Reclining against the mud-plastered wall, Gulzar Khan’s soft-natured wife Noor opened the copper lid of the samovar and blew a mouthful of air into its chimney. After adding a pinch of salt in the boiling tea, she dropped the lid back with a shrill clank. The steam that leapt out spread a milky smell across the kitchen.
The birds were cheeping outside while the morning sun peeped through the window panes in the kitchen and caressed the samovar, scattering the light in all directions. The samovar, with the carvings of the chinar leaves glittered as if it had been embedded with diamonds.
Noor dispensed the tea from the samovar into two cups for herself and for her husband Gulzar Khan—a man of around fifty, a clothes’ dyer cum cleaner by profession, and a gentleman by heart— who had just returned from the village’s kander waan with freshly baked hot lavas.
It was just a single-storey house at Gulabgam, a small village in Pulwama, where they lived with their children.
Noor stood silent, waiting for the children to serve them the tea while Gulzar Khan sat comfortably in a corner, took his cup and sipped the first mouthful. Meanwhile, he threw his wistful gaze all around the kitchen.
The kitchen had been partitioned with a knee-high brick wall into two halves— the sitting side and the cooking side. On a white-tiled shelf, over the mud oven, were spice-filled glass jars. Steel, aluminum and copper spoons hung on rusty nails driven into the wall. At the centre of the kitchen, dangling from a wooden rafter was a naked Surya electric bulb, its wire smeared with the droppings of house flies. A dull grey carpet covered the floor. Some textbooks, a pen and a stub of a pencil lay sprawled on it. Large pictures of Nishat and Shalimar gardens were pasted on the mud walls. A J&K Bank’s calendar hung near the door.
When Noor saw the sixteen year twin daughters, Zainab and Zara enter, she poured them the tea. They sat next to her.
Noor then sent her stare to the pressure cooker that rested on one side of the mud hearth; on the other side the burning twigs crackled and flames from the dung cakes continued to cook rice in a cauldron.
In a moment the lone son of the family, Sameer entered. He sat opposite the door, still rubbing his puffy eyes. He had stayed awake till late night because his college exams were going on. Noor strained the tea into a blue cup and put a few crackly and puffy lavas, in the tray for him.
“Baba, did you pay the last month’s money to the kandur?” Sameer asked before soaking the piece of lavas in the teacup.
“Not yet, dear. Will do it on Friday.” replied Gulzar Khan, tearing the lavas.
Right, but pay him on the promised date.” Sameer said, concerned. “He too needs a lot of money for his son’s treatment. Or villagers will talk bad about us.”
“Dear, will surely do, on Friday. By then only I would have made some money.” Gulzar Khan said with a tinge of helplessness.
“Ok, Baba!”Sameer said and fidgeted with the cup.
Such a concern shown by Sameer, for the reputation of the family added to Noor’s worry. She stole a glance at Gulzar Khan and they exchanged a gesture of inadequacy.
“You know well, dear, we still owe ten thousand rupees to the cow seller, Karim Goor. His date is already due.” Turning to Sameer, Noor said while stirring her teacup.
Gulzar Khan sighed and everyone fell silent for a moment.
“If everything runs smooth at shop I will pay every debit in a month or two. Only if there are no killings, no protests.” said Gulzar Khan reassuringly.
“But it seems like in a dream. Such happenings will never abate here.” Zara chipped in.
“You know, at kander waan, Akbar Dar told me that somebody had knocked on his gate at midnight,” Gulzar Khan broke the news, munching the bread.
“Oh please, Baba! I get scared,” Zara peeped, her eyes blanched with fear.
“It could have been dogs. Sometimes they batter the gates,” Noor said, guessing.
“No, not dogs. He said he heard footsteps too,” continued Gulzar Khan.
“Thieves then. They must have come for the cattle,” Sameer said, slurping the tea thoughtfully.
“Shut up!” Zara exclaimed. “Keep your wild guesses to yourself. You always talk crap.”
Noor poured one more cup of tea to Zainab. She took a sip. “Army men, I think.” she said,
“Who can say? But Akbar said that he heard them talk in a language that he could not understand,” said Gulzar Khan.
Swallowing the lavas Noor said, “That is why I tell you to put off the lights early and sleep.”
