Short Story: Pangs of separation, and SOPs

FPK Photo/Qayoom Khan.

The thunder shakes the earth—as if the firmament bawled like a half-widow. Mushtaq Ahmad from Srinagar’s Hazratbal sat firmly on the couch staring outside through an octagon-shaped window of a lobby facing the Dal Lake.

The 54-year-old was listening to the All India Radio (AIR) on his decades-old transistor.

Mushtaq, who has downturned eyes with a white trimmed beard, was nicknamed ‘detective’ by his wife Amina, who religiously adhered to the principles of faith.

Mushtaq, laughed sardonically before asking himself, ‘Mushtaqa, iss radio ki life tujh se zyada hai, O’ Mushtaq this Radio has more shelf life you do…”

Moments later, the news broke out about the deadly plague – the novel Coronavirus.

The world in the coming days crumbled under pressure and Kashmir was no exception.

Unfazed Mushtaq, a physics teacher in Kashmir’s government-run school contemplated over the mass destruction across the globe. He kept thinking about the healthcare system, doctors, nurses and patients in Kashmir until his exhausted eyes shut.

On the very next morning at 6:00 am, Mushtaq woke up before briskly going upstairs like a healthy teenager—to collect his golden and rectangle-shaped eyeglasses from a walnut-wood-made drawer of his room. Like everyday, he surveyed his almirah before heading downstairs with a diary and a book— The Valley of Kashmir written by Walter Roper Lawrence.

The warm afternoon of March 20 felt no different to the previous days when Mushtaq walked past the corridor to sit on the floor of the kitchen, alongside his chuffed family members, to discuss social and political happenings with his only son, Fazal. Mushtaq’s wife, Amina, was occupied with kitchen chores and over the week she had developed symptoms of common cold very conceivable during the springtime. However, she decided to endure. It had appeared as common flu and not COVID-19.

A week after, behind the golden russet and multi-layered white curtains, Mushtaq’s back showed rebellion whenever he bent to hold a cup of Nun-Chai—the pinkish Kashmiri salt tea traditionally brewed in the samovar.

Mushtaq’s son Fazal’s, eyes lit up as the whiff of coal mixed with that of tea spread around. Fazal took a cursory look at the newspaper before asking his mother, “Mumma, mei dei tchott peace. Mom, give me a slice of bread.”

“Syui ha chi fridges pyeith byei haa’ tchi thyein, That is on the fridge where I have also kept butter,” Amina responded gleefully.

Fazal without wasting any time collected the love-filled toast only to see his father wearing a broad smile, thining about his own youthful self, and how much Fazal looked like him.

Amina asked Mushtaq if he could get medicines for her. Her husband, without hesitation, took an umbrella and stepped out in rain to head to the medical store. There was a complete lockdown in the area, only the medical shop was open, so he stood in a queue and waited for his turn to get into the store, while it rained cats and dogs.

The next day, Amina was feeling slightly better as she began her morning chores in the kitchen to prepare breakfast.

Again, the radio was broadcasting the dreary news of the pandemic, which had spread all over the world and spiked in India. It followed with a coronavirus positive case traced in Kashmir. Mushtaq was numb, as startled Amina whispered, “waai khudaya raetch kar, asei ha bah chu wutchmuth syatah. May God save us, we’ve witnessed a lot [during this conflict].”

On March 20, 2020, Mushtaq sensed dizziness and a headache. He called Amina to bring a cup of tea. As the day passed, Mushtaq began to shiver due to a high fever. Amina got frightened; she gave him cold sponges that provided some relief.

The next day, Mushtaq’s condition deteriorated. He now had a severe headache and chest pain. His wife was worried so she called a local compounder to check his blood pressure and other vitals. He suggested that Mushtaq should be taken to the hospital. The only way was to ask the neighbours a favour.

“Fazal saeba tala apaari wann Anzar bayas gaed aaniha, Abu nimoun haspataal. Fazal ask Anzar for his car, we will take your father to the hospital.” 

On the way to the hospital, Mushtaq was gasping for breath, helplessly. Fazal and Amina were horror-struck to see Mushtaq’s condition worsening before doctors at the frontline advised for a few investigative tests.

The physician the next morning asked them if he had any travel history because he had symptoms of COVID-19.

Fazal looked perplexed after seeing a doctor’s note on his father’s admission file.

“Mushtaq Ahmad 54 having no travel history, breathlessness with high fever and pneumonia,” the statement maintained.

The next day, doctors reported him to be positive for COVID-19.

Amina and Fazal, in the hospital corridor forlornly waited to see Mushtaq’s face but the doctors would not allow them to enter the ward and he was moved to the ICU on the intervening night of March 23 and 24.

Two days passed and Amina helplessly sat on a bench in the corridor.

Fazal forced her to have a piece of bread, Amina had hypoglycemia. She had surrendered all her courage to deal with this emergency. Fazal inquisitively wanted to know his father’s state but the doctors had strictly prohibited seeing him.

Three days passed, Mushtaq’s condition was deteriorating and so were Fazal and Amina, who hadn’t eaten.

On March 29, in the ICU, Mushtaq’s chest was collapsing, he was running out of breath and Amina stood outside, trying to see her husband fighting a quiet battle. Amina wept and prayed to the almighty to save the life of her man.

On April 2, 8:00 am Fazal was asleep in the aisle near the ICU and a pulmonologist woke him up: “Beta, I am so sorry to say, your father’s condition is getting worse. We have tried our best to treat him but he is hypertensive and diabetic, so I want you to be strong…”

By now, Amina was completely shattered and still trying to get a glimpse of him.

By the time news of Mushtaq being positive for COVID had broken out in the relatives and neighbours, his hope for recovery was forsaken.

Mushtaq had asked the nurse to let him have a glimpse of his son and wife.

With hospitals wearing a look of the graveyard, doctors had banned Fazal from standing outside the ICU and he knew there was no chance of seeing his father.

The intensity of the pangs of separation was tearing their hearts.

Two more days passed, Amina was admitted to the casualty ward for her hypoglycemia and Fazal was still trying to get a glimpse of his father. He kept moving between the corridors, and the deserted canteen.

The next day, as the sky was dark and gloomy, Mushtaq’s heartbeat tumbled down like a descending sun – the half-dead was gone for good.

A nurse told Fazal that his father had gone to the eternal bliss, but they cannot do the burial rituals on Mushtaq’s gravestone, ‘according to the SOPs’.

Mushtaq had lost the battle of life and death.

Amina’s heart was quivering, she wailing on her husband’s death, when she couldn’t even see him, touch him.

Fazal’s soul was crushed when his father was being carried like a martyr to the grave with only a few allowed to offer the Namaz-e-Janaza (funeral prayer) by men dressed in protective suits. He kept walking at a distance, still hoping for a gmipse. The body was wrapped, then kept in a wooden box.

Moments later, as it rained heavily, before Mushtaq was lowered in a grave, Amina too breathed her last.


The author is a student of English literature. She is currently working on a book which is a collection of poems. 


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