FICTION: Toy Gun by Waseem Rashid

It was Eid in two days’ time, and Safa Kadal looked completely transformed. What had only the other day been a spacious street was today a trifle wider than a mean alleyway wedged between houses on the inner-street. Everyone in the neighborhood had turned out, it seemed. It was convivial and cacophonous, and you had the sense an innocuous nudge away from descending into mad chaos. A raucous country fair comes to mind. The shops on either side of the street had spilled out on the sidewalk, wherever there was any, that is. Otherwise, the shop owners seemed content to encroach upon the street itself. Across the street, the baker, Mohammad Shaban Sofi, wasn’t in his bakery today, at the checkout counter, to be precise; but sat, a smug smile on his deeply wrinkled face and arms rested on his chest, in a corner of the massive stall he had got set up overnight. The stall was manned by his staff from the countryside: a motley crew of middle-aged balding men who looked less like bakers than coal-miners. And these being a couple of big days for business, he had also ‘hired’ a bunch of boys from the neighborhood for menial work, on the tacit promise of a wage of stale cakes and pastries at the end of it all. He could give them some eidie[1], too, if their work impressed him and he was feeling generous for some reason. But the boys, as perhaps Shaban half-suspected himself, knew better than to pin hope on any such promise. Instead, taking matters in their own hands, over the next two days every moment of leisure and downtime was to be an exercise in treating themselves to foods they had only dreamed of. An exercise in unrestrained and joyful gluttony.

A little further down the street was the stall, a couple of cots really, selling toys and bric-a-brac. The chap who owned it, Shawi (Shawkat) Charsi, worked only around Eid, rest of the time he was either busy smoking hashish in the massive drainage pipes stacked in the vast grounds of Eidgah, or getting slapped around for boarding overcrowded buses and groping women – regardless of age. Shawi was stony-eyed, had nervous manner; he was dirty to the point that standing near him turned your stomach; and he mumbled incoherently, dazedly when asked about a toy. In one word, he was a complete wreck, quite incapable of handling the stall all by himself.

Here came in his nephew – Rahman. The only child of his divorced and overbearing sister. The boy, who was said to have taken after his father in appearance and mother in nature, was a terrible bully, always on the lookout for some vulnerable target to spring a vile trick on. Even the local Imam, the one personage you’d imagine would be off-limits to his antics, had been a hapless victim of his wild mischief many times. In fact, the poor man was driven to such blind rage once that, to the shock and horror of everyone present, he fervently called on Allah to destroy him and ‘his fat-ass whore mother.’ All said,  there was one creature that suffered the worst of Rahman’s cruelty and caprice – dog. The poor animal and its kindred couldn’t cross him in the street without provoking an assault of some kind. Broken limbs, lost eyes, charred fur and skin, docked tails – such morbid fascination ( or was it sadism pure and simple?) with dogs had earned him the honorific Houni (doggy) Rahman. Somebody at the butcher shop had once joked that Rahman had now started Mission Castration. Why? His neighbor asked innocently. Well, because he couldn’t quite stand the fact that while his competition swung their wedding tackle freely, he was required by a mindless human tradition to keep his in the pants, rejoined the man.

But if the boy had one redeeming quality, at least in the eyes of his feisty mother and junkie uncle, it was his excellent sales skills. He was only fourteen, this boy, but already he seemed to possess the most important quality of a good salesman: the ability to tell stories. He made up stories off the cuff, and moreover told them with such earnestness, with the steady-eyed confidence of a man who believed every word that fell from his lips, that he rarely failed to make a sale after a potential customer had stayed long enough for him to cast his spell. It’s funny to hear a boy his age spin elaborate yarns like that but not Rahman. In those moments he scarcely looked or sounded his age, to a discerning eye he would have struck as a master charlatan, a politician in the making. True, his clientele was mostly kids younger than he was and such parents as had been driven up the wall by constant badgering for toys by their children. But still it was his well-crafted stories, his effortless manipulations, that helped circumvent whatever resistance he faced when he sold a toy thrice, four times its retail value – the price his uncle shuddered to hear.