“She is right,” Gulzar Khan said, turning to his children. “It is not safe to linger long in the dark.”
“If only we had enough money! Then we could have erected a tall concrete wall all around the yard,” said Noor, her voice tilting with anxiety.
“Baba, at least get the wooden gate repaired. Its hinges are broken.” Zara demanded. “Even a dog could knock it down.”
“I will tell Majeed Chaan. He will come and set it right,” Gulzar Khan assured her.
“Hell with this life here!” Sameer grunted. “Isn’t it better to die? One can’t study peacefully either outside or at home.”
Hearing this, Gulzar Khan frowned at him; he wanted to say something, but he didn’t.
“It is far better to be in some jail and live at ease.” Sameer said and stormed out of the room.
As everyone finished the tea, Gulzar Khan drew his jijeer,near him and stocked it with tobacco. Zainab rose and, walking towards the mud oven, fished out a spoonful of charcoal embers and brought them in the kanged to her father. Then she and her sister left to their respective rooms
Gulzar Khan collected the burning embers from the kanged and placed them on the chilim. He placed the pipe between his lips and took a few draughts. Smoke from the jigeer and steam from the samovar seemed to be clinging to one another. The air in the kitchen grew cloudy and pungent.
“How many times have I asked you to quit smoking? But nothing seems to affect you. My God, when will I get rid of this damn jijeer from my house?” Noor nagged Gulzar Khan.
“Don’t curse it. It has been my solace, my friend, in hard times.” Gulzar Khan teased.
“Don’t you see on TV ads how injurious this is? But nothing seems to affect you as you watch anti-smoking shows with the pipe in your mouth,” Noor said bitterly.
Gulzar Khan didn’t respond. Taking a few more drags he looked at his watch and stood up. He reached for the bottle of P Mark mustard oil on the mantelpiece and poured some of it into his left hand and gently applied it on his thin, dry and untidy hair.
“Keep the lunch box ready?” he said.
“Okay, I will pack it.” Noor replied gently. She cared much for her husband because she knew that he was the lone earner in the household.
“There is a lot to do in the shop these days,” Gulzar Khan said, wiping his hands on a torn towel.
“First, get the news from someone.” Noor said.
“Why? About what? Did you hear anything?” asked Gulzar Khan.
“I mean, confirm whether all is well out there. Is there a hartal in Pulwama? I wish first you learn from somewhere,” she insisted.
“No, there is no hartal today in the town as far I know,” Gulzar Khan denied.
“Okay, then leave. Naer khodayas hawala; may God be with you.”
Gulzar Khan boarded a Sumo, which ferried local passengers, to reach Pulwama town which was around ten kilometers away from Gulabgam. He perched himself next to a man sporting brown beard who was reading a newspaper. Gulzar Khan looked out of the half-open window, murmuring “God make my livelihood simple and easy.” He was relieved to see children walking to school. The Sumo was moving at a moderate speed and a stereo with a blue light blinking on its face was playing a Kashmiri song.
Gulzar Khan turned his head right and his glance fell on a bold headline in the newspaper spread over the brown bearded man’s knees: “Another youth injured in firing succumbs” read the news.
“Oh my God, have mercy on Kashmir. You are benevolent!” Gulzar Khan prayed under his breath. He ran his hands over his head and kept quiet.
The driver suddenly braked with an abrasive screech and waved to stop a car coming from the town.
“Is there any danger in the town?” asked the Sumo driver after turning off the stereo.
“Not now, but yes, there was little trouble an hour ago—some stones were hurled and people were scared. But everything is ok now. Go on.” the car’s driver replied. The Sumo drove on.
“What has happened?” asked one passenger from the back seat.
“Nothing. No need to worry.” replied the driver.
As the Sumo neared the town, Gulzar Khan insisted the driver to let him off a few hundred yards before the main market, as that would be safer.
Gulzar Khan’s heart beat with a strange feeling when he began walking briskly through the market towards his shop on a road lined with shops selling antiques and art, jewelry, dry fruits and accessories. He crossed the road and passed by the greengrocer’s shop full of fruits, the butcher with his bloody lumps of meat on display, and a book seller.
