In Nund Reshi’s totem town turned cindering community on May 12, 1995, a young couple was fighting their own loving hearts amidst the larger confrontation. 26 years later, the ‘better half’ recounts her lost love in this deeply-intimate first-person account.
‘Please, don’t do it! He’s a dissident, you never know what could happen to him tomorrow,’ my elder sister pleaded before me with folded hands in a bid to convince me against marrying the man I loved.
I don’t know if it was the cecity of love or the naivety of my youth but I could never imagine him dead. I was well aware of the unpredictability of the life he had chosen for himself and yet, whenever I looked at him, something assured me of his safety – of the future I had dreamt of with him – off the long walks in the evening and warm mornings.
Perhaps, that’s the reason why, when I sat beside him for the last time his face looked so full of life to me. Like he was suddenly going to call me by my name, as usual, and I was going look at him sheepishly and answer. I caressed his plush hair. It was a little wet. I remembered how much he hated his hair. He often said that he wanted it to be a bit curly. I thought the blood on his hair would soak in after a while and make his hair a little rough and curly, the way he liked it.
His bullet-ridden body was covered in a white sheet; I didn’t want to look at the rest of it. I just kept my gaze on his beautiful face. I wanted to memorize the minute details: the mole on his right cheek, the bridge between his nose and forehead, the single strand of grey hair in his beard.
It had been just a little over a couple of months to our wedding. We were staying at my parents’ place. It was safer for him there for it was right in the middle of the main residential space of our town.
Besides, the architecture around was very compact. Some houses even had common walls. From our roof, one could just canter over the houses and reach some other end of the vicinity.
‘This would be our first Eid together, I wish everybody was here,’ I said making the bed while he was just about done with his evening prayers. It was the 8th of May 1995, two days before Eid-Ul-Adha.
‘These are desperate times; you should have left with your siblings too. It is not safe here anymore,’ he replied a little pensively. My siblings along with my mother (like most of the people from the town) had fled. They were at my maternal home in Srinagar. Father and I stayed back.
‘If I leave, you will have to come too. Otherwise, I am going nowhere,’ I reiterated. He didn’t reply. We had had this conversation before as well, and by then I had figured out how to stop it.
Just when I was about to doze off I heard an explosion. My heart skipped a beat. I got up and lit a candle. The electricity had been cut off for more than a week. By then he had also woken up. He asked me what was wrong. Before I could answer my father knocked on the door. I quickly put my scarf on and opened the door.
‘Fire has broken out in a nearby mosque. It is probably because of a gas cylinder or something,’ said father. He told us that he would go and have a look and instructed us to lock the door from inside.
For the next hour or so, I held on to his arm like a child-a terrified child. I had that dreaded sensation in my gut telling me something terrible was going to happen but his presence always gave me that slight sense of calm. That little tinge of faith and hope.
At around midnight I heard something again. This time though, both of us did.
‘They have opened fire on us,’ he said looking for his combative gears. I remember feeling my limbs lifeless and a strange numbness in my body. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t speak. All I could do was tighten my grasp on him and thinking I would never let him leave.
With every passing second, the firing was only getting louder and more frequent. The whispers were true. The army was going in for the kill, or considering geography and my relationship with the equation, ‘coming in for a kill’ should be more apt.
He asked me to get dressed. The next thing I remember- we were slinking through the alleys of Charar-i-Sharif.
From a distance, we could see the flames. The fire had escalated inexplicably. It had burnt a few houses and shops already. We could also hear gunshots, one after the other, though we didn’t understand where exactly they were coming from or who exactly they were being fired at.
The armed forces had cordoned off the area for a couple of months leading up to that day. The presence of a few foreign militants had brought the spotlight on the town otherwise known for its shrine and spirituality. No matter how much I was hoping against the hope, a confrontation had seemed inevitable lately.
He took me to one of his cousins’. She lived on the outskirt of the town so he thought I would be safer there.
‘They won’t allow fire tenders to come in, so we need to help people get their stuff out before it is all burnt,’ he told Shameema’s husband. Before leaving, he held my hand, told me to take care of myself, and promised that he would be back in the morning. I was reluctant at first but then he managed to convince me, as he always did.
