It was 6 August 2019.
Forty two year old Sushil Kaul was sitting in the balcony of his first floor flat in a multistory apartment in Delhi, reading the newspaper.
‘Serves them right! They have got their comeuppance! I am so happy. It soothes the heart and the mind.’He muttered under his breath, reading a news item. Hatred which had crept into his very entrails, kept bursting forth in staccato gasps of vindictive rage.
Tit for tat! Tit for tat! He mumbled under his breath, amusedly watching an egret flying dizzily over a group of ponderous cattle, plodding around, unfazed by the antics of the egret. Having had its doze of entertainment and having feasted on the insects on the skin of the cattle , it flew away to perch on a cow standing a little away, absolutely detached from the rough and tumble of life.
His eyes scoured around and stopped on two boys playing with marbles under a neem tree. One of them cuffed the other on the head, and scooping up as many marbles as he could, in his hands, ran away, sticking his tongue out at him.
“You are a cheat! A cheat! A cheat!” He shouted.
The sluice gates of Sushil’s mind flung open, hitting him with memory shards, making him almost reel under the assault.
You are a cheat! A cheat! A cheat! It was a voice travelling towards him from many years away.
There was a chatter of tongues, a backslapping bonhomie, loud, hearty guffaws, and a cackling commotion – the hens had come out of the hen coop and were skittering around in helter – skelter confusion, while two ten year olds tried to chase them back into their coops. Life was one happy ramble in the lanes and bylanes of Srinagar, Kashmir, when they did not walk, but danced and pranced, hopped and skipped in the luxuriant meadows, the verdant greenery, cocooned in the warmth of love.
“Shhzaaaadddddddda”! He heard himself.
“How many times should I tell you my name is not Shehzaada, it is just Shehzaad”. This ten year old was swinging from the willow branches, singing songs. The brook fronting the willow tree rippled, reflecting the images of the young rambunctious kids.
“Lost your marbles, Sushil?” Shehzaad jeered, flinging himself into the brook, which babbled boisterously at their antics. Not losing a second, Sushil also flung himself into the water, came up, sputtering for air and dived again. Then the twosome resurfaced, splashing water at each other amidst uncontrollable squeals of pure delight.
Sushil and Shehzaad were the best of friends, playing, cheating, acting, kidding, fibbing, chasing mongrels and monkeying around- doing everything that ten year olds do. Both of them were born one month apart, in neighboring houses, amidst a lot of celebrations. They studied in the same school- the prestigious Tyndale Biscoe School in Srinagar, Kashmir. In fact, when they got admitted to kindergarten, both had wiped each other’s tears with the crisp, white handkerchiefs that their mothers had tucked in their pockets.
Their families were next door neighbours since generations; not even a boundary wall separated them, the sounds and tantalizing smells of both houses intermingled, aromas of Waaazvaan, whiff of biryani, noon chai and marchwangun korma, dum aloo, Rogan josh– yakhni, tabkhmaaz * prepared both the Muslim way and the Pandit way, merged to create the heart- warming aroma of harmony and love.
“I don’t like the smell of garlic, but when I eat the food prepared by your Ammi, how come I cannot smell garlic in it?”
“That’s because I prepare it with immense love- especially for you”. Shehzaad’s ammi would quip, eyes brimming with love.
“Y’know, someone filched my marbles.” Shehzaad said with a rueful expression one day.
“You mean, you lost your marbles, Shehzadey? I always knew, you were crazy. ” Sushil guffawed, bursting into dancing and clapping with unbridled joy, much to the absolute indignation of Shehzaad.
When the two boys fought, Shehzaad was taken away by Ragini into her house and Naseem pulled Sushil to hers. On a settee in the drawing room, Naseem’s ruddy faced father- in -law, in a bid to lift his spirits, related stories, complete with dramatic pauses and comic timing, bringing forth first quivering of lips and then hearty laughter.
“I am more than seventy years old, but there is some error in my birthdate. You know, gobra,[son] I will never retire. My son will retire before me.” His guffaws would threaten the framed photos of their ancestors, looking down from the walls, with expressions of phlegmatic equanimity.
Everything was colored in hues of peace, but even before Shehzaad could recover his lost marbles, the world lost its marbles! The rosy hues of Time with a vinegar – faced, churlish inhospitality upset this happy apple cart, throwing the friends apart. The year 1989 brought with it a seemingly unending winter.
Slowly, Sushil found himself being submerged under a doggedly cynical indifference, even resenting the memories of the idyllic past, which continued plaguing him. Every day, he lamented the loss of their rambling house, with a sprawling garden bursting with apple, walnut and almond trees.
It was on a cold January day of the year 1991 that two twelve year olds, stood waving to each other, tears in their eyes and a churning in their hearts, while their parents hugged each other tearfully , reassuring each other of better times in the future.
In this haven, he always found Shahzaad, jumping down from trees, slithering up trees, diving into puddles, boating,trekking, and jogging. But he would shrug those memories away with a brusque toss of his head, trying in vain to erase them. Slowly, only the negative memories remained, growing every day like a lethal carbuncle. Perennially in a state of a contemplative bitterness, he started holding everyone responsible for their uprooting – the neighbours, the boatmen, the bakers, the friends ameven the teachers.
We were thrown away from our own land. They never wanted us there. It was because of this …..this that I lost my parents …. He kept having a silent combat with his agony for many years, tossing and turning in bed, and having blood – curdling nightmares. Gradually, his ferocious vindictiveness was replaced by a pursed – lipped silence and the tired anguish of acceptance.
One Sunday, 22 September, 2019 there was a messenger call.
“Happy birthday! Shehzaad here! I hunted for you on Facebook and found you.
Your profile picture is the one we had clicked under the apple tree, pink with apple blossom – but why did you crop me away?” Soon, they were talking as if they had never been parted from each other.
“I am based in Dubai but, right now, in Delhi, on my way to Srinagar. I am coming to meet you, send me the address. I know, you are in Delhi. ”
After a couple of days, he was at Sushil’s place, laden with gifts, eyes sparkling, lips quivering, heart throbbing.
They talked unendingly- of the birch bark boat that they had fashioned clumsily , the cantankerous lady who started caterwauling when a plastic cricket ball fell on her balcony, missing her nose by an inch , the icicles which they ate with salt and pepper , the food that their mothers prepared , the snowballs that they hurled at each other , the regattas , the swimming competitions – the mountaineering and cycling on the boulevard .Years fell from their frames and they were once again kids, brimming with love.It was as if they had never been flung away from each other.
“My parents remember you very fondly”.Shehzaad said.
“My parents don’t.”
By way of answer to his hurt look, he said,
“They can’t. Unable to bear the …….… trauma of being …thrown out of home and hearth, they followed the easy way out –escaping from this world the next year that…we had shifted to Delhi.”
Sushil felt a lump in his throat and a shuddering sigh escaped his lips. Shehzaad got up from his chair, and hugged him tightly. Both burst into uncontrollable sobs. Shehzaad recalling how his mother Ragini would hug him, when Sushil and he had a fight and how his father would ruffle his hair fondly.
“I am taking my parents to Dubai with me, with the communication clampdown in Kashmir, I worry a lot, so do they. Every day in Dubai is torture for me, wondering how they are faring there.” Sushil listened to Shehzaad, as the overpowering smell of waazwaan from Shehzaad’s kitchen wafted across the boundaries of time and terrain to assault his olfactory senses, floating on the wings of Shehzaad’s Ammi’s words,“you do not smell the garlic in the food, because I prepare it with love- especially for you”.
Long lost memories, when there was nothing but love, overwhelmed Shehzaad too, and both sat clinging to each other, for a long time. Then suddenly Shehzaad blurted out:
“I remember that clunky old rowing boat, your dad had fixed for us, we went rowing in it – remember?”
“I remember everything”, Sushil said with a sad smile.
“Those marshes and swamps, hemmed by towering pine trees, the strong and sweet smell of pine, ah it was bliss. Our walks in the woods, how we picked our way gingerly through the undergrowth, as pine needles scrunched – how I yearn for that music of pine needles under my feet. Did your grandfather retire finally?”
“He did – but not from life – he is very much around, still goes for long walks- at least till 4th August 2019, he did.”
“Would like to meet him some day. How old is he now?”
“None of us knows his real age, but, I have a sneaking suspicion, he does, and will divulge it only on his death bed. He will accompany us to Dubai, but is not very excited.”
Grandad had retired finally, so had the all- consuming and corrosive hatred. Once again love had staged a coup, uprooting hatred.
‘Katyu chuk cze nundbaaney, [Where are you, my dear beloved?]
Walo maashooq myaney [Please come as soon as possible]
Shehzaad started humming, an old favorite, Sushil also pitched in. Soon their cheeks were once again covered with tears. Cleansing and therapeutic.
A bird, screened from view by lush foliage, singing the same trite old song, some other bird had sung so many years back, outside those snug homes in Srinagar, exchanged her notes for more fast- paced ones.
The trills, quavers and breves of the feisty bird followed the two childhood friends, as they headed towards the drawing room where their wives were bonding over Kehwa.
“Let me confess something. Shehzaadey, that day, it was I who had stolen your marbles, in a fit of rage. When we go to Srinagar again, we will hunt for them under the apple tree where I had buried them”. As Shehzaad plonked down on the sofa, he replayed the words that Sushil had whispered, as they were heading towards the drawing room and a smile started playing on his lips.
He looked at Sushil, who was smiling too, a trifle thoughtful.
Soon, both became engrossed in their cellphones, furtively looking at each other. Now, they smiled at each other more warmly, twiddling and fidgeting. Suddenly both were distracted by notifications on Facebook.
The notifications said:
Sushil Kaul changed his profile pic Shahzaad Hussain changed his profile pic.
Both looked at each other’s profile pics and huge smiles suffused their faces.
Outside, the neem swayed to some inner music and birds started trilling with a renewed vigor, perhaps applauding the change of their profile pictures – uncropped and complete.
The picture of two ten year olds, against an apple blossom, smiling away with a box of marbles in Shehzaad’s hands.
* Kashmiri delicacies
Photo Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Athar Parvaiz
Dr Santosh Bakaya is the author of three mystery novels (The mystery of the Relic, The Mystery of the Jhalana fort and The mystery of the Pine cottage) for young adults and a book of essays “Flights From My Terrace”, which was published as an e-book. She has also penned numerous poems and received the International Reuel Award for writing and literature 2014, for her long poem OH HARK! The above short story won the Bharat Award for Literature-International Short Story Contest-2020. She stays in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.