A Tale of One City at War and Varuna
Seated on the floor Varuna looked around excitedly at other neighborhood children. She was my best friend, lively and vibrant. This was not her first visit to the mosque, where she had often accompanied me for Friday prayers, but the mosque had changed. It had become a public school in May, 1990, six months after the armed conflict between India and Kashmiri militants began in Kashmir. This was the clash of the sacred with the profane. Education was crucial for children’s success, the only hope for Kashmiris during the tumultuous years of the political conflict. Public schools had been closed for about a month and amid the endless deaths from bombings, the mosque harbored hope.
Children were perplexed, perhaps contemplating how they would open a textbook in the mosque. It hardly looked the place where people prayed and found solace in God’s embrace. Besides, we had never studied together. We had played puzzle games and scrabble together. Sometimes, in the winter, we would make snow women and snowmen with coal for their eyes and noses. We would use scraps of colorful woolen fabrics to adorn them.
Without desks and chairs, the children were scattered. Some were still standing, trying to find a comfortable spot on the carpet, green speckled with blossoming, cockscomb: many settled down, set their textbook-loaded backpacks on the rug. I stood shivering in my grey woolen pheran, afraid to sit down. I felt their eyes judge me. Varuna tugged my hand to sit down. Her round, cheerful face flashed a smile. She wore rimmed glasses, their hinges matching her black eyes and eyebrows. A neat braided pigtail cascaded down her right shoulder. She wore a blue wrist watch. The silver earrings mirrored the necklace neatly draped around her neck.
“Are you comfortable now?” asked Varuna.
I smiled and nodded.
We were opposites. Varuna was vibrant and made friends easily. I was reserved and unsociable. She loved to talk and everyone felt comfortable with her. I was cold, but her warmth made me talkative. Varuna was also a great entertainer: she told stories that demonstrated her incredible strength. One of her favorites was the black coffin story. She told this story more than once and always in the same manner; her red cheeks, sweeter than cherries, glowed as she waved her hands in excitement, asserting her power over death:
Once upon a time, some magicians at a concert asked the crowd for participation. Before I could raise my hand, a man agreed. He repeated a few things proposed by the magicians and then lay inside a coffin. They closed it, muttering incantations. Time passed and they looked into the coffin, turned it upside down to show the audience that the man had disappeared. They put the coffin back in place, reclosed it, waving the cape over it as they murmured again to bring the man back. When they reopened the coffin, the man remained missing. The magic failed. Confused, the magicians requested the crowd’s participation to bring back the man. I put up my hand in a flash and smiled at the silent crowd. I looked at you, Huma; tears were swelling in your eyes.
“Don’t worry, I will be fine, Huma,” I said.
Worried, you couldn’t hang on to the thought to carry it through a sentence. “Can you breathe in the c…coff…in, Varuna?” you stuttered at me.
“I will come back, I promise, Huma,” I said.
I went in the coffin. Inside the coffin, the man’s distant bright glow indicated my obligation to help him. I reached my hand out to him, sending my light to the distance to show him the way and he came back. The man stood beside me, the crowd was cheering, and you wore a bright smile. When I woke, I felt I had arisen from slumber for the first time. I was elated.
As I sat by Varuna’s side at the mosque, it was this spontaneity of her upbeat character that glowed confidence in my eyes. I never envied Varuna, never wished I could acquire her phenomenal vigor that delighted everyone around her. Instead, the most important thing lay close to wherever her soul resided. It was buried in my heart. We were two bodies of the same soul.
Varuna had an excellent voice. Singing came as naturally to her as walking. At recess in the mosque, she sang with unbelievable ease: Yeh haseen vaadiyan yeh khula aasamaan (The beautiful valleys, the open sky, Oh my darling, where we have come). The gentle strains of her voice, even the high notes, chaed lou tum aaj koi pyaar ki raagini (sing, oh my darling, sing a song of love) were mesmerizing. This movie song was shot in Kashmir, against the backdrop of beautiful mountains. With its ivy façade, this newly married couple sang praises for the Valley, dancing and running freely in expansive lawn. This was like a dream. The reality was we were huddled in the mosque and felt death in the air.
