I was 15 years old, a painful age I must admit. An age where you are neither a child, nor an adult. An age where you still have the audacity of hoping and dreaming like a child, but the fears of an adult who knows loss also lurk within you. And if that wasn’t bad enough, I was a child of literature, of stories, of love and of happy endings.
My mother was a professor of English at the university and for as long as I could remember, I was surrounded by books. I lived in books and at the time I was happy to sit and read my life away. Maybe it was hormones or maybe it was just an escape. After all, living in Srinagar in the early 1990s was not easy. Every day brought death and with every hour, new faces of fear, dread and dismay. Life had taken on such a fractured and fragmented form that it became difficult to hope. And no matter what you did the smell of death clung to your clothes like an expensive perfume.
But I was at an age where life still held possibilities. Everything I read, somehow acted as a cement or a glue, that would pour itself into the gaps and depressions left behind by the bullets and grenades – producing a delicate continuum in my life.
My mother taught some of her students at home. The constant curfews made it impossible to complete the curriculum at university. One ordinary day, the army descended on our mohalla (locality) and a crackdown reigned upon our heads. All the male students were told to leave. I stayed home with my mother. At such moments the stench of disquiet was so thick it would choke you – maybe that’s why everyone held their breath. All we could do was to wait. We would hear screams which usually signalled that someone was dead or in the process of dying.
Soon the men and boys started walking back home. I was at the gate when I saw “him”. He had a split lip and a black eye. He wasn’t classically handsome, but there was something about his face that held you captive. He was tall and well built with broad shoulders. His hair and his eyes seemed to be the same colour – black.
Days later, I asked my mother about him. All I heard over the beating of my heart was that he was her student which meant that I would definitely see him again. I couldn’t stop thinking about him since the day of the crackdown. I would finish my homework early so I could sit on the stairs and wait for him. I waited for a week before I finally saw him open the front door and enter. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t muster up the courage. He looked up, saw me, smiled and disappeared into the teaching room. For someone who had read so much about love, I was stupidly oblivious to the signs and symptoms of it. My intelligent guess at the time was that it was probably flu! But that is how it started – my little love story, with me thinking that I had a head cold.
I started waiting for him every day on the stairs. Some days he would walk right past me and other days he would acknowledge me with a polite smile.
One day, my mother was running late and her students were sitting around talking among themselves. He was reading something and seemed to be completely oblivious to his surroundings, but then he looked up and asked me what I was reading.
“Poetry! Lowell.” I blurted out, taken by surprise.
“Koas akh (Which one)?” he asked
My heart heaved in my mouth.
“Which one?” he asked again.
“Will not come back,” I babbled.
“I don’t think I have read it. Read me something from it?” he asked.
And so I read him the following lines –
Some other love will sound his firewood for you
and wake your heart, perhaps, from its cool sleep;
but silent, absorbed, and on his knees,
as men adore God at the altar, as I love you –
don’t blind yourself, you’ll not be loved like that.
I read these lines on purpose. Neither of us said anything. I sat on the stairs silently watching him, and he stood there silently staring at the floor. And from that day on, both of us engaged in this ritual dance where he would turn up five or ten minutes early and ask what I was reading, and I would read or recite to him. He would listen, smile and then disappear into the teaching room.
For months I recited and read, and he smiled. It was a slice of heaven hanging in a world that was nothing short of hell. And it was hanging by a delicate thread but I, of course, was blissfully unaware. When you are that age, and in love, you feel your world is invincible. Love does that to you, you see. It gives you a false sense of security. It lets you believe that this, right there, in front of you, will never end.
But I was living in Kashmir, a war zone. And wars and conflicts care little for love and even less for the people that it has pitched its camp in. The mist that I had started living in was about to clear; reality was about to hit home. One day, when I came down the stairs I was surprised to see him there before me. I sat down and waited for him to ask me what I was reading. But he didn’t. He opened his backpack and pulled out a package.
“This is for you,” he said, pushing the package into my hands.
It was a shabbily wrapped package with no tape, so it was easy to peel off the newspaper revealing a really worn out copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
“So you can remember me, whenever you read it,” he said shyly.
I was thrilled but I felt that I too should give him something, but what could I give him at such short notice? I looked at the book in my hand – a copy of Shakespeare’s Othello. I shut the book and handed it to him.
“For you,” I said, “so you can remember me, whenever you read it.”
He took it with a smile. Little did we know that we had not simply exchanged books. We had just handed each other a bound copy of each other’s destinies. I didn’t read to him that day or any other day after that, because he never came again. Time passed but there was no sign of him. I stopped reading anything else except the Anna Karenina. I kept re-reading it, feeling that as long as I did, hope of seeing him again remained alive but destiny had already carved out our paths – and they met nowhere.
One day while I read Anna Karenina, I heard someone weeping. It was my mother. I got up quickly to see what was wrong. She was in the kitchen cleaning rose petals and sniffing. She would make gulkand when she was deeply upset about something. What’s upsetting you? I asked.
Nothing, she said.
Help me with this, she said.
She had collected the rose petals and washed them under cold water. She then dried them by pressing them gently between two paper napkins. I measured out an equal amount of sugar. She chopped the rose petals coarsely.
Right, she said. One layer of petals followed by one layer of sugar and then repeat till we have no space.
We did this silently. She put a layer of chopped rose petals in a glass jar and I followed with a layer of sugar until no more could be squeezed in.
I think it’s done, she sighed.
What is it, mum? What’s wrong?
One of my students is dead, she said. She was trying hard not to cry, the tears pooling and holding on to her lashes like dewdrops on rose petals. Eventually they gathered weight and dropped like little crystals, splintering into a million pieces.
Who? I asked.
Taalib, she said.
She kept talking but I couldn’t hear what she was saying.
And then the world went dark.
He was dead.
For days I was delirious. Whenever I came round, reality would wash over me like a giant wave and again I would lose my footing and become lost. I alternated between disbelief and gut-wrenching acceptance, and neither came easy. Feeling that I would not recover, my parents decided to send me to Delhi for further studies.
Both my parents travelled with me to Delhi and helped me settle into the hostel. On the day my parents left, my mother handed me a package neatly wrapped in red paper. I went back to my room. It was silent. I took the package and unwrapped it. It was the worn out copy of Anna Karenina. I opened it to the first page expecting it to be blank like I had always seen it. The page had become glued to the cover and I had never tried to open it for fear of ripping the book. My mother, however had prised it open, and it was not blank. There was in his handwriting, in red ink, an inscription.
Asiya, my militant love,
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
Take down this book,
And slowly read…
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
And loved the sorrows of your changing face…
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Taalib (with Mr Yeats)
PS: The gulkand jar must be kept in the sunlight for 7 to 10 days after which it will be ready to be consumed.
Saba Mahjoor is a Kashmiri writer who lives in the United Kingdom.