the graveyard to help the grave digger who was a potter by profession. The sweaty diggers were two hours into the digging and they were putting last touches to it when the hoe’s hit revealed a scorpion hole.

Walking daintily one scorpion burrowed out then another and then they were popping out like popcorns out of a cooker. A young man lifted the spade to squash the scuttling creatures but the old potter gesticulating wildly told him not even to touch them, ‘They are not common scorpions, they are sent by Allah to torture the would-be occupant of the grave.’

Out of curiosity he scratched the earth around the hole and then a whole tribe of scorpion was oozing out of the hole. The diggers waited and waited but the conveyor-belt of scorpion would not end. The frightened diggers went into a huddle. Some said that they should inform the family of the deceased and some argued that a new grave should be dug. The workers hurriedly shovelled the earth back into the grave and went to dig another grave a few yards away.

The diggers were panting like tired mules and the new grave was taking shape. But they had again struck scorpions. They scrambled out of the pit and stared in horror at the bottom that was wriggling with dark scorpions brandishing thorned tails. The workers were confounded.

They broke the news to the family of the deceased and the alarmed family consulted the imam. He said that that the deceased must have committed a heinous sin in his life and God was now furious at him. He asked the villagers to congregate in the mosque and beg God for forgiveness on behalf of the departed. The villagers flocked to the mud-stone mosque, the mullah took to the pulpit. A seething mass of kids was not slow to follow. They had gathered to get some sweet—it was an unbroken tradition in the village, they gave out sweet to the funeral attendees—but when they saw the grownups crying, they followed suit.

The village mud roofs were crawling with moaning women. The mullah’s dazed eyes rolling in their sockets, spiritual froth flying from his mouth, the bearish cleric was declaiming on virtue and righteousness. The declaimer had whipped the congregation into an epileptic frenzy. Their faces twisted in otherworldly terror, the devotees listened with pious zeal. The village air was vibrating with holy terror, utter trepidation, genuine repentance. The turbaned cleric was in a holy trance, the deceased’s sons wailed, the multitude was enthralled. Arms flailed in the air, some smacked their heads, a few men fainted like myotonic goats, and their neighbours were not even aware of them. It presented a perfect picture of an apocalyptic nature.

Chanting verses the villagers ferried the corpse to the burial ground. The story spread in the surrounding villages like a wild fire. They came in droves to have a look at the grave that was spewing creatures with segmented bodies and get a lesson from it.

Muttering prayers, the bearded mullah marked a place with his crooked stick and ordered the villagers to go ahead with digging. The inhabitants looked at one another with incredulity. The old diggers would not touch the digging tools but two bold souls lifted up the tools and started to dig. They were digging while the mullah and the entire crowd were reciting holy verses. It filled the onlookers with confidence and enthusiasm. After a while everyone was eager to dig. Then the men were snatching the tools from one another to dig.

The corpse lay wrapped in a thick black sheet that had short surahs embroidered in a golden thread. The village folks were working on third grave. They were hardly finished when a batch of scorpions blazed a trail out of a hole; they were joined by baby scorpions, their tiny yellow legs kept sticking in the loose earth. The onlookers were shell-shocked.

The imam ordered for the three black billy goats to be brought and slaughtered at the edge of the grave. The family of the deceased complied with the orders. But it would not stop the poisonous arthropods to vacate the grave. ‘Bury him, he had earned it. There is no other way.’ The mullah yelled. It gave the villagers creeps to bury the deceased in the company of scorpions. They interred him with scorpions. His sons could not look at the grave.

The village folk plodded home, night fell eerily and it seemed to groan and threaten. Most houses did not cook bread, sleep and appetite deserted the villagers. That night their disturbed sleep was riddled with recurring nightmares. Some spent the time saying prayers and counting rosaries.

Stunned with terror, for some weeks, the people of the village spoke in undertones. ‘He was not a bad guy. He was always charitable, helped the poor.’ ‘But he must have committed some egregious sin.’ ‘God shows these sorts of things to give us a lesson.’ ‘They were angels in the form of scorpions who were sent by God to punish him. God is not cruel, it is we who are cruel.’

The deceased’s sons were so ashamed of this untoward incident that hardly a week had gone by when they moved to another city and were never heard of again.

 

 

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THE DEAD MAN’S HEAD

by HABIB MOHANA

 

SULTAN Khan, a septuagenarian tribal chieftain had peacefully died in the village of Shalozan in Kurram Valley. The men, boys and children followed the funeral procession dolefully while the women stood on the rooftops weeping and wailing. Men from all the surrounding villages came to Shalozan to take part in his funeral prayers.

The dead leader was buried with all the ceremonies and respect. The mourners shook their heads and whispered, ‘We have become orphans. Sultan Khan was a visionary leader. He treated us as his children. Our village will never give birth to such a sagacious soul again. We have been rendered weaker against our enemies. There is no telling what will happen to us now.’

After three days of Sultan’s death the bereaved family slaughtered sheep and goats and gave bereavement dinner to the villagers for the consolation of the soul of the deceased.

***

Throughout his feverishly busy life Sultan had solved many murder cases, elopement cases, land disputes and issues of fistfights and minor injuries. Parties with convoluted problems would come to his door and he would settle their problems. He was a master of resolving the knottiest problems. Due to the decisions he pronounced he was adored by some and abhorred by some. During his long political career he had won numerous friends though there was no shortage of his enemies.

In Shalozan and in the surrounding area, the newly dead chieftains’ graves were, for some nights, watched over by their relatives because it was feared that the enemies of the deceased leader’s would dig open the grave at the dead of the night, de-shroud the corpse or amputate the limbs.

Sultan’s relatives had watched over his grave for a week after which they unpegged the tent and headed home. At midnight Sultan’s enemies thundered down the hills on horses to dig up his dead body. They were, some years back, let down by Sultan in a double murder case. The murderer who had killed two people from their clan was declared innocent by Sultan. The graveyard where the chief lay buried was over a kilometer from Shalozan and paddy fields, apple orchards and a gurgling creek lay between the village and the graveyard.

The horsemen hid their beasts in the willow trees that lined the creek and they sneaked into the cemetery. The thirteen horsemen were armed with guns, daggers, spades and pickaxes. It was Thursday night and the faint fragrance of the roses and jasmine flowers and the joss sticks lingered in the cemetery and some mud lamps flickered in the niches in the headstones. Sultan’s grave was draped in a green silken fabric which was sprinkled with rose petals and wheat and rice grains for the birds to peck. Protected by small stone slabs a lonely mud lamp lit the head of the newly made grave. Some intruders, straightaway, started digging at sultan’s grave while others gave them cover. As the grave was not old, the dirt and rocks had not settled properly, so digging was not hard.

They exhumed sultan’s body and chopped off the head. They bagged the head, leapt into the saddles and scrambled back to their village. The horsemen reached the village towards the morning. The villagers had collected in front of the mosque to welcome back the horsemen and to have a peek at the hated head. The village headman chanted sultan’s misdeeds and then lifted the bag that housed the rotting head. One riled-up man tried to hurl stones at the head but he was deterred from doing so. The village chief shifted the head to the mud-stone hujra which was guarded by scores of gun-toting men, some sat inside the hall, some stood at the gate while some others took positions on its roof.

When in the morning the relatives and villagers saw the muddied headless body of Sultan lying in the paddy fields they were livid with rage. Some men suggested to raid the perpetrators’ village at once but the greyheads sent emissaries to the kidnappers of the head and hectic negotiations started to arrange for the return of the head. The kidnappers demanded two virgins, twenty cows, ten thousand rupee and more water from the creek they shared with the people of Shalozan.

