by Rafiq Kathwari
“Battle of Algiers”, a classic 1966 film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, seized my imagination and of my classmates as well when it was shown three years later at the Palladium in Srinagar. A teenager wearing bell-bottoms, dancing the twist, I was a Senior at Sri Pratap College, named after Maharajah Pratap Singh, a Hindu Dogra ruler of Muslim majority Kashmir.
Would I fight to make Kashmir free? A classmate asked few days later when we met at the Premier Coffee House on Residency Road, the film fresh on our minds. Of course, I said, my heart leaping. He unfolded a poster:
‘Bear Arms Against a Sea of Troubles’
“This is our manifesto,” he said. I read on
‘Aims & Objectives: Demolish Bunkers * Occupy the Radio Station * Disrupt the Telephone Exchange *Ambush Convoys * Create a Pyramid of Freedom Fighters’
I had questions: how many boys in the group, who was our leader, where would we get arms, when will we act? “Don’t ask,” my classmate said, raising his arms. “Man proposes. Allah disposes.” I read on:
‘Our cause is freedom. India promised us a plebiscite to determine our own future, but broke her promise. She has jailed our leader, the “Lion of Kashmir,” because he roared for freedom. To the extent India denies us our birthright to that extent India subverts its own democracy.’
This was fantastic stuff. I was impressionable. If the Algerians could do it so could Kashmiris.
I signed the poster with a flourish. The coffee tasted sweeter than usual.
A week later, my teenage flirtation landed me in Central Jail where I met seven classmates who had also signed the manifesto. We later learnt that one poster had been brought to the office of the college principal, who had his own sword to sharpen, and he rang the police.
I remember in Central Jail we were assigned the same unit where the “Loin of Kashmir” had been imprisoned in the 1950’s before being confined for several more years to a a small house somewhere in southern India.
In Central jail, our unit had three railroaded rooms, a front yard surrounded by a high brick wall. There were no steel bars, none that I remember. We thought of ourselves as freedom fighters. We demanded and received additional medical care and home-cooked food. Seven fighters. Seven families. A home cooked meal a day, no left overs.
I learnt to pray five times a day, a Muslim ritual I had never observed at home for I had my primary schooling at the Presentation Convent, where Sister Mary was Mother Superior, and my secondary schooling at Burn Hall, where Father Galvin made it mandatory to say the Lord’s Prayer at the morning assembly.
In jail, we learnt to play bridge and chess. A tall slim man with a goatee, my namesake in fact, owner of the printing press which had printed a handful of the manifesto posters for free, was also imprisoned. He taught bridge and chess well.
We listened faithfully to BBC every night on an unreliable transistor. All other news we thought propaganda. Fake News, we call it today. A hush would fall in our unit listening to Big Ben chime 1200 GMT on the BBC World Service. We longed to hear news about Kashmir, but all we heard was Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and Saigon. The world had sorrows other than Kashmir.
We took turns reading solitary, well-thumbed copies of War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Notes from Underground, History of the Russian Revolution, all books we were told had been read and shelved by the “Lion” when he was imprisoned here — India and the Soviet Union were close allies at that time. Russian literary giants were revered, although I remember a well-thumped From Here To Eternity in our unit. I read it, but I don’t remember anything that stayed with me. Years later, when I saw the film on TV, the racy beach scene is how I remembered first reading the novel in jail. O, yes —a déjà vu.
Yet, the promise of America pulled at my heartstrings. Sleepless in Central Jail in Srinagar, wrapped from head to toe in a blanket during a particular harsh late December night, I stood alone in my woolen pajamas and flip flops on the front yard looking up beyond the intimidating high brick wall at the stars, imagining myself orbiting the moon just as Apollo 8 astronauts had done a few days ago on Christmas eve.
There were moments of despair though. Had the world forgotten Kashmir? Did anyone over the Himalayas and across the oceans care? What if we were imprisoned for life? India and her sycophants in Kashmir could do it if they wanted to because they could. Was an elusive idea, however just, worth a lifetime of imprisonment? Did the punishment fit our alleged crime?
As winter slowly embraced spring the nightingale sang of joy— Keats said it never sings of sorrow—motivating us to get our bodies in shape to prepare for the eventual battle of Kashmir. After offering the Prayer at Dawn, we created a Boot Camp regime of sprinting around the yard, increasing our mile pace as days went by, doing pushups and sit ups with everyone counting, skipping the rope, cursing loudly at the brick wall, and repeating such other workout regimes till the sun was overhead. And we did all barefoot on the patch of green in the center of the yard.
We asked for and received gardening tools, surrendering to a primal instinct, a rite of spring: hemmed the yard with iris, crocus, hyacinth that would bloom as spring yielded to summer, and they did, but in late summer, New Delhi replaced a loyal sycophant in Kashmir with yet another seemingly more loyal one, who announced a general amnesty.
Soon after I flew to the future of other continents.
End of Part One