Iqbal Sonaullah's beautiful short-story, which took eternal time to publish.
THIS unnerving darkness has obscured everything. I hold my breath as I walk past the graveyard. Across the graveyard, behind the façade of dense poplar trees, is my small maktab, where young boys gather in the evening to learn the Quran.
Gentle strokes of breeze floating over from the graveyard carry an odour of blossoming roses. Officially, it is spring in the valley, but the chill still claims the night and both edges of the day. I pull my hands inside my pheran. Not far from where I am walking, a spectre emerges from a lane that leads into the overgrown bushes of the deserted graveyard. My eyes meander around. Unmindfully, I slow down. The spectre resolves itself. I notice a mask shrouding his face and a gun slung across his shoulder.
My heart sinks. I stop without being told to. Two young boys, who belonged to the Noble Clan, were killed by unidentified gunmen inside this graveyard a week ago. In my village, such killings are almost always associated with militants. In the gossip circles of the village, the duo has been affirmed as mukhbir—police informers. Since their killing, a shroud of fear has enveloped our village.
The gunman comes closer. With his every step, fear grips me tighter. He pulls out a torch and shines it over my face. I feel breathless. “So it is you,” he says and motions me to move towards the graveyard.
I don’t utter a word. Maybe this is my end. Deep inside my heart, I beg God’s forgiveness and walk through the graveyard, further and further into the dark dense overgrowth. Amid the wild shrubbery, the gunman leads me to a corner so unvisited by humans that a strange stillness appears to rein the air. He sits on the trunk of a huge boen surrounded by pansies, holding the gun in his lap. I stand frozen. I close my eyes and think about Ammi.
The gunman glances around as if making sure we are not being followed.
“Do you still believe Nobles are essential for the freedom struggle?” he asks. I know my answer but I don’t want to risk uttering it; both a “yes” and a “no” can land me in trouble. The gunman removes his mask. In the dim light of the evening I try to make out his face. “Oh my God!,” I blurt out.
It’s Rashid, my childhood friend. He comes closer and holds me in an embrace. I break down out of relief and excitement. “I have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” I say, looking into his eyes.
"I'm sure you have been waiting." He smiles.
Five years ago, Rashid crossed the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, for arms training. Back then we were children. Five years later, I haven’t grown much; but Rashid is a man. We sit in the graveyard for a long time and revisit our memories, of love, joy, freedom, and madness.
Rashid narrates stories of his years as a militant, not letting a word pass his lips without calculated feeling. I hold his gun, stare at it and run my trembling hands over it. A feeling of power runs through my body. We talk for a long time. I suddenly realize it is late; I have never been out so late in the night. Ammi must be worried.
“Can I ask you something,” Rashid says. “How is Shafan?”
I, Shafan and Rashid studied together for eight years in our village school. There was no school as such; the school building that was constructed after years of donation by villagers was occupied by Indian army when militancy erupted in Kashmir. So, during the cold season we studied inside small makeshift tin rooms and during summers teachers preferred to give lectures in the shade of trees. There were no chairs, no study tables, and at time not even the prickly coir mates in the classrooms. One blackboard was used by two teachers at a time to teach two different classes sitting on the opposite sides. The village was not wealthy enough to construct another school building anytime soon or to lend support to purchase the basic school furniture again. So during the vacant classes, teachers and students would gather grass and soil and knead it using water to make bricks for the construction of the new school building.
In a class of 15 hot-headed students, I and Rashid were the only pacifists. Everyone else endorsed militancy. So the class was subtly divided into two groups. Though Rashid was the most intelligent student in the class, in any debate concerning the politics of Kashmir, the opposition, led by Shafan, had better arguments and anecdotes to contest our pacifism victoriously. Students talked about Gowkadal massacre, Bijbehara massacre, Sopore massacre and so on. As the conflict intensified, and militancy grew stronger and widespread, several of my classmates, one after another, joined militant ranks. Rashid remained unmoved and convinced that solution results from negotiations. “Violence benefits no one,” used to be his punchline.
