My Father’s Sawmill

July 20, 2020
A Kashmiri village, swaddled in snow and ice
From the Family Album

A writer born in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir reflects on how his older brother must have felt once the freedom to roam the apricot grove and streets of the village was suddenly curtailed as Kashmir began its insurgency against India.

1

Winter returned, wrapping the village in a shroud of white mist. On our windows, leaves of frost formed on the brittle panes of glass.

In the morning, my older brother, my mother, and I gathered around a samovar of simmering salt tea. But when we heard a gunshot, we ran out of the kitchen, and down the stairs to the ground floor of the house we shared with Uncle, Aunt, and their seven-year-old son, Aashiq. We huddled together in a corner of our long hall.

The courtyard crunched beneath the boots. The steps strode past our house, racing toward the river. We heard a splatter of gunfire.

The quiet of doom fell. Mother clutched at my arm, pulling me closer. A door crashed. We heard the sound of blows and a neighbor howling.

Our backdoor rattled. Brother stood up and unlatched. The door flung open, and a soldier barged in. He grabbed Brother by the collar of his shirt and slapped him several times across his face. I hid behind Mother.

When I looked over her shoulder, the soldier was stepping aside, making space for two other soldiers to come inside. Uncle stood up to face them.

Mother stood up, too. She suddenly started cursing the soldier and called Brother’s name out loud. From each house in our neighborhood, women screamed the names of their sons.

“Where are you hiding him?” the soldiers asked Uncle. “He fired on us.”

“We are not hiding anyone,” Uncle said. “You can search the house.”

“Stay here,” the soldier looking over Brother’s ID said and stepped away from him. He stood with the two soldiers.

Mother screamed Brother’s name one more time. The soldier turned and shoved her toward the wall. Her shoulder collided against the tiles and she fell near where I sat on the floor.

“We are not hiding anyone,” Uncle said.

“Beat him until he speaks the truth,” the soldier said. He strode back toward the door, and unslinging his gun, he swung it.

Brother ducked, taking the blow on his forearm. Aunt squealed, wrapping her hands around Aashiq’s eyes.

In the next five minutes, a harried muezzin whispered into the megaphone tied to the spire of the mosque, every male, old and young, must vacate the village and gather in Mir Bazar. They will come for those who make the mistake of staying behind.

As men quickly trickled out of the house, Mother followed them. She dropped her scarf on an iridescent puddle of melting ice in the middle of the courtyard. She ran barefoot, muttering like a madwoman. Aunt, Aashiq, and I caught up with her near the apricot grove. To block the passage of women and children to the village grocery market, more soldiers stood, ready with their assault rifles. One of them came forward. Pulling out a dagger from his hip pocket, he knelt down and drew a line across the dirt road. “You cross,” he said, “I shoot you in the head.”

 

2

Two years ago, Brother had dropped out of school. He neither showed up at home nor at the sawmill in Father’s presence. I was six or seven. It was not clear to me at the time what Brother did with his days and his nights. Whenever I saw him at home, he was cranky. Little did I know what the war cost the nineteen-year-old young man.

Little did I know what the war cost the nineteen-year-old young man.

Brother was an obsessive movie watcher. Prior to 1989, he bragged that he had watched every single Bombay movie that had played in Heaven Cinema, the theater a few villages away on the rim of our hometown, Anantnag. But that vein of passion had to be abruptly nicked. The theater was taken over by the soldiers and closed to the public. The soldiers broke the glass panes and stuffed the wooden window frames with sandbags. The soldiers ripped the rexine seats. What was a matinee hall packed with cheering crowds and lights and color flickering on the screen was turned into a cold, concrete cave. In a matter of a few months Heaven Cinema was like one of those torture chambers that were haunted by the returning spirits of the boys whose rebellious bodies were willfully broken and benumbed there: the concrete caves whose dark insides were perpetually rent by the screams of the boys forced to pee on electric heaters.

