Ali Hasan Cemendtaur
Translated from Urdu by
This story was first read at a gathering in Karachi that was organized as a part of the series of events arranged for the “Remembering Hiroshima” day in 1998. It is important to note that this was the same year marred by events in both India and Pakistan that lead both countries to perform their nuclear tests just weeks before the day.
I feel rather strange right now. Reverberant dark shadows leap back and forth in my head from time to time. It feels like I am wandering in the chasm between reality and meaningless horrors all the while blindfolded. But my pen keeps moving, spewing words of a story on a piece of paper torn off of a bag of cement. I want to tell this story to the world.
I am a journalist and I work for a newspaper in Karachi, “Waqt Ki Awaaz” (Call of Time). In fact, it would be more accurate to say that I was a journalist and worked for the above named newspaper in Karachi.
After finishing my Bachelor’s in Journalism from Karachi University, I worked in a major newspaper, “Jung” (War), for a while. I left that newspaper due to some personal reasons only to join “Waqt Ki Awaz.” I remember everyday being a grind. Living was expensive, especially for working class folks like us but I had certain advantages. I was an only child and my father had left me the house that I lived in with my wife, Maha, and two beautiful kids, Sadia and Asad. We had rented out the lower portion of the house, the rent from which alongwith my modest salary helped Maha in not only the running of the house but also to save some money at the end of each month. It was a credit to Maha’s discipline with expenses, more than anything else, that allowed us to buy a car, after she put her personal savings together with some money from a mutual savings scheme she participated in from time to time. Since I could not afford to bear the expenses of using the car for my daily commute to the office, the use of the car was relegated to occasions such as weddings or weekend outings. This was our life. It was not a terribly exciting life but we had no complaints.
Maha was my best friend in the entire world. We met at Karachi University where we took part in the activities of an organization called, “Peace Tribe.” My father had passed away only months after I joined the University. This proved to be a terrible blow for my mother who remained sick off and on and while I was in my senior year insisted that I should get married before the inevitable, her death, takes her away from me. I decided to propose to Maha and we got married shortly. Tragically, yet not so unexpectedly my mother succumbed to her age and died just a few months later.
Casting aside the occasional disagreements or arguments that are a part of any marriage, I was very happy with my overall connubial. After a little while, my daughter Sadia joined us and later on we completed our family with Asad who was born in the eleventh year of our matrimony. We wanted to raise our kids providing them with ample time and attention and opted to stop having kids after that.
If someone were to ask me what three things I enjoyed in Maha the most, I would have admit that I found a solace of sorts in her maturity and the wisdom she possessed that was clearly beyond her years. The fact that she always had a smile on her face may appear second in the list but it was by no means any less important than the first quality I mentioned. Her smile was infectious and it surpassed in beauty only slightly when compared to my third favorite thing about her, the tiny mole, that she had on the tip of her nose. I positively adored it.
We had both graduated from Karachi University years ago but we were still in touch with the people who were part of the “Peace Tribe” at Karachi University with us. As it is evident from the name, the members of the “Peace Tribe,” are peaceniks. We hated organized and random violence equally and whenever we could vociferously. The people in the group aspired to see the populations of different countries striving to improve their general living conditions instead of worrying about how to best exterminate each other.
Late at nights, Maha and I used to talk about different aspects of Pak-India relations. We were always surprised at the intensity of the war hysteria on both sides of the border. Who are these people who decide on the designation of another country as their enemy. How do they conclude that they must kill and maim the people who are their perceived rivals and to what end? How can anyone be heartless and insensitive enough to make decisions about annihilating women, children, the young and old, whom they have never met, seen or known? Do these decision-makers not feel any love for their own brothers, sisters, children and relatives, or are they mentally handicapped to an extent where they do not realize that others must have loved ones like they do.
