I can never explain this darkness; it is a living breathing thing that leaps at you around corners and suddenly falls off the edges of roofs and walks into forests where it becomes so deep that you wonder if your eyes have closed without you realising it.
We shuffle together in our three-person jamaat following the imam in the men’ section below, straining to hear through the floorboards. When my head touches the dusty carpet in sajdah I remind myself to be grateful, to be grateful, to be grateful. You are here, I tell myself, over and over. This is real. Remember this, I say, always fearful for my memory. Remember how this feels, remember how you came to this mountain despite all odds, remember that you can be brave, that you can be strong, that you can endure.
Even while sitting here, in this darkened mosque amongst the sawdust, I still don’t believe it. (Years later I will still dream about this place, dreaming in my dream that it is not a dream. The constant dreams make it difficult for me to distinguish between reality and dreams until I almost convince myself that I was never actually here).
After salaat we each find our own space to pray privately and afterward I move to the north window looking up to the hill of Bhatpura. It is my favourite part of the post-prayer process. Above the hill the sky is spread out with stars; a glorious display that fills the skies like diamond dust. Here is my creator. Displaying this splendour, this acknowledgement of His existence, His mercy and His beauty. Amongst all the sights I have seen in my life, this is one of the most beautiful. I look up at this sky; that wide open mouth to the heavens filled with galaxies and stars and planets and worlds and I know that anything is possible. I remember my blessings. I remember my family – far, far away from here. I remember the way my father smiles; that lowering of his head and the way his lips rise up in that sympathetic and kind manner. My mother; her true smile a flower that briefly blooms into a glorious rose before she controls it quietly. I remember my hurts, I run my hands over the bones of them and step quietly through the shadows. I talk to God.
Perhaps Saleem uncle was right – as we rode our horses up a few months earleir he pointed to the village on a distant peak and said, ‘The higher we go, the closer we are to God.’
I laughed then, but now I think it’s true.
Through the tall corn fields below a man is walking, shining a torch and listening to what sounds like an old Indian song on his phone. He’s returning home after maghrib; there’s more men at the mosque now since Molvi told the women to encourage their husbands to come more regularly. The music becomes faint and soon the bobbing light becomes a distant dot on the dark hill. The machaan is empty tonight, perhaps later someone will climb up to whistle and clap to ward off the bears.
But right now it is silent.
And it is the silence, I can never truly explain. Almost like the roaring silence of 3 am in desert countries, but not quite, because whilst the silence is overwhelming, there is no undertone to it. It is an absolute stillness, only occasionally broken by a grunting animal or a strange unidentifiable cry. The silence is like water here; tangible, necessary and calming (later, when I return the noise will be unbearable for the first few days).
I move away from the bare window frame; already it is getting cold. The weather is changing, autumn is picking up its pace and running along now. The leaves are falling.
We file down the rickety wooden stairs, under the tall chinar tree with the big djinn, following the light of the lamp through the muddy lane, past the new volunteer quarters, past the stables where Jala the bull occasionally bellows, through the gate, past Mother India with her chicks sleeping behind their door and up the stairs into the house.
On the way I keep trying to look up at the stars and I stumble on the path as I lose the line of light.
This is real, I say to myself. This is real.
You are here.