In 2014, when Israel was firebombing Gaza with thousands of tonnes of explosives, killing scores of children and babies every day, I became possessed by the idea of how the people of Gaza must survive in what’s clearly the worst siege of a people since Sarajevo. How must Gazans cope with life under a punitive blockade that essentially outlaws breathing freely?
I tried to write about it but in the end I chose to talk about the dead children of Gaza instead, how Israel treats all Palestinian children as potential terrorists, thereby arriving at a moral–legal framework within which to rationalise the murder of children. I had once lived through a somewhat similar siege, albeit, gratefully, with no air-force bombers on the prowl in the skies waiting to incinerate children playing on the beach or on a rooftop.
When we were teens, the Indian armed forces killed the young in street battles or in plain massacres.
During one the worst sieges of the 1990s (the euphemism “crackdown”, used by the Indian state and its apparatchiks in sections of the media, and adopted by the victims too, has over the years felt inadequate to describe the long curfews designed to lock, suffocate and punish an entire people), we began to run out of food. We were fast using up the stored pulses and dried vegetables that all Kashmiri households have festooned up in the balconies or the attic, and the few gourds and greens that grew in the uncle’s vegetable garden next door. It was time to hunt. Or was it because a festival day approached and we had to cook something special on the day? In either case, where else could we boys go but into the folds of the faithful old lover?
One of the older boys from the immediate neighbourhood had declared he would procure the boat, and he did. As soon as we reached the shore – another tail of land that went down steeply into the water was thought to be the safest route – Akhtar pointed to a pond- moss-covered channel by a garden that already seemed exhausted of produce. The boat was narrow. Soon we were rowing away with the help of one oar and probably a cricket bat or a plank of wood. What I do clearly remember was all of us helped row so that we could cover ground quickly.
From inland waterway to another, from the floating vegetable gardens to the grocery shops on stilts in the interiors of the lake, we searched for food. Aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes, lotus stems...anything that could be had with the Kashmiri staple of rice, was a prize. A part of the consciousness tells me I must have been somewhat emaciated in those days because everyone had been eating rationed amounts of food, even as we ate all meals. Another part says I was perfectly fine, reedy as ever.
Some families whose livelihood depended on daily wages from the father’s shop, stall or mobile kiosk, had been struggling. Donations of rice and cooking oil and pulses had been collected, it was said, and distributed among those on the brink of starvation.
What had made everyday life worse was the long strike by government employees because it meant no salaries were forthcoming. As a result, there was much less cash floating around.
This meant even if some shops were open in the labyrinths of the old city or if some shopkeepers sold groceries from home or from under the shutter, or when there was a relaxation in the curfew, many didn’t have the means to buy essentials. Of course, people helped each other; grocers who could afford to offer credit did so. But even so, a city in complete shutdown and under curfew for weeks, surrounded and surveilled by thousands of soldiers, is a city in starvation.
Even if mother somehow managed to scrape together regular lunch and dinner every day, it was hard to breathe. This is no way to live, you heard yourself saying at night. One of the many ways a repressive state aims to suppress and control people is to first make them powerless, then show, dramatise, their powerlessness by subjecting them to daily indignities.
Each of us returned with something from the lake. A bunch of lotus stems. A kilo of wilted spinach. Not fully ripe tomatoes. Radish. I remember entering through the doors with a sense of victory. Scouring the lake for food in a little boat had made us all heroes in our mind. I had even stood up occasionally, in case I spotted a full and laden floating garden, with a pumpkin shining through the foliage and dirt, or if a lakeside farmer decided to be kind.
It may sometimes seem as romantic as it was then, but the fact is our youthful adventure into the entrails of the lake was but a flimsy camouflage for an otherwise dire situation. We knew.
A few years ago, I read The Cellist of Sarajevo and I simply couldn’t read it as a thriller. The book has virtues – great pace, a sense of place and some riveting set pieces that portray a besieged city – but you wouldn’t exactly call it a great literary text. And yet, I read it as a document, a monograph, with disquieting parallels to my own youth, growing up as I did during the most brutal phase of Kashmir’s war against India.
