Once Upon An Autumn

  • Saadut H
  • Publish Date: Nov 3 2017 7:30PM
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  • Updated Date: Nov 3 2017 7:30PM
Once Upon An AutumnPhoto: Habib Naqash/GK

Recollections of a long-ago season of wonder, and suffering

 

Autumn makes me melancholic, with its struggle to stay relevant between the scorching summer and the cold hibernation-inducing winter. Much like our fight to oscillate between desire and desirable, between need and want, between regression and rebellion, September, the gateway to autumn, crawls steadily over a half-heartedly resisting green, ripening in stalks or withering in woods camouflaged by the ageing bark. Many of my memories are etched in the autumn, some crimson gold, others rusty dry.

In the mid-1990s, for college vacations at the end of a summer session, I headed home just in time for the start of autumn. Those days a garrisoned Kashmir restricted movement, but I would often risk venturing out to meet friends and acquaintances. Those old autumns, when the air would either be filled with the shrill of a desolation or the residual violence of cross-firings and ambushes, life hung on a pernicious hope. On some of those days, close to the old gate of a silently watching shrine in downtown Srinagar, I often saw this skeletal old man, of whitish complexion with wrinkles on his face like tides of an old sea, sitting by the broken parapet. Often in a light brown shalwaar kameez, he would sometimes be silently querying passing buses and at other times gazing into some undisturbed nothingness. On rainy days, I would see him sitting on the edge of an old shopfront, whose forever downed shutters had rusted from neglect. He could have been any of the hundreds of people one passes by everyday, but his blank questioning face, wearing the same haunting emotion day in and day out, left a mark on my mind.

Autumn was ageing fast, half-golden leaves turning brown and falling like a monk›s riches. Kashmir University›s Naseem Bagh campus, where an army of Chinars has been trained over centuries to shed their splendors in autumn and spread them like imperial carpets in golden motifs, suddenly felt abandoned, shunned by our cadavers moving in lifeless human forms. When returning home safely became a daily struggle, survival was uncertain and death a chasing shadow, petrified people couldn’t see beyond their cages and rankling chains.

I overstayed my holidays, securing a two-week extension with excuses of having some social obligations to fulfil. In reality, there was a cousin to trace. The family had been told he had fled across the border, part of a group of wannabe militants. Later, it emerged that they had been intercepted by the army near the border and were being held in captivity.

October started on a chilly note; autumn was already suffering the pangs of early winter birth. Mornings woke up to misty windowpanes and a bloodied haze, limiting vision and recognition. People moved around like faceless mannequins, all of them white.

A few days before my extended holidays were to end, on an afternoon when the sun appeared like a malnourished child unable to stand by itself, I saw the old man near the shrine chasing school buses, looking for something. Another day, it rained so heavily the car wipers had to labour to allow me some view of the road, and there he was again, this old man in his brown standing in the rain, waiting. His frail face was dripping like a roof edge in a torrent. I drove up to him to offer him some safety from the unrelenting rains but he waved for me to move ahead and turned his face. I watched him from a distance, thinking how he was wearing the rain we were fleeing room.

Soon it was time for me to leave, by the same abandoned roads watched by bunkers and unlatched machine guns, and the fortified airport where an air of impending war always hung like an invisible sword. It was not until the next August that I returned for a brief visit. The road home had become longer with more bunkers propping up along it. A new paramilitary camp close to my home limited our sojourns to shorter hours. “Aap ki suraksha aap ke haath (Your safety is in your own hands),” I read somewhere, meaning that the less you go out, the safer you will be. Although in some cases even this precaution was not known to have worked. On a weekend drive to the old city, I stopped by the shrine gate and I looked at the broken parapet, but there was no trace of the tempest-wrinkled old man. Few more visits to the place over the coming days ended disappointingly as well. I presumed the sighting of the old man the previous autumn had just been a coincidence. I was wrong.

It was the weekend and time for me to bid farewell. I dragged myself over the old bunker-lined roads to the war-decorated airport. The Indian Airlines flight to Delhi was late by two hours. In the disquiet of the ramshackle airport, I met my childhood friend from downtown who lived close to the shrine. He was flying to Canada. We had plenty of time to kill, so we talked about old times, downtown, our friends, some of whom had been put to sleep early, and then we sat quiet for a few minutes, in hurtful remembrance. Then I suddenly remembered the old man of the previous autumn. My friend paused, and then narrated me his story.

He had been a schoolteacher of some repute. In the second year of the armed conflict, his son cleared high school with honours and was studying to take a professional course. One early spring afternoon, as he was walking to tuition class, military personnel in an armored vehicle picked him up. It was outside the gate of the shrine, near the broken parapet. People in the neighbourhood had identified the military unit whose men had taken away the old man’s son, but they denied. For the next two years, the old man went searching in camps and government offices, expending every meager resource he had, pleading with everyone he could find, but nothing came of it. Once a renegade militant from a north Kashmir town who claimed to have close links with military officials offered to locate his son. The old man parted with some papers and money, was taken to two camps, but there was no trace of his son.

By the end of his second year of search, the old man’s wife was diagnosed with cancer, and after two surgeries and a few months in the sickbed, she passed away on a bleak January morning. In her last days, she imagined having conversations with her lost son. The old man is said to have silently shouldered her coffin to the grave and then sat there till late evening, not saying a word, not shedding a tear.

Afterwards, he took to waiting for his son at the gate of the shrine, near the broken parapet. Sometimes losing all sense of time and age, he would look for his son in the school buses that passed by, other times he would just sit there for hours, gazing endlessly into nothing.

The previous February, a few months before my last visit, on a numbing winter day, he had been found by that old shop, resting against the rusted shutters. Dead. An old pencil box was found clasped in his hands and a school identity card in his pocket.

I looked out of the airport window. Grayish dark clouds had gathered and a gloomy drizzle started. It was time to leave.

 

Author is the Chief Executive Officer of J&K e-Governance Agency