Tuesday 1 September 2009

ShortStory 2009 ThirdPrize Zakir Hussain

The Hallowed Gallows

“Shamshersingh, is everything okay?” asks the jail superintendent.
“Yes, Sahib. The carpenter has repaired the gallows. I have started preparing the noose and it should be ready in two-three days,” I answer. “Good. Check everything twice, I don’t want any gaffe,” he says. “Okay Sahib,” I reply back.

In the following few days, the preparations get completed. The noose and the gallows are ready. On the eve of April 29, I come all prepared to the jail. I go and lie down on the cot. I also set the alarm. But I just can’t sleep tonight. The newness of the place, the mosquitoes, the noise of rats and the thought of Aafiyat; they all make sure that I remain wide awake.
Aafiyat Muzammil Lone.

I will be hanging her tomorrow. It’s my third time; the last time was six years ago.
A fortnight ago I had met her in the cell, for taking her height and weight after the date of her execution was fixed. She was kept in solitary confinement ever since her date of execution was fixed. 
I can never forget my meeting with her. She was offering prayer when I entered. Soon, she finished. I looked at her. She was Aafiyat, all of 21 years and 3and ½ months to be precise; a young, beautiful and charming girl. She reminded me of my own daughter, Meera, who is 23. No one looking at her could say that she was a ‘terrorist’ who could have cold bloodedly murdered the Home Minister of Jammu and Kashmir.

“Yes” she said to bring me out of my thoughts. “I am Shamshersingh Rana, the hangman of this jail. As you know the date is fixed on 29th of April. I have come to take your height and weight” I said. “Sure” she replied with ease. She was relaxed, as if it was routine. I finished taking the measurements and stood there. Her apparent innocence had raised hundreds of questions in my mind. I couldn’t resist getting answers to them, so I went ahead and asked her, “Would you mind if I ask you something?” “Go ahead” she said.

“Is it true that you have assassinated the home minister of J&K?” I asked with a look of skepticism on my face. She looked straight into my eyes, as if  thinking what a stupid question that was. Hasn’t she already confessed her crime? She proudly replied, “Yes”. I looked at her thinking if I should ask anything more.

“But what made you do so” I asked anxiously.
“You are a hangman, right. You hang people; you kill them. Why do you do so?” she counter-queried me.
“It’s my job; it’s my duty which I fulfill. I help deliver justice” I said to silence her argument.
“Well the same way, it was my duty, which I fulfilled and thus delivered the justice,” she said haughtily.
“Who gave you this authority to deliver justice? You cannot take laws of land in your hands,” I fired back.
“What can one do when the injustice is rendered by those so-called protectors of justice?” she grumbled rebelliously. I was incensed at her defiance. But I couldn’t leave as those unrequited questions were still hovering over my mind.

“I don’t want to scratch old wounds, but will you tell me your complete story” I requested.
“But why are you so interested?” she asked surprisingly.
“I don’t know? It’s instinctive,” I said.
She went and sat down. I too sat there.

She started, “It was such a fine day. That day the valley had witnessed the first snowfall of the season. That year it was a little earlier compared to the last. I knew what this meant. It meant the start of the tourist season. The snowfall would always bring joy to our family, as my father and brother were both tourist guides. I had gone to the college and was on my way back home when our neighbour, Nilufer came hurriedly towards me and asked me to rush home. I asked her what the matter was, but she didn’t say anything. There was a big crowd of crying men, women and kids outside my house. My heart started pounding. A little farther I saw my mother surrounded by a mob of ladies. I sifted through them. My mom was sitting there like a statue while everyone was crying uncontrollably. I asked her what the matter was but she didn’t reply. I stirred her, but still she didn’t reciprocate. She had lost her senses.

Meanwhile someone took me inside. There were bodies of Abba, Bhai and Aafreen, my younger sister on the floor.”
She could continue no more and broke into tears.
I could virtually see the ‘dance of death’ through her eyes. It took her sometime before she could carry on further.

