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The Death Wandering by the Dal

The Death Wandering by the Dal

On the bulge of Amira Kadal, I stare at the fish in their basket, murmuring between themselves about their estrangement from the Jhelum that flows underneath, belligerently. Or, maybe, they are just gasping for a few extra breaths— as many as they can— before it is all over; as all of us try to do when the time comes.

Wuchun nai muft aasiha! (Only if gazing was not free!)”, spits out the fisherwoman. She understands that I can be no customer of hers; it is instinctual. I am just there; standing, gazing, biding time. She covers her basket with a cloth. Her fish must be saved from the evil eye. From my eye. Lest they remain unsold. The fish are in their basket and I move on.

“Where to?”
“This way or that?”

Only if I did not have to decide that! Only if life were a kind of job where nothing was up to you, where you came in at 10; sat in your chair; did whatever you do every day; went back at 4. Salary at the end of the month. Period. Done. Thank you!

Nothing to decide.
Only if…

I walk across the bridge, towards the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower). The footpath is crowded with vendors selling trinkets of nothingness; disturbing and distracting everyone from walking up straight. I stand beside the one who sells old shoes (washed and polished) on one cart and books on another (old and worn out).

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“Can’t mix the two…”, says the vendor, “… out of respect”, while I stare at the grotesque pile of sandbags on the other side of the road. It is a bunker. It protrudes out like a tumour from the glistening papier-mâché showroom that stands behind it. Sunlight, sharp as glass shards, is broken and thrown here, there and everywhere by the concertina wires that creep and crawl around the bunker in malignant chaos. A few loose ends of the metallic weed have grown over the glass-display of the papier-mâché showroom, and between the sharp metallic teeth, I could see the delicate paisleys and gulanderguls (flower within a flower) and bulbuls (a passerine songbird) put on display inside. I shudder; ‘It is cruel! How long can the delicacy of the papier-mâché withstand the grotesque metallic invasion?’

Something ought to be done! Yes, something must be done. I close my eyes to imagine what it would be like there without the bunker. The papier-mâché showroom ‘stands there; quivering with the sunlight and in front of it, there is nothing. Nothing— an emptiness; a vacuum. Even with my eyes closed, I cannot undo the bunker. I can only imagine its absence. But it is still there, in its absence; that piece of land is desecrated by it. Forever.  Even in fantasy, a dark hole that you cannot paint over.’

Maybe ‘THE HAND’ could have done something about it. Back at the school, he (the hand) was the one who would save us from the wrath of our Drawing teacher. A dash here, a touch there; a bold crayon here, a dot of paint there, and all of a sudden our miserable and pathetic attempts at drawing a parrot or a carrot or a peacock or a wall-clock would be rendered some sense of comprehension and respectability at the hands of ‘the hand’. He had a gift— his hands. He could paint the music with them; so everyone called him, ‘the hand’. His name was Burhan.

He is dead now. Killed. Last year.

I heard it on the news. He was a rebel. A militant. A mujahid. A ‘terrorist’, said the news anchor; killed in an encounter. A pistol, said the anchor, was recovered from him with some ammunition. How does one recover things from a dead man? Did they search his body thoroughly? He might have had a few sketches with him; the ones he would have certainly drawn while roaming across the mountains and orchards and fields and streams and meadows and flowers and snow and clouds and dreams. Day and night. Night and day. Even with all those guns and grenades, and running and hiding and living, ‘the hand’ must have drawn something. He could not resist it. Or did he draw something terrible? Something that must never be shown on the news?

“Bhaijaan, if you are not buying boots or books, then please move on. You are blocking my customers”, the vendor of boots and books breaks in. I look at him and then at the bunker across the road. ‘Perhaps, even ‘the hand’ could have done nothing about it; the bulbuls and gulanders and paisleys in the cold metallic jaws. Such is our plight— boots and books. Separate, not mixed; out of respect.

