Mornings were monotonous in that small nondescript house in the upper-middle class suburban locality of Srinagar. Since the last decade and half nothing had changed, the walls bore the same yellow rough coat with green window frames. Salma used to wake up to the muezzin’s call to Fajr prayers. After starting off her day with prayers, she ambled around the two storey house as inaudibly as possible so as not to wake Ammi who was used to sleeping in for a while after prayers. Before preparing the breakfast, she watered the plants that were in season, swept the pavement that was already spotless and dusted surfaces that were already clean, going about each task step by step, in the same sequence each day. Nothing had changed, at least on the surface, yet if she were to go back in time, she wouldn’t recognize herself.
The breakfast ritual started with Ammi and Salma occupying their fixed spots in the cozy, heavily curtained living room. Vapours rising from the powder blue cups fogged Ammi’s glasses as she tried to stir up a conversation with Salma while sipping the steaming nun chai that Salma brewed fresh every morning. There were no actual conversations except for Ammi’s monologue and Salma’s occasional ‘hmm’, ‘yes’ or ‘no’. “It’s been two weeks”, sighed Ammi. Behind the clouded glasses, Salma could see fear in Ammi’s eyes that made a shiver go down her spine, but said nothing more than “hmm”. It had been two weeks since that familiar cackle had resonated in that quiet house. ‘What could possibly have happened to Kaka?’ Shaking the thoughts out of her head, Salma quickly cleared up the mess and prepared to leave for work.
While she wrapped her Hijab around her head listlessly as she was getting ready, Salma’s gaze periodically went to the window that faced the alley below. She was still looking for Kaka. In the last twenty years this had happened for the first time that Kaka, the vegetable vendor, had not visited the family for such a long time. Except for two days of Eid, Kaka could be seen in the colony every morning flanked by jute sacks full of vegetables. He came from the distant hamlet of Chrar Sharif, earlier known for the shrine of the Kashmiri Sufi saint, Noor-ud-din Wali and now in news for a fierce battle raging between Kashmiri militants and the Indian Army. The entire town had been burnt down to ashes said some; soldiers are killing people for revenge, said the others. The news from the town was bleak, just like the sky that was heavy with dark clouds and refused to let go of all the weight it carried.
Salma’s thoughts raced from one thing to another, Ammi had a doctor’s appointment this evening, she had to pay the electricity bill by Tuesday, how she had been rude to Kaka the last time he came and how he had laughed it off and showered Salma with his customized blessing that he usually sung out comically. Salma’s heart became heavy with guilt; she couldn’t get Kaka out of her mind.
Kaka had been a familiar figure in the Andrabi household long before Salma had walked in as a bride. A man of almost seventy, hunched forward under the weight of fresh vegetables which he wanted to sell in the city, Kaka was full of life. Every morning he made a long journey from his village to Srinagar city sometimes brazing the harsh winters and often the curfews and army crackdowns. He was known for having his way with the soldiers by means of his wit. Whenever confronted by a soldier, he raised his hand to his head in salute, addressed each of them with a “yes sir” and hurled abuses at them in Kashmiri language so amiably that a curfew never stopped him from reaching the city. He went around the narrow back alleys of crowded neighbourhoods calling out people musically to buy his goods. His final stop was the quiet corner house, Salma’s house, where he sprawled the damp jute sacks in the backyard while waiting for the tumbler full of piping hot nun chai that Salma served him from the kitchen window.
Age was just a number for Kaka; he jested with young and old alike. He could crack the inanest of jokes about everything ranging from the weather to the military occupation. He was a man who celebrated both life and death. His radiant positivity made Salma cringe and she distanced herself from all the pomp and show that the old man carried within him along with his jute bags. Every time he tossed a joke at Salma, she snapped back at him which he countered with an even more sarcastic yet funny retort. This hilarious war of words between Salma and Kaka amused Ammi and left her in splits when Kaka referred to Salma as his ‘angry daughter’. Amidst all this Kaka came to adore Salma like his real daughter and said prayers for her aloud, with all his heart, his cracked hands with mud under the nails raised in devotion. It was as though he understood all her grief and tried hard to make peace between Salma and her pain, even if she didn’t see it that way.
Salma had walked into the Andrabi household as a young bride twenty years ago. Her life had taken a dreamlike turn. Things had turned out just like they would in a fairytale when Iqbal Andrabi walked into her father’s study and asked for her hand in marriage. Iqbal, who was distantly related to her family, had an Oxford degree in Law, eyes that glinted with passion and a persona that had swept Salma off her feet. She had doted on him throughout her adolescent years but had never mustered the courage to concede her love to him. Salma, who had always wanted to be a painter, saw Iqbal like a piece of art. He was perfect in every way; the way he talked while his hands subconsciously cut through the air, the way his gaze was fixed on the floor while he spoke, his tone that was never too high. A single glance from the corner of his eyes made Salma want to melt away. She still vividly remembered the day when her father had asked for her approval regarding the marriage. She had wanted to scream “yes” instantly but somehow managed to keep her composure and nod her head in approval. No rouge could match the flush of her cheeks, her mother had remarked.
