The soldier who could not speak the local language could not decide whether Karamat Ali Khan was plain stupid or a savvy undercover agent from another planet. After hours of beating him with belts, rods, after multiple electric shocks to his toes, after being bathed in ice-cold water, and hung naked from the ceiling with a rope that tore the flesh from his wrists, Karamat told the same story again and again. “He is really dumb,” thought the soldier. “Anyone else would have just accepted the story being dished out and gone home with a warning. But this old bugger seems intent on making us tired from beating him.”
It all started a few weeks ago.
Karamat Ali Khan lived in a village on the mountain slope of a great Valley that used to be covered in green paddy in the summer and mustard in the spring. His village began a few kilometres from where the paved road ended. It was good exercise trekking uphill, and probably the reason people in his village lived longer and healthier lives than the people further downhill. Many summers ago, a war had broken out, and the quiet mountainside village where Karamat lived, had become a hotbed of military activity, with many uniformed soldiers chugging their way up to the forests, passing by along with their weapons. A few years later, the weapons became heavier and more mechanised, and the soldiers tore a path along the village where none had existed before. Gradually, the path became wider and wider, until it ate up the paddy fields on both sides and consumed the lovely willow trees that hung like umbrellas and sheltered the working farmers under their shade during hot summer days. Karamat grew up watching guns of all sizes go up and come down. He watched the large trucks passing by. He watched the jeeps pass by, with privileged officers sitting in them with their expensive sunglasses, and four, rather poorer soldiers, standing at corners of the vehicles in front and behind the Officers’ vehicles. He thought it was natural. An important person needs to show how important he is to people who would think otherwise, and the Officers were especially important persons on the mountain slope.
Karamat’s four sons, Mohammed, Liaqat, Ayub and Yahya, also watched the daily spectacle of the movement of the soldiers up and down the slope. They called it “The Circus.” It would start with the morning routine. One of the kids of the village had to walk the road up and another kid would have to walk down, both stomping their feet to check for any possible landmines that may have been planted overnight by disgruntled ghosts. Each one of Karamat’s four sons had had their opportunity to present themselves to the soldier who would organise the daily mine-stomping ritual, and had learnt to salute and shout, “Long live the Motherland!” The kids were then dismissed to their homes, schools, shops, or flock of sheep, and a little while later a whistle would pierce the quiet of the village. The shrill, high-pitched whistle would be followed by another one, and another one, until it would be a disconcerting cacophony of whistles, which would alert the village folk to the oncoming convoy of trucks and jeeps with soldiers and guns in them. The Circus. Everyone had to make way and stop what they were doing to watch. And this routine would continue each day, six days a week, up and down, at least four times. Karamat and his sons could no longer remember a time when that infernal whistle would not pierce their ears, when the quietness of the mountain slope would not be torn by the sound of trudging trucks and when the birds would not fly away frightened by blaring horns. Even the older village men, who had grown long white beards and held rosaries in their hands, had forgotten. They had forgotten what lay on the land before the path became a track that became a road that eventually became a highway.
As this daily circus continued, people in the village became richer. Karamat’s older brother, Sharafat Ali Khan became rich by supplying the soldiers with eggs. Karamat’s younger brother, Rafaqat Ali Khan became rich by supplying the soldiers with donkeys and mules. But the youngest brother, Basharat Ali Khan, hated the soldiers who could not speak the language, and refused to profit from their presence. He continued to raise sheep and chicken. Karamat became the headman of the village, mainly because the elder brother was too busy counting his eggs. As headman, Karamat had privileges. He would walk and people would wish him, and he would feel powerful. He would settle disputes between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, between brothers, between neighbours, between shopkeepers and anyone else embroiled in a dispute of the sorts. The only disputes he could not settle were the disputes with the soldiers. There were no disputes with soldiers, that was unfathomable.
A few years after becoming headman, Karamat Ali Khan was approached by a man in a suit who came to the village holding a briefcase. He looked important. He asked Karamat to sign a few papers, after which Karamat would be given a car. No one in the village had had a car. A neighbour had purchased a motorbike, but the soldiers took it away for a ‘recon’ mission once, and never returned it. What did Karamat need a car for? The man in the suit said that he needed it for travelling to the city to meet with government officials who would provide Karamat with funds to build a new school, a new hospital, a new veterinary hospital, and other amenities that the village lacked. The man in the suit said he had just to pay the equivalent of the price of a sheep each month for three years. That meant 36 sheep in all. Not too difficult for Karamat since his flock was big enough to spare a sheep a month.
Karamat paid up the price of one sheep and a few weeks later, the man in the suit appeared in the village in a car. It was a white hatchback with a weak engine that had earned its name as a reliable alternative to travelling in a rusty taxi. No one in the village had seen a car before. No one knew how to drive one. The man in the suit explained a few basics about how to start the car and get it to move and how to stop it. In a few days, Karamat was driving around the village in his new car. He even gave a few of his neighbours a lift. His only problem was that he was stopped by the soldiers whenever their circus passed by. That was an insult to him. As the village headman, he had some respect amongst the villagers, not the least of which included the right of unfettered passage.
One day, he made his respected position known to one of the soldiers whose job it was to wear military fatigues and bulletproof vest, and to carry an assortment of communications equipment, including a walkie-talkie wired to his helmet and fixed to his ear, a gun with thirty bullets in its magazine, and then to stand in the middle of the village square and guide traffic to a grinding halt whenever the circus went by. Karamat had said to the soldier, “I am a respected person in this village. I am as old as your father. Please do not stop my car. Let me pass. Each time you stop me, the villagers make fun of me, calling me impotent and weak.” The soldier took one look at him, “Squat and become a chicken,” was shouted out in a much less respectful tone than that which Karamat had become accustomed to as a headman. Karamat hesitated, but the soldiers took one swipe at the old man’s bearded face, and a lot more than blood drained from it. As Karamat squatted in the village square, a punishment meted out by the soldier for requesting passage, the villagers looked on at the poor sight of an old, bearded man, who had worked hard all his life, with all his hard-earned respect lying scattered on the dirty street of the village he called home in front of the villagers for whom he was a figure of authority. The soldier watched, his buddy joining in on the fun of watching, and the circus passed by, with the members of the circus blowing their infernal whistles, blaring their loud horns, and waving their canes like it gave them wings to fly. Only when the circus passed was Karamat allowed to stand up and walk back to his home with his pride wounded. After that, he did not leave his home for a week.
A week later, when he came out, he went straight to the mosque on a Friday afternoon. As village headman, he had access to the pulpit, and asked the leader of prayers, the Imaam, permission to speak, saying that he wanted to say a few things. Karamat made his way to the front of the mosque, and in his now meek voice said that he had realised his mistake. He was driving the car the wrong way, and the people of his village should not drive their cars the way he did, as and when they bought cars, that is. From now on, he would drive his cars the way the soldiers did. He would sit in the front and make his four sons sit at the four windowpanes of the small hatchback, each with a stick in hand, and a whistle in their mouth. He would change. He would change the horn into a louder, more cacophonic horn, and he apologised for the potential noise and disturbance to the villagers. He had already sent his sons to town to purchase the loudest horn. He said that the soldiers did not understand the language and mistook his appeal to be allowed to pass as a yearning for something called, “Freedom,” and he realised that they communicated with each other using canes and whistles and guns and used the same tools to communicate with the natives and that he now needed to learn how to use those tools. He asked the villagers to support him in this venture, saying it would look funny, but it was necessary, since he was repeatedly being stopped and humiliated by the soldiers. Maybe, he said, the soldiers would take a more lenient view of him when he would be seen in a car with four men standing at the windows, waving canes, and blowing whistles, and they would allow him to pass.
A few days later, Karamat Ali Khan decided to go to the City. Unlike in past days, this time Karamat would not have to walk to the road, since he had his car. The fact that the roads were not suited for a horse’s hooves, as they had been turned over by the chain-ringed tyres of the trucks that carried the soldiers, did not worry him. He packed his bag, told his wife and daughters that he would get them some nice, new clothes from the City, and asked his sons to board the car with him. Mohammed, the oldest, sat at the back, Liaqat next to him. Ayub, the third son, was given the passenger seat next to the driver, and Yahya, being the youngest, was asked to sit in Karamat’s lap. Each one of them was given a cane, carved from wood that Karamat’s family gathered from the nearby forest, and a whistle, bought from the local village market. Karamat also got each one of them a cap, a pair of cheap sunglasses, and made them wear their green jackets. He had given them instructions on what to do with the canes and whistles.
The morning was balmy, a typical winter morning on the mountainside, with darting sunrays piercing the dark shadows skirting the silhouettes of the mountain range. Karamat started his car, asked his four sons to take their positions and waved a goodbye to his wife and daughters, before setting off on the dirt track down the mountainside and into the bleak, winter-draped valley below. The first checkpoint manned by the soldiers who could not speak his language was a few kilometres downhill. He asked his sons to be ready for deployment. As the checkpoint approached, the road was marked by small rocks on the side of the road which were laid in parallel lines meant to force oncoming traffic to a zig-zag slowdown. Karamat slowed his car down and shouted to sons, “Deploy!”
Mohammed, Liaqat, and Ayub understood the command and set about following the orders. Yahya jumped on to his father’s lap and followed what his brothers were doing. Each of Karamat’s sons lowered the windowpanes, sat along the pane, with their backs outside and legs dangling inside the car. Each of the sons, taking a cue from the soldiers, raised their canes, and started blowing their whistles at the sight of the checkpoint. They waved their canes in a brash manner and blew the whistles at the sharpest, most shrill notes possible, intending to copy the way the soldiers beat their ear drums each day the circus passed by. Karamat drove faster than the more timid, and frightful natives, who as a rule would slow down to a turtle speed in obedience and deference at each checkpoint. The soldiers manning the checkpoint were alert. They saw from afar the normal-looking hatchback with bewilderment and concern. Four young men were aggressively waving canes and blowing shrill whistles and the car was heading towards the checkpoint at some speed. The soldiers, almost communicating in the same sign language, waved their sticks at the car, asking the driver to slow down and stop, pointing in the direction they wanted the car to stop. Karamat tried to ignore the command, but Mohammed shouted from the back that it would not be a good idea to drive fast downhill while navigating a maze of rocks, and Karamat gave in to his protestations and slowed down. The soldiers now stood in front of the car and asked all the occupants to get down. Everyone obeyed, including the village headman, Karamat, who got down reluctantly. One of the soldiers launched into an expletive-laden rant and asked Karamat and his four sons to stand in a line and take their shirts off. Another soldier then play-acted a search of their car. Another one stood in front of each one of them, and started slapping them and hitting them, one by one, starting with Karamat and ending at Yahya. Yahya did not cry at being slapped, though he did claim to have seen some stars in the aftermath and was a bit dizzy. It wasn’t the first time he had been beaten by the soldiers, but Karamat did not know that. No reason was given for the arbitrary beating, and none was asked for. A while later, the five of them were asked to put on their shirts and jackets and asked to drive away, which they did without complain.
Karamat started his car, and the four sons sat in the same positions that they were sitting in previously. No one spoke a word. No one found the stripping, beating, and humiliation odd anymore. They were used to it.
Another checkpoint was down the road. Karamat ordered the same routine. This time the soldiers were apparently in a good mood. The presence of other passenger vehicles on the road running in both directions, and a narrow stretch of road around the checkpoint, meant that stopping Karamat’s vehicle would inevitably lead to a traffic jam, something that the soldiers loathed to manage. They waved their sticks at Karamat’s car and let him pass. The spectacle of watching four youth waving canes and whistling at a checkpoint while the soldiers waved their sticks back and asked them to move on, was something most natives were not used to. A few people peeked out of the passenger vehicles they were travelling in, smiling. A few people stared in disbelief, saying, “He will be beaten up.” Some said that he was mad. But Karamat carried on.
