Zahid Rafiq is 24. He is a journalist based in Delhi
JUST AS the bus took a turn on a narrow winding road to Patnitop, I woke up. I hadn’t been sleeping, but it felt like waking up. The first cold breeze, the mountains, the clouds and huge swathes of sky — I was on my way home. After 15 months in Delhi, this was my sixth visit home, the first by road. This time, I had come to find answers — what was it about Kashmir that made my life in Delhi miserable, each evening agonisingly long? Why did I wake up each morning joining together the faint traces of a Kashmiri dream? What was it about Kashmir that I missed the most?In Delhi, news from Kashmir is filtered, and when confirmed by reporter friends in the Valley, every incident seems bigger and more hurtful. The Shopian incident, the fake encounters in Machil, stone pelting, the firings on the crowds, and the dead; all freeze to icicles — cold and numb. Each evening we discuss Kashmir, or what is left of it.
The bus journey takes almost 18 hours, hundreds of treacherous curves, potential shooting stones and checkpoints to reach the Jawahar tunnel — a 2.5 km long stretch of darkness that is the world’s only connection to Kashmir. The darkness lasted for more than two minutes, and just when we made it out, everything seemed accentuated. The small white flowers were as distinct as the Kalashnikovs that lined the road. The huge writing on the sign boards was clear — ‘CRPF welcomes you to Kashmir’.
I was home — the guns and the roses, the mountains and the convoys, the searches and parades, the waving paddy fields with soldiers standing still, almost like camouflaged scarecrows.Everytime I see soldiers, I remember life till now. When I was ten, my mother would dress me like a girl during crackdowns so that soldiers wouldn’t pick me up. On long afternoons, my friends and I would play the militants — hold cricket bats and tennis rackets like guns and shoot at each other, using plastic balls for grenades. I was 14 when I was first slapped for not carrying an identity card. I was 20 when soldiers made me walk barefoot on a hot July road for answering back. I almost got shot at 22 while covering the ‘Muzaffarbad chalo’ rally in 2008. I was lucky, but the guy next to me had his intestines splattered on the road.Just before the bus reached Srinagar, I realised that one thing I hadn’t seen in Delhi was concertina wires, and I missed them terribly. They are far more interesting than barbed wires. Once, late at night, my arm got trapped in them and it took two friends and four cuts to get out. Now, near Broadway cinema, were long stretches of concertina wires sprawled alongside the roads and I almost smiled. I looked at my arm and the marks were still there, like the memories.The next day, two boys were killed. I have been home for six days, and the city has been shut for four. Life is slow; the mornings, the afternoons, the evenings — all are distinct. In the two days the city opened, I went to the new Café Coffee Day. The lights were sparkling, the glass tables shining and the barbecues sizzling in the garden. It was all surreal — from the people to the menu. The return to Kashmir is a return to the surreal.The day after, two porters were killed by the army in Machil, and protestors clashed with soldiers half a kilometre from my home. The soldiers chased them in gypsies and the boys ran, warning us on the way to do the same. My Kashmiri friends and I ran at once, but our journalist friend from Delhi couldn’t understand immediately and took a moment to follow. We hid in a dark garden under a starry sky at a relative’s home. It was his first real feeling of fear, he said. And when I laughed loud, he begged me to shut up with his finger on his lips.
I was lucky I wasn’t shot, but the guy next to me had his intestines splattered on the road
I laid down on the moist grass, looking up at the sky in silence. I knew what I had missed all along. I missed Kashmir — as it was, as it is.