The street is narrow and cramped, and from the edge of my balcony on the sixth floor, I see a cybercafé at the far end. I moved here, to Munirka, a labyrinthine conglomeration of concrete, haphazard houses in the south of Delhi, on the 10th of August. There is no Internet at my new house. Every morning, I go down and before stepping into the street, I fold up the bottoms of my trousers. The rain comes frequently these days, making puddles all over the dirt track, and if I don’t take care, the mud will stain my feet and splash my shins.
In the season of monsoon rains, it smells of dampness everywhere. In the cybercafé—a room of gray, gritty walls, with two rows of small box-like doorless cubicles that sit parallel to each other—the air is heavy with the varied smells of human sweat. My fellow users, one on either side of me, can squint at the screen of my computer, and this makes me uncomfortable, makes me want a cubicle with a closed door, all to myself. But I can’t indulge this feeling of self-violation for long; there is a more pressing concern at hand. From the low ceiling, the fan above me creaks, its dusty blades gyrating perilously close to my head. Standing upright could cost me my life.
The attendant is in his early forties, a clean-shaven, gentle-looking man with calm eyes. But he frowns and demands my passport when he hears where I’m from. I have come to expect this in the days leading up to India’s Independence Day, but I ignore his gaze, suddenly sharp and questioning. In my mind, I rush north, tearing through the length of Indian plains; I leap over the Himalayas until I’m in Kashmir. This valley, this verdant valley, the blue-and-white porcelain bowl of flowers, its variegations and striations of green, the caravan of glassy, tumbling rivers, ah my country, torn to its veins by the war that started in 1989, a war that despite terrible death and destruction continues today.
In 1999, I was fifteen and the chill of war had gradually begun to thaw. It was in the winter of that year, at the age of sixty-eight, that my grandfather, Baba, died of cancer. In his last months, I grew very close to him. He had grown deaf. Perhaps the gunshots that rang through the air, which killed more than sixty thousand civilians in the first decade of the war, had caused him permanent damage.
Baba was a practicing mystic. He was tall; he had a handsome, oblong face and high cheekbones that he kept clean of beard. He wrote poetry in recondite Kashmiri. He retained some remnants of respect for Sheikh Abdullah.1Baba visited shrines and was critical of the clergy: “During day, rishis loot poor peasants. During night, they fantasize Allah will reward them with houris and wine in the paradise,” he would say and give a mocking laugh. He was even more critical of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist religious organization with Communist-style cadres: “They display long beards and preach with a fanatical certainty, but without knowing the real Syed, Prophet Muhammad, without burning their souls in the fire of his ishq, love. They don’t seek transcendence; they look for Truth in the extraneous, when Truth is manifest and within, in the I.”
Baba was austere and frugal in his manners. He exercised a Spartan discipline; he would never fail to wake up before dawn and offer prayers. He would be seated quietly on a woolen rug in his room, surrounded by an army of cats he fed with pieces of lawas bread. At night, after he had finished listening to the BBC’s Urdu news bulletin, he went out and fed most of his supper to a shy she-dog, his eternal friend on the porch.
In 1947, Baba was in eighth grade in a school in Anantnag, our hometown. As the British prepared to depart, they proposed that the subcontinent be divided. 2 Baba’s diploma, which was due in the fall from the University of Lahore (now in Pakistan) never came, and he was not able to join high school; the Partition marked the end of Baba’s formal education. He dabbled in making and selling herbal medicine. But it was not enough to support his wife and son. He sold groceries and iron implements, spades and shovels, to the farmers of the village in the same shop he had sold medicine. His first son, Ismaiel, my father, grew up quickly to pick up the tricks of the trade. Baba was assured that Ismaiel, delightful, soft-spoken, and more significantly, with a gift for computing, could do it. It was with this reassurance, in the late 1970s, as his deafhood dawned, that he withdrew into mysticism.
In his last months, I helped my cousin, Neelofar, to make Baba’s bed at night. I loudly recited metaphysical poems of Iqbal and Ghalib and Rumi since it was getting difficult for him to hold a book in his hands. I helped wash up when he threw up each morsel of food he had eaten for lunch. His mystic’s calm was being shattered. After a sleepless night of terrible pain, he told me at dawn: “I’m going to die and I hope they allow me to die peacefully at home and not take me to the hospital. Why bother when I’m going to die anyway!”
But as the day broke, my parents took him away to a hospital in Srinagar. My older brother, Showket, went to visit him in the evening from our village, Bumthan, forty miles south of the capital city. When he returned, Showket reported that a doctor pricked Baba’s back and gathered a sack of plural effusion. The outcome was clear; the lung cancer had reached its most lethal stage.
I’ve lived the last ten years of my life away from Kashmir, the first seven years in Delhi, the rest in the countryside of California. I’ve even lost myself, however briefly, in the happier cities of San Francisco and Istanbul. I’ve strolled on a misty winter morning by Lake Michigan in Chicago. I’ve soaked myself in the ocher warmth of a summer afternoon in Santa Barbara. But as always, when the news of death reaches me, I long to return. In the distance when a somber sun is setting, I imagine, I’m walking back to my home, by the riverbank lined with chestnut trees, and as I pass by the village graveyard blooming with lilies, I stop and recite the poems for Baba at his gravestone, oval and conspicuous. And I shut my eyes to Nazir’s grave that is somewhere nearby.
When I return to my apartment, there is a pigeon perched on a pile of books on my table. I realize I’ve kept the door to the balcony ajar and once the pigeon enters, the door closes with a gust of faint wind. The pigeon gives me a distrusting look. It flies directly into the window. It bumps its head and bounces back. It flies to the other side of room into another window and bounces back and falls to the floor. It twists its neck and flaps its wings futilely. It flies and bounces back to the floor again. The transparency of escape is a deception. The pigeon is trapped and terrified. It looks at me and shuts its eyes. With one single squeeze of my hand, I can throttle the bird, I think, end it with one hammering blow of my heel. I walk across the room and open the door. The pigeon opens its eyes and flies out. It has started raining. In the blurry slice of the sky, I watch the ascending pigeon, opening its grey wings in the rain.
In the evening, I sit on my mattress, the only furnishing in the bare room. It is nearly a hundred degrees, dank and sultry, and my soaking shirt, sticks to my back. The ceiling fan is noise and doesn’t cool. An unannounced water-cut means I can’t take shower either. I’m reading Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. I try to concentrate.
After a while, rain lures me to the balcony. Suddenly, it becomes torrential. I stand mutely by the window and watch, over a smudge of the pigeon’s head, as thick raindrops accelerate, drumming on the roof, bathing the balcony, lashing furiously against the glass.
Hemingway presents war as a territory of human experience where all possibilities of love dwindle and vanish. The war’s promise of glory, the pursuit of valor, the coming of courage, the anticipation of victory, and the sense of doom and inevitability of human defeat that overwhelms the story at its end, sends me into the depths of my childhood. In the early 1990s, boys like Nazir, in their late teens, would leave home, all heroism and bravado, to go across the Line of Control, to the other part of Kashmir. They would train as militants there and then return to fight, for the principle of aazadi, freedom, against the Indian soldiers.
Nazir is a difficult memory. He is chubby, bovine, sincere, and even secretly romantic. I remember a few days before he left to cross over, he whispered to me: “Neelofar is very beautiful. When I come back and I’m grown up and responsible, I’ll ask her to marry me.” About four months later, when he returns, he is leaner, healthier. His hands move nimbly, his eyes darting back and forth. He has a thicker beard. He hides his Kalashnikov, slung across his shoulder, under his pheran. He is a member of the outfit they call Ikwanul Muslimoon.
Nazir lies buried in the mind’s forbidden faraways, on the margin of the village graveyard, obscured by nettle. I have been told that he died on July 22, 1995. Ikhwan by then had been co-opted by the Indian army to crush the armed rebellion by fighting other active militant outfits and breaking the morale of the common people who supported them. The day he died, I was away from home, at school in another village. I remember it rained on that day.
