By Deepak Budki
The city was agog with the rumours that informers were being hounded out, put to death. For the past fifty years the Valley had not known of even a single death but now four or five killings every day had become the order of the day.
Fear and anguish were writ large on everyone's face. It was difficult to trust one's own shadow. People started questioning themselves 'Does my name appear in the list of informers?'...'Do they suspect me of connection with security forces?', or 'Has someone seen me talking to any security personnel?'
With every question that one asked oneself, restlessness would increase. 'Does anyone know about my political allegiance?' And then his heart would beat faster with anxiety.. 'I do not suppose I have any enmity with any one that matters in today's world, then why should I be singled out?' His blood pressure would soar still high. Next day he would issue a clarificatory advertisement in a local daily so that people came to know that he was not connected with any political party nor did he have anything to do with any espionage agency.
One does not fear death as much as one fears the very idea of death. Everyone was working out plans to escape the inevitable death. Some tendered apologies in the press, some resorted to explaining their position, while others simply bade goodbye to the Valley.
However, Nilakanth did not take recourse to any of these. He had spent the sixty five years of his life honestly and with utmost austerity in the Valley. Even now he spent his days without worrying about the vitiated atmosphere around him.
The house of Nilakanth, made of Maharaja bricks akin to today's tiles, plastered with mud and covered with shingle roof, was situated on the bank of River Jehlum, which majestically flowed by since ages. He lived in a place called Habbakadal. This was the only place in the city of Srinagar that would come to life everyday with the cock's first crow. On the one hand the temple bells would start ringing, while on the other the Muezzin would call the faithful to pray to God. Within no time, the hawkers would throng the Habbakadal bridge and lure customers with the best sells. You could hear the vegetable sellers selling knol khol, lotus roots and Kashmiri saag, and fisherwomen taking swearing on petty pretexts to sell their fish. From one corner arose the appetizing smells from the baker's ovens, while from the other corner the sweet fragrance of milk arose from the Karahis of the Sweat meat shops. You could see a Hindu customer incanting Gaytri Mantra while buying fish, while you could see a Muslim incanting Surah Bakr of Holy Quran while checking the bundle of lotus roots. During the day the atmosphere became lively with the horses galloping on the road, bicycles ringing and making their way through the crowd and the puttering noise of the autorickshaws. The noise would continue till midnight. The road presented a captivating picture at the time boys and girls marched to their schools and colleges. Groups of young beautiful belles, clad in snow white kurta and shalwars, would be seen followed by young sadistic boys looking for an opportunity to tease them. They would seize every little chance to pass a remark, while the coy young girl would simply blush, perspire and yet feel amused.
Today, it looked different. There was a sudden change in the air. God knew why Nilakanth was immersed in deep thoughts. His aged wife had just cleaned the pipe of his Hookah and changed its water. He filled the chilam with tobacco and topped it with burning charcoal and then sucked in a long draught of smoke through the pipe. While exhaling, clouds of smoke came out from his mouth. He looked blank for a moment with no thought whatsoever. He coughed for a while and then got immersed in his thoughts again.
He remembered the day of his marriage when he had to simply cross the Habbakadal bridge since the house of Arundati was situated on the opposite bank of the river. He could see her parental house from his own window, and watch her standing near the window. It was just the majestic Jehlum that separated their houses from each other.
After finishing her daily chores, Arundati sat by his side. One doesn't know how time flies. "Forty five years have passed since we got married," Nilakanth said to Arundati while looking at her face with disbelief.
"You sound romantic. How come you remembered your marriage, that too after all these years", Arundati was surprised.
"Just like that. Do you know what date is it today?"
"Date and Time! Who cares to remember them at this age? Don't you see our life is like a calendar of bygone year which hangs on the wall simply because it contains the picture of a God. Had there been no picture of God on it we would have thrown it away long back. We too are there hanging with the thread of time because they respect us and cannot throw us into the dustbin. Don't you think we too have become such Gods, waiting for time to wither us?"
"You are right, Arni. We too are waiting for our fate like those obsolete calendars on the wall".
Poor old Arni remembered that she had kept 'Kahwa' on the heater. "Perhaps, it must have started boiling", she thought with herself and taking support of the wall stood up and brought the tea kettle and two khasus, the brass cups. Nilakanth put his pipe aside, held the Khasu with his right hand, covered with the arm of phiran to use it as an insulation. Arundati poured tea into his Khasu and then went back, filled another Khasu for herself and again sat by the side of her husband.
"Arundati, do you remember that I used to watch you for hours from the roof of my house?"
"What has possessed you, you sound strange today".
She interrupted her husband and later herself became nostalgic about her childhood. Arundati was five years younger than her husband but due to acute arthritis for the last ten years her fingers had become ankylosed and swollen. Winter season aggravated her pain. The joint pain restricted the movement of her hands and feet but there was no way out, the household chores had to be performed because there was nobody to help her in this old age. Not that she did not have children but they were all gone, fending for their own families. One in America and the other in Mumbai.
"My right eyelid has been trembling for the last so many days. God knows what is to befall us". Arundati tore a small piece from the straw-mat underneath, moistening it with saliva she then put it on right eyelid in order to stop trembling.
"Our destiny is written in the Heavens above. Whatever has to happen will definitely happen", Nilakanth sounded pensive and resigned.
Arundati had never seen her husband resigned to fate earlier. She showed her annoyance when she couldn't get replies to her queries. For the last several days she had observed Nilakanth closing windows and the doors before going to sleep. He would check each latch of those to make sure that he had closed them properly. Sometimes, he would suddenly get up from his bed at night, carefully push the curtain of a window aside and peep into the darkness outside. Except the movement of the army vehicles and the foot fall of the soldiers on their nightly rounds he could hear nothing. And then he would return to his bed gripped with fear and anxiety.
"There is so much anxiety on your face, what is it that is eating you up? Have faith in God, everything will be all right, "Arundati would console her husband to put his fears to rest.
"Arni, it is not anxiety, but you should know that the situation has taken a bloody turn never witnessed before. The Lord Yama is plodding in every street on his Vahana., the buffalo. Only he knows what is going to happen next", Nilakanth laid bare the facts for he could contain himself no longer.
Old Arundati remembered the time when the Valley was invaded by the tribals from across the border, indulging in rape and slaughter. She was eighteen then. Heart-rending accounts of killing and rape everyday sent shivers through the spine of everybody. Srinagar city received the news that the tribal invaders had killed thousands of unarmed innocent people from Uri to Baramulla. They had not even spared the nuns of the local convent in Baramulla town and were heading towards Srinagar. People expected them anytime. Women, particularly the young girls decided to electrocute themselves to save their honour but as luck would have it the electric supply to the city was snatched away for days on end and they looked helpless. Their suicide plans could not be executed in the event the tribals entered the city and every moment turned into death alarm. Death that was approaching slowly but steadily.
One fine day news was received that the Indian army had pushed back the raiders and they were on the run. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Arundati had depicted unbounded courage those days. To this day she was proud of herself. How a similar situation had arisen. She implored to her husband, "Why do you worry? We have been through hell during the tribal raid. We will be through it somehow, why do you lose heart".
Having heard his wife's courageous words, Nilakanth heaved a sigh of relief but at the same time he pitied her innocence and simplicity.
Every morning he would lap up every line of newspapers. This was the only link left with the outside world. News came but in trickles, more fearsome than the previous one. Both souls writhed in anguish like clipped wingless birds.
"This is all your doing. Now face it. Veeru had invited us to America so many times but everytime you refused to go. God knows what keeps you glued to this place. Agreed that his wife is an American but how does it matter. She would not throw us out of her house. We would just occupy a corner of their house. We could have looked after their children. Children after all are the biggest source of satisfaction to the old people," Arundati spoke her heart out.
"It is not the question of Veeru's wife. You don't understand. At this age one is afraid to leave one's home. All our lives we have not even gone beyond Jawahar Tunnel, how can we think of going and staying beyond the vast ocean. Who knows what kind of country that would be, what kind of people would we come across, what is their style of life. And then why do you put all the blame on me? Your heart too was not inclined to leave this place".
"Ok, leave Veeru aside, Kaki too had invited you to Mumbai. You refused to go there because you thought breaking bread at a daughter's house was like eating beef. Have you forgotten that?"
"Arni, you just can't understand. If they really loved us they could have come here and taken us with them. How could we have refused then?"
"Both of them were ready to come but they were afraid of you. Your decisions are final. You are untractable. Remember, you had written letters to them not to come".
Veeru and Kaki both remained busy looking after their families in those metropolitan cities. In the Valley the old couple would count the days. How many were past! God knows how many remain.
"Today is the 7th of Shrawan. Birthday of Veeru's son. You should have prepared 'Tahri', the auspicious yellow rice today.
"It is Janam Ashtami today. Kaki's daughter was born today only. I hope you have sent a telegram to her?"
Both husband and wife remembered Veeru and Kaki, their children every passing moment. It seemed ages when we had received letters from them. Old age and loneliness are killing. One longs to see one's children but they think it is our selfishness to crave for children. How can one live without near and dear ones.
"Write to your son tomorrow asking him to send us tickets," Arundati ordered her husband.
"I am also thinking likewise. I shall call Kaki today. We shall stay in Mumbai for a few days and then go to Veeru's place".
"Do whatever you think right. It is already late in the night. Now go to sleep".
Arundati switched on the night lamp after all other lights were put off. Nilakanth was still uneasy. He got up from the bed and reassured himself that all the windows and doors had been secured. Till he was not convinced that everything was in place he strolled in the room wantonly. And then he was back in his warm bed. He handed over his Kangri to Arundati to keep it safely aside and then burrowed deep under the quilt. Sleep eluded him tonight. He kept turning in his bed. In the meantime there was a loud tap on the main door. Who could be at such a late hour? Their souls were gripped by fear; they shrank into their beds. Even stopped breathing out of fear.
Then they heard the cracking sound of the door being opened. Someone kicked the door of the room as well. The door opened wide like a wound. Two young men with mufflers masking their faces and with sten-guns in their hands, entered the room.
Without waiting they started firing indiscriminately. Though the souls of both old creatures had already left their bodies out of fear, yet the bodies had blood in them which gushed out from underneath the quilts. The armed youth turned round and left after a while, leaving death and silence behind.
Next day, the local newspaper carried following headline: