Due to the mature content within this short story, reader discretion is advised.
The narrative, characters, and the conversations presented here are fictional. However, their resemblances, in part, with most of us, and, in whole, with some of us, are not coincidental. The resemblances are a product of our history. It is a history of centuries charged with subjugation and resistance, sacrifice and treason, and above all, it is a history of survival. In these notes, the author provides a detailed account of a road trip he took along with his friends from Pulwoam town in southern Kashmir to the Mughal Road and back, on an unspecified Eid day (for we do not know if it was “lakket” or “baedd” Eid) in an unspecified year. There are reasons to believe that the trip took place after the 2016 insurrection.
These notes are written from the first-person point of view (they were totally disorganized, and we have taken the liberty of organizing them in a linear narrative). However, we know almost nothing about their author. As such, the author is or may be as good as dead. History trudges along, nonetheless, sometimes slowly, sometimes apace, and always without any moral scruples, carrying some on its crest and burying others deep into the infinity of time.
The notes represent possibilities–such events might have happened, might happen, might be happening, as we speak. It is requested of the reader that the events, conversations, feelings, and thoughts narrated in this account must be understood in light of an active historical imagination.
I was eating lunch with Mama and Abu when the phone rang. It was Arif. He phoned in to remind me of our plan for the day—a motorcycle ride up to the Mughal Road and back. I hastened the pace of stuffing myself with the Eid leftovers, consisting of Yakhne, mattar-paneer, and chicken, along with cooked rice; a Kaeshur is always starving unless he’s had his rice. They say that three bananas are equivalent to one plate of cooked rice in terms of carb content but that’s all nutritionists’ bullshit; batte gov battai.
I put on my worn-out shit-brown Cargos and a black Duke, checked my wallet for all the valid ID proofs I might be required to produce upon being ordered to prove that I am really who I am. Then, I browsed through my mobile phone to “hide” any material that might incriminate me in the eyes of the police, or worse, the RR (there’s an app for everything!).
The only potentially incriminating material on my phone was a picture of Burhan, in army fatigues, with a vague smile on his finely sculpted face, against the backdrop of a lush green forest and an azure sky. I always end up putting off the intended deletion of the pic in my weekly phone-purges. The romantic within me revolts against such sacrilege, even though it is not entirely without danger to harbor any “secessionist” material in your heart, or your smartphone.
I take care to always keep at least one HD porn movie stored on my phone—preferably a Sunny Leone starrer because she’s more popularly recognizable in the Indian subcontinent than, say, Mia Khalifa—for purely self-defensive purposes. It has been found out, through experience and anecdote, that if you manage to pass off as a “hog-faced hedonist” in front of the army, your odds of receiving a beating, or worse a video-graphed beating, are reduced considerably. This strategy of “pornographic self-defense”, however, is not without its detractors. Every once in a while you are faced with an avuncular policeman on a checkpoint, who is a pious Muslim and inarticulately an Azadiparast as well. He might not thrash you, but he would certainly give you a disapproving look for the filth you carry with you. And your more religiously-minded friends might not find it very pleasing either. But a small price to pay, I suppose.
“I am going to see my friends,” I said to Mama.
“Do you have your ID on you?” she asked.
“Gachzz tele Khodayas hawal.”
Starting my old Avenger 220, decorated with Harley Davidson stickers and washed and polished overnight, I finally hit the road. A few minutes into the ride and I was at the Dangerpur crossing off the “Circle Road,” a broad motorway that runs along the periphery of the Pulwama town from Gonguv to Druss (I consider using the word “circle” for what’s at best only a semi-circular arc, the contribution by us, the Pulwamaites, to the culture of the post-truth). Arif and Oskar were sitting on a backless wooden bench beside the fruit vendor’s stall, along with another guy wearing a hat. He was someone I quickly recognized, while still being a few yards away, to be Furqan, an old chum from our school days.
All of us went to the same English-medium school, which in those days was one of the best ones in town. Our comradeship went a long way back.
