ali akbar natiq

You are the Sun, Olivia Fraser, 2015, stone pigment, gold leaf and gum arabic on handmade Sanganer wasli, one of nine panels, each 14x14’’. For biographical information on the artist go to Editor’s Note.


Upon hearing the news of Haji Abdul Karim’s death, women emerged from their homes as if there had been an earthquake. It was like a torrent of people flowing towards Haji sahib’s house. Some of the women were wailing. I must have been about seven years old. I can’t say that I knew Haji sahib but every day, early in the morning, my grandmother would wake me and send me off to read the Quran from the maulvi and Haji Abdul Karim would be the first man I would meet at the mosque. He would stand directly behind the imam during prayers. Many times he was a little late and the imam would delay the prayer. This was my first introduction to him. Other than that, he never talked to me and I never went near him.


Now, upon his death, I felt no particular sadness or happiness. Almost unconsciously though, I walked towards the large haveli and stood in the midst of the large, wailing crowd.


Men were sent to surrounding villages to make the announcement so those who knew him could attend the funeral. Our village, or more properly, Haji sahib’s village, was large with around 5000 people. It had broad, tree-lined markets. There were four large clans in the village but Haji sahib was the leader. There were around a hundred houses belonging to serfs. Haji sahib had been on the hajj ten times and prayed and fasted regularly. He was tall and stocky with a long white beard. I had only ever seen him in white muslin, holding a walking stick. He owned most of the land in the village and was thus the central figure in the village panchayat. His word was law, no one dared question it.


I sliced through the crowd and reached the charpoy where it was impossible to hear anything over the wailing of the women. Most of the crying women were the wives of labourers. I looked at Haji sahib’s face, a scarf tied under his chin, for a minute or two. It was ashen yellow. His jaws were sunken and his facial bones protruded out. I recoiled in fear. It was the first time I had seen a corpse. I came out into the open and was surprised to hear the women passing by saying, ‘How serene and wonderful he looks, God rest his soul, he was such a virtuous man.’


I came home soon after and started playing marbles with Shani. Before sunset, the funeral procession started. People were hurrying towards the graveyard but I didn't care. That night though, I was scared to go to sleep.


The next morning, Maulvi sahib addressed all of us. ‘Children, you know that Haji Abdul Karim died yesterday. He was, God rest his soul, a blessing for all of us. Our village has been orphaned. While he was here, no one dared cast a malicious glance at us. He always treated me like a brother.’ His eyes welled up with tears. He paused a moment and then said, ‘Son, take your Quran with you today and let’s go to his grave to recite for the benefit of his soul. I will go with you. There will be mithai there as well.’


We all went there for the mithai. The graveyard was attached to the village and was spread over five acres in the eastern corner. A canal flowed along the other side. It was surrounded by earthen walls. There were very few graves and no shade trees but lots of bushes with snakes and insects crawling around. In some places, mice had burrowed under the ground because of which many of the graves had collapsed inward. Wild dogs and donkeys roamed all around and half rotted bones were scattered everywhere. It seemed like a witches’ abode.


When we got to the graveyard, Haji Abdul Karim’s older son, Haji SaifurRehman and a few other people were already there. We all sat respectfully around the grave and started reciting. The grave was in the centre of the graveyard. After our recitation, the maulvi sahib said a prayer and mithai was distributed.


While we were busy, Deena the gravedigger planted a Jamun sapling at the head of the grave and watered it, for which Haji SaifurRehman happily awarded him one hundred rupees. Deena took it, praying effusively for his benefactor’s welfare. Maulvi sahib embraced Haji SaifurRehman to console him as he was leaving.


We got up to leave. Suddenly, the maulvi turned to SaifurRehman and said, ‘Son, have a small wall built around Haji sahib’s grave and get the grave lined with concrete or bricks so the rain and the wild animals don’t damage it.’ SaifurRehman nodded in agreement. Deena the gravedigger was listening attentively. We returned home and got busy with our games. On the third day, a prayer was held for the deceased in the mosque and then again on the seventh day when fruits and mithai were distributed. We were delighted; if only someone would die like this every day, we thought.


