The Girl In Room 105[CHAPTER 20]



 Chapter 20


‘I still can’t believe you booked us into a houseboat,’ I said, pulling my suitcase off the baggage belt.

Despite half a dozen extra security checks for flights to Kashmir, we had landed on time at noon. The Sheikh ul-Alam International Airport in Srinagar had more CISF and Army personnel than passengers.

‘Trust me, you will love it,’ Saurabh said. ‘Let me call the driver.’ He pulled out his phone and proceeded to stare at the screen.

‘What?’ I said.

‘I don’t have network. Can I use your phone?’ Saurabh said.

I didn’t have any signal either. Both of us switched off our phones and turned them back on twice. No network.

‘Do you have prepaid cards?’ a co-passenger at the baggage belt said to us.

‘Yeah,’ Saurabh said, ‘I took one in Delhi when I moved. Never switched to post-paid.’

‘Me neither,’ I said.

‘Prepaid cards from other states don’t work in Jammu and Kashmir.

Security reasons.’

We walked out of the modern airport. I saw a man holding a heart-shaped placard with our names on it.

‘Seriously, Saurabh?’ I turned to Saurabh.

‘Great service, isn’t it?’ he said.

We drove north on the Airport Road towards the city centre. As we left the white, cream roll-shaped airport building, we noticed the mountains around us. The April sun glinted off the snow-capped peaks that formed the city’s backdrop. As we approached the centre, it resembled any other non-metro Indian town. Hoardings for cold drinks, cell phones, underwear and entrance exam coaching classes dotted the landscape. I guess that is what India is about. Study hard in your comfortable underwear. Play with your phone and drink Coke. Repeat.

‘It looks like any other place in India,’ Saurabh said, thinking along the same lines.

‘It is India,’ I shrugged.

‘Don’t they have their own Constitution and flag or something?’

I pointed to the driver and placed a finger on my mouth. I had heard talking politics in Kashmir would only invite trouble. I didn’t need trouble. I needed our cell phones to work.

‘As-salaam-alaikum, Saurabh bhai, Keshav bhai. I am Nizam,’ a thirtyish, lean-bodied man with a beard and skullcap greeted us at the entrance of the houseboat.

‘Come, come, follow me. I will take you to your room,’ Nizam said.

Our houseboat was moored right on the Jhelum River in Srinagar city centre. It was close to Wazir Bagh, where Zara had spent her childhood. The houseboat company had half a dozen such boats, each with three to four rooms each. These boats remained tied to the pier for most of the day, making the setup resemble a floating hotel. Nizam took us to our room, a wooden cabin no bigger than the size of my hostel room. It had one double bed.

‘Not this,’ I said. ‘We want one with separate twin beds.’

‘Usually couples come here, they don’t want separate beds. But, come, I have another room in the next boat,’ Nizam said.

‘We could have booked separate rooms for each of us,’ I said.

‘And pay double?’ Saurabh said.

I guess money trumps privacy.

‘Anything you need, Nizam is here to help you,’ Nizam said as we reached our room.

‘My cell phone doesn’t work,’ I said.

‘A new SIM card can take a week to get activated.’

‘What?’ I said.

‘Indian government rules. What can we do? They do what they want,’

Nizam said.

‘How do I stay in touch with people?’ I said.

Nizam turned to Saurabh.

‘Tell your busy friend to relax. He has come to Srinagar on holiday.’

‘We still need to be connected,’ I said.

‘There is Wi-Fi on the boat. Password is on the bedside table,’ Nizam said.

‘And phone calls? No way to get a SIM?’ I said.

Nizam took out a phone from his pocket.

‘Here, take out the SIM and use it.’

‘Your SIM, Nizam bhai?’ Saurabh said.

‘It’s my spare phone. This problem comes, so we keep a couple of extra ones.’

‘Zara told me about the house she grew up in. That’s our first stop tomorrow to find Sikander,’ I said.

