Waiting For Gulshan Ara
Curfew was imposed in the city on Friday. On Thursday, when the interlocutors from New Delhi were supposed to arrive, stone pelting had intensified and boys clashed with the Forces all day. By evening, it was not known if the group had arrived. Things remained unclear. Even on Friday morning, no one woke up expecting a curfew.
I awoke to the noise darting through the open windows – military yells and the sound of canes hitting the tarmac. Forces were shooing the unwary away. Clamour of protest, floating over the bustle of breakfast from the kitchen, remained imbued with the airless sensation of a hot morning. I woke up more aware than I would have on another Friday morning. Perhaps my whole consciousness woke up all at the same time. I was going to get Gulshan Ara today. The forty-day mourning period for her brother’s death was over.
‘It’s curfew today,’ announced a ringing voice from the kitchen. I thought it was Mother. But it was Granny. Her voice had taken an active tone. It happened invariably; whenever Father was angry or troubled by some other demon, Granny became more talkative and her voice acquired a youthful vigour.
During the rest of the morning, my mind played over the memory of the mixed traffic noises of the past. I sat in the kitchen, glad that I did not have to make ten excuses to leave early from my office. Even if they relaxed curfew after prayers, it would not be practical to go to work. It was going to be a holiday.
Morning grew steadily, almost without passing. By the time Father came in with his whistling breathing, the sun had nearly assumed a stationary position in the sky.
‘August mornings are long,’ Granny said without looking at anyone in particular. Her emaciated face, buffed up by the morning light to an unnatural sheen, looked heavenly. ‘The sun changes position by late September,’ she said as if she was talking to the invisible, and left. Mother came in and poured tea for Father. He sipped it once. Then sipped again – raised his right brow and asked for more salt. ‘Hasn’t Gulshan come yet?’ he grumbled. His choked up nostrils, thinning out the fury in his voice, annoyed him further.
“He’ll get her after the prayers,” Mother replied. By ‘he’, she always meant me when conversing with Father but when talking to everyone else, she used the same word to refer to Father.
I followed Granny to the backyard. She was sitting over her old pillow, as usual in the shaded veranda – the only place that remained cool in the morning and until early afternoon. I sat beside her on the grey concrete floor. The backyard was overgrown and still wet from the morning dew. Withered petals that had fallen from rose bushes and dahlias dotted the rectangular flowerbeds. Brown anthills stood amid the heaps of rotten leaves like dull nails from an ancient fort door. Aggressive morning-glory vines strangulated all that rose up from the ground. Green and dead bushes, vestiges of the rusted angle iron railing and a lonely fig tree, all were reduced to a swarm of blue trumpets with purple ribs. In the extreme corner, near the junk-shed, huge lily leaves lunged at the hem of the tin roof that was covered by the gourd-vine. Tiny, light-green gourds hung from the low roof on which white gourd-flowers lay scattered as if stitched on a purmatan shawl.
‘Is she OK?’ Granny asked.
I nodded. By ‘she’, everyone meant my wife, Gulshan Ara, when conversing with me.
‘Don’t make it late!’
‘…He was so young,’ she sighed after a thoughtful pause.
Through her milky-grey cataracts, Granny looked upon the vastness of the summer sky, sifting her memories, perhaps trying to relive a moment when she was still young. Her hurried breathing in constant, short puffs was quite audible. ‘Bachelor. Poor fellow!’ she said and pursed her wrinkly lips.
Granny began probing, with her withered tongue, for any shred of bread that might have remained lodged in her scant teeth. I looked at the garden. There was silence. A strange kind of silence. A beaten down, roasting, suffocating silence. Something that tries to fill your senses so as to make it natural for you to adapt to it.
For a moment, the shadow of the house was the only thing that held my attention: a colossal dark figure, prostrate – like a faithful jinn – on that wet, un-mown grass. Then I heard breakfast digesting in Granny’s intestines. Tiny murmurs jingled leisurely inside her shrunken midriff. She shifted from her position, pounded the sickly cushion with her fragile fists to loosen the foam stuffing. She adjusted the pillow for her bony underside and settled over it afresh.
Since morning, a notion, buried in the recesses of my brain, was struggling to acquire a form. It gave me a disturbing feeling of loss. Then, after a sudden bout of emptiness, it occurred to me that a few months earlier Gulshan Ara had asked me to fix a clock in the kitchen. It was an old mechanical clock that she had found discarded in the junk-shed. I deferred the matter that day. Then the next. And the next, until the day when Forces started shooting the stone-pelting boys dead. By then it had completely escaped my mind. Now this unexpected curfew gave me a good chance to fix it before I brought her home in the afternoon. I got up immediately.
