In preparation to revoking Article 370 and Article 35-A of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir a special status, the Indian government snapped all communication links of the disputed territory, including mobile coverage, internet and landlines, with the outside world. Kashmiris who were outside Kashmir could no longer be in touch with their families back home. Kashmiri poet Omair Bhat, currently based in Delhi, has kept a diary from day one of the siege of his homeland. In the following diary entries, covering the first two weeks, the young poet reflects on being separated from home, being without any news and on his anger about the brazen military occupation by India.
Kashmir was put under indefinite curfew on August 5, after Article 370 was scrapped. By whatever fictitious thread Kashmir had been tied to the union of India, it was cut loose. At midnight on August 5, mobile networks were snapped. We will remember this as the first night of Kristallnacht [Also called the Night of Broken Glass, November 9–10, 1938, when German Nazis began pogroms against Jewish people]. It has already been 14 days. No phone calls can be made to home. There is a total communication blackout.
Yesterday, at around 11 pm, while saying goodbye to my parents and my grandfather (I remembered Allah) I wasn’t sure, like the rest of my friends in Delhi, when and how I would speak to them again. We spoke for a while. I was mainly asked to take precautions against any hostile gathering I might confront. I promised I’d stay low and quiet. I would stay in my apartment. I would eat well. I would not worry (how could I not?). I would remain in contact with my brother (‘Promise to take care of each other?’ Yes!). Were we speaking for the last time? No. No. We’d speak again. We would. Enough money to outlast the war? Buy groceries, milk, essentials? Perhaps. We’ve a big heart. See. We’re still laughing. Then, they expressed a stifled wish: ‘If we have to die, if it’s written in our fate, come home, let’s die together.’ It broke me. I couldn’t sleep throughout the night. I haven’t slept in the day. The sad thought that I will probably speak to them again after so many months of brutal violence keeps me wide awake. The struggle against each passing second fills me with despair (I remember Allah). While hope, the skylight in the attic, reassures me of the reunion with my elaborate family in this life (after we have won the war), faith, noor that pours in through the skylight, reassures of a reunion in the hereafter. Inshallah.
A heavy heart, it refuses reassurance. It howls at the impossibility of salvage from the pandemonium we have been thrown in. We’re anxious. There’s no news from the besieged country. At dawn, after staying awake the entire night, I stand before Allah in supplication, sobbing inconsolably. I ask for the safety of my people. I ask for patience. I ask for freedom. Assi khoon dyut na? Didn’t we give our blood? Teli kyazi eei ne? Then, why won’t freedom come?
The wrinkled roof of the sky — so dark at daybreak that if you observe in contemplation you’ll see your death in the shadow scurrying past the balcony of your apartment — in this split second, it stares right into my face. As it begins to rain, a while later, I seek answers from Allah. Why did You not place a wall in the way to stop fascists from invading my country?
Time slows down. I choke on my tears. My incantation (it will stay on my lips until I die, in my home, fighting fascists): Allahumma la sahla illa ma j’altahu sahla, wa Anta taj’al ulhazn idha Shi’ta sahla. [Oh Allah, there is no ease except in that which You have made easy, and You make the difficulty, if You wish, easy.] It is a routine. I sit on the window pondering over the ways we will have to fight this war (on our own). In a call, my friend tells me someone just came from Kashmir. India has stationed its armies on our doorsteps at home. Our cities and villages have been turned into garrisons. No movement is allowed. We are witnessing one of the strictest and most brutal curfews in three decades. Allah is watching. What if?
I understand his fears. I ask him to tell the fascists, you’ll only buy lands in Kashmir on our dead bodies. We’ll not give you an inch of land until we’re alive. Allah is watching. ‘Nasrun min Allah wa fathun qareeb.’ [Help from Allah and victory is near.]
I haven’t heard from anyone from home yet. It’s almost frightening. We’re ‘on death’s programme.’ A purge awaits us. I remember [poet Roberto] Bolaño. In one of the poems he writes about Godzilla in Mexico. Godzilla is probably a reference to the 70s’ coup d’état of Mexico. ‘Bombs were falling’… ‘The air carried poison through the streets and open windows’. In the 21st century, in a forsaken place on earth, we anticipate (in fright) a similar (sort of) war against the defenceless. A simulacrum of that coup occurred in Srinagar on August 5. It will have lethal repercussions. We’re counting days. We’re hoping against hope. The siege takes a toll on us. Although, miles away, we sense the dread hovering over our homes in Kashmir. The significant question: how will we fight this war? We have inherited the stone as a weapon of war from our ancestors. However, we have also inherited immense courage. Our legacy: fighting successive oppressions and foreign occupations. Because: ‘Hum ne gulshan ke tahaffuz ki qasm khaayi hai.’ [We have vowed to defend the garden.] We have honed our courage to the extent that, in the face of death, my people shout the loudest slogans of liberation. We’ll fight you with it.
