An exclusive excerpt from Shahnaz Bashir’s Scattered Souls, published by HarperCollins. Set in Kashmir, it’s a story of a man whose transistor triggers paranoia in his neighbourhood.
Ignorance and impetuosity are inseparable twins as are rumours and misunderstandings—all fused at their heads.
With each bullet pumped into him, all his great memories of loyalty to the revolution flashed through his mind … Aggressively thrusting up his hand in response to the slogans of freedom … fiercely thundering out the word Azaadi … smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes with insurgents … marching beside them in processions … hiding them in his attic during the crackdowns … helping them transport their weapons under his pheran … risking himself by shielding them during Army raids on the village … All done at the cost of upsetting his elder brother every now and again.
One bullet pierced the transistor along its metre-band, exploding the radio into fragments and splinters. Its remains, a soldered electronic chip connected to a naked speaker by a thin wire, lay scattered beside him, still blaring the BBC News.
As Yousuf collapsed, a tear filmed and glistened at the corner of his right eye. It glinted, waiting to fall until life fled from his eyes.
Muhammad Yousuf Dar was consumed by his farming engagements. His elder brother, Abdul Rahmaan Dar, was a mainstream politician greatly despised for his antifreedom-movement position in Daddgaam. Despite their ideological differences, the two brothers lived together in their ancestral house and loved each other. They never discussed politics, nor did they speak publicly against each other.
As insurgency in Kashmir reached its peak in the early years of the 1990s, Rahmaan felt threatened. The insurgents were punishing those disloyal to the freedom movement. Consequently, Rahmaan gathered his family and migrated to Delhi, hoping to return during a respite in the troubles. Muhammad Yousuf felt very lonely without his brother and his family. He missed his nephew and niece sorely. Th e big ancestral house looked empty and abandoned now. Yousuf’s wife and their two sons didn’t make enough noise for him to be at peace. Commotion, Yousuf thought, was the symbol of well-being in the house.
Muhammad Yousuf was a man of few words. He was very fond of the radio. He listened to BBC News because he did not trust the government news reports on the conflict in Kashmir. His second favourite thing on the transistor was cricket commentary. It was almost impossible for him to miss a daily news bulletin. After years of practice, he had learnt to tune into programmes without even checking the time or schedule. Despite the
static at each slight turn of the dial on the transistor, he was adept at catching the BBC signal. Even with the noisy TV playing in the room, the transistor was never silent or turned off.
He remembered the number of transistors he had cherished, changing them when they fell from ledges or slipped from the crooks of apple trees in the orchard or got damaged when the children toyed with them, or when they were ruined by leaking batteries. He had gifted some to his insurgent friends. His bedroom was a museum of old transistors. He had a collection of defunct, antique Murphy, Panasonic, Philips, Sony, Zeenat and other cardboard-framed or plastic-framed transistors, some of them clad in perforated tan or black leather encasements. The oldest was a souvenir from his grandfather, a part-wooden and part-plastic graceful Murphy set, the size of a plum crate. The most modern one was a medium-sized Philips set—rickety after it had fallen from a high shelf in the kitchen. Yousuf’s wife Naseema had unknowingly swept it off while groping for a matchbox during a sudden power cut. Later, Yousuf had fixed it with strips of white tape.
The first time he visited the family orchard after his brother’s migration to Delhi, Yousuf noticed that the village regarded him strangely. It was an early spring morning and he ambled down the Daddgaam market, passing by the prominent Malik General Store of Nazir Ahmad Malik. Malik was widely known by his epithetic second name Tout’a, which meant ‘parrot’. He had a round face and his tobacco-blackened buckteeth protruded from his lips. This made him look as though he were constantly smiling. The village children mistook him for a magnanimous shopkeeper because even when he ridiculed them for asking for free candy sometimes, he seemed to smile. The front of the shop was always crowded with hankering, squatting, smoking and idling village elders, endlessly gossiping about local politics.
Malik was a known scandalmonger, but some village elders ignored this side of his personality and instead willingly bought into everything he said wholeheartedly. One of the idlers at Malik’s shopfront was Abdul Ahad Magray, the bearded village head who had taken a number of favours from Abdul Rahmaan Dar, and would steer the gossip towards mainstream politics. Then the bristle-cheeked Abdul Aziz Ganie, who had always been a staunch opponent of the armed movement in Daddgaam before his daughter’s love marriage to a local insurgent commander, would raise his flawed arguments in favour of the armed resistance. Following them, the condescending Muhammad Ramzaan Naik, the wood trader, would make it a point to start his next comment before giving others a chance to respond to his previous one. Finally the scraggly-bearded Molvi Ali Muhammad Shah, imam of the Daddgaam Jamia Mosque, would be the last to join in, quietly listening to various views on the topic already under discussion. To any stranger approaching the shop, he would appear to be the only wise person in the group, waiting for the right time to decimate all the comments and arguments made by the others. But Molvi Shah usually tossed in the most stupid assertion and disillusioned the spectator quickly.
On that morning, Muhammad Yousuf Dar passed by Malik General Store with the transistor playing under his pheran. Malik quietly diverted the attention of the men at the shop to Yousuf. For the whole day, then, the village elders discussed the exile of Abdul Rahmaan Dar, comparing him to his younger brother, subtly criticizing the people in Kashmir who did not stand by the armed movement. Once Abdul Rahmaan had refused to help Malik’s only son Altaf, a class ten dropout, get a government job. Since then Malik had been cross with the Dars.
A rutted and pitted main road slithered through Daddgaam, dividing it into two parts: an upper part and a lower part. The upper part was a plateau where all the apple and plum orchards were situated; the lower part was a not-so-congested residential area for the village inhabitants, large yet unplastered brick houses with open compounds, strewn with snot-nosed children, cattle, cow dung, pellets, straw, old bicycles, drying red chillies, mortars and pestles. The rest of the inhabited spaces of the village were filled with lofty walnut trees, and the market lined either side of the main road.
There was a large Army camp on the other side of the plateau, just beside the Dars’ apple orchard. The Dar orchard was an ancestral property shared between Yousuf and Rahmaan. The two brothers had never properly demarcated their shares. The orchard had a barbed-wire fence along its boundary; but inside, the brothers had maintained it as if it belonged to a single owner. There was a long ridge that ran through the orchard in the middle, dividing it into two roughly equal parts. Both the brothers would attend equally to the entire orchard. Both would take their turns at pruning or spraying pesticides. Both would share the income from the annual harvest.
The Army camp was already creeping into Rahmaan Dar’s side of the orchard. Earlier the troops had been stealing apples and firewood, and now they were encroaching upon the land. They had breached the fence on one side.
The sight of four stray cows wandering about his brother’s side of the orchard, trampling the ploughed ground, infuriated Muhammad Yousuf. The animals had intruded through the damaged fence. He placed his transistor in the forked crook of an apple tree, gathered his pheran on his right shoulder and began to fix the fence posts. He stretched the barbed wire. He needed a claw hammer to bend the nails on the wire. But because he had not anticipated the need, he adjusted it temporarily and filled the spaces between each tier with dry branches of bramble bush and wilted, decomposing burdocks that had lain drying along the hedge since the last summer. The hiss of the transistor alerted the troops in the camp. They quietly watched Yousuf’s activity until he moved to the other side of the orchard, his own portion. There he weeded some wild hemp and hung the plants on the barbed wire.
After his migration, Rahmaan’s fi rst letter, besides enquiries about Muhammad Yousuf’s and his family’s well-being and many other things, asked him if he wanted anything from Delhi. Yousuf read it many times over and then, alone in his room, before stowing it in his
leather vanity box, he smelled the thin blue paper of the inland letter and touched the Urdu words written with a fountain pen.
In his reply, Muhammad Yousuf wrote:
‘Everything is fine. Only the Army is advancing into the orchard, as you already know. I am worried about that. I don’t really need anything, but if you can send a good transistor I’ll be obliged. That is it. The one I have, the one you knew, is in bad shape. Naseema damaged it accidentally. Time and again I stuff something or the other in the battery slot to keep the batteries tightly connected. Even aft er repairing it twice, one or the other thing comes loose. Rest all is fine in the village …’
A fortnight later, a courier arrived at Muhammad Yousuf’s house. He unboxed a small, bubble-wrapped transistor with its warranty card. It was a rectangular, vertically elongated, black case with two small twin grey dials on the top front. There was a tiny projection of a black antenna to its top left corner and an almost invisible metre-band strip fixed on the narrow left side. It was a transistor of a shape, colour and design he had
never seen before. Yousuf filled its battery slot with new, slender batteries and turned it on. The sound it blared was loud and fresh.
