ABOUT THE STORY Words carved on gravestones, like those of the most ambitious literature, are written in the hope that they will endure for centuries. In Shahnaz Bashir’s story, we encounter Muhammad Sultan, a Kashmiri carpenter both humble and proud, who thinks of himself as an artist and lives in a mercurial way. Gradually, the debilitations of life, fate and the insurgency in his homeland take their toll on his pomp. The only way out for him would involve an act of terrible desecration. As Bashir’s story tracks Muhammad Sultan’s walk to the graveyard, it hums with the tension between the past and the present, the sacred and the profane, the soul and the stomach, and, at its inexorable conclusion, between life and death.
Shahnaz Bashir’s first novel, The Half Mother, was published last month by Hachette India.
AS SOON AS THE MIST LIFTS, which does happen in the evenings these days, he’ll dash straight to the graveyard. It’ll be a really chilly evening in the wake of the April rain. He is sure the drug-addicted gamblers, for whom the graveyard is a favourite place to play whist, won’t have come.
He’s scared of the idea of doing it in the night. He can’t sneak out in the presence of his sensitive family members. He usually goes to get his cheap Panama cigarettes from the village market in the evening. That’s the time when he can do it.
He lights a filterless cigarette and paces the short, narrow, flaking cement pathway outside his small mud-and-brick house. His workman’s fingers are calloused, the fingertips bristly with cracks, and the fingernails deformed. He takes note of the cacti and dead geraniums, potted in discarded paint cans and small, disposed Fevicol buckets. Then he slips back into the house, ascends the creaky wooden flight of stairs, and reaches for his old cobwebbed toolkit under the tin roof where the gable makes it difficult for a person to stand upright. He rummages through the dusty tools, panting.
Shortly afterwards, he finds himself scampering towards the graveyard, a kilometre away from the house. The pale light of dusk wears on the drenched asphalt road riddled with muddy, water-filled puddles. The roofs and leaves still drip.
The mist is all gone and the snow-shrouded mountains opposite him appear closer than they actually are. A gust of wind breathes through the village and invisibly takes shape in the groves, orchards, mustard crops, grass and scattered plastic bags.
Each wrinkle and crease on his pale and weathered face, with its sunken cheeks, tightens as he scuttles on. Each strand of his grey hair stands on end. Over the years, he has practised and learnt to spackle his wretched visage with fake smiles and false gestures. The pits in the road continuously make him watch his plastic-shod feet, his quick steps. His left hand, almost dysfunctional, trembles badly. He grabs the underside of his pheran to keep the hand steady.
His worn-out pheran smells of rain and stale smoke. He scurries on with the sound of dull clanking that comes from under his pheran as the rusty hammer comes into contact with the blunt chisel. Plumes of smoke-stained steam burst from his nostrils. Occasionally, a bus or a scooter passes, tooting.
Today again he is welcomed by the same stubborn clumps of nettle and indifferent tangles of thistle that are sprinkled throughout the graveyard. And beyond—there, near the graves—are the assorted irises, their stamens powdering the white petals with yellow pollen dust on the insides. He traces the path to a grave whose epitaph in Urdu reads
Shaheed Mushtaq Ahmad Najar
MUHAMMAD SULTAN was a talented carpenter before he fell from a roof while working and permanently injured his left arm. And just when the injured arm had begun to heal, he, against the doctor’s advice, went to work again. His familial burden, of three daughters and a sole adolescent son, had to be managed with his regular work, and that is why he couldn’t afford any rest for the injured arm. The internal soft-tissue injury worsened to a haematoma. After a failed surgery, his arm was declared unfit for carpentry or any manual work.
He was a master khatamband, or lattice designer. Before cutting wood for use, he would smell it to gauge its quality. He specialised in mixing the classical with the modern, producing something that both old and new generations of Kashmiris liked. None in the entire village could rival his truss work. He was an expert on doors and windows—the thick part of work in carpentry. With each drag on the hookah, he came up with a new idea.
But Sultan had a shortcoming too: he was not a diligent worker. He took projects at whim. He would hardly take partners or apprentices. He liked to work alone. He normally worked for two days a week and took the rest off. Sometimes, he would disappear for days, and later compensate for his absence by working overtime. His second romance, after carpentry, was accompanying the local militants around the village. He’d help them with anything, fetch them cigarettes, and even lavish money on them.
He couldn’t be pressed to work like a normal duty-bound carpenter. Carpentry was not only work or a source of livelihood for him, but an art too. An art through which he expressed himself. Once at work, he would passionately sink into it. Sometimes he worked for the entire night. Sometimes not for days altogether. He would even work against custom on Fridays, when all the carpenters and masons took off. He never actually cared for money until it really bothered him. He was more of a dissolute artist than a mere time-bound carpenter. His hands are worth gold, that is what almost all his customers remarked after marvelling at his work. It was because of his talent that people tolerated his truancies and wild habits.
The incident with his arm depressed him. It became impossible to work, or hold tools in his left hand.
Then he started taking projects on a contract basis, employing other carpenters and directing them. But their designs and work neither impressed nor satisfied his customers. Though his employees took all his directions, they never really followed them in the true manner. They even cheated him of his share of the commission. And eventually his financial situation deteriorated.
The worst of his fate was when his eldest daughter was returned by her in-laws, for the sixth time in four years of her marriage, for not fulfilling the demands of dowry. The last time she returned with a swollen wrist and her sniveling, sick, one-year-old baby daughter. Her husband, the driver of a bus that somebody else owned, wrung her wrist in an argument and threw her out of his house. But at her father’s house, the eldest daughter behaved as though she was on just an occasional visit. She even waffled on to her sisters about her in-laws, praising them as if they were good people and as if nothing had happened. She talked about the “generosity” of her in-laws’ neighbours. She described her brother-in-law; his tastes in food. These details bored, annoyed and irritated her sisters.
Muhammad Sultan’s younger daughters would not respond to anything their eldest sister said of her in-laws.
Already workless and with his broken arm, Sultan was struggling with his two other daughters at home. His middle daughter was in her late thirties, a spinster, an almost illiterate woman, who, after her father’s injury, had been supporting the household with her needlework skills. She worked well into the nights, tortured her eyes, strained and overburdened herself, and gained weight and premature wrinkles on her face. She was the most beautiful among her sisters, but there was an unattended fuzz of hair over her upper lip that made her look ugly at the same time. Lately, she was running short of work, and had to take to secretly begging at the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib on Fridays. She would slip under a long, dirty black burka and leave home with a word that she was visiting the shrine to pray to god to take away their hardships and grievances. But Muhammad Sultan had begun to mistake her veiled visitations for expeditions of commercial adultery. He was rankled, but still, he never wanted to follow her to confirm his suspicions.
His youngest daughter had left school at the secondary level when Sultan’s wife died of a colon hemorrhage. Since her mother’s death, it was she who maintained the whole household, cooked and cleaned. Her presence in the house was the only presence Muhammad Sultan didn’t feel. She almost didn’t exist for him. She was just like the family cow she fed, washed, milked and cleaned. Whenever she cried, there was no noise in her crying, not a single snivel or sob, just tears, which quietly streamed down her cheeks like melting pearls. She was born just before Mushtaq, her brother, Muhammad Sultan’s only son, who died in his adolescence.
Mushtaq had distanced himself from school and books and instead followed a group of local militants, like his father. One day Mushtaq stayed behind with an armed group in a hideout—a posh house in Nishat. In the middle of the night, the hideout was raided, and he was the only one who couldn’t escape. He was killed in the kitchen of the house.
Next morning, Muhammad Sultan managed to go to the spot and see his dead son for the last time. After looking at the bullet-riddled body lying face down on the kitchen floor, he fainted. When he regained consciousness, he found that Mushtaq was being placed on a bier. The funeral was attended by the militants with whom the boy had fallen in. Wearing masks, they secretly mixed with the funeral procession, and later also directed the graveyard management committee to get a quality marmoreal headstone chiselled for their friend. They even wanted to have the headstone inscribed with an Urdu epitaph with the title Shaheed ahead of the boy’s full name, which would signify that he was a full-fledged militant and had died for the cause of Kashmir’s freedom. The outfit will be proud to bear all the costs, the area commander of the militants assured the graveyard management committee.
After the burial, some days later, a shiny black granite gravestone was erected at the grave, with a beautifully calligraphed Urdu epitaph in sparkling golden paint.
It was some months after his son’s death that Muhammad Sultan suffered the accident in which he damaged his left arm. Soon after the accident, his elder daughter was returned and the middle one lost her work. All possible sources of income disappeared. Vexed, he ate away at himself between sips from endless cups of salty nuun tea and puffs from filterless cigarettes.
Then, he would often hear people mention how Sataar Wagay, one of his neighbours, whose son the army had tortured to death and jettisoned in the river, managed to get an ex gratia compensation of one lakh rupees, sanctioned by the government. In the beginning, when not burdened by his own tragedies, Muhammad Sultan hated Sataar Wagay for accepting compensation. He even called him a traitor for “selling his son’s sacrifice to the government.” But then Muhammad Sultan became confused when Rahman Parray, another of his neighbours, who had even been an active member of a separatist organisation, distorted the facts surrounding his younger brother’s killing by the army and accepted compensation of one lakh rupees.
Who was right, Wagay or Parray or himself? Baffled, Muhammad Sultan remained indecisive until his own conditions forced him to think about applying for compensation too. Initially he hated himself for his urge to ask for money from the government, and he fought with himself day and night.
He was already under heavy debt. Each morning the local grocer had begun to come to the house and threaten to take away Sultan’s cow to settle his account. He even owed the neighbourhood baker and barber. He had stopped passing by their shops and now took longer paths, back and side routes, whenever he had to leave the village. But when his baby granddaughter was diagnosed with acute pneumonia, he gave up. Finally, he threw off the guise of commitment with the cause of freedom, ignored his guilt, and applied for compensation. He tried as much as possible to hide this from Gul Baghwaan, one of his close childhood friends, who had vehemently rejected an offer of compensation from the government after his son was killed in a crossfire incident.
Now, the only hurdle that came between Muhammad Sultan and his compensation was the word Shaheed, conspicuously engraved in the epitaph. If discovered anytime later, the word could ruin his chances.
THE GRAVEYARD IS A PLATEAU studded with gravestones and clumps of irises. It is away from the village houses and nestled on the edge of a vast expanse of paddy fields. As Muhammad Sultan sees the irises in the cloud-dimmed evening, the first stray thought that crosses his mind is how much better it would be to replace the cacti at his home with the irises. The flowers look better than those thorny desert plants.
He waits for more darkness. And with darkness comes a drizzle. Soon the voice of the muezzin from a nearby mosque floats into the air and mingles with the hissing rain. The wet mud of the graveyard sticks to the soles of his shoes, exposing patches of ochre under the upper layer of earth.
A few minutes later, when the rain stops again, he holds the blunt chisel with his trembling left hand against the word Shaheed. He repeatedly strikes the hammer on the head of the chisel with his right hand. The sounds of metal clanking and the hammer’s whumping travel through the earth and reach down to Mushtaq Ahmad Najar. At one strike the pointed end of the chisel slips, goes off the mark, and scrapes Mushtaq instead.
Correction: The writer’s novel, The Half Mother, was published last month by Hachette India, and not Random House as the piece earlier stated. The Caravan regrets the error.
Shahnaz Bashir teaches creative journalism and literary reportage at the Central University of Kashmir, where he is the coordinator of the media studies programme. His debut novel, The Half Mother, was published in June by Hachette India.