By Nayeem Rather
Our village, in Budgam, has seven graveyards, and these graveyards contain hundreds of graves, almost undistinguishable, except for one that stands out, like a lighthouse in the vast sea of graves. This grave, in one of the burial grounds, is flanked by rose plants, iris, and grass that has crept close to its borders.
And the epitaph reads: “Shaheed Bashir Ahmed Rather (1977- 1999), TM (Tehreek-ul-Mujahiddin)”. Below the name is chiselled a line in Urdu, ‘Yeh door subah e naseem talaashnay chalay (They went afar in search of a new dawn). This grave belongs to the lone martyr from our village — Bashir, which in Arabic means ‘the one who brings good news’.
Thick, pitch black eyebrows, a dark beard, clear brown eyes and wavy long curly black hair — this is what I remember of what he looked like. It was summer when he was killed. He was twenty three. I was seven.
I heard from the elders who bathed and buried him: “We buried a burnt wooden log. There was nothing like human in it. They had burned every part of his body, his hair, his eyebrows, his arms, his legs.” His mother once told me, “My sorrow is not that he died, but the way he was killed. I would have loved to see his face, his brows and his hair, and bid him farewell the way he came to the world.”
Bashir — the fascination of my childhood, the man I wanted to be like, the brother I wanted to have, who, with his natural exuberant style for storytelling, developed in me the love for stories.
The last time I saw him was on a wintry afternoon in 1998. He helped me that afternoon to finish the snowman I was putting together, and even, as I remember, made its eyes and brows painstakingly with a piece of charcoal that he drew out from his kanger, as if he was modeling the snowman on himself. Snowmen are never meant to last too long. That evening he vanished, never to return.
He was a distant relative and would visit our family. His visits meant a handful of ‘coconut crunch’ and ‘sangtar mitheay’ for me. In return, I had to endure his ‘kann murun’ and the brush of his granular beard against my cheeks. Besides these things, I had a totally different reason to love him. He was a storyteller.
My earliest childhood memory associated with him is listening to tales of the far-off world and the immediate world around me. He was a link to the outside world for a child. He was a key that opened to a child the mysteries of distant lands, real or imaginary; I have lost the sense of difference between what was real and what was not. The difference has blurred, and the heroes of the tales have mingled with the real ones, the Mujahids.
Sitting on sacks, with a potato or two cooking in the ashes of his kanger, he used to tell stories. “Every story is a lesson. Every story is true. Every story happens in the present and has relevance. So don’t think I am telling you a fairy tale. These stories will teach you about life.” That’s how he would start his tales.
The stories he told were oral varieties of Persian and Arabic epics, and stories of the prophets he had heard from his father, who was a close associate of the Sufi poet Samad Mir. He related stories of Summ Pahalvan, Rustom Sohrab, Shirin Farhad, Lael Majnoon, Zalim Badshah, Sath Roung, Zulmaat, etc. and these stories are still imprinted on my mind.
The story used to begin with the introduction of the protagonist , who is wronged or denied what was his or sees the suffering in the land and decides to reclaim what was lost, and goes off to fight the evil monsters and tyrant kings, and ultimately triumphs. The story was a journey, a struggle, to set things in order, and the journey was full of dangers and of suffering and pain for the hero.
One of the regular themes in the stories was the fight between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘zalim” and ‘mazloom’, and every story ended with the triumph of good against evil. The devils, the bad djinns, the tyrants were defeated in the end. The heroes were initially wronged, then they fought difficult battles, fights that endangered their lives, were bruised, imprisoned, either for love or for the people, but ultimately emerged victorious.
To try and make us children comprehend what a Zalim is, he would point towards the military woel. “Military woel chu zalim, su chu djinn. Magar Mujahid chu zulmas khilaf ladaan, su chu Rustom, Farhad, Majnoon,” he would say. I would then imagine all the bad people in the stories to be like the military personnel of the Indian army, which, by experience, seemed right. And every Mujahid was Rustom, Farhad, Majnoon.
And he used to tell tales of Mujahids too.
I remember the time I touched a gun, he let me touch one, it was cold. He had established contact with the armed freedom fighters from the beginning, when he was in his late teens; giving them food, carrying their guns etc. Once, he told us, he sheltered a Mujahid for a month in a gorge; the militant was injured during a gunfight with the military and Bashir used to give him food. He was proud of it, as whenever he spoke of it, his eyes would sparkle with a strange light.
Once, he told us about the famous Mujahids, their deeds and the tales of their bravery. “Fighting a war of freedom against India is not a children’s game. It needs guts and courage. And these Mujahids are the only Rustoms left. The rest are eunuchs,” he used to say. Sometimes, he used to carry food and clothes for the Mujahids and sometimes he used to bring them to his home for a night’s rest.
Bashir was born in 1977, in an improvised agricultural family; his father was a government employee and he had 7 siblings.
He went to school but instead of studying busied himself robbing the apple gardens, which consequently led to his failing the 5th standard, and he never went to school after that. Instead, he learned to weave carpets and mastered the art very early in his life. He wove beautiful carpets; they fetched a huge amount of money in the markets of India and abroad. But the low wages and the exploitation, which he always resisted, made him leave the trade and buy some sheep. And he then began life as a shepherd.
In the open, small, meadows of the area, he was a lonely figure, carrying a stick and earthenware filled with tea and soutt. Often, I would see him with his sheep (whom he called his children) and the image of some ancient prophet came to my mind. Later, when he told stories of the prophets, I was forced to think that the prophets would have been like him.
It was during these wanderings in the woods that he encountered the Mujahids, and that later led to his joining their ranks. He confided his plans to join the Mujahids to no one except his lover. She was a small, sober girl; she was as silent as night.
The girl, who now is married and has three children, told me about that day:
“He asked me to meet him near a stream where we used to meet often. I went, and he gave me a red kerchief with a big heart in the middle of it. He was silent. The roar of the stream overpowered all sounds. Finally, I asked, ‘Why don’t you speak?’ He gazed at me for a long time, bewildered, as if he had seen some apparition. He turned his head aside and began to weep, quietly. After a few minutes, he looked up at the sky, wiped off his tears with his pheran and said, ‘I am leaving you forever. Forgive me’. The ground slipped from under my feet. I hardly managed to ask ‘why, what, how’. ‘I am leaving to join the militants. They will come this week. I am going with them,’ he whispered. I was choking. I was not able to utter a word. He sighed, shook his head. Tears rolled down my eyes. I tried to shout, but I couldn’t utter a sound. He embraced me eventually, and wiped my tears with the kerchief. And we both sat down.
He began to explain. ‘I am joining not to be a martyr but I feel suffocated if I don’t join. My self-respect, my dignity is at stake. I can’t tolerate someone from outside coming to my land and asking me to show him my identity card. It is humiliation, utter humiliation. I can’t tolerate people being treated like animals here. I cannot keep on living this life, like a coward, all my life. Every prophet has come to fight injustice and I am just following that path. I know I will die but I will not die a coward. I will fight for the children that you will bear, for their future, a future that is full of dignity, and not a life of slaves. I will fight so that there remains no Indian military man to rape you, to harass you, to drag you out in the biting cold early morning. I will fight for your future.’
He left, with teary eyes, throwing the kerchief wet with my tears on my lap. He never came to meet me again. I never saw him again. Not even when his dead body was brought home.”
By the end of the story, she had tears in her eyes. And she did not speak after that.
Many years have passed since he was martyred, but all my life I have felt his absence. Nobody told me such delightful stories. Often, I think what his life meant. He left, like thousands of similar Bashirs, to fight for dignity. Who were these boys, so young, so beautiful? What were they made of? I wonder.
Often, when I am pessimistic about everything, about azadi, Bashir and thousands like him encourage me. Bashir, the watchman of my conscience, guides me out of darkness and restores hope that a new dawn will come one day.
I live, thinking that those who went to fight for that new dawn may have fallen, but the promise that it will come one day is what keeps hope alive. I may not be able to talk to him again, but I will wait.
He once gave me Basharat, through his stories, that all tyranny finally ends. He promised that once to the woman he loved most. I know his promise will come true one day.
His name is a promise; Bashir, the harbinger of good news.
(For the martyrs of Kashmir, of all times)
—The writer is a freelance journalist