Dreading The Night

Illustration by Brian Mutschler

Illustration by Brian Mutschler

A Kashmiri war story

By Zahid Rafiq

Someone in our area was killed that night. It wasn’t unusual. Those days, people died all the time in our quarter, in the next one over, or the next. Bullets. Grenades. Explosions. It was the winter of 1994. I was a nine-year-old boy living in Kashmir.

Before the bodies arrived back in the neighborhoods, rumors of the deaths hurried through narrow lanes. Men assembled in small groups to begin making the necessary preparations and women appeared at windows, frantically beseeching God for the news to be false.

Suddenly, slogans would rise from somewhere, and then everywhere. “Hum kya chahte-azadi”—“We want freedom!”

Soon there would be bodies wrapped in bloodied shrouds. And then the wailing, howling, crying, beating of chests, pulling of hair, mothers refusing to get up from their son’s bodies, wives scraping their faces with their fingernails, fathers walking around lost in their own backyards. It was not unusual.

But that particular night, things were oddly quiet. That night, when the man died, the witch was born.

People said she had long, iron claws. That she could break doors and windows with a single blow and climb several stories with ease. They said the dead man’s son had seen her leap away from his father’s body. Some said her dark face was hidden behind long, black hair; others said the face was actually a mask. By the next day, there were a half-dozen versions of what she looked like, but everyone had heard there was a witch in town.

Every Sunday, my friends and I would play cricket at a nearby empty plot of land, where we discussed recent happenings for hours. Each of us had our favorite militants whose virtues we would extoll and whose bravery against the Indian soldiers we swore by. We often argued about who was the bravest among them and who looked the best. But that Sunday, we spoke only of the witch: her clothing, her boots, her possible hiding places.

I had watched a movie about a ghost earlier that month and I repeated the story to different groups of friends. Before evening, we had turned our local witch into a celebrity, and I became much sought after as I added my stories and descriptions of how the ghost in the movie haunted its victims in the dense forest. It was a good day—the witch had given us so much to talk about.

The witch remained the topic of conversation at dinnertime. Grandmother, who was a firm believer in witches and ghosts, spoke about the plight of the dead man’s family and the fear of the witch in the neighborhood. She heard that the witch had appeared earlier in other villages but was now in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital city, where we lived. She wanted complete darkness in the house by 8:30 p.m. The lights, she believed, would attract the witch. The soldiers, too, wanted a night-time blackout in our houses.

One of my uncles didn’t believe in the witch, though. He asked Grandmother to stop scaring us and insisted the whole affair was psychological warfare by the Indian army. The witch was no one but the soldiers, he said, wearing special gloves, masks, and dark clothing to scare Kashmiris. “This is another operation like ‘Catch and Kill,’” he said. “This witch has army written all over it.” My cousin quickly added that the witch-soldier’s boots were fitted with special springs, which explained how it could jump easily onto terraces and the second floors of houses.

Every night I would wait impatiently for Mother to wash all the dishes and clean the floors before she and I could go to bed. Father was not home. He was mostly away, posted at police stations in far-off villages. Often, when my friends and I imagined militants attacking Indian army camps and the local police stations that worked with the army to suppress the militant fighters, I inwardly wished that they would leave my father’s police station untouched and him safe. My story was a little more complicated than those of my friends.

In the dead of night, a tin roof would suddenly begin to thump with the banging of sticks and batons. It meant that someone had seen the witch around his home, and the noise was in defiance.

Mother and I laid out the mattresses and quilts early in our room that night. In the haste for Grandmother’s 8:30 curfew, Mother had forgotten to bring up a glass of water and said I should pack my schoolbag while she went down to fetch it.

I was thinking of all the new details about the witch, which I would share at school the next day, when the window creaked. I suddenly realized I was alone in the room. The old windows often creaked but never so loudly, so ominously. I stared at them. They stared at me.

The images stay fresh in my mind. On the terrace outside, beyond the tinted glass panes, a large shadow is moving. I know instantly what it is. It is the witch. I can’t look at her and can’t look away. I want to run, but my legs are numb. The door seems to be so far away and the room feels immense. Mother has been gone for hours, and I feel the witch coming in from all sides and filling up the room.

I don’t remember running out of the room, but I found myself in the dark corridor. I had even bolted the door behind me. I stood on the dark staircase, ready to run at the slightest sound. Then the stairs began to thump. It was Mother. She was annoyed that I’d left the room instead of packing my bag. It had been five minutes, she said, and I hadn’t done anything. I didn’t tell her about the witch—I thought she’d be too scared.

