4 weeks ago

Karamat Ali Khan and the Price of Snow — A Short Story by O. Kashmiri

In this third instalment of the Karamat Ali Khan series, O. Kashmiri brings us the fictional account of how the…

He heard it on the radio. Black Beard announced in the House of States that the Mountain Side and all its villages were now the property of the Republic. Until then, the Mountain Side was promised safety from the teeming masses down in the Plains below, mainly to offer its restless inhabitants a false sense of security from being overpowered and subdued. Karamat Ali Khan was a Headman of a once-quiet village which lay on the dirt-track highway that led to the front where a war had been fought for seventy years. Black Beard said that the new laws, permitting the people from the Plains to come and live and work in the Mountain Side, would be the end to the conflict—a back-breaking, soul-destroying, patience-wearing, last blow that would settle the question of where and on whose side the Mountain Side was.  

White Beard, who would become Long White Beard the next year in an open attempt to get governance and religion married, was greeted in the House of States and in the House of the People with chants of “Long live!” Black Beard, who later became Salt-and-Pepper Beard with a Round Rotunda and Honourable Virus-Beater, stood up to deliver paeans to his mentor, White Beard. The rest of the rabble, including the Bald Professor who was once a rising star, shouted their approvals, like wolves in a pack scenting a kill and praising the Alpha Male. 

Karamat Ali Khan stared out in the open space below him. The paddy was green, the apples were turning red and yellow, the pears had been harvested, and the sun was shining high in the sky. Phones were off, the internet, whatever that was, was also off, there were loads of Circus masters on the roads directing people where and where not they could go. It was an eerily quiet on the Mountain Side. People went fishing along the streams they had previously ignored. Suddenly it seemed to Karamat like it was all being taken away—the land, the air, the water, with its fish, and the rocks at the bottom of the streams, were all being packed and taken away. Black Beard and White Beard had engineered the coup, Banana-Republic style, with a dose of the ‘Doctrine of Developmental Necessity,’ and done what a learned man had predicted would happen seventy years ago. But Karamat decided the battle was not over.

He summoned all his legal courage gained from solving disputes from neighbour to neighbour, and between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law. He read English dramas and plays and tried to understand them in English, but he could not. He stumbled across a play by William Shakespeare. He could not pronounce the name properly and decided that the little less educated masses of the Mountain Side should know the playwright as “Wali Ahmed Sheikh Peer,” the biggest English Peer of them all. On the first Friday after the Sale of the Mountain Side, Karamat made his way to the pulpit and spoke. He addressed the worshippers. He began by praising the Lord and thanking Him, and then he asked the people not to lose hope. He would find a way out of this mess.

The people had been sold once before, a long time ago, along with the land, air, and water, and that had turned out to be quite a miserable experience. He would not allow it to happen again to the people of the Mountain Side. He would summon whatever resources he had and fight it. When asked by an impatient young man longing for herodom how he planned to fight Black Beard and White Beard, he said he had a plan. He would travel to the Highest Court of the Land and he would claim that what has happened was an extreme travesty of justice. And he had an ace up his sleeve which no one knew about.

Karamat made the trip to the Capital City, a polluted, dirty, hot, humid and noisy carcass of a decaying metropolis. Given his demeanour, his name and I-card address, he found a place to stay in a non-descript hotel in the once-majestic Old Capital City, with great difficulty as all three of these identifiers raised suspicion by default at the centre of that Republic. He spent a few nights fixing his case in the Highest Court of the Land. He finally got a date for the first appearance in front of the Learned Man who administered justice to the billions below him, with no fear of the Lord. Karamat explained to the Learned Man that the people of the Mountain Side were not consulted when the sale took place. How can a sale happen without the consent of the proprietors?

The Learned Man, who had heard him speak passionately, said there was no merit in what Karamat was saying and threw him and his case out. Karamat went back, drew up another case, and re-appeared in the Highest Court of the Land a few days later. This time he had a stronger case. He called it the “Pound of Flesh, but not a Drop of Blood Rule.”

Borrowing from the Merchant of Venice and trying to act as sly as the Jewish moneylender in Sheikh Peer’s play, Karamat took the stand and spoke.

“Milord, may you be pleased. The sale has happened. Honourable Black Beard and Honourable White Beard have sold the Mountain Side and the land, air, water, and people upon it. This includes the rocks at the bottom of streams, the fish in the rivers, the cattle in the pastures, the shelters for those cattle, the trees in the forests, the wood that those trees yield, and everything else. To all of this, there is no doubt. But, Milord, what if it snows? What then? Snow does not come from the land, it does not come from the water, it is not part of the air. What if snow covers the land, what if snow covers all the land and all the streams and the homes and the roads and the people walking on those roads? What then? Since the snow is not part of the Sale Deed, and it does not come from any source other than the heavens, why should snow also be sold? Milord, may you pleased to declare that snow is a Force Majeure, an Act of God, which renders the Sale Deed null and void until the snow lasts. Milord, may you be pleased to tell the people of the Mountain Side that whatever is covered by snow, as long as it is covered by snow, is rightfully theirs and theirs alone.”

The Learned Man listened with disbelief. There was little by way of legal precedence to this atrocious claim, but the Old Man had a point. What was the Learned Man to do? He decided to play the oldest trick in the House. Delay. Delay. Delay. Karamat was told the Learned Man had to think, had to read, and had to understand the mechanics of snow and snowmelt and it would take him six months to do so. The Learned Man was buying time so that Black Beard and White Beard could come up with a new Sale Deed which would supersede the Sale Deed, just like the Sale Deed had superseded many older Sale Deeds. Six months passed, Karamat kept turning up, and the Learned Man kept turning him away. Until Spring came, and the Learned Man was told that there would be no more snow that year until the late winter. The Learned Man summoned Karamat Ali Khan, village Headman, and part-time teacher, to the Highest Court of the Land—in the middle of a warm spring.

