CHILLAI KALAN, as the period from the last week of December to the end of January is known in Kashmir, is the best of the valley’s winter. Kashmir turns white and frosty, and the sun all but disappears. People sit in kitchens around kangris—earthen pots with fire embers—seeking warmth. Occasionally, one sees a few men and women walk purposefully across market places. In late December 2016, we woke up to a film of white that had settled on every visible surface. In July that year, Kashmir had lost and found its second great martyr in Burhan Wani, and his death had spurred resistance in ways similar to those seen in 1984 that followed the execution of Maqbool Bhat, the founder of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front. The valley was still in mourning. The perfect calm of the morning was broken only by the sounds of birds and later by empty cans heard from our hosts’ kitchen garden.
Outside, next to the snow-covered garden, sat the seven-year-old daughter of a family we were staying with. She was squatting, etching her name in Urdu on the snow-covered floor with a small wooden handle. Soon, she began collecting snow to make a figurine. The neighbours’ 12-year-old daughter stood watching close by, playing with her at times and teasing her. “Boed gaseth kya chui banun?”—What do you want to be when you grow up?—she asked the girl, but only received a tight-lipped smile. Keen to hear a response, the neighbour’s daughter tried again, providing possible answers. “Doctor cha banun?”—Will you be a doctor? The younger one shook her head in disapproval. “A teacher? Like papa?” She replied with a “nav”—no. “Engineer?” she asked. This time the reply was “awa”—yes—with a smile. In a coy yet determined way the younger one added, “Telli hakhneh beh mujahid baneth”—That’s how I can become a mujahid. The neighbour’s daughter, pressing her index finger between her incisors, let out a laugh. “Since many militants in the valley today are engineers or were students at engineering colleges, she feels that it’s a natural transition from one to the other,” she explained to us.
The seven-year-old’s aspiration, as extraordinary as it may have seemed, did not appear out of place in that moment. In those surroundings—the snow-covered ground, the mourning and the growing hum of the maolud shareef prayer from the mosque—the beauty and ugliness of Kashmir appeared to coexist seamlessly.
MOST WRITINGS ABOUT KASHMIR, ever since militancy began in the valley in the late 1980s, has confined itself to issues of human-rights violations or national-security frameworks. It has not documented the changes that have occurred over the last three decades in the daily lives of Kashmiris—in their beliefs, dreams, friendships, livelihoods and even notions of honour and shame. Kashmir’s children have changed, and so have the games they play. People’s fears and their ability to trust and love have altered. The ordinary moments of their lives unfold in the presence of extraordinary garrisons of the Indian state, set up across the valley since 1990s. Resistance has become part of their routine and renders their lives exceptional.