The Coalman

Gulam Mohammad Khan

Barely weeks before the arrival of long winters ­- when the reaping and binding and threshing is done, when the barns are full, when flocks of swallows migrate to warmer places, when the green foliage slowly wears on a yellowish hue, when the rivers flow low and cold, when the coldness after sunset reminds you of the dust-laden Kangri in the attic – the weary villagers send their horses to a large grassland called ‘Haribeth’ about the wide, scattered shores of the famous Wullar Lake. The villagers, even those who have never been to the place, highly boasted about its vastness and green abundance. Some believed that the grass there grows longer than the height of any man and some swore on the truthfulness of some strange mythical stories associated with a river that flowed through Haribeth. It was believed that the water of not less than twenty small rivers converged into this river and that nobody could swim or survive in its waters. Some recounted the tale of a brave mythical fisherman who rowed his skiff into the river and caught a monstrous fish, larger than the size of his skiff. The fish, as the myth goes, tossed the skiff and drowned the old fisherman who was never found after that. Some eulogized the bravery of some unknown people who visited that place and encountered ghosts and deadly wild animals in broad daylight. Though Haribeth was not more than three miles away from the village, these busy rumor-mongers would hardly trouble themselves to visit the place physically. The pleasures of myth are more real than the real objects these myths are connected to. Though myths may not readily connect us to a possible objective world, however, they clearly signify the elasticity and creativity of human imagination.

That autumn our neighbor, Hamid Paray, also decided to send his horse to Haribeth. All the villagers knew that his horse was dearer to him than any member of his family. Of all the carts in the village, his cart was always in better shape and order. He decorated it with small colorful ribbons and artificial flowers. The rhythmic music produced by the bells on his horse’s neck was not only distinct but liked by one and all.

One fine morning in late September, Hamid fixed the saddle and drove his horse towards the grassland Haribeth. The rhythmic hoof clatter filled him with pride. He knew there was no other horse like his own in the whole village. He would not have even imagined disuniting himself from his horse, but the long grass that only grew in Haribeth was such a temptation for all those who reared cattle and horses. All along the way Hamid consoled himself with the idea that his horse will at least get large green meadows to wander and the best stuff to eat he couldn’t afford every day back home. Hamid had to cross many small streams and swamps, a number of small forests of short crooked willows, and many identical grasslands divided by trees and rivers to reach Haribeth.

Hamid reached about lunchtime. In bright sunshine, the wide fields of golden hay gleamed like the cords of silk. A mild breeze bent the top with such grace and harmony. Hamid was excited to see this abundance. However, he had to think over and over, something very convoluted, something excruciatingly helpless before leaving his horse there. As soon as he unfastened the saddle, the horse pounced on the grass. Hamid left his horse with a passionate kiss on the small white stripe between its two eyes. He didn’t look back until he reached the banks of a river and when he turned back his horse had already disappeared in the tall grass.

Late in the evening when he reached home, his old compassionate mother washed his cramped legs with warm salty water. “This year the grass has grown longer and thicker. No sooner had I unfastened the saddle and the reins, the horse pounced on the grass. The horse didn’t even look back at me as I left the place”, he said to his robust father who occupied one full corner of the kitchen, gulping handfuls of rice with rajma and collard pickle. In one corner a full bundle of wood hissed and crackled as it burned in a large furnace to keep the kitchen warm.

A month passed. Late October coldness had slowly sponged the warmth out of the lazily shining sun. All kinds of preparations to withstand the long winters went on in every household of the village. Men chopped large dry tree trunks into small pieces with axes, collected them into big bundles, and stored them in makeshift sheds adjacent to kitchens. Females rushed to the woods in the mornings and returned with large faggots of broken willow branches on their heads in the evening. Some carried home the fallen wilted leaves and birches in large receptacles made of mountain wicker.

One morning during the family breakfast Hamid’s robust father told his son, “I think you should go to Haribeth and bring the horse back for a few days. This dry autumn, I have seen myself, has left the floor of woods covered with a thick layer of leaves. People have just pounced on it. It is a good time to bring some carts home. And also see if the cart needs any mends.”

The next morning Hamid’s mother filled a steel case, containing three small boxes, with hot rice and rajma gravy for his lunch at Haribeth. Hamid wrapped a long white rope about his left shoulder and the waist on his right. His face beamed with obvious excitement. On his way through the meadows, his eyes ran in all directions and wherever he spotted a horse or a group of horses he rushed there. He walked tirelessly with the hope to find his horse at the next spot or in the next group of horses. He sprinted with joy when a horse like his own would appear at some distance. He ran with an energy that never actually belonged to his body. Every next view of a horse or horses refilled his legs with a renewed energy. He folded up his trousers and walked through the marshes where horses grazed on reeds. Tired, as he reached the river where he had turned back to take a look at his horse last time, he ate his lunch. After lunch he had an ablution with the cold water and offered Namaz on grassy banks of the ever silently flowing river.

