Zahida War presents a piece of fiction that combines poetry and prose to narrate the story of a young Kashmiri woman, Zooni, who returns to her birthplace after living abroad (India) for several years. In the process of her return, Zooni becomes raveled in the militarized reality of Kashmir and its grotesque violence, far from the touristic imaginarium that her host country had built in her mind. Still a young student, Zooni leaves all familiarity behind, along with the illusions formed in her understanding of Kashmir, to engage with a place that is confined to countless devastations, multiple horrors and endless human tragedies. This fictional piece was written in 2016, a painfully symbolic year for Kashmiris, and is accompanied by an afterword by its author.  

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. This is a non-stop service to Srinagar. Our flight time will be of one hour and 10 minutes. We will be flying at an altitude of 500 feet at a ground speed of 1,234 miles per hour. Your seat belt should be fastened and all electronic devices must be switched off or set to ‘airplane’ mode. Thank you.”

 

The engine burst into action,
and my heart jittered a little,
finally, I am going home!
With a funny feeling of longing,
weather turbulence, swishing away
into the heart of the valley.
The snow-clad Pir Panjal poise
rushing rivers and green fields,
tiny tin roofed huts scattered
gleaming in the spring sun,
my tales of a buried past…

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Srinagar International Airport. The local atmosphere is as expected. Total casualty number is 92 and counting. The weather is, well it’s raining blood of all ages, and stones of all shapes, colours and sizes. May the force be with you. Jai Hind.”

 

Mind boggled, peeping out,
a sea of uniformed men,
armed, AK 47s flashing
Saalon ko ghar mein ghus kar maaro!”
With a confused demeanour,
slow walk through 11 checkpoints,
why so much fuss about frisking?
I have come to make peace,
one nation, one people,
these soldiers saving our skin,
A wave of blind passion, drowned…

 

“Madam, taxi? Taxi, Madam? Where would you like to go? I can arrange a full ten-day tour to Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Pahalgam and the Mughal Gardens. You can stay on a beautiful houseboat. Shikara rides, madam, floating vegetable gardens, and beautiful scenery madam. Come, come, come this way!”

 

“Be chas Kaeshir kuur”
More bewilderment and frowns
a step outside, the tulips have bloomed,
the silhouette of a chinar smiling in the wind,
its leaves rocking-rolling, back and forth,
warm saffron fields and nun chai.
Two sisters dotted with houseboats,
Sufi shrines placid green, hovering
climbing up to a hundred and one steps,
“Hindustaen jasoos hooo”
In panic, I jump into the car!
A walled palace as an ornament…

 

“Zooni, what the hell were you doing in Downtown alone, without a dupatta on your head? I have told you a million times since you have been back that don’t venture out alone. It’s not safe.  Especially you being seen so openly. You no longer even look Kashmiri. And that haircut, tauba tauba, astaghfirullah!

 

Koshur - A mixed breed,
bravehearts of the lion’s land,
Haakh-batta from the Turks,
Greek, light, dreams and hope
love of the Italian descent
and a mysterious Jewish lifeline.
No surprise in the messy mix,
yet I don’t look like anyone?
Five inches of hair, shaded
A wee Zara spring sale Tee,
by the grace of whom am I not...?

 

“Why don’t these boys on the street understand they can’t achieve anything? Nothing will change. They just need to accept the reality. I am stuck here at home with no internet nor any phone connectivity. I can’t talk to my friends in Delhi. This place is doing my head in! I was here to tell my tale of the beautiful land beyond the tunnel, yet here I am helpless and miserable.”

 

A dream, real like no other,
“Death toll reaches to 21”
A mere number for the media,
chained, restricted to mourn.
The shrieks and wailing curbed
outcries are silenced with bullets.
In this part of the world,
human lives have no value
with orders of “shoot to kill”
streets layered with blood stains
and studded with stones and shells...

 

Sonn gobra, come here. I want to tell you a story. I had two older brothers who bullied me when I was a little, fragile girl. They would twist my arm and shout “SUBMIT, SUBMIT, SUBMIT”. It was bloody painful but I wouldn’t give in till I had reached the breaking point. I want you to stay strong and never to SUBMIT to tyrannies and the big bullies. Fight till your last breath.”

 

A masked face, tall
joined millions on streets
slogans of rage on lips,
chest bracing the forces,
a pebble in hand; action
Hum kya chahate?
Azaadi!”
Forced by an invisible wall,
high, fortified, mighty,
unable to spot the Sea of Red.
will it take every last drop to notice...

 

“Zooni, Zooni, wake up!  Muen sonn kuur chak ne. How could you do this to me? I want my daughter back! I want Azaadi.”

 

A mouth filled with her own dried blood,
stains of blood mixed with mud
on her camouflaged clothes,
the pattern introduced by the enemy
a pale face with eyes wide open,
motionlessly dead, she departed.
Another martyr of the Valley of Saints,
Curfews, strikes and funerals.
The home is in flames yet again,
directionless, sentimental upheaval
inmates of the beautiful prison...

 

“Zooni has left behind a poem. The last thing she wrote before she was shot in the heart. Kani jung, stones and words let her go to a happier place.”

 

I have no more words
to recount the atrocities
suffered by my people,
the cold-blooded murders.
To recite the agonies
endured for so, so long,
the uncertainty and fear.
I have no more words
for the tears flooding homes,
weeping mothers and sisters,
mortified to see the helplessness.
For the sternly silent fathers,
my brothers choking on rage,
this unending cycle of oppression.
I have no more words
to shake you with the reality of Kashmir,
make you twitch in your comfy armchair,
with the naked truth of policies, orders and deeds.
To plead your humanity, your sense of justice,
breaking the silence of high-stoned walls,
to engage, rather than brush away the wave.
I have no more words
I am tired and numb with pain,
I need a long, peaceful sleep,
in the lap of the bruised homeland.
Oh yes, you have warm hands,
But a cold heart.

 

Writer’s Afterword

In the play Othello, Shakespeare places a “Moor” in the centre of an aristocratic Venetian society. Although Othello considers himself a Venetian, at the same time he is an outsider because of his ancestry. Applying the themes of identity crisis, self and the other, emotional conflicts and tragic death in my reimagining, I narrate a tale of a young girl from Kashmir named Zooni. Zooni returns home after five years of living outside (in India) and is oblivious to the political and social conflict, having been raised in a cloistered environment far away from the streets. Her memory of Kashmir is the image of a beautiful valley with snow-covered mountains and pheran-clad people smiling while sipping nun chai. When she witnesses the harsh and dark reality beyond the postcard image from her childhood, she becomes perplexed and lost.  The differences are so stark that her first instinct is to go back to India.

In this reimagining, I have changed Othello’s gender to look at identity and self through the lens of a young woman.  The piece is set in a war-torn land, Indian Administered Kashmir, that is contained in the lap of the majestic Himalayas. Unlike Othello, this reimagining explores the revival of an ancestral relationship after a long absence. Here, a return is marked by alienation in the protagonist’s own homeland. Zooni associates with an Indian identity even though she is Kashmiri, such that for her Kashmir is like any other part of India. She has lived and studied in India for five years. Her understanding of the situation in Kashmir (a zone of conflict) is based on a pro-India position and centres on the news she is fed via mainstream Indian media. When she returns home, she is faced by a grotesque and harsh reality. The illusion of Indian soldiers being the saviours of the civilians is shattered instantly. The lies, deceit, murders, fake encounters and political promises unfold in front of her eyes. Simultaneously, she isn’t accepted as a true Kashmiri by those around her. She is even suspected to be a spy for Indian Intelligence.

Zooni faces gender discrimination as traditional Kashmiri society is highly conservative. When she begins to understand and witness the injustice and tyrannies faced by her people, her personal belonging to the place is put into jeopardy. She no longer knows which side of the political and nationalist line she belongs to and where the divide existed. These questions trouble her and writing becomes her only means to express her innermost feelings. Such introspections guided by her newfound environment, from a state of being an outsider make her conscious of the collective identity of being a Kashmiri as a subject of war, conflict and subjugation. This cognitive dissonance compels her to take a wretched decision. She writes her final piece of poetry before carrying out a final act, which is one of defiance and acceptance at the same time. To defy the teachings of the past and in turn unlearn to accept her status as a Kashmiri, a subject of a militarised, torn and incarcerated land.

One day, Zooni joins a stonepelting protest against the illegal Indian occupation of Kashmir. She wears a mask, as women mostly don’t join these protests. With a pebble in her right hand, and the slogan of ‘Azaadi’ on her lips, she is shot directly in her heart. Her body is buried in the Martyrs’ Graveyard like thousands before her and millions after her. Resonating with Othello’s end at his own hands, this emotional act resolves the internal conflict and unites the self with the other into a whole that is tragically dead by bullet wound.

 

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