Read time: 23 mins

Children of Death

by Santanu Bhattacharya
11 July 2022

Shaheda holds the bag close to her chest to stop the shivers, folding her hands tightly around it. It is only July, yet the chill in the valley air has a way of creeping into the body. As the bus crosses the bridge, she looks back at the gurgling waters of the stream, the mountains, the green carpet on the slopes—the Lolab Valley, her home.

She looks around the bus to distract herself, at the faces staring listlessly out of the window, all of them unknown to her. The lady next to her looks suspiciously at how she is clutching at her bag. An old man sighs Allah-hu-Akbar every time the bus turns a sharp bend. A boy recites the names of shops they pass but is soon silenced by his father. Old women, heads covered with dupattas tucked around their ears, swing dramatically as the bus tilts towards the cliff and steadies itself back. The stoic Kashmiris, Shaheda thinks. She wishes people would smile more often; even a curious question, an unwarranted comment, would do.

Her mind wanders back to her first bus ride to Srinagar.

It had been for Nafisa’s wedding. A different season; a different time. They’d booked an entire bus. The men of the village sat in the front and back, a few carrying guns. The women and children were packed in the middle rows. Somehow the twists and turns of the road, the dangerous precipice on one side and unstable rocks on the other, hadn’t bothered them. The women sang chakri; the men chain-smoked and poured noon-cha from flasks into small cups. That was a few years ago. Weddings had just started to become celebratory again. Nafisa’s father had even invited his enemies to his daughter’s wedding, people who’d snitched on him to India. After a decade of curfews, shutdowns, gunshots at night, disappearances, silent meals in the dark, it had seemed like India and Pakistan had finally left Kashmir alone to breathe its own fresh air. The valley was emerging from its depths, like the pamposh blooms on the surfaces of lakes in the spring, reaching upward for oxygen.

The thought of pamposh makes Shaheda smile. Lotus, Imran had taught her, mouthing the English word carefully. Her skin erupts in goosebumps at the thought of him. She distinctly remembers Imran from the bus ride to Nafisa’s wedding, sitting beside the driver, loudly clapping to rhythms of the chakri. Even though he was only a couple of years older than her, he’d always had the aura of a grown-up—the inevitable mediator when two teams fell out during a cricket match, the trusted confidante of old men, a heartthrob to young girls, the pet of doting women. There weren’t many young men left in the village, and Imran was always running errands for everyone—posting letters scribbled on blue postcards that had no hope of reaching their destination, buying warm bakarkhani from the bakery for the neighbours, tutoring children. The whole village loved Imran.

On that crisp spring morning, as they laughed and sang on their way to Nafisa’s wedding, passing by solid chinar trees and fragrant apple farms, Imran had turned to look at her. The first time was just a fleeting glance, but then he turned more often, holding his gaze for longer. He was dressed in his best shalwar and pheran, hazel eyes lined with kohl, early signs of stubble starting to show on his chin. Shaheda sang and sipped her cha, fully aware of his eyes on her, blushing under the makeup her mother had allowed only for the wedding. Did Imran, the popular handsome hero of the village, really fancy her, an awkward fourteen-year-old who still tied her hair tightly in plaits?

*

Brakes screeching. Fingers curling tightly around bars. Bodies tautening against the backs of their seats. Shaheda is snapped out of her reverie. Even before she can register her surroundings, she viscerally knows why they’ve stopped. The other passengers sit up and crane their necks, faces marred by exhaustion but bodies stiff with alertness. Shaheda knows this look. She has seen it many times before—every time an Army jeep stopped in front of their village, every time they heard a shot fired, every time they saw a stack of grains go up in flames.

A soldier has climbed onto the bus and is herding everyone out. As the passengers obediently disembark, the soldier asks them where they’re going. ‘Kashmir University’, Shaheda blurts out, unprepared for the interrogation. The soldier casts a long stare at her, then grabs her by the arm and whisks her away. She looks helplessly at the others, noticing for the first time that she is the only young person in the bus. In Kashmir, that can never be a good thing—being young.

The soldier is still holding Shaheda’s arm in a firm grip as he brings her to two officers. After being briefed, the men burst out laughing. ‘University, eh? To throw stones? At us? At India?’ They mimic panic, arms flailing in the air. ‘Why don’t you do it right now? Come on; throw some stones!’ They dramatically cry out for help. ‘Bachao, save us from this sangbaaz!’

Shaheda’s face flushes. She looks down at the ground, holding her bag tightly to her bosom. Her breath comes in short gasps, her legs unsteady, her brow creased in self-awareness. All the passengers behind her, she knows, are watching. She also knows no one will dare to speak up, not with rifles pointed at them. They’ve seen too many deaths to prevent one more from happening.

The officers press on with their mirth. ‘Come on, are there stones in your bag? No? Then under your clothes?’ Shaheda feels the warm air from their mouths hit her like acid. Droplets of spit land on her face and hands. She stands still, too scared to wipe them away. The officers jab the blunt ends of their rifles into her skin. She feels her pheran tear a little, but she knows the only way to save herself is submissive silence.

Imran had taught her well. That afternoon when they were returning from school and passed a solider pissing in the rose bushes and couldn’t hold their giggles in, the solider had expertly slid down the slope and caught up with them and slapped Imran, threatening to throw him in jail, reminding him that the army needed neither reason nor time-limit to incarcerate anyone; Imran had stared resolutely down at the ground. After a string of expletives, the solider had let them go. ‘Never play games with the army,’ Imran had told Shaheda that afternoon. ‘Always make them believe they’ve won. Just stare at the ground like you’ve seen something really interesting there.’

So that’s what Shaheda is doing now—staring down at the ground. It works. The officers let her go, unable to get much out of her. Of course they’d known from the start that she isn’t carrying stones. Stones are not carried from town to town. They are picked up from the ground and thrown and pelted. There is no dearth of them in the meadows of Kashmir, and each one is destined for a sangbaaz. That’s what the youth of the valley are staking their claim to now—hurling their stones at the army, demanding their dead back so they can be mourned, demanding their right to bury the dead. Not guns, not bombs, only stones for weapons. In Srinagar, Shopian, Kupwara, Anantnag, Baramullah, Badgam, for three summers now, sometimes to protest rape by the soldiers, sometimes the disappearance of villagers, sometimes the death of innocent boys. But not Shaheda. She hasn’t picked up a stone in her life, nor has she hurled one at anybody, let alone the army. She knows that silence is the price one pays for peace.

As Shaheda walks back to the bus and takes her seat, the women rush to her. They hold her head to their chests. They wipe the tears they think she’s shedding. The men spit and curse, now that the soldiers are out of view. They wax eloquent about the state of the Kashmir valley, how the decades-long violence has ruined everything, and the promise of peace for the few short years is now starting to drift away. They lament that young people are thrown into jails, funerals are disrupted by the army and they are forced to stay indoors by months of lockdown. In conspiratorial whispers, they speak of the secret weapons the army are said to be using, ones that don’t leave telltale marks on bodies but burn the organs inside; pellets that hit with such speed that blood flows out like fountains, that fracture the bones. Before long, they inevitably end up talking about the seventeen-year-old boy who was hit by a teargas shell when he was returning from school. ‘They say when his family found him, his head was covered in blood, his brain spilled out on the road. They buried him in two graves—one for his body, one for his brain.’

A ghostly silence descends on the bus after this. Shaheda rocks back and forth, the stench from the officers’ mouths still on her breath. She says a quick prayer. Give me the strength to be as calm as Imran. Just saying his name makes her feel better as if he has magically appeared in the bus, is sitting next to her. She reaches out to hold his hand and claws at cold air. Of course he isn’t here. She doesn’t know where he is; no one does.

It is Imran she has set out to find.

*

‘You are the children of death.’ The words burst forth from the mouth of the woman as she approached them during their afternoon game. The children splintered to different corners of the quadrangle, leaving the sunlight-dappled centre for this nomadic traveller who appeared in the village every once in a while, masses of unkempt grey hair crowning an uncovered head, her clothes smelling of feral plants. ‘Moutik shuer, sitamzad shuer!’ she repeated ominously before dancing her way out. The mothers came out one by one and covered their children’s ears. ‘Madwoman! Lunatic!’ they clicked their tongues. ‘Don’t listen to her!’

But the words had stuck with Shaheda. Children of death. They had an interesting ring about them. The woman had spoken in Koshur, which made it more delicious to the tongue. Even the children knew that the Indian gormint and the British before that had curtailed the freedom to use their Kashmiri mother tongue in public. It could only be spoken at home. It wasn’t on TV or in newspapers or the notices the army pasted on the walls every so often. It was not taught in schools. Urdu had been made the official language of Kashmir. Urdu—a language no one in Kashmir had properly spoken before. But the gormint had decreed that Kashmiris needed to look and sound more like India’s other Muslims. They couldn’t always be so different-different, special-special. Muslims are Muslims, all same-same.

Shaheda and her generation knew that their childhoods weren’t the same as their parents’ and uncles’ and aunts’. Though the elders didn’t talk about happy days in those grim times, all it took was the occasional appearance of an old smiling photograph or the visit of a relative for cheerful stories to come tumbling out. The children sat with their mouths agape, lapping up every word the elders said, giggling as the grown-ups slapped each other’s backs or held hands in laughter or broke into a song. One time, Shaheda’s grandfather had even uncharacteristically stood up and done a dance to imitate someone at a wedding. The children wondered why such things didn’t happen anymore, why they were not allowed to roam freely around the meadows, why their parents asked them to look up at the mountain peaks to spot army soldiers and miltons, why every house had photos of young boys who were nowhere to be seen.

Why? Children of death. Moutik shuer. The madwoman seemed to have answered the question.

*

When Shaheda and her friends were eleven, they’d observed their fast for the first time during Ramzan. Suddenly all the girls in class were shuffling feet during afternoon lessons, dreaming of the meals that were awaiting them after the evening prayers. The boys had started fasting from the age of seven, so they fared slightly better. Ever since she was little, Shaheda had wanted to fast like the grown-ups, eating only once for sehri before sunrise, and then again for iftaar after sunset. Not a drop of water, nor a morsel of food, as her grandmother would say! But her mother had insisted that she could not fast at such a young age, until that year when she had put her foot down and said she couldn’t be the only one in class eating from her tiffin box during lunch break. Shaheda could tell her mother was secretly happy about this.

And then suddenly, the holy month was over, and it was the night of Eid. Even though celebrations were measured in those days, as soon as the Imam declared from the mosque that the moon had been sighted, the village broke into a low hum of festivities. The men held each other by the shoulders and hugged; the women visited neighbours with bowls of firni; the children ran from house to house. Eid mubaarak, they greeted each other in whispers, scrambling for shelter every time an army jeep with the headlights on trundled down the highway.

Finding a gap between headlights, Shaheda made a dash for Imran’s home. Until a few years ago, Imran’s was the house with the biggest celebrations. Their desserts were made of pistachio and saffron and clotted cream. That was before Rashid had become a milton. Now the fanfare was muted. ‘If it wasn’t for Imran,’ Shaheda’s mother said, ‘his parents wouldn’t celebrate Eid at all.’

But this year, Shaheda found Rashid in the living room. She blinked to make sure she wasn’t looking at an apparition. He was sitting on the floor, his mouth stuffed with food, the sides of his eyes creased in a smile, his jaws taut and wide. Shaheda had very little memory of Rashid, but it took her no time to recognise the village legend. Imran sat next to his big brother, his knee comfortably perched on Rashid’s. Rashid slapped Imran’s thigh, ruffled his hair. Imran didn’t like people touching his hair, but now in front of the brother he hadn’t seen in years, his resistance melted away like the glaciers at the origins of the Jehlum River. All he could manage were coy, disgruntled sounds. He’d allow Rashid anything; Rashid, the brother who’d left home four years ago, leaving them no note, no message.

Everyone knew where Rashid had gone: like thousands of other young men leaving in droves, he too had crossed the border into Pakistan and got trained so he could come back to the valley and fight against India for azaadi. Freedom! In those days, the call rent the air more frequently than the chirping of morning sparrows. Imran’s mother had spent months looking up at the mountain ranges that served as the Line of Control, as if her son would suddenly appear from the other half of Kashmir that was now Pakistan’s. She wondered if her son was among the thousands of mysterious disappearances, if she should join the aggrieved mothers of such youth who gathered in Lal Chowk every month to demand answers. She refused to believe the stories she heard about Rashid—that someone had seen him crossing the border, or that he was in Delhi working as a carpet salesman, or that he was in Mumbai trying his hand at acting. But when the Imam said that Rashid had been spotted in Anantnag with an AK-47, the parents made peace with the fact that Rashid was now a milton. There was no tiptoeing around the truth anymore. Since then, whenever his mother saw news of a bus blown up in Badgam or a headmaster killed in Bandipora for playing the Indian national anthem in school, she imagined it was her son who’d fired the bullet, taking solace that he was at least alive. ‘Better a milton than an unmarked grave in the Eidgah,’ she told the other women.

And now four years later, Rashid had walked into the kitchen in broad daylight and hugged his mother tightly from behind. He’d put a hand over her mouth as she was about to scream in surprise. He set her free only when he realized she was weeping uncontrollably. He’d eaten lunch, slept in the basement where his parents had made a bed with the best mattress and softest pillows in the house. Imran was instructed not to disturb his brother, so he sat next to the trapdoor all afternoon, like an obedient dog. He wanted to ask his brother if he was really a militant. He could say the word right, learning it from the schoolmaster, unlike his uneducated parents who said it all wrong, milton! He knew his brother would leave shortly. ‘I have to report for duty,’ he’d said, like a soldier.

Now that the namaaz was done and the food was starting to travel out of the kitchen in trays on outstretched palms to be placed on the dastarkhwan laid out in the middle of the room, Imran wished so many people hadn’t crowded around his brother. The grown-ups were clamouring for Rashid’s attention. Rashid! The handsome one, the cheerful one, the polite one! Shaheda had heard he was so charming that he could lure someone his way even when he had a finger on the trigger of a rifle! She felt envious of Imran. How happy they looked, the brothers of the hazel eye fame, sitting side by side. The women hugged Rashid; some wept; some gave him their blessings; some begged him to come back. The men exercised caution, trying to convince him to lay down his weapon. ‘Face it, Rashid-oh! We have lost. India is too powerful. There is going to be no azaadi. Become a cylinder. I’ve heard they pay well.’ Imran corrected them—‘It’s surrender, not cylinder!’ This made Rashid laugh. He was in a fine mood, one hand picking sweets and delivering them to his mouth, the other playing with his little brother’s hair. He had no inclination to argue, talk politics and philosophy or discuss independence. He was home after four years. It was Eid-ul-Fitr.

And then came the gunshots, the roars of jeeps, the crunch of approaching boots. ‘We have surrounded your village. We know you are sheltering a dangerous militant,’ the soldiers said calmly into loudspeakers. Neighbours left in a hurry; Rashid was sent to hide in the basement; lights were dimmed; the food was put away. As Shaheda was being dragged away by her mother, she looked at Imran. The fear, the confusion, the wildness of the moment—all reflecting in those wide hazel eyes. The rest was a story that played out in sounds. ‘If you don’t give up Mohammed Rashid Bhat, we will burn the entire village down,’ the loudspeaker announced. The soldiers knew where they had to go. When the men entered the house, the story goes, they found Imran still on the floor. They say his parents had tried to drag him out of the room, hide him, cover him with a blanket. They say he wouldn’t move. They say he didn’t blink, even when the men dragged Rashid out, kicked him, hit him with the butts of their rifles, when Rashid kept chanting the paean of independence: Hum kya chahte? Azaadi, when they dragged his injured body to the back of the mosque, when the village heard the final gunshot. They say if only Imran had hidden with the rest that night, his brother could have been saved. ‘It’s those eyes the boy has. They betray you as quickly as they make you fall in love with them.’