Like a lost traveler, he wandered about the spacious grasslands, the marshy lands, and the big haphazard forests in search of his horse. In the afternoon he took a short nap under the shadow of a singular willow in the midst of a vast meadow. When the gloomy signs of the arrival of the evening appeared on the western sky and the bright sun slowly turned into a pale ball of fire, Hamid was absolutely dog-tired. He had almost approached every single horse in every nook and corner of Haribeth. Inconsolable despair painted a sad pinkish hue on his weary face. Looking at the setting sun he took a long breath and returned home.

He walked like a lost, defeated soldier. He passed a group of cowboys who ate boiled water-nuts at the edge of a forest. Hamid stopped there and enquired about his horse. One of the cowboys who had seen his horse a few days ago informed him, “I saw your horse a week ago about those marshy lands where the reeds grow. The same day later in the afternoon I saw your neighbor Salam riding it. He said he was looking for his cow. When he was tired on foot, he rode your horse.”  The mention of the name Salam turned the pinkish weariness on his face into a dark ugly rage. He loathed Salam already. Now, upon being told that Salam has used his horse to find his cow, he was absolutely frustrated.

On his way back home Hamid saw fishermen rowing their empty skiffs home. He also saw large boats, stuffed with bundles of firewood stolen from the forests, rowed home by men and women together. Sunset is the time when humans wind up their work and return home. Hamid walked home with the conflicting fears flocking his mind: finding his horse the next day, fearing his horse was lost and will never be found again or someone like Salam stealing and selling it to someone in the far off land.

The next ten days were excruciatingly agonizing for the family. Every day Hamid left in the morning with hope and returned with a disappointment in the evening. Away from the gaze of people he wept in the wilderness of Haribeth. His ever compassionate mother rubbed and pressed his hardened limbs every night. She cried when her old hands felt the hardened edges of skin about his heels and the soft bristles about his fingers. The news of the disappearance of their horse spread like wildfire in the neighboring villages. Neighbors rushed in to share words of courage and sympathy with the grieved family and also cursed those who stole their horse. Salam’s old frowsy mother also visited the family.

The deep void of loss in Hamid’s heart was slowly filled by vengeance and repulsion for Salam. He knew it was his neighbor Salam who stole his horse. Their violent fights, almost every time they crossed each other in the street, had become so famous in the village. When their families hurled expletives at each other, the neighbors gave a watchful audience till the end. Salam’s large mouth was frothing as the barrage of highly vulgar abuses escaped it.

Salam was a tall wiry man in his early thirties. His wheaty small cheeks looked incredibly smaller under his broad bulging nose. His short curls of unkempt hair looked always dusty. He lived with his frail mother in a small crumbling cottage two streets away from Hamid’s concrete one story house. The rusty, moth-eaten wooden cottage, a young heifer that grazed in Haribeth and a goat that he reared at home for milk was all they possessed as property.

Whenever they abused or heckled each other in the street, Hamid was at the receiving end. Salam was lean but stronger than Hamid. Salam overpowered him without much physical effort and Hamid always returned home with his nose bleeding or his cheekbone fractured. Therefore, Hamid’s revulsion for Salam never stopped to increase from the day his horse went missing. He wanted Salam to be brutally thrashed or even killed. So one day he knocked at the door of a notorious Ikhwani Commander who killed people for sport. The commander hailed from an infamous neighboring town. His fearsome gang was strongly supported by the government to repel any rebellion from the people who wanted Azadi for Kashmir. They tortured and killed and raped anyone they willed.

Finally, when Hamid got a chance to meet the commander at his fortified palace-like residence, he pleaded, “Our neighbor, Salam, stole our lonely horse, our livelihood. And whenever I ask him about this in the street, he beats me. He threatens that he can beat anyone. I have knocked on your door because I want justice.”

A few days later Salam was summoned to report at the commander’s residence in twenty-four hours of time. The same day later during their dinner Salam explained to his frail mother what it meant to be summoned, “To be summoned to the commander’s residence means death. It means if I visit his residence right after my dinner, my dead body will be certainly delivered in the morning. Therefore, I have decided to disappear tonight. After I was told about the summoning by Qadir Mukhdam in the market, I sold the goat to have some money in my pocket. Tomorrow morning you will go to your sisters and stay there until I return. Tell them he didn’t return home from his work on Tuesday. And if Allah wills, I will return someday soon.”

