By Suhail Akram
When you think of a mass grave, what do you think? Do you think of it as a warm grassy patch of land in some distant meadow wedged between the lofty mountains with little or no tombstones and just rectangular pieces of clay protruding here and there numbered two hundred fifteen two hundred sixteen two hundred seventeen and so on and so forth…? Or do you think of it as a proper cemetery with regular clearly visible marble engraved names of unknown men on her hazy epitaphs? Something, I am sure must be coming to your mind. What is that?
When you think of a mass grave, do you feel the heaviness of the word mass? Do you weigh it in your hand? Does it choke you a bit? Do you know anyone personally who haplessly in broken whispers tells you that they fear one of their lost one’s might be in that mass grave? Do you know what do they think of a mass grave than what you think of a mass grave? What is the difference? Is there a difference? Who are in the mass graves, by the way?
When your parents said one day that you be around the house and that they are locking you from outside and that they will return in some time, did you feel the scary loneliness in the big house with fear of Djinns lurking there amidst the eerie silence? Or when your elder brother jokingly tried to bury you under the heavy weight of the big Cashmere quilt and it was black and breathless inside and you felt like dying of claustrophobia, or when you heard that you will get stitches on your knee wound you got when you hurt yourself while learning to ride bicycle, how exactly scary did you feel at those moments? Can you elaborate pain in twenty six letters? Can you draw a diagram with exact angles of a mass grave, forty degree here sixty degree there? Which compass will you use? How big will it be? Can you measure how frightened you get when you see a dead battered body, in kilos? How, in units of electricity, I am asking, terribly black and lonely must be it inside a mass grave?
When you think of a mass grave, do you get upset or angry or both? If someone just grabs you from behind, drags you to the nearest ground outside and forces your legs down into the ditch he has already dug for you and buries you half in and half out, how tragic and nonsense would it feel? Or what if , God forbid, he just buries you the other way round, half in and half out but the legs facing the sky and your head and shoulders and your arms buried quite ruthlessly in the ground, would not it be more tragic and more stupid and thus ultimately a more bizarre an affair which cost you your life? That is not done, is it? Why should you be grabbed in the first place? Is there no justice?
When you think of a mass grave, what exactly do you think of a mass grave? After you involuntarily draw a sad picture of a foggy mass grave in your mind, what do you do after that? Do you go to sleep? Or do you rush to have dinner? Or do you go to the toilet? What do you do after you bury the pictures of mass grave into your head? Do you also bury them just like that? Or do you swallow a two fifty milligram Paracetamol tablet?
Do you find it difficult to breathe when the old grave digger tells you the stories of the young men inside the mass graves? ‘There is somebody’s leg sandwiched between the skull and the feet of somebody else’s, sandwiched between the yellowy wormed leg bones of somebody else, all bullet ridden’ how does it feel, if he asks you? What crayons would you use to draw that on a canvas? Where would you buy those crayons?
How many old men are grave diggers? Who is the oldest grave digger? Where does he live? Are his hands different in texture and colour than what you know of hands of an old man? Can you measure the depth of that small wrinkle among many bigger wrinkles on his hand? How deep should be a wrinkle to qualify you to be a grave digger? If some wrinkles are so deep that they qualify to be a bruise or a fissure, do you get more stars, more points I mean? Are there little specks of black clay still trapped inside the rim of his finger nails? If he has a habit of eating his nails, is he also eating the soil of mass graves? Is it a sin to eat the soil of the mass graves? Are there any religious injunctions about it? What does religion speak about a mass grave?
Are there any young men as grave diggers? Young men who in their twenties were forced to perform this drudgery, to dig the earth in the dark numbness of a dawn, hurriedly, as quickly as they can, while the soldiers kept vigil and area cordoned. And do these youngsters don faded jeans in the afternoon and nice T-shirts and go to colleges? During the lectures do their books vomit gnawing scenes of red rotten flesh squirming on the text pages here and there, page number two hundred fifteen page number two hundred sixteen, all in front of their eyes? Is their mind stuck with the haunting memories of the dawn and its burial? Do they want to focus on their books and study well? Why can’t they? How does it feel to think of someone inside a grave, leave aside a mass grave? And then how does it feel to think of many inside a common grave?
What handkerchief would you use to keep away the stink of the open mass graves, if they ever open them? Or would you just use the hem of your old Pherans’ sleeve? Would you manage to catch a glance of those small pieces of dried brown mud still smudged on the lower hem of the grave diggers’ Pheran sleeve? Would you tell him to wash it off? Or would you just tell him to curl it up because, unbeknown to him, the dirty hem is constantly getting dripped into his ovalish salt tea cup as he gingerly picks it up towards his hungry mouth?
How many grave diggers are there? How many mass graves are there? Are there any women grave diggers? How red and gory are the scenes in your head when he tells you how he had to bury only a mess of intestines and couple of teeth because the body was blown away? Do you want him to stop telling you all that because you feel it is gut churning? Do you plead, please stop, I can’t take it anymore? And does he look at you with surprise, eyes wide open, ‘If you have come here all the way to know the truth, see it, it doesn’t come easy. Have guts to face it. Truth is like my old shovel I dig the graves with. You got to be strong to hold it…?’ Does he say all this or you just imagine it?
What do you think of a mass grave when you think of a mass grave? Do you curse your helplessness or do you trust your vengeance when he tells you that sometimes he feels like burying himself with the dead itself, that he is tired and sick of all this and he wants to retire some day? What if he had boycotted from burying the dead, what would have happened to the dead then? If it was not for a mass grave, could it have been a more horrendous mound of flesh? Or just scattered pieces of flesh lying here and there, some charred some broken some torn away?
And do you thank him and tell him that his is a thankless unfortunate job? Or in a second thought you tell him, no a thankless but fortunate job, because otherwise it could well have been a horrendous mounds of flesh scattered through the meadows and mountains of Kashmir. How do you thank a grave digger? Do you smile at him? Or do you just shake his old wrinkled hand firmly with his hand cupped inside yours and your head sadly dropped in remorse? What is that you want to convey with this posture? And when you return from mass grave what do you do? Do you rush to have food because you have been hungry? Or do you go to sleep? Or do you go to a toilet? What do you do after you have heard the tales of graves and grave diggers’? Do you just walk, contemplating with measured steps ‘what the hell…’ or do you run? Or do you just walk because you can’t run since you are shy? What if, by now your friend, the grave digger had been shy? Would he have dug just a small ditch and left it there, unsure how to go ahead with his benumbed shivering hands? Who would have volunteered to dig the next grave? If there were none, who would have been dragged out to dig with apt geometrical precision a big fit for all mass grave of mass graves? Where could it thus be located? What beautiful flowers would innocently grow on its surface? What shall be the fragrance of those flowers? Who will measure the wafting fragrance of these flowers in the overwhelming stink of the dead beneath?
Suhail Akram is a broadcast journalist working in New Delhi. He is a regular contributor for The Kashmir Walla.