December 10, 2017

Fiction by Muhammad Nasrullah Khan: "The Soul Healer"

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan is a fiction writer from Pakistan, currently living in Saudi Arabia where he is lecturer in English at Taif University. He is known for weaving Asian culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nasrullah’s work titled “A Man Who Was Donkey,” The Gawanus Book called it “stunning.” This short story was selected among the Notable Online Short Stories of 2003. His short story ‘In Search of God’ was included in Silverfish Book’s Twenty-Two New Asian Short Stories, published in 2016. He has been published in Evergreen Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Newtopia Magazine, Gowanus Books, Offcourse Literary Journal, The Raven Chronicles, and many others. His debut story collection, In Search of God can be found here:

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The Soul Healer

The smell of upturned earth mingled with the dying weeds.

My friend’s body was ready for burial. He was cold and still, and surrounded by Flower petals that fluttered above him in the wind, as if to say goodbye.

As we prepared to lower him into the earth, we heard a voice and looked up from our task of lowering the coffin. A tall and frail-looking man stood by an acacia tree at the bottom of the hill, beside an old and abandoned grave. His eyes were barely visible through his wiry white hair. Wrinkles on his face showed the weathering of time he’d endured over the years.

“Why don’t you bury me with him?” He said.

Request for a burial from someone alive was shocking. I watched him as he settled into a comfortable position at the base of the tree. Sunrays broke through the branches and fell on his pale skin. He straightened and lifted his chin, a hint of a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. We ignored him

After the burial rites, I joined the man under the tree.

I put a hand on his shoulder, and our eyes met. A powerful wind drove clouds to obscure the sun.

“Will you bury me, young man?” he asked.

I looked at him, puzzled.

“Don’t you know me?” he asked.

“How would I know you?” I replied.

“ I’m the first lesson ever taught, the firstborn of God.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Our Enemy doesn’t betray us; it’s our own kind that inflict the most harm.” He gestured at the forgotten graves.

“So you are Abel, the firstborn brother. I thought Cain buried you."? I said, wondering what biblical allegory he intended to spin about the children of Adam and Eve. By his appearance and intellectual words, I realized that a brilliant man was a recluse with dark moods.

“He did, but he neglected to bury the hatred and jealousy in his heart. It’s been keeping me alive.”

The old man became quiet. The only sound was the wind whistling through the leaves.

I realized my interest in the mysterious old man was his resemblance to my grandfather. Poppa had also moments when he wouldn't know where he was. I remembered my father’s look of embarrassment and resignation whenever he was called by one of the townspeople to go pick up Poppa up in some strange place. Grandpa would have no idea how he got there, what he was doing there, or sometimes even who we were.

“Why is grandfather sick?” One day I asked father.

“He’s not sick; he’s a mystic. But you can’t understand now. I’ll explain when you’re older.” Father replied.

“But I want to understand,” I would insist.

“Mystics seek to gain new perspectives. They believe there is a plan to the universe and see their journey as one of understanding, not preaching. They trust in their personal experience.”

He was right. It was beyond my understanding at the time.

I stood there a time, eyeing the mysterious man and trying to understand him. Then a young woman with worry on her face made her way into the cemetery toward us. Without a word, she grabbed the hand of my new acquaintance.

"I'm so sorry. We'll go now, sir." she said.

“Excuse me. May I know Who’s he?” I asked.

“His daughter.” said the sad lady.

“I apologize if I have upset your father”

“May I know your name?”


“What’s wrong with your dad?”

“For as long as I can remember, I have been managing my father’s condition. This isn’t the first time he’s had one of his episodes. One minute he’s reading a book or playing with my children, the next he disappears to some random location or to some place in his head, and then he barely recognizes us – barely recognizes me. His only child.”

“I would like to have more conversation with him.”

She took a business card from her wallet and handed it to me.

“You are welcome on any weekend,” she said.

As they walked away, a steady rain began. Soon, they vanished from sight.

