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Short Story: When Yusuf Died

By Ajay Raina

It was sudden, unexpected. He was still so young.

It was in the first year of the tehriq. There had been a rash of violent deaths in the Valley before – killings rather – of many patriotic, inspired and angry, young men and boys, who had willingly courted death for the just cause.

Even after Yusuf’s passing away, the epidemic of violent deaths had continued. It had gone on for many years, piling up a huge score of martyrs: The end is not in sight yet.

In their case though, one knew, who was killing whom and for what reason.

But when Yusuf died, it was different. He was not a shaheed. He had not courted death. He had not killed anybody for any cause that he thought should necessitate killings. When he died, there was apparently, not one person, one could blame. Nothing had killed him. He had just simply died.

He died at home, in his bed. It was sudden, unexpected.

The day before he died, the markets had opened after a long time. Vehicles had plied unhindered on the roads. The Indian soldiers in camouflage were holed up inside their sandbagged bunkers. Their guns were pointed at the hurrying, pheran clad, harried shadows of their former selves, shopping for their daily needs. But in their hearts that day, the jawans, the killers of the tyrant state, had only longed for a return to their own homes in the dusty and hot plains they had been corralled from in lieu of a fixed salary. They were in a place forsaken by all of their million gods, to silence its streets in the patriotic cause of defending their nation.

It was not a normal day by any stretch of imagination. That day, not even the sound of a grenade blast or a retaliatory fire was heard. In the evening, when the sun was setting in the eastern corner of the Valley, the sky had not turned any more red, as it usually did on all the other ordinary days. The night that followed that ordinary sunset, as well, had passed unusually, without a violent skirmish, or even the song of the Kalashnikov rat-a-tatt-tatt.

That night, he had soaked his being in the unexpected rare gift of a strangely beautiful silence. He had not slept all night, that night.

In the morning, the sun had risen from its designated, western corner of the Valley without its usual break of dawn’s violent demur. It had spread itself in silence, inside his room, in a few rectangular patches, like a child’s shy smile.

It was the time of the year, when the dull grayness of winter’s tail had begun its retreat, yielding its frosty, biting drabness to tentative sunny patches of soft spring light and coy murmurings, of the first burst of Yemberzal.

In the years following the start of the tehriq, the Valley, had turned into itself and itself unto a world. It had severed all its ties with the old, irrevocably jettisoned,  archaic, ancient customs and even the forty year-old liberatory manifesto for the ‘New Valley’, to forge a yet another, bold, new nizam –  a divinely inspired set of rules and laws – by which the trajectories of its sun and moon acquired new orientations and the clocks new time; that had indeed, needed to be set back, half an hour, to follow a new dictate from the brother country to its West. The distinctions between the panun and apaerium – insiders and the interlopers, our and theirs, faithful and foe – were given new definitions, new designations, labels and names.

Among the recently re-named people, a few were dealt with straightaway with no questions asked; others were deigned generously not much time but at least a choice, between slow extinction by exile or the definitive sharp edged death. Then, there were also many cowards, who simply never came back.

Though some, but very few, were brave and quick-witted to change sides. Nobody said that they were turncoats. The Valley did not have its nabidhs, the collaborators then. In revolutionary times anyway, the distinction between panun and apaerium – who is and is not a subject of the state – is open to creative, deconstructive interpretations because such is the law in god’s specially designated lands.

But, undeniably, the ones who would not die the death of martyrs, but backed the tehriq nevertheless, urged on the coming of new age in the Valley with life and blood of our poor compatriots from the villages of the pure land. On audiotapes and reams of writings in blood red ink, they coined the slogans and smuggled them in across the porous blood-lined borders. They were our genuine friends, the true sons of the soil, who the god’s cruel hand of fate had separated from us in the Valley by mountains of treacherous barriers. They lived outside the Valley in the West.

Every one of them had made arrangements to be among the living. They would all die normal deaths in the end.

To align their fate, irrevocably with their brothers in the West, the towns, roads, parks and thoroughfares of the Valley, its great institutions of public welfare and learning – whatever could be saved from the bombings and burning – were provided aspiring new names, of great leaders of the West that they never could have had, even after discarding the one great leader, they already had had. The Valley was now under a new spell but at the same time, under an existential threat, squished as it was between the warring forces (faiths) of the East and the West.

He had not changed, or felt obliged to adapt to the new order. It would be a mystery how, in the long haul, a person like him could have survived, if he had not died.

When Yusuf was buried, his close friends, classmates, relatives or neighbours did not come to his funeral; only his distraught father was there with his own, very few friends from a vast collection of years. His mother and young sister had plunged into a terrible shock, from which they might have recovered if only their friends had turned up, to lament with them. But who knows, if the customs of the Valley had let them accompany his funeral. They may even have preferred to be buried with Yusuf, when he was lowered into his grave. I am not certain, if his friends, relatives and neighbours were even aware or had been informed that he had died; those days, the people would often end up exhausted from funeral fatigue. But I thought it strange that within days after his passing and for the rest of their lives, they forgot him so completely, as if he did not exist.

Long after his death, though many conscientious inhabitants of the sad, lamenting Valley had continued to write and tell stories, watch the news on TV, read the newspapers and blather on about so many other deaths and horrible doings of the enemy that they were unable with their power to resist; but they never wrote or spoke about why Yusuf had to die so young.

He was only eighteen.

Perhaps, he was completely innocuous and bereft of any useful trait or a striking blemish, gift or quality that he had not really mattered to anyone in life or in death.Or, as a yet another, defiant child of those tumultuous times, he had turned his being into an outright negation of all that his friends had believed and become.