We had come for an evening walk to Dal Lake, seen in countless photographs and Bollywood movies as the classic Kashmir backdrop. I tried to forget that I was in Zara’s city, the place she grew up in, had been happy in. Did she feel this breeze, did she touch the water of this lake? I wondered.

‘Safdar uncle gave you the exact address, right?’ Saurabh said.

‘He did. The one he had from long ago. My worry is if Sikander and his family have moved. Safdar only had the Wazir Bagh address.’

‘We will soon find out.’

We passed a group of young Kashmiri boys in their teens. They sat on a bench playing with their phones. I went up to one of them and asked for a dinner place suggestion.

‘Try Ahdoos Restaurant,’ one boy with a soft stubble said. ‘Good wazwan.’

‘Thank you,’ I said, noticing his beautiful green eyes.

As Saurabh and I turned to leave, the boy spoke again.

‘Are you from India?’

I looked back at the boy, surprised by the question.

‘Yes. Aren’t you?’ I said.

‘I am Kashmiri,’ he said. All his friends laughed. One of them even clapped.

Saurabh nudged me, to say we should leave.

‘But Kashmir is a part of India,’ I said.

‘We hate India,’ another boy said. He spoke in a normal tone, as if he had said ‘I hate cabbage’ or ‘I hate radish’.

‘Hate?’ I said.

‘Let’s leave,’ Saurabh said, fear visible on his face. ‘Thank you for your suggestion. We have to go.’

The boys laughed at Saurabh’s words.

‘Don’t be scared. We are not terrorists,’ the first boy said.

‘God-promise we are not,’ the second boy said.

They spoke in a matter-of-fact tone. I could tell this had happened to them before. A bunch of Kashmiri Muslim boys sitting on a bench— obviously tourists wanted to keep their distance from them.

‘I am Rajasthani, too. But also Indian,’ I said and smiled. ‘Don’t hate your country.’

‘India is not our country. India doesn’t care for us.’

Saurabh rammed an elbow into my rib.

‘I said let’s go,’ he said. He was right. I was breaking my own rule of no-politics talk in Kashmir.

‘What are your names?’ I asked the boys, ignoring Saurabh.

‘I am Karim, and that’s Saqib,’ the first boy with the green eyes said, pointing to the second. The three other boys remained quiet, busy with their phones.

‘What do you do?’

They looked at each other blankly.

‘Studying?’ I said.

They shook their heads.

‘Working?’ I said.

They shook their heads again.

‘Nothing, we do nothing,’ Karim said. ‘There are no jobs.’

‘No movie theatres either, for the jobless to go,’ said another, and all his friends laughed.

Karim’s green eyes stayed with me even as Saurabh dragged me away.

‘Why did you to talk to those locals yesterday?’ Saurabh said. We had taken a left turn from our houseboat and were walking along Jhelum River to reach Wazir Bagh. We turned into the lane with Falak restaurant, a landmark for Zara’s old address.

‘I was curious. Did you see how he asked if we were from India?’

‘Maybe he thought you are a foreigner.’

‘I look as desi as daal-roti. And then he says, “I am not Indian. I am Kashmiri”. What is with these people?’

‘Now you know why there is so much Army here. Thank god for them. I feel scared here otherwise, like we are being followed or something,’ Saurabh said. He pointed to the street corner. Four Army men stood there, keeping an eye on everyone walking on the road.

‘It is the Indian Army people hate,’ I said. ‘They are the enemy. Zara used to tell me all this. It is something else though, to see it like we did yesterday.’

‘Ungrateful people. If the Army wasn’t here, Pakistan would turn this place into chaos.’

‘It’s not that simple,’ I said. ‘People are genuinely upset with the Army.

Maybe we can do a better job listening to them. Anyway, is that Falak?’

We showed the address to a paan shopkeeper next to the restaurant.

‘You want to meet Sikander? Sikander Lone?’ the shopkeeper said. He took two paan leaves and smeared them with lime.

‘Yeah. He still lives there?’ I said.

