The Wagon

Translated from Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon

Khalida Asghar was born in Lahore in 1938. She started writing fiction in 1963. After half a dozen highly acclaimed short stories, she dropped out of the Urdu literary world altogether, and staged a stunning comeback after a twelve-year silence in 1977. She has published half a dozen collections of her stories, some of which have been translated into English and Hindi. She has taught in several Pakistani universities. “The Wagon,” which is among her earliest stories, is still regarded as her crowning achievement. Be sure to also check out our editorial about “The Wagon,” Asghar, and Urdu fiction.

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In a rush to get back to the city, I quickly crossed the dirt road and walked onto the Ravi Bridge, looking indifferently at the blazing edge of the sun steadily falling into the marsh. I had a strange feeling, as though I had seen something. I spun around. There they were, all three of them, leaning over the guardrails and gazing straight into the sunset. Their deathly concentration made me look at the sunset myself, but I found nothing extraordinary in the scene; so I looked back at them instead. Their faces, though not at all similar, looked curiously alike. Their outfits suggested that they were well-to-do villagers, and their dust coated shoes, that they had trudged for miles just to watch the sun as it set over the marshes of the receding Ravi. Impervious to the traffic on the bridge, they continued to stare at the marshes which were turning a dull, deep red in the sun’s last glow.

I edged closer to them. The sun had gone down completely now; only a dark red stripe remained on the far horizon. Suddenly the three looked at each other, lowered their heads, and silently walked away, toward the villages outside the city. For some time I stood watching their tired figures recede into the distance. Soon the night sounds coming to life in the city reminded me that it was getting rather late and I’d better rush home. I quickened my pace and walked on under the blue haze of the night sky, pierced here and there by the blinking lights of the city ahead.

The next evening when I reached the bridge, the sunset was a few minutes away. I suddenly recalled the three men and stopped to watch the sunset, even though I knew Munna would be waiting on the front porch for sweets and Zakiya, my wife, would be ready for us to go to the movies. I couldn’t budge. An inexorable force seemed to have bound me to the ground. Through almost all the previous night I’d wondered what it was about the marsh and the sunset that had engrossed those strange men so entirely.

And then, just as the blazing orange disc of the sun tumbled into the marsh, I saw the three walk up the road. They were coming from villages outside the city limits. They wore identical clothes and resembled each other a lot in their height and gait. Again they walked up to the bridge, stood at the same spot they had the previous evening and peered into the sunset with their flaming eyes, filled with a mute sadness. I watched them and wondered why, despite their diverse features, they looked so alike. One of them, who was very old, had a long, bushy snow-white beard. The second, somewhat lighter in complexion than the others, had a face that shone like gold in the orange glow of the sunset. His hair hung down to his shoulders like a fringe, and he had a scar on his forehead. The third was dark and snub-nosed.

The sun sank all the way into the marsh. As on the previous day, the men glanced at each other, let their heads drop and, without exchanging a word, went their way. That evening I felt terribly ill at ease. In a way I regretted not asking them about their fascination with the sunset. What could they be looking for in the sun’s fading light—I wondered. I told Zakiya about the strange threesome. She just laughed and said, “Must be peasants, on their way to the city to have a good time.”

An air of mystery surrounded these men. Zakiya, of course, couldn’t have known it. One really had to look at them to appreciate it.

The next day I waited impatiently for the evening. I walked to the bridge, expecting them to show up. And they did, just as daylight was ebbing away. They leaned over the bridge and watched the sun go down, indifferent to the traffic around them. Their absorption in the scene made it impossible to talk to them. I waited until the sun had gone down completely and the men had started to return. This would be the time to ask them what it was they expected to find in the vanishing sun and the marshes of the receding river.

When the sun had sunk all the way, the men gave one another a sad, mute look, lowered their heads and started off. But, instead of returning to the village, they took the road to the city. Their shoes were covered with dust and their feet moved on rhythmically together.

I gathered my fading courage and asked them, “Brothers! what village do you come from?”

The man with the snub nose turned around and stared at me for a while. Then the three exchanged glances, but none of them bothered to answer my question.

“What do you see over there, on the bridge?” I asked. The mystery about the three men was beginning to weigh heavily on me now. I felt as though molten lead had seeped into my legs—indeed into my whole body, and that it was only a matter of time before I would crumble to the ground reeling from a spell of dizziness.

