In the series titled The Memory Project, Free Press Kashmir aims to recreate the clampdown through people’s memories and document lived experiences of a people under siege. We also urge our readers to use the hashtag #TheMemoryProject on Twitter, to add to the conversation.
August 5, 2019,
I am standing in a queue leading to the outpatient department at Lal Ded Hospital, the tertiary maternity care hospital in Srinagar.
The place is quieter than last week when I visited with Bushra, my wife. Today, she is to be admitted for what shall be her second C-section.
Recently, tourists have been moved out, Amarnath Yatra has been cut short. Apparently, a sniper-gun and a land mine found mysteriously in the hikes of heavily guarded Yatra route led to the decisions.
Something big has been cooking up in Delhi for weeks. Even us journalists don’t exactly know what it is.
‘Panic amplifies‘, is the Page 1 headline with which I closed last night’s edition of the newspaper I work for. And this morning, I woke up to shut-communication-lines, no cable TV, barbed roads, and an eerie silence.
Thankfully, I live within a few kilometers of the hospital. I had to request my next-door neighbour to drop us. He did.
I am waiting in the queue. Bushra has joined the other patients inside the building waiting to see a doctor. We are accompanied by my sister-in-law.
Suddenly, a man approaches the queue saying something in gibberish. I can only understand the word ‘moklovukh’ (done away with).
“It is done,” he says as we break the queue to huddle around him, some curious, others just excited about the drama unfolding.
“Article 370 has been abrogated,” he finally makes sense.
“How do you know? The phone lines are off. There is no TV,” I ask, more like a scribe than a patient’s attendant.
“DTH TV is working,” he tells me.
“I don’t believe you. You must have got it wrong,” I exclaim.
I am outside the labour room.
Will I ever see this place not being swarmed by people? Will I ever smell anything but phenyl and blood here?
Even today, when it seemed a bit quieter outside, I see a few dozen men, women, and kids here. Who brings kids to a maternity hospital? Cramped on uncomfortable benches that have long lost their cushions, is where I wait.
First standing, and then some hours later trying to find some space that can accommodate even one of my buttocks.
I see pale, pregnant women going into towards the dark corridor leading to the labour room. No one else is allowed there, but them, and doctors, and nurses, and anyone walking with an air of confidence that makes the guards assume they are some one important, some ‘sahab’.
I see two Gujjar shepherds who strike out with their khan dresses and turbans of soiled colour, sitting on the floor. A third one sits diagonally in the corner, on a bench with bare edges and hard surfaces that leave a mark on your skin.
“Today the rush is lesser. No one from the villages can reach because of the curfew,” the person clinging to me on the bench strikes a conversation.
“Dapaan haez moklovukh (They say it is abrogated),” he says.
I choose to not believe him.
I cut the conversation with “wal heaz paanas taam chukh (it is all up to them).”
I am tired. The attendant next to me tells me he has been waiting for three days now.
The clamour outside the labour room gets to you. First, you try to ignore it, then you try to be a part of it, and eventually, it pushes you to shut your brain. All you wait for is a nod about your patient from someone within the room as you sink in some corner of the waiting hall.
It has been more than eight hours and I have only heard twice about my wife from my sister-in-law. Once when she wanted me to take her blood sample to the laboratory and second, when she needed a bottle of water.
Meanwhile, the rush has grown. More pregnant women have arrived. Some say even those who were supposed to deliver in private hospitals have been sent here.
Doctors, I hear, couldn’t reach the hospitals because of the curfew. The private institutions have redirected expecting mothers to Lal Ded Hospital, which is working with limited staff.
Imagine sleeping on that bench and then waking up to indistinct chatter that soon turns into noise, and eventually into a raucous buzz. On waking up, the first thing I see is a man holding a four-page issue of Greater Kashmir, the headlines of which will remain etched in my mind.
‘J&K divided, disempowered and downgraded’
The sub-heading runs: ‘2 Union Territories, Article 35 A rescinded | Article 370 on way out’
I cannot come to terms with it. So much so that I search for the word ‘rescind’ in my phone’s offline dictionary even though I know what it means.
Rescind | verb | to end (a law, contract, agreement etc.) officially.
I run out to find the hawker who is long gone.
“He had a few copies, they were all sold out in a minute,” a man tells me at the gate of the hospital.
I return and around a dozen of us attendants start peeking over the shoulders of the man holding the newspaper.
After an hour I get hold of the issue and read every word of it.
Silent and jarred, I read the details of the shocking news that is going to change the course of the Kashmir dispute forever.
All this time, my wife continues to remain in the labour room. I can only imagine her frustration being stuck in there for nearly 24 hours now.
Throughout the day, I hear more attendants saying how strict the curfew is, and how they had to be transported in ambulances to reach the hospital.
A nurse shouts my wife’s name from the operation theatre, looking for the attendant.
“Have you brought the baby’s clothes,” she asks me. I hand them over.
Five minutes later I hold Nowsheen, my second born, in my hands. The feeling, it is great joy mixed with some strange indescribable heaviness. Fathers reading this will know what I am talking about. You have your family members around, congratulating you. Some crying out of joy as the new-born moves from one lap to another. But today nothing of that sort has happened, except the fatherly feeling within me.
My family, including my mother and my sisters couldn’t reach the hospital. I am nearly alone, as my sister-in-law waits for Bushra to be shifted out of the OT. I am told to show the baby to a paediatrician sitting downstairs.
A few hours after, I recite the Azaan in her ears thinking about the land and the times she is born in.
Bushra is shifted to a general ward six hours after her surgery. Usually, for 12 to 18 hours a patient is kept in observation, a nurse tells me.
Today, however, the patient inflow has increased, and they are clearing out the beds sooner.
“Those from Kulgam who want to go home, there is an ambulance from the district hospital Kulgam here. It can drop you back”: There are announcements after announcements by the hospital officials as the curfew has crippled the movement of people.
The hospital has decided that ambulance ferrying patients to Lal Ded will take attendants and patients, if any, back to the district it has come from.
For the days to come, the announcements replace the usual hospital calls.
Exactly opposite to the bed Bushra rests on, is a young mother, probably in her early 20s. She is from Qazigund. She had arrived in the hospital for a routine check-up with her younger brother four days ago, when the doctors told her that she needed to be operated upon immediately because there were complications in her pregnancy.
The same day, she delivered a baby boy.
Her husband, a cop posted in Uri, was unaware of it because communication channels, even landlines, are cut-off.
Three days after the surgery, the child refuses to be breast-fed, has turned pale, and is eventually shifted into the neonatal ICU.
I along with the woman’s brother go and see the new-born a few times in the day. He is kept in a glass jar, breathing through a machine, with wires attached to his frail and pale body.
“Doctors say his lungs are giving up,” the brother tells me.
The mother is devastated, though she doesn’t express it. We can see her crying silently and muttering prayers especially when the Muezzin gives the call for prayers. She refuses to eat. Her life-partner is far away. Her mother cannot reach her.
Bushra tries her best to cheer the woman up, but after all, we are strangers, and her child is dying.
It’s our sixth day here.
I am completely cut-off from the world outside. Or should I say I have deliberately cut myself off. I don’t want to hear any more accounts of the incoming patients. My day starts and ends with Nowsheen, Bushra, and the pale baby, who is further sinking back into the world he came from.
Nowsheen has been feverish since last night.
The paediatrician in the hospital has suggested medicines, as asked us to remove her clothes.
Eid-ul-Azha is two days away.
Sometime in the morning. I have stopped looking at the watch.
Finally, Bushra is being discharged. She is happy and recovering well. Alhamdulillah!
Unfortunately, I cannot say the same about the baby boy.
