The Infidel Next Door 8185217432

Kashmir is the most radicalized region on earth. But behind it is a story of how its inhabitants resisted religious conv

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The Infidel Next Door
 8185217432

Table of contents :
Title Page
One
Two
Three
Four
Five
Six
Seven
Eight
Nine
Ten
Eleven
Twelve
Thirteen
Fourteen
Fifteen
Sixteen
Seventeen
Eighteen
Nineteen
Twenty
Twenty One
Twenty Two
Twenty Three
Twenty Four
Twenty Five
Twenty Six
Twenty Seven
Twenty Eight
Twenty Nine
Thirty
Thirty One
Thirty Two
Thirty Three
Thirty Four
Thirty Five
Thirty Six
Thirty Seven
Thirty Eight
Thirty Nine
Forty
Forty One
Forty Two
Forty Three
Forty Five
Forty Six
Forty Seven
Forty Eight
Forty Nine
Fifty
Fifty One
Fifty Two
Fifty Three
Fifty Four
Fifty Five
Fifty Six
Fifty Seven
Fifty Eight
Fifty Nine
Sixty
Sixty One
Sixty Two
Sixty Three
Sixty Four
Sixty Five
Sixty Six
Sixty Seven
Sixty Eight
Sixty Nine
Seventy
Seventy One
Seventy Two
Seventy Three
Seventy Four
Seventy Five
Seventy Six
Seventy Seven
Seventy Eight
Seventy Nine
Eighty
Eighty One
Eighty Two
Eighty Three
Eighty Four
Eighty Five
Eighty Six
Eighty Seven
Eighty Eight
Eighty Nine
Ninety
Ninety One
Ninety Two
Ninety Three
Ninety Four
Ninety Five
Ninety Six
Ninety Seven
Ninety Eight
Ninety Nine
Hundred
Acknowledgements
Index of Local Words With Their English Meanings
About the Author

Citation preview

“An unforgettable read….…enlightening….…tells us why healing and forgiveness can take place in the midst of mass violence….…recommended for anyone wanting to understand the conflict between the bad and good aspects of human nature.”– VamikVolkan, Nobel Peace Prize Nominee, internationally renowned peace activist and the author of ‘Enemies on the couch’ “Weaves through Indian culture and perspectives as if in a delicate dance, each step precisely described and completely intriguing.…...one needn’t be familiar with Indian society to appreciate this compelling story which draws together disparate lives in an engrossing saga that is hard to put down.” – Midwest Book Review “I have read many books set within the culture of Indian subcontinent including Malala’s autobiography but none has brought the ways of thinking to life as well as this book. I now have a gut level understanding of how Hindus and Muslims see the world….…the book has the feel of a parable, a thriller and a story with characters who teach us what religion stands for..…..You may have nightmares after reading this book but it will also tell you how to lift us from savagery to truly serve God.” – Robert Rich, author of ‘Ascending spiral- Humanity’s last chance’ “Few authors have the courage to talk about such a topic…….has the marks of a bestseller.” –ThinkerViews – Views and Reviews “A moving story about the never ending battle between tolerance and bigotry……. unsparingly depicts the crimes committed by Kashmiri Muslims against Kashmiri Hindus…….to argue against radicalism in all religions.” – Kirkus Book Review “A deeply moving book about human suffering and human condition.” – James Lavelle, Founder, Harvard Program for Refugee Trauma “A must read to understand the social plight and political landscape of Kashmir. A reader may take a long time to forget Aditya, the priest and Zeba, the imam’s daughter.” – Kevein Book Review

“The Infidel Next Door shows us whether it is the triumph of faith over conscience or the other way round borne in the heart of sufferers. Recommended for all enlightened reader of politics and religion.” – Mehreen Ahmed, author of the award winning novel ‘The Pacifist’ “…….Immersive and fascinating….…memory can have itself rooted outside of a person, outside of people but in the land surrounding us….… story is worth reading.” – Portland Book Review “Tells how the inner turmoil of young lives impinge on a community and blood is thicker than water..... A story with stark intimacy and sensitivity..... brings taboo subjects out into the open for discussion and debate.... true harbingers of hope.” – Andrew Spacey, poet and author of ‘21 Bird Poems’ “A moving and profoundly important work….To see the world through the eyes of a priest, a family man, a survivor of pogroms and exiles, is to see the limits of what we thought of as humanity, and who we forgot. A voice against a saga of political violence too often excused or sanitized by a compromised discourse….You will feel the love that animates human beings still, even in their humble lives and struggles downstream from the aftermaths of history. I highly recommend it.” - Professor Vamsee Juluri, University of San Francisco and Author of ‘Saraswati’s Intelligence’ “A beautifully narrated and skillfully woven tale.... powerful yet melancholic.... of characters drawn in a tale of religious bigotry between monotheistic beliefs and those pursuing God through their inner exprerinces....” – Professor Ramesh N Rao, Columbus State University “Read this book. It has a lot to offer whether you are an Indian or a secularized European. A story dealing with forgiveness and grief that teaches us about the eternal questions of human life.” – Bo Brautigam, renowned Swedish psychologist “A sensitive and tragic tale that offers the hope of spirituality and healing in the midst of religious intolerance. An important book to remind us of the need for a new domain to approach irresolvable conflicts.” –

Professor Peter Polatin, MD, Global Mental Health, George Washington University “A very moving story.....should be read widely.” – Sudhir Kakkar, renowned psychoanalyst and author of “The inner world”

The Infidel Next Door

RAJAT MITRA

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or other-wise, without prior permission of the author. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the author’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. This paperback edition 2019 Copyright @ 2017 Rajat Mitra

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of the book. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters, and incidents portrayed in it are products of author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead events or localities are entirely coincidental. ISBN- : 81-85217-43-2 UTPAL PUBLICATIONS R-22, Khaneja Complex, Main Market, Shakarpur, Delhi-110 092 Email : [email protected] Printed by : Jeoffry and Bell Pub., Printers B-30/24, Chandergupt Complex, Subhash Chowk, Laxmi Nagar, Delhi -110 092   Email : [email protected]

“What cannot be talked about can also not be put to rest and if it is not, the wounds continue to fester from generation to generation.” -Bruno Bettelheim

For my wife, Nidhi, and my daughter, Ananya Iris

Contents   Title Page ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE SIX SEVEN EIGHT NINE TEN ELEVEN TWELVE THIRTEEN FOURTEEN FIFTEEN SIXTEEN SEVENTEEN EIGHTEEN NINETEEN TWENTY TWENTY ONE TWENTY TWO TWENTY THREE TWENTY FOUR TWENTY FIVE TWENTY SIX TWENTY SEVEN TWENTY EIGHT TWENTY NINE

THIRTY THIRTY ONE THIRTY TWO THIRTY THREE THIRTY FOUR THIRTY FIVE THIRTY SIX THIRTY SEVEN THIRTY EIGHT THIRTY NINE FORTY FORTY ONE FORTY TWO FORTY THREE FORTY FIVE FORTY SIX FORTY SEVEN FORTY EIGHT FORTY NINE FIFTY FIFTY ONE FIFTY TWO FIFTY THREE FIFTY FOUR FIFTY FIVE FIFTY SIX FIFTY SEVEN FIFTY EIGHT FIFTY NINE SIXTY SIXTY ONE SIXTY TWO SIXTY THREE SIXTY FOUR SIXTY FIVE SIXTY SIX SIXTY SEVEN

SIXTY EIGHT SIXTY NINE SEVENTY SEVENTY ONE SEVENTY TWO SEVENTY THREE SEVENTY FOUR SEVENTY FIVE SEVENTY SIX SEVENTY SEVEN SEVENTY EIGHT SEVENTY NINE EIGHTY EIGHTY ONE EIGHTY TWO EIGHTY THREE EIGHTY FOUR EIGHTY FIVE EIGHTY SIX EIGHTY SEVEN EIGHTY EIGHT EIGHTY NINE NINETY NINETY ONE NINETY TWO NINETY THREE NINETY FOUR NINETY FIVE NINETY SIX NINETY SEVEN NINETY EIGHT NINETY NINE HUNDRED Acknowledgements Index of Local Words with Their English Meanings About the Author

ONE

A

few memories stay as silent shadows in our lives to haunt us for generations. Unravaged by time, they leave behind a story lost to the pages of history. Krishna Narayan was eighteen when his father announced that he had found a girl for him. “You will marry this girl next month. I have accepted her as my daughter-in-law,” he said as he washed his hands for dinner. Neither his mother nor he said anything and sat on the floor after him. Krishna Narayan played with the rice on his plate and ate little. After dinner his father announced that he was going to the temple to prepare for the next day’s prayers. “Ma,  who is this girl that Father has found for our family?” he asked, after she had cleaned the floor. “Her name is Gayatri. Her family is from Allahabad. She is a nice girl and will keep you happy.” He didn’t know that Gurudev   had explained to his parents the night before, “No family in Banaras agrees to give their daughter to you in marriage hearing about your history. Since this girl is an orphan, her uncle is eager to get rid of her. She also has some illness that he mentioned, but this is the best match we will ever find for Krishna Narayan.” Krishna Narayan was married on an auspicious day. A dozen priests from the temple attended his marriage. Gayatri saw her husband for the first time during the wedding. As she glanced at him, he lowered his eyes. “He is more shy than I am,” she thought. During the wedding, Krishna Narayan saw that she had a beautiful face but her skin looked pale. He tried to smile but stopped when he saw his father looking at him.

Gayatri felt like a free bird in her new home. It consisted of a single room that had a small kitchen in one corner. In the night, they would spread a chatai   on the ground and put up a curtain to separate the sleeping area from his parents. She had expected that as a new bride, the wives of other priests would come to welcome her. No one did. She often found that they would give her a false smile and walk away. She had the feeling of being on edge each time she was near them. As an orphan, she had learned two lessons that had helped her survive. One was that as an orphan, she was unwelcome among children who had parents and was told she brings bad luck. As a result, she had become a loner. The other lesson was that when she asked anything for her needs, others often told her a half-truth to deny it to her. She found that the priests and their wives played dirty over petty issues, and her husband was often a victim of their manipulations. Krishna Narayan was seen as Gurudev’s protégé and mostly disliked by other priests for not being a local. But what intrigued her was a comment of Gurudev, who had told one of the priests that Gayatri was a woman of substance and would change his destiny. As the wives of other priests avoided her, she learned to walk around the temple and often went to sit on the banks of the Ganges, where she would sit on the last stone step and watch the river flow. Their temple seemed to bring her in touch with something that was deeply spiritual and untouched by time. During the dawn and dusk, when the sun’s rays fell only upon its spire and the bells started to ring, they reverberated far crossing the river and filled her with a mystical feeling, reminding her of God’s presence. The legend was that Shri Shankaracharya  had laid its foundation fifteen hundred years ago and the spirits of priests still pervaded the air around the precincts of the temple. The chief priest of the temple, called Gurudev, was in his nineties. In his lean frame, a white beard that fell up to his chest and deep-set eyes, he was the most venerated priest in Banaras, and his word was considered carved in stone. A dozen priests worked in the temple from dawn to midnight and were assigned to different deities. Krishna Narayan was assigned to pray to the Shivling.  The Shivling was nearly five feet high and was of black color that

had taken a beautiful hue due to the milk and water pouring over it over centuries as an offering from the hands of the devotees. Every morning and evening, Gayatri went to the temple to see Krishna Narayan do the prayers. Before the prayers began, she would sometimes sit in front of the Shivling and would find herself transported to another world where she would feel an unmistakable language of silence flow from the stone toward her, cleansing her heart, telling her that she was no longer alone. Several times, without realizing it, she had felt tears flow and felt the gentle hand of Krishna Narayan telling her he understands. After the evening prayers, Gayatri would go back and dress up to look attractive for him. He came back almost by midnight after all the rituals were over. Contrary to what she had imagined, he was tender and gentle toward her during lovemaking. There was only one thing that puzzled her. He avoided any talk of Kashmir, the land of his ancestors. One day, Gayatri heard a group of priests from their temple were going for a pilgrimage to Kashmir. “Can we go with them?” she had asked Krishna Narayan. “No, anywhere but Kashmir.” Surprised by his tone, she asked, “Don’t you feel like going to Kashmir? There are so many temples there.” “They are ruins, Gayatri.” “Even a ruin remains an abode of God for Hindus.” “No, Gayatri, we belong to Banaras now.” Saying this he had turned his face away. She also noticed that her husband followed Brahminical traditions. Once she had heard a commotion outside her home and saw him scream at a cleaner for resting in the shadow of the temple. She had come out and told him, “No, Panditji,  it is wrong of you.” “But he is an untouchable, Gayatri. He pollutes the temple by such an act.” “No, Panditji, a temple cannot be polluted if he sits here.” She had exuded an inner strength that had stopped him from saying anything further. Gayatri soon began to exert so much influence on him that he felt overcome by thoughts of her even during prayers. Once while doing puja   in front of the Shivling, he realized he had begun to think of their

lovemaking of the night before and had an erection. He had excused himself from the prayers and run to take a bath in the Ganges. In the second year of their marriage, she became pregnant. After seven months she delivered a stillborn child. She sat like a stone in front of the Shivling and stared at it without saying anything. Krishna Narayan wandered around the riverbank and often came home late. The midwife told her it was a miracle that she had survived and warned her not to conceive again. She also advised her to tell her husband about her illness. She debated whether to tell him. “If she told him she was sick and shouldn’t try to conceive, would his family not throw her out and get him married again? She knew how much families desired for a son. Though Krishna Narayan never mentioned it, she presumed that he would want one too. She thought of the rows of beggars who sat outside the temple gates and cried for alms every time she passed them. “If his family throws me out, I will have to sit there too.” Finally she decided she would trust her fate and try a second time. When she became pregnant a second time and again delivered a stillborn child, he said, “Let this be the last time, Gayatri. I do not want to wrap my child in a shroud each time and immerse him in the Ganges.” In a quiet voice, her hands trembling, she decided to confide in him about what the Vaaid   had said about her inability to conceive. To her surprise, he held her in his arms and said, “If only you had told me, we wouldn’t have tried. I wasn’t upset because you delivered a dead child.” Her mouth falling open, she asked, “Aren’t you angry with my family for cheating you? And I am sure you want a son.” “No, Gayatri, my lineage should end with me.” That night Gayatri stayed awake thinking of the sadness in his voice and wondered why he didn’t want a child.

TWO

“Is it true that your ancestor was the priest of Adi Shankar temple in Kashmir and was beheaded for not converting to Islam? And his refusal led to devotees being massacred along with him,” Gayatri asked. Krishna Narayan had woken up and begun to explore her body. She saw the sun’s rays come through the cracks of the wooden window and play hide-and-seek on the wall. In the distance she heard the temple bells chime. “Now would be the right time to ask him. His resistance will be low since his desire is high,” she had thought. “Who told you this?” He sat up and pulled his cloth to cover his desire. She was taken aback by the change in him. The tenderness on his face while caressing her was replaced by a violent crimson. The hands that were exploring her body had withdrawn to coil up like a spring. She rubbed his back. “Calm down. I didn’t know you would get so upset.” “Who told you this?” he repeated. “The wife of the priest next door. She came and asked for some rice.” “What else did she say?” He looked straight at her. “She said that your ancestor’s obstinacy led hundreds of people to their death in Kashmir and led his brother and wife to take shelter in this temple so far away.” “Rascal, the priest insults me behind my back by sending his wife. What else did she say?” His voice had become hoarse. “You would have been thrown out long ago from this temple but for Gurudev’s blessings.” Gayatri couldn’t go on. The priest’s wife had said, “In his family, his great-grandfather went mad and roamed around naked. Imagine that…a priest…laughing and running around the temple, naked. His grandfather became addicted to opium and then went to live with a prostitute. His father

is away for days on end and no one knows his whereabouts. Each generation faces the curse of his ancestors’ foolishness.” She saw him cover his naked body, which had now lost all desire for her. “I apologize,” she said. “I should not have mentioned it now.” “I will go and have a word with her husband.” The rest of the day passed without any incident. She wanted to make up for the disaster of the morning. In the evening she wore the new red sari  he had gotten for her. She put alta  on her feet. “You look beautiful,” he said as he kissed her after coming back from the temple. “Gayatri,” he said as he held her in his arms, “I apologize for my behavior in the morning. Please don’t ever judge me like the others for what my ancestors did.” “I will not,” she said as he began to make love to her. “I want to begin a new life with you,” he said. “Throughout my childhood, I was insulted by other boys and asked if I would run around naked like my grandfather or live with a prostitute?” He continued, now lying down with his head on her lap, “I want my lineage to end with me so that my son won’t have to go through this.” “Neither will you go mad nor should you think your lineage will end with you,” Gayatri told him, stroking his hair. “But why do we stay here? Can’t we go to some other temple?” “A priest’s family tree is known for fifteen generations. Who will give us shelter knowing our history? My forefathers tried to explain what happened that night three hundred years ago and how our ancestor was not responsible for the massacre, but nobody believes.” “You need to be proud of your ancestor who gave his life for his faith. And those people who were killed were martyrs for the faith,” she said. “Why bother what these priests say?” “Why don’t people see the truth, Gayatri?” “When truth stares us in the face, we close our eyes because…” Upon not getting a response, she saw that he had fallen asleep. She smiled and laid his head on the pillow. That night she had a dream where a man with a face that resembled her husband sat in front of a Shivling in a faraway stone temple reciting mantras.  There were mountains all around, and the snow on them glistened in the light. The air was cold and seemed to freeze everything it touched. In the distance, there was the sound of water from a river. Then, suddenly a

sword from nowhere fell on the man’s head, severing it and felling it to the ground, turning the floor of the temple red. She had woken up in sweat to find Krishna Narayan sound asleep. She remembered her father telling her of the legend of the eleven families, who were the only ones to survive, after the genocide of Hindus in Kashmir five centuries ago who didn’t give in to demands to convert to Islam. When dawn broke, she got up to wash the kalash  that Krishna Narayan carried to the river for his prayers to the Sun God. She put some holy peepul leaves on top and shook him up to say, “Wake up, it is time to go. If you come back in time, we can spend a few moments together.” She gave him a coy smile and saw that he took a few moments to understand. He rushed back to her before going to the temple and whispered in her ears after they made love, “Gayatri, this temple is our home.” “No, Panditji, this is a shelter, not a home.” “Why do you say it is not a home? I have lived here all my life,” he asked. “A shelter remains a shelter. It never becomes a home,” she said, wondering if he understood.

THREE

When Gayatri became pregnant for the third time, she felt certain either she or her child would survive the childbirth. It was a feeling that grew the moment she felt life in her womb. As the hour drew near, she told Krishna Narayan of her dream. She said the child was to be given life if there had to be choice made by the midwife. They had talked till late, arguing. “The present is all I have, Gayatri, and it is you. The past is what I try to run away from in every waking moment. It is a shadow that I throw out with every breath, but it comes back to haunt me.” At midnight Gayatri had woken up with a sharp pain. Krishna Narayan had run to call the midwife. Now several hours had passed and he could hear the daima’s   voice from behind the curtain. “Easy, Gayatri, easy,” she was saying. “Hold my hand and breathe.” He heard the temple bell chime to announce the beginning of the Mahashivratri festival but felt that today he could not pray to a God who was unfair to him. He didn’t realize he had come to stand near the edge of the curtain as if he could interfere with what was happening and stop the child from coming out. Inside, before Gayatri could take in a breath, she felt her body convulse. She heard a baby’s cry fill the air and the midwife whisper, “You succeeded. His cry tells me he will live.” “You are sure he will live, daima?” Gayatri asked in a weak voice. “I will tell Panditji.” Saying this daima walked out. Only an hour ago she had asked him if she had to make a choice between his wife and the child, what was to be done? “Your wife said let your child live.”

“You will not do that, daima.” He had grabbed her hand, forgetting that he was a priest. He had said it again when she went in, “She is obstinate, but I don’t want this child.” She found him at the back pacing, his white shirt drenched and sticking to his body. “Panditji, you have become the father of a boy.” “But my wife, daima, she is alive, isn’t she?” he asked, without responding to the news of his child’s birth. “Yes, she is alive. I felt as if she had decided to leave her son for you and go. But then it was as if some force pushed her back.” She walked back in the room to Gayatri. “It must be difficult for a woman to make a choice when her husband doesn’t want to let go of her and asks her to let go of the child.” As far as she could remember, the men always told her to let their wives die and let their children come into the world if they had to make a choice. With a sigh she thought if he would ever be able to forgive this child. Her thoughts were interrupted with Krishna Narayan walking in followed by Gurudev. “Gayatri, you are fortunate. The moment that just passed by was auspicious. According to Hindu astrology, this is the moment when Lord Shiva begins his cosmic dance and the universe vibrates with his hidden meaning. Any child sent at this moment cannot be a coincidence.” “What are you saying, Gurudev?” “Children born in such moments are children of destiny. They become great priests of Lord Shiva.” Daima opened the window. A ray of sunlight fell on the child. “We will name him Aditya Narayan, after the Sun God,” Gurudev said as the bell in the temple chimed. “I will go now. They are waiting for me in the temple.” “How will he become such a priest, Gurudev?” Krishna Narayan asked. “I will do that.” Saying this Gurudev walked away toward the temple. “Did you see the way he kept on looking at Aditya?” Gayatri asked when Krishna Narayan came back. “What about it, Gayatri?” “It seemed he had something on his mind but kept quiet.” He was about to tell her a prophecy that Gurudev had once confided in him. “Mahadev  will bring a child to our temple who will grow up to have

no equal in the knowledge of the Vedas.  His example will inspire others to seek redemption.” “No, Gayatri will not like it if she hears it,” he told himself as he looked at both of them now sleeping next to each other.

FOUR

Imam Siddiqui came out from his home next to the mosque compound and stood on the road as the namazees   entered its premises. It was the first namaz   in the new mosque. He wanted to be there when the namazees entered the mosque hall. The morning sun had risen over the mountains and threw a beam of light on the mosque’s minarets, giving it a hue of several colors. As his eyes travelled to the ruins of the temple next door, it seemed to stand forlorn. A sigh came out of him and then he heard Abdul call out the faithful for the prayers. “The first azan  for this mosque.” He smiled to himself. He walked inside to go to the prayer hall. Three hundred people had already assembled in ten rows, leaving no space to stand with almost the same number who assembled on the street outside. As he bent and touched the ground with his forehead, Imam saab,   as he was called, saw his son Anwar bend and touch his forehead to the ground. As he led the first prayer, he saw all the namazees stand shoulder to shoulder, their faces in contemplation. He felt a sense of peace surge as he looked at Anwar’s face. Just the other day Anwar had recited the holy Koran from memory. “Nothing will prevent him from being called a man of peace like me after I am gone from this world,” he told himself as he began the prayers. The salat was the ritual prayer that he led daily for thirty years in his old mosque. Each Friday, this collective submission had shown him the humbling of the faithful. “No other religion except Islam does this in so sublime a manner,” he would tell the namazees. “Ours is the only religion where no one is more exalted than the other in front of the Creator.” Now as he began his prayers for the first time in the new mosque, he began by thanking Allah for His mercy and greatness. Then it gave way to a

collective of the three hundred faithful inside the mosque, who seemed to become an invisible force beside him. He had prayed five times a day as long as he remembered. Once when he had high fever, his father had asked him if he would skip namaz. “No, Abbu,  didn’t the prophet tell a blind man that he should go even crawling to pray in the mosque?” he had said to his astonished father. His attention was diverted by Anwar. “Abbu, my forehead touched the ground thirty-four times today while I prayed.” “Remember, it is the opening up of your heart to Allah that matters, not the numbers,” he chided him. Today, as he prepared to lead the khutbah,   he chose to speak of tolerance for the faithful toward others. He had been told that many namazees felt upset to come past the ruins of the temple next door. “Is it right that next to a mosque, there should exist the ruins of a temple?” one of them had asked him. Some had even shared that the temple should have been destroyed completely before building the mosque. He had said, “We must not disturb the temples of Hindus,” and had faced stiff opposition from his closest friend, Haji saab. “The holy Koran asks us not to accommodate the temples of infidels.” “No, Haji saab, don’t ask me to do something my conscience wouldn’t allow.” “But, Imam saab, this mosque was built to spread the message of Islam and for Kashmir to become Islamic.” In his fifties, Haji saab was called so because he had finished his Haj.  With his white beard and broad pockmarked face, he looked at everything non-Islamic with contempt. He preached for the Islamization of Kashmir in every conversation and exhorted the youth to raise jihad in the name of Islam. “Islam is a religion of peace, Haji saab,” Imam saab said, exasperated by his proclamations. “Only for believers, Imam saab. All I ask is that you bring a little more passion in your khutbah to put some fire in the hearts of our young men.” “As long as I give sermons in this mosque, I will ask the young to desist from violence,” he had replied. “Abbu, have I understood the message of the holy Koran?” Anwar came to him and asked.

“What a question, Anwar. Of course you have. Why do you ask?” “Then why does Haji chacha  say today we must start with only the true message of the holy Koran? Before the prayers started, he called all the boys aside and asked us to define an infidel.” “What did you say?” “I said infidels are those who don’t read the holy Koran. He said that our knowledge is poor, and we won’t become good Muslims.” “What else did he say?” “He said your knowledge of Islam must begin with understanding of who the infidels are and who are not. Infidels are no better than animals and that a Muslim shouldn’t treat them as equal.” “Beta, we are all equal, whether infidel or not.” “He asked me if I remember how many verses are there on infidels in the holy Koran. When I said let me recall, his face became red, and he said a Muslim should have it on his fingertips.” Anwar was about to say something more when a group of boys called him to join them in a game of cricket. “Can I go, Abbu?” he asked. “I promise I will come back without you having to call me.” “Come before the sun sets behind the mountains, beta.”   He smiled to see Anwar had made friends. As he turned to go inside his house, he found Haji saab waiting for him in the living room. “The Indians plan to celebrate their independence day on August fifteenth. I want our boys to raise Pakistan flags.” “Didn’t one of the boys, Shafeeq, die doing that last year? He was only fourteen.” “Imam saab, the destiny of Kashmir’s freedom is in the blood of our boys. If they don’t give qurbani  against the Indian rule, who will?” “Haji saab, at their age? I see nothing but bloodshed and grief for their parents.” “Imam saab, don’t we all know the saying ‘Pehle khuda phir beta, pehle Koran phir beta, pehle Mohammed phir beta’?” “No, Haji saab, try saying that to Shafeeq’s father.” “Oh, Imam saab, you hurt me by saying that. Aren’t all these boys my children too?” “Anwar was telling me, you told him and the other boys that they must divide the world between believers and nonbelievers and act accordingly.” “What is wrong if I add the talk on azaadi  after your sermons?”

“What is this azaadi you talk about to the boys, Haji saab? I don’t understand. Azaadi is fought over land or when resources are taken away or, say, if our Kashmiri culture or language were to be threatened. Tell me which of that is happening?” “This is what you don’t understand, Imam saab. The infidels plan to do it one day.” “In so many centuries, it hasn’t happened. I only beg you not to do this talk of azaadi around the Friday prayers to the boys.” When he left, Imam saab’s wife came out. “How was your first sermon?” she asked. “It is all Allah’s will, begum.”  He shared how Haji saab had talked to the boys before the sermon and how it upset him. “He has helped us by setting up this mosque and arranging you to be the imam here. If he just talks a little bit on his own, what is the problem?” she asked. “Begum, he turns every discussion in one direction. The other day Zeba had bought some butter from the shop near the mosque. Anwar vomited after eating that. Haji saab looked at the label and said the butter was haram,  as it was made from an oil using pig extracts. He called Anwar and said that a true Muslim should be able to spot a speck of haram in his food through its smell. He then threatened the shopkeeper that if he ever sold it again, he will burn down his shop. Anwar also told me that Haji saab instructs him to read some selected verses of our holy book.” “Which selected verses did he have in mind?” “On nonbelievers and how they should be treated.” “You are unnecessarily getting worried, Imam saab.” “He told the boys, ‘Zindagi bad az maut.’  He said their lives have no meaning till they martyr themselves in the name of Islam. And that is what he wants to teach the boys in the new mosque.”

FIVE

When Aditya was five, he wanted to ring the bell that hung at the gate of the temple by sitting on his father’s shoulders. He had seen other children do it when they entered the temple. Mangu, the son of the cleaner of the temple, sat on his father’s shoulders every day and rang the bell. “Can I also sit on your shoulders and ring the bell?” Aditya had asked his father. His father had flapped his hand in dismissal. “I am a priest.” “He is a child. He does nothing but recite mantras in the temple. All children who come to the temple enjoy ringing the bell,” Gayatri had said to him. “I am a Brahman. I will be a laughing stock,” Krishna Narayan had retorted. It all started when on his birthday, Mangu asked his father to let him sit on his shoulders and his father took him around the garden. He called out to Aditya from his princely position. “The world looks so different from my father’s shoulders.” One by one all of Mangu’s friends climbed onto Mangu’s father’s shoulders. Finally Aditya could not control himself. He asked if he could also do the same. “No, you are a Brahman and I am an untouchable,” Mangu’s father said. “The priests will punish us.” That evening, Aditya walked back home alone. When Gayatri asked him where his father was, he answered, “Panditji is in the temple doing his prayers.” “What happened?” she asked. “Ma, Baba  curled his lips and didn’t look at me when I asked to sit on Mangu’s father’s shoulders and ring the bell.” “People get mesmerized when you read mantras. No one of your age can do it as well as you,” Gayatri tried to assuage his hurt.

“But, Ma, ringing the bell is fun.” That night Gayatri’s pillow became wet, thinking how lonely Aditya was. “Do you know, Gayatri,” Krishna Narayan said when he came to bed that night, “Aditya has memorized the whole of Rig Veda.   Gurudev said that no Brahman boy has ever done that at his age.” Seeing her face, he said, “You don’t look happy to hear that.” She was about to say that for a boy, to sit and ring the bell from his father’s shoulders is more fun than to memorize the Vedas, but she kept quiet. She had taken Aditya to play with other children one day. He stood in one corner and wouldn’t join them even when some of the children came to call him. She encouraged him to join but in vain. When she shared this with her husband, he said that it was a good sign. “To gain spiritual knowledge, every priest sacrifices his childhood. Tomorrow, he will lead the invocation for Lord Shiva in the main temple. Come and listen to him.” She went to Aditya’s bedside after Krishna Narayan fell asleep. Aditya’s pillow was wet. “Ma, when other children call me to play, Gurudev tells me not to. That is why I don’t go.” Next evening, Gayatri went to hear him at the temple. She couldn’t recognize the boy who stood surrounded by priests. His hands, stretched above him in front of the deity, were holding the brass lamp. His face radiated a serenity that seemed to communicate with the deities in a language she didn’t know. This wasn’t her son who lay in her lap and cried. His mellifluous voice seemed to come from somewhere far away and yet seemed to arise next to her. She looked around. The devotees had stood up with their hands outstretched and cried. The sound of the bells added to the collective recitation of the hymns by the priests and seemed to tell her to deny to herself that the boy praying to the Gods came from her womb. She wanted to push them away and hold him in her arms. “I know how lonely you feel inside when you recite those prayers.” But as she screamed, she felt her voice drowned by the voices of the priests in the temple, who added to the recitation of the hymns after Aditya.

“Stop it!” she cried. “Do you have to invoke your Gods by sacrificing my son?” She looked at the face of Lord Shiva. It looked serene, having accepted Aditya’s invocation and as if it questioned her inability to accept what she saw. She shouted at the devotees, “This serenity is false.” Someone was saying, “There is no one with a voice who sings hymns like this child in any other temple.” “Did he say ‘child’?” She wondered if she heard it right. She did not realize when she had started to sob. Nobody looked at her. There were many in the crowd crying on hearing Aditya. Everyone thought that she was one of them. She got up and walked outside. She didn’t want to hear Aditya’a voice anymore. She wanted to take him somewhere far away, where she could see him run like other children and laugh the way they did.

SIX

“Aditya, are you ready? We have to go for the invocation of the Sun God.” “Yes, Baba,” Aditya said, adjusting his dhoti. The first rays of the sun touched the surface of the blue water of the Ganges, adding a golden yellow tinge. The river danced around throwing a million bubbles in the air. The air reverberated with the chants of mantras by priests, and it seemed as if the riverbank would turn into a mystic dance any moment. Banaras is the holiest city of the Hindus. Its skyline is dotted by ancient temples on the banks of the river Ganges. At dawn, since time immemorial, the banks of the river have reverberated with the reading of Vedic hymns by priests to propitiate the Sun God. Standing in knee-deep water in the river, the priests recite mantras and raise both hands toward the sun, holding copper vessels filled with water and then pouring it into the river. Aditya balanced his copper pot in his hand filled with water to the brim. Gayatri came and put a tilak  in the center of his forehead, making it a neat vertical line between his eyebrows. He adjusted his janeyu   around his chest. She looked at him. He was only eight but looked older because of his strong jawline. To her, Aditya seemed to have a face that was split in two, as if God’s hands had slipped while joining the two halves. Sometimes it looked to her as if one part of his face was feminine and the other masculine. It made him look unusually handsome. But it was Aditya’s eyes that attracted everyone’s attention. They were unusually deep set and large. Whoever he would look at would feel his compassion. Gayatri gave him two leaves from the peepul tree to put on the copper pot and said, “Don’t go into the deep water. Stay next to your father.”

“Ma, don’t worry so much. I can take care of myself.” She smiled at his assurance. “You get lost in reciting hymns. That’s why.” She watched them go, Aditya balancing his copper pot and her husband who seemed to be in a hurry. She waved at Aditya as she saw him looking back at her. Father and son walked down the stone steps of the banks. As the cold water wet his dhoti and touched his stomach, Aditya felt a chill. He watched as his father raised the copper pot above his head and asked him to do the same. “Now say the hymn after me,” he said. “Asato ma sadgamaya, tamaso ma…” The water rose and briefly touched his chest. He moved back into the shallows a little. He felt the sand below his feet shift. The chants of the different mantras reverberated in his ears, as if they would erase his separateness from the world. “Soham asmi,”   the voices of the priests rang in his ears as the sun looked bright and rose higher. “Soham is the primordial sound with which the universe began. It will remove all weaknesses from your mind,” his father was saying. “Baba, I feel dizzy,” he said, trying to hold his hand. “So many boys pray without complaining.” His father withdrew his hand. Aditya felt his head swirl. The river, the sky, the banks, all suddenly seemed to vanish before his eyes. The sun suddenly looked like a giant fireball filling up the horizon. He felt as if the current underneath carried him away from his father, from everything. “Baba, hold me,” he cried as his legs went weak and he fell. He saw his copper pot being pulled away by the waves and his father far away on the bank, his eyes still closed, unaware that his son had been swept away. None of the priests on the bank noticed. Everybody’s eyes were closed, absorbed in their singing. Aditya felt tossed and turned by the water as if it was saying that whosoever comes in its way would be crushed by the madness of its flow. The water filled Aditya’s mouth and nose, making him gasp for breath. He tried to cough and spit it out; instead, he felt more water gush into his

mouth. His hands and feet could resist no more against the might of the waves. He felt they were going limp and as if they would be severed from his body. The sound of the running water burst against his eardrums like a giant ringing bell. He tried to throw his hands in the air, trying to find something to hold. Instead, the water crushed him like a giant wheel from above, pushing him below the waves. Suddenly he felt a pair of hands grip his shoulders, pulling him away from what felt like his legs hitting against a giant rock. He tried to open his eyes but couldn’t. More water gushed into his stomach and he choked and felt as if he would stop breathing any moment. Then as suddenly as he was swept away, he felt the cold stones of the riverbank below him and heard voices. One of them was of his father. “He is alive,” a voice was saying. Someone rolled his head to one side. When he opened his eyes, his father was bent over him, crying. Several priests stood around comforting him. “Thank Mahadev, you are alive!” he said as Aditya opened his eyes. “What answer would I have given to your mother!” Aditya tried to get up, but the other priests stopped him. “Keep lying. There is still a lot of water in your stomach.” “Who pulled me out of the water?” he asked. “That boy over there in the red shorts,” someone said. Aditya saw a boy, of the same height as himself, standing on the lowest step of the bank. He was thin, dark, and looked as if unsure of what to do next. “Why is he standing so far away? Please call him,” said Aditya. He had seen the boy before. There were several of them belonging to the untouchable caste and who waited for coins to be thrown into the Ganges. Then they would jump to retrieve the coins. If the boy hadn’t seen him or decided to fetch a coin instead, he would have been washed away by the river. The boy stood there unmoving. Aditya understood. “He thinks he would pollute us.” Aditya gestured him to come. “Come here,” he tried to speak as loudly as he could. The boy pretended he hadn’t heard and looked away. “Don’t ask him to come near you. I will give him some money.” Aditya looked at his father. Even though the boy had saved his life, he still

remained an untouchable who could not come near his son. “Give him some money. That is what he wants,” one of the priests from a nearby temple said, with a twist to his mouth. “No, Baba, let me go to him first.” Seeing Aditya get up, the boy jumped in the river and swam away. “See, he went away for some more coins,” someone said. Aditya sat up holding his chin. “He is scared that he made me impure by holding me for so long. The priests will punish him.” “He is an untouchable. He doesn’t have feelings and won’t understand gratitude,” his father said. The other priests nodded in agreement. “But, Baba, he jumped in the river and saved me. Why would he do it if he didn’t have any feelings? I am not a coin.” “Let’s go back,” his father said with a frown on his face. “I don’t want my son teaching me about untouchables in front of other priests.” As they came back, Aditya told Gayatri about the incident. “Ma, I couldn’t thank that boy. Nobody told him to do it. Why did he save me then?” “He did it because he couldn’t see you drown, beta.” “Brahman priests are so learned, Ma, then why do they call some people untouchables?” “What are you trying to say, Aditya?” “I won’t forget the eyes of that boy, Ma. He was not scared to jump in the river and pull me out, but he was scared to come near me.” “Beta, Brahmans have punished untouchables for centuries for coming near them.” “Ma, I don’t want to remain a Brahman. I can’t recite mantras to God inside a temple, then discriminate against people and call them untouchables outside.” Next day, his father kept his eyes open till Aditya finished his prayers. “Aditya, don’t close your eyes for so long when you are in the river.” “Baba, I do not feel any fear today.” He took the customary dip by putting his head underwater and then raised the copper pot toward the sun. His father said, “Now fold your hands and pray to all your ancestors, thanking them for giving you a second life.” “I want to thank the boy who saved me,” Aditya replied. “That’s not needed,” his father said, turning his face away.

“Now empty the copper pot into the river like this,” his father directed. “Your hands should be above the shoulders, and the water should fall steadily.” “Baba, you have told me this many times.” “You are reborn. You need to learn again from the beginning.” Aditya looked for the boy who had saved him. He was to be seen nowhere. As they walked back up to the temple, he said, “The Upanishads  tell us that in the same way the sun rises and illuminates the whole world with its elegant rays, a priest should elevate himself and make himself self-effulgent like the sun.” “Baba, why are you telling me all this again?” “He has polluted you, beta. All the priests in the temple want you to go through a shuddhi.  They have asked their children not to come near you till it is over. The story is spreading across Banaras.” “But, Baba, that boy gave me a new life,” he said, struggling to find the right words. “Don’t ever say that outside. Everyone will laugh at you. And when we go back, you have to recite the entire Shiv-strotra  again before Gurudev.” “Why are you forcing him to recite all the mantras again?” Gayatri had asked seeing him recite the mantras late into the night. “Gayatri, there is no bigger curse for a Brahman than to be held and saved by an untouchable. I have to tell the other priests that I have done all the rituals to erase his influence; otherwise, this incident will come in the way of his becoming a priest. And I don’t understand one thing. After this incident, he has begun to ask why Brahmans are considered superior to other castes.” In the temple it was Gurudev who took over. Aditya was given a new asana.  In the next months, Aditya saw that he was not welcome in the inner sanctum of the temple where he earlier had entered freely. One day, Mahesh, the son of another priest, told him that other priests of the temple were saying that it was better for a Brahman to be dead than be given a new lease of life by an untouchable. He told him that the untouchable who saved his life had run away because he was threatened by the priests. “The priests don’t want others to know of his heroism and don’t want to be reminded of it themselves. They blame you for it,” he added.

After three months, one day Gurudev raised his right hand, rotating the lamp in front of the deity of Mahadev one hundred and eight times, and said, “Now, the rituals for your purification are over. You thank Lord Shiva,” he said to Aditya. “I thank Lord Shiva for opening my eyes to the injustice in his name,” said Aditya as he began the rituals to appease the deities.

SEVEN

“Baba, is it true that three centuries ago the head priest of this temple jumped into the well here holding the Shivling and it still lies there?” Aditya asked as they entered the gates of Kashi Vishwanath, the holiest temple of the Hindus in Banaras. The mangal aarti  held before dawn was just over. A smell of roses and marigold flowers mixed with incense pervaded the air. “Who told you this?” his father asked, trying to keep his voice from rising. “Ma told me. She said that the forefathers had no other option but to kill themselves.” “Yes, the original Shivling is still lying at the bottom of the well.” “But why did the priest jump?” “Because that is how he could protect the Shivling from being destroyed by the invaders. That was a common practice in those days,” he said. “Now, we must go in the temple. It is an honor to be called by the most revered priest of Banaras. If you recite the mantras properly, he will make your future secure as a priest. Now can we go and meet the Acharya?   We are getting late.” Aditya and his father had come to the temple at the invitation of the Acharya. He had heard Aditya recite mantras on the riverbank and had expressed a wish to meet him. “Imagine the head priest of Kashi Vishwanath temple calling Aditya to hear his recitation. This will shut the mouths of all the priests who speak against us,” he had told Gayatri with a wide grin. They had waited till the Acharya finished his prayers and then being led to his room at the back of the temple. “Will you recite the Shiv-strotra for me, Aditya?” Acharya asked when they were seated in his room.

After Aditya had recited the Shiv-strotra, the Acharya said, “Lord Shiva has given him a divine voice. His invocation is the best I have heard in my life.” “Can I go and look around the temple, Acharya?” Aditya asked. “Yes, you may do that,” he said. “I will talk to your father about your future.” Aditya came back after some time. “What are the two towers next door to the temple?” His father glared at him. “Aditya, didn’t I tell you not to ask any irrelevant question?” “No, let him ask. They belong to a mosque, Aditya.” “How did a mosque get built next to the Kashi Vishwanath temple?” Aditya asked. “Aditya,” his father interrupted him, “we should go now and give Acharya some rest.” “No, let him ask. He is the first one to raise this question.” “Acharya, I walked around the temple and heard this sound. So, I walked out and saw these towers. I was about to go in when the temple guard came running to tell me not to go there.” “That is a mosque built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. He destroyed the original temple and built a mosque over it.” “In the whole of Banaras, he thought of only this place to build his mosque?” asked Aditya. “Yes, Aurangzeb did it to humiliate the Hindus.” “May I ask something? How do you feel praying next to a mosque, knowing it was built to humiliate Hindus?” “Acharya, forgive my son’s impertinence.” His father’s eyes said it all. “It was a mistake not to leave right after your recitation.” “You asked how I feel. Nobody asked me such a question before.” Acharya’s voice trailed off. “For a long time, I couldn’t look in that direction. Now, I feel it like a stone on my chest. I pretend every day that it does not exist. Do you know,” the Acharya continued, “when they attacked the temple, not only did the head priest jump into the well but also there is a story that all the priests of the temple were massacred.” “Why?” Aditya asked. “Because they refused to convert. In olden times, Hindu priests would put their arms around the deities to prevent them from being destroyed. The

invaders had to cut off the arms of the priests before they broke the idols. I have heard from my father that one of my ancestors died that way. He held onto the Shivling and then bled to death at the base of the deity.” “So being a Hindu priest in olden times was not easy.” “No, it wasn’t. The reverence that you feel in many Hindu temples is because of the sacrifices of priests.” “Do other temples of India also have similar histories?” Aditya asked. “Yes, in Mathura, the birthplace of Lord Sri Krishna and in Lord Rama’s Ayodha, the temples were destroyed and mosques built over them.” Krishna Narayan asked, “Can we go?” The Acharya didn’t hear him and continued. “Many years ago, I had met the head priest of Krishna janma-sthan.  He told me he feels the same way looking at the mosque next door.” When they came out of the temple, Krishna Narayan couldn’t control his anger. “I am disappointed in you. I thought you would ask him about the meaning of some difficult mantra, not how he feels praying next to the mosque. What, you don’t even answer me now; what are you looking at?” Aditya had stopped and was looking back. The temple and the mosque stood side by side in the distance. “Baba, they are both places of worship. If the mosque had been built without destroying the temple, they both would have looked magnificent together. But now they look…” He stopped. “But now they look what?” his father asked, crossing his arms. “This seems to be an insult to God,” Aditya said. “I pass this way so often. I never thought of it that way.” “Baba, the temple was razed to the ground and the mosque built over it to prove that one faith was superior to another. That is why.” When they came back to their home, Krishna Narayan narrated the whole incident to Gayatri. “I don’t understand this boy of yours. He only creates trouble by asking such questions. The Acharya wanted to discuss his future as a priest and he brought in this topic,” he said, unable to control himself. “Why did he ask such painful questions to the Acharya? Will he forget being hurt by a young boy?”

EIGHT

“How many times will you listen to the same story?” Gurudev shook his head and smiled. “I promise this is the last time.” He looked at Aditya. The longing gaze on his face and the locks of hair that fell by the side of his face together added to an expression that made it impossible for him to say no. With a sigh, he asked, “There are so many other stories, but you don’t want to hear them.” “I like it, that’s all.” Gurudev began. “Over three hundred years ago, our country was ruled by a cruel emperor called Aurangzeb. He killed his own brother Dara Shikoh, imprisoned his father Shahjehan, and became the emperor. Then he decided to convert India into an Islamic country.” “Why, Gurudev?” “Because he thought that if other countries could become Islamic, why not India where he, a Muslim, ruled? He imposed heavy taxes on Hindus called jajiya and enforced humiliating conditions so Hindus would give up their religion. He ordered his officers to bring one mound of janeyu in weight every day by killing or converting Hindus. Many Hindus were killed, and many gave in due to fear.” “Did he succeed?” “No. Aurangzeb’s cruelty frightened many, as he destroyed Hindu temples all over India. Wherever his armies went, they would build mosques over them. It is said that his armies would throw the deities under the stairs of the mosque so people would trample on them.” “Did it break the will of Hindus?” Aditya asked. “No. A large number of Hindus chose death over conversion, and Aurangzeb faced a dilemma. If Hindus chose to die, who would he rule over? He decided to try and convert all the pandits of Kashmir first.”

“Why?” asked Aditya. “Because Kashmir was the seat of Hinduism, and his belief was that if Kashmir could be converted, the rest of India would follow. He ordered his Governor in Kashmir that all the pandits of Kashmir be converted to Islam or be put to death. Hearing this, Pandit Kripa Ram, a prominent Kashmiri Pandit, along with a delegation of five hundred pandits, went to Guru Teg Bahadur, the ninth guru of the Sikhs, at Anandpur Sahib in Punjab.” “Why did they go to Guru Teg Bahadur?” “Because Guru Teg Bahadur was known as the protector of the weak. When the guru heard about their suffering, he felt disturbed. He said that a sacrifice was necessary to teach Aurangzeb a lesson. His son Guru Gobind Singh, who was only ten, heard him and said, ‘Who else but you can do that sacrifice.’” “He was my age and could say that to his own father?” Aditya said, widening his eyes. “Yes, beta, in olden days children took great responsibilities. Life was so brief.” “Then what happened?” “The guru told them to return and tell their governor, Iftikar Khan, that he should send this message to Aurangzeb—‘If you can convert the guru to Islam, then the whole of India will convert after him. But if you can’t, you would have to give up your dream of making India an Islamic country.’ On hearing this, Aurangzeb felt that his battle was won. Converting a single person would not be any problem. His name would be written in golden letters as the one who made India Islamic. “First the guru and his disciples were brought in front of the Qazi,  who threatened him with dire consequences if he didn’t embrace Islam. The guru listened to him with amusement and refused. “Then the guru was brought in the emperor’s court in chains. His presence brightened the royal court, making all the jewels look pale. Even though he stood on the ground, he appeared higher than the emperor, who sat above him on the throne. The guru looked majestic with his flowing beard, his eyes so powerful they could see through your soul. Aurangzeb couldn’t look him in the eye. “‘Teg Bahadur, you came here to embrace Islam,’ one of the emperor’s courtiers finally said to him.

“‘No, I didn’t,’ the guru thundered. ‘I said if you can convert me to Islam, then the whole of India will follow me, and if you can’t, you will give up your dream. Let’s see if you, Aurangzeb, have the power to do that today. I dare you to convert me. If you fail, you will stop the forced conversions of Hindus and the desecration of their temples.’ The silence was deafening. “‘Do you know whom you are talking to?’ one of the courtiers said, who finally found his voice. ‘If you embrace Islam, the emperor promises to give you a high post at this royal court, and you will be given many jewels and have the biggest harem in his kingdom.’ “The guru laughed. The pillars in the hall seemed to shake with his laughter. His laughter was like a lion’s roar. When Aurangzeb looked around, he saw his whole royal court sitting there frozen. “‘You fool,’ the guru thundered. ‘You think you can lure me in the name of God, the Almighty? You think if I call Him by another name, saying that is the only right path, then I acknowledge my path is wrong? Who led you to come to this mistaken conclusion?’” “How could the guru speak like this to the emperor?” Aditya asked. “Those who stand up for others and are the embodiment of dharma  develop such a quality.” “And he called the emperor a fool in front of everyone.” Aditya laughed. “Aurangzeb sat unable to utter a word. ‘History will not forget this day,’ his courtiers thought when the emperor of India looked so pathetic in front of an obscure guru. The guru continued. ‘God is one. Whatever name you call him, he is the same. Our paths take us to the same destination. We can call him by whatever name but need to do so without pride, conceit, or deceit, and you, Aurangzeb, are full of all three.’” “Why did the emperor remain so mute, unable to say anything?” Aditya asked. “Proud men lose their tongue when confronted by someone who speaks the truth,” said Gurudev. “The emperor said, ‘Can you show me a miracle to show that you are a holy man?’” “‘No, I will not do something foolish to convince you, Aurangzeb.’” “‘Then this is the last time I ask you. Will you convert or not?’”

“‘No, I will not. Not now, not ever. Even if my body is cut into thousand pieces.’” “The emperor had never felt so humiliated. Tomorrow the whole of India would know how the guru had refused his offer. Not only would his subjects laugh at him but also future generations. He spoke, ‘You fool, you stand in front of me in chains. I can put you to death before you can blink an eye.’” “‘Yes, you can, Aurangzeb. You can kill my body but not the spirit of my people. I have never seen someone more pathetic than you, Aurangzeb. You, the emperor of India, is acting like a beggar, begging me in front of your whole court.’ “‘Take him away. Torture him for forty days until he repents. If he does not, behead him so that only one drop of blood drips at a time,’ Aurangzeb screamed. ‘Then take the head of the guru around town so that everyone can see.’ “The guru laughed. ‘Who lost today, Aurangzeb? With all your might, you couldn’t convert a single unarmed man.’” “After several days, the guru was beheaded, and his head paraded around the town. Finally some of his disciples managed to take away his body and perform the last rites. Today the place where he was beheaded is called Gurudwara Sisganj, in Delhi.” “It would be wonderful to sit at the feet of such a master for a day,” Aditya said, his eyes moist. “Today, the world remembers the guru as the hind ki chadar.  There is no other example in history where a prophet gave his life to protect the people of another religion. The legend is that to avenge his humiliation, Aurangzeb wanted all Kashmiri pandits to be killed unless they convert to Islam.” “Gurudev, each time I hear this story, I try to imagine what is Kashmir like.” “Oh Kashmir! There is no place like that on earth. Surrounded by snowcovered mountains, it has beautiful forests, rivers, and lakes, sitting by which you feel transported to another world. Hinduism reached its zenith here thousands of years ago. Saints came from far to meditate in its caves and wrote manuscripts on Hindu philosophy.” “Did you ever go to Kashmir?”

“Yes, I meditated in a cave near Amarnath. It was surrounded by snow all through the year. Then I came to this temple.” As Aditya got up to leave, he asked, “Gurudev, may I ask you a question?” “You may, Aditya.” “The guru was against all hatred, wasn’t he?” “Yes, he opposed hatred in the name of religion.” “Why do people hate? “Hatred is never born in a day. It lives for many years in the human heart before it develops a face.” “Can I try and become fearless like the guru?” “Yes. If you follow the path of dharma and never hurt any being, even an ant.” “Gurudev, Aurangzeb’s dream to make India Islamic—what happened to his dream?” “You will know one day. Now go. It is late.”

NINE

Anwar didn’t like to throw stones like other boys. “It can maim people,” he would say and walk away from his friends. Every day after the classes in the madrassa  were over, the boys would walk through the narrow lane next to the mosque and go to the orchards to pick up apples. Then they would enter the forest and look for eggs in birds’ nests. By late afternoon they would come back to the ground next to the mosque to play cricket or practice throwing stones at distant targets. His friends would protest when he would walk out. “But, Anwar, your stones seem to fly once they leave your hand.” In his thirteenth year, Anwar’s hands developed to be unusually strong for his age and they looked as if they belonged to a full grown man. Yet he remained soft spoken and barely raised his voice. Now it was his fourteenth birthday and Zeba, his sister, had sewn a green pheran  and a white pajama for him. When he wore it along with a skull cap, he looked lean and muscular and much older than his age. When he ran, he looked like a cat jumping over rocks. When his friends saw him rescue a lamb by climbing a steep precipice without fearing for his life and carry him in his arms to safety, they chose him as their leader. The boys also spread the story where he slapped a boy who tried to pull the lamb’s broken leg. After this, Anwar became known as one with a zameer   among the people. He had brought the lamb home and given it to Zeba. She had nursed his broken leg and nurtured him to wellness. “I will name him Noora, meaning light.” One afternoon when Anwar came back home early, he heard voices from their living room. “This would never happen in an Islamic Kashmir.”

His father, Haji chacha, and his father’s friends listened to the television newsreader, who said, “The body of a young girl was discovered yesterday morning near a stream by some nomads. They informed the police, who then took the body for postmortem and are carrying on an investigation.” “You son of a devil, what is there to investigate?” Haji chacha thundered, looking at the newsreader. “This television channel is another Indian mouthpiece. Just go and arrest these men who passed by that road that hour. If we Kashmiris had any self-respect, our police would be peeling their skins by now.” “Who passed by that road?” Anwar asked. “Beta, Indian troops keep going on that road all the time. Some of them must have played with her honor. When she would have threatened to expose them, they must have strangled her and thrown her body in the river.” The newsreader continued. “People have come out of their homes in large numbers and gone to protest at Lal Chowk.   The eyewitnesses have said that there were no clothes on her body.” “See now. It is all clear who did it.” Everybody in the room nodded in agreement. One of the men said, “This is an insult to the whole Kashmiri community.” “Abbu, we will go to Lal Chowk,” Anwar said. “No, beta, there may be trouble,” Imam saab said. “Won’t you join us?” Anwar asked as he saw Haji chacha walk away from them. He never joined them for demonstrations and neither did his sons who came from abroad during holidays. Anwar had once heard his father say that Haji chacha’s sons studied in an expensive school in London. “No, beta. I have some work. You go after the namaz. Just let me know if there is trouble.” Anwar came out of his home and saw Khalid’s father on the road before the mosque saying something to the boys. He was arguing with Haji chacha who was shouting at him, “Our boys are like lions. Don’t come in their path.” “Don’t go,” Khalid’s father was saying to the boys. “They are searching for young boys like you. Two army men were hit by stones while patrolling yesterday. One of them died and the other is seriously injured.”

“This has nothing to do with us,” Anwar protested. “But, beta, why go out now? Wait for things to cool down.” “He is right,” Haji chacha told him. “You all go,” he told the boys, “Khalid beta, you listen to your father. Go home.” “No, chacha, I want to...,” but stopped seeing his father’s face. As Anwar and the other boys left, Khalid’s father told Haji saab while leaving, “Haji saab, the day you send your own son to join this march, I will send my son too.” The boys walked to Lal Chowk and were joined by more boys coming from different directions. Some of them got on the roofs of buildings to plant Pakistani flags. Everyone got one rupee for that. Some of them shouted, “We want independence for Kashmir. Down with the Indian army.” Somebody in the crowd said, “The police have declared a curfew and are asking everyone to go indoors.” Anwar walked up to a building in the corner and climbed up the stairs. It was a vantage point from where he could see the whole square. He saw some of his friends in the crowd. He raised his hand and called out to them. He didn’t notice a photographer take his picture. Just then a section of the crowd started to move toward the police cordon and a stone hit the police officer. His face got smeared with blood. The policemen seeing their officer fall went berserk and beat up the people, making them run. More stones now hit the policemen and seemed to come from all directions. The square emptied out in no time. Those who could not run were taken away in police vans. Anwar climbed down the staircase and went home. He was glad he had escaped without being picked up by the police. Next day, Anwar saw a group of policemen enter his home. “Imam saab,” the policeman said, “is this the photograph of your son?” “Yes, he is my son, Anwar.” “What was he doing there in Lal Chowk?” “Well, he went to see what was happening.” “You see, he raised his hand. A photographer clicked his picture. At the same moment, a volley of stones was pelted at us and hit our senior officer.” “What does it mean?” “His raising the hand was meant to be a signal to start pelting stones. Photos don’t lie. His hand is raised in that direction at the same moment

when the attack on us began. This is the way stones are thrown at us every time,” the policeman replied. “We have been ordered to question him so he can tell us who asked him to give the signal.” He called Anwar. “Did anyone tell you to give any signal?” “What signal, Abbu? I raised my hand to call my friends on the terrace.” “See,” his father said, “you are wrongly accusing my son.” “He will have to come with us to the police station to answer more questions.” They were taken to a house on the outskirts of the town, not a police station. The senior officer was there with two other men and asked to speak to Anwar alone. When he didn’t hear any voice come from the room, he called out his son’s name. Not getting a response, he went in and found the room empty. They had taken him away quietly. When he tried to walk in the next room, he was stopped by the constable. He raised his voice. “You can’t hold my son like this!” “Kings, ministers, and imams wait here in line,” said the constable. Imam saab slapped him. “How dare you talk to me like that?” A man in uniform came out and restrained him. “Your son is coming. Just wait.” After an hour Anwar came out. He swayed from side to side, and his cheeks had red marks. His eyes were bloated. He lowered his trousers and showed red marks on his buttocks to his father. “Abbu, they beat me with a stick. Before coming out they took my thumbprint on a blank sheet.” “You rascal, call the officer!” Imam saab yelled. “Be glad that your son is going back alive,” the policeman outside the room said. It was then he felt a hand on his shoulders. It was his friend Haji saab. “I heard about it from the boys and came right over. Don’t fight with them. It is no use. Let’s take him away quietly before things get worse,” he said. It seemed to Imam saab that Haji saab was unusually hyper and was unable to stay still. He felt as if his eyes sparkled and gleamed looking at Anwar. He brushed the thought aside. “No, maybe he is just angry,” he thought.

Anwar became unconscious as the men carried him home. Haji chacha and his father sat by his bedside. Taking his thermometer, Imam saab saw Anwar had high fever. The doctor called it a police case and wouldn’t come. When Imam saab put a wet cloth on his forehead, he heard Anwar say, “Haji chacha, why didn’t they believe me?” Haji saab bent over Anwar and said, “Beta, do you understand now what I tell you boys every time? As long as Kashmir is ruled by infidels, they won’t believe you.” “Haji chacha, what will happen to me? They were so many and I was alone,” Anwar asked, his voice barely audible. “Beta, by tomorrow this injustice will reach the ears of every boy in the valley. The time has come for each of you to not think about yourself but rise and fight for azaadi. I am going to tell you boys about the battle of Badr. Fourteen hundred years have passed, but it still refreshes the faith of the Muslims.”

