He was home on August 5, when it happened. He couldn’t bear to watch it on television, so he went out. There was no one in the streets, only soldiers, hundreds of them, and spools of concertina wire. It was sunny. He looked towards the Zabarwan hills and it was all so beautiful. He wished he could somehow freeze that moment. He felt as if he was seeing it for the last time.
The sky was clear and he could even see the mountains in the north. His village was hidden somewhere there. Harmukh, too, was there. He remembered Harmukh. Growing up in a village in its foothills, the ever-visible Harmukh had always kept him silent company, as if the mighty peak kept his life under its watchful gaze. He wasn’t young any more. He recalled the serenity of his childhood. He remembered the first rebellion, when his best friends started returning home in bodybags. He always felt that it was only fate that he was alive. Often, he regretted his good fortune because he had been cursed to chronicle the stories of his loved ones. He had been damned to bear witness to the destruction of his home, with a neutral gaze. That was fate, too. He was a storyteller, a witness. For years, he couldn’t even mourn his brothers and sisters. He wasn’t allowed to wet his eyes. His tears, he was told, would come in the way of his story. That too was part of the curse.
Today, he couldn’t hold back his tears. He didn’t try to, either. He was alone, and perhaps that was a reason. Perhaps the beauty of a place that he knew may not exist for long overwhelmed him and filled his eyes with tears. He has always felt the burden of bearing witness but this time, its weight had crushed him. He closed his eyes and the last 29 years ran like a showreel of torment. There was blood everywhere.
For a decade now, he had tried to escape home, hoping that the memory of its beauty would eventually fade the memory of the trauma and blood: the bloodstains on the green manicured grass of a meadow, the stench of burning flesh when a hot iron was placed on the back of a neighbour, the screams of a sibling when a roller was run over his limbs. He had left home but the sound, smell and feel of its continuing torment stayed. He had nightmares. For night after night, he couldn’t bear to close his eyes because sleep frightened him. In the dream, he was tied to the walnut tree in the compound of his home in the village and hit by half a dozen sticks and rifle butts. He could see his parents – still youthful – watching his pain from the balcony. He knew his father’s heart was frail, so he would try not to scream. And when the sticks and rifle butts halted to give rest to the hands that held them, he heard the sobs of his helpless parents. He would wake up and feel his entire body in pain. At times, he felt bullets burning holes in his body. He felt it with such intensity that the pain woke him up.
He had thought that he would cease to relive the trauma every night if he left. He had thought that the distance would eventually heal him. He had hoped his home, too, might heal and start smiling again; after all, every dark night eventually ends with a beautiful dawn. He was wrong. The darkness of that night continued. His home had been turned into an abode of pain. He left home, but he couldn’t take his home out of his being. He missed his home every moment away from home. Today, he felt homesick even at home.
Home… Kasheer, Kashmir may not exist for too long, he feared.
It started at 11:09 am. The announcement was sudden. Within minutes, the protections that had been erected a century ago to safeguard his home, its identity, its individuality, its beauty and its people had been taken away. They had chosen their Mota Bhai for the job. He was a little nervous in the beginning. The TV cameras thrilled to the occasion, but they couldn’t hide his trembling hands as he made the announcement. He, too, was ecstatic. There was cheering and applause all around. Mota Bhai understood the importance of the day; it was written all over his smiling face. The dream of his ideological mentors was finally coming true and though he did not speak of the real purpose of this four-cornered assault, the reason for his grin was already understood in Kashmir.
He couldn’t watch the proceedings on the TV. He knew it was stupid to expect any resistance in the House. It was already clear that there was a broad consensus that his home had to be destroyed, decimated. Over several years, he had witnessed the power of the Pied Piper’s spell. When he had begun to play his magical pipe six years earlier, the cameras were the first to be lured. Like the children of Hamelin, the entire population was now following the Pied Piper. He knew the destruction would be called development and sold as a panacea for every problem. He knew the game, its script.
He wanted to avoid further trauma and left. He had walked a mile or so and had already crossed two checkpoints after pleading with the soldiers. The main road looked scary, so he decided to take a detour. A few youngsters – six of them, in fact – had gathered outside a baker’s shop. Sitting on its concrete parapet, they were playing with their muted cell phones. Perhaps this was happening for the first time ever since mobile phones were invented. Millions of these devices – smart and beautiful – had been collectively rendered useless in one place in the world. The people couldn’t call, message or browse so they were scanning old messages and photos. “Habit,” a young man with a stubble and square rimless glasses on his sharp nose said. “Otherwise, there is no use for these devices here.
He leaned towards the wall and reached for his own phone. “They haven’t shut down the network. I think they have blocked our phones,” the young man said. “They are scared that we could tell each other the meaning of it all.”
“Isn’t it all on the TV?” he asked. “Yeah, yeah. But they know that once we start talking about it, there will be mayhem,” said another young man, unshaven and with his hair dishevelled. “They are fine while they only talk at us. One-way communication doesn’t bother anyone. They want to decide whether we are happy or not. They lock us up and then say everything is fine. We have been muted.”
The man with dishevelled hair said he couldn’t sleep a wink waiting for this announcement. “They had created so much panic for several weeks that we had already speculated about every possibility. Somehow, the announcement wasn’t a big shock. We already knew that they were up to something really bad. Now, they have told us.”
