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Pranav Deshpande

Romance Tragedy Thriller


Pranav Deshpande

Romance Tragedy Thriller

The Scarf

The Scarf

41 mins 464 41 mins 464

Every night, the small family of three sat around the fire, warming themselves from the cold bitter frost of the winter that enveloped Kashmir in a thick shroud. Closed doors and windows did nothing to stop the cold wind coming in, like closed minds which cannot stop uncharitable thoughts within the seclusion of their self inflicted boundaries. Amina, her old mother and her arthritic father listened on the radio as news trickled in, of more violence and more deaths, their beloved homeland, once a tourist paradise covered with soft snow, now covered with blood and reverberating with the ruined screams of dashed hopes and forgotten dreams, of lives unlived and deeds undone and of egotistical, petty old people playing their little vicious games, dreaming up more of such battlefields, flexing their muscles and puffing out their chests, even as more and more youthful enthusiasm and exuberance was consigned to the flames. The blood of martyrs or terrorists, of young soldiers and their younger widows, of their unfulfilled desires and a generation cursed to live, either in submissive melancholy or in silent frustration, sometimes ending in wayward paths and tragedy.

The newscaster droned on, as was his calling, meeting the morbid facts of life with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, as if this was the answer to the question of his childhood – What do you want to be, when you grow up?. I want to be a news reporter, father, he may have said, then. I want to go to strange places and meet strange people. I want to talk about violence and hatred and what that does to human beings and how they behave with each other. I know you gave me a good upbringing, father. A silent, strong, sheltered upbringing. But I want to see the grass, at a place where it is definitely not greener. I have some more growing up to do, father.

And the father would have looked at his son proudly and nodded his head, for those were not the times that we see today, but those were equally disturbed times, at a scale which could not be envisaged, today. And that is how the newscaster was probably out there, singing his life’s song, to his heart’s content, aware that a section of the populace could see him and a section of the populace could only hear him and nonetheless being encouraged, by the sincerity in his face and the timbre of his voice, continuing to do his life’s calling.

He wouldn’t know that his voice reached through a relatively ancient bit of technology, into the home and hearth of Amina’s parents. He wouldn’t know that the comfort of his droning and the regularity of his broadcast were comfort zones, from which the parents signified the passing of another thankfully uneventful day and the passage into yet another uncertain one. If he knew, he would have been gratified, but of course, nobody expresses such things.

The dinner consisting of stale bread and cold gruel was quickly consumed, bodies grateful for the luxury of passage from one meal to the next, and the news programme was replaced by a ghazal, whose soft music soon soothed the frayed and tired nerves of the listeners. The voice, though sonorous, sang a melody of hope and promise and lifted the spirits of Amina, who was still young and fresh and with the innocence and enthusiasm of the youth, felt that times would change, the world would change and Kashmir would once again bloom with beauty and peace. Her parents listened to her cheerful interpretation and her fondly expressed hopes and did not disillusion her. Adulthood was still a bit away and there would be time for disillusionment and cynicism later.

‘Clear the dishes, Amina’, her mother said.

The dishes were quickly cleared and Amina took them outside and washed them in a small stream that bubbled outside. She still hummed the ghazal, the last verse spoke of love and Amina had once been a woman in love. She still was, but now it was a love for the dead, a love for what could have been, for what could never be. But she hummed, so that he would listen. Through time and space, he had moved on, but the love that they had shared; it was like an entity, a living breathing thing and she was sure that wherever he had passed on to, there was a vestige or remnant of him, that still hung back, for the sound of her voice.

And so she sang. 

Her Sajid. Dear Sajid, arrogant Sajid, proud Sajid. Amina blushed, remembering their days and his firm, clumsy ways, as he tried to propose her, using every trick that he could think of. Sajid worked as an apprentice to his carpenter father, but after watching his two friends killed in a violent attack, he had vowed to join the army. His father had cried and begged and Amina had cried and begged and it was of no avail. Sajid went away. Amina gave him several trinkets, a ring, a small kerchief, a scarf and a copy of the Holy Koran and made him promise that he would call everyday and he would return soon and claim her, from her parents.

‘I cannot live with myself’ he had said, once, when they were talking. The deaths of his friends had cast a cloud over their sweet nothings, not that it reduced the intensity, but Sajid was now a man of purpose. A terrible thing, indeed, but it was now cast in stone.

‘It’s not our fight’, she had said, foolishly, of course. To a person steeped in the flames of determination, coming off from the final farewells to two bosom buddies, her entreaty was useless, her ground, equally so. He was incapable of seeing the fear behind that entreaty, the anxiety that loomed in her. He was incapable, for he had changed and he could not get back into the snakeskin that he had earlier shed.

‘I am not angry’ he explained at length. ‘Allah is merciful and He will guide and show the way to everyone’, he continued.

‘Who or what will you join?’ she asked. ‘If you join someone, you are also joining against someone else. Who are your enemies? How have you decided this? What will you do?’

A lot of questions. He was patient with her and he knew she was trying to trip him up, to see if there were questions that he could not answer, so that she could latch on to that uncertainty and use that as an excuse, to try and get him to turn back. But he was wise to such things. The two people, who had met him after his friends’ deaths, had warned him, thus.

‘We cannot remain silent!’ claimed these new sympathetic friends. ‘Your parents are old – what will they do? Our wives are there to breed for us, to give us food and then they become mothers and we become the providers to the whole family’, they continued.

‘But what happens, if the sanctity or security of this family gets threatened?’ they further questioned. ‘Do we just sit back and let it happen?’

They took him to their leader. He looked at Sajid. With scorn. With contempt. With pity. And he shook his head. There was a lot of disapproval in that gesture. A lot of disappointment. He seemed to say, ‘You’re not a true friend, Sajid. You’re a let down, Sajid.’

Then he questioned Sajid. Gently, at first. Then passionately. His voice rose and ebbed and his followers rolled about in ecstasy and there was a surge of intensity and a surge of purpose.

They were our brothers, he said. There was a general consensus on this.

‘Do you agree, Sajid?’ he asked.

Sajid had nodded. He was not a fool, he was aware that vengeance was an emotion best untampered with. But he was also human. One way or the other, he felt, it did not matter who he joined. Which ideology he supported. Who he cast, in the role of his friend and who he cast, in the role of an enemy. At the end of the day, something needed to be done and he would do it. He could not just sit there. That was the sum and substance of the whole thing. He was done with sitting on the sidelines, either clapping or cringing, depending upon which hero went by.

And so Amina’s entreaties were in vain. And he left, promising that he would return. He would be careful, he promised. And Amina had to be content with that.

One more foot soldier added to the endless ranks. One more torch bearer, among a loyal multitude.

‘The multitude grows each day!’ they screamed.

‘You cannot stop us!’ they screamed, louder

He had come back last year and they had finalized the dates of the nikaah. Both families approved, these were nice, well brought up traditional kids; there was some annoyance at the concept of love, but Sajid had been clever enough and tactful enough, to show patience and humility, to show abject surrender for the wishes of the families, to so tone it down and show an intense focus on his new calling, that it was they who were becoming impatient to get these kindred souls together and not he. They smiled and nodded and spoke over extended meal sessions, how he knew Amina and she knew him for years and how she would be suitable as a wife and how he would take care of her and so on. Stuff of security and stability, stuff that parents wanted, liked to hear and approve. Especially since his calling was anything, but. When they asked him about that, he was a bit vague. But then he talked about his two dead friends and wounds were opened again and they rushed to close a topic so obviously painful for him. And so the transition from love to a possible nikaah happened.

‘We approve!’ they said in unison, glad that it was they who made it happen.

Sajid and Amina looked at each other and grinned.

The nikaah was to take place the next May.

It did not happen.

Sajid was dead.

When they brought the body, they were tight lipped. They spoke in slow, laborious tones. Their bodies were rigid with grief, their eyes were filled with tears. They could not bear to see the sight of his aged, infirm parents, dealt a body blow in their twilight years; the light of their life, extinguished; the darkness now a constant companion for the rest of their days. Amina’s parents too were in shock.

The whole village was in shock. The village elders and the village youngsters, the followers of the form and the followers of the formless. Even the animals and the birds had stopped their restless chatter. The valley was locked in a funeral shroud.

The loudspeakers stayed silent.

Amina was silent.

It troubled everyone to see that she did not cry at first. They did not have sophisticated psychological techniques over there, to tell them that it was a reaction of complete and utter disbelief and a negation to what had happened. She refused to believe that it had happened and so it did not happen. That was the way she took it. But they did not know this, country bumpkins that they were and so real emotions and real concerns overflowed. Such were the vagaries of the absence of technology.

‘Send her to Jammu for a few days. Her uncle is there. She’ll feel better.’ Said one.

‘She needs to cry. This is unhealthy.’ Said another.

They spoke to her. In low tones and in high tones, in wails and silent commiserations. Some just sat and looked at the ceiling and the floor, darting furtive glances at her, lips quivering, ready to join her, if she started to bawl. Some offered words of solace and wisdom. The Holy Book was brought forth. Verses were quoted.

And Amina stayed silent.

The parents spoke to her. Their heart was full of sorrow but it was fast replaced with anxiety. They called a physician, he prescribed a sedative, they administered it to her. She took it without complaint or protest. Then she slept. When she woke, she was still the same.

She stayed silent.

There were those who had nursed a silent grudge against these two young hearts coming together unhindered. They were the ones denied, the ones living within the decrees of tradition and elderly frowns, the ones with a sense of belonging but also with a sense of something amiss, the ones who had seen their own lives frittered away like so many are across these hills; they had borne rancor.

They were now secretly ashamed. Of being secretly overjoyed. Such is human nature.

‘Poor Amina!’ they all said, each voice distinctly sadder than the other. All surrounding her, casting a protective web around her, searching her eyes, looking into her soul. Curious. Unrequited love has its own beauty. One of these sycophants was a poetess. The tragedy and a shot of Red Bull, gave her wings.

But Amina still stayed silent.

Then the season of sorrow bubbled over.

