It was a sunny morning, bright and beautiful. In the kichen, the family was huddled together, about to sip the hot nun chai, the pink salty tea. The tea had been prepared by Sarwat and it was magical
“When my Sarwat lal makes it, I don’t just taste it – I feel it in my body as its fragrance rejuvenates each and every tendon of my soul,” the grandfather had told Zara, Sarwat’s daughter, a few days before his death. They lived in a single-storey house near Gulshanpora, a beautiful village in Pulwama District in South Kashmir. Despite struggling to make ends meet, Ibrahim’s family of six, had more joys than sorrow. He and his wife Sarwat felt rich when their children were around them.
Sitting beside the hot samovar, Sarwat blew a mouthful of air into it. The copper lid clanked as she dropped it back. Sarwat poured the tea into two cups. The steam that leapt out spread a milky smell across the room. Ibrahim sat comfortably in a corner, holding a cup similiar to that of Sarwat’s with its floral design. The morning sun passed through through the glass panes and caressed the copper samovar, scattering the light in all directions. The samovar, with chinar and almond leaves carved on it, glitterred as if embedded with diamonds.
The kichen had been partitioned with a knee-high concrete wall into two halves – the sitting side and the cooking side. Half a dozen steel glasses standing on the shelf, a few metres from Zainab, caught the sun’s rays. On a white-tiled shelf over the mud oven were Sarwat’s spice-filled glass jars. Steel, alumunium and copper spoons hung on rusty nails driven into the wall. Beside them stood a decorative almirah, fixed to the bright, tiled wall of white, its zig-zag shelves holding delicate chinaware. Pictures of Shalimar and Nishat gardens were hung on each wall.
Sarwat poured tea for her daughters into two tall tumblers. Zara slurped her tea. A sweetness spread through her mouth and she fixed her gaze on the pressure cooker that rested on the gas stove beside the hearth.The burning twigs crackled and flames from the dung cakes continued to cook rice in a cauldron over the oven. At the centre, dangling from a wooden rafter, was a naked Surya electric bulb, its wire smeared with the droppings of house flies.
Once again, Sarwat strained the tea, this time for her sons Hadi and Sameer. Their cups had red hearts printed on it, with the words ‘Happy Life’ below them. Someone had gifted them to Sameer. A few trays of hot, milky lawasa bread lay in front of them. To the left of Sameer, near the door, stood a wooden trunk, which had been painted red. A medium-sized TV sat on it, its screen covered with a floral woollen cover knit by Zainab. A notebook, some textbooks, a stub of a pencil and a pen lay beside it. A dull grey carpet covered the floor of the kitchen.
“You know, when we came out of masjid, Akbar told me that somebody had knocked on his gate at midnight,” Ibrahim said.
“Oh please, Baba! I get scared,” Zainab said, her eyes filled with fear.
“It could have been dogs. Sometimes they batter the gates,” Sarwat said, although she knew it could not have been dogs all the time.
“No, not dogs. He said he heard footsteps too,” replied Ibrahim, chewing his bread.
“Thieves then. They must have come for the cattle,” Sameer chipped in.
“Shut up!” Zara exclaimed. “Keep your wild guesses to yourself. You always talk crap.”
Zara passed one more cup of tea to Hadi. He took a sip and said, “Army men, I think.”
“Who can say? But Akbar said that he heard them talk in a language that he could not comprehend,” said Ibrahim.
“That is why I tell you to put off the lights early and sleep,” Sarwat said.
“She is right,” Ibrahim 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 Sarwat, her voice rising 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 Majid Chaan. He will come and set it right,” Ibrahim assured her.
“To hell with this life here. Isn’t it better to die?” Sameer gruntled. “We can’t move freely during the day, and in the night, fear hangs over our heads.”
Ibrahim frowned at Sameer; he wanted to say something, but didn’t. As he finished his tea, he drew his jijeer, the hookah towards him. Zainab rose and, walking towards the mud oven, fished out a spoonful of charcoal embers and brought it in the kangri to Ibrahim. He collected the burning embers from the firepot and placed them on the chilum, the glass-shaped clay pot of his hookah. Ibrahim placed the pipe between his lips and took a few draughts. Smoke from the hookah 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 hookah from my house?” Sarwat scolded Ibrahim.
