It was perhaps one of the only times when your own heartbeat was not reassuring. Under the sky so blue it would pierce your eyes, bluer than the color of his very eyes, he felt life slowly leave his limbs. If Ali were any younger, younger by just a day, he would have let his fear seep from out of his body, and onto his shorts – a shameful act of being what they called human. But he couldn’t do that. Only yesterday, had Ali become a man of 11 years. He knew it so well because his mother had taken him to the shrine of Makhdoom Saeb and pronounced him a man henceforth. He had returned home older, more responsible, suddenly. The heart that was in him was impudent, beating – fast – despite his many admonitions; it would give him away.
It was not a day where anyone, let alone the beloved Ali, should have fallen on the ground. Ali, the pride and joy of his parents, who would get an education and get them out of poverty. He had the eyes that demanded respect, even though they were a child’s eyes. This morning, he had woken up particularly early because they had announced on TV that it was going to be a hot day and he wanted to take a bath before going to school. He was that child – wanting to better himself for others’ happiness, however childlike that thought might have been. Others should feel happy when they look at me, he thought. Sacrificing an hour of sleep, he awoke, and turned on the geyser to heat the water up. In Kashmir, it was silly to think of taking a cold bath, even in summer months.
Before he dressed, Ali powdered himself up, and one could still see the white dust above the collar of his shirt. Perhaps he had done that on purpose, to let people know that he was clean and powdered. He wouldn’t know what the day would bring for him, despite all his carefulness. One last look in the mirror, he told himself. He was 11, Ali, and quite short for his age, but he did not mind that so much – it meant he got to stand in front of the assembly line at school. His white button-down shirt, part of his school uniform, was ironed to perfection, unlike some of his peers’, and his shorts just touched his knees. He was a good kid, he genuinely believed so. And he had to be; he did not know from where he got this idea, but he wanted to be the one who would bring his family out of poverty – not his brother, nor his sister. Him.
He walked by the same set of houses he always did, read the same posters on the electricity poles he always did – that freedom was near. He couldn’t see it yet. But something was off about that day. Anxious, he began reviewing in his head the material for the English test his teacher was sure to give today. But, for some reason, his anxiety never went away. This was unlike Ali. He was usually just the right amount of confident, and for good reason, too. Ali would always study for his tests, he would remember to go to the kandur at 5 pm each day to bring bread for the evening tea. He never forgot to turn off the geyser after his bath, and never left his window open after the sun set for mosquitoes and spirits alike to enter.
His school was not too far away from home, so he walked. He saw Saleem on the way. Saleem was a youth who was incurably sick in his mind, or so the elders told him. He would ask everyone who would listen to buy him a movie ticket. He did not – could not – understand the cinema halls had long been closed.
“Yes, Saleem, after I come back from school, I will get you a ticket.”
Ali said a quick goodbye because he was always scared of offending Saleem or frightening him.
“I will wait for my ticket,” he shouted as Ali sped past.
Ali’s mother was beautiful, one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. As he was walking, his mind went to her struggles. Rifat had always had a smiling face – people said that was the reason why she had developed her smile lines so early on in life. Her small hands had hardened from washing in the cold water, and then his mind wandered to how she would only buy cheap fabric from the road-side stalls for her dresses. There was a feeling of comfort she carried which Ali could not quite explain, maybe she had dreams as well – what kind of dreams, it was a secret to all but herself. Her beautiful face would always smile; his dutiful heart would always beat.
At the turn, there was some sort of a water body. Common knowledge has it that this used to be a part of the Dal Lake, and an echo of the old glory remained, but to Ali, this was just the water in front of his school, unceremonious, not given a grand title of a forgotten inheritance. But at this turn, on this day, everything went wrong. His school was a few footsteps away, he could see his classroom windows on the second floor from where he was standing. But the road was barricaded, and several men in uniform, looking grossly out of place, and really, stupid in their self-importance, walked about. He did not care for this, and decided to take the much longer route to his classroom. Vexation, at her best.
One of the uniformed men, a tall thing of twenty-five or so, was standing in the self-imposed solitude of his bunker. Ali saw him lodge a mighty finger into his nostril and go at it with a warrior’s determination. It was a surprise that a finger that fat could fit into his nose. The nostril started to swell immediately on impact, and made way, accommodating the mammoth digit. Indeed, the man in uniform was so fixated on the task that it was only a few seconds later that he saw Ali looking. Shamed by his own blurring of the public and the private, he thought it appropriate to take it out on the child. Before he knew it, Ali was thrown onto the ground by a slap that would go on to hurt his cheek for days.
“Hasta hai?” the man in uniform asked, “will you laugh at me?”
Ali was, at this point, more annoyed than scared. He had made it a point to leave home early so he would reach school before time. But now, not only was he going to be late, but his uniform – his angelic white – had become almost as dusty and devilish as his aggressor’s. He tried in vain to explain that he wasn’t laughing, it was like talking to a wall, a boundary, a barbed wire, an inanimate division. A kick to the stomach. He could see nothing but the man’s boots – big, perhaps too big for the wearer? Black, unnatural, they were a monstrosity, worn not to protect, but to hurt. He wondered if they hurt him, too. All these thoughts vanished and as his senses returned, he was able to feel the pain. His cheek was burning, and shame accompanied the sting. He was a good kid, he never received so much as a scolding, and now, here he was, on the ground, bloody and defeated. The man was saying something, but through the prison of his helmet, words came slow and thoughtless.
“ID dikha,” he demanded from the child, “show me your ID.”
Ali’s hand went involuntarily to his breast pocket, where he, where every man, every boy, kept the proof of his being. He was. He existed. He could prove it. But he only heard a sorry beating of his heart instead – fast, eager to please – this was a boy’s heart.
In a moment of inexplicable fear, he realized that the piece of paper that made him who he was, was not there. He had forgotten it at home. It came back to him in torrents – he had taken his ID out the previous night – he washed his shirts every two days, but ironed them every night. Before ironing, he had removed his ID card, and kept it safely on an inverted glass in the kitchen.
“ID,” he yelled. It would be long before he knew that this word would echo in his ears for the years to come – perhaps all his life. Ali did not have his ID, he was not there, not him; a mass of bone and skin took his place. That day, Ali missed his English test. He did not buy bread at 5 pm, and there was nobody to close the window at sundown. It was the first of many.
Maumil is a writer from Kashmir, and currently, she is studying Conflict Transformation and Peace Building at the Lady Shri Ram College for Women where she is researching Material Memories of Conflict. She also graduated as the Valedictorian of the International Writing Program, hosted by the Iowa University. She can be reached at her email firstname.lastname@example.org