INTO THE HORNETS NEST
Weirdly, I wake up to the cold Punjabi morning and feel very positive. Like I am getting this warm hug from someone or something. The news is not good, the body count has reached 40. Things don’t look good. But I put on my layers and change into my boots. Now the temperature is really getting to me. There are these two Punjabi mothers and their kids with me in my section of the compartment. We don’t talk but acknowledge each others presence. They feel reluctant to talk when my instinctive reply doesn’t come in Hindi. They look like good people. I help them get their luggage out of the train near Jalandhar. A bit of good karma never hurts.
I lose the signal on my phone after Pathankot. You know what that means, I have crossed over to the boundaries of the great state of Jammu and Kashmir. Now some of my constitutional rights are suspended, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act enforced upon me and this meant that some of the things which I took for granted as a citizen of India is now questionable. Starting with countrywide roaming cell service.
For the first time in my life, a train in India reaches the station exactly on time. I get off and have this flashback to another part of the country – Siligui in West Bengal. This station feels so much like Sili for some reason. The weather, the terrain and most importantly, as the last bastion of railroad upon an imposing Himalayan range.
I scout the station. That is the first thing you should do. Get your bearings straight. There will always be the autowallas (auto drivers) willing to offer life advice to you. But don’t heed. Explore what all option the station has. Waiting room (check), ATM (check), Wifi (check), charging ports (check). This meant that I could set up camp in the station if I want to. I usually do this every time I go to an airport or a railway station where I might have to spend the night. There is a real possibility that I might have to spend the night at the station since Hilal Ikka told me that Jammu was on bandh (Strike). Which meant the chances of finding transportation to Sri Nagar was going to be difficult. Once I had my contingency plan sorted, I started to explore the station. The next priority was to get a SIM card. There was a store right outside the place. It looked shady as the shutter was half open and they were selling nuts and spices inside, but SIM cards outside. It took 20 minutes but I had a number. First call – Amma. Second call – Hilal Ikka.
“Ikka, I am royally stuck, no transportation whatsoever. I might need to spend the night here and try coming tomorrow morning.”
That was a possibility which I didn’t want to exercise, I would be losing a lot of time if I were to do that. But you have to be prepared for the worst too, and also expect the best. It’s imperative you don’t get negative. I will explain just why.
Hilal Ikka told me to go to the bus station and see if there are any buses. I was kind of reluctant to venture out on a bandh day and I stalled on that idea.
So, I eat some kachoris and channa and I am pretty much vagabonding around, persistently asking if there is a way, any way to get there. One dude suggests I walk to Sri Nagar. We laugh it off.
I am a believer in the law of attraction. They say, you are the energy that you attract. This principle came into play when I saw a group of Kashmiri dudes. There must have been like 10 of them sitting with their luggage not knowing what to do just like me. I open in Hindi, “Gaddi hai kya? To Banihal Abhi?” The dude asks me to come sit down next to him. He asks me if I am comfortable in English. (Finally a North Indian who doesn’t condescend my lack of fluency in Hindi.)
This small gesture, where he asks me to sit down next to him set in motion a series of events after which I don’t think I will look at people the same way ever again.
This is the important part. Saying hi to a stranger. The most amazing acts of kindness and the most rewarding experiences I have ever had with a human being came out of saying Hi to a stranger. So I cant stress how imperative it is, if you want to have an adventure of a lifetime.
Go to some strange land, just prepared enough to know when you are getting there and when you are going back and let out a 100 watt smile and say hello.
That is how I met my first Kashmiri brother. (Trust me, I have a lot of brothers after this trip.) His name is Showkath. (He has this uncanny resemblance to my mate Madhav from high school. Madav, if you are reading this, sup yo? )
He asks me to put my luggage down and ease into the lethargy of a bandh day. They were as stuck as me. They wanted to get to Sri and they also didn’t know how. I learnt that most of them were graduate students from Bhopal university and they are returning back after their exams. All of them, luckily for me spoke great English.
We get acquainted, and they tell me to join them and decided to go to Sri together. I was elated.
When the situation is fucked, and you been dealt a bad hand, it’s important that you keep your head up and remain positive. The travel gods will shine a light on you. This has happened to me so many times that I can’t call it a coincidence anymore. The travel gods are real and all they want is to see you respect chance. Once you do that, the chances of something like this happening is exponentially high.
So now I am at ease, I have my tribe and we will go together to Sri. I open up my bag of Tamil savouries and we eat up some Kadala Burfi. I slowly doze off on top of our luggage.
I forgot to tell you that the internet was blocked in Jammu due to the bandh. The government wants to stop all forms of social media and messaging apps from spreading news (real or fake) and wreaking havoc. So I had no clue about what was happening. When I woke up the mood has changed. The tension was palpable. I ask them what’s up and they reply rather nonchalantly that everything is fine. But I knew something was up.
All of them start getting the phone calls, they are getting angry and frustrated. Both at the calls and at each other. A group of slightly senior Kashmiris split away from us. A lot more beedis and cigarettes are lit than usual. The indecision makes me frustrated, but I have no clue what the fuck is happening. So I just look at them and try to make sense of what’s happening. Hilal Ikka calls me around this time and tells me not to go anywhere near the bus stand. That had become the epicentre of the violence and the mobs were targeting the people trying to get to Kashmir.
I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Now I start to comprehend, there is violence on the streets, aimed at Kashmiris. That is why these guys were getting tensed. Their safety was at stake. From getting some sun on the pavement, the situation pivoted into an escape mission, from which the Kashmiri’s perspective would look like an ethnic cleansing (that word carries a lot of responsibility while using it, and there are various degrees to the evil that has been associated with that word, but when I was with them, that is exactly what I felt it was. A certain community targeted and an evil which wanted to see them disappear.)
After some more squabbling over what to do, we decide to make a move for it. We pack up and move. They told me that we had to get out of Jammu. I still didn’t know exactly what the plan was and I didn’t press them cause it felt like they weren’t too sure themselves. At this point, you have to trust them at face value. I personally think I trust people very easily. It has given me memories to cherish for life and has also got my brand new phone stolen. But I listened to my instincts and decided to go with these guys and trust them. The gut is better at judging people than drunk me. ( That Russia story is coming soon.)
This is when the mob incident happens. It looked like a candlelight march, but also had nationalist slogans being raised. It was to honour the martyrs, but when the individual loses his identity in the crowd, anything can happen. And it was happening around Jammu.
Right now, mobs in this country terrify me. Lynchistan is the term used to describe organised violence by mobs where the law or what they perceive as natural justice is taken into the hands of vigilantes and exercised with no restrains. Usually on a minority community. And Jammu is very much a part of Lynchistan.
If you want to read more on that. “The Quint”‘ news website has a really good page on that, with a database of all incidents from 2015.
One PHD scholar from my college is also on the list of victims. Guess I don’t have to go really far to fear my own safety.
To be continued…….