- Lalita Pandit -

remière publication : rubrique Literary Landscapes , Sulekha, septembre 2001.

   "Family and Friends"  was first published in my Literary Landscapes Column at in Septmeber, 2001, and the story was written towards the end of that summer. I had been reading news about and hearing accounts of what has been happening in Kashmir. This is a distilled, imaginatively condensed rendition of what I felt. Names of characters in this story do not refer to real persons. The first person pronoun, "I", does not refer to an autobiographical subject, but a fictionalized subjective consciousness.   I think that the "I" can be read as what Henry James in his Art of Fiction  calls the 'observer', one who witnesses but does not participate in action or the emotions: a disembodied consciousness. There are some stray "local habitation and a name" sorts of things in the story that refer to actual entities. Kulgam is a real place. Ashmuj is a real village near Kulgam. Pulwama and Anantnag are real names of towns in Kashmir. Srinagar is, of course, the famous city. The town in which Gafar lives is vaguely reminiscent of Sopore which is a river town, a few miles from where Vitasta emerges from the Wuller Lake.

"Family and Friends est un récit que j'ai écrit à la fin de l'été 2001. J'avais lu et entendu diverses informations sur ce qui s'était passé au Kashmir. Ce texte est une restitution distillée, condensée par l'imagination, de ce que j'ai ressenti. Les noms des personnages ne correspondent pas à des personnes réelles. Le pronom de la première personne, "I" ("je"), ne correspond pas à un sujet autobiographique, mais à une conscience subjective crée par la fiction. Je crois que ce "I" doit se lire comme ce qu'Henry James appelle l'"observateur", dans son ouvrage Art of Fiction : un simple témoin qui ne prend pas part à l'action ni aux émotions, une conscience désincarnée. Toutefois, le fait est que certains noms de lieux peuvent renvoyer à des entités réelles. Kulgam est un lieu qui existe vraiment. Ashmuj est vraiment un village proche de Kulgam. Pulwama et Anantnag sont les noms de villes réelles du Kashmir. Srinagar est, bien sûr, la ville bien connue. La ville où vit Gafar rappelle vaguement Sopore qui est une ville au bord du fleuve, à peu de distance du lieu où e Lac Wuller donne naissance à la Vitasta" (Lalita Pandit).


    Gafar is Soortraag's best baker. He bakes varieties of delicious bread : salt bread with fennel and sesame seeds, sweet bread with almonds. The most important for him is the daily abundance of plain bread, lavasah, thin loaves that reflect light. In Gafar's father's time, one could buy twenty-four loaves for one rupee.

   His favorite customers got extra loaves thrown in. Our mother got it almost for free. When they were young, Gafar's father, Ramzan Dar, had wanted to marry her. She did not like him because he had a beard. She thought only grandfathers, Mullahs, and Sufi Fakirs are entitled to beards. Mother was herself a follower of Ahad Juv, a Sufi Fakir who lived in poverty by choice. Pointing to me one day, Ahad Juv told her, "This girl of yours will win a vazifa ; send her to school." That is all the foretelling that lovely man did for me. In her youth, mother rejected Gafar's father. In her old age, it seems to me, she worries too much about Gafar. It is as if he is her own son.

   The house above Gafar's bakery was built in their grandfather's time. When Gafar's father was still alive, the line of shops attached to the house formed a market. The grocery was owned and run by Abdul Khalik Dar, Gafar's father's older brother. The one next to it was rented by a cloth merchant, Dina Nath Gurutu. The youngest of Gafar Dar's uncles had his butcher shop neck to neck with Gurutu's colorful one. The milkman, green grocer, chemist were in the back. Safaya Brothers' General Merchandise Store was also in the back. The Police building is still where it was then, right in front, across the street.

   None of the shops are in use now, except for Gafar's bakery. Of the sons, he alone stayed on. All his cousins went to college. For higher education they moved on to Kashmir University, Aligarh Muslim University, and other far away places. Many of the Gurutu and Safaya kids, who went to study outside of Kashmir, never came back. It was a gradual exodus of Kashmiri Hindus, but we did not see it that way then. All of Gafar's cousins who went away for studies returned to Kashmir. Many of them live in Srinagar now. One is a lawyer there, another is a Professor of Persian at the University.

