A stranger in a strange land, Bushra Punjabi reflects on the condition of being away from home and at home within the confines of memory. In such a mode, she reflects on what it means to be Kashmiri in an uncertain present, between an imposing past and an impending future. In this quagmire of time, the writer and sociology researcher retrieves a sense of being Kashmiri, contemplating her belonging to a troubled Kashmir and her longing for a Kashmir free from tyranny.

For years now she has been ricocheting between arrival(s) and departure(s). Packing her suitcase, she leaves. Unpacking, she arrives. But she never truly arrives.

In a faraway place, she observes her life in no’s and not’s. The everyday practices in this landscape are anything but usual. The concrete mix of bodies and objects, movements and routines, signs and gestures, symbols and metaphors is not familiar. People do not speak a familiar language. They do not recognize you by family names. On a more concrete level, the spread of roads and slopes, structures and spaces, alleys and bazaars is not familiar. She walks through these frames of unfamiliarity to trace the maps of absence.

Here, winters do not smell like razma daa’l-gogji.[1]Mornings are not filled with mists of noon chai,[2]the aroma of ka’ndar tchot.[3]The hurried-shutter-downs and empty playgrounds are not the common sites to find oneself in. There are no palpable signs of danger. No paramilitary squads on the move. The sad grayness of evenings does not morph into quiet nights, dead like a stone. Skies bear no burden of unanswered prayers! Zoon has no stars to play around.[4]

Here, mothers do not sing Allahū’ [5] to crying babies calling them jaanā[6] and gaashā. They do not have to fret about their incarcerated children. They do not cry out mouj ha lajie balai to still bodies.[7] Children, here, do not enjoy long vacations. They do not get to experience the thrill of raining stones and bullets. Azaadi does not roar through walls.[8] Here, people do not go crazy searching totems of burial.

No signs of apocalyptic omens. No checkpoints. No blood on the streets. No ordered (dis)order.

These absences are unnerving. The dizzying pace of wheels, the all-the-time busy streets confuses her. This kind of normalcy seems obscene. Difficult to place oneself in. When your everyday is rooted in chaos, what sense does one make of unfamiliar normalcy? She finds no closure to these reeling thoughts of disjunction(s). Seized by unfamiliarities, she thinks of herself as a foreign body in a foreign land.

The heat of this city is almost unbearable. Humid airs can dampen the body, banalities your spirits. While the rickshaw peddles out on the bumpy road, she tends to a phone call in a language that its puller does not understand. For curiosity, he asks,

Madam, aap kahan se? Afghanistan? (Madame, are you from Afghanistan?)

She replies with a soft no.

Phir? (Then?) He waits for her to respond.

With a wry smile, she answers Kashmir.

Oh, ‘phir tou aap apne hi ho’ (Oh, then you’re one of us).

Half alive. Half dead. She resuscitates herself by remembering. For her, not to forget is a moral imperative. And remembrance is an act of resistance, of existence. It keeps her past alive in her present. Through her ties to the people back home; living and dead, moments lived, and thoughts thought, she carries her city and its fragments with her. She keeps on looking at the pressure points and forms of attachment in everyday relations. The attachments, that stem from the mundane scenes and sights; the ordinary horrors, the ordinary affects.

A loud bang pulls at her distracted attention. She feels tensed in her muscles. This kind of sound is not new to her. She has known it for as long as she can remember. But here, it means the celebration of lights. The firing will go forth whole night. The sounds set a kaleidoscope of images in motion. She recalls the scenes of terror. Suddenly she feels the sharp spike of concertina permeating her senses and memory. She drifts to the time when she was gripped by some unknown fears. As a little girl, she would not dare climb the attic even in broad daylight. A sudden thud, a knock at the door would make her tremble and the gunshots hysteric. Chopei kariv, yadd’ deyew zammenas, someone would say in a hushed tone.[9] She did not understand what kind of theatrics this was. But it certainly was one of the nightmarish scenes for her. She would weep like a wounded child. To block out the sounds of gunfire Dāadā would plug cotton balls into her ears.[10] The sounds disappeared in the background but she continued weeping in muffled sobs, until she fell asleep.

Life as lived in a place evokes memories; of childhood tastes and flavors, friendships and lost love, dreams and hopes. Sometimes it brings to surface the scars – of wounds that never heal. Suddenly she is snapped ‘there’. She becomes delusional. Rueing upon the loss and the much delayed return.

For ages now we’ve been counting. We are good at numbers. Numbers call for practice. Somewhere in the nineties, our ancestors were lashed with permutations. And the lashing continues to [this]…. day. That we have mastered the art won’t be an exaggeration. We only need a trigger to get started. We can pick it up from there.

Figures weigh us down throughout the year. We busy ourselves with combinations. We draw comparisons between different seasons, for their harvest of jābr, cruel springs and bloodied summers.[11] We carry the haunting lists inside our brains, outside wearing them like a familiar garment. What have we lost? What is it that remains? Our daily conversations are punctuated with numbers. We hold on to them for dear life. Our suffering is reduced to digits.

Here, she loses the count. She looks anxiously into her phone screen. The tiny missed calls make her all the more anxious and desperate. Miles away she tries to count on her fingertips, how many days? How many hours since the last call?  All voices silenced. She tries to dismiss her fears. But the more she tries not to think about it, the more she wonders. In times of war, what becomes of love?

Ordinary times here are spent in adjusting to the new normal, getting the rent money together, paying off the bills, picking up groceries for supper, yearning for homecooked food, having some delusional laughs, scanning the news, cursing the zūlm[12] – Hindustanas trath![13] Anticipating, what next? Wondering, how long? Self-questioning, ‘Why am I here’?  The remaining hours are lost in waiting for something to happen or some things to end.

She is caught up in repeating cycles of knowing and unknowing. She had believed it all, now she believes nothing. Swinging this way, then that way, she remains suspended like ashes of a residue. Closures denied! Adorned idols in her heart ring an unrelenting bell, now that you have been feeding on seductive lies, what has become of you? Wretched! She struggles to gather the fragments of her being. It takes an exhaustive and maddening affect. She wants to scream but nothing comes out, as if choked by some unknown force. She feels the fire in her bones, of unshed tears. Unspoken words. A bird is perching on the window, readying its flight – spreading its wings, and then folding in. Watching this, the shackles of her soul send such sad chimes, begging for liberation. Is there any way out? She looks up to the one, who holds the bird while it whirls in wind, disappearing in some mysterious realms—the one who watches over all things. And whispers a broken prayer;
tulqalamte’lekh me hukm-e-azaadi![14]

End notes

[1] razma daa’l –gogji: cubes of turnip cooked in red legumes.
[2] noon chai: the pink salt tea.
[3] ka’andar tchot: locally made bread.
[4] zoon: moon.
[5] Allahū’: a lullaby.
[6] jaanā-gaashā: my life-my light.
[7] mouj ha lajjie balaî: may mother’s life add to yours.
[8] Azaadi: Freedom from Occupation.
[9] Chopei kariv, yadd’ deyew zammenas:  Stay quiet and lie on your bellies on the floor.
[10] Dāadā: Grandfather.
[11] jābr: tyranny.
[12] zūlmoppression.
[13] Hindustanas trathMay God’s wrath fall upon the Indian Occupation!
[14] tul qalam te’ lekh mé hukm-e-azaadi: lift the mighty pen and write for me the decree of freedom.

Bushra Punjabi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Sociology, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.

Originally published in Inversejournal.com