Last Refuge


Muhammad Nasrullah Khan

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 109 in 2004.

The sun was about to hide itself behind the black peak, when grey-haired Rafeel reached the old Bus-Stand of his village. Shadow dark, his grandmother would have called it elvish dark. Head still dreamy with travel, he took a deep breath and turned to gaze around him. The air was slow moving and damp, sweet with the smell of wood fires at the village Bus-Stand. Though the particular smell of land made him very excited, he was feeling himself an outsider in the land where he had spent many years of his life. Twenty years ago, he'd left his own land in utmost dejection. He had been young, brave and non-conformist, and therefore was declared a rebel against the army government. There were two choices open to him: he could either surrender or leave the country. He chose the latter.

Now, twenty years later, he was at the same place and nothing had changed; black rock was concealing the sun with the same greed and the Army had come into power again. He looked at the faces of the people; they had become paler. Their eyes were empty and deadpan; they were still in their soiled rags, scavenging through the trash for discarded crumbs. They were the citizens of a moth-eaten country where the land had become more chaotic and poverty-stricken. Their corrupt leaders had sucked the blood from their bodies and raped the country, over and over. Nature also turned against them and there were floods, earthquakes, and famines. Now they were spiritless bodies, living for the sake of life: these neglected souls were the scapegoats of every government.

Poverty was their crime and they were paying the penalty, as had their ancestors. Yet, they were so simple-hearted that any leader deceived them, because their memories were lost. Rafeel remembered the final meeting with his family, when he came out of his sanctuary in the barren mountains. His father said: "My son, now I am too decayed to face the vulgar vultures.'' He looked at his father and there was more than pity in his feeble and frightened eyes. He was a strong man who had crossed swords with death.


In his disappointment Rafeel said, "Is it more horrible than death? Is there something more powerful than your Herculean ideas, Father?" His father did not reply, he just looked at him and turned his face with his head held low. The fall of that great man set off a wail inside of Rafeel and a horrible wave of guilt overwhelmed his broken heart. In the very next moment, he decided to leave that land.

His Father spoke in a requesting manner. "You should leave, Rafeel. They are chasing you like a stray dog."

Before leaving home, he turned to his mother, who was sleeping. He went close to her, sat near her bed for a while, kissed her hand silently and then, with a heavy heart, moved quickly towards his mare. He did not have the courage to look back. In those few steps, he travelled the distance of centuries; the deep sorrow had shocked his soul.

Soon, his mare was running with utmost speed, leaving behind the barking dogs: masters of the land. On that same dark night, he crossed the border of his country as the thick clouds covered even the stars. Before disappearing, he viewed his homeland with dejected eyes. His soul shuddered at that helplessness and he grew weary of his useless existence. All the teachings of his father about bravery ended in smoke and he found everything shallow and empty. He was hostile towards the withdrawn souls and now he himself was one of them. The bitter taste of defeat moved him to tears; absorbed in the heart of earth. It was then that he saw the ashes of his dreams.

With deep disgust he spat in the air, saying: "This is for you the exploiters. Bravo! You have defeated your own land, your own men. But don't forget that this was our fault that we tamed the monsters. You are the beasts who can never be trusted. I spit on you, you unfruitful and lustful men! I even hate to breathe in this land; woes for those who will live amongst you and your bad breath."

He was one of those thousands of unknown political workers who were forced into exile, and the majority of them were killed, unnoticed and without any rewards, medals or fame. These people were committed to a cause and were led by the dreams of emancipation. Their free spirits and hearts made their enemies violent. Rafeel was one of those free souls whose heart drove him to misery. Political leaders, on the other hand, were faint-hearted and self-serving. Later on, these selfless political workers came to know that the guardians of their commitment were the agents of agencies and the establishment, but it was too late then. What happened to Rafeel during twenty years of exile was another story, but the most pathetic aspect was that all these sacrifices did not bring change in his country.

The so-called leaders brought feudal democracy over and over again. Common people had accepted this situation. After a little poison, now and then, that put them in sweet dreams, they were ready to take a lot more for sweet death: there was no end to their misery.

The sight of a very old tea-hut brought Rafeel back from his thoughts. He recognized the old man working there. It was Rasoola, who had run that hut since the childhood of Rafeel. He was closing his hut when Rafeel reached him. "Can you give me a cup of tea?" Rafeel asked in the native accent. Rasoola turned his sun-burnt wrinkled face, and squinted his eyes to recognize the stranger.

"Chacha [uncle] Rasoola, why this unfriendly behaviour? No, you were not like that---"

Rasoola was baffled.

"I am Rafeel, son of Murad Khan," explained Rafeel.

Rasoola rushed towards him saying: "Oh, you naughty boy of Khan's, my hero! Come close to me."

He hugged him warmly and started kissing his head. "You have become so weak and old, how strong you were."

After that passionate encounter, he sat down on the big bedstead and in the dim light of fire, Rafeel keenly observed the face of Rasoola. There, hidden in his wrinkles, he saw the centuries of deprivation and hunger that was the fate of third-world countries. They had to work in the scorching sunlight trying to satisfy the ever-empty bellies of their offspring ...


Rasoola made a special bowl of tea for him and wiping the sweat off his forehead, he said:

"Rafeel, we will talk a lot tonight."

"No," replied Rafeel, "I want to see my home, I can't wait."

"Rafeel, have you forgotten that this is the time of year when hungry wolves come out of the mountains?"

"Even then Chacha, I will go."

"I will tell you a lot of stories."

"Stories of what? Of wolves?"

"No, I will tell you the stories of men who are more vicious than wolves, and you will tell me the stories of the wolves of abroad, you must have come across many wolves during your long stay over there."

"Yes, Chacha, but those wolves were of their own land, foreign wolves."

