April 15, 2021
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Ride Across The River

The winner of the fourth Outlook/Picador India Non-Fiction Competition went on a journey "in search of patriotism," worn out with the variety that onl

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Ride Across The River
On the way back, I keep watch out of the right window of the Sumo. A large chinar tree between here and Sangrama, they had said, and that was all the description I got. It was only later that it struck me, I don’t even know what a chinar looks like. Ignorant me.

In any case, about two-thirds of the way to Sangrama, we pass a large tree. Chinar or not, I have no idea. But it dominates the landscape hereabouts enough that it might be the correct one. And as a coda to my sighting it—as a reminder of a bloody day in 2001—there is a bicycle there, leaning against the tree. For one long instant, I have the feeling that I’ve been transported back to that day. That any second now, as we drive past, the bicycle will explode and send sharp bits of metal slicing into my flesh. As it once did to 38-year-old Major Abhimanyu Sikka, famous in these parts even then.

Returning from Sangrama, Sikka was driving when they passed the chinar tree: driving, and thus further from the bike and the tree than his mate in the passenger seat. But I’m told a flying piece of the bike passed by the passenger—how does that poor fellow feel?—and cut deep into Sikka’s jugular vein. He was actually conscious for a while. Turned to ask how his men were, got out of the vehicle and checked if anyone needed help, radioed what had happened to their base unit a few miles down the road, stood there for a while like that, talking quietly with his men and waiting for help, until he noticed he had blood down his front. His back. His fingers. His toes. His eyes. His nose. Faint from losing blood, he crumpled, never to rise again.

"After all," said one of the men who told me all this, "it was his jugular."

All this flashes through my mind as I register the presence of the bike, leaning lazily on the tree that might be a chinar. But of course, this bike doesn’t explode. I relax, though I realise I’ve held my breath for a few seconds, I’m breathing hard. Our Sumo rumbles on towards Srinagar.

I came here seeking Abhimanyu Sikka, gone since May 2001. In how that bike made me feel for those few seconds, in the thoughts it put in my head all over again, I found him.

The road from Srinagar starts out like roads in most northern cities: raucous with traffic, dust everywhere, rubble and garbage, I cough and cough again. Sure, this is a pretty city. In parts. It is also a dreary one in other parts, and this route is one of them. Through Lal Chowk and Batmaloo, we crawl even early in the morning, past knots of people looking for rides, through messes of cars and bikes and buses and Qualises. At one three-way junction on the outskirts, there is the familiar and pure chaos that results when such junctions are left untended and unsignalled.

Weary of the wait, the dust, the chaos, I close my eyes and muse through the mess.

Why Srinagar, my friends ask in wonder, why Kashmir? I feel oddly bashful offering the sole answer I have: I’m in search of patriotism. I’m worn out with the variety that only seems like phony posturing to me—the "love India or leave it", "my country right or wrong" kind of rhetoric that is applauded as patriotism. I’m searching for different ways to look at this near-holy virtue, the different ways it is experienced and lived. Even fought for.

I’m travelling for that. And if you’re travelling in search of patriotism in India, the road leads inexorably to Kashmir. In the way it has become a litmus test of our feelings for our country, in the emotions it inspires in us, Kashmir is no-brainer patriotism.Naturally, I want to visit, learn for myself what ticks over here. Yet, what my friends also mean is the mundane question of safety. Is it really a good time to go to Kashmir? Is Srinagar safe? Can you trust those Kashmiri Muslims? Don’t they all hate us Indians?

Good questions, though how will I answer them without going?

So I get to Srinagar. I roam the city, take the buses with their guttural conductors, shop for shawls and dupattas, lunch on the leisurely lawns of the Amar Singh Club, watch football matches at the University, sit beside Dal Lake and write postcards, debate settling into a houseboat for a few days.

Normal things, normal tourist stuff, normal life. So, where’s the patriotism?

Yet, what else is normal is what makes this city profoundly abnormal. I mean the immense presence of armed forces: soldiers every few metres, concrete bunkers festooned with rolls of barbed wire, guns cradled in alert arms everywhere you look.

