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The Guilty

by Inder Krishen Koul (Talib Kashmiri)

NOTE: "The Guilty" is the English version of Urdu story "Qasoorwar" included in the book 'Shanakht-e-Gul.'

The pledge taken by Zaffar Iqbal a couple of years back alongwith his other batch mate forest Range Officers in the passing out parade at the Forest Training Institute, Dehradoon that he would in all his sincerity spare no effort to save country’s forest wealth including the flora and fauna within it, seemed to have been altogether forgotten by him when in his capacity as Assistant Wildlife Protection Officer he signed all the documents and related papers in the file that had been put up to him last week by his subordinate forest officer Bashir Ahmed for his approval. A day after the said file had been submitted to him he summoned Bashir Ahmed to his office and categorically refusing to sign the documents on the ground of these being fake, said to him, "Mr. Bashir Ahmed, you’ve committed a grave blunder in putting up this fraudulently prepared bills and other papers to me………Hadn’t you been the respected father of Zareena I would’ve got you suspended from service……..Hasn’t Zareena ever told you about my ideals……..my principles?"

In reply Bashir, camouflaging his cleverness and cunningness in polite words said, "Sir, I am very sorry……..But in doing so I haven’t done anything wrong……..I’ve done only what we’ve been doing here since long…….. There’s nothing for you to be annoyed with me, Sir."

"I’m not concerned about what had been going on here in the past, but from now onwards I’ll not allow any kind of hanky panky in this office……..After all wasn’t it our suggestion that a barbed wire fencing should be erected along both sides of the Erin-Sumlar pathway located in the dense jungle to provide safety to the people using the track against attacks by wild animals that was accepted by the Government which sanctioned two hundred thousand rupees for the purpose…….And how the hell have we got any right to embezzle this money…….. Isn’t there any value for human life?" said Zaffar Iqbal almost admonishingly to Bashir Ahmed who being adept in his craftiness said, " You’re right, Sir. I beg to take the liberty of going a step further and request you to look into the matter more closely upon which you’ll come to the conclusion that this kind of project is altogether waste of money because the barbed wire supplied to us by the Mechanical Division is so much rust eaten that even an ordinary pup can break though it very easily what to speak of any mighty wild animal like a bear, tiger etc. The other important thing that needs your attention, Sir is that during the last five years there hasn’t been a single incident of attack by any wild animal in this belt possibly because of gross encroachment by man into the habitat of wild animals forcing them to withdraw into higher reaches, but people like Ghulam Rabbani are responsible for creating a halo of threat from wild animals to human life so that he gets the contract to erect barbed wire fencing and make money through trickery and other unfair means. But I’d like to inform you, Sir that in case that bloody Rabbani thinks himself to be smart then we’ll prove to him that we’re smarter and this time if at all the contract has to be given it’ll go to Ghulam Mustafa who’s more trustworthy and clean in his accounting deals also."

In the ensuing week there was a lot of discussion between the two on this issue but Zaffar remained adamant on his stand that he won’t pass the bills. After a day or two he was called by Divisional Forest Officer, Bandipura his immediate superior to his office for a meeting apparently in connection with some other work and during discussion he also referred to Forester Bashir Ahmed eulogizing his role in the Wild Life Protection unit praising him eloquently for his ‘sincerity, dedication to duty, experience and trustworthiness’. The DFO also subtly advised Zaffar to ‘benefit from the vast experience and talent of Bashir Ahmed and not to outrightly ignore his suggestions in the wider interests of the Department’. Poor Zaffar lost no time in understanding the purpose of this meeting and the message conveyed to him. This is how he registered his entry into the abominable system commonly known as ‘corruption ’ or ‘ misuse of power or Government position’. The fact is that the barbed wire had been erected hardly for about a hundred meters but the bill was preferred for a length of half a kilometer. Zaffar, who was given his share of Forty Thousand rupees as first instalment of ‘incentive for gaining entry into the network’ immediately left for Hari Singh High Street in the capital city of Srinagar to purchase for Zareena, his sweetheart,  a costly gold chain of elegant make and design.

Zaffar had been in infinite love with Zareena, daughter of Bashir Ahmed Forester since their college days when both of them were studying in Govt. Degree College, Baramulla. What had drawn Zaffar to develop an unexplained liking for Zareena was no doubt her enchanting beauty and attractive personality, but the catalytic agent to translate this liking into love relationship was a single incident when during a college outing to Asia’s second largest fresh water lake the Wullar at Watlab he had saved her from an imminent fall when she slipped her foot while deboarding the bus. The spontaneity with which Zaffar, temperamentally a shy but academically a sharp student of the college, held her hand and the way she expressed her thanks to his gallant gesture acted as the real spark to kindle the flame of love between the two. The occasions thereafter, when they pledged to live and die together, were not fewer till at least they did their Bachelors in Science with flying colors, whereafter Zaffar also qualified the competitive exam for Forest Range Officers and joined the course at Forest Training Institute Dehradun, while Zareena was appointed as Science teacher in a Government school at her native place Sumlar in Bandipora tehsil. The distance between the two notwithstanding they have had an occasional chat on the phone for which Zareena,  in those days, had to come down to PCO at Bandipora. On his part Zaffar never forgot a memorable meeting with Zareena one summer noon when during his training course he had come to his native place Dardpora to spend his vacations. He had not informed his arrival to Zareena and he left his home to meet her at Sumlar itself with the intention to give her a pleasant surprise. But contrary to his plans the meeting took place by chance at a spot on the banks of mountain stream Erin whose each splashing wave threw a thousand streaks of pure, cold, transparent and glittering waters in air reflecting all the seven colors of rainbow. All the romantic beauties of Nature appeared to be working in complete harmony suited for the occasion. While on one hand dozens of nightingales, golden orioles, thrushes, warblers, ring doves & finches gave to ears a soothing sensation of a chorus being sung surpassing all the melodies of music, the small green glades extending and merging with one another in a way gave to mind an impression of green velvets of varied hues & shades folding into each other till as far as the horizon. At first Zaffar couldn’t make out what he saw was a dream or reality, but his heart beat alarmingly faster than never before the nearer Zareena came and once close he involuntarily wrapped her up in his strong arms and she yielded herself completely to him with a stream of tears issuing instantly from her gazelle eyes, the warmth being felt by him through his soaked shirt back. Gently wiping her tears Zaffar said," O! My dear Zareena…….These tears in thy beautiful eyes aren’t meant to moisten thy fresh apple like cheeks…….For Gods sake let these not drop from thy crescent cut eyelashes……..They just look like shining pearls entwined in morning blades of grass," and these words had brought a blooming smile on her lips turning them from pink to red. They sat beside the rumbling Erin on a patch of green grass bedecked with at least a dozen kind of colorful wild flowers some of them fragrant enough to cause a sort of inebriation on the lovebirds who talked almost without a break mostly about the good old days, pangs of parting, life without each others physical presence etc. It was during this meeting when Zareena knowing perhaps very well what would be the answer asked him, " Zaffar…….Tell me what is your biggest desire in life?"

After a brief while he replied, "You have posed a difficult question Zareena, because to be true to myself and every body else I have not one but two biggest desires in life. The first one, of course being that I want to spend each moment of my life with you…….I mean in your closest company both physical and mental……and the other one……," he abruptly became silent pulling his head up from her lap gazing into the blue sky above and she could at once perceive something deeply agitating his mind. She asked in a worrisome tone, "Oh! Zaffar, why don’t you speak what’s in your mind? Won’t you tell me about your second desire?" displaying more of her curiosity to go to the depths of his thinking.

Zaffar starting unexpectedly in high tone said, " Zareena, I can’t see and bear the vast inequality prevailing in our society between the rich and the poor……..It’s awesome…….I want to put an end to the gross injustice meted out to ‘have nothings’ by the ‘have everythings.’ I want to destroy all Suleiman contractors together with all those selfish politicians, Government officers & so called public servants who patronize such cancerous elements in our society in their ignoble activities and save all Mohd. Shabans from the lifelong atrocious exploitations suffered by them at the hands of these Shylocks of our disgusting system who amass unlimited wealth at the expense of the blood & sweat of poor working class. How shameful it is that the day when these uncared for people get a square meal to eat they feel indebted to Suleiman like blood suckers instead of God Almighty or the hard labour they do, and I’ve resolved to strive for bringing some relief to these deprived people of our society if not altogether emancipate them from the deadly clutches of their exploiters."

"You’re right in your own way, Zaffar………But it’s all in ones Destiny…….Everyone gets in life what the Providence has predestined for him……..We can’t change Destiny even though we may try for it," said Zareena with rather cautious sympathy.

"No……Zareena…….All this talk of luck, destiny etc. etc. is sheer nonsense……..All these bogus philosophies are deceitful trickeries invented and employed by people like Suleiman contractor to exploit the poor and use them for their vested interests. I do agree that the history of rich and poor is as old as the history itself and theories of complete social and economic equality propounded by Marx and Angeles haven’t stood the test of time, but should that mean that one individual is master of thousands of trillions of rupees, has thousands of men or servants working for him, enjoys all imaginable and unimaginable luxuries and comforts of life, while another person who’s anatomically, biologically and physiologically no different from him has to search for his food from the decomposed and putrefied leftovers in the street litter bins. To hell with the system in which one person has a castle or a mansion or a sky scrapper with a thousand rooms with all modern amenities to live in and his fellow human being doesn’t get space even beside a filthy gutter to take rest or sleep during the night and when a bloody tyrant like Suleiman contractor while sitting in his posh magnificent bungalow having the tastiest dishes waiting for him on his dining table orders who to retain and whom to remove from his employment the hapless Mohd. Shaban is thrown on the road with not even a penny to feed his family……...I can never tolerate this injustice and I vow to fight this nonsense system to my last breath which drives a common man to indignant penury for his only fault of either not being born rich or simply for lacking the craftiness to make money by dishonest means," said Zaffar completely overtaken by exciting emotionalism.

Fifteen or sixteen years back when Zaffar was barely eight, his father Mohd. Shaban was working like some others, in the employ of Suleiman contractor transporting wooden scants from the upper reaches of adjoining jungles to lower areas. Dozens of scars on Mohd. Shaban’s otherwise broad collars, strong shoulders and sturdy back made by tough leather band tied to a rope with which heavy scants of cedar, pine and conifer sawn to size illegally in connivance with the Forest Department officials in the upper belts of dense forests by Suleiman contractor’s men and dragged physically by the laborers downwards clearly indicated how excruciatingly tough the job must have been. These very scants were then sold in black market at very exorbitant prices by Suleiman contractor under the very nose of the concerned Government officers who used to get their share of the booty. One day when Mohd. Shaban on account of being suddenly taken ill failed to meet the daily target of transporting five scants, Suleiman contractor in a fit of rage turned him out from his employment and that day Zaffar like other members of the family had to go to bed without his supper. Hunger forced him turn left and right under his torn quilt and despite tender age he vowed to himself that he would work very hard at the studies so that one day he is able to take revenge from the oppressors and exploiters like Suleiman contractor and teach them a lesson for their misdoings, and now the same Zaffar Iqbal after completing his training course and returning to fulfill his avowed mission had helplessly become a part of the obnoxious system.

Today evening, when one time idealist & revolutionary Zaffar now holding the post of Assistant Wildlife Protection Officer carrying a costly gold chain in his pocket for his fiancé was heading on one & a half kilometer jungle path towards Sumlar to give her a surprising pleasant gift, it never occurred to him even once as to what was the fate of all his loud claims of ruthlessly destroying the menace of corruption, nepotism and exploitation from the public life which he used to boast of just two years back. He had either forgotten or refused to recognize as to the way the ‘system’ lures a person and then digests him and was perhaps satisfied that he had learnt to swim with the current. True, when the greed and the needs of a person outstretch his means and resources he can go to any extent which may even include trampling over the blood & sweat spilled by his honest and industrious father, just in order to tie a golden chain bought from the money earned through dishonesty round the neck of his loved one……How easily a man can betray his own conscience…….he had failed to realize. 

