Fiction | ‘A Kashmiri Tale’ by Capt. Prem Nath

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Colonel Andrew was known in Krishnapuram among those enlightened in army parlance as ‘Colonel’ and for those ignorant of ranks in the military as ‘pattalam’, a sobriquet meaning ‘army’ in Malayalam. After his tenure in the armed forces, he built a house, two-storied on a plot of land inherited from his mother. Settled in Krishnapuram, he was the quintessential colonel, with thick mustaches covering his upper lip, a crew cut and a well maintained physique, not surprisingly, though he was in his late fifties, fifty-seven to be precise. Rain or shine, he never missed his daily morning ‘walk and exercise’ routine and always carried a ‘cane’, a style statement to be honest,as a reminder of his army days. He was a stickler for routine and lived a life of contented retirement with his wife Anitha and Haput, the dog, which of course was a strange name for a Labrador. 

Colonel Andrew always had a stock of good liquor with him thanks to the privilege of being an ‘ex-serviceman’ and enjoyed his daily tipple every evening. His ‘session’ would begin at seven once his wife Anitha plonked herself down on the recliner in front of the large wall mounted T.V. in the drawing room to begin watching Malayalam serials. This would go on till half past nine when she would go to the kitchen to start preparing dinner while the music from some radio station tuned on her mobile kept her company. Colonel Andrew would then have his last drink and come down to watch news on the T.V. till his wife called him to the dinner table.

Colonel Andrew, Krishnan Nambiaar and Ashraf Farookil were close friends, an old one at that, the friendship had seen years of rain and dust, right since they were in high school. They would meet occasionally in the Colonel’s house to have a drink, reminisce about the past and listen to yet another episode from the Colonel’s inexhaustible collection of military adventures, and some misadventures. Both Krishnan and Ashraf enjoyed the Colonel’s tales but Ashraf definitely more because he liked to think of himself as  a closet writer, who might pen the book one day, a collection hopefully.

That Saturday, they all got together in the evening and the Colonel asked, pouring drinks,

“Do you know why I named my dog ‘Haput’?”

His friends remained unfazed, waiting for the Colonel to continue. “Have I told you what happened at the ‘water mill’ when I was posted in Kashmir?”

***

I was a major at that time, in ’93, and in charge of a small detachment of soldiers from my unit, entrusted with the task of patrolling the two villages on the banks of the Kishenganga river. It’s a tributary of the Jhelum. I had eighteen men under my command and the only other officer was Capt. Ranbir Singh from the Army Medical Corps. He had been added to our detachment to take care of all medical needs because the nearest army hospital was more than four hours away by road. The area was generally peaceful, with no history of terror activities and was not known to harbor or give refuge to any terrorists from across the border. Our stay was for three months after which we were to return to my unit once the replacement detachment arrived.

We had been in the area for almost a month, living in tents pitched on the banks of the river and my men were happy as there were no daily parades or strenuous training. The only activity was the daily patrolling which each nominated group had to do for around five hours every day, covering almost fifteen kilometers. It was summer and the place was beautiful, as only Kashmir, the ‘heaven on earth’, could be. We had established our camp on the banks of Kishenganga, which flowed swiftly. Slithering between deodar forests which stretched away into the distance like glorious carpets of brightly colored flowers. The villagers were a peace loving lot, working in the domain of sheep rearing, cattle and agriculture. There were a few water mills on the banks of the river, with huge water wheels rotated by the fast moving water currents. One of them was located barely a hundred meters away from the spot where we had camped, owned by an old Kashmiri, Faiz. 

The mill was a big shed at the side of the Kishenganga with the ‘water wheel’ dipping into the river. It was not a busy mill; villagers brought rice and millet which Faiz would grind into fine powder between the huge millstones of the wheel. The mill operated only during the day and there was no electric connection or oil lamps to light up its interiors because it was shut down at dusk. Capt. Ranbir Singh and I had become friends with the old Faiz who was an affable character in his late sixties. He was always ready to spend time with us and was generous with ‘kahwa’, that delicious concoction of green tea leaves, spices, nuts and saffron only Kashmir offers. We enjoyed drinking the endless cups of ‘kahwa’ which were prepared in a brass kettle, a samovar kept inside his mill. The tall white haired man who reminded me at times of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, would sip his kahwa and in a soft voice, talk about Kashmir, its past. He had been quite a traveler in his younger days and loved to talk about the trips he made to Afghanistan through Pakistan, long before the borders had been sealed. 

Faiz was not fluent in Hindi, and spoke in Kashmiri or Koshur, the local language which I could understand and also speak reasonably well. Capt. Ranbir Singh knew just a smattering of Kashmiri and most of the time I would have to tell him the gist of what Faiz had said in Kashmiri. The old man stayed in the nearby village but we never went over,  though he had invited us quite a few times. Army regulations did not permit social visits to villages homes of the local populace, and I was the officer in charge. Faiz told us that his wife and granddaughter stayed with him and that his son, who was a government employee, resided in Jammu, with his wife.