His friends said, he was a simple soul, or faetir,khushak dimaag, kaek (naive, empty headed, argumentative) and that he had no faith.

But for all that, he was still dear to his father, mother and little sister. He was the light of their eyes, when alive. That was why, when he died, they were found literally, groping in the dark. This is how I saw them last, on the first day of Eid, many years later at their neighbourhood graveyard. His sister was leading his mother and father, both blinded by grief, down a row of unadorned, unattended graves of the young and the old, who had all died natural deaths. They were searching for his forlorn resting place, through her misted eyes. Then, I realised, his sister had taken his death the worst. She had lost her voice and all sensation in her left limb, near the region of her heart.

To compensate the eternal loss of her wondrous child, or to avenge all the blows the family suffered after Yusuf died, his demure mother, in time, had cast off her veil and turned her face from the fear of God.

‘Katyo chukh Yusufo . . ?’

‘Where are you, Yusuf?’ she demanded his return from God the same way, the many mothers of the Valley, who pined for their disappeared sons, expected their return.

In her wail, in her lament, she articulated and gave voice to her infinite grief. She infused new life-blood into the stilled rebellion in the heart of her lost child. She turned his death and all that had died when Yusuf died, into an emblem of a silenced people’s protest. In the face of people, who sit mute at many innocently normal deaths, who differentiate one kind of death from the other, her wail was a sharp,stinging slap, an angry letter to god, a rebuke:

‘Why are all deaths not equal?’ She wanted him to answer for the times that had turned death itself into a commodity of one-sided trade.

It was said that for almost a year before he died, Yusuf had had terribly obnoxious, sometimes violent, run-ins with some of his friends at college. They had wanted and championed for glorious and extraordinary deaths. But, he had thought that just to be able to live an ordinary life was a glorious end in itself. Moreover, the idea that your fair skin, superior faith and claim to nationhood could entitle you to take a life or give the rough end to those who did not believe, had naturally sounded repugnant to him.

Many of his moderate friends, starry eyed at the idea of doing something for their incipient nation, who loved the idea of a revolution but could not contemplate dying or killing, he thought, did not probably realise that righteous causes only weighed and measured their relevance in deaths. They did not know that revolution was a sort of package deal, a devil’s pact, that they would not be able to turn their backs from, unless they themselves turned renegade.

He had only wanted to live, to spread love and happiness, to serve and be of use to his parents, sister, friends, relatives and neighbours. He had wanted to be useful, while alive. He had wanted to be alive to be useful. What did the Valley lack? It had everything a man needed to live, but it had no love, or god.

How would killing or martyrdom solve anything?

Maybe, he had gone in the opposite direction: rebelled against the cause. In his thoughts, if not in deeds, he had betrayed his friends and in turn been betrayed by all. Left to himself, ostracised for thinking for himself, he had begun to be bitter sometimes.

If the colleges had been open, he would have preferred to spend the interminable hours of his loneliness and boredom locked up in some book in the library, but it was the winter break. Beyond chipping in with the family chores and at his father’s vegetable cart, he had enough time on his hands to think – brood actually – about his lonely fate and the consequences of a war upon a people who did not even have their fighters in abundantly renewable supply.

He missed his friends, some of who would have agreed with him, but being rich men’s sons they were now safely away, gaining qualifications at elite colleges in Delhi and Bangalore.They had escaped or been saved the fervour for azadi that had afflicted, specially the young. He too would have wanted to go, but his father could not afford to send him away.

He had mostly slept through that day and sat up all night – that abnormally silent night. This was his new routine; listening to sounds of harmony and bounteous benevolence of a world at peace. Whenever he was awake, he would tune his battered old transistor set to listen to the sounds of the faraway lands, from peaceful climes; music of Kazakhstan, Jazz on Voice of America, Drama on BBC, Qawwali on Urdu service of All India Radio, Binaca Geet Mala on Radio Ceylon, romantic songs in Mallika-e-Tarannum’s nasal twang on Radio Pakistan, News in Russian from Tashkent. He had not slept all night, that night.

At the break of dawn, a lone gunshot that whizzed past his open window had landed with a soft ‘Ah!’ into the heart of a jawan tending a Yemberzal that had sprouted on the barbed wire boundary of his bunker. He had seen that soldier, many times in the last few days tend to that hope of spring.

He was not much older than him. He did not know that spring flowers of the Valley do not much last. The drop of blood that flowed on to the flower from the soldier’s soul had shriveled his heart.

Painting: Ajay Patil, ‘Kashmir Meadows’

Ajay Raina did his postgraduate Diploma in Film Direction and Screenplay writing from the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in 1991. He has made documentaries and written feature length fiction films, occasional essays & reviews on films/books and about the conflict situation in Kashmir and has also co-written/co-directed a fiction serial for prime TV channel. He has won the Golden Conch award at Mumbai International Film Festival (2002), IDPA Silver Trophy (Independent Documentary Producers Association) and RAPA Award (Radio & Advertising Professionals Association) for TELL THEM, THE TREE THEY HAD PLANTED HAS NOW GROWN (2002). He is the founder archive and co-curator and organizer of the successful film festival, “Kashmir Before Our Eyes”, which travelled to seven cities in India. He has conducted many workshops on documentary filmmaking and also taught courses in Cinema Studies and Cinema/TV Production at the University of Pennsylvania and at the Film & Television Institute of India, Pune.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Jewish-Muslim Relations in South Asia’, edited by Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, Assistant Professor, Gautam Buddha University, Greater NOIDA, India.


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