The Cankered Rose

Ghulam Mohammad Khan

On a small grassy mound in the midst of the paddy fields, under the deep sky that hung like a large inverted bowl, with stars like a sheet of dazzling diamonds artistically patched over it, we sat hopelessly whispering our distress. It was midnight, the dew had silently covered the grass; it was nature taking an ablution far away from the factitious cultism of human state. The stars sparkled above us, the warble of the insects pierced the darkness and somewhere, water overflowed the small muddy barriers dividing the vast expanses of paddy fields into small patches, producing a delicate music, the impact of which produced ripples in my heart. In the heart of this sublime beauty a fear nettled us inside, leaving Shahid and Khalid almost deaf and blind to the graceful and virgin endowments of nature. I looked up; the brightest star in the sky was falling.
“We will hide here for two or three hours before the dawn breaks. It is our bloody gutlessness that drove us to this dark limbo here. I would rather die fighting, pelting stones than decay behind the bars”, groaned angry Shahid. I looked at him; he yawned and slapped the mosquitoes away.
Away from the village, in this heavy silence, though there was none to hear us around, we silently whispered to each other, fearing that they will catch us and torture us to death.
“I wish I had never pelted a stone. How can I write my exam tomorrow? My parents will be worried. I wish it were all peaceful”, whispered Khalid helplessly. He was the most disturbed and dejected of the three of us. The other night everything in their home was ransacked by the Indian army. His brother Muneeb, who also pelted stones at the army, was hit by a pellet in his right eye and almost making it ineffective. His mother and sister, who resisted the soldiers looking for Khalid, were beaten by gun-butts.
“They would be alone tonight as well. Father no more stays at home for nights. He limps since he was beaten during a nocturnal raid last year. What will mother do if they knock at the door again tonight?”, said Khalid with his head drooping between his knees. He seemed to curse himself for being so insensitive, for being a person whose belligerence cost his family their comfort and their nights of peaceful sleep. Couple of weeks back Khalid told me that he was no more interested in fighting with the forces, but everything changed when a week later he was dragged down from a passenger bus by Indian army for not carrying an identity card with him. He would always tell me, “Why should they on earth frisk me and enquire me about my identity in my own homeland. Aren’t they posted to protect me than to suspect me?” Khalid was not less bothered about writing his exams tomorrow, but more about the safety of his mother and sister that night.
“Don’t worry Khalid. With the break of dawn we will walk with you to your college. You will write your exams and that is all”, I broke the silence.
“But they won’t allow me to sit in the exam hall without the hall-ticket. The ticket is at home. I am sure it won’t be there now. They have been regularly breaking into my home and ransacking everything there. It is really up a creek without a paddle situation. But, I don’t want to mess up with my favorite paper tomorrow. I really don’t want to fail in Creative Literature.” Khalid was in the second year of his graduation. He loved to study the classical literature and always carried a book with him. He knew well the ‘smells of literature.’ He would often impress me with his unique merit of aesthetically combining the disparate words, symbols, images and metaphors in the amplitude of his imagination and always producing something very noble and sublime. I remember, he told me one day that our Kashmir is like a flower, fetching and fragrant outside whereas, festered and cankered inside, and that it will wither away one day, and then even a gentle breeze can pluck it.
“Let me go now. I will bring your hall-ticket with me”, blurted Shahid with a doltish haste. He was a bit touchy and irresistible. His belligerent demeanor had already prompted him to fatuous conclusions several times in the past. He couldn’t even imagine how quickly will they get hold of him, mince his body, stuff it into a sack and throw it into the Jehlum if he walks back to the village at that hour.
“No, they are extremely disturbed this time, they would be spilling fire. Don’t you know three of their men were seriously injured? I myself saw Burhan’s huge boulder hitting one in the chest. He collapsed like a log. They will be on a rampage back in the village. If you go, you will only land yourself in trouble”, retorted Khalid with a genuine control over his emotions.
“But, failing to appear in the exam tomorrow will cost you one precious year. Isn’t it silly to wait a long year for this single day?”