TEN

“I have made the rotis.  Can I go for my namaz now, Ammi?” As Zeba walked away, she sighed. “I don’t think if I had a daughter born from my own womb, she would have been as good as Zeba.” “As an imam, I couldn’t say no to Haji saab. My only concern is who will marry her knowing her past,” said Imam saab. “You have erased her past. And who could be a better father in the whole of Kashmir for an unwanted child than you, Imam saab? It will happen when they see her nature. Girls talk of nothing but film stars from Bollywood these days. I have observed she gets so lost in her namaz that she has no awareness of her surroundings.” Zeba only prayed for her nightmares to stop and wondered how they will stop. “I can’t talk about it with Ammi. She only takes me to the hakim.” Zeba hated the hakim. He would caress his white beard while he held her hand and smiled. Anwar would say, “Hakim saab holds the boys’ hands for a moment and knows what their illness is. With you, he takes hours.” She wished nights would never come. Sleeping next to Ammi, she would beg Allah to stop her nightmares. Once it was a face that came toward her and everything became red in color. Another time her hands and feet seemed cut off and separate from her body. She had wet her clothes and tiptoed to the bathroom. When she would wake up in the morning, her ammi would admonish her. “Koori,   you shouted again in your sleep. What will your future husband say?” The only time she felt good was in the madrassa. Their classes were held in a large hall, and thirty girls from the neighborhood sat on the floor. The teachers taught with a cane in their hand with which they would beat the girls from time to time. Zeba could answer any question quicker than

other girls. “It is because your abbu teaches you after school that you remember things better than us,” the other girls would say. Zeba would vehemently deny it. In class, they would read the holy Koran and their teacher would explain how a woman should follow the Islamic way of life. Zeba learned, “What separates the believers from the nonbelievers was following Shahada, the Muslim profession of faith, and it was one of the five pillars of Islam.” Their teacher taught them every day that Islam was the only true religion and Mohammed, his only true prophet. She learned the difference between a believer and a nonbeliever, between halal  and haram. Nonbelievers were called kafirs.  The teacher had outlined for them the verses about kafirs in the holy Koran and explained their meanings. “The holy Koran directs every true Muslim to deal in specific ways with kafirs,” he would warn the girls daily. Once during recess one of the girls had mentioned Lord Rama, the Hindu God, and how He went to the forest for fourteen years as an example of obedience to parents. She told this to her abbu, who had flown into a rage and ordered that girl to kneel down in the class holding her ears with her hands the whole day. “Never mention the God of infidels in the madrassa again,” he had ordered. Zeba had apologized to that girl, but the girls would not trust her anymore. “You betray our secrets to your father,” they would say. “No, I won’t do it again,” Zeba would protest and wonder how she could regain the trust of her classmates. The opportunity came in an unexpected way. One day her father was late in coming to the class. When Zeba walked in, she saw the girls huddled together over something. Seeing her, they became quiet. Aarzoo, their leader, tried to hide something under her bag. Zeba felt something snap in her. “Show me what you were looking at. Otherwise, I will tell abbu and he will get it out of you.” Seeing no escape, Aarzoo took it out. It was a poster of a man with his arms around a woman. Zeba had to admit the man was handsome. He stood with one leg on the log of a tree on the ground, looking at the sky. His clothes were so tight that she felt they would rip apart if he moved. Next to him was a beautiful woman who wore tight pants with a white blouse that revealed her cleavage.

“This movie was supposed to be released last week in Srinagar, and these posters were put up. But your Haji chacha said they would burn any movie hall that showed it. My brother managed to steal one.” Zeba couldn’t take her eyes off the man in the picture. The girls, so far tense, realized by looking at it for so long that she had become an accomplice. “Easy, Zeba, easy,” Aarzoo said, patting her back. A loud burst of laughter followed. “Now that you have seen the picture, don’t tell your abbu.” Aarzoo took it from her hands. “It would stop my coming here and get me a beating at home.” Zeba didn’t like her emotions being read so easily. So this is what they did at the madrassa when she or abbu were not around, realized Zeba. She laughed as hoarsely as she could, holding the picture. Waving at them dismissively, she remarked, “I will not tell abbu, but you will not do all this in the class again without me.” “We will not.” The girls nodded their heads, knowing what an ally they had made. “Where did you steal this from?” she asked Aarzoo. “I took it from under my brother’s pillow. He has a collection of posters of actresses of Hindi cinema. In some the women wear almost nothing, though he keeps them more secretly.” Zeba calculated if this had been going on in the class for at least six months, it meant twenty-four pictures in all, and she had missed all of them. “No, this cannot be allowed to happen again.” Finding courage, Aarzoo brought out the picture once again and said, “This man, he is considered the most handsome man in India, and this woman in his arms, she is a Muslim.” “What, how could a Muslim woman stand like that next to a man from another religion?” Zeba asked. “In films they do,” Aarzoo said, with an air of authority. “Then they must be married to each other,” Zeba said. A loud burst of laughter followed. “Did you say they are married, Zeba?” “Let there be insects in your mouths. What did I say that was so funny?” Zeba fumed. “Why don’t you become an actress, Zeba?” Aarzoo said. “If any one of us even thinks like that and our parents get to know, tomorrow we all will be married off to the first old man who walks by our home,” one of the girls said.

Another girl was going to say something when Zeba heard her abbu’s voice. “I hear my abbu’s voice,” Zeba warned. Instantly, all the girls returned to their seats and opened their copies. From that day onward, the picture came to haunt Zeba. She felt strange sensations in her body everytime she thought of the man. By the next day, she imagined herself standing next to the man, who told her she was more beautiful than the woman in the picture. Once while making the rotis, she began to imagine that the man was standing next to her and saying she made nice rotis. Her rotis got burned as a result. Another time, while washing clothes she imagined she was standing next to him and he was telling her that he would marry her. She had thrown a bucket of cold water over her head to stop the thoughts. The rotis in her home continued to burn and led Ammi to comment, “Koori, if your hands burn rotis like this, no man will marry you. A girl’s beauty is not her only asset.” For Zeba, her biggest asset was Anwar. He doted upon her and often took her out for picnics. One bright sunny day, they went to Dal Lake. There were families who walked around the boulevard, and there were several tourist vehicles. Zeba called out to Anwar from behind a tree when he had gone to buy ice cream. Then she ran with him holding the cones and chasing her. They had played this game many times. He would admit defeat and let her believe that she had won each time. That day as Zeba started to run, a boy came and stood in front of her. Anwar heard a commotion and saw Zeba trying to push him away. A policeman stood next to the boy. He ran and stood between them. The boy had a one-rupee note in his hand. “Boijan,  this boy insisted on taking a photograph. I told him not to, but he took out a coin and then called this policeman to click my picture.” Anwar slapped the boy. “You rascal.” The policeman came forward and slapped him hard. “Do you know he is the son of a minister?” “Bring your own sister and get a picture clicked,” Anwar shouted, getting up. “I will teach you a lesson,” the policeman said as he saw the crowd assemble, and he took the boy away in a jeep. After they left, Anwar asked, “Zeba, what happened?”

“This boy and his friends were staring at me. One of them came over and asked me to pose for a photograph with him. I told him to leave me alone. Then that boy said to me, ‘Do you know who I am? Even if you say no, I can do it.’” “Scoundrels, these boys from India,” Anwar said, his eyes red. “You are bleeding, boijan,” Zeba said. She got some ice from a vendor and put it on his nose. “Don’t trust any Indian again, Zeba,” Anwar said. When they came back, he told his father about the incident. The police came to their home the next day. They told Imam saab that a case was registered against Anwar for assault. There was no mention of the boy having asked Zeba for a photograph or the policeman having hit Anwar in the report. “You assaulted a minister’s son, when he protested at your sister making fun of him,” the policeman said, reading from the report. “Abbu, these are lies,” Anwar said. Imam saab asked one of the boys to call Haji saab. Haji saab came and said, “What do these people want?” “Anwar can apologize for his behavior and they will take the case back.” “It is he who should apologize, not me,” Anwar said, tightening his fist. Haji saab said, “I am calling an anti-India rally if you don’t go.” “No, don’t do that. We only wanted to assuage the minister’s ego.” “Abbu, what should one do when one is insulted?” Anwar asked when the policemen had left. “Beta, we must face those who hurt us with compassion and forgiveness —” Haji saab interrupted, “Enough, Imam saab. The only thing that worked was when I threatened them with an anti-India rally and green flags. The Indians understand only one language.”

ELEVEN

If there was one person Gayatri felt uncomfortable being around Aditya, it was Gurudev. He would be in the temple waiting for Aditya by dawn every day. From then on till the end of the prayers at night, he would supervise his recitation of mantras. He had taken up Aditya’s training from the age of five. She noticed that for Aditya, his mind revolved around what Gurudev told him. He would come back and say things such as “Ma, Gurudev taught me this mantra today. Even Baba doesn’t know it.” “Why is he teaching you all these mantras?” asked Gayatri. “I asked him, Ma. He said, ‘I will make you into such a priest of Lord Shiva that for generations no one will equal you.’ Ma, each mantra has a different meaning, but one thing puzzles me. It is as if…” He stopped and then said, “Gurudev tells me he has a purpose in teaching me all this and will tell me one day.” When Gayatri visited the temple, she felt Aditya was like a caged bird. “Isn’t it a little stifling for a boy to have no life apart from reading hymns in a temple?” she had asked Krishna Narayan. “Gayatri, Aditya as Gurudev’s disciple is the envy of every priest.” One day, as she heard loud voices of children playing behind their home, she felt she had had enough. It was late afternoon. She walked to the temple. Gurudev was teaching Aditya to repeat some verse from the Vedas. “Gurudev,” she mustered the courage to ask, “can Aditya not go out and play for some time?” Gurudev looked at her, his brows furrowed. “You, the mother of a Brahman priest, ask such a question?” He glared. She looked into Aditya’s eyes. “I am his mother. I gave him birth.” She didn’t know where she found the strength to go on. “I know that every night when he comes back from the temple, how lonely he feels.”

Gurudev crossed his arms. With eyes that were as cold as stone, he waved his hand at her and said, “The spiritual birth I am giving him is far higher than the physical birth you ever gave him.” Gayatri looked at him for a long time. How is it, she wondered, that despite all his wisdom, he doesn’t understand the pain of a mother? No, she won’t allow him to get away with it, she decided. She felt her eyes become soft and fill with an inner glow as she said, “A mother dies a thousand deaths for her child before any spiritual birth becomes possible.” “Go away,” he bellowed. “I will ask Krishna to talk to you.” That night, Krishna Narayan could not control himself. “Gayatri, Gurudev was so angry with you. What if he decides not to teach him?” Seeing Gayatri cry he said, “Gayatri, he has to be a good priest first. Only then we can be sure he will have a future in this temple.” Wiping her tears, she said, “The most that a mother wants to hear from her child is his laughter. Do you know how I feel when I hear the children in the ground play and laugh?” “Gayatri, they will remain ordinary priests unlike Aditya.” “If he has to be just a priest in this temple, why does he need to be such a scholar?” asked Gayatri. “Why don’t you ask Gurudev?” “I cannot ask him such a question.” That day, she lay in bed for a long time and couldn’t sleep. A panic gripped her. “What if Aditya doesn’t feel the physical urges that boys feel at his age? Would he then become celibate, unable to fall in love with a girl? What if, God forbid, he grows up to show no interest in women? There was even a term for them—chhakka—that she had heard for priests who became effeminate. “Does Gurudev ever tell you about women?” she asked him next day. What she heard made her feel like tearing her hair. Gurudev had told Aditya to stay celibate, saying it is the highest virtue for a man. She patted him on the head. “Tell me, what do you think of girls who come to the temple to pray?” She tried to sound like a friend. “Why, Ma?” He showed surprise. “Gurudev told me to look upon every woman as a mother.” Gayatri wanted to scream. No, this was something she would have to handle with sensitivity. She thought of a plan. Monday was the day when young girls came to the temple to pray for a husband. Many girls sat in front of the deities with

their parents. She had noticed that Gurudev would not be there during this time and neither would be her husband. Yes, that was the time when she would test if Aditya’s body acted naturally or was controlled by Gurudev. She chose a particularly attractive girl and sat next to her parents. She knew that her status as a priest’s mother gave her the unquestioned authority to ask personal questions of any devotee. As she spoke to them, she discovered that they belonged to a rich trader’s family and every proposal they got for her marriage was annulled for some reason. They came every Monday to propitiate Lord Shiva. First she said a silent prayer to Lord Shiva and asked forgiveness for what she was going to do. Then she called Aditya and asked him to take her into the inner enclosure for the priests and perform an entire ritual for the girl. She saw to it that the girl sat touching him. “Don’t worry,” she told the parents, “my son will say the prayers for her so as to remove all impediments for her marriage.” When the girl came out after an hour, her face told her half the story. She asked Aditya that night about his experience. “Ma, don’t ask me to do that again,” he said, his chin dipping down. “I could not remember the mantras today.” “Why, beta?” she asked. “Was the prayer difficult?” “No, Ma, I can recite the verses backward.” “Then what happened?” “Ma, I don’t remember how many times I forgot the verses. Finally I had to read from the book.” “Anything else?” she asked with a straight face. “Yes, Ma.” He glanced about as if looking for an escape and then said, “I wanted to stop reading the mantras and hold her hands. I am a priest. It is sinful for me to even think like that.” “No,” she said, smiling. “It was not sinful. One day you will find a girl with whom you would sit alone and hold her hand.” That night when Krishna Narayan came back and sat for dinner, he heard Gayatri hum a tune. “What is the matter?” he asked. “You act so different today.” “Gurudev has really seen to it that no one equals Aditya as a priest, but he is growing up to be a handsome man. His body is in a struggle with his desires.” “Oh that!” He chuckled. “All men go through that struggle.”

“It is more than that,” she said. “The way your Gurudev is raising him, his physical desires have become his enemies.”

TWELVE

Two months after Anwar was beaten at the police station, the men who had taken him away came to his home. Zeba saw them through the window. “Send Anwar out by the back door.” Imam saab went to meet them. “Imam saab, we have come to talk to you. You have to come with us.” “What more do you want?” he shouted. “You have destroyed my peace. Do you know my son cries in his sleep?” “We are sorry for that day and want to discuss something else. Our senior officer wants to talk to you. He himself would have come, but it would have raised eyebrows. So, he has requested you to come.” Telling his wife that he was going for some personal work, he left with the men and, in a while, reached a gray house on the outskirts of the town. He was joined by two burly men carrying an air of authority. “Imam saab,” one of them began, “we have heard about you. You are a man of peace. Our apologies for the misunderstanding and what happened to your son.” He couldn’t control his tears. “Your men beat up my son. Now, he believes I am a fool for talking of peace.” “Imam saab, we made a mistake and want that this incident be closed. We want to make a new beginning.” “What do you mean?” he asked. “How can I help?” “Imam saab, radicalization of youth is sweeping Kashmir Valley and mosques are its center. We have information that not everything is going all right in your mosque. Some people are asking youth to raise jihad. We just want that you give us the names of the young people who pray at your mosque.” “Why do you want their names?” he asked. “To prevent the youth of Kashmir from becoming militants.” “So that you can beat them like you beat Anwar.”

“Imam saab, we promise there will not be anymore beating. It is only the local policemen who sometimes become overzealous.” “Then first punish the men who beat up Anwar.” “We promise it will not happen again to Anwar.” “So you mean you will do it to others. No, I won’t agree to your proposal.” “Imam saab, we will drop the case against Anwar.” “I myself am against the use of mosques for militant activities, but I will never give out their names. The mosque is a religious place. I won’t allow any interference.” “Imam saab, we want your help.” “Only if you punish those who had beaten Anwar.” “We can only promise it won’t happen to him again.” “Then let’s consider this conversation closed. I leave.” “Then we will understand that you are against us.” Imam saab stood up. “I won’t betray my people. But I can tell you that my mosque will never become a hub of militants.” “All right, Imam saab, one last question. Where did you and Haji saab get the money to build this mosque? Besides, he spends too much time with the youth.” “Haji saab is my friend.” “Look, let’s strike a deal.” “What do you mean by a deal?” He got up. “Imam saab, please sit down,” one of them said. “We are not finished yet.” “Can you first tell me why you have chosen me?” “Because you are known as a man of peace.” “Your goal seems to be picking up youth and beating them like you beat Anwar. I leave.” He didn’t realize when he had reached home. “Abbu, you are shaking with rage,” Anwar said. “You didn’t come for the namaz.” Imam saab told him about the conversation. “They think I can be bought over. Every boy who comes to this madrassa is like my son.” “You did the right thing, Abbu. May I ask you a question? You always say that ours is a religion of peace. But Haji chacha tells us it is only for the believers. And he says that we shouldn’t treat infidels the same as believers.”

“No, beta, it is against humanity.” “That is where you are wrong, Abbu. You say as a true Muslim, I should forgive the men who beat me. I realize I should take revenge. Is taking revenge wrong, Abbu, even when the enemy is an infidel?” “Yes, beta.” “But this man who tried to buy you was an infidel. The men who beat me, who insulted you, were all infidels.” “Anwar, it is a difficult time. Inshallah,  it will pass.” “Abbu, even if I want to, I can’t face this everyday insult to our family. The other day some boys called me murga   and wiggled their backsides. Everyone knows what happened to me.” “Good people are exploited on this earth.” “Haji chacha tells me there is nothing called good and bad. It is only infidels versus us. I plan to teach the infidels a lesson.” “What is teaching a lesson?” “He told me a story. There was a boy in Palestine whose family was humiliated. In desperation, he picked up a stone and became a stone thrower. His stones would even stop tanks. He told me to become like that boy.” “Do you know his end?” “I don’t care, Abbu. He said when the hands of a child pick up a stone and throw it at the enemy after he takes the name of Allah, the stone becomes more lethal than a thousand bullets.” “It is violence, beta. It maims and kills.” “But Haji chacha said stone throwing is nonviolence. Each time we pick up a stone and throw it at the enemy, we tell them that we have a right over the land.” “This is the strangest thing I ever heard. What else did he say?” “Till Kashmir gets azaadi, we will continue our fight. By then we will become great warriors, and if we achieve martyrdom, we will go to Jannat.” “What do you understand by azaadi, Anwar?” “Haji chacha told us that azaadi is when our land will be free of infidels. He told us he has a dream that one day my friends and I will throw so many stones that the sky of Kashmir will turn black.”

THIRTEEN

As far as Zeba remembered, after finishing all the household chores, she would come to lie next to Ammi. Ammi would not talk or ask her about her day. It was as if she didn’t want to know how her day had been. In the madrassa, the girls would discuss how they talked with their ammis before going to bed. Sometimes Zeba made up stories about her ammi but then realized it didn’t work. The girls shared many secrets. “You know,” Aarzoo had said, “only yesterday my ammi told me that my abbu had a choice to marry someone more beautiful than her but he didn’t.” “Why?” the other girls had asked her. “Because he told my ammi it is the good nature in a woman that lasts. That beautiful girls don’t become happy in life. Beauty is only to be admired from a distance, but when it’s close, it destroys a man.” Saying this, Aarzoo had looked at Zeba. Zeba was forced to say, “Of course, beauty isn’t everything.” “But you know what? Most men aren’t like my abbu. They want only one thing in a woman,” another one said. “I overheard my ammi tell her friend that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but”—the girl lowered her voice—“then my ammi joked that a woman has to begin a little lower.” The girls had burst out laughing, while Zeba hadn’t understood the joke. She had tried to laugh to show she understood, but Aarzoo gave her a pat on the back, saying, “She is the only shareef  girl in our group. Don’t ruin her.” “Please don’t,” Zeba had protested. “It just takes me a moment to understand the kind of things you talk about,” she had declared. It was as if with the coming of adolescence, the girls in her class were forging a new relationship with their mothers. The mothers who had stored

up many feelings had started sharing them with their daughters, now coming of age. “My ammi told me when I was born, everyone cursed her for producing a girl. But my abbu was very happy, because he secretly wanted a girl. Both of them cried in front of every relative to show they were disappointed,” said one of the girls. “What about you, Zeba? Doesn’t your ammi talk to you about anything?” This was too much for Zeba. Every day she would sit and listen to other girls talk among themselves of their growing affinity with their mothers. She wondered why her ammi never tried to be close to her. “No, I won’t be left out,” she told herself. She decided the next day she would finish all her work early and would ask ammi about her childhood. “Ammi, can you tell me what was it like for you when I was born?” she asked, snuggling to her. Ammi’s response made Zeba at a loss for words. “Allah, this girl doesn’t let me lie down in peace even for two minutes. You were born, that is it. Why rake it up?” Zeba felt tears well up. Ammi was saying, “A girl is born and that is the end of her. After that when she opens her eyes, she has to learn three things: how to cook, how to produce sons, and how to see her man doesn’t run to other women.” “But, Ammi—” She had found her voice. “Enough! A woman shouldn’t ask about her past. It makes her conceited.” Zeba had not been able to listen anymore. Next morning before going to the madrassa, she had wiped her face. Her eyes were red with crying. “No,” she told herself, “I will never ask questions again.” While taking tea for Abbu, she had decided to keep quiet about the incident. The door was closed. It was unusual. He never closed the door. She listened with her ears against the door. Inside Ammi was saying, “I had to stop her from thinking about her past.” “But you could have been gentle with her, begum,” he said. “Imam saab, you have to speak to girls in a way so they don’t develop a swollen head. And this one is too beautiful. A girl of her background should be shown her place. The seed that gives birth to such girls does not…” Zeba couldn’t hear anymore, as her voice dropped.

“What do they mean by my background? And what do they mean by seeds that give birth?” No, she would have to find out the meaning of what she had overheard.

FOURTEEN

In the afternoon Jagat came and said, “Gurudev wants you to come to his room now.” Gurudev was sitting in meditation when he walked in. “You called me, Gurudev.” He bowed to him. “Aditya, many years ago, you loved to listen to a story where Guru Teg Bahadur was beheaded by Aurangzeb. I always said when the time comes, I will tell you the rest of the story. What do you think must have happened to Aurangzeb after the guru refused to convert and was beheaded?” “The emperor would have lost face,” said Aditya. “Yes, legend is that Aurangzeb flew into a rage and ordered the destruction of temples in his kingdom. His advisers, to assuage his anger, ordered that the Kashmiri pandits, led by Pandit Kripa Ram, be taught a lesson. One of his generals, Darab Khan, was sent to Kashmir.” He took out a manuscript. When Aditya touched it, it seemed to crumble. “This describes a massacre that took place three hundred years ago. This is the only copy of the letter written by Vishnu Narayan, a Kashmiri pandit.” Aditya saw it was written by hand in Sanskrit in large letters. The date on it was almost illegible. Aditya began to read, and it was as follows: Shiv Shankar Temple, Banaras I, Pandit Vishnu Narayan, write this in Banaras to recount the tragic events of the night of the third day of the lunar month of Magh in 1676. This month the atmosphere in Kashmir Valley was tense with the martyrdom of Guru Teg Bahadur. There was a fear that the army of Aurangzeb would come to extract revenge for this insult to the emperor. On that night, when the snow began to melt, a large army began to search for Pandit Kripa Ram. Not finding him, they ordered the inhabitants

to gather on the grounds in front of the temple. The general ordered them to hand over Pandit Kripa Ram. He asked all the inhabitants to convert to Islam or face death. There were a few hundred people. Everyone refused. When my brother, Pandit Maheshwar Narayan, heard that the temple was surrounded by soldiers, he said to me, ‘Your sister-in-law is expecting a child. Take her to a safe place.’ One group of soldiers went up to my brother, who was praying before the Shivling. They asked him to stop. When he didn’t, they dragged him out in front of the crowd. The soldiers then shattered the Shivling and threw the other deities down. Then they hauled large deodar-tree logs inside the temple and set them on fire. As the heat built up, the choona  and the soorkee  in the walls of the temple cracked. The roof of the temple collapsed, raising a cloud of dust. Just then, as if by divine intervention, there arose a thunderstorm. Then my brother’s wife and I took advantage of the confusion. After many days we came to Banaras, where she gave birth to a son. Aurangzeb’s forces could not find us. My brother was beheaded. The people seeing their beloved priest killed, refused to convert, and chose to die. The women committed suicide by consuming poison. After giving birth, my brother’s wife jumped in the Ganges, as she couldn’t face the death of her husband. His child grew up in the care of the temple head priest, who kept his identity secret. I hope that this letter reaches our descendant one day and he knows the truth of our family. The unfortunate brother. “The priest was not a coward, and neither was his brother,” Aditya said, his eyes wet. “It is because of the brother that the priest’s family didn’t die.” “Your family is the descendant of that priest whose head was beheaded.” “My father told me that my ancestors ran away from Kashmir,” Aditya’s said, without any emotion. “You don’t feel anything when I tell you who your ancestor was?” Gurudev asked, puzzled. “No, Gurudev.”

Gurudev sighed. Aditya rarely expressed any feelings about himself. At times like this, he felt that Aditya was very lonely inside and someone who would always be this way. He felt his throat go dry and simply said, “Yes, the priest who was killed for not converting was your ancestor.” “Gurudev, many of my ancestors went insane, why?” “Your ancestors, including your father, saw this letter. But none of them showed the courage to go back and rebuild the temple. Many say it led to a curse by the deities on your family.” “Why should this temple be built again?” “If this temple survives, Hinduism will survive in Kashmir.” “What was my ancestor like, Gurudev?” “He was a priest with a tremendous courage.” “Why did you tell me this story now, Gurudev?” “It is time for you to give your gurudakshina.  Tomorrow morning after the sun rises, I will ask you.”

FIFTEEN

Aditya had come back home and told his mother about Gurudev’s story. “What could he ask for, Ma, as gurudakshina?” Now he had taken a bath and gone to Gurudev’s room, his shoulderlength hair dripping with water. He saw Gurudev sitting in meditation, his eyes closed. Sensing Aditya, he motioned him to sit down next to him. When he opened his eyes, he said, “Aditya, I want you to go to Kashmir, to the temple of your ancestors, and begin prayers in that temple again to give hope.” “Can I, a priest, also give hope?” “In olden times, the priests held the society together. Over centuries, the society forgot their contribution.” “After three hundred years, I go back to this temple to give hope to whom?” Aditya asked. “Your going back will connect the people to their forgotten history.” “Gurudev, there are so many other temples. They also don’t have priests. Why this one?” “This temple symbolizes the struggle of the Hindus of Kashmir.” Seeing Aditya’s face he replied, “Aditya, in the last one thousand years, many Hindu temples were destroyed in our motherland. Priests like your ancestor gave their lives to protect their temples, and they remain sacred due to their martyrdom. Your going back will remind everyone of their sacrifices.” “But, Gurudev, everyone has forgotten about that obscure temple. Is it necessary to raise memories of their martyrdom now? Hasn’t the world moved on?” “Aditya, a society never moves on till the grief of its people remains buried in memory.” “Gurudev, I understand the priest’s role is to do prayers.”

“When your dharma is under attack, it is the priest’s role to move away from doing prayers and remove adharma  from society.” “Can the destroying of temples cause so much pain?” “When in every city, in every village, temples were destroyed in front of its people, their souls died in front of them.” “In all these years, you taught me that there is nothing higher than to search for Brahman, the ultimate reality inside us.” “Remember Lord Krishna’s message to Arjuna in Bhagavad Gita? Arjuna discovered the essence of Brahman on a battlefield.” “Why were so many temples destroyed in India?” “Muslim invaders faced a dilemma when they came to India. They saw that Hindus see God in everything, even animals, stones, and trees. They found it offensive.” After Aditya left, Gurudev sat in silence. There was no other way to get Aditya to go. The Acharya of the Kashi Vishwanath temple had called on him. “The priests have complained to me that he is disturbing the sanctity of the temple and giving a bad name to the priesthood through asking questions.” “My heart says I am punishing him, and what if he refuses?” “To make it certain he can’t refuse, ask it as a gurudakshina. You won’t regret it then.”

SIXTEEN

“Stop the vehicle; I sense danger ahead,” the army captain told Abdul, his driver. They had been traveling through the countryside of Kashmir near Srinagar. They had chatted on the way about their respective families. Now they passed through a pine forest. Smell of fresh cones filled the air. As their convoy of jeeps came to a halt, they heard the rustle of leaves and the sound of feet running away. “How do you know they are there, sir?” his driver asked as he pulled up to the side. All the vehicles behind him stopped. The massive chinar and deodar trees on both sides of the road swayed in the breeze, with the chirping of birds suddenly turning silent. “Call it the army man’s instinct. You will notice an unnatural silence as if the smallest movement of insects around you has ceased,” the captain said. “You know it too well, sir,” Abdul remarked, his shoulders hunching slightly. “Now shall we move?” Abdul asked. “No, first get down to check the vehicle. Their informer will feel that there is a problem with the vehicle and that is why we have stopped. Send a wireless message to the vehicles behind to send some men to ambush them from the right side. And yes, give me a helmet.” When his driver came back, he told him to start the vehicle. “We will go at normal speed,” he declared. “Sir, why don’t we wait for our men to pick up the boys?” “If we do that, they will cry innocence in front of the world.” “Who motivates these young boys to take up stones?” the driver asked. “This is Kashmiri politics, Abdul. Now, let’s go and get ready for some action.”

As the military vehicles crossed the bend ahead in the road, a stone came and struck their windshield. It made a small circle with cracked lines all over the window. A second stone followed and hit the window. Some splinters of glass flew inside, making the men cover their eyes. Forgetting his training, Abdul braked. The vehicle swerved and stopped at the edge of the road. His hands were shaking. “Do you have a problem?” the captain asked. There was a stale odor in the air. “Sorry, sir, couldn’t control myself.” “Give me the wheel,” the captain ordered. Three of the vehicles behind had broken windshields. One of the drivers was bleeding. His deputy told him on the wireless, “We nabbed three of them. But their leader managed to escape.” As they got into the vehicle ready to restart, a boy stood in front of them on the road with a stone in each hand. “Shoot,” someone ordered. A volley of bullets whizzed past the boy. He didn’t move an inch. “Wait,” the captain said. He got down from the vehicle and walked up to the boy. “Give me the stones,” he ordered. The boy threw one at him, hitting him on the forehead. Before he could raise the other stone, the captain jumped on him and pinned him to the ground. With a rope he tied the boy’s hands behind his back. Two soldiers came up. One gave the boy a slap. A thin stream of blood trickled from his mouth. The vehicles now sped on. “Sir, I never imagined they would make me lose control like this.” “You don’t have to apologize, Abdul. The stones are more lethal than bullets. Stone throwers hide and hit vehicles so the driver loses balance and the vehicle skids down.” “Who teaches them this skill, sir?” “No one,” said the captain. “They learn it by hours of practice and are driven by a fanatic hatred. They believe they are on a mission guided by God.” “The one you caught says he is the son of an imam,” said the driver. “I have heard about him. He is called the stone thrower of Kashmir.” “Sir, when you talk to this boy, can I sit in with you?”

“Why?” he asked. “Just to see what he says.” The room in the corner of the army camp was a small one with four boys crouched in a corner. There was a stale odor coming from them. Their pajamas were wet. “Have they said anything?” the captain asked. “No, sir, they cry and ask us to let them go. We have made their backsides red.” “Didn’t I say there would be no beating?” the captain growled. “Sir, they spat on us and called us infidels and other filthy abuses.” “Learn to hold back. Now, take these three boys out and leave this one with me.” “All right, sir.” They saluted and walked out. “Sir will make a minced meat of that boy. His hands are like steel,” one of the men said. “I would have given electric shocks to their genitals for calling me a kafir.” The boy in front of the captain didn’t lower his gaze. The captain untied the ropes on his hands. As he straightened, he spat and muttered “kafir” under his breath. “No, Abdul, don’t raise your hands.” “Sir, he can’t say kafir to you.” “He is my son’s age. Let him.” The captain turned his attention to the boy. “Your father is an imam; is this what he taught you?” The boy didn’t answer. “How is it that you throw stones when your father is a man of peace?” “You are kafirs, that’s why,” the boy replied. “Sir, this boy is the most violent of them,” Abdul added. “He leads teams of stone throwers who throw stones at the army at every opportunity. Sometime back, he hit the driver of a convoy, leading him to lose control, and the jeep fell into a ravine. Two of our men died, sir.” The boy made a gesture. He wanted to go to the bathroom. “I will get your urine out here, you rascal,” Abdul bellowed. “Sir, why are you even talking to him? These boys hit us with stones at the slightest opportunity and cry victim when we catch them. In the last thirty years, these Kashmiris never supported us in any of the wars. Many of them

collaborate with Pakistanis and actively fight against our men. Yet they expect that we continue to feed them, give them all amenities. These boys are shameless. If we leave them, they will go back and start throwing stones at us again. Their elders will not stop them or even say anything. Why show mercy toward such people?” “Every word you are saying, Abdul, is true. Yet, if we hate him, he will become more committed to his cause.” “Sir, this boy was picked up by the police sometime ago on suspicion of inciting a mob and was beaten up. Later he was found to be innocent. But that is not true of everyone.” “Did your father teach you to be violent?” asked the captain, turning his attention to the boy. “No. He-he didn’t.” “I see. Did you signal to your friends to start throwing the stones?” “No, I didn’t.” “Did you become a stone thrower to take revenge?” the captain asked. “No, it was the humiliation of my abbu,” the boy said. “So, you don’t hit for revenge,” said the captain. The boy smiled. “No. It is a holy war. Allah is on our side.” He put his hand on his shoulder. “Your stone hit me here.” He took off his cap. There was a gash of blood that had begun to dry on one side of his forehead. The captain took out a photograph. “My son,” he said, “was your age. Once I fell down trying to save him and got this wound. Now, I will have two marks on my forehead.” “I am not your son,” the boy said. “The blood that fell is the same. Now go.” “I will not go without my friends.” “You will all go,” said the captain. “Sir, why did you let him go?” “If I didn’t, I would have answered his hate with more hate. My heart says this boy will change.” “How, sir, do such boys change?” “They do. Mind you, he came in front of our vehicle to face us, not run away leaving behind his friends. They stand together and hit us because they believe we have occupied their land.”

“Why don’t you tell our leaders in Delhi how the youth of the valley is getting alienated?” asked Abdul. “Who will listen? Didn’t you see it the other day? The Prime Minister was more bothered about why everyone didn’t turn up to welcome him at the airport.” “One last thing, sir. You mentioned your son. He must be very proud to have a father like you.” “My son did you say…” His voice trailed off. “Abdul, I used to be a very angry man. One day, I lost control over a small issue and hit him. He drove out in the rain on his bike and never came back. That is why we must listen to the voice of young men.”

SEVENTEEN

Aditya sat in front of the stone Shivling, his spine straight as a tree, as he had sat for the last sixteen years. It was Gurudev who would ask him to open a particular page of the Shastra   and read. But today Gurudev was unable to look him in the eye. Finally, he said, “Aditya, I have some bad news. A mosque was built next to the Adi Shankar temple two months ago.” “Would he take back his gurudakshina now?” he wondered. “But you told me there was only an empty ground next to the temple.” “A seer went to the Amarnath caves and came back that way. He saw a mosque built by the local people. He also saw an imam and his family live on the grounds next to the mosque.” “Why did they choose only that place to build the mosque?” “Maybe they felt that no one will ever come to rebuild the temple. This is something completely unexpected.” “Won’t it lead to conflict if we now try to build the temple?” Aditya asked, as he saw Gurudev being silent. “Maybe they will be able to stay back in Banaras after all and his mother will not fall sick,” thought Aditya. “It is not a new temple that you will build.” “Why don’t we build the temple elsewhere?” he asked, almost swallowing his words. “No, Aditya, you will build it nowhere else. The original inhabitants of the land have the first right over a place that belonged to their ancestors.” His voice was like a cracked whip. “Gurudev,” Aditya said, “going there to build a temple over the ruins was one thing. Building it next to a mosque will be dangerous.” “I understand, Aditya, it will not be easy for you to keep your promise. But remember that very history of Hinduism is one that of resilience against invaders. It is a struggle of Hindu priests against attempts to destroy their

temples, their faith, their prayers.” His voice became warm and unhurried as he spoke. “Hinduism is a religion that has faced annihilation many times but emerged stronger each time. You will remember that when you face any danger.” “Gurudev, why couldn’t my ancestor become a martyr despite giving his life? Was his sacrifice not courageous enough?” “No, in the eyes of the world, he remained responsible for the massacre of those people who died with him. And by not going back and rebuilding the temple, your forefathers didn’t bring glory to his sacrifice. You will change that when you go back.” “What if I too get killed there?” “The death that comes to redeem a promise is higher than a lifetime of prayers said from a heart filled with fear.” “Why do I feel that I may not succeed in fulfilling my duty?” Aditya said, lowering his head. “The weakness will disappear when you remind yourself of your ancestors’ courage. “My father said that I have accepted your gurudakshina without asking him, that it is a ploy to get us out of Banaras. He says that if we go, Ma will die because of the harsh weather and I will be responsible for her death too. Only my mother said that I have made the right decision.” Gurudev sighed. Krishna Narayan had gone to all the priests and told them that they were being victimized and asked them to speak on his behalf to Gurudev. None of the other priests had agreed. Then Krishna Narayan had called Aditya a curse on him in front of everyone. He put his hand on Aditya’s shoulders and said, “You have to choose between upholding truth and your father’s trying to shame you. Your father didn’t even want you in this world. Ask your mother. She will tell you why he always hated you.”

EIGHTEEN

“Haji saab, are you sure the pandit family from Banaras will never come to stake a claim to the ruins?” “Not even in next seven generations. Even if they do come, they will see our mosque and then take the first train back home.” Making his voice lower, he said, “In a few years, these stone pillars will sink into the ground and we will have the rest of the land. I have worked it out.” Now he was going to meet Imam saab to tell him about the letter he had received from Banaras. It came from his friend from Banaras. It read as follows: Haji saab, as-salaam-alaikum. A pandit named Krishna Narayan, priest of a temple here, has been asked by his guru to go and restart the prayers in the ruins of the temple in Kashmir next to where you built the new mosque. The pandit is the descendant of the priest who was killed. Khuda hafiz. Yesterday, he had gone to the local land office after receiving the letter and asked for the land records of the ruins. On the map it showed the ruins of a temple. He then had gone to the collector. “If they want to build a temple, it will be difficult to oppose it. It will be difficult to justify why permission for the mosque was given and why permission for a temple should not be given that existed before,” he had advised. He had decided to come and share this with Imam saab. “As-salaam-alaikum,” said Imam saab. “So early in the morning?” “Wa-alaikum-salaam.   The matter is such that I had to come. The Hindus are coming next door to build a temple of Shiva.” “A temple next to our mosque? What do you mean?”

“See this letter,” said Haji saab. Imam saab read the letter. “Why worry then, Haji saab? Let them come.” “You are so naïve, Imam saab,” he said. “Can’t you see? It is not just this temple alone. Can a structure of infidels exist next to a mosque?” “Islamic scholars say that any structure belonging to another religion should be at least a stone’s throw from a mosque. Also this temple is small. The local Hindus go to another temple. I do not see this temple will make any difference to us.” “But what about their idols? Their singing and praying next to a mosque?” “There are many places where mosques exist next door to temples. And singing and dancing—well, we will tell them to do it inside without making a noise,” said Imam saab. “No, Imam saab, I see bad days coming. A holy mosque and a temple of infidels next to it? I feel I will throw up. While I say this, it reminds me that I should ask for money from my friends. The mosque must be bigger than the temple.” “It is not needed, Haji saab.” “Your heart is soft, Imam saab. Allah’s mosque should be bigger than anything around it.”

NINETEEN

Ramadan  had just finished. Anwar went to collect his eidi  when he heard Haji chacha say, “The Indians will take over Kashmir by removing article three-seventy.” Others in the room nodded. Anwar discovered their conversation was around the ongoing cricket match being shown on television between India and Pakistan. There would be a full room whenever there was a match between the two countries. Theirs was the only television in the neighborhood, donated by Haji saab. Everyone came to watch. Boys and girls came to watch Bollywood films and songs. Girls watched from behind a curtain. The busiest time would be when Bollywood films were screened. The older men’s favorite was Dilip Kumar. Haji chacha would lament, “Why did Dilip Kumar adopt a Hindu name? The greatest actor in the subcontinent and see how he lowered the honor of Muslims.” When dances from films were shown, Haji chacha would send Mir Qasim, his servant, to act as a censor. He would give a big thump on the table and say, “Close your eyes.” Everyone had to close their eyes whenever the heroine would gyrate and sway to the music. When the heroine jumped in the swimming pool wearing a bikini, the same routine would follow. “What will happen if we don’t close our eyes,” Anwar had asked, irritated at having shut his eyes endlessly. “Allah will make you blind,” Mir Qasim had thundered. “Do you know why he doesn’t switch off the television? Because he watches it himself. I watched the heroine swim and I didn’t go blind,” one of his friends said. Then there was the rain scene in most movies where the hero and the heroine would dance together. It was mandatory for everyone to close their eyes for the entire duration. The heroine would be wearing a white dress

that clung to her body. It would give Anwar a strange feeling. Watching the other boys, he knew that they experienced the same. Once Anwar had opened his eyes and seen Mir Qasim watching the heroine gyrating to music. “You rascal,” Anwar had thought. He had let out a guttural sound, startling Mir Qasim. Mir Qasim had scanned each boy but not been able to identify the culprit. He had complained to Haji saab, and as punishment, the boys had to miss television for two weeks. The elders would come to watch news. The channels were telecast from Delhi and sometimes from Pakistan. Today, he saw people sitting everywhere—on the couch, on the carpet. Zeba was serving kahwa   and bakirkhani.  Every time the Pakistani players shot a boundary, there was a loud cheer. When the Pakistani players got out, gloom settled and everyone talked of the unfairness of the empire. Just before the last shot, the Pakistani bowler stooped to pray. The Indian batsman folded his hands and looked up at the sky. “One is facing Mecca and the other is praying to his God Hanuman. Let’s see to whom the God listens.” The atmosphere in the room could be cut with a knife. As the ball touched the bat of the Indian batsman, he drove the ball to the boundary. A pall of gloom fell, and the men in the room became quiet. Haji saab lit a cigarette and threw a mouthful of smoke. “Shame on them. Can’t even defeat a cricket team?” There was loud cheer in the stadium as the Indian team received the trophy. Nobody cheered in the room. There were abuses for the Indian batsmen. “They must have paid the umpire; otherwise our brave players would have never lost. This is despite the captain of the Indian team being a Muslim. We Muslims don’t have unity,” Haji chacha analyzed the failure of the team. One of them said, “I have heard the captain is going around with a Hindu actress. She must be doing things to him at night so that he forgets who he plays for on the field.” Everyone clapped as the Indian captain fell from grace. “Muslim men shouldn’t go around with Hindu actresses. They lose their willpower to play,” Haji chacha added, and the laughter in the room doubled. The mood in the room was lighter now that the cause for the defeat of the Pakistani team was identified.

As Anwar got ready to leave, he heard, “Beta, there is something I need to tell you. There is a temple being built next to our mosque.” “Abbu told me, Chacha.” “Remember what I taught you about infidels? It is Allah’s will that your fight begins on your doorstep.” “I will cast terror in their hearts as it is commanded in the book,” Anwar said. “It is a priest, and he has a son who are coming next door. They won’t be a match for you.” “I will convert him to Islam, and if he doesn’t obey, I will drive them away from Kashmir.” Haji chacha looked him in the eye. In a steady low-pitched voice, he said, “Inshallah, you are fortunate. You no longer have to imagine an enemy. He will come right next door to you. Your struggle will be unique in the annals of jihad.” “Why, Chacha?” Anwar asked. “Because a warrior comes alive through knowing that his enemy is big, real, and more dangerous than he thought him to be.” “Am I going to be a warrior, Chacha?” It seemed to Anwar that Haji chacha had tightened his fists. Moving close to him and in a voice that was low pitched and rough, Haji chacha said, “The battle between two of you will not be one between just two individuals over a piece of land. Your victory will not only show to the world that our religion is dearer to Allah, but that a temple or, for that matter, any religious structure cannot be allowed to be next to a mosque. Where Allah’s words are recited, no other prayers of any other religion should be heard. Your victory will also put an end to the dreams of all those who want to build anything near a mosque. And every step you take to achieve this, you will remember that you are on the right path.” That evening Anwar took a round of the ruins and then, taking some stones in his hand, hit them at a spot where he imagined the priest would pray. That night, he dreamed a boy come out of the ruins. Anwar was the head of a group of boys, and they started to chase him with stones in their hands. The boy got terrified and was bleeding from his forehead as he ran. In his hand he carried a flame that he was trying to keep steady. Then the

walls of the ruin fell down behind them, making a great noise. Haji chacha was cheering him, and his father was asking him to stop. Then he didn’t see the boy anymore, as everything around him became dark.

TWENTY

“Where is Anwar? I haven’t seen him.” It was Javed, his best friend. They studied together in the same madrassa. “Oh, boijan! I thought he was with you playing cricket,” Zeba answered. “No, he hasn’t come to play with us.” “Then he must be with Haji chacha on the terrace.” “I will go and see,” Javed said. “No, don’t. Haji chacha doesn’t like it when anyone goes in there.” After Javed had waited for some time, he heard Haji chacha and Anwar come down the stairs. “Javed, you here?” Anwar asked as Haji chacha walked away. “I waited for you in the playground. When you didn’t come, I came to look for you,” he replied. “Haji chacha and I were having a talk.” “Haji chacha wasn’t happy to see me. What were you two talking about?” “Well, we talk about—” He stopped. “Promise me, you won’t tell anyone. He has been telling me about the history of Islam in Kashmir.” “He is telling you the history of Kashmir…alone…You were never the kind to take interest in Kashmir’s history.” “Well, he also talks about the injustices done to Muslims all over the world.” “But here, on the terrace…Tell him to do it on the ground with all of us.” “No,” a cry came out of Anwar’s mouth. “He has asked me not to talk about it with others right now, especially you.” “Anwar, why can’t he talk to all of us?”

“He has been telling me about how Islam spread in different countries. Today, he told me about Turkey. Once it was all Christian and became Islamic. Then he told me about Afghanistan. It was a Buddhist country and became Islamic. He said now it is our turn to make Kashmir Islamic. It was a dream that Sikandar Buttshikan began fulfilling five hundred years ago, and Aurangzeb almost achieved it. He told me it takes centuries before people turn Islamic, and it is Kashmir’s turn now.” He paused. “Haji chacha told me that the seventh and the last exodus of the pandits will make Kashmir an Islamic country. For this, we must make sure that all Kashmiri pandits leave the valley. He wants me to be the leader who brings about the seventh migration.” “So he plans to make the Hindus, Buddhist, Sikhs leave Kashmir.” “He said the time is ripe for them to leave. Nobody can stop us.” “Did he tell you why Hindus left the valley six times before?” “Yes, he did. He told me that our forefathers tried to establish an Islamic society. The Hindus didn’t agree so they left for the plains of India.” Javed said, “The pandits left because they were massacred for not converting.” “Who told you all this?” “My abbu. He told me in the first migration, Mir Syed ordered Hindus not to build houses near Muslim homes, and no temple was allowed to be built or the old ones repaired. Then another one Muhat Khan tried to stop their education and told them not to wear shoes,” Javed said. “Otherwise, why would people leave their homes to settle far away, in different parts of India as penniless beggars? And it is only the Kashmiri pandits who left each time, not Kashmiri Muslims.” “Haji chacha tells me the history of the seventh migration of Kashmiri pandits is what we will write. He believes that no one from India will come for their help,” Anwar told him. “Anwar, you have changed. Now you talk in a language full of terms like jihad, azaadi, and kafir,” Javed said. “What is wrong in that, Javed? I feel like a true Muslim now who has realized his path. I want to see that only Islam remains in Kashmir.” “Anwar, all religions have existed here for centuries. This has been the homeland for the Hindus and the Buddhists before Islam even came here. Why should they leave?” Javed asked. “Because Islam cannot exist with any other religion.”

“I see that Haji chacha is spending a lot of time with you.” Saying that Javed left. Anwar didn’t realize how long he had sat by himself when he heard Zeba’s voice. “Boijan, I overheard both of you.” “Javed is trying to change me, Zeba. But Haji chacha is the only one who understands my pain.” “Boijan, Haji chacha is exploiting you.” “Don’t say that again.” Then seeing her become quiet, he asked, “What are you thinking?” “In this upcoming battle with infidels that you talk about, I feel I will lose you,” she said. “That is your imagination, Zeba. We will build a new society in Kashmir and live happily. It will be like jannat.”

TWENTY ONE

“Aditya, the train has begun to move. You will fall if you stand,” Gayatri told him. “Just one more time, Ma,” he said, while stretching his hands and trying to balance himself. The three of them had waited for several hours before the train for Jammu arrived. They had sat in a corner, protecting their money and luggage. Now they found three seats in the train. “Ma, can I walk in the moving train?” Aditya asked. “Yes, just be careful.” After sometime Aditya said, “Ma, have you slept?” “Not yet.” “Ma, the seat in front is not occupied.” “So?” “I hope this seat remains vacant,” he said, sitting there. “From here I can the view outside.” Aditya’s luck changed at Kanpur railway station. When the train stopped, he heard a man say, “These are our seats.” With a sigh, he got up and gave the seat to the man. They were a middle-aged couple with two grown-up daughters. “My apologies. You woke up because of us.” He had a deep voice that resonated in the compartment. Aditya looked at the man again. His initial disappointment was replaced by awe. In his midforties, the man was tall, fair, and had a well-trimmed beard that added to his handsome face. He wore a long white shirt that fitted over his broad shoulders and came down to his knees over his white trousers. His daughters meanwhile helped him push the luggage under the seat. Aditya saw the name “Professor D. H. Baig, Vice Chancellor, University of Jammu” written on the suitcase.

As the train began to move, his elder daughter opened a book and started to read. Looking at him, Professor Baig asked, “Where are you going?” Professor Baig’s voice had a soothing tone. Aditya said, “My father and I are priests. We are going to a temple near Srinagar.” “Which temple?” he asked. “Adi Shankar temple,” said Aditya. “But that is a ruin. Nobody has prayed there for three centuries after its priest was beheaded,” Professor Baig said. “It was our ancestor who was beheaded,” Aditya said. Professor Baig gave a start. “Do you know there is a mosque next door to the temple now?” “Yes, we heard that.” “I have often passed by that temple. I never thought one day I would meet the descendant of that priest return to the temple.” Looking at Aditya, he asked, “Why did you make such a decision?” “My Gurudev asked for a gurudakshina. Gurudakshina is where a teacher asks his student to—” “I know what gurudakshina means,” he said. “To be honest, I can’t imagine a better gift for the Kashmiris.” “Why do you say that?” “When a man journeys back to his roots to be among his people, he heals a whole society.” Professor Baig sat up, his eyes shining. “Three hundred years is a long time. As a historian, I see why human memory is so powerful.” “I am afraid I don’t understand,” Aditya said. “Your going back will remind some people about one of the leastknown carnages of history,” said Professor Baig. “What is a carnage?” asked Aditya. “Will Durant has described the Islamic conquest of India as the bloodiest one in the history of mankind. The pain still lives on in the hearts of people.” “Even after so many centuries?” Professor Baig’s voice trailed off. “Religion has remained woven in the daily lives of the people in India. One night, when the mosque in our village was struck by lightning, the whole village, Hindus and Muslims, gathered around it and refused to move. Everyone wept. My mother along with other

women beat their chests, and the men observed maatam.   Nobody ate for days. It was as if someone had wounded the soul of the village.” “What are you trying to tell me?” “You will soon realize the pain of your people when you go.” “When I hear the history of my people, I feel despondent.” “Don’t let that discourage you. At places where life breaks us in two, it also leaves behind a gift to be opened later.” The train was moving past mustard fields. The green-and-yellowcolored field stretched as far as the eyes could see. Some children far away waved at the train. He waved back. “How can I learn about the history of Kashmir?” asked Aditya. “Through stories. Kashmiris preserved the stories of atrocities on them by word of mouth. Writing of atrocities by the rulers in medieval times invited certain death,” said Professor Baig. Aditya saw that the professor’s daughters listened to their conversation. Professor Baig noticed him look at them. “My two daughters, one is studying medicine and the other law, but they are interested in history.” “Can’t help it, Abbu. All our life we have grown up hearing about ruins,” his daughter said, raising her eyes from the book. Professor Baig waved his hand. “Tell me,” he asked, “how do you feel having been given this responsibility?” “It seems too big a task,” Aditya spoke up. “You are right. History tells us religious places of worship belonging to other faiths bring out one of the deepest fears in man. The two temples on a mount in Jerusalem were burned down. In the year 1009, Al Hakim, the caliph of Egypt, ordered the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity’s holiest sites. It is said for forty years after that, Christians were forbidden to enter there. In Afghanistan, Ghazan, the emperor destroyed Buddhist monasteries to wipe out Buddhism. In Gujarat, the Somnath temple was destroyed by Mahmud of Ghazni in the year 1024.” “Can you tell me anything about the temple we are going to?” Aditya asked. “Adi Shankar temple is a ruin and, like other famous temples of Kashmir, was destroyed and is situated at the base of a mountain. An old stone wall still exists as its boundary wall. The ground around it is surrounded by stone pillars and broken slabs. Sometime ago, the local

Muslims took over the land next to the ruins to build a mosque. There is a forest behind the ruins that extends up the mountain. Around a thousand people live in the village, mostly Muslims,” Professor Baig said. “You said the temples of Kashmir are in ruins?” Aditya asked, his eyes half closed. Professor Baig smiled. “Kashmir from time immemorial has been called the Soul of India. Kalhana in Rajtarangini wrote a thousand years ago that Kashmir is a teerth.  I say it is due to the meditation of thousands of saints over centuries. Do you know even today, the learned Brahmans of South India, when they get up in the morning, fold their hands toward Kashmir and say, ‘Namaste Saradadevi, Kashmira Mandala Vasini’   as they have done for thousands of years? When I stand near those temples, I feel as if the time stands still.” Professor Baig was going to say something more but stopped seeing Aditya. “You seem to be lost in thoughts.” “Is Adi Shankar a ruin or a temple?” asked Aditya. “The Hindus refer to it in the present tense. I am a historian, so I refer to it as a ruin.” “Which are the other temples in Kashmir?” “Oh yes, I forgot to tell you. There is Shankaracharya Temple built thousands of years ago on the hilltop. There is the Martanda temple built by Lalitaditya in the seventh century. Then there is the Avanti Pura built by Avanti Verman in the ninth century. Adi Shankar is a small temple but has the most tragic legend of all.” “I was thinking,” Aditya said, “of what you said. It seems the time has frozen memories in Kashmir and holds them in the hope that one day they will be heard.” “You think far beyond your age,” Professor Baig said. “Which school did you go to?” “I, well…” Aditya stumbled. “I wanted to but since I am a priest…” “And yet you speak like…” Professor Baig was about to say more, when his wife said something in his ears. “Oh, it is time for my namaz,” he told Aditya. “Yes. I would like to watch if you permit me,” Aditya asked. Aditya saw Professor Baig spread out a mat and stand straight on it with his hands to his ears. Then he bent forward and sat down folding his knees till he finished.

“Namaz must be read in a manner so that no one else can hear it,” his wife said. “Don’t try to listen to what he says. He will tell you the meaning when he finishes.” Professor Baig raised his hands, touched them over his navel, and then continued reading from the book. When he finished he got up and thanked the Almighty. “He reads it five times a day,” his wife said. “Yes, you can say that I am religious, like you,” Professor Baig quipped. “What were you saying?” asked Aditya. “Well, I first called Allah the most compassionate, the most merciful. Then I submitted myself to His will. Then I read from what is called surah and ayat, verses from our holy book,” explained Professor Baig. “When you pray to God, do you—” “We say that there is no God but Allah,” Professor Baig interrupted him. “This makes me feel…” “How does it make you feel?” Professor Baig asked. Aditya told him about his visit to Kashi Vishwanath Temple and what he had heard from Gurudev about Aurangzeb and Guru Teg Bahadur. “What Aurangzeb did to the Hindus was a crime against humanity. He thought he could convert the Hindus like in other countries. The trauma that Hindus feel today can be understood by knowing their history of how they survived the destruction of their temples.” “I had a certain notion of the Muslims, but after meeting you I realize how wrong I was,” Aditya said. “Then it was Allah’s will that we meet today.” Professor Baig’s voice trailed off. “Jammu station has come,” someone said. Professor Baig said, “Khuda hafiz.” He gave a slip of paper to Aditya. “My address. My doors will always be open for you.” Few minutes later, Aditya saw him come toward him with one of his daughters holding a bag. “I am so glad that you haven’t left,” he said. He took out some books from the bag. There was one on Lal Ded, a seventh-century poetess from Kashmir. There was a book on Buddha and another one on Gandhi. Professor Baig said, “We bought them at the bookstall.” Gayatri saw Aditya leaning forward to touch the books and hold them close. “I have never seen him do that,” she thought. Professor Baig also smiled to see Aditya do this. “I didn’t know you would like them so much. I will send you more books. And go and meet Ram Bhan.”

“Who is he?” Aditya asked. “He builds stone temples. He lives on the outskirts of Jammu in the mason’s colony. He used to come with me for excavations. His hands can play magic with stones.” “A very nice man,” Gayatri said after Professor Baig left. “Ma, I wonder about one thing.” “What is that?” she asked, puzzled by his tone. He lowered his voice. “Ma, when we pray to God, we call Him by different names. Does it make a difference to God?”

TWENTY TWO

Aditya knocked on the gates of the large three-story house. “Is Pandit Gangadhar at home today?” he asked. A young man came out. “Oh, it’s you again, Pandit saab.” “We thought we could meet Pandit Gangadhar,” said Aditya. “Wait here, I will check,” the man said. “He is so rude,” Aditya said to himself. “If it weren’t for my father’s suggestion, I wouldn’t be here.” The young man came out after some time and said, “Father is sleeping. Come another time.” Saying that he closed the door. The loud voices from inside had stopped. “All lies. Sleeping at this hour,” Aditya’s father said. “All right, let’s go back.” When they reached the end of the road, Aditya recalled that he had forgotten his umbrella. When Aditya returned to their gate, he saw two men outside and the young man he had spoken to. He was saying, “Hope they never come again.” “I forgot my umbrella,” Aditya said as he picked up his umbrella. The men had wanted to go in but realized it was too late. As Aditya started to leave, he heard one of them call him. “Pandit saab, you must be thinking what liars we are.” “We won’t come again,” said Aditya. “I am Pandit Gangadhar,” the elder one said. “Maybe I should tell you why I asked my son to say that I am sleeping.” “It is not necessary. We won’t come again,” said Aditya’s father. “Pandit saab, we are the descendants of the family who accompanied Pandit Kripa Ram to meet Guru Teg Bahadur. Your coming here brings back memories of a very tragic past.”

“But it is because of people like your ancestor who saved Hinduism in Kashmir,” said Aditya. “Today, it is seen as an act that brought calamity upon Kashmir.” “If he hadn’t gone to Guru Teg Bahadur, there would have been no Hindus left in India,” said Aditya. “Nobody sees it that way. But tell me why did you come to our home?” “We have gone to the homes of many people for support to build the temple.” “And how do you find their behavior toward you?” “Very disappointing,” Aditya blurted out. “When we go to their homes, most of them have closed the door on our face. Some say that the ruin should be left as it is.” “I will advise you one thing, Pandit saab. Don’t build this temple. Go back to Banaras.” “Why?” “Kashmiri pandits live in perpetual fear in this land. Haven’t you noticed? Your building the temple will only add to that fear.” When Aditya came back, he said to Gayatri, “Ma, one more person asked us to go back.” “Why don’t you ask Professor Baig? Remember, he said his doors would always be open for you.” Three days later, without telling anyone, Aditya took a bus to the university. He asked a student about Professor Baig, and the student looked at his priest’s clothes. “Do you have an appointment with him?” the student asked. The student brought him to a room with “Professor Baig” written on the door. A number of people waited with notebooks in hand. “Sir has a meeting with the Head of Departments right now. Who do I say wants to meet him?” “Tell him it’s Pandit Aditya Narayan. If he doesn’t remember me, then tell him we met on the train and—” The student cut him short. “I doubt if sir will meet you.” He wrote his name on a small chit and walked into the room. Aditya felt he had made a mistake in coming here. He was aware that the people were watching him with amusement because of his appearance. “At least I tried.” He didn’t know when he dozed off.

“Aditya.” He was shaken out of his slumber. “What a surprise!” The students around him stood in attention. It was Professor Baig. “Have you been waiting for long?” he asked. “I apologize,” Aditya fumbled. “I just walked in thinking you could spare some time.” “Of course, I will,” he said. “Let’s go to my room. Tell the professors that I will talk to them later,” he told his secretary. After they sat down, he remarked, “You seem discouraged, Aditya.” “Most Kashmiri pandits do not want me to rebuild the temple. They want me to leave.” “No, Aditya, you must build the temple. Large-scale violence affects the capacity of a society to remember and mourn for centuries. Today, you are asking people to remember something for which their ancestors were killed.” “What if they don’t want to remember their past?” “They will if you help them to create a space that heals.” “Why doesn’t the past just die or fade away from memory?” “The past never dies, Aditya. It lives in the bosom of memory, protected like a child.” “I don’t understand.” “The society three hundred years ago had to suppress its story for its survival. And your ancestor isn’t remembered as a martyr.” “Why didn’t anybody do that with my ancestor?” Aditya asked. “Kashmiri society at that time had no hope that their faith will survive. Who would think of creating a martyr in the midst of that? Hindus failed to create martyrdom, whereas Islam or Christianity succeeded. Also your going back raises the most traumatic event of medieval history—the breaking of the Hindu temples. When they were destroyed, the Hindus lost their sense of continuity. Everyone felt Hinduism would die, but it survived.” “Why are you saying all this?” “Because your task is to first awaken your people.” “I should tell you the reason why I feel I can’t do it. I feel I will be killed.” Professor Baig covered his face with his hands and lowered his head. Aditya said, “I only have one more question. Is the history of a people different from the memory they carry of their past?”

Professor Baig smiled. “History, Aditya, dies a thousand deaths, but not memory. Memory holds us together and gives us hope when wars, massacres tear our continuity apart. It is our memory that keeps alive the sacrifice of our heroes.” “You are a historian. Don’t you find it a problem to trust memory over history?” “No, their conflict is eternal. It is our memory that heals us, not history, from injustices of the past. History puts a blind on us, making us believe that we are prisoners. History is like an empress, angry with a whip in hand, who demands obedience to the written word. Memory is the mother who holds us in embrace, protecting us when our soul needs answers.” “I thought holding on to memory was painful.” “Sometimes it is not us who hold the memory. The air, the mountains, the land hold on to the story of its people. The pain comes because we resist learning the truth.” “I was on the verge of giving up.” Aditya walked out after taking leave of him. He looked at the sky. He felt as if his thoughts had scattered in a million pieces, leading to a warmth radiating inside him telling him not to despair.

TWENTY THREE

“The voice of a massacre is heard long after the graves of the dead have merged with the earth,” Ram Bhan said after hearing Aditya’s story. “And you bear a responsibility on behalf of the dead.” “What responsibility?” he asked. “Those who bring up the truth on behalf of the dead are considered vile for doing so. I would say don’t think of building the temple. Go back.” “No, I gave a promise before coming here,” Aditya said. “All promises can be broken. Building the temple can bring nothing but misfortune for you,” Ram Bhan said. Ram Bhan, the mason, was in his late fifties. He had built many stone temples in his life. He had grown used to being told that his hands made the architecture of the temple such that deities stayed forever in the statues. Aditya and his father had gone to him with the request to rebuild the temple. At first, he refused by saying, “Pandit saab, only the rich can afford to restore a stone temple for Lord Shiva in the present times.” Then he tried to dissuade them by bringing in the history of the temple. “Pandit saab, restoring this temple in Kashmir is full of danger. I have a family to look after.” “We have come with great hopes to you,” Aditya said. “Your money won’t even build four proper walls,” he said, looking at the money spread out in front of him. He had built many temples but never one where a young boy asked him to make a temple of Lord Shiva where the priest, his ancestor, was beheaded. It was going to be difficult to say no. He then saw his wife. He looked at her with relief that she would turn them away. “Of course, he will build this temple,” she said to Aditya. “You make the preparations. My husband will start work from next week.”

Then she said to a surprised Ram Bhan, “Take my jewels and add them for the money falling short. One thing, Pandit saab,” she said while Aditya and his father were leaving, “my husband will not take any money for this.” Ram Bhan was about to say something but kept quiet seeing her face. She had never spoken like this to any customer. “Your husband will work for free?” Krishna Narayan couldn’t believe his ears. “Yes,” she insisted. “The blessing of the deities who will be prayed to again will be enough.” When they had left, Ram Bhan followed his wife inside the house and saw her cry. He asked her why she came out to say that. “I imagined the destroyed temple and the deities lying on the ground and I thought of the risk this young boy is taking. After that I couldn’t stop myself.” After a week, Ram Bhan went and took a walk around the ruins and said, “We can make use of most of the fallen stones. I will have to use a mixture to join the material with the new stones so that it gets its old look.” Ram Bhan collected craftsmen and stonecutters and a few laborers to start the work. Aditya was taken aback by Ram Bhan’s knowledge of the Hindu Gods and Goddesses, his organizational skills, and his devotion to his craft. Ram Bhan taught him about the reverence in which temples were held by the people in ancient times. “I have built nearly a hundred temples in my life,” Ram Bhan said. “But this temple—I find it difficult to even stand before it.” “Why do you say that?” asked Aditya. Ram Bhan stood next to an upturned stone pillar, with its lower half in the ground. “This is the broken pillar of the temple, called cosmic pillar, on which the important dates regarding this temple are inscribed. There are six dates written on the pillar. There is something else written here. It says that a configuration of the planets will happen in the future and the temple will face danger around that date. The date is not legible.” “Tell me something,” Aditya asked, “did Hindus become scared of building new temples?” “Yes. In many places in the north of India, there were hardly any temples built in the last eight hundred years.” “Really?” Aditya asked.

“In Delhi, there are almost no medieval temples even though once it was a city of temples.” “How were temples built in olden times?” “They were built using shilpa shastras.   The masons were spiritual people who built temples in the Vedic philosophy. They paid attention to details such as creating a serenity within the temple and by the placement of the deities,” Ram Bhan said. “Even placement of the deities?” Aditya asked. “Yes, they had to take into account whether the deity was euphoric, quiet, or pensive. They would first take a copper plate written with Vedic script that they would then place below the main deity and then only build the temple around it.” “What about the people who worked there?” asked Aditya. “The masons worked as a team under the guidance of a master craftsman who had spent a lifetime understanding the deities and their relationship to the temple.” “What about the priests?” he asked. “The priests had many responsibilities. The uppermost one for many of them was to save it from invaders.” He sighed and said, “I feel that it may become your destiny, too, seeing the way things are developing in Kashmir.”

TWENTY FOUR

“Why has no one come for the prayer ceremony for removal of obstacles in rebuilding the temple?” Aditya asked. “Even if no one comes, we will go ahead and do the prayers,” Gayatri said. “Let me show you something,” said Ram Bhan. “This is the place in the temple where your ancestor would have sat and prayed.” He gestured to a space on the floor. “How do you know?” Aditya asked as he looked at the site that was now nothing more than a mark on the floor. “I am trying to make an image of the temple in my mind and the positions of the deities as it must have been when it was destroyed. This is the place where the Shivling would have been kept.” “How can you be certain?” Aditya asked him. “In earlier times, when a temple of Lord Shiva was built, all the deities were kept according to a configuration to create serenity and balance. The layout of Shiva’s temple hasn’t changed since the time of Adi Shankaracharya,” he said. “So this is the place where they would have asked him to convert by putting a sword to his neck?” “Yes, seems likely.” Aditya had imagined many times about the place where his ancestor was beheaded. “Baba, can we start the prayers at the same place?” he asked as they cleaned the place. “Aditya is right,” Gayatri spoke up. “We should start here.” “Why start with reminding everyone of a tragedy?” his father asked. “It was a martyrdom and not a tragedy. Won’t your ancestor want that we start from where he left?” Gayatri said. “All right, you start then,” said Krishna Narayan, looking away.

“You will pay homage to our ancestor first,” she said. “Ma, I get a heavy feeling as I sit here,” he said. Gayatri put her hand on her son. “Aditya, the spirits of all those who were martyred here will be with you.” She didn’t hear the voice of Ram Bhan speaking to her husband. “Have you seen them?” He pointed to a group of young boys. “Their eyes are on us.” Krishna Narayan saw them. They were a hundred yards away from the temple and hid their hands behind their back. Aditya prayed with his eyes closed, oblivious to everyone. Suddenly, a stone came and fell near Aditya. It was the size of a palm and had a sharp edge. Ram Bhan rushed and stood in front of him. “Aditya, get up. You can get hurt,” Krishna Narayan said. “Baba, my ancestor, did he ever get up?” “Aditya, listen to me. They will go away if we stop,” his father pleaded. “It would be an insult to my ancestor. Remember what you and Gurudev used to tell me? ‘A Brahman priest never gets up from his asana till he finishes his prayers.’” “Aditya, I said that in Banaras. This is Kashmir. Gayatri, at least will you listen to me?” Krishna Narayan pleaded. “All right,” Gayatri said, “I will ask them to let us pray in peace.” She went in their direction. The boys seeing her come toward them moved back. “No, Gayatri, don’t go toward them,” Krishna Narayan shouted. Nobody saw that a stone came and hit Aditya. He collapsed on the ground and a stream of blood oozed out from his forehead. Krishna Narayan ran back and put his arms around him. A second stone hit Aditya. “Cowards. What kind of people are you who throw stones at my son?” he shouted. Aditya lay limp in Krishna Narayan’s arms. With the help of Ram Bhan, he carried him to one side. He tore open his shirt and cleaned his wound. “Baba, I have almost finished. Only the last mantra is left,” he said. They read the last mantra together. That evening when Aditya came out, he saw scores of men walk out of the mosque after their evening prayers. Many of them looked with amusement as they walked by the temple. On the outside wall of the temple, someone had written “Kafir, go back.”

“How long will your temple last next to our grand mosque?” one of them said loudly. It was then that Aditya saw among the men a boy standing, his hands rolled in a fist, glaring at him. In his hand he held two stones, the kind that had hit him when he had started the prayers. Their eyes met and he vanished into the crowd.

TWENTY FIVE

“Where do you think you are going?” Anwar blocked Javed’s path. “You already know where I am going, Anwar, then why ask?” “Look, Javed, do you support a kafir over me?” “Has he offended you?” “Everything he does offends me. Remember he is an idolater with whom friendship is forbidden by Islam.” “I don’t divide the world like that, Anwar.” “But I do, and so do my friends.” Anwar gave a twist to his mouth; his jaw tightened. “Do you know everyone here says you are a traitor to the Kashmiris?” “I have heard that,” Javed said. “And still you won’t stop?” “No,” answered Javed. “Are you for or against azaadi, Javed? Make that clear to me before you leave.” “This azaadi of yours is not for getting freedom or justice. That already exists. Nothing that the people have here is being taken away forcibly from us by anyone. My abbu says there is an old Kashmiri legend about a man who jumped in a river because he saw a blanket floating, only to discover that it was a bear, but then when he wanted to leave it, the bear wouldn’t let him go. This explains the present crisis.” “But they did take me to the police station and beat me.” “That is your personal story. Two wrongs don’t make a right, Anwar.” “Then from today our paths do not meet anymore,” said Anwar. “That will be sad, Anwar, but I won’t be forced to accept anything that my heart knows is wrong.” “Javed, you have been my closest friend. We played cricket, roamed all over Srinagar, swam in the river, and stole apples. You will give it up for

the sake of an infidel?” “I am only going to meet him today to let him know he is welcome to his home.” “This is not his land.” “Anwar, this was his land once upon a time, and his ancestors were forced to leave.” As Anwar came back home, he told Zeba, “Javed has betrayed me for an infidel. He has gone to the temple to meet the priest.” When Javed turned into the gate and entered, he saw a woman watering the plants in front of the temple. “I am Javed,” he said. “I live a few houses down the road. I have come to meet your son.” “Aditya is still doing his prayers.” “Then let him finish. I will wait.” He sat below the chinar tree. “Who are you talking to, Ma?” he heard a voice. “Aditya, this is Javed,” Gayatri said. “He has come to meet you.” Javed saw a boy walk toward them. His first impression was that Aditya’s forehead was broad even though it was now covered with a bandage that was still red in places. He carried a lamp in his hands and kept blowing its flame upward. “Why don’t you both sit at the back of the temple and talk?” Gayatri suggested. “I will water the plants.” “So it is just the three of you here in the temple?” Javed asked. “Yes, my parents and me.” “Your temple looks beautiful.” “It is not as big as the mosque, though. The construction is still incomplete. The mason has made a makeshift home for us at the back.” “What made your family come back after three hundred years?” Aditya told him about his being a priest at the Banaras temple and Gurudev’s wish for a gurudakshina. “Tell me about yourself,” Aditya asked. “Well, I finished my madrassa. I now go to a local school.” “What do people here think of me?” “Everyone thought you would run away. Aren’t you scared?” “I shiver when I step out of the temple. I have nightmares of stones hitting me. We went to the police, but they didn’t help. To be honest I feel alone and scared here.” “How do you find the courage to stay on then?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “How do you find Kashmir?” Javed asked. “Everything is so beautiful. The mountains, the river, and the lake. But the people, they unnerve me.” “Why do you say so?” “I see Muslims behave as if Kashmir belongs to them and Hindus shouldn’t be here.” Then seeing Javed’s face, he stopped. “I apologize; I didn’t mean to hurt you.” “What you said is true.” “Javed, I see pandits stop to give way to Muslims on the streets. I just wonder. Pandits and Muslims have common ancestors. A few hundred years ago, all were Hindus. So that makes us brothers. Then why the conflict?” “Everyone in Kashmir maintains all is well between Hindus and Muslims and that we are good neighbors.” “But you didn’t answer my earlier question.” “Some other time. I will show you the neighborhood and the river. There is also a path that takes you straight through the mountains to the peak,” Javed said. “Then there is the Dal Lake, the Shalimar and Nishat gardens, and the Nagin Lake.” “Do you know of Battmazar?” Aditya asked. “Battmazar? Never heard of the place,” Javed said. “Who is Anwar?” Aditya asked. “Who doesn’t know Anwar!” Javed laughed. “He is your next-door neighbor and my friend. He is the one who hit you with stones and was staring at you yesterday after the Friday prayers. You saw him. He is my friend. No, no, don’t look suspicious. He didn’t send me.” “Why did he hit me?” “Because he wants to bring about an Islamic Kashmir and sees you as an infidel who has come to usurp his plans. For him you are a kafir.” “Kafir? What does that mean?” Aditya asked. “Muslims call those kafirs who don’t believe in Allah and Mohammad as his prophet. Just a request to you. There are times when we call for the azan every day, and on Fridays the road in front of the mosque gets to be full of people who come to pray. You will have to adjust by not doing your prayers at that time.” Suddenly the sun had hidden behind the clouds.

“This happens in Kashmir all the time. Wait, I will be back.” He went out and came back in some time. “I went home. Last month somebody gave me two pherans. They are a little big for me, but I think they will fit you. And here are two kangris  for you.” “No, I can’t take it. We have just met,” Aditya protested. “My father said these are gifts from us. Come, I will show you how to put hot coals in a kangri. You can even sleep with it, keeping it under your blanket after some practice. That will make you a true Kashmiri.” As Javed showed him and then prepared to go, Aditya asked, “You didn’t answer my question. Anwar doesn’t like you to meet me and still you came?” A call for azan came from the mosque next door. “Sometimes the sound of the azan echoes beautifully after it is reflected back by the mountains. I like to listen to it. I hope the same happens with the chiming of your temple bells too,” Javed said. “I have to go for my namaz. But does this sound of azan disturb you?” “Sometimes.” “But believe me you will get used to it. And remember I don’t share the views of Anwar.” Aditya saw him to the gate. That night when Gayatri walked in to change his bandages, she saw Aditya had worn the pheran and had lit the kangri. As she cleaned his wounds, he told her of the conversation and asked, “Ma, what do you think of Javed? He says he doesn’t support Anwar.” “My heart says you can trust him.”

TWENTY SIX

“Pandits from the neighborhood are talking about how even after being pelted with stones, you didn’t stop your prayers. Each family has decided to donate one gold ornament toward the cost of the temple,” said Ram Bhan. Next day Aditya saw a dozen Hindu men he hadn’t seen before standing outside with shovels. Seeing him, they bowed. “We have come to volunteer and dig the ground, Pandit saab. Please start your prayers.” Aditya recited, “We stand before you, Lord Shiva, the descendants of Pandit Maheshwar Narayan, who was beheaded here three hundred years ago. We seek permission to dig the ground by seeking blessings of those who died that night.” He then blew the conch shell. Ram Bhan was chosen as the leader. He asked everyone to clean up the ground by removing the shrubs and cutting the plants. It was decided to collect all the broken pieces of stone and join them later if possible. “We should also put all the inscriptions and pillars to one side, as we can use them later.” It was on the second day that one of the men digging the ground let out a cry. He had found a stone carving lodged in the ground showing Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati going in a procession. The color on it had faded but with some effort could be restored to being recognized. “Should we not inform the authorities?” someone said. “No,” the man who had dug it out said. “It belongs to us.” Ram Bhan meanwhile had excavated a pillar, and the stone slab was attached to it that lay half buried in the ground. They cleaned it with salt water. “It is strange, Pandit saab, despite being in the ground for so many years with all the snow and water, the color on these stones is not stained. It is like it was just painted yesterday,” one of the men said.

When they came the next day, they saw a hundred people waiting for them. The number of people increased every day. People came from faraway places, such as Sopore, Anantnag, and Ganderbal. By the end of third day, their number swelled to about five hundred. More people joined in each day. Some even brought their children, and the atmosphere began to turn into a mela. A father came with his two daughters. “My children for the first time asked me the history of the temple.” A statue of Goddess Parvati was brought out from the ground by a young man. Its hands were broken, and in place of eyes, there were holes. He raised his fists in the air. “Why did they do this?” Two boys dug out a stone slab. It was three feet long. It was in color, and it was the upper half of a Shivling, the lower part of which had sunk deep in the ground below a stone. He began to cry. It was the father of the boy who stopped him from digging further and said, “Pandit saab, let’s stop.” The other men refused to stop. “If we stop then how will the world know what happened on that day?” another man said. “Pandit saab,” he said, “seeing our deities in the ground, I can’t stop thinking how the invaders must have desecrated it.” On the fourth day, parts of what was once a huge stone Shivling came up. People bowed and touched the ground. A man took out a stone inscription. It was written in Sanskrit. “Ati adbhutam—hiranya kalasa sundaram.” Krishna Narayan translated it for everybody, saying, “It says it is too beautiful.” There were a number of tridents that came out. Many of them had discolorations on them. Next week, they put the stone pillars to one side. They were still clean and required some plaster to join them. When the cleaning was over, Ram Bhan took Krishna Narayan and Aditya to one side. “See these bags. They are full of human bones. Judging by the numbers, they must be of a few hundred people. They were lying covering a large area on a side. One boy discovered it. He didn’t tell the others.” “If this place is near a graveyard, how will we build a temple over it?” Krishna Narayan asked.

“You only see the deaths,” Gayatri joined them. “See them as martyrs. They gave their lives so that their temple would not be forgotten. The temple will remind people that it was built on a foundation,” Gayatri said. Ram Bhan worked every day for a month. He restored the walls, the floor, and the roof of the temple. “I have made many temples in my life,” Ram Bhan said. “My life’s work is over. I won’t be able to make any more temples.” Gayatri added, “Memory is the keeper of our conscience.” Then seeing Aditya’s puzzled face, she smiled and said, “Tomorrow will be your first day of prayers in the new temple. The deities are waiting for your invocation. You will do the pran pratishtha  to start the prayers.” Early next morning Aditya blew the conch shell to announce that the temple was ready for prayers. They stood with folded hands, reciting the mantras, invoking the deities to come and live in the stone idols. “Baba, I will pray for forgiveness for those who committed the massacre.” Taking a copper pot and emptying its water onto the stone floor, Aditya then said, “Forgive them, Lord Shiva, who beheaded my ancestor and massacred the people. And bless them who are assembled here in memory of those killed.” The three of them began to read a hymn from the Upanishads. “In the same way that all rivers meet in the ocean, all men are struggling through paths that in the end lead to me.”

TWENTY SEVEN

“Abbu, I saw some men bringing a huge idol of a monkey from a cart. They placed it against the walls of the temple. The statue of the monkey is going to face the road.” “Did you say face the road? Now imagine, when we go past the road, we will see this monkey every day,” his ammi said, trying to stop her laughter. “It is their God Hanuman, disciple of another God, Rama. Even their Gods have servants and disciples who are Gods themselves. The monkey God has a red mouth that is pouting, a face that is round, and a long tail that goes straight up at the back,” said Imam saab. Anwar continued. “The story is that the monkey’s tail was once lit by a king and so in anger he burned a whole kingdom down with his tail.” The laughter in the room subsided as he recounted the incident. A smile swept across Imam saab’s face hearing his son. “Abbu, how can a monkey be prayed to like a God?” he asked. “What can I say now? These Hindus see Gods in animals too!” His father laughed. “The workers were saying next week they are offering an invocation prayer to install the idol. Is it not an insult? God is invisible and omniscient. Can He be prayed to with an idol, that too of a monkey, in front of our mosque?” Haji chacha seconded Anwar’s remark. “Namazees are angry because the idol of Hanuman faces the road, and they feel all the people who pass by will be offended. This is deliberate provocation.” “Why doesn’t Javed stop them? He knows that boy,” asked Anwar. “I will ask Javed’s father. It has to be done soon.” Javed’s father had gone to the temple at everyone’s request. Aditya came out on hearing him. “I am Javed’s father. Is your father there, beta?”

“No, he has gone out. He will be back by evening.” “You have a nice temple,” he said. “Did you come to say anything specific?” Aditya finally asked. “I heard that you are installing the idol of Hanuman facing the road. Many of the namazees will find it offensive. I came to ask if you could change the direction so it doesn’t face the road.” “I will tell them to change its direction,” said Aditya. “Are you sure you don’t need to talk to your father?” asked Javed’s father. “I will tell him,” Aditya reassured him. “I want to tell you about one more thing. It is about the sound of the bell which hangs at the gate of the temple. When devotees ring it while entering, it chimes rather loudly and often the sound comes back as an echo.” Saying this, Javed’s father became quiet as if he didn’t know how to continue any further. “Let me say this, beta,” he continued after a silence, “don’t misunderstand me. Some people in the neighborhood find it offensive.” “I can hang a small bell at the gate that won’t make so much sound,” Aditya replied. “Will you?” It was as if the words just came out of him. “Yes, chacha. This bell, we dug out from the ground during the excavations and made it ready but I understand. I will remove it.” “The sound of azan from the loudspeakers of the mosque travels far, that is what I told the people who are against the temple bell but they said the two sounds can’t be compared. This is Kashmir, beta. You must be thinking that people of Kashmir are bigots.” “People don’t become bigots, chacha, unless they are told to look at the God of others as different from theirs.” “Well said, beta. I wish there were more like you. I will go now. I can’t tell you how happy Javed and I feel to have you among us. May Allah protect you.” “Chacha, tell Javed tomorrow we have a ceremony to install the deity of Hanuman. If he wants, he can come and watch. Next morning, Anwar was awakened by Javed to come and watch the ceremony. As they watched from over the wall, the sound of the conch shells and bells from the temple made a deafening noise. The devotees, who brought the idol of Hanuman, sang and bowed in front of the idol.

“Anwar, Hanuman’s idol doesn’t face the road anymore. My father went and spoke to them. They have changed its direction,” Javed said. “They must have got scared,” said Anwar. As they watched the devotees sing in front of the idol holding their hands up, Anwar couldn’t help but laugh. Zeba watched everything wide eyed. Towards the end the devotees lay flat on the temple floor with their hands folded. They saw Aditya go around with the lamp. Everyone put out their hands over the flame and touched them on their heads. “Strange rituals,” Anwar said. “They hold fire sacred,” said Zeba. Their ammi shouted at them, “Don’t watch their rituals. It is unIslamic.” As Anwar came in, he saw Javed’s father tell his abbu, “They accepted our request, keeping in mind that their God’s statue facing the road is offensive to us and changed the bell as well. Let us reciprocate their gesture and arrange a meeting.” “I will ask everyone after the Friday namaz,” Imam saab replied. When Imam saab asked the namazees after the Friday prayers, they replied that in their eyes the two groups have no similarities between them and that there could be no discussions over any issue. When Javed’s father came back home after the namaz, he said, “By their action, the pandit family showed they want peace, but we didn’t reciprocate it. History teaches us that whenever we have seen others as different from ourselves and forgotten the similarities, it’s the beginning of a genocide. I fear the same might happen in Kashmir.”

TWENTY EIGHT

Nitai jumped to the side of the wall and thought, “I must make my shadow small so that it is not seen falling on the ground.” He had heard footsteps of three people come near. “Merge with the wall, you fool. Your shadow should not fall on them,” he told Tara, his sister. “An untouchable’s shadow is his biggest curse.” His father’s warning rang in his head. Nitai had mastered this art while learning to stand and walk, like every other untouchable child. Now, his muscles, bursting against his dark skin of sixteen years, seemed ready to spring into action should the need arise to run. The three Brahman men walked past and did not acknowledge their presence. If they as much as looked at them, they would have to abort the journey. One of them commented, “Insects are growing.” “After these paddy fields is a cremation ground. There will be more of them there,” another one said. “This road smells so bad,” said another one. “Because these insects walk on it.” As children in the cremation ground, Nitai and his friends played a game as to who was the best in avoiding Brahmans. One boy would play a Brahman and walk around them and the others would stand still so that their shadows wouldn’t move and touch him. “Dada,  how did you know Brahmans were coming?” his sister asked. “Footsteps, sister, footsteps. When you grow up, you’d know.” “Dada, you hurt me this time,” Tara said as soon as the three Brahmans were out of sight. “Shut up. One, I save you and then you scream. Didn’t you see the Brahmans intentionally came close?”

“Dada, those Brahmans could have taken another path. Why is it every time we have to freeze, hold our breaths, and control our shadows?” “You mad girl, don’t talk like this.” Realizing he had been rude, he patted her on the head. Brother and sister brushed the dust from their bodies and collected their utensils to walk to the well to get water. Nitai and Tara belonged to the caste of doms who worked in the funeral grounds and did the last rites for the dead. By the age of ten, Nitai, like all dom children, had learned the entire ritual of bathing a body, putting it on the pyre, lighting the fire, and finally taking out the remains to be submerged in the river. In a day, there would be four to five bodies brought to be burned. The air would be full of the smell of burning flesh and sounds of bones crackling in the fire. Often Nitai would find ornaments or jewelry left behind by careless relatives. He would return them to the owners. One day he found a locket on the neck of a dead body. In it there was a picture of a saint with a halo around his head. Nitai took out the picture and looked at it. The large eyes of the saint were full of compassion and seemed to speak to him. The gatekeeper told him, “This is a picture of Swami Vivekananda in Kashmir. This is Amarnath cave where Swami Vivekananda meditated.” One day, Nitai found that his entire clan had been taken for interrogation to the police station. A young woman, after getting married, had died and been hurriedly cremated by her relatives. Fearing that a criminal case would be made against them, they had forgotten to take off her jewelry. When they remembered and came back for it, they found it missing. The police picked up all the doms and brought them to the police station and beat them with sticks. Only Nitai was not there. The police wrote in the report that he was the one who had run away with the jewels. When Nitai arrived, a police constable brought him to the police station. “Where were you?” the inspector asked. Before he could say anything, the inspector slapped him. “A few more slaps and all the jewelry will be out,” he told the complainants. The next slap made Nitai fall to the ground. The stick of the policeman rained down upon him. He heard the policeman say to someone, “Can’t beat anymore. My eyes are watering. If he doesn’t tell us, I will get his sister and beat her on the buttocks. Then he will talk.”

That night, he slipped out of the police station and picked up Tara. “We have to run away from here.” “Where will we go, Dada?” “To someplace far away like Kashmir, where we can hide.” “Kashmir? Where is it?” “Vivekananda went there walking. We will go hiding in trucks.” They hid in the dustbins and cremation grounds in different towns and traveled in garbage trucks. At one place, dogs barked at them but became quiet when they sensed that they had the smell of the dead. After traveling for three weeks, Nitai saw the hills. The truck stopped to dump the filth at the bottom of one. “Let’s jump out,” he told his sister. “See the mountains? Once we reach there, the police will not find us.” Tara looked at them. She had never seen such mountains before. “Where can I find some water to drink?” The most important question for an untouchable has always been where to find drinking water. Another lorry was going up the mountain road. They climbed into the lorry. “We’ll jump out at night. Let’s sleep until then. By morning we will be in the mountains,” Nitai said.

TWENTY NINE

Zeba heard the cry in her room as it pierced the stillness of the night. It seemed to come from over the wall that separated the temple and the mosque. It seemed to her as if someone had been hit. “Could it be the Hindu priest next door?” she thought. She heard running footsteps fading toward the forest and then there was no sound. She debated what to do. Then she heard someone groan in pain. She ran to Anwar’s room. He wasn’t there. The only other person from whom she could ask for help was Javed. She knew that Javed also had been to the temple and knew him. She ran to his house and told him what she had heard. They jumped over the wall. The place was dark. They saw a figure lying at the far end of the ground. As they came close, they saw it was Aditya. Javed turned him on his side. Aditya’s forehead and shirt was covered in blood, and his eyes were closed. He looked at Zeba standing there. “Zeba, I need your handkerchief. Someone has hit him with stones,” Javed said. “What were you doing outside?” he asked Aditya. “At the end of the prayers in the temple every night, I take the lamp and walk along the walls of the temple,” Aditya said. “Today,” he continued, “when I came near the wall, a stone hit me on the forehead. I lost my balance and fell down on the ground, dropping the lamp. Then two more stones came, one after another, and hit me on the head.” Aditya’s lamp had extinguished due to the oil spilling out. Javed held the lamp and tried to light it. “Is there no one at home?” he asked. “My father has gone to pray at someone’s home and hasn’t come back yet. Ma is sleeping,” said Aditya.

Zeba brought some water from the well. Javed cleaned his forehead again. He took some leaves from a plant and put them over the wound and tied the forehead with a handkerchief. “Hope this will stop the bleeding,” he said. “Your clothes have got smeared in blood,” Aditya said to Javed. “Doesn’t matter, but can you get up?” Javed asked. “I have to finish this circumambulation around the temple,” Aditya said. “You go. I will be all right in some time.” “After being hit? Aren’t you bothered that the stones might hit you again?” “No.” “Did you see who hit you?” “No.” She saw him up close for the first time. In the light of the lamp, his eyes looked unusually soft. “Why do you pray to these stone idols in the ground?” Zeba asked, her eyes widening. “Because they are living to me,” Aditya said. “But why do you take the fire all around the ground every day?” she asked. “You hold the lamp in your hand and give the flame a slight push like this. You also ring a bell after doing this,” said Zeba, gesturing with her hands. “That is part of my prayer; I do it every day.” Aditya stopped and looked up askance. “How do you know all this?” Zeba couldn’t tell him. She had seen a figure walk with a lamp in the night around the grounds while closing her curtain. She had leaned against the window and watched it wide eyed, the figure holding the flame in one hand and a bell in another. She had called Anwar and remembered that he had clenched his hands and walked away. Now, she realized that unknowingly she had led her brother to hit him. She only said, “Don’t come out for a few days.” “I will come out.” “Totally obstinate, this priest.” She felt a reluctance to talk further. “Why will you come out?” She could feel anger in her voice. “Because the one who threw the stones must know that he cannot stop me.” “You should find out first who did it.” “It makes no difference to me,” he said.

“You are not well,” Javed said. “At least go now and come back later.” “No.” “He is so obstinate,” she thought. “Let’s go, Javed,” she blurted out. “Zeba, this is his faith. Let him do it,” Javed said. “You should go back.” “No, then I will stay.” She could be obstinate too. Aditya walked around the ground holding the lamp. He stopped at the spot where he fell and prayed. He said something she could not hear. “You were praying in the direction of the mountains,” Zeba said. “Our Gods live there,” he said. “They live in the mountains.” She was about to laugh but stopped. “I apologize. What were you praying?” “It is a mantra, ‘Astoma satgamaya, tamsoma jyotirgamay, myrtorma amritamgamay.’” “What does it mean?” asked Zeba. “This means ‘Take me from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality,’” Aditya said. She saw him look at her. “What is your name?” “I am Zeba, sister of Anwar.” “What does Zeba mean?” The name Anwar had no impact on him. “It means someone adorned, with beauty. But now I have to go,” Zeba said. “Otherwise ammi will ask questions.” “He is so obstinate and different from everyone I know,” Zeba told Javed as they walked back. “Can you make out why has he come here?” “He wants to revive the temple of his ancestors.” Then looking at Javed, she asked, “You don’t think I did anything wrong today, do you?” “No, it is also something else. I saw how much you felt for him.” “He was injured. Anybody would know it was Anwar, isn’t it? Will he ever stop?” “My heart tells me he will. My abbu once told me that three things never die. Insaniyat,  zameer, and mohabbat.  Their reach is stronger than any religion.” “I don’t understand. Can you make it simple?” Zeba asked. “How can something be higher than religion?” “Zeba,” he continued, “the darkness inside our mind is never totally dark. Just as this night will end and the morning will come, so will Allah

show us the right path.” After Zeba finished her chores, she lay on her bed and thought of the experience. She had been foolish in running over to him. “No, I will have to keep it a secret. If Aarzoo gets to know, it will be hell.” Her mind went to the time when he recited his prayer. Yes, the prayer. So different from the verses of her holy book. Did she remember it? A part of her said this is a prayer of the infidels for their God. Another part of her said, “It won’t take me away from being a Muslim if I recite it.” She recited the words, at first slowly and then faster. It seemed as if her eyelids had become heavy. She said it again. She didn’t know when she fell asleep. That night the red color and the demons did not haunt in her dreams. She woke up in the morning with her mother shaking her. “Zeba, my koori, you never sleep so late, and yesterday you went to sleep without eating dinner. What a miracle! I came back and found you sleeping like a log.” “Forgive me, Ammi; I was tired.” “May Allah give you sleep like this every night. Not a sound from you. Your face looks like a flower. Now go and make the food and then wash the clothes. A woman shouldn’t forget her duties in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Your Haji chacha and a few others are going to eat with us today.” “Yes, Ammi.” She rushed to the kitchen. She could hear the faint sound of the bell come from the temple. She gave tea to Abbu and Ammi and then went to look for Anwar. Anwar was not in his room. He was outside throwing stones into the sky. “You hit him yesterday, didn’t you?” she asked him, clearing her throat. “He won’t venture out again. Just wait for tonight.” That night when Zeba came to the window, she wondered if he would come out as he had said he would. She saw a flame first and then a figure emerge from the door of the temple. He walked, followed by his mother. “Boijan, see this,” she called Anwar. “After being hit by three stones, the kafir still goes out.” He gritted his teeth. “Boijan, how will you ever stop such a man?”

THIRTY

In the madrassa, Aarzoo had asked her, “We want to know about the Hindu priest. Have you seen him?” Zeba made a face. “No. He is a priest and prays in his temple. How do I know?” Zeba knew that her friends didn’t like Hindus. They laughed and called them infidels who prayed to Gods and Goddesses with many arms and feet. They called them “tikka wale.” But two things happened that had roused her curiosity. One was the evening when Javed and she went to help Aditya. The other was Gayatri, his mother, whom she had seen walk around the boundary wall of the ground around the temple from her window. She had noticed every morning his mother went around the ground of the temple and recited something while pouring water from a copper vessel at the base of different trees. That was the time she also took Noora to the grounds for eating grass. She went and stood at the far end of the wall that separated the mosque and the temple. “Why are you pouring water on the tree?” she asked her one day. “Oh,” Gayatri was surprised, “are you the daughter of Imam saab?” she asked. “Yes, I am his daughter Zeba.” “The tree is a living being, and we consider it the abode of our God,” Gayatri said. “Can I come over and see it?” she asked. “Have you asked your parents?” “I have,” she lied. They would never allow her, but she knew they wouldn’t know, because they never looked in the direction of the temple.

“Then come over,” Gayatri said. Zeba looked at her closely. Her dark eyes seemed to smile at her. “What do you say to the trees?” “I am reciting mantras, verses from our holy book.” “Can you say it again?” asked Zeba. “Vanaspatya shanti, aushadhaya shanti…sarve santu sukhinah, sarve santu nirmaya, sarve bhadrani pashyantu, ma kaschita dukha bhagvate… They mean ‘Let there be peace to all beings.’” “You say it even to the stones?” “Yes, even the stones. To us everything is living,” she said as she put a vermilion mark on one of them. They came up to a light-blue stone of someone’s head. It was half in the ground. She put a vermilion mark on its head. “Why did you put that mark on it?” “This is a statue of Goddess Parvati. Taking it out might have damaged it. So we decided to keep it in the ground.” They walked in silence for some time and came to another stone embedded in the ground. It was of black color and cylindrical in shape, and the upper part of it was broken. “This was the main statue of this temple that was broken. This also could not be taken out when we built the temple.” She went to all other stones and did the same thing. “Once a God, it always remains a God for us,” she said, smiling. “Do you feel like taking revenge on those who did this?” “No. We forgave them when we came here.” “I could never do so. Tell me, does your religion make a separation between believers and nonbelievers?” “No, it does not.” “Mine does,” she said. “That is what Abbu tells me, that I should never trust infidels. What does your religion say about mine?” “It says all religions are like rivers, which in the end lead to God like the rivers merge into the sea.” They finally came to the door of the temple. Zeba could hear voices come from inside. “May I go in?” she asked. “No, first ask your parents.”

She thought of what they would say if they learned she had gone near the temple. Her ammi would scream for days. Her abbu would not speak to her, and Anwar…She didn’t want to think further. Then she saw her pet goat Noora jump the wall and come to her. This would be an excuse that he ran away and she went to fetch him. She hugged him and said in his ears, “Noora, be my savior. I will tell everyone you came first and I only came to fetch you.” “This is the bell. You ring it before you enter,” Gayatri told her, seeing her peek inside. Her son had finished saying the prayers in front of a cylindrical stone statue. His eyes were closed, and he sat still, unaware of them. Last time, Zeba had seen the face contorted in pain. Today it had little resemblance to the face she had seen last time. “Aditya told me how Javed and you helped him.” Zeba couldn’t take it anymore. She walked over to Gayatri and said, “I lied to you. I haven’t taken permission from my parents to come here. But if I did, I would have never come here. I had to tell the truth before I leave.” Then she ran toward her home, with Noora running at her heels. The day passed by quietly, making her ammi comment, “Koori, you are not jumping around like other days. Not one of those days, I hope,” she said. “No, Ammi,” she replied.” When she went to sleep, she thought of the mother and the son praying in the temple. “No, I won’t try it again,” she said. “Koori, what won’t you try again?” It was her mother, half asleep, asking her. She thought her ammi was sleeping, and she had begun to talk to herself. “Nothing, Ammi,” she said. “I won’t try to think that a woman can go anywhere on her own.” “May Allah fill you with more such wisdom. Now, let me sleep.” She dreaded the night ahead as she heard her mother snore. Dreams would soon come and then the demons. Only yesterday night she had gotten up screaming and her ammi had scolded her. “Good girls don’t get such nightmares.” She sighed and closed her eyes. And then she remembered the priest’s face praying to his deity. Did she still remember it? She stole a look at her mother, who had begun to snore.

Then she tried to remember the prayer that his mother had said to the stone deity earlier in the day. No, she hadn’t forgotten it either. It was her ammi shaking her up next morning. “So good, you have learned to sleep like a log. You have learned it is the woman who keeps a home together by sleeping well. Another thing, a girl should get up before her mother in the morning and then after marriage before her mother-in-law. That is what I learned from my mother. One more thing, a woman must never—” “Yes, Ammi, I will remember everything that a woman has to know when she gets up.” She ran to the kitchen. She felt she could fly.

THIRTY ONE

Aditya heard a noise in the temple. It was as if something was moving slowly. “Could it be a rat?” He switched on the light of the temple. His eyes widened as he saw a young boy, dark as coal, huddled in a corner. On seeing him, the boy rubbed his eyes and gave a start. Sleeping with her head in his lap was a girl, thin and scrawny as the withered stump of a tree. She wore a blue shirt and a pair of pajamas that were black. A foul smell emanated from them. Keeping his eyes on Aditya, the boy nudged the girl. She got up and rubbed her eyes. “What are you both doing here?” asked Aditya. “We ran away from home,” the boy said. “What’s your name?” Aditya asked. “Nitai,” the boy replied. “And this is my sister, Tara.” “Why did you run away?” “I have a case of theft against me.” “Are you both doms?” Aditya was surprised to hear his father’s voice. Nitai nodded. His sister clutched his hand and looked at him. “You two get out of this temple right now,” his father ordered. “But, Baba, it’s snowing outside,” Aditya said. “Doms are known to kill.” “My elders told me that I would be taken to jail.” Nitai explained to Aditya what happened to him after the jewels of the woman were lost in the cremation ground. “We have enough problems already. The locals want to throw us out. We have no money to run the temple. If the local police learn that we are hiding him, that will be the end,” said Krishna Narayan. “Baba, isn’t the temple a shelter?”

“Not for the likes of them. But let them stay for the night. Tomorrow they must go. That is my final word,” Krishna Narayan said while leaving. “I will make place for you both to sleep in the room outside the temple,” said Aditya. “How did you think of Kashmir?” Aditya asked them. “It is so far away from Bengal.” “We hid in garbage trucks and came to Srinagar. We walked and then we saw this temple. We didn’t have the courage to call anyone. As it became cold, we opened the door of the temple. We thought we could seek shelter for the night. Is there some food?” he asked. “I think we may have some left over.” Aditya went and got some rice and vegetables for them. “I cannot warm it,” he said. “The angethi   has gone cold.” Aditya looked at the young boy in front of him as he ate. His body seemed sculpted from stone. Gayatri walked in. “I woke up because of the noise.” “Ma, these two need shelter.” “We will go away in the morning,” said Nitai, while gulping the food. “No, you will not,” she said. “You go to sleep now. I will talk to my husband,” said Gayatri. Aditya made their bed in the storeroom. “Ma, what did Baba say?” Aditya asked. Gayatri remembered his words. “God knows where these two untouchables, dirty as coal, have come from and are inside the temple. Aditya wants them to stay.” Early next morning Nitai and Tara were already up when Aditya walked in. “I have cleaned the grounds, Dada,” said Nitai. Yesterday there had been a big festival. Nearly two hundred people had eaten, and the place had become dirty with pattals   and utensils. It would have taken three laborers to clean up the place. “You did it alone?” Aditya raised his eyebrows. Nitai smiled. “I also cleaned the toilets. They were dirty.” Kashmir had dry latrines, and manual scavengers cleaned it every day. “What do you do, Nitai?” he asked. “I worked at a cremation ground. I would place the bodies on fire and clean the grounds afterward,” Nitai said to Aditya. Aditya went and talked to his parents. “They can be caretakers. In return we need to give them food and a room to stay.”

“He is right, Panditji. I will feel secure if there is someone else also on the premises,” said Gayatri. “During the night, the place is lonely.” “What shall we tell people?” asked Krishna Narayan. “They are children who have run away from home.” “Tell them,” he told Aditya, “they can stay here but not to tell anyone where they came from. Just say they left home. They will clean the temple and maintain its sanctity. They will get prasad   twice a day and two full meals. Tara will clean the utensils every day. And you, Aditya, you will give them instructions. Not me.”

THIRTY TWO

A pair of eyes watched from the crack in the door as the father and son walked up to the idol. She had come after she had heard there were strange practices being carried out in the temple. Anwar had told her that the father and son took off the clothes of the idols and then washed them with milk and honey. Zeba had decided when everyone slept, she would go and watch. She chose a day when Abbu was to come late and Ammi would sleep early. She had jumped over the wall and tiptoed across to the back of the temple. She found light coming out from a small crack through the door. Father and son both stood in front of an idol. She pressed herself against the door. “I will go and tell the girls in the class how they bathe their Gods,” she thought. He was doing what Anwar had described. He took the ornaments off the idols one by one. She blushed as his hands went to a shirt and untied the white dress. He was talking to one of the idols now. “What is he saying?” She strained herself but felt that would be dangerous. “Can you ever bring the God down to this level, to caress the face?” A revulsion swept through her. She wondered if she should ask his mother, but then she would have to explain how she knew. No, she would try and understand on her own. Different strands of thoughts ran through her mind. “This is not the way I understand God to be. He can’t be seen in an idol or a picture. No relationship is possible with Him like the way he is doing right now with his God. God is only Allah, who is all merciful and powerful, to whom I submit five times every day. God is not someone you touch and play with or, heaven forbid, caress and bathe.”

He was now taking the blue skirt off the body of the idol. She shuddered to think of what she was going to see but realized that the idol had no body parts. Aditya carefully took the dress and folded it aside. Now the idol lay disrobed of its clothes and its ornaments. The color of its stone surface glittered in the light of the room. Suddenly she was jolted out of her stupor. Aditya was calling out. “Baba, let us finish the Abhishek fast.” “So this is called Abhishek, where they disrobe and bathe their Gods and Goddesses,” she made a note of the word. She remembered the time when she used to play with dolls. She would become a mother to the dolls and talk to them and admonish them. But he was doing much more. His eyes showed reverence mixed with a childlike innocence and detachment. Aditya’s father helped him take out new clothes from a bag. It was of a bluish green color, a beautiful two-piece set that was embedded with small mirrors. It was tied by a string at the back and had golden strands all around it. Aditya’s hands now picked a copper pot full of water and poured it on the other idol. First he washed the feet and then the legs and then the abdomen. Then very carefully he put water on the idol’s face and cleaned it of fragments of sweets on the lips and the face. Carefully, he arranged the hair behind the face with a comb gently putting the strands in their place. He then took the clothes and tied them around the idol. First the skirt and then the shirt. He tightened the strings behind the back of the idol lovingly. Having adjusted the clothes, both father and son bent down on the ground in prayer. Zeba felt as if someone had given a blow to her understanding of God. She didn’t remember when she got up and managed to get back home. Lying on her bed, she felt as if her mind had split in two. One half asking her why she went there and the other half saying it was all right to have gone there. “No, this is too un-Islamic and is disturbing me.” Tomorrow she would tell her classmates that she never went there.

THIRTY THREE

“Noora, come back,” Zeba screamed. She watched as Noora jumped over the wall and went to eat the leaves of the holy basil plant. “Why don’t you eat the plants on this side? Are they not good for your fat stomach, you fool?” she cried, looking as the basil leaves vanished one by one in Noora’s mouth. She called for him again. Noora moved his ears a little to show he had heard her but that her admonition didn’t matter. “Noora, their Gods will curse you if you don’t stop right now.” Noora wasn’t least bit threatened with her warning of being cursed by Gods. He ate those leaves regularly; no God had cursed him. “At the speed with which he is eating, the plant will be left with no leaves by the time Aditya came out from his prayers,” she thought. She jumped across the wall to fetch him when Noora ran to the back of the temple. She caught hold of him and tweaked his ears. “Do you know I can’t come over every time like this?” And it was then that she saw him. He sat under a chinar tree in front of a stone statue. “Oh, I didn’t see you,” she was about to say when she realized his eyes were closed. He was sitting cross-legged with his hands resting straight on his knees. The palms were outstretched with the thumbs and forefingers making a circle. She hid herself behind a shrub. “Noora, be quiet in my arms. I need you now. You are my excuse to see him.” Then she looked at Aditya. His face was still like the surface of a lake, and yet something about it seemed to change. “Does he have many feelings while praying to his God? This is so unlike mine. I know of only one, and that is submission,” she wondered. The face that was the object of her study had opened his eyes and was looking at the deity in front of him. She felt the expressions on his face were like those white clouds that danced before the mountains before they

went behind it, leaving another one to take its place. There was a radiance on his face. When she had seen him the other day, she had surmised that she had known everything that was there to know about his prayers. He was an infidel, a kafir, who prayed to his deity and saw them in different stone statues. She, on the other hand, prayed to Allah as formless and allpowerful. But now it seemed to her, he submitted himself too to his deities and the deity returned his submission in a relationship that was different from her relationship with Allah. She recalled how her abbu told her that praying to deities led to pride, vanity, and ego, making one forget submission to Allah. She wanted to warn him, protect him from doing what was unpardonable, one that would offend the Supreme Being. Deep inside the labyrinth of her mind, she imagined how it would be to sit for a moment in his place and try to do the same with an idol. She brushed the thought aside. The God whom she imagined so far allowed nothing else to exist or imagine other than a fixed, omniscient, and infinite image. Then she heard him say, “God is not separate from me; everything I stand for is a part of Him.” She looked at Noora. He now slept in her arms with his eyes closed. When she came back, her ammi had just come back with a group of her friends. “Where were you?” she asked. “I was chasing Noora. He had jumped over the wall and I had to get him back. Then I was with Aarzoo.” “Allah, this goat, why does he go to those kafirs’ place? I will tell your abbu to do something about him,” said her ammi. “Now go and make some rotis.” “I will read my namaz and then go,” said Zeba. When she opened her eyes, she saw her ammi smiling at her. “What is the matter, Ammi?” she asked. “I called you so many times. Not hearing you I came to look for you. Earlier you would get up quickly after finishing your prayer, but today you remained so engrossed.” “That is the way prayer should be.” She got up and folded her mat. “What did you say? I didn’t get it. Sometimes you talk in the strangest way. Anwar is roaming and throwing stones at everyone while he should be

sitting back at home and saying something wise like you. After all he is an imam’s son.” “Stop cursing Anwar boijan, Ammi,” she said. Zeba had never felt so happy. She wished she knew why.

THIRTY FOUR

Anwar was rehearsing the words as asked by Haji chacha. “I will cast terror in the hearts of disbelievers.” His father walked in the room and asked, “What did you say, beta, about casting terror?” “Nothing, Abbu,” he said, somewhat abrupt. “I heard you recite something about casting terror in infidels.” “I recite only what I find meaningful now,” said Anwar, trying to close the conversation. “Anwar, I didn’t say anything when you threw stones at the police or army, but you have to stop on this path. This is going too far.” Anwar groaned. “Abbu, Allah doesn’t forgive idolaters or idol worship. What can be more shameful that they come next door and we do nothing?” “They pose no threat to us and you have injured him.” “Abbu, this is a holy war.” “Anwar, we should not overreact to their way of praying.” Anwar laughed. “Abbu, you are getting old.” “First tell me what this is? It was there in your pocket.” It was a handdrawn map of the temple. Then Anwar understood. Zeba must have found it in his pocket while washing clothes. “Abbu, I promise. I didn’t want to do anything bad.” “So you went there?” “Abbu, I was curious.” “Don’t go again, beta. We Muslims don’t go to Hindu temples.” “Oh, Abbu, I had forgotten about it.” Anwar had anything but forgotten. He had seen the priest and his father go to buy groceries with the two attendants. They had left the temple gates open, and it had started to snow.

He had jumped over the wall and entered by the back door. In front of him was a cylindrical stone of black color. Water droplets fell on it, and it was covered with flowers, leaves, and fruits and even a pot of honey. There were traces of milk and a garland placed on top. He wrinkled his nose. “How can you adore a stone statue as if it were God? God is formless. Someone to whom one submits in prayer, not feed Him milk and honey.” He realized a rise of tension in his muscles. “Calm down,” he told himself. “Today you are here to see.” He saw a drum and musical instruments in one corner. “So there is a place for music and dance too during prayers. In Islam playing music is forbidden because then you forget God, and here they are singing and dancing in front of their Gods.” He looked around and found himself facing another statue. The statue was made of white stone and wore a red cloth. She was covered with red flowers. There were coins lying near her feet. He thought of the contrast with the mosque hall. Everyone came in silence and collectively sat down in submission to Allah. Just then he heard the call for azan from the mosque and went for his namaz. “I am a believer,” he told himself as he sat down to pray. “I believe in the supremacy of Allah and my faith.” The visit to the temple had reinforced his faith in Islam. He looked around at the namazees and thought namaz was the only true way in which one can address God. “The mosque and the temple represent two opposite and separate universes. They can never exist side by side. I understand why my ancestors broke temples. To see a temple must have been not only disturbing but an affront to their sensibilities.” His mind went back to the temple briefly. “Where was the reverence for the invisible omniscient Allah that was the cornerstone of submission in Islam? Where was the magic moment of silence when everyone in the mosque bent down in unison at the end of the prayer? Where was the witnessing that all are equal in the eyes of the Creator?” That night in his dream, Anwar had seen himself surrounded by idols. He broke the idols one by one, and they lay scattered around. Then he felt the presence of a formless, invisible God. And then the place started to reverberate with sounds of bells and conches and the laughter of devotees. A smell of incense got stronger and stronger and entered his nose and

choked him. He threw his hands in the air to push it away. “You infidels are on a wrong path. You are misguided,” he screamed. “Anwar, you are having a bad dream again. Go to sleep,” his abbu was saying. He fell asleep again.

THIRTY FIVE

“Remember,”

the first man said, “we will do just enough to stop tomorrow’s prayers.” “What do you have in mind, bhaijan?”  asked the other. “You will do what I say. We will go in and first…” he said, lowering his voice. “Are you sure there will be no one inside?” “Yes, everybody is asleep at that time.” “What if someone wakes up?” “It will not take more than half an hour.” “Will the door of the temple be open in the night?” “The Hindus believe that Gods rest and should not be disturbed in the night. So we can do the job with their Gods resting.” They both laughed. “What time shall we do it?” “We will cross the wall from the other side at midnight. They get up at the temple by four in the morning.” “Why do it now, bhaijan?” asked the other man. “The temple is gaining importance. This must be stopped.” The two figures jumped over the wall and entered the temple. They went about their task without uttering a word. “I hear someone’s voice. Let’s go.” They both jumped over the wall and went into the house next to the mosque. “Believe me, I felt a little strange doing it,” one of them said. “Remember what is written about idols and idol worshippers. And tell yourself it is a task dear to Allah.” “How do you think they will react to it?” “What will hurt them is that they couldn’t protect their deities.” “There is something I don’t understand.”

“What is that?” “He didn’t run away when the stones hit him. Will this work?” “I am sure after this incident he will run away.”

THIRTY SIX

“Dada, something terrible has happened.” “But I just went to sleep,” Aditya said. “What is it?” “Be quiet,” he said. “Don’t wake him up.” Nitai said, looking at an asleep Krishna Narayan. As he took the kangri and came out, he asked, “What is it, Nitai?” “Dada, I heard some voices. I asked ‘Who is it?’ and two men ran away. They were inside the temple.” “Have you gone inside the temple?” “Dada, Panditji has forbidden me to enter the temple. So, I called you.” Aditya found a lamp. “Let’s go and check, Nitai. I am sure it is nothing.” As they walked in, Aditya gave a gasp, and the lamp almost fell down from his hands. “This can’t be true.” Someone had written on the walls of the temple with black ink, “Kafirs leave Kashmir.” As he looked around, the entire floor of the temple was strewn around with clothes torn from the deities. The chakra  in the hands of Lord Vishnu was lying on the ground. Some of the armor in the hands of Goddess Durga lay twisted on the ground. Aditya sat down on the floor of the temple. “Who did this, Nitai?” Nitai held Aditya’s hand. “Dada, let’s close the door first.” He looked at the floor. There were white granules in one corner. Curious, he went behind the statues. The attackers had tried to break the deities by hitting the idols from behind. “I will go and close the door,” he said. “There is not a moment to waste.” “They did this so that we become demoralized before the festival.” Aditya sighed.

“Dada, somehow stop people from getting in the morning. I will erase the writings from the walls first. Then I will wash the idols’ faces. Do we have extra clothes for the deities?” asked Nitai. “We have some extra clothes,” said Aditya. When Aditya came back, Nitai had already washed away the slogans on the wall. “Dada, I have called Tara. She will remove the paint from the deities’ faces and arms.” Aditya put the clothes back on the deities. As they worked, he asked Nitai, “Where did you learn to clean?” “Dada,” he said, “I grew up in a cremation ground. Working with death teaches you to clean everything in no time.” In an hour Tara and Nitai had cleaned the walls and the faces of the deities. “Dada, there is still an hour left. Go and get some sleep.” Aditya went back and didn’t know when he fell asleep. His mother woke him up, saying, “Get up, you have to go for the prayers.” He bathed and came to the temple and saw devotees going in like any other day. If Nitai had not woken up in time, it would have been a catastrophe. Nitai was outside talking to a group of pilgrims. He went up to him. Raising his hands to put the vermilion on his forehead, he said, “The first one is for you today.” That evening, when Aditya prayed, he shook and convulsed as he rotated the lamp in his hand. “What has happened to you today?” his father asked. “This is not the way to pray.” Gayatri told Krishna Narayan, “He feels a hypocrisy in being a Brahman and is asking for forgiveness.” “But why is he not reading from his books?” “Repentance before God doesn’t need books.” Aditya collapsed holding the feet of the deity. He spoke, “Today your abode was saved by a man who cannot come inside your temple while I pray inside calling you the Lord of the universe.” Lord Shiva seemed to say to him, “Bring him in.” He had forgotten how long he lay at Lord Shiva’s feet. He felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder. “Nitai told me everything.” “Ma, Baba had forbidden Nitai from entering the temple, and despite that Nitai saved the temple today without thinking of all the humiliations.”

“What are you trying to say, Aditya?” “The path of liberation is believed to be through prayers, but Nitai taught me it is through forgiveness of those who humiliate us.”

THIRTY SEVEN

It was after her ammi announced that she would come to the kitchen to understand why her rotis got burned that Zeba felt goose bumps in her stomach. “What is wrong with you, koori? Your rotis are as black as coal and as hard as a rock. My tooth fell out biting into them. Will you make rotis like this for your husband, rendering him toothless?” she had thundered coming into the kitchen. “Ammi, I will be careful.” She then asked Allah a dozen times to keep her mind focused on the rotis and not on the man in the poster. Zeba knew what her ammi would do. She would take her to the hakim and then she would have to answer horrible questions. After some soul searching, she decided to talk to Aarzoo. After all, she was the one who had shown those posters to her and Zeba had promised not to tell her abbu. Surely she would not betray her. Only last week Aarzoo had shown Zeba a poster where the man’s and the woman’s lips touched. Looking at them, they couldn’t stop giggling. “My brother has it in his collection. I took it out,” Aarzoo had said. “What if he finds out?” Aarzoo waved her hand. “I know where he keeps all his posters. I threatened to show them to abbu. Then he acted like a rat. You can do the same with Anwar boijan,” she advised her. “Well, Anwar boijan doesn’t keep posters. However, of late his pajamas have white stains on them. I don’t know where they come from. They have a strange smell,” she told her. Once while washing the clothes for the family, she had shown it to her ammi. Her ammi had almost fainted. “You will wash men’s pajamas with eyes closed for the rest of your life. Do you understand? Otherwise, Allah will blind your beautiful eyes.”

Now, Zeba couldn’t take her eyes off the couple in the picture. Aarzoo volunteered, “The hero and the actress are in love.” “What does he see in her?” she said, making a face. Aarzoo’s voice interrupted her thoughts. “Look at this magazine.” She showed her one from her bag. “See, there are articles on how women solve their problems regarding men. This article talks of what women should do to keep men happy.” This was a treasure trove for Zeba. “Surely, my problems will be solved by reading this magazine,” she thought. “My mother reads this. There is an article on how to spend your first night after marriage.” Aarzoo giggled. “But to read that, you have to close the door.” “Why close the door?” “Because you can’t stop laughing at some pictures. The man is doing funny things to the woman, and she has this expression on her face as if she is in heaven.” Zeba’s eyes came and rested on the woman in the poster. “I won’t ever feel this way. This looks disgusting.” As if on cue, Aarzoo held Zeba’s head in both her hands and pressed her mouth on Zeba’s mouth, crushing it between her lips. Zeba felt her head swirl, and her face felt warm. She wanted to scream and push Aarzoo away, but her hands didn’t obey her command. She felt a sudden surge of wetness flood her, as if her body was no longer her own but a vessel that had upturned in a lake and was trying to regain its balance. “Why did you do this?” she asked, looking at Aarzoo. “So that I can take this ghost of being imam saab’s daughter out of your head. You are like any of us.” Zeba felt her mouth and lips to be wet and, heaven forbid, in the lower part of her body. Aarzoo laughed. “When a man does the real thing to you, you can imagine how fire will spread throughout your body.” “What does the man do?” Zeba asked in a weak voice. “Oh, I will tell you all, but first tell me why have you not shared your secret with me.” “What have I not told you?” Zeba asked. “That you are in love with the priest,” said Aarzoo, with a twinkle in her eyes.

