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Psyche— Mahmoud Yasien

Aug 13, 2022 | Fiction | 0 comments

Translated from the Urdu by Shams Afif Siddiqi 

“We are a psychic process which we do not control or only partly direct. Consequently, we cannot have any final judgment about ourselves or our lives. If we had, we would know everything but at most that is only a pretense. At bottom, we never know how it has all come about. The story of a life begins somewhere, at some particular point we happen to remember; and even then it was already highly complex. We do not know how life is going to turn out. Therefore, the story has no beginning and the end can only be vaguely hinted at.”

—C.G. Jung (Memories, Dreams, Reflections)    

I am on board an ekka. Maybe in place of the coachman, or by his side, or inside the ekka, sitting on the back seat and the carriage is moving as if on wings. Suddenly it happens that a deep gorge appears out of nowhere, on both sides of which there is a bridge, made of rope and wood, or wood and rope. The carriage, which is drawn by stout horses, moves swiftly along the bridge. Then, I do not know how, we, I mean me and the coachman, together with the ekka, enter some mohalla, where there are huts that look like houses or houses like huts. Some are battered and burnt while others are in good shape. Some seem to have no roofs. From the houses or doors of the huts, windows, and doorsteps, people stare at us (It seems so to me). Someone continuously whispers in my ears. (It may be the voice from the other side of the world or the words of the coachman). 

“This is the abode of the dead. (And all who peek out are dead).”

My neck, together with my eyes too, mechanically stare at them in bewilderment. The ekka is moving fast and covering the stretch while I keep on staring. I see somebody from the front side when the ekka moves by them, and others I turn to look back when the carriage has moved away from them (at an even pace). They are in fact motionless and unmoved, without blinking an eye, and without moving their necks, they continuously gawk at a single spot. Women, men, children, and the aged; all gaze towards us, or which way do they stare? But they stare towards the road, from both sides of the houses, protruding out their necks, like swans. Some of their necks are stretched, stiff like stones, others drooping as if blood had dried in them, or had been squeezed out. Then suddenly, I do not know how, from the front side, a solemn, angry-looking face, with wide eyes, open-mouthed, edges fast towards me. (Or maybe the face was still and the ekka was fast being drawn towards it). Bewildered and distraught, I shriek in a heartrending voice. But my voice gets choked inside my throat. Then what happens is that crossing the dirty nullah I happen to clearly see from the ekka, fresh and long grasses, drenched with water. (Do not know whether it is from rain or the dark, dirty water from the descending nullah). Anyway, someone again whispers in my ears. (The coachman might have said it using the whip on the horses, or not using it, but only tugging at the reins [so that the horses may stop there] turned around to address me): “We have come the wrong way. There is no way ahead.” 

Probably I babble and reply or reply and babble: “Now what is to be done?” (Probably scared of going back the way to the abode of the dead, say it meekly). My eyes are stuck on the stagnant or overflowing black filth of the nullah. I get the reply: “We have to turn back the ekka and cover the same stretch again.” Then whether the ekka turned back or not! Anyway, I find myself inside the New Market, near a tea stall, where there is a small crowd of people. I find some coins still safely ensconced in my pocket. I also order a cup of tea for myself. People are whispering among themselves. They are speaking in soft voices about the abode of the dead. I also try to agree with them and join in to give assent to their conversation (as is our custom). Probably I tell them that I have just come from the same place. (Or probably they might have been talking about some serious mishap, or accident, and I might have told them about my return from there). Then probably after having tea from the cup made of burnt earthenware, I place it in a corner, pay the price and return home.

I do not know whether the same day, while returning home after having tea, or some other day, long ago, or not very long, passing by the scary lane (this feeling— scary one, creepy feeling of the lane, of eeriness, belonged to my childhood or boyhood days) which goes to my house dissecting complex and criss-cross lanes, I meet, on the road on the other side, which is away from the normal way, and a turn before which I had to take; a woman, who had been spreading her thick, black, long hair scarily on her face and drawing the attention of the public for no reason at all and forcing them to become scared, all of a sudden.  I also become highly petrified. As and when my eyes fall on this sinister woman (my hairs stand on ends, my voice falters) I recite some Quranic verses to ward off my fear: probably Surah Fatiha / Naas / Falaq / Ikhlas / Ayaat ul Kursi (or whatever, I do not remember). When satisfaction does not come from it, then I sing, though the voice seems to be subdued, some songs, in an odd way, or you can say that in a subdued voice I shriek as I sing. (But in my heart the recitation of the Quranic verses goes on [the net result was I remained stuck between the Quranic verses and the tune of the song]). Then what happens is that on another turn lies a lane coming from the opposite direction, which, away from the normal route, on the other side, comes out of the main entrance of a house. A snake charmer or a magician appears out of nowhere playing soothing music on a flute and I, as if swooning and charmed, start swinging to the melodious tune. Yet the hurry to reach home also continuously seems to lead my steps towards my home. So much so that in such a state (that is walking in a trance-like state) I cross that junction too and then arrive at another junction, where according to me, the danger seems to be over, I flutteringly turn around and fall down. (My legs get entangled with some unknown object lying on the ground).

