Men, young and old, have just begun to leave their houses after hearing a familiar voice coming from the loudspeakers of the grand mosque. They have been told to gather in Narbal’s Eidgah, a huge plot of land at a stone’s throw from the Srinagar-Gulmarg highway used only for special occasions such as marriages, funerals, Eid congregational prayers and, as in this case, an assembly for listening to ‘patriotic’ sermons of high-ranking army officials while their men carried door-to-door searches in the village with the help of helpless local boys.
Similarly, women, girls and small children, too, have been asked to assemble in the Village Head’s lawn, adjacent to the Eidgah, which has a barbed wire fence on three sides, and a small gate made of a tin sheet nailed on a wooden frame. The lawn can accommodate as many as over 100 people with its damp yellow grass as the only furnishing.
The entire locality is cordoned off, and the roosters in the household coops are yet to announce the arrival of dawn.
Rushda is sitting silent with her head resting on her mother’s chest. She breathes out very slowly fearing it might be interpreted wrongly, and give an excuse to the men in uniform, waiting outside the mosque, to ask her questions and raise unnecessary suspicion.
She was fast asleep when the major from a nearby RR camp sent two of his soldiers to her house to ask her father, a headmaster at a local state-funded primary school, to make an announcement on the mosque’s public address system about the cordoning off on the suspicion that some militants were seen on the move here.
The headmaster, too, didn’t wake up at the soldiers’ first attempts. They were calling him out repeatedly, using his sobriquet “Master Ji”. They were polite, though, for they had been told by the major not to be ‘rude’ with the teacher who was a special guest of his a week before at the camp on the 68th Republic day. Not hearing back from anyone inside the house, the soldiers radioed their superior asking him what to do next.
The major was only a few hundred meters away with a local informer in the village’s main market near the grand mosque where he was expecting the headmaster.
“Be there. I am coming,” he answered his men on radio.
Outside the headmaster’s two-storied brick house, the ‘Koshur’ major – he looked like a Kashmiri from his facial features and was thus popular among the local populace with this name – jested with informer Shabir and asked him if he had any ‘noble idea’ as to how to get Fayaz Ahmad out on the road without him or his men breaking into his house.
“The fish is asking the horse how to swim,” the informer used his good sense of humour to ward off the question to which he had no answer. It was this sense of humour and wittiness that had made him a friend of the major.
“I know I will have to find a way myself,” Koshur major said to Shabir, blowing warm breath into his hands. “But you live here. Tell me which room? I have been to his home once and, in fact, had tea in the kitchen. I know the layout of the house, but not the exact room in which he sleeps. Also, that was a different occasion. I was carrying an invitation letter in my hand, not the gun. This situation is different, desperate, and you know what desperate situations demand…” the major said, looking at headmaster Fayaz’s house, which looked like its shadow in this pitch dark and cold night.
“Ground floor, the room on the extreme right on the back of the house,” Shabir told the officer reluctantly, as if he didn’t like what was going to happen.
A few soldiers climbed the wall into the lawn of the house. The major stood with Shabir and a few other soldiers on the road. Major’s men found the room and one of them knocked on the window pane through the iron bars guarding the window.
Fayaz woke up to the tapping sound on the window, crawled up to it, and drew the curtain aside. The soldiers first pointed the torches at him – to be sure it was him and not any militant – and then quickly turned them back on themselves to waste no time in letting the owner of the house know who they were. He gestured to them with his hand to come from the main door. They obliged and disappeared from the window.
Fayaz found himself in a situation where he didn’t know whether to panic or to raise alarm to let his neighbours know that something might be about to happen to him or his family or both. There was a chance they could hear him. Theirs was a small village of 18 clustered households separated from the main market by the Eidgah, and from the adjacent villages by the big graveyard.
The thought was still processing in his head when he found that his wife and daughter were already in his room, shaking with fear and crying silently.
Tabassum, Fayaz’s wife, had woken up when the troops were tapping on the window repeatedly, but she had not mustered the courage to wake her husband. She hoped that whoever it was outside would grow tired and leave. When she saw her husband near the window and the lights flashing outside, she threw her quilt and blanket aside and ran to her daughter’s room next door to fetch her.
Outside the door, the soldiers saw the lights in the house and asked Fayaz to hurry up and come with them to the mosque. “You have an important announcement to make, Master Ji,” one of the soldiers said. Iqra, who was overwhelmed by fear and thus unable to talk but let out tears from her eyes, clutched onto her mother. Tabassum held her close to herself, with one hand around her back and the other on her head, and requested her husband with tearful eyes and in a trembling voice not to open the door. But Fayaz was reassured by the fact that the soldiers had been outside his house for about half-an-hour: if they meant any harm, they would have broken into the house by now. And they were calling him ‘Master Ji’, which was another reason why he decided against his wife’s suggestion.
“I won’t leave my wife and daughter alone here. They shall accompany me to the mosque,” Fayaz asked the troopers behind the door.
One of the soldiers quickly walked to the major and informed him of what Fayaz had said.
“Strange! Why does Master ji want to bother his family on this cold night? Do you know why, Shabir?” without waiting for Shabir’s answer he gave a go-ahead to his soldiers and returned to Shabir for more banter. “They say I look like a Kashmiri. So, I am thinking of marrying a local girl,” again he didn’t wait for Shabir’s answer and took two steps to look inside the house through the gap between the iron-gate and the wall.
It wasn’t the first occasion for Shabir to realise that the major was only interested in using him to get around the locality and identify suspects or local militants. There had been a couple of instances in the past, too, when after successfully carrying out an operation, the major had completely ignored him, even when it had been very important for Shabir to see him. Once, when a group of local militants came to know that Shabir worked for the army, they chased him for a long distance through the village till he reached what locals called ‘nursery’, a vast and dense cover of willow trees that on one end joined Kashmir’s famous wetland Hokersar. Later that day, Shabir went to the camp and narrated the episode to the major. The major only reacted with hysterical laughter. Sometimes Shabir found it strange to think that the major had more sense of humour than him, if laughing at one’s own jokes could be called that.
From inside the house, Fayaz asked for a few more minutes in a voice loud enough to reach the major’s ears. He and his family needed to perform their ablutions, a perquisite before entering a mosque. The major commanded his subordinates to allow the headmaster to take his time but told them to add a phrase at the end of it. “Be quick, Master ji,” soldiers told him.
In the mosque, Fayaz made his wife and daughter sit close to him while he checked the microphone, which let out a shriek when turned on. The announcement was made while the major and his men stood outside near the mosque’s gate.
“All men, young and old are requested to gather in Eidgah. Similarly, all mothers, daughters, sisters and small children too will have to gather at Gulam Sahab’s (Village Head) lawn”. Fayaz also volunteered to say that people should not panic and should cooperate with the security forces.
The moment Fayaz withdrew from the microphone and looked at his family, he began trembling uncontrollably. His wife’s and daughter’s faces were white-washed by the fluorescent light of a bulb – at the very spot where the Imam led the daily congregational prayers. He looked at his frightened daughter’s unblinking eyes and then his wife, who carried the same expression. He fell down in prostration, while his daughter sank into her mother’s lap.