Zeba seemed to have no answer. “Aarzoo,” she found her voice. “Don’t forget I am imam saab’s daughter.” “Yes, imam saab’s daughter, ‘I don’t feel this way.’ What a joke! But we all know you are a fake.” “Me, a fake? Are you out of your mind?” Zeba screamed. “That is what all the girls say. They say that Zeba is so enamored of that priest that she listens to him by the walls of the mosque. And in class she is forever lost in herself.” “Enough of this. I am leaving,” she said. “You will lose this one, Zeba. I am your friend, and I know you too well.” As Zeba remained quiet, Aarzoo said, “Zeba, be honest; you responded when I kissed you. Who did you think of?” “The man in the poster,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Don’t lie,” Aarzoo said. “You whispered something.” “What are you girls talking about?” It was her abbu. “Where are the other girls?” “I will call them,” said Aarzoo as she got up. She gave a look to Zeba that said, “This conversation does not end here.” That night, Zeba tossed and turned in bed, prompting her mother to ask, “Why don’t you sleep?” As she turned on her side, her mind went back to the incident. She felt that Aarzoo had planned the whole thing. She decided she would ask her tomorrow. Next morning, before it was time for her to go to madrassa, she made an excuse to go and see Aarzoo. “Aarzoo, I have come to tell you something,” she said. “You were right. I did mention his name when you, well…did that to me. Please keep it a secret.” “I will. Don’t you trust me?” “Why did you do that?” “Well, now that you have confessed, I will tell you. It is your attitude that is the problem.” “My attitude? What is the problem with my attitude?” “Leave it. You will get hurt.” “No, tell me.”

“What we did yesterday, some of the other girls also do it. It is just so heavenly. Some of them can’t even stop. But you act as if we are a bunch of girls who know nothing.” “I have never done that,” she protested. “Yes, you do.” Aarzoo was relentless in her confrontation. “We girls talk about our bodies, but you never do. You act as if these feelings don’t arise in you. And now the truth finally came out.” “I couldn’t help it, Aarzoo.” “Every girl in the class feels that because you are so beautiful, you think of no one but yourself.” “Well, from now on I won’t act so selfish,” Zeba promised. “I didn’t know all this about myself. Now I understand why I do not have any friends.” “I will make you my best friend,” Aarzoo said, “but on two conditions.” “What are they?” “You will tell me how you fell in love with the Hindu priest.” “And the second?” “You will tell imam saab that I think of nothing but studies. And the days I haven’t done my homework, you will help me. One last thing, anytime my parents ask you if I was with you, you will say yes.” “I will, except the last part. It is difficult to lie.” “All right.” Aarzoo’s voice became soft. “I don’t blame you. The priest is so handsome.” “To me, he is calm and gentle like a flame that doesn’t go out no matter how strong the wind.” “Wow, so he has made of you a poet. Tell me more.” Aarzoo laughed. Zeba told her of the time when he was hit by stones and didn’t run away. She described how Javed and she used a handkerchief and tied it to stop him from bleeding. “I still have that handkerchief with me,” she confessed. “And I get transported to another world when he reads his prayers.” “Don’t you feel you are betraying your abbu? He has brought you up as a pious Muslim.” “I feel under a spell.” “If your abbu or ammi get to know about this, they will be devastated. I know one girl who ran away with a boy. The girl’s parents found her and killed both of them in the name of family honor. The police didn’t even

register the case and showed it as a suicide. You are imam saab’s daughter. The whole of Kashmir will make fun of your abbu,” she said. “I wish I could stop his thoughts from coming,” Zeba said. Zeba felt she had shared her innermost thoughts. Biting her nails, she gave Aarzoo a darting gaze in the class. Aarzoo had smiled back as if to reassure her that her secret was safe. That night before they went to sleep, Aarzoo’s father said to her mother, “Begum, chirag tale andhera.   See, imam saab raised Zeba like his own daughter. If I was her father, I would have cut her into pieces and thrown her in the river. Blood, after all, is everything. Mark my words, this girl is going to play with the honor of Kashmir one day. I have to talk to imam saab.”

THIRTY EIGHT

“Children,

we are at Battmazar,” the boatman announced, his voice booming over everyone. “We will rest here for an hour.” “You will not stop the boat here,” the maulvi  said to the boatman. “Why, Maulvi saab? Other boats have stopped. My men need to eat lunch.” “Didn’t you hear me? I said no.” “Maulvi saab, spit out your anger. Just because a Hindu priest wants to go there, should we—” “Precisely, what is he trying to remind us?” “Well, Kashmiris have forgotten its history,” the boatman said, trying to reason with him. “The history of this island will get revived if this fellow keeps on coming here.” Aditya didn’t expect such a commotion. After he had climbed aboard the boat, forty children from a local school and their teacher had gotten on as well to go to the Shalimar gardens. En route, their teacher had told them the stories of Mughal emperors. “Where are you going, Pandit saab?” one of the children had asked Aditya when the boat was midway to its destination. “I am going to Battmazar,” he had replied. “Are you going to build a temple there?” one of the children asked. “No.” “Come here.” The maulvi slapped the student. “Why did you talk to him?” As they came close to the shore, the boys jumped out of the boat and swam toward it. Aditya alighted after everyone. Professor Baig’s had told him, “Battmazar means the graveyard of the pandits.”

“But who will tell me the history of Battmazar?” Aditya had asked. “If you walk through the island, you will know.” Since then, Aditya would find a secluded corner in the island and meditate. This had gone on for several months till the boatman had become curious about his visits. “What do you do there?” the boatman had asked. “I like to walk through the island.” In the beginning, he had felt nothing. Then one day he had felt the breeze become heavy. He had brushed it aside as his imagination. Another day he had felt as if there were voices around him, unlike the voices of real people. They were without a language. It was a kind of a soundless voice that his mind could not grasp. The voices spoke of a story of people. As Aditya had started to walk away, the voices had gone as if they understood they had scared him. He had come back to share his experience with Professor Baig. “These are called the voices of history,” Professor Baig had told him. He didn’t remember how long he sat there when his attention was brought to the present by someone saying, “There he is.” It was the maulvi along with a few men. They came and surrounded him. “You are a priest. Why do you leave your temple to come and pray here?” “What harm am I doing if I pray here?” “You want to build a temple here to remind the Kashmiri Hindus of the history of Battmazar.” Aditya saw the maulvi shake, his face red. “What do you want from me?” asked Aditya. “That you immediately stop coming here.” “No, I will not do that,” Aditya said. “Then we will find other means to stop you,” the maulvi said. “You are not the kind to leave easily, I know.”

THIRTY NINE

Zeba found the letter with her name written on it. She had come to pick a shawl from the bottom of the trunk. Her ammi had asked her to look for the shawl, as she had to go to a family wedding. Neatly folded in one corner at the bottom was a pale-blue envelope. Zeba looked at the letter. “Why is my name written on it?” Her heart beat faster. She debated whether she should read it. “Is it about me? Who has written it?” She looked at it again. At the bottom was written “From your mother.” “But this is not Ammi’s handwriting. No, I better leave it. I will ask Ammi if I can open it, but then,” she told herself, “if I tell Ammi, she may never allow me to read it. I will read it and put it back.” “Can’t I open it if it is addressed to me?” she reasoned. “What if this letter gets destroyed or the rats eat it up?” she decided. Zeba opened the cover. There were three pages, and they had become yellow with age. The date at the top of the page was thirteen years ago. It seemed as if the hand was not steady while writing and reminded her of a child’s handwriting and was crisscrossed at many places. It read as follows: My darling daughter: When you read this letter, I do not know whether I will be in this world or called to the abode of Allah. I write this letter when, according to my doctor, I am in my senses. I am told that I am a lunatic patient and go in and out of a world where I don’t know what is imaginary and what is real. I live in a home for mentally ill people. I can’t live outside because I have been told I can cause harm to myself or others. I am the mother who gave you birth. I act violent at times and can’t control my emotions.

You are not with me because I can’t take care of you. The doctor told me I might kill you, though in my heart I know I could never do that. I am writing this letter on your first birthday. I know I am not there to celebrate it, but I am cutting a cake for you and imagine you are in my arms. I imagine in my mind that you will grow up to be a beautiful woman. I held you only once when you were born, after which you were taken away by the nurse. My doctor tells me that sometimes I imagine people trying to kill me. I have no memory of it afterward. I could not raise you as my child. I want to tell you why. Allah will give you the courage to face it. Forgive me and the man who gave you life. He is from a political family of Kashmir with enormous influence, someone whose name you will know as one of the most powerful men in the valley. I fell in love with him. I did not see him for what he was inside, a man who abused me physically and mentally till he was satiated. He forced me to do unnatural things that a pious woman shouldn’t do and then refused to marry me. I descended into a hell from which I could not come out. I was thrown out by him after he no longer desired me. I was pregnant. My parents didn’t accept me. You were the product of our union. That has been my life since then and will be so for the rest of my days left. I am glad you are not part of this hell. I don’t know if your father knows that I gave birth to you. Even if he does, I don’t think he cares. He married soon after. I do not think he would know about you unless you search for him and tell him. I have to stop writing the letter now. I hope with the blessings of Allah, you will find people who will help you grow into a pious Muslim woman. Your unfortunate mother Fatima Sheikh There was a long address at the bottom of the letter with a phone number. She read it slowly. It said, “Home for mentally ill.” Zeba sat with the letter in her hand. “No, this letter can’t be true.” She heard her ammi’s voice. “Koori, what happened to the shawl I asked for?” She quickly took down the number and put the letter back. “Koori, you took so long to find a shawl.” Seeing her face she said, “Have you seen a ghost? Your face is all white.”

“No, Ammi, I just feel a little unwell.” Next day, Zeba went to a phone booth in the center of the town. She had never made a call before. “I want to make a call to my relative,” she said to the shop owner as she showed him the number. She didn’t know who she would talk to. “Will it be my mother? What will I tell her? As she said she goes in and out of ‘reality,’ will she be in ‘reality’ now for me to talk to her? What does ‘reality’ mean?” She called the number and asked the woman at the other end if she could speak to Fatima Sheikh. The woman was quiet at the mention of the name and said it was not their policy to divulge the names of people admitted there. As Zeba started to cry on the phone, saying, “She is my mother!” she said, “Wait a minute, miss, it can’t be that bad. I will call the doctor.” Zeba held the phone receiver for what seemed like an eternity. She saw the shop owner look at her, but she didn’t care. She would talk to her mother and everything would be all right. She would tell her she had forgiven her and that she would visit her. “I will ask her why did she have to give me away, but I don’t want anything to do with my father. I will tell Abbu and Ammi that I want to take care of you and go away with you.” A middle-aged male voice came on the line and said, “Hello.” He asked her who she was. When she said she was Zeba, daughter of Fatima Sheikh, and had found a letter addressed to her from her mother in a trunk, the voice went quiet. In a panic she thought the line was dead and said, “Hello, hello.” “Zeba, I am Dr. Jacob. I was your mother’s psychiatrist. She wrote that letter thirteen years ago under my guidance. The words were her own. So sorry to say, your mother killed herself three years ago after she heard voices telling her to kill you. She believed that she was raising you and would talk to you. On that day—I think it was your birthday—she had woken up early and dressed unlike other days. She told everyone that you were coming to visit her. We told her that you would not come, but she didn’t listen. She ordered a cake for everyone and waited at the door. “Then some of the other patients asked her why you didn’t come. She became sad as the evening went by, and finally she went to her room. That was the last we saw of her. She had killed herself by slashing her wrists. She knew that you would search for her once you get the letter. Her last

instructions to me were that I should tell you that she waited for you on your birthday.” “Who are my grandparents?” she asked. “They want their names to be hidden from you,” said Dr. Jacob. “What about my father? Who is he?” Zeba asked, clutching the phone. “I can’t tell you that either. My advice to you is that you forget about them and go on with your life.” Zeba started screaming. “To go on with whose life? To know that you are a creature of lust, to know that nobody wants you in this world, and you say ‘forget it and go on.’ With what? All you told me is that how my mother suffered and how everyone washed their hands off her and me.” “I am sorry, Zeba. I can’t say anymore.” “One last question to you, did she ever talk about me in the last fourteen years apart from that day?” “Zeba, you should know this.” His voice became soft. “Every day she would talk about you, and every time she would do so, she would imagine doing something with you. We would advise her not to think of you, but she could not stop herself.” Then he said, “I understand it has been difficult for you to listen to me. If you ever want to talk again, do call me.” And the line went dead. “No, I won’t call you, Doctor.” She put down the receiver. “Thank you for ruining my life with your perfect words. I feel as heavy as a stone after this conversation.” She was not aware that the man at the phone booth was watching her. She noticed he was disabled. She went to give him the money for the call. He didn’t take the money. “No, beta, I heard you…” “No, Chacha, keep it,” she insisted. “It costs money.” “No, beta, you may not know me, but I know you. You are imam saab’s daughter. I heard your story and the wrong done to you. May Allah give you peace. If you have to call again, come here.” “Thank you, Chacha,” she said. “But I will never call again. I don’t want to know any more about myself.” Zeba walked back home. She looked at the mountains. They looked far away as compared to other days, and the river below seemed to flow slower than usual and without making any music. The deodar trees on both sides of the street swayed and seemed to embrace her. Their leaves rustled softly as if to say they understood what she was going through. Today everything

that she thought that had belonged to her seemed distant, and she felt she belonged to no one. The mountains had changed color and now reflected the colors of the setting sun. “It is so unlike my life, which has only one color.” A couple of children from the neighborhood ran past her. On other days, she would run with them, but today she just watched them go past her. A thought came to her. “They all are growing up with their real parents.” Another thought came to her. “My father is alive and is living with his family in this city. How does it matter who he is?” All her life she had thought of herself as the daughter of Abbu and Ammi. Now suddenly it dawned on her that they had taken pity on her and adopted her. Her ammi once told her, “I couldn’t have a second child, but Allah sent you to us.” Now she understood what she had meant. She thought of all the times she blamed Anwar for being their favorite child and how everyone would convince her it was not true. She remembered the time when Anwar had thrown a toy and it had hit her. Abbu had punished him by making him stand, holding his ears. No, they had never discriminated against her and loved her like their own child. She looked at the gorge next to the road. She wondered how deep it was and if she threw herself down, how long it would take her to die. No trace would be left of the daughter of Fatima Sheikh. “My mother was not responsible for killing herself,” Zeba reasoned to herself. “Maybe that’s what she meant by going out of reality, but she would not like me to kill myself ever. A true Muslim woman never kills herself.” Long ago Abbu had said to her that if you ask Allah anything from the heart, He answers. She had some questions for Allah today. “I want to ask you,” she said, “am I the Zeba I know myself to be? So many people have told me that I am lovable. If I tell them who I really am, will they still say that about me?” Of late, with the physical changes in her, she had begun to imagine how it would be to give her body to a man. Now she wondered if she could ever give something so dirty and impure to anybody. When she came back, she went to make rotis in the kitchen. Her ammi had kept the dough for her. “Where had you gone? We were looking for you,” asked Ammi. “I just went to the mountains for some mushrooms.” “You look sick, Zeba. Go and lie down. I will make the rotis.”

She fell asleep. When she woke up, night had fallen on the skies of Kashmir. She went out and looked at the dome of the mosque. “The peace of the mosque and Abbu has given me strength for all these years. How many orphans get an opportunity like the one I got?” Then she thought of the chance encounter that brought her to care for Aditya and hear those strange hymns. The hymns had taken away the demons from her sleep that she now understood came from her early years in the orphanage. Once Abbu had told her that in Islam, it is said that a true Muslim should care for orphans. She had then thought of orphans as scrawny, vacant-eyed children who sit on a floor and cry for food. She had then felt so happy she was not like that. She sat for a long time till she felt the air becoming cold. She heard the prayers begin in the temple and heard Aditya’s voice. After some time when it finished, she heard the azan calling the faithful. “Koori, what are you doing here by yourself?” Her mother had come out looking for her. “I came to call you for namaz,” said Ammi. “What is it, Zeba? Did you have a fight with Aarzoo, or has Anwar said anything? Tears don’t look nice on the face of my child.” “Ammi, I will never leave you.” The words came rushing out of her mouth. “You have been behaving strangely of late. You sit outside and do not come for namaz on time. Is something the matter?” Ammi asked her. “Nothing, Ammi,” she said, looking away. “Then I will send Anwar. A girl should not sit outside alone in the night.” She was lost in thought when she felt Anwar’s hand on her head. “What is it, Zeba?” “Boijan, we are brother and sister, aren’t we?” “What a strange question, Zeba? Yes, we are.” “I just want to be alone, but be around me.” “What happened? Another fight with Aarzoo?” “Yes,” she lied. She had heard a story long ago that for children, whose parents die early, they become stars above their head and protect them.

She saw a lone star shine in the distance behind the mountains. “That must be my mother watching me,” she thought. A breeze came touching her hair and cheeks. She felt as if it came from the star itself. “Anwar boijan,” she called out to him. “Zeba, what is it?” “Boijan, I learned today that Abbu and Ammi adopted me.” “How did you come to know that?” “I want to tell you if I ever had a blood brother, he wouldn’t mean as much to me as you do.” “I can give up my life for you.” “Then I want something from you.” “You have to name it.” “Give up your hatred. Stop being a stone thrower. This is killing me.” “Ask for something else, Zeba. Don’t make me weak by asking for this.” “You showed me how you hit stones to kill someone. You will not throw stones like that.” “But that is something I have spent months to learn.” “I saw Aditya’s mother the other day. She is ill, and he takes care of her. He is the sole reason why she lives. Just like my mother did. I can imagine what she will go through if she loses him.” “I have given a vow to throw him out of Kashmir. Don’t try to stop me.”

FORTY

“Somebody has set the temple on fire, Dada.” Tara was shaking Aditya. “It can’t be true” was Aditya’s first reaction as he ran outside. He saw Nitai run with a bucket. “Dada, quick; get more buckets from the well.” “What happened, Nitai?” “I was sleeping when I got this smell and got up to see the temple on fire,” Nitai said, catching his breath. It was the second fire in the year. The flames rose high, giving the sky a deep red hue. A pungent odor pervaded the air, billowing out a black smoke. “If fire is not doused soon, there will be nothing left of the temple,” Aditya could not help think. Meanwhile Nitai ran with more water. Tara was also running with him with more buckets of water. Aditya saw his father. He stood there shaking his head, a hand flying to his chest. Nitai meanwhile was throwing water going much too close to the fire. “Aren’t you going to get burned?” Aditya screamed. “No, I will not. Help me and give me water.” “Yes.” Aditya ran with buckets along with Tara. Tara told him that the smell of fire woke Nitai up from sleep, and without waiting for a moment, he rushed to douse the flames. His first reaction was to go inside the temple and throw the water from inside, but he was not sure if he could go in. “Panditji won’t like that the fire was doused by my entering the temple.” Aditya shuddered and thought that if the fire reached the garbha griha,   it would reach the purified oil used for lighting the lamps. If it reached there, the fire would reduce the temple to ashes. Nitai asked, “Dada, can I go in?”

“Nitai, don’t go into the fire!” Aditya cried at him. “Dada, I know how to douse it.” It was then Krishna Narayan found his voice. “No, he can’t go in.” Aditya said, “Baba, the temple is burning, and all you are thinking is who is an untouchable?” “You don’t understand. If the insides of the temple get polluted by the hands of an untouchable, nothing will be left of its sanctity. Who will come here then?” “And how will you show your face to God when He asks you why you did not protect His abode?” Aditya clasped his hands tightly. “Aditya, if untouchables pollute a temple, it makes it impossible to pray there,” his father said. “So you will allow the temple to burn?” asked Aditya. “Aditya, listen…” he tried to say. “Baba, this is my temple.” “Then I will have nothing to do with this temple.” Saying this he left. “Are you sure you can go in and douse the fire, Nitai?” Aditya asked. “Yes, Dada. I have doused fire all my life.” Saying this he threw ice-cold water on himself. Taking a wet cloth, he tied two long sticks on his hands and jumped into the flames. They could see him beating the flames with his sticks inside the temple where the fire was the strongest. The flames suddenly increased in intensity and then started going down until after sometime only a small one remained. The fire had subsided. There was only black smoke surrounding them now that made seeing anything impossible. “Nitai, are you all right?” he cried. He heard Nitai’s voice. “Yes, only a few things are burned.” He came out covered in black soot. Aditya went and put his arms around him. “Dada, it could have been worse if we had been just a bit late.” Aditya saw that a crowd had assembled. “Later, Nitai. First tell me where did you learn to douse a big fire like that?” Aditya asked, sitting next to him. “Dada, I used to douse fires every day in the cremation grounds,” he said. “I was taught by my father.” “Didn’t you ever get burned?”

“Dada, fire is God, Agni dev. If you pray and enter it, it protects you. You don’t get burned. All doms know that. You will not find burn marks on a dom’s body.” “Nitai, you have a trust in your deity that I don’t have,” Aditya said. “Dada, one thing. This fire…” Nitai took him to the back portion of the temple and showed him a heap. “See this. Someone started a fire here and ran away.” “Are you fine?” someone was asking Aditya. He noticed nobody asked Nitai how he was. He saw his father go inside the temple. “No devotee will come to our temple if it gets known that the fire was doused by a dom,” Krishna Narayan had said. Some men from the neighborhood entered with him. They were now lying supine in the front of the Shivling, thanking God for the miracle that had saved the temple. He looked at the face of Lord Shiva. The face seemed to say, “The one sitting outside, the one who saved my temple, doesn’t he deserve to be near me?” “Nitai, come with me.” He caught his hand, dragged him, and made him to sit in front of the idol of Shiva. His father got up. “We Brahmans,” Aditya told them, “we could not protect this temple even once.” His father said, “Aditya, let’s talk later.” “Baba, I am tired of this. Nitai risked his life while we stood around watching and we won’t allow him to come inside? I refuse to pray in such a temple.” “All right, let’s not do anything today. We will do prayers tomorrow,” said Krishna Narayan. Prayers were arranged the next day. They started early morning and continued till evening. It was then that his father and other elders wanted to do a purification ceremony. Aditya objected. “Aditya, don’t argue; try to understand,” he was saying. “It is according to the shastras. The temple, during the fire, had come under the command of an untouchable. I admit that he did a great job, but the place is now under his influence,” he said. “It needs purification for prayers to start again.” “I won’t sit in this prayer, Baba.” Krishna Narayan tried to argue with him. “The lower castes do such jobs. Don’t get too emotional.”

“Baba, it is we Brahmans who distorted the shastras to create untouchability, not the shastras.” Later that night Nitai told Aditya that he had grown up around fire since birth. “When I am near a big fire, I can even walk into it. As children we used to play at how quickly we can walk through a fire.” Aditya wondered how those who set the temple on fire would react if they knew that the caretaker of the temple was a man who had lived his life dousing fires. “Nitai, we have to keep your expertise hidden.”

FORTY ONE

Unknown

to everyone, Zeba had started to write a diary after she discovered the secret around her birth. She recorded every detail of her life in it, addressed to her mother in heaven. She had gotten the idea after she had seen a young child in a movie write a letter to her mother in heaven. “I will write one too, and one day, when I meet her in heaven, I will read it out to her.” She decided to write about everything of importance that had ever happened in her life and things which she could not talk to Ammi about. She then hid it among her old clothes. She would address her as “Jannat Ammi.” One day she wrote… “Jannat Ammi, a Hindu family lives next door. They have built a temple. They are called kafirs, and Anwar boijan has vowed to throw them out of Kashmir. But I don’t want them to leave. When I see the mother of the Hindu priest, I start thinking of you.” Then one day she wrote… “Jannat Ammi, today blood started to flow between my legs again and made me vomit. Aarzoo said it never happens to her. My ammi looked worried and took me away from the kitchen. I feel I have some rare disease. Will I die?” Another day she wrote… “Jannat Ammi, I had crossed the wall between the mosque and the temple to help the Hindu priest who was injured by boijan. When I came back that day, I slept without any demons bothering me in my dreams.” “Jannat Ammi, Noora, our goat, jumped over the wall to go in the temple grounds. I heard sounds from that direction. I saw how they prayed to their Gods.”

“Jannat Ammi, the woman’s name is Gayatri. She comes out and goes around the grounds praying to their deities.” “Jannat Ammi, I go out when she comes out, to watch her. But I won’t write about it in the diary, as I feel Ammi has noticed it.” While writing she felt transported to another world where everything felt hazy, the past became blurred, and fragmented to mix with the present and turned into a quagmire of emotions in which she had to discover who she was. The flow of time lost any meaning. One day Zeba noticed that Gayatri, after coming out of her house, sat down with an abrupt suddenness below a chinar tree. The lamp fell down from her hands. Zeba jumped over the wall and helped her to her room. Gayatri’s eyes were red, and she was breathing hard. “Shall I call someone?” “No, I am a little breathless.” Zeba held her hand and helped her to lie down. She saw the wall full of pictures of Hindu Gods. Gayatri asked her to bring her medicine from a rack. “Can I come over sometime to talk to you?” Zeba asked after sometime. When Gayatri said “yes,” she decided she would share all her problems with her. That day she wrote in the diary… “Jannat Ammi, she is so calm unlike Ammi…” Then one day she wrote… “Why do I feel as if I have always known her? She is so beautiful, just like the way you would have been had you been alive.” “I write everything to my mother in heaven.” Zeba had showed Gayatri her diary. “I have not told anyone about it, only you.” She showed the letter written by her own mother to Gayatri. “This is what she wrote to me before she died. She was mad and had to live in a hospital. Will I go mad like her too?” “No, you won’t, ever,” Gayatri assured her and added, “Never hurt anyone or think you are better than others.”

Zeba had felt so calm that day that it led her ammi to comment, “Koori, looks like some fakir  has put his hand on your head.” Meanwhile, she told Gayatri her deepest worries. “Does my real father know about me? My heart says he knows I live here. Shall I go in search of him?” “What will you ask him?” “Why did he abandon me? Why was he so cruel to my mother and me?” Gayatri put her hand on her head. “He is living his own life now. Let him be.” “My brother is so violent. He doesn’t listen to anyone. Will he ever reform?” “Reach him with love. He will change.” She told her about her madrassa. “They say you all are kafirs and I shouldn’t take any learning from you.” She showed her the holy Koran she read every day and told her about all her friends. She even mentioned Aarzoo and their secretly looking at posters of film stars. “Is it wrong to think like that about someone?” she asked. She found that Gayatri never criticized her or her beliefs. One thing she did avoid asking about was Aditya, although she would bring him into the conversation in an indirect manner. “Who is doing the prayer in the temple? Does your son know all the prayers?” One day she asked, “Why don’t you ever go outside of the temple gates? You only do rounds of this place.” “I often lose sensations in my body and I faint. It is a rare illness that can be kept in check with medicines,” she told Zeba. “I thought I would never live this long, but I have.” “Don’t say that,” Zeba said. “I want to live until Aditya turns twenty, which is only a few years away. Yet I know that I won’t be around till then.” Then Gayatri asked, “Will you give me the white medicine in that bottle?” “Should I pour it in a spoon for you?” “Yes. You know, Aditya gives me my medicines every night.” One day she asked, “Will you tell me your life story?” “I will. We will need some time together.”

The chance came unexpectedly. It was on the third Sunday of the month when her ammi and abbu said that they would go to attend a wedding and be late to return. “Those five days, Ammi. It has started. Should I still come?” She made a long face. “Oh Allah, this thing had to start now! But I am glad you told me. Otherwise, we would have to come back home in the middle of the function.” Zeba was glad that her lie was not caught. When she went, Gayatri had finished cooking rice. “Today, I want to hear where you grew up, how you met Aditya’s father, and how you brought up Aditya.” Gayatri told her about her childhood, her marriage with Krishna Narayan, and her determination to give birth to Aditya so that the history of the family is not lost. She told him how Aditya was swept away by the river and saved by an untouchable boy. She saw a number of books in one corner. “Which is his favorite book?” “There is Tagore’s ‘Geetanjali’ and Gandhi’s ‘My Experiments with Truth.’ He reads them again and again.” She was lost in conversation when she heard someone call her name. She heard Anwar’s voice. He was saying, “I will look for her.” Zeba ran out the back door and jumped over the wall behind the foliage to reach the toilet at the end of the ground. She shut herself in the toilet. She knew Anwar would come there. Anwar came and called out, “Zeba, are you there?” “Yes, boijan. I have a stomach cramp.” “This place has snakes. How many times have I told you not to come here?” “How come you all came back early?” Zeba asked her ammi later. “We couldn’t reach the place because there was a landslide on the way,” said Ammi. Later, thinking about the whole episode, Zeba felt she had no regrets. She had learned everything about him.

FORTY TWO

“You know, Javed boijan’s study drawer is not locked. He rushed out for some function. I don’t think he remembers not having locked up the drawer. I went to his room to fetch the breakfast plate and then I saw it open.” The two sisters exchanged a smile. “Which means we can take out boijan’s diary.” “Yes, this chance will not come again.” “All right we will both go. You stand guard.” The diary was right on top. She took it out and dashed back to their room. “Let’s close the door.” They knew he wrote poetry. Using every excuse, they would go to his room and try to peek into it. The younger one, Roohi, had almost succeeded once in reading a few lines when he had left it open. She had seen the line “The tresses of your hair that blow in the wind, I would like to follow to the end of earth.” Before she could read the whole poem, her brother had come back and she had gone to the other side of the room. “Were you reading my diary?” he had asked, looking at her suspiciously. She had feigned ignorance. “What diary, boijan?” “Have you read it?” “I am still cleaning this side.” She knew that she hadn’t been convincing. When she had come back from his room, she had not been able to stop laughing. “You know, boijan talks of chasing a woman’s hair all over the earth, over mountains and rivers.” “Could you see any name in the poem?” Nilofer, the older one, had asked.

“No, there seemed to be one written at the bottom, but he returned to the room before I could see it properly.” This had led both the sisters to go on an expedition to find out what was so precious in the diary that their brother wrote about. They had made endless speculations about who it could be. “You go and tell Ammi that I am taking a bath and you are putting henna on your hair. That will give us at least an hour.” Then they had opened the diary. There were poems about Kashmir, about freedom and justice, on oppression. Sandwiched between them was a poem named “Your Tresses of Hair.” Roohi said, “Here it is.” She came to the poem whose first verse she had been able to read earlier. They scanned it quickly and came to the last line. The name written was “Zeba.” “Zeba!” they exclaimed in unison. “But boijan, how carefully he hid it. Here, let’s read this. This is a long poem,” said Roohi. “Zeba, when you called me that night when Aditya was hurt by stones, I ran with you to help him and then I saw your tears. They fell for him. And I knew that in your heart of hearts, in that moment he came to occupy that most treasured part where I had wanted to be.” “Shall we read further?” asked Roohi, trying to stop her tears. “No, let’s read all of it.” “Then I saw you when he got up. It was as if your world had come together and mine had fallen apart. The sigh that came from you, that sigh will you ever have for me, even if I die a thousand deaths?” “I can’t read anymore,” said Roohi. “What can’t you read anymore?” It was their ammi. “Nothing, Ammi,” they jointly said. But they knew that their voices had given them away. “What were you seeing?” She saw the diary in their hands. “Give it to me.” “It is boijan’s diary, Ammi.” “And you were reading it all this while. He is my son. I can read it too.” “No, Ammi.” But she had already snatched it. Nilofer scolded her sister, “It is your fault. I feel bad that Ammi will read each and every poem minutely.” “Shall we go and say that your drawer was open and Ammi opened it and now she is reading your diary?”

“But we don’t know where he is right now.” “There is nothing we can do.” When they went to his room after an hour, Javed was reading a book. His drawer was open, and the diary was lying in the same place from where they had picked it up. He smiled when he saw them. “I had to go suddenly without informing you. Ammi told me she came and locked the room after I left.” “I just hope that Ammi hasn’t read the part about his love for Zeba,” said Nilofer later. “Why do you say that?” asked Roohi. “Ammi sees her as an orphan and doesn’t like it when she comes over. I once overheard Ammi say whatever she is now, it is because of the influence of imam saab. If Ammi gets to know he likes her, it will be hell.”

FORTY THREE

“Thank

Allah that I got to know before any mishap has occurred; otherwise how would imam saab have shown his face to people? Everything is Allah’s will. But promise me it will remain between the two of us.” “Now I will go. It is time for Javed’s father to come back.” The two women had talked for hours. Then Javed’s mother had brought up the subject of Zeba. “Sister, you must try for Zeba’s marriage. Men’s eyes don’t leave her. So much beauty is not good in a single girl. You know what I mean?” “You don’t have to tell me a word more.” “And you know this boy, the priest of the temple. You know what people say?” “No, what do they say?” “That his singing pulls young girls toward him. What if he influences her to get drawn toward his faith?” Javed’s mother asked. “It can’t be. Zeba is a devout Muslim.” “Yes, but you know her initial years when she was in an orphanage were disturbing. All kinds of things take place there. She was born out of lust, not blessed by marriage.” Zeba’s mother protested. “I often think that if Allah had blessed me with my own daughter, I couldn’t have raised her as well as I have raised Zeba.” “I agree. I only said she should be married off before a mishap takes place.” She walked out. She wanted Javed to finish his degree and marry a girl of her choice. Zeba was a harami,   and such girls existed to cast spell on others. When she came home, she announced to her daughters, “I heard that Zeba will soon get married into a rich family, and she is very happy.”

That evening when imam saab came back home, his wife asked him, “Shouldn’t you think of Zeba with more seriousness?” “What do you mean, begum?” he asked. “I mean she is a young woman and we need to find a match for her.” “Begum,” he said, “she is going to be sixteen soon. Only the other day she told me she wants to be a doctor and treat the ill in mental asylums. Now, I don’t know where she got that idea from.” “This is ominous, Imam saab. If people hear this, they will laugh, thinking how have you raised her,” said his wife. “I wonder who put this idea in her head,” she said. “Or does she think we are all a family of mad people? Who will marry her with these ideas in her head?” “Has something happened today, begum, that you talk about her marriage?” “Don’t tell anyone. Today Javed’s mother came to see me. She said Zeba sits facing the mountains and talks to some imaginary people looking at the peaks.” “Have you asked her about it?” “She said she was writing poetry.” “Poetry, she writes poetry on what.” Imam saab was surprised. “Yes, she writes poems and is very fond of Lal Ded.” “How did Javed’s mother find out about Zeba?” She lowered her voice. “You know nothing then. But I can tell you something. When they grow up, children adopted from orphanages behave in a strange way. However much you love them, they remain ungrateful. And the most important thing, Imam saab, Javed’s mother told me that everyone discusses how the temple is a bad influence on her.” “I have raised her to be a devout Muslim. How can that be possible, begum?” “She often jumps over the wall and says she went to bring Noora. She often stops on the roads to hear their prayers. Aarzoo told me.” “Begum, we cannot just suddenly distrust our child?” “Well, she is our child but not our own blood, Imam saab. Don’t forget the difference. It is only your own blood that you can trust. And a grown-up girl, Imam saab, only listens to her body, not her father, and you are not even her own father.” “Begum, I can’t believe our Zeba is under someone’s spell.”

“No, but she will be if you don’t do this for her. She has grown up, and the last thing we want is that she gets attracted to a kafir. Who will adopt a child in the valley after hearing this?” Giving a sigh, he said, “Begum, I promised to Haji saab that I will get her married when she is ready. I will go and talk to Salim’s father tomorrow. They had sent a proposal for Zeba. I had said no. Now, I will tell them I have changed my mind.” FORTY FOUR “This is where the Hindu priest comes to pray every afternoon. He has placed a black stone below that tree, and he pours water on it.” “Why here, below the tree?” “For him, trees are holy.” Aditya stopped in his tracks after hearing voices. He had come to the edge of the ground to collect some flowers. There was dense foliage where he stood. Across the wall, below the deodar tree, Zeba stood with a thick rope in her hand, along with two other girls. “We can tie a rope on the top branch,” Zeba said. “There will be enough space for a swing.” Aditya stood there, unmoving. His father had asked him to bring some flowers from the garden. He moved the dense foliage and saw Zeba pointing at the tree below which he sat for prayers. She was saying, “He comes here and sits like this”—she sat in the lotus posture, mimicking him—“and says ‘soham.’” The girls giggled. “Don’t laugh, Aarzoo,” she protested. “He prays to his God.” “All right, we won’t, but tell us more.” “He is lost to everything then.” “What do you mean lost, where?” “I wish I knew. Maybe in one of his Gods.” Aarzoo gave her a jab. “Look how disappointed she is? I bet you hope he opens his eyes and sees you.” “No, Aarzoo, he doesn’t. Not even for a moment.” “And you watch him all the time?” Aarzoo’s mouth fell open. “Once I even threw small pebbles onto his lap to see his reaction, but he didn’t move.”

“Poor you,” Aarzoo said. “Even his God would open his eyes if he knew the kind of beautiful girl is trying to catch his attention. Will he come now?” “Now is not the time for him,” she said. “He comes later.” “And you know all that. You come to watch him regularly, no?” “Yes, I can’t help it.” “How did it start?” Aarzoo poked her. “First time it was Noora who jumped over and I saw him. He didn’t notice me at all.” Aditya realized that his cheeks had become hot. He had never overheard young girls talk among themselves and that too about him. In his mind Zeba was a shy girl who had helped him once when he had been hit by stones. That she talked like this… “Enough talk; let me climb up,” Zeba was saying. Aditya saw Zeba climb up the tree and tie the rope on its branch. He tried to shrink further into the shrub but realized that it was so thick that even if she stood at the top, she would not notice him. Something within Aditya told him not to go away. “After all, it is about me,” he thought, rationalizing his action. He brought his attention back to them. Zeba had come down and was tying her blue dopatta   around her waist and above her budding breasts. Then he saw Aarzoo and the other girl do the same. Aarzoo giggled. “Zeba, you are going to have beautiful ones,” she said. “Shush, you will have insects in your mouth.” “Zeba, you should drape the dopatta more carefully. Last time when you came home, my boijan kept staring at you. He always asks me when you are coming again.” The statement brought Aditya’s attention to Zeba. She sat on the swing, and Aarzoo and the other girl pulled her back and then pushed her swing. Zeba went high up in the air and back. Zeba looked like a bird flying with her wings spread out. Her hair flew behind her, and she hummed a tune, “Katyu chukh nund bane, valo mashok myane.”  Aditya no longer felt the ascetic that he thought himself to be but a body, a vessel from which springs many a desire. “Come off the swing now. It’s our turn,” Aarzoo shouted. The other girls sat on the swing one by one.

After sometime, the girls sat down exhausted. “We have a little more time before abbu comes back.” “It was fun,” Aarzoo said. “Oh, I remember now; I have to show you something.” From inside her shirt, Aarzoo took out a picture. The three girls bent over the picture, their eyes wide, devouring every bit. From the way they discussed it, he guessed it was that of a man. Aditya felt his face turn red. In an irrational way, he wanted to see the picture. “No, I am a priest,” he told himself. “How does such a thought even come to me?” He saw Zeba play with the flower near her. One of them said, “To be fair, your priest’s face is equally good.” “Shhh, be quiet and let’s go.” Aarzoo blew a kiss at the picture and carefully folded it. “Shall we leave the swing?” “Yes, nobody comes here.” After they left, Aditya realized he had stood there without having moved a muscle. He didn’t want to bring flowers to his Gods anymore. He wanted to go over the wall and be in that space where Zeba had breathed and played with her friends. “I don’t know what is coming over me.” He jumped over the wall and went where the rope still hung from the tree. He picked up the flowers that Zeba had played with and went back to the temple where his father was waiting for him. “What took you so long, and why have you brought these flowers? These flowers are never put on Lord Shiva.” “Baba, I made a mistake.” “All right, now pour water on the Shivling.” As Aditya poured water over the Shivling, his mind kept going back to the image where a girl had tied a blue cloth around herself, her face red, talking of her body on the threshold of womanhood. “Aditya, you are pouring water on the floor and not on the Shivling.” “I apologize, Baba,” he said. That night, as he fell asleep, he saw her again in his dream. She was flying in the air and he was looking at her. She came near him, and he tried to hold her in his arms. Each time he tried, she ran away, and he couldn’t catch her. He cried her name, and she stopped running. What was this? His

body was having sensations he didn’t know existed. He felt burning all over his body and felt something between his legs ready to burst. And then he felt her coming closer till she and he were not separate anymore. “Stop,” he said. It was too late. He felt her skin. It was soft and raw, and a strange smell from it drove him wild. Her black hair was flying all over him, enveloping him as if it would bind him forever. He felt her body, her face as he had seen her, but it was different. The blue salwar kameez  that covered her was gone and so was her dopatta. “No,” he cried as he felt his body crashing like a wave on the shore, and he felt he was no longer the same person. He felt something unclean and dirty come out from his body. No, this could not happen to him, a priest. It struck him that he had failed to keep his promise to Gurudev. He got up from his bed. He saw his parents asleep in the next room. He picked up a knife and thought of slashing his wrists. No one would know. But as he went outside and sat in front of the stone Shivling, he felt a strange uncertainty, a doubt that engulfed him from within. In a way he couldn’t explain even to himself, he felt a chain around his body was dissolving, breaking down; a chain that had pushed him into a well where he only felt himself like a boy and not as a man. He felt tears well up from within, telling him he was no more a slave but could now own his body, which had remained a stranger to him so far.

FORTY FIVE

A Kashmiri pandit family was leaving for the plains and wanted to donate their belongings to the temple. They had asked Aditya to collect it from their home. “I will get a tonga  and bring the things,” said Aditya. “Take Nitai along with you,” his mother said. While they crossed the bridge, a group of boys appeared, led by Anwar. “Go back,” one of them shouted. “Continue to walk, Nitai. Don’t look at them,” Aditya said. One of the boys came in front of them and said something. All the boys laughed. One of them poked Aditya in the stomach. Aditya held Nitai’s hand. “You will not do anything,” he said. The boys laughed. “See, the pandit holding the hands of his chela.” After they crossed them and went some distance, a stone came and fell at their feet. “Nitai, keep walking.” As they crossed the bend in the street, Nitai asked, “Dada, you go through it every day?” Then he added, “Dada, I never saw a Brahman being insulted before in my life. My father, my grandfather always told me how Brahmans think they have come out of the head of Lord Brahma and are the most evolved of all human beings. I thought I would feel good when I saw a Brahman being humiliated, but I saw the way you dealt with it. It is the way I have done all these years. But why do they insult you? They don’t insult your father.” “I wish I knew, Nitai.” They covered the rest of the journey in silence. When they came back, a stone came and hit the tonga. “Dada, you go ahead. I will follow.” What happened next was quite unexpected. He saw Nitai pick up the stone. “Nitai, don’t!” he screamed. But it was too late. Nitai threw it back at

the boy who had thrown it at him. The boy cried out as the stone hit him on the forehead. “Here, another one to all of you.” The second stone went and hit another boy. “Nitai, no, come away.” As Aditya ran to bring him away, he saw Anwar come out with some boys from the mosque on hearing the commotion. “You swine!” He dashed toward Nitai. “I will teach you a lesson.” But Nitai jumped to one side, and before Anwar realized it, he had him felled on the ground between his legs and rained blows on him. Aditya shouted, “Let him go.” The other boys stood transfixed. One of them ran away toward the mosque to call more people. “Where are you running away?” Nitai yelled. “Next time you hit him, I will crush your skull,” Nitai warned. “Nitai, you won’t talk to him like that. Let him go,” Aditya said as Nitai loosened his grip on Anwar’s neck. Anwar got up without saying a word. A man came out of the mosque and took him away. After they had gone, Aditya could not control himself anymore. “Why did you pick a fight, Nitai?” That night, they talked until late in the night; Nitai talked to Aditya about his life in the burning grounds. “We hit the skulls of people so as to break them. I can break a skull with one blow.” And then he said, “I couldn’t see it when they insulted you.” Next day, the local inspector came to the temple. He called Krishna Narayan and said, “It has come to my notice that there was a fight outside the mosque.” He heard the whole story from Aditya and his father and then told them, “Imam saab’s son hasn’t made any complaint.” “That’s good, isn’t it?” Krishna Narayan said. “No, it means he wants to take his personal revenge on your son. I warn you both, leave; otherwise he will kill Aditya.”

FORTY SIX

“Nitai

has asked me if he can start reading the Vedas,” Aditya told

Gayatri. “Do it when your father sleeps.” But Nitai wasn’t so lucky. One day when Aditya was teaching him the meaning of some verse from the Rig Veda, his father came and stood there. “Baba, I—” His father didn’t let him finish and walked away, with Aditya following him. “Baba, let me explain.” “No, Aditya.” He motioned him to stop. “You do everything contrary to what I say. You had these two in the temple, I didn’t say anything. But if you want to teach them Vedas, I will not be part of it.” Gayatri came in. “Nitai wanted to learn Vedas from Aditya and he asked me. I told him to go ahead.” “Baba, why are you so against his learning?” Aditya asked. “Aditya, only Brahmans have the right to learn and teach Vedas.” “Baba, the scriptures also say a Brahman is the one who searches for knowledge. That makes Nitai a Brahman too.” “Aditya, you have to choose,” his father said, after sometime. “What do you mean, Baba? Choose between what?” “Either he stops learning Vedas or I leave the temple.” “Baba,” Aditya’s voice faltered, “what harm has he done by wanting to learn from me? Many of our saints were not Brahmans.” “No, Aditya. Please choose by tomorrow and tell me.” “Baba,” he said, “I will not stop teaching him.” That night his father didn’t sleep in his room. When he went to call his father, he saw him in prayer. “Baba,” he said, “I have come to apologize.”

“That won’t be necessary,” his father said, his voice devoid of any emotion. “I have talked to your mother. She stopped me from leaving.” “May I ask what she told you?” he hesitated, before asking him. “She said she will herself tell you one of these days.” Two days later he told him, “You can teach Nitai the Vedas. If the people around get to hear that you are teaching it to him, they will stop coming here and the donations will stop too. Will the temple survive then?” “Baba, the deities will be happy if Nitai learns. They won’t leave this temple,” he said.

FORTY SEVEN

“You went there again?” Anwar asked her as she came in. “I didn’t go there, boijan,” she lied. “You stood near the wall listening to their prayers. I saw you.” Anwar got up and faced her. “You understand that no true Muslim should listen to the prayers of kafirs and their Gods. And think of Abbu’s reputation.” That evening she debated what to do as she walked by the wall. Even Noora came to stand by her to ask if he could go over to the other side to eat. “No, Noora, you can’t do that anymore.” But Noora violated her command. He jumped over the wall and ran off in the direction of the temple. “No,” she screamed. She ran after him as Noora ran around in the temple ground. “Noora, no,” she screamed as she caught hold of him and brought him back. “What is there in the plants on their side that we don’t have?” When she came back, she thought, “Allah be thanked that Anwar boijan did not see me. I am saved. From tomorrow I will tie Noora up.” Next day when she saw Anwar, he walked with wide steps with a gleam in his eyes. “Boijan, Noora ran away yesterday. I brought him back and I have decided I will tie him up from now on.” Anwar didn’t say anything. She helped her mother serve food. Haji chacha as usual teased her, “If I was forty years younger, I would be writing poems looking at your face.” Pointing to her, he said, “The days when the moon doesn’t come out in the Kashmir skies, we can come and take a look at Zeba.” She blushed and ran away. She felt strange while eating. She couldn’t eat the goshtaba   that her ammi had made and got up early from dinner. She went to tie up Noora for the night but couldn’t find him. She called out several times, but he didn’t come. “Has he gone over again to the

temple? But I told him not to, and he wouldn’t disobey me in the night,” she thought. Not finding him, she got worried. Should she go and ask them if he was hiding in some corner? She decided to wait a little. If he has gone somewhere, he will come back. When Anwar came she asked him about Noora. “I have been looking for Noora; have you seen him?” “Wasn’t he getting too fat?” he said. He looked at her and then it dawned on her why she had felt strange eating the food. “No, you didn’t!” She lunged at him. “Why did you?” she said, pulling at his pheran. He pushed her away. “I have dealt with the problem. It was he who took you there. I just took him to the butcher and it was all over.” Zeba could not listen anymore. “You took my Noora to the butcher and made me…” She couldn’t finish the sentence. She sat down on the floor, her eyes looking at the wall. “No, it can’t be true. It is I who should have been punished.” Anwar was saying, “It was everyone’s idea. Haji chacha, Abbu, Ammi all agreed.” “But how could you do this without asking me? He was the only one I played with,” she cried. Anwar looked at her. “Now that you have eaten him, forget it.” She dragged herself to her bed and found a corner to sit down. Her ammi came over. “Koori, think of the feast we had. He was an evil goat. He was the one who took you to that temple next door.” When her ammi woke up the next morning, she didn’t find Zeba next to her. She saw her sitting in the same position that she had left her sitting last night. Her eyes now stared at the wall without blinking. “What is happening to you?” She shook her up. “Enough; we all know that you are upset, but there’s no need to react like this. It was a goat, and goats are meant to be sacrificed one day. But the joke on you was bad, that’s all. Now get up and fill the water in the jugs. A woman shouldn’t show her feelings for too long.” Saying this she left. When she came back after a few hours, Zeba was still sitting there. “What did I tell you?” she screamed. “You think you can sit like this and tell us what a wrong thing we have done?” Not finding a response from her, she went and slapped her hard. “Get up and work. Otherwise, I am going to drag you into the kitchen today.”

She went to her husband, who told her, “Let her be. One day you can work a little more. She will be all right by tomorrow.” Zeba didn’t get up. Not the next day or even the day after. It was when they realized that she had not eaten or taken water for nearly seventy-two hours and was soiling herself that they got worried and rushed her to the hospital. The medical officer, Dr. Ahmed in the civil hospital, was a man in his fifties. His first reaction when they brought her in was that he had not seen a more beautiful girl in his life. “Well, she was adopted by us from an orphanage. Her mother died in a madhouse. Her father deserted her. She has nightmares but is very devout. Reads namaz five times a day. We know nothing more.” “Many things from her childhood show a possibility to develop madness in adulthood. We have to hospitalize her,” said Dr. Ahmed. “No,” he told himself, “such a beautiful child can’t become mad. Allah will be merciful.” He told imam saab, “We have to keep her under observation.” Zeba was fed by a tube. She didn’t speak to anyone and stared into space. Dr. Ahmed came to her every time he was free. On the third day, he asked imam saab, “Who is Noora?” On the seventh day, he asked him, “Who is Aditya?” “You have to understand this. What you have done has shocked her so deeply that she will take time to come out of it.” “Doctor saab, I will be honest. We were so angry with her for going to listen to the prayers of the priest that we got incensed,” Imam saab said. “Let her be on her own. She will come out of it,” explained Dr. Ahmed. “Are you sure, Doctor saab?” “Yes,” he said. “We can’t punish her for it.” Several days after coming back home, Zeba went to the wall from where she could hear the hymns being recited in the temple. “Zeba,” he was saying, “you here? How are you? We were worried about you.” “I was in the hospital.” “Yes, we know. We went to see you at the hospital.” “You came to see me? But I didn’t see you,” she said. “Yes, my mother and I went. But they didn’t allow us to go in. The doctor said our visit would disturb you.” “Zeba koori, why are you talking to yourself?” her mother asked.

“Myself?” “Yes, there is no one around you.” “Oh, Ammi, forgive me. I was just singing to myself.” “Koori, the doctor said that in the hospital, you talked to yourself. You have started it here too. Don’t stand there. It is a bad place.” “Yes, Ammi, I will not stand here.” From the depth of her soul, an emotion arose, which she couldn’t grasp. She walked back to her room and closed the door. She came out after sometime and went to her ammi. “I am going to tie up Noora for the night. I can’t find him.” Imam saab said, “Let’s get her married before her illness gets known, begum. I will go and talk to Salim’s father tomorrow.”

FORTY EIGHT

“We have come to talk to you, Pandit saab. Hope you are not teaching Vedas right now?” They were six of them. The sarcasm was evident in their voice. “Please come and be seated. Let me call my father.” “No, we have come to talk to you,” the eldest among them spoke up. “Pandit saab, we are grateful to you for coming to this temple. You also have become an inspiration to our youth. But there is one thing…” “Now the temple has grown. We want you to ask the two untouchables to leave. They are violating the sanctity of the temple,” said another one. “What do you mean?” asked Aditya. “The other day my grandson asked me who was the second priest in the temple? I said there is no second priest. He said the dark one who was helping the main priest. Yesterday that untouchable showed some visitors around and proudly said that he was an untouchable once but now is learning Vedas.” “He was just helping me arrange things because I asked him to,” Aditya said. “He was not taking on the role of a priest.” “See, only Brahmans can look after temples, not untouchables. If that happens, it is our social responsibility to correct it.” “I take his help in running the temple.” “That is what we feel uncomfortable with,” they said. “Why involve him in doing things only priests should do? The other day we saw you teach him the shastras.” “Why are you so worried if he learns the shastras?” The elders looked at each other. “If he learns all the things that are needed to run a temple, soon he will leave you and open his own temple somewhere else.”

Just then Tara came in and asked, “Shall I make kahwa for everyone?” Aditya saw the face of the man who was talking to him turn red. “Tara, please go right now,” he said. “Beta, as long as they remain here as cleaners, nobody has any problems. How does an untouchable have the courage to come in and ask if we need tea? This girl has no awareness that we are Brahmans.” Another one said, “Why don’t we explain to you what we find objectionable?” “Please do so,” Aditya said. “Yes, we have the list.” One of them brought it out. “The two untouchables help you in making the prasad, in cooking for the temple, help you during the prayers and the religious rituals. A few days ago, I heard they helped you in cleaning the Shivling and decorating the temple with flowers. We have come to tell you that we want you to put a stop to this.” Aditya felt something snap within him. “When this temple was in ruins, all of you just passed by it. When I was attacked with stones, you hid inside your homes. When they put fire to the temple, this boy jumped in the fire and saved it. And today when the temple’s fame is spreading, you want me to throw them out?” he asked them. “What if I don’t let them go?” “Well, we see that you value an untouchable more than the wisdom of your elders.” They got up to go. “One more thing, Pandit saab, from now on none of us will contribute our monthly donation to the temple or come here for prayers.” Saying this they left. Aditya didn’t realize how long he sat there when he heard a voice. “Dada, why do you fight on my behalf? How will you run the temple with no money?” It was Nitai. Next to him was his bag. “No, you will not go,” Aditya said. “Dada, I thought that there was no one more lonely than an untouchable. But now I realize, when a man fights for truth, he is the loneliest. Dada, there is a talk by Muslims to throw Hindus out from here and yet these pandits talk of me leaving this temple. It is they who may have to leave Kashmir.” “Come.” He picked up Nitai’s bag and took it back to his room. “Never talk of leaving again.” After he had sat for a while, he heard a knock on the door. “Ma, why did you come here? You could have called me instead. You should not walk around so much.”

Gayatri stood there, her face a picture of stoic determination. “Tell Nitai I want him to stay.” That night Aditya couldn’t sleep. He got up and came outside his room. The night was silent, and the cold wind chilled his bones. He didn’t remember how long he sat outside. His mind was brought to the present by the chirping of the birds telling him it was morning. “I have not prepared for today’s prayers,” he thought. “But if no one comes today, why bother?” he told himself. Then he felt a voice speak to him, “Even if no other person comes to your temple today and it is just you, I will come to receive the prayers.”

FORTY NINE

On

his eighteenth birthday, Anwar received a new bicycle from Haji chacha. It had gears and, unlike any other bicycle in the neighborhood, could pick up speed in the blink of an eye. His father had asked Haji chacha to buy one and he had brought it from Delhi for him. All the boys from the neighborhood gathered around it to see him ride. He gave the first ride on it to Zeba. She closed her eyes and screamed, “Slower, you will crash it.” After two rounds she decided to stop. “You go too fast.” The other boys watched Anwar cycle it up and down on the slope. As they watched, Anwar suddenly disappeared behind the bend of the mountain. Suddenly one of the boys, Rashid, gave out a gasp. A convoy of trucks appeared in the bend of the mountain behind Anwar. A politician from Delhi was on his way. They could cross his path in no time. In the distance, he could see the man sitting in the front seat of the jeep asking passersby to clear the road. Rashid gesticulated raising his hands in the air, trying to warn Anwar to stay off the road. Anwar saw him, but, instead, he doubled his speed, thinking Rashid was egging him on. He didn’t see the convoy behind him. The convoy came close, and the man in uniform hit him seeing him cycle on their path. Anwar lost his grip on the cycle and fell on the side of the slope, and his knee hit a stone. Anwar raised his fist toward the convoy and abused them. He didn’t notice a man coming toward him. “You called us scoundrels?” He stood directly in front of Anwar. “No,” he replied weakly. “You called us dogs.” Two more men came up to Anwar and pulled him up. They pushed Anwar inside the jeep and drove away.

“Where are you taking me?” he asked. “To a kennel,” the man said. “You called us dogs, didn’t you?” “No, don’t. I won’t let you.” He tried to fight with the man. But he was no match for them. They slapped him and tied his hands behind his back. One of them hit him on the ears. He didn’t remember anything after that. When he opened his eyes, he was in a dark room. It was the face of Javed asking him if he was all right. “Javed, you here?” He got up and examined himself. He had imagined they would have beaten him like last time. “Thank Allah, you are fine,” Javed was saying. “Let’s go back now.” They walked out of the room. There were barracks all around, and barbed wires surrounded the place. There were men in uniform. No one looked at them as they went out of the gate escorted by a sentry. Once on the road, he pulled Javed to one side. “Javed, tell me how on earth did you get me out of there?” “The news had spread that you had abused a security man and he had taken you away. I was with Aditya when the news came to me. Hearing it, he said that he knows the officer in charge. He comes to the temple. Then we both came here. The officer, on hearing his request, asked you to be released. Since you were unconscious, they allowed me to sit with you. Anwar, what are you doing?” Anwar had run and tried to jump from the side of the road into the ravine. “Death is better for me than to be rescued like this,” he was saying. “Why, Anwar?” Javed held him back. “Because to live under the gratitude of a kafir is worse than death.” “He saved you. I thought at least you would thank him.” “Javed, don’t weaken me.” Anwar didn’t finish the sentence as he tried to walk away toward his home. Javed caught up with him and gripped his hand. “No, I won’t let you go like this today. You have to hear me out.” “Javed, what is it?” Anwar stopped in his tracks, looking him in the eye. “I heard something the other day. In last few months, a number of boys were picked up from different parts of Kashmir and beaten up on flimsy excuses. The men who abducted them wore army uniforms. But an enquiry later showed that there were no army men present in those areas at those times. What also doesn’t make sense to me is that for each boy, Haji chacha

went to their home and talked to them about becoming martyrs for freedom. The interesting part is that Haji chacha reached their home before anyone else did. In case of Omar, he was there even when he was brought home from the police station.” “What are you trying to say?” “That it could be a ploy to take young Kashmiri boys and torture them so that they are filled with hatred.” “You mean, what they did to me at the police station was… that Haji chacha could get it done to me… I don’t believe it. I will ask him.” “Anwar don’t.” Javed tried to stop him but he had run away. He came back half an hour later to Javed’s home. “I asked him. He said these are all lies and that someone has fed you a false story.”

FIFTY

Imam saab listened to the sound again. It was as if a stone had hit some hard object. “Who is it?” he asked his wife. “Oh, it is Anwar; he is throwing stones. He has been doing that all day without stopping.” “Tell him to come in and sleep,” said Imam saab. “You go and tell him. He didn’t even eat his dinner.” As he got up, she said, “Please speak to him gently. You get angry with him nowadays for no reason.” Imam saab walked outside. “Anwar,” he called out. “Beta, come and sleep.” Anwar didn’t hear at first. There was a pile of stones next to him. “Oh, it’s you, Abbu. I didn’t see you.” “Beta, you didn’t eat dinner. Your ammi said you have been throwing stones the whole day.” “Abbu, you go. I will come later,” said Anwar. “Anwar”—he touched him on his shoulder—“tell me what happened?” “Abbu, the kafir boy next door has insulted me again. He could have gotten me beaten up and even killed, but he chose to protect me. Everyone is talking about it. Abbu, I thought of killing myself to stop this humiliation. But now I will have to live with it for the rest of my life. Maybe one of us needs to go from this world.” “If you kill him, his father will lose a son. I will have to live my life being called the father of a murderer,” said Imam saab. “If you kill yourself, your ammi and I will not be able to live with this sorrow. Zeba will have to explain to people why her brother did it.” “Then what should I do, Abbu?” “Wisdom says you have to understand your enemy. You have to understand where he finds his strength from.”

