Karamat Ali Khan and The Book of Memories — A Short Story by O. Kashmiri

Oct 10, 2021

In this fourth installment of the Karamat Ali Khan series of short stories, O. Kashmiri returns with a compelling fictional account of how Karamat gathered the news of killings, rapes, arrests, and disappearances in a collection of notebooks stored in his house in the Mountain Side. In an attempt to keep such horrific events from disappearing from public record and against forgetting, the old man risks his life well beyond his means and at the service of collective memory.

I

 

The Book of Memories was not a single bound volume. It was a collection of diaries stored in a steel trunk in a room in Karamat Ali Khan’s house that was situated in his village on the Mountain Side.

 II

 

Everyone heard the news on their radios, and they saw it transpire on their television sets, and on their phones. The Great Leaders of the warring countries had decided to end the war that was being fought to end the war that had been started when the Great War had ended. The lines in the grass were to be replaced by walls of steel and concrete with no gaps in between. The walls were to be erected so high that even birds could not fly over them. And even packs of dogs, with the DNA of both warring nations in them, were to be separated from each other forever.

The Great Leader, a demigod, with his larger-than-life portrait adorning every household that had cooking gas, children’s books, grain, or vaccines, in his country, told his loyal subjects and worshippers that the time had come to be generous and kind and to give away a part of what was rightfully theirs along the path to peace. Everyone nodded. They thought, “It is time for us to re-educate the people of the Mountain Side, over whom this war was fought. It is time to make them forget the past and make them think of the future. And what a bright future!”

The Great Cricketer, a cricketer-turned-philanthropist-turned-politician-turned-hated-hero, told his people to think about “the hungry kids of the Land of the Pure.” He even displayed images of the scans of the brains of these poor, malnourished kids and asked his people, “Isn’t this more important than a scrappy piece of land on the Mountains?” Everyone nodded. From the snowy peaks in the North, to the deserts of the South-West, to the lush green plains of the Centre, and the rugged, dry, restful mountains of the West, everyone nodded. They thought, “It is time to end malnutrition. It is time to rid ourselves of the war that has caused this malnutrition. It is time for us to forget the people of the Mountain Side.”

And it happened thus. The Land of the Pure forgot about the Mountain Side and the people of that green, fertile, cold, welcoming place. The Great Leader’s country too, forgot about the Mountain Side, but they did it by ignoring the Natives. The Great Leader passed edict after edict proclaiming the end to this law and that, until the Final Law. The Final Law was supposed to end any remnants, any memories, any symbols of the people of the Mountain Side. They were to be ‘integrated.’ They were to be ‘forgotten by means of assimilation.’ Their history, their ways of life, their clothes, their language, were all to be subsumed into the One Nation, One Language, One Religion Theory. Their names, their faces, their homes, the names of their towns, the names of their valleys, were all to be changed to reflect the Unity of the One Nation, all under One Union. There was little the Natives of the Mountain Side could do to stop this Final Law from being implemented. Those who dared to raise their voices against the Final Law were whisked away to far-off jails for years on end, at best, and at worst, were never heard of again. The Final Law would result in the erasure from the collective memory of the place and people of the Mountain Side.

The Natives who worked under the Great Leader’s apparatus went about their jobs with a zeal reserved for religious festivities. Graveyards were erased to make way for wider roads. Places and buildings that carried the memory of events past were torn down and rebuilt in the image of the Great Leader. Children born were given names as per a roster devised by a famous local Native. The Great Leader decided what crop was to be planted and when. Apples and paddy were banned. Apparently, many historical events were tied to apple trees and paddy fields. It all worked according to plan. In a few years, the children looked different, talked different, and had different names from those of their forefathers. They were told no tales of the past. They were designed to be worker bees, essential for the survival of a colony, but with no mind or memory of their own. There was only one problem.

Some old men and women, through no fault of their own, remembered, and many times all too well.

The Great Leader was informed of this travesty. In his immense wisdom he directed to collect all the old people with intact memories of the past and transport them to ‘re-education camps’ that were scattered throughout the length and breadth of the country that now officially included the Mountain Side. With the old people gone, with the names and faces changed, there would be no memory of what had happened, whenever it had happened and where it had happened.