I had been entrusted with the  task of carrying out regular  patrolling in the area and radioing reports to our unit of any suspicious activity. However, there was nothing much to report during my tenure as the area was terrorist free (but of course, no zone is a hundred percent safe in Kashmir) and there were no disruptive elements hiding among the village folks. The jawans, Capt.Ranbir Singh, and I, wore olive green ‘dungarees’ with epaulettes to denote ranks on our shoulders instead of the terry cot army issue uniforms, as the ‘dungaree’ was more suitable for our daily grind. The ‘dungaree’ a single piece dress, was traditionally a pair of pants and solid shirt, joined and stitched together, into which one had to get inside and button up, was really a very comfortable attire. It was actually ‘full time’ wear because one could also sleep in it.c. We had a laid back lifestyle I will agree.. After the patrolling was done for the day, a bath in the clean, sparkling river which flowed right in front of our camp would invigorate our bodies which were always dog-tired after the long walks. We would then enjoy the warmth of the evening sun as we sat on the river bank and sipped hot tea made by our jawans.

One evening, Capt. Ranbir Singh, the six and half feet tall young Sikh, had a leisurely bath in the river and washed his long tresses which were normally enclosed within his turban. He wanted to go for a stroll. His luxuriant beard which he always maintained neatly, was hanging about his face with the water dripping off the ends. He had pulled on a pair of clean dungarees after his bath and some of the buttons on his upper torso were open, exposing his hirsute chest which was covered with wet, black, matted hair. I decided to accompany him, walking alone was not permitted in this sensitive tagged area. It was a pleasant evening and the sun had not set, with the mountains glistening in the dying rays of the sun. We decided to walk up to Faiz’s mill, more for the chat, and a little for the kahwa.

The mill was a ten minute walk down the river bank and we could hear the loud rumble of the ‘water wheel’ as we approached. I saw a huge brown trout jumping into the air from the water, probably to catch an insect . Capt. Ranbir Singh, who had not noticed me stop, moved ahead and knocked on Faiz’s door, he wasn’t outside like usual. Shouting, Captain Singh could not be heard above the din caused by the water wheel. I reached him just as he pushed open the wooden door of the mill. He was still shouting as he stood at the door and peered inside.

Almost instantly, I heard a blood curdling shriek from inside, making me stop in my tracks, frozen. I saw the back of Capt. Ranbir Singh, who was also shocked by the screaming, framed as if in a tableau against the open doorway of the shed. The high pitched cries, which I recognized to be that of a young girl, rose louder and shriller as I started to move towards the door. IT happened then, almost in a second. I saw Faiz rush past me, push the stunned Capt. Ranbir away and enter the mill. I thurried as well, going past Capt. Ranbir Singh who was still frozen in the doorway, and saw a strange sight. The old man had his arms around a teenage girl, maybe fifteen or so, who was quaking with fear, and kept pointing towards the open doorway with her left hand while her head was buried in the chest of Faiz. As she sobbed, she repeatedly shouted out a word which sounded like ‘haput’ but I was not sure. The old man looked at me and in Kashmiri, requested me to take Capt. Ranbir Singh, who was still standing at the doorway, out of the shed. I turned back and saw only the silhouette of Capt. Ranbir Singh with the setting sun directly behind him. My eyes were slightly blinded by the sunlight coming in through the doorway and I could see Capt. Ranbir’s face only when I walked up close and stood right in front of him. His face had turned pale with fright while his eyes looked past me and were fixed on the girl, in the protective embrace of Faiz. I held Capt. Ranbir Singh by his shoulder, gently turned him around and led him out of the shed. I held his hand as he walked like a zombie and made him sit down on an old log right by the side of the river.

Faiz came out of the shed a few minutes later, his right hand around the shoulders of the girl. The fair girl, in her late teens was wearing a pheran, the traditional Kashmiri gown which though draped loosely around her body, could not hide her lissome figure. She looked sideways, and saw Capt. Ranbir Singh and her eyes tensed in fear. She clung to Faiz who spoke to her softly for a few moments, explaining something to her and she regained her composure. He hugged the girl, again, murmured a few words of comfort and she began walking away but not before looking back at Capt. Ranbir Singh. There was no fear on her face now, and instead, I perceived a shy smile on her lips as she turned away before rushing up the path leading to her village.

The old man came up to us and I  asked him in Kashmiri, “Faiz saab, who is that girl? Why did she scream?”

For a moment he was silent and then he said, “Major saab, she is my granddaughter.”

“Fine,” I shot back. ‘But why did she scream?”

“Major Saab, just forget what happened. Let’s have some Kahwa” he replied.