It was some days before Amina suddenly broke down and she cried for two whole days, much to the relief of her parents. A long, bleating pain of anguish, that beat itself on the mountains and faded away, mixing with the anguished screams of other similar luckless souls. It came out of troubled dreams and sleepless nights, of berating the skies and the clouds and the birds and the heavens and the knowledge, with each passing day, that the tragedy was real. Her mind was protecting her soul, leading her slowly to reality, giving her time and space. And then there was one clear moment of paralyzing insight, a terror filled moment of pure sorrow and grief and Amina gave vent.

‘Sajid!’ her heart rent. Just the one singular word. And it was enough.

So how did it happen? Nobody knew, it seemed, though the blame game was on, thoroughly. Somebody told the parents that the issue had been raised in the Assembly or the Parliament, they were not sure which one. The news, unfortunately, caused no pride to these parents, to them, he was not an issue or a statistic. But to the members sitting in the opposition benches, he was pure gold. An opportunity.

A group went on a fast. Not to be outdone, another group announced a fast unto death. The media went wild and called for a debate. The newscaster boomed and screamed and when he stopped to catch his breath, the participants boomed and screamed. The twitterati came alive with comments of their own. A midnight candle vigil also took place. It was all supposed to be very comforting, but the international media had not bitten the bait; there was some crisis in the Middle East and they were too busy, covering that.

But then as it happens with some of these sensitive things, a couple of hush hush meetings took place and things quietened down. People moved on to newer things. And this would have been the end of his story.


This rare breed, known as ‘investigative reporters’ did their work. They dug up some data, antagonized some very well connected people, got a couple of broken bones and busted kneecaps for their efforts, but finally got it in print. There too, the version that came out, did not really do justice to those broken bones and kneecaps.

So this was how it was allegedly done.

Two sets of soldiers allegedly posted across the border, posturing by allegedly shooting their guns. Two of those bullets had allegedly hit Sajid and allegedly because of these, he had allegedly died. That is what was communicated to the world. Notice the use of the word ‘allegedly’, the editor said to himself, silently – this is what he would say, if he received any of those phone calls that he usually got, when a couple of his people were behaving inappropriately. He did get two calls and he was gratified that he had insisted upon the multiple use of the word ‘allegedly’.

A person did, allegedly exist. He allegedly, had a value. A life. A worth. And now he was dead. Allegedly.

The editor was sorry for the alleged inconvenience. So sorry, Sirs, he allegedly was supposed to have said.

The article got published.

The article caused an outpouring of grief. Most of it was digital grief, the social media assuaging its collective conscience by posting their thoughts, messages and likes. Some of it went to the intellectuals, the actors and directors – their body of work, it seems, qualified them to give their two cents worth on what a tragedy this was. But the most remarkable and intense grief was felt by the members of the opposition party, a collective wail of horror at the injustice of it all; Sajid’s parents would have been gratified, had they been a part of it.

The grief went right up to the office of the Home and Defence ministers and once it reached those scared domains, their grief lent a certain glory to Sajid’s death; he was now acknowledged by the truly great persons and he became the hero. The village chiefs quickly deciding that Sajid was a war hero, some concluding that he was a martyr. Fierce debates ranged for several days and a local news channel even set up an opinion poll. Then somebody filed a petition against the news channel for hurting their sentiments. ‘First this grief and now this hurt!’ the lawyer boomed in Court. The judges took out their kerchiefs, frowned at the news channel and wiggled their fingers. The news channel was contrite.

‘Sorry’, they said.

The judges recorded the apology and dismissed the suit.

Then some of the more pragmatic of those village chiefs came and met Sajid’s parents. Sajid’s father, to be precise. There was the matter of Government compensation, after all, he had laid down his life in the service of the country and now his old parents were left with nobody to care for them. Did the Government not have any responsibility? This could not go on, No!

They arranged a demonstration.

‘Go Home!’ screamed a placard. It didn’t specify who exactly was to go home.

‘Down with the Government!’ screamed another placard.

‘Give Sajid his compensation!’ screamed a third. Ah! Now we have something – they said.

The local NGO joined in. They were politely rebuffed. They came back. Were rebuffed again.

They came back with a washed up film actor, with some popularity in the region.

The red carpet was rolled out.

The village head knew somebody in Srinagar who knew somebody in Delhi who was connected to somebody who again was the brother-in-law of someone in high places. The long and short of it – one needed to be practical and the torch of practicality was to be borne by Sajid’s father, with the nodding village chiefs in close accompaniment.

Sadly, there was no gallantry award; they tried but the story of on field valor was wearing a bit thin. But by dint of some meetings with sympathetic officials, a sum was given by the Government by way of compensation. By the time the sum had been received by Sajid’s mother, after deducting the commission of all the brokers, babus and officials, ‘legal services’ of course; nothing underhand, you see – to say nothing of the taxes, of course, it was good enough to last just three months. Sajid’s father was a drunk, and the grief added more fuel and tears to this and the wailing of his friends who also gathered around, added some more and so he used some of it to purchase liquor and each night, he and his friends sat together and cried.

Till the money finally ran out. And the friends advised him to be strong and move on.

As they themselves did too.

There were only memories now.

Amina went back inside, arranged all the dishes in the sparse, but carefully arranged kitchen and started arranging the bedsheets and blankets. Her mother switched off the radio. The family was ready to sleep. The comfort of the routine and the mundane. Praise be to Allah for this day and a welcome for the arrival of the next.

There was a knock on the door.

Everybody started violently – knocks on the door at this time of the night could mean anything. But in the case of Amina’s family, it only meant bafflement, nobody from their family was involved in any sort of conflict – state sponsored or otherwise.

Amina’s mother said, fearfully, “Who can that be?”

Amina went up to the door. She was trembling, but her old weak parents had to see courage – had to draw from it – so she had to appear brave. “Who is it?”

An unfamiliar voice said,” Open the door, please!”

Amina hesitated. It was a man’s voice, a rough, coarse, breaking voice, the voice of an unknown person and their house was situated on the outskirts of town – away from the nearest dwelling. Not that it mattered so much – in a place like this, there could really be no safety in crowds, but nevertheless, anything unknown was always going to be unsettling.

‘Are you a reporter? Please come back tomorrow!’ she shouted.

When Sajid’s life had been reconstructed by another news channel, from birth till death, they had discovered the love angle. They had gone off their seats in excitement, till better sense surprisingly prevailed. But now, Amina too was a celebrity and three such reporters had come and visited her before.

There was no answer, just the sound of loud hoarse breathing. She was getting alarmed, while maintaining her composure.

Amina said again, “Who is it, please?”

The knocking on the door became insistent and desperate. “Open up, please!” the voice wailed. “I’m bleeding! Please hurry!”

Bleeding! A word, with so many ramifications! Bleeding meant blood, blood meant violence and conflict, opening the door, meant involvement, involvement meant taking sides and taking sides eventually led to ruin and disgrace, one way or the other.

But what could you do, when there was insistent banging on the door? You could, of course, ignore it, hoping that the desperate man would give up and go away – move to the next dwelling. You could do that, if you had good logical sense and limited social conscience, living a sequestered existence, where problems existed on the television and a weekly elimination round ensured things got more exciting, next week.

But what could you do, if you were living in a place like this – where human contact was paramount to survival and where a few vestiges of humanity still existed amongst people who deserved to be at the biggest receiving end of it? You had to be involved.

Amina glanced at her parents for reassurance. Their faces expressed the only three emotions they could manage these days – confusion, resignation and dumbness. Life did not have any further surprises for them in store – they had seen too much.

The insistent knocking resumed. Amina opened the door, fearfully.

A young man stood there – a man covered in bruises and blood – with tattered clothes, dirty fingernails and broken shoes. And the uniform of a soldier. It was not clear which one.

The man came forward as if he would barge in the room. Amina made as if to stop him, but before she could do anything, he collapsed.

The trio surrounded him.

“Who is he?” Amina’s father asked, pointlessly.

“Let’s lie him down on that mattress over there.” Amina’s mother quickly took charge – glad to have something else to do other than her dull monotonous activity.

Amina quickly shut the door and they laid him on the only bed in the room.

He was a sight to behold. Tattered clothes, tattered belongings, and a rough, bearded weather beaten tattered face. He was murmuring something, drifting in and out of consciousness. Amina’s mother brought a small pail of water and gently moistened his face. It seemed to work – his eyes fluttered open and got focus. He stared at his benefactors. The abject gratitude in his eyes was a sight to behold.

“Thank you!” he said and attempted a smile.

‘Who are you?’ the parents asked.

‘How did you get here? Why did you come here? Who is after you?’ – this, from a surprisingly mature Amina, her mind had moved on to practical things, now that the humanity angle had resolved itself. It also gave of indications of having witnessed, or undergone, rapid fire interrogations, but her mind could not conjure up more questions, at the moment.

He made to answer. He struggled, made a feeble effort, but even that appeared to sap some of his strength, his eyelids fluttered and he seemed to drift off to sleep. Then he did sleep.

They stared at each other. He was in a bad way, it was nearing midnight. Humanity dictated that he be taken in and sheltered and protected, but the dictates of humanity were not uppermost in the minds of those people in the shack; survival was. But then the remnants of whatever faith they had left, tugged at their unwilling hearts and their eyes softened and they gave in. The curse of the soft hearted.

As he slept, they made him comfortable with what little they had, and that little turned out to be just enough. He continued to drift, in and out of consciousness and in one of his lucid periods, he told Amina that nobody had seen him, nobody was after him, he had escaped detection and come here. He explained away his wounds.

‘The forest!’ he muttered. ‘All those prickly twigs and branches and sharp pointed needles.’

Amina made no reply.

What would a soldier be doing in a forest? She asked her parents. Why would he act like a fugitive? Why would he not contact the army?

Her parents told her to be patient and to wait.

Sure enough, after three four days he did wake up. He rummaged in his rucksack and came out with a small transmission equipment. He patched it in, smiling at Amina, all the time.

He made to sit up, with great difficulty, but standing was beyond him. He tried, then uttered a grunt of pain, fell back, steadied himself again on the cot. Even sitting was difficult, but atleast he could do that much.

Then he sent a message.

Only static was being received. But then he told her that the receiving station was sophisticated, they had received his message. He told them that he was injured, that he was being attended to, lovingly, by the local persons, that he was grateful to them for all their help, that he would get better and would join them soon.

He kept on looking at Amina and smiling. She could not bring herself to smile back. She did not understand static. She could not understand him.

He continued to get only static, in reply.

But then, things began to change.

Over the next few days, the stranger, whose name was Akram, developed with newer hope and newer vigor, transforming from the disheveled tattered stranger to someone more amenable to human contact. Attention and care, those two healers, tended to heal his wounds, though some inner torment burned in his eyes, possibly of an unresolved past and a mission not accomplished. But there was also a spark in his eyes and the spark was that of a sudden and unbidden love. To Amina’s experienced parents, the spark made itself apparent and it made them hesitant and cautious. To Amina, however, the same experience which caused her loneliness, also resulted in her being vulnerable and she too sensed a certain growing affinity for the stranger. Yet, an inner loyalty to her dead beloved still prevailed, though she could sense its strength sapping, with each day.

She did not like this. Against the insistent pressuring of her parents, she was doing everything in her power, to not be bound down, to domesticity. She was beholden to Sajid and though Sajid was no longer there, she would stay beholden. That was her solemn promise to herself. Cast in stone. Forged in the tempest that had wrecked her life. Forged in fire and steel. Wild and unbridled.

The stranger affected her. She made singular attempts to be unpleasant, to rebuke and rebuff and snub him. It was not fair, for he was suffering, but Amina was building up a defence shield.

But she was weakening.

Each day, she spoke with Sajid. When she stood outside, gazing at the clear skies, at the mountains, at the little stream bubbling at her feet, her heart gave out an echo and felt one back in return and she felt the love emanating from the dead Sajid. But she was feeling an ebb now and she was ashamed. Having given her heart and soul to Sajid, she could not reclaim it back and hand it over to someone else.

But she was young and it was still spring. Atleast it felt that way. And Akram was kind. And gentle with his speech. He had a good smile. Good dimples. A twinkle in his eyes, when they did not burn with the passion and intensity, that came unbidden. When he looked at her, his eyes softened. The passion was forced back, tenderness was summoned forward and tenderness flowed. Like another living, breathing thing. Reaching out. Seeking out. And a new kind of passion came forth. A new kind of smile.

He did not mind her barbs. Her constant questioning. He was patient. He smiled, always. He had nice, white teeth, such a rarity in men. And he was strong. Very strong. She could see that.

And young love cannot be resisted for long. And will not be denied, for long. Amina was carried on the tidal wave of passion. Her heart, marred by tragedy, seeking comfort and solace of the sort her parents could never ever give. It responded. It sent contrary signals to her mind. It told her to look in the mirror.

To look at a young girl, still in the prime of eternal youth, glowing, sensual, sweet. A girl promised to her love, the promise broken by fate, lying unclaimed beyond the edge of her consciousness, now knocking on her subconscious and asking to be let in, asking for it’s due. Berating her. Until she could resist no longer. Wait no longer.

Then fate stepped on the accelerator.

Akram stood on his feet.

It was an occasion of joy, mixed with regret, the tiniest of regret to be sure, for it was a regret that could not be shown. It was a moment of regret especially for new found love – it sensed the hour of parting may soon come, it sensed the inadequacy of time and space and situation, it sensed two willing, young scared hearts, tentative, cautious, hesitant and self-conscious, dealing with inner unresolved conflicts, one with a desire to not overreach an unexpected hospitality, the other with a desire to acquire the gift that love carries, though mixed with a sense of guilt at the sudden longing developed for the bearer.

The presence of the parents was a welcome roadblock; it prevented injudicious steps being taken. The only language, the language of the eyes was being spoken here and the old traditional parents approved and still did not approve. It was a thin line and it was a difficult line to be negotiated and time was needed. But Akram stood up and time was no longer there.

Three days later, Akram was raring to go. It was as if a fire that was burning within him had been kept on hold, but it was kindling now; it had ravaged the shackles that had been holding him back and it was now urging him on towards something.

And so Akram stood up and it was finally, time to go. 

Standing up signified the end of a phase and the beginning of a new one. Standing up was a precursor for a destination to be set and for the traveler to continue on his wanderings, well rested and healed from the unexpected rest stop that he had been fortunate to enjoy. 

Akram stood in front of Amina and Amina stood in front of Akram and they both stood and looked at each other, expressing volumes, saying nothing. A mild reproach in her eyes, a mild regret in his. The parents, watching, eyes alert, faces dumb and impassive. A great moment and it needed to be well executed, to its logical conclusion.

Amina came forward, hesitantly, it seemed, holding a scarf in her hand. Well embroidered, green. There was an expression on her face that was indescribable, she was curious, but there was a firm set of her jaw, that he had not seen before. It made her look even more beautiful.

‘This fell off from your dress.’ She said, tonelessly. Then she lowered her eyes demurely, affecting shyness. After all, her parents were watching; she had to modulate her behavior accordingly, to reassure her parents. They came from a different time and though they adapted to realities, it was not appropriate to have all kinds of realities thrust on them.

Akram took it, hesitantly, smiling. ‘Thank you’, he said.

The briefest of touches. His fingers lightly gliding over hers, as the exchange was done.

‘Where did you buy it?’ she asked, emboldened by his gentle glances, by his smile and by a common topic that had manifested itself. As long as this topic was out there, she could hold a conversation with him and her parents could have no conceivable objection. There was a tremor in her voice, the slightest trace of it; if her parents heard or felt it, they displayed no sign.

‘Can you keep a secret?’ he asked, whispered, actually.

Amina would have laughed had the question seemed flippant, but for some reason, the seriousness in his eyes stopped her and his mood latched itself on to her, robbing her of any short lived flippancy she might have craved. She should have known. Nothing changed. Or the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. That was her tragedy. That was the collective tragedy of such people. 

‘Yes!’ she whispered back, stating the obvious.

Keeping a secret was one of the keys to survival. It was the key to heroism in some cases, when iron rods, used in the most brutal and inhuman manner possible, could not elicit more than animal screams of pain; in other cases, it was the key to trust. You kept secrets, they lauded you. Not that it made any difference, but it felt good. 

He smiled. The pride of the brave entered his eyes, more so as it sought to impress, rather than intimidate.

‘I won it from a fallen soldier, in battle’, he said, proudly. And he searched in her eyes, for a matching pride, for joy, for acceptance, for reassurance. For something, that never came.

A hero craves for reactions. A martyr cannot see the crest that his body has become, on the arms of proud, yet, lesser men, rendered lesser by the fact of their continued existence. But a living hero is better still; those on the side stands clapping at him, hoarse with all the shouting and his ears still ringing from the bellied laughs and roars of pride from his comrades, from the band of brothers, for whom he has sallied forth, into glory. An adverse reaction is as much an acknowledgment of glory as any other; it singles out festering jealousies in those who cannot hide it well and thus suffer the ignominy of fools. An indifferent reaction is a hero’s greatest nightmare. To not be acknowledged, to be written off is a hero’s darkest fear; contempt, yes, hatred, yes, but indifference, no.

Akram was not disappointed. Amina was not indifferent; her eyes and her lips parted, a glow came on her cheeks rendering them rosy pink, there was a moistness about her eyes, that almost broke his heart. Here is a girl, he thought, for whom he would win or lose a thousand battles.

But there was no proud smile, no shining glistening eyes, no triumphant look in the direction of her parents, that would say – Look! This is a real man! A hero! My hero!

‘It was not easy’ he continued to boast, desperate for a look or a glance that would elevate him in her eyes. ‘The fiend fought like anything! He used his fists and hands and I also used my fists and hands. But then I pulled out my gun. Bang! Bang! I killed him!’ he ended, out of breath, triumphant and glowing, favoring her and her parents with his impassioned eyes, with his face glowing with the pride and glory of the righteous man.

She continued to be silent. And so he went on, ‘He fought like a man, possessed.’ He said. ‘He tried to bite me and scratch me. He was evidently not well trained and I succeeded in beating him to a pulp. But he was spitting at me. He was mad, Amina! Mad!’. Akram’s voice became passionate, rose with a fervor and a seething hatred as the moment enveloped his memory and made it real and now. He could actually visualize the scene. He had of course embellished it, the other guy had fought like a tiger and Akram had been hit badly as well. It was not for nothing that he had arrived bloodied and almost half dead, at this door.

‘But if you beat him to a pulp, why did you shoot him?’ Amina asked.

Why indeed? Akram thought. The guy was not such a loser as he had described; the wounds he had got were wounds delivered by a man possessed, there was fury and passion in each scar and wound.

How could he explain that to Amina?

‘He was pulling out a gun’ Akram lied. ‘So I shot him, first. And then I went over and made sure that he was dead. Then I looked at the scarf dangling from his belt. I said to myself, I need this, it’s proof of victory in battle. And so I took it.’ He completed proudly.

There was a silence. Amina was turning over the scarf in her hands, but she had stopped talking, completely.

It was as if a veil unmasked and what lurked beneath was something never contemplated during those long nights of vigil and tender loving care. Sajid had been like that, Amina remembered – given to fits of violence and anger. Sajid had berated for days and wrung his hands and shouted obscenities at the sheer futility and injustice of it all. It was as if through this speech, Akram had revived the dead spirit of Sajid. The parents remained impassive, immobile, but Amina was experiencing strange emotions. It was as if Life had come a full circle for her; it was as if she were now somehow strangely being summoned to join the conflict. To be the purveyor of closure. It was like a kaleidoscope and the clicking and falling of things in place.

It was terrible.

The silence extended, became ghastly. Akram had a sense of having ruined the moment, of having shown a side which was too premature to show. His raging fervor was part of him, but the audience was wrong. There was no way he could take back the moment, especially the way he had demonstrated his exultation. But he could stop talking and hope that he didn’t worsen it further.

The parents interrupted the silent moment, saying that they were happy to see him standing and well, and they wrung his hands. The mother swelled with maternal pride; her tender loving care had brought him back. The father had no touchpoints, he had been there and he had done the least amount that he could do, which would pass on for duty. Experience had taught him the value of going only so far – and no further. But he was happy for his wife.

He was bemused when it came to his daughter. No father likes to see a daughter wasting away into nothing, keeping her soul and spirits nourished on fond, unrequited memories. But then no father likes to see his daughter lose her heart to any stranger that came into their dwelling as well. It was a Catch-22 for him and he had no intention of being dragged into a position of choice. He waited for the moment to pass, for the awkwardness and sense of guilt in these two young things to assert itself and negate any eventuality they may have nursed, that they could come together. He waited, however, without any hope. There was no sense in nurturing hope for things that were beyond his hands or his understanding or both. And he had been young once. Though in a different situation. He had been young in paradise, today’s young generation only imagined such things when they listened to nostalgic tales. The tales grew shorter every day now and they had now become fairy tales. He sometimes wondered if his childhood had been a dream, from which he had rudely woken up, to an adult reality.

‘Are you leaving us, now?’ the mother asked. She already had a hamper ready, she sensed his impatience. She had also sensed the love, but she realized the unnerving maturity in the young man – he would leave now, but he would return and visit them and speak to them about Amina and he would ask for formal consent. And it would maybe be given and justly so, this was a man well suited for their Amina, tall, strong, swarthy and not bad looking; after all, who looked for beauty in the male species? But then there was her husband to contend with and she came from a time when she did not regard herself as his equal. And so her fond desires would have to be subservient to his thoughts or whoever was influencing them at the moment. She knew there were other suitors, inappropriate suitors, who were trying to put her husband in debt, so they could come with a proposal to square it off by marrying off his daughter to them. She was aware that such things and worse had happened and in her own little way, she was glad of the strange turn of events which, she felt, would give her daughter a fighting chance at life or something like it.

But they would make inquiries, of course. They would not go merely by his words. They would check his antecedents. Ask around. Get soundings from similarly placed relatives. They would specially check for any medals or commendations, which would raise him in the eyes of their community.

Akram, indeed, was leaving them now. He looked wistfully at the home that had been his shelter for the past few months, at the cot where he had lain and been cared for

Amina turned to her parents, her eyes one big entreaty.

‘Can I accompany him for some distance?’ she said.

They couldn’t say no. They saw that he was embarrassed; perhaps he felt they would attribute her sudden candor to him. But they did no such thing.

He did not try to stop her. Or encourage her. In his heart, he felt glad, in his mind, he was already thinking, planning. This was a sort of encouragement, he felt and though an hour of parting could not be made to last infinitely, it could certainly bring with it, more promise and further opportunity. The silent tug of war was between Amina and her parents, he had to show no part in it, though secretly, he prayed. Yes, he prayed.

He touched their feet, in parting.

Chacha jaan, chachi jaan’ he said, ‘I have to leave now because of important work in Delhi. But I will return. Because I have something important to discuss.’ And he looked sideaways at Amina and she blushed and they both hoped they were unseen.

Sweet fantasies of the young and the gentle innocent.

Experienced people can be great pretenders, if they want the inexperienced, to be comfortable. Amina’s parents had years of experience behind them, for this very thing.

The parents bade him farewell and asked her to return soon. It would be nearing sunset in some time and sunset was the time to make the transition from outdoors to indoors, where it was safe, following the transition that a light makes to darkness.

The path from which these two were leaving, was not a path that led into town; indeed it was a path away from town and leading though dense foliage that grew on these paths and from there, meandered into the forest, that spread, as though endless and lingering. And it was a blessing too, as they had not communicated Akram’s visit to the community. Amina had kept to her schedule; her parents had kept to theirs. They did not receive many people and thankfully they had no visits from nosy relatives. The tradesmen that came to their house, did not enter their inner sanctum. And so Akram remained thus, incommunicado, oblivious to the world and likewise the world remaining oblivious to where he stayed.

In future, when Akram returned and asked for permission to marry Amina, as they were sure he would, they would then proudly present him to the community. They would have a story ready, they would omit the whole episode of the stranger in the night; it sounded made up, as all great truths sound.

Somebody once spoke about making God smile, by telling Him your plans. The Gods would have certainly smiled that day. For there were plans looming in the minds and hearts of four people, that day, different plans to be sure, but plans nonetheless.

The parents waited for a long time, that evening. They were anxious; life had taught them cynicism and caution, but the human spirit that defines us all, and sometimes, even defies us all, made them hope. Hope for a future for their daughter, from the unwelcome burdens that had weighed upon her, hope that the onset of maturity much beyond her delicate years had not solidified her heart and that there was a tiny slot, for a ray of sunshine to seep in. Hope in the stranger who had brought with him a light, to illuminate the sad dark life that she led.

Amina returned, later that night. Her eyes were unnaturally bright, the glow on her cheeks had remained and the parents saw something resolute in her demeanor. But they did not say anything; maybe words had been spoken and, as sometimes happens with words, maybe the magic had exhausted itself. Amina looked neither happy nor sad, but there was a curious contentment about her and a detachment and her parents decided to drop the topic. She nodded and smiled at them, asked them if they had had their dinner and went outside to wash up.

