Carpentry—a short story by Ashfaq Saraf

ABOUT THE STORY:  Perhaps the greatest of the tragedies of lives occupied are found in the choices they are forced to make. And the only thing worse? Maybe the end that those choices eventually bring. Even so, just what kind of space is left to navigate in lives occupied? How do the living live their lives? What ways do they traverse, what ends do they meet? Untold are the ways a people occupied remain unfree. In this story, set in India-administered Kashmir, Ashfaq Saraf shines a moment as such—of facing horrors unspoken, and of fathoming ways that must be traversed to give in to them, or to overcome. Ways that crisscross between life and death, home and hearth. Of perhaps the most unlikely of realms to resist within, or in fact the most obvious ones. In the wretchedness of a military occupation, can there still be life?

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By Ashfaq Saraf

WHEN SHE WAKES UP panting in the middle of night he is wakened too, mostly without delay and sometimes only after she heaves Rasheed’s name. He lights the torch, and navigates the glow across the span of the room to locate her trembling face. Then he moves it further to where the emptied glass is kept. Without waiting for her to ask he tiptoes to the kitchen, fills the glass, and returns to the room. She drinks in marked gulps and lays her head back on the pillow. He turns the torch off. They both attempt to go back to sleep. In the morning she wakes him up by shaking his shoulder and hissing into his ear, “Shabeerah… Shabeerah.”

Shabeer works as a carpenter patently dedicated to the craft. Unlike him his father, Rasheed, did not think much of carpentry.

“I have been the evening host to them both after day’s labour,” says Fatah, “Have known their faces intimately.”

She continues, “Strenuous work does not vex Shabeer. Its longevity does not summon any evil in him, doesn’t bear upon his attitude whether he is working for a doemb or a syed, this to my surprise, no less.”

Fatah also mentions, although in passing, Shabeer’s unwavering insistence on carrying lunch and mostly, if not always, a refusal to invitations. Only after a journalist asks her why he took up carpentry, she talks about Rasheed’s death, much against her desire. It is as if she does not know how to say, I don’t want to talk about it.

“What would they think of me, a widow doesn’t want to talk about her husband? What kind of a woman!”

So, she talks. She says it brings back what she doesn’t want to remember.

“We are interested in his behavior after the incident, about how he faced it and treated you afterwards,” a woman among the journalists asks her with a catalog of curious energy in her eyes.

There is always at least one such woman in the group, if not more.

For the lack of any teachers who are natives to the village and any students who are known to her, no one at hand can be summoned to testify, yet Fatah believes Shabeer was not a bad student. He did not skip school while he was at it. Five years earlier, chronologically seventeen years after the dark night that is—which locals refer to as nabbe-trath—his father succumbed to the deadly combination of diabetes and asthma. Rasheed was a worn out man. Carpentry has vanquished the strength in my bones, he’d say. Fatah was left alone, with Shabeer. He discontinued school without qualms and attended to learn carpentry.

In less than six months he was sought for work in nearby villages in addition to his own. The income was good, so was work. However, after a year of occupying work, Shabeer realized as the number of house demolitions by Indian army in the area ranked fewer, so to say as the number of militants still alive and hiding began to decrease, the work faded too. This revealed to him the unsettling nature of his work: the construction for many families was a consequence of the demolition of their houses. How come it never occurred to him while he was at work? As he tried to grapple with the dilemma of asking himself questions and worrying for the dwindling work, his work schedule began to grow leaner. Uneven occurrence of workless days is how it began, at times a couple, occasionally extending over a week. Fatah began to grow morose.

There hung a certain colour—somewhat like the colour of despair in sleepless eyes—in the house. It corroded their appetite.

Shabeer was born three months after Fatah was raped—one of the eighty women in the village duo, in theirs namely Poshpura—by Indian army on the night of 23 February in the year 1991. At the time she was pregnant. Afterwards, he was born with a defective right arm. Doctors for a possible remedy were to be found in Srinagar. She would not take him there for the lack of money and he did not realize until he was in school. The last time he questioned her about his arm she’d said: “Like Muddasir is born with no ability to see from his right eye, you understand?”

He had nodded helplessly. She’d smiled, kissing his forehead.

Then, as a carpenter, his hand began to heal gradually until one day it was completely healed. A miracle of noticeable bearing, working with planes and saws drove the ailment to a slow decrepitude. Fatah, on learning, first broke into a fit of unrestrained tears and afterwards, only a day later, travelled to the village in another district, to the house of her only sister, to apprise her of the event.

That Shabeer knew of it Fatah did not know. “I was pregnant, so they spared me,” she’d said to him in a tone assured enough to cultivate belief until one day one newspaperman wrote of the troopers’ gruesomeness, citing one particular example: not even sparing a six months pregnant woman. He read the daily Aftab occasionally bought by a fellow carpenter.

WE ARE INTO THE month of May and fruit trees are in full bloom in Poshpura. Cherry trees have blossomed, so have the peach trees. A lone almond tree standing in the backyard presents the image of a bride left alone to raise a thousand eyes. Streams gush forth vigorously, the vigor as if exchanged for heaps and heaps of wintery fatigue that just recently left the village. Mornings dawn to the chirping of birds lively and thronging and ready to announce happiness to all mankind. One morning into the third week of May, running workless for a tireless number of seventeen days, Shabeer woke up to the same hum complimented only by his mother’s “Shabeerah… Shabeerah.”

At breakfast nun-chai brewed in a samovar, hued to an extravagant pink as though competing with the mood outside. Fatah squatted with a tray of girdeh bagels in front, her eyes heavy, burdened under the weight of a forced smile on her forehead. Drying his face with the towel hung behind the kitchen door as he began to squat opposite to her, she blurted out:

“Faroque had come to visit; a cup of tea and he left. Of his ilk only a few good men aspire in our village, rest all have taken to their eternal abode. Your father was good friends with him. His wife might have told him. They have some work in the camp, might extend over a month. They have asked for you.”

“In the camp, with the army?” he asked in a reaffirming tone.

“Yes with the army,” said she.

As he laid hands on his pannier, the weight of the tools saddled his body into submission. Rasheed’s face flushed across his weary eyes like pages of the first book he could have read instructing him, explaining to him right from wrong.

The bicycle waded through the village lanes, the rubber in its tires walloping against the stones lying scattered about the earthen surface. Shabeer paddled as though hankering for a reverse direction. A cool breeze blew as the morning sun began to bite into the neonate façade of sparkling dew. It pressed like Fatah’s kisses against his temples. The tufts of his hair flew against their combed habitude, making a mess of his otherwise symmetrical head. Cycling he came onto the road linking Poshpura to the main town. The ride assumed smoothness. As he drew near, his body began to ache.

In a few minutes he stood in front of the gate, in front of the blackened wall displaying: “Welcome: 68th battalion RR.”

Braking the bicycle to a halt, dangling his legs astride the crossbar, he pressed his feet against the broken tarmac. Over the right corner of the gate, behind a multi-layer fence of concertina mesh and camouflage netting and barbed wires and a brick wall stood a raised bunker built of sand bags, in patches broken and mossy green. A sentry stretched his gaze interrogatively from the window of the bunker. In the following minutes he persisted motionless as though stranded on the road. A hoarse shout flew from the sentry’s mouth: “Kya chahiye?” What do you want?

Shabeer smiled looking askance negating the trooper’s question and in a moment of reckoning, which lasted briefly like a short dream, a tizzy, a deathly prick, he pushed on his feet paddling this once in a newly found rejuvenation.

Drifting away from the camp, he rode like a gazelle running away from her predator. Riding briskly to the end of the stretch, he stopped in front of an apple orchard and threw the bicycle against its wooden fence.

Barbed wire fencing secures the pathway running between adjacent apple orchards. For most of its length green leafed branches hang over the fence lines. Pregnant with dew the green on the ground spreads itself in regular patches here and there. The flip-flops Shabeer is wearing are wetted on the walk and his fingertips feel water seeping under them. He continues walking, crossing one orchard after the other, past his mother’s gifted to Fatah by her brother, past Raheem’s with a huge fig tree at the corner overhanging the pathway, and past another in which stands the house, majestic as seen last by him. The façade of the house wears his mark as he wished to see, the trellis dub redone by him clings to the house like a newborn to her mother’s bosom. He worked here for more than a month redoing the balcony, a few windows, and an armoire. He had seen her twice, once with her face visible by the border of a green head cloth and the next when she brought them afternoon tea, this time a tussock of hair trailing along the breadth of her forehead, tucked under the loose head cover she wore. The front door of the house lay open. A flock of hen dotted the mud verandah with no visible traces of people. He continued on the orchard pathway running past the front lawn raising his gaze towards the dub, the windows, lowering it on the verandah, running fingers through his ruffled hair, smiling at the prospect of a her being there, somewhere inside, uncannily near.

Beyond the house, the path grew thinner. Dusty large patches began to disappear giving way to greener large ones and a canopy of mesquite and willows grown about the peripheries of orchards grew in thickness making the path shady. The shade, as it ran with the length of the path, appeared marked at a point, at the emergence of a fence of barbed wire closing on the path across its breadth, a dead end. He flung the fence jumping over it, passed into another orchard, walked down the descending slope of its ploughed, corn sown terrain, and there he was: beside the stream, the sheenekuall.

Somewhere upstream, behind that mound, adjacent to Faroque’s peach tree, under the expanse of the huge willow, that was the place. A depression filled by the water flowing downstream, creating a pool the size of a big hall where boys from the village gathered and bathed and swam and played. The water was neck deep in the center, sparkling fresh like the eyes of a newborn.

Shabeer does not take his flip-flops off for the possibility of any glass splinters—broken from bottles of alcohol thrown by the troopers—cutting into the bottom of his feet and takes a dip. The cold water feels like soft needles piercing the skin, harmless and full of sensuality. He takes another dip, then another as the water runs briskly down along the exposed layers of his skin, and then another till the sound of the flowing water sends songs into his ears, and another till the green on the trees appears supremely winsome to his eyes, and another till Rasheed’s arms begin to hold his boyish body, and another till he laughs in tandem with the appearance of the broad smile on his father’s lips, and another till he watches Rasheed taking dips, and another till no one can tell apart tears from the water flowing down his cheeks, and another till the count is lost.

That night he woke up panting in the middle of night. He lighted the torch, navigating the glow across the span of the room to locate her sweated face. There was no sound, she did not heave Rasheed’s name. He went back to sleep. Silently.

She didn’t awoke that night.

Ashfaq Saraf is a Kashmiri poet and writer. A different version of this story was originally published in 2012 in the Kashmir Reader newspaper.  

Suhail Naqshbandi is a Kashmiri painter and designer.   

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