Capt. Ranbir Singh was listening in to our conversation which he could not comprehend properly as we were speaking in Kashmiri. However he sensed that the old man had evaded answering my question regarding the reason for the girl screaming. 

“Sir,” he said in English. “Please ask him about her, why the scream? And what really happened in the shed.”

Knowing that Capt.Ranbir would not let it go and wanted an answer, I once again asked Faiz as to why the girl had screamed. He looked at me, a sad smile on his lips and said,

“That girl’s sister, her twin, was killed six months back. They were very close to each otherThey loved spending time in the mill when not in school or at home.” The old man stopped speaking for a moment, his face clouded with sorrow.

“After her sister died, Alia used to come to the mill on days when there was a full moon. Her sister died on an evening when there was a full moon.”

The man was silent again for a few moments. “Aini, Alia’s twin sister was spreading out the clothes she had washed, to dry on the log on which you are now sitting. Alia had gone into the mill to get a cup of kahua for her sister and herself.” 

“How did she die? And that was outside the mill. Why did your granddaughter scream in horror when Capt. Ranbir entered the mill?” 

“Sir,” replied Faiz. “My granddaughter Aini was mauled and killed by a bear at this very spot while she was hanging her clothes on the line.” 

He glanced at Capt. Ranbir Singh and continued, “Your friend may not like what I have to say. Alia saw Captain Saab standing at the door to the mill with the sun behind him. She thought that he was a bear, with his long beard, body hair and dark green dungarees. She mistook Captain saab for the same bear which had killed her sister.”

The old man paused and looked down at the ground as if contrite at what had happened. “I apologize for the misunderstanding,” he said. “I shall go and get some Kahwa for both of you.”

I had to try hard to control myself, and waited till Faiz had left us, before breaking into paroxysms of laughter. I turned my face away from the shed because I did not want the old man to see me laughing after he had just told me of his daughter’s death. 

Capt. Ranbir Singh who was bewildered and maybe a little annoyed by my behavior asked me impatiently, “Sir, please tell me what the old man said. Please.”

I wiped the tears from my eyes brought on by my laughter and explained to Capt. Ranbir Singh about how the twin, Aina had been killed. I then told him how the other girl Alia had mistaken him for a bear when he opened the door at the entrance to the mill.

“Sir,” asked Capt. Ranbir Singh, with an expression which turned to incredulity. “You told me that her sister was killed. Then who was the other girl in the shed?”

“What other girl are you blabbering about?” It was now my turn to be confused. ”There was only Alia in the shed. She screamed when she saw you. There was no other girl!” 

Capt. Ranbir was shaking his head, clearly not accepting what I had told him. His face seemed to have turned paler and his face clouded..

“Sir, when I stood at the door, I clearly saw two girls, sitting close to each other on a bench. I could even make out that they were twins. One was screaming looking at me while the other had a strange smile on her face.”

I was now baffled and felt chilly as the temperature of the air around me seemed to have dropped suddenly.  “Ranbir, when I went into the mill I saw only one girl. That was Alia, the sister of the twin who died six months back. Faiz had only two granddaughters.” 

“Sir, the other girl was there when I looked inside,” said Capt. Ranbir Singh emphatically. “She disappeared once you and the old man came inside. She just melted away.” 

I stared at Capt. Ranbir Singh, the tall, strapping Sikh officer who was clearly trembling as he stood in front of me with a terrified look in his eyes.

A chill ran through my body as I thought: “Did he?”

Sensing someone standing behind me, I turned around and saw Faiz holding two brass cups of Kahwa.

“Saab, have some Kahwa. It’s hot. It will keep the cold away.”

I knew I really needed it as I noticed the rim of the full moon just behind the mountains in the far horizon.

***

Colonel Andrew refilled his glass, picked up a piece of fried meat from the plate on the table in front of him and fed the dog that was lying at his feet.

“Now you guys know why I named this dog ‘Haput’. It means ‘bear’ in Kashmiri.” said the Colonel.

Ashraf asked, “Andrew, what happened to the young Captain?”

Colonel Andrew looked at Ashraf and said, “Oh, Ranbir Singh? He was recalled to the Military hospital in Delhi from where he had joined our detachment.”

The Colonel took a swig and continued,  “I met him once years later but couldn’t recognise him at all!”

“Why” asked Krishnan Nambiar. “Had he aged suddenly? Probably. It’s known to happen due to shock or fright.”

“No, dammit” said the Colonel exasperatedly. “That bloke had got rid of his beard and long hair. He was now a ‘Mona sardar’!”

“Maybe he didn’t want to be mistaken for a bear again!” quipped Ashraf, as the Colonel downed his drink.

Capt. Prem G Nath has published two collections of short stories, ‘ Twists and Turns’ and ‘Thrills & Chills’. He also has a free blog for amateur writers, ‘‘The Brew‘.

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