I SAW MY FIRST DEAD BODY, before the population of dead bodies I deal with now, in that breezeless dry summer of last year. The fact that it was someone I knew made it more momentous, more shocking somehow.
After the brief encounter with the curfew mothers, Baba suddenly seemed older. His beard appeared tired and elderly, rather than well trimmed and prosperous. He dressed more untidily, his large bearing somewhat unkempt, and his temper was turning jittery too. As usual, he took out most of his anger on his hookah; the pouches I brought from Noor Khan got heavier and heavier. For the first time ever, he seemed uncertain, not in control of things. He was used to order—things around him moved more or less according to his wishes, not just inside his own house but outside, in the village as well. People came to him for advice, loans, judgements, and he relished every bit of it. Ever since I could remember, I’d seen Baba like that—corner seat in the living room, two round cushions squashed behind him, small trunk by the window sill, and a pregnantlooking copper hookah in front of him, always, like another character in the room. But now, things seemed to be slipping from his hands, it was beyond his grasp.
He was losing his village, his people—even I could see that. Although I’m not too sure if even I could sense it fully then, that this was the beginning of the end. The incident with Gul Khan’s older brother, Farooq, was the first. What followed thereafter didn’t let up until it brought the end: the cessation of life as we knew it, as Baba knew it, as his elders had imagined and created in the small village in its tiny beginnings in 1947, a year of partitions and pogroms and general ruination. The discreet border hamlet nestled in the hills was about to end its brief life as a community.
The day the curfew women had come begging, Baba had emptied Noor Khan’s shop of all its milk-powder tins and handed them to each of the women and blessed them, saying, ‘Have faith in Allahtaala, He will make it easy soon, God bless you, it’s just a test, it will pass, all of us face a test at some point or other in life.’ And they had walked off in the same manner as they had appeared in the street, with the same young woman leading them out. Baba and I had looked at their receding forms and then gone home together. He kept nodding his head and sighing all the way home. It was a Saturday and I assume all of us spent the rest of the day, and the next, thinking about the women. Who were they, where had they come from, why, how? Only Noor and I discussed it at some length the next day. Noor said they must have been sent by their men, because it would have been far more dangerous for them to be searching for food, amidst the new Governor’s curfew. I wondered if perhaps they didn’t have husbands any more. Noor said that wasn’t possible.” …