Autumn in Bloom: When Army took me as a human shield

Picture: Abid Bhat

In autumn when life dies a slow, painful death, two white flowers bloom in a graveyard near my home. Every year, they sprout their way through wilted leaves of walnut, chinar, poplar, all kinds of trees in the graveyard. They always appear at the same place, on the graves of two unidentified men.

I always liked autumn and the slowness it brings into our lives; its power to strip the nature, to infuse varied hues in our surroundings and the chill which announces the demise of scorching summer heat, bringing a promise of the coming life when the cold and cloudy nights die of their own bitterness, in spring, soounth.

I live deep inside the Rawalpora localtiy, on the fringes of the Srinagar city, the summer capital of Indian administered Kashmir. The two flowers in the graveyard always attracted my attention. I would often think why they came to life in the midst of dying surroundings? Why only two flowers? Who are beneath those graves? I had developed a strange sense of belongingness to them.

I remember when it all happened. Those horrible images flash before my eyes like the scene from an old black and white movie, repeated again and again on TV.

It was the autumn of 1997. At 9 in the morning, I left home for school. It was the final day of exams. It was a time when I and my friends would leave home early in the morning; our cheeks and ears auburn, our finger tips cold, our noses dripping in the piercing autumn chill.

On normal days, upon returning home from school, I used to climb to the patio on the first floor, sit down on a mat, holding a book in my hands and pretend to read. Instead of studying, I watched children, my friends, playing in an open field which was our playground. I would get tempted.

On that day when our exams were going to end, I was bubbling with excitement. I knew it was the day of freedom. I would soon rejoin my gang. At school, I breathed furiously into my hands to warm up. Then I wrote answers, swiftly, and finished much ahead of the allocated time. The return journey was a lonely affair, almost melancholic. Alone in each step I took towards home, I felt half-relaxed, half-melancholic.

On normal days, upon returning home from school, I used to climb to the patio on the first floor, sit down on a mat, holding a book in my hands and pretend to read. Instead of studying, I watched children, my friends, playing in an open field which was our playground. I would get tempted.

Picture: Abid Bhat

On normal days, school friends would join me. We used to leave school like flocks of making merry sheep grazing in the mountains. Now I was dragging my feet with the burden of loneliness and a bag full of notebooks. I passed shops where I purchased candies, past dust-laden shutters and billboards, past crows and pigeons perched on the naked electric wires running from one pole to another. I wondered why birds never got electrocuted.

I reached a ‘security’ bunker on the bridge of a highway near my home, the lifeline of the India’s military apparatus in Kashmir. I looked for my friend. He was an Army trooper who always wore an olive bullet-proof vest, which would give a bulky look to his otherwise bony frame. Whenever he grinned, I always noticed his white teeth betraying his black complexion. He would buy me ice creams and toffees. He was a good friend, unlike his colleagues who beat up pedestrians and commuters while frisking them on the bridge.

On that day, I didn’t see him.

I continued to walk till I crossed the bridge which runs over a shallow water stream. I walked on the path along the banks of the stream. Our locality comprised of eight clustered houses. Most of them were old fashioned and modest, constructed in mid-forties and sixties. Resting ideally on an elevated patch of land, our locality overlooked vast fields and various kinds of trees in them.

Through a thick groves of poplar and kikar trees, I got the first glimpse of home. I could make out mother wearing a head scarf and a sleeveless jersey sitting on the verandah. She liked the autumn sun, but she never sat idle. She would sift unwanted corns from rice and pulses. Now she was slicing vegetables that would be dried under sun and cooked in winter.

When I reached, she turned her affectionate gaze at me and said: “So you are back. I think my son is hungry. And tired too?” I changed clothes and got down. Mother had kept the lunch ready. She sat by my side in the kitchen as I started to eat. We remained quiet.

