Khurshid A short story in Bengali by Suchitra Bhattacharya

Ratna Guha Mustafi
Translated by Ratna Guha Mustafi

It is a matter of ten or twelve years hence, or may be even more. The year, date and such things are not clear but definitely it was the beginning of the winter days. May be a week or two after the Hindu ceremony of marking the forehead of a brother by a sister on an auspicious day. For a certain reason, when I paid a visit to my sister and brother-in-law’s flat at Ranikuthi, I met a vibrant Kashmiri youth there.

Yes, there is no reason to disbelieve that he is a Kashmiri. You can make out at a glance. Very handsome stature, not very tall and stout, but really good-looking. Very fair, with sharp nose and blue eyes – seemed like a Persian prince. In the winter days, such fair and handsome princes are found almost everywhere on the streets of Kolkata carrying bundles on their shoulders.

The bundle lay on the floor, while shawls of different colours lay strewn all over the carpet. My elder sister bent over those to feel the quality of the shawls, while my brother-in-law reclined on a sofa, kept on the opposite side, and trying to gauge the situation with a frown upon his forehead. Brother-in-law Ashim was very stringent about financial matters and became too tensed when my sister planned to purchase anything.

On seeing me, brother in-law, Ashim became relaxed and with a broad smile said, --Here, the real buyer of shawls has arrived.

He began calling the shawl vendor, --Hey brother, what is your name, you said?

--Ji Khurshid, Babuji. KhurshidAlam.

--Yeah,yeah, Khurshid. What is the meaning of Khurshid in urdu?

--Ji Suraj. Sun.                                                                       

--Yeah, yeah, Sun,… so listen Sunny, leave this Didi and show your shawls to that Didi, pointing towards me. She is really an elite. She earns a lot. She does not have to contribute expenses for the family. She has a fancy for purchasing saris. If you are able to present her choice, five to seven shawls will readily get selected for purchase.

This leg-pulling act of brother-in-lawAshim highly displeased me. He was of the opinion that my job was for the sake of fanciful engagement. He can never understand that in the present times, it is not possible to live a balanced life with one of the partner’s income. Or, it may be that he knows, and has regrets about his Masters-qualified wife who never made an attempt to engage herself in any kind of job.

I could have retorted back at him, but somehow that day, I maintained my composure. Actually, I was thinking of buying a shawl or two. Particularly, one for Dipak, sure. For quite some time, Dipak was complaining about his old and worn out shawl. He was unhappy that I did not pay any heed to it and also that his shawl was no longer worthwhile to be worn at decent gatherings. Only because he did not possess a stylish shawl, he is compelled to put on his shirt and trouser in winter while attending parties and so on.

Very casually I asked, --Brother, do you have Gents shawl?

Khurshid was awaiting to hear such a question. Having heard from brother-in-law Ashim about me, as the most coveted client, Khurshid jumped to his feet and joined his palms to say, --Namaskar. Definitely have,Didi. Come, Didi, see ladies, gents or anything of your choice.

I took a seat beside my Didi. Khurshid took out one after another the winter wears from his bag. He opened them and held them before me to have a good view of them. Some he tried to place against his body, making different poses with the shawls. He also explained why each shawl is different from the other in colour, design, and quality of the pashmina. He explained how for days with great effort, any particular shawl of intricate design took to be completed with perfection.

Khurshid was quite admirable. I have seen shawl vendors also before. Prior to my marriage, a middle-aged Kashmiri used to come to our house sometimes. He was an amicable man but too serious. He hardly spoke and if he did, that also in a very low voice and measured tactics. Khurshid was not at all disinterested. He was quite vibrant and cheerful. While maintaining his salesmanship crafts, Khurshid intermittently made witty comments on women’s desire for new purchases. His remarks were in mixed languages of Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Kashmiri and English. He was also enjoying brother-in-law Ashim’s peculiar use of the national language. Out of the huge number of spread-out shawls, I could not choose any, but he was not at all annoyed. Rather, he expressed his regrets again and again for not having been able to present anything of my choice.

Khurshid could only sell one shawl to my Didi that day and finally arranged his goods into a bundle. He took my address and said that he would definitely make me buy shawls of my choice.

Searching door after door and trying to find my address Khurshid came to my house, the very next Sunday. He not only carried his bundle that day, but brought along a vendor carrying another bundle. The bundles not only had shawls in them, but other items as well. Bedcovers with Kashmiri artwork, Namda, and Chinon silk saris … oh, yes, the fellow quite understands business. The previous day he came to know that my daughter has recently taken admission in a college, so remembering this, he had brought a few Firhans for my daughter, too.

So from that very day we got acquainted with Khurshid.

We came to know that Khurshid’s native place was in Srinagar. His family position was above poverty level as his father and uncle were carrying on the ancestral business of selling shawls. They have a shop at Srinagar. Their joint family establishment comprised of large members. After the death of his brother-in-law, his Didi has joined them and nephew, niece are being brought up in this family. Being out of Srinagar at this time of the year was their hereditary custom. His father and uncles also took bundles of shawls on their shoulders and crossed lands to come to Delhi, some to Mumbai, the others in Kolkata. Now the turn has come for the next generation to leave Srinagar for business. They roam about in the cities one after the other. This is the fifth time in Kolkata for Khurshid, but still now he has not been able to know the whole of the city’s layout. However, unlike other kashmiris visiting the city, Khurshid has been able to learn Bangla language. At least, he thinks so.

--Five times in Kolkata? How old are you? Dipak wanted to know.

Khurshid replied, --Ji, thirtyone.

--What do you say? You hardly look older than twenty, twenty-two years.

Feeling embarrassed Khurshid said, --What are you saying, Babu? Do you know that I have an eight-year old son? He is Afroz. Last year, a daughter was also born.

I poked in jokingly, --Tell me, how can you manage to keep yourself looking like a young adolescent?

To this he talked about the ‘magic’ of Kashmir. --In Kashmir, no one’s age seem to grow quite easily, for Kashmir is heaven, heaven.

Engaging in such light conversations, Khurshid tactfully did his business. He sold off two shawls, one firhan and a chinon sari. He was about to sell off a namda, when Dipak came on our way to put off the idea. Whether in instalments or not, payment has to be done. Besides, last year a Mirzapuri carpet for my home was bought, so I should abstain myself from useless expenses.

That year, Khurshid had to visit our house thrice for the instalments. I am a bit talkative and befriended easily with the salesman or saleswoman. Comparatively, Dipak and Bubli are sufficiently peevish. Finicky. But, they too were in friendship with Khurshid. Both father and daughter were curious to know about the heavenly Kashmir. They made a lot of enquiries and Khurshid complied with their queries and quite jovially satisfied them with his answers.

--Do you live next to the Dal Lake, Khurshid Bhai?

--No, sister. Not next to it, but closer to it.

--Is the whole lake covered with snow in winter?

--Absolutely. It totally becomes a white field. Children are found to play there and ride bicycles.

--You know, Bubli that in winter even motorcars are seen plying on the Dal Lake. Once Jawaharlal Nehru ran his jeep on the lake. Am I right, Khurshid?

--Yes, you are right. In my childhood, I also saw Sheikh saheb loitering along the lake on foot.

--Sheikh saheb is Sheikh Abdullah, I guess?

--Ji, Babuji.

--His party is in the government, now?

--Ji.

--What is the political situation now at your place? It is in a chaotic situation, isn’t it?

--Troubles are at some places. Not very serious. Where do you not find political turmoil, Babuji? It is happening in Delhi, in Mumbai, and in your own state, Bengal even. For no rhyme and reason, disputes rise, bombs are exploded, shops are shut down … again all the shops are opened. Same is with Kashmir.

--But why did the trouble start again? Everything was normal these days?

--Who knows, Babuji? Those who do not have work, are the ones who engage in an uproar.

--Are tourists visiting Kashmir, now?

--Definitely going. In huge numbers. This year also all the houseboats were full.

--Staying in a houseboat is very thrilling. If we go to Kashmir, we’ll stay in a houseboat, Papa.

--You come along, sister. My uncle (Fufha) has a houseboat, and I shall make all arrangements for you. You will have great fun. You will sail on a Shikara and move on to Nagina Lake. If you wish, you can also put up on the Nagina Lake. That side of Kashmir is more beautiful.

--Wow! Let us go, Bubli. When do you want to visit? In summer or in winter?

--Certainly not in winter, Babuji. Where will you roam then? The whole valley will remain covered with snow. In our Srinagar the snow covers at least four to five feet in depth. Nothing will be properly seen. It’s only white sheet all around.

--Really? Then, which is the best time to go to Kashmir? Is it May-June?

--In summer, more tourists visit Kashmir. But, if you ask me, I would suggest September. At that time, the beauty of Kashmir is worth watching – ‘lajawaab’. So many flowers blossom with a riot of colours and even the snow at the PirPanjal then appear as melting gold.

When Khurshid got an opportunity to talk about Kashmir, he babbled incessantly. His eyes glowed with brightness. He explained in so many ways about his ‘jannat’ Kashmir. How at the advent of spring, snow gradually melt down and how the new leaves begin to form into a foliage, the shades of greenery on the dry twigs become dense, the grapes, apples, cashew nuts fill the gardens, saffron fields are filled with fragrance, winds dance through the willow wild, birch-pine-poplar forests, leaves of chinar are seen trembling in the air, and varied coloured roses blossom on the mountain slopes.

Bubli was overwhelmed to hear details about Kashmir from the month of March to November. We too, were glued to the details. Nay, we have had enough of Himachal Pradesh U.P Sikkim Bhutan… This time we have to visit the earth’s paradise. Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahelgaon …Indus Jhelum Liddar …

Weaving a beautiful dream in our eyes, Khurshid went back to his native place. It was around the beginning of March.

 

 II

It is said that man proposes, God disposes. That year we could not find any opportunity to go to Kashmir neither in May-June nor in September-October.

Dipak had a raise in the office at that time. His responsibilities in the office grew manifold times. Every week, he was on office tours. Bhubaneswar, Patna, Ranchi, Guwahati, Siliguri …For a tour to Kashmir, he would have to take leave for at least fifteen days. I am in a government job, so there is no problem for me to avail Earned Leave, but for Dipak, the word leave can hardly be mentioned.

So with the advent of winter, Kashmir again came to Kolkata. Along with came walnuts, raisins, and other nutritious fruits. Before spreading out shawls and firhan, the complainant uttered,

--Didi, you never came. I waited for you all.

Though I had regrets, yet tried to smile and said,

--Well, we will go, definitely go. What if could not visit Kashmir this year. We can go next year and, if not, then next year. Kashmir is not going anywhere.

--That is okay. Even then, it would be better if you could visit Kashmir this time.

--Why? Was there any speciality, this time?

--I had fixed up a very beautiful houseboat, having arranged it from my Fufhaji. It is an old boat but it is a very prestigious houseboat.

--In what way?

--You have definitely seen “Kashmir ki kali”? Shammi Kapoor? Sharmila Tagore?

--Yes, so what?

--Sharmila Tagore had stayed put on this houseboat for three days.

I was amused and in a hushed tone told Dipak,

--What a gossipmonger he is. Sharmila Tagore putting up at his Fufha’s houseboat?

Dipak too, in a low voice said,

--Total flop. They have to gossip.

--Very true! Such an old movie and may be now the houseboat does not exist.

Khurshid could not make out what we were discussing in a low voice and battering his eye-lids said,

--This time so many shooting sessions were going on … on the Dal Lake, Nasimbag … Anil Kapoor, Sri Devi, Sunny Deol, Gulshan Grover …

--Leave aside the films.

Pressing my lips together said,

--Tell me about your home and family. Was everything okay there?

--In a way, everything is okay. Only my grandma passed away recently.

--Your mother’s mother?

--Yes, Didi. We regret that it was only six months left for her to complete her century.

--Okay then, she was very aged.

--In our Kashmir, living for a hundred years is not many years, Didi. My grandpa completed his century before he left us.

--Hmm. Hope your mother is alright?

--Yes Didi.

--Bibi?

--She’s okay. She is busy with her household chores.

--And your children?

--Afroz has been promoted to class IV this time. He is very naughty. He has no interest in studies. Only playing.

--What does he play? Football, Cricket? Or Dandaguli?

--Ciriket. He is a fan of Kapil Dev.

All of a sudden, Dipak asked,

--Only Kapil Dev’s fan? Is he not a fan of Imran and Akram?

Khurshid felt a little jolt but the very next moment gave a nod and said,

--Oh, yes, yes, he is also their fan. The player who throws the ball hard and hits the ball hard with the bat, my Afroz likes the player most.

Dipak’s queries had a sarcastic tone. He seemed to make Khurshid a little uneasy. He wanted to test as to what extent the Kashmiris have an amicable relationship with the Pakistanis in a covert way.

I changed the topic of discussion and said,

--Who is your daughter’s fan? You, I guess?

--Sure. She is father’s daughter. While I am at home, she never leaves me.

Khurshid seemed a little unmindful. He smiled but in his mind’s eye reflected the affection of the eternal paternity. Smilingly he continued,

--Shahin is also a great fan of her Dadaji. Even when he is going to his shop, she would want to tag along.

I was reminded of Bubli’s childhood days. While Dipak was at home, she would stay fixed to him like Fevicol, and when Dipak was not at home, she would be with Dipak’s father. In the evening, when my father-in-law would go to the club to play cards, Bubli would also insist to accompany him.

That year, we only conversed with each other, without keeping any shawl from Khurshid. It is not so cold in Kolkata that we need to buy shawls year after year. Still, at the request of Khurshid, had to take one Namda. It was a colourful red, blue, yellow, green artwork of leaves and twigs on its white base. It was an Iranian artwork. I gave names with addresses of some of my acquaintances to Khurshid. With my introduction, if he can carry on his business elsewhere, then let him do it.

