22nd November 1947, Srinagar.
Surrounded by the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal range, Srinagar valley was an idyllic yet bustling town. Shikaras dotted the city full of lakes. Religious harmony reigned, and perhaps a line from Agha Ali’s poem succinctly summed it: “In the lake, the arms of temples and mosques are locked in each other’s reflections.”
The three-storeyed house overlooked the river Lidder. Every morning the rising sun dispatched its rays to reflect on the tranquil waters. The sunbeams enhanced the aura of the metallic OM etched into the walls. For a few blinding moments, the symbol emulated the sun, casting the borrowed sunbeams, an ersatz sun.
In the cold winter season, the kitchen with its bukhari, always burning, kept the house warm. It was where the family gathered. But it was the top floor that was the sisters’ favourite hideout. They were fascinated by the braer kaeni, the attic. It was the connoisseur of the abandoned items and the girls’ treasure chest. They spent many delightful days playing there. It was an excellent antidote for the depressing winter evenings.
But today fun was farthest away from her mind. Parajika locked the doors. She ran to draw the curtains. The elegant, embroidered halves of the curtains united once again, endeavoured to stop the prying eyes. From a distance, she could hear the soft trails of slogans. Parajika could just about make out the emerging shouts. She parted the drapes to peer out. The streets of Safakadal were deserted but echoed with the sounds of:
Hamlawaro khabardaar, hum Kashmiriyon ki salami fauz hai taiyyar.
Her fear deflated with a sense of relief.
It is not the marauders! I hope their chanting doesn’t disturb the sleeping Mahrosh.
Srinagar was rife with rumours of a Kabaili raid. Even after Maharaja Hari Singh had acceded to India, Pakistan was unhappy with the deal. And, was trying to break the newly-forged bond. If not through talks, then through fear tactics.
She sipped from the fast cooling cup of kehwa; she was scared. Theirs was the only Pandit house in the lane in Safakadal, a Muslim-dominated area. Besides the uncertainty of the raid, her parents’ absence had elevated her anxiety. They, along with her sister were in Jammu. It was an unavoidable journey to meet an ailing relative, but they were running late. Her exams had prevented her from accompanying them.
The sounds of the war cries grew louder as the group of men, armed with weapons, entered the lane approaching her house. They were members of her community, the Mohalla Peace Committee. Parajika stepped into the zoon-doob and waved at them. Her ankle-length pheran swished in the cold, debilitating wind.
Amongst the crowd was her fiancé, Ranjit. He held the mashal higher, illuminating his face as he passed her window. They exchanged looks, trading smiles. He slowed down where she stood, not breaking his stride. He looked around to see if anyone was watching, lowered the mashal, blew a kiss to her. Parajika blushed at his brazen gesture and shook her head. The affection in her eyes proclaiming her reciprocation. She lowered her head, a smile played on her lips.
Once inside, her gaze fell on the shadows the candle threw. A queen atop her holder throne. The silhouettes pranced around the table, subservient to their empress. Illuminating a tight circle. A wicked draft was pushing the temperature towards zero. It rustled the Chinar trees, swishing, an eerie echo. The sun had bid farewell early on, and the evening had slipped into darkness.
Parajika was pursuing her Fellow of Arts degree at the Sir Pratap Singh college. Their principal had cajoled, even pushed, her students towards counselling the women attacked by the Pathani men last month. Out of the thousands attacked, a paltry few were rescued and admitted to the hospitals. Parajika and a secular-group of students tended to these survivors. They administering first-aid in the manner they were taught by the government hospital doctors. Parajika knew the survivors’ physical wounds would heal. It was the haunted eyes of the girls –most of them of her age –that troubled her. She wondered if life would ever return to those eyes. Their chilling stories turned Parajika’s blood to ice. This was despite the partition horror stories she was used to hearing.
Is humanity dead? Can women ever breathe easily? Why do we bear the brunt?
She had befriended many of the Hindu, Sikh and even Muslim rescued girls. One of them was Mahrosh. When Uri was under siege, Mahrosh was visiting her Hindu neighbour’s house. When the Kabailis burst into their house, the Kauls and she were ordered to recite the kalima. Despite Mahrosh’s narration and the Kauls’ assurance of her Islamic faith, the Pathani men raped her, discarding her. Mahrosh witnessed the killing of the entire family, save for the women. They were taken away by the marauders. Mahrosh’s brother managed to whisk her to Srinagar. Her family refused to return to Uri, choosing to remain in Srinagar.
