Our family driver, Minhaj is a simple, humorous, guy. He is a family man with two young daughters in school and a son who’s now in college. He’s very decent with no professional shortcomings apart from his quintessentially Hyderabadi nature. By this I mean of course that he’s pretty chill and laid back in most of his activities, which also includes driving fast when we need him to. He’s also pious, regular with his prayer timings, and keeps muttering religious verses under his breath even when he’s driving along on a regular afternoon. He cracks his typical jokes now and then which I digest with great gusto, whether it’s about being extremely wary of women drivers (“stay as far as you can from them sir. You never know when they’ll move left or right, and if you hit their car, you’ll be the one who’s arrested!”), or making a wise crack at an obese policeman. One thing I have noticed though is how he’s always serious about certain topics and witty and jovial about others. For example, he also used to have cats at home like we do and he used to tell us what a fun time his family had with the cats and all their little hunting stories and upbringing, to the laser pointer games, right up to the point where his male cat got shredded to bits by the local stray dog posse. That devastated his whole family and he recollected how upset they all were, especially his mother, who was extra fond of the little kitty.
He once narrated stories to me about Jinns (or Genies in English) who were supernatural entities who existed in early Arabic and then later in Islamic theology and mythology. He told me about how the elders in his community always spoke of Jinns and how some of them were good and some were bad. He also said that the people generally were nice to Jinns because if you were, you received good luck and gifts in return. Minhaj wasn’t a lying sort and he, over time, told me several stories about cats, and dogs, and people he grew up with, people in the illaqa (neighborhood), how Hyderabad has changed over decades. He very often spoke of the old days and how wild animals used to roam in certain parts of the outskirts of Hyderabad and how many folk back then would go hunting and fishing. These stories would make my otherwise run of the mill drive to work, court, meetings, or even grocery shopping, rather interesting. A fun chit chat really.
It was yesterday when we were again talking about Jinns and how they were especially fond of sweets. It was also interesting to note that Minhaj always spoke of Jinns in a very matter of fact manner. It wasn’t folklore for him. Jinns were people from the spirit world, who actually existed and lived among us, cloaked to make us think they’re one of us, but they’re not. I asked him if he had seen one himself, or knew anyone who had.
“Hmm…I haven’t seen a Jinn” he said, “but I’ve seen a shaitan.” (translated from Urdu-Hindi)
Shaitan meant devil and this greatly intrigued me. I urged him to go on.
“When I used to work in Dubai sir, I had closed the car workshop for the day (he worked as a mechanic there before he came back to Hyderabad for good). In the evenings, we would close down the workshop and head back to our quarters which was in the same compound. The cars used to be in one area, and there was some empty ground where there were odds and ends, a shed, and the boundary wall that surrounded it all. We used to sit around till evening and more or less disperse for dinner and then to sleep. I knew the compound well, like the back of my hand. One night, I was walking around the compound when it was just turning dark. I could still make out the familiar objects by their outlines and general location in the compound. I looked around the compound noticed a figure sitting under one of the sheds.”
“How far away?” I asked.
“Oh it was around that distance”, he said and pointed to a gate we were passing on the road. It seemed to be about twenty odd feet from our car just then.
“As I walked closer, I thought someone must have snuck over the wall and just found a place to sleep for the night, possibly a vagrant or squatter, who was getting a moments rest before he lay down. I noticed when I drew closer, that the person wasn’t wearing any clothes. I could tell at least that much in the dark, sir. I mean, look at that person over there, or there”, he said pointing at random people around us.
“You can tell by his outline that he’s wearing clothing right? There’s the folds of the shirt, or the fall of his trousers, and general lines that indicate that there’s some sort of garment surrounding the body. A naked man however, would be wearing only his skin, and that would be smooth, with no folds or puffy elements.”
I nodded as I imagined a naked human being in late evening. Definitely made sense in my head.
He went on.
“I yelled out to him, hopefully to scare him and make him run away and find some place else to sleep. As I yelled out hey! the figure quickly stood up. I could make out a head, shoulders, arms, torso, and legs, but I swear he was stark naked, and exceedingly dark, almost jet black.”
I made a joke about a Somalian at this point.
He continued. “And then sir, I kid you not, in the moment I took to blink, how long could that be sir? Less than a second? In that less than one second’s blink, the dark figure was right in front of my face. Just like that! From 15 feet away to right in front of my face!”. He clicked his fingers for effect. “That quick.”
I laughed a little. He wasn’t fazed.
“Visualize a torch light sir. Say you shine it on a wall. Then instantly, you flick your wrist and turn the torchlight to the floor. You know how the light moves in an instant from there to there? It was like that”.
I laughed again, a bit nervously. “What are you saying Minhaj”, I questioned dismissively and turned my gaze to the passing traffic and shops.
“Sir, I’ll swear upon the life of anybody you say, I won’t hesitate, but I’ll do it just to show you I’m telling the truth.”
Minhaj was the sort of guy who never used the name of God in vain, nor did he nonchalantly make blasphemous references. He wasn’t cheap or crass in any way and as I said earlier, all of us in our family find him to be exceedingly respectful and a decent human being. He wasn’t a drinker either, and I doubt he’d have indulged in any such tomfoolery especially in a middle eastern country when he had the opportunity to work there for his family’s well being. I turned my attention back to the story.
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“I drew my breath in real quick sir, WHOOSH!” He drew in his breath with a quick hissing gasp, simultaneously drawing his head sharply back as if dodging a blow.
“…and the creature just flew away from in front of my face and away from me, out of sight”.
“I swear to you, it flew away from right in front of me. Like this” He used his left hand to trace a wavy path in front of him while his right hand stayed on the steering wheel.
“Did you notice anything about the creature?” I asked, in awe. “Did it have a face? Hands? Eyes?”
“No sir.” He said gravely. “Nothing. I know it had no vestments, its body was smooth. It stood up when it was alerted to my call, and it seemed to have a head, arms, and legs. Just like us.”
We drove in silence for the next few seconds. The story begged itself to continue.
There wasn’t anymore to it though. He finished by telling me how he went running to his mates in the staff quarters all out of breath and how he told them all that he’d just seen a shaitan and how it moved as fast as light and how it flew away. He told me about how everyone was obviously stunned but they believed him. Most of them were Arabic or Egyptian.
Minhaj ended with some rhetoric about how he was always mockingly skeptical about ghosts, shaitans, Jinns, and spirits. “I mean really sir, at any given point of time then, I’d always say and believe that there wasn’t a bigger shaitan that Man itself. There’s no evil we wouldn’t do for the right incentive. People lie, and cheat, and kill, and humanity is slowly dying. Nobody cares anymore.” He trailed off.
Pretty cool actually. A shaitan in Dubai.