Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Cry of the Valley

A cold winter night has fallen outside and the power cut makes it all the more gloomy inside. Huddled together in the warmth of blankets and a kerosene lamp we just sit silently watching each others expressions. I am too young a kid to understand the full implications of what is happening and my younger sister is busy watching a small bug circling the candle our mother had lit in the gallery just outside the kitchen. My thoughts drift from game of cricket I'd played earlier that day to how bright the snow makes outside look. Among all these childish thoughts is a nagging feeling that I'm just not able to get rid of. I feel I'm never going to be in this house again. Never ever in my life will I play cricket with these friends again. Never ever will mother and father have the careless laughs that I so love. Never ever will the things be same again.

It started a few months before in summer when I came home after an extended play session with my friends. Father was waiting for me on the porch of our relatively new house. We were still building the second floor and it already looked like the biggest and the most beautiful house in the community. I especially liked the way the roof was built. There were multiple parts slanting over each other and I couldn’t wait for winter to see the snow sliding off these. I knew father had worked day and night to take us from a one room kitchen-cum-bedroom place to this house. The evidence of his hard work was on his callous fingertips that had hardened by continuous writing on multiple carbon separated sheets of paper that he used while teaching. I met him at the porch of our house and my instincts had sharpened enough to know that I was in trouble. But usually I knew beforehand. This time did not have the slightest of clues. The day had been good so far and I had behaved within reasonable limits. The bigger issue was not that I was in for a tough time, the problem was that I did not know the severity of the mischief I was going to be accused of and therefore couldn’t estimate the severity of the punishment. Anyway, I sat down with a feeling of a lump in my throat. Then he told me something that surprised me. He had heard me arguing with a couple of friends over a game of cricket a few hours earlier. He told me that I was to stop doing that I should either play without arguments or stop going out for fun altogether. I couldn’t understand this. From the time I could remember, these small arguments were the part of fun we kids had. Elders never cared to comment on such silly things and now I was facing an expression on my fathers face which was as serious as it I've ever known it. If I didn’t know my father better I'd have argued to get to the bottom of this but wizened with previous unpleasant thrashings I decided against that.

I didn’t have to wait long to get the cause of my father's concern. In a couple of weeks one of my cricketing buddies was missing from the game. When I suggested that friend we should go to his home and call him, one other friend said that he was not home but had traveled across the border to get training in handling weapons. Without me knowing so at that time, I'd just had my first brush with the extremism that would change our lives forever. Suddenly the world around me had changed in a way that I could never imagine. My friends one-by-started going missing. Muslim kids went across the border and Hindus mainly started to migrate across to other parts of the country. I started spending more and more time at home. When the schools closed the previous fall for winter break little did anyone know that they would never reopen. As a child that was a welcome development for me. I could have all the time in the world to myself for play and mischief. But the irony was that I couldn’t go out anymore and there was nobody else to go out with.

Then the series of events started that added terror to the misery. Repeated announcements from the loudspeakers from religious mosques urged all the non-supporters of the terror movement to leave the valley within a few hours or get ready to die. Old time friends came home to assure us that we had nothing to fear. After all, my father had taught almost every kid in the 200 km radius. Of course we would be taken care of and no one could harm us. And in some time father's old students started coming home trying to make us feel safe while emphasizing how high they were in the terror chain. They would come to make sure that we had enough food during the times that food was not available in the local market due to various strikes and government curfews. This frequent contact by the extremist entities did little to allay our fears. In fact, if anything it made my parents all the more worried about our welfare and safety. Every morning we would hear of one more neighbor that had fled the valley in the dark of the night. Many nights we were woken to the sounds of taxis gets loaded with whatever valuables and memorabilia people could gather. We would sit in dark and in muffled voices try to guess which family would be fleeing this time. Another friend that would not be there for me to play with in the morning: another house that will be occupied by mean looking people that we had never seen before.

The violence in the valley kept growing by leaps and bounds that winter. We got used to the sound of gunfire, endless police charges and seemingly continuous curfews. As children we did not mind much of it. What was not to like: no school, no homework and lots of cricket with whoever was still around to kill the time. Thinking back, I sometimes feel thankful that I did not have the maturity to comprehend how close we were living to death. Father would go to work whenever conditions allowed and come back with stories of what he saw in the town. A couple of times he mentioned meeting an old acquaintance on the way to work or back and within a few hours we got to know that the person was gunned down a few blocks from where father had met him. We got so used to the nightly gunfire that we wouldn’t let it interrupt our daily routines or whatever was left of it. If the firing started outside while we were having dinner, we would just carry our plates to a safer place away from windows and continue with our meals. Thinking about these things sends shivers down my spine now and I realize what my parents must've been going through, but at that time I wasn’t too bothered.

Slowly but surely the thought of leaving the valley had started brewing in my parents' minds too. They had invested their life's earnings: both material and emotional in our new house that my father was working on till the last month we left the valley. They were getting troubled about the fact that our education was suffering and at minimum my father wanted me and my sister to get out of the valley so we could go to a school that remained open for more than three days a month. The thought of leaving home started making its way into my head too. I remember feeling quite sad on thinking that I might never see our house again. Today it is quite surprising for me to believe that I was capable of such an intense emotion at that age. But at the same time it feels comforting to know that I left that place with appropriate unhappiness. I don’t know if I could handle the thought that I had no idea of what I was losing when we left the valley. Though what I lost was much more than just a house, it still comforts me that I was aware of losing something big. The final nail in the coffin was driven the day one of our family friends visited home on his regular mission to make us feel safe. While talking about the fact that we had nothing to worry about he happened to mention that once the extremism takes more solid roots in the valley, we would have to convert our faith and things would be just dandy thereafter. Now, I think of myself as a much more tolerant person of other faiths than my parents. But I can't digest someone telling me to change my faith to save my life. So my parents decided that it was time for the kids to leave the valley. We could continue our studies outside the valley in a safe environment while my parent would stay back and decide on the next course of action. My uncle already worked outside the valley and we were supposed to go and stay with him.

