Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My Father, My Hero

I called my father in the afternoon. His phone rang for a while, almost three rings, before I could hear his voice. Usually he takes my calls after a single ring. I was at office, filing a copy about “shortage of 7000 teachers in Delhi government schools” when suddenly I was reminded of him. His lean frame, his whitening strands of hair, his odd spectacles which I always hated on his face, his smile, his smell, the way he sits in the kitchen sipping his tea, his favorite song that he still whistles when in a happy mood, his way of disagreeing to an idea (He will repeat no, no, no till the other person stops saying anything). I remembered his old rusted trunk full of yellowed books and hand written notes which later became my first library. I read Mother by Maxim Gorky secretly when I chanced upon the trunk once. That shaped my idea about my father. A book about a revolution. I began thinking of my father as a revolutionary.

I was checking my emails for an old story when I came across an email from my father. I was gripped by my memory of him. Each detail becoming clearer. This happens to me. Almost always. I might be in the middle of a story, writing it, thinking about the thread, the structure, the officials I might have to get on record, the deadline, when suddenly, memory of home, mother and father returns to me.

The text on the screen made no sense. I was again missing home, missing father, thinking of the afternoons I spent in my room, reading his novels or old magazines. I have no room of my own now, neither can I get back those lazy afternoons. Then, holidays meant listening to father recalling his college day adventures, his activism days, and his rendezvous with leaders of the day. Now holidays are a struggle to get laundry done. And afternoons are never peaceful. Stories, phone calls, checking on routine, PTI briefs – in fact, by afternoon, the newsroom is a mad house. I kept punching the keys.

I had to call home. I had to call father. I went outside office, in the open to speak to him. I often break down on phone. In fact, I am a cry baby, crying in the office washroom, while walking a crowded street, in the bus, in the hostel room, anywhere, anytime, even waking up at three in the morning I sob for no reason at all, at the same time making sure my roommate is not awakened. It is a strange feeling being a perpetual foreigner. I miss home often. I miss father, to be honest more than I miss mother. I did not want my colleagues to see me crying. Often I find my friends telling me “Grow up Maroosha.” I try. But nothing helps.

The phone rang and I waited, not knowing what to say. I heard three rings before he took the call. I had called in the morning as well, talking about the same things. His voice was weak. Maybe he was asleep or watching TV or reading op-ed pages in Greater Kashmir. I asked, once again, "Abu, How are you?” in Kashmiri of course. He sensed something. He replied, "Am fine darling (Be ha chus theek zuva). How are you? Are you taking care of yourself?" He says this every time we speak. Yes, I lied.

We talked about the same things. Restrictions imposed, mamma’s mood these days, food cooked at home, about his health (to which he always says ‘I am perfect’, though I can’t help noticing him getting thinner in each photograph they send me), about grandmother, her cataracts operation, about Farhan and his studies. He repeated his advices to me. “Be careful, stay strong. Pray whenever you get time.” I wanted to tell him “Abu, I miss you. I miss all of you.” But I never can. I can never utter these three words to my father, to my hero. I keep telling this to my friends, almost every day. “I miss you my every single waking moment,” I say this to my friend back in Kashmir. But I never can tell my father how much I love him. I can never even say a thank you. He told me, “You must finish your work now.” I said okay. And he dropped the phone. And I listened to the silence afterwards.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Mother's Tale

Asif Mehraj was killed during the Amarnath land row of 2008. I visited his family and spoke to his mother, Shameema. The images are still with me - those dry eyes, that helplessness, that despair. We spent more than two hours with her, listening to her sad story. It was getting late and we (me and Sumayyah) had to go to office - we were interning with The Indian Express, Srinagar Bureau then. I silently put my notebook in my bag, suddenly overcome with grief. Asif's mother Shameema followed us to the road (where we had to catch the bus). I felt helpless. I wanted to help. I wanted to just hug her and say, "I feel your pain, Shameema." I had no courage. Instead I fished out a 100 rupee note from my bag and handed it over to her. She accepted it, crumpling it in her hand and said, "Will you come again?" I had no answer.


