By: Saman Rizvi
Shehla is counting and assorting her pebbles in the garden; a microcosm of Khosh’ard that sleeps cozily snugging bleak fences to her left. To her right lies the pot half-filled with pebbles and a few of them littered around. Once in a while, Shehla looks to her left at Khosh’ard which is calmly waiting for the arrival of fruit-laden sweet summer. Winter has hibernated and spring recently bid farewell. Rivers are back to their serene flow exuding such varied and distinct blue that nomenclature is required to assort the nuanced variety of colours. The more one wants to delve into its depth and drink it all, the more distant and unfathomable it becomes. Nature has taken its course in Khosh’ard exceptionally, imparting the place with intricate beauty equaling a masterpiece of an artist. It isn’t an exaggeration to say that Khosh’ard is made to be quintessential of warmth, serenity and peace. That is what the name of the place means Mahid once told Safa,
“Khosh means beauty/good and ‘ard’ means country or land. So our land is beautiful country/land.”
As exceptional as Khosh’ard is, life in the land too is exceptional; attacks, raids, arrests, rapes, bombs, guns and every inhuman atrocity is witnessed in the land. Irony pervades the land the same as the whiff of flesh and blood. Anything of, or, in, at, on, about, or related with is bound to be exceptional (Of course, in Khosh’ard way).
A little girl Shehla of Khosh’ard is counting days for the visit of her brother. She keeps pebbles in a pot and throws a piece each day. It has been long and she is out in the garden for her customary ritual that she hears someone calling,
“Your brother is on call, come fast.”
Shehla ignores the call on account of her anger. She doesn’t show any sign of movement. She continues with her pebbles and pricking mud with a small birch of a branch. After a while, her mother Nafeesa, partially irritated and partially amused announces it to the ecstasy of her, the coming of her brother Mahid. Mahid has long been planning to get back home. Finally, at the end of the summer, he is able to steal a few days from his otherwise occupied routine. Shehla is on the seventh sky listening to the news and excitingly overturns the pot full of pebbles. She doesn’t require them now. She hurries back to the room to make a call. Mahid answers, in his constant sweet temper and complacent voice, “Hello”, the voice of Shehla at the other end lends his voice a fresh cadence of vigor, he replies “I am waiting for the flight and I will be home soon.”
The call disconnects and Shehla runs across the corridor, straight to the courtyard to happily announce it to the birds, trees and especially the pebbles about the coming of her brother Mahid.
The flight boarding started and Mahid moves towards the gate, with his brisk gait and burdened shoulder with a backpack. The luggage is showing no strain on him and he is maintaining a good posture and look, his lips forming a stretched arch, accentuating his dimple. But, before boarding the flight, he reaches out for his phone and sends a quick message to Safa. He writes, “I had a strange dream today, remind me later, I’ll tell you” and receives a reply instantly “Okay, will wait.” He boards the plane and satisfactorily switches off the phone. He adjusts himself comfortably and starts reflecting upon the dream he has seen in the morning. The dream coming to the forefront of his thoughts is making every sound on the plane recede to background, with the intermittent penetrative sound of a baby wailing. He is fiddling with the strings of earphone clumsily tousled around his neck. They aren’t needed now. Mahid keeps on looking outside. The cotton candy clouds are floating by and every hue of pink or a ray-filtering through a cloud is making him happy in an unusual way, the way he has never felt for a long time. It’s the effect of going home or the dream he had, it is hard to tell.
Mahid informs Safa on reaching home that Shehla is too keen on having him all to herself all this time and promises to text once she sleeps. Safa replies, “That’s okay, but make it soon.”
Shehla is telling Mahid about everything she is getting her mind to. She tells Mahid how she misses going to school. She misses meeting her friends. She speaks about Basit, their neighbour. “I miss him but he is very bad. He went away and didn’t come back. How bad. I think he got tired of my tantrums and my demands for paper planes every day and left. But I promise I will not trouble him once he gets back. I miss him.” she says.