The edict was passed. All old people with intact memories were to be collected, bundled up into transport vehicles, and taken to camps throughout the country in specially designed trains. The Natives went about identifying those old people they knew and reporting them to the authorities. In a few weeks, the Mountain Side was emptied of its old, frail, elderly and dependent. Few ever asked questions. No one asked why it was happening. Many old people died during the transportation. Some old people, unwilling to forget, killed themselves. Some other old people, hated for their memories and ramblings of the past, were killed by their sons and daughters to spare them the trouble of travelling to hotter, humid climes elsewhere and die alone and lonely under indefinite confinement. Some old people feigned ignorance and confusion when asked their own names. The authorities of the Mountain Side realised the only way they could test the memories of these actors was to ask them to complete the sentence, “We want…” And the old people with memories, without thinking much, would say the word, “Freedom.”

III

 

Karamat Ali Khan was quite old, frail, with only a few strands of white hair on his bald head, and a thick, flowing, white beard. He was the village headman a long time ago, long before the edict was passed that prevented Natives from taking positions of authority. He had travelled the length and breadth of the country and watched its imagination being captured by a murderous zealot who now professed to be a magnanimous Great Leader. He had sighed at the sights unfolding in front of his eyes and oftentimes wept softly at the fate that awaited this once great nation. But he was a minority in a majority that was a minority in another majority, and no one listened to him anymore. There was a time when he was sought after for his advice and his opinion. He was especially revered for his memory.

During the days of trouble, which had never really ended, when there were few phones, and no televisions, when the news was heard on the radio, and rumours spread by word of mouth, people would walk from far away to ask Karamat a few questions. He would tune into the radio, punctually, every morning, afternoon, and night. He maintained a diary which no one saw. In the diary he took down the names and addresses of the dead, the disappeared, the raped and the arrested. Each day, the Native Police would give out a statement on the “numbers,” because that is what Native life had been reduced to – numbers. Except for Karamat. He felt it his duty to keep that diary full of names and addresses. Each year he would purchase a new diary and keep the old one in his ever-burgeoning trunk full of diaries. He called it The Book of Memories. He used to tell anyone who would cast doubts at his sanity, “It is the duty of the living to remember the dead.”

Mothers would come from far off after years of visiting prisons far and wide to enquire about their sons. Wives came to him to ask about their husbands. Sons, now old enough to feel the absence of the fathers they never saw, came to ask about their fathers. Daughters too. So came the brothers, in hope of finding some closure to their pain. They came and asked Karamat whether the names of their loved ones were written in his diaries. And Karamat would diligently take down the names on scraps of paper and go inside his room and disappear for a few minutes. And he would come back with the news on their deaths whenever there was a match. Mothers would cry, wives would wail, sons would weep, brothers would beat their chests. If ever Karamat declared someone to be dead, that person was most surely dead and gone forever. Not half-dead, not disappeared, not half-alive, not arrested, not detained, not missing. Well and truly dead. No habeas corpus would force anyone to produce them before any court of law anywhere.

After the edicts on old people were passed, and Karamat’s old friends were being handed over to the Native Police for transportation, attention in the village shifted over to Karamat. There were whispers, which became screams. “Send the old man away,” some said. “He knows too much for his own good,” said others. “His memory is a burden on us,” said some others. His neighbours decided to report him to the Native Police. As Karamat once had four sons, now all dead and gone, and three daughters, now married and gone, and a wife, now old and blind without a memory or an education, the villagers took it upon themselves to comply with the new edict and report him to the Native Police.

The Native Police knew more.

They knew Karamat had a trunk full of diaries, The Book of Memories. And they wanted it too. The plan was simple. In the dead of the night, while the village slept, the Native Police, in their traditional modus operandi, would enter Karamat’s house, ransack it, take away anything of value and take Karamat to be transported to a ‘re-education camp.’ The trunks would be emptied, and the contents burnt. No one could know what was in them or what stories Karamat had written or documented.

