From an early age, maybe 6 or 7, Sukhpreet did strange things. He would go to the corners of the house walls and talk. When his parents questioned him, he said he was talking to his friend, Manti. Strangely, he had no friend or acquaintance by that name at school or in the neighbourhood. At the same age, Sukhpreet also claimed to have 2 siblings and another set of parents in Jammu. His parents took such instances lightly.
One thing that everyone knew about Sukhpreet was his obsession for their ancestral home. After Indo-Pak partition, the family had migrated to Kashmir, India from Haripur Hazara, Pakistan. Paramjeet Singh, Sukhpreet’s father, was born in independent India’s beautiful valley of Kashmir where he spent most of his life. When terrorism saw an upsurge in the 1990s, the whole clan shifted to New Delhi. Sukhpreet was born there after a few months.
He grew up listening to stories about Kashmir – its bone-chilling climate, vivacious culture and days of turbulence. Paramjeet used to tell how water would sometimes freeze while mopping the floor and the kangri they carried inside the phiran during freezing weather. He also narrated about times when Emergency rule and curfews were imposed.
As time passed, Sukhpreet’s imaginary cousins were remembered only during family humour conversations. But his hankering for Kashmir kept growing. For this reason, he started saving money for a family vacation to Kashmir. By the time he turned 18, Sukhpreet had saved enough for a road trip to Kashmir.
For Sukhpreet, it was the most awaited time as his long-buried desire was nearing fulfilment. For Paramjeet, it was going to be an emotional moment. He would soon meet his childhood friends and business partners and see his birth land after 20 years – all of which he had to bequeath forcibly.
It was August 2009; their grey Maruti Zen promised a comforting ride. To escape traffic, they started off in the wee hours of the morning. Fresh breeze through the open car windows kept them awake. Hindi classical songs rejuvenated their souls, except Sukhpreet’s sister. She enjoyed the latest Bollywood more.
As the sun rose, the Singhs stopped for breakfast at a dhaba in Ambala. Savouring their favourite paranthas, they discussed the journey ahead. Sukhpreet checked his phone. Jammu was 6 hours away, where they had planned a night halt. After resting in Jammu, they left for Kashmir the next morning. The adventurous drive offered an abundance of natural beauty. Large tunnels cut through the hills, twisty-curvy turns, and the drive above gushing rivers; everything amazed them.
They reached Kashmir by noon. After entering their village, Kupwara, Paramjeet called up his childhood friend, Hafiz. As excited as the Singhs, Hafiz came to receive them in a jiffy. Paramjeet and Hafiz hugged each other after 20 years. Everyone was teary-eyed. Sukhpreet saw his father cry like this for the first time. After hugging and looking at each other enough, Hafiz exchanged greetings with others.
Moments later, they buzzed off to Hafiz’s home, where he lived with his wife, 2 daughters and a son. The reunion at Hafiz’s home was a sight. There was sheer elation and the hosts made every effort to make their friends feel at home.
For lunch, the hosts served Rajma Chawal, a cuisine that Sukhpreet and everyone in the family relished more because the red Rajma were authentic, grown in Kashmir. Hafiz knew about Sukhpreet’s choices; he knew that their visit was possible only because of him. By now even Paramjeet had realised that what started as Sukhpreet’s childish demand had turned into a boon for him. He cherished every bit of the journey back home, a place he thought he could never return to. How he was thrown out of the place had always pinched him, though he seldom expressed.
After discussing current life, conversations shifted to the obvious – what happened in 1990. Sukhpreet carefully listened to his father – “we used to receive threatening letters from terrorists to vacate our own land; those bastards killed my friend, Kuljeet”. For some time, there was complete silence in the living room.
Sukhpreet’s eyes turned to the beautiful carpet on which they sat in traditional Kashmiri style. The room’s walls boasted of attractive handmade carvings. More than anyone, Sukhpreet was awed with Kashmiri culture. He felt inside a huge calling, he wanted to be here forever, he wanted to call it home.
The next day, the Singhs relished noon chai and kulcha in breakfast and set-off to meet other village people. Accompanied by Hafiz, they almost went door to door. When Paramjeet met Obdullah, his old business partner, it moved the entire crowd. The whole village not only witnessed an epic reunion but also became a part of it.
The early-evening plan was for Aathvatu, a picnic spot in the village outskirts. This place was on top of Sukhpreet’s list as he had seen its pictures in their family album. Aathvatu was just 12 kilometres away, but the challenge was the steep roadway to reach there. Hafiz’s son, Mohsin, accompanied them. The initial route was easy. 2 kilometres into the hills and it started getting higher and curvier. Trying to maintain a distance from the deep falls, Sukhpreet drove safely.
