Bilal failed. Again. It was the twenty-eighth time in ninety-two days.
He loved football. Growing up, Bilal idolised the great footballers of the time and styled his play on a tall Portuguese goal-scoring machine. He became the most sought-after footballer in his village by the time he was sixteen. When he was seventeen, he represented his district, and, after impressing the coaches and selectors, he made the under-18 team for his region. His passion for football would wake him early each morning to run to the only available ground in his village, the school playground, located next to the Camp of Uniformed Men.
It was a time of relative calm and peace in the disturbed Valley Bilal lived in. An outbreak of street fighting had begun to abate, and teenagers like Bilal matured at a time when internet use was rising due to cheaper access and cheap Chinese smartphones. By the time he joined the regional team, Bilal was tall, well-built, with a thin stubble which he trimmed short. He had dark brown hair and dark brown eyes that would look at you with an attentive gaze. Offers to join football clubs started pouring in.
It did not take long for Bilal’s family to talk him out of joining clubs outside the Valley. He came from a well-to-do family, and he was the youngest child and the only brother, who had the traditional role of attending to the family’s apple business. Long times spent away from home playing football, which was an uncertain profession, would mean he would not get the practical exposure needed for managing family affairs. For an only son, that would be a detriment. He decided he would play for the clubs in the local league. This prospect was far less lucrative and did not offer the opportunities to improve the skills and exposure as much as the leagues in other regions. But it did offer a potential path to getting a secure job so that he could supplement the family’s finances until he would be able to attend to the orchards on his own. After a few months of playing in the local league, Bilal was approached by a local Bank team to join their football team. He agreed. The plan was perfect. But he did not plan for what happened in the Valley that summer. No one could have.
In the summer of 2016, there was an uprising in the Valley, the scale of which no one could have ever predicted. At the end of it hundreds were dead, thousands were injured, mobile phone networks and internet were offline, careers and businesses lay in ruin, and the face of the Valley had changed forever. The right-wing Government decided the best way to handle the situation was to take a hard line against the protests. It meant the return to some of the worst practices of the Uniformed Men. ‘Stop and Search,’ ‘Cordon and Search,’ ‘Encounters,’ ‘Contact,’ and more such militarised terms imported from counter-insurgency theatres in other parts of the world, entered the daily lexicon of people. Young men were picked up, with or without the suspicion of being members of proscribed outfits and taken to the Camps of Uniformed Men, and kept interred for days and weeks on end. Many were tortured. Many required hospitalisation. Some never returned to their old lives, too scared and too scarred to be normal again. A generation of young men and women now witnessed the worst form of violence that emanated from the barrel of a gun and the end of a cane. Nothing would be the same again.
Bilal was at home that night. He was watching football on the TV in his room,. He heard shouts outside. It was a chilly autumn night, quiet, except for the occasional barking of street dogs. In the agrarian community that he lived in, the work of harvesting apples and transporting them to the markets had not yet begun. The sound of men shouting piqued his interest. Was it a fight? He opened the window to check what was going on. He would regret it for the rest of his life. Years later, as he struggled with himself on his wedding night, it was the memory of what happened on that fateful night that haunted him.
‘Hey! Sister-fucker!’ shouted a Uniformed Man with a gun. He was wearing a black uniform, unseen in the night. He had a vest filled with gun magazines, and he was pointing his gun straight at Bilal. ‘Come out, mother-fucker!’
‘Don’t be smart, come out right now, or we will get inside and smash your head!’ shouted another uniformed man hiding under the electricity pole outside his home.
Bilal was wearing his pyjamas and a T-shirt. He felt sweat form in his armpits and start to drip down the side of his chest. Something got stuck in his throat. His breathing became faster, and he froze at the spot. Unable to decide what to do, he stood at the window, looking straight down at the man in that black uniform.
‘Hey! Are you deaf?’ shouted the first man.
‘We will shoot you dead!’ shouted the second man, now moving towards the gate of his house.
‘Come down, or we will come up and stuff this gun up your ass!’
Bilal’s mind went blank. He had heard from his friends that the uniformed men in black had a particularly gruesome taste for inserting things into the asses of poor Valley men. They derived some sort of sadistic pleasure from it. He imagined the agony. Deriving some strength from the fear of having his body violated by a gun barrel, he said, and felt the dryness of his throat as he did, ‘I am coming.’ He swallowed twice.
