Each receding paranoid trooper diminishes, becomes tiny and fades past in the side mirror of the 407 bus, dragging behind itself a long ribbon of the thoroughfare road. The road bends at Dalgate and stretches through the
downtown of Srinagar. Sakeena is one of the nearly thirty something seated, standing, lurking, hanging, baffled, happy, inscrutable, serious or garrulous passengers who cram the bus, pushing and nudging into each other. She shares half a grubby seat (which is meant for two passengers but can accommodate one and a half) with a fat elderly lady. The lady has squeezed her so much that Sakeena feels breathless. There is a young woman who stands in the overcrowded aisle, holding onto the roof handrail, stealing glances at Sakeena. A zombie as she
is, Sakeena doesn’t care about the young woman’s staring at the careless way she conducts herself. That when Sakeena’s dupatta slips down her head, falls off her shoulder and begins sweeping the floor of the bus, she doesn’t care to lift it up. The young woman scans for more strangeness about Sakeena. She studies the raw
beauty about Sakeena: her fair skin and sharp facial features—a straight, sleek, long nose, almond shaped eyes under arched brows, the extra hair of which she has long given up tweezing. The woman stares at the plump contours of Sakeena’s cheeks and notices the prominent ugly oily pores on her nose.
Sakeena’s elder child, a ten-year-old daughter Insha, has hennaed shapes of ducks on both of Sakeena’s palms. Her fingers are fair and gnarled on their tips. Her sun-kissed blonde hair is slightly dusty and loose over her temples. Although she has scoured herself of all jewellery and make-up, yet strangely she wears silver anklets. And a little silver stud is aglint in her right nostril; her elegant nose is but a bit running, causing her occasionally to snivel. Because of its contrast and prominence, a black thread, with its tiny pillow like amulet, girding by her fair neck, is the most conspicuous of all the things she wears.
A flat plastic bag sits on her lap. Before she prepares to alight in Rainawari Chowk, she fumbles for her medical prescriptions and reports inside the bag, reassuring if she has carried them or not. She is on her way to the Government Psychiatric Diseases’ Hospital, the only hospital for psychiatric diseases in the valley of Kashmir, which she has been shuttling to for the last six long years .
When she disembarks, her silver anklets jingle, magnetizing the attention of the passengers.
Today, unusually, more patients are grappling with the sparsely barred window which doubles as reception counter of the Out Patient Department. She has to struggle to queue up behind a morose old woman—whose son had been killed in front of her eyes—and pass her consultation card on to the assistant behind the window and collect the token for her turn.
Groups of uniformed nurses return from the canteen after a noon tea, chatting and lightly chuckling. Some security guards are helping push a flimsy, hunched old man’s wheelchair up the cement entrance ramp of the hospital building. The old man stopped feeling his legs abruptly after an army tanker ran over his only son, scrambling his brain about the road, crushing and flattening him on the spot. There is another man following the old man and waving a wet X-ray film of a skull in the air, drying it up. For some days now the paraplegic bloke has been butting walls. The neuropsychiatric consultant has wanted a radiograph of the old man’s head. If it is confirmed the man has hurt his skull, because he has also stopped speaking, it might lead to further investigations.
The white ambulance stands quietly in the wall-shaded section of the hospital compound, uncertainly sleeping through its moments of peace for some indefinite time, its melted front tyres tilted right. The two old chinars behind the old barrack like hospital building are completely leafless, the snow-crowned top of mount Harmukh behind them looms close in the view against a cerulean November sky.
Sakeena’s turn to enter Dr. Imtiyaz’s consultation chamber is just after the young boy with frissons. She has been noticing him and his tremors for all the six years now. The boy is accompanied by an elderly woman. He has been silent and shaking from the day he forgot to get down a captive who had been suspended upside down in a police torture cell. The boy was a constable in the State Task Force, a special police wing in Kashmir, and had been on duty, watching on the dangling captive through a night, and had fallen asleep before he could loosen the captive’s rope and put him on the ground. When he had woken up, the captive was already gone.
Dr. Imtiyaz is glad about the improvement Sakeena has made over a long period of time. He crosses out at the drugs he had earlier prescribed for her “query seizures”, but she has to continue Olanzapine 20 mg BD for the cycloid psychosis.
Six years ago when she was admitted to this hospital—for: acute onset of confusion, delusions, hallucinations, altered behavior, pan anxiety, elation, happiness or ecstasy of high degree, self-blaming and mood swings—with her bleeding, razor-nicked wrists, she had to be literally tied to her bed in the general ward. The doctors and her attendants had worried for her transfer to the asylum part of the hospital, just in case. But after showing a reasonable comeback she had stayed only in the ward. And later that year, with some psychotic symptoms intact, she had birthed a baby boy, Bilal.
Considering Sakeena’s condition, Dr. Imtiyaz had been kind enough to adopt Insha, of four years then, for that crucial year, and taken care of her like he would take of his own children. Past twelve years’ experience of treating harrowing Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) patients had melted his heart down, so much that he had begun to sound irritatingly humane to his wife, relatives and friends. His most patients visited his home, some disturbed him in the night. Besides free consultations, medicine and endless counseling, he had even started lending money and providing shelter to poor or distant patients and their attendants.
‘So how do you feel now?’ Dr. Imtiyaz wants to know from Sakeena.
‘The nightmares have become infrequent. Now I don’t see my bloodied dead body rolling down a mountain. Nor does my bloody shalwaar appear. But the smell of blood barely leaves me. Even pleasantly scented things smell bloody to me.’
‘Good, the nightmares have abated. I hope the smell too will go. And what about the hallucinations?’
‘Not too often.’
‘Very good. And what about the dreams?’ the doctor asks.
‘Some days ago Ghulam Mohiuddeen came in my dream and said he couldn’t return now and therefore I should take care of myself and Insha.’
‘And did he only talk about you and Insha?’
‘He didn’t talk about anyone else.’
‘And did he say that you should remarry, or something like that, a hint?’
‘Are you convinced he is not alive, he wouldn’t return?’
‘One hundred per cent. My heart says he is not alive.’
‘Then isn’t it better you should remarry?’
The two idle men, who Sakeena has noticed in the morning when she was leaving for the hospital—who gossip all day at Rasheed’s provision store in the squatters’ colony—still sit on the sill of the shop, sucking on their hubble-bubble and gossiping. They are talking about a notification the government has sent to the squatters, asking them to vacate the riverbank before they are thrown away. The government has decided to clear the area and make hanging parks along the bank to entice more and more tourists.
As Rasheed notices Sakeena, he suspends a customer in the middle of a deal and calls on her. ‘Excuse me, your favorite soap has come. I thought I should inform…,’ he says to her flirtatiously, inviting her attention.
‘No, thank you. I don’t need it now,’ she clinches brusquely, flouncing off.
‘It comes with a scheme…You get a pencil for free,’ he adds, but Sakeena doesn’t respond.
The two men intensify smoking and consider protesting instead of demanding rehabilitation from the government. Rasheed leans over the lidded jars of confectionary and giggles silently and suggestively as she passes beyond the shop. Before the two men turn their heads up to look Rasheed in the eye, he resumes to the suspended deal with the confused customer who is waiting for curd and candles.
Back home, Insha is making tea for Sakeena. A wok of tea is stewing on the gas stove. The tea comes soon to seethe, so the girl turns the knob of the stove and simmers it down to a low flame. The bubbling brown frothy tea throws the tea-filtrate to the walls of the wok. ‘It has taken long today,’ Insha asks Sakeena, looking away at the brewing tea.
‘Yes, Jaana,’ Sakeena responds, huffing as she enters her home.
Sakeena’s house is a one-room wooden shanty, built on a rostrum, two-feet high from the sloping base of Jehlum’s muddy bank near Zero Bridge in Raj Bagh. The rostrum sits on thick round wooden posts amid a squatters’ settlement, overlooked by tall hotels coming up across the riverbank, shaded by a canopy of dense branches of chinars that dot alongside the bank. The water of the river laps under the wooden stairs, which lead to a wooden door, the main access to the shanty beside its attached wooden privy.
Sakeena tosses her plastic bag to the floor, crashes in a clean corner and gazes at the motionless houseboats that appear in the small window cut into the wall of the shanty. Unlike in the hallucinations earlier, the houseboats don’t appear aflame to her now.
