By Robert Bohm
From the window I look out over rooftops. Beyond them in the distance, snowcapped mountain peaks.
Bollywood music plays on a radio or TV somewhere in the hotel.
Read a magazine article about Kashmir this morning. I wrote down how it began: “Traveling here to vacation in a resort overlooking a mountain lake is a holiday worth going into debt for if you can’t get here any other way.”
Go into debt for? Another ad masquerading as an article, what a laugh. Hype no longer lurks in the shadows, it unzips itself in broad daylight while whispering, “Forget the guerilla fighting, forget the corpses in the streets, come and take a tour, trust me, nothing will screw up your visit, everything’s so pretty.”
The scenery is pretty, of course. However, whether this justifies screwing up your credit in order to come here and sightsee remains questionable. Still, people do. They eat at the best restaurants, dance all night, ski at the higher altitudes. Some of their ancestors probably started their family fortunes by setting up lemonade stands at the gates of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Landed in Delhi two days ago, arrived in Srinagar in Kashmir yesterday.
Decent but small hotel, rooms threadbare but tidy, clean bath, net access. Not quite in the center of things but good enough.
During a detour on the way from the airport to hotel I saw a woman dressed in brown salwar kurta throwing stones at a military guardhouse while armed soldiers in berets stood in the street jeering at her. One of them added to the excitement by firing his automatic rifle into the air.
Later we passed narrow street that had been blocked to traffic by unwinding a bale of barbed wire from one side of the street to another, then securing each end to a lamppost.
Wondering about the improvised fence, I pointed toward it and asked the cabdriver, a man in his 40s with bloodshot eyes and a Qur’an in front of him on the dashboard, “Why?”
“If your mother living there you no allowed see her,” he laughed. “Only bad people is there, police say so.”
“Bad people? Who?” I questioned him.
“You must know, I think, sahib. Whoever politicians is saying.”
Hooked up with Tariq earlier today. Watched him walking in his squat roughneck way toward me across the Dhand Gali bridge from Pakistan into Azad Kashmir (Free Kashmir). The bridge is built in the style of the rope bridges that still can be found over gorges and between cliff faces in the local mountains, although this particular bridge’s “ropes” were in fact steel cables. It’s a narrow shaky bridge only slightly wider than a van or SUV and only strong enough to carry one motor vehicle and a few pedestrians at a time. Below the bridge, the Jhelum river flows. As Tariq, his face fractured by a giant grin, approached the end of the bridge, he looked exactly like what he is: a force of nature. It was the first time I’d seen him in 3 years.
This afternoon while rattling over a potholed road to a refugee camp west of Srinagar, it occurred to me our SUV could be the model for an adventure ride for kids at Hershey Amusement Park in PA. A series of coaches constructed to look like SUV’s would transport shrieking passengers through a maze with walls painted to look like mountain vistas and snowy forests. At various points, mechanical dummies, dressed like insurgents, leapt out of hidden holes in the walls while shooting rifles.
Coincident with my vision of this ride, I imagined Janice’s son, Ephram, back home laughing at the top of his lungs at all the excitement such a ride would produce.
The ride, I thought, could even have a soundtrack that reproduced what we heard today while driving to the camp: a singer crooning a ghazal on a goat herder’s radio as we sped by.
Of course, since Ephram’s deaf, he wouldn’t be able to hear her voice over the ride’s sound system, but that’s only a minor problem, one small detail.
(bits and pieces)
In the morning, the vendor sells me
a single Charminar cigarette, which I light
with the small oil lamp on his counter.
As he puts away the gold box
with the red insignia of a triumphal arch on it
I walk down the street
and exhale, the smoke drifting away like the morning’s
Two days ago
a few blocks from here
a motorcycle rider pulled
an AK-47 from under her shawl, then opened fire
while driving past three MP’s
whom she killed, after which
she roared off down Chowringhee Rd.
