The story is from my childhood. When the only thing that worried me was my hair; it didn’t stay at its place to my liking!..Too silky, my friends used to say. When heaven was the little playground of my village, where we played cricket all the time, it was hell doing assignments for school when my favourite cartoon was playing on the TV and death was an imaginative monster that lived far off in the mountains! On one of those days, in early spring, i guess, for the sun was at its prime, i started for school, which was at half an hour’s distance from my village in the nearby town. As usual i wasn’t much enthusiastic about going to school and almost took a day off on the pretext of bad stomach when mother interfered and ruined all my plans. “Burhan, remember these are your important years…you cant take them easy. But once you are done with them, the life is yours. Look at doctor uncle, how they are enjoying their life now, in England….He used to study under a laèsh (wick-flame) when he was your age. You have all the facilities and still you complain. I have packed your tiffin. Now make haste lest you get late.” With the compulsory morning lecture i was ready for school and after managing a quick last comb on my hair i set forth for what i expected to be yet another day of boring routine classes. Only thing i liked about school was a sweets shop besides it. During lunch break we used to sneak into the shop, on tiptoe, and steal sweets. The owner, a good old man who had just returned from the holy land and hence for most of the time was lost in the memories of the beloved place, used to leave his shop open to offer his afternoon prayers and let his little son, who was a sleepy fellow, take care of the shop for that while…and we executed our mission in that tiny gap that he left us..professionals we were! The shop soon closed forever if you’re curious.
So i went out of my house to catch up a Tonga. No, there were no buses. I mean there were but Tongas ruled the roast. There are still Tongas in my village, although everyone owns a car now. A perfect blend of mysticism and modernism that is the East, you will find a model of it here. Tongas were special for many reasons. I always enjoyed the race between two tongas. It made me forget, even for a small time, the agonising pain that would be to attend classes all the day long when i could have been sitting at home watching my favourite cartoons. Our tonga was always victorious as i was always sure to choose the best of the lot even if that meant waiting for a little longer and missing an early class!
But this is not what made a tonga ride special notwithstanding the fun that racing provided. As was the case for almost all the days my school timing coincided with our neighbour’s , a shopkeeper in the town. A man in his prime with a bearing of a philosopher he always had a view on anything political. “The local minister has made a deal with the opposition…next elections would be a game changer,” he used to say and then, “Its all centres game, the fuckers are upto something big this time”. I would always end up in the same Tonga with him. I used to place myself strategically close to him and listen to him, learning – politics and ‘centres’ games. I must concede i owe my first lessons on politics to him. And for this reason Tonga rides will always be special to me.
So on this day too we started on the same
Tonga with him beside me. “There was an encounter underway last night in the nearby village just close to where my sister lives. They have killed a commander. A big fish…my sister and her family managed to run away early morning. They are taking away men, randomly. The fuckers are drunk on blood!…” he revealed, clearly fuming which was unseemly of his usual calm behaviour. “The land of sufis is smeared with blood all over, thanks to these beasts from the land of Gandhi! ” I must admit i never liked his use of swear words and i got a little uneasy when he used them for the innocent little boy that i was! But now that sufis had gotten involved i too turned pulp with anger. In the evenings, at our local mosque, we used to recite a poem by Saadi and Saadi was a sufi from Persia. I had come to revere his poem written in praise of Prophet:
He attained exaltation by his perfection.
He dispelled darkness by his beauty.
Beauteous are all his qualities,
Benediction be on him and on his family
So when my neighbour hurled abuses with such intensity and loudness to the tone that many passengers feared getting in trouble if someone from the army overheard him i couldn’t stop myself, that day, simmering with rage, gnashing my teeth, from taking pleasure at the incentives he threw in all directions. Rage killed my innocence and i became a man that day!