Arif was a gentleman, a relatively uncomplicated fellow with many conventional virtues and a few conventional vices. He stood tall at above six feet, had a finely chiseled body as a result of years of training, a “marketable” square-jawed face with deep-brown eyes and an aquiline nose. He settled quite early into a long-term romantic relationship with a distant cousin whom, he hoped, one day he’d marry.
Oskar, on the other hand, was a total anti-Arif. He was shorter than most people, with a rotund body and the girth of a tree; he had a plump face, with a bulbous nose and a mischievous smile always there on it to perplex you. Nonetheless, he had a fine mind and was fluidly conversant in topics of politics, religion, history, theology, science, and more, in addition to having the juggling skills of maintaining multiple romantic liaisons simultaneously.
And, of course, Oskar was not his real name. The name got stuck after we watched an old German film together, one whose name I have now forgotten but in which the protagonist was an amusing midget named Oskar. At first, Oskar protested being called Oskar, but then he made his peace with being called Oskar, and eventually, I suspect, even came to like being called Oskar, although he had never publicly said so. However, you shouldn’t read too much into the sobriquet; our Oskar wasn’t really a midget, even though he was shorter than most people around.
And Furqan. Well, Furqan was an automobile engineer and a prematurely-balding self-proclaimed womanizer, with dark skin and a relatively permanent prurient look on his triangular face. Although he never shied away from describing his “exploits” in graphic detail, there was no way of ascertaining whether the particular story he was narrating was, wholly or in part, true or a product of his richly textured imagination. But whatever the case, his narrative style was remarkably gripping.
“Salaam Aliekum,” I greeted the group.
I shook hands and hugged all three one by one.
“Like always, you’re again late,” Arif complained.
“Oh please! Shut the fuck up,” Oskar interrupted.
“It’s been a long time since we were all together,” Furqan spoke, his pasty smile changing from prurient to genial.
“More than a year,” I responded.
“Okay guys, enough for now. Let’s get going,” Arif went into the “PT Sir mode,” issuing forth commands.
“Oskar will ride with you and I’ll ride with Furqan. Alright?”
And by the way, “PT Sir” was our physical education teacher in school, feared and loathed for his banal disciplinarianism and his disciplinary apparatus: a kappad loode.
“Fine, man. Calm down,” drawled Oskar, with a knowing chuckle.
Furqan kicked his Pulsar 180 that he had been scooting around for nearly half a decade now, and with Arif on the backseat, they speeded along the Exchange Road that passes through the center of the town. Oskar and I simply followed, although I would have preferred to move along the “Circle Road” and bypass the town altogether. It was one of those uncertain days in Pulwama when, in the morning, nobody is sure whether or not today is going to be another strike, and eventually it ends up being a quasi-shutdown of sorts. There was very little traffic—just an occasional private car and a few bikes. All the shops in the main street, except Aziz’s pharmacy, were closed; two cart vendors selling fruits, vegetables, and cigarettes in the upper–right corner of the Czu Wott; a blue-gray 407 truck of CRPF and a brand-new milk-white Rakshak, standing adjacent to each other in the lower–left corner, just next to the concrete wall of Shaheed Park.
The chowk was occupied by masked SOG men in khaki trousers and black tees, wearing bulletproof jackets and AKs slung over the shoulders, strutting around, carrying hockey sticks; there were also CRPF jawaans, quite a few of whom seemed, to be honest, a bit too old to be called “jawaans,” in riot gear, with AKs, a couple of Tavor bullpups, made in Israel and “battle-tested” on Palestinians, and, of course, the allegedly nonlethal pellet guns. A group of policemen, mostly middle-aged, were seated on the road-divider on the far side of the square along with their weapons and lathees, and their metal helmets in hand.
Since apparently no stones were being rained from anywhere at the moment, the “jawaans” were relatively relaxed, chewing tobacco and casually spit-painting the whitewashed wall of the Shaheed Park brick-red. We managed to pass through the square without gathering too much notice. And passing unnoticed is an unconditional good—here, there, everywhere in our world—if you do not have powerful connections.
Hurtling through the traffic–less main thoroughfare of the town, within just a couple of minutes, the District Police Lines headquarters were behind us.
Oskar: “Slow down, yaar! That’s not how you ride when you’re ‘just riding around’.”
“Yeah, but we aren’t just riding around; we are running away.”
“No man can run from Fate.”
And I decelerated down to 40-kph; optimum speed when you’re “just riding around.” At 40-kph, you could have a decent conversation with Oskar without significantly increasing the probability of a crash, and every once in a while peek into the apple orchards bordering the road to get a rough idea of this year’s crop; plus, at 40, the machine wouldn’t strain much.
Furqan and Arif were way ahead of us and nowhere in sight until we crossed the Khamberr tri-junction. The bike was parked on the side stand, tilting slightly to the left, beside a tea-shop, nearly fifty paces from the road. They were sitting on blue plastic chairs arranged around a mouse-gray rectangular plastic table, under the shade of a mulberry tree, in the small courtyard in front of the shop; Arif sucking at a foursquare and Furqan’s head buried into his phone, giggling. Over the years, after the Mughal Road was opened for public, many such small tea-shops had appeared along the length of the Pulwama-Shupiyan road.
“Tea?” Arif asked.
Oskar: “I need a Mountain Dew. I think I might have had a heavier-than-usual lunch today.”
“Tea for me,” I said. “Extra strong with less than normal sugar.”
“No tea for me, or anything else” Furqan shouted, without looking up from his phone.
“Ladden cze. Talaa thav ye phone band, “ Oskar snapped.
Furqan: “Just a minute; I am in the middle of something important here.”
“Fuck you,” blurted Oskar, and with quick steps climbed into the shop to serve himself with a Mountain Dew.
“Cigarettes,” I shouted behind him.
The tea was punchy, just the way I like it, and the freshly baked cakes felt lascivious in your mouth. Oskar lit himself a Foursquare and offered one each to Arif and I. Barring Furqan, who apart from being chronically addicted to his phone was also a non–smoker, the rest of us smoked our Foursquares, talking all the while about Furqan’s unhealthy obsession with his phone and women much older than him. And of course, he wasn’t paying any attention to all this.
“Nearrov tele?”, Arif asked just as I was thinking that we should hit the road again.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
It was mid-afternoon when we reached the Shupiyan town. The typical small-town market was open for business. A few policemen here and there patrolling the streets, chatting with the shopkeepers, eating jalebis from the food carts of migrant workers without paying them. Routine stuff. We snaked along the main street crammed with slow-moving taxis, mini-trucks, and private vehicles. The traffic thinned beyond the District Court complex, and I cranked the engine up a few notches.
We stopped on the outer perimeter of the Shupiyan town, near the plateau-like helipad, where the outgoing road forks into two: the road to Aharbal and Mughal Road proper. The helipad was a mass of raised earth, blacktopped, enclosed within razor wire on three sides, while the fourth side formed a disorienting precipice overlooking the mighty Rambbeh Aadeh. Someone had cut a tidy portal into the razor wire fence for public convenience. One by one, we climbed up onto the helipad, using the convenience portal as entry point, and settled down on the green grass on edge overlooking the canal.
A loud group of fashionable teenagers were jumping around, guffawing, and making weird faces while taking selfies.
“Poor devils! Life will fuck them soon enough,” Oskar opined with an amusingly curious look on his fleshy face. “Like it screwed us.”
The three of them got talking about a recent cricket match between India and Pakistan with peculiar excitement. I lay myself back on the rather prickly grass, looking up into the endless blue sky, when an old memory from the days of innocence invaded my mind: a girl in our class, who in those days was the eternal sweetheart of my hormone-driven steamy imagination, once told me that sky-blue was her favorite color; I went home, stealing money from Mama’s purse and bought a sky-blue shirt, and that summer, at great personal risk since she lived in a rough neighborhood, spent almost every evening in the street outside their house, in the same sky-blue shirt. Her window never opened.
The peculiar reminiscence from my own teenage years filled me with a confluence of feelings; I again felt a strange fondness for that girl and that time, mixed with small drops of hurt pride, ancient embarrassment caused by the forever unopened window, and the same timeless desire of a love unrequited.
“You sure you don’t want a cigarette?” a sharp voice stabbed me out my reverie. Arif was squatting beside my head, strangely smiling onto my face as if he was reading my mind, holding out a cigarette for me in his right hand.
