*Editor’s Note: This story is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.

In the dark of the hall, Faraaz watches his brothers Manzoor and Adil alternately going to the toilet. It’s okay. They’ll tell when they’re ready. You can’t expect fifteen- and thirteen-year-old boys to bare all immediately after military torture.

Faraaz shuts his eyes. Images of high mountains are his sleeping pills. He thinks of his Koh-i-Nishan, his dream summit, where the Pir Panjal Regiment of his militant best friend Shahid is headquartered. But this sedative is feckless. There is a foot in the door of his closing eyelids, the vice-like grip of onerous remorse, the deadweight of shame that plagued him all day. Manzoor took the torture for him. Yet, he says, I’m not brave. Now his words feel like a tight slap. Then, in those hammered, charred houses, his friend Mustafa braved some forty guns in the siege with his comrades. While he, Faraaz, hid in a maize field. How he wishes he could turn the damn clock back, charge into those crumbling hutments, trained or not, and join Mustafa. I wish I was trained is not a wish anymore. It is a ringing taunt. Why is it so difficult? It’s like suicide. Just plunge in one unthinking moment such that it cannot be undone. Till then, mechanically prepare for it. He’ll wake up, pray for strength, and promise he won’t turn back. He’ll disappear and be too ashamed to return. His God is real and deserves real promises. When you pray to mountains, you don’t fake it.

So, what took me so long? 

Faraaz steps out on the grass to cherish the evanescent paragon of this ungodly hour. The night sky is holding out, but the light of pre-dawn has cracked one side open. The peaks of the Pir Panjal have caught its alpenglow and pulled its amorous warmth. Like a tangerine spear, it pierces the inky sky to light the summits. They glow like an ignited row of tapering wicks, as though their jagged snows have been soused in flammable red wine and planted back upturned, the warm tincture melting down their flanks in a depleting vignette. The flaming range, on a buffer of downy clouds, presides over the vast rolling spread of comatose mountains. His village, Burankote, sleeps. Faraaz prays. To the Pir Panjal. On his knees, in his lone fajr prayer, he kisses the tussock.

I promise.

He goes back inside for half an hour of shuteye.

Little Adil, his thirteen-year-old brother, who was recently fancied by a sepoy, is croaking, bachao, bachao. Help. Help. Faraaz caresses his back, soothes the nightmare off, and pats him to sleep. Was that actually a nightmare, or was Little Adil wide awake?

He steps out and rubs his eyes. Now, what’s this?

Normally, sonth, the Kashmiri spring, has two faces. One which the tourists rave about and another which Kashmiris dread.

Sonth is when the serene winter is breezily blown away and the pale yellow yemberzal, narcissus, blooms as the snow recedes. Daffodils and tulips peek open in the valleys. Thousands of other fruits and flowers bloom and fill the pine scent, so typical that it is simply ooh-aahed as the Kashmiri hawa, or breeze. On it coasts, the rumble of the nallahs, the brooks, that hurtle over round white rocks and can be heard even on the high mountain slopes on either side—so tumid with the heavy snow-melt of higher reaches. Sonth is indeed the season of hope, and annual renewal.

But this is tourist talk. Not for Kashmiris braving the dire side of spring.

When emerging from the icy pericarp of a long winter, Kashmir becomes so winsome that it has only itself to blame for the obsession it induces in its coveters. And so, with spring comes siege. The bountiful jade tussock gets sullied with heavily armed troops, barricades, grisly tin structures, intervallic sandbags, jeeps, and convoys. And Kashmiris retreat into higher, sylvan slopes, which the outlanders from the plains are loath to climb. But before long, the mountains are again accessible to the genocidal assignees from the plains, bankrolled commodiously by the Indian state. In milder weather, protected in their uniforms, they start daring again.

The squatters emerge from their snug, scenically located camps and gawk at the lush spread, at the enviable scape, its inviting disposition, its suicidal beauty. Either this is vicarious ethnic retribution launched on imperial whites from the safety of one’s backyard, or perhaps deep inside their trivial selves, they feel that such unwonted luck, this inadvertent predestination, is bound to be fleeting. So, overcome with ravishing, even ejaculatory urgency, the moochers now want this entire Elysium. But alas, harud, autumn, comes calling, and subjugating Kashmir is again postponed.

“You know why?” Shahid asked Faraaz one day.

He shook his head.

Shahid’s eyes bulged and his easy-going posture militarized miraculously. “Because autumnal Kashmir is an augural hint of its winter,” he said. “So they halt. Snow, sheen. Winter. Chillai Kalan, Kashmir’s legendary forty days of bone-chilling cold, is around the corner. And they’re mostly from the dreary dusty plains of the searing subcontinent. They review their task list. Now a lot must be postponed. Every year winter comes in the way of stalling their grand plan to fully occupy Kashmir.”

Shahid paused and snarled as though struggling for more contemptuous words.

“And so, they scurry back like rats, in balaclavas, parkas, and all, to their overheated camps and spin the witless myth that the mujahideen shun the snow. They won’t infiltrate now—they propagate this bunk in Indian media. Do they know that when we Kashmiris greet each other with Sheen Mubarak, it’s for many reasons?”

Later, Shahid disappeared. It was in heavy snow.

But today, there is this third side of spring, Shahid’s spring, and it decocts his senses.

After the siege, the day before, Shahid’s Jannat, paradise on earth, Firdaus, Kashmir, prevailed more vividly than ever. Try dampening a Kashmiri spring, which is ceaseless and tireless like the fight for Azadi, freedom. Here is the morning rejoinder to what those dorks did last night. The almond blossoms in the orchard, waving against the grey-blue mountains across the valley—how will you replace this inbred, inborn flag of independent Kashmir with your ill-fitting import? This flag wants to know the timeframe for your victory. This river, which they daren’t step into without preparatory agenda, is so tumid now that snowmelt is their burial shroud. Put your foot in here as Kashmiris do, it is saying, to check if you belong here. This vivid mountain sky, bejeweled with showboating, rainless clouds, turns dark with rage at any time. Even in spring. To spotlight their alienage.

And the Kashmiri hawa, the heady fragrance of spring buds and fruit blossoms, the whiff of the flowers strewn on the mountainside, has no other name, you hicks. It isn’t a fucking integral part of anything. Not India, not Pakistan. It is wholly and only Kashmiri. And these yemberzals, verikyom, and taekbatni—narcissi, daisies, and pansies—splayed across the silken grass; they greatly outnumber any stampeding army. And all these birds that your ammunition cannot rid Kashmir of, they explain your greed, your abuses, your crude and filthy bushwhacking. They show you as freeloading squatters. Even our crow is different from yours. Ours is the jackdaw, smaller, with nicer grey plumage. Like us. Refined. With notes for a voice, not the awful, vulgar caw-caw of your miniaturized beast roundly matching your madarchod-behenchod, motherfucker-sisterfucker argot. Even our house sparrows are not overfed, tuneless, and clumsy like yours. They’re bright and have a pleasant warble. You are like cacti in a Kashmiri orchard. Your own Commander of the Srinagar Corps, Lt. Gen. MA Zaki, said that Kashmiris are a refined people—they cannot stand the crude language and behavior of soldiers of the Indian army.

Until then, Faraaz’s Azadi was only to fight oppression. Zulm. But Shahid’s was to preserve Kashmir. This wasn’t called Jannat for nothing, he said. Kashmir has many meanings. Besides Kashmiriat, the secular Sufi culture, of course. Shahid extricated the blind spots: the scape, the breeze, the sounds, the trees, the rivers, and the snow. The particular varieties here, he said, were found nowhere else. Shahid made Faraaz fall in love with Kashmir the way visitors do.

This morning smells of that Shahid. Every creature, every sound and every call feels as if it is complaining about his absence. Shahid and Faraaz had been in the same class in school since 1988, when they were seven. Toddlers in an unsullied Kashmir. Why did Shahid teach him all this if he was planning to go away?

In a dhoke, a mud hut of the nomadic tribe of Gujjars, high on the terraces by the Line of Control border with Pakistan, Faraaz felt fraternal comfort with his comrade Junaid. His claustrophobic bondage with snotty Peace had finally been unshackled. But the script of his immersion was trite.

In a banal sense, like most boys, Faraaz did what everyone expected him to. Bobby had to become an army doctor because his father was one—if he academically measured up, that is, else a pongo. Naturally, Major Tiwari of the counterinsurgency unit was a pongo, either because he was daffy or because he followed in his father’s footsteps, although his father wouldn’t have belonged to this hovel of half-witted Islamophobic harlequins that the army has turned into. Faraaz became a mujahid, a ‘terrorist’ in India’s public relations vocabulary, Junaid opined, because that is what a Kashmiri boy with all thirty-three vertebrae of hard bones, and not jelly, becomes.

But look at his age of immersion. Fifteen. Diaper militant, one Srinagar journalist called Faraaz’s ilk. While fifteen is fine for cricket or sex, it is tender for militancy. Even armies take older boys, just young enough to “not reason why but to do and die.” Faraaz’s facial hair had barely emerged, his voice begged more testosterone, his understanding of the world was embryonic, but that of Kashmir, absolute.