“Don’t curse it. It has been my solace, my friend, in hard times,” he teased her.
“But don’t you see on TV how bad this is for you? You watch anti-smoking programmes with the pipe in your mouth,” Sarwat said bitterly.
Ibrahim didn’t respond. Taking a few more drags he looked at his watch and stood up. The children had already taken off to their rooms. Ibrahim reached for the bottle of P Mark mustard oil on the mantlepiece and poured some of it into his left hand. He gently applied it on his thin, dry and untidy hair.
“Is the lunch box ready? Please put some yogurt in it. I feel dehydrated today,” he said.
“Okay, I will. But it is so hot these days, I am afraid it may sour by the time you have it,” Sarwat replied.
“No, I will eat my lunch earlier today. I get hungry soon. There is a lot to do in the shop these days,” Ibrahim said, wiping his oily hands on a torn towel.
“First, get the news from someone.” Sarwat said.
“Why? About what? Did you hear anything?” asked Ibrahim.
“I mean, confirm whether all is well out there. Is there a hartaal? They are so frequent nowadays. I wish you would get the news first from somewhere,” she insisted.
“No, there is no hartaal today as far I know,” Ibrahim assured.
“What? Say what you want to quickly. You know I am already late.”
“I heard Hassan talking about a hartaal with his sister-in-law yesterday. He said it would be throughout the valley,” Sarwat said.
“Yes, there’s a call for hartaal, but it’s for Friday, not today,” Ibrahim assured her.
“Okay, then leave. Naer khodayas hawala; may God be with you.”
Pulwama town was ten kilometres away. Ibrahim boarded a Tata Sumo that ferried local passengers and perched himself next to a heavily built bearded man who was reading a newspaper. When Ibrahim asked him to make room, the man, annoyed, shifted a few inches. Ibrahim looked out of the half-open window, murmuring “God make my livelihood simple and easy.” He was relieved to see children walking to school. As he turned his head his glance fell on a bold headline in the newspaper spread over his neighbour’s knees: “Another youth injured in firing succumbs”.
“Oh my God, have mercy on Kashmir. Thousands have already been killed. Put a stop to this bloodshed now. You are benevolent!” exclaimed Ibrahim. “Aamin. So be it,” answered his neighbour.
The Sumo was moving at a moderate speed. Inside, a cassette player – a blue light blinking on its face – was playing an Urdu ghazal:
Gulshan ki faqat phooloun se nahi kantoun se be zeenat hoti hai,
Jeenay ke liye is duniya mae gum ki bi zarorat hoti hai
Not just flowers alone, but thorns too lend charm to a garden
Likewise, for survival in this world, grief has to be part of life
The driver increased the volume and hummed along, shaking his head to Jagjit Singh’s melody. A few ten-rupee notes and some coins lay on a red towel spread across the dashboard. Lost in thought, Ibrahim was only vaguely aware that they were approaching the town. The driver suddenly turned off the cassette player and hit the brakes, bringing the Sumo to a screeching stop. The passengers fell forward with the momentum. The sound of dull clanking came from under Ibrahim’s legs; the steel lunch box had fallen on its side. Ibrahim picked it up and wiped the drops of curd that had leaked through the lid with his rough, wizened hands. The Sumo driver was waving to stop a car coming from the town.
“Is there any trouble in town?”.
“Not now, but yes, there was an hour ago – some stones were thrown and people were scared. But the situation is normal now. And the transport is back on track. “Go on,” the car’s driver replied. The Sumo drove on.
“What happened?” asked one passenger from the back seat. “Nothing. It is okay now. The stone-pelters have gone.”
The passengers insisted the driver let them off a few hundred yards before the main market, as that would be safer. Ibrahim fumbled in his pocket for his brown, worn wallet from which he extracted a worn ten-rupee note. His heart pounding faster, he began walking briskly towards his shop through a road lined with shops selling antiques and art, jewellery and accessories. There were luxury boutiques and stores selling leather goods and dry fruits. They would be swarming with customers in an hour or two.
