Author: Saadut
•8:49 PM

Autumn often turns me melancholic, with its struggle to stay relevant between scorch maturing summers and cold hibernation forcing winters. Much like our fight to oscillate between desire and desirable, between need and want, between regression and rebellion September, acting as the gateway to autumn, crawls steadily over a half heartedly resisting green, ripening in stalks of fields or withering in woods camouflaged by aging bark. Many of my memories stand etched in this autumn, some crimson gold, others rusty dry.
In mid 90’s few of my college holidays, starting with the end of summer sessions, headed home just in time for the start of autumn. Those days, even as a garrisoned Kashmir restricted movement, I would often risk venture out to meet friends and acquaintances. Autumns when the air would either be filled by the shrill of a desolate silence or the residual scary feeling of cross firings or violent ambushes, life hung on a pernicious hope. On some of these days, just close to old gates of a silently watching shrine, bordering the barricades of downtown those extend parallel to older graveyards, I often saw this skeletal old man, whitish complexion, wrinkles on his face like tides of an older sea, sitting by the broken parapet. Often in a light brown shalwaar kameez, he would be seen silently querying passing buses and at other times gazing into some undisturbed nothingness. On rainy days saw him sitting motionless by the edge of an old shop, where shutters had turned rusty by neglect, remaining unlocked for years. He could have been any of the hundreds of ignore worthy people passing by, but his blank yet questioning face wearing the same haunting emotion day in day out left a mark on your mind.

Autumn was aging fast, half golden leaves turning brown, shredding like the monks riches. The Naseem Bagh campus, where an army of Chinars has been trained over centuries to disrobe their royal splendor in autumn and spread them like imperial carpets in golden motifs, suddenly felt abandoned and deserted, shunned by our cadavers moving in lifeless human forms. When returning home safely became a daily struggle, survival was uncertain and death a chasing shadow, petrified people couldn’t see beyond their cages and rankling chains.
I overstayed holidays, two weeks extension over excuses of social obligations and in reality of an untraced cousin. Family was told he had fled to cross the border, part of a group of wannabe militants. Later it came to fore that this group had been intercepted by the army just before crossing over and had been held in captivity. From the uncertainty of across the LoC fate came the uncertainty of release, if ever. October started on a chilly note and autumn was already suffering pangs of early winter birth. Mornings woke to vapor covered windowpanes and followed with bloodied haze, limiting vision and recognition; people falling like faceless mannequins, all of them similarly white in the end.
Just days before my extended holidays were to end, on afternoons when the sun seemed like an malnourished child in visible form but unable to stand by itself, I saw the old man at the same place chasing some school buses, searching for something. Then one day it rained heavily, so much so that the car wipers had to work hard to let me have some view of the road, and there again I saw this old man in his unformed brown and squall like questioning wrinkles, on the same spot, standing in some wait. Rain soaking him to the skin, his frail face was dripping like some roof edge in a torrent. I drove my car up close to offer him some safety from these unrelenting rains; he waved his hand signaling me to leave and turned his face away. Moving ahead, I watched him from a distance, realizing how we flee the rain, while he was wearing it.

Soon it was time to leave, over same old paths of abandoned roads, bunker milestones, peeping unlatched light machine guns and fortressed airport, where an air of impending war always hung like an invisible sword. It was not before next August that I came back on brief holidays. The road to home had become lengthier, more bunkers propping up enroute, a new paramilitary camp closer to home, this one limiting our sojourns to shorter hours. ‘Aap ki suraksha aap ke haath’ (your safety is in your hands) I read somewhere, meaning the less you frequent out the more secure you will be. Although in some cases even this precaution was not known to have worked. On a weekend drive to downtown, stopping by the shrine gates I looked at the half broken parapet, but there was no trace of the tempest-wrinkled old man. Few more visits to this place over coming days yet there still was no trace of the tempest wrinkled old man. Trying to satisfy my inquest, presumed that the previous autumn sighting of the old man was just a coincidence. But this was to change after a few days.

By the weekend it was time to bid farewell and I again dragged over old bunker lined roads to the war-decorated airport. The Indian Airlines flight to Delhi was late by two hours, we lesser mortals made thankful it was even flying to forsaken Srinagar. In the disquiet of the ramshackle airport, I met W, my childhood friend from downtown (close to that shrine) who was flying to Canada. Since we had plenty time to kill, talked about old times, downtown, our friends, two of them had been put to sleep early, and then we sat quiet for a few minutes, in hurtful remembrance. Then suddenly as I remembered the old man of the previous autumn, my friend paused and then narrated me his story.

He had been a teacher of some repute, who struggled against all odds to give his kids, a son and a daughter, the best of education and inculcation. Around the second year of conflict in the valley, his son had cleared high school in merit and was preparing for professional entrance examinations. Early spring that year; one afternoon close to the shrine gates, near the half broken parapet, personnel in an armored vehicle picked his son, as he was walking back home. Even as locals had identified the local unit who whisked him away, the unit remained in permanent denial. For the next two years the old man scouted all camps and offices, used every meager resource he had, pleaded with everyone he could, but nothing came of it. During this time many instances of hope and hopelessness arose, like when the renegade from a north Kashmir town, claiming close links with uniformed officials, offered to locate his son. The old man parted with some papers and thousands of rupees, was taken to two camps in the frontier district, and when nothing came of these, over the next few months the renegade had vanished. By the end of the second year, the old man’s wife was diagnosed with malignancy, two surgeries that drained all residual resources he had and few months later on a bleak January morning she passed away. In her last days, she imagined conversations with her lost son. He is said to have silently shouldered her coffin to the grave and then sat there till late evening, with no tear or word. When every hope and means were erased, the old man went adrift, waiting for his son at the same half broken parapet. Sometimes he had lost sense of time and age, searching for his son in school buses, other times he would just sit there for hours and gaze endlessly into nothing. Last February, on a numbing winter day his dead body was found by the edge of that old shop, leaning by those rusty unlocked shutters. An old pencil box was found clasped in his hands and a school identity card in his pocket.

As I looked out of the airport window, grayish dark clouds gathered and a gloomy drizzle had started. It was time to leave. 

From the barbed city !

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