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Ride across the river

June 06, 2005 columnist Dilip D'Souza was awarded the first prize in the recent Outlook/Picador nonfiction competition for this essay:

On the way back, I keep watch out the right window of the Sumo. A large chinar tree between here and Sangrama, they had said, and that was all the description I got. It was only later that it struck me, I don't even know what a chinar looks like. Ignorant me.

In any case, about two-thirds of the way to Sangrama, we pass a large tree. Chinar or not, I have no idea. But it dominates the landscape hereabouts enough that it might be the correct one. And as a coda to my sighting it, as a reminder of a bloody day in 2001, there is a bicycle there, leaning against the tree.

For one long instant, I have the feeling that I've been transported back to that day. That any second now, as we drive past, the bicycle will explode and send sharp bits of metal slicing into my flesh. As it once did to 38-year-old Major Abhimanyu Sikka, famous in these parts even then.

Returning from Sangrama, Sikka was driving when they passed the chinar tree: driving, and thus further from bike and tree than his mate in the passenger seat. But I'm told a flying piece of the bike passed by the passenger -- how does that poor fellow feel? -- and cut deep into Sikka's jugular vein.

He was actually conscious for a while. Turned to ask how his men were, got out of the vehicle and checked if anyone needed help, radioed what had happened to their base unit only a few miles down the road, stood there for a while like that, talking quietly with his men and waiting for help, until he noticed he had blood down his front. His back. His fingers. His toes. His eyes. His nose. Faint from losing blood, he crumpled, never to rise again.

"After all," said one of the men who told me all this, "it was his jugular."

All this flashes through my mind as I register the presence of the bike, leaning lazily on the tree that might be a chinar. But of course, this bike doesn't explode. I relax, though I realise I've held my breath for a few seconds, I'm breathing hard. Our Sumo rumbles on towards Srinagar [Images].

I came here seeking Abhimanyu Sikka, gone since May 2001. In how that bike made me feel for those few seconds, in the thoughts it put in my head all over again, I found him.

The road from Srinagar starts out like roads in most northern cities: raucous with traffic, dust everywhere, rubble and garbage, I cough and cough again. Sure, this is a pretty city. In parts. It is also a dreary one in other parts, and this route is one of them. Through Lal Chowk and Batmaloo, we crawl even early in the morning, past knots of people looking for rides, through messes of cars and bikes and buses and Qualises. At one three-way junction on the outskirts, there is the familiar and pure chaos that results when such junctions are left untended and unsignalled.

Weary of the wait, the dust, the chaos, I close my eyes and muse through the mess.

Why Srinagar, my friends ask in wonder, why Kashmir? I feel oddly bashful offering the sole answer I have: I'm in search of patriotism. I'm worn out with the variety that only seems like phony posturing to me -- the "love India or leave it", "my country right or wrong" kind of rhetoric that is applauded as patriotism. I'm searching for different ways to look at this near-holy virtue, different ways it is experienced and lived. Even fought for.

I'm travelling for that. And if you're travelling in search of patriotism in India, the road leads inexorably to Kashmir. In the way it has become a litmus test of our feelings for our country, in the emotions it inspires in us, Kashmir is no-brainer patriotism. Naturally I want to visit, learn for myself what ticks over here. Yet what my friends also mean is the mundane question of safety. Is it really a good time to go to Kashmir? Is Srinagar safe? Can you trust those Kashmiri Muslims, don't they all hate us Indians?

Good questions, though how will I answer them without going?

So I get to Srinagar. I roam the city, take the buses with their guttural conductors, shop for shawls and dupattas, lunch on the leisurely lawns of the Amar Singh Club, watch football matches at the university, sit beside Dal Lake and write postcards, debate settling into a houseboat for a few days.

Normal things, normal tourist stuff, normal life. Where's the patriotism?

Yet what else is normal is what makes this city profoundly abnormal. I mean the immense presence of armed forces: soldiers every few metres, concrete bunkers festooned with rolls of barbed wire, guns cradled in alert arms everywhere you look.

And already this is a journey. From the chaotic certainties of Bombay, through the disorderly ostentation of Delhi, to this city of guns where it took me six -- count 'em, six -- different security checks to board a plane, where you must turn on your inside light if you're driving your car after dark, where the streets are dark after dark. And when I begin to experience some of this, I also begin to realise all it has done to what people here feel about a country. Come to Kashmir for the beauty and the chinar trees, but come too for a taste of that.

Rashid, who sold me two shawls on the Boulevard, has thought about this. "Koi hadd bhi hoti hai," he begins. On the way home after a wedding, he weaved through a roadblock and came to a stop at a CRPF jawan who had his gun pointed at him. Where are you coming from, where are you going, why so late, the jawan barked. Rashid's simple answers -- "wedding", "home" and "weddings run late", respectively -- only annoyed the man, who brandished the gun some more. So after a while Rashid emerged carefully from his rusting Maruti [Get Quote]. "Koi hadd bhi hoti hai," he repeats to me. "These soldiers are all stupid goondas."

He stood there, this balding, shambling, slightly flabby man. Pointed to his wife and kids, to his own belly, asked the jawan: "Why are you treating me like this? I'm Indian like you. Do I look like a terrorist?"

I get the unsettling feeling he is really asking me. Me, the travelling Indian whose easy ideas about patriotism also run into roadblocks in this place.

No, he doesn't look like a terrorist. But this is more normal stuff in this terrorist, tourist, town. And in some ways, it's in tales like this, of which there are plenty for a visitor to hear in Srinagar, that my search for Abhimanyu Sikka takes root.

Because the logical place these tales pointed to was the other end of those guns: those cradling arms, those eyes that look out from bunkers. What must it be like to be a soldier here? To be seen as a stupid goonda? To be on duty not knowing where the next terrorist might pop up? To peer at ordinary citizens along the barrel of a gun? What does it do to your ideas of serving the country? What must it be to sometimes die here?

Part II: Major Sikka's river

Dilip D'Souza

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