August, A River and Other Unmovable Entities

                                                   

In this story, Sadaf Wani presents a memory of an everyday that persists. It touches upon the relationship between gender and city-spaces in militarized Kashmir, narrated by a spirit that wanders around the city picking up peculiarities and stories.

Sometimes, they say the word peace, like a child recites Ayat-ul-Kursi, in the dead of the night, not knowing what is it that she’s scared of, but hoping the invocation will make it go away.

I remember the time when I was a spirit. I carried in me no flesh or blood. Back then, I would wander across neighbourhoods and streets, but I would always find myself coming back to two little girls, who lived across the Jhelum. I would always follow them whenever they met each other. Individually, their lives did not interest me, but when they were together I liked to linger around them.  I  had tried to be around them when they were home, but I found their footpaths covered with a thick slime that feels like sadness.

If sadness had a material existence, I imagine it to be a thick viscous  fluid. If you don’t move and lay still it doesn’t entangle you. It immobilizes you but does no harm. But if you try to sort it out by compartmentalizing it into neat folds, you find yourself in a web of gloom and anger with no way out. The two girls were always caught in angry motion, sorting out their threads, except when they met each other. Then they lay still. I liked their stillness. I would follow them across the Jhelum, and dance in jubilation to see, how them walking together would put the ripples in the river to rest. When they walked along the banks, I could see the river relaxing its crinkles and wrinkles, and the water would arrange itself into a neat symmetry.

The Jhelum looked like Maroof Saheb’s bed in the morning. He couldn’t make himself leave the room, until every single crease of the bedsheet had been pushed towards the corners and released into the loose ends.

The girls as they walked, talked incessantly. For the most part, I did not listen to what they talked about. I walked with them, sometimes to see the number of things they did not see. And amongst the things they did not see, was that their words today were the same as yesterday, and the day before.

Yesterday, they walked across the bridge that leads to the old town. The road on the bridge is smudged by broken bricks and rocks, and some of the bricks have disintegrated to form an orange powder.  They walked across the bridge, holding each other’s hand and laughing. One of them kicked a small stone into the river, and the other one applauded, impressed by the unlikely accuracy of the attempt. They crossed the bridge to reach the vendor who sells nader monje at the end of street. Immersed in their conversation, they reached the street vendor, and asked for the monje, “extra chutney!” asked one excitedly.

There are hardly any women who purchase directly from the vendor. They usually send their male companions to fetch the snack, and then eat it in the privacy of their homes, or away from the public gaze. Although, while wandering around the vendor, I have seen young women hurriedly making purchases, and walking away with a glimmer of thrill and excitement in their eyes. They avert eye contact with the vendor, as if suggesting, that the memory of this exchange be forgotten, and they hide the plastic bag with the monje in the most opaque of their carry bags. However, the frequency of their visits has decreased since last year, when an army camp sprung around the corner of the street.

The girls received their packet of nader monje wrapped in a newspaper and packed in a white polythene bag. They took it and sat on a staircase of a closed shop just opposite to the vendor, talking and relishing the crunch of the fried lotus stems.  I noticed a patrolling soldier near the shop,  who started leering at the girls.  His eyes trying to scan their underdeveloped breasts. He tried  making obscene noises with his mouth, in an attempt to make the girls notice his presence. However, between the talking and eating, he went unnoticed. His pride slightly bruised, he walked away towards the other end of the street.

The men who were sitting beside the vendor, waiting for their orders, all noticed the soldier’s gesture. They were alarmed and angry and felt the need to acknowledge that they saw. Sometimes, silence makes humiliation weigh heavier. Since the soldier had left, they began talking amongst themselves. Telling each other, how women these days have lost all sense of shame. A young man in his early 20s, looked up from his phone, to inquire if his monje were ready. Reading the mood of the gathering, he nodded in agreement that indeed women had lost all sense of morality. Taking his monje, he sat by the corner, redialling the number of the woman who he had been trying to pursue, to see if she would respond this time.

Seized by the curiosity of his fate, I spent more time watching the young man than I had intended. I panicked at the realization that I had lost track of the girls. I moved hurriedly, only to find them walking towards the bus stand.

The clock was about to strike 1:10, it was the time for Friday prayers. The shopkeepers shut their shops as they went off to the mosque. No one had any hope of resuming business after the prayers, so the shutters went down for the day. People in the market were filling in buses to clear out the space for what is to follow after the prayers. The girls walked towards the bus stop and found two buses that would lead them home. They said their goodbyes and boarded their buses. My stillness started to crack. I sat and wondered if I should go back to see if the young man was done eating.

Suddenly, I saw both the girls, excitedly deboarding from the same bus, just as it had started to move. The conductor looked puzzled but didn’t seem to care much. As they deboarded, the initial excitement had given way to a sense of gravity to their movement. I could see them walking, absentmindedly in the opposite direction. One of them was gesticulating with her hands, and the other one nodded in a passive approval.

I followed them for a while, I looked around to see that the market was deserted and so were the streets that led away from the market. A couple of vendors were plodding their carts, and one shopkeeper had returned to take something that he seemed to have forgotten in his shop. The girls kept walking, and as the streets got quieter, the sound of their voices was the only sound that reverberated in the market. I perceived danger. Men have a surprising ability for cruelty. Even spirits dread that.  I moved from street to street, to see if anyone else was around, who could harm or help them. I kept going further and further, to look for someone. Their voices were  fainting into muffles, and soon dissolved into a silence.

The stillness cracked. Even with no skin, I could physically feel the breaking of something as concrete as matter. The stories that I had written and heard, came back like a violent tide, in the middle of an angry night.  I could see a well decorated hall, an inconsolable middle aged man, being comforted by another man, fully knowing his words don’t mean anything. I could taste the gloom of that house, on an unfortunate afternoon in August. I tried to claw myself, to catch and remove, whatever it was in me that could taste that gloom. Maybe I could drown the taste with myself. I did not know if spirits could drown.

I walked up to the bridge. To the river I hate. The river that reeks of cowardice. I looked into the water with resentment and hate. Then I noticed that Jhelum had arranged itself into a neat pattern, like Maroof Saheb’s bedsheet. A sense of dread crippled me. I walked back towards the streets, and there I saw a shadow of a girl walking by. I looked closely and another shadow emerged from her. The girls were jumping from one leaf to another to see whose dried leaf made the loudest crackling sound. Sometimes the girl excitedly followed her friend, and sometimes she found a bigger leaf to step on. As she jumped on another leaf, I heard, clearly, the sound of crackling of a dried poplar leaf. I turned back to see, it is harud.