When the Light Dawned by Somnath Zutshi — A Book Excerpt from The Greatest Kashmiri Short Stories Ever Told (trans. Neerja Mattoo, Aleph, 2022)
April 1, 2022
We are proud to present Somnath Zutshi's short story "When the Light Dawned" excerpted from The Greatest Kashmiri Short Stories Ever Told (Aleph, 2022) selected and translated by Neerja Mattoo. Inverse Journal has independently curated a visual bibliography of links relevant to the book and its author. Special thanks to Majid Maqbool for sourcing this excerpt.

When the Light Dawned

Somnath Zutshi

Showers of snow had been falling for two days now, with no break at all. If one looked up to the sky one could see nothing but insect-like small flakes descending, dancing, and twirling to the ground. But if one looked at the houses around, the flakes seemed to grow bigger, like fat, swollen balls of cotton wool, as if a ginner were at work and masses of ginned wool had been piling up near him, or as if it was spring and all the pear trees had been gathered in one place and given a thorough shaking to make their white blossoms fall and cover the whole ground. Yesterday there had not been such a thick layer of snow, but today everything had been so densely blanketed over that nothing could be seen beyond a few feet. Everything beyond that was a blur of mist. The day was coming to an end.

At the end of his day, Rasool, wrapped from top to toe in a tattered, wet blanket, was walking home with long strides. He had been free from work earlier than usual that day; because of the unending snowfall there was not much work at Lallaji’s shop. The bales of things that had to be loaded and unloaded would have been ruined in the snow. Besides Lallaji had begun preparations to celebrate Republic Day a day earlier and had sent off Rasool on several errands: to the Potters’ mohalla to fetch earthen lamps, to the ginner to buy cotton wool for wicks, to the grocer for oil for the illumination, to the halwai to give him an advance for the sweetmeats he was to make, to the milkman to bring all the ordered milk and cream early in the morning. After Rasool had done all this and come back to the shop, Lallaji looked him up and down and asked, ‘Well, have you done all that you were asked to do? Has all the stuff reached home?’

Lallaji had been doing business in Kashmir for a long time. He was originally from Amritsar, but now he had picked up Kashmiri too.

‘Yes, Mahara, everything is done.’ Rasool said, ‘Could you please pass the chillum? I will fill it.’ But Lallaji had lost interest in the conversation and was again engrossed in the accounts. Rasool stretched his hand forward and picked up the chillum from the hookah. He filled it with tobacco and live charcoal, put it to his lips and took some puffs from it to see that it was ready, then placed it on the ornate hookah with its coiled pipe and said, ‘Mahara, my toes are ready to fall off with the cold and my son is also ill. Will you let me go now?’

Lallaji was still scanning the account book, muttering, as though abusing chicken-stealers. Rasool received no reply to his appeal. He kept looking at Lallaji, but not in his old, servile manner. Today his eyes had a deep, meaningful look, full of resentment and hatred. In the past, Rasool would not have even dared to look directly at Lallaji’s face—the question of scrutinizing it or studying his dress had never arisen. But today he noticed it all, the pashmina shawl on his shoulders, the ornate hookah, the soft bolsters at his back, the embroidered sheet. Today, he understood everything: the high and the low, the black and the white. Even Lallaji had begun to notice this change in Rasool for some time now and suspected that somebody was trying to instigate him.

The snow kept falling and Lallaji continued looking over his accounts. Rasool waited, his eyes shifting between Lallaji and his own almost frozen, reddened toes in their two-paisa worth grass sandals. ‘Mahara, may I be allowed to leave now?’ he asked.

Lallaji looked up, ‘What did you say? Leave? Oh yes, you may go now, but remember to come a little earlier than usual tomorrow.’

‘Yes Mahara, provided my son is better.’

‘How is he? You should give him lots of hot water to drink, the fever will come down. He will be all right, with God’s grace.’