And already this is a journey. From the chaotic certainties of Bombay, through the disorderly ostentation of Delhi, to this city of guns where it took me six—count ’em, six—different security checks to board a plane, where you must turn on your inside light if you’re driving your car after dark, where the streets are dark after dark. And when I begin to experience some of this, I also begin to realise all that it has done to what people here feel about a country. Come to Kashmir for the beauty and the chinar trees, but come, too, for a taste of that.

Rashid, who sold me two shawls on the Boulevard, has thought about this. "Koi hadd bhi hoti hai," he begins. On the way home after a wedding, he weaved through a roadblock and stopped in front of a crpf jawan who had his gun pointed at him. Where are you coming from, where are you going, why so late, the jawan barked. Rashid’s simple answers—"wedding", "home" and "weddings run late", respectively—only annoyed the man, who brandished the gun some more. So, after a while Rashid emerged carefully from his rusting Maruti. "Koi hadd bhi hoti hai," he repeats to me. "These soldiers are all stupid goondas."

He stood there, this balding, shambling, slightly flabby man. Pointed to his wife and kids, to his own belly, asked the jawan: "Why are you treating me like this? I’m an Indian like you. Do I look like a terrorist?"

I get the unsettling feeling he is really asking me. Me, the travelling Indian whose easy ideas about patriotism also run into roadblocks in this place.

No, he doesn’t look like a terrorist. But this is more normal stuff in this terrorist, tourist, town. And in some ways, it’s in tales like this—of which there are plenty for a visitor to hear in Srinagar—that my search for Abhimanyu Sikka takes root.

Because the logical place these tales pointed to was the other end of those guns: those cradling arms, those eyes that look out from bunkers. What must it be like to be a soldier here? To be seen as a stupid goonda? To be on duty not knowing where the next terrorist might pop up? To peer at ordinary citizens along the barrel of a gun? What does it do to your ideas of serving the country? What must it be to sometimes die here?

Of Sikka, I knew only his cousin, who suggested that on one of my Srinagar trips, I might go see where he had died. Well, I also knew the village nearest where the bomb went off, Sangrama in Baramulla district, and the name of his unit. Armed with this much, my plan was simple: head for Baramulla and ask.

The road beyond the three-way junction arrows across placid Kashmiri plains, through stands of trees and past fields of grain.Not my idea of scenic, so I close my eyes again and doze. Awake some indeterminate time later, look out groggily to note we are speeding through a little chai-shop town called...Sangrama. I croak to the driver, stop here, stop here, I want to get off!

Over biscuits, I begin asking. Anyone know this man, he died in a blast around here a few years ago? Blank faces from the chai man, the std owner, the crpf post, the cloth-seller. Soon, I realise my best option is to find my way to his unit, another 5 or 6 km down the road. A crowded minibus drops me there. Some searching questions, a patdown and a longish wait in a shed later, I’m in. I’m talking to a young major whose name isn’t his name.

Here’s my first clue to what it’s like to be a soldier here: you don’t use your real name. You don’t say where your home is, your family is. For there have been times when the phone has rung in such homes and spewed threats at frightened wives and kids. It’s only when the major and his friend, a younger captain, are persuaded that I am merely an itinerant writer, that I want to know something about a man still revered here—only then do they relax and tell me about assumed names and homes. And their real names and homes.

Though by now I’m not sure what’s real and what isn’t.

"Oh yes, Abhimanyu Sikka," the major begins. "Yeah, I came here after his time, but I know about him. Our unit holds an Abhimanyu Sikka Memorial Cricket Tournament every year, where local teams participate. You see, he was famous in this area, most of all among civilians. They had a name for him. Boba. In Kashmiri, that’s ‘mother’."

No mere story. Talking to a local youth later that afternoon on the road outside, I ask if he knew Sikka. "Of course. Tall guy, nice guy. We all called him Boba."

I’m beginning to sense that Sikka was an unusual sort. In this place, this calling, that is almost defined by violence and virility, this man had qualities of caring enough that he was called ‘mother’. It’s not unheard of: In far-off Tamil Nadu, there is a temple to Tayumanavar ("He who became a mother too")—Shiva in the form of a mother come to help her daughter in need. In Maharashtra, the poet-saint Dnyaneshwar is often called "Dnyanoba mauli", "mother" again, for his gentle teachings on religion and philosophy. There are those venerated traditions, yes. But that a tough modern soldier, of all people, gets a name like that? He must have been unusual.

