Already two years have passed since Shaheena’s husband has gone with a group of seven men to other part of Kashmir for arms training. Five out of them have returned, and are now parading with guns in old city’s Nowhatta area. Two missing men including Mushtaq Khan (Sheheena’s husband) are thought to be killed near LoC. But Shaheena, a mother of two, often sets her eyes at alley through the dub of her two storey house in Nowhatta with a hope to glimpse her husband. But her wait only lingers on.
This morning of July 1991 is not only perspiring, it is equally terrifying. Shaheena wakes up with a series of gunshots ringing outside her home. The notorious torture centre in the area (Kawsyen Makaan) is under militant attack at the moment. With each bullet shot, Shaheena embraces her sons, Parvez and Tufail very tight. Some thirty minutes later, ordeal ends.
Her home faces the torture center. And steadily, she crawls up to a window, lifts a curtain and peeps outside through a windowpane. All she sees is smoke. Nothing appears clear. She drops curtain and puts her kids back to sleep.
After some time, a cocky paramilitary officer barges inside her home with his men. It is 10 in the morning, and announcement of crackdown over the area has already been made through public addressing systems of local Masjid. All men in the area have been asked to gather in front of the torture center. Nobody is sure what is about to follow. Many faces have turned pale. Some are trying hard to control their racing hearts. Others are muffling prayers in silence for their safety. Nobody seems sure of their fate!
“Chalo khadhe hojao sabi ek line mei (Get up in a single queue),” a bloodshot-eyed trooper commands. Like others, a visiting younger brother of Shaheena is also standing in the queue.
Back in her home, paramilitary men seem to have a free run. Closets have been thrown open, all articles have been scattered on the floor, besides certain eyes are scanning her as well. Being alone in home, she has embraced her sons tight and is seated at a left corner of her kitchen. After making mess of everything, paramilitary men exit her home. In respite, she takes a deep breath and rushes to bolt the main door of her home.
Meanwhile, three young men have been separated from the crowd on a roadside. Informer sitting inside paramilitary jeep has identified them as related to some militant ranks. One of them is Class 10 student and younger brother of Shaheena, Sabir Ali. While sitting with other two, he regrets hard to keep his recently sprouted stubble on his face. Before visiting his sister the other day, his mother had told him: “For God sake, clean this trouble from your face. Don’t you know how Nazir was arrested for the same.” Nazir, Ali’s close neighbour at his Rajouri Kadal home in old city was picked up after he was found to sport some short beard. Since then, he is craving to breathe free air! These are terrible times, and men with beard have become fodder for looming suspicion.
The time for noon prayers is approaching fast. And Shaheena is growing very anxious for her brother’s safety. Ever since her husband has left, she has grown into a disturbed person. She imagines all worst things happening to her, which often leaves her sapped out. But she is not unnecessarily disturbed. She has seen how four youth were picked up from the area when last crackdown was imposed. They are yet to return their homes. Students aren’t spared either. Her neighbour Mugli’s Class 9 son is also missing. Nobody is safe. Everybody can figure on suspicion radars! Perhaps, approaching events have started casting shadow on her heart.
At about 2.30 pm, number of ‘suspected’ and separated youth has risen to twelve. All of them are recalling their good deeds. Their eyes are shut as if calling the attention of their Lord. But in the simmering heat of the day, all prayers seem falling flat as troopers have started bundling them into a paramilitary van, one by one. Ali raises a helpless cry. But who is supposed to come to his rescue. An unsettling wave has overtaken the crowd with agitating looks on their faces. But when nozzle and trigger of guns are almost ready to call shots, then everything appears just a toothless aggression. And soon, a vanload of twelve youth along with troopers leaves the spot.
Almost three years have passed now, but there is no clue of Ali and other eleven youth. Some say they have been killed in a staged encounter. Others believe that they must have been interrogated to death. While few suppose, they might be incarcerated in dreadful jails like in Kot Bhalwal or in Tihar. All speculate, but none specify. And therefore, Shaheena continues to shoulder the burden of her younger sibling’s mysterious disappearance.
It is a sunny day of April 1994. And Shaheena has just completed chores at home. Her two sons are out at a local school. With no helping hand of her husband around, she is feeding her sons by spinning Yandir–almost, 12 hours a day. The dual absence (one, of her husband and second, of her brother) has reduced her into a distressing person. She doesn’t remember when was the last time, when she flashed cheerful looks on her otherwise grief-ridden face. She has no idea.
Afternoon sunshine has just seeped through the dub of her home and is reflecting mud walls of the room. There is no paint on the walls. Ceiling is broken (by paramilitary men when last time they barged in for searching), and floor of the room is covered by a patched sheet. The absorbed looks on her face while spinning bear stark resemblance with a weathered setting of a room.
Her trance with spinning ends, when suddenly somebody calls her name out in an alley outside her home. She peeps outside the dub. It is Sule Chache (a local vegetable vendor) flanked by a stranger. “Daughter, this man got something for you,” Chache informs her. She comes downstairs and greets the man she is meeting for the first time.
“Sister,” begins a man, probably in his late twenties. “My name is Muzaffar Mir and I live in Safa Kadal. Actually, I have this letter for you.” The man hands over a letter to her. On an envelope, nothing is written. She is growing impatient inside and is thinking: who has bothered to write a letter to her and for what purpose. Just like an envelope of a letter, she appears blank. And then, she tears it open. With shaky hands, she unfolds a piece of paper inside. A Class 12 dropout, Shaheena is well-versed with Urdu—the medium, in which letter has been inked. And surely, she recognizes the hand behind the letter. “Ali!” She cries out and faints on the spot.
