A short story, relevant in wake of the current controversy about army’s funding of mainstream politics in Jammu & Kashmir. A village school is caught between a patronizing regiment of army and the collaborative village head. The only weapon that the senior most students have is to be indifferent to both.


It is a normal village-house-sized building of concrete. Built from sudden charity-like funds (sanctioned from one of the lengthy-named educational schemes after a stray visit of the zonal education officer). It is built on a cattle-grazing land, disputed among several local farmers: Muhammad Sultan Beigh, Ghulam Nabi Rather, Ghulam Hasan Dar etcetera, etcetera. The school is nestled in a dense walnut trees’ grove.

The classrooms are unplastered even from inside and the upper primary and middle wings are still windowless. But the whole structure has a brand-new, shiny TATA-tinned roofing, so glittering that it could wink a hovering aeroplane down from the heavens. The tin sheets run over a truss of fresh poplar rafters. The truss is naked from inside and no ceiling covers it. It is the intervention of the walnut trees that saves the tin from becoming furnace hot when the summer sun is at its best.

Haji Nissar, the principal of the school, an aspiring zonal education officer, a former core member of the local unit of Jama’at-e-Islami (a religious organisation: preacher of political Islam, aspiring to create an Islamic state) has promised to come back in the late afternoon once he is up from his lush paddy field. Stray cattle are giving him a tough time, and then there is also this nuisance of sparrows, sparrows who peck out the grains even before they have taken any form on the crop. He has wanted two teachers, rival aspirants for a single post of Head Master in the same school, to help him with the scarecrows; and fencing, which is, considering the immeasurable dimensions and vastness of the land, possible only on half a side. The teachers too are supposed to stroll back to the school, with their bitter willow miswaaks, tucked deep in their cheeks, by late afternoon.

Mr. Manzoor Peer, the Head Master of the school, who belongs to Srinagar has to burn litres and litres of expensive petrol in his 800-CC car, at the cost that surpasses half of his gross monthly salary, to reach the school daily, seldom on time. Let alone the price he has to pay for the maintenance of his car. Especially for the wheels that the three-kilometre long raw, rutted, pitted and dusty dirt-track—entering into the interiors of the hamlet from the main road and ending at the school—consumes.

Recently, after he got the car washed at a workshop and the car had yet to lose its after-wash sheen, someone cracked raw walnuts on its bumper while Mr. Manzoor Peer, after assigning his class to loudly mug some English sentences, was busy giving the principal and the village teachers lessons on how to run the school the city way.single screens

In fact, Mr. Manzoor Peer has demanded to take a few days off—not on any casual leave, though he has enough of them, unexhausted, in his account—and wanted his attendance to be accordingly adjusted. Principal Nissar understands well, that more than the anger, over the walnut incident on the bumper of his car, Mr. Manzoor Peer needs some time to get his newly built house slabbed in Srinagar. Mr. Manzoor has recently broken off his joint family in the downtown of the valley. Haji Nissar has been pleased enough to grant the adjustment and even has offered to arrange pure cedar wood, at a cheap rate, for the windows of Mr. Manzoor Peer’s new house.

So the command of the noisy class eighth students is in the hands of a self-assumed head boy. The head boy’s face is multi-scarred, suggesting how often he has fallen from (walnut) trees, and the stubborn brown dye of raw walnuts is yet to fade from his palms.

‘Capital of Pakistan is?’ he shouts at the confused class.

‘India,’ the voices respond in chorus, boys looking at each other for mutual assurance to their concerted answer.

‘Right! And Iran?’

‘Am-rica,’ the chorus roars.

It goes on like that till Captain Manohar Sumer of 122 Battalion Sadhbhavna Rifles, arrives, as usual, and overhears the class outside the shut door. And because he has arrived with a platoon of his AK47-weilding men and had a chair out the principal’s chamber—and had it dusted—the news of his arrival grapevines throughout the village. The Sarpanch—who doubles as a senior working member of the ruling party in the state—with an unkempt white conical peasant’s cap sitting dented and limp on his stubbled and partly bald, oily head, walks meekly into the vast open compound of the school. He has a humped back. His hands locked on his loins.

Captain, putting the heels of his hands together in respect, half rises at the sight of Sarpanch.

