By Umar Lateef Misgar
Sarmat was about to rescue his crush from the kidnappers when a loud screech woke him up. Lasse Goor, the milkman, had arrived and was unloading his large steel cans off his taang’e. The sound didn’t annoy Sarmat. He had got used to Lasse Kak’s early morning hullabaloo. The cans were his sparrows, chirping.
Sarmat frequently imagined saving Sanaa from evil antagonists. Perhaps he had accepted that his only chance with her lay in these dream-world heroics. The season was of confusing temperatures, late spring. Sarmat had already shrug off his quilt sometime during the night and, without any further delay, got to his feet and started a yawn-full descent towards the common bathroom of their house.
“It’s Monday, Sarmat!” his mother announced from the kitchen. “Don’t come out of that without having a bath.” Unlike his schoolmates, Sarmat didn’t bathe regularly. He didn’t bother to gaze endlessly into a mirror and try different hairstyles. Chinese hair gels and Indian fairness creams didn’t interest him at all. On some days, he didn’t even brush his teeth. Sarmat was regularly scolded by his parents for being so careless regarding his hygiene and looks, but he had his reason for neglecting the botherations of the common teenager. He was fat, morbidly fat.
Sarmat entered the bathroom with the energy of a snail and began to strip. He hated looking down at his naked body. People in the nearby naag always ridiculed that his body looked exactly like that of a maiden. They laughed at his bulging belly and his swollen chest.
He sat down on a plastic tool and began to mix hot and cold water inside a bucket. As soon as Sarmat poured a jug of lukewarm water onto the back of his neck, he was transported off to a realm of non-existence. The comforting heat of water slowly crept into his cerebrum and melted down his consciousness. He completely forgot the intended and unintended humiliations that shaped a large part of his day.
Sarmat finished his fortnightly bath and sashayed into the kitchen, shivering with cold. His mother had already poured nun-chai into a large kettle and spread the yellow dastarkhaan. A cane basket, full of lavaas was placed in the middle of the dastarkhaan. The sides of the basket had turned sooty because of constant exposure to heat inside the kandir-waan.
His mother usually took her tea after the subah-namaz and she had already gone out to dust the courtyard with her homemade laseej. Sarmat sat down near the edge of the dastarkhaan and began pouring nun-chai into his favourite cup. Pulling out a crisp lavaas from the basket, he cut out a morsel from the middle and dipped it into the cup. This caused the chai to overflow and spill onto the dastarkhaan.
To hide the stains and save himself from an early-morning scolding, Sarmat placed the basket over them. He was sipping the remnants of his tea when his eyes fell on a small copper container placed on the highest shelf in the kitchen. It was an empty butter container.
Butter was a fascinating edible for Sarmat. He couldn’t even remember when he, like his cousins, would spread spoonfuls of butter on a soft round lavaas, fold it into a semi-circle and dipped it into nun-chai before munching it down. But since Sarmat had grown obese, his mother had stopped buying butter altogether. Sarmat’s mother was lean, leaner than any woman in the neighborhood, but the sacrificial attribute of motherhood had compelled her to cross out butter from their grocery list.
Sarmat shifted his attention with a sigh and dusted the lavaas crumbs off his pyjamas. He made his way into the baithaki and after a satisfying stretch, began to change into his extra-sized uniform. He had to get his uniform sewed by Gul Vosta, the local tailor, rather than purchasing it readymade from the school like his friends. His extra-large waist refrained him from wearing a school-belt; the heavy steel buckle and leather strap of Sarmat’s ‘home-belt’ added to the weight on his already burdened legs but, nevertheless, it instigated a faint envy amongst his classmates. The belt also served as a weapon during his heroic fantasies with Sanaa.
He was about to shove the belt into the last loop of his trousers when his mother entered the baithaki. The sleeves of her frock were rolled up to the elbows and her scarf was tied tightly around her hair. She had coiled the hem across her face to veil herself from the dust.
Sarmat’s mother removed her makeshift mask and pulled his cheeks softly. Sarmat raised his elbow to guard himself from the affectionate onslaught of his mother. “Vaai Nanna! I’m not a child anymore.”
