Note: This is the second of a two-part essay written by Mir Umar. Hailing from the Kashmir Valley, he is currently a student of English at Delhi University. This was written by him during the second month of the Kashmir lock down. Umar was visiting home during August last year and witnessed the situation post the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35(A) first hand. Read the first part here.
It was the day of Eid. It is supposed to be a day of joy, celebration and peace. Children before Eid would throng to the markets to buy toys. I remember when I was a child, my sense of Eid was associated with toys.
I would accompany my father to the market and then to the toy shop. There would already be many children buying different sorts of toys. Boys preferred cars and guns and girls mostly dolls and sets of kitchenware. I preferred remote controlled cars and trucks.
Mostly, guns attracted me as I liked to see myself as a soldier of a film. The shopkeeper with his sweet friendly gesture would encourage us to buy as many toys as we can. I would like of buying a whole toy shop one day. But I didn’t know childhood doesn’t last long. Neither do the toys.
This time round, people were not allowed to gather and assemble for Eid prayers in any grounds or Eidgahs. Fearing the public’s anger, the state strengthened its curfew and siege. People thus, preferred to pray in the local mosques as early as possible because the time of day also had something to do with the ‘normalcy’ of the state.
On Eid, I woke up just like I wake up on any other day. I didn’t feel like celebrating. There was a restriction on our movement. We couldn’t go out. I wore my kameez and kurta and went to offer Eid prayers in a nearby local mosque.
I saw a different gleam in people’s eyes. It didn’t take much time to end prayers. The prayers were over and people gathered outside to wish Eid Mubarak formally to each other.
I saw the crowd fading with the increasing heat of the sun’s rays. I went home. We had sips of tea with not much laughter and happiness. It was Eid in a siege.
2019 was totally a different experience.
Earlier on the days of Eid, I would always see my mother greeting relatives on the phone early in the morning. Phones would be buzzing with crafted messages of wishes and voice notes. This time, they fell silent due to the communication blockade. My mother’s wishes of Eid for loved ones died inside of her. Silently.
Days passed. Though I was at home, it felt like living in a cage as if held captive. Like a complete incarceration.
Amidst the siege, the hills of our area (Sangri) provided solace. An escape from frustration. In the evenings, we would usually walk to those hills and sit there, looking at the dexterity of the town.
The aerial view that hills provide are pretty. There are mountains on large distances where snow is trapped over their surfaces. The boundaries of hills of the town draw a close line with sky. Clouds hanging like cotton candy over them. Between those hills and terrains, a town known as Baramulla (Varmul) is embedded, usually called a ‘town of mountains.’
While sitting on one of the hills, I would see how the security camps had been built on top of the hills. The strong beam lights had been put alongside the camps. “How do they manage their daily food or anything at all,” I would think.
Sometimes, it also makes me angry how they had occupied beautiful places of the town. Then letting these thoughts wander away from my mind, I would look at the enchanting river Jhelum creeping like a snake. Then, at the tiny structures of the town and letting my mind wander between the musings of the breeze.
When the sun would set, I would return home to cultivate hopelessness. Every time when I left hills through muddy terrains, the thought of losing them comes into my mind. “Who knows, maybe they will come and occupy this space too. Where would I sit then?”
If they come, I would bribe them with some money, I thought. Would they accept? What if they pointed guns towards me?
The sun would die slowly behind colossal mountains westward side of the town. The sky changed its colours often. Birds would return to their nests; their homes. They would fly in the sky till the sun’s every ray died. In moments, darkness would spread everywhere, devouring everything in sight. Then, I would leave as a wanderer towards my home.
During nights, helicopters, drones and war planes whizzed in the sky. Their horrible sounds in the silence of the night deprived us of sleep. Days were caged in curfew and nights in horror. There was no respite from it. Except for some hours after prayers from mosques, people sat on shop fronts, had a chit chat and smoked cigarettes. It was a daily routine. Wake up, eat, pass time and sleep.
On the other side, the day was coming near when I had to leave my home again. Exactly a year ago, I had moved to Delhi for my studies. It’s something that feels like a self-chosen exile.
The day of leaving was on the doorstep. A day before I had to leave, I packed my luggage, some essential books including George Orwell’s 1984 and Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite that I wanted to carry with me. There was a mixture of feelings inside.
Firstly, I didn’t want to leave my home. Secondly, I wanted to stay there forever. Does it make any difference? My mother was not happy at all. How could she be? She was worried about my well being. She didn’t want me to go away. Even for a moment. “How will I get in touch with him once he goes” was the thought that worried her.
Later, somehow, she was convinced. Or was she?
It was morning. I was awake in my bed already before the usual time. I was laying there thinking once again why exactly it was that I had to leave. As I was thinking, I felt a sudden stroke of light in my eyes. The sun had woken up.
Now, it was stealing my sleep by pushing its light through windows into my eyes. When I got out of bed, I felt a little heaviness in my chest. There was a lump I felt inside. It had choked me through the night. It felt uneasy.
