I gave my mother a wool cape I brought back from Srinagar. I saw a picture of a guy wearing one in the New York Times and it jumped right out at me. I sat down with the paper in the lobby at work and read the story about their war.
When I was there it was one thing. Things were fucked, yes, but I dealt with it there and now here it seems so distant. They had a curfew every night. People died in the streets routinely. The first night, right where I was staying, a 3-year old kid ran out of his family's little walled garden, and the father ran out after him. The military ran them both down with dogs and shot the two of them. But when I read that paper... It goes beyond the guy who got shot chasing after his kid in the street. Reading about it really brought it home. The fighting is still going on. When I was there, it was almost like a game - staying in at night, hearing the gunshots - but hearing about it again... I don't think I can describe it.
The Times showed a picture of a guy standing in a graveyard. He's wearing the same wool cape that only the Kashmiris wear. I had a tailor make mine so I could blend in as much as possible. That's the one Mom wears now. Almost a game, in a way - trying to keep a low profile from the military. But that's what made me notice the article - this guy in the graveyard with his cape. He's one of the body haulers. I was just passing over the paper and there it was, this little picture of a guy who could only be from one place in the world because of the cape he had on.
So I read the story. The military caught one guy and sent a skewer through his anus into a lung. He lived, but most of them don't. I remember what it felt like to pass the sandbag piles on the street corners. We grow up thinking the soldiers and the cops are like us. It didn't really seem like anything was wrong when they wanted to know what I was doing there, the only foreigner left in this blown-out rubble pile of a town. I didn't think I had anything to fear. When my guide wanted to be with me every minute, go with me anywhere I went, I just shrugged it off as a pitiful form of begging. He told me I had to be careful, and it only slowly began to sink in. He told me about the journalist who had been raped, beaten, and dumped just weeks before I got there, but it still took a while to register. I would walk past the tiny portals of sand and burlap, trying not to look, realizing that I was there and I was helpless. The tension on the streets was more than just the resident Muslims climbing over the bombed-out rubble of their homes, laid flat by the Indian military who were everywhere. The tension was in every gun barrel pointed out from sand portals, every trigger-happy hired-gun soldier who sneered at me, the parents who shuttled their kids from doorway to doorway - always the threat of sporadic gunfire.
I really began to feel it when I hadn't seen any other foreigners for over a week. I would be trapped in the house at sunset. I'd go out on my wooden balcony and listen to distant roaring and popping of gunfire, way off in the hills sometimes, others - right down the tiny street. This little kid would come in and sleep in my room. One evening, by the time I had really started to understand how much I should fear the military, these trooper guys stomped into the place and walked right through my room. They were immediately followed by the hurried old man, who scrambled ahead and kept them entertained in Hindi. They sat down on the balcony, over-looking the lake, and the old man jabbered nervously. They looked at me, the commander wanted to know why I wasn't talking. I sensed the old man's game and joked along with them. But those fucking machine guns right in front of me... All I could do was glance at them every now and then - these battle-worn yellowy-green uniforms with countless belts and grimy machine guns. I talked and chuckled with them, but they were killers. They had killed the father and son, they had raped the journalist, and here the old man and I were entertaining them at gunpoint like nothing was wrong.
One day, my guide finally agreed to take me downtown. By that time, I could feel the pressure in the air. He was totally serious about me staying with him at all times, not wandering off and not raising attention. The Medeaval streets of downtown Srinagar are hotly fought for between the military and the locals. At one point during our walk, he had been talking to a shopkeeper when he suddenly shuttled me away, tugging me along for blocks and blocks. He only said there might have been trouble. There was, and he knew about it right before the shit went down. Then I really started to sense the expanse of the thing. It was everywhere. I had nowhere to go. I would sit on the balcony and listen to the distance. That became everything I did. Everything I knew from before became pointless recollections.
Home was slipping. I was forgetting old friends' names. I couldn't remember other places. I had been traveling for months, but there I was stuck, unable to move. For some reason, it seemed like I could have stayed. I had been so overwhelmed by the day-to-day effort to exist that nothing else was important. Things became very simple. It was just me, the kid, the guide, and the old man. To look up at the sunny sky and realize that people died under it, to smell the air and notice something different about it - a blue, foggy haze, - to see the terrain of the mountains that you only see in videos of fighting in the middle-east, but there I was... It began to seem normal. I was shuttling around like the rest of them, dodging the military like the rest of them, sitting around the cold house at night with the rest of them, listening to the shooting and the dogs. I lived there. It started to feel like home.
Finally, after waiting for weeks and paying a bribe at the airstrip, I found myself being searched under the battered nose cone of a beat-to-shit airplane that was the only way back out over the mountains. I was making painfully slow progress past an endless line of machine guns, knowing that at some distant time I would be out again, but thinking that I must make all effort not to show it, that to show I was slowly escaping was to attract enough attention to snag me back in. I stood under the airplane for hours, trembling in this cold wind. There was nothing in sight except brown mountains, guns, and a runway. When I was squeezing onto the airplane, it still didn't feel like it could leave, as if it wouldn't be able to climb, my escape still in the balance. I actually felt like I would be better in just calling it off and going back to the cold house on the lake. Trying to leave was placing too much at risk - I felt comfortable enough in the cold house - like I belonged there, but leaving was facing the truth that there was this huge barrier to overcome first. I had been there so long that I felt like them, unable to get out, ever. They'd face even harder times anywhere else in India, and they had nothing to go anywhere with anyhow. All they can do is stay at home and get shot at.
When the plane finally climbed, we banked hard in an endless corkscrew. We went around and around and around, gaining altitude over the tank- protected zone of the airfield, until we were high enough to straighten and press out over the anti-aircraft gunned mountains. I remember looking down through the foggy haze and thinking "Those people are fucked, plain and simple."
I folded up the paper and stared around the lobby. I looked outside, back up at the sky. You know the rest. I want to go back.
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