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The Shapes of Stones


The careful act of paying respects to kin while under curfew in Kashmir

The morning I left my house in Kashmir for the first time in fifty days came halfway through a cruel summer more than two years ago. It was after dawn, and I was on the road to my uncle’s grave in the hour before curfew would start, yet again, to reclaim the valley. The morning, still cold from the previous night, drooped in the absence of men and their ordinary chaos. As I drove, I passed through the absolute stillness and silence of Srinagar, cutting into it in hopes of eventually crashing into sound and life.

Driving the empty route to the graveyard felt as though I was moving on dead land. It seemed like the suggestion of inhabiting a cold, frozen corpse rather than a valley. My deceased home. And then came a waking dream. In it were the figures of two young men whom I had seen only once before, a few years earlier, at my uncle’s grave. The men were leaning idly against a short green fence when I stepped into that particular house of graves, stood in front of my uncle’s headstone, and looked at them in the brief moment before I looked down and began to cry. I did not look up again to see if they were watching me, but I could feel their detached, harmless gaze as my cries grew louder. And that was all there was to our meeting; I had cried and they had watched. Without words or movement, it was an exchange borne entirely by sight.

This time, now within my imagination, we were no longer at the graveyard; we were nowhere at all. It was just them—their silhouettes were imprinted on the shifting view of the city as I traveled—and they had been blinded. They looked at me, still strangers, with empty eyes, and then asked if I would read to them a passage from a book.

My body shook, with chills and with shame, at my nerve to conceive their despair, and then I took the next right, breaking away from the dream and landing, at once, into the loaded arms of the men in uniform.

Roughly twenty soldiers narrowed in on the car. I rolled down my window as one of them approached, and began to speak before I could be spoken to.

Burhan Wani’s name remains printed across shutters in Srinagar almost two years after his death, as seen in July 2018. (R. Latif)

That morning came halfway through a cruel summer in Kashmir that began on the eve of the eighth of July in 2016, when Burhan Muzaffar Wani’s death unleashed people into the streets to march and wail, chant and pray. A popular twenty-two-year-old rebel, Burhan had been shot by Indian soldiers and the Jammu and Kashmir police during a gun battle in Kashmir’s Anantnag district. He was the newest commander of Kashmir’s Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, a militia founded by Muhammad Ahsan Dar in 1989, when the Kashmir Valley—a part of the Himalayan region controlled by India and Pakistan in parts but claimed by both in full—first rose in an armed rebellion against India.

Within the wide, subjective spectrums of lexicon and politics around the world, Burhan has been demonized and lionized, as a “militant,” a “terrorist,” a “separatist,” a “freedom fighter.” But at home, in Kashmir, he was known most passionately as Burhan. “Burhan is dead.” “They killed Burhan.” “Burhan is coming home.” Kashmir raised Burhan—who was only fifteen years old when he first took up arms—into a symbol for its people’s resistance against Indian occupation. His name, both in life and death, has attained the strength of an expression, a fond, familiar expression of the want and fight for freedom.

I came home to a Srinagar that had been sealed under military curfew for sixteen days, since the night of Burhan’s death. In that time, fifty-two protesters and mourners were killed by Indian forces. Bodies fell, without fuss, and a string of funerals followed them. Death, however, felt old and worn out as it grew further into the long and tiring life it possesses in Kashmir.

The deaths that belong to the conflict are never truly accompanied by dying. They arrive on their own, without the travel of dying, without the time to gradually cease to exist. There is no passage of decline and no opportunity to choose between descending with grace or shame or fear or resignation. There is only a point in time in which the death occurs and where mourning begins.

On the other side of such suffering were the three thousand women and men who were injured. At Srinagar’s main hospital, ophthalmologists had spent a fortnight operating on the eyes of nearly two hundred people, salvaging sight for those whose faces had been torn by pellet guns.

On the drive home from the airport, I looked out at Kashmir, in search of what the blinded were no longer able to see, registering the ordinary and exceptional sights stolen from them. I saw vacant, grim roads where bright, cramped shop signs screamed from above dusty shutters, and I saw roads cut in half by concertina wire. I saw trees, towering and majestic, reaching out to the mountains, with soldiers planted among them. I saw a vendor from my childhood walk away from the school where my mother was once a teacher. And I knew I was home when I saw the sole treasure of our neighborhood: a wooden arched bridge that crosses our stretch of the Jhelum River, and which had been falling apart since the mid-eighties.

