The air in Kashmir reeked of the usual paranoia on the night we found Tanveer trembling of convulsions all by himself in our kitchen.
We were at the cusp of what was expected to be a brief Autumn. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had predicted an early spell of snowfall in certain pockets of Kashmir. This was followed by an urgent notice issued by the Horticulture Department urging orchardists to finish plucking apples at the earliest. Those who had already done so could move on to pruning the vulnerable orchards to avoid snow damages. With every passing day we would watch the increasing number of the otherwise valiant lush green chinar leaves lying on the grass like fallen angels, having given in to the onset of the oppressive winters. Even in their death the leaves would further the cause of survival as they would be burnt to form charcoal powder to fill up Kangris (Kashmiri fire pots).
The constant rumbling of the helicopters hovering from above had become a usual feature in the existing ambience of our otherwise natural soundscape, often muffling the calls of magpies or the chirps of hummingbirds. Any exception to where the helicopters ceased to make their presence felt would push people into a rabbit hole of uncertainties. Lately, the air force was rehearsing for an “Air Show” where their selected fleet of aircrafts would exhibit an airborne dance choreographed to manufacture motivation within the youth of Kashmir to join the Indian Air Force (IAF).
I was the first one to hear my grandmother Boebe’s cry for help. At first, I presumed it was her ritualistic claims of having heard gunshots that upon further probe would always turn out to be firecrackers. A few days ago, Boebe woke up the entire house in the middle of the night, certain she had heard gunshots. The neighbours too confirmed that the loud barrages emerging from deep within the dense mountains actually were the sounds of a crossfire between two parties, a rendezvous of bullets in an unending duel. However, in the following few mornings, there was nothing to be found in the newspapers nor in the WhatsApp Groups.
“Something is wrong with Tanveer. You guys need to come here!” screamed Boebe. Her empathy seemed constructed, and her track record made us sceptical of her apprehensions. However, when I did walk into the kitchen, Boebe stood helpless. Abu and I took turns consoling Tanveer. “He is having a panic attack” whispered Abu with his usual reassurance. His tryst with optimism had been undeterred despite the collapsing edifice of safety in our daily lives. An occasional distressful sigh coupled with a mild shake of the head was the highest form of his protest at the very sight of slain civilians reported in the evening news. ‘There is always hope’ was my father’s maxim, a multipurpose creed that served as a full-stop in a political discourse, a therapeutic belief that got him going, a unique form of faith that concealed his political bent, or a rejoinder to an argument. Hope was the usual medicine to our collective grief, and with the same optimism we continued nursing Tanveer.
By now his convulsions had mushroomed into some strange tremors that amplified the quivering of his teeth. He started moaning in an untraceable pain while arching his back with relative geometric precision, making us fear for the fragile state of his spine. An otherwise weak and languid Tanveer was exhibiting an unimaginable aerobic effort, pushing us into a much deeper state of shock given the severity of the situation at hand. “You’ll hurt your back!” I pleaded to an unresponsive Tanveer who had now started to go after his arms, twisting them to a point of dislocating his shoulder.
“Grab his arms!” yelled Mummy from the far end of the kitchen as she generously covered for Tanveer by handling his chores and doing the dishes. Her words hit him like a bullet as he jolted up and unshackled his wrists from our hands. “Shut up!” he reprimanded Mummy, darting her with his gaze. She obediently shut the tap and moved further away in order to exit the kitchen. For the next few seconds, silence engulfed the room. The helicopters stopped hovering over us as his reverb ricocheted off the four walls of our dim-lit kitchen. I could hear the pounding of all our hearts in unison as Tanveer adopted an authoritative tone that would be least associated with his usual gentle conduct. I needed to sit down. I walked past everybody to get a moment to myself, I heard Tanveer mumble through his receding sobs “I’m getting depressed”.
I had picked up Tanveer from Jawahar Nagar, two weeks ago, as a replacement for our Help from an ‘Agency’ that recruits unskilled labourers from different pockets of Kashmir for a modest salary, while making giant profits off them. He was an unusual mix of a handsome yet unsure twenty-three-year-old, dressed in camouflage cargo pants with a pastel-coloured t-shirt. Tanveer was the eldest of the seven siblings who had been born and brought up in Kupwara. He belonged to a family of landless labourers who toiled on the many fields of the village gentry up until the onset of Autumn, which is when they would outsource themselves to the city agencies to compensate for the otherwise poor spell of cold winters. “Easy access to hot water, decent food, and meagre income is enough for the young boys to trade their agrarian lives for this temporary servitude” the ‘Agent’ had said without much deliberation.
For the entirety of the 30 minutes driving all the way from Srinagar city to our house in the suburbs of Nishat, he had his eyes glued to the changing landscape. ‘Give wings to your dreams’ he had struggled to read on the giant IAF sanctioned billboards along the Boulevard Road, placed there to keep with the Indian anthem of ‘Development’ to bridge the ‘Dilli aur dil ki doori’. Tanveer looked away at the pristine waters of the Dal, observing the clearly cast reflections of the mighty Kohi-i-Maran (a hill overlooking the city of Srinagar), as I tried reasoning with a foot soldier of the Indian Army to allow us past the bunker put up as part of a security protocol set indefinitely into place for the last three decades. He watched the busy flyovers and crowded bus stops pave way for the wilderness that blanketed our house right up on the foothills of the Zabarwan Range. While we were clearly told of his submissive nature, I found Tanveer abnormally quiet throughout the journey. He was impervious to any enquiry, brushing each one off with a subtle grin.
Within a day I found him getting along with the gardener who guided him with the designated chores. Tanveer would obediently wake up at the crack of dawn to offer Namaz. Once he was done, he would brandish a leaf broom to sweep the rust-coloured chinar leaves off the greens, depositing these into the bin. Tanveer would hold on to the ladder while the gardener pruned the hedges, often spilling the creepers onto his face. He would gently wipe them off. I would watch him help drape the iron panels of our green house with a giant plastic cloth to provide asylum for the plants to survive the winters. Tanveer would occasionally sit in the lawn to soak in the warmth of the afternoon until Boebe called on him to help her pluck the ripe Amlok (persimmons) off the trees before the snow got to them.
For Boebe, who’d always exercised a feudal approach with the Help, often pushing them to the limits of servitude, Tanveer was a fresh change. She would often ignore his frequent visits to the bathroom for cigarettes, let him watch the dubbed version of Ertugrul, the Turkish show, on his phone, while she married Knol khol with collard greens for lunch. He was even permitted to have a nap in the afternoon, which again Tanveer traded for yet another episode of Ertugrul. I could see a faint glimmer in Tanveer’s eyes every time the brave warrior broke into dramatic monologues. “I am only the enemy of oppression and betrayal” — a subtle nod of the head reflecting his deep belief in an otherwise largely fictionalised portrayal of Ertugrul Bey’s life.
Kashmir was particularly engulfed in the warm embrace of the extensive storytelling found in the Turkish soap. In a bid to stitch an otherwise fractured Muslim brotherhood at a global level, Ertrugul was knitting from the same kit that India used in weaving the majoritarian impulse of the Hindu community when they decided to commission Mahabharata and Ramayana back in 1987—more than a decade before Tanveer was born. While Ertrugul did permeate through all classes and the many chasms of diverse Muslim-majority societies, however with the ubiquitous smart phones and cheap data packs the experience was largely individualistic and less of a community-driven exercise. While Abu was binge-watching the same from the comfort of his bedroom on a giant LED screen, Tanveer absorbed the sentiments of the show on his cheap smart phone in the solitary confines of our kitchen. These two experiences continued to remain largely unexchanged from each other as opposed to being shared between the two of them.
“He never reacts to his name being called” said my mother as she sat down on her chair while anxiously biting her nails. Tanveer would carry on tending to his work despite being called out loud and clear. It wasn’t until you’d gently, or in some cases harshly, jolt his shoulders that he would turn to look at you. His oblivious eyes would plead innocence as he would claim never to have heard his name being called out to begin with. After a while, Mummy turned pale with fright, yet furiously dialled the ‘Agent’ to offer him very specific feedback. The ‘Agent’ was surprised and immediately submitted himself, trading an apology for every accusation Mummy levied on him. He had left for his home in Shopian—a good two-hour drive from our house. He insisted that we hold the fort for the night, pledging to come over and pick Tanveer up right after he was done offering the Fajr Namaz (morning prayers).
Valkyries rose as the helicopters came back to predate over the calm of the night while offering a cue for Tanveer to resume his frenzy. Alarmed, I rushed to the kitchen to rescue my family from what they by now perceived to have been a Djinn. Tanveer was stretched out flat on the cold granite marble of our kitchen. His body quivered while his mouth discharged heavy spells of froth. The chuff of the rotors of the helicopter would push him into a state of unexplained rage. “Just pick up Gulzar Peer and bring him here right away!” Abu yelled at our driver—Ghulam Rasool—before hanging up the phone on him.
