Elephants in Manhattan
By Feroz Rather
20 January 2016
India-administered Kashmir is haunted by violence and bound by the tension of memory.
In the summer of 2011, I went to meet a friend in New York. Sameer quickly came down to the lobby after the guard at the counter called him. He had not been home for years. His face lit up, the way it always does for friends from home. As he greeted me, his accent faltered. He abandoned English and switched to Kashur.
“How was Kashmir?” he asked, smiling.
“Not as terrible as the last year,” I said, “but you know how things are.”
In the elevator, he held my luggage. He was no longer smiling. We climbed to the third floor in silence. The apartment building was in Roosevelt Island with a view of the East River, across from which he worked in a laboratory at Weill Cornell Medical College.
The following day, a Sunday, I woke up to the hiss of the sprinklers. I sat up on the couch in the living room and looked through the window. The lawns, drizzled over, were neat and shining. Over Manhattan, the sky was a receding rag of clouds.
Sameer snored in his bedroom, hoarding sleep to last him the rest of the week. I went out and walked toward the East River, under the shade of maple trees in full leaf. Unlike most other things in the US, maple trees are puny. Their leaves are a little larger than, and in the shape of, a duck’s webbed feet. In comparison, Kashmir’s boen is grand. The leaves are like open human hands, and have such poetic patterns of venations that Srinagar’s silversmiths fashion earrings after them.
The morning turned out to be blustery, and the waves of the East River slapped against the shore. I ambled on, keeping close to the water. I watched countless bubbles forming and bursting on the surface, and wondered who was being choked to death beneath. I heard someone wailing in the distance, but I kept walking. Soon, I reached the Roosevelt Island tram station. In its early morning desertion, I boarded an F train. It sped through the tunnel beneath the East River, and felt like being in a long rattling coffin. I got out at 77th Street, near Lenox Hill Hospital, which for many years I had longed to see.
At the gate with sliding glass doors, the guard asked me why I wanted to go inside.
“I am researching the genesis of a poem,” I said.
“What! What poem, man?” he asked.
“Lenox Hill,” I said.
“It is a hospital. There are no poems here, man.” He frowned, asking me to leave.
‘Lenox Hill’ is the first poem in Agha Shahid Ali’s collection Rooms Are Never Finished. In the 65-line canzone, Ali broke the silence which descended on him after his mother, Sufia, died of brain cancer in 1997. The collection, the most accomplished of Ali’s works, contains a cycle of poems in the first section, titled ‘From Amherst to Kashmir’, which deals with this loss. While these poems have a searing poignancy and exceptional technical intelligence, ‘Lenox Hill’ is my favourite.
she’s dying! How her breathing drowns out the universe
as she sleeps in Amherst. Windows open on Kashmir:
There, the fragile wood-shrines – so far away – of Kashmir!
O Destroyer, let her return there, if just to die.
The poem conceives of a string of wailing voices condensed into a juxtaposition of a historical legend with an impossible personal grief. Mihiragula, a king of the Hun dynasty, while passing over the hills of Pir Panjal into Kashmir, hears the cry of an elephant which by chance slips and falls off a cliff. He asks his men to throw the other elephants in his caravan, because he takes instant pleasure in the dying elephants’ cries.
The Hun so loved the cry, one falling elephant’s,
he wished to hear it again. At dawn, my mother
heard, in her hospital-dream of elephants,
sirens wail through Manhattan…
I was disappointed with my inability to explain to the guard what I was looking for. But even more with what he guarded – a bland building incommensurate with what, in my readings of the poem in Srinagar and Delhi, Ali had led me to believe. I had not expected silent cement blocks and windows of mute, unreflecting glass. What I had pictured was a place where the screams of Sufia leapt from infinite walls and lofty, choked domes with such swaying force that could reduce the entire city to rubble. Each cry, I had imagined, reached god himself, tearing through his red robes and knocking him down from his saddle of eternal comfort…
After a brisk rain-shower in the evening, the sky cleared up. Sameer and I cooked white rice and collard greens, the closest thing to the leafy hakh at home. As we ate by the window, our voices grew louder, speaking in Kashur. We listened to a Bashir Dada song on YouTube. We drank several cups of nun chai.
Sameer is from a village in Sopore, a small town in the northern district of Baramulla, known for its dirt roads, orchards laden with apples and warm people fond of cussing in their singsong accents. He was 36, of medium height and built, a fellow both humble and handsome. I had met him six or seven years ago when he was a graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and he told me a story that stayed with me.
In the beginning of 1993 – when Sameer was 18 – on the morning of 6 January, his younger brother and sister were travelling in a bus headed to Bundpor from their village. As Mudasir and Saima reached Main Chowk in Sopore, troopers of the 94 Battalion of the Border Security Force (BSF) stopped the bus. Then, they came nearer and began firing at the passengers. At least 20 people died instantly. The rest were shot at as they came out of the door, trying to escape. Only four people survived including Saima and Mudasir.
Later when Sameer asked them what had happened, they told him how they had hidden beneath the seats for more than two hours. They witnessed the soldiers entering the bus and firing at their fellow passengers. So determined were the troopers to avenge the death of a BSF soldier killed earlier that day, they spilled gunpowder over the lines of the shops and houses on either side of Main Chowk and set them afire.
According to the report “Structures of Violence: The Indian State in Jammu and Kashmir”, published in September 2015 by the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons, that day troopers killed 46 people and destroyed much of the market.
