Author: Saadut
•10:52 PM

She used to tuck it away underneath her pillow every night, like a talisman that would guard her wishful dreams, like some treasure that she needed to guard from the night. With three miniature diamonds sitting like a crest on its top, the ring emitted brilliance of burning dusk that in evening light wore a look of some shining liquid fire. The glitter on her ring finger would often compete with the glow on her smiling face, the diamond ring at times winning for attention. This seemed the only piece of adornment she would ever prefer over her plain clothes, those stood out as elegant and neat as her thoughts. 

One evening that fall, four years ago, right after she had passed college and university was still a spring away, the family went out to dine. The Chinese restaurant was on the top floor of this mall in the food court, with the ground and first floors spread out with fashion and designer outlets, a couple of exquisite jewelers shops near the right bend towards the escalator. It was when dinner had been done with, and the mall lights were reflecting over glazed walls in tangled shadows of competing neon, she stopped by the jewelers showcase captivated by the sparkles in tiny boxes spread over velvet on glass shelves. Closing her hands over eyebrows, narrowing eyes as if peering over a distant star that shone many lightyears afar, towards a ring that perched like an empress over a velvety box on its glass pedestal. As she was transfixed there it took a lot of calling from Mom to make her move, but even then she kept on glancing back at the sparkle that called her attraction. In the brilliance of an aura held in that velvety box, she has seen her reflections. Dad, who shared a deep bond with his daughter, noticed the glimmer in her eyes when she was almost stuck in a silent conversation with that ring. She had never been a demanding kid and he knew she would never press him for this, but he had also seen a longing in her eyes near the showcase window. Next evening, after having come back from office, he slipped in her hand a tiny velvety box that opened up to a starry effulgence. That night she tried hard to sleep, but slumber evaded her over a seemingly endless night. She tried the ring on all her fingers, by the edges of her thumb too, and then would slip it back to her ring finger, sometimes putting it back in the box, and then tucking it away in the drawer only to reopen it again.  From that day she wore it almost always. Her Dad passed away two years later, leaving a deep void within her. There is nothing that can comfort such a loss; no words can lighten this anguish. In the following years whenever she felt like confiding into someone, she would whisper to the ring and let her heart unburden of its entire affliction.

University itself was a challenging puzzle, not with demands of being studious; she always passed in the top slot, but with aimlessness staring at the end of her course. Most courses in the university try to fit you in pre defined exams, where a routine syllabi is drilled and parrot repeated and then put to the ‘who among you can reproduce the parroted routine from memory’ tests. Universities, I found, don’t really prepare you for the practical challenges of life, the anticipation of the unseen and the unanticipated. It was here that one spring afternoon during an interactive session on ‘social networks and political renaissance’ that she saw him for the first time. Defending the right of political and social resistance, he always advocated the rise of the individual from societies to allow the change within. This had been his maiden visit to the university event, an invitation he had accepted with a lot of reluctance knowing that the state had always been monitoring him. Standing by the doorway to a packed room, she never figured when the talk had ended and even before she realized, he had already disappeared among small groups of dispersed discussions. Like mad she scrambled, pushed through the jumbled crowd where faces were hidden by evening shadows, and rushed towards the notice board that had announced the event. Grasping, panting as she scrutinized the board for his details; there it was his first name only and nothing more. ‘What identity is a first name only?’ she asked herself.  For the next two weeks she had nothing more than his first name. He left the very next day of the event that had been his first ever visit to this place. It was after two weeks that she stumbled upon one of his write-ups on a web magazine, which she read and re-read umpteen times, unable to hide the joy of moving beyond his first name. And it took him more than a month to reply to her mail, that too in a one liner ending with ‘Regards’. This frost continued over next winter, she searching for all his work, keeping an eye for every word he wrote and he replying rarely to her mails.

Early spring a thaw came, the first conversation almost happened over phone when he was on his second visit to her city. She somehow had found out about his visit, called his hotel room, and on her first call could not muster the courage to talk, froze in silence for a minute and dropped the line. Then she looked at her ring pleadingly, muttered a prayer and mustered courage; called and this time they talked for a few moments that seemed like an infinity for her. The ring held a charm for her wishes; she looked up and figured someone was praying in sync with her. She had held the ring during all trials and tribulations of the past years and it always seemed to comfort her, some kind of unseen force.

The freeze having broken they talked often, expressing the unhidden, laughing away the unavoidable and at times confiding their worst fears. Something between them was connecting, even while they had never met. Back home she would often grab her younger sister to endlessly talk about him, her oft repeated blabber of his praise. The younger sibling would smile at her repertoire; she unaware of the bored audience that sat tamed yawning.

