In Other Words
A Hajj Gone Wrong
What if you went to Mecca -- and hated it? A story from a Hindi novelist.
From The Tale of the Missing Man. Translated from the Hindi by Jason Grunebaum and Ulrike Stark.
In the novel, Zamir Ahmed Khan reflects on his childhood, writing, and his ill-fated affairs. Here, he remembers an iconoclastic great-aunt.
"Lay off! So I did the hajj," Dulhan Chachi said, as her family embraced her on her return. "I’m back in one piece. No need for hullabaloo."
"People pray so that fate may ordain their death while on the sacred ground," someone chimed in, perhaps hoping that Dulhan Chachi would have undergone a change since the hajj. "It’s a great blessing to die there."
"I’ll keep praying," she snorted. "May you go on the hajj and earn that blessing. As for me, I’m a thousand times grateful to have come back in one piece so I can die at home. Is that any way to die? In the middle of strangers, no one to dig your grave?" Her temper had sharpened. "I don’t need my paradise to be fancy. You can have your garden of paradise. For me, the garden variety is plenty."
As people gathered to hear Dulhan Chachi recount the epic of her hajj, they couldn’t help but strike their foreheads in disbelief, cover their mouths to keep from laughing, and think to themselves, Heaven help us! From start to finish, the pilgrimage had turned out to be a torture beyond Dulhan Chachi’s worst nightmares. It began the moment the ship left the harbor at Bombay, when she felt nauseous and began vomiting; she could barely sit or stand, eat or drink. The climate of Arabia didn’t suit her, and neither did the crush of pilgrims. But she’d decided to go, so tough luck, she’d have to go through with everything. If she’d had her way, she’d have left in the middle and come right back.
"The people kept coming, wave after wave!" she told Amma a few days later, wiping her tears between bouts of hysterics. "It was an explosion of people no matter where you went. They went crazy trying to get through all the rites as fast as possible, the kind of crazy that if someone fell down, they stampeded right over him. You call this hajj? Everyone muttered one or two prayers without knowing what they meant, mostly trying to stay alive. But enough about that! What can I tell you when it’s all about reward and punishment in the hereafter? They go crazy throwing stones at Satan thinking that that’s the real one. He must have really pulled the wool over the eyes of one of the prophets. But what kind of prophet are you if Satan wastes his precious time on you? So everyone goes through the motions, but no one has the brains to understand the hidden meaning behind. What can I tell you? Punishment and reward. Oh, they’re mad about making the circuit around the Kaaba. Push and shove, jostle and wrestle, God help them! Then everyone’s trying with all their might to kiss that rock, you know, that stone, the Sang-e Aswad. Someone said that we’re not going in for that part, but then see how fate works? A wave of people from the throng came along, and the next thing I knew I opened my eyes and I was right in front of the Sang-e Aswad. When I lifted my head to kiss it," she said, in a fit of laughter, "What do I see? A big black stone slathered with every crazy person’s kiss spit. People were licking it, kissing it, and if they could have they might even have chewed on it. My face was just a few inches away and I was about to plant a kiss when all the drool nearly made me sick and I turned away. People were so worked up with their kisses and smooches! I stepped aside and said, ‘Go on brother, kiss it with all that you’ve got!’ Just imagine the scene."
Hearing her report, Amma’s heart must have trembled with fear and she must have incanted, God help her, God help her, while recognizing that before Allah the only space for forgiveness lay in the hope that Allah would understand that Dulhan Chachi wasn’t quite in her right mind.
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