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Broken Ice

Broken Ice

A Story by Jaibeer
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A story based in Kashmir about how human emotions are scarred in times of conflict

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That year winter had set in early and it looked like the sun was on a long sabbatical. Early mornings at this time have a grayish tinge to them; everything including the air is still; puddles of last night are covered with a thin crust of ice; and icicles, long and sharp, hang from the corners of thatched roofs. But all this wouldn’t deter Showkat, wide eyed, fair and skinny boy of eleven, from walking down to the bakery to buy four lavasas for the family breakfast. It had taken them long since the death of Ramazan, his father, to have four proper meals a day. Ramazan was an expert at thrashing walnuts, a task that requires great athletic skill and concentration. But on that fateful day he was caught off guard by the loud sound of a blast and gunfire, the shock making him lose his grip and life too. After that Showkat’s elder brother and sister left school midway. Zubair now worked at a shop in Sopore and Gulshan had learnt weaving carpets apart from assisting their mother Fahmida in the fields.

 

On his way to the bakery Showkat, red nosed by now, enjoyed breaking the sheets of ice with a stick in hand. He liked to hear the crisp sound it made and feel the cracks spread under his rubber shoes. At his age innocence is unadulterated and the spirit to explore small pleasures still alive. Ahad Kak, the baker, wore a worn out conical cap to cover his bald patch and a pleasant nature to cover his not so happy past. His repertoire of anecdotes and stories matched his fifty plus years and with these he garnished the loaves of bread. But nowadays only a few people sat to listen to his stories which were also now mostly about crackdown in the neighbouring villages, the gun battle in the town and whispers about the boy who had crossed over to become a mujahid. Now he would only remove one panel of the darkened wood shutters to protect against the cold and any unwanted attention.

 

Invariably Showkat would be his first customer of the day and he liked the cheerful disposition of the boy. The boy was fascinated with the light glowing from the pit of the tandoor, its warmth and even the musty smell. Amma mot, the village lunatic would also come and sit in sometimes. Many in the village believed he was a dervish with spiritual powers and often asked him to bless their kids and help them get over their problems. He would always oblige.

 

That morning, Showkat reached the bakery a little late. He hadn’t been able to sleep properly after Zubair told him about Prince, the neighbour’s son who had returned as a mujahid. Showkat was curious and wanted to know how a mujahid looked like and behaved, even though he had seen Prince wander around the village all his life. But now he was a hero, the whole village would be talking about him, he carried a kalshinkof which in Showkat’s imagination made him invincible. All the thoughts had made him toss and tumble in his bed the whole night.

 

Ahad Kak was worried, he felt there would be a crackdown in the village soon and wished Prince had been more circumspect about his return to the village. He had heard about crackdowns where the whole village men would be made to assemble in the fields and paraded before masked informers. Sometimes military would take away few of them only to return them with bruised self " esteem and bodies. Showkat only worried about not being able to play the cricket match, if there was a crackdown. Childhood is unencumbered by other conflicts of the world, those invented by the grown-ups.

 

So when they heard the grunting sound of the army trucks outside, Ahad Kak could feel beads of cold sweat on his forehead. When the vehicle stopped outside and a soldier appeared at the door one could hear a loud thud coming from his chest. Even though there was no crackdown, being accosted by a soldier rattled Ahad Kak. Showkat had to translate the request for a cup of tea him. Satpal Singh, was in his mid forties, his handle bar moustache contradicted by the serene look of his eyes. Placing the gun carefully in his lap, he sat on the ledge of the shop sipping the hot noon chai along with the assortment of kulchas and bakirkhanis that Ahad Kak had quickly managed to put on the tray. Showkat’s eyes had grown ever wider with curiosity; he had never seen a soldier so up close, real and human. When Satpal asked him his name, and pronounced it back with a little stretch Shookaat, the ice had broken between them. He wanted to know if the gun was a kalshinkof, Satpal good-naturedly told him to worry about his cricket bat instead. He told him that he also had a son, Arjun who was a little older than Showkat, perhaps a little taller too. He was talking through memory having seen him more than a year back, the yearning in his voice was palpable. Ahad Kak who had by now regained his composure partly, watched suspiciously. After a while he picked the courage to tell Showkat to run back home, as his mother would be waiting.

 

For the next many days Showkat would spend a lot of time with Satpal, telling him about his heroics in cricket, the few friends he had and inundating him with his insatiable curiosity. Satpal would in turn tell him about the world outside; of places that Showkat hadn’t heard of; of his village in Rajasthan; of the desert where the sun showed its prowess, mercilessly; of how he hoped Arjun would study to become a collector and his daughter got married into a good family. He would tell Showkat to also study hard and make something out of his life because that was the only salvation for the poor. A few times Showkat would get some walnuts from home and share it with him and Satpal would read letters from home to him. Even Ahad Kak had started feeling that Satpal wasn’t like the rest of the uniformed men but his doubts stayed. On days when he wasn’t there, Showkat would come searching a few times a day and whenever there was talk of a gun battle he would think of Satpal, his son and the all hopes he carried. The instincts of a father and the longing for one had started to coalesce.

 

It wasn’t that Showkat was immune to what was happening around; Zubair would often feed him with happenings in the town, as he added new words to his vocabulary " curfew, aazadi, interrogation, mukhbir, torture, shaheed and many such. News kept trickling in, news about the massacre of fifty people at Gawkadal, about the mass rapes in a distant village in Kupwara, about an ex-politician who was hung, about more boys crossing over, about somebody’s kidnapping. War has its way of cutting short childhood, turning dreams into nightmares, imagination into jaded ideology. War also has a way of simplifying choices, you are either on this side or you are on the other, there is no midway.

 

Showkat and Satpal still met, even though it was for lesser time and the conversations were more about banal things. Sometimes Ahad Kak would also join them, the worry lines on his forehead had grown deeper and more intricate. He would often not come out of his house, in his own way he was trying to close the door to the winds blowing outside.

 

After the Friday prayers Showkat was very restive, passions usually flew as the village head sermonized about fighting the enemy; about saving the honor of daughters and sisters and about valour filled with all the relevant historical references. Showkat was unable to comprehend the conflict brewing inside him. For now he was able to banish the thought of seeing Satpal as one from the other side. The notions of freedom, sacrifice, suppression and such are yet to be understood by his age but those of human bonds and love are.

 

Satpal often appeared to be in a pensive mood and sometimes exhausted also. His unit had been involved in many operations of late. In one of the fights two of his men had got serious injuries. In another they had shot down two militants, barely eighteen year old boys; a sudden sadness had overtaken him at that moment, his thoughts had wandered towards Showkat. He felt revulsion towards his helplessness, his inconsequential existence and being overpowered by the oppressive shadow of death.

 

Darkness descends very early during the winter and nowadays few dared to venture out late. With nothing much to keep himself busy, Showkat was already half " asleep when he heard rapid footsteps in tandem. His heart leaped when he heard gunfire soon after, first the intermittent knocking of a Kalashinkov and then the stutter of a machine gun. More knocks and more stuttering followed. Suddenly the neighbourhood was swathed in sharp white light, almost making it look naked. The sounds went on for many hours, for a while there was absolute silence and then a wail went up tearing the skies. Prince was killed, martyred. It was the darkest night in the village and the longest; no one slept or went home. Ahad Kak, was shattered, the turmoil of his fifty years had returned, his only son had died at a young age in an accident. Restlessness occupied Showkat, as tears rolled incessantly.

 

At dawn the police jeep came, the four constables carried Prince and left him in the courtyard on the bench covered with a layer of snow. With a broken tooth and the distorted face, he did not resemble the handsome face that had walked the streets with a teenage swagger. He was barely twenty two. A few hours later he was buried. Disbelief was followed by anguish and then the outrage. Someone picked up the first stone and hit the police jeep. More followed and the rifle butts answered. One of them struck Amma mot; he hit the ground muttering something and then the last word...Allah. The destiny’s orphan belonged to everyone in his death. Fear could not longer bridle the fury that followed.

 

The sequence of events had completely insulated the two worlds of Showkat and Satpal from each other. The sat on the edges of an emotional fault line.

 

On the fourth day after the death of Prince and Amma mot, people started coming in from the adjoining villages for the fateha, the prayer for the departed. The calm was fragile as the soldiers lined up near the burial ground. People had started assembling, suddenly there was a commotion, a slogan went up and people joined in, cries for freedom resonated across. Satpal was fighting hard to restrain his feeling when he saw Showkat from the distance in the front. Again someone swung the first stone. This time it was Showkat. The crowd pushed ahead throwing stones, with-standing the teargas shells. Showkat led the way, till he saw Satpal as their moist eyes met. Showkat froze, his hands were shivering, in the cacophony he could only hear only one sound, his own crying, his hands wouldn’t let go of the stone and his heart wouldn’t let him hurl it. And then almost on an impulse he swung his arm and hit the stationary jeep. The lines had been drawn.

 

Satpal felt abandoned and wanted to withdraw to the vacuum. He wanted to undo everything; love, care, life. There was an order to fire. The metal touched the skin. But he could feel nothing. He saw Arjun running towards him, to save him, to protect him. Orders were shouted again " Satpal Singh Fire. Everything was opaque and dark now. A shot was fired and the air went still again.

 

© 2010 Jaibeer


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Added on December 30, 2010
Last Updated on December 30, 2010
Tags: Short Story, Collection

Author

Jaibeer
Jaibeer

Gurgaon, Haryana, India