Culture & Society

Shakoor Rather's 'Life In The Clock Tower Valley' Is A Tender Exploration Of Life And Love

Shakoor Rather's 'Life In The Clock Tower Valley' is set against the vibrant tapestry of Srinagar, a young man's quest to capture the affection of his classmate unfolds with heartwarming twists and turns.

Shakoor Rather's Life in the clock tower valley
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Love in the Time of Curfew

SAMAR DIDN’T ALWAYS wear a stubble. He used to be clean-shaven, lean and fair. His friends and relatives often called him angrez. When he thought of joining a gym, his friends would mock him by saying that he would vanish if he did so because of his lean build. However, Rauf goor (milkman), a neighborhood shopkeeper who sold confectionary and milk items, inspired Samar to join a gym. Samar would drop by at his decrepit shop on hot summer evenings to savour a glass of buttermilk with chochwor (freshly baked bread). Rauf Goor made the tastiest buttermilk in the area. When Rauf would turn on a tap and let the water flow into a mud pot full of creamy curd and start churning the buttermilk, his biceps would bulge from under the sleeves of his well-worn T-shirt which had a picture of The Rock on the front.

Once when Samar was leaning against an electric pole and enjoying his creamy buttermilk, Rauf, referring to Samar, said to a fellow shopkeeper: ‘Bhai has a cute face, great height, and a killer smile. Look at his dimples. But bhai is khataem (wrecked).’

He then turned towards Samar and gave him some unsolicited but friendly advice, ‘If you hit the gym, build your biceps and develop your shoulder muscles, girls will kill for you, wallah! By God.’

Samar almost choked on his buttermilk when he heard this but decided to take the advice. Perhaps it would help him impress Rabiya.

The next morning, Samar joined the gym where Rauf worked out, located near the Maharaja-era post office at the extreme end of Sheikh Mohalla. Rauf introduced him to the trainer who doubled as the manager of the gym, and convinced him to enroll Samar for a six-month fitness programme at a discounted fee.

And thus, every morning Samar would wake up to the alarm at 5 a.m., before the first rays of sun made their way into his room, wash his face, gargle with hot water, eat six bananas as recommended by Rauf, and walk to the gym.

‘It’s always good to warm up before a workout,’ Rauf had advised him. Samar wore branded T-shirts and shorts that his brother Adnan had sent for him from Delhi. Adnan would buy branded clothes at throwaway prices at Delhi’s Sarojini Nagar Market and the infamous Palika Bazaar, and then either send them over to Samar through courier or carry them with him during his visits to Kashmir for Eid or summer breaks. After a few months at the gym, Samar’s hardwork paid off. There was a marked difference in his physique.

As the warm colours of autumn embraced Srinagar’s landscape, Samar’s infatuation with Rabiya grew stronger. Throughout the year, he would take the same matador back home from the University as Rabiya. On one such airy evening, he walked slowly behind her to the makeshift bus stop at the university gates. Rabiya settled in a tiny rickety seat in the packed matador as Samar stood holding the overhead handrail. Although Samar was tired from the day’s activities, standing in the same matador as Rabiya felt much better than sitting in a comfortable seat of a Sumo cab. The conductor kept screaming at him, asking him to move so that he could fill in more people, but Samar ignored him and fixed his shy gaze on Rabiya instead. As the matador started, Rabiya finally seemed to have noticed him. And seeing that he was barely able to stand straight, she turned towards Samar and said, ‘Why don’t you give your bag to me?’

Samar couldn’t believe his ears! She had spoken to him. It was as if she had finally acknowledged his existence. He should have just handed over the bag to her, but instead he smiled and said, ‘Thank you, I will manage.’

‘Are you sure?’ Rabiya asked, looking at him with her piercing eyes.

‘Yes, it’s alright,’ said Samar, both excited and slightly nervous. Rabiya said nothing more and looked out of the window.

As the moment passed, Samar began regretting his lost opportunity.

At the next stop, a man in a canary-yellow Pathani suit boarded the matador and stood next to Samar. The man was carrying a live wild rooster in his bag, and its long neck was protruding from a hole in the bag. Soon enough the rooster started pecking at Samar’s bare arm. An irritated Samar freed his hand from the strap he was holding on to, and in the process his bag slipped and dropped into Rabiya’s lap. Rabiya looked up and smiled, giving Samar an ‘I told you so’ look, but all he managed to say was, ‘Thank you.’

Just then a frail man on crutches boarded the matador. ‘Asalaam-u-Alaikum. Please forgive my interruption,’ he began. ‘My name is Ghalib and I am homeless. My wife died from cancer a long time ago. And I was crippled by a disease.’

He took out a laminated sheet and showed it to the passengers by lifting it as high as he could stretch his crippled arm. He was struggling to hold the paper with just the three fingers on his right hand. No one bothered to read the words written on that tattered sheet.

‘I request you to support me so that I can get my daughters married. There are three of them, all of marriageable age. If you could spare a few rupees, I’d really be grateful and Allah will bestow upon you his mercy and kindness. He will ease your pain, secure your future hereafter.’

