Srinagar was in a state of lock down. The city had been under a virtual siege after Kashmiri rebels had struck an army installation in the old city. The old city was a refuge for guerrillas as it offered them ample space with lanes and alleys that were like a maze.
The rebels had escaped but the hunt was on.
The city looked tired and the roads were empty, the people preferring to shut themselves up in their homes. An enraged Indian soldier could shoot at will, so precarious the situation was. Newspapers ran what could only be described as headlined obituaries.
In the deep lanes of Safa Kadal a neighbourhood in the old city, the boys, meanwhile, were playing cricket, away from the crosshairs of the troops. It wasn't that they were oblivious to what was going on. Cricket, it seemed, provided momentary refuge from reality.
Two empty cans of cooking oil served as stumps. While the youngsters played, the elders were puffing cigarettes on the parapet of a half-shuttered shop. Khalid was going to bat after most of his teammates were out. You see he was in his early teens and as the unwritten rule goes, the young always get their time at the crease last.
It was his day. He batted with ease and drove the ball in gaps in what seemed to be a typical Aussie ring of fielders in the 'covers'. The neighbourhood team’s captain was in admiration of the youngster's skills. He offered him to play for the 'senior' team on Sunday at the Eid gah, which was a five minute walk from his home.
The Eid gah, a vast field, was the home of cricket for the people in the old city (it would also host football matches during the season). There would be scores of matches played at the same time, the field was so vast. But the space was slowly being taken over by the dead of Kashmir.
Martyrs, as they were known, were being buried into the graveyard on the left. The ages on their tombstones would read like a scorecard, a haunting reminder as the matches went on.
To the right of the graveyard, Khalid was asked to open the batting for the team. He had put his pads on and prepared to walk to the crease. It was an honour for youngsters to have their names on the 'Mohalla' cricket team board nailed to an electricity pole. Underneath the pole would usually be a memorial stone of the slain, sometimes attached with a water tap.
What's normal in Kashmir?
As soon as Khalid took guard, the military fired several shots in the air and slowly began moving towards the players. Khalid ran, faster than he ever had at the crease, with his pads still on. This was a typical scene when the Indian troops would suffer a casualty; they would go berserk and fire indiscriminately. Khalid had to postpone his debut to save his life. He took refuge in a house until the situation was ‘normal’.
|-Photo by Reuters|
Normal. A word that is often used by people in Kashmir. Is everything normal in Kashmir?
Is the situation normal? Are you normal? These questions have difficult answers. What is normal for Kashmiris is abnormal for the world. Normal in Kashmir is usually associated with the pause in death. Or, discussions on the terrible performance of the Pakistani cricket team but not the politics in Kashmir.
For me normal would be playing sports. Maybe.
It seemed that the overwhelming politics of the occupation were, somehow, suppressed for the duration of a match. Like when I played football for the district and state team, I would only think of how to win a tackle or create an opportunity for the striker to score.
The barbed wires across the fields or the military bunkers at the end of the field would be blurred out when my eyes were on the ball. There's no denying the power of sport on community welfare either. "Sport can create hope where once there was only despair," as the great Nelson Mandela said.
When the games finished, post match discussions would begin in the bus. Missed opportunities, dubious calls, the quality of the pitch and sometimes a little bit of the blame game all made the talk; that was the routine.
A checkpoint manned by Indian soldiers, who would ask for an identity card, usually snapped us back into reality. The conversation quickly changed into invectives against the occupation.
Our neighbourhood was not struck by crackdowns or raids by the Army very often. We lived on the outskirts of downtown Srinagar, which is the hub of the resistance movement in Kashmir. But our neighbourhood lacked a vast field like the Eid gah. There was a tiny field opposite our house called ‘Parade Bagh’, used by Indian forces to parade during the height of rebellion in the 90s. The neighbourhood boys would play cricket or football in the nettle infested field. But most of the times, it was used to play ‘Military-Mujahid’, a game where the Military had to find the hiding rebels and the rebels would have to tap the back of the military to score a point.
Naturally, most of the military team would play half-heartedly!
|For the children of 90s, their lives were moulded by concertina wired bunkers and checkpoints. -Photo by AP|
Tariq my best friend and I used to make caves in the firewood of the baker (his father) in the locality. We would test our hiding skills or make caves where we would eat stolen apples. Or hold bats on our shoulders and pretend they were our weapons. Strangely, after a school in Srinagar was bombed, we prayed for ours to be given a similar treatment. For holidays, of course.
I don’t know how politics had come in our lives and affected us. Maybe our childhood disappeared at the sighting of the dead body of a family member or a person we knew. For the children of 90s, their lives were moulded by concertina wired bunkers, checkpoints and an occasional crackdown where we would sit for hours in the burning sun.
Chasing goals, dodging bullets
It was only sports where we could forget the pain for a while.
Just for a moment, our lives had a goal to chase, and not a bullet to run from. Just for a while we could analyse the average runs to be scored, not the possibility of losing our lives attempting to buy milk during crackdowns.
In 2010, Kashmir rose to an uprising which basically served as the transition of the struggle to those who were born in the 1990s. We had an inter-district tournament in Srinagar. Our second match of the day was in the afternoon. The city was put under siege to curb spontaneous protests that were the order of the day. The burning sun and no wind to cool us down was a punishment, but we preferred it to the beating of a police man or an army soldier.
Our match was cancelled by the officials. The hotheads in our team broke into a scuffle with the officials. Nothing happened. Our team talk quickly changed into 'a-how-to-avoid-troops-while-going-home' strategy.
|-Photo by AP|
I reached home avoiding the troops in the streets by going into the lanes and alleys of Srinagar, all the while silently praying for my other teammates to not be sent off to martyrs' graveyards that had sprouted all over the valley by now. The troops had killed around 128 people that summer, many of them were youngsters; amateur cricketers and footballers included.
The quiet boys in the neighbourhood graduated into stone-pelting youths with their balaclava masks. The silence had broken and the storm had arrived.
Now, the goal was to hit back and show the resentment over the 20 years of massacres and memories of the dead we knew. In groups the stone-pelting youth would engage the soldiers in formations that would frustrate the new opponents.
Pacing along the streets, we 'bowled' the bricks at the formations of the soldiers who interestingly had knee pads and chest guards to save themselves from the hits. Each stone carried with it a memory.
There is no victory in this, only death that one embraces.
The desperation of the youth in Kashmir would melt even the stones. One cannot help but wonder how far some of the talented cricketers and footballers would have gone if there youth had not been interrupted like this.
Khalid is an independence activist today, who speaks for the right to self-determination. My neighbourhood friends are internet activists and former teammates are working to create community development. Some are in the graveyards of the Eid gah.
Living under the occupation is a terrible place to grow up in. Politics cannot escape your minds. But sometimes it is a blessing as it teaches us to live for others.
Maybe our lives could be more peaceful. But life there is not a sport after all.