As the spring of 1991 sets in, the Himalayan snow begins to melt and the waters of river Jhelum gain momentum. But soon the clean-blue gushing waters are turned red, as Kashmir once called ‘The paradise on earth’ by the Mughals, erupts, with the songs of independence emanating from the loudspeakers of mosques and blood flowing through the streets of Srinagar. Born amidst such hostilities, Irfan finds himself surrounded by a black smoke of violence, dense enough to stain even the most majestic and serene landscapes of Kashmir. Irfan’s childhood is mostly restricted indoors due to the curfew imposed outside, as he spends his time playing with pigeons nesting on the rooftop of his house while India, Pakistan and Kashmir play politics over life and land. Irfan’s life is controlled by his overprotecting mother, his terrorist turned father and the armoured military vehicle on the road which repeatedly warns him to stay indoors or otherwise they would shoot. This is a story about immense love and absolute hatred, a story about violence and innocence, a story about beauty and destruction. The stories of this world are unheard and the scenes are unseen, and Irfan, a child as innocent and blissful as a newly bloomed daffodil, takes us deep into this world – the world of violence.
(Stage is empty. A spotlight keeps fluctuating over a makeshift brick wall. An audio clip from Mirwaiz’s speech is played from backstage.)
Mirwaiz Umar Farooq: (Voice from backstage speakers)
We don’t want economic packages, we don’t want jobs, we don’t want incentives, we don’t want autonomy, we want freedom! We want freedom! We want freedom!
Public chant: (Voice from backstage speakers)
Azadi! Lo hath batake, azadi!
Lo aayi aayi, azadi!
Woh phuloon wali, azadi!
Woh mehki mehki, azadi!
Woh pyaari pyaari, azadi!
Woh jaan hamari, azadi!
Woh jaan se pyaari, azadi!
Gaddaron suno, azadi!
Makkaron sunlo, azadi!
Lo haath batake, azadi!
Arey darte kyun ho, azadi!
Zara aage aao, azadi!
(Gunfire sounds start abruptly from the speakers. The public chant is silenced. Stage gets completely dark.)
(Stage is dark and empty.)
Irfan: (Voice from back stage)
It made a growling sound as the plane landed. Soon, the speakers announced:
Air Hostess: (Voice from back stage)
Welcome to the Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi. The temperature outside is 23oC. Please remain seated till the seat belt signal is on. The use of mobile phones is now permitted. Thank you for choosing Air India, and we wish you a pleasant stay. Namashkaar.
Irfan: (Voice from back stage)
But little I was to know that my stay at Delhi was not going to be pleasant at all.
(An airport building setup.)
Officer: Hello Mr. Irfan Ahmed! How are you?
Irfan: Hello Sir, I am good. I beg your pardon, but I don’t believe I recognise you. Have we met before?
Officer: No we haven’t. Our department made sure that the two of us did not meet till the very end.
Irfan: The very end? Of what?
Officer: The very end of you Irfan.
Irfan: I think you have mistaken me for someone else, officer.
Officer: No Irfan, I don’t make mistakes. And how can I forget your face? After all you are the ladder to my success.
Irfan: I fail to understand a word of what you say.
Officer: Ok, let me put it in simpler words. You are under arrest Mr. Irfan Ahmed and need to come with me now.
Irfan : Under arrest! Why?
Officer: You are not the one who asks questions. I am.
Irfan: But what have I done? I have only just arrived.
Officer: You will soon answer your own questions, once you get the proper dosage. For the time being, do as I say.
(The stage is dark, with a table on the side, two chairs and a bright yellow lamp. Irfan is sitting on one of the chairs.)
General: (Walking towards the table and pulling out the other chair to sit) Look who is here! We have a guest. Welcome Mr. Irfan Ahmed, welcome to Delhi.
Irfan: Guest! You called me your guest? Then is how you treat your guests? You make them sit in a stupid dark room for hours!
General: See! I told my men that we were being too polite, but sometimes I need to listen to my juniors as well.
Irfan: Hah! Polite! May I ask why I am here?
General: You may not. And besides, didn’t my man at the airport say that you are not the one who asks questions?
Irfan: Ok, yes he did. So can we finish this whole business quickly? I need to go to my uncle’s place. He should be getting worried.
General: Did you just ask another question? Better shut up, you insane human, or else this bullet shall go down your throat in a second. And here you shall lie, silenced for life. Now tell me Mr. Irfan Ahmed, what brings you to the capital on the eve of republic day? (Long pause) Are you deaf? Didn’t you hear what I asked? Why are you in Delhi on the 25th of January? Answer!