Ghulam Nabi Najar, Zahur’s father and a celebrated woodcarver from the Old City, was hard at work in his workshop on a commission by the wealthy bureaucrat, Mr. Quadiri. Mr. Quadiri had personally driven to his home early one morning and ordered up a bunch of furniture: a double-size bed, a nightstand, floor lamps, tables, and a cupboard. His sister was getting married, he’d explained a tad guiltily when he caught Najar’s wife, Shameem, gawking at him. Whether  she heard him or not Mr. Quadiri couldn’t tell, for she didn’t bat an eyelid in acknowledgment.

“Can I expect you’ll finish the work in time?” Mr. Quadiri asked Najar. “My sister-dear is getting married in October – two months from now, that is.”

“Mubarak[2].” Najar congratulated him. “You’ll be relieved of a great burden, a tremendous responsibility, Quadiri Sahab. May Allah give you strength.” And he raised his hands piously up to heaven.

“So you think you can handle it?”

“We’ll get started right away, and Insha-Allah[3] everything will be ready in time for the wedding.”

“Great. I knew I could count on you. I’ll send you some advance with my orderly later today.” He shook Najar’s hand and made to get up to leave.

“You won’t have a cup of tea with us?” Najar asked.

“No, not today. I need to be somewhere. We’ll have tea at my place when you’re done.”

“So, that means you’re not going to invite us to the wedding?” Shameem interjected rather irritably.

“Of course, I’ll invite you, both of you. Though I must confess I fear we won’t be able to entertain you properly.” He was already breaking into a loud laugh.

“Why?” Najar asked, a little puzzled.

“Well, from what I gather you craftsmen have such enormous appetites that feeding you is like feeding dry wood into an oven.”

Feeling obliged to play along, Najar laughed a little. Not Shameem, though. She continued to watch Mr. Quadiri as if, unbeknownst to him, she had entered a one-way stare-off with him.

So here was Najar today in his workshop. While everyone else was busy in Eid preparations, he was carving elaborate flower motifs on the headboard of the bed he was making for Mr. Quadiri’s sister – the last item on their pretentious list. He wondered if his bed was going to be used for the wedding night. It’s a strangely intimate act, he thought, making a piece of furniture you know someone would use to make love in. The wood felt hot, oddly erotic to touch and  he couldn’t work on it, cut exquisite chinar leaves and rose petals and vine tendrils into its firm deodar, without having an arousal. He pictured himself with Mr. Quadiri’s sister on that bed, their bodies entwined in the blissful contortions of lust, growling. And when finally he remembered himself, when his imagination was sated for a while and he adjusted his sticky shalwar, he asked Allah’s forgiveness for such sinful thoughts and promised himself never to let Satan whisper in his ear again – and, to be sure, he kept his promise conscientiously until a lapse of a similar description required to curse Satan and his whisperings all over again.

As Nabi wasn’t home, it fell to Zahur to help his mother with Eid preparations and general chores. He was on his way back from an errand (his mother had sent him to see if the fresh supply of kerosene had arrived at the ration depot yet; there had been talk that they’re going to send in more kerosene after they ran out quickly the other day. In an hour’s time the tanker had emptied out), when he stopped by Shawkat’s stall. A dozen or so kids, all around Zahur’s age, hung about the stall, mobbed it, and to Rahman’s chagrin, blocked it for any impulsive shoppers walking past. He was losing money, he fumed, because of this bunch of sniffling, ruddy-cheeked knuckleheads, and all his stratagems to get rid of them, from polite request and entreaty to curses and intimidation, had been in vain. They did disperse for a while, but like a moored shikarah that drifts into deeper waters until the line is stretched taut only to be yanked right back in, they felt tugged back to the stall. The regarded the toys with awe, with a mix of disbelief and fascination, even as they blew on their cupped raw hands and wiped the near-congealed snot with a slapdash swipe of their pheran[4] sleeves, taking in as much as they could of the little marvels before being put to rout again.

