Vasant 2019, Short Stories -Sobia Ali


Mischief By Night
By Sobia Ali

Say: I seek refuge with the Lord of the Dawn,
From the mischief of created things,
From the mischief of darkness as it overspreads

The Holy Quran, chapter 113, verse 1-3


The night was hot and humid. Heat waves rose like steam from the earth. There was a full moon in the sky, overhung and overshadowed with clouds. Full moon nights usually tended to be cool, but not tonight. Clouds were very low overhead, and there was a smell of thunder in the air. Not a leaf stirred. And the night was full of eerie sounds; sounds of different creatures being tortured in the relentless, burning oven of the earth. One of those restless nights when no one, not one living creature could manage a wink of sleep. The moonlight was obscured by moving clouds. The heat and dust had accumulated such deep layers overhead that its silvery rays could not emerge undimmed.


In a village north of India, a man named Aziz was sleeping on his roof, or rather was trying to get some sleep for some time. In a semi-conscious state, with a hand-made fan, he defended himself against the swarm of mosquitoes trying to feast on his blood. He had removed the mosquito net in the hope of some stray breeze coming his way. He was not quite awake, really.


He had worked all day long in fields under a scorching sun, and was very exhausted and enfeebled. Sleep would overcome the heat and humidity for two or three minutes, and again he would be jerked back and pulled to the nightmarish night. He felt tortured. The restlessness in the air was increasing by the minute, so was the oppressiveness.


He could hear dogs yelping, emitting queer, anguished sounds, frogs croaking with loud rasping noises. These sounds hung in the air, apparently motionless and permanent. They penetrated the seemingly viscous, gummy fluid in which Aziz was submerged. And sleep accentuated and enhanced them sharply and poignantly. For him thoughts, impressions and feelings all merged into one acute sensation of pain and suffering. Aziz moaned softly to himself as he shifted positions again and again.


Somewhere below in the street a man swore loudly, and Aziz was roused once more. He fanned himself fiercely, turning on his side. A child on the next roof had started crying. Her mother shushed the young one in low sleepy tones, “Now, don’t cry, child. I shall fan you.”


Like her voice her fan must have swayed, for the child cried afresh.


Aziz cursed and turned over on his stomach, placing his fan over his ears. Overhead, in the distance, clouds rumbled.


“Allah, give us rain.”, an old woman supplicated in sleep in the opposite house. Her husband coughed in response. Aziz moaned and fell asleep again. Suddenly his eyes flew open, and he became wide awake. He was not sure of what had woken him. But he had an impression - it was more of a sensation - that something had glided past his cot.


He turned over his back and stared up at the sky overhung with wispy, somber gray clouds. It will rain sometime tonight, perhaps in the small hours of the morning, Aziz thought hopefully. The moon had come out abruptly and was illuminating the surroundings in sharp outlines; still trees and rows of cots on the neighbouring roofs, two rough, mangy dogs dozing on the parapet, a dusky cat walking soft-footedly on the neighbour’s wall. An owl hooted in the branches. AS Aziz’s eyelids became heavy with sleep, he began slipping into oblivion.


The night passed, filled with noises and sufferings. The old woman mumbled again, something about rain, and her husband coughed. The child’s cry had faded into low-pitched whimpering. Aziz woke up. This time he felt sure. Something had brushed past him, fanning his left cheek. Perhaps the wind. No, there was no wind. He sat up and looked in the distance; trees standing motionless on the horizon, lightening flashing in the moving clouds.


He felt strangely restless. Aziz wiped the sweat off his face and neck with his shirt. His throat was parched. Water. Then he remembered that his wife had placed an earthen jug under his cot, before going downstairs. He bent down to draw out the jug, when he felt something sliding past him again. He looked up sharply. Nothing. He felt irritated. The lukewarm water went down his throat, relieving the burning sensation. He fanned his body with long, jerky movements, whisking away assailing mosquitoes. God! He felt hot. Then he became still. No use chafing and fuming. With a forced calm he lit a cigarette. He was very restless and felt a bubbling sensation inside. He flopped on his back, and stared up at the sky. Large chunks of clouds were moving overhead, black and oppressive now. Mosquitoes buzzed around him, and he whisked the fan. The restlessness inside compelled him to sit up again.


Lightening flashed again in the western sky, followed by a faint rumble. For a moment the moon peeped out from behind the clouds. It seemed unusually red. Jackals howled, like women wailing on someone’s death. Aziz stood up , and rubbed his chest. He put on his shirt. There belonged to the night a strange commotion and it lent itself to his heart and head. He walked to and fro, fidgety and fevered.


Then impulsively and without any coherent thought, he went towards the staircase, and began descending. A gust of wind, very faint and hot, touched his cheek. He faltered, and looked hopefully towards the peach tree in the courtyard. It stood still and not a leaf of it was astir.


