Fiction: A Mussorie Tale

Revathi Raj Iyer

She was running as fast as her legs could carry her slight frame. To an observer, it would seem as if her feet grazed the rough, hilly terrain laced with patches of rhododendrons and wild dandelions. Her eyes sparkled like that of a deer taking refuge amidst the trees in the dead of the night. Her face was flushed as she cut through the cold air. She never failed to rub a generous amount of kohl to add verve on an otherwise nondescript face. Her mother would apply a tiny black dot behind her ears when she left for school, a belief that it would keep her daughter safe and protect her from evil eyes. Now, they were all smudged and wet with sweat beads drawing sharp lines across her face, which was in no way becoming.

She stopped to catch her breath, her slim hands resting on her hips as she panted with quick, forceful gasps that threatened to tear her lungs apart. Perspiring profusely under her school uniform in spite of the nippy weather, she removed her sweater and tied it around her waist. She had no choice but to run away else they would kill and feed her body parts to the jackals.

A girl born with silver spoon and a heart of gold - what had she done that forced her to run away from home?

This is the story of Shazia Abdul Khan and me, Pia Jennifer.

******

Abdul Jehangir Khan belonged to the Balti community, originally of Tibetan descent, whose ancestors made India their home after the 1947 partition. Prior to that, Baltistan was governed by the state of Jammu & Kashmir, along with Ladakh. After partition, Baltistan came under the territory of Pakistan. However, a tiny portion was merged with Ladakh after the Indo-Pakistan war of 1971. Historically, Baltistan was a strategic point for both the countries as Kargil and Siachen wars were fought there. Over the generations, this close-knit Balti community prospered as merchants of spices, dry fruits and garments, catering mostly to the Middle Eastern countries and some parts of India. They were a tribe who honoured their religion and customs and shunned to the point of getting violent, anything that went against the fundamentals of Islam. They abided by “eayan lileayn sini lisunin” {an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth}. The local people knew this and stayed off limits.

Shazia Abdul Khan was the only child of Abdul Jehangir Khan and his wife, Naaz. His first wife had died whilst giving birth to their fourth child. At her behest, he had taken a second wife and was happy to have been blessed with a girl child, after four boys. Jehangir Khan doted on Shazia. She grew up under her mother’s care and it was her father’s orders that she should be well guarded, not just from evil eye but all the boys whose hormones went out of control.

“What are they called, teenage crutches or something? Make sure all that nonsense doesn’t happen, samjhe?” father had said.

“She is no hoorpari, Fayaz guffawed. No lad in his right mind would as much as take a second look at our sister.”

 “Shukran Allah, our burden reduces,” said Aamir raising his hands to the skies.

“What if she was a hoorpari? Imagine what fun we would have bashing up the boys in town,” Omar remarked as he put the hookah to his brown lips.

Inshallah, I will look after our sister, no matter what,” thought Bashir but remained silent. He was not boisterous like his older brothers. He loved listening to Sufi songs and played the iktara, a one string instrument, which Siddiqui had taught him. Not anymore.

“I will not allow you to corrupt the minds of young boys and girls,” Jehangir Khan had roared and ousted Siddiqui from entering the precincts of the town. Shazia and Bashir felt the absence of their beloved Sufi uncle more than anyone else.

Who was to know that she had stolen his book of poems and stashed it under her mattress? Who was to know that it would stir up a hornet’s nest?

******

The Mercedes glided to a halt at the entrance of the prestigious private school, in Mussorie, a dainty hill-station nestled in the foothill of the Himalayas. During the colonial era, international schools were set up for the British children in such cosy hill-stations with favourable climatic conditions. In present times these schools catered to the rich, famous and influential.

 “Nawaaz bhai, please stop the car a few blocks away. I want to walk with the rest of the girls,” said Shazia in a soft voice which was barely a whisper. The driver smiled and the car stopped. But his eyes did not wander until he saw Shazia enter the school gate. He had to listen to the girl yet obey his master’s hukm.

 “These are no ordinary enclosure; they are nearly one hundred years old and made of steel iron and embellished with the carving of two lions, signifying that the students will be treated like royalty and would eventually become leaders of the country,” wafted the shrill voice of the guide Raju, who stood imperiously at the gate, surrounded by a group of tourists. Nawaaz looked disapprovingly when they clicked pictures of the gate, from various angles.

“This is not Buckingham Palace. I am going to report this matter,” he rolled down the windows and screamed at the guide and the flabbergasted tourists, as the car swerved and gathered speed.

I noticed the lovely car and a frail girl, with long hair neatly braided and shining black shoes, alight from the car. She was different from the rest, modest and quiet. She walked with a slouch, as if ashamed of her wealth. Even from that distance I could see her dark eyes and they reminded me of the princess who had a thousand stories to tell, but could not speak.

