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The Melancholy Town Where No One Smiles

The Melancholy Town Where No One Smiles

Ramnath Ji’s house? Who could have expected this? What threat? What danger, could an abandoned house pose?

Next to Ramnath Ji’s house is a departmental store- Royal Bazaar. Once in a while, a car may pull up near the glass door and a family with sophisticated strides will enter and return with the same sophistication and lack of empathy with huge plastic bags.

A bit farther is a medical shop: Madina Medical Hall. When Nasir Ahmad’s son didn’t pass the entrance exam, the responsibility to set up his son’s life rested yet again on his shoulders. Nasir Ahmad bribed the officer at the Licence office and finally saw his son’s future in safe hands. However, the favours wouldn’t end there. There were numerous pharmacists around the block and all had established themselves pretty well— the sales were negligible. Thanks to Nasir’s politician friend, the medicines could be bought at a very low rate. From then on, Madina Medical Hall became the household name for buying medicines. The 12% discount on every sale ended up adding loads of cash to the owner’s pockets.

On the other side lies the Nawakadal Bus Stop and a row of shops. At any part of the day, amid the loud clatter of bus conductors screaming at the bystanders, one can find people, mostly who are stricken by old age that has left them almost deaf and entirely ignorant— arguing over small change.

Next to the bus stop is Gulzar, the vegetable vendor. Gulzar aka Gulle is known for three things in downtown: One, that he has a couple of plots of land in Tangmarg, making him too rich to be called Gulle. Two, his outstanding honesty; he will not sell his haakh, if he knows it is callous and bitter. And three, Aijaz’s favourite: when he weighs the groceries and transfers them to a plastic bag, he adds a fistful of coriander and green chillies at the top for free.

Ramnath Ji’s house, by contrast, is lifeless. Although the house stood there prior there used to be a bus stop, the shops or even the Macadamized road, the courtyard which was once filled by the squeals and giggles of Ramnath’s daughters now lay hushed.

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After they left, the house remained unoccupied for years until recently a family— a pair of stray dogs— claimed the ownership by jumping over the wall.

On their first night of having taken possession of the house, the one with the white coat gave birth to a litter of puppies that whimpered as if at an invisible intruder for the whole night. The Night-Guard of Royal Bazaar, deprived of sleep, walked with a spade— frustrated and irritated— and transferred the litter to the back of a garbage truck in the morning.

The night after the eviction of the puppies, two unidentified men broke into the store, stole the money and pulled away packets of Saffron from the shelves.

■■■

On the nineteenth of December, Aijaz walked past Ramnath Ji’s house towards Madina Medical Hall. When the clocks struck fourteen, the bells in the school started ringing. Children in white shirts, black pants and dusty black shoes walked in groups of twos and threes towards Eidgah. Aijaz walked alone.

Aijaz was fond of books and history. In books, he found acceptance and recognition. He believed that amidst the disordered surrounding,   letters, words and sentences had the power to shape the future.

Although he loved learning, he could never adapt to a classroom. He disliked classrooms because they followed a curriculum that confined them. They taught the students so they can pass the exams, but to Aijaz, knowledge and learning had a higher purpose. The teachers never appreciated questions and Aijaz couldn’t help but ask. Like this one time when their science teacher, Rukhsana madam had written on the board:

Bare Necessities of Life:
Clean Air
Water
Nutrients
Shelter
Sleep

Sitting in the last row, Aijaz hesitantly raised his hand up to his head, expecting the teacher would not notice him. But she did. “Madam, almost everybody here in Hashmir consumes pills daily. Shouldn’t we add them to the list?”

Rukhsana Madam who was yet to receive her salary of the last three months, without thinking it over, replied, “Well, the world is beyond this little town of ours and we hardly matter.” Questions annoyed her. But not many asked questions anymore and she knew how to dismiss one.

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■■■

Ramnath Ji’s house decayed like a plucked rose, with every passing year. The pink walls turned grey as layers of dust mixed with the paint. Eventually, the walls grew flaky and the plaster started falling off.

The Swastika symbol was mutilated. What now remained of the badge were two lines: a vertical standing over a horizontal, touching it at the centre.

The ones who lived in this neighbourhood, almost all of them were born after this house was abandoned. Only a handful of people: The Muezzin, who despite bronchitis called people to prayer over the Masjid’s speaker and Gaffar, who worked at the ration depot, witnessed Ramnath’s evacuation. They both buried the memories of that chilly morning when Ramnath and his family walked to the Bus Stop, deep inside their hearts, and never brought it up ever again. Never.

For children, the house was the resting place of plastic balls.

But the silver bearded men with bent backs and unsteady hands knew that the enemy will no longer hesitate to kill and rape. They could now turn the valley into a slaughterhouse without mercy.

■■■

Based on a set of symptoms, Aijaz’s mother was diagnosed with diabetes by the local doctor. The doctor with the soiled collar stated a number of precautions. As for the causes, none of his observations convinced Aijaz. Aijaz believed that the root of all this went beyond high cholesterol and obesity. Behind everything was sadness. Terrible sadness.