In the middle of the courtyard he could make out the sleeping figures of his wife and children. His mother was sleeping under the peach tree, and beside her on the other cot was his younger brother. He halted a moment looking down on them. His wife was sleeping with her left hand on her bosom. With her right hand she was swishing the fan fervently. His son squirmed as the mosquitoes bit him, and his little daughter flailed her arms and legs wide. He felt angry that his little one should suffer so much. But he refrained, lest she should get scared. Anyway he was too muddle-headed.


He looked towards his mother. She was sitting , bent towards him.. But he could see she was still asleep. She was prone to walking in her sleep. And her eyes were wide open. She looked at him, without seeing him. He felt a creepy feeling inside him. He averted his glance and looked in the direction of the verandah. The door to the room on the left was ajar. He thought he saw something gleam. Two bright pinpoints of lights. He stifled a scream, realising in time that it was only a cat. But he was badly flustered. The leaves on the branch of the pomegranate tree swayed a little. The wind will be blowing shortly, he mumbled to himself. The clouds over the moon, and the darkness cast strange shadows everywhere.


Aziz stood a few moments, scratching his back. His mother was still looking towards him, and she was speaking something in inaudible tones. He again felt something creeping on his back. With an annoyed movement he turned towards the door, and went outside.



He stood a while pressing his temples. Then Aziz sat down on the doorstep, and took out a cigarette. With an agitated flick of his hand he lighted the match, and though there was no wind he instinctively cupped his hands over it. He threw away the burning match. And saw it land on the street. The street was deserted. He had thought that on a night like this many people would up and about , unable to sleep. He felt a headache building up, on the top of his head, somewhere in the middle, and through to the core. He could feel an acrid taste on his tongue as he drew the smoke into his lungs.


The burning red tip of the cigarette distracted him. Of late he had been experiencing more of these headaches, and a weakness in his limbs. And, he grudgingly admitted, he had been a trifle violent in his behaviour. It really beat him how easily he had been picking fights with everyone nowadays. And that hiding he had given his son yesterday was undeserving. Usually, he was not like that. The ash fell off the cigarette on his clothes and he flicked it off.


His mind was sort of empty. But there was a queer agitation in his chest. And the heat made him perspire. Sucking on the cigarette Aziz had not realised had almost burnt to the stub, and consequently got his fingers burnt. He dropped it, cursing angrily. Suddenly he became still.


Out of the corner of his eyes, he had seen something move. It had seemed like a figure of a woman clad in a black burqa, coming towards him from the left side of the street. He moved his head slowly. It really was a woman; tall and thin, her face obscured by a thin veil; walking towards him with straight lengthy strides.


There was something sinister about her and Aziz was scared. Though she was at a fair distance, he thought she would have seen him. He thought about turning into the house, to flee from there. But something made him stay. He sat rooted on his doorstep, while the woman clad in black came striding towards him.


The perspiration built on his forehead. He could not see the woman’s face, but he was convinced that had she noticed him. A tall, thin woman clad in burqa from head to feet, her face hidden in thin veil, coming towards him with long strides on a humid hot, hot night.


But as she drew near, he became conscious that her face was not quite hidden in the veil; and he could make out the thin outlines of her narrow face. It was not so much her features or the shape of the shape of her face that he became aware of, as the grief-stricken expression on her face.


She had almost reached - only two or three yards away - and he could see the thin pinched face, the black scarf tightened around it. There was an expression of deep distress imprinted on her face. He wanted to run away, but the fear held him fixed. And then he became aware that the woman had not really noticed him. She was walking in a straight line in the middle of the road and looking ahead. Aziz could not move a muscle for fear. Heat and fear stuck in his body like needles.


The woman was now exactly before him. Now he saw that she was bleeding—from a real wound in her left cheek. The wound was deep, and he could almost see her whole denture through the hole. Aziz gasped involuntarily. The woman was startled and halted. She turned her head and saw him and a sorrowful look crossed her face. Aziz became speechless and motionless with dread, as the coal black eyes of the woman stared into his


Then with a deep sigh she walked with slow steps towards him. He shut his eyes in utter dread. But she, without saying or doing anything, brushed past him and entered his house. Dreading, he lifted his head and turned to see her thin back disappearing.


She is going to hurt my children, he thought suddenly and ran after her. He stumbled over something and fell prostrate on the earth. His head hit the floor and he swooned.



It rained hard towards the morning. It rained in torrents. A strong wind had sprung up. And it came with a whooping noise. The whole village woke up to the commotion caused by it. People scurried about. People who were sleeping on roofs came down stumbling, groggy with sleep. And people sleeping in courtyards hurried indoors. Aziz’s wife shook her children awake and hustled them in the shelter of the verandah. Her mother-in-law was woken by her younger son, and clasping his hand she also sought the shelter under the roof.


In the fuss and agitation the rain caused, they had forgotten all about Aziz. The rain increased, and trees swayed in frenzy. The heat and dust of months was being washed away, and the earth emanated a dank, ancient odour.


