Illustration by Pedro Gomes
Mrs. Bhat looked at her reflection in the narrow mirror that was speckled with age.
She smoothed her tight, off-white, crinkly shirt printed with tiny yellow daffodils. It dirties so easily, she thought, sighing. She thought of her son. The soft fuzz on his upper lip kept getting thicker. He was all of 14, not little anymore. He had not reached his aunt’s home yet.
Mrs. Bhat was worried the Indian soldiers must have stopped him. He had taken off on his new bike.
Mr. Bhat was so wrong to get him the bike. Mrs. Bhat fumed inside but quickly calmed herself with a prayer: “My Lord of Lords will protect him; may my life be taken instead of his.”
Last month the soldiers shot a young neighbor who was returning from evening prayers, without any provocation.
Mrs. Bhat crinkled her face, pouting to see the soft lines emerge around her lips. Inspecting her face intensely, she kept flicking off imaginary specks. She could still pass for a thirtysomething rather than a fast-depleting forty. This made her smile. Arching her brows, she tried to lessen the tension in her face. She picked up her cream-colored handbag with shiny interlocked Cs, the tiny Made in China tag swinging untiringly, and walked out of the room.
Mrs. Bhat was on a mission to buy Kashir gaad for her annual family fish dinner. It was a tradition she had received from her dear departed mother. She was determined to buy the fish today, after emerging from months of curfew and fretting that spring was almost gone. Summer was never a good time to eat fish; it became hard to digest, her mother would say.
The memory of fish dinners past filled Mrs. Bhat with pride. Her family huddled around the heirloom copper pot bursting with neat rectangular pieces of fish ensconced in dollops of tomato gravy, spicy rings of purple radishes, shiny collard greens, and translucent onions. A lick of tamarind glistening here and there, pieces of ginger peeking out, dried whole Kashmiri chilies and garlic cloves swimming in crimson oil. It was heaven, the sight, the aroma!
Like her mother, Mrs. Bhat only cooked Kashir gaad. Her dead mother’s words still rang in the air: “kuja kashir gaad, panjaib gad chu yewan mokurr shehlun; ath chu gatchan soun kong te zayi; hindustaen gaddan trath.”1
Mrs. Bhat once accidentally purchased Punjaib gaad. It was a horrible meal. No one wet more than three fingers, and none went for seconds. She threw away the leftovers that the street cats refused to eat. Mrs. Bhat shuddered at the memory. She sighed and inhaled deeply, her neck disappearing into her chest. She paused her step, feeling she was forgetting something. Retracing back into the room, from the drawer she extracted a small golden bottle of perfume. She doused enough on herself to cause her to cough. She wanted to mask the smell of fish when she would bring it home. Tradition demanded fish should be purchased and partaken of in secrecy, because it was prone to the evil eye.
At the door Mrs. Bhat picked a brown straw basket made from the fine reeds that grew in the Dal lake. She had brought it six years ago from Hazratbal, where she had gone Friday prayers. It ended up being a bonus bargain on a day when she escaped a bomb blast, unscathed. As the bomb went off behind her, she found herself jumping onto the bus. The driver blindly fled the site that was filled with cries, smoke, and fire. A male passenger, whom in any other situation Mrs. Bhat would have admonished for sitting too close, had clung to her like a child, and she had held onto him for dear life. Thankful they were alive.
Mrs. Bhat had specially prepared the basket for carrying the fish home. She first lined it with old newspapers, and then a pile of neat strips of cotton cloth. On top, she would cover it with her son’s old T-shirt. The entire contraption was to throw any prying eyes off, with the perfume masking the fish odor. Satisfied, Mrs. Bhat slipped out, intent on avoiding neighborly attention. Thankfully, most women were inside, busy with dinner preparations. Mrs. Bhat smelled the collards steaming with sliced green chilies and heard the splattering of onions, black cardamom seeds, and cumin in hot oil.
While jumping over a puddle, Mrs. Bhat discerned Mrs. Malik, her immediate neighbor, lurking in the window. Mrs. Malik’s tiny face seemed like a prisoner’s peering from a high-security prison. The window was fortified, first with a mesh to keep out the mosquitoes and flies; then with small wooden square panes, to bring in the light; and lastly with the metal grill for extra security against any kind of outside intrusion. Mrs. Bhat always wondered what would happen if there was a fire. But the fear of the outside was so great that the dangers on the inside seemed small.
“Where are you off to, dear sister?” Mrs. Malik’s pretend-earnest little voice rang out as she opened the window, even though she did not need to. Last month the soldiers had broken all her glass panes when they had also killed the boy. The lazy Mr. Malik felt it was useless to replace them because the soldiers would break them again. Besides, he joked, they could use the extra air.
Mrs. Malik’s instant surveillance was not a surprise for Mrs. Bhat. She was the human equivalent of a neighborhood media channel. Behind her back, she was called the BBC.
Mrs. Bhatt was ready with two excuses, but when Mrs. Malik’s question rang out her mind went blank. She looked skyward; without thinking further she blurted, “Hay Kodaya (O God)! I have an appointment with the doctor.” A range of emotions coursed through Mrs. Malik’s tiny face, conveying infinite concern. “Waay waay bechaer (you poor thing), what is wrong? You haven’t even mentioned it thus far,” she asked.
“It is my shoulder, acting up again, I need to watch the housework, I don’t, I keep picking all sorts of heavy stuff,” Mrs. Bhat said, dramatically touching her shoulder and hastening her step. “I will talk to you later or I will be late, beh khodayas havala (may God be with you).”
“May God be with you,” responded Mrs. Malik. The sound of her closing the window followed Mrs. Bhat down the alley. She fielded a few more neighbors with practiced ease, without letting one anyone glean the real purpose of her trip.
Walking single-mindedly, clutching the basket tight, Mrs. Bhat sighed often. She longed for the day when Mr. Bhat would get his long-due promotion and they would move to a modern neighborhood. But then, her sister lived in the toniest area in Srinagar, and she said the neighbors were the same—and even nosier, only in better clothes.
Mrs. Bhat sighed again, a long sigh. She to step over the overflowing gutter, but it caught her foot and splashed a little on her trousers. A slight yellowish stain appeared on the edge; she grimaced.
“Never can be too careful,” Mrs. Bhat heard the voice of an old matriarch of the local butcher family ring out. She was clutching her knee with one hand and a handful of garlic peels in the other. She was poised to throw them into a rotting dump right at the front of her door. The lady was ruing her last night’s dinner, which she suspected had not agreed with her. “Ajeeb balai haakh oas; what are we forced to spend money on these days, it looks Kashmiri but I suspect it is Punjaib,” she said wrily. Mrs. Bhat nodded vigorously. Such was the temptation of berating the Indian imports that, despite itching to hurry, she added to the old woman’s opinion: “I agree, weeds, my dear mother, poisonous weeds are what they send us from India, and that too for the cost of good gold, they have been duping naïve Kashmiris forever. First they sold us Punjaib rice, then Punjaib mutton, then Punjaib vegetables, and Punjaib …err..err…” Mrs. Bhat hesitated a little before adding “Punjaib gaad” and said it anyway.
“You are so right my daughter, so right,” responded the matriarch. “Even when we cook them with best meat cuts, it still tastes offensive. I always get strange dreams after eating their weeds. Last night my son says I was babbling about potatoes in sleep, saying it would have been better to eat them instead of these foreign vegetables and rice; they sit in my stomach like balai-khoda. I always try not to eat collards at this time of the year, I tell you, it’s not our own, the collards from our gardens melted in the mouth like butter, one could smell the aroma of our own Kashmiri soil, alas, no more.”
The focus of the conversation quickly shifted to Mrs. Bhat’s shoulder, which she had presented as an excuse for her outing.
“Then why the basket?” asked the sharp lady. “Do not tell me you are buying medicine by the basketful, well, that would be no surprise with the food we are forced to eat.”
Mrs. Bhat shook her head, “No, no, it’s just…maybe…I thought…I might buy some turnips to dry for winter.”
Mrs. Bhat felt turnips were a safer excuse. Cheap food often fed to cattle, if anything seen to give flatulence, it was not at all a magnet for the evil eye.
“No, no, no do not buy from the market,” urged the old lady, “at this time it is not our own produce; wait till September. When the lady from the village brings turnips from her village, I will send her to your house. Those are real Kashmiri turnips, worthy of drying and storing. Make a nice garland for winter and cook with Razma (beans),” she advised, and then changed the subject to her bad knee, which explained her bent stance. The conversation ended in both women handing over all their collective cares to God, who they agreed had infinite tactics for safeguarding human life—and, ironically, ending it, as they briefly mentioned the boy killed last month.
From thereon, Mrs. Bhat commenced the rest of her journey without being accosted further. As she neared the small mausoleum of a medieval Muslim saint, Mrs. Bhat exaggeratedly spread her scarf over her hair and bosom and began silent supplications for Mr. Bhat’s promotion. She was worried he would be bypassed again this year.
“You are a hard worker, they can’t ignore you forever,” she would say to Mr. Bhat, trying to keep his spirits high.
“It’s not the work; it’s the three-year jail time that caused a break in my service,” he would say, frustrated equally by his wife’s unnecessarily high spirits and the bleakness of the state bureaucracy.
“But there is nothing against you, they even gave you your job back,” Mrs. Bhat would insist. The conversation would drag till Mr. Bhat retreated to offer prayers in anger. And Mrs. Bhat would run to the shrine, pledging alms and sacrifice of animals if the promotion came through.
Twelve years ago, Mr. Bhat had been randomly arrested in a crackdown. He was kept incommunicado, in detention for two years. Mrs. Bhat knew nothing of his whereabouts. She found out only when he was shifted to a jail outside Kashmir. A year later, Mrs. Bhat got a call from the local police station to hand him over. It was startling, overwhelming, and miraculous all at the same time. There were no charges against Mr. Bhat, nor did the police give any explanation for his incarceration. Mr. Bhat was too scared to go to court for damages, which would have been useless anyway. Mrs. Bhat was happy to have him back alive. They picked up their life from where they had left
it three years back. But Mr. Bhat had suffered extreme torture; as a result he had lost hearing in one ear. Even though he had nightmares, he insisted on sleeping in a separate room.
Mrs. Bhat recoiled; she was jarred into the present, reminded of her son. She called his aunt’s house to find he still had not reached it. They would have to buy their son a phone, she thought; it would make it easier to track him.
A white car passed close by Mrs. Bhat, raking dust. She covered her nose, frowning, thinking white was not a good color for a car because it dirties so easily. If she had to buy one, she would choose a blue or green color. The idea of buying a car brought back worries about Mr. Bhat’s promotion. She also became wistful thinking about her wish to have more children, which now seemed impossible.
“What kind of families will two children make when we are dead,” she would tell Mr. Bhat. She herself was one of eight siblings and dozens of cousins. “When you were in jail, if I did not have my brothers and sisters I would not have survived. There were enough of them to take turns to be with me. I was never alone.”
“There are no guarantees with any one’s life, two children or twenty children,” Mr. Bhat would say, reminded of his friend whose two sons were killed together. “In that goddamn cross-firing. Who told those idiot boys to buy T-shirts for Eid? For God’s sake, T-shirts? Have we have stopped wearing decent clothes, ‘T-shits’ I call them. Why would you wear clothes that are walking advertisements for companies? Nike, Pepsi written on your chest. Shameful; how could those two even stop to buy items like that? Now look at my poor friend, he is out of his mind, two sons killed in a single minute. Who can live with that kind of torture? I say, don’t have children at all, then you have no worry for anyone,” Mr. Bhat would go on and on, his anger increasing with each utterance that relived the incident.
“But, let us see whose fault it is, having only had two kids? There is no guarantee for us, we can be killed at any moment. You know that I put my foot down and did not tie my tubes. Even if they damaged you in prison, we still have options, God forbid. I am a responsible woman. If something happens, we will need to have more children,” Mrs. Bhat would argue indignantly. She believed Mrs. Bhat’s friend’s wife should not have tied her tubes. If she could have more children to replace the ones killed, their pain would ease. She had once even told the grieving mother to get her surgery reversed.
The noise of loud spitting jerked Mrs. Bhat out of her reverie. It was the fishmonger known for the best catch in the market and for constantly spitting, especially when she cleaned the fish. An old man stood nearby waiting, his eyes downcast. The fishmonger playfully laughed as she handed him the cleaned fish in a plastic bag. The man continued to be sullen and paid in silence.
Done with the customer, the fishmonger threw disparaging glances at the other fish vendors while hollering, “My fish are the best from this rotten line-up here; my husband catches magic but it’s on me to share it with the world.” She winked at the people passing by.
Mrs. Bhat sat on her haunches, greeting her, and without permission shoved her hand into the tin tub, vigorously prodding the slippery catch. The fish gasped, mouths open, and gills moving.
“See, my sister, fresh, very fresh, still alive, woman to woman, can’t dupe you—take them all, relieve me today, I would love to return to my husband early, he is out on the river all night, if you catch my drift.” She gave Mrs. Bhat a friendly poke with her finger.
“Ah! Why not, my husband earns so that I waste the hard-earned money on glib talkers like you. Show me something worthy of buying, there is scum on the top. You know I will not be duped,” said Mrs. Bhat.
The fishmonger arched her eyebrows and dramatically slapped her forehead. “If not for men I would never make a profit.”
It seemed the theater of hard bargain was on, but suddenly it took a different turn between the two.
“You come just once a year, but you make me sweat. This year, just pick your what your heart chooses. I feel like a fever is coming and I want to leave early.” The fishmonger pushed the tub even closer to Mrs. Bhat, spat, and took a long draw at her hookah.
“Why not, only the best will do for me and you know it, woman to woman,” said Mrs. Bhat, shoving her hand deeper into the tub. Prodding around, she came with a thick glistening fish, “Here, I want this, I know where you hide the special ones, my sister.”
“Never can outwit a sister, can I?” said the fishmonger, catching the fat carp from Mrs. Bhat and slapping it on the scale.
“Now that is a Kashir gaad worthy of my cooking,” said Mrs. Bhat, eyeing the slick healthy catch. She yanked out more and dropped them on the scale.
Satisfied with her purchase, Mrs. Bhat carefully began putting the fish into the basket. She covered them first with the newspaper, then the strips of cloth, and added the old shirt on top. Her face was shining with elation and pride, thinking how happy her mother would be at the quality of the fish and her discretion.
Mrs. Bhat leaned forward, handing money to the fishmonger. “See, no more bargain, I know my wares are good and so is your price, my sister, God bless you.”
“What can I say, my good woman, enjoy your meal, I hope you cook as good as the fish you just bought. You are so prepared always, your ittar is the best; God watches over your family from evil eyes,” the fishmonger said, and immediately busied herself in inviting new customers to examine her catch.
Mrs. Bhat walked toward the vegetable market, where she began a close inspection of tomatoes, radishes, onions, and collards. They were all Hindustaen. She shook her head and decided to take the ferry to the market on the other side of the Jehlum. There, the greengrocers mostly sold Kashmiri vegetables. As she walked toward the ferry, she saw a man with blue eyes approach the riverbank. She had not seen many Kashmiris with blue eyes. The man carried an air of distinguished grace and she felt she had seen him before, but could not recall where. He sat opposite to her in the ferry, gazing intently at the unlighted cigarette in his hand.
Mrs. Bhat tried to remember where she had seen him, when he suddenly looked up and caught her looking at him. Before she could feel embarrassed, Mrs. Bhat saw something sharply whiz over the water and hit the soft mud on the bank.
A barrage of shots hit the water. More buzzing followed.
“Hata, cross-firing,” shouted the boatman, ramming blindly into the riverbank. People jumped and ran for cover. A bullet whizzed past Mrs. Bhat. She froze, her hand tight around the basket. Her breathing became shallow. The other side of the river where she had been a few minutes earlier was empty. All she heard were cries and soldiers yelling. She wondered where fishmonger must be. Hiding, maybe; the poor thing was coming down with a fever, would she lose all her fish?
Mrs. Bhat struggled to get up while she tried to clutch the basket. She kept slipping back into the wooden seat. Her heart sank when she realized she was unable to lift herself up. In a flash, the blue-eyed man ran back to her and yanked her out. It seemed a scene right out of a movie where the hero pulls the heroine out of danger. His hand felt soft, warm, and mildly damp, like in a fever.
She caught his sharp profile as they ran for cover and something went click in her brain. She remembered who he was! He was the lead actor from the only commercial movie ever made in Kashmir. He had played the last King of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak, whose story was as tragic as it was romantic. Dying in exile, the king left behind his queen-consort, the famed poet Habbeh Khotoon, who died a fugitive in her own land. Mrs. Bhat had a blurry newspaper cutting of the movie poster in her high school Urdu poetry book.
She felt his grip getting hotter on her right hand as he dragged her toward safety. They hid inside a narrow shaft between two buildings. They stood close, united in fear. Mrs. Bhat’s basket had melded into her left palm. The man eased his grip and lifted a finger to his lips indicating they stay silent. More than 30 minutes seemed to pass before the gunshots stopped. He was the first one to peep out. “I think it is safe to move,” he said. “Let us go, hamshira; walk safely, and mind those turnips,” he said, crinkling his nose, and smiling knowingly. His face looked kind and old, much older than he really was.
She watched him walk away, as if in a disjointed nightmare.
The vegetable vendors and hawkers had already started returning. The store owners were rearranging their wares. Huge jute bags loaded with produce stood gutted in the middle of the road. A man was trying to salvage some tomatoes; another one was picking up shoes and scarves left behind by fleeing people. Wonder what he would do with those, Mrs. Bhat thought, maybe sell them or give to charity?
She gleaned from the chatter around that one person had been killed and five had been injured. People were thanking God for the low number of casualties. Mrs. Bhat, too, mumbled a thank you to God. She tried hard to focus on buying some fresh vegetables but found herself idling in front of the pottery shop. It was littered with broken terracotta pieces, maybe bowls, which if not broken could have been bought and eaten from. A round shape that may have been part of a doll’s face or pot lay at her feet. She sighed and urged herself to walk. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a loud announcement rang in the air. All activity ceased. In a matter of seconds, the entire area was teeming with army convoys. Soldiers began rounding up everyone—no one knew why and no one asked. The soldiers ordered everyone to put down anything they were carrying.
Mrs. Bhat, along with some other women, was pushed to the corner of the road. She gingerly placed her basket near the gutter that spilled at her feet. She tried to protect it by placing her handbag on it.
All the men in the vicinity had been rounded up for identification. The blue-eyed actor was there too. The other men looked so little next to him, but they all walked, shoulders drooping, past the tinted armored vehicle. Inside there was a mukhbir who would identify militants or sympathizers of the resistance. This process was cruel—randomly, individually, and collectively penalizing—and anyone was fair game. Anyone could be arrested or killed, no explanation given.
So far, the men moved smoothly past the vehicle. Mrs. Bhat prayed for the crackdown to be lifted quickly. If it took too long her fish would also spoil.
A soldier stopped in front of Mrs. Bhat, asking her about the contents of the basket. She said that it held turnips. The woman next to her creased her brow and leaned closer to look.
The soldier ordered Mrs. Bhat open it, saying “I cannot see anything; for all, I know it may be a bomb.”
Mrs. Bhat grew red in the face as she sat down on her haunches and began fumbling with the basket. The woman beside leaned to look closer. Mrs. Bhat slowly lifted the old shirt on top, revealing the second layer. She looked at the soldier, her face awash in fear. Even before Mrs. Bhat could make another move, the soldier poked her hand with the nozzle of his gun and ordered her to step away from the basket.
In what seemed to be a blur, Mrs. Bhat was separated from the other women, who were also moved away from the basket.
Now the basket stood all by itself near the spilling gutter.
Mrs. Bhat was surrounded by soldiers. The commanding officer came up to her, demanding to know what she was carrying. They suspected ammunition. “What is in the basket? Better be honest!”
Mrs. Bhat was hot in the face, and tongue-tied.
A soldier’s voice rang out: “She says turnips, but I don’t know, it is covered tightly; for all purposes, it might be a bomb, she might be an arms courier or a fidayee, who knows.”
Panic gripped Mrs. Bhat. She pleaded, “It is just items for dinner, nothing else, I swear by my dead mother.”
All eyes were now focused on the basket.
A weight descended on Mrs. Bhat’s shoulder when she saw a bomb squad approaching it.
