Moments later my eyes shifted to the droplets of sweat bulging out of her oily forehead. She drew her sweaty arm across her forehead and wiped it right off. I got a good look at her chubby face gripped by a tight black hijab and remembered why she wasn't my friend. I pursed my lips and blurted, "liar! You are so weird, get your head checked." My friends chimed in, telling Mina she was a weirdo. She left without saying anything else. But her words found a lodging somewhere in my heart or head, or some other place. I feared they would unexpectedly pop up again.
The bell rang and we strolled into class. Our boring history teacher marched in behind us. She had two enormous patches of sweat, one under each arm, clearly visible on her yellow blouse. She dabbed her forehead with the end of her sari and started writing on the board. I couldn't stop thinking about what Mina said. Maybe she was getting back at me for teasing her in the past, about how terrible she smelled. She did smell pretty bad though, not the regular sweat smell, it was a mix of what she ate oozing out as oil, and her regular sweat. I was being a friend by warning her that she would be lonely if she continued smelling like that. But she could be getting back at me for that.
I would not have bothered about any of this, and Sopore would have been of no consequence to my life had this terrible thing not happened the previous night. Mom, Papa and I were having pizza for dinner and talking about the bad neighborhood boys; well, I was doing most of the talking, when the phone suddenly rang. People usually didn't call our home that late, so it had to be urgent. Mom stopped eating and tried to figure out the nature of the call. She was always paranoid that a call that late meant somebody was sick, dead or injured. So when Papa said, "Yes Sir" on the phone, Mom got back to eating. I kept watching Papa though. I knew from past experience that sometimes phone calls such as these were about Papa's army head ordering him around. They do that; these army heads ordered Papa around like we ordered pizza.
When Papa came back to the table his face looked swollen with the words he had just chewed on the phone but not yet swallowed. I knew he had to tell us something. He picked his fork and knife at least three times each and sprinkled paprika on his pizza another couple of times.
So there were far more important things on my mind than my sweaty history teacher's lesson. Just then a piece of chalk hit my head.
She pulled out pictures of Kashmir after that to show us. It was very beautiful, green with vast mountains, but I was more interested in the images of the people. A small child dressed in colorful clothes, surrounded by vast green mountains. They didn't look very different from people in Delhi, except for their clothes. They were more colorful. Another image had five or six masked people dressed in green uniforms and seated in an open jeep. They casually held huge guns between their knees. I couldn't tell if they were terrorists or the army because they both carried equally tall guns. My teacher told us that that picture was old, now there was mostly peace in Kashmir. I didn't like the word 'mostly', either there was peace or war; there couldn't be 'mostly peace.' Anyway, I knew little about peace or war, but was afraid of guns.
The morning we left for Kashmir there was a massive grey cloud looming over our heads. In the next few hours all the pots and pans and open trashcans would be filled with water. If Papa wasn't taking us away I would have called my friends and we'd play in the first rain shower of the season. The clouds followed us all the way into Punjab, or that's when I fell asleep.
I woke up once at night when Papa pulled over at an open-air dhaba. The air was chilly so the dhaba lady placed a table for us next to the fire burning somewhere in the middle of the scattered chairs. Three or four big trucks were parked on the side with the truck drivers squatting around smoking bidis and sipping chai. A man and woman were busy cooking while a small boy served the truck drivers parked there. Papa and Mom ordered some ginger chai. The air was chillier, a sign that we were closer to the mountains up north.
It was early morning when we reached. I had slept almost the entire journey and woke up with a nasty pain in my stomach. We had climbed a very high peak. The last part of the climb was through a gate and into the driveway of our new house. Our new house stood old yet strong.
While my eyes were studying the tiny, round window on the roof, the door of the cottage flung open. A skinny middle-aged man wearing a white dhoti and kurta jogged towards us. All the lines on his face seemed to gravitate downwards into a frown except his lips. He was smiling widely. I noticed the checked cloth across his shoulder and immediately realized that he was our servant.