The dread on the streets was solid. Without the worry of being picked up and tortured or simply held inside a prison for years and years to decay or go insane, Brother could no longer take a bath in the river at night, run across the fields during the daytime, play cricket in the apricot grove in the evening, or have a cup of tea and a long late-night chat with friends in Mir Bazar.

Brother’s bad temper terrified me. He ate his dinner hastily, warning Mother that he would throw all the utensils out of the window. The beef was intolerably hot, he accused her, because she cared more about her husband’s lumbermen, who liked it that way, than her own son.

Mother absorbed all his nonsense, grateful to the holy man, pir. She had gone to visit him at a shrine in Anantnag. The pir had given her clay, little clods of which she slipped into Brother’s meals. She believed it was because of the pir’s mysterious powers that Brother was still around and not a gun-brandishing rebel who would be fired at in the mountains, his perforated body dripping blood before it sank into snow.

In the dark that had fallen on the world, Brother hovered like a ghost over the sawmill. He kept a nightly vigil over the stacks of timber. If the thieves arrived with a huge empty lorry and a few musclemen to steal the precious walnut, he had warned Mother, he would pounce on them with a rod of iron he kept under his bed. He lived alone in a narrow, cold room on the second story of the building by the side of the sawmill. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, under the pale-yellow light of a broken wick lamp, Brother lost himself in Naseem Hijazi’s historical novel, Caesar and Cyrus, and voyaged on camels through its tempestuous Arabian deserts.

Brother roamed the streets and alleys of Mir Bazar at night once the soldiers keeping patrol for the convoy had left. And on the morning of the rampage, it was under a huge walnut tree by the highway he was made to squat with the rest of the men. The officer addressed them, asking one last time the whereabouts of the rebel who had fired the gun. But since the men knew only as much as the soldiers, the officer promised a harsh interrogation.

The men were sorted on the sizes of their beards, the measure of their loyalty toward the respective rebel outfit: the ones with long beards were agents of Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. The ones with medium-sized beards were the agents of Muslim Mujahideen. The clean- shaven were faking it because they were the agents of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front.

Randomly, the soldiers picked up young men, shoving them into the narrow alley that was strewn with dog shit. They flattened them on the ground, climbing in twos and threes on their chests. They stuck their sticks into their mouths, making them gag. They beat them with the stocks of their rifles, breaking shins, fracturing forearms, while fathers watched, humiliated and helpless.

It was Manzoor’s turn. He was a tall, bright-eyed eighteen-year-old youth eager to devote himself to the hermeneutical study of the Prophet’s teachings. He was fluent in Arabic and had cultivated a long beard that gave his oblong face the semblance of a seminarian. In the following years as my tutor, he employed his eloquence to plant an insatiable hunger of words and a lasting love of the English language in me.

In the evening when Brother returned home, our friends and relatives and neighbors thronged our house. Like a groom he sat on a huge bed, under the soft blue blanket reserved for guests. Mother gave him a tumbler of hot milk.

I stood in the corridor, overhearing that the blow was so brutal, Brother thought that the soldiers had broken Manzoor’s collarbone. Defying their fierce grip, his face contorted, Manzoor burst from the mouth of the alley, yelping in pain.

The soldiers pounced on him again, flattening him on the ground. Three of them stepped on his body, stomping his face.

Brother felt asphyxiated. He stood up and threw his pheran off. He wailed, slapping his forehead hysterically. But before his insanity would infect and embolden the crowd, one soldier strode across and began to beat him.

With his forearms, Brother warded off the first three blows dealt with a stick. The fourth time, the soldier became so infuriated that he grabbed another soldier’s mortar gun and brought down the barrel so swiftly, it landed right on top of Brother’s head.

A line of blood shot up. “Motherfucker,” Father stood up and shouted, pointing with his index finger toward his heart. “If you think you are a courageous man, then shoot me here.”

All the murmuring men stood up at once. They hooted, picking up rocks from the ground. They stoned the soldiers who boarded the trucks parked on the highway and fled the market.

