By Aminah Sheikh
Ladakh district — a bikers’ paradise and the dream destination of travel junkies — prides itself in not only the gigantic mountains of the Himalayan range and its enchanting sceneries, but also in a historic place — Kargil. Kargil lies in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, and stands witness to infiltrations, the Indian armed forces guarding the borders and the lives of locals that are mired in politics. Lives that come under the scanner for merely having homes in sensitive regions; the mysterious deaths of locals that get swept under the carpet as deaths caused by “suspicious activities”; images that echo across media channels, if headline worthy.
Praveen Swami’s short story “Ice: A Farooq Reshi Investigation” published by Juggernaut Books is thought-provoking. An expert on Islamist terrorism, Praveen is known for his skilled investigative journalism in conflicted regions of India. “Ice: A Farooq Reshi Investigation” draws upon various dimensions from his years of award-winning reportage, and provides a fresh perspective on grave and sensitive issues with non-intrusive slap-stick humour.
The story is written as a personal account, or rather, a narration by the protagonist Farooq Reshi, Kargil’s Superintendent of Police, as he is pushed out of his lazy chair to investigate the case of four dead “Buddhist” shepherds, assumed to have been killed by Lashkar terrorists. Infamous among peers for his obnoxious behavior when drunk, Farooq’s demeanor reminds the reader of Sherlock Holmes, as he goes about solving the case.
“Nothing happened in Kargil. Nothing that concerned the police, anyway. Every once in a while, someone would get drunk and beat up someone else, or someone would run off with someone else’s wife, and there would be a bit of a to-do about it, and somebody or the other would disappear, never to be heard of again. No one troubled us for assistance on that sort of thing, though: they’d realized it’s faster, and a lot cheaper, not to involve the police in their problem.”
…This sets the tone of a story that is gripping in its revelations. It mocks the hypocrisy of authorities with simplicity in expression – an underground bedroom, reserved for newly married officers to protect them from Pakistani troop’s artillery, bears “loud-red Tibetan kitsch dragons, playfully curled around mirrors…”
Praveen, in crisp words, lays a solid foundation while introducing each character through the protagonist’s narration. For instance, Seema Amin, Deputy Superintendent of Police despises working with her “drunk-in-chief” boss but is bound by duty. Her hard-nut-to-crack personality is brought forth by her straight-faced interaction with the protagonist, who wonders, “…Perhaps she even turned up the music when I wasn’t around, and ripped off her clothes – but no, no, that would have been out of character, and Deputy Superintendent Amin was never out of character. Deputy Superintendent Amin was the character.”
“Ice: A Farooq Reshi Investigation” seamlessly takes you through the prevalent political, religious and cultural scenario of the region, while unraveling the murder mystery. The story depicts the nexus between human beings for safety and food – the dependency of border security personnel on locals, the locals’ fear of militants, and cops tip-toeing between them. The theatrics of a curfew situation, in the story, describes this brilliantly…
“My Deputy Superintendent was telling me that she had, in cold blood, doused a good part of Kargil’s citizenry in shit. There is no specific section of the Ranbir Penal Code that criminalizes dousing mobs with shit, but the lawyers would find one that would do to send us all to a dungeon for more years than we’d spent in uniform. I hope there would be snow, great white sheets of snow, to cover over the evidence so we could pretend nothing had happened – and more than that, I hoped I could get back to my hole and find just one drink somewhere there.”
The story is a grey portrait of the refuge they all find in each other until alarm bells ring. The climax resonates the protagonist’s sentiments expressed at the start of the story;
“Killing is just as human as eating Parle-G, or shitting it out, and has just as much contemplation behind it, nine times out of ten.”
“Ice: A Farooq Reshi Investigation”, towards the end, gives readers an eagle’s eye view of the vicious circle, of lives in the bordering mountains.
Aminah Sheikh is the Online Editor of Kitaab.