As usual, Papa didn't waste any time. He freshened up and got into his uniform. I noticed he carried his small gun with him. Strange, he never took it in Delhi.
That afternoon, while Mom slept, I snuck outside to explore the mountains and hopefully find other kids my age to play with. The security guard was perched on the tall stool by the gate; his hands planted on top of his stick supported his head. He was snoring. I didn't want to wake him up and be bothered by questions, so I climbed over a part of the fence that was snubbed to the ground and landed inside a tall bush. I had to plod my way out, killing many plants as a result.
The air smelled of the earth with its belly full of rainwater. I knew that smell. This silence was unfamiliar though. A sense of place. I walked at least fifteen minutes before I heard the sound of girls laughing and playing, I followed the sounds and reached the banks of a lake. It may have been the same lake visible from my bedroom window.
As I drew closer I noticed five or six girls playing hopscotch on a bald spot by the river. They looked about my age but were dressed like women, in Kashmiri Salwaar kameez, colorful hijabs and thick silver jewelry that clung to the top of their heads like a crown. I was suddenly conscious of my shorts and T-shirt but that didn't stop me from trying to befriend them. They lifted the seam of the salwaar as they hopped on squares inscribed on the soil. One of the girls, with very sharp black eyes, whispered into another's ear when they saw me approaching. Within moments they paused their game.
"Can I play with you?" I said despite the discomfort. Only the youngest looking girl, in a pink hijab, reciprocated my smile, so I went up to her.
Nobody was listening and it obviously didn't matter who my father was, so I broke down into tears. Thick mud particles and twigs covered my body and even went into my underwear. I realized I had lost one shoe in the lake. So I took off the other one and tossed it far into the water. I stood up after a while and looked around to find the roof of my house. Either it was the trees or the dense clouds covering my house but I could not spot it in the vicinity. A cool breeze started to blow and the trees surrounding the lake swayed softly. For a moment, I thought I heard strange sounds, like the suppressed wails of children in the wind. But it couldn't be true.
"Chotti Memsaab?" The voice was louder this time. It was Sukhi standing in a spotless white kurta with a pile of dry wood in his hands. He called me 'Chotti Memsaab' with respect. Seeing a somewhat familiar face gave me courage to get up. I wanted to tell him what happened but something stopped me. He was my servant.
I cleaned up, washed my clothes and went down for dinner. I didn't tell Mom or Papa about the incident at the lake. I was too embarrassed to say anything. After all, nobody was stronger than Papa, and I was his daughter. I could not be bullied by a group of village girls. It happened once, but I would not let it happen again. Well, that's what I thought.
In reality, I turned into a mouse after that first afternoon in Sopore. I was a mouse who would jump at the smallest sound. Even the sound of silence frightened me. I became a mouse with a secret, the one who knew of the danger even in something delightful as cheese. For me that cheese was everywhere. I would run to pluck a fruit from the tree and be afraid of some kid jumping from the top or still worse throw a fruit on my head. It was embarrassing. So I stayed away from the trees, the flowers, the lake, the mountains and the people.
Mom was different though. Once Papa left for office her new friends came by to visit almost every day. They were two chubby women. I separated them as one who wore a lot of gold and the other who was growing out of all her saree blouses. She must have put on weight and was still in denial. The front hooks (button/hooks) struggled to hang onto the last bit of thread on the cloth. One finally popped. I watched it happen since I had nothing better to do. I watched Mom and her friends while pretending to read a history book. They always began talking in the same way with some silly talk. I waited to hear what it would be this time.
"Oh, I use a woolen hat or muffler and cover the bowl." Mom said.
"Ah, that's a good idea. I will try that. So did you find a good servant? It's only been a few weeks since you came here, right?" The broken button woman asked.
"Servants are not too bad here. But best not to get a Muslim one. They can be very arrogant. I had this one servant who would suddenly stop cleaning and go outside to do his namaaz. When I told him, Bhaiya you can do that later too, he got very upset, left the dirty dishes in the sink and never returned." Gold garb blurted.
