"Something awaits in the future of this nation, something, that can destroy us all"
Nishi and Laila stared at me, my saviour: baffled, with wide eyes, and her friend narrow-eyed with suspicion.
"These are revelations. Believe me. The truth! I didn't make this up. The one who told me this is a much-learned, much knowledgeable. You must know him!He is the Atroshi Pir Baba, the famous Sufi saint and spiritual healer." My heart-beat increased, memories of the visit vivid in my mind's eye.
Thousands of men and women had gathered that day, just for one glimpse of the miracle-man. He could cure the deadliest of diseases with a single touch; even cancer patients have been said to have been completely healed by 'blessed water', that too when his blessings were sent about a mile away, using a long cable and microphone. He put his blessings into the microphone, and the cable carried the blessings to the bottled water the devotees had brought with them.
I, of course, had no belief in any of these. So when my neighbour Fatiha's fiance, Jamal, offered to take me to the place, I had instantly accepted the offer, without giving it much thought. I was searching the meaning of life, and who better to ask than the man who claims to have helped give life to the those who had no hope of surviving.
It had been a clear January day, the winter sun gently warming up the chilly air, lifting away the blanket of fog. Equipped with a mobile phone, enough money for the journey and sundry expenses on the way and a notebook, I has set off on the journey to witness the phenomenal saint's works.
Jamal was a quiet man, which made the bus journey seem even longer. 24 years of age, he had the gravity and sense of a much older man. Losing his dearest younger brother to cancer changed him from the youthful, immature teenager Fatiha had met at college, to this sober and sensible man. It was in those harrowing days that he started visiting the 'darbar sharif'. 5 years have passed, but Jamal still finds solace and inspiration in the Pir Baba. While his brother never returned, he still continues to believe in the miracles the Baba promises, and is one of highly-ranked devotees.
After reaching the rural town of Faridpur, around a hundred kilometres away from the capital city, we still needed to travel by rickshaw for around about an hour. The winter sun was, thankfully, warm enough to allow the poor threadbare shirt clad rickshaw puller to survive the chill. The roads here weren't tarmaced like in the city. Instead, most parts were just plain brick-laid. Other parts, mainly further away from the town centre, was semi-permanent dried clay. Luckily, the weather was dry, as the any rain would have created knee-deep mud, which was impossible for rickshaw wheels to navigate through.
After about an hour, Jamal told me that we needed to continue the rest of the journey by foot. Looking around, it was clear that it couldn't be too far away. A long queue of people waited, people from all walks of life, holding all sorts of interesting objects. A middle-aged woman, wearing an old, stained saree held a shirt-less, skeletal child in one hand and two plump, speckled-brown chicken on the other. A man in his late forties, dressed smartly in tailored black trousers and a cream shirt, hid his face behind a handkerchief. A woman stood by next to him, possibly his wife, wearing red a hand-loom woven saree, had covered her head with the aanchal. Further ahead, a group of young boys stood shifting their weight from one foot to the other, all holding books, possibly looking for blessings for upcoming exams.
We, however, hadn't needed to wait in any queues. Being a regular visitor, Jamal could walk straight up to the gates, and walk in. Despite this privilege, it took us nearly fifteen minutes to reach the gates, which only increased my curiosity, as I realised the extent of followers the Pir Baba had.
Finally, we had reached the green solid iron gates. Followers were being led in, five in each group. We, however, just walked in, with Jamal exchanging greetings and polite 'how have you been?'s. Inside the gates was a huge field. More followers waited for the solution to their problems. Someone was asking for the next person to come up through the microphone. Soon, sounds of prayers could be heard. The famous microphone-prayer!
Jamal had led me inside to the palatial building, which was home to the saint and his devotees. The marble building reminded me of the Taj Mahal due to its towers and minarets. Inside, there was more marble. Jamal led me to an inner room and asked me to wait there till he returned. The room wasn't big, but it wasn't quite small either. There was a red rug on the floor and a huge old-fashioned sofa. A beautiful calligraphic image of the Islamic starter-prayer: "bismi-llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm", meaning "In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful".
