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XIX. Fateh Muhammad

We had wandered off the main thoroughfare, where the trams, hurtling past the Irani's tea shop, drown from time to time the chatter of Khoda Behram's clientele; and skirting a group of Mahomedans who nightly sit in solemn conclave, some on the 'otlas,' others on charpoys or chairs placed well in the fairway of traffic, we reached at length a sombre and narrow 'gali,' seemingly untenanted save by the shadows. Here a sheeted form lay prone on the roadside; there a flickering lamp disclosed through the half-open door a mother crooning to her child, while her master smoked the hubble-bubble with the clay bowl and ruminated over the events of the day,--the villainy of the landlord who contemplated the raising of the rent and the still greater rascality of the landlord's 'bhaya' who insisted upon his own 'dasturi' as well. Here a famished cat crouched over a pile of garbage hard by the sweeper's 'gali'; there on the opposite side of the road a Marwadi with the features of Mephistopheles dozed over his account book; and a little further away a naked child was dipping her toes in a pool of sullage water that had dripped from the broken pipe athwart the house wall. Darkness reigned on the upper floors. At intervals a faint glimmer might be discerned behind the sodden 'chicks' which shrouded the windows; and once the stillness was broken by a voice humming a refrain from an Indian drama:

"Jahan jahan mukam rahe, amne jhulakiram rahe,
Safarse ghar ko to phire, Aman-chaman khuda rakhe."

Which, being interpreted, runs:--"Wheresoever thou mayst halt, may God protect thee! When thou hast returned, may God give thee His peace!" The singer was invisible, but around the words of her song one could conjure up pictures of the sturdy serang asleep in the foc'sle of some westward-flying steamer, or haply of the bearded trader afare through the passes of the North-West Frontier, the while his wife in the small upper room waited with prayers for his home-coming, even as the lady of Ithaca waited for the man of many wiles.

At length we reached a small doorway which opened into a cavern black as Erebus. For a moment we paused undecided; and then out of the darkness crawled an aged Mahomedan bearing a tiny cocoanut-oil lamp. Lifting it above his head he pointed silently to a rickety staircase in the far corner, up which we groped our way with the help of a rope pendent from an upper beam. Up and up we mounted, now round a sharp corner, now down a narrow passage: the stairs swayed and shook; the air was heavy with a mixture of frankincense and sullage; until at last we crawled through a trap-door that opened as by magic, and found ourselves at our journey's end.

Imagine a small attic, some fifteen feet by ten, under the very eaves of the 'chal,' filled with the smoke of frankincense so pungent that the eyes at once commenced to water nor ceased until we were once again in the open air. In one corner was spread a coarse sheet with a couple of pillows against the wall, upon which the silent Mahomedan bade us by a sign recline; in the opposite corner a 'panja', a species of altar smothered in jasmine wreaths and surmounted by a bunch of peacock's feathers; and immediately in front of this an earthen brazier of live charcoal. Behind the brazier sat three persons, Fateh Muhammad, a Musalman youth with curiously large and dreamy eyes, and two old Musalman beldames, either of whom might have sat as a model for the witch of Endor. The three sat unmoved, blinking into the live charcoal, save at rare intervals when the elder of the two women cast a handful of fragrance upon the brazier and wrapped us all in a fresh pall of smoke which billowed round the room and lapped the interstices of the rotten tiles. Only the peacock's eyes in the corner never lost their lustre, staring wickedly through the smoke-wreaths like the head of Argus.

Then on a sudden the youth shivered, fell forward with his face over the brazier, and rose again to a sitting posture with eyes closed and every muscle in his body taut as though stricken by a sudden paralysis. "The spirit has entered," whispered my friend, and even as he spoke I saw the youth's throat working as if an unseen hand were kneading the muscles, and forth from his lips echoed the words "La illaha illallah illahi laho." He was deep in a trance, the curtains of his eyes half-dropped, looking as one that is dead; and the voice with which he spoke was not the voice of Fateh Muhammad, "La illaha illallah illahi laho"! and as the words died away one that was present passed two green limes into his left hand and asked for a sign. "I am fain to journey to Lahore, starting on Tuesday next. Will it be well," he said; and after a pause came the answer "Set not forth on Tuesday, for the stars be against thy journeying; but send thine agent on Thursday and go thyself, if need be, two days later." As the message died away, the trap-door in the floor was slowly tilted upwards and through the opening crawled an obvious member of the Dhobi class. He slid forward almost to the feet of the dreaming youth and, placing as before two green limes in his hand, spoke saying "Master, my wife hath written from our country, bidding me to go unto her nor tarry by the road. But there is work toward here and the purse is light. Is it that I should go?" "La illaha illallah illahi laho!" "Aye, go unto her, lest evil haply befall thee; for much is there that is hid from thine eyes."

Thus the seance went forward. For twenty minutes or more odd waifs and strays of humanity crawled in through the trap-door, obtained their message of good or ill, and departed into the shadows as silently as they had come. Among them were several women, one of whom sought a cure for her sick child, whimpering over the symptoms of his malady. "Meningitis, I expect," muttered my friend the doctor; but the answer came swift and sure "Bind thou the 'tawiz' round his brows and carry him to the shrine of Miran Datar, whence cometh thy help." "La illaha illallah illahi laho!"

The end came suddenly. After the last visitor had vanished through the floor there was dead silence for three minutes, while Fateh Muhammad wrestled with the spirit within him; and then with chest heaving and hands convulsively grasping the heavy air, he fell prone upon his face and lay still. The two old women moved forward and commenced making passes over his body, murmuring the while some charm, and as they waved the seven-knotted handkerchief above his head he regained consciousness and sat slowly up, "breathing like one that hath an evil dream" and bearing upon his features the signs of deathly fatigue. By this time the attic was almost clear of smoke; the guttering wick of the only oil-lamp was nearly burnt through, and Fateh Muhammad was fain to sleep. Wherefore we thanked him for permitting us this glance behind the curtain of his daily life, then crawled through the trap, slid down the reeking staircase and gained the street. One last glance, as my eyes reached the floor-level of the trap, showed me that the room was untenanted, save by the prostrate form of the visionary, above whom the eyes of the peacock still glinted with something of mockery in their blue depths.

As we passed homewards down the street we heard the woman in the upper chamber still singing her prayer, but with a note of hope in its cadence:--

"O dilruba tu gam na kho, khuda hamen baham kare"
"Janejahan bhulo nahi, karim sada karam kare."
"Grieve not, heart of my heart, for God will
order our meeting! Soul of the world,
forget not; and may the peace of God be
on us twain."

Perchance she also, like Fateh Muhammad's guests, had caught a message of good hap from out the darkness.

And so back to the light and the noise of the City's greatest artery.