Haroun ran like he had never run before in his life. His brother’s shoes kept slipping off his socked feet, and did nothing to hide the many holes that had become a part of his attire.
A young boy running through his father’s apple orchard – there’s nothing to draw the senses to the story. Except, he was running on dark tracks which could now hardly be seen because of yesterday’s snow; snow which had fallen so silently – as if it was mourning the death of a season.
His feet were cold, and he was miserable because he had never been much of a runner. In school, he dreaded the PT period and hated the compulsive hour which was forced on him like a warm glass of milk down his throat. But he ran. He often saw – felt, rather than seeing – a twig made into a monster, a distant hoot ominous, but his legs had a life of their own, and defied his unwillingness to take another step.
“Power,” he panted.
At the local electric power station and office, Haroun asked – begged rather – the night employees to not cut electricity for the night. He looked almost greedily at the cup of steaming tea resting unassumingly on the arm of a chair. He looked greedily at the chair, too. But he had always been taught not to sit unless the elders gave him permission to, something about the culture and manners in his part of the world. The good-natured clerk asked him to be seated, and poured him a welcome cup of tea.
Between gulps, he managed to tell him the story of why they must have uninterrupted electricity for a couple of hours that fateful night.
Haroun bent over the tin bucket which was a makeshift fireplace for the power station. The combined heat of the fire, the warmth of the teacup in his hands and its contents warming his insides made him feel good. For once, he had been picked to do a job, and had done it well. People back home would be happy, and hopefully, he would be well too.
It was the first winter night that year that his village had electricity. Those who lived away from the village centre had not heard the news and so were wondering if it was another tactic of the saffron government to appease them. “Development,” they would sing the hollow chorus of their song of “trains, business, and employment”. In any case, it was a welcome respite to the people, with the heavy acknowledgement of the prodigious price they had to pay (or had the price been paid?) for this mercy.
Haroun had already begun to dread the walk back home. He could walk now, there was no need to run. At this hour, the soft snow must have been made into metal by the chilly air, and equally slippery, his ankles cringing as if on cue. But it was time to head home now. Warming his hands one last time, as if to store the heat for the journey ahead, he took leave. The new breath of the winter struck him and he cursed under his breath, something he had only done in his head up till now.
As he was walked, he remembered, as if out of a dream, rubbing alcohol cleaner on the distempered walls of his room, trying to get the stickers off. Free stickers he had gotten with a packet of gum. He learned too soon, unfairly so, that nothing was free in life, but a child should never know that.
Home smelled of fresh, warm blood. A smell entirely too familiar, and unlike a child, he never flinched when he saw his uncle’s wound. Well, he was not really his uncle, but Haroun was very close to Salman.
Salman, the village darling who was not from the village. Salman from Srinagar, Salman who spent six months in Delhi or Bombay or Jaipur each year, meeting foreign customers, selling carpets. His few sentences in English, and fewer still sentences in French, bedazzled the village girls, the little knick-knacks he brought from his trips wooed the children, and the older people admired him for his rightness – they allowed him in their houses because they knew they, and their daughters, were safe with him. In so many ways, the village had adopted him, and he had adopted the village. His many looms gave the villagers their jobs, money came in – even if it had slowed now – but a community came together.
But now, Salman was spread on a mattress on the floor, his head hanging loosely, every breath laboured. At his feet was a doctor, dressing the open wounds on the inside of his knee, and on his ankle, two bullets in the bowl on his right. There were no shrieks of pain anymore, just a dull whimpering, a giving-up of sorts.
Haroun was dismissed from the room by his father, but he stayed at the door, praying for Salman – he was willing to pray five times a day for the rest of his life if God saved Salman, even wake up for fajr. His thoughts went back to the day Salman had brought him a packet of gum from the city, and how he had waited for him to open one to see him beam at the sticker. True, he had gotten a good scolding for spoiling the wall instead of putting the sticker on his notebook, but that was some gift.
Salman had just returned home from Jaipur this time, dreaming up the money with which he could buy a car – a brand new white Maruti 800. He imagined himself behind the steering wheel, felt in a way that was entirely too real – the wind in his long hair, lifted his arm to the steering he had concocted out of thin air, accelerated like he had learned on his client’s car. That day, too, would soon come, he thought, when he would have his own car. He wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the bus station, endure the very physical suffering of the old state transport busses, and then walk another mile to the village. No, now he would stop right in front of Javed Kak’s door, step out of his brand-new Maruti, wearing his fashionable shoes, and let everyone see.
Despite his many forthcomings, Salman was never really the most modest person in the room. He enjoyed it when people admired him, spoke of him, remembered him. It was time for him to leave for the village, another strenuous journey which he only looked forward to because for two hours he could sit at the back seat of the bus, look out the window, and dream up his car, undisturbed. On occasion, he would get so overwhelmed, he had to shut his eyes tight, and shake himself out of the reverie. The conductor, who had known him for years, knew he was one of those dreamers. His grey eyes and white beard recognised that shimmer in the eyes of young men, and he was a good man because he let Salman believe. Whether he realised any of his dreams or not was another thing, but the conductor never interrupted his dreaming except for waking him up for his stop.