After this, for a month, there was silence. It seemed as if Maulvi sahib himself had forgotten. Then suddenly, one day, he said, ‘son, we need to go to Haji sahib’s grave again today to recite the Quran, it has been forty days since he died.’ We still remembered the mithai from last time so we went along happily. But this time, Haji Sahib’s son was not there and there was no sign of any mithai. We felt betrayed and started cursing the maulvi in our hearts. Only Deena the gravedigger was there. He had sprinkled the grave with water and rose petals and had lit incense sticks which gave off a pleasant, fragrant smoke. A broad courtyard had been created around the grave enclosed by a small mud wall. The Jamun plant was waving cheerfully in the breeze. The gravedigger stepped forward to say salaam to the maulvi to which the maulvi responded indifferently. After a pause, the gravedigger spoke triumphantly. ‘Maulvi sahib! The advice you gave last time, Haji SaifurRehman entrusted it to me, he has a hundred other things to look after. There were some mud bricks lying around, I thought, I can’t make the grave solid so I’ll make a mud brick wall around it. Haji sahib was a virtuous man so it will benefit me as well.’ He stepped closer to the maulvi and said softly, ‘The reason I left this courtyard so wide is that Haji sahib’s wife is old; God help us, if something happens, we can make her grave next to his. They can be together again.’


Upon hearing this, the maulvi patted him on the back and offered some more advice about the grave. Then he ordered us to recite the Quran. While we were doing this, Haji SaifurRehman arrived with his servants and mithai. Our faces lit up and we started reciting fervently. As long as we kept reciting, Haji SaifurRehman, Maulvi sahib and the gravedigger kept talking amongst themselves. We could not hear what they were saying over the sound of our recitation.


As we were about to leave, I saw Haji SaifurRehman give a hundred rupees to both the maulvi and the gravedigger. Then we came back and Haji Abdul Kareem became just a dream. Rarely did anyone in the village mention him. A year passed. A few months later, I stopped learning the Quran from Maulvi sahib and got busy with my studies and sports.


The elderly of the village kept dying but I never went to any other funerals or to the graveyard except once when the maulvi reprimanded the villagers on the decrepit state of the graveyard on Eid day. They decided to build a concrete wall around it and everyone participated enthusiastically. By this time, I was fifteen and in Matric. Suddenly, one day it was announced that Chaudhry Khushi Mohammad had died. I would not have paid much attention except that his younger son was my class fellow and I had to go even though I did not want to. I helped carry the body, said his funeral prayers and helped bury him.


I was amazed to see the graveyard completely transformed in the eight years. Besides the big Jamun tree over Haji sahib’s grave, several trees had come up in the graveyard. Many of the graves were now brick or concrete and several had large courtyards around them with headstones on the graves. There was even a dome on top of Haji Abdul Karim’s grave under which his wife, who had died two years previously, was also buried. Most likely, that was when the dome was built. But there was still a lot of empty space in the graveyard. I was there with Amjad when Chaudhry Khushi Mohammad’s grave was prepared. Before we got there, Deena the gravedigger had already dug the grave in an open space and had cleared an area around it of shrubs and bushes, something we couldn’t help but appreciate. In fact, Amjad gave him 200 rupees as reward upon which Deena praised Chaudhry Khushi Mohammad to the skies and said, ‘Chaudhry sahib, our Chaudhry Khushi Mohammad was a very nice man. I will make his grave in an open area so mourners can come easily to offer prayers. I have cleaned it up. Tomorrow, please have a brick wall made so the area is reserved and protected.’


After my Matric, I moved to the city to study further. We had just one house in the village in which migrants from Uttar Pradesh had settled, why here, in this village, God only knows. Other relatives went and settled in Lahore and Karachi so we had no clan here since the other villagers were all locals. Thus, in terms of influence, we too, were counted among the serfs.


