When he came to, he was on his bed in Makan Taintees and she was sitting on a wicker stool beside him, engrossed in her book of poetry.
“Thank you for the translation.” She said without looking up. He was too tired to ask how she had known when he’d woken up. “It’s too literal, though. But it captures the spirit of the poem well enough.”
He turned his face away. The sky, visible from the window, was dark. It was nighttime. What time of the night exactly, he could not tell.
“You had a letter.” She told him. “It’s in your side table drawer. Will you eat? Amma left out some yakhni (stew) for you. Should I warm it?”
He shook his head and it was surprisingly easy to do so. He remembered how difficult it had been to move a single finger this afternoon. Shame snaked its way up his body, wrapping itself tightly around him like a warm, unwanted hug.
“Would you like some tea? A sandwich?”
He shook his head again.
There was a heavy silence, then she touched his hand and he winced.
“Amma shouldn’t have sent you. I’ve always managed alone. What happened, it wasn’t your fault, Yusuf. I have seen older men than you freeze under torture.”
He turned his face to look at her, licked his lips. “Torture?” he said and his voice was rough. His throat was parched and sore. “That wasn’t torture. That was just a beating.”
“Yusuf,” she began and the tenderness in her voice bit him like the leather sole of a military boot. “You are not -”
“Jaleelah.” He snapped. “I am Yusuf. From Islamabad. I write poetry. I play a guitar on rainy days. I cook a gorgeous alfredo.” He paused to take a shuddering breath. “I cry when Indian soldiers beat me and I curl up and wait for the beating to stop. I don’t -” he pulled his hand away from hers. “I don’t return to Kashmir for 10 years and when I do, the first thing I think when I see a woman fighting for all she’s worth, for the country I abandoned, is I wonder if she’ll still love me.” He tried to look at her but couldn’t find the courage inside him to do so. “I’m a coward in love, fair and square, and nothing that you can do or say will ever change either of these adjectives.”
He closed his eyes, willing her to leave the room. It was a long time before the stool was dragged backwards and then the door was snapped shut behind Jaleelah.
Yusuf opened his eyes. He spent the rest of the night staring out of the window at the sky of Kashmir’s snow globe.
He remembered the letter next morning, when Chachi jaan came to clean his room. While she bustled around, putting things into places and leaving behind her a trail of cleanliness (all the while muttering curses at the Indian army that had beaten up her “bechara bacha” much to her bechara bacha’s embarrassment) he took out the envelope from his side table drawer and propping himself up on his pillows, he pulled out the paper inside.
Unfolding it, he stared for a full two seconds at the single line in slanting black handwriting written across the middle of the page in Roman Urdu.
“Lal Salam Arz ho.”
He put it aside, taking a deep breath. A phantom claw clutched at his bruised shoulder.
The most important thing right now, Yusuf realized, was to find the Kashmiri Yusuf Malik and - do what? He didn’t really know what he would do once he found him but that didn’t matter.
He had to find that man.
Stories of Impassivity
The sun was beginning to sink below the mountains when he finally left his room for the terrace to found the porch swing occupied by its rightful owner who was curled up on it, reading.
“Evening,” she said when she saw him standing in the doorway of the terrace, sitting up. “How are you today?” her eyes were narrowed slightly and her lips were pinched. He understood he was not allowed to talk about last night.
He felt absolutely fine with that.
“Fine,” he walked over to the plants lined against the railing, peered through the leaves at Chinkral. “Nobody’s up and about anymore?”
“Curfew. It’s been this quiet all day.” She had closed her book. “Kashmir is the only place on Earth where they hate holidays because there’s just so goddamn many of them.”
She shifted, making space for him on the swing. Shaking his head, he sat down on the cold tiled floor of the terrace, letting his back rest against the swing’s stand.
“How’s your father?” she asked.
“It wasn’t from him.” He fished the paper out of his pocket and unfolded it carefully. “I don’t know who it’s from.”
“Lal Salam Arz Ho.” She leaned over his shoulder to read it out loud, then bit her lip. “I don’t think this is meant for you.”
“I know. It’s for the other Yusuf Malik.” He refolded it, stuffing it into his pocket. “I think the Rashtriya Rifles sent it.”
He repeated what Major Khatri had said to him that evening, we’ll all give you the Lal Salam.
“They’ve twisted the word.” She pressed the bridge of her nose with the tip of her forefinger. “Do you know what the lal salam is?”
“That’s what the Rashtriya mean when they say it, but the scarlet salute is for the communists, really.”
“Communists? What place do they have here?” he waved a hand at the terrace as if it was all of Kashmir.
“India’s communists want a free Kashmir, we think. Because,” she clapped her hands twice in rapid succession. “Hum kiya chahtey? (Our Demand is?)”
“Azadi! (Freedom!)” Yusuf answered doubtfully. He could vaguely remember having heard the slogan raised somewhere a long time ago.
