A portrait of a village on the border
If the Line of Control (LoC), the contested border between India and Pakistan, were a person, you would call her mercurial. Since 1949, when the Ceasefire Line was defined in the Karachi Agreement, ending the first war over Kashmir, the border has been in flux, shifting this way or that, never conceding to logic or pattern. It is unpredictable, and can be heartless in its unpredictability.
The people of Hunderman, a typical village in India’s Kargil district, live under the whimsical reign of the LoC. The lives of many villagers have been destroyed by its fury. Yet, like a feudal landlord, the LoC is also the provider, the most coveted source of livelihood.
After India and Pakistan gained independence, Hunderman found itself in a peculiar spot: The LoC runs over the mountain peaks of the valley the village is situated in, and shifts its course without warning. In the past 70 years, Hunderman has witnessed four wars, innumerable skirmishes and incredible moments of military history. According to oral narratives, Hunderman has been part of two nations. From 1949-71, villagers say, it was part of Pakistan. During the 1965 war, for a period of four months, it was virtually cut off, owing to a standoff between the Indian and Pakistani armies.
In 1971, while war historians and experts were focused on the liberation of Bangladesh, the Indian Army captured 804 sq. km of territory from Gilgit-Baltistan. The residents of villages in this newly acquired patch of land became Indian overnight, creating a conundrum for its inhabitants. A school that had been constructed by the Pakistani government in Thyakshi, one such village, was inaugurated by its Indian counterpart. A villager who retired from the Pakistani army as a Naik demanded pension from the Indian Army. He took up the issue with former Union home minister L.K. Advani when the politician visited Turtuk in Ladakh in 2001. Though the Naik did not receive his dues, his son joined the Indian Armed Forces against the father’s wishes. Couples who found themselves on opposite sides of the LoC divorced each other via letters. In just a few hours, loved ones turned into the living dead.
“We understand what it means to be Indian, more than Indians,” Abdul Qadir, the head of Thyakshi village, told me in 2013. After 1971, residents of Thyakshi faced the wrath of their new neighbours. “They are Pakistani,” people from the neighbouring village of Bogdang complained to the Indian Army. Before the 1971 war, Thyakshi was among the last villages in Pakistan, and Bogdang on the Indian side.
“People on the border are routinely asked to safeguard the integrity of the nation, whether in war or in the daily skirmishes that arise from shelling,” says Ravina Aggarwal, anthropologist and director of the Mumbai-based Columbia Global Centers, a research outpost of Columbia University. “Yet due to historical and cultural differences, they are not acknowledged as citizens in their own right. Sometimes, they are looked upon with suspicion.”
Ever since Partition, the lives and fate of people living by the LoC have been in flux. A people suffering from a state of “refugeeism”, as Urvashi Butalia, author of The Other Side Of Silence: Voices From The Partition Of India, calls it. It is a state of living in constant physical insecurity, putting your life on hold when the drumbeats of war start pounding, seeking shelter during incursions, with intermittent access to education and employment. It is also a state of irrevocable separation.
THE MAN WHO NEVER RETURNED
Ghulam Hussein was not in Hunderman when it was taken by Indian forces. He therefore remained a Pakistani. Overnight, all the roads leading to his village were closed to him. Hussein lived the life of a refugee in Skardu, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, claimed by Pakistan as its fifth province earlier this year, for almost 35 years. He died in 2005. This was the last letter he sent to his family:
This worshipper of Allah is living a life of solitude in Skardu city…I haven’t received any letter or word from your end. What is the reason? Did one make a mistake by asking you for money? If I don’t ask you, then whom can I ask? Do I have any brothers in Skardu? I am unable to work as a labourer anymore. I was thrown out of Madina Colony and now pay the rent of Rs300 (per month). If possible, please forgive me...
There is no other reason to worry. Everything else is fine. I cannot call you as I don’t have a phone number. I am living my life alone here. We will meet, today or tomorrow.
Born in 1935, Hussein led an ordinary life in Hunderman, a way of life that had remained untouched for centuries. Hussein worked the fields, tended his cattle, offered prayers. The youngest of three sons, he lived with his parents, brothers and their wives, in a house built of stone that relied on the mountain as its fourth wall. His quiet manner differentiated him from the rest. His friends remember the silence that surrounded him. His sister-in-law remembers how he became her emotional anchor in the new environment of her husband’s home.
According to one version, Hussein’s life changed when he lit the lamp one evening in the mosque. The light forced a god-fearing djinn to flee from the window as white smoke. The smoke is said to have affected Hussein’s temperament and fate. He began to show signs of anger.
The last time the villagers saw him, Hussein was on his way to the neighbouring village of Bilargu to visit Zahra Banoo, his sister-in-law. She was ill and alone. Hussein didn’t make it to his sister-in-law’s village. Nor could he return home. No one from the family saw him again.