Doctors have told the woman’s brother that his chances of survival are very less. The mother knows it too. She has been frantically wanting to see her baby but isn’t allowed to do so. Her mother has made it to the hospital. From Qazigund, she reached District Hospital Anantnag in a private ambulance. From there she came in the hospital ambulance ferrying a patient to Lad Ded.
I rode back home on my two-wheeler to request my neighbour to come to the hospital and take us home.
We leave the mother and her dying child with prayers of recovery and hope.
I exchange phone numbers with her brother knowing I wouldn’t be able to call any time soon.
Nowsheen, in the meantime, continues to be feverish.
Sometime in the evening.
102 degrees Fahrenheit. Nowsheen is not well. Her body temperature has further risen since we have come back home. I am restless as I see the pale boy’s face whenever I close my eyes. I have to take her to GB Pant, the children’s hospital right next to Kashmir’s largest army cantonment.
I set out on my two-wheeler. Nowsheen in my brother’s lap.
On the way to the hospital, we are stopped thrice at paramilitary checkpoints. Seeing the baby they let us go.
I think it will be a general check-up for Nowsheen and we shall be on our way back home in a few minutes.
My heart stops beating when the nurse uses a small torch with a red beaming light on Nowsheen’s tiny hands, trying to detect the vein so that she can insert a needle in it.
Doctors have admitted Nowsheen. They fear some infection. Her blood samples have to be taken for tests. I have been asked to bring her mother to the hospital.
Communication lines are still shut. I go back home on my two-wheeler to bring Bushra leaving my brother with Nowsheen. She has been admitted in the ICU.
Back home, I again request my neighbour to drop us. Surgery and a week’s stay in a hospital have left Bushra exhausted, and in pain. But now she has to go through the rigmarole of walking out slowly, boarding a car, and then travelling to the hospital where we have to stay overnight.
We reach the hospital where I ask my brother to go back home with the neighbour. Nowsheen, while I was away, has been wired to a machine that checks her vitals. I close my eyes and see the pale baby boy and the inconsolable mother.
I open them and see Nowsheen and Bushra, who is crying silently now.
I make some space for Bushra to rest in the ICU just underneath the machine Nowsheen is attached to.
The tests results have come. Thankfully they are all normal.
Nowsheen’s body temperature reads 99 degrees Fahrenheit. I am leaving the hospital to get some breakfast for Bushra. The hospital canteen is shut.
It is Eid-ul-Azha today. At least the calendar says so.
On the roads leading home, there are paramilitary and police deployments at every corner. The curbs are stricter as authorities, I heard at the hospital, plan not to allow any Eid prayers today.
I have to cross Zero Bridge to reach home but have to make a detour as the roads through Ram-Munshi Bagh have been blocked by barbed wires.
At the Dalgate intersection, a police officer stops me, sees the patient admission card, and says, “you can go but the guys on the bridge won’t let you.”
I am ready to take my chances.
As I walk right in front of the J&K Bank Corporate headquarters, I see a massive line of armed personnel. Olive-green fatigues everywhere.
At Zero Bridge, a CRPF trooper runs towards me waving a baton as I wave back the hospital card.
“Go back or I will break your bones,” he shouts, refusing to even listen to what I have to say.
It is dangerous to argue and I have had enough of hospital time in the past one week. So I head back, without any food.
Back at the hospital, I manage to get a few pieces of bread from another attendant. Bushra eats some slices and drinks a glass of water. Her perseverance and patience amidst all this have strengthened me as well.
The doctor tells me that we can go home.
I don’t have a vehicle. The phone lines are off. I can’t call my neighbour (even if I could, he wouldn’t have been able to come). I can’t go back home. My only option is an ambulance. For the next few hours, I request the hospital officials for arranging one for us.
The Medical Superintendent understands my situation. Dozens of patients have been discharged today, but are stuck.
Finally, we sit in an ambulance as it drives through a maze of checkpoints, and hundreds of gun-wielding troopers.
“Eid Mubarak,” the ambulance driver wishes me as he drops us home.
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