The IDLE lover
‘The loneliness inside me,
the duality of my person’
– Kishwar Naheed
In a recurrent dream, appearing sporadically and nearly always unchanged, he would recognise himself—more from the intimacy of the dream than from his own face— in the midst of a prolonged, abysmal fall. But before he could die, he would wake and sit up in bed, a shriek burning in his throat, panting and soaked in perspiration, wondering why none of the other soldiers in his barracks had been awakened by his scream; then, just then, two dark eyes of a woman would appear and stare at him from the darkness, and as if taking a cue from those eyes, he would then turn on his side, afraid but still half-asleep, learning once again, that he had just dreamed a dream within a dream. A scorpion of fear would flex its tail in his heart, forcing him to keep his eyes closed.
Naib Subedar Prem Lal Singh was of proven Rajput stock; his forefathers were the Hindu warriors who, under Raja Ranjit Singh “Kana”, had held off the British from entering the five rivers. According to family legend, some of his forefathers had achieved martyrdom while defending the Punjab, and the knowledge of this profound sacrifice made Prem Lal hold his head high with pride. A century later, his ancestors once again had proved their mettle, not just in India but in the Middle East and Africa, fighting for the British. The list of martyrs was longer than that of the ones who returned, some with missing limbs like his uncle Mukhan Singh “Tunda”.
Prem Lal stood out from the other non-commissioned officers of the 502 Punjab Corps in the Delhi Cantonment because of his dark, bluish-copper skin, ever-glinting, sweat or no sweat; he also left an image of his face stamped indelibly in people’s minds due to his unusually high cheek bones, his broad forehead, the slightly mismatched Chinese eyes, but above all, for his oil-tweaked, proudly twirled moustache that curled upwards to touch the overhang of his cheekbones. A veteran of two wars with Pakistan, once on the western frontier and once on the eastern, his stock was always high among his peers no matter where he was stationed. One could safely assume that he had seen Dacca; and indeed he had even seen the great General Arora rip the medals off the shirt of the Tiger of Bengal, Gen Niazi. The experience had left a shiver of memory in his spine, like a permanent taste of poison.
He had been stationed all over the country in the service of the Indian Army, east, west, north, south, you name it, and yet there were only a handful of places he considered worth remembering: Lucknow being the best, and Hyderabad of the Nizam, a close second. The worst was Calcutta, he would snidely tell an acquaintance, but when asked why, he would have to admit reluctantly that it was more a feeling perhaps than any particular experience; it’s like not being able to breathe easily, he would say, or sleep well. “But ah,” he would sigh deeply, “I’ll always remember wah! Lucknow and the delicate balconies of the houses there, and of course the women. He would also recall, though fleetingly, the intermingling of Urdu and Telugu, the Charminar, Nampally Station and the malignant tree-shadows in the sweltering heat of the notorious Hyderabad afternoons.
Since the beginning of adulthood, he had been drawn to classical music, probing into the mysteries of raags, thumris and ghazals, quite unusual for a person of his rugged background, the son of peasants who traditionally loved bhangra, sang joogni and listened to qawwalis. After all, he was only a senior Naib Subedar, a man without a college degree. He became the butt of jokes behind his back for his obsession. Yet another layer of ridicule was added when it became known around the vicinity of the Cantonment District that he carried with him a small transistor radio, rain or shine. It couldn’t be seen, but everyone knew it was rucked inside his tunic. A friend had even joked once, “Oe-hoy, do you take your shower too with it, eh? Bhai saheb?” “I’m a religious man, Mian ji; this is my pocket-sized Gita, made in Japan,” he had answered with a smile.
But Mian’s hair hadn’t gone grey from the sun alone, and his kind knew precisely how to lash back. As expected, he retorted, “Bhai saheb, the Gita-shita is fine, I agree one hundred percent, but kabhi kabhi one should, I say, step inside a temple as well, naheen? And offer a pranam to the gods made in Hindustan with Hindustani materials.” There had followed a roar of laughter from the bench-sitters, tea-sippers. The sister-fuckers! Prem Lal bestowed them with the appropriate appellation silently.
“What can I do, Mian ji? Your gods won’t let me inside their home,” he’d replied. “Their scorn stays my feet at the door. Besides, I’m a lover, not a worshipper; my sins are too heavy for any God to forgive.”
One tea-sipper had shaken his head and exclaimed: “Premji, you’re a lost soul, lost.”
Another, aged and toothless, had added good-humouredly, as he constantly picked at his gums, “Go, go, listen to your ghazals, Mussla bhainchod!”