As she went outside to wash in the gentle brook that bubbled outside their home, she tucked the little scarf away into her dress. The scarf was a memory, but it was not a recent memory. She remembered Sajid as he lovingly ran his hands on that scarf and the excitement which the small handwoven artistry in the scarf had caused him, handwoven by her as one of her great personal gifts, handwoven with a tender message of love which only they knew about, handwoven so he could look at it during the long nights of separation and remember, as she always did. And he had kissed the scarf and she had blushed and he had kissed it even more, now mindful of her blushing and he had tucked it away, just as she did, now. And when his body had come and with it, had come, what they impersonally referred to as ‘effects’, the scarf was not amongst them. She had vainly searched and vainly cried. But the scarf was now back in her possession and the lingering scent of Sajid was ever present and would remain so, against her, as she would treasure this lasting gift, for all that was left of her eternity.

And the anonymity, with which the family had served the stranger and kept him and fed him and clothed him; this anonymity would now be their mask. If someone came asking about Akram, which itself was highly unlikely, deniability and mute stares were something both she and her family were masters of. Akram’s final entreaties to her were those of contriteness, but she was not concerned either with the color of his stolen uniform or the color of the fire that raged within his heart, she was not concerned if his bitter hatred for the people amongst whom he had infiltrated, had now turned to love for her; she was not concerned, if he was willing to give it all up and surrender, as he proudly said – people will say anything in moments of great danger, stress or emotion. She was not concerned with these things. She could still hear the noise of the two bullets that had penetrated Sajid; could still smell the gunpowder that laced across his skin, could still feel the piercing of those bullets and the pain that must have spread across Sajid’s body, as his mind would have realized that these were his last moments on Earth and that he would never see Amina or her parents or anyone else ever again.

She could still feel those horrors and she lived with them everyday and now Fate had conspired and she had a face to put on those horrors, the face of a man, whose chest swelled with pride, rather than shame and disgust, a coward, a traitor, an infiltrator. She burned with shame at her thoughts, that she had ever thought she could replace her one true love with someone else, with the worst possible alternative of all.

She would remember Akram’s face, she thought, his cockiness, his confidence as they walked, his gentle flirting and then the sudden confusion, as she began talking, letting him know that he had revealed himself. Where she found the strength, she would never know. They were inside the dense forest and nobody could see them and she kept thinking and waiting, always alert, her face twisted into a mask of hatred, while his face was the picture of ignorant animation. And then the big boulder had appeared as if from nowhere, as if God’s hand had propelled them to it, as if it was the one answer to her beseeching prayers, the opportunity presented, the opportunity grabbed and that was that. She remembered what she had lost and why, she felt the piercing pain of separation even more than the bullets that had caused it, she looked at the clouds and felt that Sajid was watching her from above and he was frowning and disapproving, though whether it was at the illusion she had built or at the reality she now had to face to, she could not tell. There was the boulder and there was Akram walking, mindless and her shoulders developed a mind of their own, her hands clinging, her fingers dry, her teeth clenched, her breath coming in short ragged gasps, her mind aflame by the realization of what she was going to do and what she would become, by so doing.

Nothing held her back, neither her inflamed mind, nor her wounded heart, nor her broken dreams; the sense of purpose manifested itself, enveloped her. She became fire and air and water and ice and all the elements. She ceased to be. And she moved. Fast.

One blow had not been enough, so there was another and yet another, the protesting boulder creating more and more damage, being repeatedly and forcefully struck. And then there had been, at the recipient’s end, surprise, anger and then realization, as Akram realized the deadly mistake about the scarf. He had begged for mercy and had sought to pour his heart out, but the scarf dulled all vision and all thought. Amina had become fire. She had become ice. She had become stone. And in the end, she had become death.

Did she regret? Maybe, on some level, she did. Akram was a product of his own circumstances, just as Sajid had been. Maybe Akram did not have his own Amina waiting back from wherever he came; maybe killing as an act of war is not as great a crime as killing in a time of peace is. Maybe, if this terrible secret would not have been revealed in time, maybe it would have come out after marriage and then Amina would have become a walking, living, breathing corpse, hating herself for the monstrosity that she had committed; marrying the killer of her lover, albeit through deceit. Allah had been merciful. The mask was dropped, the illusion faded and she was back to where she belonged and she was, for once, grateful and glad. She was about to tread on the greener grass, but she had seen the ashes beneath, before she crossed over to the other side.

His body was buried deep and he would never be found. She would make sure of that. She was much too steeped in the reality of her surroundings to make amateurish mistakes. And she would never tell her parents. They would think that another episode of lost love had taken place, they would remain silent and understanding, perhaps ready themselves if she needed a shoulder to cry on. They would pray for her and nurture those fond hopes all over again. And they would pray that Amina would finally find love.

But they would not realize of course, that the prayer was no longer needed. That Amina had received closure, that Amina was healed, that Amina knew finally, that the gift of love had been given to her and that her love, in danger of falling off a precipice into an abyss from which her blackened soul would never have returned, had finally triumphed and that she had reached across the unknown barrier that lies between life and death and given Sajid the closure, the solace, the peace, that his unfinished life would have craved for.

She was finally at peace.

With herself.

With her memories.

And with her scarf.

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