Aliya was beautiful. I met her in Pampore. I was fifteen. She was thirteen, I think. Her parents were doctors, who lived in a one of the huts built for medics posted to the Government Hospital. My aunt and her husband lived in the adjoining hut. I would go for long walks with Aliya and my aunt’s kids in the “woodar,” the little-mittle hillocks that were like God’s punctuation marks, amidst the flat beautiful saffron fields around Pampore.
One sunny Sunday in October, we all went out, with a wicker basket that held apples and some chuchwoorus; Kashmiri bagels that are every carb-monster’s favorite comfort food. Aliya told me that she had got a letter from a Dutch pen-pal. She laughed when I asked her if it was a girl or a boy.
I spotted a beautiful, ethereal body of water in the distance. I suggested we walk towards it. We walked and walked, but the water-body did not seem to be getting any closer.
I was meant to be the shepherd, but after an hour or so, I had to make an official declaration.
We were lost.
The water-body was a mirage, a play of divine light, inviting from a distance, but unattainable, in this world, just like Aliya, with her retroussé nose, a little-mittle nose, upturned at the end, with an air of disdain for ugly plebs like me.
Aliya was angry at me, and my gift at initiating misadventures, her face as red as her Little Red Riding Hood jacket. She wiped her red nose angrily with the jacket-cuff and began to threaten me, “Ajoy’a it is getting dark, if you don’t get me back home real fast, my Ammi will grab hold of your throat and then she will hum Aaryo Maryo Taryo Tich, Onmay Sharakhpuch, kaormay khish, before slitting your throat.”
A silly ditty that ended with a warning that Aliya’s Ammi would slit my throat with a Sharakhpuch, a dull knife, quite like the video of Asiya Boba’a slitting the throat of a cow, and gloating while the cow groaned and moaned as life ebbed out of her.
I laughed at Aliya’s morbid ditty. I was afraid of death, but I would happily have my throat slit by the beautiful Ammi-Jaan of the beautiful Aliya, even if it was just because we had lost our way in the beautiful saffron-flower infested Garden of Eden.
With the stars as guides, I somehow managed to find the Government Hospital, and knocked at the door of Aliya’s home. If her Ammi was worried, she didn’t show it, she did not whip out a knife to onmay shrakhpuch kormay khish my throat.
Au contraire, she hugged me and said, “Jaan gave, baye-baryene aayve theek-paythe vapas.”
(“I’m happy that brother-sister got back safely.”)
My face fell, and then I got a bit angry when I saw Aliya grinning silently with did-you-get-what-my-mother-just-said look.
I really hate this Kashmiri tendency of immediately declaring a friendship between a boy and girl, as “bayee-baryen,” or “brother-sister,” but Aliya’s Ammi was a crafty practitioner of ‘snuff-it-out-early’ realpolitik.
“Hello Aunty Jaan, I’m just friends with Aliya, we’re both kids, why don’t you let us get to know each other, without trying this Baye-Bareen subterfuge? Why are you hell-bent on eliminating Aliya’s chances of finding a Shubedaar, worthy husband who would only ask for a half-way decent fountain pen in dowry,” I said to Aliya’s Ammi, through the medium of telepathy, a medium that really interested me as a teenager: I could say anything to anyone, without fear.
Any way life carried on, but I developed a mild paranoid persona. I would hide in the attic, every year on Rakhi, a festival that celebrates the love of a brother for his sister, just in case Aliya’s over-enthusiastic Ammi Jaan would land up, Aliya in tow, to cement sisterly ties between me and Aliya.
Over time Aliya’s parents built a beautiful home in Sanat Nagar, funded in some measure by gifts of saffron given by grateful patients in Pampore, after Aunty Jaan had delivered little bundle of joys into their laps, sometimes performing caesarean sections in candle-light along with my aunt, who was also a zanan dakktar, a ladies doctor.
Aliya’s mom would store the saffron in a tin box, fabricated out of a huge empty P-Marka mustard oil can. The saffron was finally sold and the rumour was that this money took care of the entire cost of construction of the palatial house, with its copy-cat “Braddway Hyere,” inspired by the stairs of the Broadway Theatre, Kashmir’s most happening motion picture destination.
Any way, Aliya and I slowly lost touch as we grew up, except for occasionally bumping in to each other in the matador bus that plied between Rawalpora and Lalchowk, with several stopovers including Sanat Nagar on the way;
we would exchange smiles, and I would dream that she will someday stand up in the bus and sing Aaryo Maryo Taryo Tich, Onmay Sharakhpuch, kaormay khish to me, with her trade mark, hand-wave across her throat, demonstrating how her Ammi would slit my throat, if I tried any hanky panky.
It never happened.
Once I had gone to the shrine of Saeed Sahib, to pray that I got pass marks in mathamatics, when I saw her. She told me that she was on her way for the entrance exam of medical college, and stopped by to make a wish.
Time flew by and then 1990 happened. The dreadfull night of 19th January 1990. Kashmir’s own little-mittle Kristallnacht. A long night with dreadful slogans directed against minorities from mosques. Slogans that asked the Kafirs to disappear. Posters and notices in newspapers ordering Hanguls to leave or be rendered extinct.
We fled in aircraft with toilet seats made of solid 24-carat gold, funded by Jagga, the Demon, who set up fake squalid camps, where we would pose for media cameras during the day, and retreat to a luxurious luxury resort, a Maya Nagri, a Palace of Ilusions, by night, where every luxury was available, and champagne gurgled out of taps, instead of water. If you wanted to brush your teeth or gargle, the only option was bubbly from France.
(But don’t take my word for it. Ask Engineer Rasheed.)
I was wandering around Janpath in Delhi in 1991, wearing my only pair of worn out brown shoes, when I bumped in to a fellow refugee.
He told me something that made me sick, something that made me very angry.
Aliya had been badly injured in a grenade attack in Lal Chowk, on her way back home from medical college. There were splinters in her body and she had been hospitalized.
I was so angry, I wanted to grab a knife, and walk towards the wimp who had hurled the grenade, humming Aaryo Maryo Taryo Tich, Onmay Sharakhpuch, kaormay khish, as I slowly slit his throat and dispatched him on a direct flight to Jannat e Firdaus.
Anger, especially when you are penniless, is really frustrating, and truly futile. So I did the next best thing. I waited till 10 p.m, when STD rates would crawl down to an affordable 25% of the day-time rate, and then went to the coin-operated STD booth, and called up every number in Kashmir that I remembered, for news about Aliya.
I was told that there had been a little-mittle miracle. Aliya had survived. She was back home recuperating. I could have found out her number, and called, but I wasn’t too sure that I should. Would she remember me? Would I be able to survive the sight of her scars? What if she or her Ammi asked me to come to Kashmir, to be with her, to help her heal with my silly stories, or walks up the woodar, the little-mittle hillocks in Pampore: where would I stay?
My home in Srinagar had been burnt down, and though I had learnt to sleep comfortably on railway platforms in Delhi, I could not sleep in the cold of the valley, under the sky, counting stars. Honestly, I was scared. I didn’t call Aliya. I didn’t go to Kashmir. There was no place for Kaffirs in Kashmir, in any case.
I decided to do long-distance Mukhbiri , long-distance spying on Aliya’s welfare, by calling a friend in Kashmir after 10 p.m every other day, from the coin-operated STD booth located in Eastern Court.
Aliya recovered from the grenade blast, and resumed medical school, but there was another explosion waiting just around the corner.
Aunty Jaan’s domestic help, Sajjad Batku, Sajjad-the-duck, who had left in a huff, a few days before Aliya got injured, after he had been caught range haath by Aliya’s dad while stealing money, returned out of the blue, knocking on the door. There were some people accompanying him, including a Moulvi Sahib kind of character.
Aliya’s Abbu opened the door and realized that Sajjad and his friends were carrying guns under their pherans. Sajjad plonked himself on a walnut-wood sofa in the living room, and one of his associates declared that Sajjad was now a noble Jehadi, and had come over to their house, to grant them the honour of a matrimonial alliance with an upcoming star of the Tehreek.
Aliya had to marry him, right there and then: he had got a Moulvi along for an instant Nikah.
