KASHMIR : THE SHADOW OF A HORSE
Three weeks later, Imla flew directly to Srinagar by
an Indian Airlines flight, while Andrew came from Delhi. They met at the
Srinagar airport on a Friday evening. There was a curfew as usual and they had
to be driven from the airport to the hotel under heavy military escort. As the
first time, each junction was guarded by BSF personnel in sandbag bunkers and lorries
full of soldiers zipped past them constantly. Things even look grimmer, thought
Andrew. As the Broadway had been closed after another mortar attack, They
checked in Adhoos, the only hotel still open in Srinagar for journalists, safe because
it was run by Kashmiri Muslims. It was on the Bund of the Jamuna river and
heavily guarded too. Nothing much had happened in Kashmir recently, bare the
occasional blast and the hotel was empty. They were allotted two rooms on the
After unpacking, they both went to the police headquarters to get they curfew
passes, indispensable to roam around Kashmir and then drove to the fortified
military camp on the other side of the Bund for an appointment with General
Sharlat, Commander of Kashmir. Andrew had met him in Delhi and Sharlat had
promised him that he would allow him to go with the army on one of their night
General Sharlat was warm enough
You’re lucky, he told Andrew, tomorrow night we have a very special ops in Manaspal lake 150 kms from here. Ahmed Bashi , the leader of the Narayanan temple attack, could very
well be holing-up there, as it is a transit point between Pakistan and India.
Would you like to go ? It could be a bit dangerous and I would advise the lady
not to accompany you.
Imla pouted and said:
– No way I am coming.
– I will look after her.
Imla gave him a look of gratitude and Sharlat sighed.
– Ok then, be both here tomorrow morning at 5.30 AM. You will be taken to the Manaspal army camp under escort. But you’re doing this at your own risks.
That night they had early supper in the dining room. They talked
inconsequently. Imla was guarded, conscious that she, a young Indian girl, was
alone with a Western man in a deserted hotel. Andrew thought it was a good time
to make a move.
– I kissed you on the Rishikesh beach, you
kissed me in the hospital, you have done the exercise now and know a little
more about our own sexuality . I want more now. What can you give ?
Her nastiness came on the surface, fast as a snake.
–Listen, she said I did the exercise just to please you. I am an Indian and a virgin – and in our country we keep ourselves for our future husbands. It’s in our tradition.
Andrew would not give-up so easily:
– Do you know that it is possible to make love without losing your virginity, he smiled ? Possible
even to make love without touching each other ?
This time she opened her eyes wide. She was really curious about that last bit of
information. Then she caught herself, looked at her watch and said:
– It’s nine o’clock, let’s sleep. We have to get up at 4.30 tomorrow.
They went up and as they came to the door of her room, he tried to kiss her.She pushed him away saying:
– Good night now Andrew
He did not insist, bowed slightly and said curtly
– Good night Imla.
The next day, they were taken to Manaspal Lake, which
is in North-West Kashmir and reached the main army camp in the area, after a
five hours uneventful drive under heavy escort. They spent the rest of the day
in the tent they had been given, reviewing their notes on the history of
separatism in Kashmir, which they would use in their later pieces. They slept
in the late afternoon and were woken up at 6.30 pm and given an early dinner. At 9 pm they heard the powerful diesels of 20 army lorries roar away, piercing the perfect silence
of the night. Aboard, were 400 men of the 22nd Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, one of
India’s elite divisions, in full battle dress: helmets, an AK-47 rifle slung
over the shoulder and two grenades tucked in the belt. Colonel Khanna, division
commander, greeted them with a handshake, invited them to board the first lorry
and signaled with his hand. The convoy started ponderously into the night.
Earlier they had met Colonel Khanna’s officers, young,
bright men, whose world centres around a field tent, the walls of which are
adorned with pictures of wanted militants, and tallies of wounded and killed
Hizbollah Mujahedins, a true soldier’s trophy. Over a glass of beer, Colonel
Khanna had shown them a map of Kashmir and pointed to a village near Wular
Lake, called Banyar.
– This village, he said, is known to be a safe haven
for militants, as it is on the route from Kupwara at the Pak border, to Sopore.
