In Depth

Anti-Suicide Squad: Lifeguards of the Seven Bridges

Some twenty days after a young Kashmiri woman jumped into the Jhelum from Zainakadal bridge, the official search remains elusive, reminding many of Kashmir’s traditional lifeguards—the boatmen community—whose call of conscience saved countless lives for centuries, and yet they were uprooted and left to fend for themselves in the suburb shanties, in the name of river rejuvenation.

Scene I: The Conversation

As Marcos continue to scan the river Jhelum at Old City’s Zainakadal on a white motorboat, the two elders sitting at a stone’s throw scoff at the official machinery pressed into service some twenty days back. Till now, it hasn’t found the lost traces of that mother, a young engineer, who suddenly appeared on the bridge on May 5 and jumped into the brimmed waters.

Unlike her, those turning up on bridges with suicide in mind wouldn’t always succeed. The elders say the boatmen community dwelling on Jhelum waters would act as lifeguards—equivalent to Baywatch of some faraway coastal land.

They were at humanity’s service much before the government bizarrely termed the elevated bridge fences as an official antidote to suicides in Kashmir. In their absence, the elders term the river—in which they used to swim in their halcyon days—as “fear-provoking” and reluctant to mellow.

“You remember how those boatmen would even rescue animals?” says a dour-faced elder.

“Yes,” a man sporting skullcap nods. “Also those schoolboys turning up for summer swimming sessions on the banks after skipping schools.”

“Even those who slipped into the river…”

“Like kids playing cricket?”

“Yes, yes…”

Scene II: The river legends

No houseboat is in sight from the seven bridges spanned over the Old City. Only a pervasive look of desolation meets an eye. At Aalikadal, scores of riverbank washermen have turned up with their routine task: washing shawls. They still get nostalgic about their bygone neighbours—among them, the mention of the legendary Rehman Kak brings washing to standstills.

“That forgotten boatman must have saved hundreds of people in his lifetime,” says Nazir, a sixty something washerman on a bank bereft of boats and boatmen. “People like him were the river police — always ready to safeguard people’s lives.”

One day, Nazir continues, a bridegroom suffering from epilepsy slipped into the Jhelum. “None could find him,” he says, “until Kak fished him out—dead—during midnight.” Kak passed away some years ago, in total obscurity—so did his community of lifeguards thrown out of the waters they knew as home for centuries.

Aalikadal’s traditional washermen community now play their residual role. “Last year, a lady suddenly jumped into Jhelum from the bridge when I was busy washing shawls here,” says Gowher Ahmad, a former high court clerk and now a riverbank regular. “I jumped and rescued her. She was suffering from some mental ailment — a common cause behind such extreme cases.”

What Gowher asserts has been long spoken—although in whispers—like how some people in the turmoil hit Kashmir develop disturbed mindsets and silently show up on the bridges to stir a suicidal splash on the waters below. Impact of such splashes remains petrifying. Old City’s coppersmith clans equate these sounds with haunting noises—“ringing for days together”, besides momentarily bring all copper-thumping hammers to a grinding halt. Frequency of such splashes, they say, has gone up to their chagrin.

Even kids continue to slip. “Last time a class 8th boy slipped,” Gowher says, “till date, Jhelum is yet to give his clue to anyone.”

Scene III: Jumping the bridge

As winding alleys criss-cross into narrow lanes dotted with medieval structures in Aalikadal interiors, and pass beyond the Bulbullanker shrine, Nawakadal comes forth with its bustling presence. For years now, the bridge has been frequented by those who seek salvation in a self-imposed death. A lifeless scene of the naked river vacantly stares at passersby going about their routine across the bridge. At its mouth, a gaunt-faced butcher operating from his ramshackle outlet has witnessed the death, and the death-defying scenes all these years.

A wry smile crosses his face when he begins detailing. He talks about a boy betrayed in love, a young widow whose groom was “killed in some staged encounter” and an aged mother who wandered around like a lunatic. All of them, he says, showed up on the bridge in their respective mad hours, took a good look at the waters below and plunged into the river. All dead, he declares.

