The coronavirus left the world freaking out in quarantine – and left Kashmir laughing.
It was a bitter laugh, half at itself and half at everyone else. In part schadenfreude towards nations long indifferent to besieged people, and in part, a genuine sympathy from the eternally locked-down. Partly in spite and partly in solidarity, a question rang through many young Kashmiris’ social media feeds:
How is the lockdown, world?
After a six-month-long lockdown from August 5, 2019, just as a desolate, war-worn Kashmir was limping back to life, it entered another one this March.
Again, Kashmiris queued up for essentials and groceries like they always had during military crackdowns or identification parades. This time too the same emptiness filled the streets, the same fear of getting thrashed and abused at any corner. But it was with an intrepid sense that prevailed over the foreboding – a sense that no viral epidemic could be worse than the endemic of ever-lasting death they had witnessed for the past thirty-one years.
In addition to the default indulgence of binge-watching movies and Netflix, the global quarantine has been inventive enough to make people write quarantine diaries. One blushes at the idea of writing a lockdown diary when we have been writing or reading prison notebooks, torture testimonies and a daily bleeding reportage. A popular Facebook game – chain-mailing a question about what you’ll do “once quarantine is over” – makes little sense to people used to quarantines, shutdowns, lockdowns, crackdowns and clampdowns all their lives.
Kashmir is a place that personifies a systemic, normalised clampdown – and right now, a lockdown within a lockdown. It’s a land with just around 200 ventilators for 6.8 million people, but one armed-to-the-teeth soldier for every ten. It’s a region where an insidious epidemic need not stop you from implementing unconstitutional laws and barricading neighbourhoods as you wage artillery wars.
The lockdowns of my childhood, in the nineties, lasted between a hundred and two hundred days a year. No siege can be a more vivid memory than the three-month curfew of 1992 that reduced me and my extended family to meals of boiled rice served with salt and pepper. My cousins tried to distract themselves from empty stomachs with random and back-to-back storytelling. Or passed the night just staring at the blinking electrical indicator in the purplish darkness of the room.
At the top of the formidable category of “-downs” were the crackdowns. Incomprehensible, pre-dawn loudspeaker announcements from mosques would ask the menfolk of the community to assemble in frosted playgrounds or vast wintry fields for identification parades. The “cats” (spies) sat masked behind the obscured windscreens of military jeeps, honking at doomed men who would then be plucked from the queue, their pherans ghoulishly pulled over their heads.
Gradually, the “–down” terminologies were replaced with the more sophisticated alternatives. “Curfew” with “restrictions”. “Crackdown” with “CASO” (Cordon and Search Operation). In a funny twist, the same GPS procedure was used in COVID times to track down the suspected infected persons who absconded, fearing lonesome, animalistic isolation. Then there are the self-imposed, inescapable shutdowns, replacing the childhood Urdu word hartaal, to protest oppression or mourn the dead.
Decades of these downs acculturated Kashmiris to what could be self-loathingly called “restricted” celebrations and mournings; birthdays, weddings and funerals conducted with “restricted” fervour or frenzy. Coming-back-alive is a question that has intrigued people in every ominous circumstance to miraculous proportions of hope.
Hashtagged slogans like #StayAtHome and #WorkFromHome sound hollow to those whom the downs have rendered homeless and jobless. For pellet-blinded, 28-year-old bodybuilder Maroof Ahmad Bhat, the corona scare “is nothing in front of what he is suffering”. With around 400 pellets lodged in his body and only one eye with eight percent vision to see, monocled, he has razor-nicked his wrists many times to try to bleed to death. That would save his labourer father the burden of single-handedly taking care of the family— which includes a daughter and wife—and spending Rs 3,500 a month on his medicines.
Once a macho man with the title of Mister Budgam 2015, he worked as a plumber and earned an income he was proud of. On the eve of Eid ul Azha, in 2016, on his way to distribute a lamb dish to relatives and friends in Ompora, he lost his eyesight, work and hope to a cartridge of 650 pellets. Ever since he has shut himself indoors, quit the gym and occasionally attended a school for the blind to learn night-walking and how to use the Talkback app. “My own disease is way beyond coronavirus,” he told me in a voice edged with despair. “My social distancing is ahead of everyone else in the world.”
Shahnaz Bashir is a novelist and scholar living in Kashmir. His latest book The Disease is forthcoming by Speaking Tiger Books in 2020.