It was a Friday afternoon. Wielding a claw hammer in his right hand, Muhammad Yousuf Dar was bending the nails on the barbed wire in his orchard. The surroundings echoed with Friday sermons blaring from all the mosques in the village. The twelve o’clock bulletin on Yousuf’s new transistor was already over and it was now just hissing in the crook of a young quince apple tree. His hands were soiled so he let it be.
As Yousuf walked towards the orchard well to wash his hands, he found Nazir Ahmad Malik standing on the dirt track outside the orchard, staring at him and the transistor. Malik was returning from his own orchard and heading to the Jamia Mosque for Friday prayers. Yousuf salaamed him and they exchanged pleasantries. Then, Malik moved on, every now and then turning to look back at Yousuf and his hissing transistor.
Once the Friday prayers were over, people burst out of the mosque door and began to huddle into small clusters on the main road. There were groups of children, adults, youths and old men—all gossiping. Nazir Ahmad Malik led his own group. As he saw Yousuf coming out of the mosque, Malik drove everyone’s attention towards him. All the old men scanned Yousuf furtively. ‘His brother has given him a walkie-talkie to spy on the freedom movement in the village. I saw it with my own eyes … he was trying out the signal with the Army near his orchard.’
Everyone believed what Malik said when he described Yousuf’s transistor as a walkie-talkie. Malik looked sweet and composed, as always, with that smiling look on his face. Ignoring the fact that Yousuf had always stood by his own politics, the villagers instead easily connected the wrong dots.
From that Friday to the next, in the matter of a week, the whole of Daddgaam and several other adjoining villages were abuzz with news of Yousuf’s ‘walkie-talkie’.
Just after his sermon, Molvi Ali Muhammad Shah announced: ‘We have learnt that some unethical persons in our Daddgaam have been spying on the village. And they have been exchanging information regarding the resistance movement with the government forces through wireless sets. And yes, you heard it right: wireless sets. They have become informers and are betraying the great cause of freedom and Islam. And this announcement
must serve as their last warning.’
The announcement was followed by a delay in the Friday prayers. Molvi Shah took ten more minutes to sermonize about ‘betrayal and its punishment in Islam’. Yousuf listened to the announcement in awe and with great interest. He was curious and puzzled, and he wondered who those informers could be. But everyone was covertly looking at him. As Molvi Shah commenced the khutba, the Arabic part of the sermon, Yousuf tried to guess. His eyes wandered along the rows of worshippers. He scanned Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, an infamous boy who, the village believed, indulged in drugs. Yousuf shook his head. No, it cannot be Fayaz; his brother Farooq sacrificed himself for the cause of freedom. Then on his left, Yousuf found Altaf Ahmad Malik, Nazir Ahmad Malik’s son, who, the people said, was the worst ‘loose character’ in the entire village; who had been warned several times by the insurgents to stop stalking the village girls. No, it cannot be him either; it is not necessary that one who has a loose character would also be an informer. Then Yousuf stopped looking around, folded his hands on his chest and concentrated on the khutba.
A few days later, Yousuf, as usual, was listening raptly to the 8.30 p.m. BBC bulletin in his kitchen. With each bit of the news about human rights’ violations committed by the government forces in Kashmir, he would curse the forces under his breath. In a corner, Naseema was frying potatoes over a gas stove. Suddenly, there was a power cut. The children were writing their school homework. There came a loud bang on the main door. Yousuf and his family froze for a minute. Naseema and Yousuf looked at each other in wonder. They were not expecting any visitors at this hour, and definitely not knocking on the main door after the gate had been closed.
Then, there was another, louder knock. ‘It must be the Army. They are angry with me. As I’m trying to keep them away from Brother’s side of the orchard,’ Yousuf whispered to Naseema. ‘Don’t worry. I will go and see.’
With his daring heart and shivering body, the transistor in his right hand—booming BBC—and a candle stub in the left , he went over to open the door. Yousuf placed the candle on top of the banister post opposite the main door and pulled down the bolt. In the dim candlelight, he saw three men. And before he could ask them who they were and what they wanted, they cocked their guns.
Scattered Souls is available in bookstores. To order your copy online, click here: http://amzn.to/2eymuoo