Fire, Famine and Floods (Sahlab) have been the only repetitive certainty for Kashmiris, sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically. It’s the price for the Valley being so desirable, a balance of nature you might say. So, at the best of times we always wonder what will best us now?
These are the closing paragraphs of my book, The Kashmir Chronicles, a work almost finished. The translation of Lal Ded at the end is attributable to Coleman Barks.
This is beyond her.
Vitasta can see everything clearly, but through red air, not gas or vapors, the air is red. And that is how it is everywhere, inside the room, outside the balcony window, out on the Lake, throughout the neighborhood. She can see her arms clearly but through Martian hue, she can see, but it is as good as blindness, in this alien atmosphere she can breathe but she is suffocating. What promised to be just another beautiful spring night in Kashmir has become possessed, day and night run simultaneously, parallel, superimposed.
Pulling herself up, resting on her right elbow, Vitasta surveys the coup, and says softly to no one, “What in heaven’s name is going on?”
She is going to burst through and wake up any minute and be done with this nonsensical nightmare. But outside the house there is a turbulence that should not be heard or seen, at this time or any other, something in the world gone terribly out of kilter; as if everything is standing on its head or pretty close to it. Something ominous, a low growing sinister sound, and as Vitasta strains her ears it is obvious that the noise is coming down from the direction of the River, which as everyone knows is to the far left from Dal Gate, two roads and a half street away to be precise. It is a low tripping sound, but it grows quickly about Vitasta’s ears, and she thinks of all the sleeping residents of the Ahmad Butt’s mohalla. Have they heard what was coming towards them; coming for them?
The tinkling increases until it sounds as though it is pouring outside, could be the rain, but it sounds like water in lateral motion, the unmistakable sound of a rivulet in their lane. Vitasta sits up, then runs to the window, outside there is a terrible sky, over cast with somnambulant angels of doom. The truth is rising uppermost like cream on boiling milk, tonight is that kind of a night, everything is manifest and demands acknowledgement. She calls out to her hosts, but they are in an incongruent universe, they are fast asleep, can hear nothing, they are nowhere to be seen, even as the water is swirling around outside like a chant, it drowns her voice.
This will not stop until all is lost.
There have always been floods in Kashmir, but this time the water has a purpose, this is not pure nature, it is colored, it is selective, it is primeval evil, it is here and now, a creature created to destroy, it is not a creator, it does not give birth it becomes big itself, it is gaining weight and volume, this is much deeper, more iniquitous, with only annihilation in mind. Then an indubitable roar announces a behemoth that subsumes everything by quick inches, and then feet, and then yards, dividing, multiplying successfully. Vitasta’s desperate eyes are glued to Nothing; she can tear away her eyes only at the risk of tearing them off. Any second now she will cease to exist, this much is clear, no escape from the engulfment, not until every sin is washed clean. Her hands grasp the filigreed wooden banister of the window lookout, her knuckles are white, she wants to pray voicelessly, she faintly recollects the Gods who have abdicated. Nothing is more mesmerizing than extinction coming at you full tilt.
In this unbelievable black obscurity Vitasta is condemned to see what is lost floating down in tableaux atop the deluge outside. The water brings, first slowly then in a fulsome stream then a primeval burst, flotsam and jetsam riding the crest, rushing past, all manner of things made by Man and God carried aloft by sheer momentum, macabre contingents of Time and Space.
The most recent events in Kashmir roll out first and the spew goes back in time, not just a chaotic throwing up by the Jhelum but a chronological rollback revealed at uncontrollable speed in rational order. The Valley re-emerging out of the river’s belly in the order in which it went down to her and remained in the depths of its patient basin, in the river’s previous incarnation, when she was called Vitasta, like her witness on this dreadful night.
The relics have escaped the reliquary. The first lot to come down with the flood is that of dead young men, handsome rosy cheeked perfect Kashmiri boys sullied only by gunshots, these are followed by horribly twisted faces of boys spit out by torture chambers, now some are floating peacefully downstream and thank God their eyes are now closed; some of the faces are surprised, killed when they least expected it, caught with half a tsochvor loaf in hand and a cricket bat in the other. As if they were sent out to play by their mothers after tea, and some have the bread in one hand and a Kalashnikov in the other. The dead are young and the young are dead. Some of the faces are not young at all in fact, their skin is corrugated and battle weary, soldiers on duty, who only thought of Kashmir as a honeymoon destination, now on their tour of duty, some wearing mufti, some uniforms of the security forces or the army. Flowing alongside all this anarchy are items of civilian clothing particular to Kashmiri Hindus or Muslims, a turban here, a skull cap there, wood sandals with red and green cuneiform like etchings.
