My brother hasn't returned. I haven't seen 'Islamabad' so angry
To mourn is a verb. Losses compound until they are just numbers in this doomed struggle.
- Total Shares
"In this city, I am memory."
- Elie Wiesel
Teargas in my eyes.
I can say it burns. It smells awful. It chokes you. I wanted to tell her then I wasn’t able to breathe.
But I didn’t. I wanted to be braver than I was in an unknown place at around 7:30pm where young men held stones in their hands and police wielded guns.
I’d get used to it. They have.
If I got shot, my mother would cry a lot. And if a stone hit my eyes, how would I ever be able to write again without the atmospherics. How would I ever find my way into stories? How would I break silences if eyes couldn’t speak anymore? How would I see the orange and pink plastic flowers that decorated the shrine in that town?
And how would I ever know the simple truth that plastic flowers don’t die and that’s why they use them so much here. That’s what she told me that evening. This is what I will always remember about that town and that encounter. Plastic flowers don’t die so soon, she had said.
They say many who are injured in Kashmir may not be able to get back their vision. Around 19, at this point. Around 90 per cent of those that are injured are under 24 years of age. More than 30 are dead. This includes a 12-year-old in Shopian. He was called Shahid.
It is past 3pm on Monday. This is maybe how you kill future.
Does blindness come so soon? How do you adjust to a "forever darkness" when you are so used to seeing golden sunsets and pink dawns over and beyond magnificent mountains everyday in this paradise? I want to go ask each of them what was the last thing they saw before they wouldn’t anymore.
But such stories don’t sell.
An artist in Srinagar had shown me an X-ray of a man’s skull with tiny little dots like stars. He called it "Constellation". He said those were pellets. I am 36, and I don’t know about pellets. That was his screen saver. It looked like a sky with stars punctured into it.
A starry night.
On Friday night, Khytul, a young artist I met in June when I had gone to Srinagar for an assignment, sent me a message saying her town was burning. That was the evening when Burhan Wani, a young militant from Tral, was killed.
They say confiding in strangers is easy. Maybe she wanted to speak about her fear.
And maybe when they live like that, they know that fear translates into a fact of life or life event soon. Burhan's father said that the average life of a militant is seven years and his son lived for six. They say he left home when he was 15 to join the militancy.
To mourn is a verb. Losses compound until they are just numbers in this doomed struggle.'Islamabad' on the Friday we reached.
She wrote she had never seen "Islamabad" so angry.
Islamabad is Anantnag. I hadn’t known this until we were on our way to this volatile town in south Kashmir one Friday evening last month. All I hoped was she would tell me her story. That’s what the professor had said - get her to tell you her story.
On the way, she started talking about her life. Her father had been "martyred" and her brother had been arrested. When we got into the town, it was already dark. Stones had been laid. We got off, and started walking. Masked men with stones appeared. She stood there with her notebook, and they stopped. She led me into an alley. She had promised to show me her sketches. But first, we would go to the shrine.
She led me there. I followed.
I had chosen to trust her. She had made up her mind to tell me her story. That’s how we proceeded. She said nothing but stared at the bits of sky through the maze of old buildings as if looking for stars. But the haze crept in between. I remember it all being bluish black. Not evening, not even night.
It was unreal, unnatural and utterly disorienting. It was wrong for us to be in this haze.
"Do your eyes burn?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"It’s tear gas," she said.
That afternoon we had been in Nowhatta in downtown Srinagar. They had said stone pelting would begin after the Friday afternoon prayers.
I had wanted to witness it. And now, I was here in this old town with tear gas in my eyes. That’s the closest I could get to this.
Two years ago, I had walked in water for hours during the floods. That’s the closest I could get to the story then. Was it possible to believe in a godless place when chaos was the order? Maybe. But I’d still go and pray. Just in case, I thought.
There was a poster of her father. Who was he? She said he was the Mir Waiz of south Kashmir. I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t ask.
We prayed, and came out. I asked her why they have so many plastic flowers there. She said because plastic flowers don’t die. That’s what I remember most. That’s what makes me feel sad for Kashmir.Plastic flowers at an artist's house in Srinagar.
Those plastic flowers. Everywhere.
I know they have magnificent gardens here. I haven’t been to any. I was only seeing those plastic flowers everywhere. Even in my hotel, they had placed them on the sink.
There was blood, and when I asked her if there was curfew, there was silence and she wrote her brother hadn't come home. It was 1:25am on Saturday. I hadn't known what to say except that I would pray for her.
