| Natasha Sharma | October 2023 | Short Story |
22nd November 1947
Surrounded by the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal range, Srinagar valley was an idyllic yet bustling town. Shikaras dotted the city full of lakes. Religious harmony reigned with everyone living in peace. The halcyon surroundings were the living embodiment of a line from the famous poet, Agha Ali’s poem, which succinctly summed it up.
‘In the lake, the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections.’
The three-storeyed house overlooked the Lidder River. Every morning, the rising sun dispatched its rays to reflect on the tranquil waters, and those shafts of light enhanced the aura of the metallic OM etched into the house’s walls. For a few blinding moments, the symbol emulated the sun, casting the borrowed sunbeams, an ersatz sun.
In the cold winter season, the kitchen with its bukhari, or the hearth, always burning, kept the entire area warm. It was where the family gathered for meals or the evening gossip when the life outside stilled, but it was the top floor that was the sisters’ favourite hideout. They were fascinated by the braer kaeni, the attic that was the connoisseur of the abandoned items, and the girls’ treasure chest. They spent many delightful days playing there. It was an excellent antidote for the depressing winter evenings. Parajika and her sister conducted fashion shows, strutting in the mothy-smelling pherans and exchanging head gears till they collapsed on each other, laughing.
Though today, fun was the farthest thought from her mind. Parajika locked the doors and pushed the deadbolt across them. She ran to draw the heavy curtains. The elegant, embroidered halves of the curtains united once again and endeavoured to stop the prying eyes. From a distance, she could hear the soft trails of slogans. Parajika could just about make out the emerging shouts. She parted the drapes to peer out. The streets of Safakadal were deserted but echoed with the sounds of Hamlawaro khabardaar, hum Kashmiriyon ki salami fauz hai taiyyar. (Intruders beware, the Kashmiri army is ready to crush you)
Her fear deflated with a sense of relief. It is not the marauders! I hope their chanting doesn’t disturb her sleeping friend Mahrosh.
Srinagar was rife with rumours of a Kabaili raid. Even after Maharaja Hari Singh had acceded to India, Pakistan was unhappy with the deal and was trying to break the newly forged bond between independent India and Kashmir. If not through talks, then through fear tactics. Parajika slumped on the wooden chair and sipped from the fast-cooling cup of kehwa. Her thoughts, like the fast-moving steam, dissipated into dead-end corridors of anxiety.
Theirs was the only Hindu Pandit house in Safakadal, a Muslim-dominated area. Besides the uncertainty of the raid, her parents’ absence had also elevated her stress levels. They, along with her sister, were in Jammu on an unavoidable journey to meet an ailing relative, but now they were running late. Parajika was pursuing her ‘Fellow of Arts’ degree from the Sir Pratap Singh college and her final examinations had prevented her from accompanying them. Her father had promised, while patting her head, they would be home before the Lidder absorbed the sun.
She was scared. And alone.
The sounds of the war cries grew louder and Parajika parted the curtain to peek out. Groups of men, armed with weapons, entered the lane approaching her house, carrying hand-held fire torches. They were members of her community, the Mohalla Peace Committee, which was formed as an aftereffect of the Kabaili raid. Relieved, Parajika with a candle, stepped into the zoon doob, the cantilevered balcony of her house, and waved at them. The cold, debilitating wind forced her turquoise, ankle-length pheran to swish around her feet, its sound lost in the echoes of the war cries.
Amongst the crowd, she spotted her fiancé, Ranjit. He held the fiery torch higher and the red-hot flames illuminated his face as he passed her window. They exchanged looks and traded smiles. He slowed down where she stood, not breaking his stride, and looked around to see if anyone was watching them. Ranjit then lowered the mashal he held by its tip and blew her a kiss. Parajika blushed at his brazen gesture and shook her head. The affection in her eyes proclaimed her reciprocation. She cocked her head, and a smile played on her lips, matched by the one on his face.
Ranjit gestured for her to go inside, and she complied. Within the warm house again, Parajika moved to the sitting area and returned the candle to its place. Her gaze was captured by the shadows the candle threw. A queen atop her holder throne. The silhouettes pranced around the table, subservient to their empress. Irradiating a tight circle. Outside, a wicked draft pushed the temperature towards zero and rustled through the Chinar trees, swishing itself to an eerie echo. The sun had bid farewell early on, and the evening had slipped into darkness.
And there was no sign of either her parents or her sister.
Parajika cursed her examinations. Her thoughts ebbed and flowed like the growing shapes on the walls. To distract herself, she thought about their principal, Mrs. Koul. Mrs. Koul, a steely woman, had cajoled, even pushed her students towards counselling the women attacked by the Kabaili men. She had gathered her students together as she narrated the spine-chilling incident. Parajika remembered her feeling of relief, immediately followed by guilt, when the news of the attack trickled in.
Unwittingly, the words meandered in Parajika’s head, and instead of drawing strength from her principal’s speech, Parajika quivered under their weight.
A battalion of Pathani or Kabaili tribesmen from the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) with the blessings and under the apt guidance of the Pakistani Army had attacked Muzarfarabad, the north-western district of Kashmir, a month from today’s date. They, equipped with modern weapons, had slaughtered civilians in the valley, especially the Hindu and Sikh families. The inept and unwary police station had been ambushed, and the insurgents raided an electricity unit and plunged the entire valley into darkness.
In every aspect.
The Pathanis raped, mutilated, and hacked innocent women. Kidnapping them, along with the jewellery they looted, they continued on their reign of terror. Many young girls, barely in their teens, were sold in the rampant flesh trades of NWFP, and hordes of women jumped in the icy Jhelum River or ran towards the dense jungles, never to be seen again. Scenes of the orgies and assaults led many Hindu and Sikh men to shoot their wives, daughters, and even mothers!
Neither age nor religion had been a bar for the beasts that has been unleashed within the Kabailis. The reach of the monster, let loose, infiltrated the St. Joseph convent. Mother Superior and other nuns were no match for the predators, who burst into the altar, attacking them as they prayed to their saviour. The looters stole Mother Superior’s two gold teeth while they raped her.
The Maharaja’s army, full of Muslim defectors, and the paltry Hindu soldiers were no match for the carefully planned attack. Maharaja Hari Singh escaped from Srinagar, leaving the reigns of governance in the National Congress’ ill-prepared hands. In no time, Uri, as well as its more commercially rich sister, Baramullah, fell prey to the rioters. Their end goal was to breach Srinagar, but the raiders got so involved in the depraved acts of molestation, murder, arson, and robbery, that they delayed the progression for four days. While they plundered the women, mentally and physically.
The brave women in Srinagar geared themselves for an impending attack and formed the ‘Women’s Self Defence Corp’ where retired police or army officers trained them to fire and load ammunition. The teenage girls, college-going students, were Parajika’s classmates and under Mrs. Koul’s eagle-eyed tutelage. Government doctors also gave them first-hand tips on first-aid and counselling the surviving women. The Kabailis had not managed to reach Srinagar as the Indian armed forces with the British ones, defeated the tribesmen, and pushed them back towards POK.
But the valley was rife with rumours of their return. It was not only the November icy winds that made the people, mostly women, in Srinagar shiver.
Out of the thousands attacked, a paltry few women were rescued and admitted to the hospitals. Parajika’s heart melted like heated wax on spotting the survivors. She knew their physical wounds would heal, but it was the haunted eyes of the girls–most of them of her age–that troubled her. She wondered if life would ever return to those eyes. Their chilling stories turned Parajika’s and others’ blood to ice. This was despite the partition horror stories she was used to hearing.
Is humanity dead? Will women ever breathe easily? Why do we bear the brunt? But to look on the brighter side, those heathens brought my friend, Mahrosh, to me.
She had befriended many of the Hindu, Sikh and even Muslim rescued girls. One of them was Mahrosh, who became her soul sister. When Uri was under siege, Mahrosh had been visiting her Hindu neighbour, Raina’s house, and when the Kabailis burst into their house, they had ordered the Rainas and her to recite the kalima. Despite Mahrosh’s narration and the Rainas’ assurance of her Islamic faith, the Pathani men had raped her. Mahrosh had witnessed the killing of the entire family, save for the women. The marauders took them away, leaving her behind for reasons best to them. Mahrosh’s brother whisked her to Srinagar. Her family refused to return to Uri, choosing to remain in Srinagar.
Mahrosh’s father, with immense reluctance, had permitted her to join the Sir Pratap Singh college, where Parajika studied, where Mahrosh and she gradually become friends. Mahrosh remained quiet and introverted after the incident, always lost in her thoughts as if the world outside held no interest for her. It was Parajika’s extrovert company that animated her.
A thump on the zoon doob alerted Parajika to someone’s presence on the cantilevered balcony, startling her. The sounds of the fading slogans echoed in the night. A constant humdrum.
I forgot to lock the door when Ranjit left! Did I even shut it?
She moved towards the balcony and noticed the door was ajar with the wind strained against it. The heavy wood resisted, but failed. Parajika approached it and was about to close it when the door sprung open with force. The candle came face to face with its mortal enemy, the gust. The flame flickered, clinging to life before succumbing. Plunging the room into darkness. Before the light was lost, for a few seconds, Parajika spotted the intruder. He jumped into the room just as a scream escaped her mouth.
A scream subdued by the slogans.
She leaped behind to escape his outstretched hands. Parajika was petrified, but then her survival instincts kicked in. The attacker was gasping heavily, his breathing was loud and hoarse. Exploiting the darkness, she swiftly and quietly crept towards the steps leading to the second floor. There, she paused to assess the man’s position. He cursed as he hit his foot against the table.
He is near the kitchen.
Parajika scurried up the stairs, avoiding the fifth squeaky step. She had to get to her room, where she could be safe once she slammed the door. She heard a flurry of activity behind her.
He is behind me!
Fear increased her speed but made her hasty, tripping her on the final landing. A hand stretched out and snatched her pheran, halting her movements. A body slammed into her. Her breath whooshed out. They fell onto the floor. Parajika wrestled with the intruder atop her as she tried to escape. Her flight instinct emerged stronger. He leaned in closer and whispered into her ear, his breath vile.
“By the time I finish with you, you won’t remember who is your god. Kashmir has always belonged to us, and we won’t stop till we eliminate every trace of you–aberrations of humanity and reclaim what is ours. And, we will have fun while doing it.”
Parajika panicked as he ground into her back, fumbling with her pheran. He tore through the fabric, attacking the pink kurta underneath it. Parajika struggled, trapped as his weight bore down on her. She felt the kurta give way as the cold air caressed her exposed, warm skin. Harsh hands manhandled her. Her mind was grappling, trying to make sense of it all. He turned her around roughly, ripping her pyjama apart in the process.
Parajika opened her eyes. A Pathani man was above her. She noticed his loose white kurta splattered with dried blood. His red turban had come undone. His beard scratched at her face as his sharp nails poked her body. His body odour was cloying. She stared at him, his face etched in her mind. She tried to kick him, a lame attempt. He slapped her, stunning her into stillness. With one hand on her mouth, he undid his yellowing shalwar. Her lungs were screaming for air. He kicked her legs apart.
Parajika was on the edge of consciousness, and blackness beckoned her. Enticed her with the relief she sought when the man on top of her grunted loudly and fell. Dazed, she hungrily breathed in the air before raising her head. Mahrosh stood over her, holding onto a shard of the kangri. She had shattered the earthen pot over the attacker’s head, momentarily distracting him. An instinctive action.
Watching the Pathani attempting to rape Parajika raked Mahrosh’s memories. The similar white flowing kurta and the undone turban unleashed the fear. Her mind, in a bid to protect itself, started to shut down. A body turned to stone.
Taking advantage of the hiatus, Parajika dragged the now-numb Mahrosh to the inner sanctum. The intruder rose, rubbing the sore spot on his head. Stumbling, clutching at her torn clothes, Parajika pushed Mahrosh inside. It took a considerable effort as Mahrosh was immobile. Parajika locked the double doors just in time as the man rammed against them.
Mahrosh stood in the middle of the room, still as a statue. She was completely shell-shocked. Her hollowed eyes gazed into nothingness while her face was frozen in horror, stiff as a cadaver. She collapsed on the floor, pulling her knees into a foetal position. Silent as the graves in the hill.
