(Part of this post was written in April, soon after the tragic road accidents of school buses.)
This March, schools opened to some really bad news. Usually there are three months of winter vacations. The vacations are always a hurried affair. The government on a cold wintry day issues a sudden notice announcing a date to close the schools. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Three months later the kids reappear in school uniforms, in their old chairs with their ‘winter homework’ done and ready for ‘submission’.
These winters passed – cold and frigid, as winters usually pass in Kashmir. The spring that followed, however, has not been a pleasant one. With continuous curfews and strikes, Kashmir breathed small conscious breaths of life between an imposed normalcy and an assumed curfew. There is peace, if you perceive it through a lens man’s glare. But the pictures themselves are silent. They show the world as it passes by the soundproof glasses of high-profile cars, in glimpses and snaps. But outside the car, the world is neither quiet nor peaceful. Just like a samovar, it hides burning embers inside to keep itself brewing.
On 4th April, a school bus skidded off the road and fell into a gorge in Kashmir. Nine kids died in the accident. Apparently, the bus driver had lost control over the bus. When rescue teams arrived, seven kids were found dead already.
A few weeks before that another young man, Tahir Sofi, was killed. A probe is pending. Tahir wasn’t the first young man to die this year. In the weeks following Afzal Guru’s hanging dozens were injured. A few died. These fresh martyrs have no names. No one tries to find an excuse for their deaths.
In 2010, the great summer of bloodshed, a hundred and twenty people, most of them below thirty, were killed. Many of them were just school going teenagers. They still had schools to attend, degrees to achieve and jobs to look for. Things that occur to normal people. In normal places.
Painful stories are left behind. Greater Kashmir reported the story of a father who seeing his daughter had already died, tried to save his son. He missed his daughter’s funeral only to have his son’s funeral too. Both the kids died. Swathed in blood and bandages, their young tender bodies were brought home and handed over to their mothers. There shall be no more school, no more homework, no worrying for tests. No life. No marriages for daughters, no weddings for sons. Destiny in a sleight of hand has wiped out an immense dimension from their lives.
In 2010, the mother of one of the many kids who died applied henna on his little lifeless hands. In Kashmir, boys do not decorate their hands with henna, except on their wedding when house ladies take turns to apply henna on the groom’s little finger of the right hand. The mother would never get that chance. She seized that opportunity from fate, before sending the little bridegroom away forever. The father of another youth who died that year, wanted the mourners to sing wedding songs. He too was sending his son away. He wanted the farewell to be one filled with prayers of hope and happiness.
On 22 May this year, Suhail was critical after receiving pellets in the head. Two things. One that he is 19. Second, that the police and paramilitary shot him in the head. Shot to kill.
It is as if the last twenty years of turmoil have cast a long, dark shadow. They carnage hasnt stopped yet. The summer so far has been peaceful. Surely the number of tourists will go up, and that being a new criteria of measuring normalcy in Kashmir, the government will bask in the feeble sunlight of a ‘normal’ Kashmir. But normalcy in Kashmir is like an eel, it slips the moment you spot it. It’s never too long before it is lost under the slush pile of a thousand issues.
This story of thousands of young men and women of Kashmir, is much like the story of Kashmir itself: the valley too beautiful for itself, located at the wrong coordinates of the globe, ravaged by war and torn across by an extremely uncertain future.; its young people, born at the wrong time, faced with little prospects and little hope of doing well at home.
Saifullah, an engineer by education, died as a militant of Hizbul Mujahideen. He had asked his mother prepare a cup of tea for him while he went out. He never returned. His mother kept waiting with the tea.
If we were to go about Kashmir, in the evening just as the ladies are preparing tea, we would find many such mothers waiting with tea cups. Their sons don’t come home for tea. Or for anything else. For these sons, there was no linking them to any organisation – who were they? what were they?, we do not know. Many of them were taken by the armed forces, often at night, and then we know that they vanished or “disappeared” and that their mothers are still waiting. Some of them have been waiting with such cups for more than twenty years. I am sure they wash and wipe them, and don’t let any dust get on the cups of their sons. I am also sure that they still keep the tea brewing for them. What if the cups are never filled again? What if they are? What will these mothers tell the sons if they ever return? If these mothers were to suddenly come across these sons they have been waiting for decades? If we go prying and eaves dropping, we would hardly bear the pain that will flavour their teas. Some of these mothers assemble in a park in Srinagar once every month or so, and remind the world of the embers that keeps their worlds on fire.
Twenty years is a long time. But a lifetime is even longer. I pray Suhail, who is still in hospital, recovers to have tea with his mother.