My little betrayal shouldn't keep me from telling a young girl that her brother will return. There are no sides to take. This world is polarised enough. We need love. Not understanding. I think that should be enough.
In the morning, her brother returned. Only if prayers worked in such extreme places, I thought. They prayed a lot. I had been to their shrines. I had seen women wail there.
Burhan Wani was killed on Friday.
Rage, outpouring and fear and the stories of his death, and the fear of more uprising and young men joining militancy were all over social media. Reporters laid out the facts. Experts said everything they could deduce from these facts. Human interest writers wrote why the young man had joined the ranks. Facebook and Twitter regulars posted their updates.
I read some of it. I am not an expert. And now, sitting in my apartment in the capital of the occupying nation as some would refer to it, I am thinking of the painter, the girl and the others with sad eyes. She had said she was calmer and not angry anymore.
The promise of art was not in the healing. Art never can heal. At best, it can be a release. A writer knows this. Understands this, I said to her.
I don't claim to know the history. Or the politics of this place so beautiful that it unnerves you. But even trees weep here. They call them weeping willows.
I devoured whatever was told to me. I oscillated between the two versions and then gave up. I don't care if they resent my little interruptions.
She sent me an audio clip of screams and chaos. In the night, the sounds had seemed like they belonged to a different world so far away from who I am, and where I was. I didn’t have tear gas in my eyes. I could only hear the persistent hum of the air conditioner. I went back to sleep.The back alleys in Anantnag that we took to reach the shrine.
She had told me in the car as we drove down to Anantnag last month that when the 2010 protests happened, she would fix her camera in the window and watch for any action on the streets. They live in the old parts, which I was told was where the resistance was most powerful.
I had no context of this girl whom I met in June. She drew sketches of her life, and told stories that were so simple and yet so heartbreaking in these drawings. I don't know about brush movements and art theories but I knew no art is truthful if the artist didn't create from the pain he or she had witnessed and suffered.
She spoke as if her voice came from a faraway place. At some point, I kept the notebook in the bag. I trusted memory to keep the story sacred. I wouldn't forget details. I listened in.
On the way back from Anantnag, my driver told me they had killed Burhan’s comrades.
"He is left alone," he said.
I asked him if he thought peace would be possible here. He said if every Kashmiri had a gun, there would be an equal fight. But then, they don’t have the guns. We decided to talk about other things. Almonds and apples, etc.
It was late in the night. By the time, I entered the hotel it was past midnight. I ate the food she had packed for me, and slept. At about 3am, I had woken up, and walked to the window. In the yellow light, the streets looked like lava.
At first, I met only the liars. They lied about things that would shame those that lie in graves after their doomed fight against whom they call the oppressor. To each, their own, I felt. This is not my city. I don’t know its suffering, or its dreams. I haven’t been in a curfew except once when the Babri Masjid was demolished.
I can’t say if I can call him a terrorist or a martyr. All I know is that on some nights, I think of Mugli, whom I have never known and will never meet. She is dead.
In June, the painter told me about her. We sat there watching a documentary about her. They said they found her in her room with her eyes fixed at the door. As she was dying, she was still waiting for her son.
But I feel like I understand when the painter tells me that who knows who is fighting whom, and so many years have gone by, and in the end, even the memory becomes a tapestry of lies and truths. He tried hard to report on the losses. He tried hard for so many years to capture in canvases what he saw happening in the snow, or in the months when the Chinar leaves turned golden. He was never at peace. He was in a hurry to paint everything.
On the walls, there is a canvas. At the back of it, his friend wrote "To Masood, who I lost in the Valley."Shrine of Hazrat Reshi in Anantnag.
The painter told me many stories. He explained why his canvases had no colours in the beginning. I met others. Just about anyone who would talk about their lives. Each night I returned to the hotel with the notebook and tried to put things in perspective.
But I couldn’t. This place with its million mutinies was not an easy task to compile. Sometimes, you can’t tell the whole story.
And it’s okay.
But again, in the beginning I met only those who concocted tales of suffering and martyrdom. Maybe that was their way of avenging themselves on those that came from "India" and in retrospect, I know I have moved beyond those lies. There are worse atrocities we are capable of.
They had abandoned the memory of everything for the sake of fiction and to serve what means I don't still comprehend and I leave it to the unknown.
Not everything can be answered. Reporters have always known this. You shoot questions. You hope for answers. Sometimes, all you get is a gaping silence.
