What does it mean to remember martyrs in Kashmir?
The auto guy was baffled when I asked him for the directions for a particular person’s house. He said, irritably, ‘don’t you know any landmark near the house?’ I said, ‘Kazgari masjid’. He mocked me, ‘do you know how many homes are there around that masjid?’ I finally said the name; the code name, and he looked at me half questioningly and half disbelievingly. He confirmed the name again. With three swift movements of his hand, he showed me the home: ‘go straight, two rights, one vegetable shop, the third home from there, yellow building!’ The house was the landmark. The code name was of a mujahid, now ashaheed, and Kashmiris have remembered the roads leading to the homes of these long lost lovers ofazaadi.
What does it mean to remember martyrs in Kashmir? This question took me to the houses of some of the code names that people remembered on the banks of Jhelum one warm afternoon. The code names are always intriguing, some even funny. Take this one: ‘chatayi’ which loosely means a bed. Why would a mujahid, a warrior, be named after a kind of a bed? But the absurdity of these code names was what lend them their critical stature; the absurd code name became eternal. Chatayi, had once in his childhood wrapped someone in a sleeping mat. But this name, based on an odd incident, continues to live. Some of them were nicknames (the name their mothers would fondly call them with), some altered nicknames (that people would lovingly bestow to the mujahid from their area), some were descriptions of their personalities (their height, the color of their eyes or skin, their habits) and some were just the nemesis of their names (to camouflage their identity, to confuse the occupier). But these names are alive, breathing everyday through the ruptures of people’s memory—sometimes buried, and sometimes loud and resonating. The names are an oral archive of Kashmir of early 1990’s, documented only in the hearts of those who have seen them in their childhood or heard their heroic stories.
I have been told that people do not want to remember, that remembering is traumatic. But memories are interspersed and carried with the wind; they are the resonances that circulate around and capture how martyrs continue to live in the memory of their people. Deep in the labyrinths of Downtown Srinagar, a kitchen is filling up with pepper gas aimed at the Friday dissenters somewhere close by. The notorious gas enters through the gaps in the window grills where a mujahid son used to clandestinely meet his mother and drink a glass of dudh kehwa she would prepare for him. The meetings were brief: a slight low knock on the window, an exchange of kisses on the hands: an attempt to show an intensity of love in this infinitesimally transient, perhaps, last moment. As the smell of pepper gas engulfed our lungs, a man started narrating the story of his shaheed brother. The tears in his eyes were partially induced by the toxicity of the gas and partially by the sedimented memories of loss etched on his heart. It was nevertheless a good cover, to cry, to grieve. Outside, the entire area was choking on the invisible fumes of this gas. I could hear loud coughs against the dull piercing sound of tear gas shelling. “Even the BSF officers in their bunkers were scared of my brother. Till he was alive, they temporarily removed their bunkers from this area. Only the dirty structures remained. But they came back after he was martyred. It was a brief victory.”
The way a martyr is remembered is pivotal to understand what has unfolded in Kashmir over the past 26 years; what has and will become of the azaadi movement. When I entered the gate of an old wooden house, a woman seated in one of the second-floor dab said that she did not know the particular ‘code name’. When she came down, she told me the real name of the ‘code name’. She was his sister and she told me everything about her brother: how tall he was, how funny he was, how old he was. She told me everything except that he was a mujahid. She must be scared, crippled with fear every time someone said the code name. While she stood there, her eyes were fixed at a barren lawn which once must have been a vegetable garden wherein lush green haak or some pomegranates would have grown. She kept staring at this lawn, as if she was talking to it. She stood there with her arms tightly pressing against her frail body while her mind inhabited a durational time…the time when her brother was martyred and his body must have been brought to this lawn, the time when mourners and chants of ‘asalaam asalaam, aie shaheedon asalaam’ must have filled the entire house and locality; the time when the wails of her mother were brazenly meeting with the weak melody of wanawun sung for the martyred groom; the time when on this lawn her brother’s palms were being decorated with henna and his coffin showered with almonds and candies; the time when everything abruptly became silent. A funeral and a celebration. But silence had continued to pervade this house and its people. “If someone talks to me about this, my heart splits open with deep pain. You cannot understand this, this pain cannot be communicated.” Did she walk with her brother till the martyr’s graveyard? I kept asking myself. “My mother died three years back. It was her third heart attack and she could not survive it.”
The code names left their families but their memories and names remain etched on the streets that are still marked by their presence: an alone water tap bearing witness or a flutter of conversations on the wani peand (shop-front) on a hartal day, or the way in which a shopkeeper or auto driver directs you to the house of a martyr. Memories of Shuhadah are scattered across, heaped and dispersed, the way in which chinar sheds its leaves in autumn. They bespeak of a Kashmiri winter when snow will hug the graves of the martyred, the way people have held their memories.
(Bhavneet Kaur is a Research student in Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics. Her work is on the Practices of Remembering in Kashmir)