The rain was sudden and came down in brittle sheets, clattering against the corrugated tin roof of the two-storied brick building. Most other children had left since school was over. I waited; I sat on the upper steps of the wooden staircase leading to my classroom. I watched the rain flow in runnels to the thirsty school ground, sun-hardened and brown and without a blade of grass.
When I reached my village, a queer hush had fallen on the streets. At home everyone was quiet. I asked my mother what had happened. “They brought Nazir back today,” she said. The villagers had buried him hurriedly an hour before, and only the sky had wept. People left immediately and women did not beat their breasts or pull out their hair or strike their foreheads with their open palms; no elegies were sung. My mother cried quietly.
When I saw Neelofar, she clasped my arm and looked me in my eyes: “His chest was pierced with their bullets. He did not deserve that,” she said. She did not cry but her face flushed with rage. She wanted to say more; she had never talked to me about Nazir before. I said nothing and waited for her to speak. Even to this day, I regret my silence; I never mustered enough heart to ask her again what exactly she meant.
Later at night, when Showket came home, he narrated an account of the story hovering over the village. It was the soldiers who had killed Nazir, he told me. There are many kinds of Indian soldiers, more than half a million in number, stationed in Kashmir, but the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) are the most dreaded. They had destroyed him.
Nazir and three other members of Ikhwan had gone to Zabelpor, a village a few miles north of my own, near the Jammu-Srinagar highway. They had gone there in a white ambulance from their base camp in Anantnag to capture a militant who worked with Hizbul Mujahideen (The Party of Holy Warriors). 3 It was a coincidence that some troopers of the Border Security Force (BSF) paramilitary happened to be present in the village.
With a dictator’s fleeting sense of impunity and untrammelled power, Ikhwan had been turned into a pack of wolves; they brutalized their own people without qualms or restraint. But that day, when the residents of Zabelpor saw the white truck entering the village and heard Nazir and his companions asking for the militant’s whereabouts, they gathered and shouted at them in unison and drove them back to the truck. Nazir and his companions did not fire at the villagers for fear they wouldn’t return alive. The crowd was large and agitated.
As the driver pulled away, someone shouted: “These men of Hizbul Mujahideen will kill us, these men of Hizb…,” and pointed toward the truck as it sped away from the village, leaving a dust cloud behind. The troopers of Border Security Force did exactly what the astute villager wanted. They messaged a group of Rashtriya Rifles patrolling the highway.
The troopers of Rashtriya Rifles stopped the truck midway, between Bijbyor and Khanbel, near Shuhul Floor Mills. They demanded the men exit the truck. Nazir was shocked to see the troopers pointing their guns, their hands ready on triggers. He shouted that he was their own, an ikhwaen, but they wouldn’t listen to him. In a panic, he wrapped his pheran around his head as they shot him repeatedly in the chest. Then they shot two of his companions. The driver, also a member of Ikhwan, screamed in fury and frustration. He was so enraged that he kicked open the window and jumped down to the road. He shouted that he was an ikhwaen but to no avail. The driver seized the officer by the collar and head-butted him, as if to demonstrate his loyalty.
All this happened in broad daylight, while cars and buses passed. The passengers watched while the troopers circled the driver with daggers drawn. They barked at him. They stabbed him. Then they stabbed him, until his shredded clothes fell from his lacerated body. And then, in the thickening veil of his own blood, he dropped to the ground.
In the last chapter of A Farewell to Arms, Henry realizes that Catherine is going to die and remembers his war friend, Aymo. I’m struck by the intensity of Henry’s confusion, and it stirs and mingles with my own confusion. Amid the thousands of images whirling in my mind, it is Baba lying on the road along with the driver, his shirt torn open, his chest pierced, his body bare and festooned with a thousand gurgling gashes. It is Baba lying there, while the soldiers, drunk with blood, stand and brandish their daggers, cutting wounds in the red dome of the sky. And it is Nazir, about to be strangled in his bed, a dove-gray pigeon with its eyes shut to the world, hoping to elude the ineluctable angel of death. And it is Neelofar, holding his one hand, as she rests her elbow on the windowsill, a cold, controlled smile on her ashen face, looking with clear, gleaming eyes into the future. She beckons a gathering rainstorm to come and wash over his mud-stained, disgraced face.
