A View from Kashmir
international fiction special feature
A View from Kashmir
They lived at Gulshan Pora, a beautiful village of Pulwama district in the Kashmir valley. Despite poverty, Ibrahim’s family of six, living in a single-story house, had more common joys than sorrows. He and his wife Sarwat felt rich when they had their children around them because their family was their treasure. “We are thankful to Allah for all He gave us. Our family is everything to us. A big gift of Allah,” both believed, thanking God.
It was a bright and beautiful morning and in the kitchen all the family huddled, about to sip the hot nun chai, salty pink tea. The tea prepared by Sarwat never lacked magic. One single sip from the hot cup was a heavenly experience! Even her daughters knew how much their grandfather liked the kahwa she made for him. “What is kahwa and how it is made—a Kashmiri woman knows that since she is in her mother’s womb. But when my Sarwat lal makes it, I don’t just taste it, I feel it in my body as its fragrance rejuvenates each and every tendon of my soul,” the grandfather told his granddaughter Zara, a few days before his death.
Sarwat, sitting beside the hot samovar, blew a mouthful of air into its chimney, dropping the copper lid with a clank. Ibrahim regarded his family. His son, Sameer, sitting to his left, his two daughters. Zara and Zainab, to his right, and his wife, Sarwat, in front of him gave him ample joy. Sarwat poured tea into a cup for her son, the leaping steam spreading milkily. Ibrahim, holding a flowered cup like Sarwat’s, sat comfortably. Through the windowpanes the morning sun scattered rays across the middle of the kitchen and caressed the samovar. Carved with chinar and almond leaves, in the light it seemed embedded with diamonds, a gift to Sarwat by some friend from a fairyland.
The kitchen was partitioned into halves by a knee-high brick wall—sitting side and cooking side. Sarwat kept her spice-filled glass jars on a white tiled shelf over the mud oven. Steel, aluminum, and copper spoons hung by rusty nails driven into the white tiled wall. At the center of the room, dangling from a wooden rafter, droppings of houseflies smeared a naked Surya electric bulb. Sameer had pasted large pictures of Shalimar and Nishat gardens on the wall. A J & K Bank’s calendar hung near the door.
Sarwat shinked tea in two long tumblers for her daughters, her glance idling on the pressure cooker that hissed on one side of the mud hearth. Burning twigs crackled and flames from dung cakes continued to cook rice in a cauldron. Once again, she strained the tea in a cup for her son, and put a few puffy lavas on a tray. The cup, a gift to him, bore printed red designs of hearts with the words “Happy Life.” Near the entrance door stood a small red wooden trunk with a middle-sized TV set on it, a woolen flowered cover beautifully knitted by Zainab covering its screen. A notebook, some textbooks, a pencil stub and a pen lay beside it. A dull gray carpet covered the whole sitting side of the kitchen.
“You know, when we came out of masjid at midnight,” said Ibrahim, “Akbar told me somebody knocked at his gate.”
“O please Baba! I get scared,” Zainab said, her eyes fearful.
“Could have been dogs. At times they batter the gates,” Sarwat guessed, but she knew it could not be dogs all the time.
“No, not dogs. He said he heard sounds of footsteps also,” said Ibrahim, taking a bite of bread.
“Then thieves. They must have come for cattle,” said Sameer.
“Shut up!” said Zara to her brother. “Keep your wild guesses to yourself. You always talk crap.”
“Hell with this life here!” Sameer said. “One can’t even study peacefully either outside or at home.”
“Army men, I think,” she said.
“Who could say. But Akbar said that he heard them talk in some language he could not comprehend,” said Ibrahim.
“That is why I tell you to put out the lights early and sleep,” Sarwat said.
“Yes, she is right.” Turning to his children, Ibrahim seconded her. “It is not safe to linger in the dark.”
“If only we had enough money! We could have erected a tall concrete wall all around the yard,” said Sarwat.
“Baba, at least get the wooden gate repaired. Its hinges have come out,” said Zara. “Even a dog can knock it down.”
“Yes, I will tell Majid Chaan, the carpenter. He will come and set it right.”
“It would be better to live in jail,” said Sameer. “At least there I would live at ease.”
