“Come on. We must leave. Now,” Tariq heard his father say in a voice that was all too familiar. Commanding. Demanding. Used to obeyance. Arms akimbo Tariq’s father filled the doorway with his immense frame. How could one not obey him!
Tariq desperately looked at his maternal Uncle but the Uncle averted his plea by focusing on the beam of light that somehow found its way past the broad shoulders of Tariq’s father. There was nothing that could be done. The Uncle had pleaded, as much as he could, with the Father. “Let him stay a few days more. The school vacations are not over yet.” But the Father would hear nothing of it. “It is not a question of vacations or staying here. It is a question of disciplining Tariq. He had permission to stay here for a week. And the week is over. One must never raise children with a loose hand.” He had announced with a finality that would admit no plea to reconsider. And like Tariq, Tariq’s Uncle too knew the man standing in the doorway too much to argue any further.
The indignant heat of the helpless anger scorching his veins, Tariq stood up and started to leave with his father.
“Wait! Here take this with you.” Granny cried behind Tariq. Tariq did not look behind, he just kept walking out with his nostrils flaring and hands clenched in tight fists. Nevertheless, he knew his Granny was referring to the blue polythene bag filled with Tariq’s clothes and a handful of walnuts. His Father took the bag from the Granny and walked beside Tariq to the bus stand. There was no bus in sight. It was early afternoon; a lazy hour when buses on the road would be too few. Why should there be any more? Not everyone had a Father who must need drag his son in a bus at this time of the day. Tariq stole a furtive but scornful glance at his father. Only if there were some way to hurt his father! To make him feel as miserable! Maybe he should smoke a cigarette? Or fail his exam? Maybe he should give up his school?
Before Tariq could ponder any further on his presumptive course of action(s) a wheezing, waddling bus had arrived at the stop. The bus was not overloaded with the passengers as the buses around were wont to be. Perhaps because of the lazy hour on which it was plying or perhaps the prospective passengers found it unbelievable that a bus in such a condition could ever haul itself to any destination. The Father-son duo was even able to find an empty double seat for themselves. Tariq hauled himself on to the window seat with a sulk while his father sat by the aisle with his spine upright and face set into a taut mask-his usual grim self.
Tariq was determined not to look at him anymore.
The stereo in the bus crooned a song from a movie that Tariq had seen. A rich handsome boy loved a poor beautiful girl. The boy’s father couldn’t agree to marry his son into such a vulgar family. The Boy rebels and brings his father to his knees. Maybe Tariq could do something similar. Elope with the daughter of Ama-charsi. Now that would be some payback to his father!
The Conductor had come asking for the fares. Twelve rupees each, the conductor said. Father gave him a twenty rupee note and a fiver and held out his hand for the remaining one rupee. “I don’t have the change.” The Conductor replied with a lazy shrug of his shoulders. He seldom gave a rupee back. It was meant to be his little-extra-lucky-earning. Nobody could begrudge him that. Normally nobody even asked for a rupee back and in any case, if someone did, the reply of I- don’t-have-the change was more than enough to take care of it. Nobody wants to make a fuss for a god damn one rupee!
But Father persisted, as Tariq knew he would, with his hand outstretched in all the adamancy that it could muster. “I want my rupee or give me back that fiver; I will pay you the four rupees next time,” Father said in an equally obstinate voice.
The Conductor was aghast. Was this man for real?!
Father maintained his cold, calculated stare.
The Conductor shook his head and with much ado produced a one rupee coin from some mysterious pocket of his, muttering under his breath all the time.
“There, I thought I had seen that rupee,” Father said as he pocketed the coin.
Tariq looked at the conductor with the eyes of a fellow sufferer pleading for mutual sympathy. If it came to elopement could he count on the Conductor for help? The conductor must help him. How better to avenge himself!
Meanwhile, the bus came to a well-practiced stop. They had reached the bridge. Men started to get down from the bus while women and children remained behind. It was a routine identification parade. Men had to walk over the bridge in a single file with their arms raised, hands on their heads; under the penetrative gaze of the military men commanding the bridge in their white jackboots and olive fatigues and dark shining guns held in their callused, attentive, eager hands. The bus with its inmates of women and children would also be frisked and only then let cross the bridge. Once on the other side the men would join the women and children and the rest of luggage and would soon be on their way.