In the city, I started working at a medical store, a job which would go on until two in the morning. I was only able to go to sleep by two thirty. At nine in the morning, I would leave for college. My trips to the village dwindled from every few weeks to every few months. I had made some friends in the city as well, so whenever I went to the village, I would return the next day. Thus, I did not go to the graveyard for ages and soon it was six years since I had come to the city. By this time, I had started working as a clerk at the postal department and would go home each month with my salary. In fact, sometimes I would go every week since my grandmother was in poor health.


One day I was sorting the mail in the office when the superintendent called me. I went over and he handed me the telephone receiver. I felt faint when my father informed me of my grandmother’s death. I loved her so much that my first reaction was to burst into tears. The poor dear – since she had migrated from India, poverty had been her constant companion. Grandfather died soon after they arrived here. She sold vegetables, spun cotton, went hungry and raised six children. When I heard of her death, my heart welled up with pity for her. God knows that she had never missed a single prayer. She could never afford to have a religious gathering in her home but would constantly make small religious offerings.


I took leave from the superintendent, left work, ran to the bus depot, got on the bus and reached the village before dusk. I clasped her lifeless body and wept bitterly. Night had fallen. She was bathed and wrapped in a burial shroud. The night prayers passed but still there was no funeral. Eight o' clock, then nine; nine o' clock in winter is like midnight and along with the wailing in our house, people were whispering and gossiping and father seemed upset.


‘Father, why has the funeral not started?’ I asked. ‘What are we waiting for?’


He said, ‘No one, the grave isn’t ready yet.’


‘It’s been hours since evening fell, why isn’t it ready?’ I asked.


‘There’s no room in the graveyard,’ he replied.


I said, ‘What do you mean?? The graveyard is enormous. Just yesterday there were hardly any graves there.’


‘But there is no space now,’ he replied.


Upon hearing this, I ran to the graveyard. I beat on the gravedigger’s door which was in one corner of the now entirely concrete graveyard.


When the gravedigger appeared, I asked, ‘Uncle, why won’t you make the grave? Mother is lying out in the open.’


‘Son, I’ve said repeatedly, make some other arrangement for the old woman,’ he replied. ‘There’s no room here.’


‘What do you mean, no room? Come on, let’s see for ourselves,’ I said.


‘I’m not your damn servant,’ he said. ‘I’m not going traipsing around graves in the middle of the night to get bitten by a snake.’


‘Fine,’ I said, ‘you don’t want to go, I’ll find a spot myself.’ I turned and entered the graveyard. He called out from behind, ‘Take care, if you make the grave in another landlord’s space, they’ll dig up the corpse tomorrow and throw her out. Don’t complain then.’


It was a cold winter night and the graveyard was bathed in moonlight. It was divided into courtyards with two or three graves each and the rest of the space was empty. At some places, I saw large domes. I was agonising over what to do and where to bury her when far off in the distance, in the farthest corner of the graveyard, I saw the dim light of a lantern. I went closer and saw my cousin digging a grave. They had found an abandoned spot near the boundary wall a short while earlier. At two in the morning, we buried her. There were about fifteen people at the funeral. The maulvi did not come because of the cold. My father led the funeral prayer.


The next day, at nine o’ clock in the morning, the village chowkidar informed my father that Haji SaifurRehman wanted to see him. He took me along. There were a hundred people sitting at the haveli from all the clans. Deena the gravedigger was there too. He frowned when he saw me. We said salaam and sat down. My father was apprehensive about what was going to happen.


When everyone sat down, Haji SaifurRehman’s thunderous voice broke the silence.


