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- Mattie Stepanek
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(Oh Farid, do not slander the dust, it is incomparable
In life, it lies below us; but rests above us in death)
When Khushdeep Kaur rubbed sleep out of her eyes and flicked away the curtain, the sky acknowledged her perusal with a quick navy blue smile. It weaved in and out of shades of Prussian and amber, as if the artist couldn’t decide how to treat her canvas. Khushdeep shifted out of bed to softly tread a weather beaten path- the route from the bed to the kitchen to the verandah, which seemed to be etched in immovable stone, never to be cracked by a detour. She splashed her face with chilled water. Her crow’s-feet froze like stalactites slicing through the harsh caves of her eyes. She wiped her palms with her dupatta after cleaning the tap with the water left in her cupped hands. A sigh left her lips to melt into the mist of dawn. The crackle of her tired bones suddenly rent the air like the stroke of a whiplash as if to caution her against crouching for long. She heaved herself up and twitched towards the house where her husband lay asleep.
By the time her fingers were coaxing milk out of the buffalo’s teats, Amrit Singh emerged into the cow-shed, stretching his limbs to prepare for the day’s work. The wisp of a memory of her shooting milk onto his face leapt before her eyes, but it vanished into the breeze before she could capture and rattle the box of remembrances until it spewed his laughter in her ear. She couldn’t squeeze their hearts as simply as she tended to the animals, to coerce a smile out of years of forgetting.
Later, when light scattered the clouds above Amrit’s field, it created a skein of webbed mazes spying over the eucalyptus trees that marked the boundary of their land. Amrit fixed his pugh and greeted the golden crop with his lethal scythe. Weights and measures pressed down on his frame as his wrinkled muscles moved with sharp accuracy, creating arcs of light with every sheath cut. Half sunk in the dewy soil, he moved in a strange symmetry of graceful rhythm and mechanical method. An invisible instrument measured every breath he took and calculated his heart rate to ensure that it wouldn’t interfere with the efficiency of that exercise. The perspiration dripping from his bushy eyebrows and bathing his kurta sank into the earth, reminding him that he still had a beating heart that spoke to the soil. It hadn’t rusted despite years of neglect. It is the disciplined certainty of seasons, and the confirmed regularity of crop after crop, yield after yield, that numbs one’s sense of time. It cracks open the hourglass so that sand dips in water, and soil emerges.
This picture is too ideal to be true. How can a mere human dismiss rabi’s regulations with unconcerned impunity and scold the wheat into submission, into successful yields for 20 years?
There are truths in the land. These centuries of experiences are kneaded into stories by the plough and planted into seeds to shoot forth as conveyors of secrets. Their thrumming silence witnessed the exhaustion of Amrit’s arms. They mined through Khushdeep’s hollow eyes. And they had barely touched a nerve when their carefully regimented field imploded into a chaos made surreal by what transpired. In what had become a routine task, the mirage of his perfect actions began battling with an uneven tide of images crashing against geometry and precision. These sepia photographs turned his farm into a farce of barrenness and destroyed grains. And soon, a speck of dust irritated his eye. However, the tear that emerged when he rubbed it out cried for a child’s forgotten laughter.
Impotent-Eunuch-Barren-Unmanned-Don’t touch that witch- Keep your children away from her-Impotent-Eunuch-Barren-Unmanned-Don’t touch-
Amrit Singh was raging. His wife Khushdeep seemed to have receded into the walls. Word-knifes with serrated edges toyed with their veins, grinning as drops of hope trickled out bit by bit. The insults had become a chant, a communal song used to ward off evil. Impotent-Eunuch-Childless-Take another wife -It’s still not late –Babaji can cure any disease, spun round and round their heads and sucked them into a whirlpool of despair. Their lovemaking became feverish, desperate-as if they’d write new destinies on their bodies by the force of their will. And somewhere in those visits to witchdoctors and aggressive tantriks, in bouts of prayer, in the room that reeked of failure, and in the feeling of running in circles-they were lost.