This is how truth
comes and goes, so quickly
that eyewitnesses later can’t describe
what they saw
— a gang murder? a nuance? a syllogism? an action sequence in a U.S. film? everything
about freedom the indolent don’t want to know?
Yusef Lateef plays flute on my iPod.
The snow’s beautiful
for as long as you can look at it
before the curfew forces you back to your room.
A sacred hair lies in state in a mosque
built 50 years ago on Dal Lake’s shore
by laborers too poor to pay for a trip to Mecca.
The hair, dangling like a rope
from a cliff, is all the uncertain have to cling to.
Although unsure of my movements, I shimmy
up the rope until I make it safely to the ledge above.
My fear of heights means nothing now.
Thousands of feet in the air, I’ve finally reached
The lake laps my boots,
insurgents hide in houses,
eagle owls perch on branches far away in the woods.
I come here again and again, this neighborhood
with its holy shrine, to watch
children throwing stones, not only
in the convenient spring but in
the bitter winter too,
at soldiers patrolling a street that, in spite of their weaponry,
for which no map yet has a name.
In late August 1947, during the Hindu-Muslim clashes following India’s expulsion of the British from the subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, Tariq Rahim’s grandmother was raped and murdered by a Hindu mob while she and her husband tried to escape by train from the Indian state of Punjab to their ancestors’ homeland in Kashmir.
The incident occurred when the train, which was forced to stop in an isolated location because the tracks were blocked by police vehicles, was boarded by rampagers who dragged off all the Muslims, many of whom were later killed. In the case of Tariq Rahim’s grandmother, to add insult to injury her rape and murder were followed by a theatrical act of mockery: the impromptu construction of a funeral pyre upon which she was cremated while a drunken man quoted something in Sanscrit, then claimed to have converted her to Hinduism posthumously. While the man’s audience shouted and laughed, Tariq’s grandfather lay nearby on the ground, terrified and pretending to be dead. Eventually the crowd dispersed and he survived.
Although after recuperating the grandfather finally made it to Kashmir weeks later, he did so as a broken man. In a feeble mental state, and constantly haunted by his wife’s perverse death, he lived the last years of his life with Tariq’s parents who, separately from the old man, also had fled Punjab for Kashmir.
Not just the grandfather but also the rest of the family was traumatized by the grandmother’s death. Even Tariq, who wasn’t born until 1950, grew up with a “memory” of the event. As he told me when I first met him 3 years ago, “While growing up I saw the event so vividly in my mind, I sometimes thought I I’d actually been there and had witnessed the whole gruesome episode with my own eyes.” At the time Tariq told me this, I was in Kashmir for my second assignment here and he was acting as my go-between with insurgents. In this capacity, he arranged for me to meet with representatives from a number of different guerrilla groups. This time he is again helping me.
(Lal Ded – “Mother Lalla”)
I imagine myself naked, sitting bony-buttocked on the ground. A spider walks across my thigh. Grassblades tickle the lips of my vagina. My eyes climb a mountain peak in the distance, then leap
into the blue
above it, but soon
return, aching for
the clarity of edges, the beauty
of the dark skin
and sensuous lips
of a good idea. Inch by inch
I think my way inside wearing
Lalla’s unclothed body like a leotard, feeling
with my ass the dirt beneath me, seeing
with my mind the need for a simplicity so simple that it is truly
complex. A Kashmiri
by birth, Lalla was born in the early 14th century. Her father, an open-minded man, educated her during her early years in spite of the period’s biases against educating girls.
Her father’s attitude, however, didn’t fully protect her from the customs of her era. At age 12 she was married off to an emotionally remote Brahman whose tyrannical mother abused her physically and psychologically, regularly refusing to give her sufficient food. Nonetheless, without complaint she performed her household duties meticulously and obediently. Her apparent obsequiousness, however, was actually an act of passive-aggressive willfulness, announcing to everyone who observed her, “You can do whatever you want to me but you’ll never break my spirit.”
By the time she was in her 20s, Lalla decided being a housewife didn’t suit her. Rejecting family life, she left her husband to pursue a traditionally male goal: the attainment of religious insight through asceticism. To accomplish this, she devoted herself to yoga studies under the tutelage of well-known guru, then later became a holy wanderer, traveling from place to place and singing her poems, many of which expressed a radical, anti-institutional mysticism. Although her original guru was a Shiva devotee who instructed disciples in the art of how to “marry” their souls to Shiva, over the years Lalla incorporated elements of Islam and Buddhism into her thinking also. Still, the metaphor of marrying Shiva remained for her a powerful one which, because it played on the possibility of a bodily link with the highest reality, added an earthy element to her beliefs. Fiercely anti-dogmatic, her goal was to wed body and soul, as well as the I and the Ultimate, not further estrange them. As she proclaims in one of her poems —
God statue made of stone, temple made of stone.
Tall temple and short idol, only stone, undivine.
Which stone do you plan to worship, dimwitted Brahman?
Use your time better. Defy superstition. Achieve mindsoul.
As the years passed, she gained fame/notoriety by pursuing an extremely devout but iconoclastic method of immersing herself in the Ultimate. This iconoclasm included rejecting the wearing of clothing because she considered it an unnecessary barrier between herself and the truths she was seeking.
Her poems and sayings, composed in the common language of the people, are today viewed as the foundation of modern Kashmiri literature. Her stature as both poet and saint-philosopher is the source of one of Kashmir’s most famous proverbs:
“For the Kashmiri people only two words have meaning: Allah and Lalla.”
Lalla’s rejection of religious bureaucracies and unclear thinking defined who she was. Hr adamancy on these matters was unparalleled —
Shiva is in everything, even in nothing.
Hindu and Muslim, an illusory distinction.
Think you’re clever? Then find the self inside yourself.
This is what befriending the Ultimate means.
(dynamiting the Mathura Power Station )
In 1947 at the time of India’s independence and the subcontinent’s British-designed partition into two countries (Pakistan and India), the popular assumption was that Kashmir with its Muslim majority wouldn’t become part of India but would opt to become either an independent territory or integrated into Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the Kashmiri people never got the chance to choose their own destiny. Instead, that destiny was held hostage by Kashmir’s Hindu ruler, Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Kashmir. Singh’s authority over the region had never been popular because it wasn’t rooted in local tradition but rather in British maneuvering. That maneuvering began in the mid-19th century when the British sold Kashmir and its population to Singh’s warlord grandfather who set in motion what would become a family custom: forcing the Muslims under their control to abide by Hindu traditions. The animosity springing from this practice persisted for decades, taking dramatic form during India’s anticolonial struggle. While Indians throughout the subcontinent joined the “quit India” movement to force the British to leave the country, the majority of Kashmiris started their own crusade, the “quit Kashmir” movement whose purpose was to halt Hindu control of predominantly Muslim region.
The tensions springing from this situation resulted in Pakistan’s October 1947 invasion of Kashmir. After penetrating the Kashmiri border in a remote mountainous region western of Srinagar, troops blew up a power station that provided Kashmir with electricity all the way from its border with Pakistan to its border with China.
The Maharaja, knowing that he had little popular support, struck a deal with Delhi for protection. The deal resulted in the introduction of the Indian military into Kashmir, Pakistan’s defeat and the crushing of all local dissent.
The agreement between Hari Singh and the Indian government contained two elements that have shaped Kashmir’s history until today. First, the Maharaja agreed that Kashmir would become part of India. Second, India promised Kashmiris that a plebiscite would be held at some point in the future so they could decide on their own whether to remain part of India, integrate with Pakistan or choose an independent course.
That plebiscite has never occurred. This is why many Kashmiris, although they themselves are not insurgents nor promoters of violence, support the nation’s anti-Indian guerrillas. They feel they have no other choice. Not only has nothing else worked, but India’s military and paramilitary presence in Kashmir has made the state one of the world’s most militarized zones, housing 700,000 Indian troops at one point. From 1991 through 2001 alone, international observers have estimated that Indian troops killed at least 37,000 people in the region, many of them civilians.
