ABOUT THE STORY One of fiction’s great themes is the self’s estrangement from itself, whether through the simple processes of time and memory or the thunderous shock of violence and trauma. In this story set in Kashmir, all these processes unite in the narrative of a young man broken up into pieces by horrors past and present. Feroz Rather’s story groans with the spectacle of physical and verbal violence, expressed in short, declarative sentences as stunted as the sympathies of those who wield the whip of power. But in its interstices we sense a vision of an alternative world, animated by freedom, poetry, yearning and compassion. In the ambiguous closing line about the narrator-protagonist “trying to be the master of his own story”, we see the personal (the narrator’s rebellion against his own feelings of impotence) and the political (the Kashmiri desire for the right of self-determination) melt into each other. The last candle, we see, is not just the flickering flame threatening to leave the writer and his story in the dark. It is also perhaps the last candle of a people’s sufferance of subjugation and injustice.
HIS SHADOW IS QUIVERING on the curtain.
It has stopped snowing. A cold moon is shining over the walnut tree in the backyard, over the leafless willows by the road and the old shingle roofs of my neighbours’ houses beyond. The village is quiet and its surfaces hidden by a thick bandage of snow. The dogs bark occasionally and I worry the soldiers might be entering the village. Every time the soldiers approach, the dogs bark long, mournful barks.
Winter is the season of mourning, the season of remembrance here. Two winters have gone by since you left. My hands shiver as I write to you from my far- off country. Kashmir. Kerseymere. Cochemar. Cashmere. “Tell me about Kashmir? Tell me about your people, tell me about your world?” You always asked those questions and I failed to answer in that city in the Indian plains, far from Kashmir. This autumn, I too returned home. I would walk by the village post office and think of you and writing to you. I was waiting for winter, for snow, the season my war began. The winter of 1989 and the war are still with us, twenty winters later.
I want to tell you about him. His shadow is quivering on the curtain with dark roses. He is feverishly working on his story. He lives in the house across the backyard. I always hated him for being a weakling at school. He was bright and cowardly. He wouldn’t fight and he was a bad player of cricket. His brother was brave, rebellious, handsome, a fierce player on the cricket ground, and he taught me to play.
But now, after so many winters, I have come to like him, to think of him as a friend. We were born on the same day and we resemble each other. When I was reading him, I felt his voice becoming mine. Ah! There are new nails growing on his fingers.
The dogs are barking again, the soldiers are entering the village. The barks are fierce, full of remonstrance. Snow is breaking a walnut branch. Dark clouds have hidden the moon. His shadow has disappeared. I can’t see the dark roses on the curtain. I hear the heavy military on the road and the dogs. If the night allows, I will resume writing tomorrow.
ON THE RIVER SANDREN near the town of Countless Springs, the village stretched unevenly by the edge of highway. Amid a sprinkling of mud houses by the walnut grove, stood our house with its cement plastered facade, its large pine doors and glass windows, and a conical tin roof. Father would leave for work very early in the morning. I woke up to his absence, sensing only the presence of Nusrat, my elder sister. I found her sweeping the corridor. She told me to get ready for school. She went into the bathroom and wrapped a blue towel around her shoulders. I followed her along a grassy bank and my bleary eyes opened with the sensation of cold dew under my feet. She carried Father’s soap case in her right hand with a magnificent pink bar in it. We stopped and took soft pulls with our noses; we drew joyous smiles at each other feeling its rosy scent.
A canopy of willows overhung the icy water, sending yellow leaves floating down into it. The water came down from the spring, Vaernag, up above in the mountains, and ran smoothly over round brown stones. The sun had just come out and the morning was alive with the twitter of birds. Nusrat asked me not to go into the middle where the river was deeper and one could drown. She watched over me while I took some fresh dips near the bank, gasping at the water’s coldness.
