A dreary experience can leave deep imprints on your life and how you lead it, but can it take the life itself?
By Aabid Rehman Pala
The drab afternoon in early October, he found himself at the village periphery, ambling lazily back home from school with few of his schoolmates. His school was an L-shaped old, crumbling, single-storied building standing picturesquely at the wedge of karewah facing the road that connects his village with the ‘national highway’. Verses of Quran and famous quotes in English and Urdu painted on its white-washed walls were peeling away. On its rickety signboard, tarnished and smeared with a thin film of dust, was written: ‘Established in 1985’.
Everything looked dreary. There were sparse people on the road as it was siesta time. Leaves of tall poplar trees and leaning willows were swaying in the zephyr with prejudice, making the perched birds on their branches dart with a sweet twitter. The sandy ones slightly departed and glided down dancing in a zig-zag way.
A rivulet alongside the road always flows murky water after cascading down the karewa. Clumps of wild grass, thorny bushes, sedges and cannabis leaned over it from both sides. Dried leaves and twigs bob in its undulated water. It would accompany them to some distance and then nonchalantly disappear into the extensive swathes through the dense poplar nurseries planted alongside the road.
They kick the scattered pebbles and gravel loosened from the worn-out road over gossips and back-biting of teachers. They were having all the fun throughout this short expedition from home to school and vice-versa. Sometimes, they would deliberately put a stone, stick or some inconsequential gunk object in one’s bag so as to irk him at home after he will notice it. He remembered once he found a dried cow dung cake in his bag whilst he opened it at home in the evening to write his homework.
As they walked down the filthy avenue under the dull afternoon sun, they were startled a bit when a military platoon caught their eye. The army men were pretentiously coming from the opposite side. They were eight to ten in number, mostly in their thirties, moustached, donned in camouflage uniform, wearing black kerchiefs under their armoured helmets with grimy long boots under their fatigue trousers. Their faces looked grim.
Two scrawny Kashmiri men with tousled hair, short tangled beard, shirt ripped open and fists clenched were dolefully walking with the army platoon. They seemed frightened, subdued. Small sweat beads were visible on their groom etched faces. The loose trousers over their cheap rubber bathroom slippers were repeatedly touching the ground, sweeping the dust as they took their steps. The men in uniform were carrying staves and bamboo canes in their hands while their AK-47 with tarnished barrels and glistening amber wooden handles were slung from their shoulders.
On spotting the army, a deathly hush was experienced in the meantime and the children walking from the opposite side felt a bit creepy. However, these incidents were not seldom. They were used to it. They would see the army personals everywhere – on the roads, at the hunting places, inside the passing vehicles and sometimes in their school premises also. They were not ‘army-phobic’, rather they greeted them often. The men in uniform would always shake hands with them over a thrusted chuckle.
As they reached the army men, Sahil faked a smile and took his hand out from the pocket to shake it with the first man approaching him. As he extended his hand, the hand of army man didn’t move from its place. Rather, his angry, drunken eyes glared at Sahil with derision. He was smelling fetid. The other children giggled at Sahil. He blushed.
Sahil and his friends mundanely trudged a few yards forward in weirdness while the patter of the footsteps of platoon was getting fainter after each second. And then, suddenly, a series of thuds halted the steps of children. They stood still and looked round. The army men were hurriedly vaulting over the rivulet unto the poplar nurseries. Two of them had tightly grabbed the arms of the two civilians. The action looked obscure and the children snailed their movements. The army men waded through the nursery towards the culvert. There looked some sinister possibilities, with the young men in tow.
After few minutes, the atmosphere was filled with shrills and shrieks of the young men and the snapping of sticks. The rumble of the raucous, plaintive cries startled the birds and they flew helter-skelter over the nursery. The children subsided in fear and huddled around. They felt outraged in the harrowing ambience.
The notorious army personals bullied the hapless men. The poor civilians wailed like one did at a bereavement. They were howling and crying, ‘Khudayo’ ‘Khudayo’. One army man spotted the children noticing all this from a distance. He came out of the nursery with his crooked figure at the trigger, pointed the barrel of the gun at them. This is all what they saw. Petrified, they ran.
While running, they heard some gun shots. They don’t know whether the army man fired in the air or pointing towards them or towards the captive, helpless, poor civilians. They didn’t give a hoot for each other. Rather, they were trying to keep up with one another. They didn’t gave a fig for the men crying in unabated pain. They just cared for themselves and ran hard.
Sahil slunk through the narrow sinuous alleys to home. He tripped and fell down several times, bruising his knee and elbow. He zapped past the pesky alley cats huffing and puffing. Birds and other roosters had a sudden flight before they set back for pecking. Weary canines cringing together in sleep under the dull afternoon sun slightly opened their eyes, blinked few times and set them back to sleep. Moaning pups tugged the udders of their mothers, while the pesky yapping convulsed the others.
He vaulted over streams and small rivulets and finally gasped relief when he found himself at the flimsy wooden gate of his lawn. He was suffocating in the sluggish afternoon heat. His whole body was aching, face beaded with sweat and heart thumping hard.
