Those Are The Pearls That Were His Eyes
Another Bomb blast in the city.
Her hand was on the remote control, thumb pressing the numbers without even looking at them, something impatient and angry forcing her to keep shifting through the channels to see the gory visuals, the frantic pushing of cameramen and reporters at the now cordoned-off blast site. This time the terrorists had chosen a quiet suburban locality, just close to one of the most popular malls in Delhi. The jostling reporters managed to push their microphones under the nose of the commissioner of police for a sound byte urging him to name someone, some group, some terrorist outfit.
Her eyes transfixed on the multi screens flashing blood-soaked pavements, crying, howling women, shouting men being shoved and pushed by the police, broken glasses, debris of once posh, neat roads turned into devastation. Her hands were now aching holding the remote in one position. With an impatient click, she switched off the TV and took a shuddering sigh. What can one do about this?
She looked at the clock ticking on the wall. It read 7 pm and she knew Sahil would be in the OT right now. He had told her that he would be late coming home and she should have her dinner and not wait for him. She wanted to ring him up to see what was the situation at the hospital. With another blast in town, rush must have rather increased.
Sahil, her 28 year old son was a well sought after doctor at one of the leading hospitals in the city and she always felt a sense of pride every time she thought of his smiling face, his unruly mop of hair, and his crooked teeth, one of the front ones chipped when he was eight years old and his liquid hazel brown eyes. He was a naughty one of the family, always climbing trees of the neighbourhood, always trying to get himself into trouble by breaking the branch he was sitting on, and always stumbling on all the stones in his path. She remembered those days with a special fondness. It was a very comfortable and one of the best days of her life. Being an army officer’s wife had given her a good, busy life and very outdoorsy, active one to Sahil.
That was then, and this is now. She did not want to ponder over the losses now.
Getting up, she went to the backyard to get the dry clothes inside. Touching her starched sari, she remembered that she had soaked rajma for Sahil. She will have to put it in the fridge now. Tomorrow being Sunday can be a rajma-chawal lunch.
She went swiftly to the kitchen when the phone rang. She picked up the phone her mind already on what she will cook for herself.
She could hear heavy breathing, heartbeats pounding. She could feel being pushed and prodded, someone’s elbow digging into her sides. She could smell pungent sweat and hear numbing noise, noise of people shouting, women screaming and crying. She could feel sweat trickling down her blouse, making her want to wipe it, irritating her. She turned her head, and saw horrified faces in slow motion, faces distorted in fear, pain, horror, eyes dilated…
Tearing herself and pushing herself against the crowd, she came out, heaving for fresh air, panting as if she had run hundred miles. She frantically looked around when suddenly a hand clasped her shoulders and she jerked around. Nikhil and Anita were standing , worry written all over their faces.
‘Bhabhi, any news?’
She could just look at him numbly.
Anita came close to her and hugged her shoulders and told Nikhil, ‘Nikhil, go and check where he is.’
‘No!’ Suddenly she found her voice, trembling a little with nervousness. ‘Let me come with you. I want to see myself.’
‘Ok Bhabhi, come with us.’
They quickly went towards the white-jacketed doctor who had a list in his hands which he was reading aloud, his heavy voice without any tremor. The people crumbling one by one with emotion, some howling, some shouting at the doc who was trying to appease them and continuing with the list.
It was after ten hours that they were informed that Sahil was one of the innocent victims of the horrifying blast. They could not trace his body first and when they did she just could not believe it even after seeing his blood soaked body. She still could not believe that Sahil who had to be in the OT, conducting one of his regular surgeries, had succumbed to some very terrible injuries caused by a blast in another part of the city. Why did he have to go to the multiplex today of all the days? Her eyes were dry. She wanted to weep, scream but her whole body was numb. She could not even lift her hands to wipe her face which was wet with sweat and not tears. Nikhil and Anita had brought her home.
‘I just got information from the hospital that Sahil’s Operation had been cancelled and he had gone to the mall with Sukriti as it was her Birthday. ‘Anita said sitting beside her on the divan in the sitting room.
She felt a pain in her heart, something deep and intense hit her there, as if a needle had pierced inside. Sukriti was the girl Sahil was seeing.
She just got up and went to her room. Sat in front of her small puja alcove with just a few pictures, a little incense holder. She took out two incense sticks, and inserted them in the holder, took out the match box and struck a match. The flame lit the small temple, shaking in the dark room, her hands suddenly shaking badly as if in response. Her fingers trembling, she lit the incense sticks and closed her eyes. Why? Why did this happen to her? What wrong had she done? She wanted the tears to come, but her eyes were dry.
‘Smriti, there is a call from the hospital. They say that Sahil had donated his eyes to the Red Cross. They need your permission before they hand over the body … him over to us.’ Anita’s voice faded away.
She closed her eyes and laid her head back on the cushion on her bed. She did not know what to think. Sahil had never mentioned this to her. She suddenly felt something hot behind her eyes, something trickling down her cheeks, stinging, dampening her face, tears were unstoppable now. Soaking her sari, the hiccups coming in quick succession. Anita sat beside her and wrapped her arms around her and Smriti let herself go and wept as she had never wept before. The tears overflowing. Each memory of Sahil dancing before her eyes...the first look he had given her with his chinky eyes, his fists clasped in her hands soon after his delivery through caesarean section…more tears enveloped her…she remembered the giggling Sahil taking his first step, his solitary tooth peeping from his smiling mouth…she remembered the tight hugs he used to give her while going for his exams, never wanting to go and bow his head in the puja room saying , ‘I have you as my mother, who needs the blessings of a god?’ She remembered the first time he was hospitalized when he had had appendicitis. She remembered the nerve wracking sobs of his when his dad’s still body had come from the Army headquarters wrapped up in the Indian flag…she remembered it all…her own sobs now making her so weak that she just lay down on the bed, images of his hazel eyes dancing before her, so much like his father’s, to be given to someone she did not even know. Can she bear to do this?
It was nearly one year since Sahil had gone from her life. She had become more quiet, a recluse, cut off from the world not knowing what to do with her life. When her husband had died she had already crossed forty, and Sahil had become the centre of her life. She waited on him, her life revolving around him. Sahil also tried his best to include her in most of his activities yet she had felt lonely at times and had taken the promise from him that within one year he would get married to whoever he wishes to. She had suspected that he liked Sukriti a fellow doctor at the same hospital. But she was okay with it, as long as Sahil was happy.
Sukriti had not even visited her after Sahil’s death. It hurt Smriti to think about this.
She felt her life had become meaningless. Her husband had left her comfortable enough for the rest of the life to worry about any finances. She had enough savings to last her entire life. But there was this emptiness that she just could not fill. At 50 what could she do? She could not just barge into her relatives’ lives and ask them to pay attention to her. Everyone had their own life and she just could not interfere with them. She had never worked in her entire life and she didn’t know if she could start now. She had this niggling feeling which she could not place her finger on. What did she want?
She listlessly wandered towards the sitting room and switched on the TV, her fingers randomly surfing through the channels. She could not even bear to watch the monotonous dramas and glittery shows that were telecast these days. She started watching a news channel when a news report arrested her attention. It was about a Pakistani child being treated at Vellore in India where his difficult eye operation had been successful. Now he could see properly with donated eyes.
Smriti switched off the TV and sat upright. Who got her son’s eyes? Which poor soul was blessed with the eyes of her dead son? Her heartbeats increased and she stood up walking towards the windows with sheer lace curtains moving in the evening breeze. She could see the street below from the windows of her sitting room. She sat on the window seat thinking about the person who was gifted with the melting, warm hazel eyes of her son. She was now desperate to know who got his eyes. She picked up the phone and dialled Anita’s cell phone.
