The Kashmiri Dyer's Day Out
The third ‘Spotlight’ piece from our December 2020 selection is a riveting short story set in a small town in Kashmir. It follows a man, Gulzar Khan, as he tries to make sense of a senseless world, rife with violence.
On the apple trees outside, the birds were twittering their morning greetings to each other. The sunrays peeped through the windowpanes in the kitchen and caressed the samovar that scattered them in different directions. The samovar, with its carvings of Chinar leaves, glittered as if embedded with little pearls.
Gulzar Khan’s wife Noor, reclining against the mud-plastered wall, lifted the copper lid from the samovar and blew a mouthful of air into its chimney. After adding a pinch of salt in the boiling tea, she dropped the lid back with a shrill clank. The steam that leapt out spread a milky smell across the kitchen.
Gulzar Khan had just returned from the village’s baker with a bagful of freshly baked hot lawaas, unleavened flat bread. His hands smelled of flour. A stout man of not more than fifty, he was a clothes dyer-cum-cleaner by profession, and a gentleman by heart; he lived with his family in a single-storey house at Gulabgam, a small village in Pulwama.
He sat comfortably in a corner. His wife dispensed the tea. He took his cup, sipped the first mouthful and gazed wistfully around the kitchen.
The room had been partitioned with a knee-high brick wall into two halves—the dining side and the cooking side. On a white-tiled shelf over the mud oven stood spice-filled glass jars. Steel, aluminum and copper spoons hung on rusty nails driven into the wall. At the center of the kitchen, dangling from a wooden rafter, was a naked electric bulb, its wire coagulated with fly droppings. His lone son Sameer had pasted large pictures of Nishat and Shalimar gardens on the mud walls. A J&K Bank calendar hung near the door.
Noor poured the tea for her twin daughters, Zainab and Zara. Then she directed her gaze to the pressure cooker that hissed in spurts, resting on one side of the mud hearth. On the other side, flames from the dung cakes continued to cook rice in a cauldron.
Soon Sameer entered. He sat opposite the door, still rubbing his puffy eyes. He had stayed awake till late night because his college exams were going on. Noor strained the tea into a red cup and put a few puffy lawaas on the tray for him. Before soaking a piece of the bread in the teacup, he asked:
“Baba, did you pay last month’s bill to the baker?”
“Not yet. Will do it on Friday,” replied Gulzar Khan. He dunked a piece of lawaas into his cup and bit on it.
“Right, but pay him on the promised date.” he said, concerned. “He needs a lot of money for his son’s treatment. Otherwise the villagers will talk bad about us.”
“Will surely do on Friday. By then I would have made some money.” Gulzar Khan said with a tinge of helplessness.
“Ok, Baba!” Sameer said as he fidgeted with the cup.
That such concern was shown by their son for the reputation of the family added to Noor’s worry. She stole a glance at Gulzar Khan and they exchanged a gesture of inadequacy.
“I feel as if a kind of stupor has taken hold of the countries of the world, as if they are unaware of what is happening to us here.”
“Nobody cares. No one. Our hope lies in Allah’s grace only.”
“You know well, dear, we still owe twenty thousand rupees to the cow seller, Karim Goor. His date is already due.” Said Noor turning to Sameer, as she stirred her tea.
Gulzar Khan sighed and everyone fell silent for a moment.
“If everything runs smoothly at the shop I will pay back every debt in a month or two. Just as long as there is peace in the market.” said Gulzar Khan.
“That seems like a dream,” Zara chipped in. "Peace has been in a sulk all these years.”
“You know, Akbar Dar told me that somebody had knocked on his gate at midnight,” Gulzar Khan said, as he munched on the bread.
“Oh please, Baba! I get scared,” Zainab peeped, her eyes blanched with fear.
“It could have been dogs. Sometimes they batter the gates.” Noor said.
“No, not dogs. He said he heard footsteps too,” continued Gulzar Khan.
“Thieves then. They must have come for the cattle.” Sameer said, slurping the tea thoughtfully.
“Shut up!” Zara exclaimed. “Keep your wild guesses to yourself. You always talk rubbish.”
Noor poured another cup of tea for Gulzar Khan. Zara passed it to him. “Army men, I think,” she said.
“Who can say? But Akbar said that he heard them talk in a language that he could not understand.” said Gulzar Khan.
Swallowing the lawaas, Noor said, “That is why I tell you to turn off the lights early and sleep.”
“She is right,” Gulzar Khan said, turning to his children. “It is not safe to linger in the night for long.”
“If only we had enough money! Then we could have erected a tall concrete wall all around the yard,” said Noor.
“Baba, at least get the wooden gate repaired. Its hinges are broken.” Zara demanded. “Even a dog could knock it down.”
“I will tell Majeed Chaan. He will come and fix it.” Gulzar Khan assured them.
“Hell with this life here!” Sameer grunted. “Isn’t it better to die? One can’t even study peacefully.”
Hearing this, Gulzar Khan frowned at him; he wanted to say something, but he didn’t.
“It is far better to be in some jail and live at ease.” Sameer said and stormed out of the room.
As everyone finished the tea, Gulzar Khan drew the hookah near him and stocked it with tobacco. Zainab rose and, walking towards the mud oven, fished out a spoonful of charcoal embers and brought them in the firepot to her father. Then she and her sister left for their respective rooms.
Gulzar Khan collected the burning embers from the firepot and placed them on the hookah’s chilim. He placed the pipe between his lips and took a few draughts.
The smoke from the hookah and steam from the samovar seemed to be clinging to one another. The air in the kitchen grew pungent.
“How many times have I asked you to quit smoking? But nothing seems to affect you. My God, when will I get rid of this damn jijeer from my house?” Noor nagged, referring to the hookah.
“Don’t curse it. It has been my solace, my friend, in hard times.” Gulzar Khan teased.
“Don’t you see on TV, how harmful this is? Nothing seems to affect you. You watch anti-smoking ads with the pipe in your mouth.”
Gulzar Khan didn’t respond. After taking a few more drags he looked at his watch and stood up. He reached for the bottle of P Mark mustard oil on the mantelpiece, poured some of it into his hands and oiled his thin hair.
“Can you get the lunch box ready?” he said to Noor.
“Okay, I will pack it.” She replied. She cared for him, not least because he was the sole earner in the household.
“There is a lot to do in the shop these days,” Gulzar Khan said, wiping his hands on a torn towel and going to his room.
In an instant, he came wearing a neatly ironed green kameez and white shalwar, his luxuriant beard combed well.
“First, get to know from someone.” Noor said.
“Why? Did you hear anything?” asked Gulzar Khan.
“Confirm whether all is well out there in the town. I wish you’d ask someone before going.” Noor said, like any other Kashmiri woman would. Danger loomed everywhere, especially in the markets.
“Hopefully it will be normal there.” Gulzar Khan said.
“Okay, then go. May God be with you.”
Gulzar Khan boarded a Sumo, which ferried villagers to Pulwama—the town that was around ten kilometers from his village—where he ran his shop. He perched himself next to a man sporting a hennaed beard, reading a newspaper. Gulzar Khan looked out of the half-open window, murmuring, “Oh God, ensure my simple and easy livelihood.”
He was relieved to see children walking to school, men going to fields and women carrying baskets on their heads. The Sumo was moving at a moderate speed and a stereo was playing a Kashmiri song by Rashid Hafiz.
Gulzar Khan turned his head right and his glance fell on a bold headline in the newspaper spread over the bearded man’s knees: ‘Another youth injured in army firing yesterday succumbs’.
“Khudaya, have mercy on Kashmir. You are benevolent!” Gulzar Khan prayed under his breath. He ran his hands over his head and kept quiet.
After around ten minutes, the driver suddenly braked with an abrasive screech and waved to stop a car coming from the town.
“How is it in the town? Any danger?” asked the Sumo driver after turning off the stereo.
“Not now, but there was a little trouble an hour ago—some stones were hurled and people were scared. But everything is okay now. Go on.” the car’s driver replied. They drove on.
As they neared the town, Gulzar Khan insisted the driver drop him off a few hundred yards before the main market. That would be safer.
His heart beat with a strange feeling as he began walking briskly through the market towards his shop. The road was lined with shops selling antiques and art, jewellery, dry fruit and accessories. He crossed the road and passed by the greengrocer’s shop full of fruit, the butcher with his bloody lumps of meat on display, and a book-seller.
As he reached his shop, he looked around and found fewer people there and only a few cars parked near his shop. His shop—small and wedged between larger ones—looked as if it had been squeezed in. The peeling blue paint on the signboard spelt out ‘Bright Colours’, and beneath it, almost illegible: ‘Dyer at Your Service’.
He unlocked the shutter. The air inside smelt of chemicals and the walls were grimy with years of dirt. The cement floor was streaked with myriad colours. The clothes were crammed together, with the exception of some dupattas and two pairs of pants that hung on wooden pegs. A few piles awaiting their turn to be dyed in the large red plastic dying-tub added to the unkempt appearance. The shop was narrow and long, with shelves spanning both sides. To the left stood the cash desk in the belly of which Gulzar Khan would keep his customer register.
“Asalamu-Alaikum, Khan sahib.”
“Walaikum Salam.” Gulzar Khan returned the greeting from a customer.
“I was waiting for you outside. But I went to the barber’s shop and waited there, for there was a disturbance a little while before.”
“Yes, I heard about that on my way here,” said Gulzar Khan. “No one knows what might happen the next minute.”
“True, nobody knows. And yes, are you done with my clothes?”
“The pants are ready. I dyed them the day before yesterday,” Gulzar Khan replied.
He slipped the folded pants into a white polythene bag and handed it to the customer, and took two hundred rupees from him.
After checking his day’s schedule, Gulzar Khan pulled down two dupattas from the shelves. But before he could roll up his sleeves and pull up his shalwar to begin soaking them, he saw a nearby shopkeeper pulling down his shutters. People were scampering in all directions, some crying and some blowing whistles. Children too were wailing. Gulzar Khan stood bewildered for a moment before he hurriedly put the things he had just taken outside back into the shop.
“It is like hell to have a shop in here.” Gulzar Khan murmured as he pulled down the shutters.
The other shopkeepers were standing in front of their closed shops, waiting. Gulzar Khan recalled the newspaper headline he had read in the Sumo. He realized that the disturbance might be the aftermath of the killing of the youth by the army.
In the meantime, he saw Rakshaks—the armoured jeeps of the Special Task Force—reaching the main market. Then the vehicles of the police and the CRPF—The Central Reserve Police Force—rushed in. Men jumped down and began to move together, shooing away the people. Their presence turned the market into a jungle swarming with hunters. The jeeps looked as if they had been beaten with hammers; countless rusty dents indicating the stubbornly withstood bouts of stone pelting. Within a few minutes, the market wore a deserted look, the roads emptied of civilian vehicles. Some of the shops were empty. The vendors had melted away, leaving their makeshift carts to the mercy of the market. A few people watched the scene from their rooftops.
Suddenly, there was a sharp sound. A stone flew down and hit the road a few meters away from Gulzar Khan, before bouncing off and hitting the leg of a sleeping dog that woke up howling and limped towards an alley. Immediately, another one flew out and hit the signboard of a grocery shop before falling with a thump and splash into a drain, splattering the muck.
Gulzar Khan froze. He wanted to hide. There seemed to be no point in running away because the stone-throwers were coming closer to the forces. Without even taking time to aim, they hurled one stone after the other.
Gulzar Khan felt like a helpless old man, caught in the crossfire. Covering his head with his hands he looked for shelter. Finally, he darted towards an ATM kiosk across the road. He thought he was safe, but its door was locked. A neighboring shopkeeper called him in just before downing his shutters.
Inside the shop, it was too dark to see. But Gulzar Khan could hear the horrible, deafening sounds coming from outside. He peeped through an old bullet hole in the shutter. If it is anywhere, hell is here. Only here, he thought.
Outside, in the marketplace, a group of boys—tall, short, weak, stout, dark, fair—their faces covered with handkerchiefs, marched towards the forces. As they pelted the armoured jeeps with stones, the armed men retaliated, shooting a dozen teargas canisters.
“Naar-e-takbeer,” a boy shouted a slogan, pumping his fist into the air.
“Allah hu Akbar,” a group of boys replied.
“Aazadi ka matlab kya?” a guttural voice broke out from amongst them.
“La-ilah ha ila lah,” the boys shouted back.
The loud slogans fetched new boys who ran hurriedly towards the group to join them. Within a few minutes, this small group swelled into a big crowd, chanting while they threw rocks.
“We want...”A tall boy wearing a black T-shirt clamoured.
“Freedom!” The other boys answered unanimously.
“Go India!” A little boy shouted, straining his throat.
“Go back!” the boys answered more loudly.
Then the furious boys cussed the forces, who also responded with expletives, showing their raised thumbs and fists. The volley of abuses between them continued. In the meantime, photojournalists and news reporters, risking their lives, stepped forward to cover the face-off.
The furious boys stamped their feet on the road and continued their clamour. A white jeep revved and attempted to chase them. They ran helter-skelter and hid behind tin sheets, walls, shops and stationary vehicles, hunkering down like soldiers in a war. They smeared their faces with salt to blunt the effect of the tear gas. Some boys ran up to the terraces of the shops quietly, carrying their stones, hands trembling and lips quivering. They were burning with rage. Then, there was silence for a moment. It seemed that nothing serious was going to happen. But as the jeep passed by a butcher’s shop, a boy hiding behind a cart flung a stone, which hit the side of the jeep with a clanking metallic sound.
Other boys emerged, as if from nowhere, and bombarded the vehicle. The jeep screeched to a halt. One boy stood in the middle of the road, thumping his chest and carrying a big boulder in his hand. He threw it with a loud shout. The boulder swung in the air for a moment before hitting the front of the jeep and denting it. Another boy flung a brickbat with such force that it broke into pieces as it hit the jeep, small chips flying across the road.
A few boys sprinted towards the road, screaming profanities, their blood simmering. They tried to overtake the jeep and set it ablaze. Some banged at its doors with iron pipes and clubs. The jeep moved a bit, and the driver tried to reverse, its nervous wheels bumping over the brickbats and stones. Its exhaust pipe released a trail of smoke, blocking the view of the boys. However, they continued to circle it and bang on its doors.
Seeing that a second jeep was coming closer, a boy shouted “Run,” and disappeared into a nearby lane. The second jeep veered off the road and hurtled towards the boys, but the stones scattered on the road arrested the vehicle’s speed and the boys found a safer place. The forces fired teargas shells from a distance, hitting a boy’s head. The boys didn’t give up, instead growing more furious. The forces resorted to aerial firing, frightening humans, animals and birds.
The boys eventually dispersed, for the boy’s injury had weakened their resolve. Then the forces, too, withdrew.
Gulzar Khan came out of the shop. He thanked God he was safe. He shuddered to see brickbats and stones scattered all around. The air carryied the sharp smell of pepper.
His gaze fell on a small child, who, after tearing off from his father’s hold, joyfully kicked at the stones on the road. For a brief moment, Gulzar Khan wished he were that little child—innocent and carefree.
The child’s joyful face triggered his childhood memories. He remembered his father carrying him piggyback to the fair at the Rangmula shrine that stood five kilometers away from his home, trudging through mustard fields, wearing new clothes his father would get tailored for the day. He recalled the rich taste of the sweets and snacks both would enjoy as they sat on a swing. The memory—of the yellow balloons, the tangy snacks, the beating of the drums by magicians, the shining faces of his friend—brought tears to his eyes. But the honking of a motorcycle broke the string of his thoughts.
To make way for the motorcyclist he turned aside. He saw passers-by sneezing and coughing, a few wiping tears. The market still looked deserted. It was now an undeclared hartal—a strike. The shopkeepers decided to return home. They knew that if they dared to resume their business, threats to their lives would follow.
Gulzar Khan scurried to the place where passenger vehicles would park whenever there was a clash, and boarded an over-packed Sumo. The driver looked cheerful and drove at a moderate speed, the vehicle seeming to resist the heavy load.
The return home seemed unusually long to Gulzar Khan. A young boy in the Sumo broke the news of death of the boy who had been injured by the forces. He had been declared dead on arrival at the SMHS Hospital in Srinagar. “Inna lillahi wa inna ilahi raji`oon, Verily we belong to Allah and to Allah we shall return.” murmured Ibrahim.
The passengers cursed the forces before falling silent.
