Friday, April 24, 2009

Shock Therapy

Probably by now you are tired of this: I have not been writing again.

On my work station, I have pinned up stuff, which I thought would prod me into clobbering my keypad every day: A September 1, 1952 cover of Life magazine, with Hemingway on it. The issue carries his entire novel, The Old Man and the Sea.

Then there are these two messages which are supposed to have been put by writer Philip Roth on his desk: Stay Put, No optional striving. There is also a poem from Dushyant Kumar, and an old picture from rural Kashmir.

But nothing has worked. The moment I sit at my desk, my hands turn limp, and lead gets filled into my arms and head. I feel sleepy as well.

I open a blank file on my desktop, and stare at the cursor, thinking of how to push through the debris of stillness. After a point of time, I give up. I go out, light a cigarette, and exchange words with colleagues. When I come back, Hemingway is looking grimly at me. I evade his stare.

It’s like this: I need to finish writing The Last Man from Kashmir. I have the story which I need to pour out in words.

Last night, I finished reading Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar. I wonder: do I need shock therapy, too?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Gandhigiri in Kashmir

The people of a tiny village in north Kashmir have won a small but decisive battle against the army, the first such example in twenty years of conflict.

The 15,000 residents of Bomai are not leaving their houses now, something they had threatened to do. There is word that three soldiers of the army’s Rashtriya Rifles will have to face disciplinary action for what happened in Bomai on February 21. The army camp, which was set up here in 1997, next to the girl’s high school, has also been shifted. There have been no incidents of stone pelting; no slogans have been raised in favour of Pakistan. In fact, during the agitation, the people of Bomai did not allow any politician from the mainstream or the separatist camp to set foot in their village. What the villagers have achieved could serve as an eye opener for everyone in the trouble-torn state, more so for the hard-line separatists.

It all began on the evening of February 21, when army soldiers from the local camp fired at three men near the main entrance of the village. Mohammed Amin Tantray (23) and Javid Ahmed (20) died due to bullet injuries while Nazir Ahmed was seriously injured. The locals say that it was a cold-blooded murder. A senior police source, however, termed it as a “genuine mistake”. It so transpired that there was a scuffle between two groups of youth at a local festival. When the army approached the men, who were coming back from the festival, they thought that they were being stopped by their rival group. Instead of stopping, they began to run away. The armymen should have exercised restraint. But, in a conflict zone like Kashmir, nobody wants to take chances. The soldiers fired at the men, resulting in two deaths.

Tantray’s elder brother, Mohammed Sultan, who is a post-graduate in mathematics, and teaches at the high school, remembers not feeling well that evening as a friend of his urged him to have another cup of the salty Kashmiri tea. And then the call came. Sultan rushed to the site, took his bleeding brother to the hospital, where he was declared brought dead. “I still can’t believe that he is gone. With his death, my father’s back bone has broken,” Sultan said. Sultan’s father sat next to him, silently shedding tears over the loss of his youngest son.

(Pic: Mohammed Sultan with other grieving members of his family)

The people were furious. It was not only the case of two men dying. The army camp where the soldiers fled to after the firing had been an eyesore for many years. The soldiers had erected bunkers on the wall along the school. They had made holes in the wall from where exhaust pipes jutted out, sending smoke inside the classrooms. Sumayya, a student recalls that some of the soldiers would shine mirrors at the girls, and make obscene gestures as well. After the deaths in the village, the villagers decided that enough was enough.

The same night the Bomai residents formed a coordination committee which spearheaded the agitation. “We were very clear that we won’t allow any separatist leader to hijack our issue,” says Hakimul Rahman Sultani, the head of the people’s committee. The villagers launched a peaceful movement, threatening at one time to vacate the entire village en masse if the army camp was not removed. There was not a single incident of violence during the agitation which lasted for thirteen days.

Ultimately, the authorities had to bow down. It also helped that a young chief minister had just taken over, who took up the issue with New Delhi. “But he could only pursue the case because the agitation was entirely non-violent and apolitical,” says a local observer.

The battle has been won. But the residents of Bomai are gearing up for other things as well. “We still haven’t been informed officially about the status of the inquiry or the quantum of punishment meted out to those responsible for the killing,” says Sultani. The villagers are also hoping that apart from the shifting of the army camp, other things in the village would move as well. “We will now push for the development of our village through the people’s committee,” says Ghulam Hassan Shah, a local resident.

For the families who lost their young members, there is little to cheer about. Tantray’s young niece, Anika trots around the house, searching for her. The elders know she won’t be able to see him ever. Tantray’s brother, Mohammed Sultan sits, along with other teaching staff, in the ground of the school. He has taken up to smoking heavily. “I think almost five packets a day,” he smiles sadly.
It is recess time, and a cricket match is going on between two classes. A girl hits the ball hard, and another, who like everyone else wears a headscarf, rushes after the ball. She picks it up near the wall where the bunkers once stood, managing to save a boundary.

It is a victory for cricket, if not anything else.

(An edited version of this story first appeared in Open Magazine - Page 22, 23. Click on

Wednesday, April 08, 2009