Driving on the Rock Creek Parkway, which snakes through a forest, Shams stopped his car under a big old oak. It was past midnight. He was scared too. He knew his brown skin may cause some to see him as a suspected terrorist. But he had to stop under this tree, so he did.
One day he saw hundreds of bats hanging on its branches. He stopped. Saw them sleeping silently. Watched them for a while and drove away.
He decided to stop here again after the sunset and see what the bats do at night.
Shams was returning from a diplomatic reception in Potomac, Maryland. It was in the honor of a visiting minister from an Asian nation. The minister spoke out of both sides of his mouth,: giving one message to the US administration and another to his nation.
The food was greasy. The wine tasted like vinegar. And the minister’s fake British accent was not even funny. But Shams stayed till the end, talking to a computer executive who could be a useful contact.
While driving home through the deserted parkway, Shams turned on the radio and listened to the BBC world news. It gave him a strange feeling.
Fighting in Syria, Buddhist scripts found among the papers of a Vatican aide, Indians worshiping the goddess of power and the expected trial of an al Qaeda priest were all put together in a 10-minute bulletin – no effort made to relate one story to another.
A feature on German prisoners in post-World War Two Poland followed the news.
This had little impact on the trees, although Shams felt that some news did impress his car, which blinked twice.
The night remained aloof of whatever was happening around the globe. The dark canopy of clouds added to the incongruity of the night.
There were some bats on the tree or were they? Shams was not sure but he trusted his fairy tales. He knew that bats are busy at night. They do chores for wicked, old magicians, such as sucking blood. They return in the morning to hang upside down to atone for their deeds.
Shams had also heard that when a bat sees a human in a lonely place, late at night, it clings to his or her ear and does not let it ago until a drum-beater comes and beats his drum.
“Where will I get a drum-beater in Washington, DC?” Shams thought and drove away.
But while negotiating a curve, Shams felt as if he were in another place, another time. For a few minutes, he felt he was back in the days of the horse-carts, lanterns and inns. He wanted to stop at one of the inns, give his horse to the innkeeper and spend the night listening to the storyteller.
The fast moving car, however, ended his fantasy. He saw and recognised the Watergate building. He thought of President Nixon and suddenly the news made sense to him and the night seemed a little less incongruous.
As this Shams was driving from DC to Virginia, another Shams stirred in his bed in a Central Asian tavern.
It was a good tavern. The keeper was smart and efficient. He watered and fed his horse. Gave him food too, fresh and delicious. The room was clean and the bed sheets and blankets smelled of fresh jasmine.
The storyteller was a master of his craft. He knew many tales, from “Thousand and One Nights” to “The Book of Stunning Magic.” And he wove Sufi wisdom with fairy tales.
“I saw a sheikh circling the city, holding a lamp in his hand. I asked him what he was looking for and he said: ‘These traps and tricks have saddened my heart. All I seek is a human being.’
“I said: ‘You cannot get what you seek.’ He said, ‘What I cannot get is what I seek.’”
Shams knew these lines. They were from his favorite poet, Rumi. But he liked the way the storyteller wove a story around them.
“There was a mosque outside a city. Few people lived around the mosque and most of them were poor. So their mullah was poor too. And who wants to give his daughter to a poor mullah? So the mullah was a bachelor, although he was already in his 30s.”
Meanwhile, the other Shams was again in a deserted patch, as he drove towards the highway. The river was beside him. The forest covered him. The autumn aloofness was setting in.
As he moved away from the city, the darkness increased. It calmed his tired nerves.
“The night is kind,” he said to himself. “But that woman in the dark velvet skirt was not,” he thought about the party.
She was beautiful. She was polite. But she was not interested in Shams. So she appeared unkind to him. Did she hurt his ego? Perhaps, she did. Most men want women to endorse them. When women do not, they get upset.
But this is how our romances end: one approaches, the other withdraws and both move on to whatever they were doing before they met.
Romance, however, had a totally different meaning for the other Shams in the tavern who was still thinking about the story of the mullah:
Once a dancing girl, who had stopped to fetch water from the mosque’s well; heard the mullah praying to God: “O Lord, please send a woman to me. I too want a wife and children.”
The mullah was so overwhelmed with emotions, he started crying. The dancing girl felt sorry for him. She asked her party to pitch their tents near the mosque, but not too close because she did not want the mullah to see them.
Late at night, she knocked at the mullah’s door.
“Who is it?” he asked.
“The woman of your dream,” she said.
The mullah looked through a hole, saw a beautiful woman with unusually long hair and said to himself: “No, this cannot be a woman. Even men are scared of coming to this deserted place late at night. This must be a spirit or a jinni.”
So he did not open the door.
The woman knocked a few times and went back to her tent.
“So you see, the desire is not enough. You must also have the capacity to accept what is offered to you,” said the storyteller.
Shams too had the desire and but lacked the means to attain it. He was a young, aspiring soldier and Yasmin was the only daughter of the chief of his tribe.
So he decided to go to India with some other young men of his area. He planned to return home as a successful man and ask for Yasmin.
But those were different times. Our Shams in Washington too had desires but he had no interest in leaving his home or family for any Yasmin.
He knew what he wanted. Everything was chalked out, college, job, overseas visits, marriage and children. There was no room, or need, for rushing through them.
He did stop under a tree after midnight to look for bats but that was the limit of his madness.
So he pushed a CD into the player as he came on the highway.
Shams often tries, not always successfully, to translate Persian, Urdu and Hindi poems into English. So he also tried to translate the ghazal he was listening to. “To a lover, separation is dearer than intimacy. Intimacy extinguishes passion, separation increases love.”
“How profound but I have not yet felt like that for anyone,” he said to himself and turned off the CD player.
The author is a correspondent for Dawn, based in Washington, DC