These men were neighbours, and they too had found it hard to watch the TV after a while. “It was unbearable. We know that the endgame has begun. We know what is going to happen now,” said another man, who wore a loose blue T-shirt on his frail body. Cold anger was audible in his calm voice. “The plan is clear. They will flood Kashmir with people until they uproot every Kashmiri from Kashmir, until Kashmir no longer knows who it is and surrenders its soul to this plan.”
He listened to these men confirming his fears until he couldn’t bear it anymore. He started walking again. Half a mile ahead, he saw the entrance of a big park, and it was open. The checkpoint was a hundred metres ahead. He paused, looked at the soldiers and then crossed the road and walked into the park. It was empty and silent. He had never seen this park so empty before. He sat on a bench.
He thought of his conversation. In despair, he also started to reflect on every possibility. He couldn’t find solace in anything, so he tried to refresh his own memory, remembering home while at home. He wished they had a word like hiraeth. In Wales, hiraeth is a longing for home, though its real meaning is much more about missing home. They say it can even be a yearning for something that we know may not exist anymore. It’s perhaps about a time, an idea, a people whose past, present and future are conjoined. After all, home isn’t just the space within the four walls of a house.
In his diary, he had written all such words that described this emotion, this anguish. In Portuguese, saudade captures this yearning, and toska in Russian. Nabokov couldn’t translate toska into English. He couldn’t find a word that “renders all the shades of toska.” He explained it as “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, a dull ache of the soul, a longing.” In German, it is Sehnsucht, morriña in Spanish and perhaps tizita in Amharic.
He has been looking for an exact word to describe this acute homesickness, which happens while you are home and aware that the home may not exist anymore. He knew there isn’t any such word that embodies Kashmir’s collective feeling about home. He didn’t know if his mother tongue had such a word. He hasn’t been able to find one. For centuries, his sweet lyrical mother tongue, Koshur, had been kept out of schools, blocked out of trade and taken out of government and private transactions. He knew that it has survived only on the tongue since time immemorial: most Kashmiris don’t know how to read and write Koshur.
He recalled a late evening in the summer of 1992. It was a memory that had never faded. He remembered that he was sitting on the stone embankment of the Arin stream, just yards from his house. Its shimmering fresh water flows down from Shera Sar (the Lake of Milk) up on Mount Harmukh. The moon was so full that night that he saw every stone, every wave glowing in its light. The stream was home to three kinds of trout – brown, rainbow and silver – and every night, he and his friends would sit and wait for them to rise. That night the trout were leaping as if the Arin’s waters were their dance floor. The music of the water was like a melodious background score. As he looked, for a moment he was suddenly seized by a strange melancholy in that enchanting beauty of the landscape. He wanted to freeze that moment. It was home.
Next morning, when he woke up, it had all gone. In his absence that night, a devastating flood had ravaged the banks of the Arin. The stream had even changed its course, taking itself further away from the stone embankment and his home. He would always remember it as a premonition – a warning about the flood that had arrived in his absence and taken away that moment in the moonlit night, that slice of life, which had embodied his home. And for years afterwards, as he watched thick dark clouds conspiring and crowding around, he had no doubt that a storm would one day come and devastate all those moments that each of them had gathered into a home.
A while ago, the man whose calm voice hid his cold anger had talked of a flood, a deluge that would eventually wash everything away. The melancholy is already floating across our land, he thought.
The only way to save Kashmir is to memorise Kashmir. In the Tawrat (the Torah), the command ‘zakhor’ (in Hebrew) or ‘udhkure’ (in Arabic), which means ‘remember’ (in Kashmir, it’s ‘zikr’) appears multiple times.
Remember. Remember. Remember.
An old man walked by. Perhaps he had also come to the park to see the freshness of the green. He tried to read the expression on the old man’s face. His face looked pale and exhausted; his eyes were swollen as if he had cried for hours. Perhaps he had. As their eyes met, he greeted him. The old man stopped. “It has begun,” he said. The old man had spent his life teaching politics to young people and years after his retirement, he hadn’t lost the teacher’s passion. “We will have to think. It is now about our very existence.” Then the old man spoke of “our Tall Man.”
“We always knew that the Tall Man was stupid and selfish. He had broken the promise. He had claimed that he has given his word to a dying man in the compound of Jamia Masjid. It was in the summer of 1931, when we had finally mustered the courage to stand up, all of us, collectively. He didn’t keep his word. Instead, the Tall Man planted a bad seed that has grown into a manchineel tree today. See what that tree is doing to the Tall Man’s own spawn? We are to be blamed, too. We would say that the Tall Man is allowed to treat us like gourd and squash and brinjal. And he did exactly that,” the old man said in a single breath. “We are weak and frail. The only way we stayed alive, our elders would always remind us, was by remembering.”
The old man’s words were laced with meaning. Remembering.
He recalled an old book that he had recently seen on the shelf in a friend’s library. La Mémoire Collective, published in 1950 by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs. Halbwachs talked about the existence of the “collective memory” of a people, which can be kept alive and transferred from generation to generation.
In his despair, the old man had only one remedy. “We need to remember and our collective memory once transmitted from one generation to another will help keep us alive as people. This will keep the memory of who we are intact,” the old man said. “Then we will have to wait for the day when a generation would gather itself again and rebuild what is under assault.”
What did the old man mean?