Irfan: You told me not to speak! I don’t want that bullet down my throat, you know.
General: Oh! I am really sorry your highness. You bastard, you think you are too smart, huh? You don’t even have a slightest idea of what lies ahead for you. (hits Irfan on the leg)
Irfan: Aah! Ok, ok, I am sorry. I am here to meet my uncle Umar. He owns a Kashmiri handicrafts shop at Connaught Place. I plan to work at his shop as a manager.
General: And you think I will believe in this stupid story of yours?
Irfan: Well, I don’t see any other choice.
General: But I see many (shows his gun). So come on, say the truth and save yourself from real harm.
Irfan: This is the truth sir! What else do you want me to say?
General: I want you to tell me the real story, not your stupid made-up ones. Let me get it straight. What are your targets? Where do you guys plan to strike? How many more of you are in Delhi? I want every single detail.
Irfan: Sir, I don’t get you. What do you mean?
General: Again, huh! You are trying to be over smart again? You exactly know what I mean Mr. Irfan Ahmed, son of Mr. Majeed Ahmed.
Irfan: You knew my father?
General: Yes, you moron. I knew that terrorist very well. His was a hard soul to fight with, I should say.
Irfan: My father was not a terrorist! Abbu was not a terrorist.
General: Yes, he was Irfan and so are you, a coward terrorist who comes to Delhi to blow off innocent women and children just because you are too afraid to fight with the real men.
Irfan: My father was not a terrorist and neither am I.
General: That’s what all of them say, before we hand them over to the Special Operations Group. Do you think Dal Lake is beautiful? Do you often go there?
Irfan: Yes, I do.
General: Then you must have seen the Special Operations Group headquarters right across the lake. It’s too beautiful a location for such a dreaded building, but that’s your next destination. Be happy, you are going back to Kashmir tomorrow.
Irfan: Back! But I have only just arrived. I need to meet my uncle at Connaught Place. He should be waiting for me.
General: He is not waiting for you. We have told everyone that Irfan was a terrorist and got killed in an encounter while trying to cross the border. So, you are officially dead now. Happy?
(Dark stage with a single lamp. A jail setup.)
Irfan: (Irfan is sitting on the floor and reading the letter aloud as he is writing it, with a pen and paper in his hand.)
The next morning we flew back to Kashmir. Almost 20 armoured vehicles were waiting for my arrival at the Srinagar airport and I was secretly escorted into one of them. The streets of Srinagar were all covered with a white blanket of snow, and from the window of the vehicle, I could see little children making snowmen on the streets, their noses red and dripping due to the cold. Their sight reminded me of you my son, it reminded me of the snowman we had made two days ago in our compound.
Its likely that this letter will never reach you. But still I am writing to let you know that neither I nor my father was a terrorist and I hope that one day you will tell this to the outside world, because here, where men alive are officially dead, there is no access to anything that comes from the outside world, other than the sunlight that enters our room from the small window above. There are many of us here, coming from different parts of Kashmir, and we all have to strictly follow their daily timetable.
On Monday, they constantly sprinkle red chilli powder into our eyes.
Tuesday, they stretch our legs in opposite directions,
Wednesday, we lay hung from our wrist to the ceiling,
Thursday, they tie a cloth on our face and piss on it,
Friday, they electrocute or genitals,
Saturday, they do not allow us to go to the toilet,
and lastly Sunday goes away with our interrogation.
And if we sometimes lose the count of days in this dark room, the daily activity reminds us of what day it is. They say that this treatment shall continue till one says in writing that he is a terrorist. And that’s exactly what I did yesterday.
(A dark stage.)
Irfan: (Voice from back stage)
I was born on a chilly winter day in Kashmir, that’s at least what my mother Shabnam Jan said. She said that it snowed heavily that day.
(Lights on. A hospital ward setup.)
Nurse: Congratulations! It’s a boy.
Grandma: Shukur Alhamdulillah! May Allah’s mercy always be upon him. Can I go inside to see him now? I am really excited!
Nurse: Sure, you can.
Shabnam: (Lying on the bed)
Mother, you now have a grandson. We will name him Irfan.
Grandma: Shhh! Do not speak. Let me first whisper the Quranic verses into his ears (whispers the verses into the child’s ear). They say that the first words that a child should hear when he comes to this world are the verses from Holy Quran. He shall now grow to become a righteous man. Aah! His eyes resemble his father’s.
Shabnam: I wish his father Majeed was here.
