SATISAR, THE VALLEY OF DEMONS (XVIII)

Prime Minister Nozarkof had finally been persuaded to mention the Shimla mantra in the Joint Communique. Initially, Mahaballi had used all his wisdom but to no avail. Then finally the offer of an economic package worked. Of his own, Nozarkof wanted to talk of Islamic fundamentalism. Mahaballi was happy at that. No persuasion and no economic offers were needed. Mahaballi had a ready audience in Nozarkof after Nozarkof felt that Mahaballi’s Din-i Ilahi could secure his throne against the neighbouring country, which was trying everything to destabilize his government. At the banquet speech, Nozarkof talked about apples, which his country could offer to Mahaballi’s kingdom. There it was. Mahaballi’s think-tank went deep into this issue. Did it mean Nozarkof knew of Kashmir’s apples? The next few days were spent in ascertaining Nozarkof ’s real intention in offering apples. Mahaballi finally told him very bluntly that Kashmir’s apples were an integral part of his kingdom and unless Nozarkof accepted this, no cultural agreement could be signed. Nozarkof withdrew his apple cart and had to accept the Shimla apples in return.

Birbal was having a nice time in the new republic. He toured extensively in the official car provided to him. He told his guide about the Qaf interest. His guide informed him that no one was allowed near the Qaf Mountain as nuclear installations of USSR days were located there. Birbal was in a fix. How to reach Qaf and lay his hands on the coins and the pack of cards that he had promised his friend back home. Finally he cajoled his guide to take him near the Qaf Mountain. He would only see it from a distance and return. They set out towards Qaf in the early hours of the morning. Passing through the beautiful countryside Birbal was reminded of Kashmir. The similarities were really striking, but he did not risk reporting this observation to Mahaballi, and even more importantly to Nozarkof and his men. Who knew how it may further complicate the matter?

By evening Birbal reached the place.

“There,” his guide told him, pointing to a black mountain in the distance, “stands your Qaf, but as I have told you, you cannot go beyond this point.” Birbal looked at the mountain. In the failing light it appeared more distant than it really was. Light reminded him of his lamppost friend. His heart ached for his friend, shivering in the open in freezing temperature at Srinagar. Remembering the plight of his friend and the promise he had made, Birbal resolved to reach the mountain and get the coins and the cards at any cost. For the present he told his friend of his wish to spend the night in the nearby hotel whose neon lights were twinkling in the background.

Gani survived the forty days and forty nights of torture. He had withdrawn into himself, successfully shutting all doors and windows. Nothing reached him. All his wounds, the gashes, the cuts, the bruises did not pierce his self. He remained inaccessible and unattainable to his tormentors. They tried everything on his frail body but could not reach his spirit. In exasperation they gave up. They left him to die, the mangled mass of bones and torn flesh. His body lay there on the concrete floor of his cell. He was faraway, centuries away, ensconced in warm and cosy surroundings, watching the boat procession on the shimmering blue waters of Mar waterway. The officers of the camp decided to shift him to a prison. But could he travel? “No,” the doctors declared.“Okay, sew him up, put him on his legs and then dispatch him to Tihar.”

The doctors treated his wounds. His body responded and within a few weeks he was well. Then one day he was driven out in a vehicle and taken to a place a few kilometers away. There, ushered into the royal presence of Subedar Maharaj, he was made to sit on a plump sofa. The Subedar was announced, and entering, he took Gani’s hand in his own. “Look my friend you are a genius. Mahaballi is a kind king. He wants you to visit the Royal Durbar. We shall arrange your journey. But let me tell you one more thing, good news, old chap. The political process has begun, and we want to start a new project, or rather, resume an old one. Hawai Subh is a daily newspaper printed on offset, glossy paper. We offer you its sub-editorship under an able journalist—yes, your namesake—you old chap you got me right. Then tell me, when will you travel and prostrate at Mahaballi’s feet?”

Gani stood up and for the first time in centuries opened his mouth. “Tell your Mahaballi that Gani is mad.”

“But how can I call you mad?” the Subedar enquired. To this Gani did not reply. He jumped onto the sofa, and then back to the floor, making wild gestures with his arms; with his hands he tore his own clothes, removed the turban and began chewing the cloth, all the time shouting, dancing, and jumping around the stunned Subedar Maharaj.

Maqbool Dar was shifted to the central jail nestling among almond orchards. It was early spring and he could sense the fragrance of almond blossom in the air. The sun shone more frequently now but the cold breeze continued to bite. Maqbool Dar was the undertrial prisoner, confined to a small cell, but he was allowed a few hours outing in the attached yard. Once there, he would invariably think of his little village, the nondescript hutments surrounded by lofty mountains. The village with a pond of fresh cool water, the majestic chinar trees,the tall deodars and the pines. He felt lonely. He continued to compose his own songs and at times hum a tune. Sitting on a straw mat in the yard, he heard a strange sound. Someone was knocking at the nearby wall, which separated his yard from the adjoining one. He moved closer to the wall. He heard a voice, a hushed voice. He concentrated hard and gathered a few words.

“Escape plan is ready, wait for my call.”

Who could this be? Who wanted him to escape from the prison? How could this be done? he wondered. He was, simply put, in a fix. He did not understand all this. But he had no choice but to wait. He could not do otherwise. That night he could not sleep. He continued to wait for some unknown caller who finally arrived. Maqbool Dar sensed a movement in the wall against which his head rested. He withdrew from the wall. Owing to the full moon peeping through the ventilator he could see a brick was slowly vibrating and then the vibrations became more intense. Before the brick fell to the ground with a thud, Maqbool had caught it with both his hands. He peeped through the gaping hole. He could see someone out there in the adjoining cell.

“Now let us make this hole wide enough for you to pass through. We have already broken open the outer wall. We are seven in all. Tonight, we shall be free; come hurry up.”

Maqbool Dar did not know what he was doing but his hands moved frantically striving to remove the bricks around the gaping hole. One, two, three, four and the hole was wide enough for him to pass through. Maqbool squeezed himself out of his cell into the adjoining cell. Then his newfound friend unfolded the entire scheme in his ear. He would move out first, Maqbool would follow. Others who waited in their own cells would come one by one. They would all assemble under the almond trees and then plan the next move. Briefing him thus, he went down to cross the outer wall into which a hole had been dug. Maqbool followed him, step-by-step, cautious, never making a sound. He even avoided breathing for fear of being heard. His heart pounded louder and louder, till at last he fell on the soft, green grass outside the outer prison wall. His friend was already there, helping him to get on his feet. Maqbool felt free. He felt the fragrant cool breeze on his face, sweet moonlight engulfed his being and the soft green turf caressed his naked soles. Freedom! Ah! freedom, Maqbool thought.

Kalhan Pandit refused to move. The entire community migrated from his ancient village. Even his own children finally abandoned him. He ran after them. They refused to listen to him. His eldest son went so far as to suggest that the old man had gone crazy. Kalhan Pandit remained at Mattan, jealously guarding his heritage—the long and complicated rolls of genealogical tables. Each morning after his usual puja and a light breakfast, Kalhan would enter his late father’s room, say his prayers in front of the neatly stacked manuscripts, wrap them in a sheet of cloth, tuck the bundle under his arm inside the long flowing pheran, and set out for the temple. A large pond surrounded the temple. Thousands of fish remained in continuous motion and pilgrims took it as a religious obligation to feed the fish; just watching the fish dance around was a joy. There each day Kalhan Pandit sat under the chinar tree that had been planted by his great grandfather. All his immediate ancestors had spent their lives on the same spot, updating their records, informing the pilgrims of their long forgotten ancestors. How could Kalhan leave this spot? Who would, in his absence, look after the records? Kalhan felt sad for his children. He had thought that his eldest son would one day take the records from him, but alas he belied all his hopes.

Squatting on the little wooden platform under the chinar tree, Kalhan looked around him. No pilgrims. No tourists. He was all alone in this sprawling complex. Was he right? For a fraction of a second he thought otherwise. He too should have gone. But then his resolve again overtook his weakness. He was right. He was right and time alone would prove it so. To divert his attention from his own thoughts he uncovered the bundle of records lying in front of him. Picking up a book he opened it and read aloud…

Rajiv Kumar Bhat S/o Dwarka Nath Bhat S/o Sat Lal Bhat

S/o Thakur Bhat

S/o Vasa Bhat

S/o Baib Bhat

S/o Suraj Bhat.

An excerpt from Ayaz Rasool Nazki’s  book SATISAR, THE VALLEY OF DEMONS published by Vitasta Publishing and the book is available on www.vitastapublishing.com