Title: Red Maize
Author: Danesh Rana
Price: Rs 350
Red Maize, by Danesh Rana, is the realest book on the Kashmir conflict you will find — so shockingly real that, at times, I felt I was holding a piece of bloody flesh rather than the pages of a paperback. Set in and around the small village of Morha Madana in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, the story details the cat and mouse games between the Indian military led by Colonel Rathore and a mixed bag of militants — Kashmiri, Pakistani and Afghans among them — led, for the most part, by a local lad named Shakeel. The dates are unclear, and it is only near the end that you find that the concluding parts of the drama take place in 2001, therefore, most of the action must have taken place in the late 1990s.
The dates do not really matter, nor does it matter that the writing style is often stilted, and the copy editing could have been improved considerably — fatiha is often spelled as fatiah, and it seems odd that the plural from of mujahid used is mujahids, not mujahedin. Most strikingly, “as salaam aleikum” is spelled as “Aslamwalekum” throughout, mixing both the greeting (“peace be unto you”) and its response, (“wa aleikum as salaam” “and unto you also let there be peace”) into one incoherent whole. These are irritants, but the story itself is so gripping, and the details are so intensely, brutally, described, that everything else is swept aside.
Colonel Rathore, in his late 20s, is the company commander of an unnamed army unit under which Morha Madana falls. He likes his whiskey and his Pink Floyd, dreams of heading back home so he can enjoy burgers and hang out at the malls in Jaipur checking out the young women, and wears his hair slicked back. “He looks like a Hindi movie hero’s best friend.” His personal target is Shakeel, a local boy, the second of three sons of a widowed village woman of humble origins, Kausar Jan. Shakeel is the commander or an unnamed tanzeem, ordering fidayeen strikes and bomb blasts, sheltering famed commanders, and hunting down informants. His notoriety haunts the family, especially Shakeel’s elder brother, Khalid, who bluntly tells Shakeel, “This is fasad (pointless conflict), not jihad.”
In the battle between the two, men are killed, informants are beheaded, virgins are raped, innocents are tortured, and houses are blown up. Kausar Jan loses son after son, in one way or the other, a widow pushed to the brink of destruction. There is little dignity in the conflict. Although the soldiers care for their fallen comrades, they have little concern for the dead enemy. “With their glasses held high in their hands, a few soldiers dance around Rehmatullah Peer’s corpse and kick it…‘Behenc***, he will be eaten by rats.’ Some of them sprinkle rum over the dead body and others kick his limp penis.”
Rana’s sympathy is clearly more towards the Army — the rapists and murderers are predominantly among the militants. Nevertheless, in the scenes where Army men misbehave, torture or kill, for the simple reason that they can get away with it, he brings to life the brutal reality of what life under military rule can be like. The officer who will only release prisoners if he is bribed, the torture scenes with beatings, sticks lined with chilli shoved up the anus of prisoners, and electric shocks, are difficult to read, but nothing brings home the casual brutality as the scene when soldiers order schoolchildren to lick the painted graffiti which reads, “Indian dogs go back”, knowing saliva will do nothing to the paint. In the end, those that join the militants, despite their criminality and brutality, do so for the cause. The only locals who side with the military do so for vengeance, money or under duress.
It is Rana’s obvious sympathy with the security forces — he is a J&K cadre IPS officer, currently Inspector General, Jammu Range — that makes his telling that much more powerful. It is not just that he gets the details of security operations spot on, but he shows how a long-term military deployment inevitably brutalises the local population. Those of us, who have largely lived under civilian rule in mainland India, and who have family and friends in the military, often reject criticism of the armed forces in places like J&K and the Northeast. What Rana’s brilliant book shows is how men with good, or even indifferent, intentions become a plague upon the houses of those that they supposedly guard, and how the military and militants have spilled enough blood out of hate, rage, vengeance, pettiness, jealousy, betrayal, greed and all other sins to turn even the maize the colour of blood when it is harvested in Kashmir.
Omair Ahmad is the author of Jimmy the Terrorist, and other books.