A foreboding. After fajr, I sleep to the chanting of ‘hu, Allah’. In the early afternoon, I wake up to the perception that I am home. There’s a funeral I have to attend. As soon as I wake up, I realise it was a terrible dream. I think of the family I belong to in the valley, a country I could give my life for. I pray that they are all doing well. Colonial expedition turns more violent. Tyranny confronts resilience. In the hospitals, nurses tend to the injured. Pellets in the lungs. Pellets in the eyes. Critical condition. How many red flags?
The sad country has been held captive to an indefinite curfew. News reaches us, in Delhi, in planes carrying narcissus from the graveyards of Srinagar. A poet arrives. We speak briefly on the phone. She is breathless. How’s your asthma been treating you? Did you have enough medicines? Yes. How many pictures did you take of the bridge that traverses the Jhelum? None. The soldiers were stationed outside our gate. They wouldn’t let us out. Our house was turned into a jail for us. We have been sentenced to life. Will we grow accustomed to the silence the world has adopted over our sufferings like before? I tell her I don’t know. I interject with a digression. When are we visiting the doctor for a check-up? Perhaps, day after. When do you plan to return to the prison that might be turned into a cemetery soon? Don’t go back for a while. It’s suffocating here. Stay.
‘No, even if the home is a prison right now, it’s still our home that we will hold on to, until our death. Our home, where we will revolt, where we will die.’
I walk in the crowded street in a Muslim ghetto in Delhi. No one speaks to anyone, no one is going anywhere. We are emptying our rage in dust. I understand that perhaps this is the wordless language of the dead, as [writer Italo] Calvino says, “which can only be lived, which can not be recorded or remembered?” A maddening discovery of silence, where we negotiate our space for the grief.
The correspondence is between a sigh and a quiet prayer. The (frantic) sound that emerges, in transition, resembles the shattering of glass. We listen to it only until it lasts. Then we return to the state of war. Where else can we go? Our homes are under siege.
I dial home. One more time. One more (f***ing) time. The networks are (still) dead. I hear the intermittent beep, four times. It forces me into the worst kind of quandary. I would bargain anything I have to hear my Baba, my grandfather, speak to me on the phone. Just once. I would immediately ask him, ‘Didn’t we survive this?’ The last call, on August 4, we spoke for three minutes: he tells me, if the need arises, disguise yourself as a clown if you have to, to survive an assault. Please. What could I have told him? I stayed quiet. I listened. He spoke to my conscience. I am (slightly) fearful whether my conscience would obey him. It asks me of my silence, the dead weight on my heart, each time I hear of Kashmir — the country (currently under brutal occupation of snake charmers), its people, for whose safety I have guaranteed my life and death. When (ever) I speak to him, I will ask, “Wouldn’t we win it? The war over my existence? How soon? How soon.”
132 hours later. I spoke to my grandfather. How kind of Allah to hear a prayer in the times of crisis. What did I bargain? The call lasted for three minutes, 35 seconds. Sighs against sighs.
I asked if I can come home. He said it’d be impossible for me to reach Lolab (the forlorn frontier valley in northern Kashmir where I live, from where no news has come yet). He told me he is stranded in Srinagar. He might leave for home in the evening (although he wasn’t sure if he would reach Lolab on Eid). A parting note: we’ll speak again on Wednesday. Until then, he hoped, history will be made in Kashmir. History. What could it have meant?
Naeem arrived from the frontier district last evening. He lives in Langate. I met him today in a dingy tea shop in Delhi’s Zakir Nagar ghetto. I had tears in my eyes when we hugged. How is home? His words (quoting him verbatim): “Within the distance of one kilometre, I had to pass through 10 checkpoints. At one checkpoint, which was manned by the Special Operations Group [SOG] wing of Kashmir Police and the Central Reserve Police Force [CRPF], I was beaten ruthlessly.” He shows me the blue bruises on his back and shin.
Narrating an incident to me, Naeem remarks, “The terror and violence that these men inflict on us, back home, is brazen and an affront. It doesn’t distinguish between the sick and the dead.” A pregnant woman, in pain, was stranded at a checkpoint. Her husband approached the Indian military officer: “Sahab hamara biwi pregnant hai. Paidal jaaraha hai haspataal. Sahab jaanay dega meharbaani hogi. [Sir, my wife is pregnant. I am going to hospital by foot. Let me go, please.] The response: “Wo aapkay baghair hi aaraam say mar jaayegi, waapis jao.” [She will die comfortably on her own, without you around. Go back.]
