Short Story: Healing the Improbable
by Neera Kashyap
Ikk ōnkār satināmu karatā puraku nirapǎ’u niraver akāl mūrat ajūnī sepàng gurprasād*
Kartar Kaur murmured words from the holy book under her breath, aware both of their sacredness and the constriction in her throat that refused to leave. Sometimes she could continue repeating the mantra without a break but mostly she would falter, grope for the next phrase and lose it in the shortness of breath. Even when the repetition went on for a while, her mind struggled to invoke onkar, the one constant. For the one constant remained Harpreet …her Harpreet…who had disappeared without a trace twelve years ago. A ‘suspected militant’ was all that remained of his identity. Except in her heart…her gentle son, a poet at heart, a philosopher in his soul.
The festivals and festivities of the village had long ceased to interest both her and Gurmeet Singh since the disappearance. They no longer went anywhere, and nobody asked. She knew that many mothers had lost their sons in that terrible decade following the desecration of their holiest shrine, Sri Darbar Sahib. But at least they knew their sons had been killed by the police or was in their custody. Their families had been able to establish it through investigation, through law courts, through eye witnesses.
There were some mothers who had not known. Like Kartar Kaur, Bibi Baljit had been clueless about her son Hazara Singh’s whereabouts. But ten years after his disappearance, she had learnt from the formal investigations ordered by the Supreme Court into these disappearances, that he had been cremated by the police at the Durgiana mandir crematorium in Amritsar — his name identifiable in black and white in the crematorium records.
Bibi Baljit had then held a long memorial prayer for her son lasting ten days. As if Hazara had just died and not died ten years ago. As the first verses of the Anand Sahib were recited, Kartar Kaur noticed how Bibi Baljit’s face was a picture of grief in repose. To the granthi’s** refrain of Jeevan maran sukh ho-e jinhaa gur paa-i-aa***, she wept freely but there was a release in her tears, like the lifting of a huge burden, more…like a freedom that elevates. Kartar Kaur could not take her eyes off Bibi Baljit. They had shared the torments of their disappeared sons like two women maddened by grief and guilt, unable to let them die in their own minds, unable to let them be killed. Bibi Baljit could now let Hazara go. Kartar Kaur knew she would be alone now, fighting her own demons.
Hazara was alive. Harpreet was alive. I know it. I know it too. The two women had said these words again and again when they met, as if they met only to say these words to each other.
Bibi Baljit had cited the case of a boy, Sarwan Singh Shamma from village Kot Mehtab who the police had declared a terrorist killed in an encounter. “He showed up four years later and tried to get protection from the police in the High Court. He said he had been picked up by the police along with another boy. They were both tortured. The other boy died under torture. Sarwan Singh managed to escape from jail. But when he read the police version that he had been killed and the other boy had escaped, he feared he would be the real encounter victim. So, he hid for four years till he felt he could come out and actually get justice.”
“What does it matter to the police if one is tortured to death or another escapes torture until death?” Kartar Kaur had said bitterly. “They get lakhs as awards for killing terrorists in encounters. The more people a terrorist has killed the bigger the award. How would they know how many a terrorist has killed … ten, hundred, a thousand?”
Both women had fallen silent. “Sometimes I think…dream…my Harpreet is alive and in jail…Not able to come out, not able to tell us where he is,” Kartar Kaur had murmured. “We worked hard on the fields to send him to engineering college in the city. He tried to get a job nearby so he could work close to us, to the land. But there were no agriculture units to employ him, not even sugar and textile mills to process all the sugar and cotton we farmers produced. He was too educated to work in the fields, so became our supervisor, the supervisor of our labour from other states. Then he withdrew. He began to keep to himself, read or write or just drive off into the night with his friends. I noticed some of them carried guns…but Harpreet would not speak…I could not get him to speak.”
“I dream that Hazara has escaped from the police. That he is safe but unable to tell us where he is. I feel he wants to tell me, but I am not able to hear,” Bibi Baljit had said. The women had sat apart, each on her own island of grief. At least Bibi knows that Hazara was picked up by the police, Kartar Kaur had thought, so they could go to various police stations, courts, mortuaries to look for him. Harpreet had just disappeared one night without a trace.
I woke early. She was already bathed and saying her prayers. This meant she would have cleaned out the cattle shed and milked the cows. Soon she would bring me tea. This would be a normal day. She would make me a hearty breakfast of parathas, white butter and lassi and be there on the field with freshly cooked lunch. She may even help to weed the wheat and hold up the fencing as he and the men reinforced them. It was her day to convert butter into ghee, so he would return in the evening to the sharp smell of browned butterfat and the fragrance of clear golden ghee.
Kartaro’s days were not predictable. Even if she began her day with energy, she would be unable to get beyond noon without slumping. The house would be dirty, clothes unwashed, the cows not fed, dinner a sludge of leftovers. Then things would be normal for a while and she would even help him store the grains for the household. But Kartaro’s eyes were not normal, they were always looking to the horizon, ears peeled, breath short and heaving.
Soon she rose to go to the kitchen and came in with tea.
“I dreamt of him again. Like our saint Guga Pir spoke to his mother from the womb, he spoke from mine.”
“Who?” I asked deliberately.
She ignored me. “Harpreet said we both had been bitten by snakes, but he would come to heal us. Just like Guga Pir could make his mother heal the bullocks of snakebite. So, they could carry her safely to her parents’ home for his birth.”
“Guga Pir invoked the power of his Master to give his mother the snake charm that healed the bullocks. We must pray constantly to Guru Nanak Dev to cure us of this poison that does not let us forget our … our boy.”
Kartar Kaur stared unflinchingly into the horizon. Her whole wait and search had been unflinching. As if Bibi Baljit’s search had led anywhere — all that searching in police stations, courts, mortuaries. What did it all lead to? That Hazara was dead…dead. I…I…know that already.
“You have become worse since the memorial prayers for Hazara Singh,” I said. “You shriek in your dreams, you have visions of him, you mutter under your breath…… you neglect your household duties…. you, a farmer’s wife, a Jatti****.” I paused. “Kartaro, clear his room. Gather all his things. We will burn them and bury the ashes in the soil. We will go to the holy shrine at Lehal, to Dukh Nivaran Sahib; the holy waters will heal us.”
“Harpreet said he would come himself to heal us. This time he did not come to me like before…blood pouring out from every bullet wound…body bloated, hands tied behind his back,” she gasped. “He came dressed in white, his beard flowing, his face peaceful. He came from my womb like Guga Pir came to his mother, reciting the 8-fold snake charm.”
“Harpreet is not Guga Pir, Kartaro. He was a good boy, not a saint. And not a militant. He had his sympathies for their cause…wanted more for himself, for our state. He did not see that those gun totters were not saint soldiers, not Guru Gobind’s saints armed for the right cause. Those hoodlums killed openly, brazenly to terrorize…Harpreet was not like them…he did not kill anyone…I know.”
“He is guiltless. His life has been spared. He is safe. He said he would come himself to heal us.”
“Even Guga Pir finally vanished. He, the protector, the giver of boons, the worshiper of Gorakhnath…at the end he and his horse disappeared, swallowed into the bowels of the Earth,” I said, more with hurt than with anger. I threw the glass on the ground, the tea splotch spreading slowly like blood, and strode out heaving.
Kartar Kaur watched her husband stride out of the house, his gait more broken than angry. Ikk ōnkār satināmu karatā puraku*… she tried to steady her breath to let the words flow, but her breath was too short, too heaving. She sat immobile till she knew the farming men would have all left for the fields. She walked to Bibi Baljit’s house. As they hugged, she absorbed Bibi’s warmth as she welcomed her with a heart full of sadness and love.
For a long time, they sat silent. When Bibi Baljit finally spoke, Kartar Kaur knew the great generosity that lay behind what she shared.
“The cause of his death was recorded as — ‘Killed while trying to escape.’ We knew this was a cover-up for a death in police custody. Killed while trying to escape! They don’t bother to even vary the details. How can all escape the same way, at the same time, from the same locations? I had to get the details, I had to get the details so I could … let him go,” said Bibi Baljit in a voice so full of courage, Kartar Kaur could only stare.
“We learnt of all the terms the police used to cover up a custodial death; killed while trying to escape; killed in crossfire; death by cyanide; death in encounter; killed by other militants; killed when used as human shield; unidentified militant found dead,” Bibi Baljit’s voice quavered.
Kartar Kaur waited, her breath bated.
“Hazara’s father worked day and night to track down a senior police officer who was then the station house officer of our district jail. He claimed he did not know any Hazara Singh. Hazara’s father pleaded with him, gave him details of Hazara’s appearance: 6’ tall, gaunt fair face, green eyes, green turban…It was the green eyes and green turban that jerked up his memory.” Bibi Baljit paused. “He spoke only because he wanted to be at peace himself.”
Taking a deep breath, she continued: “Hazara had been strung up to the ceiling and beaten with sticks and leather belts. When they took him down, he screamed with anger. A policeman took him by the hair and smashed his head against the wall. He never recovered consciousness.”
It was over. It had been spoken. Bibi Baljit closed her eyes, lips murmuring in prayer. Kartar Kaur left silently.
Once home, Kartar Kaur spent the day in her prayer alcove. Again and again, she visualized Harpreet’s death: strung up to the ceiling with a rope; beaten black and blue with sticks and belts; his angry scream; his head smashed against the wall; his eyes glazed and unconscious; his body in a mortuary; his cremation in a municipal crematorium.
By the evening she had emptied his room; gathered his belongings in two of her dupattas, tying the knots tight to hold his things together. When Gurmeet Singh saw her standing on their threshold holding two swollen bundles and a jerry can, he did not bother to enter the house. He led her back into the fields. He sprinkled kerosene on the two large bundles and lit them. Before nightfall, the ashes had been buried with the winter crop.
It was not till Kartar Kaur had immersed herself in Dukh Nivaran Sahib’s lake waters did she feel the same healing sadness that she had seen in Bibi Baljit’s eyes. Unlike never before, Bibi’s last hug had been full of reaching out, full of love. Kartar Kaur’s breath deepened. Holding it for a few minutes, she sank down into the healing waters of the shrine.
*One universal Creator God, Truth and eternal is the name, Creative being, Without Fear, Without Enmity, Timeless and deathless Form, Not affected by the circle of life and death – unborn, Self-Existent, He can be realized by the grace of the true and eternal Guru who has the power to enlighten us.
** A ceremonial reader of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib.
***Those who have found the Guru are at peace, in life and in death.
****Women who belong to the Jatt race and are proud of their culture and lineage.
Neera Kashyap has worked on social communications, specifically health and environment. As an author, she has published a book of stories for young adults titled ‘Daring to dream’ (Rupa & Co., 2003) and contributed to five prize-winning anthologies published by Children’s Book Trust. As a literary writer of short fiction, poetry, essays, story/book reviews and creative non-fiction, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in South Asian journals – both online and print – which include Kitaab, Papercuts, Out of Print Magazine and Blog, Earthen Lamp Journal, Muse India, Indian Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Verse of Silence, Erothanatos and Indian Literature. She lives in Delhi.
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