LOVING, DYING (OR BEING KILLED)

This piece was first published on "Cerebration".
https://www.cerebration.org/atherzia2.html 

The young girl in this story is looking out from the window, of what
 at one point must have been a large house, now divided into slim
columns, probably amongst its heirs. Built with tiny scorched bricks
 that are held together by mud, the partitions are discernible by
 windows of different colors. Most of the homes in this town of 
Maisuma, which is called the heart of Kashmir, are conjoined like
 this, and at some visceral level are waiting to be separated from 
each other. The rundown building are worn with history and often 
lean dangerously exhausted against each other. Shops, industrial 
buildings, bus-yards, and garages stand entwined in this maze of a
 place which sits on the bank of river Jehlum that now has become an 
embittered swamp full of raw sewage and grease-oil. Broken parts of 
buses and trucks line the waters' edge where shanties erected by 
professional beggars, who pour into Kashmir during summers from 
mainland India, overflow with soggy bundles of clothes, cardboard,
and pieces of random trash – found and pilfered for recycling.
Sturdy pieces of metal have been turned into seats in the makeshift 
courtyards. Young garage hands come here to smoke and flirt with 
pan-handling girls, who are single-mindedly focused on lightening
their pockets. 

Tangles of electric wires can be seen hanging over the narrowest 
alleyways, so low that the static buzzes in your ear and sparks 
(not the enlivening kind) fly. The girl in the window looking down 
on one such alley is reminiscent of a native scene from a postcard,
someone sent from an inexpensive holiday. It is around lunch time.
The air around the neighborhood is thick with the smell of green 
tea brewing in old copper pans, sweet frying onions and traffic 
smoke. Grandmothers are done with sunning themselves and cleaning 
collards on the slightly raised pavements, which doubles as their 
porch. Snatches from old Bollywood songs and pleading beggars 
mixes with the shouts of hawkers selling pain balm and cigarettes.
Men are heading home for lunch; some bargain with the pickle
seller on the alley corner, who swears by his mothers' grave to 
prove no cheap food color has been used, and that the mixture has
been fermented for more than a month. Army bunkers sprawling at 
every nook and cranny are abuzz with gustatory activity too. Dogs
congregate as they hear the dining trucks rolling in to feed the 
soldiers. They follow the tall stacks of aluminum boxes packed 
with sizzling hot lentils, meat, pickles, rice, and bread. The 
soldiers kick and hit their rumps with sturdy boots. The dogs yelp,
keep distance and wait till the soldiers are ready to throw
leftovers generously towards them.

Our young lady is about 20 years of age. She has a waif-like face.
A wisp of a scarf is stylishly perched on her hair. A soft wave 
of brown hair falls over the side of her face reminiscent of the 
Bollywood actresses. The white tunic that she wears, with small red
tulips on the neckline and hem, which she has embroidered herself,
remain hidden beneath the windowsill. 

Her eyes are fixed on the wooden lamp-post near the Masjid next-door.
An old cough can be heard behind her and someone shouts. She seems 
to pay no mind.
An all too close call for prayers booming through the public address
system jars the air. A young man, also around 20 years of age 
appears at the mouth of the alley. 
The girl's face opens like a sunflower; it looks as if her prayer 
has been answered in advance.
The boy wears a white T-shirt that says "Coke" in red— the brown 
bottle placed on the right side, just below his heart. A white skull 
cap covers his well-groomed hair.
 
He leans against the lamp-post that is dangerously inclined. It 
tilts some more and the greasy bulb on top begin swaying only to
still some seconds later. The girl always worries that the
lamp-post might fall on him. The gutter gurgles around the boy's
feet. He continues 
looking towards her, arms crossed against his chest, eyes intent and
unsmiling.
The girl always wants to see him a bit closer. Feel those hands that
she has touched so many times in her dreams. She has seen him up
close only once – the first time. She was buying dried Chilli powder 
from his father's grocery store. Everything smelled like turmeric,
and some vague spice that never seemed to leave the shelves.
His gaze was unbroken as he passed the packet of Chilli to her. 
She saw it had a hole, but could not summon the courage to ask for a
different one. 
She felt rooted to the spot. After paying and forgetting to take the 
change, she broke into a run. She felt his eyes stuck to her back.
Her hand was burning and stained red by the Chilli that escaped in 
tiny puffs with each hurried step. She sneezed the entire day. Her
chest felt light and heavy. The world seemed awash in a golden haze. 
It had been four months since then, when she saw him for the first
time.
The boy began to come every day and linger around the lamp-post
awhile. His eyes would keep darting towards her window. As the time
for prayer drew close, he would mingle with other congregants, and
then vanish into the Masjid.
On the way out, jostling for exit, he would steal looks at her,
while she peeped out of what now would be a half-closed window ready 
to be shut till the next afternoon. Then, in a flash he would be
gone.
She would spend the rest of her day reliving the thick slice of time
that had stood between them. The silent minutes of their distanced
tryst would unfold like a video in slow replay. Each moment was a 
lifetime of glances, yearning and inexpressible joy. Every moment 
spoke, as no word ever could. The next day would take forever to 
come.
The pain in her heart would continue growing, only to abate a little
when he appeared. After he was gone, her body would be filled with
more and more agony. 
At night, she would peer out of the window. She imagined a 
silhouette walking towards her. Her reverie would be broken by the
barking of dogs that were roused by patrolling army and the firm
kicks and slurring shouts they delivered on everything that moved 
or not. Her mother's exasperated, muffled shout reminded her to
close the window or face a bullet or worse.
 
She saw that today, the boy did not stop at the lamppost but walked 
hurriedly towards her window. He raised his arm, and threw something 
at her. She ducked. It fell into the corner without a sound. Moving 
swiftly, she picked the soft sweaty ball of paper, crushed around a
piece of clay. She opened it, trembling. It said - "I love you. I
will die for you." It was written on the letterhead of the
"Paradice Garage," where he probably worked. There was a picture
of a black tire and a shining hand holding a wrench in the corner.
 
The night was unending. 
The redness that appeared in her cheeks when she first read the 
note became deeper. She tried to write back. Nothing seemed 
adequate. In the end she repeated his dear words 
- "I love you, I will die for you".
She tucked the well kissed note under the pillow.
The clock seemed to be stuck at midnight.
She filled the emptiness in her room with a litany of soft sighs,
whispering "I love you, I will die for you." Her eyelids drifted 
shut. She saw herself hanging from the long hand of a giant clock,
pulling it to move. She felt her feet dangling in air and there 
was nothing to catch her underneath. In a distance she heard 
slogans, shouting, and cries of all kinds. Shots rang in the air. 
She hung between her dream, and an eerie wakefulness, undecided 
where the dream ended and reality began.
The morning arrived without the call to fajr prayers. Usually she 
would have welcomed the silence, without an entreating congregation
at the Masjid rousing God's pre-dawn beneficence and her 
sleep-deprived ire (and probably the rest of the neighborhood's
as well), but not today. The only sound she heard was the army 
jeep announcing the curfew. There was an order for "shoot at sight".
Riots had started all around the valley after a young boy was
beaten to death by the police. People were staging anti-India 
demonstrations and there were incidents of stone pelting. The 
soldiers fired on unarmed crowds and many were killed. 
 
Usually the girl would make hasty prayers much to her mother's 
consternation. "This does not seem to be a mark of patient bowing
 before the Lord, it seems more like an impatient bird pecking 
at the grain," her mother would say. Today the girl fell into 
frequent and prolonged prostrations. She shifted uneasily; 
thousands of needles seemed to prick her body. Her eyes kept 
darting towards the clock.
The note which had her answer was balled tightly around a piece
of clay and felt like hot metal in her hand. She longed to throw
it to him. She wanted to see his face once he read it.
At noon, she opened the window just a crack. Only a cow stood at 
the far end, chewing on a wet cardboard box. She heard noises from
afar. Smoke rose in the slim crack of sky between the window 
panes. Suddenly a running figure appeared. It was him. Blood
rushed into her face. Her hand fell and the window came ajar 
with a swift noise. 
There were shouts, curses, jangling, and running footsteps. 
A contingent of army-men in riot gear, their vizor-hidden faces
and bodies, preceded by bamboo shields, were behind him like 
an unending camouflaged flurry. She threw the sweaty ball of
paper towards him when he was near the window. 
Shots burst in the air and sparks flew. For a moment it felt like
fireworks at a wedding. A strange and a very sharp heat bolted 
through her breast. The boy lunged at the paper-ball and smiled at
her – for the first time ever. More shots, and then he fell. Her 
face sank into her chest as she saw the blood seeping into her 
tunic and the tulips which she had wanted him to see some day 
disappeared. She fell into one limp heap.
 
Later, in the evening news bulletin, the boy and the girl were 
included in the list of stone-pelters killed that day. No one found
the girl's note. It was probably mangled in the dirt, under the 
feet of running and falling crowds, which would not cease for days
to come and still has not stopped.
No one would ever know how well the young pair delivered on the one
and only promise they made to each other in the alley of Maisuma 
where the gutter still gurgles below the tilted lamp-post. The
window in which the girl stood looking at the only boy she ever
loved, now remains open all day and all night.

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