It’s 4:30 pm on Thursday April 15th, 2021 and Abel Pran Mody is travelling on a shoestring. He arrived two days before on the cheapest flight he could find from O’Hare to Indira Gandhi International Airport, $920, by Emirates Airlines. He booked into the Hotel Lotus at the airport for two nights at only $8 a night, and the next day he took a trip to the Taj Mahal. How could he come to New Delhi and not stop to see that wonder of the world?
Now he’s sitting on a hard wooden seat in a crowded a 2nd class coach on an unreserved train from New Delhi to Rewari Junction. There are Covid 19 precautionary instructions blaring from a loudspeaker in the station, saying that wearing a mask is mandatory, but everywhere people are without. Abel himself isn’t wearing one, he’s tired of all these restrictions. Hardly anyone is taking precautions anymore.
The train is more than an hour late and completely packed so he’s feeling fortunate to have a seat. In fact, he paid the ticket inspector to get one, and he’s also feeling a bit stupid because he could have had a ticket on an AC train with a reserved seat for the price of the bribe. Nonetheless, he’s happy to be sitting and a rush goes though him…at last! Almost at his destination! He’s waited so long for this moment. Just two hours on the train, then he’ll have to take a bus to go the rest of the route, about 10 hours’ drive. He’ll find a hotel for the night at Rewari before embarking on the last long stretch.
He pulls out a paperback novel he’s started, the two hours ride should be enough to finish it. It’s easy for him to relate to the protagonist, an American experiencing culture shock in Morocco and discovering a new faith, Islam, as he rides a roller coaster up and down between promise and poverty. Abel has never been a religious person, and can’t stand to see all of the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in this part of the world. Like the main character in the novel, he does believe in a higher power, but one that can only be described as a Force. A Force that shows the proof of its existence in the incredible diversity of life. To him, this Force is what some would call Nature. He’s been following the journey of the protagonist and all of the questions and answers he’s touched on regarding Islam, and Abel starts to become convinced that this Force is indeed the controller of our destinies. About 10 minutes after the departure, he lifts his eyes for a moment from his reading and notices an old woman standing not far away. Motioning to her to come and take his seat, he then continues to read while standing for the rest of the trip. Her smile is an ample reward.
At Rewari he goes to the hotel next to the train station and enquires about where the bus station is. He calls and finds out that there are no direct busses to Mount Abu, so he’ll have to take one to Jaipur and then transfer. There’s only one bus and it leaves at 2:50 in the morning each day. The bus station is 30 minutes’ walk from the hotel and It’s almost 7 pm now. So, he’s pondering whether to stay and sleep the night or just go, but he’s exhausted. Still, if he doesn’t go tonight, he’ll have to wait all day tomorrow. He explains his dilemma to the hotel clerk, who tells him that he can catch a “People Mover” from in front of the train station directly to Jawal at the foot of Mount Abu. These are trucks laden with goods to transport, that take passengers sitting atop. This way he can get a good night’s sleep and leave fresh in the morning. Abel thanks him and tips him a few dollars. The hotel is alright, the sheets are clean and the walls of his room are a relaxing pale lavender. There’s a restaurant, so as soon as he’s showered, he eats dinner and sleeps soundly.
The next morning, he wakes up coughing and thinks “just caught a cold, probably the air conditioning in the hotel.” After a hearty breakfast he has a coughing fit and throws it all up. He goes to the train station, finds a people mover truck bound for Jawal, pays the driver a trifling sum, and climbs on top, hoisting his backpack up before. Once atop the boxes in the back of the truck, he turns and sees a young woman climbing up after him. She looks to be 19 or 20, slender and dark. He stretches out his hand and grasps hers to help her up. Her face is hidden by her scarf, regardless, their eyes meet and their souls connect. She sits next to him as he helps an older couple climb up one after the other. They’re both wearing facemasks. He turns to her again and they both smile.
“Hi, my name’s Abel, are you going to Jawal?”
“Aouda, pleased to meet you, yes, we’re moving back, we have a house in the forest there. This is my mum Chanduni, and my dad, Sajid.” They nod. “You’re American, aren’t you?” she’s bewildered by his presence, a tourist would never climb on a truck like this. Rejoicing in her good fortune, she can’t hold back her curiosity. “What are you doing here?”
“Nice to meet you Aouda, in fact, I’m going to my father’s hometown to meet my grandparents for the first time. It’s a voyage to find my roots, but it’s turning out more difficult than I’d imagined. I wanted to do it a year ago but I got stopped by the lock down.”