The next fall, for almost a week there was no reply from him, all her mails or attempted calls going into a blank vortex of sorts. Uneasiness bore a discomfiture that sunk like a rock in her heart; her frown was visible to everyone at home. She would talk in briefs and then withdraw to reclusive silences that wore a sulk. For some days, like a hermetic, she withdrew to her room, often walking to her window, partially opening the curtains and standing there for hours in wait, looking out blank. On a Saturday afternoon the younger sister, wanting to break her seclusion, somehow managed to plead her for an evening out. Venturing aimless they drifted to a familiar mall with the Chinese restaurant on the top floor. Among pacing shoppers with heavy hands and screaming kids the noises of a weekend seemed incomprehensible to her. As if all these voices meant nothing in her vacuum of silence, walking insulated from all this din.  The turbulence within her was no match for the babble outside.

Then she stopped by the right bend towards the escalator, trying to see his image in reflections of a glittering showcase, while behind her descended interlaced chaotic shadows over drab glazed walls. The jewelers showcase seemed empty today; all its velvet spread barren like autumn fields plucked of its yield. A voice was heard from behind “May you see within yourself what you want to see in this glass. May he see your longing in himself”. A bedraggled old man in unkempt hair, with dry ash grey skin and a lean skinny figure concealed under layers of clothes, in seemingly satisfied eyes, extended his cap begging for a pittance.  “May he see your longing in himself” he repeated. She again looked at the showcase window where now the velvet seemed to shine even in its emptiness, having given its treasures in yore for somebody’s smiles. And then she imagined figures in glass reflections, of an old man, of that young man, of her own self smiling. She drew her hand to the ring finger, extracted her diamond ring and dropped it in the beggars cap. The younger sibling clasped her own mouth in surprise, turned towards her and even before she could turn back in a fraction of second to stop this giveaway, the beggar was nowhere to be found. 

Meanwhile jumbled faceless shadows continued to pour over drab glazed walls of an autumn evening.


Author: Saadut
•9:27 PM

I joined this school after having come back from my boarding and took to higher classes here. In my new school, ‘D’ and I studied in the same class, even while he was almost one year older than me. I never knew if ‘D’ had ‘studied hard’ for two years in the same class some year, or if I had been admitted to elementary school one year earlier than him. But during my few years in the new school we were more of classmates than any close friends. I often sat in the second row of the right flank; he would sit in the last rows of the left flank of our class that was nicknamed the backend ‘gossip area’.

In those days when cars were not too common a middle class possession, distances often were walk-able, same distances nowadays having strangely become too tedious for human walk. By those standards, he lived not far from my home and back then we would often walk the lanes of his burg. Those days possession of a VCR & a color TV (and a car) were signs of the affluent middle class, it was these movie watching occasions that bought ‘D’ to my home a couple of times. Movie tapes would be fetched on rent from video libraries near M.A Road or Khanyar, 10 Rs for 24 hours (25 Rs for new movies).

His measured smile was peculiar, two dimples on a widened jaw that had a longish chin popping out, as if ready to drop on cue. I never went to his house; he would never invite and I would never dare break his reluctance. But we did walk his courtyard many a times so I knew what his house looked like from outside; an old three story building in tones of fading brick that always smelled of lentils and composed moisture, and probably housed more than two families. The eerie silence here was occasionally broken by a shrill cry, a name call from within the house for someone inside, unseen. Some windows of his house never opened up even on a warm sunny day, as if shut in reluctance. Everything external, even the air and light, seemed unwanted and unwelcome in this structure of almost 8 rooms and an attic (presuming 1st and 2nd floor had four rooms each). The courtyard was unkempt, wild weeds on the edges, drawn and barren centre created by beaten paths and creepers on an old mud boundary wall, which felt like crumbling anytime. A clothesline extended over a side verandah on the second floor, both ends tied on two sides of a rusty old iron grille, where bird droppings had etched patterns so old that they now seemed designs of inception over this grille. The corrugated roof dropped in a square composition, like each drooping edge had lowered its gaze brooding over those never opening windows and flutter’less curtains behind them, those would have ached standing so stiff for so long.  Some sheets of tin roof bared, weathered rust like markers of passing seasons, resembling the unkempt and beaten courtyard that nobody seemed to care about.

The last visit from ‘D’ to my home came in the fall of 1989, school exams were over and results were still awaited. His family I knew, had been migrated to Jammu every winter, but this time he had planned to leave from Bangalore early (the very next day), to plan for professional admissions. I admired his farsightedness, while I was still unclear about my own future plans. Realizing destiny was preparing to split all of our classmates, pushing them on different courses, we chatted for almost two hours. As he was about to leave, a parting gift he pointed to the life-size George Michael poster on my wall, blue sweatshirt with a popping white polo collar, arms crossed and long hair. The same year I had been introduced to ‘Wham’ (formed by George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley) music and these cassettes would always shuffle in my walkman, already added to the favorite list with me. This poster was among my prized possessions, I even had once tried to (sheepishly) replicate his blue sweatshirt and white polo collar combination with almost an identical hairdo, so much for teen crushes! But also realizing this was parting time with ’D’, I extended to carefully peel off my prized possession from the walls, roll it up along with a cassette of ‘Wham Hits’ to give away. I walked him up the gate, pressed my hand warmly against his and bid my farewell on an autumn evening that was retiring on a strangely peaceful yet clueless city.

