Innocence Interrupted: Arshie Qureshi

Guest post by ARSHIE QURESHI

For a child born in Kashmir, the chances of living a normal life and even survival vary greatly from one region to another. Suppose you are born in the seemingly volatile stretch of Downtown. You may well turn out to be someone whose pictures are flashed on social media as the epitome of bravery, someone whose demise is imminent, and someone ready to wear the ‘Shaheed’ label. I arrived at this place at 4:30 on a cold evening. The room was crowded by women sitting with only one recognizable face; Shehzaad’s mother, Rubeena Akhter. Nobody spoke. The air smelled like rain. After a short while, a tall man in a brown-checkered pheran appeared. Leaning on the walls, he helped himself to one corner of the dimly lit but spacious room. He did not want himself to be identified as a ‘victim of conflict’.

For Shehzaad, life had been altogether different before. He had spent happy summers with his family in the town where violence, as it existed, had never appeared to him naked. By now, he is 23. He has become larger and properly bearded. The one thing which you can’t miss about Shehzaad is that he has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really pelt stones on streets? Idiotic, I know. “Do I have to tell you how I was supposed to have been killed that day?” he says, sounding like a gull. I hear a slow whimpering strangled with ache. This soon changes into full-throated babbling—a cascade of terrible, terrified pleading wails as he continued naming those who had been killed during the 2010 agitations.

“Tufail, Waqar, Javied…How lucky of me having been spared my life.” The last time I had seen Shehzaad was during the summer that had been wintered by incidents of killings and injuries for a protest against the ‘rape and murder’ of two women. Back then he was still a lanky teenager with struggling facial hair and sagging jeans. “Don’t you get sick of violence there?” I remember him asking me while in an ophthalmology centre waiting hall. I was too terrified to discuss any of it. Terrified by the idea of having to undergo a surgical process in coming days. But he continued in his perky voice, unmatched to his grey face.

2010 was also the time when a lot of people were sending their children to Delhi for private tutoring for the forthcoming board exams. Like me, Shehzaad too had plans to stay for the same after he was done with the surgical process. He had been shot outside his home and had been unable to see since then. After much delay, the doctors back home had simply recommended him to an ophthalmology centre at Delhi. For next two weeks, our appointment dates coincided and on every meeting I anxiously repeated my doctor’s warning of me losing vision of one eye. It often so happens that we tend to embellish and enlarge our struggles. That’s precisely the moment we are blinded. I was blinded.

One fine day, he wasn’t seen in the waiting room. He had been taken for the operation that had failed to recover any of his losses. The light no longer meant anything for him. Permanently. I have always loved the escape of a wandering mind. I love picking apart the words of Sylvia Plath and Rumi till they blossom into meaningful lessons in my soul. It is no secret that sometimes feeling other people’s emotions is easier than dealing with your own. And at that moment it was no Plath or Rumi. It was Shehzaad. He was real. His pain was real, so real that its very thought was anesthetizing. I remember the surgical team’s conversation as the remnants of Shehzaad’s left eye were removed and a silicone ball placed in its socket.

It’s terrible that life can sometimes be determined by millimetres. A millimeter this way and he dies; a millimeter that way, and he keeps his eyes. Apparently, Shehzaad had turned his head to look behind him when the shooting began, sparing his brain but dooming his sight. “You see, they at least got titles of being Shaheed and me… God opened for them another door. But for me….You know the meaning of my name? Indeed hard to believe. No?” I was silenced even before I spoke. “Violence then; and here is violence now. I can see it as black and white now.” His father, Barkat Wali too had seen it. Seen it for long. Unlike his son, there was a hint of reserve that surrounded him. He had always approached the conflict differently by maintaining a distance from happening around. This never earned him a good name in his neighborhood that is separated from rest of the places by dialects, attitudes and their definitions of honor. The people here associate honor with resistance. Perhaps it is a peasant idea; perhaps this idea of honor is especially important to a society without recourse to law or without confidence in law. “Honor, this is honor as I see it now…Honor comes when you agonize and resist. Something my family was never used to,” Barkat gasped.

“Tufail Matoo,” Shehzaad interrupted his father. “They declared him [Tufail Matoo] a martyr immediately against his family’s wishes. I never want that. I never want to see myself as a symbol of anything but to some people; consolation comes only when they are made to represent something. People here don’t sympathize for the loss. They have seen so much of it that sympathies have become customary now. They need symbols. They need reasons to antagonize.” I understood what he was trying to say. Although he now holds a position in all the protests and sloganeering but his family was smirked at by same people for not having stood with them before the tragedy had stuck them. No situation is absolutely like the other. Yet every such incident brings a convergence; convergence in repercussions. Amid the sorrow of having his boy injured to blindness, the people around had expressed a devious sympathy.

As his father mentioned, they, like many other families, were waiting for the closure. It could have meant anything from punishing the perpetrators to bringing an end to the occupation in the state. For years I have wanted to know the history of Kashmir but haven’t really bothered to dig much into it. When you live amidst the history, you either become a part of it or take it for granted. Worse, I had been guilty of comparing Kashmir to Venice, Switzerland and Ireland, as if they were pertinent. In my ignorance, I thought I was making a valuable point. Until, unless I meet Shehzaad. It was my moment of presage.

Next afternoon Rubeena called to check if I had reached safely last evening. This ironically happened to be the time when one of the political parties had arrived there for campaigning. “How would they ask or even expect me to vote? How am I even supposed to cook customarily when the light of our lives is gone? I might vote or I might not. Someone somewhere will. What changes then, would it change any of what has happened?” I still don’t know why she was asking me. Very much like what happens here at large. People don’t know whom to seek answers from. Nevertheless I had no answer for her.