Before class resumed, the teachers stopped to listen to Varuna’s songs. We forgot to eat lunch. After some time, the group began to disperse. I gathered up my belongings, a plastic lunchbox’s shiny snap on lid displayed a few chunks of pineapple jam, hanging between two slices of brown bread. I was suddenly hungry. We headed back to class in the next room. To my surprise, the teacher, my paternal uncle, was seated crossed-legged on the rug, his body covered most of the cockscomb flowers. I thought I might get special privileges, but this wasn’t so. Like public schools we were assigned a lot of homework. English was the medium of instruction for all state-run schools, and because Kashmiri was not taught in schools but rarely in colleges, hard work was crucial. Both girls and boys at the mosque school were encouraged by teachers to develop their reading and writing. We saw a glimmer of hope for peace in education. We opened our hearts out in paper. The writings were mirrors of our emotions, illustrations of our impaired, unheard, voice.
After school, I went to Varuna’s house. She lived a couple blocks from my parents’ house. Inside our yellow houses the interior walls were painted azure blue. A brown sofa in the living room rested about ten feet from the television. An upright, white refrigerator stood against the wall to the sofa’s left. The kitchen was across the living room. From the corner, a paneled staircase led to the basement. Varuna’s father was watching television. The news about Kashmir protests came on. Repeated words—arrests, dead, azadi (freedom)—resonated through the room. Gory, bloody bodies flashed across the screen. Before Varuna’s father grabbed the remote control, placed on a small table slightly away from the sofa, and flipped the channel, I asked, “Why do we kill one another? Aren’t we all humans?
“Yes, we are. This is a political conflict. Kashmiris want azadi (freedom) from India,” he said.
“But many Kashmiri Pandits left Kashmir. Are you leaving us, too? Please don’t go,” I said.
“My dear, we will never go anywhere. Indian security forces killed many Kashmiri militants and Kashmiri Muslims. The militants killed Kashmiri Pandits, forcing many others to leave,” he said.
“But it doesn’t make sense. We have the same houses. We even speak Kashmiri and eat the same food,” I said.
“Yes, we are Kashmiris. The killings are a part of emotions rooted in madness, in which the soul and mind is silenced. I am hoping that we learn who we are—human beings,” he said.
Varuna held my hand. She knew I was extremely sensitive. “Come let’s play hide and seek,” she said. We both knew we had to play in the house. Outside, we could be trapped in crossfire or a bomb might fall on us. Also, curfews did not allow us to be on the streets. Living in Kashmir, where no one really lived, was a punishment. The constant fear of death was a torment.
I ran through the kitchen, trying to find a good hiding spot. I looked through the cabinets to fit into one of them, but they were well stocked. I climbed down the staircase into the basement, pounced on the door knob and turned it open. A thick coal blanket cloaked my face. I shuffled through the big brown sacks of coal, crunching them beneath my feet. I felt something as tiny as crystals. Looking down, I saw rows of rice bags stacked up on one side. Given the violence, Varuna’s parents, like mine, had stored enough food to last for several months.
At that moment, Varuna opened the door, “I found you,” dragging herself further in the storage bin. We both emerged coal black.
That night my father said to my mother: “Today, a group of men came to my office, handed me a pamphlet with slogan: hum kya chahte azaadi (we want freedom). I was shaking and the pamphlet slipped from my hands. One of the men, who looked the oldest, motioned to the other four men. He quietly sat in a chair and said in a calm voice: “All we want is azadi from India. We must fight for our rights. We are not free yet. India must fulfill its 1947 promise and give autonomy to Kashmir.”
“Nonviolent movement for our rights is fine,” my father told my mother, “but violence and killings on both sides is a public nuisance. I am hoping we can hear the magical echo of eternity for peace.”
My mother looked at him and blinked her eyes, which was her way to show her concern.
The next day, soon after we opened our textbooks, we heard the thunder of a bomb. We cradled one another in hugs, hiding. These embrace were cloaked in the war-like horror of our lives. After some time, we peered beyond our entangled arms. A thick cloud of black smoke had covered the air. Varuna crawled along the floor on her elbows toward the window. I followed behind her. We got up slowly and looked out to see a mangled car in flames, human flesh scattered, and many disfigured bodies in pools of blood. An explosive-laden car, about one block from the mosque, was the source of the bomb.
The mosque’s windows were shattered completely by the blast’s impact. After a few minutes, shots rang out; the security forces arrived and fired outside our window. Inside, we ducked down and lay on the floor along with other children and teachers. Bits of window glass pierced through our entire bodies as we embraced the carpet. The gunfire lasted for about fifteen minutes. Afterward, we gathered our courage to stand up, some still bleeding from cuts, and see the white ambulances with flashing red lights. Most of the dead and injured were being taken to the hospital.