As he reached his shop, he looked around. There were fewer people than usual and only a few cars parked near his shop. His shop was small, and wedged between larger shops it looked as if it had been squeezed in. The peeling blue paint on the signboard spelt out ‘Bright Colours’, and beneath it, almost illegible, ‘Dyer at Your Service’.
Gulzar Khan unlocked the shutter. The air inside smelt of chemicals and the walls were grimy with years of dirt, the cement floor streaked with different colours. The clothes were crammed together, with the exception of some dupattas and two pairs of pants hung on wooden pegs. A few piles of badly stacked clothes awaiting their turn in the large red plastic dying-tub added to the unkempt appearance. The shop was narrow and long, with shelving spanning both sides. To the left stood the cash desk in the belly of which Gulzar Khan would keep his customer register.
“Asalamu-Alaikum, Khan sahib.”
“Walaikum Salam.” Gulzar Khan returned the greeting from a regular customer.
“Are you fine?” enquired the customer.
“Alhamdullillah. Alright. Kar sa hokum; tell me what can I do for you?”
“I was waiting for you outside. But then I entered the barber’s shop and waited there. You know there was a chagg a moment before.” informed the customer.
“Yes, we heard about that in the Sumo.” said Gulzar Khan. “No one knows what will happen the next minute here.”
“Really, nobody knows. And, yes, are you done with my clothes?”
“Yes. The pants are ready. I dyed them the day before yesterday,” Gulzar Khan replied.
Gulzar Khan slipped the folded pants into a white polythene bag and handed it to the customer who in return gave him two hundred rupees and left.
After checking his day’s schedule, Gulzar Khan pulled down two dupattas from the shelves. But before he could roll up his sleeves and pull up his shalwar to begin soaking them, he saw a nearby shopkeeper pulling down his shutters. People were scampering in all directions, some crying and some blowing whistles. Children too were wailing. Gulzar Khan stood bewildered for a moment before he hurriedly put his things, he had just stalled outside, inside the shop.
“It is like hell to have a shop in here.” Gulzar Khan murmured as he pulled down the shutters.
The other shopkeepers were standing in front of their closed shops, waiting. A few rumors were making the rounds. Gulzar Khan recalled the newspaper headline he had read in the sumo. He realized that the disturbance might be the aftermath of the killing of that youth by army.
In the meantime, he saw that some Rakshaks – the armored jeeps of the STF, Special Task Force – reached the main market, accompanied by the J&K police and the CRPF men. Their arrival changed the scene so swiftly that the market looked like a densely-peopled soldier cantonment. The jeeps looked as if they had been beaten with hammers, the countless rusty dents indicating the stubbornly withstood bouts of stone pelting. The uniformed men began to move together, shooing away the people. Within a few minutes, the market wore a deserted look, the road emptied of civilian vehicles.
Some shops with their shutters half-closed stood empty, the shopkeepers having melted away left their makeshift shops to the mercy of the market. A few women watched the scene from rooftops. There was a sharp sound. A stone flew down and rolled on the road a few meters away from Gulzar Khan, before hitting the leg of a sleeping dog which woke up howling and limped towards an alley. Immediately, another one flew and hit the signboard of a grocery shop before falling with a thump and splash into a drain, spattering the muck.
Gulzar Khan froze in shock and wanted to hide somewhere. There no longer was any point in running away because the stone-pelters were coming closer to the security forces. Without even taking the time to aim, they hurled one stone after the other.
Gulzar Khan felt like an old man caught in the crossfire. He was searching for shelter. Eventually, he darted towards an ATM kiosk across the road. He thought he was now safe. But the kiosk’s door was locked. However a neighboring shopkeeper called him in just before downing the shutters.
Inside the shop, it was too dark to see anything. He could also hear the horrible, deafening sounds. He peeped through an old bullet-made hole in the shutter. If it is anywhere, hell is here. He thought.
Outside, in the marketplace, a group of boys— tall, short, weak, stout, dark and handsome— with their faces covered with handkerchiefs, marched towards the forces. As they pelted their armored cars with stones, the armed men retaliated, shooting a dozen teargas canisters. It was eye-watering as the air smelt of pepper.
“Nar-e-takbeer,” a boy shouted, pumping his fist into the air.
“Allah hu Akbar,” a group of boys replied.
“Aazadi ka matlab kya?” a guttural voice broke out from amongst them.
“La-ilah ha ila lah,’” the boys shouted back.
The loud slogans fetched new boys who ran hurriedly towards the group to join them. Within a few minutes, this small group swelled into a big crowd, chanting while throwing rocks.
“We want!” a tall boy wearing a black T-shirt clamored.
“Freedom!” the other boys answered unanimously.
“Go India!” a little boy shouted, straining his throat.
“Go back!” the boys answered more loudly.
Then the furious boys cussed the forces who too responded with expletives, showing their raised thumbs and fists. The volley of abuses between them continued.
A white jeep revved and attempted to chase the boys, they ran helter-skelter and hid behind the tin sheets, walls, shops and stationary vehicles, hunkering down like soldiers in a war. They smeared their faces with salt to blunt the effect of the tear gas. Some boys ran up to the terraces of the shops quietly, carrying the stones, their hands trembling and lips quivering. They were burning with rage. Then, there was silence for a moment. It seemed that nothing serious was going to happen. But as the jeep passed by a butcher’s shop, a boy hiding behind a cart flung a stone which hit the side of the jeep with a clanking metallic sound.
Other boys emerged, as if from nowhere, and bombarded the vehicle. The jeep screeched to a halt. One boy stood in the middle of the road, thumping his chest and carrying a big boulder in his hand; he threw it with a loud shout. The boulder swung in the air for a moment before hitting the front of the jeep and denting it. Another boy flung a brickbat with such a force that it broke into pieces as it hit the jeep, small chips flying across the road, A few boys sprinted towards the road, screaming profanities, their blood simmering. They tried to overtake the jeep and set it ablaze. Some banged at the doors of the jeep with iron pipes and wooden clubs. The jeep moved a bit, and the driver tried to reverse as its nervous wheels bumped over the brickbats and stones. Its exhaust pipe released a trail of smoke, blocking the view of the boys.
They however continued to circle it and bang on its doors. Seeing that a second jeep was coming closer, a boy shouted “Run,” and they disappeared into a nearby lane. The second jeep veered off the road and hurtled towards the boys, but the stones scattered on the road arrested the vehicle’s speed and the boys found a safer place. The forces fired teargas shells from a distance, injuring a boy. Later, seeing that the boys didn’t give up, the forces resorted to aerial firing, frightening humans, animals and birds. The boy’s injury weakened their resolve, and they eventually dispersed. A quarter later, the forces, too, left.
Gulzar Khan came out of the shop. He thanked God that he was safe. He shuddered to see the brickbats and stones scattered all around, the air carrying the sharp smell of pepper.
His gaze fell on a small child, who after tearing off from his father’s hold, joyfully kicked the stones and brick bats on the road. For a brief moment, Gulzar Khan wished he were like that little child—innocent and carefree.
Suddenly he experienced a flashback of his childhood. He remembered his father carrying him pickaback to the fair at the Rangmula shrine, five kilometers away from his home, trudging through mustard fields, wearing the new clothes his father had gotten stitched for the occasion. Gulzar Khan could still recall the rich taste of the sweets he and his father would enjoy sitting on a swing those days. The yellow balloons, the tangy snacks, the beating of the drums by magicians, the shining faces of his friends – these vivid memories brought tears to his eyes that mingled with the sting of the teargas but the honking of a motorcycle broke the string of his thoughts.
He saw passers-by wiping tears. A few sneezed and coughed. The market still looked deserted. It was now an undeclared hartal. The shopkeepers decided to return home. They knew that if they dared to resume their business, they would have to face life threats.
Gulzar Khan scurried to the place where passenger vehicles would park whenever there was a clash. He boarded an over-packed Sumo. The driver looked cheerful and drove at a moderate speed as the vehicle seemed to resist its heavy load. The return home seemed unusually long to Gulzar Khan. A young boy in the Sumo broke the news that the boy who had been injured by the security forces had been declared dead on arrival at the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. The passenger cursed the forces before falling silent.
A strange heaviness took hold of Gulzar Khan’s heart. For a moment, he seemed to hear the mysterious wails of a woman. The image of the mother of the boy thumping her chest and pulling her hair and, later, stroking her dead son’s hair flashed across his mind.
When Gulzar Khan got down at his village, and went straight to Rehman Kak’s shop for tobacco.
“Gul Gobro, why have you returned early? Is everything alright at home?” asked Rehman Kak, weighing the tobacco.
“Yes, all right at home. But not in Kashmir, not at Pulwama.”
“What happened?”
Gulzar Khan was not in the mood to talk, but out of respect for the elderly man, he narrated the events.
“These blood thirsty wolves are shorn of any mercy. They have plucked all the beautiful roses of this valley. I wish that I were the one killed,” Rehman Kak choked on his words.
Without saying anything more, Gulzar Khan left.
On his way from the road to home Gulzar Khan didn’t talk to any of the villagers. As he entered his home, his wife asked, “Why have you returned home so early?”
Gulzar Khan didn’t answer her, but went straight to kitchen looking for his jigeer. When he didn’t find it, he yelled at his wife. It was only after the kitchen was filled with the smoke from jigeer that he told her what had happened.
Noor pummeled her chest and soughed. She began to worry about Sameer who had gone to his college.
“Have you any balance on your phone? I would call my Sameer.” She said nervously.
“We needn’t worry. He will be in his college.” Gulzar Khan comforted her.
“You know well about his temper. He always harbors anger against the forces. And I believe he would have left the college to join the boys. ”
“You think too much. Here! Take it.” Gulzar Khan handed her the small Nokia phone, puffing out a blue tuft of smoke from his mouth.
Gulzar Khan moved to a corner and began to wonder how miserable his life would be if any of his sons were hit with a bullet or if one of his daughters’ dead bodies were brought home, splotched with blood. He shook his head hard in an attempt to throw off these images but the thoughts continued: from where do parents get the courage to live after their sons and daughters are killed? Is a Kashmiri parent’s heart made of iron? Is Kashmir the most wretched among the valleys of the earth? Are not our graveyards bloating or are they still hungry for tender Kashmiri flesh? Are the Indian forces set to turn this valley into the land of mad fathers, childless mothers and wailing orphans? Is even our Allah cross with us?
With each drag on the jigeer, Gulzar Khan’s mind turned to a new question. He desperately wanted someone to answer them, even if it was the ghost of his father. He coughed and coughed and coughed.
Gulzar Khan did not get off the jigeer till Sataar Mir, the muezzin announced the call for Zuhr prayers.
Sometime later, Noor dialed the phone number. “The number you are trying to reach is currently switched off.” came the automatic answer.
“His phone is off. What if…” Noor said with a suffocating tune.
“He must be in the class. Allah will protect him.” Gulzar Khan consoled her. “He will call us back once he gets free.”
The words of her husband drove away the fears of Noor. Before she could ask any more questions to Gulzar Khan, their neighbour Sara came in to ask:
“What have you prepared? I mean what vegetable for the lunch?”
“Tomatoes and cheese,” replied Noor.
“Okay, give me some. I have cooked potatoes. But my son Irfan doesn’t like them. So here I came to take something cooked by you,” Sara said, passing the bowl to Noor.
Noor’s culinary skills were popular among her neighbours. She reached for a spoon lying on the mantle shelf, and as she removed the lid of the pot a sumptuous aroma spread through the kitchen. She stirred the dish with the spoon, filling the bowl to the brim, handed it over to Sara.
Noor then went out with Sara to give some fodder to the cow, which had long been mooing. As they walked out, she narrated to Sara what Gulzar Khanhad told her.
“What must his mother be doing right now,” said Sara.
“Wailing and crying! What else. Malis maje pewaan taawan; such parents are ruined.” Noor grieved.
“Which village did Khan Saeb tell you the boy was from?”
“This one is from main town—Pulwama. The boy was just fifteen.”
“Oh! A young rose bud. May Allah bestow him Jannah!”
“Gulzar Khan said that the boy’s skull has split and his brain has come out.” Noor said with a shudder.
“Please! Don’t say anything more.” Sara exclaimed with a stinging sensation. “I feel as if a kind of stupor has taken hold of the countries of the world, as if they are unaware of what is happening to us here.”
“Nobody cares. None. Our hope just lies in Allah’s grace.”