I didn’t sleep that night. Through a windowpane, I could only see the flames burning the place I grew up in and hear the screams of panic and despair. By then I had known that our home would burn too and along with it my jewelry, my clothes, and, my childhood memories-basically all that I had ever owned. It didn’t matter much though, as long as he was safe, as long as he came back to me.
He did come back in the morning. And even in that time of unforeseen travesty, there was a smile on his face. We spent that whole day together. I clinched on to him all the time. Wherever he went I followed.
The next day, the 10th of May was the first day of Eid. Needless to say that nobody celebrated. You don’t celebrate when everything around you is burning, you mourn for yourself and everyone around you. In a way, we all did celebrate actually. What better way is there to celebrate the festival of sacrifice than sacrificing your home?
Sacrificing your loved one maybe! But I was going to do that too, in a few hours.
‘The army is closing in. We need to regroup and plan our defense,’ I heard someone telling him on his wireless set.
‘I won’t let you go,’ I said crying, and snatched his radio. ‘We will shave your beard and colour your hair and leave in the evening. They won’t recognize you. We will stay in Srinagar for a few days and come back when this ends or we will never come back, we don’t need to.’ He looked at me, squinted at me, and shook his head in agreement.
Around noon he came up to me with a glass of pomegranate juice he had prepared himself.
‘You are pregnant and you have barely eaten or slept these days. Take this, and get some rest. We are leaving in the evening,’ he said.
I remember feeling dizzy right after I drank the juice. I don’t know how and when I slept. I woke up in the middle of the night in a pitch dark small room. At first, I thought I was dead and buried. Then I heard the gunshots, which were way louder than they were the day before. They assured me I was alive unless there are conflicts in the afterlife too.
I immediately checked for him. He wasn’t there. It took me a few minutes to realize where the door was and half asleep I rushed outside. Shameema and her husband were sitting right outside. They told me he would be back in the morning.
‘How could he leave without telling me,’ I shouted at them like they were responsible. They understood my frustration and tried to calm me down. But I knew why he left like that because I wouldn’t have let him if I was awake.
When you die, you just die; just a flash, and you are gone. But, the next day on the 11th of May that bloody year, I died a million deaths. I died with every shot that was fired. I died with every grenade that burst. I died after every footstep I heard that wasn’t his.
If I had known where to look for him I would have run to him. All I did that day was looking through the window.
And long for a single sight of his. Just before dusk, I heard someone knocking on the door. I ran towards the door. It wasn’t him. It was my father. I wanted to ask my father if he had seen him but I was too shy to ask my father about my husband. So, I eagerly waited for him to speak.
Father sat down and asked for water. I went to the kitchen and with my hands shaking poured a glass of water.
When I was coming back I heard my father saying that some of the rebels were dead, some had fled and others were trapped in the shrine and mausoleum. My heart sank; I felt something inside my body churning my chest and my head. I couldn’t stand on my feet anymore. My vision blurred out and I fainted.
I don’t have any memories of that day after that. What I do remember though, and what will always be fresh in my memory is a huge explosion an hour or so before the dawn. Everything went silent after that. There were no bullets after that, no grenades either, only wails and silence.
That morning, on May 12, I heard his name on the radio news. The man who read the news mispronounced his name but, it was enough for me to run bare feet to see him for the last time. I ran through the alleys I had grown up playing in. I saw the shop where I used to take my younger brother to buy cotton candies, the school I went to as a child, the tailor’s shop where we met for the first time, the shrine my mother thought was there for our protection, the mausoleum my father used to pray in while I waited for him on the stairs-I saw my whole world reduced to a rubble of ashes.
But, most of all I saw the man I was supposed to live my whole life with wrapped in white sheet – dead.
At that moment in time, I thought of killing myself. There was nothing in me left to fight anymore. It is ironic how he was a fighter and it was me who had to always fight: fight with my family to marry him, fight with him to run away and live, and in retrospect fight for my survival after him.
And, like my hometown, I chose to fight and live on for there was another life in my womb to live for.
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