Jabar Khan closes the old, wooden door of his shop. It groans loudly and dogs start barking at a distance. His hands tremble and the key falls to the floor. He puts his hands in the warm pockets of his pheran and starts walking away. There is a tinge of unbridled resolve in his eyes, even as his hands shake and as his steps falter.
It is chillai-kalan in Kashmir, the forty coldest days of the year. The sun looks like a giant white ball of ice suspended in the sky. The breeze striking the skin hurts like a thousand pricks all at once. And such is the silence descending upon the valley that only spirits are suspected to be residing there.
Jabar Khan is dressed in his best clothes—a warm, black pheran and a shiny karakul cap. These were neatly folded in his suitcase and saved for important occasions just the night before. The warm April afternoon when his sons bought this karakul from Srinagar is etched in Jabar Khan’s memories.
‘Baba, wear this karakul when you go out. It will keep you warm,’ his son, Altaf had said while adjusting it on his head.
His other son, Salman held a small, broken mirror in his hands and moved it this and that way so Jabar Khan could admire his new attire.
‘Hero hasa hero,’ his grandkids had teased. They were playing with small round stones in one corner of the room. One would throw a stone in the air and pick up another one from the ground, adding to the number of stones each time.
‘Kacho kar kya, chaani garre khaeme kya, gogji haakh bey kya,’ they chanted happily. What will I do? What will I eat at your place? Turnip and greens may be!
The sunlight streamed in through the open windows and the aroma of lamb cooked in spices and yogurt wafted from the kitchen.
A lifetime has passed since. He is no longer allowed to walk on that road that leads to familiar places. He now lives in a world turned so ruthless that it separated him from his loved ones with no prior warning. It has been years since he has seen his family, but he still waits, season after season, in front of his shop, in the middle of nowhere on the Jhelum Valley Road.
And today, in the dead of the winter, he knows that it is time to leave behind his home and his village. He knows that it is time to meet his sons and bring them back with him. Villagers call him crazy old Jabar Khan. They say he is not right in the head, has not been so for a long time now. He says he is the only sane one, he says that the memory of the sweet lamb cooked in cardamom and yogurt has been wearing off for some time now. And he needs to smell it again, to touch the skin on the faces of his sons and have his grandkids drop large, wet kisses on his cheeks once again. He says he needs to feel all these things again, in order to live. He says he otherwise will die a slow and painful death and that he is already halfway there.
Before leaving home, he had lavishly spread honey on a fresh bundle of lavaas and wrapped them in an old newspaper. He carries them now in the warm pockets of his pheran. He puts his hands in his pockets every now and then, to make sure that they are still there. Some of the honey has seeped out and the newspaper is now mushy. He licks his sticky fingers and takes long, purposeful strides towards his sons.
Tahir Khan, almost the same age as Jabar Khan, is collecting firewood in the grove behind his home. He sees Jabar Khan walking towards the Jhelum Valley Road.
‘Crazy Jabar Khan is leaving again,’ he mutters under his breath.
Once when it was snowing continuously for days, he had filled his pockets with bread, his kanger with hot embers and left home without a word. His family searched for him through the entire village and in the surrounding forest but could not find him. Nobody said anything but everyone thought he might be dead, that a wild animal must have taken him or else the cold must have disoriented him beyond return. When the icicles hanging from the roof of the houses started melting, he returned home. His friends and family pestered him with questions but received no answer other than a smile. His family blamed his age, his friends said that they always knew he was a little peculiar, and the villagers blamed his eyes.
‘There is nothing normal with him, or with his eyes,’ they said.
The shop of white-bearded and two-color-eyed Jabar Khan lay on the edge of Chakothi, a village halfway between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad on the Jhelum Valley Road. A wooden seat layered throughout the year with warm cushions sat behind the counter. Transparent jars filled with multi-coloured candy, matchstick boxes, candles, soap and some other objects of necessity were displayed neatly on the shelves and stored in cartons at the back of the shop. A few mud and wood houses were scattered at some distance.
At any time of the day, you would have found Jabar Khan and his squad of white-bearded men sitting in front of his shop. Donning white prayer caps and long grey, black and brown coloured pherans, they would smoke the jajeer in turns, devour steaming hot cups of tea, and watch buses and tongas pass by. Even during the depths of winter, they would sit there in the cold, with only their eyes visible through a slit in their warm woollens, and look at their world through a thick veil of snow. On these cold winter evenings, the light of the buses would flicker dimly at a distance and the voices of people would fade away slowly.
Buses and tongas full of traders and families coming from different parts of Kashmir would stop near Jabar Khan’s shop. They would sit on the edge of the road and listen to him talk about his two sons, five grandsons, and his small and smug Himalayan village of 24 families that rested on the only highway that connected Kashmir with the rest of the world. They would also face inquisitive questions about where they were coming from, where they were going and everything in-between. And after a while, they too would disappear with their suitcases and stories, and Jabar Khan would wait patiently for the next batch to arrive.
This was their small hidden world until that fateful October afternoon when a group of tribal men arrived. Jabar Khan and his squad of white-bearded men were discussing the inevitable war that lay just around the corner. In this remote Kashmiri village, people may not have been up to date with the developments on the political front, but even they understood that the two newly-born and free countries would now come for them.
So, they were not surprised when the Kabalis, about a dozen of them, stopped in front of the shop and asked for bread and tea. Jabar Khan went to prepare tea inside his home that was right behind his shop. Then he went to the nearest baker and bought hot lavaas. He placed the samovar full of boiling pink tea and the trays of lavaas and honey in front of these men.
They ate quietly, finished everything within a couple of minutes, smacked their lips and after a light probing, bragged to these old men about their assignment.
‘The war has started,’ they said before leaving.
Jabar Khan and his men watched them leave with swords, axes and sticks hanging from their shoulders. They spread their hands towards the sky and implored Allah to protect them and their loved ones, and all the people of the land towards which this army was marching.
The days that followed felt like years. A border was speared through their hearts. A country was butchered. Jabar Khan in Chakothi was separated from his sons in Srinagar. Abdul Rehman in Muzaffarabad was separated from his family in Baramulla. And Zamrooda Banu in Rawalakot was separated from her daughter in Pulwama. And so on and so forth. The insignificant remnants of a butchered country. The names and faces of the ghosts in their windows.
In the old days, Jabar Khan would walk all the way from his village to Srinagar. He would knock at random doors at dusk and they would let him stay the night. They would feed him and ask him to tell them stories of the village he belonged to. And in the morning, they would drink cups of nunchai together before his departure. This is how it had always been in his country. People arriving at the doorstep were never turned away.
Those homes have now disappeared. Srinagar is now another country. People are trapped on either side of the border like ants caught in a spider web. Jabar Khan is old and frail. The cold has seeped into his flesh and he can no longer feel his hands. The only thing driving him on is the hope that he will soon see his sons.
‘Where are you going, Baba?’ a voice calls out.
Jabar Khan turns around to see a young man walking towards him.
‘I am going to Srinagar to see my sons,’ Jabar Khan replies.
‘And how will you go to Srinagar, Baba? It is not possible. There are soldiers covering every inch of the border.’
Jabar Khan looks towards the east, towards the rows and rows of mountains stretching before him. He squints his eyes, as if trying to see the world beyond them.
‘I am going to Srinagar to see my sons,’ he repeats.
‘In that case Baba, my mother lives in Baramulla. Ask anyone where Hajra Begum lives and they will guide you to our home. Everyone knows her in our little village. I had promised her that I will be back before winter. She must be waiting for me. Please tell her that I am alive and healthy. Tell her that I miss her and that I will see her soon in the afterlife. Tell her that I will kiss her hands and never leave her again.’
‘Yes, yes, my son,’ Jabar Khan puts his hand on his head and whispers a silent prayer.
A little way ahead, there is a woman in a sky-blue pheran standing in the fog. She is looking at the mountains with longing in her eyes. She hears the sound of footsteps crushing the hard snow and turns around.
‘Where are you going, Baba?’ she asks.
‘I am going to Srinagar to see my sons,’ Jabar Khan replies.
‘And how will you go to Srinagar, Baba? It is not possible. You will only get yourself killed.’
Jabar Khan looks towards the east, towards the rows and rows of mountains stretching before him. The world feels cold and distant and he aches for warm sunlight on his numbed bones.
‘I am going to Srinagar to see my sons,’ he repeats.
‘In that case Baba, the man I love lives there. We were supposed to get married this fall. Can you tell him to come here and stand at that spot, on that mountain? I will be able to see him from here. I will be able to see if he’s alright. Tell him I come here some days and wait for him. If he comes near enough, then we can at least see each other. Tell him to come before I forget his face. Tell him to come before I die.’
‘Yes, yes, my daughter,’ Jabar Khan puts his hand on her head.
He starts walking again. A little slower, a little heavier than before. Familiar faces from the other side appear before him. His sons are little again. They run towards him and sit on his lap, one on each side. He tells them a story about their king who was deceived and imprisoned by a Mughal Emperor a long time ago. He tells them how they have never been free since. He tells them to remember their history with pride.
His sons are now taller. The sun is out after ages. They take him out for a walk. They had been cooped up inside their homes for too long because of the cold. The world seems different, as if born again overnight. This new air is fresh and the colors bright.
It is spring. They kiss his hands and tell him that they have found work in Srinagar and that they will return before the year is over. The tonga disappears from his view and all that remains behind is a fragile Jabar Khan standing on the edge of the Jhelum Valley Road. He goes back inside his cold, lonely house and shuts the door.
Jabar Khan and his men would still sit at their usual spot in his shop, stare at the road and wait patiently for the travellers to come and ask for tea. But not a single bus or tonga passed by since that October afternoon when the tribal men arrived.
‘This cannot be it. They cannot separate us like this. They think that they can just draw a line and expect us to stay on this side. We cannot allow this.’ Jabar Khan would say.
