It was time. The time; when I fell in love with the fall of darkness, when dying light of the day slowly yields to the devouring darkness of night. It was the time when I fell in love with the sensually unabashed darkness, silently nestling the verdure fields of rice and the far and wide vegetation in its supple folds. When the interminable warble of unseen cicadas, crickets and grasshoppers sounded the sweetest to me. When I met her in the midst of these wanton, sublime surroundings. Never before had stars appeared so merry to me. It looked as if the angels had gin-soaked the whole starry sky. Now the moon slowly climbed up behind the rim of the eastern mountain. It appeared so impeccable; a cabinet of fair nymphs seem to have bathed it behind that mountain with some holy wine.
It was our first meeting. For the first time, I walked a small grassy road cut through the waist-high paddy crops, rarely trodden after evening prayers. This road connected to the foot of her pomegranate garden. I waited about half an excruciating hour before she emerged from the dark shade of the pomegranate grove. Her presence caused the flesh on my neck, below the right earlobe, quiver. Some strange, unknown fears— perhaps those sacrilegious fears of having violated a sacred moral tradition— awakened a sense of shame deep inside me. Nevertheless, her round glossy face, beautifully beaming in the moonshine and her white cotton frock with a perfect pattern of visible almonds drawn on it, caused a storm in the vast residue of my repressed passions.
“Did anyone notice you sneaking to this place?” she muttered as she laid her hands on the three-line barbed wire fence.
“With the fall of darkness, even the gods return home from this sublime wilderness. You can hear the pack of howling wolves in the distance. Who can dare to walk this place now?” I replied.
“You know, you look like a thief. I doubt you will be apprehended soon.”
“Yes, I am a thief. I have come to steal you and I have apprehensions your parents may apprehend me.” I joked.
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“Yes, they can apprehend us both. After sunset, the young street urchins hang about this place to steal pomegranates. To scare them away, my father occasionally walks this side with a big baton in his hand.”
This scared me too. He would certainly hit me unconscious with his baton if he walks down this side of the garden, I imagined.
“What if he walks down here this time?”
“He will mistake you for a street urchin, beat you to pulp and then put you up in our cowshed for the whole night.” She let out with a suppressed chuckle.
“Are you serious? Before he arrives I should be on my foot. I can already imagine the beast in the darkness. He must be absolutely merciless.”
“I am just kidding. But don’t say anything unsavoury about my dad. He has never fought anyone in the whole village.”
Momentarily, I looked into the spaces between the dark shades of the pomegranate trees. His robust, fearsome shadow emerged from every side. It looked like death in the darkness.
“Dear, if you don’t mind, can you please cross onto my side so that we walk a little distance together? In case your big dad walks down here, we must be already out of his sight. To be honest, I am a coward and I already feel the pain of your dad’s baton charging in my butts.” I said.
A burst of stifled laughter escaped her mouth. To hide the ecstatic expressions on her face, she covered it with both her palms.
“All right, I will cross onto your side. But, on one condition; you have to promise that you won’t touch me. You know it is a sin.”
“We have had many elaborate conversations on the phone before this first meet. You know already that I don’t believe in any vice or virtue whatsoever. Still, I promise I will keep myself in check.”
“Even if we meet occasionally, we must abstain from amorous things. Desire is, as someone has rightly observed, like useless crooked wood which only needs to be burnt. To overpower desire, one needs to burn it”, she said as if in a divine reverie.
“Why don’t you lecture me on desire on this side of the wire? Will you please cross? Your dad must be coming already. I don’t want to be martyred in love so young. Besides, who would love to die on the barbed-wire border of this garden?”
“This is not a border. It is just a few lines of wire. Can’t we talk like this?’’
“Then LOC between India and Pakistan is also a few lines of barbed wire. But it is still a border; the only difference being the roar of the big guns along LOC and here it roars the bloody baton of your dad”, I said while another stifled laughter escaped her lips.
“Well, I am crossing. Remember to keep your promise.”
She bent and I saw her bending. I pulled up one line to help her cross safely. She was onto my side and didn’t say anything. She turned her face away and some sudden remorse or some strange guilt possessed her body. She strolled a few controlled steps with her eyes focussed on her feet.
The long thin blades of grass chimed a surreal song in the mild evening breeze. The rhythmic rustle of the bordering poplars sounded profoundly melancholic. A ceaseless groan coming from the village side and the barking of dogs was distinctly audible. A wondrous pattern of white lights shone brightly amid a distant dark mountain. A full party of drunken stars wooed and teased the singular, elegant, majestic moon. And she strolled in front of me like a fairy.
“What ails you, my dear? What offended your spirits? Are you afraid I will touch you? I won’t as I have promised.” I finally broke the overpowering silence between us.
“This darkness is dreary. Our elders rightly say that darkness is evil. It beckons impurity and you know what I mean by impurity”, She spoke with a strange apprehension stuck like a lump in her throat.
“No, it is not. Darkness holds the secret of life. We are born in darkness. There is darkness inside all of us. Darkness is never dreary. The darkness outside us should help us explore the complex void of darkness inside all of us. The unreal light of the day only obscures and suppresses the real darkness inside us.”
“Just stop this drivel. You may be dark all over by yourself, but I haven’t experienced any such darkness in my body”, she retorted in confidence.
As she walked in front of me, the warm wax of my desire began to melt faster. Blood tossed inside my veins. A cold stream of sweat broke down my spine. My awareness of decency, of strong religious teachings; the fear of eternal suffering after death; apprehensions of sinning; in fact, the whole history of our sacred tradition was just falling apart. The mysterious powers of body dawned upon me in the full vulgarity when her dupatta slipped down to her shoulders, revealing her long ewer-like white neck. My eyes traversed through her body from the visible heels to the silky hair. The seductive movement of her back creaked something inside my body. For a moment, I wished to be like an almond drawn on her white frock.
“Why don’t you say anything? Over the phone calls, you are pathetically loquacious.” She said scornfully.
“Imagine a hungry wolf galloping in our direction from the opposite side. Where shall we escape in this wilderness?” I said while I wanted to say something else.
“Aren’t you silly enough? You scare me when I am already scared.”
We approached a grassy mound where men who worked in the fields during daytime relished tea and lunch after their hours of arduous work. My feet, slippers and the helm of my trousers were soaked by the wet grass. The uninterrupted mixed warble of the thousands of unseen insects had grown louder. With the arrival of darkness, humans prepare to get off to sleep, whereas, the world of insects and other creatures begin to wake up.
“If you don’t mind, my dear, can we sit and talk for a while on this mound before we walk back home? And I promise again, I won’t touch you.”
“Well, let’s sit”, she said. “But I am not so stubborn or miserly in love as you think. Nor am I old-fashioned in love. There has to be some gap as our religion prohibits us of any reprehensible, promiscuous stuff before marriage.”
“But no religion existed when our desire or passions were created. And no skies come crashing on earth when people outside consensually express their desire before marriage.”
“Didn’t I already tell you many times over the phone that you are such a repulsive heretic? Sometimes I really curse myself for liking a pathetic disbeliever like you.” She said with a mixture of remorse and resentment.
“But, you bring religion in everything, even in the way one should sit in a toilet. Does this mean one can’t shit if there were no religion? And, see, here you are making fun of love with religion. I thought I will at least hold your hand, but you forbid everything with a bullshit supreme injunction ‘desire is like useless crooked wood’. Who would want us in the whole world to talk about morality and religion on this beautiful mound at this time?”
“Why the hell did I choose a Kafir like you? I am leaving. This is the first and last time I am meeting you. Why doesn’t this mound crack and eat you up? I swear I will block your number on my phone.” She bawled as she jumped onto her feet in a flash.
She looked even more beautiful when the bout of rage and anger took her over. She grabbed her slippers into her hand and walked away. Frustrated, I laid down, flat on the soggy grass and looked at the arrogant stars merrily mocking at my condition.
She would not have walked more than a few hasty paces before she hurried back to the mound. She heaved and hummed as she stood looking in the direction of her pomegranate garden.
“Get up, you scoundrel. See, someone is approaching us. I fear I will perish before someone catches us about this odd place at this odd time”, she grieved with obvious desperation in her words.
It was the hell of torture slowly unfolding on me as she stood in absolute beauty and grandeur. When she was so desperately worried about her image, honour or the mysterious religious teachings, I roasted in the cauldron of my desire. This time she stood before me with her slippers firmly gripped in one hand and her tousled dupatta in the other, revealing more than the snare of her silky hair or her ewer-like white neck. I fail to fathom what mysterious energy still lurked at the bottom of the gushing river of my desire that pulled me back from shoving her into my arms.
“Oh! I can’t see anything. It is just a phantom of your fears wearing a shape.”
“How can I believe your eyes when you believe nothing? It looks like a real moving dark shadow and it is visible too.”
“Then it may be the shadow of your angry father looking for the street urchins. Can you see the baton too? Or maybe it is the shadow of your religion.”
“This is too much, you intemperate rascal. I know you are using me. You don’t want to help me because you don’t love me.”
The words ‘rascal’, ‘help’ and ‘love’ dropped in the pond of love inside me like the small rounded pebbles drop in water. They slowly pierced through to the bottom of my heart. She should have said all this when she first laid her hands on the upper line of the barbed-wire fence.
“When did you ask me about love? I wanted to tell you that I love you, that you are the most graceful person I know, and that when you walk I want to follow you everywhere. If I believe anything, I believe in my love for you. My love for you is like the ambience of this place. It is deep as the silence of this place. It is impulsive and unmannerly like the wilderness around here.”
She said nothing. Instead, she drove a little closer to me. Noticing my words have melted something inside her for me, I slowly dared to touch her hand. She didn’t resist. Then I wrapped the fist of her hand into my palm, unfolded it and filled her finger webs to an absolute joy filling my body all over. She didn’t resist now. She grabbed my arm and held it tight to her ribs. Indeed, words of true love can melt a lady’s heart. And when her heart melts in love, it silences all the languages.
“See, there is no dark shadow there. It was just my hurt soul and not a shadow that forced you back to me. I may have some strange beliefs, quite different from yours, but love connects us beyond these differences. And yes, love is also like the big baton of your dad which can really hurt sometimes.”
At this, she laughed and softly bit my hand. The warmth of her lips and the feel of her teeth on my skin stamped her love on my body.
As the Muezzin called for the Isha prayers, we strolled back towards the pomegranate garden hand in hand. The azaan echoed across the silent fields.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” She whispered.
“Office. Where else to go?” I rejoined.
“Tomorrow is curfew. In the afternoon today, the Hurriyat announced a curfew for tomorrow.”
“Oh! The hell with this curfew. They have just normalized it. This is a place of routine tragedies and all tragedies shouldn’t lead to curfews. Few days should be spared. It is their game with the rules only they know. They play it by themselves and win it too.”
“Of course”, she replied with her tone slightly turning back to seriousness. “A pervasive sense of insecurity lurks heavily in our home from the last couple of weeks. My younger brother has threatened us to join militant ranks after watching young emotive militants addressing the public on Facebook and other social networking platforms. He is madly addicted to their sentimental speeches. My friends tell me that their speeches have already lured many. These speeches seem to stir passions more than the reason.”
“This is worrisome. But you should never argue or fight him over anything. Let his mother slowly persuade him. I believe this emotion will soon subside in him.”
“Hope everything goes well”, she muttered hopelessly.
Finally, we reached the pomegranate garden. She had tightened her grip around my arm. The muezzin had finished his call and it was time to say goodbye. With a passionate ‘goodbye’, she released my arm, crossed the three lines of barbed-wire and slowly disappeared into the pomegranate trees.
