The year was 1996. A mortar blew out their thatched-roof home under which her husband and two children were sleeping in the darkness. “The blast jolted us of our sleep, and as I opened my eyes the sky was bright”, Arifa said. This wasn’t the first time they had been woken up by the sound of mortar or gun fires and bright lit skies in the darkness of the night. “Everyone has accepted this to be part of their reality”, added Burhan her then 4-year-old son.
Tensions with Pakistan had sharply risen and the exchange of mortar and machine-gun fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir was at its peak post the war that had recently ended. The country was going through a political shift. In general elections the ruling Congress Party was defeated and Bharatiya Janata Party became the largest single party in parliament. Phoolan Devi, former bandit queen was elected to Parliament. The valley was once again in the national and international news because of the cross-border tensions and by the death of 194 pilgrims who were reported to have frozen to death in north Kashmir after being stranded by violent rain and snowstorms in the Amarnath Yatra (A Hindu Pilgrimage).
Arifa, Maqsood, Burhan, and Zoya were untouched by the news that never reached their small village on the outskirts of Kupwara district. The mortar from the other side of the border would make it faster to their village than any news. After running helter-skelter to the telephone exchange, they could finally get a landline phone connection at their house. It was the only telephone in the entire village and hence everyone knew her family. Although, for most of the year the line would be out of order, yet remain to be the only hope for connecting to the world outside. Maqsood and the other men of the village had to travel to the city of Srinagar very often for earning a livelihood. The phone would be the only medium to keep in touch with their families back in the village. “The only comfort in the hard-laborious work is to be able to hear the voice of my family”, Maqsood said with tears in his eyes.
I was just 21 years old, a student at Delhi University and was visiting the village for a sociology project for my masters. I have known too little about families, relationships, hardships, and about life at large. Maqsood and Arifa were more than welcoming hosts. As I was sitting under the same burnt roof which was destroyed just three days before my arrival, listening to Maqsood and Arifa, playing with Burhan and Zoya, my life felt more real. My neon-lit city life seemed more and more profane. I remember, once my mother was out on an emergency call from the hospital and I had to wait outside my house for 4 hours without any food or water. My neighbors did not even care to ask, and here I was in another world where everything was offered to me without even asking. A strange irony of life left me cold, in the city of Delhi, a 12-year-old is safe on the road without having to fear for life, and in the valley the same 12-year-old trembles with fear to sleep inside their safe homes. With every passing hour in the village and at Arifa’s and Maqsood’s house, life was sinking deeper within me and I was feeling home like never before. As the sun settled for the day behind the snow-capped peaks, the village submerged in dank silence, the cold September breeze filled the hearts of the villagers with fear. I hadn’t been so close to a conflict zone before, the fear instilled in my heart reflected on my face, Maqsood could sense my fear, it took him some time to accept the new ‘normal’. Arifa offered me her warm Pheran (traditional outfit for both males and females in Kashmir to keep the body warm) as my body wasn’t acclimatized to biting cold. I was exhausted and my mind was occupied with the reflections of my life. The last thing I remember before I dozed off was from my first lecture in the Introduction to sociology class, “Never lose your objectivity while interacting with the natives about their experience”.
The next morning, I woke up amidst the aroma of Kahwah (a preparation of tea in Kashmir). The sun was basking behind the mountains, the air was warmer and the sky was bright. Arifa was preparing to head for the farms, I was supposed to tag along and speak to the other women of the village. She was packing her lunch while Burhan and Zoya were preparing for school. Maqsood was tending to the cows and cleaning the shed. It seemed as if everyone was aware of their chores and there were no qualms about it. This was unlike my home, every morning I would wake up to an argument between mom and dad about their incompetence. Sometimes, I would also find myself to be the center of their problems in life. I was used to it. Apparently, that is a by-product of being ‘ambitious’ and ‘a better future’.
Under the cadence of the sun, Zoya and Burhan picked up their bags and rushed out of the front door, Arifa and I followed the same road but towards the pastures. As our conversations were unfolding, I asked about the school the two kids were enrolled in. She laughed and said, “Nothing as compared to the cities, here the Maulwi tells that the NCERT syllabus is against the faith of Islam.” This was intriguing for me, I asked, “How is that?”. Arifa burst out in laughter and said, “The books say that our ancestors were monkeys”. We laughed the way down the hill sharing the nuances of the teachings of Islam. It wasn’t more than twenty minutes; the silence of the cold breeze was broken by roaring sounds of heavy vehicles at a distance. A young boy came running towards us and shouted from far, “The army is here! The Arm..y!”. I could see a sense of fear in his eyes, probably they were in my eyes too! Everyone hustled towards their houses leaving everything as they were on the ground. I followed Arifa!
The house was ransacked, everything scattered on the floor, the doors, windows, the drawers and wardrobe wide open. More than 200 men in uniform were scavenging every house. Arifa screamed, “Maqsood!”, the only response returned was the echo of her voice. I was frozen, this was my first encounter with military counterinsurgency. It took me several minutes to realize the situation. I immediately rushed towards the commanding officer who instructed the men to move in a certain formation. “Sir I am from Delhi, here on research for my studies,” I introduced myself. He identified me to be a non-Kashmiri by my features and accent. He immediately asked to present my identification card. As I was pulling out my wallet from my pocket, I enquired about Maqsood. The officer said that Maqsood has been taken into custody for interrogation. He immediately asked me to pack my stuff and come along with them. Three soldiers accompanied me to the house where I was supposed to pack my bags. I heard them talk to each other about the mission they were on. These men were here on a tipoff that was provided on a Hizbul Mujahideen militant taking refuge in the village. I was scared, as I stepped in, Arifa was nowhere to be seen, everything lay scattered and I did not know what to take. I picked my bag, got my documents that were scattered and headed back to the military vehicle parked a little outside the village. “Goodbyes are a privilege in this part of the world”, I was reminded of Maqsood telling me this one day. My goodbyes were buried in the sense of loss. I was escorted to Srinagar, was interrogated for four hours, post that was taken to the airport and flown out of Kashmir.
Since then I kept calling on the landline number with a hope that one day, I will hear someone on the other side. Every time for the last one year, the only voice I hear on the side is of the lady trapped inside the telephone receiver telling me that number is unreachable. Yesterday, 22nd March 2001, I called on the number, the telephone rang and I recognised Arifa’s voice. My eyes were moist, for the next few minutes silence was the only communication we had. She recognised me, four year had passed, our memories so fresh. I did not know what to ask. Arifa said that they had moved to Srinagar and I noted down the address. I reached Srinagar a couple of hours back. Arifa, Burhan and Zoya are sitting around me. Something strange just happened, I asked Arifa how she managed to keep the telephone number unchanged. She said, one day Maqsood might want to contact them, the only number he would remember would be this. I keep staring at the telephone and her face. Arifa tells me, she went around many government offices, met many politicians and did everything she could, there was no news of Maqsood. The list of disappeared people in the valley was been rising ever since, Maqsood isn’t the only one. She met a lot of other women whom she met outside the offices of the government offices. Zoya and Burhan go to a government run school in Srinagar now, they never visited their village in the last three years. I see the fear turn into angst when they hear about their father. Arifa runs a small shop just outside the lane, she still wakes up early, and she says “I sometimes call him out as I wake up, takes me a while to realise that he isn’t around”. Burhan and Zoya love their new school, they have made new friends. The telephone keeps them connected to the other side of the unknown and the only thing that’s unchanged in their lives.
“To be a human being among people and to remain one forever, no matter in what circumstances, not to grow despondent and not to lose heart — that’s what life is all about, that’s its task” — Fyodor Dostoyevsky