Driving towards a frontier borderland village on a chilly winter’s night was a one-of-a-kind experience. Degwar-Maldayalan, a village in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, sits in the lap of the Pir Panjal mountain ridges. These ridges are filled with notorious army pickets, facing each other on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan border.
A week after the latest line of control (LoC) flare up across several borderlands situated along the LoC, the borders here have been tense. But learning to be certain in uncertain times is something that residents of these hostile geographies have always lived with. The certainty around the marriage season during Diwali here has surpassed the threats of the ongoing pandemic; marriages are being held as the usual full-blown celebration. But a wedding in a tumultuous front such as this had interesting details of its own which further foreground how life and culture here have always flourished amidst an abnormal that has perhaps lasted far longer than this pandemic will.
Despite a lifetime spent in a zone of conflict and violence, with day to day ceasefire violations and high surveillance, the villagers here seem to have made peace with their surroundings. The rugged single lane road that leads to the village has been a recent gift, and thus attending night-weddings in the village for someone travelling from the nearby town was not a luxury 10 years ago.
Driving through the harrowing darkness aroused fear as the complete absence of streetlights on the road made the lit-up surveillance-fence running along the north-western mountain-ridges appear closer than it actually was. A few other lights atop different locations on the hills beyond the fence were the forward positions held by the Indian Army.
A village local in the car with us kept pointing, ‘woh mumtaz post hai, woh langoor hai…woh joh lights seedha uske neeche dikh rahi hain, woh border ke uss taraf ki hain…(that one there is the mumtaz post, the one next to it is langoor, the lights below them belong to the habitations on the other side.)’
The surveillance fence grew closer as we drove towards the tail end of the village and looked like a brightly lit insurmountable wall, curvaceously running all over the hills in front of us. The village sat in eerie silence right below it, and the darkness in it grew scarier with sleepy surroundings and locked doors, very unappealing of a village celebrating a wedding. After a walk through the weathered mud lanes, there was light at the end of the road as the hustle-bustle around a couple of houses marked the area where the ceremonies for the night were being held.
Not a safe haven
After a quick round of exchanging greetings, we went inside a newly renovated concrete-pucca house with many kaccha-mud houses around in the vicinity. A couple of young Muslim girls from the village, escaping the crowd and the noise around the house, had taken refuge in the same guest room we were made to sit in, and after a few shy attempts at conversation, they finally opened up about the nature of life in middle of the shelling zone there.
Narrating a few incidents of violence that they have grown up with in the village, such as that of a family of three who were wiped out when a shell landed atop a shelter they had taken refuge in during a heavy exchange of fire between the pickets on the front in the past, the girls seemed to have made peace with the surroundings they live in. The shelter was a cowshed located towards the fence and away from the house we were sitting in. The family locked their concrete house and chose the cowshed in hope of the mud-roofing on it preventing them from any serious damage, only to be killed by a shell hitting directly at the roof of the shed they considered their safe haven.
The young Muslim girls were sisters to Waqar (name changed), the groom’s maid, who had the most important role to play in the wedding of his childhood friend Prakash, the groom (name changed). Though Poonch is a Muslim majority district, the shared syncretism in this borderland district among the multi-religious ethno-Paharis, Pahari-Kashmiris, and Gujjars and Bakerwals is exemplary despite the religious identity assertions and continuous polarisation of identities vis-à-vis a Hindu Jammu and a Muslim Valley. Degwar-Maldayalan is one of those last few frontier villages in this borderland district where the inter-religious tolerance has led to years of acceptance and mutual co-existence.
Role of cultural diversity
Waqar and Prakash who grew up as brothers show the interreligious exchange in the village even though most of the Hindu households practice exclusion and distancing with regard to food, utensils, kitchen spaces, etc., due to their notions of ‘impurity’. The practice, which has its roots in Brahmanism, most of the Pahari Hindus and Sikhs have been following them for generations. Even though these practices have a class dimension to it, such a selective-spatial exclusion with respect to the indoor-socio-spatial interactions and their construction inside the house had not influenced the cultural exchanges between the communities outside.
