Every time I made an attempt, they sent me back.
I was in Kashmir recently. As has happened many times in the past, I got caught up in the midst of political upheaval. There were no signs of any impending disaster. As with earthquakes, no early warning system went off.
Boulevard—that lovely drive by the Dal Lake that is at once romantic and old-world—was abuzz with tourists, huddling together, pouting, and taking selfies with wooden houseboats in the backdrop. A faint smattering of lights had begun to appear on Kohi-Maran. A little ahead, a kingfisher, a common sight in Kashmir, darted obliquely into the lake, at a fish it was espying, perhaps.
I wanted to visit my chain-smoking uncle but there was no way to go. Wherever one looked, stones rained.
Eid passed off tranquilly. The bakery smelled of heaven. Food was plentiful. There was much socializing. I met my friends. Neighbours came over. Some relatives called. Several invitations were extended over the phone. While drawing up plans for a picnic in the hills—complete with camping gear—I was suddenly reminded of a distant uncle. He lived in another part of the town and had been unwell. In the excitement of being home, and getting around, this uncle had escaped my memory.
On the second evening after Eid, I rang him up. He didn't answer. I called up his son, who picked up the phone. He sounded pleased and asked why I hadn't come over. A shade embarrassed, I apologized. I understand the social mise-en-scène in Kashmir. People feel bad if you don't visit them, doubly so if you come from foreign lands.
I asked about my uncle. "It is bad news," he replied. "He is bedridden, suffering from bronchial asthma." A chain smoker (it was once rumoured that he wanted to marry a tobacconist's daughter simply because of an allure of free tobacco for a lifetime), his lungs had finally given up at 65. It was chronic, his son said, adding that his father gets severe attacks of coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness at night. I promised to drop by. My uncle's face kept flashing in my head. Even in my thoughts, he had a cigarette dangling on his lip.
Suddenly I wanted to see him right away. If I were abroad—as I mostly am—I would have jumped in my car and driven off to see someone, but Kashmir has its own cultural circumference. You may go unannounced to a friend or a relative but to turn up at someone's home at night, just like that, might be considered uncouth. I decided to wait it out till the next morning.
This must have been the same time that the first political tremors were being felt in the Valley. All at once a flurry of messages started coming on my phone. A popular rebel (now almost a cult figure in death), considered a Himalayan Robin Hood of sorts, had been killed. "No way," I thought. I expressed my incredulity to a journalist friend on WhatsApp, and got in return a gory picture of the rebel's body.
There he was, a young lad, in his early 20s, lips a little ajar, as if insufflating his boyhood to whoever had photographed his body. He lay lifeless, on a police stretcher perhaps, photographed at an unflattering angle—perhaps in a deliberate effort to denigrate his aura, in death, if not in life. I understood the significance of the moment. It was pivotal. Things would change.
My uncle's home was in sight now. Hundred yards and a road separated us. It was a hundred yards too many.
And things did change. Authorities, knowing that they had taken out an extremely popular rebel, quickly slapped one of the harshest curfews in recent times. A concomitant strike called by the pro-freedom camp ensued. All businesses remained shut. No milkmen came with supplies. Villagers ferrying vegetables to the town were sent back by the soldiers. Overnight an invisible curse had transformed paradise into a penitentiary.
I wanted to visit my chain-smoking uncle but there was no way to go. Wherever one looked, stones rained. Without warning, the floodgates of anger, pent up for years, had flung open. It seemed that the only weapons which the aggrieved had in their armoury were stones. These were responded to with bullets, pellets and stun grenades. The street outside Uncle's home was red. There was no way I could go to see him.
Over the phone, his son, his voice laced with panic, said that tear gas shells had further aggravated Uncle's asthma. The previous morning, he had nearly choked to death. I reassured him that things would be better; the curfew would be lifted soon and we could take his father to a good doctor or move him elsewhere—to breathe some fresh air. I recalled their sizeable apple orchard with its dozens of trees and delicious fruit. When we were younger, we would often run around those trees, smelling the apple fragrance, as uncle oversaw workers in his farms. It was hard, all these years later, to see our memories being set alight.
A few days later I attempted to walk to Uncle's home. By now all phones were blocked and Internet was switched off in Kashmir. I took an interior alleyway. From a distance I saw soldiers manning the back road that would have led me to Uncle's home. These were pathways, dotted with turtledoves, which we had taken all our lives. As I got near, the cops signalled me to go back. I tried to shout, saying I must see a patient. They didn't listen.
Someone said that the only way to reach the airport was just after dawn. One had to wait outside the airport for a few hours till they opened the gates and allowed you in. I was supposed to fly out of India the next day. Overcome by the guilt of not being able to see Uncle—or even ask about his well being over the phone (Internet continues to be blocked and outgoing calls barred in Kashmir even three months later), I decided to make one last ditch attempt.
Once again—third time during two weeks—I took off on foot for uncle's home. You couldn't take the main road because concertina wire blocked all entry and exit points. Cops acknowledged no curfew passes. Walking along the pasturage of our little town, down the back alley, past the singing turtledoves, by the dirt track, it began to drizzle. My Uncle's home was in sight now. Hundred yards and a road separated us.
It was a hundred yards too many.
Here is an extract of the exact conversation I had with cops.
"Can I cross this road?"
"There is curfew."
"I need to see my uncle. He is very sick."
"We have orders to not allow anyone to cross."
"Please. I have to fly tomorrow."
I turned back. It was futile.
The turtledoves were still singing as I made my way back. They had a sad song.