Walking away, smiling, he repeated, “Not a worshipper, mussla bhaen.”
With the greyness of four decades in his hair, Prem Lal remained a bachelor—such odd behaviour for a man with a steady income and government privileges spawned spicy tales of impotence, betrayal and unrequited love. One rumour was that ever since he’d seen Bhoomika he’d been hopelessly in love with Smita Patil, who had recently died during labour; another version had it that their distracted Subedar adored Shabana Azmi because she was not only an actress but also a social worker and a poet’s daughter. A young chaiwalla went so far as to claim that he had actually spotted a Shabana Azmi poster on Prem Lal’s wall with the faces of all the male actors scissored out.
But then, frequent stretches of imagination such as these was what the country was all about. Reality, however, was quite different from what entered those idle ears: Prem Lal Singh had been born in Lahore, and while only a year old had lost both his parents to the madness of partition. He and his relatives had managed to reach India alive as beggars, uprooted like trees in a storm, some half-insane and a few beyond recovery.
Orphaned, he managed to finish high school somehow and then joined the army as a rifleman. In the beginning he would hide his face under the bed sheet and cry, missing his estranged half-mad relatives, while the other soldiers slept soundly in the same barracks amidst occasional snores. He especially missed his young uncle, Makhan Lal Singh tunda, who’d gone insane after the partition and hung about the neighborhood during the day chasing stray dogs or being chased by them in turn. Sometimes Prem Lal would have to go down to the neighbourhood in search of Makhan, and find him sleeping by the roadside, his mouth ajar for inspection by the flies, dried snot blocking his nostrils. Prem Lal would wake him up, dust his clothes, and cajole him back to the house. The two wars took him further and further away from his relations, and now he would only receive the occasional letter written by a relative usually announcing the death of a family member. Replying, he would pay his condolences and add “I am deeply grieved to hear…I am sorry to say that I cannot come to attend the cremation, yours obediently, Prem Lal.” And as time went on he finally lost the sense of ever having had a family, and soon became quite disenchanted with the idea of getting married and making his own little nest.
Many years before in Lucknow, however, he had had a short, bitter-sweet love affair with a Muslim school teacher. She taught at the Cantonment High School, inside the military compound, and coming to work, or on her way out to the street, she would walk past the window of his office twice a day, five days a week. The steady and determined click-click of her heels against the pavement alerted the men, distracting them from their work. Along with the other soldiers, he admired her youthfulness; as discreetly as possible, his eyes, too, ravished the cut and trim of her figure. He couldn’t behave vulgarly, the way others did, with their whispers and moans, straight out of the Hindi movies, of wah ji wah! Or hai ram! margya ji! Nevertheless, she had caught him looking at her with the subdued flame of longing in his eyes. His blood had burned with embarrassment every time. Nevertheless, the very next day, as soon as he heard the click of her heels, his head would turn to her in defiance of his own shyness. This game of looking, and not looking, of averted glances and hesitant invitations, of curved lips, the beckoning of her curves written in the ancient language of loneliness across the blackboard of his screaming desire went on for a few months, and then, on one of those rainy days when the streets of the old city become small rivers and clouds pump continuously, our Prem Lal, clad in the best of Lucknavi attire, his moustache freshly oiled, curled, and pointed, found himself standing outside her door on two shaky feet, distractedly gripping an umbrella, suffocating in the indecision of whether to knock or turn away gracefully.
A few years later, in Hyderabad he had seduced with manly persistence a Christian woman with big dark eyes, eyes that could cut and heal at the same time. Her eyes were a knife, he believed, that entered the flesh with balm on its tip. She was the wife of the gardener who tended the grounds of the premises. Prem Lal once brought her silver bangles from Agra and a pair of silver anklets from Jodhpur. She would wear them only when she came to visit him. During one monsoon he slept with her almost every day for a whole month, and yet he felt alone and lonely at nights. While the husband mowed the grass, tilled the small patches of earth, and watered the mulberry trees close to Prem Lal’s window, Prem Lal would lie beside her, dissolving in her presence, listening to the swish-swosh of the lazy sickle. He would examine her dark skin for long moments, like a soldier mapping out a dangerous territory at night, and savour the clove-like odour of her back. He was mesmerised by the absorbency of her skin. Is it the colour of nothingness? Is there such a thing as nothingness? Is death nothingness?