On the way, they stopped near a small waterfall where Sukhpreet, his sister and Mohsin clicked photographs. Admiring the diverse flora, Paramjeet and his wife went on the other side of the road. Pointing towards the purple coloured Burans flowers, he reminded her of having seen them on their honeymoon.
As they reached Aathvatu, Sukhpreet was dumbfounded by its beauty. Encircled by huge mountains, lay an amazing picnic area. The grass was uneven, and rocks covered the land. River water flowed at high speed and a kaccha bridge passed from one hill to the other.
The family spread a big sheet and sat down to enjoy the weather. They had brought along snacks that Hafiz’s wife had cooked for them. Sukhpreet asked everyone to stay put while he would get tea from the vendor nearby. Just besides the vendor, sat a group of 5 women and 3 men in traditional Kashmiri attire. For the first time, Sukhpreet saw someone in Kashmiri dresses as everyone in Kupwara wore modern clothing.
It looked like an occasion. Women in exquisitely embroidered suits adorned colourful scarfs and beautiful ornaments, including Kasaba. The men wore Afghani kurta pyjamas along with turbans.
Mesmerized by the culture, Sukhpreet sought for a photograph with them. The group happily agreed. They also offered him the delicacies being cooked live. As Sukhpreet was a pure vegetarian, he only savoured the sweet and thanked them for their welcoming gesture.
One of the men from the group offered Sukhpreet the option to get clicked with military personnel guarding the area. He told him that they protected the entire area from different points on the hills. When Sukhpreet carefully looked above, he was amazed for not being able to spot them earlier. The green-coloured Indian Military uniform worked to their advantage.
Sukhpreet rushed towards the huge mountain. Carefully climbing with the support of big rocks, he targeted the nearest personnel. His enthusiasm was higher because Indian Army was his second love. He stopped by a neatly-trimmed, fair-complexion man who seemed to be in his 30s. Wearing the uniform and carrying a rifle on his shoulders, he fearlessly sat on a large rock. View down the hill was crystal clear. Even the minutest movements could be gauged with ease.
Sukhpreet requested him for a photograph. The man smiled back, stood up and in a fraction of seconds captured Sukhpreet and covered his mouth with a handkerchief.
With no count of time and place, Sukhpreet found himself in a dark stinky room. Tied up to a broken stool, he lay on a muddy floor and found hard to breathe. He was still subconscious. It seemed like a dream. As moments passed, he understood he had been captured. He tried to get up to understand where he was but could hardly locate anything. All he could comprehend was that he was in a ragged hut and it was daytime as a ray of light passed through an opening in the roof. Sukhpreet screamed for help but didn’t get any response. No one came to his rescue even when his screams got louder and voice harsher.
He cried and cursed himself for going up there. His thirst vanished, and he longed to get back with his family. Laying on his back, he shed relentless tears. His heart pounced faster than ever before. With unstoppable cries, he kept calling for his mother. After losing strength to scream, his thirst returned.
Moments later, the door made a cracking sound. The man who had captured him came inside. Lighting a torch pointing towards Sukhpreet, he locked the door. This time he wore black-coloured turban and kurta pyjama. Holding a smaller gun than before, he threatened to kill him if he tried to act smart. Then he opened the door again, giving way to 2 men. One of them had grey beard and seemed to be their superior. He was armed with a bigger rifle. The third one looked the youngest, apparently in his early 20s.
The capturer harshly stretched Sukhpreet’s hand and made him stand. Sukhpreet felt numbness in his feet. The younger one partially opened the door to let light in. The superior introduced himself as Captain144 of Jihadullah and his companions as the Doers of the mission. He told Sukhpreet the harsh truth – he had been captured for life and would have to do as they say for the greater good and to save his family’s life. The younger man proudly showed the mobile phone to tell Sukhpreet that they knew it all.
They left Sukhpreet there for the remaining day. The hut turned dark, again. Within the next few hours, the little ray of light also vanished. In between, the door opened briefly, and someone slid in a food plate. Sukhpreet desperately grabbed it and ate the rice curry. He craved for water throughout the night.
Next morning, Sukhpreet was woken up by his tyrants who gave him another pair of clothes. He was blindfolded and taken to an unknown place. When they reached the destination, one of the men dragged him by his hands. When his fold was taken-off, Sukhpreet saw 10 young boys in the room. He left without telling him the purpose of bringing him there.
