By Muddasir Ramzan
Poshmarg had grown up under the foothills of two mountain peaks. The houses with glowing electric bulbs made the town appear like the Milky Way. They had had a spell of snow as December ensued, which carried the cold that they didn’t want yet. The people expected snowfall again in Chillai Kalan – forty days between late December and January, considered a very harsh winter. The sun continued to provide its lifeless heat, till this last day of the year. Most of the youngsters of Poshmarg watched special telecast of the last night of the year 1990, on a coloured television – a lone TV set in the town. This TV was bought by the infamous Masterji, who was also a Haji, from Bombay – a stopover for pilgrims while returning from his pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. Infamous, because the elders, the more religious ones, derided him and accusing him of bringing Satan’s doll into the town, the cause of immorality among the youth. Even so, Masterji was proud of himself and considered the TV one of his prized possessions.
The town’s garlands of pleasure were suspended halfway when a big explosion, the first such incursion, hit the soldiers’ camp, placed at the entrance of Poshmarg, followed by profuse gunshots. The inhabitants of the town had never heard of a fire shot before. They couldn’t swallow the clatter of the big blast and the bullets. This uncertainty made them helpless. The fear of receiving bullets forced them to gather at the ground floor of their houses, assembling all their family members.
Maam Jan (my maternal uncle), had already left the Masterji’s house with some others of his mohalla, singing Cholhama Roshe Roshe, when they heard the explosion. He ran to his house, rushed straight into the kitchen, as he knew the rest of the family members would be there. They were drowned in fear. They discussed what to do: they were worried about Ammi – she was expecting a baby, me, soon.
A few moments later, when the bullets’ crackling didn’t stop, Jalal-ud-Din, a respected muezzin in the town appeared on the loudspeaker. Everyone held their breath to hear the announcement. It was a great relief for them when he requested all the residents to come and stay in the mosque for safety. If they had to die, they better die together.
After hearing the announcement, Maam Jan stated that all of us should join other people in the mosque as it was not safe to stay at home. Babb, my maternal grandfather, decided against it: “Why don’t you understand the gravity of this situation. It isn’t safe to leave the house.”
“It’s not safe to stay inside the house as well. It is better to join others in the mosque. It would be easier to tolerate the danger together.” Maam Jan responded.
Moji, my grandmother, interfered: “But how would you reach the mosque? The firing is still on. Trust us, the soldiers won’t come here.”
“No, Moji. They’ll soon be here. We will manage. It’s not the time to wait. The danger accelerates every new minute.”
Maam Jan took hold of Ammi and left with others. Babb and Moji didn’t leave their house, they never would.
It was hard to run in the biting cold. There wasn’t any movement on the road. The shadows of the naked chinar tree in the middle of the road felt like they were protecting the area that opened a small path to the mosque. In the darkness, the exchange of fire in the upper side of the town was visible, as if someone was throwing hot embers from a Kangri. They were surprised to find the mosque filled with almost all the inhabitants of the town. The green colour of the walls of the mosque reflected the light of the bright white bulbs, and the shadows of people walking in the mosque made it appear on the wall as if those were angels. With wailing women, anxious men, and children weeping for sleep, Poshmarg was the mosque, and the mosque was Poshmarg. Masterji with some other elders of the town were trying to calm the people, they arranged Kangris and quilts for the people to endure the cold night; and asked to respect the sacredness of the mosque.
Someone joked about Masterji’s presence in the mosque, another one joined him: “Yes, I have seen him the first time in Masjid after he returned from the Hajj.” The first one corrected him: “He was regularly praying for many months when he returned from the pilgrimage. I would usually see him for the morning prayers as well. But look at him now.” An elderly man, who heard what they were saying about Masterji, said to them it was not the time for humour. But the two kept giggling covertly.
The night had brought a wakefulness to the people, no one dared to sleep, not even children. They prayed to God to save them. A moment later, there was silence all over. In this calm, Ammi felt restless, and soon she was grappling with pain. There was a half-empty shelf of religious books, mostly the Quran, placed at the left side of the mosque; she was resting just below it. Pyari, my elder Masi, called for help when she saw her sister crying helplessly. Some women were seen rushing to the side where my mother was fighting pain. It was time for me to come out of the belly-world. Pyari took hold of Faat-Maas, the local child-delivery expert, sitting in the next corner of the mosque. While they watched what was happening, men covered that side of the mosque with whatever was available. Everyone was worried – about the impending danger and for my mother. My father’s family, who had some issues with Ammi’s family, found this an opportunity to bury the past. Dadu, my father’s father, got hold of a small carpet and pushed it under Ammi. After a while, which felt like an eternity of pain, struggle, and my mother’s screams, I tumbled forth into this world in this night of chaos, complications, prayers, gentleness, conflict, death, fear, infamy, courage, helplessness – which accompanied me all my life – in the sacred place of worship.
A few instants after I was cut loose from the umbilical cord, I found myself in the arms of Abu Ji. The local imam, shivering in fear, who had nervously worn a cap wrongly on his head and who, in the chaos, had forgotten to remove his shoes while he was inside the mosque, was called. After receiving taunts from the elders, the imam rose to say azaan in my ears.
Meanwhile, hostile forces, who had lost many of their comrades in heavy shelling, ventured into Poshmarg to seek the assailants. The people couldn’t hide for long and Jalal-ud-Din had forgotten to switch off the loudspeaker in his fear. No one could spot it, maybe because the mike was situated at the side of the Mehrab, and they were sitting away from it. The angry soldiers located the noise and cordoned the mosque. Soon the armed men in their long khaki jackets and white boots entered – furious, they were looking for insurgents: “Kahan chupa ke rakha hai unhe?” The insurgents had meanwhile escaped, after hurling heavy shells on the camp. Nearly every man, young or old, received his share of beating with rifle butts and sticks. There was a separate room attached to the mosque’s entrance, which was used for ablution; the fuming soldiers used the room as an interrogation chamber. The first thing I did, after consuming the first drops of milk, save Abu Ji from a beating and interrogation and joined the two families who were at the brink of severing ties. Abu Ji was spared because he had me in his arms.
The residents caught in the violence craved to see the light of the day. For them, it felt like the darkest and the longest night in the history of Poshmarg. The people, already frightened by the torture and the presence of soldiers in the mosque, were further devastated when they realized the time of prayers was long gone. This happened in Poshmarg the first and the last time; the elders of the town consoled others by saying God would forgive them, because He is watching everything. Many youngsters were taken to the camp as suspects for further interrogation.
After the fatal night passed, though only apparently, people were sacred to go back to their houses, even when they knew that soldiers had left the place. The fear on the faces of the people looked pronounced because of lack of sleep. They couldn’t hide pity in their eyes when they came to see my mother and gave her courage. Most people felt sorry for the awkward situation in which Ammi gave birth to me; others just stared before they gathered their nerves and went back to their houses. My two families, my mother’s and father’s, worn out with the insatiate atrocities of terror, were deciding what to do, as if the fog in the morning had narrowed their visibility. Should they send me with Ammi to some other town or should they stay at home and look after us and give us all the care we needed? After spending the night at home, Babb, a popular headman of the town and Moji arrived at the mosque. Someone had informed them about the atrocities and their daughter’s giving birth to me. They were outraged but also happy – happy to see me, a new-born, and my father along with his family there with Ammi. They were angry about Maam Jan because he didn’t let Ammi stay at home even as soldiers didn’t check our house. Everyone in the family backed Maam Jan because they knew there would be no one to help if Ammi was at home. Mauji strongly suggested she would take care of her daughter at their own home to which Babb agreed, and no one dared to challenge him. While we came out of the mosque, the elders in our family thanked the people. They were humbled, especially by the generosity of the people who assisted my mother.
The fog wafted away with the bright morning of the New Year but Poshmarg looked uninviting. While the people rushed to their houses, a strange grief spread in the air. Many of the homes were ransacked. The news of soldiers breaking Masterji’s television fanned in the town. Masterji lamented the fragmented pieces of his prized possession, which was laid in his room, mixed with other broken things. There were varied reactions of the people to the killing of the TV: some were happy to know about the annihilation of Satan’s doll; others felt bad about their lone entertainment and for Masterji.
Meanwhile, there were rumours that the security personnel had told someone in the town, who was taken away to the camp for further interrogation, that they wouldn’t stop inspecting Poshmarg until they hunt down all the insurgents. The people in the town weren’t brave enough to face the situation as they did now; with time, they acquired resistance. It was the first time the formerly friendly soldiers had suddenly turned cruel. Before this incident, the soldiers would come to the town only when they needed help in carrying things to their camp or for other construction work. They provided people with several things as wages. Many had already left the town. These rumours spread in the town and its surrounding villages, and amplified the already prevalent terror. In this fear, the remaining locals also moved to other places to escape the soldiers’ wrath.