Picture: Abid Bhat

Suddenly, a sound of gunshots shattered the momentarily silence between us. Then a volley of bullets rang in the air. I saw mother’s face. She had turned blue out of fear. I became scared too on seeing her. The sound was coming from the fields. Mother, out of curiosity as well as fear, I think, hurried to a neighbor’s house to know what actually had happened. Before going, she instructed me “not to move an inch” out of the kitchen.

But each gunshot made me inquisitive. I was liking the adventure. Ignoring mother’s command. I mustered courage and slipped outside, walking on crouched knees like a duck in order to reach a lone, wooden granary bordering the rice fields. I hid myself there. Later, I walked stealthily to the front room of the granary which faced the fields to know what exactly was going on.

A figure, the size of my index finger from where I was looking, was enveloped in a low lying blue haze in the fields. The figure started running towards the plum orchards. Before it could reach there, the figure turned back and shouted, seemingly, at the soldiers. I could barely understand what was going on. I tried to listen carefully but another round of gunshots pierced the air and the figure disappeared in the haze.

The firing stopped. I scurried towards a house located close to the granary. In the courtyard, pale-faced women were huddled in a corner. They gave me frantic looks when I entered. I felt like an unwelcome visitor, but they knew me. They could not turn me back. Even if they would have done so, I would have refused. After all, it was a battle for survival.

I assumed it would be safe to sit among women in case the soldiers searched our locality. For us, the word “soldier” was self-explanatory; it instilled a sense of dread among us. Barely moments had passed when a column of soldiers arrived. Their first target was the same house where I was embedded among the female folk. The troops ordered males to separate themselves from females.

I did not leave the company of women. I was a child, or so I thought.

The only “man” in the house was Ramzan. He often worked in the field where the figure was lying. He would smoke hookah there, till the field, prune the grass and beat the paddy. He was indefatigable. A man with strong features; muscular, dark skinned, wide jaws, sunken eyes and a piercing gaze. He was less talkative and more strenuous.

But a soldier located me. He pointed his SLR gun at me and ordered: “You, stand up!”

On this, an old woman got up and put up a resistance, reminding the trooper that I was a child, but her argument failed to impress him. “He is big enough to qualify for a grown-up. Both of you, come with us,” he ordered.

It was later that I understood what was going on. The troopers had not come to search houses, as they usually did. They had come to arrange human shields to protect themselves from the motionless figure lying in the field. Ramzan and I were asked to go to the spot. Ramzan looked injured. He looked back several times in the journey and each time he saw armed soldiers following us.

The troops stopped and pointed towards a body. They asked us to go close and ascertain whether the “dog” was alive. I thought it was the last day of my life. What if he was alive? Will he shoot us? Was he waiting for us to blow himself up? Are we going to die?

A cold shiver ran through my spine. My legs trembled and I looked behind; the soldiers had taken position behind a mound of soil with their guns pointing at us. With reluctant steps, Ramzan and I walkedtowards the man. The figure which had appeared the size of an index finger from the granary was a tall, young man with cropped beard. He was wearing a traditional khan suit and an arsenal of ammunition was tied to his chest. A Kalashnikov rifle lay besides him. He was cold. His head was almost split into two. Some of his teeth were lying on the ground. Bullets had bored through his legs too and blood oozing out of his body had streamed into the field.

“Is he dead,” a soldier shouted.

“Yes,” I replied.

On this, one of the soldiers drew nearer and asked us to take out the dead man’s new pair of sports shoes. Then another came and demanded his watch. They also forced us to search his pockets for money. They took away shoes, money, watch and other belongings. The dead man had torn several INR 500 notes into small pieces. Few tattered notes with embossed image of India’s father of the nation, MK Gandhi, were covered in congealed blood and scattered on the ground.

Picture: Abid Bhat

The soldiers shared the ‘war booty’ and handed over a cotton sheet to us with instructions that the dead man be immediately taken to a nearby ground. We obeyed. They followed us. It was the same ground where I wanted to play with my friends on that day. Instead of a cricket frenzied crowd, it now hosted few mourners. A police pickup truck arrived later and took away the dead man.

