I call Kashmir, the land of juxtapositions, where one can see splendor existing simultaneously with the unpleasant – be it the Dal Lake and its associated environmental degradation, or the famed paradise on earth turning purgatory due to years of protracted conflict; despite it all the phoenix-spirited people rising from the ashes teach us that no matter what, life moves on.
The greatest of such phoenixes are the ones who are the least heard of – the wives of the disappeared (or half-widows, a term not liked by most, yet quite commonly used). In an effort to document the lived experiences of these women, looking at their lives beyond (but) albeit coloured by the disappearance, we made the journey through dusty pot-holed highways cutting across meadows against a backdrop of lofty mountains. Land of juxtapositions as it is – as much as the dusty roads exhausted us, the sight of such carpeted greenery and blue sky refreshed us.
As the country roads took us to new homes and new families, there unfurled a whole lot of new stories in our conversations. Stories laden with emotions – of sobs and smiles, of hardships and piece-meal consolations, of uncertainties becoming the norm of the day and certainties becoming a distant dream, of moving back and forth in time and memory, of moving on yet being caught in a time-warp – of black and white and tones of grey. There were evocative accounts of lived realities which our urban academic minds connect to theories and practices of (or the lack of) human rights, human security socio-economic welfare, access to resources and the like – connections which we could make as outsiders in the lives of those living a paradox of disjuncted and continuing realities.
Overlapping layers of insensitive realities overwhelmed us – even the multiple rounds of Kashmiri Chai could not help us gulp them down with ease! What does one do when you see the picture of a mother crying for her disappeared son on the cover page of a book – one that was taken and published without her knowledge (forget about consent) – one that is as much an infringement on the right to privacy as any other, but is not spoken of. What about instances of random calls to families of the disappeared as for money to take the cases forward? What about cases which have been registered with famous NGOs but even after twelve years, the families have no clue about their progress? Why, when there are at least 1500 wives of the disappeared living in the valley, do they live in oblivion – unheard and unspoken of?
These were some of the minor but pertinent questions that we came across during our stay in the valley. Socio-political dynamics are far more complicated than what is visible to the naked eye. As the overt conflict subsided with time, it has paved the way for latent frictions – paradoxical verisimilitudes of NGOs in solidarity but also in competition with each other, fading community support in a close-knit community structure, gender gaps and divides despite rising literacy rates and persisting urban-rural divides, to name a few – so much so that as each layer is peeled a new one reveals itself underneath and by the time one gets to the bulb of the onion everything seems a blur as the eyes are stung with tears!