On the first Saturday of September, as our flight landed at the Srinagar airport, the airline staff announced, “You may now use your mobile phones.”
A few of the Kashmiris on board, including myself erupted into a dry, humourless laugh. It took me a while to believe that after over a whole month of no communication with the people back home, a month which was spent traumatised and troubled, this would be my very first reaction after being back: laughter.
I disconcertingly accepted that airlines have no streamlined war-like announcements for their landings in places under siege and no way to tell people that they had now entered a space made entirely of an uncomfortable, enforced silence. The shift in the normal was too sudden, too extraordinary to establish through an announcement.
Later in the evening, as I travelled onwards from the airport, I glimpsed a solitary vegetable seller on the footpath in Sonwar. I heaved a sigh of relief as it soothed my mind to know that people had some stuff available, at some hours of the day, in some places at least. Srinagar, which looked desolate and devoid of life as I made my way home, still looked capable of survival. There was no public transport around, only a few private cars were on the road and some people could be seen walking.
The presence of armed forces, however, was ubiquitous. I was told that the past two days had been livelier, with relatively fewer restrictions and embargo by the forces on people’s movement. Over the following few days, I also learned that in the morning between 6-9 am, some shops opened in select locations within the city and this is when people bought their groceries.
But my first, true experience of learning about life in Kashmir over the weeks that followed the August 5 decision by India to remove Article 370 and declare Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh as Union Territories came from my first experience in learning about death in Kashmir in these days.
My cousin, whose husband’s uncle passed away in August narrated the ordeal to me. For hours, the uncle’s lifeless body had been left virtually unattended as the family members went out on foot to inform the relatives they could of the demise. But there were only so many places they could walk to.
The last rites, though a little delayed, happened with few people. My cousin’s parents did not make it to the funeral, simply because they did not know the death had occurred. I thought about all that could have been a phone call away but was converted into units of actual distance in kilometres, interspersed and obfuscated with checkpoints, concertina wires and crude control.
Weeks later, when I read an article in The Hindu about a funeral in Kashmir, it said that the obituary of a certain Maimoona Bukhari, lovingly called ‘Mouj’, read that no congregational prayers would be held for her because of the situation.
Mouj – not only the Kashmiri word for mother, but sometimes also the quintessential term of endearment for mothers and grandmothers in Kashmir – could have been any woman in Kashmir. I used to call my maternal grandmother Mouj and no part of me could imagine her funeral, which all those who loved her attended, to have been devoid of either grief or gathering.
I wondered how you heal from a death like that, where blockade shatters collective mourning and instead reduces loved ones into human islands of pain, incapable of contact and solidarity with one another.
And if the siege had reduced people into experiencing death as islands, I witnessed how it made them live like that too. My little school-going cousins had not been to school for over a month when I came home. None of them had heard from their school friends in all this time.
The youngest of them, no matter how much her parents would coax, refused to touch her books anymore. As she saw it, they were going to be promoted without exams – a logical proposition that the adults could not argue with because unfortunately it had multiple precedents in Kashmir’s uncertain terrain.
Both in 2014, when the floods wreaked havoc in Kashmir and in 2016 when the situation turned untoward in the aftermath of Burhan Wani’s killing, many schools promoted kids to the next class, very few of them holding what was a semblance of examinations or assessments.
In the years of mass civilian unrest in 2008 and 2010, when schooldays were scarce, the syllabi had received massive cuts; even the state boards conducting final papers testing students on just fifty percent of the original syllabus.
Thus September, which should have otherwise been a month of industrious preparation as most of the final school exams in the Kashmir valley are held in early October, panned out rather differently. Notifications were just starting to come out in the few local newspapers asking parents to come along with pen drives or hard disks to collect study materials for their children.
In a strange adaption to the unfolding everydayness of life limited within homes, school-life was reduced into a string of assignments that the children were increasingly expected to finish at home, under their parent’s guidance.
There had been attempts to invent normalcy though. Weeks earlier, the government had ordered schools to re-open, but no parent would send their child. “Yeti chu soari band; bacchi koat soazoakh?” (‘Everything here is shut; why will we send our kids?’). In a place where everything is shut, parents would argue, how could they push children to the frontlines of motion to re-establish life in a place where it was deliberately brought to a standstill?
On the night of August 4 itself, I noticed the internet suspension begin at around 11:30 pm and phone signals following at midnight. The ground for the ominous hour of communication blockade had been laid in the preceding week. Uncertainty, thick like smoke, hung in the air.
For days, the news kept reporting official orders asking all non-locals to leave the Valley, local police to report the details of all mosques and their imams, certain official departments being asked to ensure ration for coming months and so on. And then there was also the massive inflow of Indian troops.
Everyone could smell the doom, and neighbours, friends and relatives alike would share with each other whatever rumours or information they had heard. Sentences would begin with ‘dapaan’: ‘it is being said’ and followed by an ominous possibility — who the source was always remaining shrouded, not in secrecy, but in not knowing.
‘Dapaan’ as a word assumed a new centrality as prominent as that of the ‘halaat’ (situation) itself. One late rumour in the beginning of August foretold, albeit a little inaccurately, the trifurcation of J&K.
The onset of the communication blockade on August 5, as people saw it, represented the beginning of the end that they had been kept in dark about: the movement of the psychological war that everyone complained about manifesting itself into the physical terrain. But after weeks of paranoia, it would take time for physical realities to settle in.
Even for days after August 5, many people in Kashmir as I came to understand, did not know the full extent of what had passed as even cable news was not working. The few who heard it from others thought they were rumours and even dismissed them for a while. A close friend would later joke that in Kashmir, one could doubt the news but should always trust a rumour.
Rumours in September were different from the earlier ones. Some spoke of autorickshaw drivers being paid money by the government to start plying on the roads. Opening schools had not worked and now government employees were increasingly being asked to report regularly to duty.
I wondered if the fact that there was no transport available and that armoured vehicles and spools of concertina wires continually occupied the roads held any meaning. I also wondered at the blatant stubbornness that was palpable in Srinagar air: people were slowly reclaiming survival but refusing to be tricked into normalcy.
This was highlighted by the fact that almost every other day, I would hear somebody remark that from a particular future date, the ‘halaat’ will be bad again. I did not know the source of these conjectures and neither did the people who would share them.
Perhaps it was disbelief at the fact that life, for the most part, still went on despite what had transpired or perhaps it was an educated and logical thing to surmise after a lifetime of being socialised into conflict. Either way, the consensus was that the uncertainty had not fully unraveled yet and survival need not be mistaken for living.
If August had been a collapse of life as Kashmiris knew it, September looked like the slow, heartbreaking attempt at partial acceptance of the same. People cared about not running out of milk, panicked about petrol pumps running dry and were willing to venture out to find fresh vegetables.
But survival predominantly dictated the choice of what to buy and what to venture out for. One of my friends, whose father owned a shop in the city centre Lal Chowk, spoke to me of how the ‘texture’ of shopping had changed — no customer browsed through options; instead, people would come knowing exactly what they lacked and buy it.
The day when I walked around Lal Chowk, closed shop shutters greeted me, the ghanta ghar (clock tower) overlooking nothing but desolation. This was a Monday afternoon when the area is otherwise pure chaos, bustling with people and vehicles. The before and after which I knew to be true kept nagging at me, forcing me to marvel at how life had been drained out of the physical environment.
Like everyone else, I took the eerie silence of the streets back home with me to examine later. Like everyone else, I still haven’t succeeded.
This article was originally published in The Wire and has been reproduced with permission.