Thursday, March 10, 2011

Short Story: Coming of Age

I wrote this last year. It is based on real events that took place in the life of someone I know.

“Zaid? What happened to you, son?”

It was Ibrahim, the salesman at Zaid’s grandfather’s garment shop. He lived a few doors away from the store.

Holding the 15-year-old by his arm, Ibrahim ushered the quivering boy into his home.

“Put on your clothes. Didn’t you hear about the attack that occurred last night? You should have stayed home.”

Zaid answered in monosyllables. He hadn’t realised he was freezing; he was still carrying his warm clothes under his arm with his books. Soon there were several people around him. They were Ibrahim’s family, most of whom Zaid recognised vaguely. Someone sat him down on the heavy woollen carpet, placing some extra cushions behind his back. But he couldn’t sit comfortably; his rear hurt too much. He wished he could stand up again without offending the person who had so kindly placed the cushions for him. Someone put a blanket over his shoulders. Someone gave him a tiny cup of piping hot kahwa. Everyone spoke in tense and sympathetic whispers.

“Drink. You will feel better,” said an old man, shaking his head in sorrow.

Zaid did as he was told. The tiny cup was being refilled. The saffron tea warmed him, but also made him aware of the blinding pain that radiated from his bruises. He was embarrassed to be among these kind people who fussed over him. He masked his pain, displaying no discomfort and thanking people randomly.

He finished his third, maybe fourth, cup of kahwa and slowly stood up.

“I’ll go home now. Thank you,” he said again.

The people around him exchanged worried looks. Ibrahim spoke then.

“You can’t go back the way you have come. They’ll finish you off. I’ll come with you across the river. After that, take the Nawa Kadal bridge back across the river and go straight home. Do you understand?”

Zaid nodded, only dimly registering the instructions. An old lady in the room recited some prayers for his safety. She came forward and touched his cheek. He nodded to everyone and left.

They stepped outside; the cold air instantly gave some clarity to Zaid’s thoughts. Ibrahim hurried Zaid down the road and then down the steps where the bridge had once proudly stretched across. “Had it been burnt down only a week ago?” Zaid thought. Things seemed to be changing so quickly, he couldn’t believe it was the same sleepy valley of his childhood. So much of Kashmir had changed beyond recognition, right in front of his eyes.

The Aali Kadal bridge was one of the nine bridges that helped people cross the Jhelum, the river that ran through the valley and divided the city of Srinagar into two parts. Zaid had been taking the Aali Kadal bridge everyday to reach his classes, but it had been burnt down by militants recently under the cover of darkness. A three-minute boat ride in a naav, a boat that could seat at least fifteen people, for five rupees per person was the only option left to commuters whenever one of the beautiful wooden bridges was burnt to a cinder.

A thick rope now stretched across the river in place of the bridge. Once Ibrahim and Zaid clambered into the boat the boatman guided the boat across by tugging onto the rope. Zaid watched as the boatman steadied the boat and tugged at the rope with effort, keeping the boat from being carried away by the rushing icy waters. He kept his eyes on the young man’s energy, watching him single-handedly battle the hurrying tide to get the boat safely to the other bank. The man frowned and huffed, letting out a low grunt with each mighty tug. Zaid tried to get his mind to focus on the tugging. He knew he must not think about anything else now or his emotions would easily get the better of him. He forced his thoughts to go blank, swaying gently with the boat, as the water flowed hastily below him.

On the other side, Ibrahim walked Zaid up the steps and repeated his earlier instructions, telling him to take care. He then walked back down to the waiting boat and waved to Zaid as the boatman pulled away, the grunts barely audible to Zaid now.

Zaid hurried across the lanes of Rehbab Sahib and took a U-turn at the lane where his classes were held. The area was almost as deserted as Aali Kadal. He looked up at his teacher’s window; it was shut and the curtains drawn. He headed towards the Nawa Kadal bridge, which mercifully, the militants had spared. He tried to run across the bridge, irrationally imagining the militants setting the bridge on fire behind him. But he was in no state to run. He hobbled and his shoes made loud knocking sounds on the wood. He was sure the soldiers would hear the sound and chase after him, to finish him off, as Ibrahim had said.

If you stop or turn to look at us, I will kill you. The words echoed in his ears. Or did he hear them spoken behind him? He walked faster, not daring to turn back and confirm his fears.

Zaid struggled the whole distance home, fear overtaking the pain and the cold. He reached Narwara where nothing seemed amiss. People went about their daily business like nothing had happened. The Border Security Force had probably not bothered this part of town. His eyes misted over with tears when his home came into sight. He would be safe inside. He carefully covered his face with his muffler. He didn’t want to startle anyone with his bruises.

He entered the heavy metal gate and walked down the pebbled path up to his three-storey house. The original house had been built by his great-grandfather in the 1920s, the extra storeys being added by subsequent generations to accommodate the expanding family. His family shared the house with 5 other families consisting of his father’s brothers, unmarried sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, and uncles and aunts.

The door was ajar. Zaid stepped inside the threshold and took off his shoes, placing them in the shoe rack under the staircase. He noticed there was a flurry of activity happening; some of his aunts were getting ready to go out. He caught snatches of their conversation.

“The funeral is after the Asr prayer.”

“We better hurry.”

“Where is my grey dupatta?”

“May Allah give strength to his family.”

Zaid gathered that there had been a death in the family and his mother and aunts were going to the deceased’s house, ahead of the men, to pay their condolences.

Zaid decided to escape to his room. He climbed the stairs trying not limp. His mother was hurrying down the stairs while securing her head scarf with a pin. She passed him, lost in her own thoughts.

“Namra, please bring my purse with you when you come downstairs. Zaid?”

Oh! She had noticed him. Zaid turned to look at his mother, his face still hidden behind the muffler. Zarina was looking at her son in concern. She probably noticed a limp.

“Zaid? Is something wrong?”

“Wrong? I’m just going up to my room.”

“Did something happen to you?”

“What are you talking about, mamma? You’re going to get late. I’ll see you later.”

With that Zaid climbed the stairs and fled to his room. Someone pulled his mother towards the front door, telling her that they were already late. She would confront Zaid when she was back, she promised herself.

Zaid entered his room and shut the door, locking it. He took off his muffler and pheran and lay down on the beautiful red and beige carpet that was spread from wall to wall. He would have to tell his mother when she got back home later; there was no way to hide his injuries. But until then, he wanted to be alone. He stared at the white ceiling and the ceiling fan that had been unused for almost three months. He thought about what he had lived through this morning. Haphazard images flashed in front of him. He felt a scream rising from his chest. But it stuck in his throat, chocking him. Tears spilled from his eyes, wetting his hair and the carpet below him.

This is not the life I choose to lead, Zaid told himself. Just one more year, and I will free myself from this madness.

Earlier that morning...

Zaid hurried down the road shivering in the biting cold of a January morning. He didn’t want to be late for his science tuitions again today. Yesterday he had arrived just 10 minutes late and had received a stern warning from Yunus Sir. He quickened his pace but the chill hit him with even more force. His multiple layers of clothing seemed insignificant protection against the frosty chills of Kashmir.

He was dressed in the customary pheran, a loose fitting overcoat that flapped in the icy breeze. Under it he wore a heavy woollen sweater over his shirt and trousers. The maroon muffler his mother had knitted last winter was wrapped around his head and the lower part of his face and kept his teeth from chattering. His hands were drawn into the pheran, holding his books close to his chest as he ran along the route he had been taking daily for a month now.

The new school session would begin in March and Zaid’s parents wanted him to be well prepared for it. His mother always said, “You must score high marks in your exams this time.” He wanted to ask her if his previous scores had not been high enough for her, but he would just nod. She would smile and plant a kiss on his cheek and carry on with her chores.

His mother, Zarina, was a housewife who had given up the perks of a teaching career at a government school to take care of her husband’s ailing parents. She was hardworking and amiable, loved by all in the household. Everyone vied for her attention, and Zaid seemed to receive very little of it at the end of the day.

Zaid had always been a high achiever at school, but strangely in never seemed like it was enough. His father maintained that he expected more from his only son.

“You are capable of much more, Zaid. You need to put in your best efforts. If only you wouldn’t waste time in front of the television.”

If only he had not been so interested in playing cricket with his rowdy friends, if only he would concentrate, if only he had an ambition, if only.... It was always some rebuke or the other. Zaid gritted his teeth, wishing he had the nerve to stand up to his father and tell him to just leave me alone, dammit.

He knew that was something he could never do. Etiquettes, in the conservative family he belonged to, did not allow him to look his father in the eye, let alone raise his voice in rebellion. It was unheard of for children to argue with their elders. Old-school decorum and family-taught values were revered and followed to the letter. At least it was assumed that they were.

Things hadn’t changed much in their home for years. Kashmiris devotedly followed their customs, keeping them alive for generations to come. Though they competed with one another on the scale and quality of their children’s weddings, the dowries they sent with their daughters, the size and beauty of their houses, and several other material possessions like clothes and jewellery, they shielded all these frivolities carefully within the boundaries of age old traditions and the respected customs of their forefathers.

He sprinted in the freezing air, his mind jumping from one thought to the other till he realised he had reached Aali Kadal. He was about 200 metres away from the river when he noticed that the lanes were deserted except for the usual Border Security Force soldiers. Patrolling BSF personnel were a common yet intimidating sight in Srinagar.

Things hadn’t changed much in Kashmiri households, but everything had changed outside those homes. The recent insurgency had altered the lives of Kashmiris entirely. He hardly remembered how it had felt to walk these lanes without any army presence. Curfews, gun shots, and grenade attacks were common occurrences these days. But the sound of gun fire, even from a distance, was something Zaid knew he would never get used to. He waited for the day he would finish his schooling and leave this beautiful, disturbed land which he loved so dearly. He wanted to be away from everything his life represented now, dreaming of a life free from fear and control.

“Hey, hero! Come here,” called a soldier sternly, stepping forward from a strategically placed bunker in the narrow lane that led to the bridge.

