"A profound unmitigated loneliness is the only truth of life"
- R.K. Narayan

"All arrested suspects given clean chit. Blast investigation remains unsolved. Police commissioner says they are pursuing fresh leads"
Ahmed Reshi walked out, stopped on the verandah and glanced over the dusty deserted street in front of the police station. Ahmed's mind was still blanked out; yet unconsciously he stroked his beard - the one thing he had been doing all that month. The words of the prison warden echoed in his ears. "No it was not your name Ahmed beta. It was the beard that they pounced on. You had a beard and you were running - That was it!

For a moment Ahmed wondered if it was all a bad dream, but then, what had happened was illogical even for a dream. A dream would, at the least, end when one wakes up, but this was going to haunt him all his life... provided the rest of his days could be called life!

There are dreams from which you want to wake up as soon as you can, and then there are days when you curse yourself for having woken up at all.

He purveyed the deserted street again. There was no media person today - no camera flashes, no microphones thrust into his face. They asked a hundred questions in the railway station that day. Today, when he had the answers, where the hell were they?

And then the words rung in his ears again, "Why were you running?" Everyone asked the same question - the police, the media, the lawyer; and now he feared calling his mother - what if she asked the same question too?

It was for a week that they kept him in detention along with the other "terrorists". They did not let him meet his parents too. They beat him in places where he wouldn't even touch himself un-gently. They asked him confusing questions, whose only logical answer seemed to lead to lies. He never understood why they were so eager to make him say stuff that never happened. Did the police want the truth or were they just playing the fool? Then one day he heard some policemen chuckle. They were talking about some rape case being the new media glare. The next day they let him go.

"When there was a blast, everyone began running, so I ran too." he had repeatedly told the police but they did not seem to believe him. If he had anything more to say, he surely would have. Then someone whispered to him, "You have a beard Ahmed. That's why they got you." A beard? Really?

He stroked his beard again. Now he really felt its bristles. With no bath for days, the stubble had gone scraggy. The hot air from the dusty street dried it more. The beard pricked not just his palm but his conscience too. "If my beard was such a bad thing then why was Ammi so eager for me to grow it?"

His mother had always wanted to see a beard on her son's face. "My son will be man soon. He will look so handsome with a beard," was her mantra to every guest that visited. The other elders would look at Ahmed, smile and agree with his mother. Oh! she spoke so much about his impending beard. It made Ahmed anxious thinking he wasn't being a good son until he got that beard out. The beard became a focal point of their life - like they were expecting a new child in the family. On several evenings Ahmed would stealthily run his father's shaving blade all over his chin. The beard comes faster that way.

And then, an year back, Ahmed's studies forced him to move to another city. How sad he was that he couldn't grow a beard before leaving. Quite un-surprisingly, the beard preoccupied him in the hostel too. The first thing he did every morning was to run to the mirror to get a status on the beard. He watched it everyday, like a farmer admiring his harvest, counting every new stub that showed up. In every prayer of the day he slipped a mention for the beard, praying God for a thick shiny mane - one that would make his mother proud to no end. And almost every night he dreamt of surprising his mother with that beard and with every passing dream the estimate of his mother's reactions reached a new high.

Finally the day had come; exams finished and vacations started. Ahmed's excitement knew no bounds, not because the exams went well but that he sported a thick black coat of hair on his face by then. It was his greatest achievement - the fruit of his labour, the answer to his prayers. During the train journey, he would repeatedly wash the beard so as not to let the dust fade its shine, and he would use bottled water as he heard the tap water had harmful chemicals. He avoided the window seat as it would trouble his beard. When we wanted to sleep, he used postures where his beard wasn't stifled or twisted. At times, the childishness in him wondered why the others weren't admiring his beard.

"Because they don't have ammi's eyes!," he would silently chuckle.

Then there was the blast, and everyone ran. Ahmed ran too, but so preoccupied with the beard was he that he covered it with both hands while he ran - he couldn't let anything spoil the treasure that he had saved for his dearest mother, could he?

And as he ran amidst the crowd, a policeman shrieked, "Hey... there's a man hiding his face and running. Go get him..."

Notes: beta - son; ammi - mother; Chor ki daadi main tinka - literally "a thief is the one who has a straw stuck in his beard": an expression from a legendary Indian folktale.
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