“How many cases do you want me to narrate,” says this fifty something butcher, chopping a lamb leg piece. “But such deaths aren’t that alarming, and were almost nonexistent before the nineties.” After the boatmen community were asked to vacate the waters, he says, such deaths get repeated after a certain period of time.

“A person turns up on the bridge, jumps and surfaces dead elsewhere, mostly in Sumbal where the riverbed is very steep.” However at Nawakadal, life goes on, as usual — until the bridge gets a new visitor.

Scene IV: Riverbank Leftovers

With the signature river-life of yore omitted throughout its course, Jhelum throws some change at Safakadal. In the interior locality of Malik Sahab, four families of the lifeguards have been staying put—in sheds rather than boats—for many years now.

These days, Jhelum does the cocky military drill with them: barging suddenly to berserk everything. Always at the receiving end, their shanties have already been razed to the ground five times. Another bulldozing is on its way, they say. But that hardly perturbs the leftover community, who failed to meet the official criteria when the eviction summon was served to their extended class. Having no boats left to decimate in the officials’ presence, they remained on the banks and were disqualified for the paltry government compensation.

But after their mass departure and subsequent surge in river deaths, the ex-custodians of Jhelum are being badly missed.

“Earlier, if the militants chased by the military would jump into the river, these boatmen would take them to the shore,” says a brawny carpenter whose workshop lies near these shanties. “But now, if any stone-throwing boy jumps into the Jhelum to evade arrest, he hardly makes it to bank.” Despite mindful of this change, the lasting lifeguards of Safakadal continue to plunge into the Jhelum whenever the river reverberates with cries.

“Sometimes back, a woman drowned in Nawakadal, and reached near our shanties,” says Rifat, a fiery homemaker in her early thirties. “Her wild screams forced my husband to jump into the river to rescue her.” All this has been a part of her life.

During the nineties, Rifat says, her clan fished out countless Kashmiris—culled in the name combat. “It was more of a routine,” she says. “Mutilated, charred and throat-slit dead bodies would suddenly surface on the Jhelum and haunt everyone around.” One such body, she remembers, was of a Sikh woman. “She was not alone,” she says. “Her newborn was attached to her belly with a dupatta.” Years later, when Rifat became a mother, she was reminded of that Sikh lady and realised how such daryav qatl—a river murder, literallyincreased manifold, after her community was asked to go.

Scene V: Welcome to the ‘Concentration Camp’

It’s barely 1:30pm in the day and unusually, the bats are hovering around — stirring up a scary movie scene. A silence escalated by the absence of civilian footfalls over the swatches of land in Noorbagh interiors makes it a perfect hushed landscape on the city suburbs. Ahead of housing clusters coming up on an agrarian land, a rusty gate—a symbol of a prison, or a camp—appears. Beyond that, a different world exists.

It is a colony— a ghetto—that reeks of drainage stench. Men, women and children look parched—like some forgotten slum-dwellers. Mosquito borne half-filled swamp putrefies in the name of a public park. The government school looks more of a shed than a classroom. In these ghettos, Srinagar’s characteristic population now live in segregated clusters, away from their onetime vibrant neighbourhoods.

This godforsaken tribe is none other than the displaced lifeguards of the seven bridges—the boatmen community—sent here years ago, to fend for themselves.

In this Rakh colony, known as SDA colony in the official lexicon, rampant diseases and disorders have given a jaundiced appearance to the inmates. Scores of elders carry asthma inhalers. There exist stories of double-dealing and doublespeak — other than dominant riches to rags sob stuff. Earning in dollars once, foreign tourist guides turned cart-pullers don’t earn enough in rupees now to feed their families.