Mahid adds to her declarations and pitches in Bilal (Basit’s younger brother), “Leave Basit I am sure he is at peace wherever he is, but Bilal is here. Ask him as many planes as you want.” Shehla giggles.
Shehla keeps on talking, giving away every information she has, about dolls, ants, birds, neighbours, colours. Slowly and gradually she is drifting off to sleep. Mahid tucks her blanket and Shehla settles cozily.
Letting out a breath of fulfilment Mahid moves outside to the garden intending to make a call. The garden is a large patch of rectangular land with trees erected at every corner. It is a cool night bathed in the silvery shine of the moon. The breeze blowing gently and the moon tidily etched on the dark blanket of sky, sprinkled with little shiny dots. Crickets singing their highest notes in unison. Drinking in the scene for a minute he reaches out for his phone and is about to dial that he feels someone approaching towards him. He turns around and sees his mother Nafeesa, who has come out after wrapping up her work. Mahid and Nafeesa stroll around for some time and eventually settle themselves on the front doorstep of the house. None of them say a word. No word is exchanged and silence does all the talking. Neither of them knows how to start or what to say or whether appropriate words do exist to communicate what needs to be put across. Silence is sitting between them like an old acquaintance. Had there not been these singing crickets, the deafening silence might have had troubled them but these metrical punctuation of cricket song is peculiarly comforting. Silence eloquently is speaking what could only be said by her. Nafeesa after an hour is sleepy and stands up to retire to her room. Mahid wishes her a good night and continues probing into his thoughts.
Mahid is lazily looking at the sky that it occurs to him, dogs aren’t barking? Where have they gone? Have they disappeared just like the citizens? He is midway in his thoughts that a text from the telecom department makes him go pale. The services are to be terminated indefinitely and Mahid is confronted with a difficult decision to make, whether he should make the decision to call Rishi, his co-intern, who will be able to speak on behalf about his absence or Safa, who must be waiting for the call. He quickly makes a call to Safa but the call isn’t going through. The network is snapped by now. He sits there, still, reconciling this fresh riot of feeling and reason. He sits there thinking and refashioning his thoughts and wishes. Moon is slowly climbing higher and higher an invisible ladder with each passing hour. He tiredly stands up and makes his way to his room and softly lies down to sleep. After a couple of toss and turn, sleep embraces him. However, he awakes early than intended and moves towards the window. The breeze is a little less cool and the moon has disappeared. The shiny little dots sprinkled are waning. He goes back and lies down looking at the ceiling, giving away himself to his thoughts. The beam of sunrays mirroring at the ceiling from the plate kept at the table makes him realize the sun has risen. He looks aside and sees sunrays filtering through the crevices of the door. His eyelids get heavy and he loosens himself in the arms of sleep. He sleeps all through the afternoon and finally gets up in the evening. He sluggishly gets out of the bed and drags himself to the kitchen where Shehla is standing at the heel of Nafeesa, holding the hem of Nafeesa’s dress. As soon as she sees him, she smiles and her smile feels like a first rain droplet on parched dry land. It calms him off. She sprints and hugs him the way she can do, clinging in between his legs. He moves, eptly taking her along the strides as they’ve been doing ever since. The house imbues with laughter and giggles.
Soon after dinner, Shehla drags Mahid to the garden while she plays on her own. She just wants him to be there. Be there and look at her. The feel of his attention is enough for her. She continues and Mahid slowly paces up to the chambers of his thoughts and finds himself thinking about Safa. She must have moved to University. She must be waiting to hear from me, she must be waiting for the call which couldn’t go through. Suddenly, he hears firing shots and reflexively runs to grab Shehla before bolting inside the house. This reflexive drill is wired in the people of Khosh’ard by now. It goes on for hours. Shehla cries, panics but eventually falls asleep with tears half dried on her cheeks and half still stagnant making a pool in the small depression of the lower lid corner of her eye. One shot is too close and they can hear the jostling of people nearby. As soon as the loud screeching vehicle recedes, Mahid runs out to see the aftermath. Bilal is hit and is bleeding profusely.
