Nageen Rather, who teaches fiction in South Kashmir, brings us a short story about a woman in her early forties whose husband has been enforced disappeared. A lonesome wife and mother to their two daughters, she searches for him for years on end, eventually oscillating between the prospects of a new marriage and the displacing hope of his return as time erodes all expectation. The subject of the story, while sensitive to explore in literary fiction, is in dire need of representation through different art forms to awaken a sense of empathy and awareness that is either absent or invisible (given the difficulty in articulating a language, lexicon and vernacular to approach it in descriptive terms). In this, literature and fiction writing have the power to convey that which evades other genres of writing, offering greater proximity and furthering a deeper understanding of the human condition of those subjected to silence and alienation. Rather’s story makes a clear interjection in provoking reflection along these lines and many others.
That morning, too, the daughters didn’t want to wake up. They had lain stretched out beneath the spotless white quilt, without moving, their arms crossed over their chests, their feet warmly pressed together, enjoying the delicious slumber. Tired from the strain of a day’s work, they didn’t want to rise.
On the veranda outside, waiting to serve them the morning tea, their mother Zoon started screaming: “My dear daughters! Wake up! Wake up; you have got to clean up the entire house.”
Then she shot a gaze towards the main gate of her house and contemplated on the past and the future course of events. Though her wild flowerlike eyes seemed incapable of focusing on anything for long, the village looked different from what she remembered. It seemed like an abstract painting, a flat, gray surface from which buildings with closed windows and doors rose, capped by sunrays. Then her gaze flitted to the rose bushes planted near the entrance, flaunting massed bunches of red roses, gleaming in the sunlight. A mumbling softness crept into her barren heart; she breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the spring. She floated for a while in her own world; wanting to live the same life as all the flowers, to grow and blossom in the sunlight as they did, to feel intoxicated with the spring air.
However, she suddenly felt that an uncanny surge of helplessness was about to swallow her up, without her being able to protect herself from it. Her eyes moistened. Yet, the gentle, loving and cool breeze was delectably playing with her green scarf, tossing against her face and nipping at her veined neck.
Finally, she surrendered herself completely to the current and was eventually immersed in a rapt but nameless reverie.
An instant later, when the daughters didn’t turn up, she stormed into their room like a stern teacher entering an unruly classroom and woke them up.
After they quaffed the morning tea, the daughters resolutely wound their headscarves around their faces; wielding two long brooms, they began sweeping the floors of their three-roomed house. The elder daughter was taller enough to demolish the cobwebs under the disfigured wooden ceilings; the younger one dusted the corners and the crevices.
Washing the cups in the kitchen, Zoon heard them hum as they swept.
Zoon and her daughters lived a poor and pitiable life at Makwund, a distant but serene village sprawled along the stony bank of the Rami Ara— the snow-fed river that flowed through Shopian district. Although Zoon had not born any sons, her marriage with her husband had resulted in two daughters who were expected, like other girls of the village of their age, to have a scanty schooling and then stay at home, knitting, spinning, cooking, washing and managing other household chores.
The life of the mother daughter trio followed a humdrum routine. The daughters stayed at home while Zoon worked in the fields that she had inherited from her husband.
Like every woman does, Zoon had liked being loved and fortunately, her caring and most handsome husband had showered her with abundant attentions and profound affection. However, her married life ended traumatically; for once a grenade attack was carried by Kashmiri insurgents in the market of Shopian town, near the bicycle shop where her husband was working as a salesman, resulting in the killing of three Indian troopers. A day after the attack her husband didn’t return home from the town in the evening. Nobody knew where he went, who took him away and why. This sudden disappearance of her husband struck Zoon, her daughters and the villagers with gloom and terror.
Zoon left no stone unturned to search for her husband, but all was in vain. She went to police stations, torture centers, jails, army camps, mortuaries and shrines, but returned dejected and disappointed. Along with her relatives and some well wishers from the village, she had approached the people like MLAs, bureaucrats, ministers, journalists, faith healers and lawyers—hoping that they could help her trace her husband. However, none of such efforts bore any fruit.
This persistent search took her around twelve years. During those long years she received many marriage offers but rejected them flatly, hoping against the hope that her husband might return one day or another. Sixteen years passed, but there still was no trace of him. Zoon kept on waiting miserably.