I felt proud. The prettiest girl of the village had just held my arm and softly bitten my hand. It was the happiest moment of my life. I merrily waded through the grass, singing an old Mohammad Rafi song to the silent spread-out paddy fields, ‘maine pocha chand se ki dekha ha kahin mere yaar sa haseen…’
All our stories begin on a very promising and happy note. But our land is a politically blighted one and, consequently, all the happy beginnings of our stories are condemned to tragic endings. It has been three long years and I still fail to convince them. They still willfully refuse to trust me that I had just gone to meet my beloved that evening.
When I reached the village bus-stop, a group of confused men smoking and whispering to each other informed me that the army was conducting a search operation in our mohalla. It started, someone affirmed, just after the magrib prayers. “I heard the operation has been called off but the army is still interrogating a family. Someone just said that it is your family”, a long man, whose upper lip hid under the cover of his moustache, added.
“My family” I gasped.
The small street, branching off from the main village road, going to my home was filled with army trucks. Few army men patrolling the street stopped me. After a quick barrage of questions, they allowed me to walk home. The compound of my home was shining in bright lights. In the centre of the lawn, the army questioned my family in loud and furious voices. Noticing my arrival, my mother screamed aloud, ‘Here he is.’
“So, you are the missing son of this family. Where have you been absent all the while”, a tall sturdy officer growled as he grabbed my shoulder.
“I was offering my Isha prayers”, I responded.
“We know it very well where you been all the while. Better tell us the truth on your own or you know we have several other means to extract it from the bloody dark depths of your brains”, the officer threatened.
“I was out to meet my beloved. It was our first meeting”, I told him the truth.
“You will still change many versions.” The officer ordered his men to shove me into their truck and then shouted at my mother, “He will be in our custody for two or three days until we ascertain some facts.”
In the truck, they grabbed my cell phone, removed the sim card and handed the rest back to me. No one talked to me unless some forty minutes later a gruff male voice ordered me to get down from the truck. I was handed over to police on the charges of working as an over-ground worker for militants. Apart from a volley of horrible abuses, the police officer slapped and punched and kicked me in front of the army officer while two or three other policemen handcuffed me on my back.
When hundreds of large arms swing in readiness to pounce on you, hundreds of broad spitting mouths confuse you with questions unthought of and hundreds of bloodshot eyes shower flames of fire on you, you even forget to tell the truth. I was forced to confess an unknown crime, that I have guided the militants, hiding in our home, to some safer place before the start of a search operation that evening.
Several times I mulled over telling the police to verify from my beloved as to where I had been that evening. However, I dropped the idea every time, fearing it may ruin her image and self-respect in the family and the whole village.
After I was forced to confess the crime, I was consigned to a small dark dingy cell. The first month passed me through the unbearable fury of hell, the second taught me to adjust myself to this fate: to darkness, to the bites and stings of insects, to suffocation, to bad odour and above all, to the highly disgusting abuses of the policemen. The third month convinced me that only this will be my fate. Whatever they served me in the dented steel plate tasted well, for I have never had any serious liking for flavours and spices or any specific foods.
In the third month of my imprisonment, two policemen walked me handcuffed to the lawn outside. I would sit there for hours looking at the swinging tops of the big chinars. That was all I could see from the lawn with the tall concertina-topped walls obstructing everything else. Sometimes a policeman would drag his chair and sit close to me in the lawn. It was from this policeman that I learnt I was suspended from my job. I had joined as a clerk in Jammu and Kashmir Bank a few months back from my imprisonment.
In the fourth month, my mother and elder brother were permitted to meet me. The sight of my dishevelled beard and unkempt clothes brought tears in her eyes. She hugged me tightly. I couldn’t even tell her that I was innocent because our short conversation was so closely monitored. Despite that, she knew that her son was innocent.