That night Salam disappeared in the darkness only to find himself trembling with cold in front of a large coal-store in Srinagar the next morning. He watched curiously as a number of workers queued up to unload a huge coal truck. The broad clean-shaven owner of the store, with a bulging belly, instructed others to fill a long line of smaller load-carrying vehicles that distributed coal across the city. A suppressed, indecisive urge to talk to the owner for work caused a shivering warmth inside Salam. Mustering his courage, he walked to the store and greeted the owner politely. At first the owner neither moved his head nor responded to his greetings. Salam greeted again.

“Walikumasalam”, finally, the owner responded.

“I desperately need some work. Would your highness allow me to work as a coalman in your big store”, Salam pleaded.

“Well, drop your details and a photograph with a computer operating person on the second story. After that you can start your work today only”, said the gracious owner.

Throughout the day, Salam worked unflinchingly harder than the rest of his co-workers to impress his boss. To monitor his work the owner stealthily stole glances at him. He finished his work on the first day with absolute satisfaction. But a sad feeling silently lurked in his heart. He knew he had nowhere to go. At the end of the work when the owner handed him a fresh fifty rupees note, he refused to take it and said instead, “My honorable boss, I am a poor homeless wretch. You can keep this money and provide me a little space in your store instead where I can sleep after work. I have nowhere to go. Provide me a little shelter and I will work in your store as long as you want me.”

“Well, you may have to wait a couple of hours before I give you my final word on this”, the owner muttered after a brief meditation.

Salam waited patiently in a new plastic chair outside the store. To his excitement a little space was finally granted to him in the adjacent large coal store-room. The owner also arranged a mattress, a pillow, and a blanket. During his first night at the coal store, he dreamt of his old mother pleading him to return home. He cursed Hamid and his horse for separating him from his mother.

In this coal store Salam worked for five long months of cold from November to March when the supply of coal stops. During his work, the thoroughly adept and agile Salam picked up everything about the lucrative coal business. In his spare time he cleverly plunged himself into the conversations of the local shopkeepers and learned many things about the business. From different sources he procured information about the import and distribution of coal, about the huge profits his owner made from every single truck of imported coal, about how meager their wages were in comparison to the profits. Salam realized that it was not really difficult to make big money if one was brave enough to give it a try. But it always needs money to take a business risk. Even for a loss in business one needs money, Salam reckoned.

Since Salam was a frugal son, he saved a big chunk of his earnings. In the following spring, summer, and autumn he changed many jobs to earn more and more. He served as a waiter in a roadside Batamaloo hotel, worked as a sweeper in a private hospital, sold a variety of rugs, which he carried in a bundle on his shoulders in small villages on the periphery of Srinagar, worked as a milkman for two months and also served in a tourist houseboat at Nageen Hazratbal.

As his earnings increased manifold, he eagerly waited for the arrival of winters. With the amount of money he had saved, he could, as he always thought in his free time, easily hire a small store and open his own coal business. Since he was never rich enough before taking a business risk, he was quite indecisive in the beginning. He feared he will fail because he had no wealthy friends who could support him in the time of adversity. Sometimes he mulled over moving back to his home and replace his old decaying cottage with a small concrete house. However, the threat of the Ikhwani Commander murdering him forced him back every time.

October was the busiest and toughest month for Salam. It is when winter foretells its arrival through a delicate change in the taste of winds and when the coal owners receive orders for the supply of coal. After a serious thought Salam finally hired a small store three streets away from his employer’s coal-store.

One cold morning in late October a large coal truck stood outside Salam’s store. Many coal dealers were dazed to see this unusual progress of a coal worker. At his previous employer’s store the wages still continued as fifty rupees a day. Salam doubled the wages to fetch workers for his store. The risk-taking ability of Salam never let him down. With all the money he earned, he bought more and more trucks of coal and stored it in the basement of several buildings he had hired. He didn’t sell less coal but stored more for the next season. Now, when Salam had hoarded enough money, he purchased a small house at a walking distance from his store. The one-story house belonged to a Kashmiri Pandit family which had settled permanently outside the valley after the exodus.

Salam completely busied himself with the single business now. He maintained the account of all business-related matters in a big register. Every night he made several new entries into the register. That next season, when he had already stored big trucks of coal, he visited universities, colleges, government, and private companies and other establishments in advance and offered them coal at surprisingly lower rates.