The educated lot in the colony draw parallels with the concentration camp. “What is but a concentration camp,” asks Zaheer Amin, a political science graduate and a former guide, “except a small place where a large number of people are deliberately imprisoned with inadequate facilities? Look around, this place is no different.” Amin might not say this, but concentration camp has its deadly additive, too: systematic annihilation.

“My clan is being subjected to a systematic annihilation for the want of basic needs since long now,” Amin continues. “In fact, the boatmen community has been used for vote-bank politics since 1947 and were always treated as ‘the others’—the hanjis—like the members of a persecuted class in a larger society.”

Even after being used by the vote-hungry politicians, they were sent to the colony, where they stand separated from the larger society—“akin to untouchables,” as Zaheer emphasizes.

In one corner of the colony reeking with strong sewage stench, a young widow Rafiqa is going about her routine with an ailing body. Doctors have blamed her lifestyle shift for her frequent health woes. Inside her shanty, she recalls her once “hail and happy” life in Habba Kadal—where her in-laws owned a spacious houseboat. “Perhaps the government thought, ‘let’s us dispose this water-borne community to a swamp for a good-riddance,’ ” says Rafiqa, as her new neighbours swarm up. “They forget to appreciate how we would safeguard the lives and help clean the river body—unlike the government that flushes drainage, and sewerage pipes in it.”

An unbelievably furious woman at her frail age of seventy, Fazi, Rafiqa’s neighbour decries the deceit her community faced. She has some chilling tales to tell. During the nineties as nameless corpses began littering the Jhelum, this lady would fish them out and hand them over to the then Water Police Post at Basant Bagh.

Some officials showed up at her Tankipora houseboat a few years ago with an eviction notice. It was a brand new houseboat, she remembers, her home for years. “We were given this petty plot of land here and some Rs 22,500 for leaving behind our home and hearth on those waters,” she laments.

Amid the doleful tales of political bluff, a widow in her early sixties voices the most heartbreaking tale of human wreck. Frezi of Safakadal yarbal lost her lumberjack husband to a shock after their son was killed by a paramilitary party in mid-nineties. Her other son was drowned in the Jhelum and yet another was consumed by cancer. The death spree turned her other son mad. The once proud mother of six now grapples with an unspoken grief of shattered family in a shanty than her beloved waters.

One community’s man often meets the who’s who in the state officialdom to narrate these poignant tales for creating a desirable change. But the well-built president—in his mid-forties—of the SDA colony often returns sour. Once a National Conference diehard supporter, Mohammad Shaban Ganai switched sides after the incumbent Eidgah lawmaker Mubarak Gul “ditched his community”. Gul’s indifference was read as a big betrayal by the former lifeguards who still swear their allegiance to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, who, they say, used to collect party funds from them.

Gania was Gul’s foot-soldier for over twenty two years before a political handshake with Peoples Democratic Party happened at the fag-end of 2014 when the Mufti Mohammad Sayeed led party promised an “ek nayey dour ka agaaz”. However the regime of change, he says, is yet to deliver on their developmental agenda promise.

At Rafiqa’s shanty, a swarm of women dressed in their traditional attire speak of “Allah’s wrath”. “Ever since we were uprooted from our waters,” says Rafiqa, “we have been pleading to our Allah to wreck havoc on everything.”

She reminds one of the 2014 floods that deluged the City. “Aakhir ah ti cha asar thavaan, kini na?—a plea of a broken heart does strike, no?” Miraculously, that flood of biblical proportions didn’t even touch the otherwise flood-prone swamp, they now call home.

Back to Scene I: End of the Conversation

“You remember that boy who slipped to death in Jhelum near Zainakadal while fetching his cricket ball?”

“Yes, yes—that poor soul!”

“And those three brothers, who drowned one after the another?”

“Yes, the river mayhem!”

“Jhelum was never so un-forgiven.”

“It always was—”

“Yes, but those lifeguards would keep it in check.”

“In their absence, Jhelum now behaves like river Chenab: hardly anything comes out of it now — like that unfortunate young mother!”

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