By Krishan Chander ♦
It was the month of April. The branches of the almond trees were laden with flowers and, despite an icy nip in the air, a mild trace of spring had arrived. In the velvety doob grass beneath the lofty peaks above, bits of snow were visible, blooming here and there like white flowers. By the next month, these white blossoms would be absorbed into the grass, and the grass would turn a deep, dark green. On the branches of the almond trees, raw green almonds would flash like topaz gems. And the mist would gradually recede from the azure mountain faces. Across the bridge over the lake, the familiar baaing of sheep, kicking up the dust of the footpath. Then, all summer long, under those tall and lofty peaks, the shepherds would sing as they sheared the sheep of their thick, heavy wool, fattened all through the winter.
However it was now the month of April. The new leaves had not yet burst forth on the peaks [/tung trees]. An icy veil still hung over the mountains. The heart of the footpath didn’t yet hum with the sounds of sheep. Simal Lake was not yet brightened by lamp-like lotuses. The lake’s dark green waters kept concealed within its breast a thousand splendours, which with the onset of spring would suddenly ripple across its surface like laughter, innocent and pure. Buds were just starting to glint in the branches of the almond trees on both sides of the bridge. It was April, on the last dawn of winter, when the heralds of spring, the almond blossoms, awaken and send their petals swimming on the waters of the lake: sweet little boats that dance on the water’s surface and tremble in anticipation of the arrival of spring.
I had come via the forest side of the bridge, and I had been waiting a long time for her. The third watch of the day was over. Evening had fallen – the houseboats going to Wular Lake passed under the stony arches of the bridge. And now they appeared on the horizon like paper boats, delicate and insubstantial. The crimson colour of the evening crept from one side of the sky to the other, slowly changing from crimson to kohl and from kohl to pitch black — until the footpath, too, lay in repose, in the shelter of the line of almond trees. And then, out of the dead stillness of the night, the first star suddenly shone forth, like some traveler’s song. The chill in the air sharpened and its icy touch numbed my nostrils.
The moon rose.
And then she came.
Walking quickly – running – down the slope of the footpath. She came right up to me, and stopped. She spoke softly:
She was breathing fast; her breath would stop, then race again. She touched my shoulder, with her fingers, then put her head there. And the dense disheveled jungle of her dark black hair went tumbling down to the depths of my soul.
I’ve been waiting for you since the evening,” I said.
“Now night has fallen,” she said, laughing, “and a very good night, it is”. She put her delicate, tender little hand on my other shoulder and, like the branch of an almond tree heavy with flowers, she bowed and collapsed, as if into slumber, on my shoulder.
She was silent for a long time. For a long time, I was silent. Then, she laughed of her own accord, she said “My father came with me up to the turn on the footpath, because I had said that I felt scared. I’m supposed to sleep over at my friend Rajjo’s house today. Well, not sleep, actually, stay awake. All of us girls are going to stay up singing songs to celebrate the first almond blossoms… And the thing is, I was preparing to come here since the late afternoon. But I had to dehusk the rice… and this set of clothes was washed yesterday and today it wasn’t dry. I dried it over a fire, and mummy had gone to the jungle to collect wood, and she hadn’t come back yet. And until she came back… how could I bring these ears of corn, these dried apricots and wild apricots for you? Look at all I’ve brought for you! Oh, you’re truly in a temper. I’m here–look at me. It’s a full moon night. Let’s untie that boat moored at the shore and take a spin on the lake.”
She looked into my eyes. Hers were now lost in love and consternation, and I saw that they reflected the moon. And the moon was telling me, “Go, untie the boat and set out on the lake’s waters. Tonight it is the delightful festival of the yellow almond blossoms. Tonight she’s kept all of them – her girlfriends, her father, her baby sister, her big brothers [/brother] – in the dark, because tonight is a full moon night. The cool white almond blossoms are like handfuls of snow, strewn in every direction, and the songs of Kashmir are swelling like milk in the breast [“the songs of Kashmir are ringing in its valley like milk surging through a mother’s breasts” – Jai Ratan, tr]. And you’ve imagined her wearing that seven-string rope of pearls around her neck.” I put a scarlet, seven-string necklace around her neck and said, “You will stay awake all of tonight. The first night of the Kashmiri spring. Tonight, the songs of Kashmir will blossom from your throat just like the saffron flowers [crocuses] bloom on moonlit nights. Here, wear these seven scarlet strings.”
