On July 8, 2016 Indian Army killed Burhan Wani, a militant commander of a group demanding freedom of Kashmir from India. The aftermath has been a mass uprising in Kashmir. People have been protesting and the government declared curfew. Till 15th August, India’s Independence Day, there had been no let up in the curfew and 38 people had died.
When his phone didn’t connect after repeated attempts, he knew the phones had been blocked. He could go on for days without talking to his parents, but at times like this it seemed urgent. Srinagar was so far away – and everything around him was so removed from home. It was like thinking about spring in autumn, or remembering snow in summers.
“Greetings, son” said a sombre voice at the other end. His father sounded distant and slower.
That was the last conversation he had with his father four days ago.
He was vaguely aware of the music before he was awakened by it. Nabeel woke up early. Too early for a holiday. And with great annoyance. He waited in the bed, eyes still closed. Wishing sleep would come again. Stretching his toes. Trying to think of something other than the song blaring from the loudspeaker. A particularly sappy one – one he had never liked.
India’s Independence Day announced itself on a hundred unread Whatsapp messages from his office group. He ignored. Trying to go back to sleep. Trying hard not curse. He couldn’t.
There seemed to be no escape for him. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he looked outside the window to see who was playing these songs, but the sound seemed to be coming from nowhere in particular. All he could see was the abandoned half-constructed building next to his. Then Lata Mangeshkar sang about martyrs.
Yes, what about them? He wanted to yell at whosoever was playing these songs.
He gave up. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. He decided to make tea, but that would mean going downstairs to the dingy little grocery store to buy milk. That would mean meeting people. That may also mean attending the flag hoisting.
He had overheard some kids talk about the flag hoisting in the ‘society’ – one of the things people in Delhi did. He didn’t know where they would do it – but by instinct, and habit, he wanted no part of it. Outside a group of women was chatting loudly over the music – he could hear them through the door. He turned away – tea could wait.
He had never held a flag in his hand.
Four days ago, his father had called to tell him to stay inside his room and not to go outside on 15th August.
It was still 10 o’ clock. The music was still playing.
He checked his Facebook. More curfews in Kashmir, more people dead in police action, more protests. There were no notifications, as expected. He hadn’t posted anything in weeks. The last post was when 12 boys had died. Now, social media informed him, it was more than 30. Three of them from his neighbourhood. He wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he one knew of them – the one who sneaked out at night with him to smoke in the darkness.
He took a bottle of water and rinsed his mouth.
He had returned to Delhi on 10 July having spending his Eid holidays at home in early July. Srinagar was under curfew then. He had left his home before dawn, in the darkness, to reach the airport. All along the way army men patrolled empty roads and stray dogs barked at the passing car. No movement was allowed during daytime. It was almost a month since his return; Srinagar was still under curfew. He knew his father hadn’t been to work in a month. He wondered if he was still buying the medicines. His diabetes medicine was expensive, and often he would skip a pill in between intentionally. Was he taking it regularly? Now that it hit him, there was no way to know.
Internet was not working. Phones were not working either.
So he waited and felt the whirring of the fan overhead. He pulled his legs up and tried to concentrate on the soft snoring of his roommates rather than the songs from outside. Noida was a swarm of high and low rise buildings perennially covered in dust from some construction. This city was still being built. It was always under construction. Every morning an army of workers would converge to the skeletal structures and disperse. In the evening they would emerge again. Nabeel lived with three other boys in one newly let out apartment building, with no furnishing and erratic water supply. The other three were not from Kashmir, and Nabeel had met them when over time moving from place to place, job to job he had finally landed there. Their agreement to stay together had somehow worked thus far – the fair Kashmiri who didn’t speak much – even though they worked at different places and had no mutual friends anymore.
What about the martyrs? They were kids, weren’t they? The next day’s newspapers would carry the death toll at 38 people, most of them of Nabeel’s age and younger. Twenty five years. Killed by an army operating within its laws. The singer extolled him to recall and weep over the deaths. Yes, he would. His friend had multiple injuries from the pellet gun which was the government’s weapon of choice against the protesters. It sprays small balls of lead at no particular target. He had been shot from a fatally close range.
Did they find any cigarettes on him then? Cheap Four Square brand. Did his mother come to know about his smoking after his death? There was no way to know the answer to life’s unending little mysteries. How did he feel now? What did he see before dying? What did he say? Was there anyone around him?
He must save his memory. He must not forget him.
This year had been particularly bad. He had read with a tremble in his spine how some CRPF guy had need put needles in the eyes of a five year old. Five, he could not get over the ages of these people. They were either too young or about his age. Was that an age to die? What if he was in Kashmir? Would he be dead too? Had he cheated death by coming here?
