We stood extremely still. Exactly 10 seconds ticked away before we looked at each other again.
“Rickshaw?” Kartik asked me: a formality. We sped towards the stand.
Ten minutes ago, we were in a dingy little cyber café on the first floor of a dingier building somewhere in Srinagar. After making what had been a series of bad decisions, we, after missing our flight to Leh from Delhi, had somehow ended up in Srinagar. It was April. All the roads going east were frozen; all the flight tickets were fast-depleting and costly, so very costly. Our phones weren’t working. “Yahan pe wahan ka SIM card nahi chalega sahib,” the grinning rickshawwala at the airport had told me. The SIM Card you use there doesn’t work here. I felt like a fallen boxer, “Must get up! Must fight!” Borrowing the cyberwala’s mobile phone I called mother.
An infinite embarrassment overtook me and then dissipated of its own accord as I explained to her in frantic words how we were stuck in Srinagar and that we needed money. I was angry with myself for being relieved on hearing mother’s voice. What a phony backpacker you are, Alex, I told myself. But before I could face the fire of my mother’s ‘I-told-you-so’s, Kartik pulled me nearer to the screen.
He was pointing at the Air India tickets. We could afford them!“I’ll call you back,” I cut mum off, hastily filling in my bank details into the heavenly glow of the screen. In the middle of the process the PC froze! “Those are the last two tickets.” Kartik said matter-of-factly. I felt like punching him. “I bloody well know that.”
“Let’s go directly to the airport and book?”
I have noticed that my reflexes often overtake me when I’m traveling, and in alien ways too: like my paranoid need to scrooge every last rupee in anticipation of some vague monetary disaster. But as we descended from the cyber café, we didn’t waste precious time inquiring about cheaper modes of transport; straight to the criminally expensive rickshaws with our Scarlet Letter rucksacks on display. I let Kartik bargain the fare with a young driver, taking a moment to absorb some of the energy that the April-drenched Lal Chowk was exuding. This was the city that my parents had brought me to right after I was born, thanks to my father’s profession as an army officer. Here I was, back again after 22 years, with not a single memory of the place except for the artificial ones loosely built from familial anecdotes.
The driver, Mehmud, grew affable after the fare had been set. He talked about the recent downpours that had razed the city, pointing at collapsed buildings as we passed them by. We complained about the roads. As we tossed and turned in our seats to the improvisational jazz of the potholes, we went past several construction sites that lay spilt in the middle of busy intersections, and often brought our frenetic movements to a halt. “Flyovers,” Mehmud explained. “Development,” Kartik and I said to each other, with a vague sense of our progressive irony.
“Aap kahan se hain?” Where are you from, he asked. The deferential tone of the Hindustani used in the northern states, with its Urdu-influenced affectations, held particular sway for us coastal dwellers, used to Bambaiyya Hindi. Ever since we had landed in Srinagar we had, consciously and unconsciously, engaged as many people as we could in conversations, letting their calm and polished (and by polished I don’t mean culturally polished, which may very well be true, but a literal polish which rendered a smoothness, a sheen to their mannerisms and raised their stature in our eyes, us with our low self-esteem Hindustani) diction enthral us and make us content listeners in these exchanges, which was uncharacteristic for the loquacious Kartik. The people here seemed like perfect subjects for European cinema of the 50s. This was impossible with the people back in Bombay. There everything was loud, and the language was utilitarian. It wasn’t a voice that could be used to carry out a discussion that Bergmanian characters often had, and somehow I couldn’t imagine the people of Bombay executing that restraint Bresson is well known for. I’m not saying that this is true for all the people in Bombay; just that it is in contrast to the meta-personality of the city. Srinagar, however, was much more effervescent. It was light, like the weight of a heavy fog on the back of your hand. I wondered if this was a result of the horrors that had unfolded here over the decades, just like how Bresson and Bergman had seen the horrors of two great wars. Had it always been like this? I wondered what metaphysical aspects of the city had been lost along with the countless lives: aspects that I would never know. And why should I?
Mehmud brought us to the back (or the front, I don’t know) gate of the airport. We had entered the city through the other gate when we had arrived at eleven in the morning. It was three now, the sky was overcast. We left our bags and cameras in the rickshaw and rushed into the airport compound. Security personnel greeted us with their metal detectors. We followed the concrete path, occasionally stopping at security check-points, turning Kafkaesque corners which led to still more security check points. At least that’s how it felt at the time: with the prospect of the last two tickets being sold off looming large.