We used to talk about the time when both India and Pakistan flaunted each other’s nuclear manhood, one deciding to outdo the other in an internationally watched pissing contest. For weeks, the contents of the newspapers in both the countries were as harrowingly depraved as that act itself. Leaders of both Pakistan and India threatened to erase each other and its people from the face of the planet. Both of us agreed that we despised this game of brinkmanship between the two nations. The storm seemed to die down after a little while yet the tensions remained and in fact they kept increasing as time passed.
For the past two weeks, five to ten Hindu farmers were being killed on a daily basis in the Indian controlled Kashmir. India alleged that this was a manifestation of cross border terrorism exported into India via Pakistan. Pakistan contended that this was an uprising based entirely in the disputed region of Kashmir and that the people killed were being punished by the freedom fighters for spying on behalf of the Indian government.
Among others, the Indian Defense Minister took pains to point out that the terrorists killing innocent Kashmiris were rogue fighters from around the world whose purpose in life is reduced to killing and pillaging. He remarked that after terrorizing the populace in Afghanistan and spreading devastation there, these groups and individuals were now directing their attention to Kashmir. The Indian government made it a point to assemble the Islamic scholars based in India and after extracting an edict (fatwa) from them against killing innocent people during Jihad, publicized it heavily in the far and wide regions of the country. This act was countered by the groups fighting the Indian government, with claims that the people targeted by them are not innocent. India also exhorted the world opinion against Pakistan by claiming that Pakistan was not only harboring these terrorists but was also providing them with training in camps specially built for that purpose in Pakistan controlled Kashmir. India had threatened to take action against these camps across the line of control. The Indian Government, on several occasions had also tried to seal their border with Pakistan but due to a battery of reasons, this was never successfully accomplished. In Pakistan, there were groups and political parties that openly expressed their despair with any process of negotiations with India and prophesized “Jihad” to be the only way in which Kashmir could be liberated from the clutches of the Government of India. These groups openly recruited impressionable youth from all areas of Pakistan for the purpose of Jihad. No one knew where these young men were headed and what became of them, once they joined these radical groups and parties. We were watching all of this unfold, with bewilderment.
Maha and I agreed that the logical end to any spark of war between Pakistan and India would be a nuclear exchange. We would argue hours on in about the details of what death would be like in the event of a nuclear holocaust. People had told us that like other sudden accidental deaths, an atomic explosion would also be a stunning and quick death. I disagreed with the analogy of an accident because in an accident such as a car accident, for instance, there is some level of personal control that exists and that can be attributed to the people involved in that accident. Death as a result of a nuclear explosion did not have that emblematic hook on which any part of the responsibility for the “accident” could be hanged. The people in this case, in my opinion, bearing the consequences, had no control over the circumstances leading up to the “accident.” Maha would vehemently disagree with the basis of my dispute concerning the original argument and most of the time immediately argued that we have chosen to live among the people who do not have any sense of proportion when it comes to their ignorance and hatred for each other. She would pointedly inquire about why we don’t pack up and leave to look for a life elsewhere. I argued that a nuclear war between Pakistan and India would be a result of a few hateful and narrow-minded people taking the vast populations of both countries hostage, and a billion people cannot be blamed for that. We always remained entangled in these discussions and could never find a way out of these confabulations.
I am 43 years old. After much contemplation, I had decided to accept death in the heart of my hearts. Yes, A day will come when I will cease to exist. My thoughts, my vision, my senses, would be switched off. However, having accepted that reality, I also wished to avoid death in a war that wasn’t mine. Someone, from thousands of miles away somewhere pushes a button deciding effectively to end my life was not how I wanted to go. I love Maha, Sadia and Asad. I loved life. I wanted to keep this love alive for as long as I could.
Maha and I had decided that if a war in fact was launched by either of the countries, we would leave Karachi and head north since the big cities in both India and Pakistan were at higher risk of being targeted in the event of a nuclear exchange. We had informed some of our relatives of our decision who chose to do or say no more than scoff at our plans.