Heat was rising in the kitchen. Bare concrete walls were already warm and radiating. Mother was washing dishes over the sparkling tin-sink, her thick outline merged with the dazzle of early noon pouring through the open windows.
‘What has a clock got to do in the kitchen?’ Mother asked, raising her eyes from the sink. I did not answer. Nor did I nod. I chose a spot just over the kitchen doorframe and climbed onto a plastic stool. I had to bend my neck sideways to accommodate the height of the stool, which was a tad tall for my liking.
‘Careful,’ Mother said, watching me with full attention, a white china cup sparkling in her dripping hands. I hammered the steel nail in the wall. It didn’t go with the first blow. ‘How could you do it?’ she said, beads of perspiration exuding from the folds of her double chin as she spoke.
I hammered again. The concrete did not budge. I felt Mother’s gaze warming around my head as if she had stepped closer. I looked at her only to be dazzled by the reflection of light from the sink. A stream of perspiration ran down my reclined spine while the light refused to ebb from my squinted eyes. A hot wave flushed my cheeks. Another one flooded my right palm. I hit again but missed the head of the nail. The flat peen of the two-pound hammer landed on my left thumb holding the nail. Although I muffled the reflex cry, Mother was still watching. The hammer and the nail both fell from my hands. ‘Sins-of-mine,’ she cursed. ‘She could have fixed it herself.’
For the rest of the day my left thumb throbbed. It throbbed under my warm armpit, between my squeezed lips, in the grip of my clenched right hand and before my watery eyes. It grew livid. Visibly red. Then it turned purple. By the time Mother called out for lunch it was black like a squashed mole. And it throbbed non-stop.
Mother and I ate potato curry and boiled rice in silence. Father fumed that his omelette was too spicy and belittled Mother’s cooking. ‘I told her,’ assured Granny, chewing shreds of a lamb rib, ‘that chillies would drive your cold away.’ Father got a juvenile flush on his face, a pricking irritation spread beneath his skin. Occasionally, he sucked up the looming goo from the tip of his scarlet nostrils. ‘Give him another in the evening,’ Granny said. Mother nodded.
The afternoon grew hotter and more silent. No prayer calls. No crackling loudspeakers. Nothing. It was a blank Friday afternoon, bereft of all activity. On my part, I was happy. With so much agony in the left thumb, who would want to go to the mosque? I did not raise the question of prayers. Father was equally content for the sake of his cold.
Barely had I closed my eyes in my bedroom that sunlight penetrated the window above my bed. The whirring of the three-wing ceiling fan had already stopped. I got up with a sticky feeling of having bathed in boiling mud. The clock on the wall read two. I thought I had dreamt during the sleep because several fantastic shades were still on the walls despite the glare of sunlight. After Gulshan Ara had left suddenly, her image had stayed on the bedroom objects and her voice remained nestled in the paneled walls: every time I lay down to sleep, the walls would play back her voice like a record. But I remembered nothing of the dream.
Throbbing in my left thumb resumed. I remembered the time when a honey bee had stung Gulshan Ara. For two days, her left eye remained hidden behind her swollen cheek. That evening she had tested positive. Now she was four months pregnant, her cheeks plump and glowing.
At four, I took a cold shower and put on a fresh Khan-dress.
‘Curfew over?’ Mother asked.
‘Don’t know,’ I replied. The unsaid reality sank in quickly. Then it was silence again. But this time it struggled and slashed at my heart, a stabbing that forms out of a subtle denial of reality. Father was in the backyard, wrapped in the viscous secretion of his own fluids, sneezing. Granny was occupied with the late afternoon demons under the shade of the lone fig tree, the faithful memory of her long-dead husband. A wicker hand-fan lay flat beside her on the grass. In the azure sky, the sun was ever more watchful.
Curfew was still enforced in the streets of Srinagar. Sadness filled me steadily like a bottle being filled up by tap water. The combat in my heart faded. It had to be tomorrow.
Curfew continued on Saturday. But now it seemed another kind of engagement: a taciturn but discomfiting acknowledgement of indiscernible authority. There was nothing one could do about this pointless curfew. Nor was anything ever achieved by it. Only a hostile silence. And it prevailed.
Something bitter had gripped my heart in my sleep because I woke up with an upsetting feeling of having acquired a new habit. In the kitchen, where Father was fuming over the effects of eating two fowl-eggs in a single day at the age of fifty five, heat had already taken precedence. Granny was fanning herself with the wicker hand-fan. The white cotton frill, which Gulshan Ara had sewn over its curved edge, was soiled where two darts had come off. Granny defended her belief in eggs. ‘It is true that one must walk a mile to digest an egg,’ she concluded, ‘but no one can deny that egg with a lot of chilli and garlic is the only cure for a cold.’ She blew away the heat and her son’s rage with deft moves of the frilled hand-fan.
