The paper was powdery and the poem, printed in classic nastaleeq, looked like it would disappear if he breathed too hard near it. Keeping his hand carefully away from the black verses, he started writing the translation in the empty margins of the page.
“In the mists of awakening, I’ve lost my dream/Will I see it again? /Can I see it again?” There was a whir of wings as a mynah bird that had been sitting quietly on the railing, flew away. “In the mists of awakening, I’ve lost a face/Will I see it again? /Can I see it again? /In the mists of awakening, I’ve lost a silhouette/Will I see it again? /Can I?”
Putting the pencil down on the cold steel swing, he breathed in the cool morning air. The sky was lighting up, a wolf’s tail of daylight running across its middle, cutting open the blue darkness.
“Milton.” He thought, then realized he had said the word out loud. Milton. Years could go by in Islamabad without you feeling the need to think the word Milton. Kashmir was different.
“Malik Sahib!” the man had yelled in the street and thirteen-year-old Yusuf had opened his eyes drowsily in the bedroom upstairs. “Malik Sahib, Milton!”
A door had banged open and footsteps had thudded down the staircase.
“Bhai Sahib!” Chacha jaan’s hushed voice had said urgently. The front door had squeaked open.
“Andar – andar laao.”
Silence, punctuated with the sounds of adults dragging things, walking around, whispering in low, hushed voices and Jaleelah’s steady breathing from the bed beside his.
Words like wound and Hurriyet front and rashtri floated out of mouths and around the house like lost fireflies as Yusuf lay quietly in bed, listening to the flurry downstairs. In about half an hour, everything had calmed down. The front door squeaked shut. All was quiet.
He wondered where the Milton was. He didn’t know, just then, that the Milton, a tall, battered man with two black eyes and one useless leg, was now lying directly beneath him in the entrance hall, surrounded by four fearful yet determined Kashmiris.
The beginning of a Lal Salam
After another quiet breakfast sans chacha jaan, Jaleelah had left for university. Giving her ten minutes to leave Chinkral, Yusuf had followed her to the bus stop and caught a taxi to the Awaz office.
In the daylight, the shop looked less abandoned. The glistening steel shutter was new and the windows upstairs were cleaner. There were posters stuck on their insides, and small post-its, all a dull yellow. He remembered the three windows that had held his attention on his first afternoon in Chinkral.
Not knowing what else to do, he knocked on the steel shutter. Despite it being morning, most of the shops in the street were closed.
“New Curfew in Srinagar, Sir ji.” the driver had told him along the way. Chinkral was one of the luckier parts of the city; smaller and comparatively remote, it was never barricaded with razor mesh wires and militia, even during curfews. These pleasures were for more populated areas of Srinagar.
Footfalls inside, then the customary “Kon?”
“Knew you couldn’t keep away.” It was the young boy with the shock of brown hair from last night, grinning all over a pimpled face. “Come in, come in. Here for the latest issue? We won’t be able to distribute it in time, you know. What with the curfew and the hawkers…”
“The older ones, to be honest.” Yusuf had entered the shop and headed to the stairway as behind him, the shutter was closed again. “I need to read an old article of –” he paused for a second, “of mine.”
“I see,” the young man climbed the staircase behind him, his footsteps echoing Yusuf’s. “Any specific one?”
“Any one,” he shrugged. “How many are there?”
“Well, you’ve been writing for some years now, bhaijaan.” In the room with the silent Bertha, Sameer opened a large cupboard that was actually an old walk-in wardrobe and disappeared into it. “You are what age now?” he asked from inside, his voice hollowly ricocheting off the walls of the wardrobe and into the piles of old issues of Awaz.
“Twenty-three,” Yusuf replied.
“Ma Sha’Allah.” He emerged with dust in his hair and a few magazines in his hand. “Here you go. Do you want tea?”
“Yes,” Yusuf took the magazines from him and sat down on an upturned wooden box. “You’ve no idea how difficult it is to eat heartily with Jaleelah Taheer Malik politely and pointedly murdering bread and butter in front of you.”
Sameer laughed noiselessly before slipping into a side-room that was probably the kitchen. As he started making the tea, the room Yusuf was in started filling steadily with gray-blue smoke.
“We always wondered how she knew you; you know.” He said loudly.
Turning over the pages of Awaz listlessly, Yusuf glanced at the narrow doorway of the kitchen. “Knew me?”
“She always seemed to have your articles. Always seemed to know when you were writing them, if we didn’t get any for too many days. How you wanted them edited. How you liked them published.” Sameer was saying from inside.
Yusuf finally found the right page; the neat, old fashioned print on cheap brown printing paper read “Dial H for Handwara – by Yusuf Shaheer Malik”. The article was accompanied by the black and brown picture, with slightly smeared ink, of a young girl in a plain white scarf with a watery smile on her face. He started reading.
Jawan has implications in Kashmir. Jawan is the little boot standing on checkpoints to leer at Kashmiris every morning and Jawan is the big boot sitting in the jeeps, barely visible to us – the not-Jawans – when we walk dying roads and dead roads every night on our various ways back home.
They can be old and young, these Jawans. Fair and dark, fat and thin. They’re always Jawan, in their military uniforms with their rifles in their hands. And their eternal jawani is why every Kashmiri is born bent, twisted and old.
Such a Jawan cornered a seventeen-year-old Kashmiri girl in a public bathroom on April twelve, two thousand sixteen, fueled by his eternal jawani. When she screamed and a few old Kashmiris (both young and old and men and women) gathered outside the bathroom, he emerged from within with his rifle in his hand (for that is what made him Jawan enough to corner girls in bathrooms) and walked through the crowd with a big smile on his face, a crisp military uniform on his body and a big Lal Salam (or the threat of one) in his eyes.
When he had left, the crowd of old Kashmiris had moved in single file to the army bunker just down the road and in unison, had bent to pick up stones and as one, had started flinging said stones at the bunker.
Why are Kashmiris born old? The same reason why the Jawans are always young. They have rifles in their hands. They have stones.
Yusuf swallowed, closing the magazine quickly, as if he had something to hide, when Sameer entered the room with the tea in two different mugs on a dull plate that looked like it needed a good wash.
“Chaye, Yusuf bhai,” he said, placing the tea on a rickety table that had been placed near Bertha’s mouth, on which Yusuf had placed the pile of magazines.
“Thanks.” Yusuf picked up the cup of tea and raised it to his lips but before he could take a sip, Sameer, who had been looking at him reverently over his teacup, suddenly said:
“What is it like in Islamabad?”
“What is it like? In Islamabad?” the young man asked, and the jungle on his head seemed to bristle in anticipation.
“It’s –” Yusuf had to struggle to think of an answer that made sense. “It’s very quiet?”
“Quiet?” Sameer took a small sip, looking slightly let down. “Quiet. Right.”
Wishing he could say something more, Yusuf said, “She’s beautiful.”
“She is, isn’t she?” a sly smile appeared on Sameer’s lips and he winked at Yusuf. “Not usual Kashmiri looks but she is beautiful.”
“I meant Islamabad,” Yusuf clarified quickly, cleared his throat, swallowed an awkwardly large gulp of tea. “Islamabad is beautiful.”
“Jaleelah is, too.” Sameer laughed. “I had such a crush on her after she bailed me out of jail the first time. She had to slap me out of it.”
“I can imagine her doing that.” Yusuf admitted drily.
“She is very close to you, though.” The young man shot another wry glance his way.
“You think so?” Yusuf looked at the pile of magazines before him. She was close to the Yusuf Shaheer Malik who had written these – were they articles? Stories? News reports? What did this man write?
Sameer picked up a magazine, looked through it absentmindedly.
“We all loved your piece on Badr Wani. It circulated Srinagar’s WhatsApp for days.”
He smiled quietly, choosing not to answer.
“But then, every single piece of yours is amazing. I love how you skip over the formality of genres; it’s what puts soul into your work.”
“Soul into my work.” Yusuf repeated thoughtfully. He wondered where the Kashmiri Yusuf Malik was. He wondered what he was doing right now. Maybe he was also drinking chaye and looking at Awaz.
To be continued…