The power cut

Part-I 

The power supply was cut at exactly ten minutes to ten. Snow continued to fall outside on the powerless power cables. It also enveloped the glow-less lamp posts. The clouds were dark and dreary but thankfully no one could see them on an ebony night.

Ajwa ran downstairs. She had been watching her favorite programme on telly when the light-lords decided to cut short her happy hour. Mom was still doing the dishes under the faucet. It was fashionable to dine late, to the distant crackle of gunfire. Especially in the city. Altair was looking out on the lawns. The cat – they had named her Zeba – licked her golden fur near the fireplace. Ajwa’s mom lit two thick candles [Rs 5 per candle from the expensive Rs 25 candle box] on the kitchen sill, dissipating a feeble light in the Syed’s cozy kitchen.

Ajwa rushed to the kitchen afraid that a hag might suddenly emerge from the darkness-emanating walls and carry her away.
“Mom”, little Ajwa gathered her tiny breath, “Why do they keep cutting the light always?”
 “Tintin was about to grab Rastapopoulos’ collar when the light went out. I don’t know if he got him or not”, she added with an exasperated face that was part-dejected, part-angry, part-panting. “
“Ajwa, just sit quietly and let me finish the work,” Mrs Syed retorted.
“Altair, why don’t you go to your room and study?”
Altair sat expressionless, looking out of the window, into the inky night.  

“Altair, why does Rasta wear an eye badge?” Ajwa asked her brother.
“Can you just shut up Ajwa? You and your pesky questions. Got better things to do.”
 “I was just asking, why are you shouting?”
“Listen, mom, I think Dad has not returned,” Altair said, still looking out in the night.

Mr Syed was 47. A burly man with neat manners and a clipped moustache, he had a big nose and a thick mop of graying hair. His teeth were a shade yellow because he had been smoking since the day a gang of beanpole boys in his school decided to take a puff at a cheap brand of smokes. Of course most of them turned out to be full-time smokers and two of Mr Syed’s school mates – two decades later — had developed smoking related complications. While one had lung cancer, the others’ arteries would clog from time to time, which the doctors attributed to his Wills habits. Lucky for Syed he had no major health conditions but carried a permanent tan on his teeth.

Mr Syed’s father had been a preacher at the local mosque and was never out of ready cash. He ensured that his smoking son went to the best college. In the end Syed Junior became a chemical engineer. The old preacher died at 85 [although there were rumors those days in the old alleys leading to the Syed’s old home that he was 110, some said 112] with several crisp bank notes still in his Pheran pocket. Days after he was dead and buried with a small rose water bottle emptied on his mortal remains and when everyone gave an individual assurance that he/she saw Syed Senior in his/her dream, either sitting on an Iranian carpet in the paradise or galloping on a white female steed with a white turban on his multi-wrinkled forehead, Syed Junior stumbled across a dirty pillow, the size of a palm, in the old man’s old creaky cupboard. There was something odd about this pillow. Trained as an engineer, and programmed to go to the circuit of any problem, Syed ripped open the pillow. There was Rs 9,999 neatly sewn up. The old man, it appeared, was as complicated as the knots in the Iranian carpet he sat on, in someone’s dream.

Mrs Syed was now getting worried. Many winters back, when their second child [Ajwa] was born after a longish hiatus, she had extracted a promise from her smoker hubby.
“Promise me, you won’t smoke in front of the kids, Jaan,” Mrs Syed said as they snuggled in their thick white cotton quilt. She called him Jaan with love.
“I do, Jaan,” Syed replied. He called her Jaan with love. Baby Ajwa cooed in her onyx crib, blessing her parents reciprocity.

There had been no lights then. Like now, it was snowing on the promise-eve in 1987. Nature seldom changes her habits. It never ceases to send rains and winds and thunder and snow at regular intervals. Likewise the light-lords too didn’t mend their ways. There were light cuts back in 1980, the year Altair was born. In 1987, seven years after Altair’s birth, when Ajwa came into being, there were more cuts. The cuts continued to the present — 1999. Just one year into the new millennium, when most of the globe was lambent, the cuts here looked routine, like the myriad snow flakes.

                                                           

                                                          ****

Part-II

Altair stood on the veranda where Mr Syed must have smoked at least a mini-van full of his favorite cigarettes in the last 15 years. “Dad, Dad,” he called out. There was no response.