No one talks about Nazir in the village. Like all other betrayers, like Sheikh Abdullah who after years of heroic resistance and champion leadership succumbed and sold his soul to India, Nazir is unforgivably unremarkable. But such is the cruel logic of war, that at the very last moment of his life, he was pushed to be who he was, a Kashmiri, and killed across that unmistakable fault-line, on his very own side. A fact that he was forced to acknowledge, for a split second, as he feigned a pigeon’s blindness by wrapping his pheran around his eyes.
And again, and yet again—and why should I not, it is my home—I return. One interminable graveyard, the place of my eternal rest. I dream the day: my funeral orchestrated under a drizzling shower of autumn rain, and from the branches of the chestnut trees, russet leaves fall on my face and my outstretched hands, and from the windows of Bumthan’s elegant houses, elegies being sung; I’d be buried in the same graveyard near Baba, and away from Nazir.
On the morning of the 14th of August, as Delhi awakes to prepare for the Independence Day celebrations, I walk past the cybercafé which I don’t bother to enter. After bearing the suspicions of the attendant, his demands of passport every time I—a potential malefactor— enter, I set an Internet connection at my apartment. I cross the road. I stand under a bougainvillea hanging down from the ruin of an ancient stone wall. It begins to rain. I’m not in California anymore, I realize, where stealing a rose by the roadside could mean a $250 fine. I slowly extend my hand and tear a branch.
I resume walking on the broken sidewalk, away from the cybercafé. A car whizzes past, honking indifferently. In this city, I have nowhere to go. The raindrops keep falling on the flowers as I hold them in my cupped hands, the flowers which by their very nature have no scent. I close my eyes. I listen to the desolate noise of the raindrops falling on the cobblestones and the road. I open my eyes. I look upward into the darkening heavens, and in that odd, sodden moment, I wonder whether it would ever rain a rain over Delhi that would make the bougainvilleas fragrance soak the city, sweet and aromatic.
Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.
1. Sheikh Abdullah was the most prominent politician during 1930s and 1940s, who envisioned a secular, democratic, free Kashmir. He led the 1953 land reforms in which land was transferred form the feudal lords to the tillers like Baba. Sheikh Abdullah was later jailed and exiled by the Indian government.↩
2. The British proposed that the Muslim majority states would go to Pakistan, in the upper eastern and western flanks, while the Hindu and Sikh majority states would go to India. The rest, the independent princely states, would choose a dominion of their choice. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, which had a Muslim majority of 77% but a Hindu king, Hari Singh, did not fit into this simplistic formula of Partition. Despite being an unpopular autocrat, Hari Singh did not want to either accede with India or with Pakistan and held his decision until it became unavoidable. In the end what happened was, Indian troops landed in Kashmir and occupied the airport in Srinagar. This happened just before the Pukhtoons began marching towards Srinagar from the northern district of Baramulla. The fighting did not stop, however. India and Pakistan fought their first war on Kashmir until, after a series of bloody skirmishes in the mountainous regions like Uri, a mutual ceasefire was reached by the end of December in 1948. In fact, the de facto border called Line of Control was reached, dividing the political people, Kashmir, and the territories were held by two warring newly born, bloodthirsty nations. The Indian statist narratives of history emphasize the invasion of Pukhtoon tribesmen from the side of Pakistan on October 22, 1947, and Hari Singh willingly and legitimately acceding with India on October 26, though in the end the decision was his alone. Many other circumstances, as discussed by Australian analyst Christopher Snedden in his book, Kashmir: The Unwritten History—for instance, the uprising of the Muslims in Poonch against Hari Singh, the inter-religious violence in the Jammu province prior to the invasion, or for that matter, the ‘friendship’ which Sheikh Abdullah enjoyed with the would-be Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, at that time, and the effect of that dynamic on Hari Singh’s cataclysmic, undemocratic decision—remain largely unspoken.↩
3. An indigenous militant outfit, initially heavily backed by Pakistan and favored and ideologically endorsed by Jamat-e-Islami.↩