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Witness, Womb and Wall of Woes in Kashmir

Witness, Womb and Wall of Woes in Kashmir

Saba finally bids goodbye to Mogli and leans in for a longer hug than she had expected as if their wombs had aligned and were conversing one last time.


Hawkish eyes and hostile gazes are back to make every mortal a suspicious soul in her town. Some flattened symbols and signs are equally making a comeback. Most of these medieval methods have returned to haunt her youth after horrifying her childhood. 

In this sweeping transition driven by some mind-numbing measures, the merrymaking places are becoming barracks. The roads which once hosted sentimental swarms are now paving way to native scrutiny. 

Saba sees it all while frequenting the winding alleys of downtown Srinagar on the daily mundane task or some semblance of it. 

At 33, she’s sensible enough to understand the changing currents in her homeland. 

She crosses various barricaded checkpoints infested with concertina wire like the veins running through her body. The camouflage and the narrowing streets of the city she pass as unnoticed as the increased vacuum in which most Kashmiris have lost their identities. 

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One such lane that she frequents on odd days is lined with a pale pink wall. It used to be red at some point but time and the Sun have taken a toll on the colour. 

On most days it’s just an ordinary wall situated in a residential area, but on Fridays, it’s flocked with people holding blankets, books, tiffins, and some just hopeless and uncertain faces. 

All waiting outside the heavily-guarded gate of the pink wall topped with barbed wire. 

The scene is not new to Saba’s memory. The very starkness of it makes her relive her horrible childhood. She finds herself deboarding her school bus as a nine-year-old girl in the uptown area of Srinagar. 

Every morning she would see scores of people with the same fraught faces sitting on both sides of the road. For a child of her age, this wasn’t something that would leave a mark. But this image became a constant in her life as every day while going and coming back from school she would see the same faces. 

On some days, the people would change but the uncertainty and the wait on their faces would be the same as that of the people from yesterday. 

To make sense of this daily occurrence, questions like who these people were and why were they there every day takes her to the realization that her school shared its wall with one of the notorious detention centres of Kashmir.

And that the people she saw waiting every day outside her school were the family members of the men that had been picked up, detained, or were missing. 

These people and many like them would flock to such detention centres and camps in the hope to find their loved ones. Some would return in a few days hopeless and others would continue on this ordeal for months and years with no answers.

The phone rings and Saba finds herself standing outside the same pale pink wall and a woman keenly focusing the luminescent eyes on Saba. She asks “Chi ti tchuya yeti kahn?” Is your loved one incarcerated here too? 

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For a moment Saba finds her tongue frozen — not knowing how to say no. She looks for an answer mulling whether the people on the other side of the wall were also a part of her existence. She struggles to tell the woman — yes, they are. But all she utters is a quintessential kosher greeting.

Mogli, the woman in her late sixties with strands of shining silver in her hair and decades of longing in the lines embossed on her face, greets Saba back.

The young woman takes a place next to the old woman and sits down crouched on the side of the road, “Bas wean tchu oudei geinte, pate tche mein waer”. Just 30 minutes left for my turn now.

In that fleeting moment, Mogli unwittingly voices her woe. But in the city, where trends amid troubles and tensions give masses some kick, is now shrinking her audience. People are zombies with some make-believe life goals and directions. Pathos is pervasive and private too. His loss is his loss, while his pain is his, and so goes the narrative.

The frequency and regularity of Mogli’s anguish is now irritating those familiar with her. It’s like a clichéd conversation repeating itself every now and then. But while people would judge the old woman’s spoken sorrow, they couldn’t spot her longing heart. Saba, however, was different. She was literally walking in her shoes, albeit with different conflict-induced pain.

After a transient thaw, Mogli tells Saba about Aijaz, her 40-year-old son. 

From the last two decades, the mother almost mumbles, the apple of her eyes has been rotting on the other side of the wall. 

