My short fiction story, Under the Mountain, is about India’s full-out occupation of Kashmir. It was published at Queen Mob’s Teahouse on August 28, 2019. I’m reposting it here.
As Basharat huddled in the dark that night, the silence entered him like a cold wind. No flickering television screens, phones silenced, the streets outside empty except for army trucks passing at regular intervals. His heart beat fast; a chill came over him as he thought about himself and his mother and sister, asleep in the other room. He listened for their soft regular breathing but could only hear his own shallow breath, could only feel his own body shriveling in fear. His mind closed in on itself: somewhere close to him a voice and face made itself felt, a presence he had encountered before.
“You’re not real,” he whispered to the presence in the room.
His mind had created this apparition, had become overactive with no distractions, nowhere to go, no way to leave the house, nothing to do but wait for maybe the soldiers to kick the door down and snatch him where he hid. No watching videos on the internet because there was no internet. No calling his father because the phones were all shut down. No playing ball with Ashraf because there was no going out, certainly not after curfew.
Hindus believed in the existence of demons, rakshasas, that could shift their shapes and make you do things you didn’t want to do. Grimacing fanged creatures with claws and eyes that glared red, ghostly persecutors that came in the night and growled in your ear, whispered terrifying predictions.
But Muslims didn’t believe in rakshasas. Basharat knew that demons weren’t real. In any case, his mother had folded and hung verses from the Koran above the bed as a protection.
Still he felt the presence hovering. Still the fear gripped his chest.
This was no rational fear, not the realistic dread of a night raid by the army, those rapists and killers breaking in and doing whatever they liked. Of course he felt that terror, it was with him constantly, each dusk, each night when gunshots could be heard in nearby streets. Everyone he knew had learned to live with that. This was different. A murmuring, threatening presence in the room.
“Pick up the gun,” a chilling voice said to him.
“You’re not real,” Basharat said again.
There was a gun. Hidden away in a box, in a cache. Basharat and Ashraf knew where it was buried, knew how to get it. Knew, even, how to use it.
“Let me show you something,” the presence whispered. For a moment, the spectral hovering became almost luminous, intense, not even evil perhaps but still frightening. Truths he didn’t want to hear, not tonight. An old saying echoed in his head. Basharat recognized it at once, a quote from Nehru that his father would say at times, a reminder to himself and others. “Kashmir is not the property of India or Pakistan. It belongs to the Kashmiri people.”
He couldn’t get the saying out of his head. It held the power of an old promise.
The presence drew closer and a visual hallucination flickered to life in Basharat’s mind. A TV spot from 1994, the Congress in Parliament unanimously declaring Kashmir to be Indian territory.
“It wasn’t just Modi. It was everyone. They betrayed you,” the presence said.
“Leave me alone.”
Basharat hugged his knees, huddled over in a low crouch and pressed the palms of his hands hard against his closed eyes. He wanted to unsee what he’d seen. To think of television now was a mockery of the electronic silence that had engulfed the city.
He got through the night somehow, alert and restless, vigilant, listening for noises in the street, the ghostly presences shifting around him as he lay on his pallet. Maybe the charms above the bed did the needful at last, as he felt the light of dawn breaking through a crack in the blinds. He heard his mother and sister waking up and speaking in low voices. Then a great wave of exhaustion carried him back to sleep until late in the morning. His mother didn’t wake him – why bother? School was closed.
The room blazed with daylight, the sun climbing high overhead when his mother called him for tea. As he dipped his bread in, he felt his mother’s eyes on him. He looked from the silent calculation of her gaze to the plate of bread on the table and he knew what she was thinking. It wouldn’t be enough for today and tomorrow. If no baked bread was available, they needed flour. Bread would be better.
“We don’t need it,” she said. “We can have something else tomorrow. I have a little rice…”
“I can get bread,” he said, his tone firm and decided. “I’ll take Dad’s bicycle to Omar’s store.”
