by Jabeer Ahmad
It had started raining outside when Fahmeda woke up with a parched throat and a broken dream. A flash of lightning entered the room through the polythene-wrapped window pane. It ruined the theatre of shadows orchestrated by a flickering candle. Fahmeda kept staring at the displaced shadows while trying to assemble pieces of her dream.
Again, like last time, it had broken at the same moment. Again she had failed to reach out to Yusuf’s hand as he swirled away into a vacuum. The raindrops stumbling against the rusted tin roof disturbed the uneasy sleep of Qadir. He let out a groan and mumbled something imploring the saint whose shrine stood at the other end of the village. His years of hard toil as a gravedigger had left him with frail health and a meek will. The only support that he could give her was these supplications.
Eighteen days had passed since Yusuf had left for Srinagar from his village. He hadn’t returned, and neither had anyone brought any news of him. Every evening Fahmeda would walk to the bus stop and fix her gaze on the dusty road till darkness covered everything and exposed her to the brutality of her own fears. The void left by his absence would stretch itself into yet another long lonely night. Every morning she would wake up to a new hope of seeing him back. Everything else in her life had come to a standstill as she walked through the daily routine like a ghost. But only his memories returned. It was like replaying old episodes of life in an unpredictable order.
She would keep going back to the morning when she had seen him last, watching him cross the stream next to their house and then walk through the graveyard. She would remember the gentleness of his eyes and his bearded face, serene and calm. Sometimes she would rush to the corner room hoping to find him sleeping there, hoping he would have quietly slipped in, like he used to in his childhood. The emptiness there would defeat her, it would leave her despondent. The day Yusuf had left, she had found a red marble with a scuffed surface lying on the window sill.
It was another tiny reminder of his childhood when he used to keep playing with his friends all day and win them. For her, those small spherical balls in blue, orange, green, golden and every other colour were his small trophies. All these memories were abbreviated by a sudden agitation in heart; an oppressive paranoia would spread inside her like a poison.
When his friends would be busy playing, carefree and burden less of any demands from life, Yusuf would sit alone muddled with his own hypothesis about it. His transition to a quiet, mature adolescence had surprised everyone including Fahmeda. At home there was a strange proximity to death. He had found it difficult to deal with the dichotomy of his father providing for their lives through somebody’s loss.
This had made him ask questions about life and death that boys of his age would normally be oblivious of. Qadir would refer to the Quran, quote Hadith and what imam sahib had said in the last Friday prayer. For him death was just a departure from this world to the other, an end of tenure. He would tell him that Allah had blessed him by choosing him for this special job. ‘Then why despair and why this greed to live, when it was a transfer to a better world’ Yusuf would question, the complexity of it cushioned by his innocence. For him it was the physical act, the removal, the loss of a space that troubled him.
It was the frivolity of this existence that he wanted to reconcile with. Fahmeda would try to assure him with her native simplicity telling him that the earth was a womb to which all the souls will return one day. This was Allah’s way of maintaining equilibrium on earth, she believed. Yusuf often walked to mosque and intently listened to the sermons. Gradually he had assimilated himself into this paradox of life and closeted all discomforting questions that arose in his mind. He had also started assisting his father at the graveyard now.
But all this was when the sounds of birds, the chatter of kids filled the air. It was before they knew what gunfire sounded like; it was before the streets smelled of blood. It was before the epidemic had struck. The epidemic of rebellion, of hatred, of heroism, of fear, of hope, of death. Fahmeda had made Yusuf swear on the Quran that he will not join the mujahids. He too had never considered it.
At the graveyard more bodies had started flowing in. Even Qadir had found it difficult to cope with it. He was used to wrinkled bodies, properly washed and shrouded but now they were fresh, young faces with mutilated bodies. Sometimes bodies would be brought during the day, accompanied by slogans for freedom, for justice. Sometimes they would be brought in the dark, quietly and with no ceremony of slogans or tears. Those that came during the day would get a marble stone with a poetic epitaph and the ones from the night would remain unknown, unmarked, buried into anonymity. Death had never been more so capricious before. If earlier it had made Yusuf uncomfortable, now it repelled him. But now he had the responsibility to provide for their survival and there was hardly anything else in the village for him to do. He needed the tips from the burials to live.
Gradually Yusuf had absorbed himself into his work. To escape the agony of his own questions, he had locked himself away. He was now living his life among the dead. He had gotten used to the metabolism of grief turning numb with every casket that came, letting the bile rise inside and then slowly returning to his weary soul. Sometimes he would feel nothing, keeping himself busy with the arithmetic of counting the graves, figuring how many more could be accommodated in left over space. But sometimes he would wake up in the nights tortured by the images of mutilated bodies – frozen in half motion, unprepared for the journey to the other world. And then there were days he would sleep beneath the walnut tree, peaceful like them. But his face was no longer calm and serene, it was grim and cold.
On that morning, like everyday he had prayed for a quiet day. But his heart had warned him with his restlessness growing, multiplying with every passing moment. It was late in the afternoon when somebody came to inform him about an eight year old boy who had been shot. A new wave of turmoil besieged him as he starting digging up the soft earth; every spade of moist soil felt heavier than the other. When they brought him, Yusuf was trembling. Tears welled up in Yusuf’s eyes when he saw the boys face, contorted with pain and disbelief.
Then something stung him, it pierced him like a dagger. It was a small red colour marble shinning in the boy’s hand. Blinded by the shining marble and his own tears he took it from hand and held it to his chest. On that day, at that moment he would not be able to reconcile with the frivolity of life and its injustice. A raw wound had been unstitched. That evening he sat by the window, silent and motionless, feeling the red marble in his hand and letting himself be enveloped by the stench of death.
It stifled him. He wanted to run, to surrender, to escape. And then suddenly he picked up the lantern and walked through the darkness to the graveyard. For the next two hours he kept digging furiously as if trying to purge himself. Tired and drained he lied down on the ground and wept aloud.
Just when the drowsiness had started working as a palliative, Fahmeda was woken again by a knock on the door. She knew the sound; she had felt its trauma before. But this time it was more devastating, it crippled her. It was Qadir who got up to open the door, a neighbour stood there with two soldiers waiting behind him. The headlamps of their jeep had lit up the graveyard in the distance, covering the body lying on the ground like a halo. By now Fahmeda was trying not to hear anything, she was trying to shut herself, to get rid of the growing noise inside her. When she could bear it no more, and ran outside pushing away the soldier blocking the doorway.
There was something pulling her back, wanting her to stop but she kept running with all the strength that she could pull till she crashed near him. From a distance she had known it was him, she had felt him leave her, abandon her. She wanted to reach for his hand, try and hold it and go back to her dream. And then she looked at his face; it was calm and serene again. That is when she let the marble slip away from her hand. That is when she knew he had already drifted away into the vacuum, to return his soul to the womb.