A Flag for Gulnaz

A Flag for Gulnaz, published in Asia Writes.

A Flag for Gulnaz

By Inderjeet Mani

Station stop in an hour,” Munir said, lighting up their last beedi. “At least there’ll be tea.”

Hell of a night,” Shafi said. “First the Titans chanting, then the brat bawling the whole time.”

Munir inhaled the smoke through the curl of his enormous fingers, and then handed the beedi to Shafi.

Truly the City of Evil,” Shafi said, stroking his beard. “A whole month wasted, stewing on the docks.”

The city had been a disappointment. There were supposed to be consignments coming off the ships, packages that Customs knew about, which they had to offload and transport by truck to Karapore. It was good money, and Munir had paid an informant in advance for the right information. The two men hung around the docks, waiting for the contact to appear, but the work never materialized. Eventually, they gave up, caught a local from the city, and then, at the border, hopped on the train to Saridabad.

Now, under the blue night light, people were still asleep. The infant who had kept them up was slumbering on its mother’s belly, a black dot on its forehead. The woman slept sitting up, a clay pot nestled between her feet. She wore a silk salwar kamiz that rose and fell with her breathing, her sleepy half-smile reminding Shafi of Gulnaz, his wife. Gulnaz was now heavy with age and carried herself about wearily in their two-room home in Saridabad, but there were still times when she would forget her troubles and the lack of a child and would become her old self, gazing at him with the smile and freshness of the Kashmiri beauty she once was.

At six, the sun rose in a grey haze. Trees appeared one after the other in the window like sentries, followed by a steady procession of men crossing the fields on bicycles. On the yellow walls of the police barracks, political slogans emerged, scrawled in red. The train passed over a bridge, its underbelly scuttling against planks. Then it entered an area littered with rusting iron plates along with the usual signs of human waste, and arrived at the station.

The vendors and beggars were already running beside the train, offering their wares with birdlike cries. Meanwhile, a mass of people were trying to get off, pushing against the ones who were climbing on.

The men who had been chanting during the night began folding their bed-sheets with a calm, military precision. There must have been twenty of them, all in flowing saffron robes, with streaks of white ash on their foreheads. One of them, a Titan with a dazzling gold necklace, stared at Shafi through bluish glasses.

Shafi glared back. The fanatics all had the same eyes, shining with the light of dangerous certainties. Back home, they would try and talk Gulnaz into sending him to the masjid to hear the latest babblings, but he had resisted successfully, for the message was garbled enough without the aid of interpreters.

The tea arrived. It was thick and sweet, with a hint of cloves, just like Gulnaz made it. As he drank, Shafi felt his energy coming back; he wanted to stand up to his full height, to stretch his arms out and feel his muscles straining, as he used to years ago when he worked as a dock hand, lifting sacks of rice and coal on his sweaty back.

It was on the dockside, by the hulk of a giant cargo vessel, that he had first met Munir. Munir had been a seaman, and would tell Shafi about the harbors he had seen, the river ports where Turkish merchants leaned down with their carpets from the doorways of vast warehouses. He spoke of the smell of fresh coffee in the streets where he drank and brawled with other sailors, and where women could be purchased from store windows.

Shafi and he had worked together for years, until the time came when the heavy lifting was taken over by cranes. Then Shafi had been without a job for a long time. He had still managed to get married, at the age of thirty-five; and with the little money that Gulnaz had brought, they had made their home in Saridabad.

The Titans began their prayers, ringing small bells as they recited ancient spells. They called out invocations to Ramos, blessing the dawn and the world. One started purifying his hands, pouring water from a brass pot. A few drops landed on Munir’s feet. Munir said nothing and went on reading his newspaper.

The whistle blew. One of the vendors, a boy no older than ten, came on board to collect tea glasses and money. He had close-cropped hair, and dark eyes with pale cheeks. Everyone ordered him about, but he seemed unperturbed, briskly digging into his pockets for the correct change. As he handed the coins to the Titan with thick glasses, their hands touched.

Hands off, pig meat!” the Titan said, raising his arm.

Fuck off, gandu!” the boy called back, dodging the blow.

