“And each one of us will betray in ways
Known or unknown
The march of surprises or shocks
Can’t be halted
By mere mortal wishes
Nails are breakable
And flowers permanent
Though we are asked to believe
Decay is imminent”
Lilies bloomed overnight in my room. That's when I looked for you again. You tap the screen and the past returns. There was a cue- about dead lilies and darkness. I looked for more. I was always curious about heaven and hell.
How do you define this "paradise" then? A place of dead lilies, of tear gas, of stones and blood, of unfreedom and weeping willows. What is it about this city that I dream of and what is it about the promise of 1,000 lilies? I am no longer allergic to lilies.
Would you ever bring me the promised lilies?
Let's call it the city of disguises. Let's go further and call it the boat of funeral. That was where the story began in any case. That's the fact. It was a raft. I was in it. Hungry and tired. You could say I was hallucinating. The bloated of dead cows floated past me the other day. Their eyes somehow still dark and pleading. Maybe it was fear I witnessed. The dead speak, too. In a non-language.
Let's not talk of losses. We know from facts that you have lost your freedom. And you haven’t even picked up a stone against the occupier. You have chosen Rehab of Waves instead. Are you a marketing genius?
I promised you I was going to make you into a martyr, a son, a beloved. I want to say I tried hard.
“A boat has a curse within its mettle, the perfect idea of self-destruction. We are like a boat, the ones who either sail to the unknown or carry along all the perfect strangers aboard. And some of us like me look for reasons to shoot a hole in it just to realize what loss is,” you wrote once.
I am a storyteller. I believe unicorns and tooth fairies exist.
My day job is of a reporter. In the night, I take my notebook out and scan the breaks, trace the ellipsis, etc. That’s where the story is. Trust me.
You promised me a story. I'd travel anywhere for a story. So I came to your city and conversed with pigeons. Jean Genet says that to write is the last resort when you have betrayed someone. This isn't my story. It could be. Let's not take names. There's enough to disguise ourselves in. You could be the golden boy. I'd be the traveler with the notebook.
Two years. Almost.
How can I avoid the news even as I draw my own curtains and step into a reverie? They are protesting again in your country. Crackdowns, stone pelting, pellet guns, blindings, deaths, torture, etc. It is in a loop ever since I first came to your country.
I asked you when you see a woman from the other side, do you presume her as an enemy and make a case for betrayal? Do you see her as the occupier? Do you con her?
But I don’t know if I am looking for answers.
You can invoke history. Suspension of suspicion is not an ideal state for me. Memory also has no sense of proportion. I am not interested in your reasons of betraying the pact between us.
Kashmir is a place which demands a disclaimer. I was only chasing beauty.
Let's say I am Alice in Wonderland. Let's say I tumbled down the rabbit hole.
In 2014, I first beheld the snowy mountains from the airplane. The river had breached the walls, flowed into the city and they had declared floods. I packed a rope, a matchbox and dry fruits. I was prepared for the worst. I returned to your country many times since.
It is an extreme place, a claustrophobic one with all the bright plastic flowers that are part of the decorations at the shrines and at homes and in restaurants.
"Because real flowers die," a young artist told me as we stood inside a shrine in Anantnag.
I am looking for lilies. But these are flowers from another place. You and I live in a post-truth world. But you and I are also preloved beings. A story only has beginnings. There are no endings in the empty immensity of everything that happened after we met on a boat when your city had been turned into a river. And while the boat/raft sailed, we were all aboard. The tales of truths and lies start there. It was the model of the world. Remember Noah’s Ark? This a true story. You should trust me with observations. Facts are incidental. You can’t measure absolutes. I stand by my position as an observer.
I hear that even children are picking up stones. There are photos of young girls with basketballs and stones I see. They are out there protesting. But they have banned internet in your country. Are you pimping yourself? Again? You still owe me money. You can keep it.
I don't grudge the young their desire for freedom. They said it snowed in your country in April. Anything is possible. You have shown me the ways of impossibility. But I kissed the frog. And the frog remained a frog.
In The Lady of the House of Love, the frail countess, leaves a ‘fanged rose' plucked from between her thighs to the young man and says the rose is 'like a flower laid on a grave’. There is room for the irrational and unexplainable in the world. And just because the story sounds strange doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I don’t mind betrayals. It’s material for a writer.
The rose was immortal. The story is about unreason, a dark room, which turns out to be cheap and tacky in the golden sunshine, a caged lark, an Englishman with a bicycle and a garden full of roses and the Countess, who is a genius of sadness.
I drift. That's natural for someone who was born in a city by the river. Rivers are bound to meander, gather force, spill over, etc.
I am the one who escaped then. Winter of that kind can freeze your wings. You could call me the lark.
All I have are wings.
