Speak, memory: Tales from the siege in Kashmir

By Syed Rabia Bukhari

The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster.

Milan Kundera, Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Today is my last day in this city. Tomorrow this city would be clean of all traces of my existence. And like a tiny unconcerned snowflake whirling down to add its insignificance to an indifferent snow blanketed Takht e Suleiman[1], I too might reciprocate the indifference of this city. But for now, my rage can’t make peace with the rage of this city. Or to the rage of this country. My rage is ancient, it’s different, and it’s beyond the rage of this city.

*****

Neruda didn’t write the lines “forgetting is so long” for us. Probably because we are too lazy to remember. And so memory loss comes easy to us. Or probably because all our actions are out of anything but love. Memory becomes an unwanted burden we love to shed in a ridiculously short amount of time. Isn’t indifference to memory in such dark times a sin against the very virtue of existence? I relay my sentiments of frustration to my cousin, who has been playing kalwaalen on repeat all the way from Kashmir to India. “Do you expect any better from this country?” he asks sarcastically. I fall silent and look out the window where overnight snowfall has turned the blood drenched landscape of South Kashmir into magical land of Narnia. Is snow then a destroyer or a preserver of memory? I feel the afterglow of an old winter memory radiating from within.

*****

A city under siege

Tales of an indefinite curfew from Kashmir

5 August 2019

Srinagar, 9:25 am

Listlessness. I feel suffocated inside the house as all communication with the rest of the world has been snapped by the Indian government. Internet, phone service, landlines and TV cable have been suspended. There is no news coming in or going out of Kashmir. A curfew on civilian movement has been imposed in the city and people are waiting for something anxiously. I go out of my house in hope of loosening the tight knot inside my chest. My eyes are desperate to see my people alive. My wish is granted as soon as I step outside the main gate. Just next to my house there is a small group of people huddled in front of two shops hurriedly buying bread and vegetables. There is panic in the air. People are anxious about something, but don’t exactly know about what.

12:30 am

I have cried multiple times since 11 am, but the heaviness of heart refuses to go. There is only an increase in anger, frustration and grief at our collective helplessness in the face of Indian highhandedness. At 11am the Indian government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, passed a resolution in Rajya Sabha that stripped Kashmir of its special status. The rumors after all weren’t entirely wrong. Article 370 has been abrogated unilaterally. Our collective powerlessness cuts me deep. The condition of the pro-India Kashmiri politicians in Rajya Sabha, as they tore the constitution of India in protest and were thrown out of the house, evokes pathos and fills my heart with rage. I clean haakh for lunch. How did we become so helpless? I can’t stop the flow of tears. Why isn’t anyone coming to our rescue? The water that washed haakh goes down the drain along with tears. Rage doesn’t. How long will they continue crushing us under the yoke of slavery? I put haakh in a pan with some turmeric and salt. What would be the repercussions of this move? Months of violence? An unanticipated bloodbath? More graveyards? What will happen to our dream of Aazadi? Will the Indian Army enter our houses? I get colds sweats and start cooking the greens. My head is ringing with the shrill voices of news anchors and Indian politicians from the TV. “Article 370 stands abrogated”, “Kashmir integration complete”, “Jammu and Kashmir bifurcated”, “Kashmir loses the status of a whole State”, “Kashmir under direct control of the centre as a Union Territory with a legislature, Ladakh as a union territory” “It is a historical decision. Generations will remember BJP for such a bold move” “It is a historic mistake, a black day in Indian constitutional history” “A historical decision” “A historic mistake”. Lunch is ready, but my head is buzzing. I have an appointment with my endocrinologist at 3 pm, but he won’t be there today. I have to go. I will convince my parents.

Frontpage of the local daily Greater Kashmir on August 06, 2019 announcing the scraping of article 370 and bifurcation of the state.

2:30 pm

We are out on the deserted road. It’s straight from a holocaust movie. Not a single vehicle is visible for miles. Small groups of anxious people are huddled outside closed shops trying to make sense of what just happened. We reach the end of the connecting road that opens up onto the highway. The road is blocked with barbed wires and big rocks and the Indian army is guarding the entrance. We turn back and take an alternative route and drive out onto the highway. Very few vehicles can be seen on the highway, plying the road as if in a trance. Contrary to my expectations and the general custom of Indian Government, the Army that was brought in to curb dissenting voices in the anticipated aftermath of this unwarranted decision isn’t deployed on roads. To avoid media gaze and give an impression of normalcy, the Indian government has very shrewdly avoided the explicit display of its military might in the Valley. 45,000 troops are on hold in different community centers, schools and government buildings till a protest erupts.

What has made this city so silent? Who will return the voice to this city? Will that voice again speak of that beloved dream of Aazadi?There is just one small anxious family from Sopore waiting in the doctor’s room. How did they manage to reach Srinagar from Sopore? They don’t talk much. They are stuck in Srinagar and there is a palpable disquiet surrounding them. I feel revulsion towards the Indian State in the pit of my stomach. What has made this city so silent? Who will return the voice to this city? Will that voice again speak of that beloved dream of Aazadi?

*****

They were making choices for us and we could do nothing about it.They say that ‘home is defined in its absence’. Is it why I always carried my home with me even when I was absent and is it why I could never define it? Or has the siege made my home absent and that’s why the distance between longing and belonging has melted to shape the contours of home like never before? Never have I felt the pain of love for my people as vigorously as I did during this siege. And probably I wasn’t alone in feeling so. After initial days of disbelief and chaos, the lockdown taught us to come up with alternative and more stable means of connecting with each other. Morning and evening walks to nearby parks and college grounds, visiting neighbors in person, sending letters to relatives living far through a person who would manage to visit on foot, discussing news from Pakistan that mostly travelled by word of mouth since not everyone had Paekistaen Taev installed in their homes. They were making choices for us and we could do nothing about it.

7 August 2019

7:40 pm

The disproportionate confrontation of the oppressor and the oppressed has begun.Azaan for Maghreb has just been called. The slow sunset reflected in the tainted glass of this window broadcasts an unsettling night ahead. I can hear muffled bangs- teargas shelling probably- nearby. These are the only sounds I feel like I have heard since eternity – that have broken the uneasy lull of the past four days. Simmering rage has found a disastrous vent. The disproportionate confrontation of the oppressor and the oppressed has begun. I am still dizzy from illness and medicines and can’t yet get up for Magreb salah, but I can connect the dots from narrations and sketch a picture in my mind about what must be unfolding outside. Returning from their afternoon walk, which was cut short today, my mother and younger sister describe the scene outside. They couldn’t go beyond lane 04 to the link road as every lane joining the link road and every link road connecting to the highway had been blocked by the protestors with huge boulders. Many people were out on the road in protest. My mother and sister took a reverse track and entered the neighboring lane which connects our area to the city center from behind. The lane has residential houses on one side and a huge army camp – Tatoo Ground – on the other side. Luckily, they found a couple of shops inside the lane, shutters half open, managed to buy a chicken and some medicines and came back. The loud bangs indicate what might have happened. Oppression follows a pattern and in Kashmir we remember this pattern like a blind man remembers his house. A pale moon has already risen and is desperately trying to cling to the sky just deserted by the sun. As I mindlessly make wudhu, the yellow light of the moon of desperation begins to spread within my chest. I hear someone mourning inside.

10:30 pm

I have been trying to avoid news since the announcement of scraping of article 370. The sadistic display of jubilation in India over the plight of my people and its hyperbolic presentation by Indian media sets my blood on fire and makes me sick. I try to avoid TV and busy myself with cooking and reading. Abuji can’t remove himself from TV. He has been listening to the news on repeat: every news cast, from as many news channels as dish TV allows, full Rajya Sabha/Lok Sabha debates on Kashmir and whatever news channels screen- that too on full volume. My two sisters and I mostly stay in my room on top floor of the house, away from all the noise on TV. This noise, however, catches up when we come downstairs to eat. Today, apart from the regular noise over Kashmir, two news items grab my attention: Pakistan cuts all ties with India and is about to take up the Kashmir issue in the UN; and one of the firebrand BJP leaders and current External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj died. Sushma had expressed her jubilation in a tweet over “Kashmir integration” just before her death. Both news items are a welcome departure from persistent stifling gloom. Late in the night, after dinner, we go to a nearby empty lot to drop off the trash. I stand over an elevated mound. Moon hangs low, yellow like an egg yolk. Far behind, misty ink-blue mountains quiver as moon whispers its secret burden to them. I hear muffled bangs echoing in the distance.

*****

 

In the struggle of the personal and the collective in Kashmir, where does one place a personal loss that looks insignificant in comparison to the collective and yet is as shattering for an individual?Growing up in Kashmir, I have battled with many paradoxes, including the question of loss and mourning. They say that mourning is a sign of life, a sign of resistance. Mourning is revolutionary though it may never fill in the holes of loss. In the struggle of the personal and the collective in Kashmir, where does one place a personal loss that looks insignificant in comparison to the collective and yet is as shattering for an individual? Is it something to feel ashamed of? Where does one place the personal loss that is simultaneously a collective loss and defies the rationalization of ‘getting over with’ and is resurrected with every new loss? In the large vessel of collective pain, we were swimming in small personalized bubbles of individual woes. Sometimes these personalized bubbles would melt with the heat of little joys and small celebrations but everything -child births, marriage ceremonies, observing Eid -would happen under the persistent cloud of the pain of collective loss.How does one demarcate between the personal and the collective? What proportion of grief does a person own from the personal and from the collective? How much one ought to mourn? And for how long? The siege too brought many paradoxes to the fore. And we had enough time to reflect. In the large vessel of collective pain, we were swimming in small personalized bubbles of individual woes. Sometimes these personalized bubbles would melt with the heat of little joys and small celebrations but everything -child births, marriage ceremonies, observing Eid -would happen under the persistent cloud of the pain of collective loss.

 

11:46 pm

How much bloodshed is illusion of normalcy generated by Indian media putting out of sight?My heart is heavy with pain and morbid anticipation. There is no news from other districts. I think about my village home in the North and about my grandmother. I think of the South and its spirit of resistance. Will it prevail over the oppressive military might of India? How many people have been killed? How much bloodshed is illusion of normalcy generated by Indian media putting out of sight? My mind meanders across the boundary of sanity and insanity. In life we still have hope, what hope do we have in death?

8 August 2019

8:00 pm

Days are getting monotonous. We wake up, pray, eat, read, watch newscasts, curse India, go for evening walks to release the tight knot in the chest, fail and sleep. I feel overwhelmed by strange emotions. Holocaust scenes are etched on my mind. I watch all Holocaust movies on my laptop one more time and read aimlessly. Books and movies have the quality of stretching your mind in totally unknown directions. They open whole new dimensions for human mind to saunter into. I am transported away from this siege momentarily.

Eid is in three days. There is no cheer. Srinagar looks like a ghost town.

9 August 2019

6:20 am

Earthquake. We run outside. It has started to rain. We rush back inside. This oscillation somehow makes me feel more vulnerable than ever. I cry. What if we die, for whatever reason, under this siege? Who will carry the news of our death to our loved ones? Who will mourn us?