Mahrosh’s father, with immense reluctance, permitted her to join college. She and Parajika, besides being friends, were classmates. Mahrosh was quiet, introverted after the incident. She stayed lost in her thoughts as if the world outside held no interest for her. It was Parajika’s extrovert company that animated her.
A thump on the zoon–doob alerted Parajika to someone’s presence on the cantilevered balcony. Startling her. The sounds of the slogans echoed in the night. A constant humdrum.
I forgot to lock the door when Ranjit left! Did I even shut it?
She noticed the door was ajar. The wind was straining against it. The heavy wood resisting, but failing. Parajika approached it, about to close it, when the door was sprung open.
The candle came face to face with its mortal enemy, the gust. The flame flickered before succumbing. Plunging the room into darkness. Before the light was lost, for a few seconds, Parajika spotted the intruder. He jumped into the room just as a scream escaped her mouth. A scream subdued by the slogans. She leaped behind to escape his outstretched hands.
Parajika was petrified. Then, her survival instincts kicked in. The attacker was gasping heavily, his breathing, hoarse. Exploiting the darkness, she swiftly and quietly crept towards the steps, leading to the second floor. There, she paused to assess the man’s position. He cursed hitting his foot against the table.
He is near the kitchen.
She scurried up the stairs, avoiding the squeaky step. She had to get to her room, where she could be safe. She heard a flurry of activity behind her.
He is behind me!
Fear increased her speed, making her trip on the final landing. A hand stretched out and snatched her pheran, halting her movements. A body slammed into her. Her breath whooshed out. They fell on the floor. She started to wrestle with the intruder atop her, trying to escape. Her flight instinct emerging stronger. He whispered, his breath vile.
“By the time I finish with you, you won’t remember who is your god. Kashmir has always belonged to us, and we won’t stop till we eliminate every trace of you –aberrations of humanity, and reclaim what is ours. And, we will have fun while doing it.”
She started to panic as he began to grind into her back, fumbling with her pheran. He tore through the fabric, attacking the kurta underneath. Parajika struggled, trapped, his weight bearing down on her. She felt the kurta gave way as the cold air caressed her exposed warm skin. Harsh hands manhandled her. Her mind was grappling, trying to make sense of it all. He turned her around roughly, ripping her pyjama apart in the process.
Parajika opened her eyes, a Pathani man was above her. She noticed his loose white kurta, splattered with dried blood. His red turban had come undone. His beard scratched at her face as his sharp nails poked her body. His body odour was cloying. She stared at him, his face etched in her mind. She tried to kick him, a lame attempt. He slapped her, stunning her into stillness. With one hand on her mouth, he undid his shalwar. Her lungs were screaming for air. He kicked her legs apart.
Parajika was on the edge of consciousness, blackness beckoning her. Enticing her with the relief she sought. The man on top of her grunted loudly and fell down. Dazed, she hungrily breathed in the air, before raising her head. Mahrosh stood over her, holding onto one of the shards of the kangri. She had shattered the earthen pot over the attacker’s head, momentarily distracting him. An instinctive action.
Watching the Pathani attempting to rape Parajika raked up Mahrosh’s memories. The similar white flowing kurta and the undone turban unleashed the fear. Her mind, in a bid to protect itself, started to shut down. A body turned to stone.
Taking advantage of the hiatus, Parajika dragged, the now numb, Mahrosh to the inner sanctum. The intruder rose, rubbing the sore spot on his head. Stumbling, clutching at her torn clothes, Parajika pushed Mahrosh inside, a considerable effort as Mahrosh was immobile. Parajika locked the double doors, just in time as the man started to ram against them.
Mahrosh stood in the middle of the room, still as a statue. She was shell-shocked. Her hollowed eyes gazed into nothingness. Her face, frozen in horror, stiff as a cadaver. She collapsed on the floor, pulling her knees into a foetal position, silent as the graves in the hill.
Parajika shook her, screaming. “Mahrosh! Snap out of it!”
Mahrosh stayed in her catatonic state. Eyes staring.
With no time to waste, Parajika leaped to the wardrobe. Fumbling through her clothes, searching for the thing she needed. She wrapped her hands around her 303-rifle, loading it with shaking hands. The sounds of the attacker pounding and yelling, distracted her.
“Do you think these flimsy barriers can stop me? These hands cleaved open the iron gates at St. Joseph’s convent and hospital. These were the hands that tore at Mother Superior’s habit. With these hands around her neck, I raped her, extracting her gold tooth, keeping it in my pocket, firing the shots that killed her. And the other nuns,” he shouted.
His words lent a pause to Parajika’s movements, shaking her head, she concentrated on loading the rifle. Once she was done, she extinguished the candle in the room, inviting blackness to reign. She hid in the corner of the room, waiting.
She didn’t wait for long. One final savage kick and the doors were sent flying. Parajika recollected her training, the advice imparted. Using his voice, she tried to deduce his location. She kept her eyes fixed in his direction as she aimed, her finger on the trigger. Her kurta hung by her shoulder, the loose cloth swaying like a battle ensign. She controlled her breathing. She held her aim. Her finger released the trigger. The bullet burst out of the rifle, making its way to the intended target.
I have one chance to do it right.
The man entered the room, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. He failed to spot the supine Mahrosh on the floor and tripped over her. It saved his life. The bullet whizzed past his head, lodging itself in the passage wall.
Parajika re-fired, her movements jerky, fear enveloping her. Her aim, lousy, losing track of the position. Luck deserted the Kabaili this time around, the bullet smoothly entering his left forearm. He grunted in pain, abusing her.
Mahrosh lay immovable. She didn’t budge as the man caught hold of Parajika’s leg, pulling her towards him. Nor did she move when he punched Parajika in her stomach, making her vomit blood. Her eyes didn’t flicker as she saw him snatch the rifle from Parajika’s hand and cast it aside. She watched in stony silence as he sat astride Parajika, strangling her. His violent hands tearing at the remnants of her clothes. Her screams fell on deaf ears, as Mahrosh was not present in the room. She was in her own private hell. Reliving every nightmare, reliving every violating touch.
The Pathani flung his shalwar aside as he crushed Parajika.
“Mouj madad kariva!” cried Parajika, trying to heave the man off, a last-ditch effort. Complete panic had set in.
Mahrosh didn’t stir. A gust of wind displaced a paper-mache ball, dropping it with a plonk. The dual-coloured ball rolled down on the wooden floor. Mahrosh’s eyes tracked its movement.
Red. Blue. Red. Blue.
It made its way towards her, bumping into her nose, gently. Suddenly, she was back in the room. Present. Aware. She looked up to see the Pashtun man molesting her friend. The one who had tended to her wounds. The one who had held her, when Mahrosh cried in her arms. Today, now, she needed her help.
Mahrosh sat up, dizziness overwhelming her. Her eyes met Parajika’s stricken eyes. They pointed at something, adjacent to her. She turned to spot the rifle, lying next to her. She nodded.
She picked up the rifle, pointing it at the Pathani man, she fired off with quick movements.
The projectile made its entry via his back, travelled to the heart, tearing it apart. Its metallic partner joined in the orgy, puncturing his lung.
Realizing what she had done, “Ya Allah!” slipped out of Mahrosh’s lips.
On hearing it, he turned to see his shooter. “How can you do this to a man of your faith?” he croaked, spitting blood.
Without waiting for an answer, he collapsed on Parajika, who shrieked with fright. Blood dripped everywhere. With adrenalin-induced strength, she pushed him aside. She looked up at Mahrosh.
In the shadows, Mahrosh’s feeble whisper asked.
“Sher-e-Kashmir ka kya irshad?”
A quiet voice answered.
“Hindu, Muslim, Sikh itihad.”
“Women’s Self Defence Corp Zindabad!” a stronger pitch, now.
“Mukta Battalion se jo takrayega, mitti mein mil jayega,” the response.
Parajika tottered up and slipped on a kurta. Mahrosh kept a hand over her shaking ones. With sturdy fingers, she pulled the pearl button on Parajika’s kurta through its buttonhole.
“Your decision saved our lives,” said Mahrosh, wiping the blood smeared on Parajika’s cheek with her sleeve.
“It was you.”
Mahrosh shook her head. “I wouldn’t have joined the corps or learnt shooting without you. What I have experienced –what you experienced today taught us: self-defence is the best offence.”
Parajika’s life with Ranjit and her children kept her busy. Rare stray moments led her mind to that fateful evening, causing shivers.
Mahrosh remained her friend and neighbour. Even after the women’s corps was dissolved.
Parajika had put the trauma behind her, concentrating on the positives. Confident, the religious harmony would sustain in the valley.
When militancy resurfaced, and the exodus of the Pandits began, a thought hovered in her mind.
“In the lake, the arms of temples and mosques are locked around each other’s necks.”
The nightmare was beginning again.
Parajika: A raagini in music, a popular Kashmiri Pandit name.
