Fire in Heaven

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“Ma, look, I can see them from the window”, I screamed as I pointed towards the unrealistic vista of green peaks tearing through the sky. Our bus had just arrived at its destination after a day long journey, which to my mother’s good luck I had mostly spent in peaceful slumber.

It was like wonderland. I had never seen a place so beautiful before. Lush green mountains on all sides, sky so blue that it seemed like someone had painted it this morning and beautiful little huts on both sides of the road. In comparison to our city life, this was a clear contrast. We finally reached our temporary home for the next few months, and I was looking forward to an adventurous holiday!

Life was simple. No school, more playtime and I could be with mom all day. We would eat delicious fruits, handpicked by our helper from her garden in the nearby village. I could not understand her language but she would never stop talking. With the smile as bright as hers, everything sounded interesting. I was four and this was my first vacation in full consciousness. I had been told of my visits to other places before, of which I had created a vivid image in my head, but this was different. This I knew was real.

I saw my first snowfall. Cotton-like flakes falling from the sky that transformed the otherwise colorful landscape into a pristine white blanket covered spectacle. I would stare outside my window, watching the mountains merge with the sky, and imagine that our home had wings, and that we were riding through the clouds. Later when the sun would make an appearance, the kids would play with snow in their gardens and rooftops. I being shy and an outsider, would mostly just watch.

My father was an engineer and was posted in this heavenly part of the country. His job was to build roads and bridges in far-flung areas. It helped the people living in those hamlets connect with the rest of the world. Everybody respected him, which in that age, for me, translated into ‘free candy’. We would go for a walk every morning to the bus stand. For a small town like this, it was the link to rest of the world. English newspapers from the big cities would get dropped off in stacks at the break of dawn, villagers would set pop-up shops to sell fresh meat, milk and vegetables and the entire male population of the town would gather to discuss politics and sports. For me, everything was fascinating, even if I could understand nothing of this vital chaos. Soon after, everyone would disperse to carry on with the rest of their day,  in affirmation to regroup the next morning.

Almost a month had passed. I was now friends with our landlord’s kids and their sheep. I still remember crying uncontrollably when I saw the sheep being sheared for the first time. Everything else was just perfect and I never wanted to leave!

One day while we were deep asleep, there was a frantic knock on the door. I was woken up by the commotion as my parents tried to solve the mystery among themselves. It was before sunrise and we did not know anyone who would drop by at such an hour. Ready to battle any thug, my dad said in a loud and angry voice,

“Who is it?”

“It’s me”, said the unannounced guest, hoping that my father would recognize his voice, which he did.

Dad hurried to open the door, assuming his friend was in some sort of trouble. It was the owner of the newspaper shop at the bus stand. As soon as the door opened, he leapt inside and closed the door behind him, alarming my mother who pulled me into her arms. He looked scared, as if he had witnessed something terrible. Attempting to pull off a smile, he greeted mom, then realizing he had scared us all he turned to my dad and said, “Do not leave the house. Close down all the windows. Don’t worry about work, they won’t be expecting you there. Do not open the door unless it is someone you can trust. Pack up your essentials and leave when it’s dark. I wish I could help you more than this”. He looked disappointed with himself, but continued “Your landlord is a good man. But don’t trust anyone. The hell is upon us”. In his eyes, we could already see his beloved homeland burning down to ashes. Then he said with an emotionless face, “Khuda hafiz my friend. I hope we don’t meet anytime soon”, and vanished into the night.

I did not understand what was going on, but I could see the look of horror on my mother’s face. Her grip around me got tighter, almost as if she wanted to hide me in her womb.

There was dead silence throughout the day. Everybody spoke to each other in whispers. The landlord’s wife came in to see if we were alright. Everyone knew what was going on, so a message came through a reliable source that a car would arrive for our pickup at sundown. We had already packed everything. My wonderland would soon be ravaged beyond repair.

PS: The state of Jammu & Kashmir has been facing terrorism from the last three decades. The details are gruesome and shameful for any civilized society. Mass murders, rapes, bomb blasts, all in the name of religion and power. Many died merely of shock and pain of personal loss. Thousands of families that fled their homes still live in camp sites that offer barely liveable conditions. This story is insignificant in comparison to the innumerable barbaric acts of terror that were faced by the people (mainly Kashmiri Hindus) of my state.

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