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Fifth column

November 5, 2019

Freedom at midday


November 5, 2019

As I was collecting dishes for washing up after a humble lunch of moong dal and white rice, the landline in the passageway rang loud. It was a call from the other end of the universe, congratulating us that our mobile phones had been restored to life. During the dark days of the state-enforced communication eclipse in our lives in Kashmir, my younger brother in Melbourne emerged as a credible source on what was happening in and on Kashmir thanks to a sound communication milieu around him.

My mother answered the landline but I could hear his voice from a distance, and he sounded genuinely excited. As if we’d had a total memory wipe in the past 70 days of siege, he was dispensing parent-like advice on getting out our phones and charging cables to juice up those abandoned gadgets.

The news brought sartorial relief. “It is a great confidence-building measure within the ambit of what Vajpayee once famously described as insaniyat,” I said to myself. The thought afforded a certain sense of empowerment and my flight of fancy fluttered a bit further. “Apparently, if we behave, the sky is the only limit”, I mused.

By now, if my hands were not tied down by the dish-washing foam, I might have started a wayward dance of frenzy.

Before the emotional surge could threaten to burst me at the seams, a stray reflection brought me back to order. Is this an act of charity from the prime minister or a reward for our behaviour that everyone from [Indian] Home Minister Amit Shah to governor Satya Pal Malik has been appreciating so very publicly?

After all, since the Vedic-era surgery that turned us into an 'atoot ang' in the real sense on August 5, “not a single bullet has been fired”, as the official blurb doing cyclical rounds suggest.

“Perhaps it was a reward for our good conduct”, I came back to the monologue in my mind.

This reminded me of a story from the last week in 'The Tribune', [Indian] Punjab’s only newspaper with a charitable outlook that now publishes an edition in Kashmir as well. Arun Joshi, senior resident editor, had prophesied that the “early restoration of the statehood … [was] in the hands of Kashmiris”. This felt reassuringly empowering – that, despite being cut off from the rest of the world and our neighbours and relatives for months in a row, some things were still in our hands.

Packaging psy-ops as news analysis, Joshi was unabashedly obscene on how Kashmiris will have to behave by enumerating a succinct inventory of dos and don'ts that seemed to have been lifted from some Nazi manual on running concentration camps.

“The key lies with the people in the Valley who will have to demonstrate their love for normal life by opening business establishments from morning to evening, sending their children to schools and assuming other normal activities”.

Joshi attributed the quote to a “source acquainted with the thinking of the Centre”.

In a recent piece last Monday, his laconic imagination offers a simple prescription; “The opening of mobile services in Kashmir on Monday is an opportunity for the people of the Valley to put themselves on the track to normalcy, for that can pave the way for more opportunities coming their way. That should also enable the Centre to fulfill all promises that it has made to the people of Jammu and Kashmir, especially to those in the Valley where each house hold has a story of hardships to tell”.

In the late afternoon, I found my long abandoned handset nestled inside one of my caps that had been casually resting on a window sill. Despite the neglect, it still has some vigour left thanks to the airplane mode. With the touch of a button, it instantly came back to life. It produced a surreal moment of thrill when I noticed its four reception bars, neatly arranged in an ascending order on the top left corner. Nearly three decades ago, when I got my first mobile phone in England, I would predict the signal strength from area to area by watching the bars wane and wax with great elation amidst a strong feeling of a definite technical accomplishment.

With bated breath, I dialed my own number from the landline. When the screen flashed our 'ghar ka number', I felt great relief. A month into the communication gag when the landlines were restored it was with great difficulty that I had to retrieve our home number from the junkyard of memories, and connected the line to a dust-borne device donated by a friend who retrieved it from a long-abandoned attic at his own family home.

As soon as I walked out of my home for a usual evening rendezvous with friends, I noticed a crowd of youth at a stone's throw. My initial reaction was of extreme caution, thinking of a possible protest in the making. Soon it dawned that the swarm was around a 'recharge' guy, and everyone seemed tame enough to demonstrate “their love for normal life”.

Getting a phone recharge was “in my own hand”, I said to myself and walked towards the guy who turned out to be a family acquaintance. He greeted me with a slight head gesture. Please, I requested for a monthly package in a restraint voice. “Jio [the largest network carrier] has changed everything”, he mumbled with a long detailed explanation in fast-forward mode which I failed to fathom. Noticing my unease he asked my number, pushed few buttons and announced that all was sorted and that he will take the monies later.

Soon, I made my first call to a shopkeeper sitting outside his shuttered store nearby. As he greeted my ‘hello’ with his own, it felt cathartic. Everyone else around was hello-helloing one another – just for the reassurance that it was not yet another government stunt. It was the first evening in ages that was abuzz with excitement and it felt like a flash-mob festival of greetings. After a while I tried to send a text message, but it failed. I went back to the ‘recharge guy’. He casually said that it was barred. There were still a few things that were out of our hands, at least for now!

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli