The Weight Of Words

A single word or an inadvertant disclosure can have serious consequences in Kashmir

‘Weaver’ artwork by Veer Munshi

A few years ago, I was in Kashmir researching a story. I was staying at Ahdoos on Residency Road. Every evening, I would walk the length of the strip—from the vintage Mahatta and Co photo studio to the Tyndale Biscoe School. On one of these walks I decided to grab a bite at a local bakery. As I entered the establishment a man in formal clothes exited it. He had, around him, the unmistakable air of an Indian civil servant. The air of a man whose every need was taken care of by a retinue of eager attendants. A man who was aware of the power he wielded and the responsibility put forth on his shoulders by the state. A policeman opened the car door for him. He got in and was whisked away, probably to a dusty room from where he controlled an area the size of a small European nation. 

Inside the bakery I asked for a chicken patty. It was handed to me on a paper plate with a ketchup sachet. I stood in the bakery making small talk with the owner’s son—a young overweight man in his twenties. During our conversation, I casually asked him who the gentleman exiting the bakery was. 

The boy completely blanked me. He moved to another part of the store and pretended to look for something that clearly did not exist. I was puzzled by his evasion. On my walk back I wondered, why had the boy acted that way? 

The next evening, as I walked past the bakery, I saw the same car parked outside. It dawned on me that what had seemed like an innocuous question could have been interpreted as an attempt to garner information. Kashmiris are acutely aware of such nuances. The boy could have simply said, “Oh! That guy? He’s the magistrate.” But instead of revealing the civil servant’s identity, the boy had, quite deliberately, chosen silence.

Silence is a decision people in Kashmir make every day. A wrong word, a slip of the tongue, an inadvertent disclosure of information can have serious consequences. 

In the 1990s, this veil of silence was longer and heavier. What you said, who you said it to, could lead to your execution. But there were a few brave people who broke this silence, there always are.


Excerpted from This Our Paradise by Karan Mujoo with permission from Penguin Random House India

Chapter VII


In Bagh-i-Mehtab, late 1989

There are certain days we are condemned to remember. The day I was up in the tang kul, reaching for that fat, juicy pear, was one of them. I had had my eye on the pear for a while now. It grew, as if aware of my intentions, just out of reach. The prospect of biting into its soft flesh, of savouring its gentle sweetness, was tantalising. I waited for some time, hoping gravity and nature would take their course. The bough bent bit by bit, but never quite enough for me to grasp the fruit. And there was only so much patience that I, an eleven-year-old, could muster.

So, on a particularly bright and sunny day, I decided to end the tyranny of this pear once and for all. I wore my canvas PT shoes (since they had the best grip), stood beneath the tree and plotted my moves. Once I had mapped the path in my mind, I grabbed one of the thicker branches and heaved myself off the ground. For the next manoeuvre, I placed my foot at a spot where two branches diverged to make a Y. Then I pulled myself, the rough bark scraping the flesh of my palm, and climbed a little higher. At this point, hanging five feet above the ground, I quickly scanned the garden.

No one was there to stop or scold me. I could see the pear clearly now. I leaned towards the branch where it hung plump and pompous, certain of its safety. It was a precarious balancing act. An inch here or there meant a certain fall. I pushed on regardless; my sinews stretched to their limits before I finally felt it—cool and smooth—in my grateful palm. I tugged the pear free from its bondage and held it aloft in victory. I was still in the throes of joy, when from my raised vantage point, I saw Ghani Chacha darting towards our house. There was none of his usual exuberance and chest thumping, instead he seemed anxious and fidgety. He did not linger around and hold court with passersby like he normally did. He made his way straight to our house. Being the liaison-in-chief when it came to matters of dairy, it was my duty to receive Ghani Chacha and inquire if everything was all right. But I had the sneaking sensation that whatever propelled him towards us was above my pay grade. By the time Ghani Chacha reached our gate, he was out of breath.

“Gobrya,” he said panting, “Call your grandfather. I have something important to discuss with him.”

I nodded and made my way inside the house. Papaji was sitting on the takhtposh, reading the newspaper. My mother, Byenji and Vicky were also there. We were all home because it was no longer safe to go to schools, colleges and offices. The faint whispers had by now become clarion calls. Multiple militant groups had emerged in the city. Some wanted Kashmir to merge with Pakistan. Others wanted independence from both India and Pakistan. All of them, however, adopted the same ideology of violence, brutality and oppression. They declared arbitrary civil curfews that were ruthlessly enforced. Matadors played tapes valourising jihad. Students abandoned universities for training camps. The air was rife with Islamic slogans. Sections of the civil society, too, were infected by the enthusiasm and courage of these boys. How could they not support these gallant warriors? Thousands marched to Lal Chowk demanding azadi. The tehreek had reached a fever pitch.

When I informed Papaji of Ghani Chacha’s arrival, he got up from the takhtposh and went outside. I followed him, curious to know what the issue was. Ghani Chacha, hands folded behind his back, was staring at one of our flowerbeds. Papaji greeted him. He immediately turned around and returned the salutation.

“Is everything all right, Ghani Sahab?”

“By the grace of God it is.”

Ghani Chacha paused for a moment before continuing,

“Papaji, your family is like my own family. We have celebrated festivals and weddings together. We have helped each other in times of trouble. So when I heard the men at the mosque, I had to come to you.”


“What did you hear?”

“Well, you know how these young boys are. Some of them are convinced that . . . that . . .Vicky is a mukhbir. They believe he meets Intelligence agents near Makhdoom Sahib.”

“Vicky? A mukhbir? Oh! I understand now. They must have seen him in Sheikh Colony, where he teaches those poor kids. That must be the misunderstanding. You must tell them Vicky is not a mukhbir. He just goes there to help those kids . . .”

“I know, Papaji. Allah knows I know. But these boys don’t listen to anyone. They are also concerned about your landline. Only a few homes in Bagh-i-Mehtab have one. The boys think you will use it to call the army.”


“Ghani Sahab, why will I call the army on my friends and neighbours?”

“Papaji, you don’t understand. These boys want to eliminate problems before they arise. I don’t know if they will act or when they will, but I just wanted to warn you.”

Papaji rubbed his chin and said, “This is not good news. I will have to talk to my family.”

“If you need any help, do let me know, Ghani will do what he can.”

Before exiting our house, Ghani Chacha stopped at the gate and peered into the streets. He waited till they were empty before leaving. As Papaji watched his portly figure scurry across the street, it dawned on him that by sharing this information, Ghani Chacha was putting his life at risk.


Karan Mujoo was born in Srinagar. This Our Paradise is his first novel

(This appeared in the print as 'The Weight of Words')