The old man was no hero. He had never been, and it is very important to understand that. He had been more like a moth on the curtains of time. Fluttering in oblivion and waiting, hoping, for a simple death. People would rather like him, if they could recollect him. But they would forget, he knew and was at peace with that.
Srinagar was a cold place. Dangerous. It’s no place for young birds, someone had told him. It was a sad place where life had ceased to exist, somehow. Look where are we now! He wondered what had happened. He looked at the pulpit of the sanctum for an answer. None came. The medieval city caught in a violent war. People didn't want it anyway. And now from the corner of his row, he looked not just at uncertainty, but financial penury. The giant chandelier with its many glass pieces looked down on him, and he felt its stare on the small of his neck. It was still daylight, but the old man decided to leave. With a final bow and a silent prayer, he took his feeble self out.
The grim city with its hopeless pandering to the elite. The city was run by thieves, of this he was convinced. It was cold and his eyes were watery. Three men from Indian Army stood near the bus station, checking Ids of a few students from the university before smugly gesturing them into the waiting bus. The air was thick with the fumes of oil from the stalls where hawkers sat among piles of fritters and halwa. A few years ago, he would have taken some for his son. But not today. His son had gone to Delhi to do some 'course' he didn't fully understand. So he walked straight to the bus yard and sat in one leaving for his home. The boys sheepishly tucked their ICards back into their wallets and climbed into the bus.
Srinagar was not a very welcome place, not beyond the Tourism Department posters. His son had never wanted to leave Kashmir one time, and now he wasn’t so sure. There was a sense of resentment and anger he couldn’t explain. He was annoyed with him, and in a way pleased. He couldn’t decide what to do. A young man from the University of Kashmir was munching on fritters. He found that distracting. At one time he had wanted his son to take a government job. But none were available. He was afraid that his son was destined to a very mediocre life, despite his education. He took out his hand and pressed it on his chest - a mediocre life, unless he chose never to return home. To this place. To his city. To him. Be a tourist in his own place. The Tourism Department posters made sense now – Srinagar was a tourist destination for her own people too. And then it dawned on him. In the grey light of afternoon, as the sun was peeking through the mist and a mush of clouds and the bus stopped at odd places, his face fell with the sudden realisation of failure. That he had lost his son, forever, and it was all because of him. He looked at the man who had been eating, he was looking away. May be he should call his son and ask about the future. Or maybe he should give it some time. Birds do come to roost. He slipped a little backward on the uncomfortable bus seat and put his hands in the pockets of his tweed coat. And waited.
At Rajiv Gandhi Chowk Metro Station the train regurgitated its load of people. There was a scramble at the escalators as the crowd slowly moved away. Rajiv Gandhi Chowk Metro Station was crowded. Too crowded for his comfort, and he noticed with some satisfaction that it was too crowded for everyone’s comfort except the hippie who sat comfortably near the steps lost in thought. Perhaps asleep. Perhaps drugged. The last thought scared him and he walked on.
In the post lunch session of the tech seminar the speaker spoke with a drone like voice, so sleep inducing that he found himself dosing off despite all the mint and the bottles of water. His friend had sent him a message to bunk the session and go out for a movie. Quietly he replied yes, and packed his bags and left.
New Delhi shone in the cool afternoon light of winter. People around him were decked in mufflers and sweaters, while Abid had folded the sleeves of his shirt. His neatly trimmed beard framing his high cheek bones, and his hair piled softly like ice cream on his head, he was very conscious of the stares he invited in the bazaars. He slung his bag with a careless ease, as the elevators emerged him out of the din of the train station.
The metro, on his first ride, had appeared like a charm. Abid had never seen anything quite like it. There was an artist sitting right next to him, and impolite as it had appeared, he had stared at his notebook throughout the journey. His feverishly moving fingers sketching wildly, to create a face so demure and coy that Abid silently gawked at the contrast. In the crowded train he saw a few who he guessed to be Kashmiris by their looks. He smiled at the thought that all of us have the same nose, but he had kept to himself. It was like a secret code.
The cinema was crowded in the second week of the film’s release. He got bored and distracted in the first thirty minutes but could not tell that to his friends. He liked the luxury of seeing movies on a giant screen, every colour brought alive by the darkness in the hall. The first time he had come to cinema had been two months ago. He thought he could get used to this. This was nice. The city was like a charm, there was so much to do that if he could just keep himself afloat, he was sure he could swim on forever. The lure was enormous. His friend, the one sitting next to him who had bought the expensive tickets as a treat, had just got a new job. Srinagar was but a heavy price to pay for it. He looked at his newly moneyed friend in the dark. The screen shone in his eyes.
He must evaluate the city for its many appeals and answers. There was a way with things here. The amount of energy he felt in his bones here had dispelled the despair at home. His friends from home had sent him a picture on Whatsapp of them having tea. He recognised the familiar restaurant at Khayam, the sweet milky tea, the unclean cups. Their long chats about girls, life and when someone got philosophical about politics, their hopes for the future, their desires and eventual death. In Srinagar, hope was a rare commodity. They had done so for six months after college. Two had appeared unsuccessfully for a job advertised by the J&K Bank. The others were still waiting for a government job. It had seemed possible at first, difficult next and as the exam approached, impossible. His father had tried to persuade him to try for government service. But he had refused.
He hadn’t really thought of his father since landing in Delhi. May be he should call him after this awful movie. Ask him about the future. Or maybe he should wait. Let it pass, let the dust settle. That was the thing about future, it would always show itself. He felt his phone in his pocket, and stared at the screen.