‘I will try my best to check out from the hospital Smriti. You don’t worry. Why don’t you come over tomorrow…Even I am not doing anything. Let’s have tea together around 11 am?’
She agreed absentmindedly, her mind already on this nameless, faceless person, with liquid hazel brown eyes looking at her with the same expression as Sahil’s.
The next day Anita took her to the hospital where they came to know that someone badly injured in the same blast had got the eyes. He had lost both his eyes and Sahil’s eyes were god’s gift for him. He was a 24 year old young man called Kabeer who was an IT professional and lived in the Old Delhi area.
There was a bounce in her walk that day as she was going to see the person who had got her Sahil’s eyes. She had a gift-wrapped box of sweets for him in her hands. The car had to be stopped at the opening because of the narrow lanes in the Darya Gunj area. She got down and started walking with the small slip of paper with the address scribbled on it. She crossed a street lined with shops, selling everything on the earth, watches, stationery, lassi, sweets, chaats, spare parts, hardware, rickshaws moving so fast on the crowded roads that you would feel it would knock you down any minute. She entered a narrow lane with few houses lined up on the sides, the walls old and mildewed, cable and electrical wires hanging and hiding the entrance totally. She looked at the address and knocked on an old-fashioned door.
There were only women in the house. It seemed a Mohammedan household with most of the women wearing loose salwars with their heads covered with voluminous dupattas and jingling bangles the only sound in the otherwise quiet house. She was asked to sit on the cushioned, cane chairs in the dark sitting room with just one pale tube light giving a very gloomy look to the room.
‘I have come to meet Kabeer. Last year he got hurt in the blast, didn’t he? My son donated his eyes to your son. I just want to meet Kabeer once.’
‘Your son donated?’ The old lady gave her a puzzled look.
‘My son died in the blast. He had donated his eyes to the Red Cross to be given to someone needy. They were given to your son who lost his eyes in the blast.’
She suddenly saw a harsh, strange expression cross her lined face.
‘Don’t you know what happened to Kabeer?’ The younger woman asked with horror written on her face.
‘What?’ Her heart missed a beat.
‘Police claims that Kabeer is the mastermind behind the blast…that he is a terrorist., he was never found after that blast…they say he is absconding or maybe killed by the police….’ Her voice trailed and stopped, heavy with unshed tears.
Smriti felt something break inside her. A screeching sound deafening her ears, something roaring around her…she got up, the chair hit the floor with the force, she turned towards the door, like a statue and walked out of the dilapidated house, leaving the women stunned , standing, staring at her going
She looked at the picture in her hands, hot tears burning behind her eyes, threatening to spill over, but she compressed her lips to control herself, staring at the picture of smiling Sahil in her hands, his brown eyes, so full of life and love…how could the same eyes be a part of someone whose aim is to hurt and kill? Whose ambition is to plant bombs and kill innocents in hundreds in the name of religion? Images of eyes full of hatred sizzled through her body and she shuddered with agony, at the thought of the killers eyes, once again, planning, plotting…
Keeping the framed picture on the side table in her bedroom, she sat down on her huge bed, its vast expanse seeming more vast tonight. She lay on her bed, her head resting on the fluffy pillows, a deep sigh wracking her body. She didn’t realize when the evening turned into deep dark, agonizing night. She kept twisting and turning, her sari, crushed around her, the bed sheets wet with her own hot sweat, a splitting headache throbbing at her temples, her whole body aching with some burning sensation as if she’s caught in a house enveloped with fire. She woke up a number of times during the night gasping for breath, getting up to gulp down ice cold water and then again flinging herself on the bed, images of horror wreaking havoc in her head, her son’s brown eyes closing slowly with pain with the shrapnel of the crude bomb piercing his heart, blood oozing out…the very same eyes full of ugly hatred distorting a faceless image…making her once again sit up and see around her, as if she couldn’t recognize her own room…
Next few days, she moved around the house like a zombie, behaving automatically, eating her meals without realising what she was eating, giving the right answers to her maid or driver, attending to phone calls and before she knew it was full one week.
