Archive for the ‘short stories’ Category

Brave
November 7, 2008

British Biscuit International Prize nominee

http://www.biscuitpublishing.com/about.html

A cold evening in frontier Kashmir, a beautiful landlocked valley located in the Himalayan foothills, disputed by India and Pakistan – two nuclear armed countries — for well over 60 years. An armed insurgency for secession from India began in 1989.

“There is a long way to go. So why don’t we share something interesting,” the long-jawed man said to the boy.
“Not a bad idea,” the boy shot back, his gaze firm.
Looking ahead at the dirt track he added “How long is it going to take us to get there?”
“Three hours if we walk at this pace. Four if we go a little slow,” the tall man squelched.

The boy and the man had been walking for more than two hours. They began their trek immediately after the evening tea — at 5pm. Clouds had gathered in the evening sky after a particularly dry day. A mild breeze suggested hilly rain. It was only a matter of time before the clouds could hold it no more. A grey feather tossed aimlessly in the air. Black crows hurried to their white eggs. Eager jackdaws followed them, occasionally bouncing in the now-mellow, now-strong gales. Everything seemed to flap in the wind, which acted like an invisible orchestra master. The village dust, small twigs of the old tree, the odd feather.

The boy was a city slacker who lived in a hovel by the shallow Jhelum. Raised in old quarters of the city, the only worthwhile vocation he ever learnt was swimming. His father, a slight man with a large nose, worked as a retainer with a local politician called Gula national [named after the political party he belonged to] and could ill-afford to send his three children to school. His mother was old-fashioned, who believed that earthquakes were triggered by a sacred dark bull who balanced the word on its horn tips. The bull tale stayed with Imy – as his friends came to call him — for a very long time.

*****

Imy began his account: This last Ramadan I used to return home early after attending prayers. Children rushed to the mosque in evenings – near Iftar [time to break the fast] – to collect cheap-quality dates and pieces of peeled oranges usually distributed to the faithful — free of cost — to break the fast. The ritual was festive. I sat in the last row with friends. Usually children had to content with smaller dates and lesser slices of oranges. The fat distribution guy, Ameen, knew that kids did not fast and came only to collect the fruit. The children hated the lardass.

That day was colder than usual and the trees looked naked, as they usually do in autumn. After dinner I watched a dance programme on the Black & White TV while father went out for the last prayer in the day. I didn’t bother to go because they gave no dates this time. Also the last prayer is rather longish.

During Ramadan Imy’s mother made salty tea. It was a pink addiction no Kashmiri family could do without. The tea bubbled in the Samovar while the family waited for father to return. Imy’s dad came home shortly after the last Namaz for the day and declared that it was cold as stone outside. Everyone had endless bowls of the carnation-colored tea. Imy drank a couple. They soon retired to bed. Their teeth tasting mildly salty.

Imy continued: Around mid-night I went to take a leak. I thought I smelled camphor but quickly dismissed my olfaction. Back in the bed, my thoughts meandered around a blue-eyed girl who sold Dal-Masaal in her little basket, outside Gula nationya-el’s big office.

******

Walking with the long-jaw and inching towards the invisible line of control [variously called line of actual control, border, boundary, no-man’s land and Sarhad], Imy talked. The big man listened with rapt attention.

“So you see” Imy chirped, “I am 17 now. That boring night when I was trying to get some sleep, I was actually thinking naughty — about a girl. Despite the holy month of Ramadan, I was thinking unholy. But the best things in life are — often — prohibited. Aren’t they? I remembered her eyes and her bosom. You must be thinking how shameless.”

“Oh no, no”, long-jaw urgently said, “Please continue”.
The guide was 33 and completely hooked onto the story of the boy, almost half his age.

The boy recounted.
The girl was of my age. She had the greatest smile in the entire city and could set a quick fire to an entire forest with a mere ember of her beauty. She came with her grand-mom everyday of the week to sit opposite the politician’s home-cum-office selling the Dal-Masal. Now Dal-Masal isn’t exactly a dull thing to eat. It used to be the best snack of Srinagar in those innocent years. The best black lentils would be boiled and sprinkled with the best spices and neatly decorated in twig baskets to be carried to all parts of the city. Usually women sold the snack. The big-eyed, bean-basket bearing women were the Kanephoros of the Dal.

The boy proceeded:
On many days I accompanied my father to his office only to see the girl — her tresses hanging from beneath her black scarf. My father sometimes gave me a two-rupee coin embossed with a poor lion joined to his two unfortunate siblings by both hips. I ran to buy Dal-Masal from the old lady. While the old woman put the little black beans in the white paper cone, pushing the contents with her sore thumb, I secretly watched her grand-daughter from the corner of my eye. I was hopelessly in love.

The beans appeared to whisper in the cone: She is the one for you! Her grandma made money from Gula nationya-el’s visitors, just like my father made his living cleaning the politician’s office. She looked poor, like us. I never gathered courage to ask her name.

Lying on my mattress, on that cold-as-a-stone night, in the middle of Ramadan, I was thinking of her. The smell of camphor now gave way to the smell of skunk. It was getting overbearing yet nothing felt amiss. I got up to look outside, troubled by the smell. The smell of skunk was now the smell of a million weeds on fire. Perhaps the poor girl went in the forest and actually smiled, I thought. May be the woods are on fire!

I unlatched the nut-wood window that opened on the river. A sharp stench blew in. Only a drunken haze of orange was visible. I was befuddled, unable to make anything out. It appeared as if someone was laying dynamite to the entire vale. Looking hard into the darkness, to my left, suddenly my eyes caught an orange orb. It was fire, at a distance!

I ran to tell my parents. My father quickly put on his Pheran and ran out in the never-ending night.

I followed him towards the flames.

*******

Fire is a very curious element. We roast marshmallows on it and we warm our souls by it but it has to be watched over — always. It lunges at you if you leave it unattended. The Greeks thought Prometheus stole fire from Zeus. What beautiful myths!

A fire can steal us of dignity, Imy thought, as he ran, faster than his father. In less than a minute they were confronted with the fire. Gula nationya-el‘s office-cum-home was burning. Surprisingly not a soul was in sight. Father-son duo was the first to reach the spot. Where was the politician? Either everyone had evaporated or they were simply snoring away, their teeth still tasting salty. Ever a loyal, Imy’s father started shouting for help.

Urgent ideas came to the boy in quick streams. The entire neighborhood would go up in flames if he didn’t act. He knew that his father’s hollering must have woken some people up but that was not going to be enough. They needed to quickly call the fire-fighters to douse the raging fire. But it was early 90s in Kashmir. There were only two telephones in the entire area. Doctor Nadia had a granite black rotary phone but the telephone pole outside her clinic-cum-home was quietly uprooted many days back and artfully arranged on the main highway, some yards away from the unsuspecting doctor’s compound. Men in chequered masks laid an ambush. They awaited a two-jeep, two truck military convoy that was seen going uphill. They expected it to come downhill. They expected the convoy to halt to remove the pole. They expected to shower the troopers with tea-colored bullets. The convoy never returned. The pole was removed next morning by some bemused truckers. No one came to connect poor doctor Nadia’s telephone. The second telephone belonged to the politician. And his home – with the telephone in it — was on straw-color fire.

With the telephone option ruled out, Imy ran the next best option in his mind. Though he never went to school, his natural instincts were sharp as a whip. The fire brigade was located on the other end of Jhelum. There used to be a big bridge, connecting people, on which men and motor cars would merrily cross, only about a year back. It was summarily burnt down to ashes by men in chequered masks just when the militancy started. They expected to halt the military movement in the city. They ended up halting old lifestyles. Now boatmen charged one rupee per person per taar during daytime. No boats operated at night.

Imy dived into the onyx river. A cold, cruel current entered his head and left through his toe, near his toe-nail. Though the water was calm, the chill pierced his skin and chomped at his young bones. His head began to spin. He sliced past a school of fish on a nightly patrol, all of them breathing through their gills. Each stroke was a searing pain but he waded on. A smart swimmer never quits till he touches the target with the little finger, his father used to tell him. Imy ducked small logs that floated on the youthful river. His little finger was too pale, too numb to touch anything. The politician’s home continued to burn in flames from the deepest depths of hell.

*****

Imy limped his way to the fire brigade office. He looked like a Popsicle.
Upon seeing a pale boy with a pale little finger, drenched to the bone, listlessly walking to the fire-station office, a sleepy guard quickly rose to his feet.
“There is a big fire at the legislator’s home,” Imy said.
Firemen quickly took off the boy’s wet shirt. Another man offered to pull his still dripping trousers off. Imy’s foot smelled of fish fins. They gave him a fire-service color towel to wipe himself. Too droopy to help himself, two kindly firemen assisted. Imy passed out.

The youngest firefighter Ahmed ran upstairs to fetch his clothes from his fire-service color steel trunk. He got Imy [with some difficulty] into his shirt and pullover. Imy looked numb. Ahmed felt like dressing up a corpse. He removed Imy’s wet underpants and got him [with much difficulty] into his pants. He carefully pushed the boy’s boyhood aside to zip him.

Imy was put on a cot. Someone dragged it near a hot rusty furnace, billowing away in a corner. Meanwhile three fire tenders with fifteen firemen in them [five-in-one-tender] rushed to extinguish the flames, tintinnabulating en route. They had had to take the longer circuitous route to Gula nationya-el’s house since there was no bridge. Why did Prometheus have to steal the damn fire?

The remaining firemen watched Imy warm himself by the hot furnace. In absence of a proper heating system, the furnace was the only alternative. The state government had recently issued a tender for a new furnace and was currently awaiting bidders. Four winters would pass till the lowest bidder would step forward and bag the deal to deliver the new furnace. And the firemen would continue to use the rusty furnace. Poor men! They looked at Imy as he came to.

“Here a cup of nice salty tea to warm you, brave boy,” a bearded fireman said.
“Thanks,” Imy replied and almost instantly added “Have they put off the fire?”
“We have no ways to know, gobra,” another fireman glumly remarked.
“Hey you crossed the cold river in the dead of night, that is some spunk,” a third fireman said.

Imy felt a feel-good bubble [red color] go up and down his veins. He drank quick shots of Kashmiri tea in an ancient government bowl. They issued tenders for tea-bowls too. He had no idea why he nearly killed himself. He thought his foot smelled of fish fins and his clothes smelled of firefighters.

“Where are my clothes?” Imy asked the firemen who were watching him drink tea, as if he were an alien from Uranus.
“Your clothes are still wet,” Ahmed said. “And you are wearing my clothes,” he added.
“Who helped me change?” Imy asked, feeling a trifle embarrassed.
“Me,” Ahmed said with an impish boyish wink.

*******

Across the river the fire was brought under control by the fifteen firemen in three fire tenders in three hours but not before Gula nationya-el’s house-cum-office was reduced to grey ashes. A little cherry tree sketched by the politician’s little daughter on her study table was also gutted. Only the brick walls remained, badly smeared and darkened.
The family did make it though their pet poultry didn’t. Animals don’t have souls anyway. The telephone melted completely. The politician still thanked his luck and his loyal peon. He said that he would recommend a bravery medal for the peon’s son.
Imy had saved an entire neighborhood.

*********

Five days later:

Everyone from the neighborhood was invited to the high school. A few journalists from the Urdu press sat on folding steel chairs in the front row. The school principal looked grand in a big Jinnah cap. Ahmed, the young fire man too came. Soon Gula nationya-el arrived with the mayor. Twenty policemen guarded the dais. Everyone stood up. After frenetically shaking each others hands, the guests settled down on the school chairs, usually reserved for school teachers.

Gula nationya-el went to the mike and tapped it two times.
He then began, “We have all assembled here today to honor a brave boy amongst us. He saved lives and he saved the locality, south of Jhelum, from being razed to ground”.
“The young man, showing immense presence of mind jumped into the river at night, not to fetch some underwater treasure, but with a deep sense of duty and he braved the chill to get to the other bank and bell the fire service”.

There were huge claps. The feel-good bubble [red in color], now very big, like a soap bubble, went up and down Imy’s neck. He hoped no one would notice it. Imy was called on the wooden dais, which didn’t look very clean. The mayor jumped from his high seat and pinned a medal on his chest.

People clapped even louder. Boys from the neighborhood turned green with envy. The bubble bounced violently.

Imy’s father said he was never more proud.
His mother felt Allah was kind on them.
Ahmed smiled.
The fat distribution guy from mosque wept.

*****

The boy’s account continues:

The same night father bought a big cut of lamb to cook. Mother was making my favorite Yekhni for dinner. I was talking aimlessly to my sisters, narrating the tale of the award-winning swim for the umpteenth time. My thoughts however stayed with the old Dal-masaal lady’s grand-daughter. A constellation of questions hovered in my head. How would she feel about it? Would she like to date a brave boy? Would she ever know of my feat?