Finally we came upon a long straight road, flanked on both sides by wide green pastures, which led to the main building of the airport. It was at least a kilometer long. Kartik broke into a jog and I let him go ahead. I wasn’t desperate enough to run yet. I walked briskly keeping an eye on Kartik’s receding red hoodie. I came up to a soldier who was also ambling along, towards the airport, his gaze cast downwards. He looked up as I approached. I nodded. Kartik looked back and shouted my name. “You go ahead,” I shouted back.
“Aap kahan se aaye hain?” the soldier asked. Where have you come from? Something in his voice made him feel distinctly unsoldierlike. It was slow and thoughtful, like a poet’s. But he looked very much like a typical army man with his well kempt moustache, his closely cropped hair covered by a black beret and his straight backed gait. I replied that I was from Bombay. He asked me where I was going to. “Leh,” I said. He nodded. As if it was better that way. We walked on in silence. It started to drizzle. Across the pastures tall trees stretched up to the clouds. They were swaying gently. All this drama unfolding around us made conversation seem unnecessary, a frilly vulgarism.
“Aap yahin ke hain?” Are you from around here, I asked him nevertheless, not wanting to offend him with my selfish silence. I am from Himachal, he replied. “I would love to go there someday!” I told him how Kartik and I had spent the last two years travelling around the country, a cringe-worthy revelation it seems in hindsight. I asked him if he travelled a lot. He told me about his time in Assam. Tactfully, I mentioned that my father was a retired Army Officer. “Acha! Kaunsi regiment mein the?” Which regiment was he in? “COD.”
I asked him his name. “Shahdab Ali”
He whipped out his phone and showed me some of the photographs that he had taken in Assam. I asked him if he had ever travelled south. “Hum toh pahad mein hi rahein hain” I have always been in the mountains, he said. We walked on in silence. “This is a long road,” I thought. Suddenly panic set in: we had left all our belongings with Mehmud and walked at least two kilometres into the airport compound. What if he ran away with everything? I remembered the words offered by an old neighbour, who frequented our house, when he learnt that I was setting off to J&K. “Don’t trust these Kashmiris. They’ll ensnare you with their sweet-talk and eat you up,” he had said rather acidly. So, I had been extra trustful during the trip just to spite him. But now, as I walked slowly towards the airport, all that goodwill rushed out of my body, replaced by acid, and fury at the perceived wrongdoing. I started coming up with alternate plans of action in case Mehmud had really taken off. “Maybe we should just go back home. This trip has been a complete disaster,” I thought to myself. I tried to locate the red of Kartik’s hoodie in the distance but I couldn’t find him.
Shahdab Ali’s voice brought me out of my reverie. “Aap mujhe photographs bhejnge? Bombay ke?”Will you send me photographs? Of Bombay? Sure, I replied. We exchanged numbers. “Whatsapp pe bhej dena,” he said timidly. Send it to me on Whatsapp. I nodded, smiling. He turned right, into the parking lot. I stood there for a moment. Then I moved on, wondering if I should have waved.
What was I to do with Shahdab Ali now? Where was I to store him in my heart? Love him, for we were of the same ilk, people of the army? Hate him, for being a part of the imperialist pogrom of the government? Or just consign him to that most terrible fate of indifference? In the end, I went with a curious mix of all three, which is the easiest thing to do. People say it is easy to hate, I say no, people only hate when they can do it with a tinge of irony. Others sing all you need is love: oh really? Whoop-de-doo! How about indifference then? It sure is easier than loving and hating. But it needed distance, and this naive poet-faced jawan had too troubling a presence for me to be indifferent. A curious mix of love, hate and indifference, yes, that’s what I felt, rendering all rational deconstructive attempts seem comical. That’s how we all are, aren’t we? This is the ambivalence which grants us so much leeway, allowing us to believe in the right things in the right moment. It doesn’t expect us to be immaculate citizens of a utopia. It allows us to indulge in our games of moral relativism, as long as we can do the right thing when the right thing ought to be done.
How else can a son of an army officer claim to hate the army’s heinous deeds even while growing fat on military rations? How could I look fondly at the grand illusion, the honorable charade that is this life in the army, when I knew how embedded class division was in this organization, how only the bourgeoisie could afford to live the comfortable life that its image projected. I was 15 when they told me about my godfather, a young officer, my father’s friend, whose body was blown to bits in a terrorist attack. I felt nothing, or maybe, I felt a twinge of happiness, at finally having something interesting in my life.
Proceeding towards the ticket counters after parting ways with Shahdab Ali, I noticed that they were all closed. There was no sign of Kartik. I stood in a corner waiting for him. Kartik was a resourceful old dog; I assumed that he was inside sorting something out. Ten minutes passed then twenty and then thirty. Occasionally somebody wearing red colours would emerge from the airport and my eyes would excite, but they would always turn out to be old aunties. I tried getting into the airport, but the amused guard brushed me aside saying that it wasn’t allowed.
Slowly I made my way back along the long road. I was distraught. My eyes searched for Shahdab, for a familiar face. But he was gone too. I tried to come up with a new plan: no luggage, no Kartik, what do I do? The road ominously stretched out in front of me. Far away I saw people in red tops. I turned and looked back at the airport from time to time as I made my way back.
When I reached the Kafkaesque section of the airport, Kartik emerged from the opposite side. He had been waiting for me with Mehmud. It turned out that the ticket sellers had shut shop at three in the afternoon. “Small towns, man… ” Kartik quipped. We decided to head back to the cyber café to figure out an alternate method of transport. I was so pleased with Mehmud for not deserting us that I bought him tea and samosas. He gulped them down with the smirk of a lovable villain. He told us about his plans, to start driving larger vehicles, cars, SUVs, about his road to progress. It sounded quaint in that moment, I had kept my cynicism at bay. In that moment I felt happy, with Mehmud, for Mehmud, for me, even though absolutely everything was going haywire in the larger scheme of things. Disgusting ideas about how we were all one swelled inside me. How India needed Kashmir, how Kashmir needed freedom: Kashmir, the last bastion of explosive mainstream politics, and strangely, the last place in the subcontinent where revolutionary ideals of our nation’s founding fathers were still alive. Even if I was far away from any struggle, couched safely in my privilege, I felt the fiery throb of unity, equality, fraternity.
I didn’t know if Mehmud was a separatist or a partisan. If he was an opportunist or just an indifferent working man. I didn’t know anything at all, and I didn’t need to. Despite all the differences, all the different kinds and degrees of suffering, all the antagonisms and all the ambivalences, we still craved for something better. For a freer, fairer something. His goal may have been different, his methods different, but our struggle was the same. Maybe he did nothing for what he believed in, just like I did nothing for what I believed in. But we were one, if you squinted and looked at us walking into the distance.
Then, it was time to go. We needed to go figure out convenient ways to spend some of that Bombay moolah to fulfill our, what’s that horrible word, ‘wanderlust’.
I looked at my phone. Shahdab Ali’s contact details were on display. A forlorn figure. Now that he was more and more a memory, it was easier for me to theorize about his existence. How he was just a pawn, unwittingly colluding with murderers and rapists. A soft-spoken man caught in the macho trap of masculine power-living. I wondered if someday Shahdab Ali would come in his riot gear and beat up a protesting Mehmud. Pellet his eyes and destroy his chance at becoming a star transport driver. Or maybe the story would be more like fiction. Maybe Shahdab will feel a pang of humanity and not shoot him, protect him even, as brothers protect each other (sometimes). Or maybe it’ll be the other way round.
Will you send me photographs?
I wondered if this was the beginning of a great friendship. I imagined all the things I would learn from this lonely soldier in the north sending down his wisdom to a lowly slacker in Bombay on WhatsApp. We would discuss politics and cricket and send each other inane forwards. Maybe I’d visit him in Himachal and he’d show me all the great sights of his wonderful hometown.
Months later I got a call from Shahdab Ali. I let it ring. “What would I talk to him about?” I thought. I hadn’t even sent him photographs of Bombay. I felt like crying. I thought of a lonely soldier walking on a long road, high up in the mountains, a road to nowhere. The news of violence in the valley had begun to trickle down again, into the mainland. Professional shouters and glorious men of great moral authority had hijacked the discourse. I wondered if Mehmud was all right. Was he driving cars now, in a ghostly city? And what was Shahdab doing calling me in these tumultuous times. He was on the other side now, that poet-faced soft-spoken villain. I thought of how I would never be his friend, how I’d never learn anything from him. I thought of the guilt I would feel every time I would scroll through the contact list on my mobile phone. But I will never delete you Shahdab Ali. That is the least I can do, literally. I was watching a pirated American sit-com when he called, for the first and last time. I turned the phone over, and tried to concentrate on the laughter-laden screen.
Alex George is a writer based in Bombay. His works have been published in Danse Macabre, New Asian Writing, The Four Quarters Magazine and Adventure – sports and beyond.