Thick clouds of snow had hovered over the valley for the past few weeks. Omar swung around his auto and parked outside the wooden awning of Rehman’s Kebab Corner on Dalgate. The rust on the front board above the awning had obscured the letters after Rehm and the light pink colour of noon chai being poured in a cup, had acquired the grey of the clouds. As tiny droplets of water slid along the mild breeze of the westerly winds, spectrums of light glistened through their bottoms as they settled on the windscreen. Isolated flakes of snow descended calmly and disappeared upon the wet surface of the road.
“Rain again”, muttered Omar under his breath as he flicked his cigarette on the road beside and ordered a chai. Two men sat sipping tea on a bench on one side of the shopfront and another stood wrapping minced lamb around skewers at a kiosk on the other side. Behind them, rose a lone rounded hill with a temple at its top. Now obscured by the hanging afternoon mist, on clear days of summer its tall rocky spire rose from amidst the soaring trunks of deodars, pines and birches that made up for the Hill’s dense mossy foliage.
From inside Rehman’s, a young boy dressed in a long tweed phiran brought a cup of tea and handed it to Omar. Holding the cup, Omar slowly took out the burning kangri from under his phiran and placed it on the dashboard. Lifting his legs to squat on the driver’s seat, he stuck out his left palm from under the tarpaulin roof of the auto, gazing, at the minute flakes that melted instantly in the warmth of his hands. Wrapping his palms around the hot glass cup he whisked a long slurp and peered at the clouds.
Over the years he had observed the snow patterns change. The snowfall now began around February and it had become more intermittent and unpredictable. At times, it would snow early, in January and at others, as late as April or May destroying the freshly sown seeds of saffron. It was already the second week of February and until now it had only rained. Dead wet leaves of Chinar squished everywhere in blackened puddles of mud and charcoal, and sparse clouds of mist hung low over the shallow marshes of willows on the other side of the Dal.
The entire stretch of the Boulevard road from Dalgate to Hazratbal felt deserted. Hardly anyone needed a ride. Downtown was under curfew while the city-side frothed dreamily. A light whiff of dead fish rumoured the air around one end of the road where women sat by the lake-fence, on the footpath, selling their catch. Neither was this the time for tourists except for an occasional white-skin with dishevelled hair, mostly knotted, walking with slow heavy steps along the Dal. The only traffic that plied the roads came in from the Srinagar-Leh Highway, armoured military vehicles, olive green trucks and civil supply lorries, and at times a Sumo or a minibus arriving from Islamabad or Jammu. It was time to head back home, Omar thought, it would snow anytime.
Leaving the cup at the bench, he pulled hard at the ignition stick and drove idly south toward the highway. Military trucks and jeeps stood inscrutably along street corners and junctions; an army-man, expressionless, stacked behind sacks of mud and kevlar, with his right hand on the pistol grip of an LMG, surveyed the length of the highway as it gently curled around the base of the hill. A few yards away from the bunker, two policemen and an army man encircled a drum-barrel warming their hands over the burning coal inside.
He stopped his auto in front of a rectangular black gate separated by a wall of exposed bricks from another steel gate. The stone nameplate on the wall read Dr. Mir Hasan, BDS, MDS. He stepped out and unbolted the black gate of the garage, blocking each face with a brick that lay inside. Without turning in the key, he gently steered his auto behind Mir Saheb’s car and placed the two bricks by its rear tyres. Taking out a few pieces of coal from the back of his auto, he placed them in the kangri and lightly blew over them. It was late afternoon and as he bolted back the gate, he yawned and stretched. Mir Saheb had been kind enough to lend his space for his auto without charging him for it.
“In this weather, it will rust like your teeth”, he had said, animatedly throwing his hands in front of Omar, almost about to hit him on the cheek. One of his molars had developed a cavity and it had to be extracted. It was when he was writing the prescription when he inquired about mauji’s health and Shakeel’s, his younger brother’s, school. The conversation had drifted from family to dhandha, and Omar told him he was looking for a parking space for his auto as the landlord of the garage wanted to make some repairs. Mir saheb had instantly offered the space lying vacant in his garage, quipping jab tak ke liye chahiye istemaal karo. Use it for as long as you need it. Although at some distance from Brehan, where Omar lived, he had smilingly acquiesced to Mir saheb’s indulgent demeanour.
Drops of rain sputtered as they struck against the windshields of cars in Mir saheb’s neighbourhood. From here, he would trek across the jungle on the Hill and descend onto Boulevard road, on the other side, as it came meandering around its base with the calm water of the Dal and rows of houseboats along its ledge.