Zahur had been at the stall for some time now, his eyes not drawn to anything particular but flitting aimlessly from one toy to another, when a boy wearing a bobble hat nudged him on the elbow and gestured with raised eyebrows to the black-gray electricity pole by the far-end of the stall. A toy gun – a crude, life-size mode of the AK-47 – was dangling from it on a nail.

“What is it doing up there?” Zahur asked.

“This is the best thing they’ve got this year.” The boy answered.

He looked puzzled at having to explain what he thought was so obvious.

“I don’t think I’d have spotted it if you hadn’t pointed it out.”

“Yes. I saw you drooling over rattles and barbie dolls.” The boys retorted.

Then he threw a quick glance at Rahman. No problem there; he was busy trading sex jokes and innuendo-heavy insults with his buddies from other stalls.

“Oh! You see the gun has also got the scope.” Zahur exclaimed.

“Rahman says this is the closest thing to an original.”

“It is, indeed.”

“There aren’t many such guns available on the market. The company in America that made them could only make a handful before the King shut them down.”

Zahur wasn’t sure he followed what the boy was saying, but he looked intrigued by it all nonetheless. He was hooked.

“Rahman says many parents dropped unconscious when they saw kids our age with these guns.” He continued. “They look so real, that’s why. Even the bad guys started to carry them for holdups and burglaries and no one was any the wiser. Finally the President stepped in. The guy who made them was cast into jail; he will be hanged if he doesn’t swear on the Christian holy book, it is like their Qur’an, that he won’t make anymore of such guns. But he says he’d rather die like a hero than submit to such draconian diktats.”

“How do you know so much?”

There was an undertone of envy and resentment to Zahur’s voice. This boy in the fraying bobble hat and squeaky rubber boots, his life seemed infinitely more fun than his.

“Rahman is a friend.” He said.

He stood upright and held his head high and stiff as he said this, as if he had suddenly realized how terribly important he was. But when he saw Zahur wasn’t going to buy into it, he gave up the hauteur and relaxed.

“I have been here all day. I heard him say this.”

“How much eidie do you get?” He asked presently.

What? Zahur pretended not having heard him.

He repeated his question.

“You tell me first?” Zahur said.

“Well, last year it was eighty-five rupees, in total.”

“I get fifty rupees just from my father.” Zahur said with a smirk.

The boy fell silent. He’d hoped Zahur, like many other kids he’d sounded out since morning, would show himself quite incapable of buying such an expensive gun. It felt good to know he wouldn’t be the only kid on Eid without that gun. It meant he wouldn’t be alone. So his first impulse was to laugh him off, to laugh and ridicule him and his lies till the nape of his neck hurt, but on reflection he could see Zahur wasn’t  lying. He was so impeccably dressed, his hair so neatly combed, and then there was the evidence of the expensive-looking pair of mittens he wore. That was a clincher in itself!

“You can buy the gun, then.” The boy said in sad resignation. “If you don’t buy any silly fireworks, you can.”

“I know.”

 

When Zahur, whose eyes were locked on the gun for the better part of the conversation, looked down from it the boy was long gone.

 

No sooner Zahur and his father were back from Eid prayers in Hazratbal than he dashed off  to his grandparents’ house, his uncles’ and aunts’ and any other close relatives’ living in the vicinity of Safa Kadal for eidie – eidie from his father wasn’t going to be enough, he knew. He looked over his shoulder often as he ran  from house to house, worried that somebody or something had got wind of what he was up to and was out to thwart him. He eyed everyone around him suspiciously, saw a potential saboteur in every face . He imagined, as he sprinted through labyrinthine side-streets and alleyways, some hired thug abducting him and detaining him in a cold dark room till all the guns in Kashmir were sold. But luckily he arrived at the stall without incident, and what’s more the gun wasn’t sold yet. It still dangled on the black-gray electricity pole.

He used up all his eidie to buy the gun and couldn’t be happier. Afterward, he would learn that the gun wasn’t manufactured in America, but was a cheap knock-off made somewhere in China. The hieroglyphics that he had spotted on the its box were no mysterious portents either, as he liked to imagine – that was plain Mandarin. Everything else the boy had told him was also pure fiction. Rahman had a boxful of these guns stowed under his stall, but he very cleverly displayed only one gun at a time to make the stories of their provenance sound credible and, more importantly, to ensure their swift sale. But Zahur’s fascination with the gun was such, and it only grew with each passing day, that these ‘revelations’ meant absolutely nothing to him.

