Ashfaq Saraf's story is a brooding tale of despair wrought by occupation's ugly, un-invited and brutal foray into the daily lives of Kashmiris.
Ahadjoo’s chances to Mohalla committee presidency were marred by people’s reluctance, accumulated as the competition unfolded, now that they had another man of fairly alike consequence stepping down, and not entirely of his own will. When he presided over the proceedings of a land dispute involving Hassan Mir’s distant cousins, leaning towards the claimants from very outset as Mir later concluded, it only worked to jab Mir’s patience when Ahadjoo turned to his argument and set it aside as inconsequential – he, in fact threw to him a question, ‘Has your mind been feeding on Datur?’, and continued, in the making of an insult, without pausing for an answer. The utterance, Hassan Mir felt, was another example of mental fatigue riding on the shoulders of old age. After all Ahadjoo’s claim to Mohalla committee presidency was more like an idle man’s claim to solitude. Three years after the incident, occasioned by his father’s death, Mir argued with the gravedigger concerning the depth of the grave. Ahadjoo, who was summoned on episodes of death as the default cognoscente of grave architecture available in the village dismissed Mir’s reservations by a sweeping motion of right hand. Mir held the dismissal to be a reminder of the edictal spoken three years prior; hence anything unlike a cursory observation. For the rest of the day Mir fretted as if he had been despoiled of a year’s harvest. However it was only later, close to six years afterwards, when he was married and had borne himself three children that he came closest to making a deeper sense of the question: “mind been feeding on datur?” – that afternoon his elder daughter, her olive colored eyes a marked detachment from the family, retreated into the washroom sobbing and calling after her mother who was away in the fields picking beans and corn, after Hassan Mir denied her a second bagel over afternoon tea. He nonetheless discounted the incident as a child’s antics remembering Ahadjoo, now dead, like the taste of bitter almonds in his mouth.
Hassan Mir wasn’t strongly built, the clothes he wore suggested a size smaller would fit him without hassle. His hands were longish reaching his knees and swung menacingly by his sides when he walked. No other corporal feature diminished the impression created by an enormous outline of his face, a reflection partly of the receding hairline enhanced by a pair of puny ears. His manner of speaking was invaded by an air of apprehension and he kept revisiting a decision for many days. His married life didn’t offer a radically fresh perspective, nonetheless he felt his life markedly drifting from its earlier course having someone to set eyes on every evening, accompanied by futility of all means to avoidance, otherwise workable with sisters and mother. Asking Nabla to leave him alone struck him decidedly dishonorable, so to say if he wanted to lie all by himself a particular night. He went downstairs instead and slept in another room. Silence was the first causality in her presence, though he soon realized he had grown from being a recluse to agreeably unlike one.
One afternoon sunshine was tepid and children sprinted carelessly in the nearby paddies. One of the girls called out her mother’s name, wailing as she fell headlong into a ditch. Hassan Mir suddenly recognized his wife to be a namesake of another Nabla, the twelve year old girl in the neighborhood he knew when he was ten and had determined in his mind to get married to – who disappeared mysteriously from the village one pleasant morning in the summer of year 1969 or 1970 never to be found again, much before forced disappearances became widespread in Kashmir.
The light of the dawn barely lit the room, one wondered if an evil spell was preventing the morning from breathing freely. Even if Mir had spent many nights alone in this house, truth be told, the absence of his family, when Nabla away visiting her relatives, worked time into a lengthening shadow inside which he labored like an over laden beast. Having spent more than thirty hours without contact with another soul Mir, no doubt, loathed getting out of bed, right hand slithered under his chest he lay with his face smothered into the pillow and his right leg hanging by the edge of the bed, even the reflex of turning his head hurt his nerves. The leg had grown numb outside the quilt suffering whiffs of stinging cold air filling the room in the same denseness as the tobacco smoke when he’d turned off the kerosene pressure lantern before slipping under a heavy cover of two quilts stacked together. His eyes opened transfixed on jajeer he’d hurriedly slipped into far corner of the room. Of the three blocks of windows cut into adjacent walls of the room two lay to his right looking out on the vast expanse of paddies, constantly reminding him of the haste in which he’d decided to construct the house and shift into it thinking many families would follow suit whereas nothing of the kind came about; another was in the direction of his feet overlooking a small lawn in front of the house. This parcel of Mirs’ land was fenced with a brick wall on front; the other three sides were secured by corrugated tin sheets splotched with mortar. As though following a legal precept, without a single instance of departure from the practice in memory, the curtains would be pulled, whenever he slept alone in the room, over the two windows in the right wall. The front window curtains hung undrawn, as if meant to transpire the presence of night into the room. One may only wish it were his way of not letting the night shut him out from the world of stars and moon and silence, everything day clutters away. About two hundred meters from here another villager, the medical assistant at the dispensary, resolved to build himself a house marking his piece of land and managing the preparatory dose of construction material. He never returned to take the project further. A healthy rumor, supported by heaps of freshly quarried rock, worked upon their minds and Mirs began to assume a neighbor living to the right of their house, citing it a healthy addition to the new neighborhood already comprising of themselves and Khaliq’s, though separated by fairly large swathes of paddies.
