“Can you hear the screams
Their bullets, our stones …
Until my freedom has come”
I Protest by MC Kash, rap artist in Kashmir. 2010
A man, who once called me an occupier, tells the story of a bloodied man who dragged another bloodied body in the streets of Downtown Srinagar in 2010. On the footpath, he stumbled, and lifted his shirt. The bystanders or the protestors saw the two holes from where blood spurted. A bullet in the abdomen, and another in the heart. Another young man lifted him. In masks, young men had been pelting stones. There were bullets, and tear gas from the other side.
They recall he was called Generator, and ran in the streets looking for any means of transport to take him to the hospital. This was 2010. Srinagar was burning. Stone pelting had become the collective means of protest. They shouted slogans, and they died in dozens. Masrat Alam invented Ragda. They tapped their feet, and chanted slogans. It was a heady time. By the time, this other young man found an auto and broke open its lock, it was too late. Generator was dead. That morning, they say, he had promised his mother he wouldn’t pelt stones. But he had worn black, and had gone to his father’s grave in the morning, and had prayed. When he met his mother later, he sought permission to pelt stones just that day. He died on the streets trying to drag the body of another who had slipped and was run over by a truck. They still remember him. And there are other stories about those who pelted stones, and beyond anger, and frustration, there was also love. But that is for another time. Because those belong to those that collect them. We must never steal stories.
Over time, we moved beyond the occupier and the occupied tags.
Once, he wrote "... A foggy morning, a stern man lies down on the bare road under a blanket of hunger. Sheeps come and go honking their guts out from the Sailaabzada cars. Boom. A tear gas shell hits the road, chaos and slogans run through the air … Another boom …”
He wrote they are used to the smoke, and the tear gas in a note in December 2014. There were a few protests. The stone pelting had become a way of asserting anger. Or hope.
“We crazy pundits of resistance … we ran like Forrest Gump did, we look out for each other; it's like a slow motion scene. You see that baton coming down on your brother’s back, you laugh and hoot to divert the attention. This is no Palestine with all due respect, but that's Maisuma of Kashmir. The resistance continues even if I die …,” he wrote.
There is an old building. This is where the army resides near Maisuma. You could see their fatigues hung in the barbed windows for drying. The clock tower at Lal Chowk is symbolic. Protest also must choose its space.
Nowhere else, the identities are so pronounced as here. Here, you get defensive. Even apologetic sometimes. You must take sides. The last time, I walked along the Dal Lake, I could feel the strangeness in the air. It was just after Muharram, and two young men had died in an encounter. In an almost curfewed city, you walked along the deserted streets just to feel the air. It was almost neurotic. You couldn’t trust anyone. It was a place of distrust. There was also sadness. You could almost breathe it. If at all, you could. An editor I spoke to later said the place is like a mental asylum. He could feel it. The man, who was born here, and lives here, says it is not far from the truth. Mirza Waheed, who wrote his second book The Book of Gold Leaves based in Kashmir, says Srinagar is a melancholic place.
In the winter haze, with the mountains glistening in the sun, and the Jamia Masjid wearing a forlorn look in Downtown Srinagar, a stranger tells the stories of 2010 protests. He says in the shops of tailors, you will find sherwanis the would-be grooms got stitched, and could never collect. They either died, or the curfew didn’t let them. And you know, he continues, in Kashmir where you feel defeated and tired, marriage is something you look forward to. There are feasts, and there’s something to be happy about. But then, there was curfew. There were deaths, and there was trauma. He is going to get married soon. There’s this and that, he says. Curfew here is a way of life. Sometimes, they even rent wedding clothes. In a place like this, you calculate the odds. After 2010, you were always on the edge, he says.
But there were other things, too. Stories that a writer goes looking for so they could tell you what it means to live in a conflict zone. The 2010 protests changed a lot of things for a lot of people. All these conversations flow from the fact that Masrat Alam, the hard-liner leader, has been released. He said he was only being shifted from a small prison to a bigger one. In Being Masrat Alam, which was published in Indian Express, Bashaarat Masood goes back in search of the man, and writes how his teacher at Tyndale Biscoe, a missionary school in Lal Chowk, once called him “Ishfaq”. He meant Majeed, the first militant commander of Kashmir. He writes of the song that Masrat Alam sang in school.
“Sanz kar koori, waerev tche gasun, trayi koori khan majar, danus che pewun (Prepare, oh girl, prepare, to go to your in-laws, stop being pampered, you have to light the hearth)”
And we drive past the old Srinagar where once I had first encountered the conflict. On the streets during the floods, they had put up banners saying “Indian Choppers Go Back”. The only thing storytellers can do is to listen, and here, as we gaze at the old buildings, he says he is tired now. He says he feels defeated. All he wanted to do was to write about his city. But the wear and tear has begun to show. He says he will get married, and grow old.
I can only say “Inshallah”.
Along the Dal Lake, the city looks serene. We are driving along the Boulevard Road.
“Such beauty. Who wouldn’t want to occupy?” I say to him, and laugh.
And he looks at me, and says beauty is a curse. He is a writer. He wanted to be a doctor once, but returned to Kashmir to write about the people, and the place. But it isn’t easy to tell these stories. He is in his 30s, and says he is trying to come to terms with being here. But sometimes, he gets angry. Instead of stones, they have taken to writing.
He tells me other stories. Like how once when he was a child, they would make fun of him at school. They would say he didn’t have the fire in him. So, one day he went to the graveyard, and he knew militants hid their guns under tombstones, and he picked up one, and fired at the transformer. There was no electricity in his neighborhood for a week almost. And he never told his family it was him trying to test his own spirit of protest.
People are tired in Kashmir, he says. There are evenings when there would be peace in watching pigeons flap their wings as they flew in and out of the courtyard at the shrine of Maqdoom Sahib. It is an abandoned place, he says. On Friday, I ask him if there would be stone pelting in downtown. He says there would be no stone pelting. Not now. In 2010, when Alam, who sports a long beard, and is hailed as a successor of Geelani, there were protests. Around 120 young men died.
“A stone to a bullet,” a man tells me. “You won’t understand.”
And another, a policeman, laughs when I ask him if I can see the stone pelting.
“A four-year-old can throw with so much strength that you would be surprised. Don’t go. It isn’t such a romantic thing,” he says. “You could get hurt. Where will you run? It is dangerous.”
By now, I have become used to being dismissed. But crossing over isn’t so easy.
Alam is the co-founder of the Muslim League, the hardline faction of the Hurriyat Conference. Beyond the politics, and the facts of his arrest and his life, and his own agenda, there are stories of ordinary people. It is about their collective memory, which then leads to personal ones. Everyone has been through loss. They have been to funerals. It is depressing. The writer says he knows there won’t be Azadi. But the fact that they have been fighting for so long has its own repercussions. You can see it in the eyes of people, he says. They are tired, and vacant. There is no music at the shrines. Only pigeons flapping their wings. The mystics told them peace is possible. But in the streets, there are memories.
We don’t take sides here. We only listen. It isn’t just about blood, and protests, and talks of revolution where young men The man says the truth lies in so many places that if you started to pick up the crumbs, they’d scatter. He tells another story. This is one of the short stories by a Kashmiri writer.
So, there was once a curfew, and a child wanted sweets. His mother tried to tell him they couldn’t go out. The CRPF man outside heard the child pestering his mother, and told the child he will get him sweets. He picked him up, and got him sweets, and he thought it would ease the tension. Again, the question of identities. The occupier, and the occupied. When he was dropping the child to his house, he asked him what else would he like. The child looked straight at him, and said “Azadi”.
“It’s fiction but you know what I mean,” he says.
We go into bookshops, and there are popular and racy fiction like Paulo Coelho, and Sidney Sheldon. There is also Allama Iqbal, and his philosophy. Outside, there are fashion magazines, and another that is titled “Ideal Home” and I wonder if this will ever be home. Or if they will ever feel at home.
And then, the man who once called me an occupier, and now tells me stories of homeland, and laughs often, says he writes sometimes. Because loss is so personal, he says. And then, when I ask him how it is to live in a paradise is, he recounts a conversation with a friend the other day.
“We don't care for fame … we should enjoy it day by day because we don't know when we will be killed by a bullet …,” he says.
This is what his friend had said. That should be enough for you to know, he says. He is a young man, and returned to Kashmir from America where was working to take care of his family. Another left. He found his freedom in Chicago. His brother says he says the paradise was like a cage.
Beyond the political debate, there are stories of ordinary people like him. They fall in love, they drink coffee, and they watch films on their laptops. Even conflict is a routine thing here.
And then, he says there is always a conflict in any story. There would be no paradise if we lost the reference to hell. And then, you remember what Dante said in Inferno.
"I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost."
"Before me there were no created things
But those that last forever—as do I.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.”
― Dante Alighieri, Inferno
But they hope. Like the man who will get married soon, or the man who collects stories, and tells me “sab faani hai (everything is earthling)”.
“Remember this when I am gone,” he says.
But the stories will remain, I say. And after the harsh winter of 40 days, roses will bloom again. And Dante found inspiration in Inferno. He also wrote Paradiso.
And they smile. That’s the only moment when the conflicting identities of the occupier and the occupied have dissolved.