Noora had just closed her eyes to afternoon nap, but the dream terrified her. There wasn’t anything particularly haunting, but the eeriness of those visions scared her. Those afternoon dreams which have no pattern and no depth, she was seeing them. One moment she was running in the alley to catch her college bus and the next moment she was in the garden of her house looking at the leafless trees and empty flower beds, it felt so din and gloomy. Noora could hear sounds like dragging of feet and brawling animals. Terrifying! At a point the line between dreams and reality seemed blurred, but anyhow Noora wanted to be away from this scene, somewhere peaceful and serene.
Shackles of uneasiness held her captive, she couldn’t wake up. The scheme-less string of her dream now took her to a brook, where tranquility finally awaited her. By the side of that brook she watched the sun as it settled behind the mountains, her head resting on his shoulder and her arm clasped around his. It was her beloved Mohsin by whose side she found peace, there under the crimson skies. The sun was in its last splendors, its reflection looked fire in Mohsin’s eyes. If eternity existed, Noora wanted to live that moment for eternity, but eternity is a mere illusion.
Mohsin removed his gaze from the sun and turned to Noora. They looked into each others’ eyes for quite a moment, the hypnotic hazel eyes spelling Noora. With his eyes lost in Noora’s, Mohsin unclasped his arm from Noora and started to walk away.
Bewildered, Noora opened her mouth to stop him, but words found no voice, they froze at her throat. She wanted to run after him but her numb feet couldn’t be convinced. Mohsin’s steps towards the distant mountain didn’t stop. She couldn’t move and he didn’t stop, the distance just increased. From a distance he turned back and smiled at Noora. In that moment of deafening silence Mohsin’s docile smile said what a thousand words couldn’t have. It was as if he was telling Noora that “Time is running, tell me what you always wanted to.” And with that Noora saw his silhouette recede in the mountains. The howling birds scared her to suffocation and she yanked open her eyes. Her heart felt weak and throat was parched, as though she had actually been stressing to speak up.
But Noora was glad to have woken up from this dream. She pulled the blanket over her shoulders and curled up in the warm bed. It took her few seconds to realize that the howling birds in her dreams had actually been the sirens of the police vehicles that drove out on the road. Everything seemed fine then, she was in her room. As she was gathered her wits and sifted that peculiar dream from the reality, Mohsin’s eyes, his smile, his voice occurred to Noora’s mind. His eyes, the rich hazels, had been Noora’s solace. Unknowingly, she smiled. Mohsin loved Noora, she knew that, but Noora loved him back, Mohsin was yet to discover that. It had been a few years that Mohsin had expressed his love for Noora.
But few days later then Mohsin was sent miles away from home to a college in Dehradun to continue his studies. Mohsin had been a bright boy in school so to keep him safe from the milieu back home, his parents decided to send him away, much to his dismal. And as such he could see Noora only on occasions when he would be home for holidays (few times a year).
Through the plains of India, the other foothill of Himalaya was chosen for his safety. Home was unsafe now. Situation remained perturbed most of the times. Young boys, many of them Mohsin’s contemporaries, were picked up from their homes and tortured in dingy cells. Some were beaten to pulp on roads and often their parents were harassed too. A few of them had even fallen prey to bullets, the bullets which are later described as “stray and unintended”. The people of that area, and Noora too, had witnessed nights when bawls of mothers who had lost their sons echoed through the dark.
That day also Mohsin had been back for holidays and was scheduled to leave the next day. He wanted to see Noora once before leaving and Noora had agreed to it. That afternoon they would meet in a nearby lane, adjacent to the main road. What would they say to each other, they didn’t know. But the lovers wanted to catch a glimpse of each other.
Noora had to tell him that she too had fallen for him. She had to tell him this before he would leave. Noora made scenarios in her mind. He would be back next year with his degree and a job too (maybe) and that time would be apt to tell their parents about their interest in each other. Chances were fair that they would get married. A happy ending, she thought.
Noora took a look at the clock; it had been 5:00 pm. She sprang up from the bed and went to the washroom. Her eyes were puffed up and skin looked shallow with the sleep. She splashed away the signs of sleep with cold water. She rushed back to her room, wiped her face dry and stained the hem of the towel black with the residues of kohl strewn around her almond eyes. She ran the comb roughly through her hair and tied it up. The excitement of seeing her love overtook her senses. Noora hastily grabbed her phone and called her friend Nyla who lived a few houses away.
“I’ll be outside your house within a few minutes. You are coming with me. He asked me to see him” she said hastily and hung up the call before her friend could say anything. She wrapped a stole around her head and rushed down the stairs.
“Mummy” she called out as she reached the door. “I’m going to see Nyla, she just called me,” she hurriedly let the words out of her mouth.
Her mother came out of the kitchen “But wait, the police is out there. They are on prowl again,” her mother said anxiously. “It’s alright. Her house is just here.” Noora said as she slipped into her chappals. Meanwhile a distant explosion filled the air.
“Don’t you hear these explosions? What’s the emergency? You can see her tomorrow,” her mother said impulsively.
“I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t worry. I am not going that far,” Noora said with a smile and a wink that melted away her mother’s anger.
Noora descended the stairs of the porch. As she was walking towards the gate, strangeness engulfed the air and it burnt all across her nasal tract. Her eyes felt stingy as if she had rubbed them just after deseeding green chilies (she often did that). Her eyes were teary. Noora sniffed and held the knob of the gate and twisted it open. The thought of seeing Mohsin and talking to him made her feel nervous. With each step, her heartbeat grew intense; it rang in her ears. How would she see him, would they talk or not, what would they say to each other?
Noora was picturing the scene in her mind as she walked to Nyla’s house. Too fragile to go to see Mohsin alone, Noora thought Nyla would be her support, and she wanted a company to walk to that lane.
As Nyla came out she said to her “What did you say at home?”
“I just managed.” Noora said with a giggle and the girls chuckled. Mohsin and Noora had decided to meet in a lane, just adjacent to the main road. Noora blabbered excitedly all the way and giggled often. The roads were deserted, air was peppered. Sudden mayhem of voices was heard in intervals. This locality had known Friday afternoons usually like this; “security forces” with guns and other weapons chasing boys, who revealed nothing but their eyes. All that these boys possessed would be a stone in their hands.
As Noora and Nyla turned towards that street, the agitated sounds grew louder and closer. They gave no heed to it. And why would they? These girls had been to school amid curfews, they had been stopped by these well armed men clad in greenish brown (or brownish grey) uniforms while returning from college. They had known “safe” shortcuts to go to school. Raining bullets on road had even compelled them to take cover in houses of unknown people on few occasions. This day in comparison to those days looked normal.
They finally reached the decided place and Noora could see Mohsin waiting for her on the other end. She felt wobbly at her knees and her excited words hushed in her throat. She pretended to be normal but her senses ditched her. Her steps felt heavy, she almost dragged her feet. Noora tried to behave as if she hadn’t seen him and that she had not noticed him looking towards her. But she had grown conscious of his glances.
Each step felt so heavy and the distance! The distance seemed never ending. The sun was setting; the tangerine light washed the surroundings. Everything else ceased around Noora (she almost forgot about her friend besides her). All she saw was Mohsin waiting for her in the rusty light and the distance that she had to walk to reach to him. And out of blues her treacherous dream came before her eyes where Mohsin had receded against the sunset. She tried to brush away the thoughts and walked nervously.
The moment of silence between the two was interrupted by the clanking footsteps, the trouble had reached the adjoining road, it seemed. Boys were shouting and the police vehicles accelerated behind them. In a moment the masked young boys came running towards this alley, panic gripped the two girls and Moshin gesticulated to them to run towards the narrow lane on the left. Mohsin too hastened his steps to run to safety and his stride prompted the girls to move. This surely wasn’t a normal day as they had considered it. They shouldn’t have been out at that time, Noora thought to herself as she held Nyla’s hand, fumbling with her steps.
They had just paced a bit when an explosion reverberated in the air. This one sounded close enough, probably in this alley, and birds perching on electric wires and rooftops flew away cooing sharply. Noora turned back and saw Mohsin standing where he had been but motionless. The boys running past Mohsin stopped too. The fleeing steps came to a halt and heads turned only to see a boy crumble on the ground as if cotton was being emptied from sacks. Blood spilled the ground beneath his head like a sheep had just been slaughtered on the spot where Mohsin stood smiling few seconds earlier. The cloud of blood beneath his head grew each passing second. “Mohsin!” Noora shrieked.
The boys whose faces were veiled in kifayas, checkered kerchiefs and shirts rushed towards the boy who had just fallen on ground. At the mouth of the alley stood a wonton vehicle and the mad stray bullet had probably emerged from there. The vehicle reversed and geared away hastily from the spot as some of the masked faces ran towards it with bouts of renewed anger. People ran past Noora and she was pushed towards the periphery of the road, as if she was nothing but an inanimate object.
Noora didn’t know what to do. She could not understand what was happening. Was it a dream? No. She had just woken up from one, where her love had left her by the side of the brook. And here Mohsin lay on the ground, his eyes set towards Noora. The lovely hazels had turned pale and protruding. He blinked a few times, his eyeballs rolled back and then the eyelids shuttered down like a feather. His mouth was slightly open, revealing his pearl like teeth. Mohsin’s face that glowed like ambers minutes ago appeared lifeless like the winter sun.
Noora almost thought he was dead, but the dust blowing near his mouth relieved her a bit. “He’s alive he’s breathing” the words came out of her mouth with some effort. She started to run towards Mohsin with numb legs. But a hand gripped her arm. A masked boy with ferocious eyes had stopped her. “Go home. It’s not safe to be out right now,” he said to the girls, almost scolding them. Nyla squeezed Noora’s hand and said “Yes. He’s right”. But Noora stood there and saw Mohsin being lifted and taken away in a car, blood dripping from his head. “Where are they taking him?” she said amid sobs. “To the hospital,” the boy replied in a muffled voice.
