IN THE WINTER OF 1994, IN KASHMIR, DURING THE CONFLICT, A “WITCH” DESCENDS UPON NEIGHBOURHOODS IN SRINAGAR.
Someone in our neighbourhood was killed that night. It wasn’t unusual for people to get killed. Somebody died all the time in those days, in our neighbourhood or in the next one over, or the next. Bullets. Grenades. Encounters. Every time the dead bodies arrived, the neighbourhood reverberated with pro-freedom slogans and women would sob songs of lament for days. However, the morning after this death things were much quieter. It was the winter of 1994. I was a nine-year-old boy living in Kashmir when the witch was born.
People said it had long iron claws and could break doors and windows with a single blow, and climb several storeys high with demonic ease. They said the dead man’s son had seen it leap away from his father’s body. They said its dark face was hidden behind long black hair; others said the dark face was actually a mask. By evening there were already several versions of what it looked like but nearly everyone agreed that it was a witch.
Almost every Sunday, my friends and I would play cricket at a nearby empty plot of land, and we’d discuss the events of the past week for hours. Each of us had a favourite local militant and we’d often argue about who was the bravest and who looked the best. But that Sunday after the neighbour’s death, we spoke only about the witch – its clothing, its boots, its possible hiding places. I had watched a movie about ghosts on video earlier that month and I repeated the story to different groups of friends. By evening, we had turned our local witch into a celebrity, and I became, with my ghost story and descriptions of how the ghost sees his victims in negative images, much sought after. It was a good day – the witch had given us so much to talk about.
The witch remained the topic of conversation at dinnertime. Grandmother, who was a firm believer in witches and ghosts, spoke about the plight of the dead man’s family and the mounting fear of the witch in the neighbourhood. She had heard from someone that earlier the witch had appeared in villages but was now in Srinagar. She wanted the lights turned off by 8.30 pm; the lights, she said, might attract the witch. One of my uncles, however, didn’t believe in the witch. He told Grandmother to stop scaring us and dismissed the whole witch affair as nonsense. It was soldiers from the Indian army, he said, wearing special gloves, masks, and dark clothing trying to scare Kashmiri people. Yousuf, my older cousin, quickly added that the witch’s boots were fitted with special springs which explained how it could jump easily onto terraces and the second floors of houses. I too wanted to say a few things about the witch, the film and night vision goggles that the ghost wore, but Mother tapped me on the leg signalling me to stay silent. They kept talking about it until everyone left for their rooms.
Every night I would wait impatiently for Mother to wash all the dishes and clean the floors before we could go to bed, but that evening with the lights to be switched off early, she finished her chores quickly. We laid the mattresses and quilts on the bedroom floor. In her haste, Mother had forgotten to bring up a glass of water so she told me to pack my schoolbag while she went downstairs to fetch it. I was left in the room on my own. Father was not at home. He was mostly away, posted to police stations in far off villages. I was thinking about all the new details about the witch that I would share at school the next day, when the window creaked. The old windows often creaked but never so loudly and ominously. I stared at the windows. They didn’t creak again. But on the terrace outside, beyond the glass panes, a large shadow was moving. I knew instantly what it was. It was her.
I tried to look away and started to mumble whatever fragments of verses I remembered from the Quran. I wanted to run but my legs were numb. The door was all of a sudden so far from where I was, and the room felt immense. How could I run across it? I looked at the windows. I could make out its arms. Mother had been gone for what seemed like hours and I felt as though the witch was coming in from all sides and closing in on me.
I don’t remember running out of the room, but I found myself in the dark corridor. I had even bolted our door. I stood on the dark staircase ready to run at the slightest sound. Then the stairs began to thump. It was Mother. She was annoyed that I’d left the room instead of packing my bag. It had already been five minutes, she said. I didn’t tell her about the witch – I thought she’d be scared.
For years, almost every night, I would have a recurring dream. Somebody – a teacher, a soldier, a stranger, a faceless man – would chase me through the attic, the schoolyard or the playground and I could never run away as I wanted to. My legs were always numb in those dreams, as if they were not there, and I’d try to drag them along but never succeeded. The dream always ended with me falling, head first, from our attic, and I’d wake up mid-fall; I think it was in that winter that I first dreamt this.