Imagine a scene. A young boy is murdered at point blank range. After all journalists have completed their photo shoot of the body and caught the rarest expressions of bereaved persons, the body is shrouded and carried to grave. Among those who come to pay their respect is the killer. He has to come; he cannot stay away. Countless lives are spoiled – the one who got killed and the relation of the dead man who will have to kill the killer. The honor codes demand nothing less. It isn’t open to any man who wishes to be at peace with himself and walk away. This is the history. At least for the people of this region.

The summer of 2010 was consumed by frequent and prolonged protests around the murder and rape of two women in Shopian. The 2010 ‘stone-pelting’ upsurge that continued for five months claimed 112 lives and left many bruised, mostly youth facing police action. That summer, the appellation of a stone-pelter became very controversial. A heated debate emerged around the question of stone pelting, its legitimacy as a form of protestor resistance, and was the state right in to stone throwing with live ammunition. Out of the 97 cases profiled, only 16 cases were such where either the family or other witnesses attested to fact that individual in question used to indulge in stone pelting. Among the 81 others, Shehzaad happened to be one.

One Saturday afternoon in early August, Shehzaad had been the one caught unaware at the roadside when he was hit by a bullet ‘intended for someone else’. He was walking home through lanes of Baghdad colony of downtown area to fetch food for his pet cat- Yuvi, when a bullet sliced through his temple, damaging optic-nerve fibers behind his right eye and exiting through his left he rcalls. Despite all the sorrow, he manages to smile for his young sister Rabia, 12, who makes everyone nervous by pulling and poking him like her personal teddy bear. Even as he shows flashes of the outgoing kid who loved video games, basketball, and rap music, he jumps at every noise and cries with sudden, inexplicable pain in various parts of his body – now his neck. I kept following Shehzaad for sometime but he maintained discreetness.

On one of my visits, I met a group of young boys in a nearby playground. They told me about Shehzaad, their friend- not just a good kid, but an especially good kid– smart, kind, goofy, handsome. So that when he was hit by a bullet, so many people who know him were stunned. “He was like the community’s golden child,” Saad said. He was on the cricket team. He had been a star. He led prayers at the mosque. Everybody knew him to be somebody who was going to do something really big. He was an incredibly likable and well-liked kid. This conversation with Saad, this is what launched me on this long- “obsession”. Obsession is maybe too strong a word– let’s say fascination with this case. By the end of this hour, I heard different people tell different versions of what had happened that day. I later fact checked all these accolades, of course, and learnt that Saad was mostly right, though he sometimes got a little loosey-goosey with the details. Shehzaad was on the cricket team, but he wasn’t a star. And he did lead prayers on occasion.

The police’s case against Shehzaad went like this. He had been going out all summer to pelt stones on army vehicles. But he wasn’t supposed to be protesting at all and one day when the protests had intensified, he had been shot. The used his going out against him in a peculiar ways. They argued, as they said– look at what a liar he is, how duplicitous. He plays the good obedient son at home and humble at the mosque, but look what he was up to. Saad remembers the police officer’s remarks. Saad and Shehzaad’s parents are the same way. Their families are friends. But even though Shehzaad and Saad and their buddies are practicing Muslims, they are also, shall I say, healthy downtown teenagers who were going to do what downtown teenagers do, so long as they didn’t get caught. Shehzaad’s family didn’t know that he actually smoked. He bunked school and went to cafes. This is a proof of his reticence and delinquency. But Saad says, if Shehzaad is guilty of anything, it’s being a normal kid living in downtown. So the police had painted Shehzaad as a totally bipolar or a maniacal dual personality. “We all grew up with that dual personality,” Saad commented.

I was in the same boat. I used to bunk school. My parents, my sisters, they didn’t know about this at all. Right now, more than 4 years later, my sister is finding out. I know, I’ll admit. On one side, my family thought of me to be diffident. But on the other hand, I would play at times. That appeared normal during teenage. What police had on Shehzaad was one guy’s story, a guy named Imran. He was a friend of Shehzaad’s. They’d been in school together since middle school. They weren’t super close, but they had mutual friends. Imran sold cigarettes, and he and Shehzaad smoked together. The story Imran told police had problems, because it kept changing from telling to telling. But they were able to bolster the main plot points and shift the blame on Shehzaad. By the time my meeting with Saad finished, I understood only one thing clearly, though maybe not the thing Saad wanted me to understand. But what I took away from the visit was, somebody is lying here. Maybe Shehzaad really is innocent. But what if he isn’t? What if he did pelt stones, and he’s got all these good people thinking he didn’t? Saad denies any of the acquisitions. He is adamant about this. He is staunch. The problem is, when you ask him to go back and, to refute Imran’s story, everything becomes a lot mushier. So either it’s Imran or it’s Saad. But someone was lying. And I really didn’t want to figure out who. Violent confrontations between locals and army in Downtown are a risky routine.

Most of the confrontations have an immediate catalyst: could be a routine protest after Friday prayers or protest following a call from any separatist leader. These minor are sparks that are liable to cause a conflagration if army continues to ignore the source of the anger and relies, as usual, on military solutions.The phrases – “disturbances,” “stone-throwing,” “tear gas,” ” – are familiar here and dredge up from our memories a reality that is waiting to be clarified: are bullets a match for stones? Are these “merely” a series of local incidents to be controlled by tear gas and bullets? Is the conflict for eternity from now on? What’s the point?” If there is a point, it is lost on a 17-year-old boy who just wanted to be teenager but whose innocence has been interrupted by a conflict he had nothing to do with. Whatever the form of conflict is, there are common things that happen in all these conflicts; destruction, loss of people’s lives, loss of property and loss of innocence.

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