Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guest Column

A long, long drive to hospital, in curfew

By Majid Maqbool 

My phone rings, around 3pm, on August 26th. “Your uncle had a heart attack. Come to SKIMS, Soura. He is in the emergency intensive cardiac care unit”, a voice hurriedly informs in a worrying tone. My first thought: I have to reach SKIMS, Soura as early as possible, somehow. And I have to tell this news to my parents in a calm, matured manner—and tell them that he is out of danger now although I know he isn’t. It’s a lie, I know that. But sometimes a lie is needed to convey a painful truth, especially when it is about your loved ones.
There is a problem: We can’t move out of our home. It is the third consecutive day of curfew. A strict curfew has been imposed in the entire valley to prevent people from coming out of their homes. Following many successful freedom marches wherein lakhs of people participated, the pro-freedom leaders had given a Lal Chwok chalo call. On 24th August people from all across the valley were expected to march to Lal Chowk. But the government came up with an antidote: A strict, indefinite curfew was imposed in the entire valley on 24th August to prevent people from marching towards Lal Chowk. From the morning, shoot at sight orders were in place in Srinagar. We come to know about it from Delhi based Indian news channels (the anchor said it so briefly, in a cold, casual manner). All local channels had been banned in the valley. And the local papers couldn’t be published. 
A curfew is different from a hartal. Moving out this time means: the soldier on the street will shout at first, then threaten with his bamboo stick, and finally—if you still keep moving, unheeded to his repeated shouts—bullets will come your way. But then, we had to move out anyhow, and try to reach the hospital. When a loved one is struggling for his life in the hospital, you can’t stay at home. Even when there is curfew outside. 

I leaf out a white page from an old, abandoned drawing book. EMERGENCY, I write in capital letters with a black sketch pen, and paste it on the front window of the car. This should help us with the soldiers outside, I tell myself. Outside, as we slowly, hesitantly drive our vehicle out on the road, an unmistakable curfew-silence rules the air. It’s palpable. One can hear the faintest of the noises in the air. A curfew silences the noise of everyday life on the streets, and instead, amplifies the silence, manifold. Except occasional army vehicles swiftly driving past us, the noise of our vehicle is the only thing breaking the enforced-silence of the curfew outside. My parents, accompanying me, are worried—about things ahead, and for the uncle in the hospital. And there is another cause of worry playing on our minds. We don’t have a curfew pass. And we know that can be fatal when you are moving out in a curfew. We know we will be asked for it by the gun wielding, bamboo stick holding soldiers patrolling everywhere on the streets. And that means, on our way to hospital, we will invite trouble in many forms: angry soldiers, shouts, threatening whistles, pointed guns, and, finally, bullets. A curfew-pass, my father tells me while we slowly drive on the deserted road, functions like an identity card during curfew. In fact a curfew pass is the identity card in curfew. If you don’t have it, you simply can’t move out; you better stay at home. But then we knew this, too: we had to move out this time even without a curfew pass- for my uncle who is in the hospital.
After driving a kilometer, near Sanat Nagar, some tense soldiers suddenly come in the middle of the road from the pavement where they were sitting till now. They come up to stop us, raising their bamboo sticks in the air, tightly holding on to their guns.
“Hay….kahan jana hai… curfew pass dikhav” (where are you going. Show us the curfew pass), shouts one of the soldier. 
Hospital, I say, thinking on hearing this word they will let us go. 
“Koan hai hospital main, patient kahan hai..”(Who’s in the hospital, where is the patient). The soldier searches for the patient in the car. But the patient is in the hospital.
“Patient hospital main hai.” The patient is in the hospital, I say
“Curfew pass kahan hai”. Where is your curfew pass, he again asks the question we dread the most.
Nahi hai..,(we don’t have it) I say the truth, emergency hai. 
“Police station say lain gay. Wahan tak janay deejyay”. We will get it form the police station down the road. Allow us to reach there, I say.
Despite all my explanations, and despite answering all of their questions, the soldiers are unrelenting, unmoved.
Yeh kis nay izazat diya (who allowed you to paste this), says one of the soldier, pointing to the EMERGENCY paper pasted on the front window of the car.
“Emergency hai, I explained, wahe likha hai (that’s what is written on it) 
Kud kaisay lagaya, kis nay ijazaat diya…han …(why did you write it yourself. Who gave you the permission…) His tone is increasingly becoming threatening. Seeing his anger rise, I keep quiet. Though, at that moment—for not allowing us to moving ahead despite all our explanations—I also felt anger rise inside me. But then, my anger was pointless: I couldn’t afford to show it. And unlike me, the soldier, besides his anger, had the gun. And I didn’t even have the curfew pass!
Without saying anything, the soldier turns his back towards our vehicle—the barricade intact, the soldiers unmoved to our repeated pleas.
“Wapas jav--go back, he orders from a distance. And then he looks the other way as if we are not there. But we stay there. We are silent. We can’t go back. We have to reach the hospital.
My mother pleads now, then my father—in front of the soldiers who are refusing to listen. I don’t want them to plead before these soldiers. Raham karo, hospital mae beemaar hai…( have mercy, our patient is serious in the hospital), my mother pleads. After repeated pleas of my parents, one of the soldiers, finally, tells his colleagues to let us go.
Janay do…let then go, he tells his fellow soldiers. lakin yahan say wapas nahi ana. But don’t come back from this side, he tells us.
We move on, thankful to this momentary sympathy of an occasionally sympathetic soldier on a curfewed day.
After covering some two kilometers, again, we are stopped. The same questions from the soldiers; the same answers from our side. And the same unconcerned, unmoved soldiers. And then, in the middle of all this uncertainty, a bearded Kashmir policeman appears from nowhere on the scene, and listens to us. 
He lets us move ahead, somehow prevailing on the soldiers around. The soldiers don’t like his intervention. We like it very much. 
The policeman tells us in Kashmiri that he is not sure if they will allow us to go beyond Rambagh. But you can try, he says. We drive on; we have no other choice. 
We stop near Barzullah, to see if we can get a curfew pass from the police station. Inside, three police officers, sitting in a dimly lit room of the police station, are attending tense calls from the policemen out on the streets. They also answer frequent calls of their higher officers. We wait for them to take notice of us. They are not authorized to give us a curfew pass, a police officer informs us on asking. Only DC’s office can issue it, he says. That is a long distance away from here, we think, and on the way there are far too many soldiers, far too many barricades to stop us from reaching the hospital. To be on the safer side, we request them to give us some authority slip with a police station stamp. They write something on a piece of paper, put a police station stamp, and hand it over to us. But they are not sure if it will help us with the soldiers outside; neither are we. 
You can take it but it doesn’t work with the soldiers down the road, a policeman frankly says. One police officer rues the fact that CRPF on the roads outside is not even listening to them, although they should, he says. They are supposed to follow and work under our rules but you see in Kashmir things are different, he says in helplessness. “I had an argument with the CRPF officer on the use of force by his men yesterday in Rambagh,” he further informs. “The area comes under our jurisdiction but they are terrorizing and beating up people at will,” he adds as we come out of the police station on the deserted road.
‘Don’t worry, we have something now, this should help us’, my father tells me while we drive away from the police station, towards Rambagh. And as we near the Rambagh bridge, again—as one policeman had earlier said—we are stopped. The same questions follow by a different set of soldiers. And as we feared, they dismiss the police station slip we were carrying. Nearby, an CRPF officer looks on disdainfully. One of the soldiers takes away the police station slip from us, and walks up to this CRPF officer to show him the slip. To our surprise, without moving from his position and after closely scrutinizing it, the CRPF officer tells his men to let us go. And then the same expected warning follows: don’t come back from this side, the officer shouts from a distance. Yes sir, I say and we drive on, relieved.
Finally, we reach the DC’s office to get that life saving piece of paper: a curfew pass. After waiting anxiously for a while in a long queue, we get it—a white paper; an official curfew pass. VALID FOR CURFEW PERIOD” is printed on it in black capital letters. The possession of curfew pass felt as if a life saving drug was handled over to us. 
We drive on from the DCs office, towards SKIMS, Soura. We are stopped at many places, asked for the curfew pass, and we confidently show it to them from the window of the car. They would let us move ahead after closely scrutinizing it for a while.

