A Tragic Life

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After a young singer was released from detention by army during 90s, he confined himself to his room and took solace in drugs. Now his aged father goes door-to-door collecting alms for survival, Muhammad Younis tells their story

Every morning Abdul Salam Shah, 67, a resident of Chakihanjan Behibaag in Shopian, leaves his home to collect money to spend on his chemotherapy against stomach cancer at Sher Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences (SKIMS) Srinagar.

In an unsteady gait, Shah, wearing a traditional white coloured skull cap, with lots of holes in it, and his feet slipped into tattered plastic boots, having a lot of dust, obscured behind which is the real colour of his footwear, wilts through roads and alleyways of villages asking for alms as he narrates his problems.

“Allah has made these people living angels on the earth; nobody refuses me; I get at least Rs 10 for people. And if luck is on my side I even get Rs 100, or Rs 500,” said Shah while removing a black mask from his nose that he wears as a repellant against infection and dust.

Two years ago, Abdul was diagnosed with a stomach cancer, after years of constant medication. For a small time farmer like Shah, doctors told him to arrange huge amount for operation. Since then, he is continuously visiting the hospital for the therapy.

“When I was diagnosed with the stomach cancer, the doctors told me to arrange Rs 8 lakh for the operation,” said Shah.

“I had to sell a number of things at my home to sustain and survive. I even sold my apple orchard spread on one kanal of land.”

Shah doesn’t like when somebody calls him a beggar. “If I would have been young I would have preferred to work and earn,” said Shah.

“I am not a mendicant, please don’t call me so. I am just going through bad phase in my life” he says, his hand quivers wildly.

Shah’s ailment is not the only thing he has to take care of, his woes are far bigger and burdensome.

His son Sajad Ahmad Shah, who is in his 40’s, suffering from Post-Traumatic Mental Disorder (PTSD) for nearly fifteen years.

“If my son would have been in a sound condition, maybe I wouldn’t have suffered whatever I am suffering right now,” said Shah, heaving a long sigh, his eye sockets flood with tears.

Shah can barely walk as his ankles are swollen, caused by his ailment and partly by the ‘endless’ walking that he does to collect money for the therapy and medication.

His son Sajad, was a hippie with a long beard cascading down his chin, who used to sing Kashmiri songs at marriage parties and other functions.

In 2002, Sajad, then 23, was returning from a function, when he was detained by the army for unknown reasons.

“I firmly believe, it was his long beard and hair that invited army’s attention,” said Shah. “Those days’ militants used to sport long beards too. But my son was a commoner with no militant links whatsoever.”

For next few days Shah searched for his son everywhere but failed to trace him. “Those days’ custodial killings were a norm so I began fearing for the worst.”

However, after a few days Sajad returned on his own, but it was as if only his body had returned, and his soul was gone, feels Shah.

Once back, Sajad confined himself to his room and abandoned singing altogether. He started to keep an unusual silence, something unusual for a talkative person like Sajad. “He used to sing and hum a song or two all the time while at home,” recalls Shah. “He didn’t even share with me what army had done to him, neither he even liked to talk about it,” said Shah.

It was like, when he sat before Shah, words were only accidents in their mutual silence.

“But after finding burn marks on his temple, I believed he had been given electric shocks,” said Shah. “His entire body was badly bruised. Even his fingernails bore torture marks.”

It took Sajad almost an year to come out of this ‘unspoken past’ and reinvigorate himself to start working again.

Then in 2003, at Donipai, Achabal in Islamabad, where he had gone to attend a marriage ceremony, he was again detained by the army.

After he was released this time, he locked himself up in his room, and refused to eat anything for a couple of days.

“Finally when he came out, he ran away, and it was from that moment onwards, he didn’t stay at his home, not for a single moment,” says Shah.

Taking the advice of his relatives and neighbors, Shah, with the help of nearly a dozen local boys, took his son to a number of psychiatrics at Srinagar for treatment. But the medication and therapies barely brought any sort of improvement in his health, ‘rather it had adverse effect on him; his whole body started to get swollen up. “

I felt as if in the course of medication, he might lose his life, so I made him discontinue the treatment,” said Shah.

In 2006, in order to get Sajad out of his misery Shah got him married.

“I searched everywhere for a suitable girl for Sajad who could offer him a sympathetic shoulder, but found none,” said Shah. “They would reject him once they learn about his tragedy.”

Then Shah got in contact with a person in Shopian, whose hosted three young girls from Bangalore.

“After I took Sajad to his house one of the girls there agreed to marry him,” said Shah. “This was when I sold my first one kanal of my two kanals of apple orchards to cover his marriage expenses.”

The marriage could not work for more than six months, and finally the girl left Sajad. “I don’t blame this girl for leaving my son as I know Sajad was not the best match for her,” said Shah. “However, as a father I was selfish to get him married thinking it will help him recover.”

Shah still considers her as his daughter-in-law but has no idea where she is now.

As a last resort to keep his son from wandering and running away, Shah chained him at home.

“I confined him in chains for months. I didn’t let him use washroom on his own even,” said Shah.

Then one day Sajad asked Shah what Allah has promised humanity against the oppression?

“I told him that it is insaaf (justice),” recalls Shah. Then Sajad asked him, with tears in his eyes, to do insaaf with him and set him free, as he couldn’t bear the pain of being chained anymore. “I left him free then,” said Shah.

Once out Sajad took to drugs to overcome his miseries.

“I can’t do anything, because I spent most of my time in saving myself,” said Shah. “I am trying to save myself for his sake only, else I would sit at home and wait for death to come.”

Since Sajad’s mother’s death a few years back, Shah is taking care of him by being there for him always.

For years Sajad’s mother Zaeba Banu tried her best to help her son recover from the nightmares, but failed too. “She died of brain hemorrhage,” said Shah.

Talk to Sajad for a few minutes and you will find him a normal guy, but as the conversation goes on, he soon loses his cool and starts acting weird. “He even talks to me like that now,” said Shah. “When he was alright he would never dare to raise an eyebrow in front of me. But I don’t blame him for what he has turned into. It is all because of what he has gone through.”

Shah’s younger son Khursheed, is married and now lives with his family. “He has four kids of his own and he lives hand to mouth too, so I don’t ask him for money,” said Shah.

Khursheed, a labourer, lives separately with his family. “Life has been harsh to me for long, I wish I could help my son before I die,” said Shah before he prepares to leave for SKIMS.

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