"In my CO’s office," says the major, "you’ll find a picture of Abhimanyu. Next to it is another picture. Those are the bastards who killed him, after we killed them. That shot, we call it ‘Abhimanyu Sikka Revenged’."

Boba, revenged.

The major invites me to join him and a few other officers for lunch, typically delicious army fare. Beside me is the young captain. A smile plays on his lips as we talk about his profession. "It’s hard work, sure. But you sleep at night with the satisfaction that you’re doing what you were trained for." He smacks a fist into the other palm. "When we go after a terrorist, it’s like the hunter and the hunted, you know?"

The look on his face is, by now, nearly wistful; the smile almost bittersweet. Like you might reminisce about first love, this athletic young man gets misty-eyed about what he does every day. "The thrill of hunting, you know? And then we shoot the fucker down."

He repeats: "Nothing like that satisfaction. Nothing like it."

I can’t eat much. The food is good, I am hungry, I like this young man, I’m conscious of his sincerity, his passion, his spirit.You might say, his patriotism. But suddenly, I can’t eat much.

We’re on an arrow-straight road again. Another major, another assumed name, takes me another few kilometres to "Abhimanyu Post" that he now commands, successor to Sikka. There’s a picture of Sikka on the wall in the office, my first look at the man I’ve been tracking all day. Boba wore glasses, I note. After tea, the major and I stroll out of the post. On either side of us are smart soldiers with guns, looking this way and that in wide-eyed trigger alert, protection detail for the two of us. But protection from whom? The people they are themselves charged with protecting?

We walk below tall shady trees to the footbridge that his men built across the trickling river behind the post. This is the most tangible memorial to Sikka, this bridge named after him. A slender, spare structure that, if you want to get to the other side, saves a long walk.

Sikka himself, the major tells me, pointing, used to roam those low slopes across the river. Every day, just him and one or two men, open and frank, meeting civilians and listening to them, getting to know them. He was a fine soldier—I remember another one, the captain with the wistful hunter’s gleam—and he saw this outreach to civilians as a vital part of his job. He did it well. He showed he cared. That’s why Boba was so loved by people here.

A bridge to that other side: in this place of all places, it’s a fine metaphor, and it has me humming lines from Dire Straits:

I’m a soldier of freedom in the army of man.
We are the chosen, we’re the partisan.
The cause it is noble and the cause it is just;
We are ready to pay with our lives if we must.
Gonna ride across the river, deep and wide,
Ride across the river to the other side...

What was Abhimanyu Sikka’s river, I wonder. The one that trails past below the bridge? The one that runs between a soldier’s life of battle and tension and killing, and the less fraught lives the rest of us lead? The one between soldiering and reaching out to the people you soldier for? The gulf that says people not like us are stupid suspect monsters, merely for being not like us?

This man they called Boba crossed those rivers, deep and wide.

And I’ve travelled a long way in search of something called patriotism. In Kashmir, as I’ve heard stories and ridden the buses and drunk my chai, my own ideas of it have taken flight to places unknown, and that’s been my real journey in this sometimes beautiful, always tragic land. But here, where Boba roamed, from the hints I’ve had of this man’s life, I think I’m beginning to understand. Understand him, understand what he says to me, and even understand Dire Straits’ Ride Across the River for the first time.

You reach out to the other guy, you ride across your river to the other side—and you know what your country really means to you. You know what patriotism means to you. And so on this trip, as I pass a bike that leans against a tree, holding my breath, I know I’ve journeyed as far as I’m going to. It’s time now to go home.

Beside the Major Sikka Memorial Bridge, a plaque carries his name, as also the new major’s name—which isn’t his name. In Boba country, when you die for your country, you get your name back.

Dilip D'Souza trained in computer science, but now writes to earn his dal-fry. He has two books out, and has won several awards for his writing. He wrote this essay while he was a Scholar of Peace Fellow with WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peae). Dilip lives in Mumbai with his wife Vibha and their children Sahir and Surabhi. They wouldn't live anywhere else.

Previous Winners

2001: Tenzin Tsundue: My Kind of Exile
2003: Saryu Ahuja: Stars And Stripes
2004: Anuradha Roy: Cooking Women

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