"Aaiye haath uthaayein hum bhi
Hum jinhen rasm-e-dua yaad nahin
(Come, let us raise our hands as well
We, the ones who do not remember the ritual of prayer)
Hum jinhen soz-e-mohabbat ke siwa
Koyee but koyee khudaa yaad nahin
(We, the ones who do not remember anything other than the
warmth of love, do not know of any idol, nor any God.)
Aaiye arz guzaarein keh nigaar-e-hasti
Zehr-e-imroz mein sheereeni-e-fardaa bhar de!
(Come, let us beseech that the Creator of existence may
fill sweetness in the morrow from the poison of today)"
~ Faiz Ahmed Faiz
Not all prayers for redemption are answered. Some lie suspended, maybe forever — or dismissed. Who knows?
It was many years ago when I visited the Barmer-Jaisalmer stretch of sand dunes in Rajasthan that glitter beautifully — like gold in the warm winter sunshine — in search of something inarticulate.
My search continued, carrying me to many places across continents over the years, but my thoughts always brought me back to the untold story of the mysterious old woman I met there, who travelled through time and received a call to prayer from the other side.
This tale traverses through the dispossessed land into unanswered prayers, witnessing the strings of tragedies and hope, refuge and exile.
I have forgotten many things about that visit except her wrinkled face and sharp features. She asked me for money at the bus stop to buy bidis (tobacco sticks). I bought her a packet. She told me that she would tell me my future in exchange.
She carried an infinite absence in her eyes. It was not the absence of eyesight that she had almost lost. Yet, with a blurred vision she claimed to see both the past and the future.
She told me that one does not need eyes to see the divine light, for it is present within us. She was too old and frail to walk, but she claimed to travel through time. She told me “It is not a state of bliss. It makes one a captive of memories and hope”. But then, who is free from such ties?
She told me things that never came true. I remember her telling me that I was trapped in an infinite search. I didn’t know what she meant. I didn’t ask her. But who isn’t? We are all captives of hope and despair.
She was called Mai by the local villagers. She told me she had forgotten her real name, as it was important for no one. A name is for others she said. We believe that we own it, but we only carry it.
Later that evening, she took me home for tea. Hers was an almost broken katcha (mud) hut in a village called Akali, beautifully located between sand dunes, about half a kilometre away from Pakistan, near Munabao village of Rajasthan’s Barmer district. It is the last village on the Indian side of Zero Point.
She showed me the other side near the border from a good distance. It was fenced but looked the same, like our side.
The same parched expanse of the Thar stretched on both sides for miles. During Partition, the sand was divided into two countries with the Munabao and Khokhrapar villages on either side.
Munabao, which lies on the Indian side, tells many stories of abandonment and loss. The village now has only empty houses, a Border Security Force (BSF) outpost and a railway station that links a train to Pakistan.
She told me stories about the Sodha Rajputs and Sindhi Muslims who live on both sides of the border, speak the same language — Sindhi and Marwari — and carry the same pain.
She said that the wind could not wither the line in the sand. We share the miseries of our neighbours on the other side. But despite our shared sorrows, we remain divided.
She told me the story of how god had abandoned her village as the original temple of Jata Mata, the deity the villagers worshipped, is on the other side, in the first Pakistani village after the border, Sajan Jo Par.
They have built a new temple now in Akali, but it is a temple of absence. She claimed the god on the other side called out to her and believed that the prayer calls from across the border were meant for her. I only smiled. After all, beliefs are personal and not meant to be questioned.
She told me that time-travellers transcend the boundaries of geography and time. She claimed herself to be one. I didn’t know what she meant until I heard the azan. She told me that it was coming from the other side.
To me, her house seemed like a museum of austerity with a charpai, a black and white, dusty, framed picture of her late husband on the wall, an old wall clock that did not show the correct time, and small idols of Ganesha and Durga on an old wooden board.
She carried many stories in her heart and told me how she lost her husband when she was just 19 and how her three sons had left the village for work and never looked back.
It was 11 years ago when her eldest son last visited her and sent her some money. She had long abandoned hope of their return. She had set them free. She said that after experiencing so much in life, she had realised that attachments and belongingness restrict freedom.
It is good to belong to nothing. She was brave to accept that and let go. But then, there lingered the memories. Nostalgia is not always a happy state.
She wished that she had amnesia; losing one’s memory is better than losing one’s eyesight, she believed. It is a respite for old age, but not everyone is blessed with forgetfulness. One should always remember to forget.
She sang to me songs of silence, her collective reflection on love, memories and exile. She told me that villagers called her insane, but who isn’t? Even those who gave their lives for freedom were. Perhaps freedom is the legacy of lunatics.
Whenever death befell the village, she would go and sing elegies, songs of death. They gave her some money for that. She had learnt them from her mother-in-law.
She told me that sometimes she thinks of her own funeral, and how her sons may not even know about her passing. They had changed their phone numbers and she had stopped getting their calls.
Maybe, they want to disown her because she did not possess anything to give them — neither land, nor money — and love unfortunately is not a commodity.
Hers was a life of dispossession. She told me that her clock doesn’t work and how she had learnt to despise time. She didn’t let the politics of religion and geography interfere with her freedom and had tuned her life as per the azan from the other side. Her mornings began with the sound of azan and her days ended with the same.
This Hindu woman lived her life connecting with the unanswered calls to prayer — the azan from beyond the border. Maybe, this is what freedom means. Maybe, this is what we all should claim.
Her verse of freedom has stayed with me over the years:
Not the one who prays,
Not the one who is prayed for,
Not even the one who listens.
Prayer transcends all that is defined.
It is free.
It is meant to set all free.”
I asked her if she wanted me to get her clock repaired. She gave me a strange look and remarked that the dead clock had set her free. She was not bothered about the time. She told me how she had transcended time to the point that she had even forgotten to die. We both laughed at that.
Her roots were in Umerkot, Sindh on the other side from where she received the prayer spells. She believed that the azan from the other side is the call of god who is left on the other side. She said it is better to confide in delusions, if they are so. At least, one knows they do not exist and so they would not be deceived.
While departing, I photographed her with my phone. She told me that she had no picture of herself and wanted one to be hung on her wall when she dies. But the very next moment she said: “For whom? And where?”
In that moment of awkward silence, I avoided looking into her eyes, and left. We suffer from an incurable malady of worldly belonging. Later, I lost the phone and her picture along with it.
Mai was a Sufi soul. She broke through the shackles of identity defined by name, country and religion. She was one with the infinite beyond borders, time, religion and all that can be divided.
Years passed and I thought of her many times but did not try to see her again. This is how some encounters should be left — as unedited accounts of memories. She might have died now. Maybe I didn’t want to know about her death.
Today, as I am writing about her, I remember her saying with unbearable regret reflected on her wrinkled face that she’d be remembered by none. Only death could free her from her ageing body. I hope she exists somewhere un-belonged and free.
Her bond with the other side is a glorious eulogy to the unanswered and un-belonged prayer calls that had kept her alive, when abandoned by her own people. I am nobody to comment on what she found in those prayers from the other side, of another religion. It was her private account.
This August, when both the neighbouring countries were celebrating their respective days of freedom, I remembered the old woman who dismantled all the boundaries of geography, religion, time and lived a life of ultimate freedom.
She belonged to nowhere, like her god. Perhaps she found the songs of freedom in the anonymous prayer calls from the other side.
Have you ever found inspiration on the other side of the Pakistan-India border? Share your story with us at email@example.com