He would talk to the imaginary audience, giving them lessons on existentialism and the state of despair in life. Of his own ‘state’ of despair, he was the king and the government. He would break down at times while giving them the portrayal of his little daughter: “Myeni koor aes hoor” (My daughter looked like an angel).
It was past two in the midnight. Dogs were barking from all the deserted streets around the lonely house in this isolated locality of elites.
The old man descended the stairs, a dull spark from a lantern, in whose illumination he had spent so many years of his life now, fell upon his eyes and he made his way to the only wooden wardrobe in the room that was kept for guests. He stumbled across the bottle of cheap whiskey while searching through all the chests of the wardrobe. He had bought the bottle from a soldier for 65 INR exactly a year before and taken it home under his lower garment while it hung beneath his pheran like a baby. Since no one had visited him for a long time now, he found it safe to keep his personal belongings in the room that was kept for guests. The date was important: November 3.
The year was not important because in the violent climate that had spanned a long time now, all years seemed alike. It was a period of fanatical sadism where all the political groups had lost their direction in the pursuit of their respective social orders without realizing the dangers of its prospect. Every group wanted to have an upper hand over the other group giving rise to confrontations. In an atmosphere of despotism, who would have wanted devolution of authority! An authority that was not entirely theirs!
It happened on November 3 in a year remotely settled in his memory that he tried to memorize a dream he had dreamt of in the previous night. He had been struggling with the terrifying sequence of his dream in the dream itself. He could see himself in a dark courtroom as an onlooker where the judge condemned two people to death. He had seen how he was ruthlessly beaten by people inside the courtroom when he was not even distantly linked to the trial of the case. He narrated the details of his dream to his wife and thought of sharing the same with a maulvi. The dream left him tense throughout the day and he had an inkling that something dangerous was going to happen.
He sent his wife to a nearby shrine in the evening to pray for the well-being of the family. They were a family of five- the old man himself, his wife, Nargis, his only daughter, and two sons, who had become guests of the family after taking two opposite paths in their lives. His elder son was a bureaucrat and the younger son was a rebel leader who had joined the Mujahidin after the popular uprising erupted against the Indian rule.
When the dark unfurled itself over the countryside, the old man heard an unpleasant knocking on the front door. Who could be there at this hour, the old man wondered. He was followed by his daughter who remained at the main door of the house after much insistence from her father to stay inside. He grew impatient and did not open the door for a long time. After the knocking continued for a long time, he rushed to the gate and saw from a cavity across the wall two boys wearing black pherans, both of them nervous. No sooner did he open the gate, the boys aimed at the house with their AK-47 rifles and fired a barrage of bullets and left in a hurry. The old man grew impatient and failed to understand this rapid shift of events.
In this sense of shock, he had not even got to his feet when his wife came to him wailing, embraced him on his head and screamed helplessly, “Nargis ha moyi, temis ha aayi kalas goeli beser” (Nargis is dead. A volley of bullets hit her on her head).
The old man did not recover from this shock for a long time and he never really desired to find the reasons behind the killing of Nargis. She was dead and nothing else mattered to him. It had been learnt, however, that she was killed by the armed group on the pretext that her younger brother had been affiliated with an organization that held a different political opinion.
Aatish belonged to the Nationalist Party and had been among the first groups to go for arms training in Muzaffarabad. Even before the mass uprising of 90s and the political uncertainty that led to it, Aatish was trained as a potential rebel leader. He had undergone a strenuous training and was considered to be the major force behind the creation of a strong rebel base in the whole of North Kashmir.
As the old man sat down to drink, he made sure that he had a pack of cigarettes alongside. He mixed water with his first drink and felt a burning sensation that stayed for a while in his throat. The hot smell needed a cigarette to vanish. He took another neat drink and yelled a satisfying yell as if he had fulfilled a reluctant promise. He took his final drink of two normal whiskey shots and began to drag on cigarettes like there was no other way of inflicting pain on oneself. Did anyone smoke so painfully?
He did not cry on the day Nargis was killed or the days that followed her killing. He was waiting for his own death and had built his own imaginary audience of dead people around him. He would talk to the imaginary audience, giving them lessons on existentialism and the state of despair in life. Of his own ‘state’ of despair, he was the king and the government. He would break down at times while giving them the portrayal of his little daughter. He would say hopelessly, “Myeni koor aes hoor” (My daughter looked like an angel). He would then burst in laughter as his nights and days approached.
The only reason for his drinking was to meet his old self when he was a soft-hearted man. After Nargis was killed, he never cried as satisfyingly as he had wanted. To meet this desire where he could cry alone, he intoxicated himself with cheap whiskey. He found relief in battling his memories at this hour of the night when everyone was sleeping. In profound silence. This unburdened him from feelings where he thought of hitting his head against a heavy wall of metal spikes and also the tendencies of suicide that he had lately developed. He cried madly the whole night and dozed off in intervals that left marks of a sweet sensation of pain on his depressing eyelids.
The old man felt a severe thirst when it was 5 in the morning. When he rose from his bed to have a glass of water, he saw an old black-and-white photograph of Nargis holding some decayed pages of an old book in her hand. Interestingly, the pages had received more focus than the subject itself. He followed the page that was more visible. It read:
The not-happening was so sudden
that I stayed there for ever,
without knowing, without their knowing me,
as if I were under a chair,
as if I were lost in the night –
so was that which was not,
and so I have stayed for ever.
~Loneliness, Pablo Neruda.