Again they did not answer. I shouted at them in a choking voice, “Why are you always staring at the sunset?”

No answer.

We reached the heavily congested city road. The evening sounds grew closer. It was late October, and the air felt pleasantly cool. The sweet scent of jasmine wafted in, borne on the breeze. As we passed the octroi post, the old man with snow-white hair suddenly spoke, “Didn’t you see? Has nobody in the city seen?”

“Seen what?”

“When the sun sets, when it goes down all the way?” asked the hoary old man, rearranging his mantle over his shoulders.

“When the sun goes down all the way?” I repeated. “What about it? That happens every day.”

I said that very quickly, afraid that the slightest pause might force them back into their impenetrable silence.

“We knew that, we knew it would be that way. That’s why we came. That other village, there, too.” He pointed toward the east and lowered his head.

“From there we come . . .” said the snub-nosed man.

“From where?” I asked, growing impatient. “Please tell me clearly.”

The third man peered back at me over his shoulder. The scar on his forehead suddenly seemed deeper than before. He said, “We didn’t notice, nor, I believe, did you. Perhaps nobody did, because, as you say, the sun rises and sets every day. Why bother to look? And we didn’t, when day after day, there, over there,” he pointed to the east, “the sky became blood red and so bright it blazed like fire even at nightfall. We just failed to notice . . .” He stopped abruptly, as if choking over his words. “And now this redness,” he resumed after a pause, “it keeps spreading from place to place. I’d never seen such a phenomenon before. Nor had my elders. Nor, I believe, did they hear their elders mention anything quite like this ever happening.”

Meanwhile, the darkness had deepened. All I could see of my companions were their white flowing robes; their faces became visible only when they came directly under the pale, dim light of the lampposts. I turned around to look at the stretch of sky over the distant Ravi. I was stunned: it was glowing red despite the darkness.

“You are right,” I said, to hide my puzzlement, “we really did fail to notice that.” Then I asked, “Where are you going?”

“To the city, of course. What would be the point of arriving there afterwards?”

A sudden impulse made me want to stay with them, or to take them home with me. But abruptly, they headed off on another road, and I remembered I was expected home soon. Munna would be waiting on the front porch for his daily sweets and Zakiya must be feeling irritated by my delay.

The next day I stopped at the bridge again to watch the sunset. I was hoping to see those three men. The sun went down completely, but they didn’t appear. I waited impatiently for them to show up. Soon, however, I was entranced by the last magical glow of the sunset.

The entire sky seemed covered with a sheet soaked in blood, and it scared me that I was standing all alone underneath it. I felt an uncanny presence directly behind me. I spun around. There was nobody. I was wrong. I couldn’t have looked behind my back. How can anyone? All the same, I felt sure there was someone, standing behind me, within me or, perhaps, somewhere near.

Vehicles of all shapes and sizes rumbled along in the light of the street-lamps. Way back in the east, a stretch of evening sky still blazed like a winding sheet of fire, radiating heat and light far into the closing darkness. I was alarmed and hurried home. Hastily I told Zakiya all I’d seen. But she laughed off the whole thing. I took her up to the balcony and showed her the red and its infernal bright glow against the dark night sky. That sobered her up a little. She thought for a while, then remarked, “We’re going to have a storm any minute, I’m sure.”

The next day in the office, as I worked, bent over my files, I heard Mujibullah ask Hafiz Ahmad, “Say, did you see how the sky glows at sunset these days? Even after it gets dark? Amazing, isn’t it?”

All at once I felt I was standing alone and defenseless under that blood-sheet of a sky. I was frightened. Small drops of sweat formed on my forehead. As the evening edged closer, a strange restlessness took hold of me. The receding Ravi, the bridge, the night sky, and the sun frightened me; I just wanted to walk away from them. And yet, I also felt irresistibly drawn toward them.

I wanted to tell my colleagues about the three peasants who, in spite of their distinctly individual faces, somehow looked alike; about how they had come to the city accompanying this strange redness, had drawn my attention to it, and then dropped out of sight; and about how I’d searched in vain for them everywhere. But I couldn’t. Mujibullah and Hafiz Ahmad, my colleagues, had each borrowed about twenty rupees from me some time ago, which they had conveniently forgotten to return. And, into the bargain, they had stopped talking to me, too.