Ibrahim frowned and wanted to say something, but ended up saying nothing. As he finished his tea, he drew the jijeer, the hookah, close by. Walking over to the mud oven, Zainab fished out a spoonful of charcoal embers into the firepot, handing it to her father, who placed the embers on the jijeer’s cup-shaped chillim. He put the pipe between his lips and took deep drafts. Smoke from the jijeer and steam from the samovar clung together, the air in the kitchen growing smelly and dim.
“How many times have I told you to quit smoking? But nothing seems to affect you. My God, when will this damned jijeer get away from my house?”
“Don’t curse it. It has been my solace, my friend in hard times,” said Ibrahim.
“But don’t you see on TV how harmful this is? But what can I say? You watch anti-smoking programs with a pipe in your mouth.” Sarwat’s tone was bitter. Ibrahim didn’t say a word, taking a few more drags before looking at his watch, then he got up.
The children already were off to their rooms. Ibrahim reached for a plastic bottle on the mantle of P Mark mustard oil, pouring some in his left hand and gently smoothing it on his thin, untidy hair.
“Is the lunch box ready?” Please keep some yogurt in it. I feel dehydrated today.”
“OK, I will,” said Sarwat, “but since it is hot these days, I am afraid it may turn sour by one p.m. when you have it.”
“No, I will eat my lunch today before one. I feel too hungry then. There is much to do in the shop these days.” Ibrahim wiped his wet hands on a torn towel. He went to their room and returned dressed in a neatly ironed green kameez and white shalwar, his luxuriant beard well combed.
“First, get some information from someone,” Sarwat said.
“Why? About what? Did you hear anything?”
“I mean get it confirmed if all is well out there. Is it OK today or is it hartal? Get it and see. You know, hartals are frequent here. I wish you would find out.” This time she insisted.
“No, there is no hartal today as far as I know,” Ibrahim assured her.
“What? Say quickly want you want to. You know I am already late.”
“Yesterday I heard Hassan passing on the information about a hartal to his sister-in-law. He said it would be valley-wide.”
“Yes, a call for hartal has been given but for Friday, not today. It is an open day.”
“OK, then leave. Naer khodayas hawal.”
Pulwama town was ten kilometers away. Ibrahim boarded a local Sumo vehicle. He sat on the seat next to a large man sporting a hennaed beard who was busy reading the newspaper, and who seemed a bit annoyed that he had to move his heavy body a few inches when Ibrahim asked. Looking through the half-raised windowpane, Ibrahim murmured. “God, make my livelihood simple and easy.” He was relieved to see children walking along the road toward their schools. Turning away, his eyes fell on a bold headline in the newspaper unfolded on the lap of the other man. Another youth injured in army firing succumbs. “Khudaya, have mercy on Kashmir—you are benevolent,” Ibrahim prayed.
“Aamin, be it so,” answered the other man.
“Our blood seems to have no value. Every day one or the other is martyred. There is no end to it. May Allah resolve the Kashmir issue on his own! Our youths are disappearing.”
“Hmm—you know damn well killing youth is their agenda. Yes, Allah is our only hope in these conditions,” the man agreed.
The driver moved the Sumo along at a moderate pace. A blue light blinked from the face of the tape recorder which played an Urdu ghazal.
Gulshan ki faqat phooloun se nahi kantoum se be zeenat hoti hai,
Jeenay ke live is duniya mae gum ki bi zarorat hoti hai. . . .
Shaking his head with every word sung by Jagit Singh, the driver raised the volume, hymning with every note. Beside the steering wheel, a few ten-rupee notes and some coins lay on a red towel spread across the dashboard. Lost in strange thoughts, Ibrahim didn’t remember the lunch box that lay at his feet, knowing only that he was about to arrive at the town in a few minutes. He was close, perhaps just one kilometer away. The driver turned off the tape recorder and unexpectedly applied the brakes. All the passengers, including Ibrahim, were pushed forward as if from behind. The driver slammed to a stop in the middle of the road. Dully clanking, the steel lunch box fell aside, and instantly Ibrahim reached for it with his right hand. A few drops of curd escaped from the lid and he wiped them away with his rough skin. In response to the Sumo driver’s wave of his hand, a private car coming from the town slowed and finally stopped.
