‘Who can free a captive bird mourning in his cage?
You must bring your own Freedom, O, Gardner.’Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor
“I’ll be back early tomorrow, you don’t need to worry about me,” Syeda tried to sound reassuring. “He will protect us”, she said to Tariq, as she packed the oily turmeric rice in a large steel lunch carrier. She placed the container in an empty plastic cement bag, hoisted it on her head and took Mishaal’s hand in hers. The faithful were reciting their durood in the mosque after Fajr prayers. The golden thread of dawn had just emerged in the skies, and she embarked on this perilous journey to Srinagar.
It had been a month since Syeda started having these nightmares. Every night she would break into a cold sweat and wake up shrieking. The same pair of eyes with dark irises surrounded by the brightest whites she’d ever seen. The rest of the face was camouflaged within darkness. Occasionally a smile flashed across that face and revealed a flash that almost blinded her. Next to this mysterious face, she saw a metallic barrel of a gun piercing the darkness, pointing straight at her. She could almost feel the cold metal against her forehead when she woke up gasping for air. She had tried to wave it off saying it was an evil eye, the neighbours were jealous of her after all. She had fed the stray dogs and a troupe of Gujjar shepherds who were moving from the plains with their flock for a better summer in the mountains. The nightmares persisted however. She tried sleeping on her right side, even dusted all her bedding and the woollen carpet that covered the floor. Yet each night she woke up to the same terrifying vision.
Soon Tariq realized that his mother was in distress and he called the local Imam for help. That day after Isha prayers, the Imam Sahib came in for dinner. Syeda didn’t like this Imam in particular. This young lad belonged to the new generation of rigid fanatics who wore short trousers and recited shorter durood after Fajr. They were not to Syeda’s liking, these young chaps who used to grouse about everything happening to the Muslim community and advise people against going to shrines.
The Imam Sahib, as much as Syeda disliked him, was a comely fellow. After dinner he patiently listened to Syeda’s narration of her dreams and when she finished, he sighed and ran a hand through his beard. He said these dreams could be due to stress and advised her to see a doctor. His uncle got cured by a single pill that the doctor had prescribed, he remarked. Tariq was convinced that the Imam was right and his mother was, like many others, affected by stress due to the turmoil in the Valley.
He suggested that they would go to the doctor the next morning. Syeda was adamant, however. And partly offended that the Imam had shown the temerity to trivialize her spiritual condition and even hinted at the possibility that she was ‘pagal’, wrong in the head. So in an attempt to demonstrate personal hostility against the young Imam, Syeda decided she would travel to Srinagar and pay obeisance at the shrine of Syed Yaqoob Sahib, whom she and her husband revered ever since Tariq was born.
Tariq was mortified by the thought of his mother travelling almost a hundred kilometres from Kupwara to Srinagar, the summer capital of conflict ridden Kashmir, alone and that too in these times. “These are bad times,” he said. But Syeda assured him that she would be fine. The Lord would take care of her. For company she would take Mishaal, Tariq’s six year old daughter with her. She had always intended to take her to the shrine but the insurgency had always prevented her.
Their hamlet had been one of the worst hit regions. The quaint little village of Dardpora, the abode of pain, had around three hundred orphans and over a hundred widows, all victims of the turmoil. Every other day the villagers would gather to mourn a new death, sometimes a civilian killed by the soldiers, sometimes militants killed by the Army, sometimes civilians killed by renegades and sometimes some unidentified person killed by another unidentified person. Mourning became a community routine, just like they shared cups of Kahwa while planting rice seedlings, they shared each other’s grief, not knowing who would be the next host. Syeda had a regular presence at these gatherings, she never skipped them. She wailed like other women, consoled the family members and cooked for them, till she was numbed to grief due to these regular trysts with death and loss. She had received a fair share of it in her sixty years old life. She had lost two of her brothers in the massive demonstrations that had rocked the village following the theft of the Holy Relic in Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar. The Holy Relic was believed, by the majority of the population to be a strand from the beard of the Prophet Muhammad. In December, 1963 the relic mysteriously disappeared from its shrine in Hazratbal leading to massive demonstrations all over Kashmir as well as some other Muslim regions like West Bengal and the then East Pakistan. A week later two coffins were brought into Syeda’s home. Her brothers had been a part of the crowd that was protesting against the embezzlement of the revered artefact that had been charged by the forces. The relic was found on the same day. And somehow, the Indian state was again able to internalize the anger of grumbling Kashmiris.