A fine snow continued to fall. Snow had started packing up in the lawns. It fell on the fence and the lightless lamp post, across the fence. Upon little eggs in the eagle’s old eyrie, while the bird was lost somewhere in white wilderness. Ashen crystals made an almost medieval swirling descent. They fell headlong on still waters of the distant pond, kissing her stillness. It snowed on locked temples and countless military sand bunkers. In every orchard and onto each slope. Snow fell on fresh graves. On abandoned army helmets upon the lonely hillside. In wetlands. Old chimneys in the Shaher-Khas [old quarters of city] were blanketed by snow. The surreal confetti fell across meadows, along the hamlets and on top of Mr Syed’s Maruti car.

“Altair, I am getting worried about Syed Sahib,” Mom said.
She used to call him Syed Sahib, in a native, naïve way of addressing her hubby in front of kids and outsiders.
“Why don’t you call up Dr. Khan to check if he is gone there?”
“Why would he go to Dr Khan’s at this time, Mom?” Altair shot back.
“Just call Dr Khan, Would you?”
“God, Dad can be so reckless.”
Altair picked up the receiver and began punching in the telephone number of his next door neighbor. It was easy for him. Altair had dialed it on many home-alone days.

“Hello, Dr Uncle, Salam-alikum, this is Altair Syed,” “Did Dad come there by any chance? He has gone out for about 10-15 minutes and hasn’t returned, and we are kind of worried…Mom was wondering whether he came to your place,” he asked in one rapid breath.
“No sonny he is not here”, Dr Khan answered in his usual baritone voice.
“Did you check in the lawn?”
“Yes, Uncle, he is not around.”
“Why did he step out at this ungodly hour? It is snowing, for heaven’s sake” he continued.
“Actually Dad never smokes indoors when we are around. It is his habit to go out on the porch for a smoke. So he went out, as usual, and didn’t come back”.

“That is strange. Why would he go out in this snow? Besides it is curfew time. There is always the fear of a trooper mistaking him for some militant,” Dr Khan said in a worried tone. “Just wait a while and if doesn’t come, I’ll come along”.
“Thank you, Uncle, Salam-alikum”.
“Salam-alikum”.

“I told you, mom, Dad is not at the Khan’s”, Altair shouted.
“May be I should go out and check again”.
 “He may be near the lamp post thwacking at the electricity cables that come to our home.”
“Yes, he often checks on the outdoor cables or tap connections”.
“So that snow doesn’t pile up on anything fragile like a cable.”
“But snow eventually does accumulate on wires.”
“The snow kebabs,” Altair yelled. “Snow piles up to form kebabs around the wires.”
A mischievously slight smile flickered across his face.

Kebab is Kashmiri for Sausage. Nouf, Dr Khan’s 20 year old daughter loved Kebabs. About a month back when the Syed’s were away to visit Mrs Syed’s brother’s wife’s cousin, who had recently turned a retard and Altair was home alone, studying for his board exams, Nouf descended at the Syed cottage. Of course she was tipped off by Altair about his stopgap solitary status. Altair had done his homework properly: He had persuaded his parents to take Ajwa along on the two hour drive to the hills because she would distract him and not let him study. Mrs Syed’s brother’s wife’s cousin had been a healthy small-time farmer. He worked in his fields during the day and spent his evenings in the Masjid Hamam, cozy and smelling, but warm. He discussed crops and politics [killings, military, militants, crackdown] with other villagers, as the Hamami fed more logs to the Hamam’s ever famishing belly. He warmed his marrow on the polished rock tiles every evening until one evening he saw something while returning home from the warm Hamam. They said he blabbers about transparent fairies and refuses to go to the fields.

While the Syed’s drove to see their distant relative, a little typhoon was gathering in Nouf’s tender heart. She liked Altair, a handsome guy with sharp features and a lavish smile. She was dainty with an enticing pair of eyes. They were in Altair’s room now. A small mizzle had filled the early winter air. The globs clung to the window panes. Altair could hear his nerves flutter fast. Nouf means the highest peak of a mountain in Arabic and Altair is a falcon. The kingly bird swooped in lickety-split and perched itself on the peak. Nouf smiled an angelic smile. She liked the sausage. Altair was too good.