The claws of that winter, their first in isolation, shackled people with an icy grip. Days lingered and nights wallowed in perpetually swelling shades of frozen darkness. That morning air was nippier adding to the heaviness of Hassan Mir’s sleepy head weighing like a mountain on his shoulders. The motivation to abandon the quilt ran weaker as fence borders, blurredly visible through misted panes of the front window, revealed growth of more than two feet of snow. All the roads leading from and to the village were expected to suffer obstruction. A woman in the village could die in childbirth because her husband fails to take her to the nearest town for necessary medical attention, an old man might kick the bucket as his frail arthritic body no longer sustains the needed fight, a toddler pegs out when the pneumonia wrecking its lungs prevails against all remedies local expertise could muster. Of course Hassan Mir would learn about such an incident only later when preparations for the burial are already underway.
Snow had assumed shapes around objects like sculptures done hurriedly or in jest to conceal faces, it had fallen in the imitation of leaves falling off an enormous chinar and gathered like hopes in the breast of love stricken. Occasional flakes still lingered through air. Every surface crippled the skin it touched. Hasan Mir labored pushing himself over the cold surface through the cold door in the cold corridor. He came upon a swathe of white panorama. Examining the expanse of its spread and the totality in which it covered the visible frame he experienced a feeling of insignificance, similar to the one he had few days earlier looking at the peaceful waters of the river flowing through their village, he’d decided to visit it in the aftermath of villagers fishing out the dead body of a boy in his late teens. Feeling insignificant in the mundane flow of time he had allowed tranquility to take hold of his body. The unsullied whiteness of snow stood in deep contrast to the life of people in the village. It had been unshackled and soon would have no choice but to thaw, disappear and be trampled under the mournful rays of winter sun. People continued irresolutely in the cage of their frozen bodies until the winter of their lives was spent and the ensuing spring delivered them back to their origins. There was something more to the white gaze of this ubiquitous blanket, an immense presence telling man that beauty, when it follows from the finitude of life, has an ability to make us stop, turn back and rearrange our routines.
Whether his senses were experiencing a naked display of raw beauty, most uncompromised, or a sober submission to relentless forces of nature, his mind was no more inclined to resolve the dichotomy. In either case morning light was reflecting more vigorously from the snow than could have been said to travel through thickened mass of clouds. He rushed back to the room. In the meanwhile a sudden knock on the front door rattled the calm lurking between the tin sheets of the fence. Yet to make sense of the calling and slow in reaction to the displeasure, the ensuing thunderous beating against the tin frames of the door sent him into an agitated flight. Before he was anywhere near the door, he heard the dreaded ‘darwaaza kholo’.
A contingent of more than dozen army men from Rashtriya Rifles stood behind the door – impatient and wearing heavy faces. One could tell from the manner they shoved Mir aside that knocking was not a part of their protocol, rather a warning to the effect that they would have broken in (and that’s what they meant to do) even if no one answered the knock. They were led by a Sikh personnel dressed in the oddity of most probably a captain’s regimentals. He wore shades of an appearance about which one remembers nothing afterward, perhaps for the lack of it making an impression or for the kind of benign dislike it evokes. He called upon another by the name of Dilip Sharma as some kind of deputy. Only when the captain, whose name Mir later made out from his badge to be Dilbagh Singh, snuck inside following couple of them sent in before him the rest of them followed suit. Mir followed them out of a downright inability to decide otherwise. He walked, dragging himself like a fish taken out of water and left on the ground to asphyxiate. Behind him another group, trailing, comprising of six or seven men walked in lugging a half dead, or possibly a dead man – a Kashmiri. Blood trickled down the corners of man’s mouth forming a trail of semi-clotted, saliva-ridden concoction hanging by and spreading across the borders of his chin. A deep gash shone on the left side of his neck behind the ear.
