The Opium Eater: A Story

by IQBAL AHMAD

1

SANKI died suddenly. The news did not surprise me; he was so dangerously thin that I knew anything could carry him off. Besides, lately he had picked up the habit of eating opium. In the long winter evenings he scarcely ever left his room — a dingy hole where he lived by himself in hostile seclusion. Once or twice I invaded his privacy and found him dozing in a corner under the influence of the drug.

He had never liked people, and for company’s sake he kept a parrot. His companion shared his habit. Perched on a rod, half asleep, it would nod violently from time to time. The miserable bird got so used to the opium that it would set up a terrible squawking if its pellet were not forthcoming at the appointed hour. The drug had a curious effect on it. First, it lost the glossiness of its plumage; then it grew scruffy and bald in patches and ultimately shed all its feathers. It looked obscene in its nakedness. But it was a good companion — at least Sanki thought so; and in its sober moments, it could recite a few couplets of Hafiz.

Sanki used to tell me that there were worlds beyond the clouds, even beyond the stars, and he would give glowing descriptions of them. After he had had the black pellet, he would feel his consciousness gradually dissolve into the mist, into the universal twilight. He felt he was the dark, vapory blood of the world. Visions rose before him, visions of rolling countries of twilight, warm and cloud-big men and women and the mute, slow, ecstatic mingling of their bodies. To me, it would seem that the scientists were wrong when they spoke of the utter coldness and darkness of outer space; and the warm eloquence of the opium eater would incline me toward poetry. The winding procession of stars seemed like village girls coming from a well; star-cities rose far, far out in the depth of space.

“My friend,” I would say, “you are a poet. Why don’t you write about these things? Show us the soul taking a holiday, riding away on the tail of a comet, bathing in the canals of Mars, sleeping in the caves of the moon.”

“Oh! Are there caves and canals up there?”

“Yes, so the scientists say.”

“I shall see the next time,” he would say. “I can always verify these things, you know; it’s my domain.”

I met him the first time five years ago at a cricket match. Tall and lean, he stood at the wicket for half an hour without swinging once, and our patience ran out. His long, lank hair fell in a fringe over his eyes. He did not bother to brush the fringe aside, even when he was batting; he preferred to peep through the black threads. His white shirt was held together in the front with black shoelaces.

Later, at the lunch table, an unceasing stream of delightful chatter flowed from his lips, and we gathered in a ring around him. He consumed half a dozen cups of tea, smoked like a chimney, and left the eatables untouched. On a request, he recited an elegy of his own composition in Persian. I marveled at his command of the language. The couplets flowed smoothly, but the imagery was bizarre and fantastic in the extreme, and there was a deliberate touch of the grotesque. It was as if a sculptor, having made a beautiful statue, slashed off the nose for a finishing touch. Afterward, he dashed off in a great hurry, the fringe of his hair jiggling up and down on his forehead.

When I saw him again, I found him sitting at a betel-seller’s shop near his drab hotel. There was an Urdu translation of Hamlet under his arm. He showed me the book, which bore many beteljuice marks on it. “Natrajan, the university lecturer, gave it to me,” he said. “He has been to England and often speaks to me of those people and their ways. I read it and found it first-rate poetry. But a suspicion has crept into my mind.” Sanki paused for dramatic effect. “I think this Shakespeare was not English.”

“What!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, he was not English. I can’t imagine how poetry can be written in a country where people love beer and have no sun. I am told that even those poets whose identities cannot be questioned had to go to Italy to write their poetry. But about this impostor, this Shakespeare, I am pretty certain.”

“Well, if he wasn’t English, what was he?”

“Persian, a Persian gypsy in disguise to avoid the law, and the English had sense enough not to expose him.”

I was astonished. “How can you say that?” I said.

“Look at the quality of the poetry. It’s the highest, it’s Persian. You can always tell by the taste. You know, the art of poetry is very close to the art of brewing, and the Persians are masters of both. Hafiz was the best of brewers. You have heard of the wine of Shiraz? Persian poetry was distilled from that wine. From the translations of English poetry I have seen, I always judged it was distilled from beer. But this Shakespeare, he tastes of the grape; yes, the grape.”

Sanki continued moodily: “You know, my soul dances like a dervish when I read Hafiz. I wish you could see its joyful dance — like the sunbeam of a child’s smile. Well, this Shakespeare too moves my soul to dance. There is no doubt of it, he was a Persian. And look at the name. It’s a corruption of Sheikh Peero, a common name among the gypsies of Iran even to this day. Don’t you agree?”

“I seem to,” I said. And for a moment I really did.

“The English are a remarkable people,” Sanki continued reflectively. “Look at them, nothing but a hoax! Look at the language. I am told fragments of various languages were put together and confidently called English. Look at the people. Exiles and invaders every one. But when the crowd got sizable, they were called English. Nothing but raw material, that’s all, imported from every corner of the earth. English language, English people, English goods, English wealth — tell me, are they really English? Not one. They have made a legend more powerful than the dreams of Firdausi. And by the way, Natrajan agrees with me that in England there is nothing English but the weather.”

