Conflict cruelly touches the lives of people who live amidst it. It’s not the dead alone that are the victims. The snow stories in this collection by Shabir Ahmad Mir are joined together by the mutual thread of conflict and war in Kashmir. The beautiful imagery in these stories paints a sketch of profound anguish and hollowness that conflict induces in the lives of normal individuals.
Perhaps it is these mountains; they surround us all around.
Perhaps we were meant to be trapped.
A Chilla e Kalan Morning
On a grey, freezing Chilla e Kalan morning Hamid Kandur- the baker-stood rooted in the middle of the road, his eyes raised towards the overcast sky and his teeth and fists clenched tight; while his customers waited for him in his bakery, hopeful that he will resume his baking of girda and lavasa for them. As everybody knows winter mornings or for that matter winter days themselves are too fragile and too brief making it is impossible to adjust to any break from the routine. The customers needed their bread so that they may start their day with a semblance of normalcy. Some were getting late for their offices, some late for their shops and some were getting late for their indolent afternoons. So they coaxed Hamid Kandur, as much as they could and with all that they could, to come back to his tandoor. But Hamid stood where he was; adamant as a dead owl: the only response that they could elicit from him, every now and then, was, “But why? All this, for what?”
Now had some poet or some incoherent mystic said these words, the customers might have found some meaning in them or at least a respectable esoteric incomprehension but coming from the mouth of Hamid Kandur, these words only meant one thing for the customers- exasperation.
Damn it, all of them were getting late! How long to put up with this charade!
Finally, Masterji, the retired headmaster and the unretired memory-keeper of the area, cried with a vehemence, “You sting-born! Start baking this instant or I will stuff you in your own tandoor.”
Of course Hamid-Kandur was sting born. More than anybody else, he himself knew it. For he never forgot the story of his birth. Nor was he allowed to- The day he was about to be born, his father waited outside the hospital building, tremulous but expectant. Suddenly people all around him began to run. Something had happened outside; something real or just a rumour. At such times, as experience has taught all of us, one must run; no matter who one is or where one is. So the father ran, out of habit. The safest place he found at that rush hour was the lavatory of the hospital. So in he went and locked it from inside; waiting for the tide of psychosis to recede outside. And while he was there in that lavatory, he decided to make most of it. So he lowered his pajamas, squatted and started to relieve himself of his indigested load. A bumble bee, duly offended, sat on his naked bum and stung him. Precisely at the same time his son- Hamid- was born inside the hospital. Later when the father came to know about the synchronization of his cries and the cries of his newborn; he took it as an omen. An omen that forecast what this newborn son would be- A PAIN IN HIS ARSE.
And because of this filial prophecy, Hamid Kandur grew up to be a pain in the arse. But more than anyone else’s, he was a pain in his own arse.
Now, smiling at the agitated Masterji, Hamid Kandur replied, “But aren’t we all sting born Masterji?” The 14 desperate months in prison had taught that to Hamid.
The sting-born starts to walk towards the Chinar groove. Sitting under one of the Chinars, he picks up a gnarled skeletal twig and starts to draw quivering circles.
Up in the sky, the clouds, petrified, are ready to break and fall.
Under The Chinar Tree
It was the imperial Mughal Emperor Akbar who conquered Kashmir and banished its last King Yusuf Shah e Chak to the desolation and wilderness of Indian Plains. Akbar chose Koh e Maran, the hillock in the heart of the valley as the site for his new but tentative fortified capital to be called Nagar Nagore. He secured this prospective new city with a wall around it. This wall, called Kalai by the locals, stands even today albeit breached at places and dilapidated overall. Inside this wall, there is now one more wall, the wall of what is ostentatiously called Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences Kashmir but known among people as GOVERNMENT MENTAL HOSPITAL. Inside this second wall under a Chinar tree sits a man with a gnarled skeletal twig in his hand. Around him, in a chaotic randomness, are men like him. Some of them shivering because of the cold of the nascent winter and others shivering because… well, because they shiver anyway. Presently the man under the Chinar tree speaks, “Today we will solve Masla e Kashmir” and draws a quivering circle with his twig on the soil. One of the shivering men, walks up to the circle and stamps on it, crying angrily, “Who are you to solve the Masla e Kashmir?”
The man under the Chinar tree stands up and says with an affected royal flourish, “I have to… I was meant to… It was foretold by the honey bees who murmured in the ear of my father when I was born.”
The prophecy did not satisfy the shivering man so he stamped some more on the circle.
