For Assar, My Friend From Kashmir

Assar knew fear like an old acquaintance.

The kind that you’re initially eager to make room for, but it overstays its welcome and the fondness gradually wanes.

Yet he spoke of fear more than anything else in the world, like an old friend you know too well and cannot bear to stop thinking about.

He saw fear as a child from behind the heavy curtains at home, half wide-eyed and half looking away.

He often saw his mother jostle and try to reason with it in ways he never wanted to learn.

He often ran into it by the lake when he was carefully chasing the abundance of fallen spring leaves, and at times on the way back from school.

He closed his eyes when he could or looked away when he couldn’t, hoping that’d make it not see him at all.

Assar knew fear like that suspicious apparition that only made itself visible to a few, and left behind a dusty rusty crusty smell.

Assar knew fear like a persistent stalker who took its job very seriously. Assar knew fear like I never would. How Assar wished he didn’t know fear at all.

I remember this guy from not too long ago – one that I had briefly dated for a month.

He was from Kashmir and had a beautiful name that unfortunately befuddled my tongue. Hence, I settled for ‘Assar’.

We had met at the quiet rocks that drag many a tourist to my otherwise quarantined campus of anti-nationals.

He had taught me how to write my name in Urdu, on the ground, with a charred piece of wood remnant from somebody else’s bonfire.

I was dismayed at the simplicity of the script and wished for a second my name was spelt with serpentine twists and turns. Looking back, I can’t remember the strokes at all.

Also read: The Joys and the Conflict of Being a Kashmiri in Delhi

We had spent the spring afternoon talking about travel and the snow and he showed pictures of home on his phone.

It had taken me a while to feign an appreciation that wasn’t polluted by envy. For when he swiped from summer to winter and summer again, the opulent hues of green to white to splattered with cherry threw me quite off guard.

I promised to visit, and he promised to show me around with an eagerness that instantly made me embarrassed about my lie. And he promised that his mother would love me.

He showed me many pictures of her, captured in several instances of looking away from the camera. He showed me pictures of friends and of cousins he dearly loved.

Of some he spoke at fond length, while for others he shifted to another tense. He showed me a Kashmir he knew I wanted to see, one with snow and the whistling woods. He named places that sounded familiar but with an odd distance far from his heart.

He had made me a wreath out of dried blades of grass, intercepted with the tiny wildflowers that smell outrageous. I’d broken into a spontaneous dance of joy, wearing the wreath like a crown on my head, never noticing when I had stepped onto his name etched beside mine. Strokes in charcoal couldn’t survive what ink on paper probably would.

He kept saying he was afraid and kept looking around, as though he knew fear unlike any of us, like he knew how to be afraid in ways we never learnt. I assured him as I normally would, and discarded fear as a figment of imagination, without much experience to speak of, or remain silent about.

He asked me what I was afraid of and I thought for a second and hunted for a minute, before I gave in to ghosts. He laughed hysterically, that today reeks of envy and said in a naked mockery, “Me too”.

Only his ghosts never left him and mine never arrived.

Mahashweta Bhattacharya is a social sciences scholar at JNU, currently working in the field of visual literacy in new media and aspects of visual impairment. She writes for a living and makes puns that attract and repel people equally so that the equilibrium remains constant. Bios make her nervous.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty