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soap-woar! soap-woar! soap-woar! Koap-woar! Koap-woar! Koap-woar! Hund-woar! Hund-woar! Hund-woar!

It’s barely 7AM but Batmaloo bus stand has burst forth onto the day, its quotidian cacophonies spilling over far beyond itself like the warmth of a bukhari – you feel its presence even before you see it, you know you have reached when you are a kilometre away. Once inside, Adil, Imran, and Nadira pick their way through the sounds and colours of fruit sellers and chaiwallahs, shops selling snacks and untidy lines of buses minivans and Sumos. All morning there has been a gentle flurry of snow, wafting over the city like air blown confetti. Yellow-blue plastic sheets atop handcarts cradle the fluff in their folds; pyramids of apples and oranges look as though someone had sprinkled grated coconut all over them. The ground, usually only mud, seems cleaner with its white coat.

They stop to buy nadru fries, lotus stems batter-fried in a bright orange coat, and bottles of water. Adil inspects kangris at a shop, the wicker firepots strung together into bunches like they were flowers in a Mughal garden, haggles over the price, and buys a few. Imran points to the geese on sale a few feet away and wistfully says how long it has been. They have tea. Adil and Nadira share a cigarette. Then it’s time and they have to get going and Adil jumps into the fray of Sumo men who scream their destinations, waiting to grab the next fare they can stuff into their already crowded cars.

soap-woar! soap-woar! soap-woar! Koap-woar! Koap-woar! Koap-woar! Hund-woar! Hund-woar! Hund-woar!

Imran chuckles to himself, asks Nadira to pay attention. It was different fifteen-twenty years ago, he says. Then, the minivans would shout soap-woar! koap-woar! hund-woar! Up-woar!

Sopore! Kupwara! Handwara! Across!

Up-woar. Across. She cannot know for sure if it means what she intuitively thinks it does and she hesitates to ask. The grin on Imran’s face makes it seem so obvious, as though there can only be one meaning, this meaning. It’s an inside joke but she doesn’t quite feel she is inside, isn’t even sure if it’s a good idea to want to be inside. She laughs lightly. Nothing is said for a while, their silence absorbing the sounds around them. Now, each time the conductors scream, Nadira can only hear the absence of up-woar. Then Imran speaks and his voice is without glee, the cheekiness displaced by a resigned nostalgia.

“So many times I wanted to climb into those buses. Just to see what it looked like. To go there like we go to our relatives’ house or a friend who lives far away. I didn’t want to actually go across, all my cricket friends lived near my home, what would I do so far away. Now I think maybe I should have gone, crossed over and stayed, never come back.”

Last evening, over a shared plate of tujj, Imran had told her of this trip to Sopore, and asked if she wanted to come. She didn’t ask any questions; what use were they when the answers would change nothing. The question was the answer. She simply asked what time. And now she is here, listening to him talk about going across.

This too is a crossing over.


The road to Sopore is lined with poplars, a tattered curtain of ash and silver drawn across the landscapes rushing past. The rich green brocade of summer has been wearied by the winter, leaving it looking like an heirloom, faded and almost forgotten but still regal, elegant in spite of time. Behind, glimpses of white crusted orchards and naked apple trees, their gnarly branches like skeletal fingers of dead men beckoning to be raised from their graves.

It’s a short distance to Sopore from Srinagar, and the Sumo stops often, unloading and loading passengers. No one gives Nadira a second glance – her pheran and scarf, with the additional accessory of Adil’s kangris, makes her an unremarkable presence. Adil and Imran are in a deep discussion about something, and they speak in koshur; Nadira is glad to not be involved, to not be forced to reveal herself through language, to not be found an outsider. She focuses on the landscape, its wintry beauty a feast for the eyes.

The first order of business when they reach Sopore town is of course tea and Adil takes them to the shop where he always goes every time he is in Sopore to collect testimonies. The shopkeeper knows him well and they exchange greetings and news, and then Adil introduces Imran and Nadira, and there are more greetings and exchanges. The tea is sweet and the pakoras really oily and they consume three rounds of each in no time at all. “This is Sopore” says Imran meaningfully and with emphasis to Nadira, “they are the heroes of our resistance. Every family here has sacrificed, and they still sacrifice. You can bribe others in Kashmir and make them collaborators, but not in Sopore.”