My mother had woken up already. My maternal uncle was there to accompany me to the airport. They were having tea until I got ready. I moved my luggage through rooms and had a last touch with the wire gauze of my window, from where usually I watched the beautiful serenity of my town. I felt my fingers losing sense and strength.
I drank my tea passively. During tea, I exchanged glances with my mother. Her eyes were sad. I wondered how she slept at night. So, I stopped looking at her.
The time was running ruthlessly fast. In the meantime, I heard the grumbling of the car. My father, little brother, maternal uncle and a friend were ready in their dresses to accompany me. It was all ready. Only I had to leave. I took my luggage bag and moved it to the corridor. Then, I waited for my mother.
I waited despairingly. The sharp feelings like knives were piercing me inside. I felt the moistness of tears inside. Though, I resisted from them coming to my eyes. Abruptly, my mother came. She held me tight, with my face resting on her shoulders. She hugged me tight. I hugged her back.
I felt the pain breaching between us. She held me still and kissed me on my forehead thrice. I saw tears rolling down her cheeks. Her eyes became moist. Her pain unimaginable. I didn’t want to leave that space. That moment, I wanted to stop time and be there in ecstasy of motherhood. But I had to leave. Oh! How cruel time was. Or maybe I.
She placed one more kiss on my forehead and let me go. Her tears had moistened my shirt. “Gachê Khudayas Hawaalê” (may God be with you) she said, while I left towards the car. She accompanied me towards the main gate. Her one hand holding the pillar of the gate and the other holding her scarf to wipe her tears.
I couldn’t meet her gaze again. She was there until the car raced up through the deserted streets. Her image on the front rear mirror left as the car picked up speed. But somehow, I felt it was still there. Like it never left.
It was early morning when I left for the airport. The streets were mainly empty. The events had changed everything. Only troops and armoured vehicles had their presence on the roads. Soldiers were standing at shop fronts, holding guns and lathis and had their faces covered with masks.
At many points, roads had been blocked by barbed wires and armoured vehicles. Army convoys moved in an instant. We were stopped at one point when the convoy was passing from the opposite direction. Their convenient movement was not disturbed. The soldiers on the top of army trucks were keeping a vigil on surroundings. Large number of army vehicles passed and then after much waiting, civil traffic was allowed to move.
After a one-and-half-hour ride, I reached the Srinagar airport. Outside, I shook hands with my father, brother, maternal uncle and my friend accompanied me inside. The airport was full of people. They moved in different directions. On different airline counters, people were standing in lines, jerking each other, they fought for space. Finally, I bid adieu to my friend by hugging him. Then we both shook hands and exchanged smiles.
I went towards the counter with my luggage. The policeman standing there asked for my identity and ticket. I showed both of them and he let me in. Then, I got my luggage checked. After much frisking and checking, I was allowed to go and got my boarding pass.
Then, I went to the door where my flight was supposed to be. I waited there because my flight had been delayed by half an hour. I observed people, moving my eyes all around. I was also caught by their eyes. In between moments of biting my lips and thinking, the plane arrived.
While boarding, a finely dressed man from the staff of the plane asked me to show him my bag.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked.
“Books,” I replied.
He stared at me momentarily. Then he immediately frisked my books and let me go. I arrived at my seat and sat there till everyone occupied theirs. Air hostesses arrived, gave safety instructions which people ignored. A voice reverberated, introducing himself as captain of the plane.
“In the next one-and-a-half-hour, we will be landing in Delhi. The temperature there is 36°C,” said the voice and went off.
Air hostesses came and announced to shut window panes of the plane for security reasons. “How can our looking out of windows be dangerous to them?” I thought. But then again, I reminded myself, where I was living. This is how tyranny is imposed on our eyes, hands, mouths, and importantly in hearts and minds. Then, the window panes were shut.
It was dim. The plane was fuelling up. It began to move slowly first, abruptly took speed; its tires thudding the runway. Suddenly, I felt my head bouncing back and my soul dripping out from my body. The plane took off.
A girl sitting beside me became anxious. She tightly held her seat while playing games on her smartphone to look normal. Then, I started a conversation with her which continued till the end of the journey. She was very humble. The conversation somehow relieved both of us.
The next moment, I was flying in the sky. I looked outside the small textured land and houses. I observed how the shafts of the plane were cutting the clouds and moving ahead. Beneath us were people held in siege like we were, moments back. I imagined if there was a child looking out from the window of his house, raising hands towards us. That’s what I used to do in my childhood while looking at helicopters passing through the sky.
After some time, a voice again reverberated saying that shortly, we’d be in Delhi. I could see the fields and buildings. Moments later, our plane landed, giving us a push backwards. While the plane had not completely stopped, my phone rang. It was a call from my cousin.
It felt new at that time, to speak on the phone after 20 days of communication blockade. The symbols of the mobile network had come to life again. Again, the captain’s voice reverberated, saying, “Welcome to Delhi. The temperature outside is 37°C. Have a good journey ahead.”
