The Question of the Gun
That's the dark irony: you can leave Kashmir, but Kashmir never leaves you
Majid Maqbool Delhi
It's a cold, dark November day in Delhi. There is no sunshine on the foggy streets. I board an auto rickshaw to meet two of my friends based in Delhi. We are meeting after a gap of one year since they left Kashmir to pursue their careers. On the road, the chatty auto rickshaw driver, stealing occasional glances at me from the rear view mirror, finally asks the question that is uppermost on his mind since he saw my face: so where is the place I come from?
I am from Kashmir, I tell him. Hearing this, he breaks into a brief monologue about the beauty he has heard Kashmir is famous for. And how he always wanted to visit Kashmir but never could
And then, after a brief pause, almost hesitantly, he adds: "Kashmir say bohat dar lagta hai..." (Kashmir makes me afraid) Why, I ask.
"Aaj Tak par dikhatay hain na..."
His reply, though not unexpected, evoked an uneasy smile. I tell him that Aj Tak can be wrong on Kashmir. He is quiet. Unconvinced, he drives on.
I remember: Aaj Tak is sabsay tez!.
The auto rickshaw halts at the red light. A swanky Ford pulls up next to it. Inside, a group of middle-aged ladies wearing sunglasses are in a constant chatting on their expensive handsets. This brief, uneasy traffic halt becomes an opportunity for the poor street kids to sell their miscellaneous objects to potential customers on the move.
Suddenly, they appear on the scene, from nowhere. And, like a spider's web, spread themselves around the vehicles to sell glossy magazines, books, bestsellers, toys, incense sticks, mobile chargers. They gently tap the windscreen of the vehicles. And the rest of the kids, who have nothing in hand to sell, perform their little tricks on the road. Barefoot, with no woollens, in tattered clothes, shivering, some kids do somersaults, while another beats a drum, and others sing in this open-air theatre at the traffic crossing. Then, all of them ask for some pennies.
Some street kids, carrying bright coloured window wipers in their hands, start cleaning the windows of the vehicles. For this unasked work, they expect some money. Every time these kids come near the vehicles, the drivers scroll the windows up, and those inside look away, uninterested. Some even abuse these underfed, malnourished kids, and push them away. But they would come back, persist. With an eye on the green light, the kids keep asking till the green light blinks. The vehicles speed away, leaving behind the street kids blurring, diminishing from sight with distance and time.
In the worn-out, bruised, little hands of these kids, the skimpily clad models or Bollywood stars on the glossy covers of high society lifestyle magazines present a stark contrast. Magazines like Cosmopolitan, Hello, People, Vogue... and books with titles like...You can win, The Great Indian Dream...You can't miss the terrible irony - of this absurd and tragic theatre of the rich and poor - played out on the streets of Delhi. Those who read this stuff will never know what it means to be poor, homeless, abandoned on the streets. They are a world apart.
I say to myself: These abandoned street kids, this sickening poverty, this does not happen in my Kashmir. The auto driver revs up the engine to full speed.
After a 30 minute drive I finally reach 'PVR Priya' - one of the sanitised, urban malls scattered around the city, thronged by the young, 'happening' consumer crowd and rich kids of Delhi with loaded wallets. Being close to our residential location, my friends and I decided to meet here. The buzz in this posh hangout is heightened by the bright lights of the mall, hep outlets, and buzzing eateries full of people fresh out of multiplex shows, shopping, dating.
These cool hangouts, these dazzling malls, however, are not meant for the poor. The poor are kept away by a battery of uniformed private security guards. They beg outside the main entrance.
My friends arrive. We greet each other in Kashmiri, and sit on the cemented ridge of an empty fountain that is littered with empty cold drink bottles and chips packets. So what's happening back home?
We talk about the year 2008, in Kashmir: what it meant; what it did to all of us. We talk about the gun - the oppressive, long curfews; about huge pro-azadi processions; about the new, attention-grabbing ragda-ragda slogans that were invented last year, and latter uploaded, on youtube. We also talk about the winter's anti-climax: peoples' participation in the assembly elections.
But, most of all, we talk about all those, who till last year, were with us but not anymore - dead, killed, eliminated, a forgotten statistic in a forgotten corner of a forgotten newspaper-report in Kashmir. Often, lost in an eerie silence, unreported.
What went wrong? Who is to be blamed?
The discussion is unending; the topic, vast. We are spontaneous in this angst and despair, arguing, disagreeing, and at the end, offering each other nothing but our collective confusion.
Suddenly, in the middle of our conversation about Kashmir, a young, pretty female reporter of an Indian television channel appears from nowhere, and thrusts her mike towards us. (This, incidentally, is the news channel (in)-famous for its jingoistic coverage of events in Kashmir. We all used to get so terribly worked up, angry on this biased, factually incorrect and myopic 'national interest' coverage, and the provocative anchors in fine suits who sounded more like warmongers on air rather than journalists, especially when it concerned Kashmir.
With that clichéd television-smile fixed on her lips, the reporter asked a question. It abruptly ended our discussion. "If you guys are given a gun, what will you do with it?" she asked, with a smile.
All three of us are silent. The silence is overwhelming. It's like that just-after-a-gunshot silence. How can you answer this question?
For a moment we look at each other, speechless, afraid that she might have been around, all the while, listening to our conversation about Kashmir - about the gun, about ragda-ragda, about everything else that a Kashmiri youth hates about
the various Indian regimes, and the Indian media. But, as it turned out, it was nothing more than just a coincidence. The fashionable TV journo was actually on a random hunt for 'cool youth' sound bites. The 'what-if' bizarre question was meant for the chilled out, 'what next' metro youth in designer brands who hang around the flashy malls.
So what about the question of the gun?
It was not a deliberate question put to some youngsters from Kashmir; it just happened to be on her mind as she stepped towards us on that afternoon.
"Don't ask this question to us," one of my friends shot back, smilingly, after a brief pause. The reporter - mildly intrigued by his pause and the accompanying answer - seemed confused. But a good sound bite for the fun filled entertainment programme she was reporting for, understandably, was more important for her. And she knew by then that it wasn't coming from any of us. And we knew, too, that she wasn't going to seriously engage with us on the question of the gun and the question of Kashmir.
Seeing a bunch of youngsters giggling and smoking, drinking Pepsi, she stepped towards them. And directed the same question. One of them, without giving much thought, replied promptly to the question that was so difficult for us to answer. "What if I am given a gun? Hmm... Well, I will use the gun to kill my neighbour's dog who's always after my life!" Then, he laughed. His friends also laughed.
We looked at each other, we did not laugh. We smiled.
The answer brought a smile on the face of the reporter too. She was relieved. She moved on, in search of more sound bites for her fun show. We returned to our passionate discussion on everyday life and death in Kashmir. That's the dark irony: you can leave Kashmir, but Kashmir never leaves you.