Burning Love Letters
There was bitterness in the wind that evening. It cut as it blew, right through to the bones and placed within its victims not the irritating but fleeting discomfort of winter but the interminable sadness of nostalgia. And so while the December haze descended upon Lahore, Mohammed found himself engulfed by all the leftover angst of his memories and in an unguarded moment of inspiration decided to die.
His seventh sister was the only one who still existed and so it was to her that he addressed his last will and testament and though he had nothing material to give he promised her everything anyway in the hope that she would believe that it's the thought that counts.
And then he borrowed his gardener's axe and even as the gardener looked on perplexed and bemused, Mohammed chopped down the Mango tree that his mother had planted too long ago to remember exactly when because part of him wanted to die for her. Than he chopped the felled tree into several irregular, amateur pieces and paid the gardener an extra five hundred rupees to pile them up in the shape of a pyramid so that it would not only function as the funeral pyre for his memories but also look the part.
He poured onto the wood a mixture of lighter fluid which he kept for his Zippos and the very last drops of alcohol in the 1100 bottles of liquor he had managed to collect since the first time he had decided to archive the past by means of keeping mementos.
He smoked one cigarette after another, lighting each subsequent stem with the dying embers of the last, while he searched for the things he wanted to burn. He ransacked his own house, turned over beds, emptied out closets, dragged out drawers and made such a profound mess that once he was done it seemed as if a private hurricane had ravaged the once well kept home.
It took him four trips to bring everything out to the bonfire. He paid the gardener another 500 rupees for his box of matches and after he had lit one he set the whole match box on fire before throwing it underneath the pyramid.
With a loud and instantaneous crackle all the remaining matches in the box burst into flame and the wood did not waste any time in adding itself to the inferno and before he had even had time to fully contemplate the absurdity of his decision the fire rose up to greet him.
He smiled the tired smile of a man who is reduced to finding pride in being able to start a fire and paid the gardener another 500 rupees to carry a lawn chair over.
Despite the cold sweat broke out on his forehead to bear witness to how close to the fire he sat. The first things he chose to burn were the letters his father had written to him because he loved his father very much. He tried to read each one as he surrendered it to the flame but after reading two he became so bored that he rolled all of them up in a ball the size of his head and gently rolled it into the fire.
He watched the paper ball collapse in on itself and slowly turn to ash which then floated up along with the smoke to disappear into the haze and in this way he set himself free of the indomitable specter of his father that he had tried valiantly to live up to but had failed and had thereby harnessed the most corrosive of all legacies, that of a disappointing son.
The only remains he could find of his mother were some Pashmina shawls that she had never worn but had bought and kept for the express purpose of passing them on to her daughter in law, who despite Mohammed's most vigorous efforts failed to materialize and so those shawls too became an accusatory finger raised in his face, blaming him of failure, of being unable to amount to the sum of his parent's expectations and their hopes and their desires.
The shawls burned with greater passion than the letters had managed to muster and granted the inferno several new colors to play around with. In a glorious crescendo of deep purples and gaudy reds the shawls crumpled up with the smell of rotten dreams and the flame raged higher prompting the mystified gardener to move farther away.
The gardener was old. Older than the letters and the shawls. Older even than Mohammed and Mohammed's father's house, old enough to have witnessed all manner of madness. Old enough to understand that when a man starts burning old things he isn't trying to erase the past but himself and that when this madness afflicts a man it does not end for no fire in the universe can cleanse him of his shame or rid him of the burden of his mistakes. He sat like the poor do: on his haunches. Ready to shit or to pounce, depending on the circumstances, but ready nonetheless, for something or the other, ready to escape, in this case, when the fire became too large to be satiated by the relics of a life that matters to no one.
There were toys that were set to burn. G.I.Joe figures kept safe from harm for five decades too many were unceremoniously turned into fuel for a fire that had little reason to exist and none whatsoever to be extinguished. The chemical smell of melting plastic rose phoenix-like into the atmosphere and made the gardener cough but Mohammed remained as immune to the toxicity he had unleashed as if he himself did not exist. He watched the plastic faces melt into hideousness with the sadistic pleasure that was integral to his nature and silently wished that it was human flesh he had condemned to this fate.
He even knew whose flesh he wanted it to be, whose face. Whose eyes he wanted to see melting and whose lips. And so when he closed his eyes he could see her. He was taken aback by the clarity of his vision, at the remarkable accuracy with which her appearance had been imprinted on his brain so that it had become an instinctive reaction rather than a memory and thus could not be erased even by amnesia. He trembled with the force of his love for her and frothed at the mouth at his hatred for her and in the dichotomy of his emotions he decided to save her for later.
