or, How I Started Worrying and Moved to Rajbagh
(Sorry, wrote this quickly cuz I wanted to get it in 'fore I left for vacation. Not terribly entertaining, but rather informative and slightly suspenseful I'd hope.)
“So, where are you?” Sajjad asks when I call after returning from Gulmarg on Sunday morning.
“I’m back in Srinagar, Lal Chowk” I tell him. “Just arrived.”
“Oh, OK,” he says. “I was just at your house.”
“Oh, too bad I missed you.”
“Yes, I was talking to Iftikhar,” he says. “There is something we should discuss.”
“Oh, yeah, what is it?” I responded, wondering what it could be.
“No, no, I will tell you later,” he said, sounding serious.
“OK, we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Yes, tomorrow morning,” he agreed. “Alright, fine.”
In the five months I’ve worked for him, Sajad has never told once told me that we needed to talk, so this little conversation sets the wheels spinning. He has said several times how he is tired and would like very much to quit the paper and retire. Could this be it, the end of Kashmir Observer? Could I be unemployed by tomorrow? It seems unlikely, but I count it among the possibilities. Another is that it has to do with Hussain, mine and Iftikhar’s servant. Dissatisfied with his work of late, Iftikhar had a few weeks ago told Hussain that he (Iftikhar) would be letting him (Hussain) go at the end of November. Sajad and I spoke and decided that we would try to settle the matter so that Hussain would continue to work as my cook -- for which Sajad and I would share the payment of his salary -- and as Iftikhar’s gardener in return for housing. Perhaps some new development had occurred on that end.
So these were the thoughts that were bouncing around in my head when Sajad came online later that evening and I asked him what was up. He said that it was important and that it concerned all of us, but that it was nothing to worry about and that we’d discuss it tomorrow.
The next day I get to the office and was waiting, waiting, waiting. He finally arrives at about 2:30 and we go into the sitting room to chat.
“OK,” he begins, in that long, drawn out way he has. “There were some visitors to your house on Friday night. Three men. Armed. Militants.”
He looks at me sharply and I move not a muscle. He continues.
“Apparently they knocked on your window first,” he says. “You were gone and they received no response, of course, then they knocked on Hussain’s window and he woke up and they told him they wanted a place to sleep.”
What?! Fast forward to later on, when I went home and found Hussain in the kitchen cooking my dinner.
“So we had some visitors, I hear,” I say, hoping he gets the drift.
“Sajjad told me about the militants that were here, Friday night?”
“Oh, yeah!” he said, screwing up his face and sticking a ladle into the pot.
“So tell me about it. Did they knock on my window first?”
“Yeah, they knock your window and I hear something and look out. I see them and they come over and ask for place to rest for a while,” he said.
“I let them inside and two of them fell asleep but the other, the commander, he stayed awake.”
“The Kashmiri?” I asked, trying to get a sense of who was in charge, their mission, etc.
“The Kashmiri was sleeping first!” he shot back. “He out right away. NOooooo, commander big, strong Pakistani. Like this,” and he lifts up his shoulders and arms like a gorilla.
“He told me that it was bad that I was working for this man, as a servant. Asked me why I’m not fighting for my home. I told him I working!
“He said that I should join the movement. Told me if I ever needed anything I should give him call.”
“He gave you his phone number?” I asked, incredulous. This seemed a breach of militant etiquette.
“Yeah, his mobile number.”
I stood there scratching my head and wondering what it all meant. My home suddenly seemed less homey.
“They had so many guns…big, militant guns and six pistols!” Hussein resumed, getting jumpy. “But next time they come, I killing them!
So, yes, three militants paid a visit to the compound while I was working in Gulmarg late last month. Apparently they knocked on my window first, which could mean they knew there was a foreigner living there and wanted something with him – to kidnap and use as leverage or for ransom or who knows what – or could have just been dumb luck and they had no idea who lived where. The fact that the commander felt comfortable enough to give Hussain his phone number seemed to suggest that they had had no nasty plan. Either way, from that point on I didn’t feel terribly comfortable bedding down in the dark mere feet away from the window to which large, armed Pakistani militants had come a-calling all too recently. So, at Sajjad’s suggestion, I hurriedly looked for other lodgings, preferably somewhere closer to town, somewhere safer, and somewhere with 24-hour power supply. After a few days’ search I found a too-large, too-expensive place in Rajbagh, a pleasant, army-infested neighborhood just across the Jhelum from the Kashmir Observer office, and snatched it up. Best of all, it has a hamam, a uniquely Kashmiri little room under which one lights and then closes a (outside) metal door on a fire, thus heating the concrete for about 15 hours. It’s warming my buns as I write on this fine, chilly Christmas night, and all is well again in Kashmir.
Seasons Greetings. I'm off to Delhi tomorrow, then various parts of Thailand and India for about a month-long break.