In the next month, I was suddenly blindfolded in the evening and shifted to another unknown yet spacious prison where I got a large company of new inmates. The cells were comparatively bigger but the food served was almost the same. I once heard an inmate shouting from my neighbouring cell, “This is a famous big prison. Everything is different here except for the food. I think they bring it from my previous prison.”
Every morning, we were driven and brought together in a large ground. A couple of angry officers warned us not to stop or give up before running three full circles around the ground. After breakfast, as a routine, we were tasked to remove weeds from the large vegetable fields cultivated by some policemen. I chewed collards and sometimes wrapped a cucumber under my salwar cord to eat it later in the cell. Another inmate, a notorious stone-pelter, always stole green peppers, cucumbers, onions and shallots for salads. Twice a month we were driven, like cattle, to a crowded corner where we unloaded heavy logistics from big army trucks. Later in the night, when the pain in my joints and the cramps in my hands couldn’t let me sleep, I missed my beloved and my mother. The memory of her grabbing my arm to her warm ribs pierced like a red-hot spike of iron in my body.
Now I had lost the track of time; I had grown habitual of everything that transpired in the prison. It might have been two or three months that I was removed to the earlier place of my imprisonment.
Winters arrived. In the feeble late autumn sunshine, I would sit handcuffed on the dried-up grass of the same lawn and gaze at the leafless chinar tops. The concertina-topped walls were whitewashed now. My family brought me new clothes, fried chicken and rajma gravy along with boiled rice on weekends. The same policeman would drag his chair and sit next to me and ask several questions which slowly instilled a hope inside me that one day I will be freed.
Two years passed. Nothing happened during these years except the excruciating realization of this nothingness. Sometimes, in the middle of the long sleepless nights, when the unfounded charges labelled against me troubled me, I would weep and inconsolably pull my hair.
In the third year of my imprisonment, when the dried-up grass in the lawn had slowly turned green again and the chinar tops also had turned into impenetrable green grooves, a strong urge, to write something that could at least relax my burdened heart, was born inside me. Besides, my helplessness steadily changed me into a believer. Sometimes my supplications brought me some peace in that dark cell.
‘By the time I will be released from the prison, my love will be happily married to someone’, I feared thinking as I looked at the rustling chinar tops. The policeman dragged his chair and sat closer to me that day.
“I feel bored these days. I fear I will die of this boredom soon”, I said.
“Don’t you know any influential politician or bureaucrat? Nothing else can come to your rescue in a police station. You will rot here unnoticed. Nobody outside knows anything about the torture you undergo every day”, he said as he wiped the dust off his boots.
“No, I don’t know any politician or a powerful man. All I need is a notebook and a pen to kill this boredom.”
“Well, that will bring you more torment. Nobody here would be pleased with your writing against them.”
“I won’t write against anyone. I want to write about those rustling chinar tops. They never stop. They never give in.”
Someone interrupted us and told him that the Sahab was asking for him. He left me there handcuffed.
The only thing worth remembering that happened to me in three long years was the graciousness of this policeman. The next day he stealthily slipped a pen and a small notebook in my cell. Had there not been a small hole at the top of my cell, I would never have been able to read what I wrote in that notebook. I loved this little precious notebook which I addressed to my beloved. For me, it was all the paper in the world. On its tiny ages, I wrote about my unfinished past, the past denied to me, and drew our sketches right above the free chinar tops away from the concertina-toped walls.
‘What almost kills me every moment are the strange apprehensions as to why I am rotting in this prison and what breathes life back into my broken body are the remembrances of our first and last meeting. My life is an unfinished memory of past, forced through the interminable agony of the present ”, read the last lines of the notebook.
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Ghulam Mohammad Khan is an Assistant Professor in Higher Education and writer based in Kashmir. He has been previously published by many national and international journals.
Heart wrenching, realistic, very engaging adored with all the beauty of artistic grace- Thanks alot for writing this story sir.
A beauty wrapped in melanchony….same as Kashmir…only n only we can know…its not a fiction…a true story