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.