“Yeah. I do want a cigarette. When did I ever say no?” I felt spooked.
I smoked in silence, gazing into the almost dry Rambbeh Aadeh, full large boulders. Sheep were grazing on the far side. I felt a mild sympathy for the dumb animals growing fat only to be slaughtered tomorrow or the day after. Did God look down and feel the same way about us, the humans? Did the dead look down at us too? I liked to think they do.
WE SET OUT AGAIN, this time on Mughal Road proper. You know the backdrop: the long winding road, the sublime mountains, the terrifying gorges, and majestic blue pine trees. The landscape, like a whorehouse, caters to the aesthetic desires of those interested in Kashmir’s skin.
“There are no beautiful surfaces without terrible depths,” Nietzsche raves somewhere. The epigram cuts like an ax through my flesh whenever I feel seduced by the unmistakable beauty of Kashmir. Tons of human flesh lay rotten under its exquisite surfaces.
The serpentine road was strewn with large boulders the mountains had sent down during the long and harsh winter. A large tree had fallen onto the road blocking nearly two-thirds of the way. And if you looked closely into the mountains, you could see trees stripped naked by snowstorms. The road-coolies were engaged in the Sisyphean task of filling up the enormous holes that the snow and rain would throw open again next winter.
“I feel like we should turn back. I have a bad churning in my gut,” Oskar spoke, sounding morose.
“Everything okay?” I asked.
“Either I am getting food poisoning or my gut is trying to convey a message. In any case, I think we should turn back.”
“Oh, so now you too are Ahad Bab e Sopore?” I chuckled.
“I am spooked here and you… Fuck you!” He was visibly cross with me.
“Theek hai. Let’s catch up with Furqan and Arif, and we’ll all turn back,” I said, as I stepped on the gas of motorcycle.
“Why don’t we just phone them?” he sounded annoyed.
“I don’t think abhi phone main signal hoga,” I replied.
He checked his phone. “Nope. No signal. Fuck it.”
It took us just a few minutes to catch up to them.
“We are turning back,” I shouted.
“What? Why?” Furqan yelled back.
“He is not feeling well. Plus, it quite nippy up here. Sardi hojayegi.”
And we turned back down.
The journey downhill was rapid and smooth, up to the point where I hit the brakes, more or less unconsciously, and the motorcycle swerved dangerously. We almost fell down.
“What the fuck?” yelled Oskar.
“Fouj ha. Talaeshi karaan,” I said, mutedly.
A wave of something rose within my body from the feet, through the torso, to the head: crystallized fear. I was shit–scared.
Lately, a lot had been written about the alleged “death of fear” in Kashmir, mostly by people who spent most of their days outside Kashmir. Bullshit, I say. Ensconced in their plush university offices they’ve lost the touch with the “lived experience” of the grotesque political violence we are being subjected to as well as a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Kashmir does not rebel because there’s no fear; Kashmir rebels despite its million fears. The fear of broken bones, of cracked skulls and punctured eyeballs. Fear of ruptured anuses and mutilated vaginas. Fear of mangled bodies and chopped–off limbs. Despite. Despite.
The Indian soldiers had descended upon the road exactly at the point of convergence of Mughal and Aharbal roads into the main Shupiyan-Pulwom road. There was an olive colored Caspirr parked in the acute angle formed by the intersection of the two incoming roads. Caspirr, a.k.a. Kasper, a.k.a. Zaruell (spider), the armored personnel carrier used by India’s counter-insurgency force in Kashmir, the Rashtriya Rifles, has become a metaphor for the near-indestructibility of the Indian rule as well as the unconquerable spirit of the Kashmiri resistance. It is immune to our stones; it deflects them back with equal force. And every stone is an insult to the emperor who is naked despite being clothed by the impenetrable steel of the Kasper.
Around two dozen people, most of them young men like us, were lined up. A soldier at the head of the queue was checking IDs, and another one, standing just behind him, on alert, focused on us. He watched closely our every movement, our every gesture. Ahead of Oskar and I, in the identification queue, was a boy. He wouldn’t have been more than sixteen. He was medium height and slim built, though not skinny, and dressed crisp black kurta and white pajamas, plus white skullcap. And perhaps half a bottle of some mid-range ittar.
