Dooriyan (Distances)

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Omair Bhat

smoke

Early Spring.

Heemal.

Frontier District. Kashmir.

Smoke is billowing from the chimneys, rising and swirling in twisting spirals and disappearing in the void less sky stretched to miles along. The water in the spring outside mosque carries reflection of a few men–fat drops of water dripping off the long flowing beards, white knuckles running through the dark tumble of hair, and bald heads gleaming faint white as if half-spoilt eggs floating on the water surface—performing ablution for morning prayers. Frogs leap forth from round sumpy stones lying around spring reproducing a clean clear sound, as if a pebble dropped from a certain height into water.

Call for prayers follow–concentric circles of sound escaping the minaret of mosque and expanding like a balloon in the air. Faithfuls reply the call with submissive reverence: heads bowed, repeating sacrosanct verses over each turn of a bead on rosary long after the call for prayer is over. It has long since been debated if it is right to repeat the ‘call’—the very moment, it is being said over the microphone by Muzzien.

Unconcluded, the topic still is debated with the same old fervor on the shop fronts after Asar – the third prayers of the day – only to be interrupted by the serpentine like presence of Maulana Shamas, late in the evening.

“Venom might have a substitute, but this sweet-peppery tongue has none,” a boy had remarked, once.

Maulana Shamas has a classy knack of frightening young boys. Citing verses from the holy Quran, he leaves them bewildered, as if qayamat is a day far. A week far. Or so near that none would get time to repent if they didn’t repent in the proverbial ‘spiritual like presence’ of Maulana or epileptic ‘guide-to-heaven like presence’ of Maulana.

“For repentance, is to Allah. He is all merciful, nawjaawano,” he would lisp, otherwise, combing his beard with his slender fingers swiftly as if imaginary centipedes and millipedes might have crawled up his rotund face and got stuck therein.

“These friends of God know their insidious ways of instilling fear in us,” another boy had chuckled once, “and also how to withdraw hefty from our pockets when they need….”

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Not many men come to the mosque at dawn. Those who do seem always in hurry, their shoes set in disruptive rows—this shoe upon that, at the lowest step of mosque like boats at a Ghat ready to ferry passengers.

As the prayers are finished, reed mats are rolled and kept leaning against the walls. Skullcaps placed back into each cardboard–box they are withdrawn from, before prayers.

_______________

At home, Farhana is sitting on a straw mat in front of a hearth watching sizzle and hissing of resins upon the blazing wood. And jagged rustle as dry leaves begin to shrivel in the fire—with an unblinking eye. And a moment later, with rapid clapping gestures begins to flatten a ball of dough between her palms, testing the temperature of pan by sprinkling a pinch of flour—it turns deep brown. She places flattened dough—now acquiring a shape of full moon–on the seething surface of metal—while rolling another ball of dough into shape. And, waits for the first one to bake. One chapatti. Two chapattis. Three……four……ten…twenty.

“People in this house consume flour more than anything, jinn jamaath,” she fumbles, gnashing her pearl white teeth.

Samavor is brewing, vapours coiling as they emanate from the beast!

When Farhana was yet a child, she had stunned Amaji, asking if Samavor was any beast munching on the half-burnt pith of wood. Everyone had had a hearty laugh. Farhana would forgo meals for days altogether, if ever chided or laughed at—a strange, yet apt sign to register protest against the insult. She had registered her protest, then by not stepping into Kitchen premises for long-hours.

“How could you laugh on me? Do I stammer like you? Eh….Bad-tameez,” she had asked, tears welling up in her eyes.

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A windless morning has announced itself. Mist rolling down from hills to settle in the meadows at foothills, brushing against the tree tops in sheer ecstasy.

Farhana unrolls dastarkhan in front of Amaji—and stretches it as long as it reaches, placing a pyramid of chapattis to her left, and to her right on a dampen cloth—Samavor, the old beast brewing.

She had a faint impression much before Amaji corrected her, one day, that not because we prevent our carpets from getting spoiled with what spills from our plates or even tea bowls when we eat or drink, but because our prophet had the habit to sit on dastarkhan with all his family members and eat. She had wondered what impact the vague explanation of Amaji would have on her—now or in near future?

Sitting on dastarkhan meant to her something similar to sitting on thorny brambles. Or something similar to sitting near an old wiry Forest Guard—his eager black moustaches bustling like wearisome yet humorous chacha Chowdhury’s, in fear. Quaking. Perspiring. She always feigned excuses—toothache, and all types of aches she knew, only to sit with Amaji on a raised platform in front of hearth and eat her share like a docile child.

But Amaji, a tough teacher as she was always, made her write on a yellow spiral notepad–sitting on dastarkhan, with all others, meant UNITY—in uppercase letters. And love—in lowercase letters, between members of the family. And RESpect—one third of letters in uppercase, and remaining in lowercase for elders sitting on dastarkhan.

But the itch of ‘thorny brambles’ remained in her like remnant of late winter wind blowing in late spring with the same intensity as would have in late winter. Farhana, while on dastarkhan with all others, still shudders and sighs at the merest mention of a thorn. Or cacti. Or even desert where cacti grow. Amaji had no cure for such a blight.

