Staring at Emptiness

The rickety, noisy city bus came to a halt on the main road. A man in a brown jacket got down. He had a black, artificial-leather bag, which he carried heavily, strapped across his shoulders. He walked across the curb into one of those nondescript, potholed by-lanes branching off from roads everywhere in Kashmir. Passing years had made the potholes only deeper. Careful not to step into one, he made his way home, deep inside a posh Srinagar colony – colonies being posh despite their bumpy streets, falling electricity poles, and shabbily-hanging telephone lines. A black gate with a gate-let next to it stood at the entrance to his home. He pushed the gate-let open, and walked inside.

In times gone by, he wouldn’t have taken a bus home. In times gone by, there would have been someone to open the gate. Twenty years ago, many uneducated, village youth would make a beeline for large houses in Srinagar, looking for jobs as domestic helpers. The hinterland was choked with ‘agencies,’ ‘security forces,’ and ‘unidentified gunmen,’ who were always on the prowl to kill a young Kashmiri. Cleaning utensils in a rich home in Srinagar was one of the many ways to save one’s life. But the petering out of the armed struggle, the gradual end of the counter-insurgency battle, and the over-staffing of the J&K Government meant that finding domestic help in Srinagar depended solely on ’employment agencies,’ and the huge sums they demanded, for workers from remote areas of West Bengal and Assam, and praying for luck.

Good luck eluded this man. Bad luck had somehow come to stay.

He sighed the kind of sigh you sigh against the nippy November air in Kashmir, air thick with smoke from burning autumn leaves. Winter was fast-approaching. There was no one at home to cut the wood off the trees, no one to collect the firewood for the hamaam and kangris, no one to seal the windows, no one to fix blankets across the doors. His work had taken him far away from Srinagar, and he did not have the time everyday to come home early and be useful.

Looking at their tiled driveway, he remembered a time not so long ago when he would use it for cricket. With friends. Some of whom were alive. Some of whom were dead. Some of whom had left Kashmir a long time ago. Some of whom had made it big, real big, in life. In places as far away as Australia, the United States, or as near as Delhi, or Dubai. Some of whom were busy making it big in Srinagar – by dubious ventures, fraud loans, or large businesses. He had lost touch with most of them. They perhaps chose to remain out of touch. He did not know the difference.

Walking up the marbled steps to the back door, something caught his eye. An old shoe. Something lying around, everyday, in your home – but something that catches your eye only when you are in deep thought. That shoe, purchased at a large, branded outlet in a Metropolitan city. He and his wife and their kid on an evening out – when a small family gets together to just do something “different.” Eat out, shop, just talk. It seemed like decades ago. Life in Kashmir after his ‘return’ had taken a toll on this. There were no “outings.” In winters, Kashmir sleeps. In summers, Kashmir gets stuck in traffic jams.

“Ha ha,” he thought. “Traffic jams.”

He remembered his time in that Metropolitan city when he was being offered the highest pay in some of the best hospitals as a specialist.

“No,” he said, “I am going home. To Kashmir.”

“Kashmir!” He smirked, huffed. He picked up the shoe, looked at it, tossed it in his hands, and gave it a mighty heave far into the garden. No more memories of big hospitals, and class equipment. He belonged among the din of Primary Health Centres and the rush of Dispensaries. He was a plain Medical Officer with a degree too many. His skills – with cutting-edge, minimal access technologies – being wasted by the day. Never mind. There were more important things to take care of.

“The world and all its temptations,” he thought. “The world was a series of troubles. What’s the point of having all the medals, and all the trophies, if there was no struggle left? What was the point of that Promised Heaven when all what most men have done is to already make life in this world as  Heavenly as possible?”

A smile crossed his face. “Heaven. Through the door of obedience to parents.”

And he walked across the door, and entered his home. To the welcoming smile of his mother, and the greetings of his father.

A kiss on his father’s hand, a peck on his mother’s forehead, and he went up to his room to change.

Another day in Paradise had ended. What more can one call the company of one’s parents?