Letters to a Dead Father — Two and Three — by Peerzada Sheikh Muzamil

Feb 15, 2020

When Peerzada Sheikh Muzamil was eight years old, his father was shot by unidentified gunmen. Twelve days after the attack, on 15th February 2005, the young writer’s father succumbed to his injuries in Sheri Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, Srinagar. To liberate memory from trauma, these letters are an attempt by the writer to engage with his childhood and confront his tragic loss at a vulnerable age. This February 15th marks the 15th year since his father’s tragic death. We present two such letters from an entire series out of which some were published first by Mountain Ink Magazine.

Letter Two

Dear Father,

Whenever I recollected my memories of you, my heart burst into endless longing, with my eyes loaded in clueless tears and my face drowned in familiar grief. Never ever has your persona visited my memory with joy, maybe this inevitable tragedy befalls every mortal; memories cannot be separated from nostalgia—a reluctant feeling to live in the tangible, yet gone, past.

I search for a corner where I can lie down and try to assess how much I actually know about you. Every time I become pensive though, a grief-stricken revelation agitates my soul. You are fading away from my reminiscences as you faded away from my life. The only stark difference between the two is that the former was gradual and the later very abrupt. Nonetheless, both painful in their own peculiar ways. The old pages of your memories, eaten away by the silverfish of time’s passage, are steadily fading into corrosion. They’re flailing away, weaker than the wings of a butterfly, and falling like a thousand feathers from a bird weary of a great migration, or in agitation, as if a great wind has stirred all the fallen leaves of the late autumn up in an air of uncertainty. But here, in the hallway of nostalgia, there is no wind, no sensation of falling, no act of nibbling, no process of wilting. Everything is still, suspended in mid-air, like artifacts hanging from the ceiling of a deserted museum exhibit, curated by lingering timelessness. Everything is still. Everything bleak. Everything in a state of agitation.

I regret that your face is fading, like a full moon fades, steadily under the passing clouds. The tone of your chuckle echoes reluctantly, growing thinner and thinner, after every reverb, dying away like the last ember in a doused bonfire. The only pictures I remember vividly are: whenever your shriveled lips would plant endless kisses on my cheeks; whenever your rough and coarse fingers would caress my hands, and you’d do it so gently, lest it hurt; your eyes, pale with anger, peering into mine whenever I erred; your gracious smiles and hugs after you’d drop me off at school, and the earnestness with which you’d doublecheck my homework.

Oddly, most of your memories are gloomy. Maybe it is because they have only raised their plinth in my heart after your death. I remember the stillness and the heaviness which hung throughout our house the day you died—everything was weighing down: the walls, the ceiling, the abandoned kitchen, the collard leaves on the sheet which my mother was sorting, the face of my mother, the grim stillness in the weather, the clouds outside, the grave silence. All the windows and the doors of our house were open, but why? I did not understand this for years. Now I know after seeing all the killings in my homeland: all the houses which mourn look similar.

It was the morning they brought your dead body home, in some blue truck. All I remember about you that day is how bullet-ridden fathers are remembered: your long body wrapped in a green woolen blanket, smelling of the disinfectant and the hospital corridor where you breathed your last; your half-shut eyes, gazing into nothing; your gaping mouth, your white undershirt on which the dried blood had formed the clusters of red clots; your pale skin, especially the cold arms which looked like the colour of rancid yellow butter. I remember your haggard face— a palpable testament to the excruciating battle you fought for twelve days— and your sunken cheeks, signifying the defeat when the life within you finally succumbed to the certainty of death. All the women, sat cross-legged around you, wailing and beating their chests. In all of this, my mother, tranquil like a stone, kept repeating the same phrase endlessly, “I am brave. I am not weeping.”

I was dragged into the room, where they were washing your body, and told to splash a jug of water over it. The room was dimly lit and smelling of camphor, with the fog of steam pervading throughout. The tall men, chattering unintelligibly, stood around your body like trees swaying in a forest, making strange actions frantically and instructing my elder brothers about the washing ritual. I heard my elder brother sobbing like an old widow, and I heard some coarse voice of a man saying, “Here is his youngest kid, give him a jug of water.” But I ran away from the room, barefoot and frightened, to the verandah and through the main gate all the way into the street, with my friend, running behind me with a pair of my slippers in his hands. I ran till my lungs gasped for breath. I regret running as I did that day.

A few months ago a close friend lost his father to cancer, and during the washing ritual I saw the departed man’s feet. Emaciated as they were, they gleamed and glowed, and there was something very pristine about them. I felt an urge to kiss them, because they reminded me of your feet. My friend, still in confusion and denial, started anointing them, with devotion and grief, and did not let go of them until the body was put in the coffin.

I don’t remember whether I took part in your funeral, but they say it was the biggest congregation people had witnessed in my hometown. I remember when they were burying you, I took hands full of soil and started filling your grave. Arched over, I did it until my spine started aching. My brother wept alone in the farthest corner of the graveyard. I wept with him by his side.

I remember the snow on the fourth day after your death—it had snowed so heavily that the roads were jammed, there was no traffic, and people had to return to their homes from your funeral walking, traveling miles by foot. Perhaps that accounts for my recurrent depressions in the winter to come. It took me fifteen long years to muster a little courage and amass all the remnants of these memories into a letter. I am writing this with the fright and anxiety of an eight-year-old orphan who is lost in the intricate streets of an alien city, hysterically looking for his mother. The table on which I am writing this letter is the same table you had in your pharmacy, oddly smelling of medicines and the little shop where you treated the sick. It is the very same table at which you read newspapers, smoked Capstan cigarettes. It is the same table, on which you were shot, and lay alone in a cold pool of blood.

I will not stop meeting your friends and rediscovering you through their memories and stories. I will not hesitate, however painful it might be, to ask my mother about you during our late night conversations. All I know is that you were humble, well read, handsome and six feet tall, with broad and sturdy shoulders. To fill the endless voids in the walls of my memory, I will meet every soul who knew of you and reimagine you through their glimpses, and I will finally mourn for you, lightening the weight of grief compounding my chest, and drink down the sorrow instead of drowning in its abysmal depths. Happy belated Father’s Day, dear father.

Lovingly,

Your son.

Letter Three

Dear Father,

There comes a time even when we’re worn out to the extent that we always wish to live through a greater pain— living with pain, I believe, is an art unto itself. I sometimes wonder that if there was a world, where we would go to a supermarket, every now and then, to shop for grief. Choosing our miseries, putting them in a hapless basket, while clearing the bills with the God. Imagine, it would be like an empty canvas, where we would not only draw the kind of pain we desire, but also draw it like an artist, paying heed to every detail: where should I confront this trauma? In my apartment? In my routine-sick office? In an odious desert or an unending forest? Or, on which particular occasion would pain be the harshest to bear? Should I lose my mother on my son’s birthday, for example?  Would it be a crisp autumn noon, or a gloomy winter morning? Should the clouds hover over my fate, or would the scorching sun look down upon me with pity? Should it be humid? Noisy? Still? Or in my case, the late snowy winter? Imagine if we could make all these choices, like the French impressionists would make with color, warmth, light, tone and the pressure of their brush strokes.

On one ordinary late winter evening, I lost you, to a bullet and a bunch of careless doctors. I can probably re-create the scene in my mind—though I don’t know to what extent it would be accurate. Maybe the ICU was still and silent. The weak whispers of attendants and nurses in the hospital ward, the pervading smell of disinfectant, the monotonous luminescent white lights glistening on the floor and reflecting back from the harsh whitewashed walls—one long reluctant beep on your ventilator, and you were gone. Gone against my eight-year-old will for your life to persist.

I remember how they brought you home. Dead, cold, blood-soaked, wrapped up in a blanket, smelling of hospital corridors. They brought you in a police truck—blue and canvassed. But there is often a parallel image that conjures up in my mind every now and then, wherein I see a similar truck, though green in color, instead of bringing you to our home, it takes you away.

A disjointed green truck, probably left behind by a convoy, careening through a serpentine mountain pass covered by snowcapped conifers and pines. Snow falls and the sturdy engine of the truck, roaring like death, carries your bullet-ridden body and is taking it away without end. The canvased hood is your coffin. Snow falls in grief. You’re lying dead on the oblong iron stretcher, and the cold stretcher bites your skin. It is inexorable a one-way journey.

Death is so adamant, and audacious, that it always marches towards its triumph. Probably, it is stronger than God—the swish of a sword that scars your heart forever. Subtle. Inclement. Once you lose a loved one to death, you’re scarred—the scar that only death itself can cloak. Death is damning. You will lose a loved one someday. You will be damned too, because death is inclement. How I wish to bring you back, Father, but the truck goes on. Engines fade and the truck is gone. Memories stays while the scars bloom.

Lovingly,

Your son.

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About the Contributor

Peerzada Sheikh Muzamil is a freelance journalist and writer whose work has appeared in TRT World, The Wire, Kashmir Ink, Greater Kashmir and Mountain Ink Magazine, where he also works as the Assistant Editor. Some of his fiction writing has also been translated into Indian languages like Bengali, including a short story in the anthology “KASH: Transcreations of Short Stories of Kashmiri Muslims and Pandits” (edited by Abhishekh Jha, Bhoibhasik Publishers) that was released at the Kolkata International Book Fair.