He kept looking dreamily at his white sneakers left to sundry on a green plastic armless chair on the roof of his father’s one-storey house. Jibraan looked at them yesterday as well, even a day before, too, with varied curiosity, but today he sat on his knees and blew on them twice to remove a tiny bird feather that had fallen on the left foot and got stuck in its frayed laces. He looked up to see where it could have come from but the extended tin sheets on the bunker, built right above the staircase to prevent rain and snow from falling inside the house, did not allow him to see any further. Then, he looked on his right and found leaves of tall and thin poplar trees shaking. “I didn’t blame them. Why are they shaking?” he smiled as he thought so. Shaking his head, Jibraan ran his hands over the shoes to feel them and tied the shoelaces as he would do when he wore them. Suddenly, he got up as if he was pulled away from the shoes and ran down, slipped his feet into another pair of old faded red sneakers, whose collars were already bent inwards. He ran up the street and was out of sight within no time.
“Jibraan! Jibraan! Jibraan!” shouted his mother after seeing him in the street from a kitchen window. She turned to her elder son, Mudawar, who was smiling at a text he had received on his phone, “Muda, get up fast. Jibu left again. He is not even wearing his shoes properly. Get up! Get up!”.
“Dad only brought him back a few hours before. He has been doing it for three days now, running away without any reason,” Mudawar said to his mother angrily without looking at her. “Where will I search for him now? And he doesn’t come back easily when he sees me. He runs away and hides at places where he thinks he will be out of sight from me,” Mudawar added as he left to follow his brother to bring him back or at least keep a watch on him. “Go now without arguing. I know it well that Jibu is not his normal self from the past few days. Something is terribly wrong with him,” said the mother, almost crying at what has befallen her teenage son.
Mudawar ran after his brother, determined this time to grab hold of his brother.
Before, when everything was normal, whenever Jibu left home, he would make sure his mother knew where he was going. If he ever got late, his parents and siblings would wait impatiently and worried. He would come home was by 9, not past that.
When on the first day Jibu left without informing and did not return until 11, Mudawar searched for him at Aziz’s coffee shop, Salman’s barbeque stall, and near old bridge of Narbal which was often crowded in the evenings as it offered a mesmerizing view of the sunsets.
Jibran’s family knew if they let out that their child is missing, it would raise suspicion in the neighbourhood and, ultimately, police would be at their door in no time, given the circumstances in Kashmir at the moment where almost every missing youth appears on Social Media in a picture wielding a gun with his code name and the militant organization he has joined. This would mean endless nightmares for the family as government forces would frequent their house to question about the youth’s whereabouts or ask them to persuade him to surrender. Most of the time the Army will harass the family and vandalise their home. Jibraan’s family did not want this, not at all.
Mudawar had just returned from Delhi to spend his two-month summer vacation with his family. He had no idea where Jibran might be. Not knowing exactly where and who, of late, Jibraan used to go and meet he went about the market as though taking an evening walk, exchanging greetings and smiles along the way. He wanted to ask Salman, the barbeque seller, if he had seen his brother, but seeing him surrounded by his customers, he could not. He walked towards the old Narbal bridge.
By now, the sun had gone down the Apharwat Mountain, and people on the streets were hardly recognizable until they came close.
Near the bridge, Mudawar involuntarily took to his right and went down a slope overlooking three dirt roads on its three sides. The dirt roads led to three small separate yet connected Mohallas of Narbal where people of three different castes lived.
Mudawar, on finding the gate open, entered Eidgah. He was drawn to this place because his old memories were associated with it.
Without letting his memories take over his senses, he quietly went over to one of the iron-fenced sides, and hid behind a Chinar tree. He wanted to listen to the voices coming over the fence. He stood still and listened intently to different voices coming from a group of boys who were sitting nearby.
“Turn on the torch of your cell phone. Look at my bloodshot eyes. It is because of lack of sleep over the past several nights,” said one among them in a thin voice. “Every night army comes and wakes the entire village up, barge inside and rummage through everything if they suspect of hiding militants,” the thin voice added. “The scariest part was when they were shouting at an empty house the other night. When no one opened the door, they threw stones at the windows and then few of them kicked the door open,” said another boy in a shattered voice, “That house belongs to Jibu’s family,” the voice added. Mudawar shook behind the tree and a strange coldness came over him which lasted for a moment. “Ever since Tabrez went missing, they suspect him of having joined militancy,” a third voice said. “Who knows!” the boy with a thin voice responded.
Mudawar retreated silently and as he was coming out of the Eidgah, there was, under a faint light, which was coming from a window of the house nearby, a silhouette of a human sitting, crouched, arms on knees and head resting on them. Like in sync with the sound coming from the street lamp, the figure hummed and slightly rocked itself back and forth.
Suddenly, in a voice that reached clearly to Mudawar’s ears, the figure started to sing. It was a familiar tone. A few seconds into listening, Mudawar got to know for sure that it was Jibu’s voice. He smiled and heaved a sigh of relief. However, he continued listening and wanted to know the words coming out of Jibu’s mouth. Initially, it looked like the lyrics of a song but it wasn’t so as Jibu kept reciting. He talked of his pain, the torture at the hands of security forces a few months back, and the heartbreak after his girlfriend left him when she heard Jibran has gone mad. The more Jibu recited the more tears fell down from Mudawar’s cheeks;
Me and my love set a date
I bought her sandals and she bought me shoes
Ah, the shoes! This pair is the dearest to me
Do you want to know what type of them I hate the most?
The long laced jackboots that swung great
In the lockup possessed by demons masquerading as humans
In a uniform that should have meant for help, not harm
They were my own breed, sons of my own soil
But there they played second fiddle to an outsider
“Not guilty, not guilty,” I screamed till I could scream no more
That was last year
They broke my skull but I couldn’t save my brains
Nearly disfigured my face; the scars on it are tangible
and my love, she never turned up for the date
An intense fit of cough, mixed with his crying, took over Mudawar, almost falling down. Jibraan ran towards his brother. “Let’s go home, brother,” he said as if he was normal again.
(This Short Story was published in the September 2020 print issue of Mountain Ink.)
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Younis Ahmad Kaloo is a writer and journalist based in Kashmir. He is the former Delhi Correspondent at the FORCE Magazine.