Through his hair, Brother’s blood ran in bright little runnels down the slope of his forehead and fell on his temples. He was not frightened. He covered his wound with his hands and ran half a mile along the highway. Upon reaching the hospital, he found a doctor, asking him to stitch up the wound.

He covered his wound with his hands and ran half a mile along the highway.

A few days later, the village paramedic, Compounder, came to perform the ritual of unwrapping Brother’s crown of white gauze bandages. My aunts—Father’s sister and two of Mother’s sisters who had come to visit—cried together. As soon as Compounder was done, I slipped away, into the hall in the rear of our house.

I was hurt; no one was paying me any attention. To take my revenge, I put my hand into the polythene bag in the closet that one of the aunts had brought along for Brother and that Mother had kept hidden from me. I tore a banana from the big green bunch. As I cut the hard peel with my teeth, I was horrified by the sight of the flesh I had exposed. I smelled the yellow antiseptic cream Compounder had applied with his long, white, bony fingers to Brother’s dark blot of blood before uncovering the layers of bandages to reveal, at last, the moist wound lined with pus. I bit into the flesh, a raw metallic taste invading my mouth.


From the Family Album

3

The war lasted all the ten years I was at school until there was a thaw in the violence. All the rebels were killed, but the soldiers’ ambition to control deepened. The highway was to be widened, and hundreds of buildings, including the one where lingered in the layers of forgotten dust the memory of Brother’s confined youth, were to be destroyed. Sheet by sheet, the roof was opened. The scaffolding along with the rectangular plank frame of the ceiling were pushed down from the heights onto the tarmac and crumbled on the highway. The brick walls were pounded with and brought down by sledgehammers.

Father quickly bought a plot of land away from the highway and set his sawmill there. I joined him and began to work as his manager. I kept a register for the laborers, marking up the days they were present. I maintained the bank accounts, secretly thinking of giving up college altogether. I loved Father, and I wanted to devote my life to him and what I truly inherited wholeheartedly: the sawmill.

In the following months, I met an entire gamut of characters: boatmen and bureaucrats, paddy farmers and professors, renegades and revolutionaries. Though the war had inflicted on them violence of some sort or other, damaged and disfigured them in ways obvious and unknown, ripped away the old skins and pushed them into a haze of ambivalence and indecision, their commitment to hold onto the pieces of land they had inherited, and which they deemed were only theirs in the whole wide world, was baffling and total. All they longed for, with a sort of wretched, fatal passion, was to cling to these pieces of land and erect homes with robust foundations of carved stone and beams of tough timber so that, long after they were gone, their children could live on safely.

I did the math, preparing their bills. But I could not pierce the hardened cloaks of rot they had clothed themselves in. The bottom of the cesspit where they all had been plunged and where they seemed to languish forever was so dark and deep, I could not know who they were beside what they had been made into. I was terrified by their depravity and diminishment.

One morning in the month of Ramzan, Father gave me a yellow piece of paper and asked me to visit the State Forest Corporation in Srinagar. I hopped onto a bus and reached the capital city in an hour.

Opposite to the impenetrable walls of the military camp that the Garden of Almonds had been turned into, the office was a three-storied, gray-walled building. The lobby with its mud-smeared floor had a dry, musty smell. At the far end, behind a high desk laminated with chipped chocolate-brown sunmica, sat Clerk stiffly. She was middle-aged, and her face was heavily made up. She had painted her lips a bright red and powdered her face profusely. Her hair was naturally black, but along the edges of her embroidered shawl, the curls were bleached blonde.

Father had warned me the document would not move forward and he would lose the chance to retrieve a small percentage of the tax money if I did not pay Clerk twenty rupees of what he called chai.

I was nervous. For the first time Father had entrusted me with such a big chore. I greeted her, placing the paper on the desk.

She did not return my greeting. “Do you have the chai?” she asked, barely moving her eyeballs.

From outside the call for midday prayer could be heard. I thrust forward the fifty-rupee bill I kept ready in my hand.

“I am going to take care of this,” she told me. “You may leave.”

“My father has told me that the chai is only twenty rupees,” I said.

“Do you think I will lie to you in this holy month when the muezzin is giving the call for prayer?” she asked me.

I was dumbfounded. I walked out of the lobby, my head hanging in shame.

When I returned to Mir Bazar in the evening, I did not go to report to Father. I steered clear of the sawmill, walking listlessly through the grove on the dirt road. As I reached home, I did not go to the kitchen to greet my mother. I went inside my bedroom and, placing a bolster beneath my head, lay down on the floor. My stomach growled because it was empty, but I had no desire to eat. I felt feverish. A strange restlessness seized me. I heard, unexpectedly and across the distance of many years, the clamor of the evening when Brother had wrangled with Father, ruining a sumptuous dinner on Eid. Those were the initial years of Kashmir’s armed rebellion against India. The schools were shut, and the bridges were burnt down. Amidst raucous demonstrations of people demanding independence from India, there was a complete boycott of public institutions. Offices like the State Forest Corporation became dysfunctional. A lawlessness that seemed like a turbulent but necessary prelude to the eternity and dignity of freedom prevailed. The forests, however, were robbed. The smugglers, surpassing the government guards in weapons and authority, cut down trees in broad daylight, selling them to the sawmill owners.

A lawlessness that seemed like a turbulent but necessary prelude to the eternity and dignity of freedom prevailed.

The practice of buying from the black market had offended Brother. That evening of Eid he was furious, and he fought with Father, who remained silent for long until he spoke, telling Brother that he did not know enough about the business of life and what it meant to feed a fucking big family. Father told him that even if he bought the timber legally at exorbitant rates, no one would buy from him because the market was flooded with pine and fir and cedar sold at dirt-cheap rates of the willow and poplar and elm, that the business to which he had given twenty years of his life would perish in a few months.

The two voices battled in my head. I rolled about on the floor, shutting my eyes. But I saw all over again the hideousness: the white dusted cheeks, the bloodied lips, the cold expression only meant to control. Clerk’s blindness and the certainty of her proclamations outraged me. My stomach convulsed, my head pounding with pain. Why did you do it, Father, I rued, and at a time when a generation of young men and women dreamt of nothing but freedom for Kashmir?

 

4

It was during one of those days when Brother was resting at home to recuperate. In the afternoon while riding our bikes in the courtyard, Aashiq told me that a soldier had slapped Father in Mir Bazar, in front of everyone.

I stopped pushing the paddle. “Who told you?” I asked him.

“Abba told me.” He called his father Abba.

“Your father is a liar,” I accused him. “No one can beat my father.”

“I will never play bike-bike with you,” Aashiq said. His face reddening, he rode away.

In Aashiq’s absence, I circled about the house. Confused and restless, I reluctantly rode out of the vicinity of my village.

My feet were tired and strained. I pushed the pedals hard, bumping over the potholes and dust mounds.

Father was sitting in a chair in the middle of the sawmill. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his head was confidently thrown back. Was he surrounded by a group of carpenters? These gentlemen with pine dust in their hairy heads smelled of wood shavings. Their palms were calloused, and their fingernails were black and broken. Soft pencils with chiseled tips were tucked behind their ears.

I stood my bicycle by a log and stepped nearer to greet Father. But he suddenly stood up and walked away from me toward the moving saw. He moved his hands emphatically, telling a laborer the details of the specific set of lintels he wanted.

When he came back to sit in the chair, he glanced at me. I was about to burst. I wanted to throw my arms around him. I wanted to hug him and hold him. But the glint of smile in his eyes was undiminished. And in the presence of his customers, who were nodding their heads and listening to him attentively, it was out of question to ask him what had happened.

I stood still as Father continued to converse. I looked at him for long, at the red marks I could not find on his cheek.

Tallahassee, Florida

Feroz Rather holds a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University. His work has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review, The Common, Kenyon Review, the Ploughshares Blog, The Millions, Rumpus, and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Night of Broken Glass, published by HarperCollins in South Asia, was nominated for the First Book Award by the Ninth Mumbai International Literary Festival.

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