On my way home, when I reached the bridge, a strange fear made me walk briskly, look away from the sun, and try to concentrate instead on the street before me. But the blood red evening kept coming right along. I could feel its presence everywhere. A flock of birds flew overhead in a ‘V’ formation. Like the birds, I too was returning home. Home, yes, but no longer my haven against the outside world; for the flame-colored evening came pouring in from its windows, doors, even through its walls of solid brick.

I now wandered late in the streets, looking for the three peasants. I wanted to ask them where that red came from. What was to follow? Why did they leave the last settlement? What shape was it in? But I couldn’t find them anywhere. Nobody seemed to care. Life moved on as usual.

A few days later I saw some men pointing up to the unusual red color of the evening. Before long, the whole city was talking about it. I hadn’t told a soul except Zakiya. How they had found out about it was a puzzle to me. Those three peasants must be in the city, I concluded. They have to be.

The red of the evening had now become the talk of the town.

Chaudhri Sahib, who owned a small bookshop in Mozang Plaza, was an old acquaintance of mine. People got together at his shop for a chat every evening. So did I, regularly. But for some time now, since my first encounter with those mantle-wrapped oracular figures, I had been too preoccupied with my own thoughts to go there. No matter where I went, home or outside, I felt restless. At home, an inexorable urge drove me outdoors; outdoors, an equally strong urge sent me scrambling back home, where I felt comparatively safe. I became very confused about where I wanted to be. I began to feel heavy and listless.

All the same, I did go back to the bookshop once again that evening. Most of the regulars had already gathered. Chaudhri Sahib asked, “What do you think about it, fellows? Is it all due to the atomic explosions, as they say? Rumor also has it that pretty soon the earth’s cold regions will turn hot and the hot ones cold, and the cycle of seasons will be upset.”

I wanted to tell them about my encounter with the three villagers but felt too shy to talk before so many people. Just then that ominous moment arrived:

A pungent smell, the likes of which I’d never smelled before, wafted in from God knows where. My heart sank and a strange, sweet sort of pain stabbed at my body. I felt nauseous, unable to decide whether it was a stench, a pungent aroma, or even a wave of bitter-sweet pain. I threw the newspaper down and got up to leave.

“What’s the matter?” asked Chaudhri Sahib.

“I must go. God knows what sort of smell that is.”

“Smell? What smell?” Chaudhri Sahib sniffed the air.

I didn’t care to reply and walked away. That offensive smell, the terrifying wave of pain, followed me all the way home. It made me giddy. I thought I might fall any minute.

My condition frightened Zakiya, who asked, “What’s the matter? You look so pale.”

“I’m all right. God knows what that smell is.” I said, wiping the sweat off my brow, even though it was November.

Zakiya also sniffed the air, then said, “Must be coming from the house of Hakim Sahib. Heaven knows what strange herb concoctions they keep brewing day and night. Or else it’s from burnt food. I burnt some today accidentally.”

“But it seems to be everywhere—in every street and lane, throughout the city.”

“Why, of course. The season’s changed. It must be the smell of winter flowers,” she said inattentively, and became absorbed in her knitting.

With great trepidation I sniffed the air again, but couldn’t decide whether the sickening odor still lingered on or had dissipated. Perhaps it had subsided. The thought relieved me a bit. But there was no escape from its memory, which remained fresh in my mind, like the itching that continues for some time even after the wound has healed. The very thought that it might return gave me the chills.

By the next morning I’d forgotten all about that rotten, suffocating smell. In the office, I found a mountain of files waiting for me. But Mujibullah and Hafiz Ahmad were noisily discussing some movie. I couldn’t concentrate on the work and felt irritated, so I decided to take a break. I called our office boy and sent him to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. Meanwhile I pulled out a pack of cigarettes from my pocket and lit up.

Just then I felt a cracking blow on my head, as if I had fallen off a cliff and landed on my head, which fused everything before my eyes in a swirling blue and yellow stream. It took my numbed senses some time to realize that I was being assaulted once again by the same pain, the same terrible stench. It kept coming at me in waves, and it was impossible to know its source. I found myself frantically shutting every window in the office, while both Mujibullah and Hafiz Ahmad gawked at me uncomprehendingly.

“Let the sun in! Why are you closing the windows?” Hafiz Ahmad asked me.

“The stench, the stench! My God, it’s unbearable! Don’t you smell it?”

Both of them raised their noses to the air and sniffed. Then Hafiz Ahmad remarked, “That’s right! What sort of stench . . . or fragrance is that? It makes my heart sink.”