Smoke filled the bus as the fire raged. The heat became intolerable. Mudasir and Saima were going to die. As they began to suffocate under the seats, they ventured out of the bus. The street was covered in folds of smoke. A woman from the neighbourhood came looking for her children, and when she saw Mudasir and Saima, she led them away.
“They reached home with their pherans soaked in blood, a sight I will never forget,” Sameer told me. “I was thankful, but felt guilty. I held them in my arms and cried my heart out.”
Sameer’s research focused on developing a medicine to cure diabetes, and he told me about his recent success, which meant general busyness and his participation in conferences across the US and Canada. It also paved the way for him to be awarded a green card, and the capacity to stay as a successful professional in New York City.
I listened to him. I enjoyed the lightness of his tone, the ease with which he moved in his gym shorts and T-shirt, the assuredness in his laughter. At the time, I was new to the US. A second-year graduate student of fiction at a school in the Central Valley of California, I was poor and anxious. My monthly stipend was USD 550, and after paying USD 450 to my landlady, it was a challenge to squeeze in even the basic groceries.
Listening to Sameer gave me faith. He had started his American journey in Arkansas as a post-doctoral fellow. He worked very hard, at an average of 12 hours each day, six days a week for three years to reach the position he had achieved. The expectation that the world would directly benefit from and recognise his work gleamed bright in his eyes. I took pride to be in the company of a Kashmiri who had hazarded his way through decrepit schools in Sopore during the difficult years of the war, and yet made it to the heart of New York City.
But despite the faith and assurance I felt in his presence, as I write this, I recognise a subliminal unease flowing from a source other than my poverty and anxiety. I identify a sense of repugnance and hesitancy that ran deeper within me, which did not allow me to fully participate in Sameer’s story – the narrative he had created for himself in the US and believed in so fiercely, the narrative that I suspected drifted away from his past, seamlessly merging into the future he imagined for himself in his New York apartment, all the while his laughter resounding wildly between its firm bright walls. Without this repugnance and hesitancy, my participation in his narrative and the physical expressions it found – to run for an hour on the treadmill each day, to falter and sweat but drink Gatorade and keep running with an untainted glow of optimism on one’s face, to smile at strangers you did not really care for – would have amounted to a grim betrayal of the history that bound me to him.
As we finished eating, we went to the rooftop on the sixteenth floor. We stretched out on the easy chairs. The conversation, flitting here and there, finally returned to Kashmir. “Last year, police killed boys, many boys. I was watching videos on the internet and following news in my lab,” Sameer said. Incident by incident, Sameer recounted what had happened during that summer in Baramulla. He was gloomy, and he spoke under his breath. He mentioned 13-year-old Faizan Ahmad Buhur, who on 17 July 2010, was chased from the street by the police and forced to jump into the river Jhelum. Faizan drowned while the panting police officers waited on the river bank with their guns and batons.
I looked away from him. The East River was calm. The jangle of Manhattan’s daytime noises became a steady hum, and the city sparkled indigo and white. I waited for him to resume. But he seemed to be waiting for me to respond. We both failed. How could one speak when, before our eyes, dangled the dead pale face of Faizan?
In Haroon Mirani’s report in the Srinagar weekly Kashmir Life, it was clear that Faizan’s head bore a wound. He was beaten by the police, hit with the butt of a gun or with a baton on the back of his head, and chased to the river. There he writhed in pain, waving and flailing his arms, calling for help. But such is the terror of the Special Operations Group of police that no townsperson dared to come near.
Like all summers of my life, I was home during the summer of 2010, a season that bleeds in my memory. God is deaf. The world is indifferent. Kashmir is in shackles. The city of Srinagar is a morbid cycle of killings. Forty miles away to its south, in my village Bumthan, each day dawns with the wish to shatter the oppressor to pieces, to throw stones in its dreadful face. Each night shudders with the news of a boy killed and more boys at the karbala of his funeral.
Faizan is not the only one who died drowning. There were also Zubair Bhat and Muzaffar Ahmad, two 17-year-old boys, and nine-year-old Khalid Ahmad Mir from Sopore, whose bloated body was found four days after he plunged into the Jhelum trying to escape CRPF soldiers.
I wanted to ask Sameer certain questions, but the seeming repose that Manhattan offered tied my tongue. I wonder now, what was on the minds of the soldiers when, instead of tearing the boys’ bodies with hot metal, they chose to drown them. How did the desire to oppress turn into a perverse wish to drown the boys’ voices, the bodies wriggling beneath the water?
Our silence – Sameer’s and mine – remains. Our silence darkens and deepens. The earth splits apart. A chorus of wails emerges and rises. The cement blocks of time and space rattle and collapse. We see Ali carrying a dying Sufia – and within her, his entire Kashmir – in his bare arms. From Lenox Hill, Ali cries and consoles her like his daughter. Ali walks towards the water, while Zainab, the sister of a strangulated boy in Srinagar, weaves elegies around Damascus. The soldiers of Mihiragula drop the elephants off the cliffs of the Pir Panjal and the boys off the rooftops. Hearing their bones sing, watching their bodies crash, on the streets of Manhattan, deep in the gorges of the Himalayas, their death cries, muffled, unheard, drowning in the silence of the East River.
~ Feroz Rather is a first-year PhD student in Creative Writing at Florida State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Southeast Review, the Rumpus, Berfrois, and Caravan, among others. His book of stories about the war in Kashmir is forthcoming from Harper Collins.