Rashid and Shafan had something in common though; they were born on the same day. For all of us, birthday was like another day. No celebrations. Most of the times, we didn’t even remember our birthdays. But that was not the case with Shafan. Every year, she would remind Rashid about the birthday. I never saw Rashid feeling excited about it.
On the day our high school results were declared, our village radiated happiness. High school results shape the identity of people among village elders. Rashid had secured the top position. But he was nowhere to be seen among the gathering of celebrating classmates. I ran to his home to deliver the news. His mother greeted me and gave me candies when I told her about the results. I asked for Rashid. She said Rashid had left home early in the morning saying he is going for some important work. I ran back to the schoolyard and joined other joyous classmates. Everyone talked about the grades; grades talked about Rashid. I had barely managed to pass. In a while Shafan arrived. I congratulated her. She asked about Rashid. The conspicuous smile of a beautiful young girl followed.
Late in the evening I went back home with my report card. My parents never expected me to pass given my “efforts” during the exams. So I was adored. I slept with contentment that night.
When I woke up in the morning a sizzling disquiet had descended upon the village. Ammi called me for breakfast. Her face was wrinkled with worry. I remained silent for a moment trying to grasp the situation. Eventually I had to ask, “Ammi. Why are you so tense?”
“Another group has left to cross the border for arms’ training,” she said, her voice trembling a little as she avoided my gaze and kept moving dishes here and there unnecessarily.
“What is there to worry about?” I replied, trying to calm the tempers. “It has been happening for so many years now.”
I finished breakfast and left for the foothills adjacent to my home. This place was quite significant in our village. For decades it had been used for congregational prayers and marriage ceremonies and other large get-togethers. After the emergence of militancy, the place hosts no festivity. Now, it is used by the Indian army to assemble villagers during crackdown. I heard talk about Rashid, but this time it was not about grades. Rashid had crossed the border with a group last night. Now I understood the look on Ammi’s face.
For the next few days, Ammi remained visibly anxious, probably thinking about the situation that prompted Rashid to cross the border. Although I never endorsed militancy, Rashid’s move had a direct impact on my life. In her mind, Ammi took a decision that was to shape my future. At such times, she did not deem my opinion about my future significant. Next month, I was sent to my uncle’s place, far away from my village, to study further. Shafan and other classmates continued their studies in a local college.
I look at Rashid with some bewilderment. What makes him ask about Shafan? In the classroom they barely talked to each other. There wasn’t much in common between them. I don’t know about Shafan, but Rashid did not like her. Or did he? Maybe he just concealed it from me. Maybe he never got the time to tell me. At any rate, some things are too personal to be shared. Shafan had also asked about Rashid on the day our high school results were declared. I had ignored it, believing it to be a normal query. In the excitement of the results, I could not grasp the urgency behind that query. This second question from Rashid offers a new meaning to Shafan’s first.
The graveyard returns to normalcy as silence reigns over it for a while. I want to know more but this is no time to ask counter-questions. I fight my impulse and try to appear calm. “After you left, I was sent to my uncle’s place for further studies. I returned just two weeks ago to finish the last year of college from my home. During the years of my stay at uncle’s place, I have never met Shafan or anyone of our schoolmates,” I said.
“Ah. You seem to have fallen in love with loneliness. Such a brave, young man you have grown into,” he says with a certain twist of humour in his voice.
“I am going to college tomorrow. I can meet Shafan there. Do you want me to pass a message,” I reply with a bit of concern that I may be saying more than I should.
“No, no. Not at all. What message would I need to send her? I was just asking for the sake of it,” is Rashid’s composed reply. He doesn’t appear disturbed by the question I had asked.
So I continue, “Can I ask you something?”
For all these years I have carried the burden of this question in my heart. I felt guilty for not knowing the reason why Rashid chose to become a militant. I was completely in the dark about my best friend’s most important decision in life. In the village, people believe that I knew about Rashid’s plans; some curse me for letting him go, others for not going along. Nobody ever openly confronted me, but their behaviour towards me changed. Now, I have a chance to know why he left.
“Ask,” Rashid breaks my chain of thought.
“Why did you become a militant?”
He takes a little pause before replying, a way of dismissing my request as a casual remark. “It is all about realization. All these intellectual debates are fine as long as they don’t dilute the purpose and sincerity of our resistance. But when resistance is held hostage to politically manipulated truisms, people don’t have many options.”
I don’t really understand what Rashid is referring to. We decide to make a move and meet the next Sunday. He leaves for the nearby forests. I walk back home.
I knock at the door, expecting a barrage of questions from Ammi for being out so late. The door opens, she says nothing, but the paleness and wrinkles of worry on her face say it all. Ammi is not old. Although she doesn’t remember her actual date of birth, but she believes she must be around 50. Grey hair and the wrinkles of worry on her face make her look older. Whenever she has to walk around, she needs a walking stick to balance herself. Her instable health condition binds me with to an enhanced responsibility: Once I finish my day at college, I work at a small patch of land near our house where we grow vegetables. Ammi is very particular about rearing poultry. I have to take care of it. In the evening, when the cattle return home, she milks the goat. All this forces me to return home early. Today, I have failed my responsibility.
Ammi continues to look into my eyes, waiting for an answer to a question she did not ask.“I was at my friend’s place,” I say. She smiles, as if saying, I am your mother, I know when you lie.
"I have had my dinner there," I add on, trying to assert that I was not lying and walk into my room. She nevertheless gets me some fruits, possibly to re-establish that she knows me better.
“Tomorrow is Monday, your first day of college. Do wake up early,” Ammi says and departs. I lie down on my bed thinking about the meadows.
THE REVERBERATIONS of azan wake me up early the next morning. Some part of me resembling will draws the rest of me out of the bed. In the adjacent room, Ammi is already up. Like all the mothers in my village, she wakes up early and prays till dawn ascends into morning. She has been persuading me to wake up early and offer prayers as well. I have been ignoring her advice all the while. Today, without her prodding, I stand beside her, still and disciplined in devotion to God. Every morning, Ammi lights the traditional hearth that burns wood and cooks meals for me and my two other siblings—Burhan and Batool. We offer prayers and sit for nun chai. I finish the breakfast and go to my room and put on the college uniform. Ammi sees me off at the main entrance, reciting blessings.
I walk along the banks of the Zainagair stream that runs through the village towards the bus-stand. My village is nestled in the baby ranges of the Himalayas. Dense forests border it to the east and the north, and apple orchards to the west. In summers the mountain wears an emerald look; in winters hope of a better spring covers its green pastures with snow. The strategic location of the village and the ardent pro-freedom sentiment of its people has made it a suitable shelter for militants. Aware of this, the Indian army set up a camp on a hilltop to the North two years ago. Since the armed resistance broke out in Kashmir, the number of soldiers has been growing continuously. Unnecessary intimidation, card-checking, frisking and torture have become the norm. Last month, the army from this camp arrested two youth from the neighbourhood. Both of the two were passionate cricketers. After being detained for around a week, they were tortured to death. Today, graves adorned with epitaphs eulogizing their sacrifice remain a silent reminder of their being.
In our village, everyone knows everyone—less because of kinship and more because of the bond of collective grief that people share. As children, we would play a hide-and-seek type game known as military–mujahid (soldier and militant). The heroism of militants was so sacred and so celebrated that no one would ever want to perform the role as military. We would divide into two groups and then toss a coin; the losing team would have to be military group. We would walk inside any house, hide anywhere, and stay as long as we could. The more one would evade being found, the better a mujahid you were. One evening, I hid inside a wooden cupboard in one of our neighbours’ kitchen. Somehow the other children took a little too long to find me out. I fell asleep. Hours later, some commotion woke me up. I instantly came out of the cupboard and hurried out of the house. The entire village had gathered around my house. The leaves on the trees around our house drooped with tension. From a distance, one of my friends saw me heading towards the gathering. Sensing that I was the answer to the puzzle they were all trying to crack, and that I might get a good whacking, I started to bawl. Everyone ran towards me. Ammi hugged me tightly. The tension gradually faded and people started to walk back to their homes and the leaves returned to their normal state.
It was all so pleasant back then.
I sit on the banks of the stream and smile at the distorted reflection that appears in the water. My mind is preoccupied with the events of the last night. The bus comes along. I do not notice how I reach the college entrance.
THE FIRST day at the new campus is populated by strangeness. Dozens of unknown faces stare at me as I walk into the classroom. I sit on a wooden bench near a broken window. The class is divided into small gossip circles. People unwittingly laugh at each other. This reminds me of my school days. In a while, teacher comes and introduces a topic about the politics of ancient India. I open the book and surf through its contents. The book doesn’t even vaguely touch the politics of Kashmir. “Such curriculum is a greater misery. Instead of enlightening, it pushes us further into ignorance. But I suppose a pacifist like you will not have a problem with that,” someone sitting on the bench behind me whispers. I turn around. My gaze falls on a rather familiar face. For a moment, time seemed to surrender its procession. She looks only a bit like Shafan who I have known in high school. How much can people change?
She is beaming at me.
The class is over. Shafan and I stroll towards the swarming town market where we are to board the bus back to our village. She talks all the way, while I listen. I feel being driven by everything she possesses; the glow of life emanating from her, the way she says every word with eloquence, these gestures of an orator, these spotless expressions; she appears to own the secret of authenticity. Her petite build belies her tenacious sprit. She romances with the idea of freedom more than Rashid. Whenever we talk, she draws delightful metaphorical references demonstrating an urge to be free. I listen and listen till I fall into thinking.
Is this why our teachers always acknowledged her answers more than others’? Is this why she always got better grades than most of us? Is it why Rashid asked about her last night? During my high school days, Ammi always referred to her whenever she had to encourage me or advice about something. I would dislike Shafan for that.
“Hey,” Shafan suddenly pats me on my back, “are you there?”
I smile, and try to look a bit like Rashid.
“How is your friend,” she says. “You have been home for quite some time. Must have met him.” These words strike my ears like an arrow. I try to correlate the two questions—the one asked by Rashid last night and the one Shafan is asking at the moment. Does she already know I have met Rashid or is she asking casually?
“You two happen to sail in the same boat. I still have good faith in my principles. So there is no reason for us to meet.” I try to conceal my nervousness. She looks into my face trying to notice something; probably my pretention is weak enough to mask the truth.
“Maybe we are not on the same side,” she says and laughs.
We board the bus. We sit together and keep talking, digging into past and recollecting the memories of our childhood, laughing over silly things we did back then. It appears that the loneliness of five years weighed less than the glory of these few moments.
Dark clouds lurk over the Himalayas. It has rained all day long but the sky is still gloomy. Militants prefer to move around in the dark. In an hour I am to meet Rashid. I leave my house and walk towards the maktab. The lane that leads to it looks abandoned and unusually calm.
But I keep walking.
From a distance somebody shouts at me. I look around. Oh God! The army has laid an ambush. I shudder. I pretend to be calm and walk ahead without looking into the soldiers’ eyes. Scary thoughts run through my head. Is the army here to arrest me? Do they know that Rashid and I met a week ago? I surrender myself to my fate and pray to God to make Rashid stay away.
Without inquiring where I am going, an army man asks me to turn back. My feet wobble. If I resist, they may ask dozens of questions about where I was going. My resistance can put all students of the maktab at risk. I walk back home.
I open the door to see Ammi waiting for me. She asks nothing. We sit together inside the kitchen and start our dinner. I don’t feel like eating. But if I don’t eat, I will have to give a reason. My reason is my secret, and secrets are not sacrificed for the sake of reason. We finish the dinner and Ammi gets busy in washing the dishes.
I perform ablution, return to my room and start to pray. Tonight, I offer prayers with as much piety as I can. Burhan and Batool sleep in Ammi’s room. Ammi comes to my room several times before I sleep. She notices silent storm in my tense body but does not ask a single question. I extinguish the oil lantern. Worry and anxiety make my eyes wander in the darkness. Cynicism takes over. In a flash, a sputter of gunfire echoes from the mountains. Heavy firing follows. My silence tears open into cries. I have always tried to make Ammi believe her son is brave. But right now I am so helpless. Ammi sits down and holds me in her embrace, trying to console me.
Firing stops sometime around midnight. In my room, the silence reigns: The sinister silence, the silence of the graveyard, the silence of surrender, the silence of helplessness, the silence of guilt. Ammi leaves the room. I stare emptily into the packed darkness of my room. My eyes refuse to close, waiting for the dawn to reveal what I already know. Suddenly, there is another sputter of gunshots. In no time, the mountains relay back someone’s screams. I get out of the bed and rush into Ammi’s room. She is praying. God knows when she woke up. I sit beside her, shivering and nervous, only to realize that the screams are getting louder and louder. Ammi raises the thread of the oil lantern and puts her hand over my head to calm me. Moments pass by. I hear a sound. On the road, right outside my window, some people are talking. The sound grows louder and louder. Somebody knocks at the door.
Fear climbs up my back, weighing me down. But there is no option. I take a long breath and walk slowly towards the door. It is Altamash, my cousin.
“What happened?” I ask.
He doesn’t respond. He holds my hand and walks me through a narrow lane. Many people are walking in the same direction. In this darkness it’s hard to recognize anyone. We run and run till we are close to Shafan’s house. The screams are no longer unidentified. Shafan’s mother, elder sister and father are inconsolable. I free my hand from Altamash’s hold and walk into the courtyard. People have gathered around a dead body lying on ground. I make my way through the crowd. Lying on the ground is Shafan, her face looks pale in the glow of the oil lantern. I sit down and hold her hand. I feel the cold of death. My feet quiver as I try to get up and walk back. It feels as if my heart has stopped. I take a few steps away and fall to the ground.
I WAKE up in my bed, numb. It is late in the evening. Altamash and Ammi are sitting near me. Silent. I look towards Ammi. A smile of relief spreads on her face. Without saying anything, she leaves the room. Altamash comes closer and sits on a wooden stool near my bed. He puts his hand on my head and rubs my hair to calm me down.
“How did it happen,” I ask.
Altamash heaves a sigh and begins to speak in such a low tone as though he wants to make sure that I do not understand what he has to say properly. Rashid, along with a few other militants were going to visit the village. The army had information about them. They cordoned off the village at the descent of dusk. Later in the evening, they laid an ambush near the graveyard. When the militants were walking downhill, the army fired upon them. Rashid was martyred but the other militants managed to escape. Sometime past midnight, unidentified gunmen stormed into Shafan’s house and killed her. We buried them alongside each other in the morning.
Two days have passed since their death. I wake up early and leave for the masjid to offer fajr prayers. Inside the masjid, people sit scattered but calm, lost in their thoughts, waiting for the imam to lead the prayers. I sit silently in the last row and think about Rashid. People gather in queues behind the imam. I leave the masjid immediately after the prayers. As I walk past the graveyard, two elderly men are adorning the two fresh graves with petals. I walk back home and prepare a small rucksack. Through a creak in the door, I peep into Ammi’s room for one last glimpse. She is praying. Burhan and Batool lay asleep. I whisper goodbye and depart towards the mountain.