Tuesday 10 August 2021

Gitanjali Maria, ShortStory 2021 Longlist


The summer sun shone gently through the open classroom door. But that sunlight wasn’t enough to sufficiently light up the classroom. The figures in the classroom moved around in half-shadows, the halves of their faces alternating between darkness and light.

But the children, like eight-year-olds elsewhere, were noisy and playful, throwing paper airplanes and chalks at each other. They didn’t see their teacher enter the room and continued their mischief. The teacher tried using several tactics to try to control the class and make them realize that their break-time was over.

Finally, after many minutes when the class was a little better organized, the teacher said. ‘Let’s play a game now. Each of you should stand up and tell me and your friends what you want to be when you grow up. Let’s see who all are going to have an interesting life.’

All the children nodded their heads with excitement, eager to proclaim what they wanted to be when they grew up. Behind them, the Pir Panchal mountains too seemed excited to hear what the little kids had to say, their mighty tops gleaming as the sunlight got reflected from the snow of the previous winter season.

‘Are you ready, class?’, the teacher asked, sensing excitement and anxiety in equal measure in the class. After all, the future holds hope but is unpredictable and uncertain. And this was especially true for their state.

‘Aman, you go first’, the teacher said.

The boy in his faded red sweater and light brown hair got up said, ‘I want to be a pilot and fly planes.’ The boys in the class clapped and jeered and made sounds of the airplanes, ‘wooosh…wooosh’, even as many took out the paper planes with which they were playing earlier.

Sensing the indiscipline and disorder soon to come, the teacher quickly called out the next name. ‘Siddique’

A skinny tall one stood up and said, “I want to be a badminton player and win an Olympic medal.’ This was followed by a round of applause from the class, akin to him already having won a medal.


‘I want to be a doctor and save lives.’


‘I want to be a writer and publish books.’


‘I want to own many hotels and shikaras.’


‘I want to be an architect and build houses for the homeless.’

The session continued as the boys shared their desires till it was Mushtaq’s turn.

‘Mushtaq, what’s it that you want to be.’

Little Mushtaq was weighing what he should be telling. What would make him enjoy a fancy future life? An engineer, a soldier, or a businessman? He wasn’t able to decide. But before he could spell out the right choice, his secret desire tumbled out of his mouth.

‘I want to be the prime minister of the country and solve our problems and make India and Pakistan friends. I want to bring peace to our valley.’

A collective sigh escaped the class, followed by silence. Nobody had mentioned such a dream. His desire was too political not just for the third-grade students but even for adults.

The bell rang at that moment and the teacher was thankful that the hour had come to an end. She wouldn’t need to talk politics now.


After the class, in the Shalimar gardens overlooking the Dal Lake, the boys discussed the ambitions that they’d shared in the class that day. Everyone was interested specifically in what Mushtaq had said.

‘Why do you want to be the Prime Minister of India?’

‘Nobody is going to able to solve the two countries’ problems.’

‘And what will you do being India’s prime minister. Better be Pakistan’s Prime Minister. That’s where we’ll be more accepted.’

‘No, India’s prime minister it is. I’m not going to Pakistan’, little Mushtaq replied.

‘Now, stop all of you. We’ll only end up fighting if we discuss such things. That’s why I said I want to be a doctor. A noble profession that helps everybody regardless of their blood’, said Samir nodding his head in a wise fashion.

‘Common on, let’s go in the Shikara and catch some Trout’, he added quickly before the other boys could once again start a discussion around ambitions and dreams that hardly seemed will be able to come true in the troubled valley.

The clamorous troop of boys still discussed Mushtaq’s dream as they made their way out of the Mughal-era garden. They were still divided over whether Mushtaq should be India’s prime minister or Pakistan’s or that of an independent Kashmir.

They jumped into the Shikara that one of the boys’ brothers ran, munching on juicy apples and walnuts. They looked admiringly at the tall mountains that surrounded the lake and enjoyed catching Trout and waving at the other Shikaras.

They’d forgotten the issue they were discussing.

The valley was quiet and peaceful, and the guns silent. But the elders knew it would only be a matter of time before things went back to how they had been for many years now.


‘Ammi, please cook lamb for lunch. Please!’, Mushtaq said, pulling at his Ammi's gown.

'Please!’, he kept pestering her, hovering over the pots and pans in the kitchen, occasionally, knocking one to the ground.

‘Give it to him. Let's make Aab Gosht’, Dadi said to her daughter-in-law while smiling at her dear grandson.

‘There's only a little mutton left and just one packet of milk. It won’t be enough for everybody’, she replied looking at the large family, chatting away happily, spread in different rooms.

‘It’s okay, beti. Get the lamb cubes. I'll make it myself, for my dear little grandson", she said ruffling his hair and pulling him closer to give him a hug.

Mushtaq jumped with joy. ‘Hurray! Hurray!’ he shouted as he skipped back to the living room to play with his cousins.

The family gathered around the dining table on the Sunday afternoon to enjoy the meal together, renew their familial bonds, discuss serious stuff, and share jovial jokes. The aroma of the Aab Gosht rose from the lunch table and wafted across the room just like their laughter and shouts.

‘The Gosht is awesome, dadi!’, Mushtaq said gleefully as he stuffed his mouth. And the others nodded in agreement.

The family hobbled away after a heavy lunch, some for a siesta while others huddled to hear the afternoon news. And they were shocked to learn of the death of Sayyed Wahid, a prominent separatist leader.

‘While the army maintains that the terrorists have killed him, the separatists say it is the handiwork of the army. A state-wide hartal and mourning have been called by the separatists for a week. Indian intelligence sources expect trouble’, the newsreader reported grimly.

The elders started whispering in hushed tones. The separatist leader was popular in the valley and his death would mean trouble not just for the next few days but for several weeks or months from now.

Curfew was imposed in the valley from the same evening. Nobody was allowed to venture out. Shops were closed and schools shut. Yet sporadic instances of violence and brewing trouble were reported.

The army and the CRPF were deployed to patrol the streets. And there were shoot at site orders even if the slightest trouble was sensed.

Sayyed Wahid’s funeral had not yet taken place. The separatists were adamant that they wouldn't do it with the current restrictions in place. They wanted everyone in the valley to attend it. They wanted detailed investigations into the murder.


‘Ammi, what's happening? Why is there no school today?’, Mushtaq asked his mother the next day, tugging at her faded black gown.

‘Shhh...go and play’, she shooed him off.

‘Abu, why is there no school today?’, he went off to question his father.

‘Go away, Mushtaq. Go play.’

‘Abu, tell me also. What happened? Is there a fight? A war?’

‘I said go away. Go play with your cousins.’

‘Beta, a rebel leader was killed yesterday. There could be some trouble and fighting. So, the government has ordered everybody to stay inside", his bada Chacha took him aside and explained.

‘Who killed him, Chachaji?’

‘We don't know. But it is dangerous to go out. Both terrorists and the army are looking for revenge. Schools may be shut for a few weeks now. Shops too. So, don’t waste food’, he said, reminding the kid of more practical things.

‘But isn't the government good? They like us, right? They want peace, na?’

Chachaji sighed. This kid always asked too many questions.


It was the eleventh day of the curfew. Communication means such as internet services and telephone lines had been suspended. Essentials were rationed. In many pockets in Srinagar, Baramulla, and elsewhere, fierce battles between the army and rebels were reported. There was also news of more rebels entering the territory and planning attacks.

Meanwhile, things at Mushtaq's house were also going awry. His uncle and family who had come visiting from Jammu hadn't been able to go back. There were now fourteen people living under the roof and rations were running low.

Mushtaq's infant baby brother was crying all the time. The sound of gun fires and loudspeaker announcements terrified him and disturbed his sleep. There wasn't any milk in the house either to pacify his nerves and hunger pangs. The army had already knocked twice at their door and ordered that the infant's wails be controlled.

‘Don't cry, baby’, Mushtaq whispered into its ears, gently running his hand over the baby's head, trying to offer consolation.

His mother tried putting the baby to sleep. Grandmother tried feeding him soupy water. But he kept wailing for milk. And after hours of wailing, used to fall asleep. And the cycle would repeat once he woke up.

Mushtaq was worried that his brother might die if he didn’t get milk and cried so much. With no adults seeming to think the issue to be important and of grave concern, he decided to take things into his hands.

In the quiet afternoon, when everyone was having their siesta, Mushtaq smuggled himself outside. He ran to the nearby grocery shop, only to find it shut. He went to the next one a little far away. But that was shut as well.

Despite the summer sun, there was still a chill in the air and an eerie silence.

He was scared but continued walking, searching for milk shops. He constantly looked back to check if anyone was there behind him. At a distance, he saw another shop and it looked as if it was open. Its door was slightly ajar, inviting customers and trying to ward off others at the same time.

He quickened his pace. Suddenly a voice called out from behind, ‘Stop! Don't move.’

The little eight-year-old panicked and started running. And within moments a bullet hit his leg, causing him to stumble, fall, and hit his head on the milestone in front of the open milk shop that read, ‘Srinagar 0 km’.

Blood oozed from the little boy’s head and leg, till breath slowly escaped his body.

His family didn't know. His friends didn't know. His teacher didn't know what had happened.

There, under the bright summer sun, in the beautiful paradise on Earth, a hundred dreams of peace died.



Shikhara: A type of houseboat found in Kashmir
Aab Gosht: A Kashmiri mutton curry
Ammi: Mother
Dadi: Grandmother
Abu: Father
Chachaji: Uncle
Beti: Daughter

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