Arif Ayaz Parrey
At first glance, there was nothing ordinary about Roqsaan. Her skin had the sheen of February snow and her eyes were winter nights. She had the attitude of Chilla-i-Kalaan and a pout which warmed men’s hearts like the sun must in Chilla-i-Kalaan, leaving them with an afterglow of sin and futility, conquering them without finality as Indian Army had conquered Kashmir a quarter of a century before she was born. But, perhaps, she never let herself forget her mother’s sister’s angry words, “Anybody named Roqsaan always ends up having seven husbands. ” She was uneasy about her name and displayed a preference for her nickname, Laila. She thought it suited the mystery in her eyes more.
In the autumn of 96, she married Shabir Ahmed. Her husband had been a mujahid before his gun had jammed during an encounter and he was captured by one or the other Indian paramilitary force. Having been locked up in various prisons for more than four years he was finally released when the doctors assessed that his right leg would no longer heal. After his release, his family sold most of their land and set up an electronics goods shop for him. Business was decent enough but most of the profits were swallowed by Ikhwaanis in cash and kind. Shabir had frequent altercations with them and obtained more than one sound beating. His family thought marriage would souse the last remainders of his hard attitude. Laila was a young, beautiful, hard-working girl who did not have the best of reputations but was just the right rock to grind Shabir’s defiance.
Laila’s first response to the marriage proposal was lukewarm. She did not like the sound of the term “former militant”. “Could one be a former woman? ” She wondered aloud in front of her best friend Saima. “Could one even be a former beauty? ” Saima rejoined. They went to meet Shabir discreetly. Laila discovered the perpetual wetness in his eyes, which even sparkled from certain angles, his disarming smile, the restless pitter-patter of his conversation and his awkward, almost funny gait.
Almost a year had passed after their marriage when Laila finally shared her predicament with Saima. Shabir Ahmed had been a wonderful husband and loved her like an early morning dream. They had a lot in common, stubbornness, immense love for children, an irresistible un-Kosher urge to walk in the rain and an insatiable appetite for turnips. But he had been unable to have sex with her. She had tried everything, demureness and modesty, curiosity and participation, enthusiasm and passion, and, finally, control and carefreeness. Nothing worked. As a matter of fact, Shabir had started to get irritated even more rapidly than before, which was tolerated at home but at the shop he was thrashed many times by the Ikhwaanis as well as Indian soldiers from the nearby camp. Saima told her to have patience; even her husband had “erection issues” every now and then. Laila raised a quizzical brow and ribbed her heartily for using the curious phrase. They recollected several innuendos of their maiden days. When they had sobered down, Saima told Laila that it might help if Laila spend more time with Shabir. She suggested Laila offer assistance at the shop.
Shabir frowned on the suggestion. He did not need any assistance at the shop. At any rate, Laila had enough work at home and he could not burden her with more. Laila got her parents and in-laws involved in the debate. Shabir had no say in the final decision that Laila was to lend a hand at the shop. His fiery opposition was dismissed as a typical hot-headed antic.
It took only a few weeks to make it clear that Laila’s presence in the shop was not the best of ideas. The Ikhwaanis and the soldiers looked at her as if she were another electronic item they could fiddle with. Shabir used to interrupt their ogling rudely. He was asked to come over to the army camp frequently. It was clear the arrangement could not last.
One day, he closed the shop after the Asr and took Laila to the nearby Mughal Gardens. Laila was delighted by the prospect of an excursion but something in the way Shabir was walking quietly and almost straight told her that everything was not right. So she walked wordlessly beside him, trying hard to conceal her glee. He bought some nadir-monji near the entrance. They settled down behind a Chinar tree and the guards noticed Shabir lying down with his head on Laila’s lap. After a while, he sat up and they started to have a conversation which soon twirled into a fight. The shouting could be heard from the entrance. Presently, one of the guards was sent up to quietly ask them to leave.
