I wrote this short story in 2004 in my cramped yet cozy apartment in Lansing (US) during my student days. My notepad and my pen used to be my only companions those days (before Guitar joined up!) The plot is based in the Kashmir valley. My father was kind enough to offer his editing advice.
ABOUT SIX MONTHS AGO a strange incident occurred, which I am about to narrate. I have often tried to lock away the brief, but fascinating incident in sane remote recess of my mind. It has always succeeded in uncoiling itself like a restless snake.
ONE autumn, I was returning home from my regular evening stroll along the very familiar narrow road bordering the vast expanse of trees and forest cover on the hillock. I saw a young girl standing alone under a huge Deodar tree near a broken down temple. I slowed down. The girl was staring anxiously at the nearby parallel metalled road that led to the border town of Uri, in Kashmir. On an impulse, I walked up to her.
“Aadab”, I said, addressing her. “Are you waiting for someone? Could I be of some help?”
This was not the right hour and place for a young girl to be standing alone. She looked up and stared at me blankly for a few moments. Her gaze seemed to be slowly focusing, comprehending the situation.
“Yes”, she replied. Her voice seemed to float out of a deep well. It was rich and vibrant. Her eyes were the deepest green I have ever encountered. “I am waiting to join my husband, she continued in the same tone. “He is late today”, she murmured.
“Is he returning from somewhere?” I ventured to ask.
“Yes’, she replied. “We were to meet here as usual after his show was over at the theater in town.
“Show? What show? And what theatre?” I enquired.
“Regina theatre” she replied. Her gaze seemed to pierce right through me.
Shades of darkness had meanwhile cascaded down quietly on the surroundings. The chill in the air had picked up and I felt a slight shiver ran across my body. Suddenly I yearned for the warmth of my cottage. This was no time to be standing in a desolate place waiting for someone. I shrugged and was about to resume my walk when she spoke again.
“Please do me a favor”, she said.
“Sure”, I replied.
“Do stop by at the theatre on your way back and inquire for Irfan. That’s my husband’s name. Please tell him his wife is waiting for him.” Before I could reply she turned back and sat down on the low boundary wall of the dilapidated temple. She cupped her chin in her hands and stared at the road leading to town.
“If that’s all you wish,” I said in a questioning tone. If she had heard me, she chose to ignore it. Before I left, She mumbled as if I wasn’t even there, “Can you hear the music — can you? It’s all over in the hills tonight.”
I set out towards the town walking slowly. There was something about the girl’s voice that had mesmerized me. It was almost ethereal. It sounded like the faint tinkling of the temple bells on top of the neighboring hillock. I was so engrossed in the unusual situation, I had failed to notice how – the sequence of events had meanwhile balled up in my mind ready to explode.
When I entered my room, the whole affair hit me like a stone. I shook a little and walked up to my swivel chair by my study table. Ali had fired the ‘bukhari’ and its warmth was gradually spreading across the room. I flicked on the table lamp. The dry wood in the ‘bukhari’ crackled gaily. I reclined against the back of the chair and closed my eyes. My chain of thoughts snapped and I suddenly sat bolt upright. A cold sweat broke over my eye-brows.
Why had the girl mentioned Regina theater? She was in her early twenties and the theater had closed down more than two decades ago. In the fifties and sixties it was a cinema hall, which was later shut down with the advent of militancy in the Kashmir valley. It was then that a group of enthusiastic artists from the Radio and TV decided to form a stage troupe and regularly performed at the theater. I was debating the whole issue and the strange event of the evening when Ali appeared at the door and announced “Dinner is ready.” I nodded absent mindedly.
Next day returning from my evening stroll, I decided to stop over at Khan’s tea shop. It was situated on the busy Baramulla-Srinagar highway. Kader Khan’s tea shop is as old as the man himself. He is an old wizened man with deep penetrating eyes that hold behind them five generations of history of the valley. His forefathers were Afghan feudal lords who fled their native place during one of the perennial wars in the land of the pathans. They say that people in the hills do not age, they grow with the mountains. At 79 – after years and years of grazing cattle and fetching fire wood by scaling the hills and nearby mountains, Khan could still move with the swiftness of a mountain goat. He is one who can unravel to you generations of events in the valley. The only assistance he needs is from a ‘hookah’. Fill up the clay ‘chillum’ with moist aromatic local tobacco and top it with a few burning coals and hey presto! There you notice another glow in Khan’s eyes when they light up mischievously in anticipation of relating some interesting incident.
I had returned to the valley after many years. The militancy here had forced me to migrate to the plains. The heat, humidity and pollution of Delhi had taken its toll on me. With the unrest in the valley having finally plateaued, I had returned to my roots. I was fortunate to have kind neighbors who had nursed and looked after my small house and the garden. Returning to my story…
Khan was poking the coals in the chillum with a small wooden paddle as I approached.
“Salaam wale kum”, I greeted him with a half raised hand.
“Waley kum Salaam”, he replied and waived a hand towards a chair. I sat down.
“There is a nip in the air tonight”, he remarked.
“Yes”, I replied. “Autumn is just round the corner”.
“What shall it be? Kahwa or Lipton tea?”
“Kahwa”, I replied. “Hot and sweet”.
“So how is your story writing going on? Have you finished that story on terrorism you were writing?”
“I am working on the last chapter”, I replied looking around furtively.
“And for Khuda’s sake I am not writing on the terrorism in the valley. It’s purely an imaginary romantic story that takes place during the period of unrest in the valley.”
Khan laughed back loudly throwing balls of tobacco smoke from his mouth. He would always pester me and then watch my expression with glee. A young boy brought my ‘kahwa’. It smelled good with crushed almonds on top. Khan dragged deeply on his ‘hookah’. He took a succession of puffs and blew out thick blue smoke from his mouth and nostrils. All the while his sharp and piercing eyes were watching me keenly through the film of smoke.
“So what’s bothering our writer friend tonight?” Khan could sense my restlessness. I related to him the sequence of events of last evening. He listened sagely and simply kept nodding every time I made a remark. When I finished narrating the incident he leaned back in his chair. His eyes had a far away look in them.
“So you have also met Noorie.”
“Noorie?” I remarked. “And who is this Noorie?”
“That’s the name of the girl you came across last evening,” Khan said quietly. So that was her name. Noorie. Just the name for the mysterious persona. How could one erase from memory those enchanting green eyes?
“Listen, my dear writer”, Khan said softly. “Many people here have met Noorie of the hills, as she is known here. She appears and disappears just like that. But all her appearances have coincided with the full moon night.” Khan puffed at the ‘hookah’. He continued…
“Noorie was a local girl. Very vivacious, very beautiful. She was born a few years before the unrest surfaced in the valley. She was married to her childhood neighbor and they both worked at the local TV station. Noorie was a radio singer as well. Her songs had become a rage with the young generation. She was always in demand at marriages. A marriage without her program was not considered complete.
Alas we do not know when evil cast its eye on her. Militancy had started escalating and cinema halls across the valley were gradually forced to close down. That’s when the concept of staging shows with the consent of militants took roots and different troupes were formed. Noorie and her husband, Irfan, were members of one such troupe at Baramulla. A local militant commander came under the spell of Noon’s charms. His advances were resisted by Noorie for sometime, but not long enough. She was advised to seek police protection, which was provided to her full time. This seemed to have annoyed the militant commander whose advances she had been thwarting.
One night when the troupe artists were performing on stage, the militants lobbed a grenade on the stage. Noorie had stayed away that day. However, her husband Irfan lost his life in the attack. On seeing the body of her dead husband, Noorie went dumb and did not speak for many days. She stopped communicating with people and was generally left alone. As she started fading away from public memory, the security provided to her was also withdrawn. And then one day she suddenly disappeared never to be found. There are various theories attached to her disappearance.
One theory suggests that she jumped down from the cliff top and animals ravaged her. Another theory which holds till date is that the militant commander abducted her. No one knows for sure. I tried to elicit the truth from her when I first met her apparition, but without success.”
“Apparition?” I remarked with surprise. A shiver ran through my body. It was getting late and chilly…
“Who do you think you met last evening?” Khan questioned me. He looked tired. “I’ll take your leave now. Thanks for all the information,” I said.
“Information?” Khan smiled back. “The whole town knows the story of Noorie. You have been away too long from the valley. Khuda Hafiz.”
I returned to my cottage. The night looked unusually bright. Tree leaves and plants shimmered quietly in the bright night. Why was it so bright tonight? I was too engrossed in Noorie’s thoughts to notice anything else. Ali was pacing the verandah waiting for me anxiously.
“Where have you been so long? Surely gossiping with the old man Khan?”
I smiled back and chose to keep quiet. There was no use in arguing with Ali.
“You have a guest,” he retorted and walked inside stiffly. “Been waiting for you for two hours. Refuses to eat or drink”. He threw up his hands and rolled his eyes in exasperation.
I stepped inside, closed the door behind me and stood frozen with surprise. I could faintly hear Ali saying that he was getting the dinner table ready. He was always fastidious about timely dinner.
Noorie was sitting near the warm ‘bukhari’ with a beatific smile on her face. She looked up at me with those deep green eyes. I could see a mysterious glint in her eyes. I took a chair and sat opposite her. She was occupying my favorite chair. I waited for her to speak. My legs had become rubbery with strange excitement.
You have been making inquiries about me. Right? Her voice again reminded me of the faint tinkling of bells in the temple on the hill top. She continued…
“And Ali here tells me that you are a story writer. Right? I merely nodded.
I have come to tell you that I have finally found Irfan.” she stated coldly.
“You have? And where?” I asked her.
She ignored my sarcasm.
“We are re-uniting tonight. Hereafter, I will not appear again. I have come to say good-bye. I know you will record this meeting. That is why I chose to reveal to you the news.”
I nodded again.
She got up and floated out of the room into the cold moonlit night. I gazed at her until she disappeared into the night. I heaved a sigh of relief, got out of the chair and closed the door after her.
I casually walked up to the large French window and looked out. I was still in a daze. Everything outside was awash in the pale moonlight. I gazed up and felt the moon smiling at me through the realms of darkness. It slowly dawned on me how young the night was. And the moon was almost full. Again.
Years have gone by and sometimes, I still think of that night. And of Noorie. And her words start to play back in my mind, over and over again.
“Can you hear the music, can you? It’s all over in the hills tonight…”
October 17, 2004