I see my reflection in the mirrors at “Duty-Free Delhi”. Tears have left inky transparent shapes across my cheeks. I am leaving Kashmir after four years. As I said goodbye to my frail grandmother, her eyes stained with a recurrence of cataract, her knees worn out by the weight of the world, the thought that I may not see her again crossed my mind. I left without kissing her hands.

At New Delhi airport, Armani is 60% off. Natalie Portman pouts for Dior. Assam tea and spices in brightly-coloured packs, sparkly bangles in stacks, and what Derrida would perhaps call aporia elephants are sold in the souvenirs aisle. Everything is priced in dollars – Kashmiri pashminas are $5. In the middle of the shopping area is a rapacious crowd in white kurtas and saffron dupattas, dancing Bollywood-style to an almost-deafeningly loud Chak de India in unison with the hectic beat of dholakwalas on the side. A bunch of foreign travellers fumble for their camera phones and record what will be the India they show their friends, a nation performing for the world and keen for the audience to clap.

An hour and a half ago, it was Friday in Kashmir. We had planned to leave for the airport well before the flight time to avoid finding ourselves in the middle of weekly post-prayer protests. But it was raining and so other than military men lining the streets – guns jutting out from underneath their hooded parkas – and dogs coiled up like snails underneath the eaves of shuttered establishments, there was little else. Since July 8, the day on which 22-year­-old rebel leader Burhan Muzaffar Wani was killed by the armed forces, we had witnessed unending days of curfew, protests, killing­ and maiming. After a while, it seemed this was all we knew.

Leaving Kashmir

As I had seen on another occasion, on this flight from Srinagar to Delhi too, there was a young Kashmiri man, most likely in his early twenties, in a blind person’s glasses. He refused a wheel­chair so his two companions helped him walk to his seat. His shaved head nearly hit the luggage cabin as he sat down.

It took two months from the time the siege began for the situation that has been described as the first mass blinding in history, of 600 young people, by so-called “non-lethal” pellets to make it to the front page of The New York Times. It is the pathological affliction of military occupation that is foregrounded in the blinding and maiming of young Kashmiris by the Indian military for the condition of being unable to see with one’s eyes may not be sorrowful in itself.

“Did you see the boy in the plane with us? This is why I want you to leave this hellhole…” my mother says to my intermittent sobbing. She and my father had tried to leave Kashmir in the 1990s when the armed rebel movement and the military’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians began. We went to Saudi Arabia – the supposed gateway to better places for doctors ­– for six months. My mother held my newborn sister in her arms the entire duration of the flight. We landed in a small barren town, Hafr-il-Batin, near the Saudi border with Kuwait and Iraq.

My young self could not comprehend why anyone would trade the meandering green of Kashmir, its terraced paddy fields, poplar-lined roads and magnanimous chinars that found a mirror in the muddied waters of the Jhelum for a place where sand­ dunes stretched into the horizon and frozen chicken was the only bird one could find. Still, when my parents had to come back to Kashmir, they considered it to be a setback.

Chinar, watercolour and pencil on paper. (Credit: Mahum Shabir).
Chinar, watercolour and pencil on paper. (Credit: Mahum Shabir).

Meanwhile, the line at aircraft security checkpoint inches closer to the boarding gate, Half-empty bottles of water clutter the baggage X-ray table. As I wait to board the plane, my thoughts go back to my family’s garden where pigeons sat in circles during protests, sheltered from the tear-smoke by the deodars. This is where my grandmother spent her evenings, on a chair tending to the vegetable patch into which she had sown haakh, a native green leaf, in previous springs, when her health had let her.

Yeti chu tufaan [It is a storm here],” she had said. “Gas nebar, yem naar nish gasakh azaad [Go outside, you will be freed from this fire].” She called the dead boys, Khoon-e-Mahraz – bloodied grooms. This is what us mothers raise our children for, she would say, in a mocking tone.

In Kashmiri, our grandmothers are Bobai. I remember being it being quite a rude awakening when – as a small child – I was told that she had another name, a real one at that: Rajé Begum.