In Hunderman, personal histories are inseparable from the historical forces of nation-building. Forty-six years after that night, Ilyas Ansari, Hussein’s nephew and Zahra’s son, attributes his fate to the djinn he upset, not a whimsical border, or the near incessant warring in Kargil.
Museum of memories
In 2015, Ansari, now 31, converted his ancestral home in the village into a museum, under the guidance of Roots Collective, a local organization. In the first year itself, this museum off the beaten track received around 3,000 visitors, says Ansari. All the objects on display at Unlock Hunderman—Museum of Memories have been excavated from dusty trunks, corners and the recesses of memory. Each object is the inspiration for tall stories, for no two tours by Ansari are the same.
The house itself is said to be more than a hundred years old, constructed over time like a beehive clinging to a mountain face. The rooms are tiny, trapping the heat in the extreme cold of winter, when Hunderman is buried under several feet of snow.
The first exhibit is an assortment of shells, bullets, artillery and shrapnel. A shell from a Bofors gun with the year 1930 engraved on it stands unsteadily next to a mortar shell. Ansari picks up a piece of shrapnel and explains how this is the most dangerous of them all. When a shell explodes, it looks like a flower blooming in the sky. But then bits of burning-red shrapnel rain down, ripping apart anything they encounter. The villagers collect such metal remnants of war, to melt and remould as farm tools and bullets.
In the 1960s, Ansari’s grandfather used to work as a porter with the Pakistani army. There is a display with an army helmet, white cups and saucers, a last reminder of that relationship. Even today, the profession of a porter is the most popular and well-paying. Loyalty to the army remains. Only the armies have changed.
The entire village of Hunderman stayed put during the Kargil War of 1999, the most destructive one this region has seen. The villagers used the caves as natural bunkers. The men, and boys as young as 13, worked as porters for the army. “Without food, water and reinforcements, would the Indian Army have won the war?” asks Ahmad Hussain, Hunderman’s nambardar (headman) and a porter himself.
In another box in the museum lie a pair of broken Gandhi-style glasses. They were a gift from the Mahatma himself, Ansari jokes. There are two large yellow pieces of soap, manufactured in Pakistan. The price of the soap—5 paise—is printed on it. Ansari had three such bars of soap, one of which was stolen from the museum. “They are more than 50 years old,” he says. “It makes them special.”
Hunderman doesn’t have running water or electricity. Until a road was constructed in 2005, trade and interaction with the outside world was severely limited. Traditionally, even the games for recreation (documented in the museum) were locally crafted, out of cattle bone and pebbles. Self-reliance, a lesson learnt from geography, helped them endure the isolation of war. In a place of such adversity, commonplace things like painkillers and eye drops garner as much amazement as a perfume bottle. So precious was the allure of a Polson’s tin of French coffee that it remained unopened for half a decade. Ansari has kept his great-grandfather’s Quran alongside his grandfather’s first identity card issued by the Jammu and Kashmir government. “Permanent resident of protected area,” it says.
In a corner of a dark room is a trunk that Ansari believes belonged to his uncle Ghulam Hussein; objects serve as biographical details in the absence of any written record.
Ansari is proud of his uncle for having collected such fancy things. A tourist once remarked, he says, how expensive the bottle of New Light perfume (made in Pakistan) must have been.
Most of the objects have instructions written in English, Urdu and Bangla, harking back to a time when Pakistan and Bangladesh were one. Some, like a “one rupee” currency note, are from when India and Pakistan were one, under British rule. Dated 1940, the note has the stamp of King George VI, but both Government of India and Government of Pakistan are printed on it. Ansari has an explanation for the anomaly: immediately after independence, Pakistan didn’t have its own mint, and both governments still relied on the empire’s currency.
Before the British
According to the oral histories collated by Roots Collective, Hunderman is a 500-year-old settlement. Its inhabitants, however, believe it is older than the Mughal and British empires.
The Silk Route ran through Kargil town, only 14km from the village, bringing prosperity to the region and instilling in the locals a love for curious objects and customs. Some theories suggest that the Brokpa community, living in the neighbouring valleys in Batalik district, are descendants of Alexander’s abandoned army. The mythical quest for pure Aryan blood has resulted in a long line of foreign visitors over the years, including neo-Nazis. There is even evidence of life from the Bronze Age among the petroglyphs found in Kargil, says Muzammil Hussain, co-founder and president of Roots Collective.
Yet the India-Pakistan War of 1999 obliterated much of this history and culture, removing it from our perception of the region. This in turn has damaged the people’s sense of their own identity.
