|Zakura, Srinagar: The rat-a-tat sounded not much unlike close-by cracker-burst. But we saw no celebrants around and there isn't much to celebrate in today's Kashmir anyhow.|
Then, up ahead on the road, we saw an armoured personnel carrier wheel around and nervously speed past. We heard cries emanating from within as it whizzed by - frantic, nervous, unintelligible. Alley dogs began to bark, a few young men spilled out of their homes, curious.
Another round of rat-a-tat and more screaming.
Nobody seemed to know what was happening - why the trickle of traffic stood abruptly frozen ahead of us, why women were calling the youngsters back indoors, why thick beams of torchlight had suddenly begun to poke through the darkness.
We heard the air crackle again, and then the arrival of armoured reinforcements - four bullet-proof police vehicles, guns thrust through their metal grilles.
We were in a situation. What quite we still didn't know.
Half an hour stranded amid the fire only fuelled consternation; we were in the thick of an armed encounter but who was hitting who?
Zakura is a peripheral neighbourhood, north of Srinagar. It's thickly housed, partly wooded with poplars and chinars, partly overlaid with open fields that run on into the Ganderbal foothills. A narrow road winds through it. To one side of it lie many fortified layers - a police station, an encampment of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), and a resident battalion of the CRPF.
This evening, as we realised much later, a shoot-and-scoot party of militants had dared their way in, wearing darkness as cover, and taken potshots at a retiring SSB convoy. They left one jawan dead and eight injured, the neighboured cowering in fear and Kashmir's elaborate security bandobast rattled anew.
" Chalo, chalo, chalo!!!" A panicked voice came from the direction where the fire was. "Chalo! Chalo! Maaro! Maaro!"
We heard retaliatory shooting, but it was shooting the dark, no more. The militants had done their job and slipped into Zakura's housing warren. We were being frenetically waved off the road into by-lanes, if only to clear the way for the injured to be ferried off the scene to hospitals.
We took the lane we'd been shoved into, and wound our way out through a semi-rural maze into all the safety a moonlit night in Kashmir can afford.
We thought we had left the day's risks well behind and well in time. But we'd headed right into them. We'd heeded friendly warning to wrap work before dark; we'd begun to drive home as the sun began dipping over the barren mud promontories of Pampore. But there's no place you can hope to run from trouble in Kashmir; any direction you head, you could be heading to peril.
All day today, we'd been in south Kashmir, the very core of the current while of violence. This was to be a report from the launch pad of last month's cross-border surgical strikes - womb and grave of Burhan Wani, whose killing in July triggered Kashmir's latest churn.
This is the patch where anger has marinated all summer and made a devil's meal of Mehbooba Mufti's inaugural stint as chief minister. This is also her native land, home to her ancestors and to her politics. Four months ago, she was voted handsomely to the Assembly from these parts. Today, it is so angry and cindered, Mehbooba can't walk among her constituents.
For weeks now, no functionary of the ruling PDP, whose pocket borough south Kashmir is, has stirred in this direction - not a minister, not a legislator, not an office-bearer of any worth.
Last week, a party of armed militants filed into the home of Advocate Javed, head of the PDP's Anantnag unit, and demanded to see him.
Javed had enough wits about him to pretend to be a party worker and tell them the Advocate was out. The militants didn't persist, but took away the arms and ammunition his guards possessed.
"South Kashmir has floated beyond the state's pale," a senior official told us. "There are large parts we ourselves call liberated, or beyond the intervention of the civilian, police or political authority. Young boys check papers and put up barricades, they let you in or out or detain you. That is the state of play, plain and simple."
The road leading out of Srinagar towards south Kashmir - the same road that heads eventually to Jammu via the Jawahar Tunnel - has been repeatedly disrupted and paralysed by terror strikes these past months.
Twice, militants have entered highly secured government facilities along it and engaged the forces in prolonged fire. Often, people from neighbouring villages have turned out in riotous processions to make common cause with armed assailants and decry the security forces. All of this, despite upgraded mobilisation by the army, paramilitary and the police.
"What do we do when tens of thousands, women, children, old men, turn up and confront us?" asked a senior policeman, helplessness and frustration ringing from his tone. "What can we do but to turn the clock decades back and establish an army camp in each village? Are we headed in that direction? Perhaps we are."
The attack in Zakura this evening is probably a caution even that mightn't be quite enough. As we close this report, the neighbourhood is still crawling with jawans looking for militants who may well have melted away to stoke another day, another place.
There is nowhere in Kashmir you can run away from trouble.