An unfamiliar heaviness took hold of Gulzar Khan’s heart. For a moment, he seemed to hear the mysterious wails of a woman. The image of the mother of the boy, thumping her chest and pulling her hair and, later, stroking her dead son’s hair, flashed across his mind.
Gulzar Khan got down at his village, and went straight to Rehman Kak’s shop for tobacco.
“Gul Gobro, why have you returned early? Is everything alright at home?” asked Rehman Kak, weighing the tobacco.
“Yes, everything is okay at home. But not in Kashmir, not in the town.”
Gulzar Khan was not in the mood to talk but out of respect for the elderly shopkeeper, he narrated the events.
“These blood-thirsty wolves are shorn of any mercy. They are plucking all the beautiful roses of this valley. I wish that I were the one killed.” Rehman Kak choked on his words.
Without saying anything more, Gulzar Khan left.
On his way home, Gulzar Khan didn’t talk to any of the villagers. As he entered his home, his wife asked: “Why have you returned so early?”
Gulzar Khan didn’t reply, but went straight to the kitchen looking for his jijeer. When he didn’t find it, he yelled at her.
It was only after the smoke from his jijeer filled the kitchen that he answered her.
Noor pummelled her chest. Her breath rasped in her throat. She began to worry about Sameer, who had gone to college.
“Have you any balance in your phone? I will call my Sameer.” She said nervously.
“We needn’t worry. He will be in his college.
“You know how his temper is. He always harbours anger against the forces. What if he left the college to join those boys? ”
“You think too much. Here! Take it,” he handed her the small Nokia phone, puffing out a blue tuft of smoke.
Gulzar Khan moved to a corner and began to wonder how miserable his life would be if his son were hit with a bullet or if one of his daughters’ dead bodies were brought home, splotched with blood. He shook his head hard in an attempt to throw off the images but the thoughts continued: From where do parents get the courage to live after their sons and daughters are killed? Is a Kashmiri parent’s heart made of iron? Is Kashmir the most wretched among the valleys of the Earth? Are the graveyards not bloating with their fill or are they still hungry for tender Kashmiri flesh? Are the Indian forces set to turn this valley into the land of mad fathers, childless mothers and wailing orphans? Is even our Allah cross with us?
With each drag on the jijeer, Gulzar Khan’s mind turned to a new question. He desperately wanted someone to answer them, even if it was the ghost of his father. He coughed and coughed and coughed.
He did not get off the jijeer till Sataar Mir, the muezzin, announced the call for Zuhr prayers.
Noor dialed Sameer’s phone number. “The number you are trying to reach is currently switched off,” came the automatic answer.
“His phone is off. What if…” Noor said in a suffocated tone.
“He must be in class. Allah will protect him.” Gulzar Khan consoled her. “He will call us back once he gets free.”
Before she could go any further, their neighbor Sara came in.
“What have you prepared for lunch? What vegetable?” she asked.
“Tomatoes and cheese,” Noor replied.
“Okay, give me some. I have cooked potatoes. My son Irfan doesn’t like them. I came to get something cooked by you,” Sara said, passing the bowl to Noor. Noor was popular for her culinary skills among her neighbors. She reached for a spoon lying on the mantle shelf, and as she removed the lid of the pot, a sumptuous aroma spread through the kitchen. She stirred the dish with the spoon, filling the bowl to the brim and handing it over to Sara.
Noor then went out with Sara to give fodder to the cow that had long been mooing. They had got that cow just a month ago after the one they had owned had died of a disease.
As they walked out, Noor narrated to Sara what Gulzar Khan had told her.
“What must his mother be doing right now,” said Sara.
“Wailing and crying, what else. Malis maje pewaan taawan. Such parents are ruined.” Noor lamented.
“Which village did Khan Saab tell you the boy was from?”
“This one is from the main town—Pulwama. The boy was just eighteen or so.”
“Oh! A young rosebud. May Allah send him to Jannah!”
“He said the boy’s skull had split and his brain had come out.” Noor said with a shudder.
“Hai khudai! Don’t say more,” Sara said.
“I feel as if a kind of stupor has taken hold of the countries of the world, as if they are unaware of what is happening to us here.”
“Nobody cares. No one. Our hope lies in Allah’s grace only.”
