Natasha Sharma | July 2022
The loudspeaker, fallen on its side, continues to play the ‘Bhumroo’ track. The inappropriate volume of the song contrasts with the eerie silence on the bridge. A while back, the staccato gunshots had adumbrated the baraati music, and now, the music reigns supreme.
The wind resettles stained items of clothing, flinging them everywhere. A silk scarf brushes past my face, resting on the railing before flying off. Supine, I gaze around; bodies dressed in wedding finery lie strewn around me. The sticky feel of ever-flowing blood grazes me; its metallic smell permeates my nostrils. A buzzing in my ear permits stray patches of music in. Some people have their eyes open as if they are arguing with their god above about their fate. I can’t hear their keening, but then my hearing is impaired. The ringing silence feels oppressive especially because the day is so beautiful. Puffs of white clouds hang over us, with the sun making its appearance. But its light pales in front of the darkness here.
I lie next to the railing, turning towards it. The Lidder River beneath us bubbles and chortles its merry song. My eyes track a drop of vermillion red blood that’s jumping off the guardrail. I watch its descent till it disappears out of view. Many of its ilk join it. Meeting similar fates. The Lidder hungrily embraces them, the drops immersing themselves and their brethren. Another drop plunges into the open arms beneath it. I close my eyes as I feel someone places something heavy on my chest.
I had been excited to return to my state for my posting. It was a land of the misunderstood, mishandled, and mishaps. Perhaps, the fairy tale where the parrot holds the key to the giant’s life is a better analogy when it comes to Kashmir. Not only is J&K India’s essence, but Pakistan’s jugular vein. And strategically speaking? A simmering flashpoint.
But it’s home.
I had assumed my return–reconciliation, if you will, would result in picking up where we had left off. But in Pahalgam, if you join them, you are against them. My resurgence was met with stoic silences and my uncomfortable forays into short-lived conversations, with stares. The Kashmiris have a long memory. The ice was thawing but soon things hurtled towards disaster. And fast.
The decline started with a killing.
A FEW MONTHS AGO:
The army family quarters of the Victor Force unit of the Counter Insurgency Force (CIF) who controlled the Anantnag district, hire many vetted local civilians for various jobs like gardening or cleaning. Early August sees several rosy-cheeked and check-patterned phiran-clad men and women pruning branches, plucking apples, etc.
My phone trills with an incoming message and Sharika, my wife, reads the cryptic message that flashes on the screen and hands me the device, shaking her head.
“Your khabri group message.”
I glance at the screen.
‘The eagle is alerted to a letter of summons making make its way in its aerie. Cease and desist.‘
I wink at her and kiss the fading henna pattern on each of her hands.
“I’ll see you in the evening.”
She acknowledges it with a smile. Switching on my game face, I reach the office where an impromptu meeting awaits my presence in reaction to the earlier message.
“Good morning, Major Koul. We’ve received information from our confidential informants, sir,” Capt. Shankar says.
I greet the others as I take my seat. “What’s happening?”
“The school we’ve set up for the locals as part of the Operation Sadbhavnais turning out to be a pain point. The CI informed us that a new militant, Arif, flush with ammunition, has been spotted lurking around it. That’s him there.”
All of us turn towards the screen where an impossibly young man stands holding an M4 rifle and twirling his four-hair-disguised-as-a-moustache.
“So, what’s new?” someone asks.
Heard that. Seen that. Killed that.
“Arif is expected to bring in reinforcements and if his plan takes off, the casualty will be very high. Especially with children around.”
“Postpone the event.”
“Not possible. Another recommendation?”
“Sir, a prophylactic security cover can…”
The bridge swings with each footstep. I look over at the river. There’s something about the flowing Lidder that captivates my attention. It’s where my life had begun, and in its own way, ended. For most people, Kashmir’s all about its valleys, Chinars, and kehwa. But for me, my state is all about its rivers. Not the lakes, but the rivers. Jhelum, Chenab, and my favourite Lidder besides others. I lean against the railing, waiting. My thoughts wash over me, like waves lapping over rocks. One thought rules the roost. By keeping secrets, I am alienating the most important person in my life. I am making him a stranger to my acquaintances. And more importantly, I am toying with danger. Somewhere when the two paths intersect, there will be mayhem. And it will be all my doing. My thoughts wash away when I see him in the distance.
The light breeze caresses the young man’s golden locks as he strides towards me. His royal blue phiran emphasises his peachy complexion with his aquiline nose lording over his lush, full lips. Those same lips curl down in disgust and hatred blazes in his brown eyes as he spots me. His stride slows, as if reluctance bears down on him, his body vibrating with suppressed anger. We look so much alike, my features more seasoned and his, fresher, but both carry the scars of sorrow. I hold my arms out but he sidesteps my embrace.
“Haven’t I asked you not to call me?” His residual sneer turns the proverbial knife in my heart.
“I wanted to see you,” I whisper as my voice stays budged in my throat.
“To gloat over my situation? To show me my rightful place?”
“Today is the birth anniversary of your…”
“You don’t think I remember the day when it all went downhill for us. The day you became a traitor.”
“I am not a traitor! I left Pahalgam to make our lives better. For you.”
“Whatever.” He shrugs. “Your reasons were selfish.”
“Somu, We’re meeting each other after ages, please can’t we just want to light a diya?”
“You’ve lost the right to call me Somu! It’s Som for you.”
I raise my hands in a placating manner.“Som, remember when you were a kid, we’d pretend we were sharks coming to the shore to hunt?”
My arm, reaching out to pat his shoulder, is flicked away in response. The same hand that’d clutch mine for support when he was younger. That boy of mine seemed so far away, replaced by this quivering mass of rage. How do I reach into the abyss and rescue him?
“Nostalgia doesn’t make up for your betrayal.” He spits on the floor. “Not anymore, government lackey! Don’t contact me again. I am leaving.”
I try to hold his hand, but he curls it into a fist. “Can we please light it? It was one of our favourite rituals.” I retrieve the diya and offer it to him while blocking his exit, a beseeching expression on my face.
“I said no!” He pushes me away and stomps off. The diya shatters against the guardrail. A few shards falling into the river and some on the bridge. I stare at the broken pieces and fight the urge to break down like them. Was it wrong for me to make a life for myself?
Sometimes, the apple does fall far from the tree.
I am tired. Not mentally, but physically. Even though we’re trained to repel fatigue, like water, it finds its way inside. When will the fighting end? Sometimes, it gets to me. But then, like a well-trained machine, I place the emotions in the vault and seal it. Emotions don’t play a role in the war.
That evening, I hug Sharikaa little harder, drawing strength. After dinner, she retires to bed, leaving me seated on the sofa, thinking about our planned attack. When I try to rest, sleep eludes me, and I watch Sharika as she sleeps. Breathing in and out. With her black hair, interspersed with grey, spread out on the pillow, she resembles every inch of the goddess she’s named after. Watching her, my tension eases as I recall how we had met.
I was a Captain when I bumped into her at a government gig she was organizing. Sharika had a sense of calmness around her and I fell for her hard and fast, but she wasn’t interested. Her ambition and will to finagle a posting in Kashmir made her wear blinders, become single-minded. We’d often meet at official events and eventually, she agreed to meet me. At the mess, surrounded by officers and cadets moving in and out, was when I realised how her life had come to a standstill.
Married in her teens, Sharika’s husband, trapped in a face-off between the army and the militants, died by a bullet. Her voice lodged itself while her tears spilled over on the angular cheeks as she struggled, overcome with feelings. I ached to hold her hand, but decorum and society held me back. As a soldier who had been in such situations, I was aware of how they played out. Locals trapped in the houses filled with terrorists, surrounded by the army. We always try to minimize civilian interaction, but sometimes collateral damage is inevitable. I may not have been present when Sharika’s husband lost his life but I have experienced many similar events.
Education was her ticket out, and Sharika snatched it with both hands and held on tight. Despite the role of our army in nipping her budding marital life, she bore no grudges towards us. It made me fall deeper in love with her.
With each meeting, like the tendrils that escaped her no-nonsense bun, she became freer around me. Less guarded, more herself. I don’t know what changed her mind or what she saw in me, but she agreed to share her life with me. To say that was my happiest day would be an understatement. My family never forgave me for this slight though, often taunting me about Sharika’s age– she is a few years elder to me. They often warned me against her. That she’d betray me. But then, like a well-trained machine, I place those emotions too in the vault and seal it.
I gently weave my fingers through her tresses, drawing her close as her body warmth envelops me. My mind returns to strategizing while nestled against her.