A slew of underwear was then added to the flames, of women whose names he did not remember and had no reason to either. Women who he had pretended to love and who had failed to amount to anything more than a box full of underwear and had never managed to elicit any feeling other than lust from him in order to purge himself of the memory of the one who had pretended to love him
As the unmentionables burnt he forgave himself, one by one for every heart that he had broken and every lie that he had told but even as he did so he felt more pride than remorse and eventually burst out laughing invoking fear for the first time in the heart of the gardener who had already surmised that his master would die by the end of it but now felt that he too may perish in this catharsis of someone else's soul.
The only thing that remained to burn was the pile of letters and cards and candles and knickknacks that had once held more meaning than the word of god but had eventually been corroded into becoming wounds across his soul which could not be healed by any manner of medicine. The fire had grown so high that it was impossible to see its apex without squinting and yet Mohammed was dissatisfied so he paid the gardener another 500 rupees to go and rip the curtains off the windows and the sheets off the beds and the covers of the cushions and the clothes out of the closets so that it all could be fed to the fire whether it deserved such a fate or not.
The gardener complied and even brought out several rickety chairs from Mohammed's father's time because he had now understood that it was not the fire that was hungry but his master. While Mohammed sat murmuring to himself, the gardener broke the chairs over his ancient knees and plunged the pieces into the fire and watched the flames rage higher still with a pleasure he had not anticipated or even known before.
Mohammed did not throw the newly accumulated fuel into the fire but built another pile next to the inferno and linked it with a strategically placed curtain so that when that bridge was set aflame inexorably so too was the pile of other people's memories.
The heat from the ever expanding flame became too great to be borne without severe discomfort and so the gardener moved farther away but Mohammed did not shift his position or even flinch even as he felt his skin singe with the heat.
An excitement came over him once the flame became too large to be controlled and reached out to the trees lining the small lawn and lapped against the windows of the house trying to get in.
Mohammed then took out all the money in his pockets, which amounted to a little over 5000 rupees and gave it to the gardener.
"Open the windows." He said and though he knew that there was very little sense left in his master, the gardener complied but he did not come out again but he did not leave either because he wanted to see what his master would set on fire when there was nothing left to burn.
In his solitude, Mohammed found peace. The crackling of the roaring inferno as it consumed the wooden frames of the windows and spread deeper in to the house soothed him. The fire spread in all directions, consuming the flowers and the grass and the trees on the outside and the carpets and the beds and the mattresses on the inside but even as it spread it left a neat little circle at the center of its soul where Mohammed remained sitting, surrounded by the fire of his own dementia on all sides, waiting, watching , with a pile of once perfumed letters and cards with impressions of lips and candles that had been too pretty to light in his lap.
The gardener stood silent outside the gate of the house. Even as people began to gather and someone called the fire department he simply looked on, with his apathetic atrophy setting the precedent for all onlookers about how this particular fire ought to be treated. So a crowd gathered, unaware of what had caused the fire or why it was wild and furious like a fire of the wilderness, a jungle, barbaric, uncivilized fire which should not be contained but fed until it was satiated, like a god that demands a sacrifice in order to bestow his mercy. And thus with his mouth wide open, the gardener reached into his pocket and took out all the money there was in the world and handed it to the young servant boy from a house down the street who was brave enough to stand as close to the inferno as the gardener. Then he took of his clothes, all of them, and carrying them in a bundle he walked naked in through the gates, past the porch and up to the very tip of the fire that had managed to consume everything in its path up to the front door and then he turned around and sat down with his back to the fire and his eyes on the crowd that had become blurry by the December haze of Lahore and the smoke. He sat like the poor, on his haunches, ready, and even as the flame lapped at the taut and withered skin of his back, he did not move away from it and instead closed his eyes and exerted all the pressure in the world onto his bowels to produce an untimely movement which deposited on the marble clad floor a solitary piece of human dung. He had meant it as a final fuck off in the face of death, as his legacy of fearlessness and also of faith but unfortunately no one saw what he did and he ended up dying with only the dubious distinction of being the first innocent human life to be claimed by the fire that changed the face of a city.
The other thing the Gardener managed to achieve was to add his own essence to the fire by virtue of excreting in its wake and so the fire acquired the smell of the gardener, of sweat and feces, and as the smoke preceded the fire it carried along these smells to invest within the nostrils of all those who witnessed it thereby making them scrunch up their noses and their eyes water with the sheer tenacity of its horridness. But even as the noses crinkled up and the tears flowed a strange calm fell over the spectators, starting from the young boy who had become the impromptu recipient of the gardener's fortune who felt unable to resist the temptation of taking off all his clothes and sitting down on his haunches with his back to the fire in order to add his own excrement to the mix. Everyone else followed suit, even the women, even the well bred ones who did not even know how to sit on their haunches since they had only ever deposited their feces in ceramic seats with large holes which reached down to the very center of the earth. And so as the fire grew larger than the house it was started in and spread to the house to its left and the one to its right and methodically across the entire street it was greeted by a throng of people sitting on their hunches shitting without reason, ready to be consumed and to be purged of their own miseries and their regrets and their own demons.
