It was a long wintry night; my soul stealthily stole away from my body into the cold darkness outside and danced with the wanton snow, the envious flakes falling silently on the invisible earth. It was 20th January, 1992 when a sickening fear of war and death had descended upon the valley of Kashmir. With the gun taking over as the sole, impregnable monarch of the valley, it was getting excruciatingly harder to get off to sleep with every passing night. My ailing father would throw the torch light at the big Ajanta clock, hanging from the clay wall between two small windows on his right, over fifty times a night. In the times of crisis and suffering ‘time’ crawls at a snail’s pace whereas, in times of happiness and stability, it runs at a horse’s gallop. In dry wintry nights it would get even worse when the distinct grating roar of the military trucks or the clattering of the heavy boots or the violent barking of dogs was heard around; a cold fear would seep into one’s bones, despondency would eat into one’s soul, and like a wilting autumn leaf would one’s hopes wilt away. But that night it was not the fear of the alien army – stealthily patrolling everywhere – it was the calmness of the night, the romantic and free and unfettered flakes of snow dancing in the darkness outside that kept me awake. The embers of my Kanger (a clay fire-pot varnished with beautiful wickerwork) had burnt into ashes, but I still held it tight to my stomach. I enjoyed fiddling with the warm ashes the way the unseen, unabashed flakes of snow fiddled with my imagination unabashedly. Every passing minute the chimes of the clock got louder and musical. Suddenly a sound of the breaking of a twig was heard; I imagined a snow laden branch of the apricot tree in our kitchen garden sagging low and finally breaking against the load. A dog barked at a distance somewhere; I thought the dog might have lost its way to the kennel. A disturbing screech came from the hencoop in a corner of our kitchen garden; I feared a predator dog or a cat was silently waiting for the prey outside the coop. For a moment I thought to crawl out of the quilt, which I had warmed with my Kanger, open the window and take a look into the darkness. But I couldn’t even stir the quilt; the warmth of your bed in a cold wintry night is such a delicacy. In its deep invisible swathes of darkness, the night ensconced a big beautiful change; nature was busy wearing impeccable white apparel on the beloved earth. Who knew what else happened in the darkness. One would doubt the out-space lover Sky descended down and made love with the beloved Earth. As the warmth of the ashes of my Kanger subsided slowly, the ecstasy and warmth inside my heart to see and touch the snow falling in the darkness intensified. After a strange thought of subtle desperation, I got out of the bed. With my favorite black Phillips torch in my right hand I opened the window and sat on the sill. I looked into the thick entrails of darkness; nothing was visible. I held my left arm out, the cold tender flakes bit my warm hand; a sensation rushed through my veins into my soul. Then I pressed the torch button, a small tunnel of bright silver light ran through the darkness; I saw the wanton snow falling through the tunnel. Darkness cannot be the symbol of oblivion, desolation, backwardness or nonexistence; it is a state where we can find the real light of existence. I never knew for how long I would have stayed there, looking at the snow falling through the tunnel of my torch light. It was again the fear of the gun, the presence of the armed beast that forced me back to me bed.
That night was a peaceful night until the repeated loud strikes at the main gate broke the serene strain of my peaceful imagination. Nobody in the family would have dared to open the gate at that hour of the night. With every strike at the gate a wave of confused thoughts gushed into my mind. A deluge of fear from the darkness broke into my room. I guessed the army was looking for the militants, which they believed were hiding in our home. I guessed some militants had come to hide in our home for that night. I also guessed that the infamous Ikhwani gang had come to plunder my home. As the knocking continued, a panicked courage surged in me. I got up and with one eye I looked through a small hole in the window; I saw two men in long black pheran carrying two bright lanterns in their hands; half of their bodies were hidden behind their large black umbrellas. I gazed and gazed, they struck the gate again and after some time one spoke to another, “They do not want to open the gate. They are afraid that some militants or the army is knocking at the gate. I think we should go and see if Lateef is at home. May be he will tell us something.” They talked in Kashmiri and I recognized the voice at once. He was the brother of my friend Burhan. I opened the window with a bang as they were about to leave. They heard the sound and turned back.
“What happened, Zubair? Is everything fine?” I said as they both looked at me. Half of their long black plastic boots had sunk into the snow. In the bright yellow light of the lantern, I saw the snow silently falling on earth.