Sahil opened the shoddy wooden gate and entered the lawn. As he looked at the steps, grandfather, wearing a flamboyant skull cap, was puffing hookah at a grass rug, coughing after every drag and spitting out the phlegm. Beside, at the steps of the makeshift verandah, mother was pounding lentils into a little pestle with a wooden mortar. Aunt, sitting next to her, was taking beans out from the pods. He sniffed several times and ran towards mother in a huff, leaving the gate ajar while the humming sound emanating from the front room of the house through the window swelled along. It was the sound of Quran recitation.
At the window ledge inside, grandmother was as usual busy reciting the verses of Quran, turning pages with her limp fingers and trying to memorise many of them. He was fear stricken and struggling to catch his breath. Mother instantly threw the mortar down and hugged him. Aunt brought a glass of water while he clung to the bosom of his mother. He guzzled the tumbler full of water and took deep breaths. Everybody in the house gathered around him gobsmacked and shell-shocked.
‘ls everything alright Sahil’, ‘Why are you frightened’? Mother asked disquietly and wiped off the sweat from his temples.
Sahil acquainted them with the whole ordeal amid hiccups whilst mother caressed his hair in the meantime and soothed him down. Grandfather scarcely paid any heed to him. He grimaced and muttered something. It might not have provoked his ire because he had suffered even worst. He put the hose of hookah with his cheek and went in a bout of trance downcast. The episode might have escalated him in the dismayed reminiscence of his terrified past which he was trying to get away from. Everybody stood motionless, spellbound and intently watching the wisps of fume erupting from the amber-filled earthen ‘chilum’ raised atop of hookah. The smoke came out briskly and was continuously taken along by the slow gusts of air, mingling, till the ambers comprehensively ran to ashes.
‘What have you seen yet’!
After humming and hawing, grandfather broke the hiatus with an utterance that daunted Sahil.
‘Don’t be so timorous and susceptible; be courageous and brave’, he added over a smile and gestured by raising his hand and clenching the fist.
Being a voracious reader, grandfather, verily, was a standing witness to the history of all the turbulences he and his people had suffered over time. So, the datum he passed on to Sahil remained etched in his young mind. The army man’s gesture was batty and menacing but it sounded that the vile episode was zilch after hearing grandfather. They have to face those ordeals often.
Mother dusted his uniform having specks of dust everywhere. The glistening ersatz ear rings were dangling from her ears and reflecting the spikes of sunlight. She adjusted her fraying vermilion head scarf, cordially held his hand and took him along into the hallway. Sahil was suffering from lassitude and anguish, amidst loss of appetite. That evening, he was coddled to shun the soul shaking episode by dint of which the ensuing night was a nasty nightmare. The horrible doom had sorely afflicted and incapacitated his mind.
In the evening grandfather came back after offering the evening prayer and discovered that the men were beaten because they failed to produce an identity card when a military platoon came and started checking identities of a bunch of youth who had gathered at a shop sill for a regular afternoon chat.
In Kashmir, no matter if you speak Kashmiri, no matter if the people around you recognise you well, if you are caught without an identity card, even in your own home, you will meet the same fate. You simply don’t exist if you fail to produce one.
In the night, when everybody was sleeping and snoring heavily, Sahil was feeling loss of sleep. The episode was still roaming his mind. He was wondering what if the army men had checked his identity? Would they have also beaten him to pulp? Then he consoled himself by saying that he was a minor. But is minor any word in Kashmir? Does they have any importance?
He then began to think of the happenings around him, of Basit who was arrested at the age of 14 because he didn’t have an identity card, or Tabish who was jailed at a mere age of 12 when he was caught with a stone in his hand or Ashfaq, a 10 year old boy who of course might not have gone to fetch the toffee from the men in uniform with a stone in his hand and was shot dead.
Sahil thought he is 14, which technically meant he could have been beaten, arrested or even shot dead easily. He thought, thought and thought and nobody knows what happened next. Stroke, announced the doctor next morning when he didn’t wake up and his body was discovered ice cold.
He left for the heavenly abode in the dead of night, at least in a peaceful ambience. God might have told him that this fake heaven was not for you, that he must come and visit the real one.
‘It is your age to play, not to strive for what you can’t. It is not your age to face notoriety. So come and play with my people – the angels. They are amicable and genial. They don’t bear any ghastly moustache or carry a horrifying gun of which you are afraid. Come and visit my heaven where you no longer find any culverts or such haunting places but only the bedazzling meadows of peace and tranquillity. Where your ears no longer listen the mournful wails of unfortunate people and the scary rumble of gunshots but the sweet twitter of beautiful birds and mesmerising gush of the streams and brooks; not of murky water and blood, but of milk and honey. Come in my heaven champ and rest in peace. Here is everything but you will still wish to go back, not because you won’t feel good here but you will miss the warm cordial hug of your mother from whom I have snatched you. At least, tell me, what is your age champ!’
The author, working on his debut novel ‘The Ensnared Childhood’, studies English literature at Aligarh Muslim University. He hails from Frisal Kulgam and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.