A telephone ring breaks the calm of a quiet afternoon.

Shameema Akhtar, 40, receives a phone call to her neighbour’s house from Maisuma. Over the phone, they tell her he is injured, injured slightly in the leg. She gets nervous, hassled, but believes them. “He is slightly injured.” She drops the phone and rushes to the hospital with her neighbour amid the empty roads, amid the strike. Moments later, the telephone rings again. And this time it breaks the calm of their lives. He was not injured, not slightly injured, but dead. Asif Mehraj was dead.

An auto ferries Shameema and her neighbour to the SMHS hospital. She arrives only to find her son no more alive, no more able to “earn for his mother”. A teargas shell had hit his young heart, stopping it forever. “When I reached there, he was dead,” Shameema says with no trace of tears in her eyes.

Once again the afternoon is calm. The sky is gloomy. It has turned grey. Strong gusts of air are shuffling the trees that line the road to Shameema’s two-room home in Mehjoor nagar. The wind rises up and flutters the old pale-white netted curtains. The brown windows are ajar, occasionally colliding due to the wind. It disturbs the calm. “Death did not spare my son (motan trov nam ne ye naichov),” Shameema says, her blank eyes roaming all around the lonely room. “Since his ‘martyrdom’ our condition is worse.”

Asif, 19, was hit by a tear smoke shell on August 4, last year during a skirmish between the police and protesters in Maisuma. At that time the Valley was reeling with protests and strikes called against the “economic blockade” of the only road link to Kashmir.

Wearing a white t-shirt and denims, and carrying a cell phone in his pocket, Asif, as usual, had left his home in the morning to go to his work, to earn some money for his mother. He worked as a mechanic. “Mother, I am leaving for work” were his last words to Shameema. Inside his rundown two-room home at Mehjoor nagar, with no TV or radio, Asif didn’t know about the strike call. He ventured out. And then, the telephone ring broke the calm of a quite afternoon.

Shameema was trying to knit together the threads of her entangled life, when the death of her son tangles the yarn once again. Shameema lost her husband Mehrajuddin Dar, two years back to diabetes. She decided to look after her five children.

Few years ago, Shameema was content with the life she was living. Her husband Mehrajuddin Dar had a good business going as a tailor. Her children were getting education at the Government schools. But life had different plans in store for this family of seven. Suddenly one fine day Mehrajuddin is diagnosed with diabetes. And with this begins the spate of tragedies for this family.

“After his father’s death, Asif dropped out of school to help run the home,” Shameema recounts. His elder brother Feroz was already working. Others went to school.

The wind rises up again, billows the curtains and disturbs the calm. The plastic flowers lining the mud shelf painted green fall down. She pushes her hands to the ground, gets up, picks up the plastic flowers and places them on the shelf once again. “This fate had to befall me only (Asmaan payi balayi, su payi mai peth).”

“I thought I have now Asif. I had claim on him, he was my’ child. You can have no claim on others, on relatives. Every month he would hand his salary to me, his mother, that would help,” Shameema says, while looking at her hands. “Now I feel helpless.” As she says this, her children will be walking home from their schools. They will have no fare for the bus. Shazia, Asif’s younger sister comes into the room. She has walked all the way from her school at Habba Kadal to Mehjoor nagar, a distance of about (------) km.

Asif’s death has left his siblings silent. “They cry every evening, every night.” Shameema cries for the first time. “My heart aches at nights.” The windows collide, the curtains flutter. The plastic flowers fall down again. She picks them up again.

Asif has left behind a world of emptiness for his family. As the night falls it is not Asif who returns to his mother but his memories. “I see him every night in my dreams. He comes here and asks for rice.” Shameema points towards the conked out wooden door. “He sits there and eats it.” There is an eerie silence now in the room. Shazia is fiddling with the corner of her shawl, she does not speak. “At times I feel as if Asif is just outside the room, as if he will just enter.”