The store was more than a 20-minute walk, which meant there was no way to walk there and back in the 30 minutes Kashmiris were allowed per round trip. But on a bicycle, he could make it.
His mother shook her head. He knew what she feared.
“Mama, I won’t meet any other boys. I won’t stop to talk to anyone. I won’t go anywhere except to get some bread and butter and come back.”
Despite everything, exhilaration swelled in him at the thought of leaving the house. To breathe fresh air just once in a day, to be able to stretch and move his legs, cycle down the street in broad sunshine.
His mother looked down and away, wiped her eyes. She got up and picked up her purse, handed him some rupees.
“Wait,” she said. She rummaged until she found a piece of paper and pen. She wrote a note on it, folded it up.
“Take this to Ashraf’s house on the way. Give the letter to his mother, and take him with you to Omar’s. It’s better if you aren’t alone.”
As he knew it would, the crisp morning air felt like a blessing. He rode right down the centre of the road, kept his bicycle in the full glare of sunlight, unworried about cars or rickshaws. No one was in the streets today: this was day 15 of complete lockdown. He passed a pair of old men in a doorway, saying ‘salaam’ he rode by, then turned off on the long straight stretch of road to Omar’s store.
The road, he found, was blocked by great hoops and coils of concertina razor wire, manned by a group of soldiers. The central reserve police force in their camo with black bandanas over their faces. One of them beckoned him over.
Basharat didn’t want to go, but if he turned and rode away they would shoot him in the back, maybe put a gun in his dead hand and say they’d killed a militant. So he got off his bicycle, slowly, and walked it over.
“Where are you going?” The soldier spoke to him brusquely in Hindi.
“To get some bread,” Basharat said. He didn’t mention Ashraf or the note.
“You know you’re not allowed out after curfew?”
It was 10am. Curfew wouldn’t start for hours. Basharat bit his tongue.
“Yes sir. I know sir,” he nodded. He wondered whether he should smile to show deference but the man seemed annoyed and might ask him why he was smiling, and trap him that way.
“Some boys your age threw stones at us. Do you know anything about that?”
“No, sir.” He’d thought about it, but never done it yet.
The soldier reached into a pocket, and Basharat wondered if he was going to be shot. Instead the man produced a mobile phone.
“Hold still,” he said. He snapped a photo of Basharat’s face. “How long have you been outside?” He asked, putting the phone away.
“Two minutes only, sir.”
A moment passed, the soldier staring hard at him.
“Well it’s 9:55,” the soldier lied, stealing minutes from the allowed time. “If I see you again after 10:25, I’ll arrest you. Understand? Go get your bread.”
Basharat swallowed the insult and rode away, past two more streets blockaded with rolls of wire. There was no way to get past, ride behind that checkpoint and pick Ashraf up without being seen again by that soldier. He decided that he would not be able to deliver his mother’s note or see Ashraf. That part of the mission would have to be cancelled. Fetching bread though, he could still do that.
The morning was darkening. In the distance he watched shafts of light from gathering clouds filter down to play on the emerald slope of the mountain and the higher peaks beyond.
A memory hit him suddenly, of playing chess with his big brother in the Mughal Garden. The luxury of what had once seemed so ordinary, to be able to cross the city, hang out with his brother, concentrate on the carved figures on the board. Impossible now. No room for children to play, no space for the beauty of pavilions, pools or mulberry trees, the sunlight on distant mountains. He could not let himself think of his brother.
His father would know what to do. How to keep the family safe. If the plane was allowed to take off, if his father was allowed to board, if he was allowed to leave the airport when he landed, he’d be back in a few days. Maybe India would lift the communication blockade and they could talk to him before he left Delhi. Probably not.
By the time he reached Omar’s store a short queue of people stood waiting for bread, all under the watchful eye of a group of soldiers who hung around behind a brand new sandbag-and-concertina wire checkpoint. With the soldiers watching so intently, the people in line were silent, not exchanging information or even commiserating about the new blockade, much less the latest humiliations, the dismembering of the state or the abrogation of 370. The queue advanced one by one as Basharat pulled up. As he joined the end of the line, he saw Ashraf walking out with a bag of bread in his hand. Behind him, Omar’s son followed.
Both boys smiled at Basharat, who sneaked a look at the soldiers. The men didn’t seem to be paying close attention to the queue.
“I think I owe you money for last time,” Basharat said. Ashraf’s expression was quizzical.
Basharat took out his cash and the note from his mother, passed Ashraf a 10-rupee bill and the note. Ashraf, confused, stuffed them into a pocket, then lingered beside Basharat as he advanced slowly towards the serving counter.
Just as he reached the front of the queue, trying to peer inside to see what the baker had left, the soldiers walked out from behind their checkpoint, rifles raised.
“Clear out, store’s closed,” the commander said.
“Why?” A voice came from somewhere in the small crowd.
The commander nodded to a soldier in a bandana, who fired into the air. The crack echoed across the silent street and carried up into the mountain. Basharat was almost trampled as people ran in all directions. He picked up his bicycle and rode away. He heard the soldiers laughing, hairs prickling with fear on the back of his neck as he wondered if he’d be shot in the back.
Ashraf and Omar’s son caught up to him as he slowed down, away now from the bakery and, with no soldiers to be seen in the immediate area, danger.
Ashraf frowned at him, catching his breath. “You didn’t get any bread.”
“No, the bastards…”
Ashraf took half the bread out of his own bag and offered it to Basharat, who counted out half his rupees and pushed them into Ashraf’s hand. His friend was reluctant to take them, but Basharat kept pushing. ATMs had run dry and there was no cash coming any time soon.
“We’re going to start meeting out in a couple of days,” Omar’s son said. “Come if you can.”
Basharat knew what was meant by the cryptic phrases: local youths they were planning flash demonstrations, throwing stones at armed patrols and then hiding, dispersing only to regroup for further protests.
He shook his head. His dad was coming back.
He reached home without further incident and was met with an unusually intense hug and an extra squeeze of his shoulders by his mother.
“Don’t go out again,” she said. “Not today.”
They were alone again and time slowed down. The rooms of his home were silent, a silence echoed in the empty streets around them. A neighbour brought his mother today’s newspaper and her face lit up. Any news could break the crushing isolation and monotony of the day.
“This will be the last newspaper for a while,” the neighbour said. “The newsprint supply comes from Delhi and it isn’t coming any more. No more printing. The presses are standing useless.”
School wasn’t happening but Basharat went over his sister’s lessons with her – English alphabet, multiplication tables. She was a quick learner but he paced the tasks to last for an hour or more in each subject, encouraged her to memorise and recite tables and vocabulary. Everything else had been taken away: the books could be too.
When her lessons were finished, as the sun fell behind the mountains and the shadows lengthened, just before curfew came down, they had a visit. Ashraf, his older sister Yasmin, his mother and father. His mother’s note had invited them over, and Basharat thought he knew why: she worried about Yasmin, a university student and outspoken activist with a lot to say about Azadi and not enough fear. Basharat’s mother wanted them to at least be together if anything happened. A good idea: the checkpoint had been set up very close to their house, an easy target for bored soldiers.
They sat down together and ate sparingly before the boys went to Basharat’s room. He and Ashraf listened from behind the door as Yasmin and the adults talked.
“Keep an eye on the boys,” Ashraf’s mother said. “They’ve been taking boys, I’ve heard. Just taking them from their homes, no one knows where.”
“I’m worried about you, Yasmin,” Basharat’s mother said. “They’ve been saying some scary things about getting Kashmiri brides. Don’t give anyone any back talk, OK?”
“No back talk?” Ashraf’s mother said. “She wants to be a lawyer!”
Yasmin had been silent. Now she replied, her voice clear and steady.
“Auntie, I promise not to do any backtalk, OK? But I do think India’s in a legal bind now. The relationship between us and India was through Articles 370 and 35A. Without those, we have no relationship at all. If they can declare them null and void, we can declare ourselves free.”
