A Footnote in Srinagar
by Feroz Rather
A broad basin of water, bordered by a leafy fence, all wrapped in the hazy mantle of blue light. And for a prolonged moment, early one afternoon this past summer, as I look at Srinagar from a ripe cherry orchard in the hills to the east, I am held aloft by the suggestions of tranquility and peace, by the curls of silver smoke rising slowly from the chimneys of the houses, hidden under the poplar leaves, to mix with the profusion of light. The Himalayas stand dissolved in the distance.
The illusion lasts a split second. As I lift my eyes up from the city, I am hit with such an abundance of sun, I am instantly blinded. I cannot imagine the lake, across which around a grey hill topped with a mediaeval Mughal fort, the city is inhabited. I cannot imagine my cottage in Nagin where every night I battle with the memory of Bashir, his body writhing in dust. I cannot imagine the four polished walls of my bedroom that are supposed to hold together my sundered world because these days that room is my home.
Ever since I have arrived in Srinagar, I have had premonitions, as though some dark-winged bats have entered the lighted chasm of my soul. In the middle of the night, across my dreams, I hear their ominous cries. I wake up, terrified. Some catastrophe is in the making, I think. I grab the carpet on the floor with my hand. Soft and solid and warm. The cottage and the ground beneath it are very much there.
I walk to the shore of the lake. All water, I imagine under the stillness of the stars, is glass, and in the liquid field of silk that extends from the wooden deck below my feet all the way to the city, a wave, abrupt and serpentine, will rise, shatter the glass, jolt the cottage, jolt the lit lines of boat houses suspended motionless on the water and destroy the city. I hear a beating in a chasm; I have a foreboding for the dark. I shudder at the idea of the city being blown away and destroyed. I rebel against the idea that one day when we have forgotten about the war and Bashir, a monstrous contraption, the shape of a dark cloud would appear over the fort, and blind us, ruin us, perish us all.
In moments of incandescent blindness, I grope for Bashir’s corpse. I reach for his hand to find that the fingers have stopped throbbing. I scream to find my locus in the city. My mind turns into a vast, bruised blank, streaked with three ribbons of blood, rolling out of the holes in his abdomen bored by the soldiers’ bullets.
As I regain the power to see, I turn around. I find myself face to face with the hills. The flood of light persists from behind, making their bareness more brazen, more hurtful to the eye. The flecks of snow on the rocky tops catch fire. The ribbons of blood rise and set sail above me, crisscrossing through the clear skies over the city, burning them a ruby red.
The next day in the afternoon, I walk from Nagin to the white-tombed mosque of marble in Hazratbal. There, by a lakeside bustling with fruit sellers and vegetable vendors, I board a bus. Going past Kashmir University, the bus takes a detour around the hill until I am in Downtown. As I alight, I walk slowly, guarding the fact that it is here that Bashir fell on the afternoon of April 30th, the day when parliamentary elections were held in Kashmir.
I wonder whether it is worth digressing to explain a paradox, such as a people coerced—beaten, bled, bombed—to participate in democracy. Anyways. In 1996, I was twelve. I had finally returned to live with my father and mother to our village Bumthan in Anantnag, forty miles south of Srinagar. Though the war was still going on, it was not a terribly sad time in my life; at least, I had the consolation of the possibility of dying at home. Six years before, because of the proximity of Bumthan to the Jammu-Srinagar highway, and the frequent, deadly attacks by the Kashmiri rebels on the cavalcades of Indian army that passed on it twice a day, my mother had exiled me to my grandmother’s village. The idea was that Maengaom was away. The wooden bridge on the dirt road connecting it with the highway had been blown up. Maengaom was cut off and I was supposed to be in a place of relative safety.
As I began school with my cousins, I carried my book bag and the longing to return home like a wound. When my mother came to visit me, I asked her:
“Mother, why did you send me away from you? Mother, why did you send me away?”
“My dear, you will grow up away from the war.” She said.
She gently touched my face with her palm. I cried but I believed her. I thought that I would convince myself that such things like war and cruelty and oppression did not exist in the world at all. As I went into the sixth grade, I returned home with my brother Ajaz who had abandoned his school, run by the army in one of their cantonments on the highway in Khanbal; he had abandoned them and joined me at my school run by the people of the village. I was jubilant that no one asked me to leave home again. And despite the early experience of exile, I clung to the belief that all my life, I would live in my village, with my mother and my father, my older sisters, and Ajaz with whom I played cricket on Sundays.
On a warm afternoon in early autumn, when my family stayed inside, watching TV and drinking cups of salt tea, the soldiers came into the village. They saw a group of elderly men— among them my father’s grey-bearded friends Aziz Kakh, Gani Kakh, Mehd Chach, with whom he would often chat after the midday prayers— on the front porch of the mosque near our house. The soldiers lined them up. One by one, as I could see through the window of my upstairs room, they checked their index fingers. The soldiers got angry. They shouted at the elders. They pulled at their beards. They beat them to bone. As their cries reached me, terrified, I hurriedly closed the window. The elders had boycotted the elections and had not gone to the polling booth. The soldiers took them to the village market, Mir Bazar, where in an old ramshackle building they were forced to vote, the tips of their index fingers stained with dark-blue ink.