Only occasionally now did he think of the Muslim schoolteacher, her voice and its sadness echoing in his mind. Then he would remember how much he had enjoyed the sight of her narrow waist and small, shapely hips as she would get up in the morning to bring him tea, and often with it, Ghalib’s, Dagh’s or Momin’s ghazals to recite in bed. But strangely enough not much of a memory remained of the Christian woman, and every time he tried to conjure up scenes of the sweltering Hyderabad afternoons when their bodies lay locked like mating snakes, all he could muster was a nostalgic whiff of her odour in his nostrils like a scent of death. If these thoughts came to him when he tried to sleep, he would turn on one side, then the other, oppressed by the heaviness of the memory. Or the lack of it. Yet, when asleep he would dream of her dark eyes.
When Premji, or Premiya, or Premi, as he was sometimes called, received the movement order one day, he was sunning himself outside his barrack in Delhi. Holding the paper in his hand, he felt an unfamiliar tinge of melancholy; the lower lid of his right eye fluttered a few times, as it did when he had something on his mind. He wasn’t afraid of going to the Kashmir, nor was he afraid of death. He attributed the restlessness of his heart to the young prostitute, Baby Madhubala, to whom he had been growing quite attached. If he had been married in time, his daughter would have been her age, but this thought did not bother him. The young thing had auditioned for All India Radio twice and, not unexpectedly, failed, yet it was her determination that had impressed Prem Lal, as had her succulent lips and her unrestrained way of planting a kiss wherever he desired. When a little tipsy, our Subedar would ask her to sing a ghazal. Her voice did not negotiate the contours of nostalgia the way the Muslim teacher’s had. At best, she could sing songs from the films Pakeeza and Mughal-e-Azam, also acting out the lines from her favourite films. Once she startled Prem Lal with such seriousness, “I am not a phantom, but a reality,” that it took him a full moment to realise that this was a famous line from the movie Mahal. She could be Meena Kumari one minute, and Nutan in another. This acting business of hers bothered him, though he pushed the thought to the periphery of comfort in his mind. He had moved out of women’s lives before, and would again, without apology or excuse, with no promises to return or to write a prempatr, without regret, without even guilt. He steeled his heart, reprimanding himself silently: “O bhainchodaa! You can’t lose your heart to a bazaari woman. Snap out of it, oy Babber shera! Move on. Hulla hulla hulla!” Within a week he had packed and was off to the Valley in a jeep with two Subedars, Anand Hira the pakora-nosed and Ranbir Malik the chinless: one stiffer than his uniform and the other a sagging quilt; neither with the slightest taste for Hindustani classical music or courtesans; now leading a trail of a caravan of mud-green one-tonners bearing the five hundred men of the Five-0-Two Punjab regiment.
For some days after his arrival, he felt unsettled by the impossibility of holding anyone’s gaze on the streets for a decent minute; their downcast, averted eyes made him want to approach them and order, “Look up! Look at me, saaley!”
Initially it made him want to strangle them. But that cold anger had dissipated within a week, leaving an iciness behind in his fingers, and now he too kept his eyes wandering, a restless pair of hawks, as if searching for the lost childhood of his memory. People emerged from the masjids and mandirs, shops and houses, faces devoid of any desire to offer a salaam or pranam. It was as though he had been stationed in a graveyard full of wandering ghosts and shadows. The shuttered windows frightened him. Looking up at the balconies where the washing fluttered on a string, he would be reminded of the people missing inside these clothes.
On his day off he would venture outside the barracks in the afternoon and look up at the famous sky of the Valley, which now appeared colourless to him. He felt that people had polluted the sky as well. As he walked back to his room, plucking a flower here and a leaf there, the very air he breathed stifled him as though evacuated of its fragrance and music. He was a man who kept his thoughts to himself for the most part, and conversed only with his own demons during the long, lonely nights. He had been ruminating on how to meet up with a tribal woman from the nearby hills, if there was such a thing here, Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist, anyone with firm thighs and breasts and a pussy like swarg; religion was nothing to him but a hurdle to getting in bed with someone, a potential deterrent which he desperately tried to avoid. Every evening, he would trim, oil, and twirl his moustache to his heart’s content, and once done, sally forth for a lazy stroll, listening to his little ‘Gita’. Early next morning he would be patrolling the streets and city outskirts with fellow soldiers, sometimes in an Army jeep, leaving behind at sudden bends, an agitated ghost of dust. Sometimes he was ordered to maintain a tight checkpoint at a certain fork of streets where one of his men manned a machine gun from a bunker, his helmeted head visible through the hole like a turtle.
