My boss really liked me. ‘Liked’ like in a very past tense. No, I did not ogle his wife and no, I did not escape with the company’s millions. I managed to earn his eternal displeasure when I accompanied him to a spiritual gathering of sorts as an intimate gesture of mentorship on his part.

The atmosphere was akin to an amateur unplugged sufi rock concert gone bad. Hey…..no……it is sheer blasphemy. You are not allowed to call a bunch of white clad, self hypnotized bearded men, oscillating their heads like grandfather clocks gone crazy, that. Not at least in Pakistan and not particularly in the local religious institution of a small locality without a clear desire for instant suicide. And there I was, bored and depressed…yes, but definitely not suicidal.

The beats of ‘Haq Hoo….Haq Hoo’ emerging from the throats of two mildly gyrating young boys transformed into a bit faster paced ‘Haq Haq Hoo…Haq Haq Hoo….’and managed to grab an appreciative glance from their enthroned chief. I nearly detected the more than passing reference to a currently popular Indian tune but immediately disregarded my suspicion as a wild flight of fantasy.

And who is that acting like the second coming of Christ, moving down my lane smiling benevolently and bestowing his unaware victims with sprinkles of a suspicious looking liquid from an even more dubious looking urn? My curiosity turned into anxiety and then downright panic. What if it is some kind of sedative and I wake up without the wallet in my pocket and only spirituality in my heart. Man, I am not falling for this deal. But by the time I decided to get up and escape, the man reached towards me and my absurd attempts to banish him resulted into an eyeful of pungently fragrant ittar. Hey…I am allergic to ittar. It reminds me of my father in law. But he was moving along victoriously, another hapless casualty in his pocket.

So is my mind playing tricks or was it something more than a simple ittar, as the chief really seemed to resemble Gandalf…Well he certainly looked like him in white flowing robes….without any magic of course.

An uncontrollable smile stole across the corner of my lips…and was instantly detected. My heart skipped a beat. ‘Aagay aayiye…’. Come forward. What now…? Mister…? You talking to me…? Are you really talking to me….? ‘Jee..!’..I felt like a boy of eight caught probing his nose. ‘Thinking of something interesting..? A joke may be?’ ‘I…was just….ummmmmm!’. I searched for long lost vocabulary amongst the jumbled play lists of the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Gandalf smiled with a typical superior twist to his lips. No offence but it was easier to call him that. Made him seem more friendly and far easier to digest. ‘You like the atmosphere?’ ‘Yeah…man…it is cool!’. Shit! ‘Yeah …I mean it is kinda cool…..what with the high architecture and the fans and the coolers.’ The twisted corners of his smiling lips assumed the beginning of a scowl and I hurriedly corrected myself. ‘Yeah…I mean the atmosphere is spiritually satisfying’. The scowl climbed back into the smile and I breathed a sigh of relief simultaneously cursing my boss for dragging me to this place. ‘Tou phir…aap ko zikar jaree hua?’ Hain jee….kiya jaree hua? The best possible answer to this riddle was a meek and safe ‘naheen jee…!’. ‘Koi baat nahin…no problem….abhi jaree kartey hain..!’. Okay….who was I to object amongst this crazy throng.

The answer to my humble submission was an index finger poking me in between the third and fourth ribs on the left side. ‘Hey….’. I tried to move back. ‘Aram sey bethain…Don’t move’ the once kind looking Gandalf transformed into Sauron and I froze. Soon the finger started vibrating like a mad tuning fork and the poking transformed into a drilling attempt which continued for another twenty seconds or so leaving behind a purplish scar which lasted even longer. ‘Kuch hua?’ Hey man, you just managed to dislocate my rib cage with the slight of hand and have the nerve of asking about the after effects. ‘Naheen jee..kuch naheen hua’. I managed to utter the unthinkable. Gandalf seemed highly perturbed. ‘Kuch tou hua hoga. Koi ehsaas?’ He seemed almost commercially pleading as his key followers were in the ear shot. I felt a gleeful vengeance boiling in my veins. ‘Naheen jee, I am sure. Kuch naheen hua. Bas dard hua hai’. That seemed to give him some satisfaction.

‘Pain is the beginning’, he sounded like an evangelist with a real bad hangover. Pain is the beginning? Of what? More pain?. ‘Pehley dard hota hai phir shifa milti hai’ (pain comes first and then comes salvation), he said reading the question in my eyes. I felt like sitting in the exalted presence of a resurrected Nostrademus as his retinue broke into a chorus of ‘Wah! Wah! Subhannallah!’. Yeah sure, my bruise ain’t going anywhere. ‘Kuch samjhay?’, he challenged me. ‘Jee samajh gaya…achee tarah!’, I humbly submitted. Who knew, a finger might have been followed by a complete punch carrying the full weight (about hundred kilograms) of the mighty chief. Plus, the gradually growing pressure of my boss’s elbow was nearly bestowing me with another purple stigmata. ‘Yeh parhe likhey log jaldbaz hotey hain…..sabar naheen kartey’, he added for the collective benefit of all.

After another half an hour of rib poking and beat making, the multitude stood up. Thanks God. It was the time to leave. But wait….the ritual was not over. It was actually time for the Chief to dispense with a few farewell hugs for only the blessed ones. I shifted a few feet back, just to allow the blessed ones to avail the opportunity. But no….lady luck was on the other side of a deep dark abyss, cruelly smiling upon my fate. It dawned upon me that being the new member of the club, I was…..yeah you probably guessed right……one of the blessed ones. ‘No’….., me and my poor battered rib cage cried in unison. But the chief’s adjutants pushed me into the lane of the sanctified.

After catching a few badly required gulps of ittar laden oxygen, I tried to look over the shoulders of the ones in front. Hey….what’s happening? And then I had the shock of my life. The first candidate, on embracing the chief, was thrown back over a distance of about six feet in a jarring move, like he hugged a live high tension short circuited pylon. Adding fuel to fire, the adjutants homed onto the apparently unconscious prey and started showering him with the same evil smelling ittar.

Now that was a purely rare once in a lifetime occurrence, I consoled my badly shaking nerves. But the treatment was repeated to the next in line and then to the next and suddenly it was my turn. By that time, the chief had turned into an axe wielding goblin and me into a complete nervous wreck with a serious pant wetting possibility in the making. The multitude threw me into the Chief’s waiting arms and I held onto his robes for dear life. The struggle continued for seemingly eons at length and would have made a spectacular camera shot for a Natgeo documentary. With a ripping noise, the giant managed to push me back with half of his torn robes clutched in my desperate fists. And then all hell broke loose and I felt safe in switching off the worldly lights at least temporarily.

Yet…here I am writing it down while sharing with you the common dimensions of existence. Actually, my fainting allowed the Chief to declare me publicly as the most blessed one and a quiet promise on part of my boss, never to bring me back, ensured my eviction from the holy premises in one piece.

That was my first and the last sojourn into the mysteries of spiritualism. Okay…not the last, but that story is for another day.

Shehryar Khawar

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