Gradually with days, our bonding with Khurshid began to grow. On Sunday mornings, if he came along our house, he would drop in at our place, have tea and snacks and chatted away for some time. He talked about absurd little things. That in his Kashmir, there are only two seasons. The first when the chinar tree is groomed with leaves. The second, when the chinar tree sheds off its leaves. And that the colour of the chinar tree leaves signals them that it is time to leave their native place. With the shedding of the leaves, the whole valley drops into a slumber, and are awakened when the new leaves blossom on the chinar tree. Slowly and gradually, young Kashmiris like Khurshid return home. Surprisingly, the chinar tree that is so favourite to the Kashmiris, does not belong to Kashmir. It is said that the Mughal emperor, Akbar, had brought the seedlings of this tree from Iran. He had tried to sow the seeds at many places, but the tree could survive only in Kashmir.

There was another topic which was very dear to Khurshid. That was the Rose. He informed that besides Iran, in no other place the rose blossoms as in Kashmir. Throughout the world, the position of Kashmiri rose is second to Basrai rose.

We learnt so many things from Khurshid. That the world’s sweetest dews fall on the soil of Kashmir. Also that a real chinon sari can easily fit into the shell of a chestnut. And that Pashmina shawls are made from the fur of a rare cattle, which makes pashmina warmer than the Siberian fur coat.

Hearing this, I grew impatient to visit the Valley of Dreams. I could almost visualize the picturesque Dal Lake pervaded with the early morning mists, and riding a Shikara, a young fairy-like Kashmiri girl has come to sell flowers, Shalimar, Nishatbag, Chashmeshahi - all crowned with flowers.

 

III

 

We could not go to Kashmir.

Each year, something or the other created hurdles on our way. Either it is the examination of Bubli or Dipak’s office. The other times either I am indisposed or tied up to untoward familial issues.

On the other hand, the situation in Kashmir was fast deteriorating. Print media and television channels were covering shocking news. Either there is the case of bomb explosion or terrorist attacks. There are mass killings, on a day ten, the other day twenty, everyday there was unrest and violence. Gradually, the paradise became a seat of total unrest and anxiety.

In spite of the instability, Khurshid came to Kolkata every year. The smile on his face was slowly receding day by day. He cannot ignore the uneasy feelings while discussions veered round the disturbances but with forced energy assured that this situation can never go on forever and Kashmir will again revive.

I also wanted to believe like Khurshid. Dipak, however, had a different opinion. He knew that Kashmir is a highly sensitive strategic point, and any big power does not want peace to be restored there. It is not very easy to normalize the burning Kashmir.

That year suddenly Khurshid came to Kolkata before his usual time. It was before the Pujas. I was quite taken aback and enquired, --O hello! Did the leaves of the chinar tree turn yellow so soon? Or is it in September that your Khilanmarg has been covered with snow?

Khurshid looked very distressed. He uttered drily, --No,Didi. Snow is settling upon my destiny.

--What happened, again?

--I am in great trouble, Didi. My business is in a crumbling state. The whole town is under the control of police and military men, there are strikes for two-three days in a week … sales have completely gone down. If we keep our shops closed, police and military threaten us, and if the shops are opened, there is the fear of being murdered. Really do not know what to do.

--So you came here?

--What will I do there? There are no tourists. Fufhaji’s business also failed, and the houseboats are lying empty. Two foreigners had come to Kashmir, but they also fled away within a week. Unable to bear the situation, Fufha’s family took shelter at their native village, Mahura. Taking a deep breath, said, --The situation of my family is also not right. Uncle and his family separated from us.

--Oh, really?

--Yes, Didi. This is what happens at the time of crisis. When your belly is full, your mind remains calm but, if not, relationship also ends. My uncle’s sons started a separate business of timbers. A partition wall has been raised in our house.

--Oh, it is really a sad news.

--Abbajaan is very upset. He respected his elder brother.

--What will you do, this is common in domestic sphere. In times of crisis, all people seek their interests, not the respect and value of relations.

Sitting quietly for some time, Khurshid slowly untied his bundle. I felt a little uneasy. Again have to do shopping before the puja?

In an appealing tone I told him, --Khurshid, do not take out the shawls. Thinking of the humidity, I simply panicked.

--Have not brought any shawl, Didi. The factories are all closed.

--So what have you brought? Those Ludhiana’s cardigan and blanket of yours?

--Not even that, Didi. How can even those things be used in Kolkata now? Then with a wry smile said,

--I am acquainted with some persons here, the wholesale dealers from whom I have taken few saris. At the time of puja, you people purchase a lot of things, so take three-four pieces from me this time.

I felt sympathetic towards him. Poor thing, his face has lost the glamour, showed lines of fatigue, his cheekbones protruded, and his eyes lacked lustre.

I said, --Alright, let me see what you have brought.

As he brought out the saris, I began to show signs of disdain. All were almost synthetic. Very cheap. Khurshid has come to sell these saris? Alas, is this the downfall of the Persian prince?

Khurshid brought forward an orange sari and said, --You keep this, Didi. This will suit you.

Ah, do I have to wear this gaudy-coloured sari? This sari cannot even be gifted to anyone.

I enquired, --Don’t you have anything else? Of a different type? May be silk?

--I could not bring costly clothes, Didi. I did not have much cash in hand. Getting loan for us… Suddenly, Khurshid became silent. After a little while, softly mentioned, --I have brought my wife here, Didi. For a medical check-up. There are expenses to be met for that also.

I was surprised, --Your wife has come? You could tell me before?

Khurshid had an embarrassing smile on his face, --She is having a kind of pain in the stomach. Thought I will take her to a doctor in Kolkata. Our children have also come. There, in Kashmir, all schools are remaining closed, so thought that let them accompany us.

--Oh, my God, you have brought the full battalion? You should have told me before. Where are they staying?

--Next to ChandniChowk. I have rented a room there for six months.

--Very well done. Bring them all here, one day. Let me see them.

--I’ll definitely bring them, Didi. My wife has heard a lot about you. But she does not come out of the house frequently. She feels ashamed.

--So what? She’ll come to her Didi…

--Very true. Let few days pass so that she can adjust herself in this new city…

In the honour of Khurshid’s wife, I took one light –coloured sari from him.

In the Gariahat market, the cost would be three hundred and fifty rupees, but Khurshid charged a little more. I did not bargain. I let it go for he was under great stress and allowed him to make a little profit.

On Sunday morning, Dipak had gone out to meet with his friends. As he came home, I related the whole matter of Khurshid to him. Dipak was not pleased to hear this, and in a suspected tone said, --The coming of the Kashmiris at this odd time in Kolkata is absolutely not a normal matter. Specially, coming with the wife and children.

--Come on, he has brought his wife for a medical check-up.

--Still… have you ever heard a Kashmiri shawl vendor bringing his wife? I think something is wrong.

--What wrong?

--Many things can happen. Don’t you keep any updates? Can’t you see that there are extremists at every house in Kashmir now?

--What rubbish are you saying like a mad man? Our Khurshid an extremist? Haven’t you known him after all these years of talking to him that he is a family man?

--Do the extremists come from nowhere? They too have families. Father, mother, brother, sister, wife, children… Even if Khurshid does not have any direct involvement, he might have connections with them.

--I just don’t believe this.

--You don’t have to. But be practical. Be rational. Tell me truly how far you know Khurshid. In a year, he comes for five to seven days, extracts money, narrating some sweet gossips, that’s all. You only know as much as he has told you about his family. Is it at all impossible that somebody in his family has been keeping in touch with the terrorist group? May be the police was trying to investigate matters from the family members, and in order to save themselves from being hounded…

This time I could not negate the fact so assuredly. Spontaneously, I gave a nod, --Certainly right. But …

--No more. Who can say that Khurshid’s son was not allied with the extremists?

--Come on, this is too much. Khurshid’s son is a mere child. Hardly twelve or thirteen.

--Boys of this age are more gullible. It is easy to instigate them. Don’t you find in the news how young boys are undertaking guerrilla training?

There is no way to disbelieve this. Only recently, a group of terrorists was arrested in Kashmir, and among them there were also a few angel-like faces of young boys. Lethal arms have been confiscated from them. Mortar grenade cartridge rifle rocket launcher …

Nowadays, Dipak has almost quit smoking. Stressed out, he suddenly lit a cigarette. In a prudent tone he began, --Listen, no matter how Khurshid addresses you as his Didi, do not forget that he is a Kashmiri. And with their cooperation, the terrorists have been gaining strength. … It is of no use to us to talk about the kind of person Khurshid is. However, it would not be right to mix freely with him anymore.

--Oh, where do I freely mix up with him? He is coming to our house for so many days, and I speak with him a little amicably. Nothing more than that.

--That much is sufficient. You don’t have to be impolite. But be formal. Do not flatter him when he brings his wife and children in our house. At least, if at all, he brings them.

--Why won’t he bring? What is the reason for not bringing them?

--See, what he does. Their custom is to remain in purdah. I doubt that his wife accustomed to remain in purdah, would suddenly be brought by him at a Hindu household. And if at all, the boy has a black spot, then the matter ends there. He would then hardly allow his son to be on the streets.

I could not at all take these words to my mind. A voice cried out, impossible, impossible. Another voice softly mumbled, possible, possible, may be possible.

 

Khurshid did not bring his wife and children.

That year Khurshid was no more seen.

 

 

IV

 

Not only that year, the next year too, Khurshid never turned up. Not the next year even.

In the meantime, a grand ceremony was arranged in our house. It was Bubli’s marriage.

Bubli was in relationship with one of her classmates for days. He is Mainak. A bright young boy. Mainak was also our choice. But today’s youth are more career-oriented and professional. For the lack of job satisfaction, Mainak postponed the event. Finally, when he got a better offer at a multinational company in Chennai, he agreed to marry.

Arranging marriage is a huge responsibility. Moving around for shopping, buying jewellery, placing orders for furniture, booking venue for marriage, arranging caterer, decorator, cars, preparing list of invitees and going around the places for marriage invitations. All the while with the busy schedule, tension wears out endlessly. Will anything be avoided from going wrong? Will everything be over in a smooth way?

We had by then forgotten about Khurshid. It is quite natural. Was he a person of great importance? Unrest continued in Kashmir, and the growing disturbances escalated showing no signs of slowing down. At times, some news from Srinagar reminded me of Khurshid’s face. Along with the police, military men, terrorists and ordinary men are also frequently getting killed but the newspapers do not flash the list of massacred men. I wonder sometimes, is Khurshid lying along the heaps of dead bodies? Sometimes I feel guilt-ridden. Have I made any mistake in knowing him?

Bubli was married off in the middle of November. After her marriage, everything suddenly made us feel unoccupied. Going to the office, coming back home with husband-wife sitting face to face in the flat. Every moment, I can now understand that Bubli was so much a part of our life. Now food tastes bitter, unable to read books, without any reason just keep on changing channels – nothing interested us and we were gradually becoming lonely.

For a change, both of us made a trip to Puri. It was like our second honeymoon together. We spent hours on the sea-beach counting the waves and ruminating over the past. What else a middle-aged couple can do?

We were refreshed a little and again began the daily humdrum of life in the same sphere. In the office. With friends. The relatives.

Suddenly at that time, Khurshid appeared one day.

It was a great surprise. Not just to see him but finding great change in his demeanour. He looked quite aged and I wondered if the inhabitants of the heavenly Kashmir also face the wear and tear of life. I stood there shocked but Khurshid’s very familiar charming smile enlivened me.

He bowed his head and said, --Namaste Didi. How are you?

--Yes, alright. Come, come inside.

Dipak was shaving his beard and coming to the drawing room, was surprised to see Khurshid. He said,

--What is the matter? Where were you all these days?

In mid-January, it was not so cold in the winter season. Khurshid was perspiring. He put down his bundle and after mopping his face said, --I was at home,Babuji. I was not keeping well, so for the last two years I could not come.

--What happened?

--Fever cough weakness …

--T.B?

Khurshid nodded his head. –Yes, Babuji. Like that.

--Why did you come out of your home?

--Now, I am alright. Quite fit. Where were you, Babuji? I had to return without meeting you.

--We had gone out. My daughter is married off. We were feeling lonely.

--Sister got married? Really? When?

--About two months ago. She is with her husband in Chennai.

--Sorry, if I could come a little earlier. I could be a part of the ceremony.

--Yes, Bubli was remembering you.

I told him this out of politeness. He was very happy to hear this. He asked about Bubli’s in-laws in detail. He was not so emotional now, but had the kindness and intimacy still. I was also beginning to feel free with him again.

I could not restrict myself from asking him how last time he simply vanished and did not keep his words of bringing his wife and children to our place.

--Please pardon me my fault, Didi. Suddenly bad news of Abbajaan’s stroke came from Srinagar.

--Okay. Slyly, I looked into the eyes of Dipak, and asked Khurshid, --How is he now?

He is no more. He passed away with a second stroke the very next day.

--Oh, I see. What about the others at your home?

--They are okay. After Abbajaan’s death, Ammi’s health is also not so good. Tension is killing us all.

--Did your wife undergo the treatment?

--Treatment could not be properly continued. There at Srinagar, she is taking medicines from a man of medicine who uses Unani method for treatment of diseases. What to do?We have to face what is there in our destiny. Why will then my Abbajaan leave us and why will I fall sick?

Dipak sat on the sofa and told him, --The trouble at your place is not showing signs of coming to a halt.

--No, Babuji. In this situation, we have to carry on our work.

--What is the state of your business? Is it the same?

--A little bit better. Work is slowly being carried out in the factories. How many days will the people starve? My son is also working now, in a shop with my younger brother.

Khurshid also gave some good news of his house. His brother’s wife gave birth to a baby boy. His younger sister’s marriage has been arranged in Jammu. The groom is in a government job and in this spring Najneen will go to her in-law’s house.

--What a surprise! Life goes on even at places where bombings are done, and the smell of gunpowder fills the air. New life, death, decay, marriage, happiness, unhappiness – all carry on. In its own pace. Own rhythm.

As he went on narrating, Khurshid began his work. He asked, --Can I now show you a shawl?

I told to myself, --Shawls are in plenty, and what will I do with some more?

I asked him, --What kind of shawls have you brought?

He pulled out from below a sandal-colour shawl. There was all over design with sandal-colour thread.

–Just see this. It is fully uncommon. My Didi has made it herself. A lot of effort has been given on the making of the shawl.

The shawl is beautiful no doubt, but holding it in my hand knew that it is very precious and costly. Still asked him, --What is the price?

--You don’t worry about the cost, Didi. Just keep it for you.

--But let me know the price.

--For other customers it is three thousand. You can give whatever you wish.

--My goodness! What will I do with such a costly shawl?

--You will wrap around your body. My Didi has prepared it, and another Didi will put it on.

He did not listen to my complaint. He kept the shawl beside me, insisting me to keep it.

When Khurshid went away, Dipak hypocritically smiled and said, --You were flattered by his words and fell a victim.

I screwed my eyes. –What do you mean?

--In Kolkata’s cold weather, where will you wrap around the costly shawl?

--I will not use it. Keep it in the almirah. Will give this to Bubli. In a sarcastic tone I asked him, --Hope your misconception regarding Khurshid is clear now? So, now do you understand that your opinion was baseless?

Dipak did not answer. Only shrugged his shoulder a little.

 

 

 V

 

Not even a month has elapsed when suddenly, an unusual incident took place.

That year the cold wave reverted and in the month of February, chilled wind was blowing. Blankets had to be taken out of the loft again. Everywhere in the buses, trams, and in the office people were talking about the wild weather.

In the evening, Dipak came home early just as I entered our flat. Both of us covered ourselves with shawls and were enjoying our coffee, when the doorbell rang. Khurshid was there.

He never came in the evening. So I was taken aback and said, --You?

He was panting. He looked very grave. With a hoary voice he said, --I am going back home, Didi. Right now by train, tonight.

He was dressed in a different way today. Instead of trouser and shirt, he has put on salwar and kurta, on his shoulders was a kits bag but not the usual bundle, and in his hand carried a suitcase.

I was struck with amazement. –Are you going back today? Has any news arrive, suddenly?

--No Didi. But I will not stay here for another day. I’ll not carry on my business here.

Dipak narrowed his eyes and asked, --Why? What happened?

--What will I say, Babuji? You people are only not wanting us to be here.

--What do you mean?

In an agitated tone Khurshid blurted out, --Yesterday at night, the police suddenly raided our hutment and arrested seven people. Repeatedly we told them that we have been coming to Kolkata for many years, we have a lot of clients here, but to no avail. They beat us and assaulted us saying that someone called Makbool is a terrorist and that we have given him shelter at our place … You tell me, is it right to frame us in this way?

--Ah, why are you getting so excited? Dipak tried to calm him down by saying that, --This is a mistake on the part of the police. The police makes this kind of blunder quite often. They have also released you.

--So? Everything is fine? You can never imagine the vulgar abuses they made. Even in Kashmir we do not hear such abusive reproaches. We are polluting Hindusthan … we should be kicked out of Hindusthan!

--Oh, come on, don’t take this seriously. You can gauge the situation now. Secret informers from Pakistan have illicit connections in your Kashmir, therefore … Now the police knows you all and there will be no more problem.

--No, Babuji. I did not divulge the matter to you before. It happened everytime we are here. The police does not arrest us, but they come to our hutment for enquiries. We have to give our names, our address to them. But why will this happen, Babuji? Are we not Indians? Can’t we do business in our own country? His voice was giving vent to intense anger and his eyes burned with grief. He shook his head saying this is not right, Babuji. This should not happen.

Abruptly Dipak remarked that, --You cannot blame the police only, brother. The police will have to do its duty. As it is, you are also to be blamed. I mean, the Kashmiris.

 –What is our fault, Babuji? Does it mean that being a Kashmiri, one becomes an extremist?

--It is not so … But you people also cannot think of this country as your own.

May be Khurshid was not prepared to hear this kind of comment. His bright face became more crimson with ignominy. With a hurt feeling he uttered, --What have you said, Babuji? Are you not our own people?

Oh, no, no, not that. I wanted to say that you have not considered India …

 –Is a country only made up of soil, Babuji? A country is made out of its people. Its basis is on the feelings of these people. If you are my own people, why then the country will not be my own?

A plain and simple reasoning.

Dipak could not place an argument instantly. Fumbling for words he then asked, --Why are you then having problem there?

--That is the cherished game of the leaders, Babuji.

We are ordinary people.

We are merely puppets, only puppets. Khurshid’s voice sounded sombre, --Listen Babuji, whether Kashmir remains in India, or in Pakistan, we will hardly have any difference. Even if Kashmir becomes a separate country, what extra benefit will the ordinary mass receive? We will remain even then as we are now. Doing work, earning bread, nurturing children, running our households … The disturbances would aggravate our loss, Babuji … No Babuji, ordinary people never desire insurgency. We want peace. We want to live.

Dipak had no words to express. I was watching Khurshid with fixed eyes. His angry countenance changed into a distressing state. Khurshid, the shawlwala, hung his head as he stood there.

Khurshid mumbled to say, --Shall I say one thing, Babuji? A rose on the tree looks far better. Still, everyone wants to pluck the rose and keep it captive for one’s own. Does anybody realize that due to this, the rose feels tormented so much?

All of a sudden, the air in the room seemed heavy. In an inarticulate tone, I whispered, --I can feel your mental agony, Khurshid. Still, I would suggest that impulsively you should not leave your business and go away.

--No Didi. Enough has happened. Leave aside the attacking police, even both of you cannot trust us. The raw bread at home is much better than this scornful abuse.

No, it is useless to be broad-minded because the curse of mistrust is deep-rooted within our culture and tradition, nurtured from time immemorial.

Still told him, --Much of your cash will be left here …?

--I have tried to collect as much as I could today. I have given my address to everyone, if they wish, they can send my money.

--You take my long-standing due payments, also.

--No Didi, let it be now. After sometime Khurshid slightly smiling said, --When you would come to Kashmir, I will take it from you.

--Come on, how can it be? I spun my head in disapproval and said, --Suppose I am not able to visit Kashmir any day?

--So what? I will know that my money is safely deposited with my Didi.

I could not make him take away his payments. He said, Khuda Hafiz and left us.

I sat there feeling numb all over my body. I covered myself with a shawl, yet felt uncomfortable and cold.

 

 

VI

 

Kashmir witnessed a war few days back, the Kargil war. The whole valley is extremely disturbed. With the sound of the soldiers’ boots, the whole of PirPanjal is jerking tremulously.

In this situation, there is no question of going to Kashmir.

May be, we will never be able to travel to Kashmir. Even if peace reigns there. Last year in the month of May, Dipak retired from his office. Throughout his career, he was a workaholic, and now, at his superannuation, he could not adapt himself to this free life. Within two months, he suffered a cerebral stroke. It was nothing too serious, but his movements have slowed down. And with him, I have grown certain restraints. Kashmir now, is, out of our reach, even thinking of going to Chennai at Bubli’s place, makes us nervous.

However, we still long to go to Kashmir. Not to view the snow-covered PirPanjal, not the natural beauty of Sonmarg, Gulmarg, Liddar Jhelum River, nor the leaves of the mighty Chinar tree. We are drawn towards Kashmir being reminded of the self-respecting person with hurt feelings on his face, leaving us forever.

Even today, Khurshid’s payments were not sent. Could not be sent. If Khurshid minds? If again Khurshid feels hurt?

Debt is pending.

To whom are we indebted? Khurshid? Or Kashmir?
***

Bionote: Ratna Guha Mustafi is an Associate Professor in the Department of English of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose College, Kolkata. Her doctoral thesis studied the female consciousness in the novels of the Bronte Sisters. Her publications are on short story, Martand, by Nayantara Sahagal in Pegasus, 2006; on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake in Families-A journal of Representatives, 2007; an article on English Teaching in The Times of India magazine, 2009; two essays on Shakespearean Sonnets and Poems of Wilfred Owen in May & September 2018 vols. of a Bangla journal, Kabimukh. She has co-authored a book, Indian Panorama: Studies in Indian Short Stories, Books Way, 2009. Her paper Critiquing the Imaginative and Cultural Failure in the Anthropocene on the basis of Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable presented at the International Conference on Environment and Culture in the Anthropocene& Poetry Festival at PG Dept. of English, Berhampur University, Odisha, December 2019 is due to be published in a book on Ecology soon. 


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