When the boys carry the stretcher through the narrow swampy street, there is rage even in their steps. Suddenly the slogans sound like rhythmic wails. A child watches from a window as an elderly woman holds him tight and then showers almonds and sweets. Few fall on the body, wrapped in a colourful blanket.
It is already dark and the mourners try to find their way, guided by the light of their cell phone torches. Fida Nabi (17) is returning home one last time and his funeral procession is like a volcano of anger, a little confrontation with the security men can trigger a violent protest.
The government has already decided to re-impose curfew after a day of hiatus and now officials are waiting anxiously to know the family’s plan to bury this teenager. Fida had been at the fore front of several protests. Tonight dozens of his teenager friends, assembled from across the downtown city, are seething with anger. Afuneral procession in the day meant trouble so the streets are emptied off police and security men way ahead of time to avoid confrontation. The police officers are encouraging the family to conduct the burial in the dark ofida nabif the night. The local police officer sends a message too. The orders have come from the top and pleas were followed by threats – we won’t allow more than 15 people to accompany the body after the sun rise.
The elders don’t discuss the proposals of the police. They consult each other in whispers. The anger has spilled over the streets and with each passing moment more boys are arriving. There is something very common among Fida’s friends – their eyes are moist, wails hoarse and each one of them carries a large piece of green or black cloth mask covering their heads. For a moment, they act adult and shout political slogans. Then the pain of losing a dear friend reaches its threshold and they cry like little boys. Few are accompanied by mothers too. During this latest wave of mass protests here, teenagers have formed the forward lines of the Azadi groundswell as if the baton of the struggle has been silently handed over to them.The police and CRPF often open fire and they take bullets as well – in chest, neck and head. This real threat of death, however, has not deterred them to come out on the streets.
It is clear that the children born during and after the first uprising of 1990 have finally come of age.
“We have seen, heard and felt this war from the time we came to our senses. There are hardly any happy memories.’’ Fida’s friend Nisar (name changed on request) says.
” I have seen the first funeral while I was in my mother’s lap. My mother had to carry me along when I was just eighteen days old. Her cousin had been killed and she couldn’t bear to stay home. Of course I don’t remember it but my mom has repeated even the minutest details of it so many times that it has become an essential part of our family lore’’. He says Fida is his second friend to die in CRPF firing in a week’s time.
Fida’s story is tragic and it has in a way come to symbolise the tale of an entire generation, born in the conflict, during these protests. I dig a bit deeper to know Fida and the picture that emerged fits any regular teenager. He loved trendy clothes, wore a ring for good luck and carried a friendship band around his wrest.
In a photograph clicked by his older brother Aabid recently, he stands as if a model is posing to promote a jeans line. His jet black hair is cropped in style and it seems he has purposely let a few curls touch his left eye brow. He is wearing a golden colour necklace and his white shirt is spotless. But what caught my eye is his casual gaze. Like any 17-year-old, he tried to look hip. “He would never take his necklace off. It was a gift, perhaps,’’ recalls Aabid.
“He was more of a friend than a younger brother to me’’. Aabid says he had recently started wearing a Kuffiyeh – the Arab style scarves that became a statement of resistance after Yasir Arafat popularized it.
“He had seen a friend wearing it and got one too. He loved to do things that would make him stand out,’’ Aabid says. He says he saw him change recently.
“Ever since these protests started, he was restless and angry,’’ Aabid says. “I think he was very sensitive. Whenever a soldier or a policeman would stop us to show our identity cards or frisk us, he would feel angry. He thought they always look (forces) for a chance to humiliate us’’.
On August, 3, Fida had been at home in Usman Abad, a residential colony that has recently come up in the marshy paddy fields in the city outskirts. Eight months ago, his family had shifted from Nawabazar – a congested neighbourhood in politically volatile downtown. The construction of the house was yet to complete but Fida’s parents decided to move in anyway.
They wanted to take their three sons, particularly Fida, away from the downtown. Fida had quit school soon after he had passed the matric examination. Worried, his father Ghulam Nabi – who works as a salesman at a shop – had made him promise to appear in class 11 examination as a private student. He had also given him money to buy second hand clothes and helped him to put a cart in the Sunday Market along the residency road.
Aabid says Fida liked this new arrangement. He would work on Sundays and have all week free for fun. But he couldn’t carry on for too long. Again his father intervened and this time helped him (Fida) to find a salesman’s job at an acquaintance’s shop. “He was working at Sana garments in Safakadal these days,’’ Aabid says.
Once the current wave of protests started, Fida became restless.
“The shop is in the middle of the downtown city. He knew several among the boys who were protesting. His friends had been injured too while protesting. Many of them had been arrested bythe police,’’ Aabid recalls.
