Younis Ahmad Kaloo
A Date That Wasn’t
Rock and mineral specimens of various types and sizes, remnants of unearthed ancient Kashmiri pottery, some of which were kept in open on racks, and others secured in sample almirahs, and different types of maps and equipments sat lifelessly in the laboratory. It looked like a church hall given its sheer size and an arched roof.
We had just handed over our answer sheets to Professor Nissar, the head of the department, who conducted an impromptu test to know what we understood of the two lectures he had given the previous week. He taught us Palaentolgy twice a week — Wednesday and Friday. Our next lecture was due in thirty minutes, and since Professor Nissar had already left for his chamber, which was in the same building, Hassan and I took our phones out from our bags – Hassan had a backpack and I had a sling bag. I had already been texting my girlfriend on Facebook for about 5 minutes. She kept insisting that we meet, and I kept making one excuse after another. Not accepting what I said, she declared unilaterally, without caring for my opinion whatsoever, that we would meet outside her college after college hours.
I had never met a girl this way, and so felt as if my face was on fire, which by now had turned red out of nervousness and excitement. I was nervous because I feared she wouldn’t like me after getting a glimpse of my face. Excited, because we were meeting for the first time, and I had never seen her before. We had not even exchanged our pictures on Facebook.
However, my excitement waned before my nervousness, and my body temperature shot so high that I kept my cellphone on my desk, crossed my arms on my chest and soon hoisted my elbows on the desk with my head in my hands. I didn’t know what to do. Hassan, as naughty as he was, and he knew I was talking to a girl, instead of checking on me, took my phone, and went straight into the inbox which I had not exited and began reading the entire conversation aloud, after calling for everybody’s attention in the room.
“Everybody, listen,” Hassan began, holding the phone in his left hand away from me and restraining my movement by snacking his other arm around me.
“The girl’s name is Rutba Khayaal,” the announcement was followed by a loud shout-out from my other classmates.
“Let me first check how she looks,” here he was at his best when it came to pulling my leg.
“Oops, her face is all covered. No issues. Let me read you what this modern-day pair of Layla-Majnu is up to”.
The tragic love story of Layla and Majnu, also called the ‘Romeo and Juliet of the East,’ who are believed to have lived in 7th century Arabia, has been the touchstone of all the love stories that followed since. Majnu, which in Arabic means crazy or the demented one, was actually an epithet given to Qays ibn al-Mullawah who fell in love with Layla. Layla’s father, it is said, refused to give his daughter’s hand to Qays considering his mental state, and instead married his daughter to another man, who was both rich and handsome.
I was in no way a Majnu, and Layla I wasn’t even sure about.
“This is very shameful, Hassan,” I scolded my friend which only made him tighten his grip on me and speak even louder. Luckily, the professor had left, and had slammed the door shut behind him. Scrolling and reading quickly, Hassan paused at the last text message sent by Rutba in which she had insisted on our meeting.
“You son of a bitch,” he turned to me, hitting me with the arm that held me close to him just a second before, and the excitement in his voice was soon replaced by anger.
“You are going on a date with your love, and I know nothing about it. How come!”, now at least 30 pairs of eyes were looking at me and none but Hassan’s flashed with rage.
Like always, he overcame this “betrayal” in our friendship in just a few seconds and got to work as if nothing had happened.
“Are you going on a date in these clothes: a wrinkled checked shirt and jeans whose colour one can’t even tell? Shoes are fine though, and don’t get that sweater out of your bag,” Hassan said, pouring over me all the sympathy in his heart.
“Dawood, that jacket beside you, give it to me,” Hassan ordered a classmate of ours, who was sitting on a bench on the left row, just across the aisle, and who always wore clothes of some of the top brands in the world. The jacket was of The North Face, and Dawood had brought it along, just in case it rained in the evening. Besides, the winds in April still felt cold. I was getting worried, as even after securing Dawood’s jacket, Hassan’s eyes were still scanning the room for more.
“What are you doing Hassan? She is just asking if it is possible to see each other from a distance outside her college. It isn’t any date or a rendezvous for that matter,” it took me great effort to speak to Hassan, hoping to make him understand that he was blowing it way out of proportion.
“I know you through and through Roohulla. Do you take me as a fool? I may be well behind you in studies and, may be, in certain other fields of life, too, but I am smart enough to read and understand what one has written. This Roohulla, this,” Hassan lifted up my phone in his left hand, and enlarged the text in which Rutba had clearly mentioned how we would meet.
“I will be with my best friend Aisha who, I have recently discovered, knows you, as she is from your town. Besides, you both met during a seminar organized by our college a couple of weeks ago, where she and you shared the second prize. Any girl walking with her will be me. And make sure you spot me outside college only, for we will then board separate buses to home,” Hassan read one of the text messages eloquently, as if an author reading a passage from his masterpiece to an audience. There were still more of such long paragraphs accompanied by different types of emoticons and GIFs here and there.
