The Calligrapher of Khaspa Town

The Holy Mosque of Khaspa town
Is still the place where people throng
To watch the man on weak rattan
Convert a kerchief into song.

With pens in inks of resin hues
He brushes words of sizes all:
The small and large mosaiced as
The floral motifs on the wall.

Some days the songs are Ajrakh fields.
Some days they fall in Cashmere drops.
Some days they grow like Calico.
Some days they shame Suzani shops.

But everyday he draws his art
From wells of faith and memory.
And come the night, with much delight,
He gives it all away for free.

He eats the food the Mosque provides
And sleeps on rugs the Mosque discards.
He feeds the birds with loving words
And reads the works of arcane bards.

His story comes on local news
And sometimes barbers tell his tale.
And some compare his soul’s repair
To how a lizard grows its tail.

His prime had seen him quickly rise –
An artist extraordinaire.
They came to see calligraphy
Which had a painter’s scenic flair.

His songs could take the shape of stars,
Or shine as silver crescent moons,
Or drop as rains on window panes,
Or rise in waves at blue lagoons.

He sold his art to magazines
And traders of exquisite shawls.
And many came to buy and frame
Designer kerchiefs for their walls.

His wife could copy his designs
And stitch them on to burqa sleeves.
As she preferred the sparrow bird,
He hid some in the floral leaves.

He taught his art of dots and curves
To children who didn’t want to learn,
As they were smart and knew the art
Will limit their methods to earn.

“So what if strokes go squiggling out?
So what if I don’t make them tall?
It takes too long to draw a song
Which no one cares to read at all.

“The computers do neater work.
Our fingers want to type and click.
Have you forgot? This art is not
What customers now want to pick.

“The garment shops are changing fast.
They buy their stock from branded names.
They love your art, but do they part
With money for your fun and games?

“Do let us sell some printed clothes.
And once we learn the computer,
We can design and print online.
So, let us get a good tutor.”

It was indeed the case, he saw.
His customers were drying up.
But like a child, he only smiled,
Returning to his chai cup.

“The God above is watching me.
He knows I am an honest man.
So, do not weep, for He will keep.
Come, let us do the work we can.”

“The God above was hearing too,”
Or so the sons would later think.
“Within a day, He had His way,
And told your destiny to sink.”

A bus had hit his motorbike.
His wife had fallen: bled to death.
He had survived for he had dived
With Allah’s name upon his breath.

His writing arm was paralysed.
For many months, he lay bereft.
But rose again, despite the pain,
And started signing with his left.

He left his business to his sons
And left his name to history
To be alone, and so atone,
Accepting Allah’s mystery.

His children were supportive of
His decision to leave the place.
Why spend on drugs when prayer rugs
Can heal him with divine grace?

He brought with him a bundle of
Few thousand wheatish handkerchieves.
He brought his pens and will intense
To sing again in buds and leaves.

He taught his art of dots and curves
To fingers on his moving hand
And brought his best to Allah’s test
Ignoring doctor’s reprimand.

He woke up earlier than dawn
And lettered kerchiefs through the day.
Then with a scoff, he’d wash them off,
When fingers chose to disobey.

He’s been at it for eighteen years,
And those who know him from before
Are quick to note and cast their vote:
His art has dwarfed his prior lore.

They come to him in shabby clothes
To mirror his austerity.
They stand in queues, and let him choose
The ones to get his charity.

His children keep beseeching him:
“Please, do not give our art away.
The times are tough, we’re poor enough,
With many urgent bills to pay.

“These admirers are crooked men.
They love you for the cash they make.
They sell our art, don’t give our part,
And sneer at us. For Allah’s sake!”

He smiles at them and slips his hand
Out of their double cupping palms.
“My lefty art is from my heart.
Come, stand in line to take your alms.

“You think this cloth is worth a lot?
That patterned songs can now compete
With factory print, though once they didn’t,
And shower money at your feet?

“The kerchiefs will lose all their worth
The day we put a price on them.
It’s not our need, but only greed,
Which they will notice and condemn.

“These people come to see a man
Who lost an arm but not his skill.
They see my work as just a quirk
Of human nature and its will.

“I know their love is not for me.
I’m blinded not by this renown.
This storied fame is for the name –
Calligrapher of Khaspa Town.

“I’m not the name, I’m not the work.
I’m just a creature in His thrall.
My art I make for Allah’s sake.
His love is lovelier than all.”

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