Your man could be there, on the way back to Pakistan where he probably trained
before his mission in India. It has the uniqueness of being surrounded by
water. So we will have to take two heavy wooden boats with us to cross the
swamp. We shall walk the whole night and by morning we will have surrounded the
Half an hour after, having started from the base, the
lorries stopped suddenly, all lights out. Silently the 400 men of the
regiment climbed down and melted into the night. Then the lorries
– They will serve as a decoy for the militants’ watchdogs, who seeing they are
going in an opposite direction, will think that we are going to strike
another village, whispered Khanna.
It was a pitch-dark monsoon night. No lights, no
torches, one could barely discern the man in front and
sometimes soldiers would hold each other’s shoulders
not to get lost. Andrew had hitched onto a Gurkha
allotted for their protection and was holding Imla by the hand. The silence was
total: not a murmur, not a sound of a rolling stone; only the hiss of the wind
in the trees, carrying the smell of men to a faraway village, whose dogs
started barking. But even their sounds
slowly died away. Suddenly, a cantering horse, like a ghost appearing from
nowhere, crossed them; and then it was gone, as in a dream.
At first, the going was smooth enough on a dirt road,
but all of a sudden they had to
slither down on all fours to reach the swamp,
where one had now to walk on a high narrow causeway
surrounded by water on both sides. It started raining and a frog,
followed by another, then another, then a hundred, a thousand, began
tearing the silence of the night with their “croaaroaaak”. From
time to time the man in front would suddenly stop and the others behind
would bump into him: the soldiers carrying the heavy wooden boats were to
be replaced by a new team. At 3.30 in the morning, the swamp had to
be crossed to reach the village. The boats were lowered into the water without
a ripple; and while exhausted men slept on the embankment, the tedious
task of carrying a whole company in two boats went on
smoothly. And as thefirst hint of a grey, dreary day, pointed at the
horizon, Andrew and Imla saw that the village of Banyar was totally surrounded.
At 5.15, Lieutenant Tikku and a platoon of soldiers entered the village
from its eastern side with Imla and Andrew in their midst .
– Militants are usually caught at daylight, he
murmured, it is then that they start shooting. If we don’t catch them at that
moment, they go into hiding either in the houses or in the fields;
and we have to flush them out.
Shoulders hunched in the expectation
of a grenade thrown from the first floor of a house,
or the bullet ofan unseen sniper, eyes darting right and left, fingers
on the triggers of their AK-47s, the soldiers advanced on the village.
Andrew wanted to hold Imla by the hand, but she shook him off, zipped a pad and
a pen from her pocket and started scribbling furiously even while walking.
Andrew could not but admire her courage.
It was a dreadful hamlet on the banks of the Jhelum River:
dirty, unkempt, whose wooden and cement houses had an
air of never having been finished. By 6 AM, not a soul had stirred
from the shuttered houses, and it became clear that if the
militants were there, they were not going to come out with guns blazing. An
officer went to the mosque and asked on its loudspeakers that all men
between 16 and 60 assemble in the school compound just outside
Already soldiers had encircled the meadow where a
little windowless house which served as school, stood. Machine guns were
posted, even a mortar was set up. Slowly the villagers started filing
out of the village. The older men were put on the right where they sat
stoically on their haunches; and the younger ones grouped on the left. After some
time, noticed Andrew and Imla, two men, whose faces were hooded by black cloth
and their hand tied to a soldier, came in and were made to sit in the school,
facing the glassless window.
– They are “cats”, whispered Andrew to
Imla, militants who have been caught and
have agreed to inform on their brothers, in exchange for some future leniency.
They were now at least 2,000 villagers in the meadow.