For some strange reasons, I found the entire class taking a lot of interest in what Hassan made to be looking like a scene straight from a romantic movie. They all turned to him to listen. With each line he read, his excitement shot through the roof, and his listeners seemed to enjoy it, as if they were being asked to meet with the girl themselves. As far as I am concerned, inside the heart of my heart, I was praying for some professor to come in and take our last class of the day, and thus bring an end to this melodrama.
“You have been constantly torturing me emotionally over the past week by saying, ‘I don’t look good’,” at this point Hassan paused and looked down at me for a while, frozen and speechless. He sat down and again twined his arm around me, but this time it was out of sheer sympathy, and felt comforting unlike the previous time when he almost held me in a chokehold. Not in a mood to create a scene out of it, which he often liked to do, and dispense with some sort of cadence his reading had acquired in the past few minutes, he rose again and continued from the next sentence of the text message that he was reading.
“You must know that regardless of how you look, I still love you and which I tried to prove in the form of a note I wrote for you yesterday with my blood. I sent you that picture right away and today I am going to show you the cut I made on my forearm. Love you loads. Muah, muah!” Hassan gave those kissing emoticons life by bowing down and kissing all over my head. “Text me when you leave,” he read the last line, sat down and looked me in the eyes, then blinked repeatedly.
“Enough of playing the victim card! What is wrong with you?” Hassan shook me by my arms, as if doing this would reveal why I had told Rutba about my looks. I fail to tell to this day, why he always showed such enormous confidence in me. After all, I was sulking most of the time. Or, maybe, it was that only I saw things happening with me inside, and had trained myself to deal with people in a normal way. Although, I did make myself presentable whenever it came to interacting with people or addressing a large audience during a debate or a seminar.
“Come here,” Hassan held my hand, grabbed Dawood’s jacket with his free hand, and led us both out of our desk that we always shared in the front of the room. He had always listened to what I said, and, in fact, sought my advice on several matters pertaining to his personal life, but I had never seen him so determined and dominating as he was at this moment. It looked as if he was divinely tasked with uplifting my romantic self-respect and self-worth and wouldn’t stop until I showed some signs of improvement.
I could not know what Hassan was up to, as a sound from my cell-phone that he had kept in one of his pockets, interrupted him. It was a message from Rutba.
“Come fast. I am leaving because the professor left the class midway to attend a meeting with the principal lady. Probably, Chief Minister Mehbooba is coming to the college in a day or two. Anyways, come fast,” Hassan read the message instantly and told me to put the jacket on. He also asked Jibran, another classmate of ours, for his cap and wore it himself.
“Guys, I am going on a sacred mission with this bloke. Pray for the victory of love, and I know my friend is a good lover,” he pressed me close to him, almost in a hug, and announced it out loud in front of the entire class that we were leaving right away.
“If professor Junaid asks about us, tell him they had to attend to something urgently,” he lifted our bags and walked out of the room with me trailing behind.
We didn’t speak much on our 5-minute walk to the footbridge outside Women’s College which Rutba attended, except for Hassan checking on me several times and coming up with a few random suggestions.
“Keep it nice and decent. Girls like decent boys, a lot,” he said as we ascended the first steps of the bridge, which connected Rutba’s college gate with the other side of the road. The bridge was flooded with girls, all in whites. We were the only male bodies standing on the other side, absolutely without any shame.
“This is the best place to identify her and tag along,” Hassan shouted in my ears, amid the noise of running and honking cars and chattering and laughing college girls.
It was an awkward feeling to know that I had to first find the girl from my home-town and then look for Rutba. But that was how it had to be done, as there was no other way. I knew one more thing that would help me identify Rutba. She always wore spectacles. So, it shouldn’t be actually a big deal to find her. But why wasn’t I able to see her? I was being tormented by various types of questions, while Hassan kept putting on and off his cap standing close to me.
“Did she see me but did not stop because she didn’t like me? Were we standing at the wrong place to see her? Was she at all serious about what she wrote in her messages?” I kept thinking.
I wasn’t able to think properly and Hassan too began to become restless.
“Roohulla, why isn’t she showing up? It must not be tough for her to spot us here. We are the only boys here,” he asked me. All the excitement on his face was now replaced by a mix of anxiety and sadness, exactly reflecting my state of mind.
“There are still more girls coming out of the college. She must be amongst them,” I said, and felt that these words were the heaviest that I had ever spoken.
“Run! Run! Run! Roohulla run!” Hassan held my hand again, like he did in the college lab as students and other people around us ran helter-skelter after a loud bang, which seemed to come from some 100 meters behind where we were standing, was heard. Hassan managed to get us out of the place unscathed, while I kept looking back at the college gate. I could hear cries of girls, children and women while they were running for cover.
About half-an-hour later, when Hassan and I came out of our college, where we had taken refuge after the grenade blast, the entire Lal Chowk wore a deserted look, and the gates of the Women’s College were closed. No one except police and paramilitary forces and some journalists walked the road.
