Fatima’s Gift of Light
Photograph by Henrik Bennetsen
by Feroz Rather
Beyond the backyard, there is a small forest; beyond the forest, a large, freshwater lake. Every day just before sunset, I step out of my house to walk through the cedars, by the waters gleaming gold and amber in the fading sunlight. When I’m on the edge of the lake, I turn and look back at the house. I live here alone. At night when it is dark outside and I’m working on my stories, I feel lonely. I think of the Sierra Nevada whose upper ridge rises softly behind the house. The hills give me a feeling of deep camaraderie and friendship, a feeling that on clear days lifts and undulates through a tall, blue sky with bald and snow-flecked grace.
Today is a bright day in late February. After weeks of depressing fog and sad winter rains, once again, the season of spring has suddenly announced itself in Fresno. I briskly negotiate my way out of my study into the company of woods and water, and I feel a quaint and bristling gnawing at my heart. I stop.
Far away you are; tucked from the eyes of the world by a long, continuous shroud of snow draped over the Himalayas, but I see you. Lourdes, my ninety-year-old landlady, who lives in the noisy town center a fifty minute bus ride from here, says that Fresno is one big part of the San Joaquin Valley that dominates central California, and I listen quietly. I do not tell her about Kashmir being a valley, of her and your beauty. I do not tell her how far and different Fresno is from my country. There is a thick veneer of light-green grass over the hills from where the mist comes rolling down to settle over the vineyards across the lake, the vineyards vast and extending for miles toward the beginnings of the town. I do not tell Lourdes that this valley has the temperament of a desert; the wind is frosty and indifferent here, the seasons harsh and indistinct, always shifting brusquely.
Kashmir. Kacmir. Kaschemir. Kasmere. Eachbead of that rosary is a droplet of my own burnished silence. Kashmir: with each passing breath my soul echoes that solemn sound, my aching body leaves me and plunges headlong into an imaginary void through the belly of the earth until it comes out on the other side in Kashmir. Kashmir: where you, too, were born and where, when I return, we’ll live together. If I get killed, if you get killed, if we are all killed, our rotting bodies will lie there clinging to our land, until the world ends, humanity ends, and inhumanity ends.
In 1989, the year you were born, the war for aazadi, for freedom, erupted like a flurry of long-oppressed lava from the bottom of the Himalayas, shaking and burning the quiescent wintery ground beneath our feet. The world doesn’t know much about it. But I must tell you those who deny and occupy were jolted and took to murderous revenge and rage. As I cradled you in my arms inside our home, there was blood on the streets. It remained there, liquid and roaring, until you fell asleep and it seeped into the depths of the land. As spring emerged slowly, the blood rose and rushed to the leaves. The soft wind blew it afresh into the clouds. Soon the entire sky was daubed a gory shade of red. By the time you reached the age of ten, exhausted like a full-blown season, the war slowed down and receded. It became subtle and almost imperceptible like the very unfolding of seasons in Kashmir. The war is not over yet, my child, you must remember. It drags on as we drag and plod through it; our war remains as long as human love for freedom remains.
Three years have passed since I left. How amused you looked when I put my ear against the tree trunks! That was the last time I overheard the rush of the liquid inside them. It must have been late in the month of March or the beginning of April. The bulbuls chirruped boisterously in apricot trees in pink incipient bloom. As you walked in front of me, my Golden Guber, my Milk Moon, the branches leaned in a gesture of homage and touched and caressed the ground. The sun shone over you in its dazzling glory. Yes, it was then, I very clearly remember, I witnessed the horizon blushing with the intimations of that marvelous gift of light.
From the mosque across the dusty trail of a road passing by our home, Mir Muezzin gives the call for the dusk prayers, announcing the end of a long, blistering day. I step inside. In the corridor, my sister-in-law tells me that Fatima is in her room. As usual, Neelofar, a strict mother, has forced Fatima to resume homework immediately after school.
Fatima sits by a large glass window, scribbling her pages with a pencil. Her books are scattered about the floor. There is no electricity and the blades of the ceiling fan are static. It is hotter inside, and she looks fatigued. As she senses me at the door, she jumps up and comes running. I bow and she throws her sweating arms around my neck. I feel her hot cheeks brush against my stubble. Her eyes light up and kissing me all over my face, she says, “Let’s go.”
