Pantry Prose: Escapade by Ghulam Mohammad Khan

Don’t assume I’m mad, for I am not. Some might say I’m brave, or I wouldn’t have ventured out on the coldest winter night, with lurking gunmen in the darkness, just to meet her. It was a time when the marvel of mobile phones had yet to grace our remote village. It was on the Yarbal Street where our paths crossed frequently that we decided to meet that fateful night. This street earned its name because it led to the most infamous Yarbal in the village.

The chorus of barking dogs echoed through the crisp night air, accompanying the soft descent of slushy snow from the roof eaves. Anticipation quickened my heartbeat as the clock neared midnight. I had dressed in fresh attire to ensure I didn’t carry any foul scent. I felt an overwhelming restlessness. Eventually, I stirred from my bed, quietly unlatched the window, and slipped out like a shadow. I felt no fear of the barking dogs or the gunmen. The sensation of cold snow melting on my hot cheeks was strangely invigorating.

Two streets away, a pack of dogs gave chase. I sprinted and sought refuge in a nearby hut where our neighbours stored firewood. As the dogs lost interest and departed, I cautiously emerged once more.

I had never before even touched a girl’s hand, and my desperation to meet her drove me forward. I knew I was willing to endure any torment, to go to any lengths necessary to make it happen.

In those days, being good-looking held greater sway in winning a girl’s favour than mere affluence. It was a time when young girls defied their parents and often eloped with their paramours, especially under the cover of night. Boys with long, silky hair and fair complexions were the ones who could sweep the prettiest girls off their feet. However, these unions, forged in the crucible of physical allure, frequently crumbled when the spectre of poverty cast its shadow over the initial splendour. Surprisingly, most of the girls were stunningly beautiful, while many of the boys appeared gauche and lacked wholesomeness. I found myself fitting squarely into the latter category. I was acutely aware of my dissimilarity from my neighbouring friend, who was deeply infatuated with the fairest maiden in the village, a subject of conversation for everyone.

Soaked in snow, yet ablaze with a yearning to hold her in the obscurity of night, I gently traced her window with the full palm of my hand, just as we had arranged on that very street. I couldn’t discern the exact sound produced by my hand against her window, but she had assured me she’d be attentive. I considered myself fortunate to have a girlfriend, even though I wasn’t fair or wealthy. I can’t quite grasp what ignited her love for me, or define it precisely. I can’t ascribe a name to the emotion as it escaped categorization, but in moments of desire, one’s complexion becomes inconsequential; it’s merely the physical connection that matters.

Once inside the room, I began to notice bodily sensations I had never experienced before. The human body is like a vast, uncharted universe, and within its depths resides an infinite expanse of sensual energy. It was as though this profound darkness contained within me was caught up in a swirling tempest, making me feel like I could burst forth at any moment.

In the pitch-black darkness, my surroundings remained shrouded in obscurity, yet I couldn’t escape the intoxicating sensation that enveloped me. In an instant, I found myself nestled in her embrace beneath the comforting weight of a thick quilt, its scent reminiscent of old currency notes. She pressed closer, her lips grazing my ear, her warm breath sending shivers down my spine as she cautioned in a hushed tone, “Speak softly. My aunt is sleeping in the corner to our right. Although she’s sound asleep and unlikely to wake anytime soon, we must still be cautious during this intimate moment.”

Her words slightly unsettled me, and suddenly, I felt the urge to pass gas. I couldn’t risk spoiling the ambiance with bad odour, so I forcefully suppressed it by contracting my muscles, causing a faint rumble in my stomach. She noticed and murmured softly, “Is everything alright? Your stomach seems to be growling.” “That’s not my stomach; it’s my desire growling, desperate to break free.” “Well, why wait? We can let it out right here. The passion is just so palpable, and it’s the perfect moment”, she whispered playfully.

As we made love, the presence of her sleeping aunt almost slipped my mind. Her aunt’s stature was imposing, impossible to ignore. When she walked down the street, her discomfort was evident. She’d clutch her hips with both hands, and her heaving chest caused her to breathe rapidly. She always treated me kindly, offering warm words whenever we greeted each other. However, I couldn’t overlook my aversion to her due to the large, hardened mole that covered her right temple, extending to the corner of her eye. I occasionally found myself daydreaming about removing it with a sharp blade, though the gruesome image of her entire face covered in blood left me shaken.

The night grew darker, enveloping us in its quiet embrace. Amid the rhythmic snoring of her aunt, we shared an intimate moment. Though her aunt’s snoring didn’t bother me, it brought to mind the prominent mole that I had always disliked. As exhaustion overtook me, I softly murmured in her ear, “Have you ever considered removing that conspicuous mole on her face? I find it quite unpleasant.”

“You know, my friend has a strong aversion to your short, curly hair and thinks your nose isn’t to her liking. But I have a different perspective. I appreciate you for who you are. We all have aspects that some may dislike and some may not”, she whispered this sentiment back to me.

As we exchanged hushed words, the aunt, who had ceased snoring, suddenly exclaimed, “Pinky, why are you still awake?” Taken completely by surprise, she replied with a quiver in her voice, “I just turned on the radio because I couldn’t fall asleep.”

The astute aunt hesitated to trust her instincts and cautiously rose from her bed. She shook the matchbox to ensure it contained matches before lighting the lantern. My heart raced as I envisioned myself being paraded down the village street, draped in a garland of slippers, with jubilant villagers jeering at me. I crouched beneath the quilt. “Turn off the light, please,” Pinky implored. Balancing the lantern in one hand and clutching the quilt with the other, she demanded, “Who are you? Show me your face!”