Wishing Lallaji goodbye, Rasool covered himself with his tattered blanket and, taking long strides, began his journey homewards. Lallaji had explained to him that a wonderful day would dawn tomorrow. And Rasool was thinking that tomorrow India was going to be given its total independence, meaning that at last it would be truly free—the Democratic Republic of India. But then he thought —if this was true, why didn’t Samad Kak, Jamal Dar, or Quadir Sheikh tell him so yesterday? Didn’t they meet one another every evening to talk and discuss the problems at the factory, the difficulties of weavers and embroiderers, the sufferings of the labourers? Why did they keep this important news from him? Lallaji had made so many preparations.

He walked on and found himself in Amira Kadal. A convoy of military vehicles was crossing the bridge. Tongawallahs were holding the reins of their horses and making them walk with careful steps. A band of road-coolies was trying to clear the snow, so that the horses did not slip. Apparently, there was to be an army parade the next day. Today the pavement on the bridge had no beggars or fakirs lining them, they had all been driven away.

There used to be a whole horde of them, but today they had disappeared. Most of them were from the border areas of Gurez and Tulail, who had fled before the tribal raid. Where were they? Rasool crossed the bridge and saw only a little girl there, sitting atop a pile of snow, under the eaves of a shop, the hem of her pheran stretched out. There was also a hawker with a cart next to her, who had been told about tomorrow and the big procession. Rasool stopped near the hawker and greeted him. The man had heard that tomorrow they would all be free, really and truly free. As they began to talk, the little girl said to Rasool, ‘The compassionate Prophet will free you too, as well as your near and dear ones! Give me a paisa.’

Rasool was looking at her when an army truck advanced, tearing through the banks of snow, drenching the little girl’s spread-out pheran completely. The sight made Rasool’s flesh cringe. A memory stirred within him and, wrapping the blanket even tighter around himself, he quickened his steps and walked on, without so much as a glance behind him. It was late, though he had left the shop earlier than usual —his wife had insisted that he come back as soon as possible, for the sake of his son. He thought, ‘she has no idea of what it means to work for a trader…what a hard day’s labour it is…work that makes your blood ooze out of your very nails….’ He must thank the snowfall, otherwise would he have had respite? Now where was he to buy ration for the evening meal, or the liquorice root, dried cowslip, and other herbs that his elderly neighbour Wahab sahib had suggested for his son’s cough? There was no hakim nearby, and he could not carry his fever-stricken son far in this weather. He had gone to a doctor, but he had asked him to bring the child to his clinic the day after tomorrow, tomorrow being Republic Day. Rasool had begged him to see the child the next morning, but he had refused—tomorrow was a day of celebration, when everyone would participate and rejoice. Did he not deserve freedom from the nuisance of dealing with the sick for this one day?

As he approached his home, his sense of unease grew. A man who has no wherewithal, who is caught in troubles, will find his feet reluctant to enter the place where only more problems await him. His wife would ask, ‘Did you bring anything?’ Some of his children would gather around him, cold and hungry with neither warm clothes on their body nor any food in their bellies. Others would be sick. But he steeled himself—in spite of his situation, Rasool had spirit, and it was indomitable. It was late in the day now; there was no sound of birdsong. It seemed that the birds had sought shelter in their nests from the morning itself—it was that kind of day, the snow seemed to have blocked their passage too.

Rasool stepped inside the house, shaking his blanket free of snow, which was dripping wet. He was relieved to be home, but as he climbed the stairs, he saw a steady downpour from a leak in the roof. Rivulets of melting snow fell from the opening. He saw his sick son lying in one corner under a ragged blanket, his wife next to him, shrunk and sunken, like a lamp on the verge of being extinguished for lack of oil. The sight of her husband brought some colour to her face, as her spirit rose a little.

Rasool glanced at the other corner where a little boy and a girl were lying.

‘Tell me, how was he today?’ he asked.

‘How should he be? The same as he was,’ his wife answered.

‘Did he have the decoction?’

‘Just a few sips, that too with great effort.’