When Pakistanis blew up the Mathura power station in 1947, not only did they put out the lights in Kashmir but, unknown to them at the time, their act was symbolic, foreshadowing Kashmir’s dark future, during which
in another century, a door
would crash open, as if
to let in
the snowflaked wind so the mother inside, feeling
claustrophobic in the house,
could be jolted
into a different mood, but it wasn’t
the wind pouring in, it was
a song with a beat like boots stomping
a wood floor, and there
were teeth too or were they
icicles hanging from
a roof-edge, but she couldn’t
answer that, couldn’t even
figure out why the sounds she made
didn’t take the form
of words, but seeing, now that
was still possible – just look over there, she thought, eying
how the funny men
made her 3 daughters one by one
warble with joy as the men
banged them good
so the girls would know from then on
that what the border police wanted
the border police got, even if it meant
they gave the bleeding hearts
one more thing to bitch about, although the mother herself
surprising the soldiers
bitch about anything, finding
greater relief by throwing herself into Allah’s arms, opened wide
as they were
at the bottom
of the river, all of this being
right at the height
of hordes of troops squeezing into
compact space, the invasion
it exactly like
a sharp object or
a hard-on does a vagina when the military decides
the locals need to learn a thing or two about
who’s in control and who isn’t.
When the apple harvest is long over
and the high mountain passes are blocked
the mind is surprised
at its own noise as the artillery
Winter, when the land is harshest and people
getting lost in blizzards and never returning home
occurs too often, is still
the best time here, it being
the season when the Indian Border Police
kill less people per capita
than at other times of the year.
While anti-government guerrillas rest,
at greater altitudes
a musk deer moves silently
hearing everything in spite
of the wind whining through the trees all around him
in the storm.
(more than 50 years later)
The dynamite that blew up back then
decades later blows up again.
Now as before the lights go out.
Still no vote for the people. Only a plebiscite of blood.
Tariq, laughing and claiming
to be a Sufi mystic, asks,
“How many special forces are needed
to place the genii back in the bottle?”
A vendor lies dead next to a stack
of wooden cages with parrots in them.
Soldiers everywhere, like Christ’s apostles
after Pentecost standing on streetcorners, tell
the people, “Pay attention. Accept
our new gospel. Or else.”
The border patrol loves when the snows come
and the fighting slows for awhile.
Even then, though, they look around warily.
Slinking toward them like a white leopard
in a blizzard, an unforeseen awareness
Snow-covered tree branches creak in the wind,
small lights burn in Lake Dal’s icebound houseboats,
no one’s seen the moon for days.
Wind-whipped snowdrifts, changing shape
in the high passes, revel
in how dark their brightness is.
A few soldiers awaken frightened in their bunks, others
sleep soundly, snow-covered pine branches sag.
Like a plate of curried goat, nothing lasts forever, not even
an occupying army.
Unsure where to go, a Brahman
plods through snow, reciting
Sanscrit mantras and leaping, like a suicide into a well, into
an owl’s unblinking gaze.
The night’s noises make a music beyond
ignorant notions of harmony.
Day in and day out, people’s esteem
for the mute, immovable peaks deepens.
A towering that long ago fell silent,
the mountains gaze at what they can’t see.
The rabbit’s paw prints in the snow
know nothing about where the rabbit’s gone.
Like everything else, purity
is at large tonight, surviving the best it can.
Sleeping in the snowy forest, it hugs
its rifle while waiting for the muezzin’s morning call.
“This is what tenderness looks like,”
remarks the silence, awed by the sleeper,
“Only the naked are properly clothed.”