Zeba, the beautiful pet watched Altair wipe his wood.
“Come here, my little girl, you want some milk,” Altair whispered to the cat.
Zeba purred. Altair poured her a big bowlful of the creamiest cow milk that the huge milkman – called Dud-vole — used to ferry from his ancient village Taribal — just outside city limits — each morning. Altair was feeling spent and strangely blest. That day onwards, Zeba wagged her furry tail, whenever she saw Nouf. She knew her presence spelt good times. Like a good cat, she kept the little secret. Of course she licked a lot of milk to keep it.

Mrs. Syed – in her infinite wisdom – thought that Altair was responsible [rightly so] for the temporary milk shortfall.
“Altair, do you drink all the milk when I am not home?” Mrs Syed once asked when curiosity took the better of her.
“Mom, I’m not a kid, I don’t like milk,” Altair replied.
“Where does the milk go then?”
“Chemistry tells us that liquids can evaporate” he chuckled,” and faith vouches for angels, it can be either”.
“Hmm, “Mrs Syed sighed, “And it can be the devil also.”

                                                           ****

Part-III

Ajwa started to sob. “Where is dad? Why is he not coming back, Mom”.
“Ajwa, don’t worry my doll, dad will be here soon,” Mrs Syed falsely reassured her.
In her deepest depths though Mrs Syed had started having misapprehensions.
“What if Syed just went to check on the main door and was picked up by an army patrol passing by,” she thought to herself. “What if he was kidnapped by masked men, who roam at will these days?”
“Ya Allah”, she gasped. “I hope the gate creaks. I hope he enters. I hope he is safe”.
Another 10 minutes passed. The gate didn’t creak. No one entered. Mr Syed’s safety was in serious doubt now.
“Mom, Can it be the Raantus?” Ajwa asked.
Raantus is a female mythical were-ape, fabled to abduct unsuspecting men — especially — on cold, dark, wintry nights and carry them on her back to her mountain cave, high up on the highest cliff, where she feeds them raw flesh and asks them to marry her. All Kashmiri children are historically scared of the evil-beastess.
“No Ajwa, it isn’t the Raantus. I think it is something more real”
Ajwa didn’t understand.

“Altair, I think we should call Dr Khan again,” Mrs Syed said.
“Yes, I am going to call him right away.”
Altair dialed the familiar number. There was no response. He dialed again.
Mr Khan was on the other side of the line. “Altair, sonny, what’s the news?”
“Dr Uncle, Dad hasn’t come back. We are worried.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I am coming over.”

“Hmmm…” Dr Khan clad in a huge Pheran, paused, “So you are saying that Mr Syed went to have his usual last cigarette for the day. He stepped out on the porch and disappeared.”
“Yes, Doctor sahib,” Mrs Syed nodded.
“That is serious. I think we should talk to Mr Makhdoom. I’ve his number”.
“Who’s Mr Makhdoom, uncle?” Altair asked.
“Oh he is in the police chief’s office, a cop, my patient”
Mrs Syed now had tears in her almond-shaped eyes.

“Hello, Mr Makhdoom, This is Dr Khan. My neighbor Mr Syed has gone missing. No, he just stepped out of his home and vanished. Can you please do something?”
Dr Khan kept the receiver back on the hook and looked straight at Mrs Syed.
“The inspector is on his way. You need to be strong. The kids are young and need you,” Dr Khan said.
“Yes, yes Khan Sahib,” Mrs Syed nodded.
Altair eyes were tenderly moist.

Another twenty minutes went by. It was getting more eerie. Each moment was adding to the tensity. Meantime the sound of a jeep coming to a screeching halt outside the Syed’s snow-packed main door [the same door Mr Syed supposedly went out from] could be heard. More sounds followed. It was big boots on white snow. Someone drummed at the door and found it open. A posse of policemen walked in. Mr Makhdoom led the team.

Small snow had hastily accumulated on their police-colored berets’ as they walked slowly from the main door to the porch. Used to storms, the cops either forgot to pommel their caps or chose not to. All carried machine guns.
“Salam-alikum”, the inspector said to worried faces.
He came to the point straight. “I had a word on my walkie-talkie with the army unit in-charge around this place. They say there are no patrol parties out tonight. It is snowing crazy.”
“So it isn’t the army, that is what you mean,” Dr Khan asked.
“Major Rawat, CO 32 RR, told me that he doesn’t let his men out on nights like these since no terrorists could possibly be out.” Makhdoom continued “You see, anyone out tonight is a sitting duck. You could be buried in this snow.”
“So how can you help us, Makhdoom sahib? Dr Khan sighed.
“We begin by looking in the lawn or driveway for any footprints, to begin with,” the inspector said matter-of-factly.