The spring of 1986 had been a memorable one in Kashmir. Neighbours had crowded into Syeda’s drawing-room. The older men sat next to the cushions against the walls, the middle aged ones sat crouching at their feet while the younger ones hung by the ledge outside the windows. The crowd was gripped with intense tension. It was the last ball of the match, Javed Miandad was at the crease. Pakistan needed six runs to win. Syeda sat on her prayer mat, her fingers rushed over the rosary, her lips moved faster. But her ears were cocked towards the radio that emitted the live commentary in scratchy tones. Javed Miandad scored the winning six and the men stood up in admiration. Her husband, Ghafoor, a wiry school teacher exclaimed “Six” and collapsed to the floor with a smile on his face. Syeda lost her husband to stroke when Javed Miandad had hit the winning shot for Pakistan. He had lived a good life as the village school teacher and died an even better death doing what he loved to do, viz., listening to cricket commentary and cheering for Pakistan. Her memories of her husband were fond, and even fonder was that radio that had belonged to her husband. She kept it wrapped in a green velvet table cloth and occasionally left it in the sun along with her delicately embroidered pherans, Ghafoor’s rich collection of Ghalib and Iqbal, and other souvenirs from the past that she tried to preserve passionately.
As his mother was preparing the offering she would take to the shrine, Tariq still tried at convincing her to not go. He said he would accompany her two days later but Syeda did not flinch. So the next morning she left with Mishaal at her side and the lunch carrier on her head.
They walked to the bus stop to find empty buses ferrying passengers for Srinagar. Not many people preferred to travel these days, the roads were not just unpredictable but the security checks and searches made the journey tedious and humiliating as well. Within two hours the bus was on the highway and within the next forty minutes they were made to stop at three different checkpoints. The men had to disembark and go through a physical check while the women and children had to stay till the wary soldiers searched the bus. The soldiers climbed on and left, and cold beads of sweat formed on Syeda’s forehead. She looked away and pretended to be in a sleep, thankful that Mishaal actually slept through this ordeal.
By late afternoon they reached the shrine of Syed Yaqoob Sahib, cold and worn out, yet happy. The shrine was not remarkably big or as fancy as the many others in Srinagar but Syeda had memories associated with this place. For her, family outings with Tariq and her husband meant a visit to this place. She would pack lunch for the three of them and don her best pheran. While an excited Tariq scampered with the pigeons in the compound of the shrine and Ghafoor prayed in the men’s section, she would offer prayers in the ladies’ section. After completing all their duties of devotion, they would snack on the freshly prepared lotus stem fritters and watch the setting sun. The happy trip concluded with an exhausted Tariq fast asleep in his father’s arms and Syeda vehemently praying for the safety of her family while they boarded the bus back to their village.
She found her peace in this shrine. While Syeda offered her prayers and asked the Lord to protect her family from all evil, Mishaal trotted happily among the pigeons who were the permanent residents of this place. A while later when Syeda felt at peace with herself and a warm glow radiated through her, she took the lunch carrier and stood on the granite pedestal. The rock that had been under the spring sun for all day, warmed her soles and the heat seeped pleasantly into her soul. She knew she would be fine. Just as she opened her lunch carrier, the aroma of her austere offering wafted through the air and mixed with the fragrance of incense that burnt in the shrine. It beckoned the devotees who hurried for their share. Some saw it as a blessing while others were just hungry. They cupped their hands under hers and thanked her graciously. The pigeons had a feast with the yellow grains of rice that spluttered from the devotees’ hands, like showers of blessings from the heavens above. Syeda’s hands were stained with oil and turmeric and a smile of contentment spread across her face.