The one-room shanty is wallpapered with cheap gift-wrapping paper: a pattern of white polka dots on a purple background. It is like a mini studio apartment. In the corner opposite to where Sakeena rests, is her sanctum-of-a-kitchen. Culinary and bottled spices tidily sit on wooden shelves fixed to the wooden wall. A pressure-cooker lid hangs by a large rusty nail. Beneath the shelves there is a gas stove and a shallow steel tub for dish washing.
In another corner is a pile of bedding: a folded quilt topped on a pair of pillows; pillows, in turn, topped on a folded mattress—all draped in a bedspread. And a neatly folded mink blanket set on the top of the pile.
To the right of Sakeena is a roughly folded prayer rug, on a triangular shelf, tucked under an X-shaped, primer-painted, small wooden rack. On the rack is a velvet encased Quran.
By the rafters, that bolster the tin roof of the shanty, hang some wicker baskets and half a dozen knotted plastic bags.
Between the kitchen side and the bedding part, a television rests on a low trestle table. Under the table there is a bald, naked doll, a school satchel, unevenly stacked textbooks, notebooks, a worn-out green eraser and a chewed pencil. These things belong to Insha. The walls are dirtied with stray pencil work: amorphous shapes of animals and birds, creatures and things, that don’t actually exist in the world. The pencil lines are visible only to a sensitive eye—all a handiwork of Sakeena’s son Bilal.
Insha strains the tea into three similar eared cups, keeps one for herself, gives one to her younger brother and places another in front of her mother with two peanut-studded biscuits each.
Sakeena dips a biscuit into her cup and angrily watches Bilal scattering crumbs of his biscuit on the floor mat, his legs splayed out under him.
‘Bastard!’ she calls him.
Insha widens her eyes at her mother and says, ‘Please Mamma, don’t.’
‘See, he is good for nothing. He has spoiled the mat. I swept it this morning only.’
‘Don’t worry. I will clean it again,’ Insha says, maturely.
Bilal innocently looks askance at Sakeena. And she is already returning his look, glaringly. The soggy part of the biscuit between her thumb and forefinger crumbles and falls into the tea. In order to prevent the aroma of tea from smelling bloody, Sakeena closes her nose and breathes through her mouth.
Sakeena was married to Ghulam Mohiuddeen.
She had seen him for the first time at a friend’s wedding. And it all had started off.
They were settled for a love-marriage. Her parents didn’t approve Ghulam Mohiuddeen, so the couple ultimately moved to court.
They came to live here in the crammed squatters’ settlement for that was all the shelter Ghulam Mohiuddeen could offer her. She was still happy. It was bliss to live with a man who she thought was brave and bore integrity in his personality. She so loved to share a place—however small, however creaky, however impermanent—where only the two of them could just live.
Ghulam Mohiuddeen had had an adequate education, but because of his being an ex-militant, he had finally decided to drive auto-rickshaw. Since there were frequent curfews and shutdowns in the city that severely affected public transport system, the auto-rickshaw job paid better. He earned well. It sufficed more than he needed.
He was very loving and caring and full of respect for her. He would smother her with surprises and gifts: shawls or sandals or suits or purses or bangles every month.
Only in seven days of their marriage, he bought her a TV set. ‘I thought you are so fond of films and old songs of Rafi and Lata,’ he told her while unwrapping the TV off its Styrofoam packing.
Insha was born a year after the marriage. Ghulam Mohiuddeen had wanted a daughter. So he was delighted at Insha’s birth. He said the azaan in her ear. He named her. Insha.
He was a diehard fan of radio. He was a member of the Raj Bagh Auto-rickshaw Listeners’ Club. On his tan leather-cased Philips radio, the second thing he was addicted to, after the daily BBC Urdu news, was cricket commentary. He hardly missed listening to matches played between India and Pakistan. At home he followed the TV broadcast too, but the radio still kept mewling beside him, whining on fours, sixers, outs and ads.
A few years passed. Ghulam Mohiuddeen and Sakeena begin to plan for their next child. In one of those days, after Sakeena had started suspecting that she was again pregnant, she waited for him to return sooner. He had fixed for her an appointment with a local lady doctor.
