Growing up in Kashmir, in proximity to death.
Image from Flickr via Tony George
By Ashwaq Masoodi
I was five or six when I first saw a dead body. It was shrouded in a white cloth. The fabric was unevenly smeared with blood. Except for some strands of hair, nothing else was visible.
I was staying with my grandparents in a village in north Kashmir. It was a cold winter morning, and I was doing my homework when I heard some loud cries. People were chanting the Quranic verse, “La ilaha illa Allah” (There is no God but Allah). In Islam, it is believed that whoever recites these verses at the time of death will go to paradise.
I knew someone had died. It had been a young man. I saw women beating their chests and pulling their hair. This is how untimely deaths are mourned in Kashmir.
My grandfather often said that someone had cursed our youth. More young men die than old. More than 70,000 people have died in the past two decades of conflict in Kashmir. Around 5,000 children have been orphaned, and several thousand more have disappeared.
Since the partition of India in 1947, both India and Pakistan have claimed the region. Kashmir was one of several princely states in India that had to accede either to India or Pakistan. Kashmir acceded to India in exchange for military help and the promise of a plebiscite. The United Nations suggested that Kashmiris be allowed to vote on their fate, but it never happened. India continues to govern Kashmir, claiming it as an integral part of the country. Pakistan says it is a disputed territory.
My grandfather often said that someone had cursed our youth. More young men die than old. More than 70,000 people have died in the past two decades of conflict in Kashmir.
In late 1980s, many youngsters took to arms against Indian rule in reaction to the government-sponsored rigging of elections. The government tried to crush the emotionally charged uprising, killing thousands of people in the process. The toll kept on rising.
The young man from my grandparent’s village was one of the dead.
Granny rushed to the old wooden window and peeked out, biting the end of her headscarf restlessly. I followed her. I could hear her muffled sobs. She knew the young man who had died.
After the funeral, Granny, Uncle, and Mother sat in the room adjacent to mine. I heard them talking. The man who had died was their neighbor, Farooq. He was around 22. I had played with him only two days before. Like many others, his had been a case of mistaken identity. The army had thought he was a militant or what they later called “a militant sympathizer.”
I cried for days. I understood that people could die, but I couldn’t imagine I would know any of them, that it would happen to someone I had played with. My mother said wailing over the dead is forbidden in Islam and that God would be angry if I did so. I stopped crying in front of her, but kept thinking of Farooq’s death. I could not grasp why people died. I still can’t.
Years after Farooq’s death, I started writing obituaries—an obituary for my doll, my cousin’s toy gun, for my mother’s brother. Later, the obituaries of strangers.
My first long piece was about my doll, which had been broken into pieces by soldiers during a search of our house. They had suspected a bomb was in its belly.
I started hating murderers. But I had no idea who was fighting whom. Only six years old, I didn’t know what the Kashmir conflict was. All I knew was that I hated the army.
My mother always scolded me for making “anti-India” comments. I was not allowed to express anger against India in front of anyone. Nobody was. Even today, nobody is.
My father never let me play with toy guns. He would always get angry when I asked for one. I remember the anger in his eyes when he broke my cousin brother’s silver toy gun. He crushed it and then smashed it against the wall. He said, “Is there such a scarcity of guns in Kashmir that you want one now? Do you want to die?”
I was told stories about soldiers beating up children during search operations because they owned guns, but I do not know if that ever actually happened.
When I grew older, I studied in a Christian missionary school in Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. Every second day, my school was shut because of a bomb blast, or an “encounter” between the armed forces and militants. “Encounter” is a local term, used to describe a crossfire.
I went to college in New Delhi, India’s capital. It was a different world. Civilians were not scared of the army there.
Our teachers would secretly help us escape from the school. We had a special route for these days that I liked. We had to pass through the boulevard along the River Jehlum, the “bund,” as it is locally called.
I loved looking at the majestic Chinars on the banks of the river. I loved Jehlum. The river held something we all craved. I still sit on its bank and watch it flow peacefully, with freedom.
As a child I liked to play with firecrackers. I would wait for Eid, the religious holiday of Muslims, to burn them. I loved the popping sound, the bright lights. Very soon, the conflict dampened my appetite for this kind of merriment. I hated every sound resembling the intermittent bombings and gunfire.
At 2:00 p.m. on October 1, 2001, Uncle, my mother’s brother, was passing through the Kashmir State Assembly when a grenade exploded. He and at least thirty other people were killed, and seventy-five wounded. The Pakistan-based Islamic militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, apparently fighting for the independence of Kashmir, claimed responsibility. I do not know if they actually carried out the attack. Maybe they did, or maybe not.
It was Uncle’s birthday. He had been married for just over a year and had a 3-month-old son. When my father gave us the news, my mother cried bitterly and supported herself against the wall because she couldn’t stand properly. I had never seen my mother cry like that, ever. Her sea green eyes turned red. She sought forgiveness from Allah for being sad over His decision, and for crying endlessly. Still, she could not control her tears.
I couldn’t understand why the militant group carried out the attack. No lawmakers were killed or injured in the explosion. I didn’t know exactly what I was feeling. I was sad, but something else was happening inside me. I thought about this incident for a long time.
I started writing about everything that bothered me, everything I couldn’t speak about. Giving words to the conflict, within and outside, changed me.
I went to college in New Delhi, India’s capital. It was a different world. Civilians were not scared of the army there. The army did not kill innocents. Toy guns were no big deal and soldiers never broke any dolls. I thought it was a good way of taking a break from the killings and angst with which I had grown up. I don’t know if I was right.
When my classmates boasted about Indian democracy, I was always annoyed. Such discussions became increasingly difficult to tolerate. I wanted to speak but could not. I knew how hard it would be for a free person to understand what it feels like to be deprived of that freedom.
I found it tough to make friends. Movies, shopping, or weekend trips didn’t fascinate me. I was always worried that something bad would happen back home. I was surprised to see how people of my age behaved. Going to cinemas, drinking, dining, and shopping were so important to them. I was amazed by what fun meant to them. I was amazed to see their freedom. Not that I hated these things, they just seemed unimportant.
We don’t have cinemas in Kashmir. They were burned down at the peak of militancy. Nobody in Kashmir cares about cinemas, with may be a few exceptions. There are hardly any coffee shops. There were maybe one or two by the time I left for Delhi.
I started writing about what was happening in Kashmir. It was a relief. I knew I liked writing, but never knew it was a panacea for me. I started writing about everything that bothered me, everything I couldn’t speak about. Giving words to the conflict, within and outside, changed me. Writing answered my questions. Writing soothed me.
I worked in Delhi as a journalist for around three years. During this period, I went to Kashmir for two months in 2010. I was to cover the civil unrest, in which 117 civilians were killed within three months. A 17-year-old, Tufail Mattoo, died after being hit by a tear gas shell. He was on his way to private tutoring. Mattoo was caught in a skirmish between anti-India protestors and security forces, who fired the shell. His brain was spilled out and his eyes were half open. The night I heard about it I couldn’t eat.
As more and more youth died that summer, I kept writing obituaries. Soon, I lost the count of the dead.
Ashwaq Masoodi was born in Kashmir and is currently a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on a Fulbright fellowship.