Almost everyone knew that they could be dead any minute. People weren’t safe in their own houses. A bullet fired in the street, in crossfire, could travel through their windows and pierce their bodies. One night at the sound of a thump outside, my aunt scooted down to turn off the lights. We lay flat on the floor, face down, hands stretched out above our heads. Afterward when the lights were turned back on, the top of my ring finger had fallen off. My aunt had trampled on my right hand in fear. I had quietly blacked out in fear. Despite everything, people were concerned about education of their children. Parents hoped that good education would ultimately be the path to peace.
As days passed, Varuna and I, along with most children in the mosque, became progressively involved in studies. Conflict shattered our innocence at an early age, replacing it with a sense of responsibility. We buried our faces in books. War destroyed our childhood.
One day after classes, Varuna scooted toward the stairs, and went thumping down like a train. I knew she was up to something, I read her mind. Downstairs, I saw her at the edge of the screen door. When everybody had left, she said, “I want to play cricket.”
“Here in the mosque?” I said.
“Yes, upstairs on the top floor. You know we can’t play outside,” she said.
The room, its floors lined with art, was under construction. Smooth window frames lay among scattered wood ruins and sawdust. But it was quite spacious. Varuna pulled out a yellow plastic bat from her backpack.
“But I don’t know how to play cricket,” I said.
“I will teach you,” Varuna said.
“You lay your bat face down on the ground in front of your feet. Bend your body. Your hands will go around the handle, like you hold on to poles on a bus. You place your left hand over the handle and the right hand underneath it. Your knuckles align as the bat is pointing down.” She grasped the bat to show me.
“You’re right handed. You’ll have a good grip on the bat if your right hand is closer to the shoulder of the bat. Like this, let me show you again. Hold it like this… Right. Good,” she said.
Varuna walked around the room and picked a wooden square piece from the floor. She placed it behind me, then walked to the other end of the room.
“The space between us is the wicket. If a ball hits the piece of wood, you are bowled out,” she said.
“Yes, I know that. I have seen that on TV,” I said.
Varuna tossed the white plastic ball and it went rolling on the ground. I lifted the bat up, raising a litter of grayish sawdust.
“You missed the ball,” said Varuna. “Hold it steady. Exert a little pressure on the bat.”
Varuna pitched again. I came forward a few steps, scratching along with the bat, before hitting the ball. The ball zipped down the wicket.
This was the moment I felt the heavens had opened for us. We were playing in freedom without restraint. This was magical to forget about the war and be children. Suddenly the room became a playground and each little ding of the bat didn’t sound like a bomb’s thud. It broke into a cheerful din. I felt huge crowds of people were cheering for Varuna as she lifted the bat and the ball went flying into the air. Along with the crowd, I felt, I was dancing, waving my hands, celebrating our freedom.
Afterward, we went to my Grandmother’s house, a few houses down my parents’ home. Grandma was so full of sweetness. Her unfathomable capacity to love, to be so protective of us, was not the same as my parents, despite how boundless their love felt. It was something entirely different. It tasted like Kahwa that concealed beneath its sweet lingering fragrance any thoughts of war. It was less fraught with expectation. She didn’t talk about our education, didn’t think whether or not it be the key to peace.
She was watching TV when we walked in the house. Her chair faced only slightly away from the small table on which the remote control was placed, but it gave her great pleasure to walk to the television to turn it off. The next thing we knew treats arrived: Grandma brought Kahwa; two ashen-gold porcelain cups neatly placed on saucers. The sweet tea with its top layer of saffron twigs, was the color of yellow to orange, a yoke of tangerine. Then she brought the big metal bowl, filled with candies and chocolates. The bowl was always full. As we talked and laughed, she reached over the table across from the television to collect art supplies. There were crayons scattered about the table, along with some coloring books and a container of pens and pencils. On a pale blue, synthetic sofa bed cover, fuzzy with dirty spots, Varuna and I sat, lost in our coloring. It was a rare carefree time, soon a thing of the past.
