Two pages of autumn
By Ashfaq Saraf
26 September 2016
A short story
Hands of the wall clock tick, the sound forever tugs at the sense of detachment nightfall provides; it does so vehemently when the lights are turned off, people have begun to lay beds, a mild swoosh of autumnal wind is flourishing through the broken attic window knocking one’s mind off the track drawn up by an alliance of warm mattress, sheep-skin blanket, the sluggish flow of blood through limbs, settled rhythm of a beat inside one’s chest.
You have grown weary of the sound from wall clock over years, asking your mother when you were still in upper kindergarten: Can’t we let go of the sound, what does this tick-tick stand for?
“It stands for time, gobuer,” her reply rings in your head.
You recall, many a times with smile, when you made a note after your mother’s remark in a diary – “I don’t like the sound of time in my ears”. You stare for hours, sitting at the window or by the edge of the gate or from verandah next to our classroom, at the whiteness engulfing some winter mornings when snow has equipped nature with an expansive embrace gathering every object under the sky in it, the overpowering green of kitchen garden in the advancing spring, the blazing Chinar leaves in autumn crackling under a hurrying passerby’s feet cheering you to ask your father, “What changes the color of Chinar leaves from that to this?” “It’s time’s changing appearance for us,” his reply is buoyed up by a kiss on your forehead.
You scribble about riding along the most intimate scenes of time’s appearance when many a time your brother, as if in no particular hurry, browses through the channels on TV looking for anything near in resemblance to cricket – stupid man’s pleasure as your grandfather called it – and pauses briefly at Discovery channel, at the sight of some strange-looking sea animal or a snake in the jungle, as the camera works its way displaying a fleeting day by focusing on the view of sky in the backdrop of a lone tree, mostly leafless, so that time’s appearance becomes visible in the quick succession of clouds slithering away over the vast blue belly of visible frame, the shadow of the leafless tree swiveling about its trunk from being on the farther side to being swallowed into the TV screen. “How I like time’s appearance changing in my eyes!” you write just below that other line in the diary.
Over the first few pages of Maryam’s dairy (I managed to get hold of it after all these years) the scribbling is introductory and fragrant with the carefree jargon of a teen. We were in the ninth standard at the time. I try to perform the lines in my head that sum up to a perfect concoction of naive charm and bold concern, adding to them nothing more than, and not voluntarily I reckon, a curious onlooker’s excitement.
“In the years of growing up I have cherished and made bookmarks of lily and yemberzal growing in the backyard of our house. For months I have brooded about taking the black puppy, a comrade in the gang of dogs loitering around our house at twilight, for a hike to the orchards on Sundays. I braid my hair on Mondays and Fridays. I dream too, mostly about my classroom, about the most handsome boy in it, about friendships with him, about being in the league of girls singing morning assembly prayers. I am yet to conclude who I should be friendlier with: Nargis or Aayat? Aayat walks with me to school and back, from Nazir barber’s shop, that is where she waits for me every morning. Nargis is the second-most beautiful girl in the class, as to what Aayat and I have lately agreed to, in addition to being the leader of the assembly of prayer girls. I, wonder thinking to myself why my manner is invaded by a certain stamp of dislike for my mother when my brother is around, though my chest is immediately freed of the weight when I sit with mother alone – that is when brother is not home, running some errand or sweating in the high school playground with his cricketing fellows. When my father invites me along to the orchard, I skitter after butterflies, those creatures of colour and flight, and he watches me from a distance, cautioning occasionally, “Watch out my girl – that mound, the apricot tree”, “Not there, not there – it’s a thorny bush.” Not long ago I stranded myself in the bed for good one hour in the morning, recollecting the dream I awakened from: the butterflies from orchard had flooded our classroom, moving around and coming to rest on the blackboard making some abstract, yet mysterious patterns, sticking to Nargis’ hair, landing upon our teacher’s scarf going around her endlessly swiveling neck from blackboard to students and back and forth.”