Bilal turned the light on in his bedroom and found the door. As he walked out of the bedroom, he noticed that all the doors in the house were closed. Luckily, his sisters had not heard the ruckus and their ears were spared the pain of abuse. His parents were asleep. He walked to the lobby downstairs, where he found his slippers and opened the main door of his house, and walked the driveway to the gate where the uniformed men were waiting for him. As he reached the gate he heard them shout, ‘Hurry up, Asshole!’ He tried opening the gate, only to see it was locked. The latch had a paddle lock on it that needed a key to open.
‘Just a minute. It’s locked,’ he told the men.
Bilal made a run for the kitchen, at the back of the house, where the keys were kept at night, hanging from a nail in the wooden door that led to the dining room.
Sensing that he was running away from them, the men started banging and pushing the gate. One of the men jumped the gate and another scaled the wall of Bilal’s compound. Bilal was returning with the keys when he saw two men with guns running toward him. He instinctively put his hands up.
Bilal does not remember what hit him first. It may have been the butt of a gun, or the boot of one of the men, but whatever it was, he fell to the ground after the first blow. He covered his ears with his arms as the men started beating him up.
‘Where were you running to?’ they shouted at him.
One of Bilal’s sisters, who had woken up with the commotion, now came to the front door and put the porch light on.
‘Put the lights off! Bloody prostitute! Go inside or we will shoot you!’ shouted one of the men pointing his gun at her.
Bilal mustered the strength to get up. He staggered to the gate and pulled the keys from his pocket. He opened the gate to see a posse of uniformed men with loaded guns standing outside. Gun barrels pointed in his direction. One of the men said, ‘Come with us, mother-fucker!’
They bundled him into one of the jeeps that had been parked a few meters away. After a short ride, they reached another neighborhood in the village. Bilal could see that a ‘Cordon and Search Operation’ was ongoing. There were uniformed men spread out like ants across the neighborhood. A large searchlight mounted on an armored truck was shining its light on a row of three houses in a single compound at the end of the street. Barbed wire had blocked access to the street and another armored truck was parked a few meters away, blocking another street that led to the main road of the village.
‘Take this phone with you,’ said one of the men in black. ‘Dial this number and video-call us. Keep the flashlight on. Mother-fucker if you don’t do it right, we will shoot you! Go to each room of the house and show us what is inside. One mistake and we will kill you.’
Bilal dialed the number, it was answered. He put the phone flashlight on, and with the phone in his hand, he entered the compound and walked to the house. As he entered the house, it crossed his mind that if there were armed rebels in the house, they might just shoot him. There was no way they could tell who Bilal was, and from the collective experiences of his lifetime, he knew that the rebels did not kill innocent civilians. The only way to protect himself was for him to shout that he was a local.
‘I am a villager. I am a villager. I am from this village,’ he kept saying in the local language, loud enough for anyone in the emptied house to hear.
He had not been to this house before. But he quickly understood the layout as he stood in the lobby. A large room to the right, a smaller room adjacent, then the common washroom and bathroom of the ground floor, and the kitchen and drawing room on the left. He started from the right, flashlight on, and hands sweating. He then changed hands to dry the phone on the back of his pajamas and rub the sweat off his palms. His mouth was still dry. He kept swallowing spit. How do you search a home? He kept thinking. The doors were open. The Uniformed Man in black had asked him to keep all doors and windows open after he completed his search. Bilal went into the drawing-room, phone flashlight pointing in all directions, he drew the curtains and opened the windows. There was no one in the room. In this way he searched the ground floor and the first floor above, entering each room, shouting that he was a local, and keeping all the doors and windows open and the curtains drawn. When he finished the first floor, he went up to the attic and found it locked. In their hurry to evacuate their home late at night, the family had forgotten to leave the attic door open. Bilal tried to prize open the lock but could not. He found a metal pipe lying on the floor and started breaking the lock open. The padlock did not break, but the latch did, and he managed to enter the attic that smelled of dried mud and straw and dust. Sheets covered large trunks that held bedding. He lifted all the sheets in front of him. The dust choked him, and he coughed a few times. When he was sure there was no one in the three-story house, he went down the stairs and out the front door, walking back to the gate as fast he could to inform the uniformed men that his mission was complete.
As he stepped out, he was immediately punched in the face and beaten up by two of the men. Thrown to the ground, he was kicked in the back. He kept asking, ‘What happened? What happened? What did I do? The house is empty!’
‘Mother-fucker!’ they shouted. ‘You left a window closed. Go and open it and leave it open.’
‘Which window? I kept them all open.’
‘Trying to act smart won’t get you anywhere,’ said one of the men who had grabbed him at the neck and pushed him against the wall while two others had their guns pointed at him. ‘Go, open it.’