Other things, birds of prey and those of song, floating together belly up, chinar trees that you could not cut down unless you wanted your head cut down, now uprooted, upside down, roots exposed dripping with blood-like exudation, a woman’s kangri, an undecided pomegranate tree that wants to have its cake and eat it too, a quotidian collard vendor filling a housewife’s bent twig krenjul she holds, a woman or servants twice bent bamboo hookah, a Muslim woman’s short pheran and salwar swimming ahead of her ravaged naked body, her sister breaking terracotta pots to release round crystal chandeliers of rock candy she has set like candles with sticks and threads for Hindu sons in law, a gentleman’s hookah with machine turned walnut wood body, a man’s double pashmina shawl, a Pandit woman’s shredded straw slippers, pocket watch, delicately bricked and ornamentally carved wooden homes of antiquity, sisters of Moorish Toledo, a head scarf, a tiny tweed pheran, could be Hindu could be Muslim, the little owner nowhere to be seen. Some owners of the apparel follow, old and young men and women, children with shock on their tear stained faces and blood on their bodies, silent in their damnation of their perpetrators.
Fragments of desecrated temples, entire libraries of Persian and Sufi literature scattered everywhere carried on the back of the liquid dragon, soggy now from the looks of it, some leaves have torn off and are flying here and there, an ancient shrine, the holiest pilgrimage, delicately carved and anointed, ablaze despite the river’s fury, nothing could put out that fire, centuries of understanding fly away in smoke and embers, college professors and mullahs in deep conversation with each other at the butcher’s, the uncontainable God given cornucopia of profligate vines with giving, loose natures, and their antithesis, circumspect women at the yaarbal waiting to be rowed across the Jhelum, talking about the tradition of Rishi saints in the valley and the butter like quality of their mothers’ collards; all the while falling about after having lost their footing, literally swept away from the ground beneath their feet.
A man sized terra cotta jar teetering back and forth until its concave lid falls off and it tips over, and all the rice it holds pours out slowly and sadly and uselessly into the rising waters; there is more, uprooted trees with apples and peaches and cherries still on them, spinning wheels for pashmina-weaving housewives now entangled with rolls of woven tweed, and cane rattan cradles for unborn children some as yet half woven, a Brahmin woman’s elaborate layered head dress, followed by her ruined body, indigenous musical instruments only Kashmiris play, the rabab, the nott, and household keys for beloved rude musicians to beat on the earthen vessel not yet retired from its service as a saucepot, and mizrabs for the refined to pluck highly ornate ivory inlaid sitars with, young men holding flickering torches dipped in kerosene in their limp hands while the Laundryman irons their thrashing backs with a red hot coal iron, only to smooth out their difficulties of course, meanwhile the stench of singing flesh feeds his greedy nostrils, his teeth are large and browned now with old blood.
Everything regurgitates through the evanescent present, Tumbakhnaris twist by in watery whirligigs, the clay bodies of the one-sided goblet shaped drums drenched in moisture have released the taut parchment glued on to the drum side, rendering the hitherto unfaltering musical instrument into cadaver. The parchment still has tufts of lamb’s wool that the craftsman could not scrape off before he sold it for a wedding or a picnic or heaven knows what hastily arranged celebration. The mournful stream brings a saint here, a decapitated head somewhere, a Sufi mystic there, poets, of both sexes, could be spinners, carders, weavers, farmers, ministers, tyrants and benevolent monarchs, ordinary folk who once led peaceful lives with their neighbors. Thrown in between are strangers of face and dress and shoes and hat, foreigners with unintelligible language coming out of their dying mouths in spurts of fanatical rhetoric, and most tell tale of all, exhaling hitherto unheard of noxious orange and green billows.
Kashmiris, plenty of them, some of them holding wrists the way they do when helping each other off a boat or doonga, or up a mountainside, survival skills in a land of mountains and lakes, now it does not matter, they slide past, powerless against the tide they had nothing to do with, that took them by surprise. Further and further back to what has gone before, a man crucified with nails hammered through his head and the hands that pointed in all futility in the wrong misleading direction, milk mothers with honeyed opium on their mind and breasts, bakers looking for a mercurial visage in the fire they are wedded to, weather beaten gypsies still holding on to the beloved sheep they herd gently through the mountains only to offer them to rapacious meat shops on the other side, boatmen with heart shaped oars, interspersed with chinar leaves, some green from spring and some orange from the fall and some brown prophesying the voracious winter.
