Memory: when a rebel in my home refused to put on a burqa

Ours was one of the tallest houses in the neighbourhood of Srinagar city. One could hawk over the area from its roof and scan every soul. A stone throw distance from our ten-room mud house ‘Chach koul’ – a stream where I learnt to swim in childhood— would meander through paddy fields, a government school and a playground called ‘Harnambal’. I would, as a child meaninglessly move to the attic to get a birds-eye view of the surroundings. I had a man-in-uniform holding a sniper in a close by military installation for company. I would thrill me to escape his eyes— always looking for a prey like a falcon. The military installation had come months after an anti-India rebellion had blown on to the surface. Kashmir people on a mass level, at the tail end of 1980s, had decided to take the matters in their own hands to solve the vexed dispute that emerged at the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947.

As a child I was a rebel and my father a disciplinarian. He would seldom let me play. I remember my father returning from his office— holding a bunch of newspapers in one hand and a four-liner note-book in the other. He made me read the news of which I understood little. That certainly was absurd.

In Kashmir everything has a meaning; dawn reminds of military crackdown and dusk signifies night raids. Over the last two decades Kashmir has been in the midst of an armed conflict with more than 70,000 people reported to have died. India reacted to the militant movement with extreme repression burning down neighbourhoods and markets, arresting and killing people on mere suspicion.

The military installation or the bunker (often pronounced by the locals as banker) in the vicinity almost always meant unnecessary trouble. Each time a guest would leave our home, my homemaker mother would warn them to avoid any contact with the men stationed inside the sandbag bunker.

It was around that time; I was unable to understand the reason of being a rebel, and the conviction it requires. But like the other children in the neighbourhood, I too was aware of the heroic stories of these rebels and it was a dream to meet one.

Somewhere in the month of August, in 1997, Naetpur, the area we live in, was as usual without electricity. It was a phase when rebel movement was fading and India’s counter-insurgency was gaining ground. On that night, we finished our dinner in the candle night. It was pitch dark outside. But as soon as we went to our rooms to sleep, the electricity was restored. Minutes later there was a knock on the main door of our house.

A knock at that time of the night those days would instill fear and mean danger. It could have been be a sign from rebels seeking shelter or a call of night search from Indian government forces. There was some consultation between the elders before my father opened the door; his hands shivering. As soon he opened the door, the electric lamp was removed from the veranda and hardly anything was visible. My father managed to open the door and the man in front of him spoke a language which we didn’t understand. I couldn’t figure it out then but with time I realized that he was speaking Pashto. We soon realized he wasn’t alone and two other people were accompanying him— two foreign militants and a soyet, an untrained worker of the rebel movement who used to carry their weapons and guide them with directions.

One of the two foreigners, who wore an Afghan cap covering his long hair, was a tough looking young man with a guttural voice. Two AK 47 assault rifles hung from his shoulders covered by a Kifayah— a Palestinian scarf. His white teeth, sneaking out his long black beard, were some of the few clearly detectable things in dark. The other man was so lean and short that he could hardly be noticed.

Ensuring to not disappoint the guests (rebels), my father welcomed them. Providing space in home to the rebels was a difficult decision. It could mean that government forces would be alerted and cordon your home and reduce it to debris within no time. The only anxiety we had then was what if someone may have seen them entering our house. What if the local guide was an Indian spy? What if the Indian military comes in? These questions evoked fear in us.

But, on the other hand, I was excited to see a rebel. My father served them food while I watched them in awe. I couldn’t keep my gaze off their rifles and a big knife. After the dinner was over, they asked me if wanted to touch the rifle. Like any inquisitive child, I kept my head down but they could feel my excitement and permitted me to touch the weapons. I felt on the top of the world.

They asked my father to let me sleep with them. The tall man was from Afghanistan and that lean guerrilla was a Pakistan national. I noticed they wrote the verses of the Quran on their small diaries. And then I fell asleep.

Next morning they had to perform ablution for prayers, but we faced a problem; our washroom was outside house. We reckoned that it was the time when they could be noticed by the neighbours. My mother offered a Burqa (veil) to the Pakistan national but he refused by saying that a man who would adopt the women attire is sinful. My mother didn’t have anything to say. All she insisted that they put a bath-towel on their head and they agreed to it.
Next afternoon, we had started to converse freely with the foreigners. My father asked the Pakistani guerilla how his mother reacted to his decision of becoming a rebel. The youth replied “she was very proud”. He explained the process how Pakistan families send their children to different places like Afghanistan, Kashmir and other parts for the ‘holy war’.

“The day I left my home, my mother put the green turban on my head and promised of putting another if we meet again in the world or else she promised of meeting in heaven,” the youth said. My father had nothing to say. After the discussion, the lunch was served. I was still reeling under the excitement of meeting a rebel. Those talks would hardly impress or influence me then but those rifles, hand grenades and the sharp edged knife is what seized my thought. By evening, I had the luxury of touching all their weapons. The butts of one of the riffles had an Arabic verse inscribed on it.

Later one of the rebels who saw a football in our garden was so excited that he wanted to kick it. He explained to my father how they used to play in Pakistan. He went down and kicked the ball against the wall twice and came back. He was really excited. As the light was got dimmer, one of the rebels offered me a 2 rupee coin and asked me to buy candy and to check if the army was on the street.

I came back with those white coconut-flavored candies and informed him that there was no one on the road. Then they left and made my family to pledge to offer salah (prayer) regularly.
The attachment was not over. A few months later there was a gun-battle in the vicinity. The gun fight was so intense that it lasted for 48 hours. Two locals and the Afghan rebel who had stayed at our house were trapped, injured and later succumbed.

(Junaid Rather is a journalist from Kashmir.)

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