In the kitchen, my mother didn’t take her eyes off the oven and I couldn’t see her face. She called Nusrat, who poured me tea from the samovar and gave me a poppy seed tsochevor from the locked kitchen-cabinet. Bitter smoke rose from the mud oven. My mother worked dried willow branches into its mouth. I knew the smoke was burning her eyes and the charcoal dust and soot were darkening her face. Nusrat prodded me to hurry for school. I ate the tsochevor melting in the pink salt tea. I went back to my room to put on the uniform.
Nusrat helped me tie my green necktie over my white school shirt. I put on black cotton pants and blue socks, right leg first both times. A large mirror framed in an ornate silver case hung by the book rack. As I brushed my hair, Nusrat appeared in the mirror. Over her tall, slim frame, she had a gentle round face, cupped by chestnut tendrils of hair. I stood behind her, waiting to appear there myself. And after her, I looked at my eyebrows and felt happy. They were almost as thick and were connected in the middle by a bridge like hers. I returned to mother to get my lunch box. She spoke without looking at me. “The rice is not ready yet,” she said. “I was not well, couldn’t sleep.”
I stood there listening to the twigs burning in the oven. I hesitated for a while. “What?” she shouted without turning around. “Five rupees,” I said. She tore her face away from the oven and yelled, “What do you want? Do you want me to sell myself off? Your father winds his tail and leaves for work before sunrise. What can I do! Don’t ask me!”
I could not look into her face. Tears welled up in my eyes. “I had some money in the tin trunk! That loafer Showket stole it for his puffs.’’ I ran back to my room. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. I picked up my satchel and wooden slate and left.
In the neighbouring market, Mir Bazar, I suddenly saw Showket, my elder brother, standing against a cemented wall of his shop with his back to me. Perhaps my mother’s curses had brought him to this pass, as six soldiers encircled him. Showket was moving his head up and down—what was he doing? Licking the rough cemented wall of his own shop, his tongue following the letters of graffiti: JKLF. Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, the guerrilla group that was fighting for an independent Kashmir, that was fighting the Indian soldiers now kicking Showket as his tongue caressed the letters: JKLF. The soldiers smashed the shelves of Showket’s shop—the shop where sometimes my brother would give me milk candies for free—and broke the glass jars filled with spice. They smashed the wooden boxes of apples and oranges. They threw away bundles of spinach and cabbage. They threw away the packs of biscuits and scattered the gunny bags of beans and rice on the road.
“I don’t know who has done this. I don’t know who painted it,’’ Showket screamed.
“Fuck your mother, we will fuck your sister! Can’t you say ‘Sir’ while addressing us!” roared one of them.
“Sir, please don’t!’’
Showket got another kick. And another. He screamed. They kicked. His reluctant tongue rubbed against the letters. JKLF. The letters were changing colour, a darker shade of red after his gashed tongue had added his blood to that name. JKLF. They punched him in the ribs. “You mossie fucker! Is it your mother, you’re being so gentle with your licks!” Another kick in the ribcage and Showket doubled over. A moment later, Showket stopped screaming. He stared back. Something in his face seemed to change.
“Aazadi!” he burst out.
All of us had been shouting that word, chanting it like a prayer, the holiest of all words: Freedom! Independence! An end to the rule of the soldiers from the plains! And now Showket’s valiant scream rising from the core of his being had shaken the ground beneath them.
They held their guns by the barrels and took turns. A worried circle of villagers stood around the soldiers, their faces swinging between despair and anger. I covered my eyes with my hands, which began to shiver. I hid my face behind my bag. Two women took off their scarves and began to beat their chests, wailing: “He is a mother’s son. Wae! He too is a mother’s son. Wae! Wae!”
The men and the boys stood in stark silence. They would speak later, in another language.
The morning convoy appeared on the highway. A soldier in enormous white boots fired a few bullets in the air. People scattered. Showket was still lying on the road. They beat everybody coming their way, keeping people away from the convoy on the highway. They moved about with restive wild eyes, their fingers on the triggers. They waved at the convoy. I somehow ran across the road. Some distance away, I looked back: those macabre-olive military trucks groaned on the highway; the soldiers mounted on truck tops, brandishing their guns, shouted severe words.