The Titan turned to the compartment. His eyes flickered towards Munir and Shafi.

Observe how these cow slaughterers speak to us! Today just a boy, but tomorrow, who knows, a fucking terrorist.”

He leaned close, and then quickly kicked the boy in the crotch.

The boy rolled on the floor, clutching himself and howling. The Titan followed it up with a kick to the mouth.

Leave him alone!” Shafi said, shoving the men roughly aside. The other Titans gathered around.

Munir approached them.

What’s the trouble?” he asked. He scratched himself lazily.

The men backed away, muttering to themselves, and Shafi brought the boy over to sit with him and Munir. He took out a soiled handkerchief and wiped the boy’s mouth.

The baby with the black dot woke up. It looked up at the boy and burped.

Just then, the train lurched to a stop.

Where the hell are we?” Munir asked.

Shafi looked out, and saw that they were at a small way station with an equipment shed. A narrow dirt road ran behind the station, stretching away towards a dusty hill.

Two conductors in faded blue uniforms climbed down slowly and walked along the train, smoking. Shafi called out to them, but they ignored him.

After half an hour’s wait, a cloud of dust appeared on the hill. It grew bigger, and as it came down the dirt road, it changed into a convoy of motorcycles. There were a dozen in all, coming down the road like wound-up toys, their engines spluttering. They drew to a stop at the station, where people climbed down from their vehicles, and then there was shouting and a fellow with an extravagant hairdo climbed into the compartment. He was thin and scrawny, wore shiny black shoes without laces or socks, and his face was clean-shaven, his hair glistening with pomade. He eyed the Titans, and then spotted the tea boy, whose cheek had an ugly blue welt, and shook his head.

You kafirs must be pleased,” he said. “First you destroy our masjid, and now you thrash our children!”

It is you,” the Titan with glasses said, “who kidnap and rape our women.”

State your business,” Munir said, “and then fuck off.”

The fellow with the hairdo cupped a hand to his ear, as if he was having trouble hearing. Then he shook his head again, as if talking to himself. “When will it all end? It makes me sad. Very sad indeed.”

He gave a half-smile, and then quickly emptied the contents of a green plastic can on the floor. Two more young men with cans got on, but they were intercepted by Munir, who caught them by their jaws and flung them out, as Shafi launched himself at the fellow with the hairdo. He grabbed hold of his neck, which felt thin like a chicken’s. But there were more of them clambering on, and one of them struck Shafi in the temple with a metal pipe, and Shafi fell. The fellow with the hairdo sprang free and lit a match before hopping out, dragging the tea boy after him. There was a whooshing sound as the petrol caught fire. The flames rose up, the mother screaming as her child began to burn.

Munir!” Shafi shouted, but a wall of fire held him at bay. He jumped out just in time to see a mass of black and orange seething in the fire. Then the entire coach exploded. A cheer went up from the platform.

A crowd of young men with petrol cans approached Shafi.

Let him live,” someone said quietly. “You’d be slaughtering a fellow believer.”

* * *

The crowd was bounding along in the bright sunlight, ripping down the alleys with their shuttered shops. A thousand legs were collectively tearing down the street, a flurry of men waving flags and moving as one, their exuberance making them break into song, a chorus from an old anthem from the fight for freedom. They sang of how ordinary people had come together and flung off the imperial yoke, and of a glorious day when no man or woman would live in dishonor. They swung their arms as they sang, their bodies pressing against each other, skin to sweaty skin.

Shafi could hear them chanting from his bed. He had arrived home after midnight and then stayed up, his forehead throbbing and his teeth chattering. Now he wanted to scream out to Munir, but his tongue was silent.

His tongue was also silent when he tried to whisper the most high and holy name.

It was silent and had shriveled into an inert lump when he thought of the men in saffron.

Gulnaz came in, formidable in flowing silk.

Eat,” Gulnaz said. She wiped his face with her handkerchief, then helped him sit up.

He stared at the lumpy dhal and the single withered chapatti. The sight of it disgusted him.

What day is it?” His throat felt raw as he heard himself speak.

Thursday. Have you lost track of time?” Gulnaz’s voice was dull, even sullen, as if she had been beaten.