“I don’t understand, Abbu. Why should I understand him?” “Understand his inner strength. Follow him, see where he goes, what he does. The strength he shows is spiritual. He is not an enemy to be scared by your stones.” “You admire him, Abbu?” “No, I don’t. Let’s go back home. Your ammi hasn’t eaten as yet. I promised her we will all eat together.” He put his hand around Anwar as they walked back home. After dinner, he said, “Begum, there is only one danger in my suggestion. In trying to understand his enemy, what if he becomes like him?” His wife said, “I was going to say that too. My heart tells me that priest is evil,” she said as she switched off the lights.

FIFTY ONE

While coming back from the market, Aditya saw two army jeeps outside the temple. Army men often came and offered prayers before going to the border. “Namaste,   Pandit saab.” A big burly officer with a white moustache came and folded his hands. Several men with machine guns surrounded him. “Beta, this is General Sharma from the Indian army.” General Sharma had an air of authority that was unmistakable. “Your temple, it is small, but believe me, the peace of mind that I felt here, I have never felt elsewhere. I heard the history of the temple from your father. He also told me that you are harassed by the local boys.” “Yes, they often throw stones at me. They don’t like it that this temple is here.” “What do they mean they don’t like it? This temple has been here for nine hundred years. I have discussed the situation with your father. Why don’t you hit back at them?” asked General Sharma. “Dada can’t even hit a fly,” Nitai volunteered. “Is it true they tried to burn the temple?” “Yes, it is true,” Aditya replied, “but Nitai saved it.” “They understand only one language. Your father told me the other day the leader of the boys who throws stones at you was caught, but you asked them to let him go. Why did you do that?” “Because I won’t do what they do to me,” Aditya replied. “I have thought of something. Two of my men will follow you whenever you go out of the temple. Your father thinks it is an excellent idea,” said General Sharma. “Baba, you agreed to this?” Aditya asked.

“Yes, now what is wrong in that? And for once your mother also agrees.” “No, I won’t.” “No what, Aditya? If General saab helps us, none of them will dare to look askance at the temple. His unit has already contributed this month’s ration for the temple.” “General saab, this will take away something that I can’t afford to lose.” “What do you mean? Even nonviolence has its limits. Though Gandhiji said it is the highest virtue, we all know that there are times when you have to take up arms and fight,” he said. “Maybe you can explain this more clearly to General saab.” Saying this, his father left. “General saab, I want to tell you two things. I was terrified when I came here. The mosque next door, the police, the stone-throwing crowd, the burning of the temple, all made me want to run away.” “I see,” said the general, “your father didn’t explain to me how you faced it.” “I found that when I walked alone and faced those who wanted to kill me, it gave me an inner courage that I didn’t know existed within me. If I have your men protecting me now, I will lose that courage.” “So you want to walk alone.” “Yes, General saab.” “Even if it kills you?” “Yes, knowing that it can kill me.” “And the other thing?” he asked. “You mentioned two.” “You mentioned that Gandhiji said nonviolence is the highest virtue. But he actually said it was courage that is the highest virtue, the courage to face your adversary unarmed and not run away even if death is certain. My ancestor had that courage; Guru Teg Bahadur had that courage. That’s the courage I too wish to have.” “I didn’t know of this kind of courage,” the general said. “Thanks for educating me. “Now, I can tell my children why Hinduism couldn’t be destroyed in Kashmir.” “I begin my prayers by remembering my ancestor and tell myself that if one day I ever had the same choice like my ancestor, I don’t wish to falter.” “I pray you never have to make that choice,” the general said. They walked out together to the gate of the temple.

“I salute you,” the general said while getting into the car. “I have fought in several wars, been taken prisoner by the enemy. I thought I was a very courageous man, but today, you have taught me a courage that I don’t have.”

FIFTY TWO

“On what grounds can I stop this priest? He is not breaking any law.” “Inspector saab, find some grounds on which to stop him.” “What is your worry, Maulvi saab?” the police officer asked. “My worry is he is trying to rake up the past about the history of Battmazar. Why does he come so far every week? What if tomorrow he raises a demand to build a temple on the island?” “There is one way, Maulvi saab. Next time, ask the children to keep him busy with questions about Battmazar. I will then arrest him for poisoning the minds of children.” Next Thursday, when Aditya went to the boat, some children surrounded him and started to talk about Battmazar. He had just told them not to bother him when the inspector came up with a few policemen. A puzzled Aditya looked at the inspector, who said, “You are spreading false stories. We have to arrest you.” Next day his parents came to see him in prison along with Javed. “They have framed false charges against you,” Javed said. “It was fraught with risk for you to go to this island alone. My father will bail you out.” “No, I don’t want bail,” Aditya said. “You don’t understand. You may be in jail for years.” After two days, Aditya was produced in court. The judge asked him if he had a lawyer. “No, I will fight my own case,” he said. “Why did you arrest him?” the judge asked the inspector. “He was inciting children.” “What did he tell you?” the judge asked the children. “He asked us to come and sit near him and said, ‘Muslims killed Hindus in Battmazar. The Hindus will take revenge. Then we told Maulvi saab,

who told him to be quiet. He didn’t listen. Seeing that he didn’t stop, Maulvi saab called the police.” “It is a lie,” Aditya said. “Would you give a commitment in writing not to do it again? Then I will let you go.” “No, I did not do anything like that. So, I won’t give anything in writing.” “Then I commit you to lockup till the next hearing.” His mother came to see him in jail. “Your baba asked you to sign the papers they give you. They came and threatened him.” “Ma, I won’t sign any papers.” “How are they treating you in jail?” she asked. He didn’t tell her. He had faced ridicule and constant jibes from other prisoners. He had vomited after he discovered they had put meat in his curry. They would wake him up every night at various intervals to say something irrelevant. He only said, “Ma, the guards may overhear us.” In the next session, the judge asked him, “Do you want to open a temple at Battmazar?” “No,” Aditya replied. “The charge against you is that your journey disturbs the peace.” “Whose peace?” he asked. “Which religion says that you have to sit in only one place and pray? The prophets and saints prayed to God whenever and wherever they felt a call from within.” “So how come you feel a call from within on the island, and how is this a prayer? You don’t have a temple there.” “His purpose is to build a temple there and then spread his religion,” the inspector said, trying to defend himself. In the next hearing, the judge asked, “Was it your own idea to go there?” Aditya wondered if he should bring up Professor Baig’s name. Seeing him quiet, the maulvi said, “This priest is lying. Who would advise him to go there?” Aditya mentioned Professor Baig’s name. “A Muslim asked you to go. That is not possible,” the maulvi screamed. “Call him to court,” the judge ordered.

Professor Baig came for the next hearing. Taking the witness stand, he said, “Yes, I told him.” Walking out of the court, Professor Baig called the local reporter of Kashmir Times. “I have a story,” he said. Next day, the judge’s assistant showed him the morning newspaper. “Sir, look at this. There is a full-page article on Battmazar.” The judge took it from his hands. It was titled “Battmazar—the forgotten history of Kashmiri pandits.” The article began by saying, “Memory carries history forward when the human conscience falls silent.” Then it said that not many present-day Kashmiris have heard of Battmazar. The strange name comes from two words “Batt” and “Mazar,” meaning “the graveyard of Hindus.” “How come an island in the middle of Dal Lake has such a strange name?” the article asked. Many of us pass by the island on our way to the Shalimar gardens and the other tourist gardens of Kashmir. But what will they think when they know that in the Pathan era, Hindus were forcibly taken there to be converted and if they didn’t agree, they were buried alive on the island? Would a graveyard in the middle of Dal Lake stop present-day visitors to pause and shed a silent tear? Will they care that such a place exists in Kashmir? The article continued… There were many practices in medieval times to convert the pandits. They were drowned in lakes, mounds of their sacred thread burned, families tied together and made to march while hungry, and their women made sex slaves. All other islands on Dal Lake are named after nature like Soin Laink, Roph Laink. There is a legend of the sun’s rays touching the island, and that is how the name came to be Soin Laink. But Battmazar is the name not taken from nature. The article further said that in the fifteenth century, Kashmir came under the rule of the Pathans. Until then the population of Kashmir was Hindu, and Hindus would rather die than give up their religion. The Pathans felt the large number of Hindus and Buddhists and their temples all over Kashmir to be an insult. Legend has it that they decided on an ingenious plan. They

would herd whole families and take them to the island. There they would give them the choice: “Convert or be buried alive.” But why take them to the island? They could have been killed on the mainland itself. An old pandit from Rainawari recounted a tale to this reporter. “They wanted to avoid bloodshed on the mainland. If every week people are killed, then it becomes a mass graveyard.” It was a tradition in those days to bury prisoners alive with their heads above ground, and as the people’s heads remained visible until the last minute, they could see the expressions of terror in their eyes. The article ended with a question: “Will the Kashmiris of future remember the martyrdom of pandits?” Below it was an interview with Professor Baig on Pathan rule in Kashmir. In the next session, Aditya was surprised to see several people with notebooks. The judge asked Aditya, “Do you have to say anything in your defense?” “Yes, I do,” Aditya spoke slowly. “This period in prison has given me time to reflect and I want to share that.” “So you were taken care of in the prison. Put that on record,” the judge said for everyone to hear. Aditya said, “No. I was put in a cell with four convicts who harassed me. I was given meat to eat despite my saying I don’t eat it.” There was a gasp in the courtroom. Aditya began. “The truth of massacres in Kashmir now exists only as a memory in the minds of many of my people. People are afraid to speak about them, as others demand evidence from them. And when they can’t provide any written evidence, they call them liars. But when memory is the only evidence possible, what other evidence can you bring up? “People ask why anyone didn’t write about it. To write about it in olden times meant sure beheading. I have a story that goes back to three centuries. My ancestor was beheaded for refusing to convert, and none of my ancestors after him had the courage to return. Isn’t that an evidence too? When I returned, I faced stones and a daily reminder that this land doesn’t belong to me. Do I sit and write about it, or do I think of how to survive? To me, the broken pillars of my temple stand as evidence. The story that brought me back to my roots is my evidence. And isn’t it true that my

people left this land six times in great numbers just because their religion was different? Each time they ran away, their souls died a little. “When I started to walk on the streets of Kashmir, I heard people say that the last exodus is coming soon, which will finish the unfinished task of throwing the Hindus out and making Kashmir totally Islamic. Everyone accepts it as the final truth of our land. Will someone then ask where is the evidence? Bring that first. In the midst of all this hatred and violence when the history of Kashmiri pandits is being erased forever from Kashmir, who will be left to talk or write about evidence? “People forget that memory is the only defense against the strong who suppress them. The story of Battmazar touches upon painful memories for both those whose ancestors died there and perhaps for those whose ancestors were the perpetrators. “And in the same way I came back to my temple, Battmazar is another place where, I believe, we need to start this journey of healing if Kashmir has to resist this cycle of hatred and violence that is coming. “Today my prayer is in remembrance of all those who died there and for all those who were their perpetrators. Therefore, I will say that my right to pray cannot be taken away from my right to choose where I pray. I will not change my place of prayer because someone says his sensibilities are affected or his memory gets disturbed. Memory is our only tool against the falsification of history.” “He speaks like a poet bringing up a long-lost truth,” someone remarked. “I think his words have touched everyone’s heart in this room,” another one said. “Free him for the sake of the conscience of Kashmir,” somebody said loudly. When the court assembled after lunch, the judge simply read out the sentence, “Not guilty.” The rest of what he said couldn’t be heard in the din. Aditya came out of the courtroom and was surrounded by people. “Pandit saab, you were inspiring.” He saw Professor Baig. “I can’t tell you how proud I am to know you,” he said. He saw his mother with Javed. They walked home together. “Ma, baba didn’t come?” he asked.

“I asked him, but he refused. Aditya, someone else also wanted you to fight and not give up in prison.” “Who, Ma?” he asked, surprised. “Zeba. She asked me about you every day.”

FIFTY THREE

She

parted the hair on his forehead, took some of the longer strands through her fingers, and covered his eyes with them. Then she pulled them straight so she could see his eyelashes. He protested and tried to push her hands away. “I can feel your breath on me now,” she said as he tried to pull her down as if to kiss her. “Anwar, no, you are hurting me,” she cried. “You have even broken my bangle. See the blood.” “Oh no.” As he let go of her, she burst out laughing. “See, I fooled you again.” He gasped and turned his face away from her. She pulled him back and said, “Why does my beloved get annoyed so easily? How will I manage you after marriage?” “Marriage? Oh yes,” he said as if he had just got up from a dream and heard the word for the first time. “Yes, marriage. We are supposed to be married soon. I wonder if you ever think of it.” “Of course, I do,” he protested and tried to sit up. “The other day I even…” She put a finger on his lips and pushed him back, so he went back to rest his head on her lap. “I don’t like it when my man is lost in thoughts while he is with me. Every time we meet, I have to tell so many lies to my family and here you are, in your own world.” “No, Misba, believe me; you are my world.” “There you go again. You are so far away from me despite our engagement. My family asks me why Anwar is so lost. Tell me, what happened?” “Nothing, Misba, believe me,” said Anwar, his neck becoming stiff.

“All right, so you won’t tell me? But I know you think of your insult at the hands of that infidel.” “Not now, but—” “Anwar, do you know what everyone says about you? That Anwar boasted that he will throw out the infidel in no time, but now he hides his face. That is the reason they hurried up our engagement.” “I am not hiding my face from anyone.” He tried to get up. “The other day Haji chacha said, ‘Anwar doesn’t have it in him to be a warrior.’” “I don’t know what to do, Misba. I have almost done him to death.” “Why almost, Anwar?” “Misba, he is not a goat that I could just kill him.” “So what stuff is he made of, something that my Anwar can’t destroy? He is a kafir after all.” She curled her lips. “He is of a different mettle, Misba. It is not that simple.” “Listen, you have to be brutal and cunning. Otherwise, be ready for a lifetime of humiliation.” “Misba, Zeba will hate me for that.” “Zeba is still a child. I will make her understand. After all, I am her future sister-in-law. And very soon we will have an Islamic Kashmir and all those who worked for it will be celebrated as heroes. No one will see you as a murderer but as a jihadi fighter. Now, enough talk. I have to go.” She pulled the strands of hair back over his eyes. This time he put his hands around her and brought her down so that her body was crushed under him. Her hair came loose and the wind blew it against his face, and he felt a raw smell engulf him, driving him to explore her body. He felt a warmth emanate from her and crushed her lips with his own. There was a taste of blood in his mouth as she cried out and tried to get away from him. He held her tight so that she couldn’t move and tried to open her mouth to kiss her. “Anwar, stop!” She struggled to stop his hands from traveling further. As he crushed her lips, he realized that his hand was over her breasts. She gasped for breath and took his hand away. “Anwar,” saying this, she pulled her dopatta over her bosom. “Anwar, no, don’t look at me like that,” she pleaded. “We have to stop.” “Don’t go now.” He looked at her lips, trying to regain their former color. She wiped the blood with her hand.

“No, Anwar, we have to wait till our marriage.” She held his hands. As she got up to go, she said, “There is something I have to give you. I leave you these bangles. I will only take them back when you have kept your promise. And another thing, I will not come as a bride to your home until that temple is gone.” “Misba, do you know what you are saying? You are asking me to—” She stopped him, “Anwar, either you be ruthless toward a kafir or forget me.” As he tried to look into her eyes, she said, “I have to go. This chinar tree will stay a witness to your promise.”

FIFTY FOUR

And then he saw him. He had been waiting for him behind the chinar tree on the road ever since the snow had started to fall. The Zaina Kadal bridge was one of the oldest in Srinagar. Made of wood, it had withstood the vagaries of nature and survived many winters. The snow covered the bridge making it slippery. Anwar kept his eyes on one house from where smoke was coming out. Finally, he saw the door open and people come out. He heard someone say, “Pandit saab, the havan  went off well. Won’t you eat before leaving?” Then the owner of the house told him, “Pandit saab, it has started snowing and the road is slippery. Shall one of us see you to the temple gate?” He took out three stones. They felt heavy in his hands, and their edges were sharp like knifes. He saw Aditya balance the bags on his shoulders and begin to walk through the snow. He walked with measured steps so as not to slip. In the faint light, he saw the scar on his forehead. For a moment he felt guilty. “Well now, you will not have to walk anymore with the scar.” He saw him slip in the snow, as he couldn’t gauge the depth of the road at one point. This is something every child in Kashmir grows up learning. “Because you never grew up here, you will never know. You only try to be a Kashmiri.” In a short while, Aditya was to cross the wooden bridge. The bridge was such that anyone had to hold the railings and then climb up slowly. At one spot the wooden railing was broken. He would have to act in that moment. He had practiced it for days. “That place will become his graveyard.” Last year two people had fallen from that place, and their bodies were discovered after a month. The newspaper had termed them “accidents.”

He saw Aditya climb up the bridge and pause for breath. He picked up his first stone and aimed at him. The stone hit Aditya on the head, and he turned around to get a grip on the railing. It was then that Anwar threw his second stone. It was heavier and hit Aditya again on the head. He heard a cry and saw Aditya’s grip on the railing loosen and his hands grappling for support. He fell down under the bridge making a splash. He listened. There was no further sound from below the bridge. He thought, “In an hour his body will be covered with snow.” He took the last stone and threw it where he thought he had fallen. There was no sound. He said to himself, “Misba will think I did it for her. But I know I did it for Kashmir.” He saw the bags. They still lay on the bridge. Some rice had spilled out from them. He walked up to the bridge and kicked the bags down below. “You can take it to heaven and cook the rice there.” He smiled as he walked past the bridge. He walked back home. The lights were out. Abbu and Ammi had gone to sleep. He changed his pheran and found his food kept in the kitchen. While eating he thought of the face under the snow. He brushed it aside. “You have to be ruthless with your enemy,” he told himself. Now, he could stand with his head held high. The thought of Misba’s body and her hair falling all over him came to him. He lit the kangri and went to bed. The bedsheet felt unusually cold. He looked at the ceiling and the image came to him of a man covered by the snow. He remembered how some years ago, a man had died in the snow and his body was discovered a week later. There was a smile on the man’s lips. “Will there be smile on his lips too when his body is discovered?” Nobody lasted longer than a few hours under Kashmir snow. “No, it is wrong to make fun of someone who has left this world,” he told himself and turned on his side and pulled the blanket over himself. He didn’t realize how long he lay. His eyelids were heavy, and his legs felt heavy like logs. He felt as if his stomach was burning. He opened the window for some fresh air. There was something different about the room. He lit the lamp and looked at the clock on the wall. Hardly a minute had passed and he thought he had been back for hours.

“No, I would try to get some sleep.” He closed the window and covered himself with the blanket again. Now, he felt his skin burning. He sprinkled some water on his face and hands. It didn’t help. “Boijan.” He was startled by Zeba’s voice. “What is this? Why have you drenched yourself?” She was standing at the door with her eyes wide open. “Zeba, everything will be fine now.” “I heard some noise of someone splashing water. But why did you say, ‘everything will be fine now’? What do you mean by that?” “Nothing, Zeba. You go and sleep. We will talk tomorrow.” “Boijan, your face is red. You are sweating. Are you hiding something?” “Zeba, I just can’t sleep. I need a little fresh air.” “Boijan, have you done something which is not letting you sleep?” “Misba told me to be ruthless. So, I did it.” “You, you tried to kill him?” She put a hand on her mouth. “I don’t believe this. My brother can’t be—” “I will not be called a murderer, Zeba. It will look like an accident.” “You will be in my eyes.” She shook her head. He interrupted her. “Can we have this conversation later?” “He is counting his last breaths and you want to sleep?” Zeba walked out. He closed the door after her. Zeba’s reaction had made him weak. Then he went toward her room to reassure her. “Zeba,” he called out. There was no response. She wasn’t there in her room. He went to the front door. The door was open. As far as his eyes could see, there was a pair of footprints that went through the snow and vanished in the distance. He put on his pheran and ran following the footsteps. He ran as fast as he could and then he saw her under the bridge removing the snow with her bare hands while she cried out Aditya’s name. The snow around her was red. She kept on saying, “Aditya, I will not let you die.” “Zeba,” Anwar cried, “get up!” She didn’t hear him and carried on removing the snow. “Zeba”—he caught hold of her hand—“no one will know. In that lies our welfare.”

And then he saw her face. It had hope and desperation merged together, as if life and death were playing a game to decide who would be victorious in the coming moment. “Will you betray me? Didn’t we give you shelter?” He saw her find Aditya’s hand from under the snow and pull him out. “Zeba”—he tried to pull her away—“we can be swept away by the current.” She didn’t listen. Her lips pressed together, her fists drawn tight, she was pulling at him. “Why do you want to save him?” he asked. “Because if he dies, I will die too,” she said. “You will not.” He pulled her away, this time using all his strength. He was taken aback by the ferocity with which she pulled her hand back. “No, boijan,” she said. “He is an infidel, Zeba.” Not getting an answer, he saw that she was removing the snow from his face and whispering in his ears, “You won’t die.” Having been buried in snow, Aditya’s face was smeared with blood and looked ghastly. He saw the gash on his forehead where the stone had hit him, and blood had oozed out and was beginning to coagulate. His eyes were closed, and his face didn’t seem to care if death had overtaken him, and he had no regrets leaving Anwar a victor. She tried to drag his body again. At her pull, he moved a little. Anwar didn’t realize when he gave a hand to her and started to dig up the snow. He didn’t remember when they pulled out his body. “He is breathing.” Saying this, she bent down to remove a snowflake from his face. “Zeba, don’t touch him like that.” “Then who will?” She looked bewildered, unaware that by touching him, she had touched a stranger forbidden to women in her religion. “Give me a hand.” As Anwar put his hand under Aditya’s back, Zeba asked, “How will we carry him back, boijan?” “I will try to put him on my back.” “What did you say?” she asked, unable to believe her ears. He walked, every muscle of his back taut like a coiled spring. With difficulty, he walked over the stones. She gave him a hand to support as he got on the bridge. Then they walked together, she behind him. Once Anwar almost lost his balance and she steadied him. When they came to the gate of

the temple, it was Gayatri who opened the door. “Oh my God, what happened?” she asked, giving a gasp. “He fell down and was injured. We carried him back,” said Zeba. “Put him near the fire. I will change his clothes,” Gayatri said, trying to hold back her tears. “He’s got frostbite. You both rescued him in time otherwise…You both go now,” Gayatri said. “God has saved him.” “Zeba,” he said as they came out of the temple gates. “Don’t judge me for what I said about giving you shelter.” “I just didn’t think you would ever say that to me.” As they closed the door of their home, Anwar said, “Zeba, I want to ask you something. “What does he mean—” “No, don’t,” she said. “I can’t answer that.” “Is it that you—” “Boijan, I said, don’t ask me today,” she pleaded. “But you can answer me instead. Why did you save him?” “I wish I knew myself. I feel a little strange, that’s all.” “You will know, boijan,” she whispered. Not getting a response, she asked, “Boijan, why are you not talking to me?” “Zeba,” he said, “tomorrow what will everyone think of me?” “Whatever others may say, know that Allah will be with you.” “Maybe I wasn’t just thinking of that. How do I keep you out of this?”

FIFTY FIVE

“Boijan,” Zeba called from outside his room. There was no response. The rotis she had kept outside his door last night were still there. She started to cry. “Everybody asks me questions, and if you stay angry with me, what do I tell them?” “Come in and close the door. What is everyone saying?” Anwar asked. He looked as if he hadn’t slept several nights. She fell into his arms and burst into tears. “Boijan, they are saying that you have ruined the honor of Abbu.” “Do they know that it was you and me?” “No, everyone thinks it is you. Boijan, I overheard Abbu say that some ulemas  want to speak to you.” He saw the glass in her hand. “What is that?” he asked. “I got some kahwa for you,” she said. Seeing him drinking, she said, “Wait, I will get some fresh rotis from the kitchen.” When she came back, she asked, “Boijan, do you hold me responsible for all this?” It was as if he hadn’t heard. “What else are people saying, Zeba?” “Haji chacha came and talked with Abbu in a closed room. I listened from behind the door. They were saying shame on him, and he is a blur on the struggle for Kashmir. Then Haji chacha went away without even looking at me. Abbu and Ammi do not talk to me. They feel I overhear them and pass it on to you. During the Friday prayers, the atmosphere in the mosque was tense. Some namazees wanted to force you out of the room and beat you up. Abbu somehow managed to pacify them.” “How is he now?” Anwar asked. “Abbu is fine.” Then looking at his face, she stopped. “Oh, you mean him, not Abbu. He…” she said, her face turning crimson. “Doctor has said that he will recover but will take time. He lost a lot of blood. He didn’t want to go to the hospital. His father was extremely angry. Some army general came to ask him what happened, but he said that he slipped and fell off the

bridge. Javed told me that many Hindus feel grateful that you saved their priest. My friends in the madrassa ask me what came over you to do a stupid thing like that.” “Zeba, I wanted to ask you one last time. Is my sister—” “I think you do know now. It is difficult for any girl to answer that. There is a wall between us, much bigger than the one between the temple and the mosque and will remain. Only, I couldn’t see him die.” “Zeba,” he continued, “on the one hand, I feel I have let everyone down. On the other hand, I feel a lightness in my heart.” “Your saving him has divided people’s opinions about you. No one knows that you tried to kill him first before you carried him on the back. I hope it never comes out. Some say it was the right thing for you to have done what you did after you saw him lying in the snow. Others say that it was not necessary to save a Hindu priest.” Anwar’s voice trailed off for a moment. “Haji chacha told me that all good acts are meant to be done only toward believers. What is this? You are crying, Zeba?” “No, go on,” she said. “I just see how lonely you have become and what Abbu would have to face because of us. Why don’t you go and meet Javed the way you used to?” “He is the only one who did not criticize me for saving Aditya.” Anwar went and met Javed, and they spoke for a long time. “It was a sufi mystic who once said, ‘You hear the voice of God speak in your ears when your hands save your enemy from dying,’” Javed said. “I have hit so many people with stones. This priest was my biggest enemy. Why didn’t I feel the same way about him when I saw him dying in the snow?” “He wasn’t your enemy but was made so by Haji chacha. He didn’t feel that way toward you,” Javed said. “Haji chacha told me every infidel should be seen as an enemy; yet he made me do something I wouldn’t dream of.” “Was it Zeba who helped you make that decision?” “How do you know about Zeba being there?” he asked. “Keep her out of it.” “I will, Anwar, but you did not answer my question.” “Why do you think I did it?” asked Anwar.

“My abbu told me to tell you that like Anwar if every man looks into the eyes of his enemy, there would be no wars.” “It was not just his eyes, Javed, as your abbu said. It was that moment that was so different from all other moments. It was as if time stood still, frozen, trying to tell me something through both of them. And his deathly face, so smeared with blood about to die but in peace. And it was Zeba who was trying to dig the snow and lift him up. It created a desolate silence within me that I felt I would die. You know”—Anwar’s voice trailed off —“Zeba was digging the snow, saying, ‘If you die, I die too.’ What does that mean to you, Javed? I asked her. She didn’t tell me.” “If Zeba said that”—Javed’s voice became a whisper—“don’t ask me. It is something I wouldn’t like to ever think about.”

FIFTY SIX

When Anwar entered the living room, he immediately felt that something was different. The carpet had been spread out, and the chairs had been dusted. There were new cups and plates on the table. There was Haji chacha, his abbu, and the imam of the neighboring mosque. There were several others he hadn’t seen before. “They are our guests from across the border.” As a group they looked menacing. He bent and said “as salaam alaikum” to everyone and wanted to go in when he was stopped by the voice of Haji chacha. “We have been waiting for you.” He flipped his hand in front of his nose as if to get rid of a bad smell. “For me?” “You are famous now. Your story is in the newspapers. Here, see.” He gave it to him. “What does it say?” he asked, unsure where the conversation was going. Haji chacha read slowly, “In an act of unusual kindness, the son of the imam of a mosque picked up his injured neighbor from under a bridge where he had fallen and lay in snow. He carried him home on his back. Because of the imam’s son’s timely intervention, the Hindu priest’s life was saved. This is all the more moving keeping in mind the relations between the two were strained due to the temple and mosque existing side by side.” It further said, “We hope that this act of kindness will help begin a new chapter between Hindus and Muslims of Kashmir and be a slap in the face of those who talk of Kashmiris feeling alienated from the rest of India.” “Mubarak ho,”   the voice of Haji chacha could cut through a rock. “With a single act, you have destroyed the efforts of those who have worked for years for an Islamic Kashmir.”

The older-looking imam raised his hand. “Haji saab, let me handle this. This is definitely an act of kindness, son. We are here to understand why you did it.” “I just felt bad for him lying in the snow. I thought he would die, so I did it,” said Anwar, finding his voice. “Well, compassion toward others is one of the highest virtues. I want you to tell us in your own words why you did it and who else was there with you.” “It was just like what I told you. I couldn’t see him die and well…I was alone.” “Tell us from the beginning.” “Well, it was evening and I was coming from a friend’s house.” “Which friend?” Haji saab interrupted. “Haji saab, didn’t I say let me handle this?” Anwar continued. “I was coming back over the bridge when I noticed someone cry. His voice was very faint. Then I noticed the railing was broken and some rice bags lying on the bridge. I went down and saw a hand buried under the snow. So, I started digging and then I saw that it was the priest. He was cold and had lost a lot of blood. There was no one around, so I put him on my back and carried him to his home. His mother was there.” “We all know that you threw stones at him not so long ago and even set fire to his temple,” the older imam said. “Yes, that is true.” “So, let me ask you this then,” the older imam continued. “When you carried him on your back, didn’t you realize you were carrying a priest whose ways oppose yours?” “It did come to my mind, but I couldn’t leave him to die.” “Why couldn’t you do it?” “I forgot that he was my enemy.” One of the guests asked, “You forgot? This is rather unusual. Then what happened?” “Then I got him to his home. That was it.” “One last question, people saw someone helping you. Who was he or maybe she?” This is the question Anwar dreaded. “Oh, that one,” he said. “He was a passerby.” “A passerby at that time of night who stayed behind to help you? You said there was no one else. What was his name?”

“I forgot to ask.” “Was it a woman?” “No he…” Anwar blurted out. “Yes, he was from the neighboring village and had gotten caught up in the snowstorm. Saw me looking down the bridge and offered to help.” “And that man, after having offered you help, vanished in the snow and no one knows who he was?” another one asked. Anwar realized that they were looking at his hands. While answering, he had been alternately tightening his hand into a fist and loosening them. Obviously they didn’t believe him. “Have you met the Hindu priest since then?” “No.” He tried to sound offended. “We don’t want this story to spread further,” the older imam said. “I don’t understand,” Anwar said. “Just a simple act of kindness and so much noise.” “Don’t think we don’t understand. You have changed so many things through this act for the worse,” one of them said. “Your action doesn’t bode well for those who are working toward azaadi.” “Imam saab, after your son has saved a Hindu priest like that, it will be very difficult for all of us to trust him,” said the older imam. “Please, don’t punish me like that.” “You have to figure out how to regain the trust of others.” When Anwar came out of the room, he realized that his throat was dry. He felt a hand on his shoulder. Zeba looked at him in the eyes. “I heard everything. You didn’t take my name. They all believe it was me but can’t prove it.” “Zeba, a Muslim girl, the daughter of an imam is…you know what I mean. It would be so humiliating for Abbu.” “Boijan, you should have heard the kind of things Abbu had to hear in the last week. They have even called Abbu a traitor.”

FIFTY SEVEN

“Anwar, is it true that you carried the Hindu priest on your back in the snow?” “Misba, he would have died otherwise.” “Why did you have to do such a crazy thing?” “Well, I will be truthful with you,” he said, his voice soft. “I decided to hit him with stones when he was walking back. He fell down from the bridge and I ran away, thinking he would die. But when I came home, my conscience told me to bring him back.” “Sure, he would have died, but he only had himself to blame. And you have thrown stones injuring any number of people. Some may have been maimed for life or even died. I know about it.” “Misba, how do I make you understand what happened to me after I came back? I was not at peace with myself.” “I do understand. Now you will never be the hero again in the minds of our people. My family told me that if Anwar’s mission in life is to rescue kafirs, then he has no place in our family.” “Misba, at least you could try and understand me. I couldn’t even sit still when I returned.” “Well, now you can sit still all your life and listen to him sing his hymns from the temple.” She stopped and asked, “Anwar, did you not think of me when you rescued him?” “No, Misba, I couldn’t. I had thought that I would come home and sleep peacefully.” “Do you know what your abbu and ammi are going through? They feel so ashamed that they can’t even go out.” “Misba, please, stop it.” “I am leaving, Anwar. You know,” she added, “when you took me in your arms and said those things, I thought your words were as firm as rock.

Now, I am not sure of your intentions.” “Misba, don’t go. I feel very alone today.” She turned her face away. “But you have betrayed me. I don’t know what to do now.”

FIFTY EIGHT

It was while picking up the holy dark stone symbolizing Lord Vishnu that Gayatri felt a pain across her left arm. She felt her forehead breaking out in sweat. She tried to call for help, but no one heard her. She dragged herself to an earthen pitcher and drank some water. She could hear the sound of the bells coming from the temple and knew that Aditya would finish his prayers in some time. An hour later, when Aditya came into the room, she was breathing hard. She held his hand and said, “The time has come for me to go.” “No, Ma, don’t talk like that.” He called Nitai and said, “Run and get my father.” A few minutes later, he saw Zeba outside his door. She said, “I met Nitai. He told me your mother is not well.” “My mother, please stay with her while I call the doctor.” When Gayatri saw Zeba, she called to her. “You love him, don’t you?” Zeba looked at those eyes to whom she had bared her soul. Even today she had come to tell her about her problem with Aarzoo. She nodded, “Yes, I do.” Gayatri said, “You know love demands sacrifice. He faces many threats, and if you two go ahead, it will mean that they will kill him.” “Don’t say anymore, please,” Zeba said. “I understand. I often imagine how it would have been to be your daughter.” “I am about to leave this world. Before leaving I want to say that if there was ever a girl for him, it would have been you. Come closer,” she asked Zeba and then kissed her on the forehead. “Now leave me alone.” When Krishna Narayan and Aditya came back with the doctor, they found Gayatri still. Even in death, there was a smile on her face. Krishna Narayan held her hands and said to Aditya, “Your mother has left us.” Then he broke down crying.

Later, they draped her body in her wedding dress and put her on a wooden pyre. As Aditya lit the pyre, he looked at her for one last time. Krishna Narayan said something in her ears. Aditya caught the words. “I want to go with you,” he was saying. A month after her passing away, Aditya was sitting below the chinar tree looking at the mountains when he felt the presence of someone. It was his father. “Death is a maya,  beta,” he said. “The Bhagavad Gita says, in the same way that a human being changes clothes, the soul changes body and goes into a new body.” “Yes, Baba.” “Gita says the soul is eternal,” Krishna Narayan continued. “Baba,” he said, “in Ma’s memory, can we keep the conversation simple?” “All right, Aditya. Many years ago you asked me a question about your birth. What was that?” “Baba, at my birth, I had heard that you said between Ma and me, if one of us was to remain alive, it was to be her.” “Listen, Aditya, it was not because I didn’t want you to be born. Just that I didn’t want to lose her. I loved your mother very much.” “Baba, I don’t hold it against you. You were fortunate to have found her. Don’t feel burdened because of me.” “Don’t say that, beta,” his father said. “Your mother often made me realize that I failed you as a father.” “Why are you saying this, Baba?” “With your mother gone, I don’t feel any attachment to life.” He looked at him and waited for Aditya to say something. When Aditya didn’t, he got up and walked away. Aditya felt his father wanted to say something but couldn’t. He suddenly felt a sadness to see him go.

FIFTY NINE

“They are having an argument, Dada, father and son,” Nitai announced to Aditya as he walked in. “What are they arguing about?” Aditya asked, trying to pack up everything after his morning prayers. “It is about Zeba. I overheard them when I passed by their home. Imam saab was saying, ‘Get out of this home.’” “Why, what happened, Nitai?” “They were arguing over Zeba. Imam saab was saying she has brought disgrace to the community, and Anwar was saying she is a devout Muslim. Their mother had come in between trying to intervene, but imam saab told her to stay out of the argument. Then I heard imam saab slap Anwar.” “Why did he slap him?” “Anwar is against her marriage to Salim. He says they are marrying her to Salim because she was adopted. He said that Haji chacha is making a deal between the two families through this marriage to suppress a scandal and restore imam saab’s reputation.” “What scandal, Nitai?” “Imam saab said that if she had his blood in her veins, she would never have done this. Even though she is his adopted daughter and has been brought up by him, people are saying he failed to bring her up as a true Muslim. Her background stops them from accepting her as a daughter-inlaw of any respectable home. Anwar said, ‘Even if that is so, it doesn’t mean that we give her to just any family.’ And imam saab replied, ‘They are rich. His first wife died, and he wishes to marry again. He likes Zeba, and besides, they are donating a big sum of money to the mosque for this.’” “That is when Anwar called it a trade. Then imam saab said who are you to say this. This is being decided by the elders of the family and you have become a disgrace to all of us interfering in everything. Then Anwar

said the elders only seemed to be doing deals for money. Anwar said that Salim often goes to Pakistan and has dubious links. He was violent toward his first wife and is supposed to have killed her for suspected infidelity. They paid a lot of money to the police to suppress the case.” “Anwar was asking why the hurry to get Zeba married now, as she wants to be a doctor and treat mad people.” “Then what happened?” asked Aditya. “His ammi came and asked him, ‘Anwar, have you thought of this? What if Zeba gets attracted to that priest again? The militants will kill her first. Think of her safety if your father’s honor in society doesn’t mean anything to you.” Aditya felt his mouth become dry and a lump form in his throat. He asked Nitai to pause for a moment. Nitai continued. “Then imam saab said, ‘When I adopted her, I promised her grandparents that I will get her married into a pious Muslim family. She is adopted, and many families don’t want to go ahead with the marriage. Salim’s mother has assured us that he will change once he marries Zeba. We may be caught in a situation where we don’t get any proposals for her at all.’” “I couldn’t hear more, but I did hear the last part of the discussion. Imam saab was saying, ‘Begum, the militants apparently have lost their patience. If she doesn’t stop standing near the wall and listening to him, they will first kill her and then kill the priest.’” “What does that mean, Nitai?” “Dada, I have seen her near the wall often, her eyes closed as she hears your prayers.” “Nitai, is imam saab right in saying all those things?” “Dada, imam saab is right about the militants. They will kill her if she doesn’t change her ways.”

SIXTY

Krishna Narayan came and sat next to Aditya. “I thought I would find you here. You are missing your mother,” he said, trying to start a conversation. The sun’s rays were beginning to recede, casting a golden glow on the trees around them. “I feel Ma’s presence here. I feel she comes here to talk to me.” His father never sat next to him like this. “You don’t think of the temple and your mother separately, do you?” he asked. “Can I ever, Baba? Every brick here reminds me of her.” His father’s eyes searched his, looking for something. “Baba, may I go now? I will go and prepare for the evening prayers.” “Aditya, I have something to say to you,” he said. “I want to go for my vanaprastha.  It is time for me to leave all attachments. You are taking care of the temple nicely.” He rushed his words as if he wanted to finish the conversation. As Aditya kept silent, he asked, “Doesn’t it mean anything to you if I leave?” “Baba, please don’t talk like that today. I need you.” “When did you ever need me, Aditya?” “Baba,” Aditya said, “I have been as good a son as I could be.” “No, you haven’t,” his father said. “But at least once, tell me how you have felt to be my son.” “To understand how I feel as a son, you have to be a father to me first.” The words came out involuntarily. His father didn’t respond to that. He only said, “I needed to tell you before I left.” Aditya felt a tightness in his throat. “Baba, can’t it wait?”

He replied, “No. At every step of life, you did things without me, and your mother supported you.” “Baba,” he pleaded, “if you feel insulted, I ask your forgiveness.” “Aditya, I have decided. I find it very difficult to be here without your mother.” Then he said, “This has been your temple, not mine.” Aditya felt the words cut him like a knife. His father continued, “When your mother passed away, I came to a realization that I was there in her plan only to bring you here.” “Baba, I don’t know about any plan. If you go, take me along with you. I don’t want this temple. I have lost Ma. Now, I can’t lose you.” “It is I who needs to discover my purpose in life.” “Will you come back?” asked Aditya. “No.” The sun had gone down behind the mountains, leaving everything around them dark. “Aditya, tomorrow the sun will rise again behind those mountains,” he said and left. That night, he got up from sleep before daybreak. His hand fell on the bed next to him like it did every day, and he was about to tell her that he would be back soon like he had done for as long as he could remember. But it was empty. He looked at the first picture taken after their marriage. He remembered the woman who stood by him before Aditya was born and whom he lost. He touched the picture for one last time. “I will join you soon,” he said. He walked toward Aditya’s room. The door was open, and Aditya was sleeping. His face looked just like Gayatri with his hair spread on the pillow. He had the urge to go in and hold his head in his lap. He suddenly wanted to put him on his shoulders and run around with him, like a father would have done with his five-year-old boy. “Why do I feel this now when I am leaving? Why are these memories coming back now? What if he gets up and says, ‘Baba, don’t go’?” He touched his face, something he didn’t remember having done before. Then he walked out, closing the door behind him. He shook his body violently outside as per the ritual. It was said that those going for vanaprastha should not even carry a dust particle from the home they had lived in.

He took one last look at the temple. It stood against the night sky and the mountains behind standing in silence, as if reminding him his time in the temple was over. He reached the river and stopped to take a look at the spire that was still visible in the distance. Then shaking his head, he entered the thick forest. He would cross it and reach the mountain, where he would find a cave to meditate.

SIXTY ONE

Zeba was surprised to see Tara. “Dada is calling you,” she said. “At this hour?” She mumbled some excuse to her ammi, and ensuring that no one was watching, she jumped over the wall between the mosque and the temple. He was waiting behind the chinar tree. “Why did you call me?” asked Zeba. “I heard you are getting married.” “Aditya, it is too late to discuss anything.” “I didn’t know my feelings then. My mother’s death and my father’s going away have made me understand many things, Zeba. I don’t feel bound anymore to this temple.” “Aditya, I am going to get married soon,” she said finally. “But you don’t love him.” “Love has got nothing to do with it. Our love has a meaning with a wall in between.” “But our hearts, Zeba, what about them?” he protested. “You realize it now, after so long? Do you know it was listening to your prayers on the fateful day I got to know I was an orphan gave me the strength to go on? When I had nightmares, it was your voice that comforted me, and when you were hit by stones, I cried the whole night. I would have killed myself long ago but for your voice.” “Can’t our love be anything else, Zeba?” “Aditya, you are a Hindu priest and I am the daughter of an imam.” “Then can’t we go somewhere far away, beyond these mountains where nobody knows us?” “You are saying that, Aditya, to me? If we run away to some place, we will be tormented for the rest of our lives. People will say you deserted your temple after courageously facing all the stones. What will my abbu tell the

world that he rescued me from an orphanage and I ran away with an infidel?” “But I want to leave this temple today.” “I won’t let you do that, Aditya.” Pointing her finger at the faraway peak, she said, “Now it is dark. But every morning when the sun’s rays fall on it, the light on it tells the world that there is another day that will bring joy and hope for people. Your temple is like that peak. Don’t leave it ever. If we run away, this temple will become infamous from which it will never recover. Your ancestor, he didn’t sacrifice his life to see his descendant run away with a woman!” “Zeba, I am tired of living this life of a priest.” “My abbu has given his word to Salim’s father.” “They don’t own you, Zeba.” “They adopted me. I can’t hurt them today. My attraction to you is no longer a secret, and I have caused them enough embarrassment.” “Zeba, look at me.” “Aditya, you are like those distant mountain peaks. They look beautiful, but one can’t live there. I want to remember you as someone who liberated me.” “That is not love, Zeba.” “Every woman, Aditya, falls in love with the man who teaches her to live. He then should live in her memory; otherwise their relationship loses meaning.” “Zeba, this will be a living death for us.” “I know that. I have to be loyal to my husband inspite of thoughts of you that are there in every corner of my mind.” Tara came near and said to Zeba, “The light in your room has been switched on.” “Must be ammi. I have to go. Aditya…before I go, I want to give my notebook of poems. Would you keep it?” “Yes.” “Read them when I go away from here.” She ran away to her room and forced herself not to look outside the window. An old poem she had heard came to her mind. A young Kashmiri girl had sung, “Why do my eyes and my feet don’t listen to me, my beloved? Why do they tell me to go away?” At that time she had laughed, but today it seemed she was that girl.

Her mother had not said anything except, “Koori, now that you are going to get married, don’t go out at night.” She flung herself on the bed and thought of the man she was trying to leave behind. “Everything I said to you is true except the last part. My body and my soul will never belong to anyone else.” She came to the window and looked out. In the distance, in the blue light of the moon, she saw a figure walking alone among the trees, with a notebook in his hand and not a lamp like other days. She wanted to run and tell him that she had lied to him. She closed the curtains and switched on the light. A pile of clothes had come for her wedding. In another corner, there was the tumbakner.   She decided not to open the curtains and look outside again and closed the light. That was her past. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they have to close the curtains of the past. “I will give myself a chance, to my marriage, to this relationship with Salim,” she said as she switched off the lights. It was better she stayed in the darkness.

SIXTY TWO

The

voices of the women sang, “Horrey chayyaih wanwaan noorh mahraazo, aakho shahreh sheerazo, aakho shahreh sheerazo.” It was an old Kashmiri song that meant angels sing for the groom who is a jewel. Zeba sat surrounded by a dozen women. She wore a silken salwar kameez of golden color with heavy brocade and laden with jewelry. Her hands were covered with henna, and her forehead was covered with jewelry, making her look resplendent. “Ladies, please stop singing. The Honorable Minister, Aman ul Haque saab, is here with his wife to bless Zeba,” someone announced. “How did he come? Who invited him?” “Bring him in, a person of his stature coming for Zeba’s marriage. Bring Salim in too.” In keeping with Kashmiri tradition, the men and women guests sat in separate enclosures. Zeba saw her abbu, Haji chacha, and the men rush toward the gate. She saw Anwar get some flowers for him. “Why is he coming for my wedding?” she wondered. “Does he even know I exist?” She saw a man in his early fifties, very handsome, walk toward her with his wife. He wore an expensive white sherwani,  which looked immaculate on his broad shoulders. He was surrounded by commandos in green uniform with guns. His wife followed him in a white salwar kameez, which looked more expensive than the total price of all the dresses worn at the wedding. Her mother told her, “Aman ul Haque saab is the most rising politician of Kashmir today. The rumor is he will be the chief minister after the elections. We have heard that he doesn’t attend any weddings. Somebody must have sent him a card and these politicians, they just use such occasions for publicity.”

It didn’t look as if Aman ul Haque was coming for publicity. He came up the dais with his eyes on Zeba. His wife stayed behind, standing alone. Salim ran to receive him. “My great honor, sir, that you came to our wedding,” he said, trying to catch his attention. But Aman ul Haque was looking at Zeba and said something to the man next to him. She saw Haji chacha trying to come close. “It is our great fortune that the lion of Kashmir is here with us today.” “Koori,” the politician said, placing his hand on her head, “today you look more beautiful than the moon. I didn’t see the moon last night and wondered why. Then I remembered that today morning is your marriage.” A loud burst of laughter followed. “Why not, sir? Our daughters of Kashmir are the most beautiful, and every girl here is your daughter,” a man in his entourage said. “Not others, this one,” said the minister. “Koori”—he again put his hand on her head—“may Allah bless you with all the happiness. My door will always be open for you. Here, this is a small gift for you.” He took out a beautiful green packet and put it in Zeba’s hand. The packet was thick. Some of the people gasped, trying to guess how much money was packed inside. Zeba looked at her ammi. “No, I can’t,” she told herself. “I don’t know him.” As if reading her mind, he said, “No, no, koori, you can’t say no to me, not today.” “Take it, Zeba,” her ammi said. “He is giving it with so much love.” “Sir, will you please come this way for a photograph?” one photographer asked. “You don’t usually go to weddings.” “But sir doesn’t agree to be photographed either,” another one said. Aman ul Haque resolved the issue himself. He put his hand on Zeba’s head and asked all the photographers to click them together. He didn’t care that his wife was watching him, her lips curled up and eyes that were cold. He wiped his tears and tried to look away from the camera as his lips parted and he skimmed his fingertips along his jawline. “Sir is crying. The right moment to click him,” one of the photographers said loudly. “We don’t see sir ever getting emotional at any wedding,” one of his bodyguards commented.

“Did you see, madam was boiling inside seeing the way sir gave all his attention to the bride?” “The girl is very pretty. Sir is known for his obsession for pretty girls. Do you know once in his youth, he toured a Bollywood actress around Srinagar in his new car?” “I have heard that. I also know that sir has a fascination for parties, pretty women, fast cars, and golf. That is why he left his career as a doctor to become a politician.” “I can tell you a more interesting story.” “Sir doesn’t go to any weddings despite being invited. But for this wedding, he took personal interest in all the arrangements. He had told his secretary to put fifty thousand aside for the bride.” “That much?” “Don’t tell anyone. He also paid for the jewelry and the expenses of the wedding. There was a meeting in Delhi today called by the Prime Minister. He didn’t go because he wanted to attend this wedding.” “What are you staring at?” he asked the first bodyguard. “It seems sir doesn’t want to go from here.” “I am looking at something else. Have you noticed his face resembles the bride’s?” “But she is imam saab’s daughter. You are imagining things.” “Adopted daughter. No, that is not the whole story. She was adopted by imam saab from an orphanage when she was an infant.” “What are you hinting at? Now, let’s go. Sir is leaving.” It seemed Aman ul Haque didn’t want to go back. He didn’t notice that his wife had already left the place and was waiting for him in the car. Finally he left for his official residence with the siren of his car blaring. He and his wife didn’t exchange a word on the way home. On reaching home, his wife said, “Tassali ho gayi apni beti ko dekh ke  ?” He didn’t miss the sarcasm in her voice. “Begum, you know she was adopted from the orphanage by imam saab. And if we won’t do it for the children of Kashmir, who else will?” “Will you get as emotional when our four children get married?” she shrugged. On entering his room he closed the door and told everyone not to disturb as he had some important files to clear for a meeting.

He sat behind his study table and from one of the lower drawers took out a photograph of a woman. The picture was now faded. He then took out a picture of a little girl standing alone outside a mosque. He put the photographs side by side and tried to imagine if he too were in the photograph with them. Then holding the photographs in his hand, he wept.

SIXTY THREE

For Zeba, her marriage seemed to happen in a dream. When the Qazi had asked her to say qabool hai,  she couldn’t recall if she had said anything at first. She had tensed herself for that moment. When she had said “qabool hai,” she had swallowed hard and lowered her head and felt a lump forming in her throat. She had felt neither excitement nor revulsion as she had imagined. She had seen the faces of the guests around her. “They must be thinking that adopting an orphan was not a wrong thing for imam saab.” She had stolen a look at Salim. He had seemed to look around as if it was a triumph. “You will marry for the honor of your parents,” she remembered her abbu’s stern voice. “You have humiliated us enough.” As she now sat in her marriage, she overheard her parents. “If she hadn’t stopped in time, they would have erased him from the face of this earth.” “No, I didn’t let you die, Aditya,” she told herself silently as she acknowledged the greetings of the guests. Her ammi announced loudly, “Our koori is now begum of Salim Rehman.” “They no longer have to worry about me,” she thought as she felt her ammi kiss her. Nobody had understood why she had wanted the marriage to be held at her home. For Zeba, it was simple. She wanted Aditya to know what she went through. She had not figured out, however, why Javed had gone away during her marriage. “So, can we call you Ms. Salim now?” Salim’s cousins surrounded her. “She looks as fresh as the first dewdrop on a rose petal,” one of them said. “Do you have any sisters?” a boy asked.

On her wedding night, Salim came with a rose in his hand. He recited a verse about her beauty and kissed her. As his hands moved across her body, exploring her, she felt another hand that was soft and tender. There was a smell of incense that filled her with a sense of safety. Then she realized Salim was trying to enter her. She felt nothing but a shooting pain engulf her. “No,” she sighed, “I won’t be disloyal to my husband in my thoughts.” But as the pain came back and caught her unawares, she felt a voice asking her, “What does the word ‘Zeba’ mean?” “Beautiful,” she said. “Yes, that was beautiful. The first time is rarely so for a woman,” Salim said, catching his breath. “I don’t know what happened to me,” she said. “I happened to you.” He grinned. She had tried and been successful in pushing Aditya’s thoughts away. She would now have to do it every time. They went to Bombay for their honeymoon. Salim had wanted to take her to Bombay knowing she loved to watch Hindi films. On their first night in Bombay, Zeba found a package containing a thin diaphanous nightgown and skirts that would barely cover her. There were a few undergarments too and some magazines with pictures of topless women. “Where did these come from?” she asked. “Begum, I ordered them. I want you to wear them and copy those women.” “So your talk about the decadent West and its women, what is that?” Zeba asked. “Begum, that is different. I thought…” He was surprised to see her cry. “No, you don’t have to if you don’t like them.” They had their first big fight next day. They were passing by the Siddhi Vinayak temple. Their guide told them, “This is the most famous temple in Bombay.” There were strains of music and songs coming from inside. “Can we stop for a moment?” Zeba asked the driver. “Begum, it is un-Islamic.” She saw him wave his hand to the driver and ask him not to stop. “What is wrong in visiting a tourist spot?” she asked. She could see Salim’s hands tense up. “Is it the temple or you want to be reminded of your lover?” he spat out, his voice rising.

“Please,” she said. “How can you even talk like that? We just saw an old church. We saw the tower of silence.” “I am sorry, begum,” he said. “It is just that when I imagined you entering the temple, something happened to me.” The rest of the honeymoon passed without any incident. She gave her body to Salim and tried to be loyal in her thoughts to him. She had figured out one thing about Salim. As long as she submitted to his different fantasies in bed, he didn’t care what she felt inside. After coming back, Salim told her he had to go to Delhi for business. She got a chance to visit her abbu’s home. The first time she heard the temple bells, she ran toward the wall, forgetting she was married. It seemed to her nothing had changed. She waited behind a tree till Aditya finished his prayers and came with his lamp near it. “Zeba, you here? You should not be here. You are a married woman now,” he said politely. She didn’t respond to that but asked, “Aditya, how are you?” “I have survived so far,” he said defensively. “Wait.” He went in and came back quickly. “Here, my wedding gift for you.” “What is it?” “The day you got married, I could hear every sound. These flowers are from that day’s prayers I said for you.” “You thought of me the whole time I got married?” she asked, looking away. When he remained silent, she said, “This is the most precious gift I will ever have. I will keep it forever. Here,” she gave him a letter, “Read this when you are free. I have to go now.” The letter read… “Do you know that I look for you in every thing and each time I do that, my mind goes somewhere far and I end up in a space where my emotions play hide-and-seek with my soul like restless clouds. I try to bury your image in my mind. It doesn’t work. Now, I belong to someone by marriage but my soul belongs to whom, I don’t know. I recall how I, as a girl, held an image of you, a young priest raising his hands in salutation to his God. It took my mind to a distant land much further beyond those mountains and taught me the mysteries of love. But now, the same torments me and will do for the rest of my life. Pray that I do not falter in my commitment.”

Below it was written “Z.” Aditya sat with the letter in his hands for a long time. He was shaken by Nitai saying, “Dada, your body has become so cold. Please come in.” “Nitai, I don’t know what to do. Zeba is the only woman I ever felt anything for.” “Dada, she still loves you. You could have both run away and started a new life.” “Then, Nitai, this temple would have been disgraced. She would have been dishonored. So would her father and her past would have surfaced. Seeing her example, no one would adopt children.” “But because of your sacrifice you both will remain tormented till your last breath. And this notebook, you read it all the time.” “Nitai, this notebook is the reason why I live. You go in and prepare for the puja, I will come in sometime.” When Nitai had gone, he opened the notebook and turned the pages, at first randomly and then slowly and touched each word with his finger. Zeba had described emotions that were strange to him but became real each time he read them. Maybe that was love. On the first page she had written: “I saw you then, standing alone, lost to yourself, and in that moment I understood what the word ‘forever’ meant.” On another page she had written: “I didn’t know if it was the infinite that I was trying to hold when I didn’t want my longing to break lose from me.” On next page she had written: “Some memories are eternal, Like the last breath of a lover that falls on your skin and never leaves you.” And on the last page she had written: “I can say that I have been in love once and I too was happy.” He closed the notebook. He hadn’t realized when Nitai had come to stand next to him. “Dada, I heard you read them. You didn’t realize it. Tell me is love as deep as the mantras that you recite before God?” “I am a priest, Nitai. I can only say that the awakening of love has been far more tormenting for me than it has been in the discovery of God.”

SIXTY FOUR

The next day there were only three people in the temple during the prayers. After finishing the prayers, Aditya asked Girdhari, one of the devotees, “Where are the others?” “They are at the police station. Neelam, the daughter of Parameshwar Nath, was raped last night. She is in hospital fighting for her life. Everyone is at the police station to get her case registered.” Aditya had seen Neelam. She was a tall attractive girl who studied in the local college. She had once hidden his book of mantras just when he was to begin his prayers. “Today, some boy is coming to see me,” she had said before giving it back. “When my parents ask you about this boy, tell them that our horoscopes do not match. They will believe you.” “Why should I lie?” “I want to be a doctor first.” “What if the horoscopes match and he will be a nice husband?” “Then he will have to wait till I am a doctor.” “I will go to the police station.” He sighed, thinking of that conversation. Walking to the police station together with Girdhari, he tried to imagine Neelam, now lying alone in the hospital battling for life. She will never ask him to delay looking for a match for her. Now no family will accept her as a daughter-in-law. “She had gone missing while coming back from college and her parents had gone to the police station to report. The inspector refused to lodge a case saying she must have eloped with a boy,” Girdhari told him. “She was found lying near the river with injuries all over her body. Some nomads saw her and took her to the hospital. The doctors informed the police that she was also brutally raped. The police are refusing to lodge a case.”

“Why, why would the police not lodge a case?” “Hindus are leaving Kashmir. The police do not register their cases anymore.” “What did Neelam say?” “She told the doctors that she was coming back from college when three men accosted her. They took her forcibly and asked her to convert to Islam by marrying one of them. When she refused, they took turns to rape her and then threw her at an isolated spot near the river. The plan seems to be to kidnap as many girls as possible and convert them to Islam. When the girls refuse, they rape them as a warning for others.” “Is she injured?” “That is saying it mildly. They disfigured her face, and her chest has a deep gash. She was also stabbed in the abdomen. If it had been a Muslim girl, by this time the whole valley would have been on the roads throwing stones.” The police station was an old gray building from colonial times. One of the men was asking the police in charge to lodge a case. The inspector noticed Aditya. “Pandit saab, why are you here? To do some prayers for the girl so that we lodge the case?” “Look at the way the police talks to pandits,” one of the men said. He heard the inspector say, “I will book you all for causing a riot here.” “He lodges cases against people and extracts money to release them,” said one of the men. “The girl gave a clear description of the attackers. The inspector is buying time so things cool down and they can get away.” Aditya moved forward. In a low voice, he told the men, “We will not move till a case in lodged.” The inspector looked up from his writing. “I can see you act as their leader. I will advise you to not get involved in this.” Aditya pointed to the side of the road across the police station. “I will sit there on fast and not move from there till you lodge a case.” “Pandit saab, are you doing a Satyagraha, supporting these people? This is dangerous,” the inspector said to him. “I will do it. Just help me out,” Aditya said to the men present there. Someone brought cushions and sheets from home. Aditya cleared the ground and spread them. Another one brought an old tent and set it up. “We will stay here with you,” the men said.