Grandma: Don’t worry. He will be fine. They say that today’s radio telecast will include his name too.
Shabnam: Inshallah. I hope so. When does the telecast start?
Grandma: 8 pm Pakistan time.
Shabnam: Which should be 8:30 here.
Irfan: (Voice from back stage)
My grandmother whispered the Quranic verses into my ear, in the hopes that I would grow up to become a pious man. But she did not know that even before I heard those holy verses, I had already heard gun shots from an encounter happening down the lane.
Grandma: It’s almost time. Let me switch on the radio (stands up to switch on the radio, which is kept on the side table of the bed). Ya Allah! Have mercy on us!
Shabnam: Listen carefully. They will announce Majeed’s name too. Inshallah.
Radio Joc: (Voice from back stage speakers)
Assalamu-alaikum listeners. This is Radio Azad Kashmir and you are listening to our program ‘Voices of Freedom’. In this program, we play the songs that are requested by our listeners via phone. If you have a song which you would want us to play in our program, do call us on our numbers. We will be happy to include your request in our program. Tonight, the first song which we will be listening to is ‘O Janewale’ from the blockbuster film – Henna. The listeners who have requested for this song are Hilal Ahmed Shah, Mohammad Zubair, Mirza Shabir Khan, Hameed Zargar, Tariq Ahmed Bhat, Sheikh Basharat Hussain and Majeed Ahmed.
Shabnab: (Cries out with joy)
Ya Allah! Did they say Majeed Ahmed at the end? Was it Majeed Ahmed? Was it?
Grandma: Yes Shabnam, yes. It was Majeed at the end. They did mention your husband’s name. This means that he is absolutely safe and has successfully crossed over to Pakistan, without letting the Indian soldiers know about it. Didn’t I tell you that he would be safe? Your husband is a brave man Shabnam.
I had told him not to leave us but he didn’t listen. The last words he said before leaving were that it was his duty to fight for the liberation of Kashmir. He said that even if he died for this cause, it would be a death with honour.
Grandma: Don’t talk about death when you have a new life in your lap. This child has come as a blessing to us. See the weather outside. It has been snowing since yesterday. This snow will give pure water to our rivers during summer and irrigate our fields, and it is during this summer that his father will return home, inshallah, to see his son, to see his Irfan.
Shabnam: Inshallah, he will return home safely, as soon as the arms training gets over. He told me so.
Grandma: He left all the money he had with me. He told me to safeguard it and use it for the child’s clothes and food, and made me swear by Allah’s name I would always be near you. He really cares for you. I could see tears in his eyes.
Shabnam: He is a good husband ammi. He always makes sure that I am happy. Anyways, this winter shall end too, like everything else of this temporary world, and give way to the spring when tulips blossom and daffodils spread their fragrance across the streets of Srinagar. And at that time shall Majeed return, when the snow has receded off the borders and made the path easier for him. I am waiting for that moment to come.
(A dark stage.)
Irfan: (Voice from back stage)
But that wait never ended. My father never returned home. His friend Usman, who had crossed the border with him, told my family that my father was shot while trying to cross the border back into this Indian part of Kashmir. My mother was shattered and shocked at my father’s death. Ten years later, she still used to cry, when she remembered the day she had heard the unfortunate news.
(Lights on. A market setup.)
Irfan (kid): Mother, mother, I want that toy. Mother please na? Buy me that!
Shabnam: Ah! That toy car! No! You are no more a kid Irfan, you are ten now (walks past the toy shop to go to a ration store). Assalamu-alaikum, can I get a dozen eggs?
Keeper: Sure, its twenty four rupees a dozen.
Shabnam: Twenty four! But yesterday it was just eighteen.
Keeper: That was yesterday sister, today this is the rate.
Shabnam: I am Shabnam Jan, wife of Majeed Ahmed.
Keeper: Oh! Majeed’s wife! Why didn’t you tell me earlier? How are you sister? And is this your son? Mashallah! His face tells me that he will grow up to become a righteous man. One dozen eggs shall cost you sixteen rupees.
Shabnam: Shukriya. Its people like you who truly understand our situation and value the lives lost for the sake of this land.
Keeper: You are being overgenerous sister. A land which refuses to acknowledge its leaders refuses to acknowledge its existence. Though, I should warn you beforehand before it’s too late.
Shabnam: Warn me! About what? What is the matter?
Keeper: Safeguard your son sister. Safeguard him from this black smoke which is blowing through our gardens and staining our beautiful yellow daffodils with black spots. Safeguard him from those people who wear huge green boots and crush everything that comes in their way, whether it be a fallen chinar leaf or a human being.
Shabnam: Ya Allah have mercy on my son. I shall never let my son fall into this mess.
Keeper: You better don’t. I pray for your health and wellbeing.
(Usman comes from behind.)
Usman: Is that the birthday boy there. Greetings my child. Happy birthday!
Irfan: Same to you Usman uncle! What have you brought for me today?
Usman: Let’s see what I have here for little Irfan (puts his hand in his pocket and takes out a box).
Irfan: A watch! I had always asked mom to buy me a wrist watch, but she said that I was too young.
Usman: Well you are 10 now, a big boy huh?
Irfan: Haha, yes indeed I am.
Usman: Shabnam baji, shall I take Irfan with me for the rest of the day? I want to make this day special for him.
Shabnam: Sure, you can. But please don’t buy him any candies. Did you look at his teeth? They have become brown now. I told him a thousand times not to eat sweets for the sake of God, but he would never listen.
Irfan: Ammi, don’t scold me every now and then. I am a big boy now.
Usman: Haha, indeed you are. Let’s go now. Do you want to play cricket with the boys?
Irfan: I would love to Usman uncle. Will you play with me?
Usman: Sure I will.
(Usman approaches the cricket ground whose entrance is guarded by Pushkar, a soldier.)
Usman: Puskkar ji aadaab. How are you? I haven’t seen you lately.
Pushkar: Usman sahib aadaab. I am doing good. I had been posted at the front post for a week, that’s probably why you didn’t see me around. How are you and is this your child?
Usman: Oh no, this is my nephew Irfan. Today is his birthday.
Pushkar: Oh really! Happy birthday child. How is life going on Usman?
Usman: Life is good. It’s just that everything has suddenly become so expensive.
Pushkar: I know, I know, and the worst part is that we soldiers are expected to stay up the whole night while we do not get even a proper salary for this.
Usman: Conflict has always been expensive Pushkar. It costs lives and money and thus more lives and more money. This cycle continues to go on.
Pushkar: I hope this cycle of violence ends quickly though. I want nights of peace and proper sleep. Usman, I might get posted out of this town within a week, so I was wondering if we could meet up over tea sometime before I leave.
Usman: Sure Pushkar, I invite you over to my place tomorrow and you will have to come. When are you leaving by the way?
Pushkar: Aaa, I am sorry but we are not allowed to inform the civilians about our movement. But what brings you here Usman.
Usman: I intend to play cricket with my nephew. But where are the rest of the boys. Why are they not playing today? I can’t see any of them.
Pushkar: The ground is closed today. The authorities plan to rehearse for the Independence Day celebrations at this ground and have ordered us to not allow any civilian movement over the next two weeks.
Usman: Well that’s sad. I am afraid Irfan, the luck is not on our side today.
Pushkar: I am sorry Usman but that’s what the orders are, and we have to follow them.
Usman: You don’t need to be sorry Pushkar. You are just performing your duty.
(Two weeks later, its Indian independence day. Stage is dark)
Backstage: The people of this village are requested not to step out of their homes as curfew has been imposed in your locality. Those who defy this curfew will be shot as soon as they are seen. (x2)
(Usman secretly goes out and hosts a black flag on the street as a mark of protest. Seeing this, young Irfan and his friends Zoya and Kareem, tear out a page from their drawing notebook and make and Indian flag using crayon colours.)
Zoya: Irfan, what are you doing?
Irfan: Shh … let me finish.
Kareem: Irfan I’m getting bored, play with us!
Zoya: Yes Irfan, please!
Irfan: I told you, didn’t I? I’m busy!
Zoya: Calm down … I didn’t mean to …
Irfan: What did you not mean? Or did you not see? That black flag like a blemish upon our independence? Does that mean nothing to you?
Kareem: We’re sorry. I didn’t know you were that affected by it.
Irfan: It’s not about whether I was affected. It’s about us and our duty towards our country, the country where we live, grow and learn.
Zoya: You’re right Irfan. Were you making an Indian flag? Let us help you.
Irfan: Then, will you help me till the end? Will you help me put the flag up? I might lose confidence alone.
Kareem: You mean, break curfew and go outside? Are you crazy, what if they shoot us?
Irfan: C’mon we are children, they will not harm us.
Kareem: I don’t know about this.
Irfan: Then I go alone.
Zoya: Even you should not go, it’s dangerous.
Irfan: I don’t know if it’s dangerous or not, but this flag needs to go up and what needs to be done will be done.
