Children of the Road

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi


The camera, on the roof of a teashop, was abandoned for two reasons:

In the winter mist of a Persian garden, the camera had caught a green-cloaked figure.

Then, at the moment a village lorry belched, tearing the song of a Snow Finch into confetti, there were five seconds of static on the camera before it ran out of battery.

Khidr — the “green one,” the wise, the longest-living saint of the road— is nearly impossible to pursue. I know that but I try. Often I’m woken up by the image of Khidr and the fur that shimmers green with him. What follows is an elusive map plotting the mornings I have lived and the ones yet to live. Mortality’s math is a fur map that smothers, so I rise and wander— the house, the street, land and sea.

And by wandering, rub against the possible particles of an answer— salts of the land are pounded desire, salts of the sea melt desire into shape. Between them, a green curtain that lifts and carries you into peace as if it were the planet’s mighty sail.

When the abrasions of the quest cool, I hear a footfall in the clock of my mortality. It is Khidr’s, who drank from the fountain of life to become the traveling sage, the saint of the lost. The metaphors are more real than me, and Khidr, a man of quest, is of common proportions and immeasurable grace.

I look for him in library lobbies, bazaars, cafes, festivals and conferences, on ferries and trains— all desolate places. Mortality’s helmeted shadow lengthens on my door. I recall that Alexander the Great wanted to conquer death after he had conquered the world. More fixed on finding the elixir of life than recognizing the journey itself as the elixir, he lost his way. When he lay dying he is said to have instructed his men to open his palms for all to see that he was leaving empty-handed; Khidr found the ancient fountain Aab e hayaat while quietly helping other children of the road find themselves. To get to the rest of the story, you must slowly climb the rickety ladder of wisdom.

The ladder is made of millions of weak magnets. I have yet to reach there but I hear the magnets are the voices of elders— the same voices we become adept at subduing.

The lorry has brought tourists to the teashop. Some are here for tea and sweets, some will buy postcards of the garden and pet the cats. Some know they are lost. They will keep their ear to the wall for broken songs, will strain to see through the mist.