The glass of my wristwatch is broken. Time does not stop, even as it moves at a snail’s pace. When it runs out, we buy more hours. It is a vast expanse of muddied water. The ripples, on the surface, signify crisis.
22:20 hours. I long to hear my mother’s voice. The siege has entered the seventh day. In the absence of communication, I assume, we might’ve transformed into wretched memories at home. The residues of unfinished conversations from the spring before we journeyed into forgetfulness. That’s how, perhaps, we’re being remembered on the sun-drenched patios by our mothers. They are anxious for our safety.
When we go back, whenever we go back, we will replace our absence with the immense sorrow of our heart. What weapons do we take back to break the siege? Their memories we’re in possession of, their courage that we’ve inherited, their steadfastness they taught us as kids. It is a perfect survival manual.
Momentarily, I want to withdraw from the perception that the war has brought on us and, publicly, make an announcement: the despair of homesickness does not make us forget how to laugh. The previous day, late in the evening, a young boy told a gathering of Kashmiris that he’d called on one of the satellite phone numbers given to us by the local subcontractor of occupying troops in case we wanted to check on our families. The call was received by an SSP-ranked officer.
The young boy, on call: ‘Boyaa, wann theek chuka?’ [Hey boy, are ya doin’ well?]
The officer demanded respect: Do you know who you are speaking to?
The young boy: There’s nothing left now. You will be gone soon as well. Please, don’t try to discipline me.
The officer, stunned into silence, drops the call. This short conversation reflects an attitude that will decide the fate of this battle (that, by the will of God, we will win).
The memory of home on the day of Eid: we wake up to the bustle of kitchen preparations. The aroma of cardamom in yakhni is irresistible. We perform ablutions for the congregational Eid prayer. A cloth is laid out in the drawing room. On it, a variety of bakery and confectionery items are placed on steel trays. The kehwa is served first, followed by salt tea. Then we leave for the prayer.
The children run in the corridors. Occasionally, tugging at your sleeve, they ask for Eidi. At one point, taking you by the arm, “Deu ho!” [Give, now!] A perfect arrangement for festivity. INTERRUPTION.
The memory of home, like home, is under siege. This year, our Eid was a silent protest we registered in the house of Allah. The victims of the miscarriage of justice. And yet, we know: ‘InnaAllaha, Yamuru bil adel.’ [And, surely, we’ll leave justice to Allah.] Because, He says: ‘Fadth kuroonee adth kurkum.’ [You remember Me; I will remember you.] And don’t we remember Him? Does He not remember us? We endure war. We endure separation from home. These are, indeed, difficult times. Home has been held hostage to the wagering of history by fascists. The revolution is inevitable. Windows have been thrown open. We await it with our arms outstretched. Allah is on our side. We’ll bring the skies down on our oppressors. The moon and the sun, the night and the day, the rotation of planets, the twinkling of stars will witness their devastation on our lands.
A day of rain. J spent his Eid locked down in his apartment. He rues the moment he returned to Delhi to join college. He could have stayed home for Eid. Did he know things could turn bad?
We meet in Street 7. He lights a smoke. A passing remark: one must not give into the snare of rhetoric. It devours reason. J recalls a story by [Russian writer Fyodr] Dostoyevsky. The dream of a ridiculous man. A madman now. What did he mean to do when he took out his pistol from the drawer and placed it in front of himself? I assume that when he says if it had not been for the little girl, he’d have shot himself: J likes to think reason disguised as despair and fright brought the madman back to a state of mind (before he went to sleep) where he first postponed and later called off his execution.
Why did he kill himself in the dream later? J feigns resignation. Perhaps, the want to be transported far from the despair of reality, far from the menacing rain to the calm of utopia was overpowering. Perhaps. What could one infer from the intuitive Dostoyevskyian curiosity. We venture into an eloquent conversation before I remind him of home. The news is bad. The curfew. The dead silence. We plunge into our sorrow. I ask him, ‘When will we return to a state of normalcy? I run from place to place like a fugitive. Where does our journey end?’
J offers a different perspective. He quotes [Palestinian poet Mahmoud] Darwish. It’s our duty to know now what we long for. I return to Dostoyevsky: Freedom? Rhetoric. The cost? Reason. Rain thins into a drizzle. I negotiate my way back through the graveyard to M’s apartment (where I must imagine myself as the ridiculous man?). I say a cautious prayer on my way. “May we face death, but long live the homeland.”
Enough. The heart sinks into the shrieking of a sea. The calm has been rattled. I look for a reason to grow out of the confines of the fear that has been instilled in my imagination. I miss home terribly. There’s a possibility. A beginning with no end. One must, after all, gamble a chance to respond to the cruelty of the coloniser. [French West Indian writer Frantz] Fanon comes to my mind: ‘We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.’ It’s suffocating. The anger will erupt. The provocation warrants an answer. I suppose it’s a war then. A bloody war. In consequence: from the debris of Kashmir, a bird will emerge and flutter away. A blood thread will bind my soul to the primitive cherry tree in our courtyard at home. We’ll turn into a pile of ash. Kashmir will be born anew. The prisons will dissolve into the porcelain of night. We’ll fight the Pharaoh. We’ll go back and see his determined end. That’s how I see our future now.
It is a black day. I am imparting history lessons to my readers. India celebrates the beginning of its 73rd year of independence from British rule. The irony hits its head against the wall and bleeds to death. Over the last 72 years, India transformed Kashmir into a bottomless abyss. The project of colonising Kashmir began on the very day the Indian army landed in Srinagar. Near the makeshift airport, there was a village bordering the capital city: Gogo. The Indian Army besieged the village, ambushed it and massacred people on the night of October 27, 1947.
A massacre. A manslaughter. The people who could survive, fled their village. When they returned, the village had been burned to ash. When they returned, it was winter. In that year of misfortune, it had arrived early. They lived in makeshift houses until the summer of 1948 when, after nearly being effaced from the face of earth, they began reconstructing their houses.
During the 1971 war, they were asked to hide themselves in the trenches, built on their farmlands, to escape the war. When they returned to till the farmlands in the summer of 1972 the army had occupied acres of fertile land. The people were turned away (forcibly). The idyllic farmlands of Gogo were later converted into a huge garrison. It was blatant manifestation of an occupation.
In the 1990s, an infamous torture centre was built inside the highland military camp. It devoured the poet’s paradise. It was here. The near perfect replica of hell. There was only wilderness. Precisely how, on October 27, 1947, India invaded Kashmir with colonial ambition using the temporary Instrument of Accession as a legitimising alibi, on August 5, 2019 it invaded Kashmir once again with neocolonial ambition, scrapping the same Instrument of Accession it had used 72 years ago to legitimise its presence in Kashmir. It employed crude violence to force us into submission then, it is employing violence to subjugate us now. The similarities are unmistakable. The village of Gogo, and entire Kashmir, remains witness to this repeat of aggression.
In subsequent years, after 1947 until today, if one were to recount accounts of the survivors from each one of the massacres and torture chambers, the earth would explode and swallow all of mankind. However, our hope: the perpetual resistance. It never dwindled. It will never dwindle.
312 hours. No news from home. On social media, the overseers of occupation are manufacturing normalcy to lie about whatever is happening in Kashmir right now. We know what they are up to. The application of brute violence on people is not new to my countrymen. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn rightly argues that, “Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence.”
Pre-dawn prayers. The hours of silent calm. The voice has been severed from its source. The rain fell on the window sill all night long. In the same week, for the second time, I woke up from a terrible nightmare. There was no end to it. It was turmoil. I had to force myself out from the cage it had spun around me. An iron cage of a sequence of unfortunate events. Poison to an anxiety that stems from the longing for a home under siege. What could have protected me from its imminent threat? I fell asleep early. I was transported to a place I could have safely called my home. Hue and cry. Commotion. The men and women wept like willows in wind. We were fleeing a massacre. A responsibility was entrusted upon me. I was ferrying people to safety. That is to say, from one part of the dream to another part of the same dream. The executioners ran amok in the streets. I remembered my two siblings. I looked for them everywhere I could, in each of the corners and crevices of my dream. With great difficulty, I found them curled up against a wall by the riverbank. They smiled. I wasn’t aghast. I fell on my knees, bitterly hurt. I was collapsing. This was the funeral of formal humanism. A howling savagery so blatant it could bring down the skies on the oppressor. What did I have to witness? When I woke up, I immediately recalled the story of the infant martyr of Karbala, Ali Asghar. Minutes before his martyrdom, when [Imam] Hussein picks up the infant in his arms, He asks: ‘Hal min nasiro yansorona?’ The only meaning I could render from my nightmare: Is there anyone who will come to our aid?
It filled me with more sorrow.
Through a dream, perhaps, a tender voice has called for me, from home. I will attend to it (in blood and flesh).
Omair Bhat is a poet from Indian Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. He likes to thinks of himself as a memory keeper. His poems have appeared in Critical Muslim, The Bosphorus Review and Anti-Serious.
Published in Dawn, EOS, August 25th, 2019