‘There’s no cure for cold,’ I interjected to my own surprise. ‘The cold we perceive is only the symptom of our immune system response.’ There was silence. Father looked away. Granny continued fanning her wrinkled face. Mother poured tea for me. ‘It chokes our nose,’ I continued. ‘Inflames our throat and lungs. And it does so only to fight the virus.’ I went on…
By the time I had thrown enough light on how our body’s defence mechanism was equipped to detect, and defend against, a tiny virus or an infection, Father was deep in the distress of his stomach spasms. For a moment he was pensive but then turned towards Mother and raised his voice. ‘And when a serious cancer is brewing just under the nose of that defence mechanism of his, it doesn’t even stir!’
Father was right. In July, Gulshan’s younger brother, who was working in Libya for an oil company, came back to Kashmir to see his likely fiancée. He first went to a doctor for a painful headache that had troubled him during the long flight. The doctor advised some investigations. And the very next day the scan revealed a malignant tumour in his brain. Ten days later, he passed away, without even seeing the girl that the family had chosen for him.
My informative arguments lost to one instant of reality. Mother got up to wash the dishes, fuming. Without bringing Gulshan’s name on her lips, she let go of an irritating monologue about the vices of mourning too long. Granny moved out along with her hand-fan. I immediately followed her. Triumphant, Father was left alone at the mercy of his incensed wife and the burning August sun.
Granny and I sat at the same spot as yesterday: she on her old pillow and I on the floor. The concrete was cool. Tiny, still gourds, white flowers, tin roof, giant lily leaves, aggressive morning glory vines, the prostrate jinn of a shadow, un-mown grass, anthills, a lonely fig tree; everything was there, and still. But today the stagnant air carried a buzzing irritation. Out of the vestiges of our marginal existence grew an overwhelming feeling of powerlessness. A wave of sadness took over the stagnant air. A long, curfewed day, multiplied by the sun, laid waiting in the silence of the garden.
Father came out convinced that the silence was easier on nerves than a fat, vociferous wife. He escaped to the right of the fig tree, hiding behind the timeworn, twisted branches of the trees and plants whose names my generation had neglected to remember. He stayed there, his legs spread out and a gooey handkerchief lying on his left thigh.
We passed the morning watching the silence and the morning glory vines grow. We ate lunch together in silence, slept in our individual rooms at noon, dreamt a common dream of silence, and woke up sleepier still.
When I was about to take a shower, a rumour spread that the curfew had been relaxed for two hours since four. The clock in my room read half past five. I put my clothes back on and hurried to the street. It was not clear if the curfew had been relaxed. But people were out. There were whispers and familiar ones had formed small groups. Then there were yells and shouts. From the other side of the street Forces came charging at the people. I was confused about which way to run. The yelling came from our street. I ran towards the mosque over the stone-strewn street and was confronted by a sleeping horse. A soldier was running in the distance. He spotted me and raised his cane. I changed course and ran towards home. I reached home without meeting any harm on the way.
Mother was already lying on the veranda, gasping and wailing, when I reached back. Granny was fanning her. Two neighbouring women had craned their necks from their windows, commiserating my short disappearance.
‘Father,’ I asked. ‘Where is Father?’
‘Sleeping,’ said Granny.
‘Did they hurt you?’ Mother asked me.
‘My child. If anything had happened to you!’ Mother let out a monologue of apprehensions. She cried in short bursts and cursed Gulshan. ‘She’ll come by herself… Doesn’t she realise…How can we bring her home in this misery? Shouldn’t she come by herself… when there’s so little relaxation… Can’t she think…’
Granny remained silent.
Father came down, troubled by the noise. Upon learning about my misadventure, he laughed as scornful a laughter as his cold would permit. ‘She’ll come back by herself. Why worry?’ he said with a composed face, which satiated sleep brings in middle-aged men.
From that moment on I knew that Gulshan Ara would come back by herself when the curfew was relaxed again. After that short burst of activity, we again settled for a silent evening: the hopes for today were over.
All day the silence had soaked up the sun, harboured it, and now it was releasing it so vehemently that the whole evening my body remained soaked and sticky. The heat kept oozing through the night and it was impossible to sleep. I did not dare switch on the fan for the fear of catching a cold.
I looked out from the window. Nothing but silence. I came out in the backyard. It was steaming and yet everything was so still that it almost seemed contrived. Near the fig tree, thin curls of smoke were rising.
‘Your mother won’t let me switch on the fan again,’ Father raised his voice so that he could explain why he was smoking after having quit for good. ‘Now don’t tell her in the morning.’