Because Kashmir grows you up suddenly.

In boyhood, this fairyland keeps you younger than your real years—rosy-cheeked, lush-lipped and all. Then one eventful day, your color goes pale. You start drawing pictures of the Kalashnikov in your school notebook. Your cheeks begin to sink. Your body sheds unnecessary burdens. It turns sinewy, undemanding. Your eyes grow dark with secrets. You stop smiling. Your only laugh is the tight sneer you’ve practiced. You urgently explore the forest trails in the high mountains that you are still forbidden from visiting because this is where you will outfox your hunters. When you turn fifteen, your slightly older friends, even the sissies, are all gone. If you stay put longer, people will squint at you. Even your father, for all his rage, will wonder what the matter is. Your mother will want to pull you to her bosom and kick you out. Some movies like Maachis, on how the state brands “freedom” as “terror,” will give her a nudge. A visit to a martyr’s funeral will tell that her Kashmiri womb is not faulty. The faces of women imploring children into martyrdom look like hers. But when she checks your guts, you mistake it for worry. When she asks why, you think she wants you to stay. It’s when she mocks the craven timeservers, seemingly out of context, that you wonder. To figure yourself out, you look in the mirror. In the lit half of your face there is a cringing coward, and a selfish bastard is hooded in the other. Then comes another event, more barbaric than the last, which had emboldened the doers by law and applause. It is the final push you need. To go fight for a land that is loved by its natives more than most lands genuinely are. At night, to make your courtship with death easier, your family pretends to sleep.

You pack the barest: two sets of clothes and some photographs that melt your icy-grey eyes. Other clothes mean nothing; you’ve only imagined yourself in fatigues when other boys were stylizing themselves. You diligently pack only the items in the list given by your Gujjar guide, Fatah Khan, for trekking over the high-altitude tracks into Azad Kashmir, Pakistan’s nomenclature for their enslaved part. You don’t pack the Quran. They, Pakistan, will thrust it into your indoctrination kit on return. You’ll let them. It is a tolerable part of the funded uniform. It is a relief that the boys with whom you sucked stolen fruit or argued over whether Asma was hotter than Mehreen all think like you. It makes your immersion a breeze.

One of them, like Junaid now, slaps your back. “Look, yaara. This war we will win.”

You weren’t expecting this in the least, so you ask, “How?” He’s not like Shahid who will liken Kashmiri children to the inexhaustible Chinar leaves of autumn. This guy is fresh from his brother’s death.

“See yaara,” he says with practical military mediocrity. “We’ll cross after the first snowfall.”

You don’t ask why. You know that those sea urchins in that so-called mountain regiment would shrink to half their already half-sizes in the snow.

At that, you both laugh your Jihadi laugh. “So, we’ll cross like a breeze.” You look at each other as though you had just crossed.

Same way, we’ll cross back. They’ll kill one in ten of us.”

You don’t say “but that could be you or me” because you always knew you weren’t sarkari, government soldiers. You don’t need medals for your heroics, just as you didn’t need a salary to join. Your patriotism doesn’t come from unemployment issues and the robotic chanting of songs. People stroking the cold temple on your still face, ruffling your lifeless hair and shouting slogans while you lie discolored and dead beats the hell out of a mutually-awarded, dubiously-verified sarkari medal. Your martyrdom is certified by the night-long encounter when you come to visit your loved ones despite knowing that’s when they will target you. Because the mountain wilderness is beyond their wits and guts. Your corpse is a medal that your beautiful mountain land stores in lush graves till eternity. It isn’t replaced by a new guy in an annual parade of dutiful patriotism.

“And so, yaara,” he says, “nine of us will be in.”

You nod like you’re in. Like you’re both in.

“And by 1998,” he says in a low voice,Allah will tell us it’s time. To leave this Jannat for His. But in these two years, yaara, two hundred would have followed us.”

Yes. You can count over a hundred admirers, even if you hurriedly bar your little siblings from following you to the grave. Because you see an unarmed woman confronting a commando, saying she will burn his burrow down. You see a frail woman screaming into the face of a rifleman. You see a boy blowing himself up inside an army unit. And you see tiny girls in school uniform pelting stones at bloodthirsty rapists, risking blindness from pellet guns. So you have to be even braver. Just then Junaid says, “Soon, everyone will fight. Because?” He pauses. You know that prompt all too well.

“Hum ky Chahtey? What are we seeking?” he rants out, throwing caution to the fucking wind.

You high five.

“Azadi!” you both scream.

And you are up on your feet.

