On a wintry day in Kashmir, a woman named Misra, conversed with a portrait, in a rundown neighborhood of the capital city Srinagar.
Her firm voice sounded as fresh as the night before they last talked — some three decades ago.
“My dear,” she talked to the portrait nailed on the wall opposite to her, “this pain didn’t let me sleep for the whole night, not even an hour. May Lord bestow His mercy on me!”
These conversations from that poorly-lit room never reached the world outside where years of turmoil had badly battered the erstwhile abode of artisans—who once thrived on their skillful hands. But as the raging strife triggered curfews and clampdowns in the region, these men of art were rendered workless and were forced to earn their living through menial tasks, like running a street cart.
Apart from those anxious artisans, natives and internally-displaced families from the frontier towns and conflict-torn hamlets in Kashmir countryside wore long faces and a nonchalant body language in Mughal Mohalla, where the mother’s conversation was endless, astoundingly going on with the portrait of her son Shameem, since 1990.
That year when a chilling winter numbed the valley, Misra’s son was dragged inside a cinema turned camp. He never walked out alive.
After consumed by conflict, he became a ‘living portrait’ on the wall, perpetually staring at his mother reciting rosary.
Time inside that melancholic room was still stuck in the 90s, when the mother’s homeland was reverberating with the collective cry. It was the time when Mujahedeen were routing the legendary Red Army of World War-II in Afghanistan and thus ending the seething Cold War. Taking cue of the shifting sands in global order, some young Kashmiris pushed New Delhi to fulfill its promise of holding plebiscite in the disputed region. The promise was made by India’s first Prime Minister JawaharLal Nehru in the United Nations in late 1940s.
But by late eighties, as the call became vocal, government of India rushed additional troops to throttle the cries for the right to self-determination. Soon as armed clashes between Kashmiri militants and Indian military started, the landscape changed. Curfews, curbs and crackdowns at once became new normal.
Like others, Misra sensed the impending trouble. In her neighborhood, she had seen and heard young boys being arrested during nocturnal raids or crackdowns. Fearing for her son’s life, she sent him to his uncle’s place, which was relatively calm.
Recalling that harrowing time with the sense of anxiety, she glued her sunken eyes to the portrait. It seemed she expected a reply from it.
Those searing memories had made Misra Shah, who was ‘MassiTeath’ (beloved sister) for her family and neighbours, a mystic. Her whispers were intermittently broken by the reigning silence in the tiny room pulsating with a lingering sense of loss and longing.
After passing his Class 10th on his mother’s insistence, Shameem mostly lived at his uncle’s house in Nigeen which was a few kilometers away from his home at Rainawari. But one day, towards the end of year 1990, he had to visit his home to attend his sick mother. He was supposed to come back by evening.
Throughout that day, Shameem helped his mother at home. “He was on a move, setting things in order for me,” Misra recalled her son’s caring nature. “Such was my Shameem, the fragrance of my life.”
That day, the son’s devotion changed her mind. Despite fretting over a sudden crackdown or nocturnal raids, she wanted Shameem to stay overnight.
“Once done with ironing my and his father’s clothes that evening,” recounted Misra, “I put his head in my lap to overcome the longing created by his absence.”
Misra felt relieved over that happy reunion. She even sang a lullaby for her son.
“Haa Khudayo haa mei kya koruthyae, raawruth ye myon luakchaar. Haa Khudayo haa mei kya koruthyae, womre manz easim ziea awlaad. Akh ous ealishaan akh nundibonyae, raawruth ye myon luakchaar…”
When she ended the song, Shameem gave her Rs 3000, saying, “Since you visit these new brides in the neighborhood, you should keep some change for gifting.”
Shameem then told Misra to put henna on his hair. She happily did it and everything was going fine until the mother felt a strange restlessness.
The trouble started when her mouth suddenly turned bitter and she asked her husband for some “shireen”—sweet meatballs.
To comfort his mother, Shameem mostly stood awake that night. Misra kept looking at her son’s anxious face with a strange longing. “Why are looking at me like this, Mouji?” Shameema asked her. “Are we meeting for the last time?”
Misra eventually got up from her bed to offer special night prayers hoping for some relief. “I couldn’t sleep for the whole night,” she said. “Something didn’t feel right, before I was shaken by sudden knocks on our door…”
Another dreadful dawn had arrived with the call of a crackdown in Kashmir. It was 18 December 1990.
A local resident dragged from his home was ordered by a posse of armed forces to announce through the public addressing system of a mosque: “Hazrat, please come out. Crackdown has been imposed.”
The locals were instructed to assemble in a nearby graveyard, which would later become a resting place for some of them.
Misra heard the ‘war bugle’ and regretted her decision to keep her son home last night — their cherished reunion. She was worried that the distinction between civilians and militants had blurred for the hostile troops in the valley. She was anxious about Shameem’s safety.
“Since most of those militants were Kashmiris, that made every one of us in Kashmir a militant supporter and sympathizer for Indian forces,” Misra said.
She quietly woke her son and husband. The paramilitary officer’s instructions were clear, “No male members should stay inside the house.”
Struggling to maintain calm, Misra made Shameem wear a new pheran and shoes. She also combed his hair.