Then one day, probably that same day, the same night— someone, do not know why? stabs me (in my stomach or chest with a sharp dagger) and I, because of the fear or fright of death, with a stifled shriek fall to the ground. (I feel extremely sorry for my untimely death. [Why did someone kill me for no reason? What have I done to anybody?] Together with it I also think [if I am dead then I should have been totally motionless and lifeless: why these thoughts and worries?]. Now, who will be able to apprehend my murderer? For only I know him; because I had seen him push the dagger into my stomach/chest. [Who will believe it was him that killed me? Who will be able to reach him without my giving witness?]  Don’t know how I become motionless and lifeless and how I suddenly regain consciousness. With nervousness I quickly look all around myself: I don’t find anything around. Suddenly my hand, right or left, or maybe both instinctively move towards my navel. There is no gash in my stomach. (I try to feel it). There is no feeling of pain or pricking sensation: the respiratory system is working in its usual way. I only feel the heart beating faster. I heave a sigh of relief. (I am happy I am alive. [I thank God!]).

Then one day, as I stare at the roof of the bedroom, I am shocked. A very ugly (scary) black, fat-bodied snake is slithering along. It is trying to coil itself with the bamboo and wood and I do not know how mysteriously it is twisting itself over the main door, sometimes hiding, and at others, coming out at the other end as it is moving along. The constant rubbing of its body with the pillar and beam or ridgepole does not create any noise, nor does it make any hissing sound. (Vicious enemy!) It is trying to plod quietly to some unknown destination or maybe in search of a suitable place from where to carry out an attack on its prey. Though I am scared, yet do not know from where such strength comes to me, instead of running away, I stand steadfast trying to find some way of escape from it. (Maybe I might have been worried about the fate of my two sisters who were fast asleep, either on the mat on the floor or on the camp cot. Or maybe, one on the mat and the other on the cot, or both together or away from each other: I mean in two different places, or maybe it was only one sister, the other somewhere else. [That is, at their elder sister’s house]. The snake is not bothered about me (It is possible that it might have kept me under its watch, or another reason may be that I might not have got the chance to escape from the room!) crazily engaged in its intoxicated meanderings. It is busy winding itself against the door of the main entrance, pillar, bamboo, or pole and its slithering kind of movement. Wherever it finds an opening, a hole, or a space to come out, it sticks out its head, and before long comes out at another spot. Its vicious ways made it difficult for me to ascertain its exact length. But at different spots, bamboo, ridgepole, or pillar, the coating or the windings of its body, could certainly give some idea of its length which was like the span of the intestines associated with the devil. Then what happens is that it tosses itself to dangle below and sticking close to the protruding parts of the bed it starts descending. Then before batting an eyelid, I do not know how it suddenly comes down.)

Now, since it has completely descended to the floor, its mobility and movements seemed to have developed a bizarre manner of approach. In a twinkling of an eye, it disappears from a spot and appears at another that is almost close to me, with its magnificence and I have to show enormous alertness on my part. I am surprised as to what happened to its length when it was above. Further, I am surprised at my own steadfastness that suddenly develops in me. (I am more worried and scared about my sisters [or one sister] causing worry and afflicting me, because of urgency, or failure of apprehension, I had failed to tell them to be cautious. [God Forbid! Supposing I had woken them up then it was possible that the snake might have proceeded towards them]. The snake is making its attempt on me and closely attacking me and with each attack, a kind of a tempest emits from its mouth and within a twinkling of an eye gets lost in the dim darkness of the room. I, anyway, do not know how despite its quickness and ferocity am able to finish it off. (It could not, to me or my sisters [or one sister] do any harm. Though time and again, it had passed by my sisters or around them with slithering movement. It has also made an attempt to attack me, with all its fiery and poisonous ways. But thank God! Whether this way or that, it failed to do them any harm.)  Outside, it seems dawn has descended and faint, diffused, soft, and velvety sunlight filters through the doors and windows: the night lamp is switched off.    

