Ye kamsund’oo naad, kusu aallav divaan?
Ye’ kamsind’e dupmm’phit tchoupi’ seeth aalam dazaan?
3:30 am is just between midnight and early morning, when the night is still in transit and sleep still grips you tight. It was at this time in the late autumns of late 1990s when piercing decibels from the Masjid loudspeaker announced an Army crackdown in the locality, ordering all males to assemble in the abandoned, barren orchard that lay by high ground, almost 900 meters away from my home. A repeat of these announcements, for the next 30 minutes or so, seemed to drive more fear inside us, more of dread. In sleep-deprived eyes, mother was seen frantically looking for a safe place for her valuables; many crackdowns had been known to magically cause the disappearance of many savings and valuables from households.
By 4:15 am, a half asleep habitation, now rubbing eyes and shaking heads, was being herded in fading dark towards the high ground that suddenly seemed so far away today. Children, in long pherans, tripped over each other, with the adults gripping their hands, unsuccessfully trying to make them walk at an adult pace. Whispers were exchanged, whereabouts of extended families sought in this crowd. The autumn changeover to winter had just begun, and most of us were already in our winter ‘astronaut’ dresses, spare for some deep sleepers who wore pheran draped over night trousers, in their forced hurry to join the crowd.
The crowd grew by every lane, every turn; I never knew so many people lived in this habitation. These crackdowns were one social leveler; all classes, all levels of society were pushed and herded here like cattle by the security forces. As the peeping sun rays over the eastern hills created extended shadows of the breaking morning, crowds merged into the abandoned orchard. Like crowded packs of domestic animals let out in confined grazing grounds, security men were seen shouting and driving us to close in on one side of the orchard slant which descended to the middle ground.
On the opposite side of this orchard slant were rows of army vehicles, the whole orchard ringed by lines of uniformed men, looking down upon us in stern gaze and finger on trigger at ‘helpless us’, as if in jeer and mock. And if the setting winter chill had not already set in our bones, the chilly stare and tone of these uniformed men completed the freeze. We had nothing to beat this chill with; kangris for the day in Kashmiri homes are only prepared early morning, not in the middle of the night, and there were clear instructions by the herders to assemble without any of these firepots. The overnight dew having inundated the barren orchard, all of us sat still on our knees; the vapor of our whispers mingling with the cold morning air. The shame of watching your elders and teachers being paraded the same way as you, forced on knees before gun trotting and stick wielding uniformed men, pushed and heckled like animals, is unexplained. Showkat the tailor was holding his 7 year old son in the lap, juggling between his own balance and the cold wet grass; a stick wields, a blow comes his way, Showkat is unbalanced and his son falls from the lap, forcing them to sit separate. Soon such herding became the norm, as we were made spectators to our own shame.
By 10 am that ‘CAT’ was already in the Gypsy, people were driven in extended queues to slow identification lines before the vehicle. In most likeliness an informer or a renegade, the ‘Cat’ lay firmly seated in the front of the vehicle, hooded and identity-less deciding the life and death and fate of people. It was no fancy act to walk past the ‘Cat’, even if you have had not even the remotest connection with militancy. Many a times these ‘Cats’ were known to have settled personal scores or dislikes in identification parades; his one hint would have the commoner bundled in or bundled out. Renegades were known to have created personal fiefdoms with the help of security forces in Kashmir, where ‘God’ like aura was self-assumed by them deciding the fate of lesser mortals. While here our fate was being decided by ‘faceless hoods’ behind armed escorts, we were also worried about the ‘search operation’ by the uniformed forces back home, where only female folk had been retained.
A lean and tall boy, with patches of a beard, in an old worn out pheran and slippers was marked, pushed out of queue and segregated as he came in front of the ‘cat’. The quiet boy being dragged lay stone faced as he was taken behind the line of armored vehicles. After a brief jolt, the queue continued to trod, the masked hood continued to decide. It looked like an eternity at the barren orchard, the noon sun passed its peak, and dew absorbed; some by the sun, rest by the restless people who sat on it.
Masterji (that is how we called him, he was a retired teacher in his 80s; flowing beard, a lifetime of humble reputation and lots of respect) was sitting by Dad’s side, felt restless for want of water. He dared stand up and approach the herding uniformed soldier close by; “Here to drink some water?” The soldier raised his stick, frowned and pointed towards a muddy water cesspool that lay by a depression. Masterji quietly sat down, my Dad holding his hand. By afternoon, there were already more than 8 boys marked by the ‘cat’, who lay bundled to behind the line of armored vehicles, fate unknown.
Zain, my cousin, had recently returned from the US, his once in a lifetime holiday to Kashmir. We had in fact been in touch for long, and decided that both of us would come to Kashmir on holidays at the same time. His morning excitement of experiencing his first crackdown in Kashmir had already evaporated by the noon, now overtaken by a gripping fear, the shake and trembles visible on his face. My own fears making me numb, I extended my arm on Zain just to soothe him, but he could see the blankness on my face, the brave mask that I was trying to put on failed. I tried to look up Dad sitting next to me, but failed to meet his eye that was visualizing what we could not comprehend.
Hunger and thirst pangs had overtaken when our turn in joining the queue came, it must have been already 5 PM. I tried to be ahead of Dad and Zain, but a violent push by the soldier entrenched me behind Dad and Zain. The serpentine queue moved so slow, while I lost pace of my own thumping heartbeat, “Get over with it, damn it, will you?” I kept repeating. We kept tracing steps of the earlier queues in slow motion, as if novices walking on a tight rope between two cliffs. The first cliff was our fear, the second being our fate; in between the two we were hung as if by a slender thread. The queue moved like a snail and so did our fate.
Dad stood composed, facing the ‘cat’, there was no reaction from the vehicle, “Move on!” shouted the officer standing next to the vehicle. When Zain faced the ‘cat’ next, his shoulders had dropped dead and his ‘always cool’ composure was all gone. As white as cold marble, his face stared into a windshield, the officer signaled to move on and I heaved a sense of relief for him, my own fate yet unknown. I extended my step towards the precipice, my heart galloping when I heard voices ‘wapas aao’ (come back); Zain had been marked, called back and hastily dragged to behind the line of these armored vehicles. I froze, everything became blurred in front of me, and I wanted to cry out loud but could not. Suddenly, I heard noises, somebody pushed me and suddenly I realized a soldier was kicking me to move on ‘aage chalo’. Dad had lost his composure on the other side, all my life I never saw him so pence, as clueless as on that day. Zain had been our responsibility in Kashmir, my responsibility, and now the unimaginable had happened.
The queues kept passing by the ‘hooded marker’, and by late evening, as the process had been completed, a few more boys had been ‘marked’ by the ‘cat’, only to be bundled up into the unknown. By 9:00 PM, the cordon had been lifted and people were heading back home. Our standing at the same spot yielded no results, no amount of pleading with the officers helped. The boys had all been taken away in armed vehicles to the forces’ camps, whose destination we knew nothing of.
Back home, Mom had been successful in salvaging her valuables, but our rice storages (Kashmiris store rice for long winters) had been all scattered from the store into the backyard; while in our rooms, wardrobes were so disheveled, belongings ravaged as if relics of a war.
By 10:00 PM, Dad was ringing anybody he could lay his call on; his friends in the bureaucracy, acquaintances and a trunk call to a ‘connected’ uncle who lived in Delhi. Desperation was transmitted via the landline; whereabouts of the army camp (and Zain) were sought. Tears, sobs were heard from the kitchen, neighbors sat with us through the night, consoling, assuring. The night never seems to end, I must have moved out in the garden barefooted, unmindful of the winter chill, just wanting to grab the dawn and end this night as soon as I could. Morning Fajr prayers brought with them a telephone call from one of Dad’s friends who had traced the camp and Zain there. Prayers done, we set out for the camp; I drove, shivered, rattled and lost. Over potholes and clayey paths, these undone roads seemed to never finish.
Dad’s bureaucrat friend had already talked to the camp commander, and only Dad was allowed to get inside the camp to meet him. I and my younger uncle waited, seemingly in eternity, outside the camp, the obnoxious fortifications standing like a monster before us. When at around 9:00 AM Dad came out, seemed after ages he had gone inside the camp, he took my younger uncle to one side and all I could hear was ‘saas’ (thousands), to which uncle nodded and pointed to his bulging waist coat pockets (from the sides of his shawl), and both went inside the camp again.
It took another 30 minutes for Dad and uncle to come out of the camp, along with Zain, who looked drained zombie-like and limping barefooted like a recovered corpse. If you had seen Zain in better times, you would not believe this was the same Zain coming out of the army camp, being supported by Dad and uncle. I offered him my shoes, but he kept quiet; with a lowered gaze, he hardly spoke in the car, a silence that made me feel like a culprit for his condition. I felt wretched; had I not insisted on his Kashmir visit with me, he would not have gone through this suffering.
Back home, Zain withdrew into recovery and reclusiveness for some days, recovering gradually from his shock and wounds; one reality of Kashmir had touched him very hard. But why had Zain been picked up in the first instance, why had he been called back by the ‘cat’? During the course of our conversations later, it dawned that while Zain stood before the ‘cat’ (Zain was sans a Kashmiri pheran) on that fateful day, it was his ‘New Balance’ sneakers that had attracted the fancy of the ‘cat’. And it was only when Zain had been asked to move on, did the ‘cat’ have an afterthought and signaled him to be retained; the ‘renegade cat’s’ desire for Zain’s stuff had done him in. His sneakers and watch had been relieved of, he had been made to sit on a bare floor all night, despairing. And when he started hearing tormenting cries of torture in the room close by all night, he seemed to be living close to his brutal nightmares. Close to midnight, he himself had been caned, abused, beaten in this cell; his legs had been run over by jackboots, torture that had shattered him. Dad never told us about the ‘saas’ (thousands) bargain he had to undertake to free Zain; we never asked.
Some of the boys picked up on that fateful day were released within days, some detained longer. I could only guess if the ‘saas’ (thousands) tradeoff had helped any. The lean and tall boy with patches of a beard, in an old worn out pheran and slippers, who had been taken on that fateful day, never came back home. Later, we found that he was the mason’s son, who worked real hard through his school, did well in studies and had been preparing for a professional career. The poor boy used to support his studies by working as a laborer on odd days and, later, as a mason apprentice along with his Dad. The only son of his father, he was used as a conflict fodder by those in uniform, his erasure lost to decades of state denial. His crackdown never ended.
Along the years, thousands of such poor, lean and hapless young men were to fall prey to state forced erasure, exhausting and depleting their improvised families of life and hope. Such people may have been lost to denial, but such stories live in our memory till eternity.