A few months ago, the game Pokemon became a rage on our smartphones. It had fictional characters around us that we needed to find, give a home to, and nurture with potions and power boosters to help them grow. Along the same time, a post that went viral on the internet was about Syrian children posing as Pokemon characters, asking the world to find them. There was one touching image in particular of a boy holding a Pikachu placard in his hands, trying to smile as he did so, because I think he liked the character. I too liked it, and while I went raging about trying to find my beloved Pikachu on the streets, I think that boy wished someone would think of him as their Pikachu and take him home.
I don’t know who that boy was and what he had lost. The continuity of a war I didn’t want to understand had made me so immune that I speculated and soon forgot. What I couldn’t forget was that I too was a boy once, and how would I have felt if I had lost my family and home at that age? There won’t be any more birthday parties for him, he won’t play with the neighborhood kids when the evenings dawned, he won’t be caught cheating during exams. No, it was not just an attack on his home. What that boy had truly lost was his childhood. He would have wanted to ask questions, but from whom? He must have forged an enemy in his heart, a nameless one. Yet, even though I could read and witness that, maybe I could not really understand it very well. Maybe because as someone who had seen a very comfortable childhood, what could I have known about the pain of losing one?
It was when I was in Kashmir, the heaven on earth, that the anonymous boy on the internet came alive on the streets. I could see mute and stoic boys and girls who wanted to laugh and cry, I could hear things they wanted to say but kept hidden behind their little concealed smiles, just as the one in that photograph. Children of army men who went to school every day fearing whether the bus they travelled in would be blown up, children of civilians who couldn’t play cricket without knowing if their playground may become a battleground soon, children of Kashmiri Pandits languishing in camps of Jammu who seemed to have forgotten how Kahwa is made. Children who had lost their childhood, who were not on either side of the conflict, yet had grown to choose one. A side where all of them were right and all of them were wrong. I could see that the Syrian boy in that viral post and his nameless enemy too were no one but the same children.
The Tree with a Thousand Apples is the story of three such children who don’t just exist in Kashmir, they live with us and around us. They don’t yet know the world they are in and all they want is for us to find them. All they want is to be our beloved Pikachu. They know that if we don’t give them a home today, there will be another boy in the future sometime, holding the same placard again in his hands. The characters from the game may change but the child would not. They don’t want to tell us any of their grand stories because they have none. All they want us to know is that their childhoods long for a birthday party and neighborhood games, that they are just three children who were asked questions they didn’t know the answers to—they are just children like us…
Photo credits: Shome Basu’s Shades of Kashmir