The night was illuminated by a full moon. There were no dogs in the courtyard to bark at the presence of strangers, silhouettes, or ghosts. There were no sheep left in the paddock. There were no chickens in the coop. When the Native Police came to ransack Karamat’s home and take him away, there was little by way of warning or resistance anywhere. The heavens and the earth had probably conspired to rid themselves of the burden of his memories. It was cold. Karamat was woken up by the kick of an over-zealous Native Policeman who was not a Native, and who used whatever insulting expletive he could conjure to wake the old man up. Karamat’s wife was not woken, as she was deaf. Karamat was not allowed to put on any warm clothes. He was not allowed to relieve himself for the last time in his own home. He was blindfolded.

A young Native Policeman went into the ‘secret’ room and found a bunch of trunks with dairies in them. No one could read what was in the diaries. In their overzealousness to prove themselves loyal subjects of the Great Leader, they emptied the contents in the front courtyard and lit a fire. The Book of Memories, a book about times gone by in the Mountain Side, the chronicles of the pain of mothers, father, wives, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters, became ashes, dust, and smoke within a few minutes. Karamat could see the blazing glow of the fire through his blindfold. His faith in the One, True God kept him company. Some Native Policemen laughed. Some sneered. Some looked at him and said, “Well, that’s it.”

The old woman slept through the night. It had been years since she had seen or heard her husband. It had been only a few hours ago that Karamat had cooked their last meal together, and a few minutes before the Native Police had come bashing through their unlocked and unguarded door. He had covered her with a blanket on a cold night lit by a full moon, just a few hours before. She had responded to his familiar touch, like so many times in the past. Neither of them knew that it would be the last time he touched her.

Karamat was taken to the police station where he was not allowed to use the toilet. “Old men don’t know how to pee,” was what the Native Policeman who was not a Native said to him when he asked politely. Karamat thought of his wife and about who would take her to the toilet when she would wake up all alone. He was not thinking about the embers that lay scattered in his front courtyard. He was bundled, still blindfolded and pushed into a jeep that would take him to the headquarters where he was to be loaded onto a bigger truck to be transported to the place where he inevitably would have to spend the remaining years of his life.

As the jeep made its way across the winding paths downhill, Karamat felt a sudden urge to urinate, an urge which he could not control. And as the driver swivelled the jeep across one of the many hairpin bends, his urine trickled out. It wet his pyjamas, and then wet the seat on which he had been seated, making a small pool in the depressed centre, spreading further right, and left and soiling the dryer portion of his clothes. He did not say a word. Relief and agony swept through his body at the same time. As the driver negotiated another turn, the urine overflowed from the small pool it had made at the centre of the centre seat where Karamat sat and wet the adjacent seat. The Native Policeman—a local Native who was drunk on power and connections and was doing the bidding of The Great Leader with the dedication of a worker ant—felt his pants getting damp. In an instant he knew what had happened. The odd chance of detainees, particularly those elderly arrested, urinating themselves while being transported in a blindfold was not too uncommon. In fact, with this new policy in place, it was less of an exception, and more of a rule.

Nonetheless, the repetitive nature of the occurrence did not divert the Policeman’s anger, rather it became an excuse for yet another outburst of anger. “Stupid old man!” he shouted. “Stop the damn jeep,” he blurted at the driver. “The stupid old man has pissed in his pants!”

The driver gradually brought the jeep to a halt on the side of the road. Below, a Valley with a stream at its centre lay to one side, with the foreboding rocks of the mountain on the other. The men got down and stretched their legs while the Policeman, with Karamat’s urine running moist through his pants, tried to clean it off with some water. Karamat sat where he was, relieved, ashamed, and wet at the same time. No one asked him whether he was alright. For the young men that night, this old man was a burden. The policemen got back on the jeep and the driver started the engine, pressed the accelerator, and began the journey again.