“What is a year; I would sacrifice thousands of them, if they give me just a moment to breathe in freedom. I don’t understand why I am so deeply obsessed with this Freedom. Shahid, our life is a failure. There is no point in going there, but death. You will not go anywhere; it is time to be together in this darkness.” With these words Khalid turned his head to the sky, gazed into it for a moment and then continued, “Kashmir is absolutely beautiful, but I fear its beauty can keep itself from falling as the lug iron beast had gone mad there. Do you think those dark mountains look soothing to the eye? Don’t you see the maverick beast washing it red beneath the groove? Human blood is so cheap here. I want to feel this beauty without the beast.” Khalid’s words were followed by a long silence.
A light breeze rustled the paddy crops. The chirping of insects was louder. Both Khalid and Shahid reclined on the soft soggy grass. Shahid folded his left arm as a pillow under his head, and before going off to sleep, he spoke quietly, “Let me sleep for an hour or two. I could not even wink my eyes last night in that mosque. A big rat slipped from the ceiling and dropped with a thud on my chest. I thought it was a grenade hurled at me. It is shame; we can’t even sleep in our own homes now. Their nocturnal raids have made a hell of it. Those girded goons will kill us all. I think we should no more hurl stones at them. Pelting stones at their might won’t win us freedom. Our strategy seems illogical and unfounded. Their bullets outnumber our stones. Anyway, prick me awake as the Muezzin calls for prayer. I will go to the village and get back with your hall-ticket. Khalid, you will write your exam tomorrow. Alright?” Shahid’s words jolted me. How could be he so rational? Barely half an hour back, he would belligerently boost his courage, vow to perish while fighting than fester behind the bars. How on earth could he mock the same strategy of fighting as illogical or unfounded now? I think it was just out of frustration that he thought so different. He neither wanted his friend to miss his exam the next day, nor did he like the idea of giving up his fight in the middle of it.
“We can’t leave this place until the market is open or people leave their homes for day’s work or children leave for their schools. They can’t arrest us when people are around. So, we can’t leave this place before 10 o’clock in the morning.”
It was a long night for all three of us. Shahid tried hard to sleep, but failed. Falling asleep was not possible there. Sleep needs equanimity of mind. One falls asleep like one falls in love because, in both cases you don’t know how and when you fall. Shahid was also a meritorious student, though a bit careless. He was in the final year of his graduation at Degree College Bandipora. He was a thorough going votary of Physics. Though I could hardly follow his rhetoric, but he would still teach me, with the greatest possible cerebration, the complex ideas like Quantum Mechanics, electromagnetism and Uncertainty Principle by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg. I respected both Shahid and Khalid, loved them, imitated them and deliberately talked to them to feel as a part of the group. I was quite younger to them. I had applied for B.A. Honors in Urdu Literature at Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, and the results published two days back had declared me ‘selected’. I was supposed to join the university within twenty days of time. I had no idea of travelling outside the valley, but to stay with friends and join them in fierce street fights with the Indian army.
The night was interminable. We tried to sleep, but we could not. How could we when she was nowhere to be found in our valley. She had fled across the mountains into some unknown land long back in 1989. Both Khalid and Shahid yawned and stretched and scratched and snuggled. I silently looked up and painted the pictures of the insensate Indian soldiers on the vast canvas of dark green sky with the broken brush of my imagination. I tried to feel the brewing storm of conflicting ideas in Khalid’s mind. I feared, he would be thinking about his sister, struggling to break free from the clutches of the army and his mother crying and pleading the soldiers not to rape her. I tried to talk to him to know how he was feeling. I called out, “Khalid?” On hearing me, he broke down helplessly.
“My sister is alone there. She would be calling me for help. Father is not there. I wish I were not born here.” His cries and sobs drew me closer to him. I felt myself helplessly dissolving in the dark abyss of his pain.
“Khalid, they will be fine. Don’t think like that. Please don’t weep. Just feel relaxed.” I said without actually knowing what to say and how to say it. Shahid too was feeling extremely disturbed. Few days back his father too was beaten by the army for being lenient and condoning to the egregious activities of his children. He too had two little sisters at home. In the heart of our hearts surged the streams of shame and sorrow. It was so difficult to bring it to the mouth. It was the night when our minds chopped the multitudes of distress.
“I wish my mind stops thinking. I wish I had never been a son. I wish I had never been mothered and sistered. I wish they tear me apart and not touch my sister. I wish they slay my head and not drag my mother by her arm.” Feeling equally devastated, Shahid drew close to Khalid, threw his arm around his shoulder and consoled him.