At the moment Zaffar’s mind was deeply engrossed in Zareena’s thought……Her graceful figure and beautiful complexion dominated all what he could think of…….. "How excited would she feel and how attractive would she look when I gently hook this equally attractive gold chain around her shapely and curvaceous neck beautified enviously by a lone dark brown mole and how amorously would she look at me and express her sentiments of immense love……." Completely lost in such dreams, poor Zaffar couldn’t perceive the presence of the agent of Death in the form of a mighty giant size black Himalayan bear till it was right in front of him with both its front paws up in air in attacking posture, eyes shining in dim light like two ambers and mouth wide open growling wildly giving him very little time or scope to escape. He lost his senses and couldn’t think what to do except turn back and run for his life as fast as his legs could carry him crying for help but the beast beat him easily in the run and in the process he not only dropped the gold chain but stumbled against some object. He tried to get on to his feet and run again but the ferocious animal didn’t give up his deadly pursuit and once within its reach he dealt a strong punch on Zaffar’s head who reeled under its impact which was followed by a few more blows and bangs with an ultimate forceful bite on his neck with its canines. The bear might’ve torn him apart but for the arrival of a group of Gujjars, living not far away who had heard his cries for help, holding burning torches and armed with axes, spears, etc. But even then they were late because Zaffar lying in a pool of blood had said goodbye to his earthly existence.

Zareena on hearing the shocking news was not only completely broken at heart but stunned so much so that she didn’t speak to anyone and kept on staring aimlessly at people or at things out of total unconcern. Her father Bashir Ahmed too felt disappointed and disturbed not that he had only lost a well placed officer poised to be his daughter’s husband but also that the deceased had finally succumbed to pressure to follow in his footsteps to earn money through devious means.

Next day a condolence meeting was convened in the office of DFO Bandipora wherein grief was expressed on the untimely demise of Zaffar Iqbal and it was disclosed that the tragic accident had taken place due to non completion of fixing barbed wire fencing on the two third portion of one and a half kilometer path running through dense forest between Erin and Sumlar hamlets rendering it completely insecure from the attacks of wild animals. Hence it had been decided to send a fresh contingency proposal to the Chief Wildlife Warden for sanctioning additional grants to the tune of ten lakh rupees immediately for the project. On this occasion Bashir Ahmed, Forester while paying tributes to Zaffar Iqbal equivocally held the Government responsible for his death and expressed gratitude to the DFO for having displayed exemplary interest in the security of the people residing in the said villages and deciding upon to send a special proposal to the concerned authorities for providing adequate finances for this work of urgent nature.

The meeting concluded and highly dejected Bashir Ahmed while waiting for public transport at Bandipora bus stand saw Forest guard Abdul Majid running towards him and asked him, "O Majid ! why are you so panicky……..Is everything OK?" in reply to which he said, "Sir, I had been looking for you only………Just now we received a message in our office from your village…….," and suddenly he was speechless.

Bashir again asked him very impatiently in a way which betrayed more of worry than curiosity, "Why are you mum?…….Why don’t you speak??……..What message have you received from Sumlar???"

"Bashir Sir…..We’ve lost sister Zareena for ever………She has jumped into Erin river," said Abdul Majid hesitatingly with eyes full of tears and Bashir Ahmed not bearing the distressing news went into a shock and fell down right on the road saying in broken words….., " De…..De…ar Ma….. Majid, ….Aa…Aa…..I’m……the…the….re.....real…..gui…guilty….fo……for…….the……their death." 

(Disclaimer: All the incidents, characters, organisations etc. mentioned in this story are imaginary and their resemblance with any real person living or dead, can be a mere coincidence.)  
 

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