He spent nearly all his waking hours now playing sniper. Lying prone in the middle of the room upstairs, his gun perched atop a crewel-embroidered pillow, one eye closed as he strained to look through the scope with the other, breathing on purpose shallow and mouth dry, he picked off the imaginary enemy. The gun shot tiny yellow pellets and every time Zahur hit the intended target he was ecstatic: The black-and-white photo of  naani[5] in its cheap red color plastic frame, for example. The legs of the veneered chipboard table, the window panes and light bulbs. And when he was tired ‘sniping’, he liked to place himself at the heart of some dreadful crisis: he thought up convoluted tales of heroism and adventure. He pictured himself championing the cause of the weak and the poor. He recklessly threw himself in the enemy ranks, and when everyone assumed his foolhardiness had cost him his life, he, like a true Bollywood hero, emerged triumphant on a black steed or whatever else it was that struck his fancy at the time. He was loved and celebrated everywhere. He sure tweaked his fantasies along the way, but his invincibility, his surefootedness, despite the many twists and turns of the plot, remained immutable.

His mother however wasn’t amused by his new obsession at all. She had expressly told him to keep that thing out of her sight. She was positively horrified by it, distracted by it to the point that threw her very mental state into question. But what really worried Zahur was that his father had picked up on Shameem’s edginess around the gun. Najar was mad at Zahur for it, and it was only a matter of time, Zahur sensed, before his anger boiled over and he was left scorched by it. The thought scared him and he resolved to keep himself and his gun out of his parents’ way. Their fragile lives were threatening to unravel in the face of an innocent toy.

Lying idly on his back in his room upstairs after playing with the gun for a while – his interest in the gun was quietly waning, though he wasn’t conscious of it yet – his mind wandered back to the day when he brought the gun to his mother for the first time. She just stared at him. She doggedly kept her eyes from the toy now on her lap, and although they instead appeared rested on Zahur’s face, their blank inanimate expression was proof that she was somewhere else entirely. When she finally emerged from her trance-like state, she gave Zahur a forced smile, and a peck on the forehead. He flinched as a warm tear-drop landed in his cheek.

The next day she fainted in the bathroom while having a bath. She’d pulled the curtain rail down on her head as she collapsed on the hard concrete floor clutching at the curtain. Najar, who had just come in from grocery shopping, heard her shriek and without losing any time he forced the door and hauled her out. Zahur was bent over his books, memorizing, at the top of his voice times table of seven, when his father carried Shameem into the living room. A wild swirl of emotions of horror and shame, pity and revulsion latched onto Zahur’s throat; he couldn’t breathe. His ears felt eerily hot and his heart started to beat violently, with heavy thuds, against his chest as if trying to burst its way out. And when he returned home in the evening, Zahur couldn’t recall with any definite clarity how he had escaped that appalling scene, how he  hadn’t collapsed next to his mother’s insensible body. His mother was humming a Kashmiri folk song to herself in the kitchen, a purplish-blue bruise on her forehead. She repulsed him and he was repulsed of himself, and then there was the vexing thought that it had all been precipitated, if not caused, by him. The boy in the bobble hat had forewarned him of the gun’s effect on parents. Was he not paying attention? He feared his father would know and beat the life out of him. But fortunately nothing of the sort happened – not yet anyway.

Over the following days, though, he heard his parents, his father mostly, talk of medication and relapse and Dr Iqbal Nahum, the psychiatrist at the SMHS hospital. His parents made several visits there under the excuse that Shameem had a fever or something. They were back where they had been a year ago when Zahur’s uncle, Gulzar Khan, was killed by Indian army.  All progress made in this time, all semblance of return to a normal life, dashed to the ground.

 

Gulzar Khan, Shameem’s brother, was a carpet weaver. The least political man if ever there was one, he worked fourteen hours every day without fail – including Fridays when most artisans take a day off. He was the man after government’s own heart, a model citizen. A fellow who kept his head down and worried only about putting food on the table for his family, and never allowed himself to be swept up in the subversive rhetoric of those drunk on secessionist balderdash. He never took part in demonstrations protesting gross human rights violations, never chanted Hum Kya Chahtey Azadi (What we want is freedom). Never. So, when the gunslinger from God-knows-what -corner-of-India stopped him in the street corner, or at the hospital gate, and asked him for an ID card, asked him in effect to prove that he was really a Kashmiri – as if his costume, his physiognomy, his fucking speech wasn’t  evidence enough  –  he quite good-humoredly showed him a ten-year-old  photo in a laminated card from a time when he wore a beard and looked nothing like he looked today. The man with the gun satisfied, Khan could carry on with the business of living.

Then one day it all changed. Under the cover of night, the army barged into his house. An AK-47 was found stashed in the mattress roll on the window ledge. Khan was beaten within an inch of his life right in front of his old father and pregnant wife before being hauled away in an ominous-looking truck. A week later, on a Wednesday, Tariq Hamid Wani, his once-closed friend but now a Pakistan-trained-militant was killed in an encounter outside Srinagar. A month later, Khan’s tortured body was fished out of the murky waters of the Jhelum.

His body had turned yellow, and gray in places, and skin fell off it by mere touch. His face was smashed flat. It  had been repeatedly assaulted with the butt of a rifle, it seemed. His moist eyelashes, the one part of his featureless face that could still be made out, were like stitches on a raw wound come undone, and his broken buckteeth – the purple of a pummeled lip cleaved thinly to what was left of them. So much for the serene face of the martyr.

Whenever his name came up, all Shameem could picture was that squashed pulp of a face. Her memory of him was devoured by a fire of bitter and hopeless anguish and what was left in its place, the chewed up grotesqueness that was anything but her brother, worried at her frail and exhausted mind. Those devilish buckteeth followed her everywhere, and in her twisted imagination they transformed themselves into the venomous fangs of a deadly snake, they became the blood-dripping paw of a ravenous lion, the slimy tentacles of some skin-crawling sea-creature she had seen on the TV once. They became the terrible representation of undignified and random death itself.

Najar rolled over on his back, his head making a dent in the plush pillow, and pulled the quilt over his head; and as it yielded without resistance and no tug-of-war ensued either, his reflexive (and preemptive) clasp on it relaxed. His sleep-dulled brain though was quickened by the irregularity; it hurtled around in his head, this break in routine, until his hand, as if of its own mind, reached across the mattress – Shameem’s side of it felt cold and deserted. His eyes shot open, he didn’t sleep well since Shameem’s relapse anyway, and propping himself on his elbows scanned the room for her. She was crying quietly by the window, rocking herself sideways as if lulling an infant to sleep. A deep sadness overcame Najar as he watched her. She looked so utterly hopeless, so close to pushing herself off the edge that for a brief and unguarded moment he wished she hurried about it. He hated himself for such thoughts and wished with all his heart for the same horror and dismay that he’d known when the thought first crossed his mind. But these days, in spite of himself, the idea of a life without Shameem in it wasn’t terribly unbearable. The prospect, for all his squeamishness and self-deception, wasn’t wholly without appeal.

Shameem wiped her face frantically on her dupatta when she saw Najar standing over her with a tablet and a glass of water. She swallowed the tablet, washed it down with a sip of cold water, and looked up at Najar with a feeling of abject mortification – she had ruined his sleep yet again. She was ashamed of her behavior, as if she had a say in it. She searched his face for a sign of sullen exhaustion, for  suppressed fury. She worried that his patience with her was going to exhaust one of these days and he’d  sent her back to her old father’s house. Najar, as though sensing her torment and paranoia, held his hand out to her reassuringly, a smile flashing across his face, and helped her up to her feet. He then threw an arm around her neck and pulled her close for a wet smacking kiss on her bloated cheek.

Once she was deep asleep, snoring, Najar crept into Zahur’s room across the landing. A desperate measure for desperate times.

In the morning when Zahur put his head around the kitchen door everything looked as usual. His mother was bent over the kerosene stove lifting scoopfuls of scalding pink tea and letting them drop back in the pot – without causing a splash. And his father was busy in his morning ritual: he was trying to tune in to the morning news on his broken Zeenat radio. He turned the knob slowly, and he held his breath as he did so as if it was his breath that caused the slider to be so slippery and restive. He repeatedly overshot his station and the half-formed smile over barely decipherable snatches of voice quickly turned into a scowl. Tired and grumpy, he gave the radio a hard thump, yelled a curse at it and put it away for good. But the temptation to give one more, one final whirl was too much to resist. In fact, as it usually played out, he wouldn’t stop until he had caught some news on that radio, even if it were the sports news toward the end of the bulletin. Why didn’t he just buy a new radio? Zahur wondered. He had asked him once, but he gave him such cryptic answer, with its attendant rumbling philosophical digressions to boot, that he wished he hadn’t asked the question in the first place. But what had stayed with him though was his rhetorical question: What stays unbroken forever in life?

“You’re up already.” His mother asked him. “It’s sunday. No school today. Go back to sleep if you want.”

“No! Are you out of your mind?”  His father exclaimed. “Now that he’s up he is going to perform ablutions like they taught him in darsgah[6] and say his morning prayer.”

He checked his Quartz steel watch. “It is only 7:10 yet. See?”

Without deigning to look at his father’s watch, Zahur went to the bathroom. He was bummed out at having woken up early, especially now that he had to pray.

 

“I couldn’t find my gun,  have you seen it?” Were the first words to come out of Zahur’s mouth when sat down to tea fifteen minutes later.

“You don’t know what happened last night?” His father asked, a quizzical expression on his face.

“What?”

“You really don’t know! You sleep like a horse, Zahur.” He guffawed and turned off the radio. The whirr and whine of the static was getting to him.

“What happened? Earthquake?” He looked over at his mother, but she seemed equally ignorant of last night’s happenings.

“No. It wasn’t earthquake. The army conducted an operation here last night. Operation actually overstates it a bit  since the tip-off turned out to be dud. But they did cordon off the area and entered some houses and smashed TVs and whatnot before they realized the mistake. Your mother panicked. You know how she is. Heck, I panicked too. And then it occurred to me what if they were to find the gun in your room. People have lost their lives over far less. You know that, don’t you?”

“So you moved it?”

“I broke it.”

“What!”

“Where could have he possibly hidden it?”  Shameem cut in, getting red in the face. “They check everywhere, even in the salt sprinkler.”

“But they never … never came into our house.” Zahur said, his voice unsteady with emotion

“But we had no way to know they wouldn’t.” Shameem continued, feeling increasingly assured of herself. “Ours was going to be the next house to be turned upside down if they hadn’t change their minds at the last moment.”

“But why didn’t they …..” Zahur let his voice trail off as if in afterthought.

What he wanted  to ask was why he hadn’t heard anything if the army had come so close. After all, the only window in his room opened onto the street. But he decided against asking. He knew they had an answer ready.

He was silent. He wanted to cry, to howl and raise hell. But he willed himself against it, although tears had already filled his eyes unbidden nonetheless.

Later that day, on his way out to play with his friends he saw a piece of plastic by the garbage bin in the front yard. It looked familiar. He went over, picked it up and turned over in his hand a few times. He recalled what the poor boy in the squeaky rubber boots had told him – parents had passed out in America because of the realness of the toy gun. He smirked at his former self, at the boy in the bobble hat, for falling for such nonsense. Then, he peered into the garbage bin and found his mangled gun at the bottom of it, and, for all his toughness, his eyes were once again blurry with tears.

*

[1] Special allowance given to children on Eid by close family.

[2]  Congratulations.

[3] Arabic expression meaning God-willing.

[4] A traditional gown-like outer garment worn by Kashmiris during winter.

[5] Maternal grandmother

[6] Madrasah; a religious school.

Waseem Rashid is from India-administered Jammu & Kashmir. He holds a Bachelor of Science from Kashmir University. This is his first story to be published in a literary magazine.

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