What would she give to see her father smile? Umm, I don’t know. How about everything, maybe? Like, PUBG for a year? Ok, ok, six months. Her favourite red leather jacket? Came all the way from Dubai, you know. A gift from a secret admirer. It is not called orifice of sacrifice for nothing. Or her secret stash of cigarettes? Yes, the ones her boyfriend gets for her. Or the idiotic fuckboi himself? Alright, cool. That would be good riddance. Doesn’t count. I agree. Well, what about the weed Wamiq gifted her? Yes, Wamiq, with the choke-me-to-death eyes. I know, right? Malana is not the only thing creaming for him. Oh, Wamiq and your Royal Enfield Bullet 350! Green like Geelani sob’s heart. Who wouldn’t want to jive to jive jive?
Anyhoo, where were we? Right, her dour-faced father. She and I have been besties since kindergarten. Obviously, I didn’t know her father from Adam. I never saw him smile. An inconsequential detail. But, get this, she didn’t see him smile either. Like, ever. Isn’t that something? And by something, I mean the saddest thing conceivable. Granted her memory awoke when she was three. Let’s even make it a safe four. But no smiles from her father in 14 years. What do you say to that, sister?
Damn right, a colossal motherfucking tragedy. No one knows why. She says she asked her mother. She was quite Lal Ded about it. Told her some men are like that. Don’t like to animate their mouths. No yapping. No laughing. They just smoulder. Like an unstompable fag when Authority is approaching. Or a kañger on a sleety night.
Who knows why they do it. Kegel exercise for the face, I guess. Reason retention. To increase the virility of their thoughts. Or they reckon we are turned on by it. To talk is to produce knowledge. But, presumably, us ladies prefer ignorance. That is why we are the quieter sex, no? And we be suckers for the silent type. Turns out he is one of them sulkers.
Hmm, hold on, hold on. That is an interesting idea. Might be the reason we prefer quiet penises. Less risk of them talking to others. Other women, in particular. Make them our private little chatterboxes. Whisper all their intimate thoughts directly into our pussies. Great thinking, sister! You might be onto something there. Hehe.
Let’s not lose focus here, though. The way her mother explained her father’s gruff demeanour. Thoughts? Oddly generic, no? After all, one’s husband is not just any man. Do you suppose it holds a clue? Vaguely-defined husbands—a personality with a narrow bandwidth. Lo-fi. Cheerless, but tempered with sweet nostalgia. Like one of those cheap old-timey transistor sets.
Or it could simply be his face. Hawk nose. Corrugated forehead. Squinty eyes. Bushy brows insurgents could use to lay an ambush. The bagasse that is his beard. The chin that refuses to descend from his jaw. Like a scrotum in chilai kalaan, one would assume. What? It really is an assumption. Not based on any character living or non-descending. Oh, come on now. That was objectively funny.
Perhaps the military occupation got to him. I know it is a crazy idea. Slavery is not supposed to affect you emotionally. But hear me out, please. You go about your daily business. Nothing unusual. Except collective pain acting on you individually. A hammer hitting a nail. The blow spreads over the broad head of society. The effect amasses over the sensitive pointy end. People being swatted like flies. Children being snuffed out like oil lamps under snow. An entire culture of honour dragged down the streets. The cold steel of irrational power against your throat. The humiliating pangs of carrying on. The feeling that you should be the one fighting. Going to jail. Being tortured. Dying. Bone-crushing for us women. Look right. Gun-toting soldiers slapping them in your face. Look left. The self-same soldiers overcompensating for their dickless existence. But is it less difficult for our men? Not enough to shrivel up their members? Metaphorical as well as physical. Make little pieces of sun-dried bottle gourd of them? Robbed of their manhood, can their tongues survive? The best men take it the hardest. Their laughter elopes with the soldiers’ boots.
Seditious thoughts? But are they, really? My mother might agree with you, but I don’t.