“Actually a fortnight ago some pundits were massacred during Prime Minister’s visit to the valley. The police was not able to nail the perpetrators responsible for this heinous act and there was escalating pressure on them. They were being called tardy and inefficient. My brother who was involved in the separatist movement was a sore in their eyes. So they used this tried and tested trick of winning laurels and silencing everyone to surmount the pressure. They killed my father and brother in a proxy encounter, tagging them as terrorists. Not only this, Aafreen who was just fifteen  then was gang-raped by them. My mother who was a mute witness to these ghastly acts lost her senses. All this was just too much for Aafreen to cope up with, so she stabbed herself to death. In a jiffy my entire family was lost. And I was left to witness the annihilation.” There was a raging fire of revenge in her eyes.

 She continued, “What crime had my brother committed? Why are we called terrorists and agents of Pakistan? All we want is independent Kashmir, free from India, free from Pakistan. When Indians fought for their freedom they were called freedom fighters. But when we do that we are labelled as terrorists. Since that day there was only one aim on my mind; to slay the person behind all this. I came to know that it was home minister, Munavvar Ali Dar.

I joined a Mujaahideen group and took training from them. They wanted me to become a suicide bomber but I declined, although that would have been much easier and I would not have had to rot in jail. I didn’t want to commit suicide, and secondly I wanted to kill only him and not anyone innocent. So in a rally in Baramulla, I shot him dead and surrendered myself. I never appointed any lawyer for my trial as I myself wanted death sentence. My wish soon got fulfilled; I too was labelled a terrorist like my family and sentenced to capital punishment.

Unfortunately my case was referred to the President for converting my death punishment into life sentence. The President was ready to do that provided I repent my act and promise to lead the life of a responsible Indian citizen after finishing my punishment. However I didn’t want to decay in jail, so I told him that if they will leave me alive then I shall kill many such Munavvar Alis. Thankfully my punishment was not changed. It’s now only few more days. After that I will be in heaven with my family; but I will miss my mother over there.” I was taken aback after listening to her.
 This is the age when girls learn cooking; she had learnt shooting. This is the age when girls colour their hands with henna; she had coloured them with somebody’s blood. This is the age when girls dream of marrying someone and starting a new life; she was dreaming of putting a full stop to someone’s life and eventually to her own.

Everyone knows his or her birthday, but no one knows his or her day of death; she knew.
I was immersed in these thoughts.  I came back home, but I couldn’t vacate my mind of her memories.

Soon the alarm rang. I didn’t realise how time had passed thinking of my meeting with Aafiyat. I got up and went to the gallows for preparing for execution. Within no time the jail officials arrived. The time of execution was near. She was brought to the hall. She appeared pride personified. She was told of her crime and punishment, which she accepted. As I am tying her hands I could hear her saying “Laa ilaahaa illAllah, Muhammad-ur-rasul Allah” continuously. Finally her head was covered with the hood and the noose placed round her neck. Exactly at 5’O clock I pulled the lever.
A shriek filled the arena.

The justice was delivered on the ‘hallowed gallows’. After sometime her body was brought down.
 Later I went home and tried sleeping, as I was not able to sleep the entire night yesterday. But I wasn’t able to sleep. I was surrounded by the thoughts of Aafiyat. I switched on the TV. Although she had left this world, she was there on every news channel. On one, they were showing the celebrations that were going on at the house of Munavvar Ali. After all, the terrorist behind his killing was executed. While one was showing Aafiyat’s mother, lost in her own world. I switched off the TV.
Aafiyat was executed. A branch of terrorism, if it's called so, which had sprawled on the heavenly soil of Kashmir, had been chopped off. But what about it’s roots, which are deep in ground and the seeds, which are being sown perennially? Well none cares to dig to diagnose. Only that is perceived which is apparent. Is this the remedy for the malady of terrorism? Aren’t we a nation, which has been taught to hate the crime and not the criminal? Then how come we are satiated by killing the criminal and overlooking the crime and its origins? I can’t remark on the righteousness of the law but being a human I know this much that whatever had happened was unjust. It’s not that I support her, or her crime but I don’t support the punishment rather.

How then could I be a part of it? I decided to make her my last assignment. The last life to be erased from the surface of the earth by the pulling of the lever by my hands. I got up and left for the jail superintendent’s office to submit my resignation.

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