The story lies in the details. I am nobody to question anyone’s facts or fictions. This isn’t an investigation. This is a collage of memories and details preserved in memory like the painter standing in the window watching a labourer getting shot.
"The world is a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realised to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher," writes Svetlana Alexievich.
I asked a soldier once if he ever gets emotional. He said he tried to keep the emotional quotient low because there would be decisions regarding life and death. I never have met this person but we spoke sometimes about the soldier's burden and his idea of glory. I wasn’t looking for details here. As a paratrooper, he learned how to become tough, and survive anything.
I asked him if he ate cobras for dinner. We laughed.
He looked stunning in the uniform. He articulated his point well. We resisted each other, argued even until I decided that perhaps he was suffering, too. You can’t see so much and forget so easily even as they say that forgetfulness is the gift of god to mankind.
This story is not about morals. It is not supposed to encourage virtue and maybe, depending on whom you talk to, it is about this stubborn uncompromising and absolute loyalty to evil. Sure, he had blood on his hands. That's what he said and no more.
He kept the secrets. The soldier had been in Kashmir and other places for operations that he never spoke about and I never insisted on knowing. I only wanted to know if you can kill someone you have never known personally, and whether you think of those nameless people ever.
He said it was not important. He was doing his job. The rhetoric was rehearsed. It wasn’t personalised. I only wanted to know if he had dreams about the dead. He said he had liked the Valley. The people had been nice.
And then? Nothing, you move on, he said.
Whom are you saving?
I am not evil, he said.
Our conversations bordered on existentialism and philosophy and only sometimes, he would talk about snow and mountains and he would speak of the last swan song and the glory of dying in a combat.
But what an evil wish? For the last swan song, you can't wish for a war or for an operation.
He said he wasn't Hitler. It was just that he’d like to go down in glory. He felt entitled to a glorious death.
That’s where the problem lies. In the quest of these glorious deaths. This narcissism even in death. In such places, this is the glory everyone seeks. This is the glory everyone celebrates or mourns. Their memory as stubborn as the world’s memory. Their memory in the way of other’s history. Is history as stubborn?Wish knots at the shrine of Hazrat Maqdoom Sahib in Rainawari.
It is then a fight between history and memory.
It is the stubbornness of memory that I witness in my own narratives that are never focused and meander in search of anchors.
Honour the verb, sacrifice the adjective, let nouns be themselves.
Coloratura is all that I wrote anyway. Stuff that could be melted like fat to make stories lean. But memory is all fat. Hence, it gives heartaches.
If they deny memory, what will be left of them? They say keep the wounds open. That way they will heal faster. You can accuse me of writing sentences that lead nowhere. But you can’t deny me my motive.
I hope to find stories in their absence and presence in this city. In your city, I am hoping that in every person there is an element of the unknown.
In this city, everyone is memory. So are passersby like me. Call me an occupier, or a stranger, I too have memories in this city.
I don't like painting flowers, Khytul had said. Looking at this art is like looking at a prolonged past or a perilous future. A present of inconsistency, betrayals, hopes clashing against reality, etc. It is a perilous affair to make art here.
And yet the art isn't devoid of the adage of paradise lost. It is the state of huzun she lives in. The old house still stands. The new one came up next to it. Her mother has decorated it with plastic flowers, and the tiled kitchen could belong anywhere. It is not stamped with culture or geography.
But she pointed at a house and asked if a heard a man yelling. She had been scared of this man in her childhood. He forbade her to play. He was always telling her this is wrong and this is right.
Can you restore lost time?
Disruption to normalcy when her frock is torn is a memory that continues into her present. Where is the future, she asked? Does it wait for me?
On the way out of the shrine, I had noticed the hundreds of wish knots. And I remembered a shard of Agha Shahid Ali’s poem.
"What will suffice for a true-love knot?
Even the rain?
But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.
wanting in this world"
"Can you remember?"
Anyone! "when we thought
the poets taught"
even the rain?"
Where is the reporter placed when they record suffering?
As Svetlana Alexievich wrote in what she calls "In place of an Epilogue" that "I used to travel among other people’s suffering, but here I’m just as much a witness as the others. My life is part of this event", I was trying to understand this place propelled by reasons that defy rational thought.
I wasn’t born here. Nor did I grow up here. Forever, I will be a stranger in this city.
But then, cities exist in memory. I remembered a line from another book by the same author that war is when you want to live, and maybe I had never experienced a war ever. Maybe I was only meant to collect stories. One artist told me a baker always bakes whether there is war. And so a painter expresses on a canvas. I insist on taking no names. Sometimes, a story must make sense without names.
