Soaring through the warm, misty skies of Delhi and Punjab, we rumbled through the brooding clouds over Pir Panjal before we touched down at Srinagar airport, where the wild summer rain followed me home.  I’d been away from home for three long years. When I returned, I learned what three years can do to a city that breeds sorrow. I was shocked to hear about the demise of several elderly folks I had admired since my childhood; I learned of the arrest of several boys on mysterious grounds and the newfound horror of pellet guns blinding our youth, including my own cousin.

My parents may have purposely dodged the mention of it all,  a desperate effort to allow no distraction whatsoever from hindering my study. Whenever, though, the realization of a collective pain floods the mind, it breaks down all the high ideals of peace, shattering your utopian expectations of seeking education and settling down. It deprives you of an opportunity, strangling your dreams of future bliss. How could I imagine myself happy seeking a modern education when my own people, far away from me, have been suffering ever since the pestilence of a political morass blighted our land? This fear deeply haunted me after my return.

However, nothing troubled me more than the unlikely and unbelievable transformation of Ishfaq Soab. The villagers had added Soab to his name for his mild, well-mannered and soft-spoken nature. He was a popular figure, loved by all, for his intelligence and strong religious character. His recitation of the Azaan blooming from the mosque’s loudspeaker was so distinct that even the young kids, not yet old enough to attend their prayers, knew it was Ishfaq Soab. He never gave into idle gossip nor did he ever pick a fight with anyone. Whenever an incensed parent chided their ward for their wayward ways, Ishfaq Soab was mentioned as the epitome of decency and moral integrity one must aspire to. They wished their children would grow up to be like him. Some believed that Soab’s good deeds shined through his whitish cheeks in the form of a celestial radiance. For a living, he taught Arabic and Qur’an recitation at the local madrassa. As much as the people adored him, his virtuosity only grew. He greeted elders with reverence and treated the young with love and affection.

But the Ishfaq Soab I saw before me now was no longer recognisable. The tuft of neatly-trimmed beard shaved off his chin. His green cap was missing, and the bright locks of curly hair that would be tucked under it. Someone had trimmed his hair in haste, for the small, haphazard furrows and patches could be seen from a distance. His usual clothes, particularly the elegant kamiz salwar that graced his shapely body were replaced by rags. In his right hand, he carelessly twirled a long stick while clutching a black telephone receiver in the other. My first encounter with him after my return was no less than a nightmare. Initially, I couldn’t believe my wits or my eyes. But as I walked towards him, I was beyond shocked to see a calm and comely Ishfaq Soab of yore looking like a tramp, a beggar. I gazed at him for a while, not believing my eyes.

Noticing my probing gaze, he growled at me, ‘Hey you scoundrel, throw that apple here. Will you eat up everything and spare nothing for wretches like me? My stomach is rumbling with hunger. Can’t you see? If you don’t throw it here, I will call the army.’

He quickly raised the old black receiver to his ear and spoke hurriedly in an imposing tone, ‘Hello Major, I have just got hold of a filthy scoundrel. He appears to be a militant. Trust me, had I the gun I would have shot him in the butt. You can rush to the spot with your men before he flees across those mischievous woods into Pakistan.’ Before he dropped the receiver, he fired the words ‘Hello Major, trust me’ over a dozen times into it.

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Obviously indifferent to the expression of disbelief frozen on my face, he lunged forward and snatched away the apple from my hand. As he pounced on it, I found myself frozen to the ground, my gaze fixed on his face. In my utter disbelief, I stood before him like a pillar of salt, having seen what wasn’t meant to be. He drew me back to my senses with a thwack of his stick landing on my back, snapping it in two. Seeing him raise his stick again, I took flight, racing through the streets when I looked back and noticed he was chasing after me. Two elders saw the ensuing commotion and came to my rescue.  ‘Leave that bastard,’ Soab growled. ‘I will mince him to pieces today. He keeps a gun because he has come from the borders. He threatened to kill me because I snatched his bloody apple. Does he think his gun is bigger than the Major’s gun? Trust me, he is a loser. Nothing escapes the massive clutches of the Major.’

‘No dear’, one of the elders interjected. ‘He has been away for some time. He studies elsewhere. And why are you trying to pick a fight when he did you no harm? It isn’t decent. Is it, dear Ishfaq?’. His eyes shot bolts of fire at me. In that fit of rage, he gasped for breath. Slowly, the strange rage boiling inside him settled down as he loosened his grip on the broken stick. With a violent jerk of the body, he flung the stick away and left us standing there, surrounded by a thousand questions. ‘Who knows what God wills?’, said one of the elderly men, breaking the uncomfortable silence. ‘He was the best, the most disciplined boy I had ever known. Only God knows what misfortune, what evil took over him. He once taught our children the Holy Qur’an and now we keep our children away from him. May Allah bless him’.