There were some questions that went begging for answers though, such as when should one leave the city? What should be the specific occurrence for us to initiate that sequence? We were sure of a singular thing: If either of the armies crossed the border, then that would signal the beginning of a major conflict which could inadvertently reach the only logical end, a nuclear conflagration, and that is when we decided we would leave the city. There was the possibility of us ending up looking like fools running away due to what may turn out to be a false alarm. There was always going to be a chance, however minute, of any conflict involving the breach of borders from either sides ending without the involvement of nuclear arms, but being safe than dead seemed more appealing than any possibility of loss of face.
Maha and I had felt a sense of contentment after hammering out the details of our great escape. Nobody knows what the future may hold yet some sense of preparation for that unknown, uncharted tomorrow does allow some breathing room to life today. Wait, is that not the idea running the engines behind one of the biggest industries of the world. Insurance, it does not save lives yet saves life! right.
Just yesterday, before my usual breakfast I stepped I stepped out onto the terrace of my house where I noticed a few new flowers among the white lilly flowerpots. I bent over to smell them and their beautiful musk met me half way. It was almost like they, in their generosity, were eager to give away everything they had to eventually loose themselves in their surroundings through the dissipation of their aroma. It was a beautiful cloudy day and the skies seemed ready to shower their love onto all creation in sight. All of these seemed like good omens. I headed to the office only to find a tense newsroom slowly being fed on news of rising tensions at the control line. I think I arrived at the office around 9 AM, yet, the news about the situation at the border was being relayed over wires at such a quick pace that I entirely lost my sense of time for that part of the day. Before I knew it the clock had struck one and that is when I had some lunch followed by a customary cup of tea. Around 1:30 PM we learnt that the Indian forces had crossed the control line and were now engaged directly with their Pakistani counterparts in the Neelum Valley. This was verified shortly by another news source. It was evident that this was the beginning of the scenario Maha and I had discussed several times. I found myself debating my options that were not very diverse. Whether I should leave the office and do what we had agreed to do earlier in a case such as this? Or should I stick around here as apparently many others had decided to do. At exactly 2 ‘o’ clock, I made my decision and informed my boss that I would like to go home since I was not feeling well. He offered me his help in the form of a doctor’s visit at the office but I insisted that I would feel better having gone home. After taking leave from him, I arrived at home to find Maha busy with her daily chores and kids back from school. Upon my explanation of returning home early and the declaration of my intent to follow through with our decision of leaving the city in case of war, Maha gave me the most incredulous of looks. It is one thing to make plans in response to hypothetical scenarios and quite another, upon coming across any of the set of possibilities for which such contingency plans are made, to execute them in real life. After quelling Maha’s fears and questions we picked up the kids and some other things that we thought were important. Maha picked up her jewelry box and I gathered all of my paper work, which included my unfinished novels and stories that trumpeted the ideals of peace, brotherhood and love. At that moment, those ideals and everything about them seemed conceptually out of reach and meaningless, yet this was my all. After locking the house behind us we made our way through the city towards the National Highway. Sadia and Asad, in keeping with the reputation their peers had gained of being very perceptive were quiet and had probably deduced from the earlier conversations between Maha and myself about such an event, that we were running away from something terrible. I was heading towards Thatta, which is at a good distance from both Hyderabad and Karachi, the two big urban centers of Sind. I was convinced that I would be able to find accommodation in Thatta even though I did not know anyone there. I had started noticing an increase in traffic. It seemed that there were a lot of people who wanted to leave the city thinking about the same fears that I had thought about. After one of the outlying suburbs of the city, traffic on the highway came to a virtual stand still. People waited for a few minutes but then decided to throw caution to the wind, driving their cars ahead off the road. Suddenly, there was a flash of light. It felt like thousands of flashguns going off at the same time. A horrendous explosion followed it immediately. Panic was now setting its claws deep into us but keeping myself together I sheepishly looked in the rear view mirror to see a mushroom cloud rising above eager to meet the heavens. Maha and I did not exchange a single word. I don’t think we knew what to say or how to react. Were we supposed to be happy at saving our own lives or should we lament the loss of life and the destruction of the city, which until recently was brimming with people, their dreams and aspirations. It was no more than smoke and dust now.
I heard a shriek. Maha started crying as did the kids who did not know any better than to imitate their mother. She turned around and pulled Sadia and Asad to her chest. People had started to step out of their cars wanting to know what had happened. I could tell that nobody had any answers. I did not have a radio in my car. It took every bit of my strength left in me to drive us to Thatta after that. Upon reaching our destination we saw people in the streets looking for cars and people coming from the general direction of Karachi. I had wanted to stop and ask someone about what was being reported on TV and radio if anything. But then decided to look for a place to stay before doing that. Unfortunately I could not find a place for us to stay there and after some thought decided to keep travelling farther towards Tundo Allah Yaar. Night was setting in fast when I put my car on the road towards our new destination where I also knew an old friend from my school days. Highway beyond the city limits of Thatta seemed deserted. Darkness and the scarcity of cars on the road was not a very comforting combination. After driving for a while I noticed that the road ahead was not clear. There were a couple of cars parked awkwardly on the road almost blocking it. My first assumption was that there might have been an accident, however, as we neared the spot, I realized that this was a roadblock probably set up by dacoits. I weighted my options that were terribly limited to begin with and eventually had to stop the car. As soon as the car stopped two men with Klashinkovs in their hands accosted us and demanded that we step out of the vehicle immediately. I tried to keep my calm all the while trying to talk to them in a soft tone, attempting to reason my way out of the situation. One of them stepped forward and slapped me across my face. I gathered myself and stepped out of the car. They pulled Asad out of the car too and at that moment Maha started wailing and crying. The other man aimed his gun at her bidding her to stop. I was praying for somebody to show up and rescue us. Evidently, God had other very important things to attend to hundreds of Kilometers south of where we were standing at that moment. The two men pulled me and Asad to a side, searched us, grabbed our valuables and proceeded to tie us up. I kept imploring them in whatever little of the local language I knew, to let us go and to have mercy. I realized that they had left us and were heading back to the cars. They had blindfolded us so I could not tell what they had intended to do until I heard the roar of my car starting and heading in the other direction. It was then that I realized what was being done to me. They were kidnapping my wife and daughter. I ran towards the fading sound of my car only to take a nasty fall at the side of the road. I had lost all sensation by then except the warmth of my tears on my face. I remember crying for a long time until I heard Asad calling out my name. I quickly got up and headed in his direction. Upon finding him on the grounds close by I untied his hands by pulling on the ropes with my teeth. He pulled his blindfold off immediately freeing me from my bonds. I pulled him in my arms like I was possessed. We did not know what to say to each other. Life! How intricately connected we are to our loved ones and how paralyzed life can be without them. We stood at the roadside under the roof of a sky filled with hundreds of nuclear explosions everywhere among the stars. All we were able to see of those explosions was a ray of light and a miniscule glittering of the star itself. I had no idea of how I can reasonably explain away the entire sequence of events that had occurred since this morning. We were just there, standing, barely clinging to life, disconnected from our past and with nothing more than a void to peer into as our future. I heard a distant sound of an approaching car on the road and stepped onto the road gesturing with both my arms for it to stop.
Apparently, the driver decided to speed up and he would have ran me over had I not jumped out of his way at the last minute. After a while, a truck appeared and I threw myself at its mercy the same way. Eventually, the truck stopped and when I told the driver of that truck the whole story, he generously offered us a ride to his next stop. We arrived there at 2 AM. I found out from some people upon arriving in Tundo Muhammad Khan that an atom bomb had also been dropped at Hyderabad. I was certain that with Hyderabad as close as it was we could not have escaped the radiation from that bomb. My head was spinning with whirlwinds of words from all sorts of statements from political and military leaders. I remembered how there were celebrations on the street after Pakistan’s successful nuclear test. And how the leaders had predicted that we would win a nuclear war within a day and a half. How we would not hesitate from using our nuclear strength to free Kashmir. Can someone now make a gift of Kashmir to the millions who are dead? Perhaps, the life giving, life reviving valley and waters of beautiful Kashmir can resurrect all these dead people.
