Touch of Steel

How do the Senses operate in a conflict zone?



“I was afraid that by observing objects with my eyes and trying to comprehend them with each of my other senses I might blind my soul altogether.” -Socrates

A conflict follows its own rules of nature; it lends itself to an evolution of a unique language, its own seasons, shades and senses. The senses of touch, sight, taste, smell and sound are all bombarded with pain and aggression, all assuming a new meaning, guided and altered by memory – individual or collective. Aggression is known to invoke in much greater degree the inner senses that give a new meaning to the physical senses. Kashmir, once extolled by poets for inspiring beauty and for a soulful uplifting experience, continues to scoop out the innermost senses of the soul. The experience may not be uplifting but remains deeply etched in memory, un-erasable and difficult to extract.

The senses have their own rhythms igniting the soul, revealed and understood through  trauma, pain, suffering, and loss.  And yet, the people have myriad small reasons – meaningful and meaningless – to smile.  What comes between the millions of things around them and their skin? The softness of the blooming spring flowers. The dew on the grass, cold and wet to the feet every morning. The touch of a hot pink steaming cup of salt tea. The warm touch of a friendly hand. The freshness of the cool and clean spring as you dip your hands in. The tickling of snowflakes. The frozen numbness of winter and snowballs. These obvious sensations are punctuated with millions of others. Those displaced crave that missing caress of the homeland. They have, instead, the touch of barbed wire, of handcuffs, of prison walls that make one recoil, of movement restrained that provide an eternal sense of isolation. The bone-breaking touch of the baton, the spine-chilling touch of the electric shock, the trampling of feet that stamp out dignity – all tell tales of the Valley’s season of brutality. The bullet travels a great distance in a fraction of a second and touches the body to leave it impaired or totally drained of life. How does the touch of the cold body, life snuffed out in that fraction of a second by a flying bullet – or by one fired at point blank range, or perhaps in a bomb blast or some other encounter  – feel to the hands of a grieving mother? How does the missing touch of one less member of the family feel? How does the emptiness of the air feel to the woman who craves to know whether her son, disappeared in custody years ago, is dead or alive; whether his mortal frame is still warm to touch or left cold to shrivel into a skeleton under some unknown grave? What touch killed them or what touch left them half-dead to survive eventually? What sense touched the souls of those young boys and men who decided to pick up the gun to kill and fight the State? Or what sense was it that prompted them to give it up, collude with the State and turn against their own people?

What does the sense of touch mean to the thousands who lose their limbs in blasts, landmines on the borders, and in firing incidents; not even a tear shed over their loss, as they become just a  numbered footnote in the long statistics of casualties? While some lose that sense of touch, young men lose their sense of vision in what is claimed officially to be non-lethal weapons like pepper sprays. They may no longer be able to see the lush green hills, the golden glaze that falls on the weedy lakes every dawn or the riot of colours in their gardens or in the wild. But they sure can smell the fumes of the burnt gunpowder from the windows of their homes, of burnt tyres on the streets that narrate tales of anger, of smoke shells that permeate their memory. They can hear the sound of azaan from the nearest mosque, sometimes followed by Islamic slogans in fiery tones and learn about the mood of the city. The pandits who were displaced still talk about the loudspeakers at the mosques and the chanting of slogans that added to their fear psychosis, the sounds still embedded deep in their last memories of the Valley that was once their home.

As for those still in the Valley, they can still hear the guns booming and learn to distinguish between the shots of an SLR, Kalashnikov and tear-gas shell. In the nineties, when militancy was at its peak, many people sitting with bated breath in their often unlit homes would swear they could say with exact precision whether the shot fired in the dead of the night came from the gun of a militant group or security force; a volley of bullets could be identified as cross-firing between two warring militant groups or between one and some security forces.

Those who survive carry the wounds of the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of war wherever they go like unwanted heirlooms. So do the soldiers after they’ve served and gone. Those who die, die in a distant land, away from their families without that last touching farewell from a loved one when their bodies are still warm. Wars are never happy things for anyone; there are no winners and losers – just sufferers on each side.

This so, even as life goes about its usual cycle of daily rituals.  At the crack of dawn, the taste of a  cup of nice, rich salted tea with a hot buttered bagel straight out of the oven. Then, as the day goes on, getting ready, going about the routine chores, taking a break to visit the fabulous gardens, going out to the coffee shops to chat with friends after a sumptuous meal of lamb shwerma, or just a hot cup of tea in one of the city’s latest haunts. At night, everybody sits down for the usual family meal – hot rice served with traditional vegetables like nadru-haaqor bamsoot-wangun and spicy roganjosh or koftaas. The food tastes rich enough to the palette. But marred by the sense of war, it leaves the bitterness of war inside the soul. Nothing is, nor quite will be, the same.

All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason,” said Immanuel Kant. This sense of reason however, is killing.

Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal is the Executive Editor Kashmir Times and is a peace activist involved in campaigns for justice for human rights violation victims in Kashmir as well as India-Pakistan friendship. She also writes stories for children and adults.

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