I heard him with a strange kind of admiration and joy, and I said, “My friend, you speak like a scholar.”

Sanki shuddered. “For heaven’s sake, anything but that!” he cried. “I, a scholar? Never!”

I was taken aback.

“A scholar,” he explained, “is a beast of burden — the noblest beast of burden, I grant, but a beast of burden nevertheless, a donkey. Look at your great Professor R., more meek, more longsuffering, and more obstinate than any donkey, the very quintessence of donkeyism. A yogi told me once that according to the theory of transmigration, a donkey that has not pestered too many females is reborn a scholar. A scholar, groaning under the weight of other people’s thoughts — there is no fire in his soul; he is cold to the touch. You know, I was fortunate, I never went to school.”

Sanki was silent for a moment, or rather, he hummed to himself. Then: “The terrible thing is that, having transmigrated, they have lost even the capacity for pestering females.”

Usually my part in these conversations was simply mute admiration, but one day I said, “You know, you have a marvelous gift, why don’t you make use of it? Why don’t you write something really serious, something to drown the cackle of this modern poetry?”

“I am not a modest man, and I agree with whatever you say,” he said. “And the fact is, I don’t like modern poetry myself. It’s so easily done. Write a page of prose, cut it down the middle, and you have two pages of poetry. Besides, it’s so hard and fierce. I throw a handful of those lines into the hollow of my soul, and they fall like clattering marbles on a stone floor. They should burst like little bombs, but softly, filling your being with a glowing vapor. That is what poetry should do, that is its only purpose — filling the hollow in man. But, speaking seriously, I am contemplating a big poem. It will be my magnum opus. The subject will be, ‘The Woman Who Was Twenty Months Pregnant.’ ” Then he carelessly went away, without even wishing me a good-by.

2

ONE day I was reading in the public library when I saw him come in. He stood in a corner with an undecided air, biting his nails. I went up to him. His face lit up when he saw me. “Ah, how lucky!” he said. “Look, you have to do some work for me.”

“Work?” I said. “What is it?”

Sanki whispered like a conspirator. “I have solved the riddle of all history and civilization. What I need is a short historical survey of every country in ihe world and what its national animal is.”

I looked puzzled.

“Yes, you’ll have to do it,” he said. “No hurry, whenever you have the time. Let’s go get a cup of tea, this place is horribly gloomy. It’s more depressing than a cemetery. Souls of poets dead and gone, leather-bound and dusty souls. They should have destroyed their works before they died . . . Wait! is Hafiz in here?”

“ Yes.”

“Where?”

“Oh, over there somewhere.” I waved vaguely.

“I shall break in tonight and get him out. Good Lord! the open-air drunkard of Shiraz must be gasping in this place.”

Over tea, he told me of his discovery. “It is the destiny of every nation to strive to become its national animal. Now, take the case of India. National animal, the cow. Have you ever seen anything more philosophical and nonviolent? No, obviously not. The pursuit of our five thousand years of civilization has been nothing less than to become cows. Vedanta is the finest flower of our culture, and it is nothing but bovine contemplation. Take the Arabs. Their national animal is the camel. Have you heard the rich, throaty, bubbling cry of a camel? The Arabic language was born out of that. You don’t dispute it, do you? Just listen to an Arab speak and you’ll know how right I am. And the dream and ambition of every Arab has been to reach a perfection in language to match the camel. You must have heard of those incredible tales, how an average Arab can keep up a dialogue in verse for hours, how orators never repeat the same word for a whole year. The world has not known a people more language-proud than that. And what does it come to in the end? To be a camel, that’s what.”

I was dumfounded.

“Think of Greece,” Sanki went on. “In their slave-ridden society, ‘man’ was the national animal, and wasn’t the dream of their philosophy to perfect this animal?”

“What about England?” I said. “I think their national animal is the lion.”

“What, the lion!” he cried in bewilderment. “How like the British! They never saw a lion till a few centuries back. You know, England is a tiny island with plenty of ocean around it. So their national animal should come from the sea — the dolphin, for instance . . . no, not the dolphin, the shark. Yes, it’s the shark, and every Englishman knows it but won’t confess it. How else can you explain England’s great seafaring tradition, her imperialism and preying on others?”

“Tell me, what about America? They don’t seem to have one.”

“That’s easy. The national animal of America is the machine; and people who have been there tell me that American civilization follows with ruthless persistence the course of making men into automatons. The movements of the machine have passed into the movements of men. You can see the pistons move, the wheels go round. It’s amazing, it’s tragic, but there is no escape from destiny.”

“And the lion?”

“Oh, yes. The lion is the international animal. Every civilization wants to become the lion in the end. That explains wars, and also why the English gave it British citizenship — those people have a knack of calling everything English that they like best.”

He had been drinking tea and smoking all this while in nervous excitement, as if trying to find a kind of equilibrium. The amount of tea and tobacco be used to consume in those days astonished me. When he had finished talking, I said, “A fascinating idea, Sanki, but I’m afraid it won’t stand the test of logic.”

