Takbeer: A Story About Kashmir

This story has no agenda. It is derived from one of many true stories, only a small anecdote from the horrific trials of the long subjugated people of Kashmir. Names and places have been changed; no parties have been named. That, really, is the tragedy of Kashmir; the opacity with which its narrative is presented to the world by those that occupy the majority of it.

“The city from where no news can come / is now so visible in its curfewed night / that the worst is precise.” -Agha Shahid Ali

‘They’re going to make movies about us,’ Ma offered to me, pulling away strands of my hair from my face that had stuck to it with blood and ointment.

Our doctor was a makeshift one. He had medical training, but had never had a job, and had no experience. He also had waning eyesight and asked my older brother, Sohail, to read the labels off the bottles in his tray before he applied their contents to my eyes. Atleast I thought they were bottles. They sounded like small glass containers from the way they clinked when he held them and the way they rattled in their places when I kicked my leg in a sudden surge of pain.

‘They already do,’ I heard Sohail say, and even if I couldn’t see him, I could imagine his face reflecting the acidic satire in his voice. ‘They make us heroes. Except they switch our side – they throw it in our face, our heroism. They re-invent us for the world. We are nobody.’

I didn’t think Sohail’s vacillating anger stemmed from his omnipresent loathing of the state. This once I believe it stemmed from his disdain of me – my brazen unwillingness to listen to him.

The doctor was almost done. He wrapped a bandage around my head – I pictured it, a white band over my eyes. The pain had numbed now, so much that I felt nothing in my sockets, not even the pressure of the gauze being wrapped.

Sohail made a noise very close to a whimper. ‘You thought they wouldn’t shoot you? That they didn’t shoot girls?’

This was not really true. They had done it before, girls and children. An 11 year old boy’s body had been riddled with bullets and abandoned in the outskirts of Srinagar. I did not believe in some prodigal restraint born of morality when I thought of the military men that would often open fire at student protestors. But I thought I was not a faceless caricature – I thought I was important; I could make a small difference if I went. I could register my bravery with myself. The grand bombast of these thoughts was a forceful flood that washed out the saner demurrals of Ma, and the lessons I should have learnt from the vague recollections I had of Baba.

‘Her retina is damaged,’ the doctor said abruptly, matter-of-factly. He was almost cavalier as he asserted his prognosis. ‘Unlikely she will be able to see again.’

My head was too insensate by then for the revelation to consume me. I felt something wet on my face. I didn’t know if those were my own tears – I was soon to learn I couldn’t feel them any longer – or Ma’s. Eventually, after some rustling of clothing and opening and closing of doors, Ma’s disjointed cajoling was the only voice in the room. ‘It’s okay, Insha. We are only traveling through here, remember.’

‘Our destination is with Allah,’ Sohail completed, his sigh nonchalant. We had heard this so many times before.

I could not walk. Ma had reasoned that the loss of vision would accentuate my other abilities, but it hadn’t. I could barely inch across my room without flaying my arms to reach the nearest solid support, and this was a room the landscape of which was etched into my head.

Lodged like the bullets perforating my retina had been, I thought, wryly. I did not know why I was reacting the way I was. It had been three days now. I didn’t know how what should’ve been shock and remorse had so quickly metamorphosed into anger. I was angry at myself, at the state. I was angry that my anger meant nothing – it was only a testament to my invisibility.

Incensed – and blind – I called to Ma. Louder, until I felt her heavy steps in my room. ‘Did you talk to Aseefa Aapa?’

‘I did,’ Ma said, in a voice that implicated she hadn’t.

‘It is common,’ I insisted. ‘Blind people learn braille. Aseefa Appa did.’

My arguments were falling on deaf ears. I didn’t blame her for her lack of enthusiasm. For us there were only greater tragedies and smaller tragedies; our sentience was calibrated in varying degrees of hopelessness. Hope was extraneous; it was crushed as it birthed.

I was only 17 years old. I hadn’t started earning anything yet, but my blindness did mean that I would never be earning anything, and what had happened to me was for our family a greater tragedy. But hundreds been blinded in Kashmir by non-lethal bullets in the past months, and Sohail told us that it was not news-worthy anymore. That, more than anything, made my head hurt. Something hot and dark rose inside me, charring my insides, like the smoke that ascended from a burning pile of trash.