The women laughed while broken button added.
"I've seen in general the locals here are very touchy. You know, this one fruit walla in the market, I told him nicely to carry my bags home with me. He got so angry, he took all the fruits back."
The ladies laughed again. "I never went back. Even you don't go to him. He looks just like a terrorist."
"I think most people here look like terrorists. So angry, for little things they will take their God's name. I tell you, even the little children look like terrorists." Gold-garbed said.
"I am happy that your husband got posted here. Otherwise it was just Mrs. Roy and myself. It can get very lonely. So did you find a servant?" Broken button asked.
"Yes, my husband's office sent him. His son too, but the boy hardly works and never talks. I tell him to bring something from the market, he'll go but return only hours later. And he never answers to anything." Mom replied.
"Same servants were for the family living here before?" Broken buttons asked.
"Yes, they've been here for many years." Mom replied.
"Tragic story they had. I heard the daughter and wife were gang raped by soldiers and then set afire in their house. They say the boy saw it happen but he escaped." Broken buttons whispered.
"I heard something like that too. It's been a few years now. Many people here have similar stories. Even my servant's sister's family something like this happened. I feel sad for these people. But their religion is only like that, very violent, so bad things happen to them. I say, if you do good then god will protect you." Gold-garbed responded.
Then there was silence. I knew I would become the next cue for conversation.
"So Charu, you made friends here?" broken button broke the silence.
All three heads moved in my direction. I hated when Mom's friends bothered me, so I ignored the question.
"She's shy," broken buttons snickered.
They went on talking about other nonsense things like the size of Kashmiri fruits and vegetables. I went up to my room. Words have an odd effect on me; once they enter, I can't push them out. Now my mind was stuck on Sukhi and Dukhi Ram. Could it be possible that the two chubby women were correct, and that Sukhi saw it happen? But why would the soldiers do such a thing? They were there to protect the people. It may have been the terrorists; they look an awful lot like soldiers anyway.
The following Saturday, when Papa said we would go to the village market, I was part happy and part scared. Those girls by the lake were sure to be at the marketplace. And I was scared Papa might not notice those bullies. So I wore my sports cap, shorts and a loose T-shirt as a disguise. They would think I'm a boy. I had short hair too, and my oversized cap concealed half my face.
I was excited to visit the marketplace in my new attire. Mom said that people from nearby villages came to sell things here. I had decided to buy a Kashmiri dress with the colorful head thing that the girls here wore, and have some of that special pink sweet tea that Kashmiri people drank.
The walk to the marketplace was a crisscross mud path down the mountain. Clouds hung so low that I could break off a piece and carry it in my pocket. We passed by a herd of mountain goats comfortably standing on the slope, chewing on grass. There was a boy with the animals squatting on the slope like it was a straight road.
I knew we were approaching the marketplace when the sounds changed. Street vendors called customers, and voices of children laughing and playing could be heard. The market was spread across one long muddy street, with carts on either side. Some vendors who didn't have carts placed their items on cloth pieces on the ground. I looked around to find a food cart that served pink tea. Instead of the tea-cart, my eyes fell on the soldiers spread around the street holding big guns and looking all over. Some soldiers smoked bidis with one hand and casually held their guns in the other. I wanted to leave at the first sight of those large guns but Mom had just begun shopping.
The soldiers saluted Papa when we walked past them. He read the nameplate of one of the soldiers and asked about his family. The soldier answered with a smile, but he still held the gun like it was a sugarcane stick.
"You know Charu," Mom said as we approached another fruit stand, "Kashmiri apples are the best. Look how big and red they are. And they are so fresh." The vendor smiled at me, picked out a juicy looking red apple, wiped it vigorously with a cloth until it shined and handed it to me with both hands. He was wearing a colorful boat hat and curly grey hair peeped out from the sides. His face was shaped like the apples he sold, especially with his wide smile.
