A Hand To Hold
A Hand To Hold21 mins 710 21 mins 710
13th January, 1990
Aazeen glanced across the classroom. In the far corner sat he, the new child, sucking at his pen cap, deep in thoughts, scribbling on loose, yellowed sheets. She was the last to arrive. Next to him was the only vacant seat. She paced down the aisle, careful not to stumble on school bags, thrown carelessly on the floor.
“Can I sit here?” Aazeen asked.
He seemed to be lost in dreams.
“Can I sit here?” she repeated, slamming a hand on the desk.
Snapping out of his dreams, he stuttered “Yes, yes, you can, of course.”
She slumped down on the bench and glanced at the pages.
“You write poems?”
“I try, I try to. I am not as good.”
“You seem pretty good to me.”
He blushed away
The golden shafts of sunlight paled and brightened again as clouds drifted across the sky.
“That ones like a flower” he said, pointing towards the sky. Aazeen followed his finger to look out of the window. The white cloud indeed resembled a flower.
“And that’s a sea shell.” She said. He squinted at the sky.
“That one seems like a pelican” he said
“Yeah, a pelican.” They giggled
“And that’s a demon, a div bound by shackles” he said
“There, look there.”
Aazeen leaned towards the window.
“No silly, it’s an angel. Those aren’t horns, they are her nimbus. And see those wings, faint, barely visible.” She grinned “It’s a free, white and fluffy angel”
They were interrupted by Mr. Ahmed, the class teacher. He slumped down on his bench, the wood creaking dangerously under his weight. Everyone stood up to wish him. He yawned, made the students sit and opened his brown battered register to take the roll call.
“By the way, I am Aazeen, Aazeen Qureshi and you are?”
As the day passed, they opened up to each other, like flora blooming open to the morning sun.
“You see that boy, in the second row, third from last. His name is Amir and he is my love.” Aazeen said, Sohrab’s dark eyes transfixed on her. She gazed at Amir as he pinned down Faizal just for the fun of it.
“Just look at him, the noor of my heart.”
“Why are you telling me all this? It seems personal.”
“Oh it’s not; the whole school seems to know.”
The last bell went off. School was over. Aazeen picked up her bag, patting off the dust.
She said “We’ll meet tomorrow then.”
“We will. And I want to thank you.”
“For brightening up my first day here.”
“And for turning the demons to angels.”
15th January, 1990
In a deserted alleyway, Amir cornered Sohrab, who stood tense, his brows knitted.
“Look! Look what the poet has written.” He jeered. He snatched the notepad paper from him, cleared his throat dramatically and read it word to word.
“His trees danced to her winds,
His flowers bloomed to her sunshine.”
“Who’s it for? I bet he too has fallen for Soriya.” Said Aamina. Aazeen stood tense.
“Oh, the poet is a lover!” laughed Amir.
He read on “His trees danced to her winds,
His flowers bloomed to her sunshine,
And along he never knew
That she gave her winds and sun away
Long before they ever met.”
“A sad lover!” Faizal mocked, “Soriya’s got better boys to choose from than you. Give up on her, dude.”
“It’s not for her!” Sohrab yelled and his eyes met Aazeen’s. Only for a moment, but out of the crowd, his eyes chose to glance at her, before he dashed, wiping a tear with the cuff of his shirt. Omar poked out a leg and he fell flat on his face. Aazeen gasped. The circle cackled. Amir paced up to him and picked him up by the collar.
“I know who it’s for.” He whispered so only Sohrab could hear.
“It’s not, it’s not for her either.”
“I swear I’ll kill you.”
Amir shoved him back. Sohrab stumbled and fell on his back. He got up, muddy tears blotching his cheeks, dark blood running down his nose. He ran, his hand pressed on his face.
The show was over. The winds, cold as ice itself, forced everyone to abandon the streets.
“I did not stand up to him. I could have helped him but I didn’t.” Aazeen thought, “How selfish I am, how cruel and despicable.”
“Aazeen!” Amir ran to her. She wiped away her tears with the back of her hand.
“I got this for you, Aazeen. A single ring doesn’t look good in a couple.” He said as Aazeen’s grief momentarily flew away with the dead leaves on the road. Amir rummaged through his coat pockets to produce a small, velvet, navy blue box and held it out for her to open. A slender golden ring tucked in a velveteen pincushion emerged.
Aazeen gasped “It’s, it’s so pretty! You got this for me, Amir?”
“For whom if not for you? You like it?”
“Of course I like it. It’s lovely! But the money for this, where did it come from?”
He hesitated at the question. Not for more than a moment but for long enough for Aazeen to notice.
“You can tell me.”
“Worked finances for a businessman for Rs. 40 a month for three months,”
Aazeen raised an eyebrow. He shrugged
“And bullied a 20 out of kids” he confessed as he slid it in her ring finger.
Aazeen closed her eyes, to absorb in the moment, to feel the ring, cold around her finger.
Sohrab with blood staining his nose and lips. Tears in his brown eyes, staring at her with hate at her betrayal as a friend.
She opened them in terror.
“You shouldn’t have done that to Sohrab.”
“The new boy, the poet.”
“He is a jerk.”
“Just because he is not like you doesn’t mean he is a jerk.”
“So now, you’re taking his side. You’re yelling at me because of him.”
“Amir, you can’t keep hurting people all the time. You will have to change.”
“You’re yelling at me.”
“Maybe I am. He’s different from you and probably better.”
Aazeen immediately regretted speaking the last words as they slipped off her tongue in a fit of rage. But it was too late.
“Better, I see. Give me my ring.”
“Amir will you-”
“Just give me my ring!”
His rage made Aazeen tremble. She slid the ring off her finger and dropped it in his cupped palms. He pocketed it and took off the silver ring off his finger, the ring that shone like a star.
It was a gift from Aazeen, given a week back.
He slowly removed the crinkly wrapping paper, all the time looking Aazeen in the eyes.
“It’s shining like a star.”
“My great grandma left it for posterity.”
“Generations to come by. It’s now mine and I want it to adorn your hand and our love.”
“So will it.” Amir grinned, his face a tint of deep orange against the sunset.
He dropped the ring on the road. He stomped on it with his foot.
“You were the only thing holding me back.”
“From what, Amir?”
He did not reply and walked away, leaving Aazeen in tears. Both Sohrab and Amir had slipped away from her and there was nothing she could do. Down the street, a hawker sang chants of his timber wares. Aazeen bent down to pick up the ring and found it broken like her heart. And just like the ring, she now could never be the reason for someone to believe in love.
17th January, 1990
Aazeen stepped into the stall selling spices and nuts, glancing around for the cloves and cinnamon ammi had asked for. The smell of crushed peppers lingered in the air.
“Hullo Aazeen.” Sohrab called from behind.
Aazeen was taken aback. Her mouth went dry.
“Hullo, hullo Sohrab.”
She could not bring herself to look him in the eye and stared at her feet instead.
“You here too?” he asked “Hullo?”
The air between them felt thick and she found it difficult to breathe. Silence lingered between the two.
“I am, I am sorry Sohrab. I am really sorry for not standing up to you.” Aazeen said at last, struggling with the words, “I could have stopped him.
“Look at me.” He said, “Look at me, Aazeen.”
She looked up at his face, pinpricked with scratches and bruises.
“Guess what, I am not angry or upset. I’ve grown used to it.”
His lips curled up just so, in the shadow of a smile.
“It could have spoilt your relationship with Amir, besides that.”
“There’s nothing between us Sohrab, nothing.”
“What?” he asked and she told him.
“So you did stand up to me.” He smiled, although it did not reach his eyes, “I never want to be the reason for your pain. You did not have to do this.”
“Sohrab, what are you doing here?” a man called, pacing into the stall. Sohrab snapped and looked back.
“This is my abba-” He introduced him, a clean shaven man in simple clothing “-And this is Aazeen, my classmate.”