She opens her eyes to find her kids around. It is dark outside, and her neighbour Mugli and her husband are in the room. But the man who dropped a letter to her isn’t around. “Haven’t I told you countless times to check your blood pressure,” Mugli tells her in a firm tone, as if, she is her mother. “But no, you don’t listen to anyone. These kids need you. Please, don’t ignore your health like this.”
Later that night, when both her sons are in sound sleep, she musters courage to read an unfinished letter:
“Assalamualaikum, Behna,” reads an opening line, and soon melts her heart away. Ali would call her Behna. Ever since he was picked up by paramilitary, she must have craved countless times to hear that word, Behna. But the one who used to call that word was lost somewhere. She places a letter near her heart, and closes her eyes to overcome a sudden gush of emotions inside her. After a while, she resumes reading:
“I pray to Allah for your good health. I hope your little kids must not be giving you a hard time. You don’t deserve any more hardships. You have been tested much by your fate…”
Each word of a letter evokes a mad gush of emotions inside her. The feeling of crying is building inside her. But she prefers silent mourning over loud chest-beating—like, she did the day Ali was taken away. And then, her focus towards letter (penned in green ink) resumes:
“Behna, do you know, I am writing this letter from New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. They call me Qaide No. 613 here. I am just a number for them. Just, a number! I was brought here some six months ago. Before that, I was in Kot Bhalwal, Agra, Jodhpur, Tamil Nadu…
Behna, the day I was picked up along with eleven others, we were taken to Papa 2, where we were put under severe interrogation. They tortured my private parts and made me drink my own urine. I was kept in a small dark cell for days together and the ordeal hasn’t yet concluded.
I don’t want to disturb you by recounting all these things, but somehow Behna, I am not able to stop myself. I am broken. I am half dead. And I am craving for home like a mad…”
It is already 2.46 am in the night, and emotions have touched threshold inside her. She draws her kids closer to herself, and pass to sleep while sobbing.
Next morning she wakes up with heavy head and heart. For a while, she thinks to spread a happy word in her parental home that their lost son is half alive in Tihar. But then, a reality strikes her: Nobody is there! Her mother was devoured by hypertension soon after Ali was picked up. And that old feeble man, her father, who dusted miles to trace his son’s signs, is also not there. He too lost in son’s longings. Shaheena’s elder brother soon left with his own family and shifted to new home.
After a reality check, she decides to visit her brother in Tihar alone. After selling some wedding jewelry, she arranges money for the visit. And finally in August 1994, she is face to face with her brother in Tihar. His boyish looks have waned. And that stubble has now grown into a flowing beard. His puffy eyes laden with dark cycles give a sense to Shaheena that Ali is sleepless since ages.
And then, two departed siblings still separated by iron grills start sobbing. And soon sobbing turns into lamentation. Even, supposedly heartless guards of prison melt away over the scene.
“Behna, please take me out of here,” Ali pleads before his helpless sister. “I am feeling choked and suffocated here. For God sake, do something and let me join the family again.”
On the other side of iron partition, Shaheena wants to assure him that she will fight all odds till securing his release. But deep lump in her throat plugs all her consoling words. And soon, guards announce: “Time is up.”
Shaheena watches Ali being taken away while calling her out, “Behna, Behna…”
“Look, the court has already booked him for waging war against Indian State,” an obese officer informs Shaheena inside Tihar. “So he has been sentenced for five years. He has already spent three years, now wait for him for another two years.”
“What are you saying? Do you think a Class 10 student is potent enough to wage a war against the whole Indian State?” asks Shaheena. “This is simply a travesty of justice!” But all her reasoning dash on hard ground, and split away like a breaking glass. She returns back to the valley and resume another period of wait.
And then, post Assembly Elections in 1996, somebody knock at her home during one evening. As she opens the door, a man sporting long beard stands on other side. Darkness outside prevents Shaheena to recognize him. And then, suddenly she got goose bumps, when a man calls out, “Behna!”
The two siblings stand embracing each other while crying at a doorsill. The wails of joy reach neighbours who start stepping in. And suddenly a melancholic house is in the grip of celebrations. Throughout that night, Shaheena and Ali keep talking mostly about loses they suffered all these years: lose of their parents, lose of Ali’s dream of becoming an engineer, lose of her husband, lose of…
Three months have passed since Ali is back home. But he hardly steps outside. At certain times, Shaheena notices him laughing with himself, and also making certain peculiar gestures. After observing a change in his behaviour for two months, she is nursing a thought that Ali is battling some psychotic ailment.
Without any further delays, on one fine Sunday morning, she takes him to Dr Mushtaq Margoob’s (a prominent psychiatrist of the valley) clinic at Hazratbal Srinagar. Outside Margoob’s clinic, horde of people have assembled with their affected ones.
“Don’t worry,” Dr Margoob assures Shaheena, “Ali is a fine chap. He will be alright. As you said, he has spent five precious and budding years in prison, so certain things are playing at his mind. Don’t worry, give him these medicines. He will be fine.”
While coming out of Dr Marqoob’s clinic, Shaheena takes a close look at Ali’s face, and finds him totally absorbed. She walks towards bus stand, thinking how her beloved brother has been rendered psychotic for the offense he never committed!
A painful scenario drawn indelibly by beautiful use of words. Hat’s off. A commendable Job indeed it is.
Keep it up !
Another brilliant piece by Bilal. The author can be a great storyteller ahead.
Hope to read more.