“I’d rather be alone.” “It is dangerous. What about your prayers in the temple?” “If we see injustice and keep quiet, prayers in temples have little meaning for me.” An hour later the inspector walked in. “Move out, otherwise will I arrest you all and put you in jail.” Aditya said, “If you could, you would have done it by now.” The inspector laughed. “You are not stupid, I can see that. But this time it won’t be stones but bullets that will hit you.” It became bitter cold at night. From the police station, two constables kept watch. On the second evening, Aditya felt dizzy. When night came, the two boys fasting with him told him to go to sleep. “We will sleep later,” they said. He must have slept for a couple of hours when he felt a hand on his shoulders. “Quiet,” the voice said. “Javed, you here?” “During the early-morning hours, they will attack you. Let Nitai stay with you.” “All right,” he agreed. Nitai wanted to keep a rod, but Aditya refused. “We will face them without weapons.” It was around dawn when he heard a whistle. He saw Nitai get up and listen intently. Before he realized what was happening, the tent was in flames. Someone had thrown a petrol bomb. Then he heard the gunfire and felt something hot brush past him. Smoke made it difficult for him to see anything. He started to cough. He felt someone hit his leg with a sharp object. As he cried and fell down, he saw Nitai struggle with someone. Then he remembered no more. When he opened his eyes, he was in hospital. His arm was covered in bandages. His left leg hurt as he tried to turn. Someone said, “You are safe. They sent two men to kill you, but Nitai proved faster than them. He grappled with one man and snatched his gun. The other ran away. Then he carried you out of the tent.” Aditya tried to get up. “No,” someone said. “You are still weak. You need rest.”

When Aditya went back that evening, there were about twenty boys waiting. There was Javed, with two of his Muslim friends. “My friends from college,” he said, “they have come to fast along with you. They are aware that militants are raping women and asking them to convert. They say this is not Islamic, and they will fast with you to show their support.” That evening in another part of the city, the Chief of Police called a meeting of all the inspectors of Srinagar in his office. After the meeting was over, he asked one particular inspector to stay back. He showed him some newspapers and demanded to know about the progress of the case. “Any act of solidarity by a Muslim toward a Hindu is not to be given publicity. Our instructions are to see that no pandits stay back in the valley, and they don’t get a chance to be united, least of all with Muslims showing support for them. You have to stop this demonstration at once.” “I tried my best to stop them, sir,” the inspector said. “You couldn’t even stop a young boy from going on a fast in front of your police post, and now you have several Muslim boys joining him,” he bellowed. “I am sorry, sir.” “How many days has he been on fast now?” “Six days, sir.” “And what did you do?” “We staged a fire, but he escaped. We thought he would be unable to run. We had even slipped in some sleeping tablets in his water.” “Find out who is behind him.” “We have the record of everyone who visits the temple. No one of any importance.” “A newspaper today has carried an article of how a Hindu priest has united boys across different religions. One paper even carried an article on how such few cases of Hindus are registered in the valley.” “Won’t it be seen as bending to their demands? We worked so hard to suppress the case.” “Lodge the case. Make it vague. Hindu families are leaving. After sometime we will dismiss their cases, on the grounds of the victims being untraceable.” “I have never felt so let down in my life,” the inspector said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Everyone will laugh at me,” he added.

“Call the three Muslim boys fasting with him and take them aside. Make them speak up. Explain that their speaking up has melted your heart and you are ready to take up the case for justice for the poor girl. Make it clear to the media and give them the credit, not the priest. Add a line on secularism in Kashmir. It never fails with the liberal newspapers across India.” Later that evening, Javed and the two boys were called to the office of the inspector. Javed came back and told Aditya, “I have come back from the police station. The inspector told us that he is lodging a case. Aditya, he told the media that it was due to the efforts of three of us but I know that it was your victory alone,” Javed said. “It doesn’t matter who gets the credit, Javed. I am only thinking Neelam might sleep better tonight,” Aditya said as he drank a cup of kahwa brought by one of the boys.

SIXTY FIVE

“We are worried what will happen to our children if we don’t leave now?” At the end of the evening prayers, like he did every day, Aditya had carried the holy flame to the devotees. He found several people crying. “Pandit saab, we are being told to leave the valley if we don’t convert,” one of the men said. “We have to run away.” “My son went to check the list for admissions to the engineering college. There was a note saying that the names of the Hindu boys will be announced after the Muslim boys’ seats are filled,” one of the men said. “The principal told him if he converts he will be given a seat.” “My daughter heard the boys in her school talk of converting the Hindu girls to Islam by marrying them,” another man shared. “But why keep quiet?” asked Aditya. “Our bones have gone cold, Pandit saab. We have families.” Another one explained, “Pandit saab, this is the seventh time. This time the soul of the Kashmiri pandits is already dead.” “Pandit saab, I see blood in their eyes when they see our land and talk of our women. Do you know my son’s school teacher forcibly rubbed off the vermilion mark from his forehead saying it was un-Islamic.” “Surely the rest of India won’t let us go through this. Kashmiri pandits think of themselves as Indians,” said Aditya. “Article three-seventy has destroyed us. We are neither Kashmiris nor Indians. We are stateless. We consider ourselves Indians but India doesn’t think of us as its citizens.” “Who has ever come for our help in last five centuries when pandits kept on running away from the valley,” another man asked. “Pandit saab, we don’t want another Battmazar.” “I don’t know who will shelter us. I don’t know if my job will stay.”

All the men seemed to be talking of their anxieties. The temple was turning into a space where they could bring up their fears. Another person said, “Isn’t it possible that after a few months their anger will subside and they will recall us.” “How naïve can you be? Once we go they will take over our land,” somebody added. “This whole shout for independence, have you noticed how the young boys shout slogans that are directed at converting Hindu women?” “We are being very harsh with Pandit saab,” one of them said. “He called us here to see if we could work out a plan to stay back in the valley.” “I suggest we refuse to give in to their demands,” Aditya replied. “Pandit saab, Kashmir is a battle of one religion against another. It won’t work,” someone said. “You also go away. Find a job in some other temple. Then after a year or so come back if things normalise,” said another one. “Pandit saab, what will you do if all the Hindus go away from Kashmir?” “A temple is built for God. Even if no one comes, the priest can’t abandon his temple.” “Haven’t you heard that the water in the pond of Goddess Kheer Bhavani has turned black this year? Every time it turns black, there is a massacre in the valley.” As they got up to go, one of them said, “Pandit saab, we spoke harshly to you. Forgive us. Its just that we are all scared.” When they left, Aditya went out and walked to the edge of the wall. He looked to the sky. The moon had risen high and spread its light on the mountains and the snow. He could see a faint red glow below the peak and a blue line on the edges between the mountains. “Dada, the meeting didn’t go well, isn’t it?” It was Nitai. “No, they want to run away to the plains. That leaves only you and me at the temple. I have no money to run the temple now.” “Dada, I will not leave it as long as you are here. But my heart often hears footsteps of death coming toward the temple.”

SIXTY SIX

“Who will come to your temple now, Pandit saab? The Hindus are gone. We can send some goats to sit as your audience and listen to your prayers.” A loud burst of laughter followed. A group of young boys had gathered around. When he first came to Kashmir, they had played marbles close by. Some of them even used to greet him saying ‘salaam’. “They didn’t hate me so much last year,” Aditya thought. A song by Tagore came to his mind, ‘If no one comes on hearing your call, walk alone’. He was going to the home of Pandit Omkarnath, a resident of Habbakadal. He had come to the temple yesterday and asked Aditya to do a havan at his home. “I cannot stay here and bear the daily insults. Don’t tell anyone. Tonight a taxi will take us to Jammu but before that I want you to do a havan at my home. My son says we will come back in a few months but my heart tells me I will die far away. My pyre will be lit in the plains and not here.” “Don’t be so despondent,” Aditya tried to reassure him. Pandit Omkarnath was saying. “Let’s start. We want to leave as soon as the havan is over.” With a sigh, Aditya started to arrange the bricks in a square and spread some loose mud in the middle. Then he lit a fire with pieces of wood. As the flames went up, he found the family crying. “Will we never come back again to this house?” the daughter said. “Remember the other day you said you didn’t want to live here even for a day,” said her father. “I said that in anger. Imagine being told to convert and marry or…” she stopped, seeing her father’s face. “They are saying that to all the Hindu women in Kashmir.” “Please sit down for the aahuti.   This is the last part of the havan,” Pandit Omkarnath pleaded with his family. “Let us ask the greh-devata  to

protect our home till we come back.” Someone shouted ‘Allah o Akbar’ outside their home. “They know we are leaving because of the smoke. Every home that becomes vacant, they chant ‘Allah o Akbar’ in front of it, as if it is one more victory for them,” Pandit Omkarnath said. At the end of the havan, when the embers had become low, Aditya asked everyone to stand. The daughter touched the doors and windows saying something. The son stood in a corner, his gaze trying to hold onto everything for one last time. “For a Kashmiri Pandit, the home is a living being. My daughter has written a poem. She wants to read it before we leave.” She read… “For the breeze that comes from the mountains every morning, The rustle of the leaves from the trees behind my window that tells me it will miss me, The song that I hear from the stream that tells me my land is where I must die, Kashmir, my land, your contour will never change in my soul.” “I will hide it in this gap between the two walls,” she said. “Maybe someone in the future will retrieve it.” “Will you do me a favor?” Pandit Omkarnath asked Aditya. “This iron box contains my wife’s jewelry. Hide it in the temple compound. I have heard they are attacking the pandits on the way to the plains.” “Well, if you want to,” Aditya said. “I will hide the box under the hollow at the base of the last chinar tree.” As Aditya came out, it was dusk. Unlike other days he decided to take a long route back to the temple. On his left, far above the hills was the temple of Shankaracharya. On other side was Hari Parbat.  The streets were empty and the homes wore a deserted look. The doors seemed all locked and he could see no lights inside from any home. He knew the history of each one who lived in them. For a moment he felt hurt that most of them had left without telling him. Then he realized that if he had a family, he would have done the same. He came to the last home and stopped. He thought he heard a sound. He knocked on the door, uncertainly. After knocking a couple of times, he was about to go when he heard someone say, “Is that Pandit Aditya Narayan?”

“Yes, I am Pandit Aditya Narayan,” he said. “Forgive me.” A man came out. “Nowadays one doesn’t know what will happen in the next moment. We were hiding in the attic. My Muslim neighbor is threatening me to get my daughter married to his son. The same boy whom my wife treated like her son and who came to eat at our home on every New Year’s day. We leave tonight. There is a spare seat in the truck. Please come with us.” “What will happen to the temple?” “Your temple will be attacked soon. If you are not there, maybe they will spare it. Don’t you know that they didn’t burn the temple near Liddy river as they didn’t find the priest?” As he walked past the mosque, he saw that it was filled with people. They had put new carpets on the street. He remembered Javed tell him that plenty of money came into Kashmir to build new mosques. As he walked past them, he heard someone shout with a smirk on his face, “Your temple is empty.” When he came back, he sat in front of the Shivling. He saw the cylindrical stone and the water dripping on it from the vessel at the top. If he left, no one would fill the vessel and the stone would become dry. No priest would dare to come again. He didn’t know when the tears started to roll down. “I didn’t cry when they made fun of me but I can’t see my deity being abandoned.” He realized his heart was not in the prayers. The words of the boy came back to taunt him, ‘Shall we send some goats?’ Nitai was cleaning the utensils outside. He walked up to him. “Nitai, there is no devotee today and I don’t like to pray with no one around.” He didn’t realize when Nitai got up and picked up the manjeera   and started playing it while he prayed. He became aware of someone calling for him from outside the temple. “We heard the sound of the temple bells and then there was an explosion down the road, so we came to check,” Javed said. “We are all right,” Aditya said. “There is a slogan written on the wall of the temple, ‘Kashir banavo Pakistan, battav rustoi battnein sann ,” Javed said. “They wrote it when you were away. This slogan is to be heard all over Kashmir,” Javed said, before leaving.

Inside the temple, as they carried on with their prayers, Aditya thought, “If someone were to write the history of this temple it will be, ‘a Hindu priest prays alone in his temple after everyone was threatened to leave. The untouchable cleaner who was not allowed to enter the temple once, plays the music. A Muslim comes to see if they are safe’.” The thought made him laugh. “Dada,” Nitai said, “you are laughing to yourself. You will become mad.” “Many a saint have said that faith in God is madness and when you realise it, you laugh. Otherwise, why am I laughing knowing that death is so near me?”

SIXTY SEVEN

“Anwar, can a stone, if hit right, kill a human being?” Misba asked, smoothing down her dopatta. Misba had asked him to show the place where he practiced throwing stones. He had tried to dissuade her but then given in, in order to avoid another argument. They had walked together in silence, crossed the village, then a pine forest and finally had come to an open meadow. There was a deathly silence pervading the air. “So this is the secret place where my beloved comes to practice and become the famous stone thrower,” she had exclaimed, taking a deep breath. “But you haven’t answered me,” she said, rubbing his nose. “Well, Misba, it can, if you…” he answered, his mind racing through the various possibilities in which the conversation was going. “Everyone says your hands have magic. They say you can do with a stone what even ten bullets can’t do.” “That is not true, Misba. People exaggerate.” “You know what my father says? Like Anwar, each Kashmiri boy should pick up a stone to fight for Kashmir’s independence from India.” Saying this, she gave him a nudge, “Show me the two most deadly throws that I have heard so much about,” she said. It would be no use to say he was not in a mood. He took a palm sized stone and threw it high in the air. When the stone was in midair, he threw the second stone. The second stone hit the first and broke it in pieces till they both fell in splinters. Misba clapped her hands in delight and said, “Oh, Anwar, now show me the second one.” Anwar took Misba’s dopatta and asked her to tie it around his eyes. He told her to place large stones on top of one another, about a hundred yards away, till the stones looked like a tower. He told her to clap her hands over

the stones to let him know their position. Coming back, she asked him to turn and face a different direction. Anwar turned by himself and raised his hand and threw the stone. It hit the top stone and the tower fall to the ground. “Anwar, who taught you this?” “No one. I learned it myself,” he replied. But an image came to his mind as it had every day for the past so many years. It was of a windowless room with white walls, dimly lit. He had squatted on the floor. The wall had red patches. Three burly men in uniform surrounded him. There was a yellow bulb hanging from the ceiling and he couldn’t see their faces clearly. They were asking him why he had raised his hand to give a signal. When he had said he didn’t, one of them had told him to hold his ears. When he refused, they kicked him on his buttocks. “Stay in this position till your shit comes out.” He had forgotten how long he had stayed in that position or how many times they kicked him, repeating the same question. He had remembered his Abbu’s voice and remembered being carried home by Haji chacha. His abbu and ammi asked him to never talk about it though Anwar knew they themselves did. A year later, he had recognised the officer who had kicked him unconscious, at a rally giving instructions to policemen. Keeping his eyes fixed on him, he had taken two stones in his hand. He had silently said a prayer and felt as if just the two of them existed and everyone around him had ceased to be. He had then tied a handkerchief on his face and had hit two stones one after another aiming at the officer’s forehead. The officer had clutched his head with both hands and collapsed on the ground. Later Anwar learned that he had lost his right eye. The police had rounded up boys from every neighborhood and beaten them but couldn’t find the culprit. His attention was brought to the present by Misba. “Everyone is discussing about azaadi, independence from India. Justice will be done according to the laws of Sharia. Others can stay if they convert to Islam,” said Misba. “What did you say about justice?” Anwar asked. “You know what my Abbu said? He said the pandits are the ones who have always created obstacles in our path whenever we have tried to create

our own nation. He looked into her eyes as she talked. “Anwar, your struggle has brought us here.” “My struggle?” “You are so lost. Everyone says you began this struggle for azaadi and now you don’t want even to talk about it.” “Misba, I carried an infidel on my back. Who will forgive me for that?” “I will, Anwar, if I see you pick up your struggle again. Everyone forgives one mistake. So will Haji chacha. That is what he told me to tell you. You have to just say you made a mistake. Just pick up those stones again and lead our struggle.” “I can’t do that anymore, Misba.” “You will do it for my sake. Haji chacha told me, ‘Anwar will do anything for Misba’. Anyway, I have to go now. There is a program on Pakistani television on the independence of Kashmir.” “I will come to see you some other time,” said Anwar. He dropped her home and hurried back. “Where were you?” his father asked him, when he came back. “Haji chacha sat for a long time and waited for you.” “Waited for me?” “He said you have lost your zeal to fight for azaadi and he can’t see you lose it. He asked you to come to his home tomorrow morning.” Anwar went to Haji chacha’s home next morning. He was waiting for him with a jeep and a driver. “I got to know you had gone out with Misba. I don’t blame you. She looks ravishing.” “You are going somewhere, chacha. I will come another time,” he said. “No, I arranged it especially for you. We will come back by evening.” “But I haven’t told my parents.” “Oh, I have told them I will take you. You will miss Misba for a day and won’t see her, if you can bear it,” he laughed aloud, making the driver smile. “No chacha, it is not like that,” he said, feeling shy. “Do you know Anwar, I have just come from a tour of several countries. I want to send you there on a Kashmiri passport.” “Where did you go, chacha?” “Oh, I went to Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Yemen. I got a gift for you too, did your father tell you? Here it is.” He took out a curved dagger from his bag. It had a brown handle with a beautiful design. “A classic Yemeni

dagger. This suits you,” he said, placing it on Anwar’s lap. “How handsome you look. Misba would have to claw every woman’s eyes now when you walk with it. What is the matter, you don’t enjoy my jokes anymore?” They traveled, passing through thick deodar forests with the mountains becoming taller on either side. Occasionally a bus would pass by. There was an army convoy passing by. Haji chacha told his driver to stop the vehicle on the side. Then Haji chacha said, “Every Kashmiri has to do it when the Indian army passes by. Imagine the day when we will have our own army. They will not insult us anymore.” They finally stopped at a village and went to the mosque. Nearly two hundred people were waiting for them. Haji chacha gave a talk on the independence of Kashmir from India. “We will have an Islamic republic just the way it is described to be.” He lowered his voice and asked, “How many pandits live in this village?” “Only thirty. Two Sikh families live here too,” the person sitting next to him answered. “We have told them to go to India if they don’t convert.” “They think that as long the Indian army is here, they are safe.” As they got back into the jeep, he said, “Anwar, you are very quiet today. Did you want a bigger knife?” “No chacha. I was thinking of something else,” said Anwar. “What, any problem with Misba? If there is one, tell me. I am great at solving lover’s quarrels.” “No chacha, we get along fine.” “Then, what is it? Oh, you young people, you confuse me so much. I understand,” he pushed at Anwar’s shoulder, “this is youth, my dear,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “One moment you cry, the next you laugh. I suggest you spend more time with Misba, or better, I will get your marriage fixed. Before we have the Islamic state of Kashmir, you become husband and wife, maybe the first couple in an Islamic Kashmir.” He had laughed loudly. The driver stopped the jeep to rest. As they sat below a chinar tree, he lit up a cigarette. “Chacha,” Anwar exclaimed, “where have you sat down?” “Toba, toba,”   he tapped his foot and almost lost his balance trying to get up. Below the tree, planted in the ground was a trident with red marks

on it. Several threads were tied around it. There were some coins and black ash lying around. “These Hindu seers, I tell you, they plant tridents wherever they find any space. There is no place on earth one can escape them and this trident, one can’t even see it till one comes close.” Haji chacha spoke, taking short breaths. “This is what I don’t like. These Hindus make stones, trees, mountains, even the air holy. What a religion!” They had sat under another tree after verifying that there was no ash or trident. Haji chacha had opened a flask of kahwa. Far below they could see the Srinagar valley. “Our land,” he said looking down, “now under the occupation of infidels. Misba told me, you don’t want to throw stones anymore.” “Yes, chacha, I don’t,” he replied. “But your stones, they have brought us here today, Anwar. Without bullets, without arms, it is the stones you threw that put fear in the hearts of the Indians.” They were distracted by a commotion near the road. Some of the villagers had cornered a young Hindu boy. They were saying, “Tell us. Otherwise, we will kill you.” “I have not said anything,” the boy pleaded. “What happened,” Haji chacha asked one of the men. “We saw this boy go up to the Indian army convoy that passed by and talk with them. He is the one who must have told them about the activities of the people in the village,” said the man. “No, I didn’t tell them anything. They just asked me if there was a shortcut to the nearest peak on foot,” the boy said, crying. “So that those coming from Pakistan can be caught,” said one of the men. “No, I didn’t tell them, I promise.” “You are lying. We will get it out of you,” one of them said. Before the boy could respond, one of the men tore up his pheran. The other threw him on the ground. Another one kicked him hard on the buttocks and the other one took out a belt and started to hit him. Haji chacha laughed saying, “He will soon tell everything when his behind turns red.”

Another day, another time, someone had laughed and said, “Let’s turn his backside red.” The two voices were so similar. “Chacha,” Anwar said, “what if he is innocent?” “Beta, you have started to feel for these people.” The frightened boy’s shrieks subsided as more blows fell on him. Anwar saw the unconscious boy being pushed onto one side and people walk away. Anwar heard one of the men say, “We made a mistake. It wasn’t this boy who informed the army. But it doesn’t matter. They will get the message.” He saw a couple come running to the boy, perhaps his parents. Haji chacha’s voice interrupted his flow of thoughts. “You were not affected by all this earlier. How does it matter whether a single boy is innocent or not? One will die and another will come in his place. This happens in a revolution.” “Chacha, doesn’t a single life matter in a revolution,” he asked. “Anwar, what kind of thinking is this? Why bother if a single boy is innocent or not?” Anwar was thinking, “Not so long ago, a single boy bent on his knees holding his ears. One of the men was saying, ‘Leave him. He is innocent.’ The one kicking him had said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Everyone has to get the message.” “Chacha, in a revolution are we boys only numbers? If one dies, can the other fill his place as if nothing happened?” Anwar asked.

SIXTY EIGHT

“As

salaam alaikum, Anwar.” It was Javed. Anwar had just finished reading his namaz. “Wa alaikum as salaam, Javed,” he said after a slight hesitation. Javed said, “Yesterday morning, the Hindu girl living behind our lane was coming back from the temple. She had a vermilion mark on her forehead. Someone came on a bicycle and told her to remove it. She refused and he threw acid on her face. She has identified him as Rashid, the meat seller’s son.” “Did the girl’s father report it to the police?” “Yes, but they didn’t register the case. The local Superintendent has given a diktat that there should be no cases registered against any Muslim boy and all cases will be decided when independent government of Kashmir is formed. The girl’s father was told that if he does not go away, he will have his other daughter raped. Her father is a friend of my Abbu. He came to us and cried asking if we could help. My Abbu said he was helpless.” “Are you going somewhere,” asked Anwar. “There is a rally for independence of Kashmir at Lal Chowk,” Javed said. “I plan to go.” “Can I come with you?” Anwar asked. They walked through narrow alleys and lanes that were crowded with people. They passed by Neelam cinema hall. On its wall someone had written, ‘cinemas are un-Islamic’. “All cinema halls have been asked to close down in Kashmir. Some have been burned down,” Javed said. They made their way to a point from where they could see the dais. One of the leaders was addressing the crowd. The Lal Chowk was a square named by left wing revolutionaries after the famous red square in Moscow. There were a number of Pakistani flags

that fluttered in the air. There were people taking pictures of the tower, now called the ‘flag tower’ because everyone wanted to hang a flag there. A group of young men were raising slogans. “Kashir banavo Pakistan, battav rostoi battnien saan.” Seeing Javed and Anwar being quiet they asked them to join in the chanting. Javed asked, “Can one talk like that about one’s own sisters?” The man overheard him, “Here, we have a Muslim brother for their Hindu sisters.” A number of men surrounded them. One of them tried to push Javed. “He is an Indian stooge,” that man said pointing to Javed. Javed said to Anwar, “Let’s go. I don’t wish to stay here.” “No, we won’t go,” Anwar said. More men gathered around them. One of them said, “Who are these two?” “He is the imam’s son who carried the Hindu priest on his back and the other is his friend.” One of them came forward and said, “The women of the infidels will soon become our property when the Hindus leave. Any doubts on that, Anwar bhai and Javed bhai? How many do each of you want?” There was a loud cheer from everyone and more men joined them in the fun. One of them added, “The mosques are broadcasting this slogan.” “Not my mosque. My Abbu will never allow it,” Anwar found his voice. “He would do it one day. You have shamed him so badly that he has no choice.” “How dare you?” Anwar rolled up his sleeves glaring at the man who said it. Another man came between them and stretched his arms to separate them. “This is not the time to fight among us and let’s show respect for Anwar bhai. He was our leader and began the movement.” Anwar asked, “When did having Hindu women as your property become the idea of azaadi? This is not what I believed to be azaadi.” “There is nothing wrong in having the women of the infidel for yourself.” The men laughed, as they dispersed and went away to hear the speech of the leader on the dais. “You know, Javed,” Anwar said, as Javed dragged him away, “I wanted a Kashmir without injustice, where no one is a victim of atrocity. That is

why I believed Haji chacha.” “The most popular slogan in Kashmir nowadays is ‘turning Kashmir into Pakistan with the Hindu women without their men’ followed by the cry of ‘la ilaha illallah.’  I feel so ashamed to hear them one after another but I know it is a great favorite among young men. I wonder how our elders allow it?” As they both moved away, they could hear the next speaker say, “This is the same Lal Chowk from where the Indian Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru announced in 1947 that Kashmiris will decide their future through a plebiscite. But did he do it?” The crowd roared, “We are ready for any sacrifice.” Javed lowered his voice and said, “When my Abbu hears the word ‘plebiscite,’ he says, ‘Did Nehru ever understand Kashmir?’ The young men today are being promised an AK-47 to fight. How many of them know the history of those days when Hindus and Muslims fought together to protect Kashmir from invaders? Did Nehru even think of it when he announced plebiscite?” At the back of the crowd another group was saying, “Kashmir mein rehna hoga, Allah o Akbar kehna hoga .” Javed said, “Some of the other slogans are, “Yehan kya chalega, nizame mustafa , Battav ya reliv, chaliv nathe galiv .” “Have you heard any slogan about equality and justice?” “No, I have made a note of all the slogans. None of them speak about discrimination or injustice but conversion of Hindus.” “Are you upset over what that man said to you at the rally,” asked Javed. “No,” Anwar said, “I am glad I heard it with my own ears.” Anwar was about to say something more when he stopped. “Hey, you stop,” he screamed. A young Kashmiri pandit boy was walking with a young girl, by the side of the road carrying schoolbags. A group of boys on motorcycle had approached them. “Hey, move away,” Anwar yelled at the motorcyclists. “Is she your sister,” they yelled back as they brushed past the girl. “You rascal.” Anwar picked up two stones lying on the road and aimed at them. The stones hit boys toppling them over. He picked up some more stones and threw them, one after another hitting them.

“We will see you later,” they yelled as they drove away. “Where were you going?” Anwar asked the boy. He pointed at two homes, one partially burned and the one next to it totally burned. “Our home. These three boys burned it two days ago and now come to see if we have left or not,” the boy said, pointing to the half burned home. As they reached, Anwar asked, “Can we go in?” Two dogs came out and started barking. There was a putrid smell everywhere as they entered. Broken pieces of wood lay around on the floor. The walls and the roof were full of black soot, giving the house a ghastly appearance. There were half burned books and a burned carpet lay folded in one corner. “The whole family ran away by the back door.” The boy told them. “Why haven’t you gone?” Javed asked. “Our mother is sick. My father promised the attackers that we will convert to Islam. Then they allowed us to stay.” “Do you know what Islam is and how will it be different from being a Hindu?” Javed asked. “Yes,” the boy said, “if we become Muslim and read namaz, we don’t get killed.” Javed saw Anwar going to the next room. In his hand was a child’s toy. It was a parrot. “I bought one toy just like this for Zeba’s son.” Anwar said. “Strange, isn’t it? Two similar toys, one for a child who would never play with it and gets burned and the other one, well…” He didn’t finish and put the toy in one corner. The dogs had come back and started to bark. “They want us to go,” Javed said. Do you know I don’t see stray dogs anymore on the streets of Srinagar? I hear that they are the first to go to the homes vacated by the pandits. Considering that ten thousand homes of pandits have been burned in the last one year, the dogs must have a lot of space to themselves.” A middle-aged man walked in. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “No point in looking here, leave this place. I have bought this house from the owner before he left,” he said. As they walked away, Javed said, “All lies. Most of the Hindu houses are either burned down or forcibly occupied. Who can imagine buying or selling in such a climate?

SIXTY NINE

“My heart is about to burst with joy. Didn’t I say that this would be a people’s movement,” said Haji saab. “I didn’t know so many people in Kashmir wanted azaadi.” “Don’t feel bad, Imam saab. You are an imam and lead the prayers. I understand their aspirations.” He continued, “Today from every home, every Muslim is asking the pandits to convert or leave the valley. From all the mosques across Kashmir, this message is being spread. I have only one regret.” “What is that?” “I wanted to see Anwar at the head of this crowd.” “It is the will of Allah. I am sure he will realize it. Did you see this day coming, Haji saab?” “Of course, I did. This was in the heart of every Muslim of the valley. Otherwise, today there would have been protests. Tell me, have you heard a single word of sympathy for pandits from any corner,” asked Haji saab. “See this,” he picked up a newspaper, “this is a press release by our Hizb ul Mujaheedin brothers.” “I heard other imams talk of it.” “Tell me, could all this happen from all the mosques without people’s support? Only our mosque does not play these slogans. What an irony! I had acquired all these cassettes to play but Anwar doesn’t allow it,” said Haji saab. They came out and stood on the roof of their home. There were hundreds of young people on the roads. Many carried posters and flags. Haji saab said, “Today’s day will be written in golden letters in the history of Kashmir as the day of liberation.” Haji saab made a gesture to the young men on the street. “Final push, final push,” he was saying. “Imam saab, we should call Anwar and let him see the crowd. This is his victory.”

“He doesn’t come out from his room nowadays. Still you can try,” said Imam saab. “Anwar, Anwar,” Haji saab went down from the roof to Anwar’s room. “Beta, come out and see the crowd. You made this happen.” There was no sound from inside the room. “Anwar, I am Haji chacha,” he knocked on the door again, “come out, beta, and hear the voice of the people,” Haji saab said in a loud voice. Still no answer came from inside. “It is not possible that he hasn’t heard the shouts of the people outside.” “There is a small crack in the window of his room. Let us see if we can see through it,” Imam saab said. The crack was the width of about a finger. They could see Anwar sitting in one corner on his prayer mat. The holy Koran was spread out in front of him. He sat unmoving and his eyes were closed in prayer. “I have never seen him like this,” his father said. They heard Anwar in a barely audible voice, saying, “There is no compulsion in the matter of faith.” “Why is he reading this surah, Imam saab,” asked Haji saab. Imam saab didn’t reply. It seemed to him that Anwar was not just praying. He looked briefly upward with his face in deep contemplation as if asking for forgiveness from someone up in the sky, who would provide redemption to his tortured soul.

SEVENTY

“Dada, someone is at the gate to meet you. He gave me this card.” The card read, Professor Baig Jammu University When Aditya came out, Professor Baig put both his hands on Aditya’s shoulders. “Just the way I imagined you would have grown up to be. Are you surprised to see me here?” Aditya smiled and asked him to come inside. They sat down on the stone slab. Professor Baig looked at the temple and said, “You were able to build the temple despite all hardships.” Nitai got kahwa for them. “I can see that you have adapted to the Kashmiri way of life. Kahwa, pheran…” he said while sipping the tea. “How are your parents?” Aditya sighed. “My mother died some time ago. My father left for his vanaprastha.” “How do you manage alone?” “I am not alone. I have Nitai and Tara. They help me run the temple. I have no money left now though.” “And still you haven’t left like the other priests,” Professor Baig asked. “No, I have not.” “That is what I have come to discuss with you. The other day I read about the continuous vandalism of temples in Kashmir. I decided I will not be silent anymore.” “I don’t understand,” said Aditya. “If the militants succeed in destroying your temple, they will destroy the very soul of Hindus in Kashmir. As a professor, I have some clout with heads of Muslim seminaries across India. I will talk to them and ask them to

speak up against this madness,” Professor Baig said. “It is the only way to stop fanaticism in Kashmir.” “The militants don’t have any respect for anyone, however scholarly,” Aditya said. “Aren’t you going to get killed if you stay here?” Professor Baig asked. “Does the thought ever cross your mind?” “Yes, but I have no one in this world to worry about me. No one will miss me if I am gone. But you have a family.” “If there is no izzat,   what is left? I have lived my life. Now if Allah wants, he can take it away but I will stand up against injustice in Kashmir. I will come and stay with you. If the militants come to destroy this temple, I will tell them that what they are doing is against Islam.” “Will it make a difference? Already our land is soaked in blood,” Aditya said. “What will you do when the militants come to the temple?” asked Professor Baig. “I will do what my ancestor did long ago,” Aditya told him. “I used to imagine how those medieval priests in Kashmir defended their faith.” Professor Baig said. “My students will learn more from your example than from reading stupid textbooks about the history of medieval India.” Aditya came out to see him off. Someone had stuck a white handwritten paper on the gate. It asked Hindus to leave Kashmir and threatened of mass rapes of their women. Aditya tore the paper and threw it away. “I have to do this every day,” he said. Professor Baig looked at him. “Do you remember our conversation in the train?” he asked. “Yes, every word of it.” “You had said you regretted that you could never go to any school or university. I have students who write brilliant theses but none with the courage you showed just now.” Holding Aditya’s hands, he said, “You look sad.” “I couldn’t keep my promise to hold back my people in their land. They left.” “They left no doubt, but with a difference now. In all these years I didn’t come across narratives of Kashmiri pandits grieving over their homes while leaving. This grief will only grow as time passes and a day will come when

it can’t be stopped from erupting. They carry their homeland in their hearts this time. Whenever societies have done that even if it takes twenty, fifty, hundred, even a thousand years, they have returned to their land. It will happen to your people too one day.”

SEVENTY ONE

“How do you know Professor Baig,” the officer asked Aditya. Aditya explained how he had met Professor Baig. “Is he all right?” he asked. “Yesterday sir was in his study with his daughter when three men barged into his house and asked him if he would stop saying that what is happening in Kashmir is not azaadi. When he refused and challenged them to show what they were doing was Islamic, they dragged him out of home and riddled him with bullets.” They left a note near his body, “Those who do not support our struggle for azaadi will meet this end.” Aditya felt a lump rise in his throat. He started to cry. “He meant a lot to you, didn’t he,” the policeman asked him. “I was his student too. Sir was an outspoken champion against fundamentalism on campus. He turned away militants who came to address the students,” said the police officer. “Who could do this to him?” “It could be any of the militant groups in the valley. His body lay on the road for hours and nobody went near out of fear.” “But why did they kill him and that too on the road?” “Maybe because of these two.” He took out a paper from a file. “We found it on his table,” he said. It was a letter addressed to the imams and scholars of different madrassas and seminaries across India. He asked them to raise their voices against fundamentalism in Kashmir. “This is what he came to me for. He wanted the militants to stop their violence. What was the other reason?” Aditya asked, seeing a thick wad. “This paper is unfinished. Sir was writing about how the different slogans being raised were impacting the minds of the youth. He has

specially written about this slogan of having the pandit women without their men making the youth associate azaadi with a romance of possessing the women of the infidels. He has added that the slogans are making the youth conjure up images that are alluring and will lead to tragic ends. He had then questioned the silence of the elders who said one or two innocent slogans won’t make any difference to anyone and asked them not to permit children to be used as shields against security forces.” In a voice shaking with emotion, the officer continued, “When I became a police officer and came to seek his blessings, I had told him how much a part of my duty was to control sloganeering. He had then said that in slogans lie the root of all collective violence and asked me to counsel the young against raising them without knowing their meaning or consequences.” “Having written such an outspoken document, he must have made many enemies,” said Aditya. “Not only that, he had ended his paper by asking the Kashmiri Muslims that if they have started the collective violence, what right do they have to claim victimhood in the eyes of the world? ‘Who will listen to your cries O mother as you wail for your son? Who will give a shoulder to your janaza,  your old father?’ he had asked. “Did he die a violent death?” Aditya asked. “What must have happened was that sir would have been under surveillance of militants. They must have followed him when he came here to meet you and got to know about the letter he had drafted and then decided to eliminate him. A true Muslim that is what sir was,” the officer said. “He paid the fees for all poor students who could not afford college. His home was open to all of us.” “I wish he hadn’t come to my temple,” Aditya said. “He came on his own and don’t forget that the militants are eliminating all intellectuals who speak against them. Journalists, writers, intellectuals now live under the shadow of the gun in Kashmir. There will be a memorial service for him next Sunday. Please come,” he said, before leaving. The ground was full of students and professors as Aditya and Javed reached there. There was a picture of Professor Baig on the dais. In the picture he wore the same smile that Aditya remembered he had greeted him with in the train when they had first met. One by one, his colleagues came and paid their last respect. Then they asked Aditya to say a few words.

Aditya could feel a hollowness rise in his chest. The eyes of the students and teachers were on him as he got on to the stage. He described how they had met on a train journey, the books he sent to him regularly and the letters he wrote to him. “You go away.” It was Professor Baig’s daughter. “If it weren’t for you, my father would still be alive today and I don’t want to lose the rest of my family.” She started to cry. “I need to stop.” He bowed and walked away. Javed followed him. “You stopped abruptly. Did you want to say anything more?” Javed asked him. “It is just that I feel responsible for his death. I wanted to apologize and say a few more things but I couldn’t.”

SEVENTY TWO

Zeba realized that she had not handled her interrogation by the police well. It all began when she was making rotis in the kitchen. She heard an unfamiliar voice ask if the wife of Salim Rehman was home. She came out and saw two men in the living room. They had not removed their boots, leaving mud on the carpet. Seeing her, one of them smiled to his friend and whispered something. “How did you come inside?” she asked, crossing her arms. “Are you the wife of Salim Rehman?” one of them asked. “You will have to come with us to the police station.” The tone of their voice made her blood boil. “Wait,” she said. Her children were inside. She had to feed the younger one. “Can I come later?” she asked. “No, you have to come right now.” Their tone was brusque. “It is regarding your husband.” “Has something happened to him?” “You will know after you come with us.” She debated whether she should go. Then she decided she would. Explaining to her mother-in-law that she had to go out for important work, she accompanied the two policemen taking along her two children. They arrived at a gray-looking building. It had no board. She was asked to go inside a small cubicle and wait. It had only one chair and a strange smell emanated from it. Zeba felt a difficulty breathing. A very tall and lean man walked in with the men who had brought her. “Has she come alone?” he asked them. He reeked of alcohol. Zeba did not like his look. He stood across her with his chest thrust out. A constable brought in a chair for him and left. Another officer, apparently junior, came and stood at attention. The officer surveyed her from head to toe.

“You are Zeba, wife of Salim Rehman,” he asked. “You already know that, why ask,” she said. “Do you know the nature of his business?” “He has different businesses from leather to fruits.” “These women are all the same,” the junior said. “None of them will tell us clearly about their husbands’ businesses.” Zeba felt anger rise within her. “Do you people tell your wives what you do at work?” “She has a lot of fire in her belly.” They both laughed. Zeba felt her face go red, “Look, why have you called me.” “Are they your children?” “Yes,” Zeba replied caustically. “Beautiful children. They look like you,” the senior officer said. “Look, will you tell me why I am being held here?” She bit her lips. “I think we should talk to her inside. Leave your children with the caretaker.” He summoned an old woman. “It will only be a few minutes.” The officer, Inspector Dar, had been shocked to see Zeba. She had reminded him of an actress from Bollywood he had fantasies about during his college years. “Why do men leave such beautiful women and go to kill themselves for azaadi?” His eyes had kept returning to her. Her beauty had aroused him in a way he had not felt for years. “So you don’t know where your husband is,” he tried to pick up the threads of the interview. “How many times will you ask me the same question?” Zeba asked. “Do you know your husband is in a military camp in Pakistan?” “No, that can’t be true.” Her hands went to her open mouth. “He has gone to Delhi to meet some buyers, that’s what he told me.” He banged his hand on the table. “Don’t you dare lie to me.” Zeba lost her composure. “Enough, don’t shout at me.” She got up to go. “Sit down. It is not over yet.” The junior officer gave a dismissive nod. “Give me my children,” Zeba said, looking straight at him. “Your children…” the senior officer yelled. “You don’t know what we do to women if they don’t comply.” He got up and smiled. Zeba shot back, “Do you talk like that to your mother?” “You bitch, don’t answer back.” He slapped her drawing blood. She wiped the blood from her mouth.

“Fight with a man,” she screamed, “someone who is your equal. I pity your wife. I can see what she experiences from the hands of her brave husband.” “I am not like my fellow officers. I believe in a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye. At least in your case.” “What do you mean?” Zeba asked. “Your people are raping Hindu women. The militants have made sex slaves out of Hindu women in several villages. Didn’t your people begin it by raising slogans asking Hindus to leave Kashmir without their women? And when they were running away, raped the women?” “All that you say is true. But tell me what is it to do with me? Why have I been called to this place?” “Please sit down,” the junior officer almost pushed his senior one out. “I am sorry for the behavior of my senior. Our work is not easy.” “He is your senior and you are apologizing?” She couldn’t help asking. “Four of your men surrounded me, a single woman and you call it work.” “You see, we have information that your husband is training to be a jihadi in Pakistan. How long has he been away?” asked the junior officer. “He has been gone for three months.” “You must be a very lonely woman.” “Again, what does that mean,” she asked. “You are away from home, so is your wife lonely?” “No madam, our wives stay pious when we are away. I only want to say that consider us as your friends. My boss likes you. Look I will tell you a secret. He thinks since you were attracted to a priest, don’t wear a burqa, therefore…” Zeba cut him short, “So your boss thinks I am a loose woman.” “No madam, you…” “Enough,” Zeba said getting up. Her face was crimson. “Bring me my children,” she demanded. Zeba took her children and walked back. Several times she felt she would fall down. When she had walked some distance, she saw her son pick up a stone and throw it toward the camp. “Stop it,” she shouted, “who taught you to throw stones at people?” “He was a bad man, Ammi.” “Who taught you to throw stones?” she repeated, shaking him by the arm.

“No one, Ammi,” the frightened child replied. “Never do it again. Otherwise you will see my dead body,” she said. Realizing she had scared him, she took him in her arms and kissed him and cried. She wondered whether throwing stones came naturally to the children of Kashmir. “Don’t cry, Ammi. I won’t do it again.” “What did the old woman ask you?” Zeba asked him. “She asked if you put me against here and fed me milk.” He motioned to her breasts. Her daughter said, “She asked me when I saw my father last.” She felt her cheeks burn and without realizing her hands tugged at her clothes as if to make herself invisible. Once she reached home, she decided to have a bath. She realized she didn’t care whether Salim was a militant and had gone to Pakistan. A thought struck her that to both these men and to Salim she was just a sexual vessel with no individuality. From the way Salim behaved with her, she guessed that he visited prostitutes. Taking his undergarments to wash after one trip, she had noticed a red lipstick mark on it. She thought of the upheaval it would cause to her family if she mentioned it. He would deny all knowledge of it. Her motherin-law would blame her for not making him happy in bed and forcing him to go to other women. “No, it doesn’t matter,” she decided. Every woman in her neighborhood had a similar story. The men went away for months in the name of jihad and came back behaving differently. Women were supposed to accept infidelity and other transgressions by their men and maintain a culture of silence. She had overheard her mother-in-law discuss in low tone with other women as to how the militants were abducting and raping young girls. “Our men are doing it to spread our religion and teach a lesson to others. They have the support of their own women in this holy task. Now isn’t that a true sacrifice?” Zeba had not been able to hear anymore and had walked away. She had finally decided to go the local store and buy a burqa. Every woman who didn’t cover herself from head to toe was considered a loose woman and a potential target. As she entered the shop, she found that the shopkeeper had removed all fancy items for women from its windows. She remembered that earlier there were life size pictures of film actresses adorning the shop’s windows. Now it was replaced by a picture of ‘Kaaba’.

Seeing her look, the shopkeeper showed her a poster pasted on the door, ‘All un-Islamic objects should be taken off the shelves.’ “Burqas are what we are allowed to sell now,” the shopkeeper said. “We have hidden all fancy garments and cosmetics. Don’t tell anyone. It is the militants who come to buy the hidden stuff for their mistresses. And women dress up in these to entice their men in the home when they are stressed,” he grinned. “Don’t tell anyone. Business couldn’t have been better.” Zeba remembered when her ammi had wanted to buy a burqa for her several years ago. She had howled saying she would rather die than wear one. “I will look like a fat black crow.” She realized that she could no longer ignore the sharia law that militants had imposed and the new rules for women. After coming back home she put on the burqa and looked at herself in the mirror. Only her eyes showed from under the small slit and the rest of her body was covered in black. It hid all outlines. “The woman in me will start dying now and I won’t even know it,” she told herself. “Maybe I will feel better if I take a walk outside,” she decided. As she tried to walk to the front door, she realized it was difficult to see anything through the grill of the cloth. Her mouth had gone dry. She didn’t realize when the cloth around her face became wet with perspiration. As she walked to the grocery store, she heard two boy’s voices behind her. They were laughing and said she had nice buttocks. With a shock she realized that they were teenage boys who lived behind her lane. They had earlier addressed her with respect as ‘chachi’  but now in the burqa she had become anonymous, an object of desire. As she walked away she realized she couldn’t see her feet, something she took for granted. She didn’t remember when she returned and collapsed on her bed. “I pray that my daughter grows in a society where she will never have to wear a burqa. It will erase her identity.” It wasn’t even a week when the men from the police station came again. One of them called out to her saying, “Madam, you have to come to the police station.” “Do you have summons for me?” she asked. “No Madam.” She understood. There were no records of those called for interrogation. The walk to the police station seemed like it would never end.

She was made to wait for two hours before she was asked to come into the same room where she had been interrogated the last time. This time, it had a small iron table, three or four wooden chairs and it was cluttered with files. The same man, who had asked her questions last time, came in with another man. Without greeting her, they sat down. They showed her a photograph of a group of men and asked pointing at someone in the picture, “Is this your husband?” It was a photograph of men wearing uniform. The third person from the right was Salim. He had grown a beard, looked slimmer and athletic. He held a gun in one hand and was smiling. “We found this photo in the hideout of a dead militant. The mountain in the picture is in Pakistan. Now is he in the picture?” “Yes, the man third from the right is my husband.” The other officer said, “At least she recognized him.” “When did you see him last?” “Nearly four months ago,” said Zeba. “What did he tell you?” “He said he is going on business to Delhi.” “Has he called you since then,” asked the other officer. “Yes, he did and asked about the children.” “You have not bothered to find out where he is.” “No, it does not matter for these women, sir,” the junior officer tried to show his knowledge. Zeba could not control herself. “I would imagine that you too are away from your wives for long and that is why you ask women such questions.” “How dare you,” the officer screamed. “You know I can put you in prison and you won’t come out until the snow melts in Kashmir.” He came very close to her face and Zeba could smell alcohol. “You have great courage,” she said, looking at him straight, “threatening a woman like this. Does the valor of people like you rest on asking women what they wear and their habits with their husbands?” “You, you…” the officer said, pointing his finger at her, “you know you are the wife of a terrorist.” “So that means you can ask me anything,” she asked the senior officer. “You tell us if he contacts you. If you don’t then we will use other means with you.” “What other means?” Zeba asked.

“You are clever. You will know. If you tell us, we will not let anything happen to him.” “Listen,” Zeba got up, “I have no respect for my husband so far but I won’t take it anymore.” She didn’t realize when the hand of the officer hit her. She remembered nothing after that. When she opened her eyes, she was at home. Her mother-in-law looked down at her. “How did I get here?” “We found you lying unconscious on the road near our home. What were you doing there?” “I just went to buy groceries,” Zeba lied. “Thank Allah you are all right. Is it another gift coming from Allah?” she asked expectantly. “No, Ammi, it is not that,” she said, her face becoming a little red. “We were worried and looked for you everywhere. News had spread that you were missing and people had come out to look for you.” Zeba guessed what may have happened. They must have thrown her near her home and then someone must have informed her family. She suddenly became aware of something different about her body. Trembling, her hands travelled over her undergarments. Her brassiere was loose. She felt her panty. She was having her periods and her cloth pad was wet. “Did they leave me because of that?” But what hurt her most was the trust that she felt was now broken. She had of late begun to trust the men in uniform after she had seen them respect local customs. Then it struck her why some of them may have behaved differently toward her. As everyone said these were unusual times and she had of her own choice acted in a way that had attracted attention and pushed the limits of endurance of society toward her. She was seen as a loose woman, one who had not only betrayed her father by falling in love with an infidel priest and then marrying a militant, but now who courted danger by speaking out her mind and not being conservative. She had never felt scared of even the police till now when they walked past her on the streets. But as they said, this was a warlike situation descending into hell. She would have to be careful. She thought of the girls of the neighborhood who she had heard were forced to become mistresses of militants or had to report to police stations for questioning. She wanted to vomit.

SEVENTY THREE

Zeba held Salim’s letter in her hands for a long time. It read… Dearest Zeba, As salaam alaikum. When you read this you might feel angry that I did not share this fact earlier. It was the command from my brothers that we do not write home until our mission is completed. I know that today you were called to the police station for interrogation. It makes my blood boil that those pigs questioned you. But you dealt with it like a true Muslim and I am proud to know that you shouted at them. I came over here for training along with other boys. Our mission is to liberate Kashmir from India. You are now the wife of the area commander. Soon you will hear of my exploits. I am also enclosing an envelope with this letter. Keep it safe. Allah Hafiz Zeba wiped her forehead. Someone must have come inside her room to put it there. So it also meant that people were keeping tabs on her movements. Zeba held the letter until she realized her son was crying for milk. She got up to feed him. She hid the letter in a small crevice in the ceiling. She opened the envelope. Inside were a bundle of currency notes tied with a rubber band. Zeba sat there for a long time trying to figure out what was happening. She tried to imagine what could have driven Salim to take this extreme step to leave her and the children. With a heavy heart, she stopped feeding her son and stroked her daughter. She was crying. Her daughter watched her.

“You are safe, my child. Sometimes, Ammi cries and then she is all right,” she told her. “Is Abbu fighting for independence? That is what grandmother says. She says when I grow up I should also fight for independence.” “No koori, you will not fight like Abbu,” Zeba said. “Now go to sleep.” When her daughter fell asleep, Zeba lit the kangri in the room. The temperature had dropped. While closing the curtains, in the light under the road lamp, she thought she saw two men. Seeing her, they turned their faces away. Next morning without telling anyone, she picked up her children and left for her parent’s home. When she reached her parent’s home, her mother opened the door. “Oh koori, you, at this hour?” Zeba hid nothing. She shared Salim’s letter, her being called for interrogation, their asking her to report about Salim and finally her own surveillance. She only hid the humiliating things they said to her. Her father had woken up and was listening to her. “They cannot do this to you.” “Abbu, Ammi, I don’t want my children to grow up in that place.” “No, koori, you stay here with us till Salim comes back. Then you can go back to your own home.” “Where is Anwar boijan?” she asked. She saw him as he came out of his room. He looked tired as if he hadn’t slept for many nights. He smiled on seeing her and briefly hugged the children. “Boijan, what has happened to you? You didn’t come to meet me even once,” she asked. “Anwar doesn’t go anywhere now. He stays in his room most of the time,” her ammi spoke up.

SEVENTY FOUR

“Aditya, go away from Kashmir. When things settle down you can return. Until then, we will protect the temple.” Holding a poster, Javed said, “Priests are their prime targets. If they see that you are gone, your temple will be safe.” “Who is this ‘we’, Javed,” asked Aditya. “The ‘we’ is me and my conscience.” Aditya looked at the poster. It was handwritten and had a green flag drawn on top. It said… ‘The priest must convert to Islam if he wants to stay in Kashmir’. Someone had come in the night and posted it on the wall. Now he prepared for the prayers as if each day was his last. Every day he saw families leave the valley. They would come to the temple one last time and tell him they were leaving. “We got this notice saying, ‘leave your women for us’.” One of the families had shown him an Urdu newspaper, ‘Aftab’. There was a press release by Hizb ul Mujaheedin on its front page. The press release said that they were waging a jihad for Kashmir’s secession from India and its accession to Pakistan. One night, he had heard some noise and come out to see several men put up a poster on the temple wall. “Why are you taking so much trouble,” he shouted. “I am not going anywhere.” He saw them move away. One of them shouted, “We will gouge your eyes out like we did to that poet.” The poet they referred to was Pandit Sarwanand Premi, who was killed along with his son. Before being killed, their eyes were gouged out and then they were hanged. He looked at the snow capped peaks far away, reflecting the light from the moon until it became morning. In the early hours, Javed came to see

him. Nitai was cleaning the floor. “Where is Aditya?” he asked him. “He is sitting outside.” They sat outside on the parapet. “Everyone feels that you must leave,” Javed said, breaking the silence. “There are many here who plan to kill you.” “I can’t abandon my temple and run away.” “I didn’t mean it that way. Kashmiri pandits are leaving their homes voluntarily. They will all come back in a few months when things return to normal,” said Javed. “Nobody leaves their homes voluntarily, Javed. What is home can only be torn away from you. It is a death that is invisible.” “What is the harm in going away for sometime? People will soon realize their mistake.” “That time can be centuries, Javed.” “Don’t be so despondent,” he said. “I have been going to the homes of the pandits to perform havans before they leave. They know in their hearts they will not return in their lifetime.” “You, a temple priest, can leave anytime.” “For a Hindu priest the temple is all he has in this world. This is his home and he can leave it only when he dies,” said Aditya. “I apologize. I didn’t mean it that way.” “Javed, since ancient times Hindu priests have not run away leaving their deities. The deities are their families.” “As you wish,” Javed said as he got up to leave. “But don’t go out at night. Call me anytime there is trouble.”

SEVENTY FIVE

The main hall of the temple was full of people occupying every corner. They were all waiting for it to become dark so they could leave for Jammu. No one slept and they talked of the homes they were leaving behind. “Fifty years ago, when the Jews of Europe were led to concentration camps, their neighbors kept silent. Our neighbors are not silent. They are on the streets telling us to convert or die,” the old man said. “This is India. It is 1989. The world has changed, grandfather,” the young man protested. “But there are lessons for us. We will suffer the same fate if we don’t run away.” “Our next door neighbor was a Muslim,” a man who overheard them said. “He used to say in his family records, it is written that to further his career his great-great-grandfather with a Hindu surname ‘Kaul’ made the decision to convert to Islam. He said that his descendants celebrated every major festival of Hindus by going to Hindu neighbors’ homes. Then how could he lead a mob to attack our home and destroy it?” “The conversion is the scar that doesn’t let you heal. When after centuries of following a faith, you give it up on being forced, your soul never accepts it. It remains a trauma and lies embedded deep inside. It is passed on to the future generations making them violent.” “Does that explain the current violence in the name of religion?” the young man asked. “But I am worried about something else. We will face a genocide, if we don’t run away.” “You saw the genocide with your own eyes, didn’t you,” the young man asked. “Yes, in 1939 I was a student in France. My professor was a Jew. I had Jewish friends in the university. They were confident that nothing would happen to them until one day they were all herded like cattle and taken

away. Many years later, I met the son of the professor. He was the only one to survive from the camp and come back. He once said to me, ‘The education of every German child should begin in a concentration camp’.” They stopped the conversation on seeing Aditya. “Pandit saab, it is you. Please join us.” “Has any community run away so many times, leaving their homeland?” another man asked. “Don’t say such a thing,” another man said. “Once the disturbance dies down we will all come back.” “The disturbance, you said? No, it is the hatred that will never die,” said the old man. Aditya got up. A family had gotten ready to depart. They said, “We leave now. It will become dark soon. We have heard that the militants are not so active then. When are you leaving, Pandit saab?” “I am staying here.” “Are you going to offer prayers in an empty temple?” “A temple is never empty as long as the deities reside in it,” Aditya replied. “We apologize, Pandit saab, but this is a small temple. Is it worth dying for?” He was going to say something when Nitai came and called him. A family of seven had come on foot and settled down in one corner. He went and helped them place some carpets on the floor. Grandparents, a couple, their two children, and an infant. “We are from Ganderbal. We were the last Hindu family there. She was born a month ago,” the woman said. “Will you bless her, Pandit saab?” As Aditya placed his hand on the child and read a mantra, her grandfather started to cry. “Our home was burned and the Shiv temple in front of our home was desecrated.” Pointing to the children, he said, “At least they can say they were born in Kashmir when they grow up.” Another man said, “My home was near the Jaidev temple in Bijbehara. The militants broke the idols and set fire to the temple.” “Pandit saab,” his attention was drawn by a familiar voice. The local Hindu doctor had come. “I want you to see this girl,” said Aditya. She was an eleven-year-old girl who kept shaking her head and saying ‘khotsun.’ She was salivating from her mouth and wouldn’t let anyone come near her. A woman next to

her said, “Her father was beheaded in front of her. Since then she only says ‘khotsun’.” “Many people, especially children are losing touch with reality,” the doctor said. “They will need medicines that we don’t have. She will need to go to Jammu.” Many old people sat in front of the deities praying. Looking at them, the doctor said, “They will have their last rites far away from here.” “Why do you say that?” asked Aditya. “The plains are too hot for them. Their bodies won’t be able to adjust to the heat. A large number of our people will die in Jammu and Delhi.” “What about you?” Aditya asked. “I leave tonight. I will take the child with me and put her in an orphanage,” the doctor said. Aditya saw him off at the gate of the temple. When he walked back in, a group of children came running to him. “Can we play in the temple? Our parents said if Pandit saab gives permission we could.” “Play in the temple but avoid going near the Shivling,” he said. “We won’t go near it,” the children shouted. “Today these children will do your prayer, Lord Shiva. I have to attend to the sick.” Late that night when everyone had slept, he went to his room and thought of the girl who had left with the doctor. “Will she ever stop saying ‘khotsun’?” Nitai came and woke him up the next morning. “Dada, there is a procession coming this way. Some of the families are scared.” “Tell them I will be there,” said Aditya. A couple of men passed by the temple. They shouted ‘Kashmir mein rehna hoga, Allah o Akbar kehna hoga’. A stone hit the window. When they had gone, a man started shouting, “Where is God? Does he know our suffering? What was the need for you to come here and build this temple?” he asked Aditya. “Pandit saab, don’t mind. The militants kidnapped his daughter and he doesn’t know where she is now. We will show him to a doctor in Jammu,” his friend said. Aditya walked up to the man. He didn’t know what to say. “You will find your daughter. I will pray for her,” he said.

The man violently shook his hand and pushed him away. “What do you know of a family? You only know how to live by yourself surrounded by these deities.” Aditya walked away, the voice of the man following him. “What was the need for you to come to Kashmir?”

SEVENTY SIX

“Salim bhai, it has been decided that you will destroy the temples in the valley.” “Why me?” “You do feel mad thinking of the temples more than us, don’t you?” asked Allahbaksh. “What do you mean?” asked Salim. Allahbaksh smiled and put his hand on his shoulder. “Your wife is probably sitting outside one temple right now in your absence.” Salim hit him on the cheek. A thin red line flowed out. Allahbaksh wiped it and smiled. “So much hurt. The whole of Kashmir knows that your wife dreams of that priest. If it weren’t for the temple, she would be yours. See this picture. One of our brothers took it. He has photographed the temples of the valley. When he came upon the temple next to Anwar bhai’s mosque, he found your begum waiting near the wall and listening to the priest’s recitations.” Allahbaksh continued. “Her eyes are of a woman in love.” “She could be just standing there,” defended Salim. Allahbaksh laughed. “Salim bhai, it is hard to accept your wife’s betrayal, isn’t it? If she had gone to meet her parents, would she stand on the road and stare at the temple? My wife closes her ears when she passes by a temple. And your wife…” He spat on one side. “One more thing, because of your wife, you are not considered fit for…” “Fit for what?” Salim asked, getting up from his seat. “Sit down. The commander says you are not fit for the movement. You have no control over your own woman.” “Zeba will never betray me,” said Salim, shaking his head. “Salim bhai, revolutions are betrayed by women. Everyone else’s wives or sisters are in this movement, except yours.”