8 June 1974
“God is merciful. He is Truth. He is the Creator. He is Timeless. He is not born, neither does He die. He is One. God is merciful. He is Truth. He is the Creator. He is Timel-”
A weak cry issued out of a thin veil, blessing his prayers. Khushdeep grinned through tears amidst the women folk who had gathered to congratulate them for the miracle. Kamalpreet’s wail bottled all the despair lurking in the corners of the room and hurled it out of the window, securing a message never to be read again in the glassy sky. Faithlessness jerked out of their chests to transform them from skeletons of village jokes to individuals of their own accord. Their baby re-affirmed feelings that had been awoken somewhere during the beginning of their journey. And the fever receded, for they had found themselves.
Fate plays a ruthless game. It sports with pawns, tends to pander to knights, and shares meals with kings. It allowed for a period of relative safety and familial joy in their lives which they exploited to the fullest- they treasured their son, laughed at his antics, spoilt him silly, and created a new story with him as the emperor of an alternative dream-realm. Kamalpreet was tutored in Gurmukhi and Sanskrit by local priests apart from the English-medium education he received from the village school. He showed a felicity for mathematics that further justified his parents’ fawning over him.
Whenever his mother would rue another wrinkle and father would rip off grey hair, Kamal would giggle at their antics. “You have taught me bapuji. I know how to manage the farm. Then why do you get worried?” And to his mother he’d say, “I’m here ammi. I’ll always be here, even when you’ll be an old hag and scream at your grandchildren!” while his mother chased him away with a slipper in hand.
The crops taught him the importance of punctuality and hard labour, while dipping into the canal helped him discover the balance offered by nature, paradoxes personified in how his mother’s lap was warm in the winter and cool in summer. The knowledge of the soil blew into his ears through the wind, such that the essence of his being and the existence of the white barked-trees, the twinkling night sky, the lentil patches, the fireflies and moths, and the burning sun, started becoming one.
After forcing a few morsels of parantha into his mouth, Amrit set out in an eternal search. He trudged towards the local police chowki.
“Babaji, why do you pester us every day? We’ve told you so many times, we don’t know where he is. Roz koi aa janda hai puchhan. Drill this in your head! He left you for something better-can’t you understand this? And stop troubling us for God’s sake; we have many other cases to handle.”
“But, can you check once again, what if-”
“Nahi, tussi niklo bas. Kinni waar karange? Saanu tang karna band karo...Sharn Singha- baahr lai ke ja ehna nu.”
In what was only to be expected, Amrit was thrown out yet again. Passersby tutted at the mad farmer. And the geometric perfection of his frame crumpled into exhaustion.
7 November 1991
The family rested on the roof, examining the stars from above creaking cots. Amrit swatted away a mosquito, “All our savings have been lost Khushi, but I draw the line at selling your bangles. They mark our son’s birth after all...”
“Why do you have to be so irrational? Jewellery can be bought any time. Is putting food on the table not more important than that?”
“I’ll try to talk to Kirat veerji, ask him how he sells his crop and where he gets that money from.”
“Don’t! He’ll convince you to sell another acre to him then. I don’t care how rich your brother’s family is. I think he has some connections with the police, you know.”
“Ammi, I saw Kirat tayaji’s son Aman veerji emerging out of the chowki. He smiled at me when he saw me pass. Do you think he knows the khaadkoos as well?”
“Hush, my child. Everyone has ears nowadays. Only yesterday, your father’s friend Avtar Singh of Khanna vanished into thin air. His wife and children have no one to support them now. Stay away from these policemen and radicals.”
“But how do you judge who is wrong? Both the parties kill our brethren. What is the difference?”
“You keep quiet! Do you want to go to jail too? Haven’t you heard of how they torture while questioning? Hunn ta saari shakk di khed hai. Manpreet’s son was so badly bashed up when he returned, that he is paralysed now. Just sleeps like a statue in bed. Doesn’t say a word. Mannu says he cries sometimes. Silently, as if his tears would indict him again, make him a terrorist.”
Punjab was facing an epidemic. It was an epidemic of fear. Fear scaled walls, spread through fields, and intruded into minds. Rumours of militants attacking Hindus, of policemen attacking militants, of policemen attacking innocent Sikhs, of man attacking man, wrecked the forests of this ancient civilisation like wildfire. Disappearances happened in the blink of an eye. Hitherto unknown stashes of weapons magically appeared in strange locations. Even talking became a chore no one wanted to engage in. These stories drowned the soil in waves of arid nothingness. Amrit’s failed harvests were a testimony to these experiences. The land breathed in terror, and wept in blood.
When bloodshed becomes so common, and both sides kill innocents, people start vanishing off government records. And who is right? Do uniforms guarantee moral rectitude?
Suddenly, someone started banging on their door. Amrit rushed downstairs, out of breath. A few well-built men dragged him into the house and began thrashing him mercilessly. “Where is Sukha? Tussi khaadkoo lakoye ne? We know you are hiding him. Chal thane.” His wife and son pleaded with the men, clung to their legs, tried to hold back their arms, prayed to God.
“Here he is then,” one of them smiled at Kamalpreet. They tied back his hands with turban cloth and threw him outside. “Don’t say a word. If you do, forget that you had a son.” And they left with this grim promise, as Amrit and Khushdeep howled into the wind. They collapsed like puppets with slashed strings. Even today, when you put your ear to the ground, you can hear their shouts reverberating. It is the burden of these truths that the earth carries.
Khushdeep’s eyes flickered at his face and returned to the expected conclusion, like a pendulum fixed to a single possibility, refusing to inch towards any extreme.
“I just...where is he? I don’t care if we don’t meet him again. All I want to know is whether he is dead or alive.”
She added to Amrit’s useless questions, “Is he eating properly? Does he have friends? Did he fall in love? Do we have grandchildren to pamper? If he is dead-is he buried or burned? How did he die?”
“There’s no need to pain ourselves unnecessarily. But only if…only if, someone would tell us something about him. Anything. A single sighting, a smudged record, a story of existing. Did we even have a son?”
They sipped milk out of tumblers while sitting in the verandah and reflected. Amrit shook his head at the field, which had been so outrageously fruitful especially after Kamalpreet was taken away. Khushdeep, on the other hand, thought about how her brother-in-law’s family hadn’t lost anyone. Weren’t they neighbours? Then why had their son gone missing, while Aman prospered?
“That Aman will inherit our field, won’t he? Do you think they conspired...”
“Will that change anything now?”
“He is not coming back Khushi. He’s gone. Saal beet gaye ne…hun taan mann ja.”
(A regional newspaper, Page 1)
“In the wake of numerous suicides by Punjab Policemen with letters confessing to killing innocents, a former police spy, alias Raju, has confessed to organising several fake encounters during Punjab’s militancy period. He produced an authentic police file containing names of civilians who have been murdered in cold blood and fashioned as militants. He claims that they placed piles of weapons near their bodies. Most of them were brutally tortured in custody, as has been exposed by a report of Human Rights Watch. Raju alleged that they were promised promotions for every militant killed, with no mechanism in place for accurately identifying militants. Hence, fake encounters along with grave human rights violations constitute the cruel reality of...”
In a list of names given by Raju to the media, a name that two pairs of ears had bled to hear about rested comfortably in the column of ‘Fake Encounters’. Raju later said that the corpses that belonged to that category were burnt.
(Same newspaper, page 3)
“A farmer couple belonging to L-village, committed suicide by drinking pesticide yesterday. Amrit Singh (81) and Khushdeep Kaur (78) were found dead in their verandah by their nephew Aman Singh, when he arrived to discuss some family matters. Upon the police’s arrival, it was discovered that they had drunk poisonous chemicals usually sprayed on the crop to ensure pest control. Remains of said pesticide were found in the tumblers lying near their bodies. This farmer couple had...”
The soil has eyes and ears. It says that when they drank pesticide like milk, they were holding hands.
1. Verandah- Courtyard
2. Dupatta- Thin stole-like cloth worn with Indian salwar-kameez
3. Pugh- Turban
4. Kurta- Clothing worn on the upper body, like a long shirt
5. Rabi- Crop season from October to March
6. Babaji- Synonym for God
7. Tantrik- Voodoo-man
8. Bapuji- Father
9. Ammi- Mother
10. Chowki- Station (Police station)
11. Veerji- Brother
12. Tayaji- Elder brother of one’s father
13. Khaak- Dust