The sky is gloomy. The wind strong. The curtains. The plastic flowers.

Shameema yawns. Maybe she is too tired of doling out the details again and again to visitors. She seems to have accepted her fate.

As we step out, it is drizzling. We board a bus and reach Lal Chowk. Vendors are folding off their belongings, putting away their earnings for the day and preparing to leave. But for Shameema the struggle starts now.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Mother's Eid Without Her Son

His cricket bat lies abandoned in the corner of the small courtyard in front of his home in downtown Nowhatta. His bicycle too stands there; it is covered with a brown cloth. He would ride it to fetch bread and vegetables from the market. Not now. Faisal Showkat Dar is dead. He was killed. He was 17.

Faisal was shot on August 12 during a massive pro-freedom protest at Baghi-Mehtab in the city outskirts. A bullet from a troopers’ gun pierced Faisal’s left side of abdomen. Hot blood gushed forth from the gaping bullet wound and wet the tarmac. His t-sheet’s colour too had changed to scarlet. In the background, youth raised their fists in the air and shouted pro-freedom slogans. He bled profusely. He died in hospital the next day amid prayers by his mother and aunts.

“It feels hollow,” says his uncle Imtiyaz Ahmed. “He was a child. He was innocent.”

As he speaks, the cramped room is filled with murmurs and sobs. Faisal’s aunts and other relatives have entered the room and are talking among themselves, their right hands folded into fists and held to their mouth. Everybody’s eyes are moist. In a corner of the room, the television set is covered with a grey shawl. Maybe because nobody watches cricket now. Faisal loved cricket.

Faisal’s mother Nazima Showkat fiddles with the gold ring in her finger, her eyes filled with tears, her chin quivering. “It feels as if I am scratching a wound every time I think of Faisal.” She sobs, “I wish he had not gone to Baghi-Mehtab on the fateful day.” Baghi-Mehtab houses his nanihal (maternal home). Faisal had gone there on Saturday, August 9, 2008. “My god, he was a gentle son.”

Kashmir lost more than 50 gentle sons who were shot dead by the army and police during the recent massive peaceful protests.

The transfusion of 26 points didn’t help save Faisal’s life. It didn’t possibly suffice the blood that he had imbued the road with. He died on the hospital bed while the blood drops dripped through the tube into his skin.

Faisal was an eleventh class Commerce student at S.P. Higher Secondary School. Cricket and friends were his life. He would come from his school, throw down his bag in the kitchen, take lunch and rush to play cricket with his friends. “Now nobody would play cricket here,” Nazima says and the room breaks into wails and moans. His father, Haji Showkat Ahmed Dar is looking at the covered up TV all the time. Only his eyes are dry.

He speaks for the first time in a quivering voice. “Faisal was an obedient boy, (Aulad-e-salihah).” His voice chokes, he swallows, he looks down and speaks again, “He would do nothing without my permission.” The tangled wires on the electric pole outside the house are visible from the grilled window. The room is hushed once again.

At his maternal uncle’s home at Chadoora, Baghi-Mehtab, Faisal was oblivious to the bloodbath on the streets. He was playing cricket with his cousin Raju. It was August 11, the day of Muzaffarabad Chalo call. Later in the evening, having dinner with Raju, he asks, “Why are they killing people?” Nobody had an answer. They ate their food and went to sleep.

More than (-----) people were killed on August 11, 2008.

On the morning of August 12, Faisal hears slogans outside the house at Baghi-Mehtab. They grow louder and louder. The previous day’s events had stirred something inside him. Maybe the seed of the question that he had planted needed an answer. He leaves his salt-tea and the bread behind. He dares to venture out. Wearing a worn-out slipper, he scurries from the backdoor to join the protesters, to find answers. He never came back. He never will.

“Only a mother can understand this pain,” Nazima says. “This Eid will be different for us. Without Faisal how will I live?”

A suffocating silence descends upon the room.