But these are stories, and stories are manufactured in the valley morning, noon and night. Stories are easily created, told and believed in a world where there are blackouts and a sputtering radio service, censored media and delayed newspapers, if at all; where people are denied the right to gather. Stories are what remain when all else is silenced.

Later, during their teenage courtship, Shaheda had always wanted to ask Imran about the catastrophic night, but all that had been a long time ago. By then, violence had abated. There was a fragrance of something fresh in the air. It was time for Kashmir to move forward. The militancy had died its death; Pakistan had new enemies to its west to worry about, fewer resources to fuel violence in India. As if on cue, the Indian tourists were back in their shawls and monkey-caps, chomping on peanuts, littering Dal Lake with plastic waste, calling it Daal Lake, as though it were a pool of lentils.

Every time Imran kissed Shaheda, she ran her fingers over his long lashes. She never wanted to see terror in those hazel eyes again. She inhaled the sweet smell of herbs that always hung around him.

‘Just promise me you will never disappear,’ she whispered.

‘Never. My parents won’t be able to bear the loss of another son. I’m their only hope. I’ll never get into trouble,’ he promised.

In this place, that was a tall promise to make.

*

As the bus hurtles through the narrow Srinagar streets and into the Hazratbal bus stand, Shaheda gathers her wits. She knows where she has to start from. With quick steps, she crosses the road and enters the university. The campus is deserted but for a few students who walk down the broad avenues and loiter in the gardens, smoking by the flowerbeds. Shaheda notices that most girls haven’t covered their heads; some aren’t even wearing the dupatta! One of them is saying loudly in English, ‘Our constitutional rights have been razed to the ground!’ Ray-zed, she pronounces as she says the word again and again.

Shaheda asks around for the economics department and runs into Maqbool at the entrance. They take a moment to register each other’s presence in this unexpected place. Years of growing up together in the Lolab Valley haven’t prepared them for this sudden encounter. Maqbool takes Shaheda to the canteen below the library and orders two cups of Lipton-cha. She has never been here before, but she feels like she knows these places well. Imran has told her about every nook and corner he visits on campus, the haunts and joints, the classrooms and auditoriums—every little detail of his life in Srinagar. Ever since he moved to the city, they have spent hours talking on the phone. Imran even insisted that she open an email account so they could write to each other, and so she did at the dingy cyber-café in Kupwara town. The year they’ve been apart, Imran and Shaheda have ached for each other, but they know that if they want to build a respectful life together, a university degree is the only way forward. Shaheda would come too, if only her parents were brave enough to accept the idea of her living so far away. But she has made her peace with the local college.

‘Was the journey okay?’ Maqbool asks, though a quick look at Shaheda’s torn pheran is enough to know the answer.

Shaheda is impatient to get started. ‘Where is Imran?’ she demands. ‘I know times are bad; phone lines are jammed; mobile services are cut off. But I’ve been trying so hard to get in touch with him, for days now, weeks!’ She rests her palm on her forehead to calm herself. ‘And then I decided to come here myself. I just need to see him!’

Maqbool gets up from his chair and hugs Shaheda. It is not a spontaneous act but a premeditated well-thought-out one. It stiffens her up. She doesn’t know how to respond. She feels all eyes are on them. She’s never been hugged by any man but Imran. And is this allowed? In a public place? Is the university really as cool as Imran has made it sound?

‘Don’t worry. Inshallah we will meet him after the afternoon prayers.’ Maqbool’s hand stays on hers even after the embrace is over. Maybe it is the human touch, maybe the assurance of seeing Imran soon, maybe the proximity to where he now lives, but her tears finally get the better of her. Shaheda lowers her head as her shoulders heave in rhythms.

*

The streets of Rainawari smell of tsot and sheermal and other freshly baked bread. They walk quickly, their footsteps treading softly on the cobbled streets. Maqbool deftly takes her arm and leads her into one alley after another, sometimes wide enough for just the two of them. Shaheda looks at him in confusion. Why are they going to meet Imran here? Why is Imran not at the university? She considers the possibility of something having happened to him, but she quickly dismisses the idea. Imran would never get into trouble. Not after what happened to Rashid. He is his parents’ only hope. He is her only hope. He would stare down at the ground and concede defeat. He would use his charm and hazel eyes to sweet talk anyone out of anger.

Engrossed in thought, she doesn’t hear the drone that is slowly getting louder. As they walk, they seem to be getting closer to a hubbub. Now there are screams, the sound of glass breaking, shattering of objects against downed shutters, thundering voices. One of the alleys suddenly opens on to a wider road, and there it is—men and women, boys and girls, hurling stones at an army bunker. At the end of the street is an enormous contraption of sandbags, barbed wire, camouflage helmets, pointed rifles, armoured vehicles, strident sirens. There is a sudden gunshot from that direction. Someone falls to the ground and is dragged out, leaving a trail of blood. Shaheda is about to step on the blood but pulls herself away at the last minute.

Maqbool puts his mouth to Shaheda’s ear. His body is burning, as if being in this place has suddenly buoyed him, infused him with purpose. ‘This is where we will find Imran, my dear. This is where he is. This is where we all are. We are the stone-pelters, the sangbaaz!’ As he pulls his face back, Shaheda sees Maqbool’s wide smile, his eyes sparkling with unabashed pride and a fearless sense of being alive that is rare in everyday Kashmiri life.

Walking through the crowd, she spots Imran. He’s standing with his back to her, but she knows his frame too well. His shoulders, his narrow fingers on large palms, the curls of hair on the sides of his forehead. She even knows the pista-green shalwar kameez he’s wearing. She pushes through the chaos to get to him, her dupatta coming off her head, but she doesn’t care.

She puts a hand on Imran’s shoulder. The muscle tightens reflexively. Then he turns slightly, his hazel eye breaking into a smile the moment he sees her, creases appearing along the side of his face. ‘I knew you would come, Shaheda. I have so wanted you here right next to me.’ She faintly smiles and opens her mouth to say something, but then flinches in shock and tries not to scream in horror. Imran’s other eye—no hazel, no eyeball, no eye, just a hollow opening, half-covered with bandage, dried blood and pus in blobs, stitches running down his cheek.

He holds her hand as she sways unsteadily. ‘It was a pellet, my love.’ Imran’s finger points to the military contraption. He looks at her with his one hazel eye in earnest. They betray you as quickly as they make you fall in love. Her vision is clouding with tears, but Imran is laughing loudly. ‘They’re firing pellets to blind us! There’s hundreds of us all over Kashmir now, blind, little children with their eyes gouged out! Did you know pellet guns are used to hunt animals? Whoever gave the army this idea should get an award!’ Imran doubles up with laughter. Shaheda steps closer to him, pushed by a passing human wave. His breath still smells of fragrant herbs. Yes, it’s him, still him, her Imran.

He holds her face in his cold hands. ‘We are the children of death, remember? Moutik shuer! It couldn’t have ended any other way for us.’ His mirth suddenly gives way to a sob. Shaheda feels she sees a teardrop emerging from the hollow nothingness. She wipes her tears, then wrests a stone out of Imran’s clenched fist and turns to face the soldiers.

As she hurls the stone, she sings the paean for freedom for the first time. No more staring down at the ground; instead, she’ll look them straight in the eye, as long as she’s got hers, until a pellet takes it out.

Hum kya chahte?Azaadi!


Speak OUT! Issue 4


Illustration by Anisuzzaman Sohel

 

 

About the Author

Santanu Bhattacharya

Santanu Bhattacharya grew up in India and studied at Oxford University and National University of Singapore. His debut novel, One Small Voice, will be published by Penguin UK in 2023.  He is the winner of the 2021 Mo Siewcharran Prize, Life Writing Prize and London Writers Awards. His works have been nominated for the 4thWrite Prize, Blue Pencil Agency […]

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