‘What work do you have with him?’ the shopkeeper said. He kept a pinch of betel nut shavings, fennel seeds and cardamom on the paan leaves.

‘We know him from Delhi. He is our friend,’ I said. Saurabh looked at me, startled. I smiled blandly.

‘Then you should know. He and his mother Farzana used to live here until two years ago. Now they only come here rarely.’

‘Do you know where they stay now?’ Saurabh said.

‘Farzana begum moved to Raj Bagh, I heard. Near Ahdoos hotel.’

‘What about her son?’

‘Sikander is always on the run. Comes home briefly. Army and police are after him. You should know. Are you really his friends?’

‘Yeah, we are,’ I said.

‘Shall I make you my special paan?’

‘How many Raj Bagh shopkeepers so far?’ I said.

‘More than fifty,’ Saurabh said. ‘Two days wasted.’

It was evening, and we were sitting in the common lounge of our houseboat. We were sharing it with a rather affectionate Sardar honeymooning couple, who found it too difficult to walk twenty steps to their own room and make out there instead. The Sardar man insisted on kissing his new bride while taking a selfie with the lake as a backdrop.

The woman seemed somewhat uncomfortable, still getting to know her Prince Charming. It looked like an arranged match, probably done though a matrimonial app. I looked away to give them privacy.

‘What else can we do?’ I said.

‘Cable TV shops,’ Saurabh said.

‘What?’

‘Newspaper vendors. Let’s go after people who serve the neighbourhood.’

‘Doctors and plumbers too?’

‘Maybe. Let’s start early tomorrow.’

‘Thank you, Saurabh. I couldn’t have done this without you.’

‘Shut up. Senti for no reason. What are we? A honeymoon couple?’

Saurabh said.

I laughed.

‘Aren’t you tired? Searching without success?’ I said.

‘Still better than seeing Chandan Arora’s face. Hey, don’t look now, but that Sardar is a bit too excited.’

‘Should we bug him and pretend to take a selfie too? Same pose?’ I said.

Three more days later, a cable operator became an angel for us.

‘Farzana Lone, right? She stays in that red building on Residency Road.

Third floor,’ he said.

‘Are you sure?’

‘She’s always late paying the bill. I know her. Trust me.’

We rang the doorbell of the said house.

A woman in her fifties in a black burqa, with only her face visible, opened the door.

‘Ji, janaab?’ she said.

‘Farzana ma’am?’

‘Yes.’

‘I am Keshav. A close friend of Zara’s.’

She scanned us up and down without saying a word.

‘Your daughter, Zara?’ I said. Stepdaughter would have been more accurate, but I didn’t want to bring up technicalities.

She blocked the way into the house with her arm, as she wondered what to do next.

‘Maybe you don’t remember me. I used to study with her. In college,’ I said.

‘Zara left with her father fifteen years ago. I don’t know much about her life after that.’

‘I know. She used to talk about you. And Sikander.’

‘What do you want? Zara’s gone now.’

‘Can we come in and talk to you?’

‘About what?’

‘About Zara and Sikander. We need to share something with you.’

She pointed a finger at Saurabh.

‘Who is he?’ she said.

‘My best friend, Saurabh. We have come from Delhi. It took us a week to find you.’

She narrowed her eyes.

‘Are you from the Army? Are you lying to me?’

‘No, aunty,’ I said. I took out my wallet. ‘See, my student ID from IIT.

The same college where Zara went. And here’s my current visiting card. I teach at a coaching institute.’

She remained hesitant. I pulled out my phone and searched for pictures from five years ago.

‘Here, aunty, this is Zara and me, at the college canteen.’

Zara and I were posing with our cups of Bournvita. Both of us had had individual assignment deadlines the next day. We had worked all night, finished our work and snuggled in bed until afternoon. I felt my head swim.

How would I ever get over her if I couldn’t forget? I swore to myself that I’d delete all her pictures. All.

‘Come in. It’s a small house, don’t mind,’ Farzana said.





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