   Gafar's brothers live in a nearby town, but the house at Zahar street in Soortraag is still considered common property. Gafar occupies one portion of this sprawling house. The rest is in a state of disrepair. At one time, not long ago, his sons lived in the upstairs rooms of their part of the house. Gafar and his wife, while taking secret delight in their children, used to complain about their youthful wildness, the noise they made, the way they thundered down the stairs. As the boys became more mature, there was still the rough play, peals of laughter, and something else -- secret, serious meetings. These were conducted behind closed doors.

   Amina took note of the fact that Mushtaq's closest friend, Siddharth Safaya, was never invited to these 'meetings'. In fact, once he stopped by to ask for Mushtaq. As usual, Amina ran upstairs to tell Mushtaq. Her son opened the door quickly, bodily blocked her view of, and access to, the room. She had never seen him like that. Amina told Siddharth the truth. Mushtaq was home ; there was a meeting going on and he could not go out with Siddhu. However, she did not tell the whole truth.

   At the top of the stairs, Mushtaq had whispered in her ear, "Tell Siddhu never to come here again. Tell him to stay as far away as he can."

   Amina did not have the heart to tell him that. Siddhu kept coming to the house, to ask for Mushtaq. Each time he looked sadder than before, till he went away, in November 1988, to live with his grandparents in Jammu.

   For several years the rooms were repeatedly searched by the Police, the Army, and the insurgents. After the sound and the fury of the searches had ended, Gafar and Amina did not want to go in. It was as if the second floor of the house had become forbidden territory, cut off from the rest of the house. They never fully comprehended what had been found there, what had been hidden ? By whom? Once, the Police found two non-Kashmiri speaking fugitives in the attic. The men had been hiding there for several days. Amina did not know. Perhaps Gafar knew. Perhaps one of her sons knew. When such things happen, one begins to doubt one's closest kin. The right hand no longer knows what the left hand does.

   One October morning, in one of those awful years, Gafar and Amina buried Akhtar. He was the youngest and he died first. Red leaves of Chinar, lifted by the breeze, fell into his grave. There were no flowers, no mourners. The twins, Shakil and Rashid, died a year later, in Pulwama. Their funeral was a public affair. Mushtaq was there. He identified the bodies. Shakil and Rashid took on false names for reasons of subterfuge. Amina had argued that since the names were not theirs, may be the bodies were not theirs either. How can anyone identify a son, a brother, a lover, a husband, in a bloodied corpse. Gafar and Amina never went to the Shaheed Mazaar, in Srinagar, to visit the graves.

   Akhtar's story was different. He was killed for being an informer. A lot of money was taken from the treasury in Kulgam. Many arrests were made; some of the money was recovered. Akhtar may have informed about some who were involved. They had killed many people in Kulgam the day of the robbery and had burnt a Hindu home. Akhtar had been part of that group, but had later defected. A month later, they found him in Ashmuj and killed him. Mushtaq brought his body home. Soon enough rumors started about Mushtaq as well. Gafar and Amina waited, no longer being able to feel or think a thing. In a sort of stupor they waited until a note was delivered by a muffled messenger in the middle of the night. He came and was gone like a flash of lightening.

   The note said : 'Mushaq has been killed. I buried him. I am his friend.' Nothing more was ever known, except there was a letter in Mushtaq's shirt pocket. It was written in a mix of Urdu and English, addressed to some girl who studied at the Anantang Womens' College. The letter was filled with quotations from Nizami's Laila and Majnun; in between there were passages and some more quotations in English. There was no date on it, but the letter was surely written my Mushtaq. It was hard to tell if the sender meant to hand deliver it, or if he meant to mail it. Mushtaq's loss was the hardest for Amina. She took to bed a month after the mysterious stranger's visit. Nine months later, she died.

   Once the final mourning period was over, Gafar realized how much had been taken away from him. Caring for his wife in her last days was a trial. Amina was a difficult patient. In her pain and confusion, she blamed Gafar for their ill fortunes. She cursed him for his lack of ambition, for the thwarted ambitions of their sons. She blamed him for being too stupid to stay in the bakery business. She said it was because of him that their sons wandered away to distant parts of the valley. To her all the Southern towns and hamlets -- Kulgam, Ashmuj, Khannabal, Anantnag -- were too distant, too alien.

