Tehmeena strained her ears towards the window. She could only make out hurried footsteps and an increasing babble of voices growing angrier by the minute. She got up from the squatting position of sweeping the carpet of her living room and flung the panes of the wooden window open. The voices became clearer and she could feel the agitation in them as she saw men gathering in a group in the lane. Her eyes scanned for other windows opening up in the adjacent houses and a woman’s voice asking what calamity had happened now. Tehmeena’s heart raced as an old anxiety took hold. She closed the window, just as there was a knock on her front door. She could hear the loud knocking clearly on the first floor. Someone wanted to come in urgently. She raced down the steps and gingerly called for the person to wait. She was used to such knocks but her mind told her there was no reason for the soldiers to be in the area.

Rashid was telling her to open up, even as she flung the massive door aside.

“Ya Allah! What has happened? Come inside, come inside.” She went on,” I saw men gathering in the lane. Did they take somebody else?”

“No, Aapa. I have some news. Tabrez Sahib sent me.” 

He took the glass of water she offered, eyeing her countenance to gauge her mood a few minutes before. He had specific instructions and he followed them to the letter.

“Aapa, first you sit down.” 

He led her into the small sitting room that she always kept clean for visitors. Lately there had been few. Now he was sure the news would bring more. She followed him, sensing his restraint, recalling everyone’s advice not to raise her hopes whenever there was a new breakthrough, which always turned out to be just a hoax.

Khuda ka vaasta! By God! Tell me! What is it?”

“Aapa, Tabrez Sahib told me to tell you first to ask you if you have taken your medicines.”

“Yes, by God, I have. Here I will show you the packet. I had kehwa (green tea) after the morning prayers and was about to drink some milk. Shameema, my neighbor brought a fresh can at dawn. Tell me the news.”

“Aapa, do not raise your hopes, but they have found mass graves on a hillside in a forest in Kupwara. A shepherd had gone to get his sheep and he stumbled upon it. Luckily he knew better and informed the local mosque. They immediately contacted the local reporter and he came straight to Tabrez Sahib. He left for Kupwara district late last evening as he wanted to secure the site before the Army comes to know of it and called me to tell you to go to the head office and wait for further instructions.” 

All came out in a rush, his narrative going stronger as he saw she was not crying. He kept fidgeting with his mobile, sliding it open and close.

Tehmeena closed her eyes and opened them again. Despite every body’s advice and concern, she could not help thinking, “What if…? What if he is there? My Javed…..My heart, I would not be able to see him…his remains” She gulped and forced the thought out of her mind. “Let me put the groceries in the cupboard and get my shawl. I will come with you.”

Rashid let her, knowing she wanted privacy to compose herself, but he could not disregard the instructions of Tabrez.

“Aapa, let me do it and you go and get ready. I will wait for you outside and bring your lock too.”

Tehmeena got up, grateful for the space he was giving her and went to get her chador. She picked up her shoes, and her lock and keys as well as her wallet, all the time chanting the unforgettable sura she had memorized to calm herself. She had to be strong, the news having put some life back into her.

Lately she had been getting tired and the people around her had noticed prominent signs of her aging. They would hover around her, taking care of little things such as a warm blanket, cups of salt tea and her medicines. She would always thank them, and get on with the discussion. But her mind faltered nowadays and she found herself recalling Javed’s childhood memories, panicking when she couldn’t place his toy or remember his best friend’s name in school. The memories were the only evidence that he had existed. And the photograph that she carried with her always. Taken weeks before he disappeared, his 10 class result about to be declared, she had clung to the snapshot like a drowning man will clutch at weeds and mud.

The soldiers in their nocturnal searches and raids had destroyed a lot of things, but she made sure that his school books and clothes were hidden in the storage bin in the attic. Now that photograph had become the symbol of the movement of all parents in Kashmir whose sons had disappeared in the unrest of the 90’s in the Valley. Somehow, publishing that photograph in newspapers and pamphlets had taken him further away from herself. She did not want to remember the Javed who disappeared, the Javed who she tried to search for in police stations all over the Valley, in Army camps and the cantonment. That Javed was somebody who had taken on a life of his won. Her precious child was the boy who stole apples from the orchard and fell sick, eating them all at once. Her Javed was the one who would always cuddle up to her at night despite her admonitions that he had grown up. He was her boy who hid his notebooks in the closet and told her that they were in school for checking and tricked her into letting him go to the playground for cricket. That was who she wanted to remember. Not this snapshot, her boy standing with his right hand clutching his waist and peering at the camera, self-consciously.

Tehmeena sighed as she checked for the snapshot in her wallet and gathering her things, left the house with Rashid. Taking a mini-bus to the office of the Mothers of Disappeared Sons of Kashmir in the heart of the city, they reached there in an hour. The office was abuzz. The usual staff greeted her.

“Asallam aleikum Baaji! May peace be upon you!”

“Waaliekum Asalaam, Shabir! May peace be upon you, too! How are you precious?”

“Very well, baaji. Did you hear?”

 

“Yes, I came with Rashid. Did Tabrez Sahib call again?”

“Yes. Baaji. He has called the media, and I have already faxed the international agencies. You know their reply will come late. But all the national reporters have responded for the first time. It is big news for them. Hard evidence of what we have been saying all along! Would you believe it! Gautam of The Hindu national paper has said that he will personally fly to Srinagar today. And I believe NDTV are sending Zaffar to Kupwara too.”

Tehmeena was amused at the excited voice of the young man. It had been a long time since somebody had spoken with hope. It was infectious. She couldn’t help the faint stirrings of optimism in her chest.

“Do you want me to help you with anything?”

“No baaji, Tabrez Sahib asked you to be here. He will call and talk to you soon. I am getting a lot of calls for him. You go and sit in his cabin. A new case came to us yesterday. The boy disappeared a week back from Sopore. His father is here. He says he was picked up by a contingent of security forces when he was in the market place. The father immediately rushed to the police station but they told him he had been brought to Srinagar. The father has been to the Badami Bagh cantonment and you know the scene.”

Tehmeena nodded, already halfway to the lawyer’s cabin. 

She opened the door gently. A middle aged man was sitting there, his silver-gray hair covered by a wool cap and his body wrapped in the traditional woolen shawl, the dusa. He coughed as she entered, sinewy, wrinkled hands combing the chest length beard.

“Asalaam aleikum, Jenab!”

“Waleikum Asalaam, daughter!”

“Are you warm enough, Jenab? Have some salt-tea?”

“No, Shukriya, Thank you! I already had a cup. You must be Tehmeena?” He went on as she nodded and sat down. “They took my boy Majid. They took him from the market place. They took him.” His agitated hands ferociously combed the beard. Another wracking cough.

“Calm down, Baba! Calm down. Tell me what happened.” Years of listening to other people, their tales of woe; stories of disappeared sons, violated daughters, slaughtered brothers, and widowed sisters had trained Tehmeena in the art of listening. She knew the less said the better, letting the victims vent their pain in long winded stories. She hated the way news reporters always nudged them to come back to the facts, the details, and the juicy bits. She knew the story was not in the facts, but the vivid details that the loved ones recalled – a smile, a kindness, a caress, a tantrum, and a secret shared, a desire expressed, a wish confessed. 

She gently whispered, “Go on Baba, tell me what happened?”

And the bearded man in the dusa narrated a now familiar story repeated nearly 40,000 times all across the Valley since 1990.