The next checkpoint was at the entrance to the City. Vehicles had backed up for miles, drivers waited patiently for their turn at the checkpoint. The usual questions, “Where have you come from? Where are you going?” and the usual answers by the natives, always spoken with honesty, and always spoken respectfully. Karamat decided it was time to test his theory, again. He asked his sons to take their positions, and he changed lanes, crossing over to the opposite side of the road, turned his head lights and hazard lights on, and revved the engines. He drove fast, his sons making use of their youthful energy in waving their canes wildly and blowing their whistles, drawing as much attention as they could. The bewilderment in the eyes of the helpless and hapless drivers and passengers who watched soon turned ominous. Everyone knew in the Valley what fate befell those who dared to challenge the authority of the soldiers, even if it was just hurrying up at a checkpoint for a perfectly human reason, like wanting to go the hospital because of an emergency or an illness.
A few hours later, Karamat and his sons found themselves naked and bound to each other, seated in the open, on a patch of dried mud, a few metres from the checkpoint. The village headman and his four sons had been meted out summary punishment in front of thousands of passers-by in broad daylight. Authority and absolute power met simplicity and stupidity. Naked aggression met vulnerable naked bodies. A father, tied to his sons, watched helplessly the persistent kicks fall upon them, and upon himself, though the ones that fell upon him were almost relieving. “At least it is me who is being hurt, not them.”
Karamat was taken to the Camp where the soldiers lived, which was a house that once belonged to a rich man who no longer saw his fortunes in the Valley. Stories abounded about those who entered through its gates, but never came back outside. Karamat had not heard them. Neither had the boys. The boys were let go, given their clothes, and asked to hitchhike back home. What was left of the car lay by the sides of the road. The car, once one of Karamat’s prized possessions, looked straight out of a scrapyard. Few would desire a vehicle that endured the treatment of the angry soldiers. The boys did not bother with it, instead finding someone who lived in a village near their mountainside home to give them a lift in the back of his truck. They reached home by evening to tell the story of their ‘encounter’ at the City checkpoint.
Karamat was taken inside the camp, blindfolded and handcuffed, with his flowing white beard visible from afar. Wearing nothing, he was shoved into a dark room. As he sat unevenly on the floor, Karamat thought about the Village, and about how they would be up in arms trying to save their headman. He thought to himself, “They are men of honour, surely they will see that their honour has been outraged by this treatment of their headman!” The soldiers will have a lot to answer for. His rather pleasant train of thoughts was interrupted by a kick from the boot of a drunk soldier. He took off his belt and started hitting Karamat with the buckle end. Each swipe hurt Karamat more than the previous one, tearing his skin, exposing his flesh underneath.
Once upon a time, Karamat may have had it in him, to shout expletives in response, and probably to mount a resistance. The sight of his naked boys before him, being beaten and humiliated, had driven a spear into the heart of his soul. A father, protective and proud, watched as his honour and his pride were beaten to the ground. Helplessness fell upon him. “Maybe I should die here.” “How can I show my boys my face again?” Another drunk soldier came into the room and started beating Karamat. “Tell us who you work for, old man?” “Tell us and we will let you go. We will not touch your sons,” said the first one, the stench of alcohol breathable from Karamat’s bleeding nostrils. “Why did you dare to wave canes and blow whistles at us, old man?” said the second one.
Karamat narrated his story. Of watching the Circus each day pass by, of watching soldiers waving canes and blowing whistles each day as they passed his village. He told them how he had paid for his car in sheep-instalments, how he had pleaded with soldiers to let him pass, how he was punished for doing so. He told them he thought that if you blow whistles and wave canes at other drivers and the people standing by the roadside, it made you an important person, worthy of being let go. That is how he came about bringing his four sons with him to the City and asking them to wave canes and blow whistles. He was the village headman; he had honour and respect and did not want to be stopped and harassed each time the Circus passed by.