Here at the lake’s edge, a house-
boat drifts, a thought
at anchor. At mid-
afternoon, the water’s surface: brighter
than the eyes
can stand. Ulfat, dead
in the houseboat, is
the thought’s stopped heart, killed
not by the pistol
he stuck in his mouth, but by
what the icy mountain peaks
beyond the city don’t reveal about the line
between where the Imam’s voice tapers
to nothing and the mantra
chanted by his friend Arun’s uncle
starts. Unlike the poppies’
spontaneous plebiscite each spring, the valley’s
people, wandering on either side
of Ulfat’s ungrasped line, need
a manufactured one, as promised once by Delhi
but never given. The snow leopard
crouched on a snowy ridge: easier
to spot than the future is. Fewer
tourists come now. The day
afterwards, when his sister
finds him on the floor, they haul
the corpse away. Mourners
with automatic rifles follow
the body’s route. All the dead
are heros now in the valley
of poppies and unsolved riddles. Truth’s
alpine incline. The nice
early-spring day ascends. To ice.
(the act of meditation)
I listen to the muezzin’s call to prayer.
Sunlight sparkles on the lake’s wavelets.
I stare until the light blurs into a single flame
and the mortars’ sound fades to a lullaby.
I listen to the muezzin’s call to prayer.
In the stillness, somebody screams:
a loved one has been wounded or died.
Snowcapped mountains rise in the distance.
I listen to the muezzin’s call to prayer.
Looking intently, I refocus on what’s near.
The mind, lost in a snowstorm, shivers.
I listen to the muezzin’s call to prayer.
(pocket-sized notebook containing random jottings)
It was a sound, one worker said, like something giving way at the back of the mind. A sort of
in the distance, slowly growing
louder, louder. And then
5 highway laborers were dead, crushed
by an avalanche in Zojilla pass
on the way
from Srinagar to Leh.
Saaliha. Not a face most people would call pretty — long, and overly thin, and sallow. Still, she has a way about her. Taller than average, she stands erect, wears no burkha and looks you straight in the eyes when she talks. She might not be physically attractive, but she is impressive as a person.
She studied literature for 7 years in the U.S. and still has a surprising feel for American slang although she’s been home now for more than 15 years.
Her brother committed suicide. She talks about this, it seems at first, emotionlessly. Only gradually does one sense her voice’s biting undertone. I’m cautious when speaking with her since I know from sources that she’s a JKLF member who doesn’t take kindly to falsity or posturing. JKLF is one of Kashmir’s key insurgent groups.
“It used to be more dope here,” she smiles, pleased with her use of a hip-hop phrase, then adds dryly, “The corpses on the sides of the roads detract from the quaint houseboats on the lake, don’t you think?”
I see her almost daily, wrinkled-faced and small-statured, a food vendor in the city’s Lal Chowk district. Every day in accord with a practice described in an ancient Buddhist text, she bathes a foot-high statue of the Buddha in warm water in which she has previously boiled herbs. Pouring the water from a pitcher with her left hand, she cleans the Buddha with her right, even his nostrils and the insides of his ears, as if washing a baby. The procedure takes her 15-20 minutes and while performing it she never speaks to prospective customers. If they want to buy a dish of her hot mutton yakhani, they must wait until she’s done with the statue’s cleansing.
Tariq introduces me to Ahmed, a man above average height with a thick black beard who’s standing in the middle of a herd of goats. Following Tariq’s instruction, Ahmed grabs the goat by the snout, pulls back its head and shows me the hair under its jaw and along the neck. What he wants me to see is the intermixture of coarse hairs and fine silky ones. “When the goats are sheared and the fine hairs separated from the coarse ones by machine,” he tells me, “the fine ones are used to make shawls.”
But this is all secondary to him. Ten of his goats have already died this year because not only is most of their grazing land covered by unusually heavy snows, but he is also short on fodder.
“This is not good for me,” he says, “not good for family.”
It’s mid-afternoon. Higher up the mountain, sunlight reflects blindingly off snow on a rock precipice.
Conversation fragment at meeting in a house following a security forces attack on a neighborhood, leaving 3 civilians dead.