But mine was a naïve, facile attempt at empathy, imagining their sightlessness through my sight. There was no way of perceiving—not momentarily, not in the slightest, with eyes firmly shut or wide open—an eternal darkness where vision is rested into perception. The more I searched for what they had lost, the further I was taken from finding it by all that I could, in fact, see.

When I arrived at home for the first time in a year, I found my grandfather in his room, looking out through the long glass window. It was a scene that would repeat itself time and again that summer: Abba, looking to the outside, with such elongated and perfected stillness that each time he broke away and retreated back into the room, it alarmed me.

From my vantage point, he looked like a quiet celebration of everything man should be: audacious in hope, tender in memory, and firm in heart, even as he trembles in the knees. He sat with renewed hope for Kashmir, in anticipation for something to happen. He sat also with a patient desire to visit Makhdoom Sahib’s shrine, his most beloved in the city. His stubborn longing to see it, even as the days around him worsened, bore an uncanny resemblance to the unwavering willingness of the men who were prepared to sacrifice their sight, and even their lives, for Kashmir. It was an immense desire—putting Kashmir over one’s self—that extinguished the fear and immensity of losing one’s vision or life. And it was desire too—selfish as it may be—that preserved my grandfather’s delicate nostalgia as the city around him was maimed.

“The newspapers are full of blood,” he said to me, turning away from the window, toward my direction.

There had been a gap of sixteen days, dense days, in which he had been home, I had been away, and Kashmir had burst out of silence and into fury. Looking at my grandfather’s face, I felt the much larger gulf between us. It was not his skin, which had mostly been spared time’s etching of creases. Nor was it the bright hair, which shone a gleaming white, along the edges of his scalp. It was his eyes, bare of any lashes and hooded by delicate eyelids, which had turned gray and grown smaller with age, as if they were retreating, bit by bit.

The beginning of the insurgency had passed before those eyes, twenty-seven long years of rapes, disappearances, and traumas, through which Kashmiris dug seventy thousand graves. And India continued to bury the truth under its denials and power.

When night fell on July 8, the call for Burhan’s funeral came. Two hundred thousand people were reported to have attended; the valley’s roads were lined with men who offered prayers and who mourned his death as they marched, one day into the next, against India’s occupation of Kashmir. The few protesters who charged at Indian soldiers and police with stones were, in turn, attacked with a force of bullets, pellets, and tear gas. And so, the newspapers were full of blood.

“Abba,” I called out to my grandfather. “What is the meaning of his name? Of ‘Burhan’?”

“‘Burhan’ means proof,” he said, smiling.

A Kashmiri man walks by on an empty road during the city’s shutdown. (R. Latif)

A Kashmiri man walks by on an empty road during the city’s shutdown. (R. Latif)

The morning I drove to my uncle’s grave I had left home with enough time, having carefully divided my seventy-five minutes in the assigned “relaxation” period before a curfew begins. People usually spend this time traveling or searching for what they need most for the next day or week: milk, vegetables, medical aid. When one of the armed soldiers who stopped me told me I could go no farther, I pointed out, politely, that there were still thirty minutes remaining on my side of the day. He shook his head, declining to let me pass. I suggested, cautiously, that there was neither sight nor sound of any trouble in the streets. The remainder of the route was clear and short. He then quietly pointed his gun in my direction and held it there till I showed myself out.

Back home in the living room, I deliberated over my half-hearted plea to visit my uncle’s grave. I couldn’t decide if I had been insistent with the soldier or if I had restrained myself. Perhaps it was both, in the sense of being torn between an allegiance to your freedom, which demands that you demand what is rightfully yours, and an allegiance to your dignity, which prevents you from asking for what is rightfully yours. Or perhaps it was neither, and I had simply turned around because that was what would keep me alive.

I spent the summer sitting at home, with Abba and with Beiga, the caretaker of our home, mostly in silence. The days were almost identical. The afternoons, always quieter than the evenings, were tormented by word of the conditions outside or the anticipation of it, and everything that would have normally built our day—work, meals, reading, phone calls—became secondary. The evenings, though, were held together by a routine of watching the news.

Abba’s posture would change once the television was turned on. He would watch keenly and listen carefully. He looked alert, wearing spectacles, arching forward. For a man living under the rigidity of curfew and the vulnerability of old age, the conflict is spent entirely in his mind and memory. He is mostly removed from the pace of modern communication and knowledge attained on foot. Sometimes, though, during the day, the few men who would guardedly trek out on urgent business would stop by and bring him accounts from the outside.

“Kya khabar?”—What news?—was the refrain at our home that summer. It became the greeting of the times, asked by Abba whenever someone called him or walked into his room. Several times a day, during conversation or after a long pause of silence, he would turn to me and ask, “Kasheer hiunz kya khabar?” meaning, “What news is there of Kashmir?” It became an unsettling question, as though Kashmir were someplace far and other, or as if he were not actually there and only I was. On certain days, he repeated the question, with the same concern and honesty, just minutes after I had answered it. I would try to respond a little differently then, though with the same answer.

His restless cycle of remembering and forgetting forced me to think of Kashmir’s own cyclical fate, where little had changed over the days and years.

Each night, we watched television for almost four hours. It seemed like a tedious film that began at seven, with a local channel’s painstaking report of Kashmir’s plight that day, and ended by eleven after a global network’s medley of world affairs. Local events never made an appearance within the global news. In time, the pattern of events in Kashmir became so quotidian that the local news report echoed the banality of a weather forecast: which areas saw protests, what forces the protesters were met with, how many were killed on the street, how many were injured, whose funeral took place that day, and how many walked the dead to his grave. With changes only in names and numbers, it was a report on loop. The week gone by and the week to come shared the same fate and so, it turned out, that the days were identical on the outside too.

After some nights, while Abba set his eyes on the screen in hopes that tonight—among the company of the competing horrors of the world—something might finally be said of Kashmir, I started to stare at the pitiless news ticker at the bottom of the screen. It was an involuntarily but intuitive practice: searching for us in the scarcest of spaces.

Beiga, meanwhile, would sit with his back facing the TV, watching us watch and seeing right through its vanity.

Gate opens into an empty courtyard at the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib’s in Srinagar
city. (R. Latif)

“There is that religious undertone which is driving these young people more than it used to drive earlier generations, the older generations,” a politician on an Indian news channel said one night.

“Khabar kya wanaan”—He doesn’t know what he’s saying—Abba responded. He took off his glasses, gesturing that the show was over for him. Looking at me, he then said, “I have been praying religiously for our freedom for thirty more years than your generation has.”

I broke into laughter. Abba had interpreted—or rather, misinterpreted—the politician as accusing the old and not the young. To my grandfather, the politician’s words implied that his generation had done less—had fought, screamed, pined, and prayed less—for freedom in Kashmir. To him, the words belied the true age of the conflict; they dismissed Kashmir’s legacy of tragedy.

Of course, the words were an attack on the youth. They were an attempt to invalidate the present generation and its movement by aligning rage with radicalization. The politician wanted to imply that the rage on the streets not only is exhibited by the young but also is new—newfound anger that is foreign to Kashmir’s past, foreign to the so-called docile sentiment of those who stay home, and imported from across the border, where it was cultivated by agents of extremism. This was the argument made to be sold.

Abba’s misunderstanding was endearing, primarily because it was one of the rare, idyllic instances in which I have encountered “religious undertones” to be interpreted as prayer. But his misplaced riposte was also ironic for the truth it contained despite its misunderstandings. When the most recent uprising in a seventy-year-old resistance is framed within the narrative of radicalization, propaganda travels faster than history, eyeing to annul the present, the past, the loss and legitimacy borne by both, and perhaps even that which is yet to come.

A man crosses a bridge in Srinagar on the 25th of July 2016 – the sixteenth day of
curfew that summer. (R. Latif)

Beiga is the guardian of our home; a rare practitioner of continuance amid the good and the bad, beyond our presence and our absence. There came a point long ago when he stopped counting his years and started wearing only gray clothing—a cold, light steel-gray that has never demanded attention nor made a statement. It is merely there, worn like a second skin by a man who has spent his life saying very little, growing trees and flowers in colors he is fond of, and seeing them through harsh winters with hands that have aged much faster than the rest of him.

During my childhood years, when the days would close with the evening call for prayer, Beiga would make a round through the house with an earthen pot of burning seeds that are believed to keep the evil away. He would carry the pot with one hand and push its smoke out with the other, forcing it into the hidden corners and the spaces of the home. When he came across someone, he would stop so that the person could pull some of the smoke toward themselves.

Each time he stopped for me, he would stare me down, gesturing at the smoke with his straight, raised eyebrows, and tease, “Baie ni, baie ni”—Take more, take more—suggesting that I had a greater propensity for attracting the devil.