Back home, my parents reprimanded me for talking to this ‘insane wretch’. They discussed several possible reasons for  Soab’s shocking metamorphosis, but nobody seemed to know what exactly caused this change. The more I tried to ignore him, the more the thought of his insanity disturbed me. What troubled me, even more, was the lack of an explanation for this transformation. I desperately wanted to uncover the ugly truth behind it all. As I closed my eyes, I saw the telephone receiver dangle before me.    The words ‘Hello Major, trust me,’ filled with pain and wanting, echoed in my mind.

A few days later, on a cold Autumn morning, I was playing cricket with my friends in a nearby meadow, when we could hear leaves rustling in the woods that bordered the meadow.  It was Ishfaq Soab, who was now walking towards us singing an old  Mohammad Rafi song‘dil liya, dard diya’ at the top of his voice. The haphazard haircut, the strange face, his beardless chin, the telephone receiver, the rags and the stick disturbed me again. I lost my concentration. I feared he might chase after me again. The memory of his stick-breaking on my back filled me with anxiety.

As he walked towards the center of the meadow, all my friends circled around him. He didn’t notice me. One of my friends, taking advantage of his insanity, began to humour him, ‘Ishfaq Soab, will you give a call to our Almighty God and ask for some warm sunshine. Don’t you think it is very cold?’ He responded instantly by lifting the receiver to his mouth, “Hello Major. Sorry. Hello God, how are you? Trust me, it is very cold here. Send us a few trucks of warm sunshine so that these guys can warm up their butts. Anyway, does it rain there where you belong or is it always pleasant sunshine? How many broad muscular army men are posted there and do they beat your angels? You are a great, powerful God but tell your angels to keep away from the Major. Trust me, the Major tortures like hell.”

All my friends erupted into a careless cackle. Soab grabbed the cricket bat and asked my friend Irfan to bowl. For every ball, he hit it out of the meadow with brute force. Nobody dared to inform him of their turn. He hit the cricket ball at will until his eyes spotted me fielding at fine leg. His gaze singed my skin as I stood there, holding my breath. He then moved towards me with quick steps, all the other players following him in a beeline. He stopped a few meters away from me and studied me, glowing hot red rage glowing through his cheeks. ‘Why the hell didn’t you throw that apple at me? Do you think the Major will be kind to you? He can fuck the shit out of you. Trust me, he is so bloody muscular.’ With these words, he darted closer and hit me on my back with the bat. I ran to avoid the second blow. He chased me and all other players chased him. It was a marathon of survival for me. The bat whooshed past my head like a bullet. Thank God, it missed. It would have all been over for me, there and then.

Back home, I narrated this harrowing incident to my parents. Partly worried and partly agitated, my parents immediately decided to rush to his family and warn them of any similar eventuality in the future.

Representational Image: Camila Quintero Franco / Unsplash

Now, thinking about him had become a doubly painful torment for me. On the one hand, it was his unlikely, painful transformation that bothered me and his violent reaction to my presence on the other. Following my parents’ warning, I couldn’t see Ishfaq Soab anywhere in the village for the next week. His absence from the market and the village streets caused a dark vacuum to form inside my mind. In this vacuum, the conflicting fears about his whereabouts, his well-being and his black telephone receiver. Nobody worried about him or the torture his family might have consigned him to. I regretted divulging everything to my parents. His family may have forcefully confined him to a room as torture for misbehaving with me, I feared. Therefore, one evening, I decided to visit his family.

‘We have him bound and holed him up in in the attic. You need not worry, son. We understand your parents’ concern. He won’t be a nuisance anymore’, grumbled his old fragile mother. The grief of losing a dear son to a strange disease laced her words.

‘I beg you, please set him free. I am really sorry for sending my parents here’, I  said, wallowing in remorse.



She fixed her gaze at me. Two bright teardrops trickled down her wrinkled face. After all, she was a mother. She wanted her son to be free. In manacling his legs and arms, she had manacled her heart. And so, like Iron Henry, she was to suffer his fate. Her small watery eyes glittered in the pale light of a  pear-shaped bulb hanging in the middle of the wooden ceiling.

‘Do you really mean what you say, my son? I have no courage left in me to face your parents next time. I know their fears are genuine, but I have to suppress all of mine when I put my son in that dark room. It is not for the first time we have locked him up. I know he can be harsh to people but nobody knows what pain this imprisonment puts him through. I am an old fragile woman. When I most needed my son to comfort me, I must only hear sad things about him. That was bearable still, but his unintelligible grumblings, cries and shrieks coming all day long from that room have just broken me.’

‘It is very sad to learn this. You will set him free now. Had I any idea you would put him through all this, I would never have disclosed anything to my parents.’

A few minutes later, Ishfaq Soab was brought into the room with his arms still manacled. His unkempt hair and the tangled stubble made his face assume a greyish hue. His face looked like the sea which had just calmed after a long and violent storm. All his vigour was spent. He stared at his mother as if he couldn’t remember her face.

‘Look at this boy and remember his face. You will never hurt him again. If you do, I will never set you free again. He is Master Yusuf’s eldest son and he is not a militant as you call him’, his mother said, sternly. He didn’t look at me. His riotous silence and his haggard appearance disturbed me again. I still wanted to see him as a person revered by one and all, a person after whose exemplary character parents wanted to fashion their children after, a person who never loitered about the market to indulge in sinful, lecherous conversations.

Then his mother told me the doleful story of Ishfaq Soab’s transformation. While he was popular and used to play with a full deck, he was still consumed by some deeply gnawing worries. The army suspected him of having contacts with active militants in his locality. He was threatened and asked to report at the local army camp twice a week. However, he never shared his woes with anyone. The army had sadistically introjected unknown fears into his mind. He was trapped by their spiteful injunctions which he could neither escape nor divulge. So, one hot summer day, with the whole village under curfew, Ishfaq Soab was abducted by the army. His family and concerned villagers desperately looked for him everywhere, visiting every police station and an army camp in Kashmir. Instead of helping the family find their son, the army interrogated the family, seeking an explanation for his disappearance. The word ‘disappearance’, unfortunately, sums up the whole discourse on Kashmir. It means everything that is painful. It means waiting, with a woeful hope, for the return of the dead. However, Ishfaq Soab didn’t disappear forever.

It was late autumn, four long months after his abduction, a deranged, slovenly Ishfaq Soab was returned to his family as they were busy picking apples in the orchard. Ever since his return, Ishfaq Soab would repeatedly growl the words ‘Hello Major’, ‘trust me’ and ‘militants’. He was on medication for a long time, which almost completely dismembered his memory. He always struggled to connect the pieces together. All his memory was reduced to some robust army major, a sense of a lack of trust and militants. And thus, his mother narrated the tragic tale of losing and finding her son, only to lose him again. That night, Ishfaq Soab was set free and the darkroom that caged him was locked.

The following morning, as I was walking to the grocers to fetch some bread and milk, I noticed an anxious, jeering crowd of hoodlums near the bus-stop, which would spontaneously erupt in wild laughter. I drew closer to examine the source of their amusement. What I saw then haunts me to this day. It was Ishfaq Soab, talking to the mysterious army Major, pleading him to ‘trust him’ on the same old black telephone receiver. The echoing laughter around me was a painful reminder that pleasure was essentially relative. What served as a source of mirth and merriment for the crowd would arouse sympathy and sorrow in the eyes of a mother. Soon, the Holy month of Ramadan arrived. Prayers and supplications resonated on the mosque loudspeakers through most of the morning and evening. The obedient, God-fearing villagers woke up for Sehri, a meal to be had before the break of dawn in preparation for their daylong fast. While most villagers were busy polishing their plates, some enthusiastic devotees would walk into the mosque and recite hymns on the loudspeaker. On one such occasion, Ishfaq Soab broke into the mosque and burst into the same old song, ‘dil liya, dard diya’.

If there remained a fragment of his past that survived into his meaningless present, it was his melodious voice. While his soulful renditions of the Azaan would resonate throughout the village and summon tears in the eyes of the elderly, hearing a song being sung on the mosque loudspeaker left everyone in awe, while a few clenched their teeth and waved their fists. It is a matter of perspective, you see. The same song sung in the streets would call for applause, but not now. The next morning, a deeply concerned flock of people swooped upon the family, Ishfaq Soab was once again consigned to the darkroom in the attic. And this time, his freedom seemed a distant dream.

For the next few days, the streets groaned with unbounded speculations and interpretations of Ishfaq Soab’s illness. Some accused his family of giving him free reign and not admitting him to a psychiatric hospital. Some pinned his madness to a mysterious beauty who deserted Ishfaq Soab years ago. This tragic tale of unrequited love was so contagious that in a matter of days, it became common gossip. Some even mocked him for feigning madness to avoid the tough menial work at home. It was also suggested that his madness resulted from his unsociable and over-meditative character. Indubitably, a man finds great pleasure in dissecting the soul of another. Alas, the tools at our disposal are too blunt and gather rust. In the immortal words of Dostoevsky, “Don’t let us forget that the causes of human actions are usually immeasurably more complex and varied than our subsequent explanations of them.”

Twenty days later, on our journey back to Delhi, I narrated the whole story to my friend, Jameel, a scholar and intellectual maverick. His unusual and amusing conclusions, though sometimes boring, are quite interesting for those who have the time and patience to hear him out. In his strange interpretation of the incident, he curiously focused on Ishfaq Soab’s repetition of the words ‘Hello Major’, ‘muscular major’, ‘trust me’ and ‘militants’ to unfold a psychological condition of helplessness and ensuing madness.

‘Ishfaq Soab’, he opined, ‘could have endured any torture, given the religious and self-effacing person he was and would have never lost his mind. The torture that drove him out of his senses, I reckon, is the repeated sexual abuse inflicted on him by the Major. He could have tolerated everything else. It is the invisibility of torture, purposely employed by the Leviathan state that such stories of shame, suffering and helplessness have almost turned into a non-reality for us.’ 

The train gathered speed. I tried to look outside but the smudged windowpane obstructed my view. In the dark desert of my mind echoed the old and fragile mother’s words, ‘it is not for the first time we have locked him up’.

(This Short Story appeared in the September 2020 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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