“I could tell that you were part Indian, but anyone can tell you’re American. Where do you live?”
“Chicago. I’ve lived there all my life. My father came to the University of Illinois on a scholarship when he was 21, it was there that he met my mother. I don’t remember my father; he was killed in a shooting when I was just 3 years old. My mother raised me.” He pulls out his wallet and shows Aouda an old photo of a young couple in wedding attire. “That’s my father and mother.”
“They were a beautiful couple. What’s your grandfather’s name? We know a lot of people in Jawal.”
“Sonam Mody, and my Grandmother’s name is Lili. They’re both retired teachers.”
“I’ll ask my parents; they probably know them.”
The driver starts the motor and checks to make sure the passengers are ready to move. “Does everyone have a Covid 19 negative test certificate? There’s a police blockade on the road at the Rajasthan border. We’ll take a 30-minute rest stop at the Pink City.”
Abel turns to Aouda “I had to get one to catch my flight, it’s still valid. (cough, cough, cough) Do you have yours?”
“Yes, we knew we would have to have one. Didn’t you know that there’s a second upsurge of cases? Do you have a mask? They’ll insist on it at the border.”
“Yes. I’m just sick and tired of wearing it. I thought that the pandemic was finished.” He takes one out of a side pocket in his backpack and puts it on.
“Not at all. And this time it’s worse. The first wave peaked at under 100,000 new cases per day, yesterday there were 217,000 new cases and it’s skyrocketing. They say that it’s a new mutation that’s a lot more deadly than the first. May Allah protect us.” She takes out a bottle of hand disinfectant and rubs some on her hands, then holds it out to him. He accepts the offer. Her parents do likewise.
“I wasn’t aware. That’s scary. What’s the Pink City?”
“Jaipur. We can talk more when we get there, Insha Allah.”
After about three quarters of an hour, they reach the border between Haryana and Rajasthan, and the police blockade is there. After checking everyone’s negative Covid 19 report the police warn them that there’s a 6 pm to 6 am curfew all over Rajasthan. The laden truck crosses the border and they continue their route.
They pull into the Pink City at about 11 and stop for a rest.
“Are you alright? You don’t look well.” Aouda questions Abel.
“I’ve got the shivers. I must have caught a cold from the AC at the airport hotel.” He sniffles, blows his nose, and coughs. “Let’s go have some chai, shall we?”
“It’s Ramadan, we’re fasting. It’s not mandatory for voyagers, but we’re fasting anyway. We'll go along with you to the tea room, that way we can do our ritual washing before the noon prayer.”
Seeing a pharmacy Abel stops in to buy some aspirin and cough syrup. They find a tea room, sit all four at a table, and Abel orders a cup of tea and some cakes and takes his medicine. The family all do their ritual cleansing in the washroom.
It turns out that Chanduni and Sajid do know Abel’s grandparents, they were both taught by Sonam and Lili Mody in primary and secondary school. They went to school with Abel’s father Gravadain, and say that it’s no wonder he got a scholarship to study in the USA. They welcome Abel back to his father’s homeland. Abel tells them that his father gave him a Hindi name as well, it’s his middle name, Pran, and it has the same meaning as his first name; ‘breath’.
Aouda and her parents do their prayers while sitting on top of the moving truck, Sajid leading. As it’s Friday, it’s normally the special Friday Prayer, but voyagers are exempt, also just having to do a short version, 2 sets instead of 4.
There’s one more short break halfway at 3, another ritual washing, and another prayer on top of the moving truck around 4. They pull into Jawal just before the curfew, so Aouda and her parents invite Abel to stay at their house for the night. It’s outside of town, in a wooded area. The movers unload the family’s things and leave. Abel is dead tired, he has a migraine, and his chest hurts. He can’t stop coughing, even with the cough syrup. Everyone is worried, it’s not just a cold.
Aouda and her parents do their ritual washing and pray the Sunset prayer at 7 pm, doing a special prayer for Abel Pran Mody’s health. The fasting is over for the day and Chanduni is prepared, she had packed a meal before leaving in the morning. They make chai and break the fast. Abel shares their meal and their home. Sajid puts up a bed for him in the master bedroom before himself or his family so that he can go straight to bed.
After a difficult night, Abel wakes to the chirping of birds, the sweet fragrances of the springtime forest, and a magnificent view from the window. His condition is worse, so they call the closest Government Hospital to have an ambulance sent to pick him up. He gets a blood test, but will have to wait until Monday for the results. The doctor prescribes a treatment for his symptoms that will fight the Covid 19, as they are all almost certain that he has it. The doctor says that he should stay in confinement, and Aouda and her family too, because they were in contact with him. Back at the house, he confines himself to the master bedroom, hoping that he hasn’t already contaminated his gracious hosts. He calls his grandparents and explains the situation. He tells them he’ll come as soon as he’s better.
Aouda comes to his room to talk, and their conversation is punctuated with his frequent coughing.
“You shouldn’t be here with me.”
“I’ll take the risk. Let me help you.”
“How can you help me?”
“Just by being near and listening to you. We all need someone to be close to us when we’re suffering, and you don’t have anyone else. Please, let me stay.” Her gentle smile pierces his heart, he can’t refuse.
“I guess it’s alright. Be careful though, keep your distance. You’re too young and beautiful to die now.”
“Only Allah knows where and when we will die. My life is in his hands. I’m not afraid of dying, because the next world is better than this one. If I can help you, I will, and if it’s my time to die, then I will. It’s very simple.”
“I wish I could be as calm and at peace as you are. I’m worried. I don’t want to die. I have too many things I want to do still. I came all this way to see my grandparents and now I’m confined. I’m afraid I’ll never see them and I came all this way for nothing.”
“You didn’t come for nothing Abel Pran, you must know that everything happens for a reason. Perhaps you’ll heal and you’ll be able to see them, but even if you don’t, you’re here now and it’s all part of the plan. Allah is the best planner. We met. That’s something beautiful, isn’t it?”
“I’m happy I met you, but I’m not happy that I’m putting you in danger. I feel guilty about that.”
“You’re a kind person, but you shouldn’t feel that way. I’m very happy I met you. I felt something that I’ve never felt before when you looked into my eyes and took my hand for the first time yesterday. It was the strongest emotion I’ve ever experienced. You’ve already given me something that I can’t regret.”
“It’s strange Aouda, I had the same experience, it was as if all of my life had been bringing me to that precise moment when I met you. I didn’t want to say anything for fear that you wouldn’t understand. The mere touch of your hand in mine was like nothing I’d ever known before.”
“You see, we were destined to meet. There is a reason for our coming together. Do you believe in destiny?”
“Do you believe that there is only one invisible God that created everything and that controls all of our lives?”
“I have to say yes.”
“Then the only thing you still have to believe is that the Prophet Muhammad, Peace and Blessings upon him, is God’s messenger, and you are a Muslim.”
“It’s that easy?”
“It’s easy to be a Muslim, you just have to pronounce that you believe these two things in Arabic, but it’s not so easy to be a good one. You have to abide by the God sent message, the Quran, and that’s difficult.”
“Because we’re human. But Allah is very forgiving. Everyone’s words and actions will be weighed and each person will have the reward or punishment that they merit. Still, we cannot judge anyone else because only Allah knows what is in people’s hearts. You may think a person is good when they are not, or you may think them to be bad when maybe they are better than you. Each person is responsible for what they say and do. There is no redeemer that washes away people’s sins. Allah is full of forgiveness when you ask for it sincerely, without the intention of repeating your errors.”
“I want to know more about Islam, can you teach me?”
“Of course, as long as you’re sick, I’ll stay beside you, and I’ll read to you from an English translation of the Quran and explain what we read.”
“That will be wonderful.”
“It’s a pleasure for me Abel Pran.”
For the next two weeks Aouda does as she promised, and Abel’s condition gets worse and worse, until finally he can hardly breathe. They both know that he’s on the point of leaving this world.
Tee-whi-whi…tee-whi-whi…tee-whi-whi…like every morning, the joyful tittering of little black and white birds is Abel’s wakeup call. It’s the 1st of May, and Abel has decided to embrace Islam today. Aouda is already by his bedside when he wakes.
His voice is a whisper. “I’m ready to become a Muslim, what do I have to do?”
"You have to say ‘There is no deity but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God’ in Arabic."
“I don’t have to be in a Mosque with an Imam?”
“No. You can do it right here and now.”
“How do I say that?”
"Listen and repeat after me, Lā ʾIlāha ʾIllā Allah,”
"Lā ʾIlāha ʾIllā Allah,”
“Muḥammadun Rasūl Allah."
With his last breath he manages to gasp “Muḥammadun Rasūl Allah." Their eyes search each other’s souls one last time as he leaves this world.
“You are a Muslim Abel Pran Mody.” Tears are streaming down Aouda’s cheeks as she recites a verse from the Holy Quran “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'n.” (Truly, to Allah we belong and truly, to Him we shall return).