But I did not allow myself to crumble in the heat of those flames. I was not going to be like Ma. Ma had shut down when Baba had disappeared, his maimed body unearthed later behind a masjid. She had forbidden herself happiness, even the struggle to obtain some vagrant expressions of it.

I was not Ma. I went to school. I was going to continue to do so. I had also confided my plan to learn braille to Sohail. He had not been enthusiastic, but not discouraging either.

Ma insisted she was going to feed me for a few weeks, until I learned to eat like this. This was fine by me. I found my a searing, momentary pain would flash through me every time I chewed on the left side of my mouth, but I was beginning to accustom to it.

A loud rap on the door alerted me to Sohail’s towering presence there. The Salam offered to me was Aseefa Appa’s. I smiled, swallowing quickly. I was convinced she smiled too.

A few weeks into my coaching sessions with her, our household evolved. I got rid of the bandage and instead got a dark pair of glasses. Sohail told me they made me look fashionable, but he choked as he said it.

Aseefa Appa was impressed with how quickly I learnt. Three weeks later I was reading small passages fluently. But it was not enough. At night, when Ma was asleep next to me, I would still flip through my school books. I could feel them, but I couldn’t read them. In the morning Ma would tell me my pillow had been wet and my nose red; I realized could not feel my tears anymore. I didn’t know if that was a blessing, or just unfortunate, but it made me obstinate.

My blinded ambitions were fortified by Aseefa Appa. She told me she knew the board exams director in the area, and that he would be willing to configure a way to allow me to sit my exams. Sohail seconded this – he said he had asked around, and it was possible for me to recruit the help of a younger student, who would read the questions and write the answers I dictated.

Ma would interject and draw us out of our rising waters of majestic dreaming, drenched and confused. ‘But what are you going to do if you sit your exams? Will you be a doctor? No,’ she said firmly. ‘An engineer? No. Will you be able to sew to earn something? No.’

Sohail would rebut this. ‘What difference does that make? She can be a lawyer,’ he argued. I generally heard little of Sohail’s voice in the days after the shooting at Shopian. He would return late, interjected with some stout-hearted energy with which he would quote everyone from Mandela to Yasser Arafat and contextualize freedom to us. I was animated; Ma would be wary.

Despite this, I understood Ma and her dereliction. Aseefa Appa told me that even with braille, I would have to learn to hear, live life in the pretext of recognizable sounds. There would be no more colour, and little shape.

I learnt, more by intuition than by effort. Aseefa Appa would help me prepare for the board exams at the end of the year. She would read out a passage and I would nod and try to retain important facts. Sometimes, frustrated, I would tell her to stop, that it was no good. She would sit with me, silently, until I changed my mind and asked her to resume. When she had left at night, Sohail and I would sit in our room, holding up a cardboard sheet so the light from the lamp would not wake Ma up. He would revise with me what I had studied in the day.

During this time we installed our first TV set. I soon learnt to navigate the remote and the TV became a treat. From the news I heard when a protest had happened, and how many had died. I heard the demonization of the stone-pelters. I would sometimes shut it off, when I felt the blood in my head was pounding too loudly, like when they called us Islamic terrorists. The monikers would make my head swim and I would lapse into more studying. These were things that I was made to hear everywhere – even if I didn’t want to. The tirades of dehumanization that kindled the fire that being blinded had stoked.

A week after the TV arrived, Aseefa Appa turned up earlier than usual. I had just returned from school, where I only sat at the back listening to the classes, barely moving, needing a friend for navigation.

I heard her scream from my room and rushed towards the sound, hitting my toe against the bedpost in my haste.

The house had fallen quiet when I got there. I could sense her presence on the mat, could imagine her sitting there with her legs crossed under her. The only sound was of her heavy breathing, uneven and coarse.

Sabr,’ Ma said, and she sniffled. I gathered they were seated next to each other.

‘What happened?’ I asked, ashamed immediately of how direct I had been.

Sohail touched my arm, making me cognizant of his noiseless presence. His breath was hot as if he had been running. His burgeoning beard scraped my forehead as he whispered into my ear.

