Three weeks ago, my 11-year-old Indian American cousin woke me up with a series of heartbreaking text messages. Didi you up? Mom dad and everyone else can’t stop watching the news. Theyre thrilled. Kashmir sounds like kishmish. Whats the lime of control btw? Why do hindus dislike muslims? I had not yet gotten out of bed in my small, sleepy university town in Western Massachusetts. But my aunt and uncle were up early in the morning as friends and neighbors, fellow upper-caste pajama-clad Indian Americans with unbrushed teeth and undemocratic hearts, had gathered in their New Jersey apartment to watch the Home Minister of India officially and unilaterally revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, live from the parliament.
Part of what makes Jammu and Kashmir special is what makes India special. As a kid, I used to mug up from my school textbooks that India is the land of festivals, colors, dances, languages, religions, so on and so forth, but I was unable to appreciate the water in which I was a fish. Now when I go for months without hearing words that I don’t understand, as every cashier in every store asks me to ‘have a good one’ in the exact same tone and pitch, I have to listen to a Rajasthani or a Tamil song just to reorient myself. I need to know that there will always be so much that I don’t know. Therefore, I must constantly remember India, much of which is sort of me but not quite me, because it makes me feel bigger than myself.
In 1947, when the British were withdrawing from India after almost two centuries of colonial regime, Pakistan was breaking away from India into an Islamic nation while the rest of independent India was becoming a secular nation. It could very well have turned into a Hindu nation, in response to its new neighbor, but it chose not to. Instead, it became what some believe to be the world’s most daring political experiment.
I am a Bihari who wears white sarees with golden borders like a Malayali and eats fish curry like a Bengali and sports chunky nose jewelry like a Maharashtrian and curses during traffic jams like a Punjabi and dances dandiya on Falguni Pathak songs like a Gujarati. To contain this mosaic, an elegant incompleteness, is to belong to the universe more completely. What makes India special, therefore, is what makes every human being special, that is a possibility and the ability, albeit not always exercised, to love those unlike ourselves.
But India falters and fails. And I also fall short of myself.
British India had comprised quite a few semi-sovereign princely states with a majority of Hindus under Muslim rulers or a majority of Muslims under Hindu rulers. Would they join India or Pakistan? Jammu and Kashmir was one such state, with a Muslim majority under a Hindu ruler, Maharaja Hari Singh. Although he wanted Jammu and Kashmir to be an independent nation, the maharaja turned to India for help when Pakistan attacked some of the western districts of the region. It was then that we offered military aid to the maharaja on the condition that he would accede to India, if only provisionally. Once the Pakistani invaders had left, the people of Jammu and Kashmir, which continued to have its own flag and constitution and autonomy over internal administration, were to decide whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan or remain independent. India and Pakistan have fought many battles and wars since then, but this day of decision has not yet come. Instead, on August 5, 2019, the Narendra Modi-led Indian government disregarded the provisions of that accession, establishing “one nation, one constitution” and abrogating the separate constitution of Jammu and Kashmir.
Things have changed a great deal since 1947, when a predominantly Hindu nation had embraced a predominantly Muslim region on its own terms and conditions, to the present state of affairs which is a resounding victory for Hindu nationalist forces, for those who refuse to love those unlike themselves. The Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz laments this transformation of India into an almost Hindu Pakistan when she says, “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle.” So it turned out you were just like us.
To celebrate this moment of accession, probably the darkest of the planet’s largest democracy, dozens of people had ended up in my aunt’s apartment in New Jersey. Unlike their Indian counterparts, they couldn’t go out on American streets to beat drums and dance and burst firecrackers and douse each other with colored powder to celebrate the momentous day without drawing unwanted attention. So they celebrated privately and peacefully yet enthusiastically enough to send my curious cousin into a Googling frenzy on his new smartphone.
The Lime of Control? I texted back, sleepy-eyed, before reading the first news notification on my phone, then the second, then the third, then the fourth, until I was covered in goosebumps, frozen and agape. My first instinct was to go back to bed and wake up in an alternate reality where I wouldn’t have to answer my cousin’s questions. I didn’t want to tell a child that the world that our parents are leaving behind for us is now even more broken. However, if I didn’t tell him, then the Hindu nationalist propaganda would inform him that this broken world is in fact a perfect world. And it was not just about him. I, with my upper-caste Hindu privilege, in whose name human rights violations are being committed all over the subcontinent, must constantly remind myself what it means to be a decent human being because entire regimes are trying hard to make me forget. So I steadied my fingers and replied. Oh, you mean the Line of Control.
- The Line of Control, previously known as the Cease-fire Line, is a 740-kilometer long de-facto stretch that divides the region of Jammu and Kashmir into a western portion controlled by Pakistan, comprising Gilgit–Baltistan in the north and Azad Kashmir in the south, and a larger eastern portion controlled by India, also known as the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
- Yet, the rain falls from the sky on one side of the Line of Control exactly as it does on the other.
- Fencing on the Indian side of the Line of Control consists of concertina wire up to 12 feet in height, which is barbed and coiled and electrified and can be expanded like a concertina, a musical instrument similar to the harmonium, which I played as a little girl, pumping the bellows with my left hand, pressing the keys with my right, every Thursday from 4 PM to 5 PM, as my elderly and cheerful music teacher rapped the table for added percussion effects.
- The Line of Control is not just a line of fencing, though; it is made up of people who eat and sleep and dream and live, much like people anywhere else, only far less hopeful of making it through every new day.
- I have never been anywhere close to the Line of Control or met anyone who has, but I have been introduced to it through TV and radio and the internet as the place where the sun sets behind misty mountains covered with lush pine trees while gunshots echo in the distance.
- I have seen people sitting on piles of rubble that used to be their homes, turning to face the camera, looking straight back at me.
- I have seen army tanks practicing shooting bombs in the air and combat helicopters taking off as long green grass speckled with yellow wildflowers shudder in their wake.
- I have seen barbed wires push against night skies as if cutting through the sea of stars.
- I have seen little girls in chequered kurtas and red hijabs trekking up and down the slopes to get to school, an arduous 4½ hour-long round trip they must undertake every day, as an old man with a walking stick and henna-dyed beard accompanied them. At the Line of Control, not all children are able to get an education because there are neither enough schools in the area, nor enough paved roads to help them get there, nor bunkers where they can hide in case of shelling on the way.
- On the walls of the classroom where the little girls in chequered kurtas and red hijabs learn trigonometry, I have seen an agonizingly beautiful irony, the political map of this broken world almost entirely hidden behind a poster depicting the human anatomy.
- I have seen families divided by the Line of Control standing on rocky banks of sparkling turquoise rivers, waiting for their loved ones to show up on the opposite bank, so they can smile, wave, shout out greetings, and toss towards each other carefully wrapped parcels containing cigarettes and biscuits and photographs and notes, as armed men in camouflage uniforms look on.
- I have seen some of the parcels not make it to the other side and land into the river instead as the people dejectedly watch them drift away with the water until someone finds it funny and everyone laughs along, because it is also funny, after all.
- I have seen these divided families sitting at the riverbanks until long after they are done smiling and waving and shouting and tossing parcels, rearranging their shawls and kaftans in the biting cold, unable to stop looking at each other as armed men in camouflage uniforms continue to look on.
- It is no surprise, therefore, that people manage to cross the Line of Control, every now and then, despite the motion sensors and thermal imaging devices, despite the landmines and alarms, because people cannot be divided like landmasses.
- Whatever it is that the Line of Control controls, however, is not limited to Kashmir. The ghost of LOC roams far and wide, and I swear I saw it in June of 2001 when Papa was pouring water on the idol of Shiva, the destroyer, the benefactor, the lord of lords, the death of death, and I got out of bed before announcing that Zareena, my new best friend, and I had decided to do a combined project for the science fair and she was coming home that evening so we could get started on a working model of a solar-powered fan and we would need chart papers, mini solar panels, Thermocol sheets, scissors, glue, resistors, wires, and switches, among other things, and I was going to make a mango milkshake for Zareena when we took a break and it would be so much fun. And Papa paused in prayer as if Shiva himself had ordered him to do so, then quickly finished chanting his mantras before telling me, at the table, breaking his roti without looking into my eyes, “So Zareena is a Muslim, haan?,” to which I cluelessly replied, “What?” and he said, “Nothing.” But I was only in 6th grade at the time, too young to know that it was not nothing, that the glass in which I would serve the mango milkshake to Zareena I’d later discover in the trash can, broken not by accident but deliberately smashed after my new best friend left.
- The ghost of LOC had also visited me when I was just a baby, on December 6,1992, a day I have often overheard Mummy describing to friends and family, telling them how it was a week before my second birthday when they decided to break the mosque that they claimed had once replaced a temple and which they now wanted to replace with another temple to undo what they called a historical injustice that bearded men in skull caps had done unto men with red dots on their foreheads. The TV live-streamed a huge crowd of men surrounding a 16th-century mosque, soon reduced to rubble, as Mummy clutched me in her arms as if to protect me from the sword-bearing men on the screen as well as the ones on the streets outside, chanting, “Jai Shri Ram! Jai Shri Ram!” The truth was that she was herself quite terrified, even though she also prayed to Ram, and it was almost as if she was holding on to me to protect herself, because all we had was each other, because even Papa was on the streets with those maniacal men, carrying a sword, praising his god while celebrating the demolition of a place that housed someone else’s god.