Aliya’s Abbu didn’t know what hit him, but Aunty Jaan, my crafty Aunty, took charge. She convinced the thugs that it would be a matter of great honour for them to hand over Aliya to Jenab-e-Batku, but they would like to do so with due ritual and ceremony, with celebrations soaked in singing and dancing, and endless rounds of Wazwan.
When she took off her gold chain and put it around the neck of Sajjad Batku, and kissed his forehead, the deal was sealed and a date was set for the Wedding of the Year.
That night the family bundled in to their white Fiat and drove non-stop till they reached Jammu, leaving behind their home and hearth.
My telephonic Mukhbiri revealed that Aliya had joined the medical college in Jammu. On my next trip to Jammu, I went on a wild-goose chase to find her. Finally, I found her in SMGS hospital. She took me to the students’ canteen, ordered some sickly-sweet lemon-chai, and told me how a grenade-fragment had become a part of her life now, a little-mittle fragment that got in under her delicate skin and lodged itself in her forearm.
The doctor told her there was no need to remove it because when a grenade explodes, the splinters are so hot, they get sterilized, and there is no need to cut up the forearm, because that would leave a scar.
Aliya rolled up her sleeve, and there it was a little-mittle bubble-like blister staring at me. I asked her playfully if I could touch it; she looked around to see if some one was watching, leaned towards me, shook her head and whispered,
”Aaryo Maryo Taryo Tich, Onmay Sharakhpuch, kaormay khish.”
A few months later, I heard that a young medical student lost her life when a grenade intended for a politician who was driving by Shahidi Chowk in Jammu, missed him and killed her instead.
It was Aliya.
Predictably, there was no call for Hartal in the valley.
She was buried in the grave yard by the side of the Tawi river, because her family was too scared to take her back to Kashmir, and bury her in the family graveyard, where she would have been more comfortable in the embrace of her grandparents, and the shade of willow trees, with beautiful purple mazaar-posh, humming lullabies to her, on nights that she found it hard to sleep.
Ever since, whenever I am in Jammu, I make it a point to meet Aliya. I was there yesterday morning. It was a long walk up the Thandi Sadak, the “Cold Road” that overlooks the huge grave-yard. I walked down into the grave yard, and found the Gulmohur tree, the navigation landmark in my mind. I kneeled to pray before Aliya’s tomb, but my agnostic brain went blank, and suddenly my eyes spotted a little bubble-blister on the tomb-stone.
Was it the grenade splinter she had shown off to me in the SMGS Hospital’s canteen? I touched the bubble-blister on tomb-stone gingerly, afraid that I might wake up Aliya.
Then I had an urge to gently kiss the bubble-blister, but I held back. I was afraid Aliya might leap at me and say,”Aaryo Maryo Taryo Tich, Onmay Sharakhpuch, kaormay khish.”
When I got back to world of the living, I heard about the attacks in Lebanon and Paris. I read about Leila Talib, who died along with her husband, leaving behind a 3-year old son, who is in a hospital and asking for his parents as I write this. I read about Auréliede Peretti, 33, who loved playing the guitar, and was ripped apart by explosives at Bataclan theatre.
I wondered that if Aliya had been alive today, maybe she would have been pen friends or Facebook friends with Liela or Aurélie, and she would have been really sad to know about the carnage in Lebanon and Paris.
What would sadden Aliya even more is the way apologists for terror are going ballastic on social media.
“This is a big Jewish and American conspiracy.Mossad has done Paris, like they did 9/11.”
"Alright to have profile photos starkly announcing solidarity with the #French. Just make sure that you are not getting too swayed by the selected outrage that the West has been shamelessly advocating for decades now.”
“We have these Nations who use all their might to ' Kill People 'and they give you all the reasons in the world , logical or illogical justifying that. ..Fair enough .
Then we have those resisting or fighting them, call them by any name, they again give you innumerable reasons for doing what they are and that is again Killing People and doing so ruthlessly.”
These aren’t the long beard, short pant types. These are people you and me know. They seek to draw a strange kind of equivalence between the actions of terrorists, and the response of a state.
Aliya appeared in my dreams last night. All she said was, “Tch Tch Voshh.”
Ajoy Bhan is a communications consultant based in Delhi. He is a Kashmiri and insists that he is not a Kashmir expert. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org