Jamal came back with a bottle of water. "Don't drink it yet. It is for blessing. Also, cover your head, it's inappropriate to show your hair to unknown men."
I followed his instruction, covering my head in the green long-scarf, the dupatta, that cme with my salwar kameez. Fatiha had made sure I was appropriately dressed, and not in jeans like the other 'city girls'.
Seeing that I had covered my head, Jamal beckoned me to follow him. Once outside the room, we followed the veranda that wrapped around the courtyard. The veranda had numerous doors leading to rooms like the one I had waited in. Some of them empty, while others appeared to be occupied as the doors were locked.
Jamal stopped at the end of the veranda, opened a door and signalled me to enter, before him following me inside.
This particular room had no sofas, but instead the whole floor was covered in prayer mats.
"Pray." Jamal instructed me. "Pray for all you want. You will never be closer to God than here. Pray and beg him for forgiveness, and ask for all you want." Jamal left me alone again.
Glancing at my watch, I realised it was already afternoon and Zohur prayer was due. I knelt down in prayer to my Creator, and begged for forgiveness for all my sins, asked for the protection of my family and the prosperity of this nation.
Just as I was finishing, turning to right and then left and then right again, saying blessings, Jamal came back.
"Here, have some lunch." Jamal handed me a plate of khichuri, a runny lentil-rice dish. Realising my apparent distaste to this alien food, Jamal added, "Don't worry, it tastes a lot better than it looks."
Sceptically, I tasted the dish. Not too bad. It seemed to be ok. Nice, even; slightly spicy, but I didn't mind. It was my first meal of the day, and I was grateful that it was edible. I had almost finished half of the plate when I realised something.
"Aren't you going to eat?"
"I am fasting," Jamal replied carelessly.
Feeling slightly guilty of eating in front of a fasting person, I finished the rest of it in a hurry, barely tasting any of it. Once I was done, Jamal took the plate and handed me a tasbeeh, the prayer bead-string.
"How long more do we need to wait?"
"Keep praying," Jamal pointed to the prayer-bead. "God will listen!" He left me and went off again.
I dutifully did what he said, repeating God's name, praising His greatness, using the beads to keep count; In stopped in the middle only to offer the daily routine prayers. The process was very calming, and for once, I felt my natural curiosity disappear, making the whole world feel like a peaceful place rather than a adventure ground.
Just as I finished the saying the evening Maghib prayers, a stranger opened the door.
"You have been summoned. Please follow me."
My inquisitiveness sprang back to life at very mention of going somewhere. Not anywhere boring or bland, but on a adventure. I followed the stranger out of the room and along the veranda. He seemed to be a bit younger than Jamal, about my age.
"Where are we going?" I asked him impatiently, as we walked through a corridor, into the heart of the building.
"Keep following God's path, sister, and you will get all the answers."
Talking cryptically must be the speciality of everyone here. But I didn't care. I was on a quest to discover the meaning of life and I was about to meet someone who would have to answer my questions very soon.
The corridor lead to a surprisingly open courtyard. It was already dark, but the courtyard was lit up in garlands of light, much like Christmas lights. A small hole formed in my heart, reminding me of home, my home, of London Christmas, of Oxford Street all lit up in these garlands of light, of our own little Christmas tree, for we always celebrated Christmas with a tree and presents and turkey, be it a halal one. Such a child! I chided myself, reminding my easily distracted mind of the greater purpose for our visit.
Sitting at the centre of the courtyard, surrounded by only his most devout followers, was the one who could cure the incurable, the great Pir Baba of Atroshi. Sitting on a stage-like arrangement, he listened to the miseries of the devotees, praying on their behalf and bestowing them with his blessings.
