Mokhta stared stoically at the palatial mansion across the road. She was sitting on the curbside, her 'pheran' covering her upper body and arms, a cotton cloth tied to her head, hugging her shalwaar covered legs, feet covered in cheap, black, plastic shoes that are very useful in navigating snow-covered alleys and lanes. Someone had lent a 'kangri' firepot to her in the morning as usual. The street was bustling with activity, buses going to and fro, fleetingly hiding the mansion from Mokhta's view. Pedestrians walked on the footpath, sometimes glancing at her sitting, taking her for a beggar, sometimes not seeing her at all. Mute, immovable, her gaze fixed at the gates across the street, she was invisible to many around her. Her eyes took in everything about the mansion, its big iron gates, the carved balustrades, the ornamented windows, the tree tops visible over the fibre-glass protected high wall, the security detail of two constables with their guns slung over their shoulders and the squad car which often came many times a day to chat with the two sentries posted in front of the mansion.

Something had taken her son. Something...

She couldn't name it, her mind kept flashing to the images of his dead body she had barely been able to wash, the bullet holes on the chest - the chest she had so lovingly massaged as a baby with oil whenever he had a cough. She couldn't understand how it had come to that. She did hear people usually recounting his life whenever his death anniversaries came, one upon the other, year after year. She had lost count. Was it 2 years, 5 years, 10 years? She couldn't recall. The gossip was the same, the routine was the same. They came, cried, offered prayers, there was some feasting and tea and then stories from his childhood recounted by grim faced men, to the sobbing women. The first few years she felt the sting of those stories as people by way of consoling her, kept repeating the same tales, which were fast growing into legends, day by day. New embellishments and new narratives started getting added to the already familiar but brief story of her son, but her grief stopped her from correcting them. Years later, she stopped listening to them altogether as she receded further and further into her mind, clutching at the distant, lovable, happy memories; trying to caress them with her being - ever failing... 

Something had taken her son. Who was it?

He had disappeared from home one day. It was a day permanently etched into her mind, her whole being willing to turn the clock back, her hands always doing the wringing motion of turning a knob. She went over and over the day, trying to find a reason, an excuse, an incident that would explain this gaping hollow in her soul, but no matter how many times she relived the day, the pain never eased up. There had been no argument, no scolding, no bitter scene or beating the day he left. It was like a huge stone on her chest, constantly choking her, like a tight band around her chest. Why would her son disappear all of a sudden on that fateful day, so long ago? Why would he not remember all those years of care, love, bonding, her deep attachment to him? How could he have forgotten all those years of nourishment, her back breaking work in the house and the cowsheds, and the fields? Was her attachment to him nothing? Could it not stop him from any rebellious thoughts?  What was it that had been so persuasive and overshadowed his blood ties that he quietly slipped away and crossed the border? She stretched her hand at the thought forming in her mind, as the unknown, nameless, faceless, started taking shape. But the mists of her memory clouded around and this 'something' once more slipped beyond her grasp. 

Something had taken her son. Someone had stolen from her. 

Through bits and pieces of those conversations, she had pieced together the events going on around her. Her memory provided her with glimpses, flashbacks into her life when her son was around. She had noticed little changes in him as he turned 17. He began to grow a beard, grew serious, stopped laughing and listening to music. He started going to the mosque frequently, a very happy change for her, but it did disturb her when he started coming late in the evenings often accompanied by other boys of his school, being very discreet. She would ask him about this new-found devotion, but he curtly told her that he just went there to listen to the sermon of the new 'imam saheb' who was giving them 'deeni talim' (theological lessons). She didn't bother asking him why the previous one's had been ineffective after that tone in his voice. There were subtle changes she noticed, how the mosque was getting renovated and enlarged. More and more people were showing outward signs of religion, like long beards, the checked kuffayeh, the trousers pulled up to expose the shins. She didn't pay much heed to all this because the bad news coming from the city had grown more and more gruesome; of massacres, disappearances of young men in custody, of crackdowns, of week-long curfews. The elders had warned about patrol units swarming the area and taking young boys under the pretext of a suspicion. She had like any ordinary mother worried about him until the day he never came back and a deep hollow was carved into her soul forever. From that day to the time of the devastating news of his death she had been living with thorns on her side, sitting, sleeping, eating, working, she was aware of the nagging pain in her body that produced physical symptoms too. But the day she heard he had died was nothing compared to the life she had lived all those years with him missing. After his burial she just imitated her dead son's body, lying in the grave. Her family rallied around her, her daughters begging and pleading with her to eat and live and bear the pain. But she ignored them as much as she could. Gingerly her family adjusted to the fact that she was going mad. They were fearful the first few months but as she started moving about, pacing the rooms, they let her do as she pleased. She wanted to ease her restlessness, this helplessness, this powerlessness. So her vigil outside the mansion had started.  

Something had taken him, something...

What was it?

Once she became known as a regular sit-in pedestrian, the word spread slowly and people gawked at her for hours; evidence of the time and 'freedom' that conflict can bring to people's lives - a community adrift, direction-less, enraged one day, submissive the next; depending on the whims and fancies of 'stalwart' leaders. People riding in the buses that rolled to and fro at frequent intervals, bringing loads of men, women, transgenders, girls, boys, the aged, the infirm, fit in like cattle, would look for the forlorn and familiar figure or point her out to those who did not know. Mokhta became popular, the grapevine working overtime to embellish her description just as they had done with her son's life. Once a while, some wanna-be journalist would sit with her and start talking to her, his nervous rattle and endless questions scratching at her nerves and senses. She did answer a few, the raspy voice emanating from her throat and the effort it took her to muster some semblance of a voice revealed how long she had been silent. 

Something had taken her boy, something had taken him. 