Shafi pushed away the food, and lay back on his pillow.

Gulnaz dabbed the lump on his forehead with her handkerchief. As she tucked it back into her waist, she shook her head. “You leave me for a month, and then come back like a beaten dog? How could this happen?”

He closed his eyes, and felt as if he was slipping into a daydream, his fingers brushing through water. Then he heard the swelling chant of the crowd; it reminded him of the creaking and groaning of a branch in the wind. Splotches of light appeared on the inside of his eyelids, and for a drowsy moment he thought that sleep had come to relieve his sadness; instead, the light grew brighter, and he felt as if a shaft was being driven through him. The pain mounted, and then he wanted to be lifted up and flung into a crackling fire, for fire was what he deserved, he needed to burn like Munir, whose face now appeared above the flames, his eyes severe with warning; and then other faces came crowding, the mother and her wailing baby, their heads suspended upside-down, and behind them a swarm of ashen-faced followers of Ramos, silently mouthing their incantations in the smoke, and piled above them, hordes of other souls.

Then the faces faded away, and as the pain subsided, his mind started to wander. He thought bitterly of Gulnaz’s constant haranguing about finding a job. He had lost his temper with her so many times in their quarter-century of married life, especially when she grew sullen after losing the child in her seventh month; and yet there she was now moving towards the window, her soul light and free under her worn garments. He watched her draw the blue curtain, her head shaking slowly, and remembered how inseparable they had been at first, and how he would smother himself in her rose-petal fragrance. Things of beauty passed so swiftly, and joy, it seemed, always came twinned with sorrow.

The procession was approaching, full of fanfare. There were shouts and hoots, and then someone banged on the door. He felt a pang of terror, but quelled it swiftly.

Gulnaz’s eyes grew wide, as the banging became louder.

Shame on you — how can you just lie there!”

She tried to prop their rickety dining table up against the door. Shafi watched her struggling, but found himself riveted to the bed.

She called him a coward, and other names. Then she started to pray.

Cease your praying, Gulnaz! Prayers bring nothing but trouble.”

It was only when the door was bashed in that he managed to free himself. He stepped to the entrance just in time to stop a group of men from barging in. Among them were ragged strangers, people from bus-stops and street corners, as well as the clerk from the municipality, with a red streak down his forehead.

“That’s him all right,” the Clerk said. “The katwa swine who was at the station with the other extremists.”

“Bugger off,” Shafi told him. He muscled towards him, hoping to knock out his yellow teeth, which were sharp and matched the color of his bush-shirt. But two others barred the way.

Shafi noticed, with some surprise, the storekeeper Hiren, who seemed embarrassed.

Hiren,” Shafi said, sizing him up. “What are you up to now? Tired of putting stones in the rice?”

Leave them be,” Hiren said, turning to the others. “They’re harmless. The bitch is a regular at my shop.”

The Clerk stared at Gulnaz, who was already weeping. “Bitch or not, it is important for her people to learn, so they will never forget.”

Shafi heard an animal cry, and he flew towards the man grabbing hold of Gulnaz. A blade flashed near his face. His heart was pounding too hard for his own good.

Here, let me take care of that.”

Shafi saw the man cradling Gulnaz’s head for an instant, his coarse palms against her ears and neck. He tried to scream, but all that issued was a groan, for they had sliced off his tongue. Gulnaz thrashed her arms and legs, but Shafi could no longer hear anything, and his sight became blurry. Then the Clerk took a knife from his belt and slit Gulnaz’s throat. She twitched some more, after which she was stabbed again, and became still.

As Hiren would recall in his statement years later, the men then left the house and rejoined the crowd as it flowed on towards other targets, leaving the couple stranded on the floor. Hiren said that the woman had been a long-time customer at his shop, and that he had tried to save her. He said that while he could no longer reliably identify some of the perpetrators from photographs, he often had nightmares of the old man lying next to the bloodied body of his wife, a handkerchief, still white, tucked into her waist.

Journal of the Rossignol Expedition to Yunnan

Journal of the Rossignol Expedition to Yunnan, published in BLIP Magazine.