The River Chenab can be addictive.
It has a strange pull.
He comes daily to meditate on its grassy right bank.
And to find nirvana.
At the top of the stone staircase, a few steps away from the small shrine to the local deity, he sits and watches the Chenab flow majestically to its far-off home. Across the river, in the vast dusty plain, stands a grove of trees, in the distance. He can see the tree spirits dancing in the mildly-dark grove — like the dryads in an ancient Greek sacred grove. Mysterious airy figures flitting in the air. The winter morning sun splashes colours in its gurgling waters. Dusk in that lonely plain paints the beautiful river in flaming orange!
He finds the interplay of the sun and the river mesmerizing. Misty December, the shrouded river is sad and abandoned, meandering its way quietly in the fields. The silence of the Chenab could be both healing and frightening. He seeks out the broad-shouldered river like a child hunting for his mother in a deserted house.
The Chenab speaks silently to him, as it has always spoken to its seekers from previous ages. The waters exert a strange fascination over him. He finds the buried centuries on the bed of the river that has irrigated the soul of many states and communities. Chenab is the breath of the people. The moment he sits, the lost centuries leap out of the glinting waters and he can hear folk songs, drum beats and dancers dancing around the bonfires burning in the village square, on moonlit nights. The cold winds of December cannot dampen the general mood of festivities. He can clearly hear the folk singers singing in throaty voices before the assembled rural audiences; the fair maidens blushing and the hardy young men twirling their moustaches. It is a strange riverine world that he witnesses daily from his elevated perch.
One late morning, he found both love and death near the eternal Chenab within a short span of one hour.
First he discovered love.
As he was walking near the Chenab with a blank mind, eyes seeing, yet unseeing, he saw her crying. A solitary woman, younger, in yellow salwar-kameez and red dupatta, sitting on a stone ledge, her feet dangling in the gently-flowing Chenab. A bird was singing in the clump of trees ahead, near the right bank, her notes melancholy, musical and edifying. Both were surprised by the presence of the other at such a desolate spot.
He had rounded a long bend in the quiet river and immediately came upon the sobbing woman. The bend was in a remote corner and hardly visited by the busy villagers. He was shocked by the unexpected sighting of a fair maiden on a boulder at the edge of the river. She looked like a lost nymph, vulnerable and sad, suddenly appearing out of the cold river, before a startled human traveller. He was rooted to the ground, the river hummed in the tranquil morning.
Her face was very fair, eyes large and kohl-lined, framed by a mass of dark hair. The tears were big and rapid, sobs silent and shaking. Her face was cupped in a pair of white plump hands; a soundless cry escaping from a small open and full mouth. He saw her and felt smitten by this picture of stunning beauty, innocence and vulnerability. The dormant knight awakened quickly, after a hiatus of centuries long dead and interned in some tiny DNA sequence.
He wanted to reach out and protect her like the knights of yore.
At that precise moment, the damsel in distress looked up at this strange apparition from nowhere. Her doe-eyes first registered fear on seeing what she presumed was a predatory male figure. Then, they moved on to look helpless and trapped. She was paralyzed by this abrupt human encounter on a spot where no other being could be espied other than the couple destined to meet in a most dramatic way.
She stared, open-mouthed, tears still coursing down her oval face.
“Why are you crying?” He asked, his voice a little awkward but firm.
The query and the unexpected concern made her dissolve into a fresh bout of tears. The reassuring voice belonging to a stranger in an alien, deserted setting can trigger the release of hidden pain in a gentle human heart. She cried, uncontrollably. He watched. Both helpless and bonding in a strange way over the common form of rumination that can visit the human race so frequently and at odd hours.
Unbidden, he waded through the water, climbed the rock on which she was perched and hugged her tenderly, right hand giving reassuring taps to her upper half of the trembling body. The two entwined figures in a vast desolate place, in a timeless gesture of magnetic empathy were lost to the sense of time as the watch ceased to tick and the Earth stopped. She found him and his embrace harmless but comforting — the way strangers hug each other and comfort during national tragedies of epic scales. The two young clung to each other in a tight embrace and love was born in their lonely hearts.
After they had separated and she had washed her tear-stained face, he repeated his original question, tense modified, “Why were you crying?”
She said, face downcast, voice frail from crying, “Stepmother.”
“Oh!” He got it. “Are you from this village?”
“No,” said the woman demurely.
He said nothing. They continued to sit on the boulder, a little higher, surveying the surrounding scene. The bird had stopped singing in the nearby clump of trees. A stork flew in the languid air. A tractor could be heard on the dirt road somewhere in the background.
“Your name?” She asked, long lashes fluttering.
“Nope. Iqbal Singh.”
She said nothing.
Then he asked,“Your village?”
“Six kms from here.”
“Why did you select this hour and spot?” Iqbal asked.
“I wanted to die. Away from my family and ancestral village…Did not want to disgrace my father. I chose this place where nobody would come and find me or my dead body. I want to die.”
“Die?” Iqbal asked mouth open, eyes uncomprehending. Like drowning a priceless gift in an angry or desperate moment.
“Just that. Sometimes you want to die—to escape being a motherless poor daughter or a woman unwanted in home and society. Nobody cares for me. I am becoming a burden to them.” Her tone was now quiet and firm. Thoughts in order and lucid.
“Do not ask a woman her age,” she said and laughed a clear laugh that rose and blended with the stratosphere. Typical mood swings! “Completed my eighteen years last month. They want me to marry an old widower of my caste and community. I want to study. My stepmother is cruel. She hates me and beats me daily. The widower is her distant relative. A wealthy landlord twice widowed. Giving a lot of dowry. My greedy mother is eager to sell me off to that old lecher. I ran away in a bus to this village and from the village square, came down to this spot.”
“Then?” Iqbal asked the run-away.
“I reached the deserted spot. Climbed up this high boulder in the middle of the river and wanted to take a leap into the rushing cold waters. I took the first steps also…”
“Then?” Asked Iqbal the way kids ask the story-telling tired mothers during bed-time at night.
“I clearly heard a voice.”
“Yes. The voice that commanded me to stop from drowning.”
Iqbal, surprised, looked around but saw only wild terrain.
“I do not see any mortal here,” he said, holding her hand in his.
“It was not mortal. It came from the world of the dead.”
“It was the voice of my dead ammi jaan,” she said. “I know the voice. It commanded me to stop and a hand pulled me off. I sat down and cried. My ammi jaan still cares for me beyond her grave. Her voice is still silky and soft. She doted on me, my poor mother. Then, she sent you here to me.”
The low voice melted his heart. He felt moved. He tightened his grasp — to prevent her slipping through his grip into the watery grave. Her plump hand did not resist. It remained limp and soft; like the hand of a yielding baby to the security of an adult care-giver.
“I will not go home. I will stay here.”
“Then, some jungle creature will eat you here in the night.”
“I do not care,” she said. “My home is also not safe.”
“I understand,” Iqbal said in a soothing voice. “I will not leave you here in the wild. You may get attacked by the wolves or hyenas. It is not safe. Or serpents. Or, stray drunk men.”
She said nothing. Only her dainty hand tightened her grasp over his broad muscular hand.
“Come with me to my home.”
“No.” She said, eyes scared.
“Why?” Iqbal asked, a little irritated.
“You are not us. You are them. How can I trust you?” She spoke clearly and frankly. Tone neutral. Stating a cold fact to the world in general.
“Have I done anything wrong? Immoral? Tell me. Did I molest you?” He asked callously and then realised his mistake as tears welled up immediately in her innocent eyes, stung more by the tonal harshness of this strange rescuer than the helpless predicament of a female run-away.
Iqbal softened quickly, “Come and eat there and then decide. I am not going to harm you in any way. Or, my family. We are honourable family of the Sikhs. I do not wear a turban or long hair. My father is a high-school head master and very respected in our small village. My elder brother is a police officer. I am studying in a nearby city college. I am an athlete. Do not worry. Come on. A long way to go.”
She remained undecided for long. Sitting on the boulder, immobile. More vulnerable and rudderless.
Iqbal stood up and lifted her tenderly in his arms, waded through the knee-deep waters and then planted her back on the dry ground. She said nothing.
She trusts me, Iqbal thought. A major battle won. “If you do not find my home safe, let me know. I will inform your family immediately.”
She said nothing. Drained out and limp, Aisha leaned slightly on his broad arm for support.
They started the new journey together; a journey determined by mysterious forces of the universe that no amount of rationalism can ever explain. A mere walk along the bank of the River Chenab had produced a most unlikely scenario for Iqbal. The river that had earlier fashioned legendary love stories of Heer-Ranjha and Soni-Mahiwal had now conspired to re-script the same folk narrative in a new format for these two 21st century young adults. Quietly the duo took the shortcut through the clump of whispering trees. And witnessed their last event…
The thick clump was on a steep rugged incline and afforded a good view of the riverine wilderness below. It led to the dirt road and to the village. As they entered the clump of the tall sturdy trees, they were stopped by another loud sound coming from the plain below, from the opposite side. They stopped and peered from behind the thick hedges and wild undergrowth. They could see a jeep coming up the dirt track, sound magnified by the empty silent plain. They held their breaths.
Soon the open jeep stopped and five tall and slim men climbed down from it. They were wearing masks and carrying guns. A sixth person, a blindfolded captive, was pulled down roughly from the back of the jeep.
Death was in the air.
One of the masked men fished out a folding chair from the dirty floor of the jeep and after unfolding it, forced the blindfolded man to sit down. Another man took out a handycam and began to record the scene. Satisfied, he nodded. Then another man stepped out from the loose group and faced the camera, voice booming in the wild, “We are going to behead the agent of imperialist America and Zionism. This man was acting on behalf of these powers and supported by the Indian government. Our next target will be the Indian government. We plan to destroy these unholy powers on the Earth. Long live the revolutionaries!”
The man next to the seated figure ripped out the blind folds of their captive. Iqbal gasped. It was a famous Western journalist, who had been kidnapped three months ago near the Chenab and whose face had been earlier beamed on all the TV news channels. The man looked ashen and withdrawn. His face looked haggard, although freshly-shaven and scrubbed. His hands and legs were then neatly tied and the camera started shooting the gruesome episode. A man whipped out a sword from a sack and cleaned it slowly before the dazed foreigner, in a deliberate sadistic act. He was smiling crookedly. The commander of the group asked playfully, “Any last wishes?”
“No,” said the journalist in his late thirties, somewhat defiantly.
“You arrogant agents!” Exclaimed the commander loudly. “So haughty towards death!”
The journalist, beyond any uncertainties of life and death, spat out: “Cowards!”
Another man hit him hard on his face. The journalist did not flinch. His eyes blazed. He had reached the stage of no pain and fear. A state that stared death in the eyes. “Leave the bugger. He is going to be beheaded soon,” said the commander. “He deserves it.”
The journalist laughed, startling others. “By killing innocent people like me you militants cannot shake the strong foundations of old nations and civilisations. Hatreds lead nowhere. Dialogue and sanity are productive. Violence and hatred can be counter-productive. They are useless. Bloodshed will lead you nowhere.”
The men were stunned by this slow outburst of a trapped civilian facing his own absurd execution at the hands of a few zealots fighting wars on behalf of the terror groups.
“Stop his voice,” commanded the man in ski-mask.
“No. Just record it for the whole world to see. They must know a journalist went down, fearless and defiant. My sacrifice will not go waste. You are all mad guys. Toxic guys spewing venom at innocent law-abiding citizens…”
The sentence was cut short mid-way by the swoop of the gleaming sword of the killer. A neat arc and the head rolled down, still partially connected to the neck. The handycam kept on recording the heinous act in a careful manner. Precisely. Clinically. In a detached way.
The killer raised his hand and this time cut away the loosely-held head of his human victim, eyes scornful and defiant; still triumphant in sudden death to his gleeful killers. The short stocky headless body, in fatigues, convulsed violently for minutes.
This was being recorded faithfully by a steady hand. After a few minutes, the gunmen danced around the decapitated body, firing guns in the air, unsettling the birds that made a racket and flew away. The gunmen left the headless body on the chair and before leaving, called up a few TV news channels and informed them of the location and of the job done. Then they departed, the jeep kicking up clouds of gravel and dust on the dirt track going up to the jungle.
When Iqbal — speechless and completely numbed by the sudden brutality and mindless violence choreographed with skill by militants in ski-masks carrying sophisticated weapons in a red modified Hummer, with high-fi communications system — looked around, he saw his frail female companion lying unconscious on the carpet of the moist grass and fallen leaves, fanned by a cool breeze in the clump of trees. Shaky, slightly trembling and nauseous, the tall and graceful athlete sat down on the green bed, trying to make sense of a world gone bloodthirsty and lawless.
He looked up to the sky for quick answers, sitting beside the prostrate body of the young woman. His faith shaken, he waited for some comforting answers from the blue vault above. Only a sun shone weakly there and a group of shrieking predatory birds circled above the dead body of an unfortunate and helpless man in the middle of a thorny wasteland near the bloodied red-Chenab. The trees whispered quietly and then Iqbal also passed out, dreaming of a quiet village home and his loving parents and of the tenuous security of such a familiar environment…