The Last House in the Last Village

At the elusive border towards the north-western front of Poonch district in Jammu and Kashmir, there’s a village that goes by the name Karmara.

The area has two villages that almost merge into each other, with one half being Karmara and the other Khadi-Dharamsal. Of the two India-Pakistan trade routes in J&K, the famous Chakan-da-Bagh Poonch-Rawalakote bus route is located here.

Jointly addressed as Khadi-Karmara, the houses in the villages are the last on the borderland, which also means that they are directly affected by the incessant ceasefire-violations. Here, the nature of violence isn’t explicit; it’s shrouded by a strange sense of ‘calm’ that has devoured the sounds of gunshots and mortar-shells for years. To put it simply, it is silent but with a lot of muffled screams that lie just beneath the surface.

Poonch. Photo: Malvika Sharma.

Sabeena lives in the last house of this village.

Barely a few metres away from the barbed wire on the Line of Control (LoC), the house is known across the village as the place where a young couple was killed.

It was a sunny afternoon, not long back, when I asked the villagers if I could visit that house.

The fence, where it stands today, has deprived the villagers of their only vast and open field. Before the nineties, when the borders would hardly burst into flames, the field was a cattle grazing area besides being a playing ground for the villagers. The last house, back then, was not vulnerable; it was just a house located on the khula maidan (open field) of Karmara.

Today, the house is referred to as a death zone. It carries memories of a dark past. The walls have become high, borders have become volatile and the locals have forever lost their beloved maidan to the regimes that keep the border-business running all the time.

Also read: In India’s Borderlands, Education Needs to Start at Home

The house is a pucca-cemented small place with a verandah (porch) and adjoining kitchen out in the open.

The women from around the neighbourhood were busy talking about trivial issues of life when we arrived. I was a bit scared while going there because the walk to the last house was not without the sounds of gunshots.

My associate kept my morale up by distracting me with words like, “Madam, chota fire hai, yeh kuch nahin karega, dono taraf fauji ek dusre ko jagaye rakhne ke liye har aadhe ghante mein chala dete hain aise hi (these are small gunshots, these won’t harm…the soldiers on both the sides fire a few rounds every 30 minutes just to keep each other up and alert)”. I believed him and nervously anticipated the sound of big-mortar shells. I was told that we were supposed to hide if shells were fired. Thankfully, it was a day of chota fire, but my recorder refuses to believe so – it’s horrifying to hear those sounds in the backdrop.

The tense walk ended at the verandah of the house where we were served hot buffalo milk. After a few minutes of chatting with the women around, they told us about that unfortunate day.

“Shokat was serving in the army (on the ground) and had come home on leave. It was somewhere between nine and ten in the morning and the couple was having breakfast near the kitchen in the verandah when a long-range mortar shell landed exploding splinters injuring them to death,” a woman said.

The couple belonged to a small group of new migrants that have been migrating to the village for the past two decades. A large part of the conversation focused on the sound of pahari dialect that these immigrants from Mehndhar tehsil spoke. The dialect was more rustic and crude than the one that people elsewhere in Poonch and Karmara spoke.

The community living on the borderland of Poonch speak pahari in a different tone, which is the indigenous dialect and one of the factors that bind them as a multi-religious ethnic group.

My mind was wistfully trying to make sense of the surroundings as I entered the area. I was continuously distracted by the breathtaking visuals around than the women narrating stories. It was the Chhattra, the densely populated mountain blocked by a surveillance fence and a few lethal gunshots.

Sabeena survived with her elder sister as her parents were killed in the shelling. The perforations in the window behind her add to the story as it was the same spot where her parents were having their last meal before the shell killed them.

Chhattra is in the other half of Poonch – on the other side or paar (Pakistan). It was all one and the same until the boundaries divided the region and continue to divide. Today, Poonchies on the either side hate each other and outsiders constantly ask them the side they are from; whether they belong to is paar (this side) or uss paar (that side). The memories of the inhabitants (including myself), who belonged to the pre-partition Poonch, have been erased. Our identities have been transformed into a borderlander who either have affiliation to this side of the fence or that.

Sabeena, the younger daughter of the slain soldier comes out and I am told, that I am lucky “ki mulaqat ho gayi (that I could meet her)”. She was frail and fragile, just like the surrounding. Her pale stiff cheeks with morbid eyes carried a million stories, some to share and some to keep hidden within her. We exchanged duas and salams (greetings).

But, I couldn’t interview her at all.

I was a little unsettled to see her. I surrendered my guards and uncloaked myself as an objective observer, mournfully allowing myself to connect with her and her grief; but most importantly to her story as a survivor, as a borderlander, who lived in that last house in the last village.

Malvika Sharma is a senior PhD research fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She works in the field of Borderland Studies. This article is a part of her on-going work.

All images provided by the author