The many senses of conflict in Kashmir

“I was afraid that by observing objects with my eyes and trying to comprehend them with each of my other senses I might blind my soul altogether.”

—Socrates

A conflict follows its own rules of nature; it lends to an evolution of a unique language, its own seasons, shades and senses. The sense of touch, sight, sound, smell and sound are all bombarded with pain and aggression, all assuming a new meaning, guided and altered by memory – individual or collective. The aggression is known to invoke in much greater degree the inner senses that give a new meaning to the physical senses. Kashmir, once extolled by poets for inspiring beauty and for a soulful uplifting experience continues to scoop out the innermost senses of the soul. The experience may not be uplifting but remains so deeply etched in memory, un-erasable and difficult to extract.

The senses have their own rythmns igniting the soul, revealed and understood through the innermost selves – through the trauma, pain, suffering, loss and yet the myriad small – meaningful and meaningless – reasons people have to smile or laugh.

What comes between the millions of things around them and their skin? The softness of the blooming spring flowers, the dew on the grass cold and wet to the touch of feet every morning, the touch of the hot pink steaming cup of salt tea, the warm touch of a friendly hand, the freshness of the cool and clean spring as you dip your hands in, the tickling touch of a falling snow flake, the frozen numbness of the chilling winter and the snowball. These obvious senses are punctuated with millions of others. Those displaced crave for that missing caress of the homeland. The touch of a barbed wire, of the handcuffs, of prison walls that make one recoil, restrain movement and provide an eternal sense of isolation. The bone-breaking touch of the baton, the spine-chilling touch of the electric shocks, the trampling feet that stamp out dignity tell tales of the Valley’s season of brutality. The bullet travels at a speed of fraction of a second and touches the body to leave it impaired or totally drained out of life. How does the touch of the cold body, life snuffed out in that fraction of a second by a bullet or in a bomb blast, point-blank firing or an encounter feel to the hands of a grieving mother, who caressed a warm body before she saw her son off at the door that morning? How does the missing touch of one less member of the family feel? How does the emptiness of the air feel to the woman that craves to know whether her son, disappeared in custody years ago, is dead or alive; whether his mortal frame is still warm to touch or left cold to shrivel into a skeleton under some unknown grave? What touch killed them or what touch left them half-dead to survive eventually? What sense touched the souls of those young boys and men who decided to pick up the gun to kill and fight the State? Or what sense was it that prompted them to give it up, collude with the State and turn against their own people?

What does the sense of touch mean to the thousands who lose their limbs in blasts, landmines on the borders and in firing incidents; not even a tear shed over their loss, as they just become a numbered footnote in the long statistics of casualties in this war? While some lose that sense of touch, young men lose their sense of vision in what is claimed officially to be non-lethal weapons like pellet guns and pepper sprays. They may no longer be able to see the verdant lush green hills, the golden glaze that falls on the weedy lakes every dawn or the riot of colours in their gardens or in the wild. But they sure can smell the fumes of the burnt gunpowder from the windows of their homes, of burnt tyres on the streets that narrate tales of anger, of smoke shells that permeate their memory with the brutality of their traumatic experiences – personal and collective. They can hear the sound of azaan from the nearest mosque, sometimes followed by Islamic slogans in fiery tones and learn about the mood of the city. The Pandits who were displaced still talk about the loudspeakers at the mosques and the chanting of slogans that added to their fear psychosis, the sounds still embedded deep in their last memories of the Valley that was once their home.

As for those still in the Valley, they can still hear the guns booming and learn to distinguish between the shots of an SLR, Kalashnikov and tear-gas shell. In the nineties, when militancy was at its peak, many people sitting with bated breath in their often unlit homes would swear they could say with exact precision whether the shot fired in the dead of the night came from the gun of a militant group or security force; a volley of bullets could be identified as cross-firing between two warring militant groups or between one and some security forces.

Those who survive carry the wounds of the familiar sights, sounds and smells of war wherever they go like unwanted heirlooms they are doomed to carry. So do the soldiers after they’ve served and gone. Those who die, die in a distant land, away from their families without that last touching farewell caress from a loved one when their bodies are still warm. Wars are never happy things for anyone; there are no winners and losers – just sufferers on each side. Whatever the sense organs receive, the inner self resonates only with collective pain and anguish.

This so, even as life goes about its usual cycle of humdrum – the daily rituals at the crack of dawn, the taste of the early morning cup of nice rich pink coloured salted tea with a hot buttered bagel straight out of the oven, getting ready, going about the routine chores, taking a break to visit the fabulous gardens, the coffee shops to chat with friends over a cup of coffee after a sumptuous meal of lamb shwerma or just a hot cup of tea in the city’s new favourite haunts. At night everybody sits down for the usual family meal – hot rice served with traditional vegetables like nadru-haaq or bamsoot-wangun and spicy roganjosh or koftaas. The food tastes rich enough to the palette. But marred by the sense of war, it leaves the bitterness of war inside the soul. Nothing is, nor quite will be the same. “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason,” said Immanuel Kant. This sense of reason, which comes with a downpour of trauma and agony, however, is killing.

(A different version of this write-up appeared in Kindle magazine)