The boys told Sukhpreet that he was also unfortunate to have been captured like them. They mentioned Jihadullah, a mission they didn’t know much about. One of the boys, Hamid, told Sukhpreet that they were undergoing a training here and he would also be included in it. The boys slept on the floor and were served food in jail style. Captain144 had deployed 20 Doers to manage everything.
The training started early in the morning and went on for 10 hours. After 4 hours of running and exercise and a brief lunch break, they underwent gun-shooting training. The boys had to shoot on walls and thermocol boards. After 2 days, they were shifted to animal killing where they had to forcibly kill cats, dogs and even lizards. Captain144 conducted a brainwashing session at day-end. He spoke about Jihadullah, which for him meant liberating the valley from oppressors’ rule. He recited verses and claimed that their mission was for the greater good and would please the Lord.
Once Sukhpreet was made to kill a dog, after which he puked badly. He denied doing so again and suffered the brunt of being locked up in the washroom with no food and water for days. Sukhpreet started vomiting blood. He was freed when he gave-in to their demands.
One night, Sukhpreet tried to flee from the house but was captured by the man who had initially abducted him. The punishment was so grave that he couldn’t think of retaliating again. The man showed him a video of his sister being followed by someone.
The training continued for 2 months, after which the boys who were 13 by now were sent to a new location. They were put in a team of another 7 where they consolidated spare parts to make ammunitions. Sukhpreet once overheard a conversation between the Doers and came to know that these arms were supplied across the nation to kill innocent people. He was again drowned with the guilt of harming his own nation but minutes later convinced himself with his helplessness. His love for his family always outgrew the country’s safety.
One fateful day Sukhpreet was chosen to carry out a blast in the neighbourhood. 2 Doers accompanied him. They tucked up an explosive on his waist and commanded him to place a bomb inside a temple. They had threatened to blow him up if they didn’t receive signal of the other bomb from the temple’s premises within 15 minutes.
Inside the temple, Sukhpreet spotted pilgrims in huge numbers. His heartbeat fastened and despite the cold weather, he perspired badly. He just had a few seconds to choose – his family or humanity. Taking no time, he chose the plan of tyrants. He started looking for a spot from where the explosive would cause the least harm. As he went towards the back of the temple, he was astonished to see Kamlesh, his dad’s friend from Kupwara. He had met him in the marketplace.
Sukhpreet wanted to hide but could not control himself; this was his only chance to know about his family’s whereabouts. Kamlesh was taken aback when Sukhpreet patted his back. Before he could question, Sukhpreet told him that he had no time and his life was in danger. He pleaded to tell him about his family. To his utter disbelief, Kamlesh told that they were killed by terrorists few days after he went missing.
Sukhpreet was flabbergasted. The whole world blackened before his eyes and he could make no sense out of anything. As he regained composure in the mere minutes left, 2 decisions oscillated in his mind – to explode himself at an empty space or surrender to the police.
Sukhpreet’s brain worked rapidly and he took a chance. He exited the temple and fortunately found an unused, ruined building. He ran towards the place and removed his jacket. Going by his gut, he used all his teeth’s strength to break one of the wires from the explosive. To his luck, the explosive got deactivated.
In haste, Sukhpreet rushed to the nearest police station and surrendered himself. He narrated his entire ordeal to them. Over the next few days and after verifying Sukhpreet’s credibility, the authorities sought his help in capturing several terrorists.
Today Sukhpreet is working as an undercover agent in Kashmir, the land he always yearned to be his home; albeit, without his family, that destiny took away. But he is content to have found the purpose of his life – the nation’s safety!
- Kangri: small pot filled with lighted charcoal (in Kashmir) carried close to the body as a means of keeping warm
- Phiran: loose upper garment with loose sleeves, made of wool and usually worn in cold climates
- Dhaba: roadside restaurants, serving local cuisine
- Paranthas: Type of Flatbread cooked on a griddle or tandoor
- Rajma Chawal: A popular rice dish eaten in Northern India
- Noon chai: traditional Kashmiri beverage
- Kulcha: mildly leavened flatbread
- Burans: State flower of Kashmir
- Kaccha: not very well constructed
- Kasaba: Traditional headgear of Kashmiri Muslim females
- Afghani: Belonging to Afghanistan
- Kurta Pyjama: A garment wore in the Indian subcontinent
Photo by: Tyson Dudley
(This is an entry in ArttrA-4, a room8 writing game at ArtoonsInn. We’d much appreciate you rating the story and leaving a review in the comments.)