Despite decades of violence and tension between opposing army outposts, villagers caught in between have no choice but to keep living their lives.
DEGWAR-MALDAYALAN — Tucked away in one of the dips in the Pir Panjal mountain ridges, in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, is the borderland village of Degwar-Maldayalan. And driving there on a chilly winter's night, aware of the notorious army pickets facing each other on both sides of the Indo-Pakistan dividing line, was a one-of-a-kind experience.
A week after the latest line of control (LoC) flared up across several borderlands situated along the LoC, the borders here have been tense. But learning to be certain in uncertain times is something that residents of these hostile geographies have always lived with. And of all the certainties, one of the most important — even in the midst of a pandemic — are the many marriage ceremonies that take place during Diwali.
Weddings are being held as the usual full-blown affair, albeit with some interesting details that speak to how life and culture continue to flourish here on this tumultuous front amid a period of prolonged abnormality that will likely outlast the pandemic. Indeed, despite a lifetime spent in a zone of conflict and violence, with day-to-day ceasefire violations and high surveillance, the villagers here seem to have made peace with their surroundings.
In the dark of the night
The rugged, single-lane road that leads to the village is a relatively recent addition, and thus, traveling there from the nearby town for a night-wedding is a luxury that didn't exist a decade ago. There still aren't any streetlights, and the harrowing darkness made the drive downright scary.
Adding to our unease was the fact that in the distance, the lit-up surveillance-fence running along the north-western mountain-ridges appeared closer than it actually was. A few other lights atop different locations on the hills beyond the fence were the forward positions held by the Indian Army.
The villagers here seem to have made peace with their surroundings.
The surveillance fence grew closer as we drove towards the tail end of the village and looked like a brightly lit, insurmountable wall, curvaceously running all over the hills in front of us. The village sat in eerie silence right below it, and the darkness in it grew scarier with sleepy surroundings and locked doors, very unappealing for a village celebrating a wedding.
After a walk through the weathered mud lanes, there was light at the end of the road as the hustle-bustle around a couple of houses marked the area where the ceremonies for the night were being held.
After a quick round of exchanging greetings, we went inside a newly renovated concrete-pucca house with many kaccha-mud houses around in the vicinity. A couple of young Muslim girls from the village, escaping the crowd and the noise around the house, had taken refuge in the same guest room we were made to sit in, and after a few shy attempts at conversation, they finally opened up about the nature of life in middle of the shelling zone there.
Inter-religious tolerance has led to years of acceptance and mutual co-existence.
They narrated a few stories about the violence they grew up with in the village, including one about a family of three who were wiped out when a shell landed atop a shelter they had taken refuge in during a heavy exchange of fire between the pickets on the front in the past. The shelter was a cowshed located towards the fence and away from the house we were sitting in. The family locked their concrete house and chose the cowshed in hopes that its mud-roofing would protect them from any serious damage. But when a shell hit the "safe haven" directly, they were killed.
Still, the young Muslim girls seemed to have made peace with the surroundings they live in. They were sisters to Waqar (name changed), the groom's maid, who had the most important role to play in the wedding of his childhood friend Prakash, the groom (name changed).
Though Poonch is a Muslim majority district, the shared syncretism in this borderland district among the multi-religious ethno-Paharis, Pahari-Kashmiris, and Gujjars and Bakerwals is exemplary despite the religious identity assertions and continuous polarization of identities vis-à-vis a Hindu Jammu and a Muslim Valley.
Degwar-Maldayalan is one of those last few frontier villages in this borderland district where the inter-religious tolerance has led to years of acceptance and mutual co-existence.
On common ground
Waqar and Prakash, who grew up as brothers, show the interreligious exchange in the village even though most of the Hindu households practice exclusion and distancing with regard to food, utensils, kitchen spaces and other things that could be considered "impure." The practice has its roots in Brahmanism, and most of the Pahari Hindus and Sikhs have been following the tradition for generations.
