Salam’s wife returns from the cowshed with an empty bucket in her hand and shakes Salam off his sleep.
‘The cattle-thieves have taken away our cow during the night,’ she squeals and pummels her chest.
This is the tenth incident of cow rustling in the village. And the seventieth day of the curfew in Kashmir valley. All modes of communication have been blocked. People are cut off from each other and from the rest of the world. Life has been stifled. Only in far-off villages do people move about a little, yet everywhere the air is filled with the odour of rot.
The hand-to-mouth existence of the people like Salam has been throttling, for they haven’t been able to earn anything for months.
Salam flings aside the quilt, ups and runs out. He enters the cowshed where the emptiness terrifies him. He leans against the wall and draws a deep breath, resisting an urge to cry.
Salam had not sold even a single banana or an orange for so long. All the markets are shut, and the nearby towns wear a menacingly deserted look. The fresh fruits have rotten inside his cart. All that he had to meet his family’s expenditure during all these months was the money from the cow’s milk that he sold every morning.
The news of the theft spreads. The villagers rush into Salam’s house to express their sympathies. During the curfew relaxation hours, the relatives also turn up. They indulge in a long discussion.
‘The curfew is the culprit,’ says one woman. ‘It eventually forces people to commit thefts. It breeds many such evils.’
‘Yes, and for the fear of Army men, no one would risk one’s life and dare come out during the dark to scare the thieves away. Even if one happens to see them at night when cattle are stolen,’ another woman says.
‘People here are so desperate now. They mistake bad for good, good for bad,’ a man chips in.
An old man breathes a long sigh and scratches his beard. ‘I can’t understand’, he says, ‘if we are living for a noble end. Or just dying for a living death?’
The discussion continues.
Salam’s wife forces her scowling face to carry a friendly expression, and serves them well: a glass of juice, a cup of tea, or a plate of rice.
Salam slaughters three home-grown roosters for a few of the relatives, for they have come to his home for the first time. He seeks their forgiveness for not being able to provide them with the hospitality he is accustomed to offering his guests.
People keep on coming in and going out of the house.
The kitchen stock is at the verge of running out. The sympathizers, however, continue to pour in. Salam rubs his hands. The stress digs deeper within him and the anxiety grows more intense. He feels sorely at his wit’s end. ‘How I can stop this devouring flood of comforters’, he thinks and broods about a way out. He scratches his head and strains his mind. Finally, an idea strikes him. He summons his wife in a separate room.
‘This rush is not going to abate,’ he tells her. His voice sounds a strange croak. Silence stretches between them, a silence full of thoughts and obscure emotions. Salam wonders why he is not getting the response he has opted for from her. He quivers with nervousness. The wife cups her chin in her hands.
‘What to do now?’ she finally asks.
Salam shares his idea in hushed tones with her and finishes by saying,
‘I think this is the only way to stop the flow.’
‘But it is…,’ the wife adjusts the bangles on her wrist and wipes her brow.
‘You have to do this cleverly. I know you can.’ Salam insists and seeks her opinion. A look of mixed grief and joy crosses his wife’s face.
‘Okay, I will do it,’ she says, seemingly confused.
Nearly around the time of the sundown, Salam’s wife goes out.
‘We have traced our cow. We will get it back soon. We are happy now,’ she informs some of the women in the neighbourhood exactly the way Salam had suggested. However, the clouds of confusion don’t rush away from her face.
On her return, Salam breathes a sigh of relief.
The words of Salam’s wife reach, by word of mouth, to all the villagers and eventually travel to the relatives.
The next day, and to his shock, a large bevy of village women arrive, bombarding loud greetings and congratulations onto Salam and his wife. In the evening, a caravan of relatives troops in, spewing words of exultation. All of them empty handed. And, most probably, with their stomachs empty as well, expecting the best hospitality ever this time around.
Salam’s heart skips a beat and his legs shake. He compulsively runs his fingers through his hair and looks at his wife. Both drown in deadly silence as they exchange a glance of nervousness, of suffocation.
Salam sits down, for he is swamped by a profound desperation. An uncommon calamity sits heavy on him and, like many times in this longest curfew, he considers striking his head.