‘Mian Taqi Mohammad, last night, your son misbehaved with Deena. He was trying to get a grave made for the old woman in the middle of the night. And you know there is no room in the graveyard for serfs. We overlooked last night’s matter but for the future, all the serfs need to make their own arrangements. The graveyard is only for those who have land in the village. The graves of the serfs that are already in the graveyard can remain, think of it as our generosity. And remember, Deena the gravedigger is not your servant that he should be digging graves for all you serfs. This is the reason I called this panchayat.’


As he finished, he rose. No one dared say a word. We came home.


The next evening, the serfs gathered at Khadim the oil seller’s house and it was decided that a two kanal plot of land would be bought, some distance away from the graveyard. Every household contributed two hundred and fifty rupees. In five days, five thousand rupees were collected and two kanals of land was purchased from Rao Abdul Shakoor two kilometres from the village. It was waterlogged but they were not planning to grow crops on it. It was a little far from the village, though.


Anytime a serf would die, his kin would prepare the grave so there was no need for a gravedigger or a maulvi because my father would lead the funeral prayer.


Deena remained the gravedigger of the landlords and he turned their graveyard into a little piece of heaven. All the graves were solid with domes everywhere, sheltering trees on all sides and a stream running in between to supply water. There was plenty of room in the graveyard for the landlords, for a long time to come, since everyone had marked out their space.


Whenever I would go to the village now, I would visit grandmother’s grave surrounded by white marble graves on all sides. Another ten years passed. I saw that Deena had grown old but he still tended to the graves diligently.


The next time I went to the village after six months, I heard that Deena had died that morning. I wasn’t interested and had already forgotten by evening. The next day at ten, I was sitting in the house with my father. It was summertime and the sun was fierce. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. I went outside and saw that it was the village chowkidar. Haji sahib has summoned you, he said. I went to the haveli without telling my father. Haji sahib was sitting on a large stool smoking a hookah. The other people and the serfs were sitting around on charpoys.


Seeing me, Haji SaifurRehman asked, ‘Mian Taqi didn’t come?’ ‘Chaudhry sahib, he is unwell,’ I replied. ‘But I’m here, how can I be of service?’


He gurgled on the hookah for a while and then said, ‘You know Deena the gravedigger died and his corpse is still lying around. No one has arranged for the burial. Its summer time and the body is starting to stink. He was your brother serf but none of you gave it a thought. Go and take care of it.’ He looked at Raheem the potter. ‘Raheemay, you dig the grave. And Taifay, you can bathe the body. I’ve arranged for the burial shroud.’ He turned to address me. ‘Ali Hussain, you’re educated, you can lead the funeral prayer, the maulvi is busy today.’


He finished and got up, turned and stopped. ‘Oh yes, there is no room in the village graveyard, take him over there to your side.’




Published in Urdu as ‘Kammi Bhai’ in Aaj, 2010. 


Ali Akbar Natiq is an Urdu poet and short story writer from Pakistan. He was born on the 15th of August 1976 in village 32-2L in Okara District in Pakistan. He began working as a mason, specialising in domes and minarets, to contribute to the family income while he read widely in Urdu and Arabic. He began his literary career by publishing his poems and stories in the Karachi literary journals, Duniyazad and Aaj. Natiq has published two volumes of poetry and one collection of short stories, Qaimdeen, Oxford University Press, 2012, the English translation of which by Ali Madeeh Hashmi, What Will You Give For This Beauty? was brought out by Penguin India in 2016. His first novel, Nau Lakhi Kothi,Saanjh Publications, was brought out in 2014. His short fiction has been featured in Granta magazine's special issue on Pakistan. Natiq presently lives and works in Islamabad.


Ali Madeeh Hashmi is a psychiatrist, writer and translator. His most recent translation, What Will You Give for This Beauty? was published by Penguin India. He is the eldest grandchild of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a Trustee of the Faiz Foundation Trust, Pakistan and President of Faiz Foundation Inc, USA and the author of Love and Revolution – Faiz Ahmed Faiz: The Authorized Biography, Rupa Publications India, 2016. He lives in Lahore where he teaches and practises psychiatry.