A curfew lies over the valley like a thick blanket. It makes it difficult for me to breathe, suffocating me. Our movements have become even more restricted. The atmosphere is stressed, and nerves are fraught with tension.
The RR officers foiled an attack at a school’s inauguration, capturing and killing several militants, and the aftereffects still vibrate here. One would think a state as exposed to gunfire as Kashmir would’ve grown immune to the sound, but no. Each gunshot feels new–each one closer than before. The internet is down, yet I mindlessly refresh the news feed, knowing it won’t update. An incoming message captures my attention.
Som is in our custody. Await further instructions. Don’t inform the forces.
The phone slips from my hand and clatters to the floor. Taking my heart with it. Sweat beads island my upper lip. I can’t breathe. I scrounge my eyes shut and gulp down lungful of shallow breaths until the twisting sensation in my gut eases. A silent scream escapes me and my hands shake as I pick the phone. Re-reading the message, hoping it may have changed. I gaze around with wild movements but the room is deserted. Only imperative staff is on call. I take a deep, cleansing breath and push away the panic to respond.
Don’t hurt him. I’ll do whatever it takes.
The response is immediate.
You have no choice. This is in retaliation for the slaying of our brothers, Arif and others. We seek justice and revenge for it. Wait for further instructions.
My past and present are heading towards a collusion and I can only watch, standing at the edge as they clash.
My higher-up has returned from his leave, after the Dooru school incident. Now that he’s back, my vacation has automatically been granted. I float as I climb the floors to our house but am disappointed as I remember that Sharika is at a Ladies Meet. I return to the mess for dinner and hope to catch her when the programme ends. Sharika’s eyes light up like the night sky when I tell her about the approval. We’d been planning a trip for a while.
“Param, can we attend a wedding before we leave?” Sharika’s eyes capture mine, expectations looming in them.
“Sure. Where’s it?”
“In Traal, a few kilometres ahead. One of my subordinates, Khayaam, is getting married. We can have a quick stopover and then proceed. Of course, if you’re up to it. Khayaam is my prodigy. You’ve met him, remember?”
“The one who owns the saffron farms?”
“Yes! So, shall I confirm to him that we’ll make it?”
I ponder over it. Generally, as soldiers, even though our lives are intertwined with the local around us, we don’t usually attend their personal ceremonies. It’s not forbidden, but as a thumb rule, it’s frowned upon by the army. But with Sharika being a local, having roots, here made it okay.
Sharika dazzles me with her smile. “Perfect. Now all we have to do is buy a perfect gift. Shall we go shopping?”
I groan. “Count me out! I rather face the firing squad than go shopping!”
A shadow crosses Sharika’s face as her eyes close. I immediately realize how insensitive my words must have sounded to her. “I am sorry, Sharika. I didn’t mean it in that way. Yes, let’s go shopping. A phiran designer owes me a favour.” I overcompensate for my gaffe.
My wife nods in a distracted manner as she collects her bag. Somewhere my words still sting her as her movements are slow and she appears unenthusiastic as compared to moments ago. Her face is drawn and her eyes are contemplative.
The instructions on the phone turn me into jelly. I feel I am standing at the crossroads of my life, staring at the two paths in front of me. Both lead to disaster. I knew by withholding knowledge I was opening myself up for a catastrophe. And it has finally happened.
How can I choose? What can I choose?
Betrayal is an emotion unfamiliar to me, and to be so intimate with it, so suddenly, distresses me, and I rush to the bathroom to empty my breakfast, drenched in cold sweat. I wash my face and stare into the mirror. Red-rimmed eyes glare back at me. I place my hands over my cheeks. My palms are icy and my cheeks feel on fire. I look at my reflection, seeking answers. I pray I can find then, but my image has nothing to offer me.
I already know my choice. I have always known it. But I wasn’t ready to accept it. I knew whom I’d chose and that it would break me. My new found happiness has an expiry date and it’s fast approaching.
Those eyes in the mirror laser into mine. They’re full of accusations. I close them, feeling the betrayal rise like bile I cannot swallow.
I have no choice.
No, that’s factually incorrect. I do have a choice. I choose not to opt for it.
I choose betrayal. Or it has chosen me. I am Judas.Why do I feel so much guilt then?
As a force of habit, vacation or not, I am up at dawn. I watch as its breaks out through my window. The rays entering into the dark room. They fall over Sharika and her eyes flutter and then relax. The sunrays light part of her face, the other half remains in shadow. I gaze at her mesmerized. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank God for her presence. She moans in her sleep and turns away from me. Towards the light. I creep out of bed and draw the curtains, plunging the room back into darkness.
I dream of my son, Som. He was a colicky baby, keeping me up at nights, and as a teen parent, there were days when I felt cloistered. Then guilt would wash over like a tsunami and I’d regret my thoughts that swayed like a yo-yo. My mother was the only solace. The one who understood and helped me out with him. It was she who pushed me towards finishing my education and working towards a career.
“I’ll take care of baby Som, Janan. You finish your education. Then life will get better,” she’d said keeping a gnarled hand over mine. “Janu, start using your official name now, beta. This chapter of your life should be sealed and closed.” She had taken me in her arms and everything felt manageable.
Ma kept her promise right till the very end. She died before I graduated but she would’ve loved the fact that I made something of myself but then I lost Som. Disappointed with my decision to join the government and unhappy with my life choices, my son ran away. With the help of friends, I traced him but he wanted to do nothing with me. With Som being eighteen, I had little control over his life and I eventually swallowed the bitter pill that we were estranged. When I was posted here, I tried to mend ways with him and it was beginning to work. Well, slowly but at least now he talks and meets me.
But now, the militants have him.
And I am not going to lose my son again. I’ll lead the lamb to the slaughter. The lamb is used to it.
The day plays peek-a-boo with the sun. It shines with vengeance and then retires hurt. Before appearing again. Having woken up earlier than needed, I feel a little bereft. Vacation doesn’t agree with me as I am used to routine. I need routine to stabilize me. An unshaking feeling in the pit of my stomach stumps me. Parting the embroidered curtains, I fiddle with the high collar of my achkan. It bites into my neck and keeps gnawing. Bloody thing.
Sharika lays a hand on my shoulder, the smell of fresh henna wafts to me. She is looking resplendent in baby pink shararawith dangling ear rings, and I stare at her. My mouth is agape.
“Wow!” I stutter. “You look shunning, jaan. Just like a goddess!”
Her face breaks into a shy smile as she absorbs my compliment. “Thank you, Paramji. Shall we go?”
I hold my arm out to her and she encircles it with hers, her bangles jangling. “Yes.” She steps up and places a hand on my shaven cheek and places a kiss there. “Thank you for coming with me.”
I nod at her and tug at her arm. Sharika places one foot across the threshold and turns back towards the quarters. I am surprised to see a yearning expression cross her visage as she gazes at our house. She quietly closes the door as smiles at me. She is unusually quiet while we drive to the marriage, looking out of the window watching the scenery goes past. Her features become more pinched as we approach our destination. When we reach, she clutches my hand with her icy ones.
“Are you nervous?” I ask.
She looks up. “No. Why do you think so?”
I tilt my head at her but don’t explain. “Let us get this over with.”
We step out of the car and stroll towards the bridge, hand in hand. The baraat is making it slow and happy way to the bride’s house. I can hear fragment of several conversations intermittently over the music.
“We are in time, it seems.” I comment as I take in the scene in front of me.
Sharika looks at me, a glint in her eyes. “Yes, just in time.”
People are milling around us but I stand a little apart from them, keeping my distance while Sharika interacts with everyone, greeting people and hugging them. The loudspeaker is blaring songs as people in the baraat dance with abandon. My lips crease in a smile, watching the enjoyment on their faces. I gaze at my wife as she is thronged by people, and I am once again struck by her natural beauty – intrinsic as well as external.
The hair on my neck bristle as I experience the first flush of danger. My training kicks in and I examine the crowd but cannot seem to isolate the reason for my unease. The groom, obscured by a flowery sehra, is walking behind the revellers. He parts the rows of flowers and our gazes meet. I smile at him, nodding my congratulations to him as my smile dies midway.
It’s not Khayaam.
My hands immediately move to my midriff where my pistol is holstered while my eyes search for Sharika.
Where is she? Darn, this is an ambush.
Fake-Khayaam whips out his pistol from his sherwani and shoots at me. He misses as I duck. While going down, I spot Sharika, standing at the bridge’s edge. “Sharika, get down,” I scream but she stays put, her eyes on her phone. I don’t know if she has heard me.