She didn’t want him to look raggedy and hence suspicious. The mother was aware how boys with beard had become symbols of suspicion and conflict cannon-fodder. “But he wasn’t comfortable with what I was doing but I didn’t listen to him,” Misra said.
It was an icy-cold morning and Shameem along with his father and neighbors was about to go out into the crackdown where parade of men was like an acid test for natives caught in the throes of unending conflict. The men would embarrassingly be made stand in front of a jeep.
Inside that armoured jeep sat “cat” aka informer. He would press the horn to stamp the seal of militant or militant sympathizer on people.
“Before leaving for the parade,” Misra recalled the day of departure, “I gave Kangri to my son. He smiled and said, ‘Mother, don’t expect me to keep myself warm when people elder to me would be trembling with the cold out there’.”
After walking a few steps, Shameen looked back and came up to his mother.
“He hugged me and kissed my forehead, so did I,” she said. “He told me to recite a prayer to comfort and ease my condition.”
That day, Misra tried very hard to keep herself busy with chores but couldn’t. “He’ll be fine, just a few hours, and he’ll be back. He’s not alone there,” she kept murmuring.
By afternoon, everyone started returning after spending hours in the open sky and armed walls.
Misra was again on the gate with eyes glued at the lane where she had last seen her son.
“Zani ousum mahrni dramutt, tethkyan easis mahraazass pyaraan (I was waiting for my son, as if he had gone to get his bride),” the mother said.
Sensing an unusual body language from passersby, Misra shouted at a man, “Why isn’t anyone talking to me? Why are you turning your faces to the other side?”
From behind, the voice of her husband petrified her, “They took Shameem!”
The “cat” in the military jeep had sealed her son’s fate.
Misra couldn’t keep herself in illusions for long. The first thing she did was to pack all her jewelry and whatever she could and promise to give all in charity for her son’s safe return.
Days passed and everyday felt like a decade of longing to the mother. She was numb and within her heart hoping against hope.
Three days later, on the Friday afternoon, news of the detained boys being released reached her. Almost 20 young Kashmiris from different parts of Srinagar were taken along with Shameem.
She became hopeful and thought of sending her son back to his uncle’s house upon his return.
It was at that point, her husband expressed the burden that had fallen upon them: “Haa myaani shaheed gobrooo” (Oh, my dear martyr son).
With that piercing cry, Shameem, the fragrance of Misra’s life, forever faded. He had become yet another casualty at the altar of the carnages that occurred that year in Kashmir.
With all the funeral arrangements done, Misra stood at the gate to welcome her martyr son.
“I never thought the loose change he gave me would be used to greet him only,” Misra recalled.
“The brutality was quite evident on his smiling face and handsome body. I embraced my martyr and wailed: ‘Mouj ha chessai, myani gaasha!’ (Your mother is here, oh light of my eyes).”
Before reciting the prayer that Shameem had instructed, Misra recalled the final farewell, “He held my finger and opened his eyes. A stream of tears started flowing down his cheeks. I was numb; unaware of my own existence, but my martyr was alive.”
Misra walked away and didn’t look back. She was leaving a part of her existence there. But she was taking something along to stay with her for the rest of her life.
Months later, a visitor came to meet Misra.
He was her son’s co-captive inside the city’s torture centre-cum-paramilitary camp.
“He told me that Shameem had asked him to visit me if he gets out alive,” Misra recalled the man’s words. “The person told me that my son was killed the same day he was taken.”
Soon after what she called as her son’s “cold-blooded custodial killing”, Misra turned into a recluse, all the time reciting the prayers her son had asked her to recite:
“Yaa Ahadamanllah, Ahadallah, Wa Yaa Sanadamanllah Sanadallah, Enn Katta Rejaaellah Minka Najnee Mimmann Nafii (Oh God of those who have none but You, only You are by my side to bestow me).”
“I know Allah is with me,” said the faithful mother. “I feel the presence of my beloved son in this house, what else do I need?”
Before Shameem’s killing, Misra had already been suffering the torment of losing her elder son. He had been 8 years old when he fell into a well while playing with kids.
And since then, her only son Shameem would take care of her and her home.
“To me he is my daughter, my mother and my father,” Misra said, insisting on the word ‘is’. “He’s my martyr, my beloved son, my Shameem, the fragrance of my life…”
But perhaps, thirty years was a lot of time for a mother to stay in a frozen state. In that state, she even lost her ailing husband. And then in the crippled year of 2020, after braving the withering wait for three decades, Misra finally reunited with Shameem.
The invading cancer cells in her body just like her tormentors of the 90’s had finally reared their ugly head, and ended a warrior mother’s three-decade-long trauma on this earth.
Author’s Note: I visited Misra for almost 18 months and on every visit I heard from her the bits and pieces of the last 24 hours she spent with her son. At one point I was unsure of reaching any conclusion to the story she had been narrating but it came unexpectedly and out of my imagination. After the covid-19 lockdown was announced, I couldn’t visit her for a few months and once I did, my knocks on the door went unanswered. After talking to a lady in the neighborhood I came to know that Misra passed away in April 2020 alone in the room where her son’s portrait brandished her world. Only then was I sure of the only conclusion the story has where she finally reunites with her son in the world hereafter.