On a Monday morning, I arrived at the mosque around six when it was still dark. A strong glare of the bulb in the bunker, across the street from my parents’ red-brick house, stained the towering chinar-tops of a nearby tree. The strange emptiness of the street, made me tired, made time lag. As I trudged along, I felt the weight of my yellow backpack burdening my shriveled shoulders, further dragging down my long grey kameez. A cold red face of a security personnel emerged from the bunker. As I approached a narrow alley onto the main road, I saw three other security men. They wore loose fitting pants and jackets with patterns that looked like drizzles from a water pistol, of chestnut brown, medium beige and dead grass. They stopped me as I passed through them. It was unusual. They didn’t on a normal day when I usually arrived at the mosque at ten. They let me go when I said I was going to school.
Dressed in her favorite royal blue crinoline skirt, frilled edge around the bottom, Varuna had insisted that we meet for some time before our classes began. The skirt had matching gold ivory cream double shoulder straps. She looked lovely and energetic.
“Come, let’s play,” Varuna said.
“Play here?” I said.
“Let’s pretend the room is a playground, and we are running free, around the field of flowers,” said Varuna.
Varuna ran faster and faster. I saw the white frill of her skirt’s hem touching the floor.
“Call my name,” she said.
“Varuna, Varuna, Varuna,” I said.
“Varuna, Varuna, Varuna, rings in my ear,” she said. “But I won’t stop. I keep running, now on the land covered with dirt. The dust lifts in my eyes, but I still don’t stop. What a wonderful day! What a wonderful day! Now I am back again, running free, around a field of beautiful flowers.”
Later that day, during our regular classes at the mosque, we heard a gunshot followed by multiple shots fired outside. When the situation had calmed down, both Varuna and I managed to evacuate the mosque. As we turned onto the main street, a bomb went off. Suddenly, the weight of a mountain fell on my left leg. I tried to move but couldn’t. My left leg was hit by shrapnel. As smoke slowly began to clear, I saw people running for safety: the horror on their faces at imminent death. Their adversity, at this moment, was my hope. Their chaos reassured me I was alive. I looked up, the bomb had torn the chinar-tops down. I circled my gaze, searching for Varuna. I assumed she was either dead, or like me, lying on the floor, crying for help. Again, I scanned the flock of people scurrying for escape. This time, I caught sight of her, running, leaving me behind. She didn’t realize in her horror that I was on the roadside, screaming for help. I began to cry. Slowly, I moved my left hand to touch my left leg, but I dipped my hand in a bloodier pond around my body. The pool kept swelling with each drop of blood. I was hallucinating yet rolled my blurry gaze upon Varuna again. She was running away, her silhouette had dropped down to a star. Just a dot was visible now. After a little while, she disappeared completely. I closed my eyes.
After the surgery I regained consciousness. My mother sat next to me in the hospital room, wore a severely swollen face, with puffy-red eyes. I looked around for Varuna.
“Where is Varuna? Is she ok?” I said to my mother.
Tears rolled down her face. Confused, I came closer to her. She grasped me to her chest as we both cried louder and louder. My mother had received word that a gunshot had pierced Varuna’s heart. She died instantly.
At the funeral, Varuna’s framed picture sat on a coffee table, surrounded by a stainless steel agarbati (incense) stands. Each shrinking stick etched dome-like on the stands’ holes, dropped ashes. The power mounds on a big metal plate underneath, showered fragrances in the air. Varuna’s parents sat on the ground of the living room in mourning, comforted by other family members and friends. The room was moist with tears and incense. My mother brought fruits for Varuna’s mother, and reached over for her mouth with a slice of an apple. Varuna’s mother wailed loudly, clutching my mother’s hand, then suddenly dropping her head over. My mother gently rubbed her head, and put her another arm around Varuna’s mother. They both cried.
I moved forward, toward the frame, dragging my leg, wrapped in several layers of bandages, behind me. Varuna was dressed in that same royal blue crinoline skirt, frilled edge around the bottom. I touched the frame with my fingers, shivering still. I pretended I was walking with grass under my feet, sunlight on my arms, in the real playground, watching Varuna, playing and running free.
About the Author: Huma Sheikh was born in Kashmir, then came to the United States where she received multiple degrees in creative writing, English literature, and journalism and communication studies. She has taught writing and literature classes at University of South Dakota, Texas A&M University, and Long Island University (Brooklyn). Her chapbook is forthcoming, and her first book of creative nonfiction is in progress. Her work has appeared in various journals and magazines.