One very hot afternoon as Prem Lal fought off the suffocating heat with a glass after glass of sherbet, sucking on pieces of ice while listening to Begum Akhtari sing a thumri in the raag Mishra Kafi ‘Jab se Shyam sidhare, ho…’ His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden arrival of a short, stocky corporal Subhash Thakur, whom a few soldiers had nicknamed Golgappa. He turned down his radio. Subhash, from a Bengali peasant background, had tremendous respect for Prem Lal Singh because the son of the Rajput had been promoted twice since he had known him. He had on a few occasions earnestly attempted to strike up a friendship with his Premji, but nothing had ever materialised; they remained no more than acquaintances.
Undoubtedly, Prem Lal was to blame for this failure, as he was extremely cautious by nature. Also he had unconsciously adopted certain prejudices, beliefs uninformed by direct experience. To him, all Bengalis were brainy, intrigue-driven, cowardly and lazy, and even when he saw Thakur sweating under the sun digging a trench or carrying a heavy sack, he could not reconcile Bengalis and hard work in his mind. But Subhash had his own analysis of the unrequited friendship: he ascribed it to Prem Lal’s inability to appreciate the river-song aesthetic of Bengali poetry. Subhash assumed uncomfortably that Prem Lal thought of him nothing more than a bong, a simpleton.
Now Prem Lal smiled. “Aao, bhai subhash ji, ki haal aye?” “Durga maa’s grace, bhai shabeb. Accha ji, listening to gojols?”
Prem Lal, embarrassed, shrugged his shoulders as he clicked off the sound. Then he asked, “How’s family-shamily, Thakur?” “Maa’s blesshing, shaheb.” Then he added, “Wife’s letter arrived today; all is fine, ji.”
“Well, what brought you to my humble abode, bhai?”
“Oh ji, Naib shahab, tushi ko Caapitan shaheb is calling, ji,” said Thakur.
Prem Lal went to his room and changed into his uniform, took one quick look in the mirror, mainly to check his moustache, then hurried to present himself to the newly arrived Captain Khanna. Dank and dimly lit, the new Captain’s headquarters was a temporary office, situated on the other side of the Mess Hall, which Prem Lal visited, to his acute displeasure, twice a day. He preferred eating out in the mixed company of civilians, as the rare sight of a woman late in the evening pleased him immensely.
As he now crossed the untended garden which separated the two pale-yellow-bricked buildings, his eyes scanning the overgrown grass and weeds and dried hedges, he caught the intermittent sound, in the depths of his mind, of rusty scissors going swish-swosh, swish-swosh. But instead of the image of the scissor-blades his mind conjured up the misty memory of the Christian woman’s dark legs curling around his. As he ran up the entrance steps, he felt that he was somehow carrying the extra weight of someone else’s existence inside him. Eh, he shook his head to clear it of its distractions, then opened the door. At least for the next hour, his country needed him, and the Captain must have his attention.
A young, handsome Captain Khanna sat behind the desk, files on one side and an ashtray on the other. Prem Lal Singh halted after entering the door and saluted. Khanna motioned him to stand easy and he reluctantly relaxed. The red glow ringed by ash at the burning end of the cigar between the Captain’s teeth set a sudden bright corona briefly over his face. Prem Lal Singh then realised that Subedars Malik and Hira were also present in the room; anticipating that he was about to salute them, Hira shook his head and winked at him. The Captain stood up, leaving his cigar slowly burning in the ashtray.
“Our country needs us again, Singh sahab,” said Khanna.
“Yes, sir,” answered Prem Lal. He stole a glance at the other two men in the room. The weakly lit room resembled a hospital ward. Captain Khanna’s briefing began: five experienced soldiers of different ranks had been selected by the High Command; under Prem Lal’s leadership they were to leave the following evening for a highly strategic point near the border in a combing operation to capture, dead or alive, a band of infiltrators trained in Pakistan about whom the Army Intelligence had been tipped off. Captain Khanna scrutinised his face for any reaction—there was none, and satisfied by Prem .Lal’s stolidity, he then spread across the table a large map, detailing the zones of activity. Holding the end of the mahogany cane, he tapped with its pointed tip the crucial points of intersection, inviting the other two Subedars over for a look. A dust-covered light bulb above their heads shed a dismal light on the map of the two Kashmirs. Prem Lal’s eyes travelled with the tip of his Captain’s cane along the curly red lines, and he nodded whenever he felt Khanna’s eyes fix him. Throughout the briefing, Singh remained focused and silent except for once when he caught himself sniffing rather unconsciously; at that moment a sudden faint but sad giggle of Baby Madhubala of Dilli broke into his mind. Was she doing her Sharmila Tagore routine? He sniffed it out, hunh, hunh! And then rather comically squinted his brows, but no one in the room noticed. “Is everything clear, Sahab?” the Captain asked, concluding.
