“Sister, you will have to come with me,” The man said. Aamina looked at her. Her chin trembled, but she couldn’t speak.
“For legal formalities. To have the body for last rites.”
What could Aamina respond with? Her world had just shattered. She had lost her son, her handsome son. She motionlessly looked at the gate with an empty stare.
“I am sorry for your loss.” The man sat down on the ground, giving her time to grieve.
After ten minutes of empty stare, tears began to roll down her cheeks. Her face turned pale but she hadn’t spoken a word yet.
“Shall we go?” The man asked.
Aamina gave her a look of disgust and got up. The tears continued to flow down the motionless eyes. Of her hunched shoulder the worn out scarf came down and holes were completely visible. She walked like a mad woman, returning from a lost war.
The unknown man drove her through apple orchards, military garrisons, and rice fields. Aamina, sitting in the backseat, was now shaking with sobs. She wanted to tell herself that it was all a dream. That this was a fake story and it was not real. She couldn’t help but think that the person she had always dreamt of seeing in white apron, she would only see him in a coffin now.
Fifteen minutes later they were at the district police headquarters. The last time she had been here was when her husband had died. All her life the only thing that came out of these yellow walls was misery.
When Aamina tried to get down of the vehicle she couldn’t find the right button to press. She tried once but failed. She tried another time but couldn’t do it the right way. When she failed again, she slapped herself and cried like a fanatic.
“I will no more complain about anything. Please return back.” She wailed.
The stranger came and left the door open for her. Aamina cried for sometime and then without anyone asking for it she came down. But once she touched the ground, she collapsed. The two policewomen standing nearby came to her rescue.
“Take me to my son, please.” She told them.
The policewomen walked her to a place where three body bags were lying on the ground. Few officers were already present there. One of the officers greeted her with a fake half-smile and ordered the body bag to be opened. A constable began the unzipping process. Aamina at once closed her eyes, her heart raced. She could imagine dead Sajid lying in the body bag.
When the unzipping sound stopped, it took Aamina great courage to open her eyes. On seeing the body she exclaimed, “It’s not him!”
The officer signaled the constable to open the next once. Aamina’s short lived happiness vanished. She fell silent and her heart raced again. The second body bag was opened too. It wasn’t him either. When the constable reached the third body bag, Aamina’s hands covered her face. Her heart raced faster than before. Her eyes had already started to cry.
It wasn’t him again. Aamina let out a wail, a sigh and a smile. The officer standing there looked at the constable and the constable looked back at him. Both puzzled. In the mean time, two men walked to them.
“Amma?” A voice very familiar to Aamina called out.
The other one wearing a police uniform informed, “Sir, The militant called the wrong number. Maybe he lost his mother’s number and while trying to remember it he redialed it with a wrong digit. It was not his mother he talked to. The militant is not her son. He is.” He said pointing to Sajid who stood behind her Aamina.
Aamina always redid her red scarf twice when someone knocked at the door. She would stand in front of a broken mirror and make sure that all the holes in the scarf are hidden beneath the several folded layers. She didn’t own many pairs like most women in their village did. Occasionally she would buy one on the Eid but after her son joined a coaching academy in Srinagar she had to put halt to all her affordable luxuries. Her husband, Masood, a carpenter by profession had died five years ago. He was working on a building as high as the only mobile tower in their area when an encounter broke out and a stray bullet hit him. He may have survived the bullet but couldn’t survive the fall. After that it was Aamina’s hard earned money and little help from her poor brothers that helped her only son, Sajid, to continue his education.
Aamina worked every place that offered her a job. She did manual labour, apple plucking and household chores to earn for her son’s education. Many women of the village criticized her for talking up the jobs that were meant for men but Aamina never felt ashamed. She believed that every drop of her sweat was as important as Sajid’s tireless study. Aamina had always dreamt of seeing her son becoming a doctor. You would often find her complimenting Sajid for his looks, intelligence and hard work. She would die happily after seeing her son in white apron, she would tell other women.
Sajid, on the other hand, was a bright student. Except for a year or two, after the tragic death of his father, he did exceptionally well in academics. His teachers at the government school always complimented him for his intelligence. Even a peer (saint) had once told Aamina that he could foresee her son becoming a doctor. It had made Aamina so happy that she gave him a bowl full of rice that could have lasted for a month otherwise.
Educated people of the village, only a handful though, respected Aamina. Despite all her hardships she had single-handedly managed to send her son to school and after that to a reputed coaching institute in Srinagar where to even the rich families of the village hesitated to send their kids. And even Aamina herself behaved like a well learnt person, she would never talk about financial or other family problems in front of Sajid. The only thing they both talked about was his education. Aamina was a dedicated parent too. It was the fruit of her dedication that Sajid could survive costly coaching for two complete years. But not a lot was left in Srinagar for him anymore. The coaching classes were over and in two days he was going to appear in NEET exams. After that he would return home.
The mighty NEET left Aamina more nervous than Sajid. She spent many nights sleeplessly. Sometimes during the night she would think of calling him. But then instantly drop the idea. She had not called him for a whole week. She knew how crucial the time was for him. She instead would get up and perform ablution. After that she would pray two rakats for Sajid’s success.
A day before NEET exams, while Aamina was busy preparing lunch for herself the phone rang. An unknown number flashed on the screen. Since Aamina was already running late for work she didn’t pick it up. The phone rang again, then again and again. Aamina, fed up with rings, finally picked up.
“Walaikum asalam.” Aamina replied hesitatingly. She was not a big fan of talking of strangers.
“How are you, Amma?” He sounded like Sajid—a medium pitch and slow speed, the most beautiful voice tone Aamina knew.
Aamina remembered Sajid once talking about some changes in human body that made people sound different. She had herself witnessed Hakeem Sahab’s youngest son sounding completely different the other day.
“I am good, my angel. How are you? Why does your voice sound a little distorted?” She asked, the hesitating voice now turning cheerful.
“Good, too. I have not slept for days, Amma, maybe that is why I sound a little off.” He responded calmly.
Wise people talk calmly, Aamina told herself
“Tomorrow is your big day, love. Make sure to have a good sleep tonight. It’s important.”
“Yes I will, Amma. I will sleep well. I have called to seek your blessings and prayers.”
“You always have my blessings and prayers. I pray for you more than I do for myself. My Lord will grant you success.”
“Amma, please forgive me if things don’t go well.” Sajid’s voice broke a little.
Like always Aamina came to his rescue. She faked a chuckle and began, “My angel, I am nervous and scared too, even when it’s you who will be facing it. But you know what its okay to be a little scared sometimes. Giving your hundred percent is all a person can do, rest is up to Allah. We should submit ourselves to his will.”
“I know.” Sajid said in a voice calmer than before. “Please make a lot of prayers for me. I would need them. Please Amma.”
“You know son money doesn’t matter in life, what matters is satisfaction. If you are satisfied with how much you have worked, you will feel happiness even in the loss and so would I. Son, you are a world to me and nothing is ever going to change that. It doesn’t matter where you are, at what rank you are, you will always be the prince of my life, the light of my eyes. Please don’t forget that.”
Sajid took some deep breathes, “Wish me luck. Also pray that I overcome this with the will of Allah.”
“Allah bless you my child.”
“Stay strong.” Sajid said. There was some noise and the call disconnected. Aamina had wasted five minutes of the time she was supposed to work on Hakeem Sahab’s orchard. She quickly packed her lunch and rushed to her work place.
Later that night, lying down on the floor, Aamina closed her eyes and thought what special dish she could afford for Sajid’s homecoming. Sajid was returning home tomorrow after three months of stay in Srinagar. But the firing at some distant village ruined her concentration. Encounters had become a new common in the area she lived.
Miraculously Aamina fell asleep that night. The next day she skipped work and stayed home to pray for his son. She prayed continuously from 10 am to 2 pm. 2 pm was the time when the exam ended. After that she quickly ran to kitchen and began preparing Yakni for Sajid who would be home in an hour. They would then have a lunch together.
An hour later there was knocking at the door. Aamina knew it was Sajid but for the sake of surprises she redid her scarf twice and opened the door.
A tall, plain shaved man with hint of moustaches stood by the door. Aamina quickly covered her face.
The man greeted and Aamina responded with a nod.
“I want to talk about something. Is there a male member in your family?” the man asked straightaway.
“There is none. It’s just me.”
“If it’s not too much to ask, can I get a glass of water first?”
Aamina nodded and walked back to kitchen. From the corner of her eye she saw the stranger walking few steps back and making a phone call.
By the time Aamina returned from the kitchen, the man had retuned to the door.
“Thank you, sister.” He said holding the glass. “What I am going to tell you will come down hard at you. I don’t like to be the person breaks the news but it’s my job. So sister…” the man paused.
Aamina thought her brother might not have repaid his debts, like they did to everyone, so he came to complain.
“What has happened now?” Aamina asked. Yakni was still incomplete and Sajid would be home anytime, Aamina couldn’t stand him wasting her time.
“Your son who had joined militants is dead.”
The first thing Aamina wanted to do was to slap him hard for talking senseless. For a second she even thought of throwing him out of her house. She would have slapped or thrown him out but Sajid was coming home, she did not want him to be welcomed with a fight.
“He is not a militant or anything. I talked to him yesterday.” She told him instead.
“Yes. We know. We intercepted the call and that’s how we got here. You talked him into staying strong and calm for his big day, have a good night sleep and gave your blessings. The time he called you, he was surrounded by forces. We offered him a chance for surrender but he refused.”
Aamina didn’t believe him. Her head was filled with thousands of thoughts and before she could process anything the stranger started again.
“He joined militants only a week ago. I assume you were not in touch with him since last week. Were you?”
“He was busy with studies. So I never called. He called me yesterday and asked for forgiveness…”
The man looked at her without saying a word. Aamina realized what the words that just came out of her mouth meant. Her son was dead. Her only son. Her world turned dark. She dropped down on the floor with a thud. Her legs suddenly stopped supporting her body, her tongue rebelled too. She wanted to ask more but she couldn’t.