Parajika shook her, screaming. “Mahrosh! Snap out of it!”
Mahrosh stayed in her catatonic state. Eyes stared into nothing.
With no time to waste, Parajika leaped to the wardrobe. Fumbling through the stack of neatly folded clothes, she searched for the thing she needed. She wrapped her hands around her 303-rifle and loaded it with shaking hands. The sounds of the attacker, who was pounding and yelling, distracted her.
“Do you think these flimsy barriers can stop me? These hands cleaved open the iron gates at St. Joseph’s convent and hospital. These were the hands that tore at Mother Superior’s habit. With these hands around her neck, I claimed her. Her gold tooth is still in my pocket. It was these hands that fired the shots that killed her and the other nuns,” he shouted.
His words lent a pause to Parajika’s movements and, shaking her head, she concentrated on loading the rifle she held in her steady hands. Once she finished, she extinguished the candle in the room, inviting blackness to reign. Parajika called out to the non-responsive Mahrosh but in vain, so she hid in the room’s corner, waiting.
She didn’t wait for long. One final savage kick sent the doors flying. Parajika recollected her training, and the advice imparted by the trainers. Using the Pathani man’s voice, she tried to deduce his location. She kept her eyes fixed in his direction as she aimed; her finger on the trigger. Her kurta hung by her shoulder, the loose cloth swaying like a battle ensign. She controlled her breathing. She held her aim. Her finger released the trigger. The bullet burst out of the rifle, making its way to the intended target.
I have one chance to do it right.
The man entered the room. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he failed to spot the supine Mahrosh on the floor and tripped over her. That act saved his life. The bullet whizzed past his head, and lodged itself in the passage wall.
Parajika re-fired, her movements jerky as fear enveloped her. Her aim was lousy as she had lost track of the man’s position, but luck deserted the Kabaili this time around as the bullet smoothly entered his left forearm. He grunted in pain, and verbally abused her.
Mahrosh lay immovable. She didn’t budge as the man caught hold of Parajika’s leg, and pulled her towards him. Nor did she move when he punched Parajika in her stomach, making her vomit blood. Her eyes didn’t flicker as she saw him snatch the rifle from Parajika’s hand and cast it aside. She watched in stony silence as he sat astride Parajika, strangling her. His violent hands tore at the remnants of her clothes. Her screams fell on deaf ears as Mahrosh was not present in the room. She was in her own private hell. Reliving every nightmare, reliving every violating touch.
The Pathani flung his shalwar aside as he crushed Parajika.
“Mouj madad kariva! (ma, help me)” cried Parajika out to her mother, seeking her help as she tried to heave the man off, a last-ditch effort. Complete panic had set in.
Mahrosh didn’t stir. A gust of wind displaced a paper-mache ball that lay atop the intricately carved walnut wood dresser, dropping it with a plonk. The dual-coloured ball rolled down on the wooden floor. Mahrosh’s eyes tracked its movement.
The ball made its way towards her, bumping into her nose, gently. Suddenly, Mahrosh was back in the room. Present. Aware. She looked up to see the Pashtun man molesting her friend. The one who had tended to her wounds. The one who had held her when Mahrosh cried in her arms. Today, now, she needed her help.
Mahrosh sat up, dizziness overwhelming her. Her eyes met Parajika’s stricken eyes. They pointed at something adjacent to her. She turned to spot the rifle lying next to her. She nodded.
She picked up the rifle, pointing it at the Pathani man as she fired off with quick movements. The projectile made its entry via his back, and travelled to the heart, tearing it apart. Its metallic partner joined in the orgy, puncturing his lung.
Realizing what she had done, “Ya Allah!” slipped out of Mahrosh’s lips.
On hearing it, the Pathani turned to see his shooter. “How can you do this to a man of your faith?” he croaked, dribbling blood.
Without waiting for an answer, he collapsed on Parajika, who shrieked with fright. Blood dripped everywhere. With adrenalin-induced strength, she pushed him aside and looked up at Mahrosh.
In the shadows, Mahrosh’s feeble whisper asked. “Sher-e-Kashmir ka kya irshad?”
Parajika’s quiet voice answered. “Hindu, Muslim, Sikh itihad.”