I was not hungry but hunger was not very selective when it came to choosing its victims. Asad was desperate to eat. Nobody had anything to offer. Nothing was available anywhere. I found a garbage can sitting at a corner of a street. There were some old decaying loaves of bread sitting at the side. I washed them with water and gave them to Asad. He ate a full loaf without any complaints.
Sun was now making its way through the horizon. I looked at it with eyes full of hopeful tears. Millions of miles away, nuclear explosions on the sun provide us with life giving light and warmth, yet if these same explosions come closer and are manifestations of our hatred for each other then they kill everyone and everything in their path. I heard a radio crackling nearby. It was beaming the voice of All India Radio. There were details of what had conspired the day before. According to the news, the Indian Army had crossed the control line to destroy the terrorist training camps that they had cited as schools established by the Pakistan government for the recruitment and training of young zealots who were consequently being sent into Indian controlled Kashmir for terrorist operations. The whole operation was supposed to take four hours. However, before the Indian Army could finish their mission, the Indian government learnt that Pakistan was readying itself for a nuclear attack. As a preemptive measure India tried to destroy Pakistan’s nuclear installations. They were unsuccessful in taking them out fully and Pakistan in retaliation launched nuclear attacks against Delhi and Bombay. All India Radio was reporting the death toll on the Indian side to be more than 8 million with hundreds of thousands injured and missing. I found out later that Pakistan’s central Radio station was now working from Quetta. The story over there was entirely different. Pakistan Radio contended that India crossed the control line and launched a nuclear attack in tandem and not one after the other. India had targeted Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, and Hyderabad. The Security Council had passed an immediate resolution calling for a cease-fire. Both the stories may appear to have differences but I was sure that the results and consequences were the same on both sides of the border. I was standing next to a major road with Asad thinking about my next step when a Jeep pulled up next to me with some Army personnel in it.
“Are you Salim,” One of them asked.
“Yes,” I replied, making an effort to recognize the officer who had addressed me.
“I am Captain Faraz. We met at a recent wedding,” he said.
I recognized him as soon as he got done saying that. I had long discussions with him, during that and subsequent other gatherings, about what was going on in the military and how nuclearization of South Asia factored into the paradigm of Indo-Pak relations. He had attempted to suppress my fears or atleast tried to allay them by emphasizing how seriously the upper cache of the military officers took this situation. How they have made sure that a situation resembling a nuclear holocaust never comes to pass between the two countries. He informed me that they have planned out all details of all possible scenarios that can occur. I did not have the energy to remind him of those exchanges between us and taking his offered hand I shook it vigorously. I started to tell him about what had happened and before I could realize it I had started sobbing with tears hurrying down my face.
“Can you help me find them, please?” I asked.
He thought for a minute and glanced at his watch.
“How do you think we should start looking for them?” he asked.
“Take me to the place where they stopped us,” I offered, “We will figure out which police station to go to for help from there.”
He took us to the spot. I looked around and could not find any sign of either Maha or Sadia. Faraz offered to take us to the nearest police station and we got back in the Jeep after which it took a side road off the highway on its way to the police station. I was looking out with my arm around Asad. Suddenly I saw something that looked familiar. What I had seen a glimpse of turned out to be a piece of clothing. I jumped out of the Jeep after it had stopped close to the bushes and ran towards them. Yes! A sudden descending milieu filled equally with calm and panic took me over at the time for a brief, very brief moment. I had found them, but where were they? I ran in circles trying to see if any one of the two were close by. A few hundred yards ahead, I saw pieces of coal and what appeared to be charred wood that was still smoldering. I walked up to them, fell on my knees and hung my head with the seeming weight of the entire world of grief upon me. The robbers had burnt their bodies beyond recognition for anyone but me.
The nuclear bomb had not only destroyed the place it struck. It had in fact managed to strew the dead bodies hundreds of miles away from that point. I have nothing left now. Maha and Sadia were my all, my life,… my Kashmir.