The Guest — by Majid Maqbool
Note: This story was originally published a few years ago in the special issue on Kashmir brought out by Kolkata-based KINDLE Magazine.
Around 10 pm on a humid May evening in 1997, I was sitting in my study room on the first floor of a two-storey home in the outskirts of Srinagar, about ten kilometers south of Lal Chowk and the city centre. I was a 15-year-old teenager struggling to finish my homework. My 9th standard math textbook lay open in front of me. Suddenly, there was a repeated knock on our front door.
My mother, who was washing utensils in the kitchen, rushed into my room. She wanted me to stay quiet. My father came out of his room and, without panicking, enquired about the source of the sudden knocks.
“Open the door,” a husky male voice called out in a carefully suppressed, low pitched tone. The voice seemed to come from across the lobby in through a small window next to the door.
At first, I thought some guests had arrived, but then again, I thought, guests don’t come after 10 pm.
We assembled in the lobby to decide on our next course of action.
Father would speak first, we decided after whispering to each other.
“Who’s there,” my father said, putting on a brave tone. There was no response.
My mother nervously repeated after him: “Kus Heaz chue?” (Who is there?)
I kept quiet, as I’d been told to.
After a brief pause, a response came from a shadowy figure hovering on the other side of the glass window next to the door: “We are guests. We are your own people. Darwaze khuliv (Open the door).”
He wanted us to open the door without further delay. We were silent for a few tense moments, exchanging nervous glances. We understood who was knocking at our door. They were the mujahids, the rebels, and they wanted refuge for the night. It was common in those days.
When my father decided to open the door, my mother held him back at the last moment. Instead, she approached the door in slow, hesitant steps. My 12-year-old younger sister and I watched from behind the kitchen door curtain. She held on to my arm tightly. My father walked towards the door, and stood back as my mother unbolted it.
Few men stepped inside. Although summer had already arrived, they were all wearing pherans(winter cloak). They looked as if they were on the run, as though they had not slept for several days. Their eyes were dark, mysterious, sleep-deprived but alert. They didn’t look at us directly. Watchful and suspicious, they scrutinised our living space. They seemed to be aware of dangers lurking in the background.
After some minutes of uneasy conversation, my father politely directed them towards our guest room, the largest room that could accommodate all the men.
The men walked cautiously, as if their every move was under constant surveillance. They seemed to approach all empty spaces with suspicion. As my father showed them into the room, they paused briefly in the doorway, each looking around before entering. Objects pointed out from their pheransand made metallic, clunking sounds as they slowly filed into the room.
Back in the kitchen, after the guests had settled into their temporary quarters, my father nodded knowingly to my mother about the things they were carrying. I understood the message in that nod—they were carrying guns. I didn’t tell my little sister.
The mujahids—our guests now—entered the room led by one man. He was tall, and muscular, probably in his early thirties. He was sporting a short, trimmed beard. Something distinguished him from the rest of the men he was with. This man did all the talking—and all the questioning too. His stride was confident and urgent. The other men followed him and never walked ahead of him. They waited for him to take the lead. He would always speak first.
Later, after the guests had settled themselves, we had another quiet conference in the kitchen. In hushed tones, my father told my mother, “He is their commander.” I didn’t like him. He didn’t talk much except when questioning us. “Where are the alternate exit doors?” he would ask. “Can you arrange small torches for us? Did you call your neighbors?” He didn’t smile.
My father addressed all the men in a polite tone, careful and deliberate in his choice of words. “Since you are staying for the night,” he told them, “we will arrange dinner for you.” We knew that they had come to stay for the night. It was meant to be a question, my father later told us in the kitchen, to confirm if they were indeed going to be with us until morning.
“OK,” the commander said. “Arrange whatever you can.”
They needed a safe place to stay for the night. They were all tired.
All of us returned to the kitchen. My younger sister pulled out a drawing book from her school bag. Sitting in one corner of the kitchen, she resumed her homework on her art book. She had to finish her pending work as art was her first class next morning. Tired, she fell asleep in the kitchen next to mother. Her homework was finished; she’d left her book open. I closed it for her after ensuring the watercolour paintings she’d made had dried properly. I carefully placed it in her school bag just as she would have liked. My mother asked me to get a blanket for her from another room. She continued sleeping in the kitchen, her head resting on mother’s lap.
Mother and father continued talking quietly in the kitchen as she cooked food for the guests. To confirm the number of guests to be served, she asked me to peep in from the door of the guestroom, and count the number of men to be served. But I didn’t want to go near the door. I was afraid to look into the room. Instead, I counted the pairs of shoes that my mother had put in a corner. They’d worn big boots—I counted five pairs—different from the shoes we normally wore. Their boots looked as if they had come down from an exhausting mountain hiking trip. I returned to the kitchen and told my mother about the number of guests we had in the guestroom. I didn’t tell her how I counted them.
As it was getting late, my mother asked me to sit and eat my dinner. I didn’t feel like eating but I ate some to please her, all the while thinking about the guests that had come to stay for the night. My father would have dinner with the men, my mother told me while I was eating. And I would be expected to help serve them.
We served dinner—plates of rice, two dishes of pulses and potatoes, a bowl of salad and mixed pickles—and they thanked us. My father told them with a smile after they washed their hands: “But we have done nothing. This is all we could arrange…”
After all the men had eaten, their commander continued questioning my father. I was listening, hanging around after serving the meal. They had many questions and my father came up with the most convincing answers. “When did you move into this neighborhood? Do you own this house, or are you living on rent here? Where do you work? Does the Army come inside the lanes of this neighbourhood?”
“We moved here on rent earlier last year, in 1996,” my father answered each question in brief sentences. “I teach English in a nearby government high school. The army is mostly seen patrolling the roads outside, and they rarely come inside the lanes of the colony.”
The men had kept their guns behind the bolster pillows in the kitchen. Each gun was kept hidden as they leaned against the wall. I stole a glimpse of one of the weapons. I could see its metallic tipped barrel poking out. My father already knew it was there; but I went ahead and whispered my revelation in his ear. He smiled.
“Can I touch this?” I said politely to one man whose gun, without a magazine, was hidden behind his pillow.
“No,” he said firmly. “Not now.”
After dinner was finished, I sat with the guests for a while longer, listening to them talking amongst themselves and with my father. I wanted to know more about the men we were hosting. One younger man among them seemed just like an ordinary person to me. He was clean shaven, curly haired, and of medium height. His cheerful demeanor separated him from the rest of his colleagues. He was also the most talkative amongst them. Suddenly, as if responding to my desire to engage in conversation, he asked me for a notebook. I picked the cleanest book from my school bag and handed it to him.
I sat near him, beginning to feel comfortable in his presence. Against my father’s wishes, he had given me an excuse to stay in the room for longer. Pulling out his black ink pen from his bag, the young mujahid inscribed some Urdu couplets into my notebook in neat handwriting. One couplet spoke about a fighter in the battle:
“Girte hain shehsawar hi maidan-e-jung mein
Wo tifl kya gire jo ghutnon ke bal chale.”
(It is the fighter in the battle who dares a fall
How does one fall when he doesn’t try at all)
I looked at the freshly inked lines with awe. He tried to help me with the meaning of the Urdu couplets he had written. I could only understand a few lines but I nodded profusely, pretending admiration of everything he wrote. I didn’t want to annoy him. Perhaps he knew that I couldn’t understand all the poetry but he took pains to explain to me. I listened to whatever he said. I sensed he liked my company. He showed me a personal diary with innumerable couplets he had written over the years. Soon, his couplets adorned a couple of pages of my notebook. His beautifully written poetry resembled the printed pages of my Urdu textbook.
Later that night, when I was told to go and sleep in my room, I opened the notebook again and looked at his verses. I ran my fingers over the freshly inked letters as if touching it would help me understand their meaning. And then I fell asleep, the notebook lying next to my pillow.
The next morning, our guests awoke before me. And as the dawn broke, they were already deeply engrossed in their prayers. I could hear their loud recitations of the Holy Quran from my room. I was still half asleep. My father came in and scolded me to get out of bed. My mother usually left a bag near my pillow. It was my job to go to the nearest bakery to fetch bread every morning. I got up and walked to the baker in our neighborhood. I asked him for more bread than we usually bought.
“Some guests have come,” I told him curtly before leaving.
Back home, our guests drank their tea quietly.
Mother and father told me that they would to stay at home to look after the guests. I wanted to stay at home that day too. But my mother insisted I go to school.
In the corridor, I encountered the clean shaven guy who had shared some of his poetry with me the night before. He flashed a smile at me and I smiled back. “School nahi jana hai aaj?” he asked me. (Aren’t you going to school today?). “Hain, jana hai—yes, I have to go.” I went into my room to put on my school uniform and reluctantly left for school.
For the whole day, I kept thinking about the guests at home and my parents. I worried about my family that day. I worried about our guests, too. I knew there was an Indian military camp not far from my home. What if the military comes to know about the men at home? What if they are told by some informer about their presence at home? What if they raid our home, arrest or kill all those men? What will happen to my parents if an encounter breaks out? What will be the fate of our rented home? All these thoughts were frightening, and I was getting more anxious and worried about how events would unfold back home. Anything could happen, anytime.
I went to my classes without showing much interest. I stared blankly at my teachers, my books, the blackboards, walls and at everything that came my way. I was anxious to get back home.
Sensing my disinterest in his class, one of my teachers asked, “Why do you look cross today? What’s the matter?”
“Mom’s not well at home,” I said. It was a lie, but it felt somehow close to the truth.
When I arrived home later that afternoon, I immediately felt something was amiss. The tense expression on my mother’s face had disappeared. Our guests had left. I dropped my schoolbag in my room. My school uniform on, I went into the recently abandoned guestroom. Like the guests, I entered the room with suspicion, as if for the first time, as if it was not the same room any more.
I could still feel the presence of guests in the recently emptied room. I could feel their absence too. I could feel both these sensations at the same time.
“When did they leave?” I asked my mother, somewhat disappointed at their unannounced departure. “They climbed out of the window some hours back, and then they jumped over the wall and disappeared,” my mother calmly explained as she washed utensils in the kitchen. I looked behind each pillow, checking anything they might have left behind. There was nothing.
After a while, I sat down in a corner of the guest room. Questions flooded into my mind. How can they leave like this? I asked myself. They should have told me before leaving, they could have said goodbye to me at least. They should have waited for me…
I wanted to know more about the man who loved Urdu poetry—and about the other men I couldn’t talk to last night. I felt a strange sense of betrayal. But then I immediately dismissed my questions. I tried to placate my queries with other questions: why should they tell me that they are leaving? Who am I? They came at will; they left at will too. They were the uninvited guests.
From that day onwards, our guestroom was never the same for me. I would enter it with caution and leave it with suspicion. I always kept the door bolted when no one was inside. And the guestroom always reminded me of the guests who had come to stay for that night in summer, and disappeared the next day.
Some months passed.
On a pleasant autumn morning, I was putting on my uniform, already late for school. My mother and father were having a serious conversation in the kitchen. The morning newspaper was open in front of them. They were staring at a photograph on one page. As always, I was struggling with my tie. I asked for mother’s help and she helped me with the knot. She seemed disinterested in routine work that day. I looked at the newspaper and one photograph caught my attention—it looked like one of the guests we had hosted some months back. I looked at the photograph closely. “Why is there blood on him? Why are his eyes closed?” I asked myself. They looked on silently. I looked at the picture closely. “Killed in an encounter…” The caption provided the answer. I didn’t read any further.
“He is the same guest?” I asked my father, anticipating his denial. “Yes,” he nodded.
That day in school I again kept staring at everything. Teachers, other students, empty classrooms, blackboards, corridors—everything flashed back to that unforgettable image. Disinterested in other things, my thoughts kept returning to the photograph. The guest we hosted a while ago—the guest who rested for a night in our guest-room, the guest whose Urdu handwriting I admired and preserved—was no more now. My favorite, smiling, poetry loving guest was dead. Killed in an encounter…The sadness of this truth, like a tragic poem, sunk in.