Ashfaq Saraf

When she wakes up panting in the middle of night, he is wakened too; mostly without delay and sometimes only after she [heaves] Rasheed’s name. He lights on the torch, navigates the glow across the span of the room to locate her trembling face, moves it further to were the emptied glass is kept. Without waiting for her to ask he slithers into the kitchen, fills the glass and returns back to the room. She drinks in marked gulps and lays her head back on the pillow. He puts off the torch. They both try to go back to sleep. In the morning she wakes him up by shaking his shoulder hissing into his ear: Shabeerah, shabeerah.

Shabeer works as a carpenter patently dedicated to the craft. Rasheed worked unlike him. I have known their faces—have been the evening host to them both after day’s labour, says Fatah. She continues: The strenuous work does not vex Shabeer. Its longevity does not summon any evil in him.  It does not bear upon his attitude whether he is working for a doemb or a syed to my surprise, having noticed subtle changes in the Rasheed’s demeanor. One more thing which Fatah does not feel the need to talk about, is his unwavering insistence on carrying lunch and mostly, if not always, a refusal to invitations. Always only after a journalist asks her why he took up carpentry, she talks about Rasheed’s death—as much against her desire. But she does not know how to say it: ‘I don’t want to talk about it. ‘ What would they think of me, that a woman does not want to talk about her husband, what kind of a woman? So she talks. She says it brings back what she does not want to remember. ‘We need to know about him and his behavior after the incident; about how he faced it and treated you afterwards, ‘ a woman in the journalists’ group would ask her with a catalog of curious energy in her eyes. She says there is always at least one such woman in the group, if not more.

For the lack of any teachers who are natives to the village and any students who are known to her no one at hand can be summoned to testify, yet Fatah believes Shabeer was not a bad student. He did not skip school while he was at it. Five years earlier that is chronologically seventeen years after the dark night, which locals refer to as ‘nab-ie-trath’ his father succumbed to a deadly combination of diabetes and asthma. Rasheed was a worn out man. Carpentry has ploughed into my bones, he’d say. Fatah was left alone—with Shabeer. He discontinued school without qualms and attended to learn carpentry. In less than six months he was sought for work in nearby villages in addition to his own. Years after he was gone, as Shabeer came to make a memory of his fatherhood, Rasheed’s face came to signify an invariable association with water banquets falling off his trimmed beard as his vernacular face dipped out from the sovereign waters, and at other times his hands holding the little frail body, dipping it in and out of the stream flowing without fail, not more than few yards beyond their orchard.

After a year of occupying work, Shabeer realized as the number of house demolitions by Indian army in the area ranked fewer, so to say as the number of rebels still alive and hiding began to decrease, the work faded too. This revealed to him the unsettling nature of his own work: the construction for many families was a consequence of the demolition of their houses. How come it never occurred to him while he was at work? While he tried to grapple with the dilemma of asking himself questions and worrying for the fading work, his time was at variance with its earlier format. It began in the manner of seeping into the smooth flow of his occupied schedule uneven occurrences of workless days—at times a couple, occasionally extending over a week. Fatah began to grow morose. There hung a certain colour—in likelihood the colour of despair in sleepless eyes—in the house and as they’d sit for dinner it protruded the relish out of their mouths.

Shabeer was born a month after Fatah was raped—one of the eighty women in the village duo, in theirs namely Poshpura, by Indian army on the night of February 23 in the year 1991. At the time she was pregnant and afterwards he was born with a defective right arm. Doctors for a possible remedy were to be found in Srinagar. She would not take him there for the lack of money and he did not realize until he was in school. The last time he asked her about the arm she’d said: Like Mudasir is born with no ability to see from his right eye, you understand? He had nodded summoning a helpless colour to his face—somewhat akin to the colour of watered down blood he’d recently seen dripping from the freshly cut body of a dying fighter wallowing in the stream behind Boy’s Middle School. She’d smiled kissing his forehead. He’d known for this expression to be different—unlike anything mirroring the vivacious life fluttering on her face when in a joyous stride.

Then, as a carpenter his hand began to heal. A miracle of noticeable bearing—working with planes and saws drove the ailment to a slow decrepitude. Fatah, on learning first broke into a fit of unrestrained tears and later, only a day after traveled to a village in another district, the house to her only sister, to apprise her of the event.

That Shabeer knew of it Fatah did not know. I was pregnant; so they spared me, she’d said to him in a tone poised enough to cultivate belief until one day one newspaperman wrote of troopers’ gruesomeness citing one particular example: not even sparing an eight months pregnant woman. He could read the Urdu newspaper occasionally bought by Lateef, a fellow carpenter.

Into the month of May and nature vehemently came upon men’s eyes in a peach countenance in Poshpura. Cherries blossomed into a delirious bout of extravagance pinning eyes to their fleeting beauty. An almond tree standing lone and blossomed in the backyard presented the image of a bride left alone to raise a thousand eyes. Streams gushed forth with a peevish vigor—as if newly bought against the wintery fatigue. Mornings dawned to the chirping of birds lively and thronging and in a vein to announce happiness to all mankind. One morning into the third week of May, running workless for a tireless number of seventeen days Shabeer woke up to the same hum complimented only by his mother’s: Shabeerah, Shabeerah.