That day at his auto-rickshaw stand he had some argument with another auto-rickshaw driver who was notorious in the area as Bitta Shuada.
Bitta Shuada was several years younger than Mohiuddeen. He doubled as a renegade, a counter-insurgent, who had links with the local unit of army in Raj Bagh. The passengers from the stand were taken on rotation basis. But Bitta would browbeat other autowaalaas; and had several times snatched their passengers. That day too Bitta jumped the queue and seized an auto-rickshaw driver’s turn to take passengers. Ghulam Mohiuddeen had been silently bearing Bitta’s attitude towards his colleagues, but on that day he lost his temper. He had a heated argument with Bitta that turned into a serious dispute when Ghulam Mohiuddeen beat him.
And on that evening Ghulam Mohiuddeen didn’t return home at his normal time. Sakeena sat on the window and looked over to the spot on the riverbank road where, every evening, Ghulam Mohiuddeen would bump his roaring auto-rickshaw up and then descend the riverbank towards the shanty.
Later that midnight, not Ghulam Mohiuddeen but two army gypsies bumped up the road.
A contingent of troops cordoned the shanty off. Some barged in. Sakeena tried to switch on the lights but some dark hand pushed her away. In the faint light coming from a street pole, she found that four troops and a masked boy had thrust into the shanty. Two troops kept guard at the door.
The men threw her down to the ground and held her legs and arms. One of them stripped her of her shalwaar and stuffed it into her mouth. Insha shrieked loud, calling the neighbors for help. One of the troops lifted her up by the neck of her shirt and took her away. By now the entire shanty neighborhood was alert and furtively listening and watching from behind the windows and doors.
It took the men an hour to ruin Sakeena. ‘Your husband is with us, so take care,’ they said while leaving.
As soon as the troops were gone, the neighbors rushed to the shanty. Sakeena was lying half naked on the floor, unconscious. A woman covered her with a blanket.
In the following days Sakeena deranged. Nobody had any clue about Ghulam Mohiuddeen. The neighbors admitted Sakeena to the Government Psychiatric Diseases’ Hospital.
There was no such army camp, no interrogation centre, no jail that Sakeena, disturbed and unsettling, didn’t knock the doors of while tracing Ghulam Mohiuddeen. But no clue was traced. Nothing. Not even his auto-rickshaw was found. One day someone told her that Ghulam Mohiuddeen had been seen in Sonawari renegade camp.
The two renegades who guarded the gate of the counter-insurgency chief’s, Maqbool Magray’s, camp in Sonawari, demanded one lakh rupees, only for the information about Ghulam Mohiuddeen, from Sakeena. She put herself on risk, thinking she would arrange the money somehow, as she had already started begging outside the city, in areas where none could recognize her. Anyhow, she promised to pay them the amount once it was ascertained her husband was there, in the camp, or not. She began collecting the money by borrowing it from shopkeepers like Rasheed and begging for it in places unknown.
Then one day she went to Sonawari to pay a small amount of five thousand rupees as advance. But the two renegades demanded something more—that she sleep with them. Sakeena left crying, realizing that they wanted money and her and couldn’t really be trusted for anything.
With liquefied eyes, Sakeena dreamily glances through the doorway of the shanty over a row of ducklings in Jehlum, swimming, dunking their heads in the water and leaving a trial of disturbance in their wake.
In the evening as the sun slumps behind the new buildings, that have shot up on the horizon, and birds flock back to their nests flying wingtip to wingtip, Sakeena padlocks the door of the shanty from outside and jumps in through the back window. She draws the curtains and switches on the lamps.
From the corner of her eye during her namaaz, she finds Bilal diddling with his sister’s pencil. It is hard for Sakeena to fight the urge of slapping him. Bastard! She utters under the breath.
She has beaten him otherwise too, most times for no reason but just for his existence. For his being there in her life. A human shape of a painful memory.
Earlier, she has even tried killing him. She would leave him alone at home for hours so that he could wander in the shanty and consume something, anything, pick up the conspicuous sachet of rat poison from the window ledge and fiddle with it, or pick up the knife that lies brazenly beside the gas stove and gash himself. Or die of the fear of being alone for hours.
