The night has fallen long ago and I won’t be stalking sleep tonight. Their guns have stopped to roar for a while, but they will resume again. They have difficulty in locating me in this dilapidated house at night and I am taking its benefit. But for how long will odds favour me? I will be dead by the morning. Their bullets will have made holes in my body or they will burn this house and I will be charred and buried under its rubble. By whichever way, I will embrace death without a shred of fear; I have resolved it in my mind.
From the attic of this house, I have a clear view of the outside. This is a cold starry night. The tin roofs of other houses shimmer dimly under the moonlight. Trees are still; they bear no leaves. Autumn has withered them long ago. The whole locality is swathed in silence, only interrupted by occasional gunshots and howling of dogs. The house across the lane seems empty. There is no light lit there. But I suspect some stealth movements there. It must be them, looking for me.
On the left side across the lane, there is a little empty patch of land where some dogs are howling ceaselessly. Their howling becomes less audible only when the guns roar from their side, but they hardly stop. It does not cause me panic nor do I take it as a prelude to imminent death. Death is no more a fear. At one end of this empty patch of land, I see some army men crawling. Their metallic guns shimmer under this moonlit night too. On the right side across the street, the pitch darkness allows me to see nothing. But at the very far end of that, I see a light that occasionally falls on this house where I am hiding.
Unlike my childhood days, I am not afraid of these lights now. Not anymore. Back then these lights would fill the room I used to sleep in, leaving me frightened till I fell asleep. So much has changed since then, yet the memories of those nights smell fresh.
I remember how every night the army men, who were stationed in an abandoned Pandit house, few hundred meters from my home, would light their high beam torches to illuminate our whole neighbourhood. Sometimes they would shoot a fireball into the air that would illuminate the whole area, every crevice and corner, in an incandescent light, making everything visible to them. The purpose of those lights, as my brother once told me in my childhood, was to make sure that every child slept without crying and making any fuss. But in the later years I understood that it was used to check if any rebels were on maneuvers in the area.
Tonight I am no child refusing to sleep. I am a rebel and I am not afraid of the impending death.
Their guns have started to roar again. I descend to the ground floor. It is cold here. There is no light anywhere in the house. Bullets hit the wall, but they do not penetrate it. Those which hit the windows can be fatal though. I have to crawl here. I am looking for a place to retaliate.
I have conjured up my funeral. Isn’t it too morbid of a thought? But what else can I possibly wish for when I know my death is imminent? A beautiful funeral – my posthumous celebration of freedom – is all I desire for now.
My funeral will be much like that of Ali Mohammad, my neighbour. My body will be carried on a stretcher and a sea of people will assemble around it. When Ali Mohammad’s body was brought home and put on a stretcher in his own lawn, I watched him from the attic of my own house. People surrounded him in thousands. Women – young and old – wailed and sang simultaneously: Wedding songs and the wail blending together to produce a heart-wrenching dirge. I did not dare to go near him. As a kid, I was afraid to witness a dead man’s bullet ridden chest. Later that afternoon when my brothers returned home after having attended Ali Mohammad’s funeral, they said there were three holes in his chest – one close to his heart. He had left to Srinagar for work and on his way he was shot three times by army men. They suspected he was abetting some militants in our village. Nobody knew if it was true. Nobody mentioned it. But the whispers said that he had, a week or so ago, sheltered two militants in his house when they had knocked at his door around midnight. Could he have denied them the shelter? May be yes, may be no. If the whispers were true, then did he really deserve those three holes in his chest?
There is a small window in this room that overlooks the abandoned house where the army men are positioned. I can retaliate from here. The walls are immune to their bullets. It is an abandoned Pand[i]it house. Should I feel guilty for having skulked here?
But what choice I had, anyway? I had come to see my father who visited me a few nights ago in my dream. He seemed worried and I could not hold myself back. While I was on my way to pay him a visit, the bullets chased me, till I found shelter in this house. What choice did I have then?
There are not many Pandit houses left now. There was one near my home. That, too, was abandoned. But after some time that was occupied by army men. In its abandoned state, the house was only silent. But after the army men occupied it, it began to haunt everyone of us. There were nights when we would hear strange voices from that Pandit house – cries of men pleading for help that would make one feel jittery; wails of men pleading for mercy; cries that made me, as a child, shiver. During days it seemed normal but at nights, the heart-wrenching cries would come to haunt us. The house was on the periphery of paddy fields. On many occasions, the farmers found corpses in their fields – Bruised, wounded, dismembered and grotesque corpses.
The house was vacated some years ago. There were no nocturnal cries thereafter. A whole new colony of new houses came up around the house. It is quite normal there now. The new families do not perhaps know about the past of their neighbouring house. But my brother claims that he still hears some strange cries some nights that seem to come from there. I do not know if he really hears it or he is just haunted by it. Does this Pandit house also haunt the neighbourhood here?
They think I am hiding in the upper storey; they are shooting into the room above me. The night is so deceitful. It always has been. They might be mistaking some shadow of a window, or the silhouette of the door for me and shooting at it. Is this the fear that deceives their eyes or is it the rage within them? But the night, the night has always been so deceitful and fearsome that we believe in things that do not exist. Are they demented by its darkness, too?
The fear among these army men, if it is so, and the deceit the silhouette of the door is projecting, reminds me of that summer night when the police station close to my home nd the occupied Pandit house – both adjacent to each other – were attacked by two militants. We woke up at the sound of the very first bullets that were fired by the militants. My father and my brothers could easily tell the sound of militant bullets from the army ones. In fact, everyone would tell the difference – a craft I too learnt in some months. Our father gathered us all in one room and switched off every light in our house. The indicators in the switchboard that twinkled faintly in the darkness had always been a reason of fear to my father. He thought that an army man outside might mistake it for a cigarette and might barge inside the house. He did not even let us cough or sneeze or make any sound. The shooting was so intense that during every brief lull we could hear the echoes reverberating in our ears.
Outside, in our kitchen garden, my mother had forgotten her wicker basket on a small bamboo stick that supported the cucumber creepers against the wall. At night, the silhouette of this basket and bamboo stick, amid all that fear and tumult, looked like an army man wearing a helmet. All night, we choked into silence and sweated with fear of this army man in our lawn.
All night my father kept peeping through the corner of a window to check if the army man was still in the lawn. Every time he hushed us up saying that the army man was still there. We would also steal some peeps through the window occasionally. Minutes before the dawn – the firing had not stopped yet – my father, who was peeping through the window, pushed the curtains aside and looked carefully at the army man outside the window. He called my mother to confirm if she could see what he had seen. Soon we joined them too. We burst into laughter that dawn. The wicker basket and the bamboo stick that haunted us at night, deceived us and deluded us all night, became something to laugh over at the dawn. But somewhere in that laughter we tried to console our fears and the wakeful nightmare of the hard passed night.
Will these men in the opposite house also laugh when they realize what they had been shooting at or will they be furious?
They are firing in my direction now. A volley of bullets has hit the windowsill right in front me – a close escape. I am trying to change the position so I could shoot at the right direction. I crawl to the other end of the room, lying low against the window sill, and crouch at the end of the last window pane. I hold my muzzle there and fire in the direction of the abandoned house. Their shooting is intense, but I have to be careful with my ammunition. I fire briefly, and at intervals.
They have intensified the firing. A bullet wheezes off my shoulder, abrading the portion of my jacket and a bit of flesh. It causes pain, but I bite my lips and soon I am able to ignore it. Another bullet that hits the window at top ricochets and enters my shin. It causes severe pain. I try to remove it, but in the darkness and intense pain, it seems difficult. I let it remain untouched. I must endure it. Endure it all, by myself. Endure it the way Tariq and Mohidin did; the way Bashir and other those unknown men did that spring night in the makeshift torture camp outside my home.
It was around midnight when we heard some men talking in Hindustani and few others yelling. The noise came from an agricultural department’s office that was cheek-by-jowl to my home. Soon the yelling became intense, blended with cries and thuds. We could hear some men saying their names and pleading for mercy. Terrified, my father switched off all the lights in the house and peeped through the bathroom window that faced the office. The army men had rounded up some men from an unknown place and were beating them to extract information about militants. These men had nothing to reveal though.
In the backyard of the office, few army men spread coal on the ground and ignited it till it became a blazing red carpet. One by one, all these men were made to sleep on it, till they either fainted or the army men themselves felt excess. Before dawn, all the men were bundled into an army vehicle that was parked outside the office and left. Next morning when the employees came to the office, they found the doors open and the cinders and ashes in the backyard. In one of the rooms, the floor was covered with mud and blood. At few places in that room, the walls were also blood stained. It seemed more of a butcher’s slaughter-house than an office of the agriculture department.
What remained etched in my mind were the cries of those men who were pleading innocence, swearing on God, their mothers and fathers. None of them was married perhaps because none of them swore on their children or wives. When they were made to sleep on the coals, they might have felt the same pain as I do now, or even worse.
If they could endure it, why cannot I?
I am in their right target. They know my location, they trace my movements and they know my fate. They have propelled a grenade into the room. It explodes in the corner but after the bang, I can feel the splinters in most of my body parts and my face. I can see though but the pain dements me now. I try to change my location, just to live for another few moments and fight a little more. So demented am I that I wonder whether I seek time to fight more or to live more.
I crawl, slinging my rifle on my shoulder, but my left leg does not budge. It is so badly wounded that it feels like a heavy tree trunk. It is painful too. I drop my weight on my right leg and my arms and drag myself ahead, out of the room. But the bullets continue to hit the wall and the fire has engulfed the windows because of the explosion. The gunfire seems to come from every corner now. It is ever more intense.
I crawl the stairs to the upper storey. All the way along, I am dragging behind me a lifeless limb with the bruised body. I realize that it is no more painful. With all these wounds that may never heal, with this maimed body that may never be of any use again, with all this blood that spills for one last time, I see death coming closer, inch by inch. And it is here, between this ever decreasing void between life and death that I see that all the pain dying into nothingness. As soon as this void is filled, the purpose of my life will be served, the freedom attained. Is it this void that we fight for, this freedom that we die for? If it is so, then it is worth fighting and dying for.
I have managed to reach the top floor of this house. The gunfire does not stop. I am surrounded from every side. The dogs have started to bark fiercely, but the bullets keep taming the night’s demeanor. Their howling goes unnoticed. With all my efforts, which are very little left now, I point the gun towards the house opposite me. I cannot see anyone there, but I pull the trigger anyhow. After a few bullets, the recoils become unbearable and the gun sways aside. I stretch my hand forward to drag it towards myself, but I cannot reach it. I have to crawl a little bit. I move a few inches with every effort till I give up. I recline against the wall to catch my breath. Suddenly there is a loud bang – a loud deafening bang above – and then every sound, every noise fades into an unfathomable clank. In this terrible din, I look up and see the whole roof falling down, gathered around by smoke and dust. With a loud thud, it hits the floor and buries me beneath, except the part of me that reclines against the wall. There is a halt in gunfire. There is complete silence now. I am still alive, at least I have few more breaths left. As the dust settles and the smoke tends to grow fainter, I look up again. There is nothing above me now but a clear starry sky. I start to feel cold. The stars seem to look down at this fallen house and a fallen man in awe silence. Most of them do not twinkle now.
I try to count the stars that are above me, visible within the periphery of the walls around me. In childhood, I was told that counting starts would bring a bad omen. But I would still count stars on summer evenings when I would recline on the grass in my lawn till I was called for dinner. That was my favourite pastime after finishing my homework.
Many years later, after I finished my school and secured admission in a college, I repeated the habit again. In mid-summer last year I reclined on the same grass again after the dinner and looked at the sky that was much like this. I counted the stars, conjured different shapes and faces out of them. It had not brought any bad luck since my childhood, so I expected it would not bring any this time either.
A few blocks away from my home, on the other side of the road that divided us from the rest of the locality, the army men had cordoned the house of one of my neighbours and were looking for their son, Sheeraz. Sheeraz and I grew up together and went school together till he joined his father’s construction business soon after his higher secondary schooling. There seemed no reason behind Sheeraz’s arrest. His family pleaded, begged and did everything possible to stop the army men from taking their son away, but they would not listen. They had told his family that he was taken for questioning and would be released by morning. They had taken him in an army jeep and disappeared.
In the morning, the family, along with some other neighbours approached the police station asking for Sheeraz but they denied having his whereabouts. Next they went to an army camp in the market-place, but they also denied to have taken Sheeraz.
A few days later, Sheeraz’s dead body was recovered from paddy fields in a nearby village. His body had unbearable stench and his face had several holes as if pecked by crows and eagles. From the post-mortem report, it was revealed that he had been strangled to death with some wire. His body bore burns also. A few of his fingernails had been plucked. The whole appearance of Sheeraz was nothing but a tangible nightmare that would haunt everyone in our village for years to come.
We protested against the army men, filed a report against them in the police station, but nothing happened. His family finally gave up the litigation processes fearing that their other children might be targeted. Soon, the rage and anger ebbed away and what remained was an epitaph above the grave of Sheeraz whose inscriptions were also fading day by day.
I could not forget it though. I could not forget the raven-pecked, bruised face of Sheeraz, so I ended up among the rebels, not to take mere revenge but to save myself from being tormented by the guilt of doing nothing. I did not want to live ricocheting between guilt and cowardice. At times like this I wonder if I am fighting my haunted memories or the one who inflicted them.
As I continue to look up, the stars on the vast sky seem to grow still. They look like an embroidered pattern on black velvet. My mother had a black velvet Pheran that was embroidered in one of Srinagar’s famous embroidery shops in Abiguzar, on the banks of river Jhelum. I feel touching the hem of her Pheran, feeling its furriness. I feel her caressing my head and hair. I feel the warmth of her, her gentle patting on my shoulder, trying to put me to sleep. I feel like sleeping now. The stars grow fainter, the light gets dimmer. This silence sounds like a lullaby. I feel no pain. My body seems sailing in a boat in an endless sea, drifting away. My memories drift, one by one, leaving me with nothing but a sigh. I take a deep breath. I am at peace.
[i] Pandits are the minority Hindu community of Kashmir, most of whom migrated to the plains in 1990 after the armed resistance began in the valley.