“He was there when Tufail (On June, 11, Tufail Ahmad Mattoo (17) who was killed when a policeman fired a plastic pellet straight on his head, killing him instantaneously and triggering this latest wave of protests) was buried’’. The garment shop was shut because of the unrest, but every day Fida would leave home to join his friends in downtown.
“He never wanted to come to this new house. He would tell us that each time he comes to this new house, he feels he has left his heart in those narrow lanes of the old city. He was a boyfrom the old city’’.
Fida seemed to have loved the congestion and mess of the old city – an affection that was not one sided.
That day, he had been playing carrom with his younger brother and few visiting friends at the family’s new house.
“He didn’t like it here in Usman Abad but once we shifted here, he had made few friends in the neighbourhood,’’ Aabid says.
The government had clamped a strict curfew over the city but there were reports that boys were defying it everywhere. Fida had been talking to his friends on phone. His brother Aabid had not come home for a week ever since he had gone to cover protests in Baramulla because of the curfew. Aabid takes pictures for a local newspaper. “I had called home in the morning. He didn’t let me talk to mom properly and snatched the phone from her. He wanted to talk to me. He sounded cheerful,’’ Aabid recalls. “He wanted me to come home. I was insisting even as I told him there is curfew. When I recall that conversation, I feel perhaps he had a premonition ’’.
His mother Zahida Nabi had pleaded with him not to step out. “I won’t let you go out today. It’s scary out there,’’ Zahida recalls.
So he stayed home. At 6.30 in the evening, a large procession had assembled on the main road. Fida heard the sounds of the slogans and couldn’t stop himself. He stepped out, escaping the eye of his mother. The procession was going towards the city. By the time his mother Zahida knew, he had run to join the protest. A large contingent of police and CRPF had already arrived to prevent the protestors to enter the city at Shaltang junction.
“I saw him standing near the parapet. I was about to call him and suddenly there was firing. I saw him holding his face with his hands and then he fell down,’’ Fida’s uncle Mohammad Amin recalls. “A bullet fired by a CRPF men ricocheted off a rock and pierced through his cheek. He was lying there. There was chaos all around and I couldn’t go closer’’. Finally, Fida was picked up and rushed to hospital.
For five days, his mother waited patiently in the corridor outside the Intensive Care ward of Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences, occasionally slipping in to see him breathe. At 10.15 pm on Sunday, Fida died. The doctor pulled the sheet over his head and walked away silently. “He’s alive,’’ Zahida Nabi screamed, putting her ear close to his chest to hear that little sound of life. Then she pulled her hair and tried to suckle him as if he was a baby. ” Wake up my son– wake up – just once. I promise I will never scold you again,’’ she shouted, pleading with her dead son as if to break his sleep.
The family and friends too were around and they rushed to arrange an ambulance to Fida home. “I didn’t know what to do. So I started calling friends,’’ Aabid recalls. “He died. Can you imagine? He is only 17. Have you seen his pictures? He was a handsome boy,’’ Aabid says and breaks down.
“I just wish I had been with him. I want to see him one time the way he used to be. The bullet had disfigured his face. I want to see him smile. Oh God. Why did this happen?’’
Every human being has a measure of protection against pain. I feel I have reached my threshold. For years, I have witnessed blood and gore and felt numb but Aabid’s words pierce through my protective shell. The wails suddenly feel like sharp daggers, slicing through my heart. I didn’t know how to respond and walk away slowly. A few yards ahead, a group of boys are sitting silently in a dark corner. I join them. Their attire suggests they are all Fida’s friends. I am unable to see their faces and gauge the mood. But I start anyway and begin with small talk. They are forthcoming. Perhaps they have seen me talk to Aabid which gives them the confidence. These boys generally avoid talking to reporters. In fact, they detest media and are convinced that their story is always distorted. Did he throw stones? I ask. “Yes but only when the police and CRPF stopped the procession. I do too,’’ his friend, who didn’t give his name, says. “We want Azadi. We shout protest and shout slogans. The police and CRPF don’t like it. They try to catch us and we throw stones’’. He says Fida is a martyr. “His blood won’t go waste,’’ he insists. His voice is hoarse – perhaps he has been shouting slogans for days. I didn’t ask. Although the boys are polite, I can feel the anger.
