By Jamsheed Rasool
At the burial of Mouji in the terraced village graveyard there was a gaggle of people praying for her. There were the pot-bellied landless Dums, the lean landlords, the village clergy, members of a non-governmental organisation from the city, separatists, unionists, policemen, renegades, and in a remote corner trying to decode a secret message etched on epitaphs of graves some shaggy-moustached troopers as well.
“All those who bear the hardships with fortitude will have a special place in heaven,” a white-bearded cleric said while delivering a short sermon. “May Allah give a highest place in heaven to her for she endured much in this life,” he said, cupping his hands and raising them in the skyward direction. “Amen,” the crowd shouted back.
The cleric recited a few verses from the holy book as soil was filled up in the grave by young men of the village. “Her world changed the day she lost him. She was no more the same jolly woman we knew,” the villagers said in calibrated whispers.
What exactly was left of her old world after Mouji lost him?
Shaded by the dusted foliage of an old weeping willow tree, the one half of rusted gate, cast off its hinges, lied flat on the ground. Sporadic grass had grown through its iron grills. The other half, equally rusted, but standing in its decay, had not been opened for years. The small soiled, moss-covered cobbled tiles at the gate gave into the courtyard. Dense weeds laid spread out on the hedges; over-grown nettle and marijuana plants infested the courtyard everywhere, right up to the fallen walls of house. Scattered iris plants, otherwise emblematic of the terraced countryside graveyards, had sprouted here and there on the compound, one even on the sooty remains of the porch.
The pale, smoke-begrimed bricks in the fallen mortar slabs, a few blackened corrugated-tin sheets, scores of semi-charred planks of wood, few rusted iron rods miraculously untouched by fire, reclining against the sun-facing wall, a couple of tilted window frames, with the dusted greenish glass shards were still intact—was all that was left of her old world.
A few erected wooden posts against the only standing wall of the house, wherein the intervening spaces were filled from both inside and outside with the kneaded up plaster of mud and twigs and a few newspapers laid out on a pile of sawdust on the floor-that was now her world, the new world.
If you entered her world, the pungent smell of her hair, dirt-caked near the ears, gave her away. By the only standing wall of the house she always lurked under the greasy tarpaulin cloth. Upon gauging the black-eared kites swoop on the wall above her, she would, in the blink of an eye get up, pull over the tarpaulin cloth and fling the long-handled axe at them, invariably missing the mark all the time. She was what the villagers had begun calling her: the woman who hounds kites.
After three months of her loss, Mouji had told her psychiatrist: “I feel him calling out to me. I feel the thrust of his tender lips his on my nipples. He would drink from my breasts with a gurgle. I feel itching on my nipples every time I remember him.”
She had sought his whereabouts from everyone she met-the politicians, the seers, the lawyers, the separatists, the unionists, the police, the journalists, the postman, the commoners, the high-heeled, and the paupers. The charlatans and the soothsayers, who visited her frequently, had taken everything from her-bowls of rice, roosters, and pots of milk! They had taken everything. She had bartered them for the only elixir in sight: hope.
On the dusty tarmac of surrounding villages she walked with her bare callused feet, hanging a wooden-framed photograph of her son around her neck.
“Have you seen this boy? He is my son. Look at the dense curly hair and broad shoulders. He has got it from his dead father. The deep blue eyes from me,” she would say wheezing intermittently.
Then she would point to her eyes. “Same to same eyes, just like me,” she said and wept for the next few moments. “The bluish almond eyes,” she blabbered as she marched on to bump into another stranger.
Every year, on the day of her loss, the villagers, in due turns, gifted her heftiest sheep of the flock from their barns; one which was to be sacrificed at the shrine of patron saint of the city. The day before the sacrifice she always washed the horned sheep, applied kohl to its eyes, smeared its hoofs with kneaded henna and tied jingle bells to its throat. Barefooted, she kept trudging along the bridle path, with the weary sheep in tow, for the shortest route to the city. The shrine was some 12 miles from her village.
