It now is mine, this twilight all mine.
And I weep on the neck of trees,
-Agha Shahid Ali
It was snowing last night. It must have been so when the year ended. He woke up at Fajr. Unexpectedly, lazily. But he was awake in bed with the sounds from the mosque streaming in and he felt that he couldn't ignore them anymore.
Normally, in winter days he would find some work here and there. He had spent the summer doing odd jobs for the hoteliers around Lal Chowk. He had waited on tourists, pushed carts and in general waited for good times. In Maisuma, where he and his cohorts assembled beneath the awning of a hardware shop, the business is brisk before extended periods of lull and curfew. The army cordon is strong during curfews and even in peaceful times there is always an armoured truck. A few army men stand to guard it, and few more stand inside it to be guarded.
The daily wagers pay them no attention, except when they are ordered to buy tobacco for the army men. They carry on with their chatter and jostle for jobs, like friends and enemies. The work is slow to come in winter. The Secretariat is closed and Srinagar is calm and easy, entrapped in the centuries old issues of its own – of snow and cold and falling Chinar leaves. There is no work for anybody except those who work for a routine. Mostly, Srinagar waits, endlessly in winters. For snow and life.
But the snow was punctual this time, the daily wager noted with glee. He was now sitting up on his mattress, having found that he could no longer sleep. A group of men was reciting a Persian couplet in the mosque. He didn’t understand it, but mouthed the words anyway. His son would be among them – he felt proud and happy at that. The kangri from last night had gone cold. Few things are as disappointing as a cold kangri. He turned the coals and ash over, but it was dead – dead like a gun.
In early spring, when the city was under curfew after the death of a few young men following the hanging of Afzal Guru, he had roamed outside his house. He had tried to reach Lal Chowk, mainly out of boredom and habit but had been turned back. The streets had been empty, save the stray dogs and army men, both of which had chased him away in packs. An army men had pointed a gun at him from an armoured vehicle, and he had raised his hands out of sheer practice. Or was that in Ramazan, somewhere in August? There was a curfew then, wasn’t it? His memory failed him. He couldn’t figure if the year had been good or not, under curfew or not? Were there killings, did people die? Something had happened in Ramban or Kishtwar. The shopkeepers in Maisuma had been speaking of it, all summer long.
Arif, the pigeon keeper, lived in downtown of Srinagar. Months ago he had lost two of his best flier pigeons. He’d thought they were stolen first, but since he never saw them again, he contended they had died. For weeks after their disappearance he had waited patiently for their return, even contacted the local SHO, who had politely told that more important things disappear in Srinagar than two unlucky pigeons.
The last time he thought he had seen the pigeons was when he was out in the street with a few friends protesting. A foreign musician had come to Kashmir, and army men had killed four people in Shopian. They had formed a small knot to hurl stones and shout slogans, but the police men soon chased them away. It was evening and a few clouds were floating on the horizon. Arif saw, though he never agreed to it later, his two lost pigeons perching on the filigree of his neighbour’s roof. He looked at them for a good long minute before losing them in confusion created by chasing army men and protestors.
He never saw them again.
The daily wager peeped out of the window. A small, terrified rat-like glance. There was no electricity, but the sound of the congregation reached his room. It filled it with a commotion that was mobile, almost tangible, and he wondered how he had never heard it before. How it never woke him up before today!
The water was cold and cut like a blade. If God wanted prayers, why wasn’t the water hot? Warm, at least! But God didn’t want prayers. He had no need for them. That’s perhaps why he kept beds so warm and ready. The congregation was getting over. He dipped his hands in a bucket full of icy water. The cold spread to his spine. It chilled his bones and cleared his eyes.
The daily wager hadn’t forgotten how to pray. It had been long since he had actually woken up for Fajr prayers. His duty bound self first felt guilty and shy, like a beloved kid who had misbehaved. And then terrified, like a convict who was caught red-handed. He gathered courage and prayed for a better day. Not the year which lied ahead. Not the year which went past. His future lay far away, in the blooming youth of his son. In the city that his son would inherit. He would have nothing to do with it. His fear gave way to gloom when he realised that – that he controlled nothing. All that he had gathered was a pile of snow, which would melt with the first thaw of spring. It surprised him – this whole morning which had begun way too early than usual. The whole parade of things. The sounds. The water. The snow. The snow fell in soft puffy flakes. Gently, from far above. It gathered slowly – flake by flake on the ground which absorbs them at first and then gives in, yielding itself to the vast white veil of snow.
He sat quietly on the prayer rug listening to the sound of the mosque, of birds softly chirping, of pigeons cooing in the morning. Soon it would be quiet. The snow would shield the sounds too, and send across only light, which would reflect off its surface. White. The thought made him happy. That something so white and pure could come to the city so impure from far above! And with no warning, no telling, no fuss.
Gracefully, like a flock of swans. Like hope in his sullen heart. Like a pair of lost white pigeons.