Couped up in the cell, Amaan looked through the air-hole and watched the two stars staring at him. Throwing streaks of twilight to his wounds and scars. But suddenly, darkness shrouded the stars, and they were stolen again!
Ever since a little boy, Amaan loved those little stars tucked up in an army uniform, more than the twilight that sheds light over the troubles and horrors of the nights here. His father was a daily milk supplier to the army base in the neighbourhood for 13 years. And Amaan has been accompanying him since his 8th birthday. It was one of his birthday wishes and Mahmoud, Amaan’s father, did not find any reason not to grant it. He rarely gets the opportunity to go to school, as they remain closed due to lockdown. Or simply because the campus had to be served as the camp.
And moreover, it is Amaan who has to carry on the family job, the legacy of his family to the next generation and so it was decided that he would accompany his Abba for supplying the milk.
Amaan would proudly get into his Abba’s cycle, maintaining an air of sobriety and brings a manly look to his moon cupped face, yearning to attract some respect. And he loved that part of his day very much.
In the vicinity of the army encampments, stuffed with fears and anxiety, he runs his eyes through and around, capturing all that he sees with intense subtlety. Whenever he and his friends got together for a play, he would boast about his little achievement. And above everything, his dream of owning an army uniform tucked up in stars on two shoulders.
Amaan’s family is the most respected household in the village and perhaps the most alienated one too. They were the only family in the neighbourhood, found to be eligible, trustworthy and permitted to enter an army base for generations.
People tell that Amaan’s great grandfather was called by the Colonel himself and praised his milk as the best quality ever and lauded him for the sincerity in not mixing a drop of water.
Since then, Amaan’s ancestors took up this duty of supplying milk to the army base each day, year after year. It is even told that his grandfather was gifted a Red Jade by the then Colonel for their faithful service to the army. And from then, the family became the subject matter of all the households in the village.
But they were soon alienated from the rest of the people for being friends with the enemies. When in and around, a man or a woman or children were dead, or hit with rubber bullets or pellets, everyone starts to reprimand them for feeding their own tormentors.
Nevertheless, Amaan was little aware of the separations in his land and he did not know why people had to live in fear and anxiety each day. He was told that Nouruddeen, his neighbour who would sometimes take him to school in his car on the way to his shop, was killed in an accident.
When he asked about why Shiraz had to drop out from school to work with his mother, he was answered that his father fell down and couldn’t walk anymore.
The truths of Nouruddeen’s and Shiraz’s father’s lives were left out as unfinished stories and used as an arrow of terror. Or to provoke the rest for an expected response so as to terrorize them again and again.
Amaan remembers Nouruddeen’s one-sided smile, his stories and lame jokes and then he imagines his broken teeth, his wrecked car and his body lying under its debris.
Amaan frightens and shivers at nights in the sounds of cordons. But then he remembers those shiny stars in those stiff and well-ironed uniforms, those big polished boots running errands and blurring his vision to the bloodshed, diminishing his audibility unperturbed and unapologetic.
Whenever the armed men threatened the children and openly fired pellets at everyone in the vicinity of an encounter or at the demise of a son of the soil, Amaan would shout, “I am milkman Mahmoud’s son” and runs. After a few steps, he would turn back with his legs still making few shivering steps ahead, but only to see the men in uniform had halted. And he takes honour in that privilege, unaware that he was taming a Mephistopheles.
That day, Mahmoud had fevers and he was a heart patient too. It was obvious in his feeble breaths and intermittent shivers that he couldn’t ride his bicycle a way past. For the rest of the people, he wasn’t any concern of a day without giving milk. But how could he miss the service to the army base which has never been cut off for a day for decades? So, all the eyes were pointed unanimously to Amaan and thus he had to provide the milk to the base that day, if not anywhere else without a question.
For Amaan, it was of no wonder that the day and the responsibility he was bestowed upon was triggering him instantly, creating pleasure waves, a dream wave and a sense of liberty for the first time without knowing that his liberty had been already grabbed unquestionably.
