The short story by Amit Kumar is a tale of a small village in Kashmir and its ethos of communal harmony and how the uncertainty of what is to come can sometimes create fissures in long-standing relationships.
Sonu entered the room with a thud. Breathless, he shouted to my father, “They are coming.” Those days, it always meant either that a crackdown followed by a search operation by the army was imminent or militants were staying in some neighbouring building for the night. But today’s “they are coming” seemed a bit different. My father got up quickly and while rushing towards the main gate told Sonu, “Why are they coming here, don’t they know it’s not safe here?” Our house was at the edge of the village, so every time there was cross firing, our walls were the first to taste bullets. To this day, bullet marks adorn the back wall of our house, but they are now veiled by the giant walnut tree, as if it understands like a family member that we must hide the blemishes of our loved ones. Walnuts outnumber the holes left behind by the bullets. Life and death grow from the same point.
I was sitting with my mother near the bukhari (fire place) when Sonu had entered. We exchanged half-hearted reassuring glances. Soon the old patriarchs of the thirteen families entered our main hall with a few young ones with them. A couple of them were carrying the old, rustic Shikar rifles; the Baran Bore ones. “I told you, it’s not safe here, we should have met somewhere in the middle of the village,” I heard my father repeatedly arguing about the location. “Yes, so that they place an ear to the wall and come to know of what we are discussing. Are you crazy?” Unable to question the possibility of informers, my father finally accepted the decision. The door was left half-closed which accorded me access to the conversation and I heard everything they spoke, but couldn’t see all the faces. Here is what happened that night.
“So, what do you all think? Should we finally pack whatever is left and leave?” asked one of the elders. Young Raj Singh with the Baran Bore slung over his shoulder was the first to respond. But no sooner had he opened his mouth that the grand patriarch, my grand-uncle, asked him to wait for his turn after the elders are done. Som Nath, the grocer who was known for his wit-laced wisdom started, “I have nothing left except my shop, they have taken everything else. But if I leave, I will be left with nothing, not even this small shop. So I think we should talk to them.” I had never seen such melancholy on Som Nath’s face. But at that very moment, the fragrance of Kehwa wafted from the kitchen and for a minute I forgot the important discussion as my mind drifted to the Kaka and his sweet beverage…
Sipping from the small cup Jagat Ram, brushing his long moustache, said, “We have had enough of them. Now we need to get away from this place as soon as possible. Didn’t you see the Ishtihaar—the pamphlet? They are very clear—leave or die! I don’t think we are left with an option.”The tense discussion went on and on. Some suggested staying back and talking to our neighbours and some were adamant that we should leave. Finally, it was Raj Singh’s turn to speak. His reply was most unexpected. To everyone’s shock, he told the gathering that he was in regular touch with the army and they had promised him that they will provide arms to some youth so that they can protect their community. Lassa Joo, the oldest of all, who had been quiet till that point, was simmering with anger. His face had turned red and his old eyes were bulging out. Holding his walking stick in one hand he got up and shouted, “Have we forgotten who we are? Do we remember that ours is the only place in this wattan which was untouched when the whole wattan burned during shoras (Shoras is the local word for violence that ensued during the partition of subcontinent). Even then people had tried to instigate us, but we all stood together and the shoras couldn’t land its unholy feet on our land. We are not cowards, we have fought many times—we made graveyards of the great Mughals, the Sikh army was routed twice here, wicked Gulab Singh could never win us militarily. We have even fought our neighbours, but not because they follow a different Prophet, but because they are our neighbours and neighbours do fight at times. Let’s accept one thing; we are here because of them. They are one thousand families, and we are only thirteen, if they want they can kill all of us tonight without leaving trace. I even believe that in these bad times, they are the ones who have protected us, without us knowing it. Let’s not doubt them. This bad time will be soon over.”
This small and emotional speech from the man, who had seen many seasons, both good and bad, placated some fears. Yet no one was ready to take the risk of staying back. The meeting ended and a middle position was accepted—weapons offered by the army would not be received, nor would the thirteen families stay back. Instead, they will migrate, as others had done from other valleys. Only person who didn’t accept this position was Lassa Joo, who decided to stay back and die in his own land. My father also joined the bandwagon and accepted the decision.
It was decided to give everyone a week’s time to pack their homes and memories and leave. Next day, it was the urs of our local mystic. Every year, all of our elders used to go for the shab (night prayers), but this time it was Lassa Joo alone who spent the whole night in the dargah. Although the kids were not barred from going to the urs (that would have meant disrespect to the sufi), but they were brought back home as soon as possible by parents under the pretext of kharaab haalat (the ubiquitous bad situation). I enjoyed a good ride on my father’s shoulders while on the way back to home. Raj Singh also joined us and warned my father, “I think Lassa Joo will tell them everything we discussed last night. I am more worried than ever now and I fear for our lives. We should not have asked him to come for the meeting.” My father nodded his head in approval.
