by Akhtar Mohiuddin
Translated by Mohammad Junaid
This last June, which I spent in Kashmir, I looked through some old Kashmiri texts in my parent’s tiny library–sadly the books are slowly being eaten away by insects–and found an old anthology of Kashmiri literature. While there were several remarkable pieces, essays, short stories and poems in the anthology, Akhtar Mohiuddin’s already famous _Maet Kath, stood out. It is perhaps rare to see such dexterous use of metaphor in Kashmiri literature. Mohiuddin’s evocative prose is social commentary, but it also raises certain existential questions that living and dying in Kashmir pose to all of us. The piece was written a long while ago–I am not sure, but perhaps in early 1980s or even earlier–but his metaphors and their proliferating meanings remain timeless, and continue to be relevant. I translated the text from Kashmiri to English (and this may not be the first such translation of the story, but I couldn’t find evidence of other translations), and with all the problems such efforts involve, I tried to keep my English close to Mohiuddin’s Kashmiri. In the end, all such efforts fail. My failure to translate the title of the story is just one example–there is hardly a figure in the West (now), who comes close to a Kashmiri Moat – sage? madman?–for all such figures are by now pathologized and seen as mental deviants, and ‘wise saying’ – which could have come close to the meaning of Maet Kath, remains too bound to the rational form. And as you will see the “maet kath” in the text is wisdom in an irrational form. I did translate the story anyways because I believe it must be more widely read.
There are mirrors, you know, pure at heart and with clean breasts. They show you what they see. And what we show them they will reflect the same thing back. But the mirror that I broke, its story is different.
It was in a barber’s shop. Right through the middle it had a crack. I feel even that was part of its treachery. Because of this crack I would feel pity for the mirror. But—it was just treachery—and I came to understand it only later.
To the right of the crack the mirror was rusting. From top to bottom it was blotchy. In it the mirror hid the flaws of many people. The left side of the fissure was shiny. It appeared that its surface was clean; it showed what it saw.
But since the time Mohammed Sultan lost his bearings, my suspicions grew stronger. I never went to this shop to shave before, because I had already had some misgivings about this mirror. Apart from me, the barber was the only other person who never looked at the mirror. May be he too knew its mysteries.
The barber lathered up soap on the faces of his customers with a brush, making chopp, chopp sounds as he did so. Sharpening his blade first on the whetting stone, then on the razor strop, and finally on his left arm, he would keep gliding it up and down smoothly. He would hold a customer’s head still with his left hand, wrap it tight under his armpit, and, resting the arm that held the blade against the chair, shave off the beard. But I know—all this while, he would turn his back toward the mirror, and never lift his eyes toward it, neither toward the blotchy side nor toward the shiny one.
The mirror, however, would keep looking throughout this time. Like a shameless lout, it would stare intently, and without as much as a word keep watching and scheming. I hated when the mirror stared like this. That is why I smashed it.
The barber was a decent man, but it was the mirror that taught him chicanery. The shop was painted, chairs were fixed, and the blades were sluiced down. The mirror was repaired on the damaged side, and a general impression was given of prosperity and wellbeing. I knew of all these ruses. I have a way of knowing these things beforehand, and that is why I continued to refuse to go to this shop.
But Mohammed Sultan lost his mind. Someone told me that he was getting a shave when, suddenly, he went mad. I trust this account. Mohammed Sultan tore off his clothes and went loitering around naked. I found him, and stopped him to ask: “My bother, what have you gotten yourself into?”
He didn’t reply. But I didn’t need to know from his tongue; I am able to know a man’s deepest secrets simply by putting my hand on him.
When Mohammed Sultan went to get a shave, and the barber was lathering up soap on his face making his usual chopp chopp sounds, it was then that the shiny side of the mirror had fixed its gaze on Mohammed Sultan. And while the barber heard not a word, the mirror told Mohammed Sultan that his neighbors were planning to poison him. Hearing this, Mohammed Sultan grew distressed. His neighbors were milkmen, bakers, hoarders and others. He had no dispute with any of these. Then why would they want to poison him? Mohammed Sultan went to ask each of them one by one: “What have I ever done to you? Am I not your brother?”
The milkman replied: “By God, but for the pond water I mix nothing with my milk.”
“Look there, that is glycerin. You can eat it like it is, or in my bagirkhani, but it is no poison!” said the baker.
But Mohammed Sultan didn’t believe this. The mirror had told him otherwise—and he just lost his mind.
My hatred would have solved nothing. Mohammed Khalil had great affection for this mirror. He had never seen the scar on his face in this mirror. The mirror, too, had affection for him. In its blotchy side, the mirror made Mohammed Khalil’s flaws vanish. For this reason, Mohammed Khalil went to get a shave every day. In front of the barbershop was a wooden footstep. Each time Mohammed Khalil stepped on it, the footstep informed the mirror that the person has arrived. The mirror would then hide its shiny side, and reveal just the blotchy one. No sooner would Mohammed Khalil sit that the mirror would fix its gaze on him and tell him something. After visiting the shop, Mohammed Khalil often climbed up the forest.
Timber contractors were in great delight these days. Each rupee was bringing ten in return. And if the cards were played right, the profits could become even hundredfold. Everyone was falling for it. The mirror appeared to tell Mohammed Khalil a maet kath: “Rain scarcity, little snow, mindlessness all around, and a pinch of charas, a chillum, a chillum and a half…”
And Mohammed Khalil, following the suggestion, would eat the honey pot. He wouldn’t as much as smack his lips. He would wrap himself up in a big blanket early in the morning, climb into the barbershop, and spend the rest of the day swearing by the names of great shrines, and collect his pickings.
I too am of this world. I too have a thousand needs. The baker, the vegetable seller, the tailor, the hoarder, the milkman, the cloth seller, the mason, the carpenter, the doctor and others—coming into the world one is forced to beg at shop after shop. The thing one doesn’t mooch for is the thing that one will never have. Who knows for which sins we were punished, and, in any case, what big sin could it have been to eat a grain of wheat! Even if it was a sin, should we be atoning for it birth after birth, century after century! This is madness!
My beard was ready for a shave. Yet, if the barber had put even more color on his shop, I wasn’t going to fall for the trap. I knew— I knew that it was all this mirror’s trickery. But I had my own demon inside me. From time to time, it prodded me, telling me that my beard was growing long. It put me to shame. I tried frantically to get out of the situation. But nothing worked. And then one day I came to realize that not getting a shave won’t do. The wheat grain shouldn’t have been eaten, but since it was, now I too couldn’t but get a shave.
The mirror was beating me at the game. I thought. I thought hard. And then in the end a plan was made. I sighed. I celebrated. And in the morning I went to the barber.
“Hiya Bablyeh, come give me a shave.”
The barber wept. I laughed aloud and told him: “Come, punish me, if you can.”
The barber wept more. I took pity, and told him: “Here, are you listening? The hammer rose, and took my right hand along. Look, my right hand is too dear to me, I swear by it. How could have I let it go alone in the dark. So, I followed it out. We reached this shop, and opened the latch. And soon the mirror was in the grip of the hammer. The mirror howled in terror. Such howls, my God! But the hammer was in no mood to listen. I just sat to the side on a chair. I was delighted. I was counting blows, which, if you should know, came to three hundred. Then I counted the broken shards of the mirror, but I couldn’t keep up with their number. God is my witness. So, go ahead, give me a shave, punish me for being human.”
Do believe my account. I saw stars in broad daylight. I also heard a scream, and saw many acquaintances running; I was in front and they behind me. It felt good to run in the sun. Everyone got tired except me. I ran and ran, and finally reached the place were Mohammed Sultan was speaking to a street dog. The dog was spotty, and it was telling Mohammed Sultan: ”Lunge at it, why don’t you, and snatch the turban!”
Mohammed Sultan greeted me well. He made place for me near the stream. I felt like telling him about the mirror, but I couldn’t find the courage. The dog was still speaking, and I said: “Please, good sir, continue.”
The dog, upon hearing this, wagged his tail.
Mohammad Junaid is a scholar based in United States.