The moon witnessed all this, peeping out from her troubled eyes, then suddenly, from some tree somewhere, a nightingale struck up a melody. The lamps started flashing from the boats, and the low sound of singing rose up through the trees from the hamlet. The singing, the children’s chirping voices, the heavy voices of men, a strain of crying babies; the subtle taste of soft, salty fish, rice and kohlrabi leaves in the air; the full moon night with all its spring-bringing, youthful force… my anger melted away. “Come, let’s go onto the lake,” I said, taking her hand in mine.
We crossed the bridge and left the footpath. The line of almond trees and the low ground came to an end. Now we were walking alongside the banks of the lake. Frogs croaked in the undergrowth. The rough noises of the frogs and crickets and the bands [rushes?] turned into a sweet melody, a symphonic lullaby. Stationed in the middle of the lake, which was drifting off to sleep, was a moonlit boat. It was still, quiet; as if it had been waiting here for a thousand years for love. Waiting here for the love between she and me; waiting for you and your lover’s smiles; waiting for one person’s dream of another’s desire. Like a maiden’s body, expectant of the blessed touch of love, it had been waiting for the beautifully pure full moon night.
The boat was tied to an apricot tree that grew on the very edge of the lake. The ground was quite soft here. From the shelter of the moonlit leaves, the boat came clinking along and the frogs sang a little more slowly. The sound of the lake water repeatedly kissing the shore lapped our ears again and again. I put my hands on her waist and pulled her hard against my chest. The lake kissed the shore again and again. I kissed her eyes first, and a thousand lotuses blossomed on the the lake’s surface. Then I kissed her face and at once light gusts of a soft breeze rose up and started singing [sadaha] songs. After that, I kissed her lips, and the sound of praying rose up from thousands of temples, mosques and churches, and the flowers of the ground and the stars of the sky and the drifting clouds in the air started dancing all together. Then I kissed her chin and then the curls and coils of hair at her neck. The lamp-like lotuses opened and closed, like buds. And the singing, rose up, then grew slower; the dancing/swaying abated and came to a stop. Now there was just the sound of those frogs. Just the lake’s soft relentless kisses, and someone in a tight embrace, sighing convulsively.
I carefully untied the boat and she sat in it. Taking the oar, I rowed the craft to the middle of the lake, where the boat came to a stop by itself, drifting neither here nor there. I picked up the paddle and put it in the boat. She opened her bag, took out some wild apricots and gave them to me, then started eating some herself.
The wild apricots were dry, and sweet-and-sour.
“These are from last spring,” she said.
I kept eating them, and looking at her.
“Last spring,” she added slowly, “when you weren’t here.”
Last spring. I wasn’t here, and the wild apricot trees were full of flowers. At the slightest movement of a branch, these flowers would break off and scatter like pearls on the surface of the ground. Last spring, I wasn’t here but the wild apricot trees were fit to burst with flowers and full of green apricots – hard, sour apricots that are eaten with salt and spices, causing the tongue to tingle and the nose to start running. Still, they would be eaten. Last spring, I wasn’t here when the green apricots turned yellow and golden and red. When the red buds swayed joyfully on every branch, and innocent, sparkling eyes, filling with delight, would watch them sway and start to dance. Last spring, I wasn’t here when beautiful hands collected these red apricots. When beautiful lips sucked their fresh juice. The apricots were set out on the roofs of homes to dry. One spring would pass and another would be just arriving by the time I came to take pleasure in their delicious taste.
After eating these wild apricots we ate the dried khubani apricots. At first, these do not seem very sweet, but as they dissolve in the saliva, they fill the mouth with flavours of honey and sugar.
“These are very soft and very sweet,” I said.
She broke a pit with her teeth, took out the apricot kernel and gave it to me. “Eat.”
The seed was sweet, like an almond.
“I’ve never eaten apricots like this,” I said.
“These are from a tree in our courtyard. There’s just one apricot tree at our place, but the apricots it gets are so big, red and sweet that, that I can’t even describe it! All my girlfriends gather together when the apricots ripen. And when they feed someone apricots they say… ‘last spring…’”
Last spring, I thought, when I wasn’t here, but the apricot tree was standing in the courtyard just the same. Last spring, when the tree filled with tender leaves, then, hanging amongst them, a few green, tapered apricot fruit, their seeds newly created. These unripe fruit made a good chutney to go with the afternoon meal. Last spring, I wasn’t here and the apricots bore their stones. And the colour of the fruit began to turn light golden. Inside the pits, the soft seeds surpassed even the green almonds in taste. Last spring, I wasn’t here, but those red, red apricots were — as comely of complexion as the maidens of Kashmir, and just as juicy. Glimpses of them would be visible through the swaying of the thick green leaves and then the girls, rejoicing, would start dancing in the courtyard. Her little brother climbs the tree and plucks apricots; he throws them down to his sister’s friends. How sweet were these juice-filled apricots of last spring. When I was not here…
The apricots were finished and she took out an ear of corn. It had a fragrant, earthy perfume. The golden roasted corn had crunchy kernels, clear and transparent with a lustre like burnt pearls, and was incredibly sweet in taste.
“These are ears of sweet corn [misri makai],” she said.
“Amazingly sugary,” I replied, while biting the cob.
“It’s saved from the last harvest,” she said, “hidden inside the house, out of sight of mother’s watchful eye.”
Eating the corn from one side, I left some rows of kernels, then she ate from the same place and left some rows for me. We both ate from the same cob in this fashion. I thought how sweet these ears of sweet corn were. This corn from the last harvest, when I, however, was not here. When your father plowed the fields; when he hoed and sowed; and when the clouds gave rain. Out of the earth grew little shoots of many shades of green, which you weeded. Then the plants grew big and sprouted little heads on top. They began to wave in the wind and you would go to look at those green ears of corn. I wasn’t there, but kernels were forming within those ears. Kernels full of milk, with skin so thin that the slightest touch of a fingernail would cause the milk to come out. The earth nourished such tender, vulnerable cobs and then the juice matured and the corn became strong and hearty, firm and ripe. Nothing would happen to it now if you put your nail to it – it’s more likely your fingernail would break. The corn silk, at first yellow, now turned golden, then finally dusky and dark. The ears of corn turned brown, like the colour of the land. I hadn’t come then. But threshing floors were set up in the fields and the oxen walked on them and separated the kernels from the corn. And you sang songs of love with your friends, and set aside a few cobs, roasted them and hid them away. I wasn’t here, but this earth was; there was this creation, there were love songs, there was corn, roasted on the fire. But I wasn’t here.
I looked at her, with happiness. “Now, on the full moon night, it’s as if every matter has been resolved,” I said. “Last night wasn’t complete, but tonight is.”
She put the ear of corn to my mouth. The warm salty touch of her lips was still on it. “Shall I kiss you?” I asked.
“Shh! The boat will sink,” she said.
“So what do we do?”
“Let it sink,” she said.
That full moon night still has a hold over me. I’m about 70 years old now, but that full moon night still sparkles in my memory, as if it were just yesterday. I couldn’t ever have loved anyone so purely. She, too, could not have loved like that again. It was something else, that magic, which brought us together on a full moon night and left us in such at state that afterwards she didn’t return home but came away with me that very night. We spent five or six days lost in love, dallying and wandering about here and there like children: on the edge of the jungle, by rivers and streams, in the shade of the walnut trees, forgetting the world and everything in it.
I bought a smallish house on the lake shore and we moved into it. After about a month, I went to Srinagar, telling her I’d be back on the third day after my departure. When I returned, I saw her, deep in an intimate conversation with some young fellow. They were eating from the same dish, putting morsels of food into each other’s mouths. They were laughing. I saw them, but they didn’t see me – they were so wrapped up in their happiness that they didn’t notice me there.
This must be last spring’s lover, I realized, or the one from the spring before that. When I wasn’t here. In how many springs to come will love, like a promiscuous woman, lose control, strip naked and start to dance? Today, the autumn that follows every spring has come to your house, I thought. Now what work do you have here? With these thoughts in mind, I left in that state, without meeting them. And I never again met my first spring.
Now, after forty-eight years, I have returned. My sons are with me; my wife is dead. But my sons’ wives and their children are with me, and our travels have brought us all to the shores of Simal Lake, and it is the month of April. Late afternoon has turned to evening and I have been standing by the side of the bridge, looking at the line of almond trees for a long time. The clusters of white buds are waving in the cool breeze. There is no [?] sound of familiar footsteps on the dust of the footpath. A pretty girl, a little bag clutched in her hand, scurries across the bridge and my heart skips a beat. On the far side, from amongst the trees, a woman calls to her husband to come for dinner. The birds have been making a racket; they suddenly flutter their feathers in the dense branches of the trees and then, all at once, fall silent. That must be some boatman singing. His humming floats away toward the horizon.
I cross the bridge and walk ahead; my sons, their wives and their children behind me in their own separate groups. Here the line of trees comes to an end, and the low ground too. I am at the edge of the lake. This is the apricot tree, but how big it has become! But the boat – this is a boat, but is it the same boat? Up ahead is the house. That house of my first spring, my love of the full moon night.
There is light in the house and the sounds of children; someone starts singing in a deep voice. An old woman shrilly shuts him up. I consider. It has been half a century since I have seen this house. There is such confusion on seeing it. But I did buy it, after all; in truth, I am even now its owner. Seeing it has indeed presented a dilemma. I go inside the house.
A couple of cute children. A young woman, serving food into a plate for her husband. She sees me and falters. Two boys are fighting; they fall silent in surprise. The old woman stops short, mid-scold. She comes right up to me. “Who are you?”
I say, “This is my house”.
“Right, right, it’s your father’s house,” she says sarcastically.
“No. Not my father’s, it’s mine. It’s been some 48 years since I bought it. Now, well, I’ve just come to see it, just like that. I haven’t come to kick you people out. This house, well, treat it is as your own. I’m just here…” having said this much, I start to turn back. The old woman’s fingers clench tightly into a fist. She takes a breath, inhaling sharply. “So it’s you,” she said. “Now, after so many years… how could anyone recognize…?”
She stands frozen in silence for a long time. I stand in the courtyard below, quietly gazing at her. Then she laughs of her own accord. “Come,” she says, “I’ll introduce you to my household… See, this is my eldest son. This one is younger than him, this is the older one’s wife. This is my eldest grandson – say hello, son. My granddaughter… This is my husband, shh, don’t wake him. He’s had a fever since the day before. Let him sleep…”
Then she asks, “What can I offer you?”
I notice, hanging from a peg on the wall, ears of corn: roasted, transparent golden kernels with the lustre of pearls.
We both smile.
“Most of my teeth have fallen out,” she says. “The ones I do have don’t really work.”
“I’m in the same condition,” I say. “I can’t eat corn.”
Seeing me go into the house, my family members have also come inside. There is now rather a bustle. Very quickly, the children start mingling with each other.
Gradually, the two of us drift outside. Slowly, we walk to the edge of the lake.
“I waited for you for six years,” she says. “Why didn’t you come back that day?”
“I came,” I say. “But I saw you with some other young man, so I left again.”
“What are you saying?”
“Yes… you were sharing a meal with him. From one plate. He was putting morsels of food into your mouth and you into his.”
She is silent. Then she begins to laugh loudly.
“What happened?” I ask, suprised.
“Arrey, that was my brother!”
Then she starts laughing even harder. “He had come to meet me. You were also supposed to come that day. He was about to leave – I stopped him so that he could meet you. And then you never showed up.”
Suddenly, she is serious. “I waited for you — six years. After you left, God gave me a son. Your son. But after a year, he too died. For four more years, I watched for your return. But you didn’t come and I got married.”
Two children come outside. Lost in their own game, the boy is feeding the girl an ear of corn.
“That’s my grandson,” she says.
“That’s my granddaughter…”
They run far away along the banks of the lake, two beautiful picture albums of life. We watch them for a long while. She comes and stands next to me and says, “I’m glad that you’ve come today. I’ve made my whole life now. I have seen all its happiness and sadness. My home is prospering. And today you have come too, and I don’t feel the slightest sorrow.”
“That is just how I feel,” I say. “I used to think I would never again meet you in life. So, for so many years, I never returned here. But now that I have come I don’t feel even the slightest bit bad.”
We are both silent. The playful children return to us. She picks up my granddaughter, I her grandson. She kisses my granddaughter, I kiss her grandson, and we look at each other with happiness. The moon is shining in her eyes and it’s saying, in delighted surprise, “A person dies, but not life itself. Spring comes to an end. But then another spring comes along. Many little loves also finish off. But life’s great, true love is established forever. Neither of you were here last spring; you both witnessed this spring; but you won’t be here in the next one. But life will still be there, and love too, and beauty, and innocence, and grace.”
The children want to play with each other and climb down from our laps. They run to the apricot tree, where the boat is tied.
“Is that the same tree?” I ask.
“No,” she smiles, “it’s a different one.”
Translated from Urdu, from Azaadi Ke Baad: Urdu Afsaane.