“Is there trouble right now in town?” asked the Sumo driver.
“Not now, but yes, an hour before, some stones were thrown and people were scared. But the situation is normal now. And transport is back on track. Go on.”
And the Sumo driver drove on at his previous pace.
“What . . . what has happened?” said a passenger seated on the back seat. “Nothing. It is OK. Stone throwers have gone away now,” replied the driver. He told the anxious passengers they need not worry. “O God, have mercy,” Ibrahim whispered.
After a few minutes, as the Sumo was about to enter the market, Ibrahim fumbled inside his pocket to bring out a worn, brown wallet. The vehicle reached the point where the passengers felt it was safe to stop and where they insisted the driver let them out, about a hundred yards away from the main market. Ibrahim gave a ten-rupee note to the driver and took his lunch box. A sort of fear clouded his mind, his heart pounding. He walked speedily in silence through the market. A wide variety of shops lined the road on either side—antique and art stalls, jewelry and accessory shops, stores selling leather goods or dry fruit. He crossed the road and passed the shop of a greengrocer, his window full of fruit, and the butcher displaying his bloody lumps of meat.
Ibrahim knew that after an hour or two customers would flock to the shops, like fireflies to a lamp. His small shop, wedged between larger ones, looked squeezed, the peeling blue paint on its signboard spelling out “Bright Colors,” and underneath, almost illegibly, “Dyer-cum-Cleaner.” The faint letters seemed as if they were seeking answers from Ibrahim. He stood as if at attention, his eyes scanning the fronts of the other shops.
Ibrahim took out his key, unlocked the door and raised the shutter. The air inside smelled of chemicals, the walls grimy with years of dirt, and the cement floor was streaked with different hues. Every item lay crammed rather than artfully arranged, except for some dupattas and two pairs of pants that hung from wooden pegs. Adding to the unkempt appearance were a few piles of clothes heaped beside a large plastic tub. The shop was far longer than it was wide, almost a corridor, with shelves spanning both sides. To the left of the entrance stood the cash desk in whose belly Ibrahim locked his customer register after recording the details of clothes dyed, money received, and so on. Ibrahim knew his customers by name. Sometimes they would pop in just to chat, inquire if he would charge them less, and promise to come again. But Ibrahim didn’t mind even if they said otherwise. He served everyone with joy.
“Aslamu-Alaikum, Ibrahim sahib,” a customer greeted him, extending a hand.
“Walaikum Salam,” replied Ibrahim, shaking the hand of Hamid, a regular customer.
“I have been waiting for you outside. But then I entered the barber’s shop and waited there. You know there was a chagg a moment ago.”
“We also heard so in the Sumo. That is why it took a bit more time,” said Ibrahim. “Here, we don’t know what will happen in the next minute.”
“Really, nobody does. And yes, are you done with my clothes?”
“Yes. Your pants are ready. I dyed them the day before yesterday,” Ibrahim slipped the folded pants into a white polythene bag that he exchanged for two hundred rupees.
Ibrahim looked into his register to find out which clothes were to be dyed that day. He brought two dupattas down from the shelves and went outside, but before he could turn up his sleeves and pull up his shalwar to get the dupattas soaking in a large red plastic tub of colored water, he saw the nearby shopkeeper pulling down his shutters and people scampering in many directions, some crying and some blowing whistles. Children were wailing. Ibrahim stood still, bewildered, sensing danger, then hurriedly put his things back inside his shop. “It is hell to have a shop in this market,” he spoke aloud to himself while pulling down the shutters.
All the shopkeepers were standing in front of their shops, waiting. A few rumors were making the rounds. Ibrahim recalled the newspaper headline he read in the Sumo. It wasn’t long before the arrival of Rakshak—armored jeeps of the Special Task Force—then the police and Central Paramilitary Force, all rushing into the market: there to quell mobs and eliminate militants. The jeeps looked as if they had been beaten with hammers, targeted by the stone throwing they had stubbornly withstood, uncountable dents revealing rust where their white paint had scraped off, none of the stones managing to pierce the iron bodies. Armed men, wearing leg guards and knee caps, jumped down in a hurry and, moving together, began to shoo people away. In a jiffy, all the streets were emptied. In the awful silence, every charm of the market disappeared.