The depressingly cheerless silence prevailed and he could not find any sleep after trailing on and on in his bed. He was lonely and was hardly reminded of his sons who had left him behind. His wife had been dead for years now. He did not remember how many. He collected cigarette butts from an ashtray left at a far corner in the room and dragged hard on all the butts, one by one, until he was satisfied. He had himself been an army man and had worked in his youth for the army. Throughout his service, he had been lucky to be posted in the nearby Gurez Valley. He would carry on his back an INSAS rifle like a schoolbag and had actually never used it or fired any bullet except on two occasions- one, when a shadow had disturbed him from a deep sleep at night and after firing at it, it had turned out to be a dog and another when he was asked to fire into the air to disperse a protest.
All the young men and women and their children of this elite colony in Pirpur area of Kashmir left for different warm places in Jammu, India and elsewhere during winters leaving their elderly behind. After rebels took over the valley, this colony became a safe haven for many government officials. His elder son, who was an administrator with the state government and remained mostly outside with his wife and children, had bought this house in the locality for the sojourns and summer stays of the family.
The neighbourhood had become a sanctuary for old people in the severe late autumn and winter. Widows, widowers, bedridden, active, humorous, boring and in some cases, a Gujjar family from any far-off village in Kupwara or Baramulla would be given the duty to take care of these elderly men and women. But the old man was alone. He did not have friends. His loneliness was his only friend.
When the old man got up in the morning, he felt a mild headache. Since he did not have much to do, he took a heavy breakfast that included two breads, a pan full of fried beef pieces and a cup of black tea that he always liked cold. At noon he heard a knock at the main gate and when he went to check the visitor he did not see anyone there. It might have been a neighboring boy with a message from his son, he thought. He thought of no other possibilities. After shutting the gate his sight straightaway fell on some rags and among them clothes of his grandchildren and his daughter-in-law that lay beside the well in their courtyard. He took a bucket full of water and started washing the clothes one by one. He came across a white underwear with yellow stains between its inner space and started rubbing it against a stone. He repeated it for a while until he realized that he was too old for this job. It belonged to his daughter-in-law.
He made a kangri and took a short siesta. The sound of a tractor somewhere near the house woke him up and a cool breeze touched his face. The kangri that he kept under his blanket was left with nothing but a handful of ashes in it and he did not know if there was anything at all he was warming himself with. One who has abjured life and the beliefs around life does not know cold and hot. He nourishes an emotional revolution in his bones and his soul.
The hour hand of the clock had already touched 2 in the afternoon when he heard shouts from a nearby locality. He overlooked it first but after a neighbor shouted his name, he ran to the street. It was learnt that Aatish had been killed in a feud between rebel groups. At first, he did not panic. He had almost forgotten that he even had a son who was a leader of a militant organization. After he saw a huge crowd approaching him benevolently, he collapsed and fell on the ground. He could not withstand the flurry of emotions that brought back memories of family and Nargis. He could not bear the presence of another dead body in this long track of death and destruction.
He heard someone saying that Aatish’s body was recovered after fifteen days of his death after a man from the opposite group was interrogated upon to tell about his whereabouts. He also said that when his dead body was recovered, many men from the Nationalist Party had burnt houses of the opposite party members. It had been a doomsday for the many villages around as Aatish’s death was seen as a huge setback to the freedom movement.
When Aatish’s father was seen by members of the Nationalist Party in the funeral procession, they turned emotional and violent, and the funeral became a battlefield of narratives. Many wanted to fight an instant war against the adversaries and eliminate them from the political narrative of the freedom movement.
The funeral prayers of Aatish were read by a moulvi followed by a gun salute that was offered by the chief of the Nationalist Party himself. One could see a sea of people attending his funeral prayers and among them were some known faces, watching from distance. How could one attend the funeral of his adversary!
Aatish was buried around 5 in the evening on a day that was coincidentally November 3.
The old man did not know about it, but he remembered the November 3 tryst with his bottle of cheap whiskey. He was also reminded of Nargis. The day had been the longest so far in his life, he thought to himself.
When the crowd started diminishing around the evening, it was learnt that Army and allied forces had cordoned the whole area. As soon as the news spread, the rebels ran off from the place. A crackdown was called upon instantly and a search operation was launched. Amid rising tensions of brawls between Army and the people, the old man in a corner near the graveyard saw how people hurled kangris at the security forces and exactly how it was retaliated with bullets. He did not know how many people had already fallen to the bullets. No one did. He maintained his calm in the aroma of sadism all around.
It was approaching 12 in the midnight when the Army finally started leaving. He saw from the corner two rebels who lay in ambush and paid no notice to them. They did not seem comfortable at their places, exchanged whispers between them and took a higher position across the graveyard quickly. While sitting alone at the corner, he could see a queue of army vehicles leaving the place. As soon as the convoy was closing, lightning bullets blew the last car from the place where he had seen the rebels lay in ambush. He could not decide between things and saw the rebels vanishing into thin air. It all happened in the blink of an eye.
The armored car was in tatters and the first car in the line stopped to counter the rebels. In the airs of helplessness, the army found it acceptable to move from the place until one officer’s eye fell on the old man. He slapped him on his face asking him about the rebels. The old man did not speak a word. The officer looked at his watch: It was 11:59-midnight-November 3. He started to thrash the old man with the butt of his rifle. A group of armed men surrounded him and gave him threatening looks. They ridiculed him in the miserable quandary he was in. The agony continued until the firing started again from across the graveyard.
The old man was in an appalling condition and could hardly make movements. He crawled along the ground and once he reached the entrance to the graveyard, he lost all the strength to move any further. He moved his head to see through the alley opposite to him. He saw his imaginary audience waiting for him to speak on existentialism and the state of despair in life. The gunfire continued and he wondered which way to take. All that blazed into his eyes was the imaginary dead audience.
Hailing from North Kashmir’s Bandipora, Aarif Muzafar Rather is an aspiring short story writer.