My Kashmir Burning

It is something they never thought would happen again. But just as it turned out, exactly the same happened. They said it had died its own death. But the dead rose, with vengeance, with renewed vigor. My Kashmir erupted once again. It had, in 1990 when I was six. Today, it took birth once again. The sentiment of ‘Azadi’ was reborn in Kashmir, it was.

Some weeks earlier in my Kashmir. The script read like this---- Thousands marching the streets shouting azadi slogans. Troopers opening fire on them. Killings, Injuries, Miseries. More protests, More killings, More miseries. Then came the curfew. With it the deserted streets. Hungry babies. Desperate mothers. And more sad stories. My Kashmir’s was a heartrending tale.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Fishseller's Tale of Surviving High Tide of Agitations

Squatting on the side of a busy stretch of road, Maal is busy scraping away the scales of a fish, while two customers wait by her side. A large metallic container carrying a few fish in blood-tinged water lies in front of her and a black umbrella fixed on a long stick protects her from the sun. It is morning hour at the Soura market, the crunch time.

While bees buzz around the fish-carrying container, she yells at the customer. The price he is fixing is too low. "Life is difficult, I have to strive so hard."

Maal is a fisherwoman, who has to come out of her small shack in the interiors of Jenab Saheb Soura to earn a living for herself and for her family. She has a family of ten and her husband is dead.

"I live with my only daughter. Her husband is kind," she says and settles for a bargain price.

Maal belongs to that section of the society who do not get the monthly salary at the end of the every month. She lives a hand to mouth life. And the recent protests and curfews in the Valley did not help the matters. Daily wagers like Maal were left in the lurch.

"Business did incur losses, but then what could I do." She wipes her hina-tinged hands on her pheran. "All I could do was stay inside the home."

Maal has six granddaughters and two grandsons. Her grandsons and the younger granddaughters go to a local government school. Others spin yarn. "We are poor people, cannot afford schooling for all," she says. "Life is hard for wagers like us."

Her daily work day starts at nine in the morning. She buys the quota of fish from a local fisherman and tries to sell the stocks till evening. "Then I go home." Today, however she came to the market at eight.

"We had no fish during the curfew, so no business to do and so no earning." A few customers dart their way through the carts piled with tomatoes and brinjal and start looking at the fish in her container, Maal beckons them, "come, come, they are fresh."

"There was a day when we had no vegetables to cook at home. But I didn't allow my son-in-law to go out. We had heard that they beat up people," she recounts. "During any relaxation in curfew, we would rush to the market and fetch bread and vegetables."

Maal, however, says that she herself would not venture to do business during the deal hours. "What business would I do in one hour, where from would I get the fish? she questions.

The fear of military barging into homes and beating and abusing women also held her from going out. "I would be at home all the time even during the deal. My son-in-law and my grandsons would go out." She says that the relaxation hour in curfew was like Eid for her grandsons.

She hopes the fragile peace would last. That is the only way she can carry her life smoothly. But looking at the situation in Kashmir, where everyday people are shot dead, her worst fears seem to be coming true.

Friday, September 12, 2008

"We Have Had Enough"...Say Kashmiri Women

Eight-year old Hina was searching for a stick in her courtyard. Having found one behind the henhouse, she rushes to her mother in the kitchen, brandishing the stick in her hand. “Let’s go out,” she tells her.

Holding a stick with one hand and her mother’s arm with the other, little Hina was happy. She was ready to come out of the house to join the people on the streets. The shattered glasses and the smoldering tyres on the roads did not frighten her. She too wanted to shout slogans for freedom.

Nayeema, Hina’s mother smiles, “She just wanted to go out, she was so eager you know.” As she says this, Hina listens to our conversation from behind a curtain. She smiles shyly, playing with her curly hair.

This was when Kashmir was protesting the transfer of 38.2 hectares of forest land to SASB. Now the land issue has completely been transcended by the calls for ‘Azadi’ (freedom) here in Kashmir. The participation of women in the ongoing protests has been unprecedented so far.

