It was a rainy day in April.
Noonie stepped out of her school bus and looked across the lake. The naked bulbs on a line of houseboats stared back at her. “Now what?” they seemed to ask.
The clouds swathed the mountains. The wind punched, pushed, bent the trees across the road.
She had to row half a kilometre to reach her home: a houseboat. Hers was at the farther edge of the lake near the marshy land. Every day she rowed the small shikara to and fro across the lake. Sometimes, Gul kak, a neighbour, rowed her in case it rained. But that day, no one was in sight.
The shikara was tied to a wooden pole. She undid the rope and started to row; with her hand shivering, teeth chattering, and many hows passing her mind. How all her homework would be ruined; how Miss Jamila wouldn’t believe her; and what different kinds of punishment she will generously bestow on her: hitting with a ruler; keeping a pencil between her fingers and then squashing them with her big man-like hands…
“Oh, there will be endless days of misery at school,” she thought. “What if I go through the dark waters? No one will know. I won’t tell anyone.”
Dark waters was the part of the lake it was forbidden particularly for children to go to or even look at. It was a marshland with tall grass and stunted trees fenced by a barbed wire. A tiny vein of a water passed through the marshes. She had to go around it to reach her home but if she travelled through it, she would be home in minutes for sure.
All her life her family had discouraged her to paddle through that part of the lake.
“Djinns live there. The place is haunted,” Boaba had said.
“Once you step into the dark waters you may never be found again,” Ami had said.
“There is a gator-hole out there: alligators live there. Don’t be a fool and be their food,” Gul kak had warned.
No one from her family used that route, nor any of the neighbours except her father, whom she had seen coming from the tall grass, sometimes very late in the evening or sometimes when it rained.
Some days, she had seen a tiny flame flickering somewhere deep in the marshes. She had once or twice asked Abu about this. He denied it, saying, “I just went there to mend the barbed wire.”
She had often seen Boaba looking in the direction of the dark waters with tears in her eyes. The first time, she saw Boaba on the steps of the houseboat, frozen.
She had softly asked, “What is it Boaba? What is out there?”
And Boaba didn’t reply but kept looking in that direction without batting an eyelid. For a second, Noonie felt that Boaba had died. And she was seriously considering how to break this news to her parents, particularly Abu. Should she scream or go running and shrieking and hug her father? Then Boaba heaved a deep breath and Noonie was relieved.
She had noticed, whenever her father returned from the marshes, that his eyebrows were knitted, and he would hardly speak to anyone. She could hear him scream at his mother. He wouldn’t tell her stories on those particular nights or even peep in her room to check if all was well there.
She would often pray secretly that her father should never come to her room straight from the tall grass. She often pictured the kind of djinn that might accompany him. She could picture his eyes turning red, then white. She could picture him detaching his head from his body and smirking, “See? Fun, isn’t it?”
The place is haunted, she had concluded. No wonder he is so angry when he returns from there.
That day, in the rain, she had to make a choice: either face Miss Jamila or face the djinns and the alligators. She chose to face the djinns and the alligators.
She ducked under the barbed wire and rowed slowly through the marshland. Trees stood leaning both right and left: some green, some yellow. She recognised it as a floating garden. There were many in the lake and it seemed to be one. Though it looked unattended, as grass and weed had taken over.
Overhead the branches intertwined with boughs; the boughs mingled with stems; all was entangled.
Further up was a mound of dirt beside which were tiny shrubs.
Every sound: the rustling of trees; the shriek of a myena; the distant rumbling of the skies all startled her, yet she kept moving ahead. Water trickled down her spine and she couldn’t tell whether it was rain or sweat.
For some time, she held her breath and put the oar in and out of the water with great care, as if not to make any noise that might offend any djinn there. The water was not dark but she could see no alligator or even any indication of its presence: some footprints, or some carcass lying somewhere. Nothing. But the djinns could be there.
“You never know when one might show up hanging from the low branch of a tree and devour you. Keep alert,” she told herself.
It was so dark that it felt a different world in there: one that had shut itself and refused to open up. She felt the whole place frowning and telling her: how dare you come this way? Leave immediately or I will gobble you up along with your tiny shikara. Leave.