3:15pm

I am at the airport to fetch my brother who is flying home from India in utter frustration. We haven’t heard from him since 4 August. The news of his arrival accidently reached us through a neighbor who is in the  police and hence has access to wireless communication. The scene from our house to the airport is indescribable. As expected, there is a heavy deployment of troops. We take link roads and alternative routes to reach the airport. We pass through check posts giving explanations about why we are out on our own roads in our own land and why do we not have a printout of the air ticket. Near the airport gate, they don’t allow more than one person to fetch someone from the arrivals terminal. “When they enquire, tell them: ‘I am here to receive my brother.’ I will say that I am here to receive my son,” Abuji tells me beforehand. The trick works, and they let us both in. The airport is a mess, full of Indians, trying desperately to go back to India as ‘halaat’ in Kashmir have again worsened, some people fight near the ticket counters trying to get a ticket sooner than others. Indians are fleeing from the ‘Paradise on Earth’. Some have been here the entire night or even longer. They are daily laborers from remote parts of India, families of Indian forces and some tourists. We start looking for my brother as soon as the flight lands. There is no information about the flight schedule. I sit on a steel bench nearby. The anxious faces of Kashmiris who arrive after flying back from different parts of India overwhelm me. I see a familiar face. It turns to smoke. To clear the mist gathering in the corner of my eyes, I look towards the sky. A massive Indian flag, representative of our constant suffering, blocks my vision. I close my eyes and search for something inside me. Someone calls for Zuhr azaan and people start assembling in the little porch besides the airport building. Abuji joins them after asking me to remain on a lookout for my brother. I nod absentmindedly and start walking towards the empty plot on the back of the porch. I sit on the sidewalk of the empty plot and watch people prostrate in front of God. There are Kashmiris, Indian Muslims, Kashmiri policemen, there is barbed wire fencing, an Indian military helicopter hovering above, a rusting car, a broken door, so many broken hearts. Something shatters inside. I wipe my eyes and walk back to the steel bench. Palestine flashes in front of my eyes.  

10 August 2019

6am

Rainy morning. It has rained hard the entire night. What memories is the rain trying to wash off? Perhaps the memory of my birth centuries ago? I have not been born yet. I am 29. I feel over-lived. I feel unlived.

*****

I have two or three vivid memories from my childhood. As a little girl, I used to watch the kaetji[2] going in and out of the nest they made under the wooden ceiling on a metal plate in my naani’s house. Probably the metal plate was fixed by my mamaji there for the birds. I used to spend the long lazy afternoons of childhood summer watching these tiny birds fly in and out of their nest while my Naani would oil and braid my hair on the cool floor of that crimson woat. She never forgot to mix a bit of seemaab[3] to the oil. The coolness of the woat, the crimsonness of the floor and the restlessness of seemaab seeped into my blood and made a permanent home in my memory. Much like the yellow, pink, red, neon green little balloons stuck on cement walls with duct tape by tiny hands for decoration, the sound of unrestrained innocent laughter ricocheting in the house, the smell of gandak[4] from the crackers that wouldn’t burst: our little Eid celebrations from childhood. There was an air of safety around. I haven’t celebrated Eid since.

11 August 2019

7 am

Eid under siege. What more do I write? I do not want to write.

11pm

Yesterday we got here for Eid celebrations. Meeting everyone in the extended family brought a joy unknown to us before. Despite communication blackout, I have never felt more connected. The Indian Army is stationed in every nook and corner of the village. No Eid prayers were allowed in Eidgah. There were some acts of resistance after namaaz, but nothing major as people were expecting. The Army is maintaining a tight grip on the people. Later in the day a boy knocked out two teeth of a paramilitary man by throwing a stone right in his face: he was taken to the hospital, the boy disappeared.