Things began to unravel between the two of them very fast after that. Laila continued to work in the shop but her attitude changed. She became less hostile towards the Ikhwaanis and the soldiers. They began to crowd the shop. Her behavior towards Bakhtawar, the tall handsome Ikhwaan commander, was almost friendly. Shabir watched in silence, helplessly. Most of the time, he regretted having the conversation in the garden with Laila. If he had suicidal or murderous thoughts, he choose neither to act on them nor to share them with anybody. Bakhtawar, in turn, became less malevolent towards Shabir and so did his men. Laila began to excuse herself from the shop for this reason or that. Gossip, scared and waiflike, sought Shabir’s ears every now and then. Laila was meeting Bakhtawar frequently at places she should not. When Shabir alluded to it in bedtime conversations, Laila denied it categorically but her eyes told a different story. Shabir was more than a little frightened by the look in her eyes.
A few months later, Bakhtawar took Laila to meet Major Sushil Deshpande in the nearby camp on Diwali. When Bakhtawar introduced her, she corrected him. Her name was Roqsaana, not Laila. The Major wanted to know what it meant. She told him it means an untamed dancer. The Major had to turn away his gaze. Afterwards, Laila told the Major how much she loved his moustache.
Autumn gave way to winter; winter to spring and it became clear that both Bakhtawar and the Major had fallen in love with Laila. Bakhtawar could not bear the thought of sharing Laila. He tortured her with cigarette butts. She earnestly sweared in his name that she had nothing to do with the Major even though he was pursuing her madly and threatening to harm her family. Bakhtawar told her he did not trust her. She ridiculed him and retorted that deep down he knew she was as pure as February snow but he did not want to trust her because he was afraid of the Major. “After all, ” She said scornfully, “You are just a factotum. A glorified errand boy of the Indian State. ” He thrashed her to his heart’s content.
The following Friday, she went to see the Major. He was furious on seeing her condition. He demanded to know who had done it to her. She told him about Bakhtawar. He banged his fist into a table. “That ass-licking son-of-a-bitch. I’ll teach him a lesson he will never forget. ”
“Please do not take any step in haste, Sushilji. ” Laila pleaded. “Even if I’m not here, my family will always be vulnerable. Bakhtawar is a local and he has a vast network at this place. ” She let a moment pass as a little bit of anger crept into her voice. “People like him are animals. I can’t understand why the government feeds them at all. ”
The Major was concentrating on a spot on the table. “What do you suggest we do? ” He asked after a pause.
Laila smiled and explained. “We have to plan this carefully. I suggest you take a vacation on the pretext of some emergency arising at home. Stay away for a week and come back next Sunday night to pick me up. Spread a rumour that unidentified gunmen kidnapped me. I have a reputation; people will believe the militants might have abducted me. Then you can arrange for my stay somewhere and come back in another week’s time, resume your duties and get yourself transferred to some other place as soon as possible and none the wiser. ” Laila spoke softly but quickly. The Major kept nodding as his face brightened. Finally, an umbrella smile opened on his face.
“You are a genius, Roqsaana. I’m so lucky to have you. ”
“No, I’m lucky. ” Laila said, as she walked behind the Major. She put her arms around his neck and caressed his moustache.
“But if I do not express regret and shock over your kidnapping, people might suspect something. ” The Major spoke, half in jest but as if from a distance.
“Then feign shock and anger as much as you can. Pick up Bakhtawar and spank him well for good measure. You will have your revenge and the suspicion will vanish too. ” Laila giggled. “But first, you must meet Bakhtawar and tell him that I have no interest in you; that I have resisted all advances from you. ”
“You have got every angle covered, darling. ” The Major was ecstatic. It was a fool-proof plan. So he pretended to go back home to attend an emergency. He had Bakhtawar see him off at the airport. He came to pick up Laila the next Sunday. She had told him to wait in the Mughal Gardens behind a particular Chinar tree. He was wearing a headscarf which almost masked his face. When he heard the sound of approaching footsteps, he smiled and got up.
