The Absent Snow

Ashfaq Saraf

Love for Sadiq Jaan didn’t allow us the comfort of a palatable surprise. We were made to bury him in the dead of night and with him physical sanctity of his sovereign face which had the potent substance of attracting Amjad out of his hole. Of what was due to Amjad’s ascendency in JKLF ranks, to the Indian army, demanding from us a hushed up burial must have amounted to a disconcerting penalty. In love, as must be true in war too, there are no surprises.

The blue on his lips didn’t tell of what he had died; the gaping wound on his right shoulder didn’t lend itself to a reliable conclusion either—nor could an approximation be sought from his twisted left arm. A truck full of military men stood outside the gate till they saw us through the whole process: from ritual bathing to laying ground on him. By dawn it was hushed: bathing Sadiq Jaan his wife saw a mild streak of blood on his nape just below the hairline. The minute this word reached folks there was an uncanny rise in the wail.

Early morning as I drew home from Sadiq Jaan’s crystals of frozen dew had frosted the green earth; mild sunbeams shone against icy crystals evidencing the succession of autumn by something very different—though very familiar. Crimson leaves were frangible under my feet. Sunshine reached my skin as though in awe of the cold breeze mildly swooshing against my direction. Smell rising from brick walls seemed to compliment the gloom in my senses.

I was followed by a faint knock into the house. Nuzhat came in, a backpack dangling from her left hand. It has some books, sweaters, fur boots and walnuts Father had stowed, she said. Here take this, handing me a page she remarked, it is something Father sent from the Jail after the first night—to read to Amjad. She withdrew herself from my gaze in a gait that combined lethargy and objuration in unequal amounts. Walking down the corridor, already out of my sight, she called out in dismay: Look into one of the side pockets, there is a letter from him….the directions. Father had planned for tonight and sent him a message last week.

Afternoon sun pierces the glass window brightening rectangular patches on the cement plastered wall. It doesn’t make the wall look any beautiful though.

A more visible thing to me is the dull pine ceiling—with its unpainted surface—and I lay perusing it, counting planks right to left, from left again to the first plank and back, thinking of when the ceiling was laid, in what standard Amjad studied at the time—do I remember?—And how careless the carpenter had been to let the knots appear in abundance over the surface and how clumsy he could have been to not have noticed them for their hideousness. Then, suddenly, as my sight begins to float across the ceiling, now in comfort aware of the number of the planks, these knots begin to make a pattern. I count them: one, two, three…….seven, eight…..eleven. I can draw them into shapes, into vague mountain tops, marking peaks here and there, even try a near neat hand at the Big dipper, falling short of a knot at the right corner—one missing in the handle doesn’t bother. That I was never good at drawing on the paper immediately occurs to me.

Today my interest in afternoon sun is that of an old man seeing a younger one being shrouded. I wish it never occur in my vicinity. It shall induce a kind of guilt, one that makes men impatient and cranky. A murder like Sadiq Jaan’s induces guilt too, but of a different kind: one that makes men shameful. By what autumn has always taught me there is no missing the irony. My feet take to no other place than the inside of my room, searching for a blanket to snuggle up against my own body underneath. Can there be any other familiarity so entrenched in my imagination as darkening grey of the impending evening? Perhaps not; the sun, as my mind sets out its keen eye, only seems to be taking away morsels—from the mouth of already set night.

First week into December and morning sun has risen sheathed in sheets of a cool breeze—its heat watered down, suck into those mountain peaks clad in the perennial white. A night before last my mother asked: How would they endure snow and chilly nights in the woods? I said: How would I know contorting my lower lip into an expression of silly unawareness. Later at night I thought about winter to come. The dread of snow spoke to me. Whitened orchards glistening under moonlight were a sight of immediate horror. The piling snowflake threads needled into my skin. The chill of the melting snow swept underneath my feet making my bones friable. View of the valley wrapped in white blankets could seize the beat in my heart and freeze my spine. Winter, occurred to me, was trepidation.

They took Sadiq Jaan on the pretext of enquiry—can there be a better aegis for a son aside from his father’s approval? Of a similar event earlier when Sadiq Jaan spoke, his eyes shone with each mention of Amjad, what his presence had come to mean to these bastards—ergo what his absence would mean! It had taken him fifteen days to get his right arm working again, then.

Dusk fell and silence became the precinct. I went out into the street. Sparseness of life lent the street to an easy saunter. I began to walk on arduous feet. Veiling faces of other men, grayish light in no measure complemented the orange rust floating over distant screens of horizon. No one was in hurry; everyone appeared to go about their task in an easy mien. I slowed down at the sight of two women grabbing each other by the collar of their pherans shouting, while one of them had a child of somewhere around eight trailing behind her, tugging at her pheran border. I would have liked to think of people in a rush, hurrying to their homes though there was none. It left me in a poor taste. I returned half way.

