How do you fictionalise Kashmir? That place which is constantly dissolving into fiction, or several fictions. It is a war fought with stories. Remember the videos that cropped up in rapid succession this April? Each with its own storyline. Yeh zulm hai (This is oppression), said one. We are showing restraint in the face of severe provocation, said another. We are brave, said one. You are weak, said another.

Women are raped in a village one night but nobody raped them. Thirty-six Sikhs are shot in another village some years later, and their killers are both militants and security forces. Civilians, killed near the Line of Control, morph into militants in death. Fiction meets its match in Kashmir. To speak of the Valley is to be caught up in contradictions which leave you wordless, somewhere on the shoreline of the real and the fantastic.

In her novel The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy tells a story about the impossibility of telling “a real story” about Kashmir. “Akh daleela wann [Tell me a story],” a three-year-old Kashmiri girl asks her father. “Yeth manz ne kahn balai aasi! Na aes soh kunni junglaz manz rozaan! [There wasn’t a witch, and she didn’t live in the jungle!]” The old fairytales will not cut it anymore. As for real stories, the father can no longer tell what is real and what is a story.

So this is how you fictionalise Kashmir. You don’t.

“A real story”

Much of Roy’s novel takes place against a rapidly moving scroll of “news”. But in the Kashmir section, they emerge from the background to become the story. Unlike her Kashmiri protagonist, Roy is trying to tell a “real story”. And unlike journalists breaking news stories, she can do so under the cover of fiction. Much of what happened in Kashmir lies beyond news reports, in hearsay and rumour and personal memories. Like thousands of people who disappeared in the Valley, it left no trace and will never be officially acknowledged.

The main characters could be daguerreotypes of people walking on the streets of Srinagar in the 1990s. Musa, the militant, pushed to violence after a personal tragedy. Naga, the journalist from Delhi, committed to “telling both sides” but increasingly intimate with the Intelligence Bureau. Biplab, the Intelligence Bureau officer, who blends casual prejudice with a taste for alcohol and music. They all love Tilottoma, a character who seems to be standing in for some aspects of the author herself.

A sentimental romance between Tilottoma and Musa appears to drive the plot in this section. But the real motive force may be located elsewhere, in another character who rampages through the story, generating his own web of fear and death. That is Major Amrik Singh, a thinly disguised version of Major Avtar Singh, much dreaded in the Valley during the peak of the militancy.

The plot is looped into a case that shook the Valley in the 1990s – the murder of the lawyer and human rights activist, Jalil Andrabi. Riffat Andrabi, his wife, later testified that they had been travelling in a car when they were stopped by the army and Ikhwanis, former militants who had switched sides. Andrabi was picked up and taken away. Nearly three weeks later, his body was found in the Jhelum, eyes gouged out, hands bound.

The trail of witnesses, some of whom were reportedly killed soon after Andrabi’s death, led to Avtar Singh, already known for gratuitous violence in the Valley. Not long afterwards, he was quietly transferred to Punjab. In 2005, he escaped to Canada and then found his way into America. That is where he was living in obscurity when domestic abuse charges pressed by his wife brought his name into the papers once more, blowing his cover. Avtar Singh killed his wife and children in 2012, before shooting himself. There were several charges of violent crime against him, going back to his Kashmir days.

In the novel, the case is first revealed through the dossier of a human rights activist, which often echoes news reports on the case. Duly introduced, Amrik Singh, the major’s fictional double, appears in person, a manic and terrifying presence.

Was Avtar Singh, like Amrik Singh, really a shrunken man in his last days, haunted by his crimes and weakened without his “infrastructure of impunity”? Did he really stalk about in the Shiraz Cinema, a movie hall in downtown Srinagar that was turned into an interrogation centre, like a character in a Jean Genet play, enacting his own theatre of cruelty? Shiraz Cinema was occupied by the Border Security Force in the 1990s and later by the Central Reserve Police Force, so it is not clear why the army would use it as a base of operations.

Like most cases in Kashmir, where fact slides into fiction and vice versa, it does not matter.

Theatre of the absurd

That which does not fit into one fiction or the other in Kashmir becomes a derangement. There are local memories and local anecdotes that do not align with either official histories or the narratives of azadi. This makes them nonsense, like the babbling of the village “mout (idiot)” or the dying chatter of a delirious woman.

So they must be gathered up under absurd titles such as “The Reader’s Digest Book of English Grammar and Comprehension for Very Young Children by S Tilottoma”. It will tell you about cattle belonging to Hindu owners crossing the Line of Control, the militant who was killed by other militants but soldiers were decorated for his death, the village which had a bull for an army informer, the Kashmiri Pandit who shouted “azadi” but was killed for being a kafir (infidel). It will quote Genet - Roy does not take her references lightly.

After 30 years, conflict does not remain outside on the streets. It enters the mind as a neurosis, it forges its own language. Roy dutifully compiles a “Kashmiri-English Alphabet” made up of words still heard in the Valley: A for azadi, army and Allah, B for BSF, body and bunker, all the way up to Z for zulm and Z-plus security. Something of the terrible weight of conflict can be felt in the nonsense and the pidgin.

What else can a writer possibly know or say about such a place? As Roy herself points out, there is too much blood here for good literature. So, very frequently, the novelist turns journalist. She records what she hears, a vocabulary armed to the teeth and slogans that have changed very little in the last three decades. And she records what she sees, especially in Srinagar, an inventory of detail that might add up one day.

The torture chambers and ghoulish army officers may have been pushed into the realm of myth. But this much you can know. Like Tilottoma, if you walk across Srinagar, you will find “martyrs’ graveyards” flowering under your feet. And if you walk down the Boulevard along Dal Lake, as Tilo had done when she went looking for Musa, you will also see houseboats with names promising paradise, or else a colonial fantasy – Queen Victoria, Clifton, Mandalay. If you keep walking towards the centre of town, you will pass Ahdoos, the hotel where Naga stayed during his trips and where Tilo would be taken one fateful day.

And if you keep walking still, you will reach Lal Chowk, the heart of the city, where you find an abandoned cinema hall bristling with guns.