Samar pulled out his wallet, and handed over one of the ten-rupee notes to the man, who brushed past him in thankfulness: ‘May Allah secure your future. May he bestow you with his biggest rewards, son.’

The man then hobbled from seat to seat collecting some money. But then he suddenly stopped, and looked around to find most people lost in their mobile phones, not acknowledging his existence. And in order to draw attention, he started weeping loudly, and his voice rang through the tiny matador. But the passengers seemed indifferent to his situation. Some giggled uncomfortably. Some pretended he was not there at all. The indifference shocked both Samar and Rabiya, who looked at the man full of sympathy and then towards each other.

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‘You must know that I don’t like asking you for money. I hate living like this. I wish you’d just wonder why my life turned out this way,’ the man continued. But before anyone could reply, even in their reluctance, he stopped and then in a mellow voice he continued: ‘Keep your money. But please just ask me once how I became this, ask me why I am not like everyone here in the matador. I am begging you, not just for your alms. Please ask. For God’s sake only once,’ he said while hopping out before the matador could pick up pace.

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****

It had been a month since Samar had become acquainted with Rabiya. They would take the same matador to university every day but they hadn’t spoken to each other yet. They would mostly just shyly smile at each other. Of late though, Samar hadn’t seen Rabiya in the university campus and that made him restless. Every day, he would look for her at the Khanyar bus stop, where she usually embarked on the bus for the university, but was left disheartened each time. Her sudden absence left him confused. He wondered if she had left the university, or perhaps even the city, to study elsewhere. Or was she just suffering from a bout of flu? Sometimes in his desperation, a scarier thought would come to his mind: ‘Did she get engaged?’ But he would quickly reassure himself by thinking that if that were the case, she wouldn’t have bothered speaking to him at all.

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When he found himself turning too desperate, Samar often contemplated asking one of Rabiya’s classmates, Rifat, about her. However, he deferred acting on it, anticipating that she might find it strange. He also thought Rabiya would probably prefer to keep their friendship a secret.

As the dull week came to an end, Samar couldn’t contain his anxiety anymore. When he saw Rifat in the canteen talking to her friends, he decided to ask her about Rabiya.

‘Salaam, can you tell me where your friend is? I haven’t seen her in the university since last week,’ he asked nonchalantly, trying to mask his nervousness.

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Rifat smiled. She had been expecting this question from Samar. Rabiya had told her friends about a tall guy she had met in the matador, who studied in the same department and seemed to be interested in her. Looking at Samar’s disappointed face, it wasn’t difficult to guess that he was the same tall fellow.

‘Which friend are you talking about?’ Rifat asked Samar, pretending to not know who he was referring to.

‘The one who wears a headscarf,’ he replied.

‘Which one? Many of my friends wear headscarves!’ she teased him.

‘I know. But I’m asking about the one who has been absent for the last few days. You know who...’ ‘Why do you want to know?’ asked Rifat,

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extending her little game.
‘Can’t I ask? It’s all right if you don’t want to

tell me. I just wanted to ask if everything was okay,’ Samar said, feeling quite embarrassed.

‘You are talking about Rabiya, right?’ Rifat asked smilingly.

‘Yes! Rabiya...Rabiya. Where is she?’ Samar said.

‘She is all right. Her sister got married this week. She was busy with the wedding festivities. She will join classes from Monday,’ Rifat told him.

Samar thanked Rifat and left in a joyous mood. As he was about to leave, Rifat asked him his name.

‘Samar! Samar Mirza,’ he said.

‘Alright, Mr Samar Mirza, I will tell Rabiya you were looking for her,’ Rifat said.

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During one of their rides to the university, Samar had overheard Rabiya talking on the phone, complaining about the mobile service in her area to a customer care executive. As she confirmed her phone number to the agent, Samar, while standing next to her, had memorized it.

In the last week, Samar had considered calling the number many times, only to give up the idea. He didn’t want to risk his impression on Rabiya. But Samar’s interaction with Rifat earlier that morning had given him the clue he was looking for—he was now quite sure that Rabiya was also somewhat interested in him.

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So that evening, Samar called Rabiya and introduced himself as the guy from the matador, who was also studying the same course as her at the university, but in a different section. ‘I wanted to confirm the timings of the moot court on Monday. I missed the class when it was announced so I thought of checking with you,’ Samar said in a quivering voice.

Rabiya wasn’t very pleased though. In fact, she was furious, unable to believe how Samar had managed to get her number. She yelled at him for having stalked her. ‘Listen, I am not a stalker, I just happened to overhear you in the matador,’ Samar said in his defense.

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‘I understand it may not have been easy for you to ask me for my number, but you could have tried at least,’ Rabiya replied. As Samar tried to explain further, Rabiya disconnected the call.

The way things unfolded disturbed Samar and he was determined to make things right with her. He apologized over a text message right away and then in person the next day. Rabiya eventually warmed up to him and they grew to share an easy friendship.

(Excerpted From Shakoor Rather's Life In The Clock Tower Valley With Permission From Speaking Tiger Books)

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