As we slowly neared the card-checking soldier, the young boy became visibly fidgety. I could almost smell the fear and panic he was experiencing.
“La bhai card la apna,” ordered the massively–built trooper in Haryanvi accent. Or perhaps Punjabi. I am not sure. The fear had settled in to blur even their accents.
“Sir card ghar main hi bhool gaya hai aaj,” replied the boy in a timorous voice.
“Saadey, behenchod, abhi yahien pe gaand marunga teri main sab ke saamne.”
He slapped the boy forcefully, shaking him like the autumn wind shakes the poplars, sometimes even breaking them in half.
“Side hoja. Teri khabar leta hun abhi,” thundered the soldier, and he pushed the boy sideways toward the guardrails.
Oskar’s ID was thrown onto the road with extreme prejudice, because his professed birthdate didn’t not match with the one on his voter’s card. Not that he didn’t know when he was born, but voter IDs issued by Indian authorities in Kashmir frequently come with “generic” DoBs. For instance, according to the Election Commission of India, both my parents and I, were born on XX/XX/1980.
On my part, I had memorized every teeny tiny detail on my Aadhaar. I didn’t give the trooper any excuse to lash out at me. Not that an Indian soldier actually needs an excuse to harm a Kashmiri Muslim. The wretchedness of our situation is defined by its arbitrariness.
The soldier gave back my ID and gestured, with the index finger of his left hand, asking me to run. He didn’t look at me at all. I was extremely relieved and deeply insulted at the same time. I hopped away, diagonally, to the other side of the road where I had parked the motorbike.
Beside the parked motorbikes, leaning against a balustrade, was a pitch black army-wala, with a square jaw and large, protruding lips. He reminded me of Marlon Samuels and Angelina Jolie simultaneously. He seemed like a cross between the two, a grotesque hybrid of sorts. And for some reason, I was, and still am, convinced that he lived in some village in Orissa. His face was expressionless, and he seemed to be staring intently into absolutely nothing. The index finger of his right hand was on the trigger of his semi-automatic AK-47. I still feel a strange pity for him, and I have no idea why.
I fumbled with the keys. The Bajaj Avenger’s lock-and-ignition slot is placed on the right side below the fuel tank, and that made the fumbling worse. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I finally managed to insert the key inside, start the engine, and rush off. I almost forgot I had to wait for the guys. I stopped again, about three hundred meters from the checkpoint, waiting, and watching the spectacle of power and humiliation from a relatively safer place.
There are situations in life where obeying the absurd and irrational commands of your tormentors is the only rational strategy. And, in my homeland, these types of “situations” are forced upon us every day. Still, I haven’t gotten used to it. None of us have gotten used to the irrationality and the arbitrariness of our condition. Some things the body and the soul simply refuse to make peace with.
Oskar was the first one to reach to the point where I was waiting. Arif and Furqan came after quite some time. They all looked beaten down, and so did I, perhaps.
“I was afraid ki koi call na karay. The ringtone on my phone is ‘choan Burhan myeon Burhan’,” Furqan said.
“Shoot…I almost rang you up,” I replied.
“Think before you call someone who’s being questioned by the RR,” he said with a nervous chuckle.
“Think before you fucking breathe,” Arif snapped, and in frustration he kicked a Mountain Dew tin can that was lying strewn on the tarmac topped road.
“Let’s get going,” I said. “Aagey shayad aur checkpoints hon.”
“I can’t take this anymore. The next time I drive to Shupiyan would be with an AK-47 in one hand and an RPG in the other,” Oskar muttered.
“Oh, so you’re never coming to Shupiyan again,” guffawed Furqan.
“No, not really,” Oskar replied, with no particular expression on his face.
“Don’t act as if there’s no military in Pulwama.”
“Of course, there is military in Pulwama. These monsters are everywhere. But I’d prefer dying close to home and getting a proper burial to being picked up on Mughal Road and becoming another unmarked grave.”
“Does it matter what happens to our bodies once we are dead?”