She suddenly came out of her reverie one day sitting in her balcony and watching the sun setting…the reddish golden glow dappling the leaves of the tree right opposite her house…and then she came to a decision.
Anita was sitting looking at her with incredulity written all over her face.
‘You can’t be serious Smriti. It is terrible that Sahil’s eyes have been donated to a terrorist. But it is absolutely preposterous that you are contemplating to look for him. How can you even think of such a ridiculous idea!’
‘Unless I meet the person, I am not ready to believe that he is indeed a terrorist.’ Her voice came out weak and unconvincing even to her ears.
‘Come on Smriti. The intelligence agency has found enough evidence against him. The media is splashed of articles and images of his involvement. And above all, why are we even getting into this discussion for god’s sake. How are we…I mean you going to trace this absconding guy? Have you even thought of that?
‘I will do it. Believe me. Just tell me that you will support me.’ Smriti looked at her beseechingly.
‘God, I can’t believe that at your age, you can be so unreasonable. A guy who the police and the intelligence agency can’t catch, you imagine will come running into your lap just because his eyes belonged to your son’s??’ Anita’s voice had a harsh tone to it.’
Smriti had nothing more to say. She knew she will not get any help from here. She just stopped talking and felt Anita’s voice going farther and farther away…as if coming from a long tunnel…she had dissociated herself from the entire scene and was watching it from outside, her head bowed, her hands lying limply in her lap, Anita’s expressive hands trying to reason out with her, her face full of concern and agitation…the voice going farther away…where she could not hear anything.
Her decision was made.
The clippings were all strewn on the dining table, her hands impatiently sifting through them. Most of them were one year old clippings from newspapers, the sketches of Kabeer released by every news paper, interview bytes of his mother saying she was sure he wasn’t involved in the blast, eyewitnesses vouching for seeing him around the area on a black motor bike with one pillion rider, later injured and treated at the local government hospital and in police custody. There were interviews of the intelligence people who claimed that he was the mastermind. There were also clippings of reports of him being absconding from hospital despite tight security. The last article was six months old. No latest update on him and his whereabouts. This left Smriti with absolutely no clue of what he was doing these days, or where he might be. There were a few articles linking him to an obscure new Jihadi group, which had been gradually spreading its wings in the Indian sub continent.
Smriti’s fingers lifted the report of Kabeer’s family’s interview. She looked at the faded black and white image of the old lady, with agitation written all over her face, even with such incriminating evidence a mother refused to believe that her son could do such heinous crimes…Smriti’s thoughts went towards that fateful meeting with Kabeer’s family, the dilapidated house, the narrow alleys, dark and suffocating..
She knew she had to visit those alleys once again.
Her feet this time had a heavy feel, as if she was dragging them on the road. She hadn’t taken a rickshaw but preferred to walk down the 1 kilometre road, jostling with lorries, pedestrians, cars, tongas etc. It was little before dusk, and she could hear the azaan from the turreted mosques hidden behind old faded buildings, the loudspeakers reverberating in the air, the fresh smell of sevaiyan and firnee, mixing with the sounds and smells of the heavy traffic.
Before her hands could hit at the thick door of the ground floor house, the door opened and there stood Kabeer’s sister. It seemed as if she knew she was coming or maybe had seen her from the windows. She had felt the curtains move slightly but was not sure.
‘Why are you here again? My mother will not like it.’ The girl said with panic in her voice.
‘I am not here to harm you or your family. I still want to meet Kabeer.’ She tried in a reasonable voice.
‘We have nothing to do with Kabeer anymore. We don’t know where he is, what he is doing, or whether he is even alive…’ The girl’s voice trailed away.
‘I am sure he is alive. I’ve read a lot about him and I just need a bit of your help to trace him.’
‘There is no need to talk to this woman. Just tell her to go away. We can’t help her.’ A harsh voice said from inside. Smriti recognized the voice as Kabeer’s mother.
When Smriti tried to enter, the young lady stopped her and blocked the doorway. Smriti felt helpless and frustrated. This whole thing was becoming absolutely difficult for her.
She tried once again, ‘I just need his phone number. I will talk to him and get in touch with him, or maybe someone else’s number who can help me trace him. I assure you I will not leak the information. I am not from media and I have nothing to do with police or …’
‘Tell her to go away.’ The lady’s now very stern voice shouted from inside. Smriti could detect certain amount of unleashed pain in that command. She had no alternative but to turn around and leave with heavy heart. She reached the car, about to get into it with her hands on the car door, she felt a soft hand on her shoulders. She turned around and saw a young, concerned face of a woman, she hadn’t met before. Clad in a light blue salwar kurta, with the dupatta folded very neatly on her bosom, she had long hair, in a single plait thrown over her shoulder.
Smriti looked at her questioningly, about to ask who she was when she said, ‘Hello, Ma’am, I want to help you. I am Kabbeer Mamu’s niece. I can help you find Kabeer Mamu.’
‘Really? Do you have his contact number?’ Smriti suddenly felt an unknown sense of happiness.
‘Yes, but it would be difficult for you to get in touch with him. He will not talk to unknown people.’
‘Then how can I get in touch with him?’
‘You will have to go and meet him at his hiding place. But I need a promise from you that you will not let anyone know about this, or else, I won’t be able to help you if anything goes wrong with you.’
‘Do you think he is a terrorist?’
‘I don’t think anything. I just know that your motive is not to catch him, and I sympathise with you. Just do not let anyone know.’ saying this, she thrust a slip of paper in her hands and ran before Smriti could ask her anything else. Puzzled, she spread the crumpled slip of paper in her hands.
The slip of paper was fast getting withered and torn because of the number of times she had looked at it, and folded it. The address that was written was of some area in the outskirts of Delhi...It read 3 Masjidwali Gali, Godown Number 2, Chhattarpur. Though Smriti did not know this area, she somehow had a vague idea and she decided to go there today after night fall.
Clad in a cotton sari and simple slippers, Smriti paid the autowala and got down at the appropriate address. Before she could change her mind out of this preposterous idea of meeting Kabeer, she started walking away from the suspicious autowala. The area was shrouded in darkness and she could see old houses lining the street, with thick trees casting ominous shadows. This area was much beyond the farm houses, with deserted land behind the houses. Clutching the address slip to herself, she started walking slowly, peering at the house numbers. A huge structure suddenly loomed large, with a rickety gate, the latch held together by a thick chain. It didn’t seem as if anyone lived there. Godown Number 2 was written on a slightly faded wooden plank, dangling from the gate. She spotted a smaller gate and tried to push it. It didn’t budge. She was about to push the main gate, when suddenly she was pushed from behind, a hand covered her mouth and dragged her inside now open smaller gate. Before she could protest, a dark burly figure covered totally except his eyes, pointed a gun at her. Smriti felt blood draining out of her body with shock and fear. She had not thought of this! She tried to speak but not a word came out of her mouth. Seconds ticked, sweat trickled from her temples, seeping her neck and sari. The man suddenly pushed the gun at her bosom and asked in a harsh voice.
‘Are you from the Press?’
Smriti found her voice, ‘No No, I have come to meet Kabeer.’
‘Kabeer? Who are you?’
‘My son died in the blast recently. And his eyes were donated to Kabeer in the hospital. I just want to meet him once.’
‘What? Do you think we are going to believe this stupid story? You are from Intelligence.’
Before Smriti could say anything, a deep voice said from the darkness, ‘Jamal, let her come inside.’
‘But Bhai…this old lady could be a spy…’
‘Let her come in.’ Smriti could detect command in the voice from the darkness.
