Kashmir Hurriyat leaders, Hurriyat detentions in Kashmir, kashmir detentions, August detention of hurriyat leaders
Yaseen Atai writing a ghazal for his wife at his residence in Srinagar. Photograph by Umer Asif for The Kashmir Walla.

Yaseen Atai sat on the other end of the hall. His eyes wandered as if he wanted to locate something or someone. He was home after having spent a year incarcerated in a jail outside Kashmir and yet an air of despondency engulfed the modest home in central Kashmir’s Budgam.

After a long pause, he broke the uneasy silence as he recited a ghazal that he had written for his wife, Sakeena Atai, during his incarceration. 

Aao sajhaon tujhe dil ke guldaan mein/Gungunao mere liye, mere mehmaan khan mein/Udh ke dhundhun tujhe aasmaan mein/Tu pari soorat… (Come, oh flower, let me place you in the vase of my heart/Croon for me in my soirée/I will fly in the sky to find you/Oh, you fairy…)” 

But Mr. Yaseen abruptly stopped. For a brief moment, a warm smile drowned the dejection, the 63-year-old softly said: “My wife was beautiful.” In jail, he had longed to meet Ms. Sakeena and when he was released, he had hoped that his yearning would finally end. 

“I shouldn’t mention it now,” he said, his voice wavered as he spoke, “but I’m dying on the inside.”

A pro-freedom activist since his youth, Mr. Yaseen was among the hundreds of political leaders and activists who were sent to jail as New Delhi prepared for the unilateral abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomy on 5 August 2019. He had been arrested from his home just the day before the abrogation.

A full-time political activist with the Ashraf Sehrai led Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, Mr. Yaseen was released from jail on 8 August, this year. A day later, he arrived at the Srinagar airport to be received by his brother; at whose home in the Ompura town, the Atai family has lived for years.

Mr. Yaseen quarantined himself at a cousin’s house nearby, where his two children came to visit him. His wife, however, did not. Mr. Yaseen immediately asked for her but was told that she was unwell, he recalled. “No-one explicitly said anything to me,” he said. “They dodged conversations about her.”

Initially, Mr. Yaseen had thought that his wife would visit him the next day but when she did not, his patience ran out and he, again, asked his 16-year-old son, Azam Yaseen, about Ms. Sakeena’s whereabouts. This time, Azam told him that “she has been hospitalized.”

The following day, Mr. Yaseen called a relative who worked in the local hospital but was again not given any clear answer. He had wanted to speak to Ms. Sakeena over the phone but was told that mobile phones were not allowed owing to hospital protocols.

Mr. Yaseen felt restless and anxious about his wife’s absence. “Please tell me, or I might die of a heart attack. Would you want that?” he recalled having told his son. At this point, Azam had begun to talk to Mr. Yaseen about the suddenness of death and grief, with references in religion.

“Everybody has to die. We’re all going to die, she [Ms. Sakeena] did,” as he pushed back his tears, Mr. Yaseen stammered as he recalled the abrupt manner in which Azam had informed him of the death of his wife of 21 years.

Ms. Sakeena, 50, had passed away on 9 July after a brief spell of illness, when Mr. Yaseen was still imprisoned, hundreds of kilometers away from Kashmir, at the Raebareli jail in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His yearning had now become eternal.

In the brief conversation with Ms. Sakeena on the day he was detained, Mr. Yaseen had told her that “I am sorry to have caused you pain.” His eyes welled up at the thought of his late wife. His next meeting–the last time he had seen and spoken to her–in jail had lasted for about half an hour. “Woh aakhri deedar tha, that was the last time I saw her,” he lamented.

For the year that Mr. Yaseen was held at the Raebareli jail, he wrote poetry and sang ghazals for Ms. Sakeena. Even though he was hundreds of kilometers away from home, she had remained close to him–in his memory and dreams, and in his ghazals and the songs that echoed in the jail.

In October 2019, Ms. Sakeena had visited him in Raebareli in a meeting that had severely depressed her, said Azam. “It was unbearable for her,” he said. “She just went quiet. That last meeting in jail had changed her.”

As he recalled another ghazal dedicated to his wife, Mr. Yaseen seemed to choke on his words and struggled to keep his moist and yet bloodshot eyes open. 

“Luk yeli haawni myonui mazaar, rawi dil-kui qarar/ Tan ma noun drakh, lukh ath san’nai/ Wan’nai czei ayar/Dapakh haa mazaro yitah mitcharnai..”

“When the people show you my grave, you will lose the peace of your heart/People will notice you were missing/They will call you guileful/You will cry for the grave to open…”

He added: “I lost a friend. A wife. A beautiful bond. A companion. A support system.”

Even in her last moments, Ms. Sakeena had only thought of her children and Mr. Yaseen. “Stay happy,” Azam recalled being told by her, “support your father throughout his life.” He had shared a close bond with her, as did his older sister, 18-year-old Safoora Atai. 

Ms. Safoora has cherished the relationship shared by her parents. “The relationship between my parents was precious and the bond that they shared was beautiful,” she said, in a gentle voice. “I never witnessed them fighting.” 

To Ms. Safoora, her mother courageously confronted hardships, without giving a hint of the toll it took on her and stood with her husband in both good and bad times but the separation last August had broken her. 

“She [Ms. Sakeena] felt burdened and stressed, which led to her health declining,” she said and added that her mother spent several nights sleepless and cried for hours. “I always had to console her to make her fall asleep.” Today, Mr. Yaseen often talked about his late wife. “If he speaks about [Ms. Sakeena], his eyes well up,” said Ms. Safoora.

In hindsight, Mr. Yaseen said, his family dodged questions about Ms. Sakeena as they had been at a loss of words and simultaneously had attempted to brace him for “the worst news” of his life. Mr. Yaseen visited Ms. Sakeena’s grave nine days after Mr. Azam had finally admitted to the fact that she had passed away. 

“My children forced me to go there. Otherwise, there was no strength left with me to see her rest in her grave,” he said, his heartbreak evident. “I am now dedicating my life to my children. They have suffered enough.”

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