The fear of arms and the fragrance of apples wrestle in the air of Shopian. May the fragrance of apples prevail
20 years back, exactly, Shopian gave me a friend. Hence frequent visits to the town. This was the time armed militancy was on its low, but Shopian was holding the weight of the world; the armed side of Kashmir’s freedom movement. This made the town a locale of fear.
One such day, I drove to Shopian. It was early morning, and the nip in the Shopian air was there to greet; the thoughts of nun chia at my friend’s place warm enough though. But there’s many a slip between cup and lip. I stopped at the crossroads some short stretch before Shopian Bus Stand, where I had to take a left and just accelerate my way through into the street leading to my friend’s home. I sensed something. Racing my bike with a throttle at the accelerator, I asked a person standing there, “what is the matte – daleel!”. “Aete chu bandh – up ahead is closed”. I learnt about the night long encounter, probably first of its kind in the town itself. For a moment my enthusiasm to meet my friend punctured; thank God the bike didn’t. This friend was proving costly at the very start, I was cursing my decision to ride a bike and reach this early to meet him, who I could have in any case met any other day, anywhere else.
My father’s friendship came to my rescue. It struck me at a moment when I could not have asked for more. I turned my bike and drove straight to the house just near by. I knocked the door, and here was the man who I knew from my childhood. My cup of tea was ready.
After some wait it eased a bit. My first host so graciously, and lovingly, accompanied me, to hand me over safely to my friend. Just some houses away was the the encounter site. It was like a war spot. A life was lost and the blood was still fresh. A lifelong possession was now a debris and the wafts of smoke were still billowing out through the mound of mud, bricks, half burnt wood, and blackened, mangled tin sheets.
I kept visiting my friend that even his relatives, neighbours and local acquaintances knew that a friend in Shopian is a friend in deed. I still can’t forget the days, the evenings, and the nights drenched in an unknown fear. No sooner the sun set, heavily armed hardcore militants shifted from one place of hiding to another. The army, and other armed wings of the counter insurgency network, also got moving into this wild time slot, infusing terror in the air. And the families in the houses prayed not to fall in the line of the fire. One such evening, I, and my friend were the only living creatures in the house. All lights off, as if some enemy army was soon to bombard the houses, locating them by the lights turned on. Every inch of the house was filled with dread. Not to speak of the bulbs, even that trifle of a spark, that dim-lit indicator fixed in the switch board had to be covered. Rooms, with windows opening towards the street, were little risky, so we threw ourselves into the corridor. That allowed us to whisper without being heard outside. As if warring armies were holding their positions just outside the house, ready to fire at any murmur of a sound. That was the Shopian I have seen.
If you are in Shopian, Ahrabal is not far away. On another such visit, I, with my friend and his little cousin drove to this scenic beauty. We were almost there that an Army patrol crossed our way. Menacingly they stopped the car, ordered my friend and his cousin to get down, and searched the car so ferociously that I froze in my seat. We all thought this was the end of time. For those few minutes each one us was alone, as if we never knew each other; different species from different planets. An army truck came racing up the acclivity, and the soldiers frantically shouted at me to move ahead and make way for it. I stepped on and without caring for my friend, and his little cousin, disappeared. Little further I spotted the the two half dead creatures dragging their footsteps; my friend and his cousin. I later realised they had silently walked away while I was facing the scare. They hopped in, I pressed the pedal, all benumbed. For a while we didn’t talk, only to laugh a while later at how we behaved like dead strangers in this terrifying moment. That is what Shopian was those days.
Years later I visited the place to attended the marriage ceremony of the same little boy, who is now a well know lawyer of the town. How the years pass by, one doesn’t realise. Drop by drop this glacier called life melts away, as if it never existed. Dust we are, and dust we become, finally. But in the dust of Shopian are carved out the marks of the terrifying times we have seen all these decades. Like then, it’s now. The apple never falls from the tree. Shopian refuses to calm down. An inheritance of grief.
Tailpiece: But stop! Who says Shopian is scared. I reached there only to be welcomed by the songs of celebration. Life goes on. Abel triumphs over Cain. Long live Habeel.