Father was still absent. I couldn’t go back to the saw mill behind the shop. “Father! Look what they are doing to your son!” I wanted to scream. I wiped my tears and saw the graffiti, JKLF. It was painted in black synthetic paint, and the ascending cap over J, the sprawling wings of K, the intersecting lines of L, the flutter in the F, were all smeared with Showket’s blood. I wanted to run and wipe it with my school tie. I wanted to go to him and hold his hand. Showket rose from the ground. He wiped the blood oozing out of his mouth off his chin. The soldiers were still shouting. I ran away before he could see me; I was scared to run to him, and also Showket always wanted me to go to school without finding any excuses.
I started walking the four long miles to the school. The buses wouldn’t stop for me. I missed my bus driver friend, Dilbar. Spires of poplars grew along the fringes of apple orchards flanking the road. The sun climbed like a fluorescent disc, shortening our shadows. On other days, I would stop to eat some rice from my lunch box. But that day, I just walked on.
Across the Akhran Bridge, I saw groups of the pupils walking to school. Ripe paddy fields extended on the either side. The sun grew hotter in the brighter, bluer sky above the jagged, snowy Himalayas. I caught up with a few classmates and walked alongside them.
The mud and brick building that was our school was by a spring. Two tall sycamore trees stood in the middle of the school lawn. A few hundred students had gathered under the shade. Nobody was reciting Morning Prayer. The headmaster appeared on the small stage we all faced. The chairman of the school stood by his side. An exuberance spread among the students sitting in untidy, winding rows; the girls in long-tailed sky-blue frocks and black scarves stood in neater rows a few feet from the boys. I tried to see her. I could not see where she was.
Then the examination results were announced: ‘The first position in the eighth grade goes to....!’ I closed my eyes, my heart skipping a beat. ‘Safina Azad!’ I smiled and watched her walk to the stage. Her silken scarf slipped from her head and fell on her shoulders. I stole a glimpse of her braided black hair before she recovered it. She walked neat steps in her low black shoes. Safina beamed with joy and received her prize: three notebooks wrapped in brown paper. The students broke into riotous clapping. I, too, smiled and clapped.
‘The first position in seventh grade goes to…’
The headmaster announced my name.
I didn’t move. Showket will die if I walk to the stage, I thought. Such a good thing can’t happen to me on the same day such a bad thing is happening to him. I waited. Everybody started talking, looking for me. I began to perspire. My name was about to be called again. I squinted at her. Many rows across, she smiled and nodded. I stood up and walked to the stage. The chairman shook my hand. He gifted me, yet again, a copy of the Quran. I held the holy book with trembling hands. I felt Showket was dying. Safina looked at me and raised her hands above the others that were clapping for me.
I had seen Safina a week ago in Maengaom. In the nearby village, amid vast fields, she lived in a house adjacent to my grandmother’s. Through the window of her room on the second storey, she might have seen me approaching. I felt her quickening footsteps in the rustle of crisp leaves on the path leading me there. She was in a black velvet pheran with white-laced sleeves. Paisleys on a blazing red kerchief clung to her neck. I looked into her amber eyes. A rosy blush spread over her face. Her cheeks bloomed into dimples, and the corners of her lips began to quaver. In the distance, the sun was setting over the mountains, its last rays like streams of wild honey. The evening breeze, swishing through the sea of paddy, hushed up. We stood looking into each other’s eyes, suspended in an ether of delicious unease. Then she lowered her gaze. The tips of the leaves crackled and began to catch fire near our feet. She ran back to the house and emerged with a book: Habbah’s Love Songs for Yusuf. I spread open both my hands. She placed it on them. On homemade paper, the songs were written in a flowing calligraphic flourish with a reed pen. The book, as I learnt decades later, was compiled by her great-grandfather a year before he was killed in the last half of the nineteenth century while leading a mutiny against begaer, against the disgrace and misery of slavery and forced labour, against the soldiers of the despotic Dogra king. In the raging fire, Safina did not ask me who had kindled the flame of songs in my soul. She knew it already. The croonings which suddenly began to emit from me the day we bumped into each other for the first time in the school corridor two years ago, and reached her at the earliest dawn from my grandmother’s house every time I visited, were for and due to her. But now through the gift of her heroic legacy, she conferred a musical recognition on us. And I, still locked in the stormy silence of her eyes, unable to utter a single word, carved deep on my heart the meaning of her name. Safeeeeeeeeeeeena: ah my ferry! And with her, in her, forever, I decided to set sail in and glide over the turbulent waters of life.
The lunch break was a long hour. I was playing cricket with some friends in the compound when a big military truck appeared abruptly. Six soldiers leapt out and barged into the headmaster’s office. They dragged him out to the lawn to call upon all the teachers and students. The headmaster called after everybody. His voice, as we swiftly ordered ourselves into neat lines, grew tremulous with fear.
The one with the big boots went onto the dais and asked all the teachers to go there. Everyone looked on. I looked for her. Safina was seven rows away from me. The soldier slapped the headmaster for not addressing him as “Sir.” He asked him to tell us to sit down. The headmaster asked us to sit down. He ordered the teachers to stand on the stage. He looked at Safina. He ordered the teachers to kneel down like fowls and pull at their ear lobes with their hands. The headmaster looked at the students. He looked at Safina. The headmaster was silent. He kicked the headmaster from behind. The headmaster fell on the ground. We cried. He fired a shot in the air. He looked at Safina. He kicked the teachers from behind, one after the other. A heap of teachers fell on the ground. He looked at Safina. He fired a bullet in air and asked the students to clap. He looked at Safina. Nobody clapped. He looked at Safina. His men dragged the headmaster to the stage. He looked at Safina. He threatened to kick the headmaster again if we did not clap. He looked at Safina. We clapped. Safina did not. They left. The teachers begged us to run away from the school.
Like on other days, Safina had secretly put some candies in my bag. As I started to walk back home, my hands instinctively grazed them from between the folds of the books. I was dying of hunger. I felt Showket was hungry and dying too. I couldn’t board the bus. I felt Showket was losing his breath. I put the candy into my mouth: a brown Bakeman’s candy. It tasted of milk and chocolate. It began to melt on my tongue and Safina’s face appeared before my eyes. I thought of the soldier’s big boots. I thought of Showket. I thought of his bruised tongue. I spit out the candy. He was killing Showket. He was looking at Safina.
I reached Akhran Bridge. I saw Dilbar, the bus driver from our village. He cursed me fondly and pinched my cheeks. He had come there with his conductor to clean up the stains. They splashed gallons of river water on it. They removed, as I was to learn, all the traces of Showket’s blood. On our way back Dilbar gave me some fresh water nuts to eat. Showket had been taken to a hospital in the town. Dilbar said that I should not worry much. He did not take the bus fare from me and drove me for free.
Dilbar left me at Mir Bazar. “Will Showket be home tonight?” I had never asked Showket that question before. Over the shop, he lived alone, in a dusty, windowless, cobwebbed room, littered with pamphlets with bold quotes of Ali Shariati and Syed Qutb written over them. In his own sombre space lit with candles during night, he smoked cigarettes, listened to BBC Urdu from his half-broken Philips radio and sometimes read romances featured in Mashreqe Aanchel. Showket was older than Nusrat by three years. He was the one who had failed in natural sciences and dropped out from high school thrice. Nusrat was smooth with her studies and helped our mother by cutting vegetables in the kitchen and cleaning up the house. Nobody ever asked Showket to help with anything at home. He had declared his rebellion. He was going to re-register in school and then study History and Politics rather than Zoology in which Nusrat and all other students in the village were going to major in college. He did not care that people might think he was dumb. Instead, to his friends, with whom he often indulged in the random analysis of the First Gulf War, he bragged about this decision. For Showket had taken it on his own, without consulting anybody, even his father.
