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Saffron

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February 15, 2013

“These infidels cannot insult us like this. If you have the courage, come and face us out in the open. You cannot tie down a speechless animal and think you have beaten us... ”

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Image via The Metropolitan Museum of Art

She did not make much noise. But I knew, even in my sleep, something was wrong. I had had dreams about it, so I left my bed and headed towards the shed in the far corner of the garden. I tried to make quick ground but the grass was hard to move through—I’d been thinking of mowing for more than a month but hadn’t gotten around to it.

No acknowledgment, no sounds upon seeing me. Just a shake of her head to clear the straw hanging loose around her nostrils. She made the tiniest of sounds, a low but considered whimper, something I knew well.

As I walked back to the house, I wondered whether I had really seen those shadows moving behind the shed.

I searched her face for any signs of distress, looked at the scrappy ground beneath her feet, and the old roof over her head. I found no traces of any disturbance. Satisfied, I decided to leave her alone and let her prepare for sleep. As I walked back to the house, I wondered whether I had really seen those shadows moving behind the shed.

Here, evenings, nights, and early mornings are full of apparitions. You can never be sure, Father used to say.

The poplars on either side of the garden had a calm, resolute air about them; tall, dark, and full-bodied, they seemed to reach out to the skies as if in prayer. My father planted these trees, and their firm presence often reassured me about the well-being of the world, and that one day everything will be free, assured, and uncomplicated.

I went back to sleep.

*                      *                     *

I don’t have to open the shop early tomorrow. The supply van is not expected before ten, and people can manage without me for a day. Or they can go to the new shop at the other end of the street.

I love my shop and I enjoy the walk from home. I take the main road to greet other shop-owners in the marketplace; it gives me pleasure to feel a part of this community. I like to be involved in the morning hustle-bustle—the bazaar has a rich look now, some glitzy shops have come up in the last year or so. And I love it at night when their lights bathe the road in soft milky light. People have money. The area abuzz.

The shop building is not that great; it’s the things inside I am fond of. My worn-out green steel safe, my masnand—father’s cushion seat—the small walnut-wood cabinet on the left, the big gas stoves, the earthen pots at the back for curd, the reams of unused muslin on the shelves in the right corner, the huge sink in front of me and the high-voltage lamps that hang like ripe fruit from the ceiling. I don’t like the ceiling, though—it’s blackened, old and weary from my father’s days when he used a kerosene stove in the shop.

My name is Sultan Khan, although most people call me Sulle Chhaaman, after the cheese for which my father was renowned.

Father worked hard all his life to establish his milk business in Pampore, but he died soon after he had acquired some measure of prosperity. At first, I found myself ill-suited to the trade and incurred losses. In college, I had spent most of my time reading poetry and I paid little attention to the family business. I continued with my poetry in the shop: milk and Urdu poetry, I understood later, suited me fine. I managed to settle down. The income was enough to run the household and take good care of her. She was the only part of the inheritance I cherished and it gave me great satisfaction to be with her and to see her happy. She did not like my poetry reading.

Mornings consist of shutters (I lift them gingerly in case I cause consternation in the CRPF patrol party and provoke indiscriminate firing or, at the very least, an instant thrashing), unlocking the safe (six-digit combination and the familiar click-clock of the handle), readying the stoves, and waiting for the morning van from Varmul. The big aluminum containers for boiling the milk are a joy to see. Cleaned spotless overnight by Amjad—who in the evenings delivers milk to a few households and to The Camp, and who brings news of all that happens in the area—I love the sound and sight of pouring gallons of gleaming, fresh milk into them. I light the stoves one by one and then switch them to full blast. Milk at full boil in four enormous pateelas, big moons of bubbling white froth into which I pour the right amount of water.

*                      *                     *

But she disappeared and soon came to belong to three different parties. I now wish I had stayed a little longer in the shed with her that night. They might not have taken her then, or I could have made noise, woken up the neighbors, even chased them away… But then again, no one messes with the boys; they are, after all, fighting for a cause, for us.