It had been more than a week since Omar had been re-tracing his childhood footsteps through the jungle on Shankaracharya Hill. He cherished the quiet of the forest as he walked along collecting fallen pine-cones, listening to the shrill voices of the birds, often trying to spot their location and their type. The knowledge of the presence of bears always troubled him but even during his childhood, unperturbed, he had played in the jungle with his friends despite strict warnings from his mother. He had never seen a bear himself but there were always stories that did the rounds in Brehan; that a bear had entered somebody’s house, or that one was roaming about on the streets, or that somebody’s uncle had been mauled to death by a furry beast while taking a short-cut through the jungle. Yet another threat that made him circumspect was the presence of the gangs of city-side boys who regularly harassed and looted couples who would unwittingly come down on the wrong side of the hill. But it was afternoon, the winds had become colder and he knew he could spot these thugs from far above and take a safer route.
The two sleeves of his phiran dangled loosely, as he warmed his hands over the kangri which he held inconspicuously inside the phiran. Water that had collected in the ditches beside the road had frozen. Omar carefully walked on the thin layers of ice that formed on the road and the pavement leading to the United Nations Observer Group’s office.
The United Nations office stood at the base of the hill behind which began a narrow trail through rocks and forest. Adjacent to the white and blue wall of the UN compound a steep climb through mud and rocks led to a steel grill that marked the beginning of the Shankaracharya reserved forest. It had rained continuously since yesterday and Omar had forgotten to take that into his calculations. He straddled through the quagmire of soft mud and rocks, tapping the ground twice before every step. His feet squelched in the brown watery mass. As he reached the grill, he passed through a small rusted swivel gate from where began the slender trail along the gentle incline of the hill.
He stopped at the grill and turned around to gaze at the expansive landscape of Srinagar city. Scores of ridges marked the gable roofs of tiny houses that hugged the ground, and bare barks of chinars, poplars, willows and chestnuts appeared as shadows through the curtain of the mist. In the distance, Hari Parbat, a solitary knoll, rose in the middle of the city, with the old Mughal fort on its table-top garrisoned by military barracks and army troopers.
As he entered the forest, he realized that the deodars and pines had prevented the rain from fully penetrating the soil and making it squishy. Though sticky and soft, it wasn’t slippery. Looking up, a few rays tyndalled through the thick canopy of branches and leaves and pierced the thin layer of the settled mist.
It had again begun to rain and as the drops hit the canopy, they created a hum that led Omar to believe that this time it was heavier. There was no time to look for cones and he hurried through the forest. It must have been fifteen minutes into the walk, the hum had reduced to a frail din, when he saw a visage of a man suddenly appear around the bend, approaching from the opposite direction.
The man slowed down as he saw Omar. Checking his back-pockets from under his phiran Omar realized he wasn’t carrying his ID but maintained his pace, even assuming the nonchalance of a jaywalker. As the man approached, Omar looked at his face, his eyes like two narrow slits with a scar over the left eyebrow and a broad nose. Dressed in a black leather jacket and a golf cap, his trousers were drenched and thick cakes of mud covered his trekking boots.
The man walked right past him. Omar too kept walking, without looking back. He felt his breath getting heavier as if somebody was tugging at an invisible drawstring wound around his neck and dragging him. He held on to it until the man was a few feet away and then released it in a puff. Could he be IB, or R&AW, roaming around alone in the forest in civvies! Or was he from some tanzeem? But what would a tanzeemi do on the Shankaracharya hill? Could one even be here? The hill and the temple were right there, even before the action began, like an elegy departing from the lips of Srinagar, a ruse in the narratives of a city that rot bit by bit in stories of tourists, exiles and refugees. Srinagar was zabarwan and the pir panjal, from beyond both came winters that froze time in the valley; in between lay no-man’s land bound by barbed wire, patrolled by paramilitaries and inhabited by characters from those stories.
Barely a few steps after crossing him, Omar heard a loud raspy voice call out to him. The man must be IB; his accent, definitely not Kashmiri. Omar stopped and turned around, squeezing the excitement within the muscles of his long tawny face. The man stood facing Omar and then certain that he had his attention, walked briskly toward him. As he approached, Omar looked at the man’s fair rotund face, wrinkled and tense with a hint of beard and a bulky rucksack.
“Is this the way to the Shankaracharya temple?”, the man asked hesitantly.
“No, you’ve come the wrong way. This goes deeper into the jungle.”, Omar said.
“Can you show me the way to the temple?”, he asked.
Omar wondered what this lone IB agent was doing up there in the forest in those conditions oblivious to any danger from bears, leopards or those notorious city-side hoodlums. Did he carry a gun with him?
“See those electricity poles?”, Omar pointed to a series of electricity poles further up on the incline partly hidden by trees and fog.
“Yes…”, the man said.
