. . . broken, Fatima promised not to let the fire of revenge consume her son.
. . . the killings made the people more alarmed about anonymous gunmen, but that didn’t stop Poshmarg from further tragedy.
When it was summer in the light and winter in the shade and the air was languid, an unknown gunman shot Ram dead in the open, just outside his house. Soon after the bullets were fired, the clouds began to weigh more and more heavily and came down in the form of massive rains as if the sky itself were weeping. Ram’s body lay there on the grass like it was waiting for the rain to wash the blood away. The news of the murder was first broken by a young boy who, unmindful of the danger, ran to see the one who was shot. When the people saw the boy running towards the spot, they felt encouraged to assist and followed him. Confused, the boy wasn’t sure if the man was dead or merely injured. But he didn’t dare touch him. He waited for the others he saw coming towards him. Rain didn’t stop them. Many people arrived there, and when they turned his head, they recognised him as Ram. He had been shot twice, once in his head and once in his chest. The spots where the bullets had entered Ram’s body had darkened. The blood was still oozing out – it smelled like burnt almonds. The bold drops of rain that moved in a stream around his blood did not dilute the dark-red colour. It soaked his body and tinged everyone standing around him. Their feet were red with his blood.
What followed was a nightmare for Neeta, Ram’s wife. When the people carried the dead body to the area of Ram’s house, they saw Neeta had already fallen on the veranda, unconscious. Not because she knew it was her husband who was shot, but because she usually had such fits whenever anything unexpected happened. This time it was the sound of bullets fired outside her two-room house coated in a thin layer of clay, with its makeshift-roof more or less eaten by rust, tinted with its mixture of slightly corrugated metal on the porch. The house with its shabby courtyard appeared as if it were also mourning its owner’s death.
When she regained consciousness, she saw herself in an unreal world. She felt empty. The world in which she was happy was, all of a sudden, gone. The nostalgia of that world made her believe it was not real. She took a deep breath and asked herself, “How could they kill Ram? What wrong had he done?” She couldn’t make sense of it. She could see nothing, desire nothing, other than to bury herself in the world she had lost.
Almost everyone left her house upset; they felt disowned and disrespected.
It was a chance for Ram’s family – his older brothers and uncles – to cease their anger. He was already dead to them since his elopement with Neeta, a girl from a Buhir family they despised. Maybe they were sorry about his death, yet they continued to act like they didn’t care. Perhaps if Ram’s parents were alive, the situation would’ve been different.
In a mixture of emotional states – desolate, doubtful, outraged, appalled – Neeta tore her velvet green pheran and implored her family and others to let her stay alone soon after all the formalities of her husband’s cremation were done. Relatives and others would, by custom, visit regularly and those close to the family would stay with them to grieve for ten days and help the deceased move on into the afterlife. Like other customs, Neeta had defied this one too.
Neeta herself buried her husband’s cremains on the courtyard’s right side, under the peach tree, which would be Ram’s memorial site. Neeta had to fight with everyone, particularly her uncles and other elders in Poshmarg, who wanted to immerse the remains of Ram in Gangbal like they do for all the dead. They were against the burying of Ram’s ashes, which was the practice reserved only for the holiest of priests.
Almost everyone left her house upset; they felt disowned and disrespected. She was left with her mother and Fatima, Neeta’s childhood friend. Fatima stayed with her to ease her pain. She understood why she was angry with her relatives and family friends: they gossiped about her remarriage and Ram being involved in crime. Some assumed that he had earned money as an agent of the state, an informer about the rebels who fought against them; otherwise, why would they kill him? After a while, Fatima sensed she should also leave, to let her friend stay with her mother’s company and left.
It was the fifteenth day after Ram’s murder. A man came to Neeta’s house and asked for a glass of water. Even though he was unfamiliar to her, Neeta invited him to join them for breakfast, but he refused. Strangely, by the time Neeta came back with water, he had already left. She saw a folded page near the main door where the stranger had been standing a moment before. There was something written in Urdu on that page. She wanted to read it. However, she couldn’t make sense of it.
Ram had been learning to read English and Urdu in the weeks before he was killed. Every evening, when he would come home from the recently-opened community school for those who didn’t have any formal education, he would try to teach her whatever he had learned. But so far, she had only learned to write her name in Urdu and English.
Curious about what the letter said, she quickly prepared tea and some rotis, served it to her old mother, and told her not to worry because she would be back soon.