Instantly recognizable, the Navreh tray that all Brahmins opened their eyes to at dawn at New Year, the charger thrust under noses so that the first thing seen at the first waking second is an optimistic grouping of rice, pen, paper, money, almanac/book, salt, sugar, almonds, and yogurt, essentials for a good life through the coming year with an infinite number of years to follow, happy large family scenes flow past, contrasting with the grim retrospective in backdrop, picnic panoramas with daughters in law puffing away at the coals in the samovar, wiping tears and ash from their smoke filled eyes, while the rest of the family sits in an anticipatory circle waiting for tea on a boiled wool rug embroidered crudely in red orange yellow and green, knees touching knees, could be Hindu could be Muslim, optimistic cups and a piece of complementary bread in hand, bread, always bread with tea, anywhere and everywhere, no matter how soft or dry, sweet or salt, seeded or plain.
A family in new clothes off to celebrate Eid at the Mosque, now moving not of their own volition, just gliding shell shocked on the torrent, they are is followed by a man carrying a brace of wild geese and a bundle of ivory white lotus root stalks speckled with gold tied with ropes of wet straw, the two major ingredients of the favored dish minus the spices, school children with their backs to each other looking this way and that, half-starved children and their half burnt houses; all are going the way of the movement that no one can prevent, not Man not God.
Their dead eyes speak loquaciously, in volumes. “How could this happen to us?”
Once again Vitasta feels fervently behind her back for the beginnings of something, feathers of hope ready to burst out through her shoulders but there is no possibility there, her back is as smooth as that of a new born baby; above a doomsday dome has formed, there is no sky.
The answer is evident. No sky, no wings.
Now her hopes are useless appurtenances, not vehicles of intent, someone’s God must have a plan. Speaking of God, a huge gilded Holy Cross thickly coated with annually painted gold that is affixed on a bell tower, gilded but gone, the bats are flying at lightning speed out of the belfry, chased by a flock of nuns holding on for dear life to the rosaries hanging from their sides, and an odd Father or two from the Boys Mission School, still carrying the chastising rod in one hand and a black leather bound Holy Bible in the other. Their Kashmiri servants, still wearing starched turbans with stiffened cockscombs, the boat people from the river, the ones among whom the nuns distributed dry milk powder on Sundays, one of the boatwomen holding the basket under which hanjis kept unresolved fights on the riverbank so that they could pick up next day, nothing to postpone, there is no tomorrow and every possible solution is flowing away with the uproar.
Families flow out of their homes like the specters that they have become, supine at the end of their upright lives, and fishes of heroic hue and untouchable glory swim all around them, and there are prehistoric snakes, some hydra headed, taking them out in a serpentine motion like a heraldic entourage, in a deep bottle green pouring the color of Verinag. The original inhabitants of the valley, they who have been there since the first spoken word, leave home, forced against every fiber of their being; carried away, leaving homes and hearths and lives behind.
“If morning comes, in the light what shall we find?”
The last things Vitasta sees in the Night of Revelation is a luminescent woman walking on the water, throwing a frosted light on the ferocious stream below her bare feet, a naked woman with lotus petals for abdominal folds, the whites of her large poetic sapphire emerald eyes glowing, her long disheveled hair billowing all about her, her arms are spread as if to contain the dismemberment, her heart has opened wide as though to hold the submerging and sinking world around her. She is muttering under her breath, she has closed shop, no more prescient walkabouts, she has reverted inwards, the wheel has come full circle.
Lalleshwari’s prophetic voice is echoing in the Shinyah and in this Nothingness she speaks in rhyme from the Serene Songbook, plucking words from her mouth as she utters them, drinking them and becoming intoxicated on them so that she can then weave her transcendent purpose, and try to comprehend her charted route as she rows her clay boat high above the rivers that now subsume her valley.
“I hoped not in it for a moment, I trusted it not by a hair Still I, Lalla, drank the wine of mine own sayings Yet, then did I seize an inner darkness and bring it down, And tear it, and cut it to pieces.”
Sudha Koul is author of Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmir.