National

An Illusory Peace

Even a thousand tongues cannot unravel the quiet that has become a part of life in the Valley

Artwork by Veer Munshi
Shrapnel: Artwork from a series by Kashmiri artist Veer Munshi. The underlying structure of the series springs from the shapes of debris created during violent events, especially those in Kashmir Photo: Artwork by Veer Munshi
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Of all the myths that I came to know of it was the Greek myth of Philomela that I could not reconcile with. In violation of the trust reposed in him a lustful Tereus rapes his wife’s sister Philomela and cuts off her tongue to hide his misdeed. The only justice that the gods could provide was to turn Philomela into a nightingale and leave her to sing her song of woe in perpetuity. That seemed cruel, even for the Greek gods. They could have turned her into one of the Furies at least.

Or so I thought.

August 4 was an ominous day. No sooner was Article 370 abrogated than we were gagged. The Internet was blocked, mobile connectivity barred, and every other conceivable means of communication with the outside world was severed. Silence descended upon our houses and stalked our conversations. As the curfewed days turned into curfewed weeks the stalking grew bolder. And as weeks turned into months somewhere along the way, we had given in to the silence. We had let it in. It was now within us as well as around us. Thus, when eventually mobile phones started to ring again and the Internet limped back onto our screens, it came as no surprise that the silence did not go away. It persisted—within us, around us. It had become a part of us.

It had taken over us.

I used to be an active Facebook user; posting poems, memes, satires and other such stuff that were not exactly politically correct on my wall all the time. It did not mean that I used to post whatever I felt like posting. Of course, there was an element of self-censorship lest I wanted to pay the price. Let us just say I treaded a fine line. A sub-conscious filter had been set up that would allow only such stuff to appear on my Facebook timeline that were low risk, while the high-risk words and verses were restrained within the deepest recesses of my thoughts. These fugitive thoughts were debated and discussed in my head and maybe occasionally with someone in person, but they never found an expression in the written word. That is how it used to be. That is how it has always been here.

But now despite the restoration of the Internet, silence has taken over my Facebook. You will find nothing there. The bar of risk has been lowered to silence. And it is not just that I cannot post because I do not dare to but what is most horrifying is that I don’t want to. Silence has invaded the innermost recesses of my thoughts. There is nothing on my Facebook now and there is NOTHING in my head now. The Dictatorship of Silence is finally complete.

Every day I find myself trying to unravel this silence, trying to understand it and explain it. But even if I were given a thousand tongues I would still fail. How did things come to such a pass? Have I finally given up? Have I finally surrendered? Or is it just that the stakes are too high this time? Or is it that the fatigue has finally set in? Is it that I just want to break away from years and years of torment and finally find some peace whatever it may cost? Have I finally accepted desolation as the only peace that could be achieved? Should I give up on the past as some sort of deluded misadventure? Or is this just one more turn of the circle that has become our history? Have we been brought out of our delusion? Or are we just staring at an illusion? Is this finally it? Or is there worse to come?

Every day the questions try to rebel against the tyranny of silence. Every day they end up defeated as no answer comes to their rescue.

Every day I find myself praying more and more fervently if only I could perch on the highest branch of a Chinar and weep aloud like a nightingale as the Silence keeps gnawing at my heart.

An Excerpt from Shabir Ahmad Mir’s Unpublished Novel The Last Knot

The Pebble

In the beginning it was water. Water, water all around. Only water. Just water. As if someone had tied knot after knot of water till the carpet of water had overflown its loom and spread itself all around and everywhere. Water that was grey on the winter morning, blue on the summer noon and, sometimes, green on the spring evening. Water that gurgled a laugh and tiptoed on a ripple as it explored its own immense solitude and sang strange songs of longing when it rained. Water that told its own story to itself in its own guttural voice, sang a lullaby to itself when it grew too dark. Night after day. Night after night.

Water that delighted in each knot of its being as it discovered the miracle that was its existence.

