Srinagar: Sumegha Gulati was the first ever female to actually sit and work in the the all-male newsroom of Greater Kashmir. In fact, all-male Greater Kashmir. There was no woman staff on rolls then.
Before her, a few Kashmiri girls, fresh journalism post graduates from Kashmir University, would come once or twice a week, file their stories and leave.
Her presence in the newsroom made discussions livelier and vociferous, a change the reticent owner brought to my notice one day with an amusing smile on his face.
Even as a budding journalist, much before she had arrived in Kashmir, her politics had been unambiguous—Kashmir is occupied by India by force. Her engagement with Kashmir only deepened this understanding.
When she was leaving for home, after the internship, she told me that she teased her brother saying, “I am coming to India.”
Months later, when I saw her again, she was doing her internship under hugely talented Neelesh Mishra at the Hindustan Times.
She was startled to see me there possibly because, coming from Greater Kashmir, she meant to ask but was too polite not to: what the hell was I doing in an Indian newspaper.
“Hilal Sir, how lively is that small newsroom of Greater Kashmir compared to this,” she told me. I thought given a chance she would take the first flight and drive straightaway to the Press Enclave. She had been smitten by Kashmir and became one of those rare Indians Kashmiris love to call their own. You only have to go through an avalanche of short Facebook obituaries penned by her Kashmiri friends to know how much she was loved.
I only saw her once or twice after the HT encounter, although she called and emailed occasionally. She had told our friend Najeeb Mubarki that after another session of bone marrow transplant, she might come to Srinagar and work for the Kashmir Reader. We were eagerly anticipating her arrival.
“Run, Sumegha, run!” I shouted, asking Sumegha to run for safety when the clashes between mourners and police at Nowgam Bye-Pass stunned her.
It was the summer of 2009. A child was killed by a speeding army vehicle, which was part of a Baramulla-bound convoy. The public forced the convoy to halt, set ablaze the vehicle, and left the body untouched on the road until the media arrived.
I was sent to cover the story for Greater Kashmir, where Sumegha was working as an intern. It was her first week in Kashmir, and I was asked to take her along.
When we reached the spot, the people explained the story to us, and started to carry the body for last rites.
To clear the blocked highway and allow the convoy to move, police and CRPF was called to the spot. And they began with the baton charge and massive shelling of tear smoke canisters, forcing every protester to run for life.
In the melee, it was difficult to see what happened to the body of the girl child, how it reached her home, a locality at a stone’s throw from the highway.
Sumegha and I we were in the middle of the action: on our left side were the protesters and on the other were the forces. While I reached what I thought was a safe place, Sumegha couldn’t move an inch. She was stunned, unable to comprehend what was happening. It was her first introduction to the conflict, which she had so passionately come to cover. I had to pull her to safety. She even lost her chappal.
On the return journey to the office, she asked me a trillion questions about the conflict. And the next day, everything she had understood and analysed, including the incident at Nowgam, became a write-up that introduced her to Kashmir.
In the days that followed, she wrote more stories and opinion pieces about the conflict than she was required to as an undergraduate student.
During her first stint at Greater Kashmir as an intern (she returned for some project several months later), she became a lively part of the newsroom. For all her colleagues she had a nickname that aptly described the person. Those nicknames are still a part of our conversations whenever we happen to meet.
When Sumegha left, she, I remember, was elated to hear late Rashid Shahid, then-Executive Editor of Greater Kashmir, ask her to write for the newspaper from New Delhi.
She didn’t write often, but she could not break her association with Kashmir. Often, her social-media posts, her messages, and even her stories suggested that.
You often got to hear Kashmiris telling her, “Sumegha, you have fallen in love with Kashmir.”
(With inputs from Danish Zargar)