Promising to meet again, he started walking quickly towards his Basti (village). There were many Jhokes (small villages), on the way. When he passed through the nearest Jhoke, he saw an old man fettered in chains. Rafeel knew him; he was Bukshoo who had lost his mind in youth. People of the village fastened him because he threw heavy stones at people. Rafeel stopped for a while, to look at that caveman whose white beard was touching the land, and mouth was frothing.

Bukshoo looked at the stranger, made a bowl of his hand, threw dust on him and started rolling like a tired donkey. Rafeel could not digest that horrible scene and started walking again. His country had become an atomic power, but Bukshoo was still in chains.

"Damn care! I won't think about people. Already I have suffered a lot, I won't say anything against anybody, I want to live with my mother. To hell with the people, my mother is now too old! Democracy, justice and emancipation are just romantic notions. Here everything is futile, shallow and absurd."

He stroked the ground with his foot and kept on walking. He heard the voice of mountains:

"Everything is shallow. Everything is absurd."

To overcome those oppressive thoughts, Rafeel looked at the red light on the mountains and his thoughts ran back to his childhood. He remembered the day when all the people of the village were gathered to see this strange thing for the first time many simple farmers were so frightened that they hid themselves in their homes.

Everyone narrated it with their own innocent perception. His elder brother told him that it was the light of a uranium reactor. Khair Shah, shepherd of the village, never believed that it was a man made thing; he was sure that it was the light of a saint, sitting on the mountains. Most of the simple villagers were followers of Khair Shah.

In that far-off village, where there was no electricity, no clean water, no medication for dying people, it was something supernatural.

Soon Rafeell's father brought radio, for the first time in village, villagers ran out of the village, voices from that box made them frightened. It took them many months to become adjusted to that speaking box.

When Rafeel reached near the cluster of big, thick trees; a melancholic memory struck his mind. It was the place where they had found the bones of Kaloo, a brave lad of the village, never afraid of the wild beasts, which would come late at night.

He had remained absent for many days when his friends started searching for him, and they found the bones of Kaloo. Hungry wolves had left nothing behind, except a few bones and pieces of his clothes. Rafeel was surprised that not even a single tree had been cut in his long absence. He felt a wave of fear in his spine. The cluster of those trees was in close resemblance to his country!

The Darkness had settled beautifully. The air spoke of distant rains. Rafeel entered a labyrinth of corn. Ahead of him, past the rows, he spotted the mimosa tree. It was a familiar tree, one that he had sat beneath before. One that had saved him from scorching June days, when he would come too far, gathering wild flowers or trying to halter the red mare that roamed free. Rafeel had prayed beneath that tree, and cried into its soil. It was the home to many meadowlarks and blackbirds which were now perched and sleeping upon the mellow limbs.

Rafeel moved closer, smelling the change in soil as the land turned from fertile to fruitless. Nothing even grew beneath that tree. He drew closer, until he could smell the trunk and the dampness of leaves. That tree reminded him of a beautiful face, Rozeena. He thought how timeless life had once seemed.

"Rozeena?" He called. "Rozeena?"

The reply was dry winds shuffling the straw like cards, and the howling of a beagle dog on the hunt. Rozeena was gone. She was the wind. She was the moon, speaking to Rafeel through whispers and shadows. Rafeel remembered Rozeena, her dark curls, and her alabaster skin ... her face always poised in childlike curiosity. He recalled Rozeena's pursed scarlet lips. He felt a tear now.

"Where are you now?"

But the night swallowed his question. He had also once loved. Rozeena had been a roaming wave of beauty in a pale land. But she had died many years ago.

"Will you come back for me?"

He knew Rozeena was gone but still he wanted to hear her reply. Red memories faded to yellow. He turned and galloped away like the roan range horses, vanishing into rows of untended corn. He let the wind lick away a sudden tear... the wind came, and it blew hard, making a sound like music.

When he reached the graveyard of his village, he felt a wave of death in his body. His great-grandmother lay underneath a monumental slab, surrounded by a low iron fence. The graves of his grandfather, grandmother and father stood in a line, marked with simple square tablets set into the turf. The rain had darkened the stone on all three, but his father's was still noticeably lighter, its inscription sharp, the newness of its manufacture less dignified somehow, because his son was far away.

It was lonely standing there. Rafeel wanted tears and he got them. This time he cried for himself.


He moved on from the family graves. He reared the headstones as he walked around. Village names prevailed. He could not find Rozeena's name anywhere. He found the grave of Hussani Powely, the loyal servant of his grandfather. It had been so many years ago that he had almost forgotten Hussani's face, his calloused working hands, and his dark crackled lips. The length of his body as he raised the trowel into the air, bringing it into earth with force and hope. Hope that land would be fertile. He died but land never turned fertile.

Closing his eyes, Rafeel pictured his grandfather climbing the cliff. It was a very cold day. He grunted with the effort of pulling himself from hand hold to hand hold, his breath steamy. As he climbed, Rafeel waited for him to lose his grip, for him to lose his footing, for him to fall. But nothing could stop his grandfather, neither gravity nor fear. Up and up he went, vigorous in his youth, irrepressible, fearing nothing, needing no-one but himself. Halting at the lip of the rock wall, fifty feet above the stream, he looked up at the sky and gave a victory yell that rang out along the valley and sent the rooks up cawing from the trees. But now he was lying in the grave and death was giving a victory yell at his grave.

It was almost midnight when he reached the surroundings of his village. He remembered the loud barking of the dogs when he used to return home late, from the fight with wild beasts. Hung with ugly truths, he stood there, but this time he was returning after a long and tiring fight against human beasts, who have never been overcome! At that disappointing moment, he imagined the old face of his mother and ran like a child towards his home, the last refuge of every falling man.