It was a cold evening. The only thing that warmed me up was the thought that my father would bring the sweets and other stuff served at the Fatiha-khaani for me. He loved his children as every father does. He was strict too.
My brother often tells us that father once hung him upside down for neglecting his studies. I, however, being the youngest in the family, was immune to such punishment and enjoyed the privileges of sleeping next to my father and being the focus of his attention.
My father, sometimes, forgot to take his identity card when leaving home, but he never forgot to keep a tablet or two on him for my tummy ache. That day too, when people checked his pockets, they found the tablets.
That day, he was late. It was autumn. Mountains became mum. No chirping of birds could be heard. Perhaps they too, like some people, had migrated to other places. Maybe they too were scared of the gun-shots, the crackdowns and the fear that haunted everyone. Although he used to come home a little late, he was never that late. Everyone was worried. I was worried too: worried that he might already have distributed the sweets among the village children on his way home, like the last time; worried that he might be kind and generous to other children besides me. I believed that only I was entitled to his generosity.
Night fell. My sisters started shouting paapaa, paapaa, paapaa to know if he was nearby. This was a regular practice those days as there were no phones. They kept calling him for almost half an hour. Then suddenly his voice echoed from the nearby forest that fell on his way home. I was more than happy. No sooner did I hear him shouting back than I went to the kitchen and brought the bowl for the sweets.
He took another fifteen minutes to reach the nearby house that is situated about a hundred terraces below our home. I was happy. I moved ahead of my siblings to make sure that I was the first to meet him and get most of the sweets.
In a few minutes he got to the terrace on which our house stood. I ran to meet him mid-way and without saying anything passed my bowl to him. He smiled as he lifted me up and kissed me on the cheeks. He filled the bowl with sweets and asked me to give some to my siblings just to listen to my petulant refusal.
My elder sister, then only around sixteen, was mad at him for being so irresponsible and coming so late. She had become a little too mature for her age group. Perhaps this happens to most of the girls living in the conflict zones. At an age when girls are supposed to watch cartoons, play games, and listen to the stories about angels and fairies, they get acquainted with terms like molestation, rape and the like.
The night spread its wings on the mountains making them more vulnerable. Nobody in our house dared to go outside at night except Papa and me. There was no toilet inside the house, nor was there any outside it, for that matter. So he would often accompany me outside, when I had to answer the call of nature. He was, indeed, the best friend—perhaps the only one—that I had. Kids are usually closer to their mothers than to their fathers. In the case of our family it was the other way around. The reason was that despite being poor, he managed to keep us very happy. He never complained and was always happy. Our mother, on the other hand, is a woman of/with a serious bent of mind who worries a lot. It is perhaps her worrying nature that has held our family together.
On being asked at supper that night, the reason that he gave for being late was usual and one we had heard a countless number of times before: a villager had asked him to pray for his ailing wife and he had obliged him. He was loved by everyone in the village because he would never refuse help to anyone if it was in his power.
Dinner was served. I ate in his plate, as usual. It was a single room house. I kept the bowl of sweets with me until I went to sleep next to him. We had a chat, a routine chat. Most of the times, he would ask me to spell the names of people, places, things, etc. I don’t remember what exactly did he talk about that night, and I just uttered umm…umm from time to time while he kept on talking. I was more interested in finishing the sweets in the bowl. I ate them as soon as possible, so that nothing was left for anyone else. I laid my head on his left arm. He always kept me on the left side, so that I didn’t fall down from the khat in my sleep.
He was still talking about something when I fell asleep. It was midnight, when I woke up. I asked him to accompany me outside as I had to go. He moaned and murmured that he couldn’t. I was still half-asleep. I repeated, “Please, take me outside”. He again moaned and said, “I can’t.”
I suddenly came to my senses and an unknown fear gripped me. I heard him saying, “Lift my head, Bache (Son).” It was pitch-dark inside the house. The only Chimni (kerosene lantern) we had was kept on the other side of the house where my elder sister and brother were sleeping. I was confused and terrified. How can any child bear the pain and helplessness of his hero? Although his voice was not clear, I could somehow understand that he was unable to lift his head. He was sick. Then he again moaned and asked me to lift his arm, the left arm. I tried to lift his head as well as his arm two to three times, but I couldn’t. Subsequently, I cried and shouted, “Pape kikuj hoi gha!” (“Something has happened to Papa!”).
My sister woke up and lit the Chimni. My brother a year or two older than me started crying. My sister ran out all alone to call the neighbours for help.
She came back with some of them: a few women and men, and some children too. Meanwhile, I developed the notion that it all happened because of me. Without letting anyone know, I lived with this guilt for a few years. I thought that because I was in the habit of going to sleep on his left arm, his left arm had developed some problem. I even made a vow to myself and to God, that I would never ever use his arm as a pillow when he got well. “Falaj hoi ghaas” (He is paralysed) murmured the man standing beside the Khat.
Everyone waited till morning to take him to the hospital at Surankote which was at a distance of around 3 to 4 hours from the village. Travelling at night was dangerous as there was no electricity in those days, and, furthermore, the problem of the curfew hours had to be taken into consideration.
As the dawn began to break, they carried him on the same Khat we were sleeping on to the hospital. My siblings and I were left at home, perhaps, for two reasons. First, it was difficult for us to travel that far. The second reason, probably, was extra-expenditure.
As soon they left, the night was over. But for me, the night had just begun. I was crying continuously and was feeling ashamed and guilty as well. I was still immersed in the night that had passed for everyone else.
For me, the night has still not passed. It will stay with me for eternity. The century-long day passed. We saw a procession of people reciting the Kalima coming towards our home in the evening. My sister started wailing as soon as she heard the Kalima. There was everyone there now: the family and the relatives; the people from the village other than our relatives some of whom we knew and the others we did not know. My elder brother tore his shirt to shreds, screaming at the top his voice. So did the whole family and the neighbours. My brother screamed and wailed: “marhya-paapa, marhyapaapa” (My Papa! My papa!). I was stunned. I still didn’t want to believe that their wailing had some meaning. I tried to console my brother, who was lying on the ground with his shirt torn and his eyes flowing. I uttered the words that I wanted to hear from someone else:”paapa Zindaya” (‘‘Papa is alive.’’).