We need to preserve our rituals, our customs, our culture, our language, our way of life. We need to record our own stories, words, images, videos, paintings and sketches. We need to gather every film… films of us, of our land, of our life, of our celebration and mourning. We need to picture the shapes of our faces, our mannerisms, our idiosyncrasies and our attire. We need to preserve the oral cookbooks of our mothers. We need to profile our shrines, keep record of the wee-hour chants of Awrad, the ritual of prayer rhymed aloud. We need to map our villages, our cities, our landscape, our rivers, our meadows and valleys. We need to document our streets, our markets, our bakeries and our perfume shops. We need to remember the kalaams of Sufis, sung with the comforting melody of the saz-e-Kashmir, our own version of the santoor, the sitar and the dhukra. Our ancient text refers to its 180 melodies; 130 are already lost. Our saz-e-Kashmir is going silent, too.
He thought of music, our music and how it has shaped our collective identity as a people. He recalled his long conversations with his two native friends - a musician and a playwright - when they would sit for hours inside a studio on the river bank. It was a decade ago. They had talked and then together, they had created an album of songs - songs of love and longing, songs of pain and perseverance, songs about the struggle of a bruised and battered people, who want to determine their own self. He had been waiting for our own Bedrich Smetana, our own Edvard Grieg. He had always felt the agony of the absence of a voice like Smetana and Grieg. He has written about it too, he recalled. Our music is like us, he thought. We are our music, our poems, our words. It has also struggled to survive for centuries. It has to survive.
We need to remember how Sufiana resounded in the serenity of our valley. The traditional use of mystic poetry, the songs of yearning and remembrance of history have fashioned Kashmir’s folk music into an essential repository of memory and faith. We need to keep refreshing the memory of our folk. We need to save the words of Shams Faqir, Ahad Zargar, Niam Sabh, Rahim Sabh, Mehmood Gami and scores of other legendary Kashmiri poets for our future generations. This music has kept the loss, pain and yearning of a wronged and betrayed Habba Khatoon – the last queen of Kashmir – alive even 450 years after the forced exile by the emperor Akbar of her husband, King Yousuf Shah Chak. We still deride the Mughals. We use ‘Poghe Mogul’ (Wretched Mughal) or ‘Shenai Mogul’ (Miserable Mughal) as swear words in our language.
We need to keep the record. We need to prepare. There is no way to find out how long it will take to unfold fully. The archives would be the first to go. They will not be burnt. No smoke must be seen. They won’t be just shredded. Each page will be pulverized and pulped. Remember the carpet weavers of Tehran, who painstakingly re-assembled shredded papers after the US embassy was taken over in 1979? Some time ago, it took six years to reconstruct 300 of the 16,000 bags of shredded papers that the Stasi had dumped when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. We can’t take chances. Not again, not this time.
It had been more than an hour and a few more people had gathered around the old man. They would talk and then a pall of silence would engulf everything, as each of them fell silent, thinking, remembering. He had never seen people so helpless. For weeks, a deliberate game of hide and seek had been played with them. Every day for more than a week, a new drill would add to the panic. Now, everybody knew the climax. It had been announced. It was being celebrated. They were caged and muted, and a destructive lie walked uncontested.
“The door had been blown open,” the old man explained. “We are the ‘problem’.” Overwhelm us with an influx. If we cease to exist… if we are pushed out, boxed into a corner bordered by tall walls, if the bubbling of our rivers and streams is made unfamiliar to us, we cease to be a people. Collective memory alone can come to our rescue. We need to focus on memory.”
We need to remember. What does it all mean? Is this the beginning or the end? How do we see it? Over the following days, as he roamed around his curfewed home, he thought about it. The pages of his diary are the testament.
Every one of us is upset by this new plan, which many feared was inevitable. They want to carry out demographic change at a very fast pace. The first step is the entry of big business, which will take over the economy. It has already started. They are coming to inspect us and it has begun even before the knife pierces the heart of the mountain at Zoji La. The aim of the exclusive delimitation that will start soon afterwards is to squeeze whatever little is left. The smokescreen of democracy, after all, was a liability because the numbers were always inconvenient. No trick in the playbook could have ever turned 28 percent into a majority. Thus, they are rewriting the playbook. The ‘facts on the ground’ are already being changed.
Suddenly, the local faces, a class created through patronage for more than half a century to provide a democratic façade, is obsolete. It is curtains for the puppet show. The puppeteer himself walks the stage.
Thousands have been interned. Nobody knows the real numbers because those who preside over this operation don’t like numbers. The news that trickles down from districts reveals that all the space available has been dedicated to hold people. Guest-houses and police lines have been turned into special jails. There is no distinction. Those who stained their finger with indelible ink and those who curled their fingers into balls of fury have been informed that the lines on their palms are similar, after all.
Our sharp political differences, our ideological fault lines, our past experiences are no longer relevant. Those among us who stood for them, who believed in them, who didn’t hesitate to paint their hands with their own blood to prove their unflinching loyalty to them, have been the first to fall. Their big titles, their proximities, their allegiances, and their loyalties – nothing worked. Their homes were turned into jails for their loved ones. Those who used to dance to their tune have a new song. Once precious assets, they have become inconvenient liabilities. They cried like children, recounting their service, but to no avail. Their children petitioned their erstwhile uncles, reminding them how they would pull their apple cheeks. They expressed their shock at seeing that the saluting men who, they had always been told, stood alert to protect their little piece of paradise from the barbarians at the gate, had suddenly locked them up and gone off to sleep. Prison doors, they were told, seldom open. Who would have thought that the soundproof glass in the windows of their garrisoned palaces, imported to prevent inconvenient shrieks from the street from reaching their ears, would one day turn them mute to the world? They were finally told they couldn’t be anybody other than us. They are we, again.
He stayed in the town, wandering, trying to manoeuvre around the coils of concertina wire and breach the little circle that was drawn to allow natives to breathe within its ambit alone. He couldn’t do anything else, so he kept on gathering tales. The pages of his diary are a testament.
At the airport, a man with a lathi said that his heart broke when he saw sharp, rusty edges on the iron chain cuffed around a respectable man’s wrists. Did they give him a tetanus shot before they handcuffed him, he wondered. Then he saw a catheter bag dangling from his hip. He felt a cold shiver pass through his body. He looked into the man’s eyes to gauge his pain. The eyes, he said, were so sad that he couldn’t bear to look. We couldn’t exchange any words but I heard what he was saying. He said, “I can’t bear it when it’s hot. Can you help me hide some fresh breeze in my pocket?” The man with the lathi was yet to get used to the wooden stick in his hand. I dropped it on the tarmac, he recalled. The thud broke the stream of his thoughts. I looked around sheepishly, he said, as if everyone around had heard my seditious thoughts. For the last ten years, he said, the gun had become a part of his body. It was like an extension of his arm. Suddenly he felt something was missing and he couldn’t remember what. A stick had replaced the gun. The respectable man had been taken away and he could see his silhouette from a distance. More men were being herded towards the waiting plane. I closed my eyes, he remembered, and tried to hear the clank of the iron handcuffs. “Why do they need to transport them out? They were already locked up in a jail inside a prison,” he murmured. “But perhaps they couldn’t stop the breeze.” His wise senior, who had worn a practised smile for weeks now, had heard words escape his kosher tongue. He looked at him as if to say: I hear you.
For a month now, they had practised laying spools of concertina to block the lava spilling over from the roads, flowing upstream and destroying the walls of the Nehru Guest House. That was the secret assessment, he was told. They believed that there is a volcano in every native body but didn’t know why and how it was being triggered. That was not their job, the wise senior had said. “We aren’t allowed to ask questions. We follow orders.” The wise senior had told him that the order was to confine the lava inside their volcanic native bodies. “After all, we too are made of the same flesh and we need to remember that,” he had warned. The man with the lathi remembered the mysterious missives appearing on phone screens even before they had left the desks on which they were carefully drafted. They caused immediate panic. Now that I see the pattern, he said, it all makes sense. How could every such letter get leaked, he said, I had wondered. Fear is an effective tool. It makes people go crazy and hoard everything from food to fuel. And when you have voluntarily stocked up, the lockdown becomes easier.
Suddenly, the wise senior walked up to him and put his hand on his shoulder. “There is nothing illegal about talking to yourself, but only so long as the murmur doesn’t leave the mouth,” he said. “There is a new allowance to bear the hardship of sealing the lips. It is two percent of the basic pay.”
Bundook, the senior now whispered in his ear, was taken away not because they fear your fingers would jam when you aimed at the seditious lava. The rifle was taken away so that its bullets could be programmed to shed only one kind of blood. “What if the lava overwhelms you? It is all for your own good, your own prosperity,” he explained. But how can the lava leave the homes when the doors are shut and locked for days? he asked. “We can’t take chances. We can’t even lie because they have made the sky watch us. Don’t you remember how hard it was to look for information about a build-up near the green dome of a silver and gold mosque? The sky had pointed towards Kralkhud. And yet we took hours to find it on the ground. The sky didn’t know that 200 men had gathered for the funeral of an old man, who had come to a natural end caused by a fresh bout of home-sickness. Doctors called his condition the Takotsubo syndrome.”
The eerie silence was suffocating, so he decided to take a walk along the Dal Lake. The visitors had already been ‘evacuated’ and spools of concertina blocked the boulevard at several places. The road that went up the mountain towards the royal spring wasn’t even visible. Here, barbed wire fencing and soldiers weren’t deemed enough to block the road. Instead, two armoured truck were parked in a way that they blocked even the view of the road to the spring of the royals. Around two decades earlier, the sahibs had diverted the healing waters of the spring to their toilets, drying it up.
In those days, the “Algerian Harkis” of the Kashmir valley could never have imagined that the scenic huts overlooking that lake would one day turn into holding pens for them. The thought that they could be decimated one day never crossed their minds. The rewards of going after their own had made them numb and over the years, they couldn’t even see the ground slipping beneath their feet.
On the banks of the lake, the rooms that holiday-makers used to hire had suddenly become solitary cells. The place is coincidently named after the centaur, a creature in Greek mythology that represents unbridled chaos. Is this some sort of poetic justice? A lone waiter who couldn’t leave before the curfew was clamped is obsessed with changing the sheets in the rooms. But this time, the guests had been brought by two armed men who stood guarding the door. Sheets need to be changed every day, the waiter pleaded. It was the hotel’s policy. “Shut up and go away. If the boss sees you arguing, you could be declared a leader and locked up,” the waiter was told. The waiter hid the sheets but kept on hovering about in the corridors, where he thought he saw the ghost of a former minister talking to himself loudly. “I have nothing more to sell. I have nothing more to mortgage,” the ghost repeated over and over again until his tongue went numb. The waiter felt that the armed guards couldn’t see or hear the ghost. He remembered the announcement that Kashmir has been found to be safe only for Kashmiris. He recalled a tourist showing him a picture of himself. In pidgin English, a local photographer in the Nishat Garden had convinced him to let him take it. The photographer had lured him there by showing him an album full of pictures of tourists like him, attired as a Kashmiri in a rented phiran and a skullcap. He too had posed, and paid for the prints. “With this, will I count as a Kashmiri?” the tourist had asked. “I was offended. Foolish me. I didn’t know that in a few days, it would be illegal to call a visitor a tourist.”