The bottom-line: Nayeem Dar was perfect for his job. I have no idea whose genius idea it was. I don’t know what he used to do earlier. Some say he was a mason. Fails to explain how Nazia could afford our school. A mason’s monthly earnings are comparable to our fee. Then there are other expenses. Uniform. Books. Stationery. Bus fare. I don’t have to write you a receipt. Plus, he had mouths to feed at home. His parents. Wife. Nazia herself. Her sister. Two brothers. Their education. The bricks simply don’t add up. Faint wisps of a rumour marked him as an OGW. Money from the butterfly’s other wing, by implication. Well, mason or freemason, doesn’t matter. His daughters and sons attended an expensive school. That is all that counted. Damn fucking good for him.
Then the change in profession happened. I bet it was the result of an epiphany. Too flawless and accurate to have been planned. See, the town’s main Sumo stand had a problem. It occupies prime real estate. In the middle of the town, no less. The rent must be through the roof. A Sumo drivers’ cooperative operates the stand. It charges an extra ten bucks on the fare. Helps to pay the rent. But drive-by guerilla drivers scoop passengers away. These lone wolves are not part of the cooperative. They pay no Sumo stand user fee. The commuters, in turn, save ten bucks each. It is the perfect fraud. Drivers in cohorts with passengers. Kya karrayga qazi sort of a situation. Of course, the cooperative tried to curb it. But the guerilla drivers were too fast for it. The passengers too eager to save a few bucks.
Oh, you have the same problem in your area. Isn’t that just perfect? Guerilla drivers are the glue holding this nation together. Kashmir: divided by India, united by taxi drivers. Who would’ve thunk it!
Anyway, ultimately the cooperative accepted defeat. It sought help from the police. Just imagine, the fucking police! Must have been really desperate. That riled up the public big time. The issue became an overtly political one. Azadi to travel in the vehicle of your choice. Passengers went to great lengths to break the law. Quite literally, actually. Policemen could not patrol such long stretches. The cooperative feared a mass boycott. So it bribed the police once more. This time to stay away! It did, I swear. The guerillas inched closer to the Sumo stand again. Like boys’ hands on a crowded bus. The cooperative needed a new strategy. That is when the epiphany must have struck. Like periods on your favourite cousin’s maenzraat. An outside-the-box solution to plug the gaps. The cooperative couldn’t contain the menace by itself. The police had bombed too. Skillful private individuals could manage to counter the guerillas.
Someone with the cooperative might have known Nayeem personally. Perhaps as a mason. His asperity was the only CV the cooperative needed. It offered him the job. He accepted the offer immediately. The money must have been good.
Nayeem did not merely fit into the role seamlessly. He was the job. Within a month, he had earned his dreaded moniker. Everyone knew the Crossroads Man. The unrelenting vigilante. The black hole of bleakness. His face the soul of Kashmir. His legendary cane. Almost as joyless as its holder. Its resolute length gauged by battle scars. Each notch a proud reminder. Of beatings administered on bonnets of approaching vehicles. Or successful hits to boots of retreating ones. Single-handedly, Nayeem reduced guerilla traffic to a trickle. He was truly a one-man army. The cooperative never needed another person for the job.
His legend travelled with the vehicles he marked. Outgoing drivers would make an X-sign to incoming drivers. The Crossroads Man is on the prowl. You stop at the filling station for fuel. The guy would refill your ears with lookout warnings. A rainy day. Your taxi pauses to romance the drizzle. A neon-green raincoat would swiftly move towards it. A mirage-inducing midsummer noon. A tired hired vehicle contemplates a halt. The relentless thud of reality on its bonnet. Five-thirty in the evening in winter. The day’s last shift for a guerilla taxi. Would the descending darkness make it a lucky day? Most certainly not. A snow leopard would pounce on it. And always and forever, the lugubrious face.
Then shit happened. One July afternoon, I am home, waiting for Nazia. Those days we used to go to tuitions together. The teacher was an H.C. Verma acolyte. Frames of references galore. Even when gossiping about the day’s news. It is a military occupation in one frame of reference. In another frame, it is democracy’s dance macabre. Also, justice travels at the speed of sound. Might create the occasional thunder. But power travels at the speed of light. It creates matter.