Water that, impregnated of its own happiness, bore two sons. Tsand and Mond. Two big-boned, immense babies whose giant guffaws could be heard miles from the shores of the Water in whose proud womb they swam incessantly. Tsand and Mond whose huge joy and large laughter frightened the men who had just arrived on the shore to lay claim to the land by the Water. Men who prayed to the gods, that they had bought with them, to tame the Water and exorcise it off its monsters before they consecrate it for eternity. Gods whose trident of anger is roused in all its phallic fury and out flies a Haer—a sparrow—from their loins. The Sparrow that picks up a pebble and drops it like a curse from the immense height of its power and contempt. The pebble that, like the sentence of a tyrant, grows in its wrath all the way down on to the Water. The Water whose liquid ribs break under the weight of the engorged pebble and fails to protect her Tsand. Tsand who lays buried under the pebble; groaning, his words no more than empty bubbles floating away…

With each dying breath of Tsand the pebble grows. Grows and grows and grows till it becomes a rigid knot across time and space; till it becomes a parbat—a giant rock. A hill. Haer Parbat. The Hill of Sparrow. And centuries of history gather around this hill like moss on a stone.

Proud as a tombstone the hill stood with all its moss when the victorious Great Emperor from the plains beyond mountains arrived. Let us start history anew, he decreed. Let us built a new city on the Haer Parbat, he decided. For the city that knelt before him, with all its history and moss, was nothing more than the spoils of war and the spoils of war, they always belong to the victor. Thus the great Emperor builds a wall all around the Hill of Sparrow to demarcate this new city—this new history—from the old one that remained sprawled around the meandering waters of the river Jhelum. Ka’lai, people called this wall and lured by the safety that walls conjure some of the more wretched ones moved within this wall only to find that it was all the same both within the wall and beyond it. Those wretched ones found that new histories, new cities are just mirages borne on the skeletons of the old ones. And centuries later when a governor of another victorious Emperor builds a fort atop the Hill with its own set of walls all that the people saw was one more folly of history. One more spoil to one more victor.

The Fort changes hands after due intervals of time as new victors ride to its door but no matter whose time it is, the Fort itself, always, perches like a vulture on the top of Haer Parbat, digging its talons deep, deep into the flesh of memory as well as the body of the hill. The only solace one can find on this tormented hill is the shrine of Makhdoom Saab, just below the fort, on the southern slope.

Up on this hill I climb. To the shrine of Makhdoom Saab I climb. Breath by slow breath I climb. I heave. I pant. I breath in gasps. But I climb and climb. My chest tightens. Something heavy churns within me. Thick, heavy; I want to vomit so badly. My heart pumps fear and pain. I try to run. But my legs refuse; the ground beneath them waxes and wanes into a web of taut, tired threads. A cobweb! A familiar cobweb! A loom! A loom! I stand on my loom!

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Weave.

The spider sings as I fall on my knees and sink deep, deep...

…one knot of ash grey, three knots of fiery red…

I dig in my nails and try to break free.

…For God’s sake weave!

I kick back with all I have. Away from that cobweb. Away from my loom, away from that web of fecund sterility. Away from the thousand knots that I have done and undone.

…Something. Anything. One knot of sweat. Three knots of blood…

I dig in with my nails and drag myself up. Drag, drag, drag… Up, Up, Up…

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We can’t stop weaving! Nobody can. What shall we tell them?

If I stop now, I am lost. Trapped in this cobweb and lost forever. The web will eat me up. The spider is waiting.

… My God! My God! You will be the ruin of us all…

Up, up. Drag. Up. Up. There, there the shrine beckons to me. Save me please! Grab me. Lift me. Drag me up there. Please. Just a little more. There, there. Almost there…

Heaving, panting I lie besides the tomb of my saint, my Makhdoom Saab.

Ya Sheikh Hamza Makhdoomi! I cry aloud and weep.

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A loud burst of canon fire rings through the helpless air. It is the Fort announcing midday. They even control the time, I tell myself as I gather my arms around myself and I weep anew.

I weep between the walls with mountains all around me. Mond atop the Haer Parbat and the Tsand underneath it.