It was during those moments that I began to notice his walk: the weight in his steps, a heaviness in his movement that was neither lethargic nor laborious but steady. No step was taken farther or faster than the other, and no distance broke the stoic spirit that resided in his feet. It was as though his feet had arrived at a uniform pace to walk through all of life, immune to change or circumstance, and fluent in a severe yet effortless form of steadiness.

Two years ago, as I observed him making rounds through the home during the evening azaan, his walk struck me as that of someone who was never tempted to leave Kashmir. Never tempted to hasten his steps or lighten their weight. It was as though the heaviness descended from a lifetime of being anchored in one place of great strife, and the steadiness was the elusive, wise gift he had built for himself.

One afternoon, as we spoke in the garden while he plucked weeds and I paced, Beiga asked me what the very frequently, very frantically yelled word on the news the night before meant. He was referring to “stone-pelter.” While trying to explain that it is the label given to the boys who throw stones at the armed forces, I realized that the term has no equivalent in Kashmiri. There is a Kashmiri word or two for the action— for “stone pelting”—but there is no such noun in our language.

Beyond the valley, the term “stone-pelter” has become a reductive label for anyone perceived as violent, harmful, or brainwashed—someone who fits seamlessly into the larger, rising narrative of radicalization. What that particular image of the stone-pelters eliminates, however, is the history and violence at which they throw stones. In the year that followed Burhan’s death, a growing gallery of photographs that testify to the Indian state’s violence against Kashmiris surfaced. They show faces that have been reduced to deformed flesh, their young skin eaten away by lead pellets; naked bodies dressed, almost entirely, in bruises; hospital wards lined with blind men, women, and children. Images of the dead. And images of the dead, as they once were: alive.

Indignation, accumulated over generations, untethered from fear, catapults the stone into its short flight, from one side of the street to the other. And though it may strike an armed guard, it cannot penetrate his skin. The stone falls back to the ground and returns to where it came from. Unlike the soldiers’ lead pellets, it will not be found lodged in the muscle of an eye. Nor will it have to be excavated from between bones. When a so-called stone-pelter picks up a stone, he knows that its strength lies in it being a symbol and not a weapon. He might even be aware that he is possibly holding a piece of his own death in his hand. For the naked rebel marching against one of the largest armies in the world, the stone as a weapon is as futile as the gravestone is for the dead who lie beneath it. Perhaps that is why at least ninety-six of them were killed and fifteen thousand were injured by the winter.

“Ladkeh che kani jung karaan”—The boys are throwing stones—Beiga said, suggesting the phrase that he thought would come closest to referencing a stone-pelter, and revealing that, in Kashmiri, the boys can only be described in relation to the action, not defined by it.

The view of Srinagar from atop the staircase that leads to Makhdoom Sahib’s shrine. Photo taken by the author.

It was past 6 pm one evening when Abba grew adamant, rather suddenly, about having me visit the shrine straightaway. Earlier that day, certain by then that he would not be able to see it all summer, I had offered to go instead, but at an appropriate time later in the week. Beiga and two other men were in the room, each pleading with him to understand that sending me to that particular area at that very hour, when it was known to be laden with street clashes, was a bad idea.

I kept quiet and watched him dismiss all their concerns as pathetic exaggeration. He did so with a fervor that made an appearance only once all summer. If it weren’t for being outnumbered in opinion, he may have even expressed outrage at what he believed wholeheartedly were excuses. How could traveling on the path that led to the noble saint’s sanctuary, albeit graced with an army patrol and its weapons, ever put his granddaughter in danger?

“Agar yih waateh toar araam saan tih, waapas pheirun chuss mushkil”—Even if she gets there with no trouble, it’ll be very difficult for her to make it back home—said one of the men, who for some reason, though rather fittingly, was on his knees as he spoke.

“Addeh, su gov zyaadeh jaan”—That’s even better—Abba responded, his eyes now widening with possibility. Taeli hekki raates te teith roozith”—Then she could even spend the night there.

Hearing this, my eyes widened too, and I looked at him for a moment, reminded of just how maddening his whims could be. I was reminded, too, of the great absurdity of living under different roofs of the same conflict, which had been split and shared in asymmetrical parts. In his light share of such conflict, an old man could afford the comfort of believing, even desiring, that a young woman from his family could spend a night under the canopy of safety and healing during a time of cold-blooded events. In the end, I suggested that I should go the next morning, so I could get a better look at it under the sun. This purpose for delay seemed reasonable to him and settled the matter.

