SRINAGAR: At her improvised two-room home in Hazratbal, Srinagar, Haleema Banoo, 42, looks emotionally at her children one afternoon and tells them she cannot work anymore. “I am tired and old. I am fed up of working. In another ten years? I’ll be 50. Better that I die,” she tells them, dark circles beneath her eyes, nervous of manner despite her smile. She then fidgets in her pockets and takes out a twenty-rupee note and gives it to her daughter to buy bread.
The family would be very hard put were Haleema to act on her words, for she is their sole bread-winner, earning a meagre amount from two jobs: selling fish in the morning and cleaning houses in the evening. A tall, dark, robust woman, she has been twice married. Illness took her first husband, and her second husband died in an accident. She has to look after her six children and single-handedly earn to feed them and pay for their education. She has one daughter and two sons from her first marriage, and two daughters and one son from the second. Her eldest daughter, Ruhi, was born blind. She prays five times a day and tells her mother she too wants to work to support the family: Her words bring her little happiness, but, says Ruhi, God works in mysterious ways. “I know we are destitute. I know we are orphans. But there is always hope. I know there is Allah who is looking after us,” says Ruhi.
“How can I let her work when she is blind?” asks Haleema. “It would depress me to see my children sad. I am struggling to earn these days. I have a huge debt. I am always thinking of doing something else that would provide some long term-financial benefits. But hartals and curfews in Kashmir are bringing more trouble to families like ours. We solely depend on selling fish. When there is shutdown after shutdown, how can we survive?”
A feverish Yasir, her youngest son, idles at the doorway by a stray mattress with ‘love’ spray-painted across it. The concrete floor it lies on slopes downwards from the path, guaranteeing floods in wet weather. For privacy and to keep the rain out, boards found on rubbish dumps have been nailed across windows that have no glass. The air is fetid. There is no way to keep out rats and insects because a tree grows through the building. “It is no less than a nightmare to live here. There is no water. It is totally unliveable. We are just surviving here. I have hopes of my children. One day they will achieve their dreams and take me away from this prison,” Haleema said.
Yasir often ask his mother if he will ever be able to go to school like other children. Each morning he goes to the park, supported by a walking stick, accompanied by a brother, and thoughtfully watches the children there play. He too wants to get up on his legs and join in, but when he looks at his state, his heart contracts. Yasir met with an accident at an early age in which he lost a leg. In later years, he suffered a mental breakdown, owing to which he is confined to his home.
“When I am at work, I am always thinking of him,” said Haleema. “We cannot leave him by himself. Someone always has to be beside him. Otherwise he would scream and might even kill himself.”
Sadly, Yasir has indeed tried once to kill himself, though timely intervention saved him. He is 14 years old.
Haleema says she leaves each day at 6 in the morning to sell fish, from which she on average makes less than Rs 300 daily. “I have to shriek so loudly to call customers that I sometimes feel my lungs would burst,” she confides. “I feel so low when nobody buys my fish. Sometimes I come home without earning a penny. I have no peace in my life after my husband died.”
During the 2016 uprising, the family survived on small donations from local mosques and neighbours. “Once we survived only on tea for many days until our relatives came to know about it. They brought us food then,” Haleema revealed.
Her living expenses daily exceed the Rs 300 she manages on average to bring home. There are medicines worth Rs 600 to be bought for Yasir each week. There is her five children’s tuition fees. “When each month ends, my heart contracts, as I don’t know how to pay for their to keep them in university and school. I am always worried about whether I can keep their education going.”
Her second eldest son, Aijaz, sometimes helps her sell fish when he is home. He is in first year of his undergraduate degree, and he dreams of becoming a teacher and seeing his family prosper. Aijaz used to work as a part-time salesman, but lost his job when the last year’s unrest started.
“Is there any part-time opening in the city so I can earn a few bucks and aid my hapless mother,” he tells me before bidding adieu.