At the time, we lived in an old house whose windows rarely allowed in enough sunlight to brighten up the walls with green paint flaking off them, and the poorly lit corridors. Back then, electricity was rare in Kashmir and the silent winter nights, lit by flickering candles, would stretch on for far too long. In that darkness the witch ruled.
One day my uncle brought home a dagger, and he started sleeping with it tucked under his pillow. Grandmother started keeping an iron rod under her mattress. Everyone in the neighbourhood started sleeping with hammers, axes and knives, and the window grill makers suddenly had a lot of work on their hands. Mother didn’t want anything in our bedroom, but I still kept a pair of nail clippers that I’d swiped under our pillow. That was all I could lay my hands on.
With every week, there were new stories about people’s encounters with the witch; many of these stories were variations of each other. In one, there was a stampede at a wedding after someone saw the witch at a window; the bride tumbled down the stairs. In another, a man in a village set fire to his curtains when the witch attacked him; they said the witch burned with the house. And in another story, the witch threw a man from his second storey window, and his skull cracked open; though some said he fell after suffering a heart attack.
In the dead of night, all of a sudden, a tin roof would begin to thump with the banging of sticks and batons. This meant that someone had seen the witch around their home. These sounds were in defiance of the witch. The pounding would grow intense as adjoining tin roofs joined the music. The sounds moved across the neighbourhood: one roof paused, another played. A quiet night in no time turned into a heavy metal concert.
But beneath that defiance there was fear. It was not the witch alone that frightened people; it thrived on the fear and terror that people lived through in Kashmir at that time. The early morning crackdowns, night raids, military curfews, arrests and tortures, disappearances and all those other words that had suddenly become part of Kashmiri language, instilled paranoia among the local population. In 1989, Kashmiris had picked up arms en masse to fight off an unpopular Indian rule, and to counter the insurgency the Indian Government heavily militarised Kashmir with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, of which 700 000 still operate across the state today. By 1994, the conflict had already intensified to the extent that thousands of Kashmiri people had lost their lives. Newspapers in those days only wrote about death, and every morning the pictures of dead bodies looked like jigsaw puzzles.
It was amidst all this violence and intrigue that the witch arrived, and soon people began to say that the only witches were the soldiers. During the day, Yousuf and I would see Indian soldiers on the streets and their faces would later haunt us as witches. We dreaded the nights.
One night, while Mother and I were sleeping, we were woken up by Grandmother knocking on our door. She said in a hushed tone that there was somebody in the attic. Grandmother was carrying an iron rod, my uncle an axe. My aunt too had something in her hand. Mother whispered in my ear to stay in the middle of the group. She seemed angry with me for answering the door and not feigning sleep. Everyone carried a candle and it was bright in the attic as we never usually lit so many candles at once. My aunt saw something – a shirt had fallen off the clothesline. Grandmother began to murmur verses from the Quran while my uncle examined the clothesline. Pigeons were cooing in a corner. There was nothing there, nothing behind the tall old trunks, nothing behind the coal drums. They decided it must have been a cat, but we were all too afraid to go back to our rooms, so we gathered in Grandmother’s room.
My uncle then called out from the corridor shouting that it was in the bathroom. We went out and found him smiling near the bathroom door. The door was ajar and had been pushed open by a bucket that had fallen off its peg on the wall; somehow, everyone had heard the noise come from the attic. Everyone laughed at how worked up we’d gotten, and we returned to our rooms.
We lived with much the same fear during the nights, until my father came one day to take Mother and I away. We moved to Udhampur, a district in Jammu. I soon realised that not only did my classmates not know about witches, they also didn’t know much about guns or “wireless sets,” and had never heard of terms like “ambush” or “third degree.” Suddenly there was nobody left to have all those conversations with. Yousuf rarely called, but whenever he did he’d talk about the clanging of roofs and new militants. He said he still slept with something close by, just in case.
Sometime over the next two years I spent there, I found other things to talk about with my new friends and forgot about the witch. But at night, in my dreams, I continued to fall from the old attic.
Author: Zahid Rafiq