I reached the shop. The shutters were down with a bigger sign of ‘JKLF’ painted over them. Some apples remained scattered on the road. I began walking toward the saw mill looking for Father, each apple screaming behind me: ‘Showket is dying!’ ‘Showket is dying!’ Father was still absent.
In the kitchen, my mother sat leaning against Father’s shoulder. She had taken off her scarf and was singing an elegy: “Showket! I know you are not dead. Showket, what will I do without my beloved? Showket, my blood is all for you. O you mother’s son! Wae! Wae....”
She wailed on. She threw herself up and pulled out her hair and slapped hard on her bosom. Father scolded her and sat her down, wrapping her in his arms.
“Showket! Who will steal my money from the tin trunk? Showket! Who will break the cutlery and throw away the utensils from my kitchen? Showket! Who will find our Nusrat a groom? You know how much it pained when you came to the world? Do you not remember the sweetness of my milk? They hit your chest and back. They cut your tongue to spill your blood. My son, my son in Karbala! Tell me you are alive, Showket! Tell me...” She fainted.
Nusrat bought a glass of water for her. Father, turning pale, pressed his hands against her forehead. My mother’s eyes were closed now, the continuous flow of tears leaving trails on her face. After a while, she returned with a jolt. I flung away my bag and ran to her. She took me in her arms. We sobbed together.
Dilbar, the bus driver, arrived.
“I saw Showket going to his aunt’s,’’ he said looking at mother.
“Is that true? O Shah-e-Jeelan, my saint of saints! O emperor of dervishes! Is that true! You are my Showket’s saviour!” She got up and kissed Dilbar’s forehead.
“Don’t kill yourself now. You women make us weak,” Father spoke, his voice rippling with anger. “We are going to fight back.’’
She ignored Father and turned to Dilbar. “But why did he disappear from the hospital?” she asked, “How is his tongue now?”
“Doctor Luqman has stitched his tongue and advised him not to renounce speaking. I don’t know why that old doctor thinks that silence will lead one to death. But don’t worry. Showket will be all right,” Dilbar said. My mother hugged him and wept a little more. Then she grew quiet and resumed working in the kitchen.
Showket had visited a month ago around the same time to have tea. “Where have you been all these days?’’ Father asked. Showket did not reply. Despite the proximity of their businesses, Showket always kept a distance from Father. Though Showket would never choose to work with him or help him in any way, he seemed to be ashamed of it now. He bent his head and fixed his gaze on the porcelain cup. Then he looked toward our mother. She looked away and then toward Nusrat. I avoided looking at all of them.
Then suddenly Father said, “Nusrat Jan, please bring the transaction list which you brought from the bank yesterday?’’ Nusrat went swiftly to her room and brought it. Showket’s brow wrinkled. His eyes remained glued to the cup. He did not take a sip. He got up and left.
Later, when we gathered in the kitchen for dinner, I told Father about the results. He asked me to show the report card to Nusrat. I ran to my room and got it from my bag. Nusrat smiled and looked toward our mother and read it out: “The first position....!” She stopped there and could not read any more. She began to fumble around her neck, untying her scarf. Father kissed my hand and gave me a hug. He told me not to grow up like Showket. I ate with pride and hunger.
I stood around the book rack looking at the books and the copies of Quran that I had won earlier at school. They seemed like rewards for my work, not for my love. I took Habbah’s Love Songs in my hands and smelled Safina’s fingers in its musty pages. I did not read the books of science which Showket had bought for me. Showket wanted me to be bright in studies and always stand first in the class. My brother wanted me to become a nuclear scientist.
The next day, early before the break of dawn, somebody came running into home singing: “Showket has crossed over! Showket has crossed over!’’ I ran into the corridor to see Dilbar again. He was dancing like a madman. I went up to him and asked where Showket had gone.
“He has gone to become a ‘milton’ now. He has gone for training across the mountains. He will get a gun and teach these bastards a lesson. Ha! They stop my bus every time their convoy starts. He will also teach me and we will fight them together,” Dilbar shouted with joy.