Bilal picked up the phone, and turned the flashlight on. By some stroke of luck, it was still working. He went in and saw the closed window. It was the window of a bedroom on the first floor. It must have shut on its own, he thought. He distinctly remembered opening it. He made his way up the stairs and as he turned for the second flight, he realised he was not shouting anymore. Gathering his strength again, he started shouting that he was a local villager and not a uniformed man. As he opened his mouth, he could feel the taste of blood on his tongue. A drop of blood fell across his stubbled chin. He could feel another drop rest above his right eye and start to dry. His nose was filled with the smell of fresh blood. He did not stop for too long but went up to the room to open the window. After opening it wide and locking the stopper, he retraced his steps as fast as he could and reached the gate. This time he was not met with any blows. He was asked to sit on the road as the men gathered their equipment and started to file into the house for the search.
An hour later, the search was called off. There was no one in the house.
Bilal was left lying in a pool of blood by the roadside. The neighbors, whose house it was, picked him up and bundled him in their car to take him home. One of the neighbors’ sons was in school with Bilal and recognised him. At home, he was met with cries and tears as his face was covered in blood and dirt. He was given a quick wash. He realised that he could not open his right eye, one of his teeth was loose, and his gums were bleeding. He spat fresh blood. He felt his head lighten and he collapsed onto the floor of the kitchen.
When he woke up, he was in a hospital in Srinagar. He had undergone surgery to remove a clot in his brain that had resulted from the severe beating. He could not move his left leg. It would take months of rehabilitation for him to be able to move his leg well enough to walk.
In a few minutes of merciless, needless, unprovoked, beating, the Uniformed Men had ruined his career as a footballer.
After a year of rehabilitation and exercise, Bilal was able to walk without support. He could not run and was not able to ride a motorbike. He was unable to sleep at night and slept with the door open. Often, he would ask his sister to sleep with him, as he feared sleeping alone. He would stare at the ceiling for hours, day and night. His appearance became that of a disheveled tramp as he, the once-dashing football player, was reduced to a handicapped mass of skin and bones. The bank transferred him to a local branch in the village. He started working. His sister would drop him on her scooter, the process of seating him on the pillion taking minutes of adjustment and re-adjustment.
Out of concern for his mental health and loneliness, Bilal’s family started looking for a bride for him. The matchmaker brought a few suggestions. One of them interested Bilal.
After taking due permission, the two of them met at the bank. Her name was Posha. Instantly, Bilal took a liking for her. As he would later tell his friends, ‘You can set yourself standards of height, weight, eye-color, hair-color, and face, and tell yourself that you will marry a fairy, but when that woman with whom the Heavens have ordained you to spend your life with walks in, you know it is her, and those standards become immaterial.’ They talked for a few minutes. Bilal asked for Posha’s number. In the evening he sent her the first message, ‘Hi.’
They were married six months later, wedded in the loud, ostentatious style of weddings that were the norm in the village. It was when they spend their first minutes in the bedroom that they realized that their married life’s challenges had only just begun.
Bilal was from a generation that did not need any introduction to bedroom action. The access to the internet and his travels with testosterone-fuelled footballers meant that he knew enough about how children were made.
Nothing had prepared him for what happened that night.
As they undressed for the first time in each other’s presence, looking at each other with shy eyes, Bilal could feel changes in his body taking place, reassuring him and his newlywed wife that things were going according to the plan. Except, they did not. As they lay in bed, Bilal heard a thud, that sounded like a knock, emanating from somewhere in the house. He stopped what he was doing. She looked at him and asked, ‘Are you alright my dear?’
Bilal, now distracted, his eyes wide open in fear, whispered in her ear, ‘Maybe they are coming again?’
‘Who?’ she asked.
‘The men in uniform.’
Bilal could see her look deep into his eyes as she was trying to understand his pain.
‘They are not coming, my Life, my dear. No one is coming, someone must have dropped something on the floor downstairs.’
Bilal readjusted himself and brought his finger to her lips.
‘Shhh. They can hear you.’
She kept quiet. She probably knew about the stress trauma caused. Everyone in the Valley had their nightmarish stories to tell about the infernal midnight knocks and beatings.
After a while, Bilal tried again, but his mind was now elsewhere. He went back to the day when he was beaten up by the men in uniform, and left by the roadside, bleeding and covered in dirt. His eyes could only see a uniformed man in black in front of him. Bilal felt his heart race, breaths quicken, and beads of sweat form on his forehead. He looked away from the loving gaze of his wife. The fear he dreaded had come into his bedroom. In his most vulnerable state, with a new bride, next to him, he was afraid of what tragedy would befall him if the Uniformed Men would knock at the gate. Would he be asked to remain undressed? Would they poke fun at him? What if they knock when she is not properly dressed? Would his wife be given time to dress? Was that deviant dog of a man who hit his head looking at them through the window? Maybe he is.