The soldiers freed both of us but I was enslaved forever. I thought about the unknown man; his bullet-ridden body, his torn head and the soldiers who robbed him. When I reached home, an unusual joy returned to mother’s gloomy face. I got a scolding, but I could sense that she was happy for the fact I had returned alive and unhurt.

It was later that I came to know that the two men had actually died in an encounter. The soldiers had laid siege around a locality in Gulzarpora, some half-a-kilometer away from our home. . One insurgent was killed there. The other had successfully broken the cordon, crossed an irrigation canal, ran through orchards and negotiated thorny bushes on his way, but he was trapped as more contingents were called in from the side to where he was running.

He was finally killed in the fields behind the granary.

Evening approached. The two, unidentified bodies of ‘mujahids,’ fighters, were handed over to elders of our locality for burial. We fell into grief. Women wailed and beat their chests. Hundreds of people from far off places arrived in our small locality. They had come to offer funeral prayers of the ‘shohada’, the martyrs, who died for ‘Azaadi’, freedom. I had never seen such a large funeral procession in our locality, neither did I experience it afterwards. I was baffled. I could not understand our connection with the dead men. Surely there must have been something that had brought so many people and so much grief to our locality.

Both the bodies were taken to the graveyard. People volunteered to dig the graves. I stood there among the myriad mourners, watching their sad faces, as the dead were laid to rest. I watched synchronized lips of people reciting special prayers for the shohada. I stood there, till water was sprinkled and the graves were plastered with mud.

Days passed. I left school, high school, then college and finally university. I noticed the two white flowers growing on the graves during the last weeks of autumn. Every day, I would walk on the lone path bordering the graveyard, visiting the memories of the two men buried there. It would make me sad. I would ask myself why they died and what for? I wanted to get rid of the pain inflicted by my memory. I wanted to unburden my heart. I wanted to open up the “storehouse of memories’ to “bring them back to life”. I never found the vent.

The fear of losing an essential part of my life, the burden of memory and the events that shaped me into what I am, kept haunting me for some time, till I decided to write.

Picture: Abid Bhat

We have left our old home five years ago but the grave and the flowers are inscribed on my memory. I could not see them as often as I did except on one occasion. It was a fine Eid morning, on November 17, 2010. I was pressed by mother to offer ‘fateh’ at the graves of our ancestors in the graveyard. It was a sacred day, she said, and I was unwilling to go, like always, but the graves and the budding flowers struck my mind once again. The autumn was in its last days and my inquisitiveness, rather than God’s fear, induced me to visit the graveyard.

I walked again on the narrow dusty path from where, through the mesh of poplar trees, I once saw, as a child, mother, preparing vegetables for sun-drying. The sky was azure. Each occasional drift of breeze brought bring down corpses of red, brown, orange and crimson-colored leaves on the path. Nature was stripping the tall poplars and mighty chinar trees.

When I entered the graveyard, the leaves crushed beneath my feet. The rusty smell of leaves had dispersed in the air. I searched for the two flowers. I could not locate them. I scraped the leaves on two graves with my hands. The flowers were there; their green stems forcing their way out of the foliage. All these years, I had locked the secret of the two flowers in my heart. Now I had decided to come out of this thoughtful silence.

I asked grandmother about the two white flowers. She was comfortably sitting in the hamaam on a white numdah, woolen rug. Her hair was covered with a white cloak and she was reading Quran. I knew I would get a scolding for not offering prayers regularly, but she was soft to me on that day. It was Eid, perhaps. I asked her about the two white flowers, about the two graves of unidentified men. I asked her why the flowers on the graves bloomed in autumn. I told her it looked strange to me.

“Why? It’s not,” she replied nonchalantly, fixing her gaze on me, “whenever a man dies for a good cause, his spirit gets transferred into a charming bird or a beautiful flower.”

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