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OPINION

The Traveller

''Where do you intend to go?'' the shikaraman asks, while he moves his swaying boat toward the hill.
Munir Ahmad
Srinagar | Posted : Dec 7 2017 1:44AM | Updated: Dec 6 2017 11:43PM
The Traveller

" The only place on earth where older sons roam overground, and their younger fathers lie dead, buried and turned into ashes, beneath their tombstones ." 

Year, anno Domini 2040. Place, Dal lake, Kashmir. An elderly person of 44 years, seated in a shikara that wobbles and ferries him over the prodigious lake waters toward some distant place which appears as a green patch at the thin line of its shore, moves sedately under the canopy of pale, autumn sky. As the boat bobs and shakes, the silvery sheen from dal waters gets reflected like some ripples of fine white sands that curlingly dance over his face and bring out his countenance intermittently into a sharp relief. Typical features of a Kashmiri face--lofty brow, misty sharp eyes, high ridged nose, rose colored lips--with some silvery streaks of his blond hair along with the turquoise of his eyes, are espoused and brought to prominence, aptly, by these reflected silver ripples creeping over the details of the lake, in all their opulence.

The traveller has come from U.S.A. after a gap of 42 years, where his mother, Catherine, had returned to, with him, in the year 1999, after her husband Abdullah was killed on 13th july, 1998, by unidentified gunmen, outside his residence at Shalimaar area of Kashmir. Though the traveller didn't have any substantial memories of his father, as he was only one and a half years old at that time, but his mother had shared with him, reluctantly because of his nagging inquisitions, some details about his father.

'You are a spitting image of your father, with same high brow and greenish-blue eyes,' his mother says.

And she had continued to reveal some more details after a brief pause of coughing, as she suffered from leukocythemia and because of it had died ten years ago, in 2030 AD., in California, leaving Abraham Abdullah, the traveler, all alone with few unsearched truths of his strange world. The thuds of the oar scooping the lake water while the shikarawala rows his boat in the direction of the Kohimaran hill with the ramparts of the old fort standing atop it, which appear from the distance as strokes of magenta hue due to the October haze, bring the traveller back from his reverie.   

And the traveller beseaches, "I have to reach 'Malkhah' , kindly disembark me at some place nearby."

The shikaraman acquiesces with a slight nod of his head and capes toward the promontory at the hem of the hill. The lake stands out like a vast stretch of clear mirror glistening by the pale, noontide sun, as the boat shakily hurtles past, piercing lake's bosom bedecked with fresh lotuses visited in between by iridescent butterflies and humming insects. The traveller oscillates betwixt his present and past, sporadically, as he watches, with an air of dispassion, his prospects: patches of olive green verdure moving past him; receding houseboats, dingies and shikaras swaying gently on the slowly shaking Nigeen waters, stationed at the fringes of Nigeen park; and the mountain tops with scanty snows, struttingly touching the eastern azure, and brought to stark prominence by the yellow rays of the receding, autumn sun, in the background of his rear-view prospect.

'Your father was an honest Kashmiri artist whose adept hands wrought out beautiful designs and motifs on the most obdurate panels of walnut wood, turning them pliable and transformed, exquisitely, into masterpieces of art,' Catherine tells him, with her eyes watery. 

   'But, mama! I want to know his whereabouts and where he has been laid to rest,' the traveller enquires. 

   'No! It's a war zone out there. You don't know why people are killed there, and people do get killed there everyday, brutally. The official sources there have declared the deaths of more than 52 young people in a span of few days in this month of july, while as men and women in thousands have been left blind, crippled and maimed for their entire lives, by the use of pallet guns and other fatal weaponry. For Kashmiris, to be oppressed, subjugated, anguished, and tormented seems to be their only possible fate. I can tell you only that your father has been laid to rest in a necropolis right at the hem of the hill facing the Nigeen lake. So you don't need to worry yourself with it,' Catherine expostulates against her son's wish to visit Kashmir in the year 2016 .  

   'Sahab ji ! Sahab ji !,'  the calls of the rower bring the traveller back to his present, in the lurching skiff.  

   'Where do you intend to go?' the shikaraman asks, while he moves his swaying boat toward the hill.         

   'Actually I am searching for the grave of my father Abdullah. He was an artist of woodcarving, who was killed in 1998, near his residence at Shalimar area. If you can help me find the grave, I will pay you extra,' the traveller expresses his wish. So, the traveler moves farther onto the lake water, in the rowing boat, in search of his father's grave, his numinous quest for his Holy Grail.

  Thick blanket of grayish clouds rolls over from behind the hill and hides the rapidly deserting October sun, which gives a daguerreotype feel to the waterscape. 

   'The situation in the valley was very grim and appalling at the time of your birth. No matter what the season, the nature there expressed itself explicitly in monochrome only, the scarlet color, nay, the color of blood. There was blood, the blood of innocent oppressed kashmiris, spilled everywhere, everyday. You would squeeze some chinar leaves drooping from their branches and scarlet blood trickled down your fingers.With their songs and hymns transformed into wails, elegies, and dirges, their homes were filled with deep melancholy, endlessly.' The traveller recalls his mother's expositions about the valley stricken with warlike situations at the time of her stay in Kashmir. 'Broad daylight murders and disappearances of their sons left them to roam frantically from station to station, seeking in vain the whereabouts of their lost loved ones who, like the eventide sun, sank behind the mountain ranges eternally and left, in its lieu, in their parents' hearts, only dark, incessant nights of distress and agony. And what remained of their lives and their promised land were thwarted hopes, broken vows, stifled desires, and shattered dreams," says Catherine. The shikara touches the bank of the promontory, and the impact sends a shudder through the boat that breaks the traveller's reverie.

   'Let's move and search for the grave,' the rower says while shaking the traveller completely from his oneirism. He makes the traveller disembark and trail along a rough-hewn muddy path passing through a hammock populated densely by acacia, spruce and nettle, and abuzz with rasping of crickets. 

   Coming out of the thicket, from the other end, and crossing a narrow road, they reach the entrance of the immense graveyard, with the bleak Kohimaraan hill standing amidst the vast stretch of this necropolis enclosed by a dilapidated brick wall, dotted by innumerable graves of Kashmiris killed during the turmoil, in between transversed and athwart with smaller byroads. 

 Dark lurid clouds have filled the wide expanse of evening sky, and some molting chinars stand scraggily in a courtyard that is strewn with yellow-ochre crumpled, deciduous leaves mottled and tinged with vermillion of senescence. At the end of the courtyard stands a dingy, ramshackle hut. Its tumbledown roof is covered all over with dry and scrawny dropping and leaves of the Fall. A gust of wind, harsh and sighing, swirls some leaves with a shrieking rustle, and spurts them down over the heads of the traveller and his aide who stand at the threshold of this shack. The shikaraman knocks at the door and waits. After a while the door opens with a shrill crick, and an old man with furrowed face supporting a white, flowing beard, stands before the two men.          

   'I am the caretaker of this cemetery. What do you want?' the old man asks. 

   "Salaam,' the rower replies, 'he has come from America, and is in search of his father Abdullah's grave, who was killed in the year 1998.'

   The old man coughs a little, and says, 'I donot know. Maybe, as you say, it was in 1998, we can find him on the raised stretch of graveyard.'          

   The old caretaker slips his shoes on, walks slouchingly and leads them to a remote corner on the left side of the necropolis. 

   'This section there contains the dead who had been killed, and were interred in this part of the graveyard during 1990's', the old man indicates with his quivering hand, towards an elevated portion of the cemetry. Ascending a few steps of tanned stones they reach a flat piece of land enclosed by iron grilling that has been painted green, beset with innumerous graves that are arranged in parallel lines and have an antiquity feel over them. Gladioli and white Violas lay swaying by wind at the sides of graves, and some weird, drooping willows weep at the periphery of this stretch. After great scrutiny the caretaker identifies the grave on their right-hand side of the third row of graves, with the white marble tombstone bearing the name of traveller's father, chiselled in Nastaliq urdu font.

   'We shall leave you here, and I will wait for you in my boat at the     promontory,' the shikaraman says.    

   The traveller, from the epitaph,  reckons his father's age as 26 years while as he is 44. He looks around, and from the dates on the headstones, realizes that the dead ones belong to an age group of 18 to 28 years, and were all killed in the prime of their youth. He finds himself in a psychological quandary, as he doesn't know how to relate with his much younger, dead father. 

   The dusky, livid, evening light draws a veil of supernatural aura over the silent graveyard, and the hilltop gets devoured by the gloomy mist. Overhead, a flock of grayish pigeons flutter, and descend at various gravesides, to peck at the grains scattered near them. Some pheran clad persons can be seen sitting near the graves, in this desolate cemetery, with their eyes filled with melancholia, looking vacantly at the tilted headstones, and lamenting over the dead ones buried long ago. A few aged and wizened faces of elderly women are visible, with tears rolling down their lean withered faces, and their bleary-eyes peeping through the iron grill, as their hearts wail for their departed fathers killed during the turmoil. The traveller is made to recall the last wish of his mother while she laid in her deathbed. 

   'If possible, do visit, at least once, your father's grave. Since I have never been able to visit and see, I want you to go there and pay my love to him and pray there', Catherine had said with her lachrymose eyes fixed on her son. 

   With his eyes warm, the traveller remembers the times when he had missed his father and pined for the fatherly love and affection that a child craves for at every stage of his life. He is realised once again of the deep dark void created by the absence of his father in his life. While a covey of pigeons, nearby, coo raucously, protrude their iridescent breasts, and flit their wings, the traveller kneels down, with his bent knees touching the ground. His fingers trace and feel the chiseled contours of the epitaph, and his tears trickle down onto the Nastaliq script :

" Every Soul shall taste Death "