The young girl in this story is looking out from the window, of what at one point must have been a large house, now divided into slim columns, probably amongst its heirs. Built with tiny scorched bricks that are held together by mud, the partitions are discernible by windows of different colors. Most of the homes in this town of Maisuma, which is called the heart of Kashmir, are conjoined like this, and at some visceral level are waiting to be separated from each other. The rundown buildings are worn with history and often lean dangerously exhausted against each other. Shops, industrial buildings, bus-yards, and garages stand entwined in this maze of a place which sits on the bank of river Jehlum that has now become an embittered swamp full of raw sewage and grease-oil. Broken parts of buses and trucks line the waters’ edge where shanties erected by professional beggars, who pour into Kashmir during summers from India, overflow with soggy bundles of clothes, cardboard, and pieces of random trash – found and pilfered for recycling. Sturdy pieces of metal have been turned into seats in the makeshift courtyards. Young garage hands come here to smoke and flirt with pan-handling girls, who are single-mindedly focused on lightening their pockets.
Tangles of electric wires can be seen hanging over the narrowest alleyways, so low that the static buzzes in your ear and sparks (not the enlivening kind) fly. The girl in the window looking down on one such alley is reminiscent of a native scene from a postcard someone sent from an inexpensive holiday. It is around lunch time. The air around the neighborhood is thick with the smell of green tea brewing in old copper pans, sweet frying onions and traffic smoke. Grandmothers are done with sunning themselves and cleaning collard greens on the slightly raised pavements, which doubles as their porch. Snatches from old Bollywood songs and pleading beggars mixes with the shouts of hawkers selling pain balm and cigarettes. Men are heading home for lunch; some bargain with the pickle seller on the alley corner, who swears by his mothers’ grave to prove no cheap food color has been used, and that the mixture has been fermented for more than a month. The army bunkers sprawling at every nook and cranny are abuzz with gustatory activity too. Dogs congregate as they hear the dining trucks rolling in to feed the soldiers. They follow the tall stacks of aluminum boxes packed with sizzling hot lentils, meat, pickles, rice, and bread. The soldiers kick and hit their rumps with sturdy boots. The dogs yelp, keep distance and wait till the soldiers are ready to throw leftovers generously towards them.
Our young lady is about 20 years of age. She has a waif-like face. A wisp of a scarf is stylishly perched on her hair. A soft wave of brown hair falls over the side of her face reminiscent of the Bollywood actresses. The white tunic that she wears, with small red tulips on the neckline and hem, which she has embroidered herself, remain hidden beneath the windowsill.
Her eyes are fixed on the wooden lamp-post near the Masjid next-door. An old cough can be heard behind her and someone shouts. She seems to pay no mind.
An all too close call for prayers booming through the public address system jars the air. A young man, also around 20 years of age appears at the mouth of the alley.
The girl’s face opens like a sunflower; it looks as if her prayer has been answered in advance.
The boy wears a white T-shirt that says “Coke” in red— the brown bottle placed on the right side, just below his heart. A white skull cap covers his well-groomed hair.
He leans against the lamp-post that is dangerously inclined. It tilts some more and the greasy bulb on top begins swaying only to still some seconds later. The girl always worries that the lamp-post might fall on him. The gutter gurgles around the boy’s feet. He continues looking towards her, arms crossed against his chest, eyes intent and unsmiling.
The girl always wants to see him a bit closer. Feel those hands that she has touched so many times in her dreams. She has seen him up close only once – the first time. She was buying Chili powder from his father’s grocery store. Everything smelled like turmeric, and some vague spice that never seemed to leave the shelves. His gaze was unbroken as he passed the packet of Chili to her. She saw it had a hole, but could not summon the courage to ask for another one.
She felt rooted to the spot. After paying and forgetting to take the change, she broke into a run. She felt his eyes stuck to her back.
Her hand was burning and stained red by the Chili that escaped in tiny puffs with each hurried step. She sneezed the entire day. Her chest felt light and heavy. The world seemed awash in a golden haze.
It has been four months since then, when she saw him for the first time.
The boy began to come every day and linger around the lamp-post awhile. His eyes would keep darting towards her window. As the time for prayer drew close, he would mingle with other congregants, and then vanish into the Masjid.
On the way out, jostling for exit, he would steal looks at her, while she peeped out of what now would be a half-closed window ready to be shut till the next afternoon. Then, in a flash he would be gone.
