BOOK EXCERPT

‘The transistor’: A chilling short story from Kashmir

An excerpt from a collection of short fiction set in the state.

...After his migration, Rahmaan’s first letter, besides enquiries about Muhammad Yousuf’s and his family’s well-being and many other things, asked him if he wanted anything from Delhi. Yousuf read it many times over and then, alone in his room, before stowing it in his leather vanity box, he smelled the thin blue paper of the inland letter and touched the Urdu words written with a fountain pen.

In his reply, Muhammad Yousuf wrote:

“Everything is fine. Only the Army is advancing into the orchard, as you already know. I am worried about that. I don’t really need anything, but if you can send a good transistor I’ll be obliged. That is it. The one I have, the one you knew, is in bad shape. Naseema damaged it accidentally. Time and again I stuff something or the other in the battery slot to keep the batteries tightly connected. Even after repairing it twice, one or the other thing comes loose. Rest all is fine in the village...”

A fortnight later, a courier arrived at Muhammad Yousuf’s house.

He unboxed a small, bubble-wrapped transistor with its warranty card. It was a rectangular, vertically elongated, black case with two small twin grey dials on the top front. There was a tiny projection of a black antenna to its top left corner and an almost invisible metre-band strip fixed on the narrow left side. It was a transistor of a shape, colour and design he had never seen before. Yousuf filled its battery slot with new, slender batteries and turned it on. The sound it blared was loud and fresh.

It was just afternoon on a Friday. Wielding a claw hammer in his right hand, Muhammad Yousuf Dar was bending the nails on the barbed wire in his orchard. The surroundings echoed with Friday sermons blaring from all the mosques in the village. The twelve o’clock bulletin on Yousuf’s new transistor was already over and it was now just hissing in the crook of a young quince apple tree. His hands were soiled so he let it be.

As Yousuf walked towards the orchard well to wash his hands, he found Nazir Ahmad Malik standing on the dirt track outside the orchard, staring at him and the transistor. Malik was returning from his own orchard and heading to the Jamia Mosque for Friday prayers. Yousuf salaamed him and they exchanged pleasantries. Then, Malik moved on, every now and then turning to look back at Yousuf and his hissing transistor.

Once the Friday prayers were over, people burst out of the mosque door and began to huddle into small clusters on the main road. There were groups of children, adults, youths and old men – all gossiping. Nazir Ahmad Malik led his own group. As he saw Yousuf coming out of the mosque, Malik drove everyone’s attention towards him. All the old men scanned Yousuf furtively. “His brother has given him a walkie-talkie to spy on the freedom movement in the village. I saw it with my own eyes...he was trying out the signal with the Army near his orchard.” Everyone believed what Malik said when he described Yousuf’s transistor as a walkie-talkie. Malik looked sweet and composed, as always, with that smiling look on his face. Ignoring the fact that Yousuf had always stood by his own politics, the villagers instead easily connected the wrong dots.

From that Friday to the next, in the matter of a week, the whole of Daddgaam and several other adjoining villages were abuzz with news of Yousuf’s “walkie-talkie”.

Just after his sermon, Molvi Ali Muhammad Shah announced: “We have learnt that some unethical persons in our Daddgaam have been spying on the village. And they have been exchanging information regarding the resistance movement with the government forces through wireless sets. And yes, you heard it right: wireless sets. They have become informers and are betraying the great cause of freedom and Islam. And this announcement must serve as their last warning.”

The announcement was followed by a delay in the Friday prayers. Molvi Shah took ten more minutes to sermonise about “betrayal and its punishment in Islam”. Yousuf listened to the announcement in awe and with great interest. He was curious and puzzled, and he wondered who those informers could be. But everyone was covertly looking at him only. As Molvi Shah commenced the chute, the Arabic part of the sermon, Yousuf tried to guess. His eyes wandered along the rows of worshippers. He scanned Fayaz Ahmad Bhat, an infamous boy who, the village believed, indulged in drugs. Yousuf shook his head. No, it cannot be Fayaz; his brother Farooq sacrificed himself for the cause of freedom. Then on his left, Yousuf found Altaf Ahmad Malik, Nazir Ahmad Malik’s son, who, the people said, was the worst “loose character” in the entire village; who had been warned several times by the insurgents to stop stalking the village girls. No, it cannot be him either; it is not necessary that one who has a loose character would also be an informer. en Yousuf stopped looking around, folded his hands on his chest and concentrated on the khutba.

A few days later, Yousuf, as usual, was listening raptly to the 8:30 pm BBC bulletin in his kitchen.

With each bit of the news about human rights’ violations committed by the government forces in Kashmir, he would curse the forces under his breath. In a corner, Naseema was frying potatoes over a gas stove. Suddenly, there was a power cut. e children were writing their school homework. There came a loud bang on the main door. Yousuf and his family froze for a minute. Naseema and Yousuf looked at each other in wonder. They were not expecting any visitors at this hour, and definitely not knocking on the main door after the gate had been closed.

Then, there was another, louder knock. “It must be the Army. They are angry with me. As I’m trying to keep them away from Brother’s side of the orchard,” Yousuf whispered to Nausea. “Don’t worry. I will go and see.”

With his daring heart and shivering body, the transistor in his right hand—booming BBC, and a candle stub in the left, he went over to open the door. Yousuf placed the candle on top of the banister post opposite the main door and pulled down the bolt. In the dim candlelight, he saw three men. And before he could ask them who they were and what they wanted, they cocked their guns.

Excerpted with permission from “The Transistor” from the collection of short stories Scattered Souls, Shahnaz Bashir, HarperCollins India.

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