Samar, on the front seat behind the driver, had been quite amazed at his own audacity in challenging the burly driver. His bravery, however, had not yielded the intended results – the driver seemed entirely unperturbed and Rabiya hadn’t even looked up. A smile on her face suggested that she had reached an interesting part in the book that she was reading: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

Like the book’s protagonist, Florentino Ariza, Samar wasn’t going to give up on Rabiya that easily. He tried to impress her again. “Will you drive faster and stop collecting more people? There is hardly any space in here, soon I’ll have to sit in this woman’s lap!” Samar shouted at the driver, a little louder this time.

“If you are in such a hurry, why didn’t you take an auto?” the driver yelled at Samar.

“Or a plane maybe?” the conductor of the matador joined in. “Trawunsa yeti – just throw him out.”

This enraged Samar further and he rose and reached for the driver’s collar and was about to slap him, when a fellow passenger stopped him. “He won’t listen to you, bhai. Never ever throw a stone in a shit hole.” He said, and turned to buy a pack of peanuts through the window from a nearby vendor.

Samar’s face was trembling. “Kole haenz, bloody fisherman,” he muttered.

As Samar returned to his seat, he realised that Rabiya had chosen this exact moment to turn her attention to the scene. Samar’s face turned red. He was mortified that he had lost his cool demeanour at the provocation of that ruffian of a driver. What will she think of me? Samar thought as hot, angry tears stung his eyes. This wasn’t the kind of impression he wanted to leave on her.

As the driver switched on an Altaf Raja song on the cassette player, the feather-monkey clapped again. “Ishq aur pyaar ka mazaa lijiye, thoda intezaar ka mazaa lijiye...” (Enjoy the pleasures of love, savour the pleasures of waiting.)

It had taken Samar quite a long time to find out Rabiya’s name, and now even a mention of it would make him blush. From the day he had seen her during the university entrance exams, he had hardly been able to take his eyes off her. He knew this was going to be different from his trysts with other women.

Rabiya wasn’t just beautiful, she was luminous. Her soulful kohl-smeared eyes were full of grace and mystery. Samar had seen her in the university campus several times. She would always be immersed in a book, sitting in the shade of the thick foliage of one of the lofty chinar trees of Naseem Bagh—the famed Mughal University garden.

Her passion for books always amazed Samar. There was hardly a time when she didn’t have a book in her hand. He would wonder whether she had made the printed book her veil, with which to shield herself from the real world. He hoped she would notice him if she ever stepped out of that world, which he knew she did because sometimes he would spot her in the company of other girls, sitting in front of the Iqbal Library, or sharing kebabs in the central canteen.

Sometimes, Samar would follow her to the recently opened Café Coffee Day, only to watch her sip coffee or eat a spinach sandwich. Any opportunity to see her would make his day brighter.

The Café Coffee Day in the University was one of the few popular restaurant chains in Srinagar. The growing cafe market, a new craze among the youth, was run by locals who gave their shops copycat names such as MacDonald, KBC Chicken and Black Bucks. Cafes aimed at college- and school-going youth were opening up in other parts of the city as well, serving the usual pop-western fare of pizzas, pasta, soft drinks and rolls.

Some had exciting themes like the magical world of Harry Potter or the sci-fi universe of Star Wars. Many of these cafes were run by optimistic, educated, young men with an entrepreneurial passion, if not aptitude. Most of them had come back from Delhi because they couldn’t stand its sweltering, muggy weather. They preferred persevering in the pleasant Kashmir climate rather than finding false comfort in well-paying corporate jobs of the big city.

Samar’s train of thought broke when the matador passed by a CRPF bunker, which was enclosed in barbed wire. As always, a helmeted soldier’s head peeped out from the turret to keep vigil. Though the University was only a twenty- minute drive from his house, Samar always left an hour earlier to accommodate the snail’s pace of the matadors and also the possibility of halts at security checkpoints and bunkers.

After a brief halt at the bunker, the vehicle gained some speed churning up dust again. But the dusty roads did nothing to obliterate the grandeur of Hari Parbat, a hillock overlooking the city, harbouring the Durrani Fort, which had religious importance for Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. From Hari Parbat, the grand old city looked jarring. Its once serene lakes looked like mere canals. The houses seemed like matchboxes stashed compactly next to each other. And the people on the streets looked like ants trying to carry grains through narrow crevices.

As Samar admired the resilience of the fort, his eyes fell upon a spider-web pattern on the windshield of the matador: each thread intricately woven and designed, as if the spider had spent its entire life creating that web. Then a second, more realistic, thought struck him. The pattern had probably been caused by a stone thrown by a protester. Round, rough, small pebbles; bigger, harder-to-grip ones – the protestors used whatever they could find. This stone was probably medium-sized, and might have hit the glass somewhat harmlessly through thick foggy air, damaging the pane a little but not shattering it.

The matador now passed over a wooden bridge on stone pillars that had aged gracelessly and looked resigned to its fate. As Samar pulled out a newspaper from his bag, gory pictures of dead, mutilated faces and rubber-bullet victims sent shivers down his spine. The bag also carried his documents, including his long-due Corporate Law assignments and other notes for last-minute revisions. Just then an old man inquired: “What’s in there, son?”

“What?” Samar initially thought the gentleman was referring to his bag, only to realise that his sunken eyes were on the newspaper.

“Any good news?” the elder asked. Samar paused for a moment, wondering in his head when was the last time he had read something in a newspaper that would qualify as “good news” and bring a smile to the face of the reader. Curfews, protests, killings, unemployment and corruption were the usual headlines.

Samar handed over his copy of Greater Kashmir to the man. He had bought it for a rare old two- rupee note from the vendor at the Sheikh Bagh bus stop where he boarded the matador every morning for the university. He had written his name and phone number on the currency note with a blue- ink pen, before handing it to the vendor. He was hoping it would make its way back to him someday with more names and phone numbers on it.

The gentleman unfolded the newspaper in an orderly way and his face disappeared behind its op-ed page. “Obama asks India and Pakistan to find a bilateral solution to the vexed Kashmir problem,” the old man read aloud.

A young, clean-shaven man, who was peeping into the newspaper while struggling to stand still in the overfilled matador, chuckled at this. “Obama or Bush or Clinton, they’re all the same, they don’t want peace to return. Whatever is happening or has happened in the last two decades is inevitable. Nobody can change the status quo in Kashmir,” he said, turning towards the old person with difficulty amidst the crowd.

Samar nodded in affirmation.

“Kashmir has become a bone of contention between many players now. Only divine intervention can bring back peace and tranquillity to my janate benazeer, my heavenly home,” the young man continued wistfully.

As the matador wobbled to the hub, dust seeped in through the open spaces. A young woman tried to peer at the newspaper from underneath a man’s arm, which gripped the broken handle- pipe on the matador ceiling. The man vehemently objected: she had come too close and was making him uncomfortable. However, on seeing the girl’s smiling face, he began to hurl curses at the conductor instead, for filling the matador to the brim.

The girl then asked the old man reading the paper to look for any notice about the secondary school exam dates. The man scanned the newspaper carefully until he finally found it. “Here it is,” he said, turning the paper towards the girl.

“All exams stand postponed due to unavoidable circumstances,” a notice in the bottom left corner of the page read.

As Samar watched through the bunch of heads, he could not guess whether the girl was happy with the announcement or not.

The matador was making rounds of the same area and the conductor was crying out for more passengers, shouting at the top of his voice: “University, Inversity, yenversity...”

Life in the Clock Tower Valley

Excerpted with permission from Life in the Clock Tower Valley, Shakoor Rather, Speaking Tiger.