Fiction: Black Forest

Pramila Varma

Original: Pramila Varma

Translated from Hindi by Yamini Srivastava


          He had been thinking about it from several days. One day, he mustered the courage and went up to the jail superintendent and said – “Sir, May I request you to give me a notebook and a pen? I want to write something.” Mr. Nayak, the jail superintendent smiled. He wondered what this Indian, rather Hindu, who sends information to Pakistan, would want to write about. Maybe about his experiences. He gave his approval.

 The always quiet and hardworking Mohsin did not ever, by any means, seem like a secret agent to the calm natured jailor Nayak. But what could he have done? According to the evidence found against him and the sentence given by the court, he was a traitor. The court had given clear orders to keep a close eye on him, and had sent him to the jail, sentencing him to a rigorous imprisonment of ten years. After receiving a 200 page notebook and a pen from the jail superintendent, when he bowed down to touch his feet, he was deeply moved. But the punishment had been given to Mohsin. He said “Atul” and he became astonished… “Atul Jagtap Sanganeria…”  He kept looking at him, surprised. “Mohsin has been finished… Now you are Atul. A good person. I’ve understood it in all this time. Go and kill Mohsin in this notebook, and go and live Atul.” He kept standing with his head lowered. Jailor Nayak left.

Sitting in his barrack with his legs spread out in front, with the notebook placed on them, he kept thinking where he should start… The entire time period of these fifteen years started playing in front of him like the reel of a cinema.

          On the first page, he wrote Mohsin Khan… Then scratched it off… Then wrote Atul… Scratched it off again… Again wrote Mohsin Khan. Yes, that is the name he had been living with for the past fifteen years. Like a patch sown into a torn cloth, this name had become stuck to his personality.

Where are you Monica…? With the name Monica, a light shined in his eyes first… Then a spread of darkness and his eyes filled with tears. Many times when he cries a silent cry, his same-aged companion Rizwaan, gives a slap on his back – “Brother, why do you cry? You are so well educated. What big job would your country have given you that would’ve kept you happy? You would’ve just toiled for years. So many people keep wandering in search of jobs in your country. Millions of rupees are given by the high commissioner to several people like you. Our commander has it delivered to everyone’s house. Just keep doing their work. Your sister will be able to have a big wedding there. Your father and mother must be cruising around in a big car. And even you are living a better life, isn’t it?”

“And what a better life are you living, Rizwaan? Everyone in your family must be enjoying… And you?” Traitor!!! He stopped before saying it. Where have you come from…? Rizwaan kept a finger on his mouth. Meaning, be a terrorist even if you do not wish to. Rizwaan remembers when the sudden sound of boots had turned his calm city of Kulgaam helpless. And looted the people of their own community. Abused them. How the sisters of ammi[1] had hidden in the store room. He was sixteen years old then and had been captured by these people… Whether Rizwaan or Mohsin, it is the same story. Even Rizwaan does not know how happy his mother, father and sister are.

“I’m unable to eat these lumps of meat… How can one eat this after causing someone so much pain and suffering? Doesn’t their sadness enter our bodies?” When he had said this once in the beginning, the cook had thrown a plate of shorba[2] made with spicy chillies on his face.

For many weeks, he would just lie down with a cool paste on his eyes. Then he stopped saying anything at all. He would put the pieces of meat on the plate of any inmate sitting beside him and would somehow just eat the dry rotis[3] by dipping them in the shorba. Now he is used to eating like this.

          Those were the days of college… Filled with joy. When he had taken admission in college, along with Monica and other classmates. In the very first year of the degree college, Monica and he felt that this was not an ordinary friendship, but a bond that had turned into love.

          At first, he did not believe it. But Monica believed that not only was he good at studies, but also in every area of life. He was an athlete… Passing college in first class… And played the flute. His uncle would play the flute so he ended up learning as well.

And then, with continuous practice, he was able to play several different tunes with the flute. It was because of the flute, he was given the role of Krishna in the drama ‘Kanupriya’. The role of Radha was given to a dainty looking girl named Pooja… Monica was upset. “You suggested Pooja’s name on purpose”, she had said. But that was not the case.

          Atul was entirely Monica’s. The college professors would say that the flute is the first tune of our country’s culture. After her anger cooled off, Monica had started calling him Kanu. Later on, he became popular amongst his circle of friends as Kanu. They were all in the third year of their degree. He planned on pursuing MBA in the future. Monica was interested in English literature. Everyone had chosen some path or the other.