Karamat’s honest account was met with drunken laughter. More soldiers joined in the fray and shared the joke. One of the soldiers, a native who could not share his real name nor address in the camp and the source of his money and his real vocation at his home, also came by to hear the story. For fun, he asked Karamat to narrate the story from the beginning, to satiate his appetite for superiority. Karamat, now at the twilight of consciousness, narrated the same story. No gaps, no modifications. The truth as bare, plain, and simple as its teller. And the same treatment was meted out again. The soldiers then suggested more methods of making the old man break. Electric shocks, dousing with cold water, hanging from the ceiling, all such tactics were tried. A mere mortal would have broken early on under such circumstances. Karamat, broken in resolve but strong in spirit, held firm to his story. “It is the truth,” he said, before being pounded away at again, and again.
Sanity did not seem to prevail that fateful night. Many nights like this one, in the Camp, had led to bodies being buried or burnt in secret. A Major famously boasted about his conquests when he was in charge of the Camp—he had a few ‘native kills’ to his name. Karamat did not know of the Major, and even if he did, he could not care. At the present, he was bleeding from a thousand small cuts, and a few bigger ones.
Back in the Village, the boys tried to get a few of the older villagers to travel to the Camp in the City to convince the soldiers to let him go. “He got what he deserved,” one old man said. “He should not have fought with the soldiers,” said another. One old man, whose son’s vocation no one knew for certain suggested, “Let him be. He is smart enough to find his way back.”
Except that Karamat’s smartness, or the evident lack of it, was not helping him get anywhere at that moment. The soldiers, taking turns to abuse and hit an old man hanging from the ceiling of a dark room in a camp that was once the bedroom of a young girl, were drunk and enjoying it. The old man had dared to blow a whistle and wave a cane, and in the eyes of the testosterone-fuelled young men, this was a challenge to their absolute authority. “Hit him so that he can never drive again,” shouted one. “Old man! What is your problem? Are you too old to father a child?” said another. “Burn his beard,” said a soldier who had long hair in a turban and a long beard tied up.
Finally, after hours of beatings, the soldiers, unable to extract any other story other than the truth from Karamat’s lips, called it a night and retired. The cook came in, and loosening the ties at his wrists, let Karamat down, and gave the old man some soup and rice to eat. Outside, the night had fallen, the streets were quiet, and only the odd stray dog barking was heard. The Valley, the City, once bustling at night with visitors from elsewhere, had become too scary for its people to step out into the dark, at a time when an electric torch was banned. “The torches shine too bright,” the soldiers had said. “Darkness was their friend,” the natives thought as they learned to have dinner before sundown, and marriages in the morning.
Karamat was let go the next morning. He put on the rags that remained from his clothes. No one from the Village was waiting at the gate of the Camp. His sons had been convinced of their father’s wrongdoing and were asked to wait for him to be released by those whose help they had sought. “No point aggravating the matter even further,” many old men had told them. Karamat found a truckdriver willing to carry an old man a part of the way back, and he sat in the back, his skin and flesh torn and bruised, his body’s aching intensifying with each bump on the road. The truckdriver dropped him off at the start of the climb up, and Karamat trekked the last five kilometres, each step, sending him deeper into agony. But the desire to be home, under a roof, and with his family, overwhelmed the pain.
Years later, during that time when Karamat would stare blankly at the Valley below, sitting naked on the porch outside his home, he would call this night the night when his soul truly broke. Years later, he convinced himself that it was this night in the Camp, and the pain, agony and tumult that followed it, that had allowed him to be convinced by the smooth talker from the Land of the Pure. The same talker who sent Karamat’s four sons to their death at the hands of the soldiers, at the bottom of the gorge that lay between the Land of the Pure and the Mountainside.