On the day I met my father's family for the first time, a strange coincidence occurred on a train. It was October 2006, a year after the great earthquake in Kashmir. I was travelling south from that troubled region, when a young man burst into my cabin.
He wore flared jeans and a faded denim jacket. His long, well-brushed hair was tied back and there was something of the Frontier in his dark sunburned features. He gave me no explanation for barging in. He simply dropped into the facing seat, loosened the coloured bands of his ponytail, and began talking.
I felt I had to respond to this casual restlessness: 'The conductor will come. If he sees that you don't have the right ticket, he'll send you back or fine you.'
The intruder gazed fixedly at me, then smiled and extended his hand. 'Mirwaiz,' he said. 'When he comes, I will go back.'
'Rehan,' I replied, reluctantly taking his hand, 'Rehan Tabassum.'
'Where are you headed, Rehan?'
'La Mirage. And you?'
'Por bin Qasim.'
'Long trip,' I said, with the visitor's pride at working out these distances in an unfamiliar country. 'When will you get there?'
Mirwaiz looked out of the window, as if expecting the darkened landscape, dotted here and there with a well or granary bathed in a fitful tube light, to give him an answer.
'In the morning,' he said. 'I'd say we're still in Punjab, still an hour or two from La Mirage.'
And, as if deciding this time had been given him to deepen his acquaintance with me, he began firing questions.
'Do you live in La Mirage?'
'Why are you going there then?'
'To visit my family.'
'Do they live there?'
'In La Mirage.'
'I know, but where?'
'I'm not sure,' I lied.
Then eyeing the red threads on my wrist, he said: 'Are you Muslim?'
'Why do you wear this string?'
'It's from a Sufi shrine,' I lied again.
'OK, and this bangle?'
'My grandmother gave it to me. She's a Sikh.'
'And your mother?'
The question took me away for a moment. My mind brought up the two women, one now dead, the other in another country. And from a perverse desire to simplify my life to a stranger on a train, I said, now lying extravagantly, 'She was a Sikh too, but became Muslim after marrying my father.'
'What does he do?'
'My father? Business,' I said uncertainly.
'What's with all the questions!'
Mirwaiz's eyes grew wide with apology. He sat up and gestured towards the door.
I felt bad, felt I was playing up formalities, when really I was happy to talk. 'No, stay,' I said, 'I'm sorry. The answer to your question is that I don't really know. We don't speak.'
'Oh,' Mirwaiz said, with compassion. 'God willing you will again one day.'
I thought of correcting him, but he said, 'Still; good or bad, it is better to have a father than not. I had one. Once,' he added, enjoying the effect of his words. 'But now there is just my mother and my sister.'
'I'm sorry, I didn't ...'
'Don't worry,' Mirwaiz said, filling the silence quickly. Then unprompted, he explained — using the English word — 'Earthquake.'
'Oh!' I managed, and unable to hold my curiosity, added, 'I head, of course.'
'Hearing, saab, is one thing,' Mirwaiz replied, 'to see is another. My sister heard too, but she didn't see.' Then almost boastfully, he said, 'I saw it all, I saw the Jhelum disappear.'
He began, in a sawing movement, to rub his palm over his chest.
'Our village was one of those typical villages of the Jhelum Valley. Mud houses, slate roofs. Dark hills, river below. A pukka government school. One mobile phone tower. That's about it. I could see it all very clearly that day. I had taken the herd out to one of the surrounding mountains from where everything was visible. October's a good months in the hills. Bright sunshine, cool breezes, great vistas. The goats were happy too. Mast! Easting grass. It was just like any other day.'
He paused, seemed to size me up and continued:
'I was half-dozing in the sunshine, my eyes resting on Madhu, when all of a sudden, saab, she jumped! Three whole feet from where she stood. A stationary goat just thrown from the earth. I'd never seen anything like it in my life. And no sooner had her hooves struck the ground below than she lost her footing and began to roll. I leapt up and tried catching her, but it was too late. She was lost, Rehan saab. In seconds, she was tumbling down the hill, hitting against it, legs splayed, trying desperately to regain her footing, bleating with fear. I couldn't make out where she had fallen. Because at that precise moment, my eyes were drawn back to the others, all now jumping, all slipping and falling.
'That was when it came, Rehan saab, that was when the noise came. The movie had been on mute until then. Don't believe people when they say it sounds like dynamite or an avalanche. I've heard those things; this is not like that. When it comes, you know, in your gut, that only creation itself would dare make a sound like that. I heard it travel, Rehan saab, I heard the actual tearing of the earth. It rode through the valley, like the waters of a burst dam ...
From Noon: A Novel by Aatish Taseer. Copyright 2011 Aatish Taseer. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc., an affiliate of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.