As Kashmir unlock phase has begun, many lockdown-battered youngsters caught in the Covid wave are battling the new normal within weary walls.
Saima Mir tiptoes towards her room with water-dripping hands after making her sixth washroom visit. The routine is slowly redefining this jovial person grown obsessed with constant cleaning. Sidestepping everything, she owes these recurrent visits to an irrational need to wash her hands with soap.
Whenever she hears news of someone reported COVID positive, she feels a sudden urge to wash her hands and her heart starts panicking.
She feels like worrying thoughts tighten inside her like an endless spiral.
“I was an over-thinker before,” says Saima, wearing a flustered face, “but now it has become alarming.” In her mid-twenties, Saima is a college student from Srinagar and has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She consumes stress relievers on the doctor’s advice these days.
“I still remember the first case of Covid reported in Kashmir last year,” she recalls her initial days of trauma.
“It was a woman from Khanyar. Although the area is about a few kilometers from here, the sense of panic and fear that it caused me was nothing like what I have ever felt.”
The spread of coronavirus, in its more vicious second wave, has unleashed a mental war of hopelessness and despair in the minds and souls of the youngsters in Kashmir.
The lockdown which lasted about 10 months last year to prevent the spread of this virus has cast deep, horrifying shadows in the budding lives of the valley.
Having spent months under lockdowns imposed by the government as ‘preventive measures’, the number of working days and opportunities to socialize and enjoy the simple things in life for the youngsters are insufficient.
From educational institutes to social gatherings, all have been barred. All an individual can do is to sit at home and watch the screens of their TV boxes and mobiles, as a story after story of the destruction unfolds on account of this pandemic.
For someone so young, Saima has already experienced a lot. She has had a fair share of problems in her family, but her mother says she has lived through it all, with her mental state clear and upfront.
“Anxiety, stress and tension might be foreign terms for people of my age but I’ve carried them with me all my life like a companion,” Saima mentions, proud of her strong character but her pride and strength seem to fall in the next moment.
“I could never fathom that these disorders I’ve made peace with throughout my life, can actually strangle me.”
Before the second viral wave, youngster like Saima was looking forward to her campus life. But as the cases in the city grew, she spent all her time between the closed walls of her room, haunted by the happenings outside of her courtyard.
“In the first few months, all I did to kill time was watch the news on TV and read reports and articles on the internet,” she says.
“The statistics were disturbing and slowly killed my sanity without even giving me any clue about it.”
It was the time when the colleges in Kashmir had opened for a little while after the lockdown which followed the abrogation of Article-370. And soon, the pandemic started and all educational institutes were closed down.
In her room, one day, Saima received a call from a friend who had tested positive. It was the time when Covid fear was still fresh and frightening.
“At the moment, I couldn’t function,” her lips quiver saying this. Staring at the ground as a tear wells up in her eyes, Saima says her brain had lost all sense of reality.
“Corona was not just a virus that was spreading in the whole world,” she continues with a low stammer which she forces with regret and remorse, “it felt like a massive wild beast that had come to devour my friend.”
She suffered a panic attack on the same day and was rushed to a nearby hospital where the doctor prescribed her medicines and advised that she make radical changes to her routine.
Saima’s generation has spent their childhood and youth against the backdrop of siege and solitude. With the onset of Covid-19, this wounded youth has turned to find peace and solace in things one regard as dangerous for the society.
Even before the current crisis, decades of violence in Kashmir had taken a physical and mental toll on the young and restless.
Nearly 1.8 million Kashmiris, or nearly half of all adults, have reportedly some form of mental distress.
Many Kashmiris using social media and online gaming to socialize, as it’s dangerous to hang out on streets, now feel completely isolated.
And with plague still dominating life in the valley, children remain cheerless and out of campus.
As Saima sits in the kitchen today, she catches a glance of her mobile wallpaper: a picture of hers taken in college.
She notices her fresh and cherished face in the picture, next to a pair of girls, all smiling at the camera. The days spent in this lockdown has turned her pale and her eye circles are rather darker.
But in these gloomy times, with her eyes stuck to horrifying scenes and dark corners of her room, Saima now prefers the members of her family and letters typed into pages.
In the hope of a better life for herself and her family, she tries to win this fight against the invisible enemy in her mind by following the safety protocols and at the same time enjoying the basic joys life has to offer.
She helps her mother with cooking and lends a hand in the cleaning as well. She has also started studying for her college exams.
Akin to Saima, Ali Khan is battling with his own share of lockdown blues.
His hoodie reeks of sweat and burnt tobacco: a perfect symbol of his life under lockdown.
Ever since the government announced a lockdown to curb the spread of the virus gone rogue, Ali has passed his days and nights restlessly in his room.
“At times, it feels like these walls are shrinking,” Ali says in a low tone. “They seem to be alive with only one motive: to squeeze me.”
In his 20s, Ali, like many other youngsters in Kashmir, is deprived of a social life. Rather than taking part in conversations with friends and family, he spends most of his time playing an online game called Players Unknown Battlegrounds (PUBG).
The game was believed to be extremely addictive by specialists and is even banned now in India.
“The lockdown has made me sick,” he says. “All I do is fade away my days playing PUBG in my closed room.”
Ali has tried to seek help from his parents but due to his daily aggression, they ignored it and blamed it on overthinking and the online game.
Some of these burdened buds of the valley tend to wither away after facing apathy and anger within walls.
Due to the prevailing predicament, suicidal tendencies are also building up in some of these young lot. A few months ago, Ali’s mind was also inhabited by the same thoughts.
“I wrote a note for my family but couldn’t do it,” he says.
What Ali says next is both horrifying and deep: “I sound like I’m a coward, don’t you think?”
It forces one to question the reasons of his sufferings and also brings us down to the fundamental issue of suicide and meaning of life.
Ali lives near the banks of Dal Lake in Srinagar. Every evening he steps out of his house with a mask over his mouth and nose, and carries a bottle of sanitizer with him.
He walks the deserted banks in dim light. When he covers a good distance from his home, he lights the tip of a cigarette with a plastic lighter.
The depressing conditions have forced him to find an alternate source of solace and peace. He has turned to the use of cannabis.
It’s on these silent banks of lake which would have looked joyful and busy under normal conditions, he drags puff after puff of tobacco and cannabis.
But sadly, when the rest of the world has taken up arms against mental issues, studying its causes and repercussions profoundly, dedicating research centers and treating the patients with the utmost care, Kashmir remains backward in this field.
The society here has generalized it and fails to recognize it. Someone suffering from a mental disorder or even exhaustion is labeled as ‘insane’ and left unattended.
Ali may have turned to cannabis and have a hopeless and depressing life, he still holds on in the hope of a change.
“I know I shouldn’t smoke and ruin my life like this, but this is a calamity. If it were not for this,” he says, pointing to his cigarette, “I wouldn’t even be alive today!”