Long back in early nineties there used to be a deserted cone shaped piece of land on the backside of our village mosque. Apart from the mosque, its two other sides were marked out by a road and an apple orchard. This piece of land was used for a single purpose throughout the year except winters. Every morning the villagers drove and assembled their cattle there. People from all age groups, who drove the cattle there, spread like a wall along the road and watched bull fights which sometimes ended up injuring a pedestrian or a spectator on the road or damaging a couple of apple trees inside the garden. This bangarang would continue until the typical Rahman Kak walked out of his house with a grin of disacknowledgement of everything around on his face, a large stick cut to perfect size and design with a knife swinging to and fro in his right hand. He would strangely whistle the agitated cattle herd to discipline and a subtle readiness to leave for a nearby grass meadow.
Rahman Kak was in his early sixties, he told me once during one of our usual conversations in the ancient willow woods that stood as a majestic bulwark on one side of the grass meadow. He wore a single, old, ash coloured Salwar Kameez throughout the sultry summers. You would never see him without a discoloured white cap on his small drooping head. One would doubt he never took it off even during the sleep. Time had engraved three deep furrows on his forehead. Sometimes the dust accumulated in the furrows, while walking behind the herd, could be seen dripping down with sweat in summer heat. He looked thin, weak and wiry yet full of energy. His small, searching teary eyes sunk deep in their sockets. You must be lying to me if you say you saw him smiling even once. You might have seen him fighting with every single villager over some cattle dispute but you might never have seen a smile on the familiar barren cheeks of his face. His shoulders buckled backwards and during many of his verbal tiffs with villagers, he would disdainfully raise his forward drooping head, put the stick on his shoulders and hold it with both hands and speak an unbroken volley of spitefully unintelligible words. One only understood him towards the close of his pejorative verbal barrage when he would mention his village-vide popular words, “I can’t drop your cattle at your door step every day. Do you think I am a school-bus driver? You just can’t take care of one or two cattle. I have to take care of a full herd”.
Every morning there used to be a spectacle behind that mosque. As soon as two angry bulls picked a fight amidst the herd, the whole throng of people watching would go bonkers. Cries and abuses and whistles and laughters would excite the bulls crazy. One day when two bulls pushed and dragged each other into the nearby orchard and damaged the crops as well as a couple of apple trees, a woman, then working in the field, shouted a volley of expletives at the owners of the fighting bulls and the intemperate crowd. She was absolutely distraught. All her hard work on the planting of a variety of little saplings was destroyed and, therefore, nobody took her very explicit abuses seriously.
Rahman Kak had something magical about his dealing with the cattle. With his single whistle the fuming rage of the fighting bulls would subside, the whole herd would get conscious of a supreme presence and ready to leave for the grass meadow. Sometimes, as he walked behind the crowd of more than half a thousand cattle, he would be completely invisible as thick swirls of dust would cocoon his tiny appearance all over. The cattle smell and the dust didn’t trouble him much. Nobody in the village had ever seen him visiting a hospital for check up. I sometimes wondered that the dust might have blocked his nostrils or gathered layers about his lungs. Used to the endurance of summer heat, he grazed the cattle in that meadow throughout the day. But he always preferred to have his lunch in the shade of willow trees. Every day before lunch, he watered his cattle from a stream that flowed on upper side of the grass meadow. It was during one of his lunches in the woods that I talked to Rahman Kak for the first time.
When I had nothing important to do back home or elsewhere to go, I would take a book and walk into the woods. It was such a surreal, fascinating place to read a book that even Emil Cioran’s explosively intransigent books on the philosophy of despair, nihilism and meaninglessness of human rationality would evoke a range of different meaningful interpretations. The distant hills on all sides looked ever closer and engulfed the meadow as if the only place on earth. The thin mild breeze cooed all day long through the restless willow branches. No season would disrupt the arrival of new birds there. All seasons would bring a different colourful variety of birds. Even the long unrelenting winters couldn’t seize the inexorable sonorous bird chirp. Now that I was an old, almost one and a half decade, visitor to this place, the shape and texture of every single willow in woods was drawn on the walls of my soul. Sometimes, when I was so anxious to speak and no one around, I imagined these willows as my patiently eager audience and read unto them the charged up interpretations of different famous passages from literary classics like the calamitous soliloquies from King Lear and the abounding-in-vitality Whitman’s Song of Myself.