The sun was clear and the sight was not blurred. After he was permitted to enter the base, he got down from the bicycle with an air of pride and was plodding it with few steps. Unaware of the territory he has crossed, his eyes wandered here and there and captured the sights of everything inside. Some men in uniform and some in their trousers and sweatshirts close to their bosoms, suffocating in their widening chests.
On his way back, Amaan saw a small box with its lid half-opened and a part of an army uniform left out. There was no one in the vicinity and he decided to take a look. The box read “….”. He gently opened it and saw the uniform and rolled his eyes all around, but suddenly took his hands off.
He moved a little forward, stopped, looked around again and thought for a moment. He walked back, opened the box and pinched away the three stars on each shoulder and buried them in his pockets. He got into his bicycle which has now become a stallion for him and steered away.
Yes, it was done in a moment, a few seconds. He never felt the wind passing against him or the sun staring above. Neither the shouts of the army trainers nor the murmurings inside a small white tent beside.
Probably the one on duty at the counter had an urge to pass urine and he left quickly with the lid opened.
But Amaan neither cared about him nor the vastness before him.
But that night, no one knew why there was a sudden outburst of shattered calm. The army had arrived on a hunt. They entered each house, intimidated the women, children and the old.
“Who was the spy? Who dared to be the traitor? Who stole our stars? How dare you disrespect our country by disfiguring it? You filthy people! Don’t forget that you are breathing under our mercy.”
The questions echoed over and over in every household they entered, which neither of them could understand except one, Amaan.
What else should have been more reasonable to start a cordon other than this when the very same uniform gifted for the major for his act of bravery in killing seven of the militants at an encounter a day before, was disfigured and disrespected. Above all stealing those stars, the stars of heaven slipped down to hell, that shining piece of warning!
This time for sure reasons, Amaan’s house was not spared. They stamped open the front door, broke a chair and held everyone hostage. Amaan hid back off his mother and sister.
“Are you the spy? You son of a bitch! Don’t lie … Only you have the access to our camp. You won’t be spared this time.”
Amaan’s father startled at their words.
“What are you saying, Sahib? Spy for what … I have been at my service fo…” His words were chopped halfway and one of them pushed him against the wall and punched him with his shoulders. The impression of two and half bleeding stars was visible in his left cheek and Amaan and his sister shivered at the sight.
“Who stole the stars on our major’s uniform? If you don’t say, I will kill you and cook your daughter for dinner.”
All the prestige, the honour and trust mingled with the blood of this land in a moment and ran down with the flowing rivers carrying the legacies.
Amaan ran to his room, with the flow and came back in a second with his tiny palm clutched in three tiny stars shining still.
“I am sorry … I love the stars … I did not know it was wrong…” Tears roll down his cheeks, his breaths entangled in shivers and sobs.
Little did he know that in their land, one doesn’t really have to know what has to be done and what has not to be. Punishment remains the same.
“I am sorry, Abba,” Amaan said and ran towards Mahmoud and hugged him in fear. There was silence for a moment and then one of them came forward and pulled him apart.
“Do you love stars?” he asked.
“Hmm … yes,” Amaan replied in sobbing tears.
“We have many types of stars. Come with us, we will show you.”
He said and dragged him along unperturbed of the rising cries and shouts of Amaan and his family.
Neither the pleads of his mother, nor the innocent helpless face of Amaan was worth then.
“Enoughhh!” the major yelled.
“Boy… don’t you know that things you love are not to be owned. It will lose its beauty if you do.” He said and resumed to take him away.
The people around peeped astonishingly in through the windows and rooftops in fear.
“If you claim to love our land and ourselves, then why do you want to own us?” it came from Mahmoud this time.
For the first-ever time, he breaks his silence, the legacy and the pride.
Amaan and Mahmoud were together taken away. But they became heroes of their neighbourhood now. Culprits of theft became honourable.
Couped up in the cell, Amaan looked through the air-hole and watched the two stars staring at him. Throwing streaks of twilight to his wounds and scars.
But suddenly, darkness shrouded the stars, and they were stolen again!
(This Short Story was published in the March 2021 print issue of the Mountain Ink.)
Hana Vahab is a writer and freelance journalist based in Kerala.