On Monday (February 24), schools opened fully for the first time after the abrogation of Article 370 in August last year. (Express photo: Shuaib Masoodi)
You think you are familiar with a place because you read about it.
You think because you are aware of internet interruption, you are prepared for it.
When I went to Srinagar last week, I knew I was going to a state that has witnessed violence for decades, and has been under unprecedented restrictions for the past six months.
But none of this academic understanding prepared me for the human tragedy of it all.
No, I didn't witness anything dramatic. I didn’t wake up to blasts or tear gas shells — the spectacles of conflict.
What I saw is how conflict has seeped into people’s lives, becoming inseparable from it, eroding it every day. What I learnt is that more than tales of adversity, what can haunt you is the matter-of-fact tone in which they are narrated.
Here are some stories I heard, of ordinary people fighting to live an ordinary life in extraordinary circumstances.
Boys who can’t have a full cricket match, and other school stories
After Article 370 was scrapped last August 5, among the first casualties was the school session. First there was the curfew from the government, then came the boycott call. By the end of August, school authorities were facing a double bind — the administration wanted classes back on track, but parents were too worried to send children.
Father Sebastian Nagathungal, principal of Srinagar's Burn Hall school, in his office. (Express photo: Shuaib Masoodi)
Father Sebastian Nagathungal, principal of the upscale Burn Hall school in Srinagar, said: “Teachers had started trickling in, but there would be no students. We didn’t know what to do. We tried sending out the school bus, but it was pelted with stones in a “sanitised” part of the city. We didn’t dare send buses to the Old City.
Then one day in October, one boy, Aman Thapa, turned up. He lives right here, so he walked to school. We couldn’t hold classes with just one student, of course. But I can’t tell you how ridiculously happy we all were, seeing a student on campus.”
Students in villages had it worse, where no classes were held for months. Many such students now crowd coaching centres at Parray Pora in Srinagar. What did they do during the forced vacation? “Dua maangety they ki halaat behtar ho jayein (we prayed for things to get better). Going out to play was out of the question,” said Sahil AH, a 16-year-old from Shopian.
A private school in Srinagar prepares to reopen after months of forced closure. (Express photo: Shuaib Masoodi)
Mubassir Wani, a 15-year-old from Budgam, explained kindly: “Because of the security restrictions. Too many teenagers gathering at one place was frowned upon then.”
So they wouldn’t get to play?
“We haven’t played a full cricket match since August 5. That would mean 22 of us getting together. I don’t know when that will be allowed again in my village,” said Sahil.
Internet not working is debilitating — and humiliating
Imagine lining up at the DC’s office from early in the morning till late in the night, to make one call to a family member. Imagine coming back empty-handed because your turn never came.
While that is no longer the case, students still have to line up at the Kashmir university for hours, in the hope of getting to use the few LAN-connected computers. There’s every chance their turn won’t come the entire day.
Although 2G internet has been officially restored, it comes and goes in cruel, teasing flashes. The use of VPNs was recently criminalised.
Imagine your phone becoming useless because it needed a software update and you had no internet. Imagine being a PhD scholar and losing years of work saved in your laptop, because a pen drive got a malware from the overused university computer and you had no internet to download a virus shield.
Imagine being a travel operator and receiving inquiries from an overseas customer, but wondering if you’ll lose them because the internet disappeared before you could reply.
“If the internet had been snapped because of a flood or any other natural disaster, it would have been inconvenient, but not humiliating. But here, I feel like these hardships can be solved the moment the government decides to. It is choosing to keep us handicapped,” said Saba, who is doing her PhD at the Kashmir university.
Foreign envoys in Srinagar's Dal lake on February 12. (Express photo: Shuaib Masoodi)
“Do you know the first thing I saw when the internet came back recently? News reports about foreign envoys taking a shikara ride and discovering things to be ‘normal’,” smiled Manzoor, who owns one of the many houseboats sitting idle on the Dal lake. “Here, I haven’t had customers for months because most of our bookings would be made online.”
How to tell a boy about his pre-boards? Through newspapers and prayers
Numair Muzaffar Wani, a student of Class 8 at Burn Hall school, went away to a relative’s place outside Srinagar when his school was shut. Weeks later, his parents read in a local newspaper that his pre-board exams wouldn’t be cancelled after all.
“We had no way of reaching him. My relative doesn’t have a landline. So we called up their daughter living in Jammu, and told her that if her parents call her from the local police station in the next few days, she should tell them Numair has his exams and needs to be sent back,” said Dr Aubida Ahad, Numair’s mother.
Numair did get the message, and managed to sit for his pre-boards. “We have mostly been getting by on prayers. What I pray for the most fervently is my son to witness a normal childhood. For him, this is life – checking newspapers for a hartal announcement every day before he gets ready for school,” said Dr Ahad.