Soon, many people were talking about the waves of stench that came in quick succession and then receded, only to renew their assault a little while later. At sundown they became especially unbearable.

Within a few weeks the odor had become so oppressive that I often found it difficult to breathe. People’s faces, usually lively and fresh, now looked drained and wilted. Many complained of constant palpitation and headaches. The doctors cashed in. Intellectuals hypothesized that it must be due to nuclear blasts, which were producing strange effects throughout the world, including this foul odor in our city, which attacked peoples’ nerves and left them in a mess. People scrambled to buy tranquilizers, which quickly sold out. Not that the supply was inadequate, but a sudden frenzy to stock up and horde had seized people. Even sleeping pills fetched the price of rare diamonds.

I found both tranquilizers and sleeping pills useless. The stench cut sharper than a sword and penetrated the body like a dagger. The only way to guard against it was to get used to it, I thought; and people would do well to remember that. But I was too depressed to tell them myself. Within a few weeks, however, they themselves came to live with the stench.

Just the same, the odor struck terror in the city. People were loath to admit it, but they could not have looked more tense: their faces contorted from the fear of some terrible thing happening at any moment. Nor was their fear unreasonable, as a subsequent event showed a few weeks later.

On a cold evening in mid-December, I was returning home from Chaudhri Sahib’s. The street was full of traffic and jostling crowds. The stores glittered with bright lights, and people went about their business as usual. Every now and then a wave of stench swept in, made me giddy, and receded. I would freeze in my stride the instant it assailed my senses and would start moving again as soon as it had subsided. It was the same with others. An outsider would surely have wondered why we suddenly froze, closed our eyes, stopped breathing, then took a deep breath, and got started again. But that was our custom now.

That December evening I’d just walked the bridge when I felt as if a lance had hit me on the head. My head whirled and my legs buckled. Reeling, I clung to a lamppost and tried to support my head with my hands. There was no lance, nor was there a hand to wield it. It was that smell—that same rotten smell—I realized with terror. In fact, it seemed that the source of the oppressive stench had suddenly moved very close to me, between my shoulder blades, near my back, immediately behind me—so close that it was impossible to think of it as separate from me.

It was then that my eyes fell on the strange carriage, rambling along in front of me. It was an oversized wagon pulled by a pair of scrawny white oxen with leather blinders over their eyes and thick ropes strung through their steaming nostrils. A ribbed wooden cage sat atop the base of the wagon, its interior hidden behind black curtains. Or were they just swaying walls of darkness?

Two men, sitting outside the cage enclosure in the front of the wagon, drove the two emaciated animals. I couldn’t make out their faces, partly because of the darkness, but partly also because they were buried in folds of cloth thrown loosely around them. Their heads drooped forward and they seemed to have dozed off, as if overcome by fatigue and sleep.

Behind them the interior of the curtained wagon swelled with darkness, and from the heart of that darkness emanated the nauseating stench that cut sharper than a sword. Before I knew it, the wagon had moved past me, flooding my senses with its cargo of stench. My head swirled. I jumped off the main road onto the dirt sidewalk and threw up.

I had no idea whether the people in the city had also seen the eerie wagon. If they had, what must they have endured? I had the hardest time getting home after what I had seen. Once inside the house, I ran to my bed and threw myself on it. Zakiya kept asking me what had happened, but a blind terror sealed my lips.

A few days later a small news item appeared in the local papers. It railed against the local Municipal Office for allowing garbage carts to pass through busy streets in the evening. Not only did muck-wagons pollute the air, they also hurt the fine olfactory sense of the citizenry.

I took a whole week off from work. During those seven days, though hardly fit to go out and observe firsthand the plight of the city, I was nonetheless kept posted of developments by the local newspapers. Groups of concerned citizens demanded that the municipal authorities keep the city clear of muck-wagons or, if that was impossible, assign them routes along less busy streets.

On the seventh day I ventured out. A change was already visible. Wrecked by insomnia and exhaustion, people strained themselves to appear carefree and cheerful, but managed only to look painfully silly. Suddenly I recalled that in the morning I had myself looked no different in the mirror.

About this time, the number of entertainment programs and movies shot up as never before. People swarmed to the movie halls—often hours before a show—formed long lines, and patiently waited to be let in, only to file out later looking still more pale and ridiculous.