Bilal got up to check the window. The curtains, embroidered in a modern impression of flowers, leaves, and almonds, were drawn shut. He drew a curtain open a crack, just enough to peep outside. He could not see anything move and the lights were out. He could hear the dogs barking, fighting over scraps of food leftover from the feast. He came back to bed. She was waiting for him, her patient eyes had followed him, and he could see that she longed for him. It made him feel better.
As they tried again, Bilal, just for a split second, allowed his thoughts to stray from his wife’s face and his mind’s eye could only see the face of a man in a dark mask with a skull painted on it. He stopped, startled at the image in his mind, and turned to lay on his back, staring at the dull yellow ceiling above him. He could feel her eyes on him. ‘What are you thinking about?’ Posha asked
‘I think we should rest; we are both very tired.’ Bilal told her, kissing her forehead. The memory of the scent of Henna in her hair would be Bilal’s forever. They held each other. She slept. Bilal stayed awake, fretful, falling in and out of sleep. Their first night together did not end in the bliss he had dreamt of.
In the morning, he awoke to the sounds of the many relatives who had stayed for the wedding, getting up and starting the preparations for the day. Another feast had been scheduled and guests were expected. Posha was awake and getting dressed next to the mirror. He got up and went over to kiss her.
‘You are looking beautiful,’ he said.
At that moment, a bolt of pain went through him as he realised that Posha must have felt unappreciated after what transpired between them in their first night together. She did not say anything. Had she been taught to be patient with such a turn of events? He did not know. Their earlier conversations had never touched upon this subject.
In the afternoon Bilal tried to get close to her but was interrupted by a phone call. Sweating, panting, and struggling, Bilal took the call. It was from an insurance company. By the time the call was over it was time to get dressed for the evening. His frustration began to rise and he could sense the edginess inside him.
Later in the night, when it was dark and quiet, and the lights were out, Bilal delicately approached Posha again. As he touched her hand, his mind out of nowhere returned to the night when he was dragged, beaten and his sporting career was cut short. He began to tremble with anxiety. His palms, as they held her close, became sweaty and slippery. Posha appeared taken aback, but she composed herself. She held him and covered him with a blanket. They both fell asleep soon after.
The pattern would repeat itself, each night thereafter. Days passed. They made a trip to Posha’s parents’ home a week later. There, upon seeing the newly furnished and scented room, decorated with flowers, and a lilac lace curtain that hung from the ceiling around the bed, Bilal thought he may be able to capture some elusive wedding bliss. But once again he fell into the swamp of memories of the night he was beaten.
That night his bride told him that he should consult a doctor.
Bilal accompanied by Posha went to Srinagar to see a specialist. As he narrated his story to the sympathetic doctor, Bilal started crying. It took a few minutes before he calmed down and became coherent. The doctor, after examining him, gave him a clean chit of health, prescribed some medications, and asked him to come back after a few weeks with the ‘good news.’
But the ‘good news’ would elude the couple.
They tried for three months to get some ‘good news.’ It did not come.
Posha told him she wanted to be alone and left for her parents’ home. Most of Bilal’s relatives thought it was because she was expecting a child, and as was the custom, she would go to her parents’ home to rest and be taken care of until the delivery.
Bilal was distraught and in despair. He had counted twenty-eight attempts in three months. All had failed. He now also felt dread each time he would think about the act, scared of the moment he would be before her, all manly and strong, and yet unable to achieve the bliss they both needed. He knew she had been patient, caring, and loving towards him, and had not discussed the matter with anyone else, but he also knew that societal pressures would come to bear on them if they were unable to have a child. And if anyone would find out the reason for that, Bilal felt he would be the subject of dinner-time gossip and the butt of his friends’ jokes. Each day he would go to work he would feel a certain emptiness about himself. Was he a man anymore? Did he have it in him to be a husband? How long before she breaks down? The endless stream of questions inside his mind began to tax him. He withdrew from the family and started spending time on his own, alone in his room, trying to figure a way out of the mess his life had become. The patchy internet, often disconnected for preserving law-and-order in the hinterlands, did not help him much. He was unable to find solace in stories of other men like him. Many, as evidenced by the stories available, had given up on ‘that’ aspect of life, and had taken to one of two extremes to cope, either recreational drugs or deep prayer. He wanted neither.
