By Muzamil Jaleel
SEPTEMBER 23, 1994. Syeda, who is like my sister, was travelling on a minibus from Nadihal, a village neighbouring our home in Bandipore, to Chittibandi, carrying her four-year-old son, Mehraj, in her lap. It was around 5 pm when the minibus reached a small bridge connecting Aragam and Chittibandi. A Border Security Force contingent deployed by the bridge signalled the driver to stop. Unknown to Syeda and her fellow passengers, two militants were travelling on the minibus. They jumped off and ran. The BSF men opened fire, raining bullets on the minibus. By the time their guns fell silent, 12 people lay dead. Syeda took three bullets, one across the forehead, one on the neck, and another crushed forefinger of her left hand. Syeda battled death for over two months in SKIMS, Soura, where surgeons removed a part of her frontal bone. She survived, though. It was a miracle. Mehraj was hit by a bullet in his tiny hand as well. The wound healed but the damage was permanent. The scar is a constant reminder.
In the quarter century since Syeda was scarred for life, the people of Kashmir have been ground down by an unbreakable loop of tragedy, each fading the painful memory of the previous one. So much so, I must admit that I had forgotten about Syeda and her little child’s suffering.
I have returned to our village regularly since the bloodbath on the bridge, but never lived there. Many a time, I only went to report a tragedy.
Syeda’s brother, Faisal Nayeem, is a childhood friend. We grew up together in a cluster of villages which functioned like one big family, with friendships and relations that went back several generations. Syeda has always been very affectionate and she loved her brother’s friends as she did him. I had lost touch with Faisal over the years. We would talk on the phone occasionally, but our conversations had become so brief they ended as soon as they began.
Then, a few days ago, Faisal posted a picture of his nephew, Mehraj, on Facebook and we started talking.
Syeda is married to Mohammad Ayaz, a gentle soul. As Faisal and I talked, we recounted their wedding. Ayaz still works with the state’s sheep husbandry department, as a stock assistant, Faisal said. We talked about our childhood, our parents. We also remembered friends and neighbours who are no longer with us.
We relived that dark September evening in 1994 but he also told me a heart-warming story.
Their family, like most families in our villages, wasn’t affluent. Affluent, I talk strictly in terms of its dictionary meaning. Perhaps, that affluence was not a priority for most there. That was also not how prosperity was viewed then. My grandmother used to say that having enough for two meals a day, milk for nun chai, a few extra beddings for guests, a roof that didn’t leak when it snowed, and good health meant you were comfortable. And if you have more than your need to share with your neighbours, she would insist, you are blessed. In that sense they were more than comfortable and blessed. They had ‘panun haakh ba-te’.
But that evening in 1994, their lives came crashing down. Syeda lived but the bullets had crushed her, leaving a dent in her forehead and her left hand without fingers. But God almighty had given her and Mehraj new lives, everyone believed that.
The few times I had spoken to Nayeem afterwards, we had barely even mentioned Syeda. Perhaps he had feared it was to scratch old wounds. But when he posted that picture and we talked about that tragedy, it was without pity and sadness gnawing at our soul. The story behind that picture brought me out of the depths of despair and despondency. It is a story that gives me hope about us as a people, about our homeland Kashmir. So I wanted to share it.
Mehraj has grown up into a fine young man. He completed his PhD in Physics a few years ago and secured a postdoctoral position at the renowned Christian Doppler Lab in Austria, where he is currently researching lithium batteries. Previously, he worked as a senior research fellow at Tokyo University. He has published around 20 papers in prestigious journals such as Nature, Elsevier and Royal Society of Chemistry.
Little Mehraj never attended any elite school. He perhaps sat on the same straw mats of our government school where we learned the alphabet and memorised the tables. He also went to Government Higher Secondary School, Nadihal, Nayeem told me. In our day, it was a high school. Established in 1925, its walls have been witness to the words of some of the finest teachers of their era. We remembered our teachers. Abdul Gani sahib – an unparalleled headmaster and a strict disciplinarian, who would never arrive even a minute late to duty. Nazir sahib. We could see his handsome face, his impeccable dress and the passion to teach his eyes. We could hear his mesmerising voice, reciting those beautiful couplets as he taught Urdu poetry. Abdul Gani sahib and Nazir sahib aren’t with us any longer. God bless their soul. We talked about Bashir sahib, the mathematics wizard. Khaleef sahib would look like a school boy himself and he taught bio sciences in such a manner that we would wait for his class to begin. Parsa sahib, Kamal sahib, Wani sahib, Parvaz sahib, Mashhoor sahib and many others. It was an academy of excellence.
We talked about our school. Teachers, not a building or gadgets, make it an institution and we were blessed to have some of the finest teachers. Perhaps that tradition has continued and Mehraj too learnt to dream inside those classrooms.
A decade and a half ago, I went back to my school after a 15-year-old student was killed in a mysterious explosion on the premises. Back in those days, our school doubled up as an army camp. My story on the student’s death was headlined “Mohsin’s Last Day At My School”. It was March 21, 2005. I haven’t returned there since. Mohsin Sarwar’s innocent face as he lay lifeless in his school uniform inside the school haunts me to this day.
For his undergraduate studies, Mehraj went to Amar Singh College, Srinagar, and did his master’s and PhD at Pondicherry University. I am sure it was his uncle who inspired Mehraj to study Physics. Nayeem is a reason many youngsters from our neck of the woods are drawn to study natural sciences, especially Physics. He has a doctorate in Physics. He’s a teacher and very good at it.
Mehraj is not the only academic achiever in Sayeda’s family. His older brother, Adil, has a PhD in Biotechnology and now works as a junior scientist at SKIMS Medical College. Another brother, Owais, qualified for the Junior Research Fellowship with a top rank. He’s now doing a PhD at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research Lab in Jammu where he is researching cancer treatment.
Faisal told me similar stories of half a dozen youngsters from Bandipore’s villages who have excelled in academics, through perseverance and hard work. When I asked how many of them are now doing research in the world’s top institutions, he asked me to wait so he could count.
There are scores of such stories of individual achievement across Kashmir. Our young men and women are excelling despite tremendous odds, not just in academics but many professional fields as well. We are at a darkly gloomy juncture in our history and such stories should serve to inspire hope. So, we need to talk to each other. We need to defeat the fear. We need to give hope to each other.
We must be careful, however, not to make individual achievement alone a metric of our worth. It should be only a stepping stone, to employing one’s talent and the socioeconomic and cultural privilege academic and professional achievement bestow for the greater good of our society. The primary goal of education is to make us understand our collective dreams and nightmares. It should make us remember the days and nights of begaar of our ancestors. It should remind us that not long ago we were collectively sold like cattle. It should tell us that 1865 and 1877 can happen again. We need our villages and towns to be like big families again, sharing joy and suffering, looking after each other, helping each other up. We, as a people, need to build our collective capacities so we aren’t made dependent again.
In effect, we must realise that when the house is on fire, no one can protect their exclusive cabin from the flames. If it burns it will all be smouldering ash, eventually. We need to rise above our differences and act together to save our home.
We need to recognise the ‘rantas’ that has suddenly walked out of our folklore and come alive on our TV and phone screens. We need to decipher her shrieks. We need to stay awake. For sleep is a kind of death.
We need to fight the gloom.
Not until very long ago we were doomed because we couldn’t read and write our letters. We had our letters written for us, read to us. It took centuries to learn our alphabets. We must ensure that we read and write our letters. We need to focus on the silver linings and remember that the journey towards our emancipation began with “Iqra”.
- The article was originally the author’s Facebook post and is being reproduced here with permission.
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