The Broken Road
Kashmir, the emerald valley, sculpted from the dew that drips from heaven’s grasses. Many believe that love was born here, in these hills, where the fruit is sweet as the streams that feed it. The descendants of the land still carry this love, without condition or prejudice, even though the years have killed the laughter and raked suspicion into the soil.
Sixty years ago, when India dragged itself out from under British heels, it ripped in two, and Pakistan was born. Since then, the two nations have dug talons into the ground, and the tearing goes on - a million lives lost, and a million families divided.
Often, at border crossings, subtle differences mark the nations abutting the fence – the texture of the pavement, the architecture of the guard boxes, even the colors in the soldiers’ uniforms. But it’s different at the Rawalakot-Poonch crossing in lower Kashmir. Here, the rugged, green hills and open fields seem offended by the fence that scars them. It roams as arbitrarily as a strand of hair that falls over one’s face. Wisteria hang like grapes in a vineyard, and the dry, gravel bed that runs through them still delivers its water at night, ducking under a thorny, chicken wire, waiting for reconciliation.
At three o’clock in the morning, the wire was a peripheral distraction, just a long scratch that hung under the driver’s lashes. He maneuvered his little truck, chewed up with rust and bearing neither bumpers nor headlights, until it stopped outside the guard box. An old man, dressed in a soldier’s uniform and scratching his white beard, pushed out of his chair and dragged his rifle towards the truck. Slapping the door with two knuckles, he stooped down and peered through the glass. The driver rolled down his window.
“Where do you think you’re going without any lights?” the old man asked with a grin.
“What can I do, sir? They’re broken.”
“I should have known!” said the old man, pounding a hand on the doorframe and scratching his beard vigorously. “It’s what I’ve always said. Nothing the English made ever works! And what’s the use of a car if you have to keep after it like a nagging baby?”
“Shhh, Baba-ji, shhh! I have a family in the back,” the driver whispered as if he were sharing a secret, thumbing at a large, canvas barrel hoisted in the cargo hold. “Could you open the gate for us? And don’t worry, they’ve got blood-relatives on the other side, in Poonch.”
The old man caressed his beard as he pondered the cargo, and the driver strained to decipher his uniform. A tan shirt, green shoulder lapels, a green beret. Like the landscape, the old man seemed to belong to both sides, and like the hours in a day, he refused to be rushed. Retreating into his shelter, he cloaked himself in a long, black shawl and sat back in his chair.
“My, it’s getting cold now, isn’t it?” he asked, dragging his rifle across his lap. “It’s always coldest this time of night. I can hardly feel my toes.” Then he lifted his rifle and pointed it like a giant forefinger at the far side of India. “That’s where the sun will rise. It always rises from there, you know,” he said, wearing a habitual smile.
In the quiet that followed, the driver’s impatience swelled, but he knew he couldn’t be reckless. Despite his poverty, he was a craftsman with words. “Baba-ji, please, take care. Don’t tire yourself,” he said. “Come, let’s find you some hot tea. Then we’ll see about opening the gate, hmm? You’re a member of the family now, helping us in our time of need.”
The old man’s grin was prolonged. “Of course I will open the gate,” he replied, getting to his feet, “just as soon as you show me your papers. I’m old, I know, but my mind is still intact. Do you see these boots? How shiny they are? Every morning, for forty-three years, I’ve polished them, just so I could stand at my station looking smart. But now my feet are aching. I can hardly stand anymore!” The old man’s head shuddered, and he smacked his leg with a clenched fist. “I wish I had known what they were up to!” he grumbled. “They trained me like a dog, those English chaps. Taught me to be a faithful servant.”
The driver couldn’t contain himself any longer. “Curse the English,” he said, sprawling out of his truck with two legs and a cane. He stood on the road like a flexing tripod, wincing at the sky, deciphering every shade of black. Then he whipped his head back at the old man. “Three sisters,” he whispered. “There are three sisters whose parents are on the other side. Surely India’s not so crowded that it cannot hold three, small girls.”
“Alas,” replied the old man, “India is stretched to its limit.” He smiled apologetically, yet the twinkle in his eye almost seemed deliberate.