That is how Faraaz took the plunge, thanks to the mother of the mujahideen, the army, which births “terrorism” in its torture centers. In faraway Riyadh, Faraaz’s peace-loving engineer brother, Hanif, looks at schematic diagrams, and in Kashmir, Faraaz looked dreamily at a redrawn map severed at the pinch joint of Jammu. He erased the disgraceful fissure of the Line of Control. One Kashmir only. With his village slightly off-center. No border nearby, only towering mountains. And the oppressors, back in their dusty plains far away. India in India. Pakistan in Pakistan.

Faraaz couldn’t sleep that night.

His eyelids wouldn’t shut.

His eyes were shining so much.

They were only fifteen years old.  

Faraaz wasn’t thinking of home.

But Home couldn’t stop thinking of him. His mother, Bano Begum, made breakfast at noon. Little Adil, suffering from schizophrenia after his sodomy, slept curled on his side in the fetal position. Cousin Riyaz woke up to a nightmare of hiding behind stacks of fodder and discovering a lifeless cousin, Shakeel, there. His brilliant brother, Manzoor, still struggling against withdrawal symptoms, sought hallucinatory relief. He saw snow made of frozen blood. His father, Rustam Khan, an adorably gullible six-and-a-half-feet-tall giant with his large chest housing the largest heart in Kashmir, lay straight on his back. A soundless photo album flipped in his mind—a toddler called Faraaz in his lap, demanding to hear once again the story of Sohrab and Rustam, maybe only for the name of the latter. Only his beautiful sister Firdaus managed.

She daydreamed about gentle romance.

All mush. No sex.

High above the hutments of Burankote by the LoC, it had been dawn when Faraaz fell asleep. When he woke up, he recalled some confusing sights. He had been sprinting in militant fatigues below the Pir Panjal, commandos in pursuit, zig-zagging through gunshots and tumbling down the slope, his guide, Fatah Khan, hailing him, arms wide and aloft, “Allahu Akbar!” . . . Abruptly, Firdaus, in bridal finery amid wedding music, then, by some barracks, Adil in an army uniform, an indigenous one, an officer’s uniform with epaulets and all, and Hanif at a hydroelectric power site somewhere on the riverbed of the Jhelum. Images of independent Kashmir. But then, without warning, came a recurrent vision. Bano Begum pulling Faraaz to her bosom: “Faraaz . . . Why are you crying?” And Faraaz pointing to Little Adil, who recoils when he comes close. “See what they did to him, so small he was.”

Faraaz struggled to extricate himself from the horrid half-asleep mirages at the fag end of the dream: graves of varying length, over a score, and further on, thousands of them studding the slopes littered with Chinar leaves. And Firdaus’s lover Mahtab threading through them. And the Pir Panjal, strung out in a mournful snow plume of foredoomed kismet. He panicked and looked for Mahtab but could not find him. These dreadful images are intuition in disguise. He tried hard to sleep again, only for Mahtab. But he gave up and sprung out of bed.

It was time to act.

Also, it was grishum. Summer.

Just like spring is the season of siege—Shahid had said—grishum, summer, is for revenge, and combat.

For Faraaz, more than one revenge was pending.

The clouds gathered slowly in the summer sky, as though stoically accumulating atrocities. They were turning thick and dark, only to bear down in a terrifying deluge over the scattered falconry of outlanders in these violated mountains, forcing them to regroup and return to safe cocoons. Vahrath. Monsoon. Another Kashmiri admonition. The precipitous sierra halted the sea-level neophytes but turned Kashmiris into tumbling, ascending guerrillas reveling in the very terrain that so intimidated the aliens. It bunched them together in a concentrated target to be hit with ferocity to avenge a thousand sins. The weather was a tactical coadjutor; the season, a strategic ally. It queered the pitch. Rain, in Shahid’s book, was the season for effective escape, and for plunging. And then beautiful autumn would arrive, to serve as a haunting reminder of Kashmiri resilience. The sweeping carpets of Chinar leaves, like the bleeding palms of Kashmiri children cursing their abominable deeds, were a telling forewarning of the approaching terror of wande, winter, which would culminate in the deep snows of Chillai Kalan that they feared being buried under.

But in the season of revenge, Shahid was martyred near the Quarter Guard ammunition room of the counterinsurgency unit. He had successfully carried out his fidayeen attack and killed Major Tiwari, the tormentor of Burankote, along with eight sepoys.

Shahid had avenged his parents’ death and he was buried next to them. Now, somebody had to avenge him. A masked Faraaz performed the rights. The procession was endless, a sea of angry faces, proud faces, animated faces, contorted faces, raised to the skies, hollering into the wind, launching snowballing hope. People howled thrice as much, once for Shahid, twice for his parents. Their screams were hoarse. His body was badly dismembered, but his face was miraculously clear, its ordinariness magnifying the anguish, casting a dirge-like spell. “Just look at his face,” people said of the cocky smile. To many, Shahid was more acceptable in death. His martyrdom was a triumph. But to Faraaz, it was like losing half the thought, half a sentence, and all togetherness. Besides the beauty of Kashmir. It brought about a frightening loneliness for which no one in his family could compensate. It felt like the mountains, the snow, the breeze, the birds, the river, and, most of all, the spring had departed. Faraaz realized that Shahid only gave but took nothing, unless in exchange. He set up no camp, he dug up no earth, he knocked down no tree, he planted no concrete. His debt was unrepayable, its heft, immeasurable. Suddenly, a woman raised her hands and began to ululate. “Oh god.” Faraaz’s knees buckled. Riyaz gripped him. When he came to, Faraaz staved off those who rushed to him in concern. And he stood up in a huff.

Faraaz the boy died that day.

▪︎

The army had suffered a massive setback. They were being primed for quick results. While this was anticipated, the sheer scale wasn’t. House-to-house searches began. Jackboots stamped the ground. Helicopters did sorties over forests, flew low, parted the canopies, and peered inside. Check-posts sprung up. Trigger-happy sepoys were reassured that all was fair, as though it hadn’t been before. An investigation was launched and of all the people around Shahid, the name that repeatedly came up was of a fifteen-year-old boy with fearless eyes who had recently spurned the overtures of the dead Major to turn collaborator. A boy whose school was all but shut, but who had still refused the princely sum of fifteen thousand rupees. Manzoor’s brother. Adil’s brother.

Faraaz was now a marked man, an “infiltrator.”

When they went to sleep, it happened.

The “infiltrator” came home. It was a foggy inky night. The funereal chinars were bereft of their near-maple leaves. Faraaz returned with a rudimentary stubble on thinner cheeks, flinty eyes, and a mysterious darkness on his fair skin that somehow veiled his face. They thought it was his wraith knocking on the door of the ramshackle homestead. The freshly packed clay on its old weathered frame shivered. So did they seeing their cousin. Because this was when even the steely para-commandos below expected no penetration, so deep was the snow on the scabrous high-altitude border, so perilous. But he’d told his commanders in the Pir Panjal regiment that he would do it.

Early morning, he was at work, recruiting young boys to fight for Azadi.

Far from staying indoors or on his homestead’s terrace, he grinned and talked away, gloating in the animated fraternal inquest that came from his young audience, his cheekbones suddenly reddened like any other child’s in this misty Kashmiri morning with the snow now topping all the surrounding mountains, even the near ones. Vapors shot out in strobes from his mouth as though he hadn’t spoken in a long time. He even showed his toys: an AK-47 assault rifle, its wood polished and its metal gleaming, the magazine attached and curving out front; then a pistol, some magazines, two grenades, and a kit that he didn’t open. Sporting fatigues, looking chiseled and light, the calm half-smile of death perpetually on his face, he transformed there and then, in that small clearing amid the giant cedars, into a role model for young mortals.

Then he went inside and unwrapped what he had brought. Chinese and Pakistani toys for Firdaus’s newborn—some of which the child would use much later. Trust a male to buy such toys even though the mother is sure it’ll be a girl. A merry-go-round and playpen with arches, a rattle that sounded like a machine gun, which Bano Begum immediately threw into the bin; a doll with sea-green eyes and plastic lashes that she shut on lying down and opened on standing, a soldier in Indian army uniform with VEGETARIAN written on his chest, squeaking Jai Hind every ten seconds without any prompt or action or rhyme or reason. And a toy Kalashnikov that shot bubbles. That also joined the toy machine gun in the bin.

He had come to recruit.

To replenish some crushed Chinar leaves. And then he left with some boys, those who had once hidden in maize fields when an army encounter went on, and helplessly muttered, “I wish I was trained.”

Ash Kaul

Ash is a writer, strategist, and mountaineer. As a Kashmiri and as the son of an army officer, he has seen the Kashmiri conflict from all sides. Two other stories set in Kashmir (like “The Springtime Siege”) were published in Another Chicago Magazine and Terrain.org . He was a finalist in Cutbank’s Montana Prize for Fiction 2018 for a excerpt from his literary historical novel. Another excerpt from the novel was published by The Satirist. He contributed a political satire column in Litro where, of the pieces published, three were featured as Editor’s Pick. His flash fiction won a “favorite” in the Reflex Flash Fiction Spring Competition 2018.

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