The waiter had collected strange tales from the kitchen, where the chef was ecstatic because they were down to a fixed menu. Ordering room service according to taste was now unlawful in the hotel. “The chef has heard on TV that ever since the announcement, everyone is so happy that they had to be locked up,” he said. “He also said that the new law says that we are no longer us. Those among us who claim to be us are a hurdle in this new path to our prosperity.”
Curious about the new guests and the new rules in the hotel, the waiter tried to befriend the guards. He had a few packets of cigarettes that the departing tourists had forgotten when a bus came to fetch them at midnight, a few days before the happiness decree was issued. One guest had been knocking at the locked door of his room, pleading for a few puffs. This had irritated the guards. So they gave him one cigarette, asking him to ration it in a way that it lasted for at least a few days.
“We wish we could slap the unhappiness out of these men,” a guard told the waiter. “That isn’t allowed because the sahibs who come to see them every day think they will eventually manage to talk them into happiness. After all, the new dispensation needs them, or some of them.” The guards told the waiter that there were only two kinds of guests in the valley now. “Those whose sadness can’t be cured have been handcuffed and sent out to the desert where the heat and humidity would eventually sedate them into forgetfulness,” a guard explained. He knew because he had overheard a conversation between the sahibs. “They were saying that these new hotel guests have a family history of dementia and thus, there is real hope. They were saying that they forgot 1931 in 1939, 1947 in 1947, 1953 in 1974, 1984 in 1987, 1990 in 1996, 2000 till 2003, 2008 in 2008, 2016 in 2016.”
But the sahibs had other plans. Their aim was to make the new guests agree to go on maun vrat, a vow of silence, so that the peace of the graveyard would not be shattered when they were allowed to return to their homes. Everything expires, they explained to the new guests, and if they didn’t agree to leave the field, they would lose their right to the retirement benefits. “There will be an ex gratia payment to compensate the loss caused to you by stepping away,” a sahib explained to a new guest.
The hotel has several packages for its guests – Gulposh, Bahar, Abishar and Jannat – extending between three and six days. The new guests have already spent more days and nights here than the Jannat package. The lathi man, who flies drones to collect good news, is the new boss of this health resort. Greek mythology is too complicated for him, so the place has a new nickname – Azkaban. In Azkaban, it is said, “They don’t need walls and water to keep the prisoners in, not when they’re trapped inside their own heads, incapable of a single cheerful thought.”
Those among the lathi men who carry a star-studded sky on their shoulders had gathered for a party in a playground. The lathi man, who carries a blurred memory of the shores of the Caspian Sea in his Syed name, his memory is like a sieve. He stood there, teaching them how to tuck an ugly, run-down cement structure into a corner and hide it from the VIP eye.
“Haven’t you been picked up yet,” he joked. “I thought your turn had come already.” He didn’t wait for an answer, because he had to mock-walk the red carpet. Perhaps he didn’t need to. He understood that these days self-hate, especially if expressed in public, is recorded favourably in appraisal reports.
There is a siege within a siege within a siege and the small playground forms its peaceful nucleus. Inside, it seems everything has been imported for the occasion: the dance troupe, the music band, and even the commentator. Outside, it is a mix of agitprop and Artaud. Here, it is all a beautiful illusion. Its participants, however, believe in the mock drill of a freedom march. A prominent lathi man General Shining is here, too, and as usual he laughs at his own jokes.
Today, General Shining is obsessed with erectile dysfunction. His face glows as he explains how his earlier political masters were turned into ‘limp dicks’ overnight. He can’t hide his happiness because his special ‘dress’ has received a well-deserved extension. His deal is clear: We will look the other way as you fill the sacks and transfer them to a hidden safe box in a faraway Burj. We need to use your knowledge of native human anatomy to prevent the overflow of lava. He thinks he is smart because he has already started work on an exclusive boat, where he will take refuge when the flood finally arrives. He doesn’t realise that once the flames engulf the house, he can’t save his expensive cabin. A few days after the door of our home was kicked down, there was a high-level meeting where sahibs discussed the removal of the flag. He was the first to volunteer to climb to the top of the concrete monster where the sahibs spend their days, and pull down the flag for good.
Don’t mistake his enthusiasm for commitment. He doesn’t care about useless loyalties. He has always been faithful to himself alone. He is meek before the powerful and cruel to the weak. He has always sided with power. And of course, he has reaped a rich harvest.
It is said that he owns a property every 12 kilometres across the land, and no one has ever dared to ask how, publicly. In the cost-benefit analysis done by the sahibs, his extracurricular misdemeanours are way too insignificant in comparison with his utility for the Final Solution.