There was hiccup from Appa, a jittery, heavy sound. Heavy, I realized, with the gravity nested inside a woman whose eighteen year old son had been mowed down by a truck for hurling stones at a bullet proof vehicle. It was a frayed sound – the sound of oppression – the sound of a punctured, deflating human being. It was not a smell, but it made me nauseous.

Aseefa Appa became quiet, but not irregular. We were still preparing. We were now going over questions that cropped up frequently in past exams, the exams being only a few weeks away.

She would not make any other conversation, except occasionally say, ‘Keep an eye on your brother. He’s going to disappear one of these days.’

I knew what she meant, somewhat vaguely. In my heart I feared Sohail’s long hours spent outside home. He was never one to confide much in us, but it was no profound disclosure that whatever odd ideas of freedom he was nurturing would not come to any fruition. Not in our generation anyway, as Ma would say.

He sold corn near a tourist spot. His daily earnings had seen a steep decline, and he would aggressively shut himself from any discussion into it. Ma, who argued about everything, was suddenly too old to argue with him.

‘They shoot us with jagged bullets,’ he said abruptly to me one night, when we were taking a break from revision. I could not see him, but I felt his keen gaze on me. There was a moment’s silence.

‘The bullets you kill animals with.’ His words were so cold they could freeze lava. They froze a part of me; the venom in his voice was like that in the eyes of the helmet-clad man that had shot me, brandishing a shotgun levelled at my face from a few feet away. It elicited a terror that I had decided I could have only felt once in my life, the last time I could still see.

‘Freedom will come to us,’ he said, with the strength of a raconteur penning a classical story of a people’s liberation. But Kashmir’s story is not classical, it is time-worn, unheard, and abandoned at a riven end. Sohail knew this, but I did not argue the point.

I slept next to Sohail, the night unnaturally chilly. I had an exam the day after. Aseefa Appa had reassured that I would be able to give it, with help that she had arranged and gotten approved. Sohail was still awake and fidgeting when I slept, the machinations of his brain putting together a modicum of the terrific ideal of freedom knocking around in his imagination.

We both knew that freedom was elusive. There were really many freedoms in the world which we could never have. The political ones, of-course. But there were many other freedoms, all touted as dissident propaganda. The freedom to choose; the freedom to see. The freedom to live.

I awoke to clamour. There was the noise of a disgruntled mob from the outside, an incessant knocking on the door, and Ma pushing my shoulder almost roughly to wake me up. Sohail was absent.

‘What is wrong, Ma?’ I said, pervaded by the sense that something was very wrong.

‘There’s been a clash,’ she said only. ‘Sohail hasn’t been at home since when I woke up.’

For the first time in many months I was glad I could not see. Even without my eyes, I could see too much – too real, too painful. As Ma talked to the man at the door, and then shut it tight, against the riled mob, against the condolences, I could see too much, so much more than what I wanted to see.

I climbed into my bed and rocked myself, furiously first, then slowly, until my body hurt from the exertion. I was convinced I was crying, my head pounding. Ma was next to me soon. ‘I wish I had died before,’ I said, when I felt my voice was steady enough. I had no energy to grieve or to scream.

Ma’s sobbing had mitigated. ‘I wish every day I see you that you had died instead.’

We sat together some time, sweat forming on my face where my headscarf met my skin, even when the air was cold. People had knocked, and knocked, and then gone away. We stayed, beating against the truth, protesting our reality by refusing to react to it. We had receded into our shells like turtles, the shells cracked and flesh exposed. We were alive but the ambience of our small house was of a morgue.

‘The funeral is tomorrow morning,’ Aseefa Appa’s voice resounded. I didn’t know when she had come in.

‘They are saying he was armed,’ she said after neither of us responded.

‘He’s dead,’ Ma said, breathing audibly through her nose. That was that. A sound of finality.

‘We have some revision,’ Aseefa Appa offered to me, and I sat up.

Through the night it occurred to me more than once how insensitive we had become. I toggled with the idea that we had gone insane. How could we not weep for Sohail? How could we even live, now?