Some shops still had their shutters half-down, some were wide open without a proprietor. The vendors had long disappeared, leaving their makeshift carts at the mercy of the market. A few people watched from their rooftops. Ibrahim heard a sharp sound. Forcefully tossed, something rolled on the road, hitting the leg of a sleeping dog. “Wooonnh woonnh,” the dog barked, rising, looking around and limping toward a lane. What could that be? One stone and then another hit the signboard in front of a grocery shop, thumping into a drain, splashing dirt.
Ibrahim froze and wanted to hide. There no longer was any point in running away as the stone throwers were getting closer to the forces. The boys’ pockets were filled with stones. Without even taking time to aim they hurled one rock after another—a hailstorm accompanied by incomprehensible noise. In a minute you could not count the stones on the ground. Caught in the crossfire Ibrahim felt like an old man. Covering his head, he darted toward an ATM kiosk across the road, but it was locked. A shopkeeper whose shutters were half-up called him inside, instantly pulling the shutters down. From inside the shop Ibrahim could see nothing but could hear sounds—horrible and deafening—all around.
A group of boys—tall, short, weak, stout—their faces covered, were marching toward the forces. As they pelted the jeeps with stones, the armed men shot a dozen tear gas cannisters at them. The smoke was blinding and smelled of pepper.
“Naar-e-takbeer,” a boy shouted, pumping his fist in the air.
“Allah hu Akbar,” other boys replied.
“Aazadi ka matlab kya?” a guttural voice broke among them.
“La-ilah ha ila lah,” the boys shouted back.
The shouting reached new boys running toward the group to join them. Within minutes the small group swelled into a crowd, chanting ear-piercing slogans while they threw rocks.
“We want!” a tall boy wearing a black T-shirt shouted.
“Freedom!” the other boys answered as one.
“Go India!” a little boy cried, his voice strained.
“Go back!” other boys answered even more loudly.
“Mache khandar nache kus,” a dwarf boy shouted while dancing.
“Ponde police bay kus,” the boys replied sarcastically.
“Hoon behar, hindostanik chod’e. Krehn’e watal.” The boys cursed the forces in their Kashmiri mother tongue.
“Maderchod, behanchod. . . . Tere aankh fod dainygay. . . . Kashmiri kuto bonko bonko.” With raised thumbs and fists, the forces hurled expletives at the masked boys. Abuses were volleyed between the face-covered boys and the angry forces. As the white jeeps revved up to give chase, the boys scattered, hiding behind the tin sheets, walls, shops, and a few parked cars, taking positions like soldiers in a war. They smeared their faces with salt to blunt the effects of tear gas. Some boys ran up to the terraces of the shops, all holding stones, hands trembling and lips quivering. They were burning with rage. Then there was silence.
For a moment it seemed nothing serious would happen, but as a jeep passed by a butcher shop, a boy hiding behind a cart flung a stone with a loud cry. “Now, or we will miss,” alerting the others. The stone clanked like iron against the side of the jeep. The other boys emerged as if from nowhere and bombarded. Thuk . . . dukk . . . tukk . . . khatk, echoing. The stones came from right, left, and above. The jeep miserably screeched to a halt. A boy with a big boulder in hand thumped his chest, stood in the middle of the road and threw the heavy stone, which swung in the air for a moment before hitting the jeep’s hood, deeply denting it. Another boy flung a brick with such force that after hitting the jeep, it broke into small chips that flew across the road. A few more boys sprinted toward the road and screamed profanities. They tried, as was planned, to overcome the jeep and set it ablaze, not allowing the forces to open the windows to fire a bullet or a tear gas shell. Some banged the doors with iron pipes and wooden clubs. Slogans reverberated. The driver tried to reverse course, the jeep’s tires bumping nervously over bricks and stones. Its exhaust pipe released a trail of smoke, blocking the view of the boys, who circled the jeep banging on its doors like blacksmiths beating on iron.
