Let me write of the prisoners
in whose hearts, all our yesterdays
dawned like sparkling gems.
And burning, burning through
the dark wind of prison nights
are now but distant stars.
The Neelum flowed in full majesty. It was early May and the glaciers in the Himalayas had started melting at a greater pace and this has caused a sudden surge in the volume of the water. The raging river traversed down the valley with such ferocity that it would give palpitations even to the bravest onlookers. It was swift and strong. Its roar was deafening, and one would feel as if it was still carrying the wails of the past within its flow, cries of all those who lost their life in it—the screams of humans as well as the many howls of animals drowned within. After travelling a great distance from its origin, the colour of the river would change from the sapphire that gives it its name, to a steady turquoise. In short, it was impossible for a living creature to be near the Neelum and not be bewildered by its grandeur.
Not far from its bank, a kid sitting on a huge rock seemed unmindful of the magnificence of the great river in front of him. Something had got a hold of this young boy as he looked deeply lost. The raging sea of thoughts in his mind had made the great river before him sound like a quite stream. From the last few days, a question had taken over his otherwise calm mind by storm. The river right before him was not just a river; it was also the Line of Control between his small village called Athmuqam in Azad Kashmir and the village on the other side, Teetwal. A Line of control between two maniacal countries that would, for reasons unknown to him, fire mortars at each other on a daily basis.
Whom or what this line of control was controlling, he had absolutely no idea. “How come the other side of the river is forbidden to me?” the boy would ask himself frequently, thinking “when it is exactly the same as this one”. The people, their language, their culture, their houses, the smoke from their chimneys, the muddy lanes, torn clothes, laughers of joy and cries of pain and helplessness. There was not one little thing that distinguished his side from those on the other side of that body of water. The country he was told he lived in seemed somewhat alright to him, it was called Pakistan. But the same could not be said about the one on the other side. It had three names, and the boy would start to think that there was something very wrong with that. Or else why would they call it India, Bharat and Hindustan all at the same time?
In all reality, he had no idea even what Pakistan was. All he knew was that his village was stuck to a mountain as bread sticks to the kiln of a bread maker. The river the village was adjacent to was the only familiar site to him along with the other side with a mountain that also defined the horizon. And the question of what was beyond, on the other side, of course was forbidden, a mere subject of taboo. For a moment he began to think it was just a dreamscape. He was, by all means of his imagination, dreaming within his daydream. He started wishfully imagining that the other side was no longer prohibited, that he was free to go there, and that it was as beautiful as his side, with the two divided sides joined by a complementing and indistinguishable beauty. He wanted to go there, and not come back, for some time at least. And in that distracted moment of euphoria as he shifted his gaze upwards, a blurred image at a distance on the far side of river appeared and suddenly crashed his dream, turning his happy little face into one full of disappointment.
The boy suddenly found himself face to face with his, at times subtle yet consistently gruesome, reality, and his dream was shattered. He was living in a prison without set physical coordinates and bounds. His home, his village, his very existence imprisoned, watched over him as above the source of his disturbance manifest itself as a watch tower painted in camouflage colours on the Indian side of the river. The one on his side was nothing of the sort, just a few stones with a military man seen around it intermittently.
The same could not be said about the one on the other side. It was just fifty meters from the bank of the river and highly guarded with huge strobe lights mounted atop. It was one of the ugliest and the most despicable structure he had come to know, and the only thing standing between him and the other side. During his short life he had tried to ignore it, forcefully imagining it to not be there when it actually was, at all times. And yet it was an imposition that did not belong there, with its looming figure disrupting an otherwise serene and pleasant landscape. To him and the rest of the village, it was alien, but not more than the men standing within it, scrutinizing everyone and everything within its proximity and within its periphery. The watch tower was much more than what the little boy’s mind could grasp. The number painted in black on a white board mounted on the tower read “1947.”
It was almost evening now. The boy had no recollection of how quickly time had passed and for how long he had been in that state of vertiginous thinking on that humongous rock. The rays from the descending sun started reflecting on the green waters of river for the last moments of the day. The boy wanted to enjoy the view for a few minutes more but he soon realised he had to leave as the sunsets were very brief in mountains and were abruptly followed by a blinding darkness. Quickly, he put all the shells he had collected earlier into his pockets and very carefully climbed down the rock, making his way back home while playfully kicking things coming in his way.
As he approached his home, he saw his grandfather making ablution for the evening prayers. He stopped in awe to watch the drops of water from his grandpa’s white beard roll down his aged face, acquiring a copper hue beneath the last rays of the sun as the evening silently came to a fold. Undeniably for him, his grandfather was the most important person in his life. The same was true for his grandpa. Some twelve years and eight months ago when the boy was born, his grandpa in a moment of utmost joy and optimism had named him Aazad (free). In their imprisoned lives, entrapped in the mountains with their gaudy structures of surveillance, more prominent on one side than the other, even the name Aazad represented a ray of hope. As his grandpa saw him approaching, he smiled and told him to go inside the house as it was going to be dark soon. Aazad obediently went to the kitchen, called his mother and asked for dinner. He was served goat milk with corn-flour rotis (bread). He put one roti in the milk and blended it into a paste with his hands and started munching away while wondering when he was going to get a beard as majestic as his grandfather’s, but certainly not as white and grey.
After he finished his dinner, it took him no time to jump into his bed. A few minutes later, his grandpa entered his room and Aazad was ready with his daily set of questions that the old man had already become weary of answering. With a slight hesitation Aazad began his inquisitive yet innocent interrogation.
“Grandpa, who decided the river should be the border?”
“Big politicians did my son.”
“Only they know better, son.”
“What about your brother you told me about on the other side?”
The old man took a deep sigh and it made his chest ache. With a heavy voice he replied “it was not in our destiny to be together.”
“But grandpa I can easily cross the river if I want.”
“Yes you can son, but you are not allowed to and you most certainly will not. You see it is not the river but the tower that decides such things for us.”
As the old man had barely uttered the word “tower”, a strong strobe light from its gigantic orb passed sweeping through, crashing into the dim room right before their eyes. Perplexed into silence, the two imagined it to be reading their thoughts and peering into their conversation.
“Go to sleep now dear Aazad.”
With this the old man kissed his forehead and the boy closed his eyes.
The next day when Aazad awoke, the sun was already shining bright. It was almost 9 a.m. Aazad came out of his house to wash his face at the drum full of water in the lawn. But as he looked on the other side, what he saw was a cricket match being played on the ground beyond the river. The other side had a playground that Aazad could only dream of. It was one of the pressing reasons to go there, and what it would take for him was just a few powerful strokes of swimming, such that even the mighty river could not stop him. But he was not allowed to go, under any circumstances. In excitement, he ran all the way to the top of his house to get a better view. The game was going on great. Aazad had fallen in love with cricket ever since he had heard the roars of fans coming out of the radio set. He would, for days, listen to broadcast commentary with his grandpa. He watched the game across the river with great anticipation, wondering how it would have been had he been there, playing on a team with the other boys. After the game ended, he ran downstairs to pick up the bat that his grandpa had made for him from a log retrieved from the previous year’s floods. He walked towards the small fields near the river to find his friends who were busy playing hopscotch. After a brief pause, Aazad mustered some courage to ask, “which of you will be playing bat ball with me today?”
There was no answer.
“Come on, let’s play some cricket, it’s going to be awesome!” he continued with a convincing effort to get them on board.
One of his friends in a red shirt shouted at the top of his voice, “We don’t want to play any cricket-schricket, throw that goddamn bat in the river!” while the group laughed, amused by their cohort’s bold rejection.
Aazad felt humiliated, but he was not going to give it up that easily. So he made them a proposition they could not reasonably refuse.
“Ten big shells for those who play with me.”
Only a few seconds had passed since Aazad had uttered those persuasive words that a group of kids was following him towards the pitch. But it had been only half done. Aazad was having a really difficult time in making his highly disinterested friends bowl or bat properly. The most interesting case was Aazad’s cousin Rizwaan. After hours of teaching them, he was given a ball to bowl. Rizwaan took some deep breaths, while Aazad held the bat firmly in his hands. As Rizwaan started running towards the bowling zone, he looked like a perfect bowler, but that too became a figment of Aazad’s hopeful imagination. The moment Rizwaan was about to release the ball, he paused for a second, and threw it with an under-arm action. The ball slowly rolled itself to Aazad’s feet, who at that ultimate second gave up on the idea of hitting what was without a doubt a dead ball.
Aazad, the anticipating batter, was furious and disappointed, “Damn it! You can’t even throw a ball properly!”
To such criticism, Rizwaan reacted with equal fury and anger, “To hell with this devilish cricket! And your shells! We will play our hopscotch! If you want to play this cricket-shricket, go to the other side! They are always playing this impossible game!”
Aazad couldn’t say a word to counter him, and as he stood outnumbered in opinions, his friends were gone. Incited by the heat of that episode, he decided to take a swim in the river. He took off his shirt and looked towards the other side. Four boys of his age were preparing to bathe in the river on the other side. He could talk to them if they shouted out loud to one another. On both sides, these boys swam only in the parts of the river where the flow was a lot milder, since going inwards to the middle was dangerous because the current significantly increased such that it could move tanks as if they were made of paper.
Aazad shouted across to one of them and asked about the next day’s match. The boy across told him it was going to start early and would go on for the whole day. Aazad asked them if he could come over to their side and play on their team. The boy happily said yes, provided he could make it quietly. Then one of the boys from the other side warned their group that it could be dangerous, and there was disagreement among them. One of the boys with a shaved head said that people were actually going across at odd hours, he had seen many do so. The boy reminded the lot that at some places the soldiers at the tower couldn’t see, but he warned that it was also the place where the river was most dangerous with its frenzied current. Aazad was deeply immersed in this conversation of loud shouts from across. They said their goodbyes and left to their respective sides, climbing over the banks to the ground that separated the two. Aazad put on his shirt, picked up his bat and marched towards his home.
The boy kept his bat near the door of his house and went straight towards the small wooden box with his collection of oyster shells. He counted them all and remembered the deep dives he had taken to extract them from the river. He had dived at the places no one would ever dare. He had swum where the river’s current was most challenging, where every inch of water would push one towards an engulfing vacuum. He put all the shells back in the box, had his dinner and went to bed. But something was not right.
On the next morning, his eyes opened up to the first call to prayer. After some time, the main door opened and his grandfather left for the mosque. Aazad was waiting, anxiously. Some thirty minutes later, he quietly got out of his bed, picked up his bat and came out of the house. It was a bit cold and the day has just started to recover control from the dark of the night, slowly pushing it away disarmingly towards the day’s first light. Aazad quietly made it to the river, which seemed dangerously calm. Just near its waters, he looked towards the distant tower, which seemed like a sleeping giant. Aazad put his right foot into the water and it felt awfully cold. He pulled back. After some hesitation, and determined to make it across for the cricket match, Aazad jumped in.
As he started pushing against the powerful currents of the mighty river, a sleeping figure suddenly emerged from the watch tower. Just when Aazad had made it to the center of the river and its most challenging part, the machine gun on the tower rattled. A muffled cry originated from the river and died instantly, sinking into the vacuum of its cold early morning waters.
A spot of red disrupted the turquoise green of the Neelum like a drop of mud dispersing in an otherwise clear spring.