“Hei haqq humara? (Our right is?)” with an encouraging nod and two more claps in perfect rhythm.
“Hei jaan sey piyari! (Dearer than Life!)”
“Azadi!” he answered with more enthusiasm and when she clapped the next time, he clapped with her.
“Hei piyari piyari! (Prettier than Life!)”
“Jo tum naa do gey! (How will you not give it?)”
“Hum cheen ke lein gey! (We’ll snatch it from you!)”
She threw back her head, her lips stretched in a gleeful smile. “this is Kanhaiya Kumar’s azadi.” She must’ve known he wouldn’t know who Kumar was. “A communist politician in India. He was a student leader before. Got arrested for chanting it at a protest at the JNU, his university.”
“Mm,” he turned his head to look at her. She was sitting with her head resting against the back of the swing, her face shining in the last light of the day.
“Are you a communist?”
He shook his head. “Never felt the need. You?”
“I was, for a while.” She told him. “in college. Then I met a Hurriyet wala, realized communism wasn’t the answer.”
He blinked. “Do you know how strange it is to hear you say that?”
“Is it?” she laughed, got up from the swing, sat down on the floor beside him. They sat quietly on the terrace, looking at the pots of plants and the rapidly darkening sky.
“I’m going to look for Yusuf Shaheer Malik.” He told her. “Can you help me?”
She looked at him, then swiftly away. “I don’t want to.”
He shrugged. “I’ll do it by myself.”
She picked up the purple book of poetry from the little table and opened it at the most-read poem. “Meri Beyhisi ka eik waqe’a.” she announced. “A story of my Impassivity.”
He inclined his head to indicate he was listening.
“Last night, I left poverty’s house,
To go into the city.
Men from my mohalla stood, close-knit,
Talking in voices hushed with fear.
(In the eternal cycle of night and day,
In the middle of the fields, from the city, far away,
There was a cluster of houses.)
Their fingers were raised, they pointed at the fields.
“Violet vipers, there.” One of them told me.
I heard. Still, I walked on.”
He took the book from her hands, read the translation. Somehow, now that he had heard what was written on the page beside and around the Urdu text, the handwriting was comprehendible.
“I like it.” he told her.
“The story of my impassivity,” she took the book back. “Is this. You can look for yourself as much as you want. I’ll never help you.”
She left the terrace before he could answer but he answered anyway, his voice going around the terrace once to look for an audience before sitting down beside him in her still warm spot, “But I’m not the Kashmiri Yusuf.”
He spent the next day locked up in his room till the evening, going through Yusuf Shaheer Malik’s articles in the newspapers and copies of Awaz that Jaleelah had at home. He took out a carton of Chachi’s old newspapers from the storeroom too, and the pile of magazines in Chacha Jaan’s room. The last pile had soon proved to be useless; the only information he had been able to gather from those magazines was that Chacha Jaan had an intense love for weaponry and miniskirts. When his uncle had returned from his morning walk (which he did regularly and which seemed to have no effect on him), he had immediately missed the magazines from his rooms and demanded ferociously to have them back.
At lunchtime, Jaleelah stuck her head in.
“Got you some food.”
“C’mon in.” he didn’t look up from the magazine he was reading.
She entered with a large food tray, set it down on the floor and sat down cross-legged across from him. “Any luck?”
“Not much. If only I had an internet connection.”
“You wish.” She doled out some curry on a plate, set half a chapatti beside it and handed the plate to him.
“You could save me a lot of trouble by just telling me.” Yusuf took the plate from her, broke off a piece of the chapatti and wet it in the curry.
She shrugged. “But I won’t.”
“Does your father know who The Kashmiri Yusuf Malik is?”
She threw back her head, her bitter laugh (still like a maraca from a Beatles track) ringing out. “If my father could, he would turn in anybody he suspected even slightly of writing against his precious Army waley.”
“Your father thinks I’m the Kashmiri Yusuf.” Yusuf said and he remembered one of the first complete sentences Chacha Jaan had said to him. Don’t write in my house.
“If you had moved to Kashmir permanently, he wouldn’t wait another second before turning you in.” she leaned forward, broke off a piece of chapatti, started to pop it into her mouth and then changing her mind, held it out for him to eat. “Khao (eat). I’ll eat downstairs.”
He took the morsel from her and ate it dry, his eyes on her face.
“Chacha Jaan doesn’t work much, does he?” he said and she looked away swiftly.
“He doesn’t work at all.”
“And the black money Sameer was talking about?”
“Makan Taintees is the safest safe house for black weapon dealers in all of Srinagar.”
“Everybody needs a good side-business to save up for their old age, Yusuf.” She stood up. “Most of all, fat old informers and thin old murderers.”
When she left, Yusuf returned to the magazine he had been reading, promptly forgetting all about the tray of food.
To be continued ...