At the office, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t concentrate on my work. Intermittently, the image of the muck-wagon lumbering down the streets flashed across my mind. Was it really one of those municipal dump-carts? No. It couldn’t be. Municipal dump-carts never looked like that eerie wagon, with its sleepy drivers, a pair of blindfolded, bony oxen, black curtains and the outrageously nauseating smell. What on earth gives off such an odd smell, at once fragrant and foul?

An insane desire suddenly overwhelmed me: to rush up to the wagon, lift up those swaying curtains, and peek inside. I must discover the source of the stench!

Coming to the bridge, my feet involuntarily slowed down. There was still time before sunset and the waves of the pain-filled odor came faster and stronger. I leaned over the bridge, an unknown fear slowly rising in my throat. The bottomless swamp, its arms ominously outstretched, seemed to be dragging me down toward it. I was afraid I might jump into the swamp, sink with the sun and become buried forever in that sprawling sheet of blood.

I became aware of something approaching me—or was I myself drawing closer to something? Something awaited by all men, those before and those after us. My whole body felt as though it was turning into a piece of granite, with no escape from the bridge, the miasma, the sun. For now they all seemed inseparable from my being. Helplessly, I looked around and almost froze.

The three men were coming towards me from the direction of the countryside. As before, they were wrapped in their flowing white robes and walked with their identical gait. I kept staring at them with glassy eyes until they walked right up to me and stopped. The hoary old man was crying, and his snow-white beard was drenched with tears. The other two couldn’t look up; their eyes were lowered mournfully, their teeth clenched, and their faces withered by a deathly pallor.

“Where were you hiding all these days?” I said between gasps and stammers. “I searched for you everywhere. Tell me, please, what’s happening to the city?”

“We were waiting. Trying to hold ourselves back. We had tied ourselves with ropes. Here, look!” They spread their arms before me and bared their shoulders and backs, revealing the deep marks of the rope.

“We did not want to come,” the old man said, drowned out by a fit of sobs.

“But there was no choice,” the second man said. Before he had finished, he doubled over. His companions also doubled over, as if unable to control a sudden surge of pain. The same wave of pain-filled stench stabbed the air about us, cutting us into halves, flooding our senses as it scrambled past us.

“There! Look!” said the old man, pointing in the direction of the distant villages and turning deathly pale.

In the distance, I saw the wagon come up the road from behind a cloud of dust. The drowsing coachmen had wrapped their faces because of their proximity to the cutting stench.

A cold shiver ran up my spine. The eyes of the three men suddenly became dull. They were approaching their end, perhaps.

The wagon rumbled close—the stench from it draining the blood from our bodies—and then passed us. Its sinister, jet-black curtains, fluttering in the gentle breeze, appeared, oddly enough, entirely motionless.

The three men ran after the wagon, caught up with it and lifted the curtains. A split second later, a non-human scream burst from their gaping mouths. They spun around and bolted toward the distant fields.

“What was it? What did you see?” I called, running after them. But they did not reply and kept running madly. Their eyes had frozen in a glassy stare.

I followed them until we had left the city several miles behind us, then grabbed the old man’s robe and implored, “Tell me! Please tell me!”

He turned his deathly gaze toward me and threw open his mouth. His tongue had got stuck to his palate.

All three had become mute.

My head whirled, and I collapsed. The three men continued to run, soon disappearing in the distance behind a whirling cloud of dust. Slowly the dust settled and I returned home.

For months now I have searched in vain for those men. They have vanished without a trace. And the wagon—from that fateful evening, it too has changed its route. It no longer passes through the city. After crossing the bridge, it now descends onto the dirt trail leading to the villages in the countryside.

The city folk are no longer bothered by the cutting stench. They have become immune to it and think it has died, like an old, forgotten tale.

But it continues to torment my body, and day and night a voice keeps telling me, “Now, your turn! Now you shall see!” And this evening I find myself on the bridge, waiting for the wagon . . . waiting.

Muhammad Umar Memon (1939 — ) is a writer, translator, and Professor Emeritus of Urdu Literature and Arabic Studies at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He specializes in Urdu studies and literature and also edits The Annual of Urdu Studies. Memon was born in India but moved to Pakistan with his family in 1954. Memon attended Harvard University under a Fullbright scholarship and then obtained a PhD in Islamic Studies from UCLA. In 1970, he become professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he retired after 38 years. Muhammad Umar Memon has long been active in writing and translating fiction from Urdu.