I couldn’t stop staring at her. She glided across the room, unaware of my peeking eyes. In a sudden moment frozen by the deep recesses of my mind, she walked in the soft glow of candles as the lights started giving out behind her. It was as if they were bowing to her grace and there was thunder in the crowd’s voice as she took over the stage.
“She’s quite something, isn’t she?”, a voice crept up behind me and yanked me out of my beautiful dream. I turned around to see Kader Ali standing next to me. I smiled and shook his hand.
“Asalamu alaykum Kader Bhai. Kaise hai aap?”, I asked. How are you?
“Waalaykum salam. Sab badhiya hai. Chalo tumhe sabse milwa dete hai”. Everything is great. Come, I’ll introduce you to everyone.
Kader Ali was one of the best known Sufi singers in those times. When he sang, his was the only presence in the room and everyone else melted into the magnificent power of his voice. I tagged along to envelop myself with the aura of all those other great singers.
“This young man came to me a few days ago, wanting to know about my songs. Youngsters these days have forgotten the importance of Sufi”, he announced to the group with a sigh.
Nawaz Khan, Imtiaz Ahmed and Mansoor Sheik proceeded to shake my hand.
“What is your name young man?”, Nawaz Khan asked me.
“Arbaaz. Arbaaz Ali. I’m so honoured to meet you Khan Sahab”, I lied through my teeth. My name, just like my smile, was made up. Although, I was quite honoured to meet him. His music was brilliant.
Just then she walked in right behind us. I could smell the faint lavender perfume on her. And although my back was to her, I was never so aware of pure beauty around me. I turned around and caught a glance at her eyes. My gaze faltered immediately and hers never did.
“Arre Asmi beta! Kya aawaaz hai. Dil khush kar diya”, Kader bhai said. Asmi sweetheart, what a voice! I’m delighted.
She murmured something in modest denial and touched his feet in respect. Kader bhai was the one who introduced her to me. Her gaze never flinched once and I, on the other hand, couldn’t bring myself to look at her for longer than five minutes without giving away my thoughts. In that white and blue suit, her mud brown eyes were just as intense as they were hopeful. It spoke of a dream I never thought was possible. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life.
The evening went on with food, drinks and some soul- piercing songs. I kept trying to steal glances at her. And despite everything I was good at hiding, I couldn’t hide my appreciation for her. Finally the group of four laughed at me and Imtiaz Ahmed told me something I never forgot.
“There is no point fighting it. Kisi ne kaha hai,
Ishq naazuk mizaaj hai be-hadh, Aqal ka bojh uthaa nahin saktaa.” Someone once said that love is a delicate mix. It cannot take the burden of the mind.
Over the next few weeks, I started going regularly to those gatherings. I learned a lot about Asmi. Brought up as an orphan, she was discovered when she was six by Kader bhai and he took her under his wing since then. He honed her skill and brought her to the Sufi world when she turned fifteen. She became an instant star. Then at twenty, she had quite a fan base and was desired by many.
As I came to know her, I discovered beyond her beauty. I learned that she was fierce and just. She was independent, yet there was a hint of vulnerability in her eyes. I was unsure of a lot of things but I knew that I had fallen hopelessly in love with her.
One day, in between one of those songs and the star grazed sky, I stood near the window lost in that world of poignance. She came up quietly behind me and said, ”It’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?”.
“How did you start liking Sufi? Did you listen to it a lot as a kid? Your parents must like Sufi”, she said innocently with a smile.
An altogether familiar image floated in front of my eyes. I hadn’t seen it in quite some time. It was my father, his eyes closing as life drained out of him. Suddenly every emotion was blinded as anger took over. As I stormed out of the room, I was aware of her eyes trailing me, hurt and wondering what had just happened.
I’d forgotten everything for a woman. I couldn’t forgive myself.
When India got independence, Punjab was a battle zone. The division in the name of god tore through families and friends. My father, Roshan Desai and Kader Ali Khan were friends. In their shared fondness of Sufi, was forged a lifetime. They grew up together and in the backdrop of India’s fight for independence, they sought refuge in simple pleasures of qawwali.
But everything changed in the wink of an eye. India gained independence and once brothers, Hindus and Muslims were now at each other’s throats. In one of these riots, Kader Ali asked my father to hide inside his house, saying he’d protect him. Half an hour into hiding, our family was caught. No one was around. I saw them cut my father’s throat as my uncle somehow managed to catch me and run away through a back door. My mother, my sister were killed along with my father. I was two at that time.
I grew up seeing that image; it was imprinted on my mind. My uncle told me that Kader Ali served us up on a plate to that mob. I was there to seek justice. I tracked him down, because I wanted to kill him.
In a blind rage, I went back to my room that night and took my knives out. I had procrastinated enough. I saw vengeance and nothing clouded my vision then. Great men are often blinded with revenge and lose their moral standing. I was neither great nor did I have any morals. I didn’t stand a chance.
That night after everyone had gone to sleep after the gathering, I crept into his room. I snuffed out the lights and forced a gag into his mouth. I stood looming over him with a knife in my hand.
“This is for my father, you back stabbing son of a b**ch”, I spoke through clenched teeth. I muttered my father’s name over and over again as I drove the knife through his chest. His horrified expression was replaced by sudden sorrow. As I took the gag out of his mouth, he grasped my hand weakly and whispered something.
I stumbled over to near his mouth to hear the words, ”I didn’t betray him. They…They beat us till we said anything. And when we didn’t, they killed…killed my nafisa. They saw our photo together and decided to search the house. I didn’t say any..anything. I didn’t…I didn’t”.
I looked into his eyes and saw genuine regret. It wasn’t regret for trusting me but for not being able to save his wife and my family. He wasn’t lying. The knife dropped from my hand as I froze in the horror of what I had done.
I could hear people coming up but I couldn’t move. A lifetime of lies had overtaken the only honest part of my life. The blood was still smeared on my hand when Asmi came up and saw us both. I knew then and there, I had ended three lives with that knife.
“The court calls Asmi Masood Ali”.
The court was silent as a frail woman in her late fifties climbed up the stand. Still beautiful, her voice reverberated through the court.
“Do you promise to say the truth and the whole truth?”
“I do, my honour”, she replied.
“What did you see that night, Ms. Asmi?”
“He was standing over Kader jaan with his blood on his hands. He came into our homes and betrayed us all. He is a liar and a murderer..A cold blooded murderer”, her voice broke and tears came streaming down her cheek.
I saw what I had done to her and my heart shattered all over again. I didn’t hear the rest of my hearing. In the years that had followed after Kader bhai’s death, my uncle had tried to get me off and the trial had dragged on. He kept fighting till he passed away. Now finally, I could see justice being served.
I didn’t even realize as rest of the hearing got over.
“The court finds Arul Desai guilty on the count of murder of Kader Ali Khan. He is hereby sentenced to imprisonment till death.”
Inspector Khanna went to cuff the prisoner and there for the first time in his career he noticed a strange thing. The prisoner was smiling.