Back in Srinagar, a day before the elections, on the evening of April 29th, I walk into the campus of Kashmir University through the stone gate in the front. I am excited to reach the garden of lofty chinars in the rear. As I pass Ghani Kashmiri Scholars’ Inn, I hear some three hundred students marching away from the Iqbal Library in the middle. In unison, their hands strike. In unison, their voices rise:
NC ka jo yar hae, gaddar hae, gaddar hae.
PDP ka jo yar hae, gaddar hae, gaddar hae.
Hum kya chahte? Aazadi.
National Conference (NC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) are the two strongest comprador political parties contesting the elections. But the boys send a clear message across which, in my literal translation, losses much of its music:
Friends of NC! Traitors! Traitors!
Friends of PDP! Traitors! Traitors!
What do we love? Freedom.
Midway, on the wide tarmac path lined with beds of blue irises, as I meet them, a cloud appears in the sky. I instantly drop the idea of my solitary stroll. I stop and turn. I watch them ebb away. I follow the tide to the gate. It thunders once, threatening rain. Three armed policemen standing there block the way out. They quickly wrap the soft stones of the gate with coils of grizzly, metallic wire. They do not allow the procession to spill onto the road.
The boys do not resist. They sit on the ground. But they continue to sing and clap. Someone sitting near me cracks a joke. There are bursts of laughter. Amid this dark festivity, with the deluge of rain hanging overhead, a boy stands up. He is short but solemn-faced. His eyes are narrow and fiery. He moves his hands nimbly, addressing the crowd:
We are defenceless but we must organise protests and resist. We must educate ourselves and fight for Kashmir’s independence. Why the denial of freedom? Why the loss of lives? Why the choking of dissent? Why the degradation of our fragile environment in the name of development? Why the farce of elections when the entire world knows what we Kashmiris want?
A grocer points to the spot in the neighbourhood called Gretebal. The spot is nothing but a patch of grey earth. The spot is on the margin, between the potholed road and the shoddy sidewalk. The spot is covered with a thin layer of dust. It makes me shudder, that spot. I don’t know what else I am expecting to see here. A clump of irises bursting out of the heart of a stone. Or the marks of Bashir’s fingers, clear and immortal. I imagine the force of his death-cry, throwing the dust up into a fresh blizzard of rebellion, shaking the city. I circle around the spot. I walk away. Ancient wooden houses with latticed windows and belvedere-shaped dabs punctuate the long lines of new and gratuitous concrete, until I reach Bashir’s humble house.
Bashir was twenty-four, his older brother tells me, and worked as a carpenter until recently before selling pashmin shawls for a rich trader. When he shows me Bashir’s picture in the mobile phone, I am struck with the exceptional handsomeness—the straight chin, the full, dignified mouth, the high cheekbones, the dreamy eyes of a poet. But more than that it is an older brother putting the young one’s face on display, telling the world that he too was worthy of living.
Then Bashir’s mother comes inside. She is in her mid-fifties, a quiet-looking woman with dim, grey eyes. The skin of her hands is thin and cracked. She is holding a glass of orange juice on a tray.
“That morning we were singing wanwun for his sister; we were making plans for her wedding that is in a few weeks. In the afternoon, Bashir went outside to buy milk. People here in Downtown did not step out of their houses to vote and that made the soldiers angry. They have taken away… they have taken away the light of my eyes,” she says crying, handing me the glass.
I hold the glass. I take a sip. My throat clogs with despair and rage. I cough. Drops of spit juice cover my chin and nose. I wipe my face with my palm. Though I don’t want to, I down the rest of the juice in a single gulp. She does not fail me as a host; I ought not to fail her as a guest. We are Kashmir.
She takes my hand and kisses it.“God! Save him from the tyrants,” she says, her eyes suddenly brightening as she clutches at my fingers resolutely. I entreat her not to cry. I lower my eyes. I am not able to look her in the face,worn and contorted, forever smashed by time. I wait for her tears to stop.Then I quietly say my goodbyes.
Bashir’s brother walks me out of the house. Evening is falling. I stand by a grocery shop, mute and lightless. In the deepening dark, I look around, befuddled. Soon the entire city will drown in a wailing chorus of azans. As I turn to find my way, on the wall of the shop, across the red and white Vodafone sign, the graffiti in charcoal-black reads: FREEDOM 2014.
Photographs by Showkat Shafi
About the Author:
Feroz Rather has an MFA from Fresno State. He is a Contributing Editor at The Normal School.