In the spacious sitting-room my friend sits
facing me, one small foot visible beneath her
silver-threaded sari. Sipping Darjeeling tea,
we discuss the pilgrimage to Mecca
of Lady Zainab Cobbold. Outside it is raining.
Steely clouds shut out the light,
oily puddles form along the road.
Each gesture of my friend’s slim hand
emphasises her words: the age-old pattern
of the Kashmir rug lies between us,
Kufic script, gold-framed, on the wall behind.
Her serene face transforms in exaltation
as she tells me of her own Hajj:
a lifetime’s dream and, alhamdullilah, it came true.
‘On the pilgrimage we are equal before God,
and we journey from the four corners of the earth.’
Her carefully chosen words and air of breeding
make me want to call her Sayyidah, Lady.
I picture moon-splashed deserts; in the morning
grape-blue sky. As the sun rises
waves of gold shimmer on the sand.
She smiles, then lightly laughs:
‘I was the guest of a Saudi princess
in a tent with air-conditioning,
electric lights, a refrigerator.
Each of us escorted by a servant.’
Outside the window leaves rustle in the rain
as I travel with her to the sun-stricken land.
I can smell the cooking, sense the movement;
hear the deep, resonant call of the Muezzin,
picture the many and glorious gates to the Mosque,
see the pilgrims tread the hallowed ground.
Mecca, in a valley imprisoned by stony hills,
savage deserts, green oases, holy cities;
sand grouse, flamingos, jasmine, lilies.
I see my friend’s slight form circling
the canopied Ka’bah, gesturing with her hands
as she repeats the prayers. I smell
Attar of roses distilled from blooms at Taif.
I am with her beneath the setting sun
as the desert sands turn mauve and pink,
finally to sleep beneath a starlit sky.
Night has closed in outside. It is late: I say
goodbye, step into the tight cold London air
taking with me the warmth of the sun.
My thoughts circle around the joy,
the fulfilment gifted to my friend
by these sacred rites, so generously shared
with a mind much differently atuned.
She plucked snow
(from bare almond trees
in the courtyard)
and sometimes, absently,
picking rain drops
from the window sill, in haste,
a heap under her feet, I asked her
What are you contriving winter
She said to me, quietly,
seasons fight wars each day now
so who, for instance, knows
when salt of summer will replace
snow on my tongue, and
instead of water in the channels
in the turmoil of winter
blood of summer will flow
like spilled gasoline? but, like seeds
of rue from autumn,
we will have winter, washed in rosewater,
for more than two decades.
We don’t fear death anymore
When we die, in our country, we suddenly find
ourselves transformed into roses and poems.
We become beginnings of an end.
We whirl in mad wind and come on the
other side of the earth. We unfetter
light from the heavy chains of smog.
We unravel mysteries of darkness.
At our homes, in small gatherings,
we become occasional mentions
in conversation we are no more part of.
We remain however centric
to the conversations we are part of
no more as us but as milestones
of distant cities.
We become writings on the wall.
We become reminders of Sundays.
We become shuddering sighs.
We become salt of tears.
Our names, etched on our gravestones,
are vouched upon by mothers.
We become revered. We become
vision of seers. We are
dreamed of and deciphered.
We inhabit rustle of autumn.
We fly with pigeons.
We never really go away.
We never vanish.
In our absences we stay on,
possessed by the disease of hope,
as fragmented memories.