Raj Singh was right. Lassa Joo had told everything discussed the previous night to their elders. Next morning, all thirteen families were cursing the old man for not keep the community’s secret while he was happily sowing young walnut saplings in his small field. “See that Devil laughter on his disgusting face. I think he wants to have a share of loot from them after we all leave,” whispered Babli, my mother aunt. Sonu came running again and was, as usual breathlessly looking for my father. “They are having a meeting in Nabir Kak’s home.”“Why do you always come with bad news?” my father asked irritatingly. “Go and call everyone, we might need to change our plans.”
By 7 p.m., twelve elders were again seated in our hall. This time Lassa Joo was not invited. Everyone was terrified and nobody seemed to be ready to start the discussion. Finally, Raj Singh got up and began, “I told you, we need weapons, we need army to protect us, and maybe the time has come when we need to fight. But nobody listens to me. That old betrayer lives in a fool’s paradise. He talks of such ideals, of that glorious past, but we have to accept that things have changed. God only knows what they have decided in that sinister meeting of theirs. And it should not be a surprise if they attack us tonight. Before we start our discussions, let’s bring all our women folk, children here too. Let’s all die together.” I could see tears rolling down the cheeks of some of the elders. I was not able to understand whether they were weeping because of fear or because of the sense of betrayal by their neighbours. In a broken voice my father denied what Raj Singh was saying. He told the elders that despite everything that has gone wrong in last few months, our neighbours won’t kill us. But again nobody listened and Sonu ran again and brought all the twelve families into our small house. Nobody called Lassa Joo. His home, Sonu told everyone, was locked.
Some women and children were terrified and wouldn’t stop crying. Jagat Ram, who was the eldest after Lassa Joo, tried to console everyone, but in vain. Suddenly, Sonu came running and shouted, “they are all coming this side with mashals” (mashal is the local torch made from deodar wood). “Raj Singh, take everyone in and close all the doors and windows,” shouted Jagat Ram. We all lay down by the windows, below the level of the sills, as it was deemed safe. We had learned this much from the cross-firings.
“They will burn down the whole house,” shouted someone. “No they will blast us all with a grenade,” whispered someone else. “Be quiet. They won’t do anything like that,” shouted my father. Raj Singh and Nikka had already taken position behind the main gate with their Baran Bore rifles. “Lassa Joo is leading them and he is also holding a mashal,” a shocked Nikka told everyone while peeping through a small hole in the wooden gate. Loading his gun, Raj Singh said, “I will kill this betrayer first. Let him come.” The crowd was getting nearer and they were shouting slogans. But we were all so terrified that we could only hear our heartbeats and didn’t listen to what they were shouting. The sounds kept getting closer and closer. Raj Singh motioned Nikka to be ready. Suddenly, there was a gun shot. Raj Singh had fired through the hole in the gate. The shouting stopped and our heartbeats increased.
A shrill cry went through our ears and hearts, “Lassa Joo chheh kyasa govuy?” (Lassa Joo what happened to you?) shouted someone. “Hey yemis hasa aay gooly. Hatav Gulla, Nabir Kakas wan dawah yathi yi jaldi” (He has been shot.
Gulla, call Nabir Kak to come quickly with the medicine). And then started the wails of our neighbourhood women, “Hay Maaji, hay khwadaya, Lassa Joo morukh’ (Oh Mother! Oh God! Lassa Joo has been killed). Till then, everyone inside the house had been silent. Jagat Ram couldn’t control himself and took the rifle from Raj Singh and Nikka and forced the door open. When Raj Singh tried to resist, he was overpowered by Sonu and others. As soon as the door opened everyone—men, women and children rushed outside. Lassa Joo was growling in pain and a trail of blood ran across our courtyard. He had been hit in his abdomen.
To everyone’s surprise, Kadir Chhot, one of the insurgents from our village (chhot means short, a nickname given to Kadir because of his short height) held Lassa Joo’s head.
But no one was bearing any arms. Some of our neighbours were trying to stop the flow of Lassa Joo’s blood with their hands, some were rubbing his feet and some were simply crying. “Lassa Joo came to me and told me about your meeting. I told him that we have nothing against you. We don’t want you to leave us. I even told him that had I and my comrades been here that night, we wouldn’t have allowed those thugs to loot you. But he didn’t believe in our words. He wanted an assurance. So all of us gathered and discussed these things. It was Lassa Joo who told us that our entire village must meet and clear things in front of everyone and that is why we were here. To tell you, that we are one and will remain together. But see what we have done to this Qalandar,’ Kadir Chhot clarified between sobs.
Before Nabir Kak could come with his medicine, Lassa Joo was no more. The sleepless night was garlanded with a million hugs and kisses between the villagers.
Next day, Lassa Joo was cremated, and again people hugged and shed tears. Nobody asked anyone a question, nobody gave an answer. No words were spoken. Nobody thought of Raj Singh as a criminal. Probably all of them saw parts of Lassa Joo and Raj Singh within them, but in the end they decided to continue to live in Lassa Joo’s small village.