I lifted Tanveer’s head while Abu grabbed him by his legs as we tried moving him to my room on the first floor. Despite his seizures, Tanveer relentlessly protested against Abu touching his legs. He aggressively flung himself out of our grip to land back on the freezing cold marble floor. Just as we decided to swap roles, we were able to carry him up to my room. Boebe struggled to follow us as the stairs challenged her weak joints while Mummy watched us from a distance, still reeling in from the shock.
As Abu tried to adjust him, Boebe expressed her sheer disdain through her theatrical sighs, at the sight of Tanveer lying down in my bed. “We should have taken him to his room instead” lamented Boebe. She looked around and spotted a fully ripe bunch of royal Bumm tchoont (quince apples) resting on dated newspapers. She nudged me to help her take them out to avoid damage. When Abu asked for a quilt to wrap him in, Boebe made an undisputed proclamation “I’ll get it from his room”. Boebe struggled with her cane as she decided to walk all the way from our house to his room, which was near our garage—a fair distance in comparison to my almirahs that had a quilt and winterwear packed in them. Mummy mustered the courage to come up to the threshold of my room to check on us. She smacked her forehead as she watched Abu pamper Tanveer: “Do you feel like eating? Should we make you some warm Kahwa? Or do you want to have eggs instead? Have you had dinner? Should we make you some Pulav?” Mummy pulled me out of the room as she pleaded with me to get him to stop expressing his hospitality. “He wants some Kahwa!” shouted Abu from inside the bedroom.
Boebe walked in with Tanveer’s blanket held like a dead rat—at a fair distance from herself, and revulsed by the idea of touching it with her aged hands. “We need to fix the Halogen Lamp outside the servant’s quarter. It’s impossible to walk from that side at night” Boebe complained while she sat on a chair to catch her breath. Tanveer was now breaking into a lengthy arrangement of intermittent grunts. A voice possessed by his tormented being was struggling to make itself heard from somewhere deep within his body. When the voice found itself being stifled by the grunts while Tanveer pressed his lips together—tighter than ever—he tried to dig his fingers right into the clasp of his sharp teeth. It was difficult to watch him embark upon this self-destructive spree. It felt like Tanveer was trying to protect us from what his demons were forcing him to do. Tanveer was suffering for all of us. Boebe’s tough exterior poise shattered into a whimper as she empathised with his plight, looking at him with great pity expressed in the only two words she could gather at this point, “Poor child”.
Fatigue was wearing him off. His grunts sobered down while his body struggled to move. He was in pain but lacked the agility and awareness to express it. The helicopter was most distant yet very much present. He refrained from having the warm cup of Kahwa, which as expected, Mummy had poured for him in his designated pale white cup. She insisted on making him drink the Kahwa since it had a 0.25 mg tablet of Alprax prescribed earlier by a pharmacist for both her and Boebe in order to bring their rising blood pressure to a more normal level. We strived as much as was possible, but we could get him to have at best only half a cup of the medicated Kahwa. Tanveer’s exhausted body started to mumble a Surah (a chapter of the Quran). Boebe added to our worries when she bought to our attention how Tanveer was reading his own Fatihah—the first Surah of the Quran recited at funerals when a soul leaves for the heavenly abode while the body is made to rest in a burial.
Tanveer was preparing to die.
Despite her many childhood anecdotes, we would always urge Boebe to revisit her version of the exorcist—a man by the name of Gulzar Peer—who in a sheer display of histrionics had once reasoned with the ghost of a possessed woman by offering him every possible delicacy in exchange for his peaceful departure from her possessed body. “Do you want mutton? Chicken? Fish?” shouted Gulzar right into the woman’s face. A young Boebe had pinched herself from laughing out loud in an otherwise serious surrounding. The ghost found a consensus with the exorcist as he bartered his exit over a plate of rice with some Haakh (collard greens) convincing the spectators that it was a Batta Djinn (a Kashmiri Pandit ghost). Boebe would always break into a fit of uncontrollable laughter while pushing her palm tight against her mouth to conceal her ill-fit denture.
As Gulzar Peer walked into our house I noticed his demeanour to be diametrically opposite to how I’d perceived him to be. The infinite wrinkles nestled on either side of his eyes were telling the history of a face that had been privy to a lot. The perpetual frown was concealing a faint glimmer of hope that he harboured deep within his eyes. He commanded respect—I realised as we greeted him—while he gently hinted at all of us to leave the room. I picked up the smart phone and wallet that had dropped out of Tanveer’s pocket during his many frantic convulsions.
We remained oblivious to the semantics of the exorcism as we squatted in our sitting room, taking turns in telling Ghulam Rasool (our driver) about the misadventures of the last two hours. He kept shaking his head in disbelief while chanting the most indisputable explanation for Tanveer’s behaviour, “He is possessed, without a doubt”. I tried to unlock his phone in an attempt to reach out to his family. I went with what my entitled self believed would be the password for his phone: 0786, 1234, 0000, etc. but nothing worked. I browsed through his wallet to find his Aadhar card which was hiding behind an isolated hundred rupee note. I looked at his amiable face, reminiscing of how he was when I drove him to our house.
I tried entering the digits of his date of birth, but yet again Tanveer’s passcode-setting skills outsmarted me. I pulled out a chit from one of the pockets inside the wallet and looked at what appeared to be an account for the total sales of cold drink bottles. His handwriting was cursive with very neat strokes, however his numbers appeared quivered. I parked the contents back into the wallet and handed it over to our driver. “These village kids keep going up into the forests on a regular basis and that’s how they get possessed. For them it’s very common” Ghulam Rasool was known to urgently issue his prescriptions while brushing off nuances.
For the next hour, while Tanveer struggled with Gulzar Peer, our family broke into a heated debate over science vis-a-vis religion. We discussed whether it was right for us to believe that he was possessed after all. Abu and I argued for the possibility of a personality disorder often propelling the human mind to conjure alter egos. I added by explaining how a history of unattended epilepsy could actually lead to severe kinds of concussions mirrored by Tanveer’s condition. Every choice he made over the course of the last two hours had deep-rooted psychological explanations. My brief stint with reformation ended abruptly as I was called out for being an atheist. I was tutored about how the Holy Quran had several mentions of the word Djinn. “But the problem is that we take religion literally and science metaphorically. Whereas it must be the other way around” said Abu. He was again met with a barrage of berating objections that pushed him into reserving his opinion. Boebe grunted in disappointment while piercing us with her frightening gaze.
We heard the door to my room open. Gulzar Peer walked up to us enquiring about the mobile phone and the wallet. He reassured us that Tanveer was perfectly fine yet exhausted. He was just asking for his phone before he could hit the sack. Peer decided to spill some of the pearls of his unbound wisdom as he mentioned how common this was for him. He had spent more than fifty years fighting Djinns and it was about time we accepted their existence. All the heads in the hallway panned towards Abu and me as we did a good job in harbouring our sheer disdain by an art of dissimulation perfected between father and son. He asked us to trust the Almighty and to go off to sleep as the Djinn would not bother us from here on. Ghulam Rasool chaperoned him back to his house safe and sound.
A consensus was built on locking up my room to ensure Tanveer stayed within the confines of its four walls. He didn’t sleep for a while as he persistently moaned in pain. I watched him from a nearby window as he glued his eyes to the ceiling. With the exorcist having gone, we were left on our own once again. Tanveer would find his reminder in the loyal helicopter that kept hovering back and forth on regular intervals to resume his wails. We kept waiting for the hands of the clock to reach the magical number of 5 a.m. so that we could check on the ‘Agent’ to come pick him up.
We slept way past the time for Fajr Namaz just to be woken up precisely at 6:30 a.m. by our captive. He was knocking hard on the door convincing us to let him out. Abu carefully moved the keys trying to make as little sound as possible just to keep the peaceful morning from being disrupted. As he opened the door, we saw Tanveer standing erect. He had washed his face, performed his ablution, and offered Namaz. His sleepless eyes didn’t wear off his determination. He was very insistent on starting the day. “I need to sweep the chinar leaves off the garden. Need to check on the flower pots in the Green House” he announced as he walked past us with no knowledge of last night. I watched him from our balcony as he toiled in the garden. He watched the chinar leaves burn as he tried to soak in the heat to warm his hands. He brought in the freshly-loaded Kangri for Boebe to warm her hands with. The ‘Agent’ never turned up while his phone remained switched off. It was inadvisable to get along with our jobs while leaving Boebe all alone with Tanveer. We decided to drop him off back to the office where I’d picked him up from originally.
