By Shabir Ahmad Mir
On the bulge of Amira Kadal, I stare at the fish in their basket, murmuring between themselves about their estrangement from the Jhelum that flows underneath belligerently.
Or, maybe, they are just gasping for few extra breaths-as many as they can- before it is all over; as all of us try to do when the time comes.
“Wuchun nai muft asiha ! (Only if gazing was not free !)” spits out the fisherwoman. She understands I can be no customer of hers: it is instinctual. I am just there. Standing. Gazing. Biding time. She covers her basket with a cloth. They must be saved from the evil-eye. From my eye. Lest they remain unsold. The fishes are in their basket and I move on.
But where to?
This side or that?
Only if I did not have to decide that!
Only if life were a kind of job where nothing is upto you- You came in at 10; sat in your chair; did whatever you do everyday; out at 4. Salary at the end of month. Period. Done. Thank you.
I walk across the bridge, towards the Ghanta ghar. The footpath is crowded with vendors selling trinkets of nothingness; both disturbing and distracting everyone from walking up straight. Besides the one who sells old shoes (washed and polished) on one bed and books on another (Old and worn out) I stand now. “Can’t mix the two…” says the vendor of books and boots, “… out of respect.” While I stare at the grotesque pile of sand bags on the other side of the road. It is a bunker. It protrudes out like a tumour from the glistening papier-mâché showroom that stands behind it. Sunlight, sharp as glass shards, is broken and thrown here, there and everywhere by the concertina wires that creep and crawl around the bunker in a malignant chaos. A few loose ends of this metallic weed have grown over the glass- display of the papier-mâché showroom and between the sharp metallic teeth I could see the delicate paisleys and gulanderguls and bulbuls; put on display inside. I shudder. It is cruel! How long can the delicacy of the papier-mâché withstand the grotesque metallic invasion?!
Something ought to be done!
Yes, something must be done- I close my eyes to imagine what it would be like there without the bunker. The papier mache showroom stands there, quivering with the sunlight and in front of it there is nothing. NOTHING !- An emptiness. A vaccum. Even with my eyes closed I cannot undo the bunker. I can only imagine its absence. But it is still there, in its absence; that piece of land is desecrated by it forever- even in fantasy: a dark hole that you cannot paint over.
May be ‘THE HAND’ could have done something about it. Back at the school, he was the one who would save us from the wrath of our Drawing teacher. A dash here, a touch there; a bold crayon here, a dot of paint there and all of a sudden our miserable and pathetic attempts at drawing a parrot or a carrot or a peacock or a wall-clock would be rendered some sense of comprehension and respectability at the hands of ‘THE HAND.’ He had a gift-his hands. He could paint music with them; so everyone called him, ‘THE HAND.’ Otherwise his name was Burhan.
He is dead now.
I heard it on the news. He was a rebel. A militant. A mujahid. A terrorist, said the news anchor; killed in an encounter. A pistol was recovered from him with some ammunition (How does one recover things from a dead man !) Did they search his body thoroughly, he might have had a few sketches with him, the ones he would have certainly drawn while roaming across the mountains and orchards and fields and streams and meadows and flowers and snow and clouds and dreams. Day and night. Night and day. Even with all those guns and grenades and running and hiding and living, ‘THE HAND’ must have drawn something, he could not resist it.
Or did he draw something terrible?!
Something that must never be shown on news.
“Bhaijaan if you are not buying shoes or books, then please move on. You are blocking my customers.” The vendor of boots and books breaks in. I look at him and I look at the bunker across the road. Even THE HAND could have done nothing about it- the bulbuls and gulandars and paisleys in the cold metallic jaws, such is our plight; shoes and books. Separate, not mixed; out of respect.
I drift along. Across the Lal chowk. Across Polo View. Across the glitter and pomp of it all. Suddenly people start running with a ferocious terror. I too join in. I don’t ask why they are running, to where they are running, from whom they are running. I just join and run. As fast as I can. As much as I can. The questions would be asked later (Or never at all.); that is how you survive. By being a part of the crowd: giving in to fear and letting instinct to take over.
At TRC the crowd melts away. People stop to run and start to pant. I look behind. There is nothing there. It is a chagh. I walk along and smile. Chagh– how do you translate that word? You cannot. It has no meaning. it is just a collective feeling. And you cannot understand that feeling unless and until you have lived long enough in terror and fear that the nightmares (that have grown and piled up) spill into your broad daylight and haunt you. At one point of time the nightmares overpower you and you start running away from them. Others join in too and soon everyone is running. You run and run till you delude yourself that you are out of danger. Then you look back and try to find out whether the nightmare was real- a blast (a grenade or a tyre-burst)- or was it unreal: just in your head. An echo of the horrors that refuse to die away. But you are not the only one who has lived through the dark, everyone around has; so the echo resonates and everybody starts to run. That is the Chagh– everyone running out of terror; imaginary or real. Everyone the same. Haunted.
Chagh is a joke until it turns real.
I have turned left at TRC and reached Dalgate. I walk along the hem of Dal. I can see the crestfallen Zabarwan in the waters of Dal. Like an ill omen.
I walk past the Houseboats- bubbles of fantasies on the Dal, that is what they are; the houseboats- Paradise, Cleopatra, White House, Helen Of Troy, Buckingham Palace, Pride of India… their names, milestones of irony, floating.
I now stand at ghat no 5 watching a shikara float on the Dal. 250 Rs per hour says the Shikara Union rate list displayed at the ghat; they don’t charge you by the distance but by the hour, as life does. An old man with a ragged beard and (perhaps) a crooked nose is rowing the shikhara. Both his hands tightly clenched around the oar, he appears an impatient man. He must have rowed so many people. Hour after hour. But did he ferry dead people too. Across the Dal. To a better place. There is abundance of death here. But how many of the dead can pay him? How long shall the dead wander by this side of Dal?
A kingfisher swoops down and snatches a fish from the bosom of Dal. Just like that.
There is nothing left to say.
I put a coin in my mouth and wait at the ghat to be ferried across soon. Hopefully.