As the year that gave us the age of anger came to a close, I tried to tell my seven-year-old son a happy story. In it, I tried to stay clear of strife, clear of the stories of global dysfunction, of nation states and contested ‘territories’, and the conflicts they continue to engender and suffer.
Instead, I tried to tell him of small people and small places, of the small dreams of small people, which were supposed to be among the building blocks of organised human life.
For narratives of unadulterated happiness, we often tend to go back to childhood, don’t we? So I tried to remember and tell him about an Edenic spring and the historic town-size village in its domain. This is where it all began for me many years ago, I like to think. Verinag, the green spring encrusted jewel-like in the foothills of the Pir Panjal Mountains in south Kashmir, which, miles and accumulations later, becomes the full-bodied Jhelum that waters my valley before washing over the plains of Pakistan. I remembered the hide and seek games we played by the mystery-evoking octagon of carved stone around the spring, which emperor Jahangir built 400 years ago. The spring is also known as Nilakunda, in honour of the deity or indigenous chieftain Nila.
I lived here once, in the early 1980s as a little schoolboy, and looking back from metropolitan adult life, I can only lean on the nostalgist’s favourite cliché: those were the best days of my life, those were the ... Primary school by a bend of the stream that mutates into the mighty Jhelum, a view of the waterfall and the precise point where cascade becomes stream, and of the dark deep mountain that overlooks it all ... And the eponymous village, a microcosm of the earthly paradise the Valley of K is often likened to (never mind the blood and the gore and the gardens turned into bursting graveyards), and its people who — while I was away growing up, becoming, and migrating forever — braved it all, the violence, the oppression, the theft of their orchards and age-old trees and stand tall to this day in dignity and defiance.
I told him about Nasir, my childhood friend who I did not see face-to-face for nearly 30 years and when I did, in a reunion in the Mughal garden that complements the emerald spring as a stately robe would a crown jewel, his life story felt truer, better, than mine. Nasir, an accomplice of boyhood and willing co-conspirator of stolen treks into the craggy, perilous hinterland beyond Verinag, is now a teacher in the same school he went to. He never left, apart from the brief stint for his master’s at the university in the city, and remains where he was born, passing on education to children who may or may not have otherwise benefited from a worthy teacher.
In my retelling, I felt I should also pay homage to Nasir’s elder brother Anwar, who being the headman’s son, took it upon himself to preserve a way of life amid incendiary politics, facing up to all kinds of foe. Anwar, who bemoans the ancient walnut and cedar trees that, according to him, were felled and stolen by venal security officials when the conflict raged in the 1990s, is content to have kept intact the forest above, as dark as ever, without a single disappeared tree. This is the mountain that years later somehow became the koh-i-gham in my first novel. I allowed myself to relay to my son, and perhaps to myself too, the wisdom of what Anwar said when I wondered about the startling vibrancy of the forest in a place where nature, too, stands ravaged bare by the grasping claws of a bloody conflict. Who will come here, bhai, if this too is gone, he said?
In Kashmir, poetry issues from both gardens and graves. In our age of resentments, loathing, and normalised untruths, it seems a return to the primeval poetry of human existence is essential. In 2016, a year I cannot call by any name but ‘The Dark Summer of 2016’, as hundreds of Kashmir’s young were blinded by pellet guns designed to hunt birds, a year in which India and Pakistan, belligerent behemoths that surround a long-suffering people, once again came close to war amid televised avowals of lasting hate and loathing, the only thing I probably half-learnt is that a return to the basics, an exploration of the rudiments of the human heart, is long overdue and perhaps a necessity.
A few years ago, when I took my son, born of Pakistani mother and Kashmiri father, to the same orchard where Nasir and I spent long summer and autumn days amid cherries and corn, I sensed a completion of a narrative arc and the beginning of another one.
Last night, as I told him about Verinag, and that I may write about it one day, he said, “So am I a part of your life story, then?”
Yes, you are.
“Am I a big part of it?”
“Ah, of course, I’m the main character of my own life story, daddy.”
At this, I told him what Nasir said when I asked that daft question you have probably picked from some maudlin film or book: Are you happy?
“When you don’t want too much it’s quite possible to be content.”
This article was published as part of a special editorial project '2016 In Broad Strokes' for the Herald's Annual 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a journalist and author who has written for The New York Times and The Guardian.
The artist holds a degree from the National College of Arts, Lahore.