Apple orchards abut our access road to school on one side, rice paddies on the other. A stream of water flowing down Gulmarg heights, squeezed into an irrigation canal, runs parallel to the road along the fields. The road leading to our school is the one that connects the village to the highway. One cannot be sure whether the road was built after slicing parts of the apple orchard or the edges of the paddy fields. The stream emerges at one point about two hundred metres outside the village habitation trenching across an orchard, hits the road at right angles and is led to roll underneath by means of fat irrigation concrete pipes; thereafter it runs parallel to the road, by the edge of the paddies, beside it, and is fed by narrow irrigation drains into each pocket – their mouths in the autumn plugged with mud and polythene, as the fields stretch barren in the aftermath of rice harvest dotted by occasional ricks of dull brown color, standing like abandoned pickets of a war-torn army. Indeed, it was known across households, I remember, people tossing around the coup de main in great detail while mosque hamaams were kindled constrainedly at Fajar and Isha: how aided by these ricks, Bilal and Majeed, the two fighters with Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, had retreated far back into the outlying part of village, aiming from behind this hayrick, firing a shot or two, stunning the ever callous feet of Rashtriya Rifles in the dull grey dusk light, retreating further into the depths of paddies, disappearing for a while, firing a few shots again until they were a lost opportunity to the contingent of Indian army men
Still hanging from the tree tops, blood red, apples glitter against the rising sun. As the gossamer layers of frost begin to melt, these apples in small clusters, remnants from harvest and conspicuous by the very act of their hanging, are bathed in the warm flame of morning sun. Drops of water may be descried trickling down the skin of an apple hanging a few feet above the upper strand of barbed wire fence, as if holding miniature suns inside them and waiting to fly free and to be carried into a plunge for inviolable depths. Maryam-ae, Aayat calls after her, tugging at the straps of her rucksack as she ambles to the side, inches close to the stream. A cool breeze rustles past our temples grazing our hair with a frosty whiff. The vast expanse of paddies to our right heaves beneath the white frost layer encrusted overnight, now beginning to melt in presence of slowly heating air, sticking the wet ground into paws of the brown fur cat scampering away across the field. Children in small pockets, groups of two or three, flock together carrying over-stuffed rucksacks, girls clad in white shalwar and green kameez, boys in grey pants and white shirt are off to school. Maryam and Aayat, walk together held, as though by invisible bonds over the rhythm of their light feet. For miles, paddy spreads through and through. I walk with my younger brother.
Across Maryam’s shoulders is strapped the rucksack whose weight, concealed somewhat in the compactness of its size, seems to burden her to the point of clumsiness. The two girls walk holding hands for a while, giggling into the border of their scarves, kicking a pebble away from the path, steering over to the periphery of road at the approach of an automobile – they’d have ventured playfully to the middle – staring carelessly at the landscape, breathing in and out the frosty air, maintaining a pace as though nothing unexpected would ever come of a routine walk. In the morning assembly prayer girls sing the song meant specifically for Thursdays and Miss Haleema, not unexpectedly, rises to the podium reminding the students of goodness inherent in abiding by the dictates of elders. Her gait is conspicuous in that she labours on her limbs with effort to carry forward an overweight body physically undermined in compass of its exhibit by an equally, if not more, odd bosom which holds out beyond the extent of a fitting measure. “Stand in line boys” – “Idiot you! Won’t it do us little less harm if you do not break the queue?” – “I shall make you stand on one leg; I repeat one leg!” — “You’d rather sell bananas on a cart – well, why waste your father’s earnings here?” Miss Haleema knows well when to corner a student. Maryam is, as it precipitates into the natural conduct of her appearance, not to be cornered on a usual day.
Maryam lives in the western part of the village, two streets away from mine, in the house her father got painted yellow last summer. After two hours of incessant downpour the skyline blazes fiery red over the western horizon, the grayness of dusk gathering over window panes compliments layers of cold air wafting through curtains, across people’s temples and over their shoulders. Her mother readies supper and repeats, now at third attempt: “Maryam, please girl.” As Maryam sits by the plates, her mother begins whispering into her ears: “We have two guests tonight sleeping in the guest room. They will not meet children given their busy schedule. Friends with a father’s friend, so to speak. They converse in a foreign tongue. We shall let them be.” She tells her the guests are from other side of LOC; that she must keep mum about them at school. An absentee, by way of remedy, from the classes tomorrow, as she makes an assessment, is to turn into a pother of unmanageable kind – Aayat shall come asking for her in the evening, being no surer if these guys intend to take a leave any time sooner. ‘Do you understand Maryam?’—‘The guests want to be left alone.’
Never before had a guest arrived and not given Maryam goodies; and never before had anybody stayed for a night and not sat with her conversing about school and her friends and her teachers. “These guests, who are not familiar with every member of our family, must have come from a faraway country,” she decides. Her brother eats beside her suppressing a chuckle each time her mother instructs on the nuances of conduct in their presence. She stares him in the eye; he submerges his gaze into the plate of rice. At night as she draws the quilt over her head a soft outpour of voices is pervading the air, as if cutting diligently through many cemented walls but in the process is rendered utterly obscure to human ear. The clock on the wall is ticking – tick-tick-tick – inundating the calm of night, interfering in the audibility of voices reaching from across the vault of brick walls.
The patter of light drizzle against tin roof completely drowns their voices and Maryam, in a matter of minutes, loses her consciousness to a sleep so deep that when she opens her eyes sun rays, having warmed her right cheek and the hair clumping around it, percolate her eyes like gossamer of fleece covering bare skin warmly. On her way to the washroom she runs into one of the mysterious guests, lowering her eyes as he approaches her in soft steps. The man stops in front of her, drops on his knees and in an effort to allay her fears runs his hand through her hair. Her eyes meet a bearded man of unpredictable age, though one would certainly say he is younger than the habit his face wears. He leads her to the guest room where his other companion is still under the blanket. Flourishing a broad smile on seeing Maryam, the other companion lowers the blanket down to his chest. The sight of two Kalashnikovs slanted against the wall to her left makes her head spin, though later, for at least a year this became the most frequently narrated anecdote in her friend circle. “What’s your name?” – “O that’s a beautiful name indeed” –“You attend school, right?” – “Maryam here, this chocolate” – “Nah, not guns; these are not fascinating at all” – “That’s a beautiful hair band”.
Soft rays of morning sun travel through window panes into the kitchen, painting golden all the hands picking and slicing choet from a broad circular tray over breakfast. Her mother looks at Maryam with eyes of disgruntlement and concern. “Remember what I told you about the school, Maryam!”
She meets Aayat over the culvert near the dispensary. Her braids, hanging about her shoulders tied with blue rubber bands, flourish strokes on her back, from left to right and then back as they set off for the school. Aayat points out to Maryam by giving her neck a twist, pulling the braid between her fingers. “I woke up late and mother had no time to comb my hair.” – “You plaited your own last week?” – “Had to finish Arshad Sir’s assignment.’ – “He is a superfluous teacher” – “You think Ahmad sir taught better?” – “I’ve begun wearing woolen socks” – “I am not carrying my lunch.” – ‘That group of dogs, there!’ – ‘Don’t you stare, don’t stare at them for God’s sake’– ‘Walk away from them, to the edge, to the edge’—“Your uniform is stained.”
A pervasive aroma of wet earth and of the bark of willow trees is wafted by the mild swoosh of the morning breeze, chilly, it touches skins as if still bathing in yesternight’s rain. Covered in school shoes we keep to the tarmac’s edge as the muddy ground along both peripheries slips under people’s feet. A cloud cover has shut the sun away. Crows fly from branch to branch, from one groove to another. There are no changes in the colour of light from yesterday’s or the green of trees marred by a constantly overtaking brown of the autumn, the air, however, smells different but Maryam is sure she wouldn’t be able to make Aayat understand. A soft pain is overtaking the beat in her heart. The frown on her mother’s face – when she was leaving for school – reminds her constantly, assuming the form of a brush with which to paint the day. ‘Should I not have skipped school?” – “They wanted me out at the earliest!’ – “I could have feigned headache”– “Father too was eager about me leaving.”
At the prayer assembly, Miss Haleema approaches her and asks Maryam to join the prayer chorus. “I approved your request,” she tells her. From afar, inside the rows between students, she was expectant of a certain dose of exhilaration she didn’t experience after joining the chorus. It rather felt like dullness elevated to a norm. Maryam could watch, for the first time from the podium, a clone of army standing in rows, responding to the prayer songs in harmony, waiting for the chorus girls to finish their lines, wearing the same color, each individual shuddering at the approach of Miss Haleema and sending forth in perfectly coordinated steps an air of disgust reminiscent of crackdowns unleashed by the Indian Army – rows in which they would ferry men for identification in front of armed trucks inside which an informer or two, collaborators of unknown proportions, sat with masked faces to identify from the crowd men of dubious conduct, so to say having anything to do with the resistance movement, to be taken away, amid protest to no avail.
These ordered rows are a depiction of defeat, thought Maryam, a curse: of not being in a position to run away, of following orders out of an inability to act otherwise, of letting something of the human spirit die. Sameness in the color of students’ attire evoked a feeling of distrust in Maryam; for it was only with the military uniforms—donned by men who barged into homes at will, who’d abuse in the horror of a language words of which hit people in the gut like beatings with Kalashnikov butts, take men, familiar and from family, away like cattle hoarded into trucks—she could draw a similitude. What does it serve to align people in uniformity of appearance? Perhaps a prelude to control of thought.
From the students’ uniform to the military, trails her imagination took hold of led her to follow incidents rife in memory, still seething with life of their own, speaking vividly to her and guiding her along from home to Eidgah tugging at the borders of her mother’s shalwar, at times holding the little finger of her right hand, running behind her after losing some pace, walking back home in the evening crushed under the wheels of fatigue and disgust – informed the ordeal is to last few more days, that they have to leave homes early in the morning for another day to be spent under hot sun, or cold rains or with freezing snow – and tomorrow as they would approach the evening, quite like today they shall be torn between each minute and its distance from the hopeful revelation that none of their men are taken away, that their homes have not been ransacked, their rations not stolen.
By noon as the day grows hotter and the signs of last night’s rain evaporate, a certain kind of choking cudgels her chest which prevents her from moving about. It is felt not just inside her chest but upon the cyclic hubbub of breathing in the throat and the heavy-growing-head. She glues herself to the window of classroom, staring across the cluster of houses visible at distance. She cannot exactly spot her house, yet is aware of the direction in which one must seek it – thick grooves of walnut obstruct her gaze. Every object in sight bathes in the afternoon heat – houses visible at a distance, their tin roofs glaringly reflective, the mulberry grove standing out from the rice fields, the asphalt road winding by the school fencing, water tanks installed atop lavatories built by the edges at the rear end of school perimeter. At irregular intervals, a bus crosses school building in either direction billowing clouds of dust up into air. In the adjacent playground, bald patches shine amid brownish grass, children run in frolic playing games of all kinds, chasing each other, girls run oblivious of the hot sun lifting into air – constantly held in position by a persistent commotion on the ground – a sprawling canopy of dust. I am one among the multitude of boys playing cricket there. As the bell rings, children begin, gradually in pockets, returning to the classrooms – a swarm of creatures following an invisible lead; in minutes the playground is emptied. When most of the students have taken their seats and the teacher stands on the verge of entering the door, one foot inside, another out, her head turned from us as she finishes her conversation with another in the corridor, at that moment the silence – or the approximation of it amid hissing and suppressed laughter – is invaded from nearby road by a series of honking and engine noises. A thin girl from the last row stands up looking out of window, and blurts out: army trucks.
An hour passes, another teacher has just begun his class that a knock breaks into the rhythm of the classroom. Principal Gaeschroo, accompanied by Maryam’s father stands at the door, and as he indicates to her by means of waving his hand her father has an awkward smile, as if needled into his lips. He leads her out through the rear gate of the school campus saying, “We are going away to Hajra aunt’s. Your brother must have reached by now. I’ll come back in the evening.”
She makes a slow, almost indiscernible movement of her head as they step into the orchard through which they hotfoot it to the other side. At that moment the silence, now deafening, is fragmented by the sound of a barrage of bullets fired at once, then a mortar shell, another range of bullets – silence again. She clutches his hand more firmly while he keeps hurrying away, each subsequent step brisker, pulling Maryam into a slight gallop behind him.
~ Ashfaq Saraf writes from Varmull, Kashmir. His work has appeared in Kafila, Raiot, Northeast review, Kashmir Lit, Kashmir Reader among others.