The incident left me feeling lost. At the first opportunity, I was in front of her house. Yellow tulips, purple peonies, bluebells, red rose bushes sprinkled through with bright daisies were standing at attention pleasing my nose and painting the garden as if the earth had turned into God's kaleidoscope. Though her home was small, it had elegance.

“Welcome, sir. Ms. Anusha is waiting for you.” A servant led me through a dim hallway.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting for too long.” Anusha guided me forward and took her seat.

“I didn’t notice,” I said. “There are plenty of beautiful things to distract me here.”

A warm smile spread across her lips.

“What do you do?” Anusha asked.

“I teach literature at the college.”

“Father was a professor of philosophy, if you can believe that. He’s been retired for some time. Now he spends most of his days reading. I think you two have a lot in common. Thank you for being kind to my father.”

“How is he?”

“He’s resting now, and getting better.” She sipped her tea, failing to hide the tears from behind her cup.

She waved at the servant to pour a cup.

“Nowadays, in his loneliness he speaks with God. If he doesn’t get answers, he starts complaining. I often hear him questioning God : Do you need to wear lenses to see me.” A tear faltered, and her warm smile returned after she swallowed.

“Oh, this can be fatal. You know we live in a religious society.” I said.

“Yes, I know. I believe living in a religious society can have a positive side. But a society where religion has been distorted and other cultural values devalued, falls into extremism. This is my concern for Dad when he talks to God. Some say only the dead are allowed to speak directly to God, and if they discover a living man questioning to God, they feel justified in killing him. Blasphemy has become an excuse for killing people, especially in Pakistan.”

There was a silence for a while.

“Do you think he will remember our meeting in the graveyard?” I asked to resume the conversation.

“I wouldn’t think so.”

After tea, she disappeared and returned with him. I rose to greet him.

“Baba, this is our guest. He is also a teacher.”

He stared at the hand I offered before his eyes bore into mine. For a moment, I thought he recognized me.

“What do you teach,?” he asked.

“Literature, sir.”

“Then you know a lot about books,” he said.

“Yes, but there’s always a lot more to learn.”

Anusha nodded her approval as her father beckoned to follow him. He led me away from the garden and into a room that served as both an office and a study. The air was stale inside and smelled like spilled coffee, old nooks, and jelly-beans; shelves filled with books of every size and from every decade, making it appear smaller. Even his desk was cluttered. On the wall, I saw a graduation picture of his daughter wearing the valedictorian summa cum laude.

He sat behind his desk, searching for something on the floor as I took a seat opposite him and feeling like a man at a job interview.

“Sir, do you remember me?” I asked.

“Young man, do you know what books really mean?” he asked, ignoring my question.

“I read to relate them to life.”

He waved a hand. “They are a roadmap to guide us through life; otherwise we are like a ship without a rudder, a kite without a tether, a locomotive with no brakes. Unfortunately, it is the one roadmap we prefer to disregard until we are on the brink, staring into the jaws of the abyss.”

Abyss? Now I wasn’t sure what we were talking about or if he had gone to that other place his daughter spoke of.

“The abyss, sir?”

He looked at me, with his head tilted to one side, eyebrows furrowed, and for a moment it seemed as if he recognized me. He grabbed my hand.

“You! I told you I was tired!” He suddenly grasped my wrist.

“We don’t bury the living!” I said in a panic.

“You call this living? What is my purpose?”

I stared into his eyes.

“Who am I? Do you even know who you are?” He dropped the wrist.

But who was I?

“The railway…” the old man said, a faraway look in his eyes. He was calm now.

“The railway station used to be one of my favorite places. Growing up, I’d sit waiting for the train to arrive, its horns blaring, heralding its arrival, much to my glee. It was always on time, sure of what it was and where it was going, sure of its reason for being. We could learn a lot from that train.”

Our conversation was surreal. I was constantly playing catch up.

When I was leaving, I promised Anusha that I would visit again but I got busy with my job and almost forgot about the Professor. Day in and day out I worked, trying to find purpose in my work. I was a teacher; arguably a most revered profession but there was something missing, a passion, a drive, a purpose that made sense to me.

One day Anusha called me to seek help in finding her father; he'd wandered off again. I offered my help without hesitation.

I checked the cemetery where I first met him and then tourist spots, without luck. Before going home, I went to the railway station, remembering that it was one of his favorite places. I remained there until nightfall but there was no sign of him. His daughter told me that sometimes he’d disappear for days on end and they would all worry, but he always turned up. This was the longest he had ever gone missing and Anusha grew frantic. The police were involved. Every night, for the next few weeks, we searched for him, but with no luck. I gave up.

In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the memory of the Professor gradually slipped into the back of my mind.

One day, I was helping a friend shoot a documentary about a refugee camp on the outskirts of the city. The sprawling camp was like a place ripped from the world, the residents of the tent-city looked like the last survivors of mankind in a post-apocalyptic era.

On my third day thereof working at the camp and filming, a familiar wave of despondency fell over me. All around were hardship and neglect. The pain and cynicism in the eyes of traumatized kids and forlorn adults broke my heart. Still, on many occasions, I was encouraged to see them smiling despite their pain, hopeful in spite of their losses, and determination to keep their dignity. My friend and I spent days chatting with different people, some in good spirits, others on the verge of despair.

At the end of the day, as we were packing up our equipment, I saw a flash of wiry white hair on a tall, thin frame. The Professor, It was him. I followed him, my heart beating wildly.

The old man was sitting under a mass of polythene bags strung haphazardly into a tent, laughing heartily as if he didn't have a care in the world.

I stepped back for a minute, made a phone call to Anusha, then talked to the old man.

“How are you, Professor?” I asked, careful not to startle him.

“Who told you I’m a Professor? I’ve been a refugee for ages.”

“Since when?” I asked.

“Since I was thrown out of Heaven, of course.”

“Are you Adam?”

He sighed wearily at my ignorance, before explaining that his sons threw him into Hell after a short period on Earth.

“Where did you live?”

“There weren’t any countries. Back in those days, it was all one land. My sons, my greedy sons, divided everything. If you look closely, you’ll see the border lines are red.”

‘So, now he is Terah, ’ I thought.

I wanted to tell him he had no sons, he was suffering from some form of dementia. His daughter and grandchildren were worried about his sickness.

“Why are they red, Professor?”

“It’s because of the blood, can’t you smell it? They divided the land, drew borders and caused bloodshed.” His finger drew lines on an invisible map in front of him.

“Now the borders have separated everything in our world; good and evil, rich and poor, black and white. We have erected caste systems to further entrench this segregation. None of those things existed until man defined them. None of them!” He looked up at me, tears and anguish engraved on his face. “We could have created a peaceful place of wonder, but greed and cruelty overtook us. Look around you.”

Initially, I started the conversation to keep him there but now I got involved.

“But Professor, boundaries are essential for social purposes, in addition to the foundation of thought. Things need to be separated in order to be understood. Take science, for example. We’ve figured out how to separate compounds into their individual components and now can make new substances,” I said, in hopes of calming him down.

“Science means nothing if it doesn’t bring us together. Boundaries are singlehandedly responsible for the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. Today, as in the past, our attitudes toward each other are influenced by our attitudes toward imaginary borders.”

“Man is born free, and yet he is in chains…” he quoted Rousseau with a deep surge of power in his tone.

Right when I thought I was to lose him, Anusha was there to take him home. Together we begged, we cajoled, we patronized, and she threatened, until he agreed to get into the car.

As I watched them leave, I thought over Rousseau’s words.

Weeks passed. I’d been invited over once or twice at the insistence of Anusha, much to my pleasure. I enjoyed our conversations.

I was dismayed when I received a call that the Professor had disappeared again. I put together a search party, and this time he was at the famous shrine of the city. I found him dancing erratically to the drumbeat, arms and legs flailing about like a drowning man. I resisted the urge to smile as I approached him.