The waters have subsided. Each year they announce on the radio and elsewhere that there would be floods. But I told you that there won't be floods of that kind in any year again. Rivers are beings. Their anger is unique. Nothing repeats. You will row a boat again. But I won’t be in it.
How do you become what you want to become? By overwriting the past. This story has been rewritten many times. I promised you I’d make you a hero. You said you were hit by bullets. You told me stories about Maisuma, the Gaza of Kashmir. You told me stories. I took notes. Truth or dare? Was it a game?
You, who called me an occupier, told me the story of a bloodied man who dragged another bloodied body in the streets of Downtown Srinagar in 2010 and on the footpath, he stumbled, and lifted his shirt and there had been two holes from where blood spurted - A bullet in the abdomen, and another in the heart. Another man lifted him.
You told me he was called Generator, and ran in the streets looking for any means of transport to take him to the hospital. Stone pelting had become the collective means of protest. Masrat Alam invented Ragda. They tapped their feet, and chanted slogans. Generator died. But that morning, you said, he had promised his mother he wouldn’t pelt stones. He had worn black and went to his father’s grave in the morning to pray and when he met his mother later, he asked her permission to pelt stones just that day.
He died on the streets. They still remember him.
You told me there were love stories, too. You had many lovers.
Once, you wrote "... A foggy morning, a stern man lies down on the bare road under a blanket of hunger. Sheeps come and go honking their guts out from the Sailaabzada cars. Boom. A tear gas shell hits the road, chaos and slogans run through the air … Another boom …”
In 2014, you said you were battle-hardened.
“We crazy pundits of resistance … we ran like Forrest Gump did, we look out for each other; it's like a slow motion scene. You see that baton coming down on your brother’s back, you laugh and hoot to divert the attention. This is no Palestine with all due respect, but that's Maisuma of Kashmir. The resistance continues even if I die …,” you wrote in a note.
There is an old building that I saw when I came to your country. This is where the army resides near Maisuma. The clock tower at Lal Chowk is the protest space. Does the clock still work? But that’s a question I didn’t ask you.
You said beauty is a curse.
“A stone to a bullet,” you said. “You won’t understand.”
There is no music at the shrines in your country. Only pigeons flapping their wings. But in the streets, there are memories of the me and you. Is peace possible?
“Sab faani hai (everything is earthling),” you said. “Remember this when I am gone.”
And after the harsh winter of 40 days, roses will bloom again, I said.
I left you as souvenirs a dark rose, a metaphor and some books.
The city was beautiful when I came in autumn. The gold leaves, the lake and the mountains and the serpentine roads. There was a fireplace in a beautiful stone house. I burnt the covers because I pulled the heater too close. That happened. But always remember that I speak in metaphors.
In between the lake and the window of my room, there was a strange tree with red flaming leaves. I looked past it.
Is it because of the blood that roses here are so red? Do the tulips rise out of graveyards? Your gardens are strange. They are wildly alive.
When you exit, you leave people frozen in time and space.
Am I victim and perpetrator both? I have brought them together somehow. But now what? I don't understand any of this. So I dangle my feet and dream of lilies.
There was a time when I was about to abandon the story but then I saw you in your city. I decided to rewrite the story.
Now, I am a just a green dot on the other side, the enemy side. You asked me the other day "how are you, the occupier" and now you are plunged back into the dark hole and I am still looking for an ending for the story.
We live in different countries. But then, I was reading this book and I came across this passage "a golden thread, a moment's talk, a spill of coffee, a pepper seed, is all the distance I am between one side and the other."
You didn't understand I was a woman trying to turn you into a poem. We were forever approaching the inevitable. How was I going to find the promised land if not by crossing or burning bridges? I chose both. And now, you say we are in this desert. I said I could lead you to the end of it.
Srinagar, November 2014
There was a stone bed. Almost like a grave but with no epitaphs. A man placed a hot water bag, and a few blankets, and went through the motions of dusting the broken chair, and the dressing table that evening. But in the dimly lit room, the dust seemed transcendent. It was the kind of place where the past lingers,. Outside, the trees seemed to be weeping. They call them weeping willows. Grotesque, and melancholy, their branches swoop down, and you could see a million tears hanging.
I couldn’t sleep that night after you left. We could hear the same dog barking in the night. You had said you were putting up nearby. Three minutes away, you had said. Next morning, I didn’t see you.
In this 70-room memory hotel, I had waited in a room with no view. It was day after Muharram, and the city was almost in curfew. It looked solemn. I had written to you saying I’d meet you in a cafe, but I didn’t know the cafes were closed then. I had again written saying I’d meet you in Cordoba.
