When I was around eight or nine years old, Father would pack me in the back of his car – an ochre Range Rover, JKD 7575 – on Eid as he’d drive along with Ramzan Kaak. Ramzan Kaak was Father’s assistant at his clothing shop in Boher Kadal. He was roughly Father’s age, physically stronger, and the most trusted man of our household.
I remember seeing the mass prayer congregation that year at Eid Gah where hundreds of men, clad in crisp Khan dress and skull caps, had gathered to pray with their children, who were dressed up in bright colours. Rows of vendors selling wooden horse carts, rattlers, red strips of crackers and colourful plastic toys surrounded the large field where the men prayed. I didn’t know then that the same prayer-ground would come to be known as the martyrs’ graveyard.
I was never attracted to toys, and that was perhaps because I wanted to do the things my beautiful sister, Hina, did. A decade elder to me, she was past her age of playing with dolls and so, I, too, didn’t develop a liking towards them. In fact, that year (1989), as I turned twelve, I was finally allowed to take the first step in emulating Hina’s ways. After much bargaining with and emotionally blackmailing Mother, I could visit the salon that Hina used to frequent.
Moving up from the barber who used to cut Father’s hair at home to the hairdresser famous for styling fashionable cuts felt like a rite of passage for me. The occasion chosen for that was Eid. No one said no. But the yes was delayed interminably.
The salon, where some of my friends had already been for their grown-up haircuts, was in the posh neighbourhood of Raj Bagh. As per my sister’s advice, we scheduled the salon visit for the evening so that our coiffure would retain their shapes the next morning.
I felt very glamorous in my freshly trimmed, salon-washed, blow-dried hair. I felt like the model from a shampoo ad who turned her head from left to right and right to left as she flaunted her straight, lustrous, bouncy hair. “Halo giiiiiiiiiirl,” the jingle played in the background as she looked happy and confident with her lush hair.
We were among the last few customers at the salon. By the time we left, it was already dark, but we noticed a marked shift in the air which had nothing to do with the inky, funereal colour of the evening sky. Shopkeepers were bringing down the store shutters in a frenzy. Instead of the pre-Eid festive chaos caused by the shoppers and shopkeepers alike, the roads began emptying out.
There was barely any traffic. Police vehicles were whizzing past us and there were policemen all around. “Looks like a curfew. Like we’re under Gul Karfi again,” Hina whispered to me. “Hold my hand and don’t look up.” I clutched Hina’s wrist, and feverishly wished that we’d somehow vanish from the streets and land straight into our living room with Father, Mother and Bobeh.
I could feel the tears pooling in my eyes, but the tears just wouldn’t roll down. Perhaps it had something to do with the panic that was building up inside me.
Home was some distance from the salon and we had to break our journey into two halves. We took a minibus until Amira Kadal and managed to negotiate the second leg of the journey with an autorickshaw driver who sensed our desperation and didn’t charge us for the ride. He dropped us in Nawab Bazar, around a kilometre away from our house. “Yath tcha nih patah kith haalat roazan. Can’t say how the circumstances will shape up.” With that, he drove his autorickshaw off, like a bullet, as they say.
As we took a few steps forward, a police jeep was doing rounds and announced a message in loop in as hostile a manner as possible: “Awaam se appeal ki jaati hai ki apne gharoon se baahar na nikleyn, sheher mein shoot at sight ka order hai. People are requested not to step outside their homes for there is shoot at sight order across the city.” Hina urged me to walk faster.
I cannot recall with certainty, but perhaps I was slowing down to look at the shards of glass and plastic scattered on the road. Amidst broken lamps, coloured glass bangles, stomped-on plastic kitchen sets, dolls with soiled and squished faces, there was debris enough to distract one all along the way. We reached home after walking for what seemed like an eternity and arrived to Bobeh’s sobs.
Our legs having transformed into trembling, rickety appendages, Hina and I dragged ourselves up the stone steps leading to the living room. We could hear the phone ring incessantly and grew more anxious because of that. Bobeh sat beside it, oblivious to the noise and panic that it was creating.
A map of purple lines appeared on her temples as her daej, the embroidered, square bandana, with which she covered her hair, lay crumpled on the floor. She was breathing laboriously; her asthma seemed to have worsened. The moment she saw us, she held her uncovered head in her hands. Even in the moment of panic, my brain registered what an uncommon sight it was.
“Are you really alive?” Bobeh repeated her question in a broken voice as she held my face in her ice-cold hands. While my face was still in her corpse-like hands, I pulled away from her, as if someone had pushed me.
I could hear my heart beat loudly and felt my body shake. I was in a daze, hardly being able to take note of what was happening. Mother walked into the room and held us close to her. She asked us questions, most of which were answered by Hina. I cannot remember where Father was. I heard his voice coming faintly from the direction of the courtyard of his cousin, the one who lived next door.
The phone kept ringing. Someone, possibly Ramzan Kaak, finally picked up the phone and said, “Shukur, she’s here, they’re safe.” Mother said that all our relatives were calling to ask after me. There was news that a twelve-year-old from our clan had been killed. Asiya, one of my friends from school, who lived nearby, had been calling, as she too had feared that it was me. Neither Bobeh nor anyone else could confirm anything until they saw me in flesh.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, my second cousin, exactly my age, had also gone out with his father. They had been out to buy shoes for him for Eid. As they were returning home in their car, he was hit by a bullet.
His last words to his father were, “Myeha log haelyis toat. I am feeling warm on the side of my stomach.” He bled to death on his way to the hospital.
At that point, no one knew what exactly had happened. Ramzan Kaak came to the room and said that there was news of multiple shootings, and the city was under curfew. Barely a kilometre from where our house was, next to Father’s shop in Boher Kadal, there was a shooting incident involving a well-known militant, Mushtaq Latram.
Absorbing the news from all around made my hands shake. In a moment of confusion and fear, I plucked a chunk of my hair from right behind my ear. It hurt to pull the hair out, but my hands needed to clutch at something. I pulled some out again to punish myself for not being able to make sense of what had befallen us as a people.
I couldn’t help but feel that none of this would have happened had I not troubled everyone about going to the salon. Somehow, I felt responsible for all of it: for being rumoured to be dead, for Bobeh’s condition: she had begun to wheeze uncontrollably. Since then, a dark, silent cloud of death hovers above me every Eid.
Excerpted with permission from Rumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir, Farah Bashir, HarperCollins India.