One morning, six months after they were married, Bilal awoke to the repeated vibrations of his mobile phone. It was humming against the nightstand, and he noticed Posha was calling. By the time he opened his eyes wide enough to swipe the answer button, the phone had disconnected. He then saw that she had made eight calls before this one. He woke up with a start and quickly dialed back.
‘It’s grandma. She is sick. We have taken her to the city,’ she said.
‘She vomited many times last night we got scared and brought her to hospital. The doctor says she needs surgery. Can you come?’
Bilal called a friend who had a car. His friend drove him to the hospital where Posha’s grandmother was admitted. He had not seen Posha for three months. He was aching to see her, but his self-doubt had stopped him from calling her and asking her to come back home. He had no intention of explaining the unfulfilled nights of passion to her. He had exercised in the three months they were apart, and his leg was getting better. Slowly, he had gained the strength to walk fast and jog a little in his garden every day. He was seeing her again and he felt a warm emotion rise deep within.
The journey took an hour, to Bilal it felt longer. He relived the moments of their relationship. Their first meeting, their first lunch together, the day she went shopping in the city and asked him to come and be with her and her friend. And then his mind came swiveling back to the first night, and the many following nights that they had spent together in the first three months of their marriage. For him, the marriage was unborn, and he realised that this unborn union either had to be birthed or had to be left to die. He tried to keep it out of his mind as they approached the hospital.
He got out of the car and walked in.
Posha was in room 111 with her mother and father. Her grandmother had been wheeled into surgery. He greeted all of them and took a seat on the couch. She offered him some tea, which he was desperate to have. As she came near, cup in hand, brimming with tea, he caught a glimpse of her face, and a wave of joy spread through him. He felt warm and loved and no longer alone. She had looked at him with longingness and love, and it was enough for him to know that the woman he had married stood beside him despite their troubles. It was all he needed. Bilal felt young and energetic.
An hour later, grandmother was wheeled back. A ruptured appendix needed surgery, and the grandmother, all of sixty-five or seventy years, no one knew for sure, was strong enough to tolerate it. She was alert and conscious and greeted Bilal with respect and fondness.
The day passed. Bilal stayed back. Posha asked him where he would like to spend the night. She had relatives in the city where he could stay for the night if he did not want to go back home.
‘I want to be here with you,’ Bilal told her.
‘Really?’ she smiled. Bilal felt she had missed him.
Her parents left. It was past ten o’clock when the nurses came for the last injection of the night. They started a new intravenous drip which would last a few hours. Her grandmother was now fast asleep. Bilal had had dinner and changed into a pajama and his favorite, lucky, black, T-shirt, which he wore whenever he wished for some good fortune. He looked at her as she was tying her hair and adjusting her dress. He had missed her. She was looking beautiful. Was it the longing? Was it the desire? Was it the time they spent away? He kept thinking. He felt an internal wave take control of him as he found himself, unconsciously, taking steps towards her.
He grabbed her hands and kissed her. A deep kiss on her lips that sent shockwaves through her body. He knew what he was going to do next.
The couch was too small for both of them to be on it at one time. The armchair was out of the question too. That left the floor. Cold, ceramic, white, hospital floor tiles were not the most inviting. Bilal looked around for a blanket. He found one and put it on the floor. He walked to the door and bolted it and came back to see Posha lying down on the blanket. She was cold. He looked around for something to cover her with. A blanket was around the grandmother. He stepped close to the bed and gently took it off her. He was sure grandmother would not mind and covered her with a sheet. He covered his wife with the blanket and joined her a few seconds later.
He did not need an invitation anymore.
There, on the cold floor of a frigid hospital, far away from home, and with no Uniformed Man insight to knock at his door at midnight and beat him up, Bilal breathed again, like a man. It was their twenty-ninth attempt.
A few minutes later, breathless and sweating, as he took off the blanket, he cast a glance at his wife’s grandmother, still asleep, blissfully unaware of what happened two feet from her. In his heart, he thanked her for falling sick and allowing him to spend time with Posha away from the suffocation that his home and the village had become. He got up, his shirt still on, and made his way to the bathroom. He put on the light and stood in front of the basin and saw his reflection in the mirror. He read the lines printed on his T-shirt and smiled. Then he took it off and hung it on the peg so he could see the lines, written in English, as he bathed.
‘Apna Time Aayega,’ his T-shirt said.
‘My time will come.’
His time had come.
I met Bilal at the clinic a year after their first visit to my clinic. He was accompanying his father-in-law. By then he had had a daughter whom they had named Amina.
Dr. O practices medicine in Kashmir