In the early 1990s, Kashmir was subject to endless curfews. The Indian Army would capture unoccupied spaces in the Valley and clog them with bunkers and checkposts. Abandoned areas were effortlessly transformed into detention centres, as if the troops were on a fill-in-the-blanks mission. Troops, bunkers and guns soon occupied social conversations and gradually permeated memories too.
On a cold, cloudy and curfewed January day in 1991, my parents decided that our small family would shift temporarily to my uncle’s, whose house was just beside ours, on the edge of the main road in Naetpoor, a suburb three kilometres south of Lal Chowk, the centre of Srinagar. Earlier, in harsh winters, I’d always need to make up excuses to slip out to my uncle’s house to play with my cousins. And now, though the curfew upset me, it made my ten-year-old self secretly happy too. It was a chance for me to be with my cousins who always came up with new indoor games. But as the January curfew prolonged, our food stocks diminished. The air in my uncle’s house became melancholic. All the elders grew pensive. The fun and games were over for us and we gathered in the corners of the house to brood over the situation. For almost a week we ate only potatoes and boiled rice. Soon the entire onion stock was consumed; finally we found ourselves eating boiled rice with a mixture of salt and powdered red-chilli. This was the kind of food that increased my appetite. I learnt that taste actually lay in hunger and not in the food. The hungrier you were, tastier the food was. I still remember how waking up in those nights, I’d feel only the emptiness and rumble in my stomach. I’d keep turning on my sides, sniffing the strange yet lovely smell of the underside of my quilt. I would keep looking at the glowing indicator in the switchbox on the wall, aware that my cousins were doing the same and thinking the same. But in those dark, quiet and angst-ridden moments, we couldn’t share with each other what was happening to each one of us.
Just before we would have begun to starve, we were overtaken by another trouble. There was some space behind my uncle’s house that directly connected to the tumbledown main road. The army seemed to think that it was an area suitable for a bunker. During the last few months, before the January 1991 curfew, the insurgents in our area had been giving a tough time to the army; the troops were looking for open corners and crannies to set up bunkers to keep an eye on them.
From the attic window of my uncle’s house we furtively watched a large contingent of Border Security Force (BSF) patrolling the main road of Naetpoor. The visiting Commanding Officer (CO) surveyed the houses lining the road on both sides and chose two sites for the bunker, one of which was the open space behind my uncle’s house. Minutes later, we saw the troops move the large planks of wood and moss-lined stones, which had lain there idle for many years, and prepare my uncle’s backyard for the bunker they were now all set to build.
The troops began to fill empty plastic sacks with mud. We watched silently, gesticulating to each other. Amidst all the desperate bickering among the elders in the house, about what could be done to prevent the army from occupying the backyard, I could think of only one thing. I recollected how my eldest cousin brother, my uncle’s only son, had once created a small pool in that spot for ducklings. I sadly recalled how my cousins and I used to help him collect the earthworms to feed his ducks. Later, when the insurgents’ attacks and curfews became routine, the ducks were sold and the pool was parched.
But the fear among the adults infected me too and soon I had a more immediate concern: construction of the bunker meant that in no time we might become homeless. Bunkers became easy targets of insurgent attacks, and in that case, abandoning the house would be the only option.
I saw my mother and my aunt wringing their hands in helplessness, and praying that the Army would not build the bunker. My hamstrings went slack. Like a droplet of ink in water, a sudden fear diffused in my body. But what could prevent the troops from building the bunker. The menfolk in our extended family could not ask the army to stop because their requests would be responded with severe beating; something that often, unsurprisingly, happened in Kashmir.
Shivering and sobbing, my mother and my aunt mustered some courage to go out and beg them to stop the construction. The troops simply ignored them and went on with their work. As they stood ineffectively pleading with the men in uniform, they found an unexpected sympathetic ear in an army driver. I stood anxious there at the attic window, noticing the driver’s helplessness to intervene or argue with his colleagues. He did not talk to anyone but entered our front lawn, and I was surprised because nobody from the Indian troops dared to go to public spaces alone.