Zaid had seen the soldiers but wanted to hurry past them without drawing any attention. His grand-father’s store was just down the same road, right before the river. He hoped he had enough time to stop by the store and say hello before rushing off for his classes. It had been a while since he met babajan. But it looked liked the soldiers wanted to make conversation with him. He was going to be so late!

Zaid stopped and turned to face the soldiers. Three pairs of eyes fixed their gaze on him. Only then did he notice the shattered glass windows, the debris, the partly destroyed bunker, and the blood stains on the tar road. There must have been a grenade attack here, thought Zaid, understanding why the lanes were empty. A couple of windows opened a crack from the surrounding houses, fearful eyes peering down at him.

The soldiers walked towards him. Zaid sensed anger in their eyes. Anger and grief. He wondered if someone had died in the attack.

“Take off your muffler. What’s your name?”


“Where are you going?”

“For my tuitions... across the river.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’ve seen you passing through this street every morning. What have you got under your pheran? Show us your hands.”

“I’m carrying my books,” Zaid said quietly freeing his right hand and showing it to them. As he tried to remove his other hand while holding on to his books, the soldier raised the butt of his rifle and struck Zaid’s left arm with it. The books tumbled from under the pheran onto the ground.

Stunned, Zaid bent down to pick his books up. A powerful kick to his rear sent him hurtling to the ground face first. The assault began then. Kicks, punches, slaps, and hits from their rifles rained down on him. Zaid had no time to understand or to react to the situation. It took him a minute to find his voice and he began to plead to them, telling them he was just a student, he hadn’t done anything. But the mauling intensified. They couldn’t hear him above their own fury. They shouted out profanities and yelled at him to removing his outer clothing, wanting him to feel the full force of their blows.

Zaid took off his pheran and his sweater and dropped them to the ground. In his shirt and trousers now, Zaid continued to plead, pointing to his books lying scattered at his feet. He tried to reason with them, knowing that it would make no difference. He was faintly aware of warm pee running down his legs, wetting his trousers. It brought a sense of reality to the absurdity of what was happening.

It felt like an eternity had passed. Zaid wondered if they would take his body home after they killed him. Or would they just dispose of it somewhere? Ten minutes of torture later they were done.

“Pick up your things and run,” barked a soldier cocking his gun at Zaid. “If you stop or turn to look at us, I will kill you.”

Tears streaming, Zaid picked up his books and clothes and limped away from where the soldiers stood, smouldering pain slowly rising from his injuries. He kept walking
without looking back, expecting the sound of a gunshot to slice through the cold air.

He shambled along the road, still heading towards the river. A few minutes later he was still alive. The soldiers had spared him. He shuffled on aimlessly taking the same route he had taken every day to his classes.

He heard some shouts ahead and a BSF search party of about twelve soldiers materialised from the curve of the road. They were heading towards him. They were on a rampage, shattering the glass windows of shops and houses on both sides as they trudged down the lane. Zaid trembled thinking about what they could do to him. But he kept ambling along, as fast as his swollen limbs would let him.

They saw him. A soldier among them held his gaze for a second. Zaid tore his eyes away, choosing to stare at his feet instead. The soldier laughed, noticing his bruises, and a few of his comrades joined in the laughter. Zaid held his breath and walked past them as they jeered.

Zaid began breathing again once he was out of their sight. He reached his grandfather’s shop, but it was shuttered like all the other shops in the area. He heard a door open behind him and someone call out his name. It was Ibrahim.

Zaid shut his eyes now, as he lay on the thick carpet of his room, his tears dried up but hair and ears still wet. He didn’t want to think anymore. Sleep enveloped him gradually, and he let his thoughts drift to the blissful freedom of only a few years ago. Best Blogger Tips

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  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Masha Allah! Really admire your should write a book Sumira. Did you decide the names of the characters in your story last year when you wrote it?

  3. You mean, Zaid? Ha ha... I didn't even remember that I had named this character Zaid. Just today when I was going through my old stories I noticed it. :) And yes, inshaAllah will start on a book soon.

  4. Sumi......That was really heart warming&heart wrenching....My memory tells me i'v heard a brief account of this story from you when we once went together to a place&i was given a white color Holy book.I always knew Zaid was a person of great inner strength...I beg your pardon for drawing assumptions&pls excuse me if i'm wrong.....your words gave life to your characters and i could see the whole thing happen in front of my eyes!I am waiting for more wonderful stories from you...

  5. @Vids: :) Yes, I remember that! And you are right about Zaid. Incidentally, my son's name is Zaid. I'm so glad you liked the story. Will try and keep 'em comin.

  6. Very vividly written Sumira. I was however hoping for some connection between the events of the morning which caused him the bruises and the funeral that his mother was attending. Nevertheless, it makes for a really good read, albeit sad and disturbing.

  7. @Andy: Thanks for that feedback. I'm always thrilled to receive your feedback on my writing.

    I hadn't thought about connecting the two events. I wrote this story with the intention of writing a book. This was the first chapter. But then I read this beautifully written book called Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer. I realised that as a non-Kashmiri I would have to do a lot of research to do justice in my description of life in Kashmir.

  8. Lets just say you had me strapped in the entire way :) Great piece!