SOMETIMES ALL IT TAKES IS A LITTLE TOUCH
Wow, that went on a tangent. Let’s get back.
I awkwardly make my way down the bus. Nodding and smiling at anyone who makes eye contact. I am crackling inside as to how weird the situation is right now. I ask one of my Kashmiri boiyas if the bus is taking us to Sri Nagar. He says yes then, but he will contradict himself soon. The bus is full and there are no seats. That is when Irshad Boiya tells me that these are their Jamaat brothers who came from somewhere in Maharashtra after a religious conference and that they were trying to get to Sri Nagar like ourselves. Now I got the whole context. The subway surfer sprint over the tracks was to get to the bus on time. They had been waiting for us for a while. This is our ticket out of Jammu and into Kashmir. At that point, I realised that this trip just went up a few gears. I am now going to experience something which I won’t forget for the rest of my life.
One dude smiles at me, I say Asalam Wallaikum (May peace be upon you). I was slightly concerned that they might think I am trying to be phoney and the cultural appropriation would be cringe-worthy. (Like white males trying to talk like Black hip-hop artists. Wait, I am guilty of that too.)
But I didn’t realise that I was wishing the nicest thing you could potentially say to a human being. May peace be upon you. Such a beautiful greeting, isn’t it?
He offers to hold my camera bag. Aww, what a nice gesture. Then there are whispers is Kashmiri across the bus and I am certain it was about me. A few of them talk to my friends and then I hear a lot of ‘Kerala’ in quick succession with an air of astonishment. I look at them, smile and acknowledge. The person closest to me looks at me and I say Asalam Walaikum again. He asks me where I am from and what I am doing here, in Hindi. My reply makes him switch to English.
He looks around my age, albeit the only Kashmir over the age of 13 without a really strong, lush beard. His name is Shuhail. He looks really surprised when I say I am here to watch Real Kashmir. (Who wouldn’t?)
The person in front of him also looks really interesting. It was the first time I was seeing a beard which was yellowish in colour. Not white, but a taint of yellow like a mango milkshake. I found that fascinating. I am slowly feeling comfortable here. By now, the news had spread around the bus that the Indian dude in the orange down jacket was from Kerala and he wanted to see a football game and that he was en route to Sri Nagar like the rest of them. The bus was now in motion. The commotion dies down and soon people doze off. We are still standing in the middle.
Then a very nice person offers a big towel and my friends lay it down on the space between the two columns of seats. We can sit now. Wow, that feels good. I am starting to feel alright now. I am highly dehydrated cause my water rations were shared between us, and hungry as fuck after “The great escape” from Jammu. Not to mention I hadn’t seen a toilet seat in like 3 days.
The bus abruptly comes to a halt.
Remember that sinking feeling I was talking about before. It comes back. There is a convoy of military personnel who from the onset wanted to inspect the vehicle. That would be a really precarious situation for me since the question will be.
WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE? In a bus full of Kashmiris? I would stand out like a sore thumb if anyone just takes a looks through the window.
I ask Irshad, what should I say if they ask me anything. He says, tell the truth. As noble a deed as that sounds, I don’t think Indian military forces who have lost 40 of their comrades the other day would find it even curious that someone would come to watch a football game there. It’s downright suspicion levels raised to 12. And a trip to the interrogation room.
But inshallah, they don’t inspect. A small hiatus and we are back on the road.
Shuhail could feel the restlessness in me. My mind was not at ease and he could sense that. The energy you radiate is more tangible than you imagine. Anyone who has a dog or a cat or any pet of sorts knows that they know what mood you are in much better than your mates. It’s this way of how energy communicates with itself.
But Shuhail could garner something from my fluctuating restless mind. And he did the most humane thing any stranger has done to me in my life. He offered to let my head rest on his outer thigh. I was taken back and I said with this surprised, thankful smile that I am ok and thank you for offering such a deed.
Now remember what out friend Sir Iqbal said.
“The Qu’ran is a book which emphasis “deed” rather than the “idea”.
Shuhail slowly puts his left hand around my head and guides it to his left outer thigh. I didn’t want to react too fast and maybe make him feel bad for touching my head. But I was taken aback. I gradually yield to submission. I look at his eyes and we share this moment where I tell him I trust him and he tells me everything will be alright. Not through words, but the most subtle nuances of eye contact.
I lay my head on his leg. I feel safe now. Safe and secure in knowing, no matter what happens. I have a friend with me who will protect me on this journey to places unknown.
The roads start twisting now, we are gaining altitude and my eardrums pop up at every hairpin turn. I was feeling dozy, but the bus goes through some rough roads and I am thrown off the floor for a second. I look around to see what is happening. But a hand comes to the posterior of my head and instantly I let my guard down. Shuhail guides my head to his legs again and tells me, everything is fine. This time he keeps his hands on me. To reassure me that there will be tough times ahead, but I have someone looking over me. He slowly starts caressing my hair. At first, I raised an eyebrow, but that melted into the widest smile I had in years.
Only one other person can make me feel like that.
We aren’t really that intimate or share a lot of moment of affection. But when he touches my head and caresses my hair, every single cell in my body is flushed with a barrage of affection. I can’t describe how happy I feel when he does that.
And here I am in Kashmir, with a person I met 30 minutes ago giving me the same love and affection that my father gave me when I was a little kid. I go back to my childhood and emotions were getting the better of me.
In the dark, dimly lit bus. Tears start rolling down that Quechua jacket. I had to come to Kashmir to learn that love transcends everything. I mean everything.
I am also guilty. I cry out of guilt of all the misconceptions I had had about Kashmiris and Muslims. From thinking everyone would want to carry a Kalashnikov on their shoulders to shoot at Indian armed forces, to thinking I wouldn’t be welcomed because of my religion. (I made it a point to not hide the “Krishnan” in my name when I introduced myself.)
I have never been proven more wrong in my life. I felt so guilty for thinking so badly about what I would describe as the best collective group of people I have met in terms of kindness and humanity.
I am sorry Kashmir, I don’t deserve you. You are much greater than what I could ever become. (And this is just the start of it.)
There is a wide smile on my face, and there are tears rolling down.
That moment, that moment in the cold Jammu highway was my moment of catharsis.