We stroll through a labyrinth of neighborly houses with ribbons of blue smoke issuing out of the chimneys and rising over their steep, conical tin roofs until we are under a lush willow canopy. Fatima’s hand, a dove’s wing in mine, she walks with little, lithe steps in her Lilliput flip-flops. Over the banks, the sky opens high and wide. Fatima leads me down the slope to the yarbal, the flat polished bed of rocks jutting out of the bank over the surface of the water. She thrusts her hands forward and scares away a school of fish. I suddenly hold her hand, thinking she might stumble forward and drown. I ask her to keep her distance from the water.
Fatima wrenches her hand free and kicks off her flip-flops. She begins to run by the edge of the bank, her white cotton dress, hemmed with miniature gardenias, bloating and waving in the cool air. She mutters fragments of rhymes and creates her own rhyme: “Jonny, Jonny, yes, Papa/Jack and Jill no Papa,” punctuating it with haphazard peals of laughter.
I gather some pebbles from under the leaves of grass. We sit down, Fatima by my left side, leaning her entire weight on me. One by one, I pass the pebbles to her. One by one, she throws them into the water. Each pebble creates a concentric ripple on the calm, crystal surface, each ripple a faint smile on her face. Each ripple a ripple on her face, each pebble a smile on the surface. From behind the Himalayas in the West, the twilight illuminates scrap of clouds in the crimson sky. A flock of cranes comes flying by. Amused and startled, Fatima stands up and points her fingers towards them: “Shin Chan, Ninja Hathode, Ninja, Ninjaaa…’’she shouts; the names of the dearest comic characters come rushing to her. After a few minutes as the cranes disappear from the sight, we resume our walk, upstream.
The bank curves and climbs. The grass is thicker here and drenched in the droplets of dew. Over the level of the canopy, the sky is an indigo blur saw-toothed by the silhouettes of pointed roofs angling up in the background. Some women of the village have gathered on the yarbal to gossip their evening away. It is the time when men, most of them shopkeepers in Mir Bazar or farmers in the fields across the river Sandren, return home.
The twilight is fading and the stars are beginning to appear. Fatima pulls at my arm and again we sit down. She rests her hands on tufts of grass. The dewdrops, leaping off the margins of the grass blades, slip through her fingers; the dewdrops fall on the trail of gardenias, making them emit a musky sweet smell. I roll my fingers through the little dense forest of her black hair, twisting and braiding it gently, filially. Fatima grows calm. The gift of light is descending on her; a starry powder, it falls on her like a dusty rain of fireflies, the twinkling flakes of a virgin snowfall.
In the morning, Fatima gets up late and misses the school bus. She is harshly rebuked by her mother. She climbs the stairs to the second story of the house. She somehow manages to push open the heavy door and walks into my study. She makes her way through the towering piles of books laid out on the floor and tugs at my shirt. “Uncle, the bus is already gone. What will I do now?’’ she says.
I open my eyes, and they meet hers; large and black-lashed and moist. Her face, a lot like my own, has long dirty smudges.
“Uncle, I missed the bus. Would you not take me local? Would you not?” she says, snuffling. I nod yes. I walk her to the basin in the corridor and wash her face. I dab it delicately with my soft white towel until it is clean and dry.
We walk on the verge of the road strewn with shimmering shingle as it winds through dense apricot groves toward Mir Bazar. In ten minutes, we reach the village grocery market built around the intersection where the thin road from the village cuts the broad highway from India. The sun seethes and swelters over us; mirages of heat rise over the burning black tarmac of the highway; the dust is set ablaze on top of the rusting shutters and grubby shop walls. We stand near the roadside and wait amid a group of students. They are all enthused and talking. Their uniforms suggest they are seniors at the high school which I attended years ago in the town. Lanky, juvenile boys in white shirts and gray pants. Giggly girls in long-tailed frocks and loose white pajamas.
Long lines of soldiers also stand askew on either side of the highway. Soon the morning convoy of trucks will pass in brief tempestuous installments. As the trucks whiz past, the soldiers mounted on top will brandish their assault rifles and hurl words of vengeance on us. The passage of all other vehicles will be blocked; the automobiles of civilians will be halted and directed off to the fringes. Any violation of this rule means physical injury to the driver, the passengers inside, or the vehicle itself perpetrated by the soldiers standing patrol.
Fatima is in her uniform; a blue silk frock, black stockings and black shoes. Undaunted by the heat, she smiles expectantly. She relishes holding her light lunch-box in her hands while I hold her cumbersome book bag. Although all her school friends are gone, she looks excited about travelling in a local bus; it is a departure from the monotony and discipline of the school bus.
“Uncle, these army men don’t look like us?” Fatima asks viewing the soldiers from the proximate distance.
“They don’t belong here,’’ I say.
“What are they doing here?” she asks.
“They are trying to fight Ninja,” I reply.
Fatima doesn’t relate to my answer. She is watching them carefully. She frowns, pulls the lunch box closer to her body, and hugs it.
“Poor things. Why don’t they go home? Don’t they miss their mamas?” she asks.
“They go home sometimes, when they are on a vacation. No, they don’t miss their mamas. They are trained not to miss their mamas.”
A grim-faced soldier stands at the end of the line terminating near us. He is at a distance of few yards, sagging in the blurring heat with his Kalashnikov and the burden of grenades in large, pendulous breast pouches. He starts walking toward us. Slowly, the crowd falls into a hush. From a street in the rear, I hear the sound of the cobbler’s invisible iron hammer banging brutally on the anvil. Fatima looks into the eyes of the soldier and takes some steps toward him. She extends her hand and reaches for his. The boys and girls look on, dazed. The soldier doesn’t stop by her. He walks past her and stops in front of me.
The boys stand where they are. The girls, lowering their eyes, retreat. Some of them blush and wrap their scarves around their bosoms. The soldier stands facing us. His eyes are languid; he looks cold and oblivious. Nearer, his grimness is more pronounced; it has hues of tattered apathy to it. He doesn’t ask anyone anything. He doesn’t ask us to produce our identity cards. He seems to forget to push us farther away from the tarmac road to the grassy edges. I bypass him, walk up to Fatima, and pull her back to the crowd. The soldier turns back, crosses the road, and joins the other line of the soldiers.
“Looks like he is hungry. Shall I give him some of my food?’’ Fatima asks, lifting her lunch box a little higher. I give her a scornful look. I tell her that the soldier is fine, that he doesn’t need our food, that he won’t be able to digest it, that he’ll vomit his entrails out.
Luckily, a bus arrives before the next installment of the convoy. Inside, we sit by Mir Muezzin—he just made it to the stop as we were boarding. Fatima, seated in my lap, asks the old man to narrate a story. Mir Muezzin looks toward me and out of his old habit, as I greet him, he recites in Arabic from the Quran: “The parable of God’s light is a niche wherein is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star.” He tells us that when Fatima’s father was her age, he was a difficult student of the Quran at the mosque, always asking him to explain the meaning of that verse and suchlike at an unripe age. Since I have not been to mosque for ages despite Mir Muezzin’s cordial invitations, I tell him that I want to know the meaning of that verse, too.
“Since you are twenty-five years of age and, I heard, fond of knowledge and books, I’ll tell you. God’s light or that sort of poetry is not be known but to be experienced in a state of submissive silence,” he says. Muezzin is clad in clean white kameez and shalwar of the finest cotton and his sleeves amply smell of attar. I listen with a quiet reverence as, in our country, young people are supposed to do when their elders and the knowledgeable are speaking. As I follow him with my earnest nodes and gestures, Fatima is unable to participate; her face assumes a bemused expression.
“Papa is far away on duty in the city of Srinagar,” she suddenly interrupts. She pulls at the long, gray broom of Mir Muezzin’s beard and calls him baba. He smiles and rewards this with a candy; he spreads his hand over her head in benediction. “Papa will bring me more Chinese jelly candies when he comes back on Saturday evening,” Fatima says, tossing the candy inside her mouth. She is laughing now. I smile, thinking that she has forgotten about the soldier’s hunger.
After a long day of battling with my story, writing and crossing out and re-writing many times, I duck out of my study to visit Mir Bazar before sunset. When I reach the marketplace, I find all the shops are closed; the shutters are rolled down and not a soul, not a vehicle, is moving. The only sound that tears through the shrill silence is that of the cobbler’s hammer. I hurriedly walk to his corner on a rear street. His head is lowered and bloated with anger, his eyes reddened and ruthless. I ask him what the matter is. He doesn’t answer; like a mute master of his own slavery, he bangs and bangs with his callused heavy hands. In a flock of old shoes, damaged and riddled with bullet holes lying about him, I find a copy of the Daily Aftab. As I move my eyes over the front page, I clutch the newspaper as devils clutch my throat. Without even asking him, I put it in my pants pocket. I run home breathlessly and find Fatima is waiting for me at the entrance door.
“Uncle, let’s go,” she proclaims. “Today, I finished my homework early.”
“Uncle let’s go,” she says again. I walk past her into the corridor.
“Uncle let’s go, what is wrong with you!” she calls me from behind. I stand silent and still.
“Uncle, let’s go. Otherwise, I’ll start crying,” she threatens.
“I can’t, Fatima. I can’t take you for a walk,” I say.
“Look Mama, Uncle is refusing to take me for a walk,” she calls to her mother who is in the kitchen.
“Don’t bother him. He might be busy with his own work,” Neelofar replies, her voice sharp and reproachful over the sound of damp onions she is frying now.
“Please, Uncle,” she runs toward me and clings to my knees.
“I told you, Fatima, I can’t…I just can’t,” I yell and push her away.
Fatima is puzzled. She runs into the kitchen. I turn back and walk out, hearing her cry all the way to the river.
I sit by the bank. The news tightens like a noose around my neck. I take out the newspaper and look at the details of the report. The girl is a high-school senior, only seventeen, and comes from a small hamlet surrounded by apple orchards across Mir Bazar. Did I see her while I was waiting with Fatima? I ask myself. But how would that matter; she could be Neelofar, she could be any girl or woman from anywhere in Kashmir; tomorrow, she could very well be Fatima. I try to close my eyes; I cover them with my hands to obliterate my vision but my imagination doesn’t stop.
She is walking into dusk, down the sloping, murmurous banks of a brook; the soldiers noticing her from the bunkers erected at the corners of their encampment; the soldiers talking to each other about catching a new prey; the soldiers darting out in semi-darkness; the soldiers running after her; the soldiers asking her to run away; the soldiers running after her and laughing at her failure to run anymore; the soldiers circling around her; the soldiers and her continual panting and shivering; the soldiers pulling her pajamas down; the soldiers wrenching her limbs apart; the soldiers sealing her mouth with their hands; the soldiers cutting her lips with their teeth; the soldiers yanking and biting at her bosom; the soldiers and the hapless shrieks; the soldiers taking their turns; the soldiers hitting her head with the rocks from the brook; the soldiers and their thundering laughter; the soldiers and the streams of her blood mixing with the water…
Darkness envelops me. I stand up. I fling away the newspaper. I turn back. I turn to the other side. I start walking. I stumble into a willow trunk and bruise my elbow. Mir Muezzin gives the call for prayer. The darkness grows darker.
Fatima is at the entrance door. Betrayed. Her eyes are swollen. I lean forward and try to wrap my arms around her. She pushes me back and hits me with sharp blows on my face. One moment, she is defiant and angry. Another, she is holding my neck in her arms, melting me in her embrace…
I’m standing, frigid and motionless, in a darkening corridor of cedars. A chill wind from the Sierra Nevada moans through the branches. I drag my heavy steps toward the lake. The sun has just gone down below the horizon. A grey hush of twilight sits over the water. As I near the shore, I turn and look back at the house. It has filled with the completeness of my absence and solitude.
Lourdes must also be all alone in her house. At the end of the month, I’ll go and talk to her. I like listening to her, though all we talk about is my rent and her old-age problems. She once told me that all the thirteen daughters who came out of the wedlock with her American husband left her early and disappeared in the big cities of the North American continent. After the death of Richard last year, she has to wait; she has to be content with the brief telephone calls she gets from Jani (the youngest in Vancouver) and Diana (the oldest in Boston) on the weekends. She once joked that when she dies, like my own, I shall carry her dead body on my shoulders across the California border back to her small village in eastern Mexico. I wonder what dreams she harbors in the bleak wrinkles of her soul, as she hunches like a cold cat in the bedroom in the damp stuffy basement of her house.
Tonight, from across an impossible distance, I imagine she’ll dream about me. In her dream, she’ll see I’m dreaming that I’m in a dell with her, a dove hopping in front of us. A pack of wild wolves suddenly attack and tear it apart. The feathers, the bloodied gardenia petals, lift up, the fluttering flakes of snow fall down. As she looks at my battered face, she walks toward me and folds me in her embrace.
I turn away from the house. My eyes droop and rest on the surface of the water. Suddenly, a gaggle of gulls, perhaps on their way to the shores of the Pacific, comes flying by. Against a sky, high and wide, with twilit scraps of mist drifting down the hills, they make spectacular flights. They dip low and settle down. They float and flap, creating a shifting kaleidoscope of ripples. I grasp a pebble from the ground and throw it in their direction. A frightening squawk, and a gull takes off. Fatima, I hear you call, “Shin Chan. Ninja Hathode. Ninjaaa….”
About the Author:
Feroz Rather has an MFA from Fresno State. He is a Contributing Editor at The Normal School.