The shopkeeper, who has sat down with them for tea, nods heartily and says this is true, Srinagar people talk, Sopore people fight. yahan toh shaheedon ka ummah hai. It is a brotherhood of martyrs here. Talk of martyrs meanders into the details of an encounter that had taken place the previous week, a 19 year old shot in the head. They discuss the boy, what is happening to his family, talk about an FIR against the commander of the RR unit. Nadira asks why – she has just begun to wrap her head around the impunity of AFSPA, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that gives the Army a license to abduct murder and rape, no questions asked – so, why bother when it is certain that nothing would come of an FIR, and that too if the police agrees to lodge an FIR in the first place, and Adil says it is for the record.

“Yes, for the record!” says Imran with great passion. “We must record. We are being wiped out and we cannot stop it. We must leave at least a stain. These records…testimonies, FIRs, photographs…they are our gravestones. Epitaphs written with our own blood . When this occupation ends, inshallah we will get justice.

And the men, they all murmur Inshallah.

Nadira wants to say that the whole point of the FIR is to get justice today, right away, yes, sure, the courts can take years, decades sometimes, but it is a process, things happen, you can’t just get away with murder. It is reflexive, this thinking, she cannot help it, but enough time has passed since she arrived in Kashmir and she knows better – she knows enough – knows how stupid, how out of place and irrelevant it would be to say such a thing.

It is time to go and they empty their glasses of tea, Adil insisting on paying for everything, and then they are out, threading their way through the bazaar towards the row of shuttle vans that ply from the main town to nearby villages. They pile into one, Adil tells the driver where to go, and they are off.

Twenty minutes later they are dropped off at a street corner and they walk down a narrow asphalt road that soon turns to mud, then right and right, left again from the meat shop, past the bread shop with a giant tandoor and the grocery store with a small TV set, half circle around the madrasa, up through a small field where snowflakes growing on its raggedy weeds like wild blooms, and arrive at a gate in a fence so low it could only stop chickens.

There, in the sunny backyard of a green and pink house, an old woman with a hundred winters on her face, a kangri between her knees, an infant in her arms, a goat by her side and the short pipe of a hukkah in her mouth.

Adil shouts her a salaam, asks if this is Roksana’s house, mother of Abdul Qadeer Bhat. The woman is busy with her hubbly bubbly and doesn’t look up or respond and Adil shouts still louder, the boom of his voice scaring the hens who start to squawk and flap their wings, and that gets the dogs barking. The commotion brings out another woman from the house, a younger woman, and she comes up to them, asks who they are why they are here what do they want with this house. Adil explains everything and she lets them in, says that old woman is Roksana, but she is hard of hearing and you will have to shout into her ears.

They sit on the dewed grass, the young woman explaining to the old that these people have come all the way from Srinagar to talk to her about her son, they are human rights people, they want to fight your case. She has to say all this much too loudly for Roksana’s benefit and a crowd begins to gather by their fence. Nadira wonders if they should sit somewhere more private but Adil is already asking questions, asking Roksana about the disappearance of her son some twenty years ago, asks her to tell him everything, all the details.

Roksana takes a deep puff at the hukkah and tells him all she remembers, all that she has had to repeat to scores of lawyers and activists and journalists and photographers and filmmakers, repeat so many times that she doesn’t need to think, or actually remember, but sing it like a lament of yore, a song she knows by heart but a song that had begun to fade with the passing of the winters and summers and springs and autumns and monsoons and where there was once a long chain of lyrics and tightly bound rhymes she has to now hum a tune to bridge the gaps, the blanks, the emptiness, the forgotten forsaken bits about the story of the day when she saw her 22 year old Abdul for the last time.

Adil writes it all down, stops her when she jumps ahead of the story or is unclear about her facts. He is annoyed when she contradicts herself on when the disappearance took place under what circumstances. It is important that the facts are always the same; messy testimonies are no good. It is important because without facts that can be checked and crosschecked, Adil tells the woman, the courts cannot give justice.

The woman stops smoking her pipe and stares at Adil with big eyes. She thinks this boy too has had the police after him, his brain too has been taken from him.

There is no justice son, she says kindly to him. “There never was, there never will be justice in this land, my son. The only judge is Allah, He will judge everyone. In the end, in the end. Inshallah”

Adil ignores this blabber, pushes her to remember the exact date when the RR men took away her son.

The woman is fed up and she turns away from him, speaks now to the young woman.

“Arre, what is it to me what date it was. All I remember, all I need to remember is that my son was taken from me that day. It was the day when the light left my eyes, breath left my lungs, it was the day when all colours turned black and every drop of water became poison. You ask me for a date, listen, I tell you it was the end of time”

Adil is a professional, an experienced collector of testimonies and he will not be distracted by this sort of emotional rubbish. He presses her on to at least recall if it was a cold month or warm, before the harvest or after, day of the prayer or another.

When they finish, Adil asks for a photo of the son. The young woman brings him a selection and Adil picks one out and hands it to Roksana. Hold it up, he says to her, and to Imran he says, bayi, take a picture for me, will you please. Imran frames Roksana in his camera, her chest holding the photograph of a young man – leather jacket, slick hair, happy smile, a meadow and a mountain dancing behind him.

The young woman insists they have tea but Adil refuses, says there is a lot of work left. Sister, instead, tell us where we can find this person, and this one too. The woman says she doesn’t know, but they might. She points to the half dozen people who had stayed the whole time listening to the interview and they all become animated in their eagerness to help, to be involved with things. A relay of messages is passed from mobile phone to mobile phone, till someone says that the men have been found and they are coming, just fifteen minutes only, have some tea till then. The little party troops through the village to the square where there is tea and kulcha and cheap cigarettes too, the men asking Adil and Imran about who Nadira is. They make up answers. When anyone looks at her for too long, she returns it with a broad, determined smile. They swiftly look away.

The men arrive and they are introduced. This is Ashraf Ganaie, this is Rouf Masood, this is Nazir Wani, all torture victims, all with stories to tell. They remember names and dates and details.

Adil asks them to form a line, he cannot speak to everyone all at the same time. He fishes among his leather bag, brings out a sheaf of papers with a neatly typed set of questions, with boxes and empty lines to fill. It is a template, a Torture Questionnaire.

Was torture perpertrated on you?

Was torture perpetrated on members of your family, or your friends, or colleagues?

Have you spoken of it before

With whom have you spoken of it?

How many times have you been detained and tortured?

Over what time period were you tortured?

When and where did these experiences take place? For how long?

Who perpetrated the torture?

During torture were you beaten up by wooden/steel rod?

During torture were your legs and/or arms stretched?

During torture were you forced to over drink water?

During torture were your body parts burnt?

During torture were you hanged upside down?

During torture was a wooden roller rolled over your body?

During torture was your head dipped in the water bucket?

During torture was chilly powder sprayed in your nostrils?

During torture was chilly powder sprinkled on your wounds?

During torture were any parts of your body cut or mutilated?

During torture were you asked to be naked?

During torture were you sexually abused?

Were you tortured mentally?

If yes, how were you mentally abused?

During detention were you provided medical help?

During detention were you allowed to meet your relatives?

During detention were you allowed to meet your lawyer?

During the first 48 hours of your detention were you taken to the magistrate?

Were you involved in any militant activities at that time?

Were you involved in political activities at that time?

News has gone around about these people from Srinagar and the boys who had gone to work the fields now return, hurrying so as not to miss the scene. An elder shouts at the youngest of them, shoos him away from earshot. The details are not for a child to hear. The teenagers stand their ground. They are as old as these men were when they fired their first shot.

Adil says we will take Ashraf’s testimony first, asks him to begin at the beginning, names and places, dates and times, but before he can ask too many more questions Ashraf pours out his story in whole, like he had been waiting to rid himself of disease and this was the only way. He talks about going across, of his year in training, of joining Al-jihad and then HM. Initially listless and resigned, he becomes agitated, first anger in his voice then tears in his eyes, then listless again. Adil keeps it moving, not allowing him to wallow, or get sidetracked. He crosschecks diligently, repeating questions to see if the answers differ.