“Burhan did not return home today. We are looking for him. Ma is weeping at home. Did you see him during the day? Did he say anything to you?” Zubair replied. I was shocked.
“Wait, I will put on my pheran (a long Kashmiri attire extending below knees). I am coming down.” I wore my pheran, draped the neck and half of my face with a black wooly muffler, put on my father’s long foam Apex shows, and climbed down the wooden stairs carefully without making noise. As I opened the main gate, my father called out from the window, “Where are you going?” A cold sensation ran down my spine. “Burhan has not returned home. Zubair and Aadil are looking for him. I will accompany them to Lateef’s home. I will be back in ten minutes”, I replied.
“Do not go far. It is snowing.” My father added. He was annoyed, but he couldn’t have stopped me in the very presence of Burhan’s two distressed brothers. I closed the gate and left with them. I didn’t look back at my father. I liked my boots crunching the fresh snow and the spray of cold flakes kissing my face.
“Why didn’t he return? Did anybody say anything to him at home or you have repeated that unsavory tiff with him again? ” I said as we walked the snow-draped road. A slush of snow, probably from the willow bower that hung above the road, fell on my head.
“No, nobody fought or said anything to him. Ma told that he wore the new pheran he had brought from the tailor after nun-chai (Kashmiri afternoon tea). He left around that time and did not return after that”, Zubair said while getting closer to adjust me under his umbrella. In the limpid lantern light, I could see our boots scrunching and sinking deep into the soft snow. “Did you see him during the day?” Zubair added.
“Yes, I met him. We talked to each other normally as usual. He looked dapper and happy in his new pheran. I didn’t find anything grody or abnormal about him. He behaved as his usual self.” Burhan had told me something very personal also. He had an appointment that night. He had also informed me that he will return home before 11 o’clock in the night. What bothered me was that it was already past midnight and he had not returned. In early nineties people in Kashmir would lock their gates, put off their lights and get off to sleep before 9 o’clock. Anyone who ventured out after that would only end up landing himself in trouble; sometimes they would beat you only, sometimes maim you mortally, sometimes you disappeared permanently, and sometimes they would kill you brutally. We also were not safe at that hour. Initially, I couldn’t make myself to divulge the whole story, but due to the seriousness and sensitivity of the situation, I felt impelled to narrate it to Zubair. “You know, he told me that he had an appointment with his friend; I mean his girlfriend. He also told me that he will return before eleven o’clock. He should have been home. It is too late now. May be Lateef will give us some more information. Don’t worry, he will be safe.”
“If that is the case then we should move towards the bridge and search him around there instead of disturbing Lateef’s family at this odd time” Zubair suggested.
“But, how can he stay at his girlfriend’s home for so long. He won’t be there. They had to exchange some gifts and letters just. We should better talk to Lateef.”
Burhan was in love with a local girl who lived across the famous wood-bridge of our village; the villagers called it ‘prone kadel’ (old bridge). It was a remarkable architectural expertise built in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It was a calligraphic wonder; Arabic letters were carved deep into the wood. Its glory, grandeur and uprightness had firmly stood to the ravages of time. It was a late autumn night in late nineties later when an encounter broke between Indian army and militants that this wood-bridge was set ablaze, and we could see the bright yellow flames, letting out thick curls of dark smoke, from our home – some two hundred or more meters away. The encounter broke out on the other side of the bridge in a dark night; in order to keep the militants from fleeing across the bridge, the Indian army fired it to ashes. Roughly at a distance of one hundred meters from this bridge lived Burhan’s family and, almost, at a similar distance lived his beloved on the other side of the bridge. He would frequently go and meet her during the night when there was no moon. His girlfriend would stealthily come downstairs after everyone at her home was asleep, and on the backside of her house in the dark shade of a barn, talk to Burhan for some minutes and then silently walk back to her room. Burhan would later extravagantly stretch these few minutes of romantic adventure to long long hours. He would tell me everything from beginning to the end. Sometimes he would tell me about the allure of her deep kohl eyes and the color of her dupatta and her lovely attire, which obviously he could never see in the darkness. He would talk about her smile that spread across her cheeks into his heart and produced ripples there. He would tell me about the intoxicating smell of her perfume which he breathed into his soul; he would effortlessly concoct many stories. This was the purity and intensity of his love and the same would drench the land of his heart’s desire and keep it from running dry until another moonless-night of appointment arrived.
As we reached the main road, some five minutes from Lateef’s home, we heard the distinct disturbing sound of the military trucks approaching in our direction. As the sound got louder, we planned to hide somewhere around. There was a battered, broken-down house that belonged to a Pandit family on the other side of the road. The family, like all other Pandit families, had migrated to Jammu and other parts of the country in the very beginning of the armed insurgency in Kashmir. We entered this abandoned heap of wood and brick and mud. Once inside, the house appeared totally different. It looked to me as if the house welcomed us with an open embrace; a profound, patient silence hung in its every corner. It looked as if the house desperately waited for the people forced out of it. The helpless desperation in the numb silence of the house reminded me the following lines of a famous Pablo Neruda poem;
I watched the void without you that is like a house,
Nothing left but tragic windows.
Out of sheer taciturnity the ceiling listens
To the fall of the ancient leafless rain,
To feathers, to whatever the night imprisoned:
So I wait for you like a lonely house,
Till you will see me again and live in me
Till then my windows ache.
As the army trucks approached, we snuffed out the little flame of both the lanterns and hunkered down until the convoy passed. We lit the lanterns again and slowly stepped out of the house. Walking a few paces, I turned and once again looked at the house, which – my father told me once – belonged to a famous Pandit poet. It was no more a heap of brick or mud or wood; it was a real, solid and concrete museum of memory. It was a living story of broken promises and unwilling departure that excruciatingly lumbered through Time, but unnoticed.
In the compound at Lateef’s home a brown brawny dog, tied to a small pear tree with heavy iron chain, barked at us madly. While I knocked at the door, I repeatedly called out Lateef’s name. Finally, he came down. The snowflakes had grown thicker and heavier. Lateef had not even seen Burhan that day. I could feel the hope of tracing Burhan sinking low in Zubair’s heart. We narrated the whole story to Lateef.
“We will together walk to the wood-bridge. I will go across the bridge to check if there is a ladder on the backside of her house. Burhan told me once that sometimes he would climb to her room with the help of a ladder, which she would secretly place behind the house during the evening when nobody was around. Hope the ladder is there; then he would be safe inside with his girlfriend. Otherwise, we have to wait until dawn.” I suggested.
The snowfall got heavier and faster with every passing moment. Our shoes would now sink deeper and wherever the soil was swampy my boots would sink deeper and small crumbs of cold snow would spillover inside the shoe and soak my socks. We were the first in the village to chart out a way through snow. The muezzin (a person who recites the call for prayer in a mosque) would have definitely pondered over the footprints in the snow along the main road; the mosque of our village lied very close to the main road. The snow glittered in the bright yellow lantern light. Lateef and Aadil walked under one umbrella and so did me and Zubair.
When we reached the wood-bridge, a gruff male voice roared in the darkness “Don’t move any further. Stop at where you are. You mother-fuckers put down your lights and raise up your arms”. We responded the commandment immediately. The lantern slipped out of Aadil’s shaky hand and tumbled over. We quickly lifted up our arms like we would do at our school during a sports and physical exercise period. In a blinding flash of torch light they surveyed our faces. After finding nothing dangerous with us, they approached and started trouncing us with long bamboo batons without troubling us with any questions. They hit our lanterns and dragged us by our mufflers. The way they hit and kicked and smacked and dragged us, it looked they were madly drunk. Aadil cried aloud; the neighbors would have undoubtedly heard his shrieks. Hearing the shrieks of his brother Zubair pleaded, “Sir, please don’t torture us. We have lost our brother. He did not return home. We are looking for him. For god’s sake, have mercy on us. Don’t beat us. We are only looking for our brother.” With these words the intensity of their madness subsided a bit.
“What is name of that absconding sister-fucker?” said one of the army men. Burhan was absconding for them.
“Burhan”, Zubair replied.
“If you tell us the truth why your brother is absconding, we will leave you without any more torture. If you lie, we will beat all of you to death and throw your bodies down in the icy river. Is he helping the militants?” the soldier threatened. I had never ever seen a militant, but it was a hot back-fence talk those days that militants prowled the streets of our village in open day light.
“Sir, he is eighteen years of age and he loves a girl who lives on the other side of this bridge. He had come to meet the girl. His mother is frustrated. Sir, we are only looking for him.” I told the soldier the truth. The soldiers let out a savage laughter. One of them said as he laughed, “Saala is thandi raat main ashqi karne niqla ha. The sisterfucker has left his home to make love to a girl in this cold darkness”. They laughed again. One of them walked towards the bridge and called out loudly, “Naresh, bring that sisterfucker here, his brothers are looking for him.” A sensation of joy ran through me as I came to know Burhan was alive with these goons. Some of the soldiers were hiding beneath the bridge where they interrogated Burhan. After some minutes of silence few dark shades approached us. Before they brought Burhan in front of us, they noted down the names of all four of us.
“Your brothers and friends have come meet you. They say they are looking for you. Tell me what is the name of your two brothers who have come to see you? If the names match, they will match if they are really your bothers, we will set you free. If the names do not match, we will make you another case of disappearance”, one of the soldiers frightened Burhan, who stood in front of us, but his face was invisible.
“Zubair and Aadil” Burhan said as he broke down.
“Go and take your bothers home. Sisterfucker, you are a bloody true fearless lover. Nobody ventures out here after nine, but u chose the darkest nights to meet your beloved. This was your last romantic and love-making dark night. In future if you are see again then only your dead body will return your home. It was the matching of different facts that saved the life of all you”, one of the soldiers intimidated Burhan. “Get up, you scoundrels. Go to your home and do not ever be seen again” he added.
We got up onto our legs and shook off the snow. I reached to my muffler, shook it and stuffed it into the big pocket of my pheran. I felt like thankful to them; they hit us hard, but they did not hit our heads. We could have been dead. My elbow and the right foot knuckle pained. Aadil was able to limp, but writhed in pain. We walked back without our lanterns and umbrellas. “Jan bachi to lakhoan paye. We have returned alive, we didn’t lose anything.” Lateef whispered to me. He also let out a chuckle. Burhan limped as he walked silently in front of us. We couldn’t see his face clearly, but his hair looked disheveled. Lateef complained of pain in his left shoulder. “He held his baton tightly in both his hands and ferally hammered onto my shoulder. It was the bundle of winter clothes and the snow that saved us today. As I sometimes moved to escape his baton barrage, he would hit the snow.” Lateef added. Zubair waked in silence. We tried to tak to Burhan, but he chose silence over narrating his adventure. The way he limped, it looked like he was very badly tortured.
Back home his mother hugged him, patted him and kissed him, but his father, out of anger, scolded him and called him by many names. Burhan had repeatedly condoned the forewarnings of his father not to venture out after dinner. I decided to stay with Burhan and asked Zubair to go with Lateef and stay with him for the night and also inform my parents – in the way – that I was fine. Burhan answered the barrage of questions asked by his apparently piqued father in only one sentence. “I was on my way home after watching a cricket match at Hamid’s home, the army stopped me near the wood-bridge and threatened me stay with them for the night.”
“Did they beat you?” Burhan’s mother told.
“They have sticks with them and they can beat anyone they find roaming in the darkness. They beat us with a small stick on our hands like our teachers do at our school and admonished us not to roam in the darkness again” I replied her question.
Everything was back to normal. Burhan’s mother made the bed for us in a separate room and brought us two hot Kangri to warm our beds. Burhan refused to eat anything. Burhan told me to bolt the door from inside so that nobody disturbed us again.
“What happened tonight? How did they get hold of you? What were you doing there around the wood-bridge? You told me you will ferry across the river with the help that boat and not go the bridge.” I inquired. Wood-bridge was always a dangerous place to walk over during the night. Behind Gul Kak’s shop, some two hundred meters away from wood-bridge, near the bank of river, there always used to be a small boat. Burhan would use this boat to ferry across the river.
“Unfortunately, the boat was not there this time. Someone had removed it from that place. I had to go from the wood-bridge this time”, Burhan said. “I don’t care the army tore my clothes or broke my knee or smacked my face or abused me more than I one million times; I am devastated because my love is gone. Today I was comprehensively humiliated”, he added.
“What happened, Burhan?” I asked instantly.