But I concluded we could live, like we always had. No one cared if non-entities slid in or out of existence. In some ways we were already dead. I maneuvered the iron for the first time as a blind woman that night. I burnt my finger only once, reveling secretly in the sizzle of the hot iron as it smoothed the wetted white clothes we were to wear tomorrow. It soothed me like a balm on a laceration – a sound of continued life, hot and burning.

I was in high spirits at my brother’s funeral. Others had murmured and jibed at my novel way of taking an exam, but I think I had done well. I had thanked the 14 year old student who had been appointed as my assistant profusely, before walking straight from school to the maidan where the janaza was to be held. He had walked with me, more of an aide than the wooden stick Sohail had bought me the day before his shooting.

The boy – Assam – asked me to stop suddenly. It was not a long walk, and I supposed we had arrived. Traditionally, women did not attend funerals. But I had never seen that rule adhered to very strictly. There were so many funerals – I think the clerics had lost stamina discouraging women from attending. I had seen some in the papers as a child – bipartisan, mix gender gatherings, sometimes segregated, sometimes not.

I believed this one was. Assam navigated us to what I gauged was the back of the gathering. The noise of the crowd suggested it was a big one. ‘There’s so many people,’ he said, his awe palpable.

‘So many people for Sohail?’ I asked, feeling my hand being grabbed. I recognized the creases of Ma’s short fingers as they held mine. ‘How many?’

‘200,’ he said. ‘400, maybe.’ Assam was overwhelmed, and so was I.

He excused himself as soon as the loudspeaker sounded.

‘You are lucky you are blind,’ Ma said. Her words were fragmented with hiccups.

‘Did you see his body?’ I asked as I stationed myself next to her, feeling the rough cotton mat below my bare feet.

Ma’s hand shook before she dropped it from mine. She didn’t answer. The man at the loudspeaker spoke again, speaking with the quiver of an idealist, many of which were interspersed in my generation, as Ma liked to allege. I gathered that this was a mass funeral, of four men shot by the forces yesterday. He told us the young men had reached their destination, having ended their days of corporal captivity and deprivation.

He called them martyrs. I felt Ma convulse behind me.

The air was still and my heart was drumming a dangerous tune, roused by the feral veracity of his words. Everyone was now silent, listening. I felt the heat and dankness of the many surrounding bodies, feeling my heart thud the loudest. The orator promised us freedom with so much certitude I believed him.

The loudspeaker clinked as it was presumably passed over, and a heavier voice sounded the Takbeer.

I raised my hands to my shoulders, blind but stiff.

Then I heard the piercing, deafening sounds of occupation. There was a shuffle of boots. Once it had made my heart sink. Now it simply thumped harder, erratically, as if in sync with the nearing commotion.

The sound of bullets. The first one came so unprecedented, in the middle of a second Takbeer, that no one moved. Ma didn’t either. I think the man fell quickly, without a cry. The second, I think, hit the imam leading the prayer. His Takbeer was cut short, and there was the clatter of the loudspeaker falling. There was a moment’s hiatus before the din vented.

I was knocked off my feet by someone jamming into me. Ma helped me up. There was screaming everywhere, littered with the sound of firing. ‘Up, up,’ Ma was gasping, and I knew everyone – blind, or not – was running in every direction.

Caught in the melee, I pulled a heaving Ma to where instinct prodded. I had not picked up my stick. I was clamoring to get to safety, with no semblance of where I was headed. Ma was not resisting my lead.

The shots and shouts were growing distant. We kept running, even as if we were slowly being slowed down by the other scuttling bodies in our way. In that midst I heard the clear ring of another Takbeer in the maidan now many, many feet behind us. I began counting the seconds until the man was shot down.

I heard it again, once. Allahu Akbar; unmistakable, louder than the crack of the gun that followed. It was a thrilling sound, concrete and alive. Like the sound the hawk made before it dived onto its prey, buoyant, and in control. I heard it like one hears the call to prayer. With reverence, and hope. It made me feel significant, and untethered – the sound of freedom.

I stopped, knelt, and felt for a stone. My fingers grazed across one quickly. I turned around and hurled it blindly – hoping it hit one of the men in uniform, wielding the guns. Then I grappled for Ma’s hand and started running again.

(Featured Image: TRTWorld)

Alizah Hashmi

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