He crossed the road and passed by the greengrocer’s shop full of fruits, the butcher with his bloody lumps of meat on display, the small bank and an electrical shop. 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-cum-Cleaner’.
Ibrahim 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 dyeing 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 Ibrahim locked his customer register.
“Aslamu-Alaikum, Ibrahim sahib.” Ibrahim returned the greeting from Hamid, a regular customer. “Are you fine?” “Alhamdullillah. I am 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 chugg a moment before.”
“Yes, we heard about that in the Sumo. That is why it took a bit longer today. No one seems to know what will happen the next minute here.”
“Really, nobody does. And, yes, are you done with my clothes?”
“Yes. Your pants are ready. I dyed them the day before yesterday,” Ibrahim replied.
Ibrahim slipped the folded pants into a white polythene bag and handed it to him. Hamid gave him two hundred rupees and left. After checking his schedule , Ibrahim pulled down two dupattas from the shelves. But before he could roll up his sleeves and pull up his shalwar to begin soaking the dupattas, he saw the nearby shopkeeper pulling down his shutters. People were scampering in all directions, some crying and some blowing whistles. Children were wailing. Ibrahim stood bewildered for a moment before hurriedly putting his things inside the shop.
“It is like hell to have a shop in this market. There is something awful almost every day,” Ibrahim murmured as he pulled down the shutters.
All the shopkeepers were standing in front of their closed shops, waiting. A few rumours were making the rounds. Ibrahim realised that the disturbance might be the aftermath of the firing which had killed the youth.
In the meantime, some Rakshaks – names given to the armoured jeeps of the Special Task Force of the police – reached the Murran Chowk, accompanied by local police and the CRPF, the Central Reserve Paramilitary Force. Their arrival changed the scene so swiftly that the market looked like a densely-peopled army 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 and others that were wide open now stood empty, the shopkeepers having melted away leaving their makeshift shops to the mercy of the market. Locals watched the scene from rootftops. There was a sharp sound. Something flew down and rolled on the road a few metres away from Ibrahim, before hitting the leg of a sleeping dog which woke up howling and limped towards an alley. What could that be? Ibrahim was curious. It was a stone; immediately, another one flew and hit the signboard of the grocery shop before falling with a thump and splash into a drain, spattering the muck.
Ibrahim froze in shock; there no longer was any point in running away as the stone-pelters were already bombarding the security forces. They had filled their pockets with stones and brickbats and now, without even taking the time to aim, they hurled one stone after the other indiscriminately. The hailstorm of brickbats was accompanied by an incomprehensible noise. Ibrahim felt like an old man caught in a crossfire. He was searching for shelter, but could find none. He darted towards an ATM counter across the road. Thankfully, he thought, he was now safe. But it was locked. A neighbouring shopkeeper called Ibrahim in just before pulling down the shutters. Inside the shop, it was too dark to see anything. Ibrahim could only hear the horrible, deafening sounds.
In the marketplace, a group of boys – tall, short, fat, weak, healthy, ugly and handsome – all with their faces half covered with cloth, marched towards the forces. They were armed – with stones and pointed brickbats. As they came near the armoured cars and pelted them with stones, the SOG, the Special Operations Group, and the police retaliated, shooting a dozen teargas canisters. It was eye-watering and smelt like 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 among 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 pelting stones at the SOG and the police.
“We want!” a tall boy wearing a black T-shirt clamoured.
“Freedom!” the other boys answered unanimously.
“Indian dogs!” a little boy shouted, straining his throat.
“Go back!” the boys answered more loudly.
“Mache khandar nache kus?” a short boy shouted as he danced.
“Ponde police bay kus,” the boys replied sarcastically.
“Hoon hehar, hindostanik chod`e, Krehn`e watal,” the boys cursed the forces in Kashmiri.
“Maderchod, behanchod… Tere aankh fod dainygay… Kashmiri kuto bhonko bhonko.” The forces responded with expletives hurled at the masked boys, showing their raised thumbs and fists.
The volley of abuses between the boys and the forces continued. As the white jeep of the SOG revved and attempted to chase them, the boys 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. 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 with a loud cry, “Now or we will miss.” The stone hit the side of the jeep with a clanking metallic sound. Other boys emerged, as if from nowhere, and bombarded the vehicle. Thuk…dukk…tukk…khatk echoed the sounds, the stones coming from all directions.
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. The boulder swung in the air for a moment before hitting the front of the jeep and denting it. Another 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, as they had planned, to overtake the jeep and set it ablaze. Some banged at the doors of the jeep with iron pipes and wooden clubs. Their slogans reverberated in the air. The jeep moved a bit, and the driver tried to reverse as its nervous tyres bumped over the brickbats and stones. Its exhaust pipe released a trail of smoke, blocking the view of the boys.
The boys continued to circle it and bang on its doors like blacksmiths beating iron. Seeing that a second jeep was coming closer, a boy shouted “Run,” and everyone disappeared into a nearby lane between two buildings. 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. A pungent smell filled the air. Later, seeing that the boys hadn’t given up, the forces resorted to aerial firing, frightening humans, animals and birds.
The stone-pelting lasted for almost an hour, injuring one fifteen-year old. Fortunately for those stuck in the clash, this weakened the boys’ resolve, and they eventually dispersed. An hour later, the forces, too, left. The market limped back to normalcy and people sighed in relief. But a sharp reminder of the past hours was clear in the debris of the brickbats and stones, and in the sharp smell of pepper.
Unaware of all that had happened, a small child, holding his father’s hand, kicked the small stones on the road. His father chided him. For a brief moment, Ibrahim wished he were like the child. He remembered his father carrying him to the fair at the shrine of Rangmula, two kilometres away, trudging through mustard fields, wearing the new clothes his father had gotten stitched for the occasion. Ibrahim could still recall the rich taste of the sweets he and his father had enjoyed sitting on a swing that day. The yellow balloons, the tangy snacks, the beating of the drums by magicians, the shining faces of his friends – the vivid memories brought tears to his eyes that mingled with the sting of the teargas.
Ibrahim saw others wiping tears. A few sneezed and coughed. The market still looked deserted. It was now an undeclared hartaal. The shopkeepers decided to return home. They knew that if they dared to resume their business, they would have to face threats or find their shop’s shutters smeared with human faeces the next morning.
Ibrahim hurried to the place where passenger vehicles would park whenever there was a clash. First, he had to buy some medicine for Zainab, who would have a severe headache after the full night’s vigil in the mehidiraat, the pre-wedding henna ceremony of Hassan Rather’s daughter Mehmoda.
Zainab was skilled in applying mehandi and was often invited to wedding cermonies. Sometimes, she would receive gifts from the brides from well-off families.
Ibrahim purchased five Neuromal tablets for Zainab and boarded an over-packed Sumo. His ribs were painfully pressed from either side and he felt like a tiny tomato in a vegetable basket of many pumpkins. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. Though the windows panes were down, it was stuffy and smelly.
Whenever trouble broke out, Sumo drivers made good money, as everyone wanted to get away and no one complained about the overcrowded vehicles. Besides, they needed to make up the losses on the days of hartals as the banks would be after them if they failed to pay their loan instalments.
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 Ibrahim. Someone in the Sumo said that the boy who had been injured by the security forces had been declared dead on arrival at the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. All the passenger cursed the forces before falling silent. A strange painful heaviness took hold of Ibrahim’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.
Ibrahim got off at Gulshanpora, and went straight to Rehman Kak’s shop for tobacco. “Ibro, why are you home early? Is everything alright at home?” asked Rehman Kak, weighing the tobacco.
“Yes, all right at home. But not in Kashmir, not at Pulwama.”
Ibrahim was not in the mood to talk, but out of respect for the elderly man, he narrated the events.
“These bloodthirsty 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, Ibrahim left. As he entered his home, his wife asked, “Why have you returned home so early?”
Ibrahim didn’t answer her, but went looking for his hookah. Not finding it, he yelled at his wife. It was only after the kitchen was filled with the smoke of his hookah that he told her what had happened.