“This is true. You know, my heart leaves my chest the moment a family member leaves for town. Anything can happen anytime. I am worried about my Irfan and your Sameer. Both are hot-headed boys.”
In between their conversation they could hear the mooing of the cow.
“I think of Gulzar Khan and the children a hundred times a day when they are out of the house. I go to the road thrice a day and ask Rahman Kak at his shop if it is all right out there. Do you know Sameer has gone to college? I am so… Oh, the cow is mooing louder? I will give it something to eat first.”
“Okay, will meet you later,” said Sara.
Noor started heading towards the cowshed.
“How much milk does it give you these days?” Sara turned back and asked.
“Around ten litres. Seven go to the market and the rest we use at home. This cow is helping us run our household.” Noor replied.
“I know that is surely true. Go and feed it. Now I understand why your daughters are so pretty, with their glowing faces.”
“What do you mean? I didn’t get you.”
“Since you feed your daughters so much pure milk, they grow beautiful. Milk is showing on their faces.”
“Poor daughters need to be pretty. Rich ones get husbands because of their money, the poor ones because of their beauty,” Noor said with a smile.
“Hmm. But if you get your Zainab married off to my Irfan, I will demand no dowry,” Sara joked.
“I agree! But my Zainab’s beauty demands a huge mehar. You will have to sell some land,” Noor responded. Both of them gave a muffled laugh.
“I am quite confident your daughters will attract rich boys.”
“Not if this killing spree continues. See how our boys are killed every other day. God forbid, if it goes on like this, parents will have no takers for their daughters as there will be only a handful of boys left.”
“You are right, Noor. We should seek the mercy of Allah. Otherwise, we are heading towards that day. God forbid.”
They both sighed. In the meantime, a housefly hummed and landed on the bowl Sara was holding. She shooed it away and the bowl shook. The aroma of garlic filled the air.
“I will leave now. Manzoor must be waiting.”
“Adsa naer, Ok, go.” Noor said, lumbering towards the cowshed.
Quite unmindfully, she stumbled against a wooden peg driven into the ground that scraped her right foot. Feeding a few sheaves of green grass to the cow, she walked back and sat in the kitchen nursing her bleeding foot.
She dialed Sameer’s number once again but the phone was still switched off. In a bid to arrest the train of ominous thoughts that began to singe her mind, she busied herself with washing the utensils and mopping and cleaning the kitchen.
Outside, the sun disappeared behind the dark clouds. Sensing that the clouds were about to burst, Gulzar Khan went out to the yard to collect the clothes Noor had washed in the morning. First he took down Noor’s and then his own. The clothes smelled of Rin soap. As he pulled down his children’s clothes, he felt like kissing them. He carried them in his arms and went straight to Sameer’s room. But as his son had locked the room, he had to take them to his own. When he entered his own room, his eyes fell on the wall where the picture of the Kaaba hung. He dropped the clothes and looked at the picture again, raising his hands towards it. With a penitent heart he prayed: “Hai maine badde Khudaye, Kasheer kartan yeme zulme nish azaad. Oh, my dear Almighty God, set Kashmir free from such oppression.”
Later, finished with the Zuhr prayers, he fished out the phone from his pocket to call Sameer. Again the call didn’t connect. He swallowed a dry breath and waited. Anxiety gripped him. Every second seemed longer than an hour.
With every passing moment, his heart began pounding faster. Will Sameer return home safely? He wondered as he kept on dialing the number in vain.
A moment later he rose to go out. The phone in his hand rang. Noor came rushing to him. Their faces lightened. Without looking at the screen, Gulzar Khan hurriedly pressed the phone to his ear, expecting to hear Sameer’s voice.
“Keep my money ready, else I’ll take the cow back. I’m coming tomorrow.” Karim Goor’s bitter words blared into his head.
Nageen Rather is a Kashmir-born writer who teaches in the Department of English at the Islamic University of Science and Technology (lUST), Awantipora, Kashmir. His stories have appeared in Himal Southasian, Wilderness House Literary Review, Punch Magazine, Adelaide Literary Magazine, Inverse Journal, to name a few. His collection of short stories set in Kashmir is soon to be published by a leading publishing house in lndia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org