On a signal from the Colonel,
young villagers were made to form a file. First they
were searched by a soldier, then one by one they were presented by
another soldier to the cats. One of the informers seemed unwilling or maybe
indifferent; but the other had extraordinary eyes, which were constantly
darting, from the face of the soldier, to the villager. The villagers,
some humble, othersproud, others looking spitefully towards the
informers, or a few eyes castdown in fear, filed past the cats. When the second
informer would nod negatively,the soldier would tap the shoulder of the villager,
who relieved,would go back to sit on his haunches. But suddenly, as
a mullah, well-dressed, apparently educated, looking boldly ahead,
was brought forward, the cat raised his finger and whispered
something in the ear of hiswatcher. The mullah was then led, protesting, to one
corner and madeto cover his face with his shawl. Four men were thus
“recognised” by thesecond cat and kept apart. But Ahmed Bashi was not
– He probably stayed in the plains for another operation, Andrew told Imla.
Imla was still writing furiously on her pad when
suddenly, a shot was heard, followed by a burst of fire. Everybody, including
Andrew and Imlarushed towards the place where the sound came from.
There, in a field of mature maze, there was a path of crushed stalks, which
led straight to two cowering militants, one of whom was wounded,
surrounded by triumphant soldiers. Basir Ahmed Pare and Zakir
Hussein had just crossed over, from Pakistan where they had gone for
training and halted overnight in the village thinking they were safe. But
when they realised that the army had surrounded the village, they hid in
the field with theirtwo Kalashnikov and four grenades. The weapons were
recovered from them, with coupons which they sell to the villagers to extort money
and the photo of their area commander. The men were then handed over to the
military intelligence for what would probably be a long spell of rough interrogation,
reflected Andrew, remembering the dead man in Kupwara.
Exhausted, after a whole night walk, plus a full day
in the heat, Andrew and Imla wearily started for the base. On the trip back, a
rider-less galloping horse (the same as in the night?) cast his shadow on their
convoy. Was it the shadow of Kashmir, once a proud civilization, the birthplace
of Shivaism and Indian spirituality, thought Andrew?
On the way back to Srinagar, Imla dozed off on
Andrew’s shoulder. There was a slight smile on her face. Andrew had the
impression that some further bond had been established between them during
their adventure. Suddenly he had the feeling she trusted him.
As soon as they reached the hotel, they both went to their respective room to file their
stories. Andrew could see that Imla was highly excited and that she was
bursting to pour out her adventure on paper. He got a good line and recounted
his entire adventure to an enthralled audience all over the world. He concluded
his piece by saying that there seemed to be the beginning of an ethnic
cleansing of the four hundred thousand Kashmiri Pandits, many of whom were fleeing the Valley of Kashmir through terror and violence, and had become refugees in their own
country. This earned him, for the first time, accusations of becoming soft on
It was already ten PM by the time they met in the deserted dining room. She was looking
stunning, wearing a long black dress and a white lace shirt that went up to her
neck. There was no power and they had dinner by candlelight. It was intimate
and though Imla did not say much, she still had that half smile of contentment
on her face. She had filed the story of her life, which would be splashed all
over India the next day –The Shadow of the Horse – and had already been
congratulated by her editor.
After dinner, they both went up to the 2d floor. Andrew was ready to say good
night to her, when she put her hand on his arm and said
– I’ll come in a ittle bit.
Thrilled, Andrew led her inside, made her listen to
the piece he had sent his radio for his broadcast, which used bits of
interviews, noises and his comments. She seemed very quiet. After some time,
she suddenly said:
–What did you mean, when you said you could make love to me without touching me ?
Andrew could not believe his ears. Here he was with
this beautiful Indian girl, alone with her in a hotel in Srinagar and she was
ready to play his games !
He quickly gathered his wits.
–You sit here, he pointed to the sofa. And I’ll sit on that chair opposite you. We will keep a
distance of one foot between us, so that our knees do not touch, but we can
still see every expression on each other’s faces.
She nodded her agreement and sat slowly on the sofa.
Ok he said, we will start by talking. We have to look in each other’s eyes and not waver away.You have to be truthful and not hide anything. I will ask a question and then
it will be your turn.
-Ok, he began, are you excited ?
She looked at him and said slowly:
– Yes, very much.
–Your turn now, he smiled.
Her question disappointed him.
– Is lust everything for you ?
He thought for a moment and answered.
– You know, love and lust are often mixed. And on top of that, I could easily fall in love with
you – in fact, he caught himself, I am falling in love with you right now.
He saw that his answer had pleased her.
– Ok, your question now, she said…