History and culture are the unacknowledged casualties of war. Hussain points to the recent destruction of Aleppo, one of the oldest cities, during the Syrian civil war, and the consequent loss of world heritage. His organization’s work with cultural restoration has been a form of self-discovery.
Hussain was 13 years old, in class VII, when the Kargil war began in 1999. He was in class when his school got bombed. A student died. Two teachers and two students were injured. By the time he left Kargil for higher education, he was ashamed of where he came from. War was the only context outsiders associated his home with. With the Museum of Memories, he is hoping to create respect and pride among the locals for their own history and way of life. For the story of Hunderman is also the story of Kargil, he reminds me.
THE UNHEARD VOICES
In Hunderman, war fogs the ability to think, remember and understand. But maulvi Akhon Hassan is older than the wars. He is four wars and 86 years old, with his sense of humour intact.
When shots fired at a distance reverberate through the valley, he is unperturbed. I stay silent and count them. Four shots are fired in less than a minute, before we can resume our conversation. As disconcerting as such sounds are to an outsider, the villagers can discern the noise of war from the rhythmic ones of an army practising.
Despite the years, Hassan’s memory is razor-sharp. He remembers the British army, so powerful that a call on the wireless led to the arrival of planes. He also remembers what they predicted. A village woman asked a visiting Englishman, “When will the war end?” The Englishman pointed to her youthful face and hair. “Your hair will turn white. Even then it won’t end.”
As a young man in Pakistan, Hassan was afraid of the army. Soldiers would wake them up at night and force them to carry their luggage. But the village feared the enemy army even more. “How could we not?” Ghulam Raza, an 89-year-old villager, asks me. Unlike Hassan, who still works in the fields, Ghulam Raza is bedridden. The Indian Army, he was told, would hurl rocks at the children who crossed over, impaling them.
According to the two old men, their village was virtually cut off in 1965, when the Indian Army took control of a solitary ridge overlooking the Hunderman valley. Since Pakistan’s army still controlled the other peaks, the village witnessed this stand-off between the two from December-March. They had no contact with the outside world. A policeman from Pakistan would visit once in a while to maintain law and order, but food and water became scarce. A group of eight villagers ventured into the mountains once, in search of water. Cannons and machine guns sent them scurrying back. Ghulam Raza speaks of the white cars belonging to the UN that whizzed by at one point. The foreign officials spoke to the army generals on the two sides, but never with the villagers.
History is filled with moments where the key voices in a conflict go unheard. “People assume documented histories to be the whole truth,” says Butalia. “But they are only parts. Alternate histories are not alternatives to the dominant ones. They are the untold ones.”
None of the villagers could have predicted what was to come. Not Akhon Hassan, who says he can predict the future. He considered the Pakistani army formidable. How could they have retreated in 1971? Major Mansingh of the Gorkha Regiment was the first soldier of the Indian Army to arrive, he recalls. His kindness pacified their fears. “We are not devils, we are also human,” he told them, Hassan recounts. He distributed free rations. Many villagers tasted rice for the first time. His name was added to the village as a suffix. Hundarmo Brok, as it was called, became Hunderman and it became part of Kargil district.
It was on that night in 1971 that young Zahra Banoo, still new to the village, decided to flee when she learnt that the Indian Army was approaching. Though she had married into the village of Hundarmo Brok, she belonged to neighbouring Bilargu. She left along with a group of people, including her brother-in-law Ghulam Hussein, making her way to her parents and brothers. But somewhere on the way, the uncertainty of it all hit her. What if she found herself neither here nor there when day broke? She returned.
This is what Banoo said, contradicting her own son’s version. Hussein wasn’t going to meet her, he was with her. The exact reasons or circumstances that led him to the Pakistani side on the morning of 17 December 1971 remain a mystery. “He was the youngest,” Ansari attempts an explanation. “He was also hot tempered. He must have got upset and left.”
Hussein’s last letter to his family isn’t part of the exhibition at the Museum of Memories. It is kept in a cloth bag in Ansari’s home, along with a photograph taken in a studio and posted from Skardu. It is the only image they have of their uncle: well-groomed, solemn, young. There is no reason to worry, he writes to his parents on the reverse side of the photograph. This photograph was posted as evidence of his well-being, but like the objects that crowd the museum, they aren’t enough to piece his life together.
‘Hum Sb Kb Milenge’
Started by a Skardu-based journalist, Musa Chulungkha, the WhatsApp group “Hum Sb Kb Milenge” has more than 110 members from both sides of the LoC. The group brings together relatives, well-wishers and residents of the villages that suffered in 1971. I left a voice message on the group, asking for more information about Ghulam Hussein’s life in Skardu. In 20 minutes I received a reply from Ali Hassan. He didn’t know who Ghulam Hussein was, but he could help me piece together his life by sharing memories from his own.
“I am living the life of a Muhajir,” he said in Urdu in the WhatsApp voice message. “I am one of those left behind from Thyakshi, now in India. To us, this seems like a different country. We face so much loneliness here. Many fathers, husbands and brothers from Thyakshi were left behind in Pakistan as they had left their homes for work. The mothers, wives, daughters and sisters were all alone. We still bear the repercussions of this violence. A man who was stuck here somehow managed to marry and have children again, but the loneliness persists. Eid for us isn’t a celebration. It is mourning. We have no brothers, no sisters, no family. Who should we visit? Here we make relatives not by blood but by word. We make friends to eat with.
“Your story can help take our voices to the people. If the power of your pen can bring a separated family together, then there is no greater happiness for them.” He ends his voice message with these words, and summarizes a desire that has consistently drawn me to this region. Ever since I visited Turtuk in 2013, I have kept searching for reasons to return. I volunteered as a teacher in four such villages, wrote articles on the region and have even based the end of my unpublished first novel here, all for a simple reason. The stories I have heard aren’t just stories of heartbreak. They are also stories of hope.
Another member of the group, Gulam Hussaini, visits my hotel room in Leh. He tells me that the impact of the 1971 war was greatest in Turtuk, where he comes from. The Indian Army took over five villages—Thang, Thyakshi Pachathang, Thyakshi Goin, Turtuk and Chulungkha. His aunt was separated from her husband, stuck in Pakistan. She tried many times to get a visa before her tragic death by drowning in the Shyok river. Was it an accident or an act of sorrow? The villagers separated by the LoC make no distinction. They accept such tragedies as fate.
Ghulam Hussein’s last letter was hand-delivered to his family by Mohammed Raza, a 57-year-old schoolteacher from neighbouring Shilikche village, locally known as Master Raza. He had made the expensive and time-consuming journey to Skardu to meet his father, who was left behind in 1971. He carried a pressure cooker as a gift. It took him almost a week to travel from Kargil to Delhi, Delhi to Wagah, Wagah to Rawalpindi via Lahore, and finally, to Skardu. Had the Kargil-Skardu road been open, the journey would have taken less than 5 hours.
Raza was on his way back to India when Ghulam Hussein requested him to carry the letter. Hussein’s condition wasn’t good, Raza said. He lived in a small room, relying on the support of charities.
Both Raza and his wife Zara were separated from their fathers in 1971. Their stories and stoicism reflect the sense of dignity one encounters in the villages by the LoC.
Raza was six years old, living in Hunderman with his uncle, when the village was taken over. His mother had died; his father had become the centre of his life. Eventually, Raza’s father remarried and settled in Skardu. When Raza visited Skardu, he was welcomed with garlands and tears. The faces he had grown to recognize from passport-size photographs, sent across in letters, finally came to life. Raza had only just returned to Shilikche when he received a call from his father, enquiring about his journey, and whether he had eaten. Hours later, his father was dead.
Zara was only a few months old when the Indian Army arrived. That night, Zara’s father took her in his arms and fled into Pakistani territory, but his wife couldn’t make it. Zara hadn’t been weaned, and wailed relentlessly for her mother. So when the Indian and Pakistani armies met at the border to hand over the dead, the villagers on both sides demanded the infant be reunited with her mother. Zara was the only one allowed to cross the LoC after it shifted. So she has no memories of the father who clung to her and fled when the enemy approached.
“Did the refugees you met in Skardu want to return?” I ask Raza, and immediately regret it. “How can they not?” he says. “They even miss the rocks and grass here.”
Ansari, the curator of the Museum of Memories, believes that one day all those left behind in Pakistan will return. The arterial road connecting Kargil to Skardu, symbolic of free movement, will reopen. People will be allowed to cross over, as they are at the Wagah border. Faiza, his two-year-old daughter, will grow up in a very different world. She will attend her cousins’ weddings on the other side. She will go to school, uninterrupted by war. She will not live in a cave, nature’s bomb shelter.
The reasons for his optimism, like his curated tours, are only partially backed by evidence.
Ravina Aggarwal has been visiting Kargil since 1989. Her research focuses on border cultures and peace-building in Ladakh. “There is plenty of evidence from communities living near the LoC of a shared history of coexistence, not just of conflict and exclusion,” she says. She believes that the memories we take with us reflect our hopes for the future. “Will that future be built with a view of living together or living in discord and distrust of our neighbours? This is the choice we must make.”
War, like love, is a complex emotion. The struggle with war is the struggle between denial and hope, oblivion and remembrance. The village museum, Unlock Hunderman, has memorialized its departed few. Ghulam Hussein longed for Hunderman until he died. And the village lives with its longing for him.
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