In the similitude of recognizing a defeated aspiration Hassan Mir chose not to concentrate on the man’s appearance. Gasps of death, the final breathing, thought Mir as he turned away from the dying man, must count among the few associations a man holds on to, considers faithful regardless of the harshness lashing through his throat. They were dragging the man by a jute rope tied around his chest, like to a log of wood, that is. An occasional kick to his face or into the stomach seemed to ease the laborious weight of his bedraggled body from their sodden shoulders. This group of soldiers breathed in puffs of freakish triumphalism after, perhaps, so it occurred to the frozen mindset of Mir, having conquered another feet by barging into a man’s house despite his apparent unease. Two of them stood guard over the body they’d dragged in through the gate and pushed to one side, its face turned down until it sank unceremoniously into the quaggy skin of fresh snow. An outline of the man’s body as viewed from the direction of its feet got carved into the snow, as if a sculpture, a snowman fallen on its face. Inside the house military men spread like frogs across all the three rooms. The color of Rashtriya Rifle uniforms resembles the most common frogs found in Kashmir, a variety of Asian bullfrogs, a matter of pure coincidence one reckons. Once while tending to paddy in the nearby field when Hassan Mir spotted a frog, its body oozing slime summoned disgust in him, and as he lifted his eyes he heard an army personal from the patrolling party stopping by the edge of the cart road demanding Mir’s Identity card. The uncanny resemblance in the color of their appearances didn’t leave Mir unsettled, it rather assisted him in calmly offering his identity card to the trooper and the trooper, handing the identity card back to Mir met his eyes in an expression suggesting helplessness. Of the myriad formulations of uncouth in Hassan Mir’s imagination people walking over the carpets of the house wearing boots ranked in the first category.
Rashtriya Rifles men spread over the house like they had come upon a bounty. Mir must have hovered around like a shadow – merely, like the non-exigent weight of a guaranteed eventuality that these men, as if wallowing in the possibilities peculiar to this house, were unmoved by the strangeness of his position. Hassan Mir’s face was an explication of the pathetic. Inside his head began to run streaks of a mawkish fever swiveling around the possibility of being shot – could these broad, uncalled-for grins on faces of some soldiers suggest otherwise? – and dumped beside the corpse lying outside. They dragged him to the kitchen and urged him to cook lunch for the whole group. Afterwards they gobbled up the huge pot of rice and a bucketful of rajma devouring like hungry wolves the last scraps sticking to the plates. A brief outburst of invectives calling Kashmiris Deshdrohis and terrorists recoiled from each attempt to address and engage Hassan Mir in any kind of conversation. One of the men hectored Mir, many times in the day after lunch and thrashed him to his fill. He would start with certain name calling, then stare him in the eye which Mir reciprocated with due vigor, approach him with a slap followed by few kicks here and there. His anger must be stoked, thought Mir, by the certainty that they’d eventually arrive at the decision and thrust a couple of bullets into my skull, stocking up the pile.
‘We arrive at this house manned by a good-for-nothing cretin like him – a bad day indeed’, said a soldier.
‘Add to it this fucking snow; come to a hellhole and treat yourself to biting cold and these incorrigible traitors’, blurted one who’d thrashed Hassan Mir.
Dilbagh Singh added, ‘A couple of women would’ve served us good’, he grinned continuing, ‘Aye, think of using him to make us tea! Bah! I bet the women of this house know how to treat guests well!’
All of them burst out laughing. Mir cowered.
Dilbagh Singh attended to his wireless instrument with a nervous salutation of Yes Sir before and after each uttering. The day weighed upon itself, Mir began to feel that a heavy blanket of snow had been placed upon time’s shoulders – and he reveled underneath it like a half dead insect, crushed barely enough to be rendered immovable. From the group two men took turns to stand guard upon the dead body and after finishing their turn invariably sat around the bonfire Singh had asked to light in the room adjacent to kitchen after stalling the floor furnishings like a heap of rubble in one corner.
In the afternoon Mir spotted about three soldiers pissing against the tin fence. The air in the room sustained remnants of tobacco smoke from last night. He went over to the window stealing glances at the dead man, or still dying as he would have wanted to believe. He peered from the corner of the window standing upright in his position to give the soldiers passing by the door an impression of no concern. The man lay with his face turned downward, buried inside the snow, one of his hands spread out as if seeking solid ground against the eminency of slipping down a precipice – other hand lay buried underneath his body. A steady streak of blood appeared to have trickled into the fluff of snow surrounding his face turning it into the likeness of a painting whose appearance is deceptive as much as it tries to imply. Mir concluded the man dead. His hair still shining and visible through light diffuse of flakes, occasionally plummeting out of the sky since morning, was light grey – black hair dotted in a regular fashion, say in every hundred strands by one snow-white. His beard, only a clump of which was visible outside the snow – the handful beside his right ear – was darker. He lay covered in a mouse grey Pheran which grew darker with thin layers of snow melting into it. His only foot visible was naked – without a shoe, without a sock – held more than half inside the snow by the push from his body. Suddenly a thought of Nabla returning home with kids, rushing in through the gate stifled Mir’s body and he, petrified, withdrew from the window.
Someone had chanced upon the handi containing leftovers from yesternight. One of the army men ate beans in heavy gulps and drank the tomato gravy in which the beans were cooked in mouthfuls. Mir was intrigued by the spectacle – of what, when a man assumes the role of a mercenary on behalf of tyrannous state machinery, the dope of unaccountability can do to one’s body and soul: a man in most likelihood from Punjab, unused, rather repulsive in ample measure, to such an enterprise of culinary custom devours the last remnants as if falling upon his favored food in a long time. Such feeling of intrigue struck Mir later too, when away in the center of the village, behind his ancestral house, Rahim’s house was detonated to ground after two rebels trapped inside gave the Jawans of Indian army a tough time and kept them awake for two consecutive nights – that they finally resorted to detonating the structure to ground. This was after one of the battalions of Rashtriya Rifles had established an encampment in the village, stealing forty acres of land of the Khans’. One subedar Rajesh, a frequent visitor to Bilal’s shop for Paan and Gutka Masala, who’d many a time brandished naked his homely virtue of being a vegetarian asking, “How do you guys get yourselves to slaughter innocent animals?”, was seen walking away with two hens from the premises after the house was dazed to ground.
Mir halted by the door lurking wide open few steps short of two soldiers who, with their rifles slung vertical against the floor – butt touching the ground and metal of the barrel held between fingers – were involved in a subdued conversation. Inside the room most of the army men crowded around fire lit after banging open a deodar cupboard in the attic in use for housing copperware. Oddly without a rifle that Mir had failed to notice at the first sight of this lean, emaciated man wearing a gray moustache spread a little beyond the bony frame of his cheeks, Subedar Dilip Sharma carried another wireless instrument standing in rapt attention behind Dilbagh Singh who smoked cigarettes sitting in a plastic chair without pause while constantly attending to the walkie-talkie held like a mirror few inches below his face. Another group of soldiers, three in number as Mir ran a gaze across them to make a count, leaned from windows flung open to let the smoke out, rifles slung by their necks, were spitting tobacco while they muttered between themselves. Finishing his turn watching over the dead man the soldier who, without any gesture of announcement whatsoever, most certainly because the entrance door was left open too, stormed in hurling at Mir a question – ‘How about you watching over your bastard brother there, huh?’ – who in turn, because the soldier briefly stared at him continuing towards left corner where another bunch sat shoulder to shoulder on the piled up carpet, failed to extend a response and rather slowly, as if on unwieldy limbs, moved few inches away from his spot grabbing at the door handle. Vertically above bonfire lime washed ceiling had begun to blacken in a fairly large patch, the smoke after hitting against it swam horizontally left and right until it pervaded the room stifling the air or slipped out through the windows and the door. Hasan Mir stood there for hours at end, though he later recalled squatting down once for a brief respite interrupted by another soldier looking for a matchbox. No corner in the house was, as though, worthy of an escape and so, in order to steer clear of the Satan of cowardice, he had to sit near them and lend himself freely to abuse, laughter and a possibility of being shot at.
By 5’O clock dusk began to gather on the walls – whitewashed, these reflectors began to dull in their appearance when looked at from a distance. Dilbagh Singh had been on the wireless for good forty-five minutes now. A hoarse chalo followed few of them getting up and strapping their pouches back on. Last of the men left the house in a heavy thud. Left to his own devices Hassan Mir reclined briefly against the door of that room. Two gunshots were fired. He wondered if the impending calm of approaching evening portended a stirring of hitherto untouched voices inside his head.
From the same window he saw the corpse surrounded by a pool of red snow, steadily increasing in diameter. Bigger flakes of snow had begun to fall. Mir allowed himself to be persuaded by the idea that he had no choice but to wait for the night to pass by. After all he had to live with a dead man for the night. He felt an uncanny presence pleading him to ignore it, to let the presence pass to another world where events turn into memories and time evanesces. Summoning a fresh bout of energy Hassan Mir ran for the attic to fetch a spade and leapt out. Inches of fresh snow had gathered over the disappearing parts of dead body. A spot shone red on his back. Looking up one saw fat flakes of snow falling, appearing as if magically out of their free will, dancing in the fading firmament of dusk and disappearing well before touching the white blanket on the ground. Around the body of that faceless man snowflakes mutilated into a shapeless mass of red, reluctantly giving up their faces and merging with the fate of one whose body was condemned to the vagaries of winter sky.
Hassan Mir buried the body under spadesful of snow and went inside. By now evening was undeniably visible inside the house. He lowered curtains over the windows to the right of the bed and slipped under the blanket cover closing the door behind him. Outside the front window, in the lawn the light had not faded in its entirety. White glow emanated from the snow-skin of every object lying motionless inside the hems of an all-pervasive embrace which seemed to have taken everything under its aegis. Bigger flakes were visible through the misted glass panes of the front window, long strings hanging in the air, being snapped here, re-forming nearby. What was between Mir and the corpse? He looked in the direction of the man. The wall stared back at him as though with the eyes borrowed from the body getting buried under the snow – already buried in the snow.
Hassan Mir stood up, walked towards it and drew the curtains over the front window plunging the whole room into pitch darkness.