Clouds of odorous smoke billowed out from under the two iron channels where the shutter of Ab Jaan’s waan fit. Not presuming it to be very hot, Ab Jaan singed his fingers when he touched the shutter. The paint on the signboard above the shop was blistered, the brightly lettered sign ‘GR JOO GENERAL STORE’ beginning to flake off. He slipped a giant claw hammer under the shutter to jimmy it and pry it open.
The shop was full of sourly pungent smoke. The bars of soap stacked on one of the shelves had melted; the packets of salt and detergent had charred. Sooted, shattered glassware was strewn all over. The cigarettes and biscuits were a smoking ash of their original forms. Candles on another shelf had melted and fused with scorched pencils and partially seared stationery. Shampoo bottles had warped into strange plastic sculptures. Toothpaste tubes, toothbrushes and pens had twisted beyond recognition. The candy had melted, along with their glass jars. There was nothing on the wire loop hanger fixed to the ceiling in front of the shop. The sultry loose change that he collected in a steel bowl inside the drawer of the counter was darkly mottled. Hopeless, the Joos sat in silent mourning.
The next morning, a patrolling party led by a Major Aman Lal Kushwaha began to search the houses. Almost all the men in the neighbourhood received their share of beating in turns. The army was still angry over the attack.
From their room upstairs, the Joo family furtively looked at the beatings. Haleema rubbed her hands together in fear, while Ab Jaan’s face darkened. As the troops came closer to their house, he became jittery with anger and fear. Imran’s mouth was dry with fear.
The army called out the male members once they were outside the gate. Ab Jaan decided to go and open the gate but Haleema didn’t let him. ‘Don’t worry, I will be all right,’ Ab Jaan assured her darkly. No sooner had he opened the wooden gate than he found Major Aman Lal Kushwaha facing him.
The major had small eyes that were stacked deep into his inscrutable, sallow face.
‘Where did you hide them?’ the irate major asked, shoving Ab Jaan to the ground.
‘Whom?’ Ab Jaan said.
He hit Ab Jaan hard on the arm with his rifle.
‘Don’t lie. All you sisterfucking Kashmiris lie! You know you lie. Tell me where did they go? Sisterfucker, your orchard is so vast and dense…Tell me, or I’ll shoot you right here,’ Kushwaha warned.
Haleema ran down and shielded Ab Jaan, crying and begging the major to let them go. Imran watched mistily, clinging to Haleema, clutching her pheran tightly, freezing with fear.
‘We don’t know anything. Please don’t beat him, balaai lagai,’ Haleema pleaded.
‘Take him aside,’ Kushwaha ordered his men, pointing towards Ab Jaan. Then he slapped Imran.
‘What is this? You beat everyone. There are civilians in this locality, yet you burn down our shops, you snatch away our living and now you are torturing us. Don’t you have any shame?’ Ab Jaan argued bravely, yet trembling.
‘Shut up or I’ll kill you!’ Kushwaha threatened.
‘Ab Jaan, please don’t argue with them! Please!’ Haleema pleaded, wringing her hands.
Ab Jaan didn’t budge.
‘Kill me, go ahead, I don’t want to live in a world where I have to live with inhuman people like you,’ Ab Jaan dared, his brown eyes glinting with confidence.
‘Enough!’ Kushwaha held Ab Jaan by his collar and dragged him towards the large mortar beside the small ornamental lawn in front of the house. Two troops held Haleema and Imran back. Haleema screamed for help. ‘Kuni kahn chhu na? Anybody? Help! Please don’t kill him! Please!’ She screeched.
Three bullets were pumped into Ab Jaan. One in the neck. One in the heart. One in the stomach. The rapid staccato startled the birds in the plum trees.
‘Sisterfucker!’ Kushwaha said after killing Ab Jaan, the fevered barrel of his rifle still smoking.
Haleema frenetically slapped her face and her chest and pulled her hair. Blood began to gurgle out of Ab Jaan’s throat. She fainted. The entire neighbourhood was now watching from their rooftops, verandahs and windows. Men and boys jumped off and rushed to help. Major Kushwaha cocked his gun. His men followed and pointed their guns at the people who tried to come towards the Joos. Women of the neighbourhood wailed from their rooftops and verandahs and pummelled their chests.
The major fired some warning shots. ‘No one will come here. Whoever does shall meet the same fate!’ he announced.
Imran had frozen in the shock. After some time, an old woman mustered enough courage to pull Haleema and Imran away. She tried to go towards where Ab Jaan lay but the troops pushed her backwards. She dragged Imran and Haleema to her own lawn. Some boys jumped off their walls and helped her. Some of them took Imran away and consoled him passionately. People crowded around Haleema and rubbed her feet first. They opened a little gap in her sternly shut mouth and poured water into it from a steel tumbler.
