Anchar Lake in a Tub
He woke up covered in sweat, his breath coming in heaves, his entire body trembling. In his chest were wails fighting to be let out and for a second, Yusuf Shaheer Malik had wanted to lie down on the wooden floor of the bedroom and wail as freely as he had wailed 10 years ago.
The dream had been vivid, bringing back the pain tenfold, multiplying like little nits and scurrying across his heart, biting with tiny teeth into it, trying to suck out all the happiness he had ever known.
“Jaleelah!” he was yelling hoarsely. “Jaleelah, baat suno!”
It took her a moment to arrive, curls disheveled, eyes wide.
“Are you okay?” She stuck her head in and when she saw him lying haphazardly on the bed, chest heaving, she rushed towards him. “Yusuf, what happened to you?”
“Inhaler.” he told her between heaves. “Drawer of my study table.”
She pulled open the drawer, loaded the capsule and gave it to him before helping him sit up.
Pressing it between his lips, he took a few deep breaths before tossing it onto the bed cover and lying down. She sat down beside him on the bed, her bare feet just touching the floor.
“What happened?” she asked.
“It happens,” he told her. “Sometimes. Bad dreams. Can’t breathe. It happens.”
“It never happened when–” she faltered, looking unsure how to finish the sentence. He watched her think, then decide. “It never happened before?”
“It started happening afterwards.” His face was shining with sweat in the white moonlight streaming in from the window. The little, furry black memory that Chacha, Chachi, Jaleelah and Yusuf had carried, sleeping, around the house ever since he had arrived, woke up, lifting its face to look at the two silver statues on the bed. “It happened a lot for the first few years, actually. Then I took up the guitar, poetry… really got into cooking. I forgot I had to return.”
“Mm.” Her finger traced the raised veins on the back of his hand that was lying motionless on the bed covers. “It’s easy to forget. When you live in Islamabad.” She raised her eyes to look at him and the black of her eyes was glazed with a watery sheen of … tears? “It’s easy to forget if you’re anywhere other than Kashmir, actually. You have to be in Kashmir to remember Kashmir.”
His hand stirred, grabbing her thin one, his slightly thicker, more knotted fingers intertwining with her long ones that had faded ink on their fingertips.
“I was a child.”
“No.” she tried to pull her hand away. He didn’t let go. “You weren’t a child all these 10 years, Yusuf.”
“I wasn’t,” he agreed, raising her hand to press it against his throbbing forehead. The warmth of her skin seemed to soothe whatever was hurting inside him. “I was a child only three years after that. The rest of those 10 years I was just an idiot.”
“An idiot who wrote poetry and played the guitar. And,” she snorted a little. “Cooked.”
“I am a good cook.”
“You make a killer Alfredo.” She shook her head but she was smiling. “Do you know, that night after I left your room, all I could do was laugh at the fact that you bragged about making good pasta during a speech about what a coward you were.”
“The speech wasn’t about what a coward I am.” He said, sitting up on an elbow to see her better. “The speech was about something else.”
She didn’t answer. He felt her fingers tightening around his. She still didn’t answer.
“I might have been the Yusuf Malik who never returned, Jaleelah.” He said and his voice was quiet. “But I’m not that Yusuf anymore.”
“You’ve barely been here a week and you have to return in two.” She said and he knew she was reminding him. She knew – or she thought that she did, anyway – that he had forgotten.
“My father will never come to Srinagar again.” He lay back down, raising his eyes to the roof.
“Exactly.” She started to pull her hand away again. Again, his grip on it tightened. “Suno.”
“I can find a job here. Easily. And I can visit Abba once a month. He’ll be fine. He’s got a male nurse and he isn’t even sick. Just cranky.”
“I’ll stay in this room and do a small job. We can go on evening jogs together and every Sunday, I’ll play to you my guitar on the porch swing and –”
“My father will turn you in, in a heartbeat if he finds out you’re staying.” She said.
“Which is why I need to meet your Yusuf Shaheer Malik, Jaleelah. I need to find him and – drag him, if I have to, into the limelight. So, he can meet his friends and handle his enemies… so I can live with you. Here.” He pressed an inky fingertip to his lips. “Forever.”
She was looking out the window at the moon in the sky, the clouds moving slowly across it. In a few moments, the moon would disappear behind them, plunging the statues of silver into darkness.
“Please.” He said. “I have to see him, yaar.”
“He doesn’t exist.” She answered softly, turning her face away from the window. Her eyes were dark and deep and sad and lovely. “I write those articles. Those people who have been around you and after you ever since you entered Srinagar, they’re my friends to meet and my enemies to handle.”
And it was when she said it that Yusuf realized he had known it all along.
To be continued...