It was embarrassing for Gulzar to see different people giving him the same entreating look. More annoying was the July heat which he disliked to the bone. He felt the ceiling would cave in and the sun would come down and swallow him whole. As he looked up and found the fan stationary, he cursed the governor of the state for making false claims about the round-the-clock supply of electricity. “That is how it has been here in Kashmir for ages. Neither our own leaders nor outsiders did us any good,” he said under his breath. By outsiders, he meant the then-governor who was not a resident of Jammu and Kashmir.
Since morning he had seen over a dozen people from his neighborhood in the presence of his wife, Munazzah, who listened to the conversations, standing and doing dishes at the sink, with her back to her husband. In between, she had to leave the dishes there and make tea for the visitors. When visitors tried to tag her in their conversations with Gulzar, she would cry, take the loose ends of her stole to her eyes and go back to doing the dishes again, which included those which she had just washed or were not in use for days.
In the wee hours, she had even tried to fill a few leaves on a piece of thick embroidering cloth she had bought to be used as a curtain on the kitchen door. But that required her to sit beside her husband, who was in no mood to talk. So, she had to put back the several yarn balls of green, orange, yellow and red into the plastic basket and stick the needle fitted with a wooden, round handle.
The night before, both husband and wife had sat up in their mattresses spread on the furnished kitchen floor with Munazzah only doing the talking. She ran out of words and tears but Gulzar seemed unmoved. So, today, when she saw people coming to her house with the same concern, she desperately hoped that there must be someone who her stubborn husband would listen to. But nobody, it seemed, possessed the prowess to break through the fence Gulzar had erected before him. He, in fact, grew more agitated as the number of visitors kept growing. He decided that he would rather allow his skin to burn in the sun than having to listen to people, some of whom had never been to his home or liked to talk to him. He rushed outside, leaving his wife clueless as to where he was going. She dared not ask or call after him, given the fury with which Gulzar paced out of the kitchen, and left the remaining dishes in the sink. She turned the faucet off, took quick steps to the window on her left, that overlooked the lawn, and watched Gulzar as he shut the door of the iron gate behind him.
Munazzah sat there in the window, lost in thought until she overheard her brother’s uneasy voice, at some distance outside the precincts of her house on the road, arguing with her husband. She could not make out what both were saying but she knew with certainty that it was her brother and her husband. She rose and ran to the gate but stopped short of opening the door.
Another person, outside whose house Gulzar and Hashmat – Munazzah’s elder brother – were engaged in a fierce show of words, also overheard them, and he listened to everything in great detail while he was watering a small patch of collard greens with a tin-made handheld sprinkler. Sensing the gravity of the matter, Ishafaq ran barefoot to catch up with Gulzar.
Ishfaq, panting, angry and shocked at the decision made by Gulzar, confronted him and asked, “Why did you say to your brother-in-law that you won’t go to the police station? Your son will not be heard from again, under current circumstances in Kashmir, if you don’t go and get him out. I would have gone myself but nobody bothered to tell me.”
“He is not my son,” Gulzar shouted and nudged his neighbor aside to make way for himself.
Gulzar’s piercing voice traveled beyond its first receiver and reached Hashmat and Munazzah, who were by now outside the gate on the road, seeing Gulzar disappearing behind the wall. The brother and sister looked at each other in shock and before anyone could speak, Munazzah collapsed at her brother’s feet, bruising her nose and forehead with the buttons on his check shirt. Ishfaq, as he turned to go home in disappointment, saw Hashmat, panicked, running between his sister, who lay unconscious on the road, and the gate, the door of which he struggled to open. He stood motionless for a few seconds, unable to decide whether to go and help Hashmat with Munazzah or run after Gulzar and bring him back. He turned on his heels and ran after Gulzar, who was still in view when Ishfaq turned at the corner of the street.
Hashmat started panicking more and couldn’t open the door, which only required a slight turn of the knob to the left. He shook the gate violently but to no avail and rushed back to his sister, whose scarf had fallen from her hair and got entangled around her neck. He set the scarf right, cried, called her name repeatedly, tapped on the right side of her face expecting her to open her eyes again. She did not.
Among a dozen of people that had gathered there. A woman in her late 50s took off her stole, which had several yellow marks on the front, revealing her raven black hair, and began fanning Munazzah. The chaos had overwhelmed everyone present on the road and no one, it seemed, was fascinated by the sheer blackness of the woman’s hair. All of them, except Amma Ji, as the woman was known to everyone in the neighborhood, failed to decide what to do in such an emergency. With both Gulzar and Hashmat shaking Munazzah from two sides, Amma Ji sent her teenage daughter to fetch a glass of water from her house. Asking Hashmat to wave with the loose end hem of his kurta, Amma Ji inserted her right-hand index finger and thumb, like a pair of tongs, between Munazzah’s jaws and checked if she had bitten her tongue. Luckily, she had not.
Adding another hand to hold the upper jaw, Amma Ji asked her daughter, who had by now returned with the glass of water, to drop in succession a few sips of water into Munazzah’s mouth. The water, initially, did not go down Munazzah’s throat, but when Amma Ji released the lower jaw, Munazzah made a choking sound and then, with a start, coughed out all the water, and opened her eyes. Out of all the people, including Amma Ji who managed to revive her, Munazzah only looked at her husband who was on his knees. He held her by her biceps with one hand and placed his other hand under her head. Gulzar’s anger had all waned by now and was muttering slowly to Munazzah, “Zuv hye wandye. Gaash hye wandye” (I will give you my life and the light of my eyes).
“Why did you say to Ishfaq that Tanveer is not your son? I never cheated on you and loved you more than anything else. You know that yourself,” Munzzah let her tears stream from her eyes.
“I swear, I didn’t mean that,” the husband said, shocked at how his wife heard him from inside, unaware that she had followed him till the gate after he left in anger. He began explaining to his wife in front of everyone what he actually meant. He too seemed to have been in search of an occasion to vent how he felt about his son, especially since he had been arrested by the police over charges of stone-pelting and inciting youth violence.
“From day one, I have been telling him that armed struggle in the 1990s didn’t do us any good,” Gulzar addressed his wife with moist eyes. “But he doesn’t listen to me, as if I am anti-Kashmir and don’t value the sacrifices by people through all these years. I have been trying to make him understand the futility in the form that resistance in Kashmir has taken. What is it we do? Locked inside our homes, under a curfew and if we raise our voice, we are met with harsh treatment. Arbitrary detention is the least of our fears and my son’s detention just proves that,” Gulzar did not take his eyes off his wife. “The last time Tanveer was detained, a cop manning the entrance of the police station jeered at me saying that Tanveer was fathered by a separatist. And yesterday, when he was picked up from the street, though he was not protesting, I lost it and feared to go to the police station again. I can stand my son being slaughtered in front of my eyes and I cannot bear to listen to anyone who tries to sling mud at you,” at this moment he raised his head to the sky as if asking his God if He was listening, too.
“Tell me, what do I do now?” Gulzar had now reached a point where holding back tears was not an option, so he cried, dropping his head to a level where his forehead touched his wife’s.
Younis Ahmad Kaloo was previously a Delhi-based Correspondent at FORCE Newsmagazine, a monthly magazine on national security and aerospace. Younis’ last short story was published by Out of Print Magazine in its 35th Issue (September/October) 2019. The story was later translated into Bengali by Kolkata-based magazine ‘Aainanagar’
Featured picture credit to Bilal Ahmad