Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Kalashnikov Night


Father came back inside and said they wanted everyone out in the yard. Everyone, including women, children and old. So on that dark, cold night along with everyone else , I too lined up against the wall and faced Kalashnikov. I was eight. It happened somewhere between January and February of year 1990.

Despite every obvious reason, the incident wasn't a significant memory for me. It attained a meaning much later in my adulthood when I realised the absurdity of it all. I also realized, it had a different meaning for my family. They had rationalised it. For them it was all normal.

The incident: The blackouts were the beginning. I still don't understand them. If the city is over run by masked gunmen, why should everyone turn off their lights? Everyone should have been asked to sleep with lights on. Take a torch to bed. Kashmiri nights are in any case always darks and disquieting. Yet, the city was under spell of blackouts. That night too, we were supposed to maintain a blackout. Now, blackout didn't entirely mean lights out. It was winter, as was the norm, our windows were already sealed with newspapers and plastic sheets for insulation against cold. The windows were already tightly shut. Inside, we would light candles at night and wait for morning. We went back to living in primal caves. We tried to be invisible. But, men would be men. It was during these days, with nothing else to do, my father and his brothers started having marathon sessions of Paplu. The games would begin in morning and end in evening. In the afternoon, between curfew breaks, some of their friends would also join in. Scores, winnings and losses, would be maintained on inside leaf of Cavenders and Wills Navy Cut cigarette packets. Women would make Kehwa all day, and make grudging runs to the top room with trays of tea cups. The room on the top most floor of the house was converted into game room. It started to smell like a mix of tobacco, sugar and almonds. This room belonged to my family. Grandfather had purchased it from a kin member for eight hundred rupees after they had moved to a bigger house at Nishat. Our family now had four sections in the house. There was Naya Kambra, the new room, just near the main gate, the room I called my own. Across the courtyard, in the hundred year old wooden house, there was the Thokur Kuth, of the main hall with the main kitchen where everyone would sit down to eat. This became our primal cave during blackouts. There was my father's room on the first floor. The room on the top floor would have gone to my uncle after his marriage. Other rooms in the building belonged to two other families of kin members. They had in addition, each a newly constructed 'two room with kitchen' set in two blocks that lined right side of the courtyard. In all there were twenty two people living in the house: Six children, five old and eleven Adults. Of these, five adults were now Paplu addicts. The play would usually stop at sunset, certainly before dinner and continue the next day; but that fateful night they all decided to have a night session. They lit candles in the room and continued playing. The windows were still shut, blackout was still respected, yet voices occasionally rose with excitement of the game. They forgot about the world outside. They forgot the war that was waging outside. They were in their house, the house that their ancestors built and re-built over may summers, and in it they were safe and invisible. Or so they thought. There was a chink in their cave.

The bunker had cropped up outside our house somewhere in January. It grew just next to little cart shop of small things run by Mad Karim. The first day, the men from bunker just walked across to our house, knocked and asked if they could use our lavatory. My father made some joke about their need for Jangal Pani, and welcomed them. After that, they always welcomed themselves to our lavatory. Family thought it was maybe a good development. Mad Karim was the first to die, he died in what was called crossfire. His sister Posha was to tell me years later that some men from the bunker came to buy cigarette, they bought some and went back. A moment later there was firing and he died on spot. The size of bunker grew, more men arrived, always new men.

That night someone among these men noticed a single beam of light coming out from the top floor of the house opposite their bunker. The beam it seemed was talking. It was talking in a cryptic manner. It flickered like a morse code of ominous light. One moment there was light coming out and the other it was off. The watcher looked more closely. He could now see the dark shadows getting formed on the warmly lit canvas of window panes covered in sun stained, brownish newspapers. It looked like a bunch of men in the room were moving rhythmically, in some kind of a religious ritual: men squatting, their backs upright, moving back and forth at regular interval, bellowing. The watchers senses grew even more keen in the darkness. Now, he could hear the occasional frantic sound formed in an indecipherable ugly language. Something evil was stirring in the room. Something that was contemporaneously acknowledging the blackout with light. Unseen to him, inside the room, the men were picking and dropping cards at their turns. Shouting in ecstasy on picking the right card. Unknown to them, there was a small hole in tone of the old wooden windows. The hole had always been there, I remember watching a 'Azadi' procession secretly one afternoon from the hole when my mother wouldn't allow me to open the window. Now, the light escaping out from this hole was causing an entirely different play outside. 

