The Children of Conflict (An Episode)
The drab obfuscate afternoon in early October, he found himself ambling lazily back home from school with few of his intimates at the village periphery. His school, an L-shaped old crumbling one storeyed building standing picturesquely at the wedge of karewa facing road that connects his village with the National Highway. Verses of Quran in Arabic and quotes in English and Urdu painted on its white washed ceilings outside, now peeled with time. ‘Established in 1985’ written on its rickety signboard, tarnished and smeared with a thin film of dust. Everything looked dreary.
There were sparse people on the road as it was siesta time. Leaves of the tall poplar trees and the leaning willows were prejudiced swaying in the Zephyr making the perched birds dart followed by a sweet twitter, while the sandy ones slightly depart from their branches and glide down dancing in a zigzag way. A rivulet alongside the road always flows with murky water after cascading down the karewa. Clumps of wild grass, thorny bushes, sedges and cannabis leaned over it from both sides. Dried leaves and twigs bob in its undulate water. It would accompany them to some distance and then nonchalantly disappear into the extensive swathes through the dense poplar nurseries planted alongside the road.
They kick the scattered pebbles and gravel loosened from the worn out road over gossips and back biting of teachers. They were having all the fun throughout this short expedition from home to school and vice versa. Sometimes they would deliberately put a stone, stick or something inconsequential gunk object in one’s bag continuously behind his back so as to irk him at home after he will notice it. He remembered once he found a dried cow dung cake in his bag whilst he opened it at home in the evening to write his homework.
As they walked down the filthy avenue under the dull afternoon sun, they were startled a bit when a military platoon caught their eye. The army men were pretentiously coming from the opposite side. They were eight to ten in number, mostly in their thirties, moustached, donned in camouflage uniform, wearing black kerchiefs under their armoured helmets with grimy long boots under their fatigue trousers. Their faces looked grim.
Two scrawny veterinarians Kashmiri men with tousled hair, short tangled beard, shirt ripped open and fists clenched were dolefully walking with the army platoon. They seemed frightened, subdued while the small sweat beads were clearly visible from their groom etched faces. The loose trousers over their cheap rubber bathroom slippers were repeatedly touching the ground and sweeping the dust behind them. The men in uniform were carrying staves and bamboo canes in their hands while their AK-47 with tarnished barrels, gloss glistening amber wooden handles sling from their shoulders.
On spotting the army a deathly hush was experienced in the meantime and the children walking from the opposite side felt a bit creepy. However, these incidents were not seldom. They were used to it. They would see army personals everywhere__ on the roads, at the haunting places, inside the passing vehicles and sometimes in their school premises also. They were not army phobic, rather greet them often. The men in uniform would always shake hands with them over a thrust chuckle.
As they reached the army men Sahil faked a smile and took his hand out from the pocket to shake it with the first man approaching towards him. As he extends his hand and anticipated the hand of an army man. The hand of army man didn’t budge from its place rather he glared at Sahil with angry dark round drunken eyes. He was smelling fetid and looking venom. The other children giggled at Sahil and he was blushed and felt squirm.
Sahil and his friends mundanely trudged a few yards forward in weirdness while the pattern of the footsteps of the platoon was getting fainter after each second. And then suddenly a series of thuds halted the steps of children. They stood still and looked round. The army men were hurriedly vaulting over the rivulet into the poplar nurseries. Two of them had tightly grabbed the arms of the two civilians. The action looked obscure and the children snailed their movements. The army men waded through the nursery towards the covert. There looked some sinister possibilities with the young men as anticipated. After few minutes the atmosphere filled with the shrills and shrieks of the young men and the snapping of sticks. The rumble of the swelling raucous plaintive cries started the birds and they flew helter-skelter over the nursery. The children subsided with fear and huddled around in turmoil. They felt outrageous and disquiet in the harrowing ambience.
The notorious army personals bullied the hapless men. The poor civilians wailed like one did at a bereavement. They were howling and crying Khudayo Khudayo! (O God O God). One of the army men spotted the children noticing all this from a distance. He came out of the nursery with his crooked finger at the trigger, pointed the muzzle of the gun towards them and that is all what they saw. They flew the coop baffled and petrified. While running they heard some gun shots. They don’t know whether the army man fired in the air or pointing towards them or towards the captive, helpless, poor civilians. They don’t give a hoot for each other albeit they were trying to keep up with one another. They don’t give a fig for the men crying in unabated pain. They just cared for themselves and ran hard.
Sahil slunk through the narrow sinuous alleys unto home. He tripped and fell down several times scratching his knee and elbow. He zapped past the pesky alley cats huffing and puffing. Birds and other roosters had a sudden flight before they set back for packing. Weary canines cringing together in sleep under the dull afternoon sun slightly open their eyes, blinked few times and set them back to sleep. Moaning pups tugging the udders of their mothers, while the pesky yapping convulsed the others. He vaulted over streams and small runlets and finally gasped a gasp of relief when he found himself at the flimsy wooden gate of his lawn. He was wiped out and suffocating in the sluggish afternoon heat. His whole body was aching, face beaded with sweat and heart thumping hard.
Sahil opened the shoddy wooden gate and entered the lawn. Outside his house at the steps grandfather wearing a flamboyant skull cap was puffing hookah at a grass rug, coughing after every drag and spitting out the phlegm. Besides the steps at the makeshift of the verandah, the mother was pounding lentils into a little pestle with a wooden mortar. Aunt sitting next to her was taking beans out from the pods. He sniffed several times and ran towards mother in a huff leaving the gate ajar while the humming sound emanating from the front room of the house through the window swelled along. It was the sound of Quran recitation. At the window ledge inside, grandmother was as usual busy reciting the verses of Quran. Turning pages with her limp fingers and trying to memorise many of them. He was fear stricken and struggling to catch his breath. Mother instantly threw the mortar down and hugged him. Aunt brought a glass of water while he sat sticking with the bosom of his mother. He guzzled the tumbler full of water and took deep breaths. Everybody in the house gathered around him gobsmacked and shell-shocked.
‘Is everything alright Sahil’, ‘Why are you frightened’? Mother asked disquietly and wiped off the sweat from his temples. Sahil acquainted them of the whole ordeal amid hiccups whilst mother caressed his hair in the meantime and soothed him down. Grandfather scarcely paid any heed to him. He grimaced and muttered something. It might not have provoked his ire because had suffered even worst. He put the hose of the hookah with his cheek and went in a bout of trance downcast.
The episode might have escalated him in the dismayed reminiscence of his terrified past which he was trying to get away with. Everybody stood motionless, spellbound and intently watching the wisps of fume erupting from the amber filled earthen bowl raised atop of hookah. The smoke came out briskly and was continuously taken along by the slow gusts of air mingling, till the ambers comprehensively ran to ashes. ‘What have you seen yet’! After humming and hawing, grandfather broke the hiatus with a Delphic utterance that daunted Sahil. ‘Don’t be so timorous and susceptible, be courageous and brave’, he added with a smile and gestured by raising his hand and clenching the fist. Being a voracious reader, grandfather verily was a history lore having the cognizance of all the unrests and turbulences he and his people had suffered over time. So the datum of which he appraised Sahil remained etched in his young mind. Albeit the gesture was bewildered and batty but it sounded that the vile episode he had faced was zilch. They have to face those ordeals often.
Mother dusted his uniform having specks of dust everywhere. The glistening ersatz ear rings were dangling from her ears and reflecting the spikes of sunlight. She adjusted her fraying vermilion head scarf, cordially held his hand and took him along unto hallway. Sahil was suffering from lassitude and anguish amidst the loss of appetite. That evening he was coddled to shun the soul shaking episode by dint of which the ensuing night was a nasty nightmare. The horrible doom had sorely afflicted and incapacitated his mind.
In the evening grandfather came back after offering the evening prayer in the nearby mosque and had discovered that the men were beaten because they failed to produce an Identity card when a military platoon came and started checking the Identity cards of a bunch of youth who had gathered at a shop sill for a regular afternoon chat.
In Kashmir, no matter if you speak Kashmiri, no matter if the people around you recognise you well. If you are caught without an Identity card even in your own house, you will meet the same fate. You simply don’t exist if you fail to produce one.
In the night when everybody was sleeping and snoring heavily, Sahil was feeling the loss of sleep. The episode was still roaming in his mind. He was wondering what if the army men had checked his identity? Had they also beaten him to a pulp? Then he consoles himself saying, he is below 15__ a minor. But is minor any word in Kashmir? Do they have any importance? He began to think, what was then the crime of Basit who was arrested at the age of 14 because he doesn’t have an Identity card, Tabish who was jailed at a mere age of 12 when he was caught with a stone in his hand during a curfew day at the road and Ashfaq, a 10-year-old boy who of course might not have gone to fetch the toffee from the men in uniform with a stone in his hand and was shot dead. Sahil thought he is 14, means he could have been beaten, arrested or even shot dead easily. He thought, thought and thought and nobody knows what happened next. Stroke, predicted the doctor next morning when he didn’t wake up and his body was found ice cold.
He left for the heavenly abode in the dead of night at least in a peaceful ambience. God might have told him that this fake heaven is not for you, come and visit the real one. It is your age to play not to strive for what you are not. It is not your age to face the notorious people. So come and play with my people _ the angels. They are amicable and genial. They don’t bear any ghastly moustache or carry a horrifying gun of which you are afraid of. Come and visit my heaven where you no longer find any coverts and haunting places but the bedazzling meadows of peace and tranquillity.
Where your ears no longer listen the mournful wails of unfortunate people and the scary rumble of gunshots but the sweet twitter of beautiful birds and a mesmerising gush of the streams and brooks, not of murky water and blood but of milk and honey. Come in my heaven champ and rest in peace. Here is everything but you will still wish to go back, not because you won’t feel good here but you will miss the warm cordial hug of your mother from whom I have snatched you. At least what is your age champ!
The author is working on his debut novel ‘The Ensnared Childhood’. He is presently pursuing bachelors in English literature at Aligarh Muslim University and hails from Frisal Kulgam Kashmir. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position and policy of Oracle Opinions.