Sometimes, they would both sit down beside the seasonal river that flowed behind the college. Where several dreams would swim in their open eyes… Guarding those dreams in her eyes, Monica would slowly rest her head on his shoulder and close her eyes so none of those dreams could fall down from them.

          Atul had shared that his younger sister Rekha wished to appear for the state service exam. “She would need coaching for that. But maa[4] believes that after Rekha finishes her graduation, she should be married off. But Monica, I will let her study. She’ll do whatever she wishes to do. I’ll also have to arrange the money that’ll be needed for her wedding.”

He shared again – “As you know, my father is a bookkeeper for a court lawyer. His salary isn’t very much.” Monica gently pressed on his hand. This was an agreement and an assurance that Atul, you can do this… And I am with you.

They had an ancestral home that had a big courtyard and two rooms. Father’s salary is able to take care of the food, etc. but other expenses are difficult. After completion of his MBA, he will have a good job and take care of it all. Just see… We will have a big flat… Where Monica and I will make all our dreams come true. Golden dreams started to float in his eyes. Even Monica started to glisten in the radiance of those dreams.

Along with pursuing the studies for MBA, he started working at a press for a few hours in the evenings, so that he could provide for the expenses for his studies. One of his classmates, Vivek’s father was a builder. One time, he had even gone to see a building that was being made. He said to his friend Vivek – “I will buy a flat in this building. I just need to get the MBA degree, and then I will also be able to get a loan. Vivek’s father said he could live in one of the flats that were ready, in the building that was still under construction. Because he was experiencing difficulty with finding accommodation. He even said he could buy this flat. He knew that the flats were not going to get sold soon. Since Atul was looking for a place to live, he could have lived there. He thought it would also be good for the security of the building. The builders even wished for someone else to live there as a security measure. So he could have stayed there until then. Even though the building was in the outskirts. But the city keeps growing. There are many transportation options for traveling to the college and back.           He wanted good security for his building and his older watchman also had a crippled leg now and could not be relied upon. All material was lying around the building. Atul liked the offer and he came over to start living there.

Monica had come to this flat twice. She was happy to see such a nice and big flat. He was telling Monica excitedly – “See, Monica, this will be our room… And this will be mother and father’s… This big hall will be our drawing room. You like indoor plants, isn’t it? You can put them here and your aquarium will be here! There will be enough air and sunlight coming in through the balcony so the plants will stay healthy. This room with so many cupboards will be Rekha’s. She loves cupboards a lot. Her computer will be kept here so she can study”, saying so, he went close to Monica who was making tea on the stove, and embraced her from behind. Monica was present in every joy of his.

That day, he had just returned from college and had just sat down, drinking tea and reading the newspaper on the mat that was laid out on the floor, when suddenly the door, which was not locked from the inside, was burst open by around six-seven people. All of them had their faces covered with a cloth. One of them was holding a revolver.

What is this…? He was surprised. What is even there to loot in this empty house? “Who are you people?”, he asked. “And what do you want from me?” He was even feeling scared. They sat down around him. Two-three of these men remained standing with their backs against the wall. One of them said – “See! You’d have to do whatever we’ll say. We will give you lots of money.  You won’t be able to earn with these studies… this job… How much our leader will give you. One of them took out pictures of his mother, father and Rekha from his pocket and showed him.

       “We will come tomorrow morning. Don’t go anywhere. We will have our eyes on you. We will keep our machines in this house of yours. You are an intelligent and well-educated boy. You are quite valuable to us. You will have to send important information from here to the border. Then they will be sent over to our country via an agent.”

“What do you people want? Why will I do all this?” he said as he almost cried.

“You’ll come to know all that”, saying so, they threw a ten thousand rupees bundle and took off. After they left, he kept thinking… What to do? Should he call the police? But their pockets had the pictures of the three of them.

Monica’s place had a phone. Should he tell Monica? No! No… Right now, they’ve three pictures. They should not add a fourth. When he walked over to the window in fear, he saw that two people with their faces covered were sitting on the bridge and he became even more fearful. These people are definitely from a militant organization. And they will use me to send information at the border. He did not sleep all night and just kept pacing in the room, feeling afraid. Those people arrived early in the morning. Slowly, the wooden containers were being brought upstairs and then they were opened. The machines came out. There was a teleprompter which means they had found out that he worked for the newspaper at night. When the watchman downstairs asked them, they said – “This is factory work which has to be completed by that boy.” He declined clearly, saying that he cannot do all this. He does not even know how to do it.

One man, who had a strong physique, pressed his neck so forcefully that he started to see flames in front of his eyeballs. He had become helpless. Then on the second day, another man came and took out the machines and gave him the information. He even ordered not to decline anything because he was a part of their list now.

He did not come out of his flat for a whole month. His life had now taken a shift towards terror. The noise of machines being handled could be heard coming from that room… the one in which his dreams were going to come true with Monica. He had to do whatever he was told. He found himself standing in the list of the traitors of the country.

Here, Monica was feeling scared because she had not gotten any information about Atul for a whole month. She knocked on the door. The door opened. She came inside… After seeing him, Monica was struck by surprise. Her Kanu was surrounded by these people as he attached some papers that came out from hefty machines. Seeing Monica in front and wondering what she would think, he became extremely fearful.

“Monica, you’re here?”

“And, what are you doing here?”

“I… I… Nothing really. These are my customers. I’m doing their work.”

Monica was not so naïve to not have understood anything. All of them had their faces covered with a cloth.

“You are doing these terrorists’…”

He kept a finger on Monica’s lips and nodded his head to say “no”.

“You go, Monica! I will meet you soon and tell you everything.”

Monica felt leaving was the right thing to do. She was not ready to see her body in shreds. And how was Atul going to stand against all of these people…

As Monica walked her way out, she was told – “Aey Madam, say anything to anyone and you along with your family will be cut apart with a saw.”

All night, Monica faced the conundrum of whether or not she should inform the police. But she feared if those people would kill Atul.

Even she was unable to go to college for two days. The machines that she saw there are most certainly being used to send information outside. But why Atul? Because Atul was a bit different. They must have found that about him and went to him thinking he would be the right one for getting this work done. It would have also been helpful for them that the building was far away from the city. Just two days later, it was in the newspaper. A boy studying for MBA and found to be sending out secret information, is on the run. Two boys from the city are missing. As soon as she read the news, she fell down right where she was standing. So now my Atul will never return…

Atul’s mother and father, along with sister Rekha were themselves standing in front of the building consoling each other. A crowd had gathered there.

          Now his name was Mohsin and he had no choice but to live in a wooden house in a snow covered region along with many other boys.

          They were all being given all the training that is known for causing terror and panic. When one of those boys had attempted to escape, he was tortured to death. Witnessing his death had caused a great shock and fear amongst all of them.

          Some girls and women from a remote area would come there. Wonder what all they told the leader of this group! They were given money and that leader would even satisfy himself with them. It is possible they had also been forced just like them.

          Sometimes the sounds of gun shots and screams of the injured could be heard coming from the hills. It would be revealed in conversations that there had been a conflict with the army and other such people.

          One day, he wrote a letter to Monica with his address written in it and hid the envelope. But he was caught and what all happened to him following that, he does not even wish to remember it.

          Ten years were about to be passed, living with these people… Running and finding a new spot again. Now he had stopped thinking about his family. Many new boys came and were either killed during fights or killed by these very people. Or sent elsewhere.

          He was never able to understand what it was that these people wanted. Sometimes, he would sit with a flute (that he had bought from some roadside vendor) on a rock somewhere far. Did the tunes of the flute reach Monica?

          Rizwaan came and sat down beside him. “Oh brother, we want Kashmir. Kashmir is ours.” What could he have responded with? He knows. When sounds crash with high mountains, they return.

          Now Rizwaan had grown into a handsome 26-27 year old man. Even he was considered a hero in college because of his height and mannerisms. Now he does not even remember which hero from the films he was compared to.

          “Which freedom are you talking about, Rizwaan?” he asked in a low voice. Even the air here is filled with dread. No one should be able to hear.

          “Kashmir itself wants to be freed”, Rizwaan responded.

          How was a well-educated person living with such deranged minds since ten years! He knew and understood everything bust just stayed quiet.

          He was not scared anymore. He wanted to end this life. When you cannot find a path in front or on any sides of you, what will you do?

          That day, after the Maghrib namaaz[5] in the evening, they were talking. Maybe a bit far from the border, extremist men who are headed in the direction of creating terrorists are coming with weapons, drugs, explosives, etc. and they have to be taken somewhere... For some reason, he told himself that he will take care of this task. He openly put forth his proposal.

          The following day, Rizwaan and he left for this work very early in the morning. Rizwaan did not know what was going on in his mind. Explosives, weapons, drugs etc. in a sealed loading vehicle. Meaning, the vanishing of a whole group. A dangerous explosion will occur in a crowded area. Today or whenever. But it will happen for sure.

          He arrived to the main street with the vehicle along with Rizwaan. Far along the way, Rizwaan had said – “The police is following us.” Moving forward, he purposely turned the vehicle in such a way around the cliff that it flipped over several times before falling into a deep trench. Before it could hit the ground, Rizwaan jumped out screaming “brother…” And even he jumped off. The vehicle fell. It was later found that the vehicle had fallen down more than seven hundred feet. There was an explosion and it caught flames. Rizwaan stood up. No injuries anywhere. He was in a state of shock… But he was happy… This was his mission even if it would have led to a painful death but now… Only his elbow had been injured. When he regained consciousness in the hospital, he found himself surrounded by the police. He wanted to tell his story to the army… This was his win… He was content with whatever he shared.

          He was sentenced to ten years of rigorous imprisonment. And those ten years that he had spent with these terrorists… His case was not so easy. He went to get a second notebook from the jailor who had changed now. While handing him the notebook, he said that jailor Nayak had insisted… On account of his good behaviour, he would be getting released sooner. Rizwaan was astounded. About what he had said in the court. Both were locked up in the same jail. After years of experiencing abuse at the hands of these people, he had not been able to truly surrender in front of these people. But he…

          After getting out of the jail, he was struggling to figure out where he should go. It was in the headlines of the local newspaper those days that in the farms near the Akhnoor area, a farming couple had become the target of gunshots from across the border while working in the field. They had a nine year old son. This boy has now become an orphan. He expressed that he would like to meet this child and live with him. The child’s name is Atik. Over the years, he had learned all the rituals and customs of Islam and muslims. He started living with Atik in his house which was near the black forest.

          One day, when he was roaming in the forest, his flute was also with him. He sat down under a tree of that forest to play his flute after years. He remembered the tune of the Kanupriya play and started playing it. How lovely was the season in those days… So many dreams in the eyes… Monica… A very good career, and the wish to do everything for the sister. Thinking so, a stream of tears started to glisten in his eyes that had been empty for so long.

          At the first, the flute notes were shaky but then they got stable. It was evening time and he gazed far out deep in the forest, which was getting darker and darker with the sun was wishing to set behind the trees. In the golden rays of the setting sun, a figure came up and stood and then screamed loudly… “Kanu…” He stood up in a state of panic.

          When the long affair of tears finally settled, Monica shared that she had just come there roaming. She was staying in a guest house nearby. Then she said – “Atul, I was waiting for you to return but my feelings were not understood by my parents. My parents thought you will never return. I got married two-three years after you left. To this day, I’m in touch with Rekha. We both meet. Your uncle sold your house to marry off Rekha. Uncle took your parents with them. But Atul…”  He understood that they both had left the world, waiting for him.

          “But your sister Rekha never forgave you.”

          “Yes, indeed. Whatever she had heard, she wouldn’t have ever been able to forgive.” At first, he got surprised after hearing this, he questioned to himself ‘does Rekha could ever think that I am a traitor?.

          He handed Monica both the notebooks. “Give this to Rekha. Maybe she’ll be able to forgive me after reading this. And then you should tell me if I could come to meet or if she can.”

          He had taken Monica to the house for giving her the notebooks. Monica saw that her brilliant MBA classmate Atul now lived a life that was below poverty level. “What will you do now? Should I send your certificates after getting them from Rekha? She has held on to your belongings, Atul. She thinks that you’re not in this world!!!… But I believed you were, and will meet me one day.”

          He sighed, “What will I do with the certificates and a degree? The black spot that I carry with my name…” And then he could not speak further.

          “First, I will read this diary and then give it to Rekha.”

          Atul kept looking at the tears that had settled into Monica’s eyes without blinking. Monica turned around and allowed the drops of tears to flow down from her eyes…

          Without turning back to look, she started to walk down with fast-paced steps. And Atul, standing in the house noticed her shiny long black hair spread over her shoulder with a similar kind of physique as she was during the college days was now moving apart from him. He felt unease in his stomach after a thought that he would not able to meet her again. He tried to stop her but Monica was vanished somewhere in the black forest. He then turned towards Atik who was standing behind him and said “Boy lets go to the forest for some wood to fuel up the fire, it is too cold now a days” he turned towards the door which is now open to the dark black forest…

[1] Ammi - Mother

[2] Shorba - Gravy

[3] Roti – Traditional Indian bread

[4] Maa - Mother

[5] Maghrib namaaz – Evening prayer of Muslims

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