A short story about hope, despair, endurance and the inevitability of both change and stagnation… by Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal.
On that fine autumn day when I turned six, Rahim, who was two years older, vanished. Wearing a blue pheran and black jeans, he went out to play and was never seen again.
Neighbours still console Ma. Like Rashida Apa and Nannaji did just two days ago when we all sat over a cup of nun chai and tsachwuru, dipping our bagels till they melted in the steamy pink of salted tea. “You should be brave,” Nannaji said to Ma, when her eyes welled up. I put my cup down and got up to open the window to rescue myself from this overdose of emotions. A draft of autumn air wafted in and Rashida Apa commanded, “Shut it!”
Nannaji, his bushy eyebrows bushier in his frowns, began debating whether Rahim had just been playing with a stone that hit the military bunker or whether he actually targeted it. Ma said, “he was a good boy, rather timid and scared of troopers… it was accidental.” She says it with a pensive look in her eyes, dry like a desert. But I can see a small pit just below her throat, as she sucks in air through her nostrils, lips tightly pursed. I shut the window but look out through the hazy glass and spot the military bunker at the crossing, just in the backdrop of crimson Chinar trees lined up so magnificently.
I look at the bunker, made up of bricks, bigger than the room we sit in, covered with corrugated tin sheets and tarpaulin. I don’t see any helmets or heads but it seems pretty well inhabited. I wonder how many of them are inside and imagine somebody has tunneled down a huge basement just under the road we walk, soldiers right under our feet. Those men and I seem to have an inseparable relationship. Whatever I do, the bunker is the first thing I see every day. It’s my first brush with reality. Till three years ago, we’d never sit in this room on the top floor commanding a direct view over the bunker, at least not in the night hours. No lights were ever switched on in this room. Ma had even taken out the bulbs from all the holder,s lest someone switched them on by mistake.
Bunkers in the vicinity are not such a threat anymore. Windows can be opened for fresh air. But this one continues to stand out as a relic of Rahim, who disappeared because a stone was flung by him at that garrisoned bunker, an ugly eye-sore, all netted and sand-bagged as I see from my window. You can just see the olive green helmets from the top and dark eyes peering through barely visible dark faces. The heads inside the helmets sometimes bob up and down and sideways over the sandbags like those shooting targets on Cousin Ahmed’s PlayStation, popping up, ready to be shot at with a laser gun, and then disappearing at will. What if I had a real gun, it would be my real play station with greater thrill at knocking down a couple of them. I am excited at the thought, as much as I am nervous wondering what those unseen men think. I can never tell how many are huddled inside – one, two, three or many….. It doesn’t matter. Even one is enough, having become an intrinsic part of my being. What if the man looks back and decides to treat me as an ‘Enemy’? He’s all powerful, the man in uniform, the King of the roads. His action will go unchallenged. My lungs fill up at the thought and the chest feels as if crushed under weight of a heavy boulder.
Normally, I do not feel tempted to prod over whether he has a pug nose, big ferocious looking eyes or betel stained lips beneath the helmets that almost camouflage his face; partly the facial features are hidden by the darkness of his skin. From the view we get, from our distant glares and side glances, they remain faceless, nameless. Their names ought to be different – not Rahim, Aijaz, Zafar, Sajad, Rashid or Ali. They must have names like Vijay, Prem, Shankar, Gopal, Ravi and all those kinds of names that one finds in Hindi films from the distant world of Mumbai. They speak different languages, and one doesn’t sound like the other. Differences do breed some curiosity, but only at times, only in my more vacant moments, when the vision is not blurred by their presence and their bunkers, at which point of time, they are just the ‘Enemy’ at war with ‘Us’.