It was one scorching summer day, the sun shone brightly over the meadow when I had a chance to talk to Rahman Kak a little longer than usual. It was after the lunch served to him by his poor, old, raddled wife under the reviving shade of a willow bower. She carried the lunch every day in a wickerwork receptacle on her head all the way from village to the grass meadow. Whenever she noticed me there in the trees, she would politely invite me for lunch. That day as I was already busy under that willow bower – reading an old book on German Idealism that I had picked from a disarrayed pile of books from Sunday Market in Srinagar in just twenty rupees – I had an opportunity to strike a conversation with Rahman Kak. He actually never liked to converse with any villager.
He looked gaunt but he was very agile. The bones beneath his skin moved very fast. He was quite nippy with the lunch, drank all the curd from a small clay bowl in a single breath. After the lunch his wife, as usual, walked into the woods to collect a faggot of dry birches to be burnt back home in the clay hearth to cook food. And in the meanwhile I asked a possibly irritating or inappropriate question to Rahman Kak to start the conversation.
‘This place has an amazing ambience. It would be so gratifying praying in the shade of trees away from the villagers. Tell me Rahman Kak, do you pray here?’
‘No, I don’t. I have already many other things occupying my mind all the time that I hardly get time to think about Namaz. Or maybe I have grown habitual of not praying’, came the blunt reply from Rahman Kak as he dragged himself backwards to rest his back against the rough willow bark. He prepared his hookah and puffed thick clouds of smoke. His small, deep undefeated eyes unwaveringly focussed on the burning tobacco. Nothing he said seemed to bother him ever.
‘When it is good at the other end, one should change his habit. One should never wait or stop working on the unlearning of bad habits.’ I said just to keep the conversation alive.
‘Praying, indeed, is a good habit. It is good otherwise also. But if you have to perform a good for all your life, you need to make it your habit first. And habit is such a cruel thing. It needs a monstrous effort or an event of serious tragic nature to happen to you to unlearn one habit and relearn another.’
‘Do you mean it needs a serious tragedy to happen to you to start with a new habit of offering Namaz?’
‘It does. There is actually no scope left for any greater tragedy to happen to me except the death of my faithful wife. It will bring me unbearable suffering. I will just die of the fear of her never coming here to serve me lunch. And maybe I will then learn to pray for her. However, I would love both of us die together someday about this place so that no one should suffer in separation of the other.’ It was poignant and painful to hear this but he sounded more rational than emotional while saying this.
‘I heard you had a very dirty verbal altercation with Karim Kak last evening over some cattle dispute. Why did that happen?’ I said deliberately to change the course of our conversation.
‘See, a number of non-serious tragedies happen to me on daily basis and I can’t change my habits for them. The worst kind of tragedy that ever happened to me is the bloody stupidity of the villagers. They think I am a school bus-driver and should drop their cattle at their door step. Yesterday Karim’s cow has damaged something in his neighbour’s vegetable field and the blame, as usual, comes on me. This Karim is such a gifted idiot. Even if angels come to teach him, he will neither understand nor agree with them. The young calves in this herd are absolutely saner than him.’ Rahman Kak’s lampoon was always humorous, boisterous and pungent.
‘This recurring irritating behaviour of the villagers must also be some kind of a collective habit. Does this need anything greater than a tragedy to change this collective behaviour of the villagers?’
‘Nothing can change them ever. Their mentality is like a hard crooked wood which no carpenter can set straight. They say a dog’s tail never straightens. And yes, if I wish to change the habits of my cattle I can with ease’. As the old man said this, he curled his right index finger, put it in his mouth and whistled hard to warn his cattle not to wander any further.
‘Have you ever done any such thing to your cattle? And yes, they seem to obey you so well?’