Outside, the man watching this dance of light grew nervous. He decided to call it in. He rang his superior officer, after all these were serious times. Anything could mean something. So something like this could not be taken lightly. A raid party of eight was formed. The superior called in the local police station. These were times were the local administration was still included in the process. The local SHO was ordered to join the raid party and help in establishing communication. 

The raid party stood in the courtyard. They probably jumped the walls, even though the main gate was just locked from inside by a small wooden latch that only needed a small push to open. It was the heavy knocking that shook everyone out. Gamblers had come running down on the sound of the first knock itself. My father and uncles went out to talk. They were ordered to gather everyone outside.

We stood with our backs to the wall, forming a single line, facing the men with guns. The men were either BSF or ITBP. All of them were in their winter gear, green overcoats, big black leather boats, all neatly tied, their hands kept war by a gun and an Everyread torch. By the time I lined up, conversation had already taken a sad, ironic turn. Gamblers were trying hard to explain what they were doing in the room. The leader of the raid party was not buying any of it. This was a man much older than the men in his party. His fur lined overcoat probably befitted his superior post, even his voice, he sounded like Jamvant from Ramayan. The kind of man you might run into in a North Indian highway dhaba, a man who might ask you in all seriousness,  'You want butter Nan or plain Nan.' This man was now pointing his big gun at my father and asking him in all seriousness if he knew which gun it was. 

The gun he was holding was a Kalashnikov. I could never forget that. He answered the question himself and went on to tell exactly how many rounds it is capable of spraying per second. Ten rounds per second. There were about 20 twenty of us. It would all have been over in two seconds

'But we are Hindus.' That was my father's response. He asked the man to go inside the house and see the photographs of various gods on our walls. 'I did NCC in school,' an uncle chipped in helpfully, as if asking a favor. Someone volunteered to sing a Bhajan.

In reply, the man put the nuzzle to my father's nect. My father remembers it was cold like shishargae'nt, an icicle. A shiver ran down his body.

None of it mattered. The man with the gun was going to teach us a lesson. Or they were now just having fun? Or was it their 'area domination' technique at play? The unarmed men kept trying to reason with the armed men. That seldom goes right. The fact these men were arguing back was getting on the nerves of the men with guns.

Finally, the SHO, who had till now had been a silent spectator, intervened. He told my father, 'Pandit ji, Yem gaye hooyn...masa kariv vaad-vaad. These men are dogs, no point talking. Just apologise.'  


A few days after the incident, the rationalisation began. 'It wasn't so bad. In fact, it was good for us in a way. At least no one will now suspect us of collaborating with the security forces.'

A few days before the incident, Teng Sahib from across the the street had come in with some bad news. Teng Sahib knew a thing or two about such matters given that some of his students were the men who had taken up arms. That day he told us that he had heard whispers that our family was helping the security forces. Everyone in the family was alarmed as a rumor like that was exactly what could get a person killed in Kashmir. He had heard that we were offering food and water to the men in bunker. He couldn't tell much details just that someone in the family had been seen talking to them frequently and he asked everyone to be careful about such matters. After he left, everyone knew who the culprit was. But the culprit plainly refuted all charges. 

It was only this year, after 23 years, when under extreme provocation I repeated the story of Kalashnikov night, my grandmother accepted that she may have a couple of times talked to the men in bunker and asked them if they needed water.

-0-



3 comments:

  1. the readers did a lil time travel, reliving the memories of those dark days.. such vivid account of the past..
    yes, please write more of these stories before we forget those times...

    ReplyDelete
  2. An amazing account beautifully written. It is good that people in the west can read about such times as I don't remember much being written here about Kashmir in the 1990s. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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