Tariq too wanted to get down and join the men but Father stopped him. Tariq insisted. He wanted to be there on the bridge. He had bought his identity card with him. But Father refused. If only father would allow him wouldn’t Fat Idrees be licking dust once they meet up at School! Tariq braving an identification parade; showing an identity card to real army men; answering hostile questions without wavering; making it to the other side of bridge amidst all that sharp danger: Ah would Fat Idrees have anything to say to that?
“You are to remain in the bus. Children need not get down,” Father said with the same force of finality and authority that he always spoke with.
I am not a child anymore, Tariq wanted to say, but it would have changed nothing so he stayed in the bus and saw from the window how men-young, old and oldest- walked like ants on the bridge. In the middle of the bridge the men, one by one, were showing their identity cards while they were being frisked and asked questions. Tariq could not see everything clearly from his bus seat but he knew what was happening out there. Fat Idrees had told him everything. “The most important thing is the identity card.” Fat Idrees would say in his most assured voice. “If you don’t have an i-card with you, you may as well join the militants. Nothing then can save you from the army. Then they will frisk you and you must know beforehand everything that you have in your pockets. You must know the name, the colour, the quantity, the size, the weight and even the purpose of whatsoever you are carrying with you. They will ask you about it, mind it, one wrong answer and you are done. And last but not the least you must always answer truthfully. Whatever they ask you don’t you dare to lie. For they will know it. They always have a psychologist standing by, silently, in disguise; watching you and your actions carefully. He can tell by the way your breath smells or your forehead sweats or your tongue stutters or your eyebrow twitches or your hand shakes or your…” Fat Idrees had forgotten the other signs and he had continued skipping the rest of them. “Mind you the psychologist can always tell when you lie. And once you lie to the Army men I doubt whether even God can save you. You don’t believe me?” Fat Idress had said when the powers of the Psychologist were met with incredulous murmurs all around.
“Very well!” he had cried out indignantly. “If you don’t believe me tell me how was Mushtaq LMG caught then?” Mushtaq had earned the sobriquet of LMG after rumors went flying that there was a photograph in which a dapper Mushtaq had posed with a Light Machine Gun in an apple orchard in full blossom. “It was because of the psychologist.” Fat Idrees answered his own question and went on to elaborate it. “You see Mushtaq LMG had been traveling in a bus to someplace for his mission. There was an identification parade underway. Mushtaq LMG had no weapon with him so he didn’t mind going through the parade. ‘I will tell them I am Ab Qadir- a walnut trader.’ He thought. But he didn’t know about the psychologist. So when he lied his heart beat a little faster and the Psychologist’s hand was on his chest so he knew. And then and there 58 bullets were pumped into the chest of Mushtaq LMG. Only if his LMG were with him he would not have died so easily.” There was a hush all around. Fat Idrees’s Psychologist had some evidence after all in support of his legendary powers. But Fat Idrees didn’t want to be partial. He didn’t want to make Mujahids appear weak and helpless, so he had added, “Only a Pak-trained Mujahid can deceive the psychologist.”
Tariq peered out of the window trying to locate the psychologist but the military men were indistinguishable from one another. All he could see was the bus-men walking one by one past army-men in the middle of the bridge. Each one was held up for a minute or two-frisked, questioned- before he was allowed to pass over to the other side of the bridge. Tariq hoped that everyone from the bus knew about Psychologist and prayed that none of them had to lie or should try to lie. And if worse came to worse let them the atleast be Pak-trained.
Of all the men in the lin,e Tariq felt least worried about his father. Thank God it was Father in the line and not his Uncle. Had it been his Uncle, Tariq would have had a cause to worry. Uncle would have fidgeted nervously or broken into a sweat or stuttered or maybe even his heart would have beat faster for no reason at all. That was how he was- his Uncle. But not Father. Father with his arms akimbo filling up the whole doorway and speaking with a voice full of authority.
Father whose turn in the middle of the bridge had come and he was standing erect. Tall. Father who for some strange reason had been called to step aside from the line. Father who fumbled with the blue polythene bag and spilled the walnuts all around. Father who was suddenly slapped by one of the army men. Father who was bending over and reaching for his ears with his hands under his legs-doing a kaan pakad.
Father who no longer made Tariq feel angry but, instead, betrayed.
Shabir Ahmed is a writer based in Kashmir