Father came out of his room and slapped him. He did not ask any questions about Showket. He suddenly looked worried and ordered us to be quiet. “Don’t let his mother or Nusrat know.”
Nusrat gave me a glass of warm milk. I wore my school uniform and walked up to mother in the smoky kitchen. She was cooking. I asked for the money. She held back the tears about to moisten the charcoal dust on her cheeks. She slid her hand into a pocket of her pheran. She fumbled and fished out a five rupee bill. “Take it. This is all I have. God save Showket! The loafer would come this afternoon knowing I have saved these five rupees for him. God protect him, wherever he is.”
IT HAS STOPPED SNOWING. Dusk is falling over the village. Thick, dry, whirling flakes of snow mist up the sky. The walnut trees are heavy and white, a little bent by the white weight. The old shingle rooftops are a sparkling sheet of white. The dogs are quiet. There is no electricity. All the roads are blocked and the soldiers have taken away all our candles. I can’t write to you as such. It is him I want to tell you about. I’m lighting the last candle.
Last night, the soldiers barged into his house and took him out of his bed. Naked. They dragged him out to the backyard. I heard his shrieks grow into whimpers before silence overcame him. He was made to stand there only for five hours. They beat him with their metallic belts until his flesh was red and blue. They broke his front teeth and plucked out all his finger nails. He was lying there for hours even after they left. A naked, shrunken, frozen him with a haggard, toothless face! The red of his blood spreading on the snow.
The rumour is that an informer has told the military, ‘He is trying to be the master of his own story.’ I could not believe that till the last night. I had thought he was another stunted, grumpy moron.
His shadow was quivering on the curtain. He was working hard on his story. He was sobbing in pain. I had lit a candle. I was thinking of you. His shadow stopped quivering. It froze like the dark roses on the curtain. He started reciting a poem I had dreamt of writing. He sang its alliterative title into my ears: ‘In Search of Samovar’.
I felt him composing inside me. He was choking my throat. I burned in jealousy and anger. I couldn’t break his melodious flow. I recited aloud with him. We sang the lyrical epic poem.
In the poem, he falls in love with the most beautiful girl of this country and then follows the grand carnival of their marriage, and afterwards, their search for samovar. They travel from the city of Srinagar, over the mountains of Karakoram to the cities of Samarkand and Bukhara, seeking to map the journey that samovar made to Kashmir. They pass the Golan Heights and the Caucuses. They return from Russia, where it is gloomy and snowing like in the pages of a novel, and find its origin in a quiet village in Central Asia.
As he finished the poem I found that I had simultaneously jotted it down on the paper. I cried with joy. I wrote to him about it. I waited for his nails to grow again. I am hopeful that the moon will resurface. In the darkness the dark roses are invisible.
My fingers tremble in the cold. I have made myself some kehweh and am sipping it to keep myself warm. It is a brew of cinnamon, cardamom, almonds and saffron. The war and the winter, as much as fire, are helping brew it in homes everywhere.
In the poem, in his marriage ceremony, it’s the houris who wear silver-embroidered pherans and disguise themselves as village belles. They prepare and distribute the kehweh from a huge golden samovar with a chain of bronze. They have added a few drops of elixir to it.
Two winters have gone by since you left. Perhaps another two winters till we meet. When the hour of our meeting arrives, I don’t know who is going to sing for us. Maybe we can invoke some classical Persian music because he thinks it is so refined and mystical and keeps listening to it. We will start back from the village in Central Asia in the direction of home. On our way, we will retrace and unearth footprints on the road of history and then enter the dream of a village in a valley where the houris will perpetually sing the songs of love and freedom. Aazadi!
The dark roses are reappearing on the curtain. The moon has returned from the dark alley. His shadow is appearing quivering on the curtain. He is feverishly working on his story. His fingers are bloody, his face is still broken,
but the rumour is, “He is still trying to be the master of his own story.”