Man. “One son dead today, another dead two years ago. What is there to live for?
Boy. “I can’t find my ball” I want my ball!”
Girl. “He’s lying, he has the ball, but it’s my ball!”
Woman. “What isn’t there to live for? No one ever knows what happens next.”
Second man. “It is colder than last year. No wonder the passes are already blocked with snow.”
The locals never tire of telling the story, how
like a spirit refusing to go unheard
the fire leaps
in a recurrent 1993 moment
from one building
to another, as if
not only Lal Chowk
but everything inside their heads is about
to burn to the ground –
close to 200 shops arsoned,
over 100 people killed,
one shrine up in smoke
and over there, look! potential escapees
— civilians —
crowded in shikara boats, fleeing
to the Jhelum river’s far shore, until
they’re catapulted like unwanted ideas
into the water by
Border Security Force marksmen, concentrating
on their objective
as zealously as advertizing agents
gazing at a blank page
Although more religious than political, Lal Ded’s psychological makeup implies a certain stance vis-a-vi the world that has political implications. Her religious anti-authoritarianism reinforces all anti-authoritarianisms and her concept of the belief that never dies translates into a willfulness that pursues its goals to the end, no matter how many self-transformations and re-routings might be required —
When the sacred texts disappear, only what they point to remains.
When what they point to fades, nothing but the mind stays behind.
When the mind goes missing, emptiness is everywhere.
It’s then that voice and void combine.
Srinagar, sliced in half
by the Jhelum river: a mind
divided against itself.
Split, the seductions
of an easy cohesion elude it.
It is what it is, a recalcitrant profusion.
Like a heavy rain, expectation seeps
through mosque ceilings, staining them
the color of bruises.
A block away, a scream. Where is the silence
the faithful pray will absorb it? Where
the pillow made from the goat’s silkiest hairs?
Like the Jhelum hurtling
against boulders in a gorge,
hope bursts darkly through the heart.
We talked for more than an hour.
When I first met her the other day, I didn’t think she was particularly attractive. I no longer remember why I thought that. Although she’s plain in some respects, there’s something stately about her, imposing. Her large dark eyes and sharp-boned face are part of this. When she’s in a room, she’s a dominating figure, both physically, because of her height and face and nice body, and intellectually because of her quick-mindedness.
Today when a local journalist commented on what he believed to be the U.S.’s “misguided but well-intentioned” aims in the Mideast , she responded with a Kashmiri proverb, “Like an ignorant man, an ignorant country always thinks it can retrieve pears from a willow tree.”
Later while walking back to the hotel, I wandered through Lal Chowk. It was late afternoon and the food smells from restaurants made me suddenly hungry. I thought of stopping at the Buddhist yakhani seller’s but wasn’t in the mood to eat while standing outside, so I postponed my meal for a few minutes until I came to a familiar restaurant that I knew served dum aloo, potato curry in a creamy gravy. For whatever reason, that was what I was hungry for along with a heaping plate of steamed rice.
After finishing two large portions of dum aloo, I felt like I’d barely eaten so I ordered something else, a spicy lamb dish served in a thick red sauce. I was starving.
(light through the holes)
Last night Tariq and I drank beer in the hotel after returning from Haigam, a village forty kilometers north of Srinagar. While in the village we spoke with a variety of residents, all of them still emotional about a nonviolent protest a few years ago during which Indian troops killed demonstrators. The residents also discussed the events surrounding the alleged killing of Jalil Ahmed Shah, an anti-government leader who died while in police custody.
It had been a tiring day and as we sat in the room drinking our beers, Tariq, drifting away from the here-and-now, started talking about his past. Particularly his grandfather.
This is what he told me.
By the time Tariq was 6 or 7 and old enough to get to know the old man, the fellow was no longer quite sane, having been traumatized, as I wrote about in one of my other notes, by his wife’s violent death and his anxiety-ridden journey to Kashmir from Punjab.
