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Life in the Clock Tower Valley: In Shakoor Rather's debut novel, an insider's view of the everyday life in Kashmir

Shakoor Rather
·8-min read

Editor's note: Srinagar, summer of 2008: the chinar trees are shedding leaves, outdated matadors are still polluting the streets and checkpoints with men in army fatigue dot the city.

Samar, a college student, is head over heels in love with Rabiya, his batchmate. Sheikh Mubarak, Samar's neighbour, is a famed metal craftsman stuck in a loveless marriage. Sana, Mubarak and Naziya's five-year-old daughter, is best friends with Pintoji, the neighbourhood simpleton. Shakoor Rather's debut novel, Life in the Clock Tower Valley travels between Kashmir's pristine past, its grievous present and perennially uncertain future, giving us an insider's view of everyday life, emotions and hardships in the conflict-riddled valley.

Rather is a Delhi-based Kashmiri journalist and has written extensively on Kashmir's politics, society, culture and heritage in his career spanning nearly a decade. Having grown up in the valley during its most turbulent times, he writes through the lens of an insider and thus presents different dimensions of the conflict in the region.

The following is an excerpt read by Rather (along with a text version of the same) €" of the chapter titled 'The Lost Cow' from his book, that has been republished here with due permission from the publishers Speaking Tiger.

*** THE LOST COW ***

It was august. Wet green moss had already settled on the moist ivy brick walls of Sheikh Mubarak's house, engulfing it like a monster about to tear its prey into pieces. A week had passed since the indefinite curfew had been imposed following the ruling coalition government's collapse over protests against transferring acres of forest land to a Shrine Board. Governor's rule had been invoked. Life was paralysed in every way.

Restrictions had been imposed on peoples' movement. Businesses, schools and shops remained shut. It was time for people to spend days indoors. This unwanted pause from daily routine, however, was a blessing in disguise for some. They used the time to complete pending household work: paint shabby walls and fix plumbing and electric switches. Others, mostly young people, would sulk inside their houses because they could not meet their girlfriends or boyfriends. Samar spent the time talking on the phone with Rabiya. They would wait for the intermittent breaks in the curfew to sneak a quick meeting with each other. Normally, under curfew, Internet services would be curtailed or completely snapped by the government, forcing people to indulge in long discussions face to face. These would be mostly political debates, which would invariably end up in fights over petty issues and difference of opinions. People would take longer afternoon naps, waking up to the same faces around them, and watching one's partner and kids for hours could become unbearably frustrating for most.

Uncertainty was ticking on Mubarak's silver-plated wristwatch placed on his right hand. A flock of crows was circling the sky over the dark pines. An Alsatian dog was chasing the moon somewhere, running across the far-off rice fields. Its bark pierced through the quiet of the night. In the pleasant breeze carrying the whispers of autumn, Mubarak's cow was pregnant. The time of delivery was around the corner. It could be any moment now. Mubarak feared that in case of some complication, he may not be able to convince the vet to visit amidst the curfew. The vet was also an old friend of the family and lived in the adjacent Khan Mohalla. Although Mubarak had informed him about the situation just an hour ago, he dialled the vet's number once again. It wouldn't hurt to remind him, Mubarak thought. To his despair, the phone services had been snapped without notice.

Nestled in the warmth of her mother's lap, Sana, Mubarak's five-year-old daughter, threw a volley of questions at her worried father. 'When is the little one expected to arrive?' she asked curiously. She had heard him telling the neighbours earlier in the evening that the cow was ready to give birth.

'By the time you wake up in the morning, jigar,' was Mubarak's optimistic answer.

'I won't sleep, Abba. I want to be the first one to see the calf,' Sana said, brushing her dark, long curls away from her forehead. She half expected her father to reprimand her. He was always making sure she slept on time. But when Mubarak did not respond, Sana took his silence as permission to stay up late and happily snuggled closer to her mother in the glow of the lantern as shadows of trees outside flickered across their airy drawing-room.

Mubarak looked at his daughter. She had inherited his straight nose and her mother's full pink lips. Sana was excitedly telling her mother about how she would play with the newborn calf under the morning sun; perhaps bathe it under the hand-pump in the backyard, in the shade of the walnut tree. Mubarak wished all members of the household would share Sana's enthusiasm. His wife, in particular, had not mentioned the cow's impending delivery even once. It was as if she was deliberately avoiding the subject. Perhaps she did not want to jinx it by talking about it; Naziya could be very superstitious when she wanted something badly, thought Mubarak.

Mubarak could hear the pattering of walnut kernels on the tin roof of Sheikh Manzil. The sound of the falling walnuts at night would often wake Mubarak up in the fear that a thief was trying to sneak into the adjacent metal workshop. The pattering would continue for nearly a month until the walnuts were ripe enough to be harvested. Then the tree branches would lift and recuperate from the stress of bearing the weight of the fruit. During the walnut season, the fruits and twigs from the tree, along with the heavy bent branches, would damage the roof of Mubarak's house. Mubarak often considered felling the tree. However, he had developed a certain respect for its stature and age. He valued the benefits it had lent to the Sheikh family over the years; and thus, never acted upon the idea.

Sana went off to sleep that interminable night dreaming about the coming of a friend. Just before she fell asleep, Sana was thinking if she should replace Pintoji, her current playmate, with the calf. Mubarak held her slender frame in his arms and carried her to the bedroom upstairs. He laid her down and watched her sanguine face rest comfortably on the fluffy pillow.

And then Mubarak went downstairs to look for his wife. Now that Sana was asleep, they could discuss what needed to be done to ensure that their cow gave birth smoothly. But this was not the only reason Mubarak wanted to talk about the cow to his wife. He did not like to admit it, but he was scared, and he needed to speak about his fears; hear some words of comfort and hope, in response.

But his fears were not to be assuaged. Naziya was fast asleep. Mubarak wondered if she was pretending. After all, she had been sitting up just a few minutes ago but now she seemed to have drifted to another land. Her pheran had ridden high up her legs, exposing her thin, wobbly knees. Mubarak felt a wave of desire for his wife. He wanted to hold her, kiss her, bury his head in her bosom and forget his troubles. He stroked her hair but she did not stir. Mubarak at once felt tired and exhausted. He slumped down next to her on the floor, and waited through the dubious night for the curfew to be relaxed.

It would be relaxed at 8 o'clock in the morning for an hour. This was when people could add to their stocks of rice, wheat flour, baby food, oil, medicines and other essentials. If nothing untoward happened during that hour, the authorities sometimes extended the relaxation€"Mubarak consoled himself with the thought. He was intently listening to his vintage Philips Bahadur transistor, which was wrapped in a black leather cover and eternally placed on the windowsill of the dining room. To Mubarak, it seemed the radio and Naziya were alike: they worked perfectly well throughout the day, but often tuned out during the most important parts.

Mubarak paced the room as the morning sun greeted him from across the window. A streak of orange fell on the wall, lighting up the dust particles on its way, like a movie being projected on a screen. He stopped to look at his shadow on the wall. He looked much thinner than he actually was.

Then he turned his attention back to the cow. The time of the cow's delivery was drawing near. Mubarak had seen the tell-tale signs exhibited by the cow. To compound the inconvenience caused by the curfew, there had been a shortage of milk in the valley for over a month. Days had gone by with black salt tea for the family. Black tea in white cups, half-sips gulped down half-heartedly.

***

Shakoor Rather's Life in the Clock Tower is published by Speaking Tiger | March 2021 | Paperback | 176 pages | Rs 350 (9789389958843)

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