That year Salam sold so much of coal that a daily newspaper from the valley described him as ‘The Coalman of Srinagar’. His sudden rise so badly jostled the business of other Srinagar based coalmen that they could hardly rise again to compete with him.

In the course of following two or three years, Salam’s business prospered so much that he bought his own trucks. He also bought a palace-like house in Rajbagh where every night he missed his mother badly. Now when he had everything, he lacked the company of his own people. He even missed the poor Hamid whose face he punched in the street. He even missed his horse he never stole. He missed his lonely cow that grazed in Haribeth. The memory of the night of his disappearance and the selling of his goat welled up tears in his eyes.  He missed his faraway poor village in the middle of the lonely nights. His body seethed with burning anger when he thought about the merciless Ikhwani commander who tortured his poor fellow villagers. Now he was so rich that he could buy this commander, his entire gang, and his big house and throw them in Jehlum for fun.

One fine September morning, he handed the bundle of keys to one of his trusted clerks and asked his driver to drive him to a faraway, forsaken village in Bandipora. Never before had he divulged this secret buried in the chest of his heart to anyone. The view of the people working in mellow paddy fields brought a smile on his face. He couldn’t help his heart leaping out to them, for he had himself worked in these fields for twenty long years.

When he reached his village everything looked the same except his cottage. His cottage was replaced by a shed where, to his utter shock, chewed Hamid’s stolen horse on a pile of hay. Followed by his driver, Salam walked up to Hamid’s home and called out his name aloud. Hamid quickly scampered out of his home and almost stood frozen on the verandah. Both silently looked at each other before Hamid ran down and hugged his old neighbor. He couldn’t believe his eyes that Salam was still alive.

“Where are your parents”, murmured the emotional Salam.

“They passed away two years ago exactly when your mother passed away. We buried them in the same graveyard near the old school.”

Salam nearly collapsed to the ground. Hamid and the driver helped him to walk inside Hamid’s home.

“My horse returned on its own after a heavy snowfall the same year I feared it was stolen. After your mother’s demise, fearing you won’t return home forever, I built a shed in place of your fallen cottage.” A long heavy silence befell the room.

“Did that commander come to kill me after that?” Salam broke the silence.

“They tortured me and my family several times after that. They still come. When they don’t find you, they blame me for deceiving them and helping you run away to join militants. Whenever they come, they beat me when I have nothing to say about your whereabouts.”

Without any delay Salam left the place entreating Hamid not to reveal anything about him to anyone and visit him at Rajbagh in a couple of days. This way the sad journey of Salam to his village came to an end.

As directed, Hamid visited him the next day. He was absolutely shocked and overjoyed to see Salam having achieved so much in life. He worked with Salam thereafter and enjoyed all the luxuries Salam had. Every night they talked about the hardships of miserable olden days. They watched movies together they once craved to watch in the village.

Salam’s progress never took a downslide after its start. His business slowly branched off into other fields. He opened a showroom for the sale of small load-carrying automobiles. He also hired several stores for the wholesale of cattle fodder.

It was on the repeated suggestions of Hamid that Salam married to his previous employer’s daughter with whom he had no children for a long time. This forced him to marry the second time and buy another house. With his second wife he had a child named Rehaan.

One afternoon, a few years later when both Salam and Hamid were busy at their work came the news of the assassination of the notorious Ikhwani commander. Unknown gunmen killed him in the market of his own town in broad daylight. Salam distributed sweets among his workers to celebrate his death. “Now I can see my whole village after a long time,” he told Hamid later that evening.

When the villagers came to know that Salam was still alive and was now popularly known as the ‘Coalman of Srinagar’, they thronged the place where his cottage stood once and shouted ‘Salaam   Salaam’. Salam vowed to offer jobs to his unemployed villagers. Though he never prayed himself, he instructed Hamid to earmark a piece of land, buy it and then start work on the construction of a new village mosque.  The happy villagers discussed the story of Salam’s rise in their kitchens, their farmlands, and in the bustling streets.

Rehaan was now in his late teens. He studied engineering at a famous college in Mumbai. His father bought him a flat that overlooked the busy Bandra Coast.

Salam went to Mecca to perform his third Hajj. This time he didn’t return. Months later came to the news that Salam was buried in the sacred soil of Mecca.

Ghulam Mohammad Khan is a Kashmiri writer. He teaches English at Government College of Engineering and Technology, Safapora Ganderbal. He loves literature and believes it to be the most powerful means to preserve the collective human experience in contemporary times when the disciplinary character of the state defies other direct means of expression.

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