Tanveer was unresponsive yet again when I called out his name. He abruptly turned around when I tapped his shoulder. He shook his head in constant disagreement when we informed him about our decision. He insisted on doing his duty. Boebe stepped in as she tried to persuade him with a display of her maternal love. This agitated Tanveer even further. He sent us a reminder of the shock waves from the day before when he screamed loud enough in protest. The bright hopeful morning with the lingering winter chill in the air, the chirping of birds and the constant presence of pedestrian traffic around our house instilled a sense of courage in Abu. “Shut up!” he yelled back at Tanveer. He was sent off with a meagre compensation of two thousand rupees for the days he had toiled in our garden. I watched him reluctantly pack the money next to the lonely hundred rupees note in his wallet.
The rest of the day was as mundane as we had wanted it to be. Helicopters hovered above us while Mummy and Abu left for their respective duties. I watched Boebe yet again narrate the many chronicles of her childhood. The ‘Agent’ did turn his phone on but despite our persistence refused to answer our calls. Mummy pulled out my bed linens and took them away for washing. Tanveer’s blanket was thrown into his erstwhile room which was locked afterwards. I switched off his geyser—a practice obediently followed in our house in order to save energy.
Mummy and Boebe doubled up as they cooked dinner while Abu and I took over the dishes. Everybody complimented Boebe for the exquisite combination of tender Bumm tchoont (quince apple) cooked with Vaangan (brinjals) in a thick red tomato gravy. Mummy washed the kitchen and then moved onto my room as the cacophony of our twenty-year-old vacuum cleaner spilled into all the pockets of our house. I slept peacefully in the comfort of brand new linens as I tucked myself in, just to be woken up in the middle of the night by Boebe who claimed to have heard shots of gunfire emerging from the deep crevices of the Zabarwan range that stood tall behind our house.
When we finally did get through the ‘Agent’, he apologised for his absence and blamed it all on his car. Mummy insisted on getting her advance back however he asked us to expect our replacement for Tanveer shortly. “I’m sure he was just trying to pull a fast one on you”, he apprised us of the tremendous feats a “groos”—a term pejoratively used to describe landless village dweller—is capable of when it comes to the question of survival. The hypothesis adjusted very well with the existent bias Mummy had towards the ‘griis’—plural of ‘groos’—who were the object of her angst for having eaten into the government jobs. Within minutes, all the participants who had withstood the abnormality of the events that transpired on that unusual night were certain that it was a con job.
For the next few days, we reluctantly continued to pitch in and divide the domestic chores, often leading to growing hostilities amongst each other. Mummy disliked the way I left the tap running while washing the kitchenware, while Boebe could not watch a pampered Abu ferry the vessels from the kitchen and offered to do it herself. A disgruntled Mummy relieved us of all our duties to tirelessly handle everything on her own. She looked right through our pretence as we continued to offer our help in vain. Our garden remained largely possessed by the thickening blanket of rust-coloured chinar leaves. We continued to walk cruelly over the Autumn martyrs, crumbling their shapes to rubbles. Our gardener arranged for someone to fill in for the next few days.
A week later, as I drove down to pick up our replacement, the shops were shut. The market was desolate while the boulevard bordering the Dal was bustling with a swarm of people. I watched a myriad of Kashmiris using their phone cameras, to document the roaring Sukhoi and MiG 21 fighter jets along with the colourful Surya-Kiran aircraft dancing about in the blue skies of the valley, as the noise disrupted their everyday calm. Within every 200 metres I could spot a soldier tasked with monitoring the entire exercise from the ground to ensure that the spectators looked the part. A collective sense of anguish and defeat occupied their fatigued faces as they waited to get back to their shops. At the other end, reporters along with their cameras were struggling to find the choicest of angles to bring out the largely inexistent grandiosity and earnestness of the exercise.
On my way back, an abnormal silence occupied us in the car while the air show above raged on like the fragments of a sonic boom. The replacement and I struggled to find a brief interlude to break the ice, while the noise from above deafened even our silence.
As predicted, the snowfall arrived earlier than usual and damaged an expanse of orchards in certain pockets of Kashmir. We rested in the warmth of our sitting room, tuned into the local news—watching the plight of orchardists lamenting the damages they had had to incur due to the unprecedented snowfall. A collective sigh expressed our pity for the poor and compensated for our inability to act. “There is always hope” said Abu as he surfed to catch a re-run of Ertugrul while Mummy decided to make arrangements for dinner.
“Asif!” shouted Mummy all the way from the kitchen counter. A young boy turned up attentively as he heard his name being called out.