The present owner basked in the glow of having saved a sacred symbol of his faith from possible slaughter. (It is another matter that we don’t really eat cows. If I do, I may spend seven years in jail. That’s the law, in case you want to know.)

I, the original owner, missed her the most, but was now in no position to stake my claim. I had to make do with planting her favorite foods every morning on the path I thought she might take.

The present owner basked in the glow of having saved a sacred symbol of his faith from possible slaughter. (It is another matter that we don’t really eat cows. If I do, I may spend seven years in jail. That’s the law, in case you want to know.) Having taken her into custody after a week or so of her life on the street, he now lorded over her in the mornings and evenings, marveled at the sight of the beautiful creature by the side of the bunker. Inspector Omkar Nath Dwivedi of Battalion 312 now considered it one of his prime duties to protect the animal—at all costs. He had it all figured out: Come September, when his leave would be due, he would seek permission from his higher-ups to take the cow to his native village in India and make a special enclosure for her in the old house. He imagined her all dressed up and adorned with garlands for the big gau-pooja he would organize. Thus, he thought, he would have done something purposeful in his life. As a gesture of goodwill and his devotion to the sacred animal he did, however, allow her a couple of long walks on the road everyday and trips to graze on discarded food—of course she was always accompanied by two of his best sentries, Amjad said.

Salim Soyeth, renegade militant and commander of the newly transformed New Salvation Army (which, according to Amjad, comprised seven Kashmir-trained boys, one Pak-trained boy, Salim himself, and seven untrained sidekick soyeth boys, who shared one AK47 and a Chinese pistol among themselves) sulked under the burden of a personal defeat—to a mere paramilitary officer—primarily because he couldn’t find a suitable shed. Once or twice, he did consider a full-scale attack to recapture her, but his associates didn’t think it was a bright idea. It would be bad for business. His personal rivalry with the CRPFwala, Amjad said, wouldn’t go down well with the bosses at the Big Camp.

In the meeting he had with the boys it was eventually decided that they would print posters every week or so, calling on the people to protest against the detention of a Kashmiri cow by Indian forces.

Most vendors, peddlers and shopkeepers in the main street of Pampore also believed they had a stake in her—they surely did not want to incur the wrath of the bunkerwaalas or displease the Soyeth boys in any way. So, in terms of food and attention, my girl was having the time of her life. But being tied to an iron pole by the side of a bunker wasn’t her idea of home. I knew this.

Pampore, among the more prosperous areas around Srinagar, is famous for its saffron. World-famous. Kashmiri saffron. Better than most varieties of the precious flower anywhere else in the world. They grow it in Iran, Spain and some other places in Europe, I have read. Pristine purple blooms, low-lying for all eyes to take it all in. Amjad says the color is a sort of mauve and not purple. I don’t agree.

*                      *                     *

“We are not asking for a big sum, just twenty-five thousand,” Salim had started when he first paid me a visit. This was exactly a week before I lost her.

I cleared my throat.

“Every one of my friends has contributed. And it’s not for our personal expenses. Just some organizational stuff.”

“The boys need new boots and there are a few families to be looked after.”

I listened. I didn’t have that kind of money.

“Please do not get us wrong. Who else do we turn to in our hour of need if not our own?”

We were friends in primary school; he may even have bullied me back then, but nothing too serious.

“And trust me, we don’t go to every door. It is only people we trust and think are devoted to us.”

I felt a little elated.

“Also, I will make sure you are not approached again. No one will come to you for a grant after this.”

All I wanted to do that evening, sitting amidst the local heroes in our deewankhane, was clear my throat. When he had finished, it was my turn to speak. I wish I didn’t have to.

The Bunker is not as hideous as it could be. It’s quite expansive nonetheless, like many of the monstrosities that have multiplied, tumor-like, in the city over the last few years.

“Salim Saeb, I know how important this is. Please don’t get me wrong… but I really don’t have the kind of money that might help you. I will give you whatever I can, but, you see, that may be too small to meet your requirements.”

“How much?”

“Five thousand.”

“That’s it?”

“I am sorry.”

“Listen, think about it carefully. This is important.”

I didn’t know what else to say.

*                      *                     *

Since not many attacks take place in this part of the city, The Bunker is not as hideous as it could be. It’s quite expansive nonetheless, like many of the monstrosities that have multiplied, tumor-like, in the city over the last few years. Clean and orderly, they have clay-painted heavily over the sandbags; many layers of mud paste, which make it seem more a permanent dwelling than the temporary arrangement they claimed it was to be when they first landed here. That’s what they do, you see, say it’s temporary but never actually leave. Amjad says they have a Crown color TV with a VCR inside, a sofa-cum-bed, and a kind of automatic portable toilet. They have marked a large part of the road around the bunker with coils over coils of barbed wire, which on a sunny day makes the whole set-up look like a sparkling secret garden. A dense, spiky florescence that on closer inspection reveals feathers of some bird that got tangled in the shiny web some time ago. Inside the tar courtyard are flowerpots (withering pansies just about hanging onto dear life), red fire-extinguishing aluminum buckets, a couple of plastic chairs, and a mound of charcoal residue. The machine-gun snout, peering out of the rectangular slit, looks directly over the dust-covered flowers. Omkar doesn’t spend too much time inside his “Mera Bharat Mahaan” bunker these days. (On top of the front—let’s call it a façade–it says, “My India is Great” in bold letters.) He sits on the solitary steel chair outside and basks in the benign April sun. Every now and then, he looks at the docile creature tied to the iron girder in the corner of the small courtyard. Bunkerwaali Gaay—the cow by the bunker, such a prosaic name for her.

*                      *                     *

They came again early morning a few days after her “disappearance” from the shed. I knew what might have happened, but clung to a small hope that she might turn up at the door one day.

“We thought you might be interested in a cow. There, isn’t she a beauty?”

And there she was, a beauty, her head-down, and standing close to the door with a rope around her neck that was tied to the latch, oblivious of the change in her fortunes.

“Since we don’t know the market rates, how about a hassle-free price? Thirty thousand. I am sure she is worth more, but we wanted to give her to one of our own,” added one of Salim’s right-hand men. Prince Salim hadn’t come.

I looked at her. They started talking amongst themselves. I think they laughed.

I refused the offer. There was no way I would buy my own cow. She would come back, I was sure.

*                      *                     *

Having slipped away from Salim’s custody a few days after her abduction, she had appeared in the street on a bright Friday morning. The market had just started to liven up. Hawkers and stallholders had started assembling their colorful stalls and looked forward to a few hours of brisk business after the prayers. This was the first time she had seen a marketplace. You see, I had always been rather protective towards her, allowing her walks in our own garden and nowhere else. Besides, I always thought she was well provided for. Anyhow, she made a hesitant approach and took her time to walk across the main stretch of the street. In the end, she stopped at the garbage dump—we have no shortage of luxurious heaps of refuse outside our houses—and started sniffing for valuable pieces of food. Stained pieces of cabbage, watermelon leftovers, stale fruit, and dark knots of spinach stems. There were quite a few vegetable vendors in the street and plenty of rich garbage to choose from.

A week and a half into her “disappearance,” she had settled into her daily ritual of walking across the street, always taking her time, and then settling down at the dump. Thus also had begun my behind-the-scenes pursuit of my girl. I was a stalker. This, however, didn’t last long. One day Omkar’s men strung a rope around her neck and took her away. They also fired shots in the air. No one knows why.

*                      *                     *

Did he really photograph her? Or did he just rip out a page from some kindergarten picture book? Sad and yet dissociated, a certain vacuity took over after I had seen Salim’s poster.

Salim Soyeth printed a thousand posters declaring they had lost a cow in the neighborhood and anyone who sees a medium-sized, black-and-white, well-built beautiful Kashmiri cow should leave her alone and that the boys were keeping a close watch for her and they would get her back soon. Anyone seen messing with her would be severely dealt with.

One of the posters had a square black-and-white photo of her. She looked strange. An animal in monochrome peering out of a tacky poster stuck on a concrete electricity pylon. Someone laughed. I am not even sure if it was her picture. Did he really photograph her? Or did he just rip out a page from some kindergarten picture book? Sad and yet dissociated, a certain vacuity took over after I had seen Salim’s poster.

In the bazaar, my neighbors and friends contented themselves with giving her small bits of food every day.

“I gave her a full bag of fresh spinach—”

“I left her all our leftovers last evening—”

“My wife sent fresh haakh for her—”

“We mowed the lawn just for her—”

Groups of men huddled together, conspiratorial hisses amid heightened debate. All along the bazaar.

“I have seen her cross this road everyday—”

“I have seen her sit for hours near the garbage—”

“Where did she come from—”

“Since when did they start keeping cows—”

“I am sure they must have—”

Shhh—”

*                      *                     *

Omkar Nath had time on his hands. Every morning, he would scan the newspapers with the help of the neighborhood poultry seller whose shop was next to the bunker. . . After that, he would start his daily round. Himself in the lead, two men either side of him, and the rest following like a chain of orderly ants. Their appendages of SLRs, Carbines and AK47s. The last man always carried the LMG. On the way he would exchange a few words with Ali Clay the butcher, Majeed Nazle` the chemist, Rahmat Brooke Baand the tea stall owner, Pawan Zutshi at the Noorie Video Parlor, and a few others.

Then it would be time for lunch. Seista with Vivid Bharti Radio. Another peaceful day. How he thanked his stars, he had gotten Pampore and not Batmaalo.

*                      *                     *

I watched Omkar Nath’s parade from behind the poplars on the opposite side of the main market. It had made some news and a small crowd had already gathered. Omkar led from the front, with two flanks of eight or nine men just behind on either side. She walked, ungainly gait, in the middle. She didn’t look good. Not at all.

Amjad had slipped me a note the previous evening that this was Omkar’s response to Salim’s audacious poster campaign. How dare he resort to such effrontery in my area?

Omkar marched on triumphantly. The marketplace had come to a standstill. Shopkeepers had downed their shutters should there be any disturbance, although most people knew Salim and his boys would not choose this opportunity to score a point. The crowd watched in a bemused silence, my cow’s grand parade through the bazaar. I also watched, from behind those lofty trees, in complete silence.

Head held high, Omkar walked on while his men followed behind listlessly. It seemed another chore to them. Rugged military boots made an irritating sound as if an-out-of tune band were forced to play a bad song. She walked slowly, probably contemplating what lay ahead. I wish she had looked towards me.

In spite of the gravity of the situation, the children of the area decided to enjoy the spectacle. So, the group of school and street children started following my cow and her entourage of Indian soldiers. The children broke into giggles. Soon they broke into song, mimicking the soldiers step for step. A marching song. “Left, right, left, right… Daayen mud!” Probably a freer version of their morning drills conducted under the cane of a stern PT teacher.

Then another, “Saare jahan se achcha Hindustan hamara…” They laughed merrily at their recollection of India’s Republic Day pageantry and songs as shown every year on Doordarshan.

A few shrill voices also started Jalandhari’s “Pak Sarzameen Shaa’dbad, Kishwar-e-Haseen, Shaa’dbad…

Omkar Nath, shrewd enough not to get provoked by the children’s taunts, concluded the parade in style, tying the animal to her usual post after a brief speech in which he extolled the values of peace and harmony and how he and his men were risking their lives to protect a mere cow and preserve peace in Pampore.

The march brought a smile to my face as well, a muted relaxation of the muscles, I should say.

