The Queen of Pherans

This is a fictional story.

It was the first week of December. The winter had announced its arrival, but snow had not yet embraced our land. I was returning home exhausted from the playground, and was met with much jubilation – my Class 10 results were out and I had passed with flying colours.

I was the first in the family on a journey beyond elementary education.

The commute to the senior secondary school from my home was long. My family was worried as it was a tumultuous decade for the Kashmir Valley – the nineties. Anything could happen on the way. The region was raging with unrest. The chilling accounts of death and destruction we heard were a routine. The Valley was in ruins and I had just cracked out of my shell, so to speak.

I chose humanities over science and enrolled myself in Career Care Institute for winter tutorials. At the tuition centre, Hameed sir taught English and he was famous for his articulation and pronunciation. I felt like I was lost on a strange island, much like Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Days passed and two more classmates from the village joined. We enjoyed our classes as we adjusted ourselves with our surroundings in the town.

Just when the Chillai-Kalan was about to start, it snowed. Some students used fur coats and jackets to beat the chill and others wore pherans (traditional Kashmiri winter attire). A classmate from the village was a smoker and I casually joined him. One day when we were on our way to class, walking, talking and smoking, we heard a polite voice behind us.

“Tala haz jaaye trayev (give me some space).”

I turned around and saw a beautiful face. She had a bag on her back, and was wearing a lemon-coloured pheran and fur shoes. When we reached class, we found her sitting in the front row. As I entered the room, our eyes met again. The class started and I kept thinking about our encounter.

The next day, just as the bus dropped us off, I waited to see her. I asked my classmates about her and was told that her name is Rahila, and that she was from the town and studied at the convent school.

I didn’t quite understand the signs then, but something about her made by heart beat faster. Waiting for Rahil became a part of my daily routine.

It was the beginning of my love story.

One day, Hameed sir announced that he would be conducting a unit test the next day. I returned home and spent the entire night reading with candlelight for company. Rahila had already seen me smoking – failing the test was not an option.

The next day, I felt satisfied with my paper after it was done. Everyone was talking about the test and I was on cloud nine. But Rahila and some other girls were biting their nails; they looked worried. Nobody paid heed to the other classes and everyone was consumed by talking about the results.

The results were released the next day, and I had topped. I was stunned as I had never thought to compete with students from advanced schools. I couldn’t believe it, and everyone looked at me with a mix of amusement and disbelief.

I caught Rahila, the queen in the pheran, also looking at me a couple of times. The classes ended and we left the tuition centre. Some students came to congratulate me.

A day later, while we were on our way to class, Rahila stopped me and said, “Could you lend me your English notebook – I missed a few classes in the beginning.”

I started sweating, but quickly nodded.

After classes, I handed over my notebook to the queen in the pheran. She was among the few girls who wore the pheran. I don’t know what it was, but she looked like a queen in that lemon-coloured pheran. I returned home and was lost in thoughts about my notebook; of what she would think of my handwriting.

She returned the notebook the next day and thanked me. The brief chat ended as we entered the classroom. As the class was going on, there was a huge explosion in the town. We collapsed on one another as dust darkened the sky outside.

We were yet to come to terms with what had happened. Militants had lobbed a grenade in the centre of the town, injuring civilians as well as Indian troops. The institution was closed and we were lined up outside for frisking and the students were sent to the park nearby. I was kept aside because of my pheran and long hair. I tried to convince my questioners that I was a student and took out my identity card. But they refused to listen and slapped me, and said, “You don’t seem to be a student, but an aid of insurgents.”

Rahila was watching it all unfold from a distance while I was crying out of sheer helplessness. Finally, we were let go in the evening after facing much harassment and humiliation. I did not narrate anything to my family as it would worry them and they would put an end my going to the tuition centre.

I found Rahila waiting for me the next morning on my way to class.

She stopped me by a greeting, “Asalamualikum.”

Walikum Asalam,” I said.

“I feel sorry about what happened to you yesterday,” she said.

“It was terrible,” I said.

“This has become a part of our lives,” she said.

Before I could say anything, she opened her bag and took out a book. She then handed it to me. It was, The Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali.

“Since you are good at English – as the unit test revealed – I thought this might interest you,” she said.

I greeted her en route to class with a couplet to convince her that I liked the book:

“At a certain point, I lost track of you,
They make desolation and call it peace.”

Days and weeks passed in brief morning greetings and small chats. One day, she asked for my notebook again to clear some doubts. I told her that I would lend it after the class was over. I wrote a letter expressing my love for her and placed it within the pages of the notebook.

When classes ended, I handed over the notebook. She put in her bag and left. That night, I tossed and turned as thoughts plagued me. What did she think of my letter? Had I done the right thing? How would she respond?

These questions rattled in my brain all night till I heard the muezzin calling for the morning prayers. I got up and left to pray in the mosque. I then left for class in a hurry.

I arrived early in the town and went straight to the tuition centre – instead of waiting, as was routine. As the students started to arrive, I was curious to see her.

Suddenly, a huge explosion rocked the town. Everybody rushed to see what happened.

I too started towards the explosion site and saw people crying and wailing. A grenade had missed the target and civilians had been hurt. The town was full of smoke and dust.

Somebody cried out that Rahila had been killed.

I was shocked and shattered. I felt my world blackening as I saw people lift her body from a pool of blood. I couldn’t get myself to walk towards her and see her one last time.

People left, carrying the dead and injured. I sat there rooted at the site of devastation. When I tried to get up, my eyes fell on a branch of a tree where a piece of her pheran was hanging. I took that piece and left for home, broken and shaken.

An indefinite curfew was imposed and everything was closed. I kept that piece of pheran in the book she gifted to me and placed it on my shelves. I did not go to the tuition classes again and didn’t attend the school that year.

Kabir is a student of literature and tweets at @kabwrites.

Featured image: Pariplab Chakraborty