If I remember it clearly it was the summer of 2006, I was a young man in my early twenties, and I had just returned home after some nine months being away. In 2005 I had entered famous north Indian institute (and perhaps safest refuge of Kashmiris in India) Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
Living away from my family and my homeland Kashmir for the first time was not so hard, for in AMU three of my cousins had established themselves there like Dandelion roots in soil, providing the much needed sense of security and support. I was emotionally insured.
As an entrant to the world of literature my susceptibility to new ideas – radical and conservative – was high. I was, I can say with the benefit of hindsight, somewhere in the middle path.
But still within this latent moderated domain some radical thoughts would make momentary forays only to be shooed away by the invisible scarecrows of the university. You can call it orthodox culture or maybe it was just my perception drawn from university’s arched Baroque buildings. Whatever it was, this orthodoxy endeared it to me.
In November 2005, following the bidding of my mother, my younger cousin Nimmy Bhaya asked me to get atop a rickety Rickshaw. “We are going to a barber” he informed me on the way. The wiry rickshaw man was pulling the carrier with great effort, thick veins of his bare legs propping out under the sweaty shine.
The hair cut was my last one; but within four or five months I could see my black hair forming soft curls on my forehead. I felt delighted. It had been my teenage wish to grow long hair and push them back by running my fingers through. I suspect, in my teens, I had seen Afridi doing it before starting run-up to bowl his fast paced leg spinners. Good God! Eight years have passed Afridi has stayed same with the same hair, while I can feel my receding hairline now!
In the evening I would put on unorthodox khadi kurta over blue jeans, take a stroll in my sprawling hall of residence called MM Hall, take measured steps and pay respect to my seniors, “Salam u alykum Bhai”.
“Kya haal hai, sahi lag rahe ho, bhai” (How are you, dude, looking cool in that), compliments would be showered by my batch mates and elders alike. I had reason to feel good and I had good reason to keep the long hair.
Any thoughts that I would entertain before in favor of a haircut were now eschewed. There was no need to shy away from my freedom. I owned it to nobody.
In the sultry and excruciatingly distressing weather of north India, I took care of my burgeoning hairdo on my head – oiled, curly, and shoulder length. It irritated sometimes when it created that itchy feeling around the sweaty neck in the heat of the summer. But I endured it without complaining.
Looking at my long hair and audacious knack for putting on weird clothes, someone told me that I was bringing JNU culture here. I agreed. I said “we should”.
JNU was another north Indian university but it shared nothing like north in its outlook. Located in Delhi, the capital of India, it was imagined in AMU as a Disneyland of unorthodox nerds, whose societal (and sometimes cognitive) dislocation came from the entrenched Marxist tradition – the warp and woof of their ideological superstructure. I viewed them favorably. Because before ending up in AMU, I had tried to get into that Disneyland of nerds but, as my good luck was shining on me in unwavering intensity, I ended up in the class of Prof. Rahatullah, who would be too busy with his acute sinusitis to tell us what really moved T.S Eliot to write the Wasteland. Mind you, Prof. Rahatullah was no no-sense professor, but only he was generous enough to finish his class before official bum-paining 55 minutes. He was really not a Wasteland stuff.
In my outlook I was still on the middle path, clinging on to the traditional values and yet at the same time exploring (or attempting) new and fresh idea and paths.
In the summer of 2006 I returned home. Fresh cool air of Kashmir would bring even a dead rooster to life, says an Old Persian proverb. I was just in my early twenties, this proverb made a lot of sense to me post my experience of the sweltering heat of the north Indian plains. On one Friday after finishing prayers in open air I had to run quickly to the water cooler to save my arms from turning into a flat half-meter igneous rock.
Well, back in Kashmir during the first few days of my first summer holiday at home my family did not mind my new avatar. But gradually, this initial magnanimity gave way to volleys of soft taunts “mast kall”, “Junglee”, “Mast Gul” “Danny” (roughly all these meant weird guy). But I presented an epic resistance to this emotional coercion; I stayed the course. As my maternal throw his weight behind me I was emboldened. “You look better this way, you dude”, my uncle said.
With my friends I would take a daily dose of wanderings around my town, spending a good deal of time in quintessentially giggling Namblabal (our town has some six neighborhoods that have “Bals” in their names like my own neighborhood is called Kadalbal). Every late afternoon, me and my friends would stroll around the markets of Namblabal and return home late to the harmless admonishes of the family.
Everything was going fine till that one particular day (I don’t remember exactly the position of the sun) somebody grabbed my wrist in the busy market. As I turned I was taken aback to see it was an army guy. But what helped regain my posture which had reflexively assumed a default position of surrender, was his small height and boyish countenance. “Kahan se hay?” (Where are you from?)his tone was not that threating. His complexion was fair with fresh whiskers sprouting around his mouth. He was with a gaggle of soldiers wearing khaki fatigues and holding assault rifles. His colleagues gave a mean smile like those subway vagabonds stalking a lone girl.
“Kadalbal se”, I replied.
“Yahan kya kar raha hay?” (What are you doing around here?”
“Bus kaam tha yahan” (Had a work here)
“Ye lambe baal kyun rakhe hain? Hero hai kya!” (Why have you kept this long hair? You acting a hero here!)
Before I could reply, he pulled me, “Chal naiyee ke pass” (Come I take you to the barber)
Incidentally the barber shop was right there few meters away from us, I thought he was serious and would really take me there. I imagined a north Indian barber with a scissor and my lowered head coming out through a meek body wrapped in a silken covering. I was reluctant to follow, but there was no way to say no to him.
I must have looked silly when I sputtered out, “Me bahar tha, me bahar tha” (I was out of town) as if he would have behaved less strictly, as if he was a school principle and I was a naughty student presenting a lame excuse at the sight of a scale.
Perhaps he was not aware that there was a barber shop, perhaps he knew and just wanted to scare me – a new guy in the town for him.
He let me go with a warning, “Ye baal kal nahi dikhne chahiye” (by tomorrow you must have cut your hair).
They were from the local army camp and there are very few Kashmiris who can do otherwise.
After eight years when I recall that moment I ask many questions to myself. I know for many Kashmiris this would be obvious, but still i think over it, like what made them behave like they did. Was it just for fun or a serious warning? I know Indian soldiers can and do exert their authority over us like this and like many other ways, but still what makes them take away those freedoms of young Kashmiris which barely harm their national security? Does it say anything about their sense of entitlement over our personal freedoms? Does it say anything about the kind of militarized rule Kashmiris are forced to live in?
Perhaps I should have realized that Kashmir was not AMU, nor was it north India, nor even India. Kashmir was Kashmir.
When I went back to north India, I must have looked around and found many young Indian guys sporting long hair and I must have asked myself how many of these guys have brothers in Indian army serving in Kashmir?