There was a catch though. My grandparents still lived in the valley in another town and they didn’t feel safe either. Being old they could not take care of travel arrangements by themselves. My father also wanted them to travel early so that if something bad happened at my place at least they would be safe. So the plan was made for me and my father to go to my grandparents' place and then take them outside the valley. My mother gathered all the expensive ornaments that she could get her hands on and put them together in a cloth bag and sew it close. The bag was then attached to the inside of my fathers shirt for safe keeping. I do not remember taking a last look at our house when we were leaving. Right now I will give a fortune to get that moment back so that I can just see that house once more, run through all the rooms and the backyard. Swing the rope that we had tied to the tree outside just one last time. While traveling to my grandpa's place we met a couple of father's acquaintances who jokingly asked him if he was planning to leave and told him that he has nothing to worry about in the valley. We reached grandpa's place in the afternoon. The tricky part now was to get a cab to take us outside the valley without getting shot in the process. Any suspicions raised could get us all killed. I have no idea how it was done but father went out for a very tense couple of hours and came back with a good news. He said we have to be ready at the crack of dawn and a cab will come to pick us up. Grandma collected everything that she thought valuable and would fit in the trunk of a cab. Considering that she was leaving a three story house that she had lived in since her wedding, I cannot imaging what the decision process for her would have been when she was picking things to take with her. We cleaned the house one last time in the hope that when we come back it would still be inhabitable and the settled for a long night's wait. Everyone was scared and this time the fear had gotten to my young mind too. Nobody slept and we kept talking in whispers throughout the night. As the dawn approached our hearts leaped on any sound of an automobile or a human outside. We kept watching through the small window cracks, that we did not open fully for the fear of getting shot and waited for our cab. After what seemed to be an eternity, the cab arrived and we were ready to leave. But father asked us to wait. He wanted to make sure that it was the same driver who he expected and also that he was alone. There were stories around about cab drivers who would inform extremists in return for the share of the victim's house and other belongings. While we were waiting we suddenly saw two people appear from an alley and talk to the cab driver for a few minutes. I can't begin to fathom what my father and grandparents must have been going through at that time. We waited till the people who had come from the alley finished talking to the driver and went back into the alley. My father was not ready to step out as yet. Surprisingly, the driver got into his cab and sped off without us.

The day that came was the one of the longest of my life. We all huddled together in one room with windows closed and lights turned off. We kept making theories about what must've happened between the cabbie and the strangers in the morning. But none of the stories were encouraging. I wanted to talk to my mother but those days we did not have phones in every house in the valley. I did not even know anyone in my neighborhood who had one. So we kept waiting for something to happen in that small room. We had cleaned the kitchen off the previous day so there was nothing to eat. We survived that day and the coming night with water and lot of muffled talk. While it was agreed upon that going out was not safe, it was also decided that the current situation was not sustainable. So my father said he will try for another cab in the morning. We all had our fears but nobody could think of any alternatives. Early at dawn we were again stuck to the slots of window openings looking outside at the empty street when we saw the cab stop outside our house. The same driver again and apparently alone. After waiting a few minutes, father went out and had a few words with him. He came back and asked us to hurry out into the cab. Talking to the cabbie later revealed that the strangers were asking him about the details of his passengers the previous day. He did not tell them much but he decided that it wouldn’t have been safe for us to come out in open under such conditions so the went back. In about 9 hours after a serpentine road trip, a nap and a full meal we were outside the valley.

My uncle was not happy about letting my father go back to get my mother and sister from the valley. He thought it was too risky. Someone from my grandparents town might have noticed that they had left and if the word went to my town, people would deduce from my fathers absence that he had left too. It would be a problem for him if he showed up in the valley again. It took father two days to convince my uncle that there was no other option but for my father to go back and make sure that mother and my sister were safe. He, however, promised that instead of staying in the valley he would come back with the complete family in a few days. He would not leave us children but we would all stay together till the conditions in the valley improved. Father was scheduled to travel back on the third day but early that morning a cab brought my mother and sister to my uncle's place. My fathers absence had made the people around suspicious and my mother thought that waiting for him to return back was not safe for anybody. She is my hero for she single handedly managed to get herself and my sister out in such a tense situation. We lived in a male dominated society where women hardly ventured out. The same process had made two men and a boy remember God just a few days back and she had pulled it off alone. She also managed to get with her some groceries and essentials that would last us a few weeks while father tried to get us back on our feet right from scratch. He was again in a situation where he had no money and a family to take care of. But the warm thoughts of going back home soon kept him active and working.

After more than 19 years of leaving the valley, I have left the state and the country for education and work. I am currently thousands of miles away from my first home. I have never set foot in the valley again. Though a couple of months back I flew over the valley when I was visiting my parents back in my country. The plane flew quite low and I kept searching for that vaguely familiar rooftop that has imprinted itself on my mind. Of course, I couldn’t place anything I saw but the urge to jump off the plane was intense. I know one day I will see that place again. The house will still be there surrounded by the red brick wall and lush landscaped grass with flowers. Mother's kitchen garden would still have lot of vegetables and fresh fruit and my toys would still be there under the patio in the back. I know that some people have moved into the house and we hope that they care for it like mother did. For me the life will have come full circle if the last thing I ever see is the first thing I remember.