After half an hour of listening to the same talk; encounter, army , rebels , sufis… and the musical sounds of horseshoes striking the metaled road, which for some strange reason which i am yet to figure out can be moulded into any tone you like…tick tock, tick tock…tick tick tock, tick tick tock…and you can go on and on…, we reached the town. By now the burden of attending classes had taken hold of me and i became unmindful of everything else. I felt like Sisyphus at the foot of the hill about to roll his rock and thinking about his watershed moment when he will be walking downhill…happy and gay! My motivation for school was at 4 pm we will be set free! Yes, the idea of freedom keeps us alive. Even if its a vague one and most of the times doesn’t make sense. Was it not for it it’d be better to let ourselves be run over by a bulldozer! Its the essence of life. So, motivated by my concept of freedom i entered the school. It was a series of rooms built over a line of shops beneath them running parallel to the main road. Like a double decker bus parked beside the road! The windows opened into the road and we could always keep a watch on what was happening in the market or buy some pakodas after an exhaustive history class from the vendor who set his stall just below our classroom.
The class started. It was a geography class. The subject didn’t particularly interest me,i liked science and astronomy those days, but i liked to attend geography classes because the teacher, a man in his middle age, was an interesting fellow. He talked of some mars mission people in America were planning. “It’d be a one way mission and theres no guarantee of the safety of the mission,” he said. My friend, who was playing tick tack toe with another friend, suddenly became attentive and asked, “but sir, who’d risk his life for such a mission?”. The teacher who’s name meant “silence” spoke with a face unable to conceal the excitement, ” Those who find a meaning in life will happily give their lives in its pursuit, my son”…. Although i hardly gathered what he meant by this but being the romantic that i am his words filled my whole being with a vague sense of happiness and i couldn’t help but smile at my teacher with a feeling of understanding. On a recent visit to my hometown i happened to meet this geography teacher of mine. It has been years since that class about mars mission. The smile on his face is still there but its not the same smile, theres a long beard complimenting it. He didn’t talk of science. He’s now a local head of a religio-political party. Maybe he has found his meaning now!
So the class went on…from mars mission he moved onto lithosphere and hydrosphere and it got duller and duller. I yawned and looked at my poet friend’s notebook. He always came up with a new poem. We never trusted him to have written these poems himself and suspected he had a big book of poetry at home and from which he copied a suitable poem every other day…to impress girls primarily, womaniser that he was! At the back-end of the notebook i found the latest poem:
I am the son of this land
And my mother is this soil
The mountains of snow
And the hills they surround
Are my siblings
Whom i loveth
I have made my will
To retire back to them
And live my life
In their protection
The monster in the woods
Has its eyes on them
It has got claws sharp and
And the eyes that don’t
Give away any light
I fear for my children
And my elderly
for the monster is so hungry
But as long i live
My body will be a wall
Between the demon and
My land, and
Even after my death
My blood will flow as a river
Between him and my land!
He had named the poem “Rebel”….after he heard last night about the encounter. I was skeptic if he had written it and immediately the thought of a big fat book of poetry crossed my mind. But we never got our hands on that book and he continued to write his poems…. After reading the poem the thought of encounter, the tick tack tick tack of horses and my neighbour came back to my mind. Who had they killed last night…and why, thought i as the bell announced the end of class. He must have been someone important…but why would a man risk his life for anything, crossed my little mind and then, suddenly my geography teacher came to my mind. Perhaps, they have a mars mission of their own!
The class went frenzy as soon the teacher left the classroom. Everyone began to talk, scream , shout…all sorts of sound frequencies occupied the room while we waited for the next class to start. Amid this noise and chaos a strange sound got the class silent at once. No, it wasn’t one of the irregular sounds in the class. It was orderly……it was musical, somebody was playing a dhol. The sound came from the windows, from the market…the road. It got nearer and nearer and since no teacher was in our class we all jumped to the windows and pushed them open. And lo and behold, the sight which presented itself before us left me in cold sweat and my knees became weak! A flatbed truck was moving at a turtle pace on the road parallel to our school. The sound of dhol was coming from the top of the truck…a man sitting on its cab was playing it. Beside him, at some distance was placed a head! A human head! Without a body! Inside the cab alongside the driver, army men were seated clearly jubilant…..”This is the commander they killed yesterday, his head!,” shouted my friend before we pulled him down so as not to attract any attention from the army. As the truck moved, slowly, towards the main square, exposing its rear end, our sights fell on the body of the man they had killed, without a head like Jesus on cross….arms bound with ropes…Jesus without a head! Maybe his mission was over!
That day, when we went out for during break i didn’t steal any sweets….
Naveed is an engineering student at SSM College of Engineering & Technology in Kashmir.