"Life in the Clock Tower Valley", the debut novel by Kashmiri journalist Shakoor Rather, travels between “Kashmir’s pristine past, its…
Life in the Clock Tower Valley, the debut novel by Kashmiri journalist Shakoor Rather, travels between “Kashmir’s pristine past, its grievous present and always uncertain future, giving us an insider’s view into everyday life and emotions in the conflict-ridden valley.”
Shakoor’s novel unfolds on the affective plane by focusing on the everyday emotions felt and hardships faced by the common people of Kashmir, beyond the constant state of conflict and the military presence that exacerbates it. “It includes fascinating historical and political information about Kashmir as well as environmental issues that are seldom talked about,” the novel’s publisher (Speaking Tiger Books) notes in describing this work of literary fiction.
An exclusive excerpt from the novel, published here with permission from Speaking Tiger Books follows along with an independently curated list of links pertinent to the author’s work.
“What will happen now, Abbu?” — An Excerpt from Life in the Clock Tower Valley by Shakoor Rather
Then he turned his attention back to the cow. The time of the cow’s delivery was drawing near. Mubarak had seen the tell-tale signs exhibited by the cow. To compound the inconvenience caused by the curfew, there had been a shortage of milk in the valley for over a month. Days had gone by with black salt-tea for the family. Black tea in white cups, half-sips gulped down half-heartedly.
Exactly at fifteen past eight in the morning, the vet showed up at the door in an army-green jacket with wool scrapings coming out of the burnt hole in his collar at the back. He wore long hippy trousers and was carrying a white cowboy hat pressed tightly under his arm. People referred to him variously as Dactor Saeb, Doctor Sahab, Gupan Dactar (animal doctor) or ‘vetanary’. He was carrying his equipment in a brown Gucci leather satchel, courtesy the Sunday flea market. He would often be seen carrying two things on his person: his second-hand bag and his first-hand notion of being the only professional around. Once in a while, he would even examine humans and prescribe medicines. Mubarak rushed him to the backyard where the cow was.
Hearing the commotion, Sana woke up and ran towards the window facing the backyard. She peeped through the windowpane to look into the cowshed, her pink cheeks and green eyes pressed against the mesh of the window. She looked like a daffodil flowering under the sun, emerging from the mud pot, growing tall against gravity. She greeted the vet with a salaam, but he barely noticed. He was already busy examining the cow, not wanting to waste any more crucial time.
Sana’s mother had found herself something to do in the balcony enclosed with pinjra jaalis, on the second floor of the house. Naziya was trying to distract herself from the happenings around her. She was wearing a brown cotton pheran with qurab sleeves folded back, and with silver embroidery all over the chest and the edges. The small wrinkles around the corner of her eyes, belying her age, had stories to tell; perhaps the sorrow of not being able to conceive a child for a long time had made them deeper. The cow had been a favourite of her mother-in-law. When she was alive, she never allowed Naziya around the cow. Once when her mother-in-law was unwell, Naziya had gone to milk the cow. The cow wasn’t comfortable around her and kicked whenever she came near her. But that didn’t mean Naziya hated the cow or didn’t want it to do well through its labour—she was just indifferent.
She watched Sana through the colourful translucent glass window that had aged and melted in summer afternoons over the years. Trusses of red chilies hung from the wooden nail on the brick wall to bake in the sun, and sliced bottle gourds and brinjals were kept in a cane tray to dry.
While the vet examined the cow, Mubarak looked on with helplessness on his face and hope in his heart. The varied shapes and sheen of the tools the vet was carrying seized his attention. For a few seconds, Mubarak’s mind was mired in thoughts of his metal workshop that continued to bear the brunt of indefinite curfews and strikes. He had never had the opportunity to use so many tools in the metal workshop.
Mubarak’s train of thoughts was interrupted by the vet’s urgent voice. The cow had developed complications. He quickly wrote down a prescription. ‘Get these hormone injections. They are necessary for your cow. Get them at any cost,’ the vet was speaking to him.
A troubled Mubarak thought of his childhood when no such complications would arise. Cows delivered without any hassle. All they needed was someone to look after them. No such procedures were followed, for one life to survive and for another to arrive. Mubarak didn’t know how to get the injections in the curfew and neither did the doctor. He himself had run out of supplies.
As if on a mission, Mubarak leaped and howled through the street, running breathlessly towards the market to find a veterinary medical shop. At the end of the street he encountered a barricade erected by the cops.
The potholes were big enough to harbour colonies of shelled molluscs during rains. Mubarak looked up towards the sky: dark clouds were fast appearing over his head. He felt that God had shut all doors of kindness on the Sheikh family. He ran through the opposite street, looking for a medical store there, but in vain. Mubarak stood helpless against the backdrop of the brick wall where the graffiti read, ‘Sheikh the Messiah, Sheikh the traitor’.
Mubarak passed by Dr Ali’s residential clinic. The shutters were down. He approached the alley leading to the main door of Dr Ali’s house only to be greeted by a metal lock on the door.
Where could he be, Mubarak wondered. Just last week, he had heard at the bakery about an anonymous letter addressed to the doctor. Maybe he had left the valley like other renowned practitioners, who had gone to other countries seeking peace and better opportunities. Or could it just be a family vacation?
As a dejected Mubarak traced his steps back towards the street, his eyes fell on the hoardings hanging on the electricity poles on the roadside near Hamza mosque. A flock of pigeons sat in a straight line on the wires, as if they had been lined up for a military crackdown. They took turns to fly to the ground to peck on corn and rice grains thrown for them. Sprinkled with bird droppings, some of the electricity poles had turned grey and white. One of the hoardings put up by the electronic giant LG read ‘Life’s good’. The irony of the situation was not lost on Mubarak. He had made every effort to get the injection to save his cow, even climbing walls to ask for it from people who he knew had cows. A few chemists who had opened their shops turned him away as they did not have it and some others were rushing to lower their shutters as the deadline for the reimposition of curfew was nearing.
Vultures had gathered over the skies of Sheikh Mohalla when he reached his house. He rang the doorbell with trembling hands and the grim, mournful face of his wife appeared. As the vultures took their positions on the sky-high poplar trees, Mubarak turned pale. His heart began to race as if he had run a marathon. The cow had been more than an animal, worth more than the seven thousand rupees it was bought for, more than the milk and curd she gave. All the tools of the doctor and all injections were irrelevant now. The curfew had sucked out his hope and his cow’s life.
He walked to the cowshed where he saw Sana point at a movement in the straw. A souvenir left by the cow rested on the ground—all covered with gum and hay, like a crimson strawberry topping on a vanila ice cream. The cow had delivered. Sana was jubilant, but sensing the grief on her father’s face, she decided not to smile. Looking at the carcass on the patch of hay right next to the calf, Sana quietly asked her father, ‘What will happen now, Abbu?’
‘Black tea for a few more months, Sana,’ Mubarak replied with a wry smile.
Amidst this hustle, I seek thou
In profound suffering this feeling somehow
How easy it seems, but to say goodbye
I‘ll measure your return through the arch of my bow
I tried and destiny had a tale to tell
I pray for your journey my dear cow
My cow, my lost cow.
Shakoor Rather is a Kashmiri journalist based in Delhi. He has written extensively about Kashmir’s politics, society, culture and heritage. Having grown up in the Kashmir Valley during its most difficult decades, he writes with rare sensitivity about the different dimensions of the conflict there. In a journalistic career spanning nearly a decade, he has also travelled widely, reporting on scientific and technological advancements as well as environmental issues from various countries.