I look at the bunker, cautious of not directly peering in from my window and all I think of is ‘Us versus Them’. I think of Rahim, last seen in his blue pheran and black jeans, when he went out to play. Maybe, he wasn’t playfully throwing stones. Maybe, he was actually aiming for the guy. I think he did …. I’m sure… he did. I hope it hit him real hard, though Ma and eyewitnesses say that the stone barely touched a sand bag bunker, bouncing away from there. But I like to imagine a bruised battered man in uniform, hit on the head. I like to imagine him with his inalienable helmet, almost like an extension of his body. I like to imagine rage and passion in Rahim. I like to imagine him more than 8 years old, old enough to hit out at an Enemy.
This year, when the entire Kashmir Valley erupted in protests against them, I found the experience of pelting stones gratifying. Revenge and rage filled my entire being, from my head to toe; my veins and bones tore with hatred when I first picked up the stone. And a strange joy permeated my being when I flung it hard in the direction where the security-men stood. This is my war! Intifada.
Ma doesn’t approve of it. She even locked me in for several days to stop me. Physically bottled up! Mentally bottled up!
“You haven’t seen life, what do you know?” she said, her veil slipping from behind her head. She recklessly pulled it back and pushed it behind the ear to make it stay, covering her forehead totally, over her moist eyes. Her nose twitched and forehead more wrinkled than usual. And while she adjusted the veil, she continued talking. “…the boys found glamour in guns and took up guns; it snatched our sons. Now some nitwits think that freedom will come with stones; it is still costing us our boys……. They are shooting them they have come out on a hunting spree, leaving them dead or half dead, or else they take them in jails…. I have seen life, I know what they will do to them. Don’t you know what happened to your brother?” Her words were filled with rage, firing out like an unstoppable machine gun. There was no passion in her voice, just anger, anger at life, anger at what is happening around us and anger at me. This entire argument that I have no experience, leaves me defenseless, but makes me restless. She doesn’t understand my feelings. As if I don’t exist. Perhaps, sometimes I do. But it is always Rahim first. Rahim, the one who is gone….
“Not worth it; Rahim is gone… I will not have you also…” she said, sighing, as she served me the meatiest piece from the bowl on the fifth day of my incarceration. She has the kindest face on earth and I know if I look into her eyes, my anger would just melt before the warmth of those eyes. So, I looked away, fixing my gaze on the wall, where a spider had begun to make a cobweb just at the edge of a photograph of the great poet Allama Iqbal. A sigh drifted in the room and then she gave me that hug, reserved for special occasions, whispering words into my ears, “Aijaz…. my jigar, my most precious, you are my son, my best son.” Moments like these always leave me in a state of schizophrenia, a split personality. Was she really talking to me or was she addressing Rahim, who was nowhere around but had such a commanding presence eternally permeating my life through her mind, heart, tears and actions? I almost smiled believing that those words were for me, solely my prerogative, one who is before her, alive and breathing, and then the smile vanishes the next moment which comes with the realisation that I am just the body, the bearer, the carrier of my missing brother’s spirit, twelve years after he was last seen. I eclipse into a shadow and my own spirit gets trapped inside my own created Jekyll and Hyde. I bite into the meat. It was cooked with turnips, just the way I love. The juice of turnips enters my mouth and slowly trickles down my throat. All anger and dilemma disappear. At least, for some time.
I sit at the window, trying to look away from the bunker, a chaotic addition, occupying a slice of the road, to the already chaotic road – a cluster of unplanned houses with dull tin slanting roof tops to keep the snow away in winters, one or two odd vendors, Karim Chacha’s grocery shack right to my front, haphazardly parked cars and scooters. I stand at a vantage point, on the second storey of our dilapidated building where one can see almost all the alleys that this crossing, where this bunker is erected, leads to. But I don’t see it, not even when I squint my eyes, from how I sit, with my back to the world outside. Still, the vision of the bunker has sucked me in just as it is sucked into my brain – a permanent blot on my life… in all our lives. Right now, as I sit, I can sense someone’s gaze on me, a pair of twinkling irises under the shadow of a khakhi helmet scanning me. It used to be olive when Rahim was nabbed. The uniform has changed. The personnel have changed too, so has the force – from Army to BSF to CRPF. But the bunker remains. New occupants. New uniforms. Same souls.
