When I was asked to write about my experiences as a young researcher in Kashmir, I suddenly felt very confused. I felt clueless as to where to begin. Millions of memories came gushing to my mind. I did not know who would be the readers of my piece. So, I had to play safe. Well, having settled my trepidation, I began to write.
It was the summer of 2016. I left my institution and headed home (I’m a Kashmiri, by the way) for data collection of the research project I had undertaken as part of my course. It was the month of fasting, Ramadan. I took a cursory glance at my list of randomly selected areas. Hmm… It was to be my first field experience as a researcher. With absolutely no knowledge how things would go on, I approached my aunt and explained to her about my project. Bang on! Without any procrastination, we started. I thought it better to wear a duppatta on my head. I had to be one of them. My motto was to collect stories and experiences, not just immunization details and dates. Everything was going on well. The days were long and I was weary and exhausted. The thirst was taking a toll on me. I told my father that I would stop and then begin after Eid. It came as no surprise to me when Baba instantly dropped down my proposal dead. I still remember him saying; “Kashmir is unpredictable, anything can happen any time. It would be better if you get a month off later after you complete the project”.
Eid! Festivities were in full swing. We were returning back from my Masi’s (aunt’s) place. While we were stuck in a traffic jam, I decided to check face book. To my utter shock, each headline read the same news (Burhan Wani has been killed!). As soon as I read it out to my father, he being my alchemist was quick to respond, “Data collection is doomed”!
We, the natives of conflict areas develop certain prognostic powers in our lifetime. We sensed the impending trouble quickly and decided to take a break from data collection hoping that normalcy would return soon. I was terrified initially, but then an immature sense of glee took over me at the realisation that I was getting few more days to rest. I dumped all the worries and uncertainties to a corner of my mind and immersed myself in Eid.
The four customary mourning days were over. The protest calendars were out again. The curfews and stone pelting had started. I was worried now. What was I going to do? This summer, Kashmir had again become the hot bed of violence.
Young boys were being killed; precisely pelleted to death. Every day the newspaper had an image of a wailing mother snivelling over the dead body. Then started the real ordeal. My biases began to creep in. The Kashmiriyat was peeking in. My own people were being slayed.
And what was I doing? Going door to door for my own selfish interests? Would acting oblivious to the trauma around justify my actions? It was a tough time. I was risking my father’s, mother’s and aunt’s life. My life meant zilch when I weighed it against the burden on my shoulders. I had a sister back home. In the field, my identity had to be concealed at every point of risk or apprehension. That constant threat looming over everyone’s life is a feeling that nauseates me even now!
I remember that once I was in one of the sub lanes, when someone informed that a ‘rakshak’ (‘fully armed batch of policemen travelling in a gypsy vehicle’ an antonym for ‘saviour’ in Kashmiri minds) had passed across the road and the situation was tense again. My throat went dry when I remembered that my mum was across the road taking photocopies under a half closed shutter. Should my research matter to me when my mum was leaving no stone unturned to help me achieve my goal? I reached for my phone but soon realized connectivity was gagged. The cons of living in a conflict area- complete paralysis of all means of communication systems. I am sure no one will be able to survive that feeling of extreme helplessness that I experienced at that point. I begged my aunt to call it a day so we could reach back home safely. But I guess the older generation was so used to this ordeal that no one paid any heed to my worries about the intimidating situation. I reached the zenith of my patience and completely broke down when one of the participants told, “thesis can be done again later, but once life is gone, it is gone forever”.
Days passed by. To be very honest I never thought that I would be ever able to complete data collection, but I did, miraculously. Each time, we went into an area, we would inquire first; is this area safe? Does stone pelting happen here? Do they smash window panes? Till how long can we stay?
Each house had a story to share. I remember an encounter very vividly. A lady while narrating her agony told that her husband was an auto driver. He had not been able to go out for work since last full month. She said, “Government employees are lucky. Every month their salary is encashed into their account. But what about people like us. We live by God’s word. How can poor people like us manage without money? Our savings sufficed for one month. I have only 200 Rs left now”. Her daughter, who was listening very keenly, interrupted from behind, “Mamma only 150 Rs is left now.” On the other hand, people were warm and hospitable. They would always offer something to eat or drink. I would always think “how noble is my profession and how naive are my people?”
A regular query that everyone was curious about when will the tribulation end? How much more bloodshed? Alas! My land was no more a heaven on earth. The demons were in jubilation. Each heart was sour and in suffering.
Every evening when I came back home, I used to make it a point to thank God that we were all alive and safe back home. My mother would never miss to pray for our health. No mother could afford any of her family members falling ill in such hostile environment. The hospitals were full of injured teenage boys and kids. The mosques and temples were the places where loneliness lived. The believers too were not spared. God seemed to be miles away...