The hardships she bore and the long wait she went through for the life-sucking hunt for her husband leeched all the resources from her life. She lost the prime of her youth, her energy and money in the pursuit. She came to live a wretched life, but she kept on going places and meeting people and seeking their help. However, she stopped searching for him only on the day when one of the MLAs of the vicinity, in return for the help, sought from her a night to sleep with him. She lost all hope. Eventually she despaired. Everyone told her that her husband might have been killed but no one was sure of that.
For hope of her husband’s sudden and unexpected return, Zoon had never before considered marrying herself off to anyone. In addition to it, the local Maulvis too, keeping in view the uncertainty of the case, couldn’t decide whether she should go for a second marriage or not.
Nonetheless, as five years rolled by and the hope of her husband’s return almost died, the Maulvis decreed that she could marry again if she wished to. Meanwhile, she vacillated between a yes and a no. Everyone comforted her and advised her to marry again but she didn’t listen to anyone. Yet, in the end, she succumbed to the logical insistence of her old uncle. But since she was not beautiful in that peculiar youthful way anymore, and considering she already had two daughters, her chances for a second marriage diminished with every passing day.
One day, a rumor of Wast Gul, the village barber’s intention to marry spread all around; it grew like a bush fire in the village. A thousand questions popped into the villagers’ minds as to who the poor unfortunate women from the village to marry a barber would be. Apparently, the barber had no flaws. His major flaw was simply the fact that he was a barber, for his profession was not held in high esteem by the villagers. He had come from some other district and had settled in the village all alone by himself. Other artisans with skills like his, such as the khaar, the blacksmith and the pujj, the butcher, the watul, the shoemaker, among others, were almost nonexistent in the village because in the eyes of the villagers these professions were regarded as degrading and not fit for any proud and worthy person. In their view, only those people liked these professions who themselves would not hesitate at any time to commit theft or assault others, without any feeling of guilt.
The villagers believed that Wast Gul would be thinking of marrying either someone from the spinsters, divorcees or the widows—that of course included Zoon, even though she was not a window in the general sense, because nobody knew whether her husband was dead or alive. The journalists just referred to her as ‘Zoon, the half- widow.’
Since most of the villagers would never have consented, in any case, to the marriage of their daughters or sisters to a barber, no one would be better suited for this than Zoon herself. Nonetheless, had she not futilely waited for her husband’s return, she would have found the best among men to accept her as a wife a long ago.
When the rumors of Wast Gul’s intention for marriage reached Zoon’s ears, she began yearning for one concrete sign that he was actually considering her. For in spite of all other considerations, she still longed for the warmth and contentment that married life offered, as well as for a husband to protect her once her daughters got married and as she grew older. A husband was what would protect her and her daughters from the treachery of the times. She was no longer young—this was something she had never denied— but neither was she all that old, so much so that she hoped that her life’s journey would be a long one. She was not yet forty and Wast Gul couldn’t be less than forty-three. Age in this case was not an issue; they were close in this respect and many women her age had married and spent their lives in relative peaceful happiness. And besides, the barber, as she knew him from his frequent visits to her home to shave her husband, had many fine qualities, that other village men, who claimed to be above him, lacked.
A few days rolled by. Zoon wished with all her heart that Wast Gul would seek her hand in marriage. Out of curiosity, Zoon wished to know from one of her friends, so she touched on the subject over a cup of tea with them:
“Have you heard what everyone is saying about Wast Gul? He is thinking of getting married” Zoon asked in a tepid tone.
“Of course I have heard! Hasn’t everyone?” replied her friend casually.
“What else have you heard?” Zoon probed further.
“I have heard that he intends to ask you to marry him.” The friend replied, sipping away.
Zoon feigned anger but she made no answer. She pretended being busy breaking the bakerkhani bread for her friend.
“Be honest Zoon…” inquired her friend fidgeting with the teacup. “Are you willing to have him for a husband?”
Zoon felt like a mouse caught in a trap. She kept quiet, for her heart raced and her hands trembled.
“All I want is a somewhat good ending to my wretched life.” she replied, sighing.
And then Zoon managed to change the subject quickly, worried that her friend might uncover her true feelings on the whole matter. Once they were done with the tea, Zoon washed the cups and while putting them back on the wooden shelf in her kitchen, she noticed a shining meat knife. She picked it up, gazed at it and burst out crying; then grimaced and checked her tears. “How good it would be to die!” she reflected still looking at the knife. “Wouldn’t it be better to kill myself than live this kind of life?” Lost in the dismal thoughts of despair, she crooned.
Her friend consoled her and told her that every dark cloud has a silver lining in it. Later, she left the house advising Zoon to forget and reminding her that we’re all food for death and that tears don’t bring the lost ones back.
A week later, Zoon had lit the fire in the mud-hearth to cook the rice in her kitchen. While attending to this chore, she would peer out through the window from time to time and think about her missing husband. Whenever the memory of him passed through her mind, she blocked it, staring at the glittering, smoldering embers in the hearth and spending long minutes without moving. A moment later her uncle came rushing in, his face beaming.
“Perhaps God has answered to my prayers. Good news, my niece! Good news!” he exclaimed.
“May it be the best news!” Zoon said, anxiously. Her face also beamed.
“Wast Gul wants to pay us a visit tomorrow, after dinner!” the uncle announced, scratching his snowy white beard.
So the rumor had been correct after all. Zoon felt lucky he was thinking of her. A joyful elation swept through her. It had been long since she had experienced such a moment of exhilaration; with her paleness gone in the flush of her excitement. Nonetheless, her mind was suddenly flooded with all kinds of thoughts: of married life, of her daughters, of the misery and hardships in her life…of her lost husband…of people who would certainly condemn her for having a barber for a husband and so on.
Her uncle, who was leaning on a stick, didn’t allow her thoughts to go too far. He asked her what she had to say about the barber’s visit.
“Of course, he is welcome.” Zoon answered instantly with a tinge of nervousness.
“You know well, my last wish, prior to my death, is to see that you…you... have the hand of a man on your head” the uncle said, wiping a tear from his eye.
“Really uncle, you did a lot for me and my daughters.”
“Tomorrow or day after, which day do you think would be better for his visit?”
“Make it tomorrow,” she broke in impatiently. “It is Friday— an auspicious day.”
“Ok. Tomorrow would be better.”
The uncle patted her on the head. He left light-hearted, leaving the main gate ajar. Zoon took a deep breath, flung her arms over her head, stretched and let them fall. She wanted to tell everyone about the barber’s intentions. She considered telling her daughters—or at least her eldest daughter, who was already seventeen—but decided to wait until things were finalized. Then she would break the news to both her daughters, for she was sure they would be happy.
In the morning and in anticipation of the barber’s visit, she told her daughters to thoroughly clean and sweep the house.
On the next day, after he had made his isha prayers in the evening, Zoon’s uncle arrived and called in a few of the neighbors. Half an hour later, Wast Gul came over. As for her daughters, they were unaware of what was happening, since they were used to having the old uncle come and spend the evening with the neighbors after the final prayers of the day.
Zoon, who had been dreaming of her impending marriage to Wast Gul, had defended him strongly whenever any of the other women had criticized him. For her, Wast Gul was an honest, flawless and good man, regardless of what everyone might have thought.
As was the custom, Zoon waited in a separate room. She was fresh from a bath and smelt of Lux soap. A pair of shiny traditional earrings dangled from her earlobes like upturned tulips. Holding a looking-glass in her callused hands, she keenly assessed her withered countenance. Suddenly, her mind slipped back to the bitter experiences of the past, but she soon arrested the flow of such sorrowful thoughts.
She had kohled her eyes, cosmeticized her face and put on an oily smile before she sat cushily on the window sill, waiting for a knock at the door.
When some time passed, she grew impatient. It seemed as if an oasis of promise was to be found in the desert of her desperation. At one point in time, she was tempted to sneak through the corridor to eavesdrop on some of the men’s conversation, yet she mustered patience and preferred to wait in her room.
A moment later her uncle came into her room. Zoon stood up at once. Her face lightened up, expecting such news that could blow her heart up with joy. The uncle came nearer and whispered in a coarse and tremulous voice:
“Wast Gul is asking for your eldest daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“What?” Zoon peeped desolately.
Then a long, mournful silence pervaded the room.
She froze where she stood; the fervidity of her eyes slowly slacking off to her usual stale look.
All at once, a painful flashback of her caring and most handsome husband flicked over her mind and a rivulet of tears from the sunken eyes ran down her face, streaking the make-up.