He flared up. “What do I care for logic? Logic is the biggest lie of all history! Bah! they should have put Aristotle to death for misleading the world with his syllogism, instead of that innocent prattler, Socrates. No man has climbed to a big thought on the ladder of logic. All two-legged animals are men. Abdul is a two-legged animal. Therefore Abdul is a man. How tragically pathetic! Even the village barber knows that Abdul is a man. Logic pretends to prove things which are obvious.”

And then he left — abruptly, as was his habit.

3

I DID not see Sanki again for many months, but then one evening I caught sight of him in the pit of a cinema hall. He was holding an earthenware cup in each hand and sipping tea out of them in turn. He looked more shabby and disheveled than ever. After the film I caught up with him.

“You here?” I said, with evident surprise in my voice.

“Yes, I like this film. I have seen it seventythree times. That surprise you?”

“Yes,” I admitted, “it does.”

“I thought it would. But has it ever occurred to you that the evening is a terrible time for a lonely and sensitive man? Up to thirty he can fool himself with silly entertainments—after that the game is up. The thought of my evenings makes me shudder; they wait for me like a dragon. I don’t know what ugly face of my soul I see between six and ten. I don’t understand it — I run like a hunted animal and usually I cannot escape. But whenever I do manage to find an escape, like this film, I cling hard to it, until that escape is no longer an escape.”

We went into a tea shop and sat at a corner table. “It’s a pity,” he said meditatively, “no one has given any thought to this, no one has tried to find a remedy. There seems to be only one — drink. But I don’t like it. Too fiery, and besides it gives me violent convulsions of the nerves I am sure there must be some remedy, something soothing, something like soft mist to fill the chasm of the soul between six and ten.”

We sat talking for a long time that night. Sanki was full of his loneliness and kept on complaining. “I wish I had a buffalo’s hide and brains. The more you understand, the more miserable you are. I can feel my brain cells burning up, and sometimes the light hurts my eyes. And my most beautiful dreams, one by one they have burned to ash under my gaze, just because of the gaze. How I envy the stupid with half-shut eyes! And then this condemnation to eternal solitude, yes, so lonely and essentially separate. In my weariness I try to attach myself to people. I throw myself against the net of humanity and try to be caught in it like a flying-fox, but every time I fall to the ground. I carry the devil about in me. I seem to be in search of something, but I do not know what it is. It sounds so mad. It has ruined my life and the restlessness is killing me.”

His eyes looked inexpressibly sad, and he was miles and miles inside himself. I suppose he did not even know that I was sitting there.

“I know I belong nowhere and to no one,” he went on. “Even the wish for a collar and chain falls away, and again the mad quest. Last night I took a dangerous step forward. When I am at grips with higher things, thoughts lose their solidity and outline — they resemble vague forms moving in the minds of animals, like clouds at dusk; and then the roar of night. That is the end. In higher thought the will does not function at all, the cloudforms come and go of their own will, and one is helpless like a sleeper struggling in his dream. Last night, it did not end in chaos. I managed an almost fatal step forward. I saw God! I walked off the edge of space and was face to face with eternity. It frightened me like a vast night. You know, God is a king cobra. I didn’t see, but I heard him. Hiss, hiss — the black lightning of his forked tongue. Terror held me motionless. And then the water lapped in the dark. I don’t know which is God, the hissing cobra or the lapping water. Maybe both. But both are terrible. I woke up shaking with sobs. Then I lit the lamp and sat in a strange mood of sad exaltation. I could have explained to you what is good and what is evil. I had the secret in the palm of my hand. I could have pulled out the black thread that holds the beads of the stars together. But then dawn came, like a weeping woman, and I fell asleep with a cold ache in my shoulder blades.”

Absently, he lit a cigarette, and both of us sat in silence. There was a hunted look in his eyes. We heard the familiar sounds of a restaurant closing for the night — chairs being piled on tables, a man cursing somewhere in the back. We rose and stepped out into the cool night. I said something, but he didn’t hear me. Then I hailed a ricksha and offered to drop him at his place. He said, “No,” and wandered off. He lived only for a year after that. He died at the age of thirty-one.

When I got the news of his death, I rushed to his room. He was lying in a corner, leaner than a ghost at cockcrow. He had a cruel grin on his face, and his very sharp features looked sharper than ever. The room was filthy — a few rags on the floor, a bed which apparently hadn’t been slept in for a long time. A torn volume of the poems of Hafiz lay by the side of the corpse. On the floor were innumerable scraps of paper with verses scribbled on them, some partly burned and twisted. Some day, when I have money, I shall bring out a collection of my friend’s poems. I put a copy of the poems of Hafiz in his grave, for, I thought, it would do his soul good; there was no one who loved and knew Hafiz better than he did.

The naked parrot lives with me now. Every evening it sets up a squawking, and I give it a pellet of opium which quiets it down. Then it sits in its corner, dreaming — I do not know what.