It was a lonely hill that misty November night that Hammad Hussain had chosen to climb. He settled down on a spot free from the trap of the dew and insects, and took in deep mouthfuls of the piercing valley air in a bid to draw out the poison that was now filling his mind and to rest from the effort of the climb. His tired outline, molded by the moonlight washing down upon the landscape, expelled mist from the mouth and revealed skin. His new leather jacket, bought on a stroke of teenage inspiration before coming here, made new rubbery noises when he moved to pick the stray apricot that rested a lonely yard away. It was amazing to Hammad Hussain as he smelled his new find, how so much had come to pass with the memory of fruit.
His teenage years had been a passionate passing of leather jackets and wooing adventurous women for rides on his elder brother's beat motorcycle (that automatically passed into his hands now that the brother had graduated to four wheels), whilst dodging the taunts of a lamenting father, that flew out towards him as soon as he would try to tame the groaning gate on these youthful nights. He was tagged a lost cause by the exacerbated father, and crowned with sighs by a tiring mother. He emerged from his room one day revealing a beard, hardened eyes and a copy of Cuadernos de Praga tucked under an arm.
University had accepted and sustained the spirit of Hammad Hussain to a higher calling. The leather jackets were replaced with smart shirt-sleeves and books on Communism and Latin America filled his room. He had changed his major from Engineering to International Relations, and settled into the university hostel when his father could not accept this decision. Hammad Hussain quickly sprouted into one of the university's best loved sons, making daring speeches in the classes the Colonels' taught, leading student rallies in the 1980s political climate, and writing passionate articles for the university magazines.
Backed by a mother who still sent him makai ki rotti every winter (through the hands of passing relatives and unenthused servants), Hammad Hussain gradually worked his way into journalism, from penning heated articles the newspapers sometimes didn't publish, to interning under established men, at any chance he could get. He dashed to workshops and conferences, and learned the trade under pushes and shoves and hours of waiting around. There were deadlines, great competition, constant stress and little sleep. Hammad Hussain had a chance to gain early success, when he accidentally came across a known minister and his mistress parading about in the romantic summer of a hill station, after just having given a passionate speech in a city only 5 km away, on the importance of retaining family values. Hammad Hussain quickly walked out of the place and never spoke of the incident. The minister who had gained fame for meting a successful deal with the Chinese on natural gas, was incarcerated two years later for severe corruption on the project. Hammad Hussain had been responsible for uncovering the story.
Hammad moved back with his parents, now that his father had accepted this new career which involved dressing up in a smart suit everyday. It is so much easier to accept rebellion in a necktie, his father would later confide to him. He was now back at home, closer to his mother's cooking, his father’s reluctant glances, and enough savings to buy a beat orange foxy that rumbled all the way to the local newspaper office.
It was a particularly good year for the family business, when the Hussains had embarked on the decision to travel to Swat. They hired a van for a week, picked up toothpaste and a neighboring family on the way, and set out for the Greater Pakistan up in the north. The first stop was Rawalpindi, to the army cadet training facility, to pick up the elder of the Hussain sons (who had graduated from four wheels to aircrafts) from his summer break.
They drove through precarious roads that were held open upon the mercy of the chasmas, and a mass of towns and faces that the Hussains or their neighbors would forget as soon as they would reach the next lunch. Hammad Hussain made it a point to note down names and pen down sketches of the places that passed on their journey to Lower Climate. Being a twenty-five year old grown man with a job that required donning a tie everyday perhaps prevented Hammad Hussain by habit, from climbing the easy trees and jumping in puddles, but as they traveled further away from the home and people they knew, the adult restrictions melted away like the glaciers that streamed through their path. The women grew louder and laughed harder, their dupattas hung more freely about their heads as they passed through hills and edged through mountain cliffs that promised a disastrous fall down. The men grew close and childlike, laughing harder perhaps with the different air pressure, breaking the van in promising fields of apricots to collect the plentiful fruit fallen on the grounds, and stopping to talk to natives who went out of their way to help with punctured tires.
Hammad Hussain grew close to his father and brother on those adventurous nights when the rest of the family had settled in motels. They would stroll alongside the roaring rivers, and shout over the wild swelling water bodies through the dark of the night, or sit down on charpoys in mild-mannered streams, slurping their chai and drenching their feet in the cold water while the van rested.
Hammad had the stark memory of one morning, somewhere near the end of the trip, when he got up early still unused to the roar of the streams, and met his disheveled father, whose countenance spoke of a similar hard night. They quietly left the hotel and wandered about the nearby apricot plantation, whose pregnant trees moaned under the weight of the soft, red fruit. They spent an hour leaning on a limber tree and filling up on the pickings of the sensual fruit, wishing for some black salt. Hammad’s father revealed to him how proud he had grown of his son in the past few months because now the gate only groaned under his hand to signal a long, tired day of work at the office. It was the first time in living memory that Hammad Hussain hugged his father.
The summer of the north blossomed in the Hussains’ hearts and minds as the carefree days went by. They experienced mingling with the big-hearted locals, rolling about on the glaciers in the snow they were witnessing for the first time, pulling out ice-cold 7ups from the snow, dipping hands and heads in foamy, roaring streams, downing local meat and fruits and chasmas, battling on bathroom times with one another and being amazed with the number of spittoons one valley could sustain. They witnessed houses with gardens on the roofs and people living up hills amongst goats and rocks watching in cold witness to their clunky van, and always more fields of fruits and friendly faces than they could keep track of.
Hammad Hussain would later say it was the summer that changed his life, and brought him permanently closer to his father. It is curious, he added, how a colder climate had warmed the hearts of two pigheaded men.
The Hussain family packed their van high with chilgozas, apricots, hard-veined walnuts and memories as living souvenirs as they made their way back home.
But that Swat was seven years ago, during which Hammad Hussain has gained journalistic credence, a receding hairline and a warm wife. He still hung on to the orange foxy like a childhood memory. It was the summer of 2007 now, a tumultuous year for the country, especially for the journalist. The country had seen a minor revolution and a mass awakening, after political explosions had hammered the tired armor of a whole nation.
Hammad was back in Swat, a seven year hiatus to the place that first breathed life into his clogged father, a witness to the place that had given him so much, that was now held together by so little. The militants ruled this Swat of now, no longer the naive, ruddy countenances of farmers.
It was his third day in the valley and he had seen enough to make his hardened objectivity roll over. During the telecast of his live news analysis show the day before, he spoke to the locals on how they were dealing with the insurgency, and it kept on striking him throughout their answers, how innocence had been lost amongst the people. They had only given up their hearts to the world, and the world had imprisoned them under a barbaric regime. Shops and schools were being regularly bombed, soldiers routinely beheaded and their bodies left to bleed dry on the streets. The children were kept in houses now, and so were the men, now that barbarism was the only employment.
The bellies of the farms overflowed with fruit that no one would pick.
Hammad Hussain sat then on the moonlit hill, still fingering and now pocketing the apricot, the fruit that had once bonded hardhearted men. He would need it tomorrow, when he would be walking the stricken streets of the town where militants now freely brandished naked swords instead of skin-colored smiles.
Perhaps, he thought to himself, as he felt the apricot one last time, the memory of fruit could still work its magic.
Next Story: ........................................................................................................................................... ......... Top
Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer
This web journal is sponsored by The Caspersen School of graduate studies, Drew University