“Women’s Self Defence Corp Zindabad!” a stronger pitch, now came from Mahrosh.
“Mukta Battalion will defeat its enemies,” pat came the response.
Parajika tottered up and slipped off her torn kurta into a fresh one. Mahrosh kept a hand over her shaking ones. With sturdy fingers, she pulled the pearl button on Parajika’s kurta through its buttonhole.
“Your decision saved our lives,” said Mahrosh, wiping the blood smeared on Parajika’s cheek with her sleeve.
“It was you who saved me.”
Mahrosh shook her head. “I wouldn’t have joined the corps or learned to shoot without you. What I have experienced–what you experienced today taught us: self-defence is the best offence.”
The two girls hugged as a knock sounded downstairs.
Parajika’s life with Ranjit and her children kept her busy. Rare stray moments led her mind to that fateful evening, causing her to shiver. Mahrosh remained her best friend and neighbour. Even after the women’s corps was dissolved, they stayed in touch.
Parajika had put the trauma behind her, concentrating on the positives. She was confident that the religious harmony would sustain in the valley after everything they had been through. But that thought dissolved into thin air.
When militancy resurfaced in the valley, and the exodus of the Hindu Pandits began again, a thought hovered in her mind.
“In the lake, the arms of temples and mosques are locked around each other’s necks.”
The nightmare was beginning again.
Parajika: A raagini in music, a popular Kashmiri Pandit name.
Mahrosh: A piece of the moon, popular Kashmiri Muslim name.
Shikara: A boat.
Hamlawaro khabardaar, hum Kashmiriyon ki salami fauz hai taiyyar: Attackers beware, we, Kashmiris, are ready with our force.
Bukhari: A space heater.
Braer kaeni: An attic. Braer means a cat in Kashmiri. The cats would often jump from the higher floors, and hence the name.
Kehwa: an aromatic tea made with saffron and other spices and dry fruits.
Zoon-doob: A cantilevered balcony made to view the moon. Zoon, in Kashmiri, means the moon.
Pheran: A gender-agnostic overcoat kind of dress worn by the Kashmiris. The Pandits wore an ankle-length pheran while the Muslims wore a shorter version of it.
Mashal: a torch, lit by fire,
Kalima: Islamic phrases recited by the Muslims.
Shalwar: also, salwar/pyjama, a loose pair of pants. The Hindus call it pyjama whereas the Muslims refer to it as shalwar.
Kangri: an earthen pot that sits in a wicker basket. Filled with coal and worn under the pheran. It is like a hot water bottle, used in the extreme, harsh winter of Kashmir.
Kurta: a loose long shirt.
Mouj: Mother in Kashmiri.
Mouj madad kariva: The phrase means mother, help me.
Sher-e-Kashmir ka kya irshad: A part-one of a question: What is Sher-e-Kashmir’s order?
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh itihad: The response, chanted by the crowd usually, meaning Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh are united. Itihad being united.
Zindabad: Long live.
Sardaron ka sar, Hinduon ka zar: The slogan used by the Kabailis, meaning: we will behead the Sikhs and loot the Hindus. Sar meaning head and zar, money, gold, etc.
Kabaili: Tribe in NWFP, Pathani.
22nd October is remembered as a Black Day in the history of Kashmir. The first of many.
All the events stated are based on truth. The assault in the room is a fiction of my imagination. But it may have been a reality for many women who lived in the affected sectors. A reality, they continue to live and face. In different aspects, in different ways.
Natasha Sharma is a freelance software developer who moonlights as a writer. A true blue feminist, she is passionate about creating awareness on gender inequality and other social issues.
Her stories, op-ed pieces & articles have been published in several online magazines, leading web portals and printed in several anthologies. In 2022, in association with Tell Me Your Story, York Center for Asian Research at York University awarded her a ‘Certificate of Excellence’ for her short story, ‘Wind Beneath Your Wings.’ Vishwakarma Publications has bagged the rights to her debut novel.
Natasha lives in Pune with her husband and daughter, and their furry friend, a Labrador Retriever by the name of Biscuit.
Photo by Chris Liu via Unsplash
Find The Mean Journal on Instagram @MeanPepperVine