Growing up, some my best memories are of being cooed at in endearment, “Bobe lage balaye” while I ate hard-boiled eggs by the windowsill. I don’t think that phrase is quite translatable but it speaks of the refuge our homes, held by our mothers and grandmothers, offer us in a place where occupation is enforced door-to-door, person-to-person. Boba’s labour in raising three children and four grandchildren is etched into the wrinkles buried in her face, felt in her calloused palms that smell of the vegetables she peeled that day, visible in her shrunken frame, rounded at the shoulders. Three of us, her grandchildren, now live outside Kashmir, in what is hardly a tale of dramatic separation.

Migration, especially for education and work, has been a way by which many Kashmiris have sought to find a life outside of the uncertainty and everyday trauma a life in Kashmir offers. But this slow unacknowledged drift, the infrastructure of which relies entirely on personal resilience or familial capacity, often both, is never thought of as a political displacement too, brought about in no small measure, by fear of pervasive state violence that has ceaselessly consumed Kashmir for the entire memory of my generation. This summer alone, 96 people have been killed and 1,700 injured in the latest uprising.

What is home?

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, my room is directly across from the manicured gardens of the Museum of Natural History. I see families with little children visit the museum. On my second day here, I too go and see on exhibit the small, delicately woven nests of the migratory American robin with three little dull periwinkle eggs in its base, the oblong vase-like creations of the baya weaver, elegantly sown together leaves that form the architecture of the nest of the tailor bird, and what looks like a neat little mess by the Northern Parula. The house wren sits atop the mouth of an abandoned terracotta pot that it is shown to adopt as its nest.

I suppose home is many things that we cannot take anywhere with us. We carry at most few in a suitcase or two, the rest remain suspended somewhere in a lost parallel time until we return to them again.

Nest of house wren, watercolour and pencil on paper. (Credit: Mahum Shabir).
Nest of house wren, watercolour and pencil on paper. (Credit: Mahum Shabir).

On September 16, I received news that my mentor Khurram Parvez ­– a human rights defender with a vast body of work documenting and supporting the people’s movement for self-determination had been arrested under provisions of the Public Safety Act. This Act is part of the larger method the state has employed to write into the law severe limits on the due process to which civilians are entitled before they can be arrested and jailed, paving the way for legal political detentions. While Khurram’s detention has become a matter of media debate, at least 400 grassroots political activists, many of them minors, have been jailed under provisions of the Public Safety Act.

Reminders of Kashmir

A couple of months into the semester, in a discussion on militarised landscapes in class, I realise that memories of the landscape of Kashmir – the cornerstone of my nostalgia – like the poplar avenues of the Srinagar-Baramulla Highway via which we visit my father’s home in Sopore are exactly those built by Napoleon throughout Europe to allow his troops greater mobility and visibility into the landscape during war time.

On the highway, they provide cover for the convoys of military vehicles that move in tandem across the city and the countryside at all times of the day and night, each vehicle the size of a small house and full to the hilt with forces with guns.

It is November in Cambridge as I try to finish this piece of writing, the semester is almost over. Autumn is past, black bark sketches the form of the maples, elms and the oaks in the yard against a dull sky. On most days, the evening descends before the afternoon can come to light. It is difficult to imagine a Kashmir of curfews and detentions in place of 24x7 open libraries. But sometimes, when it rains, small streams emerge from the cracks in the pavements, raindrops collapse onto the surface of puddles; then I see home in the clouded puddle, where tan leaves sit like the last ones on the autumnal chinar.

Fall flowering Witch Hazel, watercolour and pencil on paper. (Credit: Mahum Shabir).
Fall flowering Witch Hazel, watercolour and pencil on paper. (Credit: Mahum Shabir).

Inside a drawer in my desk, there is a copy of a local newspaper dated August 16, which I had put in my luggage at the last minute. The headline says “2 more boys killed, aged 16, 18, Yasir gets bullets in chest, dies; Ishfaq, with pellets in head, succumbs.”