Just across the road stood the majestic building that had been rented to the United Nations’ Military Operations Group, a peacekeeping organization that, however, had turned into another military camp.
Its tall walls were lined by multiple loops of cobra wire and against one of the walls stood a sandbag bunker. Through the miniature windows between the sandbags were two dark irises surrounded by bright rings of whites that pierced that darkness of the bunker. Everything else was camouflaged within the dark. Sometimes an occasional smile was flashed that exposed the brightest set of teeth when Anandraj, the mysterious occupier of this bunker reminisced home. Just last night he had dreamt of mustard fields back home and his mother. His mother who smelt of mustard. He could see her oil stained hands that fed him every time he was at home. The woman on the other side of the road was probably as old as her. She had oil stained hands and she was feeding strangers. Anandraj felt a strange heartache. He missed home. He missed his mother. She didn’t smell of mustard anymore. She smelt of metal and smoke, because her mustard fields had been replaced by a big building that manufactured steel. True, his mother as well as his brothers had been given jobs in the same factory but it was for half of what they earned before. Anandraj, the youngest of all siblings, never wanted to leave home. But that day when his mother threatened to kill herself because there wasn’t even food for all of them, he felt something snap inside him. The next day he got himself recruited in the army. It was easy. He was able bodied and could deal with a great lot of physical stress. But one thing that followed Anandraj from one place to another was his caste and the discrimination associated with it. His peers who belonged to supposedly higher castes refused to address him as Anandraj. To them he was just another ‘untouchable’ who had toed the line. They treated him with obvious contempt. The Kashmiris, on the other hand, detested all of them, regardless of their caste, with equal intensity. And he found that oddly satisfying, for the first time in his life he had been accorded an equal share of contempt. Kashmir was different.
For the first time in the months of his posting in Kashmir, his fingers relaxed over the trigger of his gun. For the first time in months, he smiled through the darkness. The woman on the other side looked strangely familiar. There was something about her demeanor that reminded him of home. She caught his eye and looked aghast. Anandraj could understand her contempt for him, he was a fauji after all.
Syeda saw her fear personify before herself. These were the same pair of eyes that used to stare at her in her dreams. It was the same bright smile. Her heart was trying to hammer itself out of her chest. She became cold and numb. Was it some sign? In a moment something took over her. A part of her believed she would be fine. There was some vague force telling her to not feel scared.
She scooped the last handful of rice from the container and put it into a newspaper cut out from which Mishaal had just finished her snack of lotus stem fritters. She crumpled the newspaper into a ball and asked Mishaal to wait for her.
Syeda did not know what force was making her cross the road. Somehow she did and reached the tall wall where the bunker rested. Somehow she arched her foot, stood on her toes. And stretched her hand as much as she could. Anandraj was shocked but he did not flinch. “Kheykha?” “Want some?” the woman asked in Kashmiri. Something moved in him. And through the same gap from where the barrel of his gun exited the bunker, he stretched his hand towards the woman and accepted her offering.
Syeda was not scared anymore. She thought she was living her dream when Anandraj flashed the same bright smile at her which pierced the darkness of his bunker. He did not know how to say thank you in Kashmiri.
Sauliha Yaseen does not enjoy talking about herself in third person but she will, just to sound professional. She is a medical doctor by qualification and a writer by compulsion, an avid reader by the day and a disoriented writer by the night. She belongs to the mountains of Kashmir and although she doesn’t live there much, her heart stays there. She has grown up in three wonderful cities namely Delhi, Dhaka and Srinagar, and carries a part of them tucked in her soul. Yes, she does believe in souls. She writes stories, mostly. Her perspective has been shaped by the war in her homeland that spans nearly three decades. Through her fictitious characters, she tries to yield the empathy that the damaged souls of Kashmir deserve.