“Thank you, Aazeen.” He said “For helping him out on his first day at school here.” he smiled, ruffling Sohrab’s hair. He was as tall as him.
“We make great friends, though he is a bit shy.” Aazeen said.
“A bit clumsy too. Three days back, he stumbled on his way back and fell, bruising his face and all.” He laughed. His son laughed along.
Sohrab hadn’t told him.
A girl weaving threads of white blossoms, sitting on tattered mats beside the stall, caught the attention of Sohrab and his abba. Aazeen looked out at the crowds, milling around. Two kids, tugging at their ammi’s sleeve to buy them the candy of their choice. A tourist couple, bargaining with the stall keeper for pashmina shawls till they settled at a reasonable price. An old man with a peppered beard breaking open his earthen bank to buy wooden trains, probably for his grandchildren. Across the street, a teenager, about as old as her, in navy blue shirt, face covered with a checkered scarf, staring right at her with sinister eyes. Aazeen gasped and took a step back.
“What happened? You all right?” Sohrab turned back.
Sohrab glanced at the street and the boy craned his neck to his left, arousing no suspicion from Sohrab, who soon looked back at his abba.
The boy winked at Aazeen. He took off his scarf and wrapped it around his neck. Amir stood in the navy blue shirt, sneering at Aazeen. “Say your goodbyes” he mouthed, pointing a finger at Sohrab, “I’ll kill him.”
“Sohrab!” Aazeen said, terrified, as Amir brought out a grenade from bag pack, “Sohrab, we need to get out of here and fast.”
“But why? What happened?”
“You don’t understand. Its-” her words were cut short as he pulled the pin off and flung up the grenade. The sky caught fire, exploding in hues of inferno. The air resonated with the shockwave. The explosion thundered in their ears, throwing thick smoke everywhere. The crowd panicked. A stampede. Screams and gunshots were all that could be heard.
“What is this?” Sohrab cried, tightening his grip on his abba’s arm, who looked as terrified.
“I-I don’t know. We need to get someplace safe.”
Sohrab led them, cutting through the crowds and smoke with Aazeen shouting out directions and his abba following. The crowd thinned at a crossing, dispersing along all the streets. Amir stood at the end, shooting blindly, with his gun pointed at the crowd and now, at Sohrab. Aazeen was the only one who saw him.
“Get down! He’ll shoot you!” she lunged at Sohrab to bring him down just in time as Amir fired.
Behind them, Sohrab’s abba yelped.
They turned to see him fall, his chest spotted red. The bullet had missed a person, only to make victim of another. Amir had disappeared
“Abba?” Sohrab sat down beside him and took his hand, his own trembling. The crowd was clearing to leave bodies scattered on the road, their loved ones huddled around them. The tourist couple lay dead, and so did the old man. The two little boys were crying. Their ammi would not wake up. The injured were consoled. Distant sirens could be heard.
“Wake up, abba.” Sohrab’s voice cracked.
“He won’t, Sohrab. He won’t.” Aazeen wiped away tears welling in her eyes.
“He will. He’s my abba. He will wake up for me.”
He hugged his abba, staining his own shirt.
SSP Baksh stepped out of his jeep and paced towards them.
“Ahem- I am sorry, but did this man-” “My abba.” “-Your abba, did he die in the militant attack just now?”
“No, I shot him down.” Sohrab glared at him with bloodshot eyes, inhaling a rattled breath.
“Of course, he died their hands.” He slumped.
“I am really, really sorry.” SSP Baksh said and went back to the other policemen now assessing the situation.
Sohrab was now crying, tears sailing down his cheeks onto his father’s face. For a moment, it seemed that he too, was mourning his lost son, the son he would never laugh with again.
20th January 1990
The personnel barged into the house, snapping everyone out of their sleep, except Aazeen, who sat on her bed. She rarely had slept since a week. Nightmares kept her awake.
“Search the house down. Frisk the women and all men are to come out.”
Abba stood in the doorway. He coughed, clutching his chest and spat out blood.
“Who are you to barge into my house without my consent?”
