Short story: A trail of dew

Updated January 05, 2014

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Women protest against the Indian army, accused of killing a Kashmiri Muslim villager.  — Reuters
Women protest against the Indian army, accused of killing a Kashmiri Muslim villager. — Reuters

All of us carry something, placards, banners, flags, countenances. I have a white headband. Although I find myself in the front flank again, I stay calm. The police are pushing back a small crowd that has gathered to watch us. There are no women among the onlookers, only men: some not so earnest office-goers who have stopped on their way to work; a few students while they wait for groups of girls on their way to school; and the ever present policemen who watch and ogle by turns, bemused at the horde of women they have to both protect and control. In the middle of the headband, on my forehead, is an outline in black. All the demonstrators are women.

Our group is sometimes called a non-governmental organisation or NGO, although we’re just a bunch of women by the roadside. A few women standing by the kerb. But then, even as we are physically on the road, I think we are nowhere. We’ve been nowhere for a long time. That’s who we are. I stand here and look. That’s what I do all the time, look at everything. What to do. I look at the faces, ours and theirs, buildings, windows, the soldiers, the walls, and the traffic. Uff, if only this traffic died for a while, I could hold a few thoughts together.

Anyhow, we have a lawyer as well who looks after all the paperwork and issues statements from time to time. All of us have files, big fat things full of paper: clippings, memos, letters-to-the-president, signature campaigns, case histories and so on. They have gained considerable weight over the last few years, what with each dharna or demo bringing its own pieces of paper. It eats up quite a bit of my time.

I always take an auto rickshaw to the city. I don’t like the buses. The auto fare is a bit costly, but then, what else have I got to spend on. I can see the city approach from the auto. It looks beautiful as we move towards it, a reminder of how beautiful it was. Ruins are the most solid evidence of beauty, are they not? I also like it because Bilal, my regular auto driver, reminds me of Umar. He’s nice, talks to me, and goes slow. He looks a year or so older than him, but how is one to know.

The people of the city are going on about their hurried business, eager to finish yet another anxious day and return to a deathless evening at home. People don’t die in their beds anymore. We have gathered by the gates of the civil secretariat, an odd big block of grey floors with countless windows, without any character or shape. It is just ugly. It must also be one of the most protected premises in the world, probably second only to nuclear plants or other such places. What scares most people apart from the omnipresent soldiers are the tall spiked gates and the sinister admission procedure you must obey to get in. You get wrinkles by the time you manage to set foot inside the compound. Sometimes I feel like tearing at this mechanism with my hands, pulling it all apart into shreds, burning it down into cinders. Sometimes I feel as if the end of all my problems were locked inside this concrete den whose occupants sit in big upholstered offices attended by panting, obsequious errand boys. These are the people who mock us, beat us with the stick of law, without ever seeing us. Tiered barricades, prison-like walkways on the sides with at least two armed men occupying every square foot or so, machine gun nozzles watching your every move from strange angles. The only open channel in the middle of this barbed-wire fortress is the circuitous path meant for authorised vehicles only.

ALL eyes seem to look in my direction. It makes me uneasy and every two minutes I find myself looking at my feet. I always wear canvas shoes to these events. Some of the women wear shoes that have holes; I can see the colour of their socks. It takes some getting used to, to be an active protestor, particularly when you have a stake in the proceedings. I do not so much mind the pushing and the shoving of the police as much as the eyes of the onlookers. Scores of amused eyes, smug in the knowledge of being on the fence; it makes me squirm. I know what they think, that I am a bitter woman. I’m sure they call me that. But then, it’s important to have people present at a demo, as many as possible.

I can’t shout slogans for too long. I look at my feet and think, try to recollect and remember, an act both easy and tough. It has been more than 10 years now. In the beginning I found the idea futile and told the young lawyer who had come to invite me to join — “we are launching a movement to get our people back” — that nothing will come out of making an NGO out of it. Death or disappearances spawn mini industries around them. Lawyers, human rights walas and NGOs, I didn’t trust them, I must confess. But afterwards, when I started seeing some women I knew in the newspapers, I changed my mind. The press travels far, people like news I’m told, especially when played live on TV.