Yet in spite of often seeming to live in a fog when Tariq was a boy, the grandfather also had another side to him, devoting himself for many hours a day to a skill he’d learned when young and had never abandoned: wood carving. He was particularly adept at carving animals, bowls and decorative boxes out of walnut. One day, though, he set aside these small-scale projects in favor of starting a more complex one: carving a large walnut wall panel about 7 feet high and 3 feet wide.
It took the grandfather months to bring the panel to conclusion. But when he was done, it was worth it: he had produced a beautiful, intricate pattern of trees, vines and birds in a lattice style. After polishing the finished piece with wax, its shiny artistry stunned the whole family, but what stunned them even more was that, upon the panel’s completion, the old fellow placed it in a corner, immediately forgot about it and started carving another panel. As the weeks passed, his disinterest in the completed panel remained. He gave all his attention to the new one he was working on. Other family members, however, continued to marvel at the finished panel’s sensuous, carved lines. One of his most vivid memories of the piece, Tariq told me, was of his father standing it upright in their house’s open doorway so the sunlight shined through the lattice openings. “It was like something from another world,” he remarked with reverence in his voice.
Often while his grandfather worked, Tariq sat next to him and watched. He loved the old fellow’s strong hands and how confidently they manipulated the wood as he silently carved it in accord with his sense of how every vine curve and bird shape should look. Although everyone else considered the old man strange, Tariq found him not only fascinating but admirable.
“He’s the one in the family I learned the most from,” he said. “His whole world had fallen apart ad yet through focus, in his case on the act of carving, he held chaos together and made it livable. I was only a boy at the time, but somehow I sensed the psychological dimension of his art and realized how heroic his effort was to survive. This was his gift to me. Because of it, here I am – alive, moderately happy and not a suicide,” he laughed in conclusion.
Alive, yes, but although he has a bigger-than-life personality, one can see the wear and tear. He looks 10 years older than he is.
Landing in soft piles on the ground
like gulmohar flowers fallen from a tree:
Lalla’s clothes when she removes them.
Nipples stiffening in the mountain air, she sits
crosslegged on a boulder while listening
to the silence’s crescendos.
The ant’s footfalls on a twig echo louder
than a tabla player’s solo.
A cloud shadow, like the rag used by a saddhu
to polish a temple gong,
swishes across a lake.
At dawn, opening her eyes, Lalla composes a verse:
When the moon-illuminated night ends, I embrace
the crazy wanderer whose name is “Self.”
I soothe his torment by bathing it with love of the divine.
Later, crying, “It is me! It is me!” I awaken the whole universe,
fuck it wildly, pure at last in body and mind.
(awake before daybreak)
The winding, uphill path
from Ahmed’s house
soon enough, heading
along a ridge to where I stand
in the day’s first light
gazing into the distance, my body
still achy from sleeping last night
on the floor. Exhausted, in spite
of the cold I sit
on the ground, back
against a boulder, and
try to rest for a minute, but instead
doze off for 15, then
awaken with a start, suddenly frightened
by the sound of the wind — which is when
getting back on my feet I see
not far ahead, near where the land slopes down
into a field, a woman
on her knees, scraping
in the snow, as if digging
for roots or maybe
just some grass to eat. Spotting me
she leaps up
and tramps quickly away
while I stare after her, weighed down
by my backpack, into which I’ve crammed
along with my laptop
snacks and an extra scarf and gloves. Finally, knowing
I can’t stop now, I leave, traipsing
into the wind toward
a hut a mile or two away in which
according to my instructions
I’ll find a boy who’ll take me to a village
where many people I am told
will have important things to say.
(revisiting a previous note)
A few days after arriving, I wrote, “This afternoon while rattling over a potholed road to a refugee camp west of Srinagar, it occurred to me our SUV could be the model for an adventure ride for kids at Hershey Amusement Park in PA.”
Thinking about the amusement park metaphor in my idle moments since then, I’ve concluded it’s too old-fashioned.