Almost three months later, long after his family had migrated for winters, Kashmir started to turn very cold. Right after the Rubiya Syed kidnapping and release, military camps started sprouting up across the valley. With the onset of 1990 January, the air got depressingly suffocating, a relentless cycle of curfews and crackdowns in force. The state extended and flexed its armed might, people protested and the state killed.  Popular resistance in Kashmir had already taken roots after the massively rigged elections of 1987 and the torture of political workers that followed, but was still at a nascent scale. Right after Jagmohan took over as Governor of the state, the full force of a military machine was unleashed on commoners, as if per plan. It was during the curfewed night of 19th January that most Pandits in Srinagar had migrated in buses provided by the state government, which was followed by massive searches and harassment of Muslim habitations of central Srinagar on 20th January night. When people protested the harassment and molestation by Indian forces, protestors were fired upon resulting in the Gawkadal massacre of 21st January followed by the Alamgari Bazaar massacre on 22nd January and Handwara massacre on 25th January. What followed in later years was unimaginable mayhem and genocide. 

An overbearing sense of fear and anger hung like a glistening sword across the city; I was not allowed to venture out of home for days together. On one of the last days of January, when the feeble sun was trying to break over winter frost and overnight freeze had made treading on sunless streets very dangerous, I walked with my friends towards the water channels that connected the twin lakes and where vegetable sellers assembled early morning, paths that were to take me right across ‘D’’s home. By the serpentine bend of a downhill road, a left bend started with a green domed mosque and ended down below near an old dilapidated temple with no caretaker. On the right bend few paces ahead, a long queue of military trucks with paramilitaries who had taken over some of the Pandit houses and were erecting fortifications there. I took a detour via narrow lanes on my right, walking down old stone steps that turned into a maze of more lanes in this old habitation and opened up further ahead at ‘D’’s cluster. I stopped for a brief, looking up at his house that had been long empty now, its inhabitants having left in hopes of a return coming spring. Then walked away in these empty streets that only days back were teeming with laughter and life, alongside old windows that had been fastened in a hurry, doors bolted hesitantly on a fearful curfewed night.  Days later ‘D’s house also had been taken over by Indian paramilitaries who now extended their camp to the empty streets that I had walked on days ago, the bolted doors now bastioned and this military camp now ruling over vast areas in its vicinity. In latter days the unkempt, barren and drab courtyard of ‘D’ became an infamous detention centre and his house a torture facility. One of our common acquaintances was a lean meek boy from the interior areas of Dal Lake, who bowled exceptionally well and would send a chill down any local batsman with his spell. ‘D’ had tried to befriend this silent boy many a times, but I knew ‘D’ was more terrified of facing to bat against him than of wanting to be his friend. By the summer of 1990 the tall, frail boy had been picked up by these paramilitaries in a random crackdown, taken to this detention centre, tortured at ‘D’’s home, never to return back. I always shuddered at the thought of those windows at ‘D’’s home, which were shut permanently in denial of light or breath; how would they have contained within these walls the dying cries of these tortured young men! Would the corrugated drooping roof have shed more tears of morning dew over a blood dripping torturous shrieks of the night? 

The decades of conflict in Kashmir were a living hell for its inhabitants, where survival was a matter of luck and fate. The military state was (and is) unrelenting in its oppression, those who fled saved their lives.

A few years ago a familiar face strikes me on Indian media; it was ‘D’ and he had not changed much, all these years. I sat on my knees to trying to comprehend what he was saying, his narration of events that Indians was so raptly paying attention to “we were hounded in the night of January 1990, armed militants attacked our home with help from locals. Our family fled in desperation and behind us our house was burnt.” Shocked and appalled at his lies, I recognize the face but couldn’t recognize the person behind these words. I sat transfixed at the images that were being drawn by him, created and portrayed so confidently.

Weeks later I crawled on to the internet social media and found him reading the same story scripts to a glued audience. There were moments when his young face, that dropped in dimples when it smiled, flashed before me, but those moments paled before the sternly propagating ‘victim image’ he had put on and the evil monsters he had painted us all. Hear that he had been frequently visiting Kashmir for the past many years, always welcomed and hosted by the same locals that he paints evil radicals and terrorists once out of Kashmir.

There is no doubt that people suffered during the past decades in Kashmir, people from all communities and divides, but to build on this suffering and weave stories on to it was ludicrous. Tragedies know no religion, neither do conflicts choose victims by creed, but politics does decide which of and in what form these stories are read, believed and empathized with.