At the houses, in the posh colony of Raj Bagh, where Sakeena is a domestic—where she sweeps, mops, washes—she would leave him outside in the lawns to let him eat mud. But he wouldn’t.
Insha would and this bastard doesn’t, Sakeena would think.
Bilal was not even properly breastfed, but just a little, and that too on the rigorous insistence of Dr. Imtiyaz. He was the one who named the boy. Bilal. The name that Sakeena has barely uttered in the past six years.
Bilal resembles Sakeena. Large blue eyes, silky hair, plump red cheeks, straight snotty nose. He is always silent and confused in front of his mother and happy and clear with Insha.
Insha does everything for Bilal. She washes him, dresses him and feeds him. And saves him from his most dangerous enemy in the world: his own mother.
After the dinner Sakeena takes out the Tupperware box from under an aluminum tray full of dusty audio cassettes, some of them leaking considerable lengths of thin brown tape fraught with old Bollywood songs. She unlids the box and stokes among the other strips of medicine—medicine for her backache and migraine and hypothyroidism—for her Olanzapine tablets.
While the kids watch TV, Sakeena looks away, languidly staring at the framed picture near the clock on the wooden wall. In the picture she and Ghulam Mohiuddeen are sitting in a certain garden, both scowling at the sun, shining brightly on them somewhere outside the picture.
Insha slips between Sakeena and Bilal in their floor bedding. She studies the henna on the palms of her mother and says, ‘I thought bus handrails have faded the ducks?’
‘Dear foolish girl, how could it fade away only in a day,’ Sakeena says, kissing Insha’s brow.
For a few weeks now the mercury has been dipping. The change in weather has come as a relief. Tonight, like some past nights, Sakeena may again sleep in a relative peace, only if the rogue men—those who have taken her half-widowhood for granted, like Rasheed, or those who have believed the rumour (mongered by men like Rasheed) that she is a loose one and willing to go around—don’t come to mischievously knock on the door.
It has started raining in the night. And it is getting a little cold inside the shanty. The thrum of the rain on the tin roof wakes Sakeena in the middle of the night. She ensures that Insha is well covered in the share of the quilt that she has but finds Bilal off the quilt. She lies on her back in her place, reconsidering the boy.
She comes out the bedding, shuffles Insha aside to where she was sleeping, and slides between the two snoozing children. She leaves Bilal away in the cold, without his share of quilt on him. She looks at the boy, observes the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathes, his incessant sighing, and the innocence of his face in sleep.
Then, after some time, she carefully draws him close and covers him in a good deal of the warm quilt. For a moment, she feels like stroking his hair. But withdraws her hand back when her fingers are about to touch him. Bilal, she says under her breath and settles on her back, the whole nightly shanty ceiling in her eyes. The two beads of tears forming at the corners of her eyes stream down her temples, quietly.
It has rained heavily the whole night. In the morning when she leaves for work she finds the water level of Jehlum has risen. Some lower steps of the stairs have submerged, causing Sakeena wade through the spate towards the bank, her children enfolded in the crooks of her arms. Insha is uniformed and has to go to her school. Bilal has to go with Sakeena, to the houses where she cleans.
One month has passed and Sakeena is again in front of Dr. Imtiyaz. Not many patients line up outside the Out Patient Department today.
‘So how do you feel?’ Dr. Imtiyaz asks.
‘Finer than last time.’
‘Good. I am going to reduce the dosage. OK?’
Some patients in the corridor of the hospital squash their noses against the panes behind the netted windows of Dr. Imtiyaz’s chamber. But the doctor doesn’t care to pay attention.
‘And since you are improving how about giving a thought to my suggestion?’
‘Which suggestion, doctor sahab?’
‘I am still waiting for him…’
When Sakeena is back from the hospital she finds a bevy of police and a giant yellow bulldozer in the neighborhood. All the squatters have gathered and they are protesting against the government. The bulldozer is being readied to shove the shanties off the riverbank. For some time Sakeena stands still, silent, her gaze hung, trying to believe that it is not a hallucination. Insha and Bilal stand in the doorway of the shanty, watching the chaos. Then, as protests intensify, Sakeena also joins.
Shahnaz Bashir teaches journalism at the Central University of Kashmir in Srinagar. His first novel The Half Mother will be out soon.