That Time the Taliban Chased Me Out of Town
In January of 1990, I was among the last foreigners ordered by our embassies and the Government of India to leave Kashmir, after production on my first film, starring Dimple Kapadia from Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, ground to a halt because of “unrest,” a euphemism for the ages. Islamic militants were streaming over the passes from Pakistan. The Indian Army was about to launch a counteroffensive that would quash insurrection and lock down the Valley, known to the Mughal emperors as “paradise on Earth,” in a stage of siege for over thirty years, at this point.
As I was packing up my house and my bags, having thus far been cavalier about the whole thing, as usual, my Kashmiri Muslim staff from the villages tried to explain in limited English and lots of gestures what was really happening. Never having left the Valley, never having seen a flat horizon without Himalayan peaks, their concept of geography was perhaps lyrical, as if describing an epic story of jinns and sultans with a vocabulary in English of two hundred words, max. “They come from far-far country. Not Pakistani. Too far-far from Pakistan.”
“Yes! Afghanistan! They call Talibani. Very, very bad peoples. Crazy. Kill everything. They make all this trouble. Indian think is Kashmiri. No. Afghani-Talibani. They go in bazaar with too-too many peoples, they shoot Indian Armies, Indian Armies shoot all peoples in bazaar. Too much-much bad-bad mens.”
These new fighters from a far-far land infiltrating villages were posing as Kashmiris; Indian soldiers, mostly Rajput Hindus and Sikhs from India proper, who spoke no Kashmiri, couldn’t tell the difference. By creating revenge culture in retaliation for mass shootings in bazaars, and other ruses, the Taliban guaranteed bad blood and insurrection for generations to come, even if the Kashmiris were aware who pushed them into the fight, in the name of Allah, his Prophet, and all that jazz.
The old Srinagar airport looked somewhat like Kabul’s, but a fifth the size — if you asked anyone in side-by-side image comparisons which was which based on the clothing and the structure, I doubt anyone would guess a hundred percent correctly. Crowds of Kashmiri Hindus surrounded the tiny terminal, desperate to get out; it was winter, the passes over the Himalayas were closed. It was either somehow getting on that small Indian Airlines 727 waiting for me on the tarmac, which flew to/from Delhi twice a day, or staying put to meet the too much-much, bad-bad Taliban pretending to be Kashmiri.
The crowd was parted for me by police with lathis as I got down from the production Jeep. Hysterical soon-to-be-refugees screamed at me, at the Indian soldiers ushering me into the terminal. It wasn’t fair. My quick exist was thanks to the color of my skin, my privileged status as a ‘filmiwallah.’ I don’t doubt that someone was bumped from the flight to get me on board.
That walk across the tarmac to the plane, the shivering flight attendant waiting for me at the top of the stairs with her hands clasped in greeting, reminded me of the ending of The Year of Living Dangerously. Like Mel Gibson, my eyes were tearing, mostly with rage and great sadness for a country I’d fallen in love with, betrayed by everyone because it bordered India, Pakistan, China, and the former Soviet Union. Instead of Sigorney Weaver, there was that skinny flight attendant waiting for me, shivering as much from fear as the cold of a Himalayan winter.
It took me a while to get over the shock of watching paradise on Earth collapse into civil war, basically. I hadn’t met the evil that was Al Qaeda and the Taliban personally, hadn’t shaken their hands and shared a cup of khava tea, but I’d felt their freezing black shadow of death creep up and envelope everything around me.
My house overlooking Dal Lake — in an area that lent its names to two luxury French fragrances, Shalimar by Guerlain and Casmir by Chopard, for a reason — had a hundred different kinds of rose, or so claimed the gardener, a septuagenarian widower who stood in a plastic basin outside the kitchen window once a month and bathed with the hose, completely naked, an act for which the Taliban would’ve had his head; Kashmiris had never been that kind of Muslim. One variety was a black rose. When I think of the Taliban, I think of that rose.
I got back to New York in the summer, having spent several nerve-shredding months trying to get my staff out of the conflict zone. I tried to explain to Americans what was happening in Central Asia, jabbering away my trauma. For most people Kashmir was a type of wool, or two perfumes, once I’d underscored that connection. My adventures and excitement were a confusing sort of gripping, spicy chatter over sushi, perhaps evidence that I’d finally gone too much-much crazy, nothing more.
I watched and rewatched Heat and Dust and Year of Living Dangerously as a filmmaker’s therapy for the next year, scouring the back pages of the paper for news of Kashmir. It seemed I would never be able to swaddle my mind to protect it from the freezing black shadow that choked paradise on Earth into a thirty-year coma. I was convinced it was coming for everyone.
When my mother called me the morning of September 11th, 2001, and told me to turn on the TV, I said, in response to the smoldering first tower, “See? I told you so!”
Trailer for The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)