“Follow them and they’ll take you to Shankaracharya.”
“Shukran. Where are you headed?”, the man inquired. Omar’s suspicions grew. Was he a novice, still under-training? ‘Thanks’ translated as Meherbani in Kashmiri or the colloquial Urdu word Shukriya. He had never heard Shukran.
“I am on my way home, to Bren”, Omar said. “Shankaracharya is far from here. You’ll have to go further up. Where are you from?”
“I have come all the way from Delhi.” The man said, underscoring the distance between Kashmir and New Delhi. “Can you take me there?”
Omar looked at the man, his gaze catching the brown of his eyes. His sunken cheeks now pale and his palms sweating over the heat of the kangri. A CRPF picket was stationed at the base of the temple and they would certainly ask for his ID. The man’s face contracted, his brows twitching as he looked at Omar questioningly. Omar lowered his eyes, looking at his feet, shocked and confounded by the man’s request. He did not have an answer.
Under an expectant gaze, the wind changed its direction and Omar now felt droplets of water lash at his face. His feet cold in the watery clay that covered the soles of his sandals.
“Can you direct me to the place from where I can reach the electricity poles? From thereon, I’ll go ahead on my own.”, the man said. The weather seemed to only get worse.
Streams of water now ran fervently down the hill. Omar had pointed to a steep gravelly path that lay punctuated with shrubs and grass lined by short rocky pitons and heaps of stone. The man had left and quickly disappeared around a bend.
Omar started walking back homeward, stepping unmindfully in puddles of freezing water. His heart too had regained its normal beat and the images of guns, his battered body lying on an ice slab or a corpse flowing down the Jhelum, an unmarked grave at the Eidgah, all had dissipated. The man’s face lingered in his memory. Was he an agent? He could have simply been a tourist who had lost his way. But there were hardly any tourists at this time of the year. There was curfew and a fog of tear gas, empty shells distributed evenly amongst bricks and stones on the tarmac, in mud, in snow, in water, racing across in the air, in blood and on rooftops. But how could someone tour the valley in that cold. It was the winter normal. Not the summer normal. The summer normal was for touring, when the leaves of chinar bloomed and autumn, in which they bled. The winter normal was bare trunks, snow, phirans, kangris, chai, rice, curfew, sputtering gunfire, cordon, search, crackdown and stones. The stones defined, defied and created a new normal. Dastaan-go! quissa-go! Damn the poets! The storytellers! They have always put the spotlight on the individual; eviscerating the collective; leaving him naked, torn from himself, forcing him to look at himself – stark, human. They condemn the normal and force him to change his normal. And the tourist, he became the living, moving, breathing distortion. He looked condescendingly at the our normal. He asked questions like “can you take me there?”, “can you direct me?” Dunces! Quoting Khusrau on the edges of their infinity pools. This normal afflicted the soul and then the purges and the hurt and our history seemed disgraceful. His normal removed the respect from our normal. Our resistance, our loss, our suffering, our pain and our love became anti-normal. Our dreams flew on the backs of bullets and stones and that is our normal. But the tourist, the poet, the storyteller walked on the sky, here above Srinagar city, above the vale, looked at us from a normal alien to us, Omar thought. Perhaps our normalities would ever run parallel to theirs. Perhaps their normality could respect ours. But in this long interregnum, till when time wakes again, perhaps our parallel lives could only come close enough to reflect a distorted, moving—unmoving other.
Omar didn’t realize when the rain had stopped and it had become warmer and the air carried a faint metallic whisp. He looked around and saw heaps of snow piled upon branches and leaves and all along the trail. The white hillside blinded him and he stopped and rubbed his eyes. With a jerk, he jumped off the trail and on to the incline, rushing through the meadow of rocks and stones, leaping swiftly from one to another and across the muddy slope.
As he climbed feverishly, holding on to shrubs and over boulders, running through gravel, he saw the man still struggling on the path and far away from the vicinity of any electricity pole.
“You have again taken the wrong route”, Omar quipped.
The man looked at Omar and gaped smilingly at him. His trousers, near the knees had mossy green patches, his jacket was muddy and his golf cap had become the base of a pyramid of snow that trickled down his jacket when he turned to look at him.
“Why did you come back?”, the man asked.
“I thought you might get lost and in snow everything looks the same.”
“Shukran”, the man said. He put down his bag beside a rock, took off his gloves and pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his pocket. Putting the packet in front of Omar he asked if he smoked.
“I only smoke foursquares.”
As he lit a cigarette, Omar reached for his kangri and blew air over the embers. “It will get colder. We must be back before sunset”, Omar said.
The man picked up his bag and with his gloves in one hand and a cigarette in the other followed Omar into the forest.