“Alaa! I know you are in Class VIII now. Glad you are still not married, or people would brag that your wife has taught you to shout at your mother.”
Sarmat couldn’t help blushing at this and his thoughts strayed onto Sanaa for a split second. His mother meanwhile pulled out a small bottle of Pond’s cold cream from the cupboard. She dipped her finger into the wide-necked bottle and spread the milky-white cream on the palm of her hand. She directed Sarmat to stand still and began rubbing the cream across his blubbery face. Her gold rings moved against Sarmat’s face like baker’s knuckles move against the dough. He felt a tinge of pain but the softness of his mother’s hands soothed Sarmat’s face and he willfully submitted to her make-up abilities.
“Enough! Nanna! I will miss the bus,” he cried through his mother’s hands, but she wasn’t finished yet. The hairstyling had to be done. Sarmat’s mother emptied the almost-finished bottle of Keo Karpin hair oil into her cupped hand, rubbed together her hands and began massaging Sarmat’s hair. She then parted his hair into two unequal halves with a comb and left the baithaki to prepare Sarmat’s lunchbox. Sarmat mounted the schoolbag onto his shoulders and headed for the porch to put on his shoes.
As he was lacing up, Sarmat remembered that something had slipped away from his mind, something that he was determined to do in the morning, while dozing off to sleep last night. He tried hard to remember, but to no avail. Meanwhile, his mother came out with a plastic lunchbox in her hand and made sure that the box was properly sealed by screwing and re-screwing its lid. She then opened the zipper of Sarmat’s bag and placed the box deep inside.
“I put a new spoon inside the lunchbox, Sarmat. Where do you loose all these spoons? Don’t forget to bring this one back.”
Sarmat didn’t pay any heed; he was still trying to recall whatever he had planned to do last night.
“Sarmat! Why do you look so lost? Mattya!”
He collected his senses and headed towards the courtyard. His hard-heeled shoes tapped the cement. Sarmat reached the end of courtyard and lifted his leg to throw open the tin gate that enclosed its wall. He booted the door with all his strength. His grandfather had cut some rubber from worn-out tires piled outside Saleem Mister’s workshop and nailed onto the hinges of the gate. Sarmat hurriedly stepped out and the gate closed behind him with a loud thud. “Nyer khudayas hawaal (I lend you to the protection of God)”, blessed his mother while wiping the stone floor of porch with a damp cloth.
As soon as Sarmat stepped out on the road, the hustle of Kaed’poor rocked his ears. Lasse Kaak was busy in distributing milk to men and women waiting in line on the pavement of his shop. He had emptied the milk cans in a large aluminum tub and was skillfully filling the handled vessels without spilling a drop. Ali Puj, the butcher, had hung a freshly butchered sheep on the steel hooks fixed to the ceiling of his shop. Ali Maam, as Sarmat called him, was repeatedly stroking his cleaver against a stone to sharpen it.
Sarmat possessed a profound affection for Ali Maam. Every now and then, Ali Maam wrapped a couple of raw kidneys in an old newspaper and sent them over to him. His mother cut each kidney through the middle and roasted them on a large white electric heater. Sarmat enjoyed watching his mother fiddle with the kidneys while they slowly turned from faint red to dark brown. The fumes emanating from kidneys, while they were being roasted, filled the kitchen with a delightful aroma.
He looked further up the street and he could see smoke coming out of Shabir’s kandir-waan. After selling his early-morning stock of lavaas, Shabir was firing-up his tandoor to toast fresh girde and bagirkhain.
Sarmat crossed the road and timidly walked towards their now-permanent bus-stop, his grandfather’s grocery shop. Sarmat’s school bus always halted in front of his grandfather’s store because all school-children lined up there to purchase snacks for their day at school. Sarmat saw Wahid standing on the threshold of his grandfather’s shop. Wahid was holding his grandfather’s kondal and trying to melt a hardened sachet of chocolate syrup. Sarmat’s grandfather kept his kondal burning throughout the year as it provided him with unlimited supply of embers for his jajeer. Sarmat wearily climbed onto the threshold and greeted Wahid with a smile. Wahid carefully placed the kondal on a plastic candy jar, tore open the sachet and began sucking the warm chocolate syrup.
“Did you watch Pokémon last night?” Wahid asked while gulping down his chocolate. Before Sarmat could answer, though, he interrupted, “Motta! How can you understand English through that fat skull of yours?”
Sarmat was humiliated in front of his grandfather. He unsuccessfully tried to come up with some retort about Wahid’s darker complection. Seeing an immature sorrow in Sarmat’s eyes, his grandfather picked up the duster, made of cloth worn over a wooden stick, and chased Wahid away. “Kola Khorr!” he howeled, readjusting himself on the takhte, the wide wooden-plank furnished with a worn-out namde. Sarmat felt protected and helpless at the same time.
The school bus honked from a distance and children lined up in the order of their ages. Sarmat’s eye suddenly fell upon the Afridi poster that adorned the worn-out electricity pole near their bus-stop. Pakistan was playing India today and he had forgotten to bring his small, stealthy transistor. That was what he had been trying to recall. Shahid was going to be so pissed off at him.
They boarded the bus and Sarmat, along with Wahid, sat near the driver’s seat. The bus driver, Salaam By, was a cheerful guy. Unknown to the school authorities, he had hidden a cassette player beneath his seat and the pretentious, tasteless music that Bollywood produced during the late 1990s and early 2000s always beamed out of it. Sarmat took a secret delight and disgust at imagining that the music actually emanated from Salaam By’s butt.
The bus halted a couple of times, hurriedly picked up sleepy schoolchildren and began its long journey back to school. As soon as the bus picked up speed, children began to gather in a disorganised communion. Some shouted at the top of their voices, some fought for the window seat while others gloomily dreaded the wrath they were about to face from the teachers for not doing their homework.
Sarmat, meanwhile, concentrated on Salaam By’s arms and legs, trying to comprehend the mysterious art of driving. He watched Salaam’s shoulders twist to unusual angles while shifting the gears. Sarmat guessed that gears had something to do with the speed and he was somewhat familiar with the accelerator and the brake pedals, but he could never fathom the idea behind this third thing that everyone called Kultch. For him, it was all about accelerating, braking intermittently and accelerating again.
They were about to reach school. Wahid was out of his seat ruffling Shafia’s short, blonde hair, teasing her for her masculine looks. Nobody had a speck of idea that she would later grow to be one of the most beautiful girls around. Boys would swarm for a glimpse of Shafia’s blue eyes and silky-blonde hair. “Angrez Baai”, they would call her. But the present was a different world. Sarmat pitied the constant bullying she had to face. They shared their demons—Insensitive People.
Salaam By was humming a song about some deewana looking for his jaaney haana when a loud thud burst through the windows of the bus. The glass shattered a couple of windows and Sarmat saw towers of smoke and dust rising, few blocks away, in the rear. A hum ringed in his ears for a few seconds but his own wails, mixed with terrifying wails of the other children, overpowered it.
Some were trying to get off the bus while others were too stupefied to do that. Sarmat was of the latter category. He didn’t want to leave the cozy protection of his seat. Wahid was chanting half the Shahadah on a loop and seemed to have forgotten the rest “Ashadu-An laa Ilaha Illalah”. Shafia had buried her head into the hands and looked lifeless. Salaam By, unsuccessfully concealing his fear under responsibility, was trying to pacify things. The wailing school bus stood still, in the middle of the road, as if it had come alive and was mourning someone. As if it was mourning a dead childhood.
 A horse-driven carriage
 A spring
 Salt tea
 A long rectilinear cloth used as a substitute for a dining table in Kashmiri households
 A fluffy circular bread eaten for breakfast
 A baker’s workshop. In Kashmir, the baker’s workshop and retail outlet are usually not separate.
 Fajr, or the morning prayer
 A deep, earthen pot that Kashmiris fill with embers and use to keep themselves warm