******

In spite of her protests, Nawaaz would wait outside the class with her lunch box, every afternoon. As the other girls started moving towards the spacious lunch room, monitored by the teacher, Shazia would jump out of the queue, quickly grab her box and signal him to go away. The girls giggled, envied, ignored and even pitied her lack of freedom. Whoever wanted a bodyguard? Boarding school is where all the mischief between boys and girls start and our school was no exception. Most of the students were away from their parents except a handful. I have seen paper arrows being thrown at girls - love notes - whom to meet, when, where and how. Not one was aimed at me and I tried hard to keep my pride intact. My feelings went into my “basket of fucks,” to be flung back when the time came. I had read about this and since then fallen in love with this ingenious idea. If I could save myself from being unhappy, why on earth should I not have one?

My lunch box was standardised with sandwiches and a fruit. Same tomato and cheese sandwich, same salt pepper taste and same smell. Thankfully, the fruit changed with the season, sometimes apple and many a times lychee which was abundant in Dehra, a city close to Mussorie. In fact, every single house there had lychee trees, a signature tree like the cherry blossoms in Japan.

I was the only one who waited for Shazia. And we walked together towards the banyan tree, our cosy cafeteria, amidst the lush green landscape. Those eyes followed us everywhere. Creepy ….. I flinched and felt sorry for my friend.

“Why doesn’t he leave you out of sight? Does he think the earth will swallow you or you will vanish in the valley?” I joked.

“Oh! You mean Nawaaz?” Shazia brushed off my remark with a wave of her hand.

She never said a word about or against her family. On the contrary, I loved to talk about my family, distant uncles and aunts who were not relevant in our lives, anymore. But I hardly spoke about my mother, of whom I was very possessive. Being a fatherless child, I saw my mother play both the roles.

I was thankful to God for letting me be free-spirited and not shackled like my friend who had everything except the one most important thing, freedom. Even happiness went inside my basket, to spread the cheer when the time came.

Are you wondering as to how I came to be at this elitist school? My mother Jennifer, taught English here and she was the best teacher. The trustee Mr Becker waived my tuition fee which made our life so much easier. How was I to know that my mother was also his mistress? The matter was kept under wraps that not even a fly would get a wind of their spicy, hot affair. I came to know about this much later when Shazia had run away from school and the police started investigating. That’s when this secret slowly unravelled, not that it had anything to do with the running away, but when police dig deep, skeletons pop out and so they snoop around thinking that everybody’s personal life is their bloody business. Since this exposé, my opinion about my mother changed a lot. It saddened me when I came to know that I was not the only one in her life. I had believed in her so much so that I never questioned about my father. My basket was now getting all fucked up.

None of this would have happened, but for that day. We were in the bathroom and I was tying my shoe laces.

“Pia, will you be my best friend?” Shazia asked.

I looked up but she didn’t meet my eyes. She was looking far away at the skies that were partly visible from the shutters of the window. It was clear and blue, same colour as our uniform.

“I already am.”

“Will you be my special friend?”

“Of course, but what is the difference between best and special?”

And then …

She kissed me, fully on my lips. Her face was red and my lips were wet. This was my first kiss, ever. I felt the heat of her body against mine. I was taken aback, had not seen this coming and that too from Shazia, modest and shy. What surprised me even more was the fact it didn’t feel gross. Not one bit and that astonished me. At that moment, it dawned upon me as to why I didn’t get love notes or a date invite. “Who would mess with the daughter of a teacher?” is what I had thought. But now, I understood why. My demeanour must have been a giveaway that I was different. I was unaware of it, until this moment. That kiss upset my brain cells causing a medley of emotions; ecstasy, joy, confusion, realisation but certainly not fright nor shame nor “how was I going to tell my mother, this.” Then we heard the Church bell which meant it was time to get back to class.

 “You are so beautiful. Look at me. We will make a pair of beauty and the beast,” I heard her say. The next second I grabbed Shazia and kissed her back. We were locked in each other’s arms for God knows how long. Everything came to a standstill.

I came out first and went straight to the class. Shazia was meant to follow after five minutes. I felt Nawaaz’s eyes on me and looked around. He was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he had gone for a smoke or was hiding behind a bush. He freaked me out, all of a sudden. I tried to walk as jauntily as I could and turned around and yelled, “hurry up Shazia, otherwise you are going to be late and the teacher won’t let you in.” No teacher had the guts to do so. All this was for the benefit of Nawaaz, just in case.

I sat at my desk as the teacher spoke avidly about Moghul history. I had more important things to think about. My mind was playing tricks. I had learnt something about myself and I was coming to terms with that. My eyes wandered to the suavest boy in class, it stirred no feelings. I looked at the most attractive girl in class. My heart fluttered.

“Pia, why are you looking around? Pay attention.” The teacher’s voice sounded like an echo from a distant drum. I could not focus.

“What would be my mother’s reaction?” I wondered. At that time, I didn’t know about Mr Becker. Else I wouldn’t have bothered about her feelings. Nevertheless, I made up my mind to stay quiet for a few days and give it some more time to make sure we felt the same way about each other. This was more serious and not something that I could toss into my basket.

The class finished and Shazia was nowhere to be seen.

“Where could she have gone?” My mind raced. But I had to sit through the remaining two classes and that too without a break. I dared not go to the bathroom for some strange reason.

That was the last I saw Shazia. Two days seemed like two years. On the third day, two men in uniform came to the class. I was afraid when I was taken in for questioning. I said nothing except that we were friends. I omitted the words, ‘best’ or ‘special.’ They looked bloody tough and I told myself that they had to be tough to stay in the force. I decided to tell no one, not even my mother, not even my basket, about the kiss.

------

Shazia wished the dark skies would close in and take her in her arms. She was desperate. Her family will not hesitate to sacrifice her to Allah. Not just that, they will not spare Pia, either.

This situation may seem weird in present times especially with the gay community triggering angry protests demanding their rights, activists supporting and political parties opposing; forcing the justice system to recognise those who are biologically unique so that they are accepted as part of our society, global human society. In a country like India with staunch religious beliefs, ancient customs and traditions; where discrimination between castes still prevails and so does honour killings, it is ironical that same gender marriages is legalised. Just because the Government has no objection, does this mean that the families will accept this hormonal imbalance and biologically defying stance?

How was the Khan family going to accept anything against the rudiments of Islam?

******

Shazia kept running until she reached Sufi uncle’s house. This was a name coined by her when she started reading his songs and poems. They were different and so was she. They were bold but she was not. They were older but she was sixteen. They were living it up, but she was cooped up in a patriarchal household where nobody could express anything freely. The only time she felt free was whilst reading Sufi uncle’s writings. They were imaginative but she was real.

Siddiqui was adding splashes of colour to the painting which depicted his inner mind, a pain that he was banned from entering the city limits, the town where he was born and raised. When his own community, although branded kafirs, had kicked him and his young pregnant wife out, his grief knew no bounds. Those who had enjoyed and praised his Sufism, songs and poems, had turned against him. Just that one song where he brought together two soul mates of the same sex, a union in both mind and body, changed everything. That is also when he saw the dark side of the Khan family – Abdul Jehangir Khan.

There was a distinct knock at his door interrupting his thoughts. His wife was asleep. He saw through the peephole and felt paralysed. He recognised Shazia instantly.

“Why was she at his door at this hour? She was alone and that scared him even more. Was his life under some sort of threat? Was she bringing a paigam?

“Open up, please.” The faint voice from the other side wafted through the wafer thin door that separated them. He went inside and woke his wife up. Both came out and opened the door and as soon as the girl entered, they quickly shut the door, after taking a sweeping glance outside. Pin drop stillness, both inside and outside.

The three of them sat in stony silence. Siddiqui motioned his wife to get some water. The girl drank quietly and started weeping.

“Aren’t you Shazia?”

She nodded. “I admired your poems and songs so much so that …..”

“So much so that….? ” Siddiqui became restless.

“I don’t know how to say this? Sufi uncle, I am different.”

Siddiqui and Shakila exchanged glances.

“Spell it out clearly. What do you mean you are different?” asked Shakila in a comforting tone.

“I kissed Pia, my best friend. I have come to seek refuge.” Shazia blurted and stopped weeping.

Their jaws dropped. What sort of a joke was this? In the middle of the night, this girl confessing that she had kissed a girl. The face of Abdul Jehangir Khan and his tough young boys flashed threateningly and Siddiqui shuddered.

Shazia was just trouble, nothing else and he wanted to throw her out. He had to look out for his wife, their infant and himself. He was already an outcast. If they found that Shazia was with them, none would be spared.

She was huffing and stuttering to say something more.

They flinched.

“I am sorry for jeopardising your safety but Sufi uncle, I didn’t know where else to go.”

******

It was the school principal who reported to the police that Shazia was missing. Abdul Jehangir Khan was furious and his sons went ballistic, but they dared not question the decision of the Principal. Too much was at stake. They had to find Shazia.

“I will chop his balls,” fumed Jehangir Khan and told his sons to look for Shazia and the boy with whom she eloped, a foregone conclusion by an angry father.

I had no regrets. I loved it when Shazia had pressed her lips against mine. Her tongue had explored my mouth and I shivered in rhapsody. That moment passed but since then I have been longing for more. My heart cried out for my special friend. The torment, the pain did not subside even as I tossed it in my basket.

My first love had gone missing. I was distressed to the point that I started menstruating, my first period. I remembered Shazia telling me about hers. That was a year back. I had been eagerly waiting to share my experience with her.

“What the f**** ……”

******

And then one day,

I found an envelope in my letter box. With hands trembling I ripped it open.

“I am hiding in Sufi uncle’s house. Can you come here?” Shazia had scribbled an address.

My “basket of fucks,” had no place to hold the turmoil my mind was going through. I dared not go to her family or the police or tell my mother about it. I made up my mind to go Sufi uncle’s place, but for that I would have to skip school and face the wrath of my mother. I was willing to risk it. I decided to go the following day.

As I was about to knock at Sufi uncle’s door, I heard their conversation.

“Why the hell did you do it?” said a male voice.

“I didn’t do anything. It was really an accident. Why don’t you believe me?” said the female voice.

This had to be Sufi uncle and his wife.

“I want you to look me in the eye and say that you are innocent. Swear in the name of our new-born.”

“What if I wasn’t? I am the mother of your child and you would give me away? That girl was nothing but trouble. Why did she have to come here and drag us into all this? Is it not enough that we are outcasts, already?” His wife’s angry shrill sounded ugly.

Siddiqui could not come to terms with the fact that his gentle and loving wife was a cold-blooded murderer.

“I am telling you again and again that I had not planned it. On impulse I pushed her in the canal, as we were taking a walk this morning. I fled after that and didn’t look back. I was afraid and regretted it. I swear nobody saw us together.”

My hands flew to my mouth to suppress a scream.

I knew Shazia could swim.

“She must be alive then but where had she disappeared?” I searched myself for an answer. If I was her soul-mate, I should know. But my mind was blank.

I took the last bus back home. My mother was up and waiting anxiously. I barely heard when she said that Shazia was found dead in the canal. I felt a wave of nausea and blanked out.

The death of Shazia remained a mystery in Mussorie, except for me.

******

Nestled under the warmth of the banyan tree, I wrote

Her gait was unsteady but her mind was filled with courage and resolve. She didn’t have the faintest idea as to where she was headed. The street was deserted. What else would you expect at the dead of night? She was unafraid of the dark but fearful of the shadows that were following her. She halted. They were now an ugly clump ahead of her, moving zigzag like a bloody maniac. She took a deep breath and started walking. The clump started moving faster and faster, disappearing in the wilderness. She took another deep breath and smiled.

What was she chasing?

It was the beacon of hope. Yes! She was chasing hope when life was closing in on her. She had to leave behind those dark shadows that taunted her. She had to grab the last rays of hope and embrace it wholeheartedly. Have utmost faith that only she can fight for the lovely life God had bestowed upon her and was now threatening to tear it to shreds. Her body was growing tired but her mind was alert. It was her best ally that was prompting her to go beyond the vast expanse of darkness, towards the shimmering light at the end of a dark tunnel.

“Hope, Faith, Courage; Hope, Faith, Courage; Hope, Faith, Courage…” She smiled and her gait became steady. Her footsteps made a soft sound which nobody could hear, except her.

Will she get a new leash of life?

Will she get another chance to recreate her life?

“I will blow soap bubbles and build sand castles on the beach. I will do all the silly things as if the world was made just for me. I will use my strength and knowledge to help others, less fortunate. I will ….. I will ….. I will ….”

She heard footsteps. The street was not deserted anymore. It was not dark anymore. The sky was luminous with a tinge of reddish orange as dawn broke out. Several people had joined her as they all headed towards the beacon.

“Hope, Faith, Courage; Hope, Faith, Courage; Hope, Faith, Courage……” reverberated in the air and mingled with the dew drops.

***

Revathi Raj Iyer, author of the much-admired book, My Friendship with Yoga, is a freelance writer, editor, book reviewer, company director and yoga/fitness enthusiast.

Her next book, Syra’s Secret, – Diverse Short Stories from Siliguri, Singapore & beyond was released in July, 2019.

Her stories, poems, book reviews and articles have been published in Woman’s era, Muse India, The Hans India daily and Singapore based Kitaab. She has also worked with a multinational as Company Secretary & Head of Legal.

A long stint in Fiji Islands is where she started to learn yoga, pursued the training in New Zealand and continues her passion after moving to India. She lives in Ahmedabad and continues to write.

She is also a panel reviewer for Muse India.

2 comments :

  1. What a thrilling read really loved the description the characters and the whole essence . Look forward to many more Revathi

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much dear Minx for this lovely feedback. Very encouraging 😊

      Warm regards
      Revathi

      Delete

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