“Change your clothes,” she called out when she saw Neeta leaving.
“Wear that maroon-coloured pheran. That suits you very well. Don’t go like this.”
“It’s okay,” Neeta responded and closed the outer gate.
After she eloped with a man of another caste, she was alienated for many years.
Holding the letter tightly, she went across the town to see Fatima, the only one she trusted. Fatima’s husband and son were happy to see Neeta. They welcomed her warmly into their newly-built house. She kept looking at the bare walls and the temporary arrangements of items in the kitchen. Neeta knew the house wasn’t ready for them to move in. They had covered the spaces where windows should be with thick polythene for the time being, though that didn’t assure them safety.
“Shouldn’t you at least get windows for your home,” she asked Bashir, Fatima’s husband. Fatima glanced in approval.
Bashir looked at her kindly and responded, “I have to be honest whenever I contact any carpenter. I can’t lie and say I will pay them soon, then make them work, and disappoint them when they are done. I am saving money for the windows; give me some time.”
Neeta and Fatima both had relatives who built new houses simultaneously. They pointed out how smart their relatives are: they live in their decorated homes and still owe money to the constructors and workers.
“I cannot be like them,” stated Bashir and concluded the topic.
While they were chatting about the difficulties of earning a livelihood and how much it takes to build a new house, they waited for Afzal, Fatima’s son and the only one who could read in his family. Afzal came and read the letter in a self-important tone.
“If you want to know who killed your husband and why, come to see us at the Government School entrance gate tonight, around 9:30 pm. Your well-wishers.”
What followed was an awkward moment of silence. Neeta felt like someone had punched her in the stomach. She let the information sink in. There was no clue in the letter about who wrote it. There had been rumours about Ram, that he was killed by a particular rebel group.
“Maybe there was no truth in those rumours about him,” she thought out loud.
Fatima nodded in agreement. Bashir paused, thought again, and turned to Neeta.
“Yes, there have been some other killings too, and those groups publicly admitted why they killed them.”
There was no mark of any group on the letter that made Bashir believe it was not a rebels’ act.
“It could be from an individual, and not a militant outfit,” he said. “Did you recognise the man who brought you the letter?”
Neeta’s face dropped, and she shook his head, “No”. She may have lived all her life in Poshmarg, but she didn’t know many of its residents and she couldn’t always remember the names of those she knew.
Her father’s family lived on the other side of the town, but she never visited them after marrying Ram. After she eloped with a man of another caste, she was alienated for many years – Ram belonged to Karkun and Neeta to a family of Ghors. Ram and Neeta ran away when they realised that a union of their two families would be impossible. They secretly married in one of the Arya Samaj temples. Together, they left their life of fame, wealth, and custom for the peace they found in each other.
But all that had changed now. Neeta’s mother had come to visit her for the first time after her marriage. After Ram’s death, Neeta’s brothers and uncles, realising the absence of Ram’s family, took care of all the funeral arrangements; from helping to cremate Ram, organising all the poojas, to arranging food and shelter for the visitors. Now that Ram was dead, they forgot the shame Neeta had brought to them by her elopement. They tried to take Neeta home, but she wouldn’t leave her own house – her dream home with Ram.
Seeing the letter again, waves of hope touched Neeta’s face. For a moment, she was at ease with herself. She had had faith that Ram could never do anything dangerous, but his death made her feel that he had betrayed her. She would finally know if her husband had really committed a crime. Bashir suggested she shouldn’t go alone and said he would accompany her.
They wanted Neeta to stay for the day or leave after lunch, but she was worried about her mother. Fatima accompanied her to the makeshift outer gate of her lawn, rested her right arm over Neeta’s shoulder to comfort her, and said, “Everything will be alright”. A faint smile was on Neeta’s face as she left. Fatima’s eyes continued to follow Neeta as she walked towards her home. Neeta was not even thirty, but the way she walked, she looked like an old woman. When Fatima saw Neeta collapse at a distance, she screamed, which made her husband and son rush out of the house.
Fatima was the first to reach her. She took hold of Neeta, followed by Bashir and Afzal. Neeta stood unconscious with her hands inside the pheran. Bashir and one of his neighbours held Neeta in their arms and brought her into Bashir’s house. Some people, who had gathered after hearing Fatima, followed Bashir. They wanted to be sure if Neeta was okay or if she needed any help. After a while, they sprinkled some water on her face. She regained consciousness and was again like herself. Apparently, she had been having these fits for some time and was taking medication for it. She still wanted to leave but was politely scolded by Fatima for even thinking about it.