After tying countless votive knots to the interstices of wooden grill around the sanctum sanctorum of the shrine on the hillock, she sat on the sun-washed, steep stairs of the shrine and timelessly gazed at the city. It was as if, through an invisible binocular, she searched for him in that freeze frame-the city or whatever was left of it.
The cooped up residents in dense localities wailing their status quo; the streets pimpled by sand bunkers like warts, the high-pitched voice of fisherwomen carrying big load of carps on their heads hopelessly calling customers in the alleys of jobless men, the frustration of its idlers; the shame of scores of naked men paraded naked through the warrens of alleys and morgues gibbeting the headless, limbless corpses of all shapes.
On the summit of the hillock above, clung to the precarious grimy walls of the 18th century fort, much like the jeering soldiers in the alleys, the kites perched themselves with royal grace, feathers fanned out, screaming their pride, batting on the inmates of one of the world’s highest militarized region.
“These bloody kites, they take away what is dearest to you. They leave you with eternal pain,” she would yell at them.
When the men of nearby villages hauled out some limbless, decomposing dead body from the river, she used her thumb and index finger to gauge the muddied set of teeth of the flaking off mass. “Too old to be him, too old to be him, not him, definitely not him, anyone else, someone else but not him, not him, I swear not him,” she gibbered.
For some months, she was often spotted in the nearby fallows watching black-eared hawks claw away the innards of sheep slaughtered by the butchers of the village. She brooded at this milieu of savagery: the cacophony of their screams, the grayish-black talons on the pinkish-red entrails, the black aquiline beaks pecking at the last remnants of flesh on bones, the angled wings which flapped constantly rousing dust in the grassless ground and the bouts of claw-jabbing while the kites jostled for space.
One fine morning she started running barefoot through the village shouting, “The kites are coming. Big flocks of kites are coming.” The rioting kites relished the scavenging of entrails, pecking to the very bones. Their barred feathers would puff up, their grey crests would rise, and the next moment one could see them jabbing at each other with huge talons, and flapping countless wings mid-flight in ceaseless hops, raising more and more dust in the grassless ground in fallows.
She kept on attacking them with the long-handled axe. “One day I will put you to trial for your sins, no one will be spared,” she shouted at them. “No one, not even a single one,” she droned on.
On sunny afternoons of the autumnal wedding season she would, out of the logs of birchwood stacked up on the elevated portion of the courtyard in the decreasing order of their girth, pick the three on top. On the one log she would make a kind of turban with random clothing littered here and there and slant it against the wall. Then in the style of the women of her village she would take the other two logs from each of her side and swaying with them would sing:
You will marry a prince from the city of Persia
The ones with rosy cheeks and almond eyes
If only you tell me where you are
Which city, which village, which graveyard they have hidden you in
Oh my 16-year-old prince from fairy land
Then she would fling stale almonds and candies, ever present in the deep pockets of her cloak, at the turbaned log and gambol with joy. She even asked villagers for the wooden-framed mousetraps and after drowning the trapped inmates in a nearby brooklet littered them in the courtyard.
“Come, take your little snack. Come down from your fake perch of morality. Look at the tender meat I have laid out on the ground. I know you like them young and strong,” she would whisper under the humid ambush of the grimy tarpaulin.
The people of the village kept changing the weathered, yellowed newspapers over the sawdust on the flooring of her wattle and daub house with the new ones. The new banner headlines began reading: Militants surrendered before the army en masse; Moderates will contest elections; Extremists in the separatist camp call for a ceasefire; All released militants to be rehabilitated; Majority of militants changed over sides, happily call themselves as collaborators; Thousands come to rallies to hear unionist politicians; Tourism returns to Valley; Film shooting makes a comeback in Valley after a thaw of a decade.