In his state of twilight sleep, Salman felt a wrinkly hand gently coax him out. He thanked the conductor like someone raised from the dead, startled, with no knowledge of where they had been, or where they were going. The old conductor knew that expression only too well, and smiled.
Salman had always been stylish; any foreign client would have told you so. His pointy shoes, although impractical and uncomfortable for walking through orchards and fields, were much talked-about. They preceded, as the villagers would say, Salman’s step, and told the world of his arrival before he walked in.
He had been practicing his steps and polishing his gait when Rashid appeared, running as if chased by a herd of wild bison. He grabbed Salman’s pheran and made him run with him. There were no explanations, but of course, Salman knew what had happened. At no point did he let go of the new silk samples he had brought with him to show to the master craftsman – a brilliant blue, a musky gold, and red. He hated how the mud stuck to his shoes. In those moments of madness he thought of picking up a stick and getting the dirt off of him, but Rashid never let go.
It happened suddenly, and then again. Painless at first, Salman was reminded of when he had gotten his left earlobe pierced in Bombay, and then a sudden, unbearable heat ran through his knee and across his foot. Then he fell, as if on cue, like it was part of his act on the Elizabethan stage – “Macbeth down”. His face fell into the snow, whether it was from running so much, or being shot, but he could not breathe. His fall was unlike him – silent, not asking for acknowledgement, and so unstylish. Who would buy that Maruti now?
The next few days were a zone between sleep and wakefulness – the pain was gone, and at once unbearable, there were many people, entirely too many, the rest, he did not know of.
Salman woke up early on Saturday morning, wiping drool from his cheek, and then wiping it without avail from the pillow, and smiled on seeing little Haroun asleep in one corner. His pheran was too big for him, in all likeliness, a hand-me-down from one of his brothers, and had doubtlessly fallen asleep when he was asked to keep an eye on Salman. He was a dear boy, and Salman thought of what present to get him from Srinagar this time. Then a slow realisation came to him. He lifted the blankets to see what damage was done. All of his left leg was bandaged. Seeing it made it real. Brave Salman, stylish Salman, whimpered. A rogue tear made its appearance before a quick dismissal with the back of his hand. Haroun stirred, and on seeing Salman, plunged straight into his arms: “You are alive!”
Salman learned that his family had been contacted, and knew he was not alright. They could not come to see him for a few days, maybe weeks, because the army had sealed the entire area. But that was fine. He had a new family here, most importantly, he had the pure love that only a child is capable of giving. If ever he had a son, he would want him to be like Haroun.
He was nursed back to health by the many chickens which were slaughtered in the coming days. Even when he had no appetite, the offerings kept on coming.
Between the respite of association, came the aching thought. Because of what had happened, and how it would continue, he would not be able to work for a long time. And this would cost him his dream – he had finally found a group that would pay him enough to put into the business, but, and more importantly, so much that he could actualise that Maruti 800. He pulled the blanket back up, plunged back into his makeshift bed and bumped his head on the wall in the process, absentmindedly scratching at his head.
Haroun understood, like children always do. His mother had told him not to touch Salman’s leg, or she would tell God to condemn Haroun to jahannum. He seated himself next to Salman, and since he could not ask him the direct question of what was wrong, he began to tell him how Jemima and Rihanna had cried when they got to know. “We all thought you would die, Salman,” he said.
“And what about you?” Salman asked.
“Not me, no,” he shook his head. “I knew you would live.” Haroun hated the sound of the sigh that escaped Salman’s lips, his moustache moving like light curtains on a breezy summer day. He identified that sound of sorrow, but this was so profound, it held him like a mother scared for her child. “What is wrong?” he asked, despite himself.
Salman very carefully sat him down on his good leg, and thanked him. “It was because of your prayers I was saved, you know?”
“I know, but tell me, what happened?”
“You remember that car?” Salman asked. “Our Maruti.”
“Now we won’t be able to buy one. Those tourists leave soon, and… I will be here for a while, seems like.”
It was not like Salman expected wise advice from this good-natured boy, but he looked at him expectantly. Anything that could console him, he would take it. Haroun thought for a while, his thick eyebrows joined in thought, as if stringing up words and their formation – anything to console his most dear Salman.
And he said, like only children in their philosophical simplicity can: “Well, next time.”
Maumil is from Srinagar, and a third-year undergraduate student of English Literature at the Delhi University. She is a member of the International Writing Programme at Iowa University, a Fellow at the LedBy Foundation, and a Digital Archivist at the 1947 Partition Archive, and can be reached at email@example.com.
Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty