I was called by the humans.
They had built their colonies beyond the city’s limits, far beyond its rim, as we knew. These were virgin stretches of land, unused until now. Recently, they had been bought, and begun to be developed.
They were to be turned into residences away from the city’s din. Their names sold this promise of new havens – Quiet Cottages, Paradise of Peace, Green Acres. They escaped the city’s noise and pollution, but also its life and pulse.
Behind closed gates, they ran like clockwork, with none of the leakages and dysfunction that choked the working of the real city. There were sprawling houses of several acres that far surpassed the needs of the inhabitants. There were often more caretakers and domestics in a house than dwellers.
The humans had called me because they had been having troubles. There were encroachers on their properties, invisible beings that disturbed their lives, and struck fear in their hearts.
Some said they heard footsteps all night long. Some heard the swings in their lawns creaking and sounds of children playing at midnight. Some said doors were bolted by invisible hands behind them. Some said their washing hanging out to dry in the sun was always thrown down and muddied, as if by design. The sprinklers in their lawns would suddenly go on at night, and an artificial rain watered the entire lawn unseen for hours until they would wake up and find the water tank emptied in the morning.
Doors closed softly and loudly all day long. Some corridors felt eerily cold, and even in mid-summer afternoons, people would feel shivers go down their spine when walking through these. Women, who were mostly home all day long, felt a presence in their bed next to them during afternoon naps, the weight of a person and the warmth of a presence. Some even said they saw impressions in beds and sofas, marks of unseen people sitting, then the shuffle of feet as they rose and walked.
Washerwomen who washed laundry outside on tiled yards would run in screaming that they had seen an apparition of a child casually at play, as if it was his own yard. They were both equally startled when they saw each other, then the child had looked at her menacingly and told her to get out of his home.
A driver banged a car in the driveway when he saw a group of unfamiliar women playing around the trees in the front yard. They had charged at him as he pulled into the driveway. He had panicked and banged straight into a pillar. When he came to his senses, no one could tell him about the strange women he claimed to have seen. People said their things were moved from their places all day long until they lost their minds. Over time, they noticed, they were always moved and put in the same places, according to a pattern.
‘Our pet dogs suddenly start barking in the middle of the night, fixated at one point in space. We rouse from our sleep, disturbed, vexed, and find nothing. Through one excuse or the other, they trouble us in our waking and sleeping moments.’
‘We don’t get fresh vegetables and fruit here, since this is very far from the city. We collectively paid some vegetable and fruit vendors a hefty sum to bring us fresh produce from the farms beyond the city. It was very expensive, but we did it for our kids. Every morning, the simple folk would come on donkey back with piles of fresh produce, and we would purchase to our heart’s content.’
‘They would return to the city happy, and come back the next day. Then one day, as they stood, the donkeys began to bray as if someone had sprayed invisible poison in the air around them. They flung themselves about, kicking the air and going around restlessly in circles, wrecking entire mountains of fresh produce. We appeased them with money for their loss. It happened every day for a week. Then they stopped coming.’
The basements of the houses were mostly studies, man caves or home theatres. Everyone was afraid to be alone there at night. Sometimes, in the middle of a movie, the lights would suddenly turn off, and they would hear someone angrily flip the switch. Sometimes, the screen would suddenly go black mid-film. Sometimes, they would hear screams in the background louder than the sound of the movie, which would stop as soon as they switched the movie off.
Cooks and kitchen help were angry. They protested that they were accused by their masters of stealing food and supplies, of feeding their own families with the supplies bought for the house. But they swore it wasn’t them. One cook who had come all the way from Nepal on a special visa and knew how to cook up a whole gamut of dishes from continental to European to baked goods, said he swore upon his family back in Nepal that many times, he would cook a cauldron full of meat curry or bake a row of casseroles, would go about his other business, return, and find everything emptied. He would have to start again from scratch. Before a party now, he would never leave the side of his dishes, and guarded them physically, while there were a million other things to be done before an event.
‘We cannot live in our own colonies in peace. The others, the unseen ones, encroach upon our properties and harass us. They meddle with our possessions, and our daily workings. They cause us to fight among ourselves. We will not cede our property to these nefarious intruders. We will not budge from our bastions. Rid us of the encroachers. Bring back peace to our colonies. ’
After listening to the humans, I went to the others.
They were legion in that wilderness in the evening. The sky was red shot with the blaze of the fading sun creeping under covers beyond the blue.
They had called me here, safe from the interruptions of humans. I could imagine humans terrified at the thought of traversing this barrenness on their own. It looked like a desert in the middle of habitation. Ten acres of land uncontaminated by man. The closest inhabited areas were miles away.
As I had begun to drive further away from the new colonies, the signs of civilization had begun to fade slowly, until I reached this urban desert. The billboards began to grow fewer; the signs of trade began to wane. I saw fewer and fewer of the small roadside shops for every need and desire – puncture shops, beauty shops, grocery stores, vegetable stalls. I saw fewer houses.
While driving down the road, there were constant reminders of human civilization on both sides of the road, like the bulwark of a garrison. They dominated the field of one’s vision and perception, so that after a while, one begins to believe that there is nothing more to this place, to any place, than humans.
Then slowly, very unexpectedly, the wall thins, as it were.
Further along, one begins to notice gaps, spaces through which one could see the fields or wilderness beyond, unmanned space without lines or limits, stretching so close and yet so far, like another dimension.
Then, all at once, the walls vanish.
It hits you then how precarious the illusion of civilization is, how compelling the illusion of human occupation. Even the road was patchy here. The only traffic that passed were trucks carrying supplies to the villages beyond, and smaller traffic that moved between the city and the villages on both ways. Since the highways and circular ring roads had been built through and around the city, the bulk of movement was borne by those arteries of trade. These smaller roads were freed up now, unburdened by the weight of man’s insatiable greed.
I cast a glance around, taking in the scene around me. The trees stood leafless, as if under the plague of a permanent autumn. Perhaps, leaves, greenery, and spring are just another human luxury, another human definition of things. These trees had craggy branches that looked like lightning bolts in reverse, shooting from the earth upwards into sky like hands of witches risen in curse or unholy prayer.
Cobwebs covered the trees like a festive net. A film of sand hovered permanently in the air. I tasted it in my nostrils while still in the car. I could feel its crunch upon my tongue now, and its sting in my eyes.
The rubble from the nearby cities had been dumped intermittently in the vast expanse, and the piles of debris that randomly punctuated the plot had everything from construction material and half-used buckets of paint to broken children’s toys and an abandoned toilet seat that stood in the centre, a throne for a king of some nameless kingdom of doom.
They were motley in their ranks, restless and agitated. The whole spectrum of beauty and ugliness, good and evil unfolded here in this gathering before my eyes. They had been waiting for long.
When I gave them the sign, they spoke up at once.
‘These lands you see’, his hand spanned a curve suggesting an unmeasured, immeasurable expanse, beyond imaginable constraints of space. These lands were ours since times unknown. Our ancestors lived here, proliferated here. Our legends and tales were set in the contours of this land, its green valleys, its high mountains, its wild vastness, and its soundless boundless deserts. It was our birthplace, our playground, and our cemetery.’
‘We always preferred to live in our own colonies, far away from humans. But they leave us no peace. Man is the worst beast of them all. He is greedy, arrogant, and irresponsible. He will devour all resources and leave nothing for another. He comes brandishing the banner of civilization, development, and urbanization, all a ruse to colonize the planet and annihilate all other orders of being. He is despicable.’
‘So what if we are invisible? So what if we look different? Visibility is a premise defined by man. We could just as well scorn him for his affliction to see and to be seen all the time, to exist only in the dimension of the five senses, rather, to lose himself in the prison of the five senses. To march in on a patch of land, build up boxes he calls by different names, boxes that to him are beautiful, and to us, wasteful, useless, unnecessary.’
‘Why do beings have to live in prisons? Beings should live free and unbound, like the elements. So man, this coward, hides in his boxes, and shuts himself off from nature, its beauty and its ravages. When a storm blows, the howling of the wind makes him cower behind his walls of brick. When lightning strikes, the blaze of its spark makes him blind as a fool.’
‘When he sets his mind to occupying a land, he maps it out, then follows the decree to the dot. Everything in his wake, he bulldozes, crushes, or eliminates. For his avenues and highways, he wiped from view everything lesser than his self-decreed purpose. Lesser humans, lesser habitations, lesser orders of being.’ ‘Lesser’ by his definition alone. ‘Lesser’ to his selfish, puny mind. ‘You see this abomination of a structure’, he gestured towards the periphery where the multi-million dollar ring road had been built around the city.’
‘You see this monstrosity; he strode over thousands of villages to build this monolith. Anyone who resisted was squashed or bailed out. There were acres and acres of unmarked graveyards only for animals that had to be exhumed so the space was cleared for this ‘urbanization miracle’. We know how to co-exist; we have co-existed with others for millennia now. We are simply another order of being among many others. We know our place. But man doesn’t. He cannot co-exist. He must rampage and rape. He must possess and dominate. What a self-righteous villain! What a hypocrite!’
The murmur of discontent among them had risen to a loud cry now. They were rousing from their postures of patient listeners with furrowed brows.’
‘Every year, what he calls the city expands a little further into our lands. Every year, he turns our free and wild wilderness into more cages and prisons. They grate our souls, those confines that he lives in, those boxes and towers of misery. Every year, he upsets our dwellings, our families and our children, and still, is never satisfied. He is always complaining, always asking for more. Never enough for him, never enough for his children. Like he alone matters. Like no one else matters. Simply because he refuses to see. Because he is blind in a prison of his own making.’
‘He walked in on us in the middle of our days and lives, cut crisscrossing paths of concrete through the very lands our children played in. This pristine wilderness where we live in leisure, he choked these with his brick boxes. He wrecked our abodes even as we lived there. Every time, we are forced to move back a little further, retreat a little more away from there, cede more land to him.’
‘Inch by inch, hectare by hectare, he pushed us away.’
‘Yes, some of us still live in our favourite zones where today, man has chiseled his lawns and his corridors. Our women still play among trees whose branches they have swung in since they were children. What do we care that they belong to these invaders according to a sheet of paper? We have the testimony of ages and the witness of time against his paltry paper proofs.’
‘The encroachers have upset us for too long. We will not relent. We will not abandon our limitless expanses to the tyranny of their civilization. Tell them we will stand strong in our homes that they have come to haunt.’
Naima Rashid is a writer and translator. Her first book, Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019) was a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her writings have appeared in Asymptote, The Scores, Poetry at Sangam, Wild Court, and other places. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Competition 2019. She is a collaborator with the translation collective, Shadow Heroes.