The light bulbs are glowing. There is a silence vehemently complimenting the one inside my head. I think of my mother clung to her prayer rug. She shall be walking back to Sadiq Jaan’s in sometime. The bag is lying where I had kept it. It weighs more than ten Kilos now. The letter is slithered into one the books in the bag. I drop it twice after picking it up wondering if this turns out a silly gesture. What if they tell me: vacuous of you to think of us waiting on this—our sustenance is beyond fancy; we need to get unused to what freeloaders like you harp on. ‘No, no. How can that be? He knows how I detest being one. The books are there to save me. Would they like anything in me? If I tell them I have come to join you; yes, here…now…I am not returning. They would laugh at me. Someone would quiz: What does he know about eating wild berries for days, long days stretching into weeks. Others would squeak: let him rally under snow for weeks, sleeping not until he can stand no more. No. No. That would not be that. Freeloading makes us inconsiderate; frugality shall not. He sent for Sadiq Jaan. I can always tell them: He sent for me.’

‘The first thing I shall do is to read them the letter, a setting up of the fences encircling all of us; Amjad and others, in presence of everyone else—that is the most important thing, more important than the death. Death can take with it nothing from what life does not override. We are all meant to die. The letter shall live, through its words, across the span of that invisible space from which Sadiq Jaan spoke to Amjad. Word by word it shall ease the brutality inside Amjad’s head—that nameless brutality by which they squeezed life out of his warm countenance, rendered him sightless, devoid of a voice, unable to continue being the father he was. Letter by letter it shall mark Amjad’s memory; fold by fold it shall underline his sight. Then I will tell them about the murder: the man who wrote into your imagination moments ago is no more; he has been brutally killed. He is dead, buried now, an indomitable weight of earth riding his body, the shine of his eyes turned away from us, the silver of his beard begrimed. The letter followed by the murder, the letter of a man followed by his death, how immaculate, how near perfect, how cruel!’

It is quarter past seven. Darkness has come upon the nerve of the town seizing all life in its heart. I walk out shouting: I am going mother, without a word of from her side. This is her way of a half hearted approval. My way of ignoring her silence is also silence. The bag hangs over my right shoulder and I feel its weight burdening my own. The trek is toilsome. Darkness makes it vicious. The food in the bag can land me in trouble. There are no military encampments on this side; what if I come upon one patrolling party? Week before two young boys were shot in the head. They were returning from the mosque. One was a relation to my mother’s cousin, so to say her second cousin. She visited them briefly. She said the women, his mother and her sister, beat each other’s chests. One of them pounded her head against window glass frenzying the mourners into dismay. Her eyes swelled with scorn as she told of it. I did not ask her more, though I wondered if the woman was taken for any stitches. Later at night I dreamt of my mother pounding her head against the kitchen window; and I woke to surety that she needed suturing.

I walk swiftly crossing the first cluster of houses before I reach another separated by the street winding its way up towards the Forest. You shouldn’t take the street, I expected mother to advice. But that would be when she had taken a keen interest in my odyssey.

Moving through another alleyway, darkest of them all with no lights on none of the electric poles, I come upon the course of the dried stream I had told myself about: that is what is going to be my abettor. I descend down ten paces into its depth, hold my feet assured, groping and balancing the bag anew about its straps. About me thorny bushes, dense and claustrophobic hem in on both sides. Occasional mesquite bends over the stream; I stoop to pass.

An uncanny silence follows me. I walk turning my head around more than once. Wild bushes hedge in imparting a sense of dread to the air—what if they lay in ambush for the guerillas, inside the bushes?—and staying swift at my feet as I walk past mounds, maneuvering my way around heavy boulders, evading puddles of water inhabited by giant frogs the dread begins to diffuse into a sense of security—protecting me against all eyes, unwanted. ‘No one can see me here—such possibility!’

I am wearing no watch. I must be walking for more than an hour now. Uphill that most of it has been, I am slowed down at my knees by the trek. At a certain point I felt like retching. My stomach convulsed about its centre. The cold air splashes my nose with extra blood making it the most prominent feature of my otherwise prosaic face. I have kept breathing out into my hands, rubbing them against each other. The rustle of leaves perturbs the sense of safety in me. There are moments when I feel a snake crawling over my boots, tangled around my legs. Walking, I have become familiar with the rocky terrain of the stream. It steps up at near regular intervals. There is a puddle at the bottom of the step, almost always; and all three of the frogs jumped across to my left—the west.