The classes were tolerable, barely. But only because Wamiq used to attend too. Nazia and I both had crushes on him. He gravitated towards her. I believe I know why. Wamiq was symmetric and he liked consistency. I emit confusing vibes. My sartorial sensibility doesn’t match my personality. Dressed like Dukhtaran-e-Millat, I use phrases like “sartorial sensibility”. Oh, come on, no need to be nice. I know such be the case. The truth is, I have reconciled with the fact. But, at that time, I felt a little jealous. However, there was precious little I could do. Nazia was my lung. I couldn’t even play the you-have-a-boyfriend card. She had only one boyfriend. Yours truly was running two boys those days. Flimsy moral firmament. Besides, Nazia’s fuckboi used to send me flirty DMs. Evened things out.
Lost the thread again. Sorry. So, July afternoon, I am waiting for Nazia. We are supposed to meet at my place. But I am pissed at my sister. She has got that NGO-wala home again. Yes, the Indian. No, I don’t hate him. I just want to murder him. Bloody bastard. With his empathy and love for Kashmir. You are a Jha from Jharkhand. Be a fucking Jha from Jharkhand. Don’t try to be a Wani from Wanpoh. See, it is simple, a person has no self-respect. He hates himself and where he comes from. How can this person help others regain their honour? Chechi mulkik, I like to call them. Ain’t it apt? They behave as chechi of Mulk-e-Kashmir.
As for us, you know that Jaggu Singh ghazal? The one with “agar tum milne aajao” as refrain? Don’t ask. My sister used to make me listen to him. But he grew on me. Like money on a Stockholm Syndrome. Anyway, there is this couplet in it. Nahi milte ho tum mujhsay toh sab hamdard hain mayray. Nahi milte ho tum mujhsay toh sab hamdard hain mayray. Zamaana mujhsay jal jaaye agar tum milnay aajao. Every morning, I sing the lines to our azadi. If we had azadi, Indians would be jealous of us. They wouldn’t dare to be fucking sympathetic.
Thence, I am glaring down the NGO creep. You know what he asks? Where do you want to study after your 12th? Need some advice? My cringe-organ bleeds silently. Bloody patronizing piece of shit. Parbat woh sab say ouncha, chamcha maiñ aasmañ ka. Who is asking for your advice, bro? Why don’t you hang it from a banyan tree?
I know, I know. Seditious thoughts again. I keep getting warned. But bitch please! Suppose I have a stalker. He persists. I keep rejecting his lame ass. Then I start dating a different guy. Am I cheating on the stalker? A people need to recognize a country first. Only then can they be accused of sedition.
So this is what I tell him: You are at our house for the fifth time. Like the nimaz in a day. Naozubillah! Yes, I am keeping count. My sister never brings any Koshur male friends home. Let alone five times. So I suspect she is sleeping with you. That is her blunder to make. But listen, fuckface, I don’t live inside her vagina. You and me. No chitchat. No meaningful conversations. No sharing of language and culture. No pitter-patter by the bitter mad hatter. Else, I am going to rain on your parade. And ensure our parents do too.
You are right. I am bluffing. I do not say all these things to him. I want to, with every sinew in my body. Believe me. But I can’t. Kaesher ikhlaakh come in the way. He is our guest. I have to be nice to him.
Instead, demure me tells the chechi mulkuk, will see. Haven’t decided yet. Will keep you informed. Of course, your advice will be invaluable. O Patriarch! My Patriarch! Blah the fucking blah!
But the conversation leaves me totally aggravated. I have got to leave the house immediately. So I call Nazia. She says her ETA is 30 minutes. I tell her we could meet at the crossroads. Sensing my tone, she immediately assents. Hurriedly, I offer the digar nimaz. Haste is the Devil’s work, I am painfully aware. Astaghfirullah! But anger has me by the ponytail. Then I pick up my bag. Say my goodbyes to our guest. Wish I could defenestrate the occupation.
