Muzaffar Karim brings us an excerpt from his post-apocalyptic novel set around 2050 when a nuclear attack by India has wiped off Kashmir from the face of the earth, leaving behind a few survivors. Among them, a few people are still fighting back, including Qais, the narrator, who is part of the Resistance. Qais's only companion, besides Hamdan, is an old charred children’s book miraculously discovered beneath the rubble. The book narrates the story of the magical valley of Ka and the subsequent weakening of that magic due to the conjured up 'Grandspell' by surrounding evil neighbors.
The past few months have pitted us against an apocalypse. The city around us is attaining a new meaning. In this excerpt (Chapter 9 of the novel) Qais and Hamdan reactivate the wrecked subway and see Kashmir from a different perspective.
All the surrounding houses of concrete and charred wood have fallen into one another, blocking the entry completely. Hamdan hands me the headlight cap and enters through a broken window down the decrepit khatambandh ceiling into a washroom.
As I jump down, I slip over the dirty ceramic tiles. He grabs my arm. It is pitch dark except for the tunnel of light shot lumnisciently through our caps. As I get hold of the wall, he crawls through some cracks in the floor and some ceilings until we reach a small dingy room. The ceiling of the room has broken down, taking with it the wooden almirah with some tattered clothes barging through the cracks like wagging tongues. It is suffocating.
In the midst of all this rubble, a gigantic old-fashioned clock is firmly entangled horizontally. The rear pendulum end of the clock is broken apart and stuck in another corner of the concrete wreckage. He opens the broken window framing the huge dial and takes it out carefully. He does it meticulously like a professional thief opening a well-locked safe. There’s a hollow passage behind it. He crawls through it while I follow behind. He has promised to show me something extraordinary. We crawl through it until we reach a rail track.
“Welcome to the Maisuma Subway Station,” Hamdan shouts proudly in a muffled voice through his gasmask. I hear the voice as if through a wireless radio. I cough and feel dizzy. I sit on the metallic railings of the track. He digs deep inside his army bag and hands me a gasmask similar to the one that Zulfi owns. I put on the mask and take a deep breath that cracks like a radio signal.
“Finally!,” Hamdan shouts, “The X-generation in the evolutionary chain of Kashmir loses its adaptive capabilities in these hollow passages of the past.”
I try to decipher the sarcasm behind his words with the fresh energy from the clean air filling my lungs. I look at him directly but the tunnel of light exposes his back. He’s looking in some other direction. He moves as if under some spell while I follow him like a child. We walk through the subway tubes following the metal tracks. At one point, he stops and places his hand on what seems to me like an old wagon with metal wheels. He taps it twice and smiles at me.
“This is it!” And with that he climbs over the wagon. “Come on!” he asks me enthusiastically as he gives me his hand. I climb over the flat surface.
“We have come to the centre of the earth,” I speak with a loaded grin, “for this wagon cart?”
“This wagon cart, my friend, will take you through half of old Srinagar.”
“What?” I ask him through the irritating mask that hardly fits.
“How?” I add as he climbs down without answering my question.
“A good friend waits patiently,” he answers without looking at me while he pulls the lids of various containers that, to me, look like old pressure cookers. He works patiently like a scientist in a lab while I look like a rube who has no idea. “But Subway trains worked on electricity,” I say in a deep scientific voice to prove my existence.
“I have been trying to generate electricity for some months,” Hamdan answers while adding some cubes to the pressure containers. “But all in vain. I even tried to reverse engineer an isolated coach on another track but couldn’t make it move an inch.”
“But with this baby we can fly,” he says in an appreciating tone as the light from my cap illuminates his brown eyes.
“But how?” I am about to ask when suddenly the pressure containers crackle with life. “My dear old friend James Watt,” he says and I can bet he’s smiling behind that mask.
A strong steam whistle blows and the wagon starts to twitch. I grab its edges and Hamdan climbs over hurriedly.
“This is a gift for you on losing your mind,” he tells me with an obvious teasing tone. “And for seeing ghosts!” He giggles.
As the wagon gains speed, Hamdan looks at me and yells, “Buckle up because we are going down, down, down!”
The wagon goes down for quite some length and for the whole time I am scared to death. Technically this is my first train ride. As we kiss the ground level, I see Hamdan contemplating over the inner walls of this subway tunnel.