Mahrosh: A piece of the moon, popular Kashmiri Muslim name.
Shikara: A boat.
Hamlawaro khabardaar, hum Kashmiriyon ki salami fauz hai taiyyar: Attackers beware, we, Kashmiris, are ready with our force.
Bukhari: A space heater.
Braer kaeni: An attic. Braer means a cat in Kashmiri. The cats would often jump from the higher floors, and hence the name.
Kehwa: an aromatic tea made with saffron and other spices and dry fruits.
Zoon-doob: A cantilevered balcony made to view the moon. Zoon, in Kashmiri, means the moon.
Pheran: A gender-agnostic overcoat kind of dress worn by the Kashmiris. The Pandits wore an ankle-length pheran while the Muslims wore a shorter version of it.
Mashal: a torch, lit by fire,
Kalima: Islamic phrases recited by the Muslims.
Shalwar: also, salwar/pyjama, a loose pair of pants. The Hindus call it pyjama whereas the Muslims refer to it as shalwar.
Kangri: an earthen pot that sits in a wicker basket. Filled with coal and worn under the pheran. It is like a hot water bottle, used in the extreme, harsh winter of Kashmir.
Kurta: a loose long shirt.
Mouj: Mother in Kashmiri.
Mouj madad kariva: The phrase means mother, help me.
Sher-e-Kashmir ka kya irshad: A part-one of a question: What is Sher-e-Kashmir’s order?
Hindu, Muslim, Sikh itihad: The response, chanted by the crowd usually, meaning Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh are united. Itihad being united.
Zindabad: Long live.
Mukta Battalion se jo takrayega, mitti mein mil jayega: Anyone who clashes with the Mukta Battalion will be reduced to dust and ashes.
Sardaron ka sar, Hinduon ka zar: The slogan used by the Kabailis, meaning: we will behead the Sikhs and loot the Hindus. Sar meaning head and zar, money, gold, etc.
Kabaili: Tribe in NWFP, Pathani.
A battalion of Pathani tribesmen from the North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) with the blessings and under the apt guidance of the Pakistani Army attacked the north-western district of Kashmir, Muzarfarabad on 22nd October 1947. They were equipped with modern weapons and commanded by Major General Akbar Khan. They slaughtered civilians in the valley, especially the Hindu and Sikh families. The police chowki was ambushed and the insurgents raided an electricity unit, plunging the entire valley into darkness. In every aspect.
The Pathanis raped, mutilated, and hacked the innocent women. Kidnapping them, along with the jewellery they looted, they continued on their reign of terror. Many young girls, barely in their teens, were sold in the rampant flesh trades of NWFP. Hordes of women jumped in the icy Jhelum river or ran towards the dense jungles. Some were never seen again. Victims of nature. Scenes of the orgies and assault led many Hindu and Sikh men to shoot their wives, daughters, and even mothers. For age nor religion was a bar for the beasts unleashed within the Kabailis. The reach of the monster, let loose, infiltrated the St. Joseph convent. Mother Superior and other nuns were no match for the predators who burst into the altar, attacking them as they prayed to their saviour. The looters stole Mother Superior’s two gold teeth while she was raped.
The Maharaja’s army, full of Muslim defectors, and the paltry Hindu soldiers were no match for the carefully planned attack, named Operation Gulmarg. Maharaja Hari Singh escaped from Srinagar, leaving the reigns of governance to the National Congress’ ill-prepared hands.
In no time, Uri as well as its more commercial sister, Baramullah fell prey to the rioters. Their goal, Srinagar. Just 170 km away from Srinagar. The raiders were so involved in the depraved acts of molestation, murder, arson, and robbery, they delayed the progression for four days. While they plundered into the women, mentally and physically.
It was not only the October icy winds that made the people, mostly women, in Srinagar shiver.
The women in Srinagar formed what was known as the Women’s Self Defence Corp. They were trained to fire rifles, pistols by retired police/army officers. The girls were mostly 16-18 years of age, college-going students. They were trained by the government doctors on how to provide first-aid and were generally pushed to talk to the attacked women. The male corps was incorporated into the army while the women’s corps was dissolved, around 1949.
Eventually, the Indian forces with the British ones, defeated the tribesmen, pushing them towards POK.
But the day, 22nd October, is remembered as a Black Day in the history of Kashmir. The first of many.
All the events stated are based on truth. The assault in the room is a fiction of my imagination. But it may have been a reality for many women who lived in the affected sectors. A reality, they continue to live and face. In different aspects, in different ways.
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