In the face of this screaming sorrow, Saba wants to sedate her mind — the frozen routine she’s been practising ever since she saw Mogli’s war-torn tribe pushed to the wall. She often drifts to a place where her restive mind takes refuge. In that state of stillness, the young woman’s gaze is trying to pierce through the gloom. 

There seems no way, she realizes and returns heartbroken from the supposed escape route. The grief has become a curse. And as Mogli calls it, “We’ve to take this grief to our graves.”

Saba is clearly at loss for words as she sees the woman opening a steel tiffin box. “B’ tchas doori pethe yiwaan. Awai tchas ye seet tulaan. Aaz soozikh khodah seaban cze ti.” Since I come from a faraway place, I bring this tiffin with me. Today, I’m blessed to share it with you. 

As Mogli takes out a plastic bottle filled with water from a grocery bag and opens it to wash her hands, Saba watches in awe, wondering if the old battered mother had been performing this ritual her entire life with perfection like an ablution.

Small steel tiffin in a green towel in Mogli’s wrinkled hands glistens as her fingers find their way around the lid. A light aroma of something like home escapes the tiffin. It opens to a red-stained topped with potato curry and single green chilli.

Saba hesitantly asks Mogli about Aijaz. “Su ous shur. Dukaanas nebre kani tulukh.” He was a kid and was picked up outside his shop.

Then barely 18, Aijaz was helping his father sell groceries. It took Mogli’s family 18 months to know his whereabouts presuming him to be dead all this while. He was finally found in Kot Bhalwal jail. Since then 22 years have passed and it has been a journey from one jail to another for Mogli’s family. 

“What were the charges?” Saba asks unwittingly.

“A mere suspicion,” replies the mother.

Saba knows how this is the story of innumerable Kashmiris from the 1990s when the watershed event occurred. She’s familiar with this grieving journey.

Back from school one day, Saba, 11, sees a solidarity swarm unsettling mood of her home. She has seen that gathering upon a sudden arrest, killing or disappearance in the valley. Since the situation has matured her beyond her years, she realizes that conflict has chosen her home.

She spots her mother being consoled by neighbours and strangers. Some sudden sadness has made her mother’s face pale as that of death. 

On inquiring she’s told that her father, a government employee, had left work that afternoon but had not come home. As the day turned from the scarlet hues of sunset orange to the greys of early night, the looming fear and the uncertainty started to take roots. 

Men in the family ran in different directions to get whatever information they could and the house was filled with hushed wails of the women. 

This was a common occurrence all over the valley in the 90s. If the men left home in the morning for schools, colleges or work, and did not return by evening, the presumption of having been killed or picked up by the armed forces was a given. 

In some unfortunate cases, the whereabouts were never known sending the family on an eternal ordeal for decades or till death would end the wait with either theirs or that of the one that they were looking for.

Kashmir has an unexplainable and ironical relationship with death. In some cases, it comes as mercy and in others an end to hope.

For five days, Saba and her family had looked everywhere. There was no clue of him. Still hanging by a thread of hope, a helper from a neighbour’s house—the only residential address with a rotary-dial landline phone in her Mohalla—came running, “Dapan hez su tchu SMHS haspatale.” It’s said that your headman is in SMHS. 

The caller had made it curt and hung up.

The house erupted in loud cries of joy and the men rushed to the hospital. Saba’s father was brought home on a stretcher. Barely alive, he was all bandaged up. Under medical care, he was bedridden for the next six months.

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Every day when the local compounder Jan Seab would come to change the bandages, Saba would get a glimpse of the unspeakable tortures inflicted on her father’s body. 

This was an 11-year-old’s introduction to the horrors in her homeland.

A strange but familiar voice, “Koori rath kheh cze ti myend ze (Daughter, have a bite or two),” pulls an 11-year-old Saba back into her 30-year-old body and she finds Mogli with a morsel of food in her hand close to Saba’s mouth. 

As she takes the first bite of the food she involuntarily asks, “Tuih tchiv kuni zeni aamit?” Have you come alone? 