Silently, I walked forward, inching closer and closer to the stage. Jamal was standing right behind the Baba, listening intently to the blessings and praying silently for the fellow devotees. I tried my best to absorb the whole atmosphere using all my senses. Surprisingly, the whole place was very silent, apart from the general buzz of prayers being recited. The air nearer to the stage was hazy due to the incensed sticks being burnt. The rich smoky smell, infused with slightly floral tones filled my nostrils. Everything felt so tranquil, as though, just for a moment, we had left our world of problems and worries behind and entered some secret garden of heaven.
Suddenly, I noticed a change in my surroundings. The buzz had stopped and instead, the air was now full of a paranoid emptiness. The Pir Baba, who had been blessing another young man, stopped.
Staring me in the eye, he fell into a frenzy of uncontrollable shaking. A sharp collective intake of breath around me reminded me that I wasn't alone. I had managed to do something to everyone's favourite Baba, or Father, as it translates! My eyes frantically searched for Jamal in the crowds that was forming around the Saint.
Then, he spoke. In a raspy voice, much unlike what you would expect from his elderly appearance, and even more uncharacteristic due to the gravitas he possessed.
"Why did you come here! Terrible things are about to happen! Terrible things that you have no control over! There awaits, in the near future of the nation, a monster who will destroy us all. He is hiding just round the corner, waiting! He's thirsty for blood! Blood! Human blood! Blood of the innocent! Faith will become the shield and sword, but faithful blood will flood the roads. Tables will be laid, but not a morsel will pass the lips, for the lips they pass will kill! They'll fight, in the name of a father and a husband, but neither will be their to watch. Then, the Sun will rise in a month's time, blood red. As the first rays light up the ground, he will walk out. Blood will be spilled on the roads. Enemies will join hands. The fool will be hung by the mob, but they wouldn't know it! For he wouldn't be caught. Off he will go. The graves of the innocent will form his house!
The divine Saint fell down to his side and continued to shake and shiver.
"The power to change is the power to destroy...for the future lies under the wreckage!!"
Dilated pupils and frothing mouth; suddenly, I wasn't sure if this was the saint I was searching. The chilling revelations already had me in gooseflesh, but the worst was about to come.
The devotees surrounding the Baba were all suddenly eyeing me disgust and hate. I realised Jamal wasn't beside the Pir Baba anymore.
"Let's go." he told me, looking in the eye. It wasn't a request, it was a command.
"But -- " I had so many questions waiting to be asked, and many more were arising within me. Jamal grabbed my elbow and turned me around. "Let's go," he commanded again, this time using physical force to get me moving.
"She's a witch!" shouted someone from the crowd, which, I realised, was now moving closer and closer to me and Jamal.
"Burn her!" shouted another voice.
Jamal sped up, and pulled me along. "Shut the door, Sharif!" he barked at the young man who had accompanied me to the courtyard. "Make sure they can't follow us."
The air was now filling with another buzz, the buzz of angry condemnations, denouncing my inauspiciousness.
Jamal broke into a abrupt run, and I joined as well. The door behind us shut, but the mob's damnations could still be heard. Jamal didn't look back at all, running along the maze of corridors, through doors and finally reaching the veranda. Night had fallen and the veranda was almost dark, apart from a few oil lamps placed along the way. On we ran, through the dark veranda, and flickering amber rays of the oil lamps, running, running, on and on.
Finally, we reached the iron gates. Jamal rummaged his pockets and drew out a huge old-fashioned key. Unlocking the tiny doorway in the gate, he let me out before himself. Inside, a door must have been opened, as there was, light flooding into the veranda now. Jamal slammed the doorway shut behind him, pulling me along into a run again.
We ran and ran, I don't know for how long, until we reached the bus stop. We took the first bus that came and came back to Dhaka, the capital city again.
"We hadn't planned to come back until tomorrow, and so we got caught out in the shutdown." I concluded to my eager listeners.
Nishi was one the verge of tears, judging by her expression, visibly shaken. I was expecting Laila to add something cynical to my story, the question she was chilled me to the core.
"So, what happened of Jamal?"
I genuinely didn't know. I had lost Jamal in the protesters' march, and now, looking at the brutality on the roads, my heart was now praying, with all its might, that he was safe...