It was almost dawn. The loudspeakers in the entire muhalla reverberated with the morning azaan except for the last house in Gowhar lane where morning bells and chants raged in equal flare. Through the window panes and across the small verandah, bhajans played aloud broke the silence and the sleep of Mohiuddin; who had now started sleeping alone in the store room of the house, dilapidated in the far end of the compound.
Sounds of unattended morning alarms start gradually rising from the neighboring houses. Unlike in a moonlit night, as he inspects the time, the bright mobile screen flashes on a rusty picture of him with his wife and son, Irshad. The picture taken happily in the kitchen of the main house reminded him of the simple old days. Mohiuddin was restless, eager for the sun to come up, the dusty wall clock kept ticking, discomforting him in his lonely hours. Mohiuddin, 57 years of a contoured face, lives in a congested locality, where neighbours often greet each other through the windows. His house is adjacent to a sacred structure, the spire of which often casts a shadow on Mohiuddin’s room. The shrine has apparently been his last refuge since his wife passed away and the son moved out.
It felt the same as every other day. Struggling with the sound of jostling bells revolting against the muezzins’ calls, he took quick steps towards the garden tap. Chilled water sputters out on his hands, he tries to hold some of it, but succeeds in damping only half of his face and very less of the long beard, the rest of the water spills out of his shivering hands. The water often gets frosty in such seasons in Kashmir. He offers namaz and begs for forgiveness. The light by now fills the room and all that he vividly sees outside through the window. He holds the curtain and drags it to the edge of the window revealing himself to the light. The day felt fleeting by for the sun had already risen high above the mountains. He puts on his overused kurta pajama, pulls some crumpled notes out of the wallet, his son Irshad had once gifted him and smashes the wallet high over the wall. The sky by now wears a clear blue color and the shrine is very visible through the layers of houses lined up in the sight. A woman standing firmly by the window, dusting off the dirt, “Salaam booztav!” She shouts. “walaikum, shameema ji chaa Theekh?”.
“Irshad’s room is lit up from past few nights! Why are women’s clothes hanging up for drying in your balcony!”
“Is it a happy news? Is she your daughter in law?” She continues uninterrupted.
“No, No! A guest has come. Works with Irshad in the big company outside. Because of the virus, they are working from home. You know what a gentleman Irshad is! He offered her to stay with us until things get better.” Mohiuddin retorts, his voice fading behind him, his feet rushing out through the lane.
Drenched in sweat, muttering “ya shafi! Ya kafi!”, he rushes along the closed shopfronts, walks for another twenty-minutes towards the relocated vegetable seller. He visits this vegetable seller for the green leaves freshly plucked from a field nearby. He emerges on the main road overshadowed by the branches of trees swaying along the two sides of the road, forming a tunnel towards the lake. The vegetables are being sold by the lake, boatmen ferrying stacks of vegetables row across the lake early before the sun comes out. The pine wood swiftly glides them over the water while the boatman paddles at the edge of the boat. Mohiddin walks the gentle steep road leading to the bank, a man pushes a carriage full of vegetables up the road, the irregular and deflated tires making rough noise as it moves across on the rough surface. Its sound fades in the chattering of birds and trees all around, sinking deep into the shining ripples of the lake. He reaches the bank wishing nobody recognised him today. The boats are empty by now. He mutters, ‘Why have you finished early today’? He spots a bundle of lotus stems and got them filled in a bag. Soon he was joined by a man from the neighbourhood, tall and charismatic in appearance. “Greetings! I have not seen you since a while?” Mohiuddin took no time to respond “Visit me sometime, and I will tell you.”
They parted and Mohiuddin headed towards his home, reflecting upon, what had been cooking about him in the entire muhalla. His son had moved in again after the pandemic hit, along a girl who was rumored to be a batin, a pundit who wore a bindi on her forehead. Although they had never been spotted out of the house since they arrived but things don’t stay hidden here for long, people get the whiff of whatever one cooks, constantly informing others what the others are cooking. He would face the criticism, if not verbally but by a simple look of disgust and shame with which everybody now looked at him. In lazy afternoons, people had started peeping into his balcony while she dried and combed her hair in the soft and silky warmth of the sun. Although she had wisely tightened up a rope to not only let her clothes dry but also act as a wall separating her from the outer space yet the morning bells and Mohiuddin moving out to the storeroom had almost revealed everything.
She shared the balcony with plants, simple, hanging and creeping, a creeper struggling to hold its grip on the outer wall of the house. “The creeper will consume Mohiuddin’s house so will this girl.,” someone said one day. “She is unbothered spending her lazy and rehabilitating hours in the balcony during the evening sun. I saw it myself! Irshad is nowhere to be seen, I saw him only the day he arrived, his beard unshaved and clothes wrinkled, people flew to their native places like sheep, and now he has bought this goat with him. We can only spare the old man.”, people talked.
Mohiuddin had now been battling such remarks almost every other day. He felt he had become an outlaw in his own home and the entire neighbourhood, where he had grown running as a child. It was a Saturday when he returned to his home by noon, opened the gate and across the overgrown grass and bushes, he saw Irshad lying on two chairs facing each other, working on his laptop. Mohiuddin walked in and laid out the vegetables in water, and he heard two people taking in the lawn. He peeped out through the kitchen window to enquire who is it. A man wearing a black mask and a sling bag hung over his shoulder was visibly annoyed as he handed Irshad an envelope. Irshad gently slid the envelope between his laptop and greeted the postman to leave. Somehow Mohiuddin knew this letter is not meant to be delivered to him.
The same evening when the earliest star shows up in the sky, Mohiuddin goes out to breathe in his garden, chewing mint leaves in the evening as usual. But as he nears the mint plants to pluck some fresh leaves, a brown piece of paper sways on the tips of the plant, a loose crease running through the middle of the page. He takes up the letter in his hand, and walks stealthily towards the rear side of his store-room. In a dirty corner where he can’t be seen, he sits and reads:
Times are tough. Now that you have taken a decision, stay firm. As discussed, I will not call until you do.
Author is a practicing artist and aspiring entrepreneur