At breakfast nun-chai brewed in a samovar—hued to an extravagant pink as though competing with the mood outside. Fatah squatted with a tray of girdeh bagels in front; her eyes heavy, burdened by the weight of a forced smile on her forehead. Drying his face with the towel hung behind the kitchen door as he began to squat opposite to her, she blurted out:

‘Faroque had come to see us—a cup of tea and he left. Of his ilk only a few good men aspire in our village, rest all have taken to their eternal abode. Your father was good friends with him. His wife might have told him. They have some work in the camp; might extend over a month. They have asked for you. ‘

In the camp with the military, he asked in a reaffirming tone.

Yes with the military, said she.

As he laid hands on his pannier, the weight of the tools saddled his body into submission—of a kind battering souls. Rasheed’s face flushed across his weary eyes like pages of the first book he could have read instructing him on morality: Son, beware, don’t eat from the najasath; don’t lay hands on what is duly forbidden.

The bicycle waded through the village lanes, the rubber in its tires walloping against the stones lying scattered over the earthen surface. Shabeer paddled as though hankering for a reverse direction, as though pressing his body against where to his feet wanted a retreat. A cool breeze blew as the morning sun had begun to bite into the neonate façade of sparkling dew; it pressed like Fatah’s kisses against his temples. The tufts of his hair flew against their combed habitude—making a bungle of his otherwise symmetrical head. Cycling he came onto the road linking Poshpura to the main town. The ride assumed smoothness and as he drew near, his body began to ache. In few minutes he stood in front of the gate, in front of the blackened wall displaying: “Welcome: 68th battalion RR”.

Braking the bicycle to a halt, dangling his legs astride the crossbar he pressed his feet against the broken road. Over the right corner of the gate, behind a multi-layer fence of concertina mesh and camouflage netting and barbed wires and a brick wall stood a raised bunker built in bags of sand, in patches broken and mossy green. A sentry looked out from the window of the bunker moving his head and eyes in an interrogatory stretch. In moments to follow he persisted motionless as though stranded on the road. A hoarse shout flew from the sentry’s mouth: Kya chahiye?

Shabeer smiled looking askance negating the trooper’s question and in a moment of reckoning, which lasted brief like a dream, a tizzy, a deathly prick he pushed on his feet paddling this once in newly found rejuvenation. Drifting away from the camp he rode like a gazelle running away from her predator. Riding briskly to the end of the stretch, he stopped in front of an apple orchard and threw the bicycle against its wooden fence.

Barbed wire fencing secured the pathway running between adjacent apple orchards. For most of its length it ran bare with occasional green leafed branches hanging over the fence lines. Pregnant with dew the green on the ground spread itself in regular patches here and there. The flip-flops Shabeer wore were wetted on the walk and his finger tips felt water seeping under them. [[He continued walking, crossing one orchard after the other: past his mother’s gifted to Fatah by her brother, Raheem’s with a huge fig tree at the corner overhanging the pathway and past another in which stood the house—in same subliminal demeanour as seen last by him. The façade of the house wore his mark, as he had wished to see—the trellis dab redone by him clung to the house like a newborn to his mother’s bosom. He had worked here for more than a week, redoing the dab, few windows and an armoire. He had seen her twice: once with her face visible by the border of a green head cloth and the next when she brought them afternoon tea—this time a tussock of hair trailing along the breadth of her forehead, tuck under the loose head cover she wore. The front door of the house lay open; a flock of hen dotted the mud verandah with no visible traces of people. He continued on the orchard pathway running past the front lawn raising his gaze towards the dub, the windows, lowering it on the verandah, running fingers through his ruffled hair, smiling at the prospect of her being there, somewhere inside, uncannily near.

Beyond the house the pathway grew thinner. Dusty large patches began to disappear giving way to greener large ones and a canopy of mesquites and willows grown about the peripheries of orchards grew in thickness making the pathway shady. The shade, as it ran with the length of the pathway, appeared marked at a point, at the emergence of a fence of barbed wire closing on the pathway across its breadth—a dead end. He flung the fence jumping over it tucking pants to his skin, passed into another orchard, walked down the descending slope of its ploughed, corn sown terrain, and there he was: beside the stream, the sheen-i-kuoel as the locals referred to it.

Somewhere upstream, just behind that mound, there behind the mound in view of Faroque’s peach tree, under the expanse of that huge willow, there was the place. It must have been a depression filled into by the downstream flow of water, creating a pool— the size of a big hall—where boys from the village gather and bathe and swim and play. The water was neck deep in the centre, sparkling fresh like the eyes of a new born. Shabeer did not take his flip-flops off for the possibility of any glass splinters inside—the broken glass bottles of alcohol thrown by the troopers into water—and took a dip. The cold water felt like a sophisticated doctor redrawing his body in precise markings with benignly piercing needles and an overtly sensual caress. He took another dip; then another as the water ran briskly down and across his skin; and another till the sound of the flowing water sent songs into his ears; and another till the green on the trees appeared supremely winsome to his eyes; and another till Rasheed’s arms began to hold his boyish body; and another till he laughed in tandem with the appearance of broad smiles on his father’s lips and another till he watched Rasheed take dips from the bank and another till no one could tell apart any tears from the water flowing down his cheeks and another and then another till he lost the count.

Later that night he woke up panting in the middle. Lighting on the torch, he navigated the glow across the span of the room to locate her sweated face. There was no sound; she did not heave Rasheed’s name. He couldn’t locate it.

She did not wake up—that night. She lay silent breathing soft in a tranquil sleep.


Ashfaq Saraf is a writer and poet. ‘The Harkening’, written between July 2010 and December 2011 is his first collection of poems. This short story first appeared in Kashmir Reader.

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