After what felt like forever, she was home. Safe but shivering.
She tossed her bag in the hallway and went straight to the kitchen where Boaba was puffing the hookah and flopped down into her lap. Even before anyone could ask her anything, she collapsed.
She was burning with fever.
When she came round, she was in her bed; darkness had fallen and a candle lit the room. Boaba was sitting beside her caressing her head and muttering a prayer. At either side of the bed sat her parents, Ami and Abu, looking distraught.
“How is my Noonie feeling now?” said Abu.
She smiled faintly.
“Nilofer,” Abu called her by her real name only when something serious was broached, “did you go into the dark waters? Gul kak saw you going in there.” Then he paused for a second as if to collect the words, the appropriate ones, to speak. Finally clearing his throat he said, “Did you… I mean if…”
Noonie interrupted him, “I saw something there. A foot. I saw a foot in a mound of dirt there.” She kept her eyes closed tight as if to wipe out the image from her mind forever.
A deep silence descended on the room: no one spoke, no one stirred. Ami clutched the end of her dupatta, put it over her mouth and scurried out of the room.
“That was… that is my brother there. It is his grave. Do not call it a mound of dirt, Nilofer. It is the rains… it washes away the soil.” Noonie looked at him with a look that said she did not understand a word he had said. He continued, ‘He was killed… martyred, and we buried him where they killed him.”
“They?” said Noonie in a feeble voice.
“Men in khaki, who else? The brutes. The foreigners. The invaders.”
Noonie now sat up leaning against the bed railing. “Never again go by that place. It is sacred to us.” He wanted to say something else but then decided against it. He leaned, kissed her forehead and left.
The rain had long stopped; the skies rumbled on.
Boaba kept her gaze fixed on the candle but she was looking at a faraway memory. “That day I was in the kitchen when I saw the men in khaki in the shikaras, surrounding a house. It was then, at that moment, I knew some battle was about to commence. Your mother was at her parents’ home, you were in her womb. And he was out in the garden. I tiptoed towards the door and signalled to him. He was sitting, tilling the soil but when he saw me he stood up and waved as if to ask, ‘What?’
“‘Stay where you are. Stay low. They are here,’ I mouthed each word without making a sound. He understood and lowered himself to the ground.
“The firing had started the moment I was at the doorstep signalling him. The battle continued all night long. I was alone in the house crouching under a bed.
“He didn’t come when the battle stopped in the morning. The building that housed the fighters was razed yet he didn’t return.”
After some pause Boaba said, “We found him, face down in the mud. He was gone… I saw him fall… first on his knees and then his face smashed against the mud. I thought nothing abnormal about his fall, then. We were all so scared those days. We tumbled all the time.
“I wanted them to bury him there, where he worked, and took his last breath, where he had had his last thoughts. I insisted.
“A stray bullet killed him.” After a long pause she said, almost in a whisper, “I… killed him.”
While Boaba was talking Noonie’s mind had drifted to some distant memories: she, her parents and sometimes a visiting cousin would sit together on the dark chilly nights of winter with only the light of a brass lantern to light up their room and listen to Boaba’s tales of ghosts: brahmbrahm-chok, pasikdar, waaywoff. How Boaba’s father had seen a pasikdar, a friendly ghost with a face like his; how her sisters had seen brahmbrahm-chok, a wandering ghost with a lamp on its head in the nearby woods. Then there were stories about waaywoff: she calls your name late in the evening and anyone who responds to her call disappears. She took them to mountains no humans had seen. Then there were tales of how some of their neighbours had seen pasikdar in their attic, where things kept falling on their own, doors opening and closing on their own.
Those were the kind of tales Boaba used to tell her when the power was out for hours or sometimes days.
But not something like this. “I would have preferred one with a djinn or an alligator,” Noonie sighed.
All this time Boaba was talking but Noonie could catch just few words or one sentence.
“That was Zaffer, my elder son. Your father.”
“Father? But Abu is my father.”
The candle burned low; its light began to quiver. All that was left of it was a clump of wax with a wilted wick. Soon the wick drooped and dissolved in its own wax.
Noonie and Boaba were left in darkness.
Nurat Maqbool can be reached at email@example.com