“Shhhhh,” Basharat’s mother said. “None of that.”
“Auntie, we can speak in our own homes, can’t we?” Yasmin sounded confident, even amused, by Basharat’s mother’s nervous hushing and lowered voice.
“She doesn’t trust that they aren’t listening,” Ashraf’s mother said.
“They don’t let us talk to each other,” Ashraf’s father’s voice was low and weary. “But they use our every word against us. You see what we’re up against, trying to take care of these kids?”
“Well the mask is off now,” Yasmin said. Her scorn and defiance could not be disguised.
As she continued, quietly now, Basharat strained to hear her voice but Ashraf interrupted him. “Let’s play chess,” he said.
Late at night, after the adults were silent, Basharat lay wide awake and desperate. In his dim shadowy room, the rakshasas returned to taunt him while Ashraf slept.
Basharat saw his brother lying in a hospital with his eye blinded and a catheter leaking red blood from his insides. But as the terror gripped Basharat so hard he could not breathe, Ashraf punched him in the arm.
“Cut it out,” he said.
The next day and the day after that, Basharat waited for his father to arrive, waited for the rickshaw to bring him to the door, waited to hear the stories of how he’d gotten past the checkpoints. Maybe he’d have a gift, a toy from Khan Market or the mall in Saket.
His father was late. By hours, then a whole day and night, and the feeling of panic settled on Basharat and his family. There was no way to call, no way to check a flight schedule online, no way to discern what happened or if they would even see his father again.
A group of men came to the door to tell his mother that his father had been detained. They ogled her and his baby sister and the commander – the same trigger-happy man from the bakery – put a finger under Basharat’s chin, lifted his head, and said: “You look angry, boy. Are you angry about something?”
The men behind him snickered.
Basharat felt hot behind his ears. His hand twitched, almost jerked up to slap the soldier’s hand away.
The commander smiled. “Good boy,” he said.
When the rakshasas came for the final time it was to tell him that he would never see his father again.
“They’ll take him, like they took your brother.”
“We’ll get him back,” Basharat said to the night.
“They’ll kill you all. Fight back. Go down fighting, at least.”
“My mother will be left all alone with my sister.”
“You think you can protect them by sitting here and being humiliated day after day, year after year?”
“Maybe Pakistan can help.”
“You know they won’t. The Americans won’t let them.”
“China, then. India is scared of China.”
“China won’t lift a finger for you. The Afghans won’t either.”
“The next election in India…”
He could not surrender that tiny last scrap of hope. It fluttered like a trapped bird in his chest.
“Elections? Modi was supposed to lose this last one. But he won. They can turn off the phones of 7 million people. You don’t think they can fix an election? They can nudge people over WhatsApp to vote for them, kill a Dalit, kill a Muslim for eating meat. Elections won’t save you. Pick up a gun.”
Six months, they say. From when a boy picks up a gun to when the Indians kill him.
The next day all communication was still blocked. The checkpoints were still everywhere. His father was still detained. The sun still rose and felt good on his face. He found Ashraf and Omar’s son. They threw stones at soldiers and got away with it, escaped the pellet fire. They found the spot where his brother had buried the gun, stood there under the maple tree for a good long minute.
Basharat remembered how easily his brother had out-manoevred him at chess in the Mughal Garden, how at times he had let his younger brother win. His brother’s amused and affectionate smile, the dreams of study and travel they had shared together. A life out from under the occupation, a chance to enter a bigger conversation with the world out there, a world now fallen silent.
It seemed to Basharat that India wanted him dead. So he would try to stay alive.
He left the gun in the ground, for the time being.
 This is a paraphrase of something that an activist fact-finding mission by Jean Dreze, Kavita Krishnan, Maimoona Mollah and Vimal Bhai, heard repeatedly on their visit to Kashmir during the August lockdown. Their report, “Kashmir Caged”, was published among other places, at Countercurrents: https://countercurrents.org/2019/08/kashmir-caged-fact-finding-report.