In this short essay, writer Hijab Imtiaz considers the many ways to begin a new year.
“With the advent of the new year / Old desires come back to life / The soul, worshipper of the Imagination, retires into solitude”
Today, the afternoon—today, the afternoon of the first of January, I opened the door of my house and stepped outside, intending to go to the cemetery, when in front of me, amid the bellowing of the bells of St. Andrews, I saw a very well-dressed man. His face was an ocean of limitless waves—spontaneous joy and unfettered wishes for the New Year.
It was when I spotted the delicate violet flower placed in his buttonhole that I knew. This person had taken all of life’s despair and all the failures of the world and had bid farewell to them and to the stale, old year, and was now returning from the thundering bells.
I continued to stare wretchedly at his cheerful face—a long, cold breath reminded me, yes, this was the new year of one with no anxieties.
Shortly afterward, I found myself in front of the tall and terrifying black gate with which our temporary lives have an eternal bond and which a person who chooses to forget would not want to see on the first day of the new year.
The gate that holds within it my dear companion—ah, that same dearest one with whom speaking all so briefly was my raison d’être—today, completely lost to the eternal silence, weighed down by heavy stones, hapless he lies. The flood of memories of days gone by created a restlessness in me. Grief stole my sense of time, so I stayed awhile, having conversations with those who have been torn from me forever—but—
But today was not my lucky day. It seemed each and every one of them was rapt in an all-consuming raga. It seemed to me that this earth full of emotion that had hidden within it thousands of poets, world-renowned and courageous warriors, famous critics, selfless doctors, robbers and highwaymen, was softly singing a song woven of their benevolent and base deeds alike. The ears of my being were not, however, keen enough to ascertain the true meaning of the song.
Projections of memories played on my mind, showing the faces of those who had been present in my life many a day and night, whom Fate had decided that the dark curtain of Death be drawn over, obscured from vision forever.
Just once, I longed to lay eyes on them, just once—this longing has weakened my heart, beating itself toward stillness and yet in becoming silent, still beating too. My whole being was restless to hear their voices just once, and thus desirous my being was sulking like a child crying and crying like a child sulking.
The time came for my spirit's exertions to cease. I heard not a voice, nor saw a face. I remained transfixed by the sight of the weighty gravestones defeated by the forceful hands of time.
Against the wide open blue of the sky, a kind of large, hot sun specific to the Eastern climes, the sun of Asia, was glittering fiercely. On the sorrowful old stones, the petals of a yellow rose were withering.
The words of Longfellow came to mind:
Life is real! Life is earnest!
And the grave is not its goal;
Dust thou art, to dust returnest,
Was not spoken of the soul.
("A Psalm of Life," 1839)
I walked off that part of the land, so triggering, and left the graveyard. Yes, this was the new year for the inhabitants of the world of Spirits.
At the Farber’s roundabout I could only see motorcars, trams, taxis, and vehicles of different widths and girths coming and going, making their journeys. They were like the fish in the oceans, restlessly seeking their food with each crashing wave.
In their cars people were going to the Farber’s horse tracks. They were getting in and getting out of the cars, pushing and shoving each other, seeing heaping golden piles of wealth dancing like sails in the wind. A lust for wealth creation—the ears of their souls familiar only with the clinking of coin.
Some of them were returning from Farber’s grounds. Others headed there. The fortunate ones kept their bags close—Fate had decided that their once-empty bags would be made heavy. But there were others who wept into their bags, which were initially weighty before Fate decided to lighten them.
I stood to one side, lost in a rapture of my own. Completely silent. Yes, I appeared completely mad observing this activity of the human race for a while. So this is what the new year of those who worship this life looks like!
I was able to extricate myself from the rushing waves of the ocean of people and arrive safely at Hashkal-O-Langton. There I was disturbed by the sounds of the military bugles both harmonious and depressing. A cavalcade of black horses pulled a black hearse carrying the body of a hopeful young soldier toward the cemetery. Mourners in funereal garb walked solemnly alongside the hearse, speaking of religious matters. It appeared they were all patiently trying to understand the ways of the Divine. Who is this object of such great jealousy, forced on the first new day of the new year to seek out a new world? I inquire of the vast skies: What soul would want such a thing?
Yes, this is what the new year of a brave warrior looks like.
Farther on, in a dark, tight passageway flanked by the street in front of the Harrison Hotel, I saw a fakir affected by leprosy, wrapped in dust and dirt. I observed how hundreds of cars, fine women and men, went by him. Not one person felt moved. Not one person thought to hold the hand of this wretched human.
Engrossed in the new delights of the first evening of a new year—was it not possible to pause for a few breaths and contemplate this human life rendered helpless, undeserving of such a fate—the moment they did give him was to nurse their own revulsion and express their scorn—this cursed world, treacherous world—what if it was me—what if I was to go to a friend in the same state as the fakir and my friend refused to hold my hand, moved away from me—
This, then, is the new year for a leper.
I walked on, finding again the ocean of people with its breaking waves near the Rapan Buildings—I saw young men and women on this evening of the new year, dressed in frocks and shawls, expensive coats, garish neckties, full of good cheer and worldly wishes. I questioned the Creator. Is this world of Adam and Eve really, truly brimming with delights and wonder? And if so, then what a grand thing this is.
I continued my observations. Some of their faces were radiant like the moon, blush and white like roses and sugar. But I could see their cores were hardened like the ground and blackened as the darkness of night. I sensed there was no compassion for their fellow humans in anyone’s heart. They sat in the grandest shops on the most expensive chairs with their friends—friends of great stature and untold wealth whose teacups and finest bottles of alcohol they were taking advantage of.
This, then, was their new year.
Thackeray came to mind:
“Such people do live and thrive in this world . . . those who are disloyal and treacherous and of whom you can have no expectation of goodness. . . . Come friend, let’s go on the offensive with all our strength, against these people.”
Evening had fallen and I returned to my house. In my library, on the table, an oil lamp was lit in a sky-blue magic lantern, flickering like the life of an ailing person. My emotions were unreliable and the events of the day had left me disturbed and restless.
This evening, Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the philosophies of Aristotle alike filled me with ennui. Even the fine wine of Omar Khayyam was not compelling.
I moved away from the pile of books on the table. I felt repelled by these thick, fleshy stacks in which the waves of knowledge and application crashed—because there was nothing written in any of them that would teach humankind, hapless humankind, how to be compassionate. There were novels of romance and beauty, the latest innovations in the sciences, slender volumes of philosophy, all useless, meaningless—there was no prescription or way to make one person a true ally of another—
I dragged a chair over to the window and sat down. In the distance, behind the branches of the henna shrubs, the first sun of the new year was taking its last breath. I heard the spirit of Omar Khayyam speaking to me on the winds:
“The New Year brings memories of the past back to life and our spirit cannot help but fly toward those bygone days.”
This was my new year.
The translator acknowledges the vast contribution made to the Urdu language by the resource Rekhta. The manuscript Khalwat Ki Anjuman (The company of silence), one of the few copies available, is a rare text from 1936, digitized by Rekhta and published by Dar-al-Sha'at, Punjab, Lahore.
From Khalwat Ki Anjuman. By arrangement with the estate of Hijab Imtiaz. Translation © 2020 by Sascha Akhtar. All rights reserved.