The gate, nothing but a swinging, bamboo pole on a rope, as knotted and stubborn as the man that guarded it, remained closed. The driver scratched the nape of his neck and leaned towards the old man, shielding his whispers from the cold, meddlesome air. “Now, what could go better with a cup of tea than a good television program?” He had chosen just the right words, for the old man’s face glowed bright as the moon, and the transaction was sealed in hardly another breath. The driver embraced the old guard, and when the latter felt the weight of cash in his breast pocket, he said with a song in his voice, “Go with God.” A swift tug on the rope raised the pole, and the little truck slipped beneath it and then downward, into the vast, Indian night.
After a short distance, the smooth topping on the road fell to pieces, and the truck began to bounce relentlessly on its wheels. With every jolt, the driver shouted, “Damn this place, this wretched place!” and for twenty desperate minutes, he straddled his seat as if he were taming a bull. Below him, with eyes glowing like white coals, an old, military transport was slowly ascending the slope.
“Not now! No! It’s too soon!” the driver yelled, perplexed, beating the seat with his cane, urging the dismal truck a little further, a little faster.
His passengers were pleading for their lives, pounding the wall behind his back. “Slow down! In God’s name, slow down! We’ll die like this!” they shouted.
“Then die! Burn in hell for all I care!” the driver snapped back. The large pair of headlamps shone straight into his eyes now, and the driver spun his truck to a dusty halt. Its human cargo tumbled forward like dice, and a tang of pleasure crossed the corner of the driver’s lips.
He looked outside. The sky had paled a little, enough to sour his mood further, so he rolled down his window and spat at it. “The next one won’t be long. It’s just a matter of minutes,” he reassured himself, but his back ached, so he got out onto the road, stirring the gravel with his slender cane, listening for a murmur in the darkness. But it was the dirt that told him. It trembled beneath his cane. “Here it comes,” the driver said. “It’s on its way.” Skipping to the back of his truck, he flogged the canvas barrel, pulling open the straps like ribbons on a Christmas gift. “Get out!” he shouted. “It’s coming! Get out, quick!” A small, red dog dropped to the ground like a hot spark, followed by two men who were rubbing their necks and arcing their backs.
“I don’t hear anything,” one of them said.
“That’s because you’re stupid,” the driver snapped. “No doubt you didn’t hear the first one, either. Now hurry up and start walking.”
The bus crawled up the slope like a tank, and the men tightened their turbans and pinned their shawls against their chests. Then they descended the road, side by side, towards the groaning vehicle.
The driver watched them disappear, and he crouched alongside his truck. “Come here, Foxy,” he snapped at the dog. “Get rid of these damned angels for me, huh? Come and get them, my little friend!” The dog scuttled about the folds in the driver’s shalwar, hopping and clawing at the air around his shoulders, until his master finally stood up and said, “It’s time,” resting both hands on his cane. Then he closed his eyes and repeated, “It’s time, now.”
The bus rounded a bend, its lights scathing a green line through the dark valley. The two men waited in the road in front of it, swinging their arms freely. “Stop! Stop the bus! Let us on!” they yelled, hopping out of its light, slapping the side of the sweating hull until their palms were soaked with cold, morning dew. When the door opened, they rushed up the steps, but it was no warmer inside.
“There’s no heat,” said the bus driver. “It’s broken.”
At the top of the slope, the dog and his master were pacing. “I wish I could see angels, Foxy,” the driver said. “I wish I could see them run, those little spies, but you can, can’t you? You can chase them away like moths.” He got into his truck and started the engine. It wheezed and it clattered over his voice. “They don’t belong out here, anyway, Foxy. The greatest mysteries on earth didn’t have a single witness, you see. Not a single one.” The driver peered deep into the sky again, as if he had discovered the exposed corner of God’s burnished throne, and he addressed it boldly. “There are troubles enough in this world,” he said, “enough for us all. Why this desperate need to know, when there’s nothing you can fix?”
Most of the passengers in the bus were boys lying on benches with unbuttoned uniforms and dangling bootlaces. They were sound asleep, resting after a night’s vigil in one of the Muslim enclaves of the province. Women were grouped near the rear, showing off the henna patterned on their hands and passing babies from one lap to another. The remaining seats were littered with the elderly, their eyes half open, rattling along with the stoicism of fragile, hand baggage.
When the two men drew knives from beneath their shawls, those who noticed peered back out their blackened windows. Knives were common in these remote hills, and there was hardly an intelligent villager that didn’t carry one.
“You know, I’m still a little dizzy after that drive,” said one of the men on the platform. “I could have sworn the truck was going to flip over, couldn’t you?”
“Not now,” his companion urged. “Are you mad, talking about the truck? Keep your eyes on the targets, and move on my call.”
The bus driver curled his fingers around the gearstick, wrestled it into first gear, and pressed the pedal to the floor. “If I were you,” he warned, “I’d put down those knives. This old mule likes to buck,” he said, and while a wave of white mist splashed over his windscreen, a blade slipped deep into his throat. The jagged, biting saw rocked inside him, and by the time it stopped, the driver’s body was hanging from it like a coat on a silver hook.
“Now,” signaled his killer. Sweat burst from his temples as he pounced over a sleeping boy, pressing one hand hard against his sternum. The other punched the knife through his soft middle, not once, but three, successive times. Meanwhile, his accomplice raced down the aisle, hooting loud as a doomsday siren and swinging his blade left and right, like a whetted pendulum. “Kya baat hai!” he cried. How about that?
Once the boys were dead, the elderly submitted with hardly an argument; they tucked their heads between their shoulders like old, gray birds and pressed their palms together as they dropped.
It almost looked easy, but killing had to be done in a single breath, before reason returned, and the women were making it difficult. They wouldn’t stop sobbing. Blood had pooled around their sandals, and they wailed to Ram for rescue, and to Allah, too, but no miracle saved them. Their assailants yanked the children from their arms and pinned them into the floor.
Despite the discord, the air outside the bus was unusually still. Foxy sniffed at it curiously, while his master, limping close behind, strained to hear sounds from the hillside. Normally, after the stars descended, the voices of nature rose in a soft chorus to coronate the dawn, but this day the birds awakened with no heart to sing, and the mist in the hills was too heavy to rise. Foxy whimpered, and his master kicked him like a deflating ball.
“Get out, Foxy!” he blurted, lifting himself onto the bus platform. The odor of cold blood coiled in his nostrils, and he steadied himself. “There’s no more time!” he yelled. “It’s almost daylight! What are you still doing in here?”
“We’re not finished!” a voice called back.
“What do you mean, ‘not finished?’ You should have been back in the truck by now! We should be driving away!”
A muffled cry carried straight to the driver’s ears, and he bounded to the back of the bus, prodding the dead with his cane as he went. “No, not the women,” he said, agitated. “I told you not to touch the women! I told you ten times!” he shouted. Summarily, the assailants laid down their weapons.
A girl had been spared, and she was hurriedly hushing a child. Despite her anguish, she appeared fresh and pretty, like the lingering petal on a dying flower, and the men looked incredulously at her. She raced her long scarf around the child’s forearm and whispered, “Shh, little princess. Quiet, my moonlight.” Then she tied a knot, kissed the baby’s wound, and began to rock her. “Shh, little princess. Quiet, my moonlight. We can’t escape the winds of heaven,” she said. “They’re turning the earth, after all.”
The truck driver was captivated. “Such a voice,” he said, while ideas bloomed in his head. “Load them into the truck, and let’s hope we still get paid for this job.”
Vultures were already sailing downwards, displacing thrushes lodged in craggy branches, and by the time the driver strapped down the canvas barrel, they lurched boldly into the street. “Let’s go, Foxy. Hurry up, now!” the driver called, ducking into his seat.
His stomach was still empty. Revenge hadn’t brought any satisfaction, so he turned the key in the ignition and thought instead about the money. The money was a consolation. It would buy the straw and the mortar he needed to fix the roofs, and the women had been bickering about new shawls. The money would buy lentil for three months, or perhaps even a new flock of goats.
As he rolled the truck passed the birds, their ugly, hunched heads turned to follow him. The driver spurred them on with a hiss. “I left the door open for you,” he said.
The rusted chassis was bouncing on its wheels again, and the gray light of the new day revealed its pallid, metal hood. In the rear, the men pulled a dusty blanket over the girl and the child, but they were too exhausted to speak, so after staring at each other blankly awhile, they hung their heads and began to doze.