“My dear, don’t think like that. Inshallah everything will be right.” Again a profound silence followed. I realized it from his intense agony that in a conflict, the chastity or virginity and education or development of the subject, essentially mean nothing to the ruler.

The ‘azan’ was given, prayers were offered, the vast expanses of the verdure fields were visible, the sun had stealthily climbed behind the impeccable mountain ridge, the dew had started to dwindle, the smoke rising from the baker shops indicated the people leaving their homes to fetch fresh baked bread, and we still stood unmoved. After realizing it was getting closer, Shahid stood up, stretched his arms, yawned and his disheveled hair flapped in the morning breeze. Khalid washed his face from a small rivulet a few paces away. We looked around and moved around, but we didn’t talk to each other. There were plenitudes of sorrow, better to be buried in the chest of heart than to be given the tongue. Finally, it was 10 o’clock in the morning and we slowly strolled back to our village.
Walking through a number of craggy and bumpy lanes and bylanes, we finally reached Khalid’s home. The porch that led to the interior of the house was filled with rubble of shoes and slippers. The sight of the porch frightened Khalid. He looked back at me; his frozen gaze into my face narrated volumes of pain and pathos. He seemed to ask me ‘Why is the porch full of shoes and slippers. Did they kill my brother or rape my sister?’ His gaze and the helplessness written over his pale face are still frozen in memory and time.
The hall was full of elderly men and women. I entered the hall with Shahid following me, but Khalid scampered through the dark corridor probably towards the kitchen. The women whispered to each other, their faces wore dismal looks as if all their hopes were dashed. Onm my right side, towards the corner, sat my father fiddling with the tuft of his snow-white beard. The intense disappointment on his face and his, seemingly, profound meditation indicated that there was something seriously wrong with the family. I heard someone crying in the next room, I walked out and found the whole family weeping helplessly in the kitchen. Shahid and I tried to console our grieved friend, pleaded him to come over along with us. He only refused.
“Khalid’s mother and sister, both were raped in the night”, my mother told me back home in the evening. “You will never go again with your friends and pelt stones, if you really care for the chastity of your mother and your two little sisters. Next time they will barge into our house and destroy everything. You know what I mean by everything?”
“Tomorrow he will leave for Aligarh. He will take his admission there. I have arranged the money and I will be also accompanying him to Jammu. Freedom is not something he will get in ten rupees from Karim’s shop or by hurling a lump of soil on a beehive. He will pack his clothes and books tonight. We are leaving in the morning tomorrow”, hollered my angry father. Sabeena and Safeena, my two little sisters crouched in fear near the furnace.
“Yes he will study and earn some money for this family”, turning to me my mother continued, “Beta, We are free as long as you are alive. I have lost one; I can never afford to lose you now. Please, move out of here. Your father will accompany you to Jammu. I will wait for you, but please move out of this hell.”
I walked out into my room, feeling allover barraged by an overwhelming undecidability. I was caught between devil and the deep sea. After some time, Safeena and Sabeena walked into my room with a bowl of rice, a tumbler of water and a small crock with curry. I ate the food and they ironed my clothes in the meanwhile.
It was 6th of May, 2010; I left the valley with my father for an unknown land where, as someone had told me earlier, there was no army, no nocturnal raids, no curfews, no encounters, no stone-pelting, and no militants. The jagged, mountainous Srinagar-Jammu highway, the scary altitudes, remembrances of my unfortunate friends, the fear of adjustment in an alien land, and the intense silence of my father almost smothered me.
By 8:15pm, we reached the Jammu railway station. Around 8:30, the lovely voice of a young lady announced on the microphone, “Pooja Express is arriving on platform number six………” With the announcement, all the people got on their toes. Father hugged me tight, patted my back affectionately and said in a broken voice, “Beta, we will miss you. We will talk on phone every day.” He stopped for a while and continued again, “This train will take you to Delhi. Your cousin will receive you there. I talked to him yester night. He will guide you to the right place.”
