The Red Fridge

Illustration: Mir Suhail

This short story is inspired by Shahnaz Bashir’s Kashmiri short story Fouji Chhutti Peth, which appeared in this magazine in January this year. This short story imagines its main character, who is a CRPF constable, haunted by his memories of his acts in Kashmir and how the violent memory of his time in Kashmir interferes with the realities of his life in a town somewhere in India.

It was a fine Saturday afternoon when Dharampal Jangra, a constable with 124 Battalion of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), finally reached his home somewhere in India.  He was on leave for a period of one week after spending a bitter year in Kashmir. The walk of about 5 kilometers from where the bus had dropped him, up to his house made him angry and irritated. It reminded him yet again, of how few years ago - his brothers had divided their inherited land while he was at duty. Two kanals each, near the newly built expressway came to be in the possession of his two elder brothers, while he was given his share at this spot - far from the town amidst acres of sugarcane farms without a proper road leading to it. The ancestral house in the village had been sold off, or so he was told, to settle the dowry and marriage expenses of their recently-wed sister. When he raised a cry about this strange sharing of family-land done in his absence, his brothers tried to mollify him by explaining that while their land shares were no doubt near the expressway but they had received only two kanals each while his share on the other hand was two kanals and ten marlas. That and the fact that all the revenue papers had been prepared pacified him. And out here, which was actually nowhere, he had built a one storey house for himself in one corner of his two kanals of land. He grew sugarcane in the rest. After the house was built, his brothers said that they had forgotten to tell him that along with those ten extra marlas, he must keep their old widowed father as well.

Now, as he entered into the small courtyard of his house, the first thing that he saw was his inherited father lying on a charpoy, oblivious of his surroundings. He was helplessly old, not as much by his age as he was by his physique. He was not only deteriorating physically but mentally as well. He was losing his memory: to the extent that he longer remembered whether he had eaten or not and strangely the others forgot that as well. Recently, Dharampal’s wife had told him over the phone that his father was suffering from fecal incontinence and would defecate in his clothes. So he was kept outside the house on his charpoy except when it rained.

Dharampal greeted his father nonchalantly as soon he turned his eyes towards him from his charpoy. But he didn’t seem to acknowledge his son. He made a gargling noise that could have been his reply to the greeting or maybe just a feeble attempt to clear the sputum stuck in his throat. Dharampal went inside where his wife Devki welcomed him with a broad smile. The children were at school, she told him while pointing abashedly with her eyes towards the new red fridge placed in the corner. It had been bought recently and kept afresh for Dharampal’s arrival. Dharampal looked at it and quick as lightening, a vision of a ramshackle room with smashed crockery and an upturned red fridge flashed across his eyes. He shook his head and muttered under his breath, “Damn it, why did it have to be red!”

The wife did not understand. This was supposed to make him happy, this brand new red fridge of theirs. Or at least not angry. She frowned.

“How is the harvest this year?”

“Very good. And I heard sugarcane prices are pretty high this time. But that bastard Bikram Sunar - he has again put up the fencing.”

Bikram Sunar and his sons were the ones with a huge sugarcane farm next to their small one. They were actually money lenders and over time had amassed huge tracts of land mortgaged by small farmers for money and by purchasing land. Devki had told him in one of their many telephonic conversations that Sunars had started to claim ten marlas of their land; Dharampal’s elder brothers had sold it to them, they had said and put up a fence around it. Devki’s cousins had arrived and dismantled the fence but Sunars had built it up again. Dharampal squirmed, “Whore-sons!”

Devki was not sure whether the abuse was meant for his brothers or the Sunars but she knew better than to ask.

“Tomorrow I will settle this with my brothers,” she said, without any emotion.

Later in the evening, as Dharampal was tearing apart the mesh-wiring and uprooting the loosely stuck fence-posts to claim back his land, Rahul Sunar, the youngest son of Bikram Sunar came fiercely running towards him. Angry words were exchanged. One thing led to another and soon they were at blows. Dharampal being more used to violence and breaking young bones in Kashmir broke Rahul’s nose and sent him home bruised and bleeding at more than one place.

Early next morning Dharampal had a quick breakfast and went to the town where his elder brothers now lived. By noon he was sitting with Tejpal, his eldest brother in his palatial house. He was offered lunch which he refused out of anger. “We will talk when Surinder arrives. I have called him over on phone,” Tejpal said and went off to his lunch. Surinder was another brother and lived nearby.

As Dharampal sat in Tejpal’s house waiting for Surinder, back at his house the whole clan of Sunar's had come looking for him in vengeance. He needed to answer for Rahul’s injuries. Since he was not home, the account was settled by smashing anything they could find. They broke crockery, spilled ration and food items. They smashed the only television set Dharampal's family had and even did not spare the brand new red fridge, smashing it and turning it upside down.  

“Dharam,” Tejpal said in a firm voice, “you have to see this in proper light. You can’t have ten extra marlas all to yourself. It is not fair. These are such expensive times. Do you even know what it costs to live in a town like this and to feed all these mouths?”

Surinder who sat fixedly kept on nodding in agreement.

Dharampal shook his head and cried, “But those ten marlas were my compensation for the unfair division (and for the father as well, he wanted to say but he didn’t out of deference) You can’t compare 2 kanals by the expressway with the land in that sugarcane jungle. It does not even have a proper road.”

“Panchayat has put up a proposal about a link road and that is just going to pass by your house. Land price there will double if not triple. That is why those ten marlas have to be now divided equally. We have sold our share to Bikram Sunar. He paid good money for it. You can have your share as well. It’s alright if you don’t want to sell your share but leave us alone with ours,” explained Tejpal.

“How can you sell my land? Let me see who even dares to think so!”

“Your land? How can you claim those ten marlas as yours? The ten marlas are the unfinished part of the division. We already have transferred the documents in Sunar’s name. Get out of your delusions.”

Dharampal rose up and thundered, “Documents! Hell with your documents. I will go to the court. We will have a new division; a new and fair sharing of all the lands in the country and here, by the expressway. Both of you are swindlers but I won’t let you get away with this loot. This is not the last time that you will hear of me.” Dharampal’s anger turned him crimson and he left from the house in a sore state.

Out on the street he angrily walked with the rising tide of hunger arising from the pit of his stomach. He trundled on – in hunger and in ire – just like he did on those streets in Kashmir. How he wished he had a weapon in his hand this time as well. The weapon in his hand always helped give a vent to his anger. Just as he was walking on with brisk steps, a mango dropped from above and hit his shoulder. The mango had been thrown from the adjacent. The mango landed exactly on the same spot on his shoulder where months ago he was hit by a sharp stone during a street battle in Kashmir. He had never found out who threw that stone but he had not let himself remain unavenged. He and many of his fellow CRPF men had went on a blazing rampage, breaking bones of scores of protesters and quite a number of window panes, windshields of cars, headlights of motorcycles were broken with their swaying lathis. He looked up and saw the face of a young man grinning at him. “Whore son,” Dharampal cried at him and raised a fist. The young face turned scarlet, “What did you say? It was just a mango. You bastard, wait! You just wait there and let me get down!”

This was not Kashmir, Dharampal realized as he quickly stepped away from the street. Here he was a nobody. That young mutt could come down with his cousins and others of his clan and they would be upon him like dogs upon a lamb and he could do nothing in turn. This was not Kashmir, he thought again. He could not break bones and windows here. How real was the difference!   

On his way back home, inside the bus, people kept on bumping into his shoulder and this made it hurt even more. Flashes of tear-gas filled streets echoing with thunders of shotguns flashed across his eyes. It took every ounce of his will to keep him reminding that he was in a bus not on some street in Kashmir.

It was already dark when the bus dropped him and he started marching towards his house through the thick growth of sugarcane's – which he despised. As he was marching on, he thought of catching hold of these rowdy stone-pelters. They needed to know who the real boss was. He began to run dazedly after them along the narrow path that cut through the sugarcane fields. “Tonight I will teach them a lesson. If not them, then whosoever crosses my path”, he thought. Far ahead he saw a faint outline of a house. “Had they gone inside it? Yes, they had, these ungrateful bastards, whom army men like myself were bound to protect and safeguard.” It was time to teach them a lesson. He ran. Once inside the courtyard he saw his sick father on the charpoy. Ah! This was not Kashmir.

He left his father undisturbed and walked into the house. The smashed crockery and glass was strewn on the floor and the upturned, open-doored red fridge gaped at him with a lopsided-monstrous grin. Suddenly a woman came rushing at him. But he was alert and on his guard as he was trained to be. He kicked her and grabbing her by the hair dragged her across the floor towards the fridge. He kept on kicking her and yelling at the same time, “Saalay Behenchod… Azaadi chaiye… Ye lo… Aur lo” and kept on kicking. A young boy came across to free his mother from his grasp but he slapped him hard and send him reeling to a corner. The boy came back again; this time he was kicked and he crashed into the wall. A thick drop of blood trickled down from his hairline. A small girl appeared at the door and started wailing, “Papa… Papa… what are you doing? What has happened to you?”

At this point, Dharampal froze and he stopped kicking and beating his wife. He collapsed with a thud on the floor. He grabbed his head and began to weep.. This was not Kashmir!

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