Another old woman went hurtling through the column of troops. ‘Let me give some water to him. He is dying. What kind of people are you? Don’t you have any pity?’ she begged Major Kushwaha.
‘No, he doesn’t need it,’ the major grumbled.
The woman cursed him in Kashmiri but Kushwaha didn’t react.
‘At least let us drape his body. We can’t bear looking at him like this,’ the Imam requested.
‘No, let everyone see this! See what happens when you rebel against us,’ Kushwaha said, and walked away.
A pool of blood gleamed in the dull sun near Ab Jaan’s body. His throat was scabbed. His eyes remained open and his mouth agape. Blood had started to congeal around the charred bullet holes on his pheran.
Once the troops withdrew, neighbours put the body on a stretcher borrowed from the mosque and placed it on the Joo verandah, covering it with a blanket. The rumble of mourning began to emanate from everywhere. A dozen young boys ringed around the body to guard it. There was a stampede each time anyone wanted to see Ab Jaan for the last time. The boys pushed and nudged and beat people who tried to overwhelm them. One of the boys announced, ‘Okay! Okay! We will elevate him a little so that all are able to see him. But please don’t come close, please, please! Stay back and make some way. Stay back, please. For God’s sake, please stay back.’
They lifted Ab Jaan’s lifeless head and drew the blanket a little. The spectacle of the bloodless, pale face sent the crowd bawling. Everyone – men, women, children and the aged – burst out into congregational sobs. As the boys elevated the body a little more, the chaotic hum picked up further. Women began to slap their chests. Men wept like women. And women like mad men.
Ab Jaan was now as pale as butter.
All this while, the women tried to prevent Haleema from hurting herself. She was conscious now and in shock. She wanted the women to tell her Ab Jaan was still alive. ‘Please don’t cry. My Ab Jaan is alive. Isn’t he? Isn’t he? He is alive. Why are you all crying?’ she requested the women. Her tears had dried. The skin beneath her throat was red from chest-thumping. Her cheeks had the imprints of her own slaps. Her hair fell loose over her face. She laughed, and then abruptly ran towards a wall barefooted to bang her head. The women rushed to stop her. She rubbed her heels against the earth. Her shalwar slipped from under her feet. She tried to wrest herself away from the women who came to help her.
The boys and some elders were trying their best to calm Imran down.
Someone brought a bier from the mosque and put it on the verandah. Its lid was like a Kashmiri tin roof. An A-shaped bier. They covered the body in a white sheet. Draped in the white shroud, Ab Jaan’s body looked taller than it actually was. The boys lifted the lid of the coffin and carefully placed the body inside it. The Imam took out a green satin pall from a plastic bag and draped it over the tin lid of the coffin. The pall was dotted with glittering golden Arabic calligraphy. The boys angled the body parallel to the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca, and the Imam began his funeral prayers.
Once the prayers were over, the Imam and three other boys lifted the coffin and placed it on their shoulders. Imran still couldn’t believe what was happening.
The funeral procession passed through the main road. Thousands of men followed, chanting slogans:
Ae shaheed assalaam!
Aaj teri maut pe ro raha hai yeh jahan!
Ro rahi hai yeh zameen, ro raha hai aasmaan!
The procession passed slowly. Imran led the pallbearers now, his right shoulder under the front left corner of the bier. Children who would get free toffees from Ab Jaan now walked in his funeral procession, crying and snivelling. Windows, roofs, walls and verandahs were lined with puzzled, shocked and wailing women and men. Ab Jaan’s death was the first of its kind in Natipora. At one house, an old woman struggled to peer out of her window, which bore perforated translucent plastic sheets instead of panes. She cut a head-sized hole in the plastic sheet of one section, craning her neck out through it. When the funeral reached under her window, she cut another hole and showered fistfuls of toffees and almonds all over the coffin.
In the ancestral Joo graveyard, the local undertaker had readied the grave. The men removed Ab Jaan’s shroud-draped body from the bier and lowered it into the vault dug into the right side of the rectangular pit. Then they shut the vault with slabs of wood and threw the earth back into the pit until it became a mound.
That night, the Joo house resounded with wails underneath the dark starry sky. The whole orchard was full of mourners. The Joos’ kith and kin had already turned up. Amid the mourners, conscious yet unsettling and inconsolable, Haleema was reclining against the lap of Shafiqa. She had a spread of turmeric pasted on her forehead to ward off a headache. Shafiqa held Haleema’s head, while Haleema was crooning a dirge like a wedding madrigal, refusing to believe what had happened:
‘I don’t believe this, my father isn’t dead! Isn’t this a lie, my father? Your death has battered me, my father!’
The boys, huddled in small groups, sat outside, discussing everything that had happened.
This is an excerpt from sixth chapter, The first attack, of Shahnaz Bashir’s debut novel, The Half Mother.
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.