Since the kidnappers’ demands were prohibitively exorbitant, the people of Shalozan resolved to raid the enemy village. Though the weather in the mountains was not hot but the relatives of the deceased feared that if they did not recover the head soon it would lose all flesh.

At the dead of the night, the dead chieftain’s clan straddled the horses and rode off to the enemy village. They laid siege to the village and the moon-lit peaks resounded to the staccato gunshots. Dust rose from the rooftops and the walls where the bullets hit and women and children shrieked with terror. Two hours into the fierce fire exchange and the aged pir advised the kidnappers to return the head to the attackers. After some dithering the obdurate kidnappers gave in. They handed the head to the pir who took it to the invading party. The invaders lifted the siege and dashed back towards Shalozan.

The dawn was breaking in the sky. When the horsemen were crossing the creek the head slipped into the knee-deep water. A scary scream emerged from the man who was entrusted with the head. His friends first thought that he was hit by an enemy bullet but when he broke the grim news, all the riders jumped off their mounts and the hunt for the head began. Some men were searching with hands, some were groping for it with their feet and some were using their head sheet as fishing nets. To the desperate searchers every small boulder looked and felt like their leader’s head.

One horseman galloped to Shalozan and informed the villagers about the lost head and then the news spread to the surrounding villages and all the villagers hurried to the creek and joined in the search for the lost head. The sun was in the middle of the sky and searchers had come over four miles downstream but to no avail. Towards the evening they called off the search but some men were sent to the villages downstream to ask the residents to look for the head. Shalozan was again hurled into mourning. The house of the late chief filled with wailing women, the students of the madrassa recited verses from Quran, some women distributed halva and sweet rice among the kids, while in the mosque the cleric held extended prayer sessions for the recovery of their beloved chieftain’s noggin.

Four months had gone by and the inhabitants of Shalozan had forgotten about the headless body of their chieftain.

One late morning a farmer was watering his paddy fields while a human skull rolled into the paddy field with water. First he uttered a long scream of scare, and then sprinted to the village, barefooted.

Sultan’s sons and the villagers hurried to the spot. They removed the sticky mud from the skull and brought it to the village. The village life ground to a standstill as a sign of mourning for their late leader and again the commiserating women crowded the late leader’s house and the men congregated in the village mosque. The madrassa students finished all thirty chapters of the Holy Book for the sake of the dead leader’s soul and the cleric gave a long impromptu lecture on the transitoriness of life to the congregants. The villagers washed the brainpan, sprinkled it with rose perfume, wrapped it in a piece of white cloth and chanting holy verses they took it to the graveyard. They buried the head with the headless trunk. When evening fell a sombre silence hung over the village.

After some days some villagers whispered in private discussions that the skull they had buried some days before did not belong to Sultan. They maintained that the braincase was small while Sultan had an enormous head. It was a female’s skull. It was old and bleached while Sultan had been dead only for a few months.

***

A week later a farmer from a village downstream visited Zaman, the elder son of Sultan. The visitor was an old acquaintance of Zaman and he asked his host that he wanted to have a word with him in private. The visitor was in his late fifties and he carried a small white bundle in his hand. When they had seated in the guest house the visitor said, ‘I am sorry Zaman, it might be embarrassing for you but I think that it is my duty to tell you this thing. I have brought the skull of your late father.’ The visitor untied the round white bundle revealing a skull. The eye sockets of the cranium stared at the host emptily and a smothered scream of terror and anguish issued from his lips.

After a moment the visitor resumed, ‘I stumbled upon it yesterday when I was watering my potatoes. I know you found a skull some days back and buried it. I have no doubt that this is your late father’s skull. Look the forehead bears a deep scar from a knife, the result of a fight your late father got into with a man from the neighbouring village, twenty years ago. Do you remember it? It was over water rights. It was a miracle that he survived. Your late father was such a great leader. Bless his soul!’

The visitor wrapped the skull in the cloth. But the host heard the foamy roar of the creek, the staccato gunfire and tramp of the galloping horses. 

 

 

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