The firing starts suddenly and for a brief moment, the wedding party cannot distinguish between the shots and the beats of blaring music, till realisation comes through. Bullets fly everywhere indiscriminately and people start falling like dominos. I squeeze out two shots as all hell breaks loose. People running helter-skelter for their lives.
“Sharika!” I call again as I take shelter.
Janan alias Sharika.
I’ve done my part in bringing him to the wedding. I text.
They respond instantly.
Som’s running towards the target.
I look up to see Som, brandishing a gun, snaking his way through the crowd towards Param. I drop my phone and chase him, yelling. “Som! What are you doing?” The cacophony absorbs my screams and pinnacles my fears.
A stranger is making his way towards me with intent. The music is still playing, adding to the confusion overall. Sharika is right behind that young boy. She is shouting and trying to reach out to hold him by his shoulder but he escapes her grasp. Not breaking his stride, he turns and yells. “He killed baba. Your husband killed my father. You married your husband’s killer.”
“That’s not true!” Sharika screams. “He is innocent. He was not there, Som. Listen to me!”
What? Whose husband’s killer?
The boy trips over a body as Sharika overtakes him but keeps running towards me. Alerted by the gunfire, I can hear the army trucks approaching with their soldiers in tow, their shields drawn. The boy, on the ground, fires at me. It is aimed towards me but is a shot from a novice. Sharika on hearing it, slows down and thrusts herself into the path of speeding bullet. I stretch my hands to pull her out of harm’s way, but it is too late.
Her body shudders as the round rams into her chest. The bullet probably shatters her breastbone, propelling the bony shards towards her heart. Everything slows down for me as if it is moving through molasses. Sharika collapses on the railing, blood gurgling out of her chest. It crimsons the baby pink of her kurta as she clutches her stomach.
The boys creams, a wretched guttural sound before he flings the gun on the ground to slump down onto his haunches. His hands splay over his head. “Ma! Ma!”
I am hit by a round as I pull Sharika to the side. I ignore the pain to attend to my wife.
I realize the jumping blood drops are mine. Param is leaning over me, questioning me. I capture stray words as his hands examine the wound. I watch his hands as they splay over me. They are such strong hands, such gentle hands. I look at his face, frowning in worry with a hint of suspicion. Or maybe, betrayal.
“Did you know?” I think he asks me. I raise my hand to touch his cheek, smearing it with blood. I want to touch him one las time. Som reaches me and pushes Param aside. He is crying. “Ma, they said he killed baba. I am so sorry, Ma. I never meant to shoot you.”
Over Som’s head, I meet Param’s eyes. The realisation in them, shames me. I shake my head, pleading as Som lays his head on my chest. My hand invariably moves to comfort my son.
To the chorus of the song ‘Bhumroo’, I draw a hard-fought breath and close my eyes.
I am home. I am free.
I watch as Sharika takes a raspy breath, and her lids flutter down. I have so many questions. Answers to some, I know. Some, I don’t. Many, I suspect. How could I miss it? I knew this would give rise to questions about my loyalty.
The boy is weeping, his head on Sharika’s bosom. Shuddering sobs rack his body. He half-sits kissing her forehead as a swishing sound jerks him back. A matching hole appears in his chest as he slumps over his mother. My wife.
I gaze at Sharika’s lifeless body and the one on her. My brain synapses start connecting the dots as the army returns fire and I duck down.
Eventually, I will have the answers, but for now, her betrayal hurts. A stray thought floats in my head. My mother warning me about Sharika, it births a bitter smile on my lips.
Sometimes, mothers do know best. Tears sting my eyes, threatening to spill over.
But then, like a well-trained machine, I place the emotions in the vault and seal it.
Emotions have no place in a war.
Natasha Sharma is a freelance software developer who moonlights as a writer. She has been a voracious consumer of the written word since her childhood, and is never without a book (or a Kindle) by her side. A true blue feminist, she is passionate about creating awareness of gender inequality and other social issues.
Her stories have been published in several online magazines like eShe, Reading Frame, Thinking Pen, eFictionProject, and Penmancy, amongst others. Her op-ed pieces and other articles can be found on leading web portals such as MoneyControl, SheThePeople, and Women’sWeb.
She has finished penning her first full-length novel, and is seeking to publish it, while working on her second one. Natasha lives in Pune with her husband and daughter, and their furry friend, a Labrador Retriever by the name of Biscuit.
Photo via Unsplash
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