Then again, one day, possibly after a long time, my eyes are glued to the sky and I see a gathering of bloodshot knitted clouds— just like carding fluffy cotton but extremely red; traits of blood in it, and with overflowing intensity, coming towards me. I, comprehending a bit, or not understanding a little, to my right side, or somewhere close, address a man by pointing to him the bloodshot clouds. He, too, looks at me with surprised looks and then stares at the overflowing blood-drenched clouds. (Do not know what calamity is going to fall? we tell ourselves in our hearts and then express our opinions.) Then I direct my eyes to the right side of the sky (probably try to see how far is the stretch of the cloud?)  But on this side, the sky appears to me totally blue and clear as if nothing had taken place. Likewise, one day, do not know how long, on the western side, I find a hailstorm falling from the sky: balls of fire, small and big; parts of embers, big and small. Then a miracle happened, do not know what came to mind, I lifted up both my hands for dua, as an act of supplication. I had also closed my eyes; whether moved with emotion or thinking that it may add a sense of devotion (which is appreciated by God) and then after a while, when I opened my eyes I saw, as far as my eyes could survey, blue and clear, smiling firmament. One or two stars were also shining with unmatched brilliance, their lights penetrating straight into my eyes. Then from the main entrance, from which I had been witnessing the miracle, I stepped outside to see the situation outside. Everything there was all right. But when I ventured out to the big maidan, where, on one pretext or the other I always go, I found piles of burnt bricks spread all over as if balls of fire from the sky had fallen and cooled down there. The roof of the island structure, situated in the middle, also had burnt bricks, small and big pieces spread all over. 

I also remember the stupidity of my childhood when one day (or it may be possible when I had grown up but my childish behavior still remained dominant) in my family house (do not know which one: where I was born? or where I had spent the earlier part of my childhood? or where I am living now?) catching the pipe of the wall close to the main entrance, I climb up like a monkey and stick out my neck from the rooftop, boastfully shout so that my voice could travel to another corner. I use my full lung power and shout:

“Hey, you bhoot!”  

There is no reply.

“Hey, you bloody bhoot!

After a while, totally unexpectedly, a voice comes from afar, of a weird kind; trapped, indistinct, and soft:

“Yea!  I am coming– !”

And it seems my body shivers, feelings turn into smoke; hands and feet become numb. I do not know how, in a state of bewilderment, I quickly manage to come down.  

Initially published in Shab Khoon, Allahabad. Later included in the collection: Nayi Basti Ka Razmia Aur Digar Afsane, Mizgaan Publications , Calcutta, 2015

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Mahmoud Yasien (pen name of Mahmood Alam) was born in 1954 in a densely populated part of Kolkata. Though he did his Master’s degree in Urdu from the University of Calcutta, one of his subjects in his B.Ed. was Social and Abnormal Psychology. He taught at a school for 10 years before giving it up. He started writing in his school days. He picks up themes of stories either from dreams or walking down the streets of the crowded parts of the city. His first story was published in Tej Weekly, an Urdu newspaper from New Delhi. Later on, literary figures like Shamsur Rahman Farooqi and Baqar Mehdi encouraged him by publishing his stories in Shab Khoon, Allahabad, and Izhaar from Bombay. Many of his stories have been published in Shab Khoon. Others, in magazines like Shair, Jawaz, Shama, and so forth. He has translated some English stories of writers such as Graham Greene, Edgar Allan Poe, and the French writer associated with the Nouveau Roman trend, Alain Robbe-Grillet. He has two volumes of short stories published from Kolkata. He lives with his wife in Kolkata, is homesick, and refuses to leave the city of his birth except for literary symposiums.

Shams Afif Siddiqi, former Associate Professor of English at the West Bengal Educational Service, is an author, short-story writer, literary critic, and book reviewer. His creative writing started with the publication of his short stories in The Telegraph in the 1980s. One of those stories won the third prize in the all-India Vineet Gupta Memorial Prize in 1987. He has written innumerable stories that have been published in various magazines and newspapers. His publications include a collection of short stories The Language of Love and Other Stories (Calcutta: Reader’s Corner, 2001). Other published works include a critical book on Graham Greene’s novels: Graham Greene: The Serious Entertainer (Delhi: Imprint, 2008), a scholarly annotated edition of George Bernard Shaw’s play Arms and the Man (Delhi: Book Land, 2009) and an annotated edition of English short stories: Five Best Short Stories (Kolkata: Indian Books View, 2009). Currently, he is working on multiple translations and creative writing projects including a novel and an anthology of short stories.


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