***

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The Ashes

A cold smoldering sky—its ashes falling with an unbearable lightness. Piling up, these ashes—these inchoate seeds of an inconsolable loss-sprout into a white wilderness all around. A shivering silent shroud stretching itself over everything, everywhere; reducing everything, everywhere to a pale, cold desolation. Acres and acres of frozen disquietude wherever your eyes turn to. No respite from it anywhere. Sharp beaked birds of unease rise from these white, frigid fields of sorrow and come flying to peck at me. Again and again. Flock after sharp, silent flock. Such grief, such pain! As if my heart were broken into a thousand pieces and each piece mounted on a frozen lance.

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It has been snowing thus for days now. For days now that blue carpet keeps on falling down Haer Parbat, its bony tassels flailing, crying for help all the way down. Again and again that moment of devastation repeats itself. The echoes of the downfall setting up a vortex in my head:

‘‘What should have been done? What could have been done? What should have been done? What could have been done? What should have been done? What could have been done?’’

“You have no one to blame,” Abli Bab says as he sucks furiously on his jajeer. He refuses to look me in the eye. “The choice was always yours, remember?”

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Yes, yes, I remember that illusion you called choice. I remember it all too well. Yes indeed, the choice was made. The price was paid. Yet, somewhere at the foot of this Hill of sparrow—this Hill of sorrow—my carpet lies buried under a mound of snow. The mound that keeps growing. It will keep growing. Growing and growing and turning into a parbat-a hillock. The Hillock of Ashes. Its weight unbearable. The helplessness insufferable. Must the carpet be left there to be crushed underneath it all forever?

Running, tumbling, sliding, struggling; I rush to the foot of the Haer Parbat. I dig out snow with my bare hands. Here, there, everywhere. But who has ever undone a burial? Who has ever unmade the ashes? I keep on digging. I keep on trying till the cold makes my fingers revolt. They are beyond me now, these fingers of mine are. I can feel them no more. My hands give up. I give up. Why rake up the ashes? Why disturb the dead? Why undo a burial? It isn’t too bad after all, to be buried under the snow. A still-born sleep in a white, in-conscious womb. The stillness of blood so absolute that no thought can perturb it, no memory can disturb it. Not even a dream to delude it. How tempting it is—this indifference to the vagaries of blood and thought; this liberation from the servitude of the senses. How tempting it is to just stand here and let the snow swallow you like a toothless, tongue-less mouth and intern you forever in its comatose belly of white oblivion…

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“What are you doing?” Abli Bab comes calling. “For God’s sake why are you out here? What if someone sees you? What foolishness is all this? What craziness is upon you?” He stands there looking down at me, angry impatience spread all over his face. “You will be the ruin of us all,” he shakes his head as he speaks. “Come,” he says as he struggles to keep his voice down, “Let us go back before it is too late.”

“Go back,” I roll the words slowly on my tongue. They taste like ashes. “Go back where?” I spit out the words.

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“What do you mean go back where? Up there, where else? Enough with this horse-show, come on, let us get going.”

The certitude with which he says those words, the disdain with which he turns away and starts to plow his way through snow confident that I will follow him, disgusts me.

“No. I am not going back there.”

“What? Not going back? Where else is left there for you to go?”

Snow crackles under my feet like broken egg shells as I walk away from Abli Bab. And it keeps crackling under my feet as I walk across a sea of egg shells, as I walk away from Haer Parbat. Away from the vertigo of that cold cave. Away from the web of those endless knots. Away from everything I step into the desert of ashes.

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I walk over desolate dunes of snow and sorrow. I walk and walk without meaning to go anywhere. But my feet have a memory of their own. Like a pair of desert birds, they know a way past all desolation. Step by step they follow an old familiar path. A path that ends at a door.

A dark, brooding door.

Cold and spent I stand before this door like a heap of ashes. The door opens. A shadow flits. A face appears. A startled Heemal stares back at me. Her mouth wide open as if to scream, only no sound comes out of it as if her mouth were full of ashes.

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Shabir Ahmad Mir is from Pulwama, Kashmir. He is the author of 'The Plague Upon Us'

(This appeared in the print as 'An Illusory Peace')

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