She sometimes got hope from the faintest of cues. Her son, she hunched, was somewhere there in the breeze, in the gushing waters, in the spittle of the mendicants, in the verbose of do-gooders, in the consoling of soothsayers, in the cooing of the pigeons, somewhere there in the game of whist to be decked out soon, in the beads of rosary rhythmically slipping through the thumb and index fingers of pious worshippers, and he was nowhere.
The kites, however, were everywhere.
On the periphery of village stood the trooper’s camp bordered by the concertina wires on which hung empty greenish beer bottles. While running their fingers up and down their AK-47s, the broad-shouldered troopers sang strange songs to the few stray dogs domesticated by them, flinging bread crumbs at the canines in intervals; near the dogs stood former renegades who now collaborated with the troopers. A hundred years ago at the same place, as elders of the village had told her in childhood, there were soldiers of the autocratic regime whittling their arrows, oiling their bayonets, drowning tax defaulters in ice-cold waters of nearby pond, flogging the young men of village who refused to go for corvee-one being Mouji’s grandfather who was pulled off to toil sacks of rice on the freezing gorge of a remote mountain and like many other men of the village never returned home.
“Kites were there in the past. Kites would be there in future. Kites are everywhere. More and more kites are coming,” she yelled hysterically. The more she saw them, more and more she remembered the day of her loss.
On a dark wintry night, when the jackals habitually howled in the nearby paddy stubble, the AK-47 wielding troopers had knocked at the doors, tied Mouji up with a rope, and hauled down from the attic of the house a writhing-in-pain, blood-oozing mass of something that, a few moments ago, was her 16-year-old son.
She had untied herself with all her might, and had thrown her head-cover at their feet. Amidst deafening shouts of some weird war cry, the boozed men had repeatedly flung her head-cover in the air, kicked it in turns and trampled on it huddled as they were in a circle with their arms slung over each other.
In the pandemonium, the silhouette of a drooping, handcuffed boy with drops of blood he left as trail being stampeded by the jackboots was the last she saw of her son. He never returned home.
“Even their house was burnt down”, a neighbourhood woman wailed. Mouji, indifferent to the flames engulfing her home kept crawling on the asphalt road towards the flitting shadows jostling into the army vehicle, wherein one of the silhouettes, she was sure, was her son’s. Men of the village later recalled that a mural painted on the vehicle had written on it: Once you are with us, you are with us for eternity.
After her condition worsened month after month, the villagers took her for one last visit to the city’s leading psychiatrist. She looked him in the eyes and burst into a staccato of questions: “How must an eagle be killing the chicken she steals from our courtyard? Do their backs break when she swoops down on them? Does not she have for her own siblings the softness and the snugness in her bosom? Does she even fling off her own nestlings with a scratch of her claw or a dab of her beak?”
The darkness under her eyes increased by the day, her delusions became frequent. One day she just saw the sky and ran away from village. “Too many kites hovering in the sky, as many as stars in the sky; some in their own colour and shape, some disguised as pigeons.”
She ran up on a nearby hillock and intermediately flung the axe skywards. She lost her footing on a bridle path and rolled down into a ravine. As the bouts of spittle dripped down her throat and the wheezing got worse, she first fainted, and was about to die when a nomad passing by took her in his lap and made her drink water from a goatskin. She temporarily got into her senses and whispered, “The kites are coming, the kites are coming.” Next moment she was dead.
After the men had left the graveyard and the sound of “Alas, she never got to see her son ever again” had stopped to ring the air, a troop of black-eared kites, cutting thrown the brownish leaves drifting with the autumn breeze, airdropped to her grave. The one with the biggest wing span ambled forward. While batting its eyes, it tipped its head repeatedly in the direction of the epitaph. Turning its head leftwards with a kittenish grace, it stood gazing voicelessly at the grave for a minute or so and took flight the next moment. The other kites followed course.
—Jamsheed Rasool is a Bangalore-based journalist. This piece appeared in Kashmir Narrator’s April 2019 issue. To subscribe to Narrator’s print edition, mail us here: KashmirNarrator@gmail.com, or call at 7298102560