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Amaji strains tea into each kidney shaped cup that lay in front her in a metal tray like thousand tiny gaping mouths. Farhana passes on cups to Farhat, her brother. One cup each time, who inturn passes on to other members of the family. Papa. Dadi. Badi Didi.

“Bismillah! Bismillah!…,” they mutter.

Baiya’s absence is felt. Because in this house, absences are acknowledged as are presences.

“Why shouldn’t be it that when the land we belong to is itself a house where absences outnumber the presences and where acknowledgements are only solace to grief,” Amaji had wanted Farhana know about the enigma of the unpalatable lives they have grown accustomed to.

This was. Life without Baiya. Life without Kalpana—her childhood pandit friend. Life, yet without life. She was lost like a tiny drop of water in the sea of thoughts—the complicit questions that haunted her!

Farhana places a cup where her eldest brother used to sit, her Baiya, leaning against the cushion like an Old Man complaining of backache after every passing minute. And that was twenty years ago. How much have changed!

Slurps follow. Loud. Soft. Sips. Obscured, partially, by the ruthless screech of a pressure cooker piercing the ears like tiny singed acupuncture needles.

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A clock—whose initials read AJANTA in mauve red, sits on a shelf, squatted, above the raised platform near hearth. It flashes quarter past nine—time for children to get ready for school and for those, as well, who teach in their schools.

Farhana, in a large woolen coat tightly fastened at the waist with collars turned upward an inch. White scarf covering her head and one end of her brown embroidered shawl upon her shoulder and the other end—oblivious to her– sweeping, clumsily, against the dust like a soggy floor swab steps into the street carefully; carrying in one hand a paperback copy of ‘The Sense of an Ending’, “authored by Julian Barnes,” it reads. And the other hand held against the body occupying thin red attendance register.

School, she teaches at, is some blocks away from her house. On her way to school, through the dense grooves of pomegranate, she encounters an abandoned structure—a calendar of childhood memories, on whose every page is an event pinned against each fold of remembrance treasured in supple sheaths of history. She coaxs herself into remembering how, as a child she played hopscotch in the courtyard: a square expanse of orche terrazzo, with Kalpana in this house which now lies in shambles; its every inch devoured by stray cows; the decaying remains of a jute swing towards edge of the courtyard draped in thick veneer of moss.

Kalpana’s father, Anoop Bhatt, would tell the girls stories from an obese velvet bound book—its fabric worn out and edges torn. That of Prem Chands, Farhana remembers. How she loved them—stories, that dealt with only poor and oppressed. She was only eight when they migrated from Kashmir into plains. Amaji had consoled her saying they will return soon but they haven’t yet. Perhaps they will never. Nor has her elder brother. Baiya. Perhaps he too won’t turn to home ever, again.

The sun is climbing fast over horizons, illuminating the streets. Children, with bags mounted on their back, sprint this alley and that like mules laden with salt sacks to reach school as early as possible. The array of uniforms, they wear, suggest which school in Hemaal they belong to.

Farhana leafs open the school gate above whose arch a painted board reads:

Govt Boys High School

Heemal, Kashmir

She emerges into the lawn of school—a sloping path, paved through gravely ground, leads to the entrance of school. Climbing the steep steps of charmless building, ascending each step with a somnambulist tread, she negotiates her way through a narrow corridor lit by 60 watt bulb up to staff room at the farthest end.

Asalamalikum,” she greets the other staff, and seats herself into a wooden chair, placing her things on a table lying at some distance from her.

Gobur, why are you late today? Everything, alright?” Principal asks her with utmost subtlety as if weighing every word before asking.

“It took me time in reaching here because I had to drop a message to Kadeer Chachas from their distant relative, about theirs visiting them, soon,” she replies, lowering her eyes.

Grief surges in her heart like waves in a sea…

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Insurgency had entered its fourth year. Deaths and disappearances were a routine. Absences stood at every crossroad like milestones staring into ones face like reminders of a havoc. After pandits migrated, Indian troops flooded into valley as if planktons flooding into a stream after rains. And occupied abandoned households and temples left to be consumed by desolation—made their presence, even more terrifying. People feared treading through abandoned pandit colonies. Memories were trapped into barbwires of oppression. Terror hovered overhead like a cloaked bat, and ran after like a clump of nettle—no home had an escapade. Kashmir was reeling under the recesses of darkness.

Fasiq, younger brother of Farhana, one sad day went to attend a marriage ceremony in the neighbourhood of Heemal. He never returned home! People went looking for him in nearby woods. But they returned with nothing but dying hope of finding him out soon. Somewhere. At some crossroad of life.

Farhana lives with the agony of losing her brother, her childhood friend. Stricken. Her silence is a cure to her loss.

“Did you arrive at a conclusion why Adrian suicides, yes, that….in that Novel?” Pointing towards the book Farhana has left on the table, her colleague asks her impressively.

Silence.

She reaches for her pen in the left pocket of her coat and, sighing, scribbles in slanting lines on a notebook lines of an anonymous poet:

Life is but about losing lost

And death relocating loss_ Lost

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(Born in 1995, Omair Bhat, is a poet and fiction writer from Kashmir. He has authored ‘Nostalgic Trails ‘- an anthology of poems expected to come out by this fall.)

About Author

A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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