Unbeknownst to this assembly of shivering men (who were trying to solve the Masla e Kashmir), on the road, just outside their wall, heavy armoured vehicles are plying. Though the shivering men do not hear the cautious whirr of the engines of these armoured vehicles but they do hear the loud explosion- BOOM- which rips off a large chunk of the wall behind the Chinar tree. Immediately the man with the twig in his hand rushes to the breached wall and cries aloud, “No… No… You must not do this… Don’t give up your freedom… don’t go out. Besides we have the Masla e Kashmir to solve.” But the shivering men, most of them, push him aside and rush through the breach in the wall.
After a minute or two, noises are heard: mini explosions; not as loud as the first one but a series of rhythmic, metallic noises in a quick succession- thak thak thak… thak thak thak… thak thak thak- it is gunfire exchanged outside the wall. The noises same from both the sides. And then there are screams as well. Frightening. Piercing screams.
Screams that no depths of hell can contain.
On the rubble, the man with the twig stands, saying to no one in particular, “But why? All this, for what?” as he keeps listening to the screams; some known, some unknown.
The sky turns darker and darker.
On the Rubble
The encounter lasted for the whole night. At dawn, the rising sun was overawed by the flash of the IED blast that finally brought the house down. By afternoon the cordon was lifted and the people started to visit the razed house; to pay their condolences and out of curiosity as well- How is it when a house is razed?! What does one do when a house is razed?!
As evening began to settle a young boy, hardly 8 or 10 years of age, climbed up the rubble of what was once his home and began to dig with his absurdly small hands. Every now and then he would salvage a twisted spoon, a broken cup, half burnt pillows, carcasses of clothes, black hardened things that made no sense; so for and so on. Everything he salvaged, he kept aside in a neat pile.
Deep down the boy knew it was he who was responsible for this pile of waste and rubble. It was he who was responsible for the destruction of his home. It was he who had never found his poor house good enough. He liked the houses of his friends much more and wished and prayed to Almighty to let him have a house like those ones- with a grand lobby and rich, abundant colors and big windows and strange carpets and wood-panelled interiors and a huge staircase- and now here he was, standing on the rubble. Ungrateful as he was for what he had, here is how Almighty punished him. He, as his father always said, was a pain in the arse indeed. But his father must never know this disgusting secret. The boy will work hard. He will join his father in his bakery and with everything he had in him, he would rebuild the house. Exactly as it was before and be thankful to Lord Almighty.
He would never want another house.
As for now, he would salvage as much as he could from the rubble. That would be his penitence. Only if it would be a moon night tonight, he could dig deep into the night! Only if Almighty would grant that much to him! Just a full moon night.
But the clouds joined their hands. Tighter and tighter. So tight that the moon would have choked, if there was one at all in the sky. Under those dense, black, cruel clouds no one could tell the boy apart from the rubble or the rubble from the night or the night from the boy.
It was all dark.
It was a dark, dark night.
A Dark Night
On a dark night, tender as a birdsong, a man stands bewildered on the bank of Dal. On the other side, across the liquid expanse, the white dome of the Hazratbal Shrine glows like a dream. It is Shab e Baraat- the night of fortunes; the night of deliverance. The night when Lord Almighty decides the sustenance of men- each and every one. A night to pray, to supplicate, to beg what one wants for himself.
A night of hope.
The man has to be on the other side. At Dargah Hazratbal. Praying, supplicating, begging: for her hand. More than anything else, tonight he would coax his God, to the point of blasphemy, to conjoin their fates. Forever. Together.
He had promised her that his marriage proposal would be sent to her parents as soon as his new bakery took off. And he needed Almighty to make sure everything turns out fine.
So he needed to be on the other side.
But who would row him across? “No. Not at this dark hour” says the only Shikara-Wala at the ghat. He doesn’t mean it, the Shikara-Wala. Otherwise, why would he be at the ghat so late, when all others had left! He just wants to bargain hard. The man understands and plays along- he invokes the holy night. The Shab e Baraat. Wouldn’t the dear Shikara-Wala like to earn Sawaab on this propitious night?
“It is too risky Jinab. Winter is already upon us. The waters of Dal are almost freezing and then this dark hour” says the thoughtful Shikara-Wala.
The man puts up his entreaty once more with all the humility and piety that he could muster. ‘’Get me across’’, his eyes beg.
“Well, I can no longer deny you, lest I be a sinner. I will row you across. But mind it only because one ought not to be denied the grace of Dargah on such a night. Give me 500 rupees and we will get going.” says the presumably reluctant Shikara-Wala. Normally one would be charged 100 rupees only. Nevertheless the man would have paid 500 but he had only 350 rupees on him. “It is too much’’, he says.
“Too much! I say it is too less. By God, it is too less to risk one’s life on such a night.”
The man has nothing to say. “Excuse me”, an eager voice calls out from the darkness behind the man, “I heard you people talking about rowing across the Dal. I too need to go to the other side. Can you take me as well?”
From the darkness emerges another man. Unremarkable in his appearance. Plain as night. He has a rucksack slung across his shoulders. The Shikara-Wala eyes him with a measured glance before he says, “Mmmm… ok… let me do one thing, I will row both of you across for 300 rupees each. Final offer.”
Both the men nod and step into the Shikara. They row silently except for the stirring of the oar that makes the Dal moan. It is dark all around. So dark that the rowing men cannot be told apart from the Dal; nor the Dal from the night; nor the men from the night.
Nor the men from each other.
As they reach nearer to the other side, a bright light starts to appear on the shore. They are searchlights. A splash and the rucksack man is gone leaving behind his rucksack on the shikara. Before the other passenger could realize what happened, loud, booming, amplified voices from the shore cry aloud, “Get that Shikara to the shore straight away. We are watching you. No silly moves lest you be gunned down.”
On the shore, men in fatigues and jackboots drag the Shikara-Wala away leaving the man and the rucksack in the Shikara.
“Open your bag.” says one of them.
“It is not mine.”
“You son of a bitch, do what you are told.”
With slow trembling perspiring fingers, the man undoes the zip of the rucksack.
“What is in it? Lift it up for us to see.”
No sooner did the man lift up the bag than there is a loud hissing all around. Quick metal hisses- the guns being cocked. “You whore-son…” and the rucksack was snatched and the man kicked and butted and dragged onto the ghat.
Dark and smooth like snakes, the rucksack was full of guns.
Between the dragging and kicking the man was asked a thousand questions on the steps of the ghat while the glorious night passed minute by cruel minute. The man said nothing. It was all over- the night, the promise- everything. If lucky he would live but not before 6 months or 1 year or two years in some rotting prison. There would be no trial, ‘The Act’ would make that sure.
Sitting on those steps of the ghat, the man thought about her: she would be embroidering paisleys of anticipation on the soft luscious shawls of her dreams.
A bumble bee came hovering about and stung him.
At dawn, the Sun failed to break free from the clouds.
Throughout the day the pale nimble fingers, deftly and delicately, sewed paisley upon paisley on the soft vestal pashmina. What else was there to do in a curfew!
But now that the hour of curfew relaxation (or ‘Dheel’ as it was called) was drawing near, her needle hesitated. Her heart and eyes were not at it-at the embroidery. They were rather at the window. Peering. Waiting...
As soon as the Dheel started he appeared in the street below and started to put up his makeshift stall. No sooner were the tchochwur and czoat laid on the stall than the Masterji came along, for his quota of bread and to enjoy a cigarette in the open air-the only time he could do so in the curfew. “It is a good thing you did” says the Masterji, “putting up your stall in our Mohalla. Not easy going to your bakery in this curfew.”
“Yes. Yes, Masterji. Not easy to be there. I am even thinking to shift my bakery here; in your Mohalla, permanently. As soon as we get back to normalcy, that is the first thing I am going to do.”
“Are you? That is wonderful. Wonderful indeed.”
“Most of my customers live in this Mohalla. So it makes a lot of business sense, besides old town is hardly a place to work at now. Something bad happening all the time. Everyone is moving out.”
That, although true, was only one of the reasons or maybe even no reason for his decision to shift his bakery to this Mohalla. The main reason and perhaps the only reason was up above behind the window.
Masterji finished his cigarette and walked away with his bread.
He looked up. She looked down. Their eyes met briefly, like a kiss. She blushed and looked away. He smiled.
For the next hour or two of the Dheel their eyes kept on meeting. Timidly. Tenderly.
She heaved a sigh. As soon as the normalcy returns they must talk, he and she, about the marriage. Proposals were already coming in, from relatives and neighbours of relatives; and from neighbours and relatives of neighbours. It was only because of the curfew that there was a respite otherwise by now her father would surely have accepted one of them. The curfew had its benefits too.
The Dheel was over and everyone was off the street, as they were meant to, back in their houses. He lingered in the street a few minutes more than anyone else. A few minutes’ worth of courage that he could muster. As he left, she picked up her needle and the pashmina shawl. Her eyes on her embroidery but her heart somewhere beyond that. Till next Dheel, she thought as she started to sew one more paisley; one more bead on her rosary of waiting.
Outside the streets had returned to their enforced desolation as he walked along under a heavy sky.
And then they looked up- the man sitting under the Chinar tree; the man standing on the rubble; the boy looking for the moon on a dark night; the man sitting on the steps of the ghat; the man walking along the desolated street-they all looked up with eyes full of ripples. In reply, the sky had nothing to offer but the dark, miserable clouds that broke into countless white cold flakes: each of them falling in total indifference.
Perhaps the insouciance of the snow is the only solace within these mountains. ♦