“She faced the interrogation like a true Islamic woman. She will turn around. Give her time,” said Salim. “Did she ever tell you why she looks at the temple?” asked Allahbaksh. “My wife even seeks permission from me before she leaves home.” “Do you know she addresses your son by that priest’s first name? Your maid at home overheard her. You have to convince everyone that you are man enough and fit to fight. This gun”—he picked up the Kalashnikov in front of him—“will help fight the army, but there is another battle that we have to fight for our honor,” said Allahbaksh. “I didn’t think like that,” said Salim. Allahbaksh said, “Salim bhai, here we are sitting in this cold mountain taking training for independence and there she goes to her parents’ home to be with her old lover.” He spat. “She reads namaz five times a day.” “That is to fool everyone.” They were joined by five more men, heavily armed. They could see the lights of the valley far away. Allahbaksh said, “Soon a green flag will fly there. I was just telling Salim bhai that he needs to take on the responsibility to destroy the temples.” All the men nodded their heads. “Holiest task that a jihadi can do,” one of them said. “Didn’t I tell you, Salim bhai is very emotional?” said Allahbaksh, raising his hands in the air. “He thought he would erase the memory of that priest by marrying her and she will fall in love with him. Truly said, a man’s honor is deceived so easily.” “What do you mean?” asked Salim. “There is something evil about that priest. We first lost Javed bhai, then Anwar bhai. Your wife is under his spell.” Seeing him not respond, he added, “If you want her back in your life, then be a warrior. Destroy what caused it. History tells you that. No memory, no structure, no symbols must remain to contradict our faith.” “I will do it,” said Salim. Allahbaksh spoke as if in a trance. “Everybody will applaud your sacrifice. You will be rewarded in heaven.”

SEVENTY SEVEN

The maulvi crossed his arms as he observed the young man sitting in front of him. Regarded as the unquestioned authority on Islamic law, he was used to scholars and students cower in front of him. Not this young man. He seemed to look at him with an inner authority. The maulvi held the letter in his hand that he had sent. He was an imam’s son from an obscure madrassa in Kashmir and had asked for an audience. “You wrote this letter?” he asked. “Your father is a very learned man. So are other imams and maulvis in Kashmir. Why didn’t you go to them?” “I did. Most of them turned me away. They only told me to read the holy book again.” “I hope I will not fall in their category,” he said, shrugging halfheartedly. “My first question is, can a call for violence toward infidels and their women from mosques be justified?” “Your next question?” he asked. “If I wanted to kill an infidel first and then end up saving his life, do I veer away from the path of being a Muslim?” “And the third question?” The maulvi wiped his brow. “There are a number of verses on infidels in the holy book. Haji chacha says I must act according to them. My abbu says I should show compassion toward everyone, as Islam is a religion of compassion. Which one is right?” “Why are you in such turmoil?” “I am the son of an imam. I was beaten in the police station and became a stone thrower,” Anwar began. “My stones maimed and killed people who came in my path…” Anwar told his life story from the beginning. He talked of the coming of Aditya and his hatred toward him as a priest, his conflict

between following his father and Haji chacha, and his saving Aditya’s life in the snow after trying to kill him. “Haji chacha told me the battle between believers and nonbelievers is the final battle on earth and that it would start from Kashmir.” “Why are you giving so much thought to saving an infidel?” “Because everyone says that I have betrayed my people by saving him.” “Gain their trust again.” “How?” “Throw that priest out. He has no reason to be next to a mosque. If that priest had any gratitude, he would have converted to Islam. I find this conversation absurd.” “I think I have wasted your time.” “Take my advice, young man. Do what the holy book tells you to do, and let Kashmir become Islamic.” “What about raising slogans for their women to stay behind? Will you issue a fatwa saying it is wrong?” “Let’s stop here,” he shouted. “This is a silly question. And a last piece of advice. Keep your compassion for the believers. You will be happy.” “Khuda hafiz.” Anwar walked out. He came out and sat down at a tea stall by the roadside. The meeting had been a disaster. The maulvi hadn’t answered even one question in an honest, straightforward manner. He saw several students from the seminary watch him with curiosity. “Imam saab, you came from Kashmir to address questions to maulvi saab, and this is what he told you,” one of them asked, having tea. “How do you know that?” “Because maulvi saab showed us your letter. The students here laughed at your questions. The whole seminary felt that you have brought a bad name to the struggle in Kashmir.” He decided to look away from them and ordered a cup of tea. The shopkeeper put some food for him. He took out money to pay, but the tea seller refused. “Why won’t you take money from me?” “I recognize a true Muslim when I see one.” Seeing his dirty clothes, he said, “You have been traveling a lot.” “Yes,” Anwar said. “I heard about the conversation. These students only talk of how to make the world an Islamic place. They don’t understand that for one

thousand years our ancestors tried to do that.” “What do you mean?” Anwar asked. “I am not so learned like these people. When will they learn to respect the civilization and religion of others? You may be a lone voice today among Muslims. You know why they turned you away? Because you showed compassion without regard to religion. Don’t let your voice die.” He showed Anwar the newspaper. On the back page, there was an article about Kashmir. “See here, there is news about a temple having been torched near Anantnag. There is a photograph along with it.” Anwar saw the picture of the burned temple and a Shivling lying broken on the floor. The article said that the attack was led by mercenaries who had destroyed several temples in Srinagar.” There was a public telephone on the wall. Seeing him look at it, the shopkeeper said, “Imam saab, you can make a call home. Don’t worry about paying.” He called home first. No one picked up. That worried him. Then he called Javed at his office. The man who picked up the phone said Javed was away at Delhi on work. Then he called Zeba’s home. Zeba said, “Boijan, where are you? Please come back. Yesterday Salim called me and asked me when you are coming back.” “Why are you not with Abbu?” “I came to pick up medicine for the kids.” A wave of panic swept through Anwar. “Zeba, go back.” “Boijan,” she started to cry, “I can’t go back just now. The area is under curfew. Salim plans to kill him.” “Where is Salim now?” “He is never in one place. He travels with a group of boys by night.” He put down the receiver. He remembered the words of Haji chacha to meet the maulvi. “He will answer your questions,” he had said. Was it a trick to get him out of Kashmir? He checked his pockets. Just enough money to get a ticket back home. He would have to forego eating any food on the journey. “Here, Imam saab, I overheard your conversation. I have packed some rotis for your night journey. And this packet, I want you to keep for your ticket. Distribute the rest to the poor people in your mosque. Khuda hafiz.”

He shook his outstretched hand. “Don’t say no. May Allah be with you in this crisis.”

SEVENTY EIGHT

The scream tore the air with a gigantic force and crossed the walls of the temple and reached Aditya before dying out. It was so eerie that he was jolted from his prayer. He could hear somebody on the road outside say morukh ha  and then heard “Allah o Akbar.” He saw Nitai; he was ashen-faced. “Nitai, what is it?” he asked. “When the militants kill someone brutally, they give out a cry like that.” “I will go and see. What if someone needs our help?” “It may be a ploy to draw you out,” warned Nitai. He saw Nitai run out with a white cloth. “Where are you taking this?” he asked. “Dada, don’t come out as yet. There is danger.” When Aditya came out, a small crowd had gathered on the road. They moved away when they saw him. Nitai had spread the white sheet on the ground. Aditya could see that there was a human hand sneaking out from under it. Aditya went to lift the cloth, but Nitai stopped him. “Dada, don’t. You won’t be able to see it.” Aditya didn’t listen. He removed the cloth. What he saw made him vomit. It was the body of a young man, in his twenties, with his eyes gouged out. An orange vermilion mark was splattered all over his forehead. His face was contorted, and the head lay separated from the body. There were several stab marks on his chest. His hands were severed from his body. “Why would they do this to him, Nitai?” asked Aditya. “Dada, he was coming to the temple, and they told him to stop, and he refused. The militants then tortured him for not listening to their diktat and left his body here as a warning to others.”

The stretch of the road behind them showed a thin red line as far as eyes could see. “They dragged him all the way and brought him here.” “Why would they do that?” “They wanted to bring his body outside the temple and leave it here.” A bystander interjected, “I was there when they beheaded him. They were very angry with him because he didn’t plead for his life with them but started praying on the road.” “And you followed him till here without saying anything?” Aditya asked. “Don’t misunderstand me, Pandit saab,” the man said in a trembling voice, staring down at his hands. “The militants asked everyone who was around to come and watch the execution. I was the only Hindu around, so they made sure I watched it. For them it was a celebration. They cut him in pieces and watched my face and laughed.” It took Aditya sometime before he regained his composure. He asked, “Any idea who he is?” “I have seen him before. He comes from Sopore.” “Nitai, we have to give him a decent funeral. Shall I call someone?” “Dada, you forget I used to be a dom. That is what I did before I came here to the temple. I thought I would never have to do this again,” Nitai said. “All right, we will do it before the sun sets. What about his family?” Nitai looked into his pockets. There was a photograph of a woman with two young girls. Behind the picture was an address from Sopore. There was a postcard addressed to a woman, and on it was written, “I will come and join you soon.” When Aditya came out after half an hour, Nitai had prepared a pyre on the grounds behind the temple and put the body on it after giving it a bath. Aditya got a new pheran, and they clad him in it. As Aditya finished reading the hymns, Nitai said, “Dada, I never cried before seeing a dead body.” “You have begun to feel.” “I never felt the emotions that I feel today. Today, I feel I am a human being too. One more thing, Dada. They have cut off his genitals too. Will it make a difference?” “No, Nitai, with the last rites, you send a soul to the other world.” Aditya lit the pyre while he recited the hymns. “Only if we could know his

name.” “Dada, there was a ring on his finger. There are two names on it.” Aditya read the names. “Vidyadhar and Tarangini.” So that was it. Vidyadhar was married to Tarangini with two daughters. As they sat by the pyre, Aditya said, “Nitai, go away from here. Start a new life.” “Don’t ask me to do that.” “I am bound to this temple by a promise. You are not.” Tara had come and sat down next to them. “You want to go from here, Tara?” Nitai asked. Tara shook her head. “This temple, Dada, has taught me to live with my head high. But I see him coming, Dada.” “Who, Nitai?” “The God of Death. I would rather go with him into the next world.”

SEVENTY NINE

“The final solution in Kashmir is near. You will arouse passion in the young with stories of humiliations. Apni tarikh pehchano   will be your slogan.” The voice rang in Salim’s head as he got up before dawn. He looked at Zeba. She slept peacefully, her face in a half smile. He got up from the bed and kissed his children. The excuse that his mother was unwell had worked. Zeba had come to see her. On seeing Salim, she had been surprised, but then he had pulled her to him and had made violent love to her and then given her the water laced with a sedative. She would sleep for at least eight hours. The boys were all outside his home when he came out. “Let us go,” he told the boys. His father-in-law had just finished his namaz when they arrived. The namazees were coming out of the mosque. Salim asked them to stay. “Salim, you so early?” “Abbu, I have a number of boys with me, and they are very agitated over Zeba’s behavior.” “What has she done now, beta?” “Not just Zeba; your being here will absolve Anwar in the eyes of the people. But you have to keep it a secret that I said so.” Salim came out with imam saab following him. Several people from the congregation also joined them. Salim began to speak in front of the crowd. “Our beloved imam saab is an epitome of virtuous behavior. But see what the infidel priest next door did to his daughter and to Anwar bhai. He was called the noor  of Kashmir, but today he is going to seminaries all over India. His daughter fell under his influence. Imam saab could not show his face. Now who did all that? No one but that infidel who is hiding next door.”

The crowd roared in approval. Someone said, “Even you, Salim bhai, can’t show your face to people because of her.” “Let me talk to them. This will not calm them down.” Imam saab got up. “Imam saab, let Salim bhai speak. Whatever he is saying is right.” It was a man from his congregation. Imam saab saw their faces. They judged Salim as a man who was wronged and Zeba as one who had betrayed him as well as the society. Salim was saying, “Abbu, today your congregation will tell you what they think of Zeba and Anwar.” Imam saab tried to get up and speak to Salim. “Beta, this is not what you told me you would do outside.” “Imam saab, sit down,” the same man said. “Let Salim bhai speak.” Salim was saying, “Should such priests and their evil designs have any place in Islamic Kashmir?” The crowd roared, “No!” “Abbu, you go inside,” Salim said. “Go in? Why? I haven’t spoken yet.” Before he could say any further, he saw everyone get up and run in the direction of the temple. Some of them had torches in hands. The men from his congregation, who would stand still when he passed by, today ran past him. One man rushed past him roughly, and he fell down. Two boys carried him inside. Salim whispered to someone, “So far it’s working like I thought.” “Salim, you deceived me by bringing me outside,” said Imam saab, almost collapsing on the floor. “Abbu, there was no other way.” He couldn’t hear anymore in the commotion. Inside the temple it was Nitai who had heard the commotion and gone out to check. He came back and said, “Dada, Salim is outside with his men. He wants to take revenge. Please run away, Dada.” “Run away? No, Nitai,” he said. “Let my life end with the temple.” “Don’t say that, Dada. Hear the roar of the crowd.” Outside Salim was saying, “We decide today which one will exist. Even imam saab gave his blessings.” Someone in the crowd threw a torch on the roof of the temple. “Burn the pandit alive inside!” he yelled.

Nitai saw a man try to break the front door and come in. He had an iron rod in his hand. Another one had a gun. He ran toward Aditya. “Dada, why have you sat down to pray at this time?” “Nitai, I want to die the same way as my ancestor.” “After imam saab’s presence among the crowd, they all think he has given his blessing for the temple to be attacked.” “Imam saab can’t do that.” “Dada, he didn’t say a word. He didn’t oppose any of them when they talked of destroying the temple. Even Zeba and Javed are not there. Looks strange that they all are away at this time.” Aditya had lit the lamp and his hands were raised in prayer. “Nitai, Tara, run away through the back door,” said Aditya. “There is still time.” “No, we will remain with you,” said Nitai. He ran toward the main door of the temple and stood in front of it, pushing it hard, his hands outstretched trying to keep it shut. The door broke open and a rod hit him, felling him to the floor. Aditya saw blood ooze from Nitai’s forehead. Someone was saying, “Leave him; he is the cleaner. He extinguished the fire last time.” “Let’s make him part of the fire,” someone screamed. Aditya felt a sharp object hit him from behind. He felt his eyes close and collapsed on the ground. As he tried to open his eyes, he saw the attackers hit the stone Shivling with an iron rod. “Did I see my idol cry?” He felt his hand coil up as a spring. “No, I won’t let you break the idol of Shiva.” He picked up a rod lying close by and raised it. It was then he felt a hand grip him. “No, Dada,” the voice was saying, “I won’t let you.” “Nitai, don’t stop me.” And then he saw a rod hit Nitai again who vomited blood and fell down on the floor. Then a second rod hit Aditya on his shoulder. Someone hit his hands, saying, “Salim bhai, I have broken the priest’s hand. They will never rise again.” He saw the Shivling in splinters. He managed to come in front of Salim so he could not hit the Shivling anymore. He was hit again on the back and fell on the floor and heard a scream. He saw Tara. She had put her hand around the idol of Vishnu as if to protect it. In that second he remembered that Vishnu was Tara’s favorite deity.

“Why are you destroying my God?” she was screaming. She saw one attacker pull her away from the idol and another one hit the idol. He hit the face of the deity and then its legs. Then he hit Tara. She fell with a cry and tried to get up but could not. In that moment he saw his face. “This one is still alive,” the attacker was saying. He felt someone hit him on the head. Aditya tried to say, “Lord Shiva, please forgive me…” but could not finish his sentence. A thought came to him before he lost awareness. “Nitai held me back from killing someone.” And then as the pain engulfed every part of his body, he remembered no more.

EIGHTY

He did not remember how long he had been lying there. There was only a deathly silence around him, and it was as if the time had stood still. He could barely see anything in the darkness. It puzzled him. He tried to move his hands but realized they would not obey his command. “Am I near the door? And where are Nitai and Tara?” Then it dawned on him. The temple had been attacked, and someone had dragged his unconscious body near the temple door before leaving. He felt as if his body was broken into various parts and was no longer joined. He tried to move his feet but couldn’t. He felt some liquid on the floor stick to his feet. It was blood. He used to keep a matchbox near the door. As if by a miracle, it was still there. He took a stick out, but it was wet. Finally he found one that lit up the place. In the muted light, what he saw made him recoil in horror. There was a massive gaping hole in the roof, and he could see the black sky through it. He looked down on the floor. Many stones, once part of the Shivling, lay scattered in pieces across the floor. There were blood marks on several of them. He felt as if everything around him was unreal, and his mind no longer thought rationally or worked in a sequence. Thoughts came and went as if they had a will of their own. “Is someone going to take me out of here?” He tried to crawl but couldn’t and felt the very thought seemed to make his body feel heavy. He tried to raise himself again but could not. He tried to look through the roof again. Did he see a ray of light come through a crack? “Let the sun not rise today,” he tried to tell God. “Let this darkness remain forever.” He lit another match. The attackers had broken everything. They had torn the Bhagavad Gita, and the bells and different idols lay scattered on the floor.

He finally dragged himself around and saw Nitai. He lay in a pool of blood that had coagulated around his mouth, leaving dark circles. “How did Nitai come here?” he wondered, and then it struck him that the attackers had dragged each of them and thrown them on different sides. Nitai’s eyes were closed, and he seemed to smile as if to say that he was happy to have died, having kept his promise of giving his life trying to protect the temple. “How would the learned Brahmans react if they saw the blood of a Brahman and an untouchable wash the floor of the temple together?” “Why did the attacker not kill him?” Then he understood. They wanted him to live as a cripple to show the world what happened to a priest, an infidel, who didn’t leave his temple. And to show what happens to those who love. Aditya felt a fragment of the broken Shivling. He caressed it before putting it to one side. He felt something crawl on his body. It was a cockroach trying to climb onto him. He laughed to himself. After witnessing the violence in the temple, the cockroach seemed scared. He remembered having heard somewhere that when apocalypse comes, the cockroaches emerge and stay close to humans. Then he felt his vision begin to get hazy. He looked at his hand and tried to see if the cockroach was still there. It had gone and was now trying to climb out of the roof. Then he remembered no more.

EIGHTY ONE

When Aditya opened his eyes, his head felt heavy as a stone. There were people lying around. Their faces looked alternately blurred and hazy and then seemed to vanish. Someone saw him open his eyes. “Pandit saab, mubarak,” several people said. “Where are Nitai and Tara?” Aditya asked. “Are they in this room?” “They both died in the temple. We cremated them both with full Hindu rituals,” one of them said. One of them recounted the events for him. The attackers had come before sunrise. The message only reached the army camp after many hours. Next morning when the army men reached the temple, they found only him alive. Nitai’s and Tara’s partially charred bodies were brought out. Another person added, “The attackers had warned the police and the local people not to report it.” “The surprising part is,” another person added, “Imam saab of the mosque next door was seen inciting the mob. The imam talks so much of peace, but his presence gave legitimacy to the whole violence. Many say that he was angry with the popularity of the temple.” “Imam saab spoke to everyone nicely,” Aditya’s voice came out barely audible. “Pandit saab, you are naïve. Even the Muslims, whom you call your friends, weren’t there to protect you.” Just then a body was brought covered with a sheet. The stench was unbearable. Someone said the body was that of a teenage girl, who was found dead near the river. “She had been raped and later killed,” one of them said. “We should cremate her with dignity.” “Why is her family not with her?” Aditya asked.

Someone spoke up. “I have never known pandit families leave their daughters’ side. But for the first time I hear a family leave their daughter behind because she was raped. It seems even God has left us now.”

EIGHTY TWO

Zeba stood near Aditya’s bed. “Zeba, how did you know I was here?” “I was told that the priest takes my name in his sleep. I pleaded with the men outside. The doctor finally allowed me in after I told him I would keep it a secret. Aditya, how did it all happen?” “You are asking me? Everyone betrayed us. No one came to help.” “Javed was away for some work. So was Anwar boijan, and I was away too,” Zeba replied. Aditya said, “And your abbu addressed the attackers.” “Aditya, believe me that my abbu would never even think of such a thing.” “Please go away. I don’t need anyone.” “Aditya, I understand how you feel, but believe me…” “I said go away. I don’t want any explanations.” She became aware that other people were watching her. She understood Aditya’s pain. They had failed to keep their promise. “I don’t want you to hide the attackers.” Aditya asked, “What use is it now?” “Because I want them to be punished,” said Zeba. “I do not want to punish anyone, Zeba.” Zeba was about to say something when four men in uniform walked in. Their commander said to Aditya, “Pandit saab, we need to take your statement.” The men looked at her. She wanted to leave. Aditya stopped her. “No, it is fine if she is here.” Aditya gave his statement. He told them about the attack on the temple, Nitai and Tara being killed, and the deities desecrated. He left nothing except the name of the man who led the attack.

“He is protecting the man who led the attack. He is the husband of this woman. Maybe she told him to do so,” one of the men said. When the men left, Zeba came close to him and said, “Aditya, don’t protect us. Salim means nothing to me. Please give his name to the authorities.” “Zeba, don’t make your children lose their father.” “I don’t wish them to have such a father,” she said, looking at him. A woman came and said to her, “I know you. You are Zeba, imam saab’s daughter. The whole valley knows that you loved pandit saab, and your husband has taken his revenge. And now you have come so pandit saab doesn’t take your husband’s name. It was all a ploy; Salim would attack, and all of you would be away.” “What are you saying?” Zeba’s mouth fell open. “You could have persuaded your husband not to attack the temple. But you didn’t.” “We tried. He did not listen.” The woman twisted her lips. “He has been saying in his sleep, ‘Why did you all forsake me?’” Zeba didn’t listen. She walked away with the words of the woman ringing in her ears: You could have prevented the deaths.

EIGHTY THREE

In the moonlight, the ruins of the temple presented a strange sight. The roof of the temple had collapsed, and snow had started to fall on the floor. The pillars stood as mute witnesses to the violence, as if to say they stood for what was still good in the human heart. An image flashed in her mind: the time when the temple used to be alive with the sounds of bells and prayers, the place where the idols used to be, and the man who walked around with his lamp in his hands. She shut the window and returned to her bed. Her children were asleep. She didn’t know when she fell asleep next to them. She dreamed he was not in his bed. His bed was empty, and he was wandering around searching for her. She woke up soaked in sweat. She said to herself, “Aditya, please tell them Salim’s name. I can see my children growing up fatherless, but I can’t see you not tell the truth.” She got up and decided to go to him. The road was empty, and it had rained. The guard outside the hospital was sleeping, and she walked past him. She put her hand on Aditya’s head. It was warm. “Aditya,” she said, “don’t protect him. Tell the truth that you saw Salim torch the temple and inciting the mob.” And then holding his hand, she whispered, “Aditya, I will not be able to come to you again.” Taking a long look at him, she said, “I know what you said about all of us betraying you. I hope one day you will know the truth.” That evening the doctor came and said, “You will need a long time to recover, since you have many fractures and burns. You need to be in hospital, but as no hospital is safe for Hindus right now, we will shift you to Ramakrishna Mission.” Ramakrishna Mission was built long ago by monks in the memory of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the Hindu saint.

Aditya was given a separate room for security concerns. But after a few days, a girl was brought in and put up in another corner of Aditya’s room due to a reason. She was a victim of an acid attack. Someone told Aditya that she had refused to cover her face when told to do so by some boys while coming back from school. Now she held a veil over her face. Some children would come and lift it up and run away, and she would shout at them each time they did it. The building was guarded by a few policemen. Their task was to see that no one spoke about the massacres and rapes to the media. “All of you leave Kashmir. Then talk as much as you want,” they told the frightened people. The monks in the Mission tried their best to cope with the tragedy. Everything, from medicines, food, and blankets, were in short supply. The cold froze the skin of the people, and they tried to sleep with broken kangris. For the first few days, Aditya drifted in and out of sleep. One of the monks, knowing that he was a priest, had brought a small black Shivling and placed it in front of him. Aditya had just stared at it. One day, some people came to him and lit a lamp. They did prayers in his room, hoping he would respond. Aditya stared back when one of them tried to give the lamp to him. Not seeing him respond, the man prodded him, “Pandit saab, please pray for us.” Aditya said, “I can’t pray before I ask God a few questions.” Another man asked, “What is that question, Pandit saab?” Aditya kept quiet and thought, “As a priest I rarely listened to suffering. I had my mantras and believed that they took care of suffering. I would sit in prayer and find that suffering didn’t exist. Now it seems suffering is the only truth in this world.” He saw his mother’s face in a dream. “Ma,” he asked her, “what do I tell everyone?” She seemed to tell him, “You will not find the answers in your temple. You came to Kashmir to give hope to your people and so built the temple. You knew nothing about man’s hatred toward man and why man suffers. You did not know how evil takes possession of the human mind. You did not know how the goodness in man’s heart goes away. As each child comes and holds your hand, as each man comes and moans about the death of his family, look into his eyes and understand.”

He didn’t know when he awoke. Was it his imagination? He heard voices near his window. He saw the shadow of a man, and a voice said, “This is the room where that Hindu priest sleeps. I had spotted him during the day.” “Who are the others in the room?” “Only a girl whose face is burned.” “You can’t fail this time. It was a mistake to leave him alive.” “I wonder why Salim bhai didn’t kill him.” “Are they talking about me?” Aditya thought. He tried to get up but failed. “Please don’t. Let me.” He felt a hand on him. It was the girl with the burned face. “I have heard them.” She rolled the blankets and covered them with a sheet to seem as if someone was sleeping. Then she dragged Aditya outside the room and went back. Aditya heard voices from inside the room. “He is not in his bed. And this girl is sleeping. Shall we ask her?” Then he heard another voice, “Her face looks horrible, and she says she doesn’t know.” “Then come back. We will try tomorrow.” A child somewhere started to cry. Someone in the next room switched on the light. Aditya heard someone curse and then everything in the room became quiet. The girl returned and took him inside. “They won’t come now,” she said. “They got terrified when I lifted my veil and showed them my face. At least my face was of some use today.” She smiled. Aditya felt a beauty, a radiance, emanate from her. Despite being burned, being teased by boys, she had not lost her faith in mankind and had risked her life to save him. “You saved my life. May I know your name?” he asked. “What use is it?” She smiled again, and her voice seemed to break. “I was once a girl called Tarini. She died a month ago.” Next morning, Aditya called the head monk and told him about what had transpired during the night. On hearing, the monk said, “It will be difficult to protect you any further after this incident. You go away from here to a monastery. It is a few days’ journey from here, and I will make the arrangements. Meanwhile, we will spread the news that you have left this place on your own.”

“What will I do there?” he asked. “Search for answers. Long ago, Gautam Buddha had renounced his kingdom, his relationships, and his attachments in search for truth after he witnessed human suffering. He returned after he got his answers.” Seeing Aditya lost in thought, he said, “A vehicle is going to take you to the monastery. You will travel lying down, and be careful with your bandages; these are mountainous roads.”

EIGHTY FOUR

The bus stopped at a restaurant outside Jammu. Anwar came out and looked at the watch. If it weren’t for the landslide on the highway, he would have reached Srinagar by now. Some passengers were talking. One of them said, “Did you hear that the Adi Shankar temple has been gutted down? I heard it from the bus conductor. Had to happen,” one of them said. “The priest chose to stay back. When all other temples were attacked, what gave him the idea that his temple will not be attacked?” Anwar felt his hands tense. He asked the man, “Did you mean the temple next to the mosque?” “Yes, that one.” “When did it happen?” “The bus conductor can tell you more.” “Yes,” the conductor verified. “And the whole act was blessed by imam saab, but the priest didn’t blame him for it.” “Abbu couldn’t have done that,” Anwar said to the surprised conductor. “Some people also died in the attack,” the conductor said. “Did the priest die?” “That I don’t know,” the conductor replied. Anwar was not able to sit still for the rest of the journey. A couple of times he fell asleep and banged his head against the window. When his intended stop arrived, he jumped off the bus, even before it could stop, and started to run toward his home. It was when he reached the familiar bend near the road that he stopped. In place of the temple now stood a ruin, similar to the one that had existed before. The roof of the temple had collapsed. The walls were broken. A fence had been erected around the entire place and a notice hung, which read, “No entry.”

As he entered the premises, the entire ground was littered with stones and broken pieces of glass. There was soot all over the walls. A thought occurred to him. “This is what I had wanted to see for all these years. Yet when I see it today, I don’t feel happy.” He looked at the mosque. It seemed to him as if it was immersed in silence, as if unable to withstand the barbarity next door. On reaching home he heard a child’s cry. He went straight to Zeba’s room. “Boijan, you,” she said and then collapsed in his arms. “You have come too late.” “I saw it. Are you all right? Who all died next door?” “He is alive. The upper half of his body is burned. The bones of his arms have been crushed. A group of men attacked it late at night, and before anyone realized, the whole temple was on fire. Abbu said Salim conned him into coming out. I was away. Javed was away. I heard that the fire raged until morning. The smoke was so black and thick that it enveloped the whole compound of the mosque.” “Zeba, he must be thinking we have betrayed him.” “Yes, boijan. He knows that Abbu came out of the mosque to stand with Salim. He thinks that Abbu blessed the attackers, and Javed and I have betrayed him by staying away.” “Why did Abbu come out to be with Salim?” “He says that Salim tricked him. Salim used our names as having disgraced the movement, and Abbu came out to defend his children.” “I will call Javed, and we will go to him.” One hour later when they asked for Aditya, the monk at the desk in Ramakrishna Mission told them that Aditya Narayan had left the night before for some unknown destination. “What came over him? Why did he have to leave like this without naming anyone?” Javed asked as they went outside. “Today I have lost. How will I ever answer myself for this?” Anwar sat down on the side of the road. “Boijan, are you all right?” she asked, touching him on the shoulder. “You two go back. I will come after sometime.” “I understand,” Javed said as he led Zeba away. “Javed, tell me why he said that.” “Zeba, it will hurt you.”

“No, I want to hear it now. Otherwise, I won’t move.” “Your abbu is a man of principle. But he has been affected by the way everyone in Kashmir talks of Anwar and you. He came out to be with Salim because he thought by doing so, the blot on Anwar will be removed. The imam in him, who always upheld the truth, gave way to the father who faltered for his son. Anwar can’t forgive himself for that.” As they came back, Javed said, “Zeba, Anwar will now want to go and find him.” “Why will he do that?” “Because he wants to tell him the truth, and he won’t be at peace till he does that,” Javed said. “I will tell him not to worry about me. I am now known as a militant’s wife,” Zeba said. “People avoid me. Security forces keep a watch on me but don’t come to question me, as I mostly live with Abbu. But will he ever come back because Anwar boijan asks him to?” Zeba asked, staring at her empty palm. “They have a hold over each other that no one else can see.” “I don’t understand. What hold?” “Maybe I am wrong, but both of them represent the best of what religion stands for. Through their conflict they have discovered a profound humanity in themselves. This humanity will not let them rest in peace till they stand in front of each other again.”

EIGHTY FIVE

As she opened the door to his room, she saw he was ready. “Will you join us?” she asked him. When he nodded, she said, “Then let’s go. When you find him, tell him about this. It may convince him.” It was early morning, and the valley was not yet awake. The snow had given everything a white coat as far as the eyes could see. Zeba had suggested to light a lamp in the temple before Anwar left to search for Aditya. “Tell him the flame in the temple will burn till he returns.” Carrying a kangri to protect himself from the cold, he took a lamp in one hand and a matchbox in the other. They had decided not to tell anyone but Javed. She had brought out a small Shivling made of stone. It had a beautiful grayish white color and was a replica of the idol that had been originally there in the temple. “This will serve the purpose,” Zeba said. Anwar saw the idol in her hand. “He will be happy if he sees us doing this,” said Zeba. Brother and sister walked together out of the house till they came to the wall they had crossed so many times. Javed joined them there. “What do you feel doing this?” she asked. “We are doing it on behalf of someone else’s faith. So my conscience is clear,” Javed said. “The first time I came here and did it, I felt strange. Then I felt an unseen force telling me I was doing no wrong,” Zeba said. “Are we doing this only for him?” Anwar asked. “No, for the conscience of Kashmir,” replied Javed. They walked around the ruin, crossing pillars, the broken wall, and the places they had visited for different purposes earlier.

As they reached the temple door, Anwar asked her, “Do you know the correct ritual?” “It will not be necessary. His Gods will understand.” Javed said, “The militants in the valley had sent out a threat that if anyone entered the temple, they would kill him. The temple is supposed to be guarded round the clock, but the guards left. They were scared. A poster was put up saying that anyone found offering prayers or trying to rebuild the temple will be killed. The guards saw to it that the poster stayed intact.” As they came to the spot where the destroyed Shivling now lay, Javed bent down and lit the lamp. She helped him by cleaning up the place and removed the snow. Then she took the Shivling she held in her hand and placed it carefully next to the broken one. She put a few flowers around it as she had watched him do before every prayer. Then they sat down, where he used to in front of the Shivling. She looked at the space where the tall cylindrical Shivling used to be and now only a broken part of the stone remained, a mute spectator to the violence. The stone that looked calm and majestic now seemed to stare forlornly at everything. It was not God on trial but man himself. She looked at Javed. He sat with his eyes closed, and it seemed to her as if he was saying something softly. She called out his name gently. On hearing her, he opened his eyes and asked her, “Do you know any prayer that we can say?” Her mind went back to the day many years ago when she had memorized a prayer. She didn’t know when she started to recite it. “Oh, the Almighty, lead me from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, from death to immortality.” “We have to go now,” Javed said. “The light in the temple, let it burn as long as it can. I will come and put oil in it every day so it doesn’t extinguish until he comes back.” While coming out Javed said to him, “Anwar, you were very quiet.” “I was not sure if I could be in that place for so long, but I did stay.” “When will you go in search of him?” Javed asked. “Tomorrow,” said Anwar. “I will search everywhere, in every corner of Kashmir. I will go wherever Allah guides me. I only know that I will not come back without meeting him.”

EIGHTY SIX

“Stop the car, Abdul,” the brigadier ordered. They were passing by a tea stall on the road on the way to Ladakh. Rows of dark-brown mountains surrounded them. The sky above was so blue that it seemed an artist had painted it. The rarefied air made breathing difficult, and the roads looked like black strips that vanished between the mountains, without leaving any trace. “The tea is not very hygienic here, sir. The local people are not particular about hygiene. I know a better shop where officers stop for refreshments,” said Abdul. “I said stop at once.” As the vehicle came to a halt, his personal officer came out and opened the door for him. Two army men carrying Sten guns walked ahead. The brigadier’s eyes were on the young man who sat by himself in a corner and sipped tea. In his long beard and dirty clothes, he looked like a vagabond. “Get up, you fool.” The orderly came and shook the young man, spilling his tea. “Abdul, I will talk to him,” ordered the brigadier. “Do you recognize me?” he asked. The young man looked at him and said, “No, have we met before?” Meanwhile, the tea-stall owner had rushed to bring him the best chair he had. The brigadier waved it away. “Here.” He removed the lock of hair from his forehead. There was a deep cut on his forehead. “Your stone hit me here on a cold morning. You and your friends had attacked our convoy.” “Oh, I apologize,” Anwar mumbled. “Is that why you came to sit next to me?” “I told you then we will meet again.” “I have given up throwing stones,” he said.

“Why?” the brigadier asked. “Do you have the time to hear my story?” “Yes, every word of it.” The brigadier asked everyone to move away from them. When he was done, the brigadier said, “May I have tea with you?” “No,” he ordered the puzzled tea-stall owner, “no special cups for me.” “Our sir has such a phenomenal memory,” said Abdul. “I remember this boy now. Many years ago I was driving his jeep, and we had entered Srinagar, when this boy threw stones at us. But then he was a skinny teenager, and now he is a young man.” The tea for the brigadier arrived. “Where are you going now?” he asked Anwar. “I am searching for someone,” he said. “Who? The same person you tried to kill?” “Yes, the same one.” “I see it in your eyes that you don’t give up.” The brigadier got up. “Anything I can do for you?” “Yes, one thing.” “You have to tell me.” “Can I pay for the tea you had with me?” The brigadier laughed. “The tea? Yes, but why?” “To apologize for having hit you with a stone.” The brigadier laughed so loudly that people around him looked up. “Then I will always remember the taste of this tea and the man who invited me.” As he walked back, he seemed to think of something. He came back and took out his card from his breast pocket. “Here, keep this.” He wrote “Anwar” on the back of the card and signed his name below it. “Show this card if you are in trouble. It will be of help.” As his convoy left, he saw in the rearview mirror a pair of misty eyes watching him go. They followed him till his car vanished down the road.

EIGHTY SEVEN

The temple priest showed the newspaper to him. It was crumpled and had stains in one corner. “This news might interest you,” he said, opening the inner page. “I found it there.” “What is it?” the second man asked. “I don’t read newspapers.” “I went down to the village today to buy some rice for the temple,” the first priest said. “At the tea shop, some of the pilgrims were discussing this. It is an old newspaper, but at this height, we get newspapers much later.” “You know nothing interests me anymore in this world ever since I lost my wife,” the second man said. “There is this article in it with a picture.” The second man held it in his hand and looked at it. It read, “Ninehundred-year-old temple destroyed in Kashmir. Young priest grievously injured while protecting it. Two people killed.” He read further. “The temple of Adi Shankar was attacked by militants in Kashmir in the early morning before sunrise. The temple that was rebuilt some years ago by Kashmiri pandits after lying as a ruin for nearly three hundred years. It was attacked by an armed mob and set on fire. At the time of the attack, the young priest of the temple was inside, with two attendants. The two were killed in the violence. The priest of the temple was grievously injured and was taken away by some volunteers who reached the temple and saw him lying unconscious on the floor. “The roof of the temple was gutted in the fire and had collapsed. The deities in the temple were vandalized by the mob. Nobody has taken responsibility or condemned the attack so far.” There was a picture of the priest at the bottom of the page. He gave the newspaper back to the priest. “I don’t want to read it anymore.”

“He is your son, isn’t he?” the first priest asked, pointing at the picture at the bottom of the page. “Take it away, I said.” He got up to go. “How can you be so indifferent, not see your son’s picture? What kind of a father are you?” “I said leave me alone!” he shouted. “He is seriously injured. He must be feeling alone and missing you. Go to him. You are his father.” “I was his father. When I went for vanaprastha, I left all attachments behind.” They sat in silence for a while. “I don’t understand,” the first priest said. “What are you running away from? He is your son. It was your temple.” “No,” he said, flapping his hands, looking away. “It was neither my temple nor was I the one who was asked to take him there. It was my son and wife who decided to go.” “It is the same thing, isn’t it?” “No, it is not,” he said. “I had to explain to others why it was him who was asked and not me. I was told that he had to take over my burden.” “Don’t mind my asking, but is that the only reason why you won’t go?” the priest asked after sometime. “No, you are right. He took away my Gayatri from me.” He wiped a tear. “I will never forgive him for that.” “Your son, he is your own blood,” the priest said. “I never had a family. All my life I have lived as a monk, but if I had a son like him, I would want to be near him now. How can you be so envious of your own son?” “Envious? You said envious?” he shouted. “Do you know how it is when at every step others make you realize you are nobody in his presence? I have lived that life ever since he was born! And now you are asking me to go to him as a father?” “I didn’t want to cause you pain. I pray that you find peace,” the first priest said. When the first priest walked away, he picked up the newspaper that he had thrown away and looked at the article once again. He looked at the picture again. Aditya looked more grown up and handsome. His eyes were larger, just like his mother. He touched his face in the picture with his fingers and felt a tear drop down. “Baba,” the face in the

picture appeared to be saying, “don’t be angry. Forgive me, and come back. I need you.” He remembered the boy who had once asked him if he could sit on his shoulders to ring the temple bell, and he had refused. “I apologize, son. Perhaps the priest is right. I failed you as a father.” Before he realized, tears welled up in his eyes. “Son, this is your battle. You will have to fight it alone.” He folded the paper and closed his eyes. This way he would always live in memories and get pulled back to the world he had tried to leave behind. He put the newspaper away and tried to erase the two images that came to him, of a woman who had given him a reason to live and the boy who took it away from him. “I will not stay here anymore,” he thought. “I will leave this temple and go further toward the higher peaks. There I will find a cave to meditate where no news of the world can reach me.”

EIGHTY EIGHT

The Hindu monk looked at the photograph by the light of the fire and said, “Isn’t this the pandit whose temple was gutted by fire in Kashmir last year?” “Yes, do you know where he is?” “Yes, I do.” “He is alive.” Anwar almost grabbed the picture from his hands. “Please tell me where he is!” The monk smiled. “Why are you so eager to know about a Hindu priest? Who is he to you?” “Please,” Anwar begged, “I want to know where he is. Here,” he took out his purse, “this is all the money I have.” The monk smiled. “Young man, I have renounced the world.” “I apologize,” Anwar said, “something came over me on hearing that he is still alive.” “Why do you want to disturb him?” “Please, it is important that I find him.” “Just a moment,” the monk said. “Aren’t you the one who took the vow to kill him?” “How do you know that?” Anwar asked. “Many years ago when I was on my way to the Amarnath cave, we had stopped at the Adi Shankar temple. You wanted to kill him.” “Because I…” The monk laughed out aloud. “This is Lord Shiva’s leela.   First he makes you throw stones at your enemy and then makes you desperate to find him. My heart tells me I can trust you,” the monk said. “The priest you are looking for is living in a monastery in the Himalayas called Jyotirmath. It is about four days’ journey by foot from here.” “I don’t know how to thank you,” Anwar said.

“Remember, nobody is allowed in that place. The monks there do not meet any outsiders.” “But I will still meet him,” Anwar said. “I see determination in your eyes. I pray that it leads you to your goal.”

EIGHTY NINE

The officer held the photograph of the woman in his left hand and said to his deputy, “She is really beautiful, isn’t she? She could have easily been an actress. It would not have been a bad idea—the first Kashmiri Muslim woman to act in Bollywood.” “Kashmiris do not like their daughters to show their faces in public,” said his deputy. “But the men are film buffs. You should see when a Bollywood star comes here. They go in hordes to collect autographs.” “And you say this woman has two children, but her figure and face make her look like a girl in her twenties.” “A real Kashmir ki kali,  sir,” his deputy remarked, seeing the interest his officer was taking in her. While discussing women, all officers became equal to their subordinates. “Shall I put in a word for you, sir? May not be that difficult. I can arrange that.” “Isn’t she frustrated at night? Her husband goes away for such long periods.” “She is a very devout Muslim who reads namaz, sir. We also know she had an affair with Aditya Narayan, a Hindu priest.” “That is interesting. Is it the same priest whose temple was burned down?” “Yes, sir, she would stand near the temple wall to listen to him. We have reports that she even went inside the temple secretly to meet him.” “Her brother, did he not object?” “Of course he did, sir. Initially he was an enemy of Aditya and tried to burn down the temple. Hundreds of Kashmiri youth became stone throwers following his example. His sister was in love with the Hindu priest, but this priest did not show any interest in her.”

“Why didn’t he show any interest? For such a beauty, you would desert even your wife.” “Don’t say that, sir. Wife is wife, but beauty is to be tasted like a forbidden fruit, sir.” “How did all this happen? Tell me the whole story.” “In the beginning, the brother and sister were very hostile toward the priest, but over a period, she fell in love with him.” “Then why did he not reciprocate?” “The militants told her that if she did not stop, they would kill him. She sacrificed her love and married a man who later became a militant. She is also known to be an outspoken woman. She can be a challenge for you, sir.” “We have strict orders not to touch the women.” “They insult our women, sir. In the camps in Jammu, there are a large number of pandit women who were raped by militants.” “This is an order, remember.” When his junior left, he took a look at the picture again. “Why do these jihadis leave their beautiful women and go to fight for a war they can’t win?” He replaced the photo in his breast pocket. “I wonder what she thinks sitting in her room.” In her room, Zeba was thinking of the fateful day when she got to know the secret about her birth and had secretly gone near the temple. Soon it would be night, and Salim was likely to come. He would sneak in through the window, wake her up, and enter her like an animal. Deep inside she knew that she may have borne children to Salim and been faithful to him, but her relationship with him ended there. “When my children grow up, how will I tell them that their father lived by the gun and killed innocent people?” She had tried to tell Salim that their children needed a father and did not need to see a gun in his hands. They did not need to see guns in the arms of all the men they called chacha. He had laughed at her and said that one day they will know that the Kashmiris got their azaadi only because of the guns. Her children saw dead bodies on streets. The bodies often had notes pinned upon them, stating the crimes for which they were killed and as a warning for others. As a result they would lie unattended for long periods of time, and nobody would come to claim them. Mothers would cover their children’s eyes when they walked on the streets and hold their noses to avoid the stench.

She was immersed in her thoughts for so long that she lost sense of time. She closed the windows and lit the kangri. Her children were still asleep. She kissed her daughter and then her son on the forehead and took his name. “This is my secret attempt to turn you into someone who is not violent like your father.” She had heard a folklore that if a mother whispered the name of a person in her sleeping child’s ears, the child would grow up to have that person’s qualities. She also knew she would have to stop soon before anyone found out.

NINETY

“Venerable Acharya, there is a young man outside. He refuses to leave. He stayed outside the gate the whole night in the cold.” “So let him come in.” “He is a Muslim, Acharya.” “A Muslim outside our gate? Why is he here?” asked Acharya, raising his eyebrows. “He wants to meet you.” “Tell him I am not free to see him,” he said, dismissing the monk with his hand. “We told him that. He said he will not go until he meets you. He wants to meet Aditya Narayan. When we told him it is not possible, he said he would explain to you why he wants to meet him.” Aditya had been brought in a year ago in a state of high fever with burns and broken bones. The Acharya was told that Aditya’s life was under threat and that his staying here needed to be kept a secret. Only a month ago he had started going out with fellow monks to start begging for alms. The Acharya had called him several times to talk about what had happened, but each time he had said, “Venerable Acharya, please don’t mention my past.” The monk was saying, “He asks to be allowed to see Aditya just once.” One of the monks said, “He climbed up the stairs so fast. It was as if he is a mountain goat.” “Bring him in,” the Acharya finally said. He had imagined a rugged-looking man, hardened and cruel, but this one in front of him had an intensity and a conviction that contradicted that image. “Who are you? Why have you come asking for Aditya?” the Acharya asked.

“I am Anwar, the son of the imam of a mosque in Kashmir, and Aditya was the priest of the temple next door.” Anwar hid nothing from him. His talked of his determination to throw out Aditya from Kashmir believing him to be an infidel, his rescue, and finally his search to tell him that his father did not betray him. “Why should one believe you?” asked the Acharya. “I can explain. The attackers chose to attack the temple at a time when I was gone. My father had come out to pacify them, but they didn’t listen to him. The attackers spread the story that he inspired them.” The young man troubled him. His passion and earnestness to explain his position didn’t make any sense either. “You have come all this way to tell him that?” “Yes, because my abbu is not at peace with himself. If Aditya comes back, he will feel redeemed in his own eyes.” “It is a strange request,” the Acharya said. “You know about his injuries. It will take him a long time to heal. Even if he recovers, it will not be possible for him to restart the life of a priest again. Therefore, he has taken a vow to be here for life. He was brought here in a very critical condition. He is witness to many a death. Since his condition improved, he said he did not want to go anywhere. He does not talk of the temple at all.” “I want to tell him the truth.” “Why should he believe you?” “He has to listen to me at least once.” “Was he ever your friend?” “No, he isn’t my friend.” “Then how does it matter?” The words of Javed came to him when he had left in search of Aditya. “In Kashmir, falsehood has buried many a truth. See to it that we don’t add another layer.” The Acharya looked at him. “The monks here take a vow not to revisit their past or answer any questions. They leave this place only with their deaths.” “But one must know the truth before one dies.” “Your friend has taken a vow of silence and does not talk to anyone except me. And knowing the truth can only disturb him further. Why not leave him with what he believes to be true?” “Do people come here to hide by running away from their lives?”

“We all give up something to live behind these walls—family, friends, attachments, everything. Your friend has no one to go back to. You are not his family. And what I find most strange is that once you wanted him out, and today this small lie that it was not your father who destroyed his temple disturbs you so much that you have come all this way. Why do you care so much as to what he believes?” “Your holiness, it is sometimes a single person who upholds the conscience of his people.” “Well, it is not the rule here to allow that, but I will try.” He called out to the monk who had escorted Anwar. “Ask Aditya if he is willing to meet Anwar.” The monk came back in sometime. “Acharya, he says he doesn’t want to meet him. He told me to tell him to go back.” “Did you tell him I have been waiting a long time to see him?” Anwar asked. “Yes, I did. I told him you spent the night outside.” “Thank you for hearing me out,” Anwar said. “I don’t know what to do now. I will have to go back without meeting him. Just one request, if you can do it on my behalf—please tell him that my father never betrayed him.” “I feel bad for you,” the Acharya said. “I thought he would come out knowing what hardships you have undergone to locate him. I don’t know what reasons he has for not seeing you.” “It is my fate. But before I go, may I ask you something? Why do you think I didn’t let him die?” “My answer may not leave you in peace.” “I want to know. It has bothered me ever since.” “In not letting him die, and saving him, you have become like him.” Anwar turned his face away from him. “You are making fun of me,” he said, trying to get up. “Sit down,” said the Acharya, his voice warm and unhurried as he continued. “Unarmed courage in the face of certain death leads us to a feeling of connection to life and brings a change in our heart. That is what your friend did to you when you tried to kill him. Let us hope that his story will leave a legacy of peace for the future of Kashmir.” “I understand a few more things now,” Anwar said. “Thank you for giving me one more reason to meet him.”

As Anwar was coming out, somebody called to him. It was the monk who had escorted him to the Acharya’s room. “I heard everything. Look, this is not according to the rules, but I have a plan to help you. Once a week the monks go out of the monastery to beg in the streets. You can follow us, and if he recognizes you, speak to him. However, you may have to wait.” “I am ready,” said Anwar. A thought made him smile. Again he would wait and sneak up on Aditya just like he used to once. It was an old habit. “Come in the morning and see me. I will tell you the day it is his turn.” “Thank you, your holiness,” Anwar said. He foraged through his pocket. Only a few coins were left that would barely cover his return fare. He would have to forego food once a day.

NINETY ONE

In his search for him, Anwar had gone to every place that he felt Aditya could have gone to. He had gone to different ashrams, Hindu temples, every place that Javed had suggested. At Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, the policemen had stopped him to ask why he showed the picture of a priest to people. A madman had tried to snatch the photograph from his hands and tear it up. “You can’t carry a photo of a seer in your pocket, you stupid.” He had fought tooth and nail to keep the picture intact. He had even gone to Banaras, to the temple Aditya came from, in the hope he may have returned there. Now, after knowing that he had a possibility of meeting him, he had decided to wait in the inn. He asked the owner if he could sleep in the veranda for a few more days. Hearing his story, the owner had allowed him to stay in the storeroom. The owner also gave him food wrapped in a paper to carry, and Anwar would go out and wait for Aditya every day. He would wait till the last monk had gone back to the monastery after begging for the day. None of the monks looked at him. They walked in a line, avoiding any eye contact. They walked past him every day, saying, “Bhiksham dehi,” an appeal by the monks to ask for alms from householder. People would come out of their homes and put some rice or some lentils in a cloth. After about two weeks, the monk came out and told him, “Tomorrow is the day for your friend.” The next day, early in the morning, he saw the monks come out of the gate of the monastery. They climbed down the stairs and walked in four rows with ten monks in each row. They walked in small steps and never raised their eyes. He went and stood in a corner from where he could see them pass by. People moved away and bowed in deference to them as they

walked. The heads of the monks were shaven, and their eyes stayed fixed on the back of the monk in front. They wore orange robes and carried a small cloth bag for collecting alms. The older ones carried a stick in their hands for support. And then he saw him. The person who walked behind everyone in the third row was the face he had been waiting for. He recognized him from the cut on his forehead. Aditya didn’t look at anyone. His head was shaved, and his face and neck bore several scars. He walked, taking help of the monk next to him. The monks came and stood near a row of houses. A dog ran past Aditya. He almost fell but regained his balance with the help of the monk next to him. The monks asked for alms, saying “Bhiksham dehi” three times and then waiting for people to come out. As monks they were not supposed to wait outside anywhere for too long so as to prevent attachment. Each monk came forward by turn and spread his cloth to collect the food grains. An elderly woman dropped some rice in Aditya’s cloth. A voice within Anwar told him to approach Aditya. He was tying the cloth when Anwar came forward and caught hold of his hand. The hand that he held was frail, lifeless, and cold like that of a dead man. “Aditya, I am Anwar,” he said. “I am a monk; don’t hold my hand,” he said. “Aditya, I need to tell you something.” Seeing the commotion, the monks broke the line to surround them. They were forbidden to talk, only surround someone to let him know that he should go away. Two young men from nearby houses also came out and looked at him threateningly. One of them asked with clenched fists, “How dare you hold the hands of the honored monk?” “I am his friend. Let me talk to him,” Anwar pleaded. One of them didn’t wait for his answer and raised his hand to hit him. Aditya stopped them. “He is someone I know. Leave us alone. Come here in the afternoon. We return the same way. I have to go now with my brothers to ask for alms in the town,” said Aditya. He walked away with the other monks. They again got back in the line, leaving Anwar behind. None of them looked back at him. If anyone showed curiosity about the happenings in the outside world, then the monastery was not the place for him.

After a few hours, the monks returned. Aditya saw him and signaled others to leave him and go back. Anwar came and sat near him. “Anwar, why have you come here?” “Do you think my abbu instigated the attackers, and we all left so that the temple could be attacked?” “Yes, people told me that.” “Then I want you to know this is not true. Abbu was called by Salim, and it only appeared as though he had blessed the attackers. Zeba had been misled by Salim in going away, and he made sure that none of us was there. And then he used that opportunity to attack the temple.” “Why have you come all the way to tell me this?” “Before I left, Javed said two things that will forever stand out in the midst of this madness. One, that our mosque was not used for slogans against Hindus, and the other, that you did not desert your temple.” “What do you want from me now?” “You should come back with me.” “Anwar, there is nothing for me there to go back to. I don’t feel like a priest inside anymore.” “Do you hold yourself responsible for not being able to stop your people from leaving?” It seemed to Anwar as if Aditya’s eyes had filled up with tears. Aditya rubbed his hand against his chest and said, “What use is it now to discuss all this?” “Your people are suffering. They have died in large numbers in refugee camps. They have no roofs over their head and the world it seems has forgotten them. Come back for their sake.” “They will find a new voice one day. Wherever they are, they will gather together once more and find a new courage. My people will not give up. They will continue with their struggle.” “Without you? You won’t come back!” “No.” “What happened to change you?” “Anwar, one of the attackers tried to break the stone Shivling. In that moment I forgot who I was, what I stand for. I picked up a rod and tried to hit the attacker. But Nitai snatched the rod from me and saved me from committing a murder. It is also because of me that he was killed.”

“So Nitai saved you from becoming a murderer and paid for it by sacrificing his life.” “Yes, he left me to confront a cruel truth that I have to face every day till I die. I had been so certain that I would never become violent. I had come to Kashmir prepared to die like my ancestor. Yet in that moment of madness, I could not emulate him.” “Do you still want to die like your ancestor?” “The Acharya here also asked me the same question. He told me I need to meditate on the ego that remains in me and destroy it and only then decide what to do with my life.” “Then I will keep your temple as it is. One year, two years, ten years, as long as I live, it will be there.” “You will?” The words almost came out of Aditya’s mouth. It seemed to Anwar that for the first time, Aditya’s eyes shone for moment and then became dull. He tried to stand straight as if trying to regain his balance and then looked upward in the direction of the monastery. Anwar said, “Aditya, you need to believe me. Today, there is no one more alone than me in the whole of Kashmir. People see me as the one who failed them to lead the movement and who betrayed their trust. But, Aditya, the world will remember you differently as the one who didn’t leave his temple and run away like the others and who defended it till the last moment. There is nothing today that we have achieved in this, in this seventh exodus. As the world learns more about the cruelties committed by us on pandits, it becomes more disgraceful day by day. And because of this, my people hate me much more because they believe I didn’t stand by my brothers.” “Go back in peace, Anwar. Remember, on the path to truth, we all need to walk alone. Someday the world will understand your motives and exonerate you. Maybe it will exonerate me too, as I could neither fill my people with hope nor stop their exodus.” Anwar was going to say something when the monastery bell rang. “I need to go.” “Can’t we talk some more? Just a little.” “No. My going late will be seen as developing an attachment to the world. I need to leave. But I will never forget this conversation.” Anwar walked with him till the steps of the monastery. Then Aditya motioned to him to stop and began to climb. He didn’t look back as the

gates of monastery closed behind him.

NINETY TWO

“Abbu, it’s me; open the door. I have come to talk with Zeba.” Imam saab opened the door and let Salim in. It was midnight. “As salaam alaikum, Abbu,” he said. “Wa alaikum as salaam, beta. You have come to talk to her at this hour?” “Yes, Abbu, we can talk now without any disturbance.” “You want to give her one more chance,” said Imam saab. “She and Anwar both have asked me not to allow you inside. Therefore, I am not sure she will agree to talk to you. I can forgive you for what you did to me, but she won’t.” “Abbu, I will tell her that I have realized my mistake and want to give our relationship a last chance.” “Beta, Allah forgives everyone. So can you two forgive each other,” he said. “Yes, Abbu. I had lost my senses. I will tell the world and accept my wrongdoings.” “Will you really do that? I can’t thank Allah enough for that.” “Living away from her, I realized my mistake. I feel very tired of living like this.” “Why don’t you do it in the morning? Sleep, be fresh. Don’t wake her up now.” “Abbu, the times are not good. During the day the roads are full of army men,” Salim said in a whisper. “She is tired, beta. She has to take care of two children, along with all the household work.” “Don’t worry, Abbu. I will talk to her and apologize for everything; then convince her to go back with me.” “Anwar is not here,” Imam saab said, shaking his head.

“Anwar will not let me come inside the house. We will explain to him that this is how married people resolve their differences. It is not possible to live with this kind of dishonor, either for your family or mine. Also, if she stays close to the temple, she will start doing the same things that brought us dishonor.” “I have only a few more years before Allah calls me. I can’t take on her responsibility forever, and Anwar will live his own life,” Imam saab sighed. “Talk to her gently. You know she is a strong-willed woman. Anwar will not forgive me if I allow you to meet her. I may end up losing both my children.” Then as if he wanted to explain things one last time, Salim said, “She liked the ways of a Hindu priest before marriage, and I said nothing. She would stop by the temple and would not leave, and I said nothing. She went and lit a lamp with Anwar in that temple. She will make the children stray from the path of Islam. That is not how a Muslim mother should bring up her children.” “Your talk scares me. Promise me you will not harm her.” “I promise, Abbu. I will only talk to her.” Imam saab walked into his room. “You know,” his wife said, “I never had a daughter from my womb. Zeba was everything I could ask for in a daughter until that kafir came. If Salim is repentant and takes her back, it will mean he has truly changed.” “Should I go and sit with them?” he asked his wife. “No, let them sort out their issues on their own,” his wife said. “It is difficult for me to trust him at times,” said Imam saab, rubbing his hands. “I hear his footsteps. Maybe I should wait outside their room.” “No, leave them alone, and don’t go even if they argue. They are husband and wife,” his wife said, putting her hand over his shoulder. “Lie down,” she said, “I will wake you up in the morning.” As they slept, they heard Salim enter the room where his wife and children slept. The light from the moon came through the window and fell on the children’s faces. His daughter’s face looked so much like her mother. Her forehead was covered by a strand of black hair. He removed the strand and looked at her face. He had the urge to kiss his children but decided against it

as it would wake them up. He saw Zeba move in her sleep and whisper something and then wrap her arm around the children as if to protect them. He thought of all the lies he had to tell imam saab to come into Zeba’s room. Zeba had told imam saab not to let him in; the thought made his body tense. He felt the vein in his neck throb and become engorged. He thought of the words of his commander and felt a tightness in his eyes. The faces of Zeba and the children disappeared to give way to feelings of shame and ridicule. One of his brothers’ words came back to him: “Your children should not remember their mother’s face when they grow up, Salim bhai.” He knew that with this act, in the eyes of his fellow brothers, he would absolve himself of all shame since that fateful day when they told him she had gone to light a lamp in the temple in the memory of the infidel. “The whole valley laughs at you, Salim bhai.” “Kashmir needs this sacrifice,” he said to himself. “This is the wish of everyone.” He gripped the handle of the knife in his hand. It came down upon her neck. She made no noise as her head slumped to one side. He felt a sticky fluid on his hands and arms. He wiped it with her dopatta lying next to the bed. He signaled to his brothers outside that he was done. They came in through the window and picked up her body and took it away. “Salim bhai, Kashmir will always remember this qurbani,” one of them said. He picked up his children in his arms and came out of the house. They continued to sleep and did not wake up as he got into the jeep with them. They still smiled as if they were in their mother’s arms and nothing had changed. The jeep started as soon as he got in. He looked behind and saw the silhouette of the mosque as his jeep crossed the bend in the road. He would never go there again. Nor would he allow his children to know who their mother was and how she died.

