I WAS BORN and brought up in Anantnag (popularly known in Kashmir as Islamabad). A town of about a lakh, Anantnag lay nestled around a hill to its east. The hill was steep on the face overlooking the town, but flattened into a plateau of lovely orchards on its invisible side. In apple season, I would go there with my friends, pick the most delicious apples, plums, peaches and apricots, and sit on the hilltop from where we could see the entire town below. We would stay there for hours till the sun set on the far side, and the gradual coming on of the yellow lights would turn Anantnag into a golden necklace around the darkened hill.
By late 1980s, there was perceptible tension in the streets. Large numbers of men and women spontaneously poured out of dingy alleys to pelt stones at the police. They raised lovely, rhythmic slogans, many of which I still vividly remember; most of them were about Azadi. On my way back from school once, I ran into one such crowd near Nagbal; they had blocked the way home. I pushed my way through a forest of legs till I saw a gas canister explode a few feet ahead of me. My eyes itched bitterly and filled with profuse tears. I fell unconscious soon after, waking only hours later to find myself at home. A neighbour, who was in the crowd, had brought me back. For some days after this, my father accompanied me to school, until we found that there were other children in the locality who also studied there. The parents decided that we should all go to school together.
A few months later, the army was called in. Each day came news of people killed in the streets. A young man in the neighbourhood had been shot at in five places from point-blank range — he survived to become a hero, with a gaping hole pierced through his cheeks by one of the bullets. The army took over Anantnag’s hill and set up bunkers at our favourite spot. From here they could see virtually everyone on the roads. It became really dangerous to move about for hours after shoot-outs. We were walking home from school once after a shoot out, creeping from house to house and wall to wall, trying to avoid being seen by the men in the bunker on top of the hill. All of a sudden, an impatient young shopkeeper ran across a narrow street near Cheeni Chowk. No sooner had he moved a few yards than a hail of bullets hit him. He fell, but managed to slither across the street. He lay on the opposite side, and bled to death. Nobody could move from their places to help him.
In our colony, too, things were changing. I was unable to make much sense of the daily political conversations among my parents and their friends. I had other issues on my mind. We had taken great pains to form a cricket team, and played matches with other cricket teams around town. Everyone had chipped in from their pocket money to buy bats, pads, gloves and all. It was a dream come true — and it crashed on January 20, 1990, when one of our team members, a Pandit boy, left with his family for Jammu, taking all our stuff with him. Initially, everyone was cross, but we still missed him. He never came back.
Then came a time when the army laid siege to entire towns and villages. They would ask men and children to assemble in open spaces, where they held identification parades. Those picked out were taken to a side, and tortured out of their senses. Some were simply taken away, never to return. After a particularly nasty crackdown once, we heard gunfire, and came to know later that four identified men had been shot dead in the nearby fields. Back home, women would report thefts during the house-to-house searches. Many took to wearing burkhas, to avoid the gaze of the soldiers patrolling the streets. They argued vehemently if asked to lift the veil. It became a major issue during frisking operations. I was once delighted to see a stocky grandmother slap a CRPF soldier across his face for refusing to believe she was a woman. The soldiers later deployed women from the Kashmir Police at important checkpoints, but these policewomen also showed up at their jobs wearing burkhas.
In the beginning, the militants would openly brandish their weapons; they used to have their own parades and flag marches. Some were men from the locality: teachers, students, barbers, drivers, cricket players and the jobless. But then, I sometimes saw some “guest” militants, too. They were from Afghanistan, Pakistan and possibly Sudan and Yemen, I was told by my friends.
The much-venerated shrine of Reshmol Sahab lay on our way to school — this was where the bodies of unclaimed militants would be dumped. Next to the shrine, the martyrs’ graveyard was fast running out of space, so they turned another piece of land at the foot of the hill into the new martyrs’ graveyard.
Relations between the townspeople and the army were tense. Early each morning, as the town came alive with the azaans from its many mosques, the army would switch on huge loudspeakers on three sides of the hill, and Hindi songs and bhajans would blare out of them for hours on end. It was a kind of unilateral, undeclared war; we all lived in terror of the day this war would come down the hill’s slopes in heavy muddy boots and trample on us like ants. It stopped only in the late 90s, when I left Kashmir when I was 16.
THE TOWN had become very gloomy — by six in the evening, the streets were deserted. Lights were kept low; curtains were always drawn. People made guesses about the origins of distant gunshots. Scary stories for children no longer had any tasrupdars, djinns or haputs in them — there was no need for them, they didn’t scare us any more. Only the snow surprised us, when, after a perfectly clear day, we would wake up to find bright snow covering everything open to the sky. In the distance, the snow-covered hill would merge with the whiteness of the surrounding town, and become almost invisible. These were perhaps the only happy moments for me at that time.
One apple season, many years later, we found courage to go up the hill to pick apples. A new, utterly strange city had sprung to life on the flat plateau. It was such a contrast to the choked, dying town below. There was an elaborate army infrastructure, with its own buildings, streets, armoured vehicles and helicopters. There were families living there, families of army men. There were shops too. Not many people in the town knew what was going on here, as it was happening on the hill’s invisible side.
To our dismay, we found many orchards had been torn down; our best apple trees were dying for want of care. The army, we heard, was planning to build an airstrip there. Years later, when I came to study in a northern Indian university, I realized that the army city on the hill that overlooked my town had a peculiar North Indian town feel to it.
I have been living away from home for the last nine years, as have so many of my other childhood friends. I hear stories from my parents about the killings and injuries of friends who stayed behind. Many, I hear, are doing better.
Originally published in the Personal Histories section of the Tehelka weekly; July 28, 2007 issue.