A computer game’s more like it, more technologically modern. Play it on a desktop, a cell phone, an iPod, a laptop. It’s a romp you can take with you anywhere you go.
Sometimes, though, you don’t need to take anything along when you travel, particularly on those special journeys when you go someplace without actually going there. This is what cyberspace allows. Visiting a location no longer requires one’s physical presence. All you need is the location’s digital coordinates and a mouse or a joystick. Before you know it you’re sitting at your computer in Trenton or Dubuque, directing a drone bomber’s flight half a world away over the Afghan-Pakistan border. As you descend to the proper payload-delivery altitude you can almost smell the chickpeas cooking in the mountain-dwellers’ huts. But are you actually there, flying above this particular village? The buildings blowing up and the corpses in the rubble prove you are.
Regarding the Kashmir video game, I imagine kids oohing and ahing their way to happiness heaven while riding as passengers in a virtual SUV. I see them speeding up and down mountain slopes, across landscapes dotted with mosques and Hindu temples, through narrow-streeted city districts where guerrillas and Indian soldiers go at it hot and heavy, shelling each other, assassinating enemies. There also would be an x-rated adult level to the game, blockable by parents who want to prevent their children from playing, that would allow interested players 18 years and up to participate in virtual rapes of Muslim women living in districts designated as hostile neighborhoods by Indian security forces. The rapes would be depicted not as gender crimes but as a type of Marshall law technique employed to keep insurgent communities in line. To make the raping as tactile as possible, the player would wear an electrode-rigged bodysuit that, once hooked up to a computer via a USB cable, would receive electronic signals from the computer. These signals, by triggering mini-vibrators and other pressure creating devices built into the bodysuit, would create a full simulated sexual experience from the moment of the victim’s initial physical subjugation to the rape’s completion in penetration and ejaculation.
Such a game, or a variation on it, will be on sale somewhere soon, you can bet your life on it. And as technology advances and the parameters for virtual gaming grow ever wider, with new kinds of electronic sensors being used to turn virtual experiences into ones that satisfy all of the human senses, the game will become as harrowing, and eventually even more so, as the war it replicates. Ultimately. the virtual illusion of blood and guts splattered everywhere will out-real the gory details of actual physical deaths, thereby making the virtual more visceral than the visceral.
This is the direction we’re headed in. Virtual gaming’s on the verge of transcending its current limits by using technological advances that allow players to feel, taste and smell as well as see and hear the carnage they’re creating all around them. This goal is built into the technology. In order to succeed, the virtual must become the visceral in order to provide the ultimate experience.
For the Kashmir game as for other games, this would mean that the game’s purpose is to insure, sensorily and intellectually, that the game-player is supreme, that the game exists solely for her or his pleasure and satisfaction.
Those who are played (i.e., those being mutilated, colonized, raped and killed) are of course the losers. The enemy.
In the ultimate video war game, real people in real countries will die in accord with how well the gamer, sitting at her or his computer in another country, manipulates the cartoon figures on the monitor.
Growing bored after a while, the player will go out clubbing or grab a bite to eat with a friend.
War reporters will no longer have to travel then. Instead, they’ll sit at home and check virtual game scores on the internet.
At night, in an encyclopedia made
of stone and dirt
the root’s history
is the root itself. I study
the a.m. dark, hoping there’s something
to glean. Snow
hides everything. At dawn
with a useless laptop in my sack, I listen
to silence’s vigilance, how it crouches
in trenches and behind trees. Not
far away, day’s
first rifle fire. Later, a bomb explodes. Here
a canteen’s water, dirt under fingernails, morning’s
call to prayer, after which
— and then it’s night again,
the wolf moon howls in the mountain forest.
The next morning, I piss on a cliff that overlooks boulders
between which a path winds upwards.
Nothing exotic up there.
Only thin air, hard breathing, rock, snow, ice
and white sky
— and then
Delhi digs in,
the Border Police riot,
8 more Kashmiris dead.