“Good luck then.”
“Thank you, sir.”
As he stepped out into the harsh light of the day, he felt mildly perturbed for no apparent reason, and as he walked off he decided the scorching heat must be responsible for the sudden discontent in his heart.
The next day just at sunset an Army jeep picked up the six men from the Intelligence Headquarters and after a long zig-zagging journey dropped them off at an abandoned looking check-point bunker. Instantly, two riflemen appeared and saluted them. The six men returned the salute; the Jeep made a u-turn, awakened another agitated ghost of dust, and soon disappeared.
Within minutes the five commandos and Prem Lal were walking southward in search of the desired trail. They walked for more than three miles, meandering along the waists and hems of the hills to arrive at the edge of their mission zone. All six of them kept a ready finger on the trigger, holding their guns tightly on the uneven paths. They knew they could be finished off here, ambushed in the dark by an already alerted enemy. Two hours later they reached the spot taken as their main compass-point. Under the glow of a mini torch held by a Tamil soldier, Prem Lal Singh unfolded on a fairly flat rock a map showing hundreds of thin black and red and green lines intersecting each other all across the crumpled surface. Twenty minutes later, the precise details of their mission set and memorised, the five strong men branched out in five directions like a trembling human hand only to criss-cross each other every forty to fifty yards. The men were under orders to return before sunrise. The quintet soon disappeared behind the trees and bushes, into the jaws of the night. Naib Subedar Singh looked at his wristwatch with a mild pang of guilt and sighed, “An hour still!”
An hour later he pulled out his little transistor radio from the inner pocket of his green-khaki jacket. In one movement he flicked it on and brought it extremely close to his right ear, running his finger expertly over the black dial. It was Wednesday night, and Islamabad Short Wave One transmitted a two-hour-long programme of ghazals every Wednesday and Friday night. The stations from across the border were hard to pick up in the Valley, but back in Dilli the sound poured in like a stream of clear water, even during the monsoons. After he had arrived in Srinagar he had intimidated a dozen or so people by asking them if they knew of a local station that played ghazals or classical music sometime during the week. It was like trying to engage ghosts in a conversation. But one night, as he was sipping Kashmiri chai at the Sheikh bhai’s stall, Sheikh bhai raised his hand automatically to the big radio set into the wall to change the station where a few tired voices were discussing the political calamity in Afghanistan.
Sheikh bhai himself liked ghazals, but settled for what Prem Lal would prefer to call pseudo ghazals. Still, owing to Sheikh bhai’s restless hands Prem Lal discovered the local station that played them. Islamabad Short Wave One—which he was now trying to tune into—he had found by keeping the radio on for long hours, fiddling with the dial as he strolled along the verandah, fending off the boredom that always threatened to overwhelm him in the absence of a woman’s intimacy.
He hated modern Hindi music, which one heard at every establishment, and it depressed him to reflect on the kind of music people had fallen prey to. For this reason alone, he would always remember his time with the Muslim school teacher, her impeccable taste in music and poetry; he would always remember the love with which she sang Mir, Ghalib, Dagh, Faiz, Munir, Kaifi Azmi, the way she would explain a verse from Kishwar Naheed, “with wounds it chisels the figure of decline”.
He had learned to ignore the constant static that tended to underscore the music—a curse for the sins of the listener from his past lives! Only on rare occasions, when the sky was clear and the wind was quiet, did the radio capture the clear sound of a voice. And even that would suddenly wax and wane, fading in and out. The vanishing voice in the midst of a recital made him pull his hair; he would imagine crushing that cockroach of a radio under his heel. But then he would think twice before doing that, and so his holy ‘Gita’ remained untouched.
Now he moved the dial forward with his index finger and waited, then ran it backwards. He repeated this a few times at different speeds, but without luck. He had to keep the volume extremely low. He recalled the second time he had gone to the teacher’s house in the evening for tea and ended up staying the night: they had to speak in whispers because she lived with her grandfather who in his old age was going blind but not deaf. No matter how carefully and slowly he moved the dial all he got was a crackling sound, as if the enemy was mocking him from inside the radio. He grew flustered, shifted the radio up and down around in an imaginary axis, tilting it left, tilting it right. He had to suppress again the urge to smash the radio against the jagged edge of a rock some ten feet away from him.
