An Intellectual Rebel


Jawahara Shawl

(April 13, 1965 – April 7, 2013)

As her coarse, deep and noisy breathing set in at around 9 pm last weekend, it was a clear sign of death rattle setting in. We rang up a few friends requesting them not to sleep with their cell phones switched off. For the first time in around six months, Ms Jawahara Shawl was bedridden as her cancer recurred. Though at around 3 am, she somehow managed taking a few sips of water, her condition did not change. The end came slightly past 7 am, when the noisy breathing stopped, triggering massive blood flow. Her battle with cancer and her struggle for life was over at the age of 48.

Ms Shawl’s health crisis closely followed the launch of the weekly Kashmir Life. Managing her gastric problems with quick fixes for most of her life, it was finally in December 2010 that she finally decided to have her gallbladder removed. While a prognosis was being worked out, an X-ray exhibited something unusual in her lungs, so the removed gallbladder also required a closer investigation. Once discharged from Khyber Medical Institute, the investigations carried out in Delhi and Srinagar threw up two shocking surprises – her lungs had TB and her removed gallbladder had cancer. With this started simultaneous treatments, both painfully protracted, hitting her frail immunity.

Her long lustrous tresses, for which she was nicknamed Rupunzal by her near ones, began dropping in tufts. Once she was through the difficult course of initial treatments, she started picking up the threads of life again. For most of the summer of 2012, Ms Shawl was a proud cancer survivor, full of life, spending most of time reading, watching TV and deweeding her kitchen garden where she had reared tulips, strawberries, figs and lavenders.

By early September, routine blood tests started making shocking revelations again, eventually leading to detection of serious medical condition of her bile duct. Doctors’ efforts to stunt the passage failed. She knew she was coming closer towards death. From then on, the priority was to manage her pain. Gradually she started giving up everything, it was injectables first (because it became impossible), then it was anything solid (because she could not swallow), then it was juices and finally it was life itself.

Ms Shawl was the eldest of the two daughters of Ghulam Mohiuddin Shawl, one of the highly rated thinking writers of his time. As an information officer, Mr Mohiuddin had served Bakhshi Ghulam Mohammad. Some of his peers and close relatives think that a road accident involving a politically well-connected person of that time led to his brain injury, sending him into a state of some wandering for nearly two decades.

With their mother as the lone surviving support, the two sisters managed their education with a great deal of difficulty but well. While the younger one was eventually appointed in the state government’s information department, the elder one worked at Radio Kashmir Srinagar as a casual script writer soon after graduation.

Like most women in Srinagar during 1990s, Ms Shawl also felt extremely insecure moving out after her script writing stint was over. She resorted to the spinning wheel, an old wonder of mankind, to keep herself busy.

The situation in the artisan community and the opportunities that it could throw up led Ms Shawl to contribute differently. As an individual, she started a group with forward and backward market linkages in such a way that spinning yarn becomes less exploitative. But for various reasons the initiative crumbled after a few years despite the strength of her ideas behind it.

But Ms Shawl had other interests. Gems and jewelry fancied her – differently. She undertook a crash course in this area but after studying the market and the processes involved realized not to risk a second failure, despite briefly remaining engaged with a related entrepreneurial institute.

Finally, her family encouraged Ms Shawl to found a periodical that could take care of the most underreported issues of life in Kashmir. As she applied for a title, she enrolled herself for a course in English language. The issues of health confronting the society concerned her most as various required clearances came in for the envisioned periodical.

Prior to her foray into the media, Ms Shawl wanted to settle and have her own family. Within a year of traditional matchmaking efforts, she decided to stay away as she felt some of the processes forming the oldest institution of mankind were humiliating. Once a young lady hunting for a bride for her brother pulled Ms Shawl’s hair only to reassure herself that the long dense hair she had was real! Another lady on another occasion ordered her to walk a distance! These two instances led her to believe that potential brides in Srinagar are actually being paraded in a man’s world.

When her family asked her what she expected in her would-be groom, the ideas that came out were what angels are made of. Her idealism made her an intellectual rebel rare in our society. She would later invest her time in raising her two nieces as ‘good human beings’.

It was this decision that led her to offer a convincing response to a police verification letter seeking details of the source of money that would fund her publication. I had my jewelry for marriage, part of which I am selling to fund it, she stated, as it was.

Ms Shawl was aware of the consequences of starting an ethically grounded reportage style periodical in a conflict zone. Within days of going under the surgeon’s knife for gallbladder removal, she had to go underground for almost a week, apprehending her arrest after police registered a criminal case for a story that Kashmir Life printed.

Ms Shawl was fascinated by Egyptology. A compulsive history reader, she might have read everything published on the famous Cleopatra, the celebrated Egyptian queen. An avid reader, she would finish books cover-to-cover in a single sitting between prayers and food. While she was on her deathbed, she read the latest book on American convert Marayam Jameela, though she did not like it much.

Ms Shawl was a health freak. She was highly concerned about the interventions being affected all the time in the food chain. Many times she would suggest longer and detailed stories for Kashmir Life on the artificial fruit ripening, impact of pesticides, and the use of steroids in poultry, sheep, etc.

But these concerns did not help her prevent what had already happened to her. The Rupanzal of her father died a painful death. May her soul live in peace forever.

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