“I am General Syed Abdullah of the CRPF and I need no one’s consent to perform my duty.” The haughty personnel took his eyes off abba and ordered his men, “Search the house, I said.”
He went out and into the adjacent house.
The men searched the house, taking no care to keep the things intact. The crockery fell to the ground and broke into a thousand shards as Aazeen flinched. Abba spat more blood as he was pushed out.
“Abba!” Aazeen ran out.
“It’s cold outside, not good for your lungs.” She gave him the coat.
“Get back, girl! Take this too!” General Abdullah said as he threw back the coat on Aazeen’s face.
From beside her abba, her elder brother, Iqbal, shouted, “You saw him cough up blood. He’s sick. Do you even care?”
“Let me tell you, I don’t.” General Abdullah said through gritted teeth, “Get in that bus, now.”
They obeyed, like all other men milling about the street, with armed men breathing down their necks, stepping aboard the nearest bus or truck.
“What is this?” Aazeen asked to no one.
General Abdullah answered, “This will be a mass interrogation. JKLF militants like Jamid Mir and Bitta Karate are natives of here. Just three days back you had a militant attack. The governor suspects more might be hiding out here.”
“I seem to know someone you would love to meet.”
“Give this to him.” She shoved the coat at him. He passed it through the window bars and into the hands of Iqbal. He turned back.
“Where?” he asked again and she told him, a stone lifted off her chest
“Take care of him.” Aazeen said to Iqbal.
And soon, the buses and trucks had disappeared down the road.
“I have promised you a clean administration. But if anyone will create a law and order problem, the cards of peace I am carrying will slip away from my hands.” The radio played recordings of the televised speech, the governor’s words muffled and cracked due to poor signal.
“Cards of peace.” Ammi pushed a plate of naan and dal towards Aazeen. She could not bring herself to eat. Leaving it in on the table, she paced away into her room. She slipped into the warm quilts for another sleepless night, thick with thoughts.
She wished that Amir would die, that Sohrab’s be alive again, that everything be as it was a week ago. She wished on and on, not realizing the futility of it.
“Jagmohan is the governor. It’s no longer in our hands.” SSP Baksh had declared the day before. It seemed it was in no one’s hands anymore
Ammi slowly opened the door and walked in. She sat on Aazeen’s bed beside her head.
“They’ll be back by morning. I know these are tough times, suddenly. I shouldn’t have sent you to the market. I don’t know what else is troubling you, but I know you’ll make it through. Everything is going to be fine.” She ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair.
“I know a brave little girl,
who dared to cross the sea,
In a raft made of tiny twigs,
to fetch seashells for me.
She crossed the sea and came back.
Together we had some tea.
She slept beside me that night,
just her and me, just we.”
Aazeen looked at her, the features of her face faint in the darkness.
“You used to sing this to me when I was little.”
“You’re still little, Aazeen.”
“I be a grown up in two years but yes, I am still little”
“You’ll be little to me as long as I am alive.”
“They’ll be fine, no?”
“Yes, you should sleep.”
“I’ll sleep ammi.”
She kissed Aazeen on the forehead and walked out of the room. Minutes later, after so many days, Aazeen was sleeping a sound sleep. Nightmares didn’t trouble her that night.
21st January, 1990
“Ammi?” Aazeen walked out of her room.
“Ammi? Abba? Iqbal? Are they back?”
“Yes we are.” Iqbal mumbled. He was still in his bed in the drawing room, eyes half open.
“We came back early morning. It was tiring. Will you let me sleep, please?”
Aazeen glanced at the clock. It was almost noon; she had slept through the morning. Cups of cold tea rested on the table.
“What happened? Abba had to stay out the whole night?”
“Turn on the radio. It’s on local news.” He covered his head with his pillow.
Aazeen switched it on. The radio hissed.
“Keep the volume low.”
Aazeen turned the volume down till it was barely a whisper. After a minute’s wait, a stern voice spoke.
“The mass interrogation, yesterday at Hari Niwas, was carried out as planned. All the men except two have been released. A militant involved in the militant attack four days ago has been arrested. He was offered money to do the job.”
Aazeen grinned. General Abdullah had found Amir.
“Locals have accused the CRPF officers of misbehaving with and molesting the women overnight while they were at Hari Niwas for the interrogation. The men who were subjected to the interrogation have also complained that they were treated harshly throughout the interrogation.”
“But, where are they?” she murmured.
As if on cue, the radio answered, “Rumors are that the infuriated locals are planning a public protest near Gawkadal Bridge, Lal Chowk against the appointment of the new governor.”
“Protest?” Aazeen said.
“Iqbal, where are ammi and abba?”
He was snoring. She shook him awake.
“Let me sleep.”
“Where are ammi and abba?”
“They are not here?”
“No, they aren’t and the radio’s talking of rumors of a public protest near the bridge.”
“You think they are out?”
“They shouldn’t be. The governor won’t like protest against him just a day after his appointment.”
“I will go get them.”
He rubbed his eyes, put on is coat and went outside.
“Aazeen, there are clothes on the terrace. Ammi must have forgotten.”
“I’ll take them off.”
She grabbed her jacket and paced out. She climbed up the ladder, the rusted rungs biting cold. The clothes were wet and cold. Aazeen went up to the edge to see if Iqbal had found them. The crowd of around a hundred was pacing steadily towards the bridge, the Gawkadal Bridge. Iqbal was way behind them. She leaned to get a better view. On the other side of the bridge, troops of CRPF personnel stood heavily armed, ready to act.
“They are not there to welcome the protest.” What Aazeen said barely came out as a whisper, “They need to stop. They’ll be arrested.”
Aazeen dropped the clothes and climbed down the ladder. Missing the last step, she fell on her back and groaned.
What was about to happen was devastating.
Before she could pick herself up, loud gunshots sounded.
“They can’t open gunfire.”
Aazeen ran down the road. But it was too late. Tears were welling in her eyes.
She caught up on Iqbal near the bridge, gasping for breath, panting. He stood still, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. She pressed a hand on his shoulder. He pretended not to notice.
On the bridge, the crowd was trapped. It was being brought down the CRPF. Bodies smeared in red were being trampled on by their own kin. A loud splash. Aazeen saw people jump down in the frigid river, choosing to die by drowning than by bullets.
The cards of peace had slipped away way too early.
Aazeen spotted them. Not among the ones still living, but thrown dead on the bridge. Aazeen gasped and pointed them out for Iqbal. Their clothes, faded with age, were soaked in blood, their faces lifeless. She counted, “Three bullets through abba and four through ammi.” Iqbal stood silent.
Iqbal realized they were visible in plain sight. He took Aazeen’s arm and stumbled up to behind the adjacent block. Leaning against the wall, Aazeen slid down on her haunches. Her eyes were dry, her face devoid of anything but shock. Her mouthed was parched and her throat burnt. Iqbal stood beside her, a lone tear down his cheek. They could still hear the gunshots and people falling dead before they hit the ground. The cold leeched in her and she brought down her head between her knees, wanting to disappear, wanting to die.
A destroyed life is better than being dead, Sohrab had said. It wasn’t, always
“Anyone still alive?” General Abdullah spoke, indifferent to the blood he now had on his hands. “Go check.” His voice seemed to burn through Aazeen’s ears. She peeked around the corner. They kicked and turned all the bodies. They shot at the ones showing any movement.
“The truck’s coming. We got some work to do.”
The truck arrived and one by one they hauled all the bodies up the rear of the truck. They threw ammi and abba in there too. Iqbal held Aazeen back. She would have been killed in cold heart and would have been just another body to haul up, had she revealed herself.
“At least, leave their bodies.” Aazeen whispered, her lips quivering “Leave something for me to bury.”
The engine roared. The truck and jeeps were off. Iqbal and Aazeen walked down to the bridge. Dark blood snaked everywhere, dripping off the edges at places.
“This too will be cleaned.”
