The two oblique lines intersecting at the center creating the alphabet X is an enigmatically mysterious symbol used to denote anything that does not carry an identity, is inexplicable or unknown. To give a few examples, this unique letter has been used to mark spots on maps, featured in the title of a mystery television series on the subject of Alien Abductions, denotes a little understood chromosome in DNA chains and categorizes forbidden adult media.

My first exposure to ‘X’ was through the red ink of my mathematics teacher in school, when test papers were returned after being marked. On these occasions, my desperate search for a respectable number of ‘ticks’ failed dismally because of the overwhelming number of ‘Xs’. Only I can recall the pain and stress of sleepless nights and excruciatingly hard work, when some years later, I managed to graduate with honors as a Systems Engineer, having obtained an unbelievably high percentage in Advanced Maths. On that momentous day, an old school mate, who had witnessed my battle with numbers, remarked that I had been saved by the X Factor.

I came across this X Factor many times during my professional career, when I came across people with ordinary appearances, but who immediately impressed those around them with a mysterious charismatic aura that exuded from them. I remember a former colleague of mine – a tall gangly, plain looking individual, apt to be totally ignored at first glance, suddenly become the center of an eagerly listening crowd, whenever he spoke from the rostrum.

‘X’ also has a traditional relationship with tales of hidden treasure, where this cryptic symbol marks the spot on the map, where a chest full of gold and gems lies hidden. At times the spot marked with two crossed lines is in the treasure seekers head, as happened in the case of our old domestic named Ayub. This wonderful individual was raised as a child by my paternal grandfather, sent into the Army during the Second World War and on demobilisation, had returned to his surrogate family. In 1947, he took a train and surviving certain death during the journey, sought out our home in Lahore, where he stayed till his passing.

Our house on Queens Road was located in the pre independence Civil Lines Area, built upon an ancient grave yard, along what had once been a dirt road to Ferozepur via the villages of Mozang and Ichra. It was therefore not surprising that our ‘mali’ often dug up bones and skulls from the compound, when excavating pits to put in new trees. Then one day we found our old World War II veteran moving around the compound in a most unnatural manner. He would move from one point to another as if carefully measuring his steps. At the end of each trek, he would stop and make a ninety degrees turn and once again pace himself. A few days later, the mali reported that beds at various spots in the garden had been dug up and on one occasion, he had even caught the culprit – Ayub.

A ‘court of inquiry’ was immediately convened, headed by my father and the defaulter was summoned to clarify his ‘misdemeanor’. The proceedings and their findings provided us with hours of laughter for many years thereafter. The best part was that the man at the center of the ‘digging’ activity, shared these moments of fun with equal good humor.

It turned out that during his discussion with some people at a shrine next door, Ayub had overheard of a legendary ‘deg’ full of gold that had been buried by bandits more than a century ago somewhere around the place, where the house now stood (banditry was once the chief source of sustenance for the people of Mozang Village, who waylaid travellers on their way to and from Ferozepur). Fired by the notion of finding this treasure, Ayub had taken to pacing out every foot of the compound and digging, in the hope of striking gold.

All narratives featuring ‘X’ indicate that no matter how much mankind may progress, this third last alphabet will continue to figure in humankind’s daily life, for without it, how on earth would we be able to explain the unexplained? Imagine a world without ‘the two oblique lines, intersecting at the center’, where we will be buried under tons of inexplicable data that cannot be put disposed-off, by simply classifying it as ‘X’.

 

The writer is a historian.