Near Eidgah, we had to stop our vehicle. Something has happened down the road. There is tension in the air. Some noises come out from the houses nearby. The soldiers, carrying bamboo sticks in their hands, are all angry, all worked up, shouting. Some distance away, we can see a load carrier driver and a boy surrounded by the soldiers. They are shouting at him; he is showing them some paper. With a paper in one hand, the man is pleading before them to let him go. The soldiers ask him to come out of the load carrier. And then, without listening to any of his explanations, they start beating him with their long bamboo sticks. We are watching this from a distance, from inside our car. Alternately, every soldier hits one blow, on his legs, without respite. And every time a blow comes down on his legs, he bends a little, and tries to receive the blows on his hands. But the blows still come down on his legs. He winces in pain. He pleads. I could hear the sound of every blow—that sound when the wood strikes the human flesh and bone—as it came down on the legs of this middle aged man. He kept pleading before the soldiers, and showing them that piece of paper. But the blows kept coming.
The young boy accompanying him—probably his son—stood still and kept watching this spectacle from near the load carrier. He was silent, shocked, terrified. But he did not cry. Tears formed in his eyes but did not fall. He kept staring at the soldiers who were beating his father. How does it feel like seeing your father getting beaten in front of you? And how does it feel like when you can’t do anything about it, I asked myself. Safe, and from a distance, perhaps I could only imagine how it feels like. But the boy knows it. He saw it. It happened before his eyes. The boy kept looking at his humiliated, bruised father with disbelief. Suddenly a woman raised her voice a bit; she was watching this beating from the window of her house nearby. The soldiers got angry on this, and hurled some unmentionable abuses in the direction of that house. I will come to your home and break your bones if you don’t keep quiet, threatened one of the soldier, raising his bamboo stick towards that window. 
After the beating, and after some abuses when the load carrier driver was finally let off by the soldiers, he ran to his vehicle, limping. He was struggling to start his load carrier. The terrified boy came out of the driver’s seat to enable his father to kick start it. The soldiers got angry on this and shouted at the boy, pushing him around, asking him to run away. The boy shouted back this time, “don’t you see he can’t start the vehicle”. And when his father was finally able to start the load carrier, I could see the boy, shocked out of his innocence, kept looking at his father. His father was silent though. He did not look at his son. They just drove away. 
Now it was our turn. 
The same soldiers came up to our vehicle and asked for the curfew pass. I had kept it ready in my hand, unfolded. I hand it over to them all the while fearing that they will ask us to come out of the vehicle now. But they closely looked at the curfew pass, one by one, searched our vehicle suspiciously, and then we were allowed to move ahead. I thought the load carrier driver who was beaten up, instead of a compulsory curfew pass, was showing the soldiers some other paper or a police slip. But that doesn’t work in curfew. But does that explain the beating?
Finally, after a long drive—It seemed a long, long drive—we reached SKIMS. Ahead of my parents, I rushed to the intensive cardiac care unit where my uncle—amidst a mesh of wires and life saving machines attached to his body—lay pale and weak on the bed, breathing with an oxygen mask. Some young doctors were constantly monitoring his condition. My mother placed a hand on his forehead; my father stood nearby. I took a young doctor aside, and asked him: how is his condition now? Is he out of danger? He smiled, and said: “you should thank god, your uncle is lucky to have reached hospital in time. Many such patients died on the way to hospital. Because of curfew, they couldn’t reach the hospital on time.”

I thanked the doctors, sat near my uncle, and looking at the even crests and troughs signifying normal heartbeat on the ECG monitor, I said a silent prayer.

(To read more pieces from the writer, log on to maqboolvoice.blogspot.com)

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