My cousin had a small lodging outside the university. The littered lanes, the cluttered crowd of stores, the heat and dust, and the flurry of rickshaws was all I could see everywhere around. Days passed, I took admission and started to be part of a serious readership culture there. The intellectual atmosphere of the university helped me to overcome the painful moments of the past. In the beginning, I desperately tried my best to talk to shahid and Khalid, but I failed. One day my mother told me that both of them have travelled to Bangalore for studies. In losing their track, I lost my friends. The intensity of the memories of friendship and the moments of intense sorrow associated to it, slowly started to blur. One year passed; all was fine with me in Aligarh. Now, I didn’t even like the idea of going back home.
Living in Kashmir and reading about Kashmir from outside Kashmir are two separate experiences. In papers you only read about politics, about leaders and about new ways of institutionalizing fear, hopelessness and bureaucratic hypocrisy. The number of more than 600,000 Indian troops and their long history of terrible exploits, not only elude our present newspapers, but have had cleverly deceived the history too. Staying out for more than a year now made me feel that Kashmir conflict was not something to be read and researched from a distance, it was something to be seen and felt only. Reading Faiz Ahmad Faiz in my second year again reminded me of my resistance, of my friends, of our frenzied love for freedom, of our fearless street battles with the army, and our hiding on that grassy mound.
Two years passed. My parents talked to me twice a week, but they almost forgot to call me back home. They thought I was secure in Aligarh. One night, while talking to my mother, I expressed my wish to return home for at least a month. The very next day father called me and approved my wish to return home. I was not anxious to meet my parents after two years, or to see Safeena and Sabeena, or to meet my relatives. I was anxious to go and see whether army still lumbered about the streets with heavy guns slung around their shoulders, to see whether boys still thronged the streets to chant the slogans of freedom, to see whether blood still flowed in Jehlum, to see whether they still in thousands carry the coffin of a teen-ager, to see whether Kashmir still looked beautiful, and to see whether Khalid had passed in Creative Literature?
It was 9th of May, 2012; I left for home. From Patni-top Heights, I smelled the smells of my land; the barren crags of Ramban reminded me the night on that mound, the opening of the Jawahar Tunnel on Qazigund side taught my heart all the secrets of palpitation, and the virgin, verdant expanses on the other side reminded me a line by Wordsworth ‘And then my heart with pleasure fills.’ Crossing the tunnel into Kashmir after two long years was nothing less than a rebirth. For a moment I wished that the whole landscape, the soothing breeze and the bliss of the impeccable vacuum compresses and condenses and passes into my soul.
But, the ghost of military still haunted the place. Kashmir almost looks same everywhere, but there are certain things like trees and cultivations that are specific to certain regions. You will find almond trees only in Southern Kashmir and saffron cultivation is mainly limited to Pampore. There is only one thing that is ubiquitous in Kashmir or that will be easily available to you in every part of it, the thing is the panoptic Indian army. Near a military camp, our bus was stopped. Our baggage was frisked. One of them asked me for my identity card. I had grown a little stubble, which was missing from the photo on the card. He looked at me with eyes agape. It seemed he had a wish to pounce on me and eat me up. After a brief frenzied thought, the trooper intimidated me, “Beware of it next time. Keep it clean or you will be picked up.” I smiled and he left. His glaring eyes only intensified my hate for them. He thought his authoritative bearing scared me. But, how could I fear the rain when I was already drowned? I reached home when earth was one with the whole in darkness. I had to wait for the morn to see my village. My home looked same as before. Mother had a few wrinkles on her brow. Father had not changed much. Sabeena and Safeena looked totally different. They looked absolutely beautiful. After dinner both came to me with their notebooks.
“Our teacher asked us to write an essay on the topic ‘My Aim in Life’ as homework. We already asked Papa to help us. He said that Baijan will help us today”, said Safeena while looking at the notebook. Both of them had joined a middle school.
“What do you want to become in life?” I said. They looked at each other and smiled and smiled. For a moment I thought that I should never go back to Aligarh. They needed a brother at home. I really didn’t want them to be aimless in life. The horrible memories of that two year old night would not easily escape my mind.
The next day, when father had moved out and both Sabeena and Safeena had gone to school, I got a chance to talk to my mother about Khalid and Shahid. Initially, she pretended not to know anything about them. Only after I pleaded endlessly that she told me the truth.
“Khalid never continued his studies after that night. Six months back he disappeared and nobody knows his whereabouts. His brother Muneeb abandoned studies last year, he runs a shop now. He is blind in his right eye. Their father is nothing better than a wreck. Khalid’s sister Sakeena is the most unfortunate. The story of her being and endurance is the most lamentable. They left no stone unturned to get her married. Every one rejects her and calls her a ‘broken-meal.’ Sara, our neighbor told me two days ago that Sakeena attempted suicide. Son, their family shattered miserably after that night.” As she narrated, a well of shame started to surge within my soul. “And Shahid’s family too suffered a lot. Shahid was caught by the army during one of his stone pelting expeditions. Only Allah knows how they treated him in the camp. He is alive but not better than a dead body. Doctors say that both his kidneys are non-functional. It is the weekly dialysis that keeps him going. His mother says that he was tortured in the camp.”
There was nothing left for me in the village except the emotion of soul eating shame. I really felt ashamed. I should have been with him when circumstances forced him to abandon his village, his parents and his lone unfortunate sister. I should have been with Shahid when they tortured him in the camp. Shahid was a crazy votary of Physics, but his passion for physics never subdued his passion for freedom. Khalid’s genius should not have been lost to the cruelty of conflict. He would always say ‘Kashmir is a cankered rose’. Kashmir is really like a rose, a rose that is cankered inside.
One day I visited Khalid’s home. I saw Sakeena alone in the kitchen. A large purple ball of wool danced on the floor in front of her. She was knitting a sweater with large knitting needles. On looking at me she burst forth into a smile and greeted humbly.
“Where are your parents, are they fine?” I said.
“Mother was just here. Will you sit down; I will make a cup of tea.” Sakeena was a pretty young woman in her late twenties.
“No, I will come later when Muneeb is back from the shop.”
“Do you have any news of Khalid? We have been waiting for him for last six months”, she said promptly. I wish she had never asked this question.
“Six months back we talked on phone. After that I lost his track”, I lied.
The next day I visited my friend Shahid. Kashmir Conflict really had played havoc with his life. He would ceaselessly and vociferously talk about physics, about Newton and Rutherford and Paul Dirac and many more. Now his tongue wobbled as he talked. He was a burden on his family now. There are many Shahids and Khalids in Kashmir. They mangled the youth everywhere.
That evening I talked to my mother about Sakeena.
“She is the sister of my friend, how can I ignore her? She looks good too.”
“I know how she looks like. She looks good, but she is like a cankered rose. Erase her from your mind, you will never marry her. That is my warning.”
“Who will marry her then? Last time you told me that everybody rejected her and that their family was shattered. I think I must accept her. Any more rejections will drive her mad. I think she is already.”
“What nonsense are you talking? You have to complete your studies and I don’t want the broken-meal to pollute my house. Let your father come, I will ask him to send you back to Aligarh.”
“I will complete my studies first. I will wait for a year or two or three, but I will only marry her. Her brother is already missing. She will die a death of double shame if nobody claims her.”
“Let your father come first, till then keep your mouth shut. It smells foul.”
After two days, while having dinner, father and mother talked to each other.
“I have arranged the money. Inshallah, Showkat will leave on Monday”, father said a bit loudly to ensure the voice reaches to me.
The next day was Sunday. I secretly visited Khalid’s home. I found the mother and daughter aimlessly sulking inside. Khalid’s mother politely called me by my name. After greetings, a strange silence followed. Finally, I mustered all my courage and stunned both of them.
“It will take me two years just to complete my studies. I am leaving tomorrow for Aligarh. I hope Khalid comes back in the meanwhile. After my return, I told my parents, I will marry Sakeena. But there is no compulsion. I also respect Skeena’s choice.” Their heads drooped. Now their only language was their silence. After that terrible night, they have been living such a deplorable and deprived life that they even feared to use language. They behaved as if language only belonged to them who are not raped.
It was 6th of June, 2012; I left my home again, this time with the hope to return to save a cankered rose from festering unnoticed. But, the idea of saving the cankered rose of Kashmir seemed impossible because, the canker had now infected the heart of the rose. The bus snaked past the sharp edges. I only woke up about the Patni-top Heights to smell the smells of my land again.

Ghulam Mohammad Khan is from Bandipora, in North Kashmir. He is a graduate student in the Department of English and Foreign Languages, Central University of Haryana. He can be reached at [email protected]

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