By Shabir Ahmad Mir
The encounter started at 8:13 p.m.
How can I be so precise ?
Or better still, how does one determine when exactly an encounter starts? The answer, I think, depends upon to whom you ask this. For security personnel-the ones who do the encountering- it probably starts as soon as they rush to an area which they cordon off, with their suspects trapped inside. For militants- the ones who are encountered- it must logically start with the realization that this is it; their final stand. As for us- the bystanders, the encounter starts when we hear the first round of gunfire. And as soon as I heard the first gunshot, I looked at my watch. It said 8:13 sharp. That is how I am so precise.
Reflexively all of us rush to the corridor of our ground floor-the safest portion of our house. At such times, claustrophilia replaces our claustrophobia. Immediately I start the head count: Me, My daughter, My wife, My mother, My father. Thank God, all are in the house.
My wife sneaks into one corner with our daughter in her lap and besides her, my mother is furiously trying to outpace the rapidity of gunshots with the beads on her tasbih. My father lounges in the other corner, disgruntled with the break in his routine. He knows it is going to be a long night. He stares at the ceiling thinking about God-knows-what.
The next step is to find the exact location of the encounter. Whose house is it tonight ? you need to find such details so as to decide whether to stay in the house or to run away, for more safety. I call Nadeem, my second cousin. He lives nearby, in the same Mohalla.
“Yes the encounter has started…
In the old mohalla, it appears…
Hamid Rather’s house they are saying…
2- 3 millitants probably…
Yes, you stay safe as well.”
He waits silently on the other side of line. It is awkward. I hang up hesitantly.
I heave a sigh of relief. By convention, we don’t need to leave the house. We live in New Mohalla. The old mohalla is on the other side of rice fields outside our house.
By convention we are safe for the night, in the corridor of our ground floor.
Now I peep through the windows on the far end of the corridor. Outside, across the rice fields, the moonlight is spread like a dream against which the guns are howling like wounded demons. On the other side of fields, I try to locate Hamid Rather’s house. The first cordon will be around his house that is where the howls are most terrible- far away from here, thankfully.
But there is a second cordon as well. A bigger concentric circle. Armed men in a silent circle, outside my house and in the rice fields, ready to shoot down anyone who breaks free from the first cordon. I don’t see them but I know they are there. I strain from the windows to see whether moonlight jumps from their helmets or their guns. But all I can make out is a dark silhouette in the rice fields. A wart on the silver cheek of night. If it were a human, he must be having his arms spread out, that is how lt looked- this figure, this shadow. One gun shot among many others breaks my thought- this one, louder and nearer- and the figure collapses. I hear a gasp nearby. I turn. It is my daughter, peeping through the windows as well. I grab her arm and drag her back to the belly of corridor.
Away from windows, back to safety.
“Stay away from the windows. There is always a stray bullet there.”
“Papa, what happened there ?”
“Nothing… nothing happened there.”
“But I saw someone fall down.”
“No you didn’t.”
“But I did !”
“It is just moonlight playing tricks with you. There is nobody out there. The encounter is in Old Mohalla, remember ?”
“You saw it too.”
“No, I didn’t.”
She looked aghast. So I softened a little, “Who will be out there at this hour?”
“I don’t know. Maybe Gulla Kak. He returns late from the fields.”
“No, he is shorter…” I bit my lip.
“Hmmm… yes. And he was wearing a fheran as well. Gulla kak never goes to the fields in his fheran. Maybe he is someone else.”
“No. There is nobody there. I would have known.”
“Maybe it is someone you don’t know.”
“Shut up. Go to your Mother.” The violence in my voice frightens her and me as well. She shrinks to her mother, away from me, but I can still overhear her whispers, “Mama, maybe it is someone we don’t know. He would have cried for help otherwise, wouldn’t he ?… or maybe he just laid down there, afraid to run or cry… Maybe he is just wounded and needs to be taken to the hospital…”
“For God’s sake, make her quiet.” I cry in a fit of rage.
“Shush… shush” her mother tries to calm her down. “Be silent my dear lest they hear you. If they do, they will know we are here. Then who will save us ?”
My daughter isn’t convinced by her logic, but she understands fear.
“Sleep my dear, sleep.”
She closes her eyes. But I know she is awake.
Suddenly, I become aware of my father’s gaze. He is staring at me, with an expression that I don’t wish to understand. It still makes me uncomfortable, so I turn to the other side. I close my eyes to sleep; just like my daughter. And I murmur to myself, There is no one out there.
The encounter ends at 2:37. How can I be sure ? it was at 2:37 that we all hear an earth shattering growl. In an encounter that only means one thing, the house in which the militants were holed has been blasted and razed to ground. The militants either dead before that or will certainly be, under the rubble. That is the end of encounter for us. Now we can sleep. The security personals will still be out there, for an hour or more, making it sure that the encounter is over. Sometimes a militant escapes , then there is more firing and more houses to raze. I hope it is not tonight. I want to sleep.
Next morning, I wake up and come out of my house. People are rushing by to Hamid Rather’s house(=rubble). I too am about to go but a primodial instinct goads me to look over the fields. There is someone moving briskly. I recognize her. “No… wait.. stop.” I cry and start running. She is my daughter. Before I catch up with her, she has reached the spot. She turns towards me, the horrible mess behind her small fragile body, “Don’t worry Papa, it is just a scarecrow.”