There are around a thousand women in our group, each with a man, or boy, tucked away in a file, but all of them do not join in the roadside protests. Some of them don’t come because they have lost recently and are a little lost themselves, some are still grieving, while some others prefer to go alone and pursue officials on their own, sometimes paying hefty bribes for a piece of information that may or may not be true. I am considered one of the frontline members. My picture has appeared on newspaper front pages more than a few times so it doesn’t interest me much anymore — the uncharacteristic frame, the same angle of the head, the predictable caption, I have seen it all.

IT’S getting a little too hot for August. The city was never like this, but then they mowed down forests everywhere during the initial years. In fact, it was perhaps the only time the soldiers and some of the people fighting them were on the same side. Everyone made money, people say.

Like always, there’s a busy bunch of photographers on the other side of the road, flailing their arms over each other, jostling for space and clicking aimlessly at us. Many of them weren’t even part of the circus in the beginning; some of them probably just wanted to jump on to the bandwagon. Anyhow, they aren’t allowed to mingle with us. The policeman actually hits anyone trying to cross the line. I know most of the cameramen, some old hands who will go through the motions ever so casually, their cameras going up and down at predictable moments; and a few fresh faces, who, gleaming with hunger, will always try to push forward. As usual, Dilawar has sent his apprentice, his junior, who for some reason has always been a junior.

We are still warming up for the main act, the centre piece, in which we will shout the loudest, scream our hearts out and raise our banners high above over our heads for the VIP cavalcade when it comes. This last bit is a bit discomforting for me, as I’m shorter than most women here.

I know I will feel angry at the dark eyes behind the tinted window. I know I will want to throw a brick through the opaque glass. I know it will be demeaning, because, as they say, I am a woman, a mother. I know how I will feel. Who is this man watching me from his cushioned leather seat in the Ambassador? What does he know about street protests? You self-important, self-serving dog, have you ever tasted despair in your throat, on your tongue, I want to say to him some day?

Dilawar is a renowned photographer who has captured everything that has happened here ever since it all started. People say he has thousands and thousands of photographs, many of which are so valuable that he could make a fortune by selling them. Although I don’t understand why anyone would be interested in pictures of the dead? Newspapers carry them every day. People say he also has hundreds of photographs of men, some dead, some alive, and some in-between, by which I mean the missing men. Surely, by now you understand what I mean. They say even the agencies don’t have the kind of photos Dilawar has. He’s been present everywhere, and has recorded everything that crossed his lens.

He is also the only photographer to have set up his own website. My niece Quratul Ain, we call her Ainee, shows me around on Sundays. I must say it looks good, especially these sliding pictures that appear year-wise on the computer screen and give a glimpse of major events over the years. I also like the “then and now” section. It shows pictures, arranged side by side, of landmarks, gardens, buildings, schools, lakes, that are not there anymore or are in a state you wouldn’t have thought imaginable a few years ago.

The demonstration unfolds along expected lines. The lawyer has prepared a speech and reads it out to us and the few journalists who are always there, friends who join us in solidarity. We shout slogans for some time and raise our placards whenever an official car passes by. The big convoy of cars is yet to emerge, that is the time when we give them a loud send-off, when they depart for their cosy homes in the hills overlooking the lake.

The lawyer works hard for us, that too without any compensation. I like his speech, these lines in particular:

“All blood must be accounted for.”

“The Disappeared are not the Forgotten.”

Hopelessness is a tedious repetitive thing, I’ve learnt. It turns out to be exactly like the last time. We scream, some people watch, we get photographed, we go home.

Our files each have a photo on the cover, copies of which are attached to the letters we send to officials, leaders and other important people in the city. We also have them printed on leaflets and memoranda that the lawyer sends to human rights groups around the world.

Someone from the Human Rights Charge has written to me a couple of times. He wants to write a full-length, properly-researched report on me. He says everything has been budgeted for. “I can also pay for your time.” He thinks it’s a great story of perseverance and grit in the face of insurmountable odds and must be told.

Umar left home on a spring morning. It was April. Our garden had blossomed into many pink and purple shades. He was fond of pansies and had the baghbaan plant two big beds that year.

In the distance, almond trees in blossom at the foot of the hill shone like balls of snow. As always, I was happy to see his face in the fresh light of dawn. The trees have been cut down since; the area is now a big camp for some reserve battalion. There are no trees, neither blossoms nor almonds. No April.

He was going for his tuitions near Bohri Kadal. I’d had my apprehensions about going to Downtown every day but like his friends he wanted to take lessons from the famous tutor Ali Lawasa. He was in class XI then, not very different from most teenagers, lanky and, I like to think, sprightly, a bit like his father. I say a bit because most people think he looks more like me. His father left us when Umar was 12. No, no, it had nothing to do with the uprising. It was just so sudden that I sometimes feel it was some kind of mistake. He wasn’t ill or anything; as a matter of fact, he was in excellent health, happy — we all were — but then he died, just like that. It’s a regret I don’t resist. We lived a very happy life, so one must be grateful. I always went late to my school, where the Headmaster Sahib had kindly allowed me to teach my Urdu literature classes later than other teachers taught theirs. In the evenings, I busied myself in the house. He always returned early to be with me.

There was dew on the grass and Umar left his footprints right through the heart of the garden. A clean diagonal dart that shone with freshness. He never took the gravel path around the garden. The prints evaporated in no time and Umar didn’t come back. He was 16 then.

Autumn’s sad dust has started swirling around in this wind, which is also muffling the sounds that escape the lips of these unwavering women from time to time.

The sky is not the blue it used to be. Beams of sunlight fall lazily on the dust. Some women have sat down on the mats we bring along. A couple are dozing too. I can also hear some snoring in the background. A daylong roadside protest must have its siesta hour.

Two days after Umar disappeared I went to lodge a report at the police station.

They asked me if he had been hanging around with any of the boys. I said none that I knew of. I knew what they meant.

If he had been behaving suspiciously or unusually in the last couple of weeks or so? I said no.

Had he been talking about politics of late? Not with me. How does that matter?

Then they let me go and told me they would see me again in a few days and I shouldn’t worry too much about my son.

Only a day later, a lot of soldiers and policemen came home. I made tea for them but only the officer and his aide sat down to drink it. The others started searching the house, frantically, from floor to ceiling. From room to room, cupboard to cupboard, suitcase to suitcase, they rummaged through every single piece of clothing in the house, including my undergarments. Still, I didn’t protest.

“Just in case he was up to something, you never know with boys these days and this revolution bug,” the officer said.

They searched his room for a long time and then went up to the attic. Of course, they found nothing. It was strange, rather than looking for my son they were searching my house. Then it occurred to me they might put something somewhere and then ... you know how the police are these days. They asked for his photographs so I showed them the family album. They took it with them, saying they'd return it soon.

Umar had been gone for more than a week now. Sometime later I started checking with press photographers, often at these “parents of the missing meets” or similar gatherings, if they had any more pictures from around the time, you know of protests, arrests, firings ... Maybe he was one of them. Maybe he wasn’t.The police closed the file soon. So at first we couldn’t even get him registered as a missing person.

Where’s the proof?

Yes, where is the proof?

The kind lawyer then moved a petition in the highest court and got him entered among the disappeared, or registered as a missing person, as the court decreed.

AS I said, I always wear a headband without a photograph in the middle. It was decided that all of us would wear similar headbands during the demos. “It symbolises the predicament of the kin of the missing and the callousness of the government and some of our own people,” the lawyer had said. Nothing has come out of it so far but it keeps the flame burning. He has tied up with similar organisations from around the world. There are women like us in many parts of the world, he says. And some foreigners did visit us last year; a few phlegmatic old men on some junket perhaps. I have to admit I didn’t like them much. They looked at us, or it seemed to me, as if we were some exotic cattle. I suspect it was the duppattas on our heads at which they kept staring. You know what I did when I went home that day? God forgive me. I looked at myself in the mirror and I looked fine. Like all the other women. Fine, elegant but settled in grief. I asked the lawyer later why there weren’t any women with them. He said he has no say in the matter. You see, I have begun to understand how the larger world works. I have heard there are plenty of funds for such things abroad to keep retired ministers and politicians busy.

Sometimes, I think disappeared is as good as deceased. People don’t come back, so why create a fuss and live with this dying-undying-dying flame in your heart. I try to tell Jahanara, Sayyeeda and Bimla that they’re better off. Even though their sons were left to die near a drain in the city, they at least brought them the bodies. The same day.

There is too much dust on the roads. Every passing vehicle blows a trail and we breathe it all day. We stand there by the road, shout, make and listen to speeches, and call out the names of our men, while everyone else goes on with their lives. I have come to despise all kinds of vehicles and the people inside them. No one really cares, even my relatives have given up, not mentioning the common people who are supposed to be on our side. I’m also filled with pity for this human rights-mad lawyer. But then what if?

Around afternoon, some of us take a short break and go to the nearby park to eat our lunch. Most women carry lunchboxes — rice, greens, curd, pickles and meat sometimes.

It’s been a long time since he was taken. Of course he was taken; it is impossible, inconceivable, that he would leave me, not for anything. Perhaps too long. I wonder what he looks like now. Does he have long hair or does he cut it short. Does he have a beard or is he clean shaven? Is he a big man or still lean? What does he eat? Where? Sometimes I want everyone dead.

Or maybe there is something mysterious, important that is keeping him away from me, and he is happy somewhere, even married to a nice girl, and settled with a family, waiting for the right time to come back or contact me. For all I know, I might be a grandmother of two children who are already eager to meet their daadi. Umar is a good storyteller.

Dilawar’s website looks like it has no end. Photographs everywhere. I like looking at these images. You get sucked into his world. One of the images I often stop at is this pale little girl. There is no blood in this photo; they perhaps wiped her clean or all of it drained out. It’s posted under the “Human Tragedy” section. Ainee and I visit the site regularly now. I have learnt to browse a bit by myself, just in case there is an update. She calls it a virtual graveyard. Children these days, they like to be witty at all times.

I have persuaded him to start a Missing Persons section on the website. He will use all the pictures of the disappeared he has. And he must have quite a few. I have given him one of Umar’s best pictures. It’s the one he used in his higher-secondary admission form. He had insisted on wearing his maroon school tie. You see, the single most important thing for the family of a missing person is the photograph. Without it, the person can’t be. Without it, the disappeared cannot exist. I doubt you understand.

On the main page last week was a collage of old and new photographs. He must have given it to some new chap because the result is a complete mess. Novice. The centrepiece of the artwork is a large procession, possibly from the early years of the uprising. There are people everywhere in this picture, countless heads listening to some unknown speaker, waiting to explode into a slogan. The photograph is overlapped on the corners by other pictures. It seems like an invasion, where smaller pictures are eating into this big frame. Some of Dilawar’s famous photos are jostling for space and a few have managed to cut into the parent picture. We have since become friends and I must tell him I don’t like this at all. There are quite a few young faces. Grey faces, death having caught them unaware. A suicide bomber’s remains adorn the corner. The photo’s lower edge sits on the main piece, pieces of scorched flesh on a white chadar.

WE are at the end of the demo and are waiting for the last few cars to leave the secretariat before we can commence on our last act, white fat cars with evil red lamps on top, so that we can close up and say our goodbyes until the next time. A big official’s car is usually preceded by a swooping of the area outside the main driveway by large looming soldiers, who wave their lathis and rifles in a circular motion, throwing off the small clusters of waiting old women and men in all directions. A few fall, some others leave their sandals behind, while some others don’t care if they come in the way of a stick or a rifle butt.

What have they turned us into? A pack of pathetic flies who buzz off momentarily, as a matter of habit, but flock back together so soon. People wait all day, either to be allowed in or to quickly hand in an application — an arzi, a plea, a hands-folded submission as though we were mendicants seeking the help of the kind hearted — the moment they see a small opening in the tinted side window by the VIP’s driver. Occasionally, if they are lucky, they get a chance to hand it to the PA who’s saying his last Ok-Sir of the day before boarding the Toyota mini-bus waiting to take him home. Job applications, prison visit requests, ex-gratia relief, and an enlarged photo of the missing son with name, address, father or mother’s name at the back. Dear Sir, I beg to request your kind and gracious help.

I am so grateful to the lawyer. I don’t want to suffer this ignominy of being at the mercy of these fat politicians, bureaucrats and army officers. Bastards. Dogs. Wolves. Some take money, jewellery and Pashmina shawls from the parents. But then, as I said, what if Umar is somewhere in the files inside the building, what if he, too, is in some secret prison waiting for me to do something, to find him? They say many of our people are put in a jail somewhere in the desert. It must be very hot there. Umar is a bit delicate, you know, he hates even the mild heat of the summer months.

The evening traffic is reaching a frenzy. As dusk begins to spread over the city centre people know it’s time to rush home. The last few passenger buses are packing their last trip for the day, and everyone wants to climb into the same bus, pushing their way through a human muddle, while the soldier is mouthing obscenities at the conductor who is hanging on for that extra minute to make the most from the last round. Office clerks, old men, college boys will all squeeze in to rub their groins against burqa-clad women or burqa-less school girls. I have seen some women freeze, motionless, as they stand close to unknown limbs, chest to chest with men who may or may not soil their trousers. A couple of years ago, I made the driver stop and nearly jumped off after a middle-aged man tried to grab me from behind. I remember his face.

The demo has considerably thinned down. No bystanders remain and the friends have left too. We say our goodbyes, exchange glances that sometimes convey a blend of hope and despair, of some inescapable truth that is yet to dawn, and part till the next time. I try not to meet anyone’s eyes.

We are supposed to meet up for a big one next month; a former minister will join us and make an appeal to the president of his country to take up our cases as a priority. The minister’s man told the lawyer that Sahib has decided not to play golf on Sunday and instead join us. He himself had a sprawling, and people say beautiful, golf course built on the banks of the lake. No one’s ever been inside except for senior army officers and Babus, European envoys, emissaries sent by the Centre and, it’s been rumoured, some former leaders of the resistance. You can see it from the hills overlooking the lake, but all roads leading to it are closed for us.

The last time I went there was on a school picnic to the botanical gardens and further up to the hills. Umar was quite young, around eight, and insisted on coming along. I had only pretended that I was reluctant. He marvelled at the sight of the city from the terraced gardens, he had never seen anything like this before — the vast expanse of the lake, the fort in the distance, the numerous communes of trees spread all over, the bright white dome and the lone minaret of the Dargah further away on the horizon. He just wouldn’t stop. On and on he went, about the evening sky, about how the lake turned from silver to gold to crimson, how shadows played some kind of game over the cityscape.

I believe there must be a separate world of the missing, where all those who disappear live a different life, a life lived in broad but definite strokes. I believe it’s a world where what’s done is done and that is it. A land where they narrate stories to each other of who they were, where they came from, where they will be. They must also talk about us, the left-behinds, the ‘near and dear ones’ who are to wait and grow old waiting, by waiting, by trying to visualise their loved one a year or a month or a minute older from when they were taken. Umar may be at peace in this world of no goings and comings, a place of no responsibilities and anxieties, or maybe not. How is one to know?

Sometimes, I dread him coming back. How will I embrace and accept this different person? This man! My son is a lanky teenager with pimples on his forehead; how is he going to come back? It will be a different him, a new being. I’m sure he feels like someone else too.

Sometimes, I feel I want to see him dead. One photograph will do it. Sometimes, I think it’s a vast futility doing this protest thing, nobody ever listens. This other crazy woman in the group often says women are built for one thing and one thing alone: waiting. I know what she means but I don’t think I quite agree. We are built for fighting. And I will keep doing it, no matter what, even if they all call me mad.


Mirza Waheed is a journalist and a novelist. His novel on Kashmir, The Collaborator, was published in 2011