Iqbal, who was the only child of his parents, had lost his father very early on in life. He was raised by his Ammi alone and had always looked up to her as his role model. Ammi, a woman with an iron will, was a headmistress at the local high school. She was a disciplinarian who pushed Iqbal to make his way when he found none, to be shamelessly ambitious yet humble. It was Ammi who had funded his education. It was Ammi who had welcomed Salma into the family showering her with a colourful mixture of almonds and candy and a thousand silent prayers. It was Ammi who was Salma’s only companion in the lonely house fifteen years after Iqbal’s disappearance.
Soon after the marriage, Iqbal emerged as a prominent human rights’ lawyer in Kashmir. He was an orator who moved the audience to tears on a searing evening of Delhi summer, while narrating the Kunan-Poshpora mass rape incident in the large convocation hall of the prestigious Delhi University. His speech was all over the newspapers back home. Soon after this, he filed a complaint in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against the 17 Punjab Regiment of the Indian Army for a fake encounter in which five Kashmiri labourers were shot dead by the soldiers in the border village of Chowkibal on the pretext of terrorist activity. The army shielded the guilty soldiers under the notorious AFSPA and maintained that the five men were armed militants despite no evidence found against them in an independent enquiry conducted by the District Magistrate. Iqbal made a road trip to the village at least twice or thrice a week while pursuing the case. He met the families of the victims, visited the encounter site and even spoke to the soldiers of the Regiment. He had always been an avid supporter of the Azaadi movement in Kashmir and passionately sought justice for the victims of violence inflicted by the Indian Army on Kashmiri people but nothing moved him as much as the Chowkibal fake encounter case. Each night as he narrated the day’s happenings to her, Salma could easily see that something had been stirred up in him, something that robbed him of his peace of mind. She was touched by his quest for justice but at the same time worried about him. As she saw his chest go up and down while he slept, she prayed for his safety and happiness in Tahhajud, the midnight prayers. When she was a kid her grandmother used to say that we could gauge our love for a person by how much we prayed for them and Salma’s prayers began and ended with Iqbal. He was her life, she felt complete in his presence.
That drab August evening, it had been raining all day. Salma and Iqbal had been invited to a dinner by Salma’s family. Iqbal had dropped Salma at her parents’ place promising to return in two hours. He needed to finish some paperwork regarding the case, he had said. Four hours later when Iqbal still hadn’t shown up, Salma called his office. The phone kept ringing but no one answered for the next forty-five minutes. This wasn’t typical of him; Salma could feel her heart racing against her chest wall. He always made sure he called her up if he was going to be late at work. An hour later, Salma and her father were at Iqbal’s office. They found his car parked outside. There was no trace of him. On her father’s suggestion they filed a First Information Report at the local police station. Salma remembered that night as the longest night, she and Ammi sat huddled in their drawing room, Salma’s father paced along the corridor. A deafening silence loomed over the house. She wanted to speak up but tears that streamed down her face kept choking her. Every once in a while she exchanged glances with Ammi who seemed more stoic than she had ever been.
That night turned into morning, people from all walks of life thronged Iqbal’s house, friends, relatives, politicians, even Kaka who smiled at Salma and congratulated Ammi for Iqbal’s martyrdom for the cause. People shook their head, some felt genuinely sorry for Salma, women wailed for her, but she sat there with her eyes shut to whatever was happening in the house. She wanted it to be a nightmare she would soon wake up from. As days turned into weeks and months with no news of Iqbal, it turned out eventually that this was a reality she would have to live with for the rest of her life. Most of the people she knew, including her own parents, had assumed that Iqbal had been murdered by the Army for the case he had filed against them. Police did nothing other than filing the FIR. Salma’s parents suggested that she should move on in life, they even hinted at the possibility of a second marriage, a suggestion which Ammi welcomed with a warm smile on her face. Salma, on the other hand waited for Iqbal to walk in through the front door and bring back all the shattered pieces of her soul that he carried with him. She never thought of herself as his ‘widow’, she called herself a ‘half widow’ a term that had recently been popularized in Kashmir since the uprising had started for the wives of victims of enforced custodial disappearances at the hands of the Army.
A year later, an organization called ‘the Half-Widows’ Association’ was founded with Salma at the helm of affairs. Just within a year’s span this organization had more than eight hundred members, mainly women who met every month in a public park in Srinagar carrying placards and pictures of their missing husbands. Some came with children as young as three or four years of age and some with elderly parents and in-laws. Salma, who now worked as a science teacher, organized these meetings every month. It was a gathering of women who were united by a common heartache, women who understood each other’s pain. Salma had taken charge completely, every time she saw a woman breaking down she consoled her, egging them on, sometimes reprimanding them but keeping them in touch with the quest of justice for their loved ones. Salma was a perfect embodiment of a strong practical woman who had moved on, by the day. However, each night right after the Maghrib prayers her heart kept growing heavier as she waited for Iqbal, sitting at her bedroom window. Years later, she had transformed unrecognizably from a girl who loved quiet corners and the smell of books and wet paint into an intimidating woman who spoke at press conferences and organized protest marches. Yet she hadn’t allowed her pain to mellow down even a bit.