The fog of fear had reappeared, all too soon. While we were on the way home, we saw some of the residents migrating to other towns. Fearing for their lives, they left everything behind and moved with the heaviness of their treasured possessions on their shoulders. Babb tried to stop them but they didn’t. The smell of fear which apparently ended with the dawn of the new day – when the soldiers left the town after they were tired of beating people all night – returned the very night with my birth and it attained adulthood the very next morning.
Abu Ji’s family accompanied us to my maternal grandparents’ home, which wasn’t far from their own home. My father’s family surrounded Ammi with shame on their faces that signalled they were embarrassed how they had treated Ammi. They were also happy and thankful to Allah for making it easy for her. Phufi (my aunt) was sitting close to Ammi and took me in her lap when I finished drinking milk; her face brightened with a smile when she saw my face resembling her brother – deep glowing eyes, bright pink cheeks, shiny look, Kashmiri chin, and a little mole on the right cheek. She transferred me to Boba (my father’s mother), who took me in her lap, played with me in her kindest voice and conceded that I was responding to her play. Each of the members held me for a while before I reached back my Ammi’s lap. They passed me around every time they came to see Ammi, talking to me as if I were able to understand their language.
If there was no trouble in the town, my family would’ve arranged a big feast to welcome me; there would’ve been wazwan served to everyone. Because it was the first such attack, people of neighbouring towns of Poshmarg were worried about the bombing and gunfire they heard the last night. As some of the residents of the town moved to other places, sharing their experiences of survival to the inquisitive people of other towns, the news of my mother’s giving birth to me in the mosque also reached them. A moment later, scores of people from different villages and towns dared visit us and all of them invited my family to stay with them. Maam Jan, the eldest brother in the family, was married for fifteen years and was blessed with two daughters. Holding me in his arms – only on rare occasions when he thought of me as his sister’s son and not of someone (my father) whose family made his sister suffer – was I believe a consolation to him for finally experiencing what it was like to have a son.
Babb and Dadu decided to stay on at home when others left the town. My father’s family locked their own house and came to stay with us in Babb’s house. Our family spent the day in fear, interspersed with relief provided by guests. Babb asked the taxi driver (the lone taxi owner in Poshmarg) to bring fish and lamb for dinner from another town. In the evening, when Moji went to share food with our next-door neighbour – who was with us when we came home and promised they wouldn’t leave the town – she found the house locked. She moved about to check the other acquaintances but found only some old men and women in Poshmarg. She came home frightened. She was consoled by Abu Ji and Dadu, assuming that those were only rumours and they didn’t need to fear when they hadn’t done anything wrong. Moji had cooked fish with Haakh in an earthen pot and lamb for Ammi. The united family shared the happiness they had forgotten.
The weather changed abruptly, anticipating snow. Tired after the last night, they locked all the entrances to the house and went to bed. Thinking of the deserted town and the rumours, Babb couldn’t sleep. For some time, the serenity of the night attracted peace and Babb also fell asleep. Soon Babb slumbered as he leaned on a cushion with a Kangri in his left hand placed between his thighs and a quilt covering his legs. His slumber was interrupted with a sound. Babb was in the front room of the upper story. He fluffed up the quilt, let go of the Kangri, and went straight to a window to check if he could see anybody below. Hiding carefully behind the curtains, he found in the soft of light of the snow a group of men, loaded with ammunition. They were furiously kicking at the main door, then windows, moving to other sides of the house, coming back to the main entrance, and repeating it. Babb’s heartbeat increased and he ran silently to awake Dadu.
Brushing Dadu’s shoulders, he muttered his name, “Anwara, Anwara.” Babb importuned Dadu to stay silent. Together they moved carefully to the ground floor, where they found other frightened members in the lobby. They cautiously opened the door to Ammi’s room, where they found her in the lap of Moji shaking in fear. In their hearts, they were praying to God to save their family. They thought it best not to open the door. They feared I might wake up and make noises, so they made sure I sleep. They made the gunmen believe that the house was empty and the idea worked. After a while, the gunmen stopped banging on the doors and the windows. All the family members sat in Ammi’s room until the faint light of day trickled in. As the morning unfolded, Dadu accompanied Babb outside to see if there were any traces of danger. The white snow wiped out the edge of their fear.
“It’s not safe to stay here. What if they had broken the glass, unlocked the door and found us! They surely would’ve beaten us or even killed us.” Maam Jan spoke while sipping Nun Chai, followed by Uncle who said, “Yes, we should also move to another town. Snow wouldn’t be our saviour.”