‘Crazy, two-color-eyed Jabar Khan,’ the villagers would say. ‘We are as helpless as an innocent lamb with the butcher’s blade at his throat and as a tiny bird caught in the gust of a strong wind. The lamb struggles with whatever life is left in him, but is unable to break free. The bird flutters against the wind, trying to make sense of what is happening to her and to her world, trying to see with all the dust in her eyes and the resistance against her wings. So vivid is this image because so akin is our plight.’
It snowed heavily that winter. It would snow all night, till the break of dawn. During those hours in the morning, when the sky would appear to clear up a bit, the villagers would head over to the baker for hot lavaas. They would sit in front of the tandoor, the fire in the pit warming their bare faces and hands and talk about the events happening around them. They would argue about how it was possible that these invisible borders could separate them from their families on the other side.
Crazy old Jabar Khan, who had lived a long and full life and had an eternity of memories behind him, felt like it was just yesterday when he was a child and his parents were still alive and youthful. He would stare into the abyss and unintentionally raise his hands to touch his mother’s face and ask for her blessings.
Life that had passed in the blink of an eye now seemed to have stopped in its track. The thought of not seeing his sons again was too much to bear. In a different world, Jabar Khan’s village and his shop would have been enough for his sons. They would not have felt the need to leave for the city to earn a livelihood. But in this world, they had to leave. And because they left, the war changed the course of their lives. They could no longer return to what they had left behind.
Today, Jabar Khan is the lone traveller on the Jhelum Valley Road. The road that once used to be brimming with travellers all year around, now looks like a haunted alleyway. He stops and looks around him, at the poplar trees lined up on both sides of the road and at the endless, colourless sky.
Sometimes what was, what is and what could have been, stares at us through the blanks and lapses in our lives. Sometimes those blanks and lapses look like old, perishing homes with dark and hollow windows. He stares at these empty homes. He can see the stories of the people who lived here once. He can hear their laughter still rustling through the leafless trees.
He can also see the border looming at a distance. It would not be entirely correct to say that Jabar Khan did not fully comprehend the concept of borders. Or that the war that had reshaped his world had left him in a state of perpetual stupor. Perhaps, it was only because he understood it all too well that he refused to accept it. Perhaps, he knew then what we know now, that as long as we rebel and struggle for what is ours, there is hope and as long as there is hope, there is life. Anything less than that is a death in waiting.
Crazy old Jabar Khan had become lost to imposed conditions and the circumstances they brought forth. Conditions that were not of his choice whatsoever. He was no longer a man, but a country whose address had been stolen. And yet no comparison was vast enough to contain the man whose story was also the story of an entire people displaced without any anchor.
He did not hesitate. He did not look back. He kept on walking in the direction of his grandsons’ voices in the distance. They are still playing their little game.
Kacho kar kya, chaani garre khaeme kya, gogji haakh bey kya. What will I do? What will I eat at your place? Turnip and greens may be!
He kept repeating these verses with them, as if in a trance.
The joy of meeting his family after such a long time was so great that he didn’t even feel the bullet that pierced his chest as soon as he crossed the border.
It looked like the Indian soldiers were waiting on the other side for him or for anyone else attempting such a feat. Their guns were already posed on the newly constructed barracks. The target, crazy old Jabar Khan, was spotted walking alone on the lonely road, licking honey off his fingers, oblivious to the danger ahead of him.
He descended into death within a split second. There was no time for pain, no last-minute memories creeping into his mind, no regret for things left undone. A toothless smile was frozen on his face and his two-coloured eyes stared into the distance.
In this way, crazy old Jabar Khan was the first Kashmiri to be killed while trying to cross the border. The villagers searched for him in the entire village and in the surrounding forest but could not find him. Nobody said anything but everyone thought he might be dead, that a wild animal must have taken him or else the cold must have messed with his senses.
His lifeless body is stuck in ice in the no man’s land, the only part of Kashmir that neither India nor Pakistan have yet claimed.
The day he was killed, it started snowing again. The valley was trapped in an endless winter. The days were cold and the nights were colder. People kept recalling for years after about how this had been the longest winter of their lives. Life crumbled like withered chinar leaves, which the brutal winter wind carried away in its swift breeze.
Pheran: a long loose cloak worn by men and women in Kashmir to stay warm in the subzero temperatures of Himalayan winters.
Chillai-kalan: the Kashmiri word given to period of intense cold that sets during the Himalayan winter.
Karakul: a hat made from the fur of the Qaraqul breed of sheep, and that is worn by people from Central and South Asia.
Lavaas: the Kashmiri variation of Lavash, a thin flatbread traditionally baked in a tandoor.
Kanger: an earthen pot contained in woven wicker and filled with hot embers and carried or held by Kashmiris beneath their pherans to keep warm during the cold winters. Also called a kangri.
Jajeer: the Kashmiri variation of a hookah.
Nunchai: the traditional pink salt tea that Kashmiris drink.
Tandoor: a cylindrical clay oven used for cooking and baking.
Chinar: the Old World sycamore or Oriental plane, a cousin to the Maple tree, also known as Boonyi. The oldest Chinar in Kashmir is more than 600 years old and is estimated to have been planted in 1374, approximately two hundred years before the arrival of the Mughals.