After a long day at work, Salma slumped into the couch with a throbbing headache. She felt she had forgotten something; it struck her that she had forgotten what she wanted to forget all day. She had forgotten Kaka. Her heart sunk at this thought. She retired to bed soon after dinner and promised herself that she would head to Chrar Sharif the very next morning to look for Kaka. Next morning, right after her prayers, Salma packed a bag for the journey. She quietly stepped into Ammi’s room and told her she’d be leaving early today. She reached the city centre Lalchowk to catch a cab but couldn’t find any. After waiting for another hour, she finally found a cab which she would have to share with six other people. Being the only woman in the cab, she got asked why she was headed to the conflict ridden Chrar Sharif, as the cab jolted towards the location amidst loops of concertina wires and edgy soldiers carrying heavy guns. Almost two miles away from the location, the cab screeched to a halt. The passengers were made to disembark. The soldiers wouldn’t allow the cab to go any further; they were going to burn the shrine down as the militants had entered the building. Salma looked at the soldier, aghast. Although, it had been over fifteen hours since she had had her last meal, she felt nauseous to the core.
She didn’t remember what happened next. The same cab took her to Srinagar and she was back home, feeling empty and defeated. For the first time in years, Ammi saw Salma crouched near the television watching the news. A reporter wearing a bullet proof vest and a helmet was moving frantically on the screen, behind him a building glowered in flames. It took Ammi a while to realize that the building was the famous Sufi shrine of Chrar Sharif and she slouched next to Salma. Salma broke into a cold sweat as the army men pulled out charred bodies from the rubble. These bodies with people surrounding them, wailing and imploring God for help, reminded Salma of the morgues she had visited when the police wanted her to identify her husband’s body. She had seen around fifteen corpses and none was Iqbal’s, although Salma had never looked at any corpse for more than three seconds. She had always vehemently denied her husband’s death. The fact was that she never wanted to accept his death. Although, it had been fifteen years since anybody had seen Iqbal, Salma wanted him back.
As opposed to her, Kaka had always celebrated death. Two of his nephews had joined the armed insurgency and had been killed by the army in an operation. Soon after this, his elder son had been arrested by the Army and tortured in a military camp. A week later his mangled body was found in the fields where Kaka cultivated his vegetables. Just months later, Kaka’s wife died of shock of her son’s death. In the first few years of the insurgency, Kaka shouldered four coffins of his family members. At each of these funerals, he didn’t shed a single drop of tear. He sung praises in a loud musical tone for the martyrs and distributed shireen, a small white sugar candy, amongst people. He made a habit of attending the funerals of people killed by the army, civilians as well as the militants. He congratulated each family and sung couplets in the honour of the shaheed. Salma still remembered how his ruddy face lit up when he described the corpse of a shaheed, a martyr. She remembered how he stroked his unkempt beard when he described the injuries on their bodies with gory details. She always pretended to be disinterested when he described the rewards for martyrs who had died fighting against oppression but he always astounded her with his positivity. Kaka always asked Salma to pray for Junaid, his youngest son, the only living member of his family, who had joined the militants following his brother’s death. Whenever he raised his rugged hands in prayer, he prayed for Junaid’s victory and his martyrdom.
When Salma woke up the next morning it was already nine. She got out of her bed with a heavy head, her eyelids too felt heavy. Before she went to check on Ammi, she saw him through the clouded glass, sitting there in his usual spot. For a moment she thought she was hallucinating and she rubbed her eyes hard and then wiped the frost off the glass. It was him; it really was Kaka sitting quietly in the backyard. Salma ran down the stairs to the backyard. He sat with his shoulders scrunched and head drooping low. There were no jute bags around him and his clothes looked clean. He looked up and said Salam in a barely audible tone. Salma could see a teary-eyed old man in front of her. Where was all his charm? Before Kaka spoke Salma got him his favourite tumbler full of nun chai. He sipped on noiselessly, cleared his throat and spoke. That night the fauj had banged on his door before he could offer any pleasantries they had taken him to the shrine and handed him a microphone. Junaid was in the shrine along with his associates, they wanted him to tell him and his associates to surrender. Kaka had refused to do so and in response to that the fauj left him battered and bruised. The next morning, he had woken up to the news that the shrine had been razed to the ground and Junaid’s corpse was left in the mosque for people to see. In a jiffy, Kaka had gone to the mosque and bid a final adieu to his twenty-five-year-old son, the only living member of his family. He had run his wiry hand over the charred face of his son and left without saying a word.
Like metals had tensile strength, Salma always wondered what broke human beings. For the first time she saw Kaka break down in front of her, the tears streaming down his face spoke what his words couldn’t convey. He had finally learnt to accept death and so had Salma.