“In 2002, I was picked up from home and taken to P/S Sadder and was kept there for about one week. I was taken on the charge of being associated with militants. I was taken to JIC. In JIC, I was taken to a room where the STF and Police were talking to each other about the incident. Then I was taken to the torture room. There were many boys in that room who were hanging from the ceiling, and being tortured. All of them had been kept naked. My clothes were removed. Then my hands were tied to my back and my torture was ordered by the DSP. Then I was hung by the rope. They tied a wire to my genitals and one to my toes. Then they gave me electric shocks. After electrocuting me, they took me down and ran rollers on my legs. Two SOG men were on my either side and Kaka Butta was torturing me. Assistant Sub Inspector Rajesh was helping him. They were about ten in total. I was tortured for 8 hours and then thrown into a cell. They kept me there for 21 days. The SOG came to me every day to tell me to disclose information about our weapons. They wanted me to tell them how we supplied ammunition for our attacks but I pleaded for innocence. I was released after a few weeks but since then every month or two months or six months later they take me to the JIC and electrocute me, roll rollers up my legs and beat me till I faint.”

Ashraf has brought along a piece of paper and this he passes on to Adil. Adil takes a look, nods with satisfaction, underlines a few sentences, and hands it to Nadira saying read this, this is what torture does.

It is some sort of a medical report, scribbled, a doctor’s handwriting. DM, MD (Neph), FISN. The letterhead is of the Nephrology Department at SIMS Hospital, Srinagar.

Patient was subjected to beating with steel rod, repeated electric shocks, prolonged sit-and-stand exercises, and subjected to heavy wooden rollers on his muscles. Blood samples analysed for estimation of hemoglobin, total and differential leukocyte counts, platelet count, urea, creatinine, uric acid, electrolytes, pH, transaminases, lactic dehydrogenase, creatine phosphokinase, calcium, phosphorus, alkaline phosphatase, total serum proteins and albumin. Urinalysis was done for glucosuria, proteinuria, microscopic examination of sediment for the presence of cells and myoglobin casts. Urinary excretion of sodium and renal failure indices were estimated to help the diagnosis of ARF.

What’s ARF she asks, looking up from the report.

“Acute Renal Failure. It’s a common condition among torture patients after they come out.”

Radiological investigations included chest X-ray, plain film of abdomen and ultrasound scanning of abdomen to assess the renal size and exclude obstructive uropathy.

Raised serum levels of creatine phosphokinase, lactic dehydrogenase and glutamic oxaloacetic transaminase in patient following physical torture (as described above) leaves little doubt that the main etiological mechanism of ARF was rhabdomyolysis induced as a result of physical torture with an additional factor of repeated electric shocks. It may be mentioned here that this department has observed a rising number of cases among young people in Kashmir Valley who have recently been released from interrogation centres. In all observed cases thus far, including this one, were among young males in the age group of 18-28 years and apparently in good health when apprehended by police.

This is Ashraf’s turn to tell his story, but the others interrupt, their testimonies leaking into each other. Boots kick leather belts with pins that are as long as steel rods and as thin as electric wires which enter anuses stuffed with chilli powder that has been freshly ground by wooden rollers running up and down their legs as they hang naked from the ceiling upside down inside out.

Adil does what he can to maintain order, asking them to speak one at a time, to not mix up things, to not narrate their stories as though everyone was a part of it. But in fact they were a part of it, they were in it together, they all had the threads of their lives caught up with these loose ends and stray wires. When one father, Mansour recalls how his boy was first tortured, then killed in an encounter a few weeks later, an involuntary prayer rises from every lip, inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raajioon, and when the moment has passed, another man, a boy, younger than Imran, raises a slogan: Shaheed ki jo mout hai – and all the young boys respond to him with force, their voices loud and clear: woh qaum ki hayat hai.


Shaheed ki jo maut hai

woh qaum ki hayat hai

The death of a martyr –

is the nations subsistence!   

A boy pushes his way into this circle of testimonies and slogans, speaking gibberish and spitting on everyone. He stops only to laugh. He is the village retard says someone cruelly and takes a stick to him, chasing him to a distance like he was errant cattle. The dogs too bark at him.

It takes the afternoon to lose its warmth, the sun to descend to the horizon for an outline to emerge, for a stack of blank questionnaires to bulge with the screams and horrors of these lives. And now tea has arrived, and tschot too. Stay for lunch, stay the night, stay a few days they say – these are kind people. Adil knows how to say no, how to make vague promises, how to pull Nadira away from the women who have clasped her hands as if they were sisters from the same mother.

They get on their way, to the place where they will get a shuttle van to take them to the town and then a sumo again, past white orchards and silver poplars, till they are back in Srinagar, back home to warmth, some degree of comfort. Their day would end.

This is an excerpt from a work in-progress.


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