Bilal is being hurried to a hospital and Mahid accompanies them. On reaching the hospital, Bilal is attended after waiting for quite some time, as the queue is too long.
Mahid knows the situation but this sudden enormity and sheer closeness have shaken him off. He is sitting there numb, unable to register, organize or process his thoughts. He feels as if the world is freezing.
His eyes open, he is lying in a room. It takes him a few minutes to understand and with that he springs up from the bed and starts enquiring about Bilal. Nafeesa assures him, “he is being treated and he’ll be fine. You fell unconscious in the hospital. You know how it is here, don’t stress yourself, all I can say is steel yourself“. She sits looking helplessly at Mahid’s face. Mahid tries to pull himself together, exerting all his energy to catch voice and speak. His voice doesn’t come. He clears his throat and tries, “You know how I am but seeing Bilal……” He is not able to continue and gives himself to half-muffled soft sobs. Few words sticking in his throat clawing him, few on his tongue giving blisters and few in his heart kindling a raging fire. Nafeesa takes his hands and makes a well-known doomed to fail attempt at pacifying him. Shehla enters the room with a small plate with few bits of leaves lying on it. She offers it to Mahid saying, “Eat, this is the dinner I made for you all.” Mahid and Nafeesa laugh heartily. Shehla annoyingly insists them on having the bits of leaves as she had toiled hard for such a taste. They take a few bits laughingly. Shehla’s existence makes them slip into a world which is comforting in its naivety, suffused with innocence. This innocence and naivety give them with an extraordinary sense of possibility. A possibility of getting away, a possibility of forgetting even for a few minutes, the unbearable burden of conscious registers.
Mahid is on his way to the hospital to see Bilal. He is better or maybe he just looks better. Mahid wonders; maybe the blood isn’t there anymore, maybe the blood-soaked clothes have been removed and that just makes him look better. Bilal is unable to speak. He is lying unconscious, a poignant calmness spread over his face which Mahid envies. Mahid eventually starts spending his days and nights beside him sitting on that small stool, waiting with insurmountable patience. Mahid sees everyone around and finds to his surprise that most of the patients in the ward are young boys. Days on days, Mahid looks at each one of them keenly, observingly, trying to know what landed them there. He wants to know in order to calm down his apprehensions. He unknowingly has waged a war against a sordid reality, constantly torn between a wishful possibility and a gut-wrenching reality. Having such close encounters, he finally decides to shut all these registrations from entering into his cognizance. He reproachingly said it to himself, “I won’t see, I won’t listen. As amma told me, I’ll steel myself or else I’ll have to go.”
He steps outside the hospital corridor and feels a sudden attack by piercing sunlight and instinctively closes his eyes. He starts blinking rapidly and it takes him a few seconds until his eyes adjust to the intensity of light. He starts plodding on his way with a spectrum of wails and cries walking alongside with him. He enters the house and sees Jameela, Bilal’s mother sitting beside Nafeesa. Mahid is at once struck by the calmness of her face, the same as Bilal has, the one he so bitterly envies. With a mere customary salutation, Mahid resigns to his room at one corner of the house but awakens with the sound of the pebbles from the back yard. He gets up and moves closer to the window in order to have a look and finds Shehla counting pebbles. He at once enquires, “What is it that you are doing?” Shehla with an innocent smile replies “waiting for Bilal Bhai”. Mahid feels a gnawing in his guts but gathers a few words to throw back at Shehla who is waiting curiously for a reply. Mahid says, “How’s that?” Shehla explains to him the working of her pebbled-wait. She announces, “With each passing day, I throw away one pebble for that day but you know what, I ran short of pebbles waiting for Basit Bhai” and at once invigoratingly speaks, “but you came back while I was still left with half of my pebbles and since Bilal Bhai too has gone away, I’m waiting.” Mahid feels a tear drop running down his
eyes heart. Eyes have dried. Mahid, at last, has steeled himself.
He goes back and lies down for a few minutes. Bed and pillow do not give him any comfort and he resolutely leaves his bed to go back to the hospital. His back aching but no sign of relief is to be felt. The ache in his heart is greater than his back. He goes to the kitchen, eats and leaves for the hospital again.
After a month at the entrance of the hospital, Mahid sees people rejoicing, not in entirety that is obviously a far-fetched destiny for the people of Khosh’ard. But they are happy or perhaps a little less sad than yesterday. He inches closer to know about this development. He strains his ears to catch words or phrases that will help him understand and to his surprise he hears, “phone services have been restored…but one-way, I wish my son comes to know and calls”. Mahid’s eyes glisten and he lets out a small prayer in his heart. He prays Safa gets to know and calls. He walks inside the hospital with a tinge of promise sprinkled on his heart. He goes to his accustomed stool and restlessly sit. He checks his phone twice and slides into his pocket. Two days pass. Mahid is starting to grow restless. At the end of the third day, when Mahid has stretched hope far away from himself and lies down that at 11:17 p.m. his cellphone vibrates. Mahid starts looking for it frantically in the darkness. The constant fear of missing this chance is pushing him to move his hands like a blind beggar searching for the coin based on its sound. He catches the phone and receives. Safa on the other side lets out a sigh of relief. After uttering Hello from both the sides, they keep silence for about a minute. The feeling of happiness, mixed with the sorrows of their past days cannot be communicated via words. It definitely requires silence. Heaving heavily Safa continues,
“How have you been? As soon as I came to know about this communication blockade, I tried calling you but it was late.”
It is evident from her voice she is sobbing but holding it back for the fear of making it all awkward.
Mahid replies, “I’m fine, I’m not, I don’t know what to say. So much has happened here I don’t know” his voice ending at a note of dryness running right down to his throat, making him reach for the bottle of water beside his bed. Gulping down the water he continues, “Bilal has been hit by a bullet and he is in the hospital. I spend most of my time beside him. By the way, have you moved to the University?”
Safa collects her words so defiant on the collection and says, “yes and it’s been quite rough without you.”
She is not speaking or enquiring about Bilal. The sheer knowledge of Mahid’s disposition let her not talk about it. She knows he will meltdown. She at once understood from the tone of his voice that he is deluged with an ocean of emotion. She is silent for a while or maybe she is giving Mahid the time to rearrange his thoughts and reach back for his voice. Mahid continues, “I understand, I’ve been so badly wanting to speak to you but…….”
Safa interrupts and takes charge of the conversation, “How is Shehla? She must be happy to see you around.”
Mahid replies, “Yes, she is. It is for her that we are still sane. But you know what Safa?”
Mahid: “Sometimes this naivety is what pinches the most. Anyways, you tell me what it has been like on the other side”
Safa replies calmly, the kind of calmness Mahid has detested since forever. “It is all good. These past days made me realize how one person can affect your life so much so that their absence makes your life seem like an unanchored sail stuck in a tumultuous storm.”
Safa is always so good with words, Mahid wonderingly replies, “And I realized how distant and antiquated even exchange of a word can feel, ironically in this 21st century globalized world too.”
Safa adding to it almost immediately, “Yes, definitely. When this started, anyone talking on the phone in front of me felt so painstakingly alien yet familiar.”
They speak for an hour, slowly and calmly drifting off to sleep. It is a month by now, they haven’t talked and so haven’t slept contently. A night of content sleep.