“Not to the dead, perhaps. But it matters to those who love us. We belong, in life and in death, to those who love us and those we are in love with.”
“Every human being deserves a proper end,” I said, slowly and carefully measuring every word while simultaneously feeling the crushing weight of what I had just heard.
From there, the journey back down was uneventful. Oskar was silent. I didn’t say anything either. Upon reaching the Czu Wott (4-Way), we said goodbye to Furqan and Arif. They went straight and we turned right. I needed to drop Oskar off before going home myself.
Upon reaching Oskar’s residence, we sat on the bank of the creek that flows beside his house. It was one of those streams that hadn’t turned into a gutter yet. We were silent for a long time.
“What will become of us?” I broke the silence.
“Nothing. They’ll keep beating us down as long as they can, and when they feel they can no longer continue along the course, those crazy degenerates will blow everything up.”
“I’d prefer not to imagine such a gory end,” I said.
“Me neither. But on days like this, you can’t help but imagine such a possibility,” he was looking down as if studying the grass, blade by blade.
“Only God can help us out of our bondage,” he continued, “but he seems to be taking an awful lot of time. There’s nothing we can do but hope that his thunder strikes with such might that it pulverizes the whole Hindutva empire.”
“God’s staff will strike when it does, but, in the meantime, we are gonna have to keep on resisting. We cannot just sit and wait, can we?”
“Well, we will keep resisting. Is there some other option? I mean, resistance is not something you do. It’s something that happens through you. It’s there, in the very scheme of things. I hit you, you react. Resistance is natural; it’s an instinct. It’s deep and unyielding. And resistance can only end in our total victory over the Indians, that is, when we force them to leave our home, or it can end with our total annihilation by Indians, to the last man, woman, and child.”
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe,” I said, quoting Frantz Fanon.
“Now, Fanon was a guy who understood oppression. Natte gaye saene zokke intellectual.”
“Do you really believe there is a possibility that India would exterminate us? Don’t you think it’s a little alarmist?” I asked. “I mean, with the Internet, social media, and all that jazz, it doesn’t seem likely to me.”
“Rwanda happened in 90s, and Bosnia as well. And Syria is happening as we speak,” he went on. “That the world is moving toward universal peace is a dangerous illusion. If anything, it’s becoming more and more volatile by the day. Man has been living on borrowed time ever since he made the bomb—the nuclear bomb, I mean. Just think about it, one crazy nut can set off a chain of events resulting in apocalypse.”
“Now, for the sake of argument, let’s agree that for most states there are complex procedures for launching nukes, and there are a number of checks, but what about nuclear terrorism? It remains a real possibility, no? Eventually, someone from among the wretched of the earth might get their hands on the bomb, and that’ll let the dogs out, so to speak.”
“My God! That is some scary shit,” I murmured.
“Yes, and the only hope of the hopeless. The Samson option. Let me die with the Philistines!”
He had a radiant smile on his face, as though he himself was Samson and had brought down the temple on the Philistines.
“I think most people would prefer to just live rather than destroy the whole world, no matter how unjust the world is or has been to them and their kind. I know I would,” I said.
“Yeah, but some wouldn’t. And eventually, because of all the technical progress, it would be possible for a few people to burn down the whole world, or at least significant parts of it. I told you once to read Baudrillard’s essay: The Spirit of Terrorism. It’s available online.”
“I pray those people get syphilis.”
“Well, because it took Nietzsche.”
Both of us laughed, at ourselves, at the world, at fate, at syphilis, at Nietzsche. And then we were silent for a long time.
. . .
I went to bed early that night without eating anything. There was no sleep. I tried to focus on my breathing with no success. Without making a sound, I went outside, into the little garden in front of our house. I lay back on grass moistened by the dew. The night sky was beautiful, and that made me sadder. I thought about the medium height and slim-built boy at the checkpoint. I’ll never know what became of him. I’ll never know his name. I listened to Ali Sethi hauntingly evoke love in the ruralscape of Punjab, on the loop:
kotthray uthay kotthra mahi
kotthay sukh diyan tooriyan
kalliyan raatan jaag ke
assan ginnyan teriyaan dooriyan.