The army driver wore a monkey cap and a long fur-lined camo windbreaker and he had an antique-looking, polished handgun with wooden handle that was tucked into a shiny tan holster on the front of his waistband. Years later, I inferred from his accent, which stayed with me, that he came from the southern part of India. In broken Hindustani, he quickly whispered something to my weather-beaten grandfather, who was sitting on the lower front verandah – his usual place in the daytime. The driver suggested that my grandfather meet the CO, who, he believed, was a considerate person. It was the first time I began to harbour a little sympathy for Indian troops, despite my hatred for them for everything they did in Kashmir. By now I was standing against the pillar of the verandah, my cheek against its cold and coarse surface, deeply stunned to see an Indian Army guy who was unlike all those thousands of his colleagues whom I had witnessed ill-treating the people in Kashmir. He looked up a few times during the conversation to meet my gaze with brief intense glances.
My mother and my aunt quickly understood the driver and requested him to guide them to the CO. As they walked out of the house with him, I followed them and stood skulking at the entrance of the alleyway that led to the small neighbourhood of houses we lived in. As I stood waiting there, while my mother and my aunt pleaded with the CO, the army driver tore away from the huddle of the troops surrounding the CO. Slowly, he strolled back towards me, towards the alleyway. I did not think much of his gauging glances on the verandah earlier. But as he stood in front of me there at the entrance now, with a strange smile spread across his face, I felt somewhat awkward. His teeth were the whitest of all I had ever seen in my life. Just seconds later, I found him trying to kiss and bite my cheeks. I did not know what to do. I thought of abusing him or kicking him in the groin but immediately considered the consequences. Summoning all the composure in the world, I tried to keep the driver distracted with small talk till my mother and aunt came back; he indulged in my trivial questions. Though the alleyway was deserted, it was right off the main road and he there was still the risk of being seen. Whenever he tried to get close again I would raise my hands in some gesture, creating an ostensible barrier between us. His eyes were fixed on me except the periodic furtive glances on the road. He wore a smile all this while, as if trying to coax me into believing that he wasn’t doing anything bad.
Smiling through tears, my mother and my aunt loomed into my view as they walked towards us. The relief on their faces told me they had succeeded in persuading the CO. Immediately, the driver disengaged and quickly moved away. They thanked him but he remained busy in pulling himself together. I scurried towards my uncle’s house to announce the good news to my cousins who looked worried and uncertain.
I was glad and distressed at once. I couldn’t share the good news with my cousins the way I would have wanted to.
Later that day, as we noticed the CO giving directions to his men to pack up from the backyard, everybody cried in happiness. But I stood frozen and disturbed, wondering how the driver who had helped us get out of trouble had abused me.
A day later, I saw my cousins, aunt and uncle doing everything they could to make the space in the backyard of my uncle’s house look like an unsuitable place for a bunker. Everybody had different suggestions for filling the space: a shack for firewood, a barn, a chicken coop, a part-outdoor-bathroom-part-shop and so on. Soon this space was fenced and a part of it was transformed into a shop and an outdoor bathroom.
A few years later, my uncle and my parents sold their houses on the main road and built new ones in another colony on the other side of the road. My uncle’s house was bought by a businessman. The space that one day the Indian Army wanted for a bunker is now, 24 years later, a big, cloistered storage for building materials with a compact iron gate.
Old bunkers have been modified, decorated with potted plants; many have been even replaced by permanent, concrete, brickwork installations. Kashmir remains one of the world’s most densely militarised and policed places. Many public intellectuals in India and abroad have written on it at length. But even now there is an armed trooper for every ten civilians and a bunker for almost every street in Kashmir.
Whenever I pass by that alleyway now, I am reminded of two sets of bright white teeth and an unpleasant smile, and my mind quickly becomes occupied with a pillbox bunker – a machine-gun muzzle poking out of its pigeonhole window.
~Shahnaz Bashir teaches narrative journalism and conflict reporting at the Central University of Kashmir, Srinagar. He is the author of the novel The Half Mother.