On a cold Sunday morning in Autumn, Shahid whistled at me from outside. I was busy, secretly smoking broomsticks on our veranda. Scared of my Mom, I couldn’t risk answering him out loud. I snaked along the floor and signaled him to sneak in. I hid the broomsticks behind the cushion and pulled the firepot inside my pheran[i]. As he hurried upstairs, impatient, he couldn’t wait to take a seat. He told me that the boys of an adjacent Mohalla[ii] had invited us to Pingpather for a friendly cricket match. Pingpather was an oval-shaped playground deep inside the woods, half an hour away from our village. There was something about his face, the pure white surrounding his black eyes, the barely-sprouted hair on his V-shaped chin and his aquiline nose, that hooked my gaze before I pretended to be uninterested, faking seriousness as if I was busy doing more something important.
His devotion to our friendship silently crushed my cunning heart. I enjoyed making him sad because I knew that I was indispensable for him. If there was anything that I disliked about him, it was his unopposed religious servitude to my whims. He would never say a word. Deep down I had acknowledged his friendship. I had declared it from within, that I would be close to useless without him. But I had never let him know about it. Many a time I wondered how life would be without him, but even imagining such a life would evade me.
That Sunday morning, my forged disinterestedness had disappointed him for a while. I suddenly pulled out the broomsticks from behind the cushion and dropped them on his lap. His face lit up with a smile, his black, watery eyes sparkled while he looked at them. Smiling at my cunning, he acknowledged my job. I pushed forward the firepot towards him. Together, we smoked those eight twelve-inch-long broomsticks making our mouths bitter, amused and exhilarated at the prospect of doing something reserved for the adult folk. We were playing with the smoke, blowing rings. That soundless laughter, and those tearful eyes, ah! We talked in hushed tones wary of Ami’s presence in the kitchen. We smoked, we chuckled and we enjoyed our small transgressions.
After it became fairly sunny outside, I fished out a small axe from under the staircase and sneaked it out inside my pheran. Shahid had snuck out a flat piece of wood and a huge green marker pen from his home. We managed to enter the stockade beside the cowshed and started carving out a new bat. After a good twenty minutes of labor, the bat was ready. Shahid wrote the letters “F. R. E. E. D. O. M.” on it in glaring green. I placed the axe back underneath the staircase while he waited for me outside. I went upstairs again, opened the front window and showed him an apple. He nodded and I threw a few apples to him. I tucked my sweatshirt inside my trousers and stuffed it with apples from the opening in my collar. I also picked a handful of walnuts and stole out.
After five minutes, we were at a safe distance. We sat and pulled the apples out one by one, putting them into the bundle that Shahid had made out of his pheran. Sizing up our ration for the day, we were happy at the booty. On our way to Pingpather, we caught up with the other boys, snowballing into a huge group. We lightened our weight by distributing the stock among our coterie of friends. They gave us coconut, apricots, candy and biscuits in return. There were many of us—Irshad, Shabir, Sajad and Showket. On our way, except for Shahid, all of us cracked jokes and each one of us struggled to sound clever with the intent of provoking more laughter. That day, I had put my arm on his shoulders, around his neck. Ah, how we had walked together!
Upon reaching the playground, we were disappointed to learn that the other boys had not arrived. We waited for them for some time, but no one turned up. The greater disappointment came when we realized that in a fit of excitement, we had forgotten to carry a ball with us. Our ephemeral joy vanished. After accusing one another for such carelessness, we were about to disband when Shabir came up with an idea that we play Military-Militant[iii] instead going home. And everyone accepted this ludic proposition, without giving it a second thought—such a wonderful game it had become! It consisted of two groups. One would play as Military and the other as Militant (Mujahid). For the sake of verisimilitude, the latter would be a comparatively smaller group of two or three people while the former would be a much larger group. Surprisingly, each one of us would fight for the role of Militant. We formed the two groups, ascribing each one their specific role. Shahid demanded that he and I play Militant against the others, and so we did. All of us gathered sticks that we took as guns and stuffed our pockets with fir-cones that we kept as grenades. We were given five minutes to put ourselves in hiding before the search and cordon operation would start.
We ran deep into the woods to hide ourselves in relative safety. I was frothing and gasping for breath. That day, I realize what terror that chase had planted in our bones. We were running madly for our lives, forgetting that we were just playing a fucking game. After ten minutes, we heard the Military guys coming after us. “Motherfuckers, where have you gone? Come out!” For a moment, we even stopped breathing. As someone came hunting too close, Shahid lobbed a grenade, tossing him dead on the grass, close to a steep rock. The ruckus caught the attention of the other Military Men. They ran after us shooting bullets and lobbing grenades. The full scale chase had begun!
We ran wild, jumping rocks and brooks, hitting stones, crunching wood and sticks under our boots, but the Military didn’t give up. With every minute, they got closer and closer to us. A mad rush of terror had crawled up my spine. We could have given up—we could have stopped, but they didn’t spare us the time to think about doing that. My heart was pounding. Shahid ran faster than a deer. Perhaps he was more terrified than me. We reached a steep hill at the foot of which there was a roaring brook that would form ponds for swimming in the summer. Its steepness had formed a deep gorge down below.
Shahid stopped for the tiniest of seconds, looking back in a flash and decided not to surrender. He ran forward. While I had stopped for a moment to assess the depth of the gorge below, I heard a piercing scream “Khodayooo!”[iv]. I looked back and saw Sajad pulling at his hair with both hands, his eyeballs pushing out in horror. Following his gaze of horror, I watched Shahid rolling down the hill trying to hold on to something. Falling down a high rock and landing with a dull thud, his bones crashed into the roaring brook. I heard myself screaming “Mojaey Mojaey!” (O mother! O mother!).
We climbed down the hill praying to whosoever was listening, that He save Shahid, only this time, please—his body lying backwards on an uneven surface of stones, beside the brook. I turned his face up. Warm blood was gushing out of his left ear, his tongue crushed between his teeth. His eyes were half shut, with flesh hanging loose on his left cheekbone. His pheran was dust-smeared and torn.
My fake Militant and one true friend lay dead in my arms.
[i] A knee-length loose upper garment worn by Kashmiris during winter.
[iii] A game played by children in India-administered Kashmir, wherein one party plays as Indian military forces, and the other as native militants/rebels.
[iv] A painful cry or imploration to God.
Mustafa Hussain Flickr Photography Page