Before moving out, I took my bag. The girl who sat beside me while moving out, said a final goodbye on which I smiled back. I moved out, waited for my luggage on the belt. When it arrived, I moved outside the airport. I felt a sudden heat wave striking my body. Within minutes, I was full of sweat. People were moving in different directions with their luggage. I took the Metro and disappeared.
Delhi is a busy city. Its traffic and lights never succumb to death. It looks like it has been finely crafted with it’s huge buildings, roads and markets. People from different parts of India come to pursue their dreams here.
The city is prodigiously built, with its high architecture, tall buildings and widely elongated streets. One interesting fact about this city is that it doesn’t sleep. Life moves throughout day and night like the blink of an eye.
Roads and flyovers have been built to an extent that it provides a shelter to the homeless. Whenever I am out on the streets, I see families taking shelter under flyovers and sleeping on large footpaths. They sleep so deep that they don’t wake to the traffic noise.
It’s hot and humid in Delhi. Since the day I landed here, I’ve always remembered home. Not a single day passes without remembering it. It always appears in my memory, with its sometimes joyous and sometimes painful moments.
It’s been over two months since I’ve returned to Delhi from home. But every day, I see disturbing stories surfacing on social media. It brings deep horror. It also makes one worry about the safety of their family and their loved ones. Sometimes it puts me into intensive thoughts of isolation. I am not the only one. There are thousands like me, away from home who share the same feeling.
When I returned here, I had a chat with one of my friends who also studies here. Apart from asking about our well being, she asked, “How was everything back home?”
This question scared me for a while. I didn’t reply for a minute. What do I say, how do I say it, there’s a lot to say, were the thoughts in my mind.
“There’s everything except normalcy,” I replied.
Generally, communication remained blocked in the valley except landlines, which were restored after a month of lock down. Now, the postpaid services have been restored. During the siege, landlines had been working sporadically. We too had a landline back home, once.
Due to some reasons, my father had decided to close it. So, we had our landline removed. But my mother used to say that when everything related to mobile phones stop working, landlines are the only hope. That proved right.
When there was no regular contact with my family, I used to think that had a landline been there, my mother would have called me several times a day. If not several times, once a day for sure.
There had been no regular contact with my family, relatives and loved ones. My father used to call me from his office landline. Our conversation would last only for a few minutes. In one such conversation, my father said that my mother never felt satisfied even after my father would convince her about my well being. Oh! It’s painful. Isn’t it?
Then one day, my mother spoke to me from my father’s office landline. She had to walk kilometres only to hear my voice and ask about my well being. We had been thrown back to the Stone Age where conversations were rare. In this age of instant technology, we long for a call. ‘Normal,’ isn’t it?
She asked about everything. My college, my studies, especially about my health and food. She was very happy while talking to me. My happiness had doubled too. But it was just a call. A few moments. It had to go.
Before hanging up, my mother spoke to me as if it was our last time on a call. As if, it was the last call ever that I was having with her. Her face came before my eyes when she said, “Khodah karnei panin hifazat, gobra,” (May God keep you safe, my child) and hung up.
It usually rains sporadically in Delhi. The rain doesn’t come here regularly like that in Kashmir these days.
A few days ago, it rained cats and dogs in Delhi. The rain splashed huge naked buildings as if they had been stripped off their clothes. When it was raining, I saw people from their balconies flailing their hands to touch silver rain drops. Some even came out, raised their hands towards the sky and danced. It was a complete joy for them.
Whenever it rains in Delhi, it reminds me of home. Of those fields and orchards where a new scent is born and where the blue god shows its full majesty. I imagine when the dark clouds stretch their arms and thunder starts bursting, then comes the rain. It brings us respite from daily sufferings.
Kashmir, once called “paradise on earth” by Mughal Emperor Jehangir when he visited in the 17th century, no longer shares this tag. It has also lost its essence of remaining in poet Amir Khusrau’s beautiful Farsi couplet,
“Agar firdaus bar roo-e zameen ast,
Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast”
(If there is a paradise on earth,
It is this, it is this, it is this)
It’s burning from inside. This is the fire of death that doesn’t stop, waiting to engulf all of us. Who lit that fire and went away? Who ordered us to burn? Who is sprawling human flesh into the fire to keep it burning, till the last one of us dies? Who?
Amidst this uncertain situation, I find peace in words. Words heal. Sometimes, I feel that we exist to tell stories of our grief.
It’s midnight. I am reading Agha Shahid Ali’s The Veiled Suite. The light travels justly between its pages, making minute letters stand under light, like a prisoner held under strong beam light. Kashmir must also be awake in the night curfew. My mother must also be tossing and turning to be able to sleep. Just the way I am awake at midnight, homesick.
It’s a horrifying night. Darkness litters the walls of the room. A darkness that will vanish soon at the first stroke of dawn. I will wait to see the rays of the sun piercing the veil of darkness.
But, when will the night of anguish end in Kashmir? I leave it to God to decide. I can only wait. Endlessly.