His avaricious brother is around too. He is the new treasurer for Artaud’s theatre and he seems tired of counting the cash. He loves the feel of the paper and has turned into a wreck, planning how to dispense as little as possible. He knows that arithmetic doesn’t matter. He has gotten away with much more in the past. Not long ago, he had even sold an entire meadow. A probe was constituted which reached two conclusions: that he was guilty and that it didn’t matter. While his brother is a liveried servant, he dresses fancy, mimicking the sahibs. On that black Monday – it was the 217th day of the year – he had arrived in the lathi regulator room early in the morning. He was relaxed because he had checked every padlock on the concertina cage himself. He had been up all night, monitoring the final hours. Witnesses said that when the announcement was made, he couldn’t hide his excitement. He got up from his chair and started hugging the sahibs. A young lathi-man said he couldn’t believe his eyes. “How does he sleep at night?” he asked. “Does he ever think that he can’t save his commode while he helps set the house on fire?”
There is this lathi-man, who has become a voluntary PR guide for the new machine. For years, he has termed the blood on the wall of his lockup the innocuous mischief of a painter’s brush. That faint-hearted artist, he would say, could only finish a swatch of red, blood red, after turning his limb into a brush. When in a brighter mood, he would count his kills – 158 if I remember correctly, he would say. His eyes turn so big as he boosts loudly that they could actually pop out of the sockets. It is mostly grey wolf, brown bear, deer and few antelopes, he explains. These days, he says, it is easy and everybody hunts hangul. “I didn’t get a chance because I was posted out of the grazing grounds,” he says. He talks about defeat, depressing defeat that was essential. “Unless there is absolute numbness, there is no way out,” he says. “Once you render the people naked, they would beg for a piece of cloth first. And once hunger sets in, dignity takes a back seat.” He is clinical in his approach and it seems that finally, he has the important ear. Or perhaps, important ears want to hear his words.
He also talks about the big little sahib’s outings to break bread with the common folks. In an empty chowk, Henred Fruehauf’s trucks specially lined up to make a circle. For a moment, it seemed that apartheid had arrived and Koevoet has entered the apple orchards. The pigeonholes in the surrounding homes had already been blocked. Apart from the few men, chosen to act in a choreographed lunch, there was no local life around. Drones were out in their dozens, and their task was to keep a close eye on the Koshur grass swaying in the wind and listen carefully to the cooing birds and chittering insects. They would raise the alarm even if a butterfly fluttered in a faraway garden. Still, the big little sahib didn’t take any chances and wore an additional safeguard to protect his shirt. Three of the local men, it is said, were fathers; one had a little business, selling escape routes from public safety called PSA in local parlence. They were all properly briefed before the event. They were given a list of 370 words that they should never utter, and to eat as if they were eternally hungry. Ever since that afternoon, these local men have been so awestruck by their conversation with the big little sahib that they have turned invisible. There are rumours in the village that the wandering spirit of Mihirakula has possessed the big little sahib. It is said that he has asked the drones to look for able-bodied elephants everywhere.
By the way, there are so many of these little machines flying over empty streets and closed markets that they may soon assign the idle traffic policemen to float in the air. On Residency Road, a car whose licence plates were not local had stopped at a traffic light. It was standing there alone. The traffic light was scared to turn green because it wasn’t sure about the laws newly imported into the freshly carved Union Territory. In the current situation, this could well be fraught with danger. By the time the driver of the car realized that the light wouldn’t change, he was surrounded. A lone civilian vehicle voluntarily halted on a road in the city with its engine still running was enough to raise suspicion. “Don’t you have any aesthetic taste? These traffic lights are lovely pieces of decoration, reminding us of our home,” a soldier said to the driver. The investigators asked him for introductions and he took out a nice shiny ID card that looked like the screenshot of the evening bulletin on almost every channel. The man who inspected it wasn’t interested in him. He wanted to know whether the “Till Today” girl was also here to join the “All igh well” chorus.
“She could be busy in the Circus,” he said. “Do you know that a special “All igh well” troupe has arrived in town and they have given them the entire annexe of a hotel, built recently on the slope of a little hill?” The neighouring building, caged inside tall walls, has been the local headquarters of the blue helmets ever since they arrived here seven decades ago. The “Till Today” girl was spooked to see blue helmets roaming around what she had always believed to be the ‘integral part’ and ever since that moment, she had been zooming her lens to see how much they had aged since 1948.
An accredited native had a succinct query for the sahibs conducting the briefing, who come attired like Wall Street traders for the twice-a-day ritual. “Why do you deny us that piece of magic paper, which you give the ‘parachutes’, that makes the razor wires disappear from a concertina spool?” he had asked. A few monkeys from the Circus laughed at his naivety. “Why don’t you ask for a heli ride? That is magical. You will see peace with the naked eye. We already did,” they shouted in unison.
As soon as the sahibs left, the commotion of the Circus returned. Dozens of men and women carrying mikes with colourful logos as their official movement passes had descended on the Circus the very day the door was kicked open. There were four shabby desktop screens, which ran the Circus’s only available information superhighway, on 2G magic. There were a few sofas and chairs scattered around. The most important place, however, was a large round table. Two officials sat next to each other. One of them maintained a register while the other guarded a tiny cell phone. It was an antique phone that was born long before its smart siblings, and until recently, would not have attracted any attention. Now, it was the only phone that worked in this land of normalcy.
The rules were abundantly clear. The Circus was a territory exclusively carved out for those who were parachuted in from the Union. The natives were allowed in, with a condition: they could not claim equal rights on the resources and had to be content with the leftovers. Dozens of ‘parachutes’ were waiting to use the phone. One after the other, they wrote their names in the register, then grabbed the phone and dialled. There were guests from everywhere. As they took turns to send dispatches from within this little oasis of the Circus, located inside a well-guarded hotel, it seemed that they were only talking about the Circus. Normalcy is the new catchword. And they kept on repeating it in different tongues.
The sahibs too seemed to have done their homework. A bright native sister, who was accepted into the East India Company purely on merit, had been specially called to read out normalcy from neatly typed pages. God almighty has gifted her the most convincing accent and perfect pronunciation for the occassion, the sahibs pointed out. But that wasn’t the entire puzzle. They wanted her native face splashed on every screen. They wanted her denials, spoken in the correct accent. They wanted the truth to be refuted every time it surfaced.
A new clown is now running the big village, both khas and aam. The clown has a luxuriously appointed office and he had already forgotten the little girl, his little sister, whose shrieks had drowned out the sthan bells not long ago. He had scented blood. His hunger was never-ending and he had seen an opportunity. He had been dressing as what Jean Paul Sartre called a white-washed native, and now he is acting like one, too. Perhaps he is obsessed with becoming a sahib, a real one, not one who is promoted to be a sahib. He might be scared, too. He had misunderstood the meaning of the licence to use a gun, which he received after donning the sahib dress. He shared it with thousands on pieces of paper for a lavish price. As he counted the cash, he lost count of the pieces of paper. He didn’t realize that his pieces of paper would reach the ‘land of sand dunes’ and expose his trade secret. To avoid the cuffs, he is buffeting his own. He doesn’t realise that many like him, long before him, had ventured on this treacherous road. They couldn’t save themselves. How could he? He could colour his skin to the taste of the sahibs, but a little rain would wash it away. His job is cut out: he is telling the world that the prisoners love the chains on their ankles and that they are silent not because they have been choked, but because they love the music of the chains. The chains do clank, after all.
On the road outside the concrete monster in the middle of the city, dozens of natives have gathered. They have been told that the building is now out of bounds to natives these days. There are serious health reasons, the lathi man standing behind the iron grille told them. Let the flu subside, he said. But we heard that everything is normal on TV and walked miles and miles to get here, a visibly agitated man responded. We are fathers and mothers and we want to know whether we have to go to Agra, Lucknow, Jodhpur or Coimbatore.
Each mother carried a white plastic canister. “Its only tresh (drinking water),” the man explained. “There is a tag on each canister identifying the water. Rambhiyar, Romushi, Vishav, Lidar, Ferozpur, Sind, Madhumati, Khamil, Pohru, Manchar, Ningel, Drangyari…” They carry water from the streams near their homes. We have 1400 kilometres of beautiful streams where the trout swirl, splash and leap into the air to celebrate the never-ending journey of fast-flowing water. This continuity of the water, always fresh, always flowing in these streams spells hope, and a prayer for the home and the land to withstand the new devastating storm. It is as if the flow of the water, its burble, is like a never-ending prayer. These streams have been babbling and rippling through our valleys for a long, long time and their water carries the memory of us. This is why the mothers want to water – with the water of their home stream – the lips of their boys. Otherwise, they feel, these phoulvun gulab (blossoming roses) will wither on the vine. They want to drench their mouth so that their numb tongues continue to recite and remember. “Repetition works,” one of the father said, “It helps to recall memories.” Our Shahid, our beloved witness did it before he shut his eyes forever. “Let me cry out in that void, say it as I can. I write on that void: Kashmir, Kaschmir, Cashmere, Qashmir, Cashmir, Cashmire, Kashmere, Cachemire, Cushmeer, Cachmiere, Cašmir. Or Cauchemar in a sea of stories? Or: Kacmir, Kaschemir, Kasmere, Kachmire, Kasmir. Kerseymere?”
The lathi man listened patiently, moving his lips as if he too was remembering. “I have orders. Come after a few days,” he said and fell silent again. The fathers and mothers didn’t insist. It was getting late, so they decided to leave. A mile ahead, they saw a little chinar sapling in a park adjacent to the road. One by one, they emptied the canisters on the dry roots of the chinar sapling and left for home.
Not long ago, he recalled, their ancestors had no right even to their own bodies. In 1846 Frederick Currie, Henry Montgomery Lawrence and Henry Hardinge had signed a deed with a Dogra chieftain selling their home – the paddy fields, the apple orchards, the pear trees, the pomegranate shrubs, the walnut groves, the rushing water of the streams, the lakes, the snow on the mountains, the breeze in their valleys and even the sky over their head for a meagre seventy-five lakh rupees (in Nanakshahee currency). It was a humiliating agreement – just a sale deed, and they were sold and bought. They had lost sovereignty over their home in 1586. It was October 6, 1586 to be precise when Qasim Khan leading the Mughal troops annexed Kashmir. The invaders, it is said, had been forced to retreat twice. The third time, however, Yousuf was tricked into going to Delli with a promise of dialogue, and jailed. But this time around, the sale deed turned them all into field slaves with less rights than even farm animals. The killing of a cow was a heinous crime, the punishment being death by hanging. They had fewer rights than a cow and the murder of a field slave had a price, a sort of blood money, which was so cheap that murderers hardly ever went to jail. The house slaves among them – those who had acquired Pathan surnames and learnt Persian when the Afghans annexed their land in 1752 – had a better deal. The field slaves couldn’t be more than tillers on their own land. Every autumn, when the crop was harvested, the landlords would send their officials armed with toothpicks to conduct an annual crackdown on their mouths. They would line up the field slaves and run the toothpick through their teeth, looking for crumbs of food. A little piece of grain left in a cavity would attract such harsh punishment that the field slaves would prefer death by hunger than break this harsh rule. Such was their condition, he was told, that if a house slave couple in a village had the luxury of owning a pair of trousers, others borrowed them for a day, so that a groom or a bride could wear it on their special occasion. He remembered the stories. For years, he had thought these tales were only a fading memory of a collective nightmare of his forefathers. He knew that the old sets of chains had been broken but replaced by new ones, which were slightly looser, when the chieftain fled their home one autumn day in a cavalcade. For some time, he recalled, the field slaves had not felt the steel around their ankles and wrists unless they tried to sprint. He knew that most of the field slaves were given a false sense of liberty; they could plough their own fields and eat their own grain and occasionally, they could raise their voice too. That was, like all such false pretences, a mere sham, at the pleasure of the new big masters.
This had to happen, he thought. He recalled old tales, which had told the stories of the present long ago.
When the Friends Club beat the chieftan’s khaki team at football in the SP College grounds, it had led to a brawl. The Tall Man, it is said, had waved a hockey stick. That was seen as a new beginning. Home, he was told, had woken up and was alive again. But soon the first twists in the story started to emerge.
The Tall Man was served up a socialist dream and he failed to see the finer print. And those who had always sided with the oppressor took over the reins of the movement. He was told that the peasants would sing his paeans. He was told that the concessions handed over to the house slaves would mean real freedom. The Tall Man forgot that the field slaves needed to be free. The Tall Man didn’t realise that the relaxations, he negotiated for the field slaves, isn’t an irreversible permit to breath in free air. As he reflected on the Tall Man’s story, his heart filled with pain. The Tall Man, he thought, could have done it with ease. He wasn’t sure about anybody later. Today, he thought, the Tall Man’s children were standing at the crossroads of history. They had two clear paths in front of them: the road of resistance and the highway of humiliation. They knew that if they wished to be reborn as leaders, they would have to resist and suffer. But he was convinced that they would never do that. He knew them far too well. They would, he thought, eventually accept some variant of the humiliation and carry on.
He thought about the Toffee Ma’am, who had also altered her tune more easily than they could change stations on the rusty old Murphy radio. She talked about a dream of her old man. Dreams, they say, can come to a man only in deep slumber. She didn’t realise that it was they who had created the breach and allowed the waters of the deluge to enter. Then that wily old wordsmith, wouldn’t tire to give his own explanation. They have embraced the fire, he would say, to save everyone else from its embers. He did not realize that they had only added fuel to the fire. He also talked about tolerating the raw, rotten meat of the pig so that we could get an unhindered supply of beef. The lie in his words couldn’t be more obvious: no one among us has ever enjoyed beef, and it was only served when the host couldn’t afford lamb.
They had all invested in a status quo and had stupidly thought they were custodians of a fire that would remain a banked ember. They didn’t expect that the simmering coal would ever burst into mammoth flames and engulf them.
There were people who kept telling them, reminding them that it was a project that even transcended the plan to undo the saint of Hamadan, who had come with talismans of papier mache and amulets of embroidered shawls. Seven centuries ago, the wretched of the valley found a new way to reach the invisible when they found no other way to break the shackles that locked them up the moment, they became life in the womb of an inferior soul. No one dares to say it out loud but yes, the curse of caste, the oppression of untouchability had alone turned an entire community into a tiny group comprising of a single class. He had heard the tale of his own ancestors. They too had abandoned the holy stones for the holy invisible. But while doing so, they had preserved who they were. The memory of Siddhartha was saved in the pagoda-like roof of the prayer rooms. The remembrance of the holy stones was kept alive in the beautifully carved tombstones. There was a deliberate continuity witnessed within their sacred spaces. The rhythmic chants to begin life at dawn were kept alive. They kept the tongue intact.
They fought every outsider, even those who shared the worship of the invisible with them. They refused to add the family names of the foreign rulers to their own names, replacing their own family names only to secure a place in the court. They abhorred this sycophancy even when the foreign ruler shared their new faith. They stayed who they were. Now everything they ever had, everything they had saved over centuries, was under threat.
We will form an embankment of our memories to keep the deluge from our home. We will do everything to let our streams flow, their fresh water shimmering. If we aren’t around, we will speak through the roar of their waters. If the meadows are taken over and turned into concrete jungles, what would we do? We will keep the memory of the breeze touching our faces. One day, we will return and we will reclaim the lush green and the tree lines. We will reclaim home.
We will write our tales, the tales of our forefathers. We will preserve all our ‘Suffering Moses’. If we are prevented from writing, we won’t let our nimble fingers forget how to tie the knots of the silken threads to weave our memory into our beautiful carpets. Our memory will be stored in the talim of our weavers. We will memorise our home, hide it in our hearts, and pass it on. It will survive even if we don’t. The comfort of seven million, of eight million isn’t reassuring. For we have seen six million disappear not too long ago, in another land. Zakhor kept them alive through two thousand years of wandering. Remembrance would keep us, too.
Home, James Baldwin wrote, is an “irrevocable condition.” No one can ever take away our home.