View over Degwar-Maldayalan — Photo: Malvika Sharma
Even though these practices have a class dimension to it, such a selective-spatial exclusion with respect to the indoor-socio-spatial interactions and their construction inside the house didn't influence the cultural exchanges between the communities outside. Thus, Waqar and his family playing a key role in the wedding inside a Hindu household, while hardly ideal for those who strictly adhere to these exclusionary practices, isn't frowned upon either. Plurality thus has its own ways of teaching warmth and sharing even in spaces that are exclusionary.
This is the quintessential role that diversity plays: It has the power to break through the homogeneity and spread pluralistic values that teach mutual co-existence. The multi-religious Pahari ethnicity in Poonch thus has a shared cultural existence that goes beyond the boundaries of religion and creates a culture that has tolerance for any sort of discrimination and exclusion which institutions like religion, caste, class otherwise generate.
Waqar was the dost of Prakash for the gana-ceremony and thus tied a thread/gana, vowing a sacred bond of protection and support that the dost supposedly promises the groom for a lifetime.
Diversity has the power to break through the homogeneity and spread pluralistic values.
After a spellbinding discussion on how a mehndi raat in a Muslim wedding differs from the mehndi raat in a Hindu wedding, all of us were asked to attend a ritual where the groom hides with his dost and the family has to find and beseech him to come inside so that the henna can be applied leading to the culmination of the mehndi raat.
The groom creates many distractions with multiple groups of his friends hidden as a deviation at different locations thus making it more difficult for the family to locate the groom. The family begins the search with great enthusiasm.
The dhol and the baja were beating in full swing only to add to my anxiety, which was already high given that walking behind a group of people with bright lanterns and loud drum beats is like asking for trouble. I kept my distance, but a shell targeted at us would not have.
I looked at the villagers dancing and celebrating in front of me and then looked at the surveillance-fence and the forwards pickets barely a mile away from our position. It disturbed me as I knew the havoc that the cross-border violence had unleashed on the civilian population only five days ago and how the frontier areas such as this one were put on alert since then.
Life goes on
But my anxiety did not resonate with these villagers who were performing as if they owned the moment and its fate. I did share my fear with a few elderly people and asked them if it was safe to be walking out in the open like this, in the dark of the night, purposely inviting unwanted attention from the forces manning the border.
A few laughed at my interventions and others asked me to think of good things as "thoughts of shelling" was a disgrace to the sanctity of the occasion that I was a part of. In that moment, all I could do was to hope for the groom to reveal himself soon enough before the hullabaloo reached the fence.
Loss of lives, and yearning for peace.
The fear in me constantly distracted the observer in me, but it was the groom's chosen hiding place — a bunker — that had me back as an active observer. Community-bunkers built all across these fronts by the administration aim to provide temporary relief in times of heavy shelling. The implementation of the policy and the construction of bunkers under the same have not been fair and equal for each and every villager residing here. That aside, who would have thought the role a bunker would play in a wedding ritual such as this?
The ease and comfort with which build-spaces and culture amalgamate with "the idea of survival" in these hostile geographies inspires both awe and fascination. The twisted normalcy of these borderlanders speak volumes about the life that they have learned to perform amidst the gory details of violence and destruction that is unleashed almost every day here along the line of control in Jammu and Kashmir.
Life here has seamlessly adjusted to the many structures associated with any volatile borderland geography and has made them its own, similar to how everyday fears and threats have transformed into a sense of both loss and yearning; loss of lives, and yearning for peace.
While walking back towards the house with the groom, the happiness of having found him made everyone so excited that the band played the drums even more loudly. I heard an elderly man, maamu (uncle) to the groom asking the bandmaster to play it so loud such that even Imran Khan from across could be tempted to join in the celebrations …
Only people dwelling on the front can make such an invitation — which also meant that the noise generated was likely to reach the other side as well.
When I heard the elderly, my heart skipped a beat and I immediately looked at the fence, hoping that the soldiers and snipers on both sides would let the celebration be as it was, praying that no one or nothing should pay us a visit in the dark of that night.
*Malvika Sharma writes on life in the borderlands of Jammu and Kashmir.