Once a Paradise
Unfortunately, this is paradise (with gratitude to Mahmoud Darwish)
“Ase che pan nan gharan munz musafeer banai mith. We have become beggars in our own homes. Everything has been snatched from us,” my Aunt said in a voice that was flat, almost resigned, over the phone from her home in Srinagar. Her home, is like a cage for her where she has been forced to stay indoors and in fear, following the federal government’s lockdown in Kashmir after Article 370 was revoked on August 5.
I was able to talk with her for the first time in the 35 days of lockdown yesterday. She was calling from a landline phone that my grandfather restored during the current communications clampdown; over the years cell phones had gradually replaced landlines.
“Lots of folks in Kashmir look for the smallest signs of a normal day; the busy hum on the streets, a vendor shouting his vegetables as he slowly pulled his bicycle-cart right on by the neighborhood; a morning stroll to a baker and a cup of noon chai and zhut (salt tea and baked bread).” She had started describing everyday life in Kashmir, when she quickly jumped around to another thing, as if in a trance; “At least the BSNL employees in Kashmir won’t lose their jobs now. Their offices are packed with people looking for landlines since cell phones haven’t been working here after the crackdown. It took me three hours in line to reach the counter.” BSNL is the state-run telecommunications company. Their employees had been threatened with layoffs.
My Aunt obviously hasn’t been going to work since the lockdown began in Kashmir, but when I was in Srinagar for a week in late July, she hurried through with the dishes in the mornings, mopped the floor, showered and dressed quickly so she could be on her way to work. These simple moments mostly go unnoticed in a place that is free and without conflict such as Delhi or other parts of India. But they matter uniquely in the conflict-zone that is Kashmir.
She was able to leave home and walk on the Lal Mandi Foot Bridge, pass by the “normal” signs along the roads: unshuttered photocopy and lamination shops, grocery stores thronged by morning shoppers, a local Mosque that was to reverberate with the Muezzin's call shortly after noon for Dhuhr, the recitation of the Akhand Path at the Sikh Gurdwara and the sound of gentle music of kartals in the Hanuman Temple, on the other side of the bridge. These utterly ordinary slices of daily activities, although transient amid the loss, violence, curfews and strikes in Kashmir, still lent an air of daily routine to the lives of Kashmiris.
“I stand at the door and take note of shuttered shops along the main commercial street of Lal Mandi,” Baba, my paternal Grandfather, said in an emotionless tone on the phone as he shared his experience, between long pauses, referring to an area in Srinagar where his house is located. He is in his late 80s and back in July when I was in Srinagar, it was always that I had either finished a cup of tea or was taking my last sip in the evening when he appeared at the door.
He was almost always away the entire day: either visiting neighbors or friends or was over at his old house close by, interacting with a carpenter about how he wanted his cupboard fixed. When he finally came home, he happily sat next to me in the living room, propping himself against a pillow.
There would be some World Cup Cricket match on the television and he would point with his index finger at a player on the screen: “Do you know him? He’s a very good player,” he would say approvingly. In his own way, Baba was a free bird then, in the limited sense of freedom that Kashmir afforded any one under military occupation, at any given time.
This time on the phone, when I asked him how he was doing, he said, sighing: “Aes che aresare karaan. We are just aimlessly pacing about the house, anxious all the time, going from one end of the cage to the other …”
Two of my uncles, who handle pharmacy stores in Srinagar and earn a living only when their pharmacies are open, are most likely suffering from work-related stress, depression, and anxiety. One Uncle, my Aunt said, “opens the Holy Book at a random place; in the hallway, on a step,” to find the answers to what is happening around him, to find hope in the midst of the crackdown and communication blockade.
Another uncle, she said “is often found sprawled out on the kitchen floor, sometimes in Baba’s bedroom ... He rarely talks, and often skips meals.” With people being idle, confined and almost rendered invalids, Kashmiris are beginning to lose their minds.
“Che kya aasaan karaan? What have you been up to these days?” I ask my younger cousin, who’s in grade seven. “Kuch nahi. Nothing,” she replied quickly. Kuch nahi? I repeated. “Yeah, I just watch TV when I can, study a little - and nothing else.”
What about school? Are schools open? “Nahi. Nobody goes to school these days,” she said.
Back in July, I hardly got to see her in the small window of time between 7PM and 10PM, since the rest of her day was full. Her school ended at 3PM, then began her after-school activities--private tutoring sessions for Math, Science, and English.
A few days ago my maternal Grandmother managed to call me from a relative’s hotel landline in Srinagar. She has been sick and was luckily able to see the doctor at a hospital. “Haspataal te Kah kah medical dukaan chu ven yali aasan shubae te shamas sheye baje pathe dhahan bhajan taen. Now, finally, hospitals and few clinics open between 6 and 10 in the mornings and evenings”,” she said. Is this the normalcy the government and some in the media have been trumpeting, I wonder....
Suddenly, her voice on the phone became almost hysterical, drifting away from me as she began talking with someone else near her. When she spoke into the phone again, she was breathless. The word was out that there had been protests in Qamarwari. How many dead, remained the unasked question as we replaced the receivers.
Huma Sheikh was born and raised in Kashmir. She’s presently based in the US where she’s pursuing her doctoral degree in Creative Writing and teaching at Florida State University. She’s trained as a journalist and has worked in India, China, and the US. She’s currently aworking on her memoir and a book of poems.
(Cover Photo:BASIT ZARGAR)