15 August 2019

10:30 pm

People on the whole are mentally preparing themselves for the worst. There is no resignation, just simmering rage awaiting for the right moment to explode.I have always preferred village life over city life. There is a sense of belonging in the village. It feels home. This siege has impacted villages more than ever before. There is no means of public transport available at all; private vehicles are not allowed. Mostly people march on foot or use a cycle for going from one village to another. People, especially fruit growers, are facing a major economic crunch. ‘Our apples will rot on trees this year’ I hear this statement often. Today my maternal uncle sold his small apple orchard for 35,000 Rupees. He has sprayed pesticides worth 40,000 Rupees on it. There are no fresh vegetables available since trade with India is halted because  transport is no longer available. Most of the common vegetables are yet to grow in Kashmir. Alle and haakh have become staple diet in almost every household. Night falls early and most nights go without electricity. Time appears to have stretched beyond eternity. We are transported to ancient times. After dinner, we gather around the radio and listen to Sada-e-Hurriyat from Azad Kashmir. Pakistan has emerged as a strong hope for many Kashmiris. As candle light flickers, we start discussing the ‘news’ that has travelled by word of mouth. Notices posted on electricity poles and shop fronts by mujahideen are discussed the most. I have been asking everyone regarding any news from South Kashmir. Nobody has a clue. Rumors about the increasing number of local youth joining the mujahideen and resolving to fight Indian state through gun are doing the rounds. People on the whole are mentally preparing themselves for the worst. There is no resignation, just simmering rage awaiting for the right moment to explode.

 

     
 
17 August 2019

11pm

Today it was unlike any other day. I have seen women directly confronting Indian occupational forces before, but never like today. And that too in my village, which has a mixed reputation of upholding resistance against Indian occupation as well as being a safe haven for pro-India political supporters. Early in the morning I come out of my house intending to go for a walk nearby where a small brook runs by rice fields and green alcoves. As soon as I step out of the main gate, I see a Rakshak[5] coming towards me. Even though the Army is stationed in the higher secondary school in the village, seeing a Rakshak at this early hour and in the heart of a residential area smells like trouble. At first, I think it’s coming for someone in our house as it is aiming in our direction, but it wheezes past me, goes to the other branch of the link road and stops after a few meters in front of a newly constructed girls hostel. No one comes out of the Rakshak and there are no village people out yet. I stand there, not able to decide whether I should go back inside the house and inform others or go ahead and see what happens. In the meantime, I hear the voice of my neighbor. She comes rushing towards me and enquires about the whole thing. Soon people start coming out of their houses and we collectively walk towards the Rakshak. There is palpable anger. Young boys and men assemble and declare that they will not tolerate the Army presence in their locality. The armed personnel inside the Rakshak sense the mood of the people and take off without getting out of the vehicle even once. The Rakshak is chased by stones pelted by the young boys and jeering by all people. Word spreads throughout the village. More people start coming out. I have seen such a rush of people outside our main gate only once before, when Shujaat Bukhari, a prominent journalist, was killed by unknown gunmen last year and people were coming to offer condolences at his ancestral home a few hundred meters away. As more people join, word spreads that the army stationed in schools is looking for other vacant buildings to occupy. They had checked the agriculture building before coming here, but decided to occupy the girls’ hostel since it is well furnished and has constant water supply. People are enraged. Community elders say that they will go and talk to the Army major and sort this out. Surprisingly, instead of young men, women resist this move vehemently and sit there in protest. Some suggest torching the building, others say that people should occupy the building; others still say that building should be filled with water to make it unusable. I rush back to my house and after about an hour we are done painting banners with ‘Go India Go Back” and “Aazadi” slogans and we hide them in the backyard. The banners are later thrown into a fire by my mother who doesn’t want any trouble in the house. Outside, men march towards the Army camp to negotiate. Women assemble on the link road and start blocking the road with heavy logs, tree branches and boulders. When a young lady does not manage to move a heavy boulder, she summons the boys for help; one of them smiles sarcastically, pushes the boulder and walks away. I later learn he has four Public Safety Acts[6] under his name. Men return. They haven’t been able to negotiate because the army has decided to move into the hostel building to curb the “menace of stone pelting” at night. Women are furious. “How can we tolerate them in our locality, constantly monitoring our activities?” “We have daughters” “We remember Kunan Poshpora.” We won’t go inside our houses till they assure us they aren’t coming here” Women send the men back to renegotiate. Meanwhile another Rakshak appears and women grab whatever they find nearby and aim it at the Rakshak. The Rakshak flees in reverse gear. Later in the evening, everyone returns home. The Army has decided to stay put in the higher secondary. Even they know schools aren’t starting from Monday. 

24 August 2019

8:26 pm

Defying the siege, autumn has slowly crept in- stealthily wading through the leaves and grass like a spirit that has lost its way- turning the green foliage crisp and golden. The air is heavy with aroma of ripe apples, walnuts, rice and corn. Whiffs of roasted corn and smoke from a village hearth make golden evenings tranquilizing. Ripening pomegranates, figs and pears trap the crimson rays of a fading sun and preserve its warmth and color like a distraught lover greedily preserves memory of every single act of charity of his beloved in his bosom. Orange sunset puts heart of every living and non-living thing on fire. Walnut dye is liquefied sunset. It doesn’t leave. My fingers remain stained. Memory follows the same pattern. So does the heart. I try to stitch the broken pieces of my life with my grandma’s voice. ‘Sarasar qissa-e-aadam baewafaeyi’, (The story of man is nothing but disloyalty) she sings. “Bas naam rahega Allah ka” Iqbal Bano compliments her from afar over a broken radio. The season of longing and reminiscence is again upon us.

*****

Hasn’t the internet proven to be an amnesia inducing tool rather than a repository of our history and memories we thought it would be?Probably the greatest paradox of our time is time itself. What then are we saving all the time for? Hasn’t the internet proven to be an amnesia inducing tool rather than a repository of our history and memories we thought it would be? Today, as rain pelts sharp like bullets back home, this realization gets even stronger. Everyone has forgotten Kashmir. This country is on boil against fascist laws enforced by Modi government against Muslims. I am happy that finally Indian Muslims are up against injustice in such a resolute manner. I have always accused my Indian Muslim friends of being cowards. Today they have proven me wrong. They have shown that they can stand against injustice and oppression at the cost of their blood. Yet this very realization is painful. Despite them being capable, why did they never openly stand with us Kashmiris? Do Kashmiri lives not matter? Or does the right to self-determination fall outside their concept of justice? Tera mera rishta kya, la illaha illallah (What binds us? There is no God but Allah) then why such slogan and why such selective application of a universal slogan? Why such selective solidarities? As for Kashmiris, we will continue to resist and fight for our freedom and we will continue to stand in solidarity with the oppressed from any part of the world because we know the pain of humiliation and deprivation. We have experienced that for decades. And we still are.

Syed Rabia Bukhari is a postgraduate student in English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia currently working with a Kashmir-based NGO.

[1] A small flat topped hillock overlooking Dal lake located in the heart of Srinagar. Mughal ruler Jahangir along with his wife, Noor Jahan, are said to have once climbed the hill for a picnic. On its summit Noor Jahan is said to have prepared pudding for her husband there upon which Jahangir extempore recited this verse, ‘Shakar farosh e mann paye halva giri nishast’ (My candy seller is seated to prepare the pudding). Noor Jahan equally replied with an extempore verse, ‘Yani ki zer-i-Takhta-i-Sulaiman pari nishast’ (As if a fairy is seated under the [shade of] Solomon’s Throne). (Khalid Bashir Ahmad, The hill and the history, Greater Kashmir, March 14, 2015)

[2] Summer Swallow/Ababeel. Small migratory birds that are considered auspicious in many households in Kashmir due to a reference to them in Surah Feil in the Quran.

[3] Mercury. Massaging the scalp with mercury crushed in mustard oil was considered good for increasing hair length and volume in many households in Kashmir.

[4] Flash powder

[5] An armored light utility military vehicle frequently used by Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir

[6] A preventive detention law that allows the government to detain a person for two years without any trial. The law was introduced by Sheikh Abdullah to prevent timber smuggling and eventually it came to be used on local kashmiri men who dissented against government. As on this date, Farooq Abdullah, son of Sheikh Abdullah, completes over three months under PSA after scraping of Article 370.

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