I was only going to transcribe what they would tell me, see what they would show me, make my own sojourns and come back and think of the words you had heard – Dapaan, mukhbir, khair, etc. A few others, too. I couldn’t cure war. I was not going to. A writer can’t examine everything. I can’t be the weeping Madonna.
There is no rational connection between alleged crime and punishment. The punishment does not need to fit the crime. In this place, killings don’t need to be justified. You could be watching a procession and the bullet can hit you in the head. You can be dead for being who you are and being where you are.
You discover a place through people who can tell you stories about how they looked out of a window when the bullet struck a labourer on the street. The painter and I sat at his studio as the sun went down. Canvases on the floor, brushes dipped in paint, half-finished paintings, and wooden cupboards filled with manuscripts.
For so many years that he has been painting, he has been trying to paint beauty of the place he lives in. But he couldn’t.
And half way through our conversation, I asked him about the wish knots. He had painted those. They reappeared on canvases. Artists live in real worlds where shell and gas and blood are things they must witness, or suffer.
Sinners and martyrs.
That was how we understood to define people. There is a culture of pity. Traditions are preserved. You always weep at the shrines. You wail. You hold the hands of the priest, and tell him to give you hope.
Even on the warmest summer day, the shrines are cold. The silence is disturbing. The wailing made me shut my ears to the stories. The painter watched all of this, studied the movement of prayer, and sketched them.
Only the lonely go in search of such stories. Love and death don’t require logic. You are like a child. You believe in miracles. You want the deaths to stop.
Once, a man had joked.
"You wanted to be the only savior?, he asked.
No, I said to him. I was only trying to feel less guilty.
Revenge is fueled by grief, which is what history is all about. Rage reigns. And some grief I had witnessed in the stories of people waiting for years for someone who had disappeared. This grief is routine here. And so much grief can only result in such rage.
Khytul said perhaps it was because they felt guilty of not taking Burhan seriously.
"I feel that people were feeling guilty of not believing in him, not trusting him, and guilt turned into anger."
"It did happen before, but killing militants honestly didn't fuel it; never. It’s the civilians always whose killing end this way," she wrote last night. "There are more than 55 pellet fire cases registered in Islamabad district hospital."
Cycles of grief and revenge are repeated over and over again. How many days until they retreat. One week or maybe two weeks and then you slip back into the life that we are used to, she said. It was quieter now that curfew had been imposed, she said.
You stopped smiling.
You still got married, did things, had children, but your smile was complex. At least an artist knew his smile was a facade.
All deaths are different. Not as they report in the newspaper. Shot, bled, and died. Or achieved martyrdom in others. The processions, and the coffins and the wailing women, but each death is different.
How many notebooks could I fill? How do I trace the worker covered in blood shrieking in an empty street? Love doesn't count the years. And when we die, the hope is we go to a better place and of the promise of heaven, and then we have seen its plight. No more.
This is an unfamiliar city although I know some of its streets and its lakes by name. Six trips must at least familiarise with you with that much if not more.
But beyond that, what did I know?
I was collecting memoirs, memory postcards of what they had seen. That labourer was standing in front of a shop during the curfew days. He got shot by a stray bullet. He shrieked, and howled and yet nobody came. Nobody would.
The painter watched from the window and then a little boy came along pushing an empty cart. He stopped, and dragged the man on to the cart and pushed it through the deserted streets. He took him to the hospital. The child was not afraid. That’s a miracle.
Khytul said she would never leave.
"This is the place where I was born and this is where I'm going to stay. That's because I want to work from here, I want to make a way for other girls, to show them you don't necessarily have to run away from home and go stay outside to fulfill your dreams, you just have to be honest to yourself and you'll find your way, however bad the condition is," she said.
I wonder if she is painting now. In black and white as she stands by that window of her house in a burning city and watches the streets. I wonder if her eyes are hurting because of tear gas. Now, when they speak of tear gas, I know I can say honestly that I once had tear gas in my eyes in a city where young men picked up stones against the might of the state.
And when the soldier tells me about the swan song dream, I want to tell him to shut up.
"Don’t talk of death," I said.
I don’t know how many times I have said this to so many people.
I will come for the story when the night is over or when the evening falls and there is a curfew.
Once a reporter had walked alone in a city not understanding why the trees looked as if they are weeping and stopped by the lake and looked out on the water wondering if heaven wasn’t another version of hell.
I accept the invitation to come after the night is over.