■■■

If one takes the insight of the events leading to Mama’s sadness, it might have started the day she was born – a girl child,  However, I believe that as she grew up, Mama battled against society with the only weapons she had: kindness, intellect and love. In the end, it took Ammiji to pull Mama back into that endless labyrinth of suffering.

It all started when Ammiji went missing one afternoon in July. Ammiji had sneaked silently past the gate, carefully holding the metal handlebar to prevent the clink. She was fond of Afsha (my sister). For forty minutes she walked along, looking for Mun Khan’s provisional store that’s located outside our house. When after the long search, she found Mun Khan, she handed him a five hundred rupee note for a packet of Gems and walked away. Mun Khan, whose son studied in Papa’s classes, recognised Ammiji and called Papa right away.

The months that followed involved ranting, pleading and tears. Although I like to think that Ammiji had become a child again, it was confirmed that she had lost her mind. She started seeing my uncle, who died young, in one of the corners of her room and had long conversations with him. She also mistook me for an unknown man who entered people’s houses to check out their women. “How dare you enter my house?” She fiercely screamed at me.

On certain days, Ammiji forgot to visit the bathroom, while on other days, she would spend hours in there. Ammiji started to grow a sense of dislike towards Mama and it broke her heart.

One time, on a visit to the doctor’s, Ammiji sat with the doctor lady, like she was her childhood friend, and said in a low whisper, “She is doing black magic to control my son.”

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All that time, Mama had to go through it all more than anyone. She was there when Papa and I were at school. She was there when we slept. She was the one who accompanied Ammiji in the bathroom and showered her. And all this time; the thought of what had happened to Ammiji and how she could never love Mama as she would her own daughter, broke Mama’s heart every second. She was fighting a sob every second of her hectic days and nights.

Quran describes hell as the place of scorching fire pits and boiling water. For all those months, Mama carried this hell inside her chest.

■■■

Next to Madina Medical Hall is a barbecue vendor- Satar Tujji. A medical shop is not an ideal neighbour for a barbecue stall, but this is the town of the dead: no one complains. On the far end of the stall, behind a cloud of smoke flying from the grill, sits an old man with a wrinkled face, smoking his cigarette. His eyes are fixed on Ramnath Ji’s house. One of his hands is under his pheran and the other lifts the cigarette to his lips as he drags long puffs from it. Aijaz feels tempted to try smoking at least once as he observes the cigarette-man. In his mind, Papa suddenly appears. “Cigarettes kill you slowly. You witness your own death as your body starts malfunctioning,” Papa had said. It was not death that scared him because Ammiji’s death wasn’t that horrible as compared to Mama’s sadness. That’s what he feared, the endless sadness. What is one to do about that? At Ammiji’s funeral, Mama had said: “Aijaz Jana, don’t cry for Ammiji, she is in heaven already. Mourn the living, they die every second.”

■■■

The people of Hashmir are economically weak. The government makes sure to keep them there at the bottom of the capitalist ladder so that all they ever pine for are jobs, electricity and cellular data while the government steals their identities.

The street outside the pharmacy is full of pits and rocks. Every time a Tata Bus passes by, it swerves to one side and sends muddy water splashing on the passers-by. A bus comes through as Aijaz still waits in the queue. The windshield of the Bus has a huge tag on top: Death Raser. The horn is ringing continuously as the bus drifts along, ignoring the pits.  Everybody’s attention shifts to this bus as it slows down near the crowd of people waiting outside the pharmacy. Suddenly, the agile conductor hangs from the door and starts screaming, “the army is arresting young boys”. “Run away! Run away before they catch you.” His voice fades away as the driver accelerates towards the city square.

For a moment, the women waiting in the queue were stupefied; their lips quivered, their eyes wide in horror and their legs numb. But seeing the men maintain their cold and indifferent calmness, they ignored this anticipation. The cigarette-man, absentmindedly, kept smoking the butt of his cigarette. The casher in the pharmacy kept stapling bills to the medicine bags and Gulzar continued sprinkling water over his haakh.

■■■

Like a sudden heart attack, a hand dropped on Aijaz’s shoulder and it all went blank.

As to what happened next, no one knew. Everything was placid. No one saw anything. No army was seen and no arrests were made. Even in the vicinity of Madina Medical Hall, none admitted to being present there that day.

Aijaz was released after a year of his parents’ struggling to bring him back. By the end of that year, Aijaz was a mess. He couldn’t escape from what he had been through; the torments and the suffering. He kept on thinking about what his people were destined to; the torture and the atrocities.

Aijaz pondered over this all night for weeks until he fainted in the kitchen and fell on a Kanger one day. Mama sensed the danger and started giving him her pills so he could fall asleep.

Eventually, in the melancholy town where no one smiles, none remained without consuming pills and yet relied on Tranquilizers. Sleeping pills. Stress relievers. Those who resisted the pills were sent to asylums. The remaining consumed bullets.


(This Short Story was published in the April 2021 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)

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