While they were talking, the boy had a bout of severe coughing. ‘Baba!’ he whimpered.

‘Yes, my son, how do you feel?’ Rasool put his hand on the boy’s chest. He felt his rapid heartbeat. He had a raging fever. His breath came fast and thick. The mother looked first at her son, then at her husband.

‘Well, children do get these illnesses from time to time…we must not worry,’ Rasool tried to reassure his wife.

‘But he has been like this for many days now. God forbid, if disaster strikes…’ she heaved a deep sigh.

There was another leak in a third corner of the room. The earthenware lamp was beginning to sputter, its wick clogged with soot. Rasool went and trimmed it. ‘Did Samad Kak visit?’ he asked.

‘Yes, he did. Jamal Kak and Quadir Sheikh too came.’

‘What did they say?’

‘They said you never told them about Sula being ill. Then they talked to each other for a while and told me that they would come in the morning with a doctor. They had tried to fetch him then and there but he refused to come—it was past nine and with all the snow….’

‘Why don’t you try to give him some more sips of that herbal decoction?’

His wife again sighed deeply and said, ‘Come, get up my love! Oh God, the whole wide world has found freedom, and we? Nothing but misery and misfortune!’

‘What does God have to do with it?’

The mother fed Sula half a cup of the decoction with great effort and persuasion. Then they ate a few morsels of rice themselves. She handed her husband a grimy quilt, soiled with encrustations of filth over the years. She herself lay down next to Sula. Rasool pulled the quilt over himself, took under it a skeleton of a kangri and tried to sleep. He was so cold that sleep did not come easily. He was tossing and turning when he saw the lamp was sputtering, and about to go out. The sight scared him. His sense of unease increased. Many things came to his mind then. The celebration tomorrow and then his anxieties. He had fought bitterly with his wife the day his son fell ill, and then he had regretted his behaviour just as bitterly.

What had the poor woman done, after all? It wasn’t as if her son’s illness was her fault. He had had a fall in the yard and his clothes were soaked, dripping with mud. She had asked him to take them off. While she washed and dried them, the child had stayed naked for a couple of hours—his father had not been able to buy him another set which he could have changed into. The result was that he had caught a chill and had been ill since then. Thinking of all this made Rasool sigh…and then he was full of anger for Lallaji, who had been talking about the importance of the next day and how he was going to celebrate it as the day of freedom.

Did Lallaji’s children too have things like this happen to them? Did his roof leak in a hundred places? Did his children ever fall into mud? If they didn’t have a car, perhaps they would also trip and fall. It is only people like us, he thought, who stumble and fall and injure themselves, but still get up and carry on. If people like Lallaji should once trip, they will never be able to get up. And they know it, he was sure. Only the other day when Lallaji had got angry and would have normally lost his temper, he had quickly controlled himself and spoken courteously. How long did he think he could fool people with his cleverness? How he had evaded Rasool’s request for an advance of five rupees for his son’s treatment the other day. Giving away money was like the breath leaving his body—oh these people would rather die than part with money! If even a paisa is unaccounted for, all colour is drained from his face, and this in spite of his plenty. He owned a couple of factories, jointly with Khwaja Sultan, in addition to being a commission agent. He had his own trucks, with five of them carrying goods that his brother based in Amritsar dispatched here.

The lamp was extinguished. Silence filled the room, only broken by the occasional barking of dogs, which seemed to send shivers through the dark silence.

Suddenly he heard his wife cry out, ‘Rasoolya! Are you awake?’

‘Why, what’s wrong?’ he asked.

‘I am so scared. It was a dream—’

‘Forget, it, try to sleep. Just check on Sula. Has the fever gone down?’

She stretched out her arm and touched Sula’s forehead. ‘He still has a fever, but maybe it has gone down a little.…It was a horrible dream, I say.’