- But the ghost of LOC leaves me alone from time to time, like when I was in high school and not yet an atheist and the sound of the evening azan from the local mosque was my cue to light two incense sticks and an oil lamp before the idol of the monkey god in our prayer room.
- Like when the Kashmiri shawl salesman, Rafiq, arrived at our house on a rickshaw loaded with stacks of woolen wear from the valley that would soon be displayed on our living room floor for my mother to choose from as Rafiq Uncle pulled out a couple of walnuts from his pocket and offered them to me and saying, “Only for you, gudiya, from Kashmir.”
- Like while watching a nail-biting India-Pakistan World Cup match, with firecrackers resounding from the Hindu and Muslim parts of our neighborhood as India and Pakistan scored points respectively, when my younger brother suddenly turned to me and said, “Imagine what an extraordinary cricket team we would be today if the British hadn’t partitioned us in 1947, imagine the batsmen of India and the ballers of Pakistan on the same team…”
- Like when I was walking down the tree-lined lane in our campus with Abdul, my first-ever crush in college, and we silently held each other’s hands.
- Like when I ignored my older cousin, who, when he found out about Abdul, told me to stop seeing him because, as he clarified in his loud and threatening voice, “Why did you have to fall in love with someone called Abdul, why not Amit or Arpit or Anil or Ayush, goddammit?,” unable to see the absurdity of his own words.
- Like when I sneaked into Abdul’s house on Eid and his mother served me delicious biryani and I licked my fingers clean and she insisted, “Have some more, beta!”
- Like when I first moved to the United States and everyone seemed too formal and too busy to want to talk to each other or to me, and I arrived at this convenience store to buy some eggs where the owner spotted me and said, “Hey, where are you from?” and I said, “India, what about you?” and he said, “Oh, we are from the same country! I am from Pakistan!”
- Like when I watched a friend of mine devouring crispy honey beef while lying to her mother on the phone about how delicious the crispy honey baby corn was.
- Last week, the ghost of LOC began to haunt me once again, however, when my government imprisoned Kashmiris in their own land, even shutting down phones and internet.
- Then a friend from Kashmir, currently residing in Bombay, shared with me screenshots of his texts to his mother, undelivered for the past eight days: Hey Mummy. How are you? Are you there? Can you see this? Hope you are fine. I am sure you are fine, Ma. But please reply as soon as you see this. Please keep your phone on. Ma, you there? Eid Mubarak, Mummy. What kind of Eid is this? You there? Miss you, Ma. Mummy? Mummy.
- A few days later, I woke up to pictures of my family celebrating Rakshabandhan, sisters tying brightly colored strings on the wrists of their brothers, feeding each other sweets, laughing, while another friend from Kashmir, living in Delhi at present, texted me a selfie, her eyes sunken, her hair scruffy against the pillow on which she had been lying for who knows how long, captioned, “I don’t remember when I left the house last time.”
- The ghost of LOC breathed down my neck when I watched Youtube videos of more such Kashmiri students who were unable to go back home for Eid because of the curfew, wiping their tears on the streets of Delhi, having heard nothing from their family members in over a week, yet sending them desperate greetings that would not reach them in time for Eid-ul-Adha.
- These days the ghost of LOC and I read Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry first thing after waking up in the morning. Bol, ke lab azaad hain tere/ Bol, zuabaan ab tak teri hai/ Bol, ye thoda waqt bahut hai/ Bol, ke sach zinda hai ab tak/ Bol, jo kuchh kahna hai kah-le…Speak, for you are still free to speak/ Speak, for your tongue is still unshackled/ Speak, this little time is, in fact, a lot/ Speak, the truth is still alive/ Speak, everything you’d ever wished to have spoken.
- Then we take a walk to the poet Agha Shahid Ali’s grave, who grew up in Kashmir and is buried in the cemetery behind my house in New England as if to remind us that Kashmir is everywhere outside of Kashmir, and the ghost of LOC and I hear Shahid recite, I’ve found a prisoner’s letters to a lover—One begins: “These words may never reach you.” Another ends: “The skin dissolves in dew/ without your touch.” And I want to answer: I want to live forever. What else can I say?/ It rains as I write this. Mad heart, be brave,” and we repeat to ourselves on the way back to the house, “Mad heart, be brave, mad heart, be brave, mad heart, be brave…”
- Then we eat old tangerines and imagine a world where we will all live on the same side of the Line of Control and never draw any more lines anywhere else again.
Kritika Pandey is a writer from Jharkhand, India, and a final year candidate at the MFA for Poets and Writers, UMass Amherst, where she is working on her first novel. Her works have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and are forthcoming or have appeared in Guernica, The Bombay Review, Raleigh Review, UCity Review, and eFiction India, among others.