“Brutes! Killing machines!” Sarwat exclaimed with anger.
Sarwat began to worry about Sameer and Zara who had gone to their colleges.
“Do you have any balance on your phone? We should call Sameer and Zara,” Sarwat said nervously.
“I recharged it the day before. Call them and let me know. Here! Take it.” Ibrahim handed her the small Nokia phone, puffing out a blue tuft of smoke from his mouth. He continued smoking, trying to exhale his dejection and anger.
He 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? Do the forces not hesitate before spilling our blood like Jabar the Slaughterer, or are we just animals and birds they kill with precision like he does? Are they set to turn this valley into the land of half-widows, schizophrenic fathers, pellet-blinded sisters, deformed brothers, childless mothers and wailing orphans? Is even our Allah cross with us?
With each drag on the hookah, Ibrahim’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.
Sarwat dialled the phone numbers, one after the other, with her trembling fingers, and was relieved to know that both her children were safe in their colleges.
Ibrahim did not get off the hookah till it was almost time for lunch. Just then their neighbour Sara came in to ask:
“What have you prepared? I mean, what vegetable for the lunch?”
“Tomatoes and cheese,” replied Sarwat.
“Okay, give me some. I have cooked potatoes. But Manzoor doesn’t like them. He wanted something cooked by you,” Sara said, passing the bowl to Sarwat. Sarwat’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.
She then went out with Sara to give some fodder to the cow, which had long been mooing. As they walked towards the cowshed, Sarwat told Sara what Ibrahim had told her about the incidents of the morning.
“What must his mother be doing right now,” Sarwat said.
“Wailing and crying. Malis maje pewaan taawan; the parents are ruined. Which village did Ibrahim tell you the boy was from?”
“This one is from main town – Pulwama. Ibrahim said that the boy was just fifteen.”
“Oh! A young rose bud. May Allah bestow him Jannah! 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 one of my family members leaves for town. Anything can happen anytime there. I am worried about my Mazoor. And your Sameer. Both are hot-headed.”
“I think a hundred times a day of Ibrahim and 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 think we, Kashmiri women, should… Oh, the cow is lowing loud? I will give it something to eat first.”
Sarwat started heading towards the cowshed.
“Can you tell me how much milk it gives you these days?”
“Around ten litres. Five go to the market and the rest we use at home.”
“Okay, 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,” Sarwat said with a pitying smile.
“Hmm. But if you get your Zainab married off to my Manzoor, I will demand no dowry,” Sara joked.
“Done! But her beauty demands an exorbitant mehar. You surely will have to sell the whole land,” Sarwat 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, Sara. We should seek the mercy of Allah. Otherwise, we are heading towards that day. God forbid.”
They both sighed. A housefly hummed and landed on the bowl. Sara shooed it away and the bowl shook. The aroma of garlic filled the air. “I will leave now. Manzoor must be waiting,” Sara said.
As Sarwat lumbered towards the cowshed quite unmindfully, she stumbled against a wooden peg driven into the ground that scraped her right foot. She walked back from the cowshed, nursing her bleeding foot. Ibrahim was taking a nap lying on the floor. The clanking of utensils broke his sleep. They had their lunch – only a few morsels – with a heavy heart
She went outside and collected the clothes she had washed in the morning. First, she took down Ibrahim’s and then her own. The clothes smelled of Rin soap. As she pulled down those of her children, she felt like kissing the clothes. She carried them in her arms and went straight to Hadi’s room. But when as she closed the door, it occurred to her that she had to take them to her room instead. She slapped her forehead and slammed the door. In her room, her eyes fell on the wall where the a picture of Mecca hung. She dropped the clothes and looked at the picture again, raising her hands towards it. With a penitent heart she prayed: “Hai maine badde Khudaye, Kasheer kartan yeme zulme nish azaad. Oh my dear God, set Kashmir free of this oppression.”
Afterwards, Ibrahim said his prayers and left to bring some grass for the cow from the small apple orchard that served as an additional source of income. Being there calmed him. Finished with the washing, mopping and cleaning of the kitchen, Sarwat anxiously waited for her children. Would they return early or late, she wondered.