“Hello, Professor, how are you?” I said as the startled old man turned to face me. I knew he didn’t recognize me. I reached into my pocket and handed him a photo of his daughter, hoping that would help. “Your daughter sent me. Mrs. Anusha,” I added.

He looked at the photo and then continued to peer into my face, and I could almost hear the gears and wheels turning in his head as he struggled to identify me.

“You… don’t I know you?” he asked.

“Indeed you do, sir.”

“What are you doing here?” he asked with a slight frown on his face. I suspected he had begun to identify me.

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“Well, for one thing, I’m looking for peace – away from you – and soul satisfaction.”

“Soul satisfaction, Professor?”

He became animated as he spoke. “We spend the entirety of our lifetimes pursuing hedonistic desires, while ignoring our spirits. It’s the cause of the madness of this modern world.”

I rolled my eyes as I helped the Professor over to a nearby bench after I tipped the drummer.

“How do you distinguish the body from the soul?” I asked.

“A soul gives the body life. Without it, it’s nothing more than a slab of meat.”

“And where does this go, after the body’s death?”

He looked far toward the horizon and replied, “It continues to exist. If it was fed while in the body, it will move on to the next phase. Empty souls remain trapped on earth.”

“So… how can we give our souls peace?” I asked.

“We have made massive leaps in terms of modernizing our world, but have yet to do the same for our life force. It’s ironic how we wish someone’s spirit rests in peace after it has left the body, even though most of us neglect our own.” He stared off into the distance, his foot catching the drummer’s beat once more. “We need Soul Scientists. We need people dedicated to curing essence and cultivating an environment in which they can thrive.”

“In the past, in the forms of our great saints and mystic poets,” the Professor explained.

“I guess we’ll just have to suffer, then,” I said, remembering the day at the cemetery when I’d first met the Professor.

He patted the back of my hand, his familiar grin lifting the corners of his mouth. It traveled to his eyes. “Never lose hope. Great soul healers will return, and they will glorify the world. We will experience love and peace once more.”

I smiled at the look of childlike wonder on his face. He didn’t know it, but in many ways he had healed my spiritual being – the soul of a broken man – and given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of life. Who we are, where we come from, where we are going… I had been forced to contemplate my own existence. It occurred to me that I had been having a very personal experience with a Soul Scientist.

He gave my hand a squeeze before meandering toward the shrine; I stared after him before calling his daughter.

One day later, on the way back to my home from my college, I found a crowd of religious fanatics circling a man trapped in the center. They were yelling, “Kill the blasphemer!”

It was the Professor.

“He is not a blasphemer,” I shouted. “He is not mentally sound.”

People behind me began snatching and grabbing my shirt, pulling me out of the circle.

They beat him with fists and feet, and brutalized him with irons rods and sticks. All the while, they yelled,“ Allah ho Akbar, God is Great.”

Screaming and shouting, I broke through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd. I came upon a giant of a man.

He looked down at me, his scowl making him even more intimidating.

“For the last few days, he has been talking against religion and the Holy Book.” I heard someone shouting at me.

“He’s not mentally sound,” I retorted.

“Kill him before the police get here,” another man hissed.

The Professor was waving arms and trying to say something. The crowd’s roar made it impossible to hear his words. I narrowed my eyes and focused on his lips.

“I told you to bury me.” He gave me a sad smile.

A bat snapped his head to the right. He dropped to the ground in a bloody heap. Within seconds, wolves pounced on their wounded prey. Once they quenched their thirst for blood, they decided to rid the world of what remained of the Professor. The smell of gasoline permeated the air, quickly followed by the choking scent of burning flesh.

Flames rose from the mangled body, and the mad mob looked toward the sky, expectancy in their eyes. A few of them held their arms out, as though waiting for the Almighty to shower them with rose petals.

The Professor had finally gotten the death he sought but there was not enough left of him to bury.

Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

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