He looked away from his thoughts. There was a cockroach in the sink trying to climb its wall. The women were still outside the door. Bracing himself he went out in his t-shirt and shorts. The women saw him and smiled at him. He looked down and hurried away. They continued talking. The grocer’s was at the ground floor. There was a small crowd of children asking for things and women in long dresses chatting while waiting. He put the change on the glass-top and asked for a packet of milk. It appeared; he snatched it and tore away to his apartment.
The boys had arranged for a cook to come and cook meals for them. But today being Independence Day, he had taken the day off. He was planning to his wife and kids to India Gate. That was two days off in a row; yesterday had been Sunday. That meant there was nothing to eat in the apartment. In the afternoon, the other boys had already made plans.
“Going out?” his flatmate Mohit asked him.
“Not really. Are you?”
“Yes. See you later.” And with a strong whiff of deodorant Mohit was gone.
Later in the evening and not knowing what to do Nabeel pushed himself to go to the mall to get some coffee and to get away from his apartment. He realised that it was a mistake as soon as he reached. It was loud and noisy like a child’s birthday party except that the guests paid for everything and there were no gifts. At each entrance of the mall, there was a huge and a gaudy decoration of paper flames in the three colours of the Indian flag: orange, white and green. The place was decked with buntings in the three colours. His flatmates had brought a bunch of three balloons last night – green, white and orange. Nabeel had accidently burst the orange one, and it hung, spent and useless with the thread. The food court was on the top of the mall and as he made his way through the escalators, the dazzling lights of shops caught his eyes. There were mannequins dressed in green, white and orange, display screens which blasted the three colours and offered special discounts, a counter was even selling ice cream in the three colours. People were wearing lapel pins in the shape of the Indian flag and some had small streaks of the colours in their hair. A woman outside the mall had offered him a lapel pin too, and was surprised when he had refused.
He ordered his coffee at the counter. There were three people in front of him with large and elaborate orders. Clearly they had come with a group. The boys were celebrating Independence Day by wearing a kurta over jeans.
“One latte, please.”
He tendered the exact change and waited for his order.
There were not many tables vacant, but he found one at the back. In a distant corner, away from the centre of the floor where families were having a picnic of South Indian food and young couples were sipping cold coffee or eating sundaes with plastic spoons. He watched as he sipped the coffee. The people of the free world were enjoying their history.
Now, he hadn’t spoken to his mother in three days as the government had blocked the phones in Kashmir. He had heard about Burhan Wani, the killed militant, before he died. He thought Burhan was exceedingly good looking, and that was the first thing Nabeel mourned when he heard about his death. Some policeman had clicked a ghastly picture of his fair face after death. And then the curfews had come. He had secretly counted the number of people killed, but then lost count at about twenty two.
He felt his eyelids droop. He sipped coffee.
“Do you have money? Should I send some?” he had wanted to ask his father but the question choked his voice. His father would have never accepted it.
He knew his father was relieved that Nabeel was in Delhi, away from Kashmir and Nabeel resented that. His office was a small networking company and Nabeel was still a novice at the job. He had joined it after much prodding by a friend who worked there for sometime before moving to Dubai. His parents hoped Nabeel would do the same. Nabeel wanted to be back in Kashmir; with his friends at Khayam Street dining on barbecue meat as they used to every month with their savings. Now his friends had some meager jobs collecting data for a government agency and Nabeel was in Delhi.
The next day when he went to office the people were still talking about the long weekend – the parties and the picnics. He had spent the long weekend curled up in a corner reading Ernest Hemmingway and the angry social media messages. He had not had any dinner for two days and skipped lunches for tea. The girl in the next cubicle was eating something out of a box. Nabeel looked over and she smiled at him, ashamed to have been caught. Prachi was an affable young girl who loved eating more than anything else.
Then she rose above the cubicle wall, “How was your weekend?”
“Miserable. I have not eaten in two days” Nabeel confided in her. He realised he hadn’t also spoken to anyone in two days, but that he didn’t tell Prachi.
“Really? Here,” she offered him the box.
“No, thanks. I just had breakfast outside. How was your weekend?”
“Awesome.” And then without warning or invitation she launched into the details of her weekend trip to the cinema, the movie she saw, her saunters in the new giant mall, and how they had wished to go to Chandigarh for some reason but weren’t able to.
“How are things in Kashmir? I heard on the news there is some trouble.”
“Not really good. A lot of people have died.”
“Did you go out today? Were the markets open?” he asked his father on the phone.
“No, I didn’t. I don’t know.”
His father had not stepped out of his house even once in the last month. There had been no let up in the curfew since.
There was silence on the line as both considered what to speak next.