By Irfan Mir
Latief had one last drag at a cigarette and released the smoke from his slightly puffed-up mouth. After a short swirl in the air, the smoke vanished into nothingness, leaving behind only its acrid smell.
The smoke, which is alleged to kill, he thought, dies a quicker death.
Death was on his young mind; it had gone into his brains, seeming nearer to him than it had ever been. In the quivering light of a candle, the wooden rafters above his head seemed to float. He imagined Ezrail hovering around him like cigarette smell. He quickly blew out the candle and moved to a corner of his room. Darkness enfolded him and he stood in the corner, motionless and terrified.
Latief tried to block all thoughts from entering his mind. But the harder he tried, the faster did scenes from Arif’s funeral sneak in. Women beating their chests, old men mumbling verses from the holy Quran, and young men crying at the top of their lungs, “Arif, tere khoon say inqilab aayae ga! (Arif, your death will bring a revolution!).”
While Arif was being laid to rest, Latief had a glimpse of his lifeless face. He shuddered and quickly scuttled his way back home, his body drenched in cold sweat. He had seen a contemptuous smile on Arif’s serene countenance; Arif seemed to be smiling at the living dead.
Two more youth from the neighbourhood, who had joined the militant movement, had been killed since then. Latief did not dare to step out of his house and he did not join their funeral prayers. He was afraid of encountering another disdainful smile, which, he believed, was enough to cause him a nervous breakdown.
“They made a mistake, crossed the wrong line and climbed the wrong mountains,” he mumbled in a hushed voice, trying to calm his nerves – mad with smell and memory – down. As soon as these words tumbled from his mouth, he had a vision of Arif’s face; the smile that had terrified him so much was gone, making the face appear all the more sinister.
He got up reluctantly and opened a window in an attempt to drive the pungent smell and death away. Outside, everything was shrouded in the darkness of the night. A sudden gush of damp, bitter air hit his face. Latief retreated quickly, slid inside his quilt, and reclined against a soft pillow. The warmth of his bed and the softness of the pillow pacified his nerves. He began to think about the events of the day, which had seemed quite normal to him when they actually occurred, but now he found them queer and appalling. That morning while he was returning from the local mosque, the epitome of peace and serenity, he had seen a few young men hurrying down the street. They were carrying large rucksacks.
“Assalamaliakum,” Latief had greeted them in a voice showing concern, “Is everything alright? Where are you going so early in the morning?” He had asked.
“Beyond the mountains,” a young man smiling vaguely had replied.
“I hope you’ll join us soon there,” another had added.
The muscles on Latief’s face had twitched on hearing these men, full of life and enthusiasm. He averted his eyes from them and left without uttering another word. On returning home, he sat down in the kitchen for some hot cups of nun-chai (salty tea). While sipping from his cup, peering at the blazing hearth, his thoughts never left the group of young men. The young men who had left their cosy havens at the crack of dawn to fight against injustice, the young men who had recently fallen from the mountain of childhood into the gorge of adulthood, only to realise the mountain never belonged to them. They were pushed from the edge by some strange men from the plains.
It had been a sunny day. In winter when the sun is up and shining, it’s a pleasant experience to go out on a walk. There is always a tinge of cold in the air, regardless of how bright the sun shines in the heavens.
In the afternoon, while walking with his friend, Ravi, down a narrow lane leading to the bluish green walls of a shrine dedicated to a revered saint, Lateif had encountered an eerie old man. The lane was filled with the din of street hawkers crying the prices of goods they were selling. In the compound of the shrine, the old man dressed in rags, his long, shabby, unkempt hair falling roughly over his shoulders while crisp stubble on his face danced like a mystic. He danced to a tune only he could hear; an eternal tune that could only be heard by those who forget their own existence in their love for the Prophet. These are the people for whom the boundary between sanity and insanity becomes blurry. They know not which side they belong to but the world around them pretends to know.