Rasool tried to laugh, but his wife went on, ‘In the holy name of God, I swear, I was terrified. Weren’t they saying that tomorrow there would be a huge procession? That is what I saw…a mass of people in a huge procession, but the women were beating their breasts. I asked them why they were mourning and they replied that they had lost their children, they couldn’t find them at all, and they were afraid that they would be crushed in the melee in which even grown-ups were being swept away. I told them that my own child was a bit uncontrollable and that when on the Maharaja’s birthday a procession was taken out on the river, our son too would go with the children of the boatmen to watch the festivities on the river and how the motorboats would leave a turbulent wake, which made all the shikaras sway dangerously! Though the boatmen would try to pull their shikaras back, many would still capsize and then I too, I told them, would beat my breast.’

When his wife had finished narrating her dream, Rasool began to think:

‘What does she know? She saw people being trampled in the procession to celebrate freedom, but here the wake of that movement is not over yet. And there is a difference—the wake that threatens to drown us, brings a flood of wealth to the likes of Lallaji.’

Rasool’s anger and resentment grew. Once again, he thought of Lallaji and all that he had said about freedom. Sleep just would not come. He kept tossing and turning and thinking. Then it occurred to him: if what Lallaji had said was true, then it should be true in his case too, his dreams should also come true.

It was dawn. His wife was awake. She touched Sula’s chest, his heartbeat was not as rapid as it been yesterday. His wheezing had stopped and the fever, too, had subsided.

Pausing his brooding, Rasool asked, ‘Is he better, tell me?’

‘With God’s grace, he does seem to be a little better today. Perhaps he will be free of his illness soon.’ She got up, covered the other two children properly, and went to make a cup of milkless tea for her husband. Rasool threw the window open. Snow was falling at the same pace, perhaps even faster than yesterday, and several inches had accumulated during the night. It was day, but darkness still enveloped everything. Today the falling snowflakes did not look like tiny insects to him, but more like a swarm of locusts descending to rob them of everything. He thought to himself: today, the pear blossoms must be falling in Lallaji’s forest.

Fog and mist enveloped everything. One could not see beyond one’s nose, right or left, front or back. The snow-covered electric wires strung across the big road and the small alleys looked like white ropes, but to Rasool they seemed like strong chains binding his whole family, shackling them. Life appeared to stand still, frozen. Something rose like a powerful wave in him. He stood up, agitated.

‘Wife!’ he yelled, and made as if to leave.

‘Why, what is it?’ she rushed to him. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I am going to Amira Kadal. I will have tea on my return.’

‘But Samad Kak and Quadir Sheikh must be on their way and the doctor will not wait!’ she protested.

‘I am taking them along. The job cannot be done without them! The doctor can wait.’

‘What job? What is the hurry?’ she was puzzled.

He stared at her as if trying to gather all his thoughts in that moment. All kinds of thoughts, all kinds of desires, all kinds of longings, all pushing one idea forward, one idea.

Looking at his wife, Rasool said to himself, ‘Yes, there is need to hurry, the task has to be accomplished. I have to be set free. The lamp must not die for want of oil. The Englishman is gone, why then does this snow not melt? Lallaji is a big man, we are small. Who made us small? We people must also become big. After all, the baby in the crib does not stay a baby in the crib. Sula too will grow big, provided he survives. He must survive, he has a right to life. The people who are free cannot die so soon. Why don’t the foreigners lose their children to death? Firangis! The jugglers! Thousands of jugglers who fool us with their sleights of hand, loot us, destroy us with their tricks and cheat us of the fruits of our labour, deprive us of our honour, but cannot take away our spirit, no, never that.’

Rasool had worked himself into a rage and he began to roar, his lips and ears trembling, ‘No room for jugglers here any more! We will rise and throw them out! Our Sula will live, Samad Kak’s Omer will live, Quadir Sheikh’s Jan will live!’

Rasool walked out, raising these slogans, his wife gazing after him dumbfounded.

The big roads had been cleared, cleaving the heart of the snow, but the alleys were still untrodden. Rasool was the first man to clear a way through his lane with his steps and join it with the big, main road. He felt that these roads belonged to the people who were free. These were the roads that had liberated humanity from chains and bondage, saved life from being frozen. Lumps of snow fell from the electric wires. Rasool looked up, the white ropes broken. He was sure that he was on the road to freedom and walked on with rapid, sure steps.

