The atmosphere is heavy with the smell of rotting corpses, rust and petrol. A beat-up old Rolls Royce, almost on the verge of collapse with a small Union Jack flag on its bonnet, carries the burden of conjoined twins that insist on being driven to the Promised Land creaking and moaning under the weight of their dreams. The fraternal conjoined twins are a sight- the smaller, weaker twin gives the impression that his enthusiasm for the road-trip is the only thing keeping his soul and body intact while the bigger, healthier brother smirks on.
“The belligerent, misguided zealot and his lofty plans!” the stronger brother snickers.
“I’ve sucked the life out of him anyway and now he wants OUT?” he chuckles.
The road is bumpy: it is confusing and misguiding like a labyrinth. A tussle ensues between the twins for a cashmere sweater that isn’t big enough to accommodate two distinctly different individuals fused together. It is made for only one but they continue to pull at the opposite ends. The petty skirmish is now becoming a show of brute force. They hurl verbal assaults at each other. They lay their individual claims on the ownership of the sweater- “mine because it was given to me”, “mine because it is me”. The sweater is an inanimate and even if it weren’t, its opinion wouldn’t matter.
“Are we there?” they chorus amidst the frantic tug-of-war.
“No, but let me congratulate you on coming this far,” says the driver with ill-disguised sarcasm.
They tire of the scuffle eventually and fall back into their seats only to have their minds focused on an ambulance that is diminishing in size as they continue to travel in the opposite direction.
“Wonder why it is going the wrong way,” says the smaller one.
“Oh, it’s not going anywhere. We’re just moving ahead,” is the driver’s response.
Outside the car window, the world appears to be changing into a darker, murkier place. A change that could alternatively be attributed to the dust collecting on the glass- the vision is blurry and obscured. Yet between the vague outlook and the rattling motion of the car, he can spot a procession- or is it a funeral?
“To Allah we belong and to Him we shall return”, mutters the weaker twin in a voice overcome with grief. He had seen this coming. Daddy had too many cigarettes and he stayed up most nights. He worked, worked and worked till he was no more.
“They say if you meet a coffin-laden hearse on your journey, the coffin will take away all your bad luck, leaving you only with your good fortune,” smiles his brother.
Army barracks and camps border the path. The grass appears to be green and lush- it goes on for acres but much like blemishes, brown men dot the heavenly site. It is anomalous for them in such a setting to be standing with begging bowls, lined up in front of a white man with sickly pale skin, a 5 o’clock shadow and a ski nose. With eyes closely guarded by bushy eyebrows, he assesses the men. They finally seem to convince him and the queue starts to move.
The siblings are at each other’s throats again but the white man waves his finger in disapproval. They shake hands and make up like good little children and look for entertainment in other avenues. An old, grey lady with a veil over her head passes by. Her silent piercing eyes speak volumes- she was wronged, she was bullied and she was killed. She moves her veil to show a few strangle marks to the concerned twin and laughs as the impressions disappear.
“First they came for your dad, then for me. Wait till they come for you,” she mouths. Disturbed and disgusted by the scene, he averts his face.
“I heard you have to eat grass to make nukes,” the weaker twin mutters while trying to erase the grim words of the old lady.
“Talk about yourself,” shrugs the other.
“Are we there now?” asks the disgruntled twin growing weaker by the minute.
“Ah, not quite,” replies the driver.
“A glass of scotch ought to fix you up. Besides it will earn you a favor with the King,” jeers the driver.
“I don’t know. I love my religion but I like scotch,” replies the twin.
Outside, the world is changing once again. People shout slogans and storm government buildings. The car can barely move, there is no space on the roads- hungry, unclothed, homeless, dangerous people take to the streets, flocking like moths to a flame that promises release. The chant “idher hum, udhar tum” echoes through the air. People cry and beat their chests in frustration. The flame doesn’t last too long either. As the car drives forward, the glorious flame is seen to be reduced to an iota of what it once was.
The path ahead leads to a desert; the car has been missing the Union Jack all along and is struggling to stay intact. As was expected, it heats up and gives way. Luckily, there is a camel to tow it to. The driver manages to have it attached to the animal and keep it in motion. The wind is dry and the sun is beating down on the habitants of the desert that roam around the vast plains in Arabian robes. Some sit on the sidelines and help themselves to numbing potions, others armed with weapons protect their kind.
“It feels like millenniums have passed. Are we still not there?” inquires the dejected twin.
“Still an uphill battle,” answers the driver as he puts on a naat on the radio.
“I don’t remember the last time I heard a woman’s voice singing on the radio. It’s strange. In fact where are all the women?” the disappointed twin asks.
“Well, there’s one and she has Indiana Jones with her,” the chauffer points out. A woman with a short feathered hair-cut, an aristocratic nose and prominent cheekbones draws a veil over her head- the vibe is more of Parisian chic than that of the quintessential Muslimah. A glittering diamond necklace hangs around her neck. Indy dons iconic aviators and carries a hunting rifle. Fact is stranger than fiction they say. That’s true especially if you have fictional characters walking amongst you. The car, in the meantime, seems to have recovered its lost strength after the sudden death of the camel and screeches loudly in rebellion as it turns around a corner.
“Oh, hang on tight, this is as sharp as they get,” warns the driver.
The dejected twin looks out of the window and watches fireworks across the sky. Nukes, he corrects himself as the bitter taste of grass bites back. Businessmen drive by in SUVs with Rolex watches hanging from their wrists. He has never seen so many flyover bridges in his life. What land is this? What year is this?
Suddenly, he notices that he has been alone in the backseat all this time. Where is his other half? How did it get away? In fact, when did it get away? And that too, leaving behind a small piece of the cashmere sweater. How will that keep him warm in the winter? He can cry and whine all he wants but it is never coming back. It is quite possible that he imagined himself always being a conjoined twin in the first place, he thinks.
Moreover, he has been lost in deep thought too long to notice that he has passed by the same places over and over again. Last time he remembers, he had been distracted by an airplane that had altered its course. At least that was what the people on the radio were saying. The transmission had been interrupted by a speech. He thought long and hard about the content of the speech but he could not recall it. Maybe it wasn’t that important, maybe it was nothing extraordinary, maybe it was just routine.
His mind seemed to recognize the place that he was approaching. Somewhere in his subconscious, he had kept a picture of the army barracks and camps. Maybe he had even idealized it at some point. But lately, his memory had been reduced to a bunch of maybes strung together with him oscillating between extreme possibilities. His reflection is another disappointing tale- ironic, with frown lines etched deeply into a face with somewhat youthful features.
He looks away from the rear-view mirror, unable to come to terms with aging as most of us are and diverts his attention to a swarthy shepherd commanding a flock of sheep. The scene is somehow aesthetically displeasing, he cannot watch any longer. Besides, he is old and frail now with a weak heart and a failing memory.
Realization hits him when the driver asks him to brace himself for another turn. Feeling a burst of youthful energy and vigor return to him, he gathers the strength to question.
“But we’re going round and round in circles,” he protests.
“How are we going to get ANYWHERE like this?” he argues.
The car skids to a stop.
“Why don’t you leave? Who’s stopping you?” replies the irritated chauffeur.
“But I thought…” he mews.
“Don’t think,” the driver replies in a clipped tone.
By Abid Basheer