“Blood is hard to clean off. This much, even harder. Abdullah won’t get out of this easily.”
“Whatever happens, we won’t get them back.” Aazeen said, and proceeded to shout to the air, her voice hoarse “They can’t die like this! They did nothing to deserve to die like this! They can’t die!”
But they did, and nothing in this world could now bring them back.
23rd January, 1990
Sohrab gestured Aazeen to come out. She glanced at him; his autumn brown eyes caught the faint sun and shone amber as he looked back at her. Aazeen kissed Iqbal, who was shedding tears silently, on the forehead and asked if she could talk to Sohrab. He nodded.
Aazeen stepped out of their home. They walked up to a deserted street.
She kicked the gravel hard, “I can’t believe they’re no longer here.”
Sohrab leaned on the bricked wall, his hand running through his dark hair, his face pinpricked with sunlight filtering through the bare branches.
“The heart takes time to believe what the mind already knows.”
He had said this before, just days ago.
The house was resonating with grief. People everywhere sat on mats, some weeping, some consoling them. Aazeen made her way through them, walking barefoot, when she saw the person she was looking for. In a secluded corner of a room, Sohrab sat alone on a chair, his abba’s framed picture lying beside him. Aazeen put a hand on his shoulder.
“It must be paining, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, and I know who did it.”
“You, you know?”
“I swear I had no knowledge of what happened.”
“I swear I didn’t know. You have no reason to believe me.”
“I have no reason not to believe you, Aazeen. I believe you.”
“You know what, I didn’t turn the demons to angels or anything. I just let them free and they destroyed your life. I destroyed your life.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault that you chose the wrong person. It’s just that you should have told me. You shouldn’t have kept it in.”
“I am sorry.”
“I am okay and thank you.”
“You saved my life.”
“I destroyed it too.”
“You did not destroy it. He did. Get that clear. You saved my life and a destroyed life is better than being dead, sometimes.”
“I don’t know how we will manage a living. Ammi refuses to go out to work. I don’t blame her. I will have to drop out of school and work.”
She nodded, unaware of how shattered her own life would be in another few days. He glanced at her and she noticed his fall colored eyes.
“I can’t believe he’s dead.” He said, “My abba used to say, the heart takes time to believe what the mind already knows.”
“I still miss him, my abba. It’s like a really important, integral part of me torn away. I still feel, at times, that he is here and will walk down our home with sunset in the backdrop.” He read Aazeen’s thoughts, “But then, like it is, he didn’t and will never.”
“You don’t feel the loss all the time. You go on with your life like always but there’s a vague feeling that something, or rather someone is missing. You know they are gone, but the heart is foolish. It does not give up hope and wanders in search of them. Then there are those things they did, like he always used to give me hot milk before bedtime and he used to kiss me goodnight, and he woke me up early for prayers and I used to get annoyed. He used to tell silly jokes and I used to laugh for the sake of his feelings. Now no one does it and it reminds me afresh that no one will do it ever again. I cry myself to sleep and I wake up late. These things that had become a daily habit, a part of your life, to which you never gave a second thought now suddenly, hold the capability to make you cry. They pierce through you like a sharp needle, killing you a thousand times and you know they won’t be gone for a long time.”
Aazeen listened to this poet carefully. She said, “It’s hard, losing a parent.”
“You just lost two.”
Aazeen found it difficult to breathe and choked on the cold air. A tear slid down her cheek. She tried hard to fight the tears but they slid down nevertheless.
“I won’t tell you to stop crying. It makes you feel good.” He said, his hand finding way to her cheek “But it makes you feel a lot better if you cry with someone who loves you.”
She spread out her arms and he walked into her embrace. She wept, his heart beating against her ear, their warmth spreading into each other.
A scrap of notepad paper fluttered out of his pocket to fall on the road. He picked it up and patted dust off it.
“A poem I have written.”
“Demons pierced the heart
Of her hills and her sunset,
And all she asked for was,
a hand to hold.”
“I think I have it now.”
“A hand to hold.”