The Meadow
Category Winner | Fiction
Author: Malhar Dave
Season 6

A nebulous sea of clouds churned in the cool currents of a May gale, bathed in the rosaceous hue that lingers in the wake of a departing spring sun. A final few golden rays still oozed through them while a tinge of cobalt blue pervaded another corner of the sky, slowly yet steadily, heralding the imminent nightfall. Even the ever-turbulent waters of the Suru seemed unusually placid that day. Azmat noticed.

Every spring since he was a boy, Azmat herded his flock of sheep to that meadow on the riverbank where he now stood. No other shepherds led their flocks so far from the town; the lambs would always hunger and stray away for a quick graze. Azmat, however, didn’t mind the extra effort. Standing on that one grassy knoll and gazing at the meandering Suru and the great mountains in the distance afforded him the luxury of a certain tranquility that he could never experience otherwise, for a nomad’s life isn’t an easy one. The past year had been particularly trying.

A sudden plague in November that wiped out almost half the flock had him worried. The harsh snowstorm in December that inundated the winter grazing lands had him gravely concerned. The pneumonia that stole from him his beloved Rukhsar in March had him contemplating suicide. He might even have followed through with it had it not been for the birth of his child in February, and the fact that Allah forbade it. It was mere good luck that Rukhsar managed to stave off the illness till she gave birth. The child’s subsequent survival, on the other hand, was nothing short of a miracle. Azmat knew this, and despite being an orthodox man, decided to abandon his ancestors’ transient lifestyle and settle down so that his child may lead a better life.
The question of where was easy. Azmat wanted to be close to that one place where he heard nothing save the rumbling Suru, and gaze at the mountains from whence had come his ancestors to invade the land on which he stood today. For him, the meadow was the closest he would come to experiencing the presence of Allah in life.

Selling off almost the entirety of what remained of his flock save a few favorites, Azmat had acquired enough money to buy a small plot of land, seeds, and some cherry plants to sustain them till it was time sow the kharif crop. Soon, one of his sheep gave birth to triplets, and all three lambs along with the mother survived. It looked like Azmat’s luck was finally changing. His child, too, had convalesced. Each day, her cheeks seemed rosier than before. So, Azmat named her Gul.

Thus, when he stood on his knoll that day and looked at the pink sky, Azmat thought of his daughter. He wished Rukhsar could see their daughter now. His sight trailed over to the mountains in the distance, and he thought of his ancestors, and whether they would rebuke or approve of his new, stationary life. He hoped they approved. “Allah”,he exclaimed, “if my Rukhsar can see our daughter Gul, and if my ancestors approve of me, I beg you to give me a sign!”
The gentle breeze that caressed his body the next moment seemed more powerful to him than the fierce winter winds, for he felt humbled like never before. A tear trickled down his cheek as he lowered his gaze to the Suru lapping gently at his feet, and looked at the reflection on the other bank.

Instead of falling into the Suru, however, his teardrop melded into the fine crimson mist that lingered where Azmat stood only a moment ago. He now lay bloodied and limp on the knoll, a streak of crimson running down from the bullet hole in his forehead. The expression on his face was either that of awe at having felt the breeze, or of horror at having seen the reflection of his murderer, or both.

Some say that Azmat was just unlucky to have been in the meadow on the wrong day, and at the wrong time. Others say that he was lucky to die a quick death and not witness the fate of his infant daughter. All agree that the town of Kargil was never the same after that fateful day in May, in 1999.

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