“Khudayan kor sahal [Allah was merciful]! Take tea first. We’ll think about it later. It would be difficult to travel in the snow,” said Dadu.
Dadu and Babb should’ve locked the outer gate when they went to check outside. The soldiers were back for the second time in the town. This time they came in a large number and with a big bulletproof vehicle and a jeep, with chains on wheels to avoid slipping on the snow. They stopped at the big chinar tree, dropped more soldiers who followed those who were already present in the town. Within no time, the soldiers cordoned our house, located on the left side of the main road. It appeared as if they had information the assailants were staying in our house; they were ready for an encounter at any moment. Some of them directly found a way to the kitchen, where all of my family members had tea. Moji and Boba stayed with Ammi in her room and served her breakfast.
Prowling in their long white snow-boots, the soldiers entered with guns. They kicked the samovar and the tea spilled all over the place. They pointed their guns at Maam Jan, Uncle, and Chota Maam. With angry faces and an unpredictable tone, they questioned each one of them; some even wanted to beat them, but they didn’t, maybe the snivelling women stopped them. They asked where the insurgents were. They behaved as if they were sure that they had found the men who attacked them. They took Uncle and Chota Maam as shields and searched every room and corner of the house. They scattered and dismantled heaps of possessions – clothes, edibles, coverlets, and the like – everywhere. They did not even spare Ammi’s room.
After they finished searching and didn’t find any insurgents in the house, they accused my family of having a secret hide-out and made them dig into and break the inner brick-wall of Baan-Kuth. When they found nothing in the storeroom, they grabbed Uncle and Chota Maam, beat them while dragging them to the jeep, and left the town. The women started crying, as they tried to follow the soldiers’ jeep to the camp, but they were stopped by Maam Jan and Abu Ji, who brought them back home.
This incident exposed my family, like others in Poshmarg, to the deepest fears of living in a war zone. The place which provided them peace and satisfaction all their life suddenly turned against them. They thought they had made a mistake by not opening the door to them at night. But the unfriendly forces didn’t utter a word about their shouting at night. Who were those gunmen then, they thought.
“Maybe those were the ones who attacked the camp,” said Abu Ji.
“The militants! But there were so many of them.” Babb raised his voice. He understood his mistake in asking his family to stay at home.
“There is the possibility that the soldiers were right. They might have some information that militants were staying here in our house. Some informers might have seen those rebels coming to our house at night,” said Maam Jan.
“It’s not the time to sit and ponder over things that do not matter for now. Let’s get things right and clean the house. And we need to visit the camp first; otherwise, they’ll kill our sons with their torture.” Dadu tried to fill them with courage. He said, “Everything will be alright.” He said to the women, “Stop crying and clean the house. We’ll get them back. Be brave and stay indoors.”
Babb and Dadu gathered other elders who stayed in the town and went to the camp.
The Major allowed them to see him in his room, made them sit, and asked them to share their knowledge of the activities of terrorists they had seen in the town. But they hadn’t seen any, the old men explained. Babb shared information about the incident of the night sincerely. The major told Babb and others to be vigilant about Pakistani-backed terrorists and their plans to destroy the Valley. He asked them to inform him if they saw any movement of terrorists. To which they had to agree to get their sons back.
A shudder went down the spines of Dadu and Babb when they saw Uncle and Chota Maam. Broken, destroyed, physically and emotionally, they were made to sign in a fat notebook, which mentioned their names before they were released from the torture camp. They were not even able to walk on their own. Tears rolled down from the eyes of everyone in the family as they saw the condition of Uncle and Chota Maam. Soon they packed their stuff and left Poshmarg. But Babb and Moji stayed, they never left.
Apart from stray unfortunate and cruel incidents, the residents survived the conflict. After spending several months outside, people returned to their homes. However, it was not the same for my family: when they came back, they were excited to see Babb and Moji, but they could only find their dead bodies. It stabbed them like death. The grief and regret that they couldn’t be there when Babb and Moji needed them the most would haunt Ammi, Maam Jan, Chota Maam, Pyari, and Choti Masi forever. It’s this pain which made them share this story with everyone. They still discussed the possible cause of their death. Poshmarg wasn’t their home anymore.
Muddasir Ramzan researches contemporary Muslim fiction in the Department of English, Aligarh Muslim University. His writings have appeared in Outlook, The Hindu, the Muslim Institute (London), Kitaab (Singapore), The Bombay Review, South Asia Journal, Kindle Magazine, and the Critical Muslim (UK), among others. He can be reached at email@example.com
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