Darkness crept like a curse for these two families.
Fatima packed some food and called Afzal to deliver it to Neeta’s mother, Ded. Afzal went on his bicycle. Ded was happy that Neeta was taking some time off.
“Tell your mother to force Neeta to stay for some days with her, and not to worry for your Ded. I’ll be fine.”
Afzal had been given instructions not to mention Neeta’s health to Ded, and if possible, to bring her with him and lock up their house. Ded assured Afzal that she was fine, and Neeta’s brother would be visiting her soon.
Fatima had cooked red beans with meat and lotus roots for lunch, and they ate later than usual. They always preferred local rice, not the foreign one, which the people had started to get at subsidiary rates in Poshmarg. Bashir mentioned that the smell of cooked, local rice made his stomach dance. After lunch, they wanted Neeta to rest. She kept trying to sleep, and when she couldn’t, she came out to the veranda to join Fatima.
Fatima combed Neeta’s hair and set it in order. Meanwhile, they were lost in discussing how their life had changed. Till late in the afternoon, they chatted about their childhood, which they called their “silly age”. Neeta recalled the day when she told Fatima about Ram and their plan of eloping. That day had a remarkable effect on their friendship. Fatima promised her she would be there for Neeta all her life. Amusingly, they planned to get their children married: “If you have a boy and me a girl or vice-versa, we will marry them and secure our friendship”, Neeta remembered her words.
Fatima added that they couldn’t collect enough dry leaves in the orchards that day and felt embarrassed for coming home with their half-loads.
“Those were beautiful orchards. The whole area is deserted now,” Neeta said.
Fatima added, “Yes, with the advent of railways in Poshmarg, they’ve ruined the beautiful hills which were blessed with apple orchards.”
“We could have done it if my daughter had lived,” she said.
The child survived only a few hours, and Neeta had developed an infection, after which the doctors had to remove the uterus and fallopian tubes from her body. A strange sadness touched them again. Fatima tried to change the topic; she called her husband, and they had nun-chai.
As the evening approached, Neeta wanted to leave. Wearing her brown-embroidered-pheran with a white headgear covered with a blue shawl, Ded also arrived at Fatima’s home. She had found out about Neeta’s poor health. Bashir felt blessed when he saw her in his house. Ded was adored by everyone for her wisdom and kindness. Her arrival made the day more special for them. After a moment, Bashir told her about the letter. No sooner had Ded heard this idea of finding her son-in-law’s killer, than she became afraid of it.
They had dinner earlier than usual. Neeta wasn’t hungry. They thought she was anxious about meeting the unknown person. They made her sit in the kitchen, and when they started eating, she again fell unconscious. They took hold of her and made her lie in another room. She regained consciousness soon, but she was not able to stand on her own. They asked her to sleep. She couldn’t; she didn’t want to lose the chance of knowing her husband’s secret. There was sweat all over her body. She had a fever. It was night; there would be no doctor available. A medical assistant was living on the other side of the town. It was already past nine when they decided Bashir should meet that unknown person alone and, if possible, bring some medicine for Neeta.
Listen, we wanted to meet Neeta, to make her understand that Ram wasn’t good for her. She should live with her parents now. They will find someone else for her.
“Ram was taking me to a special doctor. I already have some medicine at home. Don’t worry about me. I’ll visit that doctor tomorrow,” Neeta promised, wanting to go with Bashir. But everyone else decided against it.
“I don’t feel good about this, Bashir. Why do you have to put your life at risk for something that is not important anymore? Ram is dead already. I think you should not go there,” Ded asserted.
“Don’t be afraid. I have seen worse. Don’t you want to know the truth about your son-in-law? We all deserve to know who killed him and why,” Bashir replied.
“Then inform my sons as well. They should accompany you. Don’t go alone.”
“I will be fine. Don’t worry about me. I have your prayers.”
Before he came out of the house, he wanted to talk to Fatima. She was very nervous about the idea of meeting Ram’s killer; however, she didn’t like to express it. She was mindful not to face Bashir; she didn’t want to make him feel weak. Bashir eyed her with affection when he saw her busy cleaning the kitchen. Fatima sighed with guilt; her eyes were filled with tears when she noticed Bashir leaving. She looked admirably at Bashir, his steps through the lobby to the main door, and when he opened the door to leave the house, she came inside the kitchen immediately. A strange emotion overwhelmed her – not worry. It was more like regret.
Afzal walked out with Bashir.
Bashir filled him with courage: “Look, Afzal, you’ve to be careful. Be like an adult. You are now in charge of the house. Lock the outer door and be careful.”
And he left.
The night was darker than usual. Darkness crept like a curse for these two families. While walking to the government school-building entrance, Bashir met a few elderly persons of Poshmarg who were going home after the last prayer of the day. They asked if everything was alright, Bashir told them he was fine, he had to meet someone. They prayed for his good health and left him. On reaching the school building, Bashir looked around curiously, but he couldn’t see anyone. He slowly walked to the school’s front side and went inside the school campus through the half-open broken gate, but couldn’t find anyone there either. He waited. Even though he felt like smoking, he didn’t dare light a cigarette. Bashir felt a little cold in his shalwar kameez; he thought he should have worn a sweater over it. There was a big walnut tree on the back side of the school. After a while, he thought he should check the back of the school. So, he came out through the same half-open broken gate.
As he came out, two men, hiding their faces and wearing long pherans, came forward. He wasn’t sure if these were the ones he had come to meet. Bashir greeted them anyway; they remained silent. A strong instinct told Bashir that these were the ones who had written to Neeta.
“Neeta sent me here,” Bashir said directly.
“Who else is with you?” came the reply.
“No one. I’m alone,” Bashir answered while contemplating the voice.
There was silence.
The two strangers spoke to each other. Bashir was there, listening carefully to them. He felt like he knew one of the voices. Yes, he recognised him.
“Oh, is that you?” asked Bashir confidently.
“Me, who?” The other person replied.
“Don’t try to be smart. You know I know you.”
“If you know me, then shut your mouth. We have nothing to do with you. Tell Neeta that she lost the chance.”
“Please don’t be like this. Tell me if it is you who killed Ram.”
“Me. Are you mad?”
“Then who? What was his crime? Please tell me.”
“Listen, we wanted to meet Neeta, to make her understand that Ram wasn’t good for her. She should live with her parents now. They will find someone else for her,” said the second person.
“But who killed Ram, and why?”
“It’s none of your business? Now go,” said the man whom Bashir had recognised.
“Is it you who killed him? I can see you’re holding a gun inside your pheran.”
“Why would I tell you that? Don’t make me angry.”
“Don’t be like this, please. Don’t make me consider that it was you who killed Ram.”
“Bashir, my dear. I didn’t kill Ram. He was guilty of giving information about someone we knew closely for a reward of fifty thousand rupees. I felt for him when he mentioned Neeta’s tumour. I understand he needed money for her treatment, but that was not the way to earn. Anyway, he never received that reward. He was a threat; he couldn’t be trusted. You understand? I was with them, but I didn’t open fire. He,” the man pointed to his companion, “killed him.”
Bashir took a minute to digest this truth about Ram and also of Neeta’s cancer.
“You have committed a terrible crime. God will never forgive you. But who are you working with?”
“You’ve nothing to do with that. Call us unknown gunmen like others do.”
The two men argued with each other. Of course, Bashir was listening carefully to every word they were saying.
“Now that he knows who you are and that I killed Ram, it’s not safe to let him go free.”
The two men looked at each other. The second one took out his hands from inside his pheran and pointed a pistol at Bashir. His hands were trembling. The one who knew Bashir sat down. He put his head between his legs and covered it with his arms, all the while pointing his eyes at Bashir’s feet.
Bashir was confounded. His throat felt dry. He tried to clear his windpipe and sturdily opened his mouth:
“Remember, I have a family… I will not share the secret of Ram’s killing with anyone. I swear. Please.”
“You left us with no choice. You really shouldn’t have come here. I am really sorry.”
He shot three times. Fatima, in her wedding dress, was in Bashir’s thoughts before his body hit the ground.
The other man cried. His tears fell on Bashir’s dead body. He threw away his gun, slapped and cursed himself like a madman for his helplessness. He slapped Bashir’s killer as well, who whispered something in his ears. He looked at Bashir’s dead face again, closed his eyes, and dragged him close to the school’s broken gate.
His companion collected his gun, and they disappeared in the darkness of the night.