A few yards ahead, an elderly man tries to convince a large group of angry teenagers to let them bury him (Fida) in the local graveyard. It is evident that the elders feel the situation can go out of control. “They (police and CRPF) won’t allow us even to reach the main road during the day. They won’t let us go all the way to Nawabazar and then to Shaheed Mazar (Eidgah) to bury him. They are saying only 15 people can accompany his body,’’ an elder tells the boys. The teenagers are angry and are in no mood to budge. Their plan is to take the body to Nawabazar in downtown, wait for the sunrise and then take out a funeral procession to the neighbouring Eidgah where they want to bury him in `Behishtay Shohdaye Kashmir’. This graveyard is the biggest in the valley and was exclusively set up for all those men and women who were killed by security men during the last two decades. Hundreds of militants too are buried there.
There is chaos and a few elderly women too pitch in to convince the boys. At one point, the teenagers give in. The elders organize Jinaza, the funeral prayer, in a hurry and the body is taken towards the local graveyard in neighbouring Parimpora. On their way, the boys change their mind and place the stretcher carrying Fida’s body on the Srinagar-Baramulla highway. Minutes ago, an army convoy had passed through and the elders apprehend a clash. After a lot of pleading, the boys agree to bring the body back home.
Fida’s body is placed in the middle of a tent, erected in an empty plot of land, especially for the mourners. Dozens of women encircle it. Soon Fida’s mother Zahida Nabi brings henna to paint the little finger of his left hand – a local custom to prepare a groom before he leaves to the bride’s home. “He is a groom. He is a groom,’’ Zahida repeats. The crowd gets hysterical. And as the blanket is lifted off his face for a final glimpse, a few women shower almonds and sweets on his body. Fida’s mother starts singing dirges in Kashmiri.
“Don’t die so soon my son– your nails are still wet with henna – Oh my friend – Oh my beloved son – won’t you miss me,’’ she sang as everyone repeated.
“Oh my martyr – Oh my martyr, are you thirsty – are you thirsty’’. Soon Fida’s teenager friends start shouting Azadi slogans. Zahida starts franticly hugging Fida’s body. There is a girl, holding Fida’s feet and crying silently. Hours later Aabid tells me, Fida was seeing her. “She is devastated. They have had a little fight that morning and she wouldn’t take his calls,’’ he says. “Now she will never get a chance to talk to him (Fida) again’’.
The police had been consistently sending messages asking not to delay the burial till the morning. Sensing the tension, a group of elders finally yield to the pressure of the boys and decide to quickly arrange for a truck to take the body to Nawabazar. “They won’t let us bury him here. So let’s see what happens once we reach Nawabazar,’’ an elder says. At around 3 am, the funeral procession finally leaves. The city is dark and empty – the security men have retreated to their sand bunkers and camps. The elders, however, don’t take chances and guide the truck through narrow lanes to avoid security bunkers. “We don’t want to even take a slight risk. We are avoiding to pass by any security bunker,’’ says Masood Ahmad, a businessman and a neighbor of the family. “The boys are shouting slogans and if they (security men) react angrily, there will be a massacre’’.
In Nawabazar, the boys jump off the truck and quickly make an announcement over the mosque loudspeaker. A CRPF man walks out slowly to check but returns to his bunker immediately. Soon the residents start waking up and come out in dozens, rubbing their eyes. Another funeral prayer is organized – this time right in the chowk. The security men watch from the pigeon holes of their bunker but don’t venture out. Perhaps, there are orders not to confront the people tonight.
The residents remember him and his four childhood friends, playing cricket in the inner lane on every strike day. Waseem, Bari, Suhail and Basit are all accompanying their bosom friend for his last journey.
“We have met and become friends here. We wanted to bring him here one last time,’’ Waseem explains.
“It means a lot to us. If anyone among was there in his place, he would have done the same’’.
Fida was born here. When he died, every family in Nawabazar wept for him. Even the children have come out in the dead of the night to bid him a final goodbye. “We have carried you in our laps – we have loved you – you were our boy with beautiful eyes – how can you leave us,’’ women wail as they stand in semi circles around the stretcher that carries his body. Fida is a son of a thousand mothers here. Though his father Ghulam Nabi was from Sopore, he had married in Nawabazar and soon left his ancestral home to live in a rented house, near his in-laws.
The boys pick up the stretcher again. Their plan is to keep the body inside the mosque and wait. A local cleric, however, intervenes and pacifies them. Finally, a procession moves towards the Eidgah graveyard.
At 5 am, Fida is buried next to his friend Anees who was killed last week. “He (Fida) had come and helped dig the grave and carry mounds of earth,’’ his friend Waseem recalls. “We didn’t know, he is the next’’.
It is already dawn. The sky over Srinagar is overcast. Within an hour, the soldiers will be again on the streets to impose curfew.
PS: Fida’s friends tried to organize a blood donation camp at his house in Usman Abad neighbourhood but the police didn’t allow the officials of the Blood Bank from SMHS hospital to come.
Courtesy:Muzammil Jaleel for The Indian Express