Memories of a convoy
By Majid Maqbool
Every time I see an Indian army convoy going past a road in Srinagar, an old memory returns. I am reminded of one sunny afternoon in June that dates back to a decade.
My father had gifted me a new cycle on my 16th birthday. I was totally in love with it, often taking it out for aimless cycling trips. That afternoon, after a rather boring day in school, I was returning home on my newly acquired cycle. The leaves were rustling with joy. A cool breeze blew across my face.
That day I had deliberately taken a longer route back. A few kilometers away from home, an army convoy suddenly announced its arrival on the 'national' highway. The whistle, blown repeatedly by one of the Indian troopers atop the first army vehicle, visible from his chest up, traveled way ahead of the convoy, and reached my ears. I paddled, faster.
Anyone who has grown up in Kashmir will know that those army whistles sound different than the ones blown by a Kashmiri traffic cop. The traffic cop blows his whistle to ensure compliance with traffic rules; the Indian trooper blows it to ensure no one breaks the rules of occupation.
Those whistles send out an urgent, threatening signal. And every whistle blown is sharper and more piercing than the previous one.
Threateningly waving a long baton in one hand, one of the troopers atop the first vehicle blew on the black whistle between his lips. The whistles growing shriller with every passing moment. The sound of the approaching army truck engines combined into a threatening roar, a message for everyone: get out of the way, make way for the convoy, quickly.
Every civilian vehicle (even ambulances, school buses) plying on the road at that particular time had to slow down, stop on the roadside, and make way. Until the last army vehicle drove past, no one could move ahead. Whenever the convoy appeared on the road, everyone was supposed to follow that unwritten rule. To ensure my cycle didn't come in the way, I too slowed down, now cycling on the edge of the road.
Before handing the new cycle to me, my father had empathically reminded me: Never break into the line of an Army convoy or accelerate ahead of it. I understood these were unsaid rules which everyone had to follow.
That breaking any of these rules had consequences: a mouthful of abuse, a humiliating, on the spot beating by the troops who would jump out of their trucks with batons and guns whenever their convoy happened to be interrupted by a civilian vehicle.
Besides beating up the driver, they would go on to smash to smithereens the front and rare windowpanes of his vehicle as a punishment. And then they would gleefully jump back into the trucks they had parked a little distance away.
The bruised driver would be left behind, on the roadside, beaten, and humiliated. (If you’re thinking the driver could have filed a complaint at the nearby police station, think again: this was mid 90s Kashmir) All that he could do inspect his bruises and his damaged windshields-less vehicle.
I had seen such things happen on the roads. But I had never imagined any harm coming my way.
Until that afternoon.
As soon as the first Army vehicle came dangerously close, I felt a forceful baton smack on my back. I let out a cry. The soldier had kept his baton horizontally outstretched in the air and the speed of the his vehicle, as it zoomed past me, made the blow more brutal. I had not been cycling in the middle of the road. I was not in anyone's way.
When I reached out with a hand to feel the bruise, my cycle went off balance. The front wheel wobbled dangerously. I lost control of the steering and came crashing to the ground. On impact, my school bag was flung away, my books scattering by the roadside.
Luckily, I fell near a patch of grass. There was no major injury from the fall, only minor bruising. Although the thought of dying did cross my mind. Much to my dislike, a few spokes in the front wheel were pulled out.
As the army vehicles drove past me, the trooper, having just hit me, continued his whistling, threateningly slicing of the air with his baton. He paused briefly, and seeing me in pain, lying on the roadside, he smiled.
Seeing that smile on his face hurt me much more than the physical injury on my back. A smile I cannot forget. I felt a strong urge to take revenge, to hit back, to settle the score.
But in the end, I too ended up on the roadside, hapless, like many people before me. Looking at my bruises, I was angry with myself, for my powerlessness. Some people gathered around me. They picked me up and, except for exchanging a few lamentations about 'the times we live in', none of us could do anything, and we knew it.
Some people gathered my books, dusted them off before carefully sliding them back into the bag. Those around me said a few sympathetic words. I thanked all of them, and slowly cycled away.
The feeling of powerlessness that incident evoked stayed with me. The realization of not being able to do anything against that soldier (who did not belong to this place but had the power to bring harm to me and my people), gnawed at me for a long time.
But then, I grew up seeing Indian soldiers go scot-free —unaccountable and unquestioned for much greater excesses (including murders of innocent people, forced disappearances, torture…) committed in Kashmir.
When tragedy becomes routine, it ceases to be tragic. That is Kashmir's biggest tragedy.
At home, I said nothing about this incident, nor to any of my friends.
That day, when I reached home, my mother asked why I was late. I made up some believable excuse. Later, in my room, in front of the mirror, I took my shirt off to look at my back injuries. The blow had left a mark: a slash across my back, a line of bruised skin, an etched reminder.
For quite some time after the incident, every time I was hugged, and every time I would bend during the school morning exercise sessions, my back would hurt. And every time I heard that whistle, signaling the imminent arrival of another convoy behind me, the memories would return, haunting me.
The physical pain has gone with time. The injury healed, the memories didn't. They never do. After all these years, all that remains are those unforgettable instants. They have cumulated into a festering, unhealed wound in the mind.
I carry them within, these memories. And I carry them everywhere. And always, they bring back that sickening feeling of powerlessness.
Forgetting, in the face of memory, is impossible. And remembering, however painful, becomes necessary. We are what we remember.