Mrs Syed began searching the recesses of her memory. She had first seen Mr Syed when he was still in the engineering college. May-moon-ah, as Mrs Syed was then called, had been a shy damsel who went to the only university in Kashmir for her master’s in Urdu. She knew that she was in love with the debating troupe guy — who had come — from the engineering college. Privately, with help from a female friend, the two met on a pleasant May afternoon in a small terraced garden overlooking the glimmering Dal Lake. Mr Syed did not smoke that morning to smell good and gentlemanlike. She wore her best ocean green salwar and put on her friend’s imported fairness crème. Mr Syed was waiting at the appointed spot and hour. They did not hold hands and ate no ice-creams. He was immediately besotted. She was enamored with his side locks.
“I’ll have the match-maker sent across to your place,” Mr Syed said.
“And he will return to you with glad tidings,” May-moon-ah replied.
They married in the autumn of 1979.

It was the most rouge, romantic fall of Mrs Syed’s life.
“May-moon-ah, you look like a full moon on a May night,” Mr Syed would tease her.
She blushed. Her cheek resembled a bright meadow, covered by an orange gown of freshly fallen leaves.
The couple honeymooned in countryside Kashmir. Altair was conceived one of those heady nights, when the fish plonked and viburnum scented outside. Mr Syed was like a spoor all over her memory.

The police party, aided by two big torches – internally cursing the outdoor smoker — began looking for Mr Syed’s boot marks. There were none. How could it possibly be, they wondered? No prints in the lawn. No footsteps on the driveway. After 10 minutes of frenetic exploration in heavy snow, the search party returned to the porch, where the Syed family sat huddled. Dr Khan walked in small oval-like patterns on the haunted veranda.
“There is no sign of any boot mark,” Makhdoom said with a glum expression.
“No marks”, Khan howled “you mean he disappeared right here on this goddamn verandah, just like that.”
“Dr Khan…Mr Syed probably did step out in the lawn but the snow has now filled in his boot marks. It is turning out to be a blizzard,” the Inspector interrupted.
“And since this is a missing case, there will be proper investigation.”
“We will require Mr Syed’s picture, madam,” Makhdoom looked at Mrs Syed.

Tears rolled down her crimson cheeks.
“Who took my Syed away?” she sobbed.
Ajwa held her brother’s hand. She knew it was the Raantus.
The cat sniffed at Dr Khan’s Pheran yet again.
Altair looked nervous. Mrs Syed went upstairs to fetch the picture. She carried a thick-bottom candle in her right hand. Her mind was drifting. The snow flakes were getting real thick now.

Nine people stood on the veranda. The cat sat. Six cops, including Inspector Makhdoom, Dr Khan, Altair, Ajwa and Zeba. No one spoke. They all had different things going on their mind. Inspector Makhdoom was sure Mr Syed was abducted by militants since he was a chemical engineer and they could ask him to improvise their crude bombs. The five cops had random thoughts. Cop A wanted to go back as soon as possible and get some sleep. Cop B thought that his wife was not as beautiful as Mrs Syed. Cop C was feeling sorry for the poor kids. Cop D wondered whether his own straw-roofed home in Magraypora village might have collapsed due of the heavy snow and could his own family be standing outside in the cold, like the Syed’s. Cop E thought Altair resembled a dashing Pakistani cricketer. Dr Khan was contemplating whether to ask the Syeds to sleep at his home or call his own family over to the Syed’s for night, as a gesture of support.
Altair thought that his dad sucked.
Ajwa pictured her dad on the hairy back of Raantus.
Zeba couldn’t be deciphered. She looked cold.

Mrs Syed entered her bedroom. Her eyes were red. She went to the cupboard and picked up keys for the drawer in which they kept the family album. The room felt intimate. The smells were routine and comforting. There was a familiar murmur. She turned around.

Mr Syed — half-asleep in the bed – said slowly:
“May-moon-ah, oh that is you. I had no cigarettes tonight, Jaan. Was so tired. Just laid down and dozed off. It is chilly. What are you looking for in there? Did the kids sleep?”

Sameer Bhat

[April 2008, Copyrights reserved]
                                               
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