It was the lonesome hotel where I had once been when floods had ravaged the city in the month of September. The man who owned it used to stay in upstate New York, and returned to his homeland to build a hotel with fountains, and he took me to the top, and showed me your city. I began to count the mountains and gave up. I asked the owner if he knew about Mahmoud Darwish, the poet, who I stumbled upon in my own lonesome apartment with faded yellow wallpaper in upstate New York where I lived once. Darwish, the poet in exile, wrote about olive trees and the longing for homeland. He wrote about the road that may or may not lead to Cordoba. I carried his book for you. But you came with no lilies. You said they didn’t grow in autumn.
The room hadn’t been cleaned in a long while. After the floods, Srinagar was altered. No tourists came anymore.
The room had three zero power bulbs. Enough to see faces. Not enough to read them.
Before you came, your voice floated in the darkness. It was dark and cold in the room. They brought us some tea. You lit a cigarette. We didn’t hold hands. I asked you if we could go for a walk. You laughed. This wasn’t the place for such walks.
I remembered the lines from a poem by Darwish - “We travel like everyone else, but we return to nothing.
I drank my fourth cup of tea, and you left. Outside, they had placed a plate of rice, and mutton. I ignored the food. I could see a silhouette against the glass. I hoped I was dreaming.
I wrote in my journal.
“Poetry means nothing. Paradise is an idea. It is never home.”
It seemed they had hung lilies from Chinar trees to dry. These Chinars that had shed their arms and their fingers as an offering to autumn are being cut this summer.
But then, in the autumn, the lilies were white in gardens meant to erupt with the blood of the martyrs in hopes of being reborn when the spring returns in your Valley.
You once said the vale looks beautiful then. Don’t you remember I sat by the water that evening before leaving it all to you
Nobody shall/should remind you of me.
Not the boulevard or the coffee shop.
We never made it there. We never made it anywhere.
The man in the window at the shrine of Hazrat Maqdoom Sahib told me wishes would be granted because I came all the way.
But I told him I didn’t know what I wanted.
I came here to see.
They said this is the valley of saints.
You said it too.
But I see no saints on the streets. Only the two sides. And only understand more about men being ruthless. But the heart returns to places it left with no conditions.
While I tied my shoelaces, I looked at the pigeons. It was afternoon, and the city looked beautiful from where I sat.
“Ours is a country of words: Talk, Talk. Let me see an end to this journey.”
- Mahmoud Darwish
Our story would then alternate between disappearances, prose and poetry. I had wished to see you. That was when I had come in the month of March. You met me on the Boulevard Road. In the distance, the Char Chinar was glorious and the mountains dazzled. At dusk, I left. I brought you book of poems by William Wordsworth. You flipped through the pages. There wasn’t much to say. It could have ended then.
I had first seen you in a relief camp during the floods in Srinagar. I was looking for ways to tell the story of the flood that had ravaged your city. Like Pankaj Mishra wrote “I wasn’t the first or last of the inexperienced, and possibly biased, journalists from India he had been asked to assist”. I had offered to help and you hauled your raft and got in the van. The only condition was – take me with you.
You gave me your slippers. They were green, and my feet floated in them. We rowed through the alleys in silence.
It began on a boat. In a floating space like how the world began. Noah’s Ark. Remember that story?
Back at the camp, you limped towards me and asked if you could have tea with me. I asked you for your name and your number. You wrote it in my notebook, and I left suddenly.
You began to tell me stories of how you wore velvet pants, and “goggles” and sipped Coca Cola, and you were happy when your father took you to cinema theatres long, long ago. You said you were fighting the voices in your head. You had lost your father when you were only nine years old. You said you hadn’t cried. You said you still visit the grave sometimes and smoke there.
I remembered then was the story of Chestnut Grey, the magical horse, in a Russian folk tale. A young boy would visit his father’s grave with a loaf of bread after he had died for three nights, and the father blessed him. He was transformed into a handsome young man, and the princess fell in love with him and they got married and lived happily ever after.
Instead, I gave you a book by Raymond Carver called What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I had wanted you to read a particular story, a particular ending.
“But he stays by the window, remembering that life. They had laughed. They had leaned on each other and laughed until the tears had come, while everything else—the cold and where he'd go in it—was outside, for a while anyway.”
There was still snow when I left. You had begun to forget the facts of your own story. I saw you once looking at your reflection in the lake. You reminded me of Dorian Gray. But every portrait that is painted with feeling, Oscar Wilde writes, is the portrait of the artist and not the sitter. You should read the book.
I had wanted to bring back a Chinar leaf. But you once said “don’t steal the beauty”. I saw a door with carvings of Chinar leaves in downtown Srinagar. I took a photo. I didn’t bring back the door.
Certain things die in another country with different seasons.
You wished me the other night - “May the stars twinkle for you tonight.”
You left me to the luminosity of the night. I asked if you meant “liminality of the night?”
I think that’s where the story should end for now.
The author is from is an associate editor for India Today and can be reached at Chinkisinha.firstname.lastname@example.org