A total of three gun-shots were fired. The smile froze on his face. Subsequently, a letter informed his family in Maharashtra that their son had died in a secret operation. He had fought valiantly, the letter added, almost as an afterthought.
Two days after Major Sushil Deshpande’s death, Bakhtawar’s badly mutilated corpse was recovered from a nearby stream. His penis and scrotum had been cut and shoved into his mouth. There were long slashes down his chest and buttocks and his nose was missing. The papers reported that a prominent social activist and civil society leader had been brutally murdered by unidentified elements.
In those days newspapers only reached the place in the evening. Shabir had already sat down for dinner when one of the younger boys from the neighbourhood brought him a paper. When he saw Bakhtawar’s two pictures on page six, with and without a nose, he stared at Laila in a way that she had to come and take a look. Shabir tried hard but could not discern a change in her expression.
“You are a whore. ” He told her eventually, almost choking on the rice in his mouth.
“Shabira, how many times have I told you not to dirty your tongue with filthy words. Here, have some more turnips. Today, they have turned out just crazy! ” She said, dropping another ladle of the thick turnip paste into his plate.
They settled down at a secluded spot behind a Chinar tree. The nadir-monji were delicious. Javed Ahmed, who was with Shabir in the Tanzeem and then the jail, had told him that the best way to tell Laila about the problem was by pretending to be asleep. “Javeda, you know that once I get into bed, I fall asleep quickly. I’ll not be able to pretend, I will really sleep. ”
Despite himself, Javed had let out a chuckle. “Then take Laila somewhere outdoors and pretend to sleep there. ”
Shabir had liked the idea. So, now he was asking Laila whether he could lie down on her lap. She smiled and said with pleasure. He had closed eyes for a few minutes when he began to mutter something. Laila lowered her face into his. He was saying, “Please Sushilji, you can’t do this to me. I feel like defecating. Please, please. ” He turned in her lap, his chin almost brushing across her face. “Bakhtawar, you are like my brother. I can’t take it anymore. ” He began to gulp and snuffle, “I can’t sit properly. I feel so damp. It is as if a perpetual wetness it entering my body from below. ” Laila wiped her tears so that they would not wake him up.
Soon, he sat up anyways. Laila forced a smile. “How long have I been gone? ” He asked.
“Not for long. ”
He rubbed his eyes red. “I am perpetually tired these days. ” The shadow of silence lengthened over them. Several times, Laila attempted to speak but the words vanished before she could utter them. After what seemed like an eternity, she asked, “Is there anything you want to tell me? ”
“Yes, please stop coming to the shop. ”
Laila shook her head, more in disappointment than in disagreement. “Why? Tell me the real reason why you don’t want me to be present in the shop and I promise I’ll consider it. ”
“You want to know the real reason? Well, I don’t like how the motherfucking bastards ogle at you. ”
“Don’t dirty your tongue, Shabira. ” She chided, then added softly, “Is that the whole reason? ”
“Yes. ” Shabir looked at her nervously.
“No, I mean is there any secret you want to share? ”
“There are no secrets between us. ”
Laila masticated the next sentence in her mouth, “Any chance my mujahid is fighting some battle alone in his dreams? ”
Shabir glared at her with his blood-shot eyes. He picked up a blade of grass and began to cut other blades in half with it. “We have to fight alone. Always. That is the one lesson life has taught me. Even weapons are not faithful. They fail you when you need them the most. ”
“Shabir, I’m your wife. ”
“Do you want me to commit suicide? ” Shabir snapped.
Laila trained her eyes on his.
At that point, they started to shout at each other. The descending darkness amplified their screaming. When a guard cleared his throat in their vicinity, they got up and left.
For Adil Sheikh
Arif Ayaz Parrey is a writer based in Kashmir.