Zoya: Irfan …
Irfan: You’re either with me or you aren’t.
Zoya: I’m with you friend. Kareem, are you coming or not? (Kareem lowers head and remains silent.)
Zoya: I can’t believe Kareem turned out to be such a coward!
Irfan: Calm down, Zoya! Do not be so harsh in judging him.
Zoya: But Irfan …
Irfan: Be quiet! Now is not the time to be talking about this.
(Zoya and Irfan take small but brisk steps towards the black flag and remove it from the flag post. Irfan starts tying the Indian flag when suddenly Usman grabs him from behind and pulls him to the side.)
Usman: Have you gone completely and utterly mad! What in the name of Allah are you doing?
Irfan: Some insolent fool had put up that black flag. I could not stand this insult to our country!
Usman: And what country are you talking about, Irfan?
Usman: India? India?! Is this a mockery on the name of independence? Kashmir is Kashmir Irfan! Not India, not Pakistan!
Irfan: But Kashmir is India as India is Kashmir. I know the country where I have been born! And I know that this is the flag that represents it!
Usman: Have you not learnt anything? Is there nothing in your blood that stirs your heart, to act against this oppression? To put an end to our misery, to fight till the very end, till this land is our own Irfan! India is not ours but Kashmir is!
Irfan: So you support this black flag? This flag which is sure to cause agitation tomorrow?
Usman: Support it? I put it there! And if you were your father’s son then you would too.
Irfan: What do you mean?
Usman: Your father, Majeed Ahmed was a freedom fighter.
(A security guard comes suddenly from behind.)
Guard: Hands up! Don’t move! (Usman turns around slowly. He’s very angry.) What are you doing here! And you have a child. Go home! It’s curfew because of Independence day!
Usman: Independence day? You call this independence?
Guard: Lower your voice.
Usman: No! I will not lower my voice! I will not have my own blood join forces with these tyrants.
Guard: This is your last chance, go home!
Usman: I will not accept this. I do not accept India.
(The security guard shoots Usman, and Irfan screams. The guard then turns the gun towards little Irfan.)
Guard: Run (Irfan doesn’t move). Run, before I change my mind!
(Stage is dark, with a spotlight on adult Irfan who is standing in the centre.)
Irfan: It was that day, that day on which I had caused my uncle to be shot that has come back to haunt me. It is the sin of betraying my blood for which I am atoning and it was that stupidity with which I had so blindly followed this country, thought it my own for which I am being punished. I was so blind that I couldn’t see that this country had never welcomed me, I couldn’t see that I wasn’t forgiven for being my father’s son and so I had supported India, I had supported this very same government that is now tormenting me and calling me a liar. And this is the climax of the chain of events that had begun even before I was born.
I love you son. I hope this letter finds you in good health and I wish you a peaceful future.
(A huge firecracker explodes backstage. TV reporters can be seen rushing in on the stage.)
Reporter: Breaking news! We are live here at the site of an explosion in the Special Operations Group Headquarters, where police are saying that an act of terrorism has taken the lives of all that were in the building. The police have recovered 5 dead bodies from the debris and are still continuing to recover more. I am now standing here with police chief Kuldeep Sethi. Kuldeep saahab who is responsible for this explosion, were there any terrorist group involved?
Kuldeep: Well, we are hard at work to get to the root of this case and we have identified the suicide bomber responsible for this act of violence. It was Junaid Ahmed. He was a dangerous terrorist who was involved with a big terrorist organization, and the police had been trying to find him for a long time, for he comes from a long line of terrorists with his grandfather Majeed Ahmed and father Irfan Ahmed who have previously been taken down by the Indian police. We assure the public that this organization will be brought down and we will bring justice to all those families who have lost their dear ones.
Reporter: Thank you very much Mr. Kuldeep. As you just heard, dangerous terrorists have been at work here but the police is confident to bring justice, just as they had caught the equally dangerous Irfan Ahmed, Junaid’s father previously. That’s all for now, stay tuned in for more news and info. This is Bisma Shah with cameraman Suhail Dar for News Express.
Momin Javed hails from Kashmir and is currently a student at Connecticut College, Connecticut, United States.
Stanba Gyaltsan Olthang hails from Ladakh and is currently a student at Lake Forest College, Illinois, United States.
Prioty Ferheen Sarwar hails from Dhaka, Bangladesh and is currently a student at Wellesley College, Massachusetts, United States.
This play was written and performed for Theatre Season 2012 – Mahindra United World College of India, Pune, Maharashtra.