“You are right. You know, my heart leaves my chest the moment when one of my family members leaves for town. Anything can happen anytime there. I am worried about my Irfan and your Sameer. Both are hot-headed.”
In between their conversation they could hear the mooing of the cow.
“I think a hundred times a day of Gulzar Khanand the children when they are out of the house. I go to the road thrice a day and ask Rahman Kak at his shop if it is alright out there. Do you know my Sameer has gone to college? I am so … Oh, the cow is lowing louder? I will give it something to eat first.”
“Ok will meet later.” said Sara.
Noor started heading towards the cowshed.
“How much milk it gives you these days?” Sara turned back and asked.
“Around ten litres. Seven go to the market and the rest we use at home. This cow is helping us run our home.” Noor replied.
“It surely is, go and feed it. Now I understand why your daughters are so pretty with their glowing faces.”
“What do you mean? I didn’t get you.”
“Since you feed your daughters pure and abundant milk, they look beautiful. Milk shows on their faces.”
“Poor daughters need to be pretty. Rich ones get husbands because of their money; the poor ones because of their beauty,” Noor said with a pitying smile.
“Hmm. But if you get your Zainab married off to my Irfan, I will demand no dowry,” Sara joked. “I agree! But my Zainab’s beauty demands an exorbitant mehar. You surely will have to sell the whole land,” Noor responded. Both of them gave a muffled laugh.
“I am quite confident your daughters will attract rich households.”
“Not if this killing spree continues. See how our boys are killed every other day. God forbid, if it goes on like this, parents will have no takers for their daughters as there will be just a handful of boys left.”
“You are right, Noor. We should seek the mercy of Allah. Otherwise, we are heading towards that day. God forbid.”
They both sighed.
Instantly a housefly hummed and landed on the bowl Sara was holding. She shooed it away and the bowl shook. The aroma of garlic filled the air.
“I will leave now. Manzoor must be waiting,” She said to Noor.
“Adsa naer, Ok, go.” Noor concluded.
As Noor lumbered towards the cowshed quite unmindfully, she stumbled against a wooden peg driven into the ground that scraped her right foot. Serving a few sheaves of green grass to the cow, she walked back from the cowshed and sat in the kitchen nursing her bleeding foot.
She dialed the Sameer’s number once again but the phone was still off. In a bid to arrest the train of ominous thoughts that began to singe her mind, she busied herself with washing of the utensils and mopping and cleaning of the kitchen.
Lately, outside, the sun disappeared behind the dark fleecy clouds in the sky. Sensing that the clouds were about to burst Gulzar Khan went out the yard to collect the clothes Noor had washed in the morning. First, he took down Noor’s and then his own. The clothes smelled of Rin soap. As he pulled down those of his children, he felt like kissing the clothes. He carried them in his arms and went straight to Sameer’s room. But as he closed the door, it occurred to him that he had to take them to his room instead for ironing. He slapped his forehead and slammed the door while he came out. When he entered his own room, his eyes fell on the wall where the picture of Kaaba hung. He dropped the clothes and looked at the picture again, raising his hands towards it. With a penitent heart he prayed: “Hai maine badde Khudaye, Kasheer kartan yeme zulme nish azaad. Oh my dear Amighty God, set Kashmir free from such oppression.”
Later, once finished with the zuhr prayers, he fished out the phone from his pocket to call Sameer but the call didn’t connect. He felt helpless and waited anxiously. Every second seemed longer than an hour and every hour, a day.
With every passing moment, his heart began pounding faster. Will our Sameer return home safely? He wondered and kept on dialing the number but all in vain. He soughed and rose to go out.
A moment later, the phone in his hands rang. Sarwat came rushing to him. Their faces lightened. Without looking at its screen Gulzar Khan hurriedly took the phone to his ear expecting Sameer’s voice.
“Keep my money ready else I’ll take the cow back. I’m coming tomorrow.” Karim Goor’s bitter words blared from the phone.
Nageen Rather teaches fiction at lslamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora, Kashmir, lndia. His stories have appeared in Himal southasian, Wilderness House Literary Review, Mountain Ink, Punch magazine and Inverse Journal to name a few. His debut novel will be published very soon. He lives in Kashmir.