‘Yes, I did when I would have been roughly of your age in the same trees. It is like a story but I don’t know whether you are interested to listen to my story’.
‘Go on Rahman Kak. I will be all ears to the end.’
‘Well, can you see that enormous bulwark of poplars on the farthest side of the meadow? It was not there when I drove the cattle to this place for the first time decades ago. Beyond that bulwark stretches out a larger meadow than this. The cattle of our neighbouring village grazed there. A small canal dug many years before about the present poplar wall marked the dividing line between our meadows. Our cattle never trespassed into each other’s territory. Since there was no water there, the caretaker would bring his cattle everyday about lunch time and water them from the stream on our side. Everyday about lunch the other flock passed close by my flock.
‘On one unlucky day a large black brawny bull with long curled horns from the other flock ran into my flock and created such a mayhem. My confused cattle ran in all directions. The bull had actually spotted a cow. As it ran after the cow, I, badly agitated, ran after the bull. In that moment of rage and frustration I remember tearing away my large stiff stick on the back of that bull. Somehow, finally, I managed to chase the bull away from my flock. But I remember the bull turning back and looking at me with such a fury of hell in its eyes. It still appears so clear to my eyes as if it had happened just a day ago.
‘The next day was a day of deadly surprise for me. As usual, when the other flock passed by, the same bull didn’t run after any cow. Noticing me, it jumped out of the flock and ran after me instead. Since I was not old then, I ran like a deer into the trees to avoid the fiery spell of hits and strikes of this crazy monster. The bull would have simply killed me that day had not the idea of climbing up a tree struck my mind in time. I can still clearly visualize the agonized bull tearing the soil away with his horns and front legs beneath the tree.
‘Hardly ever could have I imagined that this would turn into the miserable cause of my routine suffering. The bull ran after me every day and I knew someday I will be killed if I failed to climb the tree in time. One day I had a severe verbal banter with the caretaker of the flock, but he still didn’t agree to keep this death-dealing creature at home.
‘This slowly developed into a deadly habit of the bull. Every night before going off to sleep I would mull over a number of strategies to teach a lesson to this arrogant animal.
‘Well, finally one night I hit upon an idea. The next day I took help from a few children, who had come to play cricket there, to execute my idea. With their help I rolled a big stone to the tree I climbed everyday for life. It was not really easy to place and fix the stone between two large branches of the tree.
‘That day I took my revenge. It was for the first time I was not worried about the bull running after me. I waited on the edge of my herd to help the bull spot me early. Finally, when I climbed up the tree, the bull, as usual, spilled a lot soil in frustration under the tree. Placing myself in a comfortable position I dropped the stone right on the bull’s head. There was a thud. I could see the bull’s curled horns breaking and dropping on earth. It looked as if the bull fainted but it didn’t. Before actually realizing the pain after the brutal impact and that something on its head was broken, the bull swivelled about the tree one or two times. Fearing that the attack may get worse, the bull sped away towards its flock.’ At this point Rahman Kak let out a short stifled laughter. He held his stick tightly in his fist and hit the ground two or three times in joy. He prepared his hookah again. The thick swirls of smoke disappeared in the willow foliage but the roaring of the hookah remained. Once again it sent me thinking about his lungs. His eyes shone even brighter. They looked so lively and undefeated that they seemed to mock his aging complexion all the time.
‘Then there was no next day to this incensed creature’s abounding arrogance. Next day when the bull noticed me, it crouched its head amidst the flock and walked in a frightened haste. When I walked closer to arouse the defeated arrogance in the poor creature, it ran away for life like I used to run for life every day.
‘This way I changed the ugly habit of an otherwise beautiful animal, but I can’t change the stinking mentality of my deranged villagers’. Rahman Kak’s ire and revulsion for the villagers who fought him over petty issues had festered into its worst form. May be deep inside his heart he knew that the villagers misbehaved him not because of his improper care of their cattle, but because they thought he was inferior to them.
‘See, my cattle have moved too far. I got to go’, Rahman Kak continued as he dragged himself up with the edge of hookah still in his mouth.
‘You smoke a lot Rahman Kak. You shouldn’t smoke as much’, I said as he was about to walk away.
‘Yes, you must be worried about my lungs, aren’t you? No doubt, I pollute them with a few puffs of smoke now and then, but I have such a vast repository of the purest oxygen here to clean them too. It is all about habits my son; otherwise, I don’t smoke to damage my lungs.’ He left immediately after this with an old unintelligible Kashmiri song on his lips.
Rahman Kak left me with a vivid picture of a memory carved deep in my mind. He may have a number of such stories buried in his chest. But he talked to none. Or is it because he was poor and had no social recognition that nobody ever preferred to listen to him? I don’t know, but I know this is how many good stories are lost.
Years passed. I got admission in a university. The course of my frequent visits to the willows came to an end. When you areaway from a dear place, its fond memories become dearer. I would always imagine myself in the willows with a book, hearing to the musical wheezing breeze, the bird chirp, the bleating of cows and the habitual Whistles of Rahman Kak. Years of distance from Rahman Kak left me sometimes worried about his health. One day I confirmed from my friend that he looked older but still grazed our cattle in that meadow.
Time passed. Now I was in my second semester. Nothing significant happened in my life those days except the mechanical repetition of the reading of some boringly recondite literary stuff. As if the displeasure of repeating this boring routine thing was not enough that one sunny afternoon in late autumn came the saddest news of Rahman Kak’s death in the woods. As soon as I heard this, I left the university to join the funeral prayers. Back home I learnt from my friends that the cattle did not touch the grass that day, many were spotted weeping and some didn’t even return home that night.
Few more years passed. When nothing significant is happening in your life, you never know how time passes. I had completed my masters, secured a government job and worked as a primary school teacher. Kashmir as a political dispute between India and Pakistan worsened every passing day. Rumours and reports of the killing of wanted militants, of the young local boys crossing the borders into Pakistan for armed training, of the arrest and abduction of youth and separatist leaders, of the severity of torture in military camps and prison cells had become the indispensable part of any conversation in the market, in the kitchen, in office, in a school or in a mosque hamam. In our locality a notorious gang of gunmen called ‘Ikhwan’ looted and raped and massacred many who supported Pakistan. It was a time when agencies worked for agencies. With all this began our age of despair and hopelessness.
Two more years of excruciating despair passed. The conflict had now taken everything in its grip. The unrelenting cycle of atrocities inflicted upon the poor villagers by the Ikhwani gunmen never stopped to worsen after its emergence. Nobody dared to venture into the willows. It was now the den of Ikhwani gunmen. All my friends back home had stopped visiting the willows. Nothing saddened me more, not even Rahman Kak’s sad demise or the forceful grabbing of our land by the same gunmen, than waking up one morning to the painful news that all the willows were cut and sold by the notorious Ikhwani commander. Someone who had witnessed the scene had told some villagers later that the meadow looked so helpless and desolate. From Srinagar, in that small, dingy, damp rent room in the basement of a large old building that always smelled of cement and boiling rice, I would sorrowfully imagine the desolate looks of the grass meadow without that ancient majestic wall of willows on one side. It pained to think about this new change, for it slowly snuffed out the beautiful from our lives.
As the forbidding clouds of political uncertainty gathered thick and fast about the firmament of our collective fate, everything underwent a slow process of mutilation, giving way to a new age of political disquiet and state oppression.
Very recently, as if the unsparing brutality of Ikhwan and the mutilation of woods were not enough, the Indian government established a big army camp in one corner of the meadow. Finally, when all my patience was spent, one day I decided to go and see the wreckage of my memories after a long time. I urged one my village friends to accompany me.
On way I thought about all the good time I had spent in the willows. And on reaching there the scene of the enormity of an irrevocable loss almost suffocated me. The land where children played cricket and Rahman Kak grazed our cattle for more than three decades now bruised and bled under the walls of iron and concertina.
Noticing us approaching the camp, a long bearded army man with a large hat almost shading his eyes invisible, ran out of a bunker with a gun in his hands and turned us back, ‘There is no cricket allowed here anymore’.