For years after that winter, almost every night, I had a recurring dream. Somebody—a teacher, a soldier, a faceless man—chased me through the attic, the schoolyard, or the playground and, just like that night in the room, I could never run away. The dream always ended with me falling head first from our attic and I always woke up mid-fall.

I wasn’t the only one who was terrified that winter. We lived in an old house with small windows that rarely allowed the sun to light up our narrow corridors and flaking green walls. Electricity was rare in Kashmir then, and the silent winter nights, lit by flickering candles, would stretch on for far too long. In that darkness, the witch ruled.

One day my uncle brought home a dagger. He slept with it tucked under his pillow. Grandmother started keeping an iron rod under her mattress. Mother didn’t want anything dangerous in our bedroom, but I still kept a pair of nail clippers I’d swiped under our pillow. That was all I could lay my hands on.

Everyone in the neighborhood started sleeping with hammers, axes, and knives. The window bar-makers suddenly had a lot of work on their hands.

Every week, there were new stories about encounters with the witch. In one, a man in a village set fire to his curtains when the witch attacked him; they said the witch burned with the house. People also said the witch threw a man from his second-story window, cracking open his skull, though some say he fell after suffering a heart attack.

In the dead of night, a tin roof would suddenly begin to thump with the banging of sticks and batons. It meant that someone had seen the witch around his home, and the noise was in defiance. The pounding grew as adjoining roofs joined the music. The sounds moved across the neighborhood: one roof paused, another played. A quiet night turned into a heavy-metal concert in no time.

But beneath that defiance there was dread. It was not the witch alone that frightened people; the witch’s power thrived on the fear and terror in Kashmir during that time.

In 1989, Kashmiris had picked up arms en masse to fight off the unpopular Indian rule and to achieve azadi—freedom. By the time the witch arrived, thousands of people had already been killed. The early-morning crackdowns by the Indian soldiers, frequent night raids, military curfews, arrests, tortures, and custodial disappearances instilled paranoia among the local population. Those days, newspapers only had stories about war and casualties; pictures of dead bodies looked like jigsaw puzzles strewn across the pages.

During the day, my cousin and I would see soldiers on the streets in their sand bunkers or patrolling the roads by the dozens. Later, they would haunt us as witches. We dreaded the nights. Everyone did.

One night, Mother and I were awakened by a knocking on our bedroom door. It was Grandmother. “There is somebody in the attic,” she whispered.

Grandmother was carrying her iron rod and my uncle an ax. My aunt carried a thick, wooden stick in her hand. Mother whispered in my ear to stay in the middle of the group. The creaking stairs were always covered in dusty footprints and bird droppings; it was scary even during the day. Everyone carried a candle and it was bright—usually we never lit so many candles at once.

I remember: My aunt is the first to see something moving—a shirt falling off the clothesline. Grandmother begins to murmur verses from the Koran, and my uncle prods the clothesline with his ax. But there is nothing there, nothing behind the tall old trunks, nothing behind the coal drums. In one corner, Uncle’s pigeons are softly cooing. In the rest of the room, there is a spooky silence. “Can we even see the witch? Can it not become invisible, too?” I wonder.

We are all too afraid to go back to our rooms, so we gather in Grandmother’s room.

Uncle suddenly calls out from the corridor. We rush out. He is standing near the bathroom door, which is ajar. It has been pushed open by a bucket that fell off its peg on the wall.

Everyone laughs now at how worked up we got then, but we also know why we did. Any sound would halt our conversations and we would listen for footfalls, banging on doors, creaking windows, voices, murmurs, and wailings. Almost always, we heard something.

Many years later, I no longer relied on rumors and sounds in the night to bring me the news. I was a reporter. I traveled outside my district and across Kashmir for stories, and I saw things for myself. Orphans and widows everywhere. Old mothers waiting for sons who had disappeared in custody many years ago. Thousands of people disabled by torture. I saw a village where most of the women had been gang raped by Indian soldiers.

From the hills of North Kashmir to the plains of the South, I witnessed cemeteries everywhere filling in with yet more graves of young boys and men. Kashmir seemed like a country of graveyards. I saw hundreds of thousands of unarmed people flooding the streets shouting slogans, with stones in their hands, retaliating against trigger-happy soldiers.

I also found out that our local witch had not been so local. She, too, like the Indian soldiers, had been in faraway villages and towns, keeping people on edge, giving children nightmares, and occupying an entire country and its people. dots-1

(A previous version of this story appeared in Motherland magazine.)