Memories of chasing darkness in Kashmir’s afternoon

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I remember I saw a military bunker. It was on the end of a concrete wall fencing a post office. A structure of sandbags, the bunker was wrapped in whorls of wire from which hung bruising shards of broken liquor bottles. A soldier inside, with only the white of his eyeballs visible, held vigil. As a motif in the startlingly beautiful landscape of Srinagar, the bunker is recurrent and unremarkable.

 

There is no aesthetic that governs its construction, location or number. One can find it in street-corners, in the bends of the roads, within the markets and public parks, inside old, derelict houses or the defunct cinemas which only ghosts in Kashmir visit.

 

The muezzin went on wailing, the sparrows twittered frantically, ruffling the branches, and Peer spoke, together their voices rupturing the silence.

But what struck me that Friday morning in the summer of 2006 was the oddity that the spectacle of the bunker hazarded, the sinister darkness and boredom in which the soldier seemed irredeemably cloaked. Across the temporary wall of sand erected in destructive opposition, the flow of time had been altered.

 

Within, like in a Conrad story, time was languid, uninterrupted and murderous; without, time was rushed, fractured, a prelude to a funeral.

 

I resumed walking at my pace, looking at my own surroundings. Behind me in the east stood the pale-green hills of Zabarvan. A bright sun shone above and the sky was tall and prosperous.

 

The post office, facing the river Jhelum, was busy. People coming out walked along on the shore. I smiled, thrumming to their light footfalls.

 

At noon, I crossed the river, glinting and green, in a leaf-shaped boat. And past Sufia Nishan – the poet Agha Shahid Ali's home – I walked along a road curving west, until I reached Jawahar Nagar.

 

I spotted the house behind the mosque. It was a small, slight house. I entered through the gate into the lawn with many bald patches and beds of straggly marigold.

 

The house was small, slight. Beneath the rusting tin roof with uneven gables and no rosaries of pepper left to dry there, the walls looked scabbed, and clots of peeling paint stuck to the windows.

 

Peer must have seen me coming in. He called my name from the corridor and asked me to come inside and follow him upstairs.

 

When I entered the room in the rear behind him, he was sitting in a chair in the corner, facing an empty wooden table on the end of which he'd placed his entire arsenal: a bag crammed with books of reportage and novels, and his computer.

 

The computer was powered on and Peer kept looking at the screen – sadly, expectantly – the first four lines of the story he was working on typed out.

 

The room had a deep-red carpet and curtains – half-drawn and of dusty velvet – hanging stiff as though they had been pulled down by a dour weight, the smell of which I could not separate from the musty scent of forgotten office files.

 

The walls too were painted in cold shades of ocher, gray or some hue I did not notice enough to remember and stood in blazing contrast with the sunlit branches of a mulberry tree outside, its bright leaves atremble in an impalpable breeze.

The walls too were painted in cold shades of ocher, gray or some hue I did not notice enough to remember and stood in blazing contrast with the sunlit branches of a mulberry tree outside, its bright leaves atremble in an impalpable breeze.

Peer sported a red T-shirt perfect for playing golf and blue faded jeans that could as well have belonged to a low-wage carpenter.

 

In the chair, he sat cross-legged and restless, twisting his toes. This house cannot be his home, I decided.

 

There is something deeply unnerving about a house that one has to leave eventually, that is assigned to you or imposed upon you, an inauthenticity, a feeling of betrayal and confinement when the walls do not in any way recognise you – they do not uphold your beliefs, are a different colour than the colour of your convictions.

 

Peer was singled out, unique in his nervous resolve. I was yet to read his writing but I felt the force of his personality. Before the house could reject him, he had claimed his place. He carried his home on his back – and the home was the book bag and the computer with the beginning of a new story.

 

Though it was intolerably hot in Delhi, he told me, he longed to go back to his solitary apartment there. He wanted to be alone so that he could immerse himself in the story and beat the deadline.

 

I had briefly visited him at his apartment during the last winter and he had been generous. He had given me books and a long list of books, with Orwell and Hemingway on top, Naipaul and Nabokov in the middle, and Sartre and Camus on the bottom. Probably, he had come to them in that order.

 

Probably, he had moved from severity to style. Now, looking at me, someone who participated with zeal in the seditious dream of becoming a writer in a country where despite an ongoing, bloody rebellion, almost every father wanted his son or daughter to become a servant of the government – becoming a clerk in the department of roads and buildings was especially favoured – he was overjoyed.

 

He pushed back his sleek hair falling on his face with his hand – his limpid eyes shone. He threw himself up from the chair and standing by the window, he lit a cigarette. Then he dug out a Conrad from the bottom of the bag and gave it to me.

 

Read this, he said emphatically. He was pointing towards The Heart of Darkness.

 

I remember people by the words they give me. Peer gave me ambivalence and disintegration and fringes and disappeared downstairs.

 

When he returned, cheering and smiling, with steaming cups of tea on a tray he held with both his hands, I mentioned Agha Shahid Ali. He scolded me saying the boys and girls of my age didn't read enough when Kashmir, gashed and bleeding, was crying to be written.

 

An expression of disappointment overcame his face, his mouth quivered and shut. He had declared his war and the manifesto was writ large in the net of wrinkles flung across his forehead: Apply yourself to reading and writing wholeheartedly, otherwise you'll be violating Kashmir. 

 

What would become the first line of Peer's memoir Curfewed Night came from "The Last Saffron", a poem in Ali's The Country Without a Post Office. "I was born in winter in Kashmir," he had told me in Delhi, "is a variation of 'I'll die, in autumn, in Kashmir'."

 

When he had read "Dear Shahid" for the first time in 2002, upon coming to the doctor's account in Hide-Out Café, he had to fight back his tears. Now as we recited the lines together-"I want to ask the fortune-tellers: Did anything in his line of Fate reveal that the webs of his hands would be cut with a knife?"-tears rushed into his eyes again and a silence fell in the room.

 

When he had read "Dear Shahid" for the first time in 2002, upon coming to the doctor's account in Hide-Out Café, he had to fight back his tears. Now as we recited the lines together-"I want to ask the fortune-tellers: Did anything in his line of Fate reveal that the webs of his hands would be cut with a knife?"-tears rushed into his eyes again and a silence fell in the room

 

A beam of sunlight was bending about the edge of the curtain and fell into a strip of liquid light near his feet, now rested and unmoving. Right then a flock of squeamish sparrows landed on the mulberry tree and the first muezzin of the city began the call for prayer.

 

The muezzin went on wailing, the sparrows twittered frantically, ruffling the branches, and Peer spoke, together their voices rupturing the silence.

 

I was dreading that he would narrate again the story of a bride gangraped by the soldiers, or of a boy to whose lap the soldiers tied a bomb and blew him to pieces.

 

But Peer told me the story of Shafi from Maisum -a poor neighbourhood across the river. Shafi suffered wild beatings in Papa 2 and was routinely exposed to the glaring bulbs in the "hell". He lost almost all his power to see. In a small, dark room, Shafi was made to live like cattle with 20 other men.

 

Inside the "whitewashed walls blemished with blood", he slept on the bare floor, "defecated and urinated in polythene bags". He cursed himself. As he failed to sleep in the lice-infested blankets, all he longed for was death.

A milder story, as Peer finished, I thought.

The Article First Appeared In DailyO

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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