It was an autumn evening falling over the house in a Kashmiri village that brought the two of them together.

The woman and child were strangers to themselves and to everyone else. Just then, not one of the many people in the household knew how to comfort either of them. Zeenat, for that was her name, had surprised everyone by ringing the doorbell that October evening, having travelled back to her ancestral home by bus. As she stepped off the vehicle at the end of the street, her head was bowed, she held a suitcase in one hand and a purse was slung over her other shoulder. It was a short walk by the orchards to the big house where her parents and other relatives lived.

She arrived unannounced and refused to answer any questions, merely going up the stairs to the room that was once hers, where, now, a little stone-faced child sat in the lap of a female relative. At her approach, the woman dislodged the child from her lap, got up from the carpeted floor, and on her way out to get tea, whispered that the child’s parents were dead – he was deaf–mute and had been living with them for the past few days.

When Zeenat and the child were alone in the room, they avoided each other’s gaze, locked in their silent personal universes.

Perhaps they understood each other perfectly. She slumped down in a corner with her back against an embroidered cushion. His small body huddled in an oversized pheran, he sat staring at a wall a few feet away from her.

Bang! Bang! Bang! Gunshots rang out on the TV screen opposite; a famous daredevil south-Indian hero was making mincemeat of the villains. It was then that she realized that the room had been noisy all this while; her cousin must have been watching the subtitled movie. The sound did not bother her, barely penetrating the iron cloak of wretchedness that she wore.

The child kept staring at the wall until the woman returned with nun chai and lavas on a tray. Before placing the tray on the floor, she handed the child a piece of the bread, which he accepted with the delayed reactions of a slow automaton. Zeenat too quietly took the tea, cupping her palms around the warm glass tumbler.

Her cousin touched her shoulder in a gentle gesture of sympathy, switched the television off and, pulling the curtains across the door, left the two mute strangers in the gaudy room. The colours around them challenged their grey states of mind. There was a small chair in one corner of the room, but no other furniture. The carpet that covered the entire floor was bright red, with a diamond pattern of yellow flowers threaded through it, while the walls were a light shade of blue.

On one side was a glass-fronted display case that held Quranic inscriptions sewed upon an oval, green velvet backdrop, a pair of porcelain dolls, a framed fold-out family picture, and a small copper samovar. The kitsch dolls had once belonged to Zeenat, who had adored the china couple gazing at each other over a patch of colourful f lowers.

She looked above the rim of her tumbler and her eyes hooked upon the family picture frame. She could not relate to her own image in that glossy photograph taken on a harvest day in the orchard. Her parents stood on either side of her; everyone looked happy. This was when she had first returned home after her marriage to Fayaz in the autumn of 2013.

Today, three years later, she had left her husband and her home, and she felt not even nostalgia or regret, just a piercing sensation of inevitability. Despite all her efforts, Fayaz had perhaps never really loved her.

A rasping sound caught her attention and she turned to see that the child was crumbling bits of crusty bread on the carpet. It stood to reason that she should ask him not to do this, but she stared at him doing it without feeling any need to interrupt him. He was too engrossed in the action, and seemingly unafraid of any sanction. She finished her tea and stood up, leaving the glass on the carpet and not back on the tray. Walking over to the window on the back wall, she pulled the curtains aside and listlessly stared from behind the closed windowpanes at the fading light. The calls to prayer in the local mosque were over, and the birds were flying home in erratic formations over the dark mass of trees. She turned back, leaving the curtain as it was, and sat down again – cross-legged and a little closer to the child.

At length, he looked up. Their eyes met with an unyielding silence that had its own caravan of ruinous secrets. These two stones in a room: What had he seen? What had she felt? Before tears could well up in her eyes, she looked away. He too blinked his eyes, stopped crumbling the bread, and lay down. Tonight, there would be no consolation for these souls trapped in their shells.

Downstairs, the family members continued to confer about Zeenat’s unexpected arrival.

Her aunt – her father’s sister – could not refrain from expressing her shock and dismay at the fact that the girl had chosen to travel unaccompanied, by public transport, under the present circumstances. It was intended to be a barb against her mother and the upbringing that Zeenat had received. Her mother suggested that they call her husband Fayaz right away and enquire as to what had happened. Her father was of the opinion that they should wait till the next morning, when she might be more amenable to speaking.

The latter course of action was decided to be the wiser, since they would first hear what Zeenat might say. Moreover, they would have the option of going over to her husband’s family home during the day.

It was dark now, and venturing out would be tempting fate, given the presence of armed patrols that treated every moving Kashmiri body with a suspicion that could escalate at the slightest hint and translate into the firing of pellets, if not bullets.

Once this consensus was established, food was sent up to Zeenat and the child. Zeenat’s mother herself brought it up, exhorting her to eat well even if she didn’t feel like it. The old woman fed the child with her own hands. Like a fledgling bird, he hungrily took each morsel of the rice mixed with meat gravy from between the tips of her extended fingers and chewed upon it, taking a long time to finish. He was then led by the hand to wash himself and get ready to sleep.

Zeenat’s cousin helped the little boy change his clothes, after which he promptly lay down on the mattress and, covering himself with a sheet, closed his eyes. Zeenat, on the other hand, lay awake in the darkened room, staring at the shadows on the walls.

Everything played out in her head – her days of loving Fayaz, her happiness at their marriage being settled, their first months in Srinagar, her excitement at seeing him return from work in the evenings, their nights in that marital bed, and what followed.

It was not when the floods of 2014 had submerged much of the city and spread a sheet of watery chaos all around them, but later, once the waters had receded and the rebuilding had begun, that she had felt Fayaz pull away from her, gradually at first, but definitively as time went on. He had never been easy to understand – something that had added to his charm.

His serious mystique had drawn her to him; but as the months passed, he became, not un-understandable, but unworthy of understanding, almost; not merely callous, but cruel. She felt as if she were an albatross hung around his neck – a burden that he had to carry, when all she wanted from him was the warmth of care and affection. He refused her the slightest attention without letting her know the cause of his resentment, or explaining whether it was even connected to her. It made her feel unattractive, foolish, older, and the last was particularly harsh since it was truly the case that she was three years older than him.

Future Tense

Excerpted with permission from Future Tense: A Novel, Nitasha Kaul, HarperCollins India.