My blood boiled with anger. I yanked the quilt aside and locked eyes with her. The repulsive black mole sent waves of fury coursing through me. In a fit of rage, I seized one corner of the quilt and flung it over her head. Then I wrestled her down, wrapping her head tightly and delivering a barrage of punches. She wriggled and fought like a trapped bird. Pinky tried to pull me away, but I remained unyielding until she fell into complete silence, utterly motionless. The room now carried the acrid scent of kerosene that had spilled from the shattered lantern.

As I hurriedly tried to put on my sweater, her aunt abruptly sprang back to life, letting out a piercing scream. Fearing that her scream might awaken other members of the family, I dashed to the door, naked and in haste, somehow managing to find the latch. In my frantic state, I leaped from a high veranda, landing on a heap of bricks, severely injuring both my knees. In the darkness, I sprinted unclothed, with snowflakes lightly grazing my skin like cold drops of water on scorching sand. Desperately clutching my loose and torn boxer briefs with both of my hands, I wondered if you’ve ever heard of a foolish lover racing naked through the night, holding up his worn-out garment?

My wily and frugal father was ahead of his time. He had an unusual fascination with bandage rolls and that pungent liquid iodine. I considered myself fortunate to be the offspring of such an extraordinary individual. I carefully applied the antiseptic liquid to my bleeding knees and wrapped them in a thick bundle of bandages. Sleep was out of the question at this late hour, with over six inches of snow blanketing the landscape. I reluctantly changed back into my old clothes, having lost my fresh ones in the chaos.

Summoning my father from his slumber, I concocted an excuse about needing to attend early morning prayers at the mosque in order to borrow his torch. Stepping out into the darkness, I felt a renewed sense of purpose and determination. I couldn’t help but dread the possibility of being discovered in the morning, but I harbored no remorse for my earlier episode with her unsightly aunt.

Under the bright light of the torch, I retraced the path I had taken to escape, painstakingly erasing any traces of blood in the pristine snow. A stillness reigned the eerie surroundings, broken only by the delicate chime of snowflakes gently descending from the heavens. Then, I proceeded directly to the mosque, long before the prayers were scheduled to commence.

As I waited for the villagers to gather, an inexplicable distraction gnawed at my soul. I went through the motions of prayer, seeking atonement, but my heart was preoccupied by something else entirely.

I walked out of the mosque as the first glimmers of dawn began to break through the darkness. The streets were alive with a sense of urgency, as people hurriedly made their way, their steps brisk and determined. The news of her aunt’s demise had spread like wildfire, and the wailing grew louder with every step I took into the busy street.

Oddly, I still didn’t feel any remorse. In fact, a sense of relief washed over me, knowing that I would no longer have to endure the sight of the unsightly mole on her protruding face. However, beneath the relief, frustration simmered as I mentally braced myself for the inevitable, the long imprisonment that lay ahead. Curiously, I wasn’t overly concerned about what others might think of me, not even my robust and miserly father.

Unexpectedly, nothing of the sort occurred. The funeral unfolded in an oddly serene manner, almost surreal in its tranquility. I, too, took part in the proceedings. Strangely, no one even broached the subject of her sudden demise. During the burial, someone casually remarked, “She was a chronic asthma patient.”

In the following week, I left my home to pursue my studies, resolute in my decision never to return. I lived in perpetual fear of being apprehended one day. What astonished me even more was the fact that no one seemed to suspect foul play, despite my leaving behind my shoes and all my clothes, with nothing to my name except for a tattered boxer briefs.

A decade later, I unexpectedly crossed paths with Pinky on same familiar street. She now held one child close to her chest and another trailed behind, clutching an ice-cream cone. She appeared entirely different, as though she had undergone a complete transformation. I couldn’t help but wonder if she was slowly taking on the characteristics of her late aunt.

We exchanged pleasantries, as if we were ordinary acquaintances catching up. Our conversation drifted towards topics like marriage and children, subjects that held little importance for me. It was during this casual conversation that she revealed a shocking truth: she had saved my life on that fateful night.

“That scream didn’t awaken anyone. It was her final scream, and she passed away shortly after. I placed her lifeless body on the same bed, opened the windows to disperse the kerosene odor, collected your shoes and clothes, along with the shattered lantern, in a plastic bag, and disposed of it in the river at the break of dawn. She was simply found dead in the morning. Life has a way of leading you down unexpected paths,” she mused, her voice tinged with a mixture of regret and resignation.

*”Yarbal” signifies the customary gathering of women from a local community at the Ghats along the Jhelum River, or on the banks of streams and rivulets, where they would fetch water for their households. This gathering spot served as a hub for social interactions, information-sharing, gossip, and a place to relieve tensions.

Ghulam Mohammad Khan was born and raised in Sonawari (Bandipora), an outlying town located on the wide shores of the beautiful Wullar Lake. Ghulam Mohammad believes that literature is the most original and enduring repository of human memory. He loves the inherent intricacies of language and the endless possibilities of meaning. In his writing, he mainly focuses on mini-narratives, local practices and small-scale events that could otherwise be lost forever to the oblivion of untold histories. Ghulam Mohammad considers his hometown, faith and family to be most important to him. He writes for a few local magazines and newspapers. His short story collection titled The Cankered Rose is his first major forthcoming work.

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