As the car sped away, Noora fell on her knees and looked into the fog dust that the car left behind. The sun had set and the light was getting dim. The call for maghrib (dusk) prayers blared out through the masjid loudspeakers. Noora did not move, or she did not want to. She couldn’t fathom what had just happened. Nyla held her up by her arm and towed her all the way to home.
Noora’s father was at the gate of his house, leaving for the maghrib prayers when Nyla arrived with a stoned Noora. “What has happened to her?” bewildered he asked Nyla. “Nothing Uncle. We were trapped between the protestors and the police. She’s just a bit scared.” Nyla theorized it instantly and narrated the same to Noora’s mother who was waiting for them on the porch. “I had told her not to go out. But she never listens. I was so worried when we heard that gunshot,” she kept saying as she led the girls upstairs to Noora’s room.
There she stayed silent for some time. Noora’s eyes were fixed, devoid of life. Her friend stayed there by her side and tried to get her out of the shock. The two friends had gone merrily all the way just to see what they never would have imagined, the death few yards away. Few seconds later she started to murmur something. Murmurs grew clearer and she was saying “I killed him. I shouldn’t have agreed to meet. I killed him,” and with that she became inconsolable. Nyla hugged her, but Noora was flailing and thrashing.
The noise got Noora’s mother to her room. She panicked “What happened to you? See Nyla was also with you she isn’t crying like you my dear. Quite, my dear. The neighbors will listen.” Her mother tried to calm her, but couldn’t. Mohsin had been yards away from Noora, smiling and in that brief moment she had visualized the prospect of a happy life. And seconds later he was there reduced to a bundle in a pool of blood. The scene kept coming to her eyes. Noora pulled out her hair in utter desperation.
Her mother left the room and returned with a kangir and izban (wild rue seeds). On the amber of the kangir, izban crackled into tongues of smoke. This smoke would ward off the evil spirit that had haunted Noora and made her inconsolable. She placed it in front of Noora. Noora’s father also came to her room and recited a few verses of Quran to her to ward off the evil spirits.
Noora wasn’t back in her senses for about an hour. Later she rested her head in her mother’s lap and tried to sleep. But that treacherous dream returned, Mohsin melted away in the sunset and she woke up. The tears streamed down to the corners of her mouth as the events of afternoon flashed before her eyes. The thick smoke of the izban was looming in the room. By now Nyla had also left. That evening Nyla called her a few times to tell her that Mohsin had just been injured and was being treated in hospital. Noora too was hopeful that Mohsin would be fine. He was in hospital and would return soon. Many boys of her locality had been injured lethally, yet they did recover after treatments. Mohsin would be back in good health too.
But back in her home nobody talked about the incidents of that day. Nobody talked about the boy who had been injured by a bullet, though an eerie silence lulled Noora’s house. Her parents remained silent lest Noora would grow hysterical again. That night her mother slept by her side. Noora woke up once, again to a nightmare. She turned towards her mother but she wasn’t there. The door was ajar and the incandescent light crept in.
Noora didn’t remember what she had seen but the fear had gripped her chest. Her eyes were swollen and sore with all the crying. She felt exhausted; her mouth was dry and bitter. She got up to drink water. But the cries and wails from the next mohalla interrupted her. It seemed to be one of those nights when wailing mothers awakened the people around. A thought came to her mind, but she chased it away and tried to convince herself that Mohsin was just injured and was being treated in the hospital.
With careful steps and stretched out hand she walked through the dark room towards the door, like a blindfolded kid in the game of hide and seek. Her parents were engrossed in a deep serious conversation in the corridor. “He was supposed to join his college in Dehradun after a few days. See what they did to him! What a nice lad he was!” Noora’s father exclaimed. And that confirmed it for Noora. The howls came from Mohsin’s house; his mother had been wailing and was probably thumping her chest too at the loss of her son who had come home for a few weeks to spend holidays. Least did they know that his last day at home would be the last day of his life. The mother lamented and whimpered that her son had come to home just to die like that!
Noora would never see him again. She would never be able to tell him that she loved him and that she wanted to marry him. Mohsin had disappeared into the eternity without knowing all these things.
Noora collapsed on the bed. With her face buried in the pillow she cried and cried and cried; her sobs silenced in that pillow. A few lanes away Mohsin was being mourned by his family and friends and here his love mourned his death, in solitude in the dead of the night. Nobody heard her cries of helplessness; nobody consoled her at her loss. Did anybody know that she too had lost a part of her being?
She cursed herself for she was the one for whom Mohsin had been out that day. Mohsin had wished to see Noora once before leaving and he did see her before departing (who knew he would leave never to return?). In her mind she thought about how the things should have happened that day for their happy ending. What if she had not agreed to meet him? What if they had met in the morning? What if he hadn’t come home for holidays? What if he had left a few days earlier? And what if they hadn’t known each other? Noora thought all this, her theory of catastrophe. Had they not known each other the mohalla would have been peacefully sleeping that night, no mourning, no death, no losses, she kept thinking and mourned in seclusion.