Ajnabi - The Stranger
The first time he tried it was a disaster. Beads of sweat formed above his brow. His mouth was dry and his throat was tight. How could he not be nervous? After all, this was his first time. He was inexperienced and tried his best to just be calm and composed. He took a deep breath and was about to begin, but truth be told, he didn’t know where or how to start.
He couldn’t tell if it was his nerves getting the better of him, or the intensity of the height of summer that was making the air in the room around him feel thick and humid. His breathing became rapid. As he raised his hand to trace the body with the sweaty tips of his fingers, his pulse began to race like a train speeding down the tracks. Was his vision becoming unclear, or was it the smog from the city outside that was making everything seem hazy? Whatever it was, one thing was certain; the pressure to perform was intense.
A million thoughts and questions crossed over in his mind and he couldn’t differentiate between them. He felt that perhaps he ought to get to know her properly first. Maybe then it would be easier and he wouldn’t feel so weighted down. He had only just met her a few weeks ago and knew nothing of her, except for her name and that she had a rich and illustrious past. Had he been granted more time with her, no doubt that he would have been amazed to discover how fluent she was in various languages and dialects; how knowledgeable and well versed she was in timeless scriptures and literature; and how skilled and adept she was in the science of warfare, in poetry, song and dance. He hadn’t even had the chance to sample her food, for which she was equally famed. How unfortunate for them both that time was not on their side.
He looked at her intently and said ‘I’ll try again tomorrow’, and with that he retired to bed.
He didn’t get much sleep that night. Tossing and turning he awoke from a bloody dream to find the bed sheets soaked in sweat, like the rains from a heavy monsoon downpour. It was the third time that week that he awoke at the stroke of the midnight hour to the same recurring dream. Quietly getting out of bed, he walked over to the window of his lonely mansion and looked out ahead into the darkness that cloaked the city. The night was unnervingly still.
‘Why me?’ he whispered to himself. ‘Why does it have to be me?’ He reflected on the dream and what it could mean. Much of it was a blur except for the sounds; a maddening cacophony of metal clashing with metal, the aggressive beat of war drums and conch shells, and the occasional tones of a flute with a repetitive, hypnotic melody. His head was pounding so hard he felt as if it was going to split in two.
A few days had passed and after some more failed attempts, he realised he just had to get on with it. His eyes frantically raced across her body and his breathing became hurried once more. Everything about this act was rushed and such matters should not be carried out in haste. Time became his foe and continued to mock him.
With a trembling hand, he picked up the silver instrument and gripped it tight between his clammy thumb and index finger. He hovered over the body one final time. The tip was sharp and pointed. He paused slightly before he made the incision and, in that brief moment which seemed like eternity, it suddenly dawned on him why he had felt so unsettled. Initially, when he arrived in the city five weeks ago, he thought it might have been because he was not qualified for the job. In truth, he was apprehensive about carrying out this procedure, because he didn’t really know anything about her. He was not given much context as to her importance, or how many people revered her. No matter how careful he tried to be with her, or how much he thought about the consequences, he knew that the spilling of blood was inevitable.
His childhood flashed right before his eyes. Growing up as a young boy in Wales, who knew that one day he would assume the role of God in carving a new destiny for her? Musing over this thought, he inspected the instrument,
‘So this is the tool that will change everything’ he said quietly under a deep, heavy sigh.
As he lowered the sharp tip over the silhouette of her body one last time, the sound of the battle drums from his recurring dreams battered his brain once more. He began to slowly slice down her body. Black ink oozed out of the nib as he did so, and for every drop of black ink that stained the surface, a blood-curdling crimson red would be spilled in reality too. This he knew for certain. Slowly and carefully he tore her limbs apart. A few moments ago she was whole. Now, she lay there divided into two.
The deafening noise of drums and haunting flutes that had reverberated in his head suddenly stopped and the gentle ticking of his pocket watch enveloped the room. He stared long and hard at the finished piece; it had finally been completed. This was the end and the beginning of her story, as he knew it. His was no masterpiece and certainly nothing to be proud of; but to put it in his judicial terms, ‘This case was now closed’.
Just then there was a gentle knock on the door. Fastening the lid securely back on his pen, the one that changed her fate, he slipped it into the breast pocket of his white cotton shirt. Clearing his throat, he replied with a rough and hoarse voice, ‘Come in’.
You see, he hadn’t spoken to anyone in a while. He was confined to isolation in this large mansion until the task he had been instructed to carry out was completed. Being alone with nobody to talk to was something he was accustomed to since arriving in this foreign land.
A tall gentleman in an official uniform quietly entered the room with his gaze to the floor. He placed a leather-bound document on the Mango wood table by the door and without saying a word quietly slipped out of the room.
Pulling out the chair from under the table, he exhaustedly slumped into it and opened the dark brown cover of the document that had just been placed in the room for him. His fees, for the act he just carried out, were listed on one page with a space for his signature at the bottom. He decided not to sign the page. He just couldn’t bring himself to accept payment for what he had just done. He leafed his way to the end of the document until finally he could see the dotted line. With the very same pen used to change the way she would now look forever, he signed his name on that fateful line, alongside that fateful date in her history -
Cyril J. Radcliffe, India - August 1947