‘I am so grateful for the rope-bridge,’ Sarpanch says, still walking towards Sumer. ‘The Panch of the village across this bloody dangerous stream is also very happy with it. He has wanted me to convey his thanks too to you.’

‘Pleasure,’ says Sumer, ‘all my pleasure.’

‘And, of course, the free eye camp was also very impressive. Jaana can see now. Taaja’s cataract is like it wasn’t there at all. And above all, we have just begun praying in the new mosque.’

‘Thank you,’ Sumer feels overwhelmed.

‘Yes, yes, plus the radio sets are too good. Right from my childhood I have been told that Philips is a quality brand. I say whatever Philips is I believe that any damn thing from the army canteen supply is bloody good. Bloody original. Everything.’

‘You are always welcome,’ Sumer adds.

The Country-Capital exercise chorus voice of class eighth in the background of Sarpanch’s and Sumer’s conversation grows louder and sharply reaches their ears.

‘They seem to believe every country’s capital is either India or Am-rica. Bloody morons. Shall have to learn,’ Sarpanch opines, embarrassed by the students, trying to please Sumer while Sumer looks in the direction of the open window of class eighth with mild sarcasm.

When the two-kilo iron hammer pounds on the thick round plate of iron, suspended from a window grille, and the principal and two village teachers have come back, and have joined Sarpanch and Captain Sumer, an uncontrollable flood of young boys ant out of different holes. They wear rubber flip-flops or black plastic winter shoes or torn canvases or unpolished black leather school shoes and are uniformed in cobalt-blue pants and sky-blue shirts, almost coming off their waistbands.

‘Basically, I come with a new proposal,’ says Sumer, after all the boys, and the traces of their noise in their wake, are gone. ‘We want the sixth and seventh grades spared, in the soon falling winter vacation, for Bharat Darshan.’

‘Nothing like that, Sir. Whenever,’ responds Sarpanch.

Bilkul bilkul!’ submissive voices of the principal and other two teachers follow before Sarpanch has finished expressing his consent.

‘Capital of Jammu and Kashmir?’ screams out the head boy, the vein on the side of his blood-flushed neck thick.

‘India,’ the chorus voice confidently responds.



‘Put all the battens of cedar, then, into the Volvo we are taking these kids for Bharat Darshan in,’ Sumer instructs his men inside his stuffy gram-green Rakshak. ‘Its belly is big enough to carry more than a hundred pieces. And put the kids’ luggage and other things over them.’

The long jammer aerials of the vehicle wag in the air as the Rakshak tries to whiz away on the rutted dirt track. A pink, doll-like, dinky Sai Baba sits, right ankle of his half bare right leg rested on the left knee, in the middle of the dash board with his tiny hand raised flat and straight in the air, blessing.

‘And if these dog-tail Bakarwaals raise queries or try to arm-twist about the telltale stumps, put this too on the bastard detained in the south camp barrack. Say that besides the others things he was a smuggler too. And, in addition, ask if these are the ethics behind the so-called “movement”,’ Captain continues and laughs.


Sarpanch wears a new white Khan-dress and his farmer’s cap too looks washed clean, except for an odd grease stain in the centre of his Khan-dress shirt’s lap. He has been given a green flag to wave the Volvo—that is full of shrieking excited boys who have hardly ever been to Srinagar—off to Bharat Darshan.

Sarpanch waves the flag and a loud clap pursues as the Volvo begins to chug.



Mr. Manzoor Peer surfs channels on his colour-TV, his legs thrown off straight. He punches the up-down channel-change buttons up-up-up so fast with his thumb that he has to come two punches down to halt at a government channel on which he is certain he has skipped some people he knows well.

He glares at the close-up of a boy in a navy blue tracksuit and a matching cap that on its top front says:

Sadhbhavna Force

122 Bn

In the boy’s background there is a big cherry-red plush bus whose flat-faced bonnet is veiled in a banner that boasts:

Wattan Ki Ser

Aman Ki Yatra

(Journey in the nation)

(Journey of peace)

‘…Ummm…we were very happy…are happy…We are very happy indeed to…ummm…thankful to army’s 122 battalion…that…ummm… that provided us with this opportunity to see our country…’

Haraamzaada! Shabeer Najaar of sixth grade. Beggars for crumbs,’ Mr. Manzoor Peer cusses under his breath.

‘We had never seen Taj Mahal, Qutub Minar and…Red Fort…Hmm, we are very thankful to Captain Sahab who brought us here to see these beautiful things…’ continues Shabeer Najaar.

‘Captain-Manohar-Sumer. Say the full name, saalay!’ remarks Sumer, lying sozzled in his bed, swilling the last pint from his tumbler, as he watches it all on his own wall-mounted LCD in the army camp.

‘We also saw the parliament, we had earlier seen it only on the fifty-rupee notes our fathers counted to pay the seed sellers in the village… Had a ride in the metro. There are long green buses everywhere and plain wide roads. Something we don’t have in the village…’

Wah! Sarpanch’s class 7th grandson too. Haraamzaada once broke the side mirror… Enough is enough! I cannot belong to this collaborative school!’ Mr. Manzoor Peer utters within his soul, chewing an expletive.

Mr. Manzoor Peer’s family surrounds him in the room. His mother sits in a corner of the room, fondly stitching strawberry pink embroidery along the border of a shawl, her biannual devotional present to Mirwaiz Molvi Umar who is a separatist leader. Her golden-rimmed glasses are slipped down to the tip of her nose.

Mr. Manzoor Peer’s wife curses her Social Welfare Department for withholding her salary for the last three months. She moves her lips as if muttering some holy words.

Peer’s children, a boy and a girl of about same age, who study in a local missionary school, write chits to each other about something, while pretending to do their homework, on their notebooks. A considerable part of the floor is littered with their textbooks, notebooks, schoolbags, chewed rubber-topped pencils and items from their geometry boxes. The boy stealthily pricks his sister with the compass over a silent joke and sends her screaming. Disturbed, and disgusted, Mr. Manzoor Peer glares at them for nearly a minute. The rest of the family members don’t care.



When the boys return from Bharat Darshan the school is already open.

The boys who are back after the months of travel have now a different air about themselves. They feel it strange to relate to their village and its people.

The Sarpanch and the principal have in advance readied some boys with garlands, made of current spring’s mustard flowers, in the compound of the school, for the reception of the returning boys. There is a special garland for the Captain too.

‘Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!’ utters Sarpanch, approaching Captain with a full smile.

The pleasantries and greetings are exchanged. Parents hug their sons as if they have returned from Haj.

‘Welcome! Now, one more thing…,’ Sarpanch says, smiling copiously, putting the garland in Sumer’s thick, dusky, oily military neck, ‘please keep in mind the coming panchayat elections.’

‘Of course! Of course.’



The principal has returned to his office but Sumer and Sarpanch are still in a deep conversation in the compound of the school. Meanwhile the class eighth students’ chorus voice has begun reiterating the country-capital exercise.

‘Capital of Jammu and Kashmir?’ screams out the head boy, the vein on the side of his blood-flushed neck thick.

‘India,’ the chorus voice confidently responds.

‘Sarpanch Ji, I have a request. Please get this class eighth spared for the next Bharat Darshan?’ Sumer asks Sarpanch.

A long pause.

‘Sorry, Captain Sahab, but these boys would be gone by the next winter. The school is a middle school,’ Sarpanch says, apologetic.

Shahnaz Bashir’s widely reviewed and critically lauded debut novel The Half Mother won the Muse India Young Writer Award 2015. His short fiction, memoir essays, poetry and reportage have been anthologised or published in A Clutch of Indian Masterpieces: Extraordinary Short Stories from the 19th Century to the Present (Aleph Book Company, 2014); Of Occupation and Resistance–Writings from Kashmir (Tranquebar, Westland, 2013); Growing Up Kashmiri (HarperCollins, India [forthcoming]), Caravan, Himal Southasian, Fountain Ink, Kindle, the Byword, Kashmir Lit besides many others. He teaches narrative journalism and conflict reporting at the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar. His next book Scattered Souls, a collection of interlinked stories, is out late summer in 2016 by Fourth Estate (HarperCollins). He spends time in wandering, searching stories, and learning in the streets. Safwat Zargar grew up in Kashmir. He is a Staff Writer at ScoopWhoop in New Delhi.

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