Thus, Waqar and his family playing a key role in the wedding inside a Hindu household might not be ideal for those who strictly adhere to these exclusionary practices, but is something that is completely welcome and shall not be frowned upon. Plurality thus has its own ways of teaching warmth and sharing even in spaces that are exclusionary.
This is the quintessential role that diversity plays, it has the power to break through the homogeneity and spread pluralistic values that teach mutual co-existence. The multi-religious Pahari ethnicity in Poonch thus has a shared cultural existence that goes beyond the boundaries of religion and create a culture that has tolerance for any sort of discrimination and exclusion which institutions like religion, caste, class otherwise generate.
Waqar was the dost of Prakash for the gana-ceremony and thus tied a thread/gana, vowing a sacred bond of protection and support that the dost supposedly promises the groom for a lifetime.
After a spellbinding discussion on how a mehndi raat in a Muslim wedding differs from the mehndi raat in a Hindu wedding, all of us were asked to attend a ritual where the groom hides with his dost and the family has to find and beseech him to come inside so that the henna can be applied leading to the culmination of the mehndi raat. The groom creates many distractions with multiple groups of his friends hidden as a deviation at different locations thus making it more difficult for the family to locate the groom. The family sets out for the search with great enthusiasm along with the band.
The dhol and the baja were beating in full swing only to add to my anxiety as walking behind a group of people with bright lanterns and loud drum beats was nothing less than inviting trouble. I kept my distance but a shell targeted at us would not have. I looked at the villagers dancing and celebrating in front of me and then looked at the surveillance-fence and the forwards pickets barely a mile away from our position. It disturbed me as I knew the havoc that the cross-border violence had unleashed on the civilian population only five days ago and how the frontier areas such as this one were put on alert since then.
The idea of survival
But my anxiety did not resonate with these villagers who were performing as if they owned the moment and its fate. I did share my fear with a few elderly and asked them if this was safe walking out in the open in the dark of the night purposely inviting unwanted attention from the forces manning the border. A few laughed at my interventions and others asked me to think of good things as ‘thoughts of shelling’ was a disgrace to the sanctity of the occasion that I was a part of. In that moment, all I could do was to hope for the groom to reveal himself soon enough before the hullabaloo reaches the fence.
The fear in me though constantly distracted the observer in me, but it was the place of hiding chosen by the groom that had me back as an active observer. The groom chose a bunker to hide himself in. Community-bunkers built all across these fronts by the administration aims to provide temporary relief in times of heavy shelling. Though the implementation of the policy and the construction of bunkers under the same have not been fair and equal for each and every villager residing here, but leaving that for another day, who would have thought the role a bunker would play in a wedding ritual such as this.
The ease and comfort with which build-spaces and culture amalgamate with ‘the idea of survival’ in these hostile geographies inspires such awe and fascination which then interprets conflict and life differently. The twisted normalcy of these borderlanders speak volumes about the life that they have learned to perform amidst the gory details of violence and destruction that is unleashed almost every day in such here along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.
Life here has seamlessly adjusted to the many structures associated with any volatile borderland geography and has made them its own, similar to how everyday fears and threats here have transformed into a sense of loss and yearning; loss of lives, and yearning for peace.
While walking back towards the house with the groom, the happiness of having found the groom made everyone so excited that the band played the drums even more loudly. I heard an elderly man, maamu (uncle) to the groom asking the bandmaster to play it so loud such that Imran Khan from across can be tempted to join in the celebrations as well…’inna ucchaa baja ke Imran Khan vi suni te ithe aawe.’
Only people dwelling on the front can make a metaphorical invitation such as this to people on both the sides, also showing that like me they were already aware that the noise that was being generated is likely to reach the other side as well.
My heart skipped a beat upon hearing this, and I immediately looked at the fence hoping that the riflemen and snipers on both sides shall let the celebration be as it was, hence praying that none or nothing should pay us a visit from across in the dark of that night.
Malvika Sharma writes on life in the borderlands of Jammu and Kashmir.