Seeing that another jeep was coming closer, a boy waved, “Run!” The others disappeared in a lane between two buildings. The second jeep veered off the road, hurtling toward the boys, but the rocks scattered on the road slowed it, and the boys ran to a safe distance. Forces fired tear gas shells, hitting a boy’s head, the pungent odor of gas filling the air. When the boys didn’t give up, the forces fired into the sky, frightening humans, animals, and birds.
The stone throwing incident had lasted for almost an hour, leaving injured a fifteen-year-old boy. This weakened the resolve of the boys who were chased until finally they dispersed. An hour later, the forces left. It didn’t take long for people to peacefully gather. As if all were normal, they moved cautiously toward the market. But all around bricks and stones lay scattered on the road. Smoke hovered in the air, and people rubbed their noses to relieve the sharp smell of pepper.
A small child holding his father’s hand, unmindful of all that had happened, kicked the little stones here and there on the road, chided by his father. For a moment Ibrahim wished he were the child, carefree like a king in his own world. He remembered how his father would bring him a new piece of cloth and, together in the evening, they would go to wasta Ali’s home, his father’s friend and tailor in the village. “Asalamu-Alaikum, wasta Ali. This cloth is for my Ibro. I have to take him to the fair in the coming days. Take the measurements and tailor it immediately.” Ali would feel the cloth with his fingers and say, “Wah! What a beautiful piece, expensive and pure quality!” Then, a day or two later, carrying Ibrahim pickaback, trudging through mustard fields, his father took him to the fair at the shrine of Rangmula two kilometers away. Ibrahim felt the same rich taste of those sweets that he and his father enjoyed sitting on a swing. The yellow balloons, tangy snacks, beating of the drum by the magicians, radiant faces of his childhood friends—all his memories revived as if from yesterday, leaving him lost in the middle of the market, his eyes moist.
Many people were sneezing and coughing, wiping tears from their eyes. The market still looked deserted. It was now an undeclared hartal and shopkeepers left for home, unwilling to risk their lives by opening and becoming targets. If they dared to resume business, they would face threats, or the next morning find their shop shutters smeared with human feces.
Ibrahim coughed and exhaled, hurrying to where he could find a vehicle to take him home. Usually, whenever the boys clashed with the forces, the passenger vehicles would wait at a distance from the main market. Going through the market was still risky and Ibrahim bypassed the main road, looking for a medical shop, finding one, the shutters half-closed, the proprietor standing outside. To apply mehandi, henna paste, to brides was his daughter Zainab’s personal romance, and often she was invited to marriage ceremonies. Some of the brides from well-off families gave her small amounts for drawing intricate designs on their hands and feet. He knew his daughter Zainab would have a severe headache after a full night’s vigil in the mehidiraat of Hassan’s daughter Mehmoda.
Ibrahim purchased five Neuromal tablets. Boarding an overpacked Sumo, he found that the seats that usually accommodated two passengers were crushed under the heavy weight of four. His ribs pressed painfully from both sides, Ibrahim felt like a tiny tomato in the vegetable basket, crushed by many pumpkins, his bones fractured. Sweat trickled down the back of his neck. Though the windowpanes were all the way down, hardly any hot air moved. Ibrahim felt as if he were forced to sniff, after a long walk, the odor of his dirty socks.
In Kashmir, during such trouble, business for Sumo drivers was good. Taking advantage of such untoward events, they never bothered about passengers’ comfort, treating them as cattle and carrying them as such—just for money. Sometimes hartals lasted for a week, leaving the drivers with no money to feed their families. Banks would be after them if they failed to pay loan installments, and then later on they owed huge interest payments. They pounced on the opportunity to make up their losses. The passengers didn’t complain on such miserable days, all wanting only to reach their destinations without caring a fig for comfort.
The driver, looking cheerful, drove the loaded vehicle at moderate speed, the Sumo resisting such an excess load. The return home seemed longer than usual. It would have been far better to walk, rather than travel in such an overpacked vehicle. Someone said that the boy hit on his head had lost his battle for life. The boy was from the main town. The doctors at SMHS hospital in Srinagar had declared him dead on arrival. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji’oon. Verily we belong to Allah and to Allah we shall return,” murmured Ibrahim. Every passenger became silent, and a strange heaviness passed across Ibrahim’s heart. He held his head in his hands and soughed. For a moment he seemed to hear a woman wailing. He imagined the mother of the boy thumping her chest and pulling her hair, then stroking the hair of her dead son.
Reaching the Gulshan Pora stop, Ibrahim tapped the driver on his left shoulder. “Traw sa mae gobra yaetti. Dear son, drop me here.” The driver stopped, took the fare, and the encumbered vehicle moved shrilly away. Ibrahim crossed the road and went straight to Rehman Kak’s shop for tobacco. There was no more at home.
“Ibro, why are you home early? Is everything all right at home?” asked Rehman Kak, weighing the tobacco.
“Yes, all right. But not in Kashmir, not at Pulwama,” said Ibrahim. He was not in a mood to talk, but out of respect for the elderly man, continued. “Yesterday a boy was killed by the army in district Budgam. Demanding justice, today the boys protested and threw stones at the forces at Pulwama. The forces killed one more boy just now. A tear gas shell cracked his skull.”
“Those bloodthirsty wolves have no mercy. We are losing our young,” Rehman Kak seemed to choke on his words. “They are plucking all the beautiful roses of this valley. I wish it were me.” Without another word, Ibrahim left.
“Why have you returned home so early?” asked Sarwat. Ibrahim didn’t answer but went straight to the kitchen. “Will you please come here?” he said. “Where have you put the jijeer? Why do you always put away my things? It was here when I left.”
“It is in Sameer’s room—we had a guest who wanted to smoke, that’s all.” Sarwat kept her distance.
Ibrahim brought the jijeer back to the kitchen and began to empty its chilum, filling it with the strong-smelling tobacco. He topped the tobacco with embers, dirtying his fingers from the tobacco and ash. As he took long puffs, smoke rings rose in the air. Within minutes, nothing in the kitchen was visible but his faintly outlined shadow.
“Why have you come home so early?” Sarwat asked again. As he told her, she stood without moving, grief filling her body. “Do you have any balance left in your phone? I’ll call my Sameer.”
“We don’t need to worry. He will be in his college.”
“What if he left the college to join those boys?”
“You think too much. Here! Take it,” he handed over the small Nokia, puffing out another blue tuft of smoke. He did not part from his jijeer for a long time, exhaling anger and sadness. Sarwat dialed Sameer’s number, but there was no answer.
Ibrahim’s thoughts were chaotic. He saw how miserable his life would be if his son was hit with a bullet, or if one of his daughters’ body was brought home splashed with blood. He shook his head hard to throw off such images, but the thoughts stayed with him. If sons and daughters were killed, where did parents get the courage to keep living? How come they didn’t faint by the coffins? Where did they get the strength?
But this was Kashmir. Should a son’s bullet-riddled body not shock his parents? Is not a Kashmiri parent’s heart made of iron? Is not Kashmir wretched among the valleys of the earth? Are not its graveyards bloated or are they still hungry for Kashmiri flesh? Are they trying to turn this valley into a land of half-widows, schizophrenic fathers, pellet-blinded sisters, deformed brothers, childless mothers, wailing orphans, and all that terrifying shit?
With each drag on the jijeer, Ibrahim’s mind turned to a new question. The world goes on, humdrum, without even pausing for the uncountable sacrifices. Is even our Allah cross with us? He desperately wanted someone to answer these questions, even the ghost of his father. He coughed and coughed and coughed.
Sarwat dialed Sameer again, her hands shaking. She rose. She sat again, she didn’t know why. She got up to fetch Ibrahim some water, fumbling with a steel glass which fell down and began to dance in circles, making an irritating sound. But it brought Ibrahim back. Looking alert, he told her to handle things carefully.
She crossed over the kitchen partition and gave him a full glass of cold water, although she was still unsettled. He did not get off the jijeer until Sataar Mir, the muezzin, announced the call for Zuhr prayers.
