^ Young girls and women have been attending the funeral processions of militants and civilians killed by the government forces and their presence has only increased in recent years. Photograph by Vikar Syed for The Kashmir Walla
“How can you live when everything around you is crumbling?’’
– Dedicated to the one, who never said why he left?
2018 was about to end. Everyone around the world was indulged in the Christmas, and I, feared of chilling weather outdoor, decided to sit inside and stay warm; hoping that the day will pass off peacefully, given the number of lives this year had already claimed.
Sitting next to my aunt, who was preparing Halwa for the family — forgetting what an unpredictable place Kashmir is — I immersed in the discussion with my mother regarding my future studies.
Losing it to the habit, I took my phone out of my pheran pocket. It had rung incessantly a while back, but unwilling to interrupt the conversation, I ignored it. I unlocked my phone, and the message I could read on my screen was:
“Massive clashes broke out between youth and Government forces at Anantnag, Kashmir after the killing of an MBA pass-out, local militant, Ishfaq Ahmad Wani of Koil area of Pulwama.”
The shiver went down my spine when I pored over the name — Ishfaq? — I jolted myself to remind the face I already knew. The image had blurred, though the memories were fresh.
While wishing for it to be fake, or not true, I was lost in another world. This name, Ishfaq, was familiar to me; he was my friend’s sister-in-law’s nephew, but moreover, he was my classmate at tuitions and college a few years back. Suddenly, the women’s wail burst my thoughts, and I rushed downstairs tumultuously. A few women had assembled in the courtyard of my friend — the relative of Ishfaq — This was bound to happen, I thought, as this is how the lives of rebels end in Kashmir.
But, how Ishfaq — a brilliant student, an MBA graduate, and a banker — recent topper in the Master’s degree and, as per his aunt, planning to study abroad, ended up picking a gun?
The Ishfaq I knew
It was December 2009 when I first joined the coaching center located in my area. A young boy with a decent attitude, verve, and enthusiasm to participate in class discussions, Ishfaq’s smiling face would tell a hundred stories. He would always be absorbed in reading books or laughing with his friends. His height would always make him stand out in his friend circle.
Citing the cold of Kashmir, I would usually get late for the morning class of chemistry, being greeted by the insulting teacher saying, “why don’t you buy an airplane to attend my class on time?”
Once he gave us an assignment about some reaction related to organic chemistry. Next day, as usual, I was late for my class. When I reached halfway, I saw Ishfaq few steps away from me. He smiled, and as evident on his face, he was worried.
“Are you also late?” l asked him.
He nodded and admitted that he forgot the assignment, and said, “I did it this morning when I woke up. That’s why I am late.”
“Assignment?” I panicked, and I remembered that I left it back home.
“Don’t worry. You can show my assignment,” Ishfaq responded soberly.
I was reluctant to accept the offer. But he said, “If you fail to submit the assignment, Mohiuddin sir will be mad at you. Unlike you, I’m not late every day, so I am not worried.” Our eyes met and we both laughed.
That day, I realized how kind he was to everyone. He came to me as a savior, that too, when he wasn’t even my friend.
Same yet different Ishfaq
Hearing the neighboring cries on the fateful day of his death — wishing to see his face one last time — I rang my friend and we both decided to join him on his last journey. Amidst the rattling gunfire, quivering over the horizon, and teargas choking the last air to breathe, I and my friend followed another path, safer in comparison, to reach his homeland.
An elderly woman was wailing like anything. Someone asked her, “he was your relative?” A girl, accompanying her, replied, “No, he was not.’’ A thought struck me: “maybe death is that one thing in every conflict region that can make total strangers shed tears for each other.” By the time we reached his final destination, the graveyard was already filled with thousands of people, including women and children, but all I could search for was his last sight.
I stood on a high cliff of the graveyard to get the glimpse of his face. When the funeral procession reached the burial site, one could spot his body — hoisted on the shoulders of mourning crowd, a sea of people around him to touch his feet or move their hands over his face — he looked different now. He had grown a beard.
I stood tip-toe for a moment and rested finally realizing he was the same Ishfaq I had known in my school days. He seemed to be smiling at the crowd. His head, draped in a bandage, and body in a blue blanket, wrapped tightly around him, like a motherly hug. I overheard women asking each other not to mourn but sing paeans, glorifying their fallen hero.
Though I couldn’t control my emotions and tears were coursing down my face. I cried as if I was standing on a summit of some mountain, with thousands of trees towering high in front of me, and I asked, shouting at nature, “How many more Ishfaqs is it going to snatch from us?”
And all I got back was my rhetoric voice.