At that very instant, a dog appeared from behind a roadside bush and made a dash for the other side. The driver, in an attempt to avoid hitting the dog, turned the car hard to the left, applied the brakes, and ultimately lost control of the vehicle. The momentum carried the jeep forward and to the side and it tipped to lie on its right, with all the policemen piled on top of one another inside, the driver at the bottom. Somehow, Karamat found himself at the top of the pile and close to the window. The sudden movement and possibly the fingers of a policeman trying to grab at something had pulled his blindfold off and he could see what was happening. The ropes tying his hands had also come loose. He was free and he could see.

In that moment, under the moonlit sky, on top of a pile of four injured Native Policemen, who an instant ago had been transporting him to the place where he would spend the rest of his waking life, Karamat decided to be young again. He decided that his life, or whatever was left of it, had deeper meaning, and he was going to live out that meaning. He lunged for the broken window that opened to the night sky, grabbed the door handle, and pulled himself with strength of a younger man. In a second he was out of the jeep; the moans and painful cries of the policemen inside did not distract him. He knew where he was.

Karamat left the upturned jeep and its occupants where they were, and he began walking down the slope to the Valley below. He knew the stream led elsewhere. It led to the Land of the Pure. Maybe he could find a way. There was no way he was going back home to his blind, deaf wife. She would have to die alone, without him. There were bigger things for him to do.

Karamat crossed the stream and made it to the other side before daybreak. He rested against a rock on the bank opposite a Native Police post. As he slept, he was awoken by the sound of gunshots being fired. Later he would swear that he felt one bullet whiz past his ears. He stood up with his hands up, unwilling to hide and be shot anyway, like thousands who had crossed the stream for the cause of Freedom. He shouted in a pitiful tone, with a purposeful intonation, explaining that he was a frail old man and he had lost his way.

The shots were being fired from the bank he was on, a few hundred feet away. From the language and the colour of the uniforms, the old man understood that these trigger-happy young men were from the Land of the Pure. Karamat instinctively disrobed until he was completely naked. And then in another gist of instinctive impulse, pointed to a circumcised part of his body and shouted, “I am one of you!” One soldier said to another, “Another one of those mad men who think that this is a land of milk and honey!” The second one asked, “Shall we let him walk?” “Yes, he seems pretty old and useless. And we have some empty graveyards,” sneered the first one.

Karamat took a few tentative steps and when he realised that he was not going to be shot, he put his hands down and started walking, still naked.

When he arrived at the gate of the post where the soldiers who were shooting at him were positioned, his mind blanked out. He felt darkness around him, he felt weak and powerless and cold, and he fainted. When he woke up, he was in a hospital bed hundreds of kilometres away from the stream and farther away from his now very lonely and dying wife.

A young nurse came to check on him. He told her that he was fine. He asked whether there was anyone who remembered what the Mountain Side was. The nurse replied, “No. I have not heard of it. What is it?”

“It was my home,” Karamat said. “Have you heard of Maqbool? Have you heard of Afzal? Have you heard of Ashfaq? Have you heard of Mushtaq? Have you heard of Parveena? Have you heard of Asiya? Have you …” The nurse kept shaking her head. “Bring a pen and paper please,” he requested.

Years later, in the Karamat Ali Khan Memorial Hospital, the room where Karamat was first admitted had become a museum, a site of pilgrimage for the people from the Land of the Pure.

It was the room where, Karamat Ali Khan, the dishevelled, naked man who crossed a stream and was almost shot, with arms too weak to write with, dictated The Book of Memories to a nurse. The Book would contain the names of all the men, women, and children who were killed, disappeared, or raped and molested and never heard of again in the Mountain Side during endless years of trouble. It had their names, their addresses, the dates of their deaths and disappearances, and the places where their graves lay before they were desecrated and forgotten. The ashes and dust that had become of the countless diaries that the Native Police burnt on the courtyard contained nothing of value.

Karamat had memorised every name, every address, every event, every place, every tragedy that had befallen his people. He had memorised all of it, every single detail, as a Hafiz would memorise the Quran, except, for him, there would be no spiritual reward. He had carried the burden of an unresolved history and its horrors in his memory, which now lay recorded in the ink on the paper that composed The Book of Memories

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About the Contributor

The author is a doctor working in Kashmir. His pen name is O. Kashmiri.