As Ilham awoke, he sat up. To his right Showket lay on the edge of the mattress, his eyes half closed and genies of sleep lingering over his head. Two wooden racks crammed with books stood against the rear wall to his left. Ilham looked out the glass window through the gap between the racks. Beyond the farthest limits of the garden, cold and frosty with dew, the sunrays descended and scattered into threads of molten gold over the surface of the river Sandren; the light leapt up and curled around the thick mass of willow branches. Each leaf turned luminous, and was gently atremble with birdsong. The canopy, lush and uniform, stretched all along the length of the riverbank. As he looked through, he had a glimpse of Nusrat at the yarbal. She too was singing to the murmur of life in the morning, a bird among the birds.
Ilham went downstairs to the kitchen. Again he was struck by his father’s absence in the baithak; he knew his father wouldn’t be there as he always left to work in his sawmill very early, but in his dreams he had hoped against it. When his mother saw him, she loudly asked him to go back up and ask Showket to buy groceries from Mir Bazar as it was eight o’clock, already much too late to start the day.
When Ilham touched his toe, Showket opened his eyes. “No woman is as bitterly disconcerted as the one robbed of love by her husband. My problem is that I’m cast in the very image of Father and anything I do, anything, be it coming first in class or being an undisputed champion on the cricket ground, won’t meet her appreciation,” he said, in a voice that was desperate and tearful. He covered his face with the eiderdown and feigned sleep.
Ilham was startled with the abruptness and candor of his brother’s reply. He suddenly got angry. “From now on, I’ll never obey you, Mother, nor will I run errands for you,” he thought.
Against his wish, he began going down the staircase. As he descended, each step drew him toward her. By the time he crossed the corridor and entered the kitchen, his anger had faded; he had again swung under her wing. “Showket is not going to buy the groceries,” he told her angrily. He was bewildered by the rising angry tone of his voice; how quickly had his wrath raised again and turned back against Showket!
“Those books have made him damn useless. And if you don’t grow to be his exact opposite, one day I’ll go upstairs and burn them all,” she said and frowned, pushing the basket toward Ilham. Ilham quickly took hold of the basket and stopped it mid-way, lest it hit his chest. Nusrat came inside at that moment. As she placed the pitcher on the sink, the thin film of birdsong over the surface of the water quivered once. She smiled at Ilham and affirmed what their mother had just said with a deliberate nod. Soon Ilham was off to Mir Bazar.
As soon as he came out of the village, he saw Durdan suddenly appear from an apricot grove by the dusty meander of the road. Her plum-red kerchief had fallen to her shoulders and laid bare the dark cascade of her hair. She wore light, velvety shoes, with fresh dabs of mud and water. Her tight frock and shalwar were an improvisation on the color of morning glory; the sleeves were a gleaming shade of succulent eggplant that turned, subtly and slowly, to a circle of virgin white at the center of which was her hidden belly button; the fine cloth wrapped her in gauzy assortments of folds and accentuated the rotundity of her breasts, the curves of her narrow waist, her swaying hips, her slim, shapely legs.
“You are Showket’s younger brother,” she said smiling, as she came close and held Ilham’s arm. Her hands and arms smelled of mint, the plants she helped her mother grow and water in their shrubbery.
“I’m Ilham,” he said, trying to free his arm.
“Showket’s younger brother, right?” she said, holding on with the firm grasp of her long, fragile fingers. Ilham wrenched his arm away and left without answering.
In Mir Bazar, the grocer, a middle-aged man with a soft face, welcomed Ilham to his shop.
“You are Ismaiel’s son,” he said and smiled.
“I’m Ilham,” he replied.
“Ismail’s youngest son, right?” he said, his face contorting in disapproval.
Ilham was quiet. He blushed and lowered his eyes. He looked at the dust that had gathered on his flip-flops and on the sides of his feet. The grocer continued to talk, his voice tinged with derision. He wouldn’t take money from Ilham, he said; his father took care of the bills at the end of the month. He put packs of aniseed, black cardamom, green cardamom, cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, tea leaves, salt, sugar, wheat flour, red onions, and two white bars of soap in the basket.
“Tell your mother she is lucky. Not every household in the village has such a caretaker,” he said as Ilham picked up the basket and began to leave. His mother scorned his father’s reputation of being the most successful businessman in Mir Bazar. She constantly complained about his absence from home and his failure to pay attention to the many minute matters like a broken tape or a leaking pipe that sprung up every now and then while she cooked large cauldrons of food in the kitchen for the laborers who worked at his sawmill. Ilham walked past the tailor’s and the watch-seller’s shop and was turning around the street corner, still deciding whether to tell his mother what the grocer had just told him, when he was hit with the sound of clashing irons. He raised his lowered eyes as he was summoned from the abyss of his contradiction. From the dark interior of the shop, the ironsmith’s eyes glowed like the burning coals in the grate he faced, his sweating arms moving up and down, banging the hammer onto a piece of red-hot iron. He was an old man with a lanky profile robed in a long sooty pheran. His white beard bestowed him an air of wisdom. At school a week ago, after reading “A Fire Neglected Burns the House,” Ilham had quietly likened him to Tolstoy; the ironsmith, his subtly intense eyes burning like embers, his arms brittle with age and yet firm, well aware of the dangers of fire, moving responsibly about the flames in pursuit of forging things anew.
“Silence is silver,” the ironsmith suddenly shouted without looking at Ilham, hammering away at the piece of iron. Ilham smiled and nodded to himself; he would keep silent and not say anything to his mother.
When he returned, Nusrat, leaning against a cushion, had tuned the radio on the windowsill to a Raj Begum song. Their mother was tending the oven, moving her head to the deep, guttural voice of her beloved singer, slowly whispering to the embers inside. When Nusrat saw the weight of the basket straining Ilham’s shoulder, she quickly stood up and took it off him. She leaned and kissed him on his cheek; Nusrat thanked Ilham for being unlike Showket. Then she went near the oven and began to follow the song by following the movements of her mother’s lips.
Ilham sat, proud and smiling, his head propped against the cushion Nusrat had embroidered with a flock of bulbuls adrift in a blue, vagrant sky. Soon the song subdued the baithak as the slanting sunbeams poured in through the large glass windows. Depicting a bulbul’s flight into the realm of freedom, the song hung for a while; from the mountains, the song ushered forth into a quiet valley like a brook of clear water moving over countless, minuscule, luminescent pebbles, the pebbles, as though animated momentarily, their hearts throbbing, their bodies bobbing about; the song flowed and undulated until it broke through the dawn of a new spring.
“Why did you put the radio off?” Nusrat asked Ilham abruptly.
“It must be Brij Nath Bukhari at the radio station,” his mother said. “Don’t say anything to my little one.”
“Brij Nath Bukhari is always being fingered from behind. Mark my word, the day is not far when he’ll drown in a pool of his own pestilential diarrhea,” his mother remarked as soon as Bukhari’s voice reappeared. Ilham quickly turned the radio off and laughed. Nusrat and his mother also laughed. They all laughed and laughed for a long time.
Brij Bukhari, the newsreader, had been there for ages, invisible and guarded inside the six walls of the radio, his neck beyond the reach of Ilham’s claws. He called the Kashmiri boys, Showket’s heroes, Ilham’s heroes, who’d taken to arms to wage a daily war for aazadi, for freedom, terrorists. In Ilham’s imagination, he sat on a mock-throne with an imperturbable calm, his arms resting on a wide table. In his right hand, he held a fountain pen with a sharp nib that dripped human blood on the sheath of skins resting on the tabletop. He had a solemn, religious air; he was always clad in a white garb of piety and propriety. But beneath this garb, he was corpulent; he had a double chin and a dot of bristling mustache. His nose was snubbed and pig-like, sniffing bits of information everywhere, his rodent’s ears flipped over, and his skin covered with the mangy fur of a stray dog. Suddenly, rising from the cover of the cushion, bedazzled with the light, the bulbuls with metallic beaks and wings of freedom wafted out, crashing through the windowpanes. Can you see, Mother? Can you see, Nusrat? Showket is the commander, the one with a raised crown, perched on the highest willow branch. As the brook of Raj’s song spills out of Nusrat’s mouth, and Mother’s soft whispers make the embers to rage and roar, Showket swoops down, ripping apart Bukhari’s garb, tearing every shred of his hair, every shred of his skin, every fiber of his hulking bulk, and pecks on his bones with such alacrity and precision until the last remnants of his voice are obliterated out from his marrow. In swift lofty flights, Showket carries the pieces of his being over the Himalayas and drops them to rot in the gutters of the Indian plains, stinking in dank heat.
* * *
By the last Friday of the summer, Showket had broken a dozen porcelain cups by smashing them onto the cement walls and filled every crevice of the kitchen with tinkling santoor-like sounds. That noon, after a fresh argument with their mother, Showket told Ilham he was dropping out of school. “I’ll take up a shop in Mir Bazar; I’ll earn and live on my own.” In an atmosphere of freedom, he explained, he would remake himself into his own image.
At noon, burning with a new ardor, he led Ilham through a maze of houses to the mosque at the center of the village. Many people were going inside. The muezzin was wailing; the prayer was soon to be said. “My rebellion has begun,” Showket proclaimed and left Ilham at the gates of God’s house without going inside.
“It is Showket who should handle the samovar and carry it to the sawmill,” his mother said when Ilham returned home after a deeply unsatisfying prayer. “It’s the time for the army convoy to run on the highway. What if the boys attack them in Mir Bazar and the soldiers begin to shoot, my young one, my guber. You don’t know even how to flee from such a storm.” She looked worried. But Ilham persuaded her that he could handle the samovar and protect it with his little hands and carry it against any army of the world.
It was the hottest day of the summer. The sun came beating down on his head with a direct and brutal clarity. He hid under the shade of the apricot trees flanking the road. But by the time he reached Mir Bazar, he had begun to sweat profusely. A long line of soldiers was standing with their assault rifles by the highway. He crossed without being noticed; the heat-mirages lifting off the tarmac had blurred their vision in the moment; they did not stop him to ask what explosives he had hidden inside the samovar.
Going past the main street of the market, the grocer, the watch-seller, the tailor, Ilham suddenly stopped by the ironsmith. His face was the sheen of red-hot furnace. He picked a morsel of fire from the grate with his right hand and shoveled it deep inside his mouth. “I’m responsible for the hell that surrounds me,” he said, chewing at the ball of fire.
Ilham ran, frighteningly kicking open the gates of the sawmill. Under the leafless abundance of sky, the sun dazzled him with a blinding brilliance. The wood was paper, the specks of sawdust words adrift in the air. Stacks and stacks of books surrounded him. In the labyrinthine totality of this metaphysical universe, he spun through hexagonal galleries, soaring stairways, circular ruins studded with mirrors of illusory duplicity, endless corridors and hallways. Back in the library of the incalculable number of books conceived since the beginning of time, like voyaging angels, the laborers carried meshes of ideas on the intricate arcs of their wings. And to the long patient queue of customers coming in from outside, his father sent down flutes, their fathomless, internal tunnels, resonating and pulsating with torrents of mellifluous light, to be used not in making doors and windows and building the roofs of corporal houses but for fashioning the common fiber of human selves and creating the foundations of civilization.
The samovar had fallen from Ilham’s hands onto the ground near his feet. Rivulets of fragrant sweat were pouring down his neck. A gashing chorus of flutes reverberated through the alleyways of his head. He darted out of the gates. The ironsmith’s eyes were aglow with sword-like flashes of lightening. “Each person is responsible for the hell that surrounds him,” he said, looking Ilham in the eyes. Ilham put his fingers in his ears as the voice chased him. He ran away from the ironsmith toward the highway. An incessant convoy of the soldiers’ trucks obstructed his way. His heart turned incandescent, pounding and swelling with rebellion and restlessness. The rifles suddenly turned toward his head, the soldiers on patrol watching him now interrupt the convoy, got ready to shoot. He slipped through, making a brief crack in the flow of time, the military trucks trying in vain to accelerate and crush his skull under their tires.
Under the apricot trees, the chirruping of bulbuls fell over him like symphonies of rain. Past his house, past the clusters of houses, floating and whirling around the mosque, the wings of their roofs flapping, the windows rattling, the doors swinging ajar, calling freedom freedom freedom aloud, as though it was the very name of his soul’s essence, he reached the riverbank. He flung away his clothes and retraced his steps. With clenched fists and closed eyes, Ilham ran at full momentum and plunged in.
Going down into the water, he bunched up, hugging his knees with his arms. He held his breath and opened his eyes. Deep inside, he felt a rosary forming inside him: Who am I? What did I see? Fleets of fish flitted past him. He lay there in the blue buoyancy, pondering. After a few moments, he began to bloat with a nauseous heaviness.
“I’ve to belch out what the ironsmith gobbled in,” Ilham thought. “I too am responsible for the hell that is inside me, outside me.”
He swam downstream. He thrust his head upward into the air and stretched his legs. His feet rested on a slippery bed of stones, and the water precariously rose up to his throat. He breathed with difficulty, feeling the flames inside his chest rising unevenly. He suddenly began to throw up, pushing streams of shimmering bubbles containing constellations of stars with letters of roaring fire engraved on them out from his mouth. After he’d vomited enough, he looked around. Across the willow-covered bank, the world stared into his eyes with a stark banality.
When he returned home, it was quiet and dark. In his room, he pulled open the curtains and sat on his chair facing the window. Only a few bedimmed stars glowed in the distance. The mountains had vanished and the sky had evaporated into an overhanging disbelief. He smelled the dusty silence that had crept inside and settled on the walls and floor, the silence as though peeled from inside the prisons of Kashmir, from the glum chambers and opaque cells of Papa 2, the bleakest of all the prisons where the interminable cries of Showket, on whose bare back drippings of a suspended burning rubber tire fell as he cried, “I know nothing, I know nothing…” which Showket himself had narrated in the surreal ferocity of a nightmare in the middle of the last night. Despite Showket’s hollering and crying and screaming as the soldiers’ iron rods broke Showket’s ribs and smashed his bones to the finest ashes, silence reigned unbroken until it choked, as Showket held Showket’s picture in his hands and wept and witnessed, Showket, dead, dead, dead… The silence of the countless bulbuls trapped in all the different prisons of the world; in Chile, in Cuba, in Siberia, in Chechnya; in Karbala, in Shatila, in Bijbyor, in Handwor, in Sopor, in Kupwor, the silence that hung over the massacred bulbuls, their bodies torn asunder, their feathers afloat in the pools of their own blood, and the silence over the silence… The flakes of invisible silence falling onto the ashen face of the earth from the black holes spread along the infinite roof of the universe. The silence, deepening the darkness, held Ilham in its dogged grip, heightening his sense of being alone. “Where are you, Showket?” Ilham muttered finally. “Is it not that last night you held my hand and took me for a shattering sojourn through your scrapbook, as we glided past the galleries of martyrs well assorted by you on the pages of our memory, Showket, and Showket, the boy they captured a week ago and choked and broke to pieces inside Papa 2 looked very much like you. Why can’t you come and be a witness, a privy to my grief? Why can’t I be…a witness to my grief? You must have claimed another victory on the cricket ground for yourself and now you’re talking it over, savoring it with your playmates. Or is it that Durdan, mintily fragrant, spotted you under a ripe apricot tree and now, lying down with you on a blanket of green grass, she is walking her soft fingers through the dense jungle of your hair?”
Ilham stood up and walked to a corner, away from the window. He curled up there; he began to cry suddenly, uncontrollably. “I am a coward, a shack of shame,” he thought.
Nusrat, after she had started college and begun to study animals, made long adventurous voyages in and out of water and grabbed starfish from the bottom of a distant sea and forged them into phosphorescent nose-rings in her melodious palm, or Mother, suddenly gripped with the idea of cutting off the heads of all the gardenias in the garden with her sparkling kitchen knife and then sewing the petals into an embroidery shroud to wrap all of Kashmir, a beleaguered baby, a bleeding beleaguered baby, inside it and dandle her endlessly, would hear him crying. “Deep in the dew of my despair, in the mist of my melancholy, soaked in my steep sorrow, in the welter of my wretchedness…ho Khudaya! ho Khudaya! What if Father or Mother or Showket or Nusrat or Durdan come to know about my shame, my appalling irrelevance in this world?” Ilham broke down, covering his face with his hands. He cried along the unceasing flow of the silence. After a while, he wiped his tears and suppressed his hiccups. He looked at the books, at the wooden racks, their upper scaffolds reaching into the burnished skies of the ceiling. The copies of the Quran, which Showket had won as rewards of excellence at school, were on the top shelf of the rack he faced. Ilham straightened up and held his tears. He looked at the Qurans and the scrapbook Showket had placed over them; he moved his throbbing fingers over the books in the shelves below. They touched him as he touched them, their loud letters, their hard covers, their sinuous spines. He smelled the pages, musty, dusty, fragrant with mothball, reeking of the dead silverfish. His tears moistened the dry ink as he hid his face inside the pages, his face smearing with the stagnant dust of the history.
“These books belong to me as much as they belong to Showket. Mother, how could you even think of destroying them! The bricks of civilization, the building blocks of the house of knowledge,” he thought. A surge of hatred rose against his mother in his heart. He blushed; he was flustered, his face burning in infernal flames. The surge became violent and ascended until his limbs began to shake and shudder and his throat choked. The stars vanished, the darkness descending on him. In the next moment, by some strange cataclysm, the surge turned into a volcano of rage against the books. He was to drop them to the floor and tear them up, empty each word of its meaning, burn all the pages and rip the covers with his bare teeth. Then the anger quickly waned away.
A deluge of love overpowered him. In its sway, it carried a hurricane-like sword, sharp, indiscriminate, dazzling. The sword came cutting through the dusty silence, sinking into his thumping chest, cleaving open the doors and windows in the hallways of time, letting the inky ocean of letters flow in and out of him simultaneously. He was liberated as he floated and was tossed upward into the lap of clouds dappled with stars until the brazen strings pulled him back again. He couldn’t see anything. He stood there, a wreck, alone with the invisibility of his books and the fact of being an unwanted, unworthy son. Over him loomed the dazzling sword from the distant shore. Beneath him, the silence, the darkness of the floor, the myriad, antithetical forces pulling him in opposing directions, tearing his soul to shreds with vehement violence. He lay there for eons and eons writhing like a poisoned silverfish caught between the vast eternities of paper, the thick miasmas of mothball, the tangled swarms of words, until in the distance the last scream of Showket silenced the flutes to dust and an oblivion of sleep fell over him.
Feroz Rather was born and raised in Kashmir. He is currently attending the MFA program at California State University Fresno where he also teaches fiction writing. His work has appeared in India in The Caravan, Tehelka, Reading Hour, Combat Law, Harmony, and Economic and Political Weekly. His nonfiction is forthcoming with Los Angeles Review and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.