   For several nights after her funeral, Gafar slept soundly. His health improved. A peace seemed to settle on the house, the shop, the street. In mid-July of that year, the river flooded. There was hardly any damage. Flood waters receded in the same quite way in which they had overstepped. Like everyone else, Gafar remained house bound for three whole days. The silence got to him. It became a voice and it said: they died and you live. The echoing of these words, night and day, maddened him. He tore up his hair; stuck his head against the wall ; bruised his face with his nails. After the flood waters had fully abated, his brothers came to see him. They washed off the mud, took him to the Trauma Center of the local hospital. After a few days of incessant weeping, heavy medication, and the ministrations of the nurses, another kind of calm descended upon Gafar. He stopped talking. For five years now, he has been silent like death. He cannot be persuaded to use human speech even to answer the simplest, the most necessary question.

   When his wife was alive, after the deaths of his sons, Gafar would wake up at any time of the night to pray, hoping that one day in the merciful world of Allah he will behold their faces. His business did extraordinarily well in those days. Out of sympathy, people came to him in throngs. When his wife died, and he stopped talking, people became suspicious. They thought he was mad, and they considered such madness contagious. They stopped buying his bread. Some thought Gafar had finally lost faith in the mercy of Allah.

   As far as Gafar is concerned, the one constant in his life is his work. He continues to bake bread as before, sells it to the occasional customer. Every afternoon, he packs a huge pile of paper thin bread in a sack. Carrying this load, the baker walks all the way to the river front where once there were five temples. Ten miles from where she emerges out of the Wular Lake, Vitasta looks like an ocean at this point. One can barely see the other shore. At the embankment, above the stone steps, Gafar can be seen seated upon a mound. The catalpa and the four chinar trees are still there, undisturbed by history -- so, it seems, is Gafar, as he cuts each moonlike bread into twenty four pieces. The birds have become used to his method. They wait, in trust that each will get its share.

   Last year, Gafar tried to kill himself. At the end of a long day, when the waters were particularly high, he just sat there -- allowing the darkness to make him indistinguishable from the ruins of a temple, the trees and the river. As he was about to jump, it seemed to him someone touched his shoulder gently. He could not see. There was no one there, but surely someone had stopped him. Not only that, he felt a presence near him, a man, taller than him. For the first time since the deaths, Gafar felt he was not alone. He felt there was someone near him, though he could not see. He stretched his hand; there was no garment to take hold of. Still, the feeling of someone being near was true, as true as the news of each death. Gafar was too overcome to speak to this phantom. After a few moments, he felt whoever it was had moved away. Gafar ran after till he reached home, and there was no one.

   Of his family and friends, Dr. Safaya and Amina were the only two whose deaths Gafar witnessed. A few months after Siddharth left, Dr. Safaya sent the rest of his family to Jammu. He stayed on alone, guarding the ancestral house in which several of the Safaya families used to live in separate quarters. At different times, all fled to Jammu, or Udhampur. Only Neelesh remained. At the hospital, the doctor in him attended to wounded militants, police personnel, Indian soldiers, whoever was brought to him. He did not ask any questions, nor did he show any reactions. If Shabir Shah and Yasin Malik had been brought to him, his face would have remained the same, impeccably impassive. In early Spring of one of those years, on the night of herath, the doctor was dragged from his house and killed.

   After the firing stopped, Gafar went into the street, closed Neelesh's eyes, wiped off the blood from his face. Neelesh's glasses were shattered, the frames remained. Gafar took them home, and they are among the few last things of his sons, all wrapped in the scarf Amina wore when she was a bride. Gafar kept watch over his friend's body all night ; he could not get anyone to take it to the hospital. In the morning, the soldiers cremated Dr. Safaya properly. A dozen or so gathered around the pyre. There would have been more, but fear kept them away.

   A year later, when Amina was very ill, Gafar had a dream. Dr Safaya said to him, "Gafar, take Amina to Ludhiana. Here is a note for my friend, Dr. Mahendra Dhingra. He is a specialist; he will treat her and make arrangements for your stay." When Gafar woke up, he searched for the note in his bed. The dream was so vivid, but some of its detail was shocking. Gafar noticed that Dr. Safaya's body had shrunk so that he looked like a dwarf.

   He had lost one arm, and there was an open wound in his throat -- one deep, protracted knife wound, not the multiple gunshot wounds in the head, chest, and abdomen. The blood around this hole in Dr. Safaya's throat had dried out. It was like the mouth of an ancient cave. There was blackness inside.

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