The Story of Karbala

Translated by Tahira Naqvi, One Drop of Blood: The Story of Karbala is Ismat Chughtai's passionate retelling of the timeless tale of the life of Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, from the early days spent in Rasulullah'scompany, up to the epic, bloody Battle of Karbala, in which their small army of family and friends clashed with the savage forces of Yazid, the reigning Caliph. 

Her controversial, fictionalised rendering humanises the tragic encounters on the battlefield, immortalising the sacrifice of Imam Husain and his family in prose that has the same lyrical force as her original inspiration, Anis’ marsiyas.​

The following is an excerpt from the book.

Photo by Daniya

“One can’t go beyond one’s destination, Zainab,” Husain said.

“But my heart is pounding, the children are weary, Bhai. I can feel the stench of blood coming from this wretched earth. The sight of the vegetation here is frightening, the flowers prick the eyes like thorns.”

“You are imagining all this, Zainab. This is the same place that we have often seen in our dreams, during moments of uneasy sleep. This looks very familiar. Look, ahead is the river, Alqamah, we will pitch our tents on its banks.”

Zainab glanced at the river and shuddered.

“Oh God, is this a river or a mirage? Are these bubbles or human skulls floating in the water? Are these waves or swords clashing with each other? I cannot bear to look.”

“You’re tired, Zainab, when you have rested you will not feel so anxious,” the Imam said, trying to comfort her.

“Bhai, why do I feel like this? For no reason I feel my heart sinking. Look how Asghar sobs. It’s said that innocent young children can sense what lies in the Beyond. Sakina is cowering with fear, too.”

“Be strong, Zainab.”

“The sound of the crashing waves is breaking my heart. Oh God, who is this lamenting so loudly? Has someone drowned in this wretched river?”

“Your imagination is leading you astray.”

“Something tells me that if we stop here our lives will be in danger.”

“O, Daughter of Ali, if you are so anxious then the others will lose courage as well. It was in our fate to come to Karbala. Now we will be here forever. If the governor permits, we will set up residence. Let me find out who owns this land. Come here, boys, go to the neighbouring village and find out who owns this land.”


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Some of the young men left to carry out Husain’s command.

Then Husain said to Ali Akbar, “Your aunt always imagines the worst. This is the same place where Baba pitched his tents many times. The long journey has tired her out. Do you know, this is sacred land. We will stay here and will bless it with such prominence that people will come here from far and wide to learn and study. A person’s actions can make a place great. If we act with valour, then angels will bow before this land in reverence. Islam will come to life here once again in all its glory.”

Everyone alighted from their camels and horses and started walking around. The sight of water revived their spirits. A mood of merriment rippled through the group. The air was filled with the musical sound of children’s laughter. The waves of the water leapt to kiss the feet of Husain, and were immortalised.

Husain placed his hand on Ali Akbar’s shoulder. “Ali Akbar, do you like this place?”

“It is a unique location, and as for the river, it seems to be flowing down straight from paradise.”

On hearing this praise from the lips of young Ali Akbar, the waves swelled with pride, the river tumbled along playfully, and the earth was blessed with the season of spring. Coming from paradise, the breeze rushed to the river and whispered that it was the chosen one,

Rise up, you foolish one, good fortune awaits you,

Imam Husain comes to you to wash for his prayers,

Rise, you lucky one, and touch his feet,

You are about to receive the same stature as Kausar,

Your dignity will surge,

Husain comes to bless your waters with good fortune,

His footsteps will tread on your banks,

Your name will be celebrated for centuries,

And you, blessed one, your name will be taken with Husain’s.

Every particle danced with joy, the desert and the wilderness were transformed into paradise, the desert glimmered, and radiance burst forth everywhere. The river lavished sparkling froth at the Imam’s feet, the waves sprang up to caress them. Good fortune spread through the land. Flowers bloomed wherever the Imam set foot, the blossoming buds burst into laughter, Karbala’s fortunes rose higher than the heavens.

This is an excerpt from One Drop of Blood: The Story of Karbala written by Ismat Chughtai, translated by Tahira Naqvi and published by Women Unlimited. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
Ismat Chughtai is the author of several collections of short stories, three novellas, a novel, The Crooked Line, a collection of reminiscences and essays, My Friend, My Enemy, and a memoir, Kaghazi Hai Perahan (The Paper-thin Garment). She produced and co-directed six films, and produced a further six independently.
Tahira Naqvi heads the Urdu programme at New York University. Naqvi taught English for twenty years and also writes fiction in English. She has published two collections of short fiction, Attar of Roses and Other Stories of Pakistan and Dying in a Strange Country. Her short stories have been widely anthologised.