Karamat Ali Khan came, his beard white and his hairline receded, and his heart heavy from having to keep giving his people in the village false hopes about a time when the fish would be theirs again. The Learned Man asked him to stand and read out his verdict on the case.

“The old man has come with an interesting argument. The Court agrees with the view that snow is an Act of God that nullifies the Sale Deed. The Court directs that anything that is covered by snow in the Mountain Side is no longer bound by the Sale Deed. The Court directs Black Beard to come up with a new Sale Deed as soon as possible to erase this anomaly. Court dismissed.”

Karamat went home. He laughed, and played, and ran up the mountain to his village to inform his people about their victory. When it would snow, whatever that would be covered by snow, would be theirs and theirs alone. Karamat was seen dancing in the streets, playing a drum and shouting, “Pray for snow, pray for Freedom.” It was seditious to utter the word “Freedom” on the Mountain Side, no matter the context. The fact that the people of the Plains had fought for their own Freedom from the Land of Shaikh Peer was of no consequence, because that was considered history. Now it was all about One Nation, One Leader, One Colour, One Language. And crimes committed in the name of the Mother-as-Nation would be condoned if they fell in the ambit of this peculiar oneness.

Karamat had none of it. It was late Spring, the flowers had bloomed on the rose bushes, the leaves had sprouted on the trees, and the grass was green. But Karamat asked everyone to pray for snow. At first, the mosque made a passing mention of it during after-prayers. Then Karamat made them mention it on Fridays, before and after prayers. He even got a special rice dish cooked, called Tehri, which was distributed as tradition mandated among his people—as an offering to happiness, sickness, births, deaths, good dreams, and bad dreams.

This time it was for snow. Everyone walking by a bowl of Tehri had to make the obligatory stop to take a handful and pray for the soul who offered the Tehri. When weeks passed, and spring was about to end in a few days, Karamat begged the people at the mosque and the village to pray a special prayer for rain. Everyone joined in, including the impatient young man who wanted herodom. They prayed fervently for hours and hours until it was dawn, and then everyone went home to get some sleep.

A few hours later, a splendid miracle of nature in all its glory manifest before the entire village on the Mountain Side!

Thick, black clouds came across the mountains, the kind of clouds that scare not just humans, but animals as well—clouds that are dark, endless and foreboding. In a while, thunder was heard, then lightning, and then light rain, which gave way to heavy rain, and then in a miracle of miracles, it started snowing lightly. Gradually, the snow gained in bulk and mass, and it snowed even more heavily. The snow began to collect on the ground and on the naked branches and flower petals and blades of grass and the roads and the roofs and the rocks by the side of the streams and on the backs of animals that were still out to graze.

In the span of a few hours, the land on the Mountain Side and the Valley below had turned from the shades of green into a serene white. It snowed and snowed, and the land was coated in pure icy white. A Force Majeure, an Act of God, had indeed taken place. Shouting at the top of his voice, Karamat went outside with jubilant yells of “Freedom, Freedom! There is no owner to the snow! Snow is priceless!” And everyone came out of their homes to witness the majestic snow settling in at the end of their spring.

That day was a memorable one on the Mountain Side. People left work to play on the roads, and in the parks, and in the village commons. The mud-sack huts that protected the Soldiers—who could not speak the Language—disappeared under the weight of the snow. The Circus charmers who would stop traffic every day to allow the Circus Troupe to pass, did not report for duty. There was no one on the roads to ask the indigenous pedestrians where they came from and where they had to go.

Children stepped outside and played their games the way they wanted to, not worried about being picked up by men in brown and green uniforms. Women stayed out till late that night, not worried about being stopped at checkpoints. Young men stayed out till late too, driving their bikes and cars and blasting this music on vehicle speakers, not worried about being shot dead for not halting at checkpoints, or misunderstanding a soldier’s command.

Everything belonged to the natives once again. People thronged old shops that had been walled off by dirty barbed wire and mud-sacks that had grown their own grass. People crowded their relatives’ homes that were once too far to travel to because there were too many checkpoints on the way. People sang the word “Freedom” so many times that they forgot it was seditious to even whisper. People wrote forgotten slogans in the snow. They wrote old stories about times gone by in the icy white. They spoke in a language that was once theirs. They spoke without fear. Their heads were held high.

For that one day, fear stayed away from the Mountain Side and people remembered a time when the birds sang, and the fish swam and the rocks at the bottom of the streams belonged to them. Overnight, the snow stopped falling. Everyone slept a sound sleep, not fearful of any midnight knocks or blazing headlights from armoured vehicles. Parents slept well, in the belief that no brown and green uniform-wearing men were going to come when snow was on the ground. Children slept in peace. Old people slept serenely, with the kind of rest that they had not found for decades. Everything was like the old times again.

The storm abated overnight, the sun came out in the morning, and the snow began to melt. As the sound of the morning prayers drifted across the Mountain Side and the Valley became quiet, the cacophony came back. The soldiers returned to their checkpoints with their loud trucks blowing their infernal whistles. The suited men returned to the offices to draft the Law that would determine the price of snow. The young men cut their hair short, the young women left home to return early. Children were scared by the stories of soldiers once again. Old men were reminded of their times in the camps facing down angry uniformed men with guns and batons.

No one forgot the snow. And no one would ever forget that day, when snow fell, and fear departed their hearts and minds. And for a brief interlude between suffering after suffering, and misery after misery, the natives smiled.   

It was spring again. Karamat waited for winter to arrive again.

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