November 7, 2008

British Biscuit International Prize nominee

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