She repeated this to the zealous young man, until he grew tired of the fruitless pilgrimage to her 'spot' evidently not getting the 'story' he wanted. She had once been invited to a conference; some protest assembly where she had felt out of place, not understanding the hurried urgency, the long speeches, the clicking and flashing cameras, the microphones thrust in her face. Her entire being screamed mutely to be out of there; had her nephew not been with her warding off the pressmen, guiding her through the crowd and constantly checking her and sometimes even holding her as she swayed with dizziness, she would have collapsed. 

Something had taken her child. Something had stolen from her.

Mokhta became a permanent fixture on the landscape. Her identity soon reached the mansion. A servant or two was dispatched to gently ask her to move away; the Begum of the house having given strict instructions not to create a scene; but a few days of these gentle reminders had no effect on Mokhta and the servants gave up in sheer frustration. She just stared into space, stubbornly, resolutely, her eyes, glassy. She began to see a pattern to the mansions activities. Every Friday, the 'Bab' as he was called by all, would come out of the gates in a police escorted vehicle. The people, eagerly waiting in front of the gates for a glimpse of him, often stopping the vehicles from moving forward until he came out and shook their hands. Dressed in white, a vest and shawl permanently worn with the 'karakuli' a wollen cap perched on his head, dark glasses hiding his hawkish look, he would act his age. Talking demurely, with small discernible movements as if fragile, he would exude the aura of a person who knew what he was doing. Everyday some press car or those flashy cars with some strange dish-like things protruding from their roofs would be parked outside. Many people came and went. The activity was not limited to the mansion only, but to the streets and pavements and shops outside too, with many a conversations taking on the form of meetings and processions, the slogans intruding into her thoughts. The mansion was like a queen bee with her workers swarming their in droves; ever ready with some frenzied activity or the other. 

She did catch snippets of conversations from around her, when the loud voices would intrude into her trance. She wasn't the only one whose boy had been taken. Death had visited other women's wombs too. But she still couldn't place what had taken her son. Death was just a carrier, a pall bearer, with a physical form. There was something else which had rendered her bosom empty. 

Something had robbed her. Who? When? 

Another conversation intruded upon her mind. "Why is she in front of the Bab's mansion?"

"I don't know, yaar! It doesn't seem she is here to meet him. She just sits and stares into space all day. The tea-vendor gives her tea at times but there is hardly any reaction from her. On cold days, he pushes a kangri firepot gently into her hands. Everyone used to speak gruffly to her at first. Now it’s just routine."

"She sits there all day?"

"Yes, all day until in the evening some young man, some say her nephew, comes to take her. Strange, I must say!"

'Do you think, er... do you wonder, if eh... could she be protesting somehow? Does she blame the Bab, I wonder!"

A shrug and lowering of the eyes of the companion was enough warning to not venture into dangerous territory. "Shh! What's it to us?" And the conversation turned to cricket. 

Snow had started to fall. Mokhta now peered at the mansion. Dusk, dark clouds, the heaviness of impending bad weather had hidden its contours and intricate carvings. She could only make out the shape. Her broken mind tried to grasp the meaning of the conversation she had heard, but failed yet again. She was tired. Her whole being felt like a wrung out cloth. She longed to lie down now. Just like her son in the cold grave. She remembered when they had informed her of his death. He had been killed in an encounter with the Army in the forests of Kupwara, a border area. When they brought his bloodied body, she also heard about his 'bravery' of shooting down a few soldiers, among them a Major before achieving 'martyrdom'. These were foreign sentiments to her, as she took in how these lost years had treated her son, his tall, 6 foot body, muscled yet thin, his stubble and his soft hair that she loved so much. He had odd clothes on, since the last time she saw him, some form of army fatigues and a belt. It was only when they pulled apart his shirt that she saw the bullet holes in the chest and felt some raw, animal, ferociousness stirring inside her. When she touched those wounds, and felt his cold clammy skin, the howl erupted involuntarily. They said she had sobbed for hours that day, not much of a crying rather a keening sound, just going on and on. 

Someone had taken her heart, her mind. Something had snatched her boy...

The snow got heavier and the cold, crystal fluff brought her out of her reverie. Slowly, she got up and stretched her bent body, clutching the concrete electric pole, as dizziness washed over her. It happened frequently now. She looked one last time at the mansion, before turning to search for her nephew, when through the falling snow a bright orb caught her attention. It was ghostly, floated, sometimes disappearing altogether. Her numb mind told her to keep staring and it would take shape, as the orb grew brighter like a spotlight, dazzling her eyes. Shielding her eyes from the brightness, she stepped onto the road. The falling snow had sent the populace home early, and the street was deserted with the last few shops getting ready to pull down their shutters. Her ears imagined Maqbool, her nephew, calling to her as he did every day. It was his duty to bring her home, after her vigil in front of the mansion. Wanting to prolong the day a bit further, she kept walking towards the light as it started coming closer to her. She heard someone shout, probably at a dog. Then there was a rush of voices, she couldn't discern anything, but she paid no heed. Something unexplainable was pulling her towards the now speedily coming light. A low rumble started in the background, and the crescendo grew as if something was being drilled. The moment was suspended in the air as a few men tried to step onto the slushy road. 

Mokhta stopped moving and raised her arms towards the light which by now were two bright spotlights instead of one and the rumbling noise grew to a deafening one. The last thought that crossed her mind was her son's toy gun he had been given for Eid annoying everyone with its rumbling - rat-a-tat- until she had hidden it inside her 'pheran'. She cried out - "Jaana, stop that!", before something smashed into her, throwing her to the side.

The next day, a side news in brief was printed in the newspaper. WOMAN CRUSHED BY SPEEDING VEHICLE ON HIGHWAY.