Nazia is already at the crossroads. She waves at me. That loving sinusoidal wave of hers. One look at her face and my anger evaporates. I grab both her hands and let them slip. We look in the general direction of her father. Nazia has to pee. Says she is up to her underarms in it. When isn’t she? Mutre kood. There is a bunker across the road. Behind it, a public urinal. Like a bride shielded by her brother. We both stare at it unhappily.
Serendipitously, a taxi comes to a halt. Nayeem dashes towards it. The cane in his hand is raised high. Like a praying mantis about to strike. Suddenly, guns materialize through the windows of the Sumo.
Afterwards, it all made sense. A new brigadier was in town. He loved to do WHAM things. So he was travelling in a civilian vehicle. White. Newish. With only the bare minimum security detail. Perfect for a photo op. Sullied only by the petrified driver.
But in the moment, we freeze, mirroring Nayeem. The gun-wielding soldiers start to shout obscenities. Nayeem’s facial expression takes the sharpest U-turn in history. We see it. The soldiers see it. Gawking hawkers see it. Bewildered passersby see it. The swooning afternoon sees it. The trembling poplars see it. The battered buildings see it. The nervous clouds and the blue sky see it. Nayeem is laughing like a drain. I have never seen such an overabundance of anything. The cane droops by his side. Two soldiers get down from the vehicle. Nayeem’s hands fold together.
Later—much later—Nazia articulated her feelings thus: Nazia Nayeem would like to express her earnest and endless gratitude to the Brigadier from the unfathomable depths of her heart for titivating her day, month, year and life by making her father smile and giving her an opportunity to see how her father’s face looked when it was stretched out in an ear-to-ear grin.
What else could she do?
Geelani sob = Syed Ali Shah Geelani, a pro-self-determination stalwart of Kashmir who personally favours its merger with Pakistan. Sob is sahab, a honorific widely used in South Asia.
Jive jive = In full: “Jive, jive Pakistan…” A popular patriotic expression and ditty.
Lal Ded = 14th century Kashmiri female mystic claimed by India.
Kañger = A firepot consisting of a terracotta bowl that holds charcoal contained within wickerwork which extends upwards into a handle. A companion to every Koshur in the long winters and testament to Koshur ingenuity.
Chilai kalaan = Literally: “Great Confinement.” The coldest period in Kashmir extended from 21 December to 31 January.
OGW = Over-ground worker. A term Indian state authorities use for any Kashmiri not actively participating in the Indian rule over Kashmir.
Kya karrayga qazi = In full: “Miyaan biwi raazi, toh kya karrayga qazi” (When the groom and bride are willing, the priest’s opinion doesn’t matter).
Azadi = In Kashmir, a shorthand for the right to self-determination.
Maenzraat = Wedding eve.
Dukhtaran-e-Millat = Literally: “Daughters of the Faithful”. An Islamist pro-azadi Kashmiri women’s organization.
Chechi mulkik = Literally: “Nation’s uncles.” Avuncular, nosy people.
Mulk-e-Kashmir = The nation of Kashmir.
Radeef = In a poem, especially a ghazal, the refrain.
Nahi milte ho tum mujhsay toh sab hamdard hain maray. Zamaana mujhsay jal jaaye agar tum milnay aajao = From the ghazal: “Tamana phir macchal jaye agar tum milne aajao” by Javed Akhtar, popularly sung by Jagjit Singh
Parbat woh sab say ouncha, chamcha maiñ aasmañ ka = A variation on a couplet from the ghazal “Tarana-e-Hindi” by Allama Iqbal.
Koshur = The word for “Kashmiri” in the Kashmiri language. The word has distinct female and plural variants as well.
Kaesher ikhlaakh = Kashmiri etiquette.
Digar nimaz = Afternoon prayers.
Mutre kood = Incontentia missus.
WHAM = Winning Hearts and Minds. A psychological operation of the Indian armed forces in Kashmir, immortalized in the quote, “Get them by their balls, hearts and minds will follow.”