By Prajnaparamita Padhi
Prajnaparamita Padhi visits Kashmir, and comes back heartened by the undefeated human spirit despite the devastation of insurgency and army occupation
There were armed men on rooftops, along shadowy alley walls, at corners of buildings, or in disguise at the town square. An eerie silence fell each time army jeeps roared past. They raided civilian homes based on tip-offs hoping to nab a leader or for incriminating evidence. A sudden knock pierced the apparent peace one night, as 10 army men waited at Altaf’s door; they strode in, dashed up to the attic to take positions, then began walking through every room, hallway and kitchen. Altaf’s aging grandfather offered them dinner when they started searching the kitchen; noticing a spread of home-cooked food, the officers merrily accepted. They ate together while Altaf busied himself with homework. A senior officer made use of this distraction and stepped out for a smoke. He slipped out, this time searching each room closely -feeling each wall, stamping the floor, looking behind cupboards, overturning cots, hoping to discover a secret chamber that civilians commonly used to horde ammunition, money, ration, that time and again they offered the insurgents in exchange for leaving their sons alone. Finding nothing, the officers left, overturning not just the house but Altaf’s future too.
I met Altaf in Pahalgam, years later, on a sunny mid-October morning, long after he had abandoned school. I was on a long visit to Kashmir during a period of apparent calm. A low hum of bees enticed me in the direction of a group of local men gathered near a stable, talking to tourists who wished to see the valley on horseback. A middle-aged man, who I later came to know was Altaf’s father, came forward, smiling. The stable was at the edge of a line of cottages, a quaint village leisurely rising at a distance, my regular haunt. That afternoon with Altaf as my guide and company, I happily bonded with the valley – exquisite, undulating and lush green surrounded by pine forests and long swift rivers – intermingling with the scent of the jungle, the sound of horses’ hooves, and the sight of scores of handsome youth lounging along roadsides.
Next day, on a chilly evening, I braced weather and security warnings and pushed open the large iron gates across the garden of the house I lived in to keep a passing promise. The nearby village was a 20-minute walk; I had promised Altaf I would be at the square by nine pm to attend a village wedding. I hardly knew the way to the square; he had pointed at it with a stretch of his arm and a forlorn look in his eyes, after our afternoon sojourn in the mountains, before he rode away. It was a dirt road, rows of new cottages were built after the insurgencies were temporarily crushed. I took a few steps in the foggy streetlight when two men dressed in dark woollen phirans overtook me, slowed and suddenly stopped! Their sudden presence did not make me anxious as I had come to feel a kinship with the locals. Turning towards me, the older man said, “Could you tell me the name of what you are wearing in your language?” He pointed at his ‘phiran’ as I pointed at mine. Our common attire had triggered a camaraderie that he had chosen to express. Stunned, and barely able to conceal my excitement, I walked towards the now unseen but fiercely gurgling river to take a deep breath. A moment of precious, untenable, perhaps capricious bonding had occurred between us – in a valley fraught with misgivings, treachery and mistrust.
I reached the square, lit by a single lamppost standing at the centre; the rest was shrouded in semi-darkness. A small band of women were gathered below the post, singing to welcome the groom, softly, magically, in spite of the sombre atmosphere. The intricate zari on their “phirans” glittered in the feeble light. Altaf came out of the shadows and explained that the song would bring good luck to the new couple. The elderly were gathered near the steps of a tiny shop drinking tea, the boys hung out playing games on their phones.
I walked up and stood near them, bracing against the high wind. The incantation was beautiful, a new language. I recalled our leisurely walk up the valley that afternoon as Altaf narrated the events that followed the raid on that fateful night. There were many false alarms, quicker raids and treacherous conduct by insurgents that bewildered families. Men were lifted out of their beds, women were left wailing for months. Some returned, some didn’t. Altaf sat aimless and hungry on rooftops or loitered in fields, and watched his former comrades stumbling back home, battered forever. We sat in silence amid the tall pine and oak trees that seemed to touch the sky; Altaf’s fear of losing his life eclipsed even their height. Innocents were tortured, tied chest down between large slabs of ice for information. No one could guarantee whether what was revealed was true, so torturous were the times. His friends and neighbours were victims both of the radicals and the army. No one believed anyone, no one knew answers to contorted stories. After the officers had left that night, his grandfather pushed aside the large mahogany dinner table to the utter consternation of his mother, spilling milk and food, and rolled up the intricate Persian carpet. He removed five planks of wood from the floor to reveal an impressive collection of pistols, ammunition, blankets, cigarettes and money. His belief in the sanctity of an Indian kitchen hadn’t betrayed him, the officers had not had a clue. Everyone was at their wits’ end; but it was the old man’s only defence.
All the tension and strife has been unable to diminish the natural beauty of Kashmir
On my afternoon walks I had often noticed a woman and her young daughter near a barn. One day we made eye contact, and I was tempted to slow down. I smiled and walked up to them, admiring a little gold trinket the girl was wearing, the shape of a chinar leaf. I was admiring her beauty, untouched by skin lotions, branded make-up or high heels. Minutes past and to my utter surprise she offered me her “kangri”, instantly pulling it out from beneath her “phiran”! I stood embarrassed and in disbelief. “Take it,” she said, “this is not a climate you can bear.” Did I have an answer? I did not. Why would she offer me her warmth in such an unfaltering gesture of human kindness, so pure and precious? I was astounded at the manifestation of an undefeated spirit, living in debilitating economic conditions, isolated from the progress of the world. It contradicted my belief that their shattered lives would have bred hopelessness and despair. Instead, I saw kindness and compassion thriving in spite of failed lives thrust upon them by policies and fearful insurgencies. Neither the army nor the radicals could extinguish the beauty of the valley, the purity of its forests, or its mighty rivers, although its homes, farms, stables, barns and cow sheds trembled in poverty. Yet kindness overflowed as did their rivers. That evening, we walked towards a local school building decorated with tiny red and yellow ‘tuni’ bulbs, as the bride and bridegroom sat down for ‘nikkah’.
People still got married. Babies were still born. Bonding still happened. Here also, as everywhere else, life prevailed.
About the author :
Prajnaparamita is an entrepreneur since 2005, providing animation and digital graphics for television and corporates. She is also a classical dancer, fiction writer and traveller.
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