Even before the armed rebellion that sprouted in 1989, there had been reminders of the historical ruptures in the body politic. You would ask an elder about a movement, a toppled government or a curfew (that bane of our childhood, youth and old age) and you’d get an overwhelming primer on history. Thirty years later, you’re at a literary festival and you are once again asked that tedious and simplistic question about the role of politics in fiction, your mind goes back to the primer.
When I was nine or ten, I was ordered by a soldier to climb down from the chinar tree in our garden. The soldiers were, well, staging a flag march in a truck. I often used to sit on the branches of the little, forever pruned, maple. I remember getting down quietly but the idea that I was ordered to get off our tree, my tree, in my own home, stayed in my head for years. The colonised space makes the mind instinctively, almost pathologically, naysay any kind of prescription, let alone oppression.
In his magnificent personal history of Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk talks about the four Istanbuli writers (memoirist Sinasi Hisar, poet Yehya Kemal, novelist Ahmet Tapinar and historian Resat Kocu) in whose works he found the essential mnemonic architecture of the city, and of his own relationship with the city and its past. Pamuk talks about how these writers – influenced by French art and literature, by modernists such as Mallarme and Proust – were trying to forge an authentic voice, which was possible “... only if they looked to their city’s past and wrote of the melancholy it inspired. When they recalled the splendour of old Istanbul, when their eyes lit on a dead beauty lying on the wayside, when they wrote about the ruins that surrounded them, they gave the past a poetic grandeur.”
He suggests these writers, and by implication perhaps him too, weren’t just looking at the past for the purposes of re-enactment à la the ‘time and memory games suited to the Bergsonian fashions of the era [that] could evoke the fleeting illusion that, as an aesthetic pleasure at least, the past was still alive...” but to create something anew from the ruins of the empire. For Pamuk, his “four melancholic writers conjured old Istanbul out of its ruins” and they present this illusion as a “game that merges pain and death with beauty. But their starting point is that beauties of the past are lost for ever.”
In my imagining of the two cities I visit when I go to Srinagar as a somewhat homeless émigré, I look for ways to construct a narrative that includes both, the city of my past – idyllic, befitting such encomiums as Jewel in the Crown and that larger regal honorific, Paradise on Earth – and the one I visit now – colonised, brutalised, decaying and self-destructive too.
For me, perhaps the only way to achieve this is via remembrance, both a historical one and one that is often assaulted by the everyday, the present. Do you keep the everyday offhand, not let it impinge on the more substantial, “larger” project that in the purist’s mind may belong to art, or do you also choose to heed the interventionist sentiment probably best echoed by Doris Lessing: If I didn’t write about it people will think it never happened? Or was it someone else?
The bits of food we retrieved from the flanks of the lake perhaps made full my connection with the city where I was born and made. The lake had always been a special place, of sport, beauty, glamour and carefree adolescent languor. Now it was something more; I may have felt a certain rootedness, a connection that stretched from the depths of the lake to the family hearth.
But the scraps of food also revealed a moment of great rupture, the beginning of the tragedy that postmodern conflict engenders. A reasonably well-to-do family had almost been reduced to foodlessness – what might have happened to those who couldn’t afford to stockpile rice and pulses and oil and dried vegetables, I wondered?
I wouldn’t find the answer until nearly two decades later when I learnt that my uncle, Mirza Fida Hussain, helps run a charity that quietly provides for the needy: donations of food, clothes and fees for the bright daughter or son who might improve the family’s fortunes. There are more than a few such small and large charities in places like Kashmir. Perhaps the idea was born in that autumn or during yet another back-breaking “crackdown”: that when everything is shut, movement criminalised, food and medicine treated as though they are contraband, and access to the larger city or the countryside from where a lot of the food supplies came, blocked by jackboot, there must be some local resource to help the very needy, a pragmatist might have said.
Excerpted with permission from “In Memory Lake”, by Mirza Waheed, from A Desolation Called Peace: Voices from Kashmir, edited by Ather Zia and Javaid Iqbal Bhat, HarperCollins India.
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