Safa arises with a sweet sound of a cuckoo perching at the lurking branch at her hostel’s window. She gets up and hurries for her class. On her way to the class, she feels slightly relieved, as if the exchanges of silences and words from last night’s conversation has lifted a mountain of burden. She attends all her classes desperately waiting for the clock to strike 2 p.m. The professor is teaching about the subconscious mind and it suddenly reminds her of the strange dream Mahid had. She quickly takes mental note to enquire Mahid. She rushes back from her class and doesn’t stop to meet any of her classmates on her way back like she always did. Today, she has a purpose bigger than her frivolous meetings. She gets back and without pausing, even to catch her breath, she searches for the phone in her college bag. After finding the phone, she makes a call and is disappointed about being ten minutes late than their fixed time. The phone keeps on ringing. No sign of anyone picking up from the other side. Safa tries once again but to her dismay, doesn’t get any response. She convinces herself that she’ll call again later and proceeds to have her food.
Mahid had felt the phone buzzing but couldn’t receive as both his hands are employed in holding Bilal’s hand, while the doctors are injecting another dose of vain liquid. Bilal’s face or body is showing no sign of improvement or response. With every drop going inside, Mahid is impatiently looking towards Bilal in hope of seeing a slight sign, anything….anything… movement of eyes or a twitch of the nose. But nothing is changing. His body is lying there as calm, as unmoved as the surface of a sea unaccustomed to tides. Doctors went away to try their best of knowledge and expertise on to the next boy. Mahid is sitting there holding the little patch of cotton pasted on Bilal’s hand. After a while, Mahid walks towards the window in order to disengage his mind from this constant push and pull of fear and hope. It is not a sunny day, with little to no sunlight. Dark patches of clouds are floating and the air has a sense of gloom. The path towards the hospital looks too weary, Mahid thought. He says in a bitter-ironical but a resigned manner, “Of course, people have been walking on this path more often than any other lanes of Khosh’ard, and it is bound to be weary.” Everything has a somber feel, as if the entire land is painted in disconsolate shades of pastel, bereft of colours. He notices a little girl, the same as the age of Shehla standing at the corner of the hospital gate holding her brother’s hand. Mahid ponders for who has she come here, what must be going on in her mind and so on. His thoughts are put to hold with the buzzing of his phone. He takes out the phone and quickly walks outside to be able to talk properly. He returns after a few minutes and chills go down his spine after seeing people gathered around Bilal’s bed. He rushes wildly and enquires, “What has happened?” Doctors say that Bilal’s body has stopped responding and the organs seem to be too fatigued,
“We need to put him in I.C.U”.
Medical staffs take Bilal away and Mahid returns home, a cold body and a numb heart. He speaks a few words to Nafeesa and goes to his room without eating. He curls inside the blanket, pressing his eyes and straining his mind to get hold of the dream he has seen before all this happened. The dream which Safa enquired about in the afternoon.
He keeps on thinking and thinking, drumming his fingers unconsciously at his stomach. But the dream is cleanly wiped off from his memory leaving no trace of its existence ever. The more he tries remembering, the more conscious he becomes of all that had passed meanwhile. Wearily he slips off to sleep.
Early morning, Mahid goes out straight in to the garden, in search of Shehla and Nafeesa. They aren’t there and tracing the direction of the sound of Shehla’s giggle, Mahid finds himself standing in the backyard of the house. Nafeesa is digging mud at one corner to plant a new sapling and Shehla is busy catching a butterfly. Mahid sits at a chair kept in one corner. He absent-mindedly is sitting there wondering about the pebble and the pot….
Suddenly, he stands up and with an immediacy racing right through his veins, runs back to the garden. He takes the pot in his hand and starts gathering all the pebbles he possibly can find. He carries them off to the front door and after settling himself, starts throwing one pebble after another……….one pebble, then another……………….
Saman Rizvi is a student of English Literature, currently pursuing her Masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. She also writes Ghazals in Urdu. The distressful contemporary issues that trouble her, make their way into her writings. She has participated and has won various poetry competitions.