And thus Mohammed's fire had managed to burn away all vestiges of pretentions from the world and united all of humanity irrespective of age or gender or social standing in a ceremony of death that had so many meanings that on the whole it had none at all.
The fire spread across the whole town and spilled over into the commercial district claiming shops and merchandise and livelihoods along with lives of innocent customers and wily merchants. Everyone past the age of 12 has a reason to die and as the fire came closer everyone who witnessed it discovered that their reason was love and failed to justify being alive any longer and so they all saw the greatest fire in the world as merely an opportunity to sacrifice themselves at the altar of eternal love and hence fulfill at least one promise that they had made to themselves out of idealistic fervor and the delirium of hope.
Several hours later it began to rain. Those who survived saw the rains as god's mercy but they did not know the significance of where the rain had started to fall. Even the inhabitants of that house at the end of the cul-de-sac everything surrounding which was aflame and it was obvious that nothing but a miracle would save it had become intoxicated with the smell of the gardener and had dropped their drawers and had lined up on their haunches in the front yard and had just begun to grunt and heave when the rain began to fall. At first they were disappointed but as the flames finally began to calm down and the ashes settled and the smoke dissipated they became embarrassed at their nakedness and quickly sought to cover themselves up.
In the end the fire raged across a seven mile stretch in the direction of the wind claiming more lives than anyone was willing to count and more property than anyone was willing to admit. It had annihilated everything and everyone between two houses seven miles apart which had a connection no one in the vicinity except Mohammed was aware of.
They found him still in the same chair which was made of steel and had thus resisted burning. His skin was blackened with soot and smoke but it was not burnt. He had suffered from the heat but he had not died from it. Instead he had choked on the smoke and asphyxiated to death and the pile of leftover love in his lap though somewhat singed was just as intact as the last house on the path of the inferno which had brought down the rain to protect itself.
It was assumed that Mohammed had died trying to preserve those relics of his lost beloved from the fire which had started for no reason and so his body was buried and his legacy was handed over to his seventh sister to be preserved and honored as the thing he gave his life to protect. They never quite understood how Mohammed had been found at the center of the flame and yet not been burnt but being the traditionally lazy denizens of Lahore they did not worry too much about it and wrote it off as an act of god or of love depending on whatever they felt more passionate about at the moment.
There was, in fact, only one person in the universe who understood the whole incident for what it was for she had been warned long ago that the world will be set on fire in her memory but she had chosen to ignore both the words and the one speaking them. She had absolutely no trouble in deciphering the connection between the house where the fire started because that is where she had swore undying love and the one where it ended because that is where she had been born and the reality of the invulnerable love letters struck her like an epiphany come too late for the false promises within those letters had been penned by her hand.
She wept silently as she watched the coverage of the fire and its celestial end on the TV too far away from it to be burnt and felt her heart catch fire and her throat dry up and her soul collapse in on itself to emerge from her bowels in the form of excrement to stain her brand new trousers for she had not had time to fully understand the legacy of the gardener as it emanated from within her. Her daughter called 911 when she saw the steam rising out of the pores on her mother's skin but it was too late to save her for she had been killed far away and long ago and this was simply her showing the world that she was dead.
And even as she burnt from the inside out, even as her memories began to shrivel in the heat of her remorse and die, even as she felt the flames issue forth from her eyes to scald all the beauty she had ever seen to ugliness and the heat begin to melt her tongue into a viscous liquid that felt like molten lava as it trickled down her gullet, even as she saw her daughter succumb to the inconsiderate rancor of a man she had once pretended to love, she was overwhelmed by the sheer omnipotence of love and her failure to believe in it when it had mattered. And so it was truly without knowing why she did it but with the acute understanding that she must, as her final living act she told her daughter to open the windows.
Before the fire department could get there her body burst into flames and even though her daughter rushed off to the kitchen to fetch a pail of water the gardener's smell that had ridden the invisible waves of Mohammed's love that transcended time and space and material reality engulfed her and turned her limbs to rubber so that she stopped and took off her clothes and allowed the full force of the gardener's spirit first to enter her body and then leave, and then she sat down on her haunches and waited for the fire from her mother's heart to reach her and consume her for she was more than twelve years old and, thus, had reason enough to die.