 

Note: Excerpted with the permission from The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told, published by the Aleph Book Company.

About the Book

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told spans almost a century of work by some of the finest writers of short fiction in the language. The storytellers included here range from the earliest practitioners of the craft of short story writing—Dinanath Nadim, Somnath Zutshi, Ali Mohammad Lone—to more contemporary writers like Dheeba Nazir.

Some stories in this collection are realistic dramas that hold up a startlingly clear mirror to society, such as Sofi Ghulam Mohammad’s ‘Paper Tigers’, or lay bare the pain of losing one’s homeland, as Rattan Lal Shant does in ‘Moss Floating on Water’. Then there are others like Ghulam Nabi Shakir’s ‘Unquenched Thirst’ and Umesh Kaul’s ‘The Heart’s Bondage’, that look beyond the exterior and focus on the complex inner lives of the women of Kashmir. Selected and translated by Neerja Mattoo, the twenty-five stories in this volume, all born out of the Kashmiri experience, will resonate with readers everywhere.

Source: The Aleph Book Company

About the Translator and Editor

Neerja Mattoo is an eminent writer, teacher, and translator who has taught in Kashmir for over three decades. She has published five books, the most recent being the critically acclaimed The Mystic and the Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir. Her works have been published by the Sahitya Akademi, and she has been awarded a Fellowship and a Visitorship to Oxford, by the Ministry of Education and the British Council, respectively. She lives in Srinagar, Kashmir.

Source: The Aleph Book Company

Relevant Links

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told by Neerja Mattoo | Aleph Book Company

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told spans almost a century of work by some of the finest writers of short fiction in the language. The storytellers included here range from the earliest practitioners of the craft of short story writing—Dinanath Nadim, Somnath Zutshi, Ali Mohammad Lone—to more contemporary writers like Dheeba Nazir.

Book Review: The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told by Neerja Mattoo

Chitra Ahanthem | Books and Conversations

The Greatest Kashmiri Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Neerja Mattoo brings together 25 short stories is a stark reminder of how literature suffers but also holds on tenaciously in the face of the complexities that beset a troubled place. The array of stories across writing styles and approach in terms of the themes they tackle is a poignant note on how much of Kashmiri literature remains buried under the weight of personal and political trauma. 

'Kashmiri doesn't come naturally to most people': Neerja Mattoo

 Nipa Charagi | Mint Louge

Writer Neerja Mattoo talks about her new book, women poets, why Kashmiris are not writing short stories and the state of the language

Excerpt: This book of Kashmiri short stories spans almost a century of work by some of the finest writers in the language

The Dispatch

The storytellers included in the book range from the earliest practitioners of the craft of short story writing—Dinanath Nadim, Somnath Zutshi, Ali Mohammad Lone—to more contemporary writers like Dheeba Nazir.

Kashmiri Pandits and the exodus: Eight books that go to the heart of the pain and trauma

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A memoir, an autobiographical novel and fiction written from lived experience.

Writer Neerja Mattoo is happy that people are talking about Kashmiri literature

By Vishnu Makhijani

Eminent writer, teacher and translator Neerja Mattoo, who taught English for 30 years at Srinagar’s Government College for Women, has always felt that the story of modern Kashmir has never been fully told or understood by the rest of the country. In fact, she says, Kashmiris themselves were doubtful about their real identity after the patriotic fervour that arose during and after the tribal invasion of late 1947 was soon squandered. And the events of the 1990s made her realise that if serious efforts were not made to preserve the Kashmiri language and identity, it may be lost forever. So she devoted herself to translating.

What was the magic of Kashmir’s four famous women poets? New English translations provide a glimpse

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The free and independent transformation of the Kashmiri poems into English is translator Neerja Mattoo’s own aesthetic experience.

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