Mom and I left that fruit stand with two bags each and headed to the food stall at the end of the market. Papa was already there, sipping his tea. The crowd dwindled as we approached the end. While Mom ordered the food, I turned toward the street market and then looked at my apple. Just as I was about to take my first bite a big rock grazed my shoulder and fell into the puddle ahead of me. All three of us looked back. Nobody was behind us. Someone then called out,
Still in shock, I turned around once more and spotted a familiar face in the crowd. Sukhi Ram stared in our direction. He must have seen all that happened. I kept turning back to catch a glimpse of the man in the blue kurta, instead I saw Sukhi again. His gaze was fixed on us.
Later that night, after Mom tucked me into bed, I stayed awake thinking about the man Papa beat. His screams replayed in my head. For one moment Mina's face came back to me, I saw her pointing to her throat and making that strange sound. It was a similar sound, the kind the man in the market made today. There was no way he was the one who threw the stone because the stone came from the opposite direction. I couldn't understand who wanted to hurt us; it may have been one of the girls from the lake hiding behind a tree. Then I remembered Sukhi in the crowd, he must have seen who actually threw the rock. I heard noises from downstairs. I carefully tiptoed out of bed and walked in the dark a few steps down. I tried to be quiet, but the wood creaked. As I drew closer to the living room I heard Mom's voice. She was crying and speaking loudly while Papa was quiet.
"You don't understand what you put our daughter through today. What do you think? You are her hero now? This was not needed!" Mom cried.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps from the living room coming closer to the stairs and so I ran back into my room while Papa and Mom still argued. Pretending to be asleep, I covered my head with the blanket but when the sound came closer I peeped outside half expecting to see the blue kurta man Papa beat at the market, instead I saw Sukhi staring at me with his round eyes looking like two black marbles.
"I know you awake," Sukhi said.
Hearing his words I felt numb on my back, like someone took a massive ball of ice and rubbed it slowly down my spine. Papa would never allow for the man to be killed. No, it wasn't true. Sukhi was lying. He had to be lying. Papa protected people; he could never kill someone. How could I possibly believe the words of an illiterate, ignorant village boy who believed in spirits? I was angry with Sukhi.
I gulped. I didn't want to believe Sukhi, but I had seen something in Papa's eyes that I had never seen before. He looked possessed when he came out of the crowd, like a spirit had gotten into him and forced him to kill. A sudden thought whizzed past my mind. It was an image of Papa in his green uniform, holding a tall gun loosely between his legs. His face wrapped in a long black cloth revealed eyes, those eyes I saw when he emerged from the crowd. Red. Monstrous. Truthful.
Papa and Mom were back to their normal selves within the next few days. They laughed and talked as usual about unimportant things. Was it possible that they had forgotten everything that had happened in the village market? Papa seemed more cheerful than he had been since we moved to Sopore. He even started taking Mom and me for long drives like he used to in Delhi. Papa, Mom and I would be alone in the car, listening to film songs and talking about stories about when I was younger. Papa remembered even such small details as the color of the dress I wore on my third birthday and the place they bought it from. I still listened to his animated stories, but in the middle of it suddenly an image of his face in the marketplace would return. I hated him in those moments. I hated those moments even more than I hated him. He looked like the same person but he was not the same person anymore.
There were times I wanted to tell Papa and Mom about these thoughts over dinner like I used to about everything else that bothered me. But the words wouldn't come out. I was afraid of what Papa would say or that he would get upset with me. The constant thought of Papa tormented me so much that I sometimes walked alone into the forest and returned after daybreak only because I wanted to be confronted and scolded by Mom or Papa. Then I could get angry and scream and tell them that I was upset with Papa. But it didn't work. Mom would simply have dinner ready for me when I returned and Papa assumed I made new friends.
"I told you that you'd like it here. Soon your school will start and you'll forget all about Delhi." Papa said. His words came across to me as insensitive.
Every morning I would wake up to the image of the marketplace and Papa's face after he beat the man and when he grabbed my shoulder and asked me whether I was okay. I started waking up in the middle of the night and think of the scene at the marketplace. Every morning I'd hope for those thoughts to only have been a bad dream, but the memory of it was stuck in my mind like a scary painting placed right in front of my bed. As the days went by, it became harder for me to get out of bed in the morning so I'd stay up in my room until noon.
Mom's three friends came by one day. I was still in my room as I normally was these days, but I heard their chatter from my window and looked down to find the two women. Broken button seemed to have put on more weight. She picked her sari and walked, talking very loudly. I could piece together some words and figured they were talking about servants again. Then I heard Mom as she greeted them and closed the door. After a while I heard my name being taken over and over again. I tiptoed out of my room to listen to their conversation.
"Maybe she just misses her friends in Delhi," gold-garb said.
I felt comforted by those words. Mom knew, now I could talk to her and tell her what sort of images and thoughts that have been tormenting me. I wanted to go down, bury my head in Mom's stomach and empty out my mind that was beginning to feel like a garden hose with the tap opened fully. I was ready to let out everything. I wanted to express everything and then things would be back to normal again. I felt a surge of joy bubble up from the pit of my stomach and fill up every corner of my body. I could talk to Mom and things would be normal again.
"Did you talk to Charu?" broken-button said.
I went downstairs hoping for Mom to tell me something that would make everything okay. I wanted to give her the heavy rock in my heart that was growing every moment and had already become bigger than me. She would know how to break it. I looked straight into her eyes. They were still foggy with the tears. I waited for her to hug me in the way she used to, completely, so I could bury myself in her warmth. She got up and said,
With that one line Mom crushed the little bit of hope I was beginning to feel. In an instance I felt completely alone. I didn't know what is it that I wanted to hear from her but I knew it was not this. She refused to accept my burden. I thought of telling her that she ought to acknowledge what had happened, that she and Papa could not just be normal and pretend that everything is fine. Papa murdered an innocent man and she said nothing. I almost blurted out, 'I hate you', but I couldn't. I wasn't angry with them anymore.
I helped Mom in the kitchen and did everything she told me to. I even patiently cut a cucumber all by myself. She talked a lot and told me stories about her childhood that I had never heard before. Then she allowed me to eat many spoons of cake batter before she gently pulled it from my hand to add the walnuts. I knew how she hated me digging into the brownie mix.
That night Papa brought back a box of nutties for me. I accepted them and started eating right before dinner. He didn't ask me to stop. Then while we were at the dinner-table Papa said,
I continued eating but my anger started growing with every word I heard. I wasn't prepared for this. I had to say something. I stopped eating, looked Mom right into the eyes and said.
I ran all the way to the top of the mountain. I wasn't' afraid. There I spotted a figure in a white kurta on top of the mountain curled up like a white cotton ball. I went nearer and realized it was Sukhi Ram facing the valley. His kurta swayed with the wind. He turned to me and then faced the mountain again.
"Do you do this every night?" I finally asked.
"They come here everyday, they emerge from this valley and talk to me. They don't like it there and wish I had done something that day. So they would still be alive and we would be living together like we used to before. Things could be back to normal again."
I noticed fresh bulbs of blood on his bare legs. He was holding a knife in his hand. I took the knife and threw it into the valley. It hit a few rocks before disappearing. I felt better.
"You're strange," I said to Sukhi. I knew his story but couldn't understand how he still lived. I thought that if I had seen what he saw I would have drank poison. He still lived. I didn't see him as my servant anymore. Instead I admired him for going on living, despite his craziness.
I held his hand and we looked at the valley together. Strange objects flew around us and danced for a few moments before dropping into the dark valley. The mountains were two giant shadows on the backdrop of a moonlit night sky. I gazed down. A river cut through the mountain range like a silver thread. I felt like a part of me died and was carried into the valley by the wind.
Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer