As if lost in thoughts, with his head down Ashraf Tho’ad pushed his bicycle, laden with two filled aluminium water pots on either side of the carrier, under the luminescent lamp posts of the road. He was headed home and, as if he had the entire route mapped out in his mind’s eye, he didn’t require the eyes to navigate. He raised his head only when a vehicle came from the wrong end of the road, flashing harsh lights straight in his face.
This slightly breezy late May evening, Ashraf was in no mood to look around and greet the people he knew from his neighbourhood. Neither did he feel the need to reach home before the last of the five calls to prayer was heard, which also signified, at least in Ashraf’s household, time to gather for dinner. So, he decided to push rather than pedal the distance of about 2 kilometers from where he filled cold and treated tap water.
Many families in the neighbourhood used this water, which as per them came from central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district through newly laid pipes cutting through various towns and villages, while the taps in their homes ran water from a local water body notorious for holding in it many secrets and all types of unwanted things: used plastic items, animal carcasses, and, sometimes, human dead bodies. Yet, in the absence of any other option and the Ganderbal water being quite a distance away, too difficult to fetch without a means of transportation, they used it for everything except drinking and cooking.
Pausing outside a complex that housed a public sector bank and an ATM on its ground floor and a fitness centre on the first, Ashraf’s head rose mechanically and turned to his left. He ran his eyes from the half-shuttered ATM room to the brilliantly lit, huge transparent glass windows of the centre. The people working out in the fitness centre, near the windows and facing the road, noticed him looking rather less at them than at the building. He was so engrossed in the building that he almost lost hold of his bicycle, but he somehow managed to hold it steady again and did not mind to wave back to the young men above who rose from their respective machines for a moment to see if he was alright. Both the water pots were sealed tight at their mouth with polythene bags and no water was lost as a result of this momentary disturbance of balance.
Ashraf wanted to spend more time outside the building, the old version of which he owned exactly eighteen years ago, but he became conscious of others noticing him staring at the building mysteriously and decided to walk away. Yes, he owned that building once, and the person to whom he sold it, or rather lost it, was his dearest friend, at least he believed so until that ill-fated week of May 2003.
Guests from Ashraf’s daughter’s would-be in-laws’ family had just left and in came Shahbaz, whom people called Gupan Draal due to his profession of buying and selling cattle. More out of affection than teasing, Ashraf called him Drala, no matter where they met or who was around them. Post dinner, the two men played cards late into the night. Sensing that Ashraf was happy, Shahbaz asked him if he was down for a real game. When Ashraf did not understand what he meant, Shahbaz, swallowing hard out of nervous excitement, said that he wanted to play some big shots like putting the most important and valuable things in his life on stake and experience how the fear of losing them felt like. Ahshraf called him crazy and tried to laugh off his suggestion, but it had no effect on Shahbaz.
Ashraf was wealthier than Shahbaz in all respects: he owned a range of shopping complexes, two stainless steel and aluminium utensil manufacturing factories, over a hundred sheep that in summers were handed over to a mountain shepherd, some horses, and two cows. There was plenty of land, too. If Shahbaz had anything, it barely accounted for 30% of what Ahsraf owned. Yet, on that intervening night of May 23 and 24, Shahbaz was determined to give his fortune a new spin, which would decide whether he was richer than Ashraf or utterly broke. Ashraf, on the other hand, kept telling him rather beseechingly that this proposition was vile and shouldn’t have been uttered in the first place. But Shahbaz did not make it sound like he had said it in jest. He tenaciously clung to his offer, which further compounded the problem for Ashraf to determine the purpose behind it. Shahbaz was neither drunk nor had this happened before. Yielding to his best friend’s insistence on letting the cards decide who deserved more fortune of the two, though he still couldn’t believe that Shahbaz would one day walk into his house with a pack of cards harbouring such ill intentions, Ashraf lost all, except his house, to his friend. It only took an hour for the fortune to shift from Ashraf to Shahbaz.
Ahshraf’s heart had bled grieving and mourning vehemently only on four occasions: the death of his father, the death of his mother, a childhood friend that fell to the bullets in a crossfire, and losing 90% of his property to a good friend of his in what appeared to be a card game played for fun but which ended up robbing him of his hard-earned property. The pain of all other losses somehow subsided, but being conned by his friend kept stabbing him to this day. In the last week of May every year since that fateful night, Ashraf hardly opened his mouth and ate the bare minimum – so that his family doesn’t get worried – though he kept doing small chores like a not-so-old-man his age would do, like fetching water on his bicycle.
Younis Ahmad Kaloo is a journalist and short story writer from Kashmir. [email protected]