These men have same bodies as ours, a nose, a pair of eyes, nose, two hands, arms, feet and legs. Just dark skinned. And they also have different minds. We want our azadi and they want to retain the master-slave relationship, controlling our lives, keeping a watch from their huge camps and smaller fortresses like this bunker just in front of our house.
It’s not as bad as it used to be, in the years before Rahim went. Once we were walking with our father, I can’t exactly recall where but it was not in our colony and we were stopped on the road. The man began talking to my father in a commanding way. My father responded with ‘Sir, Sir,’ talking feebly, trying to explain something and then fishing out some ID card from his pocket to show to him. I was scared by the tone of the conversation; the man was in authority and he was a complete stranger, not a very friendly one and Abba, my protector, laboring with words, looked like his slave. I held on to Rahim’s hands tighter. Was it fear, anger or humiliation, I cannot now say with much precision.
The entire way back, on the bus, we didn’t talk. Gradually the bus filled in; on a hot summer day it was too stuffy. The seats were full. More people got in at the next stop and a man pushed Rahim a bit to make some space for himself on the double seat that we three sat on. Three stops on and people doubled and after the next, it was difficult breathing. We were all fitted in like jigsaw puzzle pieces. I wondered how we would get off, packed as we were belly to belly, arm to arm. I am sure you couldn’t even tell one limb from another. By then, I was on Abba’s lap when a boy, a little older than Rahim, also joined us on our seat. Stench of foul breath and sweat filled the nostrils, staying in for a long time even after we alighted. The buses had small wire meshes, by order of the Army, on the windows through which air rarely came in. It was feared that militants would board buses and throw grenades at soldiers. Abba found this funny. “The buses are so crowded, how will the mujahid even recognize his own limbs or get enough space to maneuver his action?” he’d once joked. I thought of it as the bus rolled on, all of us on board, packed like chickens in a coop, chickens who could be slaughtered at the next slaughter house or maybe saved for the day. All inside the wire meshed bus.
Getting off was more than relief. It was a moment of freedom but the stench stayed on my nostrils for hours. I asked Rahim if it did on his nose too. He simply patted my head and said, “let’s call Mudassir and play commander …”
I forgot about the humiliating experience and the bus ride. “But I will not be Army, I want to be mujahid this time,” I said, as I made a gesture with my forefinger and a thumb as if I were holding a gun. Three years before I was born, young boys and men went across the border for training and came back to fight Indian guerillas with guns, barrels filled both with bullets and glamour. Young children Rahim’s age and older held them in awe. I was still in Ma’s lap. But children his age were also too young to go across the border. So they concocted games, forming groups of ‘Militants’ and ‘Army’ – games that were passed on till I was old enough to play. The trouble was, nobody wished to play army man even as the glamour of mujahid was fast waning, but the games stayed and mujahid still felt like the lesser evil.
Crackdowns in our locality were routine. I have lost count of raids in our house, before and after Rahim went missing, when we spent entire days outside clinging to Abba only to go back in the evening to piece together our belongings, rummaged and often ripped apart – from books and mattresses to medicines and food. When I was younger, I stayed with Ma inside the house, as women were ordered to stay put while raiders went about their business like acts of pouring over our belongings with absolute authority. I must have been four when an army man monitoring the raid looked at me and smiled. His extra white teeth flashed, like the guy in the Colgate advertisement. I ran to my mother and tried to hide in her veil wrapped around her bosom with its edge covering the head, peered through its opaque fabric at him, still eying me. He put his hand in his pocket and fished out an éclair, stretched his hand to offer it to me. I made gestures from inside the veil, fist clenched, showing him that I wanted to hit him. Ma seemed to have frozen where she stood. The man’s smile vanished, fingers curled around the éclair in his palm and he left the room without a word. I have no count of how many times I cross a bunker or a man in uniform with his rifle. They’re part of routine and the landscape, no matter how much I both dread and despise it; no matter how much I grind my teeth in anger.
