Kashmir Post 370: Love in the Time of Barbed Wires & Grenades
“Accha there was a grenade blast today, in Lal Chowk,” he said to her.
“You please be careful, get back home soon and call me,” she said to him. They were two people caught in an impossible love in an impossible time. He passed by Lal Chowk on his way home in Srinagar almost every day.
The news was worrying but equally, deracinated from the every day, even for these two people and that was the worst part of it all. Ever since the government struck down Kashmir’s special status and reduced it to a union territory, the focus has been on the violence. The news has anodyne reports – one killed, several injured. At one time it was about people allegedly being tortured by the armed forces. Now it was about grenade blasts, largely directed at outsiders and perceived as a reaction to what Kashmiris see as their collective trauma. What lay buried under were the hopes and dreams of the people, and the effect the conflict has had more recently on their living and loving.
Tasting Forbidden Fruit
It’s not meant to happen in Kashmir, at least not officially. So the two of them did not count on falling in love at all. In secret, this happens despite the conflict and concertina wire and barricades. Couples meet in stealth, behind the Hazratbal shrine or at a tea-stall, stealing glances at each other slyly. With restaurants mostly shut for over ninety days, going out for coffee isn’t possible. Even when it was, people could not be seen in public as man and woman. Only as friends or classmates or colleagues and cousins, meeting with a purposeful air of formality. Mainly, they would never look longingly into each other’s eyes. Holding hands was always impossible.
The more Kashmiris became aliens for the rest of India, the more they turned their strangeness into a self-fulfilling prophecy. ‘There they are – the aliens in an alien land.’ The only Muslim majority region in India, where women cannot step out of their homes without abayas. The men make sure they have complete proprietorial control over the way women dress, whom they meet, how they pray and the tone of voice they must keep when addressing the elders in the family.
But like all things forbidden, starting with Adam’s curse, the devil’s fruit just had to be tried.
It was worse than two Kashmiris falling for each other. Because in this case, he was Kashmiri, she wasn’t. He was a believer; she was an atheist. She was brought up on a diet of rock and roll. He came from a traditional home where his cousins threatened to saw off his arm if he dared to tattoo it – tattoos are considered haram, forbidden. So he got temporary ones because he had to try out what wasn’t possible. Now they were trying out love. They weren’t meant to, therefore they did.
It all began when he cracked open a walnut and pressed it into the palm of her hand. He held onto her hand just a little longer than required, to see what would happen. Would she slap him across his face or respond in kind? She pressed his hand hard. He could barely breathe. They were on a long drive to Baramulla, 53 kilometres north-west of Srinagar. She was part of a team of concerned citizens, writing a big fat report on life after the taking down of Kashmir’s special status. He was an activist with a long history of work in human rights, child rights and the strangest of all – he called himself a ‘feminist’. She wasn’t expecting that. But now a walnut was exchanged and there was fire in her belly. Was it an over-identification with the conflict that drew her to him or was it something more random and inexplicable? She didn’t know.
But they drove through the streets of Srinagar and talked and talked, past every check-point and barrier, till they were exhausted. He said he would love her forever but would have to do the Kashmiri thing and marry a woman his parents set him up with. She said she could never be the ‘other woman’. He said that was the only love there could be in Kashmir. She said they should just be friends. But even as she spoke, she could barely stop herself from grabbing his hand as they sat by the Dal lake.
Would Their Love Last?
It was an open defiance of everything Kashmir had become. He was nervous and racked with fear. Afraid to love her and afraid not to. Most of all, he was afraid they would be pelted with stones for holding hands in public. He buried those thoughts or tried to as she held on. A large box-shaped mine-protected vehicle rolled up and stood right next to them.
“Yaar, abh toh chod de, stop holding my hand now,” he said weakly. She was equally weak about her resolve not to love him. And stubborn in her insistence that this would not be clandestine. “Let the army man see us and die of jealousy,” she said, her eyes blazing. They did the un-Kashmiri thing by staring long and languidly at each other. The man stood by for ten minutes in his armoured vehicle, and then disappeared into the night.
Two shepherds arrived next as their audience. “Do you have some water? We need it to cook, we haven’t eaten much all day.” The two were deliriously happy to have shepherds as their new witnesses, giving sanction to their sacred and secret act. By now, he was way past fear. She was way past sticking to her resolve. They found three half empty bottles of water in his car and handed it to the two men, amid a large flock of weary, dazed sheep.
Would he see her with another man? She called him her Walnut. He said she was his Laila. Kashmir bifurcated had wrapped itself around them in large barbed wire hoops. They had heard of others like them, strangers with strange love.
Love Stories With Statutory Warnings
A boy and a girl — one Shia, the other Sunni — were in love. Neither could tell their parents. They could never even kiss. But defiance, dying in the arms of your lover, being shot to pieces as you hold each other are the stuff of movies and in Kashmir, the tighter the control, the more fanciful the loving. Blinking bright under the radar-like red nail paint under a burqa.
The first was about lovers exchanging notes during the earlier lockdown of 2016, when mobiles and the internet were snapped. A friend told them this story.
“During the earlier lockdown, my brother’s friend was dating my friend and they couldn’t communicate. So, he came to me and said, ‘Can you do me a favour? I can’t communicate with her, can you give her this letter? How soon are you going to her place? Go today please and ask her to write me a reply.’”
The second story scared them. It came with a statutory warning of being very dark. This is what they heard.
“When the army tortures men, they often maim their private parts. And that is the end of their sex life. A guy in Shopian was tortured shortly after abrogation. After he was released, a journalist did an interview with him. He had been married only recently. So the girl’s brother turned up for the interview, took the journalist aside and said to him – If he has been tortured, please let me know, my sister is very young. We will get her married elsewhere.”
Each Day, Love in Kashmir Stands Up to New Challenges
The third story in their collection could potentially be called funny. A video journalist was driving past his girlfriend’s house when he saw that the lane outside was covered in lime powder or chuna. There are two occasions on which people pour this stark white powder all along the road outside their house. When there is a wedding in the offing or someone has died. The boy had his heart in his mouth. Had his girlfriend ditched him in the lockdown? Was she getting married? Later he found out that there had been a death in her family.
For the moment, nearly one hundred days into the abrogation of article 370, Walnut and Laila are holding out. If they can’t live together in the present, they dream of a time when they are too old to care. When Walnut can find a way to defy the local diktat without his family having to pay the price for it in being ostracised for his defiance. Growing old has a good ring to it. Meanwhile, they re-draw their love-map every day. Sometimes they call it cancer and at other times, they just call it Kashmir.
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and film-maker and the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Westland/Context. She tweets @revatilaul. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)