A girl child, barely able to reach the top of the shop’s base, kept asking Jameela for four round pieces of bread. She had already dropped a crumpled 20 rupee note for Jameela. But, Jameela didn’t look back. A long, pencil-thick iron rod with its top curved in the shape of a hook, used to grab the breads out of the wood-fuelled oven lay at her side, just at the rim of the oven. Jameela waited for the breads to turn brown, not taking her eyes off them.
“Since when did you start to be deaf, too? Can’t you hear the child outside?” blasted Yusuf, not able to see the girl himself. He brought his spread-out, flour-coated left hand heavily down on Jameela’s thigh, who was initially startled and let out a cry of pain, but sealed her lips and eyes altogether within no time, so as to not let anyone outside know of it. She quickly leaned back to have a look at the child, while her hand voluntarily kept going back and forth on the site of impact on her thigh. She also spotted the currency note right next to where she was sitting, and took four, still warm pieces of bread out of many that lay in a big, saucer-like flat basket kept on the other side. After putting the note in a tin, lidless money box, she leaned back again to see if the child had gone.
She prevented her tears from streaming down, as she knew from her previous experiences that they encouraged Yusuf to unleash his wrath on her even more, which was, almost every time, unnecessary and unjustified.
But today, she did speak though her words had to pass through a blob of phlegm in her throat. “Not even the cruellest of men would treat their wives the way you do,” Jameela said to her husband in a low, shaking voice. She still felt, her throat was not clear yet and coughed heavily. “This is not my place. Look at my eyes, my hair. They are all covered in ash and smoke. I sit here dawn to dusk, and this is how you repay me,” Jameela broke down, and didn’t care even if her husband burnt her in the oven for crying.
“Do you even bother about the weight I have gained over the months. I cannot properly stand and am facing multiple complications. My body is broken and my heart, too,” when Jameela mentioned “heart” she looked at Yusuf. He was tossing the balls of dough on a square marble piece one after the other, and spreading them with his palm, dropping a few drops of milk-looking liquid on each one of them and running the tips of his fingers of both hands across them, for final shape before pasting them on the oven wall. He did not respond to what appeared to him a meaningless monologue of his wife of eight years.
Emboldened by her recent outburst, and her husband’s cold response, Jameela went on, not taking the hand off her thigh. Her continuous rubbing had mitigated the pain, but the shalwar over it, still retained the dried flour marks from the time when Yusuf hit her.
“I wish that time comes again when we had workers doing this work for us! How great the life was despite all the sad things that kept happening around. Why did they leave?” Jameela’s question made Yusuf pause while he was giving the final shape to a spread-out chunk of dough.
“You have now lost your memory too,” Yusuf answered, his former anger reignited. But he didn’t lift his hand or anything this time to hit her.
“They left because we were out of work. People preferred to eat everything homemade. We are still in pandemic,” Yusuf reminded her.
“I did not mean that. I am talking about our life, you and me,” at this time Jameela looked at Yusuf admiringly, as he put a piece of wood into the oven. He readjusted the burning wood and ambers underneath it, with a long ash tool and the iron rod pointed a bit inwards at the top.
“It has been five months and we have mostly spent this time in this smoke-filled tiny shop, sitting close by, and yet not being able to share a few moments together. Yes, we earn and are happy on that account. But this has also brought death to our hearts, and with it to all their feelings. Do you even desire me anymore?” Jameela’s questions seemed to multiply, as she tried to open up to her husband. Five months after all, and she had never confronted him like this before. Though, all this while, her voice remained soft, and seemed intended to make Yusuf understand that she was suffering, and was not at all happy with the way things were going on in her life and the one which she shared with him.
There were no customers outside and Yusuf was done for the afternoon, after he pasted the last raw bread inside the oven. He didn’t immediately answer Jameela’s last question, but turned to washing his hands in a steel bowl filled with water, while Jameela kept plucking the breads out, one after the other. Yusuf began to look for something, but couldn’t find it. Jameela’s heart sank and she asked her husband in a faint voice, trying very hard to hide her fear, what he was searching for.
“I can’t find the radio. God damn it,” he said. J
ameela’s fear subsided and she showed him where it was, with a smile.
“There, under that cloth,” referring to a wet, white cloth that was put on the chunks of dough earlier.
As Yusuf turned the radio on, a melodious voice began to sing “Keh don tume, ya chup rahon, dil mein mere aj kya hai…”
Note: Kandur is a traditional Kashmiri bread maker..
Illustration: Sushmita Sridhar.
Younis Ahmad Kaloo was born and brought up in Kashmir. He is a journalist and short story writer. His book (memoir) Jiji: The Trials and Tribulations of Parveena Ahangar was published in 2020 by Hawakal Publishers. Previously, he was a Delhi-based correspondent at FORCE newsmagazine, a monthly magazine on national security and aerospace. He was also part of Kus Bani Koshur Krorepaet season 1 (Kashmiri version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? produced by Studio Next – Sony Pictures Networks India – for DD Kashir) where he worked as an Assistant Director and Casting Producer. Younis was honoured with the ‘Student of the College’ and ‘Best Debater of the College’ awards for the year 2013 by Sri Pratap College, Srinagar. His last short story was published by KITAAB in August this year.