A cloth band was tied hastily and roughly around her eyes as if the person doing that was angry, and she was pushed not too gently towards the house .Her feet could feel the dust of the ground, then stumbled on a few steps that she had to climb and then she was unceremoniously pushed into a somewhat broken chair and her hands tied quickly to the hand rests. As the eye band was snatched open, Smriti’s eyes adjusted to the semi darkness of the dusty, empty room. She tried to peer into the darkness and could see bare, chipped walls, paint coming off at many places, the windows were all closed and sealed with long wooden planks nailed at various places, and finally her eyes adjusted to the semi darkness and she could see three men, all toting threatening guns, all clad in dark chaddars over what looked like denims and dusty sneakers. One medium height, slightly stocky built man separated himself from the group and came towards her.
‘Your son’s eyes, you say?’
Smriti could just nod, as she felt a sharp jolt of fear on seeing the scarred face of the man in front of her. But beyond that she could not see much of his eyes.
‘Are you Kabeer?’
‘Bhai, I think she’s trouble, We will have to finish her before her party comes and finishes us all. ‘I smell something fishy.’
The man standing in front of her raised his hand to silence him and continued looking at Smriti.
‘What will you do if you meet Kabeer?
The man asked with a stillness in his voice.
Smriti could not think of anything to say. She opened her mouth and then closed it again. Her throat too clogged with emotion. She felt her whole body shudder with the realization, that she had absolutely no answer to this question.
‘I just want to see his face.’ She said with tear clogged voice.
She saw the man’s face twist with a smile.
The man bent before her. But before he could say anything, suddenly there was some noise outside and some gun shots hit the blocked windows of the room. The men ducking swiftly to ward off any shots coming into the room. There was a great ruckus after that.
‘I told you Bhai, this woman is from the police or the Intelligence. We should have killed her immediately.’ The harsh-voiced man shouted.
Smriti suddenly found her voice, ‘No Kabeer, it’s not true. No one knew about this except your niece who had given me your address. Believe me.’
The guy who she thought was Kabeer looked at her in the darkness, then suddenly he shouted something at his men which she couldn’t much make out. He took out a long knife and came towards her. Smriti’s eyes dilated with fear and a scream was about to come out of her when she saw him slashing the ropes that had tied her to the chair.
‘We are in an encounter, Madam. This is OUR Jihad. You can go if you wish.’
There was a flash of light outside the house, and suddenly Smriti saw the eyes on the scarred face. Deep set, close to his nose, thick lashed brown eyes, burning with an expression she could not recognize, looking at her for just a second then pushing her heavily so that she fell down. A gun shot went past her hitting the chair she was sitting on. Then she heard sounds of running feet and recognized Kabeer running out of the room.
Smriti did not know how long she had been lying low on the floor, she only remembered cowering down on the dusty floor, covering herself with her sari, pushing the pallu deep in her mouth, her body shuddering every time she heard the rat-tat-tat of the gunshots, every time someone screamed and fell down in the house with a thud till there was an eerie silence all around her.
She was about to get up when the door was thrashed open and a searchlight shone on her and a voice commanded everyone coming inside to stop. She blinked at the light that was glaring in her face and got up.
‘Please help me get up.’ Smriti said weakly. From the tone of the officer’s voice she could guess that he was trying to understand how come a lady like her could be in this place amongst the terrorists. There was a gentleness in the way the officer held her hand and helped her get up. He knew that she was not a part of the gang.
She had been helped by one of the commandoes and escorted down the stairs now strewn with broken glasses, shards of wood, portions of the building and blood soaked dead bodies. Smriti stepped over all of them and reached the haven of a police jeep waiting outside. As she was about to sit inside the vehicle, she turned around and saw the commandoes bringing out the bodies. She stopped for a moment. Her eyes searching someone in the darkness. Trying to spot the man who had saved her...see a pair of brown eyes just once .Then the moment passed. And she found herself sitting and being driven away, her head lolling on the seat with exhaustion, her eyes closing slowly and she fell into deep slumber as if she hadn’t slept for years.