I drift along; across the Lal chowk; across Polo View; across the glitter and pomp of it all. There are faces all around me. Terrified, anxious faces. Faces searching for a missing son. Dead or disappeared. Or maybe a missing brother or a father or a husband. There is no face here that has not been scratched by grief. At one time or another. In one way or another.

‘Faces; so many. Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled. Each man fixed his eyes before his feet.’ Faces who have seen it all: the door burst at midnight, the cries, the cacophony; ruffled beds, muffled sobs; the helplessness; the ordinariness, in which it all ends; the emptiness afterwards. Faces who have escaped somehow so far, waiting:  when shall their turn come? Tonight? Tomorrow? The night after?

Suddenly, people start running with a ferocious terror. I too join in. I don’t ask why they are running, to where they are running, from whom they are running. I just join and run. As fast as I can. As much as I can. The questions would be asked later (Or never at all); that is how you survive. By being a part of the crowd: giving in to fear and letting instinct to take over.

 ‘Unreal city…
… death had undone so many.’

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At TRC (Tourist Reception Centre), the crowd melts away. People stop running and start gasping. I look behind. There is nothing there. It is ‘chagh’. I walk along and smile. Chagh— how do you translate that word? You cannot. It has no meaning. It is just a collective feeling. And you cannot understand that feeling unless and until you have lived long enough in terror and fear that the nightmares (that have grown and piled up) spill in your broad daylight and haunt you. At one point in time, the nightmares overpower you, and you start running away from them. Others join in, too, and soon everyone is running. You run and run till you delude yourself that you are out of danger. Then you look back and try to find out whether the nightmare was real— a blast (a grenade or a tyre-burst)— or was it unreal: just in your head. An echo of the horrors that refuse to die away. But you are not the only one who has lived through the dark, everyone around has; so the echo resonates and everybody starts to run.

A collective psychosis.

That is the Chagh— everyone running out of terror; imaginary or real. Everyone— the same; haunted.

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Chagh is a joke until it turns real.

I turned left at TRC and reached Dalgate. I walk along the hem of Dal. I can see the crestfallen Zabarwan hills in the waters of Dal. Like an ill omen. I walk past the Houseboats— bubbles of fantasies on the Dal, that is what they are; the houseboats— Paradise, Cleopatra, White House, Helen of Troy, Buckingham Palace, Pride of India. Their names, milestones of irony, floating.

Up ahead, in the Nishat garden, or the Shalimar garden, a tourist would be getting ready to be photographed against the perfect backdrop: a setting sun melting in the indifferent Dal; his day well spent. He might visit again next year. Or the year after that. Or after… everything will be the same; well set. The manicured flowers. The pedicured grass. The indifferent Dal. The setting sun. And each year he will return with a perfect photograph, showing it off to his friends. Quoting in clichéd Farsi (Persian) learnt by rote, “Agr firdous ba roh e zameen ast…” The listeners will clap and marvel how beautiful they are: the Mughal gardens. 666 of them were built, or so the legend goes. Six hundred sixty-six, such a neat number. Well rounded off. Titillating. Enough for the imperial royal harem. Or photographs.

I now stand at ghat no. 3, watching a Shikara float on the Dal. “250 rupees per hour”, says the rate list displayed at the ghat. They have understood an important aspect of life— it leads you to nowhere, as do the rides on Dal. So they don’t charge you by the distance but by the hour, as life does.

An old man with a ragged beard and, perhaps, a crooked nose is rowing the Shikhara. Both his hands tightly clenched around the oar, he appears an impatient man. He must have rowed so many people. Hour after hour. But I wonder if he ferried dead people too? Across the Dal? To a better place? Death is abundant here; on this side of Dal. Death has undone so many. But how many of the dead can pay him?

‘How long shall the dead wander by this side of Dal?’

A kingfisher swoops down and snatches a fish from the bosom of Dal. Just like that.

There is nothing left to say… nothing left… nothing… not… no… o.

I put a coin in my mouth and wait at the ghat. To be ferried across soon. Hopefully.


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