“Free Kashmir” – I see a graffiti scribbled hurriedly by an earlier generation. “You’re already dead”, “Fucking Zombies”, “Long Live the Revolution” – we read many such messages sprayed over the walls. Careless scribbling by someone to combat ennui is now a codified message – this is how the past has always influenced the future, from cave paintings to these smudged lines upon the walls of an abandoned subway. My philosophic musing is broken by Hamdan’s poetic remembrance:
Kohr ki soorat bey-ronaq dardoon ki gudli lehar
Basta hai is kohray key peeche roshniyon ka sheher
Aey roshniyon key sheher
He yells in an optimistic and musical tone as the wagon comes closer to the dim light at the far end of the tunnel. His Faiz is not able to tickle my inner stoic. I remember Lowell:
if we see a light at the end of the tunnel,
it’s the light of an incoming train
The incoming train is coming with the speed of destruction, with a blinding vision of darkness that engulfs even the ‘City of Lights’. But I’ve never seen Hamdan so happy and definitely never seen him singing. So I forget Lowell and try to remember our academic exercises together. In the absence of books and internet, we only had our memory. For years, Hamdan and I with some elders engaged in a sort of academic-spiritual-verbal dance where we exchanged and memorised each other’s favourite writers, quotes or information. We don’t know much about most of these writers.
I memorised Lowell, for example, from Kafar Bhai. Kafar Bhai’s real name was Tawheed and he was an adamant atheist of his generation. Because his name was in ironic contrast to his belief and everyone called him Kafir, he changed it to Kafar. Kafar Bhai promised me a devoted lecture on Lowell’s poetry but died in the ‘Seige of Sonwar’. So, I remember many Lowell lines but don’t know who he was or what kind of poetry he wrote.
“Abracadabra!” Hamdan shouts as the wagon comes out from the tunnel into the open. “I cleaned that exit some days back,” Hamdan says proudly.
This was the Barbarshah line and down below the deserted space where cement, iron, chemical, mud and tons of concrete have imploded into each other. Multiplying this vision thousand times over is Kashmir. This is for the first time that I am seeing the place from up above this metro bridge. How horrific and full of awe this vision is. The wagon cart coughs as it goes up the bridge. It jerks and jolts and in a moment I feel we’ll roll backwards. Before that could happen, Hamdan pulls out a cube and pours it down one of the containers. And another and then another. He pulls a wire, one of the containers whistles and with that the wagon roars upward. I don’t dare to ask what the cube is. I try to contain the enormous vision in my eye but the valley of debris and shred hurts my vision. The upward line has ended and we are now running parallel to the rubble beneath. This was Chinar Bagh that contained chinars all along its length. The track circles the border of the golf course that at one time recently was the largest slum area in Kashmir. The track circles a bit towards Dalgate. Way beneath us I can see the coilings of Shahmaar containing all the metallic wastes. We are about to reach Dalgate when Hamdan pulls two wires with a strong force. With loud whistles, the ‘thing’ or the ‘engine’, whatever was pulling the wagon, dies. The inertia takes us to some length and we are in front of the Dalguzaar.
The metro-bridge actually forks towards Habak and Shalimar, Hamdan explains in response to my query of stopping the wagon. But the bridge is damaged from this point on.
“This is the first and the last terminal of our short journey,” Hamdan adds in a low but happy voice. We climb down the wagon and walk a length or two till we reach the point where the bridge collapses. It’s a deep abyss as we look down. We both sit down at the very edge of this bridge and look down upon the deep gorge of Dalguzaar.
Before the nuke attack, the gorge held the pristine waters of the Dal Lake. The nuke smouldered the water leaving the barren lake-bed exposed. With no land remaining to bury the dead, people started burying people within the Dal. In no time, the lake swelled with a multitude of marked and unmarked graves. Someone called it “Dalguzaar” in derision and the name stayed.
Seeing something from a different point of view changes your perspective – this is not only true about people but also about cities. I see this desolation that we call Kashmir with such heavy historic nostalgia after a long time. My inner stoic loosens within me. I look at Hamdan and smile – the smile that he can’t see with this stupid mask on. I start to remove the mask. The same rust stinking air fills my nostrils. I smile at Hamdan with an obvious thanks shining through my eyes. He lifts his arm and removes the headlight-cap that we both have forgotten in this journey. I remove his cap. He unmasks, even though for a while, so that we could both laugh. I grab his shoulder and he mine while we laugh heartily.
These are the moments; I think to myself, when some neon god of this apocalyptic universe sees us from far, far above, while we make a beautiful silhouette against the nuke smoke and dribbling black snow. These are the moments when that God feels jealous of the fragile but profound human life.
The laughter dies as soon as Hamdan starts to choke. He hastily puts on the mask. We remain silent while looking over our city that has been silent for years. In that moment we become a part of that city – another piece of junk, another piece of rubble.
I look up and upon some wire hangs an old worn-out board designating the forking lines of the metro rail. A shell has pierced the board in a slant way so that the only words out of ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Srinagar’ that I am able to read are: kash and agar.
Lost causes often hinge on conditional clauses, I think to myself.