“On the backside of her home I waited for more than half an hour, but she didn’t turn up”, Burhan said. Today’s mobile phone would have helped him in that frenzy situation. He took a while to adjust Kanger properly under his quilt and then continued, “Initially, I was so excited to see the ladder there. This ladder had always excited me. My hands shivered and my teeth cluttered. In that terrible hour of waiting, I felt, the whole wintry cold absorbed into my bones. I wish I had a Kanger with me. Another fifteen minutes passed. I anxiously waited for her to open the window, but there was no sign of that. The stray snowflakes irritated me like the old treacherous words of my father. Another twenty long minutes passed. In the darkness and heavy snow-storm my hopes to meet my beloved slowly faded away…” Burhan’s mother knocked at the door. “Gobra, open the door. I have brought hot Lipton tea for you” She said. I opened the door; she handed over a plate to me and left.
“What happened after that?” I asked
“Finally, I decided to leave, not because she didn’t open the window, because I thought I will die with the bone-penetrating cold. If I had a Kanger with me, I would have stayed for some more time. I thought I will freeze like an icicle. The unabashed snow didn’t even stop for a minute. The unseen sky, like a huge factory, produced billions of small crumbs of snow without even a little break. So, before leaving I mildly hit the window with a fistful of snow. I waited a little and was about to throw another last fist of snow that the two halves of the window buckled in; a crackle was heard. The dark shadow of her face appeared the next. At once a fountain of warmth surged into my freezing body, a heavenly hush gushed into the smouldring smithy of my soul, and my heart pumped countless gallons of happiness into my veins. “In this cold darkness I have been waiting and looking at this window for more than hour. What happened that tonight I had to remind you of our appointment with a fist of snow on your window?” I muttered. She didn’t answer. Then followed my next question; “Shall I climb up?” An ambiguous hushed “yes” came as the reply. My whole self drowned in a red-hot flood of passion. I pulled the ladder – this ladder had become a symbol of my love; it took me closer to my beloved – and placed it against the wall. I had climbed up all the rungs except last two when the person in the window held the top two ends of the ladder and flung it with full force; I flied and fell with a thud on the ground with my grip still on the ladder. Then the person in the window let out a mouthful of horrible expletives. She was the elder sister of Ruhee, our dreaded enemy. Probably, she knew we had an appointment. She was, probably, sleeping in her room just to foil our plan. After that she loudly called out the name of her brother. I briskly got up and ran towards the bridge. I felt a cold stream of sweat running down my back. I really sweated in the bitter cold. I ran and ran like a chased deer until a mighty baton blow on my thighs knocked me down in the middle of the bridge. I knew it was the army. Another barrage of blows and expletives followed. They kicked on my back and I hid my face in the snow. They madly hit on my legs. One of them dragged me up and focused his torch light on my face. “Why were you running like a dog, you motherfucker. Who are you?” blurted one of the soldiers. I cried. I told them the truth. They didn’t beat me after that, but threatened me to stay with them till dawn. Few of them took me beneath the bridge. They had no umbrellas and, therefore, they slipped under the bridge to escape the heavy snow-storm in turns. They asked me strange questions about our relationship and particularly about Ruhee. Sometimes, they would laugh and talk in a strange language. We also talked about militants and encounters. They abused Kashmiris for hiding militants in their homes. They also said that the militants slept with Kashmiri women and also questioned me whether it was true. I said that I knew nothing about militants. The cold again attacked me. At one stage I thought I will die. Then you came. You told them the truth and it was our truths that saved all of us. I was not afraid of them, I was afraid I won’t ever get the chance to meet Ruhee again. Will she talk to me again, Khalid? ”
I listened to his every single word patiently. He was feeling very low-spirited. I told him not to worry and that Ruhee will write a letter to him and promise to meet him again. We didn’t sleep; we talked until the dawn broke. In the morning Burhan complained of a severe pain in his left leg. His father requested me to take Burhan to the doctor. After morning tea, we set out for the Bone and Joints Hospital Barzullah Srinagar. When we reached the wood-bridge, the marks of violence on snow were still visible.
“I had never imagined that the gun and the rage of her sister will come in the way of my love like this. The fear of the gun and army will never again allow me meet her in lovely moonless nights. The wrath of her sister is the second impediment. Her wrath will end one day, but the fear of the gun will remain” Burhan said to me as we waited for the bus.
I was not quite sure that the fear of gun will destroy his love story, but it can hardly ever be disputed that thousands of stories ended with the arrival of gun in our valley.