The curls of smoke became thicker and thicker. I saw Gulshan Ara’s plump face in the timeworn bushes. She was angry that I had not come to get her. But I dared not raise my voice, for Father was not far. I was content looking at her. Her belly had not begun to show yet, but her face glowed like the moon in the cloudless sky. Then she disappeared, perhaps shy of her father-in-law who had finished his filter-less cigarette and was strolling back.
‘This curfew will get them nothing,’ Father said as if smoking had cleared up things in his mind. He shrugged his broad shoulders when he passed by me, leaving behind an upsetting whiff of undigested eggs.
No one from the capital was welcome, least of all a team that was to negotiate peace rather than talk freedom. Everyone was up in arms against the interlocution. It was a farce that had ceased to trick people long ago. The curfew could only prolong the anger.
After Father went inside, I waited at the veranda for Gulshan Ara to re-appear. She did not come back. Only the impression of her invisible footprints stirred over the leaf-strewn garden. The night sighed endlessly in distress. Silence continued without a moment’s break.
By Sunday morning, the silence had deepened. The kitchen, flooded with the glare of fresh sunlight, was hushed. Granny and Mother, sitting beside each other, did not talk or eat or drink. There was no shouting on the road. No unwary confronted by the Forces. No protests. No bread. No milk. No tea. No hunger. No longing. Nothing.
My heart was roasting in mixed-up memories. My thoughts scrambled between Gulshan Ara with her swollen, bee-stung cheek and the pile of files on my office table waiting for disposal. Then I saw a horse in the backyard, sleeping on its four upright legs. Two semicircular marks, burnt on his skinny left thigh, glistened on the dusty brown of his sun-beaten fur like wet leaves on dry land. His large head, humiliated by sunlight, was still.
All morning, no one came out of the house. The sky was still cloudless except for a few fleecy tufts to the west. The sun shone on the long, sparkling spider traps stretched across the plants. Around noon, when the sun had fully occupied the backyard, I was still alone on the veranda – not thinking, not hoping, just staring at the sleeping horse. The beast, despite the burning sun, stayed the way he was: sad and desolate on the thoroughfare of time. His sadness stirred a strange thought in my heart: would a cry echo in a silence as profound as this?
At two, Father came down from his room in a hungry panic. We had not eaten that day. In fact, we had not eaten since Saturday afternoon. We had stopped being alive – paralyzed by the peaceful and resigned attitude that a prolonged siege instigates. Mother fried potato slices and we all ate them with dry rice.
At four, when I came out, the horse was still there. Still asleep. Despite the unbearable late-afternoon fervency of the garden, he maintained the calm composure of a hewed form. The grey crust of his hooves, swathed by the green of un-mowed grass, had taken a permanent position. Around his four athletic calves spiralled the forceful stems of morning glory. He looked fixed to his place like the North Star. As if he had been born there in that manner and was an essential part of the backyard that was in the timeless grip of morning glories.
Afternoon moved on tardily. The silence did not budge. At sunset, the stillness compressed and hurt like a metallic band tightening around the ribcage. Then it expanded, suddenly, to enshroud everything, bringing in a world of dark clouds. The darkness thickened quickly. A pneumatic wheeze, like a bus rounding a corner, broke the impasse a few minutes later. The leaves of plants struggled against the embrace of strangulating vines.
In the neighbourhood, a window clanked against its safety hook. Then another one knocked on the wall until a prolonged disturbance shook everything around the garden. In the rising uproar, doors and windows clattered. Some windowpanes broke free and crashed against the walls. The wind stiffened. Glasses shattered. Mother, cursing incomprehensibly, went from one room to another sealing the windows shut.
The horse in the garden vanished.
A loose sheet of the junk-shed’s tin roof came off at one end. It fluttered as the agile wind changed direction. Its frustrated drumming irritated the silence of our blood. Then it settled again until a ferocious gust whipped it off from its anchor nails and tore the gourd-vine from its roots, sending it flying over the lonely fig tree far into the neighbourhood, to be lost in the dusty whirlwind.
At that moment, one could sense water in the air. And it materialised soon. Sudden, ferocious rain lashed with the mad wind. The clouds clashed. Granny put her hands on her ears to escape the wrath of the thunder. She hurried to her room. But the wind carried the rain to impossible places, devouring the smell of the thirsty earth and any possibility of escaping the precipitation.
After an hour, the air settled for a cool and peaceful night. There was silence again. But this time it was the silence of another universe, far from the stridency of the burning silence we had experienced earlier. Cool and friendly. Within and without. The throbbing in my left thumb had become dull and painless. The only thing that occasionally stirred in my heart was the thought of Gulshan’s arrival. I headed for the kitchen to fix the clock, knowing that she would come by herself any moment, when the curfew was relaxed.