As the smell of dung-cakes, those are in the courtyard, floats through the air, Nayeema recalls, “All men of our family were out, protesting, my husband and my brother-in-law.” She nods as if pleased with herself. “Everybody was on streets, even women from my neighbourhood.

“I too covered my face and joined the protests,” she adds after a bit of probing.

This mother-daughter duo belongs to Taploo mohalla of Soura in Srinagar. This area was among the many localities that witnessed the women protesters coming out and registering their anger.

Women could be seen pelting stones and shouting with equal fervor the ‘Azadi’ slogans on the streets.

They see reason behind their active participation in the protests. “It was for our freedom,” says Rafiqa of Maisuma area in Srinagar. Having memorized the slogans, she blurts out in broken Urdu, “Aada roti khayay ga, sar nahi jukaye ga.” Her tone was proud. Rafiqa, a fragile lady in her forties, was quick to add, “The whole area had locked their houses. Nobody stayed back home. We ran with the protesters. It was a huge Juloos.” She relishes the memory.

Gulzara, another women protester from Maisuma, who says she was part of all the protest marches, from Muzaffarabad Chalo to UN Office in Sonawar, had to go in for painkiller injections in her feet after the days protests were over. “My feet hurt. I had to inject drugs to assuage the pain,” she says in her husky voice, taking off the footwear to show the soles of her feet.

“It is the jazba (passion) for freedom that brought us out on the roads,” she adds. “We won’t let the sacrifice of young boys go waste.” She says in a pensive mood.

This is for the first time after the Nineties uprising in Kashmir that ranks of women, young and old, have come out in such mammoth numbers on the streets.

But it is not only on the streets that women are making their presence felt, they are contributing behind the scenes as well. Consider the various ‘langars’ that were organized by them. They collected materials and prepared food, especially ‘tehri’, a Kashmiri rice specialty and distributed to marchers coming from different parts of Valley. They also made arrangements for refreshments to the demonstrators.

The women and girls were well in the forefront of these silent gestures of solidarity. Girls from Kashmir University donated blood as the number of injured in the protests grew.

Prof. Hameeda Nayeem, who teaches English at the University of Kashmir, had this to say, “I felt happy when girls protested in their own unique way. It is high time that India respects the voice of Kashmiris.”

The political consciousness among women has increased manifold in the recent years. Many attribute this to education. Yasmeen is a 12th grade student from Soura. She says she was among the firsts to shout slogans for ‘Azadi’. “Today media is there, education level is high.” Arranging her headscarf, she says in a broken voice, “One gets emotional, so I too went out to pelt stones at the CRPF men who beat up women from our area.”

Yasmeen believes “Kashmir deserves to be free on the lines of Bangladesh.”

Freedom seems to be the dream of every young girl at the Govt. College for Women, M. A. Road. Perhaps that is why they took out a protest rally inside the campus. They called for ‘Azadi’.

Saima Gul, a B.A. first year student joined the protests. This 19-year old girl says, “We are educated. We know what is right and wrong.” Her friends nod in agreement. “We know India wronged us. They fired on unarmed protesters and killed them, in Jammu they didn’t fire.

“In today’s world we think there is no difference between a boy and a girl, then why should we be silent at these trying times?” she asks.

This coming from a student of a college which is considered the fashion hub, tells the tale of Kashmiri girls coming of age.

Shaheen, another young college protester believes that the passion for Azadi in girls equals the passion found in boys. “We are united in our struggle for Freedom. That is why we thought we should protest.”

There is, however, some ambivalence in this argument. Some young girls at the College are of the opinion that girls are better off at home. “We should offer fateh khawani to the martyrs at the School and College assemblies instead of holding rallies,” says Asma, a B.Sc Final year student.

Whatever be it, Kashmiri women and girls are not among the ones to bow down easily. They have realized their roles and are ready to contribute their bit to the Kashmiris demand for ‘Azadi’.

As Nida, a Kashmir University student puts it succinctly, “We have had enough.”