He remembered that it had begun to drizzle towards the end of that evening, and as he observed the light rain through the fluttering curtains she had asked him if he would like to see her room; they could talk in with their normal voices there she had added, and giggled softly. Her mouth at that moment had made him think of Punjabi rosebuds. After that night he addressed her in his mind as Gulab, or simply Gul. It had been the most fulfilling night of his life. Yet he’d never fallen in love with her. But he would often recognise the red-tiled verandah of her house in his dreams, and sometimes felt her presence behind his ears…
He clutched the radio tightly in his grip. He realised he was beginning to sweat, and then, as he shifted the radio to his left hand the tip of his thumb slipped off the dial and he fleetingly caught the sound of a human voice that sent a jolt to his heart. His body tensed with heat, as though engulfed in the flames of a chitaa. This time he caught the voice and did not mind the evil crackling that normally wounded his heart more than his ear. Mehdi Hassan! He recognised the voice instantly, a voice so deep and tranquil he thought he would weep. There must be some truth to what Lata had said, he reflected, that Bhagwan’s chariot had passed through his throat. To him the voice seemed to emerge from the depths of the Indian Ocean. What if he was caught with the radio at his ear? He would certainly be court-martialled; a sweat of worry pearled on his forehead. But he had hardly lowered his hand when the singer’s voice, smooth as the morning breeze, reached the end of a famous verse with a latent tremor and then rose like a wave, drowning every other thought in him. The fear of getting caught or having his head blown off by an enemy bullet dissipated. The hand clutching the radio moved back to his ear. “I like your skin, I’m fascinated by its deceptive shades,” she’d whispered into his ear after kissing the lobe. The memory almost made him move the radio away. Getting out of bed, she would involuntarily hum a half-forgotten ghazal, and her voice in its morning huskiness would waft like smoke to his nostrils as though he could smell the voice, the words, even her moments of silence.
He recognised the notes of the raag in which the ghazal was being sung: Basant Bahar, a night raag of the Purvi tthaatth, sung slow and in the lower notes of the scale, with a long alap. Basant Bahar’s dominant note was pa with a flatted ma and ma ga ma ga in the ascending scale and the addition of ra in the descending; the raag’s primary concern, if he recalled correctly, was to heighten the sense of longing with a tinge of joy. He noted that Mehdi Hassan was throwing the sam, the cyclic stress on the word ‘andaz’, making Prem Lal’s entire body react at the point, as if in a spasm, to the closure; a pair of invisible hands was playing the set of tablas inside his mind. “Umr to sari kati ishq e butaan mayn, Momin akhri waqt ab khak mussalman hongey.” All my life I spent adoring idols, Momin!
Prem Lal remembered explaining this particular couplet to Subhash Thakur and Kashi Nath one night in the barracks.
At the last hour, I cannot pretend to be a Muslim.
Thakur had nodded his head and Kashi Nath swayed his torso, though Prem Lal had thought that both had failed to grasp the essence of the couplet. Now Prem Lal Singh suddenly found a new meaning within the meaning; such was the world of ghazals, and so much, he mused, depended on how long one had known the couplet and how deeply or crudely, the singer interpreted the verse. He was drowning in his own universe of music. The combination of the voice and the harmonium was like two ancient rivers falling into an embrace. O, this would leave him drunk for days. In the singer’s voice resonated a unique relationship between the consonant notes of Basant Bahar and the soul of the couplet. The voice, he felt, poured from a silver decanter filling the goblet of his solitude.
Big, dark eyes, silent and forgiving Christian eyes; he often called them the eyes of Jesus, and sometimes the eyes of Mariam. He hated her shyness though, her stubborn refusal to sing—even Bande Marram. When she lay next to him she would suddenly close her eyes, as if she were closing the doors and windows of her house to him. And her silence on the day of his transfer was like the fangs of a cobra poised an inch from his heart. The fact that he never felt any remorse in lying to her, in telling her that he was leaving on a temporary assignment surprised him. But her silence, he knew, would hurt him once he had left; yes, her silence: he would scream bhainchod ki batchi! Silently, knowing those dark eyes knew his lie.
It was past midnight. He had drunk in an hour of ghazals like an addict, the radio back in his pocket. He looked at his watch, then up at the sky, finally resting his gaze on the thin crescent floating in the dark. The weak moonlight added a thin coating of silver to the landscape, the mysterious peaks of the distant mountains visible. He glanced casually at his rifle, which he had left leaning against a tree a few inches from his feet. The bayonet had dug into the wood, leaving a shallow gash. He grabbed the rifle and gripped it as though ready to spring an ambush. The absurdity of this urgent stance brought a soft smile to his face. He let go of the weapon with one hand and lowered its butt onto the ground.
“Taab e nazara hi naheen, aayina kya dekhney.”
The words of the ghazal flowed back in his consciousness, then slid down to his lips.
“You cannot bear the sight, how can I let you see the mirror; you will become a portrait struck with wonder.”
“Take me to a mandir someday, Premu,” she had asked him. “Divali is coming.” They stood under the tin-roofed shelter on the back verandah of her house. It was dark except for the faint glow from the lantern hanging by the doorframe; the smell of kerosene oil hung in the air. Holding her face in his strong hands, he had tried to read her eyes, their past, their many mysteries. “I don’t go there, haven’t been to one in such a long time I wouldn’t know the difference between a mandir and a gurdwara,” he had answered with neither guilt nor contempt.
“Why?” she had asked.
“Why? Because I hate gods, or perhaps I’m scared of gods and goddesses, scared of their stony eyes. Those hardened stares stifle me.”
It was then after a long silence, that she told him that she had been married once, that now she was a widow, a young widow. His hands had slid down to her neck, her shoulders, and then he had held her, and the limpness of her arms around him made him ask how her husband had died. She remained silent. He had insisted on knowing. Her husband, she told him then, clutching his shirt’s fabric, had been a journalist who worked for The Hindu, and she had loved him. He released her to hold her face between his hands once again.
She continued, “He was killed as he was returning home from work on the 10th of Moharram when he ran into a Hindu mob which had recognised him and the shouts had erupted: Catch that sala harami, that son of Babur! Get the Mughal bastard!”
By the time Aurangzeb died Rajput blood had already claimed Mughal veins: Prem Lal had read that in a book. She had stopped crying for her husband a few years back, she believed in life, not death, she told Prem Lal. In the pungent smell of the kerosene, he uncupped his hands from her face. Perhaps he should have held her, comforted her, planted a caring kiss on her half-moist lips, he had thought hours later, but he hadn’t been able to muster the desire. That moment of apathy gradually had turned into the memory of cowardice that tugged at his conscience from time to time.
It was two in the morning now, and he glanced up at the moon, which seemed to be growing.
“Navak andaz jidhara,” he caught himself singing quietly again. Midway through the ghazal he thought: what kind of a soldier have I become? He was seized with a sudden uneasiness, and the unpleasant sensation of having been used and cheated by a higher authority. Governments? Gods? Fate? Who? Whom could he blame? He questioned himself quite loudly in his mind. Whom could he blame for this inertia of soul? All his life, it seemed, had been put to useless goals, and all he was left with was his loneliness and the heaviness of being. The fact that he had never said goodbye to Qurrat-ul-ain, the teacher, weighed on him now. He spat on the ground in mild disgust and began to pace back and forth, keeping a vigil in the pale darkness as he strove to avert the thoughts that poisoned his mind, to re-focus on his soldiers, his precious men who would be returning soon. He even forced his fingers to his mustache to give it a twirl.
The thought of not being able to go to Pakistan, to go and visit Lahore, the city of his birth, to walk through the Anarkali Bazaar or sit by the bank of the river Ravi crept over him with sadness. Looking at his boots, quite visible in the moonlight, gave him a sudden feeling of nakedness. Uncomfortably, he shifted his gaze away from his boots.
A bit later, he realised that he had been staring at a crawling insect as it inched ahead with remarkable slowness. He watched the insect with the utmost seriousness and in that moment of absorption he noticed that the insect was carrying a smaller insect in its mouth. Prem Lal considered the kind of fight the victim might have put up. Could it be still alive, and in fact struggle out of the bigger insect’s mouth? Before he knew it he lowered himself almost to a squat, observing the hunter and its prey. He had put one knee on the ground to stay closer to the insects when his ears pricked up at the sound of a faint rustle. He froze, his neck tensed; a lump formed in his throat.
He gripped his rifle with both hands ready to fire instantaneously at the slightest sign of danger. His eyes darted frenetically in the darkness, suspiciously interpreting every ambiguous pattern of light and shade. One knee glued to the ground, but he stayed where he was. He heard the soft rustle again, shorter by a fraction of a second this time, so that even by concentrating hard he was unable to detect the direction from which it came. Suddenly Prem Lal was gripped by a fear, of being killed by the enemy before he could even spot him. He felt the sweat break out on his forehead; a drop actually slid down the side of his nose and disappeared into the abyss of his mustache. His ears caught the sound again, and for a second he thought he’d caught a subtle movement, quite a distance off, but he couldn’t be sure. Holding the rifle in his hands, closing one eye, he sighted through the target-lens. He narrowed one half-Chinese eye, closed the other and penetrated the fabric of the night with his burning gaze. Ha! He detected a human form lying flat on the ground. His heart began to pound, beating a particular tabla taal: bhoom bhoom babhoom. He squinted harder. There! He spotted the half-luminous head of a man, then the entire body stealthily crawling up the side of the hill like a maggot. He surveyed the landscape around the man, hoping to catch sight of his fellow infiltrators, but he spotted none. Swinging the sights back to the man’s head, Prem Lal adjusted the rifle’s aim to a bull’s eye.
He wanted to wait for the enemy to finish his climb, arrive at the little clearing: that way he would have a better chance of capturing the bastard alive. He waited with a tortoise’s patience.
“Is my enemy Kashmiri?” A strange thought at a very inappropriate time. “What if he is one from our side? Then? Humh! Then the bastard is my countryman, isn’t he? And what if the harami is from Muzzafar Garh, or Pakistan? Oh, the Babur’s son is still an enemy infiltrator and a big maderchod on top of that.”
Prem Lai was aware of an unsettled sense of happiness at knowing he had the fool pretty much in pocket. Suddenly he aimed the muzzle to the sky, catching the moon in the sights, but quickly trained the weapon back at the crawling head.
“What if he is Punjabi?” The thought amused him, but as it faded it left an unsettling trail. Prem Lal shook his head to derail the undesired train of thoughts.
“Navak andaz jidhar deeda e.”
Mehdi Hassan’s voice awoke in his mind without any warning, curving and rising with every closing on the sam with the ‘andaz’—splitting it, “an…da…aaz”—and the fingers of the tabla player were following him like maddened snakes. The thoughts he had tried to banish earlier crawled back into his mind again. “So what if he is a Punjabi, so what if he is a kanjar Rajput, he’s still a bhainchod Mussla and the murderer of innocent Hindus.” Bam! Bam! His mind fired two bullets. Didn’t they stain their hands with our blood? With a surging pain the thought which he had tried to bury a thousand times was resurrected in him: the vague memory of his parents the partition’s conflagration had consumed. “Look,” he had pointed to his eyes, “Look deep into my eyes, Qurrat-ul-ain Begum, do you see the flames way back in them?” She had at first nonchalantly looked into them, then, as if a little frightened, she had withdrawn from him still staring at his face, understanding, though obscurely, the depths of his pain. He spoke again, “Those are the fires still burning from my childhood. Bhagwan is my witness, I have tried to put them out, I have tried and tried and tried, but they keep flaring up again. I am a volcano, Qurrat-ul-ain.”
Prem Lai saw the man approach the plateau and tightened his grip on the rifle. He prayed, “O Bhagwan, give me shakti!” The infiltrator seemed young even at that distance. Prem Lal tried guessing his age. Unlucky bhainchod!
“Freeze! Whoever you are, or you’ll be shot,” Prem Lal took a few strong steps forward, then heard his own echo shout back at him, “—be shot/shot/shot/shot…”
“Now put your hands up and stand up slowly. No smart moves, you hear me?” he yelled, ” – me/me/ me/me…”
The man put his hands up in the air, as he half stood, but then, as if judging the direction and distance of Prem Lal’s voice, he started running downhill, veering away.
“I said freeeeeze!” But the man kept running. Prem Lal ran out from behind the bush, tracking the running man’s head with the muzzle. Bending his knees a bit, he curled his index finger on the cold trigger, and squeezed it. Bam! A Rajput, a warrior, an excellent marksman, he had awakened the night. His finger still pulled against the trigger. He felt as though the bullet had pierced his own lungs. His body, drenched by a monsoon of sweat, was suddenly made of holes. Yet in the midst of the fury raging inside him he detected a dim voice singing, singing something in his mind…Qurrat-ul-ain’s voice? Mingling with the vicious pounding of his heart… He noticed the smoke still curling from the end of the barrel like a crack in the mirror of night. And as he peered straight into the darkness, he felt he was staring straight into the Christian woman’s dark eyes. Into Mariam’s eyes. He was suddenly afraid that she would close them, shutting the doors and windows of her memory’s house on him. A burning howl lodged in his throat and he wished it were only a dream within a dream.