The actor yelled something in a loud voice, gesturing toward her and the basket. The soldiers pushed him out from the line-up and began beating him till he fell on the ground. He tried to lift himself up, but was no match for batons and rifles raining on him. Mrs. Bhat saw him trying to say something again pointing toward her and the basket. The soldiers continued beating him. Mrs. Bhat heard the word “accomplice” and her heart sank further down. The soldiers made the actor take off all his clothes. In the end, he stood in socks and green drawers.
Mrs. Bhat began to cry loudly.
She felt she would die. The gutter overflowed close to the basket. Her heart raced. What if they shot him?
The soldier next to her yelled, “You swear by your dead mother, don’t you have anyone else, what about children, if it was just turnips you would swear by your children, the mother is dead so what more can happen to her, I do not think there are vegetables in the basket, you might be a fidayee and that man is your accomplice?”
Another one snarled, “Tell us quick, say the truth what is in the basket or the bomb squad will find out anyway and then you will be gone for life.”
“No, no… I swear by my children and my husband, I can open it, let me show you, it is just dinner things,” she pleaded, struggling to get up and rush toward the basket.
“No, do not move, you cannot touch it, how do we know you won’t push a button to set the bomb off,” the soldier said shoving her down with the nozzle of his gun.
“No no it is not, I swear by my entire family, I am just a woman, not a fidayee, I will show you what is in the basket,” Mrs. Bhat pleaded, her face swollen with crying.
Suddenly, through her tears, her mother’s image descended. She saw her sitting near the glowing hearth ladling out the finest piece of fish. She could hear her say, “Fish is prone to the evil eye; it’s a secret that only family must know or else it brings ill-luck.” Mrs. Bhat’s heart seemed to explode inside her chest, and she blurted, “Please, Sir, it is nothing but measly fish heads.”
“Fish heads my foot; it does not even stink; how is that possible? And who knows what is buried under them,” the soldier responded
A group of soldiers now led a tearful Mrs. Bhat into the bunker. The people watched her being detained, fearful of what could happen next. Inside the bunker, Mrs. Bhat was made to sit hunched on the floor. She circled by more soldiers, only one of whom was a woman.
“You will have to take your clothes off, I have to do talashi,” the female soldier spat. Mrs. Bhat had been patted down and even strip-searched, but this was the first time she had been singled out and detained. From the narrow entrance of the bunker, she saw her basket on the pavement; the fetid water from the gutter was running close to it.
She saw the bomb squad appear and gingerly prod the basket. They removed the newspaper, cloth pieces, and the shirt and finally dropped the glistening fat carp one by one on the road. They continued prodding and flipping the basket for some more time. She saw them waving, most likely indicating they found nothing.
Mrs. Bhat’s strip-search was over. She had been searched in front of the male soldiers who did not look away.
She had stopped crying. Her heart felt as hard as the hardest candy.
The bomb squad threw everything back into the basket. In a few minutes, Mrs. Bhat found herself being shoved out of the bunker. She was free to go.
The crackdown was over too, it seemed.
The army convoys were leaving, with packs of street dogs barking after them. Some soldiers took positions in the bunkers, and others began patrolling as usual. People in the street got busy picking up the pieces of the day.
Mrs. Bhat saw the blue-eyed man, the actor, sitting on his haunches by the gutter, his clothes in a heap beside him. His face was quiet and dignified despite his near-nakedness. He looked up at her, holding her gaze for a moment, his eyes shimmering.
Mrs. Bhat threw the newspaper and cloth pieces in the gutter. She felt her neck tighten as she carried the fish in the basket, uncovered. The carp glinted in the late spring sun, gawping and gasping for air.
Closer to home, Mrs. Malik was stationed at her window, ready to ask people about the crackdown and killings. Her eyes fell on Mrs. Bhat’s basket. She turned white as if she had seen a ghost. She quickly nodded at Mrs. Bhat, as though she were encouraging her to hurry home.
1. “There is no comparison between Kashir gaad (Kashmiri fish) and Punjaib gaad (Indian fish). The Indian fish stinks badly; our saffron is wasted on it; may lightning strike India fishes.” Even though Punjaib refers to Punjab, in Kashmiri vernacular usage Punjaib is used as a placeholder for everything non-Kashmiri or Indian.