Mogli lets out a faint smile and says, “Su janatgaar yetis kaalas ous, aes eaas ikwatai yiwan. temis gayi wean paanczh wari guzremtis.” As long as my husband was alive, he would accompany me. He passed away five years ago.  

Saba takes a breath and closes her eyes for a moment. Mogli’s husband had died of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. The brutal grief in his life had made him a heavy smoker. And the same sorrow-releasing smoke would finally choke him dead. 

After his departure, Mogli has been visiting Aijaz religiously every Friday, be it bone-numbing winters and scorching summers. 

The sound of pouring water makes Saba open her eyes and she sees Mogli wash her hands.

“Aasi maajen tche na dagg aasaan. Yane Aijaz seab nuikh tane tche mei ze hisse gemit zan. Khaandaar, koor te beyi duniya paknawun. Magar akh hisse tchum emsi Aijazas seet. Mei tche akh zang gari gandith te byaakh bare nebar. Shikmas manz tchum na rotchmut. Mei tche aasaan ajeeb dagg paanas. Zan tchim yead shrake waalaan. Wumrah geyem nendir ker mitis. Dapaan tchina Ashq gov maaji kun pothur marun, so hai zol kari te kihey.”

We mothers feel that unique pain and pining. Ever since they took my son, I feel like torn apart. I just manage my married daughter and my life. But my life mainly revolves around my incarcerated son. I barely sit home. I have carried him in my womb. I feel a strange, stabbing pain in my body. It has been a long since I have slept. And how could a mother sleepover the separation of her son!

Saba almost chokes on her breath on hearing this and thinks of all the mothers of Kashmir whose sons were killed or have disappeared and were never found. The separation and longing are insufferable but a strange commonality in all these women is their faith in almighty that eases this journey. 

Some mothers died while waiting for the elusive reunion with their sons, others passed away in the hope to meet them in the hereafter. 

Seeing Saba’s moist eyes, Mogli puts her arm around her. “Khodah tchu raheem, su kari sahal. Ma aas dil haaraan.” Allah is merciful. He’ll make it easy for us. Don’t lose your heart. 

Still trying to come to terms with the bravery of this arm around her, Saba hears the sentry calling Mogli’s name.

Unwilling for this encounter to end, Saba offers to help her up and tells Mogli that she would carry the bags inside with her till the checkpoint. “Adsa pakh (Ok, let’s go),” Mogli smiles with an unsettling calm. 

As they start walking, Saba feels her feet getting heavier with every step that she takes. What does it mean to walk into a military installation? What does it feel to be inside those walls? Even though she has lived all her life in a heavily-guarded open-air prison but this was her first time walking into jail within a jail. How does freedom change beyond these walls?

Saba makes this short journey accompanying Mogli to the checkpost. Her heart is getting heavier by the minute. The air around her is thickening with each breath. The noises are muting themselves out. Is it just her or does everyone else feel like this inside these walls? 

As they reach the checkpost and Mogli and her belongings are put through a process of frisking, Saba bids goodbye to the woman she had not thought she would meet — a woman who reminds her of so many mothers of Kashmir, a woman whose bravery in the face of adversity could light a 1000 dark nights. 

Saba finally bids goodbye to Mogli and leans in for a longer hug than she had expected as if their wombs had aligned and were conversing one last time.

As Saba turns around to make that walk back from inside of that pale pink wall, to the world that she has gotten used to calling normal, she remembers a few lines from Anna Akhmatov’s Requim.

I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I’ve learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That’s why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.

The guard whistles violently rushing Saba to leave. The lines of Akhmatova’s poem still reverb through her mind as the gate closes behind her. She turns around and mumbles “completely blind pink pale wall.”

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View Comments (2)
    • Hi Altaf,
      The story is based on factual events, written in a narrative style. All short stories are published exclusively under the ‘Short Stories’ category.

      Regards,
      Mountain Ink

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