Three men knocked at our door just before dinner. They wore chequered scarfs around their necks and hadn’t seen a shaving blade in weeks, perhaps. One of them had a lisp. Another looked glum. One bloke looked handsome. They wore woolen pherans.
Their arms were inside their pherans.
“Salam-Alikum,” they said.
“Salam-Alikum,” father replied.
“So you are the braveheart,” one man spoke, as he looked at me.
Father interrupted. “Yes he is my son.”
“You called the fire service; didn’t you?” a second asked.
“Yes I did,” I said.
The third man didn’t speak. He was the one who looked good.

The first man took a Kalashnikov out from beneath his Pheran.
You see, Meer Saab [Mr Meer], he addressed my father; your son indeed is brave but silly.
“We set the politicians house on fire. Now he is safe and worse still, cautious. Only his hens perished in the fire. We feel bad for the poor chicken but that is not what we exactly wanted.”
“Your brave son, unfortunately, screwed our plans,” he said with an ugly stare.
“We wanted to wipe the gaddar.”
“Now”, the second man added, “we are going to ask your son to come with us.”
“We need some brave tips from such young men”.

Father was furious. He tried to argue with the men but they insisted. I was stunned by the sudden violence. Alarmed by the melee, mother entered the room. Suddenly the men brandished chocolate-color guns. Real ones. The good looking fellow took me by arm. They exited with me locking the door from outside.

I could hear my parents scream.

Was I being highjacked? No, silly, I thought to me. They high-jack planes. I was being abducted. Part of me was freaked-out while another part was curious. Aren’t these guys rebels? Would they really take tips from me? Wow! My kidnappers didn’t talk. They walked in the dark through orchards. We stopped by a meadow for five minutes. Good-looks never left my right hand. The medal was in my left hand. We walked on foot for another two hours.

*****

Next morning:

I woke up in a smoky room. It was filled with fumes from cigarettes and burnt wood. I was sleeping on a cotton mattress, spread on the mud floor with a thick white quilt on me. I don’t remember what time I dozed off because I must have been too tired after all the walking. I remember, though, that we reached an old abandoned house at an ungodly hour. One of the rebels [Good looks] slept close to me because there were only three mattresses for four people. May be they wanted to make sure that I don’t run away.

They gave me salty tea to drink. They were good rebels, I thought.

The good looking rebel spoke for the first time. “You are a brave boy and naughty too”. The tea rolled on my tongue. God, how does he know? I have never told a soul about the blue-eyed girl. Or my boner.

I sipped mouthfuls of the pink tea. Do they read minds, these rebels, I thought?

Looking straight at me, the rebel with a lisp said, “Look kid, we are sending you to a mountain hideout where your brave tips are badly needed.” He added, “Rule one: You are not going to ask any questions and rule two: You will quietly accompany a guide to take you to the secret location tomorrow. Any adventure and we will put a bullet in between your eyes.”

*****

Following evening:

Imy has been walking for a few hours. The guide is taking him to some undisclosed place.

Imy has narrated his adventure tale to the long-jaw and thinks he is now going to give would-be rebels a crash course on bravery. What to do in an emergency-kinds! The guide has been sworn — on some scripture — not to tell the boy that they are headed to a secluded mountain gorge where a party awaited him. They had plans of crossing the border — over to Pakistan.

Imy carried on with his innocent account.
“Right here”, he showed the spot on his chest to the guide.
“They pinned the award”.

A single sniper bullet hit Imy at the exact spot. A soldier on duty, hiding somewhere high on a mountain bunker, wearing night-vision glasses had spotted movement. The guide, used to such dangers, dashed to the ground and slithered away. Things slowly began to blur for Imy. He called out to the guide. Long jaw had sneaked away.

He continued to bleed from where the bullet entered him. A beautiful feeling blanketed him. A tear clung to his eyelashes. He thought of the Dal-masaal girl. He smelt fish. He saw Ahmed, the young fireman clapping in a distance. He felt the medal pin rubbing against his chest. He saw dates and orange pieces chasing each other. He felt kissed under a white quilt after a long walk. He could smell Yekhni made by mother. He felt joy touch his ankles. He felt brave. A wide-eyed bubble [red in color] exited Imy. Then there was calm.

A soft rain fell that night.

© Sameer

The power cut
April 1, 2008

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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