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Ashwaq Masoodi: How I Learned to Write Obituaries

January 10, 2013

Growing up in Kashmir, in proximity to death.

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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.

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17 comments for Ashwaq Masoodi: How I Learned to Write Obituaries

  1. Comment by Dr Qazi Irfan on January 10, 2013 at 12:49 pm

    excellent article..
    its the story of every household of Kashmir.
    hats off to Ashwaq Masoodi for such an effective piece of writing.

  2. Comment by Shams Irfan on January 11, 2013 at 5:22 am

    Such a power piece of writing. Simply moved by your powerful yet simple style of writing. Keep up the good work.

  3. Comment by ANANDA SANKAR SEN on January 11, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    A simple but brilliant piece of writing,and a well thought of indeed. Keep it up Ashwaq. We,the common people,started believing that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read.But after reading thoughtful articles written by my daughters Sohini & Ashwaq,I started changing myself.
    If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.
    Self-reliance is the only road to true freedom,and being one’s own person is its ultimate reward.

  4. Comment by Abid on January 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Just finished reading it again. Nice job narrating our miseries, Ashwaq. Thank you.

  5. Comment by irfan hassan on January 12, 2013 at 12:36 am

    As I write tears continue to roll down my cheeks,ashwaq has described what we have gone through past 22 years,and it appears we continue to be lambs to the slaughter.My congrats to ashwaq for the brilliant story right from her heart.

  6. Comment by Shivani Kaul on January 13, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Read your piece, not once but several times. In the first read I would like to empathize with you and the likes.
    But on second thoughts, I wonder what makes an Indian so acrimonious and negative about the same hands that rock the cradle?
    As a journalist I wish you could have spoken more about the miseries of people from the valley, those who live in it and those who were asked to leave (and what most know as ethic-cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits)
    As a human I regret your loss of dear ones. But at the same time, I would expect, as a human, that you do not forget the loss that the minority community (of Kashmiri Pandits) have faced and the attrocities that your likes have made them go through.
    Hope next piece would be more neutral and welcoming.

  7. Comment by Heidi on January 15, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Thank you, Ashwaq. I’m glad I heard of you through Al Jazeera’s YouTube channel; I try to remain in the loop as far as issues in countries aside from my own as many Westerners lose their sympathy for other people and it’s very sad. I only hope peace can be achieved soon. I really enjoyed your article.

  8. Comment by Raouf Wani on January 16, 2013 at 2:00 am

    This is the story of every kashmiri household. Nicely presented Ashwaq. (y)
    *peace*

  9. Comment by Mark Kumar on January 16, 2013 at 2:38 am

    Love the hypocrisy of Ms Ashwaq Masoodi! She has no qualms in studying Indian colleges (where seats are limited and 90% of Indians themselves cant get admission + they are subsidized by Indian Taxpayer). She has no problem in working for Indian newspapers which again run because of Indian Public. She and her family will make use of every democratic institution, system, facility that India provides to all citizens including her.

    Her family, friends and fellow ‘victims’ who are just ‘fighting’ for ‘self determination’ with a very ‘broad viewpoint’ of creation of Islamic Kashmir distinct from secular India where even Muslims like Ms Masoodi can get education and job are ‘noble people’ whereas the Kashmiri pandits whose women were raped, children orphaned and men lined up and killed in cold blood are all ‘demons’. Right Ms Masoodi…

    The fact that Kashmiri Pandits live like rats in their own country is weird considering the supposedly “Hindu Army” known for killing ‘enemy muslim’ is there? Isn it Masoodi?

    Oh wait…it gets better…Ms Masoodi also doesnt mind traveling on Indian passport to US on a fullbright scholarship that USEFI helps get Indian students to study in US which is fully paid by Americans.

    Just cant wait for Miss Hypocrite to come back and start writing poison for us evil people of India and USA!

    And then they ask “why the whole world hates us”?

  10. Comment by Tahir on January 17, 2013 at 8:03 am

    Ashwaq’s piece speaks my heart and thousands of those Kashmiris who have suffered under brutal Indian rule. My response is to those Indians who have this wrong and condescending notion that Kashmiris should be grateful to India for giving them chance to breath and live one more day. We know very well and have seen with our eyes what India did to us and is continuing to do. The massacres of innocent people, rapes, enforced disappearances, maiming, torture, collective punishments and other human rights abuses. In case the world may have forgotten let i reproduce here the 1993 Time magazine report: “Blood tide rising: Indian forces carry out one of the worst massacres in Kashmir’s history.”: “Perhaps there is a special corner in hell reserved for troopers who fire their weapons indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians. That, at least, must have been the hope of every resident who defied an army-enforced curfew in the Kashmiri town of Sopur to protest a massacre that left 55 people dead and scores injured.” (January 1993: Time Magazine).
    Thousands of mass graves lie around Kashmir and lest the world forgets about them and self-righteous Indians propagate their lies, let i reproduce one of the points in the 2008 European Parliament resolution on Mass Graves in Indian-Administered Kashmir which “Calls on the Government of India to urgently ensure independent and impartial investigations into all suspected sites of mass graves in Jammu and Kashmir and as an immediate first step to secure the grave sites in order to preserve the evidence”
    India people should instead be grateful to Kashmiris whose water resources they exploit to light their homes and factories. Indians should be grateful to Kashmiris who consume their products and exports on which your government levies consumption taxes.
    Kashmiri people’s demand for independence is met with brute power and repression by India which uses draconian laws like AFSPA which allows its forces to kill with impunity and this is the beauty of the so-called largest democracy of the world and those who think we should be grateful for all this are biggest hypocrites.