Occasionally, the old man would raise his hands towards the sky and bring them down with great ferocity, hitting his chest and shrieking out in pain, “No, I don’t have a gun. I swear I don’t have a gun.”
Latief closed his eyes, moved his slightly trembling hand over the ledge of the shrine and rubbed the dust, clinging to his fingers and palm, to his face and chest. He seemed to be in a great hurry while saying his prayers.
Ravi smiled, put his hand on Latief’s shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry. The old man is harmless.”
Close to them a middle-aged woman was sobbing and mumbling her prayers into her raised hands. On their way out of the shrine, they gave a few coins to the women beggars who stood near the shrine gates, concealed from the public view by black veils.
Once they were out in the street again, Latief let out a sigh of relief that made Ravi burst out in a loud laugh.
“Had there been a little boy instead of that dirty old man, I bet you’d have been as scared. I told you the man is harmless. A victim of his times.”
Latief stopped and asked, “A victim of his times?”
“A story is making rounds in the town. The old man had a son, who a few months after getting married was disillusioned with the married life and left home for Pakistan to get arms training. When the young man returned, he found to his great joy and distress that he had had a daughter. One dark night, the young man paid a quick visit to his wife, parents, and to his little girl.
“Early next morning, the army laid a siege around the village but the militant had already left. They got hold of the old man, took him to the army camp, and tortured him, demanding the whereabouts of his son and his weapons. Every once in a while he was taken to the camp and tortured. They left him alone only when his son got killed.”
“And now the old man is totally insane,” observed Latief with pangs of sadness in his heart.
“Maybe the news of his son’s death did it for him,” Ravi said.
“Or maybe the torture did,” Latief could not help adding.
Latief was sitting in his spacious room, reading some verses of Rumi from a red leather bound book:
“Ours is not a caravan of despair
Come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times
Come, yet again, come, come.
Ours is a caravan of hope.”
The verses of Rumi made Latief feel full of life, bestowing him with immense joy and hope in the times of destruction and hopelessness. As Latief walked in his mind through the glorious streets of Persia with Rumi, a loud rap on the door brought him back to reality. Before Latief could get up and open the door, the man on the other side began to kick it.
“Motherfucker, open the door,” the man on the other side thundered.
Latief froze in his place; the tone of voice from behind the door made it clear to him that uniformed armed men from across the Himalayas had come for him. Death, itself, was on the other side. He opened the door, which creaked like the moan of a woman in bed, closed his eyes, set his mind free from all complications and fear. In passive resignation, he let his body receive all the wrath and anger of the armed forces. He was kicked and pummelled in his face and his body received a volley of gun butts. Before he could open his eyes, he was blindfolded and two men got hold of his arms and dragged him across the courtyard, through rough deserted streets. His legs throbbed with pain.
When the blindfold was finally removed from his eyes, Latief found himself by the side of a lake. The piece of cloth seemed to have had a magical effect on his eyes, for everything appeared clearer to him; the life that he had lived up to that point of time seemed nothing but a dream. The mountains around him stood stolidly, dripping icicles on the bare tree branches that wept in tranquil indifference. The road on the opposite side of the lake travelled in a vivid haze. But more than anything around him, it was the lake that caught his attention. Instead of clear water, the lake was crimson red, full of blood. Latief could sense his impending doom. He was on his knees, the two men still holding him. He began to say his last prayers.
On the other side of the lake, a few armed men, their faces concealed, were dragging Ravi to the bank of the lake of blood. A lorry passed along the hazy road, carrying more than a dozen men and women in it, their gods in their arms, sobbing. They were leaving their homes, never to return. In an attempt to free himself from the ruthless clutches of the men holding him and save his friend, Latief tried to flail his arms and kicked. The quilt came down and a cold gush of air hit his sweating face. He woke up and took a deep breath of relief.
The pungent smell of cigarettes was gone.
Irfan Mir is an aspiring short story writer from South Kashmir’s Anantnag district.
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