Fear is a ubiquitous element of being and yet it engenders a singular vocabulary for all of us. Khurram is one such portrait of the vocabulary of fear.
Sitting next to a window on the third bench of the first row, she looked out at the sky squinting her eyes. Against the backdrop of the blue sky, through the narrow gap between her eyelids, she could see transparent wiggly worm-like figures stacked against each other. They were spread across the sky as far as she could see. Although they were transparent, their boundaries were enhanced and that’s how she could see all the variety they had, in shapes and sizes. They were always moving and they always seemed to be falling down. She held out her hand to catch them as they fell down but they never seemed to reach her hand. They would always get lost somewhere between her eyes and fingers. Sometimes she suspected that they wiggled away through the gap between her fingers.
It was an unusually hot day for June, so the recess break had been uncharacteristically unpleasant. Students were filling in classes even before the time for recess had expired. She too ran across the stairs to reach the classroom. Holding the sill of the door panting, she pushed herself inside. As she entered the classroom her steps slowed down upon realizing that a bunch of her classmates had huddled up on the last two benches of the first row.
Suddenly she became very conscious of the sweat drops that were trickling down from her forehead and that she was standing there unaccompanied. She felt a strange sense of shame rise from her gut. A sudden desire to be unseen. So she quickly rushed towards her bench, taking out her books and water bottle from the bag. As if justifying her presence, she pretended to be looking for a lost item in her bag.
Her classmates, however, seemed unperturbed by her entrance and oblivious to her performance. All their heads were titled towards Hafsa who seemed to be the one talking. She was whispering while trying to be audible, so her tone was inconsistent. Hafsa’s loud whispers invoked her curiosity and she wanted to listen to what was being talked about. So she held back her breath in an attempt to catch the fragments of conversation happening a couple of benches away. She could hear Hafsa mention that she had overheard her sister talking to her friend. This was followed by mumbling sounds. The sound of her breath was making it harder to follow their conversation. So she held her breath again, managing to catch a couple of words from the fleeting sentences this time….mine blast…Zang….Khurram. She exhaled the air she had been withholding. She could not understand what they were talking about. But these words made her chest feel heavy and she did not want to listen anymore. She got up, stepped out and started running along the busy corridors.
Two class periods and hundreds of sentences had passed since the recess break, but the words she had heard continued to reverberate in her head. She had tried to forget about them, but they would find their way back into her head every now and then. On top of this, her mouth had started to taste bitter ever since. She tried drinking water to wash away the taste, but no amount of water helped. Defeated, she looked out of the window squinting her eyes. The wiggly worms appeared. She lifted her left hand and bought her index finger closer to her eye in an attempt to feel one of them. She thought since wiggly worms are spread across the sky, they must be spread across Khurram too. She withdrew her hand and opened her eyes. They wiggly worms went away. But what must Khurram look like? Is Khurram from the First Yellow? She had only made friends from First Red and not the Yellow section. She began to regret it. She picked up her pencil and started copying things from the blackboard onto her notebook. After copying two questions, she paused. Where did Khurram find the mine? Did he cry when he stepped on the mine? His parents must be very mad. They must have scolded him a lot for stepping on the mine. From what she had seen on T.V she tried to visualize the explosion. The thought of stepping on something that would burst into fire and screams made her flinch and she dug her fingers into her thigh and held it tightly.
She started thinking about the number of things she wouldn’t be able to do if she lost her leg. She wouldn’t be able to rub the chalkboard with the duster or go the staff room to collect marked notebooks. No one would make her the monitor of the class because she wouldn’t be able to chase students who don’t keep quiet. This filled her with a sense of loss and she started to feel sorry for herself.
Troubled by her thoughts, she looked around to find Hafsa. Hafsa looked unperturbed, she was diligently writing in her notebook. She glanced across the classroom to see if anyone shares her fears and her gaze ruefully settled down at the sight of other people’s legs. She tried to focus on the blackboard, but her eyes kept sliding down to her math’s teacher’s legs. If she lost her legs, how would she rub the top of the blackboard where no one else reaches? Her worried gaze caught her teacher’s attention. The eye contact made her heart beat very fast. Had her teacher heard what she just thought? She began to feel guilty about the morbidity of her thoughts.
A long day at school had finally come to its end, so she rushed back home. She ran inside the house, directly into the living room. There she saw her mother sitting on the bed with her eyes closed. A thin blanket was covering her body. An overwhelming sense of panic gripped her. She ran towards the bed and pushed away the blanket, dragging it down to the floor. A plate of half peeled oranges that had been resting on the blanket smashed across the wall, making a loud startling sound. Orange peels and seeds scattered in all directions.
Standing closer to the bed she inspected her mother’s legs and let out a sigh of relief! Her mother, who had not been expecting this discourteous awakening, got up in a fit of rage and began to pick up orange seeds and peels from the floor. Cursing her intermittently, she sent her away to change her uniform. She slowly moved into the other room, locking the door behind her with trembling hands. The silence in the empty room became overbearing for her and the sound of the ticking clock, frightening. She had never realized the hands of clock make these loud ominous noises. She kept staring at the clock, until the movement of the second’s hand became blurred. And before she knew, tears were streaming out of her eyes, one after another. She touched her wet cheeks with her fingers, little surprised that she could cry without making any sound.
Crying was a spectacle whose importance she understood. She knew it could make things better, because everyone would forget what they were mad about and start consoling her. So whenever she had cried, she ensured that everyone witnessed her grief and offered consolation and hugs. However, this time she found these tears too heavy to take to her mother. She could not get up and carry their weight across the hall. She did not know why but she did not want to be seen crying in that empty room.
Later that night after dinner, she was watching a movie tucked between her parents. As the movie progressed, in one of the scenes she saw an ambulance speeding on the road. The siren was blurring and people rushing. Mine blast…Zang….Khurram came screaming back to her. She began to wonder if Khurram got an ambulance. Did they remember to take his leg? How would they carry his leg? Would the blood not drip everywhere? The imagery of a bloodied amputated leg sent shudders down her spine. She clinched her fists and started beating her thigh with it. She began to press her parents to change the channel. Finally, her father relented and let her watch the cartoon show. But her brief distraction ended with a power cut and the colorful screechy animated world in front her went dark.
Her father picked her up and absentmindedly tucked her into the bed, while talking to her mother about an upcoming doctor’s appointment. She lay still, partly listening to her parents’ conversations. Letting out a sigh of exasperation, she got up from her bed and walked towards the window. She pressed her little face against the cold glass window and peeked out. The road was silent but she could hear the sound of a moving vehicle every once in a while. She wondered if there was an ambulance out there with Khurram in it. She wondered how many people would be in ambulances at that point of time in all of Kashmir and what would they be thinking. She looked back and thought of her father in an ambulance, her heart grew heavier.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sudden noise of the television. The electricity had been restored. Against the sound of the late night news, she managed to fall asleep.
She woke up fresh in the morning, having forgotten all about yesterday’s events. She was finishing her breakfast, when her parents told her that her uncle will pick her up from the school later because her mother had a doctor’s appointment. So she might have to stay at her uncle’s place for the night. That had been happening frequently for the past few months, so she nodded in agreement. Gulping down the last sip of tea, she found herself asking, “ Will Khurram be there at the hospital?”
Her parents exchanged a bemused glance and asked her who Khurram was. She realized that she shouldn’t have mentioned it. If she tells them about the blast, they would get very mad. She panicked and left the room without answering their question.
Three days passed but she continued to stay over at her uncle’s place. She did not mind it because she got to play with her cousin. The two of them would run in the streets for hours and she didn’t even have do all her homework. She spoke to her parents frequently; her mother needed more injections they told her. She went to school regularly and sat on the third bench, occasionally squinting her eyes. On the fourth day, her father showed up after school and told her they will be visiting their mother at the hospital. The thought of the hospital resurrected the images of bloodied amputated legs, that she had managed to lay to rest. She tried to resist going to the hospital, but she was dragged along.
She entered the hospital and everything looked terrifying and diseased to her. Worried voices echoed across the long corridors and the pungent smells of hospital disinfectants amplified her fears and nausea. She was led to a room where her mother sat on a white bed, broadly smiling at her and welcoming her with open arms. Her mother looked thin and pale. As her mother held her in a tight embrace, she smelled her chest. It smelled like the hospital as well. Repulsed, she recoiled from her grasp pulling away her face. Her father walked back into the room holding something in a purple blanket. Settling on the bed, he turned the blanket towards her and beamingly said, “You have a sister now!”.
Nauseated by her surrounding, she threw a quick glance at the blanket. Her mother held her arm and excitedly said, “You know, we named her Khurram! We know how much you like the name!”
She sat motionless, surrounded by the pungent smell of the hospital. She could feel the water in her eyes clouding her vision of the purple blanket.
Her mother gently touched her arm and said, “You know, Khurram means happy in Arabic.” ♦