It was a full half-hour before his mother remembered Aziz. There were exclamations of surprise and alarm. The brother took an umbrella and dashed off to the roof to awaken Aziz. But he did not find him there. They searched the whole house in case he had come down and slept. His mother was alarmed lest he should have fallen off the roof in the general hustle-bustle the storm caused.


The thunder rolled loudly, and lightening flashed frequently. They all began calling him; first loudly, and then in frenzied voices. Lightening flashed brightly again, and it was his son who saw him first, prostrate on the earth. He cried, “There is Father - near the door.”


Aziz was still unconscious, and spattered with mud. They all lifted him off the earth. His whole face was battered and hands were bruised due to the fall. Between them they carried him inside. His wife began cleaning his face with a wet cloth while his brother ran to fetch the doctor. His mother walked to and fro in extreme agitation, mumbling some prayers.


The village doctor came and took his pulse. Aziz was running high temperature. The doctor sprinkled some water on his face to revive him. He also applied something jelly-like on his forehead. The whole household stood around Aziz’s cot, worried and harassed expressions on their faces. Aziz opened his eyes, and this drew gasps from everyone present, including the doctor. For his eyes were crimson, and an insane gleam flashed in them as he looked at them. Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed - an eerie and hideous laugh. They realised what had happened. Aziz had gone mad.


His mother stepped up hesitantly. “Aziz, my son, you slipped in the rain…” She touched his head, his forehead lightly. Instantly it seemed as though Aziz was electrified. He grasped her hand and twisted it violently. The old woman wailed loudly.


There were shrieks and loud noises, as they all tried to make him let go his mother’s hand. Aziz howled constantly. And people from adjoining houses crowded into Aziz’s house. Realising that Aziz was stark mad they, in no time, bound him with rope. But they could not quieten his howling. It was horrible -this howling and wailing. It gave everyone the shudders. A car was procured promptly, in spite of the raging storm, and bundling Aziz into it his brother and uncle took him speedily to the city. There he was examined by a thin, ratty-looking professional who, after some hesitation, declared Aziz completely and irrevocably mad.


“The nature of madness is very peculiar - it does not usually strike so suddenly.” he spoke in a nasal voice to Aziz’s grief-stricken brother.


“Sometimes he will be perfectly normal, of course. He won’t be violent all the time. But you should not take risks with him.”


“Can’t he ever be cured?” Aziz’s old rustic uncle asked in a small voice.


“No, there is no cure for madness. Of course we can always hope for the miracle,” he said to the uncle, sympathising with him. “And remember he is going to be extremely cunning as the time passes.”


To their questioning gazes he explained further. “He will try to persuade you to free him.”


He prescribed some medicines. As there was nothing else to do, they started for home. The storm had subsided a little, and the rain had ceased though lightening flashed intermittently.


The clouds had broken up, and through them peeped a very new sun. Between his brother and uncle, Aziz sat subdued and calm in the car, bound in ropes. His head was hanging low over his chest. He was awake, and sighed now and then.


The car sped towards the village. Trees bathed in rain water stood swaying in the wind on both sides of the road. Sunlight gleamed on their green leaves. Aziz lifted his head and said in gentle persuasive voice.


“I am all right now. That doctor was a fool.”


“Of course, my son,” his uncle replied soothingly. Aziz spoke no more and the rest of the way was traversed in silence, except for his deep sighs.


They took Aziz home, his uncle and brother both taking hold of his either side, as is done with a man suffering some extreme condition of physical frailty. They laid him on the bed. Aziz acceded humbly and resignedly to everything.


His mother and wife were wailing. His children stood mute in corners and stared. Women and men from the village came thronging to the house. They were very curious to see Aziz.


Now they always keep Aziz bound in chains, exempting only his right hand to allow him to feed and drink. Of course they had tried letting him off sometimes, but the consequences were very unpleasant. In the middle of perfect normalcy he would suddenly turn violent, and beat and hit everyone around; sometimes causing fatal injuries. Hence his family takes no risk now, though he abuses and curses his family, threatening to kill them.


At times he howls hideously, and cries plaintively, but most of the time he remains calm. His chief occupation nowadays is to dig a hole in the earth. With the aid of a ring in his chain he digs all day long with his right hand.


I recently hear the hole is, at present, dug quite five feet, and as the digging is still in progress there is no telling what depths it will reach in future.




Author’s note: the story of Aziz’ sudden madness is inspired by a true incident. What first prompted me to write this story is a strange rumor that is connected with it, and I think it should reach you as well, as it may throw some light on the whole matter. Of course, I could not swear to its authenticity, as both the persons concerned are dead. It is said that Aziz’s late mother asked a fakir (now dead) about the cause of the queer nature of Aziz’s sudden madness. The fakir, beside being a man of unquestionable piety, was well versed in such matters and told her that this disease is a common one among the race of Djinns. And they had, for wickedness sake, contaminated Aziz with it.



Sobia Ali has a Masters in English literature, and writes short stories that are under consideration in various Indian and overseas journals. She is working on her first novel, and likes to read, assimilate, and be inspired.


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