*

Salim’s response to the march was yet another poster. In certain words, this last one was addressed to the armed forces.

“You cannot insult us like this. If you have the courage, come and face us out in the open. You cannot tie down a speechless animal and think you have beaten us. Those sand houses will not protect you forever. We will punish all those who flout my values in this manner. You will see, you will repent. The day will come soon when we will liberate my cow and everyone will watch.

This last poster did not have any picture.

Salim had possibly hoped there would be a public outcry against the atrocity. Chants of vociferous protest emanating at the mere swish of his wand. But that was not to be. Pampore lived near the biggest military camp there ever was. Besides, some people knew about his reality. I watched from behind the poplars.

There are plenty of poplars in and around our area—lining the main roads, the national highway, The camp, the graveyard, people’s gardens, and the mosque. They were just about everywhere. When I last counted, there were six hundred and seventy four in the close vicinity. My own garden has seventeen.

*

Omkar sat still in his steel gray chair, beatific smile on his face, looking at my cow. There was no traffic. Many of his men were out on their afternoon patrol. The market was deserted and dusty. Friday prayers had just ended. In the background played, ever so faintly, some old Hindi film song, but it didn’t seem to intrude into the silence. Someone had left the transistor on inside The Bunker. I watched.

I had become good at moving like a shadow, slithering along lanes and by-lanes I had never traversed before. Behind walls and houses, through trees and foliage, along shadows and shades, I knew it all.

The lone bicycle rider seemed to appear from nowhere. He moved slowly, steadily, in a straight line. I couldn’t see his face. He pedaled on gradually towards the chowk, or perhaps where I was standing. I wasn’t sure.

In the distance, countless saffron petals quivered in the breeze, as though singing a delicate ballad to the earth they sprung from. Spring in the land of saffron is most beautiful.

In the moment I tried taking my eyes off him, I caught a fleeting glimpse of her; she appeared lost in some wakeful reverie, probably reminiscing about our past, our house, and our days together. I still remember those bright white moist eyes.

The cyclist seemed to pedal on forever, in deliberate slow-motion movements, I couldn’t tell which way he was headed but something kept me hooked. I still couldn’t see his face.

Omkar looked like he had dozed off, sitting still on the chair with a folded newspaper in his lap, the carbine on the side hissing like a stout black snake. I did not like his presence, his tight uniform, and the body it covered.

The first sound that punctuated the somber mood was a cold, metallic click. Then a feeble swoosh through the air, which had a steely ring to it. It was cold. The film song stopped.

Then I saw it.

It landed with a clear clunk, then two and three, on the tar surface of the bunker courtyard a couple of feet from Omkar Nath’s chair. Omkar woke up from his siesta but did not move. Instead, he gently nudged at the thing with his newspaper. It rolled, and rolled away speedily from its target, with a painful, clear sound. I stopped breathing.

She did not notice anything at first, that laid-back, lazy, pampered girl. The military-green, checkered thing came to a halt a few inches from her. I couldn’t think anymore. She raised her head languorously and peered down at the round object that had just rolled to a stop in front of her.

Then she sniffed at it.

Mirza Waheed wrote this story twelve years ago in Delhi.

G

Author Image

Mirza Waheed is a novelist and journalist born and raised in Kashmir. His debut novel, The Collaborator, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Shakti Bhat Prize, and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. It was also book of the year for The Telegraph, New Statesman, Financial Times, Business Standard, and Telegraph India, among others. Waheed has written for Granta, The Guardian, the BBC, Al Jazeera English and the New York Times. He lives in London.

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One comment for Saffron

  1. Comment by mohamed wasim on February 16, 2013 at 5:44 am

    ”In the distance, countless saffron petals quivered in the breeze, as though singing a delicate ballad to the earth they sprung from. Spring in the land of saffron is most beautiful”
    The petals of saffron as a i knw sprung in ”Autumn” not in Spring.Although the green part
    buds in spring.

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