I begin to emerge into a narrower gulley with slanted borders, less steep. There are no bushes intermittently; then no bushes at all. I climb into the open ground. Ten meters to my left a barbed wire fence occurs bordering a nursery of willows. I jump the fence landing on a bunch of dried branches with squish. A cow ruminates, squatting under a willow. I hush through, pacing from one corner to another unsure of the directions. I assume the hillock positioned in the west based on a darker silhouette against the moonless starry sky. ‘Two hundred meters into the woods, climb the hillock from where the mosque can be seen—two hundred meters into the woods from the east of the hillock,’ he had written. ‘From there follow the pathway, till you come upon a bunch of heavily pruned pines. Just there, turn towards the town, face the town, climb up left—fifty paces and you’ll have a man watching you.’

A cluster of mud huts abandoned, thatched roofs all broken into the interiors made the sight of small village uninhabited for years. They had temporarily restored one of the huts, smaller—one in-between a larger, more rickety hut and huge fallen pine, now dried, dead and withering. They were three of them: two in one corner, another boiling something aside from them on a kerosene stove.

Amjad had his hair uncut, beard grown. He wore a woolen cap covering his ears. He introduced the other two as Razzaq and Bilal. All three of them donned tweed Pherans—and to my note of the same colour. Amjad’s eyes sat on his face with a kind of tangible pain in them—that colour of festivity and grandeur—denoting triumph at the very instance of deciding to relinquish the unacceptable; a kind of pain which you know is unyielding and doesn’t know how to cease unless the source is tampered with.

They had been waiting for me. We ate under the smoky glow of a kerosene lantern—from what they had cooked, and what I carried. Not many words were exchanged before the meal. Afterwards Bilal sought a corner and fell asleep. A mild snore rose from him pervading the air like an upbeat symphony. It was Razzaq’s turn to guard; he sat in the opposite corner reading from the pages of a torn book, his Kalashnikov by his side.

Amjad began to speak of the school time when he quit classes for days in a stretch to escape someone he thought interpreted Mirza Ghalib gawkily. His tone has dropped from what I heard him speak last time. He minced words before making a sentence of them and spoke in marked breaks. He spoke of the good things to come: of rains, year’s harvest, of marriages happening in the family, of people’s conscious involvement in politics, of what it meant for us to have taken to gun, of how Sadiq Jaan had slowly taken to accept his decision.

‘What are you going to do in Chilai-kalan, under the snow?’ He smiled the question away: ‘We’ll ask Bilal tomorrow’.

Amjad lay to my right, his face turned from me. Smoke rising from the lantern warmed the air inside. A faint glow fell upon the Kalashnikovs slanted against the wall behind our heads. There were a half dozen hand grenades too—tied inside a pouch beside Razzaq. A spider crawling near Amjad’s head raised me to alarm. I would get up and help it along. It groveled about Amjad’s head; I kept staring at it—as if its movement was to reveal something.

Amjad woke me up when it was still dark. He pressed my shoulder saying: You need to be out of the forest before dawn.

Walking beside me he spoke about Nuzhat. I mentioned the books in the bag and said: ruffle through the pages. He raised his eyes in enquiry. The bag lay strapped across his shoulder, emptied. We walked down the pathway to where the pines began to thin. He hugged me saying goodbye. All through the walk his fingers fiddled with a small piece of paper; pressing it into my Pheran pocket he said: give it to Father. I grabbed him by his right hand and shook it violently. His poised aspect summoned a violent burst of blood to my head; naked bark of deodars exuded an incense remindful of the earth we spaded over Sadiq Jaan. My gaze skidded across every spot as I turned to walk repeating: ruffle through the books……ruffle through the books.

It felt I was walking away from a ship bound to some sure destiny; of what kind I couldn’t tell. The trek downhill was ruthless; horizon, far to the east, began to glow in a silver halo as I came upon the first house. Stray dogs ran after each other as if mourning dawn draped in wintry coyness.

Ten paces outside my house I opened the piece of paper. It read:

“The only institution permanent with us has been a forced status quo. We decided to dispense with that. I seek no permanence. I have arrived at a station; there is another waiting after today. I don’t drag myself. I have come to be. To my own surprise, my today is no longer in need of an approachable tomorrow. It’s a certain sense of completion. A kind of feeling that for those who know ‘why’ all time is consequence.

Shall visit soon,


Ashfaq is a poet and fiction writer based in New Delhi. His first collection is “The Harkening.”

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