Other gunmen were sometimes seen around our locality. They were light skinned like us, spoke Kashmiri, wore pherans or smart jackets and jeans. Mostly their faces were covered with scarves. These were mujahids, who inspired the games played by all the young boys. I remember seeing some of them from my window when a huge funeral procession was going by, slogans rending the air, echoing in my ears for a long time. I just looked, though can’t recall how I felt about it at that time. The visuals are still vividly clear about the procession, the memory of which is now tormenting me and a churning inside of me. Mujahids are no longer respected in the way they were. They are blamed for extortion and killing innocent men, also for having pushed Kashmiris into a situation where all of us stand labeled as them; yet their funerals are still well attended and mourned, probably because they are our own. I don’t see them around anymore. But there are still some in the mountains, in unknown remote villages. I have no wish to see them. I neither idealise them, nor despise them, at least not in the way I despise the man in the bunker.
Nights used to be scarier back then. Sounds of guns and firing had become routine like a mother’s lullabies, one hushing us to sleep, the other magically making fatigue and sleep disappear, turning it into simple moments of fear and trepidation. Nothing else existed in those moments. Each gunshot inspired the thought, “What next?” All windows would shut down, doors doubly checked and we would both huddle closer to Ma. Now that kind of thing is rare.
Sitting at the window, I suddenly think of the army man who had offered me the éclair. Maybe he was a kind man.
Tahseer came to school some days ago with a story. He’d gone to his ancestral village for a family wedding. A CRPF trooper barged in to the wedding arena, demanding to meet the bride, he said. The entire household panicked. Stories of molestations and rapes were common but everyone was just taken aback by the brazen manner in which he appeared and demanded to be with the bride. Our mouths formed Os and Tahir made a howling sound as Tahseer narrated the story. The father of the bride desperately tried to reason with the trooper that it was inauspicious for brides to be meeting strangers just before the wedding, but his laboured argument didn’t seem to make the man in uniform budge. After a round of fevered back and forth, the trooper finally took out a fifty rupee note from his pocket and thrust it in bride’s father’s hand, saying, “My daughter is also getting married today and I’ve not been granted leave. Please, give this from my side to your daughter.”
It was a revelation that these men too had families, daughters, sons, wives, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers they had left behind. They had families and friends like we they had, experienced their own little joys and sorrows. The vassals were as human as the slaves. Maybe, some of them were decent men, I thought. And the idea was not very comforting. It invoked dilemmas that weren’t very easy to grapple with. I preferred to take refuge in the simpler notion of them as the big, bad enemy from outside, with no hearts, one of whom picked up Rahim. Only Nannaji’s brother, with the lesser bushy eyebrows and a toothbrush-like moustache that made him resemble Hitler, was a witness when military men picked up my brother, who was never to be seen again. That is when I became a walking ghost, with limbs and a body but ghost nonetheless – both my own and Rahim’s.
Ma came into the room. “Get ready; we’ve got to go.”
I looked quizzically at her.
She looked back, her lips pursed, her eyes squinting on me. “You’ve forgotten,” she said, her nostrils flaring a bit, as she straightened the scarf on her head and opened the cupboard to take out the file.
I eyed the file and sighed.
Our life revolves around that file named ‘Rahim’. It contains his photographs, papers, complaints lodged in police stations, applications to security camps, court papers, all related to Rahim’s disappearance. It took me a while to recall, as I saw her most prized possession in her hand. I had completely forgotten. It was court date, yet another long court date, where we wait for our turn in the long corridors as the lawyer shuffles in and out of one room in between chatting to us and keeping us informed when the hearing would take place or whether the judge wasn’t in and whether there would be any arguments.
Court proceedings are boring. I can never understand what is going on with all men moving around in their black robes, in and out, scurrying past the judge’s table, whispering something and then moving out or taking their seats, all with a very businesslike purpose which makes no sense to me. Litigations take so long, endlessly stretching out as long as human lives. It took just few minutes for Rahim to vanish from our lives. Ten years on, the court case was still going on, so far headed nowhere. It takes even lesser for life to be snuffed out of bodies; so many boys had been shot, their families left with their blood oozing, bodies mutilated, to be taken to the martyr’s graveyard without the last bath and without the customary coffin amid slogans that turn them into heroes and martyrs. Unknown and unrejoiced while living, heroes in their death. Rahim had not yet turned into one. There had to be a dead-body to qualify for that rank.
Last time, as the arguments were going on, the lawyer in his black robe– not the one on our side but the one on theirs –an official man, called the ‘public prosecutor’, said that Rahim had gone across for training of arms according to police records. An 8 year old who couldn’t even hold a toy pistol well enough when we played had gone miles away, all on his own, to the border and then crossed it, led by guides who knew the passes well! How Ma had raved and ranted, later. She’d shouted, not in the court, but outside on way back home, labouring with a volcano of fury inside, using cuss words at the army men who picked Rahim up, at the policemen who had investigated the case and the lawyer who came up with this brilliant theory. I thought that any moment the tears would start falling from her eyes, as we waited for the bus. They just welled up for a moment and then were shooed away by the abuses she hurled. Anger turned into silent fury in the tightening of jaws and bones when we boarded the bus.
Rahim’s file and Ma have become almost inseparable. The moment she steps out of house, it is under her arms or clasped tightly in her hands, carried in a yellow plastic bag, the only exceptions are family weddings or visits to the hospital for some ailment or the other, or to visit asick hospitalised neighbour or relative. When she picks up that file, it means she’s ready for her war. It means a visit to some government office to trace Rahim. Visits to camps and police stations and government offices have become less frequent, all clues and options having been followed, diminishing our possibilities in unraveling the truth. I usually follow her in her sojourns, like a faithful traveling partner. I’ve done this right from the age of six. We’ve been to practically all parts of Kashmir, wherever notorious security camps known for blood curdling horror stories of torture are set up. I’ve heard horrifying stories of Papa Two, the notorious interrogation centre, where Rahim was last traced. Did they give him electric shocks, pull his nails out with clippers, crush him under heavy rollers or beat him up till his entire body turned blue? Did he die or is he still in some prison? Or did he land up in a mental asylum? Forgotten!
We’ve been to jails in Srinagar and elsewhere, even outside Kashmir, in Jammu’s Kot Bhalwal and Hiranagar. It was like chasing a mirage, following clues and hoping for the best and finding nothing anywhere. We also went to Jaipur jail and Agra jail. At that time, I didn’t know Agra was famous for the Taj Mahal, the white wonder in marble, a monument I’ve seen only in pictures. Tourists from around the globe come to see this mausoleum, counted among the seven wonders of the modern world. The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan had built it in memory of his beloved wife. And there, close in the vicinity of this symbol of love, was our pursuit of a loved one – in jail. We had no money to build a burial monument like this – an architectural marvel sparkling in white marble splendour – in Rahim’s memory. Come to think of it, we didn’t even have a dead-body to raise a gravestone over.,
Visits to jails, security camps and offices have now been replaced more vigorously with Ma’s solidarity meetings with other families who have lost their sons. We meet on the tenth of every month at Pratap Park in the heart of Srinagar, where mostly women, carrying weightless photographs and files of their sons, brothers and husbands, and in their hearts the heaviness of their absence, sit in a circle. Enthusiastic media persons come to note down details of different cases and zoom in their lenses on photographs of Rahim and others like him who went missing in official custody. Some students, scholars and activists join in solidarity. One of them, a lady, usually conspicuously present at most such meetings, hugs Hajra as the sobbing woman narrates to a journalist her tale of three slain sons and one missing one. I see Ma consoling another woman and that domain of grief in that park becomes a shared space for several hours, all filmed by a heavy crowd of journalists, as life beyond that domain – outside and inside the park – remains as usual: busy markets, moving buses, and people scurrying, other people taking a break and eating lunch, young student groups laughing and chatting without a care.
When Ma picks up that file, it means I just have to follow, whatever I might be doing at the time, whether I am studying or worse… playing cricket with my friends. Some years ago, when I was batting at my 36 runs, she appeared with that file near the cricket ground. I looked up in between the balls and signaled to her with my palm out open, stretched and slightly waving, intending five minutes. She stood a little way away and got busy chatting on her cell phone. The number 36 was important for me. Because is was so close to 40. Nobody in our locality had ever gone up to 40, ever. I was the first one to accomplish it that day and there was lot of cheer, my team went berserk hugging each other and lifting me on their shoulders. I’m not sure if Ma was watching but she never sent a reminder even though a good ten minutes had passed since I had signaled to her with my palm. She was still patiently on phone when I went back to bat. The next ball, I was bowled out. Even today, I don’t know for certain if I had deliberately let it happen. But the next moment, I was by her side, walking with her, telling her in my animated excitement all about my 40 runs record. She hugged me and kissed me on the forehead as we trudged along. That was the only time, I asked her to wait and she did, patiently and without a question.
Mostly, I follow her like a shadow, meeting sad crowds and talking to faceless interviewers, as she does, as do all other women who have lost their sons, brothers or husbands. I sit at the park, watching this scene re-run like a live repeat telecast every month, an indispensable part of my life now, and I think of how life just changed, maybe froze in that moment when Rahim was picked up never to be seen again. Mouji, my grandma, hit the cot till she breathed her last three years ago. Abba died of a heart attack much earlier. No there’s only Ma and me, and Suraiya Baaji, my elder sister, married six years ago, who makes occasional visits, bursting into loud wails every time she comes home, her two toddlers clinging to her in inexplicable terror.
Enthusiasm, however, never diminishes. At least not for my mother. Court dates and solidarity meetings rejuvenate her in a way that transforms her from a meek, humble kind being into some kind of a ferocious tigress, even though such moments are rare. Despair and hope, simple states of mind, can be so unpredictable. In her case, they oscillate like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Just last night she had been so depressed. This morning, she seems to have got a dose of self injected stimulant as we get ready to go to court. On our way to the bus stop, we walk beneath the Chinar trees in all their autumn glory and crush the leaves underfoot. ‘Rustle! Rustle!’ goes the sound beneath our feet as each step tramples a new set of fallen leaves.
At the court, things haven’t changed. It is always so crowded that it is difficult to even locate our lawyer. Ma’s ears are glued to her phone and her eyes are constantly roving in the crowd of men in black robes or coats. “Damn!” she says, she can’t get the connection. We finally find him, and feel elated as if we’d traced a lost treasure. And then begins the endless wait for our turn. I don’t even realise when our case is finally taken up for hearing. There is always so much noise and so many people. All I see is our lawyer rising and the judge signing away some papers and announcing, “List it for 15th April,” and then he hammers on his huge desk and automatically another lawyer rises. That’s all. I hang my face but I’m not all that surprised. The tigress in my mother, moments ago, vanishes, and a desperate woman, trying to keep away her tears, her nostrils flaring, walks with me as we go back home.
Nothing changes. And certainly not, the pursuit of knowing whether Rahim is Dead or Alive. Until that truth dawns, I cease to exist.
We alight from the bus and walk back under the Chinar trees again, dead rusty crimson leaves rustling under the weight of our feet. The leaves will soon vanish and trees will be bereft of any green or gold and the sky will assume a dull colour making the sun’s arrival too rare till spring comes bringing with it a new riot of colours. Seasons, of course, will continue to change.