Makhdoom Sahib’s shrine is a spiritual home to one of Kashmir’s most revered Sufi mystics. It is neither the city’s most beautiful shrine nor its most intimate one, but it is the most enchanting of them all. Built on the slope of a hill overlooking the city, it commands a long, dramatic staircase that slowly ascends to the sanctuary. The staircase and the pathway following it are made of stone and lined with barefoot worshippers and their voices of prayer—whispers, chants, hums, and wails—which ensure that no moment of hollow silence touches that ground. Throughout the day, in the courtyard, visitors’ shoes pile up and hundreds of pigeons take center stage to settle and eat, and then flee in a roaring departure. Inside, in a scattered, restless orbit around the sanctuary, are the valley’s believers: sitting or pacing in prayer, reading the Qur’an, standing in plea with open hands and eyes, performing namaz in the mosques, and watching each other. The only sight of stillness I have encountered at the shrine is that of the hundreds of wish knots that remain tightly locked around its carved windows and walls, waiting to someday be untied. For a site of prayer, Makhdoom Sahib’s contains very little peace on the surface and always feels closer to a site of celebration and catharsis instead.

Early the next morning, I arrived to see it. After a hundred and thirty steps up, I turned around, breathless, and looked at Srinagar for the first time in months. In the wake of dawn, the mountains and clouds were beginning to part, very slowly. Soon they would return to their separate hues against a rising sun, breaking away from the soft blue in which they still rested as one body. At their feet, lying low and clouded by mist, was the valley, with a gathering of short, clustered homes and modest buildings. The air was quiet, and the ground stood still. A lone raven crossed the sky.

On the other side of the staircase was an empty shrine. Absent were the people, their movements and voices. In the courtyard, five stray dogs lay half asleep on a cold ground stained by their feces. Inside, the mosque was deserted and dark, even as the call for prayer approached. I searched for shoes but found none. It was a shrine under curfew.

When I returned home, I didn’t share what I saw with Abba. I never told him of my experience of feeling the furthest I ever had from a place so close to us. Instead, my lies were met with his joy and more questions.

“Namaaz parthe?”—Did you pray?—he asked me with a smile.

“Na, meh hech na parith”—No, I couldn’t—I responded, without lying. “Totaan oas variya tchear goamuth namaaz khatir”—It was too late to pray by then.

(Photo by R. Latif)

I don’t recall exactly when the summer ended in Kashmir that year, perhaps because what it incited is still emerging. But my last memories of it were two conversations that took place during an unbearably hot week that came deep in the season:

An aunt of mine—one with a penchant for the eccentric—had found a young boy lurking in the small garden of her home one morning. The boy looked to be fourteen or fifteen, and he was dressed in his school uniform. She confronted him and came to discover that he was mid-heist, stealing stones from her yard. When she questioned him, he at once pulled out the half dozen or so stones that he had managed to stuff in his little pockets. Her disappointment at his choice surfaced immediately, and she insisted, pointing at the other options in a bed of stones, that he must choose better. As his nerves settled, he talked her through the big and the little of his life—his school and his grade, his siblings, his favorite sport—while she picked the ideal stones for him.

Thereafter, each time I’ve encountered portrayals of Kashmiris as the problem Kashmir faces, I’ve scoffed a bit, thinking of the little so-called radical who went scouting for weapons in my aunt’s garden—and thinking, too, of her chilling nonchalance as she aided him in his search for stones, her resignation to the inevitability of him finding and throwing them sooner rather than later.

The most cherished word in Kashmir is azaadi. It is often translated as “freedom.” But the true meaning of the word is the want or the fight for freedom. This fight is not bounded by any one form or practice. It is as personal as it is collective; it can be heard as much in the subtext of daily conversation as it is read in the refrains graffitied across the valley’s walls. Azaadi, like the stones the young men throw in the streets of Kashmir, has infinite forms yet is made of the same matter.

The second conversation took place back in Abba’s room, where he sat looking out through the window and into the hot day, with Beiga by his side, both speaking of rain as I read alongside them.

“Khudaya sozsa rahmati baraan”—Shower us with a merciful rain, Oh Lord!—Abba said, through a deep sigh. It had been a sleepless week from the heat and he was praying for the rain to bring some respite.

Beiga responded deftly, “Yih chu sozaan Hindustansi rahmati baran”—He only showers merciful rains upon India, not us.

I looked up from the book and smiled at him, and he smiled back in acknowledgment.

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