  11. Comment by So on January 17, 2013 at 8:37 am

    Kumar, You must be the unfortunate one who was told Jagmohan to leave kashmir till we kill all those muslims who ask for freedom. I feel sorry for you… You were betrayed by Jagmohan.
    Moreover when you talk about passport and scholarships, Since India has occupied kashmir (in 1947 when then maharaja asked india militaliry help) and disolved its country status in (1953) by arresting Prime minister of kashmir (Sheikh Abdullah) we have no choice but to get passport and travel to other parts of the world.
    When british ruled India, indian were in the same situation. Were indian not travelling or working in england?
    You talk about rapes and killings. One lakh killing and 10 thousand raped and more than 7000 disappeared. your figures are nowhere here… Some of you who remained in jammu are the ones who suffer.
    Universal fact is India took our land and is forcefully occupying it. against the wishes of people of Kashmir.
    If India is honest why doesn’t it honor the UN resolution of plebesite?
    If you think the elections in Kashmir is the answer to above, then you are fooling yourself. those are rigged and empty. Govt in Delhi decides who to appoint as CM as they decided in 1953 after arresting then PM (Sheikh Abdullah).
    Therefore. get your facts correct. Aspirations for rejecting the Illegitmate Indian rule in kashmir has been growing since last 50 years and will continuesly grow, hence will become difficult for india to manage. As happened to america in Afganistan. Having best weapons to fight the bunch of people who have rusted weapons, america is losing the war. so will india…. fighting against people who have Stones In Hand.

  12. Comment by Shubnum on January 17, 2013 at 9:45 am

    A beautiful moving piece with it’s simplicity and anguish. Well done, brave one.

  13. Comment by Rosemary Marandi on January 19, 2013 at 7:22 am

    I am moved… I haven’t heard you speaking about all you wrote ever, but always saw it in your eyes and that of friend Mehmooda… We will continue debating how much or how less Indian Kashmiris are but the stories of loss and fear are for real. And no government quota or subsidy can ever compensate for it. Wish you all the best. Keep narrating your story and speaking your mind. God Bless.

  14. Comment by Nonpartisan on February 6, 2013 at 8:26 pm

    Dear Miss Masoodi,

    First off you’ve excellent writing skills. Simple, yet very effective. I am sure you’ll make it big in your field.

    Secondly, I completely understand the trauma and human tragedy Kashmiri’s have been through. But it is very difficult (almost impossible) to be unbiased in telling a tragic story… there has to be a villain. You chose to make Indian government the villain, and exonerate the Jaish-e-Mohammad (despite, them claiming the responsibility that they conducted blasts in assembly, you would like to believe may be they did, may be not).
    Being biased is weak trait of a journalist, and I hope you would get rid of this trait.

    Third, like some others have pointed out, it would have made your piece more balanced had you included the tragedy of Kashmiri Pandits. I am sure when all that happened you were there and you could understand whats going on (May be you could write a piece on that next).

    Finally, I hope you’ve have some sense of gratitude for the democracies of India and USA, who’ve given you the education, job and a career path.

    I wish you the best.

  15. Comment by Christina on February 7, 2013 at 2:02 am

    For everyone talking about the ‘bias’ in her article, she is not obliged to feel for the Kashmiri Pandits the way you do. The writer talks about her experience which is deeply personal. Perhaps in her experience, she didn’t personally know or encounter any Kashmiri Pandits to write about. When you write from personal experience, you will always present a different perspective to what most people think ‘reality’ is. The Indian government and the army has been known to impose restrictions and brutality not just on Kashmiris but also on the people of the North East. I’m sure the writer will find a lot of people in the North East too who have experienced the horror she did. I do hope the people of Kashmir will be able to free themselves from the hands of the terrorising army and the Pakistani militant groups too.

  16. Comment by Archana on April 8, 2013 at 2:37 pm

    very well written..Kudos!

  17. Comment by rafique bhatt on June 4, 2013 at 9:05 am

    This a great piece of writing ,based on facts.kashmiris have suffered a lot during the last 20 years of conflict.This article reflects the trauma and tragedy kashmiris are going through.

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