NINETY THREE

“Who

has thrown me on this riverbed between these rocks?” Javed wondered as he lay on the white beach, his body limp. As he tried to open his eyes to determine where he was, they seemed heavy as stones. “And why is the sound of the water that hits the rocks so much louder today? Why does my urine flow out on its own? And it looks so brown…” Javed tried to think as it gathered in a poodle around him. The liquid had made a circular mass on the white sand near his thigh. His pants were loose as if someone had tied them casually around his waist. “I was at Papa One,” he thought, and a wave of panic flowed through his body. He remembered the legend associated with those who had been lucky to escape from the interrogation center. None of them had remained alive for long. With only his eyes that seemed to have any life left in them, he looked at the water droplets that collected near him. The smell of the air told him he was on the bank of the Jhelum. But which bank was this? He didn’t recall ever having come here. He tried to say something but couldn’t. He remembered someone had twisted his tongue and asked him why he went to Delhi so many times. He tried to get up but couldn’t. There was pain in his legs, and it seemed as if they were not connected to the rest of his body. He felt the water of the river rush past his thigh and wet his clothes. The water seemed unusually cold and only increased his pain. His tongue swirled inside his mouth as the smell of blood and sweat from within his body made him vomit. In the distance, he could see the white peaks of the Pir Panjal Mountains covered with snow. Then they blurred and vanished from his gaze as his eyes closed on their own. He remembered he was in a dingy room with no windows. Four plainclothes men surrounded him. They had picked him up along with

others from near a barricade and taken him blindfolded to some unknown place. Then he understood why they had thrown him near the riverbank. Some locals would pick him up and take him to the hospital, and he would be seen by the doctor. Soon he would be dead, and a case would be lodged against unknown persons for killing him. He recalled one of the men saying, “This one will die soon. Don’t waste any more time on him.” His mind had wandered backward, trying to construct the sequence. On that fateful day, he had gotten up for work like every day. He worked as a supervisor in a leather-export shop near Lal Chowk, and his salary had helped ease the burden on his abbu. The biggest hurdle was created by his sisters. Hearing he had been promoted, they had demanded shoes, purses, and sandals for themselves. The younger one had given him the longest list. Their abbu had protested. “Let him first prove himself. If he starts looking for things for you from the first day, his employer will throw him out.” Javed had to supervise the workers in the factory. He liked his job, as it involved manufacturing leather goods for buyers all over India. His employer would often send him to Delhi to meet prospective buyers. There were two checkpoints on the way to work. One was 528 steps from his home. The next one was 470 steps after that. People in Kashmir walked by counting the number of steps that would take them to the next roadblock. The checkpoints had uniformed men, all armed, and a bunker from where two men would position their guns at people, who had to stand in a line or sit down on the ground with their hands raised. Srinagar had become a city of roadblocks, and it had become a way of life for everyone. Each time he would go, he would stop and show his parchi, a scribbled note about his identity, to the security personnel to state where he was going. Different men stopped him every day and asked five questions: Your first name? Your father’s name? Where do you live? Where are you going? Where do you work? (For men) Once a week it was “Have you been to Pakistan?”

Everyone had to answer without delay. Many men practiced saying that silently and were seen talking to themselves as the roadblock approached. Thinking in front of a security man created suspicion, and Javed had learned the lesson by observing others. He often wondered how, in a matter of seconds, the security man screening him would decide if he was a suspect, a militant, or been to Pakistan. They always seemed to him to be under enormous pressure. Once he had seen an officer yell at his juniors, saying that a militant had escaped from right under their nose, and he would have them court martialed for dereliction of duty. He sometimes even felt sorry for them, waiting in the line. One day he had seen a youth stop for a moment to think and then say no to the last question. The security personnel had taken him aside for further questioning. Javed had found it humiliating to answer the same questions every day. He was an adult with a sense of inner dignity and lived in a free country. Another day he had become impatient as the checking seemed to be unusually slow, leading to a number of men become rebellious. The commander had come out and asked them why they were making so much commotion. “You can’t sit quiet for a few extra minutes. Shall I send everyone to Papa One then?” he had said in a threatening tone, and the men had fallen silent. All men were issued identity cards signed by the local commandant. He had to carry three such identity cards from each of the roadblocks and had put them in a plastic folder to prevent them from getting wet. Things were getting worse day by day. The security men would ask them to sit on the ground with their hands raised. A day prior to that, his employer had asked him to take a few bags home and check for defects. They had to be sent the next morning. He had sat through the night looking for defects. He had decided to go early to the shop to finish the stock taking. The security men had asked, “You usually go late. Why are you going early today?” Not finding his explanation satisfactory, they had snatched the bags. “What is in them?” they had demanded. “He must be having four wives to carry so many purses,” another one had said and laughed. Javed had felt his blood boil. They had kept two bags for themselves and told him to go. He had demanded that they return his bags. A Sikh commander had come out on hearing them argue. “What is going on?” he had asked.

Javed had explained his situation and how they made fun of him as having four wives. “This is why they hate us,” the commander had warned his men. “Next time you do this, I will take action.” Javed had requested his employer if he could finish all the work at the shop itself from then on. The next day onward, he had taken the other roadblock. The Sikh commander had spoken to him with respect, but he wouldn’t be there every time to rescue him. It was the last Friday of the month that had proved to be difficult. There was a long queue of nearly two hundred people at the checkpoint. Some people standing in the queue were discussing that how half a dozen militants had attacked an army convoy a few miles away, and a number of army men had been killed. The man sharing it had added that the local villagers had helped the militants to escape by forming a human chain. “Today it is not going to be easy,” he prophesied. “The security men are going berserk and in a mood to retaliate.” He had then added as if apologizing, “The army shows a lot of restraint in present situations, but if we people behave like that, can we absolve ourselves?” “What do you think will happen now?” Javed had asked. “What else? Someone will call the human rights organizations in Delhi and Europe and complain about the security forces.” Meanwhile, a security man in uniform had come and asked Javed to get up. Another man had placed his hand on his chest and asked, “Hey you, why is your heart beating so fast?” Then he had put his hand in his pocket and discovered the counterfoils of the travel ticket from Delhi to Srinagar. The security man put a hand on his shoulder. “He needs to explain why he is traveling so many times to Delhi,” he had said, pushing him away from others. Javed had felt tears well up in his eyes. He pleaded with them that his employer had given him the keys to open the shop and that he needed to be there to let the other employees in. Sitting in one corner, he watched as a constable placed his hand on the chest of each man to assess whose heart beat fast. The one whose heart would beat fast was marked as a possible suspect. He would then be taken aside for further questioning on the side of the road. If his heart still would not slow down, he would be blindfolded and taken to a detention center. He

had looked at the others around him. There were six of them, perhaps the everyday quota to be shown to their superiors. Suddenly he had heard, “Take this one to Papa One. This one is leaking in his pants.” As the men reached there blindfolded, Javed had smelled an unusual stench. It seemed like human urine and stool mixed with blood, along with fresh paint. When they had taken off his blindfold, he had noticed someone had scribbled on the wall, “Today I entrust my life to you. Kill me, and don’t leave me alive, because I do not want to live anymore.” The handwriting had seemed vaguely familiar. A man had come in and seen him looking at it. “You also want to write something like this?” he had asked. “Why am I here?” Javed had asked. “No one asks questions here,” the man had said. They had splashed ice water on his face. They had wanted to know if he had been to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. “Why did you go to Delhi so many times in one month? You must be having some plans to strike in the capital of India,” they had said. Someone tied him up and beat his toes till he lost consciousness. They had tried to get him to sign some papers. He had guessed their intention. They wanted to make him sign a confession saying that he had crossed the border to train as a militant. He had refused, and then they had thrown him. When Javed did not return the next day, his father had gone to the police station. They had no news of him. He had gone to the local security camp and had been driven away. Nobody had accompanied him. They told him his son must have crossed the border to become a militant. His sisters had put up a note below his picture. It said, “Boijan, come back. We will never ask for a purse again.” A week later a policeman came and told his father that Javed’s name was on the list of missing people who had crossed the border to become militants.

NINETY FOUR

“Trust

me, Anwar, your ammi and I have told you everything about

Zeba.” “Then why do I feel that you are hiding something from me? The last time I spoke to her, she gave me no indication that she wanted to make up with Salim. She doesn’t trust him and hates him. And you ask me to believe that Salim came here and that she not only agreed to talk to him but also resolved her differences with him within one night. She also told you that she does not want any contact with me. This is so unbelievable and unlike the Zeba I know. I saw she didn’t take her clothes either. Will you tell me the truth?” “This is the truth. Things took a bad turn, beta, after Salim burned the temple. She was worried for all of us that the security men would trouble us. Salim asked her to go with him.” “And you say that she went with him. But when I went to her home, she was not there and neither was Salim. Where is she then? And why did you let her go with Salim?” “She was scared for us, for her children. We are both old, and the police came again and again,” said Imam saab. “But, Abbu, we are her family. What I don’t understand is why she would ask me not to look for her. What was so urgent that she couldn’t wait for my return?” “She had to do it because she felt that the police would interrogate her again. Before she left, she told us she would contact you herself. She just had to go into hiding for a while for everyone’s sake. The children were so upset. You know how they harassed them by calling her to the police station.” “But she must be knowing that I am back. Why hasn’t she contacted me?” Anwar got up and was about to walk out of the room.

“Anwar, believe me, I really don’t know anymore,” said Imam saab. “Abbu, you are sweating,” Anwar said. “Yes, beta, I don’t feel well.” “Abbu, where is Haji chacha? And can’t Mr. Haq do something? He came for her marriage.” “We tried meeting him, beta. He won’t meet us.” “He was so emotional during Zeba’s marriage and had said that his doors would be always open for her.” “Politicians, beta. They are all big talkers. They have no attachment even with their own children.” “What did you say—their children? Zeba is not his child.” “Oh, I just said it to make a point.” Anwar pressed his lips. “She is gone. The children are gone. Javed has gone missing. I don’t understand anything.” “Beta, from every family, young people go missing. Nobody asks questions anymore where they are. You were also away for a long time. Nobody asked for you. These are bad times for Kashmir. We also feel like going away for a while.” Anwar didn’t hear them. “If she doesn’t contact me, I will look for her.” “Beta, Javed’s father was here yesterday. He sat for a while. He is going mad looking for him. Go and see him. Now excuse us. We have to rest.” His father tried to avoid him now. Several times he had tried to talk to his abbu about his journey, but each time his father had gotten up and walked away as if he was not interested. When he had told him that Aditya had forgiven everyone despite the deaths, his father had merely nodded. He walked toward Javed’s home. When Anwar knocked on Javed’s door, it was his sister who opened the door. “Oh, Anwar boijan, it is you. Abbu will come back in a while.” “Then I will come back later,” he said. “No, boijan, please come in. Someone has come to our home after a long time. Any news of Zeba?” she asked. “No. Abbu gets uncomfortable when I talk about her,” said Anwar. “Boijan, it looks strange. We saw her with the children the day before she was gone. She went without saying ‘khuda hafiz’ to anyone. It was so unlike her. It is the air in Kashmir that has changed. No one trusts anyone. We ask for Javed boijan, and people say they know nothing. The police

visited our home and wanted to know who all came here. Abbu screamed at them.” “All the people in uniform behave like that toward us,” his sister added. “Every day a new checkpoint comes up, and men have to pass through them with bowed heads and hands raised. Javed boijan used to feel so angry because it made him reach late to office and answer humiliating questions. Tell me, is this fair?” “How are your studies going on?” he asked, unable to answer her. “Most girls of our class have stopped going to college because of the militants’ threat. We go sometimes, but Abbu feels very scared of letting us go anywhere. There is another reason. There is a militant diktat that girls should not go to college without burqas. Two girls did not listen to their diktat. The militants picked them up and ruined their honor. Then they threw acid on their faces and left them on the road. Their families did not take them back. One of the girls killed herself.” “You haven’t heard anything about Javed?” Anwar asked, trying to change the topic again. “On that day he left for office just like other days. That is the last we saw of him and this one,” she pointed to her sister, “she asked him for a purse and shoes. He said he will bring them when he got back.” “How is your mother?” he asked. “She doesn’t go out of the house anymore. She was looking for girls for him to marry, but he was not interested in any of them. He was interested in…” She stopped, after looking at her sister. “Here is Abbu. I will go inside…I can’t see him cry.” “As salaam alaikum,” Anwar said. “Chacha, I just came to meet you.” “Come, beta. These days who comes to meet anyone anymore?” He took out the kangri from under his pheran and asked his daughters for some kahwa. “Any news of Javed?” Anwar asked. “No, beta.” He lit a cigarette. “I had gone to the police station. There were several other fathers like me. The officer came late because he had to arrange security for a minister from Delhi. Then he asked us if our children had gone to Pakistan. We said no, and he told us that if we hear from them, to inform him; otherwise, we will have to pay up. That was the end of the meeting. It took only five minutes, and we had to wait the whole day just to speak to him.”

“Don’t lose hope, Chacha.” “It is no use, beta, it is no use,” he repeated to himself. “Your chachi has stopped talking to me. My daughters don’t go out anymore. The superintendent also said that now nothing is in his hands. Everything is decided by higher-ups. The truth is that nobody wants to take any responsibility.” “Chacha, when did Javed disappear?” “Next Monday it will be two months. Why do you ask?” “I will look for him.” “No, beta, you stay indoors. I don’t want imam saab to go through what I am going through.” “Chacha, nothing will happen to me.” “Still, beta, you are young and have a history. The pain of a missing child, only a parent can know.” “Chacha, anything I can do for you, just call me anytime.” “I will, beta. Who do I have now except you? Do you visit Misba and your in-laws?” “I don’t, Chacha. They ask the same things. Why did I save that priest? Why did I go in search of him? Nobody in Kashmir wants to accept my story.” “They will understand it when Aditya comes back.” “But I also don’t know why I acted the way I did,” said Anwar. “Allah’s ways are supreme. You may not understand them at first.” Then he added, “Even if you don’t understand them at first, continue to follow them. In the end, truth will be revealed through them.” “You have clarified several things for me, Chacha.” Anwar got up. “But can you tell me one thing? Why is my abbu behaving so strangely? It is as if nothing matters to him anymore.” It seemed to Anwar that Javed’s father didn’t want to answer him. He only said, “Old people like us have lost our minds.”

NINETY FIVE

“Anwar bhai, what you ask for will need a thick bundle of notes. Come this side; I will explain.” The police constable brought him to a corner and whispered, “These things are not discussed in public. It will take two thousand rupees.” “I want to know where Javed is. He was last seen at this checkpoint.” “Anwar bhai, don’t shout. Everyone in Kashmir is searching for someone, and nobody finds anything without paying up, even if it is your son. Information for a son is two thousand, and for a brother it is one thousand rupees, a little less if a girl comes to ask—you know what I mean. Nobody has come asking for a friend. Listen to my advice. Go home. Don’t get into trouble.” “Do you mean that I have to pay you to learn about my friend?” “Anwar bhai, if you have the money, give it. Otherwise, move on. I have other people waiting in the line.” “I want to see the officer who questioned him.” “You think this police station is your father’s property that you can come and order the officer to talk to you?” The constable spat beetle juice on the wall. Anwar slapped the constable. “Call the inspector. I will teach you a lesson.” The constable glared at him. “What is it, Mohammed?” An officer, who appeared to be a senior, came out. The constable got up and saluted. “Sir, I was trying to tell him that we have no knowledge of his friend. He hit me.” “Oh, it is Anwar, our junior imam saab, who has come here today. Welcome.” His eyes were cold as he too spat on the wall. “You have come

back after searching for your infidel friend. So what did he tell you—go and hit the policemen?” “I want to know where Javed is,” asked Anwar, trying to control himself. “How can I tell you, Anwar saab? There are a few hundred young people who have gone missing since the conflict began. Your friend was very outspoken and offended a lot of people asking for azaadi.” “Javed was gentle and never hurt anyone,” said Anwar. “Anwar, I will give you a piece of advice. You couldn’t control your own sister from falling for that infidel. Then you carried him on your back. Now you have come with a request for a friend…” “Why are you bringing my sister in all this?” “Anwar saab, let bygones be bygones. There is a saying in new Kashmir that those who…” “A new Kashmir,” he interrupted him. “Tell me, where is Javed?” “We have no knowledge of him,” the officer said. “But he was last seen over here.” “Anwar, go home and understand why people don’t talk to you anymore.” His mouth curled with disgust. “It seems you all are bought over here.” “Anwar,” his voice was stern, “what did you mean ‘we are all bought’? You are no more respected as imam saab’s son.” “I don’t care.” “I will tell you. In Kashmir, every child spits on your name. When a child asks his father what kind of an imam is he who carries an infidel on his back, the father does not know what to answer. You think you did a noble deed by rescuing him. Well, I tell you, there is no humanity in rescuing infidels. One last thing, our constable is right. There is a price for everything here. The price is higher for you now. Go and do what you want.” “It would be no use talking to him any further,” Anwar decided and left. His kangri had gone cold. He stopped at the road outside the police station and lit it again. It had been no use going to different police stations to ask for Javed. “I will find out on my own as to what happened,” he told himself. He had gone to Javed’s employer with his father and was told that Javed had a lot of office money with him when he vanished. He had made a police case, for the police had told him that Javed had run away with the money to

become a militant. “My son can never do something like that,” his father had cried. “I must clear his name.” “You talked for a long time inside, Anwar beta. Was he asking for money?” an old man had asked him when he came out of the police station. “Yes, he did.” “These people are sold out. They take money but do nothing. Take a picture of your friend and go to Hamid, the grave digger. He lives in a village twenty miles north from here. He will recognize your friend’s face if he has buried him. He has buried hundreds of young men in graves and remembers every face. That is Allah’s gift to him. And to the parents whose sons go missing.”

NINETY SIX

The caretaker, Hamid bhai, brought them to a mound of earth in a corner. He bowed and said, “This is where I laid him to rest.” “Shukriya,  Chacha,” Anwar said. “Don’t thank me, beta,” he said. “Do you think I like doing this? Till two years ago, I used to bury old people who had finished their journey on earth. Now I bury the young who have been killed. I wish that Allah relieves me from this responsibility. After 1990 it is the old who bury the young in Kashmir. If this continues, there will be no one left to live in this land,” Hamid was saying. Anwar looked at the mounds of earth around him. There must be a few hundred. In each one there was a body with no name. There was no way to identify them, except Hamid’s memory of each one’s face. “How did his face look in death?” he asked. Hamid placed a finger on his mouth and took him aside. “There was a painful expression on the face of your friend. He was glad to leave our world. He was beaten badly before he died.” Anwar held Javed’s father, who sat beside the mound of his son’s grave. He held his hand and said, “Chacha, I did not want to tell you first, but then I felt that you needed to know.” Javed’s father sat there as if someone had turned him into stone and stared at the mound of earth that now contained his son. “No, beta, you have done the right thing by telling me. I knew he was no more with us, but your chachi and his sisters believed he was still alive and said that nothing could have happened to him. He loved everyone. How could he be accused of being a terrorist?” Anwar had bribed clerks, fought in the hospitals for Javed’s records, and finally had been able to trace the grave digger Hamid who had laid him to rest in an unmarked grave.

However, what had shocked him was the discovery that one of the boys of their own group, Tariq, had betrayed Javed to the security agencies by saying that he makes trips to Delhi to plan a terrorist strike. Tariq, Anwar remembered, used to be jealous of Javed and, on many occasions, had asked others to break off their friendship with him. The clerk, seeing him think, had replied that Tariq was an informer and regularly told them about different boys and their activities. “Everyone is scared of him. He sometimes makes up stories to make easy money with those he doesn’t get along. We know it.” Anwar had gathered the courage and gone to Javed’s home and broken the news to his father. His father had listened to him in silence and had wanted to make the journey with him to his son’s grave. Anwar had tried to avoid Javed’s sisters. He hoped that one of the neighbors would tell them, sparing him the pain. He felt the breeze that blew across the graveyard. Javed often used to tell him that the breeze of Kashmir came over from those mountains and told a story of our land containing the longings of our people. It struck him that he hadn’t felt the breeze for a long time but today felt it over the graveyard. “Does the breeze now blow over the graveyard and not over the living?” he wondered. Sitting by Javed’s grave, Anwar remembered a man who was not only his best friend but also the most vocal of the lot. It was he who had stopped him from throwing stones at Aditya. It was he who opposed Haji chacha and an Islamic Kashmir. Javed had even put a plate for donation for the temple on the road in keeping with the Kashmiri custom. He watched as Javed’s father took out a picture of Javed. It was one in which he stood next to a houseboat on Dal Lake with his sisters. Every family in Kashmir had a similar photograph: the brother and sister standing on the banks of Dal Lake with their parents. This was often to be shown later for marriage to prospective in-laws and then to be framed as family photograph after all the children got married. Reading his thoughts, Javed’s father said, “Beta, he was against all violence. After you left, he did not entertain the jihadis. He had opposed hateful messages against Hindus being blared from loudspeakers perched atop the mosques and unfurling the flag of Pakistan at our house. He refused to go to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. But they tortured him just the same, thinking he was a militant.”

“May I ask you one thing, Chacha? Where did Javed get his ideas from? Among us, he was the only one who abhorred violence. He believed in all religions. We had even thrown him out of our group. Standing by his grave today, I want to ask you, how did he become so different?” “Beta, many years ago, we had gone to Bihar, where there was a mosque and a temple side by side. My brother was the caretaker of the mosque. He and the son of the Hindu priest became friends. Javed often asked me why there is so much violence in the name of religion. When Aditya came, he felt we could set an example of religious harmony in Kashmir.” “Chacha, he used to say all violence begins with intolerance. This must end in Kashmir.” “Who will end it now, beta? Kashmir is like a graveyard now with the silence of the dead pervading the air. And who will clear his name?” “I will, Chacha,” Anwar said. “I promise you on his grave.” But his father didn’t register. Instead, he was saying to himself, “Why am I left to see all this?” Then suddenly he said, “Let’s go. I can’t stay here anymore.” The caretaker Hamid came to them. “Your son was someone special. I know it when my hands bury a true Muslim.” Javed’s father took out a piece of paper. “Javed had written this poem. I kept it to give it back to him. Today I will.” He gave it to Anwar to read. “You want me to read it on his grave?” asked Anwar. “Yes, beta, I want him to listen,” he said. Anwar read… “I am left behind by you; I had thought that in the journey of life, we would walk together till the end, But you left me, and my voice is left to speak from an abyss; From the abyss my voice may feel faint because it comes from far; If my grave lies unknown, then know that a day will come when it will cease to be just a mound of earth; A rosebud will emerge that will tell Kashmir to remember my name; Till then my voice will flow along with the breeze that flies over the mountains and rivers of Kashmir to tell my story. If you care to stop and listen, you will hear it.

“There is nothing more after this. It remains incomplete. Like his life story,” his father said. Anwar folded the paper and gave it back. “No, beta,” Javed’s father said, “let’s bury it here with him. I won’t take it back.” “You know, Chacha, in Javed’s death I realize how wrong I was about everything.” “It is all Allah’s will, beta.” They walked back together, with Hamid following them. Javed’s father wanted to give him some money, but Hamid refused to take it. “Donate it at the mosque in the name of your child. This is what I tell all the fathers.” On the way back, they stopped at a checkpoint, where they were asked as to where they had been. Everyone kept the bus tickets they had traveled in. Even a year later you could be asked, “Where were you on that day?” Anwar realized he was so lost in thought that he didn’t at first answer the security man when he asked, “Where had you gone?” Then he blurted out, “We had gone to meet a relative.” Anwar saw Javed’s father to his home and then walked back. “As salaam alaikum, Anwar bhai,” someone was calling out to him. He was so lost in thoughts that he hadn’t noticed anyone. Then he turned back and saw an army man waving at him. Perplexed, as he came close, he saw it was Rehmat, a boy from their neighborhood. He used to live in Javed’s lane. Several times Anwar had scolded him for making sexual gestures to girls and finally had thrown him out of their group for not listening. Why was he calling him now, he wondered. “Wa alaikum as salaam,” he said as Rehmat walked upto him and showed a new gun. Anwar narrowed his eyes and asked, “How come you are wearing this uniform?” “Anwar bhai, many of us wear this now. You should wear one too. It will look very nice on your body.” “Why do you wear this?” he asked again, pressing his lips together. “It is fun wearing this, Anwar bhai,” he winked pointing to the badge on the uniform. “It can do a lot of things for you and the blame falls on someone else.” He grinned. “Isn’t raping women un-Islamic?” he said, crossing his arms as the full meaning of Rehmat’s words hit him. “Don’t mind, Anwar bhai, but to hear what is Islamic and un-Islamic from your mouth is rather farcical,” he replied.

Anwar stared down at his feet. Suddenly he felt a fatigue within him. Earlier, he would have slapped Rehmat but now he just wanted to walk away. Rehmat came running after him. “I apologize, Anwar bhai, I didn’t mean to be rude. I heard you went to Javed bhai’s grave. My blood boiled when I heard what they did to him. Kashmir is an Islamic country now.” Seeing Anwar quiet, he said, “I have decided, Anwar bhai, there is no going back. I am going and will return only to pay them ten times for their crime.” “What will you do?” Anwar asked, aware that Rehmat was trying to show off. “I am going across to Pakistan with other boys. I have put aside some money for my wife and child. Even if I become shaheed,  they won’t have to beg on the streets. I want to take revenge on Indians.” “Rehmat,” he said, “no one ever beat you like they beat me. Then why will you take revenge? On whom? For what?” “Can’t you see it is jihad, Anwar bhai? We are picking up arms because of a call to bring in an Islamic Kashmir. I can’t help saying this but you are only a stone thrower. You won’t understand our feelings.” “He will come back and kill a few people. Then he will get killed. Who among us will be left to walk on the streets of Kashmir and hear Javed’s message?” Anwar thought as he walked on.

NINETY SEVEN

When Anwar returned, he saw Misba’s father come out of their home. “As salaam alaikum, Chacha,” he said, but Misba’s father walked out without responding. He had always talked to him warmly, and they had shared many jokes. “Meet the old man too,” he would say every time Anwar went to meet Misba. His abbu and ammi sat on the couch. Their faces showed that the meeting with Misba’s father had not gone well. “Is something the matter, Abbu? Chacha just walked out. When I wished him, he did not acknowledge me,” Anwar said. “Beta,” his father said, “he broke off your engagement with Misba.” “What?” Anwar stopped in his tracks. “What did he say?” “He said that you are not following the path of a true Muslim and that you don’t have respect for independence of Kashmir. Their family can’t accept you as their son-in-law.” Anwar sat down. “I will go and talk to him. As for Misba, I met her the other day; she did not say anything.” “She waited for her father to come and break this news to us,” his abbu said. “He would not have gone far.” “No, he told us that you should not follow him.” “But Misba…I will explain everything to her.” “He told us that it was Misba who said that she no longer wants to be associated with you. His father returned the gifts that we had given her. You can decide what to do with them,” said his ammi. “You seem to be justifying Misba, Ammi,” Anwar said. “If I was in her place, I would have done the same thing,” she said. Anwar got up to go. “Where are you going?” his father asked.

“To be alone.” “To be alone or sit and brood under some tree? That is what one sees you doing nowadays.” His mother waved her hand in the air. “Listen,” his father said, looking at his mother, “we want to tell you we are planning to leave for Haj.” “Can I come too?” asked Anwar. “No, it is not the right time for you.” “You can’t do that, Abbu. Not to me. Not now. I will be totally alone.” “Maybe you should realize if we mean anything to you at all. We have been wanting to go for a while, and we will go next week.” Anwar went inside and drank a glass of cold water. He then went out again. His father called him from behind, “Where are you going?” “You know where I am going.” He walked out. When he knocked on Misba’s door, it was her father who opened it. “Chacha, I wish to talk to you. Just once.” “But I don’t have any wish to talk to you. Whatever I told your parents is final. Now leave us in peace,” he said. “I want to talk to Misba then.” “She does not want to talk to you either,” he said. “All right,” Anwar said, “then I will sit here and will not leave until I speak with her.” “You have already brought us enough humiliation. What more do you want?” Anwar noticed a movement behind the door. Raising his voice, he said, “Misba, I just want to ask you something once and then I won’t disturb you, I promise. Tomorrow at the same place, same time.” Then he walked away, without looking back. He was waiting for her when she came. He noticed she looked attractive in a new salwar kameez. She sat down some distance from him. He could not help but say, “You look beautiful, Misba.” “Thank you,” she said politely. “Why did you call me?” “Why, Misba,” he asked, “why did you do this to me?” “You know the answer, Anwar.” “I thought at least you were with me.” “With you, Anwar? What does that mean?” “Misba, what wrong have I done?”

“Anwar, I don’t want this relationship,” she said. “I wanted to marry a man who follows true Islam.” Anwar took a deep breath. “Just tell me when you changed.” “I changed? How dare you say that to me!” Misba shot back. “It is you who changed, Anwar. I am the same girl whose hands were promised to you in marriage by my parents.” “You could have told me.” “Tell you what! You stopped listening to me, to all of us. You promised you will throw him out and then only I will come as a bride to your home. Did you keep your promise?” “I explained that to you.” She didn’t seem to hear him. “Anwar, the whole community feels betrayed by you. All the boys were your followers. They have left you,” she said. “When we came together to throw out the Hindus, you weakened the movement we had built for years.” “The posters on the walls were for pandits to leave their women behind. Is this the revolution we wanted?” “Anwar, we believe in a Kashmir where only believers live and all infidels are gone. I was certain that you will keep your promise. Do you know how many nights I cried myself to sleep wondering why you changed?” “I couldn’t believe in a revolution whose slogan was to take over the women of the infidels. That is not Islam,” Anwar said. Misba continued, “Oh, is it like that? Then maybe you should live with your changed heart and leave the rest of us the task to build Islam in Kashmir. I thought that your change was momentary. But now I see it as something much larger.” “I want to live my life with you, Misba. It is just that I am not clear in my head about many things and need some more time.” “But I can’t take it anymore and neither can my family. My Abbu can’t answer any more questions like why I am still engaged to you.” And then she said, “Haji chacha wants to send me abroad. He says that Islam is spreading in the world and that they need women like me.” “And you didn’t tell me,” Anwar said. Misba did not answer. “Anwar, I don’t think our views are the same anymore. You have become a munafiq  in everyone’s eyes and are a blur on

all those fighting for azaadi. Do you even care that this label will stay with you for life?” “I am a true Muslim and will always remain one,” he said. “I am glad we had this talk, Misba. My path has become clearer now.” “A true Muslim should never have any doubts. His path is clear from the time he begins reading the holy Koran. The language you speak is of a fasiq   and will lead to your ruin. Anyway, I have been here quite long. I need to go,” she said. He saw her go and didn’t stop her. She did not stop and look back. The conversation had turned them into strangers.

NINETY EIGHT

“Don’t shoot me. I am the father of two small children,” the man pleaded, folding his hands. The soldier kicked him on the abdomen. “You didn’t think of your children when you shot these innocent people,” he said, taking away the white shrouds in front of him. “Sir, please, sir,” he begged, falling to the ground, “I won’t kill again.” “What is going on here?” an officer asked as he entered the room. The soldiers saluted him. “Sir, this one begs and asks for mercy. All lies, sir. These men, when caught, beg for their lives in the name of their children. They have no mercy when they kill others who have children.” “And the other terrorists we have caught? What about them?” “None of them opened their mouths. All locals, sir. We will soon know the names of their villages.” “Did they talk of where they were in Pakistan?” the officer asked. “Muzaffarabad, sir. This one cries about his children. He carries the pictures of his wife and children.” “How did you catch them?” “These four were carrying a coffin on their shoulders when we intercepted them. We were coming from having combed several villages for hiding militants. These people said they came from that very village, and we hadn’t heard of any death there. Still, we let them go thinking we may have made a mistake when one of the men remembered that he had seen the same men traveling two weeks ago with a similar coffin. When we asked them to let us touch the coffin, they dropped it and started to run. When we opened the coffin, we found a number of AK-47 rifles and guns hidden inside. We found this picture in this man’s pocket. He would not give it to us and fought us tooth and nail.”

The officer examined the picture that lay on the table. “You fought over this photograph with my men. Why?” “I don’t want their dirty hands to touch it.” “Are these your children?” “Yes, sir,” the man said. “And this is their mother.” “She died, sir, leaving these children for me, and now I have to raise them alone.” “She died, or you killed her?” “I didn’t kill her, sir. Believe me.” The man hit him hard on the face. A thin stream of blood came out of the side of his mouth and trickled down his jaws. “If you lie once more, I will shoot you.” “I killed her because I loved her, sir.” “And she, instead of loving you, loved a kafir.” “Yes, sir.” “And you failed to win her heart. And you also attacked the temple because you thought by doing so you would win her heart.” “Yes, sir. But it had the opposite effect. She loved the temple more after that.” The officer smiled. “She sacrificed her love, her life, so that she could give herself to you. She struggled to be everything that she wasn’t for your sake, but you didn’t believe her,” he said. “Stop talking about her. I feel I will go mad, sir.” “Let this one go,” he ordered his men. “Let him go, sir? Why? He is a prize catch. He is the one who led the attack on the temple.” “Don’t shoot a man who is going mad. That will be his punishment.” Then he gave him a long look and said, “I will let you go.” “Get the truth out of others. And you,” he said, pointing his finger at him, “you will watch it so that you live and tell everyone about it.” An hour later, the officer opened the door of the room and told the cowering man, “Now run as fast as you can. If I catch you, you will be a dead man.” He saw the man run and get lost in the chinar forest. “He will become mad soon,” he told his men. “I would like that rather than that we kill him.”

Then seeing the puzzled faces of his men, he said, “I know how hard you all worked to catch him. If we had killed him, he will be spoken of as a martyr among his people. Now he will be seen as a traitor and his madness as punishment from God. Remember, this war is not to make martyrs out of the people who get caught by us. Kashmir is full of criminals with halos of martyrs. Now he will be forced to tell everyone why he was released without a scratch on his skin when his comrades weren’t so lucky. People will talk of him as a traitor who betrayed his comrades in exchange for freedom.” “Then what will happen, sir?” “It is the creating of martyrs that keeps the movement in Kashmir alive. People think this is a holy war with infidels and see its fighters with romantic delusion. When they see a coward, a madman, an ex-militant, they will see the true face of this struggle. That may not happen today, but one day it will. It will bring peace in Kashmir.”

NINETY NINE

The Srinagar bus stand was crowded with people coming from all over Kashmir for the Haj trip. Anwar brought his parents’ luggage and placed it on the roof of the bus along with others. Others bowed and gave way. “Imam saab is going for Haj in this bus with us,” someone remarked. “Allah has called me this time. Had to go,” he said, looking at the faraway mountains. “Hope Allah will make these tired eyes see those peaks once more.” “Inshallah, Imam saab. Why talk like that?” someone asked. “Imam saab, when you come back, you will see Kashmir independent from India.” “The bus is ready to start. Everyone take their seats,” the voice of the conductor boomed. “Abbu, Ammi, I will find it difficult to manage without you.” “Anwar, time will pass like the blink of an eye. We will go for Haj and then to our relatives. Haji saab has arranged everything.” “Wish Zeba were here, Abbu.” “There is a letter for you,” said Imam saab as the engine started. “From Zeba?” “No, from us. I thought we should let you know something. Khuda hafiz, Anwar.” The bus left. Anwar walked back home. Everything felt strange. The empty chair where his abbu sat, the television set around which everyone gathered to watch cricket matches, seemed totally empty and to have lost all meaning. He switched on the television. On the national channel, they were showing a Bollywood film. It was a comedy. It seemed very ironic to him that with all the violence around, people could still laugh. The local channel showed a group of dancers sing a Kashmiri folk song. The singers sang, “Bumro bumro, sham rang bumro...”

He remembered Zeba had once said, “I will sing this song on your wedding.” “Oh,” then he remembered, “Abbu told me he had a letter for me. He started looking for it and found it under his pillow in a blue envelope, marked in Abbu’s handwriting. He started to read… Dear Anwar beta, You will need to put a stone over your heart in order to read this letter. You have been as good a son to me as Allah could bestow on anyone. I don’t know how to say this to you, but the other day when you asked about Zeba again and again, I felt I needed to tell you before I left for Haj. I told you a lie that she had reconciled and left with Salim. The truth is, beta—and put a stone on your heart while I say this—she is not with us anymore in this world. As you know, Salim and she never got along. Salim, after he joined the group for independence, changed inside, and she could never adjust to his ways. She was harassed by the police, so she came with the children to live with us. But she again started to go to the temple and listen to the priest and, after the temple was destroyed, would walk over to the ruins. Your ammi says it was Zeba who changed your mind, making you soft toward the kafir. After all she was not our blood and couldn’t be expected to show gratitude. Salim found it difficult to explain to his comrades why Zeba acted so un-Islamic. He said he told her to behave like a pious Muslim woman, but she wouldn’t listen, and they quarreled frequently. He gave her a last chance, and she refused to take it, so he had to, for the sake of his family’s honor, do something that is the last refuge for a man. I did try to stop him but failed. When a man is provoked as badly as he was, he has few options. It was not his fault. He tried to change her, but she didn’t listen. All the imams in Kashmir told me that it was not a crime on Salim’s part to uphold his honor. Everyone tells us that, after all, she was not our own blood. We hope you will accept and understand that. Don’t pick a fight with Salim over this. He has gone mad and laughs to himself. He came back and asked for our forgiveness, and we have forgiven him. Please don’t hurt him. This is my only request. The children have lost their mother. Let them not lose their father.

There is one more thing with which I need to unburden my heart before I leave. I know that Javed did tell you about this and you didn’t believe him. While discussing the azaadi on the night of 20th January, 1990, a day after Hindus left, Haji saab had told a few of us that in the early days of the struggle, he had found it difficult to inspire young boys to fight for azaadi. “Our boys don’t have any fire in their belly to fight the Indians and this way we will never get it. They have to be made to go through fire.” One of the imams asked how did he transform the boys so soon and so well. Haji saab had smiled and added that one day when history of Kashmir is written, it will be mentioned how he made the boys of Kashmir into lions from lambs. “What did you make my Anwar go through in the name of azaadi?” I had asked him. “Oh, Imam saab, first freedom then son,” he had said and quipped. “Would your Anwar have picked up stones if the beating didn’t take place? None of the boys would have. After all, I had to prepare them for a holy war.” My wish is that Allah gives you the strength to see the truth and find peace knowing you were not alone in this and the sacrifice of all you boys gave Kashmir azaadi. This is not to say that I don’t understand your pain but there was a noble cause for which you were made to go through this. I hope my going away will heal you and one day you will understand the compulsion why we elders sometimes act the way we do. One day other imams came to meet me and told me that I needn’t carry any guilt by thinking over this again and again. They advised I go for Haj. We had a long discussion, and I realized that I did not do any wrong. I hope my going to Haj will take us nearer to Allah and give us peace. Your well-wisher as always, Abbu The sheets of paper in his hand felt like stone. He read the letter again and again. What troubled him the most was the paragraph where his father had asked him not to hurt Salim. Abdul was calling the faithful for the prayers. As if in a dream, he got up to go. In the mosque there were only a few people. He somehow read the namaz.

He walked up to her room and opened the door. It was the same as when he had left. In her drawer he found a letter that she had started writing to Aarzoo. She had talked about herself and the children. Then she had written, “The worst thing we do is to teach our children that all human beings are not children of the same God.” Next morning he went to Zeba’s in-laws’ place. He could hear a woman’s voice, “From morning till night they say they want to go to their mother. This is not what I came to this house for.” “Yes, who is it?” She came out when Anwar called Salim’s name. “Who are you?” she demanded. “I am Anwar, Zeba’s brother.” The woman stopped in her track. “Salim is not here.” Anwar pushed her aside and entered the house. She came after him. “Go away. Didn’t I say he is not here?” “Where are the children?” “Mamujan,”  Zeba’s son hugged him, “they beat me every day.” “Who is it, Safiya?” It was Salim. “Oh, it is you, the protector of kafirs.” “Salim, stay out of my path.” Anwar motioned with his hands. “You get out of here. I am a jihadi, a fighter for independence. I am not scared of you.” “I have come to take away the children.” Anwar’s voice was calm. “Both of you go inside.” Salim went and gave a tight slap to his son. “Salim,” Anwar had caught his hand, “stop it.” “What is this? Why are both of you fighting? Beta, how can the children stay with you?” Salim’s mother came between them. “Anwar, you can come here and see them whenever you want.” “I have come to take them with me.” “Beta, Salim is their father. They need a mother. Salim has married again,” she said. Anwar picked up the children. “Salim, before I kill you, stay away.” “Zeba committed suicide,” Salim said, crossing his arms. Anwar picked up the children. “I am taking them away. But if you ever come near them, I will kill you.” He walked out. “No one will beat you now,” he told Zeba’s son. “You will live with me.”

When he had walked some distance, he saw someone call out to him. It was Zeba’s old maid. “Will you take me with you, Anwar beta? I can’t see these children being beaten every day. And everyone says their father is a magaz dolmut.  He laughs to himself on the terrace.” “Ammi is dead, isn’t she? Abbu says he killed her because she was a bad mother and that the new Ammi will look after us, but I want Zeba Ammi.” “Your mamujan is going to love you like your ammi.” He felt strange saying this. When was the last time he had said anything like that? “You know,” the boy was saying, “my new ammi calls us harami ke pillay.  She used to say if I don’t stop mentioning Ammi, she will tell Abbu to kill me like he killed Ammi.” Anwar took him in his arms. “Nobody will kill you now,” he said. “And your ammi was not a ‘harami.’” Once home, he gave them food and then waited for them to sleep. Sitting alone by himself, he suddenly felt heavy in his heart. He had still felt nothing on knowing that Zeba was no more and that his father had contributed toward her death and hidden it all from him. Maybe he needed time to grasp it all. He forced himself to remember all the times when he had felt emotions. Now it seemed as if those feelings were alien and resided in the body of others but not in him. A thought came of the stones that he had thrown at others. “Does the mind of a stone thrower become a stone one day?” he asked himself. There was no answer.

HUNDRED

“Why do you stand outside the mosque at such an early hour, Imam saab?” a passerby asked. “Is someone expected?” “Yes,” the imam answered. “After all these years, Imam saab.” He bowed in recognition. Not many people addressed him like that anymore. Most passersby thought him to be mad and walked away, shaking their heads. Occasionally, a curious child would come close and stare at him. The militants would come and tell him, “Anwar bhai, go inside your home. Stop waiting outside. You are giving a bad name to our movement.” No one could look him in the eye, as so intense were they. Once a militant from a foreign land had put a gun against his head in a fit of rage in a bid to push him inside. It was said that he then asked for forgiveness and went away, never to come back. On a clear day, from the bend of the road where he stood, he could see the horizon where the mountains of Kashmir seemed to merge with the plains. “Did someone promise that he would come?” the passerby insisted. “Yes, he promised that he will come to rebuild this ruin,” he said, looking into the distance. “Will he come so early?” the passerby asked. “The sun will take some time to rise.” The imam didn’t listen. He strained to hear footsteps in the distance. His eyes lit up for a moment, and he walked ahead, only to realize there was no one. As he walked back, he saw in the growing daylight that someone had written on the wall, “No infidels in Kashmir.” He wrote below it, “No one is an infidel in Kashmir.”

“Be careful, Imam saab. You will fall sick if you wait here. Everyone says it will snow heavily this year.” The man shook his head and walked away. He didn’t listen. He waited like this every day. The voices inside his head would start soon after he finished the morning namaz. They would continue when he came and stood at the bend of the road and waited. They would ask who was responsible for all the deaths in the abode of God. Sometimes there was one, and at other times the voices asked the same question. “You started it all. Are you not responsible for the death of so many people?” Then at the end they would be replaced by a voice telling him to atone for his violence and seek redemption. “Imam saab, you were once called the noor of Kashmir. It doesn’t feel good to see you like this.” Some boys had come to him, saying, “Imam saab, elders tell us that your stones never missed their targets. Will you teach us to throw stones?” “No,” he said, “go away. No boy should pick up stones in Kashmir.” “The stone thrower of Kashmir lives alone,” a newspaper had written an article about him. It had concluded by calling him the voice of Kashmir. “They are wrong. I alone am responsible for the massacre of so many people. I couldn’t keep my promise,” he would stop people and tell them. “Those who became martyrs, like your friend Javed, fought for values, didn’t they? Kashmir will never be the same without them. Did they not warn you, Imam saab?” “Yes, but I couldn’t see it,” he said, his voice getting lost within himself. “How long do you think you will wait?” He looked around. There was no one. It was the voice within him. Nowadays, he always took some time to decide where it came from. “I wait for him every day. When he comes, we can erase hatred from the hearts of our people.” “But the hatred you talk about, who brought it in the first place?” the voice asked. “His coming back will end it. It will tell the world that Kashmiris can forgive.” “Nobody comes to pray with you. Doesn’t that disappoint you?” It was the reporter from the newspaper who asked. “I saw you outside the mosque, so I thought I should ask a few questions,” he said. So it was not his own voice talking to him this time. He felt better.

“There is a talk to completely demolish the ruins, since there are no pandits left in Kashmir. What is your opinion?” the reporter asked. “This ruin is a warning that when we destroy something built in the name of God, we destroy our conscience. The roads of Kashmir are meant to be walked alone. Today it is me; tomorrow it will be someone else. One day when Kashmir will be free of hatred and bigotry, we will walk together.” “What if something happens to you? There are many who have tried to kill you.” “If my blood falls, it will purify people’s hearts.” “There was an attack on your life only last week. Shouldn’t you be careful?” the reporter asked. “Anwar, there is still time. You can’t betray us.” The man had warned him while leaving. “What was his name…he limped…yes, Haji chacha.” “What about no one being with you? You seem to be the only person who feels like this. Does it not discourage you? Are you not scared to stand alone?” asked the reporter. “Allah is my protector.” Then he remembered something and said, “Those who follow his path, stand alone.” It was the voice of Javed. “Let’s build a Kashmir, Anwar, where there are no atrocities on our people.” “I will, Javed. I will clear your name and take care of your abbu.” And then he said to himself, “I have been more fortunate than you. At least my killers come to warn me.” “They want to kill everyone who doesn’t follow them.” It was the reporter. “Do you think your story will turn the youth away from killing themselves in the name of God?” “We alone are responsible for the choices we make in our lives,” he told the reporter. “One last question. You stand outside every day, but the violence continues unabated and doesn’t seem to stop. In Nadimarg, in Wandhama, in Sangrampora, and in countless other villages, the pile of dead bodies is getting higher.” “This violence will stop when the conscience of the Kashmiri people wakes up again.” “Don’t you face danger to your life for saying that?”

He was about to say something when a voice said, “Boijan, you are talking too much.” He had always waited for that voice. “I could not protect you, Zeba,” he said. “I will never forgive myself for that.” “No, boijan,” she said, “you could not have stopped them. They were far more cunning than you. Only look after my children. See to it that they don’t become fanatics.” “They won’t, Zeba; I promise. I will tell them your story.” “And forgive Abbu that he could not protect me. And that he lied to you. Accept him; he needs you. He wants to come back to you but doesn’t know how.” “I will, Zeba, when he comes back,” he said. “And I have not seen you like this,” she said. “Cheer up. Give me that smile that you wore when you ran around Dal Lake to catch me and let me win.” “I will.” He smiled. “And don’t get angry when people say things about him and me.” “I promise I won’t. When he comes back, I will tell him about how you kept alive his temple.” He felt her voice gone now. Yet a feeling descended over him, making him conscious as if he was not alone. It went away after he would say he would wait. “Imam saab, sorry to bother you. I forgot to ask—how badly was the priest injured?” the reporter asked. “There are rumors that he is dead.” Didn’t he say that it was the last question? Maybe he hadn’t heard him. “He was badly injured but has healed. He will come back when he is able to walk again—he promised me.” “You went to him, didn’t you, by searching him out…to apologize for your father’s actions and asked him to come back?” “Yes, I did that, and he forgave me.” “But will he not be killed if he comes back? What will happen to the temple then? Who will protect it?” “An abode of God doesn’t need protection from anyone. I told him I will keep the tradition of his honored ancestor alive till he comes back.” “What did you say? His honored ancestor…let me write it down. ‘A Muslim priest says “honored ancestor” to show respect for a Hindu priest.’ And now, a question on a personal note, Imam saab. How does it feel to live

next door to a ruin and be reminded that once you had wanted to destroy it every day?” “No abode of God can ever be destroyed by man. I remind myself that every day.” “Can I then write that the destroyed temple is a symbol of intolerance and your wait for your friend is a symbol of hope?” “Yes, you may write that.” “You and your friend have become symbols of hope for all those who do not want any more bloodshed in Kashmir. They pray that peace will come soon.” “The peace in Kashmir is coming at a terrible price. I wish people would see it.” “One clarification, I called the Hindu priest your friend. Were you two friends?” “No, we didn’t become friends.” “Like you, will the conscience of Kashmiris ever make them accountable for the genocide of Hindus?” “I do not know. Our conscience remains our individual responsibility.” Saying this, he walked on toward the wall that divided the two structures in the name of God, one still standing and the other a ruin. He was alone now. Nobody crossed the wall and dared to disobey the diktat of militants that those going to the ruins will be killed. “I see tears in your eyes, Anwar.” He looked around. There was no one, but he knew the voice came from the ruins. “The stones of Kashmir,” the voice said, “ask questions to which we don’t have an answer. Remember how once everyone thought us to be mad over saying this. I want you to tell our story.” He found a place to sit among the stones and saw a stone with a sharp edge, the size of his palm. He recognized it as the same one with which he had hit the forehead of someone long ago on a cold night. The stone had survived among all the violence on the temple and stood a witness to the history of the temple. “How did it come here?” He picked it up and then put it back amid the other stones. “When Aditya returns, he can lay it to build the foundation of the temple,” Anwar thought. There were now no voices to talk to him. He waited, absorbing the silence around him. For a moment he thought he heard the sound of a

temple bell. After he listened to it, he did not want to listen to any other sound. He got up to cross the wall and go to the bend of the road where he would wait for him like he did every day. And then as he opened the gate, he felt as if a voice called him from afar to say, “Anwar, I am coming.”

Acknowledgements A book like this would not have been possible without the valuable support of numerous people from diverse backgrounds. I am indebted to each one of them. To Sister Marya for reading and editing the book and giving valuable suggestions. She also shared her wisdom on religious matters with me to understand how interfaith reconciliation works. To Iris Fisher Petry, a psychologist from Germany, who encouraged me to finish writing the book and helped me understand what persecutors and survivors go through in a society before finding forgiveness and reconciliation. To Dr. Shakti Batra for reading and making valuable suggestions to improve the book. To James Lavelle, my ex-professor from Harvard, who was one of the first persons to read the draft and give constructive insights. To Vasant Pai for reading each chapter painstakingly and making critical comments. To Bhaskar Niyogi for reading the book critically and giving valuable suggestions. To Bo Brautigum for the many discussions around the philosphical aspects of the book. To Neerja Tiku, who found the manuscript woven with history and memory and for her encouragement. To Prabodh Kaul, with whom I had numerous discussions over the marketing of the book. To my father, Late Rabindra Nath Mitra, a teacher of English, who instilled in me the habit of reading books. To my mother, Manju Mitra, for her support. To my sister, Late Swapna Dev, who felt that one day I would turn a writer and who would be smiling at her prophecy. To my brother-in-law Dr. Sukhendu Dev, who shared valuable insights. To my sister-in-law Srishti Safaya, who visited research centers and libraries and collected research material for me. To Sudhakar Safaya, my brother-in-law, for his support.

To my late parents-in-law, Moti Lal Tiku and Raj Tiku, who shared many anecdotes from their childhood in Kashmir and helped me to understand the identity formation in Kashmiri people and their rich history and culture. They also told me the role of memory in Kashmiri psyche and their forgotten history of persecution. Papa also read some chapters involving structural engineering details as used in medieval times and made valuable suggestions for historical accuracy. To Ananya, my ever-loving daughter, who would pick up the manuscript on her own to read the chapters and make comments that made me rethink and created a deeper and sublime version of many events. To my wife, Nidhi, who, more than anyone else, helped me to make this book into a reality. Ranging from a sharp critic and editor who helped me to remove many a contradiction to finding structural defects in the manuscript, she helped me to see the inherent possibility in every character, the choices and the depth of feelings in them that had passed me by while writing the book, and to discover for myself why I had chosen to write this book in the first place and the person I was becoming through my writing. To all my friends and family members whom I may not have named individually but who encouraged me during the process. To my publishers Utpal Kaul, Vijay Handoo, Bal Krishan Revoo, Jyoti Gautam and the entire team for their uncondional support. To my soul dog, Buddy, who sat patiently by my side everyday till his death and remained my companion when I wrote.

Index of Local Words with Their English Meanings Local Word English Meaning A Aahuti: Offerings put into the fire for the Gods Abbu: Father in Muslims Acharya: Venerable head priest in Hindus Adharma: Hindu term for unrighteous thoughts and actions Alta: Red dye used for decorating the feet by Hindu women Ammi: Mother in Muslims Angethi: Earthen fire vessel Apni tarikh pehchano: Remember the days of glory when Islam ruled the world – Slogan Asana: A square piece of cloth for the Hindu priest to sit and pray upon As salaam alaikum: Islamic greeting Azaadi: Freedom / Independence Azan: Call for Muslim prayer B Baba: Father in Hindus Bakirkhani: A kind of Kashmiri bread Battav ya reliv, chaliv nathe galiv: Pandits either convert or run away or die – Slogan Begum: Title of a married Muslim woman Beta: Son Bhaijan: Brother in Muslims Boijan: Brother in Kashmiri Muslims C Chacha: Paternal Uncle / A term of endearment Chachi: Paternal Aunt / A term of endearment Chakra: Lord Vishnu’s wheel symbolizing justice Chatai: A mat made of weed and grass Chela: Follower

Chirag tale andhera: There is darkness under the lamp Choona: Lime D Dada: Elder brother in Hindus Daima: Midwife Dharma: Hindu term for righteous thoughts and actions Dhoti: Traditional dress for Hindu men Dopatta: Cloth worn over the shoulders and covering the chest E Eidi: Gift given to children on Eid F Fakir: Muslim saint Fasiq: Someone who does not follow Allah’s law G Garbha griha: Inner sanctum of a temple Goshtaba: Mutton dish Greh devata: A Hindu deity who protects the home Gurudakshina: A Hindu commitment to a command that severs the bond between teacher and disciple Gurudev: Chief priest – A revered title H Haj :  Islamic pilgrimage Hakim: Muslim traditional doctor Halal: Permissible in Islam Haram: Forbidden/Sinful in Islam Harami: Illegitimate Harami ke pillay: Bastards Hari parvat: Holy mountain for Hindus in Kashmir Havan: Religious ritual for Hindus Hind ki chadar: The one who saved Hinduism in India – for the ninth guru of Sikhs I Insaniyat: Humanity Inshallah: If Allah wills it Izzat: Honor J Janaza: Funeral in Muslims

Janeyu: The sacred thread worn across the shoulder by Hindu men Jannat: Heaven K Kafir: Infidel Kahwa: Kashmiri tea Kalash: The sacred copper pot used during Hindu prayers Kangri: Earthen pot used for keeping the body warm Kashir banavo Pakistan, battav rustoi battnein sann: Will make Kashmir into Pakistan with Pandit women without their men – Slogan Kashmir ki kali: Real beauty of Kashmir – for women Kashmir mein rehna hoga, Allah o Akbar kehna hoga: To live in Kashmir everyone will have to say Allah o Akbar – Slogan Katyu chukh nund bane, valo mashok myane: Where are you hiding, my beloved, come back to me – Folksong Khotsun: Being scared / Petrified Khuda hafiz: Allah be your protector Khutbah: Sermon delivered on Friday in a mosque Krishna janma-sthan: Lord Krishna’s birthplace Koori: Daughter / Girl L La ilaha illallah: There is no God but Allah Lal Chowk :    Red Square Leela: Cosmic play for Hindus M Ma: Mother in Hindus Maatam: Way of expressing grief Madrassa: Islamic school Magaz dolmut: Mad / Mentally ill Mahadev: Lord Shiva Mamujaan: Maternal uncle Mangal aarti: Morning invocation of the deities Manjeera: Musical instrument Mantras: Hymns in Hinduism Maulvi: Islamic religious teacher Maya: A Hindu concept meaning everything is unreal and illusory Mela: Fair Mohabbat: Affection

Morukh ha: Killed me Mubarak ho: Congratulations Munafiq: A hypocrite Murga: Cockatiel N Namaste: Hindu greeting Namaste saradadevi, kashmira mandala vasini: I bow to Goddess of knowledge residing in Kashmir Namaz : Muslim term for prayer Namazees: People offering namaz Noor: Light P Panditji: Hindu Priest Pattals: Plates made of leaves Pehle Khuda phir beta, pehle Koran phir beta, pehle Mohammed phir beta: First Allah, then your son; first Koran, then your son; first Mohammed, then your son Pheran: Traditional dress in Kashmir Pran pratishtha: Infusing the divine consciousness into stone Prasad: Food offered to Gods Puja: Hindu term for Prayer Q Qabool hai: I agree Qazi: Islamic Judge Qurbani: Sacrifice R Ramadan: Islamic month of fasting Rig Veda: Hindu scripture Rotis: Indian bread (unleavened) S Saab: Sir Salwar kameez: An Indian dress for women Sari: Indian traditional dress for women Shaheed: Martyr Shareef: Innocent Shastras: Hindu scriptures Sherwani: Traditional long coat for men

Shilpa shastra: The art of temple making in Hinduism Shivling: A cylindrical idol symbolizing the cosmic manifestation of Lord Shiva Shiv-strotra: Hymns for Lord Shiva Shri Shankaracharya: Revered saint in Hindus Shuddhi: Purification ceremony in Hindus Shukriya: Thanks Soham asmi: The absolute is me Soorkee: Mortar T Tassali ho gayi apni beti ko dekh ke: Satisfied, you saw your daughter Teerth: Sacred place for Hindus Tikka wale: Ones with red mark on their forehead Tilak: Red mark on forehead worn by Hindus Toba, toba: For heaven’s sake Tonga: Horse drawn carriage Tumbakner: A drum that is played during marriage celebrations in Kashmir U Ulemas: Muslim wise men Upanishads: Hindu scriptures V Vaaid: Hindu traditional doctor Vanaprastha: It is the last stage of the Hindu way of life when a man retires to the forest and lives as a mendicant Vedas: Hindu scriptures W Wa alaikum salaam: Islamic greetings, especially in response to “As salaam alaikum.” Y Yahan kya chalega, nizame Mustafa: What will work here, only Islamic law – Slogan Z Zameer: Conscience Zindagi bad az maut: Real life begins only after martyrdom

About the Author Rajat Mitra holds a PhD in psychology, is a social entrepreneur and an Ashoka fellow. While enrolled in Harvard’s program in refugee trauma, Rajat saw the way art and literature depict trauma in various societies, which further helped him to chisel and enrich the voice of the characters in the book. During his thirty-year career, he has worked with individuals suffering from severe emotional disturbances, those in prison for terrorism, and radicalized youth serving long sentences. For years he worked with law enforcement agencies and criminal justice systems to provide psychological support to victims and their families. Rajat works with cases of violations of human rights. He has worked with survivors of mass violence, ethnic violence, and genocide. More recently he has worked alongside human rights defenders across Asia. Rajat is currently associated with a deradicalization program for youth. He lives in New Delhi, India, with his wife and daughter. The Infidel Next Door is his first book.