Sarwat dialed Sameer’s phone for the third time. “The number you are trying to reach is currently switched off,” was the automatic reply. “What if—” she began, but the low cry from their mooing cow reached her, “He must be in class. Allah will protect him,” Ibrahim said. “He will call us back when he gets free.”
“Aslamu-Alaikum,” was heard from the door. “Walaikum Salaam,” both answered quietly.
“What have you prepared? I mean, vegetables, for lunch?” It was Sara, their neighbor. She carried an empty bowl.
“Tomatoes and cheese,” said Sarwat, whose culinary skills were renowned among her neighbors. “Her hands are worth their weight in gold,” said those who tasted anything she cooked.
“OK, give me some. I have cooked potatoes. Manzoor doesn’t like them. He wanted something made by you.” Sarwat reached for a spoon from the wall, then removed the lid of the pot. A sumptuous aroma filled the kitchen. She stirred the dish and filled the bowl to the brim, handing it to Sara.
She headed outside, to give some grass to the cow, and Sara followed her. Sarwat told Sara all that Ibrahim told her. “What must the mother be doing?” said Sara.
“Ibrahim said that the boy’s skull just split and his brain had come out. Such reports are a blade in the heart.” Sarwat said with a shudder.
“Please, say nothing more! My heart turns upside down when I hear such news” Sara’s eyes stung. She placed her left hand on her breast.
“Ibrahim said the boy was just fifteen. Sara, nobody cares. No one.”
“I am worried about my Manzoor. And your Sameer. Both of them are hotheaded.” Still thinking of the unanswered phone call, Sarwat did not reply. It was hard to tell which woman had the greater grief and fear.
“Perhaps even Khuda is indifferent to us,” Sara soughed. “Hopelessness is kufur, especially for us.”
“O, the cow is lowing loud—I have to feed it,” Sarwat walked a step or two toward the cowshed. If there was a guest, there was no need to go to a shop to buy a dry milk packet to swish into liquid, the creamy top layer of the milk at home was enough. “Can you tell me how much milk it gives a day?” Sara said.
“Around ten liters. Five goes to the market, the rest we consume at home.”
“Go feed it—now I understand why your daughters are so pretty with white glowing faces,” Sara joked.
“What do you mean? I don’t get you.”
“Since you feed your daughters an abundance of pure milk, they are beautiful—milk shows on their faces!”
“Poor daughters need to be pretty. Rich ones get husbands because of their money. The poor ones because of their beauty,” Sarwat said with a little smile.
“Well, if you get your Zainab married off to my Manzoor, I will demand no dowry,” Sara was joking.
“Done! But her beauty demands an exorbitant mehar. You will have to sell all your land.” Sarwat was also laughing now.
“I am confident your daughters will attract rich households.”
“Not if this killing spree continues. God forbid. If it goes on like this, parents will have no takers for their daughters—only a handful of boys will be left.”
A housefly hummed and landed on the bowl Sara carried. She shooed it away and the bowl shook, the aroma of garlic filling the air.
Back in the kitchen, Ibrahim told Sarwat that Sameer had called. It felt pleasurable then, to eat lunch, and for Sarwat to wash the utensils, mop and clean the kitchen. Then Ibrahim had his namaz and left for the apple orchard to bring in more grass for the cow. It had been a few days since he had walked in his small patch of land, which he cultivated as an apple orchard, bringing in some additional income. The grass in the orchard was mowed to give to the cow. This little land was a place where the family could shed their small burdens.
Sarwat, done with cleaning the kitchen, was anxious for her children to come home. Would they return early or would it take longer today? They are my eyes was her lovingly held belief.
Outside she collected from the wire the clothes that she had washed in the morning.” First she took in Ibrahim’s and hers. They smelled of Rin soap. As she pulled down those of her children, she felt like kissing them. She kept them in her arms and went straight to Sameer’s room but when she closed the door, it occurred to her that she had to take them to her room instead. She slapped her forehead and slammed the door. In her room she saw a picture of Mecca on the wall. She dropped the clothes down lazily and looked at it again. She raised her hands toward it. Contrite, she prayed. “Hai maine badde Khudaye. Kasheer kartan yeme zulme nish azaad. O my God, set Kashmir free of this oppression.”