She would spend the rest of her day reliving the thick slice of time that had stood between them. The silent minutes of their distanced tryst would unfold like a video in slow replay. Each moment was a lifetime of glances, yearning and inexpressible joy. Every moment spoke, as no word ever could. The next day would take forever to come.
The pain in her heart would continue growing, only to abate a little when he appeared. After he was gone, her body would be filled with more and more agony.
At night, she would peer out of the window. She imagined a silhouette walking towards her. Her reverie would be broken by the barking of dogs that were roused by patrolling Indian soldiers and the firm kicks and slurring shouts they delivered on everything that moved or not. Her mother’s exasperated, muffled shout reminded her to close the window or face a bullet or worse.
She saw that today, the boy did not stop at the lamppost but walked hurriedly towards her window. He raised his arm, and threw something at her. She ducked. It fell into the corner without a sound. Moving swiftly, she picked the soft sweaty ball of paper, crushed around a piece of clay. She opened it, trembling. It said – “I love you. I will die for you.” It was written on the letterhead of the “Kashmir Paradice Garage,” where he probably worked. There was a picture of a black tire and a shining hand holding a wrench in the corner.
The night was unending.
The redness that appeared in her cheeks when she first read the note became deeper. She tried to write back. Nothing seemed adequate. In the end she repeated his dear words – “I love you, I will die for you”. She tucked the well kissed note under the pillow.
The clock seemed to be stuck at midnight.
She filled the emptiness in her room with a litany of soft sighs, whispering “I love you, I will die for you.” Her eyelids drifted shut. She saw herself hanging from the long hand of a giant clock, pulling it to move. She felt her feet dangling in air and there was nothing to catch her underneath. In a distance she heard slogans, shouting, and cries of all kinds. Shots rang in the air.
She hung between her dream, and an eerie wakefulness, undecided where the dream ended and reality began.
The morning arrived without the call to dawn prayers. Usually she would have welcomed the silence, without an entreating congregation at the Masjid rousing God’s pre-dawn beneficence and her sleep-deprived ire (and probably the rest of the neighborhood’s as well), but not today. The only sound she heard was the army jeep announcing the curfew. There was an order for “shoot at sight”. Clashes had broken out between the Indian forces and people all across Kashmir after a young boy was beaten to death by the soldiers. Anti-India demonstrations were raging and at many places people were pelting stones at the army. The soldiers fired on the crowds and many were killed.
Usually the girl would make hasty prayers much to her mother’s consternation. “This does not seem to be a mark of patient bowing before the Lord, it seems more like an impatient bird pecking at the grain,” her mother would say. Today the girl fell into frequent and prolonged prostrations. She shifted uneasily; thousands of needles seemed to prick her body. Her eyes kept darting towards the clock.
The note which had her answer was balled tightly around a piece of clay and felt like hot metal in her hand. She longed to throw it to him. She wanted to see his face once he read it.
At noon, she opened the window just a crack. Only a cow stood at the far end, chewing on a wet cardboard box. She heard noises from afar. Smoke rose in the slim crack of sky between the window panes. Suddenly a running figure appeared. It was him. Blood rushed into her face. Her hand fell and the window came ajar with a swift noise.
There were shouts, curses, jangling, and running footsteps.
A contingent of army-men, their faces hidden by visors and bodies clad in armor, preceded by bamboo shields, were behind him like an unending camouflaged flurry. She threw the sweaty ball of paper towards him when he reached near the window.
Shots burst in the air and sparks flew. For a moment it felt like fireworks at a wedding. A strange and a very sharp heat bolted through her breast. The boy lunged at the paper-ball and smiled at her – for the first time ever. More shots, and then he fell. Her face sank into her chest as she saw blood seeping into her tunic and the tulips which she had wanted to show him one day disappeared. She fell into one limp heap.
Later, in the evening news bulletin on the state radio station, the boy and the girl were included in the list of people who got killed while pelting stones at the Indian soldiers. No one found the girl’s note. It was probably mangled in the dirt, under the feet of running and falling crowds, which would not cease for days to come and still has not stopped.
No one would ever know how well the young pair delivered on the one and only promise they made to each other in the alley of Maisuma where the gutter still gurgles below the tilted lamp-post. The window in which the girl stood looking at the only boy she ever loved, now remains open all day and all night.
Bio: Ather Zia is an anthropologist. She writes poetry and fiction. Her first collection of poems is titled “The Frame”. Her poems have appeared in Convergence Journal, Blazevox, Cerebrations, Samar etc. She can be reached at email@example.com
This short story first appeared in Cerebrations journal.