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Shahid Iqbal at his friend Talib Laway’s home with his mother. (Right) Shahid carrying his friend Talib in the orchards. Photograph by Saide Zahoor for The Kashmir Walla

It’s been six months since Talib Laway’s death, but his 18-year-old best friend Shahid Iqbal is still meeting him.

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Amid the cloud of sadness, and longing for Mr. Iqbal, as he says, after 40 days of Mr. Laway’s burial, “One day he walked into my house and I hugged him tightly,” said Mr. Iqbal. Being overwhelmed, Mr. Iqbal was about to tell his friend how he missed him, only to open his eyes—draining wet—to realize it was a mirage.

“Everything felt so real; from his oiled hair to his worked up hands,” said Mr. Iqbal. “But, it was just a dream. I cried whole night, realizing he had died.”

Last time, around some 20 days ago, as Mr. Iqbal remembers, he met Mr. Laway sixth time since his death; this time, in an orchard, where they had spent their childhood together, spending time after school sometimes while helping the family other times. “When I saw him, tears roll down my eyes,” said Mr. Iqbal.

His Death

On 21 October 2018, after a banal to-do-list of best friends, both Mr. Laway and Iqbal went home. As the night took over, Mr. Iqbal dialed his counterpart and had a chat about the upcoming semester exams in their college. The call lasted for 1 minute and 28 seconds; screenshot of which resides by Mr. Iqbal’s side. “These screenshots are his last memories with me,” said Mr. Iqbal. “It will stay by my side forever.”

After dropping the call, both went to bed. Gunshots broke Mr. Iqbal’s sleep at around 4 am. As per him, he thought of it as a norm, but soon realized it was an encounter between government forces and trapped militants. “I couldn’t sleep afterward,” he said and added that so didn’t Laroo village, Kulgam district.

He also saw Mr. Laway, alongside his uncle, who lives next door, trying to get an inkling of the situation by peeking through their roof, only to be scolded by a superintendent of police to back-off. Mr. Iqbal’s attempt to call was barred by snapped phone services.

By dawn, the gunfight ended with the killing of three Jaish-e-Mohammad militants and forces left the gunfight site to be thronged by the intrigued villagers, which was merely a few meters away from the residences of Mr. Iqbal and Laway.

A strewn shell exploded and tore apart the grief of villagers. As the dust rose, seven civilians lost their lives to the unsanitized encounter site. The scenes resembling those in war-torn countries like Syria and Iraq ran on news channels and social media—wailing women, men carrying dead bodies, and children crying the pro-freedom slogans anguished the scenic valley of Kashmir.

In a parallel world, Mr. Iqbal fought with his parents and ventured out of the house to witness the apocalypse. The scenes weren’t a norm in Kashmir. “People were running helter-skelter, carrying bodies on whatever came by, bikes and cars,” recalled Mr. Iqbal.

“Where could Talib be?” was all he could think. When he reached in the vicinity of the site, a teacher of Mr. Iqbal asked him to meet Mr. Laway, his best friend, in the hospital, as he had served injuries. As Mr. Iqbal recollects now, his teacher knowing their acquaintance, lied.

As Mr. Iqbal walked down the corridor in the hospital, his eyes met a familiar pair of shoe. “I kissed him one last time and didn’t look at his face,” said Mr. Iqbal. “I could not believe my friend had died.”

Mr. Iqbal only read his better half’s funeral prayers, and the unwillingness in believing of Mr. Laway’s death, he left the graveyard before his burial.

He went to the grave a month after Mr. Laway’s death to remove the fallen snow. “I did not want to feel that he has died,” said Mr. Iqbal. “But, then he asked me in my dream, ‘Why don’t you visit?’”

Unsanitized depression

Shahid Iqbal.
Shahid Iqbal

It’s been six months to his friend’s death, and Mr. Iqbal is losing his will to live to depression and despair. However, now, he seeks solace in taking care of the alienated mother and sister of Mr. Laway.

Mr. Laway’s family had a harsh life. His father, Maqbool Laway set himself ablaze in 2002 when Talib was merely 2-years-old. His mother, Naseema, 45, an Anganwadi worker, is left with a 19-year-old daughter.

“Looking after my friend’s family heals me,” said Mr. Iqbal. As per him, for a month he couldn’t get sleep, and “Heart was falling heavy on me. I feared of heart-attack,” said Mr. Iqbal.

As he jolts himself to get over despair, he has reached a point where he cannot sleep without medication.

Sitting in one-storey house of Mr. Laway, Mr. Iqbal confesses that he understands he can never become Talib, but sharing the grief of mother of his friend is not merely a duty but a reason to live; “I miss Talib every day. And I ask God to take me to Talib, but then I look at his family and that’s when I tell myself that in order to keep Talib happy, I need to look after his family,” Mr. Iqbal explained.

Nowadays, Mr. Iqbal spends most of his time at Mr. Laway’s place—except nights, they aren’t easy for him. “I have decided that till didi (sister) gets married, I will look after the family and make sure they don’t feel his absence,” said Mr. Iqbal. “No matter what I need to sacrifice.”

Mr. Laway died on the day he was supposed to sit in his last paper for the previous year of Bachelor of Arts. Following his death, Mr. Iqbal cleared exams, but the idea of ‘Talib holding B.A.’ if he was alive, kill him from inside. “Now, he is nowhere, only the things that he said before dying remain,” said Mr. Iqbal. “That’s what I carry with me—his memories and my dreams.”