Even though it is not yet daybreak, the dawn-like translucence of the
fallen snow enables him to see clearly the person walking on the road up
there, and he decides that it is someone on his way to the mosque for
the day's first prayer.
Or it could be Queen Elizabeth II. Shamas smiles, in spite of himself.
Once, marvelling at the prosperity of England, a visitor from Pakistan
had remarked that it was almost as though the Queen disguised herself
every night and went out into the streets of her country to find out
personally what her subjects most needed and desired in life, so she
could arrange for their wishes to come true the next day; it was what
the caliph Harun al-Rashid was said to have done according to the tales
of the Thousand and One Nights, with the result that his perfumed
Baghdad became the most easeful and prosperous place imaginable.
Perspective tricks the eyes and makes the snowflakes falling in the far
distance appear as though they are falling slower than those nearby, and
he stands in the open door with an arm stretched out to receive the
small light pieces on his hand. A habit as old as his arrival in this
country; he has always greeted the season's first snow in this manner,
the flakes losing their whiteness on the palm of his hand to become
clear wafers of ice before melting to watercrystals of snow transformed
into a monsoon raindrop. Among the innumerable other losses, to come to
England was to lose a season, because, in the part of Pakistan that he
is from, there are five seasons in a year, not four, the schoolchildren
learning their names and sequence through classroom chants: Mausam-e-Sarma, Bahar, Mausam-e-Garma, Barsat, Khizan. Winter, Spring,
Summer, Monsoon, Autumn.
The snow falls and, yes, the hand stretched into the flakes' path is a
hand asking back a season now lost.
The person on the hill is indeed a woman and, whoever she is, she has
left the high shelf of the road and is coming down the side-street
towards him, one arm carrying an umbrella, the other steadying her
descent by holding on to the field maples growing at regular intervals
along the edges of the inclining street. With that umbrella she is a
riddle personified: the solution being a foetus attached to a placenta
by the umbilical cord. She would soon be near and would no doubt
consider him lacking good judgement: a man of almost sixty-five years
standing here with his hand thrust into the path of the snowand so he
withdraws into the house.
The front door opens directly into the kitchen. One blue, one strawberry
pink, one the yellow of certain Leningrad exteriors: these were the
colours of the three rooms in the olive-green house in Sohni Dhartithe
small place in Pakistan where he was born and had lived permanently
until his mid-twentiesand a few years ago, by mixing ground-up chalk
and rabbit-skin glue with the appropriate pigments, he had painted the
rooms in this house with those three colours, surprising himself by
reproducing the three shades precisely. It's almost as though when he
stood facing a corner as a child during a game of hide-and-seek, it was
for the sole purpose of committing its colour to memory, to be able to
conjure it up in the years of exile and banishment.
During the school holidays he would approach the bookcase in the pink
room and stand before it, his hand alighting on this or that volume with
the arbitrariness of a moth, half deciding on something before sliding
it back in place and moving on, as though experimenting with the keys of
a piano, all briefly opened books eager to engage his eye, each
flickeringly glimpsed paragraph enticing him hurriedly with its secret,
and having made his choice he would drift through the house in search of
the coolest spot to read through the long summer afternoons that had a
touch of eternity to them, altering the arrangement of his limbs as much
for comfort as for the fear that his undisturbed shadow would leave a
stain on the wall.
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